The Book Jam Blog
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Immigration. This one word can bring many worlds and images to mind: undocumented workers, border crossings, coyotes, walls, xenophobia, citizenship, voting... And these terms can also evoke strong emotions and images, ones that probably differ for everyone depending on lived experience and exposure to people living behind the words. For instance, anyone who has been part of a naturalization ceremony is likely forever affected by the joy experienced there. Anyone who has known or is an undocumented worker may forever be marked by both the hope and the fear guiding their lives. For many others, there are books to lend insight. Luckily two works we've read recently provide gorgeous poetry and prose and a much needed window into the lives of immigrants, both documented and undocumented. We offer these reviews with the hope that they promote understanding and also provide you with two powerful, affecting reads.
Infinite Country by Patricia Engel (2021). I fell in love with Ms. Engel's prose and stories while reading her 2010 debut collection of connected short stories chronicling life in both Colombia and New Jersey, Vida (I can’t recommend it enough). So it was with great excitement I saw she published a novel in March 2021. And it is the best one I have read thus far this year. I was dismayed when it ended as I would never again have the chance to read it for the first time; but, I’m excited that anyone who now sees this review will next have the chance to enjoy Ms. Engel's gorgeous, sparse prose and story telling skills. With this novel, Ms. Engel illuminates the immigrant experience, including what a life torn between two countries involves. In particular, especially in light of the recent coverage of US immigration policies under both Presidents Trump and Biden, she communicates how the decision to become "undocumented" is often not made in one fell swoop, but rather that it entails thousands of small decisions over time. The novel stunningly conveys how all five family members in this book each are affected by immigration, deportation, and varying legal statutes in the USA. Along the way, Ms. Engel movingly portrays the beauty of Colombia and the hope of life in the USA. For those who do not need plot summaries, stop here and simply seek this fabulous novel of family, loss, love, life, and immigration. Your heart will break, mend, break, and mend over and over again as you read this superb story.
For those who do appreciate a plot summary, we share more for you. The story begins with teenaged 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. The story then shifts to explore the lives of her parents - Mauro and Elena - in Bogota when they first 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 older 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. Throughout, the novel cleverly alternates perspectives and shows each of the five family members 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, endures 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. (Note: my youngest son is adopted from Bogota, so I am predisposed to books about life there and life in the US for Colombian-Americans; that said, this novel is terrific.) ~ Lisa Christie
Unaccompanied by 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. We offer and example, an excerpt from To Abuelita Neli - "...You understand. Abuelita, I can' go back and return. There's no path to papers. I've got nothing left but dreams..." This collection is beautifully moving, often haunting, and always enlightening. A superb way to think a bit at a time about immigration, immigrants, the undocumented, and the power of sharing stories. ~ Lisa Christie
Periodically, the Book Jam turns over our platform to guest reviewers. We love this tradition as it means we hear about great books and it expands and diversifies the voices of the Book Jam. Today, we are thrilled to have Charlotte Cadow, Colorado College graduate, Educator, outdoor enthusiastic, and daughter of the Book Jam's Lisa Cadow. Thank you Charlotte.
This past fall, I left Wyoming to caretake at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Mizpah Hut. Located 2.5 miles and 2000 vertical feet from the nearest trailhead, books, food, clothes, and sleeping bags all have to be hauled in by packboard. So, when my co-caretaker offered to share, Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler, I was more than eager. Butler, having broken into a largely white, male dominated genre in the 1970s, brought a refreshing, and critical new lens to science fiction writing, and I’d heard a lot about her work in the preceding year. So, during a lull in the fall hiking traffic, I crinkled open the pages of Parable of the Sower.
Parable of the Sower (1994). Butler derived inspiration for the Parable books by forecasting what would happen if social injustice, climate change, and the inadequacies of governmental support for citizens were to intensify. Set in California, Parable of the Sower unfolds between 2020 and 2024, where everything is burning – the hills, the homes, any sense of harmony. Lauren, the protagonist, is fortunate – her family lives in a walled-in community. This banding together of households, who have strung barbed wire along the top of the fence, posted armed nightly watches, and have monthly target practice in the hills, is the new definition of normal - these protective measures are necessary to avoid the escalating chaos outside the walls. As the story unfolds, the stability of Lauren’s world dissolves. She journeys north towards land, a semblance of safety, and a future, all while navigating the power of religion, hyper-empathy, love, and loss as a young black woman in a dystopian world.
The first time I read Parable of the Sower, I was alone in the mountains, in a rumored-to-be haunted hut, in the middle of a pandemic. One morning, I awoke to a strange man standing on the fire escape outside of my unlocked door. When he twisted the knob and opened the door, I calmly told him that had the wrong entrance. With a pounding heart, I was immensely grateful of this reminder that in 2020, not all of the Parable had become a reality. In this prophetic novel, Butler questions what it means to be fundamentally human, dives into the potential implications of 1994 America, and ultimately leaves the reader with a sense of hope. ~ Charlotte Cadow
Kindred (1979). Dana is a young Black woman living in California in the 1970’s. Throughout the book, she is unexpectedly and involuntarily drawn back in time to antebellum Maryland. As the plot develops, Dana becomes increasingly intertwined in the survival of Rufus, the son of a white plantation owner, and Dana’s many-times-removed great grandfather. Through this narrative, Butler guides the reader through the implications of slavery, particularly the utter lack of autonomy possessed by enslaved people. While Dana possesses a 1970’s awareness and education, she is still subjected to the inescapable realities of slavery. She is helpless to stop Rufus from raping her many-time-removed great grandmother, to prevent beatings, or to decide when she will return to present day.
After fifteen different publishers turned down the novel manuscript, Butler successfully sent Kindred off to the press. 42 years later, I read Kindred from our cozy and comfy couch. Yet, from the moment I cracked the cover, I was transported into an expertly crafted harsh reality. I have never felt so keenly aware of how slavery operated, or the power that white plantation owners had after dehumanizing the Black population. While Butler wasn’t alive in antebellum times, she had a vision and the brilliance to remind us why understanding history is important, and that the impacts of the past perpetuate into the present. ~ Charlotte Cadow
Fledgling (2005). I’d consider this book to be more of an adult fantasy novel than a “science fiction;” perhaps a vampire book for adults. Shori awakes in a forest den after having lost most of her memory to an unknown trauma. With time, Shori’s body and mind begin to recover, and she seeks out solace in human companionship. As her social network broadens, she becomes aware of the impliations of her skin color, gender, and unique genetic identity. Butler builds on elements of the traditional vampire myths and legends, yet supplements with refreshing and provocative new characteristics, and the reader has the joy of discovering these traits are Shori herself rediscovers what it means to be “Ina.” This tantalizing tale explores themes of racism, sexism, polyamory, and fierce power dynamics.
Once again, Butler defied the perceived boundaries of science fiction. I found her prose to be imbued with a thought-provoking light from which to observe the social implications of racial relations. Her mastery of language, plot, and character development was evident as I devoured the 360 pages of text in under 24 hours. If you’re looking for a read to suck you in, tumble you around in a sea of misconceptions, and then spit you out with fresh perspectives, you should try Fledgling. ~ Charlotte Cadow
If you’re looking to learn more about Octavia Butler and her writing, check out the THROUGHLINE podcast from last month!