Thursday, September 18, 2014

#Diversiverse Review: The Book of Unknown Americans

Cristina Henriquez's novel The Book of Unknown Americans is
is mainly about two families. The Toro family moved to the US years ago from Panama and have assimilated pretty completely into American life. The father works at a restaurant, the older son has a soccer scholarship for college, and the second son, Mayor, is in his rebellious stage in high school, trying not to be (negatively) compared to his brother all the time. The Rivera family has recently moved to the US. Maribel, the teenage daughter, recently had an accident that caused brain damage, and her parents brought her to the US for better care.

The story is narrated by Maribel’s mother, Alma, and Mayor, the rebellious younger son of the Toro family. Every couple of chapters, there are interludes in which other minor characters share their life stories. These interludes were my favorite part of the book. I loved seeing a character in one light and then learning about her difficult life path and gaining a better understanding of what made her the way she was. I loved hearing stories of how people met and how they all decided to move to the small apartment block in Delaware in which they all ended up. And what they’ve done since they arrived there.

I also really enjoyed Alma’s voice. Henriquez wrote about her struggles wonderfully – her guilt over Maribel’s accident, her inability to come to terms with the fact that her daughter will never be the same, her terror in a new country where she feels she cannot protect her daughter from harm, and the way all of these things affect her relationship with her husband. Alma was such a well-developed character, and her fears and concerns became my fears and concerns, too. I also appreciated that for Alma, it was the white characters and the Americans that were frightening. Most of the time, we hear the other side of the story, but through Alma’s eyes, we can see just how menacing Americans can be to foreigners, especially those who don’t speak English well and have beautiful, disabled children.

I didn’t like Mayor’s sections nearly as much. I admit that I was a little disturbed by Mayor’s obsession with Maribel, a mentally handicapped girl who also happened to be breath-takingly beautiful. Would he have felt so drawn to her if she wasn’t beautiful? I think readers are supposed to believe that Mayor and Maribel are totally in love and meant to be together (at least, we are told that multiple times by Mayor), but I didn’t buy it. And Mayor’s complete disregard for Maribel’s parents’ wishes or his own parents rules were maybe true to his life stage, but again, it really felt like he took advantage of Maribel, and I was pretty uncomfortable with that. Maybe if Maribel had a voice in the story, it would have felt better. But we never hear her side of anything, and so it felt a lot like she just kind of went with Mayor because it was easy, not really because she wanted it.

Unfortunately, Mayor is a pretty key character in this book so his sections impacted my overall enjoyment of this novel. But for the interludes from the minor characters alone, and for Alma’s story, it’s well worth reading this book. I really enjoyed hearing the life stories of so many people (this is particularly excellent in the audiobook, as there are multiple narrators for these sections, all with very distinct voices).

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Review-itas: #Diversiverse edition

Monster by Walter Dean Myers
Walter Dean Myers' Monster is about Steve Harmon, a teenager in prison on trial for murder.  The book is written as a screenplay from Steve's point of view, with cues for lighting, credits, and people entering and exiting the screen.  There are also parts in between, in which Harmon speaks directly to the audience about how he's gotten to this point in his life.

As you can tell from the cover, this book has won numerous awards.  I especially wanted to read it after finishing The Enchanted, because I feel like I should know more about the criminal justice system.

This book felt a little too young for me.  I could understand Steve's path and I enjoyed the screenplay, but there was a lot less about his background and life before he got into prison than there was about the trial itself.  I would have preferred a bit more character development to balance the courtroom drama.  Monster certainly highlighted the difficulties of working within the US jury system, though, especially when you are young, black, and poor.  I also enjoyed the audiobook production - multiple narrators and great editing.

Pretty Fire by Charlayne Woodard
Charlayne Woodard's series of fove vignettes assembled together under Pretty Fire was a fantastic read, and I wish it was much longer.  It clocks in at just about 2 hours on audiobook, so if you could find a physical copy to read (which does seem difficult), then you could probably read it super-fast.

Woodard starts with telling us about her very premature birth, growing up in New York City, visiting her grandparents in the Jim Crow south, and working hard to succeed and make her family proud of her.  The title Pretty Fire relates to the way she and her sister described the burning cross that the KKK left on her grandparents' lawn.  Her grandmother told her very firmly that it was not pretty, but the ugliest thing she would ever see.

Told with humor (she tells the audience how she grew up wanting to be Lassie the dog, or the black butler in Little Orphan Annie), Woodard really engages with her audience in a way that brings the audiobook to life.  I wish I could see her perform in person!  Apparently, there are a few companion pieces to this one.  I absolutely plan to check them out!  Such a great introduction to this talented performer, and one that reminded me (again) that I really enjoy short stories.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

#Diversiverse: A More Diverse Universe Links-travaganza!!

