Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Review of Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Themes of race, class, immigration, and identity abound in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s much acclaimed novel from 2013, Americanah. Ostensibly a love story about a man and a woman who meet as teenagers in Nigeria, the novel provides the gifted Adichie with a platform for a wide range of social commentary about life in Nigeria, America, and Great Britain. Partly a comedy of manners and partly a novel of ideas, I found Americanah to be both fascinating and frustrating.

The Story: Adichie begins her novel with the visit of a woman named Ifemelu to an African hair salon in Trenton, New Jersey. Ifemulu is having her hair braided in preparation for her return to Nigeria . . . but, despite her outward appearance of confidence, Ifemelu wonders whether Nigeria is still her “home” and whether she will belong there after 13 years abroad.

During the lengthy process of having her hair braided, Ifemelu considers her teenage years in Nigeria and what brought her to America. She thinks, in particular, about her former boyfriend Obinze, with whom she lost contact after coming to the U.S. Ifemelu and Obinze, the childhood sweethearts whom everyone thought would marry, have taken vastly paths in their lives . . . but both left Nigeria, a land crippled by its corrupt military dictatorship, to seek a better life.

As the novel unfolds, Adichie reveals Ifemelu’s experiences in America—her initial difficulties in finding a job to support herself while in college, her relationships with her boyfriends (both black and white), and her growing awareness of her differences, as a non-American black, from African-Americans. Obinze, meanwhile, unable to gain a visa to enter the US after 9/11, travels instead to Great Britain, but struggles there. He returns to Nigeria feeling like a failure, but finds wealth, if not necessarily happiness, working as a property developer for a shady but powerful entrepreneur.

The reader can guess that Adichie will find some way to reunite Ifemelu and Obinze in Nigeria … but the question of whether they will find love together or mourn the passing of their old relationship, alongside their old lives, provides the tension of the final quarter of the novel.

My Thoughts: Adichie, first of all, is a wildly talented writer. Her ear for dialogue is amazing, and her social satire is witty, sharp, and richly observed. Adichie impressed me with her ambition in this epic of a novel, as well as her willingness to tackle big issues and ideas.

And yet . . . at various points in this novel, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Adichie had bitten off more than she could chew. She tries to cover so much ground in Americanah; it’s a love story spanning decades and continents, AND it’s a dissection of race, PLUS a novel about identity, immigration and emigration. Sometimes all of this comes together and the novel works brilliantly, but sometimes, honestly, it feels like a bit of a sprawling mess. Literally dozens and dozens of minor characters—many of them quite interesting--appear in the novel for a scene or two and then just as suddenly disappear, their stories completely dropped. I couldn’t help but feel that a tighter, more disciplined focus might have strengthened the novel.

Adichie has so much that she wants to say about race and immigration and class . . . and it is mostly very intriguing commentary that I wanted to read. But the plot and the characters are often secondary to Adichie’s points about big issues, and that makes Americanah suffer, in the end, as a work of fiction. I can tell you plenty about Ifemelu’s views about race, about politics, and even about natural hair, after reading this novel . . . but her emotions and inner thoughts are still a mystery to me. I don’t fully understand why Ifemelu made some of the key choices that she did, and I found that frustrating as a reader. I would say, as well, that I thought Obinze received short shrift as a character—I wanted to hear more of his experiences. Throughout much of the novel, I longed for more of Ifemelu and Obinze--they, after all, are supposed to be the center of the story, and yet sometimes I felt as if they were buried under the weight of Adichie's social critique.

I would rate the novel about 3.5 out of 5 stars, despite my criticisms of it, because it is so well-written, witty, and genuinely fascinating. I will certainly read Adichie again.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Ten Authors I Own the Most Books From

This week's Top Ten list from The Broke and the Bookish is "Ten Authors I Own the Most Books From." Ok, this is an interesting topic. I'm going to equate books I've "read" with books I "own"--for me anyway, those are about the same, because I've never used the library as much as I should.

Another caveat: I decided to interpret this list as authors that I've read/owned as an adult, or at least from high school onward. If I were including my childhood books, this would be a completely different list, topped by Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, and Astrid Lindgren (Pippi!). And also Tove Jansson, a Finnish writer and illustrator who produced the wonderful series of "Moomin" books for children.

Looking over this list, it strikes me that the authors I've read the most are not necessarily my favorite authors. Some of these are authors I would consider my favorites, certainly ... but in a few cases, I just happened to read many of the author's books because they were available or the author suited that particular stage of my life.

