Huffington Post on 10 women who didn’t publish until they were over 40

RobinBlack2014     mira-jacob  lydia netzer

Left to right: Robin Black, Mira Jacob and Lydia Netzer


Today’s must-read. Kudos to RHLAOB faves Robin Black, Rachel Cantor, Mira Jacob, and Lydia Netzer! I’ve heard only good things about Marian Palaia and Claire Fuller. You all know Elizabeth Strout as the author of Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009, and Amy and Isabelle, her debut in 1998; her latest novel is The Burgess Boys (2013).

THIS IS PARADISE a powerful exploration of lives lived in the Hawai’i that tourists don’t see

This is Paradise cover art Kristiana Kahakauwila by Katty Wu

This Is Paradise: Stories

By Kristiana Kahakauwila

Hogarth Books, 2013

238 pages, $16.00

The cover photograph of Kristiana Kahakauwila’s This is Paradise depicts a miniature hula dancer on a car’s dashboard; through the dirty windshield we can see blurry headlights in a nighttime street scene. David W. Dellinger’s photo is the perfect visual for Kahakauwila’s stories about the real Hawaii: beyond the tourist images and fantasies of Hawai’i lies a real place, where island residents live and love, dream and die, and struggle desperately against economic, cultural, and ethnic forces beyond their control.

These six stories are suffused with a bittersweet sadness for what could have — or should have — been, for words unsaid, emotions unexpressed, and customs misunderstood. Kahakauwila is the daughter of a Hawaiian father and German-Norwegian (American) mother and grew up in Long Beach, California. She made frequent trips to Hawaii (mostly to Maui) to visit family and was thus occasionally immersed in the local culture, but she was essentially a Southern California girl. Her ethnic and cultural heritage positions her ideally to write about the two Hawai’is, the tourist version and the locals’ version, with both objectivity and sensitivity, as well as insight and compassion.

I’ve long been fascinated with people who simultaneously exist in two races, religions, or cultures or who alternate between them. The tension between the two, the expectations of others (whether family members or society generally), and the individual’s desire to have a unified identity are ripe with the type of conflict that can make for great stories and novels. So I was intrigued with the premise of This is Paradise and, having lived in Honolulu from age 10 to 12,  curious to see how Kahakauwila would address the issues of being hapa-haole (“how-lay”) and living in both California and Hawai’i.

Could a young writer, in her first collection of stories, manage the challenge of depicting and making sense of these tensions? At the same time, could she capture Hawai’i’s own divided identity as tourist paradise and home to a wildly diverse population? I needn’t have worried. Kahakauwila has written a stellar collection of stories in which she faces these issues head on without blinking.

The collection opens with the title story, which may well be the best summation of how Hawai’i is experienced differently by tourists and residents. Three groups of narrators — surfer girls, hotel housekeeping employees, upwardly mobile professional young women — tell the story in the first-person plural “we.” These characters are connected by their interactions with and jaded observations of one young female visitor. “The tourist girl is white. They’re all white to us unless they’re black. She has light brown hair, a pointed nose, eyebrows neatly plucked into a firm line. She wears a white bikini with red polka dots. Triangle-cut top, ruffled bottom. We shake our heads at her. Our ‘ehu hair, pulled into ponytails, bounces against our necks. Our bikinis are carefully cut pieces with cross-back straps and lean bottoms. We surf in these, sista. We don’t have time for ruffles and ruching. But she does, like every other tourist. Her blue-and-white hotel towel labels her for what she is…. So when we see her studying the warning [sign], chewing the right side of her lip, we laugh. Jus’ like da kine, scared of da water. Haoles, yeah.

The “tough girl” surfers are fascinated by this one young woman, for reasons that mystify them. Why should she stand out from all the other tourists? Is she somehow “marked”? That night they encounter her again in the Lava Lounge on the Waikiki strip: “[w]here else can we go for a strip of bars and clubs?” They eat, drink, and observe the typical mating dance. “She keeps glancing around the bar, sizing up the men and the plastic tiki decorations. The night’s possibilities widen her eyes. We want to make fun of her, but she possesses a certain girlishness that awakens our forgiveness. It’s not her fault she’s haole.”

