The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

October 2, 2014

The Book of Unknown AmericansThis is a passionate novel about what it means to become “American,” from a new immigrant perspective.

Meet the Riveras, Arturo, Alma and Maribel. The opening scene of the novel has the Riveras confused after being dropped off at a Newark, Delaware, convenience store fresh from 3 day cross-border journey from their small town in Mexico. Thinking that the convenience store/gas station is where Americans shop, the Riveras are baffled by the microwave hot dogs, slushy drinks and high prices of food in plastic. Into this confusing landscape Arturo and Alma have brought their 15-year old daughter Maribel from Mexico; she suffers from a traumatic brain injury that dramatically altered her personality and ability to reason, but with the right education, she has a chance at regaining function. In search of a better life for his daughter, Arturo forgoes his own construction company in Mexico, and gets a job toiling in the dark in a mushroom factory in the hopes that the US education system they have dreamed about can help Maribel.

The entire novel is focused on and set in a concrete block, low-income apartment building whose residents are new immigrants from all over Central and South America. The residents’ stories are told in alternating chapters. Equally compelling is the story of the Toros, a Panamanian family whose son Mayor falls for the gorgeous Maribel. Rather than seeing Maribel as damaged and needing fixing as the rest of the world (and her parents) see her, Mayor accepts her for what she is, although their ill-fated puppy love will have disastrous consequences for all.

The novel mirrors life, insanely and hysterically funny (the passage where the Toros finally buy a car and attempt to drive) to tragic. The overriding story of puppy love, cross cultural assimilation and the struggle to survive within The American Dream is masterfully told, while the inherent politics concerning immigration are gracefully but somewhat unrealistically sidestepped (Arturo got a work visa to be pack mushrooms?) Henriquez is a master storyteller, and her characters offer insight into the immigrant experience that is a good reminder of who we are as a culture. In the words of one reviewer, in case we’ve forgotten, it all started this way. One of the characters, in a particularly insightful passage, says, “We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not all that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then?”

Recommended novel, a great book club discussion choice. I’m a pretty hard-nosed, jaded reader, and this book touched me.

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The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

October 1, 2014

The Storied Life of AJ FikryAJ Fikry owns the only bookstore on Alice Island, off the coast of Maine. He knows what he likes to read, and he knows what everyone else should like too. No genre fiction, no vampire novels, and definitely no children’s books. AJ is all too happy to let everyone he meets know his views in no uncertain terms. When Amelia, a rep for Knightley books, comes to the island to show him Knightley’s latest books, AJ shares all of this with her in his typical fashion. Understandably, she ends up leaving the island in tears.

AJ’s personal life is a mess. He drinks too much, he is depressed about the loss of his wife, and he is in danger of losing his bookstore. Then one evening someone leaves something behind in the store that will change his life and attitude forever. As AJ changes, so does his bookstore. The bookstore becomes successful again and a center of the community. Eventually, children’s books become some of his best- selling items. And the next time Amelia comes to show AJ some books, his feelings for her are completely different.

This book is a charming tale about how people are affected by the things they read, and how reading can change people’s relationships. Book lovers everywhere will fall in love with AJ and will want to hang out at his store on Alice Island.

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Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong by Juliet Macur

September 30, 2014

Road bicycle racing was the first sport to ignite my imagination. The dynamics of the peloton (the main group of racers), the nature of the teams in the competitions, the individual contributions to the group effort, the silent sacrifices by the domestique, the physics of the sport, the incomprehensible physical effort, and the epic quality of the races – it was all endlessly fascinating. Later in life, when I heard French philosopher Roland Barthes refer to le Tour de France as a heroic poem – the substance of legend – I concurred.

Many years after the first encounter, I reconnoitered an upcoming Tour de France stage in the French Alps. When I left the car, the gradient was so extreme that I almost toppled over, and when I walked up the mountain road, the altitude offered only exhaustingly thin air. It was easy to appreciate just how extreme these athletes were. But by now I knew that the riders were not just exceptional human beings. With the help of EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone, cortisone, and human growth hormone, many of them were, in a very real sense, superhuman.

Cheating has been part of le Tour de France since the very beginning. During the late 1990s and the early 2000s, cheating reached an unprecedented level of sophistication, and ringleader Lance Armstrong – who won Tour de France seven times in a row! – became the face of the deception.

