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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah's plot is driven by the overarching romantic relationship between the protagonist, Ifemelu and Obinze, who fall in love as teenagers, but are separated for fifteen years when she moves to America during college. Ifemelu is traumatized by an event in college that makes her no longer communicate with Obinze, but both have idolized their relationship over the years and think of it as pure, equal, and intellectually stimulating. Ifemelu has other serious relationships but they are lacking in some way and Obinze has married for convenience. The exploration of romantic relationships is portrayed in other characters but they are unequal, materialistic, unhealthy, or lacking in some way. Mixed in this overarching plot is social commentaries on racism in America, corruption in Nigeria, and xenophobia in Britain. Self-identity, mental illness, and cross-cultural experiences are explored as well. A bonanza of events and themes keep the pace hopping for the most part creating a thoughtful and worthwhile read.

Ifemelu goes to college in America and struggles with depression, employment, and making her way in an immigrant's harsh world. She gets a break nannying a wealthy couple's two children and starts a blog critiquing liberal white Americans that use charity to make themselves feel better, racism, and more. Ifemelu becomes friends with Kimberly, the wealthy white mother, who has false assumptions about immigrants and Africans; however, Ifemelu recognizes Kimberly as a decent, caring woman who is unhappy and unable to stand up to others. They become friends in spite of differences.

During her time nannying, Ifemelu dates Kimberly's cousin, a wealthy man named, Curt, who actually cares for her but he represents a privileged class that makes Ifemelu restless with him. While he genuinely cares for her, his use of privilege and entitlement creates gaps in their relationship. For instance, he gets her a green card manipulating the process to speed it up because he is wealthy while Ifemelu's other friend works three jobs trying to get his visa. Curt also turns the story of Ifemelu's experience with a carpet cleaner, who is disgusted and angry when he mistakenly thinks Ifemelu owns Kimberly's mansion to acting relieved and nice when he discovers that she's just than nanny, into a funny anecdote with his friends versus a dehumanizing experience. Even while dating Curt she thinks of Obinze and idolizes their romance. Ifemelu's blog becomes successful and she dates another man, Blaine, but again does not connect with him. She decides to leave America and go back to Nigeria. While there she tries to write fluffy pieces for a magazine that caters to rich Nigerian women but cannot do it. Each move she makes gives her more peace with who she is and what she wants in life. She decides to fight the corruption in Nigeria and becomes active in a cause. She couldn't do this in America because of the lack of cultural history but she can in her own country. She rekindles her relationship with Obinze.

The notion of being an outsider in a new culture, Ifemelu's internal restlessness, and characters searching for self-identities kept my interest more than the unequal romantic relationships - although I did find the tension and misunderstandings in cross-cultural relationships fascinating. The story addresses false assumptions that people have in different cultures not realizing that they are embracing stereotypes or racist attitudes. Africa is not a poor country that needs to be rescued by white people, black women don't need to wear their hair straight like white women, and women don't have to marry just for wealth, to name a few. The author provides a different narrative that looks at the history of America that lacks the post slavery anger and outrage. She also shows through characters such as Ifemelu's mother and a co-worker the dangers of being blinded to truths through religious fundamentalism. Adichie does not become preachy or single out any country and while Ifemelu could become too judgmental or point the finger, she retains empathy for others making her statements thoughtful. All places have issues and all have good aspects too. By having the protagonist be a successful blogger, the author is able to create snippets of biting, light, heavy, and humorous commentaries that add depth to the plot.

One of Ifemelu's blog posts examines cultural aspects of race that are not existent in Nigeria: The post's title is, "To My Fellow Non-American Blacks, in America, You are Black, Baby: Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I'm Jamaican or I'm Ghanaian. America doesn't care. So what if you weren't black in your country? You're in America now. We all have our moments of initiation into the society of former negroes. Mine was in a class in undergrad, when I was asked to give the black perspective, only I had no idea what that was. So I just made something up." Ifemelu doesn't consider race until she is forced to by complicated racial politics ingrained in American society.