Susan is there with her younger brother, who is trying to keep a watchful eye on her. The girls overhear her whispering to her brother. “Everyone talks about aloha here, but it’s like Hawaiians are all pissed off. They live in paradise. What is there to be mad at?”

“We look at each other, and we feel the heat rising in our faces. Our families are barely affording a life here, the land is being eaten away by developers, the old sugar companies still control water rights. Not only does paradise no longer belong to us, but we have to watch foreigners destroy it. We have plenty aloha for someone who appreciates. We have none for a girl like this.”

The night is long, stretching into the next morning, when the girls return to the beach for a sunrise surf session. There they are surprised to see Susan yet again, for the third time in 24 hours. But something has changed; something happened last night. Hawai’i was not what Susan expected it to be, dreamed of, longed for. It was much more, and much less.

As if the opening story were not powerful enough, Kahakauwila follows it with what might be the best story in This is Paradise. “Wanle” puts us inside the life of a young woman who is following in her deceased father’s footsteps as a legendary cockfighter. As with the tourist girl in the title story, Wanle bears the burden of her illusions. Unlike Susan, Wanle is unaware of the reality of her circumstances and of her father’s life. Kahakauwila depicts the lives of locals who live, work, and play well off the Waikiki strip and whose lives are unaffected by the omnipresent tourists. This 40-page story is both a coming of age story and a love story, and it serves as a perfect counterpoint to the title story. By the time I’d finished these two stories, I knew I was in the hands of a young master (“mistress”?).

“The Road to Hana” finds a young couple driving the notoriously long, narrow road on Maui, giving them plenty of time to talk. Cameron is the son of parents from Minnesota, but he was born and raised in Honolulu and considers himself a local. Becky is from Las Vegas, but her parents are Hawaiian and her powerful connection to the islands leads her to move there, where she meets haole Cameron. Is he haole (which also means “mainlander” or “foreigner”) or is he local, Hawaiian? What does it mean to be Hawaiian? Is Becky Hawaiian even though she grew up on the mainland? Are her parents and relatives, and their culture, enough to make Becky one of them? She looks Hawaiian, but Honolulu is not her home, as it is to Cameron. The road to Hana is as twisty, unpredictable, and dangerous to their relationship as it is to the inattentive driver.

“Thirty-Nine Rules for Making a Hawaiian Funeral Into a Drinking Game” was the first story Kahakauwila wrote, and it is clearly autobiographical (at least in part). Rule 8 states, “With your degree in English, your aunties expect you to deliver the most grammatically correct homage to your grandmother. Take this responsibility seriously. Your copyediting skills are all you have to offer your family. After all, you were not born on Kaua’i. You weren’t even born in Honolulu. No, you were raised a California girl, like your mother before you. She is haole. White. A foreigner. This makes you hapa haole. Half foreign…. You cannot hula or play the uke. You do not speak pidgin. You never add the right proportion of water to poi. But you can summarize your grandmother’s life in a five-paragraph essay, complete with thesis and topic sentences. And for this, you owe yourself a drink.”

How can a reader not love this woman? As a former English major who was under-employed for the first few years after college, I know the bittersweet feeling of being educated but not yet accomplished or respected by family members. Because, you know, you can’t actually do anything.

Kahakauwila reveals some of her family history in Rule 29. “Understand your dad was different from the outset. Hand him a beer. After all, to be a boy and to diverge; to watch football but not play it; to keep the books for your grandpa’s market instead of unloading the trucks; to leave the island for boarding school; to want to go to college on the mainland, with only one child to his name, and a girl at that, is to cease to want what men want. Your father is absent from your uncles’ stories not because he left, but because he was never of Kaua’i in the first place. Because he was in his own world. Because he is Hawaiian but no local.”

The last two stories in This is Paradise are actually, like the stories I’ve read recently by Molly Antopol and Alice Munro, compressed novels. “Portrait of a Good Father” and “The Old Paniolo Way” are the richest and most complex stories in the book. In 43 and 66 pages, respectively, Kahakauwila unfolds an entire world that could easily have been developed into a novel and yet seems complete as a long story.

