American Dirt

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jeanine Cummins
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Jan. 2020 (read Apr. 2020)

So I know this book has had its fair share of good and bad reviews. We threw this one on our book club list right after it came out because the synopsis sounded so compelling and it wasn’t until later that I heard about some of the criticisms surrounding the book. Between then and now I forgot completely everything I’d read about the book and ended up going into it completely blind. For some reason I thought this was a book about adjusting to life in America after immigration – that is clearly not the case.

American Dirt tells the story of mother and son, Lydia and Luca, as they are forced to flee across their home country of Mexico to escape the violence of the big drug cartel in Acapulco, Los Jardinos. They end up joining the many migrants who make the epic journey across Central America in the hopes of finding sanctuary on the other side of the American border.

I can see why the book is popular – it’s been compared to a modern day Grapes of Wrath and deals with a topic close to the heart of all Americans – not just those in the United States who’ve taken ownership over the term. The catch is that the book is written by a white American woman with no first hand experience of what it means to be a migrant.

Honestly, I think that even 5 years ago few people would have raised a flag about the author. Unfortunately most mass consumed literature is written by white people, but I think there has been a real shift in recent years to highlight other authors and other stories – that representation matters and that’s there’s so much value to be gained from Own Voices writers. Obviously there’s a whole genre of historical fiction where this is largely impossible and I don’t think that we shouldn’t write about that which interests and inspires us. But it’s definitely a sensitive topic and I understand why the book has been criticized for this fact.

I’d like to try and explore both sides of this issue in my review. I cannot deny that I loved this book. I am the exact intended audience. A white woman that cares about social justice but is woefully ill-informed about the migration crises south of the American border. Whether the author correctly captured the migrant experience or not, I found this book incredibly eye-opening and though it describes something I knew was happening, it really drove home the plight of migrants. I think it will likely draw attention to this injustice and hopefully inspire people to become better informed and take action on it.

That said, as a reader, I still have a responsibility to acknowledge where this account may have its shortcomings. For this I look largely to the internet, from people who have had first hand experience of migrating to America. American Dirt has a very dark plot and I found the characters had almost no positive experiences. I’m sure this is largely the case for a lot of migrants, but I also wonder if in an effort to shock and engage – Cummins took every traumatic experience she’d ever heard of and combined it all in to one book. I did worry that she was stealing from the migrant experience to create an edge of your seat social justice thriller. While this trauma is likely all based in reality, its not meant for entertainment. I thought Cummins did maintain a good hold on this balance for most of the novel, but veered a bit to the extreme towards the end. Lydia’s interaction with Javier at the end of the book and what happened to Beto really pushed it over the edge for me into the use of someone else’s trauma for the sake of a dramatic climax.

The other area where I questioned Cummins authenticity on the subject was in her portrayal of America. I read in other reviews that her rudimentary use of Spanish in the novel is belittling and that she was ignorant to large parts of Mexican culture. I’ve seen it criticized that Lydia seemed way too shocked about the things that happened in her own country, things that any other Mexican would not find shocking but be well aware of. What I did note was the consistent portrayal of America as the ultimate salvation. It took on a bit of a mythos among the characters, though I think we all know America is still hugely flawed. Cummins did capture this somewhat better towards the end with the introduction of Marisol and other deportees. but I think there needs to be some sense of reality that even people fleeing to America recognize its shortcomings.

So the book is not without flaws. To further educate myself, I did some research on other existing literature about the experiences presented in this book that are actually based on first hand knowledge. I decided to add the following books to my TBR to hopefully get a broader and more accurate perspective of the issue: The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande, Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario, Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, and the Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henriquez, which was actually already on my TBR.

Moving on to what I liked about the book. I can’t deny I liked the writing. I connected with these characters. Not because I pitied them, but because they had such rich and emotive back stories. I liked the depth that Cummins brought to Lydia’s character and her relationship with Javier, Rebeca’s depiction of her mystical village in the cloud forest, Soledad’s quiet and reverent love for her sister and father, and the relationship that developed between Lydia and Luca, born of the grief they shared. I liked the exploration of how the immediate need to survive can overpower trauma and the fear that arises out of having no one you can trust – when anyone could be a potential informant. How violence can make you doubt even the authenticity of a 10 year old boy and how even in periods of extreme stress, people are still willing to sacrifice anything to help someone else in need.

