Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

So they sat beneath the statue of Christopher Columbus, side by side, hand in hand, surrounded by skateboarders and young lovers  and homeless people, looking north as cars came around the circle and went up Central Park West.  The spring air was crisper than she would have wished, but not crisp enough to send her rushing into the subway.  And even if it had been, she would have stayed in the circle, because it wasn’t every night she got a chance to enjoy the sounds of the city and its millions of lights blinking around her, reminding her that she was still living her dream.

fc9ef780abf3d053a5beb8a9289d2ec9I waffled a bit in the middle of reading Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers. As I wrote in a previous post, there was a moment when the pace lagged a bit, when I wasn’t sure it was holding my interest.  But I wanted to finish the novel, and I am so glad that I did.  I ended up giving it four stars on Goodreads.  It was a book that surprised me with its simple, quiet beauty and its wistful emotional tone.

It’s the story of the Jonga family from Cameroon, a husband (Jende,) wife (Neni) and their six year-old son, living and trying to make it in New York City.  Jende’s cousin Winston has come to America some time before, and is now a successful lawyer.  He sponsored Jende’s visa and tried to help him acclimate to the culture shock.  Jende worked and saved as a taxi driver and was able to bring his family to America;  Neni, hoping to become a pharmacist, has a student visa.  As the novel opens it’s 2008.  Through Winston’s connections Jende is hired as the chauffeur of Clark, a top banking executive at Lehmann Brothers on Wall Street.  Clark and Jende get along so well that Clark’s wife Cindy ends up hiring Neni to work for her as well as a part-time caregiver to their son, Mighty. Things are going well, and the Jonga family’s standard of living improves.  Over time, both Jongas become witness to troubles in the Edwards family.  Their wealth and privilege conceals great loneliness and disconnection.  As Lehmann Brothers implodes, the lives of both families are thrown into turmoil.  Both Jende and Neni make questionable decisions as their family’s security is threatened.

It was easy to relate to Jende and Neni – they worked hard, saved willingly, and wanted to provide a better future for their family. They enjoyed the material and cultural gifts that living in New York City could provide, even as they marveled at how much money people spent on things here, and what that same amount would purchase back home in Cameroon.

She hadn’t expected the prices in New York to be the same as in Limbe, but she found it difficult not to be bothered whenever she bought a pound of shrimp for the equivalent of 5000 CFA francs – the monthly rent for a room with a shared outdoor bathroom and toilet for all the residents in a caraboat building.  You have to stop comparing prices, Jende advised her whenever she brought up the issue.  You keep comparing prices like that, he’d say, you’ll never buy anything in America.  The best thing to do in this country, whenever you enter a store, is to ignore the exchange rate, ignore the advertisements, ignore what everyone else is eating and drinking and talking about these days, and buy only the things you need.

Their struggle to achieve the “American Dream,” to stay here in this country and try for a better life, even if it meant doing some things that compromised their dignity – this moved me greatly.  Learning a little bit about Cameroon (a country I admit that I am woefully ignorant about) and placing myself in the Jendes’s shoes made me reflect on my own unearned blessings, simply by random luck of birthplace.

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          Mbue

It would have been easy for Mbue to portray Clark and Cindy Edwards as heartless, mindless buffoons, but she gave them shades of complexity and depth.  They were undoubtedly wealthy people by any standards, but they were not cruel or mean-spirited; rather, they seemed a bit clueless about the way the rest of the world lived.  I especially enjoyed the rapport that Jende and Clark had.  There is a lovely scene where both men sit on a bench in Hudson River Park and watch the sunset together.  I was surprised by how much Clark opened up to Jende.  Sadly, it seemed that he could talk to Jende in a way that he couldn’t connect with his wife.

Mbue puts very human faces on complicated issues of immigration and class privilege in America.  Good fiction is one of the best tools we have to foster empathy among people of different countries, races, and economic classes. How I wish I could make certain politicians read this compassionate, humane, emotionally intelligent novel!  How I wish that more Americans read immigrants’ stories, both fictional and biographical, period. But I can try to take solace in recommending this particular novel to library patrons and to you, dear blog reader.  It is engaging literary fiction with appealing characters and plenty of questionable choices to ponder and debate.  It would make an excellent pick for a book club.  I now want to read and learn more about Cameroon, and I eagerly await Ms. Mbue’s next book.

