My August 13 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:
As you probably know, non-fiction is not my best subject. It works for me only when I can find the story in it. That’s why I’m raving about Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.
North Korea? Heavy lifting, right? Well, yes with a big “but.” In an extraordinary piece of reporting (right up there with Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity) Demick takes us inside the lives of six ordinary North Koreans before and after defection.
We’ve all read the news stories about the repressive totalitarian regime, the starvation, the disillusionment and hopelessness. Demick brings it alive and we care desperately about these people. We root for them. It’s not an exaggeration to say it reads like a suspense story.
When I told people I was reading a book about North Korea, let’s just say the response was tepid at best. Trust me, there’s a reason. This book tells you more about the twisted psychology of a brutal dictatorship and the tenacity of the human spirit than any I can remember.
I’ll spare you any analogy with the worst tendencies of our current administration in regard to manipulation of the media, outright lies, the cult of personality (and the list goes on). Just read this book, OK?
The good news about Jeanine Cummins’s new novel American Dirt is it’s the best book I’ve read this year, last year and every year since I can remember. The bad news is they’ve delayed the publication and it’s not coming out till January. If you can get your hands on an ARC (Advance Reading Copy), DO IT NOW. Or pre-order it. I promise you it will fly off the shelves.
I kept looking at Cummins’s picture on the back flap to see how this very white Irish-looking person wrote such a compelling, terrifying, realistic novel about a Mexican mother and son escaping drug cartel violence in Acapulco and riding atop The Beast, the train to el norte. It’s impossible that she herself had this experience so I can only conclude that she’s one hell of a reporter and an equally talented writer.
It’s not a spoiler to tell you the book opens with the violent act that cause Lydia, a well-educated bookstore owner, and her precocious eight-year-old son Luca to flee. It comes at you with the opening sentence: “One of the very first bullets comes in through the open window above the toilet where Luca was standing.”
Lydia has inadvertently befriended the head of a drug cartel and when her journalist husband exposes him, the consequences are disastrous. Their heart-pounding escape and journey to the U.S. are told in harrowing detail and blistering prose.
Cummins is the wife of a formerly undocumented immigrant and she’s said because the migrants at the Mexican border have been portrayed as a “faceless brown mask,” she wanted to give them a face, unique stories of their own. Boy does she ever.
This book is being compared to The Grapes of Wrath. The comparison is apt. Just as that novel told the story of the migration west during the Dust Bowl, this story captures and personalizes our current immigration nightmare. If there’s one book you should read this year, American Dirt is it.
I kept coming across Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments, written in 1987, on lists of best memoirs. Since memoir and biography are the non-fiction I like best, I finally got to it.
Wow. Gornick has a difficult mother. Her book tells the back story of their family life in the Bronx and chronicles her present walks around New York with her no-less difficult-with-age parent.
An accomplished journalist, both vulnerable and strong, she’s in the powerful grip of this complicated woman. The merest slight renders her an insecure child again. Any woman who’s ever been victimized by a mother—and really, who hasn’t?—will relate.
There were so many places in this book where I saw my mother and just as many where I saw myself. That’s great writing.
I got an advance copy of Peter Orner’s collection of very short stories Maggie Brown & Others a while back and it’s been sitting on my night table for a few months. I dip into it whenever whatever else I’m reading isn’t working. The truth is I’m savoring it … I want it to go slowly. Because it’s that good.
In the meantime, this rave appeared in the Times this past week. Dwight Garner really captures Orner’s genius. And I do mean genius. The book is so multi-faceted and full of memorable characters, I wasn’t sure I could do it justice. So I selfishly didn’t share it with you.
Stories I loved: “Ineffectual Tribute to Len” (even snippets of lines like “Then in February, it was always February that year…” kill me); “1984,” in which a group of stoned kids try to barbecue some frozen chicken breasts they’ve rooted out of the freezer; the sad sweetness of “Erwin and Pauline,” which ends with everyone gathering post-funeral for “cold cuts”—and oh my god the names: Joey Pignatari and Newt Shakenberg and Cindy Roo and Itchy Burman. They’re stories in themselves.
Orner’s characters are Jewish “like they wore shoes or overate at lunch,” the kind of Jewish that has its own language, behavior, set of values, and humor and feels familiar to anyone who is or has ever hung out with Jews.
