Jola’s Reading List: July – December 2019
Thanks to the folks at The Millions, I have a preview of some of the most anticipated books releases for the second half of 2019 and I have made a choice of fifteen books to add to my reading list for the future – most likely not going to read all of them before the end of the year, thanks to the endless reading list. Here they are:
They Could Have Named Here Anything by Stephanie Jimenez. Every morning, seventeen-year-old Maria Anís Rosario takes the subway an hour from her boisterous and close-knit family in Queens to her private high school on the Upper East Side, where she struggles to fit in as one of the only Latina students—until Rocky welcomes her into this new life. White, rebellious, and ignored by her wealthy parents, Rocky uses her money toward one goal: to get away with anything. To Maria, it’s a dazzling privilege. As a bond develops between these unlikely friends, neither can see what they share most—jealousy and the desire for each other’s lives. But crackling under the surface of their seemingly supportive alliance, the girls begin to commit little betrayals as they strive to get closer to their ideals regardless of the consequences.
Told from the perspectives of Maria, Rocky, and their fathers, They Could Have Named Her Anything explores the heartfelt expectation of what it means to live up to the name you’ve been given and the more rewarding discovery of what really matters.
Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat. Rich with hard-won wisdom and humanity, set in locales from Miami and Port-au-Prince to a small unnamed country in the Caribbean and beyond, Everything Inside is at once wide in scope and intimate, as it explores the forces that pull us together, or drive us apart, sometimes in the same searing instant.
In these eight powerful, emotionally absorbing stories, a romance unexpectedly sparks between two wounded friends; a marriage ends for what seem like noble reasons, but with irreparable consequences; a young woman holds on to an impossible dream even as she fights for her survival; two lovers reunite after unimaginable tragedy, both for their country and in their lives; a baby’s christening brings three generations of a family to a precarious dance between old and new; a man falls to his death in slow motion, reliving the defining moments of the life he is about to lose.
When The Plums Are Ripe by Patrice Nganang. In Cameroon, plum season is a highly anticipated time of year. But for the narrator of When the Plums Are Ripe, the poet Pouka, the season reminds him of the “time when our country had discovered the root not so much of its own violence as that of the world’s own, and, in response, had thrown its sons who at that time were called Senegalese infantrymen into the desert, just as in the evenings the sellers throw all their still-unsold plums into the embers.” In this novel of radiant lyricism, Patrice Nganang recounts the story of Cameroon’s forced entry into World War II, and in the process complicates our own understanding of that globe-spanning conflict. After the fall of France in 1940, Cameroon found itself caught between Vichy and the Free French at a time when growing nationalism advised allegiance to neither regime, and was ultimately dragged into fighting throughout North Africa on behalf of the Allies.
Moving from Pouka’s story to the campaigns of the French general Leclerc and the battles of Kufra and Murzuk, Nganang questions the colonial record and recenters African perspectives at the heart of Cameroon’s national history, all the while writing with wit and panache. When the Plums Are Ripe is a brilliantly crafted, politically charged epic that challenges not only the legacies of colonialism but the intersections of language, authority, and history itself.
A Particular Kind of Black Man by Tope Folarin. Living in small-town Utah has always been an uneasy fit for Tunde Akinola’s family, especially for his Nigeria-born parents. Though Tunde speaks English with a Midwestern accent, he can’t escape the children who rub his skin and ask why the black won’t come off. As he struggles to fit in and find his place in the world, he finds little solace from his parents who are grappling with their own issues.
Tunde’s father, ever the optimist, works tirelessly chasing his American dream while his wife, lonely in Utah without family and friends, sinks deeper into schizophrenia. Then one otherwise-ordinary morning, Tunde’s mother wakes him with a hug, bundles him and his baby brother into the car, and takes them away from the only home they’ve ever known.
But running away doesn’t bring her, or her children, any relief from the demons that plague her; once Tunde’s father tracks them down, she flees to Nigeria, and Tunde never feels at home again. He spends the rest of his childhood and young adulthood searching for connection — to the wary stepmother and stepbrothers he gains when his father remarries; to the Utah residents who mock his father’s accent; to evangelical religion; to his Texas middle school’s crowd of African-Americans; to the fraternity brothers of his historically black college. In so doing, he discovers something that sends him on a journey away from everything he has known.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. At the end of the Second World War, Cyril Conroy combines luck and a single canny investment to begin an enormous real estate empire, propelling his family from poverty to enormous wealth. His first order of business is to buy the Dutch House, a lavish estate in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia. Meant as a surprise for his wife, the house sets in motion the undoing of everyone he loves.
