A few days ago, Kevin Brennan, author of Occasional Soulmates, Yesterday Road, and Parts Unknown (which is, by the way, a hidden gem), posted about the New York Times Notable Books of 2014 List. It’s their take on the top 50 fiction and 50 non-fiction books of the year. Kevin was aghast that he had not read one of the books. I managed three.
The brief descriptions of each book make them very compelling. I looked up the first book on Amazon. It is All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu. Here is the Book Description on Amazon:
All Our Names is the story of two young men who come of age during an African revolution, drawn from the safe confines of the university campus into the intensifying clamor of the streets outside. But as the line between idealism and violence becomes increasingly blurred, the friends are driven apart—one into the deepest peril, as the movement gathers inexorable force, and the other into the safety of exile in the American Midwest. There, pretending to be an exchange student, he falls in love with a social worker and settles into small-town life. Yet this idyll is inescapably darkened by the secrets of his past: the acts he committed and the work he left unfinished. Most of all, he is haunted by the beloved friend he left behind, the charismatic leader who first guided him to revolution and then sacrificed everything to ensure his freedom.
Elegiac, blazing with insights about the physical and emotional geographies that circumscribe our lives, All Our Names is a marvel of vision and tonal command. Writing within the grand tradition of Naipul, Greene, and Achebe, Mengestu gives us a political novel that is also a transfixing portrait of love and grace, of self-determination and the names we are given and the names we earn.
I have this unfortunate habit of reading the one star reviews of books before I read anything else because I think they will tell me more about the book than the five star reviews. So, I started reading those lousy reviews of All Our Names. There were three:
- Flat confusing annoying structure
- did not like it
- An incredibly confusing novel. It was never clear who Helen was, or what her role was supposed to be. Neither was Isaac’s character well developed. A full page ad in the NYT Book Review section had raves about this book. I would like to know what made it so special for so many people.
I decided to do something. Buy the book and see if I agreed the one star reviewers or with the five star reviewers. It was rather easy to do with this book because of the utter lack of any kind of depth in the one star reviews on this book. Once I read the book, I planned on sharing the results on my blog, and keep doing this, going down the NY Times List as long as this little exercise still interests me. So, here goes.
All Our Names is a pretty incredible story that takes place in the 70’s. Mengestu tells the story in two voices. One voice is the male character, an African who tells the story of his final days in Uganda during the tumultuous times there. The other character is a young American woman who meets him when he comes to America to escape Uganda. They fall in love at a time when white women and black women in love in America isn’t such a good thing. The chapters alternate between the two, so you do have to be able to switch back and forth between the “then” of his final days in Uganda and the “now” of his arrival in America and love affair with the woman. But “flat annoying confusing structure”? Absolutely not, unless you need your stories hand-fed to you.
As for the third negative reviewer — I’m not sure what else could be known about the characters. I’m not sure how who Helen is is such a mystery and the idea that Isaac is undeveloped is a marvel.
Here was my thought as I finished the book. It’s the kind of book I was desperate to finish because I wanted to know how it would end, and I was desperate for it to never end because I could have read their story for much longer.
Here’s where I have to ‘fess up a bit. I was going to alternate back and forth between the fiction and non-fiction books. The first book on the non-fiction list is a biography of Norman Rockwell. It has more one star reviews than five star reviews. Those one star reviews pretty much rip the author apart for having written what they perceive as an inaccurate, sacrilegious take on Rockwell’s life. It’s over 500 pages long. I’m not sure I want to invest the money or time into a book like that. So, I’ve moved on to the second book on the fiction list. I’m holding off on Rockwell’s biography for now. I need to ponder it for a bit. What would you do?