EVERFAIR (2016)

downloadI came away from Everfair with a huge amount of respect for Nisi Shawl as a writer. Everfair is a novel that must have required extremely extensive research and planning, but even more than that, I was impressed with Shawl’s ability to balance viewpoints. No character’s point-of-view was ignored, overlooked, or presented any less seriously than any other, and there were a lot of different viewpoints. Everfair, set mostly in the Congo at the turn of the 20th century, does an incredible job of demonstrating why race relations and gender relations continue to be so hard to navigate, even by those who are trying their very best to be good, and by all accounts are good. It demonstrates how easy it is to, as a white person, male or female, forget the extent of your privilege and hurt or ignore or invalidate people of color. It reminded me how important it is to constantly question the way I treat others, to always be willing to accept I’m wrong, to always be willing to change, and that when it comes to the rights of people of color, the only voices we should trust are theirs.

The novel is split into two parts. The first part is the story of the colonists of Everfair fighting with the indigenous people of the Congo to end King Leopold III’s cruel reign over the Congo. The second part deals with what happens after King Leopold III is defeated. With their common enemy dealt with and WWI taking shape, how do the white colonists and the indigenous population live harmoniously in one country both feel they hold claim to? It’s this second part of Everfair that truly blew me away. Shawl deals with numerous complicated questions of right and wrong, and handles these difficult questions gracefully and insightfully. The novel is also a powerfully feminist one. There are many important and central characters in Everfair, but the main protagonist is a  woman who throughout the novel greatly inspired me. She is realistic in her flaws but also realistic in her strengths and that believability is what made her character and her story so powerful to me. Everfair presents a fictional, alternative history, but one that offers a lot to learn from.

Links: Nisi Shawl .com | Goodreads | Amazon

LANDFALLS (2015)

downloadLandfalls, by Naomi J. Williams, is one of those strange novels that creep up on you without you realizing. I’ve experienced this before, but with Landfalls, it was particularly striking. I was more than three quarters of the way through before it suddenly hit me that I was reading something remarkable. It’s not that the first half of the book isn’t remarkable, it’s more that Landfalls’ effectiveness is extremely subtle and takes some time to recognize.

Each chapter of Landfalls is told from the point of view of a different character and each chapter could probably pass as a self-sufficient short story. This unique structure worked well for Landfalls because it highlights character development, which to me was the heart of the novel. Williams’ exploration of different characters’ world views, beliefs, and motivations (particularly those of the two captains), and how they evolve and are changed by the course of the voyage, is spectacular. What makes Landfalls so successful is Williams’ ability to portray characters living at the end of the 18th century authentically while still making room for modern thought. Writing historically accurate characters that are both sympathetic and relatable in a time period when racism was the norm and slavery widely accepted, is a real challenge. Often historical fiction can suffer from feeling either too influenced by modern thought or too stuck in the past. Williams gets the balance just right, and this allows for fascinating (and believable!) character development.

Because Landfalls is essentially a series of related short stories, you will likely have a favorite standout chapter, as I did. My personal favorite chapter was “Dispatches,” in which the Russian-speaking crew member of the voyage is dropped off on the eastern coast of Siberia and entrusted with a box of documents detailing the findings of the voyage so far should the crew not successfully return to France (which, of course, they did not). In “Dispatches,” Williams develops a fascinating and loyal relationship between men relying on each other for survival. This chapter highlights one of the my favorite themes in the novel, which is exploring how relationships functioned in a time before immediate long-distance communication was possible. Today it seems so strange – the inability to speak to someone who isn’t directly in front of you – but for almost all of history that is simply the way it was. At the end of “Dispatches,” two friends who had travelled across Siberia and survived against the odds part ways knowing they’ll never meet again. Landfalls is full of these powerful moments that explore humanity and human relationships.

