Review: Bang

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Review for "Bang" by Daniel Pena (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

A dark story, indeed…

“Bang” is the story of a Mexican-American family with ties on both sides of the border. Araceli, the matriarch, lives with her two sons near a fruit grove in Harlingen, Texas. She sits and waits daily for her husband, who’s long since been deported back to Mexico. She lives with sorrow in her husband’s absence, as well as frequent nosebleeds and blackouts from the constant exposure to pesticides. Cuauhtemoc, the more troublesome elder son, flies crop duster planes for the fruit farm while her younger son, Uli, struggles to complete high school.

After a late night flight with Uli, Cuauhtemoc crashes one of the farm’s planes onto the Mexican side of the border. Both brothers are injured but manage to survive, and eventually become separated and trapped in Mexico. A new chain of disastrous events are then set into motion when Araceli, who hears of the crash, crosses the border to look for her sons. Cuauhtemoc is forced to fly drug deliveries for a violent local cartel, while Uli searches for his father but ends up getting caught up in a local dogfighting ring and boosting copper for cash.

This novel is presented in alternating narratives among the main three characters. This slows down the pace considerably, so there is an extraordinary focus on the human suffering taking place on both sides of the border, as well as the violent drug war taking place there. It’s an uncomfortable story, but one that definitely needs to be told.

Four stars.

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Top Ten Tuesday: The Best of 2018

Even though 2018 isn’t officially over, I wanted to take the time to do a quick round up of all of the five star reads I’ve come across this year. Most of these have been previously reviewed here (as shown with a link), and if they haven’t, the review will be forthcoming in the next few weeks.

BTW, there are more than 10 here. In no particular order, they are:

  1. American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment – Shane Bauer
  2. The Circuit – Francisco Jimenez
  3. We the Animals – Justin Torres
  4. In My Father’s House: A New View of How Crime Runs in the Family – Fox Butterfield
  5. What Girls Are Made Of – Elana K. Arnold
  6. Any Man – Amber Tamblyn
  7. The End of Eddy – Edouard Louis
  8. A Lucky Man – Jamel Brinkley
  9. My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Ottessa Moshfegh
  10. Heavy: An American Memoir – Kiese Laymon
  11. Brother – David Chariandy
  12. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? – Kathleen Collins
  13. Illegal – Eoin Colfer

Review: Detroit: An Autopsy

3 inches of snow here today in Charlotte, North Carolina. Any kind of snow accumulation of over an inch is fairly rare here, so naturally the city shuts down. Major roads are ok but side streets are impassable, schools close, and necessities like grocery stores aren’t open. I’m huddled under a blanket on the couch with hot tea, because cold weather is a great time to read.

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Review for "Detroit: An Autopsy" by Charlie LeDuff (2013)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Today’s review takes me to a cold weather place: Detroit.

I liked this book. It’s written by a native of the city who comes back home after spending years away as a reporter and finds it gone completely to hell.

The scenes of this book are what make it interesting. There’s a homeless man the writer finds frozen solid inside an abandoned house. There’s the city’s woefully underfunded fire department, who spends most of its time putting out the work of arsonists because it’s cheaper to start a fire than it is to go to a movie. There’s a porn-style tv political ad with a corrupt lady politician at the center. There’s the author’s brother, who, after being laid off from a well-paying car manufacturing job, is doomed to put together useless parts for a low wage. And, because this is Detroit, there’s all manner of political corruption. Failing schools, corruption, racism, corruption. It’s depressing as hell. But such a good read.

Charlie LeDuff positions Detroit as a microcosm of America, when consumerism, debt, aging infrastructure, and just plain bad policy decisions go wrong. He’s sympathetic toward his city but he pulls no punches as he calls out politicians, local leaders, family members, and even himself on his own bullshit. His premise? Want to know what’s wrong with Detroit? Look in the mirror.

I wholly recommend this book.

Review: The End of Eddy

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Review for "The End of Eddy" by Edouard Louis (2017 in US, 2014 in France)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This book’s got trigger warnings up the wazoo: rape, bullying, assault, child abuse, animal abuse, homophobia, racism

A short and unrelenting autobiographical account of the author’s coming of age in a small town in northern France. Originally published in French, Eddy was only 21 when he wrote this book.

Much of this was hard for me to read. Eddy grows up poor and gay in a large family, a target of obvious scorn by his parents, his siblings, his classmates, and the people of his town. The depiction of French society here is a sharp contrast with what many of us Americans picture when we think of the region, with its artistic sensibilities and beautiful scenery. In Eddy’s town of Hallencourt, jobs are scarce, children drop out of school, and women have their babies young. Alcoholism is everywhere, violence is routine and part of a typical day’s events. Growing up, Eddy is assaulted daily, spat upon, and called derogatory names because his mannerisms, speech, and behavior does not fit the expectation of what is “manly.” He submits to these beatings because brutality is all he knows. His sexual initiation, which is not entirely consensual, is the hallmark of this book, because it’s after this event that he decides to take on the persona of ‘tough guy.’ He fails miserably, however. Eddy comes to accept his own homosexuality and eventually gets accepted into a theater program in a nearby city, pursues a degree, and eventually changes his name to Edouard Louis.

As much as I didn’t like reading this due to its graphic descriptions of such horrible things, I have to give it five stars. Something in me broke while reading this. It’s terrifying because of its urgency–you know that this kind of terrorism is happening to someone else as you read this. Even though this book takes place in France in the 90’s, it could be present day in your city or really anywhere in the world where people still practice the routines of toxic masculinity and violence.