 

 

 

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Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus today, and I wanted to write about it while it was still fresh in my mind.  I wanted to write about it because the books that I write about manage to stay fresher in my mind than the ones I don’t.  It’s my book group’s pick for this month – our meeting is Sunday.  I really hope that my fellow members read it because I want to talk about it!  It’s one of those books that grew on me as I read it, and by the end, I didn’t want to put it down.

This was Adichie’s first novel, but I found it to be as captivating as the only other one of hers I’ve read thus far, the epic Americanah.  It’s a far more quiet novel, though; it sneaked up on me with an emotional heft that took my breath away.  A coming of age story set in modern Nigeria, it follows fifteen year-old Kambili and her family: her older brother Jaja, her mother and father, and her father’s sister Ifeoma and her family.img_0469

Kambili’s father is wealthy, publishing a progressive newspaper and owning factories, and his children lack for nothing physically.  However, their house is a quiet one, where every day has a schedule and no one speaks out of turn.  Laughter is nonexistent, and the household is strictly religious (Catholic.)  Kambili loves her father, wants to make him proud with her grades at school, but she also fears him.  As the novel progresses we get more of a picture of what’s going on inside the house – it becomes obvious that the father is physically abusive not only to their mother but also to Kambili and Jaja.  One day a girl at school asks Kambili why she always runs to get into the car her father sends to pick her up instead of walking and chatting with the other girls.

“I just like running,” I said, and wondered if I would count that as a lie when I made confession next Saturday, if I would add it to the lie about not having heard Mother Lucy the first time.  Kevin always had the Peugeot 505 parked at the school gates right after the bell rang.  Kevin had many other chores to do for Papa and I was not allowed to keep him waiting, so I always dashed out of my last class.  Dashed, as though I were running the 200-meters race at the interhouse sports competition.  Once, Kevin told Papa I took a few minutes longer, and Papa slapped my left and right cheeks at the same time, so his huge palms left parallel marks on my face and ringing in my ears for days.

Things begin to change when Kambili’s Aunty Ifeoma manages to convince her brother to let the children come stay with her and her family for a week during a school break, under the pretense of going to visit a pilgrimage site.  Ifeoma, a widow and university professor, is a vibrant, strong, colorful woman, and at first Kambili doesn’t know how to behave around her or her opinionated children.  She is painfully shy and afraid to do or say anything that she’ll have to later confess to her father.  This includes even having a relationship with her grandfather, whom her Papa considers a pagan heathen, since he never converted to Catholicism.  As Kambili and Jaja stay with Ifeoma, they start to open up, speak their minds more, laugh, and learn a new way to be a family.  Inevitably, this new consciousness chafes against the ways that their Papa controls them and their mother.

This was one of those books that had potential to be “too heavy” for me, a self-described wimp when it comes to sad things in books.  But Adichie has such a succinct yet beautiful way of writing, with not a word wasted, that even when she describes painful events, it’s not too much to handle.  Ifeoma’s home and community in Nsukka is such a vibrant, loving environment, I longed to be there, embraced and cared for by her and her children. We also meet a kind, strong, attractive young priest named Father Amadi, who is a positive, fatherly figure for Ifeoma’s children and other children in Nsukka.  He and Kambili develop a unique friendship and he helps draw her out of her shell, giving her a glimpse at another way to embody the Catholic faith.  He’s a lovely character.

I’m so glad we chose this novel to read for my book group.  I had it on my TBR, but you know about my TBR, right?  Things might linger there for one, two, three years before I “get around to them,” if I ever do.  Don’t make the same mistake I made – get your hands on a copy of this gorgeous, sad, but ultimately hopeful novel sooner rather than later!

Every Day Is For The Thief by Teju Cole

An utterly compelling read, Teju Cole’s Every Day is For the Thief is hard to categorize.  I guess that’s the point, as Cole seems like an author who wants to test the limitations of traditional fiction.  A 162-page novella that reads more like a series of travel narratives/essays, the book highlights the frustrating and fascinating characteristics of modern day Lagos and Nigeria in general.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it left me wanting more.

IMG_3483We see Nigeria through the eyes of an unnamed narrator, who’s come home after 15 years in America.  He’s staying with his aunt and uncle, as his father has passed away and his mother lives in America and has been largely absent from his life for years.  He reconnects with old friends and relatives, visits an internet cafe where he spies men composing their advance fee fraud letters, and searches for signs of creative life in the few local book and music stores.  He observes the constant flow of corruption that greases almost every transaction in Lagos.  He must get used to the nightly interruption of electric service, where those with means can fire up their generators for an hour or two, but then it’s darkness.

