BRL Best of 2017 and Year End Reflections

It’s that time again, friends, when we’re all taking stock of our reading and making plans for next year.  This has been a good reading year for me overall, although I didn’t fulfill many of the goals I set for myself at the year’s beginning.  I still read some enlightening and entertaining books, participated in the #AnneReadalong2017, the R.I.P. Challenge and Reading Ireland Month, and hit a new Goodreads Challenge goal!  So without further adieu, here is my Best of 2017 list (in no particular order.)

  1.  Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.  Moving and inventive, unlike anything else I’ve ever read.  Saunders is a master of the human heart and a risk-taker.  I will read anything he writes.
  2. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.  Searing, violent, suspenseful, and unforgettable.  Whitehead’s finest work to date.
  3. At Mrs. Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor.  A witty, melancholy novel WWII British marriage and motherhood with a feisty heroine.  I’m delighted to have finally discovered Taylor.
  4. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout.  Some have loved this, some haven’t, but for me it was beautiful and devastating in the best sense.
  5. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.  A young black heroine teens can relate to, a realistic and loving family, and a heartbreaking exploration of police brutality in a poor African American community.  I’m thrilled this has become a best seller and is being made into a movie.
  6. The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel.  My only nonfiction to have made the list.  I just adored this slim, page-turning book about a real-life hermit in Maine who survived the elements and eluded capture for decades.
  7. The Watsons Go To Birmingham 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis.  A gem, a book I recommend for everyone.  Warm, funny, and heartbreaking all at once.  A great way to introduce a very heavy topic (the Civil Rights Movement and the Birmingham church bombing) to younger readers.  I listened to the audiobook and it was terrific.
  8. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.  I was captivated by this slim novel that mixed fantasy, dystopian, and contemporary literary fiction elements to create a moving exploration of love and war in an unsettled age.
  9. Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery.  The third book in the series, this one focuses on Anne at college.  I loved reading about her being on her own and making friends, having fun before settling down into a more conventional role.
  10. Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery.  The last book in the series, I was take by surprise by how much I loved it.  Darker than the rest, I was enthralled and moved by how the women of the community rose up to meet the challenges of World War I and the emotional toil of sending beloved sons and brothers overseas.

As for the numbers, here are my final reading stats for 2017:

Total books read (as of 12/27/17:) 90

Fiction: 77

Nonfiction: 12

Poetry: 1

Mysteries/Thrillers: 13

Graphic Novels/Comics: 3

Audiobooks: 6

Authors of Color: 18

Middle Grade: 15

YA/Teen: 11

Rereads: 7

Goals I Completed:

Read 6 YA books.

Read 6 middle grade books.

Choose 6 “random” reads.  I was trying to inject more “whimsy” into my reading life.

Goals I Didn’t Complete:

Authors of Color at 35% or higher.  Nope.  I only read a measly 20%.

Authors in Translation.  Not a one.  UGH.

There were other goals I didn’t complete but those were the biggest ones and I won’t bore you with the others.  As I’ve mentioned before, I am a mood reader, I hate reading off of a list (even one I make myself!), and I just don’t do well with self-imposed goals.  (I’m definitely an Obliger, if you follow Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies personality framework.)  Which makes sense that I was able to complete my challenges and readalongs, because those all involved OUTER accountability.  Anyway, next year I am setting NO READING GOALS whatsoever.  I am just going to enjoy reading whatever I want, wherever my curiosity takes me.  I may participate in readalongs and challenges, I may not.

So, how about your own reading goals for 2017?  Any that you’re proud of reaching, or sorry that you didn’t reach?  Have you read any of my Top Ten?  What did you think? Talk to me in the comments below! 

 

 

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At Mrs. Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor

“Are you any happier here now, love?”  When she could not answer, he sighed.

“Oh, I am hopeless!” she said impulsively.  “I find it so difficult to be happy. I wish it were not so.  Are you happy?”

“Yes, on the whole, I am very happy.  I suppose this life suits me, interests me.”

“What would interest me, suit me, I don’t know.  I daresay I want life to always be pleasure – sitting in the sun, drinking.”

“Pleasure is not happiness.”

