"I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books."

Borges

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Carry Me Like Water



This lush and touching novel by Benjamin Alire Saenz is simply astounding. The book is a story of interconnected stories of a most amazing cast of characters. There is the thoughtful and deaf Diego, living in El Paso, working on his suicide note and making friends with a cholo named Mundo whom he finds stabbed in a dumpster, Mary or the Virgin Mary and wise, irreverent Luz. There is Jake and Joaquin a gay couple struggling with Joaquin’s dying of AIDS, Helen and Eddy the rich couple in Northern California awaiting their first child and Lizzie, the nurse who one day while tending an AIDS patient, finds he was her twin brother, that he has given her his gift of being psychic and that she is really a Mexican named Maria de Lourdes. Each character is a puzzle waiting to be solved and amazing in their reality.

Each of these complex and tormented characters has their own story and each story dovetails neatly into one another into a rich and delicious stew of a novel. The book deals with AIDS, love, secrets and the ghosts of the past. We find that Helen is really Maria Elena or Nena and she is Diego’s sister. Eddy, her husband has his own past as a molested child to come to terms with and a brother to find. Jake is dealing with his anger and grief at losing Joaquin. And then there is my favorite character in the book, Lizzie. Lizzie can leave her body, she is coming to terms with her new found psychic ability and finds something in herself to give. She holds Jake and Joaquin together and becomes their anchor as they battle with illness and death.

The river too, is a large character in this book. It is the river in El Paso that separates Mexico from Texas. Diego and Luz spend Sunday mornings on the river watching the swimmers from the other side trying to cross over into a better life. The book deals with prejudice and hate, struggling to make a life in this land, gives an amazing view of what people give up to come here and what they find when they do.

Diego is thoughtful, reflective and kind. He speaks without speaking, says much in his thoughts and handwritten notes to Mundo or Luz. He is the heart of the book, the story within a story.

All in all, it is an amazing story, a commentary on life, on the issues that plague us today like border crossings, prejudice, AIDS, being Chicano, being gay, love, death and fear. The dialogue is crisp and interesting, each chapter seamlessly flows like the river into the next. It is poetic which is not surprising considering Saenz is an eloquent Chicano poet. Like his book, In Perfect Light, he has created a masterpiece of imagery, color and a unique and beautiful story revolving around a central theme.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Frontera Dreams




If you haven’t yet read any of Paco Taibo’s Hector Beascoaran Shayne detective novels yet, be prepared for something wildly different than your usual detective fare. This is so much more than a mystery.

In Frontera Dreams, Hector is asked by the daughter of his old high school sweetheart now a big movie star, to track down her mother whom she feels is in danger. He leaves his Mexico City and heads out for the border looking for her. As he travels through the villages heading for the border, he travels through his memories as well. There is the reference to Tlateloco, the Mexico of the late 60’s and his memories of the sweetheart turned actress with the unlikely name of Natalia Smith-Corona.

The one-eyed, much scarred Shane battles with narcotraficantes, comtemplates the life these border people have, communes with the ghost of none other than Pancho Villa, recites and remembers poetry, hears the story of the 300 missing Zacatecas prostitutes and learns of the legend of the Chinese guy that jumped the fence of the US /Mexico border seven times in one day all the while doing his job finding Natalia.

Paco Ignacio Taibo, II is one of Mexico’s foremost writers. His character Shane has been knifed, scarred, wounded, killed – yes killed and resurrected by Taibo yet again. This story doesn’t have the feel of the other Shane novels, but those take place in Mexico City where the pace is different. Taibo captures the meandering crazy desperation of the border towns expertly in this literary and intense novel.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Massacre in Mexico


Writing the review for Paco Ignacio Taibo’s book, “68 made me start thinking about another book I read years ago on Tlatelolco – Elena Poniatowska’s masterpiece entitled Massacre in Mexico. I went over to my shelf and pulled it down to re-read it. Wow! It still packs a punch and makes a deep impact.

