One Year

One year ago today, I started Hannah and Her Books on a complete whim.  I’d been toying around with the idea of starting a book blog for a while.  I had a “booklr” the summer between my freshmen and sophomore years of high school, but that only lasted a few months before I grew tired of re-blogging and re-posting.  Then, at the beginning of my senior year, I opened up a WordPress for the first time, reviewing Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (my favorite novel to this day) and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt before deleting the blog permanently.  Though I loved being a part of the online book community, I felt too much pressure to commit to a regular blogging schedule, especially during the college application season.

Now, I’ve been running this blog for exactly a year, and I’m proud of the commitment I’ve made, but mostly I’m just happy to be here and thankful to all of the bookish friends I’ve made.  I like to think of this blog as my little reading journal, as a place where I can document my reading experiences while giving myself the freedom to get a little personal sometimes.  When I look back to the person I was a year ago, it’s interesting to see the ways in which I’ve changed (and stayed the same) since then, and especially how that’s affected my reading.  Starting this blog just a few weeks after starting college, and beginning to study English literature analytically, has been so formative for my reading experience.  Not only that, but I truly love interacting with everyone in this community.  It’s crazy to have my own piece of this insane online book world.  Thank you to everyone who has followed me on this journey and made me feel so welcome; here’s to another great year!

xx,
Hannah

Mohsin Hamid: October 3, 2018

Mohsin Hamid, the author of Exit West, came to my hometown last week for a book discussion and signing.  When I first read the book back in February, I enjoyed it but I wasn’t the biggest fan; I felt like it was missing something.  However, after hearing Hamid speak about Exit West, his latest novel, I developed a greater appreciation for the work and the way in which it deals with such difficult topics like immigration and first love.

Hamid began the night by speaking about his childhood and the identity crisis he faced growing up.  He was born in Pakistan and spoke Urdu before he was one year old.  When Hamid was around three years old, he moved to California where his father attended Stanford graduate school.  Living in the grad school housing, Hamid was surrounded by children of all different nationalities, yet he was essentially censured for speaking “funny,” as he didn’t know English yet.  After a neighbor criticized him for speaking Urdu, Hamid did not speak for a month, and afterward, he only spoke American English.  A few years later, his family moved back to Pakistan, and he had to relearn Urdu, which he had no memory of despite it being his first language.  Though English was Hamid’s second language, he acknowledged it as his best, as the language he writes in.

This identity crisis allowed Hamid to understand how difficult it is to “categorize” people.  Even still, we place so much emphasis on defining someone by clunky terms like black or white, gay or straight, Muslim or Christian.  Hamid shared his belief that the only thing that matters is love- who we love, what we love, and how we express our love.

Having lived in Pakistan, California, New York, and London, Hamid stressed migration as both a global and a personal experience.  He emphasized that “we are all migrants through time,” a quote from his novel Exit West, that everyone comes from somewhere, and that no one is native to a place.  Hamid spoke personally about his experiences moving around from country to country, saying that if he had to choose a central “home,” he wouldn’t fit in anywhere, and he wouldn’t know where to choose.  Though he was born in Pakistan, he spent much of his early childhood in the United States, and eventually moved on to school in England, all very formative periods in his life.

Beyond a physical migration from place to place, Hamid also mentioned a sort of figurative migration, through technology.  He claimed that collectively, we have become obsessed with sending our consciousness from place to place online.  In this sense, the infamous doors of Exit West, said by many to be a magical realism device, can also be thought of metaphorically.  Hamid himself compared the doors to our cell phone screens, both ominous black rectangles leading to someplace new and different.  Hearing him speak about Exit West in this way was eye-opening, and now I see the book in a whole new light.

The last thing Hamid spoke about, and perhaps the concept that will stay with me the most, is what happens when we read.  We sit alone with our thoughts, lost in our own mind, and yet we are sitting with the author’s thoughts as well… and so who are we in that moment?  Are we truly ourselves, or are we some type of hybrid, a mixture of our thoughts and the author’s?  Hamid definitely left me with a lot to think about.

