Saturday, June 13, 2020

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins — Disappointing

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I did not like this book. Let's get that out of the way. This is my opinion only and I have no quarrel with, nor do I judge the reading tastes of, anyone who found it rewarding — and there are many of you. It wasn’t for me. This does not mean that I don't want you to read it. I want you to read it but only if you also read The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging the Narcos on the Migrant Trail by Oscar Martinez or Enrique's Journey: The Story of a Boy's Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother by Sonia Nazario. Preferably both. 

Blurbs heralded American Dirt as a new American classic and a Grapes of Wrath for our time. It is neither. To put it anywhere near Steinbeck and his true classic novel is an affront to literature. I don't blame the author for the hype; these sorts of hyperbolic comments are to be expected. But I was curious since most readers describe how harrowing they found it and how they were moved to tears by the plight of Lydia and Luca so I got a copy from the library.

I became increasingly puzzled by the hype as I read. Contrary to the glowing reviews, “this isn’t a particularly well written book” went through my mind. There is truly tortured syntax and attempts at lyrical/poetical/soaring prose that I found difficult to take seriously much less be moved by. There is a sentence that runs on for over half a page that I think is supposed to be building the reader up for a final devastating clause but I found ponderous and weaker for everything that preceded it. I’m not the only one to feel this way. I recommend New York Times staff critic Parul Sehgal’s review, A Mother and Son Fleeing for Their Lives Over Treacherous Terrain. Sehgal describes the problems with the writing much better than I can and identifies some of the same issues that bothered me. It is a very good review that can be found here.

For me, the muddled writing interfered with the flow and pacing of the story and made it pretty much impossible to get invested in it. I did not feel the heart pounding feeling of peril that others describe. It wasn’t a page turner; it took me 10 days to finish which is a very long time for me. A book about such an important topic deserves better treatment. There was something else that bothered me about the book but I wasn’t sure what. I realized what this was later as described in the next part of this review.

I looked up criticism of American Dirt by Latinx writers and many recommended other authors to read to really learn about the migrant experience. I made myself a list and jumped in. The two books I have read so far are:

Oscar Martinez—The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail

Sonia Nazario — Enrique's Journey: The Story of a Boy's Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother

Martinez is a Mexican investigative reporter who spent two years walking the trails, riding the buses, riding the trains, going to migrant shelters along the way, and learning the economics of smuggling people. He talked with politicians, soldiers, police, migrants,smugglers, and aid workers. He explored border crossing points and rode with US Border agents.

Nazario is a Los Angeles reporter who became interested in migrants and the effects on children after a conversation with her house cleaner. She decided to write about the experiences of a single migrant child and found Enrique. Enrique made his first attempt to go to his mother in the US at age 13, travelling the migrant trail from Honduras. Eight times he made the journey. Nazario twice retraced Enrique’s journey. Think about that, she travelled the migrant trail from Honduras to the US twice. She had the resources to put a support network in place in the event something went wrong but she still put her life on the line. In her five years of research she got to know Enrique, his family in Honduras, and his mother in the US. Her focus was on the effects on children left behind when a mother goes north to support the family.

The narratives of Martinez and Nazario support each other as you will find their research overlapping.

Here is where I realized what else bothered me about American Dirt: after reading The Beast and Enrique’s Journey, American Dirt is a very diluted representation of the migrant experience. The experiences of Martinez and Nazario on the migrant trail now made it impossible for me to see Lydia, American Dirt’s protagonist, as one of the migrants. I can see why Latinx critics are angered by this book. American Dirt doesn’t come close to showing the suffering, the misery, the despair, of the migrants, and how they are preyed upon by both authorities and the narcos. You want a book that will bring you to tears, especially if you are a parent, read Enrique’s Journey.

The basis of American Dirt is good and could have been a very good story: Narco violence is very real. Where my problems with the book lie with me is her choice of protagonist. Lydia is far removed from the majority of the migrants who are mainly from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Migrants are lucky to have a couple of pesos much less the cash that Lydia starts off with. She suffers a major loss but is able to fall back on her deceased mother’s bank account. I never felt a sense of peril, that maybe this wouldn’t work out. I think it is more notible for what doesn't happen to Lydia. I felt that the really bad stuff was glossed over so as not to be too upsetting. Sanitised for northern readers.

