American Dirt

I was inclined to not like this book with so much going against it  – Oprah picked it for her book club and several literary reviewers were critical of the author’s credentials to write about the topic. From the moment I started reading American Dirt, I could not put it down.  Jeanine Cummins does not have the easy style of  Isabel Allende or Sandra Cisneros nor the entrancing wording of Zafon or the magic of Marquez, but she knows how to tell a story.

American Dirt is the tale of a mother and her son trying to escape from a Mexican drug cartel after they witnessed the brutal murder of everyone they loved, including their grandmother, at a family barbecue. Luca is the brave intelligent eight year old with a penchant for memorizing geographical details; his mother, Lydia, is the college educated book store owner. Her husband Sebastian was the investigative journalist whose inflammatory articles precipitated the slaughter.

Following  Lydia and Luca as they narrowly escape through roadblocks, walk miles in the scorching heat, and hoist themselves onto the tops of cargo trains, creates a thrilling and breathless image of migrants trying to escape. Their flight to the North, as they leave behind their home, their language and culture, and their lifetime friends is depicted as their the only choice to be able to survive.

Cummins sometimes reverts to flowery descriptions, perhaps trying to balance the horrors, and sprinkles Spanish idioms and words into conversations, perhaps to offer authenticity. Both can be annoying distractions.  As the story develops, the journey is harrowing and fearful, with the tenseness of a thriller and the expectation and hope that all will be well in the end.  Cummins’ characters reveal the best and worst of themselves and of humanity.

The book ends on a hopeful note, with room for speculation about what new challenges the future will bring, but Cummins adds fifteen pages in her notes and acknowledgements at the end, explaining the purpose of the book, how she wrote it, and why she hopes reading it will change readers’ view of migrants and border policy – perhaps stirring the controversy she now finds in some of the reactions to the book.

The story is a thrilling page-turner.  Although the characters and scenes may be stereotypical, the historical notes are disturbing and timely.  As far as whether or not Cummins had the right to write the book, Leon Krauze noted in Slate:

“There is no reason, literary or otherwise, to challenge an author’s legitimacy to tackle any topic, much less based on her ethnicity or nationality. In both literature and journalism, examples abound of brilliant authors who have illuminated countries and themes that were, initially, outside their familiar milieu…”

However, he goes on to say Cummins’ main characters are frauds.  Migrants fleeing to the North ” are escaping poverty, not financially stable family lives. They do not run bookshops with a hidden section of favorite authors, but work in the fields, often struggling to feed their families. They are often fleeing drunk, abusive, or absent husbands, not an awkward love triangle with a smitten narco dandy.”  And, he notes, leaders of drug cartels could never be Bill Gates in this or any life, as the author suggests in describing her villain, Javier, the handsome aspiring poet who loves to read “Love in the Time of Cholera” (another Oprah pick).

Right, this is fiction, isn’t it?  Not a documentary.  Is the danger that some readers will forget?  Maybe…

Dear Edward

After reading Ann Napolitano’s essay ” Dear Me ” in the Sunday New York Times, I was intrigued by her idea to write letters to her future self.  Since her new novel has the salutation Dear Edward, I expected one of the characters in the novel to do the same – write letters to himself to be read in the future. i was wrong; letters do play a prominent role in the novel but from others to the main character, Edward.

In her novel, now on the bestseller list, Napolitano examines the coming of age of a twelve year old boy who is the lone survivor of an airplane crash.  All other passengers (191) including his parents and older brother die.  In her afterward, the author explains how she was inspired by a real story of a commercial flight from South Africa to London crashing in Libya in 2010 with only a nine year old boy surviving.  Her survivor is Edward who is relocating with his parents from New York City to Los Angeles.  Jane, his mother, is sitting in first class to finish the script of a movie she has been hired to edit, while Eddie is with his father and teenage brother in the back of the plane; Eddie has the window seat.

