Infinite Country by Patricia Engel (2021). I fell in love with Ms. Engel's prose and stories with her debut collection of short stories - Vida. So it was with great excitement I saw she had a 2021 novel. And well, it is the best novel I have read yet this year. I was sorry when it ended as I would never read it for the first time again. With this novel, Ms. Engel brings to life the immigrant experience and what life torn between two countries actually involves. In particular, especially in light of the recent coverage of US immigration policies under both Presidents Trump and Biden, she shows how the decision to become "undocumented" is often not made in one fell swoop, but among thousands of small decisions over time. The novel stunningly shows how all five family members are affected by immigration, deportation, and varying legal statuses in the USA. Along the way she movingly portrays the beauty of Colombia and the hope of life in the USA. For those who do not need plot summaries, please just read this fabulous novel of family, loss, love, life, and immigration. For those who like a plot summary, the story begins by showing Talia breaking out of a correctional facility for girls in Colombia. She must return to Bogota in time to use a ticket to the USA, the place of her birth but not of her childhood, that her mother has sent her. The story then explores the lives of her parents - Mauro and Elena - in Bogota when they met, in Bogota as they decide to flee Colombia's civil war and unrest, and in the USA before her birth. The novel's already acute sense of loss and musings about what makes a home, accelerates once her father is deported back to Colombia shortly after her birth. Her mother and her two siblings - Fernando (US born) and Karina (Bogota born) remain the US because even as Elena and Karina are undocumented, Colombia is still not the safer option. Talia is sent back to Bogota to live with her grandmother as Elena can not work and care for an infant (her siblings are old enough to be left with neighbors). From Mauro's deportation, the novel cleverly alternates perspectives and shows each of the five curating their life as best they can. Mauro's feelings of despair and failure cause him to spiral to the bottom of many bottles of cheap alcohol. Talia feels the loss of her mother and the love of her grandmother. Karina is marked by fear of deportation. Fernando is bullied and worries about his undocumented sister and mom. Elena finds multiple jobs, some with abuse, and ultimately lands with her two children, in a caretaker's cottage, behind a large home, watching the owner's son. This short novel, compacts a lot of plot and emotion in 191 beautifully written pages. Enjoy every one.
You'll Never Believe what happened to Lacey by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar (2021). Ms. Ruffin is a commedian and the first black woman writer on the Seth Myer's Late Night Show. She is also funny. She also is blessed with a sister who still live in their hometown of Omaha Nebraska and has CRAZY hings happen to her with regularity as a result of being a petitie Black woman in Omaha. Luckily Lacey calls Amber to talk about each incident. Luckliy for us they decieded writing down these conversations would be a great idea.
Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man by Emmanuel Acho (2020) - Q&A format about racism with former NFL player Acho based upon his podcast of the same name.
Unaccompaniedby Javier Zamora (2017). A moving collection of poetry that illustrates the stresses, hopes, loves, and lives of undocumented immigrants in the USA. Sometimes a few well-chosen words are all that is needed to humanize a concept - in this case immigration, and show the impacts of policy on lives. Beautifully moving, often haunting, and always enlightening. A superb way to think a bit at a time about immigration and immigrants and the undocumented.
Three Dreamers Lorenzo Carcaterra (2021). Mr. Carcaterra's memoir about the three women who most shaped his life - his grandmother, his mother and his wife is a perfect mother's day gift. The book is divided into three sections - each devoted to one of these women, never overlapping because Mr. Carcaterra's time with each rarely overlapped. Each woman is succinctly shaped, flaws and all. Each is treated with love and honor, even when it wasn't felt in real time during the time being described in the memoir. His grandmother lived her entire life on an island off the coast of Italy near Naples and her home was a source of safety from his abusive home in Hell's Kitchen in NYC for Mr. Carcaterra for seven summers of his youth. She provides grounding and some excellent stories of heroism during nazi occupation of the island in WWII. His mother is more complicated, trapped in a loveless and abusive marriage in hell's Kitchen thousands of miles from her family and friends in Italy, and separated for years from her son form her first happier marriage that ended with the death of her husband, her decision to stay in a horrific situation is portrayed as courageous and weak, and it's effects lingering. And it is also portrayed with understanding. The book finishes with hits time with his wife - first as his editor when he breaks into the world of newspapers - his childhood dream, then as his girlfriend, then wife, then mother to his children, then the complications of the role of partner as the kids leave home (something he confesses they did not weather well), and regaining their connection through her bout with and eventual death from lung cancer. Her support of his writing is evident throughout. This memoir will have you thinking about who has shaped you and why.
