The ABCs of Changing the Topic

The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, by Jonas Jonasson

The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, by Jonas Jonasson

About two years ago, when the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) started making waves in America, there was one thing that scared the living daylights out of scores of folks: Socialism. And you know what was even scarier? A place that seemed to encapsulate everything that was wrong with the ACA: Sweden. It sent shivers up people’s spines and became a rallying cry for everything that was going to hell in a handbasket in the United States. #eeeeekpleasenotsweden had the potential to be the hashtag heard around the world. “Sweden” became a synonym for “Socialism” (never mind that, strictly speaking, Sweden is not a Socialist country) and some people’s obsession with the country nearly overshadowed the fact that some people just wanted to talk more about healthcare on a broader level without going into policy or making assertions about what works or what doesn’t.

Let’s call it the Art of Making Something Seem Like It’s About Something Else, or Missing the Point Entirely. In other words, “I’m not talking about A nor B (even though everyone else is discussing A and B)—I want to discuss something entirely different: C.”

Ya sure, ya betcha?

This all looks very sinister and dour...

Mamma Mia! This all looks very sinister and dour…

There seems to be something about Sweden because this C-level discussion is something that Swedish author Jonas Jonasson uses to perfection in his second book, The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden. Billed as the “uproariously funny” follow-up to the author’s debut, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window, this book does, in fact, read much like a comedy. Rarely does a book coax guffaws from me, but this one did. But I wonder if I sat down with Jonasson and said, “Hey, thanks for making me laugh!” if he would actually respond with “That wasn’t exactly my intent.”

mrbean

Paging Rowan Atkinson…this book was made for you.

The “A topic” is that the book is a comical global romp in which Mr. Bean would feel right at home. On the surface, a man who gets bitten in half by a hippopotamus, an “illiterate” who has more brains than her bosses, and a boy who shares the same name as his twin brother find themselves in farcical situations. But taken with the facts and back stories behind them—the eaten man is a English missionary, the “illiterate” is a young girl from the slums of Soweto, and the twin has literally been hidden from the world and given his brother’s name as a means to do so—the reader realizes that there is a sick kind of humor in the absurdity of tragic circumstances.

Nombeko, born in Soweto in 1961, really is an “illiterate,” but it turns out that the joke is on everyone else because her brains surpass everyone she encounters. A latrine cleaner who volunteers herself for the vacant manager job, Nombeko is met with this response: “For God’s sake, I can’t very well have a twelve-year-old latrine manager, can I?” When she replies that she is, in fact, fourteen, her boss continues, “Have you started using drugs yet?…Are you pregnant?…Then I suppose you’ve got the job, if you can stay sober.” The quick-fire exchange between the two is so ridiculously satirical that when it dawns on the reader that it actually isn’t, a mixture of sadness over injustice and hope for the underdog arises.

Meanwhile, as Nombeko learns how to read and subsequently teaches herself higher-level math in addition to world history and current events (she figures she should have a sound idea as to why she lives in a shack), a set of twins is born to a Ingmar, a Swedish postal worker who has an unhealthy obsession with the Swedish monarchy, and his wife Henrietta. Ingmar’s desire for a child begins and ends with the notion that either he or his offspring will eradicate the monarchy. So when two children are unexpectedly born, he thanks his lucky stars that the midwife doesn’t get to their home in time and names the children Holger One and Holger Two and pretends to the world that the two boys are one in the same by allowing only one out at a time.

So, “A: Humor”—check.

But is The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden about “B: Geopolitical Commentary”? Yes, it’s about that too. In between 419 pages, Nombeko and Holger Two meet in Sweden all because of an atomic bomb. Jimmy Carter makes an appearance and two Chinese sisters are shipped to Sweden in a crate (along with a bomb). Outlandish? Yes. This is not an easy book to summarize. But in a way, a plot summary is secondary, for I think what Jonasson is partly trying to do here is take a look at what’s going on in our world from a faraway vantage point. How does a girl from Soweto end up in Sweden and alert the POTUS to nuclear weapons? Jonasson uses a knowledge of how our global systems work to create a plot that, in some strange realm, could maybe happen.

