Book Review: Mexico by Josh Barkan (Don’t Read This Book Ever)

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NetGalley Description

The unforgettable characters in Josh Barkan’s astonishing and beautiful story collection—chef, architect, nurse, high school teacher, painter, beauty queen, classical bass player, plastic surgeon, businessman, mime—are simply trying to lead their lives and steer clear of violence. Yet, inevitably, crime has a way of intruding on their lives all the same. A surgeon finds himself forced into performing a risky procedure on a narco killer. A teacher struggles to protect lovestruck students whose forbidden romance has put them in mortal peril. A painter’s freewheeling ways land him in the back of a kidnapper’s car. Again and again, the walls between “ordinary life” and cartel violence are shown to be paper thin, and when they collapse the consequences are life-changing.
 
These are stories about transformation and danger, passion and heartbreak, terror and triumph. They are funny, deeply moving, and stunningly well-crafted, and they tap into the most universal and enduring human experiences:  love even in the face of danger and loss, the struggle to grow and keep faith amidst hardship and conflict, and the pursuit of authenticity and courage over apathy and oppression. With unflinching honesty and exquisite tenderness, Josh Barkan masterfully introduces us to characters that are full of life, marking the arrival of a new and essential voice in American fiction.

Doesn’t that description sound wonderful?  I thought so too, which was why I requested it from NetGalley.  It’s too bad that description is a steaming heap of lies, much like this book.

I knew this book was going to suck from the moment I started it.  I downloaded the book in April, read the first short story, and hated it.  The premise was ridiculous and the characters were flat.  The plot was wonky and I just found it dumb.  I had a sinking feeling about the book, and at the time I was closing in on college graduation, so I put it down for several months.  Now, my life has calmed down a bit, so I picked it back up, hoping it had magically gotten better.  It hadn’t.

I (mostly) got through two more short stories before I got too disgusted to continue.  The first was shorter, about an American high school teacher in Mexico who had two students in a Romeo and Juliet situation.  First off: the main plot, the students’ forbidden romance, was not just a literal soap opera, but also a direct and awful ripoff of Shakespeare.  The author didn’t even peg the story as a retelling, he just took the Romeo and Juliet plot and made it far worse.  Second: the main character, the schoolteacher, was someone I would absolutely hate in real life.  He was a creep who followed his students around after school, listening at motel doors as they had sex, while praising himself as being their protector.  He spent his evenings like this for a month, despite having his own wife at home, who apparently married him in some unexplained twist of events even though her father was vehemently against their relationship from the moment they met.  That backstory, by the way, was thrown in there at random in between the MC creeping around after his underage students.  In addition to the MC having no self awareness to speak of, the language of this story was just weird and gross.  At one point, he thinks of the motel “where Sandra and Jose had been mating”.  Who talks like that?  Who writes like that?

The second story was not much better, and it was much longer.  This plot revolved around two women in a waiting room, one who was about to get a double mastectomy, and one, strikingly beautiful apparently, who had horrible scars from past abuse.  During the intro, Barkan spent multiple paragraphs on what each woman’s body looked like.  Sometimes, body descriptions are necessary to the story, especially for characters with these backstories.  But these descriptions sounded more like bad erotica than information necessary to the story.  It sounded to me like Barkan prefers sitting at a computer thinking about naked women than crafting a well-done plot.  It also sounds to me like he has not spoken to many real women, because the way the characters spoke in the story was unrealistic and contrived.  The majority of the chapter consisted of the beautiful woman describing her past life and abuse — she had become homeless as a teen and got caught up into some type of sex trade.  This kind of story is very real and probably should be written about more.  But this was the worst way to write about it.  Barkan romanticized the woman’s abuse, and painted her as a tragic, beautiful character.  It was the ultimate “wounded woman” trope, and honestly, it struck me more like a disgusting sexual fantasy than the sad reality I think it was intended to be.

I could not read any more.  The writing is awful.  The characters suck.  The plots are weird and fake and not paced well at all.  My final complaint is that even if these stories were written well, most of them are from the point of view of Americans in Mexico, and the nature of the plots serve to propagate the many negative stereotypes about Mexicans that a lot of Americans (including, apparently, Barkan) still believe.  Don’t read this book.  Don’t buy this book.  I honestly don’t know how this trash got past the editor.

This book was provided to me for free (thank God) in exchange for this very honest review.

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How I Decide What to Read Next

Johnny from sci.casual wrote this on my book reviews from Monday:

You’ve got eclectic tastes – how *do* you answer the question “what should I read next”?

