Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America

Wait! Before you let the idea of reading a history book scare you away, hear me out! First of all this book is fascinating, well written, and totally deserves a chance. If you shudder at the thought of reading a history book or a nonfiction book or reading in any form, I’ve got you covered! There is a documentary version of Harvest of Emipire: A History of Latinos in America by Juan Gonzalez here!  It’s on youtube so, minus the opportunity cost of having to watch a few ads, it’s totally free!  The book and documentary cover the same topics. The book goes more in depth but the movie gives you a solid idea of the topics covered and is totally worth your time. Of course, I’m going to talk about the book, because, well, that’s just what I do.

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Full disclosure I read this for a class. I really think that’s part of what makes it awesome, this is the first history related reading assignment that I’ve been excited to get back to reading each week. The book is split into three sections entitled Roots, Branches, and Harvest.  That alone is a fascinating lens through which to view history. I think we often see the past as a movie that we can watch because those things all happened then and we are living now. The connections are loosely there, but for the most part we get so bogged down in the present we forget to think about how we got here. Which is kind of a big deal because we are creatures of habits and patterns and there are some things that we’ve done that need to be acknowledged, remembered, and studied so we don’t repeat them. This point is particularly relevant with this book and the United States current political climate (I am so sick of hearing that phrase I  want to take a moment and apologize for using it… blegh).

The first section, Roots, goes deep into American history, primarily Central and South American history but it occasionally touches on North American history to make a point. I think what really drew me in was the question asked from the get go. Why is North America so incredibly different from South America? How did that happen? This is something that had been on the periphery of my mind for sometime, especially after having read Sudden Death which went into some South American history that intrigued me, but I can’t say I remember learning any of what this book was going over in high school or middle school. The perspectives of the overlapping bits of history were so vastly different that I had to really search my memory for the connections between what I was taught back then and what I was reading today.

The perspectives that are being ignored are what we are faced with when we talk about immigration these days. I’d like to say that I could give a well articulated argument about why building a massive wall and kicking anybody of Latin@, Hispanic, or non Euro decent out of the country is an awful terrible idea and I do think it is a terrible idea for many many heartful reasons. Heartful reasons simply aren’t enough, facts about how we’ve gotten to where we are, are essential. Heart needs to be mixed into the facts in order for policies, laws, and countries to be changed for the better. Juan Gonzalez does an excellent job of combining the facts with personal narratives from people who lived the facts. He did this country by country which, unfortunately, got a little redundant because bad patterns were forming in the United States behavior towards it’s Southern neighbors. As critiques go this one is weak, if anything the redundancy makes Gonzalez’s point about the cause and effects of our actions abundantly clear.

The truth is until I read this and really studied the hows and whys of who we are as a country today I was living in a constructed reality. It is so important to dissect what we are learning and make the effort to learn about other perspectives on the same topic because, ultimately decisions are being made based of the lens we’re looking through. No matter where you stand on immigration, politics, or books make and effort to learn as much as possible. Even if it means watching the documentary instead of reading the book.

 

 

Nerdcon: Stories 2016

I bought my ticket for Nerdcon: Stories on impulse this year. It was after I knew I was going back to school but before I knew the schedule and I didn’t tell anybody for  while because I was on the fence about contacting Nerdcon and returning the ticket. I am so very happy that I decided to play hooky with school and attend this wonderful event. I was lucky enough to, totally by chance, end up in the same Airbnb as a fellow attendee of the conference. I went by myself last year (read about that here) and fully planned on flying solo this year as well, but it was so nice to have someone to nerd out with. I also loved that I could count on my new friend to tell me about the interesting panels and events that she went to and I missed. I think there is value in attending events like this one alone but part of that value is that you get to meet great new people like my new friend, Michelle!

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Some of you may know that Hank Green put up a video explaining that, from a business perspective Nerdcon was a failure. Tickets didn’t sell as well as they planned, and some other things, but honestly, just go watch the video. I haven’t attended a ton of other conferences (i.e. I haven’t attended any other conferences) so I have no point of reference, but I think that part of what makes Nerdcon great is that it is so small. In the most selfish (self destructive?) way possible I’m happy that they didn’t sell all the tickets. I don’t love dealing with huge crowds for even just a few hours much less an entire weekend. I was never elbowing or getting elbowed for the sake of making it to a certain panel, I knew that I would get in and it would be calm, and if I ran into someone awesome once, chances were I’d run into them again.  That’s my kind of conference. To let the hippie version of me take over for a moment, I dig the chill environment, man. I understand that, ultimately, the business aspect of a con need to be profitable (or at least break even) in order for it to continue, but if this was a failing con then it was the most successful, lovely failure I’ve ever witnessed.

