I finished three more reads since my last list. I indicated then that American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins was next. Aside from the controversial novel, I have also gone through two non-fiction books. The first was Chuck Palahniuk’s Consider This, a handy writing book where the author gives vital tips to his students. The book was short – though hardcover – while likewise being efficient. The title may only be eleven chapters long but packed a lot. The Dokic biography completed the triple. Unbreakable tells the struggles of a tennis prodigy who contended with an abusive father and the gruelling demands of the game. I finished this in under a week, a testament to the work’s accessibility.

American Dirt. (Cummins) By now some of you have heard of this polarising text. Since being published earlier in the year, the book has been either loved or loathed. American tells a story that resonates in these trying times: the story of refugees fleeing their troubled homes in search of a better life. Lydia, a bookstore owner, and her eight-year-old son, Sebastian, escape the clutches of narcos back in Acapulco. As they bounce from hotel to hotel, the tiresome bureaucracy in their country forces them to take the La Bestia. They meet the best angels and the worst demons along the way. Far from their homes, the shadow of Javier (the kingpin) looms large over them. The son and his encyclopaedic knowledge of places are irrelevant as they become pawns in the status quo. Without question the entire trip is very perilous.

The escape to El Norte is a massive undertaking that spans numerous trains, evil rogues, the occasional Good Samaritan and shelters, and the constant brush with death. They meet two sisters, Soledad and Rebecca, who become like family to them. Their journey is full of pit stops and stalling, as they realise that distance will not deter the demons. They pass through various cities, including Juarez and Guadalajara, in a stop-and-start pattern through the Mexican countryside. They are then linked with a ‘coyote’, the final arduous trek through desert as they cross the border into America. This is a strong effort from Cummins, and the hype and malcontent around the book almost overshadows the book per se. Some critics found issue with the book’s depiction of refugee struggles and poverty. Others have noted the inaccuracies in both language and cultural specificities. Regardless, Cummins should be lauded because of her valiant attempt in spite of her shortcomings.

Rating: 4.32/5

Consider This. (Palahniuk) I’ve read one other book by this author (Choke). I’ve tried reading Invisible Monsters, but it didn’t click with me. Palahniuk is notable for his shock value, the gore and guts. Fight Club, made into a Fincher film, is postmodernism par excellence. I was glad to finally get this book last month. Chuck shares that writing tutorials are great ways to advance your fiction. He introduces the reader to big voice, the clock, and the dead parent. He stresses to avoid tennis-match dialogue and dreams. He gives us heaps of examples for inspiration, culled both from his own body of work and from pop culture. He even shares his personal experiences – with the ‘postcard from Tour’ ending each chapter. Moreover, he intersperses his own writing, editing, and troubleshooting experiences throughout the text.

Palahniuk likewise name-drops writers – from his own colleagues to earlier wordsmiths. In so doing, he opens up a new world for every aspiring scribe. Towards the end, he gives his own reading lists (both fiction and nonfiction), most of which are works I’ve never heard of. He admits that he maintains a solid relationship with his classmates. He learned on the fly as he became a bigger name and is happy to impart this learning to a new generation. He likes to describe this element as his ‘kitchen-table MFA’. There’s even a blurb about taking the right author pic. Chuck also foregrounds the city of Portland, much like the Portlandia TV series. He utilises such giants as Steinbeck, Fitzgerald and Vonnegut to drive his point home, but he also mentions lesser-known shows and films.  

Rating: 4.37/5

Unbreakable. (Dokic) My third read was a surprise find as I only stumbled upon the biography. Dokic was the hero of the 2009 Aussie Open, when she charged onto the quarters. She was a refugee twice: first in Serbia, then in Australia, where her family settled. She was born in Croatia before coming to Serbia, where she quickly learned the language and made new friends before migrating to Sydney. They lived in abject conditions, before her flair for forehands offered them a chance. Her dad, Damir, introduced her to the sport after compatriot Monica Seles awed him. Soon he was putting her through a gruelling training regimen, making her hit balls for hours. He also brought her to the tennis club for coaches to add some grace her gung-ho game. She was always a model student in her childhood even as her father became ‘the tennis dad from hell.’

Dokic had a meteoric rise, becoming the youngest Aussie to win a Fed Cup match. However, she often became the outsider, both in school and with her teammates. She copped the abuse from her dad, whether she won or lost. He was very controlling, not only in her finances but also in her social life. As a teenager, she beat the world number one while also reaching the semis in Wimbledon. She rose to as high as world number four. Her dad’s theatrics were stealing the headlines away from her on-court success. Give Jelena credit though for being tough. Though she lost matches, we should applaud her trying under duress. We see her triumphs and setbacks, witness her rising from the ashes. Her challenges remind me of Open, which I read last year. Agassi also faced his turmoil and, like Jelena, had a mid-career crisis.

While her family life is beset with trouble, she manages to find love later on. She considers her younger brother as her rock. She switched sides to Serbia because of her dad, but she always considered Oz as her home. She likewise missed five or six Aussie Opens as a result of this fallout. However, her comeback couldn’t be scripted better, and the crowd remained loyal to her. Her tale is full of fabulous characters: from her incredible dad to a formula one race car driver; an absent coach to formidable tennis foes. Dokic was forced to retire early due to bothersome injuries but hearing about her life in full, is a privilege. Unbreakable is a story of what-ifs, of lessons learned, of life – a game more than tennis.   

Rating: 5/5

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