4 stars for The Book of Unknown Americans

the book of unknown americansI’ve waited to post a review of this novel as I try to wrap my mind (and words) around why I liked it so much. This book wants to be a lot of things – love story, issue-oriented novel, independent essays – which should make it a mess, but somehow all the components work together to make a book that really touched my heart.

The story is told in alternating voices as we meet the residents of an apartment building in Delaware. All the residents are immigrants and all are Spanish-speaking despite their origins in multiple different countries. The bulk of the story, its heart really, is a love story between Panamanian Mayor, whose family has been in the U.S. since he was a few years old, and Maribel, a beautiful but brain injured girl whose family has made the journey from Mexico so she can have a better education. Their journey together, with all its ups and downs, challenges and epiphanies, is the stuff of great YA fiction.

But Henriquez does not stop with the love story. She delves deeper into the lives of their parents and their neighbors. We get to know these immigrants, some of them citizens, some of them illegals and each gets the chance to tell his or her story. This is tricky as Henriquez inhabits over a dozen voices, men and women, young and old. The fact that she pulls this off sympathetically is a testament to her great writing.

Obviously immigration is a very sensitive political subject and one that’s deeply personal as my father was born in Mexico and came to Chicago as a very young boy. I often found myself wondering if my grandparents, father and aunts and uncles faced the same issues and hardships as these characters.

“I felt the way I often felt in this country — simultaneously conspicuous and invisible, like an oddity whom everyone noticed but chose to ignore.”

It’s too late for me to ask my dad if he felt simultaneously conspicuous and invisible as a young man, but this line opened a space in my heart. Likewise, I thought of the many half-English, half-Spanish conversations I had with my Lita growing up as I read about women trying to make a life and hold their families together in a new country.

“That first day, the words were merely sounds in the air, broken like shards of glass, beautiful from a certain angle and jagged from another.”

Henriquez does an excellent job of presenting these characters and the issues they face without coming down hard on any side of the political debate. Her characters are simply human.

“People do what they have to do in this life. We try to get from one end of it to the other with dignity and with honor. We do the best we can.”

I was touched and moved by the small stories and the central families is this lovely novel.

This is the second Henriquez novel I’ve read, having previously enjoyed The World in Half. She is definitely an author to watch.

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Honored and Thankful: Very Inspiring Blogger Award

Since my return to blogging is only a month old, I was shocked and humbled when my new fried Yvo at It’s All About Books nominated alenaslife for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. While the award doesn’t come with a cash prize or statue, it brings me much joy to know that someone is reading and appreciating my contribution to blogging. I am so very thankful to Yvo, not only for nominating me, but for introducing me to so many other great blogs in her post. Please check out her post!

very-inspiring-blog-award

Here are the rules for this blogger award:

1. Thank and link the amazing person who nominated you.

2. List the rules and display the award.

3. Share seven facts about yourself.

4. Nominate 15 other amazing blogs and comment on their posts to let them know they have been nominated.

5. Optional: Proudly display the award logo on your blog and follow the blogger who nominated you.

Seven random facts about me:

1. My very first real job was at my local library. How great is that? I was 15 and 3 times a week I was paid to be surrounded by books! I met great people, learned how to deal with “the public” and discovered all sorts of new titles — it was really the best job in the world.

2. I’m not an animal person. This is an important thing to get off my chest because most of the people I love in this world either have pets or want pets. I must be missing a certain gene because I don’t and I never have (and probably never will) want a pet. The best I could do for my kids was a box turtle, appropriately named “Boxy.”

3. I hate coconut.

4. My television guilty pleasures developed in the 1990s. I can easily spend a day with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls or America’s Next Top Model. Buffy is  brilliantly written with characters I adore. The Gilmores’ mother-daughter dynamic(s) grabbed me and never let go and ANTM is just my favorite trash-TV, especially the early seasons.  I can do without the gimmicks of the later stuff.

5. I used to be the co-Artistic Director of a professional theater company. This very long chapter of my life doesn’t often make it into my blogging because when I walked away I never turned back; but theater and especially the people with whom I worked were very influential on who I am. I’ve recently had opportunities to reconnect with some of those people and feel grateful for that experience.

6. If I had to choose only one book genre to read (and really, that would stink), I would go with magical realism. I know it’s not for everyone but Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Aimee Bender and Erin Morgenstern rock my world.

7. I am the only female in my household of husband and sons. Many people offer sympathy at this fact, but I make the most of it. I am the undisputed Queen.

