Immigrant Stories: Undocumented by Dan-el Padilla Peralta

For weeks I kept noticing Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s 2015 memoir Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League when I passed through the memoirs, biographies and autobiographies section at my public library but I never felt the urge to borrow it. Then one Saturday, right before they closed all the public libraries I strolled past it but this time thought otherwise.  I finally realized this is a book I needed to read. Any guy who goes from a homeless shelter to an Ivy League university is smart as hell and full of ambition. And people like that can always teach you a thing or two. Inspired by my revelation I grabbed Padilla Peralta’s memoir and went to work reading it. Finding it damn near impossible to put down I’m pleased to say Undocumented did not disappoint me.

Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s life story bares little resemblance to the unflattering stereotype many Americans have of immigrants. He didn’t brazenly enter the US in a spirit of lawlessness seeking employment and public assistance. He was brought to America legally by his parents from the Dominican Republic, because his mother needed advanced medical care for her high-risk pregnancy. Not long after the birth of his brother Yando his father returned home, sick of trying to support his family working low-paying jobs. Over time Padilla Peralta’s parents grew estranged and even though Padilla Peralta and his mother’s visas expired they continued living in the US. Fearing deportation if their applications for legal residency was denied and seeing how well her oldest son was faring in school she opted to keep the family in the US, putting them in legal limbo and thus ineligible for most, if not all public assistance. (Fortunately, being born in America Yando was eligible for aid since he was a citizen.)

Forced to live in a New York City homeless shelter after losing their apartment, a young volunteer took the young Dan-el and his brother under his wing. Recognizing  Dan-el’s was a voracious reader with a budding intellect, he encouraged the boy to apply to Collegiate, the same prestigious prep school where JFK attended. At Collegiate he flourished where his hard work, ambition and smarts paved the way for his entrance to Princeton. After majoring in the classics of Greece and Rome he graduated with high honors, earning a scholarship to study at Oxford. But his undocumented status was always there, like a hidden stigma he fought to conceal.

This a great follow-up book to Tara Westover’s Educated, as well as other memoirs by first-generation college graduates like Carlene Cross’ Fleeing Fundamentalism: A Minister’s Wife Examines Faith, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis and Steve Pemberton’s  A Chance in the World: An Orphan Boy, a Mysterious Past, and How He Found a Place Called Home.  It also deserves to be read alongside other Ivy League memoirs like Walter Kirn’s Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever and Andrea Raynor’s Incognito: Lost and Found at Harvard Divinity School.

This memoir should be mandatory reading for any American with strong opinions about immigration, pro or con. It’s also a wonderful memoir and easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Immigrant Stories: Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

For the last month or so I kept noticing Edwidge Danticat’s book Brother, I’m Dying whenever I’d stroll through the section of my public library containing all the biographies, autobiographies and memoirs. With each passing I grew curiouser and curiouser until one day I’d had enough so I grabbed it. After letting it sit ignored by my bed for about a week I cracked it open and began to read. I finished it in what felt like no time, thanks in no small part to Danticat’s fine skill as a writer.

Published in 2007, Danticat’s family memoir begins the day she learns she’s pregnant and her father is dying. From there, she looks back on her life and that of her family, Haitians who were forced to leave the Island nation because of its grinding poverty, political instability and chronic violence. While her parents and two of her siblings were able to seek refuge in the United States it would take eight more years before Danticat and her young brother could join them, during which they were cared for by her uncle, a former political activist turned Protestant minister. While living in New York City her father drove a gypsy cab to help make ends meet and her uncle served his congregation back in Haiti. But as drug-fueled gang violence and urban warfare intensified, her uncle, now with a price on his head was forced to flee the country. Sadly, without revealing too much let’s say his attempt in seeking political asylum in America, like so many others we’ve heard of late, would end in tragedy.

I’m glad I took a chance on Brother, I’m Dying. Not knowing what to expect, Danticat’s writing left me surprisingly impressed. I’d like to read more her stuff like The Farming of Bones and The Dew Breaker. Don’t be surprised if you see more of her books featured on my blog.