When Ifemelu is dating Blaine, an African-American professor from Princeton, the cultural misunderstandings on race become even more pronounced. Blaine is outraged when the University of Princeton's police accuse a black man of drug dealing through racial profiling and organizes a protest. Ifemelu skips the protest; she can't relate to the history of oppression that makes Blaine so angry. This along with other incidents such as Blaine's sister Shan and his friends show the gap in her and Blaine's relationship revealing why they could not connect on a deeper level and move beyond dating.

The hair salon is an important symbol and foreshadows or reveals the struggles immigrants face dealing with white privilege, fitting-in, and racism. Ifemelu doesn't mask her Nigerian accent and the women look down on her for it. She used to speak with no accent but felt it was false and made her want to fit into America's definition of being a citizen. She watched her aunt and friend try to assimilate like this and didn't like that they were not being true to themselves. She develops her own American identity and later a Nigerian one. She grows more mature along the way and by the time she meets up with Obinze she knows what she wants and who she is. She also wants her hair natural, not artificially colored or flattened. Her identity crises are symbolized in her hair choices and the setting of the hair salon frames the story in a well-crafted way. I've only touched on a few themes and messages in the book that is ripe for many different kinds of discussions. A terrific story.

5 Smileys








Monday, July 3, 2017

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid


Image result for exit westMohsin Hamid's, "How to Get Filthy Rich in Asia," imitated the style of a self-help book using the rarely used in fiction second person point of view. In "Exit West," Hamid again shows his willingness to take risksin a realistic story that uses metaphors and imagery that gives magical setting transitions a slightly surreal flavor. The magic places the readers' focus on the before and after flight of two immigrants fleeing a Muslim country in an unnamed war to countries that are hostile toward them upon arrival - it eliminates an exploration of the immigrants' journey. This heightened the psychological exploration of the immigrants for me, but some readers might not like the author's splat of magical realism. I listened to the audio book and Hamid's use of repetition and the excellent narrator made it memorable and easy to understand. "Exit West" is layered with many themes and timely as it reflects the current globalization, countries slant toward nationalism, and displacement of people from wars, to name a few. Some might like the romance, or the independent spirit of the female protagonist, different characters' struggles for self-identity, and a myriad of other topics. 


Saeed and Nadia, live in a Muslim country being overtaken by militants. They are progressive and enjoy modern technology until their city becomes overtaken by militants. Day-to-day living is replaced by anxiety and fear causing the retreat of people from public to private spaces to the point that they are afraid to go to funerals. When Saeed's mother is killed by a stray bullet people are afraid to come to her funeral and his father insists that Saeed and Nadia leave the city. Saeed's father will not go with them for he knows he will slow them down and he wants to remain where he's lived his whole life. He recognizes that his son has no future in a city were drones, killings, and bombs oppress everyday living. However, the father feels the past and its memories offer him more than the future and so he stays. The father and son know they may never see each other again.

When Saeed and Nadia immigrate through magical doors (literarily) to a refugee camp in Greece, then London, and the U.S., they encounter hostility from mobs of people who are "natives" that use violence against the newcomers. Saeed and Nadia are oppressed in their new homelands. They try to make their way and find an identity but it is difficult as an outsider. Their experiences show Saeed drifting to people like himself and how he finds comfort in their shared experiences and religion; whereas, Nadia drifts towards diversity and tries other clans. The two experiment with finding their identities. The end of the story shifts toward a romantic narrative and the previous plot tension gets a bit lost as the two go their own ways.

While the story is about migration and marginalization for Saeed and Nadia, it also reveals that people who live in the same place can feel like foreigners in their own city as well. Their home changes around them as can be seen in Saeed's father's lifetime. His city was mostly free and safe before militants started killing civilians and disrupting government operations. Two minor characters who fall in love at the end of the novel show a blending of those who migrate and those who stay in a city their entire life. Even though the immigrant does not know the language, he communicates through hand gestures with the man who has lived there his whole life. They fall in love and are happy revealing positive futures are possible where diverse people can coexist side-by-side without fear and hatred. The suggestion is that society is better or enriched when people can choose to live where they want and call home in whatever country they live. Fear and anxiety stunts not only the potential for an individual to live a full life, but also an entire society's.

