fiction · YA

Two books by Nicola Yoon!

The parent education series that brings authors, clinicians, speakers, and other experts to our area is one of my favorite things about where I live- at one of the last events I attended, the director let us know that they’d just confirmed booking Tara Westover, author of Educated, for next year! Super excited about that. But next week, young adult author Nicola Yoon will be here, and since I’m never one to miss out on an author event, I prepared by reading both of her books.

First up was Everything, Everything (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2015), because I own a lovely hardcover copy which I snagged at a used book sale last summer (right after I learned she’d be coming here). Madeline is stuck in the house- literally and quite permanently, a victim of SCID, commonly referred to as Bubble Boy disease. Her mother, a doctor, cares for her with the help of a visiting nurse; the house is equipped with an airlock, a mega-air filter, windows never open, and almost no one ever visits. Madeline does her schoolwork mostly online and spends her days reading, until a new family moves in next door. Olly, the cute teenage son who catches Madeline’s eye, begins to awaken in Madeline the desire for a bigger life, a life outside her bubble, but the risks she takes will end up revealing some long-buried secrets and truths about the health of her family.

After I finished that, it was off to the library to grab their copy of The Sun Is Also a Star (Delacorte Press, 2016). In a novel that’s reminiscent in certain ways of Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, two teenagers with different backgrounds and ways of looking at the world meet and fall in love in the twenty-four hours before one of them is due to be deported. It’s a race through New York City, a journey to the heart and soul of identity, family, culture, home, and what it means to fall in love and make yourself vulnerable to another person.

Between the two books, I preferred Everything, Everything, even though I called the twist pretty early on. Madeline is a sympathetic character, and I loved the premise of a character who isn’t allowed to live in the normal world. Carla, her nurse, was my absolute favorite; without her, the story would never have gotten legs, and her willingness to take a chance, to defy Madeline’s mother (and her exasperation with her teenage daughter!) made her complex and realistic. Olly’s situation lends even more credibility to the story, and the culmination of it all is nearly perfection.

The Sun Is Also a Star was enjoyable, but I didn’t love it quite as much. While I respected Natasha’s commitment to science and logic (and understood her reasons for doing so), at times, her denial of the importance of emotion annoyed me, and her constant chirping of science facts was tiresome. Daniel is pretty great all around, but just like Nick and Nora, I didn’t find the premise of the book to be entirely realistic. I’m well aware of and remember acutely from my own teenage years the huge emotions that adolescents are capable of, but having these two fall that hard for each other so quickly, when Natasha is trying to square up her family’s situation…I couldn’t *quite* buy that she’d have the mental space for that at that particular time.

So now I’m ready and prepared to listen to Ms. Yoon speak next week! (That is, if coronavirus or the stomach virus with which my daughter is currently plagued doesn’t take us all down…) I’m glad I got these two read beforehand, because once again, I’m so far behind in my reading. I do have these two books and my library book discussion group book done for the month, though, so there’s that, which is nice. ­čśë

Are you often able to attend author events? I used to go to them fairly frequently when I lived in the Nashville area, especially when the Davis-Kidd bookstore still existed and hosted them (*pours one out for Davis-Kidd, which was an excellent store*). There’s a local-ish store here that plays host to a ton of amazing contemporary authors as they pass through on book tours, but I haven’t managed to make it over there yet; most of the author appearances are at times when traffic would make it difficult for me to get over there. But one day… Most of the events I attend now are through this parent education group (anyone of any age is welcome to attend; it’s not just for parents), so I very much appreciate its existence!

Visit Nicola Yoon’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto- Suketu Mehta

Immigration has been a hot topic the past few years, and I think we’ve all seen how ugly that conversation can get. I’ve mentioned many times on this blog (I think…) that I’m married to an immigrant (who is also a citizen, and a veteran, thankyouverymuch); his family moved to this country when he was three, and I spend a lot of time thinking about how difficult a move this must have been on my mother-in-law. Three children, one of whom was a baby, a new language (that she’d studied in school, but the difference between learning in school and actual spoken language is pretty major), a husband who traveled more often than he was home, I’m not sure I could have managed all of that, but she did, and I’m in awe of her. I do my best to include marginalized voices in my reading, and that very much includes immigrant voices, so I knew I had to read This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto by Suketu Mehta (Vintage Digital, 2019) when I learned about it.

