Book Review: Superman Smashes The Klan by Gene Luen Yang & Gurihiru (2020)

Tuesday, May 19th, 2020

The Hero We Need

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Obvious trigger warning for racist violence.)

The year is 1946, and the Lee family – mom, dad, Roberta, and Tommy – has just moved from Chinatown to Metropolis, so that Mr. Lee can begin a new job as Chief Bacteriologist of the Health Department. Gregarious and handsome, Tommy fits right in, easily slipping into the spot of star pitcher at the Unity House. An aspiring journalist with a stomach made of jelly,* Roberta – birth name Lan-Shin – is immediately homesick for Chinatown, where she didn’t feel like such a “weirdo”.

And then her family is targeted by the local chapter of the Clan of the Fiery Red Cross, which lights a cross on the Lee’s front lawn and attempts to fire bomb their house. The Allies may have won World War II, and Superman literally just crushed the Nazi supersoldier Atom Man, but racism is still alive and thriving – and firmly entrenched in Metropolis’s social institutions.

Luckily, the Lees live right across the street from cub reporter Jimmy Olsen (who is obviously and adorably smitten with Roberta), and Superman and Lois Lane are pursuing the case, each in their own ways.

I’ve really been enjoying DC’s YA imprint, but Superman Smashes The Klan takes things to the next level. Based on a sixteen-part radio show that aired in 1946 called “The Clan of the Fiery Cross”**, the story expertly dovetails Roberta’s journey with that of her idol, Superman. At this point in his story, Clark Kent is thirty-something and has only been superheroing for ten years. As a kid growing up in Smallville, his differences were a source of shame: they marked him as different, a freak, nonhuman. Demonic, even. And so he learned to suppress and ignore his powers. It wasn’t until a circus tent that he, the Kents, and Lana Lang were sitting under caught fire that Clark used his super strength for good. After that, Mrs. Kent sewed Clark his iconic red cape and Superman was born.

Yet, even as Superman, Clark hides pieces of himself: he has super strength and super speed, yes, but he runs along phone lines rather than flying, because defying gravity would give him away as not entirely of this world. And his ruse works, a little too well: the story’s big bad, a grand Scorpion of the Klan, proudly claims Superman as the best of what the white race has to offer; irrefutable evidence of white superiority.

An honest-to-goodness alien from another world, created by two first-generation Jewish immigrants, Superman has always functioned as a stand-in for marginalized groups: refugees and immigrants of various races, religions, and ethnicities (depending on which group is currently being scapegoated). Superman is as American as apple pie and AK-47s, and he’s a legit alien. Yang masterfully underscores this aspect of Superman’s identity by enmeshing his story with Roberta’s. Both of these “weirdos” learn to embrace their differences, because it’s what makes them – and, indeed, the world – so damn special.

Yang’s story is also deeply steeped in history, in ways I wouldn’t have fully appreciated without reading his essay “Superman and Me” (it appears in pieces in the single issues, and as a whole in the TP). I especially loved the showdown between the scorpion and grand wizard, as the two clashed over the Clan’s true purpose.

This piece, in particular, seems especially relevant today.

* Roberta’s “gurgly stomach” is a mood.

** “To avoid getting sued by an organization that was legally recognized in several states, the show’s writers created a stand-in organization called The Clan of the Fiery Cross,” Yang explains in “Superman and Me.”

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: The Wrong End of the Table: A Mostly Comic Memoir of a Muslim Arab American Woman Just Trying to Fit in by Ayser Salman (2019)

Tuesday, March 5th, 2019

Probably should have held out for the audiobook…

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for xenophobia, Islamophobia, and violence against women.)

Ayser Salman spent the first three years of her life in Baghdad, Iraq – until her parents, both pharmacists, fled the “dictatorial regime of what was about to become Saddam Hussein’s Iraq” for the frigid climes of Columbus, Ohio. This would be the first of many moves: Along with her younger brother Zaid and a new sister, Lameace, Ayser and her family moved again when she was eight (Lexington, Kentucky), and again a year and a half later – this time to Saudi Arabia, where Ayser would attend an all-girls’ school. The Salmans found their way back to Lexington in time for Ayser’s junior year of high school: “a time of proms, underage drinking, and lots of teenage hormones.” Upon graduation, Ayser attended the University of Kentucky and, after a brief stint as a local news producer, the graduate film program at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Now in her 40s, Ayser is a comedy writer, editor, and producer.

All this moving around – not to mention rotating schools even when the family stayed put – could be enough to make anyone feel alienated. An outsider. A fish out of water. Or, in Ayser’s words, at wrong end of the table. Add to this the fact that Ayser was a brown Muslim girl in predominantly white Christian spaces. (Or, during her time in Saudi Arabia – the one period in her childhood when Ayser felt like she belonged – a somewhat liberal Westerner in a conservative Arab country.) After years of trying to blend in, disappear even, it wasn’t until her 30s and 40s that Ayser embraced her differences.

