Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Neruda on the Park by Cleyvis Natera

After reviewing novels for 15 years and plotting my own, it's not often that a book surprises me, but Cleyvis Natera's Neruda on the Park is an astounding debut. The set-up reminded me of You've Got Mail: a naive young woman falls for the charming developer who threatens to destroy her world. However, as the beautiful cover art reveals, Neruda on the Park is more of a mother-daughter story than a romance, unless Nothar Park, their Dominican neighborhood in NYC, is the main love interest. What the story becomes is true to the multidimensional characters in our uncertain times but not what you'd expect from genre scaffolding.

Natera's novel has such a wonderful sense of place of both Manhattan (where I grew up) and the Dominican Republic (where I've visited). The generosity and rivalry of neighbors in a close knit community was well observed. I especially enjoyed the descriptions of food: "Pastel making started out as it always did - hours peeling skin, grinding the flesh of plátanos, yautias, and yuccas until the grainy yellow paste was smooth enough to be mistaken for cooked cornmeal." There's so much local flavor: from the decorative (not pandemic) masks celebrating Dominican Independence Day to the sidewalk barbecues with extra food to share, but crime, sexism, racism, and ICE lurk around the corner.

Cleyvis Natera photo by Beowulf Shehan
The book opens with commercial glitz: successful women wear designer suits with mortgageable shoes and dine in trendy restaurants. The power players, both black and white, live in private brownstones, where jewelry and books are displayed behind glass like trophies of social status. Double Ivy League educated herself, Luz Guerrero wants to grasp everything that is withheld from her. Her name in Spanish means light warrior, and she earns it, fighting for justice.

To please her doting parents and her mentor-boss, Luz works long hours as a corporate lawyer, pouring her savings into her parent's retirement home back in DR and buying designer clothes for herself on credit. After her career hits an unexpected setback, Luz meets a handsome billionaire in a hot yoga class (don't quit reading). Although white and privileged, Hudson apologizes for his mistakes, speaks better Spanish than hers, recites Pablo Neruda's poetry by heart, and welcomes Luz into his luxurious world without reservations. Hudson wants the best for her. So why does her mother hate him?

Halfway through the book, the seemingly predictable plot warps like a Dali clock, resetting our perception of reality. What I enjoyed the most was watching the characters develop and twist the storyline in unexpected directions, but I won't say any more to avoid spoilers. Except go pre-order this May 17th book from your local indie bookstore before it sells out. Publishing rights to Neruda on the Park sold at auction for all the right reasons. Will there be a movie?


My reviews of two more excellent novels by Dominican Americans:

Dominicana by Angie Cruz

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

¡Felicidades por tu maravilloso debut, Cleyvis! Me encantó tu novela y espero que escribas más.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

What I Carry by Jennifer Longo

It's a rare pleasure to find a book that tackles gritty issues and still manages to be an enjoyable read. Jennifer Longo excels at creating complex protagonists who are their own worst antagonists. Longo's last book, Up to this Point, was one of my favorite young adult novels of 2016, but What I Carry is even better. Her latest young adult novel is dedicated to her daughter, who was born into foster care and had "never read a book about a life she recognized." The author listened to her and to foster families to create a fictional story that is educational but never didactic.

Muir was born addicted to the drugs her mother was using and then shuffled through a series of foster homes. At nearly eighteen, Muir is finally on the brink of aging out of foster care but with freedom comes financial insecurity and the loss of her support network. For her final placement, this ultra urban girl has been extirpated from her beloved Seattle and replanted on a remote island. With only a retired foster mother and no foster siblings for company, Muir is terrified by silence and empty space. She's used to living out of a suitcase in temporary quarters and refuses to unpack her few belongings. At school she strives to get by without being noticed as usual, but that's not possible in such a small town.