Ok, then, here is my list . . .

John Irving: I have read 12 John Irving novels! I haven't read his latest, In One Person, and there appears to be one other that I missed. I started out with The World According to Garp in high school, and I just kept working my way through them. When I was in graduate school, I particularly appreciated some of his earliest books, like his absolutely hilarious The Water-Method Man (well, it's hilarious to graduate students, anyway, because it involves the main character making up an Old Norse poem for his dissertation!) These are some of my favorite Irving novels:

Anne Tyler: I wouldn't consider Anne Tyler a favorite author, honestly ... but she was quite prolific during the 1980s and '90s, and my mother or I would usually pick up the latest Tyler whenever it hit the bookstore. A Tyler novel, in those days, was familiar and reliable, I suppose, and easy to read. I would estimate that I've read 11 or 12 Tyler novels, and I may be seriously undercounting (she published 19). My favorite Tyler novel:

Chris Bohjalian: Well, Chris Bohjalian IS certainly a favorite author of mine. Bohjalian is a gifted storyteller, no question, and I always feel like I have a strong emotional connection to his characters. These are my favorite of his novels, including his most recent, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands (which I have just read and need to post a review for...):

J.K. Rowling: Rowling's Harry Potter books were written for children, of course, but I read them as an adult. I've also read The Casual Vacancy. My favorite Rowling books:

Jane Austen: I am certainly guilty of reading all of Austen's novels ... all at least twice. Favorites:

Margaret Atwood: I've read a lot of Atwood, and loved most of it. The MaddAddam trilogy, I confess, isn't something I connected with. My fave Atwood novels:

Philippa Gregory: I have read far TOO MUCH Philippa Gregory. I started with The Other Boleyn Girl, and then I kept reading Gregory's Tudor fiction, even when I started to find her books boring and formulaic. Please--someone stop me before I read another one! This was my first, my favorite, and really the ONLY Gregory I would recommend to anyone:

Tracy Chevalier: I have read all of Tracy Chevalier's novels. I can't say I loved them all, but certainly most of her novels have been what I would consider good, solid reads, and a few have been excellent. Here are my favorites:

Jane Smiley: I haven't read a Jane Smiley book in quite awhile, so I was surprised when I realized that I've read five of her novels. My favorites:

Geraldine Brooks: I love Geraldine Brooks and her intelligent and emotionally resonant historical fiction. I do hope she'll publish another novel soon. My favorites:

Do any of these authors appear on your most owned/most read list?

Monday, July 28, 2014

It's Monday . . . What Are You Reading?

Happy Monday! I'm posting again on the weekly meme hosted by Sheila of Book Journey. Hope everyone is plowing merrily through their summer reading lists, since this is--gasp!--the last Monday of July!

I recently spent a week in New York City with my family, while one of my children had the opportunity to participate in a musical theatre workshop at an off-Broadway theatre. While traveling around the city, I started thinking about all the great fiction that is set in Manhattan and other parts of New York. And so last week, I posted a list of my Favorite Novels Set in New York City. Take a look at my list here, and let me know what you think . . . what novels do you consider to be quintessential New York stories?

Last week on the blog, I reviewed these books:

Daisy Goodwin's The Fortune Hunter is a story about a love triangle in 1870s England. It wasn't really my cup of tea, I'm afraid; you can read my review here. Small Blessings by Martha Woodroof is a light and easy book; overly predictable, but rather sweet. My review is here.

Here's what I'm currently reading ...

The New Men, new historical fiction by Jon Enfield. I'll be posting my review on August 13 as part of a TLC Book Tour.

And this is what I am listening to on audio ...

I have been wanting to start Hannah Kent's highly acclaimed Burial Rites for some time now ... I am not sure it was the best choice for an audiobook (do you ever have trouble deciding which books will be good choices for listening? I certainly do!). In any case, I'm really looking forward to delving further into the story.

I'm hoping to post a few reviews and press onward in my summer reading list this week--my house will be a little quieter, with one child off to a sleepaway camp!

What's on your reading agenda for this week?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Favorite Novels Set in New York City

Earlier this month, I spent a week in New York City. While I was there, I started thinking about all the great fiction I've read that takes place in New York. It's not surprising, I suppose, that writers find inspiration in the Big Apple ... after all, Manhattan is the center of the publishing industry, and the city as a whole has drawn writers and other artists for more than a century. Still, it's interesting to think about the wide variety of novels for which New York City provides an evocative setting; in some cases, the city, or a part of the city, seems almost like a character in and of itself.