What did you think of Exit West?  How would you define migration?  Let’s chat!

xx,
Hannah

Books Are Magic, Brooklyn

Cobble Hill’s Books Are Magic is officially my new favorite New York bookstore.  Owned by Emma Straub, author of Modern Lovers and The Vacationers, Books Are Magic is everything I look for in a bookstore: it’s quaint and charming, with plenty of space to browse without being too overwhelming, and the employees are friendly but not overbearing.  From the whimsical outdoor mural to the iconic neon sign to the colorful, cozy kids’ nook, visiting Books Are Magic is a bookish experience unlike any other.

I visited Books Are Magic on a Friday afternoon, after a quiet morning exploring Central Park and The Met.  I’ve eagerly followed along with the shop on Instagram since Emma Straub first announced their opening, so I was really looking forward to checking it out for myself!  There were a few browsers inside, some with their dogs (!!), and a small crowd of children exploring the kids’ room, plus a great playlist in the background.  After exploring the shop for quite a while, and probably driving my family insane, I was happy to pick up a copy of Danzy Senna’s New People and an enamel Books Are Magic pin.

Not only does Books Are Magic have a great selection across every genre imaginable, but the shop’s atmosphere is unbeatable.  I could have spent hours inside, exploring every nook and cranny.  Books Are Magic is truly magical.

Books Are Magic
225 Smith Street
Brooklyn, New York 11231

Sweetbitter // Stephanie Danler

I had every intention of saving Sweetbitter to read on my trip to New York in a few weeks, but I just couldn’t wait any longer.  This book, Stephanie Danler’s debut, was an instant hit two summers ago, and its recent development into a Starz series re-inspired my interest.  I devoured Sweetbitter just like one would devour a meal at the Union Square Café: slowly, savoring every minute, while still impatiently craving the rest.


“You will develop a palate.”

-Stephanie Danler, Sweetbitter


From the jacket:

Shot from a mundane, provincial past, Tess comes to New York in the stifling summer of 2006.  Alone, knowing no one, living in a rented room in Williamsburg, she manages to land a job as a “backwaiter” at a celebrated downtown Manhattan restaurant.  This begins the year we spend with Tess as she starts to navigate the chaotic, enchanting, punishing, and privileged life she has chosen, as well as the remorseless and luminous city around her.  What follows is her education: in oysters, Champagne, the appellations of Burgundy, friendship, cocaine, lust, love, and dive bars.  As her appetites awaken- for food and wine, but also for knowledge, experience, belonging- we see her helplessly drawn into a darkly alluring love triangle.  With an orphan’s ardor she latches onto Simone, a senior server at the restaurant who has lived in ways Tess only dreams of, and against the warnings of her coworkers she falls under the spell of Jake, the elusive, tatted up, achingly beautiful bartender.  These two and their enigmatic connection to each other will prove to be Tess’s most exhilarating and painful lesson of all.


If I struggled with any aspect of this book, it was Tess, our whiny narrator.  Sweetbitter is categorized as a “coming-of-age” novel, but by the end, I had a hard time believing Tess had truly matured into an adult.  The so-called “romance” between Tess and Jake frustrated me immensely.  At one point, Jake told Tess to wipe off her lipstick because she looked like a clown, and I just sat back and wondered why she would put up with a guy like that.  If you know me, you know I don’t really give a crap about being in a relationship, so Tess’s desperation to be with Jake that badly irked me.  I think Tess was supposed to come of age by realizing how silly it is for her to tolerate the constant shit that Simone and Jake give her, but even in the last few pages, Tess still felt immature and whiny.  I’m not sure she learned anything from her post-grad identity crisis.  I wanted to see her grow more, but she was too busy worrying about what other people thought of her, and drinking too much to try to forget about it.


“She belonged to herself only.  She had edges, boundaries, tastes, definition down to her eyelashes.  And when she walked it was clear she knew where she was going.”