Once I started this book, I struggled to put it down. I was on edge the entire time I was reading it and even though this will never make the reader understand how it feels to be in the characters situation first hand, I really felt the sense of urgency, the fear, and the unknown plaguing these characters throughout the course of the book. I don’t regret reading it, in fact I am definitely glad that I did. I lament that Latinx writers are not getting the same exposure as Cummins did, but I am glad to have been exposed to this story. I will try and do my best to pick up some other books on the subject with authors more closely connected to their subject matter. Looking forward to discussing this one at book club!

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Heather Morris
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2018 (read Apr. 2020 on Audible)

This was supposed to be my book club pick for March, but then of course our meeting was cancelled and I couldn’t bring myself to pick up a holocaust book during a global pandemic. We’ve rescheduled our book club meeting so I decided to give the audiobook a go since I’ve been struggling with paperbacks recently, but have been doing a lot of jigsaws. This was definitely the way to go and a flew through this short book and my latest jigsaw in a single weekend.

Aside from the whole pandemic thing, I still wasn’t really looking forward to reading this because I’ve read a lot of holocaust books over the years and though there’s many great and emotional books on the topic, after reading so many books about the camps I find not a lot of new content offered anymore, so it’s just easier not to read such upsetting works.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz does offer a point of view I haven’t seen before, that of a Jewish prisoner conscripted to work as the tatowierer who inks all of the prisoners with their number when they enter the camps. It was an interesting story in that is was told from the point of view of someone who received preferential treatment in the camps. Lale was spared from physical labour and given his own room in one of the camp blocks. He didn’t have to report for roll calls and so was able to move about the camp a lot easier than many other prisoners would have been able to. He uses this privilege to build up a bit of an underground trade. The girls who go through the prisoners clothing provide him with jewels, which he trades for extra food. Building up a stockpile which he shares with other prisoners and uses to cash in on favours.

Unfortunately this book made me really uncomfortable, but not in the way you might expect a holocaust story to make one feel uncomfortable. I feel like I might be a bit callous in critiquing a story such as this one, but there were 3 issues I had with the story.

First of all, on Lale’s first night in the camp, he is stunned to see two men shot and killed for sport by the Nazis while using the bathroom. Upon witnessing this act, he vows that he will do whatever it takes to survive the camp. That’s all good and I admire his tenacity, but Morris revisits this theme several times throughout the novel and I felt like I was supposed to believe that Lale survived Auschwitz out of sheer force of character. This was not the case – he relies heavily on the kindness of others, which he takes advantage of to improve his own situation and that of those he cares about. But on more than one occasion his life is saved by other individuals. This in itself isn’t a big deal, but pushing the narrative that Lale’s grit is what enabled his survival is belittling to all the people that didn’t make it out of the camps. Grit and determination have literally nothing to do with surviving the atrocities of a concentration camp. Lale traded on the kindness of others and was incredibly lucky. I don’t find any fault in Lale’s actions, but let’s just call it what it is.

The second issue that bothered me, and what made this an uncomfortable read for me, was the love story between Lale and Gita. I can’t say I’ve ever read a love story set in a holocaust camp. I’ve read so many beautiful holocaust stories in which love is the central theme, but definitely not a ‘meet and fall in love in a camp’ story. Again, the idea of a couple falling in love in a concentration is not that unbelievable – this is based on the true story of real life couple Lale and Gita, so it obviously happened, but the writing about the love story just made me soooo uncomfortable.

Like I said, I believe two individuals could fall in love in a camp. Under unthinkable emotional trauma, it would be natural to seek comfort and reassurance from those around you. To be brought together by your shared experience and build a deep and lasting bond of trust and understanding. I didn’t struggle to believe that Gita would fall in love with Lale, he looked after her most basic needs, found her better work, food, and medication, and provided emotional support through a traumatic experience. But please don’t try and portray this relationship as sexy. Lale and Gita were both victims of their situation and I really think the author grossly romanticized their relationship. I know this is based on a true story, but it’s also based on one man’s 70 year old memories. Maybe this is the way Lale remembered his experience, but this is still “fiction” and the author has a duty to question how those memories may have been manipulated an warped over the years to block out a traumatic experience.

