An incredibly well-written and informative book about the Hmong people (from Laos) who have settled near Fresno. The chapters gracefully alternate bet...moreAn incredibly well-written and informative book about the Hmong people (from Laos) who have settled near Fresno. The chapters gracefully alternate between the story of a Hmong girl, Lia, who was born with epilepsy, and more general overviews of Hmong history and culture, specifically the clash of our culture with theirs. Lia’s story is stay-up-late gripping, and the overview chapters are both fascinating and infuriating.
EXCERPT: “It was said in the refugee camps in Thailand that the Hmong in America could not find work, were forbidden to practice their religion, and were robbed and beaten by gangs. It was also said that Hmong women were forced into slavery, forced to have sex with American men, and forced to have sex with animals. Dinosaurs lived in America, as well as ghosts, ogres, and giants. With all this to worry about, why did the 15,000 Hmong who gathered on the Ban Vinai soccer field to voice their deepest fears about life in the United States choose to fixate on doctors?
A year after I first read the account of that gathering, as I was attempting to deal out a teetering pile of notes, clippings, and photocopied pages from books and dissertations into several drawerfuls of file folders, I had a glimmering of insight. There were hundreds of pages whose proper home I was at a loss to determine. Should they go in the Medicine folder? The Mental Health folder? The Animism folder? The Shamanism folder? The Social Structure folder? The Body/Mind/Soul Continuum folder? I hovered uncertainly, pages in hand, and realized that I was suspended in a large bowl of Fish Soup. Medicine was religion. Religion was society. Society was medicine. Even economics were mixed up in there somewhere (you had to have or borrow enough money to buy a pig, or even a cow, in case someone got sick and a sacrifice was required), and so was music (if you didn’t have a qeej player at your funeral, your soul wouldn’t be guided on its posthumous travels, and it couldn’t be reborn, and it might make your relatives sick). In fact, the Hmong view of health care seemed to me to be precisely the opposite of the prevailing American one, in which the practice of medicine has fissioned into smaller and smaller subspecialties, with less and less truck between bailiwicks….
Not realizing that when a man named Xiong or Lee or Moua walked into the Family Practice Center with a stomachache he was actually complaining that the entire universe was out of balance, the young doctors of Merced frequently failed to satisfy their Hmong patients.”(less)
There was so, so much I didn’t know about Cuba. Considering that the country is only ninety miles away and intricately tied in many historically signi...moreThere was so, so much I didn’t know about Cuba. Considering that the country is only ninety miles away and intricately tied in many historically significant ways to the U.S., this book really should be required reading in our schools.
As a thirteen-year-old in 1980 I had vaguely heard of a lot of boats full of Cubans heading for Florida, but I never understood the significance of this in the context of Cuba’s history, nor did I fully grasp the complexity behind more recent stories of individual Cubans such as Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year old forcibly removed from the closet by rifle-toting federal agents.
This is the type of memoir that is not merely concerned with the author’s life but also expertly weaves in a wealth of relevant nonfiction—in this case the Mariel boatlift of 1980, the history of Cuba, the plight—and successes—of Cuban immigrants in Florida, and the anguish and torment of families forcibly separated by politics.
This Pulitzer-prize-winning author excels at placing individual stories in historical context while simultaneously bringing the characters fully to life.
EXCERPT: “Listening attentively from her perch under a mango tree was Mercedes Alvarez, a twenty-two-year-old nurse who was five months pregnant and had her three small children—aged five, two, and one—with her…. It took the family about an hour to find a place where they felt they could squeeze into the crowd and spend the night. Mercedes held tightly to her children’s hands, fearing to lose them in the multitude. When they cried for milk, she gave them pieces of the crumbled cake and rocked them to sleep one after the other. Surrounded by their tiny bodies, she began to think of the consequences of what she had done…. It occurred to her that this might be a trap, that the government might send them all to jail. She was calmed somewhat by the realization that if anything happened to her, the government would still provide for her children’s health care and education. This paradox—that the same government she was trying to flee was also the one that she knew would take care of her children—made her question why she really wanted to leave her country….
Day and night, government-controlled radio stations droned over loudspeakers, urging the refugees to return to their homes, since Peru couldn’t do anything for them; they had to trust the Cuban government. Some people stuffed cigarette butts in their ears to drown out the noise. Portable bathrooms were installed around the perimeter of the compound, but some refugees refused to use them for fear they would not be allowed to get back inside the grounds, preferring to relieve themselves in plain sight of other refugees. The garden soon became a fetid cauldron where it was difficult to walk and impossible to lie down….
