Monday, August 3, 2020

I Give It to You by Valerie Martin

Who else is dreaming of traveling to Italy? I Give It to You is a most appropriately titled book for a virtual vacation. Even better for escapism, Valerie Martin's new novel is set in the past: the 1980s and World War II Tuscany. Like in her classic Property, Martin offers us an unreliable narrator, but this one is a novelist instead of a slave owner. The protagonist is both guest and parasite.

I Give it to You is a writer's novel that questions the boundary between author and subject. Is the story there to be plucked like a fruit or are there limits, especially when fictionalizing personal history? The protagonist, Jan, is a midlist author has been offered the dream fellowship to research a novel in Italy. She has rented the sunny limonaia at an old estate in rural Tuscany. The architecture is as well rendered as the characters: 

"Parallel to the gate, the charming limonaia stands with its back to the wall. Glass and verdigris copper doors glint beneath the shelter of the rafters, which extend over a small stone terrace. Artfully placed hip-high pots of rosemary and lemon trees create a cool and semiprivate sitting area."

From her sunny patio, Jan observes the aristocratic family in the main villa. The glamorous Beatrice shows her around the countryside, and as a friendship develops between the two middle aged professors, Beatrice shares the story of her family's struggles under Mussolini. Oddly enough, we learn nothing about Jan's past or family. This narrative approach succeeded in creating plot tension and mystery, but at the expense of the protagonist, who was the least developed and most unlikable character. Jan is prone to prejudices against psychiatry and offensive ethnic stereotypes. She judges others with impunity but is defensive when they judge her in turn.

The old villa is both a stage for family drama and a metaphor for decay of the aristocracy. As a reader, we grow to love Villa Chiara as much as Beatrice does. Even its rustic failings like bad plumbing become plot points to increase tension amongst the extended family. The chapters alternate between the 1980s and flashback chapters to Beatrice's childhood during the War and afterwards as a graduate student in Massachusetts. Sometimes the past and present chapters overlap so that the narrative becomes a bit repetitive. What brings the story to life are all the well-developed secondary characters who have hidden motives and agendas of their own.

Although the photos in this post are from my last trip to Tuscany nine summers ago, I Give it To You will be released in the USA tomorrow (8/4/20). I'd recommend it to anyone who craves a vacation in Italy and to writers who enjoy a well-crafted book. I wonder if our current pandemic will divide history as much as World War II did. Will there be a new genre of post-pandemic literature since the world has fundamentally changed?

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert

In response to the Black Lives Matter protests, President Barack Obama wrote"So the bottom line is this: if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both."

As a follow up to the BLM protests, hand The Voting Booth to your woke teen. Brandy Colbert's new YA novel educates young readers about the importance of voting, the obstacles facing first-time voters, and the racist policies and attitudes that undermine American democracy.

Colbert sweetens the lesson in civic responsibility with a cute romance. Straight-A Marva has been waiting her whole life for her first Election Day. She volunteered to register voters and arrived early to the polls before school. To honor his activist brother, Duke had also arrived early to vote, but the polling station doesn't have a record of his registration and his band is playing its first paid gig after school.

When Marva sees Duke turned away from the polls, she offers to help him make sure his vote gets counted. There are many obstacles: a runaway cat, driving while black, ballot shortages, a jealous boyfriend (Alex), truancy calls to parents. Marva and Duke team up to beat the odds and to find her Instagram-famous cat. 

Brandy Colbert, author photo by Jessie Weinberg

At times this topical novel reads a bit like a textbook:
Marva: "Well, it's June nineteenth. Enslaved people in Texas didn't find out until two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation that they were free. Not until 1865. So black people celebrate it every year, and it's recognized by almost every state in the country, even though a lot of people don't know about it." 

Unlike a textbook, the white boyfriend's insensitive response shows why this lesson is important:
Alex: "Yeah, but what's the point of two separate holidays? I don't care if you're black, white, blue, or green - we're all American, right?"

When Marva flags his color-blind world view as ignorant and Alex argues with her instead of apologizing, his grandmother demonstrate how to be a good ally: "It would do you some good to listen instead of getting defensive next time."

