The Sellout

“How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids? Why aren’t there any yogurt-colored, egg-shell-toned, string-cheese-skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-act-having books?” (The Sellout by Paul Beatty)

The Sellout coverSome books are best read indoors. You don’t want to be caught smiling while reading Lolita within 50 feet of a playground, for example. Likewise, you can’t help but wonder if you have permission to laugh aloud at a book about a man on trial for owning a slave and re-segregating a community. The premise is shockingly absurd and the layers – which include finding the lost ghetto of Dickens, growing a satsuma tree, and celebrating a childhood celebrity of a racist TV show – vacillate between pithy, hilarious, and cringe-inducing.

This book is a perfectly executed example of the old writer’s adage: be specific. Everything here – from the characters to the cultural references – is tip-of-the-needle precise. The characters are so idiosyncratic that you have to wonder if anyone so unusual and non-conforming could actually exist, and an unknown piece of slang or pop culture could get a reader lost for paragraphs as Beatty riffs on it ad infinitum. Though the overarching plot gets a bit messy with all of these details floating around (Beaty’s talent is drilling down, not pulling together), you won’t mind the loss of cohesiveness as you revel in the writing.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 304
Ending: hopefuls
Incidental Learning: California, growing marijuana and satsumas, racism
Further Reading: Goes pretty well with other books about race I’ve read lately, Americanah or Things Fall ApartThe excellent writing + messy plotting combination almost reminds me of Where’d you go Bernadettewhich would be a strange follow-up to this book…

Jane Eyre

“A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play; and when I draw up the curtain this time, reader – you must fancy you see a room…” (Jane Eyre by Charlote Brontë)

Jane Eyre coverWhen I think of this book, I visualize two separate, distinct pieces of fabric loosely knit together by a few threads. There’s the first book, a love story/gothic mystery, and the second book, a pious, studious affair. Brontë attempts to create conflict by placing two options before of her heroine – earthly love or divine love – but in this day and age, the urgency and suspense of the struggle falls flat: we all know which we would pick. Perhaps the book might once have seemed cohesive, when readers were more likely to think of a religious life as a real choice, but to the modern reader, the book reads like a romance with a strange, lengthy, and meandering bit about religion wedged in.

Though I have expressed this wish many times, it remains particularly true in the case of Jane Eyre: I wish that the basic plots of classic books weren’t so commonly known. Having survived this long without having read this Brontë work, the ‘wife in the attic’ should have been a compelling mystery, pulling me along the standard love story plot line. Yet, having absorbed the basics of most classics through some sort of cultural osmosis, the thrill of unraveling the mystery was closed off to me since I had anticipated the revelation from the title page. Whatever facts I absorbed didn’t set any expectations for the tone, and I was delighted by its intimacy and modernity. Brontë addresses the reader as Trollope does, but her use of a first person narrator makes the reader feel as though they’re perusing a diary filled with Jane’s thoughts and feelings instead of reading an objective, narrator based Victorian novel.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 448
Ending: Summarizes events ten years later
Incidental Learning: Life of Governesses, England during George III
Further Reading: I’d recommend Trollope next, for the similarity of narrative voice.

The Forty Rules of Love

“Although I was eager to listen to the sermon and dying to meet Rumi, I wanted to spend some time in the city first and learn…” (The Forty Rules of Love by Shafak)

A 3rd-person narrative encapsulates a book-within-a-book, told in 1st person from multiple characters’ perspectives. Point of view characters range from a modern housewife to historical figures living in 13th century Turkey.

The above description of Forty Rules of Love alone is enough to make a careful reader suspicious. After all, how many writers have the capacity to properly enter the minds of so many different people? A handful a generation? Whether you pay attention to the dizzying narrative layers or not, it only takes a few chapters to see that all of the perspectives – famous 13th century scholars to nameless 13th century lepers – sound like contemporary housewives. Mystics young and old use modern colloquialisms like ‘dying to’, ‘cry my heart out’ and ‘bright eyed and bushy tailed’. Not only do all the characters, regardless of their time period, sound alike, but they also think alike. All take stock of their lives in the same way, look towards the future in the same way, vow to be better people in the same way.

I have an image in my mind about how this book could have been: every character having their own voice and manner of thinking – a book where enlightened poets and religious heretics didn’t have such a modern sense of quantifying themselves, their lives, and everyone around them. A book where Rumi’s words and Shams’ rules were allowed to play out through characterization instead of listed and enumerated. That’s the book I want to read.

That being said, I can easily see how this book could be an inspiration to many people. If you aren’t looking for literature, if you’re looking for a straightforward way to learn more about Sufism, then this could still be an excellent read for you. Shafak’s even pacing and foreshadowing move the reader effortlessly through the chapters, and it may even inspire you to go back and read the original materials for further information.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 350
Ending: as foreshadowed
Incidental Learning: Sufism, 13th century Turkey, Rumi, Shams
Further Reading: The Essential Rumi

Things Fall Apart

“Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate that the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself.” (Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe)

I have a list of books I’m working through. They’re books one would expect a reader to have read by this point in their lives. The Big Ones; books referenced casually by other books, always with the expectation that you’ve waded through them yourself at one point. I’ve put off reading many of them because I always think I can guess what they contain. Oh, Things Fall Apart, that’ll be about the plight of indigenous peoples, I thought, it’ll pull my heartstrings and make me feel terribly.