Around the fifth day, Mercedes moved inside the embassy and had her first bite of food…. The Cuban government distributed food, handing boxes of yellow rice with pork or ribs and sometimes even fish and rice and beans over the fence—but not nearly enough for everyone. The Peruvian embassy didn’t have the resources or the personnel to prepare food for so many people. Sometimes rations for 2,500 were doled out to a crowd of almost 11,000 people. Fights erupted, and mothers bore the marks of their desperation: bleeding arms from the scratches produced by the spiky ends of the fence as they extended their hands over it to try to grab food for their children. The number of rations was kept low intentionally to create chaos, to demonstrate to the world that the people inside the embassy were dangerous.”(less)
“Start this book, and you won’t stop. Memoir, detective story, travelogue, time capsule, horror movie come to life (and swinging a hatchet), obsessive...more“Start this book, and you won’t stop. Memoir, detective story, travelogue, time capsule, horror movie come to life (and swinging a hatchet), obsessive manhunt, a tale of American innocence dashed and left for dead....”
This book is gripping and disturbing, and vividly brings to life 1970s Oregon. You can’t beat the essential story—a young girl traveling rural America who experiences a life-changing event—but like all great nonfiction, the book is much more than its basic tale, and veers off into many fascinating tangents.
What still stands out for me, many months after finishing it, is the idea that while you may be certain an event affected you alone, there are countless others unknown to you living their lives across the country completely separate from you, for whom the same event continues to live inside them in numerous ways—occasionally has even helped shape who they are.
EXCERPT: “The second question was easier to grasp: Who was the man who emerged that night in a desert park, bent on destruction? This question had but one simple answer: an individual with a name. A man with his own history—a past, a present, and, impossible to imagine, a future. Fifteen years had passed, and the crime had never been solved. Its reckoning was long overdue.
Both questions converged in a flashbulb image that struck deep into my memory: the headless torso of a fit, meticulous young cowboy suspending an axe over my heart. The image conjured for me a villain out of myth and legend.
I began an education in such mythic imagery early on, when for my fourth birthday I received a 3-D Viewmaster that came with a package of sample discs. I remember holding the Viewmaster to my eyes and clicking the button on its right side. I clicked my way through 3-D views of beautiful American landscapes and frames of iconic American imagery until I froze at one: a headless torso wearing a costume out of the Old West, a holster slung around his waist, his hand training a revolver on me, the viewer….
As I excavated my personal history over many years of returning to Oregon, questions kept arising, still more troubling questions that brought to the surface the violent and extreme in our culture. The first time around, America’s dark underside found me. Later, I went looking for it. And it wasn’t hard to find. Of all developed nations, America is especially violent. It is violent by habit. My 3-D Viewmaster warned me of this when I was just four years old.
But I also found the other extreme. John Steinbeck said it just right in The Grapes of Wrath, our archetypal tale about lost American dreams: strange things happen to people in America. Some bitterly cruel. And some so beautiful that faith is refired forever."
The beauty of this book lies in the fact that before beginning it, I would have said I had no interest whatsoever in Barcelona in 1945... yet within a...moreThe beauty of this book lies in the fact that before beginning it, I would have said I had no interest whatsoever in Barcelona in 1945... yet within a few pages I found I did care, very much. I miss it there and wish I could visit again.
Here we have beautiful writing, a never-before-seen plot, and a huge cast of characters, even the most minor of which has a detailed and interesting back story. This book is written exactly as the main character describes the book he is reading: “As it unfolded, the structure of the story began to remind me of one of those Russian dolls that contain innumerable ever-smaller dolls within. Step-by-step the narrative split into a thousand stories…” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
EXCERPT: “The object of my devotion, a plush black pen, adorned with heaven knows how many refinements and flourishes, presided over the shop window as if it were the crown jewels. A baroque fantasy magnificently wrought in silver and gold that shone like the lighthouse at Alexandria, the nib was a wonder in its own right. When my father and I went out for walk, I wouldn’t stop pestering him until he took me to see the pen. My father declared that it must be, at the very least, the pen of an emperor. I was secretly convinced that with such a marvel one would be able to write anything, from novels to encyclopedias, and letters whose supernatural power would surpass any postal limitations—a letter written with that pen would reach the most remote corners of the world, even that unknowable place to which my father said my mother had gone and from where she would never return. One day we decided to go into the shop and inquire about the blessed artifact. It turned out to be the queen of all fountain pens, a Montblanc Meinsterstuck in a numbered series, that has once belonged, or so the shop attendant assured us, to Victor Hugo himself.”