Bursting with pages upon pages of footnotes and sources to back up the argument that immigration is necessary and beneficial, This Land Is Our Land covers all facets of immigration: the who and the why (they’re here because we- our country- were most likely there, in their country, exploiting it until a living could no longer be made and its citizens were forced to leave in order to provide for their families), the many wheres and the how (and the dangers of that how). This is world history- England’s brutality in India, Belgian’s brutal, bloody rule over the Congo, the United States overthrowing the government in Guatemala and funding death squads in El Salvador (and, once again, they’re here because we were there. Mr. Mehta describes this as, “You break it, you buy it,” and I think that sums it up perfectly). There are stories that escaped my previous learning, such as Chiquita Brand’s (yes, the banana company) involvement in supporting paramilitary and drug trafficking groups in order to protect their workers, and stories that I’d learned about years ago (if you’ve never read anything about Belgium’s involvement in the Congo, I highly, highly recommend King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild). There’s a lot of heartbreaking, infuriating information in this book that will have you stopping to take a deep breath and wondering why and how we can continue to perpetuate such atrocities against our fellow man.

But this is also contains great beauty, offering statistics and anecdotes (more statistics than anecdotes) of how societies flourish when we open our doors and welcome the stranger. In almost every case and in every way, society is made stronger and more economically powerful when immigrants join us. The benefits are not always immediate, and there are instances where it’s a long-term investment, but the research is overwhelmingly clear: immigrants are beneficial to societies and we need more immigration, not less.

Despite the heavy subject and often painful examples of the horrific maltreatment of immigrants, this is a quick read that will present any native born citizen of any country with a more nuanced take on their immigrant neighbor than they may have had before. It would be nice to see this book appear as required reading in high schools, college classes, book clubs, and community reads, because frankly, we as a society and as a world have a lot to learn in the way of compassion for those who have left their homelands behind.

Visit Suketu Mehta’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter- Erika L. S├ínchez

I love where I live. Have I mentioned that? I do. Every year, the high school conglomerate parent education group has a long list of speakers that present to anyone who wants to attend, on topics involving youth mental health, preparing for college, how to better connect with and understand your teenager, screen time, drug use, and more. And every year, they invite multiple authors to come and speak. (I’ve already gone to hear David Grann this year, and while I wasn’t able to read any of her books in time, I got to hear Julissa Arce speak earlier this month.) Next month, Erika L. S├ínchez will visit our area, and in preparation, I read her young adult novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2017). When I mentioned this to my 17 year-old son, his face lit up. “I read that last year!” he said, and told me he’d go with me to hear her speak. Which is pretty awesome, considering I hardly ever get to hang out with him these days. Makes a mom’s heart pretty happy. ­čÖé

Julia’s sister Olga is dead after a sudden and terrible traffic accident, and no one in the family is coping well. Her father has retreated further into himself, her mother is angrier than ever and demanding that Julia have the quincea├▒era they could never afford to throw Olga, and Julia? She throws herself into finding ways to escape her family, like going away to college (which perfect Mexican daughters like Olga never do; instead, they stay at home, attending community college for five years straight and working as secretaries in order to always stay near their families), sneaking out to parties with her friends (not like boring Olga, who never went out), meeting boys (Olga would have never!).

But as she deals- or doesn’t deal- with her grief, Julia learns that there was more, a lot more, going on with Olga that anyone ever expected. She’s bound and determined to figure out what, if her own darkness doesn’t consume her whole first. She’s not the daughter her parents may have expected, but she’s all they have left, and Julia and her parents will need to learn to reconcile that.