Elena Poniatowska’s chronicle of the 1968 massacre at Tlatelolco is an astounding and must read book. An estimated 325 unarmed students were shot and bayoneted that night by Mexican police and Army troops in what had been a peaceful protest about the lack of political freedom and the one-party government. La Plaza de las Tres Culturas has been called Mexico’s Tianamen Square. The President at the time was Gustavo Diaz Ordaz.

Ms. Poniatowska calls it a “collage of voices bearing historical witness” and truly it is. The book is packed with first person accounts and interviews from witnesses, students and people anxiously looking for their children, wives, husbands and friends. In startling black and white photos, Poniatowska takes us there, back in time to that bloody October. There are photos of bodies lying in pools of blood, of police hauling students off to jail, of people crying, in agony, in despair.

Be prepared to cry, to rage, to be haunted for this is a brutally honest look at what happened in Mexico City that day. The voices beg out for justice, they ask why and they grieve. Some of the stories are just so heartbreaking that I have to stop, catch my breath and wipe my eyes.

Octavio Paz wrote the touching forward to this amazing chronicle. This is another must for any library, especially a Chicano one.

'68 by Paco Ignacio Taibo II


In the fall of 1968, 325 students were massacred by the Mexican police in the public square of Tlatelolco during a protest. One person I know who was there remembers running, running and slipping on the blood of his fellow students – agruesome memory that will haunt him all his life. In ’68, Paco Ignacio Taibo documents the student movement leading up to the bloody massacre.

In 1968, I was only seven years old and living here in Gringolandia, but I remember Tlatelolco. I remember my grandparents hearing the news from family in Mexico and grabbing me out of the living room to stay quietly with my tia in her room. Such things weren’t meant for little girls to hear. Being an overly curious child, I snuck out and eavesdropped when I could. I heard my grandparents crying over the news that came in slowly. I know now that there was a news blackout for some time. I remember my mother and my uncle whispering about it and of people they knew in Mexico, wondering if those people were some of the dead. I remember bits and pieces but I remember Tlateloco. Reading ’68 brought those bits and pieces to the front of my memories and filled in what I didn’t know.

The student movement was at one time a half million strong and led to a 123-day strike in high schools and colleges throughout Mexico. Mr. Taibo was one of that student movement and writes from his memory of nights spent painting buses, printing flyers, guarding the school. He talks of madness, the quest for freedom, of brutal police beatings, the disappearance of bodies, of his own near arrest, of friends who disappeared into prisons and his own feelings of guilt for not being in Tlatelolco at the time of the massacre. He puts faces onto the students and talks of friends in the Moviemiento.

There are chapters so haunting and atrocious that it becomes hard to read but too important, too absorbing to put down. Each chapter is evocative, telling and passionate. The chapters have titles like “Of Women and Mattresses, The Sound of Marching Feet, Wherein We Learn the Tanks Have Arrive, Throwing Corncobs and Even Liars Know the Truth”.

It is a chilling and enlightening view of the things that went on behind the scenes, from the student’s point of view in the months and years leading up to the Massacre that some of us know so little of. The Mexican government covered up much of what happened and even now all these years later, information is not clear. Paco Ignacio Taibo II does much to uncover what remains hidden.

He asks, “Where did they throw our dead? Where did they toss our dead? Where, for fuck’s sake, did they throw our dead?” We should be asking the same.

Seven Stories Press has this title available in both English and Spanish along with other important books. Please visit and support this publisher.

Modelo Antiguo



This book was another great find from one of my favorite publishers Cinco Puntos Press. The translation into English by Sharon Franco and Joe Hayes is smooth, catching all the Mexican dialogue and chistes with ease. Cinco Puntos is doing such a fantastic job in bringing over these great Mexican novels by writers like Luis Eduardo Reyes and Paco Taibo II that before I write my review on the book, I have to take a moment to thank them and encourage them in this wonderful task they are undertaking.

The novel centers on Juan, a young taxi driver and Barbara, a 74 year old virgin who wants to die in her vintage, cherry old Ford and so hires Juan as a chauffeur to drive her around Mexico City – the Mexico City that she remembers from her youth. It’s a wild ride through the streets of the city and the reader is made familiar with these crazy Mexican streets.

