Friday, August 15, 2014

The Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

The "Unknown Americans" in this novel are Hispanic immigrants living in Delaware.  The novel mostly centers on Alma and Arturo Rivera and their daughter who suffered a brain injury in Mexico (spurring their journey to the US so she can attend a special school), and a neighbor teenager named Mayor Toro, whose family immigrated from Panama before he was born. But the voices of other Hispanic immigrants in the complex are interspersed at the end of each chapter as well.

Cristina Henriquez deftly weaves a lot of themes into this unfolding story.  Through the characters eyes, the reader experiences the dislocation and confusion of the immigrant experience (not knowing where to buy groceries, having to find new foods to subsist on, not being able to communicate on a public bus, struggling to figure out school enrollment, etc.).  The reader also sees how immigrant children often feel caught between two competing worlds. Henriquez also does a great job explaining how "legal" immigrants can easily be forced to become "illegal" immigrants when they lose the jobs that provided their initial sponsorship.

I learned a lot from reading this novel and I think it does a great job in engendering conversation about the immigrant experience.  I very quickly became immersed in the story and couldn't put the book down. Even now I can recall the unique stories of some of the tertiary stories (for example the young woman who moved at 18 to New York to become an actress). I ultimately found the story of what happened to Arturo deeply tragic and it made it hard for me to continue reading. I'm still trying to decide if I view his tragic story to be a realistic choice. Even though the ending upset me, I found this book to be a truly engaging story of resilience and love and a distinct part of the American experience. I could also imagine using this book as a discussion piece in a high school English class.

The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings

I started reading The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings on a day when I was feeling particularly glum.  You wouldn’t think reading about a grieving mother would be uplifting, but I closed this book feeling totally rejuvenated. Kaui Hart Hemmings created such vivid, real and memorable characters and I enjoyed learning their stories.

I was immediately by Sarah St. John’s unique voice and the Breckenridge setting.  I’ve never been to Breckenridge, and it's hard for me to imagine growing up in a resort town and yet Sarah’s narration helped to transport me and to consider her unique childhood.

The book begins with Sarah pretending she isn't a local. She’s “a woman from Idaho, on vacation with friends,” she’s a “newlywed from Indiana,” she’s “an unremarkable guest at the Village Hotel.” She’s not notable. She’s cloaked in anonymity; she’s an everywoman. She’s pretending.  We quickly learn that Sarah is a forty year old woman, who newly lost her only son. She’s returning to work, and to life.

Sarah had left Breckenridge as a young woman desiring to be a broadcast journalist. But her accidental pregnancy at twenty-one gave her reason to “whittle life down,” and return home to a smaller universe with less pressing and more immediate choices. Sarah’s son, Cully, gave her life a sense of meaning and she struggles to find meaning after his tragic death.  It was strange as a thirty year old woman to consider how appealing Sarah found it to return home at twenty-one. I don’t believe at that age I would have responded similarly; but from the vantage point of the future I was almost jealous of the choice she faced.  It’s so easy to look back and wish I had made different decisions. But even while dealing with the death of her son and her lodestar, Sarah St. John is resolute in not doing so.  Like many individuals, she is insecure and doubts that she could have been successful with her dreams even if she hadn’t gotten pregnant so young.

In one passage she recalls: “I remember something insignificant just then from college—leaving an interview and not knowing how to get back on the freeway.  It’s silly to think that I’ve forsaken an opportunity, silly to think that I could have been somebody when I couldn’t even find the freeway.  Diane Sawyer could have done it on mescaline, and there I was in a cul-de-sac asking a girl with a single dread popping out of her head like a cactus where to go.”

This is a clear example of Sarah’s humanity. She is flawed and discounts her talents.  As a woman scared to drive on highways, I could deeply relate to Sarah's reflection of her driving foibles; this passage deeply resonated with me.

In The Possibilities, the possibilities are varied.  Sarah faces life anew (with new options before her but a totally different world view) and soon has a surprising encounter with a friend of her son that opens her up to one specific possibility.  Sarah’s retired father, who shares in her grief and provides a great deal of the comedic relief in the novel, has his own possibilities to consider. And Sarah’s friend Suzanne faces life with the looming possibility of a divorce with her husband who she still loves. And there are other possibilities too for all the young people who come to Breckenridge delaying their adulthood.

In the end, it isn't clear how the story ends for Sarah and her motley crew of family. But the reader is left inspired.  Sarah thinks: “I wouldn't have chosen these things to take place, but now that they have, I can’t stop looking, fascinated by my life, his life, just plain life. I can’t wait to see what else happens.” It’s impossible to read such resilience without feeling personally buoyed.

