Hello! Welcome back to another Recent Reads post. Unfortunately, I have had to DNF (“did not finish”) two books recently (one of which was sadly inevitable). However, I have also read several fantastic books recently!
(Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer was not pictured in the featured photo because I returned my copy prior to the date of the photograph.)
*All summaries are from Goodreads.*
*This link will direct you to a page featuring helpful Black Lives Matter resources.*
*In addition, this link will direct you to my post on the Black Lives Matter movement, in which a number of resources are listed.*
EDUCATED by: Tara Westover – A memoir *5/5 stars*
Tara Westover was 17 the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her “head-for-the-hills bag”. In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged in her father’s junkyard.
Her father forbade hospitals, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. Gashes and concussions, even burns from explosions, were all treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education and no one to intervene when one of Tara’s older brothers became violent.
Then, lacking any formal education, Tara began to educate herself. She taught herself enough mathematics and grammar to be admitted to Brigham Young University, where she studied history, learning for the first time about important world events like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.
This memoir was utterly consuming.
A vivid and impactful narrative, Educated explores Tara Westover’s experience of discovering formal education while battling against severe personal traumas. Throughout the memoir, we are exposed to the dire consequences of her parents’ (primarily her father’s) Mormon extremism, the physical abuse she begins to face, the psychological damage she endures, and the consequential alienation she suffers. At once bold and wholly vulnerable, Educated explores reflection and self-discovery in an honest and poignant manner. In a desperately inspirational and compelling narrative, Tara Westover epitomizes Carol Anderson’s quote from Anderson’s novel White Rage: “Education can be transformative.”
MIDNIGHT SUN by: Stephenie Meyer – A companion novel to Twilight *DNF*
When Edward Cullen and Bella Swan met in Twilight, an iconic love story was born. But until now, fans have heard only Bella’s side of the story. At last, readers can experience Edward’s version in the long-awaited companion novel, Midnight Sun.
This unforgettable tale as told through Edward’s eyes takes on a new and decidedly dark twist. Meeting Bella is both the most unnerving and intriguing event he has experienced in all his years as a vampire. As we learn more fascinating details about Edward’s past and the complexity of his inner thoughts, we understand why this is the defining struggle of his life. How can he justify following his heart if it means leading Bella into danger?
This book was simply laughable.
I read the Twilight books several years ago, the first of which—Twilight—I read approximately twice. Even while I do not have particularly fond memories of the books, I bear an indescribable nostalgia for the series. This, I believe, is in part due to Robert Pattinson’s portrayal of Edward Cullen (the leading “bad boy”—literally) in the film series. However, Twilight will always evoke a keen sense of nostalgia in me. Therefore, I felt as if my purchasing Midnight Sun was necessary lest I wallow in regret of having withheld temptation.
The experience of reading the first 94 pages of Midnight Sun was not a pleasant one. I felt myself physically wince in embarrassment for Stephenie Meyer repeatedly, as well as emotionally wince in agony from the pain of reading Edward’s unceasing internal monologue and comically twisted fascination with Bella Swan. However, the most significant of my critiques concerns the fact that Meyer thought it necessary to refute the pubic’s belief that Bella lacks a personality. Meyer did so by having Edward compile a mental list of Bella’s unique character traits, namely bravery and self-effacement. Meyer proceeded to justify these characteristics by exploring petty scenarios in which Bella seemingly demonstrated them. This was reason enough to return the book.
In addition, Midnight Sun conveniently confirmed that Edward himself possesses no personality, save his utter absorption in Bella. While I genuinely wanted to complete this book, primarily to do justice to my younger self, I could not stomach the inanity of it. I have grown to expect to gain something from each of my reading experiences, and my reading Midnight Sun would neither allow for further education nor a pleasurable experience.
WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS by: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – An essay/initially a TED Talk *3.5/5 stars*
What does “feminism” mean today? That is the question at the heart of We Should All Be Feminists, a personal, eloquently-argued essay—adapted from her much-viewed TEDx talk of the same name—by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the award-winning author of Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun.
