Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan

Esperanza Rising is a book I can wholeheartedly recommend to everyone.  (How often do you get to say that?)  It’s a middle-grade novel, published in 2000, and it won the Pura Belpré award, which is the award is named after Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. (From the ALA website: The award, established in 1996, is presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.)  I chose this because I was prompted by Naz’s excellent Latinx Heritage Month posts at Read Diverse Books.  This engaging, warm-hearted novel not only made me feel, it made me think, opening my eyes to a chapter of American history I’d regretfully never been aware of.

esperanza_rising_coverEsperanza, a young girl about to turn twelve in 1930, is the daughter of a wealthy Mexican rancher.  She has only ever known a life of privilege, with dresses and dolls and servants to help her bathe and dress.  She is only vaguely aware of the “bandits” who roam the outskirts of the ranch, robbing and killing wealthy landowners.  Esperanza’s mother tells her that even though her father is kind and has given his workers land, many people are still upset about the slow pace of change after the Mexican Revolution ten year before. Esperanza thinks that her father will be saved by his kindness.  But very early on in the book, her father is indeed killed by bandits, and that sets in motion the events of the story.

She and her mother, along with their most trusted servants, end up having to escape one of her father’s evil relatives to a life in a farm camp in California.  It is a dramatically different existence than the one she grew up in.  She has to not only adjust to small and spare living quarters but also an entirely new mindset to survive. Esperanza doesn’t know how to do basic chores, like sweep, wash clothes, or change the diaper of a baby that shares their living space, much less work in fields picking grapes and peaches.  She has to learn not only how to work hard but to adjust her mentality to not condescend to the people she is now among.

Ryan portrays Esperanza not as a spoiled brat but as a sympathetic young woman who is overwhelmed by but trying to understand the difficult changes in her life.  Esperanza meets a girl in a nearby camp named Marta, who is allied with a group of workers who are threatening a labor strike to get better living conditions.  Through Marta the reader learns that the Filipinos, Japanese, and Okies (people from Oklahoma) all live in different camps.

“They don’t want us banding together for higher wages or better housing,” said Marta.  The owners think if Mexicans have no hot water, that we won’t mind as long as we think no one has any.  They don’t want us talking to the Okies from Oklahoma or anyone else because we might discover that they have hot water.  See?”       

This brings me to the most surprising thing I learned from this book.  I can’t recall ever reading or hearing about this in any of my history classes in high school or college.  As Ryan wrote in her author’s note at the end,

The Mexican Repatriation was very real and an often overlooked part of our history.  In March of 1929, the federal government passed the Deportation Act that gave counties the power to send great numbers of Mexicans back to Mexico.  government officials though this would solve the unemployment associated with the Great Depression (it didn’t.)  County officials in Los Angels, California organized “deportation trains” and the Immigration Bureau made sweeps in the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles, arresting anyone who looked Mexican, regardless of whether or not they were citizens or in the United States legally.  Many of those sent to Mexico were native-born United States citizens and had never been to Mexico.  … It  was the largest involuntary migration in the United States up to that time.  Between 1929 and 1935 at least 450,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans were sent back to Mexico.  Some historians think that numbers were closer to a million.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I had no idea that this happened.  We see local officials in the novel make these deportation sweeps, and some characters are in the thick of the chaos.  After I finished reading this, I googled “Mexican Repatriation” and found an interesting NPR interview with Francisco Balderrama,  the co-author of  Decade Of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation In The 1930s.  It illuminates more of the history of this dark chapter of America’s past.  Another link I found is from Yes! magazine, and it appears that a fifth-grade class in Los Angeles conducted a letter-writing campaign that resulted in a bill passed to make teaching of the Mexican Repatriation part of California curriculum.

I am grateful to this novel for enlightening me on a shameful part of our nation’s past, and I also happened to enjoy the reading experience tremendously.  Despite the challenges Esperanza and her family and friends face, this book is not despairing.  It has a lyrical, hopeful quality, with Ryan structuring the chapters by the fruits and vegetables that the farm workers are picking and the seasons’ natural rhythms.  Based on Ryan’s own grandmother’s true story, this is an excellent, fast-paced historical novel for children and adults alike, and a terrific jumping off point for further discussion and education.

