Review: Ordinary Girls

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Review for "Ordinary Girls" by Jaquira Diaz (2019)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I loved this book fiercely. I was pretty much hooked from the first page, a done deal.

Jaquira Diaz was born on the island of Puerto Rico, living in the housing projects there until her family moved to Miami Beach when she was a little girl. There, Diaz witnessed the dissolution of her family: her father sold drugs and became emotionally distant, her mother’s declining mental health cause her to eventually descend into severe drug use. There is also physical violence present in the home, mostly from her older brother and her drug-addicted mother. The only stability Jaquira finds is in her paternal grandmother and her younger sister, who is stuck in the same hellish familial nightmare that she is in. In addition to all of this, there’s the quagmire of young Jaquira trying to figure out her racial identity. Even though she is proudly Puerto Rican, her mother (blonde haired and green eyed) is White, her father is dark skinned, curly haired, and unapologetically Black. This causes much family conflict, as Jaquira recalls, with her maternal grandmother mocking her darker skin color and the first in her life to call her the n-word.

As a teenager, Jaquira channels her family dysfunction into full-on rage. After a suicide attempt at 11, she is stuck in a cycle of going nowhere: fighting with other girls, getting suspended from school, drinking, drugs, and running away. After several stints in juvenile for violent behavior, she drops out of high school at 16 (though she later earns a GED). Married at 17, she eventually enlists in the Navy, though her attraction to women doesn’t earn her any friends there either. After more family dysfunction and personal strife, Jaquira finds her voice as a writer.

Once again, I loved this book. The writing here is organized thematically and less around a structured, linear narrative order. This is all ok though, as I think it takes the most extreme level of courage to even begin to write like this. Diaz does not flinch or shy away from some very deep, dark truths.

Five stars. I’d read this again if I could.

Review: Dominicana

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Review for "Dominicana" by Angie Cruz (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Dominicana” is the story of a teenage girl named Ana, growing up with her parents and siblings in a rural part of the Dominican Republic in the mid-1960’s. Trujillo’s reign of terror has ended, yet economic stability has not yet returned to the country. She is proposed to at the age of eleven by Juan, an older man more than twice her age. At 15, her parents finally consent to the marriage–not because their daughter is in love with Juan, but to give him permission to someday build on their land, and give themselves better prospects of gaining an American visa through Ana’s sponsorship.

For Ana, the “American Dream” comes at a hard price. She hates the cold weather of NYC and misses home and has trouble adjusting to her new life. Her mother constantly asks her to send money that she doesn’t have back home. Juan hits her, often leaves her in their tiny apartment alone, and doesn’t let her go out to talk to anyone. Juan is also having an affair with another woman, who regularly calls and harasses Ana. Life is drudgery until Juan leaves the US to return to the DR on business, leaving her under the watchful eye of his brother, Cesar. With Cesar, Ana begins to experience something like a fulfilled life–taking English classes, going to the beach, making her own money, and dancing at local ballrooms. She falls in love with Cesar, and eventually must decide her fate.

I found this book to be very well written and intensely readable. Ana is 15 and stays that way, and her viewpoints and her actions accurately match her characterization. However, there is a strong anti-Black sentiment among some characters in this book. Ana’s husband, now living beside Blacks, Jews, and other minorities in the US, speaks of Black Americans throughout the novel as “trouble” and “lazy.” Although I have no doubt that his prejudice is an accurate portrayal of the attitude of some Dominicans, it’s jarring and off-putting. Another complaint is the end, which I didn’t care for at all.

The biggest theme in this novel is the same with most immigrant novels, and that is one of the pursuit of the American Dream. What does it mean? How will Ana achieve it? Ana is ever-industrious and thoughtful, when one plan fails she does not hesitate to simply create another. It’s the classic “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” American tale.

Four stars. Definitely worth reading.

Review: The Affairs of the Falcons

Pardon my absence, I’ve been ill for a few weeks. Part of this is neglecting my diet and habits toward self care, the other part of that is a genetic component to my life that I need to be more cognizant of. If you’ve never had large kidney stones I hope that you never get them (or have to have surgery to remove them), and that you take loving care of your kidneys and your health in general.

The good news? I did a lot of reading while I was at home recovering.

Ok. On to my review…

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Review for "The Affairs of the Falcons" by Melissa Rivero (2019)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This book was so-so. I liked the premise of it, the execution, however, not so much.

“The Affairs of the Falcons” is the story of Anita Falcon, an undocumented immigrant from Peru. She lives with her husband’s cousin’s family in Queens in a cramped apartment. Anita is married to Lucho, has two young children, and works as a seamstress in a factory. Her husband drives a cab, but when the story begins, we learn that he has lost this job due to his undocumented status.

As you can imagine, money is very tight in this family. Most of this book revolves around the subject of money–getting it, losing it, and borrowing it from others to pay back the loan sharks who smuggled the family into America. Due to her status as undocumented there is no access to banks, and Falcons are always limited in terms of what kinds of jobs they can get. Housing is also an issue, internal conflicts in the home push the Falcons’ welcome with Lucho’s family to the limit. Also depicted here are the ways in which class and race play into the lives of a Latinx family (Anita is rural and indigenous, Lucho is lighter skinned, well educated, and from Lima). Lucho’s family remind Anita often of her despised, lower status among them.