“Portrait of a Good Father” is more accurately a portrait of a marriage, that between Keaka and Grace. Their son, John, arrives ten months before they are married. Daughter Sarah is born nine months after the wedding. They would appear to be a happy, even ideal young family. But tragedy intervenes, and Keaka and Grace respond in different ways. The result is their very own Kilauea volcano residing among the three of them. I hesitate to say more about this story, which is so layered in its character development and the narrative’s movement through time that I don’t want to spoil a single aspect of reading it.

“The Old Paniolo Way” tells the story of thirty-something siblings Pilipo (Pili) and Maile, whose father, Harrison, is slowly dying of cancer. Maile is the devoted daughter who has remained on her family’s Big Island ranch all her life, while Pili left for college on the mainland and settled in San Francisco, where he owns a very successful marketing business. In returning to the island, Pili returns to his painful past and has to decide whether, or how, to resolve some of these issues with his father. Should he burden his father in his final days just to free himself from the past and clear the slate for the future, or is that simply selfish? What will his future entail? Will he come home permanently to run the ranch with Maile? What does Maile want, from Pili and for herself? The hospice nurse, Albert, is ostensibly there to assist Harrison but he arguably provides more help to Harrison’s son and daughter.

Kristiana Kahakauwila has written a remarkable collection of stories that provide a great service to readers in showing the many sides of the real Hawai’i, the one in which Hawaiians live and tourists inhabit only briefly. This place and its people are far more intriguing than the version presented to the outside world by advertisers, marketers, and other promoters. I encourage you to spend some time in Kahakauwila’s Hawai’i.

Author photo by Katty Wu

COWBOYS AND EAST INDIANS is a unique contribution to Indian-American literature

Cowboys and East Indians Nina McConigley 2

Cowboys and East Indians: Stories

By Nina McConigley

Curtis Brown Unlimited: June 22, 2015

(First published in 2013 by Five Chapters)

162 pages, $10.99

Imagine standing out by virtue of your appearance when you want to blend in. Or being invisible because of that same appearance when you want to be noticed. That is the experience of many bicultural Americans; people view them as “different” because of their appearance when most of them are just as “American” — legally through citizenship and culturally through having been raised in the U.S. It is a situation in which one can feel constantly out of sorts, as though one is a square peg when the holes are round, and a round peg when the holes are square; things just never seem to align properly.

Nina McConigley explores this dual existence in the cleverly-titled Cowboys and East Indians, a collection of ten stories based on her experiences as an East Indian living in Wyoming. Where most fiction exploring the immigrant experience is set in urban environments, McConigley takes us to the high altitude, windy isolation and cozy cities of the least-populous state (584,000 as of July 2014), a place most people would never expect to find Indian-Americans.

McConigley perfectly captures the duality of being pulled in two directions, the culture in which you live and the culture in which your parents and older relatives came from. While it is possible to feel at home in both, there is often a tension in identity “code switching.” The dominant complicating factor is how other people see you; because you look a certain way, you are viewed as foreign rather than “American” (whatever that means). And because people see you as Indian or Asian or some other minority ethnic or religious group, you may well end up becoming a sort of ambassador representing your culture. That has been my experience living in a very Christian area with a relatively small Jewish population.

In each of these stories, McConigley explores characters’ attempts to navigate through their home and outside lives. She also shows us that Indian-Americans are not a monolithic group with uniform positions on religious, social, and political issues. She drives home what should be an obvious point; while the white, Christian majority, with its limited knowledge of Indian-American life, simplifies them instead of realizing that they are as varied as the majority themselves. (We always imagine that others are not as unique as we are.) Not every Indian is Hindu; not all Indian-American women wear traditional clothing; not all Indian-Americans speak one of the many languages spoken in India (there are 23 constitutionally recognized official languages).

McConigley’s characters are quirky, three-dimensional individuals who are working through strange places both literal and figurative. She writes with a pleasing blend of deep empathy, droll wit, and vivid descriptions of people and, especially, places. The unique nature of Wyoming makes it one of the most memorable characters in this collection.