I’m glad he asked that, because it’s a good question, and it requires a longer answer than I prefer to give via comment form.  In the book blogging world, many book bloggers are super organized about this.  It’s common to keep a TBR (to be read) list, and to read and review brand new books from one or two chosen genres.  I admire that organization, but the way I pick what to read next is much more arbitrary.  Here’s the short version — I keep a list on Goodreads, and then I pretty much just read what I want to read.

Here’s What I Like to Read (with examples from my Goodreads TBR)

Genres/types of books I read a lot:

  • Memoirs
  • Realistic YA
  • Fluffy summer novels
  • Literary novels
  • Nonfiction
  • Thrillers
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All images from Goodreads 

 

There’s not necessarily one genre that is my favorite, although if I had to pick it would probably be literary fiction, because of the vast range of stories and styles it encompasses.  But the things that really interest me are how humans interact together and how we process things.  I love reading about other cultures and immigration.  I love languages.  I love realistic portrayals of life, history from an individual’s perspective, and even poetry if individual poems can be taken together to tell a whole story (think Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse).  Truly, stories are my passion — as opposed to small talk, for example.  I can do small talk for awhile, but it doesn’t tell you anything about the person.  It’s what you do because you have to be together, like when your cashier is ringing up your groceries.  But once you get to know a person, you know their stories — the things they’ve done, the people they know, the hobbies and passions and experiences that make them who they are.  That’s substance.  And that’s how I choose books to add to my TBR — if the story sounds interesting and realistic and meaty, I add it.  That’s it.  It’s a bonus if it sounds like it’ll make me think and reconsider my opinions.

But How Do I Choose What to Read Next?

The short answer: I read what’s available.

The long answer:  I don’t like spending a lot of money on books, especially ones I haven’t read yet.  If I don’t like a book, I don’t want to have wasted money on it.  So I do pretty much all my reading through libraries.  I have a library card for every city I’ve lived in.  I grew up going to the library weekly, so I’ve gone through a lot of books.  And if you know how to tap into interlibrary loan, you’re pretty much set up for whatever you want to read.  In the last few years or so, I’ve gotten into borrowing ebooks, because one of the libraries I have a card for has a fantastic selection.  So while I prefer physical books, I’ll take an ebook any day of the week, too.

When I don’t have anything to read, I scroll through my Goodreads list.  I search for titles in the library catalogs to see who has what.  And usually I find one or two books on my list, so I’ll check those out and begin the cycle again.  But, a lot of books I read are fairly new and thus unavailable in libraries yet.  If this happens, I just pick a library book that’s not on my TBR.  And though I’ve slacked off on this a bit recently, I typically have a book or two sitting around that I received through a book review program.  I try to read these in a timely manner, but if it doesn’t sound interesting to me at the moment, I read something else.  My mom always has good recommendations too.

Not a lot of thought goes into what I read next, which is why my review posts can be a mishmash of random books.  I read what I like, and that’s the way it will stay.

What I’ve Been Reading: September 2017

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr. 

But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

This book is a work of fiction, but it may as well be completely true, given how many young unarmed black men have been killed by police in recent years.  It’s a vitally important book and an incredibly well-written work.

First, about the writing itself: this book is so well-crafted.  Every character is ridiculously realistic.  Starr’s family dynamics are incredible, with her parents being more present — and more true to life — than any other YA book I have read (and I’ve read several with good parent characters).  Starr’s friends are complex also — they have hidden hopes and dreams that show through and they deal with their own issues.  Starr’s boyfriend is also wonderfully written.  He makes dumb teenage mistakes, but owns up to them and honestly tries to be a good person.  I cannot say enough good things about the characters here, and that should tell you all you need to know about this book.

Second, the importance of this book cannot be overestimated.  As a white woman, reading this book is about as close as I can get to truly understanding what it is to be black in today’s world.  In addition to showing the blatant unfairness and discrimination against young black men, Thomas shows how Starr filters herself around her white friends because of small, thoughtless, but still discriminatory, comments that they routinely make.  It shows overt and covert racism and how both are damaging.  But she also shows how to respectfully learn — Starr’s boyfriend is white, and when he starts hanging out with Starr’s black friends, they talk about racism and what’s okay for him to do and say and what isn’t.

I don’t care how old you are or what color or are or what books you like — this is a book you should read, because this is the world we live in.

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

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You never know what’s happening on the other side of the wall.

Your neighbor told you that she didn’t want your six-month-old daughter at the dinner party. Nothing personal, she just couldn’t stand her crying.

Your husband said it would be fine. After all, you only live next door. You’ll have the baby monitor and you’ll take it in turns to go back every half hour.