It was a joy to watch Muir connect with nature and make emotional attachments but equally painful to see how she struggles to accept anything given to her, be it a fresh baked scone or genuine love. My only criticism was the mean girls at school felt like cardboard cutouts, standing in sharp contrast to the other well developed characters, young and old. I have never felt more invested in a character, wanting Muir to succeed. If I had to summarize this quiet book in one word it would be hope.

My coastal town in Maine got 18 inches of snow in the blizzard. Great skiing before the rain!

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman


To celebrate Hanukkah, my family lights the menorah for eight nights; my husband makes the most delicious latkes (potato pancakes), and I have always given our children books. When shopping for books by diverse authors this holiday season, remember to include Jewish writers. Their stories aren't just for Hanukkah. We can all learn so much about the world by reading about other cultures and key moments in history. 

One of my favorite Jewish writers is Alice Hoffman, the  author of more than thirty books, many of them national bestsellers. In her 2019 novel, The World That We Knew, a twelve-year-old girl flees Nazi Germany to France with the help of a golem, a magical creature whose existence is as much a blessing as a curse. Despite this touch of magical realism, the mostly realistic narrative doesn't stray far from the facts of history.

What I found most interesting was the exploration of mysticism and female agency within the Jewish faith. I loved how Hoffman adapted patriarchal practices to give her observant female characters more freedom and power. There are also strong male characters, both Catholic and Jewish, but women and girls drive the narrative. The female golem made me rethink what it means to be human and a mother. The magical elements enhanced the story without detracting from the heroism of the French Resistance nor the horrors of the Holocaust. The writing was sublime.

Although The World That We Knew was written for adults, most of the characters are teenagers and the narrative is fast-paced and hopeful so it would crossover well to younger readers. My one and only criticism is the title is way too vague. This unforgettable book deserved a title easier to remember so write it down now. Thanks, Cathy at Main Point Books, for the book recommendation! 

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

If you loved All the Light We Cannot See as much as I did, you'll be delighted to hear that Anthony Doerr will be releasing a new and equally epic novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, on September 28th. His latest book is structurally more complex as it is narrated in multiple voices from antiquity, the recent past, and the future. It’s an ode to ancient texts, to libraries, and most of all, to readers.

The historical storyline follows two teenagers on opposite sides of a walled city during the 1453 siege of Constantinople. Anna is an orphan who should be embroidering birds and flowers for Christian priests but instead sneaks off to learn how to read Greek. Beyond the fortified walls, Omeir is more concerned in the wellbeing of his oxen than in the plunders of war. A birth defect makes it easier for him to win the love of animals than of people outside his family, but of all the characters, Omeir is the least bitter and the most capable and generous.

The contemporary storyline is set in Idaho and alternates between a troubled youth, Seymour, who befriends a threatened owl, and an 86-year-old Korean War veteran, Zeno, who is struggling to translate fragments of an ancient Greek text. I found it interesting that the "contemporary" storyline was set in February 2020, right before the pandemic. Perhaps to avoid its absence from the narrative? Some savvy editor or perhaps the author himself might have adjusted the dates right before the galleys were printed. I'm guessing that the pandemic will divide literature like World War II did in the last century.

The futuristic story is narrated only from the perspective of Konstance, a teenage girl on an arklike spaceship to save humanity from the climate crisis. To avoid spoilers, I won't say much about this storyline other than it was the most compelling and had a brilliant plot twist that took even a seasoned reader like me by surprise. My only criticism was I would have liked to have learned more about Konstance's future. The other storylines were better resolved, but all three were woven together well. 

Cloud Cuckoo Land was brilliantly crafted. Although the galley was 618 pages and covered equally weighty material, it was a fast read with short cliffhanger chapters and alternating narratives. I read most of it over one weekend, and it was a welcome escape from the current worries of the world, even though it dealt with many of them. Like Harry Potter and the Seraphina series, Cloud Cuckoo Land brought me back to the childhood joy of getting lost in the alternative universe of a book. Although Doerr's novel was written for adults, it would crossover very well to teenagers. 

