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Original Essays | September 15, 2014

Lois Leveen: IMG Forsooth Me Not: Shakespeare, Juliet, Her Nurse, and a Novel



There's this writer, William Shakespeare. Perhaps you've heard of him. He wrote this play, Romeo and Juliet. Maybe you've heard of it as well. It's... Continue »

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The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

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ISBN13: 9781594482854
ISBN10: 1594482853
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Reading Group Guide

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

1. Mengestu opens the novel with Sepha and his friends, Joseph and Kenneth, and the game that they play matching African coups with dictators and dates. The three come from different parts of Africa, and have left different places and people to be in the US. Why do they play this game? How does it affect their relationships with each other? With the country they now call home? With the continent they left behind? Though they are close friends with a long history, why do you think that Joseph reacts the way that he does when Sepha appears at the restaurant? What about Kenneth’s attempts to help Sepha figure out a way to keep from losing the store? How do their differences help or hinder the narrative?

2. In recalling his uncle’s questioning why he had “chosen to open a corner store in a poor black neighborhood,” Sepha says that he had “never said it was because all I wanted...was to read quietly, and alone, for as much of the day as possible.” Books play a huge role in Sepha’s life as well as in the action of the Mengestu’s story. Did you feel that a particular literary reference gave you a glimpse into Sepha’s character that was unexpected or surprising? Which one and why? Or if not, why not?

3. Gentrification, class struggle, and ideas of democracy reverberate as prevailing themes in the novel. How does Mengestu weave these themes into the Sepha’s interactions with Judith and Naomi? The race/class based polarization of Logan Circle? Judith’s career?

4. As we learn in the novel, its title comes from a passage in Dante’s Inferno that Joseph believes to be “the most perfect lines of poetry ever written.” Why do you think Mengestu chose the title The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears? What parallels do you see between Sepha’s story and Dante’s?

5. Speaking of books, reading The Brothers Karamazov together becomes a way for Naomi and Sepha to relate to each other, regardless of their age and implied class differences. Why do you think he highlighted his favorite passage (below) for Naomi, the one he memorized and “read out loud to the shelves and empty aisles,” writing “Remember This” in the margins of his copy of the book?

People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometimes be the means of saving us.

Do you think it is an attempt on Sepha’s part to tell her some of his own story through another’s words? Why or why not?

6. When he goes shopping for Christmas presents, Sepha strolls optimistically throughout the city, finally feeling he has “the beginnings of a life” in America. This optimism is shattered when he finds that Judith and Naomi have left the city for the holidays. Why do you think Sepha’s optimism depends on having Judith and Naomi close? Are they the source of his optimistic feeling? Why or why not? What about his thoughts that end the novel? Why, despite everything, does the store “look more perfect than ever”? How do you think his relationships with Judith and Naomi might have changed his outlook? How might they have changed his relationship to America?

7. How does death affect the Birdswell family? How does Herbert’s death affect them? Roger’s death? The deaths of their childhood? Why do they continue to be haunted by the ghosts of their past? In what ways does each of these deaths change them?

8. Although Sepha has been in the U.S. for seventeen years, he still seems stuck between America and Ethiopia. Though he mentions going back to visit his mother and brother—even at one point thinking of abandoning everything in America to return—he asks himself towards the end of the novel, “How long did it take for me to understand that I was never going to return?” In an interview, Mengestu theorizes that Sepha will never return to Ethiopia despite his yearnings because “nostalgia and memory are all he has.” Do you agree? Why do you think he has stayed? Why has he never gone back?

9. Letters appear frequently in the novel: His uncle Berhane’s letters to various politicians, Sepha’s letter to Judith, Naomi’s letter to him. How does Mengestu use letters to further our understanding of those characters in the novel who write and receive them? Though we never meet him except through his letters, what do Berhane’s letters reveal that might not have been portrayed through a conversation or letter correspondence between Sepha and his uncle? How does Berhane contrast with the other African immigrants in the novel, namely Kenneth and Joseph? Why do you think that Sepha never wrote back to Naomi?

10. What is the significance of Mengestu’s choice to set the story in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.? Do you feel that the city is a character itself?

11. Were you surprised to find that the brick thrown through Judith’s windshield and at Sepha’s store, as well as the fire that destroyed her house, were the acts of one man as opposed to a group of angry citizens ignited by the evictions? How did you feel about the violence that was directed at Judith and Naomi? About her reaction? What do you think will happen to Logan Circle? To Sepha’s shop? To Sepha himself?

