Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

crazy-rich-asiansWhen Rachel Chu, a Chinese-American economics professor, is invited by her boyfriend Nick Young to visit Singapore and meet his family, she hesitantly accepts.  Her first clues that all is not what seems about her mild-mannered beau: their flight’s swanky first-class cabin and the fact that his grandmother’s home is a sprawling, glittering palace.  As Rachel tries to adjust to living among Singapore’s richest families, she faces gossip, drama, and threats from all sides — including from Nick’s own mother, who is determined to prevent him from marrying Rachel.   Crazy Rich Asians is a fast-paced, endlessly entertaining debut novel that both illuminates and skewers Singapore’s wealthiest.

Quote:
“Astrid wasn’t attractive in the typical almond-eyed Hong Kong starlet sort of way, nor was she the flawless celestial-maiden type. One could say that Astrid’s eyes were set too far apart, and her jawline — so similar to the men on her mother’s side — was too prominent for a girl. Yet somehow with her delicate nose, bee-stung lips, and long naturally wavy hair, it all came together to form an inexplicably alluring vision. She was always that girl stopped on the street by modeling scouts, though her mother fended them off brusquely. Astrid was not going to be modeling for anyone, and certainly not for money. Such things were far beneath her.”

Author:
Kevin Kwan is the author of Crazy Rich Asians and its sequel, China Rich Girlfriend.  He was born in Singapore, moved to the United States at the age of 11, and currently lives in New York City.

Published:  2013
Length:  416 pages
Main Setting:  Singapore
Secondary Setting:  New York City, New York, U.S.

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The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

book-of-unknown-americansSet in the Redwood Apartments, a low-income complex in Delaware, The Book of Unknown Americans tells the stories of its many residents.  The novel opens with Alma and Arturo Rivera’s arrival from Mexico with their beautiful teenage daughter Maribel, who suffered brain damage after a tragic fall.  The Riveras become fast friends with the Toros, but when 15-year-old Mayor Toro and Maribel form a close friendship, fear and violence begins to tear their families apart.  Interspersed with their narrations are the voices of their many neighbors, who hail from Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Panama, Mexico, and Guatemala — and form a vibrant chorus of immigrant experiences. 

Quote:
“English was such a dense, tight language. So many hard letters, like miniature walls. Not open with vowels the way Spanish was. Our throats open, our mouths open, our hearts open. In English, the sounds were closed. They thudded to the floor. And yet, there was something magnificent about it. Profesora Shields explained that in English there was no usted, no tu. There was only one word — you. It applied to all people. No one more distant or more familiar. You. They. Me. I. Us. We. There were no words that changed from feminine to masculine and back again depending on the speaker. A person was from New York. Not a woman from New York, not a man from New York. Simply a person.”

Author:
Cristina Henríquez is the author of The Book of Unknown Americans, The World in Half, and Come Together, Fall Apart: A Novella and Stories.  Her work has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple, and The Oxford American, as well as several anthologies.  She lives in Chicago.

Published:  2014
Length:  286 pages
Main Setting:  Delaware, United States
Secondary Setting: Mexico

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Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

fun-home-coverAlison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home explores her childhood and relationship with her late father, who died in an accident that Bechdel strongly suspects was actually a suicide.   A mortician in his family’s funeral home — which his children call the “fun home” — Bechdel’s father is obsessed with the upkeep of their sprawling, historic home and his library of classic literature.  As Bechdel grew up, she became increasingly aware of the disconnect between her parents and the secrets that lurked just under the surface of their family facade.   Later, as an adult exploring her own identity as a lesbian, Bechdel learns her father was gay and begins to reexamine his life, marriage, and shocking death.  Challenged and banned in multiple U.S. states for its frank discussion of sexuality, Fun Home is an important, powerful memoir.

Excerpt:
fun-home
Excerpt image © Alison Bechdel and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006.

Author:
Alison Bechdel is an American cartoonist and author.  She is best-known for her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For; her graphic memoir Fun Home; and the Bechdel Test, which evaluates gender representation in film and other media.

Published:  2006
Length:  232 pages
Set in:  Pennsylvania, United States

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Hiroshima by John Hersey

hiroshimaOn August 6, 1945, an American plane dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, killing 100,000 people and destroying much of the city.  Written one year later, John Hersey’s book Hiroshima details the devastating impact of the bomb on six individuals, including a doctor, a widowed mother, and a German priest.  By telling their stories in detail, Hersey evokes for readers the horrifying, long-lasting effects of nuclear warfare.  Hiroshima was one of the first works of so-called New Journalism, in which the techniques of fiction are applied to non-fiction writing.  Editions published after 1985 include an additional chapter that circles back on the six featured people to explore how the bomb affected their later lives.