Your daughter was sleeping when you checked on her last. But now, as you race up the stairs in your deathly quiet house, your worst fears are realized. She’s gone.

You’ve never had to call the police before. But now they’re in your home, and who knows what they’ll find there.

What would you be capable of, when pushed past your limit?

I read this book in about four hours, because I couldn’t put it down.  It was gripping.  It was was exciting.  It was horrifying.  There were twists and turns I didn’t expect at all.  The characters had secrets, as all good thriller characters must.

Many other reviews on Goodreads accuse this book of being ridiculous.  And maybe it is, but what’s a good thriller without some ridiculous twists and turns?  If crime thrillers are a type of book you enjoy, this is an excellent choice.  It’s true to the genre, the writing is solid, and it’s an entertaining way to spend a few hours.  I’d recommend this, not as something you absolutely must read, but as one I’d pass by in a bookshop and say, oh yeah, that was pretty dang good.

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The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Two brothers bound by tragedy; a fiercely brilliant woman haunted by her past; a country torn by revolution. A powerful new novel–set in both India and America–that explores the price of idealism and a love that can last long past death.

Growing up in Calcutta, born just fifteen months apart, Subhash and Udayan Mitra are inseparable brothers, one often mistaken for the other. But they are also opposites, with gravely different futures ahead of them. It is the 1960s, and Udayan–charismatic and impulsive–finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty: he will give everything, risk all, for what he believes. Subhash, the dutiful son, does not share his brother’s political passion; he leaves home to pursue a life of scientific research in a quiet, coastal corner of America.

But when Subhash learns what happened to his brother in the lowland outside their family’s home, he comes back to India, hoping to pick up the pieces of a shattered family, and to heal the wounds Udayan left behind–including those seared in the heart of his brother’s wife.

Suspenseful, sweeping, piercingly intimate, The Lowland expands the range of one of our most dazzling storytellers, seamlessly interweaving the historical and the personal across generations and geographies. This masterly novel of fate and will, exile and return, is a tour de force and an instant classic.

When I read Lahiri’s The Namesake, I knew I had to read more.  The types of books that Lahiri writes may be my favorites types of all time — books about families that span decades and follow the characters throughout the majority of their lives.  These are stories that aren’t really happy, but aren’t really sad — there are moments of despair and moments of hope.  There are characters that hate themselves and characters that rise up from impossible circumstances.  There are those that heal themselves and those that carry open wounds forever.  And you get to see how each of these people turn out, how their lives affect those that come after them.  Lahiri’s books are stories about individuals and family units, all in one.

I love stories about immigrants, especially Latino or Indian immigrants, so that was one aspect of this book that I loved.  I also loved that though the characters’ lives were wildly up and down, the book ended on a hopeful note.  I loved that the book was told from multiple perspectives — this can be hard to pull off, but Lahiri does it so elegantly that she doesn’t even need headings for the different sections — it’s easy to distinguish who she is talking about.  I loved that the ending wasn’t completely happy, either, because life isn’t completely happy.  This book is a beautiful representation of life and I wholeheartedly recommend it and anything else by her.

Covers and synopses from Goodreads

What I’ve Been Reading: July/August 2017

While I’ve been neglecting my blog, I’ve been exploring the libraries and bookstores in my new city.  As it turns out, the libraries here fell way below my expectations, especially compared to the city where I grew up.  I jokingly-but-not wish I had visited the libraries before I moved here, but it is what it is.  And we do at least have a McKay’s, which is a giant, hugely popular book, movie, and music thrift shop — the absolute best kind of shop for browsing.  So here’s what I’ve picked up in the last couple of months.

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A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierly

My mom likes to say her favorite movie genre is “based on a true story,” and mine has become the same.  Sometime this summer, we watched the movie Lion.  Saroo, born in India, got lost as a 5-year-old and lived on the streets of Calcutta for months.  He eventually ended up being adopted by an Australian family when no one could figure out where he came from.  He grew up Australian, but as an adult, remembered snippets of India, and used Google Maps to track his way back to his birth family.  The movie is an incredible, chilling rendition of this incredible, chilling true story.  Stuff like this cannot be made up; when they say the truth is stranger than fiction, this story is what they’re talking about.  Read this book; watch the movie.  This is one I won’t forget for a long time.