And I’m nominating: Apologies if I am nominating bloggers for a second (or third) time, but in a few short weeks, I’ve come to look forward to posts from so many of you, whether for quality book reviews, thoughtful reflections or bits of humor to brighten my day. In no particular order:

Between the Lines: A very new blog, Yvonne is blogging her way through Goodreads’ 100 Books to Read Before You Die list. Along the way she’s posting all things literary. Lovely.

746 Books: Cathy is doing the unthinkable. She is determined to read only the 746 books that were on her to-read when she began her blog. I can’t even contemplate not adding books, but I am excited to follow and encourage her progress.

Insanity of Motherhood: In describing her own blog, Nate writes, “Insane mom of three boys, wife, educator, and all around nice gal in the middle of a midlife something.” I think perhaps I have found my soul-mate (expect for the dog).

Taking on a World of Words: Sam writes detailed, thoughtful and engaging posts on books, authors and book club. We have some of those in common, but I’ve found myself inspired to read and write better in reading this blog.

My Blog is My Boyfriend: Holly is super smart and super sassy! Her posts are honest and refreshing a real, always a bright spot in my reader.

Friendly Bookworm: Really it’s the blog name that invited me in, but I can count on honest opinions about a very diverse reading list, including short stories, which is a rarity.

A Fragile Roar: I like Jenny’s reading lists. I like the way she writes about books. Plus I love her blog’s name.

The Girl Who Thinks an Awful Lot: She may describe her mind as “obnoxious” but I am captivated by her posts, the strong quality of the writing and the wisdom she shares. I’ve enjoyed our interactions so far.

The Book Musings: I share a similar taste in books with Melinda, so I really appreciate her thoughtful reviews and dedication to reading.

Bookshelf Fantasies: Lisa and I share a love of book quotes which is what originally drew me to her blog. Then I discovered we also share a love of writing and conversing about good books.

Confessions of a Working Mum: It’s always great to see a post from Ashley and know that other women are out there seeking balance, sharing stories and laughing at ourselves on occasion.

e-Tinkerbell’s Blog: The name can be deceiving because Stefania’s blog is really sophisticated and smart. More “literature” than “books.”

Worn Pages and Ink: Great reviews and Jaaron is always introducing me to new titles or books I hadn’t previously considered.

Rosemary and Reading Glasses: Carolyn not only writes outstanding book reviews, she posts author interviews which take me deeper into the minds of authors I love. Also, we share a love of The West Wing.

Wise Sass: Stef provides emotional honesty in spades. She reminds me that it’s OK to be vulnerable in my writing. She makes me think.

Thank you to all of the above, and so many more, who inspire me each day.

Best Book Quotes of the Week

Best Book Lines

So many quotes made me stop and think this week. Here are a few.

From Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

“And her joy would become a restless thing, flapping it’s wings inside her, as though looking for an opening to fly away.”

Restless joy is such a great image. So many great books involve characters afraid of their own joy. Ifemelu is no exception. This quote is the moment my heart opened up to her in this book. I am taking my time reading her story and enjoying the language Adichie uses to tell it.

 

From Cristina Henriquez, The Book of Unknown Americans

“I felt the way I often felt in this country — simultaneously conspicuous and invisible, like an oddity whom everyone noticed but chose to ignore.”

Henriquez is speaking specifically of the immigrant experience, but this quote resonated with me as some who always feels a little apart from the mainstream. I don’t think that’s a product of my Mexican heritage, but perhaps is roots are there. Se hit the nail on the head with the feeling of being “simultaneously conspicuous and invisible.” Maybe that’s a place we’ve all been?

 

From Laura McBride, We Are Called to Rise

“I don’t know what I’m doing. I never knew what I was doing. I just jumped in and tried, no manual, I tried as hard as I could, and for the second time in my son’s life, I missed the important cue.”

This one hit me like a punch in the gut. These are seriously true words about motherhood. There is not training or guidebook that can possibly prepare us for truly knowing what we are doing. Am I making mistake? Am I missing important cues? I only know that I’m trying as hard as I can.

 

From Pearl S. Buck

“Many people lose the small joys in the hope for the big happiness.”

My favorite Goodreads quote of the day this week. I hold these words as a reminder of how I choose to live my life. I don’t want to chase the big dream so hard that I lose sight of the everyday blessings. I really think the blogosphere celebrates this philosophy. So many of us are writing about the seemingly “small joy” moments of beauty and laughter and love that fills our days. I really enjoyed The Good Earth when I read it with my book club. I may have to add another Pearl Buck to my list.

