A unique and sometimes frightening story with a surprising ending, this is another tale of the lengths to which people of color will go to pass for white to gain the benefits of whiteness. For one New England family this has succeeded quite well by sending a too dark daughter back South to live with relatives and never allowing her to come to the town where the rest of the family lives. It fails when a too dark child is born and the parents keep her with them. It is also a tale of gender identity and how rape and abuse can destroy and deform and of resilience in the face of endless obstacles. This is not an ordinary novel.
Book a Week-20: “Sankofa”, Chibundu Onuzo
After her mother dies, Anna searches through her mother’s belongings and discovers a hidden diary written by the African father she never knew and about whom her white mother, who never married, told her nearly nothing. She travels to Scotland to have the diary authenticated by an expert, researches, and discovers her father had to return to Africa, became a revolutionary, and then president (or dictator, depending on the source) of a small African nation. She also learns that he is still alive.
Leaving behind a daughter and white husband from whom she is separated, Anna decides to travel to Africa to find her father. Treated unequally as a biracial child in England, in Africa she is seen as “obroni”, white. Thus, the book addresses issues of racial identity, family acceptance (she does find her father) and belonging, and tells a tale of the adventures of a middle-aged woman in search of self.
One Book a Week-19: “The Round House”, Louise Erdrich
Winner of the National Book Award in 2012, and narrated by the 12-13 year old son of a tribal judge and a professional, tribal woman, this novel details the story of a family nearly destroyed by the brutal attack on the boy’s mother. Even after the identity of the attacker is known, he is set free because she will not tell or cannot recall where the attack occurred, whether on tribal land or just outside its boundary. This leads to the boy’s determined quest to obtain justice for his mother. This page turner perfectly illustrates the continual problem of justice for indigenous women who are 2-3 times more likely to be raped (and often killed in the process) than white women and with no one ever charged.
Given the seriousness of the novel, it is surprisingly funny at times with the antics of teen boys and other characters, including some colorful and interesting older tribal members and an ex-Marine priest. The reader will also learn a lot about Ojibwa culture. Once you start, you have to keep going in hopes that somehow justice will prevail in the end.
One Book a Week-18: “If An Egyptian Cannot Speak English”, Noor Naga
Identity politics remains at the heart of this unusual novel. Written in three parts, One portrays a “love” affair between an Egyptian American woman who has gone to Cairo to find her Egyptian self and an unemployed, revolution (as in Arab Spring) photographer who alternates between living in a rooftop shack and homelessness. Each vignette starts with a question and alternates between the voice of the woman and the man, expressing their viewpoints on life, love, and their situation. Part Two is the same except without the “headline” question. Part Three is a big surprise–a discussion, written as a play, a critique of the rest of the novel among the author, an instructor, and several “students”.
I loved this book in part because it enabled me to learn a lot about Egyptian cultures, but also because I found it thought provoking and intriguing.
One Book a Week-17: “Olive, Again”, Elizabeth Strout
Never having read the first book about Olive, the book that won the Pulitzer for Strout, I did not know what to expect. As I read, I often laughed out loud and then later thought, “What!” Olive is quite the character, sometimes almost blunt to the point of cruelty, sometimes unexpectedly considerate and kind, and always strongly opinionated about things I did not expect. She also has the ability to sometimes look at herself accurately and question herself, which would seem to be a good characteristic. Olive goes on in spite of numerous setbacks, mishaps, and illnesses, including the realities of old age. Strout’s portrayal of some of these realities seems stark, almost brutal. Yes, it’s accurate and she’s good at it, but I kept thinking, “Do I really want to read this?” If I get like this, they can just shoot me. But they won’t.
One Book a Week-15: “Oh, William”, Elizabeth Strout
Told from the point of view of the main character, Lucy, in first person, the simple language the author uses as Lucy tells her story, reflections, and anecdotes belies the deep knowledge of marriage, parenthood, the entire human condition underlying this novel. Two once married individuals go on a trip to Maine to learn about a relative one did not even know he had until he received the results of a casual DNA test, a gift he did not originally take all that seriously. They’ve been married and then divorced for years and have two daughters together. In spite of their best efforts to the contrary, they remain connected even when they find each other a mystery.
A rather simple story, written in plain language, holds the following piece of wisdom–Lucy’s words which end the novel:
“Everybody in this whole wide world, we do not know anybody, not even ourselves!
Except a little tiny bit we do. But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean.
This may be the only thing in the world I know to be true.”
One Book a Week-14: Trust, Hernan Diaz
The first half annoyed me. I kept asking, “What? Why? What is wrong with these greedy, despicable people?” I almost quit reading it (I never quit reading a book) but plunged on. Then, about halfway through “A Memoir, Remembered” section entranced me. Aha. Now I “get” it. I became so engaged I read the last half almost straight through without stopping.
The title should be Truth. This novel deftly explores these questions:
-What is true?
-Whose truth is true?
It does this via competing narratives involved with financial markets, how investors have and can manipulate the stock market, and relationships. It also quietly addresses the issue of how men take credit for the acumen of the women with whom they are involved and the destructive power of wealth and influence.
One Book a Week-13: Blue Desert, Celia Jeffries
As an ardent reader who prefers what are usually referred to as literary novels and serious non-fiction, few books impact me deeply and emotionally like this one has. As soon as I finished it, I reread parts of it several times, then sat silently stunned.
After her family moves to North Africa for her father’s work, an 18 year old British girl, rescued by a Taureg leader, is believed dead by her family until she resurfaces years later at a Catholic “home” run by nuns in North Africa. She re-enters British society, marries, leads a relatively “normal” life while keeping a secret for decades. When she receives a telegram, “Abu is dead”, everything changes. Her past comes rushing back in unexpected ways.
One Book a Week-11: The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett
This unusual novel features identical twin sisters, inseparable as children, living in a small town in rural Louisiana. The town’s founder, a light skinned Black man, insisted on maintaining a certain character for the town–only light skinned Black people should live there. At sixteen the sisters run away to New Orleans where they ultimately choose diametrically opposed lives, one passing as white, marrying a wealthy white man who knows nothing of her true past. In spite of the deception and lies, years later their lives become intertwined in unexpected ways. The novel not only addresses themes of race but also sexual identity and who we are as individuals and a country.
One Book a Week-10: A Solitude of Wolverines, Alice Henderson
The perfect book for those who love suspense, Montana, wildlife, wildlife conservation, Alice Cooper, the protagonist, is a young, wildlife biologist who spends most of her life going from one remote research site to another. Here she’s located in a remote area of the high country in Montana, 26 miles from Bitterroot, studying wolverine populations for a wildlife conservancy/trust which now owns a defunct ski resort. While a few of the locals support her work and the conservancy, many more see the trust and her as endangering their way of life, and they are willing to kill anyone who gets in their way.
Filled with suspense, reading this page turner will also inform readers about wildlife biology and research, wolverine study, and life in the northern high country.
If you are looking for a fun read where you actually also learn something, this book is the perfect fit.
Note: This is one of three books I have read this month so far. I will post about the other two in the next few days.