Quote:
“This private estate was far enough away from the explosion so that its bamboos, pines, laurel, and maples were still alive, and the green place invited refugees — partly because they believed that if the Americans came back, they would bomb only buildings; partly because the foliage seemed a center of coolness and life, and the estate’s exquisitely precise rock gardens, with their quiet pools and arching bridges, were very Japanese, normal, secure; and also partly (according to some who were there) because of an irresistible, atavistic urge to hide under leaves.”

Author:
John Hersey (1914-1993) was an American journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. He authored more than two dozen books, including Hiroshima, A Bell for Adano, The Child Buyer, and The Call. 

Published:  1946
Length:  152 pages
Set in:  Hiroshima, Japan

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Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson

rosemaryRosemary Kennedy was the younger sister of President John F. Kennedy, and was born intellectually disabled. After 20 years of shuttling her between schools and consulting countless doctors, Rosemary’s parents removed her from public life, desperate to keep her disability a secret. And then when she was 23, her father agreed to have Rosemary undergo a revolutionary and disastrous procedure: a lobotomy. Drawing on diaries, letters, and other primary sources, Kate Clifford Larson details Rosemary’s childhood, adolescence, and her isolated life after the failed lobotomy. Rosemary is a haunting, powerful portrait of the Kennedy family’s slow path to accepting Rosemary as one of their own.

Quote:
“During Rosemary’s childhood, the distinction between the intellectually disabled and the mentally ill was rarely made.  Instead, according to psychological definitions of the day, ‘idiots’ were the most severely disabled, classified as those with the intellectual capacity of a two-year-old or younger; ‘imbeciles’ as those with a three- to eight-year-old mental capacity; and ‘morons’ as those with an eight- to twelve-year-old capacity.  These labels limited society’s understanding of people with intellectual and physical disabilities, and lacked nuanced interpretation of the causes and conditions of various disabilities, including the many types of simple and complex learning disorders.”

Author:
Kate Clifford Lawson is an American historian and author.  Her books include Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter; Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero; and The Assassin’s Accomplice, a nonfiction work about Mary Surratt’s involvement with Lincoln’s assassination.

Published:  2015
Length:  320 pages
Primary settings:  Boston, Massachusetts and Jefferson, Wisconsin, U.S.
Secondary settings:  New York City, New York, U.S.; London, England

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The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson

road-to-little-dribblingIn 1995, Bill Bryson traveled throughout England and recorded his humorous, exceedingly grumpy observations in Notes from a Small IslandTwenty years older and now a citizen of the U.K., he sets off to recreate his trip, traveling by foot, road, and railway to revisit some places and discover others.  He trudges along deserted footpaths, decries the state of historical monuments, and leaves no digression unexplored.  By turns affectionate and excoriating, The Road to Little Dribbling is a perfect homage to his adopted land.

Quote:
“I wondered idly what the builders of Stonehenge would have created if they’d had bulldozers and big trucks for moving materials and computers to help them design.  What would they have created if they had had all the tools we have?  Then I crested the brow of the hill with a view down to the visitor center, with its café and gift shop, its land trains and giant parking lot, and realized I was almost certainly looking at it.”

Author:
Bill Bryson is the author of various travel books, including Neither Here Nor There and In a Sunburned Country, as well as non-fiction such as At Home and The Mother Tongue.  Bryson currently lives in England with his family.

Published:  2015
Length:  385
Set in: England; Scotland

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The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

turner-houseSet in Detroit, Michigan, The Turner House follows the Turner family, who have lived in the same house for 50 years.  There, they have raised 13 children and weathered all the crises, both large and small, that have arrived on their doorstep.  But at the novel’s opening, the recession has settled on Detroit and the house on Yarrow street is unoccupied and worth barely 10 percent of its mortgage.   As the Turner children gather to decide the fate of their childhood home, their resentments, debts, and haunted pasts converge.  A compelling family saga, The Turner House breathes life into the very floorboards on which the characters walk.

Quote:
“Humans haunt more houses than ghosts do. Men and women assign value to brick and mortar, link their identities to mortgages paid on time. On frigid winter nights, young mothers walk their fussy babies from room to room, learning where the rooms catch drafts and where the floorboards creak. In the warm damp of summer, fathers sit on porches, sometimes worried and often tired but comforted by the fact that a roof is up there providing shelter. Children smudge up walls with dirty handprints, find nooks to hide their particular treasure, or hide themselves if need be. We live and die in houses, dream of getting back to houses, take great care in considering who will inherit the houses when we’re gone.”

Author:
Angela Flournoy is an American writer whose work has been published in The New York Times, The Paris Review, and The Los Angelos Times, among others.  The Turner House is her first novel.