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Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood by Koren Zailckas

Another true story/memoir/autobiography, this is the testimony of Koren, a girl who was introduced to alcohol at age 14 and didn’t look back for almost a decade.  Written during the time of her life when she realized just how much of life she was missing out on because of alcohol, it’s a detailed reflection of what could almost be considered lost years.  Koren, once she had had a taste, used alcohol to fill all the voids in her life because she didn’t know what else to do.  She drank her way through middle school, high school, and college, never quite getting physically addicted but never able to give it up.  It’s sad story, and sluggish at times because of the sheer amount of detail in it.  But Koren has a way with words.  She uses a lot of metaphor, which has drawn a lot of criticism on Goodreads, but I enjoyed her writing style because it felt graceful and genuine.  It’s obvious that Koren still has issues to work through, but don’t we all?

My final comments on this story are these: when I was glancing through the Goodreads reviews, I was appalled by the sheer amount of people who seem to hate Koren (not just her book, but Koren herself) because she was a sorority girl and because she wrote and was successful with this book so soon after she stepped away from alcohol for good.  What the crap, people?  Can’t we just let this girl help herself through her writing, through sharing her story?  The book was a New York Times best seller — it’s obvious that this is something that affects a lot of us.  Why tear down something that Koren should be proud of?

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Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

This is a story, told in reverse, of a man named Sean who shrinks from society after a horrible accident that disfigured his face.  He makes a living by creating and running an adventure game that is played through the mail.  But when two teen players experience tragedy because they attempted to recreate the game in the real world, Sean has to face the world again, and at the same time, his past.

This was a weird book to read.  Sean has a pleasant, nonchalant tone about him, but it’s obvious he hides something.  His life, and the chapters, are quiet, but things are revealed each chapter almost without the reader noticing.  As you piece together his life, and how it turned out this way, it gets more and more horrible.  And while the how behind his disfigurement is revealed, the why is much harder to grasp.  A lot of this book is implicit, but it’s obvious it deals with self-hate and depression without offering much hope or ways out.  This is one I would love to read with others in an analytical setting.

The Handm12961964aid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I’ll be honest; I only read this book because none of the other books I wanted to read were available at the library, and because of the new Hulu show based on it (which I haven’t seen).  And I wasn’t really that impressed.  It was boring and hard to get into at first.  It’s a book that very obviously tries to make a point, and so it’s a little two-dimensional.  I feel like the explanation for the dystopian society was a little weak and lacking in depth.  The characters were a bit flat also.  Some of my complaints could be because the whole book is supposed to be the transcript of a recording that was made supposedly long ago.  It’s a historical document being analyzed by professors in the year 29something.  But even so, this just wasn’t anything that particularly struck me.  If you want to read about dystopia, read the Hunger Games trilogy.  They’re put together much better.

Small Admissio30827125ns by Amy Poeppel

This is the story of Kate Pearson, who finds herself thrown for a complete loop after her serious boyfriend dumps her.  She wallows in her sadness for months, but after her sister’s prodding, finally gets a job in admissions at a prestigious private school.  As she’s getting back on her feet, her friends are keeping secrets, parents are doing inane things for an acceptance at the school, and her sister is learning to let go.

This is a fluffy book, like I expected it to be.  And it was delightful.  I did have a couple complaints — a parent of a student-hopeful begins to narrate about a third of the way through the book, which threw me for a loop.  I think she should have been introduced earlier.  And near the end, I felt the story had wrapped up nicely, and then there was an incident that seemed to drag the book out a few more chapters and didn’t do a whole lot for Kate’s character arc.  But overall, this was so fun to read.  The characters were interesting and distinct, there were surprises I didn’t see coming, and it was a great story about changing your expectations for life and being okay with that.  It was definitely a few hours well spent.

All images from Goodreads.

What I’m Reading: June 2016

One thing I hoped for after graduation has come true: I have a lot more time to read.  I finally have a full-time job, so my days are spoken for, but I no longer have to make room in my evenings for homework.  So books have made it back into my life on the regular, thank goodness!

Resultado de imagen para my not so perfect life coverIt’s not summer for me without a Sophie Kinsella book, and this is the newest one, published in February of this year.  It follows the classic Kinsella style of zany characters and hilariously ridiculous situations, but it felt a bit more serious than her earlier books, especially the Shopaholic series.  In this, Katie Brenner is a recent college grad (like myself) who is trying to break into the world of branding.  She lands a job at a prestigious firm, but is a bit intimidated by her boss, whose social media accounts make it look like her life could not be more perfect.  Katie is simultaneously in awe and repulsed, but when she gets fired she has a whole host of new problems to deal with.

I enjoyed this because it’s the first Kinsella protagonist I’ve read who was just starting out in life.  I identified with Katie, and I admit felt a bit jealous that she is working in her field so soon after graduation.  But Katie is definitely not perfect either, and that made her so easy to root for.  I saw myself and my friends in her, and I wanted her to succeed.  She learns a lot of hard, adult-y lessons throughout the book, but it still has the nice, satisfying ending that is characteristic to Kinsella books.