The late Nelson Mandela and former President Jimmy Carter both make appearances in Jonasson's book

The late Nelson Mandela and former President Jimmy Carter both make appearances in Jonasson’s book

But despite the absurd laughs and veiled statements about the state of our world, the book is poignant and bittersweet, and in my opinion, is really about “C: Humans’ Need to Be Known.” When Holger Two and Nombeko discover a fondness for each other, she realizes that “…in some ways, she existed just as little as he did. Naturally, a person who doesn’t exist does best with someone who also doesn’t exist.” Readers can rave about the author’s clever use of humor or rant about the state of our world reflected in Jonasson’s words, but I’d like to think that the book ultimately sheds light on the universal desire to connect with someone who really “sees” us.

If Jonasson’s ability to use two different methods (the A and the B) to illuminate a greater idea allows us to discuss something more than what’s presented to us, then perhaps we could, in fact, take a cue from Sweden, or at least one of its writers.

On being seen: A Swedish dala horse given to me by my mother-in-law after she heard me mention that they remind me of my grandparents.

On being seen: A Swedish dala horse given to me by my mother-in-law after she heard me mention that they remind me of my grandparents.

 

Measuring Up

Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi

Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi

About a year ago, my brother-in-law posed a question on Facebook: “Comedians judge each other by The Aristocrats joke. My dad judges chefs by their chicken parm. What unique yardsticks do you have?” In other words, by what metric do you judge something specific? I responded that despite the cliché, I do, in fact, judge a book by its cover. Incidentally, that’s how I ended up purchasing Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi. I’ll readily admit that if a book’s cover doesn’t register aesthetically for me, I’ll have to be convinced about its content. The converse, of course, is that I’ve been burned a time or two by books whose innards don’t match their eye-catching exteriors. By the way, I’m not alone in this fascination: Here’s a piece from The New Yorker about the ins and outs of cover design.

One “unique yardstick” that doesn’t do much for me in the book-acquiring department is the “if you like X, you’ll like Y” list. And that is part of the reason the following endorsement by Marie Claire on the back of Selasi’s debut novel rubbed me the wrong way: “If you are a big fan of Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, then you are bound to love this simmering debut.” Why? Is it because Smith and Adichie, like Selasi, are women of African descent (well, Smith’s mother is Jamaican) who have lived in America and/or the UK? Or because these authors wrestle with matters of race and nationality? These are potential reasons for prompting someone to pick up Ghana Must Go—so say the marketing folks in publishing companies. Review copies of new books, for instance, outline the equivalent of real estate comps when trying to target a potential reader (or, more realistically, nudge the reviewer).

Measuring comps

Measuring Comps

But is the Marie Claire “comp” really a good one? Do readers have “black female authors with ties to Africa, London, and America” as a “unique yardstick”? Perhaps. To be fair, reading novels is one of the finest ways one can begin a journey toward knowledge about a place, an era, or a cultural movement. (In fact, I wrote about fiction as an educational tool here.) So if you’re interested in 21st-century Nigeria and Ghana or migration between these places and Europe and America, these books might be good starting points. Yet in the past year I’ve read Americanah by Adichie and On Beauty by Smith, and despite the similar topical similarities, I found these two books quite different. Whereas, on a broad level, Adichie’s novel deals with the idea of “place” and how people respond differently in different communities (her characterization and illustration of various facets of American culture is impressively spot on), Smith’s book takes a microscopic look at the clashes between two dissimilar families, as well as the clashes between men and women. The aforementioned is how I would quickly summarize these books (two books that are only singular representatives of the novelists’ portfolios, I must add) despite the clear and overarching presence that race, ethnicity, and stereotyping play. As for Ghana Must Go? I feel that, at its core, this is not so much a book about Africa, but a book about one family’s exploration of the genetic grouping and legacy they belong to—an exploration of how the notion of “family” affects its members.

A Smith/Adichie/Selasi mashup?

A Smith/Adichie/Selasi mashup?

