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review 2020-08-25 21:30
El Norte by Carrie Gibson
El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America - Carrie Gibson

This is a very informative book about the Hispanic role in North American history, from the first arrival of the Spanish in the western hemisphere, through their colonization of what is today Florida, Texas, California and much of the rest of the American West, to the U.S.’s wars with Mexico and Spain and its troubled relationship with Puerto Rico, to the role of Hispanic culture in the U.S. and the treatment of Hispanic citizens and immigrants. At 437 pages of text (followed by endnotes etc.), it covers a lot, though it also has to keep moving fairly quickly to get through it all. It’s written to be accessible to the general reader, though I found it more interesting when I was able to devote larger amounts of time to keep all the facts straight.

There are a lot of facts here, and not a lot of analysis, which is a little bit too bad because I have the feeling the author has a lot more to say but was trying to keep her opinions out of it. It’s definitely a big-picture approach, a view of all of post-contact American history side-by-side with the history of the nearest Spanish-speaking colonies and countries, but with a fair amount of detail about key events and players. The author also accomplishes a rare feat in a book focused on a particular disadvantaged group in American society, which is that she doesn’t forget about the others: some of this history overlaps quite significantly with the U.S.’s treatment of Native Americans and African-Americans, which Gibson doesn’t shy away from (and treatment of Asians is touched on as well). While little of the history was entirely new to me, I was still struck by, for instance, the extent to which southern slaveowners hoped to take over Cuba, several Mexican states, and possibly other southern neighbors in order to extend slavery. My biggest complaint is that the book could have been clearer about the implications of how the Mexican-American War got started. But I particularly appreciated the way the author relates the history of Mexico side-by-side with the U.S.; although we're neighbors, I'm not sure I've actually seen these histories in the same work before.

Overall, this is an interesting and accessible history that provides as comprehensive a view of the long history of Spanish-speaking people and their descendants in the U.S. as I’ve ever seen. It’s a useful perspective and a worthwhile read.

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review 2019-07-14 18:00
Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade
Night At the Fiestas: Stories - Kirstin Valdez Quade

This is an intense literary short story collection, consisting of 10 stories mostly set in New Mexico, many but not all featuring Hispanic characters. The author does an excellent job with character, each of the protagonists seeming as real as a character in a good novel, drawn with specific traits that bring them to life as individuals. And the scene-setting is great too; the stories are immersive, with well-chosen details that bring them to life in the mind’s eye without interfering with the pace of the plot. And they are compelling, each one different.

The stories are on the darker side, often featuring broken families, domestic violence (typically off-screen), or just protagonists who feel alone in the world. My two global complaints are that the endings are often a little bit weak – Valdez Quade seems to struggle most with the last paragraph or two of a story – and that a few stories prominently feature secondary characters whose behavior doesn’t quite make sense. Short stories are made for ambiguity, and there’s plenty of that here – I wish I’d read it with someone else, to be able to discuss it, which is a sign of a good short story – but it needs to be calculated precisely.

But now for the stories (and I’d be interested to hear others’ interpretations):

“Nemecia”: The first story starts out strong, featuring a young girl growing up in the early 20th century looking up to her mysterious older cousin. It peters out toward the end, though.

“Mojave Rats”: This is a perfectly fine story about a blended family living (temporarily; the mother depends on it) in an RV park in the Mojave Desert. It spends a little too much time in the protagonist’s head though, and ends on a realization rather than an event; I can see why few reviewers mention it.

“The Five Wounds”: Seems to be the overall favorite of the collection, and it’s very strong: this story of a deadbeat father’s attempt at redemption through a violent religious ritual (one apparently actually carried out by the Penitentes in New Mexico) features a big, dramatic, culturally-specific set piece, and is well-crafted and intense.

“Night at the Fiestas”: On the one hand, I really enjoyed this story of a teenage girl who wants her life to be a drama, and encounters a moral dilemma on her way to the Fiestas de Santa Fe; it’s also an intense and well-crafted story. But the actions of the man on the bus didn’t make a lot of sense to me. How could he just forget the large amount of cash he was carrying, and why didn’t he try harder to retrieve it?

“The Guesthouse”: The dynamics of what feels like an archetypical broken middle-America family seem entirely believable here, but this story’s set piece – involving a boa constrictor – was a little over-the-top for me, and the story ends abruptly on an act of violence without letting us see the consequences.

