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).

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.

Whotcha reading?

61NR514KCRL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_So, although there is some significant messing around in my schedule right now, I’m also doing plenty of reading (naturally), and when I don’t have my nose working through the reading-through-the-whole-AP-style-book project, I’ve also been reading some fun stuff as well.

I tackled Mixed: An Anthology of Short Fiction on the Multiracial Experience (Chandra Prasad, ed.) another collection of short stories, this time from the perspective of living a multiracial experience, and this was pretty good. It seemed a stronger collection than my earlier short story experience, and it was so interesting (to me) that the one common concern for the authors in this collection was the life-long question of identity. If one is of a multiracial family, where does one really belong? It seems to be a very frequent and real challenge for people who have different parents from different ethnicity groups, primarily because (I think) people feel like they have to pick “sides” in terms of a racial identity.

So, some great stories in this collection from writers with all kinds of backgrounds, POC and otherwise. I enjoyed this read.

51RcFw8xmTL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_I did a fast (and very funny) read of Nina Stibbe’s novel, A Man at the Helm (2014). Such a hilarious book, primarily because the author seems to have lived a lot of the same experiences as I had as a child, and so she cracks me up. I’ve enjoyed her other book, Love Nina (2013), a fictional (?) collection of letters that she sent to her parents when she was doing her first nanny job, and there’s one more fiction title out there somewhere that I’m going to track down. I just love Stibbe’s writing. (Ooh. Just found another  title [An Almost Perfect Christmas (2017]…) I’ll add it to the list…)

I tried to read Toni Morrison’s novel, Paradise but wow. It was so confusing, and even though I got about halfway through the book, I still hadn’t the foggiest idea who some of the characters were, so I admitted defeat. Strange as I’ve loved Morrison’s other work: Sula (1973), Beloved (1987), and Jazz (1992), but there you go. Can’t have a home run every time.  (Actually, this title (Paradise) was the last title in the Beloved trilogy (consisting of Beloved, Jazz and Paradise), so I’m not quite sure why I found it to be so confusing… It might have been my Monkey Mind to blame.  🙂 )

And then, non-fiction-wise, I’m close to finishing By the Lake of Sleeping Children, a non-fiction read of work by Luis Alberto Urrea (whose work I tend to adore as can be seen here (review of The Devil’s Highway [NF 2004], here (review of Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexico Border) [NF 1993} and here (review of novel Into the Beautiful North [F 2009]). This particular title is about the time Urrea spent getting to know the people (and the society) who end up living in this huge rubbish dump on the border of Mexico and the U.S. near San Diego.

Stuck between two different countries and with no way out, Urrea shows how hard their lives can be, as well as how they can find some small joy throughout their time. It’s an astonishing read as you know these folks have the same goals of life as anyone else: good health, worthy employment, happy relationships, but how to achieve those goals when you are the poorest of the poor? What would be your escape? How can you keep your hopes alive?

The good thing about Urrea’s writing is that he doesn’t write down about these families, and he doesn’t pity them. He treats everyone with equal respect and although their lives may be very very hard, there is no sentimental approach to his descriptions of their day-to-day activities. It’s very neutral and balanced, and I really appreciated that.

So that’s the summer so far… I hope you’re having an awesome summer as well. 🙂

Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome (1930)

As a child growing up in England, this was a title that I frequently heard about, but I can’t remember if I ever read it or not. If I didn’t, then I should have as it’s one that I would have probably enjoyed: siblings going to camp on a “deserted” island unaccompanied by parental units all having some harmless adventures without any major repercussions. Yes please.

Whether I had read it or not, this time around the read seemed brand new to me. Published in 1930, it’s clearly written in a more innocent time when children go off and have harmless adventures without supervision and if you take it in that spirit, you’ll enjoy this.

It’s a kid’s novel along the same lines as the Adventures of Mallory Towers/Blyton (and their ilk), but this is a slightly more grown up version of life. Set in the Lake District, the narrative revolves around the Swallow family having their holiday on the shores of the lake in Conistan (a real place).

uk-mapFour siblings (very gender-stereotyped but them were the times) find an “uninhabited island” in the middle of the lake and claim it for themselves in a world of Make-Believe. The adults left on shore are “natives” and play a peripheral role for the most part, the oldest boy bosses everyone around, the oldest girl cooks and cleans (!!) and it’s all rather jolly hockey sticks and ginger beer.

The adventure ensues when another family’s kids also end up “discovering and claiming” the island – they of the Amazon clan in the title – and so it turns into a very tame gang war complete with a potential pirate in the mix. It’s a fairly straight-forward goodies/baddies set up, although the two rival groups of kids do end up collaborating against a common enemy (who isn’t that bad in the end), and it runs along the lines of a Scooby Doo episode but with more kids.

One thing that I was impressed with was how familiar Ransome assumed his readers would be with the sailing terms. It’s packed with these suckers, and since I have less-than-zero sailing experience myself, it was a bit mystifying at the start. However, sailing or no sailing, you can still keep up with the story itself and it all sorts itself out in the end. Just know that there are a LOT of nautical terms to keep up with.

I made a list of the ones that I remember, just to give you the scope of things:

  • “careen” the boat
  • Ballast
  • Aft/fore
  • Stern
  • Painter (something that was attached to the boat and was fastened to a tree)
  • Gunwale
  • Thwarts (a thing on the boat, not a verb)
  • Starboard
  • Foredeck
  • Let out a “reef in sail”
  • Broadside
  • Windward side
  • Sailing “close-hauled”
  • Halyards
  • On the “port tack”
  • Yaw
  • “Following wind”
  • Boat’s “forefoot”
  • Lee of an island

I have a passing knowledge of some of these terms (thanks to Star Trek mostly :-)), but it’s interesting to me that Ransome could assume that most of his readers would already have this sailing knowledge. Perhaps kids did back then? I’ll have to check with my mum.

So, a fun read and a journey back to simpler times (at least it seems to me).