The Jaguar’s Children – John Vaillant (2015)

This really good novel from expert NF writer and journalist John Vaillant takes you alongside Héctor, a young man from Mexico who is currently sealed into an old empty water tank on the back of a truck in the middle of the Arizona desert. He’s not by himself: jam-packed into this small hot space are also others from Mexico and elsewhere, all of them trying to smuggle their way into America for a chance at a better life for themselves and for their families. Their coyotes have left to go for help, and none of them has any other options except to sit and hope that help will come before the heat kills them.

It’s a brilliant set-up for the novel: a group of unrelated strangers, all with the same goal, stuck into a small enclosed environment, waiting…

As the reader makes his/her way through the plot, Vaillant gradually drops little nuggets of information about Héctor and his travelling companions through the clever tool of having Héctor use his dying friend’s cellphone to leave voice messages for whoever he can reach who lives in America (or even sounds like an American person). Going through his friend’s contact list, Héctor comes across a name that has an American area code with its number and this is to whom Héctor narrates his story. (His story is also the story of so many other hopeful immigrants as well…)

It’s really well done. As you read what Héctor is recording on his rapidly-fading phone, you get to know and understand why Héctor has taken this enormous risk and, just as in a more traditional epistolary books, you are given access to his thoughts and feelings, more so than if the character was only allowed to have conversations with other characters. Héctor is so much more open and honest than he would have been otherwise, and by giving the reader this avenue to meet him, you’re allowed a much more intimate view than otherwise. You also grow more sympathetic with his plight (although who wouldn’t be sympathetic with a guy in his awful situation?)

As the situation goes from bad to terrible, resources start to run low: people start to run out of food, water and patience; under the brutal Arizona sun, conditions inside the metal cylinder become deplorable and claustrophobic – and deadly.

And so although Vaillant has chosen a hard-hitting (and very relevant) topic, the book is still un-put-downable as you’re gradually sucked into the lives of these unwilling captives, caught in a dark and empty water tank with no way out.

There’s an argument that it’s also reflective of the actual living situations from which many of the immigrants were running from: they had also been trapped in situations in their original countries which they could not change or impact, apart from leaving in this high-risk way. They exchange one prison for the other with only the optimistic hope of things getting better at the other end of the journey.

And so what happens in the end? Does Héctor escape? Does the group get rescued? Aaah. That would be telling, so I’ll only point you to the book and recommend that you also read it to find out.

Super-good read.

(The only slightly off-putting thing for me was that Vaillant, as a white male author (and with all the privileges that that identity entails) is writing as Héctor, a poor Mexican immigrant. Do you think that, in this situation, Vaillant is co-opting being a character of color and in him being a person of privilege, is that offensive? Shouldn’t he (Vaillant) have “let” a true POC with this backstory tell his/her own narrative?

OR – is this being too sensitive? What is the answer if no POCs have written this story yet? Should Vaillant, as a prize-winning journalist, have gone and found this story with real-life sources (if they exist)?  Is this the same situation as perhaps someone moaning about an author pretending to be, say, a dragon? Since dragons don’t exist, would that be more acceptable for an author to take on that identity him/herself? Any ideas/comments?)

For a true NF account of life for migrants crossing the southern border, try this one by Luis Alberto Urrea: The Devil’s Highway (2004).

Mama Day – Gloria Naylor (1988)

This was a buy at the most recent FoL Book Sale and it was a good one (although the narrative arc was not the easiest to keep straight in my head). I had been wanting to refocus a little more on POC authors/topics and thus this title bubbled to the surface. Plus – I had really enjoyed my read of another Gloria Naylor book (Bailey’s Café) and I’d just ordered myself a copy of the most famous of her books, The Women of Brewster Place (1982) so I was ready for a really good experience. 

This novel, Mama Day, is very different from Bailey’s Café and is much darker with a much more complex narrative than that one had. It’s a really good read, but forewarned is forearmed. And – this one goes REALLY dark towards the end (which actually means that I can now include it in the Scary October Reads list – an unexpected benefit!) 