 

From Kate Atkinson, interviewed by Melvyn Bragg on ‘The South Bank Show’ [Sky Arts]

“Fiction is about making the chaos in my head into objective external order.”

All credit for finding this quote goes to sandra danby, a blog I only recently discovered. I encourage you to read Sandra’s original thoughts on this quote. It resonates with me, not only because I’m a big fan of Atkinson’s work, but because I’m attracted to the idea that we can make sense of the chaos in our heads. I think it explains why I always journaled, now blog. When I can set my thoughts down, I can organize them, at least a bit.

 

Looking for more great quotes?

Check out: Thursday Quotables at Bookshelf Fantasies.

 

I’d love to know what lines have caught your attention.

Notes from Ann Patchett: Planning Ahead

In case you don’t yet know me well, I LOVE Ann Patchett. I’ve read all of her books, reviewed all her books, hand-pressed copies into people’s hands and generally swooned over her very being.

My husband and I have talked about a trip to Nashville and truly, my primary reason for wanting to go is the chance to visit Parnassus Books. Whether or not Ann is there, I want to step into her space and financially support her endeavor.

Anyway, that’s all an introduction into why I’m sharing Ann’s latest post on the Bookstore’s blog, Musing, which, by the way, I also follow.

Ann writes about the books that excite her, new releases, author interactions — you know, all the great stuff I’d hear if I were her real-life friend and not just a cyber-groupie.

In Notes from Ann: Planning Ahead, Ann not only gets me excited about some fall releases but reveals that she and I share an intense love for Colum McCann’s novel, Let the Great World Spin. (Swoon again.)

Notes from Ann: Planning Ahead

W…W…W…Wednesday

I’ll tell you mine and you tell me yours. Thanks to Miz B at Should Be Reading for hosting.

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I’d love to know what everyone is reading.  To play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…(or post a link to your blog.)

• What are you currently reading? • What did you recently finish reading? • What do you think you’ll read next?

AmericanahWhat are you currently reading? I am slowly making my start in Americanah. Only 70 pages in after 3 days and I can tell I will need to spend some time with this novel. The writing is great and I already love the two narrators, but it’s dense. The Nigerian names and culture are very unfamiliar to me, so instead of devouring it, as I’ve done with books recently, I’m really trying to absorb it slowly. So far, so good. (I am also slowly making my way through the audio version of The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress — an interesting, based-on-real-life story set in the 20’s. I just haven’t had enough time alone in the car to finish.)

the book of unknown americansWhat did you recently finish reading? I posted a full review of We Are Called to Rise, which is a great book, but I also finished The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez this week. Not sure how I ended up reading a string of books in which immigrants play a major role, but they’ve all been really good. The Book of Unknown Americans is a teenage love story set against the backdrop of an apartment building inhabited by immigrants, all Spanish-speaking, but from many different countries. I like how Henriquez balanced the main story (which has all the makings of great YA) with the short narrations from so many other people. There were times when the book seems to lose its rhythm, but all in all, a really enjoyable read that opened my eyes to the world around me.

The Invention of WingsWhat do you think you’ll read next? I finally picked up a copy of The Invention of Wings. It’s the summer read for the high school where I work and I’ve been wanting to read it since it’s release.  I loved The Secret Life of Bees, but didn’t love The Mermaid’s Chair. I have high hopes for this one.

How about you?

What are your W…W…W… titles?

The Long Arm of Jane Austen

First, a confession: I don’t love Jane Austen.

There, I’ve said it. I know I will get grief (or maybe stunned silence) from all the Austen fans out there. I can appreciate that she has had an amazing literary impact, was ahead and of her time and wrote women well while still admitting I just don’t get the appeal. I love the movies based on her novels but when I sit down and try to make my way through the language and manners, I just can’t do it.

So, it’s with some surprise that I realize I’ve read not one, but two novels recently that were based entirely on Pride and Prejudice. Not as surprising, I liked, but didn’t love, both.

LongbournLongbourn by Jo Baker

It says a lot about me that I didn’t know the Austen connection when I picked up this audiobook because of it’s gorgeous cover. It seemed many of my book-loving friends had been posting about this title. As I listened, the characters sounded familiar, but I never made the connection. I most certainly would have had a deeper appreciation of the story had I realized, but these were my impressions.

