Book review: Joy Castro’s “Hell or High Water” and “Island of Bones”

Class and cultural identity are two topics that don’t get as much attention as much as they should, but Joy Castro tackles the issues in her suspense novel Hell or High Water and a book of essays, Island of Bones.

Hell or High Water (St. Martin’s Press) begins with an intriguing premise. A young woman is kidnapped from a restaurant in broad daylight. The book then turns to Nola Céspedes, a Cuban-American newspaper reporter who’s assigned to investigate sexual predators in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.

The book only devotes a few passages to the kidnapping that hooks the reader. Instead, it delves into the Nola’s long interviews for her article and her personal struggles. Nola is supposed to come off as ambitious and sarcastic, but I found her snobby and pretentious, especially when she talked about her job.

“I’ve got no intention of sticking around,” she says. “The plan is to write a few knockout features, get noticed, pack my bags and then take my clips to some real newspaper in some real city.”

Well, aren’t you special? In 2008, the year the story (somewhat randomly) takes place, and even today, she would have been lucky to have any job in newspapers.

I also wanted the book to be more about the potential killer on the loose than on Nola. And as a former newspaper reporter, I found the newsroom scenes could have been so much more – which may by why I’m more critical of this book than if Nola had been a police detective or a private investigator.

Fortunately, Castro writes clearly, so the book was an easy read. And Castro is terrific at bringing up class issues that many other writers ignore. In one scene, she talks to two lower-income women about sexual predator laws.

“Neither of the women has heard of Megan’s Law. Neither knows she can access a sex-offender registry online. Neither one owns a computer.”

At the end of the book, I understood more about the decisions that Nola makes. But I wished I could have liked her more.

I liked Island of Bones (University of Nebraska Press) much better. The collection of essays covers Castro’s personal life, including a horribly abusive childhood, and her career working as the rare Latina in academia in the Midwest.

The title essay examines the stereotypes people have about Latinos, such as their faith and looks. Another great essay, “Fitting,” discusses the subtle barbs of female friendships and the importance of a good spouse.

Like her novel, Castro excels when she discusses class issues. Coming from a poor background, she is amazed at the food spreads in the faculty meetings at the college at she works.

In one of the best essays, “On Becoming Educated,” she points out how academia doesn’t reach out to everyday Latinas.

“I’m a first-generation college student, here by fluke on fellowship, and the theorists’ English seems foreign to me, filled with jargon and abstractions at which I can only guess. They say nothing about wife-beating or rape or unequal wages or child molesting, which is the charge that finally got my stepfather sent to prison. They say nothing about being a single mother on ten thousand dollars a year, which is my own situation. The feminist writers respond to male theorists – Lacan, Derrida – whose work I haven’t read. I can’t parse their sentences or recognize their allusions, and I don’t know what they mean or how they’re helpful to the strippers and dropouts and waitresses I know, the women I care abut the most, to my aunt Lettie who worked the register at Winn-Dixie and my aunt Linda who cleaned houses.”

Fortunately, in Castro, women like Lettie and Linda have someone that’s writing about them.

More about Joy Castro:

Joy Castro’s first book was the 2005 memoir The Truth Book: Escaping a Childhood of Abuse Among Jehovah’s Witnesses. She is an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Source: I checked Hell or High Water out of the library. I received a review copy of Island of Bones from the publisher.

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Filed under 2012 Books, Book Reviews, Fiction, Non-Fiction

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