Cycle of Lies is in part a journey through a sport that had become deeply corrupt, but the book also exposes the dangers of weak journalism. When Lance Armstrong began to dominate the Tour de France, American journalists who knew little or nothing of cycling flew over to Europe to write about the superhero. As Armstrong and the Postal Service team crushed the competition, newly arrived journalists saw heroic efforts; veteran journalists who had covered le Tour for years saw something else. What Armstrong and his teammates were doing simply wasn’t possible. Headlines in French media read, “Armstrong, the Extraterrestrial of the Tour,” “On Another Planet,” and “Hallucinating Armstrong.” In the U.S., the mainstream media stood behind Armstrong, and Washington Post reported that the French were jealous: “France’s motto: If you can’t beat them, investigate them.”

The message of Juliet Macur‘s book is clear: Don’t find your heroes in the images produced by media.

When the accusations finally started to find traction in the U.S., writer Malcolm Gladwell defended the actions of Lance Armstrong, but then he went on to say, “When you write about sports, you’re allowed to engage in mischief. Nothing is at stake. It’s a bicycle race!”

He’s wrong, of course. The physical and mental well-being of human beings is at stake here. People’s livelihood is at stake. Their ethical and moral interactions with the world are at stake.

If that doesn’t matter, what does?

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The Here and Now by Ann Brashares

September 29, 2014

This was one of those books I practically devoured in one sitting. The story sticks with me, particularly in light of the Ebola virus running rampant in West Africa.

Prenna is an immigrant to the USA, but it’s not where she’s from that makes her so unusual, it’s when she’s from. Prenna and her group are time travelers. They come from a future in which a blood borne illness carried by mosquitoes has wiped out large chunks of the population. Her world is a wetter, hotter, and swampier environment because of climate change. There is no government to speak of, schools are closed, and there is mass panic. For Prenna and others in her group the rules are simple. Assimilate to modern 21st Century life, don’t get too involved with time natives, and you can’t go to doctors or hospitals.

For Prenna these rules are hard. She likes a time native boy, Ethan, who is in her AP Physics class. He seems to be interested in her as well. Prenna also loves to be outside in nature, even though most 21st Century kids prefer TV and video games. How can she explain her love for an outdoor world, a pristine world in her eyes? Her mother struggles to keep Prenna from breaking the rules to much. However, her mother is grief stricken from losing two children to the plague, and a husband who chose not to come.

Things turn really weird when the homeless guy in town wants to talk to Prenna. She gets suspicious because he knows things he shouldn’t. How does he know these things? He wants her to stop something in the future that would alter the time line. Of all her group’s rules, this is the most sacred, never interfere with the timeline. However, there might be a chance of a better future if Prenna intervenes. Can she find the courage to do the right thing?

Ann Brashares’ The Here and Now was an interesting dystopia romantic suspense book. A perfect read for a sunny day by the pool, or a rainy day stuck indoors.

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The Informationist by Taylor Stevens

September 26, 2014

Vanessa Michael Munroe is the kind of character I love – a strong, powerful female who makes her own way and fears nothing. She’s built a business gathering information for powerful people, using whatever means necessary to get it. She’s a master of disguise, blending into the background, playing the role a situation dictates, and using force only when necessary. As an Informationist, she prefers the solitude and neatness of acquiring information, so she’s reluctant when she is asked to retrieve a person. Another reason for concern is the location – she will have to go back to Africa, a place that holds the nightmares of her childhood.

Emily Burbank, daughter of millionaire Richard Burbank, disappeared while traveling in Africa four years ago. Her father has hired numerous PIs to find her with no results, but he’s sure she is still alive. He needs someone with Munroe’s particular knowledge and strengths, and he’s willing to pay big bucks for it. Munroe’s own experience in Africa makes her sympathetic to Emily’s plight, and the money is hard to resist. Reluctantly, she agrees to take on the job, hoping she won’t regret it. She will.

If you enjoyed Lisbeth Salander from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, you’ll like Vanessa Michael Munroe. Like Salander, she’s a complex, intriguing character who faces great evil with strength and integrity.

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Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

September 25, 2014

This is my favorite new book of the year so far. It’s composed of funny, angry letters, mostly letters of recommendation, written by a man who has been around too long and seen too much, but who can’t stop caring about his job and the people it touches. The book jacket promises that each letter is “a small masterpiece of high dudgeon, low spirits, and passive aggressive strategies”, and the author delivers on that promise.

Jay Fitger is a professor of English at the aptly named Payne University. Jay is 55 years old, divorced twice, the kind of guy who is just too honest and too smart for his own good. He’s also angry as he watches his department become more and more downsized and marginalized as the university budget constricts. His letters of recommendation for students and colleagues who need his help in applying for jobs, grants, etc. often tend to lack the tactfulness one expects in such missives.

