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The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by…
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The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

by Dinaw Mengestu

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7573812,258 (3.75)96
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    All Aunt Hagar's Children by Edward P. Jones (cransell)
    cransell: A different, also fictional, look at life in DC beyond the world of politics.
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Showing 1-5 of 36 (next | show all)
i finished reading this novel earlier today, and i have been pondering on it a lot. my brain keeps doing this:

the beautiful things that heaven bears, brought to you by the letter D:
* debut
* diaspora
* d.c. (washington)
* dante
* dostoevsky
* disconnection
* dreams

maybe now that i've typed that out, i can move on? heh.

“To get back up to the shining world from there
My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel,

And Following its path, we took no care
To rest, but climbed: he first, then I-so far,
through a round aperture I saw appear

Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears,
Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars.”


~ Dante Alighieri, from Dante's Inferno

okay, so... i found this to be a heartbreakingly lovely book. mengetsu is a wonderful writer, and this is a very strong debut. i was very moved in reading about sepha's struggles as an ethiopian immigrant in washington d.c., and i was wanting the best for him. sigh. i was amused by the game sepha played with his friends - joseph from the congo, and kenneth from kenya. they had an ongoing 'coup challenge' to select different african countries, then naming the year the coups occurred, and the dictator. i mean, it's really not funny at all. but the fact is this is how these three men were bonding, and that this was the reality they had each left/escaped and which they couldn't forget.

sepha owns a variety store in the rundown logan circle neighbourhood of washington d.c. the area is undergoing gentrification, creating an us and them situation. us being the long-term black residents who are being priced out of their homes, and the 'them' ("they", in the book) being upper-middle class white people. one such white woman, judith, purchases a neighbouring home and renovates it beautifully. she has a young daughter, naomi. naomi is biracial, her father from mauritania. i think the cultural coming together is an important piece of the story - so many people struggle to find their place in the world. these challenges were amplified through sepha as his hopes and dreams of america, and where he fit in in his new home, seemed to remain just out of reach.

naomi and sepha's friendship was a highlight of the story for me, and i would have loved to have had more of naomi's character. together they read The Brothers Karamazov - sepha reading aloud to naomi, an exercise they both loved, and to which they both looked forward.

my only hesitations with this story had to do with sepha's role as a shop owner. i didn't quite get why or how he ended up in this position. it seems a stereotypical presentation - an immigrant running a corner store. it also felt like sepha just wasn't fully invested in the enterprise. i couldn't quite put my finger on whether his lack of action or interest in his shop was a symptom of his displacement, and a reflection of being worn down by circumstances? or if something else was going on here. sepha's ennui was understandable in so many other places. and his loneliness was so sad.

"...a man stuck between two worlds lives and dies alone. I have dangled and been suspended long enough."

i feel mengetsu strongly captured the immigrant experience. and i was very taken with the slice of washington d.c. he shared in this book. when settings play a large role in a story, and the writer has done this well, it's an added bonus for me in my reading.

anyway... i am getting a bit ramble-y and incoherent here. so i will stop. i am still thinking on the book and may update this review. ( )
  DawsonOakes | Feb 18, 2015 |
Gentle in tone and intimate in its focus, this is exactly the sort of book I was hoping it would be when I suggested it as a possibility for my book group. Sepha Stephanos, an Ethiopian immigrant to the United States, has just two friends, Kenneth (from Kenya) and Joseph (from Congo/Zaire), and spends his days alone reading in his rundown convenience store in a poor neighborhood in Washington, DC. The neighborhood is beginning to be gentrified, and Sepha is befriended by a white incomer, Judith (a professor of American history), and Judith's eleven-year-old biracial daughter Naomi. Sepha's story--the reason for his lonely solitude--unfolds through after-work conversations he has with Kenneth and Joseph, through his reading sessions with Naomi (they're working on The Brothers Karamazov, which Naomi picked at random for its heft), and somewhat awkward meals with Judith. All the characters are intensely likable and sympathetic, including those present only in Sepha's recollection, such as his gentle, storytelling father, who was a lawyer, or Sepha's uncle, who abandoned the magnificent house he had built when he realized revolution was coming, and who has sent letters to every US president, pleading on Ethiopia's behalf, since his arrival in the United States in the 1970s.

I couldn't stop marking passages down for their beauty and the way they moved me. At one point, Sepha leaves his shop in the middle of the day to follow a happy-seeming tourist couple who had dropped in to buy something. He looks back at his shop:

I can see it clearly from here, everything from the sagging right gutter to the streaks of blue paint along the side to the metal bars over the windows shining in the sun. How is it that in all these years, I've never seen my store look quite like this? I can imagine it wanting to be spared the burden of having to survive another year. The door is unlocked. The sign is flipped to "Open" and the cash register, with its contents totalling $3.28, is ajar. I wonder if this is what it feels like to walk out on your wife and children. If this is what it feels like to leave a car on the side of the highway and never come back for it. What is the proper equation, the perfect simile or metaphor? I'm an immigrant. I should know this. I've done it before.