The result is one of the best books of the past few years, a collection in which all the stories make a powerful impression, and one I expect will last a long time. Read it and you will see why Cowboys and East Indians won the 2014 PEN Literary Award. It is THAT good.

Liz Prato: What’s So Damn Funny About Death?

Liz Prato  Baby's_On_Fire_

My mom died when I was 26 and she was 58. I loved her more than anyone in the universe, and I was devastated. She didn’t want a funeral, but did want a wake, so we had an afternoon party at my dad’s house. I remember standing in the kitchen, eating a tortilla chip that broke and fell into my blouse. I looked inside my blouse, found the chip lodged in my bra, and pulled it out and ate it. I then realized a friend standing on the other side of the counter saw me do it, and we laughed. Until that moment I had no idea I was capable of anything other than confusion and fear and unrelenting waves of I-will-never-see-my-mom-again grief.

When I was 44, I was sitting on the floor in my dad’s house—just steps away from where the tortilla chip incident occurred—with my dad’s ashes and my brother’s ashes in front of me. My friend Rebekah sat on the bottom step of the stairs. Together, we swathed my dad’s urn and my brother’s green cardboard box in bubble-wrap so they could be mailed to my home a thousand miles away.

My whole family was dead. I had to clean out our family home in four days, before it went into foreclosure and was auctioned off by the city. I thought of a time when we were 16 and my dad and brother were out of town on a business trip. Rebekah and I were upstairs, in my dad’s bedroom, watching our pupils in the mirror to see if we could notice them dilate (oh, did I mention we were stoned?). The doorbell rang, so we started downstairs. We both stopped on the stairs. We could see my dad and brother standing outside. They had come back from their trip early, but because we had the chain lock on the door, they couldn’t get in.

“Hold on!” I called, while Rebekah ran back to my dad’s bedroom to hide the bong.

I let them in. “We got finished with our business early,” my dad said.

Don’t act high, don’t act high. “It’s great to see you!” I said, probably with too much enthusiasm. “You’re going to have to give us a little time to clean up your bedroom, though. We have our stuff all over it.”

“Sure, no problem,” my dad said cheerfully, and sat at the kitchen table reading his mail.

I raced upstairs to my dad’s bedroom. Rebekah had opened the windows and was walking around waving her hands through the air like a spastic magician. This is what we spent the next twenty minutes doing, walking around waving our hands, until we were convinced my dad’s bedroom was pot-free.

Twenty-eight years later, we’re sitting at the bottom of those stairs, wrapping my dad and brother’s ashes in bubble wrap. I started laughing. “Of all the times we’ve been in this house together, I don’t think we could have ever predicted doing this.”

“I know, right?” Rebekah said and cracked up, too.  I know she remembers every single goofy incident (parties and boys and school truancy and tons of laughter) that ever occurred in the house since we were kids.

Right that minute, her husband walked in the front door. “What’s so funny?”

“These are my dad’s ashes!” I hooted, pointing to the blob of bubble wrap.

As I’m telling this story, I have no sense if you are laughing, too. Or if you’re mortified (so to speak). That uncertainty is one reason I think death writing is so consistently bleak. We are afraid of how it will be taken, of how we will be perceived if we ever insist there is anything funny hiding inside the devastation. We worry it will seem disrespectful.

Of course death, itself, is rarely funny. One of the stories in my new collection, Baby’s On Fire, features a recovering addict whose father was killed when a coconut fell off a tree and hit him on the head. The narrator knew it was the stuff of cartoons and he watched as people tried to muffle their guffaws when he told them the story. But his grief, his loss, was quite serious.

On the other hand, when my mother-in-law told me and my husband how her 94-year-old father died, we laughed our asses off. He had been given dire medical news predicting he would never walk again, so he stopped eating and drinking. My mother-in-law, Gaynl, was asleep in her parents’ guestroom when her mother woke her up and told her he was gone. Gaynl fully expected to see her father lying in bed, under the covers, lifeless. A body, but no longer a soul. But when she walked into his bedroom, she found him standing upright. He had somehow gotten out of bed, was walking towards something, and then just stopped. Permanently. Well, if that isn’t weird enough, Gaynl’s mother said it just wouldn’t be proper for him to be standing there like that when the folks from the funeral home arrived. So Gaynl had to wrestle the body of her dead dad back into bed and arrange him so he looked like he’d gone peacefully in his sleep.

