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Archive for the ‘fitting in’ Tag

Sometimes it Takes More Than a Village   Leave a comment

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Fredrik Backman hit the bestseller list in the United States with A Man Called Ove in 2013. (Several of his books are reviewed here on The Blue Page Special). Beartown, his most recent, is as engaging and character-driven as his previous work. Yet, in many ways, it’s also a departure.

The small, isolated town of the title is cold and bleak, where hockey reigns, followed closely by poverty. This is a story about fitting in, motivation, pain, teen angst, adult misperceptions and misplaced loyalty. It lacks the blatant quirkiness of some of  Backman’s earlier novels and teeters near the edge of predictability. Its salvation lies in the strength of the characters. Some fall into the cliché category while most are remarkable and credible, if not always likeable.

The first sentence is a grabber; actually, it’s more like a full body check: “late one evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead, and pulled the trigger.”

The town’s economy depends on the success of its junior ice hockey team winning a championship. It’s well positioned to do so thanks to the group of players who have been together for years and the exceptional talents of a particular player.

However, as Backman describes the players, their families, fans and town residents, it becomes evident that all is not as it appears. This is about secrets, self-identity and the drive not just to succeed but to survive.

Beartown
Four bookmarks
Atria Books, 2017
432 pages

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Unknown but Not Invisible   2 comments

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The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez is a timely read with the issue of immigration never far beneath the political surface. Yet, the novel isn’t about politics, but people.

Arturo and Alma leave Mexico for Delaware because they want to do more for their teen-aged daughter, Maribel, who suffered a brain injury. They believe she’ll benefit in a better school. They’re not illegals; they have work visas. Each chapter is told from one of the character’s perspectives, some in greater detail than others; only never Maribel’s.

Woven in with the challenges of living in a new land with a new language is the relationship that develops between Maribel and Mayor.

Sixteen-year-old Mayor Toro lives in Maribel’s apartment building; his parents left Panama when he was less than a year old, but he’s never fit in.  From Mayor’s perspective, Henriquez writes: “The truth was that I didn’t know which I was. I wasn’t allowed to claim the thing I felt and I didn’t feel the thing I was supposed to claim (Panamanian).”

This sums up the experience of those introduced in the book. Henriquez has created a montage of immigrants: from Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, even Venezuela and Paraguay. These places are all part of the Americas, which is what makes the title so appropriate with its double entendre. In brief, compelling chapters, among those told in Alma and Mayor’s voices, the neighbors share their pasts explaining why they left their native countries for the U.S.A.

The Book of Unknown Americans
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A, Knopf, 2014
286 pages

Exclusion by Design   3 comments

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Hate crimes, altruistic youth, deception and not fitting in are themes driving James Klise’s The Art of Secrets. Although this falls into the young adult genre, there’s no age limit to the ideas behind his novel.

Fifteen-year-old Saba Kahn is a first generation American of Pakistani descent. Her family’s two-bedroom apartment and all its contents are lost in a fire, believed to be a hate crime. Saba is a scholarship student at a Chicago private school, where the student body rallies behind two fellow students who conceive of a fundraiser to help the Kahns.

Klise is masterful in the way the story unfolds. His characters are vivid, thanks to each sharing his or her perspective and unique voice. Each chapter is told either through the use of a diary, emails or in separate one-sided conversations with a reporter, the police and an insurance adjustor. It’s clever and effective. Beginning with Saba’s diary entry a few weeks after the fire, the story follows the fundraising efforts, with asides from school administration and their not-so-subtle efforts to appear open-minded. Saba, a bright, gifted student, is suddenly the center of attention. Those who had previously walked past her in the hall suddenly see her. She’s somebody. Meanwhile, Javier, an exchange student from Spain, is nearly invisible to those around him, including his host family who insist on calling him “Savior.”

This poignant story, with a twist, is filled with humor as Klise demonstrates the ease of believing something we want very much to believe.

The Art of Secrets
Four Bookmarks
Algonquin, 2014
255 pages