Resultado de imagen para universal harvester coverUniversal Harvester is one I wish I could have read in school, or even in a book club, because it begs to be re-read and pondered and analyzed.  Set in the late 90s, it follows Jeremy, who works at a video rental store.  Jeremy, who has lived alone with his father since his mother died in a car accident, is settled into his routine, and likes it that way.  But he can’t help but be curious when several tapes get returned with extra scenes edited in, scenes that seem to have been shot not far from his house.

When I started this, it felt like a creepy thriller.  The mystery surrounding the tapes seemed dark.  Once I realized that — spoiler alert — the narrator is not the author, but another, unknown character, it got even creepier.  But as I got even farther into the book, the creepiness melted away, and it just felt horribly sad.

I know I’m being vague about this book, but it’s the kind that demands to be read to be understood.  You can go read the description on Amazon or Goodreads if you want more info.  What I will say is that Darnielle’s writing style is incredible.  Reading a novel with an unreliable narrator is one of my favorite things in the world, and he executed that perfectly.  This is going to be one I beg other people to read so we can talk about it.

Resultado de imagen para yo julia alvarez coverYo! is by the same author who wrote How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, which I loved.  This I have not loved nearly as much.  But part of it is because at first I didn’t realized that this book continues the story Yolanda, one of the Garcia girls, throughout her lifetime.  It’s an eventful one, too — she angers her entire family by writing about them, gets kicked out of college, and marries — three times.  If I had realized that this Yo was the same as the Garcia Girls Yo at first, maybe I would’ve liked it better.

But another reason I haven’t loved this is because I am reading it in Spanish.  While I have no trouble reading and comprehending words, comprehending voice is a different story.  In this book, each chapter has a different narrator.  Sometimes they are named, and sometimes they aren’t.  I also didn’t realize that at first, because it does take a little more effort for me to understand Spanish novels.  I found that it helps immensely if I read out loud, but I can’t read the entire thing aloud to myself.  I did finish the book, but I think I would have enjoyed it much more in English.

That said, it’s still an incredible work.  (Also, some of my issues may stem from the translation, since it was written in English originally.)  But even with my somewhat foggy understanding of the book, Alvarez’s unique writing style comes through.  Her characterization and place settings are both beautiful in their own way, and the fact that she wrote every single chapter in a different voice speaks to her talent.  Even though I haven’t enjoyed this nearly as much as How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, I’d still recommend it, and I may end up reading it again in English in the future.

 

I Want More Spanish Books Everywhere

You all know I love reading, and that I just graduated with a degree in Spanish.  I posted here (before my impromptu graduating-and-moving blogging break) about how I’m planning on keeping up my Spanish skills.  One of the biggest ways I’ll be doing that is by reading in Spanish, so every time I go to a library or bookstore I browse the Spanish section.

Just in the last week or two, I’ve been to four bookstores and library branches.  And of the places who actually have books in Spanish (some don’t have any at all), all of the ones they have are condensed into just two, three, or four feet of shelf space.  That’s not a lot, when you consider that entire niche sub-genres — like, say, vampire young adult fantasy novels — may have the same amount of shelf space.

Here in America, we have vast bookstores.  We have sections for bestselling fiction, literary fiction, young adult fiction, historical fiction, Christian fiction, and chick lit fiction.  We have romances, erotica, sci-fi, thrillers, epic fantasies, and crime dramas.  We have biographies and memoirs, how-to everything, travel sections, technology books, books of just photos, books to read in the bathroom, every type of cookbook you could think of, and dozens of different magazines.  We have books on every religion imaginable, and many bookstores have one or more aisles dedicated entirely to different versions of the Bible.

Aside from books, bookstores also typically have huge sections of stationery and notebooks, small gift items, and coffee shops.  Barnes and Noble has the Nook e-reader section complete with its plethora of accessories.  Bookstores have sections just for kids, with books and toys geared towards them, and entire sections blocked off for music and movies.  Do you want me to go on?

We have all of this in some form in almost every bookstore you could ever walk into.  Now, there are almost 43 million Spanish-speakers in the US as of 2015 (and not all of them are of Hispanic/Latino origin), which is almost 10% of the population.  This number is only getting higher as the years go by.  And yet, despite this, bookstores allow only a small fraction of their shelf space to books in Spanish, and this tiny amount of shelf space is expected to encompass the highlights of every genre that is offered in English in the rest of the store.  It’s ridiculous.

