A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

a human being died that night Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is a South African psychologist who participated in her country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sought to illuminate and heal the traumas suffered under apartheid.  After the Commission concluded its hearings, she traveled to Pretoria’s maximum-security prison to interview Eugene de Kock, who is serving a 212-year sentence for his crimes as the head of apartheid’s state-sanctioned death squads.

A Human Being Died That Night is a remarkable exploration of the nature of evil, remorse, and forgiveness.  By weaving accounts of her interviews with de Kock alongside in-depth explorations of the psychology of apartheid, Gobodo-Madikizela probes the depths of both human hatred and empathy.

Trigger warnings for sexual assault, torture, and violence against both adults and children.

Quote:
“When de Kock spoke about his past, his recollections seemed to reflect some of the same factors that led others to reduce him to a label.  There were times when he described details of his violent past with a vividness that was frightening.  He had belonged to a world that created violence, I to a world that was the object of this violence; he belonged to a world where morality meant the same thing as hate, and I to a world that knew the difference.  Our worlds were the black and white of lies and truth, and yet as de Kock spoke, the boundaries of our worlds did not always seem so clear.”

Author:
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is a psychologist, professor, and author.  Born in Cape Town, South Africa, she grew up during apartheid and later served as a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Her published works include A Human Being Died that Night; Narrating Our Healing: Perspectives on Working through Trauma; and Memory, Narrative and Forgiveness: Perspectives on the Unfinished Journeys of the Past.

Published:  2003
Length:  148 pages (excluding endnotes)
Set in:  Pretoria and Cape Town, South Africa

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Dear Fang, With Love by Rufi Thorpe

dear fang with loveWhen seventeen-year-old Vera has a breakdown at a high school party, her father, Lucas, decides to take her far away from her normal routine for the summer.  When they arrive in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, Lucas and Vera become immersed in the medieval city’s history and culture — and form fast friendships with the others in their tourist group.

As Vera struggles with her homesickness and the knowledge of her new mental health diagnosis, Lucas tries to bond with his impetuous daughter and track down the truth about his Lithuanian relatives.  Filled with humor and chaos, Dear Fang, With Love is a perfect portrait of a family dealing with long-buried secrets and terrifying new realities.

Quote:
I had already framed Vilnius in my mind as a liminal place, a portal between East and West, but also, as Darius had mentioned, a portal between the living and the dead, and I didn’t like the idea of crossing the river into Užupis.  It made me think of the River Styx.  But the River Vilnia was narrow and picturesque, not haunting or misty, and the bridge railings were bristling with love locks.  It was a custom around there, Darius told us, for young couples to have their initials engraved on a lock, which they attached to the bridge, and then together they would throw the key into the river.  There were hundreds, maybe even thousands of locks on the bridge, covering every bar of the railing.”

Author:
Rufi Thorpe is the author of The Girls from Corona del Mar and Dear Fang, With Love.  She lives in California.

Published:  2016
Length:  303 pages
Set in:  Vilnius, Lithuania

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A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

gentleman in moscowSet across the span of several decades, A Gentleman in Moscow follows the life of Count Alexander Rostov.  As a young man he is charged with by a Bolshevik tribunal with the crime of writing poetry as an aristocrat and only narrowly escapes an immediate execution.  Instead, he is placed under house arrest at Moscow’s grand Metropol Hotel.  There, he fills his days with reading, eating, making friends with the staff and other guests, and observing how the passing years change the political landscape of Russia.

Though the novel is almost entirely confined to a single building, the story never feels constricted; rather, Amor Towles finds a way to bring the entire world through the doors of the Metropol.  An utterly absorbing read, A Gentleman in Moscow enchants from first page through the very last sentence.