“No.”  But she still saw herself beneath a striped awning, at the edge of some pavement, a market square, and its cobble-stones full of shadows and high lights like a tubful of suds.  On the iron table was a glass still clouded with some frosted drink, there was the smell of sun-baked foreign newsprint; warmth, leisure, delight, relaxation, the frosted drink an illumination of contentment at the back of her head; across the table a shadow leaned forward and laid a hand over her hand on the iron table.

at-mrs-lippincotesElizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs. Lippincote’s is a treasure, a first novel (written in 1945) that sparkles with insight, wit, and a hint of melancholy.

Julia is married to Roddy, a lieutenant in the RAF who is stationed at a base somewhere in the south of England during WWII.  They have one son, Oliver, and they also live with Roddy’s cousin Eleanor, who is recovering from an alluded-to nervous breakdown. They’re renting a furnished home from Mrs. Lippincote, and Julia doesn’t hesitate to explore the drawers and cabinets, speculating about the photographs and mementos she finds.  Eleanor is somewhat in love with Roddy and silently resentful of Julia, whom she suspects is not the wife that she feels Roddy deserves.  Roddy is what you’d expect an RAF pilot from the 1940s to be – solid, conventional, kind of obtuse, and definitely not seeing Julia for who she really is or wants to be.

Julia and Oliver have an absolutely adorable relationship.  Oliver is quite precocious, a voracious reader with a tremendous imagination who for the first part of the book is ill and misses quite a bit of school. (The scene where he asks where babies come from is hilarious.)  Julia frets over Oliver as the mother of an only child would (I definitely identified with this!)

Lying back in her chair, she watched Oliver’s thin hands dealing out the cards with slow deliberation.  “Oh God, make him fat!” she prayed.  “Please God, if only you would, I’d believe in you.  For ever and ever, amen.”  As she picked up her bundle of cards, her mouth smiled, but her eyes flashed and swam with tears.

We follow Julia as she strikes up a friendship (mild flirtation?) with Roddy’s Wing Commander, an intellectual man who shares Julia’s interest in the Brontë sisters.  (He seems to observe Julia more shrewdly than her husband does.)  She also goes out occasionally for a walk and ends up chatting with a Mr. Taylor, an old acquaintance from their pre-war London days who is not physically or mentally well.  They have some interesting conversations but nothing untoward.  However, Roddy is hostile to him and doesn’t like Julia going out by herself at night.  He expects her to be more conventional and more attentive to his needs.

She exasperated him.  Society necessarily has a great many little rules, especially relating to the behaviour of women.  One accepted them and life ran smoothly and without embarrassment, or as far as that is possible where there are two sexes.  Without the little rules, everything became queer and unsafe.

Julia is a fascinating character – she is more direct and more moody than Roddy would like her to be and I love her for it.  She seemed authentic to me.  She adored her child but felt stifled in  her role as wife and mother.  She seemed to long for intelligent conversation and more freedom.  She sees Roddy much more clearly than he ever sees her, but she seems resigned to that role.  Perhaps she will lobby Roddy for more freedom, perhaps they will part… the ending is ambiguous, but I feel a strength coming from Julia for her future days.

This novel was a real treat to read.  This is an author that I suspect I am going to thoroughly enjoy getting to know.  She reminds me a bit of my beloved Barbara Pym, only more acerbic and a bit edgier.  I’m delighted to have finally discovered Elizabeth Taylor’s writing – and I’ve got THIRTEEN more of her novels to read!  Merry Christmas to me!

And Merry Christmas to all my blogger friends who celebrate, and if you have time off from work in the coming days, may your reading time be plentiful and satisfying!

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

I have NO idea what made me pick up My Name is Lucy Barton.  I didn’t even have it on my “To-Read” shelf on Goodreads!  Or rather, I did have it on my To-Read shelf, but somewhere along the line I had taken it off in one of my periodic purges.  Perhaps I just wanted something short to read (it’s 191 pages in hardcover.)  Behind on my Goodreads Challenge, I probably wanted the feeling of accomplishment that finishing a book can bring.  Once I started reading this, I didn’t want to stop.  I just loved it.

25893709This is a small story, told in snippets, of Lucy’s time in the hospital battling a serious infection, and how her emotionally and physically distant mother came to stay with her there for a short time.  It’s breathtaking in its spareness, with small moments of heartbreaking beauty surfacing from Lucy’s memories of that time.  We also get glimpses of her horrible, impoverished Midwestern childhood – just enough to show us their tragedy but not enough for the reader to become overwhelmed.

There are times now, and my life has changed so completely, that I think back on the early years and I find myself thinking:  It was not that bad.  Perhaps it was not.  But there are times too – unexpected – when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived.  This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true. 

