Friday, November 30, 2012

The Migrant Bookclub's
2012 Best Books for Expats, Immigrants and Other Vagrants

Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in the October 2011 issue of Vogue
I often wonder why people love immigrant stories and I keep coming back to the fact that immigration is so much about being a failure– a modest or a HUGE one– but still, failure. By definition immigrants don't quite fit in, we fail to belong. Even in circumstances we should be comfortable or maybe, especially then– when we are "home", when we visit with family, when we confront our simple pasts– we fail most miserably. Discomfort settles in and makes itself a part of how we move through the world. Everyone relates.

So, really, I am not surprised but I am indeed very pleased that 2012 was a great year for immigrant stories. Here are my favorite picks but I am even more interested in what titles you would add to this list, too! Let me know what you think and leave a comment below!


Paris I love You But You Are Bringing Me Down
by Rosecrans Baldwin

Baldwin and his wife move to Paris for his job with an ad agency. They encounter... France. The book is unoriginal in its subject matter and Baldwin doesn't quite surprise you in the general categories he observes. But he will disarm you with his kindness and unflinching desire to UNDERSTAND. There's something particularly American about this story, a refusal to accept being an outsider that is so sweet and endearing that it would have been annoying if it had been told with arrogance. Loved it.

This Is How You Lose Her
by Junot Diaz

We waited for this book for so long, after the utterly unforgettable Oscar Wao. In his new book Diaz brings back Yunior, his nerdy Dominican-American main character and shows him struggling with his odd mix of admiration and distrust of women, highlights his compulsion to cheat and explores his general inability to view women as actual human beings. I am still working my way through this collection of related short stories and I will say that so far it has not shattered my world in the way Oscar did but I will say that I am Diaz junkie, so anything he spits out, I want want WANT.

The Newlyweds
by Nell Freudenberger

I think I remember reading somewhere that Nell Freudenberger met the future main character of her book on a plane. They started chatting while on a flight to Southeast Asia. Nell said she knew right away she wanted to write a book about her. Someone please confirm or negate this story? The main character Amina is from Bangladesh and meets her future husband George on It's not a creepy story of abuse or anything like that. In fact, the romance begins in an extraordinarily normal way: two people, wanting the same things... family, a partner, etc. Then two cousins, one on each side of their marriage become romantically implicated. Whaaa? Still not creepy. Mostly, sad and nostalgic for other times and other places that seem to always come back and haunt us. I am really interested in books on marriage these days and in that context, Freudenberger is a superstar.

An Extraordinary Theory of Objects: a memoir of an outsider in Paris
by Stephanie LaCava

I've spoken very enthusiastically about this coming of age story by Stephanie LaCava. It's strange how a book that is so forthcoming both about it's structure and it's subject matter, can also be so full of whimsey and surprise. Of all the books on this list, this is probably the one that was the most unusual reading experience. LaCava's raw autobiographical notes are interspersed with gentle illustrations (by Pamela Love's husband!) and feature very detailed footnotes about the various objects featured in the storyline. Girls with glasses will find themselves holding the book an inch from their nose and will feel like they are back in high-school, exploring their first favorite magazine. Every punctuation mark will matter.

Shopping For a Better Country
by Josip Novakovich

Josip Novakovich published a collection of his immigration and travel essays which was one of the highlights of my summer and probably my year. Novakovich's story of migration is one with many twists and turns but mostly marked by how undramatic the events themselves have been. His story isn't one of war and political displacement, at least not directly, not dramatically so. It's a story of an ordinary life made unnecessarily complicated by frameworks and borders that no longer seem to apply. Nobody writes as well about returning home as Novakovich does.

by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith's long awaited novel has been much talked about already so I will just keep my comments to a minimum. The world she creates is vivid and bustling. You crack the book open and you are THERE. You can feel it, you can smell it. It's quite incredible actually. But, I would put the book down to go grab a glass of water and forget about it... for a week. That's never quite happened to me before. Frankly, this was the saddest book I read all year. It felt like Smith has started to panic that life and literary fame have taken her too far away from her roots of bustling, immigrant London and so she set off to prove that she still has some NorthWest in her. Much of the book reads like notes she wrote to herself, to remind herself of a story she read or a life she used to know because she wanted to hold on to those memories, wasn't ready to let them go just yet. It is so nostalgic, by the end it becomes hysterical.

Vaclav and Lena
by Haley Tanner

This book set in a contemporary Brooklyn of Russian immigrants tore my heart in half. It was such a sweet story of love despite {immigrant} baggage and obstacles, such a poetic ode to the innocence and force of young love. Then I read that Tanner wrote the book while her very young husband was battling and ultimately lost his fight with cancer and I fell to pieces. I know I tend to overestimate authors' biographical experience on the spirit of their writing but this particular tidbit made me love Tanner's book that much more. The book was originally published in 2011 but re-printed and more widely reviewed in 2012. Again, please correct my chronology on this one if necessary.


  1. I know that you know which of these books you should know better than to want. But if you still want it, just reach over and take it, it's yours.

    1. You should just come out and say which one of these you didn't like. No point in keeping people guessing. :))

  2. I'm trying to wrap my brain around the concept of immigration having so much to do with failure. I am in fact failing to come to terms with it! Indeed immigrants have a hard time fitting in (I've also been there and done culture shock, no language skills, etc.), but I do not like the idea of that as failure. Maybe I think that if that's true then we're all pretty much failing at life, or something.

    The Josip Novakovich book is on my wishlist for next year; I really want to read it.

  3. So excited to read This is how you Lose Her, I loved the brief wondrous Life...