The story is told by Cyril’s son Danny, as he and his older sister, the brilliantly acerbic and self-assured Maeve, are exiled from the house where they grew up by their stepmother. The two wealthy siblings are thrown back into the poverty their parents had escaped from, and find that all they have to count on is one another. It is this unshakable bond between them that both saves their lives and thwarts their futures.
Set over the course of five decades, The Dutch House is a dark fairy tale about two smart people who cannot overcome their past. Despite every outward sign of success, Danny and Maeve are only truly comfortable when they’re together. Throughout their lives they return to the well worn story of what they’ve lost with humor and rage. But when at last they’re forced to confront the people who left them behind, the relationship between an indulged brother and his ever-protective sister is finally tested.
The Dutch House is the story of a paradise lost, a tour de force that digs deeply into questions of inheritance, love and forgiveness, of how we want to see ourselves and of who we really are. Filled with suspense, you may read it quickly to find out what happens, but what happens to Danny and Maeve will stay with you for a very long time.
Akin by Emma Donaghue. Noah Selvaggio is a retired chemistry professor and widower living on the Upper West Side, but born in the South of France. He is days away from his first visit back to Nice since he was a child, bringing with him a handful of puzzling photos he’s discovered from his mother’s wartime years. But he receives a call from social services: Noah is the closest available relative of an eleven-year-old great-nephew he’s never met, who urgently needs someone to look after him. Out of a feeling of obligation, Noah agrees to take Michael along on his trip.
Much has changed in this famously charming seaside mecca, still haunted by memories of the Nazi occupation. The unlikely duo, suffering from jet lag and culture shock, bicker about everything from steak frites to screen time. But Noah gradually comes to appreciate the boy’s truculent wit, and Michael’s ease with tech and sharp eye help Noah unearth troubling details about their family’s past. Both come to grasp the risks people in all eras have run for their loved ones, and find they are more akin than they knew.
Written with all the tenderness and psychological intensity that made Room an international bestseller, Akin is a funny, heart-wrenching tale of an old man and a boy, born two generations apart, who unpick their painful story and start to write a new one together.
The Cheffe by Marie Ndiaye. Continuing her tradition of writing provocative fiction about fascinating women, here Marie NDiaye gives us the story of a Great Female Chef–a chef who was celebrated as one of the best in a world where men dominate, and the way that her pursuit of love, pleasure, and gustatory delights helped shape her life and career. Told from the perspective of her former assistant (and unrequited lover), now an aged chef himself, here is the story of a woman’s quest to the front of the kitchen–and the extraordinary journey she takes along the way.
Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Petina Gappah. “This is how we carried out of Africa the poor broken body of Bwana Daudi, the Doctor, David Livingstone, so that he could be borne across the sea and buried in his own land.” So begins Petina Gappah’s powerful novel of exploration and adventure in nineteenth-century Africa—the captivating story of the loyal men and women who carried explorer and missionary Dr. Livingstone’s body, his papers and maps, fifteen hundred miles across the continent of Africa, so his remains could be returned home to England and his work preserved there. Narrated by Halima, the doctor’s sharp-tongued cook, and Jacob Wainwright, a rigidly pious freed slave, this is a story that encompasses all of the hypocrisy of slavery and colonization—the hypocrisy at the core of the human heart—while celebrating resilience, loyalty, and love.
Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh. A dealer of rare books, Deen Datta is used to a quiet life spent indoors, but as his once-solid beliefs begin to shift, he is forced to set out on an extraordinary journey; one that takes him from India to Los Angeles and Venice via a tangled route through the memories and experiences of those he meets along the way. There is Piya, a fellow Bengali-American who sets his journey in motion; Tipu, an entrepreneurial young man who opens Deen’s eyes to the realities of growing up in today’s world; Rafi, with his desperate attempt to help someone in need; and Cinta, an old friend who provides the missing link in the story they are all a part of. It is a journey which will upend everything he thought he knew about himself, about the Bengali legends of his childhood and about the world around him.
Gun Island is a beautifully realised novel which effortlessly spans space and time. It is the story of a world on the brink, of increasing displacement and unstoppable transition. But it is also a story of hope, of a man whose faith in the world and the future is restored by two remarkable women.