Marie Claire’s apparent use of a “unique yardstick” didn’t resonate with me, and I wonder what happens when we use our own imposed methods of judgement not on products and entertainment, but on actual, real-life people—such as, in this case, an author. And further, what happens when we try to fit others’ narratives into the story line that we’d like to see? For all the fascinating yardsticks that we individually employ, the people on the receiving end have the potential to not care one whit how they “measure up.” Interestingly, the author, through her characters, grapples with this concept.

Although Selasi starts the novel with the dramatic fact that Kweku Sai “dies barefoot on a Sunday before sunrise, his slippers by the doorway to the bedroom like dogs,” it is Kweku—father to the four adult children and the ex-wife who comprise the rest of the primary characters—who ultimately dictates how the Sai family functions throughout the book. Arriving to America from Ghana to attend school, Kweku jumps on a promising trajectory: medical resident at Johns Hopkins, renowned surgeon in Boston, and father to four prodigiously gifted offspring. But when some combination of racism, classism, and elitism rears its ugly head, the Sai family—the epitome of “successful immigration”—disseminates. What was, is no longer. And once this nice narrative—one could call it a “yardstick” that people use to judge immigrants—is interrupted, each member of the Sai family struggles with self-definition.

Just as readers (and magazines that provide back-cover blurbs) judge authors and book covers, Selasi takes a look at how society judges one family—and how this family judges themselves and how they flux between fitting the narrative others have spelled out for them and shunning this narrative for one of their own.

Because Kweku’s death—in the courtyard of his self-designed home—occurs in Ghana, the five living members of the Sai family attempt a reunification from their scattered lives: Fola back in Ghana, Olu following his father’s footsteps as a Boston surgeon, Taiwo regrouping after a scandalous affair, artist Kehinide (Taiwo’s twin brother) reemerging from anonymity, and Sadie, far younger than her siblings and ensconced at Yale. And Selasi walks these characters, through flashbacks, through their struggles with understanding “family.”

When reflecting on her life in Nigeria and her subsequent fleeing to Ghana and then departure to America, Fola feels that as a young adult, “Her life until that moment had seemed so original…” But once she arrives in America, she is seen as merely a sketch, “…a thing she recognized (tragic) instead of what she became: a part of history (generic)…That she’d stopped being Folasadé Somayina Savage and had become instead the native of a generic War-Torn Nation.”

And as Kweku is lying in the grass, dying, he thinks about how “There was one basic storyline, which everyone knew, with the few custom endings to choose now and again. Basic: humming grandmas and polycentric dancing and drinks made from tree sap and patriarchy. Custom: boy-child Gets Out, good at science or soccer, dies young, becomes priest, child-soldier or similar.”

The sign of a "real" family?

The sign of a “real” family?

Olu, the eldest son of Kweku and Fola, struggles with feeling proud to follow in his father’s footsteps while simultaneously yearning “…for lineage, for a sense of having descended from faces in frames. That his family was thin in the backbench was troubling; it seemed to suggest they were faking it, false. A legitimate family would have photos on the staircase.” He feels that he and his siblings come from “…a family without gravity, completely unbound.” Years later, as Olu’s future father-in-law withholds his blessing for his daughter Ling who wishes to marry Olu, the surgeon struggles with this man’s characterization of his father as “…a brain without equal but no moral backbone” because Kweku has fled his family. “Abandonment” is what Dr. Wei sees—and how he chooses to judge his daughter’s suitor. And although Olu eventually tells Ling, “I don’t believe in family. I didn’t want a family. I wanted us to be something better than that,” the dutiful son is quick to rebut his future father-in-law: “I’m just like my father. I’m proud to be like him.”