Seeing political lessons played out in everyday life will help teens relate to these important issues. Most of the book is fast paced to keep even reluctant readers turning the pages. It's marvelous to have a diverse book with middle class black and biracial characters, who are not victims but empowered agents of change. If they make the effort to vote!

Mainers: remember to vote in our primary Tuesday July 14th
or drop off your absentee ballot at your town office tomorrow.
Maine allows you to register in person at the polls.
I've been volunteering for Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon
who is running for the Democratic nomination 
to challenge Senator Susan Collins in November.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

A Blue Morpho butterfly in her prime.

In 1960 Julia Alvarez was ten-years-old when her family fled the Dominican Republic for the USA. The SIM military police had uncovered her father's involvement in a plot against General Trujillo's authoritarian regime. That same year in the DR, three of the four Mirabal sisters were murdered. Their deaths were made to look like an accident but everyone knew the truth. Those brave young women, code-named the Butterflies (las Mariposas in Spanish), were the beloved symbols of the resistance. Author Julia Alvarez reimagined their story in her gorgeous historical novel, In the Time of the Butterflies. Although the book was first published 26 year ago, this tale of a narcissistic dictator and the brave young women who dared to defy him feels all the more relevant today.

The story itself was compelling, but what made me fall in love with In the Time of the Butterflies were the well developed characters, the gorgeous writing, and the interesting narrative structure. The chapters alternate between the perspectives of the four sisters, following them from their privileged girlhood to a revolutionary adulthood under the tyranny of Trujillo's reign. Each voice was unique. The eldest sister was the most cautious due to her overbearing husband. The second sister was a dedicated revolutionary, who secretly suffered under the burden of heroic expectations. The third sister was motivated by religious passion and family loyalty. The baby sister disclosed too much in her diaries, admitting her infatuation with the revolutionary men more than the cause, making her delightfully human. Every reader could identify with one of the sisters. It felt so real and relatable, this focus on their family life and the villainy of Trujillo, more than on the polemic of the revolution. However, the trajectory of their tragic lives clearly illustrates the horrors of authoritarianism. 

A Blue Morpho butterfly with shut wings is well camouflaged. The spots look like owl eyes to scare predators.

In the "Postscript," Julia Alvarez explains why she decided to reimagine the personal life of the sisters: "As for the sisters of legend, wrapped in superlatives and ascended into myth, they were also finally inaccessible to me. I realized, too, that such deification was dangerous, the same god-making impulse that had created our tyrant. And ironically, by making them myth, we lost the Mirabals once more, dismissing the challenge of their courage as impossible for us, ordinary men and women."

This might be the treacherous mountain range that the Mirabal sister crossed to reach Puerta Plata.

Read In the Time of the Butterflies to find the courage to fight for change and to remember how to feel hope for a brighter future. The Butterflies will remind you to appreciate family and democracy and to take nothing for granted. I read the book to research my own historical novel about Jewish refugees in the Dominican Republic under Trujillo, and I feel all the more inspired. To practice my Spanish I'm also reading Alvarez's children's delightful Tía Lola series, which I'd recommend to 8-12 year-olds in either English or Spanish. Alvarez is a master of her craft and one of my favorite authors.

¡Vivan las Mariposas!

The gorgeous Blue Morpho butterfly near the end of her short life.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Dominicana by Angie Cruz & a Visit to the Dominican Republic

Playa Sosúa in the Dominican Republic
Inspired by her Dominican mother, Angie Cruz decided to write a realistic novel about immigration and assimilation. Dominicana is a quiet story of savory dishes, simmering passions, and the twisted bonds of family. Although this 2019 novel was written for adults, it would crossover well to teens.

In 1964 fifteen-year-old Ana Canción is wed to Juan Ruiz, a man more than twice her age. Her desperate family is struggling to make a living in the Dominican Republic. Juan and his charismatic brothers are working in New York but still operate a restaurant business back home. The brothers have an eye on the Canción farmland for expansion. Juan also wants a Dominican wife to start a family in New York City. Their homeland is in turmoil, and this union could bring both families more economic security and the salvation of chain migration.