“As a child, Maria Jacinta Coronado was convinced that the world ended on the outskirts of Toledo and that beyond the town limits there was nothing but darkness and oceans of fire. Jacinta had got that idea from a dream she had during a fever that had almost killed her when she was four years old. The dreams began with that mysterious fever, which some blamed on the sting of a huge red scorpion that appeared in the house one day and was never seen again, and others on the evil designs of a mad nun who crept into houses at night to poison children and who, years later, was to be garroted reciting the Lord’s Prayer backward with her eyes popping out of their sockets, while a red cloud spread over the town and discharged a storm of dead cockroaches. In her dreams Jacinta perceived the past and the future and, at times, saw revealed to her the secrets and mysteries of the old streets of Toledo.”(less)
Most of the time it’s easy to disregard the entire fantasy genre, but once every few years (the Harry Potter series; Beauty, by Robin McKinley), a wor...moreMost of the time it’s easy to disregard the entire fantasy genre, but once every few years (the Harry Potter series; Beauty, by Robin McKinley), a work of fantasy comes along that completely enraptures me. This one, like Beauty, has beautiful, incredibly evocative writing as well as a gripping plot (while the Harry books are gripping, they lack a certain beauty in the writing, think).
This book drew me in immediately—pretty much from the first paragraph. There was no “breaking in” period common with fantasy in which the reader needs to get used to the weird cast of characters and surreal events. Instead, it all felt comfortable and appropriate right from the beginning; the landscape made perfect sense to me and I accepted without question all that transpired. An added benefit was that I had absolutely no clue what would happen (the only drawback to Beauty.)
The premise (hero has adventures while seeking something) is not unique, but the many intriguing and complex characters our hero meets more than made up for this. In any case, the basic premise isn’t supposed to be new. The author says so in the second paragraph of the book:
“And while that is, as beginnings go, not entirely novel (for every tale about every young man there ever was or will be could start in a similar manner) there was much about this young man and what happened to him that was unusual, although even he never knew the whole of it.”
There’s lots of witchcraft, there is horrifying brutality, there are shocking revelations, there is betrayal, and…there is a sex scene! My hatred of sex scenes is well known, and it is a testament to Neil Gaiman’s skill that I did not mind this one a bit.
EXCERPT: “In the middle of a wood, so thick and so deep it was very nearly a forest, was a small house, built of thatch and wood and daubed grey clay, which had a most foreboding aspect. A small, yellow bird in a cage sat on its perch outside the house. It did not sing, but sat mournfully silent, its feathers ruffled and wan. There was a door to the cottage, from which the once-white paint was peeling away.
Inside, the cottage consisted of one room, undivided. Smoked meats and sausages hung from the rafters, along with a wizened crocodile carcass. A peat fire burned smokily in the large fireplace against one wall, and the smoke trickled out of the chimney far above. There were three blankets upon three raised beds—one large and old, the other two little more than truckle beds.
There were cooking implements, and a large wooden cage, currently empty, in another corner. There were windows too filthy to see through, and over everything was a thick layer of oily dust. The only thing in the house that was clean was a mirror of black glass, as high as a tall man, as wide as a church door, which rested against one wall.
The house belonged to three aged women. They took it in turns to sleep in the big bed, to make the supper, to set snares in the wood for small animals, to draw water up from the deep well behind the house. The three women spoke little.
There were three other women in the little house. They were slim, and dark, and amused. The hall they inhabited was many times the size of the cottage; the floor was of onyx, and the pillars were of obsidian. There was a courtyard behind them, open to the sky, and stars hung in the night sky above. A fountain played in the courtyard, the water rolling and falling from a statue of a mermaid in ecstasy, her mouth wide open. Clean, black water gushed from her mouth into the pool below, shimmering and shaking the stars.
The three women, and their hall, were in the black mirror.”(less)
Before writing Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks worked as a reporter (Middle East correspondent) for The Wall Street Journal and lived in numerous co...moreBefore writing Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks worked as a reporter (Middle East correspondent) for The Wall Street Journal and lived in numerous countries throughout the Middle East for almost a decade. She seems to have been personal friends with everyone: dinners with Queen Noor of Jordan, casual visits with Khomeini’s daughters in Iran, conversations with a woman who personally helped hold the American Embassy hostages at gunpoint in Iran in 1979—all are discussed in the book as though it’s completely normal, with absolutely no speck of a self-congratulatory “and I was there!” attitude.
