About Time I Read It: Here in Berlin by Cristina García

After a heavy diet of nonfiction over the last four months I needed a little fiction. I was also itching to read something for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, which  sadly I’ve neglected for months. With that in mind, I decided to revisit Cristina García 2017 Here in Berlin, a book I originally borrowed from the public library last October but later ignored and returned unread. Securing a borrowable copy through Overdrive I immediately went to work reading it. After whipping through Here in Berlin in no time I found it one the early pleasant surprises of 2022.

Though a work of fiction, I would hesitate to call Here in Berlin a novel. It closely resembles an oral history, something like Studs Turkel’s The Good War in which a diverse cast of individuals produce a chorus of recollections to create a vivid and colorful tapestry. But in this case of Here in Berlin those voices are fictional. Many are elderly like a Jewish Holocaust survivor who hid in a moulding crypt before her gentile spouse arranged their safe passage to England. Some are perpetrators, accused of aiding and abetting in Nazi atrocities while others have spent the entire lives bringing those same accused to justice.

Born in Havana to a Guatemalan father and a Cuban mother, García and her family fled the island’s communist regime for America, where she went on to be a successful writer, journalist and academic. Courtesy of García we see Berlin through a Cuban lens, as the novel’s mysteriously vague Cuban interviewer serving as interlocutor records testimony after testimony with special attention towards those with even the most tenuous connection to the Caribbean island nation. We meet an older Cuban gentleman, who as a young boy during World War II was shanghaied by the crew of a German U-boat when it covertly went ashore in Cuba. (After “serving” for a period aboard the submarine and bonding with its crew he was impressed by the batteries used to power the submersible. Later, after they returned him to his native land he successfully reverse engineered the technology for industrial use.) Until the Fall of Communism Berlin was the capital of East Germany, a nation within the Soviet-dominated Socialist Bloc of nations. As a result we learn of liaisons between Cuban soldiers and Angolan peasant women and the offspring it produced.

Many of the lives recalled in Here in Berlin intersect. When they do, they do so briefly yet profoundly. García’s Berlin is a place where ghosts from the past are alive and well, confirming Faulkner was right when he said the past is never dead and not even past.

About Time I Read It: The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan

I love books that make me fundamentally rethink how I understand the world, specifically how we got here and even where we’re going. The first of these kind of books I read was probably Europe: A History by Norman Davies. (20 years after I read it I still remember him wisely pointing out Europe, for all its glory, geographically speaking is nevertheless a peninsula of Asia. He also boldly claimed events and developments in the 19th century had a greater impact on today’s modern world than those of the 20th.) As I read more over the years I discovered other powerful and expansive books like Guns, Germs and Steel, Carnage and Culture, Why Nations Fail and 1493. More recently, last year I had the pleasure of reading The Jakarta Method, Maoism: A Global History and The Islamic Enlightenment all of which fell into this category.

When my book club announced we were reading Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, another of these kind of books I quickly borrowed an ebook copy through my public library’s Overdrive portal. Sweeping and detailed, I nevertheless made quick work of the readable Silk Roads in roughly a week. This fine book should easily make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction.

Based on Frankopan’s extensive research, for thousands of years Central Asia and its adjacent lands (roughly the Persian Empire at greatest extent, give or take a bit) has played a decisive role shaping world history. Over the centuries armies, plagues, riches and religions have traveled time honored trade routes commonly referred as the Silk Road across South Central Eurasia. This new interpretation shifts our attention east making Central Asia history’s prime mover as opposed to Europe, and upending our traditional Eurocentric view of world history.

While it’s undeniable Greece and Rome left an indelible imprints on Western thought one must remember all the world’s major religions originated somewhere in Asia, with the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all developing in relatively close proximity to each other. (Helping make cross-pollination between them in varying degrees possible.) While Greek ideas and imagery traveled east with Alexander’s armies leaving a lasting influence from Asia Minor to India Buddhist and Zoroastrian concepts flowed in the opposite direction doing much the same. (Buddhist missionaries in the Levant might have been responsible for introducing the dualistic concepts which would form the core of Gnosticism, an early Christian heresy. Hundreds of years later, it’s possible the first Islamic madrasahs were modeled on Buddhist teaching communities.)

During the Middle Ages, armies of an assertive Christian Europe flush with new-found sense of purpose invaded the western shores of Central Asia in a series of conflicts known as the Crusades. Exposed to the region’s higher standard of living Crusaders and their descendants developed tastes for the finer things in life, leading to an explosion in first regional, and then intercontinental commerce. Even though the Latin Kingdoms they founded on the shores of the Mediterranean were eventually vanquished it spawned lasting trade between Europe and Asia, with the Italian maritime city states profiting handsomely.

Later in the Middle Ages, these same trade routes would also bring plague to Europe, decimating the continent’s population. This die off would make labor scarce, drive up wages and lead to wealth redistribution. Overall, incomes rose  and demand increased for goods from Asia. Feeling cut out of the lucrative international trade business, Iberian powers Portugal and Spain saw sailing east as the solution. By doing so they not only found another route to India around Africa, but more importantly discovered the New World.

Then later, the discovery, and subsequent conquest of the Americas changed everything once again. Instead of European inhabitants dying by the millions this time it was Americans. Their kingdoms destroyed and their royal coffers looted, silver and gold by the ship full flowed from the New World to Iberia. As these riches and the ones that followed percolated across Europe and began enriching England and the Low Countries it created demand for even more high value goods from Asia. As living standards rose it lead to an intellectual awakening known as the Enlightenment. Sadly, the Age of Reason could not have happened without the theft of America’s gold and silver and the slaughter and subjugation of its natives.

The centrality of Central Eurasia extends well into the modern age. For the later half of the 19th century Russia and Great Britain were bitter rivals in the Great Game for control of the gateway to India. Happy to see Tsarist Russia turn its attention elsewhere Britain did everything it could to encourage Russian animosity towards Germany, setting the stage for World War I. 20 years later Hitler justified Germany’s invasion of the USSR as a means to secure Ukraine’s wheat. At the turn of the 20th century it was the British who first saw the potential for oil to replace coal to fuel navies and later, trains and automobiles. Throughout much of the 20th century and into the 21st, pipelines and tanker routes would criss-cross the globe bringing oil from the lands of the former Persian Empire to the industrialized West.

By the end of the book we have come full circle. Once again China is the world’s premier exporter. Instead supplying the world with silk and porcelain today it’s everything from consumer electronics to household goods to steel. Flexing its newfound economic and political might the country launched its Belt and Road Initiative: the creation of land and rail routes from China to Western Eurasia, Africa and beyond closely following the trade routes of old crisscrossing Central Asia. Think of this massive international infrastructure development strategy as 21st century’s answer to the Silk Road – on steroids. All while the region’s former Soviet Republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus, blessed with almost limitless petroleum reserves, have become major players on the world stage.

Frankopan makes a compelling, if not convincing case the lands of Central Eurasia, and not Europe was key in the rise of Western civilization. Please consider his book The Silk Roads highly recommended.

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.

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.