Magical doorways are a metaphor for migration, globalization, and technology. The two people pass through doorways to Greece, England, and California. The author doesn't focus on the immigrants' journey; instead he examines where the protagonists came from and what happened after they arrived in their new countries. This exploration of displacement allows the author to focus on the psychology of what the characters are going through as they migrate. Not everyone will like the technique, but I thought the surreal moments enhanced the characters emotional turmoil of adapting to new situations and represented the unnameable displacement a person feels when uprooted from his or her home country. It's a bit like wading through a thick cultural fog.

The magical doorway metaphor reminded me of Skype and how I can live thousands of miles away from my loved ones and yet can see them on a computer and chat, just like a magic mirror in a fairy tale. For me, his book captures the international displacement I feel traveling the world. I haven't been home in twelve years and that seems to be a major point in the book. Not to mention, with technological advancements in computers, transportation and more, migration in today's global world is much more rapid than thousands of years ago.

Doors can also symbolize open and closed nations. Nations can close their borders by fear and wanting to live in the past like Saeed's father. Opportunities are open or closed to immigrants like Saeed and Nadia when they arrive in their new countries. Windows are another metaphor that the author uses that express the future as one with possibilities or not. The window in Nadia's apartment has beautiful views only to have to be covered as the threat of bombs sending shattered glass throughout the apartment grows. She describes the changes from a light apartment to one that is dark and where she and Saeed cower away from the window. There is quite a bit going on in this quick read and I've only touched on a few. I highly recommend it.

5 Smileys

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles

This audiobook was a bit of a slog. After twenty plus hours, I kept upping the audio speed so that by the end the reader sounded like he was auditioning for Alvin and the Chipmunks. Guess I lost interest in Custer's life. He's a contradiction. He was actually a good strategist during the Civil War and thought to have been lucky because he avoided death in so many battles. He was also arrogant, insecure, brash, and racist. The book is well-documented and well-written. I just thought it got long. Perhaps the book would have been better. The end describes the battle and the controversies surrounding it as well as the army investigation into the massacre. Obviously, Custer's usually solid military strategy failed at the Battle of Bighorn, but Stiles reveals the issues he had with his superiors and facts that led to the confusion during the battle. A fascinating look into history. 

5 Smileys


Friday, May 5, 2017

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

While this book sheds light on a system that discriminates against those who can't get government assistance, it was a bit of a slog listening to 8 families living in poverty in Milwaukee. While I like narrative nonfiction and the research was extensive, I thought the stories got repetitive and confusing as the author liked interweaving their stories switching from one to the other in the middle of chapters. The audio book was not a good choice for me.

The vicious cycle of drugs, bad laws, slumlords, discrimination, health issues, and a host of problems bombards the listener. Only one of the eight individuals followed by the author breaks out of poverty and finds a stable job, but he had a professional job before succumbing to drugs; I thought his chance of finding stability was higher than the others. The other families and individuals seemed to have more obstacles to overcome from violent upbringings, low-wage jobs that weren't stable, physical disabilities, and mental issues. All of the families had multiple evictions and the majority tossed out of their homes were women and children.

A common stereotype is that people in poverty have only themselves to blame: they spend too much money, they are uneducated, they lack skills or intelligence to break out of the cycle, etc. Matthew Desmond hypothesizes that the problem with poverty is that it is profitable. The owner of a trailer park, that was barely habitable for tenants, makes $400,000 a year in profits. Another landlord drives her sports car and travels to Jamaica making a good profit on her tenants. Desmond shows the injustice of a system that denies people the right to live in a house and the social costs to communities. He argues that it is destructive and more costly to society in the long run than if a home and a stable community is established for those in need. He is not opinionated but lets the facts speak for themselves. This book reminds me of Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo who looks at those who profit from the slums of India.

