Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I first read Americanah years ago, in early April, while studying for the final exam in my elective course in my fourth year of university. The days had become warm again and the smell of freshly cut grass wafted in the warm breeze as I curled up in the library with a cup of coffee and this book. It was probably the most enjoyable academic experience I had in university. I had passed in my final essays for my other courses and this was the only exam I had that semester. I had done well in everything else for the course and knew that if I simply wrote my name on the exam, I would still pass and be able to graduate. I decided that this was a sign, that it meant I had the privilege of enjoying the book, of simply reading it the way I wanted and not worrying about searching for the themes the professor would want me to highlight in a two hour essay. 

That exam was four years ago. I still read Americanah in the spring each year. I think it’s a slightly meditative experience for me, the opportunity to soak up the excellent writing found in this book. As one of my friends from high school once said to me, Adichie “writes prose the way it is meant to be written.” I couldn’t agree more. 

At first glance, Americanah is a love story. Adichie tells the story of Nigerian teenagers Ifemelu and Obinze falling deeply in love in secondary school. Ifemelu, strong-willed and sharp-tongued, catches the eye of cool-guy Obinze at a high school house party and they quickly form a relationship. My favourite sections in the book feature dialogue between Ifemelu and Obinze. Adichie has crafted such a beautiful and insightful shared language between the lovers that it makes me want to read and reread each passage dozens of times. Ifemelu’s entry into Obinze’s world introduces her to her first mentor: Obinze’s mother. She’s a single mother, a university professor and a lover of Graham Greene. Her influence on Ifemelu changes the course of her life.

Americanah is also book about Nigeria and the Nigerian diasporic experience in America and the UK. Obinze dreams of going to America after graduation, to chase the life he’s fallen in love with through reading Mark Twain and watching the Cosby Show. Ifemelu is less interested in America, but as fate would have it, she is approved for a visa and Obinze is repeatedly denied. They go their separate ways; Ifemelu to school in America and Obinze to look for work in England. 

Ifemelu learns what it means to be Black in America and begins a successful blog about it, which eventually leads to a Princeton fellowship. She enters into two major relationships in America: one with a wealthy white man who just so happens to be her employer’s brother and one with a Black American who has a pain-in-the-ass sister. Obinze is unable to get work and his marriage to gain citizenship is stopped at the last moment, leading to his deportation. He becomes a successful businessman in Lagos, with a gorgeous wife and child. They should be content, but they keep longing for something more. Spoiler: it’s each other. 

Americanah is ambitious. Adichie takes on a lot of topics at once: immigration, race, love, money, power and natural hair. She also tackles interracial relationships, privilege and the life changing experiences of leaving home and returning home. I think that everyone agrees that we inevitably change once we leave home. I think the jury is still out on what happens to us when we try to return home, and what happens when home has changed while we were gone.  

Americanah is an important book, maybe now more than ever. Reading it is like the feeling of the sun warming your skin on a Saturday morning, or a warm hug from a friend you haven’t seen in years, or the first sip of coffee on a busy day. It just feels right.

Pairs well with: breakfast in the park before the crowds come, jazz music softly playing while you cook. 

Review: Crazy Salad by Nora Ephron

I really don’t like that I didn’t like this book. I had such high hopes – the cover is so fun, the topics are engaging and it’s Nora Ephron!! I mean, anyone who knows me knows how much I adore When Harry Met Sally. Ugh. 

I will say that some of these essays offer interesting perspectives on women’s lib in the 1970s. Ephron’s writing is strong and the essays offer sharp wit and keen observations on topics like breast size and Watergate. I mean, the range! Some of the anecdotes in these essays are both hilarious and deeply interesting. One of my favourites is about the fight between Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan at the 1972 Democratic Convention.  

Honestly, I probably would have given the book 3 stars until I came to the last essay. It’s at best an ignorant and lazy essay but frankly comes across as transphobic. The whole book has a very white feminist approach to certain topics and there was no apparent examination of racial or LGBTQ2S+ issues within the various topics addressed. For these reasons, I really wouldn’t recommend. 

Review: Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir by Anatole Broyard

In this unfinished memoir (more on that later), Anatole Broyard writes about life, literature and sex in Greenwich Village in 1946. Broyard comes to the Village as a 26 year old WWII veteran and is quickly immersed in a new world. He purchases and opens a bookstore with $300, enrols at the New School and moves into a filthy apartment with Sheri Donatti – an eccentric painter and protege of Anaïs Nin. Sheri seems to thrive on making life difficult; so much so that Broyard refers to her as his enemy. She is always without underpants, she claims to need to be carried up staircases and she doesn’t want to orgasm. In one chapter, she makes a surprise trip to Broyard’s parents’ home and chooses to sit on his mother’s lap (sans underpants) throughout the visit. While reflecting on the end of their relationship, Broyard writes “I was a veteran of Sheri, and the war was nothing to me now.” To be compared to the deadliest conflict in human history is a feat, even for the craziest of exes. 