A blend of dissatisfaction about how others judge them and a lack of certainty about what type of metric to use to examine themselves is the ultimate conflict Selasi’s characters confront. I don’t intend to downplay the role Africa plays in the novel: It’s an important part, and the book contains so much action and history that a family tree as well as a pronunciation guide to characters and locations prefaces the first chapter. Yet this feeling of being assessed—while simultaneously being the ones to take stock—permeates Selasi’s writing. While Fola’s children anxiously suss out where they stand in this great narrative of life, their mother determines this: “Whether this house or that one, this passport or that, whether Baltimore or Lagos or Boston or Accra, whether expensive clothes or hand-me-downs or florist or lawyer or life or death—didn’t much matter in the end. If one could die identityless, estranged from all context, then one could live estranged from all context as well.”

Given that thought, I wonder how Selasi feels about Marie Claire’s statement. If it’s possible to rise above context, then maybe our “unique yardsticks” begin to disintegrate.

 

 

 

 

Home, Where My Thought’s Escaping

Women of Sad and Myrrh, by Hanan al-Shaykh

Women of Sand and Myrrh, by Hanan al-Shaykh

Does one need to leave home in order to truly understand what that word means to him or her?

With migration inching its way to “top headline” status in news media around the world, the notion of “home” bubbles into my mind repeatedly. I don’t mean just “immigration,” because one can merely mention that word to someone (particularly an American) and know that a forceful stream of opinion will begin to gush forward. Yes, “migration” is in the news because of debate about immigration to America and Western Europe, but migration also refers to refugees, a general spirit of “multi-culturalism” (when you’re married to someone of a different nationality, you’ve obviously got to choose someplace to live and make roots), the globalization of the world’s economy and where multinational companies are sending their employees, and simple but gradual population shifts. The Wittengenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital recently released an  interactive map showing major migration pathways from 1990 to 2010. Take a look because it is fascinating: The Global Flow of People

Time to migrate

Time to migrate

Do you remember in elementary school when the special treat was watching a film reel, which was even more of a special treat if you were the one to be selected to wheel in the projector from whatever mysterious place housed it? My favorite was a film about the day-to-day living of four families from different continents because I was transfixed by the ways these people lived. And, now, as an adult, this fascination has turned into a real-time issue, because in the literal sense of the word, I, too, am a migrant.

Since moving to Ireland in 2011, the notion of “home” has permeated almost every interaction I have with both people and static things such as the shops I frequent, the way I drive, how I speak, and in the very broadest sense, the way my family and I “do” things. As soon as I open my mouth, one of the first things people ask, of course, is some iteration of “where is home?” What I’ve realized, though, is that besides the way-too-broad reply of “America,” I don’t have a good answer to that question. And this need to go into my entire history (“Well, I grew up in…”) causes me to reflect that “home” is a tricky thing to pin down.

Home, Sweet Home!

Home, Sweet Home!

The recent lapse in blog posts is due to the fact that I’ve spent the last few weeks traversing America, visiting a handful of cities—an amalgamation of “home.” On my plane and train journeys, I read Women of Sand and Myrrh by Hanan al-Shaykh, a book I learned about via Arabic Literature (in English). The blog lists another one of al-Skaykh’s other novels (Story of Zahra) as a recommended place to start with English-translated Arabic literature. I had recently reflected that an overwhelming majority of my reading is produced by Western authors, and more specifically, authors from either America or British Commonwealth nations. So I dove in, wanting to learn more about this author. This work is described as a book about four women in an unnamed Gulf community. Women provides a detailed and harsh look at how women search to find their places in a repressive land. But, at its core, I think the book is about the different ways we search for “home,” despite the physical parameters and limits of the community in which one resides.

Women of Sand and Myrrh is divided into four sections, each narrated by a different woman who has found herself in this unnamed city in the desert (but most likely modelled after somewhere in Saudi Arabia). The English translation of the book sequences these women’s stories differently than the original, so I’ll discuss them in the order I read. While I read, I sometimes popped over to Goodreads or Amazon to see what other readers thought; the reviews of this particular book weighed on the more wishy-washy side of things, with a common complaint being that the women al-Shaykh writes are too “dramatic” and “shallow.” What I found, though, is that each woman—however much a caricature—represented a different facet of the notion of “home.”