This book is better read than listened too. The abundance of details can derail the casual listener. I kept shoving the earbuds deeper into my head so I could drown out the usual background gym noise. But some things stand out. While black men are ending up in jail as revealed in The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, this book shows how black women are being evicted at extremely high rates. One out of five black women is evicted, as opposed to one in twelve white women. Desmond shows time and again how the main thing holding poor people back is rent. He also shows how government funding programs meant to help the poor end up in the pockets of the landlord. At the end, he argues for more public housing vouchers as one way to address the issue. This is an important dialogue and while it made for dense (and sometimes confusing) listening, it was worth the effort.

5 Smileys

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Students chose this for book club and the snappy dialogue and defined characters make it a well-done interracial romance novel. Set in New York City, Natasha Kingsley, is being deported to Jamaica and trying to find a way to stay in America by contacting the US immigration office. Korean-American, Daniel Bae, is on his way to a college interview for Yale when their paths cross. When the two teenagers meet, the poetic Daniel tries to convince the logical Natasha that love at first sight is possible by asking a series of scientific questions. The author adds historical context that engages the reader whether it is an explanation of why so many Koreans own salons that cater to African Americans, immigration facts, scientific paradoxes, facts, theories, and more. 

Natasha is smart and has a clear view of the world. She won’t be patronized by adults and she’s blunt with people. At the immigration office, an adult tries to tell her the future will work out. “Don’t tell me I’ll be all right. I don’t know that place [Jamaica]. I’ve been here since I was eight years old. I don’t know anyone in Jamaica. I don’t have an accent. I don’t know my family there, not the way you’re supposed to know family. It’s my senior year. What about prom and graduation and my friends?” When Daniel meets Natasha he appreciates her direct, no-nonsense quality. Natasha is so science-driven that she explains the scientific chemicals that are released in the brain when a person falls in love trying to remove all the unexplainable romantic elements. 

Most of the alternating points of view are Natasha and Daniel’s, but there are side characters interspersed to round out the themes of self-identity, culture, love, science, and racism, to name a few. The poetic Daniel describes meeting Natasha and his love-at-first-sight is as follows: “It’s like knowing all the words to a song but still finding them beautiful and surprising”. While Natasha thinks of meeting him as definitely connecting with Daniel, but her practical side sees the moment and distrusts the “poetic heart”. “They’re not talking about the real heart, the one that needs healthy foods and aerobic exercise. But the poetic heart is not to be trusted.” Natasha doesn’t want to fall in love with Daniel.She will be deported in 24 hours. When Daniel saves her life and breaks her pink head phones that she's owned most of her life, it symbolizes her break with the past and all she has known. Her new cultural identity now involves interracial love and living in a new culture. 

While Natasha and Daniel don’t have a problem with their different cultural backgrounds, their family members do. Both struggle with self-identity, while at the same time being self-confident and happy with themselves. They must learn to deal with parental expectations intertwined with different cultures. When Natasha's dad first meets Daniel, his face shows his displeasure. Her dad wants to be an actor but is rejected for roles because of his ethnicity making him insecure and depressed. He misses his home country to the point that he tells a policewomen he is an illegal immigrant. He says that he doesn't know why he did that but it is obvious that he subconsciously wants to return to his home country. 

Similarly, Daniel is dealing with parents who expect him to speak Korean and marry an Asian girl. When Natasha first meets his brother, Charlie, and his dad they make racist comments. The brother brings up the stereotypical African American that shoplifts and the dad tells her to buy some relaxer because her hair is too big. Natasha responds that she likes her big hair and Daniel responds to his brother by giving him the finger. Both Natasha and Daniel are confident with themselves even though life is uncertain; whereas, the parents of both have to deal with disillusionment and unhappiness.  The feelings of alienation for immigrants is captured in the complexity of finding not only self-identity but an American or Korean or Jamaican identity as well.

