There are so many great books hitting the shelves right now, but these three thought-provoking reads stand out from the rest: two powerful novels that still have me thinking about experiences much different from my own, and a nonfiction read about how we can find meaning in our lives and why that goal is better than simply searching for happiness. All three books beautifully ponder universal matters of life (and death) in unique and compelling ways. Consider picking up one (or all three!) of them and diving in today.
Exit West was one of the books I was most looking forward to reading in 2017. Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist has stayed with me almost ten years after reading it and I predict that his newest release, Exit West, will have the same staying power. An extremely timely novel, it serves as a microcosm of what is currently happening in the world today, and of what could come to pass.
Saeed and Nadia meet and fall in love at their University in an unnamed Middle Eastern city on the brink of chaos. As their relationship grows, their city begins to fall — bullets fly, bombs drop, and cell service dies as the opposing sides war and try to stake their claim. In this imagined land, though, there are doors that serve as instant portals to other cities and lands across the world. As their city becomes increasingly more dangerous, Saeed and Nadia make the difficult decision to seek an escape, eventually paying a “coyote,” a person who knows the locations of these doors, to help them find a safer life.
Their life as refugees is not easy. Saeed and Nadia find themselves in a land that is resistant to and fearful of them, leaving them hungry and feeling isolated. In an effort to find a place where they can lead a better life, they continue seeking the magical doors. In the end, they settle in Northern California, in a refugee camp.
Exit West is a short novel and a fairly quick read, but it is engaging and enthralling. By focusing on two characters, whose relationship is partially due to and deepened by their circumstances, Hamid is able to portray greater themes, such as religious extremism, political upheaval, the refugee crisis, and xenophobia, while also examining the everyday concepts of love, friendship, and home. I often found myself on the brink of tears as I flipped the pages, sometimes crying. I also had moments of dread and moments of anger. And yet Hamid finds hope for Saeed and Nadia, giving the reader hope that with empathy and an open heart, we may all find a way forward.
For anyone who’s looking to read a new YA novel, I’m excited to share this one with you. Starr is a 16-year-old who, like most teenagers, is trying to forge her own path and discover who she is. She has a boyfriend, she plays basketball, and she lives with her loving family. Unlike many teenagers in YA, though, she is a black girl straddling two worlds: the upper middle class white prep school that she attends in a suburb and the poor, mostly black neighborhood where she lives. When her childhood friend Khalil is shot and killed in front of her, she sees her two worlds collide while she tries to deal with her sorrow and conflicted feelings.
Thomas’s book puts a human story behind what we all too commonly see on the news. Starr is the only witness to the shooting, and as she is caught in the crosshairs of the police, her family, her friends, and her community, she also learns more about Khalil, whom she hadn’t spoken to in years. Some accuse Khalil of being a drug dealer and gangbanger, calling him a thug — even Starr’s supposed best friend at school says he probably had it coming. But, as with many things in life, Khalil’s story is not necessarily what it appears to be, and his life is more complex and nuanced than the news and police make it appear.
Thomas was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and the killings of unarmed teens such as Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown. It’s hard to believe that this is her first book — it’s so powerful and genuine, there are no caricatures or stereotypical portrayals, and her characters are all complex, well-formed people. Although this is a YA novel, I would encourage everyone to read it, and for those with teenagers, I would encourage both you and your teen to read it and discuss it together. As Starr thinks at one point, “What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?”
Also, The Hate U Give has already been optioned for a movie by Fox 2000 with "Hunger Games" actress Amandla Stenberg to star.
In our culture today, it seems as though we’re always chasing happiness and always being marketed that one thing that’s guaranteed to make us happier: a smaller waistline, a better car, a bigger TV. As Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote, “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.” Frankl also wrote that what makes humans uniquely human is the idea of a sense of meaning. Ah, yes, that philosophical question, “What’s the meaning of life?”
In 2013, The Atlantic published an article by Emily Esfahani Smith, “There's More to Life Than Being Happy,” that quickly became the magazine’s most shared article in its history. In her new book, The Power of Meaning, Smith expands on the theme of the article, delving into how we can find meaning in our own lives. While “meaning” may seem like an esoteric idea that can only be discovered by a select few (the Dalai Lama comes to mind, for example), Smith asserts that meaning can be found all around us and rests upon four pillars: Belonging, Purpose, Storytelling, and Transcendence.
The Power of Meaning fits firmly in the realm of books such as Quiet, The Tipping Point, and The Power of Habit, and is deeply rooted in psychology. To come to her conclusions regarding the four pillars, Smith looked at recent research in positive psychology as well as ancient philosophy, literature, and human stories. She weaves her findings into a highly readable and understandable book.
While there may be a perception that finding meaning for one’s life is a solitary act, Smith’s findings show that this is not wholly true. The search definitely requires self-awareness and self-reflection, but we need other people, too. In fact, the entire pillar of Belonging rests on others. I found this to be a major revelation, as I always thought of the search as a monastic, solo pursuit, unattainable to most.
It is worth pointing out that this is not a how-to book. Smith does not lay out specific directions for how to find meaning, based on your life. Rather, she has presented a general framework that readers can use to chart their own paths forward.
What book have you read and loved recently? Let us know in the comments below!