She escaped her upbringing because a teacher introduced her to reading, and she fell in love with books.  Also, she stayed as long as she could at school each day because it was warm, and her house had no heat.  She earned a full scholarship to a college in Chicago, and when she came home for Thanksgiving, she couldn’t fall asleep at night because she “was afraid I would wake and find myself once more in this house and I would be in this house forever, and it seemed unbearable to me.”  We get a glimpse of a horrific incident between her father and her brother when the brother was caught wearing his mother’s clothes, and we are told of times that Lucy was locked inside the family truck, before she was old enough for school, either as punishment or as a substitute for daycare.  Gilbert expertly portrays a young child’s terror at being left alone and thinking that no one is coming back to save her.

But this book sounds so bleak when I write of these things!  Where is the beauty, you ask?  What made you love this book, Laila?  Well, the beauty is in the small ways in which Lucy and her mother fumble and try to connect while she’s in the hospital, the gentleness of Lucy’s doctor, the way Lucy falls in love with New York City, in the way she writes of her first husband and their early days.  It’s in the way Lucy clawed her way out of a horrible life.  Strout is simply a master as gutting the reader with the simplest of images and the most precise sentences.

What else made this book resonate so strongly for me?  Well, maybe it was the feeling I got while reading it, one of intense longing for my childhood.  My childhood was pretty good overall, no traumas like the ones Lucy faced.  My parents and extended family always loved me, of that I never once doubted.  But my parents are divorced, and I admit that if they told me today that they would get back together I would be overjoyed.  I know that my relationship with my mother has never fully recovered.  This is a story of mothers and daughters, a very specific, troubled mother-daughter relationship, but a reader like me can feel echoes of my own past here.  I also felt the nostalgia for the places of my childhood, like my grandparents’ house, which is no longer in the family, as they have both passed away.  So much of my life was spent there in middle Tennessee, in summers and on holidays, and now it’s just gone.  We have no reason to travel there any more, and it breaks my heart.  Lucy’s past was awful, but there were moments when she seemed like a little girl rather than a grown woman with kids, and she just wanted the security and reassurance of her mother’s love, like any of us want that from time to time.  What was most heartbreaking was the sense that she was worth more than the tiny scraps her mother was able to give her.

This was a book that connected deeply with me, but I’ve read Goodreads reviews and blog reviews where this was not the case.  So I don’t know – maybe it will resonate with you or may not.  I love that it took me by surprise, and that I randomly picked it up after disregarding it for so long.  I devoured it in two days, and still I wanted more, but I also felt like I knew Lucy enough to see her as a fully formed character.  She was doing the best with what she’d been given – she had flaws, but she also has great strength.  (I haven’t even mentioned that she became a writer!  There’s this whole side story line with a New York City author who inspires Lucy, it’s beautifully rendered.)  I immediately checked out Strout’s follow-up that came out this year, Anything is Possible.  I’m trying to not get my hopes up too much, trying to let it have room to surprise me in a good way as well.  My Name is Lucy Barton is going on my upcoming year-end Best Of List.

Have you read this, or any other of Strout’s novels?  What was the last book that surprised you in a good way?

 

 

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Don’t you LOVE it when you read a classic novel and it turns out to be AMAZING?  And you wonder what on earth took you so long to pick it up?  My first book for the RIP Challenge is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, a book that many of you have read and loved and one I have been meaning to read for quite some time.

517mee7CTTL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Romantic, that was the word I had tried to remember coming up in the lift.  Yes, of course.  Romantic.  That was what people would say.  It was all very sudden and romantic.  They suddenly decided to get married and there it was.  Such an adventure.  I smiled to myself as I hugged my knees on the window seat, thinking how wonderful it was, how happy I was going to be.  I was to marry the man I loved.  I was to be Mrs. de Winter.  It was foolish to go on having that pain in the pit of my stomach.

 

For those who haven’t read it, here’s the (very brief) synopsis from Goodreads:

The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. Orphaned and working as a lady’s maid, she can barely believe her luck. It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realizes how large a shadow his late wife will cast over their lives–presenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave.