American Dirt has done good in that it has raised awareness about migrants but I urge people to read about the real migrant experience. I fear it will just be a book club selection that people can tut tut over with wine and cheese.

Both Martinez and Nazario write about the causes of migration — extreme poverty that sends parents on a risky journey to the US in order to make money back to their families, money that is a significant part of the economy of Central American countries. The conclusion is that we no more likely to stem migration than we are to stop the flow of drugs into the US. In the case of migration, the solution is at the source. Help the countries improve the economy. Nazario writes movingly about the effects on the family when a mother feels the only solution to keep her children from starving is to leave. You don’t get anything of this from American Dirt and I can understand why it has angered critics.

After The Beast and Enrique’s Journey, next up for me is Luis Alberto Urrea’s Devil’s Highway.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Review: Gate Crashers by Patrick S. Tomlinson

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It's 2345 and the American/European Union Starship Magellan has just passed the 30 light year mark on it's way to explore Solonis B. This is the fathest from earth mankind has travelled. While the crew are in their peoplecicle state for the long journey, the ship's AI, known as Maggie, monitors the ship and surrounding space. Maggie detects an anomalous object that gnaws at her processors. What makes the object unusual is that it is completely at rest, something that should be impossible what with Newton's laws of motion and all. She awakens Capt. Allison Ridgway to authorize a flyby but when Maggie detects radio emissions from the object, Ridgeway knows they need to get their hands on the object and the entire crew is awakened. With the object in the shuttle bay and authorities alerted by the instantaneous QER (quantum entanglement radio), the Magellan heads back to earth. And then things go from weird to dangerous to life-threatening.

Tomlinson pretty much hits all the major SF tropes. We get: first contact, space opera, space marines, space combat, space poop, girl shy nerd, mad scientists, enterprising scientists and engineers, hard science, galactic politics, aliens with an unsettling knowledge of English (it's easy to learn) and Earth TV shows, a effective and stable civilian captain, an infuriatingly capable navy captain named Maximus Tiberius who falls somewhere between Star Trek's James Tiberius Kirk and Blackadder's Lord Flashheart, a snarky ship's AI who decides she must be female because she has to nurture so many helpless children, and lots of humor. You might also note some Star Trek and maybe Heinlein here.

Military action isn't a major theme of Gate Crashers but Tomlinson handles it realistically and very well. Likewise, the hard science is handled nicely so that you can read it thinking, okay, that works.

The humor is decidedly Douglas Adams-esque which is a major plus for me. In fact, alert readers will notice a direct homage to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The humor ranges from clever wordplay to downright silly. Kind of like throwing pasta at the wall, some stick, some don't. I could quote something that made me chuckle from most pages but here are two examples:
It was a cold, dark night in deep space. Of course, that's the sort of night experienced spacers preferred. A hot, bright night meant you'd flown into an uncharted star. Such nights were known for their brevity.
And then the silly
The Teskin are one of the most specialized carnivores in the known galaxy. They evolved over the millennia to infiltrate cocktail parties, wedding receptions, and class reunions. Once inside, they corner their unsuspecting prey and regale them with hours of banal anecdotes about office politics, family vacations, and medical issues. A successful hunt ends when the target kills itself out of desperation.
Gate Crashers is a fun and satisfying SF that I enjoyed so much I read all 414 pages in one sitting.

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Fortunately, there is a sequel titled Starship Repo so I don't have to wait for mure stories set in this universe. It features a female protagonist named Firstname Lastname due to a clerical error so I anticipate the same level of humor that appealed to me in Gate Crashers.


Sunday, May 12, 2019

Review: My Lovely Wife by Samatha Downing

My copy came from the library but if I'd purchased it based on the back cover text I'd be seriously upset. I realize this isn't the author's fault and the publisher is trying to attract readers but it calls My Lovely Wife, Dexter meets Mr. and Mrs Smith. This isn't remotely close to this book. For one thing, Dexter and Mr. and Mrs. Smith have humor. For another, the motivations in My Lovely Wife are nothing like the other two works. In fact. the protagonists here would be more likely to be victims of Dexter. Finally, I would challenge the notion that is a book about a husband and wife serial killer team spicing up a stale marriage. Yes, there are murders but underneath there is something entirely different going on.