(Let me make a note about the cover of this particular edition: It’s SOOOOOO 80s-perfect: pastel covers, geometric shapes, even the font design fits! – such a good example of design for that time period. Plus – lovely font and page set-up inside the actual book itself. Bliss.)

To the plot: it’s set on Willow Springs, a tiny island just off the coast of Georgia and an island unto itself in terms of how little the “outside” world impacts or influences this community. Its residents are sparse but closely interknit, and still rely on old-world practices of herbal medicine, the power of dreams, a close relationship with the natural world and magical aspects linked with its history of being a slave port and destination. 

A woman, who has grown up in that island community but who now lives in New York City, returns for a trip with her new husband, a city-born and -bred boy, and most of this narrative revolves around how the insular community reacts to him and how he reacts to them. His arrival is a mix of excitement combined with an unbalancing of the friends and family, and this mingling of each of these two very different worlds impacts the whole story right until the explosive end.

(I highly recommend that you set a large swathe of time to dive deeply into this novel. It’s not one that is easily interrupted, as once you’ve left this novel’s world, it’s quite tough to jump back into it without a short interval of confusion of who’s who, where and why due to the multiple POVs that Naylor employs. At least that was my experience.)

It’s a matriarchical society (led by Mama Day, who is the protagonist’s elderly grandma, and by her sister, Abigail), and the men who are there are confined more to the edges of the story. They still play a role and influence outcomes, but it’s a strongly feminist novel in terms of its leading characters and Naylor has done a good job exploring how this fairly removed world has grown and developed into the society that it is today.

So, what happens when this outside (male) person enters into this interior (female) world? The book ratchets up the tension as it progresses although it’s not clear to the reader how this intermixing of the separate elements is going to end. In fact, the whole ending completely surprised me in terms of how dark and how final it was, and it’s only in looking back at the whole narrative arc as a whole that I can see how it was actually quite inevitable when you see how the individual pieces join together to make the whole. 

As I think about it, this novel was a pretty slow-burn of a read. It’s not that the action drags, but more of how the embers of the plot lie below the surface gradually getting hotter without much notice until you turn the last page and realize that it’s turned into a huge bonfire. 

(Reading some of Naylor’s biographical info online, I learned of how her writing was influenced by such authors as Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. I can see that now I’ve finished the read.)

This was a read that turned out completely different than the one I had expected when I started it, and on this occasion, this veer off-course actually made it a much more impactful reading experience than otherwise. I’m not sure that I can say I enjoyed the read while it was happening, but now it’s completed, I can review the narrative with a lot more appreciation than I had thought and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. 

A complex but good read. 

For a review of another Gloria Naylor read, try Bailey’s Cafe (1992).

September 2019 Reading Review

A rather good reading month, as it turned out (despite the initial craziness of back-to-school). I’m having (and enjoying) a big focus on the TBR pile right now (hopefully, this will continue until the end of the year), and also an ongoing craze on NF… I’m loving it all. 

  • Total books read:        12 (including 2 x halfway-through-DNFs)
  • Total pages read:        2,886 (av. 240)
  • NF: 9 (75% of total)      
  • F: 3 (25% of total)
  • TBR: 9.
  • Total % TBR for year to date: 54%. <takes a bow>
  • Library: 3 (including 1x ILL).  
  • POC author/topic(s): 1. (Oh dear.)   
  • Male to Female: 5 males + 5 females + 2 of mixed genders.
  • DNFs (new for this month): 2. (I’m getting better at this.) 
  • Oldest title: 1951. 
  • Longest title (re: page count): 340pp.
  • Shortest title (re: page count) (excluding DNFs): 122pp.

Here’s what I read in September:

Now that October is here (and September, to me, has to have been the longest month in the entire year), I’m looking forward to some gradually cooling temperatures, slightly fewer daylight hours, and the steady routine of the university semester. 

Plus – I have this horde of books from the recent FoL Book Sale. <rubs hands with glee>

Fun times. Total Nerd Fest, but fun.