There is a lovely scene where our narrator observes a woman on a bus reading a book by the Sri Lankan/Canadian author Michael Ondaatje, a favorite author of his.  Cole writes,

Mysterious woman.  The condition of the book, from the brief glimpse I have of it, suggests that it is new.  Where could she have bought it?  Only in two or three of the few bookshops I know in the city.  And if she bought it in Lagos, how much would it have cost her?  More than any normal rider of the Lagos public transportation would consider reasonable, that much is certain.  Why, then, is she on the bus?  Because it is what she could afford, or is it because she, too, is an eccentric?  The questions come to my mind one after the other, and I cannot untangle them.  I hunger for conversation with my secret sharer, about whom, because I know this one thing, I know many things.

In contrast, there is also a heartbreaking, terrifying vignette about an eleven year-old market thief, who was violently killed for stealing a bag six weeks before our narrator visits the market.  The narrator imagines the boy’s terror and the violence of the crowd who is punishing him, beating him, lighting him on fire.  It is a difficult passage to read, but it is also part of the fabric of Lagos that our narrator must weave into the total picture.

I devoured this slim, elegantly written book.  Maybe it’s partly because I haven’t read much about Nigeria beyond Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant Americanah, which I adored.  I am eager to learn more about this fascinating but seemingly maddening part of the world.  I plan on reading Cole’s second novel, Open City (some have said the narrators in both books are the same) later this summer.  I also plan on reading the rest of Adichie’s novels.  I would love some other recommendations, both fiction and nonfiction, about Nigeria or by authors of Nigerian descent, so please let me know of your favorites in the comments.

 

Gorge:My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds by Kara Richardson Whitely

“…what kind of mother would do something as dangerous as climbing a mountain at three hundred pounds?  I decided to write my will before I left, and I also made Ana a construction-paper book bound with pipe cleaners.  Worst-case scenario, I thought it would be something to remember me by.  I called it ‘Mommy on the Mountain.’

Mommy is traveling across the globe to conquer a mountain called kilimanjaro.

The first few days will be a breeze as she walks by trees filled with monkeys.

Soon enough, she’ll be above the clouds, blowing you kisses to where you are now.

She will start one last hike under the stars.  All through the night.  One step at a time, she’ll be alright.

Then she’ll reach the top, such a proud sight, after trying with all her might.

A few more days and she’ll head home, happy to be with her family who she loved all along.”

I think I discovered Kara Richardson Whitely’s memoir Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds through author Cheryl Strayed Facebook page.  Apparently Kara was once her student and has since become a friend.  She gave the book a very nice review and I was instantly interested.  It hit two of my bookish buttons: travel-memoirs and food/weight/body image memoirs.51XD10iV3iL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

I plowed through this book last week on my vacation, which is something of a feat for me, and a testament to the engaging and propulsive quality of Whitely’s writing.  When my son took a short afternoon nap, or before bed, I would eagerly return to her compelling story.

It turns out that Whitely had written another book, a self-published one, called Fat Woman on the Mountain.  It was published in 2010 and chronicles her first journey to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro a dormant volcano in Tanzania that rises more than 19,000 feet above sea level.  In the course of training for and completing the climb, Whitely lost 120 pounds.  I haven’t read that book, but Whitely touches on it and explores her first two attempts at climbing Kilimanjaro.  The first one was successful, the second one was not.  Early on we learn that she attributes her failure to reach the summit the second time in part to a binge the night before she set out on the trek.  Before the second attempt, Whitely had a daughter named Anna, and regained 70 pounds of her previous weight loss.  She takes this third trip to Kilimanjaro in part to make her young daughter proud of her, no matter what she weighs.

Whitely alternates sections describing her trek up the mountain with sections detailing the traumatic events in her past that still haunt her and push her to binge.  Her parents’ stormy relationship, their divorce, and the subsequent physical and emotional absence of her father set the stage for a disordered relationship with food.  Add to that an incidence of sexual molestation by her brother’s friend, and years of the diet/binge cycle.  Whitely is so brave and so raw with her emotions and her past.  I read in an interview on The Rumpus that she initially approached writing Gorge as a travel memoir, but that food, weight, and her past kept coming up.  Her editor encouraged her to reveal more about her emotional struggles.  I know as a reader that her decision to open up made this book so much more compelling for me than a straight-up travel narrative would have been.