Dominicana by Angie Cruz. Fifteen-year-old Ana Cancion never dreamed of moving to America, the way the girls she grew up with in the Dominican countryside did. But when Juan Ruiz proposes and promises to take her to New York City, she has to say yes. It doesn’t matter that he is twice her age, that there is no love between them. Their marriage is an opportunity for her entire close-knit family to eventually immigrate. So on New Year’s Day, 1965, Ana leaves behind everything she knows and becomes Ana Ruiz, a wife confined to a cold six-floor walk-up in Washington Heights. Lonely and miserable, Ana hatches a reckless plan to escape. But at the bus terminal, she is stopped by Cesar, Juan’s free-spirited younger brother, who convinces her to stay.
As the Dominican Republic slides into political turmoil, Juan returns to protect his family’s assets, leaving Cesar to take care of Ana. Suddenly, Ana is free to take English lessons at a local church, lie on the beach at Coney Island, see a movie at Radio City Music Hall, go dancing with Cesar, and imagine the possibility of a different kind of life in America. When Juan returns, Ana must decide once again between her heart and her duty to her family.
Quichotte by Salman Rushdie.Inspired by the Cervantes classic, Sam DuChamp, mediocre writer of spy thrillers, creates Quichotte, a courtly, addled salesman obsessed with television who falls in impossible love with a TV star. Together with his (imaginary) son Sancho, Quichotte sets off on a picaresque quest across America to prove worthy of her hand, gallantly braving the tragicomic perils of an age where “Anything-Can-Happen.” Meanwhile, his creator, in a midlife crisis, has equally urgent challenges of his own.
Grand Union by Zadie Smith. A dazzling collection of short fiction, more than half of which have never been published before, from the multi-award-winning author of White Teeth and Swing Time
Zadie Smith has established herself as one of the most iconic, critically-respected, and popular writers of her generation. In her first short story collection, she combines her power of observation and inimitable voice to mine the fraught and complex experience of life in the modern world. With ten extraordinary new stories complemented by a selection of her most lauded pieces for The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Granta, Grand Union explores a wide range of subjects, from first loves to cultural despair, as well as the desire to be the subject of your own experience. In captivating prose, she contends with race, class, relationships, and gender roles in a world that feels increasingly divided.
Nothing is off limits, and everything—when captured by Smith’s brilliant gaze—feels fresh and relevant. Perfectly paced, and utterly original, Grand Union highlights the wonders Zadie Smith can do.
Last of Her Name by Mimi Lok. This is an eye-opening story collection about the intimate, interconnected lives of diasporic women and the histories they are born into. Set in a wide range of time periods and locales, including 80s UK suburbia, WWII Hong Kong and urban California. It features an eclectic cast of outsiders: among them, an elderly housebreaker, wounded lovers, and kung-fu fighting teenage girls.
The Girl at the Door by Veronica Raimo. Miden is a society built from the ground up. Commissions dedicated to fairness, equality, and mindful living have been created following “the Crash,” and Miden, an island apart from the wreckage, has risen from the ashes of society as we know it. While on vacation in this oasis, a seemingly aimless woman meets an attractive man, and soon after she moves to the island to start a new life with him.
Six months pregnant and just beginning to feel comfortable in her lover’s space, she feels as though she may have finally found ownership of her life – until the day the girl arrives. Slight and pretty, the girl discloses a drawn out and violent affair she’s had with her professor, the father of the woman’s child. In alternating perspectives, the professor and his pregnant girlfriend reflect upon their own lives, each other, and their interloper. As the powers that be gather testimony and consider the case, the couple is forced to confront their own paranoia, fetishes, and transgressions in light of the student’s accusations.
As their idyllic society grapples with the scandal, boundaries blur and alliances shift as reputation, truth, and self-preservation threaten to upend their relationship. Provocative and unnerving, The Girl at the Door explores the bureaucracy of a scandal, and the thin line between lust and possession. In an age in which blunt power and fickle nuance take turns upon the stage, Raimo has delivered an unflinching exploration of the politics and power of sex.
A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s Son by Sergio Troncoso. How does a Mexican-American, the son of poor immigrants, leave his border home and move to the heart of gringo America? How does he adapt to the worlds of wealth, elite universities, the rush and power of New York City? How does he make peace with a stern old-fashioned father who has only known hard field labor his whole life? With echoes of Dreiser’s American Tragedy and Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Troncoso tells his luminous stories through the lens of an exile adrift in the 21st century, his characters suffering from the loss of culture and language, the loss of roots and home as they adapt to the glittering promises of new worlds which ultimately seem so empty.