The Wrong End of the Table is a series of short essays and vignettes about Ayser’s experiences: being an immigrant (usually the only immigrant) trying to navigate the treacherous waters of elementary and high school; maintaining a social life (especially with boys) under the watchful eyes of her parents; grappling with depression and anxiety in adulthood; embracing her Muslim identity and becoming more politically active in the wake of 9/11 (and, later, during a Drumpf presidency); and dating in her 40s.

I think I most enjoyed Ayser’s stories about her childhood in Columbus and Lexington, particularly as her Western sensibilities collided with her parents’ old school ways. For example, there’s the time a well-meaning boy at school gave Ayser a quarter:

My father walks in and Mom shoves the quarter in his face.
MOM: Talk to your daughter. A boy gave her this!
Dad takes a moment to put on his bifocals and studies the offending item.
DAD: Does he think you’re cheap?
My mother looks at me, satisfied.
DAD: He should have given you a silver dollar!
Now, Mom is disgusted with me, the quarter, and Dad.

The accounts of the Salmans’ time in Saudi Arabia are a little more harrowing; for instance, Ayser recounts the story of a classmate who tried for three years to escape her father’s custody and return to her mother in the States. That’s not to say that Ayser doesn’t mine these reservoirs for humor, either; to wit: Ayser’s very first time setting foot on Saudi Arabian soil:

We put our bags through the x-ray machine, and they were transported to a separate table where airport officials opened and searched them. This was before the age of prohibited liquids, so I couldn’t imagine what they would find that the x-ray hadn’t detected. A man wearing the traditional thawb and an official airport worker jacket eached into my bag, grabbed my Teen Beat magazine, and began combing through. Then, with a flick of his wrist, he tossed it in the trash behind him.

“Wait!” I protested as my mother nudged me to be quiet. The man shook his head and said, “Haram.”

Next, he found the loose magazine photos I had saved of Valerie Bertinelli lounging by a pool—I liked her hair in that picture and wanted to get mine styled in the same way. Nope. “Haram,” he said as he crumpled it up and tossed it aside.

Finally, he got to my prized diary, a small pink book with a lock secured on it to hide all my nine-year-old secrets. On the cover was a picture of a cartoon boy and girl smooching, similar to what you’d find on a Hallmark card. Mr. Haram studied it for a few minutes as if he were debating asking me to unlock it.

In Arabic, my mother said, “For children. She’s just a child.” That seemed to appease him. He put my diary back into my bag, but not before taking a sharpie and scribbling out the image of the boy and girl kissing on the cover.

I can only imagine my ten-year-old horror at having my diary manhandled and then defaced by a strange man.

As someone who’s found herself newly single in her (early) 40s, I also enjoyed Ayser’s many (many) anecdotes about disastrous dates and failed relationships. (Can you even with that Charlie!?)

In the forward, Reza Aslan discusses the importance of memoirs written by Muslim Americans to help shape the narrative about what it means to be “Americans who happen to come from Muslim backgrounds”; to combat the stereotypes and misinformation that have blossomed after 9/11 and the red hats’ hate-fueled Islamophobia. With increased visibility comes the potential to get it so very, tragically wrong; books like The Wrong End of the Table help push back. The value in this cannot be understated.

Yet, like so many humorous memories (Tiffany Haddish’s The Last Black Unicorn; Jenn Kirkman’s I Know What I’m Doing and Other Lies I Tell Myself; Tina Fey’s Bossypants; Amy Poehler’s Yes Please), The Wrong End of the Table seems like it’s better suited for the audiobook format. Like, I only chuckled a handful of times while reading TWEOTB, but I’m pretty certain I would have been guffawing had I been listening to Ayser tell these stories out loud. And that’s usually the case: the narrator-slash-comedian’s inflections, embellishments, emphases, verbal quirks – all add a certain something to the retelling that you just can’t get from the written word. I would’ve loved to have heard Ayser’s impressions of her parents, as just one for instance.

So if you have the opportunity to read the audiobook, take it! Trust me, they make commutes/dog walks/house cleaning/yard work go so much faster.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Zenobia by Morten Dürr & Lars Horneman (2018)

Tuesday, October 16th, 2018

A powerful piece of activism.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

One day, young Amina’s parents leave her home alone, ostensibly while they travel to the market. This is kind of a Big Deal because they haven’t had much to eat lately. But when they fail to return, Amina must summon the courage of Zenobia – a warrior woman and queen of the Palmyrene Empire, who once ruled over Syria and is now widely considered a national hero – to help her traverse her war-torn homeland and make it to safety.

