Book Review of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
American Dirt begins by describing a shoot out at a barbeque where a woman's entire family, other than her son, are murdered by a cartel. Sixteen people are killed. The opening is tense, frightening and focuses on the emotions of a young boy and his mum hiding in the shower and thus avoiding murder.
Next we are given some of the context about why this particular family has been targeted. Lydia, the protagonist, is a bookstore owner. Her husband, Sebastian is a journalist about to expose a cartel leader, Javier Crespo. This has dramatic and tragic consequences. The twist comes in the fact that Javier is bookish. He is a frequent visitor to Lydia's bookstore and the two have become good friends. The stereotype of cartel leaders is challenged. Lydia has viewed Javier as gentle and smart, yet Javier is to blame for countless murders, including sixteen members of her own family. Fearing for their lives Lydia and her son Luca have to go 'on the run' to escape the horror and stay alive.
And thus the scene is set.
The context is set quickly and the remainder of the story explores the hardships and dangers of travelling as illegal immigrants. As Lydia and Luca travel, largely illegally on freight trains, they befriend two sisters who have had to flee. Their beauty puts them in constant risk of rape and thus the writer exposes the often, unmentioned, crimes that immigrants trying to reach America endure. As we meet a range of characters from different backgrounds we are constantly shown that no one would take this journey unless they were desperate. We see first hand the ridiculous reasons why some travellers have been deported and it is impossible not to feel immense sympathy for them.
Through the unusual combination of insightful character portrayal, alongside a tense fast-moving plot that is full of suspense the reader is hooked and cares massively what happens. Consequently, by writing American Dirt Jeanine Cummins is able to reach a massive audience in order to share a highly political message.
Book Discussion Questions on American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
In American Dirt it seems that Lydia's only focus is to save Luca and stay alive. A reference is made to Lydia's suffering, but it isn't dwelled on. In effect she has to put her immense grief on hold. How successfully does Jeanine Cummins create smpathy and empathy for the suffering that the key characters endure?
What emotions did you feel once you completed the whole book? Why?
Should Sebastian have written the article on Javier Crespo? Why or why not?
Do you think Sebastian and Lydia had a strong marriage?
Although fiction rather than memoir, thousands upon thousands of people take a similar journey to that of Lydia and Luca. What did you learn about from reading American Dirt?
Is El Chacal a hero or a villain?
If you are an American reader how do you expect readers from the rest of the world to respond to this book?
El Chacal allowed Soledad to murder Lorenzo. Why did he do this? Do you think he made the 'right decision?
What sympathy, if any, do you have for Javier?
What would you ask Jeanine Cumming if she was here with you at this book discussion?
Did you think the ending of American Dirt was satisfactory?
Writers are frequently told to 'show not tell' as a means of presenting their message. Cummins, I think, does this very effectively. Do you agree? Discuss the parts of the story which you found the most moving and powerful.
Marisol has been deported from America and is desperate to return to her daughters. She is under no illusions about her own bravery or heroism yet arguably is a hero. Discuss.
What do you think will happen to Lydia and Luca once they reach North America?
What do you think Donald Trump would say about this book?
If America Dirt was a film who would you cast in the main roles?
Bookclub Questions for American Dirt (if you haven't read the book!)
Lydia will do anything to protect her son? Would you give up your life for someone else?
Do you consider yourself a brave person?
Lydia compartmentalizes her life and sets her grief aside as a survival strategy? Are you able to compartmentalize different emotions?
Discuss the complexities regarding immigration.
Share what you know about cartels.
American Dirt is clearly relevant in today's world. (In this respect (only) it is similar to Middle England by Jonathan Coe) Discuss whether you enjoy reading books that explore real and contempary suffering.Why or why not?
When reading a work of fiction do you find it helpful to know what inspired the author to write it?
Summary of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is an excellent story which will keep you gripped from beginning to end. If you are fortunate enough to read Jeanine Cummins' accompanying essay and to see the level of research she completed and her personal reasons for writing the story, it becomes even more powerful.
Jeanine Cummins' comments in her essay about the book that she felt inadquate to tell the story of the migrants, but she does it brilliantly. I can imagine that sometime soon American Dirt will be made into a very successful film.
Book Review of Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Where the Crawdads Sing has received mixed reviews, yet it has sold 4 million copies! Reviewers have criticised it for reading like young adult fiction and lacking sophisticiation. It has been slated because a court room drama cannot sit side-by-side with a rich atmospheric account of living in the North Carolina marshes, writers have said that the tropes used are too obvious and the symbolism flawed. I didn't overly notice any of these alleged faults and thought it was an excellent read from beginning to end.
