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Review: Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert

The book in three sentences: In Field Notes from a Catastrophe, journalist Elizabeth Kolbert tackles one of the most pressing issues of our time: climate change. In doing the research for this book, she meets scientists, hunters, academics, inventors and entire communities that are living on the forefront of a changing landscape. Whether we look at melting permafrost, the poleward migration of entire species, or global air temperatures, to ignore these signs means to speed towards (not away from) an inhospitable future.

Rating:  Travel companion

Long story long: I picked up this book because climate change scares me. A lot. It should scare all of us. And though I recycle, compost, walk or take the bus, I know I need to be a more active advocate for the earth.

The book is organized into three parts: nature, man, and time. In Nature, Kolbert covers the science of climate change. She talks to scientists studying permafrost (ground that has been frozen for at least two years), Arctic glacial melt, and species migration to convey the magnitude of the problem we are facing. Kolbert argues that it is not only warming temperatures we should be concerned about, but the cascading effects that has on biodiversity as we know it. In Man, she addresses our tenuous relationship with climate change, both our contribution to it and our remarkable and repeated denial of any involvement. Finally, in Time Kolbert looks to where we are headed. She explores the unconventional fuel sources that have increased fossil fuel reserves, as well as small-scale innovative initiatives to combat climate change.

There are many important lessons in this book, but three stood out to me in particular:

Continue reading “Review: Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert”
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Review: Short Girls by Bich Minh Nguyen

The book in three sentences: As sisters Van and Linny grew up, they also grew apart. To take care of their father, they must learn to reconcile their differences. Short Girls is as much a novel about complicated familial relationships as it is about the immigrant family experience.

Rating:  Travel companion

Long story long (no spoilers): Short Girls is a unique story about the challenges of growing up as a first-generation Vietnamese-American in the United States. Although the pacing is slow and the characters are not particularly likable, I enjoyed the book because I saw some of my childhood and my friends’ childhoods reflected in this novel.

The story is told through both Van and Linny’s perspectives, each chapter alternating between the two sisters. The more you read, the more you begin to develop a fuller understanding– a more complete picture– of what is going on in their family. I liked this narrative technique because both characters have an opportunity to speak or stand up for themselves, and also offer an outsider’s view of the other.

As the title implies, Van and Linny are short girls. Their father is overly obsessed by this, and when they were young would constantly remind them that there were plenty of famous short people and if they worked hard to prove themselves, they could be well-off too. It doesn’t take long to work out that the sisters’ lack of height is a proxy for their lack of whiteness. Van herself makes the connection when she comments that being Vietnamese in Michigan is like being short in a room full of tall people.

Continue reading “Review: Short Girls by Bich Minh Nguyen”

Review: Corazón by Yesika Salgado

The book in two sentences: In Corazón, Los Angeles-based Salvadoran poet Yesika Salgado weaves together a collection of poems that speak to all the loves she has experienced over the years. She takes you through the loving and grieving and aching and searching until she and the reader “return to ourselves whole”.

Rating:  Island collection

Long story short: I admit that I haven’t read a lot of poetry recently. Not because I don’t enjoy it, but because it requires more attention than I can give at the present moment, what with school and all.

Corazón by Yesika Salgado was a much-needed reprieve, and I’m glad I spent a sunny and warm afternoon in its pages. Salgado writes about her love, hate, grief, yearning, fatness, depression, brownness, hope, and hunger. The poetry is evocative and produces these vivid images that linger as you turn the pages.

This collection is about reciprocated love, unreciprocated love, loving oneself, loving others, loving food, loving through food, loving in grief, and loving in Spanish. It is about all these types of love, but it is also specifically about loving as a fat, brown body.

Some of my favorite lines include:

  • “I am asked if I want a husband / asked if I will return to my country / they are the same question” (from “A Salvadoran Heart”)
  • “I was taught / that death and power / are always served in the same cup.” (from “Cumbia”)
  • “when it’s good, it feels like dying and being born all at once.” (from “A Kiss”)
  • “how beautiful it is to be loved in Spanish. so much color. so much taste.” (from “Dulzura”)
  • “you love someone for a long time / … / so long the years accordion into each other / and within the folds, all the times you didn’t get it right” (from “With and Without You”)
  • “you, sin and savior” (from “Sacraments”)

I encourage you to read this collection, as it’s a wonderful opportunity to understand and appreciate the body positivity movement, among other things. You should also follow Salgado on social media (@yesikastarr) if you haven’t yet. What did you think of Corazón? Have you read Tesoro yet?

