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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Hooks Can be Deceiving by Betty Hechtman

Hooks Can be Deceiving is the twelfth book in the Crochet Mystery series by Betty Hechtman. Full disclaimer up front: I received a review copy from NetGalley, so I haven’t read the previous books in the series- although I’ve already requested the first book from the library so I can catch up!

One of my favorite types of palate cleansers and comfort reads right now is the genre that is cozy culinary mystery. These mysteries incorporate food as a big part of the storyline and include a recipe or recipes in the back. For someone who loves reading and cooking, they’re amazing! This particular version not only had a recipe in the back, but also two crochet patterns- which made it even more appealing. I’ve been a Knitter for my entire adult life (bonus points to you, reader, if you know the reference to a Knitter versus a knitter), but I just taught myself to crochet this year, so I loved reading a book that incorporated crochet and fiber arts along with food and cooking.

Because I haven’t read the others in the series, I won’t provide much of a synopsis- I don’t know what parts of the story are spoilers. But the basic story is: bookstore employee Molly runs a crochet group in the yarn section of her bookstore (side note: please sign me up for this kind of bookstore!). There is a murder committed, and she strives to uncover whodunit. The plot is, therefore, a pretty straightforward cozy mystery.

What the book brings to the table is its portrayal of female intergenerational friendships and a middle-aged protagonist whose love life is unbothered and ambiguous. Too often we see female friendships that are one-dimensional, but in this story, we see both sides of Molly’s relationship with her friends, particularly her best friend Dinah. These are friendships in which Molly is both giving and receiving support in meaningful ways. I felt like these relationships themselves were an important part of the story, not just a plot device. Molly also had a love life, but it was a teeny bit ambiguous, and she was unbothered by this (I’m positive there are spoilers here, so I’m treading lightly). At the beginning of the book I was definitely afraid that the romance was going to get very tropey, but it managed to avoid that and remain focused on Molly herself. She was able to retain her independence and strength in the midst of a romantic relationship that supported her without smothering her. In a world full of books which portray women trying to have a certain type of relationship (or none at all), this book was refreshing. The romantic relationship(s?) in this story felt incidental to the story, and as a nice added bonus to Molly’s life, but not its sole purpose.

Overall, a great cozy mystery with not only an interesting angle to the series, but a character with solid relationship goals.

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?

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?