Quote:
“True, duels were fought by convention at dawn in isolated locations to ensure the privacy of the gentlemen involved.  But were they fought behind ash heaps or in scrapyards?  Of course not!  They were fought in a clearing among the birch trees with a dusting of snow.  Or on the banks of a winding rivulet.  Or at the edge of a family estate where the breezes shake the blossoms from the trees . . . . That is, they were fought in settings that one might have expected to see in the second act of an opera.  In Russia, whatever the endeavor, if the setting is glorious and the tenor grandiose, it will have its adherents.  In fact, over the years, as the locations for duels became more picturesque and the pistols more finely manufactured, the best-bred men proved willing to defend their honor over lesser and lesser offenses.  So while dueling may have begun as a response to high crimes — to treachery, treason, adultery — by 1900 it had tiptoed down the stairs of reason, until they were being fought over the tilt of a hat, the duration of a glance, or the placement of a comma.”

Author:
Amor Towles is the author of the novels Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow.  Born in Boston, Massachusetts, he now lives in New York City.

Published:  2016
Length:  462 pages
Set in:  Moscow, Russia

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The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

sisters brothersWhen Eli and Charlie Sisters — the titular brothers — are hired to track down and kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm, they set out to travel south from Oregon to California.  As they guide their horses through mountains and forests and towns, the impending murder begins to weigh on Eli, and his misgivings only increase once they meet the elusive and eccentric Mr. Warm.

By turns funny and contemplative, Eli’s internal journey is set against the lush landscape of 1850s California gold country.  Written in vivid detail and with biting wit, The Sisters Brothers transports its readers to the gritty reality of everyday life on the frontier.

Quote:
“We headed south.  The banks were sandy but hard packed and we rode at an easy pace on opposite sides of the stream.  The sun pushed through the tops of the trees and warmed our faces; the water was translucent and three-foot trout strolled upriver, or hung in the current, lazy and fat.  Charlie called over to say he was impressed with California, that there was something in the air, a fortuitous energy, was the phrase he used.  I did not feel this but understood what he meant.  It was the thought that something as scenic as this running water might offer you not only aesthetic solace but also golden riches; the thought that the earth itself was taking care of you, was in favor of you.  This perhaps was what lay at the very root of the hysteria surrounding what came to be known as the Gold Rush:  Men desiring a feeling of fortune; the unlucky masses hoping to skin or borrow the luck of others, or the luck of a destination.”

Author:
Patrick deWitt is a novelist and screenwriter.  His novels include Ablutions, The Sisters Brothers, Undermajordomo Minor, and French Exit.  Originally from British Columbia, Canada, he now resides in Portland, Oregon.

Published:  2011
Length:  328 pages
Set in:  California and Oregon, United States

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The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

the book of memoryIn a death row jail cell in Harare, Zimbabwe, a young albino woman named Memory begins to record her life story.

Charged with the murder of Lloyd Hendricks — her wealthy, white adoptive father — Memory tells a tale of heartbreak and upheaval:  growing up poor in a local township, grieving for the deaths of several siblings, struggling to adjust to her new life with Lloyd, and slowly coming to understand his motivations for adopting her.

Written in beautiful prose that almost crackles with intensity, The Book of Memory follows a young woman grappling with a cruel fate.

Quote:
“You will discover as you walk around the city that it was planned to keep the direct heat of the sun away from the faces of white people.  In the mornings, they left the northern suburbs to go into town to work, and the sun was behind them, and in the evenings, when they went back home, the sun was behind them still.  The streets of the northern suburbs are lined with avenues of jacarandas and flamboyants that give cooling shade.  But in the townships, the sun is always in the faces of the people.  And there are no tree-lined avenues, no cool grass beneath the feet, only the hard heat of the dusty streets.”

Author:
Petina Gappah is the author of the short story collection An Elegy for Easterly and the novel The Book of Memory.  She was born in Zambia and moved with her family to Zimbabwe as a child.

Published:  2015
Length:  276 pages
Set in:  Harare, Zimbabwe

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Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

eleanor oliphantEleanor Oliphant eschews interaction with strangers and acquaintances alike, ignores her co-workers’ snide comments, listens to her mother’s berating voice on the phone, and retreats to her apartment each weekend to drink a solitary box of vodka.  Her life is simple, dependable, and completely devoid of any intrusive or well-meaning questions.

