A small selection of recommended books I read in 2013. Expect general all-round gushing.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013) — This book just worked on so many levels for me: as a novel, as a social commentary, as one of the best books of 2013. It juxtaposes the stories of two teenagers who fall in love, the headstrong Ifemelu and the proud Obinze, as they find their ways out of Nigeria’s military dictatorship. Ifemelu finds herself in the USA where she discovers a Thing called “race”; and Obinze struggles as an undocumented person in London. It spans continents and decades, with multiple characters and plotlines threading in and out. A handful of tongue-in-cheek blog entries, standing in as chapters, are woven into the novel as written by Ifemelu about her experiences of race in America; a new way and perspective of discussing the intricacies of race in America, and the African diasporic experience. Adichie does not shy away from controversial issues and brings on them a new light. A genuinely great and insightful novel for today’s globalised world.
A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous (1945) — This is a non-fictional diary account of a German woman’s experience living in Berlin at the end of World War II and rape during the Soviet occupation. It explores the differences and complexities between rape, coercive sex, and prostitution; starkly, it looks at the consequences of being female during this period, how survival was endgame, and methods of maintaining humanity. Content-wise, it’s clearly not easy reading, especially when contextual information is provided (the return of German men made things more complicated, the diary was initially published to much criticism, and the rapes were hid behind general German atrocities a la quid pro quo &c.), but the author’s voice is frank and observant with minor extrapolation as is common in memoirs and diary accounts. Final words? It’s an incredible account of post-war life in Germany during this turbulent period.
Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford (1954) — The loveliest Mitford writes about the aristocracy doing nothing much in particular with sharp wit. A great cast of eccentrics and people you don’t really care about until you do, narrated by the level-headed Fanny. Love in a Cold Climate tells the story of Fanny’s aunt who has royal ambitions, and her beautiful heiress cousin Polly who, well, doesn’t. An entertaining read written by someone born into privilege and fortune; Mitford embraces it all so very stylishly in this book. I’ve heard that she writes with a “very English approach” and if this means she writes no-nonsense elegance, then she writes with a very English approach.
The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera (2003) — Family, strong females, and whales? This short read was a shoe in. If you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, the Whale Rider is about a young girl defying Maori tradition to take the reigns previously only held by male heirs. It looks at a number of weighty social themes: gender discrimination, generational differences, cultural identity, and family relations. It’s all about resilience, love, and duty to family and tribe – impossible not to appreciate.
Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala (2013) — An entirely moving memoir of Deraniyagala’s experience of the 2004 tsunami: the loss of her parents, her husband, and her two sons, and the moments after. To retracing her steps, finding her sons’ belongings in the wreckage, to selling her family home, to being given alcohol to help her sleep, to having alcohol taken away from her to stave off alcoholism and depression. Wave is exquisitely well-written, compelling, poignant, and just painfully raw. Deraniyagala weaves key moments of her life – her childhood, meeting her husband, giving birth – with the devastation and shock of her loss with brutal honesty. It comes with the quiet understanding that loss is less about forgetting, or trying to forget, but remembering with a different kind of happiness. It was a tough read, and it has stayed with me a long time.