Americanah

by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
First sentence: “Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops, and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace, it was this, the lack of smell, that most appealed to her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all smelled distinctly.”
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Content: There is some on-screen sex, including a rape scene, as well as swearing, including f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

It’s hard to know where to start on the plot of this one. It’s basically the story of two Nigerians — Ifemelu and Obinze — who met in high school and fell in love, and their distinct paths. They attended college together, but in a political uprising in Nigeria, their education got interrupted. Ifemelu — whose aunt had moved to America years before — got into a college in the US and went there. Obinze was denied a visa to the US and so ended up as an illegal immigrant in the UK. Most of the book is about their experiences — told in flashback, mostly — as immigrants in Western countries.

That part of the book was fascinating, though I found Ifemelu’s story more interesting. Obinze only spent a few years in the UK, working underground, trying to become legal, before he was caught and deported back to Nigeria, where he actually ended up becoming very wealthy. Ifemelu spent a long time in the US — 15 years — and had a myriad of experiences from the terrible to the banal to the good. She ended up writing a blog about being a non-American Black in the US and about race relations. All of which I found a fascinating perspective. Ifemelu had some interesting observations about race in the US and the role immigrants — especially Black immigrants — play in the discussion about race.

In the end, though, this is a story about relationships, how they work and change over time. Not just romantic ones, though it is that, but all interpersonal relationships. There is an ebb and flow to relationships, people who come in and go out of our lives, and I think Adichie captured that quite eloquently. In fact, Adichie is a gorgeous writer, balancing beautiful words with characterization and enough plot to keep me turning pages.

Recommended.

Almost American Girl

by Robin Ha
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Content: There is some mild swearing and a lot of bullying. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

When Robin Ha was 14, in 1995, her mother married a Korean man in America and uprooted their life in Seoul, moving them to Alabama. Robin was shocked and upset (partially because her mother told them they were going on vacation, and then sprung it on her when they were already there) because she liked her life in Korea. She had friends, she liked her neighborhood, she liked her school. She fit.

And suddenly, she doesn’t. She doesn’t know much English and the kids in Alabama are cruel to an outsider. In this graphic memoir, Robin tells the story of the year she learned to adapt and learn and try to fit in. It’s an interesting immigrant story, but it’s also the story of how her mother didn’t fit into the conservative, patriarchal Korean society (she was a single mother who had never been married, and that’s looked down upon) and wanted not only a better life for her daughter, but a freer one for herself. Ha reflects on the dual nature of being Korean and living in America, and eventually not quite fitting in either place.

A customer at the bookstore pointed me in the direction of this one. She’s on a bit of a Korea kick, and she said this was one that helped her understand what life is like in Korea. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it did delve into Korean cultural mores, and it really portrayed how Ha often felt like she was in over her head. I liked Ha’s artistic style as well. Everything was written in English, but she color coded the text bubbles: blue for Korean, black for English. She used color and framing to help portray young Robin’s feelings of helplessness and anger, and in sepia-toned flashbacks, gave readers her mother’s story and Robin’s history in Seoul.

It’s an excellent graphic memoir, and definitely one worth reading.

Dominicana

by Angie Cruz
First sentence: “The first time Juan Ruiz proposes, I’m eleven years old, skinny and flat-chested.”
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Content: There is swearing, domestic violence and rape. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Ana Canción is a 15-year-old girl living in the Domincan Republic. It’s 1965, and all her family wants is for her to marry well, particularly a Dominican who has immigrated to America. So when 32 year old Juan Ruiz proposes (seriously: he’s 32! She’s 15!) her parents basically sell her to him (well, they give Juan a piece of their land in order to get him to take her) and she’s off to New York.

Where life is hard. Juan has a lover, Caridad, and is always going to see her. And he’s abusive — both physically and controlling her life and who she sees and talks to — on top of that. So, when he’s called back to the Dominican Republic to hold onto some land during the revolution, Ana takes the opportunity to enjoy life: take some English classes, start a small business, fall in love with Juan’s brother Ceasar.

And because it’s an adult book, that doesn’t mean there’s a happily ever after.

I liked that it was an immigrant story. I liked hearing Ana’s perspective about America, and how hard these characters worked to make ends meet. They hustled and worked and saved and tried their hardest. And though Cruz didn’t directly touch on racism and discrimination, it was an undercurrent. I appreciated that she even brought up the Ruiz brother’s attitudes towards Jewish or black people; racism comes in many shapes and forms. I appreciated how hard it was for Ana to make friends (though much of that was Juan’s abuse) and how hard it was for her to find a place.

But I had a hard time stomaching the abuse. A really hard time. It was abuse and rape, and a 17 year age difference (!) and while I finished the book, I couldn’t, in the end, get past those parts of the story.

I know that this book was being raved about, and I do agree that immigrant stories need to be told. I just wish this one was easier (for me) to take.

