Category Archives: Latin America/Caribbean

Immigrant Stories: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

Since 2003 my local public library has sponsored an annual Everybody Reads program. Even though I’ve never attended any of the related events like the discussion groups or lectures nevertheless I’ve read and enjoyed the different books my library has selected over the years, be it The Kite Runner, The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World or The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates. While it might have taken me a few years to get around to reading some of the selections like The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier and Midnight at the Dragon Cafe none of these books left me disappointed.

In early 2016 the library went with Cristina Henríquez’s novel The Book of Unknown Americans for its annual Everybody Reads selection. Last year, upon hearing that news I had every intention of reading it but I was probably up to my eyeballs in other books so I soon forgot. Then last week I found myself at the library and came across a slightly dog-eared paperback copy of The Book of Unknown Americans. Feeling this was as good a time as any to finally read it, I helped myself to it. After burning through Henríquez’s novel in mere days I’m happy to say once again, my local public library chose a fine piece of fiction for its Everybody Reads program.

The Book of Unknown Americans is set in an apartment complex in Delaware that’s populated almost exclusively by immigrants from across Latin America. The main story revolves around two teenagers. One is 15-year-old Maribel Rivera, newly arrived from Mexico and strikingly beautiful, her struggle adjusting to life in America is made worse thanks to a traumatic brain injury. The other youth is Mayor Toro, originally from Panama and the son of a family whose middle class origins belies its current predicament of working immigrant poor. The first time Mayor spies Maribel in a neighborhood discount shop it’s love at first sight. Later, as he gets to know Maribel and witnesses her vulnerability the more protective he becomes of her. But beauty can be a curse as well as a blessing, as the guileless Maribel catches the eye of a local young ne’erdo-well. Their brief encounter will set in motion of chain of events that in the end will profoundly impact all their lives.

The Book of Unknown Americans has inspired me to read other novels dealing with the immigrant experience. Specifically, I’m thinking Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of Butterflies and How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents as well as Oscar Hijuelos’ The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. My guess is in the future you’ll be seeing these novels as well as others like them featured on my blog.

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About Time I Read It: The Lost City of Z by David Grann

I’ve been thinking about reading Grann’s The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon off and on for well over half a decade. For years whenever I saw a copy of it at the library I’d always waltz right by it without even giving the book a second look. Even after seeing Grann interviewed on The Charlie Rose Show about his then recently published collection of New Yorker pieces The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness and Obsession I still didn’t run out and read Grann’s bestseller The Lost City of Z. I guess when you wanna read so many books you just can’t get to everything,  Then one day, I finally grabbed a copy from the library and read it. Luckily for me I thought it was pretty darn good.

To me, The Lost City of Z seemed like two books woven into one. One book told the story of Percy Stewart, one of those intrepid yet slightly crazed Brits who loved traveling to exotic and inhospitable places. After years journeying around the globe in search of adventure and scientific discovery Stewart turned his sights to the Amazon, where legend had it an ancient city once stood. Convinced he could locate the ruins of this great settlement, Stewart and his son entered the dense Amazonian rainforest and were never seen again.

The other book chronicles city-slicker, New York resident Grann’s mission to discover what exactly happened to Stewart. Realizing he can’t solve the mystery of Stewart’s disappearance from the cozy confines of the Big Apple, Grann travels to the Brazilian hinterland. Provisioned and equipped with the all the modern world can supply, Grann nevertheless feels like he’s risking life and limb. Will he find out what really happened to Stewart, or will he end up like so many others before him who went searching for Stewart only to succumb to disease, killed by natives or emerge from the jungle physically and psychologically broken.

I’m glad I read 1491 and 1493 before I read The Lost City of Z because both books provide excellent background material to Grann’s book. Fortunately for me, last year or so I was given a copy of Candice Millard’s The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey which looks like a terrific follow-up to The Lost City of Z. Therefore, don’t be surprised in the near or not so near future if you see The River of Doubt featured on this blog.

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Old Books Reading Project: Love in the Time of Cholera

When one of my book clubs chose to read the modern classic Love in the Time of Cholera I was pleased as punch. For well over a decade, a copy has sat ignored in my personal library taunting me to read it. Now that my book club would be reading García Márquez’s grand work of fiction no longer would this book of mine remain unread. A few nights after meeting with my book club I grabbed it from the shelf began reading it.

So, after such a long wait how did I enjoy Love in the Time of Cholera? And how did it fare with my book club? While some members liked it more than others, I think overall the general consensus was pretty much in line with my opinion of the novel. We liked it, but we enjoyed the second half of the novel more than the first part. But few, if any of my fellow readers were left disappointed.