A good audio for those of us missing Downton Abbey — same time period, although almost entirely the “downstairs” perspective. It just went on too long. I wanted it to end long before it did. Also, in this case I think I would have preferred Sarah’s first person perspective — the 3rd person kept too much emotional distance between me and the characters. Still, an interesting period piece.

Longbourn is out in paperback this week and would make a good addition to any beach bag.

Death Comes to PemberlyDeath Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

If it weren’t for my monthly book club, I would never have chosen this title, but at least this time I knew what I was getting into. Still, not a complete winner for me.

This is a perfectly fine novel, maybe better than average for Jane Austen fans. Continuing the stories of characters made famous in Pride and Prejudice, P.D. James brings a murder to the Pemberley estate of Mr. & Mrs. Darcy.

I expected more of a who-done-it than I got. But I also didn’t expect to be as engaged as I was. I wish more of the story would have been about Elizabeth. In fact, I don’t think James ever settled on whose story this is. The focus changed often with many extraneous characters getting plot lines. It all felt a little scattered.

It almost seemed liked James was afraid of delving too deeply into Elizabeth or Jane or Lydia. Lydia, in fact, disappears for the entire second half of the book despite her husband’s central role, a fact I found very frustrating. This becomes very much a man’s story.

My Book Club wasn’t a fan of this book either. We met after I wrote my review and I found the Austen fans in the room (quite a few – no surprise) frustrated by the characterizations of their beloved characters.

Unfortunately, neither of these titles inspired me to go back and read the original work, but I can respect that Jane Austen’s influence continues to spark creativity from authors today.

Book Review: We Are Called to Rise

We Are Called to RiseEach of the characters in Laura McBride’s devastatingly beautiful debut novel has to face personal tragedy. Avis is the “bastard daughter of a teenage hitchhiker” facing the dissolution of her marriage and the crumbling of her son’s sanity. Bashkim is a young immigrant Albanian trying to behave perfectly to not upset the delicate balance in his home when several traumatic events occur. Luis is a messed up veteran, struggling to recover from a suicide attempt and digging his way through PTSD. Roberta is a volunteer children’s advocate who’s seen the worst of abuse, homelessness and helplessness.

What’s so brilliant about Laura McBride’s writing and story-telling is that this always remains a hopeful, even uplifting novel. I found myself reading with tears in my eyes several times, but was carried along by my confidence that these great characters would overcome. As the novel’s title implies, these are people called to rise up with courage in the face of great odds.

“If you wait too long to figure that out, to figure out that we are the ones making the world, we are the ones to whom all the problems — and all the possibilities for grace — now fall, then you lose everything. Your only shot at this world.

I get that this one small life is all we have for whatever it is that we are going to do. And I want in.”

I love the balance of failure and grace which underlies the story. I, too, wanted in. Most books with this much courage & goodness set in desolate circumstances make me feel manipulated by easy answers and untrue characters. McBride avoids falling into that trap, crafting four distinct voices for her narrators, each of which rings complex and true. While my heart broke wide open for young Bashkim, I identified most strongly with Avis.

“I don’t know what I’m doing. I never knew what I was doing. I just jumped in and tried, no manual, I tried as hard as I could, and for the second time in my son’s life, I missed the important cue.”

McBride slowly lets out the strings of each individual story before bringing them together in somewhat surprising ways, building the pace and drama of the book perfectly. I would have liked to have known Roberta a bit better. Her primary function seems to be to bring the pieces of the story together, as opposed to having her own journey, but that’s a minor complaint in the scope of the novel.

I appreciate that McBride also gave me a glimpse of Las Vegas I have never seen. I’ve only ever thought of Vegas as a place people pass through, not a community of families and friends and immigrants. While I wouldn’t describe it as a book about Las Vegas, the city’s boom-town nature certainly plays a role in the plot.

“Yes, Vegas children fight America’s wars. These most American, least American of children, the children of the nation’s brightest hidden city: the city that is an embarrassing tic, a secret shame, a giddy relief, a knowing wink.”

The only thing keeping this novel from a 5-star rating for me is McBride’s tendency to over-write her characters beliefs and intentions toward the end of the novel. It’s as if she didn’t trust me, the reader, to understand their inner fears and beliefs so she delves into inner monologues (especially for Roberta and Luis) which disrupted the flow of the book. I suspect this is the insecurity of a first-time novelist, unsure that the author’s message hasn’t come through organically.

Still, I never wanted to put this book down and I know I will keep these characters close to my heart for a while to come. I have no reservations about highly recommending this book.