‘Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir’ by Jean Guerrero

crux-guerreroWhat is it that determines definitions: defines something as one thing instead of another? What delimits fiction from reality, sanity from insanity? Borders: the lines that stand between; the lines that distinguish “different” from “same.” Borders that are rarely clear and often obfuscated by our own perceptions, by what we bring to the table, the baggage we carry.

Borders are what Jean Guerrero investigates in her narrative nonfiction release Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir. Guerrero sets out not only to tell her story, but to tell that of her father through both her memories and the investigative work it requires to unravel her family’s troubled and often curricular past.

Guerrero begins by setting the scene, by introducing the reader to her parents, to what life was like growing up as the child of her parents. Her mother, an acclaimed doctor with expectations that reach no lower that straight A grades and flawless chastity, holds one end of the parenting tight rope. Her father, a potential schizophrenic who sees every action as sabotage or a symptom of being spoiled, holds the other. Guerrero finds herself trying to walk between them, seeking desperately to both please and thwart their expectations, wishes, and demands of her.

Most of Guerrero’s life is spent without her father, wondering where he is, thinking he’s dead. The other part of the time, Guerrero spends, at least her childhood, terrified of her father. Terrified of his mania, of his accusations, of feeling like a failure in his eyes. Her mother spends most of Guerrero’s childhood trying to forget her husband, arguing that he’s schizophrenic and telling Guerrero, whenever she acts out of line in her mother’s eyes, that she suffers from the same mental illness. Her father meanwhile, claims he is being targeted by the CIA for mind control experiments, and Guerrero experiences moments that make her question the dubiousness of his statements.

Guerrero finds her way through her troubled childhood to come out an investigative journalist constantly seeking for the truth that alluded her as a child. But the biggest mystery, the biggest truth she hopes to hold is that of her father’s life. Travelling through Mexico to piece together the mystery of her family and her father’s past, Guerrero uncovers a cycle of abuse that has perpetuated her family’s suffering. She learns of the terrors that the women who came before her suffered to give her father life and her. She learns of the terrors her own father suffered and that potentially led him to the depths of his current despair.

A beautifully moving and terrifying memoir, Crux is a book that attempts not to teach, but to learn and keep on learning beyond the pages of its covers. Guerrero brings to the table systemic issues that cannot be eradicated by a single story, but she suggests that maybe through constant inquiry, searching, and an attempt to do better we can break free of the demons of our past.

Slated for release by One World Press on July 17, 2018, you can preorder a copy of Crux: A Cross-Border at your local bookstore.

Read more nonfiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘No Apparent Distress’ by Rachel Pearson

no-apparent-distress-pearsonNo Apparent Distress: A Doctor’s Coming-of-Age on the Front Lines of American Medicine is inspiring, dispiriting, and profoundly informative all at the same time. Author and MD Rachel Pearson tells the story of medicine in America and how it has developed into a skewed system that favors the rich and the white.

Pearson beings her story at the beginning of her own journey into medicine. A former creative writing major and Texas native, Pearson decides to change her career path and pursue a future in medicine. No Apparent Distress catalogues this journey as Pearson attends medical school in Galveston, Texas, a notoriously diverse and poverty ridden area. Volunteering time at a student-run, free clinic, shadowing doctors on procedures she’s only ever read about, Pearson begins to unravel the unethical nature of medical training.

Throughout her training, Pearson is confronted with the reality that she is learning on those who can’t afford to complain or ask for better. She is making mistakes, time and again, as a student and a doctor in training, on patients who don’t have health insurance, who don’t have any other choice but to accept sub-par care at the hands of a learning medical student. Pearson herself comes from a working-class background, and the effects of inadequate, faulty, and often rushed care has affected her family as well. Pearson’s own mother contracted hepatitis-C during an unnecessary blood transfusion after giving birth to her daughter without health insurance.

Pearson has a unique way of weaving her own person experiences into a larger conversation about healthcare, the care of the unhealthy, and the prejudice biases that drive these very American systems.

A beautiful and frightening portray of American medicine, No Apparent Distress, is a book so relevant to our current times that anyone can relate. Whether you are the lucky one standing on the side of the insured receiving adequate care, or you’ve experienced the distress of inadequate care, No Apparent Distress will find resonance with you somewhere.