Barbara is a well-bred lady and Juan, a rude, crude and not so honest man. They start off hating each other. Juan’s nefarious intentions are to steal the car and whatever money he can get from Barbara but something keeps bringing him back on this strange ride through Barbara’s memories and the city streets. Slowly they begin to fall for each other and this strange romance ensues as they dodge danger, visit hotels and pharmacies as they try to deal with their feelings and emotions.

It’s a funny, wry, absurd and wonderfully surreal tale of Mexico City and love.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Elegies in Blue



From my dictionary's defintion for elegy:
French élégie, from Latin elega, from Greek elegeia, from pl. of elegeion, elegiac distich, from elegos, song, mournful song.

This third book of poetry (and some prose) by Chicano poet, Benjamin Alire Sáenz is remarkable, beautiful and mournful. It is an astounding, touching and reflective look at life on the El Paso border told by someone who was born and raised there. The book is also an homage to people, from the infamous like Pancho Villa, to Cesar Chavez, to the author’s father-in-law to JFK.

All the work bears the lyrical stamp of Mr. Sáenz. He has a special knack for creating the most simple and beautiful lines on a page. I always find myself stopping to read a certain passage, a stanza again, to read it aloud just to be swept away by the sheer grace and raw power of it. Take for instance this section in his poem What Was It All For Anyway, Cesar Chavez?

“Flattering strategy. You wore that word out Injustice.
It made you sound accusing and superior. Not smart
Cesar, people got nervous. People hated you
Because you spelled it out – one lettuce
At a time.”

In the prose-like American Camps, he speaks eloquently of a boy in a picture he finds in a library, a boy with intelligent eyes, behind barbed wire. He speaks of the hidden histories, obscure ethnic histories.

I loved the poem At the Grave of Pancho Villa. I especially loved the line

“Well better bullets than cancer
for a General.”

My favorite of all the poems and to me, the most strikingly elegiac was The Blue I Loved. It was truly a lovely and haunting in its warm and vibrant imagery.

The poetry in this book is filled with rage, indignation, pride, community, righteous anger and political voice. Any Chicano worth his salt should run over to Cinco Punto’s website and buy it. Don’t just buy it – read it, feel it, love it and then read it again and again.

Peel My Love Like an Onion




Has there ever been a character in a novel stranger, more hypnotic and more entrancing than Carmen La Coja? Not for me. Peel My Love Like an Onion is the story of Carmen La Coja or the Cripple who has a crippled leg, shriveled from polio. It doesn’t stop her from pursuing her dream of becoming a Flamenco dancer, from being beautiful and seductive or from carrying herself with pride. However, when Carmen is not dancing, she loses her surety, her poise and grace.

The book is the story of Carmen’s finding of herself. It is a love story as well. Carmen falls in love with a young gypsy dancer in her troupe, Manolo the nephew of Augustin, leader of the troupe and also Carmen’s married lover. There is love and betrayal, bitter disappointment and loss, confusion and sexuality in this marvelous book about the unquenchable spirit that resides in Carmen La Coja.

After years of dancing, her polio returns and she is forced to stop dancing, to take odd jobs and move home with her parents. Slowly, Carmen is feeling suffocated, bereft and just as slowly she fights her way back and reclaims her life, her spirit and her identity.

Ana Castillo writes with exquisite detail. We feel every emotion and sensation. Like the onion referenced in the title, this book has layers and layers to be peeled away and tasted. It’s a powerful and strangely beautiful story that will stay with you and pop into your head at odd moments to make you smile.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

The Door to Bitterness

This is the fourth in Martin Limón’s fabulous noir detective series featuring army investigators Chicano George Sueños and his partner Ernie Bascomb set in the sleazy underbelly of the Korea of the 1970’s. The writing is fast-paced, hard-boiled, gruff and gritty. It is direct and to the point but underneath it all there is a poignancy and haunting beauty.

In this story, George Sueños meets a mad and beautiful Eurasian woman in a bar and ends up waking up in an alley missing his badge and his pistol. After a murder/robbery is committed using his gun, it is up to the pair to track down the murderers and get back the weapon to keep George from being court-martialed. The hunt to find the killers is filled with plot twists and surprises, taking the reader into the dark bars, brothels and the Korean black market all brought vividly to life. George and Ernie must also deal with the Korean police and government investigating the same crime.