-Stephanie Danler, Sweetbitter


I think Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter is the kind of book where it really matters when in your life you read it.  In all honesty, if I wasn’t a nineteen-year-old dreaming of life in New York, I don’t think I would’ve liked it as much as I did.  I also enjoyed all of the commentary on the quirks of the service industry, and the exploration of the special bond restaurant co-workers share with one another.  I worked in a fast-casual restaurant for my first year of college, nothing fancy like Tess’s job but closer to a Panera Bread, but still the kitchen environment was entirely similar, and I loved reading Danler’s take on a world I had experienced myself.  Parts of Sweetbitter had me cracking up and reminiscing about my own days cleaning fridges and dropping food in front of everyone, so I really felt for Tess, her struggles, and her insecurities in a way I’m not sure someone who hadn’t once worked in a restaurant would understand.

Danler’s fiction is somewhat experimental in that MFA-writing way, but it’s dripping with talent and I’m curious to see what she does next.  Though Sweetbitter, like any piece of writing, wasn’t perfect, I wholeheartedly enjoyed my time reading it.

Find this book on Goodreads.

A Terrible Country // Keith Gessen

Thank you to Penguin Viking and Netgalley for an early review copy of A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen, which will publish July 10, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.


From the publisher:

When Andrei Kaplan’s older brother Dima insists that Andrei return to Moscow to care for their ailing grandmother, Andrei must take stock of his life in New York.  His girlfriend has stopped returning his text messages.  His dissertation adviser is dubious about his job prospects.  It’s the summer of 2008, and his bank account is running dangerously low.  Perhaps a few months in Moscow are just what he needs.  So Andrei sublets his room in Brooklyn, packs up his hockey stuff, and moves into the apartment that Stalin himself had given his grandmother, a woman who has outlived her husband and most of her friends.  She survived the dark days of communism and witnessed Russia’s violent capitalist transformation, during which she lost her beloved dacha.  She welcomes Andrei into her home, even if she can’t always remember who he is.

Andrei learns to navigate Putin’s Moscow, still the city of his birth, but with more expensive coffee.  He looks after his elderly- but surprisingly sharp!- grandmother, finds a place to play hockey, a café to send emails, and eventually some friends, including a beautiful young activist named Yulia.  Over the course of the year, his grandmother’s health declines and his feelings of dislocation from both Russia and America deepen.  Andrei knows he must reckon with his future and make choices that will determine his life and fate.  When he becomes entangled with a group of leftists, Andrei’s politics and his allegiances are tested, and he is forced to come to terms with the Russian society he was born into and the American one he has enjoyed since he was a kid.


Russia and Russian literature have been popping up a lot in literature lately, at least in my reading, with books like Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt and The Idiot by Elif Batuman.  Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country is no exception; it follows twenty-something Andrei as he leaves his life in New York behind and returns to Moscow, the city of his birth, to care for his ailing grandmother.

Told in first person, A Terrible Country felt so true to life and read autobiographical at times; I could really see Gessen’s perspective shining through the narrative.  After I finished the book, I came across an interview with Gessen conducted for The New Yorker, in which he said, “I love nonfiction, and I really love oral history.  I like fiction that is made up, but I really love fiction that is thinly veiled autobiography . . . I think if I’d had enough material for a memoir, I’d have written a memoir.  But I didn’t- my life in Russia was even less interesting than Andrei’s.  But I did want it to sound like a memoir.”  He definitely succeeded in that.

A Terrible Country is written with simple prose and plot.  The majority of the book follows Andrei’s day-to-day life in Moscow.  He plays hockey, spends time with his forgetful grandmother, struggles trying to advance his career in New York, argues with his brother Dima about money, gets involved with an “extremist” party, and develops feelings for young activist Yulia.  There’s a lot going on but it never felt like too much; it almost felt like not enough because nothing is explored deeply.  A Terrible Country is told in a diary-like format as Andrei tells the audience what happened after-the-fact, instead of narrating as things are happening.  The so-called love story felt especially weak as it was written about very briefly; as a reader, I knew nothing about Yulia, so I struggled caring about her relationship with Andrei.

In general, A Terrible Country was an enjoyable story to read, though its storytelling techniques were frustrating at times.  If you like Russian literature or history, you’ll adore this novel.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

The Mothers // Brit Bennett

Brit Bennett’s stunning debut, The Mothers, was an “it” book back in 2016, and I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read it!  It’s exquisitely written with sentences so well-crafted, I read paragraphs over and over a few times, not because I needed to, but because it was just that good.