Of course, a lot of what makes this story funny (to me and to Gaynl and to my husband, at least) is the context. This probably wouldn’t be remotely hilarious if it had happened to a child, or someone else who hadn’t engineered their own dignified death. And the fact that Gaynl’s mother was so concerned about propriety at such a time added to the ridiculousness. But it points to how irrational people get when someone dies (grief being a form of insanity, and all), and that can create some downright silly circumstances.

Also, people—when they are alive—are wonderfully, freakishly weird, and whether that weirdness is discovered for the first time, or it just gets made bigger and brighter when they die, it can be pretty comical. I mean, you tell me: How should I have reacted when, while cleaning out my dad’s closet after my whole family was dead, a friend ran across my dad’s penis pump? Yep, those two phrases—“my whole family was dead” and “penis pump”—were just in the same sentence.

We suck at death in our culture; that’s not exactly breaking news. We don’t talk about it often, and when we do it’s in whispered euphemisms. Despite its constant inevitability, we are nonetheless surprised when it happens.

We are always surprised by how it feels.

That’s the writer’s job – to illuminate the aspects of the human condition that surprise us. That grab at our hearts. That make our breath rush away from us. It’s a writer’s job to unveil the human experience as fully and unflinchingly as possible. To see and hear and feel the details that surprise us about life and about death.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that writers should add humor to their grief writing simply to make it easier on the reader or to sell more books. I’m not claiming that “Laugh Your Ass Off” should be added to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous Five Stages of Grief. After my family died, friends would make well-meaning suggestions like “You should watch Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog! It’ll cheer you up.”

The thing was, it wouldn’t. There were times when the aftermath felt so bleak that Iknew I wouldn’t be able to crack a smile at something others found utterly hilarious, and that would leave me feeling even more desolate. The kind of humor I’m talking about happens organically. That’s the beauty of it—we don’t make it happen. And after something sad that we had no control over happens, there’s something magical about something enjoyable happening that we had no control over, too.

I’ve been writing about those small magics ever since my mom died—in my stories, in my essays, in my memoir. I do worry that parts of my memoir are “unrelentingly bleak.” I assume no one will want to read about how painful it was to watch my dad and brother descend so quickly into mental illness and addiction that I could not help them and they could not survive.

I am aware that the “funny parts” don’t happen until after they die. It wasn’t until then that I was able to experience a release. Notice I say “release” – not relief. It’s different. It’s not Whew—things are finally better! It is the clutch of the inevitable momentarily liberating you from fear and uncertainty and “Ohmygod, I can’t handle this anymore.” It’s your muscles releasing their death-grip on your weary spine—even if for only a moment. It’s an unbridled laugh bursting from your lungs.

Whether you are a writer or a reader, rejoice in those small breaks from the pain, because that is what keeps us alive. And come on, is there any other way to respond to finding your father’s penis pump?

Liz Prato’s short story collection, Baby’s On Fire, was published by Press 53 in May. Her work has appeared in over two dozen literary journals and magazines, and she edited the anthology The Night, and the Rain, and the River(Forest Avenue Press, 2014). Excerpts of her recently completed memoir have been published by The Rumpus, Subtropics, Summerset Review, and Nailed. She lives in Portland with her husband, a bookseller, musician and writer, and their furry feline friends.

THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS gives powerful voice to America’s quiet minority

The Book of Unknown Americans  Cristina Henriquez

The Book of Unknown Americans

By Cristina Henriquez

Vintage: March 3, 2015

304 pages, $14.95

Some books are published at just the right time. While immigration has long been an important and contentious issue in the United States, the current situation with Central American child refugees playing out at our border makes Cristina Henriquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans even more timely and relevant than it would have been if it had been published in the last few years. The broader immigration issues remain, and this riveting novel provides some context for moving forward.