“Family Reunion”: This is a great story about an 11-year-old who feels like an extra wheel in her blended family and an outcast as a non-Mormon in Salt Lake City. The friend’s mother’s behavior didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but it’s an emotionally intense story that left me disturbed by just how alone this kid is.

“Jubilee”: This one is also great: a college student from a poor background intends to shame her father’s landowner boss with her reverse snobbery at a fancy party, but mostly reveals her own clumsiness and insecurities.

“Ordinary Sins”: The setting of this story is interesting, featuring the dynamics of a Catholic parish where the long-term, kindhearted but timid local priest is perhaps to be supplanted by a stern young Nigerian newcomer. But it spends a little too much time in the head of its protagonist, a pregnant young parish employee, as she overthinks a situation she encounters, and the end felt a little obligatory.

“Canute Commands the Tides”: This is an accomplished but disturbing story, about a retiree who, feeling a lack of purpose and connection in her life, befriends the woman she’s hired to help unpack and clean up her new house, only to encounter violence from the cleaning lady’s son. This story made me uncomfortable in part because of the violence (which is starker here than in any other story), and in part because several readers seem to have taken it as a parable about naïve white do-gooders. Certainly reaching out to others can result in being hurt yourself, but I think cautioning people against kindness and generosity is a pretty anti-social message; I also think the story isn’t actually that simplistic, that Margaret is more lonely than meddling and just has bad luck in the family she encounters.

“The Manzanos”: Like most readers, I didn’t think much of the final story. Its lack of plot is a weakness, but its larger problem is being told in the first person, present tense from the point-of-view of an 11-year-old with poor academic skills . . . whose “voice” nevertheless is that of a 30-something well-educated writer in both form and content. It’s jarring and not believable in the least. Presumably this was one of the author’s early stories.

Overall though, this collection really engaged me; it features well-developed protagonists and settings and engaging plots, and gave me a lot to think about. I look forward to seeing what this author does next; she is relatively young but well on her way to being a fantastic writer.

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review 2019-05-27 22:12
The Affairs of the Falcóns by Melissa Rivero
The Affairs of the Falcóns - Melissa Rivero

There’s a real dearth of books about undocumented Spanish-speaking immigrants in the United States. I read in large part to learn about other people’s experiences, and this is a community that’s so nearby and yet so foreign to most Americans. I think what I really want is a popular ethnography – something like Just Like Us, but more representative; something like Two Dollars a Day, but about undocumented immigrants – but memoirs, and fiction by people who know what they’re talking about, can be great too.

So I came to this book with great hopes: it’s about a family of undocumented Peruvian immigrants living in New York in the mid-90s, written by an author who was an undocumented Peruvian immigrant herself as a child. And if this book helps other readers to better understand and sympathize with people in the characters’ situations, then that is a wonderful thing. But this one didn’t work for me as literature, and frankly I wound up not really understanding or sympathizing much with its protagonist either.

The book covers about a month in the life of Ana, a 27-year-old married mother of two who is determined to make a life for herself and her family in New York, but faces serious financial difficulties and family strife. She, her husband Lucho, and their 6-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, are currently living in one room in Lucho’s cousin’s apartment; unfortunately the cousin has never liked Ana, Lucho has recently lost his job, and when Ana discovers she’s accidentally pregnant again, she knows they can’t afford it.

Unfortunately, the characters and writing are flat. Nobody has much personality, though everyone – Ana included – has a nasty tendency to kick everyone else when they’re down; I wasn’t sure whether this was meant to be an unfortunate result of their poverty and long-term stress or just a cheap technique to keep enough conflict in the book to tell a story with, but it tended to feel like the latter. It’s a quick, easy read, but the writing is bland, and though everyone is supposedly speaking Spanish, it doesn’t feel like it; characters say things like “Yes, I do,” which don’t really translate (Spanish doesn’t use the helping verb “do”). The plot is lacking too, mostly consisting of Ana going around arguing with her friends, family, and neighborhood loan shark. And the writing has a tendency to over-explain concepts and feelings in a very simplified way.

