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 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 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.
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.
Review for "Fever Dream" by Samanta Schweblin (2017)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The experience of reading “Fever Dream” is like sitting in a room with a blindfold on. You can’t see anything but you can definitely feel emotion–fear, anger, dread. Every now and then the blindfold lifts and you get an image of Something, but it’s indistinct and unexplainable. You sit in the dark some more and you get another image, different from the last one. Eventually you attempt to put together what you’ve seen into a narrative, but you can’t. It’s unsettling and wild. Confusing.
It’s hard to describe this novel because it really isn’t about anything. On the surface it is about a young mother, dying in a hospital. Her daughter is missing and she is not sure how she got there. The entire book is a conversation between this woman and a little boy who is not hers about what has happened to her and her daughter. But you know that that’s not really it, it’s just window dressing on a deeper layer of meaning. Through the bits and pieces of the conversation between these two characters you get that this book explores parental fear, transference and counter-transference, environmental contamination, issues of trust, and some heavy duty psychoanalysis. The dialogue between the main character and the little boy is maddeningly circular and strange. It’s weird, but I was totally in for the ride.
I’ve said here before that books that are confusing are not good ones. After reading this, I realize that I may need to walk back that statement. There is so much to unpack here that I will probably reread this, and I’ll be happy when I do that. “Fever Dream” is definitely worth reading, but be aware that it is not a traditional story with neat characters, a detailed plot, and a conclusive ending. This is bizarre and murky and all over the place. If you are into dark and somewhat experimental reads and don’t mind doing a little brain work, I recommend this.
This is a short book, so I would advise letting it hit you all at once. Read it in as few sittings as possible.
Review for "This is How You Lose Her" by Junot Diaz (2012)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
I downloaded and read this back in 2012 when it first came out, due to my overwhelming support and respect for Junot Diaz as a writer at that time. I gave it 5 stars because I thought that the writing was fresh and engaging, but the sexism of the male characters bothered me immensely. Man, I thought at the time, he really hates women. I even remember hitting up Google to see if Diaz was married or had a girlfriend, because I could not imagine the jerk he probably was at home. I didn’t speak on it further though. I did not write a review either. I just moved on.
After allegations of sexual misconduct and verbal abuse came out about Junot Diaz last week, I decided to take another look at this book. I read it in a few days and I have to say that I am even more troubled by the male characters’ sexism than I was the first time I read it. On a scale of 1-10, Yunior’s sexism is somewhere in the Outer Limits. He cheats and cheats and treats women like shit and feels only a vague sense of remorse about it. Even though the book is about relationships, in story after story, Diaz’s women characters are always empty and never fully fleshed out. Their bodies exist for the male characters to use and abuse them time and time again. When women characters are somewhat fully realized (“Otravida/Otravez,” the ubiquitous presence of Yunior’s mother) they are always saintly, sad, and long suffering through the perils of their men’s choices.
So what is this, other than your run-of-the-mill, heteronormative misogyny? It does not surprise me that Junot Diaz has been called out as a jerk in his offline world, because in reading this I never felt that normal kind of separation between the person and the art. These stories are too real, and it is quite apparent that Yunior’s experiences are clearly Diaz’s. Diaz addresses some of this criticism in an article from The Atlantic, in which he states that he wrote this particular book to address sexism that pervades our culture. I get that, sir. But simply calling out sexism and portraying it in all of its nasty glory does not challenge it. There is nothing in this book about male hetero privilege that we don’t already know or haven’t seen before.
I’ve changed my rating to 5 stars to 3 stars now. I don’t mind writers writing about sexism, but I need more complexity before I read something else by Junot Diaz.
Review for "The Poet X" by Elizabeth Acevedo (2018)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
This is a beautiful book.
Xiomara Batista is a Dominican teenager growing up in present-day Harlem, NYC. She writes poems in her notebook to express her honest thoughts, mostly on her best friend, her twin brother, her father, and her ultra-religious, overbearing mother. Outside of her brother and her best friend Xiomara does not have much of a social life, she is forced to attend church services and confirmation classes by her mother. Her life changes, however, when she falls in love with a boy from her school and is encouraged to pursue her poetry by one of her teachers.
A lot of the trophes in this book are a bit cliche: first love, parental misunderstanding, the questioning of religion, discovering one’s voice through poetry. Oddly though, while reading this I never really considered these things as ‘done before,’ I just found myself getting lost in the book and letting Xiomara’s words shine through. I loved the poetry here, I loved Xiomara.
I normally don’t care too much for novels in verse, I find most poetic narrative styles kind of stuffy and trite. Not so with this book, I could have read this for another 100 pages. Very well done, highly recommend.