Photo of Logan Circle by Joe in DC used under a Creative Commons license.
Dinaw Mengestu, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (Riverhead, 2007).
Sepha Stephanos is an Ethiopian immigrant who has lived in Washington, D.C., for seventeen years, half his life. Stephanos runs an unsuccessful convenience store in Logan Circle, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Alienated, not just literally, he drifts between worlds: the poor residents and newcomers in Logan Circle, the United States and Ethiopia. Other characters include Stephanos’ immigrant buddies, an engineer from Kenya and a waiter from the Congo, and a university professor on sabbatical who moves into the neighborhood with her eleven-year-old daughter. Stephanos grows attached to each of them, and his relationship with the young girl, Naomi, is particularly touching. Both bookworms, they read Dostoyevsky together in his store. Mengestu’s novel is achingly well written, moving and evocative. It was released as Children Of The Revolution in the U.K., where it won the Guardian First Novel Award.
Here’s a brief bio of Mengestu. Bob Thompson (Washington Post) profiles him. Google BookSearch offers a preview. NPR has an excerpt, and you can listen to Mengestu read it. JP posted some favorite passages. Kathryn Lewis (bookforum) says Mengestu has produced a layered and nuanced account of American life. Rob Nixon (The New York Times) calls it a great African novel, a great Washington novel and a great American novel. Olivia Laing (The Guardian) calls it quietly accomplished. Jaime thinks it is a little too subtle. Constance Howes calls it a clear, honest reckoning of life’s baggage. Marie-Martine Buckens (The Courier) says Mengestu gives us a meditation on the social regression and emotional poverty that enforced exile in a new country brings. Shannon Luders-Manuel says Mengestu has humility and grandeur. Dovegreyreader says it’s an exquisitely written book, gentle and sad, great rafts of melancholy. Jennifer Reese (EW) thinks Mengestu’s control over his material is too tight. Matthew Schnipper (The Fader) says it tells large stories through little movements. Bethonie Butler (Washingtonian) likes that Mengestu treats his subjects without judgment. Jeff Kelly Lowenstein says it renders a rarely-told experience of Ethiopian immigrant life. Matt Sedlar (DCist) says it details Washington, D.C.’s past and present with loving care and unflinching honesty. But raych calls it wholly unremarkable. Naomi calls it depressing and forgettable. Brian sounds underwhelmed. Karen R. Davis says it’s a slow, relaxing read. Abby Jean says it’s much more articulate than her review. J. Otto Pohl says it’s a very accurate description of the city of Washington DC. Phil Marsden says it’s engaging throughout. Mary Brodbin (Socialist Review) says it’s gripping in an unexpected way. Alan Garner describes it as an exercise in loss, isolation, nationhood and cultural identity. Stefania likes the unusual and sad portrait of Washington, D.C. Mengestu was interviewed by Tadias magazine. Watch Mengestu read from the novel (at — sniff — Cody’s Books in Berkeley) and discuss it. Read or listen to Tavis Smiley interview Mengestu on PBS. Here’s some love for Logan Circle.