FIRST THINGS FIRST:  PLEASE READ THE INSTRUCTIONS for linking to your review post below to ensure that the links are clear for all posterity!  As the event is in process, there is no longer a sign-up post for you to participate - just link directly to the post.  Thank you :-)

Hooray!  #Diversiverse is HERE!  Two weeks of gloriously diverse reading suggestions for you and all your friends, all so that we can work to make our world a more understanding, caring, and amazing place to live.

Truly, I cannot properly express my amazement at the excitement and participation levels for this event.  OVER 100 PEOPLE have signed up!  That is astonishing!  Thank you to everyone (and I think there are more people than I even know!) who have posted about, Tumblr'd about, tweeted about, BookTubed about, and linked to #Diversiverse.  We could have over 100 reviews linked to this post by the end of September.  I cannot wait to read all of them :-)

Shall I give my spiel again on why reading diversely is so important?  I suppose at this point, I'm preaching to the choir, but let me just step on the soapbox one more time very quickly:

Reading diversely is important because we live in a global world.  Period.  If you read books only by white authors, you are limiting yourself to less than 30% of the world's experience of race and culture.  If you read books only by Christian authors, you are limiting yourself to only about 33% of the world's experience of theology.  If you read books only by authors in developed countries, you are limiting yourself to a very privileged view of what the world has to offer you.  If you read books that focus only on Western thought, history, and philosophy, you are missing out on many rich and varied traditions and worldviews that have informed and continue to enrich the way we view the world today. 

I think that sums it up as well as I can.

Many people are nervous about reading diversely because they think it will limit their reading choices.  I would like to emphasize one more time:

Reading diversely may require you to change your book-finding habits.  It ABSOLUTELY does not require you to change your book reading habits.

As the link list below becomes populated with reviews of books across multiple genres, by authors from a plethora of backgrounds, I hope that this point will be proven over and over.  Authors all over the world write romance novels, historical fiction, social science, folktales, memoirs, poetry - everything.  You just may need to look a little bit harder to find them.  But luckily for you, there's the #diversiverse link-up post below.  Browse at your leisure, add dozens of books to your TBR pile, and enjoy!

Thank you!  And thank you SO MUCH for participating.  Let's flood the digital world with reviews!

When you add your link below (and PLEASE link to the permalink for the specific #diversiverse post, not just your blog's main home page), please use the following format to make searching the list easy for future perusers:

Blog Name - Book Title, Author Name
(ex.  Booklust - The Book of Unknown Americans, Cristina Henriquez)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Review-itas: The difficulties of transitioning to high school and my first Toni Morrison!

I found Faith Erin Hicks' Friends with Boys at the library and picked it up mainly, I admit, because of the cover.  Also because it is published by First Second Books, and I really enjoy their graphic novels.  It's a story about Maggie, entering her freshman year of high school after years of home schooling.  Her three older brothers are already in high school, but as she sees them in a new setting, she learns a lot more about them.  And she meets two new people, too, Alistair and Lucy, a brother and sister team who do everything together.  It's a sweet story about accepting change in your life, accepting what you can't change, forgiving others, and trying your best to be a good person.  Not really new lessons, I know, but the artwork is absolutely beautiful, and the characters come to life so completely not only in their words and facial expressions, but in the ways they dress and the settings in which Hicks places them.  Really enjoyed this one!

Honestly, if reading Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon taught me anything, it is that Toni Morrison probably should not be read via audiobook.  The author narrated the story herself and was actually quite good.  But I have never read Morrison before, and she is all about the symbolism and the slippery chronologies, and the complicated family trees, and I think it was a failure from the start.  I assume it would be a lot like trying to read 100 Years of Solitude on audiobook, with characters that are all related to each other and named after each other, and a whole lot of confusion unless you can go back a few pages or to the family tree and ground yourself again.

So, audiobook, maybe not the best plan.  But what gorgeous language!  What fantastic names that probably all were symbols for other things that went completely over my head!  What dramatic plot twists!  I definitely need to read more Morrison, but I need to read her in printed form.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Sarah Waters proves her mastery over the post-WWI creepy relationship story

It's here, it's here!  Sarah Waters' eagerly anticipated new novel, The Paying Guests, hits shelves on the 16th and is sure to skyrocket to the best-seller list pretty much immediately.  I was absolutely thrilled to get an advance copy from LibraryThing.  It took me a while to get through this book because it is pretty long and, well, summer!  But I made it through to the end and I'm confident that if you enjoyed Waters' other novels, you will really enjoy this one.

