My favorite book event of the year is just around the corner, The Tournament of Books begins on March 6. There are 18 books in the literary bracket challenge this year and I’ve read four of them to date. It’ll be a push, but my goal is to finish 9 of them before the Rooster is awarded on March 29.
I’ve just finished reading three books in a row that might be lumped together in a sub-genre called “immigrant stories,” but my reaction to each of the books couldn’t be more different.
Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Viet Oloomi is the story of Zebra, the last in a family line of anarchists, atheists, and autodidacts in Iran. Throughout history, her family has taken refuge in books and literature. When Zebra is a child, war forces Zebra and her parents to flee their home. Now in her 20’s, after the death of both her parents, Zebra undertakes a journey to retrace the path of their exile, intending to create a grand manifesto on literature and life.
Honestly, Zebra was just too much for me. I’m not sure I would have finished this one had it not been in the tournament. The writing was good, but I felt like I was either woefully uneducated in classical literature (which is true, but still…) or just not in on the joke. There was nothing about the heroine that wasn’t extreme, or extremely passionate, or extremely crazy. I couldn’t connect with Zebra or with any of the other characters, who were all defined by how they reacted to/with Zebra.
America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo is, per the goodreads description, “a sprawling telenovela of a debut novel.” It’s a multi-generational family saga about immigrants from the Philippines living in the Bay Area in California. The book is centered around members of the de Vera family: Pol, a former medical doctor from a powerful and prominent family in the Philippines. Paz, his wife, a nurse who relentlessly works to help out her extended family in the states and provide a good, American life for their daughter, Roni. Hero, Pol’s niece, who was disowned by her parents after she left medical school to join the resistance movement against Marcos and is trying to build a new life for herself after being captured, tortured and finally released.
I liked this book, but there was a lot going on. Castillo was trying to tell more than just a family story. There was almost too much emphasis on Filipino culture, language, and food; it left me unable to fully connect with the characters. My lack of knowledge of Philippines history, especially under the Marcos regime kept me at an arm’s length from understanding Hero’s past. The storyline that navigated thru lesbian and bisexual relationships distracted me from the immigrant story. Whatever story or character I wanted to take center stage at any given point was often quickly shunted to the side. Telenovela, indeed.
The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea is also an immigrant family saga, this time about the de la Cruz family, originally from Tijuana and now living in the San Diego area. Big Angel is dying from cancer and wants to celebrate one last birthday with the whole extended family gathered. The week before the scheduled party, his mother dies, so it becomes a double celebration and remembrance of life – the funeral one day and the birthday party the next.
Urrea brings a whole family to life, expertly filling in back story and history as needed. A huge, whole, messy, wonderful, imperfect, funny, fabulous family. Big Angels’s youngest brother, actually half-brother, Little Angel, makes a rare appearance from his home in Seattle. Little Angel always feels like he doesn’t quite belong (it isn’t his mother who just died), or rather he feels like the others always remind him that he doesn’t belong. And yet, he has a bond with Big Angel that is more than just sharing a name. The novel is in no small part about Big Angel coming to terms with his own mortality and his legacy. One of my favorite bits is the notebook of things he’ll miss when he’s dead; it’s both touching and revealing. Little Angel, as an insider-yet-outsider to this family gathering, inserts a lot of humor and understanding to the chaos.
In the author’s note, Urrea writes that The Godfather was his Mexican father’s favorite book not because it was about Italian gangsters, but because it was about family. Urrea wanted to create his own family epic, a Mexican-American family epic. He closes his note by saying, “I hope this family reminds you of your own.” My ancestry doesn’t match the characters in any of these books or the authors, but the de la Cruz family created by Urrea is the only one that indeed finds a way to remind me of my own and that is why this is the book that I loved.