The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

This seems like one of the most hyped books of this year- and I can definitely see why.

The Great Alone follows the Allbright family (father Ernt, mother Cora, and especially daughter Leni) as they begin a homestead in Alaska after Ernt is released from a Vietnamese POW camp. Leni is initially taken aback by this drastic change, but she gets caught up in the excitement of possibility, and the beauty and wonder of Alaska itself. When they arrive at their new home, two things become clear to Leni- first, that they are woefully unprepared and unaware of what living in Alaska is going to entail and second, that the community where they landed is something different than she’s ever known. She’s especially excited to meet and befriend the one kid her age, Matthew.

But even though Leni feels that she’s finally putting down roots, she hides the deep secret of her father’s anger and  violence following his return from war. Leni comes of age in this unique circumstance, and we’re along for the ride.

While I mostly enjoyed this book, and finished it in just a couple days, I also struggled with it at times. The setting was so much fun to read about, as well as the specifics of this kind of homesteading that the Allbright family must learn- it’s clear that Hannah knows what she’s wriitng about. But the action scenes which drive the plot forward are at times so predictable that I was cringing and forcing myself to read through them to get to the other side where the characters could continue to develop. These scenes were few, and the story after them compelled me forward. As a mother, the relationship between Leni and Cora frustrated me to no end, and I’m not convinced that Cora was able to redeem herself at all in my eyes.

My favorite part of this book is that there was a big romance theme, but it wasn’t what defined Leni’s formative years. It was there and it was shaping her in a positive way, but she was largely coming into her own on her own and I think this made the romance stronger.

Overall, if you like compelling reading with a unique setting and Hannah’s writing style, you’ll probably enjoy this book as well. I did!

Questions for discussion:

Did Cora’s big actions at the end of the book redeem any of her shortcomings throughout the rest of the book?

Did you believe in Leni and Matthew’s romance?

Place was a huge component of this book- in what way was this a story about Alaska, and in what way was it a coming of age story? Can the two be separated?

June Month in Review

June was an exciting month for us! When it started, my husband was/had been out of the country for work, and we came home we got to do two fun things with Big Sister’s dance class (two year olds doing ballet is the CUTEST!)- she had picture day, and then the local small town parade. We got a new front door for our house and are preparing for a renovation of our bathroom, and then it was time for a birthday party! Big Sister turned 3! We went to the zoo and had a family party. We wrapped up the week with Take Your Kids to Work Day at L’s company and going to our first family protest for #FamiliesBelongTogether.

But what about the reading?

Goodreads tells me I read 12 books- which seems nuts. I finished In the Distance by Hernan Diaz (check out my video and blog reviews) first, then Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo. I read three of the Magical Bakery Mysteries by Bailey Cates (and that’s probably enough of that series), The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall,  and The Philosopher’s Flight by Tom Miller. Next I read The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel, Heart Berries by Therese Marie Maillhot, and The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron. I finished the month with some lighter reads- the third Library Lover’s Mystery by Jenn McKinlay and Til Death Do Us Tart by Ellie Alexander.

My Youtube Wrap-ups (6/15, 6/3)  of many (but not all) of these books give a little more of my thoughts, since I’m still playing around with blogging versus YouTube for books.

 

My favorite books this month: In the Distance and The Philosopher’s Flight, The Optimistic Decade, The Penderwicks

The book I’m most conflicted about this month: The Last Neanderthal

 

The best part about July so far? Big Sister has discovered a love for listening to audiobooks in the car, which is fun for me too! We’ve got a vacation coming up later this summer that involves a bit of a road trip, so I’m actually looking forward to getting to listen to an audiobook while we drive.

 

 

*As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

 

 

In the Distance by Hernan Diaz

In the Distance tells the story of Hakan, a young Swedish boy who is sent with his brother to travel to New York to make a new (and better) life. Before they even leave Sweden, Hakan and Linus are separated and since Hakan’s understanding of anything of the world outside his home village is limited to  the words“New York,” he determines that the best course of action is to continue on to New York on his own and meet Linus there. He ends up in Argentina and then California, and his quest truly begins.

Hakan had never before left his small village in Sweden, and knew no one and no language other than Swedish. He was young and impressionable and the cast of characters he met took on an almost Odyssian proportion. He meets a prospector, a female saloon proprieter and landowner (perhaps- her exact role beyond Hakan is unclear in the book, as it was unclear to Hakan), and a naturalist, among others, but mostly his journey is one of extreme solitude.