I find it hard to believe that after living several years in a concentration camp, being beaten and starved, that anyone would use a chocolate bar to try and seduce someone. In general I just couldn’t help but cringe at all of the romance scenes. Especially how Lale talked about women – how “all women are beautiful” and you have to take care of women, and what a womanizer he was. It was so eye-rolling, but again, obvious that it was probably lifted straight from her interview with Lale. Of course an old man who grew up in the 1930’s would talk like that, but nothing about it felt genuine or reflective of how Lale actually might have felt in 1942.

But this is just one example of the ways in which I struggled to buy into the story and felt Morris’ should have taken more artistic license in how she told it. Everything about Lale’s experience seemed to be romanticized. How easy it was for him to trade in diamonds and food, how he was able to manipulate almost everyone around him to get what he wanted, how no part of the camp was closed off to him and he could pretty much just do and go where ever he wanted, how easy it was for him to survive an interrogation without breaking down, and then just pick up the pieces of his fabricated life in the camp once he was released again. I don’t disbelieve that this was the account Morris’ received from Lale, but again, it’s where your duty to history and the reader comes in to question the authenticity of those experiences and how your portrayal of a concentration camp might read to those who have lived through similar, though very different experiences. I felt the author failed to portray the horror of the concentration camps, which should really be the easiest part of the story.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz reminded me a lot of another WWII book I read a few years ago, Beneath a Scarlet Sky. Both are fascinating stories in themselves, but both books were inspired by late-in-life interviews with their subjects. In both books I think the authors rely too heavily on the source material from their interviewees and somehow fail to connect to their characters on an emotional level.

Which brings me to my final point. This book was poorly written. This is more a flawed chronological account of Lale’s 3 years in the camps than a meaningful piece of historical fiction. Morris relies heavily on dialogue and plot to carry her story, but misses out on any kind of characterization. Somehow an emotional story of 3 terrible years in concentration camps lacks in any real emotional connection. Now obviously this is a personal opinion. I know a lot of people really loved this and connected with Lale, so it makes me feel like a bit of troll saying that I didn’t feel anything from a holocaust story, but I just felt that Morris didn’t give these characters the humanity they deserved. Her writing style is very detached and as such, I always felt detached as well. The story just seemed to be “and then he did this and then he said this and then she did that”. It was just kind of boring.

It was a story with a lot of promise, and like I said, it does show a different experience of life at Auschwitz, but I just wanted more from it. Lale is a flawed individual and I would have loved to see more exploration of how his morality was impacted by his time in the camp. He alludes a few times that he was worried he might be considered a collaborator and I would have liked to see more of that internal struggle. He was a generally selfless person and i felt he likely would also have struggled with the fact that he couldn’t help everyone and the impact having to decide who he would help might also have on him. At 250 pages, there was certainly room to better develop this story, so I was disappointed that the author decided to just retell an interview rather than do the hard emotional reflection on how this experience would impact Lale and those around him.

I think I’ll end it there. I could probably say more, but this is getting long enough. I see there’s a sequel. I am intrigued that it’s about Cilka, she is one of the characters that I probably empathized with the most and it was really upsetting to learn she was convicted as a collaborator. I’m curious if her sequel is fabricated or actually based on a real person. Anyone know? I won’t be reading it either way, but I am intrigued.

Recursion

Rating:
Author: Blake Crouch
Genres: Science fiction, Thriller
Pub. date: Jun. 2019 (read Oct. 2019)

Okay, I need to get my thoughts down about this book before I start to forget them! Recursion was my book club’s pick for October and I was pretty excited to read it because we also read Dark Matter together a few years ago and all really liked it. I really hadn’t wanted to read Dark Matter, but I ended up loving it, so I was cautiously optimistic about Recursion.