Throughout her years in these countries (Iraq, smack in the middle of the first Gulf War; Iran; Israel; Palestine, where she chases down the teenager who smashed her windshield with a rock and subsequently lives with his polygamous family for many weeks; Saudi Arabia; Egypt); throughout her years in these locales her consistent and determined goal is to understand the lives of Muslim women. In particular, she focuses on how each of these different cultures uses Islam to explain/justify vastly different treatments of women, despite the fact that the Koran is often either silent on the subject or actually says the opposite of what is being espoused. She goes to great lengths to explain precisely what the Koran says (as a speaker of Arabic, she’s able to explain many inconsistent translations) and with her vast reporter’s talent she gives a very clear overview of Islam’s beginnings, always explaining how these beginnings relate to current traditions.
Many of the worst human rights abuses are actually not “in the Koran,” but rather than using this as a defense of the religion, as many do, she is outraged that its leaders are not speaking out against those who commit terrible crimes in the misguided name of the religion. For example, clitoridectomy is not mentioned in the Koran, and Geraldine quotes a female Muslim writer who is angry that people don’t know “this was an African practice that has nothing whatsoever to do with Islam.” Geraldine’s well-thought-out response is to wonder why such people “turn their wrath on the commentators criticizing the practices, and not on the crimes themselves….could [the Muslim writer:] not have taken the trouble to reflect that one in five Muslim girls lives in a community where some form of clitoridectomy is sanctioned and religiously justified by local Islamic leaders?”
Geraldine is highly skilled at providing an insider’s understanding of and respect for these cultures while simultaneously explaining all of the inconsistencies, hypocrisies, and outright lies. I was reminded often of Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven—partly because the writers are similarly talented at explaining a religion, but also because the two religions really are surprisingly similar, with their incredibly intense fear of women’s independence and their fondness for polygamy and child brides. Most eerily similar of all is the fact that both Muhammad and Brigham Young received “revelations” about polygamy that were oddly in tune to problems the prophets were facing that day. “Muhammad’s increasing number of divine revelations on women seemed more and more influenced by the need to achieve tranquility in his own household. Aisha, for one, wasn’t afraid to point out the coincidence. ‘It seems to me,’ she said tartly, ‘your Lord makes haste to satisfy your desires.’” This insightful Aisha, by the way, was the wife that Muhammad married when she was six. She is one of the most fascinating people in the book’s history section.
The conclusion of the book—just the last fifteen pages—has a tone rather different from the rest and very, very similar to the end of Infidel. Suddenly, it becomes clear that Geraldine is trying to warn us. Though I was unaware of it at the time, the first 95 percent of the book was meant to be background knowledge so that I would understand and heed the message in the conclusion. Like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Geraldine sees danger looming. What’s especially interesting about this message is that this book was written in 1995. Islamic fundamentalists had not yet hit the mainstream media and nobody had heard of any terrorist attacks; this book was ahead of its time.
EXCERPT: “A United Nations human rights report finds Sudan’s Koran-based punishments in conflict with the international human rights agreements the country has signed. In response, the government of Sudan threatens the report’s Romanian-born author with death…. In Algeria two women are gunned down at a bus stop because they are not veiled…. Like the Rushdie fatwa, these incidents come at us from so deep in left field that we, as Westerners, have no coherent way to think about them. We shrug. Weird foreigners. Who understands them? Who needs to? And yet, as I made my home in London, gradually shaking the last few fine crumbs of Cairo dust from the pages of my books, I found that the background noise of Islam remained always there, in the distance, like a neighbor hammering. And eventually I accepted that it was neither possible nor right to ignore it.”(less)
Fascinating and must-know history, science, and environmental issues, but with a focus on animals.
It is also, incidentally, an engrossing memoir with...moreFascinating and must-know history, science, and environmental issues, but with a focus on animals.
It is also, incidentally, an engrossing memoir with such a shocking event in the author’s life that I had to stop reading to absorb it.