The Coldest Case by Martin Walker (2021) - The latest Bruno novel is like revisiting a good friend over good food. And warning once againMr. Walker's descriptions of the food of France will leave you hungry and/or wanting to take up your own cooking game a bit. This time Bruno helps his older colleague JJ solve a long standing open case - one that has obsessed JJ over the years. Thrown in some climate change lessons from the fires fought in Bruno's French countryside and cold war espionage and you have everything you need to enjoy your time with Bruno, his village and his food. If you have not yet discovered this series, we hope you do soon.
The Skull Beneath the Skin by PD James (- the second Cordelia Grey novel. Equally as compelling as the first . Strong female character - this time solving a murder on an island.
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by PD James (1977) - The first Cordelia novel -- loved it - she's complicated. James writes well. You get a tour of Cambridge. You see how wealth corrupts. Enjoy. Note -- I kept being surprised by the relatively modern clothing and aspects of daily life as the attitudes expressed by clients and characters towards women in work seemed ancient. Then I remembered the 1970s with all their progress towards equality, had their issues. This was a good reminder to not take anything for granted.
Embassy Wife by Katie Crouch (2021). I laughed. I cringed. I missed my time as an expat in Madrid. And, I was filled with wanderlust for Africa. Perhaps especially during covid safety precautions it was nice to travel for a bit. I also greatly appreciated the fact this story cleverly initially hid targeted critiques of race, privilege and power in the world, and specifically to this novel, in Namibia.
The Thin Place by CD Major (2021) - A horror story set in Scotland. And ancient house Ava encounters as part of her job reporting for the local news, haunts her from the beginning. Turns out the home has strong connection to her mother, an orphan with grainy memories of her family life, and a woman named Marion, an almost spinster who she thinks is rescued from a drab existence in London by a Scottish nobleman. The home catches the attention of the news as it is a place where hundreds of dogs have inexplictally jumped to their death from a footbridge on the property. The grounds are said to be a thin place - an area where life and afterlife are close and people and things can leap easily between them. The whole time I was reading this I felt I had heard this story before. I wonder if there is a fable somewhere the author and I both encountered years ago.
Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour (2021). This darkly humorous fictional look at the tech industry was a perfect follow-up to my recent reading of Anna Wiener's Uncanny Valley. Ms. Wiener offers an atmospheric chronicle of her gradual disillusionment with the sector. Mr. Askaripour satarizes it all in this "self-help" book, narrated by Buck, An African-American 20-something picked out from behind a Starbuck counter to become an integral part of a high tech start-up selling tools to help create the best version of our selves. Both Ms. Wiener and Mr. Askaripour point out the absurdities of the start-up culture, Mr. Askaripour goes further and pointedly highlights the absurdities and insidious nature of systemic racism in corporate America and well, America. The cringe-worthy incidents the main character "Buck" endures somehow don't dampen his extremely grounded sense of self and generosity of spirit, leaving you turning pages rapidly to discover what could possibly happen next and how Buck would handle it, and wondering how you yourself can change your part in the system.
The Gifts of Imperfection: 10th anniversary edition by Brene Brown (2010, 2020) Uncanny Valley by Wiener (2020).
Wow No Thank you by Samantha Irby (2019) some fo the essays were spot on eye opening and hilarious. Some were just good. And all were worth reading.
More Than Enough by Elaine Welteroth (2019)
The Self-care cookbook by Gemma Ogston (2020)
2021 Kids and YA
Love is a Revolution by Renee Watson (2021) Ms. Watson wrote one of my favorite books for kids in 2019, so I was excited to see she had penned a YA novel. Nala Robertson is facing the summer between her junior and senior year of high school with a cousin/sister/friend who is motivated, popular, pretty, in love and her bestest friend Imani. Nala knows she needs to do more than visit her grandmother in her assisted living center to have activities worthy of her looming college applications. Part of the deal when she moved in with her Aunt Uncle and Imani was she would get good grades and go to college - unlike her own estranged mother. And yet, she is not sure about college. And then Tye walks into her life. He is part of Imani's activist activities. He wants the world to be a better place and acts accordingly with every aspect of his life. Nala knows she shouldn't let Tye think she is Imani-like, but she does, because Tye is fine and Tye loves the Nala who is like Imani. The problem is this Nala is a lie and the real Nala doesn't like her too much. A superb novel about becoming you and the pressures high schoolers feel as they face college and the enhanced pressures on brown and black teens.