Landfalls has a way of sneaking up on you, and reminding you of the things that become so easy to forget in the 21st century: the power of nature and its indifference toward the people living in it, how big the world is, and how small our little piece of it, how brief human life is, but how powerful an impact one individual can have on those around them. I’ll end this review with a short and simple but thought-provoking quote that I feel exemplifies Landfalls: 

“The Vanikorans [a small Polynesian island people] understood their island to be one of many that made up the world.” (256)

Links: Naomi J Williams .com | Goodreads | Amazon

HALF OF A YELLOW SUN (2006)

Half of adownload Yellow Sun is so breathtaking that I feel uncomfortable reviewing it. I’d never even heard of Biafra before picking up this novel, and I could be wrong, but I don’t think I’m in the minority for people my age. And yet, Biafra was, briefly in the late ’60s, a nation and a place that saw human suffering to an extent and on a scale comparable to the holocaust. Imagine never having heard of the holocaust. Well I’d never heard of Biafra. If that isn’t concrete proof of the extent to which eurocentrism influences what we know about the world, I don’t know what is.

There is no “best part” to this novel because every element of the story is as incredible as every other. The characters, the plot, the writing style, the pacing, and the structure all work together perfectly to form this masterpiece. One of the great achievements of Half of a Yellow Sun is its ability to depict extreme suffering without alienating the reader. Think about the times when you’ve watched a documentary or read a book or even seen a starving children in Africa ad where what’s happening seems so detached from your own life that its impossible to conceive of the suffering as happening to real human beings. Half of a Yellow Sun avoids this entirely. First, it’s enjoyable to read! It doesn’t feel masochistic in the way it sometimes does to read about human suffering. It’s relatable and understandable. It’s engaging and page-turning. All of the characters are living full and complex lives. There’s a huge depth of characters and places and plots unfolding. And so, when you realize that these same characters, characters who have careers they worked hard for, who have families, who attend university, who write poetry, who have music collections, who have access to modern day luxuries, are living as refugees, faced with starvation, and consumed with war, the shock you feel is real and intimate as opposed to a detached sadness for a suffering so far removed from your own life that its reality is inconceivable.

And one of the most striking elements of Half of a Yellow Sun is how subtly the characters suffering increases. It seems to happen both slowly and then all-at-once. You’ll think you’re seeing suffering and then realize the true suffering hasn’t even begun and then realize that over and over and over again. You’ll look back at a scene 100-pages previous and be shocked with how much the characters situations have changed and with how much suffering you’ve become accustomed to as the reader. And then you’ll look back 100-pages later with the same shock all over again. For awhile you’ll convince yourself that there’s a certain type of joy that can be found in a people suffering together, and then you’ll come to realize that some human suffering reaches an extent so extreme that there’s room for nothing else.

Half of a Yellow Sun had a real impact on me and reminded me how and why literature can be so powerful. It’s a book I’ll never forget and one I’m sure I’ll be reminded of and return to frequently. I would tell anyone and everyone that it’s an absolute must-read. If you haven’t had a chance to read this novel yet, no matter how long your reading list is, put Half of a Yellow Sun at the very top.

Links: Chimamanda .com | Goodreads | Amazon

STORK MOUNTAIN (2016)

downloadStork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov, a Bulgarian who moved to America at 18,  is a strange novel, and unlike anything else I’ve ever read. While I have a lot of criticism for it (albeit vague criticism as you’ll read shortly), I enjoyed it, and I certainly don’t regret reading it. It’s a book that I likely never would have picked up if I wasn’t specifically looking for books by Bulgarian authors, and finding books by chance encounter is one of my favorite means of discovery.

Stork Mountain is difficult to follow. Stories pick up and then lose track of themselves in other stories. There’s multiple romantic narratives, familial narratives, historic/cultural narratives, and spiritual narratives taking place in different centuries and on different timelines, but that are all woven together. It’s a book best read with as little interruption as possible (I mistakenly began it before leaving for Bulgaria and did not pick it up again until I returned and consequently struggled to keep track of the multitude of stories). It feels almost too big for itself, like it’s trying to do too much, cover too much in one novel. It’s broken up into seven parts, and I couldn’t begin to differentiate one part from another.

