Book Review: WE NEED NEW NAMES, growing up in the space between Zimbabwe and America

bulawayo, noviolet - we need new names (1) (1)We Need New Names
NoViolet Bulawayo

In We Need New Names, Darling grows up in Zimbabwe among a pack of children in the specter of poverty and violence. School has been canceled because the teachers have all gone to neighboring countries where the pay is higher. Many adults, including Darling’s father, who had been in South Africa for years without contacting his family, contracted AIDS (“The Sickness”). Others, like Darling’s mother, have to travel long distances for work or to sell their goods. The children steal guavas from Budapest–the wealthy neighborhood–to assuage their hunger and act out games like find bin Laden. One of their crew, an eleven-year-old-girl, is pregnant as the result of incest.

The first half of the novel, set in Zimbabwe, is amazing, as it describes very adult problems through a child’s eyes. When an angry group of men evict a white couple from their house and the children observe from a hiding place in a guava tree, once the men take the couple away, the children quickly forget the violence to take glee in jumping on the bed in the destroyed home and eating the food left in the kitchen. A visit from an NGO to distribute packages–including toy guns to children–is especially poignant.

For me, though, I thought the book lost focus when Darling moved to the United States with her Aunt Fostalina. Darling recounts the painful position of not-belonging and of being unable to return to visit Zimbabwe because of money and her visa status. To fit in, she emulated her peers, going so far as to adopt an American accent, but she was never accepted fully by them. At the same time, she was estranged from her family and friends in Zimbabwe who either didn’t understand her life in America or who felt she abandoned the country. As a result, she lost a vital connection with herself. I empathize with these themes, but feel they were presented more skillfully in Behold the Dreamers and Amerikanah. I also did not care at all for how the book ended.

I do though think We Need New Names is valuable to read for the rich content of the first half and the insight it provides into growing up in Zimbabwe.

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Book Review: ADÈLE, a visceral book about sex addiction undermined by unlikable protagonist

Slimani, Leila - Adele CoverAdèle
Leila Slimani

A sex addict always hoping but never able to fill the void inside her, Adèle jeopardizes her marriage with Richard, her job, her finances, and her relationship with her son for quick and often debasing rendezvous with strangers. Adèle is also vain, judgemental, manipulative, dramatic, and often cruel.

Although the description intimates the book might have elements of a psychological thriller, in truth, the slim volume is a psychological study of a woman who cannot step back from the edge of self-destruction. Because Adèle was so unlikable, it undercut the impact of her addiction which was difficult to parse from her personality. Her ambivalent feelings toward motherhood were also interesting, but those, too, became overshadowed by her unlikeability. When she puts herself in danger and when she engages in riskier behavior, perhaps hoping to get found out, it is difficult to empathize with her.

When a character is so flawed, it seems readers always want to know why. In Adèle’s case, Slimani seems to blame a combination of her mother’s flippant cruelty as a child combined with an encounter with The Unbearable Lightness of Being at an impressionable age, but these factors to me don’t seem to justify the extremes of her behavior. While I am satisfied that at times, some behavior is inexplicable, I am less content that Slimani finds these two factors sufficient justification in the context of the book’s logic for Adèle’s behavior.

Towards the end of the book, the novel introduces Richard’s perspective demonstrating his culpability in their unhealthy dance of mutual dependence. It was a strange and to me jarring shift, and the book ended on an ambiguous and unsatisfying note.

Adèle confronts an addiction not often discussed and illuminates the perilous spiral in which addicts circle. Adèle’s experiences are vivid and visceral. Unfortunately, as a character, Adèle doesn’t spark much sympathy.

Thank you to NetGalley and Crown Publishing for providing an advanced reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: LOVE LIKE HATE, Vietnam through black humor

dinh, linh - love like hate (1).jpgLove Like Hate
Linh Dinh

During the Vietnam War, Kim Lan and ARVN officer Hoang Long married. While his deployments–and his mistress–took him away from Saigon most of the year, Kim Lan ran her cafe and cared for her son, Cun. After South Vietnam fell to the communists, life dramatically changed for them both. The beginning and end of the novel, set in the recent past and focusing on Kim Lan and her desire to find a Viet Kieu (overseas, hopefully from America, Vietnamese) husband for her daughter, Hoa, bookend the story of Hoang Long and Kim Lan’s past.

