The Best We Could Do – Thi Bui (2017)

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Strolling around the shelves at the library (as one does), I saw this new graphic book title, and, having felt a drought on those lately, checked this out to read. It was a corker.

The Vulture’s Abraham Riesman has called this graphic memoir “one of the first great works of socially relevant comics art of the Trump era” and I agree. It’s a very timely topic.

Author Thi Bui had grown up in America (except for her early years) and was the child of parents who had been part of the original “Boat People” group who had fled South Vietnam during the 1970s. Struggling to understand her parents and the difficulties they faced as they started their new lives in America, this book explores their story.

When Bui becomes a mother for the first time, her views on her parents came more into focus and she found that she knew little about their old lives back in Vietnam during the U.S. war.

Her relationship with her parents had been strained as she grew up in the U.S., and her becoming a parent herself was the impetus for her to learn more about each of their own personal stories.

As Bui slowly reveals the pieces of their earlier lives, it fits together with her own life and allows her to see her parents through a new prism — as a daughter and as a mother herself.

It’s a circular narrative that winds through time and geography so it’s a read that you have to pay attention to. It’s not a daydreaming kind of book, but then neither is the immigrant story around which it revolves.

The plot is the fairly typical trope of “family starts in one place, has a tough journey to reach another place, and then struggles to fit in”, but Bui’s art adds a new level of detail to the story, refreshing the narrative arc through her simple but arresting illustrations.

By the end of the book, you (as the reader) can also feel empathy for her parents (including for Bui herself). It’s a really good read about one person’s family, and may well trigger thoughts about your own parents in the same vein.

It can be easy to forget that your mum and dad are people with their own lives and their own histories sometimes, but Bui’s efforts to trace her own family’s evolution is a timely reminder of both that and the immigration debate going on in the administration today.

Good one.

 

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Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States – Héctor Tobar (2005)

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Part of a treasure trove discovered at an FOL book sale one year, I picked up Translation Nation up for any number of reasons: first (obvs) it looked really interesting; second, I live in Texas which will probably (if it’s not right now) be a majority-Latinx demographic state in the near future; third, I had noticed that I was reading too many white people authors (for me) and I wanted to add more diversity to the list,  and then finally, I wanted a really good solid non-fiction read about someone with a very different life experience….

Focused on looking at how life in the America of today is being changed by (and having an effect on) the Latinx experience, the book is split into four parts as a literary device to organize a lot of different perspectives and people. (Tobar has definitely done his homework in finding sources and varying points of view.) However, although this may have seemed a really good idea as a framework at the planning stage, it ended up being a rather obvious device on which to hang a bunch of disconnected topics.

So, this was an ok read, really. Started off really strong with really easy well written prose, but by the time I came to the end of the book, I realized that it was more of a patchwork effort put together to form a book (more so than the book contents support the entirety of the work). However, despite the patchwork, the overall picture that he paints with his reporting is mostly fully realized and with plenty of detail.

Tobar is a well-respected journalist, and was part of the writing team that was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 1992 LA riots, so he knows writing. And the actual writing wasn’t part of the issue – it was just that there wasn’t really quite enough to make this project a book in length and the padding wasn’t that well hidden.

But let me back up and give you the strengths: Tobar is the son of Guatemalan immigrants, and so knows of what he speaks (in terms of being in the Latinx community). He’s a strong writer with strong opinions, and he had a lot of latitude and support to travel in support of this book for interviews et al. He meets and talks with a lot of Latinx folks across the U.S., and participates in immersive journalism when (among other things) he lives in a ramshackle trailer with other workers at a chicken plant as part of this research, so that piece was solid.

It’s also a positive take on things which was really good to see (especially when you compare the immigrant/fear rhetoric coming out of the administration at the moment), and it reflects a more optimistic worldview for this country of immigrants. It’s also clear in showing how much influence the Latinx community can (and does) have, some obvious and some more hidden… It’s a lot deeper than fish tacos, my friends.

So, it’s slightly frustrating when you know an author is capable of some great work (ref: Pulitzer Prize), and yet the final product doesn’t reflect that in some way, especially when you’re aware that there really wasn’t quite enough material there.

Gosh. It sounds as though I really disliked this book, and I didn’t for the majority of the read. It wasn’t until the end when I could see the whole picture that it wasn’t quite the awesome read I was hoping for. I think I was swayed by seeing the title on a junior level History college syllabus somewhere and thought that, due to that selection, it would be stronger.

If you are looking for titles about the Central American/US immigrant experience, I would point you towards the work of Luis Alberto Urrea (The Devil’s Highway [NF 2004), Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border [NF 1993], perhaps, or his fictional Into the Beautiful North [2009])…) As you can probably surmise, I enjoy this guy’s work – it’s really solid.

