Book Review: Cuba: An American History by Ada Ferrer

Sandy, our Head of Technical Services, shares this review of a recent read.

I love history. I studied it in college and in graduate school. It is the only thing I read, along with the occasional dark Scandinavian mystery.  That said, I have avoided reading any histories of Cuba. As the child of Cuban immigrants, the subject has always been too personal for me and I relied instead on the history given to me by my parents and grandparents. It was biased and it was raw and until recently, it was all that I had. I reluctantly decided to pick up Ada Ferrer’s book Cuba: An American History at the beginning of the year to see if I could rectify those gaps in my knowledge.

Ferrer was born in Cuba in June of 1962 and left the island as a baby with her mother, 10 months later. The prologue felt familiar to me. She talks about families left behind, meeting new family in “exilío” (exile), the pervasive feelings of loss, and the stories told by family members.  Stories about Cuba before the revolution, speculation about family and friends who stayed, and stories about an end to the Castro regime. She starts the history of the island in the 15th century with Columbus’ “discovery” of the region. Her discussion of this early period is thorough, outlining why Cuba became such a crucial part of trade in the region. She dives deeply into Cuba’s relationship with Spain as one of its most valuable colonies as well as Cuba’s early relationship with the United States. I think one of the most interesting things in how Ferrer tackles the history of Cuba in her work is that she puts it in the context of its relationship to the United States. The two nations have always been tightly bound to one another from their very early days, be it through trade, war, investments, and amendments that gave the US the power to intervene in the island.

Her discussion of the tumultuous period after the Cuban War of Independence in 1898 illustrates both how the US was able to further consolidate power in the island as well as how the stage was ultimately set for the revolution of 1959 and Fidel Castro’s rise to power. She takes the reader through Cuba’s resistance to the US via the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the relationship between the island and the Soviet Union in the 70s, and the fall of the Soviet Union and Cuba’s subsequent special period in the 90s; a time marked by extreme austerity measures and the mass exodus of citizens to the United States.  She talks about the hope the Cuban population felt with the thawing of relations under Barack Obama’s presidency and the despair brought on by the renewed efforts by the US government to tighten travel restrictions and the sending of remittances in 2016. The book ends in 2020 with a discussion of the effects of Covid-19 and the growing protest movements in the summer of that year.

The book is beautifully written.  Perhaps because she has spent so much of her life researching and working on this project or maybe because she is the child of Cuban immigrants, Ferrer is able to capture the essence of the Cuban people, their humor, and their ability to adapt and persevere both on and off the island. I think one of the things I appreciate most about the book is the way in which she chose to tell the history. She sums it up best when she writes, “as we ponder the sweep of centuries, it is important to pause at those lives, not just to invoke them, but to endeavor to grasp history through their eyes… It is an impossible endeavor in many ways… but the attempt itself is essential.” This book felt personal to me because of my relationship to my family and the island more broadly but I think that Ferrer’s approach to history will allow any reader without any personal stake to feel for the place as well as the people, both those that left and those that stayed behind.

Teen Book Reviews: Anger is a Gift and The Hate U Give

Teens: did you know that you can earn community service credit for writing a book review and submitting it to us? Today, we’ll hear from a teen who did just that. Find out more about how to earn community service hours from home at cheshirelibrary.org/teens/.

Anger is a Gift by Mark Oshiro, reviewed by Ali A.

Anger Is a Gift is about the life of Moss Jeffries, a black teen living in Oakland. When Moss was 10, his father was shot down by police officers because the police told him to put his hands up but he had earbuds in and couldn’t hear them. Since then, Moss and his mother have been quiet and haven’t attended protests for other black people dying due to police brutality. However in Moss’s sophmore year his school turns into a prison. Police officers roam the hallways and make random locker inspections for no reason. Although Moss and his classmates don’t like it, they still tolerate it.

One day the police order one of Moss’s friends, Shawna Meyers to come for a locker inspection. The officer ravenously searches through her locker until he finds a large bag of white pills in the back. The officer violently assaulted her so bad that she couldn’t explain why she had the pills in her locker. Finally after she could speak she said the bag was for her prescription medicine. The officer who assaulted her didn’t get in trouble though. Soon after that incident, the school added in metal detectors. Moss’s friend Reg is in crutches and says it’s too dangerous for him to go through the machine. He said he’d rather have a pat-down but when Reg told the officer this the officer picked up Reg and threw him through the detectors. The damage on Reg’s leg was so bad that he was told by doctors he might never be able to walk normally again.