I am going to have to give the edge to Dark Matter, but Recursion takes you along the same wild ride as Dark Matter does. Crouch writes this really interesting blend of sci-fi and thriller, which I think works really well. His plotlines are totally f-ed up, but embody everything that makes for a great I-cant-put-this-book-down read. They have lots of mind-bending science and crazy plot twists, but also maintain a nice balance of emotional depth and characterization. It’s easy to get caught up in the science, but Crouch always grounds his characters through their relationships and it makes for a much more compelling read.

I think it’s best to go into Dark Matter and Recursion blind, but if you want a small synopsis, Recursion basically looks at memory functions – how we remember (or don’t remember) things and how those memories impact our personal well being and understanding of time. What would happen if we could record and map our memories? Would it help people who suffer from diseases like Alzheimer’s, or does it have the potential to completely warp our sense of time and space.

I did really like this book – it has a strong start, it’s very engaging, and it’s definitely hard to put down. But I ultimately decided to give it 3 stars instead of 4 because I struggled with the last third of the plot, which I found numbingly repetitive, and I thought the ending had some major plot holes.

But that’s all I’ll say about that for now. For the rest of this review, I’m going to have to get into some spoilers. I have a lot of thoughts about the ending and I’m hoping that other readers (or my book club) might be able to clear up some of my questions, but if you haven’t read the book and are planning to, definitely tap out of this review now. Major spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned!

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So here’s where I struggled with this book. I thought it had great pacing during the first half, but the more messed up everything got with the chair, the less interested I got. The world ending time loop at the end was a nightmare and it just went on forever. It gave me anxiety while also being super long and boring. You could tell Helena was taking the total wrong approach to ending the time loop and with every reset I was counting how much older she was getting and just kept finding it less and less believable that she would be able to live the same life over so many times without losing her mind. By my count she was like 282 years old when she finally died!! As someone who has not even yet reached the age of 33 (the length of the time loop), I found it hard to fathom reliving your life for that long. I thought it was realistic that she finally just passed away from sheer mental exhaustion, but it was a little annoying to have Barry then come in less than a year later and solve everything. Helena was the hero of this story for me and it was really annoying to watch stupid Barry take all her glory.

Fellow readers, I need your help in understanding the ending, because to my mind it has some serious flaws. Here’s all my issues:

1. How did Barry just go back to a dead memory? Going to a dead memory killed the original test subject (forget his name), so why was Barry able to do it? I feel like this should have been explained.

2. On that note, when the first guy died from going to a dead memory he had this wonderful experience where he went to heaven (or whatever you want to call it), which was enough to make him kill himself later, how come no one else had this experience in their many deaths?

3. Barry basically solved the time loop by going back to the original timeline and stopping Helena from dying, which is what started Slade’s obsession with the chair, but I don’t see how this was any different than Helena going back to the age of 16? She was always returning to that time because it was still part of her original timeline, but the fake memories would always still catch up with everyone later. Wouldn’t the fake memories still catch up with everyone in Barry’s original timeline?

4. Or does the memories not catching up have to do with the fact that Barry is springing off of a dead timeline? I don’t really get why that would matter though, I guess the fake memories from the other timelines haven’t been created when you launch off a dead timeline, but it still begs the question, how did Barry return to a dead timeline?

5. What happened to Helena’s memories from her original timeline – the one where she worked for the R&D company? Slade apparently kills her for the first time in 2018, but I don’t remember her ever gaining those memories?

I think that mostly sums it up. But like I said, it was kind of disappointing to see Barry solve the problem, especially when Slade tells us that Helena originally figured it out and then he reset her memories (which also doesn’t make sense, she would have got those memories back n’est pas?) Or did she not get the memories back because Slade went back to a dead timeline? That would make sense actually, maybe that is the answer to why she never remembers Slade killing her either? I guess I will go with the answer that previous memories don’t catch up with you in a dead timeline, which would explain a lot of my confusion and questions 3-5, but still raises the question of how you travel to a dead timeline?

Anyways, this helped me sort through my thoughts, but still doesn’t change my rating. Crazy action doesn’t always make your story compelling and I just didn’t find the last third of this book compelling. But I’d love to hear everyone else’s thoughts on the ending and all the plot twists! Am I right about the dead memories thing? Do you have the answer to any of my other questions? Would love to know what everyone else thought!

