Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Paying you back for some bad book recommendations

I feel terribly guilty that the last two Migrant Bookclub titles have been total flops (if I say so myself).

Kapka Kassabova's Street Without a Name (April & May 2011) was a textbook exercise in pop-cultural regurgitation, which I know sounds harsh but I challenge you to quote ONE passage from her book that doesn't sound like a thousand things you've read already.

Susan Choi's The Foreign Student (June & July 2011) was slow and sleepy which would have been forgivable if she provided some sort of release but, alas, the only bit that sustained me through her pages was the fact that I actually *went* to the University of the South and lived in the town she describes. Reading the first 50 pages of her novel felt a lot like reading the Sewanee Mountain Messanger minus the excitement, you know.

I have a slight case of OCD and have a VERY.HARD.TIME *not* finishing books even if they require me to suffer but these two I had to put down. I disliked them THAT much. I won't judge you if you DID enjoy them but I will say that I am very relieved to move on.

To apologize to those of you who actually had a similar experience with these two titles, I would like to offer an alternative title that I picked up by chance at a sidewalk used book sale and enjoyed immensely. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin (the good-looking fella up above) is a deceitfully simple story. On the surface, the narrative is fairly straight-forward: Eilis, a poor Irish girl, finds herself immigrating to the States and faces the realities of being young, single and alone in 1950s New York City. At a closer look, however, the story is quite elegant and suspenseful, dealing with issues such as immigration, nostalgia, poverty, class, parental authority and daughters' responsibility in a kind, gentle, subtle and generally very touching way. I felt particularly inspired (although inspiration is hardly what it felt like) by Toibin's description of homesickness that felt painfully familiar and yet tantalizing in its perceptiveness:
She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything. The rooms in the house on Friary Street belonged to her, she thought; when she moved in them she was really there. In the town, if she walked to the shop or to the Vocational School, the air, the light, the ground, it was all solid and part of her, even if she met no one familiar. Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty, she thought.

All of you emigre souls out there: please don't tell me you never felt that way because I simply will not believe you! This experience of homesickness and nostalgia, so palpable and vivid, is turned completely on its head upon Eilis's return to Ireland:
By the time she managed to say that she was tired and would need to lie down for a while, her mother had not asked her one question about her time in America, or even her trip home. Just as her mother seemed to have prepared things to say and show to her, she had been planning how this first day would go. Eilis had planned to give an account of how much more smooth the crossing from New York to Cobh had been than her first voyage from Liverpool, and how much she had enjoyed sitting up on deck taking in the sun. She had planned also to show her mother the letter from Brooklyn College telling her that she had passed her exams and would, in time, be sent a certificate to say that she was a qualified bookkeeper. She had also bought her mother a cardigan and scarf and some stockings, but her mother had almost absent-mindedly left them aside, saying that she would open them later
I especially recommend the book to anyone who has a sibling they are close to. Grab a box of Kleenex or, better yet, pour yourself a glass of scotch and read on. I'm telling you. It's delicious.


The Migrant Bookclub book for August & September of 2011 is Susan Sontag's In America. I invite you to read along!


  1. I never had a chance to read those 2 selections you are now un-recommending, good thing I guess! I'd like to recommend one if I may-"Train to Trieste" by Dominica Radulescu. I happened upon it in my local library and couldn't put it down, it's about a Romanian girl who escapes in the eary 80s and eventually finds herself in Chicago. Beautifully written. Check it out!

  2. Thanks for the recommendation! Sounds really great! Adding it to my To Read list on GoodReads!