About Time I Read It: Havana Nocturne by T. J. English

Ever since I saw it advertised in the Quality Paperback Book Club catalog just over a decade ago I’ve been wanting to read T. J. English’s Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution. Honestly, I’m not sure why since I’ve never been a giant fan of organized crime sagas. (Although The Godfather and its sequel The Godfather Part II are two of my favorite all-time films.) But maybe I could not resist its promised tales of glamorous and sexy floorshows, high stakes gambling, corruption, and political intrigue from years gone by. Last week at my public library I finally gave in to my slightly less than wholesome desires and borrowed a copy of English’s 2008 book. Either I’m morally corrupt or it’s a heck of a book because I couldn’t put it down.

For 60 years Americans pretty much did as they wished in Cuba after defeating the Spanish in the Spanish-American War at the turn of the 20th century. During Prohibition Americans flocked to the island to imbibe its many intoxicants while others illegally shipped those same liquors back to the states. After Prohibition was repealed in 1933 things quieted down for the next 10 years or so because of the Depression and World War II. Then, after the United States emerged victorious from the War and entered an era of unprecedented prosperity Cuba’s capital of Havana transformed was transformed into a roaring adult playground of hotels, casinos, brothels and nightclubs. And the Mob ran it all.

Even though the FBI’s dictatorial Director J. Edger Hoover publicly proclaimed the Mafia was a myth, many powerful American congressmen thought otherwise and began using the new medium of television to hold televised hearings to expose the Mob’s many criminal activities. As a result the barons of American organized crime like Meyer Lansky, Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Santo Trafficante saw Cuba as a potential goldmine untouchable by American law enforcement. By investing in casinos, fancy nightclubs with world-class entertainment and high-rise hotels the Mob bosses hopes to build the Caribbean’s answer to Monte Carlo. With the island nation’s dictator Fulgencio Batista and his cronies paid off and in on the operation Cuba was, in effect a sovereign nation ruled in the best interests of organized crime.

As the old cliche goes, nothing last forever. Even though by the late 1950s Cuba had one of the strongest economies and highest standards of living in Latin America and certainly in the Caribbean, no matter how much money the casinos and fancy hotels generated, or rum, sugar and nickel Cuba exported little if any of that wealth trickled down to the nation’s millions of peasants and impoverished urban dwellers. Sweeping reforms were impossible since the nation was hopelessly corrupt and Batista ruled with an iron hand. Only after Fidel Castro and his band of armed revolutionaries toppled the old order would change come. When it finally did, Havana’s reign as the Caribbean’s premier entertainment capital came crashing to an end.

2018 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

Yikes, the year is almost over and I haven’t done My Favorite Nonfiction of 2018 post. I better get cracking because 2019 is mere hours away. And to make matters worse, 2018 was a strong year for nonfiction and I read a ton of great books. Therefore, limiting my list to just 12 is going to be going to be hard. After a lot of thought I’ve narrowed it down to these outstanding works of nonfiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when the books were published; all that matters is they’re excellent. As always, they’re listed in no particular order.

As you can see, this list reflects my reading interests. It’s heavy on history, especially that of World War II and the Holocaust. I’m happy to report eight of these books came from the public library, with four of those complete unknowns until I spotted them on the shelf. Three books on this list I purchased years ago. One, Fascism: A Warning, I borrowed from a friend.

As difficult as it was to choose the year’s 12 best, harder still was selecting an overall favorite. For months I went back and forth between Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing with Fire and Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone. After much thought I’ve decided to break with tradition and declare a tie. These two books will share the honor of being my favorite nonfiction book of 2018.

The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World by Maya Jasanoff

I’ve never read any Joseph Conrad, but like a lot of people I was unknowingly introduced to his writing thanks to the wonders of Hollywood. I was exposed to Heart of Darkness courtesy of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s hallucinatory Vietnam War epic. The sci-fi-fi movies Alien and Aliens served as preludes of sort to Conrad’s novel Nostromo, since the first film featured a spaceship of the same name while its sequel Aliens, stared a group of space marines from the U.S.S. Sulaco, named for the fictional Latin American town in the Conrad novel. But these cinematic borrowings never inspired me to read any Conrad, despite for years having a copy of Heart of Darkness a good friend gave me for my birthday.

