The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy

(IndiaInk, 1997)

Amazon.com: The God of Small Things: A Novel (9780812979657): Roy ...

I picked up this book because I was craving more Indian lit after finishing Latitudes of Longing, (which, 3 months later, I still cannot stop thinking about), and Shubhangi Swarup lists Arundhati Roy as one of the influences on her writing. I read the back cover of The God of Small Things, which on my copy begins by saying, “Compared favorably to the works of Faulkner and Dickens … .” As someone with a passionate disdain for Dickens and distrust of anyone who voluntarily reads Faulkner, this made me nervous. Then again, what does an Indian woman writing in the 21st century have to do with the white men of the 19th? Before even opening the first page I was thinking about what it means to compare a novel to Dickens and Faulkner, and how doing so is assumed to be somehow the highest level of praise. With all this in mind, I dove in, and what I found was the beautiful, tragic classic that I never knew was available to me. Where A Tale of Two Cities made me (a reader!) hate the idea of reading, The God of Small Things in all its lengthy, descriptive, dark, epic glory, had me re-reading paragraph after paragraph after paragraph to ensure I didn’t miss a single moment.

The story takes a little time to ramp up. It took me a while to figure out how the characters were related (literally—it is a family drama) to each other, who was who, and who I should like and who I should not, but with some patience, I found my bearings. And in hindsight, while at times I felt like I was trying to put a puzzle together with a lot of missing pieces, Roy goes into detail about each character’s background at the precise moment in the narrative at which she is ready for you to know about them. The God of Small Things has a complicated but meticulously crafted narrative structure. While I could see some readers not enjoying it, I loved it. And I might have had a more difficult time becoming invested in the story early on if it wasn’t for the fact that I became enamored with the twins, the central characters—Esthappen and Rahel—by page 2, and also with Roy’s use of language.

The writing in The God of Small Things is truly gorgeous. I took a long time with this novel because I continuously got stuck on the sheer beauty of Roy’s sentences and analogies. In Goodreads and other summaries of this book, I saw it said that Roy has invented her own language to tell this story, and to me it feels more accurate to say she invented her own grammar. The most obvious is her liberal use of capitalization for emphasis. This is an idiosyncratic thing that I’ve come to love (I saw the reverse in Sister Outsider in Lorde’s refusal to capitalize amerika and to spell it with a “k”). Roy seems to use capitalization to indicate that a word is more than a word and is instead an idea. It helped me to focus on words that maybe I would have moved quickly passed otherwise, and I really enjoyed it. She also creates words and plays with their order and with hyphenation as a means to convey meaning. I found it all brilliant.

And while the events of The God of Small Things take place in India in 1969, it felt very relevant to what we’re seeing in 2020 America, the most obvious being the simultaneous ineptness and unchecked power of the police: “[He] seemed to know whom he could pick on and whom he couldn’t. Policemen have that instinct.” The central conflict exists within the context of such complex and inseparable issues as the Indian caste system, (internalized) sexism and gender roles, (internalized) racism, corrupt politics, and police brutality. And the terrible day in question, on which the entire narrative revolves, is experienced alongside a pair of seven-year-old twins. The way these children are betrayed by adults, over and over again, and too young to be able to do anything other than let the blame—the blame that is not theirs to have—consume them entirely, is crushing. The grownups, just big children themselves, take far less responsibility for their actions than the children do. Ultimately, the message is clear: the existing systems destroy the lives of everyone it touches.

Finally, I can’t complete this review without mentioning Ammu—the twins’ mother—who is one of the most tragic characters I’ve ever read. She is sympathetic, relatable, sometimes cruel, and so clearly doomed from the start. The ways Roy describes her is magnificent: “The Unmixable Mix—the infinite tenderness of motherhood, the reckless rage of a suicide bomber.” She is a woman that the world has no room for. Without spoiling anything, she becomes one half of—and I do not exaggerate—the most tragic and beautifully-written love story I have ever encountered. There is so much to this novel; I don’t think I’ll ever stop thinking about it. I would re-read it tomorrow if I could. It’s absolutely breathtaking.

Links: Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

The Shadow King, by Maaza Mengiste

W.W. Norton & Company, 2019

Amazon.com: The Shadow King: A Novel (9780393083569): Mengiste ...

For a lot of people, The Shadow King will be a deeply challenging read. To start, it is a story that was to me, and will be to many white/American readers and readers with euro-centric educations, an extremely foreign story. I combatted this by occasionally pausing to orient myself geographically and by reading wikipedia pages as necessary (obviously this is the lowest level of research, but even this small effort helped). Another area in which this novel is challenging is in the morality of its characters. For the most part, Mengiste does not write characters that are fully good or fully bad. And it isn’t just that each character sits somewhere in the middle of the morality spectrum, but that most of the main characters do both very good and very cruel things.

