2013 Books

Books I Read in 2013

To understand the list: 
G = Horace Greeley High School English [AP English Literature and Literature of Childhood]
100 = Modern Library's Choices (why Modern Library? explanation here!!!!)
SR = Summer Reading
D = Dartmouth [The Global Politics of Soccer, the Cold War & American Life, and Spanish Culture & Conversation]
WR = Winter Reading

Hyperlinked titles go to my blog post on the book

Happy New Year!!
List after the break (it's sort of long...)



Chimamandah Ngozi Adichie is a fantastic Nigerian writer whose third novel, Americanah, is one of the best books I've read this year. Adiechie has been talked about lately, because her TED talk, "We Should All Be Feminists," was excerpted by Beyoncé on one of the tracks on her self-titled album, "***Flawless" (a full paragraph of her speech is inserted into the female-empowerment song). Coinciding with Adiechie's new fame (the hundreds of thousands of albums Beyoncé has sold has surely introduced Achiechie to people who have never heard of her), her novel Americanah appeared on the NYTimes best books of 2013 (as did the last book I read, The Goldfinch). I am a fan of Beyoncé and avidly read the Times: therefore, when looking for something to read, Adichie was on my mind, and rightfully so. Americanah is deserving of the attention. It is a beautifully written, a novel that one can emotionally connect with, even if the experiences of the narrator, a young Nigerian women, Ifemelu, are foreign to the reader. Adichie focuses on a discussion of race, the experience of, as she phrases it, a Non-American Black in America (focusing on the difference between African-Americans and American-Africans). The moments I found particularly poignant were the commentary on American-isms:
When you tripped and fell, when you choked, when misfortune befell you, they did not say "Sorry." They said "Are you okay?" when it was obvious that you were not. And when you said "Sorry" to them when they choked or tripped or encountered misfortune, they replied, eyes wide with surprise, "Oh, it's not your fault." 
Through Ifemelu, it is clear that Adiechie realizes the "fine-grained differentiations don’t penetrate the minds of many Americans... Many of Adichie’s best observations regard nuances of language" (source). The foreigner-coming-to-America is not an uncommon trope, however Adichie doesn't focus on the differences between Nigeria and America, or Nigeria and Britain, but on how race is viewed in these countries. As one reviewer succinctly writes, "Americanah is interested in laying bare all the hypocrisies of the liberal American elite." (I encourage you to read that review after reading the novel). Americanah offers commentary on the intricacies American race relations and the capitalist Nigerian life, where "Third Worlders are forward looking, we like things to be new, because our best is still ahead, while in the West their best is already past and so they have to make a fetish of that past." Ifemelu also bluntly offers advice to Americans on her blog (this is just an excerpt, the whole section is fantastic [location 5443 in my kindle if that means anything]):
Don't say your grandfather was a serf in Russia when slavery happened because what matters is you are American now and being American means you take the whole shebang, America's assets and America's debts, and Jim Crow is a big-ass debt. Don't say it's just like antisemitism. It's not. In the hatred of Jews, there is also the possibility of envy-they are so clever, these Jews, they control everything, these Jews- and one must concede that a certain respect, however grudging, accompanies envy. In the hatred of American blacks, there is no possibility of envy- they are so lazy, these blacks, they are so unintelligent, these blacks.
I don't know if you can truly get a grasp of the greatness of this novel: it is a "novel that holds the discomfiting realities of our times fearlessly before us." If you're looking for one book to read on your winter break, this is a fantastic choice. Or, if not this winter break, I encourage read this novel when you can (I realize I'm ending most posts like this nowadays, oh well). Rating: ★★★★★