Now, I do have to admit that while I couldn’t find any statistics on it, I don’t think Spanish speakers read in Spanish as much as anyone reads in English.  I discussed this with one of my Costa Rican teachers when I spent a month in Costa Rica studying abroad.  We were in the “getting to know you” stage, and she asked me what I liked to do for fun.  I told her one of my favorite things was reading, and she asked me how many books I read a year.  I told her it’s probably 20-24 on average, and she was astonished.  She told me she reads maybe 1 or 2, and that most people she knows haven’t picked up a book since they got out of school.  Of course, this was a small town in Costa Rica, not in the US.  I have no way of knowing whether reading is something that is valued in Spanish-speaking households here, because apparently it hasn’t been studied.  That’s something I’d like to see.

I also want to mention that I have never been in a bookstore or library in, say, New Mexico or California, where the number of Spanish-speakers is much higher than in Tennessee, where I live.  Maybe in those states it’s more common to have larger sections of Spanish books since the customer base is larger.

Regardless, though, there are Spanish speakers everywhere in the US.  It’s the second-most-spoken language here after English, and as such, I feel like it should be given a tiny bit more than a measly three feet of shelf space in a bookstore.  Maybe more Spanish speakers would read and write if bookstores offered more than the same old Harry Potter translations and copies of Cien años de soledad in the Spanish section.  Maybe more people would learn it as a second language if they could read different types of books at different levels in Spanish.  Maybe brick and mortar bookstores could save themselves from going the way of Borders if they tapped into the Spanish-speaking market.  I don’t actually know if any of this would actually help anything (honestly it probably wouldn’t).  But I’d at least like to see some more effort.

For now, I’ll have to stick to reading through every small Spanish section I can find, and I’ll also try to find translations of works originally in English.  But I would truly love to see just half an aisle of Spanish books when I go into a bookstore or library.  I might have to take another trip out west.

What I’m Reading: April 2017

Two weeks until graduation and I somehow still have had time to (mostly) devour two books, both of which I got from the library when I knew I shouldn’t have.  But the high quality of these two books makes up for any time I maybe should have spent doing something else.

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How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents follows four sisters from the Dominican Republic who are forced to move to New York with their families in 1960 due to political strife.  Told from the perspective of all four girls, in 15 separate but intertwined stories, the story is written in backwards chronological order.  Secrets alluded to in the first few stories are slowly revealed as you read through the chapters, as the girls get younger.  With every chapter, you understand a little more.

It took me a chapter or two to really get into this book, because the first chapter has so many inside jokes and allusions you just don’t know about yet.  But the writing is incredible.  Alvarez does an amazing job of making the characters realistic as they get younger.  The way their understanding of the world changes throughout the book is fascinating, and each story intertwines a little more with the next until finally, at the end, the story is complete.  This is one I would love to study in a classroom setting, or in a book club.  This is a book that needs to be discussed and relished.  It was unlike anything I’ve read before, and unlike many of the books that draw my eye, it is one that can be read multiple times without getting too predictable.  There will always be something else to pick up on.

Resultado de imagen para the namesake
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The Namesake is about a boy named Gogol whose family moves to the US from Calcutta.  Gogol is the main character, but the book follows his parents just as much as it tells his story.  It’s a growing up novel, but with a wide perspective.  It’s very similar to books by Alan Brennert in that the scope of the novel is very wide, focusing on many decades and many people.  But it is not overwhelming.  It’s written in a comforting, quiet tone that immediately makes you feel as if you are part of the Ganguli family.  I haven’t quite finished it at the time this will post, but it is one that I can tell will have an impact.  The style is also somewhat reminiscent of The Kite Runner, except not as sad.  I also realized that this book has been made into a movie, so it is definitely one I’ll have to try to find and watch.

There you have it — a shorter what I’m reading post than usual, but two books that come very highly recommended.  It doesn’t really matter if these are your favorite genre or not — if you like books with good writing, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy these.

 

 

What I’ve Been Reading: Feb/March 2017

In between procrastinating working very hard on projects and homework, I’ve found a little time to read.  If you are looking for books with heavy topics, this is the post for you!  Warning: this post contains quite a few spoilers.

439288Verdict: If you get a chance, PLEASE READ THIS.

Speak was recommended to me by a friend who has very good taste in books, and we saw it in the bargain section at Books-a-Million, so I went ahead and bought it.  I really think this is one of the most important books that people, especially young people, will ever read.  Word of warning: it’s not a happy book.  If you haven’t heard of it (which you may have, because it’s read fairly commonly in high schools now), it’s about rape.  The protagonist, a high school freshman, gets raped right before the start of the school year, and spends the entire year dealing with the aftermath alone.  She gets depressed, and it manifests mainly through selective mutism — she quits speaking to almost everyone except her art teacher.  She has trouble sleeping.  She loses all her friendships, because no one knows what happened and she won’t talk about it.  It’s a story that is more common than we think it is, and that’s why it’s so important.  It’s not a happy or fun book to read, but it is incredibly well-written.  The protagonist is realistic, and the language is simple and easy to understand.  I cannot stress enough the importance of this book.

