Monday, November 16, 2009

Short Story Monday: Oprah's latest selection

Whatever your opinion of Oprah, her book club selections, or the effect she's had the publishing industry, I think her newest selection is an important book. Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan, a Jesuit priest with a MFA in creative writing, is a collection of stories portraying the struggle of everyday life in Africa today.

In "The Ex-mas Feast", a large family living in a Nairobi shanty goes about daily living, while making small adjustments for the holiday. It opens:

"Now that my eldest sister, Maisha, was twelve, none of us knew how to relate to her anymore. She had never forgiven out parents for not being rich enough to send her to school. She had been behaving like a cat that was going feral: she came home less and less frequently, staying only to change her clothes and give me some money to pass on to our parents."

Although the family has very little, money is being raised to send eight year old Jigana, the eldest son and narrator of the story, to school. The children go out begging with Baby in tow, Maisha sells herself on the street, while their father steals wrapped gifts and trades them for food. The children sniff kabire in an effort to deaden the pain of an empty stomach.

Although difficult to read at times, the story is told with remarkable humanity. A touching part of the holiday ritual involves naming all dead or lost family members. Later, when young Atieno is shivering, her father "stuck her head through the biggest hole in the middle of our blanket. That was our way of ensuring that the family member who most needed warmth maintained his place in the center of the blanket."

My knowledge of modern Africa, as well as my experience with African-American literature, is limited. Reading the rest of the stories (two are long enough to be considered novellas) over the next several weeks, will surely help increase my understanding.

Thank you Frances (Nonsuch Book) for sending this amazing book my way.
Visit The Book Mine Set for more Short Story Monday posts.


  1. Great review! I read this book early last year (long before Oprah had named it to her book club) after a favourable review in the local paper, and so many of the stories (including this one) have really stayed with me. I did live in Africa for 3 years, and travelled around a fair bit, and the stories and the settings really rang true. My favourite in the collection is .... oh dear, I can't find my copy ... I must have loaned it out to someone ... anyways it is one of the shorter stories (maybe the shortest) about the friendship between two girls living in Ethiopia (I think). I don't always enjoy Oprah's picks, but she chose a winner this time!

  2. I was fortunate to get a copy from Frances, too. I'm looking forward to reading it.

  3. Isn't Frances just the best???? I read this over the summer, because it was listed as the #1 book of 2008 by Entertainment Weekly. I read it while on vacation in Poland...probably not wise. It was incredibly well-written, very raw, but REALLY hard to digest. I could only sit and read for little bits at a time, because some of the stories made me sad and almost physically ill. I'm not really afraid of that kind of thing, don't get me wrong. But a feel good read this is not. You have to be in the right mood!

  4. Kate - Don't you feel smart when you read a book and love it long before Oprah gives it her seal? I can already tell these stories are going to stay with me for a long time! Thanks so much for visiting.

    Softdrink - Choose your time to read these carefully. The writing is wonderful, but the subject matter can be tough.

    Sandy - I will have to space these stories out. It would be way too much for me to read them all together. I even had to read the first story (around 30 pages) in two separate sittings. I'm not exactly a wimp (well, maybe I am), but this a big departure from my usual fare.

  5. I think it's easy to knock Oprah's Book Club, but if you look at the list of past selections, she really does have a lot of great, literary stuff. She actually had people reading Faulkner!

    Since you mentioned you're unfamiliar with African-American literature, I strongly recommend Zola Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. It's a relatively quick read, but very powerful and incredibly multilayered.

  6. I like that she's picked a book of short stories-- that's a first for her club isn't it?

  7. I don't understand why there is negativity directed toward Oprah's book club. I haven't watched her show in years but I still pay attention to the selections she makes (even if I don't always read them). I think there is something very exciting about so many people reading the same book at the same time. This does sound like an interesting read.

  8. E.L. Fay - Some people really get into the Oprah bashing, but I think it's great that she's gotten so many people reading....and she has had some great picks over the years. My book club joked about her 'downtrodden women' , but many were so much more than that. I listened to Their Eyes Were Watching God a year or two ago (Ruby Dee did a great job reading), but that's about it for my African-American Lit.

    John Mutford - This is the first short story collection for Oprah. Maybe she'll get more people interested in short stories!

    Book Psmith - I agree! It's been years since I've seen one of her shows, but I've discovered some great books (and authors) thanks to Oprah.

  9. I had my eye on this way before Oprah picked it, but I hadn't bothered to put it on hold and now there's like a billion people who want it from the library, lol. But I read one of the stories for free at New Yorker and his writing style impressed me.

  10. Eva - It's the 'Oprah effect' in action! Whatever book she mentions, readers can't get enough of it. Hopefully the libraries will respond and order a few more copies.

  11. Wonderful review JoAnn! I reviewed An Ex-mas Feast long before the Oprah selection of this book was announced. Here is my review:

  12. Teddy Rose - Thanks for the link. You were really ahead of the curve on this one! Akan's writing is wonderful, but I'm going to need to space the rest of the stories out. They could easily become depressing and overwhelming, I'm afraid.

  13. I also won a copy from Frances and I'm hoping to start reading the stories this weekend. I think from what you have said, I will space them out.

    As for African-American literature, Toni Morrison (another Oprah choice as well as, oh, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners) is a must.

  14. JoAnn, I have had the book for quite awhile now but have not read any of the other stories yet. I think it is a good idea to spead out the stories too. It will be depressing if the rest of the stories are anything like A Ex-mas Feast.

  15. Paperback Reader - I know I must read Morrison! Many years ago, I attempted Beloved and put it aside after a handful of pages. Since then, I've been hesitant. The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon are on the shelf and my daughter has Sula, so there really is no excuse!

    Teddy Rose - I imagine the other stories pack a similar emotional punch, so spacing them out should be a good plan. Will be curious to see what you think of the others.


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