Fat Chance Charlie Vegaby Crystal Maldonado (2021). A lovely coming of age story for all the readers out there who feel outside the norm due to body size and for all their friends who love them. Charlie is a self described fat, brown girl whose dad passed away not so long ago, whose best friend is gorgeous thin and beloved by all, whose mother was fat like her until she discovered weight loss shakes and keep sharing the love of these shakes to an uncooperative Charlie. Complicating matters even further, Charlie is in love with the star football player, Cal - who has firmly planted her in friend land, probably only for an in with Charlie's gorgeous best friend. Charlie recognized this cliche of the fat friend in love with the star athlete who uses her for her class notes and access to beautiful friends, and she knows things with Cal will be different when he finally sees her. Luckily Charlie has her notebook and her stories and her desire to be the best writer possible. Even more lucky Charlie has an after school job in a workspace shared by a very nice boy from her art class. Enjoy this ride through Junior year of High School and enjoy Charlie and her true friends; they will give you hope for humanity.
The Black Friend by Frederick Joseph (2020). To being -- this YA book is also great for adults and we think would be excellent for Book Clubs and classroom discussions for anyone interested in racial justice and becoming better anti-racists/up-standers. Written by Mr. Joseph as if he is a new friend of the reader, he walks his new friends through how comments such as "I don't see color" and other micro-aggressions and more outright racism of many, are wrong and need to end. The book is divided into chapters by themes, with a conversation between Mr. Joseph and other experts on that theme ending each chapter. Full of practical advice and lists of "people and things to know" throughout and helpfully compiled at the end, this book is a great place to start one's own work on being a better person and actively anti-racist. It also feels important to highlight Mr. Joseph's reminder that "that this book is a gift not an obligation" (p. 195), because "While this book is meant to be a guide for white people to understand and be better, it's important that white people also understand that it isn't the duty of Black people or people of color to explain things" (p. 194).
The Black Kidsby Christina Hammonds Reed (2020). Ashley Bennett and her friends are enjoying their senior year spring in Los Angeles in 1992. They are worried about which college will accept them (Stanford? UC Berkeley?) and how often they can successfully cut classes to lay on the beach or swim in the pool of a neighboring mansion. As you may guess from the year and the location, everything changes one night when four LAPD officers are acquitted after beating Rodney King to death. Suddenly even though Ashley has been questioning her choices of friends for awhile and hasn't been able to cut them loose because they've been friends since kindergarten, the fact that Ashley is Black and her friends are not means Ashley is not just one of her group, she's one of "the Black kids". Her world suddenly and methodically starts to crumble: her estranged older sister is involved in the riots, her family's success as a "model Black family" is no longer enough, her so called friends spread a rumor that endangers the future of one of the other "Black kids" at her prep school, and Los Angeles is literally burning around her. The historical setting unearths questions and highlights racism with us today, perhaps providing a better way.
Punching The Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam (2020). A powerful look at life from the eyes of an incarcerated Black teen. Amal, whose name translates to hope - an important aspect for his survival remains in jail after a fight with some white teens landed one white boy in a coma and him in jail for a crime he didn't commit. Did he throw the first punch? Yes. Did he beat a white boy into a coma - NO. And yet he sits in jail because even his character witnesses - in particular a teacher from his school - saw him as an angry Black boy. What feeds his hope? Some sage advice from some of the boys preceding him into incarceration, a poet teaching classes to any boy who "earns" the privilege, and a guest whose exploration or mistakes misgivings and systems reminds Amal that speaking his truth is the most important thing he can do; and the one thing no one can take away. Told in poetry and based on the actual experiences of Dr. Yusef Salaam, one of the "Central Park Five", this book will hopefully change how we view our prison system and move us to action.