Chapters 19 and 20, in particular, are MUST-READS. Everybody in this country, without exception, should carefully read and ponder these two chapters--they contain crucial information about salmon that everybody must be made aware of as soon as possible. (less)
For almost 600 pages, the voice is absolutely perfect—as perfect as I had hoped it would be after seeing the back of the little girl’s head (braids fl...moreFor almost 600 pages, the voice is absolutely perfect—as perfect as I had hoped it would be after seeing the back of the little girl’s head (braids flying in the wind) in the cover photo. Unfortunately, the adult Madeleine is not as relatable, and certain events at the end are somewhat difficult to believe (frustrating because the first 600 pages are so very flawless). Nonetheless, this book is award worthy and unforgettable. And I found myself running to the computer when I was done to learn more about the plight of the Acadians.(less)
This intelligent, literary memoir is about childhood during simpler times (the 1940s, though it could easily have taken place any time pre-80s, before...moreThis intelligent, literary memoir is about childhood during simpler times (the 1940s, though it could easily have taken place any time pre-80s, before urban sprawl and recent child-rearing fashions took hold. Indeed, I identified very strongly with the childhood Holland describes).
Unlike so many other memoirs, this one is absolutely engrossing without ever once relying on harrowing or shocking events. (Although serious family dysfunction and tragic events are present, they seem entirely incidental to the main thrust of the story. She is simply telling about her life in the forties, and my impression is that she wouldn’t change one minute of it.) Somehow, despite being a personal account of her life, this book feels different from other memoirs; occasionally it reads not so much as a memoir but as regular nonfiction (American Childhood in the Forties, perhaps) despite the fact that she is always at the front of the story. Clearly, she has done a better job than most of putting her life in the perspective of the larger social framework.
Throughout, it is clear that the author has disdain for so much of today’s culture (the over scheduled child, our separation from nature) yet she never explicitly says so. Never once does she proselytize on any of these topics; she lets her impeccable memory speak for itself.
This book vividly reminded me of my own childhood in a way that few other books have. The way the yard gets torn up when you’ve been playing in the sprinklers: “the grass collapsed into muddy squish.” The complete peacefulness of being in a tree with a book, knowing that nobody will wonder where you are for hours. Why in the world were the windows in cafeterias never opened? “The school’s compulsory lunch always smelled awful, perhaps because the basement cafeteria wasn’t ventilated and smells accumulated and layered in the air as the days and lunches went by…” Lawns: “Up close they were a miniature ecosystem, and children could lie on their stomachs and watch the very smallest of nameless bugs laboriously climbing to the top of a grass blade, swaying for a moment, and then climbing back down, having accomplished nothing discernable.”
The highest praise I can give this book is that I actually enjoyed the World War Two parts!
EXCERPT: “One day somebody got the signals crossed and announced a genuine air raid headed our way. We were to go home in an orderly fashion, not to dawdle nor to panic and rush out into traffic, and head straight for our basements and sit with our knees over our ears as previously instructed. (Why we were sent to the cafeteria for a pretend air raid but sent home for a real one is another mystery.) I went home in an orderly fashion and found Mother reading on the couch. ‘The Germans are coming,’ I told her. ‘We have to go down to the basement. It’s an air raid, real one.’ She looked up and struggled to focus on me. ‘Oh, I don’t think so,’ she said. ‘But it’s true! They closed the school and sent us home!’ ‘I expect it’s a mistake,’ she said. I stood their awkwardly in the middle of the room, the bearer of momentous news like a torch that had sputtered out in my hand. I could hear Viola singing to herself and the thump of her iron, and smell the steaming shirts. Mother turned a page. All was peace and order. Germany was clear across the ocean, and even the ocean now was far away. I went out to play.”(less)
This is a book of a lifetime, a book that affects your life, a book that, after immersing you in its world so that you believe you live there, stays w...more This is a book of a lifetime, a book that affects your life, a book that, after immersing you in its world so that you believe you live there, stays with you until the end of time. No other book has ever illustrated, so eloquently and powerfully, the horrors of the Holocaust. This book is required reading for anybody who cares about humanity.
And, it got me incredibly interested in learning more about the Bialowieza Forest, an ecologically fascinating area of Poland that has remained untouched by civilization for thousands of years.
Update: Four years after reading this book, I've now read another that also illustrates, equally eloquently and powerfully, the horrors of the Holocaust: The Book Thief(less)
This book is actually alive. It is a book in which books talk (and shout, and throw themselves about), and the stories within it are alive and have em...moreThis book is actually alive. It is a book in which books talk (and shout, and throw themselves about), and the stories within it are alive and have emotions, so it’s fitting that the book itself would be alive, though strangely I didn’t know anything about its content when I first sensed its sentience.