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 3 comments:

josue, January 27, 2013 (view all comments by josue)
This book was by far my favorite read in 2012. Dinaw's words describe things so vividly that it hurts sometimes. This beautiful story touches on many issues ranging from immigrant identities, the American dream, and gentrification.
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Marcus, April 27, 2009 (view all comments by Marcus)
A few months ago, I stumbled upon the uncorrected (limited publication) of this book. Rarely do I read a book a second time; in this case I did when the final copy came out. I loved it. The second time was even better.
It is an exceptional, beautifully crafted Novel. Unforgettable novel.
This story is written very well the characters are so vivid and lovable all with human flaws and strengths, which make them very real. They live within us with unfulfilled dreams and hopes.
The author has done an excellent job to keep the story going keeping you in suspense and wanting to know what happen to the characters.
I found it charming, delightful, sometimes funny, and always intriguing I couldn't put it down.
A book every immigrant can relate to. It is one of the best books I read in the last few years. A must read to people that appreciate quality literature.
Dinaw Mengestu's talent as a storyteller is shown in this first novel. I look forward and hope to read more from him in the future.
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(2 of 3 readers found this comment helpful)
Shoshana, October 5, 2008 (view all comments by Shoshana)
Some have said that this is a slow novel in which little happens. While I think these comments are true, they are not negative, and stopping there misses the point. Nor is it simply a story of the erosion of the immigrant's dream. Sepha Stephanos is not just an immigrant from Ethiopia who fled the war and didn't get the girl. The story is more subtle than that. Stephanos is paralyzed by memory and guilt. This guilt isn't just because of what he did and didn't do in Ethiopia or the U.S.; it is the guilt of a survivor, the guilt that makes simply being alive an almost unbearable burden. The circles of Washington, D.C.'s roads are the circles of Dante's hell (alluded to in the title). As in The Ministry of Pain, what nostalgia the immigrant can muster is impaired and tainted by the memories of war. Stephanos's flat guardedness is the point of his story, and perhaps his downfall as well.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9781594482854
Author:
Mengestu, Dinaw
Publisher:
Riverhead Books
Author:
Abani, Chris
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Race relations
Subject:
United states
Subject:
Washington, d. c.
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Subject:
Psychological
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
February 2008
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
from 12
Language:
English
Pages:
240
Dimensions:
7.75 x 5.06 in 1 lb
Age Level:
from 18

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The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$6.50 In Stock
Product details 240 pages Riverhead Books - English 9781594482854 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "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." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review A Day" by , "The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears is wonderfully written and moving. It gives personality and depth to the oft-mocked immigrant deli owner (Apu, anyone?) and draws a portrait of someone all readers can relate to. The story is carried by the wry humor of the observations that Stephanos and his friends make about life in America, and it's in those moments that Mengetsu does his best and most surprising work." (read the entire Esquire review)
"Review" by , "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears takes us effortlessly through impressive changes of theme and mood....This is a great African novel, a great Washington novel and a great American novel."
"Review" by , "Mengestu, himself an Ethiopian immigrant, engages the reader in a deftly drawn portrait of dreams in the face of harsh realities from the perspective of immigrants."
"Review" by , "Mengestu skirts immigrant-literature cliches and paints a beautiful portrait of a complex, conflicted man struggling with questions of love andloyalty. A nuanced slice of immigrant life."
"Review" by , "[A] poignant story providing food for thought for those concerned with poverty and immigration....Recommended."
"Review" by , "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is not a conventional immigrant novel....Mengestu has something more ambitious and fundamentally unsettling in mind."
"Review" by , "[Mengestu's] straightforward language and his low-key voice combine to make a compelling narrative, one that loops back in time yet seems to move forward with an even pace."
"Review" by , "This novel...covers a lot of ground: race relations...and gentrification and what it means to leave your past behind as you look for a future."
"Review" by , "For anyone who's caught the gaze of a foreign-born waiter or cabdriver and wished for a deeper understanding of his half-glimpsed life, reading fiction is one way to crack open the dusty window that often separates us....[A] deeply felt novel that deserves to be read."
"Review" by , "Mengestu also has a sense of humor that is pitch perfect, falling between complete despair and pure sarcasm."
"Review" by , "Mengestu has told a rich and lyrical story of displacement and loneliness. I was profoundly moved by this tale of an Ethiopian immigrant’s search for acceptance, peace, and identity. Some of the passages in Ethiopia are heartbreaking and almost unbearably painful. With effortless prose, Mengestu makes us feel this tortured soul’s longings, regrets, and in the end, his dreams of meaningful human connection."
"Synopsis" by , 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 neighborhood, longing for his home continent. When a series of racial incidents disturbs the community, Sepha may lose everything all over again.
"Synopsis" by ,
Before he can retire, Las Vegas detective Salazar is determined to solve a recent spate of murders. When he encounters a pair of conjoined twins with a container of blood near their car, hes sure he has apprehended the killers, and enlists the help of Dr. Sunil Singh, a South African transplant who specializes in the study of psychopaths. As Sunil tries to crack the twins, the implications of his research grow darker. Haunted by his betrayal of loved ones back home during apartheid, he seeks solace in the love of Asia, a prostitute with hopes of escaping that life. But Sunils own troubled past is fast on his heels in the form of a would-be assassin.

Suspenseful through the last page, The Secret History of Las Vegas is Chris Abanis most accomplished work to date, with his trademark visionary prose and a striking compassion for the inner lives of outsiders.

"Synopsis" by ,
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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