The reader knows early in the story about the crash and the author deftly maneuvers between the countdown to the inevitable in the plane cabin and Eddie’s new life with his aunt and uncle.  Watching Eddie  through his physical recovery, his metal anguish and survivor’s guilt, and his adjustment to his new life is not always easy but getting to know the passengers in first class with Eddie’s mother and in coach with his family has its merits, as long as you can forget they are all about to die. Eddie’s interaction with them is superfluous and fleeting yet their lives have a significant impact later when he receives letters from their relatives and friends.

Napolitano notes her writing is about “how we can make a meaningful life in the face of a devastating loss.”   Her scenario is extreme but we probably all can relate to someone who has managed to survive the unexpected and carry on successfully with the new normal in their lives.

I still like Napolitano’s idea of writing to herself in the future; letters can be powerful in a world where they have been replaced by faster electronic communication.  I may write a letter to my future self; I just hope I can remember where it is in five years.

 

A Short Wrap-Up and How It All Began

 

I am reading an old Penelope Lively book  – How It All Began – a comforting light read as I try to avoid the news and politics.   Charlotte, an older woman, falls after she is mugged and breaks her hip.  This one action triggers a series of events affecting her family and strangers she has never met, seven overall  – the butterfly effect rippling through lives.  Lively reminds the reader how little control we have over everything.

As the the catalyst for a cast of characters with a range of emotions and experiences as their lives are derailed, Charlotte rallies, recovers, and continues with a constructive life as Lively’s chapters consider those around her.  Charlotte’s fall requires her to move in with her daughter and son-in-law, Rose and Gerry, which leads to Rose taking time off from her job with an old historian, which leads to her boss asking his niece, Marion, to accompany him on a lecture trip, which leads to Marion’s leaving a message for her married lover, which leads his wife to discover the message and file for divorce.  And so it goes – a series of sometimes unfortunate events.

Charlotte is a retired English teacher, and her wise pronouncements sometimes seem worth noting for future reference.  As she convalesces, she notes how her circumstances have changed her reading habits to magazines and, horrors, pulp novels, until finally when she is able to read a Henry James novel again, she considers herself on the road to recovery.  I am not a fan of Henry James, but I did find her book, What Maisie Knew, in my library system – and maybe I’ll read it, but I doubt it.

Penelope Lively’s characters follow life’s chaos and uncertainties, a comfort to all of us living in that inevitable vein. Lively was a children’s book author before writing novels for adults and her first book, the children’s novel Astercote (1970) is about modern English villagers who fear a resurgence of the medieval plague – seems timely with the recent outbreak of a deadly virus from China. I’ve ordered the book from my library.

 

Other books I have been reading:

Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

Famous for her Ruth Galloway mystery series, Elly Griffiths new book – Stranger Diaries – has none of her familiar characters but this stand alone mystery seemed familiar. I was sure I had read the book before and even knew the murderer, but I was wrong on both counts.  I was sure she was the murderer, but she was not.

 

The Key by Patricia Wentworth

A 1946 paperback with browned pages, some taped back together, turned out to be a great story.  When Michael Harsch is found dead (soon after he finally perfected his formula for the government) in the church behind a locked door with a key in his pocket, the mystery begins.  The inquest rules suicide but Miss Silver knows it is a murder, but who did it?  Despite its age, the mystery had a modern twist and held my attention throughout.

The Library of the Unwritten by A. J. Hackwith

If you are a fan of the irreverent “Good Place” series, you will relish Hackwith’s Library of the Unwritten.  A librarian who was human but didn’t make it past the pearly gates, Claire oversees books not yet written; the library is in hell.  When one character escapes from his book to meet with his author on Earth, and another soul offers stolen pages from the devil’s Coda in exchange for living among the angels, the action starts, and never falters.  An exciting ride through different worlds where the devils are more fun and the angels tend to be judgmental and arrogant, the book swerves through lives and characters.  Noting the cautionary note to all procrastinating authors (me included) – “there’s nothing an unwritten book wants more than to be written” – I listened to the book on Audible and found myself speeding up the narrative to get to the next chapter.