About a year ago I came across several favorable reviews of a new biography of Conrad, namely The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World by Maya Jasanoff. The reviews mentioned he’d found literary success only later in life after he’d effectively retired as a merchant seaman. During those impressionable years at sea he not only visited countless exotic locales around the globe but did so during an era when the world experienced its first wave of globalization as foreign peoples were colonized, markets expanded and international trade exploded. Duly intrigued by what I’d read, I vowed to borrow a copy of The Dawn Watch from my public library. Who knows, maybe if I read it, I’d finally get off my butt and read some Conrad.

Last week my library obtained an e-book version of The Dawn Watch which I quickly borrowed. I have to say it’s quite good. And yes, it’s probably inspired me to finally read some Joseph Conrad.

The writer we know today as Joseph Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857 in what’s now Ukraine. His parents were minor Polish nobility and ardent Polish nationalists opposed to Russian subjugation of their homeland. As a young boy he was homeschooled in French, English as well as Polish romantic poetry. After losing both his parents to tuberculosis he was sent to live with his Francophile uncle. By the time Józef became conversant in French he’d also developed a yearning to sail the ocean. At the tender age of 16 at his uncle’s behalf he moved to Marseilles to sail on a French vessel. After a few years of sailing under a French flag he feared he’d be deported to Russia to serve in the Tsar’s army. To escape military conscription he signed on with British ship. In all he’d spend over two decades as a merchant seaman visiting every continent save Antarctica.

According to Jasanoff it was these travels that provided Conrad with the material for his books. Working on a steamship in SE Asia served as the inspiration for Lord Jim. The horrors he witnessed while chugging up the Congo in Belgian-held central Africa provided him the template for Heart of Darkness. A story about a stolen shipment of silver he heard during a brief foray into the Gulf of Mexico would eventually form the nucleus for Nostromo. Lastly, his experiences living in London living among the city’s huge Polish expat community would greatly shape The Secret Agent.

I walked away from The Dawn Watch feeling Conrad’s life was bookended by transition. When he began his maritime career, sail was gradually being phased out in favor of steam. The British led the world in this arena thanks to their then state of the art coal-powered steamships and extensive network of coaling stations spread throughout their empire. Later in his life, as an English-language writer living in his adopted country of England, he witnessed the rise of the United States as a world power, made evident by its continental expansion, acquisition of foreign territories like Guam and the Philippines, increasing economic might and blistering industrialization. Meanwhile, closer to home fear abounded that Great Britain was slipping into decline. As America’s stature rose, British assertiveness in Western Hemisphere became a thing of the past. A surprisingly costly Boer War and a rapidly growing German navy challenged the once universal belief the British Empire was invincible.

The Dawn Watch is a great book. It reads with ease and is well-researched. Don’t be surprised if it make my year-end list for Best Nonfiction.

A Trio of Political Books

I enjoyed doing my post A Trio of Books About China so much I thought I’d do another one and feature three books of a similar nature. This time, instead of focusing on China I’d like to spotlight three recently published books that look at the world-wide rise in populist-fueled authoritarianism and the threat it posses to the established democratic order.

  • Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism by Ian Bremmer-  I’ve been fan of Bremmer for years. I loved his 2010 book The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations ? and last February I reviewed his 2006 book  The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall. He’s probably the only “thought leader” I follow on social media. I’ve reposted tons of his Facebook posts and retweeted more than a few of his Twitter offerings. As soon as I heard he’d written a new book I requested my public library purchase a digital copy for Kindle download. Luckily for me I was the first in line to read it. In Us vs. Them, Bremmer looks at the impacts of “globalism”: increased trade, (not just in goods and services but also knowledge and ideology) immigration, mass refugee migrations, and the rise of supranational organizations the EU but also the backlash they create leading sometimes to authoritarian regimes at home and abroad.
  • How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt – I couldn’t resist this one when I saw this one on the “New Books” shelf at my public library. Written by two Harvard professors, one an expert in European politics and the other Latin American, the authors take history and recent current events as their guides warning us of the risks facing democracy and how to protect it.
  • Fascism: A Warning by Madeleine Albright – A good friend of mine was kind enough to loan me her AUTOGRAPHED copy, purchased the night she saw Albright speak on her recent speaking tour. This is the second book by Albright I’ve featured on my blog. Back in early 2013 I briefly reviewed her Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948. Much like How Democracies Die it’s a warning that democracy is under attack in America and around the world and what to do about it.