Fifteen-year-old Maribel Rivera has sustained a serious head injury and needs special treatment and schooling that are not available in her home state of Michoacan, Mexico. Her parents, Arturo and Alma Rivera have brought her to Wilmington, Delaware — of all places — after waiting a year for Arturo to receive a work visa. They have left most of their belongings behind and come to the U.S. with little more than hope and prayers for their formerly feisty daughter’s recovery. They share a run-down apartment building with neighbors from across Latin America, including the Toro family from Panama. We get to know Celia and Rafa Toro through the eyes of their sensitive teenage son, Mayor (“my-yor”), who is smitten with Maribel from the moment he sees the beautiful but shy new girl at the store.

The Riveras have their hands full trying to adapt to the strange world of the United States, not the least of which is learning English. Arturo works punishing hours in the dark at a mushroom “factory” across the state line in Pennsylvania (it seems he is always crossing a border). Alma has to overcome a few obstacles for Maribel to gain admission to the Evers School for students with special needs. Loneliness and homesickness are her frequent companions.

But the open hearts of a few people keep Alma afloat. She is befriended by Celia Toro, who serves as something of a guide to this perplexing new world — or at least to the neighborhood and Wilmington. Mayor soon realizes that Maribel is not a “normal” girl, but he finds that he likes her nonetheless, and they develop a special friendship as well. The two families become increasingly interconnected, for good and ill.

In addition to trying to make their way in the U.S., the characters deal with problems that are not just limited to immigrants. Alma is punished by her guilt over the accident that led to Maribel’s head injury. Alma and Arturo worry constantly about Maribel’s physical health and emotional well-being, including her friendship with Mayor. Celia wants to work, but Rafa is adamant that it is his job as the man to take care of his family.

A teenage bully with a surly manner and an omnipresent skateboard harasses Alma, Maribel, and Mayor (whom he also bothers at school). A snooty neighbor turns from a friend into a jealous gossip and passive-aggressive backbiter. Everyone is strapped for money during the difficult years of the recent Great Recession. And the relationships among the building’s other residents display the universal characteristics of such relationships anywhere.

Consistent with the novel’s title, the chapters alternate between the first-person narratives of Alma Rivera and Mayor Toro. Short narratives from their neighbors are interwoven to create a tapestry of perspectives through which we experience the dreams and ambitions of these immigrants from Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Paraguay, and Mexico. While the details (and the language) may be different from past waves of immigrants, their daily lives in most ways constitute the universal immigrant experience that exists in virtually every American’s family history.

The feeling of being an immigrant, or the American-born child of immigrants, is captured brilliantly in The Book of Unknown Americans. Mayor describes the feeling of being caught between two cultures when he says, “The truth was that I didn’t know which I was [Panamanian or American]. I wasn’t allowed to claim the thing I felt [being American] and I didn’t feel the thing I was supposed to claim [being Panamanian].” When the Riveras go out to an inexpensive pizza parlor, Alma observes, “[A]round us American couples and families ate slices of pizza and drank bottles of beer. I had the feeling that they disapproved of us being there, drinking only water, taking up space. But when I glanced at the people around us, no one was even looking in our direction, and I felt the way I often felt in this country — simultaneously conspicuous and invisible, like an oddity whom everyone noticed but chose to ignore.”

As a lifelong California resident, I was particularly impressed by the accuracy of the short narrative of Micho Alvarez. “I came from Mexico,” he begins. “But there’s a lot of people here who, when they hear that, they think I crawled out of hell. They hear ‘Mexico,’ and they think: bad, devil, I don’t know. They got some crazy ideas. Any of them ever been to Mexico? And if they say, yeah, I went to Acapulco back in the day or I been to Cancun, papi, then that shit don’t count. You went to a resort? Congratulations. But you didn’t go to Mexico.”

