Review: This is How You Lose Her

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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.

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Review: The Poet X

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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.

Review: The Closest I’ve Come

Skipping Top Ten Tuesday (again)….hehe.

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Review for "The Closest I've Come" by Fred Aceves (2017)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

This book is a giant YES. I loved everything about this book.

Marcos Rivas is a 15-year-old Latino growing up in the Maesta neighborhood of Tampa, Florida–a community riddled with crime, drugs, and few economic opportunities. His mother is present but emotionally absent from his life, either drunk on her days off or working long hours away from their apartment. For the past year, she has allowed her racist, alcoholic boyfriend Brian to live with them, who physically and verbally terrorizes Marcos on a daily basis. For all intents and purposes, his mother is aware of the abuse but does nothing to stop it. Because most of the money in the household is spent on booze, Marcos seeks out meager job opportunities to earn enough cash to be presentable for school and to his friends.

At school, Marcos spends his time hanging with friends and playing pranks on teachers. He is failing all of his classes and doesn’t see the point in doing better or thinking about his future. He has a crush on a girl named Amy and quietly begins to pursue her romantically after they are both selected to participate in a mentoring program called Future Success. Little by little, as he begins to turn his life around, he begins to realize that by getting his life together, he can be better than the circumstances that his life situation brings.

This story is told in the first person POV and had an excellent sense of the main character’s voice all throughout. There was never a time when I didn’t understand Marcos, I definitely felt his feelings and saw his world view through his eyes. Marcos’ story was compelling and powerful, and even though the ending didn’t resolve his many issues, I was ok with it. Poverty and familial dysfunction aren’t easily solvable, and in many cases, cannot be physically escaped. What is important is that Marcos develops a sense of hope, a new way of being in a world that does not intend for his success.

This is my (3rd or 4th?) foray this past month into YA books with Black and/or Latino male characters, by Black and Latinx writers. I can’t stress to you how important that I feel that diverse YA books are, particularly those that are written in the language and the contexts that minority kids are culturally familiar with. “The Closest I’ve Come” is definitely one of the books that’s re-imagining a diverse new world of literature.

4.5 stars. Loved this!

Review: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

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Review for "I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter" by Erika L. Sanchez (2017)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Before I begin, lemme say that I hope that everyone is having a wonderful winter holiday, whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or just a few days of physical rest from work.
Now, onto my review. Kinda spoiler-y, so beware…

Julia is a Mexican American teenager living in inner-city Chicago. In the first 25 pages we learn that her life really sucks: her older, “perfect” sister Olga has just been run over by a bus, her dad stays drunk and emotionally unavailable, and her overly domineering mother projects all of the expectations that she had for her older daughter onto Julia. As a result, Julia stays depressed and angry, transferring her rage back onto her family and the people around her.

While it’s an understandable anger that this character has, man…I’ve never read a YA book with a character this unbelievably gross. Julia is truly a monster that is equal parts cruel and arrogant, with a haughty demeanor to match. I can understand sarcasm, dark humor, or even a whip-smart kinda protagonist, but this character is just a plain jerk. All throughout the novel she internally mocks and belittles the people around her, even her own sister in her casket. When she speaks she is not nice either, cursing at folks, whining, and talking down to people unless it involves something she enjoys. It seems that the author wants us to empathize with Julia’s plight, but this was not possible for me. There was really nothing redeeming about her character here at all. Nothing.

There are plot problems too. Very early on in the novel Julia discovers a possible secret that her deceased sister kept from everyone, but then this story line is abruptly dropped. It’s picked up again and we learn a little more about it, but then it’s dropped again, picked up a little later on, then dropped again. This goes on for 250 pages or so. By the time the “secret” is revealed, it’s not really a secret anymore and you already know what happens, nor do you care. Also a problem was the multitude of issues in this book being juggled around in a maddening circle–abortion, teen sex, rape, mental illness, suicide, class issues, racism, being an undocumented immigrant, LGBTQ issues–with such minimal focus devoted to each that you’d rather the author had just chosen two or three issues and written accordingly. For this reason ending seemed terribly rushed to me.

Lastly, at about 60% in, there is a romance in this novel. Julia meets a wealthy young white man in a book store and within 10 pages, they’re kissing. In another 15 pages, they’re meeting up over at his place and having sex. The too-instant nature of their supposed attraction makes no sense to me, given just how plain evil Julia is toward everyone else in the book. I realize it’s YA and romance is practically a requirement in this genre, but I dunno…I just didn’t like it.

While I didn’t like this book, I do recommend you read it. It appears to be quite popular on Goodreads and with online reviewers, so everyone’s bound to have an opinion on it some way or another. My advice to the author: not terrible for a first time writer, but if you’re going to go the unlikable main character route, there has to be something else, that oompf factor to compel the reader to want to like reading forward. This wasn’t it.

