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Suddenly, it’s July – the heat is here, as are the occasional summer thunderstorms. Nine days to Walk for Music; a couple weeks until a getaway I’m looking forward to. As we close out June, here’s what I have been reading:

Dinners with Ruth: A Memoir on the Power of Friendships, Nina Totenberg
Totenberg, a longtime NPR reporter, met Ruth Bader Ginsburg early(ish) in both their careers. Her memoir traces their five-decade friendship, but it’s also a broader meditation on friendship, community, Washington insider politics and the challenges of being a woman in Washington’s highly rarefied environment. Thoughtful and insightful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 13).

In a New York Minute, Kate Spencer
Franny Doyle is having a terrible day: she got laid off, then her dress ripped in the subway door. Then a handsome guy offered her his suit jacket and their “love story” went viral. But is there maybe a spark there after all? I loved this sweet, sassy rom-com that’s also a love letter to NYC and a tribute to stalwart friendships (for both main characters). So much fun. Recommended by Annie.

The Last Mapmaker, Christina Soontornvat
Sai has spent her life (so far) struggling to rise above her family’s low-class background. When she gets a chance to join an exploratory voyage as a mapmaker’s assistant, she jumps at it. But on board ship, she discovers that so many things – including the voyage itself – are more complicated than they seem. A Thai-inspired adventure that asks some interesting questions; dragged in the middle but ultimately was really fun. Recommended by Karina Yan Glaser, whose books I adore.

My Beloved World, Sonia Sotomayor
I admire Sotomayor, but didn’t know much about her before reading this wonderful memoir of her early life and career. She tells a compelling, warmhearted story of her early life in the Bronx, her Puerto Rican family, her journey to Princeton and Yale and her career as a lawyer and judge. Thoughtful, insightful and fascinating. Recommended by my friend Allison, who also loved it.

Portrait of a Thief, Grace D. Li
I loved this Ocean’s Eleven-esque heist novel that follows five Chinese-American college students as they attempt to steal back several priceless bronze pieces that Western museums have looted from China. I liked the characters, the fast pace and especially the questions about ethics, colonialism and who gets to decide where certain treasures belong. Fun and thought-provoking. Recommended by Anne.

So Many Beginnings: A Little Women Remix, Bethany Morrow
It’s 1863 and the March women are building a life for themselves in the freedpeople’s colony of Roanoke Island, Virginia. I loved this thoughtful remix of a beloved story; the sisters are recognizably themselves, but also distinct from Alcott’s characters. The warmth of family love and the past trauma of enslavement are strong, and I appreciated the questions Morrow’s characters ask about equality and freedom. Excellent. Also recommended by Anne.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

What are you reading?

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sept 11 memorial reflection

Periodically, I get to interview authors for Shelf Awareness (best freelance gig in the world, no question). Earlier this spring, I spoke to NPR correspondent Aarti Shahani about her memoir, Here We Are. It comes out next week, so I wanted to share part of our conversation with you. Here are some excerpts from my review:

On the surface, Aarti Shahani’s parents had a classic immigrant narrative: hungry for more job opportunities and education for their children, they came to the U.S. in the 1980s. They lived in a vibrant, diverse community in Queens, where Aarti’s mother became a community activist. Her father and uncle ran a small electronics shop in midtown Manhattan. But the reality–from start to finish–is much more complicated.

The Shahanis came to the U.S. from their native India (via Morocco) to escape a dysfunctional family dynamic. Their apartment building in Flushing was crowded and cockroach-infested. And when Aarti’s father and uncle were accused of selling electronics to a notorious Colombian drug cartel, their whole family spent years tangled in the U.S. legal system. Both men served time at the notorious Rikers Island prison; Aarti’s uncle Ratan was eventually deported, never to be allowed to return.

Shahani pulls no punches in detailing the government’s treatment of immigrants accused or convicted of even minor crimes, particularly those with a green card as well as those with non-permanent immigration status. She details the hopelessness of legal battles, the violence endemic to Rikers and other prisons, and the mixture of emotions when her father, Namdev, was finally released.

Here We Are is a searing exposé of the U.S. criminal justice system and its glaring flaws, and a love letter from an impetuous, outspoken daughter to her soft-spoken, hardworking father. It goes beyond the scripted immigrant narrative to highlight the Shahanis in their complicated humanity, and it makes an insistent case for readers to do the same. It is at once a statement from Aarti to her dad–we will keep fighting for you until the end–and a declaration by millions of immigrants: we are part of this country, and we are not going anywhere.

Clear-eyed and compulsively readable, shot through with compassion, humor and heart, Here We Are is a quintessential immigrant story and an urgent call for change.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation, which was rambling, thought-provoking and delightful:

KNG: The narrative of Here We Are has been central to your life and your family’s life. How did you decide to put it into a book?

AS: This book has been inside me for more than half my life. For many years, I chose not to write about it at all. I wanted to see: What does my life look like when I’m not being my parents’ daughter?

I also needed some space from the story to have perspective. And the more the most profound facts about my family’s life got buried, the more I wanted to dig them up. This happens to all of us: you run as fast as you can away from something, and the faster you run, the clearer the signs are that it’s always with you. I decided I didn’t want to run away from this story any more.

There are many parallels between your family’s story (set in the early 2000s) and the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants. Can you talk about that?

There’s a shift in this country, which is my country, where according to some, people like us are not supposed to exist. We don’t have a place here. The shift toward closing borders and attacking the foreigner has been steady and incremental over the years. The things you see now are shocking and terrible, but I can’t say they’re surprising. The continuity–the things I see on the news today–remind me of what my family went through.

The last couple of years in the U.S. remind me a lot of post-9/11 America: the willingness to pounce on “the foreigner.” We forget that there was real political alignment on this issue after 9/11. The sense that we were responding to a national security threat made a lot of people blind. But this country has a long history of being open to outsiders. That needs to be resuscitated immediately, and I think immigrants have to take the lead on it.

You talk frankly about the challenges of navigating the immigration system, both in the courtroom and at home.

Yes. That’s part of wanting to document my family’s story: there are some very uncomfortable facts in it. I think it’s important for people to know the corners that were cut, the things that had to happen, for us to make it in this country. We need to think about that as we continue to debate immigration issues. If your bar to entry for this country is perfection, no one gets in. I think I’m quite honest about who we are. I hope that makes it okay for immigrants to not have to be perfect, and still get to be here.

There are moments of real warmth and humor amid the struggle.

Tragedy can be hilarious. Very funny things can happen when you’re living really painful moments. This is not a screed about America. This is a family story you’re going to relate to. We’re funny and weird, and we get on each other’s nerves, just like your family. I really wanted to give people an immigrant family that’s not role-playing for America. I’m showing you those scripted moments. But you also get to see behind the scenes.

I wrote this book to let people into my family. Some people would say that we’re not an American family. I would contend that we are, and this is the story of fighting to be that. It feels like a fruitful time to share my family’s story: I think more people are willing to listen.

You can check out the full review and interview at Shelf Awareness

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