mini-review · Reading Women · stuff I read

Brass by Xhenet Aliu

34837009Summary from Goodreads:
A fierce debut novel about mothers and daughters, haves and have-nots, and the stark realities behind the American Dream

A waitress at the Betsy Ross Diner, Elsie hopes her nickel-and-dime tips will add up to a new life. Then she meets Bashkim, who is at once both worldly and naïve, a married man who left Albania to chase his dreams—and wound up working as a line cook in Waterbury, Connecticut. Back when the brass mills were still open, this bustling factory town drew one wave of immigrants after another. Now it’s the place they can’t seem to leave. Elsie, herself the granddaughter of Lithuanian immigrants, falls in love quickly, but when she learns that she’s pregnant, Elsie can’t help wondering where Bashkim’s heart really lies, and what he’ll do about the wife he left behind.

Seventeen years later, headstrong and independent Luljeta receives a rejection letter from NYU and her first-ever suspension from school on the same day. Instead of striking out on her own in Manhattan, she’s stuck in Connecticut with her mother, Elsie—a fate she refuses to accept. Wondering if the key to her future is unlocking the secrets of the past, Lulu decides to find out what exactly her mother has been hiding about the father she never knew. As she soon discovers, the truth is closer than she ever imagined.

Told in equally gripping parallel narratives with biting wit and grace, Brass announces a fearless new voice with a timely, tender, and quintessentially American story.

Here is the deal: I do not like alternating narratives where the point-of-view changes, especially if one of those perspectives is told in the second person. Almost no one can pull off second person perspective. Like, only Italo Calvino.

And now Xhenet Aliu. My friend Nathan told me I needed to read Brass as soon as humanly possible. Which I tried but then there was a problem with the Edelweiss galley file, then the little bugger expired with about 70 pages to go (and the whole “put your iPad in airplane mode” does not work with Bluefire epub files). So I finally just bought a copy out of exasperation. It was worth it for those 70 pages.

Brass is of the few books to use a second person point-of-view narrator (Lulu) to good effect and in contrast to a first person point-of-view (Elsie). Daughter and mother were both so similar and so different from one another – Aliu really leveraged the contrast in style to help the reader understand their characters. It was very hard to predict how Aliu was going to wind up the narratives.  Another knockout book from editor Andrea Walker at Random House.

Congrats to Aliu on her selection in the Barnes and Noble Discover program.

Dear FTC: I was reading a galley from Edelweiss from the publisher and then bought a copy.

Reading Matters · stuff I read

An additional thought about By the Book by Julia Sonneborn

I was puttering around on Goodreads, reading a few other reviews about By the Book, and then read an article about DACA/DREAMers. The juxtaposition of the two items solidified an idea I’d been noodling on for a bit: that making Adam in By the Book a former undocumented child immigrant was a way to evoke the cross-class snobbery that lies beneath much of the plot in Persuasion.

Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, is so obsessed with class and bloodline that he is introduced in the first paragraph of Persuasion as a man who reads only one book: the Baronetage, specifically the entry about his own family. He aspires to move among the aristocracy (he courts the favor of an even snobbier, more ridiculous cousin, Lady Dalrymple, who is a vicountess), is deeply in debt because a baronet must live in a certain style, and looks down upon the British Navy as an institution that allows men to rise through its ranks from lower into upper classes. At the time Austen was writing, class mobility had become more common. Through trade and industry, some of the middle-classes were able to move into the landed gentry and, hence, position their children to marry “up.” This mobility obviously caused a good deal of hand-wringing among the upper classes.

In twenty-first century America, class is somewhat less of a stratified thing (even though “good” family bloodlines, or the “wrong side” of the tracks, are still a thing of sorts). But lately there’s a lot of squawking about who is “allowed” to be here, and where we all come from – which is rich coming from a nation founded out of the people that no one wanted in European countries and who took out their inferiority complex on the native populations of the Americas and enslaved people imported to prop up the economy. DREAMers and DACA recipients are at the white-hot center of this stalking. How many stories are there in the news of DREAMers brought here as children – because their parents knew that to give them any sort of chance they had to get out of whatever situation was going on in their country of origin – who are now teachers and doctors and lawyers?

In By the Book, Adam’s mother escaped from Guatemala with him when he was two. Through hard work and sheer good luck, they are eventually granted asylum with the opportunity to earn a green card and eventual citizenship. Adam earns a scholarship to Princeton and eventually earns a law degree then works his way up the collegiate administrative chain to president of a college.  It is the ultimate rags to riches story, to go from literally nothing but your life to one of the most respected positions in academia. But Adam also suffers from others’ classist, and probably racist, treatment of him as a scholarship student and person of color in what are traditionally bastions of white privilege: the students at Princeton who mistreat him at his job in food service, Rick’s very pointed attempts to discredit Adam in Anne’s eyes (Rick has some other problems as well), and Anne’s recollection of her family’s treatment of Adam when they met him. Sonneborn doesn’t lean into these issues explicitly, in the way that Austen does in the original, but they do lurk around between the lines.