Home as Place

The book’s first section describes the life of Suha, a Lebanese woman who moves from Beirut with her husband and son. While her husband’s new life revolves around his job, Suha finds expat life stifling: “Like the other women, I’d thrown myself into the life here so that I wouldn’t feel sorry for myself. I’d given up following the news, local or international, and occupied myself with cake recipes, and with finding friends for [my son] Umar…I’d congratulated myself when I’d prepared dinner for five businessmen in an hour…” Suha recognizes that expat life—in this case, she is relegated to compound life, the antithesis the freedom she found in her “real life” home—doesn’t allow the opportunity for her to carve out a “normal” life. For her, home is specifically rooted in place. She thinks, “My desert experience had to be related to the place, not just the people: I determined to try and communicate with my surroundings.” Similarly, the author gives Suha these words: “But the first impression is the most important, because your eye grows accustomed to its surroundings and no longer connects with the mind and the heart in its responses.”

Home as Culture

Unlike Suha, Tamr is from the desert. And although she struggles with the repressive culture, she believes that “A person away from his country and his nearest and dearest isn’t worth a stick of incense. It’s true I was happy abroad. But how I missed it here! I even missed the humidity and the dust and the heat, believe me. And what would they say about me? That I’d run away. For what reason?” Rebelling against a patriarchical society, Tamr has been married three times and proposes a personal hunger strike when her wish for an education is met with rebuke. As she explores more of her country, she “was astonished to find that there existed in my country women like the women in London and Lebanon and Egypt, the kind of women I’d seen on videos.” Yet the push-pull between what Tamr knows (and inherently is) and what she may see as new and exciting results in her understanding that on some level, one cannot choose what home means or looks like and in order to invoke change, one needs to work within the limits and structure of one’s culture.

Home as “Un-Home”

On the other hand, Suzanne, a stereotypical Texan brought to the desert by the same circumstances as Suha, seems to find a sense of home in her utter “otherness.” Seeming to find home—even a temporary or fleeting one—in embracing another culture and straddling the line between foreigner (and curiosity) and citizen, she takes a local lover and endeavors to marry him and infiltrate his life. “The difference between me then and me now was a difference in the way I felt. The world beyond the desert seemed far away. I seemed to be a different Suzanne now…” Out of the cocoon of her former home she realizes that “[she’d] been an ordinary American housewife in the past, washing [her] children’s nappies and enjoying folding them up neatly…[she] never gave a thought to other countries or even to neighbouring states, until [she] talked to Barbara [a neighbor who owned an art gallery]…” In the desert, Suzanne finds a new sort of freedom in herself, and she sees it as an indicator of a new identity—and therefore a new understanding of home.

Home as a Person

Nur, a woman who appears to others as one who “has it all,” is also a local. From Suha’s view, “An odour of permanence emanated from [Nur’s] home…” She is settled in her community, yet unbeknownst to others, she feels untethered. It is through one of the aforementioned women, however, that a sense of home and belonging emerges; in short, Nur looks to people as the means to find the comfort of home. “Plenty of people had occupied that place before her, men and women, but only for a short time, and before I got to know them well.” Finally, however, she seems to find someone who fills this void permanently—the tricky part is determining whether this person seeks the concept of home in the same fashion. “I wished Suha would come to me at that moment, or to be honest, I longed for any human being who would hold me until the first ray of sunlight stretched down through the darkness, but the silence deepened.” Nur is not at home unless the right person is there.

***

Despite the sometimes unrealistic portrayals of women (Will a Western woman truly abandon her previous life to move across the globe permanently?), Women of Sand and Myrrh deftly provides a moving look at the many components of this often intangible idea of “home.” Rather than being defined by a mere dot on a map, these women instead draw from the individuals in their community, the visual markers of a location, how a place stacks up to others they’ve known, and a location’s culture as a way to conjure up a feeling of “home, sweet home.”