Published by W.W. Norton and company in May of 2017, No Apparent Distress by Rachel Pearson is available for purchase at your local bookstore.

Read more nonfiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘Wonder Women’ by Sam Maggs

wonder-women-maggsHistory has always been predominantly about “his” story, not hers. Sam Maggs attempts to change all of that with her latest novel Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History. Wonder Women is just what it sounds like, a history book about women. Maggs, though, does not fill Wonder Women with dull facts, a myriad of dates, or a droning tone that could put any reader to sleep. Instead, she provides short snippets of each featured woman that are fun, conversational in tone, and accessible to any age group.

Maggs divides Wonder Women into five chapters, each relating to a different category of women. These chapters cover Women of Science, Women of Medicine, Women of Espionage, Women of Innovation, and Women of Adventure. In each chapter, a handful of women are explored in depth through a few page biography. Following these longer narratives, Maggs compiles a list of other notable women who influenced that particular field, and she provides one paragraph summaries of each of their lives and contributions. Finally, every chapter ends with an interview of a notable woman who is alive and working in the given field today.

From Mary Bowser, an escaped slave who more than dabbled in espionage, to Chevalier D’eon, potentially one of the first known transgender women, Maggs spans a wide range of influential women. Maggs doesn’t just cover the well-known women either; in fact, she focuses on the lesser known, throwing women like Amelia Earhart and Sacagawea into the longer list of notable women with shorter bios.

Though some of the stories seem rather radical, Maggs is always quick to point out when the facts aren’t all there. There are multiple times throughout Wonder Women, when Maggs admits that the records are confusing or missing, and so she simply provides what is there, noting that it might not be pure fact. The stories without as many holes tend to be more salient; however, those that can’t be fully pieced together further point to the hardship of women, especially women of the past. Many women featured in Wonder Women experienced betrayal at the hands of men colleagues or had to lie to avoid incarceration or death for their actions or beliefs, making it harder to pick fact from fiction.

Whatever the particulars of fact and fiction, Maggs provides a wide view of many forgotten women in the world, women who have contributed to the growth and development of our global society in previously untold ways. Though not all of the stories may be true in all regards, Maggs still provides readers with a larger takeaway, a more inspiring message: women have always been here, we’ve always been working in science and technology, in art and innovation, and though it’s always been hard, it’s also always been worth it. Maggs urges readers to continue to contribute to these fields and to help change the stigma around women and science, technology, and adventure.

Released October 18, 2016 by Quirk Books you can purchase Wonder Women at your local bookstore.

Read more nonfiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘Between the World and Me’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates

between-the-world-and-meBlack lives do matter because black lives are human lives. All humans are simply that: human. No matter the color of their skin, their sexual preference, or the amount of money they make in a year, we are all human. In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates says just this and so much more in a 152-page letter to his fifteen-year-old son.

He starts out the book by acknowledging the commonly held belief that “race [is] a defined, indubitable, feature of the natural world,” but he quickly denounces this as myth and probes at a newer (perhaps for some more radical) idea. The idea that “race is the child of racism” and only out of racism and the defining of what physical features are desirable, what actions are ascribed as typical to a particular sub set of people, do we come out with the idea of race.

In the book, Coates points out that it was once easy to pick out a racist, and to some extent, overt racism is still around and easy to identify. The KKK has not disappeared and lynching still happens, yes. Coates, though, challenges that subtler racism is where the bigger, more widespread problem is. Ideas of what a person is capable of based on appearance, value judgments based on a person’s physical features, fear, aggression, and violence toward a person because of the color of their skin: that’s the racism of today that endangers the rights of so many human beings who don’t look like the majority.

Coates goes on to address the years of oppression, segregation, and racism that the black community has experienced since the rape of Africa happened. The idea that America, Egypt, and all “great” countries were founded on the backs of slaves, is not something that should be so easily cast aside, forgiven, and forgotten. Perhaps most importantly so because the racism built into the culture of the United States has not by any means been eradicated since slavery was abolished. Coates has no qualms in proclaiming the strides that have been made in regards to civil rights, but he also has no issue saying we have a lot further to go before we reach equality.

