Seattle Reads: So many ways to enjoy one book

This week I have immersed myself in Seattle Reads The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu.  Incidentally, Mengestu’s book recently won the LA Times First Fiction Award.

My week started with the Book-It Reperatory Theater’s staged reading of excerpts from the book.  The actors brought such life to the characters and to the words on the page.  Not being much of a play-goer, I forget how inspiring such performances can be.  I walked away invigorated for my book group discussion the next day.

When my group discussed Dinaw’s book, we talked about the immigrant experience and about the melanchony and loss that pervades the book.  The book’s main character, Sepha Stephanos, an Ethiopian immigrant, lives in Washington D.C. and owns a corner shop in Logan Circle, a neighborhood that is starting to change.  Sepha lives a quiet life; in fleeing the violence in his home country, he did not move to America with any grand plans or expectations.  But when Judith, a white academic, and her biracial daughter Naomi move into the neighborhood and restore and old mansion, it awakens in Sepha a sense of what has been missing in his life.  He longs for connection, but fears it.

We talked about the positive and negative aspects of gentrification.  Some members questioned the main character, Sepha’s, actions and choices, his inactions.  Why did Sepha decide not to write back to Naomi? Was the ending hopeful or not?

The following day I saw Dinaw speak.  He answered questions from the audience and was so poised, well-spoken and thoughtful, wise beyond his 29 years.  I should have expected this from his book; he is able to write about old age and nostalgia and melancholy with the depth and wisdom of someone much older.  As I listened to the audience’s questions and Dinaw’s thoughtful responses, I wished that my book group could have been there.  So many of the questions that had been asked the day before were illuminated or touched upon in a new way by the author.

At one point in the novel Naomi brings The Brothers Karamazov into Sepha’s store for him to read to her (she chooses it because it is a big book and will keep him reading).  Several readers questioned Dinaw as to why he chose that book, and he explained his love of the book and how the quotation that Sepha memorizes provides a turning point for him:

“People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education.  If a man carries such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving us.”

These beautiful words from Dostoevsky’s masterpiece resonate in a wholly different way in Mengestu’s book–illuminating the immigrant experience and the disappointment, hardship and loss that every human being experiences in life.

Encouraging your group to expand their experience beyond just the monthly discussion, to see an author read or watch a film or see a dramatic adaptation, can be so valuable.  It needn’t be your city’s One Book program (if you have one).  But in this case, I was so grateful to have so many opportunities to celebrate Mengestu’s book on my own and with others.

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About the Author:

Misha Stone is a readers' advisory librarian with The Seattle Public Library. Follow her on Twitter at @ahsimlibrarian.

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