Saturday, April 18, 2020

The Brothers Torres, by Coert Voorhees

The Brothers Torres by Coert Voorhees (2009-08-11): Books

Francisco Towers is a nobody in his New Mexican high school, compared with his older brother, Steve, a popular senior who is the soccer team's star player, and who has recently accepted a soccer scholarship for a college.  

While Steve is winning his soccer games, hanging out with his girlfriend, and getting drunk with the local cholos and cholas, the tough punk-like guys and girls who are decorated with tattoos and black leather clothes, Frankie is blowing up rocks and anthills with his friend Zach, obsessing over Rebecca Sanchez, his crush, and working at Los Torres, his parents' restaurant.

Frankie has looked up to Steve since he was a toddler, but he couldn't really care less about Steve's efforts to earn respect from the cholos and cholas until Frankie himself finds himself in a fistfight against John Dalton, the rich, popular boy whose parents own the Tortilla Emporium, a company that ships tortillas across the country, and that has been swallowing up smaller companies and family-run restaurants like Los Torres. On top of that, John is just a complete jerk. (Actually, jerk is an understatement.)

That fight launches Frankie into a world he's never known. Steve starts treating him as an equal (as opposed to being treated as the annoying little brother), the cholos respect him, and Rebecca says "yes" when he asks her to be his Homecoming date. 

But John, being the entitled, spoiled brat that he is, will not let this all slide. He retaliates, and that is simply the last straw for Steve. Steve is set on having his revenge against John for beating up his little brother, and nothing will stop him.

Frankie knows he should be on board. John was a jerk to him, to his brother, and to his friends and his parents. But instead, he feels a sense of an impending catastrophe. He is happy that he is finally earning some respect, but Steve may be taking it too far.

Frankie has a choice to make. It's a difficult choice, and as the author himself writes: "Soon he'll have to make a choice between respecting his brother and respecting himself."

The Brothers Torres is a stunning novel that was actually written by a guy my dad used to teach with. I was never originally going to review this book. It had been sitting on my dad's bookshelf for a while, so I didn't have immediate access to it. I was sitting on my bed, reading The Librarian of Auschwitz (which I had reviewed earlier; you can find a link to that post here), when my dad came in, holding this book. He said, "Julia, why don't you review this book next?" So I agreed to consider it, and a few days later, when I was searching for something new to read, I picked it up out of boredom and started to read.

And I must say, no regrets whatsoever. It has replaced The Hunger Games as my (for now, anyway) favorite book of all time. 

This novel has the right level of profane and "mature" humor combined with emotion and a deeper meaning that is heartfelt and strong. I highly, HIGHLY, recommend this novel for anyone 13+, as its use of profanity, mentions of sex, and overall tone may be overwhelming for younger readers (and distressing for their parents).

Monday, April 6, 2020

Where The Streets Had a Name, by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Image result for Where The Streets Had a Name, by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Hayaat is a Palestinian living in Bethlehem's West Bank in 2004. She and her family are separated from the land they grew up in, Jerusalem, by a massive wall. Hayaat had spent a portion of her childhood there (through the age of 9), her mother had grown up there, and her grandmother before her. But the Israeli army forced them out, along with the other Palestinians there. Now Hayaat is thirteen, living in a dingy apartment, with her mother, father, sister, two brothers, and her grandmother.

The Palestinians, who are Arabs and mostly Muslims, are restricted by travel laws, curfews, and checkpoints. Protesters are often shot, sometimes even if they are kids. People trying to leave illegally are jailed, even if they are only trying to visit family. People out after curfew are arrested. People jumping over the wall are arrested. Hayaat's friend Maysaa was shot dead when she was caught in a protest. She was only around ten years old.

Hayaat and her friend Samy and everyone living in the West Bank hate the Israeli occupation, hate the people who forced them out and are now living in the homes and the towns and the cities that used to be theirs.

Her grandmother often tells stories about what it was like before the occupation, when she lived in a beautiful villa with her family, in Jerusalem. When her health starts failing, she tells Hayaat that she did not want to die in her daughter's house, but in her own homeland. So Hayaat hatches a ridiculously dangerous plan.