Between the World and Me is filled with a sense of hopelessness that is pervasive throughout its pages. Nowhere does Coates offer a solution, remedy, or even hopeful message as to what the future could hold. While it is easy to see the pain and despair that has seeded American culture in regards to issues of racism, Coates leaves readers wondering: what can I do? How do we make reparations for the damage done? Will things ever change? Perhaps Coates doesn’t know? Perhaps Coates doesn’t have the answer? Perhaps the answer is simply his book: an opening up of conversation. Perhaps right now, all that can be done is to talk about it, to make more people aware of the issues still present in the world that they don’t experience, that they don’t live with, but that are that much more important because of the clandestine and nonchalant air around them.

An emotionally charged and moving epistle, Between the World and Me gets at many of the issues ingrained in the deep set racism of American culture, and that the public has been privy to lately in the news. Though Between You and Me can often feel like a rant, why shouldn’t it? Why shouldn’t people whose lives are shown not to matter to the greater community speak out, be angry, make at least a verbal attempt to show that they do matter, that they too are human?

Between the World and Me was published by Spiegel & Grau in 2015 and has won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, ALA Alex Award, PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, and the Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction.

Between the World and Me is available for purchase at your local bookstore.

Read more nonfiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

 

‘The Phone Rang’ by Mary Reid Gaudio


the-phone-rang-gaudio-1The Phone Rang
by Mary Reid Gaudio is the story of three sisters as they stand together to fight the battle against their sister Ann’s Leukemia. Autobiographical, historical and full of moral insight, The Phone Rang touches on multiple aspects of both the sisters’ lives and Leukemia as a destructive disease.

Gaudio shares the narrator’s seat with her sister Chee while also periodically slipping into Ann’s perspective. Ann often falls into telling the reader, or presumably Mary, about her journey through life up until the point of her diagnosis. Gaudio also intersperses her own backstory with the story of Ann and her disease. Chee on the other hand focuses specifically on Ann.

The structure of the novel can at times become distracting because of the large, unbroken paragraphs and the changes in font from italics to bold to standard. It seems that the same emotional impressions could be made with cleaner construction and more thorough copy editing. Though the novel’s structure fits Gaudio’s attempt at stream of consciousness narration, this mode of telling can also at times sidetrack the reader from the deeper emotional aspects. While character building and backstory are intensely important to establish in order for the reader to feel for Mary, Ann, and Chee, there are often points where the story falls into a mode of “telling,” and the reader can easily get lost in the vast amount of information being thrown at her.

All in all, Gaudio effectively taps into the emotional rollercoaster that ensues with such a life threatening diagnosis as leukemia, while also focusing on the humanity of her and her sisters. In the end, Ann reminds her sisters and the readers to live life fully, to act in the now, and to fight for survival.

The Phone Rang was published by Book Venture in 2015 and is available for purchase at your local bookstore.

Read more nonfiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘The Underground Girls of Kabul’ by Jenny Nordberg

The Underground Girls of Kabul“What woman hasn’t wondered how life would have been different if she were born a boy?”

One Afghan woman asked author Jenny Nordberg this very question while Nordberg was writing The Underground Girls of Kabul, an anthropological, historical and heart-wrenching book that catches a glimpse of what it is like to be a woman in Afghanistan.

In The Underground Girls of Kabul, Nordberg seeks to shed light on the practice of bacha posh – a seemingly unconventional, though widespread tradition of dressing young girls as boys. Various families in Afghanistan partake in bacha posh for any variety of reasons, one of the most common being the mystical view that dressing a daughter as a son will ensure that the family’s next child will in fact be a real boy. In Afghanistan, having a son is a mother’s most important job, while having girls can diminish a woman’s worth in regards to her husband, her family, and her culture. Therefore, some other families practice bacha posh in order to gain social and societal acceptance from their neighbors, co-workers, and family if they do not have a son. It is more acceptable to have a fake son then to have no son at all, even if it is common knowledge that the son is in fact a girl. However, more progressive parents urge, encourage, and provide the opportunity for their daughters to live as boys so that their daughters can see the other side of life in Afghanistan.