He then addresses the broader, more problematic issue. “And that’s the problem, you know? These people are listening to the media, and the media, let me tell you, has some fucked-up ideas about us. About all the brown-skinned people, but especially about the Mexicans. You listen to the media, you’ll learn that we’re all gangbangers, we’re all drug dealers, we’re tossing bodies in vats of acid, we want to destroy America, we still think Texas belongs to us, we all have swine flu, we carry machine guns under our coats, we don’t pay any taxes, we’re lazy, we’re stupid, we’re all wetbacks who crossed the border illegally. I swear to God, I’m so tired of being called a spic, a nethead, a cholo, all this stuff. Happens to me all the time.”

When he is watched closely in stores, he says, “I have enough money to be in any store and even if I didn’t, I have the right to be in any store. I feel like telling them sometimes, You don’t know me, man. I’m a citizen here! But I shouldn’t have to tell anyone that. I want to be given the benefit of the doubt….I wish just one of these people, just one, would actually talk to me, talk to my friends, man. And yes, you can talk to us in English. I know English better than you, I bet. But none of them even want to try. We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then? It’s fucked up. The whole thing is very, very complicated.”

Cristina Henriquez has produced a powerful and moving portrayal of the lives of people we rarely hear from, the “unknown Americans” (all of the characters are legal immigrants). Her decision to use multiple first-person narrators adds an immediacy to the reading experience that makes this a very fast read. The various voices are idiosyncratic and credible and provide a quick glimpse into the range of life experiences possessed by immigrants. The narratives of Alma and Mayor, which make up the bulk of the book, are especially thoughtful and revealing.

Henriquez has smoothly handled the fact that the characters are obviously speaking Spanish to each other most of the time. In that sense, their narratives have been “translated.” Some speak English well, but others do not (depending on how long they have been in the U.S.). But when it’s clear they are speaking English (either to each other or to English speakers), they make second language errors and use bits of Spanish when they don’t know the word in English, adding credibility to the characterization.

The Book of Unknown Americans is not a polemic dressed up as a novel. It’s a compelling story of sympathetic characters in challenging circumstances, both personal and socio-cultural. They are people you will care about and whom you will miss when you close the book. And they will make you think about the “very, very complicated” times in which we live.

Powell’s Books recommends 25 women to read before you die

powells-thumbnail  powells-city-of-books

The staff at Powell’s City of Books in Portland, one of the country’s (and the world’s!) best bookstores, have compiled a list of 25 women writers you need to read. I haven’t read all of these writers myself, but I can certainly vouch for many of them being worth your valuable reading time (Adichie, Armstrong, Atwood, Didion, Erdrich, Hempel, Solnit, Tartt).

As if you didn’t already have enough to read, here are 25 authors who have published well over a hundred books among them.

You can read the full article here.

As with any such list, the results are at least partially random (there should be little dispute about the inclusion of writers like George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Louise Erdrich). Just off the top of my head, I would add Jane Austen, Alice Munro, Jane Smiley, Elena Ferrante, Ali Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, Lauren Groff, and Karen Russell. Every such list is guaranteed to be a very personal set of preferences.

Who do you think should be on this list? Reply in the Comments below. 

Guest blogger Anne Korkeakivi: My Summer Without Men (Writers)

Anne Korkeakivi

This is a re-post of a guest essay originally published on September 22, 2014. 

Anne Korkeakivi is the author of An Unexpected Guest (Little, Brown, 2012) (you can read my review here). An American raised and educated in New York and Massachusetts, she now lives and writes in Geneva, where her husband is a human rights lawyer for the United Nations. Anne earned a BA in Classics from Bowdoin College and an MA in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. Her stories have been published in The Atlantic, The YaleReview, Consequence magazine, and the Bellevue Literary Review. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Times (UK),Travel & Leisure, Ms., The Millions, and many additional periodicals in the US, the UK, and online. (My interview with Anne from 2013 can be found here.) 


This summer, I hit the road.

Needing to fit my essentials into one manageable suitcase, I was compelled to leave behind something valuable to me. Something that could wait until my return, but I thought of and missed often. Not a draft of my next novel — although I did leave that behind also. My reading diary.

Some writers keep a writing journal. I keep a reading journal, in which I jot down a mini-synopsis of each book I read and what I loved and/or didn’t love about it. These entries are short, just a few sentences total. Very occasionally a book will also get a little star. Very very occasionally a book will earn extra space for direct quotations, but capturing quotables is not the intention of my journal.