Ahh, it just hit me in the chest, not in a gratuitous way, but in a true way. I--who am not an immigrant, who did not witness horrors visited on a loved one or lose family in a revolution, who do not live in a poor urban neighborhood, who share with him only a melancholic nature--identified with him viscerally and completely: it's down to the power of Mengestu's writing.

A matter-of fact sadness is at the core of the book, and yet it's never lugubrious or soppy or overwrought; there's plenty of understated humor: "It's nice to think there's a purpose, or even a real decision that turns everything [in one's life] in one direction," remarks Judith, "but that's not always true, is it? We just fall into our lives. How did you get to own a grocery store?" To which Sepha replies, "Some people are just lucky."

Sepha's time reading with Naomi is wonderful. About it, he thinks,

Every time I looked at her I became aware of just how seemingly perfect this time was. I thought about how years from now I would remember this with a crushing, heartbreaking nostalgia, because of course I knew even then that I would eventually find myself standing here alone. And just as that knowledge would threaten to destroy the scene, Naomi would do something small, like turn the page to early or shift in her chair, and I would be happy once again.

Isn't that the secret to the sadness and joy of life, right there? It hit me with the force of its truth.

When Sepha reads, he recalls his father's stories:

The stories he invented himself he told with particular delight. They all began the same way, with the same lighthearted tone, with a small wave of the hand, as if the world were being brushed to the side, which I suppose for him it actually was.

"Ah, that reminds me, Did I tell you about--
The shepherd who beat his sheep too hard
The farmer who was too lazy to plow his fields
The hyena who laughed himself to death
The lion who tried to steal the monkey's dinner
The monkey who tried to steal the lion's dinner?"

Yes, we meet the father this way, casually, through affectionate memories--which makes the crucial scene in the center of the book all the more devastating. Devastating, but not gratuitous, not unbearable.

Let me leave you with one more quote, from when the number of evictions in Sepha's neighborhood has started to rise. He walks by one of the homes:

It didn't matter where you lived, or where you came from, or how far you had traveled, somewhere near you someone was on the run.

Truth.

I loved the book. I loved the characters. I loved the insight. It won't be for everyone: it's very small scale, and it's melancholic--a little too much so for one member of my book group, but absolutely perfect for me. And as I say, there's humor here, and beauty, and love, and the pain is only the natural pain that comes from waking up and finding yourself doomed to be human.
( )
  FrancescaForrest | May 12, 2014 |
Gentle in tone and intimate in its focus, this is exactly the sort of book I was hoping it would be when I suggested it as a possibility for my book group. Sepha Stephanos, an Ethiopian immigrant to the United States, has just two friends, Kenneth (from Kenya) and Joseph (from Congo/Zaire), and spends his days alone reading in his rundown convenience store in a poor neighborhood in Washington, DC. The neighborhood is beginning to be gentrified, and Sepha is befriended by a white incomer, Judith (a professor of American history), and Judith's eleven-year-old biracial daughter Naomi. Sepha's story--the reason for his lonely solitude--unfolds through after-work conversations he has with Kenneth and Joseph, through his reading sessions with Naomi (they're working on The Brothers Karamazov, which Naomi picked at random for its heft), and somewhat awkward meals with Judith. All the characters are intensely likable and sympathetic, including those present only in Sepha's recollection, such as his gentle, storytelling father, who was a lawyer, or Sepha's uncle, who abandoned the magnificent house he had built when he realized revolution was coming, and who has sent letters to every US president, pleading on Ethiopia's behalf, since his arrival in the United States in the 1970s.

I couldn't stop marking passages down for their beauty and the way they moved me. At one point, Sepha leaves his shop in the middle of the day to follow a happy-seeming tourist couple who had dropped in to buy something. He looks back at his shop:

I can see it clearly from here, everything from the sagging right gutter to the streaks of blue paint along the side to the metal bars over the windows shining in the sun. How is it that in all these years, I've never seen my store look quite like this? I can imagine it wanting to be spared the burden of having to survive another year. The door is unlocked. The sign is flipped to "Open" and the cash register, with its contents totalling $3.28, is ajar. I wonder if this is what it feels like to walk out on your wife and children. If this is what it feels like to leave a car on the side of the highway and never come back for it. What is the proper equation, the perfect simile or metaphor? I'm an immigrant. I should know this. I've done it before.

Ahh, it just hit me in the chest, not in a gratuitous way, but in a true way. I--who am not an immigrant, who did not witness horrors visited on a loved one or lose family in a revolution, who do not live in a poor urban neighborhood, who share with him only a melancholic nature--identified with him viscerally and completely: it's down to the power of Mengestu's writing.

A matter-of fact sadness is at the core of the book, and yet it's never lugubrious or soppy or overwrought; there's plenty of understated humor: "It's nice to think there's a purpose, or even a real decision that turns everything [in one's life] in one direction," remarks Judith, "but that's not always true, is it? We just fall into our lives. How did you get to own a grocery store?" To which Sepha replies, "Some people are just lucky."