Dutiful Ana pretends to be eighteen to fly to NYC. She arrives to shocking cold and isolation, unable to speak the language or to deal with city life. Her new husband is abusive and demands that she stay home alone, but Ana schemes to start a business and to learn English while Juan is back in the DR. And then there is Cesar, Juan's younger brother, who reminds her how to laugh again....

Dominicana's gorgeous cover caught my eye at Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick. I'm taking Spanish at Bowdoin College and reading Dominican American authors to research a new book. I started with nonfiction, but you can learn so much more about a culture by listening to its music, tasting its food, and reading its stories. Angie Cruz, Elizabeth Acevedo, and Junot Diaz have taught me slang I won't learn at school and a deeper appreciation of Dominican culture. They are phenomenal writers who create unforgettable characters in tough settings. Cruz's literary style with strong imagery evokes a sensory reaction. You don't just read Dominicana, you experience Ana's struggles as your own and hope for a better future. A deeply personal and realistic story such as this will engender empathy for immigrants and for victims of abuse or prejudice. I'd recommend this book to anyone.

Like Angie Cruz, a true family story inspired me to write historical fiction. During World War II my great grandfather, Arthur Lamport, helped to set up a farming settlement in the Dominican Republic for Jewish refugees. Other nations imposed strict quotas on Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, but the Dominicans opened their country to about 850 Jewish settlers. One small nation of only 1.5 million residents saved near three thousand more lives through visas. Most people, even other Jews, have never heard of Sosúa.

Last month I visited the Dominican Republic to practice Spanish and to see what remains of the Jewish settlement in Sosúa. I found a beautiful beach, their old synagogue, and more to share later.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

Stacey Lee is one of my favorite authors because she imagines vibrant characters to recreate the forgotten chapters of American history. Her latest young adult novel, The Downstairs Girl tells the bittersweet story of an elderly Chinese immigrant and his adopted daughter in 1890s Atlanta. Although Old Jin and 17-year-old Jo Kuan are fictional characters, their historical context is true to life in the segregated South.

As the Author's Note explains, The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited Chinese immigration to the USA until 1943. Immigrant laborers, who had been shipped in from China to replace the freed slaves, were thus permanently separated from their families back home. Work conditions were terrible, and those who ran away to the cities faced further isolation. Where should a person who is neither black nor white sit on a segregated trolley car, and what landlord would rent to them?

Unable to find affordable housing, Old Jin and 17-year-old Jo squat in a secret basement that used to be part of the Underground Railway. By good fortune, the oblivious Caucasian family that lives above them runs a liberal newspaper. Jo educates herself in English by eavesdropping on their conversations. When Jo learns that their newspaper might fold, she starts writing an anonymous agony aunt column to increase circulation. Jo's job as a lady's maid is helpful for etiquette tips, but she can't resist writing about hot topics like racism and women's rights. Her column is as witty as it is controversial. All of Atlanta wants to know who "Miss Sweetie" is, but Jo knows she must hide her identity or risk expulsion from the only home she knows. Although legal residents, Chinese Americans were not citizens.

With a bit of romance, snippets of Chinese culture, and a horse race, this engaging story takes the reader for a fun ride. Jo is a marvelous, kind-hearted but frank character who breathes life into history. This recently published novel has a lovely sense of place and time, enhanced by whimsical imagery:
"The cold seems to have crystallized into a freezing dust. It's as if the winter dragon were salting the earth liberally for its supper. Lucky Yip told me that season dragons can be jealous, producing weather extremes to prevent the next season's dragon from moving in."
I highly recommend The Downstairs Girl to all readers ages twelve and up. Although there are some sexual references in the story, the content is very tame for young adult fiction. The fascinating history and strong writing would crossover well to an adult audience too. This gorgeous book, with its rare cover image of a Chinese American girl in 19th century period dress, would make an excellent gift. I also enjoyed Lee's two other historical novels for teens: Under a Painted Sky and Outrun the Moon. I hope she writes more.

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@Barrie Summy