Here’s an excerpt from a letter written on behalf of a student seeking an internship in the office of a state senator:

Malinda is intelligent; she is organized; she is well spoken. Given her aptitude for research (unlike most undergraduates, she has moved beyond Wikipedia), I am sure that she will soon learn that the senator, his leathern face permanently embossed with a gruesome rictus of feigned cheer, has consistently voted against funds for higher education and has cosponsored multiple narrow-minded backwater proposals that will make it ever more difficult for her to repay the roughly $38,000 in debt that the average graduate of our institution inherits—along with a lovely blue tassel—on the day of commencement.

Gee, with friends like these…

As the book progresses, the reader learns more about the failures of Jay’s personal life, and about the politics surrounding him at the university. By the time the book ends, both Jay and the reader encounter the sadness that any good comedy includes as well as a surprising satisfaction at how things turn out.

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The Circle by Dave Eggers

September 24, 2014

Mae Holland couldn’t believe her luck. Her college roommate and best friend Annie, a Stanford MBA who had been recruited everywhere, but chose to work at The Circle, had gotten Mae a job there. Only two years out of college, and Mae has health insurance, her own apartment, and a Real Job with the hottest, highest-tech company in the world. From her very first day, she is nearly dumbfounded by the incredible techno-games, toys, and tools she sees. Everyone Mae meets is working on “something world-rocking or life-changing or fifty years ahead of anyone else.”

Annie shows her a portrait of the Three Wise Men, founders of the company. Ty, the first Wise Man, looks about 25, wears ordinary glasses and a huge hoodie, and seems to be tuned into some distant frequency. Cleverly, before The Circle’s IPO, Ty hired the other two Wise Men, serious business managers, and The Circle took off.

Annie has risen fast and high in The Circle, and is now part of the Gang of Forty, the 40 most crucial minds in the company. Mae feels incredibly grateful that Annie is her mentor, and vows to repay her. Annie assures Mae that she’ll climb fast out of Customer Experience. So Mae puts her head down and focuses on absorbing everything, dedicating herself to the company and its goals. She learns that Ty was the developer of the Unified Operating System, which has brought together everything online: your social media profiles, your payment systems, all your passwords, your email accounts, user names, preferences, every last tool and manifestation of your interests. He called it TruYou.

Mae does well, and incorporates herself into The Circle. But she starts to see a stranger lurking around campus, and starts to suspect it’s Ty. Why is he so secretive? Meanwhile, Mae wants to find to find her long-lost boyfriend. Mercer has intentionally withdrawn from technology, and has emphatically cut ties with her. Despite his deliberate rejection, in a public display of the efficiency of The Circle’s integrated tools, she hunts him down.

Does privacy exist today? Can it? Should it? If these questions intrigue you, read The Circle.

Btw, did you know that Google finally has acquired Skybox, a company whose small, cheap satellites collect daily photos and videos of the Earth? In June, the Wall Street Journal published aerial Skybox images of February protests in Kiev, Ukraine.

If you like this book by Dave Eggers, you may also enjoy Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, or Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.

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The Nazi Officer’s Wife by Edith Hahn Beer

September 23, 2014

I have been looking for a read alike to Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand for a while, and I finally found it in the compelling memoir, The Nazi Officer’s Wife by Edith H. Beer.

Edith was a young woman, Jewish by birth but without any real knowledge of the religion. She was a bright, studious, feisty, and on the verge of finishing her training to be a judge in 1940’s Vienna. Flush in her first romance, she decides to not flee Vienna when the Nazis take over Austria so she can stay near her boyfriend. Her sisters fled (to London, and Palestine), and Edith’s decision to stay put in Vienna lands her in a forced labor camp, picking asparagus in back-breaking conditions. In a poignant passage, despite being forced into farm work because she is a Jew, when Edith and her fellow laborers decide to celebrate Yom Kipper, they realize not one of them knew the Kol Nidrei, the prayer which ushers in the holy day. She is released from the camp months later, but her mother had already been shipped to Poland for “re-education.”

Edith ends up becoming a “U Boat,” a Jew who goes underground to live as a non-Jew, with forged paperwork. She became Grete Denner, a German friend who lent her papers. Edith/Grete ditches her mama’s-boy boyfriend (who is half Christian and a spineless character) and falls in love with a German, Werner Vetter.

She confided in Werner that she is indeed a Jew, in a terrifying passage in the memoir. Werner kept her secret, and they married and had a daughter in the midst of the war. Edith/Grete hides in plain sight, working for the Red Cross, all the while living as a Christian woman (a religion about which she knows nothing), and as the wife of a Nazi.

While Unbroken is a testament to physical strength in the face of incredible conditions, The Nazi Officer’s Wife is the story of a strong woman’s mental and physical fortitude while having to hide her very identity, her history, her language/accent, her education, her name, and her ancestral background from the Gestapo.

