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The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

by Dinaw Mengestu

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,1254818,213 (3.75)133
Fiction. Literature. HTML:Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian Revolution for a new start in the United States. Now he finds himself running a failing grocery store in a poor African-American section of Washington, D.C., his only companions two fellow African immigrants who share his bitter nostalgia and longing for his home continent. Years ago and worlds away Sepha could never have imagined a life of such isolation. As his environment begins to change, hope comes in the form of a friendship with new neighbors Judith and Naomi, a white woman and her biracial daughter. But when a series of racial incidents disturbs the community, Sepha may lose everything all over again.
Watch a QuickTime interview with Dinaw Mengestu about this book..
… (more)
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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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» See also 133 mentions

English (43)  German (2)  Italian (1)  French (1)  All languages (47)
Showing 1-5 of 43 (next | show all)
Reading for book club. Almost skipped it because the titled sounded similar to "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" (ugh). But the book has nothing to do with heaven nor is it religious in any way.

Now I wish I had skipped it. The writing is good but it amounts to nothing of substance padded with sad incidents that teach nothing and the minutes of the protagonist's day which are entirely wasted - as was my time reading this. ( )
  donwon | Jan 22, 2024 |
It was a treat to read a novel set in the very neighborhood where I live (Logan Circle in Washington, DC), and to receive a fictionalized retelling of some of the gentrification stories that occurred not long before I moved here in 2011. The protagonist is a striving immigrant who burns out on running his neighborhood bodega in the face of isolation and wistfulness, and whose new neighbors bring him a temporary reprieve. As you can imagine, this is not a light read, and overall I think the main characters all had to contend with very hard lives. But the arc of the plot does go interesting places, and makes DC into the only place where these events could occur; it just ends too abruptly. ( )
  jonerthon | Jul 2, 2022 |
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears was published in 2007 and its events take place in the late 1980s, but it registered with me as something I wanted to read when the NEA chose it as a "Big Read" book a few months back. In light of President Trumps's recent outrageous comments about immigrants from certain parts of the world, it could not be more timely, and its focus on gentrification and tensions between different populations in Washington, D.C. has further relevance to me as someone who lives in the D.C. area. Also, I had read Cutting for Stone a couple of months ago, and the two make nice bookends, so to speak, if you're interested in Ethiopia, which I am.

Anyway, BESIDES all of that, it is a great book! Mengestu does a lovely job pacing Sepha's story, and showing the reader the many angles of his, and his associates, lives. I even found echoes of themes I've encountered repeatedly in Irish-American literature of the divided nature of immigrant experience. When one's heart is always or often in a different place from one's body, life takes on a wistful tone. Newcomers to this (or probably any) country can see things about it and its people that long-timers often don't, and these things are useful for us to contemplate. When the critique comes in the guise of a fully-developed fictional universe grounded in an actual place and time, it is easier (for me, anyway) to hear and understand than if I were presented with a bullet-pointed screed, but I was likely to be sympathetic from the outset. Although this is probably the most well-known of Dinaw Mengestu's books, and I'm glad I started with it, I now look forward to reading his others. ( )
  CaitlinMcC | Jul 11, 2021 |
My third book by Mengestu - while I really liked it, it didn't move me as much as his others. ( )
  viviennestrauss | Mar 17, 2020 |
Two reasons why I chose to read this book: 1) It was Seattle Reads' 2008 pick, and 2) a good percentage of my ESL students are from Ethiopia like the main character of the book.

Negative reviews from other Goodreads folks claim that 'nothing happens' and that the characters aren't developed. I disagree. Sure, nobody dies or gets married or gets bitten by a vampire; there's neither a tragic ending nor a perfectly happy, resolved one. Plenty of things happen, however small to the reader, to Sepha. He hopes for the attention of a woman, he befriends her daughter, he revisits his guilt of leaving his family/country, he is in perpetual danger of losing his store.

It is a book of being in between, in transition. Between countries, homes. Between the bad years and the good years. Meeting people that you hope will stick around but they don't because they were only meant to be in your life for a short time.

The book is a glimpse into the experience of an Ethiopian immigrant and a glimpse into the life of an ordinary man who is still in search of his heaven. ( )
  alyssajp | Jul 29, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 43 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (5 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Dinaw Mengestuprimary authorall editionscalculated
Graham, DionNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nolla, AlbertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
Dedication
To Hirut and Tesfaye Mengetsu, for everything.
First words
At eight o'clock Joseph and Kenneth come into the store.
Quotations
”And what about you?” I asked Judith. “What do you like?”
“I prefer simple and elegant.”
“I like small and cheap,” I said.
“That’s too bad,” Judith said. “It looks like you’ve gone and picked the wrong family.”
He lifts himself off the ground by bracing his back against the wall and climbing up with his entire body, inch by inch. His effort to stand on his own invites the mockery of the two young soldiers.
They looked nothing like the presents under Judith’s tree.  They looked as if they had been wrapped by a blind, one-armed man who had torn away at the wrapping paper and tape with his teeth.
That’s why I’m here in this country. No revolution. No coup.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Wikipedia in English (3)

Fiction. Literature. HTML:Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian Revolution for a new start in the United States. Now he finds himself running a failing grocery store in a poor African-American section of Washington, D.C., his only companions two fellow African immigrants who share his bitter nostalgia and longing for his home continent. Years ago and worlds away Sepha could never have imagined a life of such isolation. As his environment begins to change, hope comes in the form of a friendship with new neighbors Judith and Naomi, a white woman and her biracial daughter. But when a series of racial incidents disturbs the community, Sepha may lose everything all over again.
Watch a QuickTime interview with Dinaw Mengestu about this book..

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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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