Yet, unexpectedly, Achebe doesn’t put the reader in a place where it’s easy to empathize with the Igbo people he describes. If sympathy were his goal, he could have made his main character more likable, fleshed out some of the tertiary characters, or glossed over their infanticide, wife-beating, and casual murders. Instead, you leave the book half on the tribe’s side, half on the missionary’s side. Achebe doesn’t try to sway the reader, he doesn’t use overly emotive writing for the benefit of either, he tells the tale unadulterated and leaves us with our reason intact, perfectly capable of contemplating the rights and the wrongs ourselves.

So, wrong again; and I’ll probably be wrong many more times before the list is through.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 209
Ending: thought provoking
Incidental Learning: Ibo tribe; Africa
Further Reading: This felt like an oral story written down; I’d go with other oral histories, like Homer perhaps, as follow ups.

A Gentleman in Moscow

“Here, indeed, was a formidable sentence–one that was on intimate terms with a comma, and that held the period in healthy disregard.” (A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles)

Poor Mr. Towles. I’m going to do what every sophomore novelist of a bestselling debut fears: compare the recent work not to the past work, but to a vaguely recollected feeling about the past work. The details of Rules of Civility have faded in my memory – a few scenes about a love triangle, some jewelry, a bored woman playing cards – while the wonder remains. I loved it so much that I couldn’t even write a coherent review, so much that I pre-ordered A Gentleman in Moscow the day news about it hit the library review journals.

When I picture this book as a novel, I imagine a viscous liquid dropped on a flat surface: at first you think it will assume a shape, but then it spreads out, thin and borderless. If you think of A Gentleman in Moscow as a collection of short stories, however, or a long book of exquisite vignettes about one character and one place, then you can focus on the brilliance of the language instead of the faults in plot arch. For Towles, more than anything else, more than history or philosophy or musing, loves words. He loves them in footnotes, in conversations between family members, in chapter titles and in poems, and when you read him, he reminds you that you love them too.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 480
Ending: vague
Incidental Learning: Russia, 1920’s – 1940’s
Further Reading: another rich historical fiction, which is apparently a genre a rarely read in, so the only recommendation I can think of is Rules of Civility.


“Everyone in the world has suffered. But you have not suffered precisely because you are an American Black.” (Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

This book is an intellectual experience first and foremost. The story, once you extract it from the over-abundance of tertiary characters and social commentary, is simply about a love lost and then found again. You never become familiar with, or particularly attached to, the main characters; they merely hold together Aichie’s points so that readers can examine thoughts about race in the more palatable form of fiction instead of as a collection of essays.

Adichie adds a new character the same way others might insert adjectives or adverbs: any time a sentence feels lonely, she drops one in.   While the plethora of characters do serve to form a layered background, they also create a fog of clutter that prevents the reader from getting to know the protagonists as full people. Though literature lovers will see through the ploy to dress up social activism in a fiction costume, this book is a worthy read for the way it forces you to acknowledge reality.


Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 588
Ending: tidy conclusion to love story
Incidental Learning: Nigeria, immigrant experience, race in America, Obama campaign
Further Reading: I followed this up with Things Fall Apart, since it was mentioned in the book. Two entirely different reading experiences.

Never Let Me Go

“That was the only time, as I stood there, looking at that strange rubbish, feeling the wind coming across those empty fields, that I started to imagine just a little fantasy thing, because this was Norfolk after all, and it was only a couple of weeks since I’d lost him.” (Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro)

This book has not aged well; It happen sometimes with sci-fi. Science fiction can age marvelously even if the author miss-predicts small details, yet, if the author misses something fundamental, the whole book ages out. I can suspend my disbelief about clones: that’s not the problem. The problem is that the book in no way addresses how the media (social and traditional) would react to the existence of clones harvested for their organs. I find it unbelievable that a clone-capable world would not also be in the information age, which would mean that those clones would be able to tell their story.

Ishiguro writes a completely consistent first person narrative, never for a moment stepping out of the consciousness of a 30-something female clone who calmly accepts her fate and status. Each description, each character, is seen only through her eyes, with her personality, with her unreliability and biases. Ishiguro doesn’t over-explain, but waits to reveal facts as the narrator feels comfortable telling them. This is gorgeously written literary sci-fi and worth reading for that reason, even if it does miss the sci-fi relevancy mark.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 288 pages
Ending: understated; acceptance of tragedy
Further Reading: As I try to think of read-alikes, I’m drawn to contemplative literary fiction, as opposed to science fiction, like Willa Cather or The Summer Book.