One day, Eleanor and her co-worker Raymond witness an old man collapse in the street.  After calling for medical attention and visiting him in the hospital, it almost seems as though she and Raymond are becoming… friends.  And while Eleanor insists that she doesn’t need anyone new in her life, she finds herself going along with his invitations to spend time together.  But as she slowly begins to let Raymond in, the small cracks in her well-constructed life begin to show.

Quote:
“No one’s been in my flat this year apart from service professionals; I’ve not voluntarily invited another human being across the threshold, except to read the meter.  You’d think that would be impossible, wouldn’t you?  It’s true, though.  I do exist, don’t I?  It often feels as if I’m not here, that I’m a figment of my own imagination.  There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar.  A strong gust of wind could dislodge me completely, and I’d lift off and blow away, like one of those seeds in a dandelion clock.”

Author:
Gail Honeyman is the author of the novel Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine.  She lives in Glasgow, Scotland.

Published:  2017
Length:  327 pages
Set in:  Glasgow, Scotland

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How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child by Sandra Uwiringiyimana, with Abigail Pesta

how dare the sun riseHow Dare the Sun Rise begins with Sandra Uwiringiyimana’s recollection of a violent night in a Rwandan refugee camp — the night her younger sister was brutally killed by soldiers.

Driven to Rwanda by ethnic persecution in their homeland of the Democratic Republic of Congo (also known as the DRC or Congo-Kinshasa), Sandra’s family struggled to reunite and find safety.  Eventually, they were given refugee status through the United Nations and immigrated to upstate New York.  There, Sandra faced a new set of challenges: acclimating to a different culture with unfamiliar expectations around race and gender.  As she settled into life as an American teenager, she turned her turmoil over the horrors of her past into passionate activism — and finds a worldwide platform.

Note: trigger warnings for sexual abuse and child death. 

Quote:
“Ten years before the flames, I was born in the mountains, a scenic land of jewel-green fields, bamboo trees, and forests inhabited by gorillas, elephants, and chimpanzees.  My people lived in small round mud huts with pointy roofs made of dried grass.  They raised cattle and farmed the land.  My parents grew up in these towering mountains, the Hauts Plateaux, in a province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo called South Kivu.  When they were young, my mom and dad lived in neighboring villages that were about a day apart by foot.  There were no roads, no cars.  Everyone walked everywhere, and they still do.  We left the mountains when I was around two years old, in 1996, so I don’t remember much of our life there.  But today when I see pictures of the region, known as Minembwe, it looks like the most idyllic place on earth, with lush, leafy mountaintops scraping the clouds and miles and miles of green.”

Author:
Sandra Uwiringiyimana is an author, activist, and public speaker.  She has spoken at the Women in the World Summit and in front of the United Nations.  How Dare the Sun Rise is her first book.

Published:  2017
Length:  304 pages
Main Settings:  Rwanda; New York, United States
Secondary Setting:  Democratic Republic of the Congo

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The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

7D6B70B8-0B2F-48EA-98A5-06D7B3FA7D25The Heart’s Invisible Furies begins in rural Ireland with a dramatic scene: a teenage girl is cast out of her village, shamed and ridiculed by her family and local priest for becoming pregnant out of wedlock.  With nothing to her name and no home, she boards a bus to Dublin and doesn’t look back.

Her son Cyril is adopted by an emotionally distant but wealthy couple and seeks affection in his close friendship with a boy named Julian.  Yet as he grows up and comes to understand his identity as a gay man, he faces pervasive discrimination and the pressure to conform.  From strange kidnappings to unadvised marriages and tragic losses, Cyril’s life unwinds for readers in fascinating but heartbreaking bursts.  Written with compassion and humor, The Heart’s Invisible Furies comes in at almost 600 pages yet somehow still feels too short.