With humor and levity, here Adichie offers readers a unique definition of feminism for the twenty-first century—one rooted in inclusion and awareness. She shines a light not only on blatant discrimination, but also the more insidious, institutional behaviors that marginalize women around the world, in order to help readers of all walks of life better understand the often masked realities of sexual politics. Throughout, she draws extensively on her own experiences—in the U.S., in her native Nigeria, and abroad—offering an artfully nuanced explanation of why the gender divide is harmful for women and men, alike.
Argued in the same observant, witty and clever prose that has made Adichie a bestselling novelist, here is one remarkable author’s exploration of what it means to be a woman today—and an of-the-moment rallying cry for why we should all be feminists.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists is a fairly well written and concise essay on a modern interpretation of feminism. While I understand that this essay was originally delivered as a TED Talk, I thought it was a rather shallow exploration that lacked a necessary element of nuance and depth on such an expansive subject. I believe Adichie could have expanded her initial Talk to encompass a more in-depth and lengthy discussion on feminism in the form of a book.
That said, I do believe that this essay acts as an excellent and effective way to communicate clearly to a particular audience about several aspects of feminism, particularly with regard to Nigerian culture (such as the prominence of marriage and its correlation with respect, which I believe is significant in other cultures as well). In addition, by providing a more positive and modern perspective on the word feminism, We Should All Be Feminists offers readers the means to initiate necessary discussion. I therefore appreciate Adichie’s strides towards delivering an accessible piece of work on a subject that often has negative connotations.
WAYWARD LIVES, BEAUTIFUL EXPERIMENTS by: Saidiya Hartman – A novel *4.5/5 stars*
In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Saidiya Hartman examines the revolution of black intimate life that unfolded in Philadelphia and New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. Free love, common-law and transient marriages, serial partners, cohabitation outside of wedlock, queer relations, and single motherhood were among the sweeping changes that altered the character of everyday life and challenged traditional Victorian beliefs about courtship, love, and marriage. Hartman narrates the story of this radical social transformation against the grain of the prevailing century-old argument about the crisis of the black family.
In wrestling with the question of what a free life is, many young black women created forms of intimacy and kinship that were indifferent to the dictates of respectability and outside the bounds of law. They cleaved to and cast off lovers, exchanged sex to subsist, and revised the meaning of marriage. Longing and desire fueled their experiments in how to live. They refused to labor like slaves or to accept degrading conditions of work.
Beautifully written and deeply researched, Wayward Lives recreates the experience of young urban black women who desired an existence qualitatively different than the one that had been scripted for them—domestic service, second-class citizenship, and respectable poverty—and whose intimate revolution was apprehended as crime and pathology. For the first time, young black women are credited with shaping a cultural movement that transformed the urban landscape. Through a melding of history and literary imagination, Wayward Lives recovers their radical aspirations and insurgent desires.
This book was utterly beautiful.
Seemingly rich with possibility and freedom, New York City and Philadelphia pulsed with vibrancy and opportunity at the dawn of the twentieth century, thereby attracting throngs of Black folks, having recently escaped the egregious conditions in the South, in search of a new and transformed life. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is an astoundingly breathtaking portrait of the lives of Black women at the beginning of the twentieth century, as the legacy of slavery prevails. Deftly avoiding romanticization, Saidiya Hartman succeeded at illuminating the uniquely beautiful elements of Black culture and existence—the radical intimacy, accompanied by an empowering feeling of ostensible liberation; the fierce sense of community, and a shared struggle; the subtlety of disguising a fraction of ugliness with a beautifully patterned cloth—in addition to the women of prominence and those of obscurity.