Obviously, this isn’t a light read. There are immediate content warnings for death (loss of a sibling) and the heavy grief (and mixed feelings; Julia and Olga were not close, so that complicates things) that comes with it; suicide attempts; rape; violence; poverty; mentions of sexual abuse, eating disorders, parental abuse and toxic behavior, and probably a few other things I’m forgetting off the top of my head. That said, this feels like a pretty important book that deserves to be read, because Julia’s struggle to live up to her parents’ expectations and bridge the gap between the culture she’s been raised in and the culture they come from is one that’s so common among first-generation teenagers.

Julia isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. She’s biting; she’s sarcastic; sometimes she’s downright rude. Part of this is a defense mechanism; some of it is just her personality in general. I quite enjoyed her snarky comments and her sharp tongue (I feel your irritation with the world, Julia…), but I understand why other readers may find this tiresome. Her desire to move beyond what her parents want for her- a safe life within arm’s reach of the family at all times, because that’s what they know, what they’re comfortable and familiar with- is so strong, and Ms. S├ínchez’s depiction of it is so vivid that at times it’s necessary to take a deep breath and release yourself from the far-too-real feeling of suffocation. We’ve all wanted to break free of something at some point in our lives; Julia’s not-uncommon need to be something bigger than the dreams of her parents, even in the wake of familial grief, is presented in a manner so intense that you’ll feel you’re right there with her in her run-down apartment on the south side of Chicago.

Her attempts to discover who her sister truly was are bittersweet for reasons I don’t want to spoil, and there’s a journey back to Mexico to visit family and heal where Julia unearths long-buried secrets that aid her in beginning to understand her parents, especially her mother. So, so much heartbreak and pain; it’s amazing that those who suffer such deep wounds are ever able to even walk upright with all that they’re forced to carry through this life. If anything, this book will either deepen your empathy or have you understanding immigration and life as an immigrant (and the child of immigrants) in an entirely new way.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a heavy book written in an utterly engaging manner, featuring a heroine who is as prickly as a cactus but who contains multitudes. This is a book that will stick with me, and I’m so excited to hear Ms. S├ínchez speak next month.

Visit Erika L. S├ínchez’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir

The Wrong End of the Table: A Mostly Comic Memoir of a Muslim Arab American Woman Just Trying to Fit in by Ayser Salman

Another book from my wandering-the-library-with-no-list day! The Wrong End of the Table: A Mostly Comic Memoir of a Muslim Arab American Woman Just Trying to Fit In by Ayser Salman called out to me right away from the New Arrivals shelf- with a title like that, how could it not? We’ve all felt like we’ve been sitting at the wrong end of the table at one time or another in our lives, as Ms. Salman points out; I’ve definitely been there (#socialanxiety #awkward #thisiswhyIstayhome), and so this jumped off the shelf and into my book pile. ­čÖé

Ayser Salman was born in Iraq.. Her family moved to the US when she was three for her parents’ jobs (as well as to flee the growing fascist regime), living first in Ohio and then moving to Lexington, Kentucky, which did have a small Arab community (very small, from the sounds of it). Ms. Salman never felt like she fit in with the other kids: the food she ate was different, her religion was different, her hair was different, her family’s customs were different, even her name was different from those of her fellow classmates. There’s no angst, no whining or woe-is-me style of writing here; on the contrary, Ms. Salman displays a level of humor and good-natured acceptance of her far-too-often outsider status in her youth that would be difficult for most to achieve. When her family spends a few years in Saudi Arabia, though some things ring familiar (she’s finally with people like her!), there are still plenty of times she remains on the edges.

Ms. Salman covers a variety of topics from her life, from her primary education, her love life (and occasional lack thereof, which isn’t always a bad thing!), her parents (you’ll love her mother) and her relationship with them, siblings, her work life and her struggle to get where she is, how September 11th affected her community, and much more. Over the course of these many essays, she grows from a child who can’t quite find the place where she’s supposed to fit in, into a woman who’s fully able to forge her own path, create her own place, and embrace all that her history and her culture mean to her.