Quote:
“Maude and I traveled to the Four Courts together on the final day to hear the verdict and, as I had not been allowed to attend during the trial itself, I was fascinated and a little frightened by the majesty of the Round Hall, where the families of victims and criminals alike mixed in a curious mélange of quarry and miscreant while barristers marched to and fro in black gowns and white wigs, laden down with folders and trailed by anxious-looking juniors.  My adoptive mother was seething with rage, for the case had received so much publicity over recent weeks that her latest novel, Amongst Angels, had found its way to the front table of the Hodges Figgis Bookshop in Dawson Street, a location that none of her previous work had ever come close to troubling in the past.  Alerted to the fact that morning over breakfast by our housekeeper, Brenda, who had been shopping in town the afternoon before, she extinguished her cigarette in the center of an egg yolk and started to tremble in fury, her face pale with humiliation.  “The vulgarity of it all,” she said.  “Popularity.  Readers.  I can’t bear it.  I knew Charles would destroy my career in the end.”

Author:
John Boyne is the author of books for both children and adults, including The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, A History of Loneliness, and Stay Where You Are and Then Leave.  Born in Dublin, Boyne also writes regular book reviews for The Irish Times. 

Published:  2017
Length:   582 pages
Main Settings:  Dublin, Ireland; Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Secondary Setting:  New York City, New York, United States

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Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich

E2119CB3-9FC6-4F3D-A3CA-F28F0CFA3D4FIn late August 1986, a power surge at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant caused a days-long fire that unleashed unprecedented amounts of radiation into the surrounding areas of Ukraine and Belarus.

In Voices from Chernobyl, Svetlana Alexievich records the profoundly tragic stories of the accident’s victims — from members of the clean-up crew at the plant to soldiers assigned to work in the area to parents of small children affected by the radiation.  In each short, heart-wrenching story, difficult questions loom:  why did this happen, what could have prevented it, and how can life continue after such a profound disaster?  By documenting the lives and deaths of the men, women, and children impacted by the blast, Alexievich gives voice to both the survivors and the ghosts of the world’s greatest nuclear catastrophe.

Quote:
“One time I filmed people who’d been in concentration camps.  They try to avoid meeting each other.  I understand that.  There’s something unnatural about getting together and remembering the war.  People who’ve been through that kind of humiliation together, or who’ve seen what people can be like, at the bottom, run from one another.  There’s something I felt in Chernobyl, something I understood that I don’t really want to talk about.  About the fact, for example, that all our humanistic ideas are relative.  In an extreme situation, people don’t behave the way you read about in books.  Sooner the other way around.  People aren’t heroes.”

Author:
Svetlana Alexievich is a Belarusian author and journalist.  Her books include War’s Unwomanly Face; Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from a Forgotten War; Enchanted with Death; and Voices from Chernobyl.  In 2015, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Published:  1997
Length:  240 pages 
Set in:  Belarus and Ukraine
Translated by:  Keith Gessen

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The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams

the hour of landWritten to coincide with the centennial of the U.S. National Park Service, The Hour of Land explores how the preservation of public lands has changed American history and culture.  In a powerful and often poetic voice, Terry Tempest Williams articulates her own intimate experiences with national parks and monuments, and decries the destructive forces of development and climate change.

By focusing on 12 specific parks — including Big Bend in Texas, Acadia in Maine, and Canyonlands in Utah — Williams shows the rich diversity of American landscapes.  Also excellent on audiobook, The Hour of Land will compel you to grab a walking stick and set out for your nearest national park.

Quote:
“Knowledge matters.  Justice matters.  Hindsight shows us our blind spots and biases; we can recognize ourselves as human beings caught in the cultural mores of a specific time.  This is not to excuse the brutal and tenebrific acts of the past, but to consider them in the light of what we know now.  By definition, our national parks in all their particularity and peculiarity show us as much about ourselves as the landscapes they honor and protect. They can be seen as holograms of an America born of shadow and light; dimensional; full of contradictions and complexities. Our dreams, our generosities, our cruelties and crimes are absorbed into these parks like water.”

Author:
Terry Tempest Williams is an activist, memoirist, and novelist.  Her works include When Women Were Birds, Refuge, Desert Quartet, and The Hour of Land.  She divides her time between Utah and Wyoming.

Published:  2016
Length:  397 pages
Set in:  Alaska, California, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming, United States

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