 

The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke

My standards for a mystery novel are a bit lower than my standards for other kinds of fiction, but I have three main requirements:

  1. It holds my interest.
  2. Children don’t suffer in it (or at least I don’t have to read about them suffering.  If they’ve already suffered before I come in I may be able to handle it.)
  3. It doesn’t have a pun in the title.  (Those are not my thing, sorry.)

James Lee Burke’s The Neon Rain fulfilled all of my requirements.  I’d been wanting to read some new mystery authors lately, since I’m totally caught up on Michel Connelly and have read so much Ruth Rendell.  Many of our library patrons read mysteries, so it’s nice to be able to recommend things and have conversations with them.  I’d heard good things about Burke, and the setting (New Orleans and Southern Louisiana) appeals to me.

51t2zgy1ezl-_sx306_bo1204203200_At first I wasn’t sure I was connecting with the main character, New Orleans police detective Dave Robicheaux.  In fact, it took me until page 200 or so to decide if I liked both the character AND the book.  Usually I’d have abandoned something that I was so ambivalent about, but the week I was reading this was a particularly bad one for me, and my attention span was shot.  I couldn’t have read (or probably enjoyed) anything more literary or complicated.  Reading it felt like watching a police procedural show on television, and that suited my mood just fine.

Some words I’d use to describe this book:  atmospheric, vivid, violent, gritty, occasionally implausible, occasionally poetic.  Burke is a beautiful writer, especially when he’s describing the city or the bayou or Robicheaux’s emotions.  Consider this example, from which the book’s title is explained:

…the truth was that I wanted to drink.  And I don’t mean I wanted to ease back into it, either, with casual Manhattans sipped at a mahogany and brass-rail bar with red leather booths and rows of gleaming glasses stacked in front of a long wall mirror.  I wanted busthead boilermakers of Jack Daniel’s and draft beer, vodka on the rocks, Beam straight up with water on the side, raw tequila that left you breathless and boiling in your own juices.  And I wanted it all in a run-down Decatur or Magazine Street saloon where I didn’t have to hold myself accountable for anything and where my gargoyle image in the mirror would simply be another drunken curiosity like the neon-lit rain striking against the window.

We learn early on that Robicheaux is a recovering alcoholic, and a Vietnam veteran, and these two things define and haunt him throughout the book.  He’s also a detective in the style of Connelly’s Harry Bosch – someone with a passion to help the wronged, even if it means ruffling the feathers of potentially corrupt fellow law enforcement officers.  The plot sets off with Robicheaux digging into the mysterious death of a poor, young, black prostitute in Cataouatche Parish outside of New Orleans.  Dave discovered her body in the lake while fishing.  The local officials don’t want to do an autopsy and are acting suspicious when he makes inquiries.  This sets off a long chain of events that is kind of confusing, honestly, but involves drug lords, arm smugglers, and local mafia guys.  Lots of graphic violence ensues.

Robicheaux makes some implausible escapes from death, which stretched credibility a bit, but I rolled with it like I’d go with a plot line from “Magnum P.I.” or another detective show.  The one thing that annoyed me the most about the novel was the romantic subplot. Annie, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed social worker who meets Dave when he’s in the middle of a sticky roadside situation with some crooked cops, stretched my belief even more.  On their first date, he nearly gets her tortured and killed by some very bad men who are hunting him.  I’m sorry, but I’d get as far away from a man with Dave’s proclivity for danger as soon as I could.  But this was a relatively minor detraction from a pretty good, otherwise well-written mystery.

I gave it three stars, and I like it enough to want to read the next one in the series to see if it improves.  When I give a novel a three-star rating, it means I liked it.  Didn’t love it, didn’t dislike it.  Mysteries are my literary palate-cleansers, my comfort reading even if they’re dark and a bit disturbing.  They don’t have to have soaring prose or powerful ideas.  They just have to feel mostly authentic to me, and they have to take my mind off whatever might be going on.  This one succeeded on both counts.