The best moments in Stork Mountain are the ones dealing with the long, difficult, inter-woven histories of the Turks, the Greeks, and the Bulgarians. The Muslims and the Christians. The rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, the rise and fall of communism. There’s a fascinating, tragic, deep-seeded history in this part of the world that is all but unknown to many people in the West. And while I criticize Penkov for trying to force too much into one book, its hard to blame him when the history of this region is so vast and so varied. Whether or not you choose to read Stork Mountain, I’d encourage everyone to expose themselves to more stories from Eastern Europe because there is a history there that is just as valid, just as vast, just as complex, and more ancient than anything the western world has to offer.

Links: Miroslav Penkov .com | Goodreads | Amazon

SOLO (2009)

unnamedThis post will be the first in a series of posts reviewing books that take place, at least partially, in Bulgaria. I’ll be spending a few weeks in April visiting some friends in Bulgaria and thought reading a few books that take place in the country or are written by Bulgarian authors would be a great way to learn a few things about a place I know next to nothing about. The one I’ve started with, Solo by Rana Dasgupta, was not only an amazing introduction to the history and culture of Bulgaria, but was an outstanding book in general.

Solo operates under a premise similar to An Unnecessary Woman; the protagonist, an old man, alone and with nothing to show for his long life, looks back on the different phases of his life. But that is where the similarities end. Solo is broken up into 2 parts, which can almost be seen as two separate books, but are tied together in a way that make both parts more meaningful and complete than if either stood alone. Part 1 is the story of the protagonist’s life, from child to old man. He’s born near the beginning of the 20th century, and through his perspective, the reader sees how Bulgaria changes and evolves with new technologies, through world wars, and the rise and fall of communism. One of my favorite quotes from Solo regarding the history of Bulgaria is the following:

“When Bulgaria became independent, we didn’t even know. It took weeks for the news to reach us that they had made a country for the Bulgarians and our village was not in it. We packed everything up, took all the pigs, crossed into Bulgaria and made a new village.”

Small moments like this that remind you how strange and arbitrary borders are, especially in Eastern Europe.

Part 1 of Solo was exactly the type of story I was looking for to give me some insight into Bulgarian history and culture. When Part 2 began, it took me a few chapters to get my bearings because it begins an entirely different story with brand new characters, but once I got into it, I was completely absorbed. I read it in one sitting. It was fast-paced and exciting and took the story into the 21st century and beyond Bulgaria’s borders. Without Part 2, Part 1 would have felt a little heavy and dark and pessimistic, and without Part 1, Part 2 would have felt a little meandering and directionless, but together, they balanced out perfectly. On top of this, the writing was excellent on every level. I was super impressed by this novel and will be making a point to read other works of Dasgupta’s. I can’t recommend Solo enough, especially if you have any interest in a part of the world you more than likely know very little about.

Links: Rana Dasgupta .comGoodreads | Amazon

OUT OF DARKNESS (2015)

perez-outofdarknessI do my best not to judge people based on abstract categories, and I do my best to understand and to see the best in everyone, even when they have fundamentally different beliefs than my own. Everyone has a history, their own unique series of experiences that lead to the building of their own world view.

But racists. Racists to even the most casual degree. Those who think we should build literal and figurative walls to prevent immigration. Those who believe there are substantially more black men in jail than white men, not because of a broken system, but because more black men tend to be criminals. Those who feel the shocking number of black males who’ve been murdered by police are justified. Those who see all Muslims as terrorists. And those who don’t really believe any of the above but still find themselves pausing to think that maybe there is some truth to it.

Those people, I can/will not understand. I understand fear of the unknown and fear of change and the desire for security for you and your own, and I understand how these fears and desires can lend themselves to putting others down; keeping them out. I understand the power of history and the extent of peoples differences and that we all can’t be expected to get along all the time. But despite all of that, no matter what explanation you have, I will always respond with what is to me the most obvious thing in the world: Kindness!!! And human compassion!!! Always! The knowledge that life is unfair and that not one of us is ever more deserving of happiness and security than the other.