It’s a whole rich world full of love and regret and pathos and the very ordinariness and insanity of life that Peter Orner conjures up in this collection. Put it by your bedside and dip in as you would with a box of the very best chocolates. You’re welcome.
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The Book Lane Management
Back in the 80s when I was traveling in South America I was scared to even leave the airport in Bogota. And I wasn’t exactly the cautious type.… I traveled through Peru sola when the Sendero Luminoso was blowing things up on a regular basis. During those years The South American Handbook advised chaining your suitcase to your wrist and the overhead rail on the train to keep it from being stolen.
Today, of course, tourists are blithely adding Colombia to their itinerary. Whole families even! A friend’s daughter is leading trips out of Medellín. Medellín! Where Pablo Escobar et al. once held sway.
Ingrid Contreras’s Fruit of the Drunken Tree takes us back to those days when Escobar and the paramilitary were waging war; car bombings, assainations and kidnappings were the order of the day; young children were being conscripted to join the guerillas; and the whole country was in a state of fear and anxiety.
She tells the story through the eyes of seven-year-old Chula Santiago, who lives with her upper middle class family in a gated community in Bogotá. The family hires a teenage maid, Petrona, who comes from the mountainous slums with whom Chula falls in love a little, in a little girl crush-like way.
The novel is told in alternating chapters from Chula and Petrona’s point of view. The voices ring authentic and true not only in describing the events around them but also their inner lives.
The prose is gorgeous. When Petrona first comes to Chula’s family she’s almost mute. Chula “always imagined the silence in Petrona’s throat like dry fur draping over her vocal cords, and when she cleared her throast, I imagined the fur shaking a little, then settling smooth like hair on a fruit.”
And this: “War always seemed distant in Bogotá, like niebla descending on the hills and forests of the countryside and jungles. The way it approached us was like fog as well, without us realizing, until it sat embroiling everything around us,”
Early in the novel, the Santiago family is engaging in their weekly Friday television watching: “When Mama changed the channels we were regularly disturbed by the graphic quality of the news reports. I could piece something together from the news –massacres in the countryside, common graves found in farms, peace talks with the guerillas, but I didn’t understand who was responsible for what or what any of it meant.”
One Friday she recognizes a nearby street, the site of a car bomb. The reporter points out a young girl’s severed leg with a red shoe and white sock still attached. It reminded me of the image seared into our current collective consciousness of the three-year-old Syrian refugee boy dead on the beach. The difference for Chula is the nightmare is right outside her window, in her neighborhood. And later her mother takes Chula and her sister to a rally for a presidential candidate which ends in horrific violence.
This is novel about family and class, the haves and the have-nots, and ultimately those who have choices and those who don’t. Most of read read about the Escobar reign of terror and tsk tsked. This book brings you right inside it and its very human toll. It’s a beautifully told story about a tragic time, one that opens your heart and rips it apart.
I have to thank my cousin Linda for re-introducing me to Anne Fadiman’s book Ex Libris. I picked it up when it was first published 20 years ago and I was moving too fast to take it in. I’m in exactly the right place now to appreciate her exquisite sensibility.
Anne Fadiman loves words and language and books and has a way of making what’s fascinating to her fascinating to us as well. Did you ever know you cared about Arctic exploration or William Kunstler’s bad sonnets? Trust me, you will.
Fadiman comes from an uber-literary family. Every Sunday night they gathered around the TV for G.E. College Bowl and Fadiman U, as they called themselves, won almost every time. Just like your family and mine … not. When she was four, she “liked to build castles with [her] father’s pocket-sized, twenty-two volume set of Trollope.” Me too, said no one.
Fadmiman has a great sense of humor whether writing about the challenges of merging her library with her new husband’s, books about food (“My moist frequent response to gastronomic references in literature is an immediate urge to raid the refrigerator”), her compulsion to read anything (“I’d rather have a book but I’d settle for a set of Water Pik Instructions”), and the joys of what she calls “You-Are-There Reading,” reading books in the places they describe (e.g. Steinbeck on Cannery Row, John Wesley Powell in the Grand Canyon).
I know you’re a book lover because you’re reading this. You owe it to yourself to read this book. It’s an absolute delight. Thank you, Linda.