American Street

by Ibi Zoboi
First sentence: “If only I could break the glass separating me and Manman with my thoughts alone.”
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Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, some violence against women, some inference to sex, and drug use. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Fabiola has just arrived in America from Haiti, nominally because she and her mother are finally joining her mother’s sister and family. Fab’s Aunt Jo has failing health and her mom is going to come take care of everyone. Except that the last time Fab’s mom was in America — when Fabiola was born — she overstayed her visa. So, she was flagged at customs and now is in detention, and so Fabiola has to face her aunt and cousins — whom she’s never actually met, though they’ve talked on the phone — and the new and scary America alone.

It’s not an easy transition; although Fab has been going to an English private school in Haiti, that’s not the same as a private school in Detroit. And she has to deal with the cultural differences between Haiti and America. And it doesn’t help that her cousin Donna’s boyfriend is a drug dealer, and a cop has approached Fab in order to get information.

It’s a tough book to read — I had to read in small snippets, and I was never fully immersed, but I admit this is not a book that reflects my life. That said, I think Zoboi did a remarkable job capturing the difficulties that not just immigrants face but class divisions and the things that people do just to stay afloat. The family connections that come up between friends, and the ways in which people — no, black people — who are struggling will keep an eye out for each other because there just isn’t anyone else. There’s a lot here about racism and class, and immigrants, and family. There’s a slight bit of magical realism; Fab practices Vodou, and I’m glad that Zoboi included that because it’s nothing like the representations I’ve been exposed to (yeah, in the movies). I appreciated that education.

I’ve read Zoboi’s other books, but had never read this one, and I’m glad I have now. It’s excellent.

Audiobook: Naturally Tan

by Tan France
Read by the author
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: It’s sweary, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

I’ve said this before: one of my truly guilty pleasures is reading celebrity memoirs. I’ve enjoyed learning their stories for years, but I especially love them in audio, particularly when the author reads the book. I am a collector of stories, and I feel it’s like we’re sitting in a room and they’re just telling me a bit about themselves. It humanizes them, and I thoroughly enjoy it.

And so, of course, since I love Queer Eye and I love celebrity memoirs, I was kind of destined to love this. It’s not perfect: you can tell that Tan is not really a writer, though he’s super smart, and after a while I did get tired of his use of “but,”. Even so, I did enjoy the book. I found out things about Tan that were super fascinating (and fun: he ADORES Salt Lake City and the members of the church, which I found charming) and I enjoyed the peek into how he got the Queer Eye job and what it’s been like filming the show.

The bonus material on the audio was worth it, too: Tan got Antoni to come and they had about a 10 minute conversation about the show, their friendship, and writing a memoir. Definitely added to my enjoyment of the book!

So, no, not perfect, but a lot of fun.

Where We Come From

by Oscar Cásares
First sentence: “No kicking the ball against the side of the house.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Nina is an older woman who has grown up in Brownsville, TX, which is right along the US-Mexican border. Having never married, she’s spent her whole life in service of her family, ending up being the one to take care of her mother while her brothers all married and moved away (and they all treat her like absolute crap). She is a kind woman, and so when her housekeeper asks for a favor in helping get family across the border illegally, Nina says yes. It almost turned into something awful, but the traffickers were caught. Except one boy, Daniel, got away in the raid, and made his way back to Nina’s and she’s been trying to help him find his father in Chicago.

All this is complicated by the visit of Orly, her godson. She doesn’t want word to get back to her brothers or Orly’s father (Nina’s nephew). She doesn’t want her mother to know. So, Orly is given a strict set of rules to follow. Of course, he is made curious about the pink house behind the main house, and discovers Daniel’s presence, which just complicates things.

If this were a middle grade or YA novel, there would be adventure or intrigue and Orly and Daniel’s relationship would be at the center of the book. And to be honest, I almost wish it was. As it was, I didn’t dislike it, but I did feel like there was too much adult book getting in the way. I felt bad for Nina, but I wanted her to grow a backbone. I wanted *something* to happen, but mostly it was a lot of everyday stuff. Which wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t really engaging either.

It’s not a bad book, I’m just not sure it was quite what I wanted out of it.

The Circuit

by Francisco Jimenez
First sentence: “‘La frontera’ is a word I often heard when I was a child living in El Rancho Blanco, a small village nestled on barren, dry hills several miles north of Guadalajara, Mexico.”
It’s out of print, unfortunately. I found a copy at the library.
Content: It’s a series of short chapters, fictional but with an autobiographic feel. It’s in the teen section at the library, but I really can’t figure out why.

This is basically the fictionalized autobiography of Jimenez. He doesn’t bother to change the names of his family (maybe of the other characters?) or even of the situations he finds himself in over the time that his family — he’s the second of seven children — spent as migrant workers in California. This book covers the time they entered the United States (his father had a green card; his mother, older brother, and he were all undocumented. His younger siblings were all born in the United States) through the time when, in high school, his older brother was picked up by ICE. (Though he doesn’t go into what happened after. Just that he was picked up.)

Jimenez does an amazing job making the migrant worker’s life come to life on the page: the back-breaking labor, the constant moving to follow the work. Not just for his parents — there was a scene when his father was sitting in their meager tent, smoking cigarette after cigarette, cursing the rain that wouldn’t stop and that was ruining the crops and therefore their livelihood that really brought it home to me — but also for the children, how they couldn’t start school until after the cotton crop in November, how they moved often so he went to multiple schools in the course of one school year.