After all this, Moss and his classmates feel like this is enough. They decide to make a peaceful walk-out protest where all students walk out of the school at a specific time. However the school is notified about this mini-protest so they order officers in full riot gear to prevent the students from walking out of the school. The officers used tear gas, portable grenades, and batons. One of the officers, James Daley, pulled out a gun and shoots at Moss’s best friend Javier. James Daley then runs off and hides from society. Moss is depressed and decides to chain himself to a pole until James Daley is persecuted. What happens next is beyond Moss’s imagination. Anger Is a Gift shows the cruel reality and harshness that black people have to face in their daily lives. If you enjoy this book, you should also check out The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (reviewed below).

4 Stars.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, reviewed by Ali A.

The Hate U Give is perhaps the best book regarding racism for teenagers. The story revolves around the life of Starr Carter, a sixteen-year-old who witnesses the death of her childhood best friend. Starr attends a predominantly white school to escape the threats of her black neighborhood. Because of this, Starr is always switching between her two worlds, the white world and the black world. In the white world, everything is peaceful and Starr can be happy and safe. However in the black world, Starr is constantly facing violence, gangbangers, and drugs.

Starr never gets high but finally attends her first party in her black neighborhood. At the party, Starr spots Khalil, her childhood best friend. Starr hadn’t seen him in six months but Khalil and Starr start chatting. However the party is cut short when a shootout occurs outside the party site. Khalil drives Starr home to be safe but as Khalil is driving home a racist white cop pulls them over. Starr is silent and looks down as the officer demands to see Khalil’s license, registration, and insurance just because Khalil is black. Instead of Khalil showing the officer his papers right away, he asks the officer why he pulled them over. The officer didn’t respond as the officer became more frustrated he shot Khalil for not listening. Khalil’s death becomes news across the country and the officer who shot Khalil is put under trial. Starr wants to get justice for her friend, but doesn’t know if she should raise her voice because of the danger and threats she may receive.

Angie Thomas did a marvelous job crafting this book because The Hate U Give shows readers how many black people get mistreated throughout America and why it is important to speak up for racial justice.

5 Stars

Teen Book Reviews: The Unwanteds and Lord of the Flies

Teens: did you know that you can earn community service credit for writing a book review and submitting it to us? Today, we’ll hear from two teens who did just that. Find out more about how to earn community service hours from home at cheshirelibrary.org/teens/.

The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann, reviewed by Claire J.

Upon being asked what book she is most thankful for, my cousin responded with the book The Unwanteds. She said the book appealed to her, as she related to many of the Unwanteds. The book allows people who couldn’t embrace their creativity an environment to thrive. When I read it, I liked how people did not have to suppress their hobbies. They had no rush to become serious and become an adult. I like the childish aspect of the book. Most of all, I really liked that the book gave people who felt out of place for the entirety of their lives a place to embrace their identities. I also just wish I had a place where I could also escape from reality and embrace my own creativity as the main characters did.

When asked about who my cousin’s favorite character was, she said her favorite character was Mr. Today, the man that saves everyone from death. I would have to agree. I want to be like him in the sense that I also really wanted to help others. Since I feel that my passion and dream is to provide whatever I can to help other people thrive, Mr. Today is an important factor that contributed to this dream. I also liked his wacky sense of fashion, as I also like to experiment with my own clothing. When he was killed in the series, I was so upset. I don’t approve of the main character taking Mr. Today’s position. Before anything else, the book had simply just brought me a lot of joy while reading it. I am the type of person who becomes immersed in their book, so I enjoyed days I spent reading on my bed, enjoying the contents of the book. Overall, I really enjoyed this read.

5 stars.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding, reviewed by Ali A.

In my opinion, Lord of the Flies by William Golding is the greatest classic book written. The book is about a group of schoolboys who get stranded on a desert island during a world war. However, all of them are scattered around the island. The main character, Ralph, finally finds another chubby boy named Piggy. Together they find a conch shell and blow it to summon all the boys to them. They hold a meeting and make rules for the island, assign jobs, start a fire, and elect a chief. Ralph ends up winning the role of chief, but makes Jack, another important character, a co-leader. At first the community is peaceful and law-abiding to the rules, but soon problems occur.