Review: Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with his Mother

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Review for "Enrique's Journey: The Story of a Boy's Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with his Mother" by Sonia Nazario (2006)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is the fourth book in my personal knowledge quest on illegal Latin American migration to the United States (Luis Urrea’s “Across the Wire” and “The Devil’s Highway” were the first two I read). Nazario’s book goes hand in hand with another I’ve read recently, Lauren Markham’s “The Far Away Brothers,” which discusses the topic of children from Central America who come to the United States, without their parents and through some of the harshest and most dangerous situations in the world.

Enrique is a Honduran youth whose mother leaves him as a young boy to come to the U.S. Left with relatives, he at first misses her, then longs for her, and finally, after experiencing the hopelessness and crushing poverty of his home, decides to join her in the U.S. To get there, he rides atop the Beast, freight trains that begin in southern Mexico and go all the way to the U.S. border. Riding the trains is nothing short of a hellish nightmare: there are brutal gangsters and criminals who rob, rape, and kill riders atop the trains and along the tracks, Mexican police out to catch and send the migrants back, Mexican natives who offer little to no help (depending on where you are), and of course, the train, which often mutilates and kills migrants who attempt to catch it and climb on top.

Seven times Enrique attempts the journey to the United States, and seven times he is caught and sent back to Guatemala by Mexican authorities. On the eighth try he manages to make it to America, yet the story doesn’t end there. Nazario painstakingly continues to document Enrique’s adjustment to the U.S. and reunion with his mother. Hint: it’s bittersweet.

I loved the writing, the attention to detail. There are also photographs, taken by Nazario herself as she rode the train north to reconstruct Enrique’s journey. She interviewed people along the route, priests, migrants, mission workers, and Mexican authorities. The only complaint I have about this book is that the information is somewhat repetitive from chapter to chapter, but that is probably because each chapter was once a feature in the LA Times. The articles won a Pulitzer Prize, so it’s definitely worth reading.

Even though Enrique took his journey in 2000 and the book was published in 2006, the information is just as timely as if it were written yesterday. Definitely worth a read.

Review: Out in the Open

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Review for "Out in the Open" by Jesus Carrasco (2017)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

In a desperate desert land, an unnamed boy flees his home and eludes a bailiff set on capturing him. The boy encounters a kind goat herder and together they brave the harsh terrain as they journey across the land, trying to keep one step ahead of the bailiff. We never find out the reason for boy’s flight or why the bailiff is so intent on killing him, though such an explanation may have helped me understand the story better. :/

Overall, the writing’s good but I wasn’t impressed. There’s a lot of description here of what the characters are doing at ALL times, and after pages and pages of such minutiae, I found myself skimming the book. Comparison between this novel and Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” are inevitable, as they both feature pretty much the same elements–an unnamed man and boy, a bleak landscape, pursuit by evil people. Some have called this book dystopian, though for me it had a wild west kind of feel. Needless to say, I like McCarthy’s book better.

P.S. – This is the 3rd book I’ve read this year with unnamed main characters (“Chemistry” by Weike Wang, “One of the Boys” by Daniel Magariel, and this one.) Why is this happening? Somebody care to explain this to me?

[NOTE: I received a free copy of this book thanks to the publisher, Riverhead Books, because I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway. Opinions are mine.]

Review: The Story of Vicente, Who Murdered His Mother, His Father, and His Sister: Life and Death in Juarez

I’ve been on a nonfiction reading kick lately. A little real life adventure never hurt anyone anyone, does it? Anyway, on to my next book…

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Review for "The Story of Vicente, Who Murdered His Mother, His Father, and His Sister: Life and Death in Juarez" by Sandra Rodriguez Nieto (2015)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

True crime/investigative journalism book that uses the murder by a young man of his parents and sister to explore many of the issues that plague Juarez, the infamous Mexican border city that’s only miles away from El Paso, Texas. Only the first few chapters discuss the actual details of the crime and what happens to Vicente in the aftermath (he only got a measly five years in prison, btw). It’s not Vicente’s fate that drives this book as much as its overarching message: that when violence occurs in a place with impunity, it effects everyone–including a 16-year-old who decides to slaughter his family.

Nieto spends the majority of the book breaking down the rampant political corruption, cartel wars, gang conflicts, and the other cogs of the machine that are the cause of the epidemic violence that go on in Juarez. At the height of the violence in 2010, there were 20 homicides a day and 8 kidnappings. It’s pretty shocking stuff. Brutal kidnappings, dead bodies left in the street, in front of schools, in neighborhoods. Criminals that walk right out of prison because well, umm, the guards left the door open. Oops. There’s also a chapter that discusses the joke of a police department Juarez has. How does a city rack up thousands of murders in one year? It’s because they don’t even bother to investigate. Case received, case closed. Next…

I recommend this book for anyone interested in current issues, particularly in Mexico.