Zenobia provides a window into the Syrian war and resulting refugee crisis through the eyes of a child. The result is deeply personal and moving. The narration is sparse and the illustrations, simple, sometimes rendered in just two tones of a single color. This allows Amina’s experiences take center stage.

The ending is rather jarring and deeply unsatisfying. I’ve been trying hard to shake the hollow feeling settling deep in my bones since finishing the book several hours ago. But perhaps that’s the point: there is no happy ending, at least not yet. And though I consider Zenobia a powerful piece of activism, it’s hard to imagine that it will soften hearts and change minds in this deeply divided and hateful political landscape.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: The Bone Sparrow, Zana Fraillon (2016)

Friday, November 4th, 2016

A raw, unflinching, powerful, and very necessary book.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence.)

I find my notebook and pencil and I start to write. The letters flow from deep inside me without even a pause to worry about which way is which and where to put what. And my head fills with memories and stories from so long ago that fences weren’t even invented yet. Stories that haven’t even happened yet. Stories that the world won’t see for years and years. All those stories swirl through my head, but I suck them all in and tell them to wait. Because first I have to write the most important story of them all. The story which isn’t even a story. The story that has to be told, no matter how hard it is to tell.

Ten-year-old Subhi was born in an Australian detention center. Originally from Burma (Myanmar), his Maá and older sister Queeny (Noor) were forcibly removed by soldiers, put on a boat and compelled to set sail at gunpoint. His ba, a poet, was imprisoned by the government.

Their offense? Subhi and his family are Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority living in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. In the Author’s Note, Fraillon explains that “the United Nations and Amnesty International have declared the Rohingya to be one of the most persecuted people on earth, and a recent investigation by Al Jazeera News suggested that the government of Myanmar is committing genocide in its treatment of the Rohingya. The Rohingya are being hunted into extinction.”

For the past decade, they’ve been in limbo: unable to return to their native country, but unwelcome where they washed up. Like the United States, Australia has a policy of mandatory detention; refugees are treated much like criminals.

In order to keep his mind from turning to “mush,” Subhi clings to stories – the familiar, well-worn tales of his family, and new ones belonging to the nine hundred other refugees who live in the detention center alongside him. Especially cherished are those stories dreamed up by his ba; stories of the Night Sea, which sometimes washes over Subhi’s camp as he dreams, leaving cryptic treasures in its wake: A small statue of a knight. A little blue toy car. A sketch of a thousand birds in flight. A green coin rimmed with black smudges. Subhi believes that these are messages, sent by his ba – and that, one day, he’ll come in person to rescue them from this non-existence.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir, Daisy Hernández (2015)

Friday, October 9th, 2015

The Personal is Political – and Also Poetic in Hernández’s Deft Hands

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for child abuse.)

Journalism: A fancy word to say that I spent days with my hands in other people’s stories, asking and telling, because nothing happens in isolation, especially when it has to do with language. Nothing is more vulnerable than the words in our mouths, because nothing has more power.

It will take years to understand that writing makes everything else possible. Writing is how I learn to love my father and where I come from. Writing is how I leave him and also how I take him with me.

It is a story as old as time, that we always find what we needed was right at home.

But, therein is the riddle: a child has to leave to return. My mother had to. She says it often. She only appreciated her mother, only understood her mother, after she had left home.

I had to leave, too. It was me, not my mother, who needed English, who needed the stories and feminist theories. Without them, I might never have come back to her.

Daisy Hernández is the coeditor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism, and a former editor of ColorLines magazine. A queer (she identifies as bisexual), second-generation Latina (her mother and father immigrated from Colombia and Cuba, respectively), she speaks and writes about feminism, race, and the media. Her memoir, A Cup of Water Under My Bed, began way way in 2000, when she was hired to pen a regular column in Ms. Magazine at the tender age of twenty-five.

A Cup of Water Under My Bed features eleven essays (which often have the feel of stories, so lyrical is Hernández’s writing) organized not by chronology, but loosely by topic: assimilation and language; sexual identity; and work and money. Whether she’s calling out the state of New Jersey for its switch to an automated telephone system to manage unemployment benefits in the ’90s (ostensibly for the convenience of its recipients, but really to hide the scope of the problems created by NAFTA), or writing about her aunties’ reactions to her romantic partners (rarely favorable, save for Alejandro – the trans man they all assumed was cisgender, on account of he was built like a linebacker), Hernández writes deftly and with both insight and wry humor.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Anya’s Ghost, Vera Brosgol (2011)

Friday, February 13th, 2015

Single White Lady

four out of five stars

What begins as somewhat typical tale of teenage angst morphs into something much darker when high schooler Annushka Borzakovskaya – Anya for short – takes a tumble into a long-abandoned well while cutting though the park on her way home from Hamilton School. There she finds the bones of one Emily Reilly, a young woman who was murdered ninety years ago, her body never found. Attached to the bones: Emily’s ghost, which follows Anya home upon her rescue. Anya accidentally swept up Emily’s pinky, along with her food and other belongings, you see. Or did she?

