Review: Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan

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There was a time in my life when I almost exclusively read literary fiction. This is obviously not that time and so I’m both a little surprised and thrilled that the Asian Lit Bingo challenge got me to read two works of literary fiction in (a little more than) a month. Rainbirds was the second of these novels. It is set in Japan and follows Ren Ishida as he goes to the small city of Akakawa to take care of his sister’s affairs following her unexpected and untimely death. Keiko, you see, was murdered.

The novel is a slow burn. Ren decides to stay in Akakawa after he’s asked to take over his sister’s position at a cram school. He is finishing up his time at university, having submitted his thesis for his Masters degree in English literature at a university in Tokyo. He even moves into her unconventional living situation. His sister had been living rent-free in the home of a wealthy politician in exchange for bringing his catatonic wife lunch and reading to her every day. The story moves back and forth between Ren’s memories of growing up with his sister, who was almost a decade older than him, and the present-time narrative of Ren putting his sister to rest while trying to figure out how she died.

As Ren gets to know people in Akakawa, so do we. They are an interesting cast of characters. These side narratives help to build a picture of the city and also of Keiko’s life prior to her death. Ren discovers that he didn’t know his sister as well as he thought he had.

This novel was not what I expected it to be. After reading a few reviews before selecting it, I expected something more fast-paced and centered on the murder. But, this novel was slower and took was through many little mysteries to eventually weave a heartbreaking picture of this young man coming to terms with a tremendous loss. I am so glad that I picked this up, even if it broke my heart.

The audio book was read by David Shih and he did a wonderful job.

Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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I started this audio book on a road trip. At first I thought it was going to be too heavy for the drive. (You have to be careful with the books you pick. If the text is especially dense or the story doesn’t move along at a decent clip you can find yourself frustrated with the story in a way that you wouldn’t be frustrated if you weren’t also in the middle of a really long drive). But, by the beginning of chapter two, I was hooked. The book centers on Ifemelu, a woman from Nigeria who at the opening of the story has been living in the US for a while and is now preparing to move home to Lagos. The narrative switches between her current life and her preparations for (and arrival in) Lagos, posts from her blog on being a Non-American Black in America, and the story of her past. And, the whole thing was so beautifully written. I cared so much for the cast of characters in this book. Ifemelu was so likable. She broke my heart and made me laugh and I cheered for her. She met a lot of white people who made me cringe. Sometimes I cringed because I saw myself in their behavior. Other times I cringed because their behavior was just so surprising because it violated Ifemelu’s person or autonomy and it is surprising to me (although it probably shouldn’t be) that it’s 2016 and we don’t treat everyone with respect for their person and their autonomy. Let me give you an example: WHY WOULD YOU TOUCH A STRANGER’S HAIR???? EVER???? WHY???? Or, even a friend/lover/family member’s hair outside of them saying, “Oh my god my hair is so soft today! Feel it!” or otherwise inviting you to do so???? Or, why would you speak really slowly and loudly to someone who is not from here after they’ve told you that they’re from a former British colony where English is currently an official language? I get it, Americans aren’t good at geography and Africa is a huge freaking continent but… Nigeria, while being a place with incredible linguistic density and diversity, is also full of English speakers. And, most American universities require that you demonstrate English proficiency before you enroll. (For potentially obvious reasons, that kind of stuck in my craw and annoyed me long after the story had moved on.) Ifemelu’s observations on American race relations, on Americans and charitable organizations and on Obama’s 2008 campaign alone made this book worth the read.
I’ve seen Adichie’s TED talk and I’ve read articles that she’s written for various publications but this is the first book by her that I’ve read. It won’t be the last. She has a singular voice. Her characters are real and vivid and this story tackled big topics without feeling like it was preachy and also without making them the center of the story. Racism and anti-racism were woven into the narrative and it gave me so much cause to think (See: the cringe worthy white people) without shouting at me that I should be thinking. That right there is a hallmark of an awesome book. I was still thinking about issues it eluded to long after I finished the book.
So, if you’re interested in reading a contemporary African author but, for some reason, you’re worried that an African author will have nothing to say to you that will be relevant to you or that you’ll understand, well, you should probably examine why you think that. But, while you’re examining your thinking, you can read Americanah. It’s a book written by an African author that is largely set here in the States. It’s amazing. You’ll love it.
This is my book by an African author for the Diverse Lives, Diverse Stacks Challenge

Review: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

I downloaded this book from the library and for some reason it downloaded two copies of every file.  So, when I was halfway through the book, I thought I was only a quarter of the way through the book.  This made me very confused about the book and where it was headed right up until it ended.
This is the story of a preacher in Gilead, Iowa who has been diagnosed with heart failure and is reaching the end of his life.  He married and had a son late in life so the entire narrative is told through letters written from the father to the young son.  The father talks about his father and grandfather and the roles that they played in the Civil war.  He talks to his son about his relationships and the wife and child the he had before he met and married his son’s mother.  He talks about how racial issues played out before, during and after the Civil War in Gilead and the rest of the Iowa territories.  And, he talks about his godson Jack and how Jack has recently appeared in town after a long absence.
I really enjoyed this novel.  I liked the narrative pace (even if I was confused about how far I was in the novel).  I was interested in the mystery of why Jack had reappeared and what caused him to disappear in the first place.  I was interested in the tension between the father and grandfather as told by a son to his son.  That is a confusing sentence, but trust me the novel isn’t confusing.  It is an interesting look at how different generations see the same issues.  And, how history sometimes repeats itself.
This is the first book that I’ve read by Marilynne Robinson (which is ridiculous since she’s considered an Iowa treasure and Iowa is my home and it one the Pulitzer Prize in 2004.)  I really liked the prose and I think I will be reading more of her work in the future.
I checked this book out from the Buffalo and Erie County Public Libraries