You know how sometimes you have a weekend when it seems like you didn’t do much but you still had a lovely time? When you put all goals toward efficiency to one side in favor of doing not much? Well, last weekend was one of those. It was great. 🙂

Both the SuperHero and I had had a busy week, so by mutual agreement, we had no social plans and not much else on the books. Despite this, it was still a fab weekend for a variety of reasons. Plus – it rained. A lot. (Not very common for this semi-desert area and very conducive to hanging around at home.)

One of those reasons was that we went to see a matinee of the new Downton Abbey film… (Fun plus Alamo had put together a funny recap of the previous six seasons prior to the film).

Another one of those reasons was that it was the weekend of the big annual book sale at the FoL which, although I have no absolute need for any more titles, I went to. I typically take Friday afternoon off from work and go at that time to avoid the crowds but this year, thought I would take the risk of a Saturday attendance. 

(It wasn’t too bad in the end, but goodness gracious me: if there was one thing that I could change, I would make parents take better charge of their ill-behaved children: No, you can’t suddenly sit down on the floor in the middle of the aisle and read your book. No, you can’t run around screaming right now. Pro-point for bringing kids to the sale: the kids are being exposed to lots of books and the library itself. Anti-point for bringing kids to the sale: Think of the other people.) 

I ended up with a good stack of books, although heaven knows when they will get read (!): 

Non-Fiction titles: 

  • Home – Ellen Degeneres [2015] – (coffee table/interior decorating/design and I like this sort of thing)
  • The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat – Oliver Sacks [1985] – (sounded interesting)
  • In Search of London – H.V. Morton [1950] – (loved Morton’s In Search of England)
  • Journeys to the Past – David Attenborough [1981] – (true recollections of his animal days)
  • One Writer’s Beginning – Eudora Welty  [1983] – (Actually thought this was another author entirely, so not sure about whether I’ll keep this one.) 

Fiction titles: 

  • The Forgetting Room – Nick Bantock [1977] – (he who wrote the Griffin and Sabine books and I loved those)
  • The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears – Dinaw Mengestu [2007] – (heard good things plus POC)
  • Life after Life – Kate Atkinson [2013] (heard good things)
  • Mama Day – Gloria Naylor [1988] – (love Bailey’s Café [1992] before plus POC)
  • The Darling Buds of May – H.E. Bates [1958] – (classic and been on list awhile)
  • A Death in the Family [1957] – James Agee (classic and been on list awhile)
  • Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner [1971] – (been wanting to reread this and no copy at library)
  • Cancer Ward – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn [1968] – (ditto above except not a reread)
  • Lost Horizon – James Hilton [1933] – (thought might be interesting and classic – also potential read for scary October)
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes [1962] – Ray Bradbury (for scary October reading)

Plus – I was completely sucked in to Jigsaw Puzzle world with this one (from a rug design by Frank Lloyd Wright): 

Snow Angels – Stewart O’Nan (1994)

For my next read (this one from the TBR shelves), I pulled “Snow Angels” by Stuart O’Nan (1994). O’Nan and I have crossed paths with previous reads (see Emily Alone (2011) [which I loved], The Odds (2012) and Wish You were Here (2002)) and a movie (Last Night at the Lobster Café), and we really have rather a mixed view of each other. (He’s a little middle-aged male angst-y for me at times, although Emily Alone was nothing like that.) So in a past FoL Book Sale, I had tracked down another of his titles and that is what I pulled off the shelf for this read. It looked like a pretty solid run-of-the-mill American drama read.

And it was, overall. It’s a short read, but it covers a lot of mileage. Let me steal the description used for the 2008 movie-of-the-book from Rotten Tomatoes:

Waitress Annie (Kate Beckinsale) has separated from her suicidal alcoholic husband, Glenn (Sam Rockwell). Glenn has become an evangelical Christian, but his erratic attempts at getting back into Annie’s life have alarmed her. High school student Arthur (Michael Angarano) works at Annie’s restaurant, growing closer to a new kid in town, Lila (Olivia Thirlby), after class. When Glenn and Annie’s daughter go missing, the whole town searches for her, as he increasingly spirals out of control.