I decided to create a list of my ten favorite novels that take place in New York City. These range from classics to children's books, from historical fiction to contemporary novels. I know I have left out a few novels that some would say are quintessential New York stories . . . but these are my favorites. Here they are:

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton: Wharton's masterpiece about the Golden Age of Old New York is one of my all-time favorite books. The characters are magnificently drawn, and the satire about the elaborate customs of the city's aristocracy is witty and fascinating. You know, I think it may be high time I re-read this classic.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer: Foer's beautifully written novel is layered and emotionally resonant. It is a 9/11 book, of course... but it's also about tragedy and grief in a larger sense, and how people can overcome terrible things and still live on.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles: I loved this novel set in 1930s Manhattan. It's full of sharp and witty prose, and filled with interesting, multi-dimensional characters. A delicious and intelligent read.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg: As a kid, I relished this novel about two siblings who run away from their suburban life to the big city, where they hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: Egan's series of linked stories about people connected to the music business is set mostly in New York, although some of the narratives take place in California and other locales. I found this inventive book to be equal parts clever, funny, and sad.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Of course. This list just wouldn't seem complete without Fitzgerald's 1925 classic about decadence, excess, idealism, and the pursuit of the American Dream.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: Tartt's novel, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is beautiful, flawed, and unforgettable. The Goldfinch struck me as very much a 9/11 story. The main character, Theo, loses his mother in a fictional terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is unmoored by the experience, and his psychological wounds take a decade to heal; Theo seemed to me to represent New York itself, struggling to recover after the tragedy.

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh: This classic and ground-breaking coming-of-age story about a girl sleuth living on the Upper East Side was one of my absolute favorite books as child. I must have read it a dozen times. Can you believe that it was first published in 1964 and celebrated its 50th anniversary earlier this year?

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann: McCann's intricate and gorgeously written novel of interconnected stories, set in 1970s New York, offers a nuanced portrait of love, loss, and hope.

The Alienist by Caleb Carr: Carr's literary thriller takes readers back to New York in 1896 and the seamy underside of the Gilded Age. The young Theodore Roosevelt, police commissioner of New York City, organizes a team of unlikely allies, including a psychologist or "alienist" in the parlance of the time, to hunt a serial killer targeting adolescent boys. Definitely an interesting companion piece to read alongside The Age of Innocence.

What do you think . . . Are these some of your favorite New York novels, too? What have I left out that you consider a great New York story?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Review of Small Blessings: A Novel by Martha Woodroof

Martha Woodroof’s debut novel Small Blessings, to be released on August 12, is a sweet story about accepting change and taking chances in life. Despite a completely predictable plot, it is a pleasant and diverting read to bring along in a beach bag.

The Story: Tom Putnam is an unassuming English professor at a small college in Virginia, where he leads a quiet life taking care of his neurotic, shut-in wife. His life takes a sudden and unexpected turn when he receives a letter from a past lover; she writes that Tom has a ten-year-old son, Henry, who will be arriving by train in a matter of days. Henry arrives, bringing with him a few, shall we say, surprises. At the same time, an energetic woman named Rose has recently moved to town to run “community building” events at the college bookshop. The lives of Tom, Henry, and Rose will soon intersect in ways that they could never have imagined.

My Thoughts: Small Blessings is an unchallenging read. You can see the plot coming a mile away, and the character development isn’t especially deep or nuanced. Woodroof includes many quirky characters connected to the college; keeping track of these characters and their quirks and problems got to be a bit distracting, and didn't seem to me to add much to the main trajectory of the story. A few plot points seem absolutely unlikely and require a fair amount of suspension of disbelief.

And yet, if you are willing to simply enjoy the novel on the level of easy entertainment, Small Blessings can be both amusing and moving. It is charming and poignant without, I felt, becoming excessively cloying.

Small Blessings will appeal to fans of Jojo Moyes, Jodi Picoult, and Marisa de los Santos; it reminded me more than a little bit of de los Santos’ Love Walked In.