When we first meet our heroine, we know that she is the wife of Maxim de Winter, and we know that something ominous has happened to their former home, Manderley.  It’s in the third chapter that we learn how the nameless second Mrs. de Winter came to be married to the much older, richer, and more sophisticated Maxim. From the get-go she is full of self-doubt and anxiety about her relationship with Maxim.  He is not exactly a reassuring figure, and we learn early on that he is tortured by something traumatic in his past having to do with this previous wife.  Mrs. Van Hopper, the lady our unnamed heroine serves before she marries Maxim, tells her that Rebecca drowned in a tragic boating accident a year before.

Once our heroine is at Manderley, she is adrift in the role of mistress of the manor. Echoes of Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife, are everywhere, from the rhododendrons outside and the treasured pieces assembled in the morning room to the rhythms of housekeeping and the daily routine.  Our poor heroine doesn’t even get a tour of the whole mansion from her new husband, nor does he give her any hint as to how to run the household.  Add to that the severe, malevolent head housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, who was unnervingly devoted to Rebecca and it’s no wonder our poor heroine is terrified of making the wrong move and feels that all the staff are laughing at her inexperience.

After a bit of a slow start (really just the part before she marries Maxim,) I devoured this book.  I loved how timeless it felt.  I loved the slowly building atmosphere of tension and suspense, from the opening dream sequence chapter to the momentous costume party and beyond.  I found our unnamed narrator to be incredibly sympathetic.  How many of us have been in love with someone who didn’t match our intensity, who continually disappointed us and left us wanting, but we were desperate to hang on to him, so we forgave and made excuses again and again?  I loved the plot twists that kept coming in the second half of the novel.  At one point my jaw literally dropped; I looked at my husband sitting next to me on the couch and said, “Oh my gosh! I didn’t see that coming!”  I absolutely loved the writing.  The dialogue sparkled and the detailed description of the house and the grounds made Manderley come alive.  I loved this description of the library when our heroine first sees it:

Whatever air came to this room, whether from the garden or from the sea, would lose its first freshness, becoming part of the unchanging room itself, one with the books, musty and never read, one with the scrolled ceiling, the dark paneling, the heavy curtains.

It was an ancient mossy smell, the smell of a silent church where services are seldom held, where rusty lichen grows upon the stones and ivy tendrils creep to the very windows.  A room for peace, a room for meditation.

Our heroine is not just a young, naive dunderhead, however; she continued to surprise me with her contemplative observations on life, such as this one when she meets Maxim’s grandmother, Beatrice, for the first time.

I thought how little we know about the feelings of old people.  Children we understand, their fears and hopes and make-believe.  I was a child yesterday.  I had not forgotten.  But Maxim’s grandmother, sitting there in her shawl with her poor blind eyes, what did she feel, what was she thinking?  Did she know that Beatrice was yawning and glancing at her watch?  Did she guess that we had come to visit her because we felt it right, it was a duty, so that when she got home afterwards Beatrice would be able to say, “Well, that clears my conscience for three months?”

I have deliberately avoided writing about anything that happens in the last half of the book because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it yet.  But Rebecca is an absolute gem.  It’s quite possibly the perfect book for chilly Autumn nights.  It’s an exciting, suspenseful mystery layered within a atmospheric, Gothic romance.  I am eager now to read more of Daphne du Maurier’s novels – I had no idea she’d written so many!  And when I publish this post I’m going to pop in the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock movie version with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.  I’m excited to see how it compares!

Have you read Rebecca or seen the film?  What is a classic novel that it seems everyone else has read but you?  What makes you choose to read a classic rather than a newer book?  Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I’ve seen it happen over and over again: a black person gets killed just for being black, and all hell breaks loose.  I’ve tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged picture on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there.  I’ve always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down.

Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.

I loved The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.  This is one of those books that’s gotten a lot of “buzz,”and sometimes that makes a reader not want to pick something up. Sometimes the buzz is just too much to live up to.  I can only speak for myself when I say that, for me, it lived up to the hype.

IMG_0248I don’t typically read a lot of YA/Teen books, and I don’t think this book was really written with someone like me in mind, a 40 year-old white woman in Tennessee.  I really do think this was intended for young people, and I think that it would be particularly mind-blowing for young white people.  I know that if I’d read something like this when I was 14 or 15, it would have exploded my brain in the best of ways. That said, I think it still has much to offer us “old folks.”