Five stars, mates.

Review: Ohio

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Review for "Ohio" by Stephen Markley (2018)
Rating: none (DNF)

D to the N to the F. I repeat: DNF. Somewhere around 50%, I gave up.

This is a drag of a novel about 4 high school acquaintances all coming back to their economically stagnated, drug-ravaged hometown of New Canaan, Ohio on a random night, 10 years after graduation. All of the friends have taken different paths: Bill is an alcoholic and a druggie social activist, Stacey is an embittered graduate student coming back to meet with the mother of her ex-lover, Dan is an emotionally shattered Iraq War veteran, and Tina, an abused, fragile girl coming back to confront her abuser.

This book wasn’t good. It’s way overwritten, an absolute slog to read through. Each of the main 4 characters accounts is about a quarter of the book, which is way too long and relies heavily on flashbacks to high school. In addition to the sheer tedium of the characters’ reminiscing about events of their past so much and so often (obviously designed to reveal current plot points in the book), you wonder why all of these adults are so obsessed with their high school years anyway, something that I couldn’t relate to and what ultimately made this novel one great big eye-roll.

I didn’t stay for the Big Dramatic Conclusion because honestly I didn’t care. Perhaps this was supposed to be some kind of epic statement on the fall of the working class after the Great Recession of 2008, but this book brings no nuance, nothing new or really interesting to the table. There’s nothing here in “Ohio” that we haven’t already seen in a news report or read before.

I don’t recommend this. No stars.

Review: The Line Becomes a River

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Review for "The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border" by Francisco Cantu (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In keeping with #NonfictionNovember, I really liked this book. I am glad that I did not read the many negative reviews of this before picking it up, much of which is not about the content but full of personal rancor towards the author, a former Border Patrol officer. Did these reviewers even read the book? Apparently not.

What the author does do is present a pretty fair and balanced view of U.S. and Mexican lives on both sides of the border. The first section covers his early days on patrol, catching people who activate sensors in the desert. There are many stories here–desperate immigrants wishing for a better life who are deserted by their coyotes (smugglers), people who live on the border whose properties are continually trashed and broken into by immigrants, those who aid cartels through drug smuggling. Both criminals and non-criminals are almost always rounded up and deported. There are also some pretty shocking accounts of Border Patrol agents being cruel and just plain racist (destroying immigrant water sources, calling them “wets”). In addition to this, the author describes countless dead bodies, those not fortunate enough to make it out of a scorching desert hell. The middle section of the book deals with Cantu’s moral conflicts and eventual disillusionment with the work after he is assigned to a desk job. The desk job involves profiling cartels, their victims almost always killed through unimaginable violence. Border Patrol officers have a particularly high turnover rate, which, for a morally conflicted person such as Cantu, is wholly understandable.

The last section of the book is the most poignant, in my opinion. After his departure from the Border Patrol, Cantu befriends a Mexican man from Oaxaca named Jose. Although he is undocumented, he is a hardworking man with a wife and three sons. Returning from a trip to visit his mother in Oaxaca, he is caught by Border Patrol attempting to cross back into the U.S. Cantu assists the family by showing up to his trial, getting him a lawyer, taking his sons to visit him in detention. I won’t tell you Jose’s fate, other than to say that the last part of this book is not the author’s but the voice of Jose himself.

Nowhere in this book does Cantu position himself in favor of U.S. Border Patrol policies. While participating in their enforcement as an officer, he is a part of the institutional violence against immigrants, which he acknowledges. The story of Jose is a good balancing act for the critics to show that immigration presents an ever present challenge with no easy solutions. People on both sides of the border ultimately suffer.

I recommend that you don’t read the negative reviews and read this book for yourself.

Four stars.

Review: Dear America

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Review for "Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen" by Jose Antonio Vargas (2018)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

This is a great book. It is about life as an immigrant, but it is not about politics. Through his connection to journalism, Vargas wrote an op-ed in 2011 outing himself as undocumented. He also wrote a Time magazine cover story on the subject in 2012.

“Dear America” is mostly a story about the author, Jose Antonio Vargas, whose mother hastily put him on a plane from the Philippines to join his grandparents in America at 12 years old. He grows up in California and does not realize until he attempts to apply for a driver’s license that the paperwork provided by his grandfather was fake. He confides in several trusted colleagues and administrators, who eventually get him to college and into several prestigious journalism gigs, despite his undocumented status.

Vargas explores how the “path” to citizenship does not exist for him and many, many other people. He cannot simply apply for legal citizenship, because he came here illegally and risks deportation. Leaving the U.S. and returning to the Philippines effectively bans him from coming back for 10 years, and even then, approval for U.S. citizenship is not guaranteed. He could attempt to pull off a sham marriage (i.e., marrying a U.S. citizen for a green card), but Vargas refuses to do this because he is gay. As a result, he discusses a sense of constant homelessness even though he considers America his country. Many aspects of American life are continually out of reach for him because he is undocumented. Though he pays taxes through his job, in many states, he cannot drive or legally work. He cannot travel overseas and has been effectively cut off from his extended family. He also faces constant fear of detainment and deportation, which he goes through later on in the book.

Overall, this is a short book that puts a human face on the argument around illegal immigration, which is far more complex than building walls and talk about caravans. What does it mean to be an American? If it is simply a matter of being born on U.S. soil, then I, as a ‘natural’ resident, did not “do” anything to earn my status. Why do we as citizens feel the need to make people like the author do the same? Lots of complex arguments here, many of which have no quick answers.

Definitely recommend this book.