Monday, January 6, 2014

The MIGRANT BOOKCLUB'S
2013 BEST BOOKS FOR EXPATS, IMMIGRANTS AND OTHER VAGRANTS

Image via Awesome People Reading

2013 was a fantastic reading year for me. It was a year of fewer titles but deeper reading. I put blogging on the back-burner and thus allowed myself a less focused approach to choosing what to read. I followed no agenda and read for joy and pleasure. I read older titles by writers I've loved, I read multiple titles by the same author and stayed away from BOOKS-OF-THE-MOMENT (with some notable exceptions). It paid off. It was a very satisfying year!

Thus, The Migrant Bookclub's 2013 Best Books for Expats, Immigrants and Other Vagrants is a rather short one. The rule for such lists is that they only include books that came out this past year. There are only three titles on the list but they are books that I loved and adored and I am recommending with my whole heart. These are books that not only get at the core of the migrant experience but books that truly capture the anxiety and exhilaration of losing one's sense of {metaphorical} home. These three, more than anything else I read this year, reminded me why I love reading: to be moved and transported. To lose and then find myself and be whole again.

***

The Book of My Lives
by Aleksandar Hemon

Hemon, for me, has been a hard one to love. As I've mentioned before, his story in so many ways feels like my own that I can't help getting irritated with him when he gets things wrong. When I've read his earlier work – The Lazarus Project, Love and Obstacles – I have been quite upset by his arrogant style and put-on air. Many of my American friends have told me that they don't get that, they see his confidence, they say, they like his sense of humor. But it's not sense of humor, it's thinly veiled East European machismo... pretending to be self-deprecation. And I love him for it, but I also can't stand him and every time he's got a new book out, I feel nervous. But this one – The Book of My Lives – broke my heart in so many little pieces. The clear standout of this collection of autobiographical essays is The Aquarium in which Hemon documents the horror and painful isolation of being a helpless witness to his 9-month-year-old daughter's battle with cancer. However, the book as a whole felt like a break-through (break-down???) to me as Hemon's characteristic arrogance is gone and what is left is a warm, authentic and vulnerable account of an intimate personal journey. There's a tenderness to this collection that, to me, felt almost physical and somehow managed to capture an immigrant experience that is very close to mine. The experience of being welcomed, banged around and somehow saved at the end without any bitterness and just a little bit of sorrow.


You are One of Them
by Elliott Holt

Elliott Holt's debut novel was the novel I was most excited about in 2013. I knew it was coming out and I waited so impatiently for it – I badgered Holt's publicist for gallies, I read whatever little bit I could find by/about her online and researched the backstory to her novel. I was so impatient, in fact, that several times I really wondered if I was entering stalker territory. But the thing is, every once in a while, a book comes out that feels like it was written specifically for you – and not in some vague way, say, because it captures the mood of your generation or it takes up an issue you've always struggled with. No. This book for me started where my bookshelves end and where my reading list paused and my last Firefox tab closed and was colored in the Kodachrome colors of the almost-hallucinatory visions of the book I am trying to write. You are One of Them is the story of a friendship between Sarah Zuckerman  and Jennifer Jones. The two girls become incredibly close after Jennifer moves into the house across the street from Sarah in a Washington DC of the 1980s. The friendship falters when Jennifer becomes a minor celebrity after having written a letter to Andropov and travels to the USSR as a good-will ambassador. Many years later, Sarah will visit post-Soviet Russia to look for work, adventure and the ghost of her long lost friend who continues to haunt her. You know me, I am sucker for a good Cold War story but what I loved the most about Holt's book is how seamlessly it interweaves the political sentiments of its period with the interpersonal relationships of the characters. Geopolitics are not a mere Potemkin village of a device to give flair to an otherwise all-American story. In the novel, the D.C. of Holt's childhood is alive and brimming with suspicion and possibility that penetrate the lives even of children. However, Holt is her strongest when she transports us to a newly democratic Russia of the early/mid-1990s where both newly emancipated Soviets and opportunistic Westerners are trying their damnest to act like most of the XX century never took place. What is so strange, unusual and wonderful is that in the midst of such bustling and cosmopolitan setting, Holt tells a story that is so touching and tender that you will feel almost like an intruder for reading it.


Americanah
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This book is the very last one I read in 2013 and it is probably my favorite. The book's main character is Ifemelu, an outspoken and ambitious young woman from Nigeria who comes to the States for college. What she leaves behind is her love, Obinze, her family, her HOME. Her immigrant story is the story of many of the people reading this website: the story of an international student that struggles at first – How did they know when to laugh, what to laugh about? Or, ever more poignantly – ... all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they did not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty. Ifemelu comes to reject the America that has been offered to her and claim an Americah that is a spirit, more than a physical space. In addition to telling an immigrant story that is less bombastic than the ones we often hear but not any less truer, nor authentic, Adichie tells a sophisticated story about race in America and describes a reality of being black that she herself only discovered after leaving her native Nigeria. You will be charmed and repulsed by fantastic, complex characters that defy stereotypes in the most natural sort of way to the point of making you think that said stereotypes are not just harmful but really... just ... silly. Her strong, unforgettable women are at the most amazing when they are annoyed. And, behind it all... a love story that is raw and sweet  and reminds you why a story of love is the best story ever told.

1 comment:

  1. your enthusiasm for these books are infectious! they're all going on my list and i hope to find the time for them.

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