Recent Reads: May + June

 

Exit West, Moshin Hamid || 5/5

Since it's publication, Exit West has received phenomenal reviews, and as soon as I read its first few chapters, I understood why. This was my first time reading Hamid's work and I have to say that his control of language is stunning. His sentences — which often run on for an entire half page or more — depict such thorough and nuanced understandings of love, fear, loss, etc., that I'd read them over and over, floored that someone can so accurately and fluidly translate emotion into words.

In Exit West, two young people, Saaed and Nadia, meet and fall in love, just as their country's civil war comes to a head. As violence and death begin to ravage the city, they begin to hear rumors of doors that can transport people from one country to another, though each door is varied, and what a person will meet on the other side is unknown. Hamid writes, "It was said in those days that the passage was both like dying and like being born."

This is yet another book that I'd have loved to discuss with a book club, and it will likely be one of my favorite reads of 2017.

The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas || 4/5

I read all 444 pages of The Hate U Give in one sitting. I also read it only two days after the death of Jordan Edwards — yet another innocent, unarmed, black child murdered by the police. Already feeling heartbroken and angry about Jordan's murder, the read became all the more powerful. 

The story centers on Starr Carter, a sixteen-year old girl who lives in Garden Heights, a poor black neighborhood riddled with gangs and crime. In hopes of giving their children the best education possible, Starr's parents enroll Starr and her siblings in an affluent, white private school, 45 minutes away from their neighborhood. In the midst of Starr's struggle to strike a balance between her two drastically different lives, she witnesses the police unjustly murder one of her closest childhood friends, Khalil. As she copes with his death, she also must learn where and how she fits into the fight for justice and equality.

Because the book is written for young adults, it's language is straightforward, and topics such as police brutality, the posthumous demonization of black victims, microaggressions, code switching, etc. are addressed head-on, without much academic jargon. The characters are phenomenally written; their relationships with one another feel authentic and well-thought out. What I love about this book, and Thomas' storytelling, is that she not only fosters a discussion about police brutality and systematic oppression, but also, in many moments, authentically celebrates black life, in all of its forms. I highly recommend this as a must-read.

 

The Vegetarian, Han Kang || 4/5

As the clerk in Strand Books showed me where I could find The Vegetarian, she told me that it had been her favorite read of 2016. "Dark but powerful" she succinctly explained. After finishing it, I couldn't agree with her summary more. The Vegetarian is a dark, Kafka-esque novel saturated with symbolism. On the surface, the novel tells the story of Yeong-hye, a Korean woman who decides not to eat meat after having a disturbing, gruesome and bloody dream. The decision shocks her husband and family — the Korean culture and diet heavily involves meat — and as her family attempts to force her hand, their own struggles with darkness are revealed.

The Vegetarian is powerful due to its discussion of mental health, and the way it brings light to the different masks that we wear and/or different sides of ourselves that we hide.  When describing it to my friends, I kept saying it left me with a wet and heavy sadness — I finished the novel and felt as though I was wearing a thick sweater in the rain; I was left dripping, soggy, and soaked through. The story stuck with me, and I found my thoughts returning to its different characters again and again. I really like(d) that the book is broken into parts — each written from a different character's perspective. I will say that this book may be easier to read if you have some understanding of Korean culture — i.e., an understanding of arranged marriages, knowledge that the military father's position in the family is strong and he cannot be disobeyed, and working long hours as an excruciating, but "normal" aspect of the culture. (And of course, once you're done, I'd suggest reading the Reddit threads - so much great commentary: 1 & 2).

 

The Mothers, Brit Bennett || 4/5

In the past few months, I saw The Mothers everywhere — people were reading it on the subwayWell Read Black Girl chose it as their December 2016 read, and its colorful cover seemingly popped up around every corner. I knew that I had to give it a go. The book is mainly told from the perspective of Nadia, a young girl who recently lost her mother, and while struggling to heal, forms bonds, relationships, and friendships that end up affecting her and her community for the next few decades. The book has themes of loss/learning to let go, family (both biological and chosen), and what can ensue when an unhealed past meets the present. Though the story is primarily told from Nadia's perspective, it occasionally moves over to the perspective of The Mothers — the oldest members of Nadia's church, who offer insight, advice, and prayers as the story unfolds.

Only 20 pages into the book, I was completely mesmerized. Brit Bennet's writing style is rhythmic and smooth; in some ways, her voice reminds me of the way one tells a story aloud, which fits with the book's theme of gossip, storytelling, and history. The way in which she presents the character of The [Church] Mothers — simultaneously one entity and multiple women — was incredibly powerful to me. Her depictions of friendship, as well as of church life in a small town, are authentic and believable, and I found myself genuinely connecting to each character, even as they fluctuated between likable and unlikeable. A great debut novel.

 

When Watched, Leopoldine Core || 3/5

I picked up When Watched because I liked its cover and it kept appearing in my suggested reads section on Amazon. The book is Core's debut collection of short stories, all of which take place in New York City, and often in a single room or apartment. While in the beginning of the book, I felt as though her stories did a lot of telling, rather than showing, as the book progressed, I found her characters transform into more and more quirky, real, and likable people.

For the past year, I've primarily only read books by people of color, and so it was interesting to read the work of a white author again. At first I found it jarring to read about characters described as "beautiful" due to their green eyes and blonde hair; I had major flashbacks to many of the books I read in middle school, that centered characters who didn't look like me as the standard for intelligence and beauty. But when focusing on the meat of each story, I really felt inspired by Core's writing style. Surprisingly, her book spurred me to start working on a few short stories of my own.

 

Here Comes the Sun, Nicole Dennis-Benn || 3/5

Here Comes the Sun had been on my "to read" list for awhile now and recently, I finally got it together and picked it up from the bookstore. While the story centers on the life of Margot — a young woman who works at an expensive resort in Montego Bay, and sells sex for extra income, in order to send her younger sister, Thandi, to an elite school — it also serves as commentary on vicious the cycle of colonialism and exploitation. While the novel was a great read, and touched on a plethora of issues — skin bleaching, rape, prostitution, sexual exploitation, gentrification, colonialism, queerness/the demonization of queerness, love, Rastafarianism — I personally felt that trying to fit all of these topics into one story had the potential to take away from some of its larger themes. At the same time, it's not far-fetched to believe that all of these issues could, and do, plague the lives of many people within Jamaica and beyond. While this is a book that I don't see myself re-reading, I do think that it offers an important perspective on Jamaica and the darker sides of "paradise."


As always, I'm open to book recommendations! I'm currently reading You Are A Badass by Jen Sincero. Next up is Hunger by Roxane Gay,  Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (for the sixth time!), The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Nobody Knows My Name by James Baldwin. What are you reading?

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