Overall, I came to deeply cherish the characters in The Possibilities and to love the rich world Hart Hemmings created. I highly recommend this book.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob

I loved the entire experience of this novel. The gorgeous picture on the cover, the almost five hundred pages packed with shifting story lines, Jacob’s use of language, the themes: first generation American life, Indian immigrant communities in random locales, loss of a family member, the endless grief of parents who have lost a child, being of two worlds, how one choice can alter a life.  Holding the heft of this novel in your hands, it is clear the time and creative energy and deep reflection that went into creating this engaging story.

I enjoyed this novel so much I started marking passages with post-it notes so I could easily find them later and ruminate further over the language and ideas.  So much of this engaging story is thought-provoking.  But it is also deeply real, incredibly well-composed and artful.

The story starts in Seattle in June of 1998. Amina Eapen is busy working as a wedding photographer when she receives a phone call from her mother revealing that her father has been conversing with his dead mother (who died twenty years before).  Amina’s mother doesn’t believe he is delusional, simply filled with weakness and devilish spirits.

The story shifts to India in 1979.  Amina is eleven. Her immediate family has journeyed to her father’s former hometown to visit with his mother and brother.  They bring American trinkets for the extended family, play cricket with their cousin, and watch their grandmother’s scheming, and their uncle’s bizarre night time behavior and then the visit is cut short. This creates a rift in the family and Amina’s uncle’s last words will soon be deeply prophetic.

The family interactions in this novel are deeply realistic.  At the center of the India drama is Thomas Eapen (Amina’s father), the brother who left, and Sunil, the brother who stayed behind and feels like a failure.  Ammachy, their mother, wants her first born son to return home and may be one of the few Indian mothers not to kvell over a successful brain surgeon son (she snaps: “Well no one asked you to become a brain surgeon”. His choice to be a brain surgeon makes it impossible for him to work in India which creates a tension between him and his mother and him and his wife).   She’s so caustic and particular and thus deeply authentic in the eyes of this reader. She tells her granddaughter she must be clever since she’s not pretty, she calls one of her grandsons a no-brains, she meddles endlessly and she refuses to accept that her son’s home is anywhere but the one she created for him. She also disparages Thomas’s wife for being too dark.

Back in Seattle (or the present day of the novel), Amina prepares to put her life on hold and return to New Mexico to help her parents. We learn all about her budding love affair with photography and the story behind the photograph that stalled her career as a budding photo journalist.
The novel shifts again to a time during Amina’s adolescence when her brother struggled with a unique medical malady. The novel does an artful job of showing how even a family helmed by a doctor can ignore signs of serious illness.

I connected deeply to Amina’s experience of taking care of her father as he fights cancer. Jacob, who lost her own father, writes about the experience of facing the perilous future so giftedly.  Simply sentences resonate deeply. For example, “It was getting harder not to spiral these days, to hear one thing and think of the next and the next,  until all that was left was a closet of her father’s sweaters and shoes” (397).  I was deeply moved by the scene that follows. Amina’s father asks her how she knows when to take a picture. And together they decide the reason he can’t get a good photograph of his wife is that “she’s a pretty woman who makes ugly faces” (398).

I also greatly enjoyed Amina’s romantic story line. She connects with a boy from her high school past – something that some would perceive as cliché. But the relationship between Jamie and Amina is complicated and authentic. It also made me consider my own parents relationship with a new sense of perspective (they were high school sweethearts who reconnected in their thirties).

There were many occasions while reading that I stopped to linger over Jacob’s use of language.  For example:
“They were luminous. Pieces of moon fallen from the sky, still reflecting every bit of light from the known universe. Smiling at her across the yard in a way she hadn’t seen in years, may have never seen.” (pg. 449).

“Because really, it didn’t matter whether he was the by-product of Thomas’s tumor or some filament of time slipped through a chink in the universe; it didn’t matter that Kamala and the others could not, would not, would never see him. The very idea that Akhil could be in the garden had brought back his loss, pushing it into every corner until the house bled with it. If she shut her eyes, Amina could feel exactly how gone her brother was, her ability to weigh his absence extra keen, dialed up like a blind person’s ability to hear.” (pg. 457).

There is a rhythm to Jacob's use of language that is uniquely her own.

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing is a tremendous feat. It’s a story that brings the reader inside its rich worlds to struggle and grieve and discover and fall in love with the Eapens and their extended family. It’s a story that brings us inside the experiences of a loving community of Suriyani Christian Indians. It’s a story that shows how adolescence can deeply shape us and mold our later choices. It’s a story that shows that even with deep sorrow there can be magic moments found a midst family.