At first, Anya’s rather rude to the hapless, mousy Emily; a ghost could seriously damage her already lackluster reputation. But when Emily proves a helpful ally – helping Anya cheat on her bio test; scoping out the contents of her crush’s backpack; giving her a bitchin’ makeover and a boost of confidence to match – Anya happily embraces her new BFF, leaving the former title-holder Siobhan in the dust.

Before long, Emily’s interest in Anya’s life veers into Single White Female territory; and after a little digging, Anya discovers the shocking, sinister truth about Emily’s death.

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Book Review: Santa Olivia, Jacqueline Carey (2009)

Monday, July 9th, 2012

“Santa Olivia” will leave you howling for more.*

five out of five stars

— Warning: moderate spoilers follow! —

North America. The year is … well, we don’t know the year. Suffice it to say that it’s some time in the not-so-distant future. A flu pandemic has swept the continent, killing millions and exacerbating already-unconscionable inequities. Scared, desperate, and dying, Mexican immigrants flood U.S. hospitals in search of medical care. The leaders of the “land of the free” respond to this crisis not with charity and compassion, but by circling the wagons. In an effort to tighten the border, the government annexes a portion of Texas, declaring it a “buffer zone” to be occupied indefinitely by the U.S. military. The citizens of Santa Olivia – now simply called “Outpost 12”** – are given a choice: evacuate to other parts of the United States, or stay. Possibly forever. Overcome by poverty and sickness – and some, like Carmen Garron, just children at the time of the occupation – there is no choice to make at all.

And so the remaining Santa Olivians enter a state of limbo; they are neither dead nor alive. As far as the rest of the world knows, they don’t exist: one of the government’s many lies is that civilians no longer inhabit Outpost 12. Aside from military personnel, no one is allowed to travel into or out of Santa Olivia. There is no contact with the outside world: no phone, no internet, no television, no newspapers. No way of screaming for help; no rescue. The residents of Santa Olivia have only each other.

It’s into this dystopia that our hero Loup Garron is born. Loup isn’t like other children. Her father, an escaped government “project” – a genetically modified organism (GMO) who, because of gene splicing, exhibits superhuman strength, speed, and stamina, as well as an inability to feel fear – left town just as suddenly as he appeared. Named for the wolf DNA that they share, Loup is raised mostly by her older half-brother Tommy, who teaches her how to conceal her exceptional abilities, lest she be “requisitioned” by the U.S. military. Even as she watches Tommy hone his own skills as a boxer – strength, power, and agility which she could easily surpass – Loup lives in the shadows, unnoticed. Unappreciated. Unutilized. For Loup, it’s “purgatory.”

In the space of just five years, Loup loses both her mother and brother: Carmen succumbs to another wave of the flu pandemic, and Tommy is killed in the boxing ring. In the interim, a twelve-year-old Loup is sent to live in the town’s only orphanage. Run by “Father” Ramon and “Sister” Martha, the children who live within the safety of the church’s wall forge a strong bond: they are the Santitos. When a soldier rapes one of their own and the army refuses their demand for justice, Santa Olivia is born. With Loup acting as their muscle, the Santitos exact revenge upon the rapist and his lying, rape-enabling friends, and then set to work performing “miracles” for the townspeople. The town’s patron saint experiences a rebirth of sorts – and with her, so does Loup Garron.

When Tommy is killed – murdered – during a rigged boxing match, Loup faces her greatest challenge: convince Tommy’s trainer Floyd to take her on so that she can beat the boxer who killed her brother. No small feat, since he’s like her: a “Wolf-Person.”

Boxing is the primary form of entertainment in Santa Olivia. Run by the military – on account of the general’s love of the sport – the matches always consist of a soldier versus a civilian. While the soldier’s motivation is clear – they serve at the pleasure of their general – Santa Olivians are bribed into participating with the promise of two tickets out of town for the winner. No civilian has ever won a match in the history of Outpost 12. Tommy had a shot – which is why General Argyle replaced boxer Ron Johnson with his GMO twin.

For Loup, success will most certainly mean imprisonment. Slavery, perhaps. Possibly even death – execution as a traitor. Yet fight she must: for her brother, for herself, and for all of Santa Olivia. She is their new patron saint.