I would rate the book about 2.5 or 3 out of 5 stars.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, St. Martin's Press, through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Review of The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin

Daisy Goodwin’s The Fortune Hunter offers an 1870s love triangle between an Austrian empress, a dashing British cavalry captain, and an independent-minded young woman who dreams of becoming a photographer. Perhaps best described as a historical romance rather than historical fiction, the novel provides some interesting period detail, but lacks the passion and drama that would make this a truly compelling read.

The Story: Charlotte Baird, a young British heiress with a keen interest in photography, is about to accept a marriage proposal from Captain Bay Middleton, a handsome cavalry officer with a reputation for being as good with the ladies as he is with horses. But the arrival of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, known as Sisi, to the English countryside, throws their plans into upheaval. Sisi, considered to be the most beautiful woman in Europe, has come to England to fox hunt, and hires Bay to be her pilot or hunting guide. But Sisi, who is unhappy in her marriage to the emotionally distant emperor, begins to appreciate Bay for more than just his horsemanship.

My Thoughts: I was intrigued when I read the description of The Fortune Hunter, maybe because the comparison of the real-life Empress Elisabeth to Princess Diana peaked my interest (I can’t help it; I was a young teen when Diana Spencer married Prince Charles!) So, yes, I confess—I wanted to know more about Sisi, and I thought this might be an entertaining book, if admittedly on the light side.

Oddly, though, Sisi is by far the least developed of the three sides of the love triangle. I did a bit of research on Sisi while reading the novel, and there seems to be much about her life that would furnish promising material for a novelist . . . but Goodwin barely scratches the surface, and her portrayal of Sisi is shallow. Readers will gain little knowledge about Sisi beyond that she was an unhappy beauty who did not like to be photographed.

I could not find much emotional connection to any of the characters, and I doubted the strength of the characters’ emotional connection to one another. At times, the characters’ actions appeared so inconsistent and confusing that I wasn’t certain of the author’s intent (Bay, for example—womanizing jerk or romantic hero? I’m still not sure). For a love triangle, everybody seemed curiously passionless. And, honestly, where's the fun of reading a romance novel in which the romance part isn't really juicy?

I felt, as well, that the novel lacked a very strong historical context, although there were some interesting details about the early stages of photography. Goodwin includes some unlikely and ahistorical elements that seem designed to please 21st century readers. Charlotte’s gay best friend, for example, is too overtly flamboyant for Victorian England, a time and place in which male homosexuality was a criminal offense, and men wearing bright colors were highly suspect. The novel's ending, as well, struck me as something that simply wouldn't have happened in the 1870s.

All told, The Fortune Hunter was not my cup of tea, but others may find more here to like. For those interested in 19th century social customs, fashion, and royalty, this may be right up your alley.

My rating for this novel is 2 out of 5 stars. The Fortune Hunter will be released on July 29.

I received an advance readers’ copy of this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

It's Monday . . . What Are You Reading?

Another summer Monday, and another post on the bookish meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey. I hope everyone is finding time for some summer relaxation with great reading material.

I will be taking the next few days off from blogging this week; it's time for some family fun. I will NOT be taking a break from reading, of course! I will post an update in about a week.

Last week on the blog, I posted reviews of these books:

You can read my review of The Vacationers by Emma Straub here. For me, it was a quick and light read, suitable for a poolside afternoon, but I had been hoping for more depth. I also reviewed Susan Coll's entertaining dark comedy The Stager, and you can read my review of that new novel here. And here you can read my review of Lily King's wonderful novel Euphoria, about a love triangle of anthropologists in the 1930s (sounds intriguing, right?).

Last week I also posted my Top Ten Favorite Classic Books. Yes, I was more than a week late on this Top Ten Tuesday list! Oh well, it's such a terrific topic that I decided to post my list anyway, under the "better late than never" theory. You can read my list here.

Here is a piece of good blogging news. I was asked to be a tour host for a blog tour for the first time. On August 13, I will be hosting a tour stop on TLC Book Tours. Here is the book I'll be reading:

Jon Enfield's The New Men, published in May of this year by Wayzgoose Press, sounds like a very interesting piece of historical fiction about a man working for the Ford Motor Company at the start of the twentieth century. I'm looking forward to diving into it, and to posting my first review as part of a blog tour. Thanks so much to TLC Book Tours for inviting me to serve as tour host.

I am currently reading ...

Chris Bohjalian's latest novel, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands. Bohjalian is a favorite writer of mine, and I have been waiting with great anticipation for this!

I hope everyone has a terrific week of reading! As I said, I will be taking a week off from blogging, but I will be back next week.