Do you have to live away from your home of origin to truly understand what “home” really is? In my opinion, yes. In the twenty years that I’ve lived away from the city of my childhood, a more finely tuned sense of what brings me comfort and makes me tick has emerged. And I feel for migrants—as best as I can, given my limited personal knowledge of what that experience may entail—because whether migrating under duress or migrating willingly for new opportunities, abandoning home and conjuring a new one is a simple process to judge from afar, but an intricately knotty one to actually execute.

Where is Home?

Where is Home?

 

 

 

 

It’s Like This…

What Are You Like? by Anne Enright

What Are You Like? by Anne Enright

1961 brought something amazing into the lives of every young girl who has ever attended a slumber party. The advent of games such as “Truth or Dare” and “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board”? A guide to prank calling? No, sorry, what I’m talking about here is Disney’s smash hit The Parent Trap (in Technicolor), starring Hayley Mills as twins separated at birth: snooty Sharon McKendrick from Boston and freewheeling Californian Susan Evers. The underlying romantic story, which essentially declares “opposites attract,” brings the girls’ long-estranged mother and father back together in an all-too-perfect fashion. The film, marketed as a comedy full of high jinks, was nominated for two Academy Awards, netted $25,000 at the box office, and provided a springboard for three television sequels, a theatrical re-release in 1968, a popular remake more than 35 years later, and the remarkable ability for “Let’s Get Together, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” to get stuck in every viewer’s head. This is compelling stuff, and I have seen this movie at least ten times, mostly at sleepovers.

Susan and Sharon: Together at Last! © Disney

Susan and Sharon: Together at Last! ©Disney

So The Parent Trap was the first thing that popped in my head after I read a quick synopsis of What Are You Like? by Anne Enright. The book shifts between Dublin, New York, and London as it explores the emotions of Maria and Marie (rechristened Rose after her adoption) as the women slowly understand this “other part” of themselves. I certainly didn’t think that the novel would read anything like the sugary-sweet film—I’ve read other books by Enright, including her 2007 Man Booker-winner The Gathering, and I’ve also had the great pleasure of hearing her speak at an event for volunteers at Fighting Words, a creative writing center in Dublin. Her writing is precise, yet esoteric; overly familial, yet completely foreign. But the notion of twins separated at birth? I just don’t have any cultural touchstones besides Sharon and Susan. Forgive me, Ms. Enright.

A simile about smiles...

A simile about smiles…

If you’ve had a good teacher or two, some things—like times tables—just become a permanent part of your knowledge base. Therefore, any reader, writer, or SAT-taker will recognize a simile: a comparison between two unlike objects using “like” or “as.” And talented authors just have a way with using unconnected events and items to illustrate a character or plot point. Here are a few that I’ve pulled up:

“Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.” — The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

“She entered with ungainly struggle like some huge awkward chicken, torn, squawking, out of its coop.” — The Adventure of the Three Gables, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

“Kate inched over her own thoughts like a measuring worm.” — East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

At the beginning of the book, Enright’s similes and metaphors come easily to the reader. A “same, but different” theme emerges, and readers can nod their heads in total understanding of this genetic fascination, relayed through well-written, but “easy” language. For instance, when Maria, raised in Ireland by her father and stepmother after her biological mother dies in childbirth, steps into the house of neighbor Mrs. Quinlan, “…she realises it is the same as their house, except it is the wrong colour. Except it is the wrong smell. Except it is the wrong way around! The kitchen goes to the left instead of the right and when you try to go into the dining room there is a massive blank wall.” Similarly, before her father Berts remarries, baby Maria spends each day of the week with a different family member or neighbor. Enright describes how the child spends time exploring on the carpet of each house and meticulously illustrates the different intricacies of each pattern. Again, “same, but different.”

But when Maria stumbles across an old picture of someone who looks remarkably like her, Enright notes that “…there was the fact that she looked different, even though she was the same. It was hard to put your finger on it. She had the right mouth, but the wrong voice might come out of it. She had the same eyes, but they had seen other things. Her hair was the same, but the parting was on the other side…[Maria] had always felt like someone else. She had always felt like the wrong girl.” And this is the point where the reader beings to internalize the fact that “twins separated at birth” is, well, kind of a big deal. It is the point where Enright begins to unleash her trademark vivid and seemingly cryptic language and imagery. And it is also the point where, to me, the book becomes a work about simile and comparisons—and the difficult parameters language erects when we try to describe grand, large-scale emotion.