Though the women Nordberg interviews and spotlights in The Underground Girls of Kabul often comment on the improvement of life since the fall of the Taliban, rights for women are still a large issue in Afghanistan. Through misappropriation of religious texts, mainly for the purpose of reverting to radical Islamic views after foreign occupation, women have been further and further subverted in the ordering of the social, economic, and humanistic ladders of Afghanistan. In many families, women are still thought of as being owned by their fathers and are essentially sold to their husbands once they hit puberty. Though women are allowed to be educated and run for parliamentary roles, many are not given the resources to do so, and in the corrupt politics of the society, their education and career is often diverted by lack of encouragement and outright violence.

The practice of bacha posh helps young girls to reach beyond these limitations and share in the experiences that men in Afghanistan are encouraged to have. Though the tradition subverts the patriarchal order in some senses, there is the overwhelming and overt reality that bacha posh also supports the Afghan patriarchy. As Nordberg points out in The Underground Girls of Kabul, ideas of female subversion need to shift before any greater cultural, political, or social change will take place. However, this is difficult given both the seclusion of women and the negative and restricting beliefs that are perpetuated about, and even among, them.

Though bacha posh may not be a perfect answer to the greater issues at hand, Nordberg recognizes that it might be the only answer for the greater majority of women right now. Things are in fact changing, and there is the hope that in the near future such gender discrimination will diminish enough to blot out the practice of bacha posh entirely. As it stands right now though, bacha posh helps to answer for many girls in Afghanistan the question of what it is like to be a boy and what it is like to experience freedom.

However, Nordberg so aptly point out, issues of gender equality extend outside of Afghanistan to women everywhere, because really, “what woman hasn’t wondered how life would have been different if she were born a boy?”

The Underground Girls of Kabul was released by Broadway Books and is available at your local bookstore.

Read more nonfiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘A Walk in the Woods’ by Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods by Bill BrysonHow does it feel to cross more than 2,000 miles of trail by foot over fourteen states? What would it take to live in the wilderness and carry all of your necessities on your back? Why undergo such an expedition? What would you find about yourself?

These are the questions that Bill Bryson asks himself at the outset of A Walk in the Woods, an autobiographical account of Bryson’s trek across the Appalachian Trail. In the beginning of the book, Bryson is a naïve and, by many standards, amateur hiker who decides that he is going to hike the 2,000+ mile Appalachian Trail by himself. With guidance, he sets out to procure the gear and expertise that he needs to make it to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Bryson quickly becomes overwhelmed by the prospect of hiking, sleeping, camping, cooking, and travelling entirely alone and is relieved when an old acquaintance, Stephen Katz, calls up to ask if he can join the excursion. Though as Bryson’s wife reminds him, he and the alcoholic Katz do not get along very well, Bryson is nonetheless willing and eager to have anybody join him on his long and trying adventure.

The two men, not in the best shape, and with minimal backpacking experience, head out into the wild of Georgia with an aim to make their way to Maine. Encountering all types of characters that you would think could only exist in fiction; Bryson and Katz spend their days trekking along the famed trail. The reader grasps snippets of their often vulgar (especially on Katz’s end) conversations, as well as Bryson’s musings about life, nature, commercialism, and the hardships of the trail. Intermixed among the action of their travels is history of the areas through which they are passing, as well as facts of ecology, zoology and other interesting topics.

More than just a book about hiking, A Walk in the Woods shows the often ambiguous and contradictory nature of people and life in general. Often vacillating between joy and despair, Katz and Bryson experience a range of emotions and desires as they encounter trials and tribulations far beyond any they could have imagined. At times Bryson talks of the eerie and demonic nature of the forest, while at other points he laments the overpowering hold of commercialism in the modern day.

At its utmost core, A Walk in the Woods is about living life, taking chances, and knowing your limits; it is about finding successes even in the face of seemingly certain failure and about accepting an unexpected outcome as something more than defeat. Not at all what the reader anticipates in the beginning, A Walk in the Woods ends with a twist that reflects the uncertainty and ambiguity of human nature itself.

Now a major motion picture starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, released on September 2, 2015, A Walk in the Woods  was also re-released by Broadway Books in 2015.

Read more nonfiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.