When All is Said

Rating:
Author: Anne Griffin
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Jan. 2019 (read in Aug. 2019)

I’d heard such wonderful things about When All is Said that I convinced my book club to read it… and then missed the discussion for it! Turns out, they all loved it! It was our highest rated book so far this year and a much needed “good read” after a bunch of disappointments.

That said, while I liked this one, I think it might have been slightly overhyped to me and it wasn’t quite as good as I was anticipating. It definitely delivered on the heartwarming novel I was expecting, but there wasn’t really anything unexpected in the plot, which ended up being a tiny bit of a disappointment. I kept hoping for just a little bit more, but I guess that is the beauty of the book too. It’s narrated by Maurice as he looks back on his life after the death of his wife. What makes it beautiful I guess, is that his life is both remarkable and unremarkable at the same time, much like most of us that live on this earth.

The story is told through a series of 5 toasts to 5 of the most important people in Maurice’s life. There’s a real feeling of nostalgia and finality throughout the course of the book as Maurice toasts all the people that had an impact on his life to his son. Each toast reveals a different part of Maurice’s life, from his childhood, to the courtship of his wife and birth of their children, to the great sadness of his life, the death of his wife. Throughout his life story, he also reveals the impact that some of his early interactions working for a rich Irish family, the Dollards, had on both his life and on the Dollards. How one action can have long lasting impacts and influence your outlook on life for years to come.

The story with the Dollards was quite interesting and I liked how the author wove it into the rest of the novel. It’s never the center of the story, but it pulls it together. I thought the writing was good and I’m impressed that this was a debut novel. But like I said, nothing really unexpected happened in this story and I kept wanting just a little bit more out of it. It reminded me of other books I’ve read that have featured senior protagonists (A Man Called Ove is the most popular book that comes to mind), and while I love all these books, I would have liked to see this one do something a little bit different with the story, although the storytelling through toasts was undeniably creative.

An excellent debut though and I’m excited to see what Anne Griffin writes next!

Next Year in Havana

Rating: ⭐
Author: Chanel Cleeton
Genres: Historical Fiction, Romance
Pub. date: Feb. 2018 (read Apr. 2019)

Well that was the most disappointing book I’ve read in a while. I was really expecting to like this. I’ve been really into romances lately and I love historical fiction. I haven’t read any books about Cuba, so I thought this was a great opportunity to learn something new. This is my book club’s selection for April, but it immediately got off to a bad start because my co-chair finished the book before I even started it and gave it 1 star! We usually have the same taste in books, but I was still determined to like Next Year in Havana because it has such great reviews and I was so optimistic about it.

But alas, it was not meant to be. I really tried, I kept telling myself I was liking it, but eventually I had to admit to myself that I really just didn’t like it. It took me over two weeks to read and if it hadn’t been for my looming book club deadline, it probably would have taken a lot longer. It was just really boring and I never wanted to pick it up. The topic should have been super engaging, but the author’s writing and dialogue left a lot to be desired and I didn’t believe in any of her characters.

Next Year in Havana follows the classic historical fiction narrative where one storyline is set in the past and one set in the present. Overall, I’m a bit tired of this narrative. I think it’s overdone and the modern day timeline is almost always less engaging than the historical one. However, this was one book where I thought the decision to tell two timelines actually made sense. The modern day timeline is set in 2017, right after Castro’s death, when US-Cuban relations are finally starting to thaw and change. The historical storyline is set in 1958/9 around when Castro was coming to power. Eliza grew up as part of the wealthy Perez family and the change in government results in the exile of her family to America. In 2017, her granddaughter, Marisol, decides to travel to Cuba to spread her grandmother’s ashes under the guise of writing a tourism article (she is a journalist).

I thought the split timeline worked well because both settings are historically important and mark the changes in Cuba’s politics. It was interesting to see the two factions of Cubans: those who stayed and those who left, and how those decisions played a role in how they viewed Cuba into the future. So the setting definitely had lots of potential and demonstrated the differences between the wealthy and the poor and the locals and the exiles.