Where the Crawdads Sing tells the story of Kya, who was forced into social isolation from the age of six after her whole family, one by one, left her. The final member to leave was her abusive father. Surviving almost entirely by herself, aided only by the occasional kindness of strangers and the steadfast kindness of black neighbour Jumini and his wife, she learns to hunt and cook in order to literally survive.
Where the Crawdads Sing is a tale of immense loneliness. Kya is ostracized and shunned by most of her neighbours. Known as the 'marsh girl' she is different to her neighbours, having a deep affinity with nature. It is the gulls she turns to in times of tremendous sorrow and grief. Kya is highly intelligent and to move the plot forward needs to read. Stage entrance, Tate, a local boy who for a while becomes her tutor, before he too leaves her.
Kya uses her knowledge of nature to understand relationships and clings to the false hope that all mothers eventually come back. She also attempts to understand her ill-fated relationship with village hearthrob Chaser through comparisons to nature. Eventually accused and acquitted of the murder of Chase, who 'fell' to his death through an open Fire Tower trap door we feel that Kya can finally find some peace in her life. A good murder mystery wouldn't be satisfactory without a few twists and turns and that isn''t quite the end of the story of Where the Crawdads Sing.
Book Discussion Questions on Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Bookclub Questions for Where the Crawdads Sing (if you haven't read the book!)
Summary of Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Four million copies of Delia Owen's Where the Crawdads Sing have been sold. Owen's novel is constantly towards the top of the New York Times' Best Seller List; she has been featured by Oprah and it is a Richard and Judy book club choice, yet until a couple of days ago I hadn't even heard of it! As for reading about the potential murder investigation that would occur in Zambia should Owen's ex-husband ever return there, well I'll leave that for the salacious minded to find out about! For now, though I would definitely recommend that you join four million others and read Where the Crawdads Sing. A completely differnt style of book, but I wouldn't be surprised in the next year or two it finds itself on various prize winning lists. I guess, of books I've recently read, it is most similiar to Tara Westover's Educated, though of course that is an actual memoir rather than fiction.
Book Review of Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara
The story, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, shares the events prior to and following the disappearance of several children who go missing in a slum area of India. It is a powerful story with beautifully drawn characters, revealed to us from the perspective of nine year old Jai, The 'Afterword' provides factual context and tells us that up to 180 children go missing every single day in India. This turns a poignant and moving work of fiction into a tragic insight into reality. In fact, I can't think of a book with a more powerful 'Afterword' in any work of fiction I've come across.
Having a child narrator in fiction can be problematic. They are required to share with the reader that which is likely to be beyond their own sphere of understanding. Anappara manages to combine a childlike narration of a nine year old with an omniprescent narration brilliantly, without any jarring of purpose and voice. The reader can share Jai's excitement regarding 'solving a mystery' whilst simultaneously empathising with his parents fear and despair about any harm coming to their children.
There is a sense of inevitability and loss that pervades the text. The circumstances leading to the abduction of Runu-Didi is particularly powerful and enlightening, as it explores how she sees her own role as a female growing up in contemporary India. The structural and narrative changes of these interspersed chapters work extremely well as a tool for exploring social, economic and political issues.
There is nothing romantic about Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line. It doesn't have a happy ending and praying to 'Mental' isn't effective. Nevertheless, it isn't lacking in hope and is an exquisite observational account of humanity.
Book Discussion Questions for Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara
Discuss the title of the book. Why is the story called Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line?
Why did Runu-Didi stay in a quiet and deserted area of the basti?
Were you surprised by the level of corruption in Jai's neighbourhood?
After the events of the novel Faiz's family decide to move to a different neighbrouhood with more Muslim and less Hindi residents. Around the same time Pari wins a scholarship to a 'better' school and leaves the neighbourhood. What is Anappara telling us by including these details?
The character Quarter is in the 'background' of the novel throughout, largely presented as a sinister figure. What is your opinion of him and what is his role in the novel?
At what point in the novel did you work out who was abducting the children?
What did you find the most brutal observation within the book?
If you were to write or read a sequel to the book what would happen to Faiz, Jai and Pari?
The first chapter begins with 'This story will save your life'. On a first reading did you find the opening difficult to understand? If so why? How do you interpret the opening chapter having read the whole book?
What genre do you think Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is?
If Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line was a film what child actor (past or present) would you allocate the key roles to?
Bookclub Questions for Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line (if you haven't read the book!)
What other books have you read with a child narrator? Did you enjoy them and why or why not?