So, right from the get-go, you (as the reader/viewer) know it’s not going to be a huge barrel of laughs. It is rather sounding as though I didn’t really enjoy this novel, but it’s not that I didn’t “enjoy” it so much as that it was a little (a lot) darker than I had hoped for. (My fault. I accept that. There are lots of clues in the description about how dark it could be and I just didn’t pick those up.) Despite this unrelenting shadow over the story, it was still a pretty good read.

This title was about a small group of very normal people living their lives in a cold and grey northern U.S. town and where one of their young children disappears… (So – no. Not a lot of happy in that plot, is there?…)

But despite the plot being pretty bleak, it was a good read that kept me turning the pages to see how things turned out for these characters. One of the protagonists is young Arthur, a typical middle-school-aged boy whose life has been torn apart from his parents’ divorce and who is directly impacted when his much-loved former babysitter suffers from a litany of rather tragic events. And Arthur, actually, was the reason why I kept reading as these awful events occurred, I just had to make sure that Arthur was still soldiering on ok.

O’Nan is a good writer overall. He has some strong descriptive skills and he can pull together a cast of characters about whom you unexpectedly care. I think where the trouble lay was that there were no glimmers of happiness for any of his cast – none of them – and the lives that lay ahead of them were obviously not going to improve much over the years.

I think that if you enter into this read KNOWING that it’s going to be a rather gloomy book with characters who are surviving their lives (more than enjoying them), you’ll be ok. Honestly, the actual story was good – it was just a little too dreary for me, I think. I would have liked just a sprinkling of positivity for just one of the characters… So – I think O’Nan and I are done now. Thanks for the reads, sir (especially Emily Alone*). It’s not you. It’s me. :-}

And now I’m reading a NF that is taking a close look at honeybees… (Flowers. Summer months. Sunshine. Just a bit of a change of pace from the previous read!!) Along with this brilliance, another bright spot is that the annual FoL Book Sale is this weekend! Yabba dabba doo.

  • And Emily Alone is so good, that it’s probably going to be reread. Yes. That good.

Lottery – Patricia Wood (2007)

This was a random FoL book sale pick and from just reading the back-cover blurb, it seemed like it had the potential to be a good read. So I chose it. Then it sat on the shelf for about two or three years until the other day, when I pulled it down and read it. I still had very little idea what to expect during the read itself, but you know what? I was surprised. It was a good one.

It’s a novel and a fast-reading one at that. It’s not fast-reading because it’s written in a simple manner – it’s simply fast-reading because I ended up really caring about the main characters and how their lives ended up, and when I turned that last page, it was a read where you emit a sigh of satisfaction as you close the cover.

So – what’s it about? It’s a novel that follows some of the life of Perry J. L. Randall (the “L” stands for “lucky”) who is a developmentally-challenged man who wins the Washington State Lottery when he is thirty. What happens to him after this life-changing event is the narrative arc of this story. However, kudos to Patricia Wood for not choosing the simple “Forest Gump” way out of the story though. It’s definitely a thoughtful read.

Perry is independent in his own way, as much as he can be. He was raised by his grandma and when she died, he was at a loss. A job at a marine supplies company saves the day for him and provides him not only with meaningful work but also a support team of friends and colleagues who will look out for him. Things really get interesting when Perry wins the lottery ($12M)…

It’s not a mind-shattering read, but if you’re looking for a fairly uncomplicated (without crossing over into “too simple”) read with believable characters about whom you’ll think when you’re not even reading the book, you’ll like this novel.

Wood is (was?) actually a Ph.D. student at the University of Hawaii who was studying disability rights, and so she is well-versed in how to include a developmentally-challenged protagonist in a respectful and inclusive way (even to the point of writing it from Perry’s own POV and in his own style). I enjoyed it and it was a good reminder that there are still good people out in the world.

For a random read off the shelf, this was a solid effort. I enjoyed it. Plus – another one off the TBR…

(Another random fact: Wood’s own father actually won his state’s lottery in real life.)