These journals are for me alone, a private way to explore writing. They serve both as memory and an exploration of the craft that impassions me, and I guard them as closely as Harriet the Spy should have guarded her diary. Their terseness keeps the contents candid. But having to capsulize my thoughts into just a few words, I am forced to think as clearly as possible about writing. What worked for me in this book? Why did it work? Why didn’t it? Sometimes my assessments reinforce well-laid ground. Sometimes I make discoveries.

When I sat down in my office on September 1st, freshly returned from my travels, I had fourteen books to record. All but three of the books, I realized as I began to note them down in my journal, were written by women.

I choose what I read for a variety of reasons and rarely are these reasons related to an author’s gender. I feel a bit guilty about this; as a woman writer of literary fiction, I am well aware of the discussion around literary gender inequality as documented by VIDA. But the truth is I’m gender-blind when I decide what to read and also while I read. I had noticed I was reading, due to my travels, an unusual percentage of contemporary American titles—books picked up at readings in NYC, passed to me by fellow travelers, etc. I knew, of course, the name (and, had I thought about it, gender) of each book’s author. But it never struck me I was reading almost exclusively work by women.

This got me thinking. Is there any reason why I should have been aware of the authors’ genders? By this I don’t mean whether, as a woman writer, I have a responsibility to read more or mostly female authors. That’s a whole other discussion. I mean was there anything running through these books that should have made me notice most of them were written by women?

Let’s play a game. I’m going to give a one-line synopsis of each of the fourteen books. (Answers at the end.) You try to guess which three were written by men.

  1. A young man discovers an ex-girlfriend gave birth to his child, leading him into a downward spiral in a world of criminals.
  2. Four siblings become freedom fighters against dictatorship; three are assassinated, one lives to tell the tale (nb: not a spoiler – the reader knows from the start).
  3. A young painter is trapped between fidelity to family or to a life in art.
  4. During a wild storm, a dying man and his wife go missing.
  5. The men in three generations of a family struggle after their experiences fighting in three different wars.
  6. The golden child of a multi-cultural family falls victim to the parents’ psychological fixations.
  7. After a manipulative single parent goes to prison for murder, a young kid is left to navigate adolescence alone, bouncing through foster homes.
  8. A young woman has to choose between two very different young men, as they all confront adulthood.
  9. A highly physical memoir of an author’s life, starting with childhood.
  10. A man and boy arrive in a new land together and search for the child’s missing mother.
  11. A memoir about an author’s first job in the publishing world.
  12. A feckless middle-aged man finds unexpected fulfillment after his brother goes to prison and his wife dumps him.
  13. A man sets fire to a beachfront house then tells his life story to an equally forlorn woman who stumbles upon him.
  14. A chance meeting between three boys brings disparate families together through the passage to adulthood, sex, and the violence of war.

Have you made your guesses? If you chose #1, #5, and #9… you’d be wrong.

If you chose #4, #7, and #14, you’d be also wrong.

If, however, you chose #8, #9, and #10, you’d be right. (And, if you recognized all or some of the books and made your guesses that way, you are disqualified.)

Perhaps more importantly, what criteria came to mind for guessing which book was written by a woman and which written by a man?

Here’s another thing my little journal brought to light: What a non-event my summer (mostly) without male authors was. Some books I liked more than others; a few I loved. They were all simply books.

Here are the books I read, with apologies to the authors and their supporters for the over-simplified renderings of their works — obviously all these books were about much more than could be put in one neutered sentence. Also, the five novels “in a row” I mentioned in an earlier blog post were before any on this list: 1. The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel; 2. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez; 3. Cascade by Maryanne O’Hara; 4. On Fog Mountain by Michelle Bailat-Jones; 5. After the Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld; 6.Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng; 7. White Oleander by Janet Fitch; 8. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides; 9. Winter Journal by Paul Auster; 10. The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee; 11. My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff; 12. May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes; 13. Sur le Sable by Michèle Lesbre; 14. The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt.