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review 2020-04-03 22:11
The Newcomers by Helen Thorpe
The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom - Helen Thorpe

Helen Thorpe is an excellent writer of journalistic nonfiction, and always picks great topics for books, which is why I’ve read all of them. Unfortunately, the quality of her books seems to me inversely proportional to how much she features herself in them, and The Newcomers falls on the wrong end of that scale. But this book has an even more basic problem, in which Thorpe appears to have committed herself early to a particular premise and clung to it even as it proved increasingly infeasible and even inappropriate.

The premise is that Thorpe spent a year embedded in a Colorado high school classroom in which non-English-speaking students newly arrived in the U.S. learn the fundamentals of the language. Most of these students are refugees, hailing from various war-torn parts of the globe, from the Middle East to Africa, Southeast Asia to Central America. Teacher Eddie Williams generously agreed to host her, and Thorpe shows up eagerly to class, hoping to write about the lives of these kids and the circumstances that led them to flee their homelands.

And here’s where the problems start. First, Thorpe was determined to write a book about a group of people, who, by definition, don’t speak her language, and she doesn’t speak theirs. Second, those people are traumatized, confused teenagers, with traumatized or missing parents who understand life in the U.S. no better than their children do. Gradually the book turns into Thorpe pumping for information on the personal lives of people who don’t actually want to share. Even the teacher, her entry point, doesn’t want to go there, which doesn’t stop her from highlighting more than once that he refused to talk about the circumstances of his having a child outside wedlock. (Good grief, it’s the 21st century. This is probably the least interesting thing about him.)

Okay, she can do without the teacher’s inner life. But the students are no more forthcoming, and no wonder. Throughout the book, numerous older students and interpreters, former refugees themselves, advise Thorpe against prying into the kids’ lives: they’re new, they’re traumatized, they’re not ready to discuss their worst experiences with anyone – let alone, one presumes, the general public. But instead of changing the plan and focusing the book on people who were ready, she substitutes by speculating about the kids’ inner lives, or by recounting mundane classroom activities as if they were freighted with deeper meaning than seems evident to me. She notes that when Jakleen, an Iraqi girl who is one of the book’s more prominent characters, started and then stopped wearing a hijab, “I was not sure how to interpret this statement, and she never cared to enlighten me”; when Jakleen stops talking to a boy, it’s “for reasons that remained unclear.” When Methusella, a Congolese boy also prominently featured, makes a collage in group therapy, it’s “one of the few times [he] had revealed himself all year.”

He only actually revealed himself to the school therapist, but she hastened to pass on details of his work’s symbolism to the author, in one of many moments that made me question this story both in terms of consent and storytelling. All but one of the kids agreed to “participate” in her project (perhaps feeling it would have been rude or pointless to refuse, when she was in their classroom every day regardless), but none of them ever tell their stories fully, the way the subjects of Thorpe’s previous books did, leaving their experiences rather opaque. Which means the book loses out on including any more depth than what Thorpe was able to glean by following the teenagers around for awhile, and that most likely all this speculation about their emotions and histories was published without their first having the opportunity to withdraw consent. I’m sure many worthwhile nonfiction books have made their subjects uncomfortable, but it’s one thing to do that to an informed adult, another to an underage refugee with limited English proficiency.

And then there’s just so much of Thorpe in this book. She seems determined to convince readers how important her friendship is to these kids, and to the two families – Jakleen’s and Methusella’s – to whom she becomes a regular visitor. Unfortunately in her interactions with the teens she comes across as stiff and hopelessly middle-aged, and the focus on her own reactions takes away from informing the reader. For instance, when Methusella’s father endeavors to explain the situation in the DRC to her, she writes, “Then we got into an alphabet soup of armed groups . . . I got lost somewhere in the middle, amid the acronyms and all the tribal stuff. I could not absorb all the details, but I came away with the notion of a jumble of allegiances and betrayals, mixed with a lot of weaponry.” Look, lady, I don’t care about your experience of learning about Congolese history. This is supposed to be a book about the refugees, not your memoir.

All that said, this book did engage me. It’s accessible and, especially as we get to know the families, the kids and their parents are very easy to empathize with. I enjoyed spending time with them and wanted the best for all of them. While there’s a ton of fiction and memoirs out there about refugee experiences, there’s much less popular nonfiction, so it’s a great idea for a book. And I learned a bit about the refugee resettlement process from it. The contrast between the Congolese family, which quickly seems to thrive in the U.S., and the Iraqi girls and their widowed mother, all of whom struggle quite a bit, is interesting and vivid. Thorpe’s brief trip to the DRC and meetings with Methusella’s friends and relatives there was a nice touch. But I suspect Thorpe would have produced a far better book if she’d regrouped and written about people willing and able to fully engage in the process, and kept herself out of it.

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text 2020-03-04 02:30
Reading progess: 13%
Peace, Blood and Understanding - Molly Harper

“You seem to hold a lot of contempt for the Council, Ms. Jameson-Nightengale.”

 

“Contempt? No. Distrust? Sure. Alarm? Absolutely. Occasionally wake from nightmares of an apocalyptic hellscape where the Council has taken over and turned the human population into juice boxes—”

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photo 2020-02-04 08:30
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photo 2020-01-02 05:25
Cheap Half Moon Bay Motel

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review 2019-12-31 01:30
A Royal Affair by Stella Tillyard
A Royal Affair: George III and His Scandalous Siblings - Stella Tillyard

This is a very interesting historical biography, though weirdly conceived. The subtitle should be read not as a description of George III’s siblings but a qualification on who the book is about, and it's not George III, despite the cover image. Of the nine siblings, the youngest, Caroline Matilda, gets more than half of this book, and for good reason. Married at age 15 to the young King of Denmark, whose mental health was deteriorating rapidly, she embarked on an increasingly blatant affair with her husband’s doctor, Johann Struensee, and the pair grabbed the opportunity to take over the government of Denmark, dismiss all the old guard, and institute various Enlightenment reforms. Then within a couple of years everything came crashing down.

So, that’s a wild and fascinating story, and if her life had been a little longer maybe the whole book would have been about Caroline Matilda. As is the author fills out the rest of the book with the, by comparison, run-of-the-mill scandals of three of her brothers, Edward, William, and Henry, who being wealthy and privileged young men with no responsibilities, partied a lot and had love affairs and got secretly married. I think even Tillyard was a bit bored with them, especially the latter two, because her writing about their shenanigans tends to focus more on the women in their lives – who come across as more interesting, maybe because they had more to lose or maybe because Tillyard just finds women’s history more interesting. Don’t get me wrong, it’s entertaining to read about royal princes running about in disguise and being mistaken for highwaymen, but the brothers’ sections boil down to 18th century celebrity gossip, without larger import.

In the Introduction, Tillyard offers an enticing rationale for her choice of subject: “Biography . . . rarely dwells for very long on brothers and sisters and the importance they can have in one another’s lives. Perhaps because I am from a large family myself, my work has tended to go the other way, to be horizontal, seeking in the tangled web of brotherly and sisterly relations other clues to what makes us who we are.” But in focusing only on the scandalous siblings, I don’t think she quite lives up to that promise. George III is here for the role he plays in his younger siblings’ lives, but it’s in no way a biography of him; the three siblings who died between the ages of 15 and 20 get barely a mention; and Augusta, the eldest, who survived but was not scandalous, rarely appears. And there's no particular indication that the playboy brothers influenced Caroline Matilda or vice versa; these segments seem totally separate.

But it’s an interesting book nonetheless; Tillyard is a strong writer and storyteller, bringing the scenes of history to life, and seems to have done her research well. It felt a little dense – which may be as much an issue of typesetting as writing – and took longer to read than I’d have estimated from the page count, but for Caroline Matilda’s story in particular it is worth the read.

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