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It looks like I'm blaming the author for the way the book is being hyped and that really isn't fair. Let me back off that and talk about the story itself which I would call less of a thriller and more of a study in psychopathy.

This is a first person narrative from the viewpoint of the unnamed husband. He is the tennis pro at a country club. He is really rather wishy-washy, pathetic, and mostly unquestioningly passive to his wife, Millicent. I couldn't work up any sympathy for him. Millicent is a rule setter, ruthlessly efficient, and has a core of steel. Honestly, though, her family rules are not all that oppressive which kind of defeats her ice queen appearance. Examples: the family will eat breakfast and dinner together, no electronics at the table, family movie night once a week. I'm sure some will think this is an appearance of normality that masks the psycho beneath and maybe that's what the author intended.  They have two children, son Rory and daughter Jenna. Of all the family, I found Jenna the most believable and relatable character. Now that I think about it, Jenna and Rory really step up when needed and I like that about them.

The story jumps around in time too much for my taste and this slows down the narrative pace. The pace picks up near the end but overall I felt I was plodding through the story and found myself skimming the pages. It takes the thrill out of thriller. I found the short sentences made the narrative too choppy for my taste. The much vaunted twist toward the end is interesting but not jaw-dropping as some reviewers have reported.

This isn't a terrible book but I would rate it only a 2.5 or perhaps a 3 tops. I intend to watch this author's future books. I think she is a good plotter even if I didn't care much for the execution of this one. This is a book that would do well as a film since it would be forced to tighten and trim the story to its essentials.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Review: The Reject by Edyth Bulbring

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The Reject is the sequel to The Mark, where the author set up a gritty,  post-catastrophe, dystopian world set in the State of Mangeria near where a now submerged Cape Town South Africa once stood. Bulbring envisions is highly stratified and essentially feudal society with worker castes and a ruling class. It is a brutal existence where you are tolerated only as long as you are productive. Each person is stamped with an indelible mark that assigns an identifier and caste at birth. The mark is generated by The Machine, a giant solar powered computer which can also track individuals by their mark. Our protagonist is 15 year old Juliet Seven, known as Ettie, who was born to be drudge, in service to a Posh (ie upper class) family.

There is a little bit of the fantastical in this world: Juliet is the Chosen One, destined to bring down this oppressive society; and there are talking birds that tell the future.
Don't let this put you off: these fantastical elements are really not over done so we are not talking about a urban fantasy type of book. I would say that there is more science fiction than fantasy in this world.  particularly in The Reject.

The Mark ends with Juliet planning to escape from Mangeria by boat with a young Posh man with whom she has fallen in love.

The Reject begins immediately after the events of The Mark. The revolution has broken out and the city is in flames. But in a disastrous turn of events, the escape boat is hijacked by a Reject (ie a non-person as far as society is concerned) who Juliet dubs Captain Gollum, a name he unironically embraces having no knowledge of Tolkien. If that isn't bad enough, a storm blows them out to sea leaving Juliet, Captain Gollum, and Reader, the blind past trader (ie he has read books) in a desperate struggle to survive. 

I don't want to be guilty of massive spoilers but I think I can safely say that our small band of survivors discover that Mangeria isn't alone in the world and that the conflagration, the catastrophe that blasted the world, may not be entirely in the past. They have some some remarkable adventures before returning to Mangeria to complete the story. I would also say that the biggest science fiction elements are in The Reject.

Where The Mark set up set up the world, The Reject puts the story and action on Juliet and her companions. Juliet already had to mature beyond what  we would expect from a 15 year old in order to survive but in The Reject we see her pushing her capabilities and building an iron will to survive. The author also gives Captain Gollum a character arc that is very satisfying and nicely, if subtly developed. Like a good dystopian story, it gets readers to ask themselves: could I make it in this world?; what would my life be like if I was in one of the worker castes?; what kind of person would I be as a Posh?

Setting aside the fantastical elements like the Chosen One and talking prophet birds, Bulbring's world is easily acceptable. I can see a society reverting to feudalism to maintain structure in a brutal environment and it would definitely suck to be in a worker caste. And if you are wondering what else has survived the conflagration besides people and at least one species of bird, yes, cockroaches do indeed make it through the apocalypse.

The Mark and The Reject are YA novels but I found them engrossing stories with layered characters I cared about. I can see these books being used as teaching tools and sparking discussion.