The Paying Guests is set in post-WWI London.  The economy is not doing well, the class system is starting to break down, and there are many women living without the support of men.  Frances and her mother are two of those women - Frances' two brothers died in the war and her father passed away, too, leaving an old house and a lot of debts behind him.  To make ends meet, Frances and her mother decide to take in lodgers.  Enter Mr. and Mrs. Barber, a working-class couple who seem to embrace a more carefree, Bohemian lifestyle.  But sometimes, their marriage seems just a little bit less happy than they project to the world.  And as Frances spends more time with the couple and gets to know them better, she becomes intimately involved in their lives and can't quite get away.

I really like the cover shown on this one - not only is it in line with the rest of Waters' books, but I love the sinister look of it.  The woman standing in the light, and then a man to the side, watching her in the dark.  It really does evoke the feel of this book, the unease with which the characters approach each other.

If I could liken this book to another, I think the one that comes to mind is Donna Tartt's The Secret History.  I did not really enjoy The Secret History, and I admit that there were several times during The Paying Guests when I got a little tired as well.  It just started to feel so repetitive!  And I applaud Waters for being able to keep upping the ante and the tension for a good 300 pages or so, but GOSH, I got tired of it!  I would say more, except I am pretty sure that I would be accused of putting in spoilers.  But anyway - a lot of this book is about how relationships can evolve and change and backtrack and go in circles, particularly at times of stress.  It felt quite realistic to me, but also quite painful to read.  By the end, I wasn't really a big fan of any of the characters, though I started the book really liking all of them.

What is awesome about this book, though, is Waters' amazing turn of phrase.  Here are some of my favorites:

"Their friendship sometimes struck Frances as being like a piece of soap - like a piece of ancient kitchen soap that had got worn to the shape of her hand, but which had been dropped to the floor so many times it was never quite free of its bits of cinder."

"How well she filled her own skin! She might have been poured generously into it, like treacle."

"You don't think about all the colors when everything's going all right; you'd go mad if you did. But those colors are there, all the same. All the quarrels, and the bits of unkindness. And every so often something happens to put a chip right through; and then you can't NOT think of them."

"It was like a cure, being with Lilian. It made one feel like a piece of wax being cradled in a soft, warm palm."

Note:  I received an advance copy of this book in exchange for a review.  This review is based on an advance reader's copy.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

In search of the b'gwus, stability, and other hard-to-attain things

Monkey Beach
"As I drove away, I felt deeply comforted knowing that magical things were still living in the world."

Eden Robinson's Monkey Beach has been on my radar for quite a while, I think since Eva reviewed it in 2012.  I finally read it, and it's wonderful.  I hope you all put it on your radar but don't take more than two years to read it like I did.

Monkey Beach is set on the coast of British Columbia, in what I imagine is a majestic setting of mountains and forests and small islands.  Lisamarie Hill wakes up one morning to the news that her younger brother Jimmy is missing.  He was on a boat that sank and there is no word of him.  Her parents leave to find him, and Lisa decides to go look for her brother, too, separately.  She takes off in a small boat to Monkey Beach, where she and Jimmy grew up looking for the b'gwus (yeti) years ago.  On her way there, readers are treated to flashbacks of her life.  Lisa grew up under the loving care of not only her parents, but her uncle Mick, an Indian civil rights activist, and her grandmother, Ma-ma-oo, who cherishes the old ways but does not know as many of them as she wishes.  She is also visited by spirits who bring her news of what is yet to come.

Oftentimes, we are told that children who grow up in happy homes become happy, well-adjusted adults.  Father figures are integral to this, as well as strong mothers.  Lisa grew up with very loving parents and a brother who adored her.  She was close to her uncle and to her grandmother.  But, as Robinson points out with great subtlety, this is not always enough.  Lisa's town doesn't have much going for it - fishing is an industry, but it seems to be drying up.  There's also a cannery, but work conditions there are tough.  No one that Lisa knows has plans to go to college, so she sees no point in going, either.  She is surrounded by alcoholism, abuse, and people who have reached dead ends.  Her brother is a superstar swimmer, and everyone latches onto that as one of the few ways for Jimmy to get up and out into the larger world.  Where, hopefully, he'll be treated fairly.  But if patterns continue, everyone from Lisa's town will face racism and discrimination for the rest of their lives.

Lisa is very different from her brother.  She believes in magical beings.  She knows how to build a fire, live off the land, and tell stories.  These traits are not highly valued in modern life, though, and she struggles in school.  She makes friends but keeps them at arms' length.  She cares deeply and completely for those she loves but does not show it.  As she gets older, she isolates herself more and more from the people she needs most.