So similar are these three books it’s probably easier to write about what they have in common as opposed to their differences. To these writers authoritarianism, or as Albright calls it fascism comes gradually and not overnight. It might begin with a tough-talking nationalist leader claiming to speak for the ignored and pure hearted, who might ban a rival political party but goes on to ban the others. The leader, calling a newspaper or a TV network a threat to the nation will force its shutdown or worse, make it a propaganda organ for the state. Judges are forced to retire and courts are packed with the leader’s hand-picked judicial replacements. A constitutions is rewritten and presidential term limits are abolished. Eventually, you wind up with a dictator for life unaccountable to no one.

There’s also the potential for things to get even worse in the future. In Us vs. Them, Bremmer predicts advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and 3D printing will lead to widespread unemployment in both the developed and developing world, causing unprecedented political and economic instability. Governments around the globe will be forced by their citizens to address crippling problems of unemployment, income disparities, public unrest and mass migrations.

Us vs. ThemHow Democracies Die and Fascism: A Warning are all good books and must reading for the civic-minded. Since they compliment each other so well I can’t encourage you enough to read all three. If, as these four writers claim democracy is under pressure, if not under attack around the world then it’s best to educate oneself. Reading these three books would be a great step in that direction.

About Time I Read It: Strange Days Indeed by Francis Wheen

The President of the United States is an uncouth, unhinged bigot prone to late night diatribes against the media, minorities and political rivals. In the wake of his recent electoral victory, rumors are emerging members of his inner circle engaged in illegal activity against his challenger. Unbeknownst to all, he’s secretly engaged in top-level negotiations with a potentially hostile foreign nation. As result, America is a divided nation when it comes to the President. Many, like those in rural areas and especially the South see him as a straight-shooting, law and order savior who upholds time-honored values against unchecked liberalism and East Coast elitism. Others, see him as a despot and lout, and therefore a disgrace to the Oval Office.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom, things aren’t much better as Prime Ministers come and go, scandals rear their ugly heads and the general consensus being the country’s best years are well behind it. Internationally, the proliferation of terrorist organizations has the world on edge. Headlines and newscasts are dominated by reports of bombings, assassinations, and mass killings. Try as they may, Western leaders are powerless to stop the carnage. Lastly, from Africa to Latin America brutal dictators rule with iron fists tolerating no dissent and committing countless human rights violations.

While this might well sum up the current state of the world it also describes an era from our not so distant past. Welcome to the 1970s as described by British journalist Francis Wheen in his 2010 book Strange Days Indeed: The 1970s: The Golden Days of Paranoia. Yet again another decent book I never knew existed until I stumbled across it at the public library.

Of course, to be realistic while similarities abound so do the differences when one compares today’s world to that of the 70s. While Nixon hated the media as much as Trump does, in Nixon’s day there was no Twitter. Therefore late at night when Tricky Dick spouted off against newspapers, Jews and everyone else he hated, he did so within the confines of the White House, ironically usually in the presence of his Jewish Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Instead of Russian computer hacking, Watergate was an old-fashioned burglary. And it was the People’s Republic of China, not Russia the President secretly reached out to, not to help win an election but enlist as a geopolitical ally against the Russian-dominated USSR. Looking back even terrorism was different in the 70s. 40 years ago it wasn’t Islamic-oriented organizations like ISIS or al-Qaeda grabbing headlines but more secular groups like the PLO or IRA, or the dozen or so now forgotten Marxist-inspired revolutionary cells active throughout Europe, Latin America and America.

Someday, if you end up reading Strange Days Indeed I’d strongly encourage you to follow it up with Rick Perlstein’s outstanding The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan as well as Bryan Burrough’s equally outstanding Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence. Perhaps, after reading Strange Days plus one, or both of these recommended books it might look like history repeats itself, or to paraphrase the authors of How Democracies Dies at least possess familiar echoes. Just like the ancient author of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes you too might conclude there’s nothing new under the sun.