The Wrong End of the Table is a fun read. Ms. Salman’s comical way of explaining her childhood antics had me smiling as I turned the pages, her relationship with her mother charmed me to pieces, and the family’s move to Saudi Arabia, coupled with her fear, fascinated me. I’d read accounts of adults moving there, but never that of someone who moved as a child, so this book was worth the read for that alone, to better understand what that experience is like.

She does get into politics a little, including the Muslim ban; I don’t think there’s any way for that particular subject to be avoided these days, nor should it, especially since it affects Ms. Salman’s community and most likely affects people she knows personally. Her tone is optimistic, more so than I would have been, and so I’m only mentioning this so that you keep it in mind when you’re choosing what you can handle reading. There’s an awful lot in the news that I’m currently not handling well at all; I’ve had to put a few books down because I’m not in the right headspace to be able to carry the emotional weight of those books as well as everything else right now. (And that’s not to say that I won’t ever go back to those books at a different time.)

So this was a great modern take on living in the US as a Muslim immigrant, by a woman with a gift for storytelling. I enjoyed reading such a refreshing take on American life through Ms. Salman’s eyes.

Visit Ayser Salman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Lucy and Linh- Alice Pung

A prestigious private school setting, a group of popular girls more vicious than a seething mass of pit vipers, and the immigrant experience all combine to make a deeply thoughtful novel in Alice Pung’s Lucy and Linh.

Lucy Lam, born in Vietnam of Teochew Chinese heritage, is shocked to find that she’s been chosen as the single recipient of this year’s scholarship to Laurinda Ladies College, an exclusive Australian private school, especially since everyone knew that scholarship belonged to Tully, the nose-to-the-grindstone girl who aces everything. Laurinda is an entirely different world, filled with filthy rich girls whose attendance there mirrors that of their mothers and grandmothers years ago. Lucy’s immigrant father works at a carpet factory and her mother, who doesn’t speak English, spends nearly all her time sewing for pennies in their unventilated garage while also caring for Lucy’s toddler brother. Even Laurinda’s uniform cost is a stretch for her parents, but they make it happen, and Lucy’s ready to build a better future for herself and her family. Nervous, but ready.

Right away, Lucy begins to see the serious flaws behind Laurinda’s polished exteriors. Barely anyone applauds a flawless piano recital at the beginning of term. Mrs. Grey, the headmistress, seems keen on making Lucy aware of her entrance to the school as a nod to diversity. And then there’s the group of girls known as the Cabinet, three Laurinda legacies who make the characters from Mean Girls look like pious, charitable nuns. After Lucy is sent to remedial English with one of the girls’ mothers, Amber, Chelsea, and Brodie take Lucy in, but never in a way she’s truly comfortable with. The Cabinet’s influence on the school administration quickly becomes apparent, and after a series of incidents in which a teacher is fired and another student is seriously injured, Lucy begins to remember who she really is, what’s important to her, and why she left her friends behind to come to Laurinda in the first place.

This is deep and serious YA about values, self-discovery, bravery, friendship, and standing up for what’s right (and, you know, malicious friend groups). There’s a heavy message, but the book itself never feels heavy, nor does the writing get bogged down with the importance of Lucy’s journey. Even as Lucy recounts her parents’ struggles to make it in a new country, the novel never drags; the family’s optimism and faith in their own hard work and appreciation for their new home shine through and give the story a hopeful feeling. Lucy’s mother is, I think, the most admirable character in the book. Her determination to better her family’s future, her commitment to her work and children, her drive to keep moving forward in life one inch at a time made her such a sympathetic character, and so very real, especially when compared to the privileged mothers of the members of the Cabinet. The image of Quyen bent over her sewing in the garage late into the night, the air around her heavy with dust motes, is one that will remain with me.

This is Mean Girls set in an Australian private school with an immigrant flair, which deeply adds to the story and the egregiousness of venomous friend groups, and provides a fantastic contrast between the wealth of the average Laurinda student and the Lam family’s meager circumstances. It’s something that the movie was missing, I think, which plays out well here and makes for a fuller, richer story. I’d had this on my kindle for a while and opened it the other day on a whim without rereading the synopsis, so spending a few days in Lucy’s world was an unexpected gem, as was spending that time in Australia (which I always enjoy reading about!). Overall, this is a great take on the malicious friend group trope, told through a fresh perspective that renders it unique.