Published:  341 pages
Length:  2015
Set in:  Detroit, Michigan, United States

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The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar

the-returnIn 1990, diplomat Jaballa Matar was kidnapped  in Cairo – where he lived in exile with his family – and taken by his captors back to his home country of Libya.  There, he was imprisoned by the Gaddafi regime for his political leanings.

Ever since, his son Hisham has been searching for information about his father’s fate.  Intensely personal and evocatively written, The Return is Hisham’s memoir of his journey to Libya to discover the truth.  As he searches for answers, he introduces the reader to his extended family and a country teetering on the edge of revolution.

Quote:
“After lunch, I sat with Uncle Mahmoud, the shutters closed against the sun. I thought about the endless questions I had for him. But he did not need me to encourage him; he wanted to speak about his time in prison. It was most of what we talked about. My uncle had spent twenty-one years in Abu Salim. And, like the things he had told me over the telephone when he was first released, his stories were aimed at proving that the authorities had failed, that he had not been erased, that he continued to remember and follow even what his nephew the novelist was up to in far-away London. His stories were an attempt to bridge the vast distance that separates the austere cruelty of Abu Salim and the world outside. Like most stories, what Uncle Mahmoud’s recollections were saying was ‘I exist.'”

Author:
Hisham Matar is a novelist, memoirist, and essayist.  His books include In the Country of Men, The Return, and The Anatomy of a Disappearance.  Born in New York, he spent most of his childhood in Libya and Egypt.  He now lives in London.

Published:  2016
Length:  288 pages
Main Setting:  Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya
Secondary Settings:  Cairo, Egypt; London, England

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Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

born-a-crimeBorn a Crime is Trevor Noah’s memoir of his childhood and adolescence in Johannesburg, South Africa.  When he was born in 1984 to a black mother and white father, it was illegal under apartheid to have a mixed-race child.  His early years were therefore filled with strange experiences, including walking separately from his mother so it wouldn’t appear they were together in public.

As Noah unfolds the story of his life, the book becomes more and more a testament to his mother, who left her family in the townships and decided to raise her son alone, instilling in him the lessons and values that shaped his future.  By turns heartbreaking and hilarious, Born a Crime is an engaging, important memoir about growing up caught between two different worlds.

Quote:
“Abel wanted a traditional marriage with a traditional wife. For a long time I wondered why he ever married a woman like my mom in the first place, as she was the opposite of that in every way. If he wanted a woman to bow to him, there were plenty of girls back in Tzaneen being raised solely for that purpose. The way my mother always explained it, the traditional man wants a woman to be subservient, but he never falls in love with subservient women. He’s attracted to independent women. ‘He’s like an exotic bird collector,’ she said. ‘He only wants a woman who is free because his dream is to put her in a cage.‘”

Author:
Trevor Noah is a comedian, writer, and the host of The Daily Show.  Raised in South Africa, he now lives in New York, where he hosts The Daily Show on Comedy Central.  Born a Crime is his first book.

Published:  2016
Length:  224 pages
Set in:  Johannesburg, South Africa

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A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout

a-house-in-the-skyIn her early twenties, Amanda Lindhout left her home in Canada to fill her passport with stamps from the places she had dreamed about since childhood.  She traveled to dozens of countries, first as a tourist and then as a freelance journalist, finding gratification in exploring the regions many others purposefully avoided.

In 2008, she arrived in Mogadishu, Somalia with her friend and fellow journalist Nigel Brennan.  Two days later, they were ambushed en route to a refugee camp and taken prisoner by members of Hizbul Islam, a Somali insurgent group.  Along with their drivers and translator, Lindhout and Brennan were held captive for more than a year while their captors tried to secure large ransoms.  An engaging and haunting memoir, A House in the Sky describes Lindhout’s struggle to maintain sanity and hope in the face of brutal conditions.

Please note: trigger warning for sexual assault. 

Quote:
“In my mind, I built stairways. At the end of the stairways, I imagined rooms. These were high, airy places with big windows and a cool breeze moving through. I imagined one room opening brightly onto another room until I’d built a house, a place with hallways and more staircases. I built many houses, one after another, and those gave rise to a city — a calm, sparkling city near the ocean, a place like Vancouver. I put myself there, and that’s where I lived, in the wide-open sky of my mind. I made friends and read books and went running on a footpath in a jewel-green park along the harbour. I ate pancakes drizzled in syrup and took baths and watched sunlight pour through trees. This wasn’t longing, and it wasn’t insanity. It was relief. It got me through.”

Author:
Amanda Lindhout is a journalist; memoirist; and the founder of the Global Enrichment Foundation, which provides education and empowers women in Somalia and Kenya.  Born in Alberta, Canada, she has traveled to more than 70 countries worldwide.

Published:  2013
Length:  373 pages
Main Setting:  Somalia
Secondary Setting:  Calgary, Alberta, Canada

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