This year the con felt smaller than last year and I’m not sure if that’s because there may have actually been fewer people or if the vibe was just more intimate. Playing into this intimate feeling was the very cool opportunity to go to a kaffeeklattsch with various panelists. The kaffeeklattsch that I was given was with Daniel José Older (whose book I talked about recently here). It was me, nine other wonderful people and Daniel José Older in a conference room talking about books and writing for an hour. (If you were wondering this is, essentially, my idea of what heaven must be like, conference room after conference room filled with coffee, tea, and smart people talking about writing and books.) This was such a wonderful opportunity and experience. What was extra awesome was I happened to sit next to one of the ladies in the kaffeeklattsch during a panel later that day! Friend goal of the day: accomplished.

There were several panels and conversations throughout the weekend discussing inclusion of minorities in various genres and how important it is. It astounds me a little bit that anybody gets pushback when they try to write a character that they and others will relate to. One of the more heart wrenching moments of the weekend was hearing author Cindy Pon talk about how her second book got rejected by several publishers because they already had an Asian fantasy book. This is so mind boggling dumb to  me that I think I actually sputtered and harrumphed out loud when I heard it. It was mentioned that those with established power (white/male/able bodied) see someone as the protagonist that doesn’t mirror themselves they get scared. To those people I posit, do you really want look in the mirror and see what you’ve got memorized already? Wouldn’t it be so much more interesting to look in the pond and see some new worlds? It’s so easy, no matter the story, to find common ground with the characters, no matter their life experiences, they are still human (depending on the story this may not be true but there are usually some human traits and qualities stuck in there somewhere). At the risk of overextending this metaphor, I think it’s so important to look into the pond to see how your reflection plays out in unfamiliar worlds. The whole learning empathy from stories doesn’t work if you only read stories that you recognize from your own life.

With this in mind, I recommend going to the NerdCon website here to find the names of all the wonderfully kind and talented authors that participated in NerdCon, buy their books, read their stories, and support their art. Happy reading!

Shadowshaper

I’m going into this post with two things on my mind. The first is I went to NerdCon:2016 this past weekend (Post about that is coming soon!) and, as it did last year, it’s made me think about the books that have influenced me. It didn’t take any time at all to start reminiscing about the good ole days when I was devouring anything written by Tamora Pierce and then running to the park to practice being a knight like Alanna in The Song of the Lioness series. Mix those beautiful memories with the fact that at Nerdcon: 2016 I had the wonderful privilege of sitting down with the author of Shadowshaper, Daniel José Older, and nine other curious and intelligent story nerds to have a conversation about books and you’ve found my happy place.

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Shadowshaper is set in Brooklyn and follows Sierra as she discovers a magic that lets spirits inhabit her art and bring it to life. After chatting with Daniel José Older for a while and seeing him on multiple panels throughout the weekend it is easy to see how his life and experiences have influenced his writing. While having this knowledge doesn’t change the book, it feels a little like I’ve been let into the greenroom of this story. It’s interesting to me to consider how stories are not just influenced but also often created from perspective. This perspective allows the reader insight into new worlds to explore, understand, and consider. If this book had been around when I was growing up alongside Tamora Pierce’s I imagine I would have been an artistic knight running around Brooklyn (the park across the street) fighting sexism with my sword (really long stick) and art spirits (chalk).  It’s exciting to me to think about how the stories like Shadowshaper, and others that are being crafted now are influencing young readers.

The story itself is rich with familiarity and feeling. It’s interesting to be plopped into Sierra’s world  that she knows so well and watch how she responds to her surroundings change both physically and magically. The relationship between the familiar “real” world of Brooklyn, that is in a state of flux, and the Shadowshaper community, that is experiencing the growing pains of turning power over to a new generation, provides an intricate set of obstacles for Sierra to weave her way through. Daniel José Older sets this stage one floorboard at a time and maintains an exciting storyline that pulls the reader through some of the more complex ideas presented via Sierra and her adventures. From what I understand, we’ve got two more books following Sierra’s story to look forward to, until then I think I may go reread The Song of Lioness series to keep me in the badass lady hero mood!