August 2019 Reading Review

Had a good month of reading in August, the last month of the summer (for some of us). It was a mix of leisurely enjoy-the-last-few-days of break combined with the getting-ready-for-student crush, but overall pretty fun.

Here’s what I read last month:

Plans for September? Get back into the swing of things for teaching this semester, continue to read from the TBR pile, prepare for the annual FoL Library Sale (woo hoo!), and just be.

Who loves their library? I do.

Happened to pay a visit to the local library the other day, although heaven knows why as I have loads of books at home. It’s that Hunting and Gathering instinct or something. 🙂

Picked up a mix of both NF and F, but mostly NF. From bottom to top, here is what I brought home with me:

  • DK EyeWitness Books: Buildings. (Just love these books.)
  • Does This Make Me Look Fat? The Definitive Rules for Dressing Thin for Every Height, Size and Shape – Leah Feldon (NF – fashion/style?)
  • The Jaguar’s Children – John Vaillant (F) I really enjoyed his book about an Amur Tiger (post to come) and then saw that Vaillant had also published a novel about life in the borderland… We’ll see if his NF talent translates to the F world.
  • Crossing to Safety – Wallace Stegner (F)
  • Africa in my Blood: An Autobiographic in Letters: The Early Years – Jane Goodall (NF) about her time in Africa studying the chimpanzees..
  • Sweetness and Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee – Hattie Ellis… about bees…
  • How to Get Dressed: A Costume Designer’s Secrets for Making your Clothes Look and Feel Amazing – Alison Freer (NF) – fashion/style.

New summer arrivals at JOMP

A few new titles have slid in past the goalie in the past few weeks so thought I’d give you the deets on those:

Vacationland – John Hodgeman (NF). (From a good write-up over at What’s Nonfiction? Super-good NF blog.)

Birdie -Tracey Lindberg (F) – Bought in Vancouver and by an indigenous author.

Writing without Bullshit – Josh Bernoff (NF). Bernoff was a speaker at a work conference I attended earlier this summer. Made some excellent points about professional writing/editing and I was impressed enough by what he had to say to fork over some money for his book. (That rarely happens…)

From Holmes to Sherlock: The Story of the Men and Women who Created an Icon – Mattias Bostrom (trans. Michael Gallagher). Not quite sure where I found this title, but I’m a Sherlock fangirl so looking forward to this NF title.

China Court – Rumer Godden (1961)

Another title pulled from the old TBR shelves (go me), I had little idea of what this was going to be about, apart from the fact it concerned a family who went back a few generations in the same old house somewhere. I vaguely knew Godden had grown up spending some time in India during the time of Raj, so I had an idea that they weren’t of a poverty-level background, and since I was in the mood for some family-saga reading…

So – what about “China Court”?

This was a fairly ok read. Nothing too spectacular, but if I’m honest, I spent a good two-thirds of the book being completely lost as to who was who in the story. There’s a family tree at the start of the book (which would probably have been helpful if I’d noticed it sooner!), but since I didn’t know it was there – holy crud. I was lost. And then I just got lost-er. (New word for you.) 

I came this-close to giving it up as a DNF, but then, 75 percent of the way through it, it suddenly became really interesting (one of the characters had been secretly collecting books!) so I kept going until the end by which time I sort of knew who these family members were (and had them straight in which generation they were in). 

When I turned that last page, I finally was sorted out a bit more and actually, I went straight back to the beginning of the book and started to reread it (except this time knowing who each person was). This clarity meant it would have been a completely different read If I’d had the will to keep going through a second time, but it was not to be. 

So, a rather strange and never-ending read and although it may not have been the best read in the world this summer, I’m glad I read it. Actually, I’m even more glad that it’s off the TBR shelf as it opens up at least an inch of free space, width-wise.  🙂

So, you win some, you lose some. I’m quite content to cross Godden off the list now for future reads. One good thing: this rather dissatisfactory read did make the next book (title up in the next blog post) seem fantastic, so all was not lost. Sometimes you need to have a bad read to kickstart your appreciation of a good one. :-}