She and her friend Samy will go (illegally) to Jerusalem and collect soil from Hayaat's grandmother's village, the one she lived in before the occupation. They will bring it back to her so she can have a piece of her land with her.

The journey to Jerusalem is only about six miles, but with all of the obstacles in the way, the wall, the checkpoints, and the army, the trip could very well take forever.

Where The Streets Had a Name is about the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem, told from the point of view of a Palestinian teenager. Hayaat and her family represent all of the Palestinians who were forced out of their homes and into dirty towns and refugee camps. If they had legal deeds to their land, the deeds became void. Some homes were given to Israeli citizens, others were destroyed in demolition projects.

I'm not speaking ill of the Jews; I come from Jewish roots myself, but I am talking about what has been happening since 1967. People being inhumane towards other people, all for the sake of religion. But I don't know why I'm surprised. People have been doing things like this, in the name of religion, and politics, ever since civilization began. But author Abdel-Fattah seems to go out of her way to present most of the Israelis as one-dimensional or evil, so there are definitely some issues with bias and one-sidedness.

Still, I loved this, it is a truly moving story.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Librarian of Auschwitz, by Antonio Iturbe

The Librarian Of Auschwitz (Special Edition) - By Antonio Iturbe ...

Edita Adler, or "Dita" as she's known, is fourteen years old and living in the Auschwitz concentration camp. She doesn't work in the warehouses, the crematoriums, the kitchen, or the factories. She works in Block 31, the "family camp." This camp is where families can live together, and children can run around and play. It is also the site of a secret school. She works as the secret librarian for Block 31's secret school, housing and delivering the few books that the camp has to teachers within the camp. Books and education in Auschwitz are forbidden, and those who are caught teaching, or those who are caught with a book in their possession, are executed.

Dita (a real person!) is running these books to various teachers in the camp. Everyone is on edge; an informer, an unexpected inspection, an SS guard walking in, someone acting suspicious, anything could give it all away. All of these risk factors make Dita's job very dangerous.

On top of all this, the family camp is regularly visited by Dr. Josef Mengele, a man infamous for performing deadly experiments and vivisection (dissecting a live subject) on live and, often awake, Jewish and Gypsy (Roma) prisoners, often twins and/or children. Mengele seems to be keeping a watch on Dita, as if he can't wait for the day when it is she that is on his dissection table.

Fredy Hirsch, the Jew in charge of running the family camp, is the one who entrusted Dita with the books. He puts on a strong, brave, happy demeanor, but secretly has many troubles of his own. All prisoners are tattooed, and his tattoo has the marking "SB6" along with everyone else who had arrived in the camp last September, signifying that they would receive "special treatment" after six months. He is also gay, and people who were gay, lesbian, or transgender were described as "diseased" or "sick" by the Nazis. During the night, Hirsch is secretly meeting up with his boyfriend in the camp.

The books that Dita literally guards with her life are more valuable than gold in the camp, and more deadly than a bullet. But she guards them for Fredy, for the teachers, and for the children they are responsible for. These books remind her that there is the possibility of life, of a world after the war, where she can finally live without fear and sadness.

The Librarian of Auschwitz is a WWII novel, based on the true story of Dita, who is still alive today at 91, and author Arturo Iturbe's interview with her is also found in the book.

The atrocities of Auschwitz-Birkenau are in no way sugarcoated in this book. Hangings, starvation, gas chambers, crematoriums, mass graves, and the gruesome experiments by Dr. Mengele are all described in astonishing detail.

The Holocaust was the mass slaughter of 13 million people, of which 6 million were Jewish, during WWII. People were first evicted from their homes, and sent to live in filthy ghettos. They were then sent to concentration (read "death") camps, where they were forcibly separated, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, parents and children, and cruelly sorted and separated according to gender and age. They were then either immediately killed, or put to work, doing backbreaking, deadly, or simply boring jobs such as making bombs, moving rocks, working in the kitchens, or (and in my opinion, these were the worst) working in the gas chambers and ovens. 

The Librarian of Auschwitz depicts the horrors and heartbreaks that took place in the Hell on Earth that was Auschwitz-Birkenau. But in the middle of that Hell on Earth, for a little while, there was hope.


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