— End: spoiler alert! —

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Between the Fences: Before Guantanamo, there was the Port Isabel Service Processing Center, Tony Hefner (2010)

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

An engaging, if frustrating, story of government corruption & abuse

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

In BETWEEN THE FENCES, Tony Hefner tells a harrowing tale of corruption and human rights abuses, committed by both the United States government as well as contractors tasked with fulfilling governmental responsibilities (in this case, caring for detained, undocumented immigrants). Employed as a prison guard at the Port Isabel Service Processing Center – an immigrant detention center in the South Texas’s Rio Grande Valley – from 1983 to 1986 and again from 1988 to 1990, Hefner either witnessed personally or was privy to first-hand accounts of various crimes that took place at Port Isabel, including the sexual, physical and emotional abuse of detainees, both male and female (and sometimes, children); the sexual harassment, assault and rape of female guards; the physical and emotional abuse of male employees; drug trafficking; blackmail; nepotism and racism in hiring and firing decisions; and countless other illegal and immoral activities, including repeated cover-ups of these incidents, and the protection of those involved.

Hefner’s account of these human rights abuses is both engaging and enraging, but his constant digression into his own life history detracts from the story. For example, as a child Hefner himself endured physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his stepfather, who thought him worthless because of his Mexican parentage. Although I sympathize with his plight – no child should be bullied, hit, or made to feel worthless, and certainly not by adults – Hefner repeatedly points to this abuse as one reason (“excuse,” you might say) for his relative inaction on behalf of abused inmates. While Hefner’s power to intervene directly was no doubt limited, he also didn’t do much behind the scenes; for example, he might have clandestinely collected hard evidence in order to build a case against his superiors, and/or anonymously leaked this information to the media, thus remaining an inside whistleblower at Port Isabel – but he didn’t. While Hefner did record those abuses that took place out in the open (in a notebook, after the fact – not exactly irrefutable proof), he also didn’t go out of his way to uncover the hidden, more egregious cruelties that were kept from him and others. Too often, he seemed content to go about his own work, nose down, ears closed – see no evil, hear no evil.

Many guards and employees tolerated the abuse of both prisoners and, not uncommonly, their own persons because of financial hardship. In the 1980s, at least, Port Isabel was one of the largest employers in an economically strapped area. Far removed from the situation, it’s easy to sit in judgment of guards who refused to speak up in the interest of self-preservation. But this unfair at best; no one can really know how he or she would react in a similar situation without actually living it. Here, though, Hefner makes frustrating excuses as well; if he had simply chalked his lack of action up to poverty, I might be able to understand. But he claims to have stayed on at Port Isabel in order to keep his ministry, the Bearing Precious Seed Ranch, viable. In other words, he was content to proselytize to vulnerable children on the one hand, while utterly and spectacularly failing to live the actual tenets of his religious teachings on the other. “Do as I say, not as I do.” In the name of “caring for” some people’s children, he ignored the abuse of other people’s children (some of them, it’s worth noting, actual children – minor boys raped by fellow inmates while indifferent guards looked on, or underage girls forced to dance naked for the possibility of clemency).

The many, many pages Hefner devoted to writing his own autobiography would have been better spent, I think, placing the abuse at Port Isabel in context. According to the book’s promotional materials, 400,000 immigrants are detained by the U.S. government every year; these individuals are held in a number of jails across the country. How do the conditions at Port Isabel compare to those at other centers? What steps, if any, are the INS and the U.S. government taking to ensure that the individuals detained in these facilities – and the guards employed therein – are treated humanely and respectfully? How does the government justify its lack of action on the complaints lodged against Port Isabel officials? What steps do Hefner and his allies plan to take next? And how does our broken immigration policy, too often marred by racism, sexism and xenophobia, contribute to these horrific conditions?

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town, Warren St. John (2009)

Friday, May 8th, 2009

Sports as a microcosm.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

Warren St. John’s OUTCASTS UNITED: A REFUGEE TEAM, AN AMERICAN TOWN is a sweet and inspirational story about newly immigrated families trying to achieve the American Dream (or their interpretation of it) – as reflected through the microcosm of children’s soccer.

The charmingly named Fugees is a soccer team (three, actually, divided by age group) in the small Georgian town of Clarkston. Comprised of immigrant children from Afghanistan,, Congo, Iraq, Kosovo, Liberia, Somalia, Sudan and other war torn nations, they face a number of hurdles, including a lack of funds, xenophobia, petty small town politics, and opposition from the mayor himself. As St. John reported in a series of articles for THE NEW YORK TIMES, Mayor Lee Swaney objected to their use of the baseball fields for soccer thusly: “There will be nothing but baseball down there as long as I am mayor. Those fields weren’t made for soccer.” He even refers to the immigrant soccer enthusiasts as “the soccer people.” Lessons in Othering, anyone?