The book uses several Hindi terms that might need translating to someone living outside of India or not familiar with Hinduism. Do you like books to have a glossary in cases where authors make an active choice to use language specific to a place or culture? Is this question negatively indicative of Western bias?
Do you believe in Djinns?
In Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line some of the parents and siblings blame themselves for the disappearance of their families. This is the case, for example, with Chandni who wants to make the night better for her family by buying sweet treats so venturing out in the dark. How quick are you to take the blame for things that you are not necessarily able to prevent from happening?
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line begins by saying 'This story will save your life'. Have you read a book that have massively impacted your own lives? How and why has it been important to you?
Share with the group any books by other Indian authors or books set in India that you would like to recommend. What did you enjoy about them?
Personal Reflection based on Deepa Anappara's Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line
In the very dim and distant past I, and my now husband, spent several months back-packing in India. Our budget was tiny and we stayed in many 'low end' hostels. We met a lot of local people, travelled the length of the country by train and had a lot of experiences - good and bad. This was all with the knowledge that if the chips were really down then we could fly home. We loved the trip and India has remained a special place in our hearts.
Reading Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line brought back so many memories, smells, tastes, insights and love for this vibrant country. Over and above this made me, for the first time, reflect on the arrogance and sense of entitlement I had during our visit. I'm finding it difficult to express what I mean but I know that I'm currently feeling ashamed of how little I even really tried to understand the country and the people from a perspective other than my own. Reading Djinn Patrol made India real to me in a way that my extended visits to it didn't. I can now make connections to what I saw and experienced, enabling me to try and move beyond a subconscious post-colonial bias that I didn't even realise I had. This, I hope will positively influence my future attitude and outlook and make me just a little bit less egotistical and self-centred in how I perceive people and places outside of my norms. For this, I thank Deep Anappara.. Djinn Patrol is one of the most powerful pieces of fiction I've read. I'm putting it right up there with Bernadine Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other for great books I've read this year!
Book Review of An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, it is one to read slowly as there is so much to savour in it. The relationships are complex and ever changing. The insight into human emotion and what makes people tick is really impressive. The plot holds together effectively and is well balanced. The use of first person, where different chapters are told by different characters, means that everyone gets to 'have their say'. As such the structure is simple but effective.
The story unfolds after the one of the protagonists, Roy, is wrongly accused of rape. He then goes on to serve five years of a twelve year sentence. Jones doesn't explore the trial in any detail but it underpins all that follows; had Roy been a white man rather than black then it is extremely unlikely that his accuser would have jumped to the conclusion that he was a rapist.
The only part of the story I didn't find convincing was the development when Roy went on to share a cell with his biological father. It did, however, provide an opportunity for father/son relationships to be effectively explored in the text. Barack Obama and Elle both rave about the book, so I guess for the majority this isn't a big criticism. (As an aside, have you noticed how authors tend to have quite big names recommend their books these days. I noticed the same thing in Rosie Walsh's The Man Who Didn't Call which Liane Moriarty recommended.
Book Discussion Questions for An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Book Club Questions for An American Marriage (if you haven't read the book!)
Summing up of Tayari Jones' An American Marriage
This is Tayari Jones' fourth book, but I believe the first one to be published in the UK. I hadn't come across her writing before but will now definitely seek out her other novels. There is flair and craft in every sentence she produces.
Book Review of The Man Who Didn't Call by Rosie Walsh
On the front of my copy of Rosie Walsh's The Man who Didn't Call is a quote by Liane Moriarty saying "I absolutely loved this book.". I can see why she enjoyed it as the ingredients are similar to those we might find in one of Moriarty's own books: a head over heels romance, combined with a seemingly unsolvable situation, and a mystery that needs uncovering. It is also a page turner with a (spoiler) happy ending!
The story begins with what turns out to be a seemingly 'too good to be true' romance between Sarah and Eddie. As Eddie already had a holiday planned, he decides to go anyway and promises to contact Sarah upon his return. Sarah waits for contact but none comes, as from the moment of Eddie's return, Sarah is 'ghosted (the American name of the novel) by Eddie. The rest of the novel revolves around the reader first uncovering why she has been ghosted' by Eddie (plenty of clues are given along the way) before watching how things will finally unfold.
Book Discussion Questions for The Man Who Didn't Call by Rosie Walsh
Book Club Questions for The Man Who Didn't Call (If you haven't read the book!)
Summing up of Rosie Walsh's The Man Who Didn't Call
The Man who Didn't Call is an enjoyable quick read with plenty of spine tingling intrigue and tear-jerking romance. The plot holds together well and the characters are well rounded. Stylistically it is a quick and easy read that would be great to take on holiday.