22 June 2014

Bits and Bobs (the holy moly you are lazy edition)

With house guests, being busy with the house project, and having to deal with insane jackhammer noise in our temp quarters, I haven't been much of a blogger lately. Lots of clean-up to do.

Went to get a copy of The Night Guest for the summer read along (see below) and ended up walking out with a Messud-she isn't my favorite, but good enough to keep trying; A Cathleen Schine novel which is turning to be perfect summer reading; and the latest from Kathleen Tessaro who does wonders incorporating fashion into wonderfully readable, smartish, rom-coms.

A funny thing happened at the dry cleaners (or The Ark by Margot Benary Isbert)
Some of you may recall me blogging about this book in 2011. It was a favorite from my childhood. It's about a WWII-era refugee family in Europe who make their home in an old railroad car and includes a pet goat named Rachel.  I love this book. The other day I was in our neighborhood dry cleaners and I saw three books on the window ledge that looked like they were some sort of lost and found pile. It just so happened that this hard to find book, one of my favorites, was sitting right there and free for the taking. The dry cleaner was more than happy to let me have it.

A happy story for sure, but it turns a little bittersweet. The book is a discard from the Chevy Chase Library just across the street from the cleaners. I wondered if maybe it was the same one I checked out in 2011. When I went back and looked at my post from that re-read, I realized that the copy that I now have in my possession was the same exact copy I checked out in 2011. It was the only one in the DCPL system, and now, sadly, it has been discarded. Never to be read by another young mind. Big sad face. On the other hand, the book found its way to me, one of its biggest fans.

Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine
Is an unreliable narrator the same thing as a crazy narrator? I think in the case of this novel the answer is probably yes. One of those situations where you find yourself rooting for the main character and then you begin to realize she may not be worth rooting for. A twenty-something woman who decides to start living her life boldly like the characters in Treasure Island which she has just read for the first time. Turns out she is a bit of a misguided, mixed-up, lazy, nutter. It's funny and frustrating. Reminded be a tad bit of After Claude by Iris Owens.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
I am a big fan of Patchett and there were moments in this collection of mostly previously published essays that I enjoyed. I particularly liked the essay about opening her bookstore. But overall I often find collections like these a tad boring because I feel like they aren't quite as topical as when they were written. Many essays don't age very well, or they seem less interesting or important because the heat of a particular issue has long since faded. This is really no knock on Patchett, there are many authors and essayists of grander stature who have bored me in this way. But I guess if this compilation gives her more time to work on her next novel I surely won't complain.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
After I read and loved Americanah I went out and bought all of Adichie's other books. Half of a Yellow Sun takes place in the years leading up to and during the Nigeran-Biafran civil war. It is a brilliant novel that definitely takes the reader on an emotional roller coaster. This is not melodrama, however, it is just really good writing about a really civil war where millions of civilians died. Adichie is good with plot, characterization, pacing, language, and believe-ability. She deserves to be a superstar.

I might be giving up on...
Joshua Ferris' most recent novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. His first novel Then We Came to the End is one of my favorites of all time. His second novel I found rather conventional but still enjoyed it very much. This one? I'm about half way through and I really am not very interested in going back to it. And I even bought it in hardcover.

Summer Read Along
Some listeners to the podcast The Readers were on Goodreads clamoring for a summer read along. Somehow Simon Savidge said yes, a consensus was formed, and I had to go find myself a copy of The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane. On page 56, I am glad I forced into reading this one. It is pretty fascinating and enjoyable. And it is nice to read something that takes place in Australia. If you want to join in pick up a copy and read it by August 20th. Then send any questions or comments for the discussion to me here or check out the topic on The Reader's Goodreads message boards. Simon is going to be in DC at the end of August so we may end up recording it in the same room.
The much more interesting UK edition of The Night Guest from Simon's blog.

Background to Danger by Eric Ambler
I could give you an outline of the plot, but if I haven't convinced you yet to pick up the highly enjoyable Eric Ambler, I probably never will.

07 June 2014

Is it wrong to read everything you like all at once?