The Fugees are led by Luma Mefleh – “Coach Luma” – a woman immigrant born in Jordan and educated in the United States. In a field dominated by men, her coaching position is no small feat. Mefleh tries to instill in the boys a sense of ethics as well as soccer skills, requiring all team members to sign a “contract” which consists of what you might call rules for “good citizenship.” Mefleh, then, makes it her mission to help the boys adjust to their new surroundings, as well as play a good game of soccer.

OUTCASTS UNITED is an engaging read, fun and lighthearted one moment, heartbreaking the next – and perfect for both sports enthusiasts and bleeding hearts alike. I’m not really big on sports (watching, anyway; participation is another matter!), but I quite enjoyed following the Fugees over the course of a season. Along the way, St. John also traces the events which led Mefleh and her players to America, offering us a glimpse of the myriad reasons why some people choose (or are forced) to leave their homelands and start anew in foreign countries. Hint: it’s not for greed, nor to steal your jobs.

If you’d like to learn more, hop on over to THE NEW YORK TIMES’ website and search for ‘ Warren St. John’ – the articles which inspired OUTCASTS UNITED are still available online. According to the intro by Chris Jackson, the movie rights were sold in exchange for a sizable donation to the team – so hopefully the Fugees’ story will soon be coming to a movie screen near you. Let’s hope Hollywood does their story justice.

And, if St. John’s looking to do a follow up, I bet many girls and women would love to see the story of a similar all-girl’s team…I’m sure there are at least several out there. Hint, hint.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Dying to Cross: The Worst Immigrant Tragedy in American History, Jorge Ramos (2006)

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

Surprisingly boring.

three out of five stars

On May 14, 2003, nineteen people died while en route from a small Mexico/Texas border town to Houston, Texas, in what at the time was called the “greatest illegal immigrant tragedy in modern history.” An estimated 73-84+ undocumented immigrants – most of them Mexican citizens, with a small minority hailing from other Latin American countries, such as Honduras – were packed into the back of a hermetically-sealed, locked-from-the-outside tractor trailer, without water, air conditioning or fresh air. Over the course of four hours, 17 people asphyxiated to death before the truck’s driver finally pulled over to rest. When Tyrone Williams – who was contracted by coyotes to transport the immigrants to Houston, on what should have been the final leg of their trip – opened the trailer and discovered the dead, he fled from the scene. Most (if not all) of the immigrants were apprehended by local police and ICE, and were given temporary work visas so that they could remain in the U.S. and testify against their human traffickers. Two more immigrants died at the hospital, bringing the death toll to 19. The coyotes were charged with a variety of offenses, including murder.

Jorge Ramos, a native of Mexico and anchor for Noticiero Univision, weaves survivor, witness and official accounts of the tragedy together in DYING TO CROSS. The bulk of the story is told from the perspective of the half dozen or so survivors who were willing to speak to Ramos. The account of the perilous four hours spent in the trailer, for example, are primarily survivor accounts, with liberal use of direct quotations interspersed with medical explanations of what the victims’ bodies and minds would have been going through, given the circumstances. Ramos also offers brief biographies of a few of the immigrants, as well as accounts of how they came to buy a spot on that fateful trailer. The book concludes with a description of the aftermath, however, as there was no real trial to speak of, this section of the report is almost anti-climactic. Ramos attempts to use this tragedy to illustrate failings in U.S. immigration policy as well as U.S./Mexican political relations, but his analysis seems a little scattered and superficial. (It’s not that I necessarily disagree with his conclusions, rather, I don’t feel as though he made a very comprehensive argument in favor of a more open and humane border policy.)

Given the book’s subject matter, DYING TO CROSS is surprisingly boring, and I can’t really pinpoint why. It seems as though the survivors’ accounts of the trailer ride should have been more nail-bitingly suspenseful – but, not so much. There was a lot of talk about prayer, Satan worship, God-begging, etc., which got really tiresome, really fast. Case in point: all of the women passengers survived; one of the surviving men attributed this to the fact that the women started praying to God immediately, while the men “wasted” their energy on “frivolous” activities – like banging on and rocking the trailer, in a failed attempt to get the driver’s attention. Um, yeah. Trying to stop the truck – what *were* they thinking!? Plus, the women’s 100% survival rate couldn’t possibly be due to the fact that women’s bodies tend to retain more water than men’s, for a variety of reasons including menstruation and oral contraception, right? (Ramos loses major cred for failing to counter these superstitious claims with scientific explanations.) Naturally, the survivors all thanked God for sparing them, proclaiming it a “miracle,” etc., which begs the question of why God favored them and not the nineteen who died – one of which included a 5-year-old boy. But hey, maybe that’s just the cantankerous ole atheist in me.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market, Eric Schlosser (2004)

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

Reefer Madness, the Brown Scare & Sex Crazed Fascis

five out of five stars

In REEFER MADNESS, Eric Schlosser looks at the effects of U.S. policy on the underground or “black market” economy. Specifically, he examines three diverse “commodities” – “recreational” or illegal drugs (specifically, marijuana), cheap labor (provided by undocumented workers or “illegal aliens” from Mexico and South America), and “adult” materials (primarily pornography) – and the American “war” on each. Schlosser narrows the scope of his study by focusing on a few key players in each of these underground economies: Mark Young, a recreational pot smoker and middleman who was given a life sentence for brokering a marijuana deal; California strawberry farmers and the migrant workers who pick the finicky fruit; and Reuben Sturman, a “pioneer” of the porn industry (and a jackbooted thug).