13260227Verdict: Do not use to make yourself feel good about the human race.  Do use to try to understand the lives of others, and why they act the way they do.  Do use to develop your empathy.

The Distance Between Us is a memoir about being left behind.  Reyna Grande, the youngest of three siblings, grew up in Mexico after both her parents moved to the United States.  They were stuck in poverty with an abusive, neglectful grandmother, and feelings of abandonment are the main recurring theme.  Grande writes about life in Mexico, and how her older sister became the little mother for her and her brother, and how that affected her sister for the worse later in life.  She writes about how her brother struggled because he never had a good role model.  She writes about how it was when her mother returned to Mexico because her father slept with someone else.  She writes about illegally crossing the Mexican-US border after begging her father to bring her to the US, and she writes about trying to please him time and again even when he gets drunk and beats her and her siblings.  This was not a happy book to read, either.  It shows the worst effects of poverty and desperation, and if I’m being brutally honest, it makes Mexican immigrants look terrible.  Grande’s father was a horrible person, and it’s so easy to read this book and think that everyone who comes from Mexico is like that.  But this is not a book about Mexican immigrants.  It’s a book about the life of Reyna Grande.  It’s about socio-economic disadvantage.  It’s about needing a family, even if that family treats you like shit.  And it shows that it’s possible to overcome all that, but that your history will always be a part of you.

20447732Verdict: Yay! A memoir with happy parts.

A Cup of Water Under My Bed is one of the most iconic coming-of-age memoirs there is.  Hernandez discusses meshing American and Cuban-Colombian traditions, translating documents for her parents, and navigating being bisexual in a Latino family with very traditional values.  This book is more like a collections of essays than a comprehensive memoir, which makes sense since it began as an editorial column when she began writing for the New York Times.  Hernandez definitely has a knack for storytelling, and she has an interesting one to tell.  Because this one was not as devastating as the books above, I don’t remember as many of the details.  However, I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys memoirs.

Besides my capstone books, that’s all I’ve been reading lately.  Reading Spanish memoirs closely really cuts into other reading, and I actually found myself getting confused about which details were from which book.  So reading all these at the same time probably wasn’t the best idea.  I’m afraid I’m going to end up basing a point in my paper about the works of Esmeralda Santiago on something I read in another memoir, but those are the hazards of wanting to read a bunch of similar things.  Enjoy!

All images from Goodreads

What I’ve Been Reading: Christmas Break

I was hoping to do a lot more reading over break, along with job applications and sewing projects.  But since I decided last-minute to take a CLEP test, a lot of my free time was spent studying.  My application and sewing plans went out the window, but I squeezed in a little time here and there to pick up a few books.  Here’s a rundown of what I did get to read.

My mom and I both enjoy watching HGTV, and Fixer Upper is our favorite.  I got this for my mom for Christmas, and read it after she was done (although the temptation to read it before Christmas was strong).  It was worth the wait though, because it was wonderful.  It’s a quick, light, often funny read, and it really shows how to maintain a healthy relationship when times get tough.  It makes me want to get into flipping houses (but that’s nothing new).  Even if you’ve never watched the show, the Gaines’ have such an interesting life there’s got to be something in there you’ll enjoy.

This. Is. Incredible.  In case you don’t know, Diane Guerrero is an actress in Orange is the New Black and Jane the Virgin (among other things).  This book is her story about growing up after both her parents were deported.  It’s honest and raw, and completely disproves bad stereotypes about Latino immigrants.  I cannot say enough good things about this book or about Guerrero.  Read as part of my goal to read more diverse authors. 

I borrowed this from the library to ease back into Spanish.  It’s a translation of Stevenson’s book Outback, and it would be a perfect challenge for an intermediate Spanish student.  As a middle grade novel, the vocabulary and verb tenses are fairly simple, as is the story.  It’s supposed to be a survival/adventure novel, but there wasn’t as much of that as there was setup.  Also, the character of Mel, a researcher, felt a little one-sided.  However, I loved the ending — spoiler alert: the two main characters did not get together romantically at the end, and the whole book has underlying themes about dealing with depression and illness while not being too heavy.

