Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Letters From Cuba, Everything Sad is Untrue

Behar, Ruth. Letters From Cuba
August 25th 2020 by Nancy Paulsen Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Esther's father has emigrated from Poland to Cuba to try to earn enough to bring his family out of a country where there are increasing problems for Jewish residents. In 1938, Esther manages to convince her father that she should join him rather than her older brother, Moshe. She travels alone by ship, manages to survive the voyage and meets her father in Havana. The two travel to Agramonte, where it is cheaper to live, and her father ekes out a living by peddling merchandise he gets in Havana. He rents his house cheaply from a local doctor and his wife, Senora Graciela, who lost their own young daughter to leukemia. When Esther goes peddling with her father, she is pleased to meet local residents, such as Manuela and her grandmother, who are Afro-Cuban, and the Changs, who have come from China and own a local store, but is distressed at how poorly her father sells things. After selling her father's stock of religious statues, she convinces him to sells sandals, and also buys some fabric from Rifka Rubenstein, another Jewish emigre who has a fabric store in Havana. The heavy wool dresses and stockings from Poland are not suited to Cuba's weather, and Esther makes a dress not only for herself but for some of her new friends. When she offers some for sale in the fabric store, they sell very well, and Rubenstein takes more orders for her. After Senora Graciela gives Esther a sewing machine, she and her father give up peddling and are devoting most of their time to making dresses. They come to the attention of a dress buyer in El Encanto, a Havana department store. She buys Esther's designs, so that Esther doesn't have to sew every dress, although she does still make some for Rubenstein's store. While most of the people she meets are nice, there are a few, like the doctor's brother, who are trying to start a Nazi party in Cuba in order to get rid of the Jewish residents. Things look increasingly bad in Europe, so it is a relief when there is enough money to bring the rest of the family from Poland, and Rubenstein decides to move to New York and asks Esther and her father to take over running the fabric store, which has an apartment in which they can live. When the political situation drives up the price of tickets, they almost fall short, but are helped by one of the father's suppliers to make up the difference. Most of her family makes it to Cuba, but it is still difficult for them to settle in their new country.
Strengths: The letter format of this book is important; it vividly shows how this would have been the only way that Esther could have communicated with her sister Malka at this point in history. There's a nice balance between giving enough information, but remembering to adhere to the letter format, which is a hard task! The details about daily life, and about the culturally diverse neighborhood, were very informative and taught me a lot about an area of the world I haven't studied closely. For me, Esther's sewing was the real drawing point; I was making my own clothes at the same age, and seeing Esther's abilities be the driving force in bringing her family to Cuba was a great story of empowerment. Strength in the face of adversity always makes for a compelling story. I loved this one.
Weaknesses: While the subplot with the doctor's brother was important, it pulled me away from Esther's story a little bit. At the same time, I feel like I needed a little more information about him and his factory, and about why he was so evil.
What I really think: Like Park's Prairie Lotus, this is the kind of historical fiction that I would have read as a child and love to hand to my students. It moves much more quickly than Lucky Broken Girl, and will be a great addition to the books I can offer students about World War II and the Holocaust. It would be great to see more books about the post WWII Jewish diaspora that are set in countries other than the US.

Nayeri, Daniel. Everything Sad is Untrue
Published August 25th 2020 by Levine Querido
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

This autobiographical novel gives the readers the impressions of the world that Khosrou, who goes by Daniel in the US, has about his experiences leaving Iran as a small child and eventually settling in Oklahoma. It's not an easy transition for a lot of reasons, and there are stories of living in Iran, family history, and Iranian legends, intermingled with Daniel's modern day problems in middle school. It was fascinating to see every day life in Iran-- visits to grandparents, the parents careers as a dentist and a doctor, favorite foods-- in contrast to the problems that Daniel faces with his new classmates, who make fun of him because he is different. The family history if painful and filled with many challenges, from a great grandmother who was married very young, to marital problems, to the mother's conversion to Christianity at a wedding in England that eventually caused her to leave Iran, since it was illegal to participate in that religion.  There are other problems in the US; the family struggles financially, and the mother has a difficult relationship with Ray, who is abusive but also helpful to the family monetarily. Daniel talks to his father, who has stayed behind in Iran, and is somewhat wistful for him, and is glad when his father finally comes to Oklahoma to visit.
Strengths: I have had a handful of students from Iran, and aside from Dumas's 2016 and It Ain't So Awful, Falafel , Rosenblatt's 2017 The Lost Boys and Homayoonfar's 2019 Taking Cover: One Girl's Story of Growing Up During the Iranian Revolution , there aren't many middle grade books with Iranian characters. This has a little bit of everything; mentions of Scheherazade and the 1,001 Nights, Iranian history, daily life, food, and the difficulties Daniel faces in Oklahoma. Many of my students don't understand how difficult it can be to move to a new country, and books can be a great way for them to understand the challenges newcomers can face. The swirling cover is certainly representative of the way the stories and language flow poetically throughout this book.
Weaknesses: There's a fine line between authors telling the story they need to tell and telling a story that readers need to read. This book lacked a central plot and linear progression of events, and young readers may struggle to understand what is going on. Other reviewers have mentioned that there is a lot of talk about poop and blood, and that this might be appealing to younger readers, but the mentions are not usually done in a funny way. This is almost more of a Young Adult Book, given the free flowing style and the range of difficult family dynamics presented.
What I really think: Certainly an interesting book, and I'm debating. I was hoping that this would be a bit more like Varadarajan and Week's Save Me a Seat or Yang's Front Desk.

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