The other day my friend Ron and I were in Barnes and Noble killing a bit of time. Since I loved Americanah so much, I looked to see what other Adichie titles they had (only one Purple Hibiscus), and then I noticed the new novels by Michael Cunningham and Joshua Ferris. I had all of these in my hand and was ready to go to the cashier when I realized that I should be buying them at my local independent instead. This may not seem like such a revelation to most of you, but I buy so few new books I often forget the fact that Politics and Prose, probably the best indie bookstore in the DC area, is in my neighborhood. And it just so happened that we had plans for that night to go out to dinner just a few doors down from the store. So while we waited for our table at Comet Pizza I made a beeline for Adichie, the new Cunnigham and Ferris novels, and for good measure, I looked to see if they had any Eric Ambler on their shelves.

It isn't often that every single book I buy in one trip is a book I can't wait to sink my teeth into. Usually I pick up a few thing that I feel I might get to at some distant point in time. My dilemma is: is it wrong to just go ahead and plow throw these seven books? Have a bit of an orgy of enjoyable reading. I've already started the Ferris and am having a great time with it? Should I ration these or should I make up time that I lost earlier in the year to less than enjoyable books that I forced myself to read and others I gave up on?  If I toss in the three D.E. Stevensons I bought a month or so back I could really go on a fun book binge.

Hmm. It is summer after all. Why not? It is possible I will want to throw something else into the mix along the way. I have about two stories yet to finish in a Doris Lessing collection, and I still have 3/4ths of the 800-page Forsyte Saga to go. And it would be nice to read and review a novel or two that are still in hardcover. I know a few of you couldn't believe that I got to Americanah so soon after publication.

What would you do?

01 June 2014

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Several months ago I was browsing at a local independent bookstore with Frances (Nonsuch Book) when I decided I needed to inject my reading with some new, recentish, books. So I went a little crazy. I think I bought about five new hardcovers and about as many paperbacks, knowing almost nothing about any of them save what was written on their covers. My success with the books I bought that day has been less than stellar. Beautiful Ruins: Did Not Finish. Dissident Gardens: DNF. At The Bottom of Everything: Really Disliked. And there might be one or two others that faced similar fates.

And then I picked up Americanah. What a fantastic book. The main character's voice and Adichie's easy, smart prose drew me in from the get go. When I was in the middle of enjoying this novel I saw someone Tweet about how she was struggling with getting into the book. It was one of those moments when you think that a person must be crazy. I suppose I could give that Tweeter a pass if there were things about the book that weren't her cup of tea, but to struggle with it? Some people.

Although it is both a relationship book and a coming of age story, Americanah is so much more. As Ifemelu navigates through her school days, her relationships, and becoming an independent person, she does it all while transitioning from the life she has known in Nigeria to a new and very different life in America. And Adichie does it so well. There is lots of humor, there is much that one can identify with on a personal level, there are observations about US and UK culture that I found highly insightful, and there is a fascinating look at life in Nigeria.

It is too easy to reduce Africa to that single word 'Africa' and call it a day. As with many things that I am not actively studying, I have had a murky understanding of most aspects of life on that enormous continent. I have a good friend from college days whose family emigrated to America from the west African country of Liberia, I spent a week on safari in Kenya, and I have another good friend who is a white South African, but all of my other notions about Africa were highly jumbled and taken from little bits and pieces of history and news headlines. My recent time-killing exercise of learning how to name all 196 countries in the world in less than 12 minutes actually turned out to be quite a good thing. Being able to place the countries in Africa on a map has been immensely helpful in understanding the continent and how the different countries that make up that jigsaw puzzle relate to each other. Reading Americanah was a wonderful way to help fill in one of the many gaps in my database.

But as the title suggests, Americanah is also a book about America. I was astonished how frequently I found myself chuckling and agreeing with Adichie's insight into American culture. And not just in an "oh, look at how different things are between Nigeria and America" kind of way. Adichie certainly offers that kind of commentary, but just as often it takes America on its own terms.

Easily one of my favorite books for the year.