In this journey, Hakan, or ‘The Hawk,” to non-Swedish speakers, ponders questions about the nature of humanity, god, and nature. Upon hearing, and mostly accepting, a theory of evolution from his naturalist companion, Hakan thinks, “Even more outrageous and insulting was the notion of the primordial snot. Had he not been created in god’s image? What, then, was god?” (66). Statements like these gave me the unique experience of both snorting in laughter and yet contemplating the profound question at the same time.

The nature and land around Hakan become a character in the story. This makes the book about a single man who spends most of his time avoiding other people feel rich and descriptive rather than barren and navel-gazing. Hakan becomes enveloped in the different landscapes he encounters, and makes them each feel alive to the reader, while at the same time allowing the reader to feel not just the beauty, but also the starkness, fear, and danger which accompanies each new terrain.

The people in the story, although there aren’t many, give us windows into humanity and humanity’s many sides. Most of it isn’t pretty, as we’re exposed to greed, lust, possession, religion, and violence. But we get as well a small glimpse of knowledge, friendship, and love which sustain the book and save it from utter bleakness.

The language is truly one of the books strengths, and while it’s magnificent, it’s not pretentious. It had me returning to the book in my thoughts when I couldn’t return to it physically, but at the same time, my notes are surprisingly spare. I got caught up in reading experience and didn’t get feel blasted by forced platitudes.

This book is a great choice for someone who loves the American West (although not too much, for this isn’t your typical triumph of white man over nature story), adventure tales, and stories of introspection and a touch of magical realism.

Questions for Discussion:
How does Hakan’s growth and size both influence and represent the story as a whole?

What role did nature and landscape play in the story- could it have been told in any other place?

On page 105, there’s this sentence: “Sometimes it rained, and it was always a miracle.” What other miracles did Hakan witness, and did he always recognize them? Did he make you see ordinary events as miraculous?

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck

Go, Went, Gone tells the story of Richard, a retiring classics professor who becomes intrigued by the story of some African refugees after they stage a hunger strike to raise their visibility in Berlin. Richard has nearly no previous knowledge about he refugees, but is well equipped to do research and learn about things in general, so he sets out to do just this and goes to meet and learn about and from the refugees.

The early parts of this book have an almost surreal quality to them- as Richard has just retired and becomes intrigued by the situation of the refugees, but he is still ruled by the quotidian routines of his widower life- he has Earl Grey tea with milk and sugar for breakfast, along with one slice of bread with honey and one with cheese. Without his wife, lover, or work, these routines provide both structure and purpose for his day. As he takes on this new ‘project’ of learning what he can- the project itself takes on a “life of its own” and we get more and more glimpses into Richard himself.

Frustratingly, in order to set the stage for just how Richard (and the larger German population, which he is meant to represent), we have to wade through phrases like “For the first time in his life, the thought occurs to him that borders drawn by Europeans may have no relevance at all for Africans” (51), and “one person’s vantage point is just as valid as an others, and, in seeing, there is no right, no wrong” (55). These are revelatory for Richard, but it’s hard to believe that he could have made it through the academy without having some exposure to post-colonial thought.

Once we wade through these preliminaries, however, Richard gets to know the refugee men. This part of the story is well done- while Richard is learning about the Africans, he does so without passing judgements on them or attempting to impose on them an inappropriate value system. He contrasts what he’s learning about them in discussions with them with the vitriol he reads about them on the internet as he does more and more research to learn about their legal conundrum.

I appreciated this book because, while I knew in a vague sense that there was a significant difference in the refugee situation in continental Europe than here in the U.S., I actually had no idea what that meant legally. It explains the conundrum of only being legally able to work in Italy, where there are no jobs, and then traveling to Germany where there’s a labor shortage only to be denied the legal ability to work. As each man tells his story, we get a small taste of the politics that drove him out of his native country and continent, and what that journey and transition was like.

The lives of the refugees are often juxtaposed with the mundanity of Richard’s life. Even the greatest upheaval in his life- the fall of the Berlin Wall and the GDR- pales in comparison with the lives of these men, who have no idea that there was once an East and West Germany. Yet at the same time, the loss of one’s wife and partner is a universal theme that they all can bond over.

Richard helps the men in the small (and larger) ways that he can- but I appreciated that this book didn’t present these small assists as any sort of savior actions. Even when Richard is able to help one of the refugees buy land in his native country- it’s clear that the family back home will have to wait a year for the crops to grow and the refugee in Germany would still be unable to go home.