Another motif explored from Daniel’s point of view is names. Daniel’s mom ponders that America names signify the individual; whereas, Korean names point to the importance of family ancestry. Daniel’s mother “agonized” over what to name her children showing her struggles with cultural identity. She decided on both American and Korean to show them where they’d been and where they were going. Daniel’s brother Charlie, however, with all his intelligence doesn’t understand the power of his past and tries to erase all that is Korean in him. He’s on probation from Harvard college and Daniel reveals that when he is grown-up and has a good job he goes by Charles Bay not his given, Charles Jae Won Bae. He refuses to speak Korean, eat Korean food, or date a Korean. This prevents him from finding true happiness in life because he doesn’t like himself and is rejecting part of his cultural identity. The result is a shallow, alienated, and self-absorbed character who is unable to have a close relationship in marriage or with family members. 

The ending is a bit convenient or forced regarding how the two meet, but it will satisfy the romantic heart. Or should I say, "poetic heart". I particularly like how this author puts words together. The cadence and rhythm of the chapters make it fast-paced and the back-and-forth dialogue between Daniel and Natasha is funny and smart. I did try the audio tape first but sort of lost track of who was speaking. I switched to the book and got more out of it in the end. But since listening is my weakest learning style, I'm biased. A fun, well-written, and enjoyable book. 


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

A well-documented book with great information, but the author's tendency to break up stories with subplots was clunky at times and slowed the pacing. The book follows the stories of four African-American women influential in mathematics and engineering while working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and later as the women's jobs were transferred to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) after the NACA became defunct. Their battles with segregation and upward mobility were uniquely stymied and enhanced by the organization and individuals they worked for and with at NACA and NASA. A fascinating look in time, the book's pacing is slowed by the shifts from one character to another during action scenes.

The author interviewed some of the women in this book and those quotes add color and strength to the story. I tend to like nonfiction that is more descriptive creating characters I can easily visualize. This author tends to use too many platitudes that make sections wordy and dry with the character descriptions become lost while the pacing slows. The personal story of Katherine (Coleman Goble) Johnson helping her son with his soapbox derby car and being the first black kid to win the national contest is inspirational; however, the author starts with the story then adds a subplot on another character and her sorority before going back to the race. She does this multiple times throughout the book and I found it irritating because it was like hitting the brakes midway while racing down a steep hill. She does it again and again.

The resilience of these women and the facts surrounding their careers are fascinating. The author does a great job showing the historical context of what they had to deal with during the Jim Crow laws and how they fought small battles whether it was in a segregated cafeteria or using a segregated bathroom. The 2017 movie, "Hidden Figures", is excellent and I actually liked the tighter focus and character development better than the book, but the book fills in gaps the movie doesn't explain well. It also condenses sections and I'm glad I read and watched both.

4 Smileys

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Uprooted: The Japanese American Experience During World War II by Albert Marrin

When I finished this I wanted to turn around and reread it again. I really liked author Albert Marrin's turn of phrases and found myself wanting to write them down. I read it on the elliptical machine and writing notes wasn't in my wheels - I'm not that skilled at multi-tasking. The overall message is that racism exists all over the world and that people need to learn from the past or they will repeat it. The framework of the book begins with racist views promoted by the Japanese during World War II in Japan, a bit of China, Germany, and last America. The views in America and the questionable decisions by leaders to incarcerate Japanese Americans without due process during WWII is brought to light. Marrin puts the issues in historical context and shows how the actions by leaders and the justice system as well as the use of media influenced and later changed the public's mind to overturn the unjust laws infringing on civil rights. He points out leaders that had racist views and shows how it mirrored the national or global dialogue at the time. He argues that racism harms countries and the civilians leading to poor decisions and harmful consequences. A well-written and thoughtful book that I highly recommend.

5 Smileys