My Very Late #10BooksofSummer Wrap-Up

I promise I’m not ignoring the book blogging world on purpose, guys.  It’s just that life has been really hectic lately.  I hope things start to calm down soon!

I wanted to wrap up my experience participating in Cathy’s #20BooksofSummer Challenge.  Exercising my self-knowledge, I chose the #10Books path rather than 20.  I know that too much pressure to read results in me NOT reading, just as too much pressure to drop desserts results in my bingeing on chocolate chip cookies.  (Readers and eaters, know thyself!)10booksfinal

So here are my results:

  1. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye – Five stars – Loved it!
  2. Lab Girl by Hope Jahren – Had book from library and didn’t finish it in time.  It still has a waiting list on it, and I’m back on the list, so hopefully I’ll get to finish it in the next two months!  What I’ve read was very good.
  3. Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor.  My first Nnedi book, and I enjoyed it very much.
  4. Open City by Teju Cole.  DNF, sadly.  I really enjoyed his Every Day is For the Thief, but this one was too slow and ponderous for my tastes/mood.
  5. Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia.  So good!
  6. Means of Evil and Other Stories by Ruth Rendell.  Inspector Wexford doesn’t let me down, y’all.
  7. The Vegetarian by Han Kang.  One of the most memorable books I’ve ever read.  Note I didn’t say I loved it.  But I didn’t hate it either.  It remains an enigma.
  8. High Rising by Angela Thirkell.  Light, cheery, British, fun read.
  9. Writing My Wrongs by Shaka Senghor.  So GOOD.  Highly recommend for those interested in social justice issues.
  10. The Book of Night Women by Marlon James.  ALL THE STARS.  Marlon James is now on my Top Ten Favorite Authors list.

I think 8/10 is a very respectable showing, and I am so glad I took the chance and participated!  Thanks to Cathy at 746 Books for hosting this.  I came away with two five-star reads that will go on my year end Top Ten for sure.

In other news, I’ve once again returned to reading more than one book at a time.  I have decided that I’m cool with alternating between a few things, as long as they’re in different formats (audio, fiction, nonfiction.)  Currently I’m listening to Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton.  So far it’s not knocking my socks off, but I’m still interested.  I’m also reading Sister, Outsider by Audre Lorde, which is TOTALLY knocking my socks off, but it’s so good that I don’t want to rush it.  I just finished Glennon Doyle Melton’s Love Warrior and it hit me right in the gut.  It’s just a beautiful, raw look at how messy being a human being who loves other human beings is.  And it’s about honoring your inner voice and strength, and following your heart.  I loved it.

That’s all from me for now.  I hope you’ve had a very good weekend and that you’re enjoying some good books!

 

My First R.I.P Challenge!

ripeleven250I’m just a little bit excited about this, can you tell?

I was still feeling like a new-ish blogger last fall, and I did not participate in the challenge. As I approach my second blogging anniversary, I am eager to jump in!

This is the 11th Annual R.I.P. Challenge (Readers Imbibing Peril) hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings.  You can read more about it and join here.

From September 1 to October 31, you can read books (or watch movies/shows, or play games) from these genres, perfect for chillier Autumn nights:

Mystery
Suspense
Thriller
Gothic
Horror
Dark Fantasy

Given my mediocre showing in reading challenges, I’ve chosen Peril the Second.

“Simply halve the requirement of Peril the First. If you choose to take on this Peril, read two books of your choosing that you feel fit the various R.I.P. categories.”

ripnineperilsecond-600x268

I haven’t quite nailed down what I’ll read to fulfill my Peril, but I’m considering Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls and Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial (since I own them both and haven’t read them yet.)  But I’d also like to include an author of color so I may read something from Octavia Butler, Tananarive Due, or a mystery by Attica Locke.

In any case, I think it will be fun to read about what everyone else chooses.  I’m kind of a wimp when it comes to scary entertainment, but I do appreciate a nail-biting page-turner. If you have a creepy(ish) book you really love, please suggest it in the comments.  This should be fun!