Sepha's time reading with Naomi is wonderful. About it, he thinks,

Every time I looked at her I became aware of just how seemingly perfect this time was. I thought about how years from now I would remember this with a crushing, heartbreaking nostalgia, because of course I knew even then that I would eventually find myself standing here alone. And just as that knowledge would threaten to destroy the scene, Naomi would do something small, like turn the page to early or shift in her chair, and I would be happy once again.

Isn't that the secret to the sadness and joy of life, right there? It hit me with the force of its truth.

When Sepha reads, he recalls his father's stories:

The stories he invented himself he told with particular delight. They all began the same way, with the same lighthearted tone, with a small wave of the hand, as if the world were being brushed to the side, which I suppose for him it actually was.

"Ah, that reminds me, Did I tell you about--
The shepherd who beat his sheep too hard
The farmer who was too lazy to plow his fields
The hyena who laughed himself to death
The lion who tried to steal the monkey's dinner
The monkey who tried to steal the lion's dinner?"

Yes, we meet the father this way, casually, through affectionate memories--which makes the crucial scene in the center of the book all the more devastating. Devastating, but not gratuitous, not unbearable.

Let me leave you with one more quote, from when the number of evictions in Sepha's neighborhood has started to rise. He walks by one of the homes:

It didn't matter where you lived, or where you came from, or how far you had traveled, somewhere near you someone was on the run.

Truth.

I loved the book. I loved the characters. I loved the insight. It won't be for everyone: it's very small scale, and it's melancholic--a little too much so for one member of my book group, but absolutely perfect for me. And as I say, there's humor here, and beauty, and love, and the pain is only the natural pain that comes from waking up and finding yourself doomed to be human.
( )
  FrancescaForrest | May 12, 2014 |
the color has changed to blue on this new edition; it almost signifies a coming to sadness for the truth of the coming out the story took place to make it to market; it appears to signify much more than a long-term marketing attempt at selling a book that could become super-sucessful. a lot of groundwork had to take place for this to happen; it appears the cover color is being hidden to not reveal the underlying real situations that the book uncovered. it almost wants to make a reviewer of the first copy cry in tears for things taking place in the continent, things which need more stories to appear, to honor all those who fell to make their journey here heard resound truly and enduringly... ( )
  YonZe | Nov 15, 2013 |
Pensavo diverso!La storia è stata comunque abbastanza particolare!Parla degli immigrati in America e della loro vita in America!Niente di che! ( )
  Emanuela.Booklove | Oct 6, 2013 |
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To Hirut and Tesfaye Mengetsu, for everything.
First words
At eight o'clock Joseph and Kenneth come into the store.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Wikipedia in English (1)

Book description
Barely suppressed despair and black wit infuse this beautifully observed debut from Ethiopian émigré Mengestu. Set over eight months in a gentrifying Washington, D.C., neighborhood in the 1970s, it captures an uptick in Ethiopian grocery store owner Sepha Stephanos's long-deferred hopes, as Judith, a white academic, fixes up the four-story house next to his apartment building, treats him to dinner and lets him steal a kiss. Just as unexpected is Sepha's friendship with Judith's biracial 11-year-old daughter, Naomi (one of the book's most vivid characters), over a copy of The Brothers Karamazov. Mengestu adds chiaroscuro with the story of Stephanos's 17-year exile from his family and country following his father's murder by revolutionary soldiers. After long days in the dusty, barely profitable shop, Sepha's two friends, Joseph from Congo and Kenneth from Kenya, joke with Sepha about African dictators and gently mock his romantic aspirations, while the neighborhood's loaded racial politics hang over Sepha and Judith's burgeoning relationship like a sword of Damocles. The novel's dirge-like tone may put off readers looking for the next Kite Runner, but Mengestu's assured prose and haunting set pieces (especially a series of letters from Stephanos's uncle to Jimmy Carter, pleading that he respect "the deep friendship between our two countries") are heart-rending and indelible
Haiku summary
I left Africa
But I'm going back. Or am
I?  Where's my best self?           [yalliejane]

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"Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian revolution after witnessing soldiers beat his father to the point of certain death, selling off his parents' jewelry to pay for passage out of the country. Now he finds himself running a grocery store In a poor African-American neighborhood in Washington, D.C., where his daytime customers are schoolchildren and his nighttime customers are prostitutes and alcoholics. His only companions are two fellow African immigrants, a Congolese waiter and a Kenyan engineer, who share his feelings of frustration with and bitter nostalgia for their home continent. Years ago, half a world away and still In the embrace of family, he never would have imagined himself living a life of such isolation." "But after a long period of blight, Sepha's neighborhood begins to change. Hope comes In the form of new neighbors - Judith and Naomi, a white woman and her biracial daughter - who restore the grand, dilapidated house next door. They become his friends and remind him for the first time In years of what having a family Is like. But their arrival signals something more profound for the neighborhood's long time residents, and when its newfound calm is disturbed by a series of racial Incidents, Sepha may lose everything all over again."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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