The Goldfinch

Ranked on the top books of 2013 by numerous publications (chosen as "book of the year" by amazon), Donna Tart's third novel, The Goldfinch, is undoubtedly a masterpiece similar to the Carel Fabritius painting over which the main drama of the novel revolves around. Reminiscent of Dickensian storytelling; with larger-than-life characters, a miserable orphan, and "startling coincidences and sudden swerves of fortune." (x) Narrated by Theo, the novel begins with his mother's tragic death, the singular event that shapes the rest of his life. "Still, The Goldfinch is more than a 700-plus page turner about a tragic loss: it’s also a globe-spanning mystery about a painting that has gone missing, an examination of friendship, and a rumination on the nature of art and appearances." (x) Seeing a novel this size makes it hard to commit, I know. But this novel is worth it (and I have to admit I read the whole thing in a day). The language is rich and enticing, the story grabs you and refuses to let go. The Goldfinch is a "glorious, Dickensian novel, a novel that pulls together all [Tart's] remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole and reminds the reader of the immersive, stay-up-all-night pleasures of reading." (x)
Things would have turned out better if she had lived. As it was, she died when I was a kid; and though everything that's happened to me since then is thoroughly my own fault, still when I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier, to some more populated or congenial life. (The Golfinch, page 7) 
Theo is suspended from school, and his mother and him are on the way to the conference when they go into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to get out of the heavy rains. Here, a terrorist attack occurs. The novel doesn't focus on the political consequences of the attack. Rather, Theo's life and how that moment - his mother's death - so drastically shapes the person he becomes. In the moments (or hours, Theo is an unreliable narrator, to say the least), an old man begs Theo to save "the Goldfinch" from the rubble, setting off a chain of (sometimes dangerous) events. However, I have to emphasize that the book does not focus on the painting so much as it focuses on Theo and his journey through life (and Boris, one of the more memorable characters I have encountered in a while). Each section in the novel begins with a quote:
I. "The absurd does not liberate; it binds" Albert Camus
II. "When we are strongest - who draws back? Most merry - who falls down laughing? When we are very bad, - what can they do to us?" Arthur Rimbaud
III. "We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others, that in the end, we become disguised to ourselves" François de La Rochefoucauld
IV. "It is not flesh and blood, but heart which makes us fathers and sons." Schiller
V. "We have art in order not to die from the truth" - Nietzsche
I believe that the quotes authors choose offer insight into what meaning they want their readers to glean from their work. These five quotes aptly demonstrate Theo's development over the years that this novel covers. I strongly urge you to read this novel when you have the chance; even if you only have time just read the first chapter or two, I am sure you will be completely enthralled. Rating: ★★★★★


People of the Book

The Sarajevo Haggadah is one of the oldest surviving Jewish illuminated texts. Inspired by what the haggadah has been through, Geraldine Books wrote People of the Book to understand its complex past. She writes in a New Yorker article entitled The Book of Exodus (a really interesting read about the historical aspects of the haggadah), "quite apart from the opulence and artistry of the illustrations, the fact that they exist at all is extraordinary." The haggadah goes from creation in Spain in the mid-fourteenth century, survives the Alhambra Decree (Ferdinand & Isabella's expulsion of all Spanish Jews), makes its way to Venice where Hebrew books were routinely destroyed by the Pope's Inquisition in public burnings (a Catholic priest inspected the Haggadah in 1609 and "apparently found nothing objectionable in the Haggadah," according to Brooks), then it goes to Bosnia & Herzegovina and in 1894 a Jewish family offered it for sale. This is when it enters the public eye, and until this moment "art historians widely believed that figurative painting had been entirely suppressed among medieval jews." (x) Saved from the Nazis and during the Bosnian War, the journey this haggadah has been on is nothing short of remarkable. One can only imagine the stories behind them. Each of these historical events is given a chapter in Brooks' novel. The readers come to understand the history through the story of Hanna, a rare book expert set to conserve the famed haggadah. When Hanna discover tiny artifacts in the haggadah (an insect wing, wine stains, a white hair), the story of the book is slowly revealed to the reader. I do admit that parts of the flashbacks were sort of boring (they're not exactly flashbacks- mini-stories woven into the larger one) only because I wish it had focused more on the main character, Hanna. However, it was still a really interesting read and the mini-stories definitely added to the overall story of the haggadah. Rating: ★★★★