Despite the external pressures, Anita is not a weak character, though she does makes questionable choices throughout the book. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, my reason for the 3 stars is because I found the book to be less than compelling. There are tons of books out there on the immigrant experience, and I don’t really feel this book will stand out much within that group. There is not much that happens here that we haven’t read before, especially if you are familiar with this sub-genre of books.

I definitely recommend reading this book though. I’d also be open to reading more from this author in the future.

Review: With the Fire on High

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Review for "With the Fire on High" by Elizabeth Acevedo (2019)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

After reading and immensely liking “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo, I knew I had to read this. Although I liked this one as well, I wouldn’t say it’s as good as her first.

Emoni Santiago is a high school senior and mother to Emma, her 2 year old daughter. She is also an aspiring chef, integrating her own unique twists on traditional home cooked Puerto Rican recipes. In addition to her parental and school responsibilities, Emoni works hard at a burger restaurant, has a supportive best friend, and a kind grandmother who helps to raise her daughter. This novel is mostly the story of Emoni’s senior year of high school, in which she begins to nurture her love of cooking by taking a culinary arts elective at school. The class requires a trip to Spain, and Emoni, a single mom of modest means, is faced with the burden of raising money to go. In addition to this, there is some minor drama with Emma’s father, as well as unresolved issues in her relationship with her father.

Although I liked this book and its short chapters make it intensely readable, the main problem here is that I felt it lacked a conflict. Yes, Emoni does struggle, but she eventually gets what she wants. I am not saying that this is a bad thing, she’s a great character who I empathized with and desperately wanted to win. Buuuuttt…it just made for a kinda blah narrator. The romance is reluctant and felt forced, there was never a point in the book where I didn’t know that things would improve. It’s perfectly put together and predictable.

Still, I won’t go less than 4 stars here. I love Elizabeth Acevedo, and I think her writing about Afro-Latina character is super-important, particularly with all of the discussion in lit circles these days about diverse books. I also think that her choice to feature a urban teenage mother of color that is not a caricature or a stereotype was a very brave one that should be commended. The cover art is cool too (is that Alicia Keys??) Woooooww…

Review: Blood Barrios

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Review for "Blood Barrios: Dispatches from the World's Deadliest Streets" by Alberto Arce (2018)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This book will tell you about all the bad things that happen in Honduras. Within its pages are the author’s dispatches from the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, where he writes about narco traffic, police and government corruption, kidnappings, murder, torture, rampant gang violence, and extortion. Murder cases are rarely closed, because they’re hardly ever opened. Murder of criminals and ordinary people alike occur with such regularity in Honduras as to be unremarkable, with the police merely collecting the bodies afterward while journalists like the author write or snap pictures. Fear keeps people immobilized. No one talks and no one investigates.

Although this book is interesting to read and I finished it rather quickly, I realized that its sensationalism was what kept me plowing through it at breakneck speed. While people in Central America live these realities day in and day out, Americans like myself merely rubber-neck at their tragedy and keep it moving. I feel guilty in admitting that, however, it is this kind of apathy that this book represents. The author loves to talk about violence in Honduras, yet there is very little in-depth analysis about how American meddling in the politics of this country over the last 40 years has directly and indirectly caused much of the misery there today. The prime example of this is the U.S.’s ill-advised policy of the deporting of MS-13 gang members from American soil, only for them to return home, reorient themselves, and grow even stronger and more violent, only this time in the absence of any kind of functioning law enforcement in Honduras.

So I don’t know…3 stars here, I think. Read this if you want something sensationalized, without a lot of heart for real investigative journalism.

Review: Norte

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Review for "Norte" by Edmundo Paz Soldan, translated from Spanish by Valerie Miles (2016) 
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

TW: graphic scenes of rape, murder, mutilation

“Norte” is Bolivian author Edmundo Paz Soldan’s third novel, originally written in Spanish and translated into English. There are three distinctly related narrative threads within this novel, two of which are inspired by real people. The first is the story of Jesus, a ruthless serial killer based on the life of Angel Maturino Resendiz, who hopped freight trains throughout the U.S. and murdered his victims in their homes near railroads from the mid-80s and throughout the 90s. The second is the story of Martin, based on the life of Martin Ramirez, a self-taught, schizophrenic artist who languished in California’s mental hospitals for thirty years before dying in one in 1963. The third is the present-day story of Michelle and Fabian, a Bolivian and Argentinian artist couple struggling with drugs and depression.

This book is not so much about the immigrant experience, but about the pain of displacement and loss, and being in places unfamiliar and strange and far from “home.” All four of the main characters struggle with madness, a theme that runs prominently throughout the novel. Martin’s and Michelle’s art is inspired by voices and the shifts in their environment, Jesus’ acts are also inspired by voices that command him to kill women. Jesus is a highly repugnant character, perhaps one of the most awful people I’ve ever had the displeasure of reading about. There are very graphic and detailed scenes of rape, murder, and mutilation in this book. The target of Jesus’ violence is women, which he possesses a pathological hatred for. I can see where this would probably turn a good number of readers off, though personally I did not feel that the violence was too gratuitous (reminder: we are talking about a serial killer, after all).

Overall, I liked this book and found it to be very readable.

Four stars.

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.