It makes one think about where one’s food come from. Who is out there picking the crops, and what kind of conditions they live in. And yes, it made me think about immigration — this story took place beginning in the 1940s — and the way they are treated, not just by the government but also by business owners. It’s not an easy thing, politically, but I think we often forget that there are people on the other end.

At any rate, it was a fascinating little book.

The Poet X

by Elizabeth Acevedo
First sentence: “The summer is made for stoop-sitting and since it’s the last week before school starts, Harlem is opening its eyes to September.”
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Content: There’s some mild swearing, a tasteful almost-sex scene, and some talk of smoking weed. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Xiomara is many things: a daughter, a poet, a twin. But she feels like she doesn’t quite fit. It doesn’t help that her parents — both from the Dominican Republic — don’t really get along, or that her mother is super religious. Or that her twin, Xavier, is super smart, and goes to a magnet school, while Xiomara is stuck going to the not-really-great neighborhood one. And on top of everything, as she starts her sophomore year, her mother is insisting that she go to classes so that she can be confirmed (I think that’s how it is in Catholic churches?). But Xiomara has questions about God, and religion, and the way her parents treat her.

On the one hand, I can see where Xiomara’s mother is coming from. She wants her daughter to have all the things she didn’t have. She wants her daughter to follow in her footsteps, and to have the faith she did. What she doesn’t take into consideration — and this is the conflict at the heart of this elegant novel in verse — is that Xiomara’s feelings and desires might be different than her own. It’s often the conflict at the heart of young adult books: parents who believe they know better and don’t stop to listen to the desires of their kids. I loved getting to know Xiomara through her poetry, to understand her feelings and the tensions she perceived in her family. And I’m glad that, in the end, there was a resolution that didn’t involve someone dying. That Xiomara realized her parents loved her, even if they didn’t always show it in a way she could understand it.

Acevedo’s writing is gorgeous and her storytelling exquisite. This is definitely worth the hype.

Lety Out Loud

by Angela Cervantes
First sentence: “If Lety Muñoz could adopt any animal in the world, it would be Spike, the sweet black-and-white terrier mix sitting across from her on the lawn that very minute.”
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Release date: February 26, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s aimed at 3-5th graders (and it fits that), so it’ll be in the middle grade section of the bookstore.

Lety’s first language isn’t English. She’s been learning, since she arrived in Kansas City with her parents and younger brother a few years ago. She knows that she’s not the strongest English speaker, or even writer, but she loves the animals at the Furry Friends Animal Shelter so much that she wants to be the volunteer who writes animal profiles. Except Hunter, who’s a bit of a jerk, wants the job, too. So he creates a contest (that he’s probably sure to win) to see who will be the best profile writer.

But — and this was one of the things I really liked about this book — things didn’t quite go as planned. Hunter, while a bully, had a reason, and a personality and humanity. As do all of the kids Cervantes writes about (even Lety’s friend Kennedy, who could have been Generic White Kid). Cervantes gets kids, and gets their concerns, and knows how to write about hard things — like discrimination and racism and needing to belong — in ways that the readers she targets are able to understand and appreciate.

It’s a fun book, and a delightful story.

We’re Not From Here

by Geoff Rodkey
First sentence: “The first time I heard anything about Planet Choom, we’d been on Mars for almost a year.”
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Review copy provided by the author.
Release date: March 5, 2019
Content: There are some possibly scary situations, but Rodkey knows his audience, and the book is neither too long or too complex. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Lan and his family are part of the last of the human race, the part that escaped to Mars when the Earth dissolved into a nuclear holocaust that made the planet uninhabitable. They’re also the part of the human race that decided to take a chance on the offer of asylum from the Planet Choom — a planet full of insect-like creatures, as well as small wolf-like creatures and marshmallow-like creatures — and take up residence there.

However, when they get out of biostasis and arrive at Choom, they’ve discovered that the government is now against the humans settling there and they want them all to just leave. Except the humans don’t have anywhere to go. So the Choom government — which is run by the insect-like creatures — allows Lan’s family to come down on a trial basis. Which means they’re the sole representatives for the human race and whatever they do the entire race will be judged on it.

If you haven’t gotten the allegory that Rodkey is telling here, let me spell it out (mostly because I knew it going in, and it was quite obvious to me): he’s exploring — in a way that is accessible to kids — the idea of immigration and the idea of being the “other”. And since he can’t write an #ownvoices book, he’s doing it the only way he can: through science fiction. As far as an allegory goes, it’s excellent: it allows the reader to feel how it is to be “alien”, even if they (I’m white and while I’ve felt like an outsider, I’ve never really felt “alien”) are not. But, on top of that, it’s fun to read, it’s got great characters (#TeamMarf all the way! She’s brilliant!) and it’s got a good heart at the center of it. It’s quite probably Rodkey’s best work so far.

And it’s definitely one worth reading!