About a Peruvian hostage crisis and a love affair between two hostages, one of whom is an extraordinary opera singer. My father, mother, and sister-in-law loved the book. I couldn’t get into it. I didn’t really care about the characters enough.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz **** (of 4)
What a masterful, entertaining (if one can use such a word for such despicable deeds), and unique way of telling the story of Trujillo’s dictatorial devastation of the Dominican Republic and the impact it continues to have on the Dominican Diaspora. Oscar Wao, the protagonist, is a nerdy, Dominican fan of Sci Fi growing up beneath the dark shadow of his homeland and his mother’s experience of political tyranny. Oscar’s tribulations taught me much about the Dominican experience in the U.S. and on the island. June 2009.
The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat **** (of 4)
Danticat impeccably captures the voices and inner thoughts of Haitian peasants, and first and second generation Haitian immigrants to New York and Florida. Violence lingers in the background of the story as it does in real life in a country ruled by dictators, which makes the book readable, rather than gruesome. There are several literary references to lost sight, deafness, and voices gone silent, reflections, I believe, on Danticat’s view of the Haitian plight. Characters are complicated mixtures of emotions and priorities. I listened to this book narrated by Robin Miles who distinguished half a dozen Haitian accents so effectively that I felt I knew each protagonist personally. The book is understated, rather than a two by four, subtle and complex enough that it should really be read twice or by a book club. May 2006.
The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat ** (of 4)
The dismal lives of Haitian peasants working for insensitive Dominicans goes from bad to worse in this depressing story that feels like an early Danticat work; something from before she really shined in books like The Dew Breaker and Breath, Eyes, Memory (an Oprah book I haven’t read.) In Farming of Bones, Danticat’s Dominicans are stock characters. Her Haitians are three dimensional. Even not at her best, Danticat is worth reading, if you’re in the mood to feel sad. October 2006..
Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea *** (of 4)
Three spritely teenage girls and an ebullient gay restaurant keeper from the fictitious town of Tres Camarones (Three Shrimps), Mexico make their way to Tijuana. Their goal is to sneak into the U.S. to retrieve men who have left their coastal village defenseless against narcos. It is a comic book approach (without pictures) of the dehumanizing life of poor and emigrated Mexicans while at the same time a celebration of native Mexican culture. June 2009.
Small Island by Andrea Levy **** (of 4)
There’s a reason this book won the Whitbread Award for best book of the year, one of Britain’s most prestigious literary awards. It captures the huge themes of racism and class by examining the minutiae of the lives of just four characters: two Brits and two Jamaicans who are struggling to live in England immediately following World War II. The book succeeds because it reads like a play with perfectly captured dialogue and emotion. In fact much of the action takes place inside a single house as if the house were a stage. The Jamaicans leave their home island because it is too small and confining only to discover that England is also a small island. Cold, too. June 2005.
1491 by Charles C. Mann *** (of 4)
Mann skewers nearly every myth I learned in K- College about Native Americans. They didn’t walk across the Bering Strait to settle the Americas. They’ve been in the hemisphere more than 10,000 years. Their populations were enormous. Their cultures, even in the densest part of the Amazon, which incidentally is about as natural a forest as the one in Central Park, were sophisticated, political, hierarchical, culturally and scientifically more advanced in most cases than Europeans of the same time period. They didn’t invent wheels, because they were useless in the mud and sure-footed llamas were more effective at climbing steep hills than the European’s skittish horses could ever be. And their weapons and armor were in many cases at least as effective as European guns. Mann can write. He’s riveting when he’s telling stories that open chapters. He’s great at translating science into English. The book, especially the middle third, is a tad long. January 2006.
The Lost City of Z by David Grann ** (of 4)
Percy Fawcett, one of the last of the iconic British explorers, ca. 1920, khaki get-up, pith helmet, and scraggly beard spends most of a lifetime searching for a purported grand, abandoned city in the Amazon until he finally gets lost never to be heard from again. The author searches for Fawcett and all the other explorers who have searched for Fawcett, but never quite builds much in the way of suspense. Maybe it is because I have spent time in the Amazon, but I was left with an overwhelming sense of despair for the obvious loss of one of the world’s last great ecosystems and the decimation of the natives who live there, a sideline in Grann’s account.
Detective Story by Imre Kertesz *** (of 4)
A novella about the abuse of dictatorial power in an unnamed South American country. Secret police contrive accusations against a Jewish store owner because they are so paranoid that an incident will destabilize their country that nearly any fact can be construed in their minds into a threat. That’s the plot. Imre Kertesz is a Nobel prize winning Hungarian Holocaust survivor so we can surmise that South America is simply a convenient location for horrors Kertesz has witnessed first hand beneath the twisted logic of first the Nazis and then the Communists. I believe if I had not known the book was written by a Nobel prize winning writer I would not have thought the book as strong. The translation by Tim Wilkinson is very clunky so I cannot be sure if the book is much better in the original Hungarian or whether it was just a toss-off exercise by Kertesz. April 2008.
Create Dangerously by Edwidge Danticat *** (of 4)
Twelve essays by Danticat as she wrestles with the meaning of being an immigrant — neither from here, nor there — and the devastating history of Haiti. Reminiscent of Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust literature, Danticat uses poetic writing and vivid story telling to recount tales of hopefulness repeatedly squashed by secret police, hurricanes, vicious dictators, earthquakes, back breaking poverty, global indifference, and earthquakes. Readers will feel the author wrestling with despair and evil, love and family with the tool she knows best: writing. The book is strongest when she tells us what happened. It is also the kind of book that places the label “intellectual” on a country’s writer as she also waxes philosophical on the art and meaning of writing and her relationship to global authors (we may or may not have ever read) that have preceded her.