This is a survival story, beautifully told. The author’s papers are now part of the collection at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

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Gone Fishin’ by Walter Mosley

September 22, 2014

Gone Fishin'Walter Mosley is perhaps best known for his Easy Rawlins mysteries (Devil in a Blue Dress, et al), but the man has written a lot and tackled many different genres. Therefore, it would be unfair to say that Gone Fishin’ is an unusual Walter Mosley book. But it is not a mystery. Instead, it is a Bildungsroman that contains some faces familiar to readers of the Easy Rawlins series.
The main characters are said Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins and his friend Raymond “Mouse” Alexander, and the year is 1939 – nine years before the events of Devil in a Blue Dress; the novel that launched the Rawlins’ series.

Late one night, a racket breaks out on Easy’s apartment door: “I knew it couldn’t be the police,” Rawlins says, “they just broke down the door in that neighborhood”. Instead, Mouse is the one who interrupts his rest. Mouse is about to marry EttaMae, a hugely popular woman, and thus he needs some money. To overcome his shortage of currency Mouse wants Easy to drive him from their home in Houston’s Fifth Ward to a Texas town called Pariah (!), where Mouse hopes to access to his “Momma’s dowry.” The problem is that his stepfather Reese Corn stands between Mouse and the dowry, and Mouse – who isn’t easily scared – is afraid of Reese.

Easy is offered 15 dollars and agrees, although he is mad because he is about to lose his friend. He’d help Mouse out without the “threats and the IOU,” but to make sure that Mouse doesn’t realize this, Easy says, “I want my fifteen dollars, man. You know I ain’t doin’ this fo’my health.”

And in a three year old car that Mouse has “borrowed,” they leave Houston for Pariah.

As they reach the bayou, Mouse suggests that they should visit his friend, Momma Jo. On a ledge over her fireplace, Easy sees thirteen skulls, one of them clearly human.

“’Domaque,’ Momma Jo said, and I turned to see her looking at me.

‘What?’

‘My husband.’”

Yes. They have entered the land of voodoo, and soon enough, sex, revenge, and death keep them company, too.
It has been pointed out elsewhere that Mosley’s books have strong existentialist traits. This is true for Gone Fishin’ which portraits a morally ambiguous world. And it is a novel filled with all kinds of tensions and questions: “Who knows?” Easy says, “Maybe I would’ve died out there in Pariah if Mouse hadn’t held me to his black heart.”

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The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar: Living with a Tawny Owl by Martin Windrow

September 19, 2014

Owls have always fascinated me. On the rare occasions when I have seen one, I was mesmerized. My husband, a wetland biologist who roams the woods for both work and pleasure, once brought me an owl feather. It was incredibly soft, an adaptation that helps owls to fly silently, catching their prey unawares without any flapping sounds that might warn their prey.

Martin Windrow’s pet owl, Mumble, was reared for him from a hatchling, and they met when she was one month old. She appeared to be “wearing a one-piece knitted jumpsuit of pale grey fluff with brown stitching.” She jumped up onto his shoulder and nestled against his cheek “like a big, warm dandelion head” and said “Kweep!” very softly. Martin fell head over heels in love.

Over the fifteen years they lived together, Martin kept detailed journal entries about Mumble’s growth, appearance and behavior. The drawings and photographs in the book demonstrate Mumble’s favorite poses—fluffed up after her bath (Mumble adored to splash in the sink full of soapy water while Martin washed dishes), lying on her stomach with wings spread while sunbathing, pouncing on imaginary mice between the sofa cushions, and sitting contentedly on her various perches, including the bust of Germanicus Caesar.

Windrow lets us in on all the secrets of owl life—from the “disgusting bits” like bringing up pellets to a detailed description of Mumble’s preening sessions, which can take as long as an hour. Because of their long, flexible necks (which are usually hidden in their downy feathers), owls can turn their heads around 270 degrees. This makes their preening look rather like a contortionist’s act! The grooming ended with a fluff-out and a shake, followed by “a last prim, Victorian little shrug to settle the edges of her furled wings” and a final shuffle of her feet.

Windrow’s dry, witty style is perfectly suited to describing his dignified little friend. She was fascinated with his beard and loved to preen it, combing her beak through it. One night while Martin was stretched out on the sofa reading, she landed suddenly between his book and his face, half smothering him in feathers and provoking him to cry out in surprise. As Martin says, “She apparently construed the resultant burst of warm air up her petticoats as a physical liberty, because she bent forward and carefully bit me on the bridge of my nose.”

Reading Windrow’s delightful book is the next best thing to cuddling with a real, live owl of your own.

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