Remember, the book is titled What Are You Like?, not Who Are You? or I Can’t Believe I Have a Twin! It’s as if the young women are asking each other, “How do I put you in context of what I know? What experiences can I dial up to make me understand this?” This is a phenomenal experience, so Enright brings out phenomenal language.

The best review that I have ever read on Amazon is actually for What Are You Like? It is simple and funny and to-the-point: “The author’s concept of this odd book had to come from the seam of her eye where the mist and the rocks blow together like the Brussels sprouts of yesterday’s backyard tire swing. If you liked this review, you’ll love the book.” (For what it’s worth, I loved the book.)

And that is Anne Enright for you. However, this book is not a trippy traipse through Wonderland. Rather, it is thick with plot and ably explores the profound relationships between family members and the surrounding community when characters feel like “something is missing” and subsequently muster the courage to figure out how they “fit in.” The only aspect of her work that could even remotely be called esoteric or cryptic is her attention to how her characters feel and how they attempt to understand these feelings.

Maria, for instance, experiences things abstractly and acutely well before she has any concrete inkling of a long-lost twin. Here is how the author describes a time where a young Maria visits the family farm of her deceased mother: “Maria had never seen rain before. She had never seen rain that started a mile away, a high smudge under the clouds. It looked different to everything – like the bit of a drawing you tried to rub out with your finger. Soon I will be inside that rain, she thought. I will be there…Maria buzzed around the barn, and itched where the hay caught her. If you had asked what she was then, she would not have been able to tell you. Out in the rain she would have been wet, she would have been a girl from Dublin caught in the rain, but here in the barn she was anything at all.” This is an Irish girl; obviously, Maria has “seen rain before.” Yet Enright means something different, for in Maria’s mind, this rain dictates a new emotion that she’s feeling—one that she might not ever be able to put into words, but one that she will always associate with this particular rainstorm and visiting with biological relatives whom she doesn’t know at all.

Similarly, the author has this to say about Maria’s stepmother, Evelyn, who has resigned herself to a generally benign life, one where she and her husband inch toward indifference, with her stepdaughter and biological children following suit: “That night Evelyn dreamt of sperm and the smell maddened her. It lingered in the morning and made her ashamed. It was her fifty-third birthday. Time to throw things out, she thought, and started with a plastic bag full of shoes that had taken the shape of her feet. Ghost steps, and all the wanderings she had never made, knotted at the top and left out for the bin men, waltzing in the quiet, in the rain.”

How to make emotional sense of this?

How to make emotional sense of this?

This is how Anne Enright uses simile. She may not always use “like” or “as”—and the reader may be a little befuddled at times as to what exactly her imagery means—but the wide swath of emotion that she gives her characters is indicative of her ability to use their experiences to inform their lives.

So, in a way, the plot of What Are You Like? isn’t about the mechanics of how these two girls come to find each other. Instead, Enright takes a ripped-from-the-headlines and popular plot and takes it to its basest level in order to give us a potential clue as to what something as profound as “twins separated at birth” is really like.

 

 

Shake It: A Break from Regularly Scheduled Programming

Last night, my husband and I and our two kids huddled around a laptop watching old videos. One of my favorites? A front-toothless version of my now-10-year-old daughter singing “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. Summertime, and the livin’ is easy… School has been out for a week, we’ve had some uncharacteristic 70-degree days, and the 10:30 pm light is making bedtime later and later. Summer: It always shakes things up a bit. So, I will too. (Shake things up, that is. Much like how Debbie Gibson sang “Shake Your Love” in 1987. Oh, to have a video of me singing that.)

My friend Rebekah, who started blogging in response to her travels to Rwanda, recently posted her recommended summer reads. Not only does she carve out time to blog, she is a mother of three and co-owns a lifestyle boutique in New York—all the while running to acting auditions when she can. Judging from her list, I think she reads a lot more non-fiction than I do: Shake it up, Amy!