 

Top (Seven) Books I Need to Reread That I First Read in High School

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday topic, hosted by The Broke and Bookish, is a Back to School-related freebie, so we had a lot of leeway in the direction our lists could go this week.  I feel like there are some books that I read in high school (which, ahem, was 20+ years ago for me!) that I would really like to reread as an adult.  I know that as I change and grow as a person, so do my reading tastes change and grow.  I feel like these books deserve an adult eye.

  • Beloved by Toni Morrison.  I was a sophomore in high school when I was assigned this, and I feel like I was waaaaay too young to appreciate it.  Since I’ve been reading Morrison in the past year, I know that I MUST reread this from an adult perspective.51srBOCdgBL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
  • Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.  My mom was a big fan of the movie and the book, and I saw the movie at a fairly young age and fell in love with it.  I read the book probably somewhere around 9th grade.  Since then, I’ve become more aware of its problematic content.  So I definitely need to reread this through the prism of a more adult understanding of race in American history.
  • The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver.  She’s one of my favorite authors.  I read this as assigned reading in high school and I’m grateful that I got that opportunity.  I want to reread all of her earlier novels and her books of essays.
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.  I have NO excuse for not having read this since the 9th grade.  None.
  • The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.  This was assigned at some point, possibly as a summer reading choice, I can’t remember.  I remember really enjoying it, but I don’t remember much else about it.  Worth a reread for sure!51KEr5saI2L
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  I didn’t read this in school, but read it as a child, and was drawn to it again after the Winona Ryder/Christian Bale/Claire Danes version came out in 1994.  But it’s been a very long time since then, so it made my list.
  • The Water is Wide by Pat Conroy.  This was an assigned book, perhaps for summer reading.  It’s a memoir about Conroy’s experience teaching on Daufuskie Island, SC (which he calls Yamacraw Island in the book.)  His one year teaching children of Gullah heritage in the late 1960’s was really interesting.

Here are three works I wish I’d been assigned in high school or college but never was:

  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • Macbeth by William Shakespeare
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

I swear I’m going to read these – sometime!

Have you read any of these?  Has it been a while since you read them?  What are some titles that you think deserve a reread since your own school days?

 

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West

I freely admit to not being the most plugged in person on the planet, so before my book group chose Lindy West’s Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman as our choice last month, I hadn’t heard of her.  I am grateful that a fellow member brought this book to our attention, and I now consider myself a Lindy West fan.  Our group certainly had a lot to talk about.

You may have heard of West from her appearances on NPR’s This American Life.  She’s done two episodes in the last two years.  In one she gets an unexpected and heartfelt apology from the internet troll who impersonated her recently deceased father (episode 545.)  In the other (episode 589) West talks about how she started embracing her identity as a fat woman.41L6cVdMOFL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Shrill is a book of essays and also a memoir, although our group couldn’t quite decide if it felt more like one than the other.  West writes about the lack of positive, sexy, young fat women role models in entertainment, her period, her abortion, growing into acceptance of her body, internet trolls, not fitting into a seat on an airplane, misogyny in stand-up comedy, and her father’s death.  Some of her writing is funny and brave, some of it is heartbreaking and raw.  All of it is infused with a passionately feminist, body-positive perspective.  I marked many passages as I read.  I’d like to share a few.

On vicious internet harassment (in the brilliantly titled chapter “Why Fat Lady So Mean to Baby Men?”):  “Why is invasive, relentless abuse – that disproportionately affects marginalized people who have already faced additional obstacles just to establish themselves in this field – something we should all have to live with just to do our jobs?  Six years later, this is still a question I’ve yet to have answered.”

On the pressure to be a thin and beautiful woman in our society: “Women matter.  Women are half of us.  When you raise every woman to believe that we are insignificant, that we are broken, that we are sick, that the only cure is starvation and restraint and smallness; when you pit women against one another, keep us shackled by shame and hunger, obsessing over our flaws rather than our power and potential; when you leverage all of that to sap our money and our time – that moves the rudder of the world.  It steers humanity toward conservatism and walls and the narrow interests of men, and it keeps us adrift in waters where women’s safety and humanity are secondary to men’s pleasure and convenience.”