I can see why this book was long-listed for the Man Booker International Prize. It illuminates an important issue and does so for a broader audience than merely that of its original language. It explores themes of transitions, memory, and power (both personal and political), applied in an all-too real setting.

 

Questions for Discussion:

What was the significance of the man drowned in the lake?

Richard returns time and again, in his thoughts, to the transition when the Berlin Wall fell and the GDR was dissolved. Why does he do this? Is it an appropriate juxtaposition with the refugees’ experiences?

Ultimately, is it appropriate for this story to be told through Richard’s eyes? Or is this yet another example of a white man trying to understand refugees? Would it have been more or less powerful or educational through another viewpoint?

The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

The Girl Who Smiled Beads is a memoir from a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. Clemantine was 6 years old during the genocide’s 100 days, but she escaped with her older sister Claire- leaving their mother, father, and older brother behind. Clemantine and Claire spent 6 years moving from one country to another in Africa before they were granted asylum in the United States. During this time they didn’t know the fate of their family left in Rwanda.

The story is told in dual timelines- one recounts Clemantine’s journey after entering the United States, living during the week with an affluent white family who takes her in and fights for her education and well being and during the weekends with Claire’s family. The second timeline begins with Clemantine’s childhood and takes her through the journey as she and Claire travel through Africa and away from the killing in Rwanda.

This memoir tells not just the story of a genocide, but also of war and refugees. Clemantine was a child during the conflict, and then came of age- and to grips with what she’d seen and experienced- in the safe and alien environment that she experienced in the United States. She relates her experience of learning about the genocide through a book (!) and trying to reconcile the words on the page with her lived experiences. She didn’t only experience the Rwandan genocide, but in her flight across Africa, she become part of the story of other violent conflicts and many different refugee camps.

The book doesn’t focus on the details of the genocide in Rwanda. If you want the specifics of the conflict, pick a different book and then read this for a survivor’s story. Instead, the book focuses on how Clemantine felt throughout the ordeal and then as she tried to piece a life together afterward. It focuses on her displacement, her desperation, her rage, and her discontent. It also relates the lessons she learned, both while on the run and the lessons she learned from her mother before leaving Rwanda and how well they held up as Clemantine’s worldview and experience evolved. The book concludes with the statement:

That’s all a person can do, really: Let others live their lives on their terms, and
interrogate how you live your own. Insist on knowing the backstory to your gifts and your
pain. Ask yourself how you came to have all the things you carry: your privilege, your philosophy, your nightmares, your faith, your sense of order and peace in the world (261).

In this way, the book is more about how to deal with feelings and unfairness in general, as Clemantine tries to apply her lessons learned more broadly.

One of the book’s strengths is Clemantine’s recognition of her own privilege. Upon arriving in the U.S., she is taken in by a wealthy white family who are able to get her into a good school district, feed and clothe her well, and generally give her a life not generally accorded to refugees upon arrival. While recognizing that this fortune helped make it possible for her to succeed, it also complicates her story even further. She may be black in America, but her experiences with traditional American racism are limited. She has no grudge against the white America that so many of her black peers have been so exploited by for generations. It wasn’t white America who hurt her- it was black Africa. But to acknowledge this to her black classmates at Yale is something tantamount to betrayal to them- once again, Clemantine doesn’t fit in. However, throughout the book Clemantine realizes that her isn’t typical. Her sister Claire arrived in the United States as an adult with children of her own and therefore had a very different experience upon arrival.

Throughout the book, Clemantine is reluctant to play the blame game. This is possibly most notably absent when she’s talking about the genocide itself- there’s no mention or her ethnicity or that of anyone else. She makes it clear that young Clemantine was unhappy with her role in the life that she and Claire cobbled together as they sought refuge across Africa, but that’s simply acknowledging feelings she had at the time. When she returns to Africa in college and is horrified by what she sees, she doesn’t blame either the white tourists or the Africans who pander to them.

Overall, this book is a powerful story about what it’s like to live through and beyond unspeakable horrors.

Questions for discussion:

How much of Clemantine’s experiences are shaped by her youth during the actual genocide? During their days in refugee camps? How could things have been different had she been more aware of what was happening during the genocide itself?

In what ways does the privilege Clemantine experience after arriving in the U.S. affect her adult life? What about her experience with Oprah and/or Eli Wiesel in particular?