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.

W…W…W…Wednesday

Another editition of 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?

Among the MissingWhat are you currently reading? I am a big fan of Dan Chaon’s full-length novels so his short story collection, Among the Missing,  has been on my TBR for a very long time. Found it on the shelf and the library last week and I’m so glad I did. Half-way through and savoring ever word. Chaon has a great talent for getting inside our insecurities and bringing them to life in situations so real, I feel like I’m deep in each story. He’s just a terrific writer.

Prayers for the StolenWhat did you recently finish reading? This weekend I finished Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement. I posted a review yesterday so I won’t repeat all my opinions here. I should add though, that I can’t get some of the images Clement created out of my mind. I don’t read much about Mexico, especially considering my heritage, but this is inspiring me to learn more and investigate what other authors are out there writing about what’s going on in that country right now.

 

We Are Called to RiseWhat do you think you’ll read next? I received an email that We Are Called to Rise is waiting for me at the local library so I’ll go pick that up today. Very excited to read this title, which could lead to great disappointment, but I’m hoping great reading instead.

which has gotten under my skin so I’m hoping to get into that soon.

How about you?

What are your W…W…W… titles?

Book Review: Prayers for the Stolen

“The best thing you can be in Mexico is an ugly girl.”

Prayers for the StolenThese are some of the first words of Ladydi Garcia Martinez and they set the tone for this brutal, yet beautiful coming of age novel by Jennifer Clement. Ladydi is a teenager in Guerrero, Mexico, a place where mothers masquerade their daughters as boys, blacken their teeth or rub chili powder on their cheeks, all to disguise their beauty. They dig holes outside their homes for the girls to hide when the SUVs rumble into their barren town.

This is a place where girls are stolen by the drug cartels. This is place where poisonous scorpions and stinging red ants await every step. This is a place where poison can, and does, rain down from the sky. This is a place where the government corruption runs so deep there’s no seeing over the top of it. This is a place where there are no men.

Ladydi’s father has disappeared into the United States along with all the other grown men of their mountainside, but not before sleeping with every woman in town. Ladydi’s mother is a contrast of fierce protectress and debilitating drunk. Her only other adult role models are the “teachers” who pass through the town school to fulfill their social service obligation. Basically, what Ladydi is taught is that she can never hope for happiness.

“Don’t ever pray for love and health, Mother said. Or money. If God hears what you really want he will not give it to you. Guaranteed. When my father left my mother said, get down on your knees and pray for spoons.”

I read this slim novel in one day with my heart in my throat the entire time. It’s not easy to watch the events unfold, but the story is told so well and so beautifully that I didn’t want to stop reading. Clement has created a smart, tenacious and hopeful heroine in Ladydi — no easy accomplishment given the setting in which she is placed.

4 stars