“A daughter grows older and draws nearer to her mother, until she gradually overlaps her like a sewing pattern.  But a son becomes some irreparably separate thing.”

-Brit Bennett, The Mothers


From the back cover:

It begins with a secret.  It is the last season of high school life for Nadia Turner, a rebellious, grief-stricken, seventeen-year-old beauty.  Mourning her mother’s recent death, she takes up with the local pastor’s twenty-one-year-old son, Luke.  They are young: it’s not serious.  But the secret that results from this teen romance- and the subsequent cover-up- will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth.  As Nadia hides the truth from everyone, including Aubrey, her best friend, the years move quickly.  Soon, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are full-fledged adults, still shadowed by the choices they have made in their youth, and by the constant, nagging question: What if they had chosen differently?  The possibilities of the road not taken are a relentless haunt.  An urgent and provocative debut from an important new voice, The Mothers is a book about community and ambition, love and friendship, and living up to expectation in contemporary black America.


As you would guess from the title, The Mothers is dominated by a theme of motherhood: what it means to be a mother, to take care of someone, biological child or not.  Underneath, the book is about the messy things in life: love, loss, secrets, and, most of all, the consequences of our decisions and how they can haunt us for the rest of our lives.  Bennett plays around with the idea of masculinity versus femininity, of who a person should be and what they should should act like based on not only their gender, but also their race and sexuality.


“Maybe all women were shapeshifters, changing instantly depending on who was around.”

-Brit Bennett, The Mothers


The Mothers is told uniquely through the collective “we” voice of the Mothers of the Upper Room church, a group of traditional, gossipy elderly women in the community who observe the happenings of the church community from afar.  I’ve heard a lot of readers say they struggled with this style, and though I haven’t read anything else told that way, I loved it.  It rounded out the story, aiding in the development of the characters, and offering multiple perspectives into a tricky situation.  I normally think short books like The Mothers could should be a bit longer in order to fully develop the story, but I think it’s a perfect length for what it attempts to accomplish.

Bennett uses a lot of cliche plot lines, like the teenage girl who turns reckless when her mother dies, and the football player who loses his scholarship after an injury and doesn’t know where to go in life, and even a weakened love triangle, and ties them together with hard-hitting themes and mesmerizing prose to create The Mothers, a portrait of life in our modern world.  It’s a timely, topical novel that sucked me in and left me breathless.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

On My Nightstand: July 2018

July is going to be a pretty busy month for me.  I still have five ARCs to read that come out within the next two months;  I’m also starting my summer internship, which will involve a heavy amount of reading, while still working whatever hours I can grab at my part-time bookselling job.  Long story short, this month’s Nightstand is looking pretty sparse, perhaps in amount but (hopefully) not in value.

There There by Tommy Orange

There There is probably the most buzzed-about books of the summer, and there’s nothing like a little buzz to get me to snatch a copy!  I was fortunate enough to receive a physical ARC through my bookselling job, and I need to get around to it soon.  There aren’t many Native American titles that come to mind other than Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, but hopefully Orange’s There There will remedy that.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I’ve had my eye on Lincoln for a while, and when it won the Man Booker my interest in it was pretty much cemented.  Plus, Saunders is coming to my hometown next year, so let’s hope I can get to it before then.  I’m not sure how I’m going to like it, as it sounds pretty experimental, but I’ve heard a lot of glowing reviews and I find the topic of Abraham Lincoln fascinating, so I’m nothing if not curious.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Similarly to Saunders, Ward is also coming to my hometown next year to talk about her highly praised book, Sing, Unburied, Sing.  I’m a sucker for award winners and this novel has certainly been around the circuit, even earning Ward her second (!!) National Book Award for Fiction.  It doesn’t sound like my usual cup of tea, but I read the first chapter in a bookshop and was sucked in immediately!  I’m looking forward to getting back to it.

What books are you planning on reading in July?  Any thoughts on these titles?  Let me know in the comments!

xx,
Hannah