REEFER MADNESS is an engaging study of what happens when a supposedly free and democratic government attempts to stomp out vices that it deems morally corrupt. The section on U.S. drug policy is especially enlightening – and quite relevant, given the current upsurge in drug-related violence along the U.S.-Mexico border. Pornography receives the lion’s share of attention, seemingly at the expense of immigration, which is a shame; I felt as though Schlosser barely scratched the surface of the latter, while I grew bored of Reuben Sturman’s story by the end of the book. Schlosser concludes REEFER MADNESS by tying all three tales together, thus making a larger statement about civil liberties and the strengths and weaknesses of the “free market” in the U.S. Again, though, he probably could have devoted more pages to this synthesis had he not lingered on Sturman and pornography.

Overall, it’s a fascinating and engaging read, and vividly demonstrates why all American citizens should be concerned with their government’s attempts to regulate individual conduct – even if it’s conduct with which you may personally disagree.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

When "isms" intersect: Wild Versus Wall

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

Via the Arizona chapter of the Sierra Club, by way of Deb at Invisible Voices, an eloquent illustration of intersecting “isms.” In this case, racism/xenophobia (“ZOMG! ILLEGAL ALIENZ!!!1!!1!”) and speciesism (“ZUH? THERE ARE ANIMALS ON TEH BORDER?”):

The Border Campaign of the Sierra Club – Grand Canyon Chapter has completed a 20 minute video about the environmental effects of the current border policy, “Wild Versus Wall.” This video covers the ecological effects of enforcement and infrastructure in the four states that share boundaries with Mexico.

Tucson-based filmmaker Steev Hise has been working on the film since January, 2007. He traveled to Texas and California during the spring to interview land managers, scientists, and activists who are working to limit the ecological impacts of border wall construction.

“I have been covering border issues in southern Arizona for a while,” said Hise. “One of the great things about this project was traveling to other places along the border and to see how people concerned about the recent border militarization have the same outlook as people do here. They are also trying to stop the Department of Homeland Security from running roughshod over natural resources and constitutional rights.”

Hise also gathered footage from a diverse array of sources, including some of the Border Patrol’s own employment videos, which show agents blazing along on off-road vehicles. Numerous photographers contributed images of the rich ecosystems and species that are impacted by border infrastructure projects and local biologists lent their eyes and ears to the factual background of the habitats at stake.

Order your DVD today! Send $20 to 738 N. 5th Ave., Suite 214, Tucson, AZ 85705. Be sure to include Wall vs. Wild in the memo line of the check.

Understandably, the Sierra Club focuses on the environmental impact of the border wall, since that’s what they do and all. Even so, this is an area that’s ripe for coalition building between pro-immigration/anti-racist and environmental/animal advocacy groups, since they share a somewhat similar goal: sensible immigration policy, specifically pertaining to border security.

The Center for Biological Diversity has has written extensively about the US-Mexico border wall; Google search here.

(Crossposted from.)



Personas para el Tratamiento Ético de los Animales?

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

Via Noemi @ Vegans of Color, PETA’s latest publicity stunt: pro-vegan ads on, of all places, the US-Mexico border fence:

While many view the contentious border fence as a government fiasco, an animal rights group sees a rare opportunity.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals plans today to announce an unusual marketing pitch to the U.S. government: Rent us space on the fence for billboards warning illegal border crossers there is more to fear than the Border Patrol.

The billboards, in English and Spanish, would offer the caution: “If the Border Patrol Doesn’t Get You, the Chicken and Burgers Will — Go Vegan.”

“We think that Mexicans and other immigrants should be warned if they cross into the U.S. they are putting their health at risk by leaving behind a healthier, staple diet of corn tortillas, beans, rice, fruits and vegetables,” said Lindsay Rajt, assistant manager of PETA’s vegan campaigns.

The Department of Homeland Security is working to meet a deadline to complete 670 miles of fencing and other barriers on the Southwest border by Dec. 31. The fencing operation has run into stiff opposition by landowners fighting government efforts to obtain their land through condemnation.

PETA says its billboards would picture “fit and trim” Mexicans in their own country, where their diet is more in line with the group’s mission. Another image on the sign would portray obese American children and adults “gorging on meaty, fat- and cholesterol-packed American food.”

