The Far Away Brothers by Lauren Markham (Penguin Random House LLC, 2017)
I thought this was going to be a novel but in fact it is not, though it reads like one. It is the true story of two young immigrants who came to the U.S. from El Salvador. The author is a teacher at a California high school for immigrants and also a journalist who writes about the immigration system. The young men, who are twins, agreed to let their story be told. It is not sugar-coated to bring out sympathy in the reader, but it does so anyway. While I feel that the United States has a very violent culture, it’s safe compared to El Salvador, where the teenage gangs have literally taken over the country and murder people with impunity to hold their power.
The book answers a lot of questions I had about immigrants and helps me understand their situation better. The only unanswered question is why people always migrate to the U.S. instead of heading south to South American countries that share their language and culture. Maybe someone will write that book next. The author did mention that since 2014, some immigrants are settling in Mexico rather than trying to get all the way to the United States.
The Stars are Fire by Anita Shreve (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017)
I have no idea where Anita Shreve came up with the title, other than the fact that a huge wildfire is a major part of the plot. The main character saves her two young children from the fire that decimates her Maine town in the mid-1940s, but it leaves her with a bitter and disabled husband and some decisions to make. I associate wildfires with the West, but I suppose Maine was, and is, a heavily wooded rural state. This novel was an interesting “period piece” about post-war America, with plenty of descriptions of typical clothes and furnishings of the period. Apparently you could get a 3-course lunch for 25 cents, for instance. It was a mildly interesting story but not really anything special.
Seven Stones to Stand or Fall by Diana Gabaldon (Delacorte Books, 2017)
This new book by the author of the best-selling (and my personal favorite) Outlander series is not a full-length novel, but instead a collection of seven novellas. That’s what the “seven stones” refers to, and the “stand or fall” part, according to Gabaldon, refers to “people’s responses to grief and adversity.” Each novella tells a story that takes place in the universe of the series, with characters from the series. Most involve secondary characters (although several are about Lord John) and flesh out a situation referred to only briefly in the novels, for example, how Joan (Claire’s step-daughter) came to be a nun. Diana Gabaldon’s writing style makes all of the stories worth reading; readers will finish each one satisfied that a loose end has been tied up. I recommend this new book for all Outlander fans, although it will mean more to you if you’ve read the whole series and not just watched the tv show.
The Epiphany Machine by David Burr Gerrard (Penguin Books, 2017)
Although this book sounds like it might be science fiction from the title, it isn’t really. It’s just that a small piece of alternative history involving a tattoo machine that puts “epiphanies” onto people’s forearms has been inserted into ordinary 21st century New York City life. These messages are chosen by the machine, or possibly the machine’s operator, it’s not clear; not by the person who asks for a tattoo. The messages declare in a sentence or phrase some fundamental truth about the person’s character.
The protagonist of this novel is a man whose whole life revolves around the stories of people who get these tattoos (his parents, to start with) and what happens to them as a result. Said main character is basically a lazy person who spends most of his time thinking about or having sex, so writing about the epiphany machine (in a story-within-the story) is a great excuse for not accomplishing anything with his life. If you’re like me and instinctively dislike people like that, you will probably not enjoy this book. I didn’t. Your mileage may differ.
Media, Millennials, and Politics: The Coming of Age of the Next Political Generation by Alison N. Novak (Lexington Books, 2016)
This is an academic book written by a professor of communications at the university where I work, so most of you who follow my blog probably won’t have easy access to it. Nevertheless it was an interesting and well-written book that I learned a lot from. As the parent of two Millennials (adults under 35), I have been hearing lately about the concept of “millennial bashing” by the media. This book provides proof that it’s real. Dr. Novak collected and analyzed two datasets about media coverage of Millennials and politics: one included 50 randomly selected episodes of 6 cable tv news programs surrounding the 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014 elections, and the other asked a cohort of actual Millennials to write journal entries after a weekly reading of the most popular articles on NewsWhip, an online news aggregator. Her analysis shows that despite turnout levels that likely swayed the 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections, Millennials as a group were consistently ignored, denigrated, and even vilified by large segments of the media. I was appalled to learn that the conservative news media actually accused Millennials of voting for Obama solely because he promised them “gifts” like free contraception and better student loan policies. Not surprisingly, Millennials in return showed little trust of media (even online media) as a source of political information.
All our wrong todays by Elan Mastai (Dutton Books, 2017)
So, this is another sci-fi book about time travel and all the ways it can go wrong. This is a slightly different take on it, where the main character comes from a 2016 in an alternate timeline which is a high-tech utopian version of today. It’s a lot like the future in the movie Tomorrowland – a future based on the 1964 World’s Fair. Of course, he screws things up and ends up in our world instead. Oddly he likes it better. Anyway, it’s an interesting (and fairly long) novel; if you like science fiction you’ll probably enjoy it.
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (The New Press, 2012)
I have been meaning to read this book for several years, and I’m glad I finally did. Michelle Alexander is an accomplished civil rights lawyer, and she makes a solid case for the idea that the mass incarceration of black men in the U.S. is the latest way for powerful forces in our country to keep many black men in a state of second class citizenship. It’s hard for me to believe that it could be deliberate, but according to her, the War on Drugs was always meant to target black men, and continues to do so. Instead of focusing on violent crimes, the criminal justice system is incentivized by federal funding to target minor drug violations, but only for people of color – the same minor drug violations by whites are ignored. Laws impose huge penalties for possession of small quantities of drugs, and police round-ups in poor neighborhoods often force innocent people to plead guilty to felony misdemeanors in order to avoid years in jail. Racial profiling similarly targets black men for minor traffic violations so that their cars can be searched for drugs. Even when these men serve their jail sentence and are released, their felony records make it very difficult for them to find jobs and housing, and they are not allowed to vote. All in all, it’s a very disturbing book. It would be interesting to know what Alexander makes of all the police killings of black men in the past couple of years.