For me, the best section of the memoir surrounds the death of a close friend, Saul. Without giving too much away, I’ll include the lines that made me cry. “We stood at the top of the stairs and our eyes met for the last time. His were filled with an immense kindness. I apologize, he said, for bossing you around. You see how it is. I can’t tell this particular story – I can only edit it.” Next to this paragraph, I wrote “oof”. 

Most memoirs I’ve read recount mainly facts – who said what, where big decisions were made, why history was changed – but this one does the opposite. Yes, it’s about a time and place: 1946 in Greenwich Village; but it’s about the feeling of the world changing almost overnight. Gone were the days when New Yorkers had to focus solely on survival: surviving the Great Depression, surviving the war. Now, the inhabitants of the village had the freedom to focus on frivolity. The book is full of music, dancing, art and sex. It features psychoanalysts and rumba matinees. It’s so charged with emotion and feeling that it has a heartbeat of its own, thrumming through the pages. Broyard is alive in these pages, leaning in and laughing, crying, sighing along with the reader. 

I’ll admit that the end of the memoir feels sudden, but that’s because it is. Broyard became ill while writing it and died before he had the chance to finish it. In my mind, the abrupt end to the book is its only downfall. Otherwise, it’s a witty, exciting and sensuous read.  

I’ll finish with another favourite quote. “I wanted to be an intellectual, too, to see life from a great height, yet I didn’t want to give up my sense of connection, my intimacy with things. When I read a book, I always kept one eye on the world, like someone watching the clock.” Oof.

Pairs well with: a Louis Armstrong album.

Review: The Burnt Orange Heresy by Charles Willeford

Who doesn’t love a little mid-week crime fiction? The Burnt Orange Heresy a crisp, tasty little treat that features a calculated, womanizing, sociopathic art critic named James Figueras. He’s everything that makes the modern woman’s skin crawl – unapologetically misogynistic, arrogant and in possession of some major Daddy issues. He’s basically that guy in your university seminar. Figueras is offered the once-in-a-lifetime chance by an unscrupulous lawyer/art collector to interview the elusive Jaques Debierue. Debieure, a recent transplant from France to Florida, loves frozen orange juice and despises interviews with critics. He’s so reclusive that his artwork had only been seen by a handful of people before it was destroyed in a fire. Figueras, of course, takes the offer. The only catch? In return for the interview, he must commit a crime. 

This book is yummy – the writing is clean, dark and humorous. It was my first Willeford and it certainly won’t be my last. 

Pairs well with: being (or dating) a Scorpio, a liberal arts degree, frozen Minute Maid.  

Review: Stray by Stephanie Danler

I’ve been a Stephanie Danler fan since the first summer I lived in Toronto, when my roommate thrust her copy of Sweetbitter into my hands, promising that I would love it. She was right. In our oppressively hot, un-airconditioned apartment, Danler’s words filtered through the air and exposed a smart, sexy, delicious story. There’s no doubt in my mind that Danler is an exceptional writer, so when her memoir, Stray, was announced last fall, I was thrilled. I got my copy from Type Books (support local!) this weekend and devoured it in a matter of hours. In fact, I read on the literal edge of my seat, shoulders and neck cramping, brow furrowed. I was filled with an urgency I hadn’t felt in a long time. I got halfway through Stray when I tried to put it down to go to sleep – I woke up in the middle of the night, restless, because I needed to carry on. 

Stray is the story of Danler’s life, following her childhood, adolescence and her life once she achieved the dream – the publication of her first book, Sweetbitter. Danler discusses difficult, and at times, heartbreaking, relationships with three people throughout the book: her mother, her father, and a man she refers to only as “The Monster”. Danler writes vividly about her mother’s alcoholism and eventual aneurysm and her father’s meth addiction and early abandonment of his family. Danler’s writing raises questions about legacy, trauma, hope and what we owe to those who hurt us. At times, Stray is difficult to read, so I can only imagine how difficult it was to write. A line that I found particularly haunting comes during the story of her mother crashing a car through a store window, narrowly missing patrons inside and landing in a spot where only moments ago children had been standing. Danler recalls conversations in which she had previously told her grandfather and aunt that her handicapped, alcoholic mother shouldn’t be allowed to drive, and my own heart pounded with rage as a horrified and defeated Danler wonders, “where are the adults?” 

For me, the weakest parts of Stray were the sections about The Monster. I mean that in the most complimentary way possible, because the rest of the book was such a force of nature that the sections about a deeply difficult and emotionally exhausting relationship with a toxic partner left me comparatively bored. The writing was still precise and beautiful, but his part in the story wasn’t nearly as gripping as the rest. 

Overall, I think Stray is an excellent read. Danler writes about the ugly realities of addiction, abandonment and abuse contrasted against her descriptions of the natural majesty of her surroundings in Southern California and Colorado. She expertly captures observations about herself, others and her landscape, which adds a layer of familiarity and evocative imagery to Stray. Her writing feels accessible and welcoming, while maintaining authority and clearly displaying her incredible skill. Pick up a copy at your local independent bookstore – I promise you won’t be disappointed. 

Pairs well with: a large glass of red wine, a rainy Sunday evening, forehead kisses, your comfiest sweater. 

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