I think there could be more story to be told in this world but I won't feel cheated if the author chooses to end the story with The Reject.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Review: The Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

This is a curious little book (only 132 pages) that popped to the top of my library queue recently. I'd forgotten all about it and even why I thought I wanted to read it. It took me two tries to get into it but I'm glad I did as by the end I was totally engrossed in the story. The cover is brilliant, by the way. It reflects the story very well and in an imaginative way.

The Ghost Wall is a first person narrative from the viewpoint of a 17 year old young woman, Sulevia, commonly called Sil or Silvie, looking back on the events of a past summer. She, along with her father, Bill, and mother Alison, are re-enacting an Iron Age British settlement. With them are a professor and three students who are part of an Experimental Archaeology project. Their encampment is somewhere north of Hadrian's Wall and near the coast.

The ghost wall of the title is the last ditch defense of native Britons against the Roman invasion. It was a palisade with ancestral skulls arranged across the top facing the enemy. It might have been merely symbolic or considered powerful magic.

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The style of writing has be off-putting to some as there are no quotation marks to indicate when someone else is talking. For me, once I got into the rhythm, the narration took on the natural flow of Silvie's thoughts and, in this instance, I liked it better than if the dialogue had been delineated in the traditional way. Some reviews have also complained that nothing much happens in the first part of the book and it doesn't get interesting until it is almost finished. I disagree here as well. I think the author is setting up the ending. When I turned the last page,  I sat back and wondered how just how much agency Silvie had over the way the story finished. I love that the author left me with that wondering.

As the story unfolds we learn from Sil that her father is an amateur historian and obsessed with British pre-history, particularly the Bronze and Iron Ages. He is a bus driver most of the year but takes his wife and daughter into the country on his holidays. He seems to believe that the Iron Age was a purer time and living off the land is the way people are meant to live. He is also humorless, sexually uptight and repulsed by anything to do with women's bodies and functions, misogynistic, and verbally and physically abusive to Alison and Silvie.

For example:
After Bill rails about how women back then didn't need sanitary products and lived the way nature intended to which Silvie responds:
Or they died, I said, in childbirth, what with the rickets and no cesareans, but won't be wanting me pregnant, Dad, for authenticity's sake?
 This earns her a ringing slap.

For her part, Alison has been reduced to a worn down drudge of a woman. In another type of story she would be the character who finally snaps and plants a carving knife in her husband's neck. But here she is subservient to everyone elses' needs and stares into the middle distance when left alone.

The professor, Jim, and his students, Molly, Pete, and Dan, don't take the Iron Age re-enactment nearly as seriously as Bill which causes some unspoken tension since Bill doesn't like to contradicted and subsequently takes out on his family. Silvie develops an relationship with Molly who she admires and envies.

Silvie observes with a keen eye and a wry scepticism for the BS surrounding the re-enactnent. While she has learned much from her father about living off the land, she is not the true believer her father is. Her thought about the compromises made by the re-enactors are pointed  and humorous. She gets into trouble when she voices her thoughts.
While I was glad we weren't going to be hacking the guts out of deer in the woods with flint blades I thought the Professor's dodging of violence pretty much thoroughly messed up the idea that our experiences that summer were going to rediscover the lifeways of pre-modern hunter-gatherers.
When Bill complains that Sil and the students didn't bring back anything from foraging
[Bill] They wouldn't have had too old men supplying the entire community, you know the young people would have played their part.[Sil]  Had to, I thought, seeing as how nobody actually lived to be old, seeing as how you and Prof Jim would have been dead and buried years ago ...
Unlike the male students, Molly sees Bill's abusive nature and tries to give Silvie support. I think there is a hint that Silvie might be sexually attracted to Molly. Silvie wants to leave home but doesn't know how to do it. Molly suggests university will give her freedom but for her, going to university seems like postponing adolescence rather than making a clean break and getting out from under her oppressive father and passive mother.

Underneath the personal dynamics of the people in the encampment that color the narrative are interesting descriptions of what it is like to forage for food. Silvie takes the lead because actually is well versed, unlike the students. She also notes that wearing moccasins creates a different relationship between the feet and the land.

Toward the end, Bill and Prof Jim get more deeply involved in understand by replication Iron Age cultural beliefs and move dangerously close to taking things too far.
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