The novel is primarily about two women—Hirut, an orphan and a servant, and Aster, an upper-class woman and wife to the powerful and respected Kidane—and the roles they come to play in Ethiopa’s war with the invading Italian army. There is a much wider cast of characters, however; you will also read from the POV of Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia, as well as of Ettore Navarra, a Jewish photographer for the Italian army. You will come to feel a full and extremely complicated range of emotions for many of the characters. Mengiste does not go easy on the likable characters and does not ignore the humanity of the detestable ones. These characterizations make much of the novel difficult to process, but also lend to its greatness.

And since I have not said it outright yet, The Shadow King is a stunningly fantastic novel. Mengiste’s writing is spectacular. I found myself stopping over and over again to jot down sentences that blew me away. Eventually I gave up on writing down quotes and started keeping track of entire pages, and even consecutive pages, that were so stunning that to try and limit my record of them to just one sentence would be both impossible and a crime.

Regarding the pacing of the novel, while there are a lot of big action moments, Mengiste spends far more time with the characters as they deal with the consequences and memories of an event than with the event itself. Similarly, the moments leading up to a battle seem to last far longer than the actual battle. The Shadow King is frequently about memory and different kinds of loss. Mengiste interacts with these themes through Hirut and the loss of her parents, Aster and the loss of her child, Selassie and the loss of his daughter and in many ways his country, and also symbolically through Ettore’s photography. Some of Mengiste’s most beautiful writing is in the way she describes photos that Ettore has taken and in musings on what photos show us and what they cannot. Because the plot follows the POV of characters on different sides of the conflict and with extremely different experiences, the reader sees how different truths can be found in each moment. What Ettore, for example, believes Hirut to be experiencing is almost never what she is experiencing at all:

“He wants to shout to Hirut and ask her how she does it, how she manages to stay in that jail, leaning against that wall as if it were the most natural thing in the world to be trapped.”

Ettore is frequently used to demonstrate the colonizers naïvety and cruelty toward the colonized, even when that cruelty is sort of accidental and nearly well-meaning. The fact that he’s a Jew whose parents are in Italy facing the ramifications of being Jewish in Europe during WWII makes this all the more complicated. The Shadow King, however, is ultimately Hirut’s story and we are called to sympathize with her, or maybe more importantly, accept that she owes no white man, or any man at all, her sympathy.

While much of the The Shadow King is painful and heartbreaking, the female protagonists demonstrate exceptional growth and resilience, and Mengiste offers up moments of pure female empowerment. One of my favorite scenes occurs when Hirut experiences what it is like to feel truly joyful after years of a life in service:

“This is where all the light in the world has settled, she thinks. This is where it has been while she was struggling in such darkness.”

If I have not made it obvious yet, I think The Shadow King is a Must Read novel. It is challenging, but a challenge we owe to ourselves—and to the women that came before us—to take on.

Links: Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

Viking Press, 1952

east of eden

A few months ago, I was sitting in a friend’s kitchen complaining about the lack of ice in the freezer for my drink, which prompted the question: who invented ice?

What followed, after google searching the question, was a surprisingly interesting article titled The Surprisingly Cool History of Ice. I read the entire article, and then mostly forgot about it until the other day when I began chapter 37 of East of Eden. It started as a vague familiarity —I couldn’t quite place the interest I had in Adam Trask’s ice business —then it hit me. Adam Trask is the man who invented ice! This isn’t true at all of course. At most, he is inspired by the real inventor of ice. Still, it seemed like a strange coincidence. I mention this because I love coincidence and what is called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon: when, after learning a piece of obscure information or a new unusual word, you begin to encounter it again and again. I love experiencing this phenomenon because it is a reminder of how exciting knowledge is. The more you know about anything, the more you’ll notice, and the more invested and connected you feel to the world around you, or in my case, the book I’m reading.

I loved East of Eden so much more than I expected. It is one of the greatest things I’ve ever read. It is so good and so big that it’s difficult to come up with a single thing to say about it. Instead I feel inclined to write about things it makes me think about. Like the inventor of refrigerated shipping. Or the time I stopped in Salinas on a road trip and hated everything about it.