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez is a young adult historical fiction set in East Texas in 1937 featuring a cast of whites, blacks, and a mexican girl. Sometimes it takes a narrowing of focus to generate deep compassion. When faced with constant and widespread injustice, its nearly impossible to not become hopeless and begin to see injustice as normal and inevitable.  But when it is narrowed down to one place, one tragedy, one family, one girl, you can’t help but burn with compassion.

There’s so much I have to say about Out of Darkness, but when I turned the last page, what I found myself thinking about was this: How would one of those previously mentioned people react if they read this book? What if I found someone who supported the building of a wall, and got them to read it? Would they tell me it was a lie? An exaggeration? That things were never that bad that unfair that unjustified. Would they say, “I would never have done anything like that, but….”? Would they say that things were just different back then and not at all related to how things are now? Would they truly continue to believe that they’re on the right side of history? Or, what if this book was the thing that finally made them understand how real and painful and tragic racism is and how current events are unfolding in the shadows of this cruel, not-at-all distant past? I’m inclined to think not, but that’s not my judgement to make. The most important thing I have to say about Out of Darkness is that no matter who you are, you have something to learn from it, something to gain. Please, do yourself a favor and find out what.

Links: Ashley Perez .com | Goodreads | Amazon 

You’ll like this book if you like: great books, historical fiction, love stories that aren’t stupid, mature young adult lit

A BRIEF HISTORY OF 7 KILLINGS (2014)

a_brief_history_of_seven_killings_cover

I’ll preface by admitting that this book is very hard to read, and for multiple reasons. The first chapter is from the POV of the ghost of a politician who speaks in a flowery/poetic prose. The second chapter is from the POV of a boy born in a Kingston ghetto who speaks in a heavy Jamaican dialect. And from there, the story gets harder to follow before it gets easier. There’s an extremely steep learning curve for both learning who all of the characters are and for being able to read and understand the Jamaican dialect that the majority of the book is written in. It’s slow going and it’s 700 pages long, but with that said, if you feel up to it, A Brief History of 7 Killings is devastating and incredible and sheds light on a world and a history horrifying beyond belief.

If forced to choose the focal point of the novel, it would be the fictional account of the very real assassination attempt on Bob Marley (referred to only as “the singer” in the novel) before his Smile Jamaica concert in 1976. However, do not think this novel is in any way ‘about’ Bob Marley. It is not about one thing or one individual at all. It, through a cast of 50+ characters all with their own stories, chronicles the political/social unrest and growing drug trade (mostly crack/cocaine) in Jamaica in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Characters include gang members, dons, political leaders, CIA agents, drug dealers, a white journalist, and a middle-class Jamaican woman who wants more than anything to immigrate to America. There are innumerable elements to this novel, and Marlon James’ ability to weave and balance so many stories within one narrative is incredible.

There is no ‘moral to the story’ in 7 Killings. It is full of unimaginable cruelty, ugliness,  and poverty. The depth of the racism, sexism, and homophobia inside and outside of Jamaican society is shocking. All of the rape and murder and police brutality that takes place begin to feel normal simply because of how commonplace it is. While the ghettos see the worst of it, the cruelty and injustice is not contained only within them.The most memorable story-line in the novel for me (possibly because it is the only continuous story-line from the POV of a woman) is that of a middle-class Jamican girl who faces injustice and judgement from everyone around her – her parents, her sister, her lovers, the police, and complete strangers.

There are a million beautiful, striking, poignant, shocking, or illuminating quotes throughout A Brief History of 7 Killings, but the following is the one I want to leave you with:

“[He] think it an even match, they with power, he with being right.”

Links: Rolling Stone on Marlon James | Goodreads | Amazon

You’ll like this book if you like: historical fiction, character-driven plots, criminal drama, political conspiracy, history of international drug trade