So here’s something a little different while I work on writing about Anne Enright’s What Are You Like? In the spirit of Rebekah’s post, I’m offering up my own recommended summer reads. Perhaps between the two lists, you’ll be inspired to reach for a title you normally wouldn’t.

Brother, I'm Dying, by Edwidge Danticat

Brother, I’m Dying, by Edwidge Danticat

Here is the memoir of the author of several acclaimed novels and short-story collections, including Breath, Eyes, Memory, The Dew Breaker, and 2013’s Claire of the Sea Light. Brother chronicles Danticat’s early life in Haiti, her parents’ departure to America to establish a better life for their family, and her reunion with them when she is twelve. In light of the immigration debate in America, this book, which also illuminates the questionable detainment of Danticat’s uncle (her “second father”), is an appropriate—and important—read, no matter your views.

All Souls, by Michael Patrick MacDonald

All Souls, by Michael Patrick MacDonald

I was working in Boston and living in Cambridge when this book came out in 1999; it created quite a buzz. MacDonald’s memoir provides an intense look into Boston’s Southie (at one point an Irish-American stronghold with the highest concentration of white poverty in America) and the passionate loyalties that bind the community together, as well as the organized crime that destroys many of its residents. Not only do readers get to know the author’s mother (the accordion-wielding “Ma”) as well as his ten siblings, they’ll see how politics—including Boston’s infamous busing crisis of the 70s—charged a community. This book provides a tragic look into how the many tentacles of crime and violence can literally diminish a family. (MacDonald also wrote Easter Rising, a memoir of breaking the “Southie mold” and his subsequent travels to the “motherland”: Ireland.)

Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger

Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger

I try to read this book once a year. It was recommended to me by my friend Ashley, and once I finally picked it up, I understood that this was a special kind of book. Although the reader may want to hurry and see how it all ends, one should read prudently and slowly in order to savor the language and imagery that Enger carefully serves up. The beauty of Peace Like a River is that the book’s simple line, “Make of it what you will,” is also, once the tone of the story is set, one of its best.

Mona in the Promised Land, by Gish Jen

Mona in the Promised Land, by Gish Jen

In all of her books that I’ve read, Jen successfully and humorously dives into that murky area between culture of origin and adopted culture—and where the two intersect. Mona follows teenaged Chinese-American Mona Chang, who moves with her family to suburban New York and subsequently decides to convert to Judaism. In addition to her writing talent, I’m drawn to Jen’s thoughtful and articulate responses to the more broad-brushed concepts of life and art: Check out her website and read/watch a sampling of her interviews to see what I mean. And although I haven’t read it yet, I’d recommend her book, Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, based on lectures she delivered at Harvard. (It’s on my list!)

The Heidi Chronicles, by Wendy Wasserstein

The Heidi Chronicles, by Wendy Wasserstein

I read through the late Wasserstein’s entire body of work after taking a class called “Household Dramas” in college. (Can you guess what Sophocles drama we started with?) Twenty-five years after Heidi won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the pontifications about what it means to be a woman and mother in the “modern world” still resonate. Her characters all seem to fall in the middle of the traditional-revolutionary spectrum. I don’t mean that they are wishy-washy, and I don’t mean that there aren’t those who fall heavily on one side: the driven career woman or the woman who chooses motherhood over all. Yet they are nuanced women, women whom I think most females can identify with one way or another. Which, if you take a look at drama (especially televised), is an awfully hard feat to accomplish. Wasserstein’s collection of essays, Bachelor Girls, as well her posthumous biography, Wendy and the Lost Boys by Julie Salamon (which, again, I have not read, but was recommended by a commenter on Rebekah’s blog) will round out a Wasserstein collection.

For me, the perfect summer read is a book that challenges me without forcing me to lug around an annotated commentary. Save Ulysses for winter. (But be sure to finish it before Bloomsday: June 16.) However, if you’re looking for something much lighter than the above recommendations, may I suggest the following?

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