But I had a lot of problems with the book. The first was with the romance(s). The story starts with Eliza meeting and falling in love with a revolutionary, Pablo, and Marisol being infatuated with her tour guide, Luis. It’s a lot to carry two romances in a book like this and I thought the author did justice to neither. They were both classic insta-love romances and I have very little interest in those types of love stories. I didn’t understand what was attracting any of the characters to each other and there was very little development of them falling in love. Definitely not a slow burn romance type book. I had a little more sympathy for Eliza because of the era she was living in, but Marisol needs to get a grip.

My second problem with the book was the way in which the author conveyed historical information. This whole book was just a huge history info dump and it was extremely un-engaging to read about. Having one of your characters be a journalist is such an uninspired way to communicate history. It’s easy to have a tour guide that explains everything, but it’s boring. At times I felt like I was reading a history book. I’d much rather be shown the history through Eliza’s eyes or through stories she shared with Marisol. I don’t want to listen to a history professor drone on and on about the author’s obviously biased opinions on Cuba.

‘Show don’t tell’ was probably one of the main problems with this book. Cleeton tells us her characters are in love, she tells us about Cuba’s history, she tells us about the conflict Marisol feels between the exiles and those who stayed, but she doesn’t show us any of it. Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference between her two protagonists because they constantly just cycled through the same thoughts. “he’s a revolutionary, we can’t be together”, “I’m American, we can’t be together”, “it sucks to lose your home and fear for you life”, “it sucks not to have freedom of speech”, “Castro is bad, Castro is bad, Castro is bad.” Honestly, it got so repetitive.

My understanding is that Cleeton’s family basically lived Eliza’s exile, so she’s definitely coming at this story from the perspective of the exiles. I liked that she included a revolutionary, because I really wanted to see and understand both sides of Cuba’s history. Castro represented a lot of bad things to the Americans, but he represented a lot of good things to a lot of Cubans. I feel like the author tried to cover both sides of the story, but her storytelling was still extremely biased and it was not what I was looking for from this story.

This is where my biggest problem with the novel was. I feel like the author took Cuba’s history and its pain and used it to write a drama for the purpose of entertainment. Frankly, I was insulted by Marisol’s character. When she refers to the injustices that have been perpetrated against Cubans, she repeatedly includes herself in that narrative. She refers to Cubans using the collective ‘we’, as if she really understands how Cuban’s have suffered since 1959. I agree that the Cuban-Americans absolutely know their own kind of pain, but she does not understand Luis or what he has been through. She doesn’t get to come back 60 years later and insert herself into Cuba’s story. I know immigrants face their own kind of pain and hardship with the loss of their culture and the diaspora of living in another country. But portraying Marisol as someone who understood what Cubans went through totally erases them from their own story.

It was just so irritating how oblivious Marisol was to much of Cuba’s history and suffering (as evidenced in every single conversation where Luis is explaining some part of Cuba’s history to her). Yet she was so indignant and self-righteous about it. It was the typical “American-comes-to-save-the-oppressed” type of story. Luis was a revolutionary in his own right. He was incredibly intelligent and politically-savvy, so I struggled to believe that he would give an entitled journalist like Marisol the time of day. I hated the ending. I thought it belittled everything Luis had worked for. Cuba’s history is Cuba’s history. You can’t write it into some perfect little historical romance. I felt like this did no justice to Cuba or to Cubans. Am I super knowledgeable about Cuba? Hell no, but I get the feeling its history is a lot more nuanced than this book is able to portray. Sometimes you can’t have nice little endings. Privileged people feel like they can fix everything. But they can’t and sometimes it’s not their responsibility to. Cuba will ultimately be transformed by its own people.

So yeah, I did not enjoy this book. I still learned something from it, but I would much prefer to read about Cuba from a different perspective. I felt like this was very much the Westernized view of Cuba, and I would have preferred to read about it from the point of view of someone who has lived Cuban history first-hand. Mostly I was just insulted that the author took Cuba’s history and used it to write a dramatic, historical romance. It was belittling.