Love in the Time of Cholera, as its title would lead us to believe is a novel of love. It’s about youthful love and all its innocence and idealism as we see young lovers Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza defy rigid societal expectations in hopes of being together. It’s also about marriage and everything good, bad and otherwise that comes with it. It’s also about careless and carefree lovemaking as well as its consequences. It’s also a novel of how love is understood by older adults, when love matures and acceptance is the norm.

Whatever shortcomings this novel might possibly possess, it has some great things going for it. For one, García Márquez’s vocabulary is rich as hell and kudos to his translator for expertly putting those wonderful words into English. Secondly, while love at times can be sad, sometimes unbearably sad, like anything in life there are humorous moments and Love in the Time of Cholera has its share. (My favorite was the time Florentino and one his lovers spend a session so absorbed in their lovemaking they neglect to notice the house around them being burglarized. Their passion spent and relishing the afterglow, they look up to see an empty bedroom with a note declaring “this is what you get for fucking around.”) Lastly, thanks to García Márquez’s skillful writing I felt transported to an unnamed Colombian town somewhere on the nation’s Caribbean coast as events unfolded and characters developed over half a century spanning the 1880s to 1930s.

García Márquez was a prolific writer and authored a number of works, fiction and nonfiction before his death in 2014. I think before it’s all said and done, I’d like to read more of his stuff. Naturally, should I do so, you’ll read all about it on my blog.

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About Time I Read It: The J Curve by Ian Bremmer

The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and FallBack in 2010 while TV channel surfing I happened to land on PBS in the middle of Charlie Rose interviewing a geopolitical thinker/writer named Ian Bremmer. Bremmer had just written a book called The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations ? and the two of them discussed recent global economic developments and China’s rise as an international power. As I sat watching the interview I found myself intrigued by Bremmer’s insights and vowed to read his recently published book. Later that year I did. But sadly, as much as I valued Bremmer’s take on the state of the world I never got around to reading more of his stuff.

Fast forward to this past summer, I happened to stumble across Bremmer’s Facebook page and Twitter feed. Watching his posted videos and reading his tweets rekindled my appreciation of him. (He’s also probably the only international mover and shaker with a muppet created in his own likeness.) So much so when I discovered my public library had an available copy of his book The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall I snatched it up. Unfortunately, it took me a bit longer than it should had for me to make it through his book because I kept getting distracted by other books I was reading at the time. Eventually, I  made my way through it. Overall, I enjoyed it even though I did have one minor problem with it.

That problem, which believe me isn’t a fault of Bremmer’s. The J Curve was published in 2006, making it a decade old. Therefore, the whole time I was reading the J Curve I kept asking myself how relevant his book could be. After all, much has changed since 2006. We’ve seen both the Arab Spring and the coming of ISIS. Dictators like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il have all passed away. (Chavez and Castro’s deaths could lead to greater openness in their respective countries. On the other hand, it looks like Kim Jong-il’s death has led to even more oppression and insanity.) Lastly, in recent years we’ve experienced a global rise in old school nationalism with the passing of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. But in spite of all this, happily, I can say yes, The J Curve is still relevant to today’s world.

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The J Curve – Stability versus Openness

Bremmer, in his book The J Curve addresses that age-old question we, especially those involved in the fields of international politics and diplomacy have been asking for years: how does an authoritarian regime liberalize without becoming so unstable it descends into chaos resulting in political fragmentation or worse, yet another authoritarian regime. According to Bremmer, it’s no easy challenge. (Throughout the book he refers to this relationship between political stability and openness as something that can be plotted on a graph, hence the term “J Curve.”)  Over the years, Western nations like the United States has preferred to isolate authoritarian regimes like Iran, Cuba and North Korea with sanctions and censure in hopes of promoting regime change. In Bremmer’s opinion such measures end up being counter productive because the more isolated and impoverished the citizens are in these countries become, the easier it is for those running these regimes to manipulate the masses and thus stay in power. In The J Curve Bremmer looks at different authoritarian countries which succesful liberalized like South Africa, imploded like Yugoslavia and Iraq, and liberalized, imploded and then returned to authoritarianism like the Soviet Union/Russia.