Quang Trung explained to Hoa that he called his band Love Like Hate because that was how he felt about Vietnam. “I love Vietnam so much I hate her. How can I not hate her when I love her so much? I am like a son who froths at the mouth because he has to watch his mother sell her pussy. She’s sold her pussy to the Chinese, French, Russians and Americans, and now she’s selling it to the Taiwanese. She’d sell her pussy to anyone because she feels inferior to everyone. She’s thrilled to be humiliated because someone is paying attention to her. And when she’s too old to sell her own pussy, she sells her daughter’s pussy. That’s Mother Vietnam for you!”

Parts of Love Like Hate were amazing. Linh Dinh describes civilian life during and after the war in what seems like an authentic manner, and he depicts life in a reeducation camp, shrines, and the landscape in vivid detail, all with a black humor.

As a whole, though, I wasn’t wild about the novel. It takes a sardonic tone, absolving no character or group of people. Most of the urban Vietnamese are presented as self-interested and greedy, the peasants superstitious and naive, the Americans as bumbling fools (which I can understand given our activities in the country), the French as condescending, the communists as hypocritical, capitalism promotes vapidity, and so on. The most benign characters might be seen as laissez-faire; the worst, selfish and cruel.

Neither Kim Lan nor Hoang Long had positive parental relationships. In each case, their mothers died young, their fathers were absent, and they were raised by stepmothers. Kim Lan seems to perpetuate the cruelty she learned while Hoang mirrors the distance of his father. Kim Lan’s children, Cun, her son, and Hoa, her daughter, respond differently to her controlling nature.

Linh Dinh’s critique’s are biting, and in many cases, ring true, but he doesn’t leave anything to fill the space he’s destroyed. As a result, the novel feels to me like its message is attenuated, leaving the reader with a sense of emptiness.

Book Review: WHAT WE LOSE, a meditation on grief

clemmons, zinzi - what we loseWhat We Lose
Zinzi Clemmons

Growing up, Thandi fell into an in-between space as the child of a South African and African-American. The blacks of her hometown, Philadelphia, didn’t consider her one of them, nor did the white kids. Yet, her mother anchored her. When her mother passed away from breast cancer during her freshman year in college, Thandi became unmoored. As she grew into adulthood and became a mother, Thandi danced with the grief of her mother’s death, the pain of her mother’s past under apartheid, and her own sense of being always out of place.

An eclectic novel, What We Lose includes excerpts from blogs and memoirs, photographs, figures, and charts. (In some cases, I wasn’t sure if these were made up by the author for the story or actual source material until I looked at the credits page, something not usually found in a novel!) Chapters range from a sentence long to a few pages.

Clemmons deftly sketches the impact of a long illness, the shape of absence taken by grief, and the desperate ways people behave to escape it. At the same time, I felt removed from the emotion of the characters, perhaps because of the structure or tone of the writing, though a quote from the book also seems appropriate:

If you have never eaten a tangerine, however much the other person loves you and wants to help you understand what a tangerine tastes like, they will never succeed by describing it. The reality of the tangerine goes beyond ideas.

Maybe for grief, each person’s experience is so unique, they can never adequately describe it. I think this novel will probably be most interesting to those who have suffered a similar loss or to those who are interested in novels that play with form, structure, and narrative.

Book Review: NOVEMBER ROAD, a satisfying cat-and-mouse chase between mafiosos in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination

berney, lou - november roadNovember Road
Lou Berney

Working for New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello, Frank Guidry, always looking out for himself, luxuriated in his beautiful apartment, trendy wardrobe, and revolving door of attractive women. But when President Kennedy was shot, Guidry realized he’d been near the Texas Book Depository only a week earlier to drop off a getaway car. Then, Carlos’s number two, Seraphine, instructed him to go to Houston to dump the car underwater. Guidry feared that he knew too much and was a loose end about to be cut.

On his way west, Guidry encountered Charlotte Roy and her two daughters, on the run themselves from a stifling future in Woodrow, Oklahoma. Guidry decided traveling with them was the perfect cover, and ingratiated himself with Charlotte. Associating with them, though, made them vulnerable. Normally, Guidry wouldn’t care about collateral damage, but for the first time in decades, he was feeling something he thought might be love.

As Guidry tries to keep himself, Charlotte, and the girls safe, Charlotte begins to find her voice, questioning Guidry and advocating for herself and her daughters. Meanwhile, the skilled hitman sent by Carlos is just a step behind them and getting closer.

The beginning was a little slow, and I got tired of Guidry saying “ye Gods,” but November Road was overall an engrossing and fun read–a cat and mouse road trip with a strange diversion in Las Vegas and, to me, an unexpected, though satisfying ending.