AND FINALLY –

Why Don’t You Write My Eulogy Now So I Can Correct It? – A Mother’s Suggestions by Patricia Marx and Roz Chast

Skip the introduction and go immediately to the one-liners With Roz Chast’s illustrations for motherly advice you can use.  Here are a few:

  • Never do anything you can pay someone to do.
  • If you feel guilty about throwing out the leftovers, put them in the back of your refrigerator for five days and then throw them out.
  • When it comes to raising children, nothing beats bribery.
  • Resist the temptation to buy clothes on your skinniest days.

A FOOTNOTE:

I am listening to a scary story on Audible – Lisa Gardner’s When You See Me.  Scary stories tend to keep my attention when listening, and this one started with a Mexican woman and her daughter in dire straits (before American Dirt was published).

 

Listen to The Ten Thousand Doors of January

Magical, compelling, adventurous, scary – and just plain fun – Alix Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a book to take you out of your doldrums and into another world.  I listened to this book on audilbe and the narrator’s clever changes in voice from villain to heroine, from young to old, from awe to terror – had me walking extra steps and driving an extra mile to continue the story.  After a while, I just gave up and turned up the sound on my iPhone.

In the story you will follow January Scholar as she navigates her life through the beauty of the world and the ugliness of evil characters to find her true identity.    January is left with her father’s wealthy employer in Vermont as he travels the world searching for old valuable pieces for his employer’s collections.

One of the most satisfying elements of the book is having the villains get their due – irrevocably beaten back and punished.

Words and stories are the catalysts, as each chapter reveals another piece of January’s life, from small girl to mature woman with the power to open doors into other worlds through her writing.

The book within the book is The Ten Thousand Doors, which tells of magical doors between worlds.  When her father goes missing, January decides to leave Vermont to find him. As she travels to new countries through new Doors, January becomes fearless and learns to use her words to live a free and exciting life.

The stories are as mesmerizing as Scheherazade, and even if you are not a fan of fantasy, you will appreciate the magic and the possibilities in opening another door and hearing a good story.  I did.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek

Although Kim Michele Richardson’s The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek uses the Pack Horse Library of the Kentucky hills as her setting, her story revolves around the life of a “blue” woman raised in poverty and suffering the ignorance and prejudice of her backwoods neighbors for having blue skin color..

I was anxious to read Richardson’s tale after learning about the controversy comparing JoJo Moyes’ recent book –  The Giver of Stars – to hers.  Both use the Pack Horse Library of the WPA (President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration) of the nineteen thirties to tell their stories.  Read my review of Moyes’ book here – https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/11/12/the-giver-of-stars/.

There are similarities but Richardson tells the better tale.

Cussy thinks she is the last of the blue people, those whose skin is blue – later discovered as congenital methemoglobinemia, a blood disorder reducing the level of oxygen in the blood.  Richardson introduces this phenomenon not only within the ignorance of the townsfolk’s reaction to someone who is different but also with the medical background and supposed cures Cussy endures for a while to be white.

As a Pack Horse librarian, Cussy rides her stubborn mule Junia to deliver books to the poor living in the hills. Her hard life matches her neighbors but through her kindness, courage, and determination, she manages to instill a love of reading and change lives through books.

A few of Cussy’s mishaps and adventures resemble those of Moyes’ characters, but Richardson develops a unique focus in her heroine.  Following Cussy on the trail to deliver books introduces many of the same kinds of folks encountered in the hills of Moyes book, but only a few draw special interest.  Cussy’s life as a “blue” has more impact.

I had not known about the “blue” people of the Kentucky hills and Richardson provides a unique addendum to her book with pictures and more research information.  I almost skipped reading this book, thinking I knew all I needed from Moyes book but The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is worth reading.  Richardson gives a different perspective to poverty and prejudice, while writing an informative and entertaining tale.