Great American Read – Part 2

We’re about halfway to finding out which book will be named America’s favorite by PBS in the Great American Read. I don’t know about you, but I have been inspired to check more books off this list in the past couple of months. Rather than just reading them on my own, I asked my mother if she would like to have our own little book club for two. I thought it would be a great bonding experience and give us something fun to talk about on our weekly phone calls. We decided to take turns picking books neither of us had read yet and allow two weeks to read it, discussing it both at the halfway point and again when we finished. Mom likes listening to them on audio, and I tend to read the print version.

We started with Mom’s choice: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. She had seen the 2010 movie starring Jack Black, but hadn’t read the book. I had neither seen the movie or read the book, although I did recall possibly seeing bits and pieces of the 1996 TV miniseries starring Ted Danson. I love how this book helped me see what a sense of humor my mother has.  This book gave us plenty of laughs (admittedly, we’re a little warped). At one point the main character is on an island inhabited by tiny people. A fire breaks out in the wing of the tiny royal castle where the princess resides. Giant-size Gulliver “helps” by urinating on the fire. He was disappointed that his “help” wasn’t as appreciated as much as he thought it should be. On the whole, I think Swift meant for it to be more of a political satire than a comedy. However, it is clear he had a sense of humor. Although written almost 300 years ago, much of the subtext is still relatable today. I think that is a mark of a truly great novel.

When we finished with that, I chose for us to read Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. It was an apt one for me to discuss with my mother, because it is centered around mother-daughter relationships: specifically, four Asian mothers living in San Francisco and their their American-born daughters.  I was also planning a family vacation to San Francisco, so I wanted to read as many books set there as I could before going. The book’s themes center around family, culture, and class and how these things shaped the experiences of these eight particular Asian women. I would recommend reading this if you have not already. I also checked out Joy Luck Club on DVD and watched the movie on my own, which I enjoyed.

The third book we read was an Agatha Christie novel. The Christie novel on the Great American Read list is And Then There Were None, but somehow Mom and I got it in our heads that it was Murder on the Orient Express. Maybe it was because I have a tendency to get excited when I can read a book and then watch the movie made based on that book, and I knew that the Murder on the Orient Express movie had just been made in 2017. (I have since learned that there are also movies based on And Then There Were None.) So we read Murder on the Orient Express, then watched the movie together. We both found it to be a quick read. We also loved the unexpected ending. The movie was a little different than the book (as most movies based on books tend to be) but overall true to the story in an enjoyable way. The movie boasts an all-star cast including Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad and Daisy Ridley. But enough about that one. It’s not even on the list.

I think we are going to read the Vonnegut novel next. I better double-check the list to make sure we get the right one!

In my last blog post, I asked readers to comment with their favorite book from the list. I also set up a display at each of our three locations with a voting box. When the Great American Read announces America’s favorite book in late October, I will tally our local votes and announce Davenport’s favorite. If you haven’t voted yet please do so by either commenting on this blog post or writing your favorite title from the Great American Read list on a slip of paper and leaving it for us in the turquoise box at one of our locations.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I listened to this book on my last road trip and after I returned to work, I discovered that it was one of PBS’s Great American Reads! (Check out the Library for a display of these books or look online for a printable list of all 100 books. You can also vote for your favorite at any Davenport Library location.) I was already trying to read my way through as many of those books as I could,  so I was happy that I had stumbled upon Americanah  and that I could check this book off my list!

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the story of race, identity, and struggling to find yourself both away from home and at home. Ifemelu and Obinze fell in love when they were very young, living in military-ruled Nigeria. Both Ifemelu and Obinze were attending a Nigerian university when a series of university strikes began. Without a solid education and no other real plans in motion, Ifemelu and Obinze decided to leave the country.

Ifemelu decides to leave Nigeria and head to America. She and Obinze work out a plan. Once he finishes school, he will leave Nigeria and come to her. In America, Ifemelu has academic success, but struggles to fit into black America. This novel wonderfully describes the African experience and how it differs between the USA, England, and Nigeria. Ifemelu may have found her way at an American university with academic success, but she struggles with understanding the differences between what is accepted in America vs what was/is accepted in Nigeria. To help her cope, Ifemelu decides to start a blog that talks about race issues in America. Obinze’s life is complicated in a different way. Not being able to head to America, he instead moves to England and ends up becoming an illegal immigrant. His journey is complicated like Ifemelu’s and he struggles to find himself amongst a country that wants to send him back home.

Flash forward years and Ifemelu and Obinze find themselves in the same country again, trying to deal with past resentments, hurt feelings, and denials. Their current lives are under scrutiny as they each try to juggle their foreign selves with accepted culture and identity standards in place in Nigeria. Reuniting in newly democratic Nigeria after years abroad, both Ifemelu and Obinze have issues to work through as they deal with their new selves, the new Nigeria, and the unique relationship/reunited passion between each other and their native homeland. Some issues are spoken, while others lie under the surface only called out when they directly influence others in the open. These cultural subtleties make up a vast swath of this book and the author is adept at bringing them to light. This is fiction with a message, yet the message is conveyed in an appealing and socially conscious way.

This book takes a deep look at race and immigration, specifically the intricacies of race and how that experience is different between the USA and Nigeria. In frequent conversations throughout this novel, readers are given a glimpse into what it means to be black in Africa and what it means to be black in the USA. The author takes readers on a tour of various countries as seen through the eyes of Ifemelu and Obinze. Their life stories play out over many years and many countries as they both struggle to find themselves amongst countries who value the same culture in different ways.

I recommend listening to this book. While it may take you a little bit to understand the accents like it took me, I ultimately felt like it was worthwhile. The accents allowed me to fully engage with the book and realize that I was gaining a glimpse into a culture entirely different from mine. When I finished listening to this book, I realized that if I had read a print copy, I would have lost the accents completely, would have probably given the characters an incorrect accent, or would have imagined the characters with only slight accents. There really is something positive to be said about listening to books with narrators who really know how to correctly portray the characters.


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