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Archive for the ‘Setting: Central and South America’ Category

69. “Across A Hundred Mountains,” Reyna Grande

October 30, 2010 1 comment

Juana and Adelina are two young Mexican women, one who grew up in Mexico, the other in El Otro Lado. Both are struggling to escape their difficult pasts, while trying to reunite with the fathers who left them for another country.

I read this for my class about ghosts in US literature and there is definitely something very haunting about this book. One night before her father gets home from working in the fields, Juana’s cabin begins to flood. Her mother leaves Juana’s baby sister with her and goes to look for Juana’s father. The two huddle all night on a table in their flooded home, but their parents do not return. Finally, Juana drifts off to sleep, only to be awakened by her mother’s screams. Her sister fell from her grasp in the night and drowned.

In order to pay for the funeral, Juana’s father must look for a job in the US. He leaves Juana and her mother on Juana’s twelfth birthday. Mourning for her lost child and absent husband, Juana’s mother slips into despair and the family, further into poverty. The longer her husband is gone, the worst she gets until finally Juana decides she must leave to bring her father back.

Page count: 255
Total pages: 20,634

49. “Blonde Roots,” Bernardine Evaristo

July 19, 2010 Leave a comment

“Blonde Roots” is historical fiction with a twist, imagining if Europe had been imperialized by Africa and whites (or “whytes,” in the vernacular of the book) enslaved.

This was an interesting idea, but extremely heavy-handed, especially the first several pages, which is all telling (as opposed to showing). While the story calls for a massive over-haul in ones thinking (because the fingers of slavery are that long), all I heard for the first few page was “THE WHYTES ARE THE SLAVES, GET IT, BECAUSE IN THE REAL WORLD, THEY WERE THE SLAVE MASTERS AND ALSO THERE ARE THE WEST JAPANESE ISLANDS LIKE THE WEST INDIES AND HER MASTER’S INITIALS ARE KKK BECAUSE HE IS BAD LIKE THE KKK.”

I mention this because I would have stopped reading if someone in 50books_poc hadn’t mentioned that the first forty or so pages are really all about reversing/echoing as much as possible of narratives of Black slaves.

The broad concept was both interesting and compelling, but the details were rather shakey for me. It’s such an odd reversal, but a reversal of things that would not exist without slavery. For example, without many Africans of different religions thrown together and force-fed Catholicism, you don’t have Voodoo, so celebrating Voodoomas doesn’t make sense (the -mas from “Christmas” making, of course, the least sense).

Throughout the book, I also felt myself wondering a lot if what we needed was further empathetic identification with white characters. Is Evaristo simply exploiting the fact that we are trained to identify with white people and see through their eyes, making the story of a white slave girl more heart-wrenching? Or is she effectively reenacting this connection? Is the book challenging because it plays out the distant historical facts of slavery in a way that seems new and therefore immediate? Or is it challenging because it plays fast and loose with history, resulting in a confusing hodgepodge? Does taking issue with the style of a narrative like this totally overlook the point of it, or is it valid to feel that the writing got in the way of an extremely useful conceit?

In the end, I felt that this was a pretty solid piece of young adult fiction– which, I want to be clear, is not an insult. I read a lot of young adult fiction and I enjoy it and think that the genre truly does have the power to educate, enlighten, and challenge. Easy-to-understand writing is not a bad thing. After I got more used to Evaristo’s narrative style, the book got more enjoyable. I would love to read more on the same theme because I do think that this book has the ability to really challenge people to see with fresh eyes the inhumanity of the slave trade. It is creative, intelligent, and deep thought and craft obviously went into the world the book portrays. It’s just that the writing never matched for me the sophistication of the idea.

Page count: 270
Page total: 13,392

37. “Brazilian Adventure,” Peter Fleming

June 23, 2010 Leave a comment

A newspaper editor explores the Amazon in search of Peter Fawcett and the legend of El Dorado.

I found this book really amusing. It was written in 1933, but has a very contemporary tone and is very readable. Flemming says in his foreward that he’s sorry that the book isn’t more interesting, as exploring the Amazon is actually extremely easy and anyone who says otherwise is lying. He wasn’t bothered by bugs, was rarely hungry, and was never afraid. I estimate that this book caused 1.1 million people to run into the Amazon and perrish. Good thing he’s English; they don’t seem much for tortes and, at any rate, would soon find themselves occupied.

Page count: 371
Page total: 9,375
F2515 .F742 1999

35. “The Ridiculous Race,” Steve Hely and Vali Chandrasekaran

June 13, 2010 Leave a comment

This book was actually legitimately funny, which is a welcome change in most things labeled “humor.” In a largely-true story, two friends decide to travel around the world in opposite directions without using airplanes. The prize is “a bottle of Kinclaith 1969. This was the most expensive Scotch available in Los Angeles. It cost so much that upon paying for it I thought I might throw up.”1 Flights of fancy do not count as flying, though they do explain my characterization of this book as “largely” true.

Along the way, they become interested more in the unspoken Awesome Contest, with Steve taking a container ship from LA to Beijing, trekking through Mongolia, riding the Orient Express. Vali starts with an excursion to a Mexican Jetpack maker and wends his way through the middle east and Cairo.

Page count: 315
Page total: 8,752

1. It’s so expensive that if you run a search for “Kinclaith 1969,” the price will not pop up. This is to protect your fragile sensibilities. I finally found it listed as £531.91, which I refuse to convert into actual dollars.