This floated around on the blogosphere for a long time, and I finally got my hands on a copy.  I really wanted to like this book, but in the end I don’t think it was worth all the hype.  It was a lot of philosophy and not a lot of character development.  It was such an interesting concept and story, but nothin really got resolved — we never find out how or whether the MC pays his invoice.  Maybe I’m missing the point, and it never meant to be just a novel — maybe it was meant as more of a social commentary, like Animal Farm.  But at least Animal Farm resolved somewhat.

This is a retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, which I’ve never read.  I was vaguely familiar with the plot, but this novel would’ve been enjoyable even if I wasn’t.  Set in Barbados, it deals with family drama, racism, favoritism, greed, and jealousy.  While not one I would likely return to (unless I read King Lear first), Nuñez’s style is easy to read and she is an admirable storyteller.  Read as part of my goal to read more diverse authors. 

Spring 2017 Goals

Well, it’s that time of year.  I started doing seasonal goals in the summer, and really have seen a difference in how deliberate I am about doing or not doing certain things.  So it definitely makes sense for me to continue that.  My dilemma now is that I don’t really like New Years’ Resolutions, per se, because I never keep them.  I think it’s better for me to create seasonal goals, and update them until I either achieve them or they become a habit.  So these are my goals for my final semester of college — January through May.

Life Goals

  1. Be intentional about communicating with others, especially roommates.  I really hate confrontation, and I want people to like me, so I tend to just shut up and tolerate it when someone does something that makes me uncomfortable.  While the roommates I had last year were really awesome, there were a few things that did bother me, and I bottled it up and let it get to me rather than just talking to my roommate about it.  This semester, I have two new roommates, and while I’m not going to be unreasonable, I am going to voice concerns if I have them, and I’m going to try to prevent problems rather than solve them.
  2. Get physically stronger.  When I was in high school, I had a routine I did almost every day, and I had great muscle tone and concentration.  College changed that — my schedule changed and I didn’t really have the room to do my routine in the dorm.  Now, I walk to campus every day, so I normally count that as exercise, since it’s at least movement.  But I need to be doing something more, and I definitely need to be in the habit of exercising once I graduate, because it’s likely I’ll be driving to a job — goodbye, built-in exercise.  Since I’m bad at exercising for the heck of it, and I’ve noticed how much weaker I’ve gotten since having to carry heavy cameras and tripods around all the time, getting stronger is my goal to reach for.
  3. Find ways to support causes I believe in.  Since I’ve been in college, I’ve really come to solidify what I believe in, and I’m to the point where I want to be more active than just talking about an issue or sharing a video on Facebook.  This might be a little tricky, because I can’t contribute to anything financially right now.  But I may be able to volunteer a little, or something like that — I just need to research.
  4. Read more non-white authors.  I mentioned a couple posts ago that I’ve noticed how few non-white authors I read, so I’ve been trying to add new authors to my TBR.  I’ve already marked a couple off my list (I highly recommend Diane Guerrero’s In the Country We Love), and plan to continue this.  I may not have a ton of time to devote to pleasure reading, though, so we’ll see how this goes.
  5. Food: Continue cooking at least once a week; stick to ~$15/month on coffee purchases.  I do cook fairly regularly, but I also end up eating frozen microwave meals or fast food quite a bit too.  I actually kind of enjoy cooking, and I eat a lot healthier when I cook.  I just need a reminder to continue doing it.  Also, this is my continuing experiment on how much I really spend on coffee.  During cold months, I like brewing my own coffee at home, but I like cold coffee when it’s warm.  Lucky me got a French press for Christmas, so I’m planning on using it to make cold brew when it gets warm to cut down on iced coffee purchases.

Education/Career Goals

  1. COB Ambassadors:  Try to help project manage an event.  This is a continuation of one of my fall goals.  I don’t know if this will be possible, because I’m not sure how crazy the semester is going to be.  But I’ll keep my eyes open.
  2. Apply to ~5 jobs a month at least.  This is going to be an -ish goal.  Normally when I sit down to apply for jobs, I do 3 or 4 at a time and then don’t look again for awhile, because it takes a few weeks for new jobs to be posted.  Regardless, I don’t need to be neglecting this.  It won’t be the end of the world if I don’t, but I’d really like to have a job lined up before I graduate.  How’s that for a goal?

I may end up adding to this list as the semester really gets under way, but those are the main things I want to focus on in the coming months.  This is already quite a lot, so I don’t want to overload myself.

Finally, here’s a random life update: my aunt, who helps manage a new-ish church in Alabama, contacted me recently to be the church’s webmaster of sorts.  I’ll be updating the site and content every so often, and I’m really excited about that!