“Because a place can do many things against you, and if it’s your home or if it was your home at one time, you still love it.”

bookofunknownamericansBooks on Tap read The Book of Unknown Americans  by Cristina Henriquez at Champion Brewery on May 2. The novel is set in an apartment building in Delaware owned and occupied by Latinx migrants. It frequently switches narrators but the story focuses on the Riveras, a family that has moved to America to access school services for their teen daughter Mirabel who has suffered a brain injury, and the Toros, Panamanians who are now American citizens. Teenage Mayor Toro is drawn to Mirabel and Celia Rivera helps newly arrived Alma Rivera navigate life in small town Delaware. The teen protagonists and straightforward prose would appeal to teen readers. Henriquez is also a short story writer and the interstitial chapters narrated by secondary characters who live in the building read like short stories. The entire story was originally written from Mayor’s point of view and he and Alma really carry the novel.

The book is set during the global economic crisis of 2008 and written around 2012. We thought that the Riveras would have a harder time getting visas from Mexico today then they would have then. The neighbors all share their compelling reasons for migrating and we think they would be in even more danger now. While we were surprised that the characters migrated to Delaware, Henriquez does a good job of explaining why and how they landed there. We compared it to our local economy that visibly employs migrants in such businesses as food service, construction, wine and orchard agriculture.

The secondary neighbor’s chapters painted a complex picture of the Latinx community, highlighting commonalities and differences, brought to life by busybody neighbor Quisqueya. However, we would have liked to learn more about food culture and had more distinction in speech among the migrants and even more untranslated Spanish. The only character not to get his own chapter was Garrett, the white teenager who harasses the Riveras and is instrumental to the climax. We inferred that his home life was terrible but he remains as remote to us as he was to Alma.

The climax is an unexpected but not unearned surprise. The Riveras have already survived the tragedy of Mirabel’s accident and her father’s unemployment. This last disaster makes Alma’s decision to return to Mexico inevitable but turns the focus from migration to a universal reflection on guilt and forgiveness.

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“A Cavalier Evaluation”

81xSb00BWtLBooks on Tap read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich at Champion Brewery on April 4. We chose this 2001 title because of Ehrenreich’s scheduled appearance at the 2019 Virginia Festival of the Book, although she ultimately had to cancel. Her experimental examination of the working poor in American drew mixed reviews but engendered lively conversation. We all agreed that it was a shallow experiment: Ehrenreich was only in each job a short time, rented a car and had no children to support. She also relied on her social safety net, calling her dermatologist when she developed a rash cleaning houses but not understanding that a co-worker could not access health care for a more serious problem. Ehrenreich seems to be writing to a narrow audience, an assumed reader who looks a lot like her. She has an insulated, condescending attitude, claiming  “the Latinos might be hogging all the crap jobs and substandard housing for themselves as they often do.” Instead, she lives and works in primarily white areas, even ignoring large Hmong and Somali populations when living in Minneapolis. Her recent tweet about Marie Kondo doesn’t give much hope for improvement.

Despite these flaws, the book does spotlight the structural inequities that create generational poverty. We discussed housing costs that can eat up 50% of a family budget, exacerbated by the global economic collapse of 2008 and the hollowing out of large cities by investors buying real estate and leaving apartments empty. Ehrenreich certainly demonstrates how difficult it is to access benefits while working and we discussed how Jim Crow and other racist laws criminalized poverty. The American Dream is dependant on the labor or the working poor and in this instance, the book served as a window, since none of this month’s participants qualified. Ehrenreich’s own isolation serves as a good reminder that America is divided by class and it can be hard to get out of your own bubble. To that end, much like the old Tavern on 29, JMRL is a place where “students, tourists, and townpeople meet,” for free, seven days a week.

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Recommended Reading :
A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby K. Payne
Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land
Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus by Douglas Rushkoff

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“Moby-Dick of the tea world”

25150798Books on Tap read The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane  by Lisa See at Champion Brewery on March 7. Throughout the month of March, JMRL encourages everyone to read this title and then meet the author at our free event at Northside library on March 20th at 6pm as part of the Same Page.  

See frequently writes on Chinese-American themes, having spent much of her youth in L.A.’s Chinatown with paternal relatives. In this novel, she traces a young Akah women growing up in a rural tea growing region of China near the Thai border in the 1980s. Li-yan is raised according to traditional Akah customs, shadowing her mother the midwife. The local teacher singles her out for education in the nearest city, where her life is upended by her boyfriend. She gives birth to a daughter who is put in an orphanage and ultimately raised in California by a white couple. Li-yan packs a lot of living into her first 27 years while the daughter explores the clues (dark skin, a uniquely decorated tea cake) that hint at her biological parents. Li-yan and that daughter, Haley, work to find each other by the end of the novel.

The majority of our book club members liked the book. See packs in tons of information about the tea industry and the Akha people which we enjoyed as a window into lives we would not normally read about. Some readers thought that she could have done a better job weaving those details into the story instead of dropping in blocks of exposition. We were surprised to encounter the matrilineal and sex-positive Akah traditions. Coincidences abound but most of us thought they were within the bounds of reason. The ending wasn’t a surprise, and while a happy ending is satisfying, we speculated on the type of relationship Li-yan and Hayley would maintain back in California.

If this story inspires you to look into your own family history, check out JMRL’s online genealogy resources or set up an appointment to digitize your personal VHS tapes, slides, photos, negatives and cassette tapes.

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