On rape jokes in comedy: “Comedians regularly retort that no one complains when they joke about murder or other crimes in their acts, citing that as a double standard.  Well, fortunately, there is no cultural narrative casting doubt on the existence and prevalence of murder and pressuring people not to report it.”

I feel like Lindy West is such a necessary writer and a strong and relatable feminist voice.  I found her to be funny and insightful and fierce.  I marvel at her hard-won confidence.  I’m angry that she has to endure such hateful vitriol online for speaking her mind and loving who she is.  Shrill is a great choice for a book club – it provides so many avenues of conversation.  This was a very good collection of essays – powerful and brave in a way that women in our society definitely need.

 

 

High Rising by Angela Thirkell

This book has such a beautiful cover, no?  It’s not what drew me to the book, but I admit that it helped me decide to actually purchase a copy for myself. Virago Modern Classics has published new editions of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series, of which this was the first, published in 1933, with these gorgeous cover illustrations.  Well done, Virago!  (And I’ve read in some reviews that previous editions were filled with typos.)51BT-VW7WRL

I’d never heard of Thirkell until I read Jenny’s review of the fifth book, Pomfret Towers.   As an admitted Anglophile, it sounded like this was a series I very much needed to look into.  I can report that I was indeed charmed and entertained by the first book.  It’s a delightfully witty, fun read, sort of in the same vein as the works of Barbara Pym.  Only I find Pym to have more substance, and a bit darker lining to her literary clouds.

The Amazon.com description sums up the plot nicely:

Successful lady novelist Laura Morland and her boisterous young son Tony set off to spend Christmas at her country home in the sleepy surrounds of High Rising. But Laura’s wealthy friend and neighbour George Knox has taken on a scheming secretary whose designs on marriage to her employer threaten the delicate social fabric of the village. Can clever, practical Laura rescue George from Miss Grey’s clutches and, what’s more, help his daughter Miss Sibyl Knox to secure her longed-for engagement?

What I liked about the main character, Laura, is the self-deprecating way she views her own novels.  Laura recounts her first lunch with her now agent, Adrian Coates, and the following is how she describes her writing style:

“You mightn’t like it,” said Laura, in her deep voice.  “It’s not highbrow.  I’ve just got to work, that’s all.  You see my husband was nothing but an expense to me while he was alive, and naturally he’s no help to me now he’s dead, though of course, less expensive, so I thought if I could write some rather good bad books, it would help with the boys’ education.”

“Good bad books?”

“Yes.  Not very good books, you know, but good of a second-rate kind.  That’s all I could do,” she said gravely.

Another thing I liked about Laura was the way she related to her young son, Tony.  Her older three boys are grown and out of the house, so it’s just she and Tony together when he’s not at boarding school.  Tony never stops talking – he’s just a very busy, precocious little boy.  One night as her son is going to bed, Laura counts the weeks of Christmas vacation in her head, wondering how she’ll survive it.

Oh, the exhaustingness of the healthy young!  Laura had once offered to edit a book called Why I Hate My Children, but though Adrian Coates had offered her every encouragement, and every mother of her acquaintance had offered to contribute, it had never taken shape.  Perhaps, she thought, as she stood by Tony’s bed an hour later, they wouldn’t be so nice if they weren’t so hateful.

One thing I decidedly did NOT like about this book, however, were the handful of casually thrown out anti-Semitic remarks, usually spoke or thought by Laura.  I realize that this was written in 1933, but surely even then there were those who found racist remarks unpalatable and unnecessary.  There were two or three instances that stuck out to me, and not enough to mar my enjoyment of the book entirely.  But I docked this a half-star on my Goodreads review, simply to note that this was problematic for me and might be to others as well.  In researching the others in the series, I’ve read that they do not include remarks of this tone.

All in all, a fun, light read for those who enjoy British novels from the period between the World Wars.  It was more sarcastic and biting than I’d anticipated, which gave it a sort of modern flair.  I will read a few more and see how I like them.

For another take and lovely review of High Rising, check out Resh Susan’s post at The Book Satchel.

(Book 7 of 10 for my #10BooksofSummer, from Cathy’s #20BooksofSummer challenge.)