The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
The thing I like about being part of two separate book clubs is that you get to read a variety of books that you’d never even heard or consider reading before. The thing I don’t like about belonging to two book clubs is that I spend a chunk of time reading books that I end up having no interest in or disliking. Ultimately, though, it’s not too annoying, because it’s good for me to read books I don’t choose. I’ll be interested in hearing what my community book club has to say about the book I just read.
Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers focuses on two brothers: Eli and Charlie Sisters, a pair of hired guns who have been sent to commandeer Hermann Kermit Warm’s secret formula and then kill him for their boss, the Commodore. Told from Eli’s point-of-view, we journey with the Sisters brothers to California and in prospecting wilderness to search their quarry and get rich. Eli’s narration reveals their harrowing past family relationship, their current conflicts as brothers and partners, and their individual ambitions and insecurities.
This book was a really mixed bag for me. I was bored for the first 100 pages, and it took a long time for the plot to come together. There’s a terrific commentary on greed and the illusory nature of the American Dream, but that comes in about 250 pages into the book. That’s a long time for the payoff, and I had to slog through a lot of stuff that just didn’t interest me. I think that part of the problem for me was that the book reminded me a lot of the film Hell or High Water. I know the book came out first, and if I’d read it, I wouldn’t have these comparisons in mind, but because I did, I couldn’t shake the impression. I would rate this a solid 2.5 stars, but I think this is more personal than anything.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Have you ever read a book right after it was published and realized that this book was meant to be read right now, right at this time, and that it speaks powerfully about what is unfolding around the world? I don’t think it’s an accident that Mohsin Hamid is writing about refugees fleeing their native country which has crumbled, or that he speaks to the family ties that we forge and break from this kind of global uncertainty. I was surprised by this short novel, but also deeply compelled by it.
The center of this narrative is a couple: Saeed and Nadia, who meet randomly and find themselves thrown together amidst their city’s crumble into state-sanctioned violence and warfare. With this spontaneous and fast-tracked intimacy, they try to create a life amidst traditions and strife. When they hear about doors that lead to other areas, they decide to pack up and move somewhere else, leaving their old lives behind entirely. What they find is a world connected in mutual suffering, as well as the ways in which relationships evolve and change over time.
I’ve read two of Hamid’s three other novels (The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia) and I personally think this is his best. It’s poignant and beautifully written, particularly as it describes the terror in the city and its effects on the citizens who live there. The characterization of Saeed and Nadia is nuanced and complex, filled with the spoken and unspoken complexities that make up an individual and a couple. Finally, the concept of the doors introduces a fantastical element to an otherwise brutally realistic depiction of world crisis today—it’s interesting to think about where a magic door could take you if you decided you must flee your country. It also contains an interesting critique of nationalism in the West, which is highly timely in the face of Brexit and the rise of fascism in the United States.
The Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
For one of my teaching gigs, I’m at an Islamic college in my nearest big city, and it’s been a rewarding and enlightening experience already. My boss has asked if I wanted someday to teach a Muslim-American literature course, and I obviously said yes, I would. That day, when I got home, I did a ton of Googling and Goodreads digging. I’m fairly widely read, but I wanted to see what scholars and publishers counted as Muslim-American, so that I could be fair in my selection of books that I would theoretically teach from. Several sources recommended Saladin Ahmed’s The Throne of the Crescent Moon, and since it was science fiction—an innovative and unexpected genre—I thought I would start here.
Adoulla is a lifelong ghul hunter, using sacred spells to dispel their forms and neutralize their evil. He has taken on an apprentice, Raseed, who is a dervish and a devout practitioner of faith. Together, they are in the process of hunting down a ghul who murdered a little boy’s family when they come upon a young woman who can take the lion-shape. Zamia is Protector of her family, a role normally given to men, when tragedy strikes her tribe, and she lives only to avenge them. Together, the trio stumble upon a dangerous new enemy, one that seems to fall beyond their reach and stands to endanger the already tenuous balance in the city that Adoulla so loves.
As I was reading the book, I began thinking, “I think this is a solid three-star book for me.” I was not disabused of that first impression, and I think I can explain why. What’s intriguing about the book is its setting and literary context. It’s set in an Arabic country (presumably) and relies heavily on Muslim faith and religious tradition, which is novel and cool. Unfortunately, the characters and plot are terribly predictable, and the dialogue is a little too paint-by-numbers to be realistic or convincing. It is a fast read, though, and something a little different than what I’ve read before, so I do think it’s worth the read. I’ll be interested to see what else Ahmed writes.
It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
After A chose 1984 for Book Club in March, F decided to continue our dystopian theme by picking Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, which has gained national prominence and attention in the last year. I’ve heard that it was an accurate depiction of what is currently happening here in the United States, and I was curious about reading a book that seemed to line up so closely to current events, especially since this tome was written in the 1930s. In the age of Trump, I am sure that so much of our literature is going to explore dark themes and questions of individual and state control.
Bezelius Windrip is a demagogue running for President of the United States. And he wins. People are excited in a feverish rush to become a country of America Only and so they submit to the many extreme behaviors that are emerging from the Windrip camp. The protagonist in this novel is journalist and newspaperman Doremus Jessup, who at first approaches Windrup with optimism and then fear as freedoms slowly ebb away. The novel’s plot follows a structure somewhat similar to 1984’s, even down to an affair with an idolized woman.
Honestly, I did not connect with this book at all. I found quite a few commonalities with our current situation, but reading about something that lined up did not comfort or impress me. Yes, Donald Trump is a demagogue and he’s being influenced by all the wrong people. I’ve been saying this for a year now. The people who voted him in didn’t listen. I think part of my issue is fatigue. I’ve read so much news in the last year that I’m exhausted. And I also feel like this book is going to be read mostly by liberals and intellectuals and not the people who actually need to read this.
Another problem is that the book is limited by the philosophies of its time. And this is specifically in reference to its female characters. They tend to be fairly typecast and limited, and there’s a disturbing rape comment that could only have been written by a man who didn’t need to worry about rape. Like, it’s not maliciously meant, but it’s startling and tone-deaf to read in 2017.
Overall, this was not a great book for me. Your own mileage, as always, may vary.
Dear Ijeawele, or, a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
If you’ve never read We Should All Be Feminists, stop reading this review, pick up that book, and come back when you’re ready. This is your master class in feminism, and the first book will build the steps that will help you really enact livable feminism in your life.
Back? Awesome! Now you’re ready to carry on the work and take it another step further. Adichie, who’s become a voice of contemporary feminism, was asked to write suggestions on how to raise a feminist daughter. Since she herself recently gave birth to a daughter, she wrote this into a small book, which is the current volume. These suggestions are practical and implementable for women and men in all sorts of family situations. She talks about raising a daughter with an individual, rather than marriage-oriented, identity, education, casual talk about herself, career ambitions, equal parenting load in a heterosexual family, and even simple things that can cause women to lessen themselves in their own eyes. It’s a fast but important read.
What I like so much about Adichie’s feminism is that it’s not Western in focus. Too often, here in the States, we develop a shorthand for feminism that is very exclusive to the US, or at least the West, and there’s a whole world out there. I often think about feminism in very US-centric terms, but I forget how much a woman’s body, or at the very least, a body that codes female, is at danger of rape or harassment or murder. Adichie is such a necessary voice to the cause, not just as a woman of color or a nonwestern woman, but a woman who is educated and articulate and advocates a practice that is practical, inclusive, and redemptive to both women and men.