East of Eden is going in my Must Read category. It is about the battle between good and evil, and it is about how to help the good win in the end. It is universal. In Steinbeck’s words: “A great and lasting story is about everyone or it will not last. The strange and foreign is not interesting—only the deeply personal and familiar.” It is also about greatness and the loneliness of greatness. It is somehow about everything. It’s important to acknowledge that it is outdated. Women, although surprisingly prominent, are still frequently in the background. POC, although not ignored, only exist in their relationship to the white protagonists. But East of Eden is still universal. Sometimes the men just forget their stories apply to the rest of us.

Links: Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin

Orbit, 2017

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While I enjoyed the first two books in the trilogy immensely, the final installment—The Stone Sky—consumed me. The last three chapters are one of the most exciting and most satisfying conclusions that I’ve ever encountered.

One thing I repeatedly noticed as I read this trilogy is that I was reading faster than my brain could keep up with. There are many sections in the book that get almost technical in their description and explanation of the geological events that are occurring, and I would fly through all of it whether I fully comprehended what I was reading or not. I don’t think it’s inherently bad to read in this way; it’s the way I tend to read a lot of page-turning fiction, but it is definitely a shallower, surface-level method of reading. The point of explaining this is to emphasize that the moment I started the third to last chapter of The Stone Sky, I was suddenly reading slowly and meticulously. I had been racing through this crazy, chaotic, emotional turmoil of a trilogy and then the last 60 pages hit me so hard that I stopped in my tracks and had to slow down and take in every single word. There are many great novels that don’t need their endings or don’t truly have one, and their effectiveness is found in the telling or in the small moments or in the overarching message. The Broken Earth trilogy is made complete by its ending. The ending is the heart of the story, and I wasn’t able to fully love the story until I reached it.

What is so powerful about this trilogy is the ways it illuminates the injustices and greediness of our own reality. It’s been a troubling year to say the least, and The Stone Sky makes abundantly clear that our country and our leaders are going in the wrong direction, making the wrong choices, choosing the wrong priorities. Jemisin shows us how much worse-off the world can become if we continue to follow this path, while also showing us that it is never too late to change course. And this is what the conclusion achieves in a remarkable 60 pages. It’s tragic, gripping, emotional, realistic, but ultimately so full of hope. Heart-wrenchingly full of hope. How often does that happen? How often do we get to be crushed and then uplifted by a realistic conclusion? The Broken Earth Trilogy is a classic and a Must Read.

Links: N K Jemisin .com | Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Harper & Row 1974

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The 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 science fiction novels 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 to, but once you get used to the structure, the alternating chapter POVs contribute to the powerfulness of the story. There are two separate timelines that Le Guin alternates between. The first chapter takes place in the protagonist’s current situation, and 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 | Buy it on Bookshop .org

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Knopf, 2006

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Half of a Yellow Sun is so breathtaking that I feel uncomfortable reviewing it. I’d never 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 that saw human suffering 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.

This is a flawless novel. 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 seen a photo of starving children in Africa where the suffering seems so detached from your own life that it’s impossible to conceive of it as happening to real human beings. Adichie works around this in Half of a Yellow Sun. 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 storylines. And so, when you realize that these same characters—characters who have careers they worked hard for, have families, attend university, write poetry, have music collections, have access to modern day luxuries—are living as refugees, faced with starvation, and consumed with war, the shock and sadness you feel is real and intimate.

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 back 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 at least a sense of camaraderie that can be found in a people suffering together, and then you’ll come to realize that some human suffering is 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 | Buy it on Bookshop .org

An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine

Grove Atlantic, 2013

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Every once in awhile, I’ll pick up a book and immediately know that I am at the beginning of something special. I’ll pause and allow myself to bask in the anticipation of what’s to come. Great beginnings are hard. Great endings are even harder. An Unnecessary Woman has both. A perfect beginning, 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.

“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.”

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 associated with 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.

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: that is, 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, really—okay, but an epiphany that allows Aaliyah to keep living and 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. Believe me or don’t, but this story about an old woman living alone in Beirut should be a Must Read for everyone.

Links: Rabih Alameddine .com | Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

Out of Darkness, by Ashley Hope Perez

Carolrhoda Lab, 2015

I 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 and their own unique series of experiences that lead to the building of their 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 people 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 and will not understand. I understand fear of the unknown and fear of change and the desire for security, and I understand how these fears and desires can lend themselves to putting others down and 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 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 white characters, black characters, and one Mexican girl. Sometimes it takes a narrowing of focus to generate deep compassion. When faced with constant and widespread injustice, it can be 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? 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. Please, do yourself a favor and find out what.

Links: Ashley Perez .com | Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org