Jeanine Cummins & Vivian Gornick

AmericanDirtThe 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.

FierceAttachmentsI 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.