Tell The Wolves I'm Home

"After a snowstorm is one of the best times to be in the woods, because all the empty beer and soda cans and candy wrappers disappear, and you don't have to try as hard to be in another time. Plus there's just something beautiful about walking on snow that nobody else has walked on. It makes you believe you're special, even though you know you're not." Chapter 7's beginning lines, thirty pages into Carol Rifka Brunt's novel, Tell the Wolves I'm Home, was when I knew I was hooked. I could simply not stop reading. Narrated by June, the novel tells the story of the aftermath of her uncle Finn's death in 1987 from AIDS. The novel's title is taken from the title of the portrait that Finn completes of June and her sister, Gretl, right before he dies. It is a haunting story: dealing with the death of a loved one is not easy, nor is it meant to be. June's family all deals with Finn's death in different ways, yet June feels the most impacted. Until she meets Toby. I do not want to spoil anything for you, simply urge you to read this novel. It is an emotional story. But its not emotional in the sense that it presents its readers with death to force a reaction.
That's the secret. If you always make sure you're exactly the person you hoped to be, if you always make sure you know only the very best people, then you won't care if you die tomorrow.
It is emotional in the way the novel is crafted; the feelings of the characters slowly overtake you, and the multiple story lines (conflict within the family, within june, with toby) and love stories, in a sense, are resolved in an unexpected manner. Also, this was a somewhat of a historical novel. Set in 1987, during the AIDS epidemic, the reader is transported back in time seamlessly. As the library journal describes Brunt's novel, "it is both a painful reminder of the ill-informed responses to a once little-known disease and a delightful romp through an earlier decade." Through June and her family, the reader has a lens to understand the difficulties of the time period. Thanks to my mom for this recommendation. Rating: ★★★★★


This Is How You Lose Her

A stunning third novel, Junot Díaz followed Pulitzer-Prize winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This is How You Lose Her is a collection of stories about the "haunting, impossible power of love." It is a remarkable collection, even though it is "billed as a collection of love stories" but "for all that, four of the nine stories are named for lovers and eight of the nine revolve around relationships gone sour, Díaz is most affecting when he’s writing about...the endless difficulty of loving oneself." (NYT Book Review) The stories are intertwined: they revolve around the protagonist, Yunior. The majority of the stories are about infidelity. As one review puts it, "Junot Díaz’s short story collection is so sharp, so bawdy, so raw with emotion, and so steeped in the lingo and rhythms of working-class Latino life that it makes most writing that crosses the Atlantic seem hopelessly desiccated by comparison." While I didn't fall in love with the narrator (I don't think he was created for the readers to love), the writing, imagery and everything about the collection was almost alive. My favorite story was Invierno, about right after Yunior, his brother (Rafa), and his mother had just immigrated from the Dominican Republic:
That night I dreamed of home, that we'd never left. I woke up, my throat aching, hot with fever. I washed my face in the sink, then sat down next to our window, my brother asleep, and watched the pebbles of ice falling and freezing into a shell over the cars and the snow and the pavement. Learning to sleep in new places was an ability you were supposed to lose as you grew older, but I never had it. 
I highly recommend reading this 9-story collection when you can. Rating: ★★★★★