One of the problems was that the people assigned to keep the fire going on the mountain weren’t doing their job, and neither were the hunters. It is vital that the fire burns at all times, because the fire sends smoke into the air for ships to see them. The hunters were also not able to catch any meat, so Ralph thought they should give up hunting and instead help with other tasks, such as building shelters. However, Jack and the hunters continued to hunt and come empty-handed. Although it was frustrating for Ralph, he kept his cool and decided to just call more and more meetings. Then a little boy with a mulberry birthmark says that he sees a vicious monster on the island, and soon he goes missing. This injects terror into the community and more and more people say they saw the “beastie”. Finally one day a ship goes by the island. Ralph is excited for a potential rescue, but it turns out the signal fire on the mountain wasn’t burning! Ralph quickly went to light it again but the ship had already passed. All the people who were supposed to keep the fire going were out hunting and they finally killed a pig. Ralph and Jack got really mad at each other and Jack ended up slapping Piggy. Then one night military planes fought in the air and a dead parachutist falls onto the island. When two twins wake up to help light the signal fire, they notice the dead parachutist tangled in rocks. From far, the twins think the parachutist is the beast and they run to warn the community. Jack and his hunters decide to hunt the beast but can’t find it so Jack, Ralph, and Simon decide to try again and they too spot the dead parachutist. Just like Sam and Eric, they think that the dead parachutist is the beast so they confirm to the community that the beast is real.

Tension starts building between Jack and Ralph, so Jack decides to make his own “tribe”. Jack gathers his hunters and makes his own tribe where he’s the chief. Ralph’s group was based on peace, survival, and rules whereas Jack’s was based on hunting, violence, and dictatorship. The events following this cause mass destruction, corruption, and killing. This is my favorite classic book because the actions on the island resemble the actions in society. Countries usually start at peace with each other, but after a few wrong and cruel actions, they can cause hatred and warfare between them, just as Jack’s tribe did to Ralph’s community. Although this book did end with a cliffhanger, you can read a book called The Second Flight: A Sequel to Lord of the Flies by Elizabeth Blackwell to continue the story.

5 stars.

Teen Book Reviews: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Holes

Teens: did you know that you can earn community service credit for writing a book review and submitting it to us? Today, we’ll hear from a teen who did just that. Find out more about how to earn community service hours from home at cheshirelibrary.org/teens/.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, reviewed by Ali A.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a book about a Native-American boy named Arnold Spirit. Arnold was born with “water in his brain” and lives in the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington. His reservation is full of drunk and violent people who often die to alcohol overdose. In fact, Arnold said he had been to 42 funerals by the age of 14. Everyone in the reservation has accepted the fact that they are poor and that there’s no hope for them, except Arnold. Arnold realizes that the only way to make it out of his sad life is to go to a predominantly white school in Rearden.

However, things aren’t easy when Arnold begins his high school life in Rearden. Rearden High School is 22 miles away from Arnold’s home, so his dad can only afford to drive Arnold only once or twice a week due to gasoline prices, so Arnold has to dangerously hitchhike with strangers to get to his school. Occasionally, Arnold can’t find anyone to drive him so he has to walk the full 22 miles! And once Arnold gets to school, he has no friends and everyone mocks him. After Arnold finally starts sticking up for himself and fights Roger, the school’s football star, Arnold feels more respected at Rearden and Arnold thinks that he can put his reservation days behind him. He quickly starts making friends with the school brainiac, Gordy, and even Roger becomes friendly with him. Arnold then tries out for the basketball team and actually becomes a starter for the varsity team and their best shooter.

Everything seems to be going well, until the reservation turns on him. People from the Spokane Indian Reservation label him as a traitor and his former best friend, Rowdy, starts hating him. Arnold’s grandmother and sister both die, and Arnold begins to feel depressed. Finally the reservation starts to accept Arnold after he had to endure those tragic losses. Humorous, heart-breaking and amazingly written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian reflects the life of an teen attempting to break away from the hopeless life he was destined to live.

4 Stars.

Holes by Louis Sachar, reviewed by Ali A.

Holes one of my favorite books and I’d recommend it to readers who enjoy adventure books. Holes is about a kid named Stanley Yelnats who is wrongfully accused of stealing a pair of shoes from a famous baseball player named Clyde “Sweet Feet” Livingston. Clyde Livingston’s shoes were supposed to be donated to charity, but instead Stanley found the old shoes on his way home from school. Stanley was unaware that those shoes belonged to the baseball player so he instead brought them home for an experiment his father was conducting. Once the police found out that Stanley was in possession of the shoes, they arrested him and sent him to Camp Green Lake, which is actually a dessert where the prisoners dig holes from dawn to dusk.

