Christmas on Mistletoe Lane by Annie Rains

Christmas on Mistletoe Lane is a sweet holiday romance which brings together two strangers who jointly inherit a crumbling bed and breakfast and must work together to revive it. Kaitlyn and Mitch are forced together in a small town in North Carolina and the result is a charming story of healing, redemption, hard work, and creativity. Both hold secrets about their pasts that they’d rather not talk about, yet these secrets inform their lives in ways the other can’t dream about. Working on the B&B forces them to confront their pasts, together.

This was a very sweet, feel-good book that left me wanting more (I can’t wait to see which other characters the next books in the series will focus on, there seem to be so many options!). It captured the holiday spirit perfectly, and had a dose of diversity that was highly welcome in the genre.

What We Owe by Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde

To run the risk of using a tired cliché, this book is hauntingly beautiful. Nahid is an Iranian refugee living in Sweden, and she’s just been diagnosed with an advanced stage cancer. In this book, she looks back on her life as a wife and mother as she lives through her diagnosis and her daughter announces her own pregnancy.

Nahid narrates her own story. So while she is an unreliable narrator, she’s frank about her flaws in a non-judgemental way. She doesn’t care for being a mother, but she fiercely loves her daughter and does not feel guilty about this contradiction. She explains how she has become the woman that she is, and thinks about the life she lived.

I enjoy stories that complicate the narrative we’re told about refugees- it’s too easy to be reductivist about a group whose stories we think we know, when in fact we just know one small piece of their story. This book told an immigrant story, but more importantly it told a story of family, womanhood, motherhood, and legacy. The ending was exquisite, and tear-jerking. However, this book definitely has some trigger warnings- particularly for domestic violence.

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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?

 

The Strays by Emily Bitto

The Strays follows a young girl, Lily, in Australia, beginning with her childhood during the Great Depression and then concluding with an adult retrospective. Lily is an only child and when she begins at a new school, she befriends the vibrant Eva who lives with her parents and two sisters. Eva’s parents, particularly her father, are artists and their house becomes a gathering point for many other Australian artists and their bohemian lifestyle.

Lily, although she feels disloyal, vastly prefers Eva’s family to her own, and her time with them forces her to examine her own ideas about growing up, family, friendship, and the complexities of isolation and togetherness.

I think I would have read this book differently had I not been a mother. My heart ached for both Lily and Eva, neither of home received the parenting that they deserved, and for their mothers who were simply unable to provide things for their volatile teenaged daughters. I had a hard time relating to either Lily or Eva- relating instead to the mothers who were more auxiliary characters. The mothers were, to me, more compelling characters than the daughters.