19. “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” Junot Diaz

March 24, 2010 1 comment

This is at least the third time I have checked this book out of the library and only the first time I made it beyond twenty pages. This isn’t because it isn’t a good book– it was excellent– or that those pages were slow, it just somehow always got bumped by other books. This is weird because it’s right up my alley. It’s a sort of cultural history of a post-Trujillo Dominican Republic. There’s family history. There’s geekery. There’s a first-person narrator who is fallible, funny, conversational, smart, observant. It makes you feel smarter without actually having to learn anything. I enjoy all these things! Once I got into it, the book was great, and I could see why geeks I respect would enjoy it.

The third part of the book felt pretty rushed, though. I suppose that was the whole rapid-passage-of-time as this part of someone’s life rushes to a close thing, but it felt sort of unfinished. The last paragraph or so is really great, though.

And can I also go on record as saying that I would totally hate Oscar, too? I want to like him. A fat geek with an impressive vocabulary? Have you met me? But damn, Oscar is annoying. Diaz’s writing is impressive in how effortlessly he is able to adopt different voices. I generally dislike when authors don’t use quotation marks because I find it confusing (hi, I am an oddly literal thinker sometimes), but each character’s voice was so developed that I could easily follow.

Page count: 335
Page total: 4,573

7. “How We Are Hungry,” Dave Eggers

December 23, 2009 2 comments

Dave Eggers is a fucking master of titles. Will you check this shit out?

– “Another”
– “What it means when a crowd in a faraway nation takes a soldier representing your own nation, shoots him, drags him from his vehicle and then mutilates him in the dust”
– “The only meaning of the oil-wet water”
– “On wanting to have three walls up before she gets home”
– “Climbing to the window, pretending to dance”
– “She waits, seething, blooming”
– “Quiet”
– “Your mother and I”
– “Naveed ”
– “Notes for a story of a man who will not die alone”
– “About the man who began flying after meeting her”
– “Up the mountain coming down slowly”
– “There are some things he should keep to himself”
– “When they learned to yelp”
– “After I was thrown in the river and before I drowned”

He barely needs to write the story after that. And, in fact, in “There Are Some Things He Should Keep to Himself,” he doesn’t. The story is six blank pages. The clever bastard.

I thought about how to say this next bit the whole time I was brushing my teeth– and I brush my teeth for the full two minutes, which is, you may not realize, a long time when all you are doing is moving a toothbrush in small circles and trying (and in my case, failing) to dribble toothpaste foam on yourself. Eggers’ stories never really feel finished. Not in a bad way (like can be said of many of Raymond Carvers’ exercises in oddly-paced, ennui-soaked frustration), but instead they just seem to understand that real people’s stories go on even after their part in them is done. So of course these little character sketches would never seem done. Though all of his characters seem to have the same sort of flat affect, I liked it because I am at the same crappy point in my life when nothing is wrong, and I’m too apathetic to even call this depression, and also too apathetic to panic that this universal suckitude is just the way life is sometimes. Oh wait. Found some panic.

I’ll also add that the proceeds from this book go to 826 Valencia, which is a writing workshop Eggers co-founded. Which just makes me think he is a stand-up, though emotionally manipulative guy.

Page count: 224
Page total: 1,409

Quotes follow! Read more…

64. “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food,” Jennifer 8 Lee

October 2, 2009 1 comment

I liked this book. Like most “a cultural history of [a noun]” books, it would have benefited from a good editor, but it’s no worse than most of these book, and much better than some.

I learned a number of things that it never occurred to me to wonder about. Among them:
-Those white cartons Chinese food comes in (in the US) are a purely American invention. They aren’t even in Canada. Some places import them in response to strong customer demand for those white things on “Seinfeld.”
-In the US, Chinese food restraunts out number McDonald’s 2:1
-In 2005, 110 people hit five out of six Powerball numbers one night– 104 of them played numbers from a fortune cookie.
-The PF of PF Chang’s is Paul Fleming, who also had a hand in creating Outback Steakhouse (18)
-In 1994, Philip Carlo served sixty days in Rikers for assaulting a Chinese food delivery man for leaving menus in Carlo’s building (33)
-“‘People consider it ethnic [food] when it’s new to them and they don’t understand’.” (19)
-Between 1850-1910 Taishan, China had 14 floods, 7 typhoons, 4 earthquakes, 2 droughts, 4 epidemics, 5 famines, and a 12-year ethnic war. Before the 1950s, 80% of all Chinese immigrants came from this region in the Guangdong province. (51)
-In a 1865 trial of a white race rioter, his white lawyer argued that Chinese people were inferior saying: “why, sir, these Chinamen live on rice, and, sir, and they eat it with sticks” (54)
-Chinese immigrants were referred to as “Celestials” by European-Americans who had never seen Asians before. (51)
-In the 1870s, (what is now) Idaho was one-third Chinese. (55)
-Fortune cookies are Japanese, but it was US Chinese restaurants that made them the cultural symbol they are
-The largest fortune cooking company in the US, and therefore the world, picks their lucky numbers by hand, out of a jar. When word leaked out that they were thinking about switching to computer-generated numbers, they received a number of letters including one about the small human connection that this offers that might have made me tear up a little on the train. (Judging by this blog, I spend a lot of time manfully blinking back tears on the train.)

Page count: 291
Page total: 24,830