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments was deeply profound and beautifully furthered my understanding of African-American history at the dawn of the twentieth century. However, owing to the vast number of women’s (and girls’) stories integrated throughout the narrative, I felt as if numerous women and their accompanying stories blended together in a most unfortunate way. I would have preferred a more minimal cast of characters, for in an attempt to accentuate each story and woman/girl, Hartman’s extensive cast of characters did not allow for memorability and the profundity of each story. Furthermore, I deeply wish the stories had intertwining elements. Although that would have been immensely challenging to achieve, as these women and their stories are non-fiction, I feel as if the interlocking of their stories would have contributed an additional impactful layer to the novel.
I thought the photographs distributed throughout the novel contributed an additional element of depth and beauty to each woman and their story. One picture in particular, featured on page 12, I found utterly breathtaking. Her eyes downcast, the dark locks of hair tightly coiling themselves around her neck and chest, the photograph captures at once the woman’s insecurity, her shyness, her submission, as well as her intense longing accompanied by a unique beauty. That photograph, among numerous others included in the novel, was not directly referenced in the passage accompanying the picture. Unfortunately, the seeming non-correlation between several of the photographs and the accompanying passage frustrated me. While the presence of the photographs felt necessary and welcome, I would have preferred a more apparent relation between the text and photograph. That said, I believe this novel beautifully captures the extreme adversity that Black women suffered following their arrival to the United States (specifically New York City and Philadelphia) in the early twentieth century.
AMERICANAH by: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – A novel *4/5 stars*
Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Fifteen years later, they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria, and reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland.
Ablaze with animation and colour, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is a perceptive and humorous story of race. As I have primarily read African-American literature, reading a story written by an African writer that follows an African woman (both of whom—author and character—are Nigerian) was excellent exposure and a welcome change. By means of a warm and playful tone, Adichie delivered a highly enjoyable and rather realistic story divided between America and Nigeria. While I was thoroughly entertained throughout the novel, due to its infectious and entertaining quality, as well as its vastly plot-driven quality, Americanah does not present itself as wholly re-readable. Unfortunately, the novel was also not as impactful as I would have appreciated, due to the popular and accessible quality of Adichie’s writing (at least, as indicated by Americanah). That said, I believe Adichie cleverly explored several themes of race throughout the novel in the forms of humour and entertainment.
HALF OF A YELLOW SUN by: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – A novel *DNF*
A masterly, haunting new novel from a writer heralded by The Washington Post Book World as “the 21st-century daughter of Chinua Achebe,” Half of a Yellow Sun re-creates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra’s impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in Nigeria in the 1960s, and the chilling violence that followed.
With astonishing empathy and the effortless grace of a natural storyteller, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie weaves together the lives of three characters swept up in the turbulence of the decade. Thirteen-year-old Ugwu is employed as a houseboy for a university professor full of revolutionary zeal. Olanna is the professor’s beautiful mistress, who has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos for a dusty university town and the charisma of her new lover. And Richard is a shy young Englishman in thrall to Olanna’s twin sister, an enigmatic figure who refuses to belong to anyone. As Nigerian troops advance and the three must run for their lives, their ideals are severely tested, as are their loyalties to one another.
Epic, ambitious, and triumphantly realized, Half of a Yellow Sun is a remarkable novel about moral responsibility, about the end of colonialism, about ethnic allegiances, about class and race—and the ways in which love can complicate them all. Adichie brilliantly evokes the promise and the devastating disappointments that marked this time and place, bringing us one of the most powerful, dramatic, and intensely emotional pictures of modern Africa that we have ever had.
Unfortunately, I decided to DNF (“did not finish”) Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. Although I appreciated the denser and more challenging subject matter—which I craved from Americanah—I found the characters significantly lacking in substance and animation. It felt as if the cast of characters vaguely possessed the distinct characteristics established in the synopsis, yet Adichie failed to transform these meagre attributes into well-developed individuals. The startling absence of colour and tone in both Adichie’s writing and her characters notably differs Half of a Yellow Sun from Americanah, a novel that throbs with fervency and life. That said, I do hope to read more of Adichie’s work in the future.
As always, thank you for reading!
All the best,