November 2020 Book Reviews

I’m going to ease back into writing this year with my favorite topic, books. Between being a couple months behind and having read a whole lot of good books, this is going to be fun for me.

In November, I read a lot of library books and have given away or loaned out others so that C Pam Zhang’s How much of These Hills is Gold is the only one left on my shelf. This is a fairly unusual situation for me. One of the consequences of being a reader and living abroad is that I usually buy my books. There will be exceptions, though, and our local library’s collection of English language books has improved a lot over the past couple years.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya

This book is a memoir about Clemantine, a refugee from Rwanda who ultimately ended up living in the United States. Written in the first person and moving between her refugee experience and her experience in the United States, The Girl Who Smiled Beads gave me a close up look at her journey. 

Refugee narratives are often presented as closed episodes. Here’s a person, there was war or violence or an environmental catastrophe and they were homeless for a while. Now, they have a new home and things will be fine. The truth is infinitely more complicated.

Clementine describes what it feels like to take a boat trip by moonlight across a lake that separates countries. During the night, she watches or hears her fellow passengers drop their belongings overboard because the boat is leaking and they don’t know if they’ll survive the night. She describes the endless waiting, the loneliness, and the missed opportunities. 

I recommend this book for a firsthand account of a story that’s often recounted only in the abstract.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is my fourth Adichie book and here’s the problem. She’s set the bar so high that I both appreciated and enjoyed the fact that this was a well written compelling novel and regretted that it wasn’t just a little tighter. This is a problem of extremely high expectations more than anything else.

Set in Nigeria during the 1960s and 1970s, this is the story of how the characters endure the experience. The main characters are a couple of academics, business people, one British man, and a houseboy. They offer a diversity of perspectives, but generally they’re privileged. They believe things will work out, they believe their privilege will protect them from the worst of the violence and consequences. They believe the secession of Biafra will succeed.

I enjoyed Half a Yellow Sun, but less than Americanah or Adichie’s non-fiction writing. She’s got an incredibly powerful voice and message and I’ll definitely continue to read her work.

How Much of These Hills is Gold by Z Pan Zhang

This book first came to my attention when it turned up on the Booker Prize long list. My shock at seeing a Chinese author on the list also made me realize that while I could write lists of Black or Indian authors with ease, I don’t actually read many Chinese authors. That’s going to change in 2021. If you’ve got recommendations, please share them!

Set in the Gold Rush, this is a story of two sisters’ journey. It begins the day after their father dies. The story moves back and forth in time, revealing what their lives were like before their parents died and following their travels closely.

The pace of this book reminded me of books like The Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun or Plainsong and Eventide by Kent Haruf. More recently, Burial Rites by Hannah Kent as well. These novels are both slow-moving and constantly in motion. It’s like literary tai-chi. All of these books felt simultaneously slow because so little seemed to happen and yet they drew me in because every detail was important. They are deliberate. They may be in a place where literature comes close to poetry in the sense that the details of the landscape play an important role in understanding the novel. 

I don’t like it when reviewers describe the landscape as playing a role in a novel, that’s not it. It’s just that you can’t move these books to a different setting and have the same story. The characters would have moved through it differently. Have a look at How Much of these Hills is Gold and see if you agree with me! 

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

I picked this book up at the library because it was thin, written by an Asian woman, and we are planning to read Earthlings for my book club in 2021 and I wanted to get a taste of Murata’s work.

From the moment I opened the cover until I finished it about 24 hours later, this book grabbed me and would not let go. It’s a delight to read but also feels a little like watching a train wreck in slow motion. The main character made choice after choice that left me cringing and yet I had to pay attention to see what happened next.

Murata’s ability to dig into a character who you may not want to spend 5 minutes with in real life reminds me of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen or Miranda July’s short story characters. All three women seem to take the most irritating quality in a character, amplify it and then watch to see what happens. Murata stands out for me by having a main character who I could genuinely sympathize with. There’s also a wink in her writing. She sees her main character for who she is and still wants you to follow along.

I enjoyed this book tremendously and cannot wait to read Earthlings!

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