Day 1067: The Boston Girl

Cover for The Boston GirlI keep trying Anita Diamant, hoping to encounter something as good as The Red Tent. So far, however, I have not read anything by her that comes close.

The Boston Girl is about the life of Addie Baum, the child of Jewish immigrants, from her young womanhood in 1915 until she is an old woman in 1985. It is written in the first person, as if Addie is speaking to her granddaughter.

This narrative styles is probably the biggest weakness of the novel. It is not a traditional narrative but one person’s side of a conversation. Although Addie does all the talking, occasionally she addresses her granddaughter directly, and that has a false, jarring effect.

In addition, although the narrative does tell a story, it is broken up more like a series of anecdotes. This style removes most of the tension from the novel, and there is no sense of a narrative arc. There is no climax.

The story deals mostly with Addie’s thirst for knowledge and her desire to accomplish more in her life than working in a factory. She also strives to earn a word of approval from her mother. She could have been an interesting and compelling character, but none of the characters in this novel feel fully formed.

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Day 954: Americanah

Cover for AmericanahIfemelu has decided to return to Nigeria after living in the United States for 13 years. She has just finished a fellowship at Princeton and broken up with her American boyfriend, Blaine. In preparation for leaving, she also winds down her popular blog about race in America. While she is getting her hair braided, she thinks about her journey to this point.

Ifemelu grows up in a Nigeria where, for the young, the only hope seems to be to leave the country. Her father has been out of work for years because he was too proud to call his boss “Mam.” A few fat cats, like the general supporting Ifemelu’s Aunty Uju, are unbelievably rich, but there is no opportunity ahead of them for the young middle class. Most of them dream about leaving the country.

In high school Ifemelu falls in love with Obinze, who dreams of going to the States. The two enroll in a college in Nigeria where Obinze’s mother is a professor. But the dorm’s lavatories aren’t working and the professors haven’t been paid in months. Eventually, they go on strike, and Ifemelu must return home to Lagos. When she hears Ifemelu is at loose ends, Aunty Uju, who is now living in New Jersey, suggests that Ifemelu move there to go to school and help her care for her son.

In New Jersey Ifemelu begins struggling to find work, for her scholarship only pays 75% of her expenses. It is in this time period that she does something that separates her from Obinze. She stops taking his calls or responding to him.

Obinze has his own problems. His lack of opportunity in Nigeria eventually brings him to England as an illegal immigrant. There he struggles along with menial jobs, giving kick-backs to work under other men’s names. He is about to marry a woman for citizenship when he is deported.

Much of the novel is about the difficult immigrant experiences of the two main characters (although we spend much more time with Ifemelu) and Ifemelu’s experiences of race problems in the United States. Ifemelu’s observations on her blog provide an interesting, sort of third-party, perspective. With all of the recent police shootings of unarmed black men that have happened lately, this is a  topic that is on everyone’s minds.

I went back and forth on how much I liked this novel. In Ifemelu, Adiche creates a good, strong voice and a believable, likable character. I was not so enamored of the love affair at the center of the novel. The coming of age section at the beginning of the book I found trite and a little tedious, but that is only about 60 pages long. However, the moral decisions at the end are more troubling, or in fact, that there is absolutely no thought about them, that’s what troubles me. I found very interesting, though, Ifemelu’s reaction to the changed Nigeria when she comes home.

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Day 773: We Need New Names

Cover for We Need New NamesI wanted to like We Need New Names more than I did. It is about an interesting topic and is vividly written, sometimes with striking images. But like some of the commenters on Goodreads, I agree that it seems to be trying to deal with too many issues at once. Somehow, I did not get as involved as I expected.

Darling is a tween girl running with her friends from Paradise, a slum of tin shacks in Zimbabwe. They spend their time playing games and stealing guavas from a richer neighborhood called Budapest. Darling’s father has been away in South Africa for years, trying to find work, but they haven’t heard from him or received any money. While Darling’s mother is traveling to sell things, Darling stays with her grandmother, Mother of Bones.

Eventually we learn that Darling’s family used to live a middle class life in a brick house, but the government knocked down their neighborhood. So, they came to live in Paradise.

Bulawayo’s tale is focused enough until, after a vote against the corrupt government results in retaliation, things become too dangerous and she is sent to live with her aunt in Detroit. Perhaps the last third of the novel reflects Darling’s confusion as a teenager, but it packs in scenes of typical teenage years conflated with growing awareness of issues back home, the disconnected feelings of immigrants, the war in Afghanistan, some sneers at the U.S., and her own homesickness. At some times it feels as if Bulawayo thinks America should be responsible for the welfare of all nations, which it can’t possibly do.

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Day 698: The Namesake

Cover for The NamesakeIn 1968, Ashima Ganguli gives birth to her first child. She has travelled from Calcutta to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to live with her husband, whom she barely knows, and is missing her family in India. When she has a boy, she and her husband Ashoke run into difficulty because they are waiting for a name to arrive from her grandmother. But the American hospital needs to put a name on the birth certificate. Finally, Ashoke picks Gogol, after Nikolai Gogol, a favorite author whom he credits with saving his life after a horrendous train accident when he was a young man.

Gogol grows up embarrassed by his name and rejecting the traditions of his Bengali parents. He is bored through the endless Saturdays spent with his parents’ Bengali friends and the biennial trips to India where they do almost nothing but visit family. His mother, on the other hand, has never stopped missing India. His parents want him to observe the customs of his homeland, while he just wants to be American.

This novel insightfully explores the stresses for Indian immigrants adjusting to American ways and the tensions between the traditional and the present for their first-generation American children. Lahiri’s prose is full of minutely observed details as well as empathy for both generations.

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Day 471: Unaccustomed Earth

Cover for Unaccustomed EarthBest Book of the Week!

Although all of the stories in Unaccustomed Earth feature characters who are immigrants and first-generation Americans of Indian descent, they are about a lot more than that. They are about the common problems of all people.

In the story “Unaccustomed Earth,” Ruma grieves over the loss of her mother while her father fears she is making the same life for herself that embittered his marriage to her mother. In “Hell-Heaven,” a girl observes her traditional mother’s infatuation with a young graduate student in light of her mother’s detached marriage with her father. Amit and his wife Megan try to create a romantic weekend while attending the wedding of a woman Amit once had a crush on in “A Choice of Accommodations.” The best of the stories are the last three, interlinked, about two people who meet each other several times at significant junctures of their lives.

Lahiri’s stories speak to us deeply. With details of life and human behavior so finely observed, they become stories about characters for whom we care.

I am generally a novel reader, because short stories often feel to me as if a lot is missing. But Lahiri’s gift is for saying so much in so few words. You find yourself pondering her stories and characters long after you stop reading. They reveal a profound insight into the human heart.