Then there’s Ana, our protagonist, who is by turns baffling and unsympathetic. Ana grew up poor, in a small village, is of mostly indigenous descent, and seems to have little education, yet is inexplicably married to Lucho, who grew up privileged in Lima, is of Spanish descent and college-educated and a professional. Predictably, the two don’t understand each other or communicate at all, and I was never convinced by Ana’s insistence that at some point they’d fallen in love; their marriage seemed more like a device to educate readers about differences of class and ethnicity within Peru than a real relationship. Ana doesn’t understand why Lucho would care about having a fulfilling job rather than doing menial labor, and seems to see this as a frivolous desire; meanwhile she doesn’t consult him about major decisions affecting their marriage, then becomes enraged when he doesn’t appreciate the sacrifices she’s kept to herself. I didn’t understand why Lucho would have agreed to immigrate illegally in the first place – couldn’t he have gotten a visa to go to Spain, as his brother did? – especially since this leaves their kids, too, leading an insecure existence when his background might have afforded them better opportunities back home. As the family’s problems compound and their reasons for being in the U.S. are stripped away, it seems as if Ana prefers to make her whole family third-class non-citizens in New York rather than being a second-class citizen by herself in Peru. Aside from all that, she just comes across as an unpleasant person; for instance, when the cousin’s husband – who is consistently kind to her and sticks up for her to his villainous wife – confesses that his wife can be abusive, her response is an internal tirade about how he, with his own home and money, has no right to feel sorry for himself, and she hopes his kids will abandon him (sure, he had an affair, but yikes).

So, overall, this book was a quick read but didn’t do much for me, and features characters who seem unrepresentative of undocumented immigrants in ways that make them less sympathetic. It didn't help that I got the sense we were supposed to take Ana's side and see her as a heroine instead of the deeply flawed and difficult person that she is, but even without that issue, this book is awfully simplistic. Hopefully someone else will tackle this topic more successfully.

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review 2019-05-13 04:45
Crux by Jean Guerrero
Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir - Jean Guerrero

This is a great memoir and family saga, and an intense one. At the center of it is the author’s relationship with her troubled father, but in writing that story she weaves together many strands of personal and family history, going back to her great-great-grandmother in Mexico. A journalist by training, the author investigates many possibilities for her father’s afflictions; he has a drug problem for many years and suffers from bouts of what is probably drug-induced psychosis, but she also investigates the possibility that he is actually the victim of CIA mind-control experiments (declassified documents show that they’ve done experiments like this in the past, so it isn’t as crazy as it sounds), or that he has special spiritual powers (as a Mexican cousin believes).


Whatever the cause, there’s certainly a family history of trauma that echoes back through several generations. And so it’s a fascinating, vivid story, but also a dark one; whatever you find upsetting or scary, it’s probably in here. And there’s an overriding lack of safety that makes it a disturbing book, an effect probably heightened by the author’s staccato writing style. But it’s terribly compelling, full of incident and full of life. And full of a wide range of literary references; the author understands her life and her father’s through the prism of all sorts of literature, from Moby Dick to the Sword of Truth to the Popul Vuh. But I think what really stands out is the author’s ability to articulate and bring home not only her own experiences, but her mother’s, father’s, and grandmother’s. There’s no distance here; the reader is transported right into the experiences of the author and her family. In any event, it’s an excellent book, and one I highly recommend.

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review 2019-04-22 05:11
Hola and Goodbye by Donna Miscolta
Hola and Goodbye: Una Familia in Stories - Donna Miscolta

This is an interesting, though uneven, collection of stories about three generations of Hispanic women (and some of their friends) in California. It begins with the grandmother, Lupita, who works in a factory with her best friend and barely speaks English, and whose children are quickly leaving her behind. After setting up the stories of Lupita and her friends, it moves on to her children, and then quickly to the grandchildren, who dominate most of the book.

The first part, about Lupita and her friends, is quite strong, though the protagonists aren’t always the nicest people: they tend to use their husbands, dislike their kids, and obsessively remind the reader that fat people are fat. The rest of the book continues these trends, but in stories that I generally found less interesting. The children’s generation comes across as quite shallow, while several of the grandchildren’s stories didn’t ring true to me. After the first quarter of the collection, the only standouts for me were “Lovely Evelina,” about a transgender woman attending her 25-year high school reunion among people who only ever knew her as a boy, and perhaps “Sunday Dinner,” the last story, about Lupita’s old age. Meanwhile several stories feature Julia, the apparent author avatar of the collection, whose stories don’t really do much. There are also some continuity errors.

So while this isn’t a terrible collection, and I like the idea of telling a multigenerational tale through short stories, it’s also not one that stood out for me or that I’m inclined to recommend.

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