PETA’S offer to the feds is expected to arrive in a letter to Border Patrol officials today.

But a government spokesman in Washington said the request will be rejected because it would limit visibility through the fence. And Border Patrol does not allow advertising on its property or installations, the officials added.

“The fencing being put in place is, in many cases, mesh fencing to allow our officers to see what’s happening on the other side and to better secure the border,” said Michael Friel, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

One property owner on the Texas-Mexico border laughed at PETA’s proposal.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Noel Benavides, who is contesting the construction of a fence dividing his family’s 145-acre ranch in Roma on the Rio Grande. “I can’t see the point of something like that.”

But Rajt said the rent money they’d pay would help offset the huge costs of the fencing — and the advertising message “might even be frightening enough to deter people from crossing into the U.S.”

PETA has often been criticized for its aggressive animal rights crusades. It’s used billboards to push many of its controversial positions such as “Buck Cruelty: Say NO to horse-drawn carriage rides” or “Feeding Kids Meat Is Child Abuse.”

(More below the fold…)

Life and Death on La Frontera

Sunday, June 8th, 2008

I’m bogged down with implosion-inducing allergies, so I thought I might recycle share this review of Bordertown that I posted on Amazon a few months ago. I agree with Melissa at Women & Hollywood – it’s not the best movie, but still worth a look.

Bordertown (2007)

Disposable women, disposable society


Loosely based on several of the many Ciudad Juárez murders, BORDERTOWN is two parts docudrama/political commentary and two parts suspense/thriller. Though the subject of the film is an important one, the movie does suffer from a few major flaws.

Most likely, you’ve heard little or nothing about the 15-year serial killing spree(s) in the neighboring Mexican cities of Juárez and Chihuahua. Probably you’ve read a short article, maybe buried in the back of the “international” section of your local paper, about the latest death toll. Maybe you’ve seen a few pieces over the years, each giving rise to an eerie sense of déjà vu: “Haven’t I read this before? Didn’t the police already catch this killer? Surely this is a different case…”

Between 1993 and the present day, at least 400 women, primarily employed in the maquiladoras established along the Mexican/American border, have been found dead. Raped, murdered, strangled, mutilated. Dumped like trash. Another 5,000+ women are reported missing. Most likely they are dead, but their families will never know, can never rest, because there is no outcry, no investigation, no justice. Government corruption, police incompetence, and international indifference have all conspired against justice. After all, these are poor brown women we are talking about. Disposable women in a disposable society.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Translator by Daoud Hari (2008)

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

I received a copy of The Translator: A Tribesman’s Memoir of Darfur, by Daoud Hari through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program a few months ago. Given the huge lag between the release date and when I reviewed it, I figured I’d hold on to the review until the book is actually available in stores. Which would be…today!

Although…I almost sat on it a bit longer, at least until the international Darfur Awareness Week. According to a recent email I received from Oxfam, the commemoration is “approaching,” but I’ll be damned if I couldn’t find an actual, firm date for it this year (FAIL!). Anyone? *Shrug*

The only point I’d like to add to my (earlier) review is that, to this atheist, all the god-praise got really frustrating, really fast. In the face of such horrors, the god that Daoud exalts is, at best, either cruelly indifferent to all the violence and suffering “his” creations are perpetrating on one another, or he does care but is powerless to stop it (which would call into question that whole omnipotent thing). Or he’s a sick sadistic bastard. None of these options really merit unquestioning obedience and the subservience of one’s entire worldview now, do they?

But if you can get around the blind faith, it’s a good read. (If not, there’s always Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel, which is an even better read.)

The Translator by Daoud Hari (2008)

(More below the fold…)

Center for Biological Diversity: Border ‘Berlin Wall’ will harm endangered species!

Friday, September 22nd, 2006

Via the Center for Biological Diversity:

Border ‘Berlin Wall’ will harm endangered species! Call your Senators now!

The Senate is about to vote on a bill that would build a ‘Berlin wall’ on the US-Mexico border creating an enormous wildlife barrier, spanning 700 miles of the international boundary and nearly the entirety of Arizona’s southern boundary. This would be an environmental disaster, utterly preventing wildlife migrations between the two countries, blocking Jaguar, Sonoran Pronghorn, and Mexican Gray Wolf recovery and fragmenting the habitats of myriad border species. This bill MANDATES construction of double-layered fencing no later than May 30, 2008 and trumps efforts like wildlife-friendly vehicle barriers along public-lands boundaries that have been effective in mitigating cross-border traffic. […]

It is essential that you write and call your Senators and urge them to say no to HR 6061 and to the Berlin Wall on our boundary with Mexico. This could go to vote as early as Monday, Sept. 25, so please write and call today!