Showing posts with label race relations. Show all posts
Showing posts with label race relations. Show all posts

Thursday, February 19, 2015

5 Reasons I Adored The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

Title: The Book of Unknown Americans
Author: Cristina Henriquez
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: June 3, 2014
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

After their daughter Maribel suffers a near-fatal accident, the Riveras leave México and come to America. But upon settling at Redwood Apartments, a two-story cinderblock complex just off a highway in Delaware, they discover that Maribel's recovery--the piece of the American Dream on which they've pinned all their hopes--will not be easy. Every task seems to confront them with language, racial, and cultural obstacles.

At Redwood also lives Mayor Toro, a high school sophomore whose family arrived from Panamà fifteen years ago. Mayor sees in Maribel something others do not: that beyond her lovely face, and beneath the damage she's sustained, is a gentle, funny, and wise spirit. But as the two grow closer, violence casts a shadow over all their futures in America.

My Review:

I am really struggling with making my reviews exciting these days, reader friends.  I've been at the reviewing game now for 2.5 years, and it's hard to say something different and engaging each time.  So, I'm taking a little advice from Leah @ Books Speak Volumes, and structuring this review a tad differently in order to shake things up.  I hope this will make it more fun for me to write reviews, and also make it more fun for you as a reader.

Without further ado...5 Reasons I Adored The Book of Unknown Americans!

1. Its inclusiveness.  I've read many books (fiction and nonfiction) over the years that tackle various aspects of the immigrant experience.  However, this is the first one I've encountered that brought in such a wide variety of perspectives.  While the Rivera and Toro families are certainly at the center of this story, you also get chapters that focus (albeit briefly) on many of their neighbors and friends who hail from a range of countries: Mexico, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Panama, etc.  And they all came to the US for very different reasons--though the end goals of happiness and fulfillment are largely the same.  This extensive range of viewpoints adds a lot of depth to the story.

2. Its brevity.  For a book with so much emotional complexity, it's a very quick read.  It packs a big punch in a small-ish number of pages.

3. Mayor and Maribel's relationship.  Everyone knows I'm not much for literary romance, but Mayor and Maribel transcend your usual teenage love story.  Watching Mayor fall for Maribel, despite her medical struggles after her accident, is beautiful and moving and all-around awesome.  And the way he helps her communicate with the world will tug at your heart strings.

4. It will get your wheels turning.  The main focus of the book is obviously the experience of the Latino immigrants in the novel, but as an extension of their struggles, I also found myself thinking about the motives and misfortunes of the American citizens they encountered who discriminated against them (especially the primary antagonist, Garrett).  People don't create hate in a vacuum.  This book will force you to think about why.

5. This quote: "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 that bad, maybe even that we're a lot like them.  And who would they hate then?"

Read this book, friends!  I have not-a-one bad thing to say about it (and way more than 5 good things that I could say).

What was the last quick-ish book you read that also packed an emotional gut-punch?

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Book Review: Mama's Child by Joan Steinau Lester

Title: Mama's Child
Author: Joan Steinau Lester
Publisher: Atria
Publication Date: May 7, 2013
Source: copy received for honest review through JKS Communications

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

A stunning tale about the deeply entrenched conflicts between a white mother and her biracial daughter.

Mama’s Child  is story of an idealistic young white woman who traveled to the American South as a civil rights worker, fell in love with an African American man, and started a family in San Francisco, where the more liberal city embraced them—except when it didn’t. They raise a son and daughter, but the tensions surrounding them have a negative impact on their marriage, and they divorce when their children are still young. For their biracial daughter, this split further destabilizes her already challenged sense of self—“Am I black or white?” she must ask herself, “Where do I belong?” Is she her father’s daughter alone?

As the years pass, the chasm between them widens, even as the mother attempts to hold on to the emotional chord that binds them. It isn’t until the daughter, Ruby, herself becomes a wife and mother that she begins to develop compassion and understanding for the many ways that her own mother’s love transcended race and questions of identity.

My Review:

Holy cow, peeps.  You could write a dissertation covering all of the tough racial and familial issues that Lester brings to light here in Mama's Child.  As the description above implies, the primary focus of the novel is on Elizabeth, a white mother, and Ruby, her biracial daughter.  The story alternates being told from their two perspectives...and believe me, their perspectives are VERY different.  However, together they do an impressive job of illustrating the racial turbulence of the 70's, the evolution of civil rights, and the personal journeys that so many people undergo as they come to understand their own racial identities.

I was especially enamored with the way Ruby's character developed.  You get to watch her evolve from a relatively secure and happy eleven-year-old, all the way until she is nearly forty and struggling with how to connect with her mother.  Lester does a great job slowly unfolding her story, and delving into all of the emotional highs and lows she encounters as she tries to find her place in the world.  Even at times when Ruby was being especially stubborn or obstinate, I still found myself rooting for her along the way.  Her unique, rich perspective alone is a great reason to jump into this novel.

Elizabeth, though, was another story for me.  I never felt any sympathy for her, and in fact I was highly annoyed by her character from page one.  She has got to be one of the more selfish and obtuse characters I've ever encountered.  I don't think the reader was meant to always enjoy her, but I could tell that by the end, the author was trying to help me connect with her--it just couldn't happen.  I think part of the issue for me was that the "whys" of her actions were never as well-developed as Ruby's.  I didn't see a clear connection between her radical revolutionary ways and her childhood (or any other event in her background).  She also does a lot of things very abruptly (gets divorced, jumps into a lesbian relationship, etc.) which again, would not seem as strange or sudden in the text if I was given more of an understanding of why she was the way she was.  She needed more emotional development.

There was also a lot of disjointedness between Elizabeth and Ruby's perspectives at times.  For example, they each relayed a completely different version of how Elizabeth first told Ruby that she was in a lesbian relationship.  At first, I thought this was done to show the potential inaccuracies of both POVs, but after a while it just started to feel unintentionally confusing.  I wanted more smoothness between their narratives.

Okay readers, you know me--I get picky about details.  But I'm done with my issues, promise.  Going back to my initial comments, this novel has an epic scope: both in the number of issues it brings forth, and in the amount of time it covers.  If you have an interest in the civil rights movement and racial identity, I doubt you will find a better fictional work that covers them.  The narrative did lack some emotional development and detail at times, but if you're ready to tackle some tough issues with a fascinating cast of characters, Mama's Child is a good bet.

Much thanks to Sami and JKS Communications for including me on this tour!

Have you read any good fictional work that covers the civil rights movement?
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