Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez

9780399555497Julia Alvarez tells the story of 12-year-old Anita, whose family joins the resistance against Dictator Trujillo in the Dominican Republic during the 1960’s. While coping with the early stages of puberty, Anita also grapples with the concepts of justice and freedom as General Trujillo, “El Jefe”, and the secret police terrorize her family.

It’s a novel written for all ages that illuminates a history too often forgotten by Americans and the rest of the world. Regarding the political reality that her own family lived through, Alvarez writes– “As Americans, I think we’re very aware of the genocide and destruction that happened in Europe, the young casualties of the Holocaust, all those World War II children for whom UNICEF was originally created. But we’re less knowledgeable about what happened in our own hemisphere in the second half of the last century: the dozens of dictatorships and repressive regimes that afflicted the South American countries. In 1972, there were only three democracies in all of Latin America…I wanted to tell the story of our Anne Frank on this side of the Atlantic.”

Before We Were Free honors the children who had no choice but to fight for their psychological and physical freedom while their mothers and fathers risked everything for the ajusticimiento.


A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

51l1ADoTZzL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_A Constellation of Vital Phenomena follows a group of interconnected characters in a small village in Chechnya following the fall of the Soviet Union and multiple wars for independence. After a man named Dokka is abducted by Russian soldiers, his 8-year old daughter is taken in by Ahkmed, a neighbor and lifelong friend. Together they take on the task of surviving in what’s left of their world where “happiness came in moments of unpredictable loveliness.”

Starting this book with virtually no knowledge of Chechnya or its history, it took me a large portion of the book to feel like I could understand the characters and the context. Marra calls into question what’s worth fighting for once a community is ravaged by war and with J.K. Rowling-esque mastery, weaves these characters together into a tangled mess of a masterpiece. An omniscient narrator provides glimpses into the future beyond the plot while also conveying bits of the human experience in excruciating detail. This well-researched story is as chaotic and morally ambiguous as war itself, and like many of my favorite books, will have readers chuckling and tearing up within the same page. I appreciated the dark humor, the quirkiness of the characters, and the jumps across time throughout a very complicated 10 years of Chechnya’s history. Definitely worth carrying this one to Costa Rica with me…

“The look on his face told her what had happened and that hurt burrowed deeper than anything she’d ever felt, deep enough to change from the thing she felt to the thing she was.”

War Dogs by Rebecca Frankel

war dogs

I enjoyed reading this one so much that I was genuinely disappointed when I unexpectedly reached the end of it on my Kindle. Frankel explores the world of military war dogs (MWDs) and their handlers in what is definitely the least depressing book about war that I’ve read. Despite the chilling anecdotes of explosive-detection missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, my lasting impression of War Dogs is one of admiration and moments of unexpected joy. The book captures the way that an emotional and professional relationship between MWDs and his fellow soldiers combines with an unparalleled physical ability to make these dogs such a powerful force. The only thing that could have made this book better for a nerd like me is more details on the physiology of a dog’s nose and the failed attempts by humans to replicate its expertise with technology.

“Mariana could see the force of the bullet as it hit Bronco…He was covered in blood but sitting all the same, waiting for his handler as if it had been the plan to rally at this safe spot all along… Bronco slumped to the ground, sprawled over on his side. Mariana’s heart stopped. He stared hard into the dog’s eyes, and then a terrible kind of relief washed over Mariana as he realized Bronco hadn’t just bled out in front of him. Instead, he had rolled over to offer his belly up for a scratch. Mariana exhaled, marveling at the strength of his dog.”

we are never meeting in real life. by Samantha Irby

we are never meeting

I read this essay collection because Roxane Gay, one of my feminist heroines, said it was amazing, and she never disappoints. It made me laugh and cry and cringe within the same essay. The subjects are broad– normalizing the experience of being treated poorly in relationships during her twenties; disregarding money-saving tips in the most gloriously irresponsible ways; her evil cat, Hellen Keller, and more.

The author’s self-deprecating humor is woven into even the most humiliating and depressing situations, and her excellent use of ALL CAPS as a writing tool for emphatic expletives and strong opinions kept me laughing throughout. Irby’s writing is unapologetically vulnerable and self-confident in the best way. Chances are that this book will make you feel uncomfortable, but you should read it anyway.

All this might be easier if I could punch something, but I’m not a punch-something person. I’m a “sit in the dark in the bathroom with a package of sharp cheddar cheese slices” person.”