A brief set-up for those who haven’t come across it:  it centers on Starr Carter, a 16 year-old African American girl living in contemporary times in a poor black neighborhood called Garden Heights.  She’s attending a predominantly white private high school called Williamson that’s 45 minutes away. Navigating relationships and friendships between the two worlds isn’t easy.  Her sense of self and how she feels she can talk and act shifts depending on where she is.  Her dad owns a store in the neighborhood, and his sense of duty to provide services and positive energy to the people in Garden Heights keeps him from moving their family away somewhere safer, despite Starr’s mother’s desire to move.  When Starr was ten years old, one of her best friends, Natasha, was killed before her eyes in a gang-related drive-by shooting.  Six years later, driving home from a party with another good childhood friend, Khalil, they get stopped by the police.

When I was twelve, my parents had two talks with me.

One was the usual birds and bees…

The other talk was about what to do if a cop stopped me. 

Momma fussed and told Daddy I was too young for that.  He argued that I wasn’t too young to get arrested or shot.

“Starr-Starr, you do whatever they tell you to do,” he said.  “Keep your hands visible.  Don’t make any sudden moves.  Only speak when they speak to you.”

I knew it must’ve been serious.  Daddy has the biggest mouth of anybody I know, and if he said to be quiet, I needed to be quiet.

I hope somebody had the talk with Khalil.

This book is sad, no doubt, and made even more so for all the real young black men and women over the past few years that have been killed by police in the US in high-profile cases.  Starr’s beloved uncle is a police officer, so Thomas isn’t painting all the police with the same brush.  But this is definitely written from the perspective of a scared, hurting young black woman, filled with sadness and rage at the horror that’s happened right in front of her eyes.  It’s about a young women finding her voice, finding out who her friends really are, realizing just how much her family loves and supports her.  We go on an emotional journey with Starr, navigating her two worlds and trying to find a way to bring them together, while also trying to stay true to the memory of her childhood friend and the fight for justice.

What I appreciated most about the book was Starr’s family.  Her mom, dad, and brothers felt so real to me; the dialogue rang true, the references to hip-hop, both current and “old” (Tupac) placed this story in a recognizable cultural area for me, a hip-hop fan, even if I am the age of her parents!  Her mom and dad in particular are well-drawn, showing fierce love and protectiveness for their kids and a nuanced, realistic relationship with one another.  In reading about the warring gang members of Garden Heights I also felt like I got an education of sorts in the kinds of situations that might lead a young person to join a gang and maybe sell drugs, something that I think a lot of us white people who haven’t been in that situation would question.  Thomas really made me empathize with the lack of family support and lack of opportunities to get out of a hopeless situation by other methods.  I know it’s not her job, nor the job of any other black author to educate white people like me, but I do feel like my mind and my heart was opened more to something that I previously thought I already knew something about.

I do highly recommend this novel even if you don’t normally read YA, because I think that it’s among the best YA I’ve read.  It’s moving, compelling, thought-provoking.  There’s a vibrant momentum carrying the narrative forward, and even though it’s got some terribly sad scenes, there are moments of humor sprinkled throughout.  (One of my favorite scenes was when Starr’s dad explains his theory about Harry Potter being about gangs!  It’s classic.)  I’m excited to read anything Angie Thomas comes up with next.  Her refreshing, powerful voice is just the kind of voice we need more of in fiction, for readers of all ages.

 

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay (#20BooksofSummer book 12)

I feel some trepidation as I begin writing this review.  I so want to do this book justice. Hunger by Roxane Gay is so powerful and honest and brave, and it’s one of my favorite books so far this year.  Roxane Gay pretty much puts her soul out there for everyone to see, the good and the bad, in an attempt to convey to the world what it’s like to live as a very fat woman in a society that abhors, pities, and stigmatizes fat people.22813605

I wish I did not see my body as something for which I should apologize or provide explanation.  I’m a feminist and I believe in doing away with the rigid beauty standards that force women to conform to unrealistic ideals.  I believe that we should have broader definitions of beauty that include diverse body types… I (want to) believe my worth as a human being does not reside in my size or appearance.  I know, having grown up in a culture that is generally toxic to women and constantly trying to discipline women’s bodies, that it is important to resist unreasonable standards for how my body or any body should look.

What I know and what I feel are too very different things.

This is not an easy read but neither is it unrelentingly brutal.  Gay chronicles the changes in her life, mental state, and body after being gang-raped by a boy she trusted and his friends when she was twelve.  She was a “good Catholic girl” and didn’t understand that what happened was not her fault, that she didn’t invite it in some way.  She didn’t tell her parents until she was well into adulthood (indeed, until her essay collection Bad Feminist came out.)  Instead, she decided that the best way to protect her body and soul from anything like that ever happening again was to eat.