Currently reading: Corazón by Yesika Salgado

Review: The Making of Jane Austen by Devoney Looser

The book in two sentences: Devoney Looser explores Jane Austen’s long and lasting legacy as one of the most brilliant novelists to ever exist. In this book, we see Austen illustrated, dramatized, politicized, and schooled in ways that give voice to Austen’s lesser-known authorities.

Rating:  Travel companion

Long story long: I made it through a whopping four pages of Pride and Prejudice the first time I picked it up. I was in sixth grade and figured it was about time I started reading “the Classics” (whatever that meant). I wouldn’t end up finishing the book until two or three years later.

Since then, Pride and Prejudice has become my favorite novel. I have read it nearly 20 times, listened to the audiobook version almost twice as much, collected fan-fiction and spin-off books, and been to a number of stage adaptations.

There are many reasons I love Pride and Prejudice—Austen’s biting social commentary on class, marriage, and wealth, to say the least—but the most meaningful to me is that it has helped me track my growth as a reader, and as a person, over the past 18 years. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I’ve either learned something new about myself, or something new about the book and the author; it never ceases to surprise me!

Devoney Looser’s novel The Making of Jane Austen is a wonderful continuation of this tradition. Her book explores the legacy of Austen in four parts through lesser-known historical figures. In the first part, she wonders how “illustrations seen by Austen’s first generation of readers shaped then-developing understandings of the author and her fiction” (15). A number of artistic choices made in the 19th century carry weight even today, and have influenced early stage and screen adaptations of Austen’s novels.

Continue reading “Review: The Making of Jane Austen by Devoney Looser”

Review: Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat

The book in two sentences: This collection of short stories centers around the lives of Haitian women, across space and time, in a dialogue about identity, autonomy, suffering, and strength. It is a thematically “heavy” conversation, and gives the reader an opportunity to sit in their discomfort.

Rating: ✈  Travel companion

Long story short (no spoilers): What I enjoy most about short story collections is trying to figure out how each story connects to the others. Sometimes these connections are obvious, and other times they are more obscure.

At its core, Krik? Krak! is about the lives and deaths of Haitian women, their communities, whether real or imagined, and their relationship with violence. There are times when characters from one store appear, however briefly, in another, or when a character in one story alludes to a character in a another story. There are also a number of crosscutting themes throughout the book—self-preservation, how identity is strongly tethered to a place, the power in ancestral lineage—that surface frequently.

One theme that stood out to me was the rendering of time. It is difficult to know when exactly Danticat’s stories take place and over what period of time (e.g., days? weeks? months?). This gives a sense that these stories (and subsequently the violence, pain, suffering, and hope) are both eternal and fleeting. I haven’t quite decided what that means yet, but perhaps in my next reading of Krik? Krak! I can tackle that question.

Have you read this book or another by Danticat? What did you think? Comment below!

Review: The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed

The book in two sentences: Nadifa Mohamed weaves a beautiful and haunting tale of life in a Somalian city as the country is on the brink of civil war. As refugees, soldiers, and rebels pour in, the lives of three women—a widow, an orphan, and a soldier—are bound forever.

Rating: 🌴 Island collection

Long story short (no spoilers): In her novel, Mohamed captures the senselessness of war from the perspective of ordinary people. Even Filsan, the soldier, has never been in combat before and is more a civilian in that sense than the widow Kawsar and even the young orphan girl Deqo, both of whom have lost their families to the growing political turmoil.

You see the buildup towards what will eventually become a civil war from the viewpoint of these three women. The increased presence of soldiers and checkpoints, the arrests of students, the kidnapping and killing of intellectuals, the banning of outside news outlets and journalists, the rationing of food and water, all signs of an increasingly totalitarian government. If you are wondering how things can even get this far, this book begins to answer that question, and it is equal parts compelling and terrifying.

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Currently reading: The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed

Review: Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros

The book in two sentences: In Woman Hollering Creek, Sandra Cisneros weaves 22 tales of passion, pain, and longing that describe life along the U.S.-Mexico border. They take place in different times and follow different people on different paths, but all are centered around the identities and experiences of Chican@ and indigenous womxn.

Rating: 🌴 Island collection

Long story short (spoilers): What I enjoyed most about this collection was the writing. Cisneros’ prose is lyrical and enchanting. She often lapses into these long, run-on sentences, where one word just flows into the next, and like a wave they slowly draw you in before crashing into you.

Continue reading “Review: Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros”

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