In revisiting my growing piles of unread books, it’s hard not to notice pieces that run along a similar theme. I decided to make November a themed reading month for me in an effort to finally sit down and read some of my books.
The topic of immigration to the United States is something I know about, not because I am an immigrant. My work entails processing applications of people, not to immigrate, but actually the opposite. A big bulk of what I do is composed mainly of explaining why people must prove to us that they are not intending to immigrate to the United States using our process.
Anyway, I’m sure we all have relatives, or at the least, we know people who immigrated to the United States. They all have stories from the moment they set foot at the port of entry. We have heard too many anecdotes of their struggle, cultural adjustment, and success stories. Some of them have been written about, and I bought some of these books, although they are in fiction form.
The image above summarizes the books from my pile which are about immigration experiences in the United States. I may have some more but getting them all would mean turning my place upside down (I mean it in a literal way, no kidding). Anyway, here are the synopses of the books that I plan to read in the coming days.
Golden Country (Jennifer Gilmore) – Spanning the first half of the twentieth century, this book vividly brings to life the intertwining stories of three immigrants seeking their fortunes — the handsome and ambitious Seymour, a salesman-turned-gangster-turned-Broadway-producer; the gentle and pragmatic Joseph, a door-to-door salesman who is driven to invent a cleanser effective enough to wipe away the shame of his brother’s mob connections; and the irresistible Frances Gold, who grows up in Brooklyn, stars in Seymour’s first show, and marries the man who invents television. Their three families, though inextricably connected for years, are brought together for the first time by the engagement of Seymour’s son and Joseph’s daughter. David and Miriam’s marriage must endure the inheritance of not only their parents’ wealth but also the burdens of their past.
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (Oscar Hijuelos)- Inspired by their heroes Xavier Cugat and Desi Arnaz, brothers Cesar and Nestor Castillo come to New York City from Cuba in 1949 with designs on becoming mambo stars. Eventually they do–performing with Arnaz on “I Love Lucy” in 1955 and recording 78s with their own band, the Mambo Kings. This novel traces the lives of the flashy, guitar-strumming Cesar and the timid, lovelorn Nestor as they cruise the East Coast club circuit in a flamingo-pink bus. Enriching the story are the brothers’ friends and family members–all driven by their own private dreams.
The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (Gary Shteyngart) – Vladimir Girshkin, a likeable Russian immigrant, searches for love, a decent job, and a credible self-identity. With a doctor-father of questionable ethics and a manic, banker mother, Vladimir avoids his suburban parents and their desire that he pursue the almighty dollar as proof of success. Vladimir gets by as an immigration clerk, eking out a living in a cruddy New York City apartment while accumulating an array of quirky acquaintances, from a wealthy but disheveled old man (who claims his electric fan speaks to him) desperate for citizenship to Challa, a portly S/M queen. As a love interest, Challa is replaced by Francesca, a graduate student whose friends welcome Vladimir for the status he brings their bohemian clique, and whose parents encourage them to shack up (she lives at home) as visible proof she can maintain a steady relationship.
Strength in What Remains (Tracy Kidder) – This is an unlikely story about an unreasonable man. Deo was a young medical student who fled the genocidal civil war in Burundi in 1994 for the uncertainty of New York City. Against absurd odds–he arrived with little money and less English and slept in Central Park while delivering groceries for starvation wages–his own ambition and a few kind New Yorkers led him to Columbia University and, beyond that, to medical school and American citizenship. That his rise followed a familiar immigrant’s path to success doesn’t make it any less remarkable, but what gives Deo’s story its particular power is that becoming an American citizen did not erase his connection to Burundi, in either his memory or his dreams for the future.
‘Tis: A Memoir (Frank McCourt) – McCourt takes up where he left off in his last book, Angela’s Ashes — arriving in America. He is first guided by an Irish bartender who tells him to go to the New York Public Library and read Samuel Johnson. Thus assimilated, he becomes a supply clerk for the army, stationed in postwar Germany, then a warehouse laborer living in a rooming house, before earning a college degree at NYU and settling down as a teacher at a rowdy vocational high school in Staten Island. Along the way come romance and immigrant’s-eye life observations aplenty, and a growing sense of knowingness develops even as McCourt’s hopes are dashed against disillusions.
The Tortilla Curtain (T.C. Boyle) – Topanga Canyon is home to two couples on a collision course. Los Angeles liberals Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher lead an ordered sushi-and-recycling existence in a newly gated hilltop community: he a sensitive nature writer, she an obsessive realtor. Mexican illegals Candido and America Rincon desperately cling to their vision of the American Dream as they fight off starvation in a makeshift camp deep in the ravine. And from the moment a freak accident brings Candido and Delaney into intimate contact, these four and their opposing worlds gradually intersect in what becomes a tragicomedy of error and misunderstanding.
Typical American (Gish Jen) – Lai Fu Chang comes to the U.S in 1947 to study for his Ph.D. in electrical engineering, changes his name to Ralph in the same impulsive, muddled way he does everything else, neglects to renew his visa and has become a penniless recluse when he is discovered by his older sister, called Theresa in her convent school, and her friend Helen, who have been sent to America to escape the Communists. Ralph marries Helen, and the three become a family who dub themselves the Chinese Yankees, the Chang-kees. Vainglorious and ineffectual, puffed up with domineering pride, Ralph attempts to rule the roost, but it is his self-effacing but resourceful wife and self-sacrificing sister who bring the family through the bad times that befall them after feckless Ralph becomes involved with a millionaire conman who seduces Helen and brings them to the verge of financial ruin. The view of the United States through the eyes of outsiders attempting to preserve their own language and traditions while tapping into the American dream of success and riches is the piquant motif that binds the novel–and underscores the protagonists’ eventual disillusionment.
Three Lives (Gertrude Stein) – This book offers three straightforward portraits of women living in the early twentieth century. The book is separated into three stories, “The Good Anna,” “Melanctha,” and “The Gentle Lena.” The three stories are independent of each other, but all are set in the fictional town of Bridgepoint.
(no image above) The Gangster of Love (Jessica Hagedorn) – The novel opens in Manila but the action quickly moves to San Francisco and then New York before turning full circle. The focal point of this book is Raquel (Rocky) Rivera. The arc of her journey from Manila to the United States and back will include a boyfriend named Elvis Chang (with whom she plays in a rock band called Gangsters of Love), a daughter, a flock of drag queens, and jobs as receptionist at an acupuncture clinic and waitress at a French-Vietnamese bistro.
What do you think of my book choices? Sound off your thoughts below. I accept spoilers and personal reviews, too! Here’s to reading and stimulating the mind!