I had picked it up impulsively and read the first page while its first reader was using the men’s room, and I immediately knew that this was a very special book deserving of complete attention, which I couldn’t provide at the time, so when its first reader was finished, the book was loaned to another person who had also become captivated after just the first page. Many weeks later, when my scheduled was cleared (though I had never once stopped thinking about it), I made a special appointment to retrieve the book. As I drove to the neighborhood where the book was living, I felt very much as though I were picking up a small, live creature such as a puppy or kitten. And at our reunion, I cradled it gently and hugged it. And this was all before I even read it! (A friend of mine, too, was once spotted caressing her copy of the book against her cheek after loaning out and then being reunited with it.)
When a book is actually alive, one hardly needs to say more. I almost feel as though explaining mundane details such as plot and/or characters would be unnecessary or even a tad demeaning. But there are a couple of things I should note. First, I will clarify that this is a fairy tale, so anybody who dislikes them will be extremely unhappy about the appearance of many classic tales within the larger tale. In fact, I actually became rather mad at the book during a tedious and predictable chapter concerning Snow White. At that point I questioned the book’s worth. But the next chapter so, so made up for the prior lapse. (“His legs were tied at the ankles and he was lifted into the air and slung over the back of the great horse, his body lying upon that of the deer, his left side resting painfully against the saddle. But David did not think about the pain, not even when they began to trot and the ache in his side became a regular, rhythmic pounding, like the blade of a dagger being forced between his ribs. No, all that David could think about was the head of the deer girl, for her face rubbed against his as they rode, her warm blood smeared his cheek….”)
Every person who has read the first page, without exception, has been compelled to devour the rest of the book as soon as possible:
EXCERPT (first page): “Once upon a time—for that is how all stories should begin—there was a boy who lost his mother.
He had, in truth, been losing her for a very long time. The disease that was killing her was a creeping, cowardly thing, a sickness that ate away at her from the inside, slowly consuming the light within so that her eyes grew a little less bright with each passing day, and her skin a little more pale.
And as she was stolen away from him, piece by piece, the boy became more and more afraid of finally losing her entirely. He wanted her to stay. He had no brothers and sisters, and while he loved his father it would be true to say that he loved his mother more. He could not bear to think of a life without her.
The boy, whose name was David, did everything that he could to keep his mother alive. He prayed. He tried to be good, so that she would not be punished for his mistakes. He padded around the house as quietly as he was able, and kept his voice down when he was playing war games with his toy soldiers. He created a routine, and he tried to keep to that routine as closely as possible, because he believed in part that his mother’s fate was linked to the actions he performed. He would always get out of bed by putting his left foot on the floor first, then his right. He always counted up to twenty when he was brushing his teeth, and he always stopped when the count was completed.”(less)
Middlesex is an original and exceedingly well-written book about a hermaphrodite believed to be female at birth who was raised female and lived as a f...more Middlesex is an original and exceedingly well-written book about a hermaphrodite believed to be female at birth who was raised female and lived as a female until the age of fourteen. Up to that point, it is a female voice telling the story, complete with the expected female thought processes and female desires and concerns. Later, when the character chooses to live as a man, the author perfectly changes the voice.
This book really delves into the complexities of choosing one sex or the other, and the horrifying ramifications of other people (parents and doctors) choosing on behalf of another. But like all great books, this one is more than its primary story; it has a wide-ranging list of topics including Turkish atrocities against the Greeks in the 1920s and the Detroit race riots of the 1960s. Through it all, the author veers off on many interesting tangents while maintaining a highly intelligent and poetic (but totally relatable) voice.
EXCERPT: “He was a great teacher, Mr. da Silva. He treated us with complete seriousness, as if we eighth graders, during fifth period, might settle something scholars had been arguing about for centuries. When he spoke himself, it was in complete paragraphs. If you listened closely it was possible to hear the dashes and commas in his speech, even the colons and semicolons. Mr. da Silva had a relevant quotation for everything that happened to him and in this way evaded real life. Instead of eating his lunch, he told you what Oblonsky and Levin had for lunch in Anna Karenina. Or, describing a sunset from Daniel Deronda, he failed to notice the one that was presently falling over Michigan.
“Mr. da Silva had spent a summer in Greece six years before. He was still keyed up about it. When he described visiting the Mani, his voice became even mellower than usual, and his eyes glistened. Unable to find a hotel one night, he had slept on the ground, awaking the next morning to find himself beneath an olive tree. Mr. da Silva had never forgotten that tree. They had had a meaningful exchange, the two of them. Olive trees are intimate creatures, eloquent in their twistedness. It’s easy to understand why the ancients believed human spirits could be trapped inside them. Mr. da Silva had felt this, waking up in his sleeping bag."(less)