I was swallowing my secrets and making my body expand and explode.  I found ways to hide in plain sight, to keep feeding a hunger that could never be satisfied – the hunger to stop hurting.  

Throughout high school and college and beyond, she kept getting bigger and her mental state kept deteriorating.  She even experienced a “lost year” where she moved to Phoenix on a whim, not telling her roommate or her parents where she was going.  Her parents, loving and supportive but always trying to “fix her weight problem,” finally hired a PI to find her.  She completed college, got her Masters, and slowly built her professional life.  But progress in her personal life was painstakingly slow, as she admits to letting people use her and treat her poorly because she felt she didn’t deserve better.

Gay also writes about weight loss “reality” shows like “The Biggest Loser,” how doctors (mis)treat her, and the wonders of the famous cook Ina Garten (“She teaches me that a woman can be plump and pleasant and absolutely in love with food.”)  She talks about getting tattoos (“I am taking back some part of my skin”) and the stress and indignities of dressing up for, traveling to, and getting around at readings and bookish events.  She is charming and insightful and very, very human.  I can’t imagine the courage it took to lay her life out there like this, so open and vulnerable.

Any woman, any person, who has ever felt ashamed of their body in some way will feel a kinship to Gay.  We may not know her exact struggle but we know the ways in which our bodies let us down, fail to measure up to the ideals in our minds.  Gay is, like any of us, a work in progress, and I was left feeling hopeful when I finished reading Hunger. Writing and talking about her pain and her body has helped her.  She writes, “I am not the same scared girl that I was.  I have let the right ones in.  I have found my voice.”  I am profoundly grateful that Roxane Gay decided to be so vulnerable in such a public way. I feel like she is helping others find their own voices.   This was a moving, compelling, beautiful memoir.  Five Stars.

 

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

With a full-time job, a husband, and a five year-old, most of my reading gets done on my breaks at work, or maybe in 20 minutes chunks before I fall asleep.  I hardly ever read for more than an hour at one time – either sleep or my short attention span win out.  So it’s a BIG DEAL for me to say that I read most of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (231 pages) in one sitting.  It was a Friday night, and I just felt like devoting my night (after my son fell asleep) to reading.  I did not want to put it down.  I was riveted by the story of Nadia and Saeed, two young people falling in love in the midst of an unnamed Middle Eastern city crumbling into sectarian violence.

9780735212176They meet in class when the city had only experienced “some shootings and the odd car bombing.”  They have coffee in the cafeteria, they have dinner at a Chinese restaurant, they talk and get to know one another a bit as any young couple might do.  And then more and more frightening and violent things begin to happen, and then things start to go all to hell, and they are thrown into a much more intimate relationship at a faster pace than they probably would have experienced otherwise.

But then a way out emerges:

Saeed and Nadia meanwhile had dedicated themselves single-mindedly to finding a way out of the city, and as the overland routes were widely deemed too perilous to attempt, this meant investigating the possibility of securing passage through the doors, in which most people seemed now to believe…

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, so I won’t reveal more about the doors. That said, this not a book for everyone.  Lately I’ve read some of those Top Ten Tuesday lists about things that turn people off as readers, and magical realism is a popular turn-off. My tolerance for “weirdness” in books has only increased as I’ve gotten older, so I like magical realism, if it serves the story.  For me, the magical doors to more stable European and American cities worked.  I went with the device as a way to move the narrative along and as an ironic commentary on how often treacherous and deadly real-life migration is.  I ve read that sometimes magical realism makes a reader feel removed from the characters, but I didn’t feel this way at all.  I was fully immersed in Nadia and Saeed’s plight as they tried to find a place to be and tried to navigate complicated emotions in such a new and fragile relationship.

And the writing – my goodness!  It moved me.  There is something essentially human in Mr. Hamid’s writing that touched my heart.  This passage about Saeed’s prayers especially spoke to me:

“…he prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other was.  When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we all carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another…”

Because I was moved, because I was transported, I am confident that Exit West will be on my year-end Top Ten list.  I now want to read all of his books with a new sense of urgency.

You can read a great interview with Mr. Hamid (and you should!) from the New York Times here.

Do you have plans to read Exit West?  How do you feel about magical realism or weirdness in books?  What was the last book you read in one (or two) sitting(s)?