 

The Shell Collector

I first encountered Anthony Doerr when he came to UW-Madison to promote and speak about his book All The Light We Cannot See. In that talk Doerr discussed having a lot of interests and delving into them, seeing the the big picture and then diving in to look at all the exquisite details of nature, science, history, anything of interest to him.  This comes across very clearly in his collection of short stories, The Shell Collector.

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There is a quiet sort of passion that comes across in all of these stories.  It’s not forced and it doesn’t stem from flowery or even passionate language. It’s the passion of confidence in knowledge acquired about the natural world.  There is something very attractive about a story that is built around a world that is tangible for the reader because its details ring so true.  This is particularly important in short stories. There is no time prove over and over again that the world is true and real so the author needs to nail the details off the bat and get on with the story. Doerr is very successful on this front, in a very short amount of time and woven through these stories is detail after detail that is beautiful put and rings very true.

There is something to be said for a writerly appreciation of a story versus a readerly appreciation of a story. These stories did not sweep me up and dance with me till three in the morning. I can recognize that the writing is excellent and I never wanted to put them down but they are quiet. Sometimes the detail shouted and the emotions and story that readers really eat up got lost in it.

This is an excellent book to keep around and read a story or two whenever you have the time and/or inclination. The stories are quiet but they have a tendency to stick with you because of the excellent detail and imagery used within them.  The emotions sneak up on you with a little bit of reflection. It’s also worth noting that Anthony Doerr spent some time studying at UW-Madison so he’s clearly an author with excellent taste.

Go Badgers!  🙂

Blue Lily, Lily Blue

Ooof, ok, three books in and we’ve hit a real tear jerker. This is not to say that Maggie Stiefvater wasn’t strumming the emotional strings in the first two books, but in Blue Lily, Lily Blue the stakes were so much higher and the moments more weight. This is book three in the Raven Cycle Series and this is your obligatory spoiler warning. If you’re interested in reading about my thoughts about book one you can that here and if you’ve read that and want to read my thoughts on the second book you can read that there.  Maggie Stiefvater is in the habit of leaving us on massive heart wrenching must pick up the next book as soon as possible cliffhangers so when I say reading this might give you some spoilers what I mean is that reading this absolutely WILL give you some spoilers.

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What I think is so impressive about this series is the number of “main” characters in no way inhibits the amount of emotional depth they all get. This tapestry is complex but never tangled and at this point that is something worth noting.  I love love love the little tidbits we learn about the characters via their long friendships. I believe at one point Gansey wants Ronan to hum because he knows so much music from his Irish Music Competitions. It’s one part of one sentence that just adds to the richness of character, makes you even more curious about him, and really solidifies and proves the fact that Ronan and Gansey have been close friends for a long time.  I think that that may be an undervalued technique in literature, but often really interesting plots lose me because there’s not enough silly detail. Those details give the story, characters, and scene’s so much more life and lushness.  I think lush is the perfect word to describe what Stiefvater has built here.

Now, to the doozy (or one of them anyway), we start out the book with Blue dealing with her mother (Maura) having left to look for her father. Upon first reading I’d say this bit of the book is underplayed. If my mom left with nothing but a note saying she’s gone to looks for someone somewhere dangerous and that was all I’d be broody at best. Blue certainly has her moments, but I think they are quiet. There is nothing wrong with quiet moments, they’re powerful and, in this case, appropriate, however when there is so much noise and action happening in conjunction with the quiet moments, they get a little trampled. If anything, I’d say Blue, true to character, gets to work to find her mom rather than dwelling on teenage broodiness.

There are far too many characters to try and go into each one of their storylines. As a group, it’s interesting to see their different perspectives when dealing with each other. There is a giant pink elephant in the room wanting to stomp out all the tension, but they’re very caught up in making sure they don’t fight and they all remain fine. This adds to the pressure cooker feeling this entire book has. I have no guesses about what’s going to happen because Stiefvater has regularly upended my expectations.  I anticipate that no matter where she ends the series I will be dissatisfied just by virtue of having become close to the characters themselves. I want to see where they end up. For now, at least, I have The Raven King to look forward to

Revival, Volume One: You’re Among Friends

I love feeling like I’m on the in of any situation but this is especially true while I’m reading. Revival, Volume One: You’re Among Friends by Tim Seeley and Mike Norton is set in and around the area I grew up in. Thank goodness I read it in the quiet of my own home because I spent most of the book exclaiming, “Oh I know where that is I’ve been there!” I must say it is a tad disturbing to picture my childhood home zombie infested, though with this story “infested” may not be the right word. These zombies are different from you’re Walking Dead type zombies and they’re only in Northern Wisconsin’s Wausau area.