Another Dartmouth-related book, but completely different from Tattoos on the Heart. Hiroshima tells the story of what happened on August 6th, 1945: the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. This past term, I took a class entitled Cold War & American Life. In one of our lectures ("Creating a Nuclear World"), we learned that with the publication of Hersey's Hiroshima, the atomic bomb attacks were humanized. Hersey traces the experience of the bombings through six residents of the city. Neither sentimental nor exploitative, it rapidly became a bestseller. Published in the New Yorker on August 31, 1946, it sold out in a few hours (x). Time magazine called Hersey's account "the most celebrated piece of journalism to come out of World War II." (x) The book is divided into five sections that follow the six protagonists: "A Noiseless Flash," "The Fire," "Details are Being Investigated," "Panic Grass and Feverfew," and "The Aftermath." On the whole, the American public was ignorant about the human consequences of the bomb; Hiroshima played a role in changing this and it "awakened Americans to the horrors of atomic warfare." (x) Hersey took the role of a removed narrator and there was little criticism of the policies that led to the bombing or the American government's reaction. However, this lets the reader draw his or her own conclusions. Hersey was sent to Hiroshima with the purpose of writing about the bombing itself. He drew inspiration from the format of the The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, telling one interviewer:
 The book is about five people who were killed when a rope suspension bridge over a canyon in Peru gave way, and how they had happened to find their way to that moment of fate together. That seemed to me to be a possible way of dealing with this very complex story of Hiroshima; to take a number of people—half a dozen, as it turned out in the end—whose paths crossed each other and came to this moment of shared disaster.
 He goes on to say that "Wilders's was a much more ornate and meandering style...my choice was to be deliberately quiet in the piece" so as to simply present readers with the facts and allow them to connect to the protagonists directly. Hiroshima is important to read because we only learn from our history; Hersey believes memory has kept the world safe. By understanding the impact of the bomb, there is less support to use it again. Rating: ★★★★

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion

Amazon categorizes Tattoos on the Heart under Christian Living, Self Help, Spiritual Growth, and Sociology: a complete change of pace from the books I normally read. Do not let the categories deter you (even though this would not have been a book I would have picked up on my own). I was recently accepted into a program at my school called Tucker Leaders in Community. The Tucker Foundation's goal is to combine service, spirituality and social justice by offering a wide variety of service opportunities in the Upper Valley Community in New Hampshire and Vermont and hosting multi-faith programs and working to support and further "the moral and spiritual work" of Dartmouth College. Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who founded of Homeboy Industries ("Los Angeles' most successful effort to engage young men and women outside of the gang life" x) wrote a memoir entitled Tattoos on the Heart, a series of stories about the "homies" who Boyle has worked with. It's not simply about a memoir by a priest who works with gangs; it is so much more. Father Greg, simply referred to as "G" by those he worked with, is a famous figure (just look at the LA Times' coverage of him): he makes approximately two hundred speaking appearances per year (he's coming to talk at Dartmouth in January) and has received numerous humanitarian awards (including the California Peace Prize). The memoir is anecdote-heavy, as one would expect, but his relationship to God and understandings of teachings are also touched upon. He has very personal relationships with those homies and homegirls he interacts with, writing "Kinship– not serving the other, but being one with the other. Jesus was not 'a man for others'; he was one with them. There is a world of difference in that." Los Angeles County claims 1,100 gangs with nearly 86,000 members: they "come to Homeboy when they are ready to hang up their gloves." (source). And it is an inspiring, yet saddening, book. The optimistic tone is surprising; Father Gregory has buried over 160 young people from gang-related violence at the time of publishing (side note, all proceeds from the book go to supporting Homeboy Industries). He believes in the power of jobs, not jails. Father Gregory writes in the introduction that "this book does not concern itself with solving the gang problem...it hopes only to put a human face on the gang member, but to recognize our own wounds in the broken lives and daunting struggles of the men and women in these parables." Definitely a book to read if you have the chance. Rating: ★★★★★