My only knock on this book, really in reality is an unfair one in that it’s 10 years old. But like I said earlier, for a book a book that was published a decade ago it still feels relevant. The portions discussing challenges facing Saudi Arabia, Israel, and especially China look spot on even 10 years after he wrote them. Perhaps because of it’s relevancy after reading the J Curve I’m now inspired to read more of Bremmer’s stuff. So with that in mind, don’t be surprised if you see more of his stuff like Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World and Every Nation for Itself: What Happens When No One Leads the World reviewed on my blog.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Current Affairs, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Economics, Europe, History, Indian Subcontinent, Iran, Israel, Latin America/Caribbean, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

About Time I Read It: The Skies Belong Us by Brendan I. Koerner

Each year, there’s about a dozen or so works of nonfiction that create an amazing amount of hype. These are the kind of books that get rave reviews and make notable year-end lists. Based on my experience, when a book generates a ton of positive buzz and propels its author on that much sought-after high-profile interview circuit, it’s usually worth reading. But no matter how popular and praised a newly published book might get, I frequently find myself skeptically wondering  just how good it is. Of course, understanding that everyone’s tastes are different, even though a particular book might be loved by millions, who’s to say I’ll still enjoy it? (As an example, I point to Katherine Boo’s 2012 book Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity I found her writing a bit herky-jerky at times and the book’s pace not entirely to my liking. Obviously, I had no idea what I was talking about because her book went on to win every award on the planet and sold like hotcakes.) Therefore, I learned a long time ago that if I wanted to know just how good a book is I had to read it myself.

Back in 2013, Brendan I. Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking was one of those much talked about books. Not only was it featured on CNN and NPR, my local alternative newsweekly Willamette Week even did a feature on it. Viewers of Book TV were able to catch the book’s author delivering a promotional lecture. And lastly, esteemed book blogger Kim of Sophisticated Dorkiness added it to her stack of that summer’s reading. The Skies Belong to Us was shaping up to be one popular book.

Like many books that become popular and then fade into the background as they’re replaced by the next big literary thing, I eventually forgot about The Skies Belong to Us. But of course once a book’s popularity cools off, it’s easier to find an available copy at the public library. So last weekend, during one of my regular trips to the public library I spotted a copy of The Skies Belong to Us. Thinking it would be a perfect opportunity to discover if Koerner’s 2013 book was worthy of all the high praise it elicited I eagerly grabbed it.

The Skies Belong to Us, as its subtitle declares, vividly recounts what could be called America’s golden age of hijacking, which lasted from about 1968 to 1973. Long before No Fly Lists, walk-through body scanners and TSA pat-downs, desperate individuals were hijacking commercials airliners at a furious pace. Although in today’s age we take for granted such simple security measures like pre-flight metal detectors and baggage X-rays. However, 40 years ago these, at least in the beginning of this early war on terror, were not utilized. (Their implementation was resisted strongly by both the airlines and the federal government as being too expensive to implement and too inconveniencing for air travelers.) Without these safeguards in place, political extremists of varying agendas, the psychologically unbalanced and even a few daring con men (let’s just say D.B. Cooper wasn’t the only one to parachute out of a jet with big wad of extorted cash) were hijacking planes one after another. Sometimes several jets would get hijacked in one week. On at least one occasion, two planes were hijacked in a single day.

While there’s many fascinating hijackers from this now largely forgotten era of modern American history, Koerner wisely elected to focus on the story of Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow, a modern-day interracial Bonnie and Clyde who successfully hijacked an American airliner to Algiers. After being granted sanctuary by Algeria’s left-leaning authoritarian government, the couple joined a small expat community of African-American radicals. After growing tired of life under Algerian rule Holder and Kerkow fled to Paris. There in Paris, Kerkow, a former back-country girl from Coos Bay, Oregon became fluent in French and quickly remade herself into a stylish and sophisticated woman. Holder on the other hand, suffering from both a severe anxiety disorder and PTSD stemming from his multiple combat tours in Vietnam, drifted aimlessly.

The is an excellent book. I found it darn near impossible to put down. Not once while quickly burning through The Skies Belong to Us did I tire of it or encounter a dry stretch in the narrative. Easily, this is one of the most entertaining books I’ve read this year. (It also makes for fantastic follow-up reading to Andreas Killen’s 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America.) I Highly recommended this terrific piece of narrative nonfiction.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Europe, History, International Crime, Latin America/Caribbean

His Own Man by Edgard Telles Ribeiro

One of the many cool things one can find on the site Book Riot is Rachel Cordasco’s monthly column “In Translation.” Each month her brief but informative piece spotlights three or four newly-released works of translated fiction. Since I’m participating in more and more reading challenges designed to inspire participants to read books about or set in other countries, I’ve found her columns full of promising recommendations. Back in September Cordasco featured a novel by the Brazilian author Edgard Telles Ribeiro. In her column, Cordasco described Ribeiro’s novel His Own Man as the story of a Brazilian diplomat named Max who spends several decades serving his nation’s autocratic military rulers. According to Cordasco, “the price this man pays is the trust and love of his family and friends, for Max has been both an informer and a spy.” Calling His Own Man “a fascinating read” a took Cordasco’s recommendation to heart and added Ribeiro’s novel to my growing list of things I wanna read.

