May 14, 2016

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi | Book Review

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is a collection of nine short stories, four of which have been published previously in various journals. It begins with Books and Roses then continues with Sorry Doesn't Sweeten her Tea, Is Your Blood as Red as This?, Drownings, Presence, A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society, Darnicka and the St. Martin's Day Goose, Freddy Barrandov, and ends with If a Book is Locked There's Probably a Good Reason for That Don't You Think? Of the lot I liked the second, seventh, and ninth stories with the ninth one being my favorite.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is the fourth Oyeyemi title I've read out of the six she has published so far (I'm not counting the book of plays) and I still have the same problems that I always have when I read an Oyeyemi novel. I have a problem connecting with her stories... It's not because her main characters are sometimes caucasian as opposed to being Nigerian or having an African ancestry. I grew up devouring stories about caucasian characters in novels written by caucasian authors just like every other Nigerian in my generation so I can connect to anyone regardless of race, that's not a problem. Oyeyemi has a penchant for penning mystical stories or stories with fairytale-y roots and while that's not my thing in this phase of my life, I still expect to enjoy these stories or at least appreciate them but most of the time I do not. What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours was a struggle to read and I was glad when I was away from the book even though I was on a tight reading schedule in the first quarter of 2016. When I finally finished it, I still got the "I finished this story but I don't know exactly what I read" feeling that comes often when I read an Oyeyemi title.

January 30th, 2004 edition of The Guardian
I purchased White Is for Witching via Amazon in April 2013 and I still can't get past the first few pages. I've thumbed through White Is for Witching many times over the past three years just to see if it gets better somewhere (usually that encourages me to give the book another shot) but that hasn't worked. Every now and then I search for Mr. Fox on Amazon and preview it using Amazon's "Look Inside" feature but I can tell it's not good for me so I never buy it. I don't know... Maybe Oyeyemi's books are not for me. I don't want to keep battling through her novels only to arrive at the other end to write a review saying how much I don't like it. That's a waste of my time and yours. Especially here in America where there are millions of novels, sitting in gorgeous, air-conditioned buildings that are too nice to house only books, begging to be read. I have decided that I'm going step back for a while and when I'm ready I'll be much more thorough before I select and purchase another another Oyeyemi book. Someone somewhere is going to call me a hater but I'm not a hater. I really want to connect to Oyeyemi's stories. There are only three Nigerian authors whose interviews/features I have cut out of newspapers and Oyeyemi is one of them. I even brought the 2004 newspaper clipping with me when I moved to America in 2009. Above is a photo of my newspaper clipping along with my copy of this novel. It's from the January 30th, 2004 edition of Nigeria's The Guardian. I clearly did a lot of highlighting lol. I have posted this photo to show I'm not some hater. This review is just me trying to be honest about an author I care about and someone whose career I have followed for quite some time.

Helen Oyeyemi is amazing. It's something I've always admitted. It's something that's unquestionable. Half the time when I read her books I'm wondering how she makes all of this stuff up. She's impressive. I'll wait. I'll try to not just buy another novel because it's an Oyeyemi book. The future will bring me an Oyeyemi offering that will excite me just as much or even more than The Icarus Girl did in 2008. I know it will.
The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi - My Thoughts 
The Opposite House by Helen Oyeyemi - My Thoughts
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi - My Thoughts

[Image via Amazon]

May 07, 2016

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu | Book Review

Stephanos is a lonely shopkeeper living in Washington D.C. He fled the turmoil in Ethiopia almost two decades ago. He has no drive or ambition and is simply content to drift along from day to day. He's not going anywhere with his life and he's not doing anything to change that. After almost two decades in America, the only people he can call on are his Uncle and two friends - Kenneth and Joe. Kenneth and Joe are also immigrants and as a trio their companionship is heartwarming. Their American story began with dreams of grandeur and hopes of a brighter future but life has settled into a routine over the years. They have achieved some of their goals (mostly Kenneth and Joe) but no one has achieved the level of success they imagined. They still have those dreams but their optimism has waned. The loneliness in their lives can be felt and I found it captivating. Along comes Judith and Naomi to Stephanos neighborhood. Judith is a single caucasian mom and Naomi is her eleven years old African American daughter. They soon become a light in Stephanos' otherwise miserable daily existence and he slowly grows to depend their presence to brighten up his day. On the outside Stephanos is a skinny, lonely man who doesn't have his life on track but it's because he's broken on the inside and it's taking everything he can muster to keep it together and get from day to day.

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is Dinaw Mengestu's debut novel and it's fantastic. In 2014 I read his third novel All Our Names and I was not impressed but there was something about him that caught my attention. In that book review I wrote:

"I'll buy and review Dinaw's first and second novels [...] One or both of them had to have been mightily impressive enough to get him noticed and I really want to see him at his best. All Our Names is not Dinaw Mengestu at his best. It can't be." 

So I ordered his first two novels and I started by reading this one. I was riveted with this story from the very beginning. I took it in slowly, marking sentences with my colored pens and leaving page marker post-its on almost every page. The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is life on two hundred and twenty eight pages. The plot, the narration, everything, seemed so effortless and it was all sooo good. I was hooked. I did not want to put it down. I read it from 7pm on Monday till 5am on Tuesday and I would have finished it if I had been able to fight off sleep. This is that debut novel that pulls its author to the front of the literary pack. I love this novel sooo much but I hated the way it ended. I had been rooting for Stephanos all through the novel in-spite of his flaws and I kept hoping he would shake off his lethargy somehow and grab life by the horns. All of that goodwill went down the drain when I read page 227, the page before the last page of the novel. I hated the choice he made on that page especially because it was one more addition onto the pile of choices he had made that I did not approve of. It was maddening. If someone reaches out to you on this lonely planet, especially someone who genuinely likes you and you like that person back, you ought to reach right back. For a man his age, I hated his hesitancy and his lack of confidence even though I understood it. So I finished the last page of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears with a sudden pulsating headache because I was so mad at Stephanos. What is wrong with you???? In the great words of Tyra Banks:
And then I picked up another novel hoping to get this one off my mind.

I love it, I love it, I love it, I love it. Fantastic job Dinaw! Great job! I'm glad I followed through on my hunch that his third novel wasn't his best. I've got one more novel of his to read, his second book How to Read Air. I'm on a journey to discover Mengestu and I'm really hoping that All Our Names is his worst novel thus far.
All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu - My Thoughts

[Book cover image via Amazon; Tyra Banks gif via NewNowNext]