Visit Alice Pung’s website here.

memoir · nonfiction · religion

Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary- D.L. Mayfield

Ahh, interlibrary loan and your cover-obscuring stickers…

Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary by D.L Mayfield came to my attention via Episode #59: of the What Should I Read Next podcast, titled Prescribing books for what ails you. Ms. Mayfield was the featured guest, and based on some of the things she said, I thought I might enjoy her book.

I was correct. Assimilate or Go Home tells the story of her life among the Somali Bantu refugee population in Portland, a group of people that are, she states, some of the least successfully acclimated refugees the US ever attempted to resettle. Many of them had never lived with electricity or indoor plumbing; some of them had never climbed up stairs before coming to the US. The vast majority were illiterate in their own language, which makes learning written English difficult, if not impossible, especially when the trauma they’ve suffered is factored in. The Bantus were an ethnic and cultural minority even in their home country; even so, had it been possible, they would have chosen to stay there, rather than come to such an unfamiliar and difficult place..

Having long dreamed of becoming a missionary and bringing God’s kingdom (if she could only figure out exactly what that was…) to those who needed it most, Bible college graduate D. L. Mayfield began her volunteer work with the Somali Bantus positive that her mere presence would be all that it would take in order for them to accept Jesus and for their lives to improve. What actually happened was something very different.

Throughout this collection of essays, Ms. Mayfield details the challenges faced by the refugee families- language, poverty, culture, racism, bigotry, among many others- and describes how her presence often made the situation worse. Wanting to share her church’s Harvest Day festival with three headscarf-wearing Somali girls, whom she dressed up as Bollywood princesses, only proved how ‘other’ her own church community saw them; showing off her newborn baby, who was born quickly after what sounded like a fast diagnosis of pre-eclampsia, only drove home her privilege with the fact that had this happened to these women in Somalia, they and their babies would have died- most of them had already lost at least one child. ‘The longer I knew my refugee friends, the more ignorant I became,’ she admits. Clawing one’s way out of privilege and a smaller-than-you-realized worldview is no easy task; Ms. Mayfield does it, but realizes that it comes at the expense of those she’s supposed to be serving.

This is a memoir of hard-won humility, of unlearning just about everything you grew up being taught and thinking you know about the world around you. To be honest, I found Ms. Mayfield’s honesty and ability to examine her long-held beliefs and ideas extremely refreshing. While I’m not especially religious, I see far too many religious leaders with that white savior complex that Ms. Mayfield admits she originally had, with no contrary evidence altering their worldviews: this is the way things are, and if you do XYZ, then everything will be perfect and fall in line. It’s not quite that simple, Ms. Mayfield writes, and she’s correct.

This is one of those books where I would read a paragraph; pause; read it again; think about it; then write a line or two down in my reading binder (do you keep a log of notes as you’re reading? I find it helpful. I use a binder because Walmart was out of notebooks the day I went in. Out. Entirely. Again. One time they were out of extension cords. The Walmarts here are bizarre). D.L. Mayfield shares a lot of poignant insights that, while they stem from her Christian faith, apply universally, and she does it in a way that begs the reader to follow in her footsteps. Examine your ideals, your biases, your preconceptions about how the world should work and how people should act, and replace them with reality- not how you want it to be, but how it is. That’s where God, and growth, and peace,  and understanding, will be.

Even if you’re not religious, this is a worthy read, both for the story and for the painful lessons that Ms. Mayfield learned (and that so many of us could stand to learn as well). This should also be required reading for anyone beginning work, volunteer or otherwise, with any marginalized community. It’s not a soft, gentle read by any means; it asks hard questions and demands changes, but it’s a challenge we should all be up for.

I was pleased to see that Ms. Mayfield is represented by Rachelle Gardner; I’ve followed her on Twitter for years and I’ve read and enjoyed other books she represents. Do you read the acknowledgements? I always enjoy scanning them and seeing if I recognize any names.