Not long ago I was poking around the shelves at my public library when I spotted a copy of His Own Man. Remembering Cordasco’s praise of the novel, and knowing that I could count it towards a number of my reading challenges I eagerly grabbed it. After letting it sit unread for a few days a cracked it open one nice afternoon and went to work on it. Almost immediately I found myself sucked in this great piece of sophisticated and entertaining fiction.

The novel begins with our young and impressionable narrator busy at his job with the Brazilian foreign ministry. It’s here he meets Max and is immediately taken in by his charming, culturally sophisticated and slightly Bohemian manner. Within no time he’s quickly introduced to Max’s inner circle of young urban sophisticates. But soon after that, things begin to change. A conservative Brazilian cardinal pays a visit to the ministry, and in an obvious show of fealty Max kisses his ring. With this message telegraphed to the nation’s new ruling junta Max has shown he’s ready and willing to do their bidding. He quickly and effortlessly sheds his former left-leaning beliefs and begins toting the new conservative party line. Favored and supported by members of the junta, the reinvented Max rises up the ranks of Brazilian diplomatic corps, with prestigious postings throughout southern South America (and playing no small part in the region’s bloody “dirty wars”). Along the way Max also secretly supplies secret information to both the American and British intelligence services, making him a spy in the pay of not just one but three different nations.

This is a very good book and highly recommended for any readers who might be interested in South American politics and history, especially that of the last 50 years. On a personal note, it’s also the first Brazilian novel I’ve read. After enjoying it, I’d love to read more fiction from that South America nation. Therefore, kudos to Rachel Cordasco and the good people at Book Riot for bringing this fine novel to my attention.

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2014 In Review: My Favorite Fiction

Over the last few years, my consumption of fiction has grown considerably compared to what it was only a few years ago. Heck, in January of 2009 I posted on my old Vox site that during the preceding year I’d read only two measly works of fiction. But as we all know, tastes change. So for whatever reason, nowadays I find myself reading a significant amount of fiction.

So much fiction that for the first time, I’m able to post a top ten list of my favorite fiction from 2014. This covers the best English language fiction I read over the course of the year.

  1. You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik – Dead Poets Society meets The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.”
  2. Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst – I had a hard time deciding if Furst’s earlier novels The Spies of Warsaw, Mission to Paris or Spies of the Balkans were better books and therefore more deserving of being included on my list. But his Midnight in Europe made me wanna read everything in his Night Soldiers series. So Midnight in Europe it shall be.
  3. The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow – Hard not like a great debut novel. Harder still to not like one that’s set in my hometown of Portland, Oregon.
  4. The Coffee Trader by David Liss – To quote a librarian at my public library “a Portuguese-Jewish trader partners with a sexy Dutch widow to corner the coffee market. Who knew 17th century commodities trading could be so suspenseful? ” What more could I want from a novel?
  5. Harvard Square by André Aciman – Two North African immigrants, one Jewish and the other Muslim could not be more different from each other. But their unlikely friendship helps make for a thoroughly enjoyable novel.
  6. The Expats by Chris Pavone – Who wants to read a novel about a bored, stay at home mom in Luxembourg? Probably no one. Make her an ex-CIA assassin and have her solve a mystery or two and you’ve got a winner.
  7. The Explanation for Everything by Lauren Grodstein – For me anyway, the conflict between science and faith has always made for fascinating reading. When you see that conflict played out in a novel it’s a very special thing.
  8. Border Angels by Anthony Quinn – If you told me I’d fall in love with a mass-marketed, paperback edition of a crime thriller set in Northern Ireland I would have called you crazy. Well, I did. Quinn’s novel is fast-paced, intelligent and entertaining.
  9. Jacob’s Oath by Martin Fletcher – Two young Holocaust survivors meet and fall in love amidst the ruins of postwar Germany. Perfect to read alongside Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent.
  10. Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement – A fictional account of the Mexican drug wars from the perspective of a young woman coming of age in the mountains of Guerrero, Mexico.

So what jumps out at me when I survey this list? Seven of these ten books are set abroad, with six out of the seven set in Europe. Education is a recurring theme with Harvard Square and The Explanation for Everything both set at universities on the American East Coast, while You Deserve Nothing taking place at an exclusive high school in Paris. Over half the novels on the list are set at least ten years in the past with The Coffee Trader reaching all they way back to the 17th century. Lastly, I find it surprising that The Expats, You Deserve Nothing and The Girl Who Fell from the Sky are all debut novels.

Trust me, it wasn’t easy proclaiming a winner. But after much consideration, my favorite piece of fiction from 2014 has to be Chris Pavone’s The Expats. His debut novel did not disappoint me. I have no problems recommending it, or any other novel on this list.

 

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Area Studies/International Relations, Europe, Fiction, History, International Crime, Latin America/Caribbean, Science