That said, the parts of the book dedicated to her climb are fascinating.  I knew nothing previously about Mt. Kilimanjaro, not one blessed thing.  I was interested in her description of the different climates and topographies climbers pass through from the base to the summit.  I was interested in her complicated relationship with her fellow climbers, and with the porters and guides leading them.  She stands out among the hikers, obviously, and her (understandable) discomfort at being stared at and talked about is palpable.  I truly admire anyone of any size for attempting such an arduous, physically and mentally draining trek, much less a woman of 300 pounds.

I gave this book four stars on Goodreads.  As someone who has struggled and continues to struggle with emotional eating and bingeing, I felt connected to this memoir on a personal level.  I was enthralled by the mechanics of the slow ascent towards the top of the mountain.  Whitely ends the book with a clearer sense of who she is and what she’s made of, but there are no easy solutions or dramatic weight loss for her.  What is left is a portrait of a real woman, a brave woman, facing her past and working towards a better future.

 

All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes by Maya Angelou

You know who was awesome?

Maya freaking Angelou!

Many of you have probably read her classic memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  I first read that in high school and loved it.  But I wasn’t aware until just a few years ago that she had written an entire series of memoirs – six of them total, in fact!  I read the third memoir, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, in 2014.  And now I’ve read the fifth one, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes.  I honestly don’t know why I’ve read these memoirs out of order!  (Usually I’m such a stickler for reading things in order.  So be it.)

IMG_3255This book chronicles Angelou’s experiences in Ghana in the early 1960’s.  She had separated from her Egyptian husband, who is barely mentioned at the outset.  Three days into their new life in Ghana, her teenage son, Guy, is in an automobile accident, and is hospitalized.  Angelou is understandably beside herself.  Friends in Ghana, African American ex-patriots, bolstered Angelou’s spirits during the difficult time of Guy’s recovery.  They took her to the Flagstaff House, the seat of government.  Angelou writes,

Seeing Africans enter and leave the formal building made me tremble with an awe I had never known.  Their authority on the marble steps again proved that Whites had been wrong all along.  Black and brown skin did not herald debasement and a divinely created inferiority.  We were capable of controlling our cities, our selves and our lives with elegance and success.  Whites were not needed to explain the working of the world, nor the mysteries of the mind.

I was very much interested in Angelou’s exploration of the ways in which her African American community did and did not fit in with Ghana culture.  Many of the immigrants chose Ghana, Angelou writes, “because of its progressive posture and its brilliant president, Kwame Nkrumah.  He had let it be known that American Negroes would be welcome to Ghana.”  Her circle was hungry for connection to a place that they desperately wanted to feel like home and in which they wanted to be embraced.

We had come home, and if home was not what we had expected, never mind, out need for belonging allowed us to ignore the obvious and to create real places or even illusory places, befitting out imaginations.

As the mother of one son (who is about to turn five) I was particularly touched by Angelou’s observations about her son growing up and not needing her as much anymore.  Guy recovers from his injuries and starts attending university, moving away from home.  At one point a Ghanaian friend tells her that Guy is dating a thirty-six year old woman, and Maya kind of freaks out.  When confronted by Angelou, he says, “Oh, Mother, really.  Don’t you think it’s time I had a life of my own?” Angelou writes,

How could his life be separate from my life?  I had been mother of a child so long I had no preparation for life on any other level…His existence defined my own…

She realizes that she needs to find her own identity as more than Guy’s mother, as painful as the realization is.

In the last third of the book, Malcolm X comes to Ghana and is embraced by the ex-pats as well as the Ghanian people.  Maya’s characterization of Malcolm is so nuanced.  I felt like I really got a sense of him as a person, in a time of great personal change for him, as he had just broken with the Nation of Islam.

I really enjoyed this book. It is very much a book about finding a place that feels like home and Maya coming into her own as a woman and not just a mother.  It was fascinating to get a glimpse of 1960’s Ghana, a country I knew nothing about.  It was fascinating getting a glimpse of the intellectual, driven people who left America just as the Civil Rights movement was coming into its own and searched for a place that (they hoped) would welcome them with open arms.    All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes is an engrossing portrayal of a vibrant country, community, and above all, the compelling Ms. Angelou herself.