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I’ve never been super into zombie stuff. For the most part I’ve had a take ’em or leave ’em attitude in the direction of zombie books, tv shows, movies and theories. I was mostly drawn to this story because a friend recommended it to me after finding out I’m from the Wausau area. I’m never one to turn my nose up at a book recommended by a friend and, as mentioned above, I love being in the know while reading. I think, perhaps, this series may change my feelings on zombies. These aren’t your brain craving, dumb, ruthless, killer zombies (don’t be fooled by this statement there is plenty of violence and killing in this particular zombie story). No, these zombies are people come back alive confused, sad, and traumatized.

What I really appreciate about this story is its focus on the small town people. Since the zombies are only appearing in the Wausau area there is, of course, a mass of people that are trying to get into the Wausau area while the people in Wausau are just trying to figure out what’s going on. There is a sense of “yes there are zombies, but I’ve got to go to work now” that rings so true to me. For instance one of the main characters, Dana Cypress, is a police officer and in charge of investigating the zombies, but she’s also a mom and has lived in the area her whole life, and really wants to impress her dad, and is worried about her little sister. This isn’t a story where the world is completely dramatically changed, this is a story in which one element is changed and life must go on. Old problems still exist next to newly revived dead people.

This was a sort of slow start to the series, but I think that’s because it’s setting up the relationships for us. This is an investigative story. We’ll find out more about the zombies with the people in the story, but I’m even more excited to stay in touch with those characters. Their relationships with each other and the revived bring up interesting questions and conundrums that I imagine can only be worked out in an exciting and dramatic ways.

 

East of Eden

I’m going to go ahead and put East of Eden by John Steinbeck in the “should’ve read it a long time ago” category.  Some books I pick up based on recommendations of friends and peers. Others (i.e. this one) I hear some very intelligent classmates discussing all summer long, I nod along like I know what they’re talking about until I can rush off to the bookstore, buy myself a copy, and finally understand. I do wish I’d read this a long time ago, but I’m glad that I’ll forever relate this excellent book with the wonderful group of people I wrote stories with all summer long.

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This story follows two families through the parents childhood to their children’s adulthood.  If you are even a tiny bit familiar with the Cain and Abel story from the bible you’ll pick up on some biblical themes multiple times while reading (including a bit where they actually discuss the story…but it goes deeper than that).  This is the type of book that I’d really like to reread a few years down the line, then a few years after that, and a few after that. I imagine there will be themes that are impossible for me to relate to now that will ring very true when I’m in a different spot in my life.

With this read I particularly focused in on the “good” characters versus the “bad” characters. The good characters (the Abel’s of the story) seem to lack awareness. There was a naïveté that devalued their goodness and I couldn’t help but look down on a bit. Now, the “bad” characters (the Cain’s of the story) often acted in ways that I don’t understand or approve of. There was an edge that refused to be smoothed out within them, but while reading I couldn’t help but forgive them because they tortured themselves staring at the edge wondering how to get rid of it. There is a healthy medium, of course, but given the choice I’d rather get to know the self-aware, slightly tortured badness than the oblivious and unthinking good.

One thing that bothered me quite a bit with this book, almost from the get go, was how women are portrayed. There are a few exceptions within the Hamilton family but for the most part the women were either very religious, uptight, and unhappy or they were evil whores. It’s never mentioned in the story that while Cathy might be “missing something” that lets her feel and this makes her evil, she is one of the only independent female characters in the book. I don’t condone how she behaves throughout, but that’s mostly because I live in a time where if I’m severely injured, I can expect that people will help me without the expectation that I’ll marry them to save face. Some of her actions were inexplicably evil, but a lot of them struck me as a necessary to lead a life untethered to religion, men, or family.

This is a book you should read and when you do I want to hear all about your favorite characters, your least favorite characters, and what bits you related to the most. It has its flaws, but even those provide for deep thought and good conversation. I expect that a few years from now I’ll reread it and be astonished at the difference just a few years can make on one story. In the meantime, I’ll be waiting for someone to discuss it with.