Evelyn Waugh was called by Time "one of the century's great masters of English prose" and three of his novels, including Scoop, have made Modern Library's 100 list. Scoop tells the story of William Boot, who is mistakenly sent to Ishmaelia (a fictional African republic) to cover the war there. Waugh's novel is a satire of sensationalist journalism and the ridiculous lengths to get a story. Scoop is based on Waugh's own experiences as a journalist; he travelled to Abyssinia, Ethiopia where he served as a foreign correspondent of an English daily paper. As he writes in the introduction, "I had no talent for this work but I joyfully studied the eccentricities and excesses of my colleagues." Consequently, Ishmaelia's geographical position is identical to Abyssinia and the description of journalists parallel what he saw in 1935 when he went to Ethiopia. The end of the book contains letters Waugh wrote to his wife and friends during his time in Abyssinia. One such describes his distaste for what was happening:
Nothing could be less romantic than my circumstances at present. There are something like 50 press people in the town, photographers etc. All told. There is no news and no possibility of getting any and my idiot editor keeps cabling me to know exactly what arrangements I am making for cabling news in the event of the destruction of all means of communication.
As you can tell, many events in Scoop are based on Waugh's actual experiences as a war reporter. I don't believe Waugh has respect for journalists; in his eyes, he believes the best jobs at reporting are done by people who are not journalists by profession. As one colleague explains to Scoop's protagonist, Boot, "News is what a chap who doesn't care much about anything wants to read. And it's only news until he's read it." Waugh's satirical take on the profession is a humorous and easy read, definitely one of the better ones to get through as I work my way through Modern Library's Choices (see what I've read so far here). Hope everyone is enjoying their winter reading! Rating: ★★★★★


The Light Between Oceans

I picked this book up on a whim the other day because the cover intrigued me. However, once I began reading, I was completely enthralled. Stedman's debut novel, The Light Between Oceans tells the tale of Tom Sherbourne, the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock (a fictional island) off the coast of Australia, at the point where the Indian Ocean meets the Great Southern Ocean. The title refers to these two oceans, and the entire book is shaped by duality. The island on which Tom tends to the lighthouse is named after Janus, the Roman god of two faces. As Stedman says in an interview, "The theme of duality runs right through the book...It reminds the reader that there’s always more than one way of looking at things." She chose to set the story on the lighthouse because (as the NYT book review quotes):
There is something that appeals to the human psyche about lighthouses because of their isolation...The story throws up the role of isolation on morality — when you don’t see the impact of your actions. Perhaps it’s easier to fool yourself when you cannot see the face of those who are affected by what you do.
The story itself touches is very "morally complex" (as one review puts it): you want to support the characters but their decisions do not always fall in simple categories of "right" and "wrong". Without giving away any plot spoilers, Tom and Isabelle (his wife) find a baby washed up on shore and are torn about keeping her or notifying the authorities. This conflict drives the book, and the reader is ultimately left with mixed feelings of satisfaction at the ending but sadness definitely lingers. Definitely a good way to start off my winter reading list. Rating: ★★★★


Winter Reading

Hi all! I have just finished my first term at Dartmouth College, and I am now home for winter break. I realize I haven't kept up with the blog over fall term (college is busy!) but I hope to start back up with a list of 8 books I hope to read this break (Modern Library Classics are marked with 100).
  1. The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman: the tragic story of Tom and Isabel who care for a baby that washes up on the shore of the lighthouse off the coast of Australia, POST
  2. Scoop by Evenlyn Waugh (100): a satire about what one does in the pursuit of news and sensationalist journalism, POST
  3. Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle: the memoir of a Jesuit priest working in the gang capital of the world (mandatory reading for a program I am a part of at school, Tucker Leaders in Community), POST
  4. Hiroshima by John Hersey: what happened the day the atom bomb was dropped, POST
  5. This is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz: nine stories about Yunior about how "the half-life of love is forever," POST
  6. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (100): the tale of an alcoholic British consul in the small Mexican town of Quauhnahuac, on the Day of the Dead, November 2, 1938. (simply can't get through it, will re-try at a later date...)
  7. Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt: the "moving story of love, grief, and renewal as two lonely people become the unlikeliest of friends," POST
  8. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks: inspired by the true story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, POST
Happy Holidays!