Stanley starts making friends, and one of them is Hector “Zero” Zeroni. Stanley is finds it strange that Zero keeps trying to excessively help him dig holes, until he finds out that Zero was the one who stole Clyde Livingston’s shoes and dumped them on the sidewalk to avoid getting caught. Stanley forgives Zero and they both decide to escape the harsh conditions on Camp Green Lake. As Stanley and Zero make their journey, they make discoveries about Camp Green Lake and why the counselors force the prisoners to dig holes all day long in the desert heat.

I’d rate this novel a 5/5 because of all the details Louis Sachar incorporates into Holes. This book also makes me think about all the people around the world that are wrongfully accused and jailed for things they didn’t do, except that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. If you enjoy Holes, I’d also recommend Small Steps, which is a book about what happens to some of the boys after they leave Camp Green Lake.

5 Stars.

Teen Book Reviews: Darius the Great is Not Okay and Divergent

Teens: did you know that you can earn community service credit for writing a book review and submitting it to us? Today, we’ll hear from a teen who did just that. Find out more about how to earn community service hours from home at cheshirelibrary.org/teens/.

Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, reviewed by Ali A.

I really enjoyed Darius the Great Is Not Okay and feel like it’s a must-read for teens. The main character of this novel is Darius Kellner, a white-washed Persian living in the United States who is diagnosed with depression. He feels disconnected from his relatives in Iran, and doesn’t even get along well with his own father. His father, Stephen Kellner, is always disappointed in Darius and wishes Darius could be more normal instead of an overweight loner with funky hair. Darius gets teased at school and only finds peace at the tea shop he works in, the Tea Haven at the Shoppes at Fairview Court. Darius and his family then finds out that Darius’s grandfather, Babou, has a brain tumor and would die soon so Darius’s mother plans a family trip to Iran. It’s Darius’s first trip to Iran so he’s excited but is also worried. Darius knows barely anything about his Persian culture and heritage and doesn’t know if any of his family will like him, especially since Darius doesn’t even know the language of Farsi. However, when Darius gets to Iran, his life changes. He quickly makes friends with a neighborhood boy named Sohrab and Darius discovers more about the Persian culture. Darius’s relationship with his father also becomes tighter and they enjoy each other more. One thing is for sure- Darius is a different person by the time he returns to America. He is no longer lazy, lonely, or as teased as before. I loved this book because I share a lot in common with Darius Kellner. My grandparents and extended family live in India whereas I live on a whole different continent. Also, I only see my grandparents through awkward Skype calls and it’s tough to communicate with them because I don’t know Urdu which is the language that they speak. Adib Khorram did a wonderful job writing this empathetic novel that many teens including myself can relate to and love.

5 Stars.

Divergent by Veronica Roth, reviewed by Ali A.

Normally I hate science fiction books. They are usually about aliens, robots, or people trying to take over the world. Most of the stuff in science fiction books are too complicated for readers to understand and visualize in their minds and science fiction books are usually boring. However, Divergent is the only science fiction book that I have ever fully read and loved. Most science fiction books go overboard on crazy futuristic ideas, but Divergent keeps it real. The Utopian land that the citizens live on is divided into 5 difference groups, which are called factions. The 5 factions are Abnegation, Dauntless, Erudite, Candor, and Amity. Each of the 5 factions prioritizes a special aspect. Abnegation prioritizes selflessness, Dauntless prioritizes bravery, Erudite prioritizes brilliance, Candor prioritizes honesty, and Amity prioritizes tranquility. The main character of the book is Beatrice “Tris” Prior. Beatrice was born into Abnegation and loved her parents and her brother. When everyone is 16 years old, the students are required to take the Aptitude Test, which helps the students discover which faction they should join. Beatrice takes the test and receives a horrid result. Her results revealed that she was Divergent, meaning she doesn’t really fit with one faction but rather a mix of all of them. Beatrice doesn’t understand why being Divergent is so bad or different, but no one explains that to her. On the Choosing Day, where each 16 year old chooses which faction they want to join for the rest of their lives, her selfless brother chooses to join Erudite. Beatrice knew she wasn’t as selfless as her brother so she thought that if he didn’t fit in Abnegation, then she didn’t either. So at the last second, Beatrice chooses to join Dauntless. In Beatrice’s training she has to work hard and do cruel things such as fight her peers for fun and learn to shoot guns. Although the pain is overwhelming, it makes her stronger. Beatrice soon finds out that Erudite is making plans with Dauntless leaders to declare war on her old faction, Abnegation. Veronica Roth did a wonderful job with the plot of Divergent and keeps the readers hooked with plot twists after plot twist.

5 Stars.