Lisa's story is a difficult one.  She goes through a lot of tough times, but she's a resilient and strong character.  I fell completely in love with her, though it was tough to stay with her through her internal struggles.  It may be very optimistic of me, but I think if there were an epilogue to this story, it would involve her struggling (but succeeding) to get through school, tentatively starting to date a guy she should have dated long ago, and finding a way to keep the spirits at bay.

Truly, this book was beautifully written.  I think some people will probably struggle with Robinson's style of writing.  She goes back and forth a lot, includes some non sequitors about b'gwus and the heart, and shows us a lot more than she tells us (particularly in the last several pages).  But I loved being a part of the deep and strong bonds that Lisa formed with her uncle and her grandmother, the fierce determination she had to help her brother, and her struggles to take control of her life.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Review-itas: Science will blow your mind edition

The World without us by Alan Weisman
The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman, has a premise that enthralled me as soon as I read about it.  What would happen to the world if humans just disappeared?

I read this book via audiobook and a few things really stood out to me, though they are pretty unrelated to each other:

  • Cats apparently kill almost half a billion birds a year, I think in the United States alone.  Good heavens!  They are natural-born killers of lovely sing-songy birds.  There's a reason our mornings are not quite so chirpy as they used to be, and house cats are a big reason why.  I hope you keep yours inside!
  • The nuclear weapons that we're just holding onto (and not very securely) and the chemical waste that they are likely to create are very, very scary.
  • The amount of plastic we have created and poorly disposed of over the past 50 years is potentially even scarier than the nuclear waste problem.
Weisman's book is not a very positive one.  Honestly, it seems like even if humans were to disappear tomorrow, there's a lot of stuff we've done that will take eons to fix.  But in other ways, the book made me feel a little bit better.  The world existed before we arrived, and the world will continue to exist and evolve after we're gone.  While much of the information shared here was a little depressing, there was a lot of good information about the history of the world, just how difficult it is to keep nature (especially water!) at bay, and a lot of interesting speculation on what our lasting impact will be.  Definitely glad I read this one.

Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku
After reading The World Without Us, I felt like I was really on a science cusp.  And really, if we're well on our way to messing up our own planet, I think it's important we have some sort of contingency plan or back-up planet (preferably uninhabited so that we do not do the whole colonizing thing again).  So reading Michio Kaku's Physics of the Impossible seemed like the right next move.  

This book also has a pretty sweet premise.  Kaku looks at the science fiction literature and popular culture around him, and other "wouldn't it be SO awesome if...?" scenarios and discusses them as a physicist.  What, based on the known laws of the universe, is actually feasible?  What is not?  And why?  Topics covered include invisibility cloaks (we are actually really close on this one), time travel, teleportation, parallel universes, and wormholes.

I mean, seriously, how baller is it to be able to discuss the limitations of teleportation and telekinesis with people as a professional and intellectual exercise?!

I read this book as an audiobok, and admittedly, a lot of it went over my head.  I think if I could read some sentences again and give myself time to understand the implications, especially those about cubic roots and the theory of relativity and other formulae, then I would probably be able to follow along better.  But my main takeaway from this book is that so many more things are possible than I'd ever dreamed.  We have no conception of what awaits us in the universe (well, maybe astrophysicists do.  I certainly do not).  And it's a heady feeling to imagine what life will be in 1,000 years.  Kaku points out that humans have really only been around for 10,000 years or so.  Imagine if there are intelligent species out there that have been around for 100,000 years or longer; think about how much more advanced they must be than us.  The thought is both heady and terrifying.  

Another fact that I always understood vaguely before but now feel has been imprinted in my mind is just how far things are in outer space.  I mean, traveling to another planet is hard enough, let alone another solar system.  And to somewhere in another galaxy - that just takes FOREVER.  (Unless, of course, we can jump into hyperspace or find a wormhole somewhere that will just quickly dump us out, saving us time and hassle.)  There is SO MUCH of the universe out there that we cannot even dream of contacting, and they probably feel the same way out there as we do.  But, if we could contact them, then we could communicate with them through math or physics because (and this is something else I generally understood before but did not quite get the implications of until now) those would be the same everywhere!  In case you too were vague on what this means, it means - aliens could have microwaves, too!  And nuclear bombs!  And any matter of other devices, because the science behind those inventions is the SAME ALL OVER THE UNIVERSE.  (Well, I think - that is, if I understood Kaku correctly.)  Isn't that so fascinating?  I think so.

And on that note (TV dinners of the universe unite!), I shall end this :-)


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