If you’re interested in this topic, books with similar themes include The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship and Hope in an American Classroom by Helen Thorpe (for more on the refugee experience), and The Childcatchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption by Kathryn Joyce (for another example of the damage the pervasive attitude of white saviorism can wreak).

Visit D.L. Mayfield’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

How Does It Feel to Be Unwanted?: Stories of Resistance and Resilience from Mexicans Living in the United States- Eileen Truax

There were a lot of great choices on the New Nonfiction shelf at the library during my last trip, but the first thing that ended up in my bag was How Does It Feel to Be Unwanted?: Stories of Resistance and Resilience from Mexicans Living in the United States by Eileen Truax. It’s a timely, important read that will expand your knowledge of why so many of our neighbors to the south come here to live and work, why they need to, and the difficulties they face everyday regardless of their immigration status.
Each chapter is dedicated to two or three people who live in the United States who were either born in Mexico or born in the US to parents who were born in Mexico. You’ll get to know labor organizers, translators and interpreters, business owners, asylum seekers, US college graduates who can’t legally work here, a high ranking police officer, and even a practicing lawyer who remains undocumented. There are stories of triumph, to be sure, but the overall sentiment is more of frustration, anger, and occasionally heartbreak, as in the case of Cirila Balthazar Cruz, who had her newborn daughter taken away from her and placed in foster care, solely because she spoke no English. 
Another example:
‘In Texas, there have been documented cases of agents stopping ambulances to check the immigration statuses of patients. In 2015, the New York Times reported an account of a Brownsville pediatrician who stated that a child had died en route to Corpus Christi and the parents had not accompanied him because they were undocumented and were afraid to cross at the checkpoint.’

Heartbreaking. And so utterly unnecessary.
Just as Helen Thorpe does in Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America, Ms. Truax expounds the complications of mixed-status families, where some members have legal status and others don’t. Nine million people in the US share this uniquely frustrating situation, some with no hope of improving their circumstances, living in fear that they or their families will be deported at any point in time and the family member or members with legal status will be left to fend for themselves (as happened to Diane Guerrero, whom you might recognize from such shows as Orange is the New Black and Jane the Virgin. She details her life story in the book In the Country We Love: My Family Divided). These are agonizing situations, and far too often, there’s no good solution for these families. Sometimes there’s no solution at all.
This is a heavy book. And if it’s heavy to just read, imagine what it’s like to live it. Imagine what it’s like to flee the country of your birth, of your culture, your language, and your history, because your husband has been kidnapped not just once but multiple times, traveling to the only safe place that offers you opportunity, only to have every door slammed in your face and to hear that you’re nothing but a rapist and murderer from that place’s president, of all people- even though it was the rapists and murderers you were fleeing. Imagine working 72 hours a week on your feet, only to be called lazy and greedy by people who refuse to even try to understand what you’ve been through. Imagine the fear you would feel if at any moment, you could be sent to live in a place you don’t even remember being, a place where you don’t even speak the language. Imagine being a child and having to grow up with the fear of one or both of your parents being sent away; imagine what that would do to your ability to learn, to focus in school. Imagine knowing that even if you’ve lived 17 of your 18 years in one country, you’ve gotten straight A’s in school, you’ve earned a perfect SAT score and have unlimited potential for success, that country still doesn’t want you. This book, along with the two others I’ve linked to in this post, will further your appreciation for what Mexican immigrants live with.

I don’t think I can do justice to a book like this in such a short review; it’s such a necessary read in these terrible times. I’ll never fully understand the depth of the struggles faced by the people from Mexico who choose to seek a better life here. For all its issues, my life has been a privileged one; my parents never came close to having to contemplate leaving the country in which they were born. But I’ll always keep trying and adding to my understanding; these days, compassion and understanding are imperative, and it’s only through embracing not only our own humanity but that of our neighbors- ALL our neighbors- will we truly become that shining city on a hill.

Follow Eileen Truax on Twitter here.