THE DISPOSSESSED (1974)

13651The Dispossessed has reminded me what science fiction is capable of. Published in 1974, I’m amazed by its timelessness. It could have been written yesterday. It could be written 50 years from now. And I think this is something that many of the best works of science fiction have in common. It tackles ideas that, no matter what technology is or isn’t present, are relevant to humanity as a whole. I’m clearly behind on Ursula K. Le Guin. I’m sure the whole literary world already knows she’s a genius, so there’s nothing more for me to do but reiterate that fact. She is a true genius and an astounding writer. In The Dispossessed, she made me think new things, and see old things in new ways. There were countless paragraphs I read two or three times over because one time wasn’t nearly enough time to process.

The story starts off a little slow, but that’s only because you’re thrust into the middle of the plot on the first page. It takes a little adjusting, but once you get used to the structure, it adds a lot to the way you’re able to experience the novel. There’s two separate timelines that Le Guin alternates between. The first chapter takes place in the protagonists current situation, then the next takes place in his past, and so on. This structure works really well to emphasize how the main character grows and changes because you’re learning about his life as a child and young adult alongside his present life. And when, at the end of the novel, you learn the extent of the sacrifices he made for the pursuit of knowledge and for his people, it hits you more powerfully because of this structure. If you like science fiction, if you don’t like science fiction, it doesn’t matter. The Dispossessed is a must read and will make you reevaluate how you see the world, government, capitalism, education, and your own personal priorities.

Links: Ursula K Le Guin .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

AN UNNECESSARY WOMAN (2013)

download-2Every once in awhile, I’ll pick up a book, and no more than one page in, know that I am at the beginning of something special. I’ll pause my reading and allow myself to bask in the anticipation of everything to come. Great beginnings are hard. Great endings are much harder. An Unnecessary Woman has both. A perfect beginning, a perfect ending, and perfect everything in between.

The novel opens with the protagonist, Aaliyah, a 72-year-old woman in Beirut, basking in anticipation of the new year. She is the definition of a bibliophile, and to pass her days alone, and to provide herself with a feeling of purpose, she translates. She translates novels following a strict set of rules: nothing written by French or English speaking authors, and every project begun on the first of January.

Aaliyah:

“The year is long dead. Long live the new year! I will begin my next project. This is the time that excites me most…Beginnings are pregnant with possibilities. As much as I enjoy finishing a translation, it is this time that tickles my marrow most. The ritual of preparation.”

And then acknowledging the strictness of her routine:

“Yes, I am a tad obsessive. For a nonreligious woman, this is my faith.”

I read these first pages, Aaliyah’s anticipation and her contemplation of that anticipation, just as this new year began. My first book of the new year and anticipation for a new year is the first subject!  Aaliyah is trying to explain her illogical obsession with the ritual of the beginning of a year just as I was doing the same. I love New Years Eve. I love New Years Eve as much as I am boggled by why it should mean anything to me at all. A completely arbitrary division of a completely arbitrary concept, time, and yet every year it humbles me in how monumental it feels.

And Aaliyah’s love of ritual spoke to me as well. While she follows a ritual to translate, I follow a ritual, albeit a much simpler one, to read. I have a notebook, a physical notebook because there is something satisfying in handling a physical object in which I handwrite, where I keep track of every book I read. I allow every book I read only one side of one page of the notebook, no matter how long the book or how much I have to say about it. On the first line I write the name of the book, on the second the author and the year of publication, on the third, the date I begin reading the book and later, the date I finished reading it, and then every line below left open for notes I take while reading. There’s no real reason for this repeated ritual other than it adds to the anticipation of beginning a book, it is all part of the process.

An Unnecessary Woman is full of Aaliyah’s musings on literature, books she loves, books she hates, and why. She particularly hates books with “epiphanies” ; books that explain away tragedies, giving every tragedy a purpose. And yet, An Unnecessary Woman, ends with an epiphany of its own. Not an epiphany that makes the past, or anything, okay, but an epiphany that allows Aaliyah to keep living, to keep moving forward without falling into despair.

Near the middle of the novel, Alameddine writes:

“Joy is the anticipation of joy.”

And then the book ends with the sentence:

“I take a long breath, the air of anticipation.”

A perfect beginning, a perfect middle, a perfect end.

Links: Rabih Alameddine .com | Goodreads | Amazon

You’ll like this book if you like: classic literature, books about books, reflective protagonists, beautiful sentence-level writing, historical fiction, female-led stories, middle-eastern history

 

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