Multicultural

Nostalgia, My Enemy

A great way to explore another culture is through poetry. This book, by one of the best living writers in Arabic, Saadi Youssef, does just that. It also provides beautiful poetry.

Youssef writes about all the traditional topics: love, nature, the changing seasons, and daily activities but he also describes his pain and anger at seeing the damage to his home country. In "A Difficult Variation" he describes his wishes for his native country, "Peace be upon Iraq's hills, its two rivers, the bank and the bend, / upon the palm trees / and the English hamlet gently dragging its clouds."

He writes deeply poignant poems about Iraq. In one he asks, “Is it your fault that once you were born in that country? / Three quarters of a century / and you still pay from your ebbing blood / its tax.”

The Book of Unknown Americans

With immigration a hot button issue both politically and in the news, it was interesting to read Cristina Henriquez’s second novel The Book of Unknown Americans. It tells the stories of various immigrants (from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and other Latin American countries) who have all landed in Delaware.

The book opens with a family’s arrival at night from the border. A paid driver has brought Arturo, Alma, and their daughter Maribel to this immigrant enclave outside of Dover.  They are legal immigrants given papers to work on a mushroom farm.  Or at least Arturo will work there. They have come primarily to get special schooling for 15 year old Maribel who fell off a ladder at her father’s construction site in Mexico and has brain damage.

The story of this family is the heartwood of the novel. But woven in are life stories of other immigrants including a boxer, who came to the states to win matches but became instead a landlord, and an actress who worked hard to make it in New York City, but came to Delaware and formed her own theatre. 

This beautiful books gives you a feel of how hard it is to start life over in a new place, not understanding the language or culture.  It also explores issues of guilt and secrecy, and how they affect even the strongest of marriages.

Touching Strangers

Anyone with the ability to get a stranger to pose for a camera while touching two or three other strangers in New York City must have both courage and amazing diplomatic skills. Enter photographer Richard Renaldi. Since 2007 Renaldi has been hauling his big, 8 by 10 inch view camera not just around New York, but around other cities and towns across America.  This cool involving book presents some of the amazing portraits he’s created.

The juxtapositions are captivating: ages, races, classes, sexes, outfits, jewelry, tattoos, and indoor and outdoor settings all present a panoply of portraits of 21st century Americans. In “Jesse and Michael,” a bearded middle-aged man in an orange sweatshirt and woolen cap clutches the hands of a very old woman wearing a wig, with her cane draped over her purse.  Atlantic Ocean waves break behind them.

“Pedro and Neal” touch in some kind of shop or factory.  Pedro sits, his body exuding confidence and authority, a radio attached to his shirt.  Neal in a blue cap has claimed a perch on Pedro’s desk and Neal places one hand on Pedro’s shoulder, another around his wrist.

“Michael and Sarah” look like they could be engaged. Sarah leans into Michael’s shoulder on the NYC subway during winter—both wear coats and hats; their opposite hands are clasped on Sarah’s left wrist.

Three Day Road

I read a review of Three Day Road, Joseph Boyden's first novel of World War I, which mentions that this isn't necessarily an anti-war novel.   I had to read the sentence in that review several times to make sure I wasn't misreading or misunderstanding.  Does a war novel have to come out and specifically declare a stance? 

Really, Boyden includes anti-war elements right up to the breathtaking ending: senseless killings, madness, morphine addiction, shortsighted military leadership, dehumanization, and the day to day terror.  The characters in this book do seemingly impossible and horrible things in the name of combat.  Is that not stance enough?  Is it even important?

It is true that this book is about more than the descent into the hell of trench warfare.  It is a really poetic story of Xavier Bird and Elijah Whiskeyjack, Cree Indians who have grown up in Canada near Hudson Bay.  They have spent their childhood patiently hunting, skills which serve them well as snipers in some of the worst battles of World War I, including around Vimy Ridge and the Somme.  Maybe it needs to be said, but being good at killing moose to survive the winter is different than being good at killing Germans. Xavier and Elijah react differently, but equally destructively, to war.

High Seas Adventure (and so much more)!

"An action packed historical novel set on the high seas!" claims the book jacket for Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus.  Normally these aren't quite the descriptors I am looking for in a good book, but this Young Adult novel has amazing visual appeal and lying underneath the "high seas adventure" is a true heart of gold. 

Preus tells a fictional account of a true story: Manjiro, a young man from a small fishing village, becomes the first Japanese person to set foot in America.  Japan at the time had closed borders and a deep distrust for anything foreign.  When Manjiro is rescued with his friends after being shipwrecked on an island by an American whaling ship, his life is changed forever.  Captain Whitfield sees that Manjiro is a quick study, both in language and sailing and takes him under his wing.  The more Manjiro sees outside Japan, the more he wants to learn and explore eventually ending up attending school in New Bedford, Massachusetts living with the Whitfields.

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