With its time hopping stories and linked motifs, Cloud Cuckoo Land reminded me of David Mitchell’s masterpiece, Cloud Atlas (was the "cloud" in the goofy title an homage?) The environmental themes were also similar to The Overstory by Richard Powers. Following a book through time reminded me of another favorite, People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. Even so, Cloud Cuckoo Land was original and will appeal to all book lovers.

"Each of these books, child, is a door, a gateway to another place and time. You have your whole life in front of you, and for all of it, you'll have this. It will be enough, don't you think?"

Galley courtesy of Main Point Books 
(you can preorder Cloud Cuckoo Land from this indie bookstore's website)

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

The Bilingual Book Club: El lápiz del carpintero/The Carpenter's Pencil


Salomé and a furry friend, photo by Elena
To research a novel about Jewish refugees in the Dominican Republic during World War II, I've been learning Spanish. Unable to travel, I connected with a conversational partner in Spain through the language exchange website Mixxer. Salomé lives in Galicia in the northwestern corner of Spain. Like my rural state of Maine, Galicia's geographic isolation protected the large elderly population from the higher Covid infection rates of more urban areas. Our pandemic stats have been remarkably similar, even though I was fully vaccinated by May 1st, and Salomé was only able to receive her first dose today. Another key difference: 87% of Spaniards want to be vaccinated and only 4% are anti-vax

Americans should learn about the benefits of universal health insurance from our European allies, who view health as a right of citizenship, not as a divisive political issue. Still, the pandemic dealt a hard blow to Spain too, especially at the start, and vaccine scarcity has created additional challenges. During these stressful times, Salomé and I have found that learning another language has been an excellent diversion. 

We also share a passion for books. I recommended that Salomé read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, a Pulitzer prize winning novel set in a fictional version of my coastal town. For our bilingual book club, I've been reading The Carpenter's Pencil by Manuel Rivas, a Galician classic about the Spanish Civil War. This short (166 pages) historical novel was written in Galician/gallego, a regional language which is more similar to Portuguese than to Spanish. Galician was banned under Franco and become the language of the resistance but returned to the school curriculum after the dictator's death. 

Nearly trilingual Salomé read the book in Galician, but I needed the English and Spanish translations. Both were excellent, but the Spanish version was closer to the original and had interesting footnotes to explain the history. Salomé gave me more context and found photos to illustrate the narrative. I'm learning as much history and culture as grammar and vocabulary from our two hour weekly video chats. Our international friendship has been the silver lining of the pandemic.

The old prison island in Ría de Vigo, Galicia reminds us of Alcatraz in San Francisco.

The Carpenter's Pencil shows the brutality of the Spanish Civil War from the perspective of prison guard Herbal and his political prisoner, Doctor Daniel de Barca, whom he is ordered to kill. Fortunately, the spirit of a murdered painter gets inside Herbal's head, educating and manipulating the guard. Herbal represents the harsh sensibility of the Franco regime while Dr. Barca is nearly a saint in his selfless efforts to minister to the physical and emotional health of his fellow prisoners. From inside prison walls, we can best understand the horrors of the Franco regime of 1936-1975. To balance the darkness, there is a lovely romance between Barca and Marisa, a rebel with a cause, whom Herbal secretly adores. 

This most original novella has more depth than books twice its length. It took me 6 weeks to finish only because I read very slowly in my third language. Although I can now understand Spanish newspapers and podcasts, the more literary language of novels is still beyond my intermediate level of instruction. Every night, I read a few pages in English and then again in Spanish. Now that I've finished, I'm listening to the Spanish audiobook to cement my comprehension and to appreciate the beauty of the language. I now understand why young children often want the same bedtime story over and over again! I'd recommend The Carpenter's Pencil to everyone in any language since its empowering message transcends translation. Me encantó esta novela histórica, y recomiendo que todos la lean. 

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@Barrie Summy