For a different perspective via a well-written novel, T. C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain is an excellent read and contrasts the lives of two very different families – separate lives but the same goals and how does that play out? Truly a good read.

Onward and upward, my readerly friends.

Brooklyn – Colm Toibin (2009)

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Sometimes I happen to pick up the perfect book to read for one reason or another, and Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn just ended up being one of those incredible experiences. I’d been having just an OK reading life lately – nothing too exciting (although the African-Am titles in Feb were great) – and was strolling around looking for a domestic novel of sorts: nothing that dramatic and with a good story about everyday lives with easily relatable characters. Brooklyn was a perfect storm of great reading for me, and, as you can probably surmise, I loved every minute of reading it.

It’s an Irish novel set in fairly recent times (mid-20th century?) with a young woman growing up in a small town with not much to offer her. Her family’s priest knows another Irish priest in Brooklyn who is willing to set her up with a new life out there in the already well-established Irish neighborhood and her parents feel that it’s an opportunity that she could not turn down. This novel follows that journey and protagonist Eilis Lacey as she travels forth into the great unknown and a new life.

Toibin is a well known Irish author (see review of his 2005 The Blackwater Lightship here), and after thoroughly enjoying my read of the Irish writer Edna O’Brien Country Girls trilogy of novels, thought this would be a good pick for now. Additionally, I’d just seen the really good film adaptation of Brooklyn the other day and after having really enjoyed that, thought I would do a brief compare-and-contrast (as you do).

So it’s a narrative arc that’s not really that thrilling when you look at it from a distance, but when you are immersed in Eilis’ life throughout the story, it was such a strong pull for me to continue reading to find out how things worked out for the characters. In fact, it was so strong that I ended up staying really late a couple of nights as I just had to find out what Eilis chose in the end. (And I’m a dormouse usually, sleeping-wise.)

I’m not sure what exactly was so perfect about this book. The writing was great, the narrative arc was strong (without being predictable), but I think it was the actual characters (especially Eilis and her friend Tony) who really pulled me back into the pages each time. I became so immersed in their story that whenever I did end up putting the book down (for sleep and life etc.), it was a struggle to not pick up the story at every chance that I could get.

It’s a great feeling to have such a connection with a book’s story and characters, so all praise must surely go to Toibin for inventing such characters and then writing about them in such a way that I was really pretty riveted for the whole read.

I know. This sounds a bit gushy, but if you’re looking for a REALLY good read, a read that sucks you in and then keeps you there (even when you’re doing something else), you may want to try Brooklyn. It will definitely end up on my list of favorite books for the year, and I’m jazzed to try more of his work now. It was longlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize and other big booky prizes, all of which it deserves if you ask me.

Highly recommended. (The film is good too, btw.)

Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border – Luis Alberto Urrea (1993)

Using a series of vignettes about life in Tijuana, Luis Alberto Urrea’s “Across the Wire…” manages to convey the seedy hard life of the people who live on the outskirts of this border city. In the prelude to the book, Urrea makes no apology for having a definite point of view towards those who want to cross the border, and if you are expecting a screed against illegal immigration, then perhaps this is not the book for you.  Urrea wrote these fragments after he had returned to San Diego and they ended up as newspaper columns for the San Diego Tribune. The book is really just a taste of life of Tijuana for those who are on the edge of society – the desperately poor who have very few choices to change their lives, and who live only 20 miles or so from San Diego.

I thought this book was going to be similar to other non-fiction accounts that I have read where the author shadows someone who crosses the border illegally and sees how hard it is. Instead, Urrea takes us to meet individuals, one character at a time, as he volunteers time with a religious group in the border town. The group that he is with is from a church but their main mission is to provide aid to the poor people who make their
homes in the city’s garbage dump, so there is little proselytizing (which I was glad to see).

As the book goes on, the reader gets to meet Tijuana’s poor citizens, and although the descriptions of such poverty are not easy to read, Urrea gives them a sense of grace at the same time (although he is careful not to make them seem “too good” as some authors do). These are normal fallible humans who live very hard lives. Some live in the garbage dump and their main possessions are a bed and a television that runs off an old car battery.  He follows a Tijuana police officer on one shift, and watches how immigration is controlled at the border (or not, as the case may be).  A young girl named Negra befriends him, and on his return years later, he tracks her down and she says that she never forgot him.

But as mentioned, Urea does not glamorize the seedy rough lifestyle of these residents. He shows you the warts and all side of things when you live as they do, but it is done with respect. You don’t get an impression of the characters being martyrs at all, but Urrea treats their stories without sensationalism which makes them very real.

Not an easy read in terms of content, but an effective reminder of what some people have to live through just a few miles away from the Land of Milk and Honey.

This was a library book. Hooray for Texas libraries.