• When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka *** (of 4)

    A short introduction to the dehumanizing, racist relocation of Japanese Americans to internment camps at the outset of World War II.  We follow a single, nameless family from a small bungalow in Berkeley, after the father is hauled off for questioning by the FBI.  It is the day after Pearl Harbor.  Weeks later Mom and the two children are moved to a church, the Tanforan horse racing track, and finally a desert internment camp in Nevada.  Dislocation, despair, depression, disbelief, and quiet obedience pervade these Japanese stripped of their rights and dignity.  Dad is returned to his family four years later a broken man.  No explanation or reparations are offered by the U.S. government.  When the Emperor was Divine reads more like a young adult book than a great novel, but for those who don’t know much about the Japanese internment camps, this is a good place to begin.

  • Create Dangerously by Edwidge Danticat *** (of 4)

    Twelve essays by Danticat as she wrestles with the meaning of being an immigrant — neither from here, nor there — and the devastating history of Haiti.  Reminiscent of Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust literature,  Danticat uses poetic writing and vivid story telling to recount tales of hopefulness repeatedly squashed by secret police, hurricanes, vicious dictators, earthquakes, back breaking poverty, global indifference, and earthquakes.  Readers will feel the author wrestling with despair and evil, love and family with the tool she knows best: writing.  The book is strongest when she tells us what happened.  It is also the kind of book that places the label “intellectual” on a country’s writer as she also waxes philosophical on the art and meaning of writing and her relationship to global authors (we may or may not have ever read) that have preceded her.

  • The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson **** (of 4)

    Immediately following the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation most  African Americans in the south were subject to what we today would call a campaign of terror.  Any southern black could be subject to beating, harassment, hanging, mutilation, and economic abuse.  Attacks could come with or without warning and as we know today only a handful of terror attacks can create widespread fear and panic.  Witness the consequences of 9/11 or the national psyche of Israel to observe the psychological repercussions.  As a result of severe abuse, forced labor, and economic subjugation that regularly crossed from illegal withholding of pay (re-enslavement) to outright immorality. African Americans fled the south en masse to save their lives.  Isabel Wilkerson documents the lives of these internal migrants, focusing on three individuals, in particular, as they participate in The Great Migration that lasted from the immediate post-Civil War period to 1970.  Along the way she delivers the back story for the ethnic cleansing of blacks from the south, busts some myths about the quality of those that left, and places these migrants within the scope of others who fled economic or political persecution, e.g., the Irish, Eastern Europeans, Italians.  Because of the color of the their skin, however, blacks in the north would wait more than five generations to see any real progress in their lot; a stark contrast to their white immigrant counterparts.   I’m ashamed about what I didn’t know about conditions in the south after the Civil War.  This book should be required reading for every American.

  • 97 Orchard by Jane Ziegelman ** (of 4)

    http://www.harpercollins.com/harperimages/isbn/medium/7/9780061997907.jpgIt’s an interesting thesis.  Jane Ziegelman, a food historian working at the Tenement Museum traces the food history of five immigrant families that settled on the lower east side of Manhattan:  German, German Jewish, Irish, Russian Jewish, and Italian.  She suggests that immigrants were aggressive assimilators with one exception.  They hung onto the food of their homelands and Americans absorbed their foreign foods, taking on new things like pale ales, frankfurters, hamburgers, bagels, pasta, etc.  Unfortunately, the book is short on story and long on fact making it read more like an endless encyclopedia entry than a compelling piece of non-fiction.

  • Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky *** (of 4)

    As a Hampshire College student in the late 70s, Lansky decides to learn Yiddish. At that time Yiddish, having barely survived the murderous rampage of the Holocaust, was being finished off by assimilating Jews anxious to distance themselves from their ghettoized past. Lansky found himself a teacher, an old textbook, and I.B. Singer’s Satan in Goray. Then he could not find any other Yiddish book in print. He puts an ad in the paper searching for extant Yiddish books and starts collecting. Outwitting History is the story of how he saves more than a million Yiddish books and in so doing probably also saves a language and a culture from extinction. He does it, too, with enormous modesty. July 2008

  • Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis **** (of 4)

    This short collection of short stories is a wonderful piece of honey cake with a glass of tea. A Jewish Russian immigrant to Toronto describes the transition he makes with his parents and uncle and aunt as they climb from helpless newcomers to weary acceptance of life in the new world, without ever losing the cultural imprinting that Russia plants within its citizenry. The book is full of smiles of recognition, truthful while remaining fictional–but who knows where autobiography is replaced by a little relish — and I think quite accessible even to people who neither know Russians or Jews. In fact, it’s probably a wonderful introduction to both. The book is short, the stories chronological, the characters continue to grow from one to the next, yet it’s not quite a novel with contiguous chapters. July 2005.

  • The Lost: A search for six of six million, by Daniel Mendelsohn **** (of 4)

    Nearly sixty years after the author’s great-uncle, wife, and four daughters disappeared in the Holocaust, the author searches for their memories. Beginning with his grandfather’s (his great-uncle’s brother) stories, some letters and finally to several of the 48 survivors of the 6,000 Jews of his great-uncle’s Ukrainian-Polish town, Daniel Mendolsohn exquisitely crafts one of the most memorable, humanizing, personal and universal searches for his roots. In so doing he asks all of us to pause and consider the memories and lives of senior generations who have led us to who we are today. One of the most expertly constructed and readable books I’ve read. July 2009.

  • What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng by Dave Eggers **** (of 4)

    It’s hard to comprehend how anyone survives what Valentino had to in escaping Arab militiamen in southern Sudan and comes away only with excrutiating headaches. Moreover, Eggers is brilliant in retelling Valentino’s story as a novel that treads the line between despair and hope, being neither too depressing, nor too optimistic. I’m told that Valentino (who came to Allegheny for a semester) and Eggers went with the novel because the true story is even more difficult than what is printed here and because so many people were involved that the two of them figured it was easier to combine a few stories rather than ask readers to keep a surfeit of characters straight. Like a novel it’s a page turner, but in the back of every reader’s mind is the knowledge that the story of thousands of young boys walking for weeks across Sudan’s deserts chased by lions, bandits, militiamen, and hunger is all to true. July 2007.

  • Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri *** (of 4)

    Compelling in the way of an auto crash. I could not look away, but I definitely felt worse for having partaken. Like her Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri delivers a compendium of short stories about the first and second generation lives of college-educated New England Bengalis. Only thing is by her accounting their lives consist nearly entirely of remorse, despair, despondence, regret, cancer, alcohol , duplicity, and disloyalty. March 2009.