It is an uncommon setting told from a clipped and fascinating viewpoint. Limón is a retired Army officer who was himself stationed in Korea.

The Moon Will Forever Be a Distant Love

“AMID THE MARKETS AND CANALS of the great city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, smack on the corner where nowadays Dolores Street runs past the Chinese restaurants and umbrella stores, Conquistador Balboa is in a rush to run an errand for the Marquis, and the Indian girl Florinda is walking to the flea market.”

This is the first sentence in this marvelous, surreal novel by Luis Humberto Crosthwaite, one of Mexico’s well-known novelists and Cinco Puntos Press has done a marvelous thing in bringing this author’s work to the US for us to enjoy.

The book is about Florinda and her Conquistador love, Balboa who is fired from his bureaucratic job with the other conquistadores because of downsizing. The two leave to Tijuana by bus hoping to cross The Border into the Northernish Empire.

As with many couples, real life intrudes on their fairy tale. They find without the proper papers they cannot cross The Border, Florinda (Xochitl) has to live with Balboa’s lisping Castillian family who treat her like a maid. Meanwhile Balboa’s uncle gets him across the border stuffed into the trunk of a car while still wearing his conquistador armor.

In this bizarre and wonderful quirky novel, centuries are traversed and lives change. Florinda comes to work in a factory in Tijuana, becomes a serious shoe-aholic and learns to live on her own. Balboa starts wearing jeans and a t-shirt, loses his lisp and takes up with the fair haired waitress Maryanne before getting rounded up by La Migra. This is such a fun and well told story filled with chistes and puns. I think my favorite part was when the Conquistador gets picked up by La Migra and deported. I encourage everyone to read this book and to find more Crosthwaite in his native Spanish. Kudos to Cinco Puntos for bringing him to the light here in the Northernish Empire!

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Enchantment



Enchantment is the story of a modern day Jewish Ukranian boy who stumbles upon a sleeping young woman covered by a lake of leaves while on an extended visit to a cousin’s farm. The boy ends up leaving to America with his parents, his father a professor of some note and his mother, a mysterious and loving woman.

The boy grows to manhood in America, a scholar like his father with a love of running. He loves running and while his parents find it strange, he finds it suits him and joins track and field. He is haunted though by his dreams of the young woman sleeping in the forest and embarks on a trip back to the Ukraine to work on his thesis of folk tales.

He returns to his cousin’s farm and one day goes to where he believes he dreamed the young beauty sleeping in the forest. To his surprise he finds her and battles a bear to get to her. It is Sleeping Beauty and he wakes her with a kiss and a promise of marriage even though he is engaged and has left his fiancée behind in America.

What follows is a remarkable tale in which Ivan and his princess travel back in time to old Russia and battle Baba Yaga herself. It is a charming and stunning re-telling of an old fairy tale. I was completely entranced by this spell binding tale and quite surprised even though I am a long time fan of Orson Scott Card. I encourage everyone to read this incredible tale which mixes magic, time travel, folk tales and modernity. If you’re a fan of Orson Scott Card you’ll love it and if you’ve never read him, this is the book to start with.

Dreaming the Eagle



This was another book I got at Comic Con from my foray to the Del Rey/Random House booth that I couldn’t put down.

Dreaming the Eagle
tells the tale of Breaca who will grow to be Boudica, the Warrior Queen who fought against the Romans. Little is known of the real Boudica, but Manda Scott makes it seem she knew her intimately. The book is the first in a trilogy about this little known historical character and with so little known about her, an ambitious attempt. I was amazed at how detailed the book was. It is positively littered with data.

The story begins with Breaca’s mother, a leader of her tribe being killed by the Coritani while giving birth and Breaca, only twelve kills the man who intends to kill her, thus earning her first kill feather. The book goes on to tell the tales of many interesting and riveting characters, of life in Breaca’s tribe and of the Romans. I was absolutely swept away into another world.

Much of the novel tells of the importance of the dreamers of Mona, a special island where the dreamers reside and of the trials each young woman or man must go through to find their place within the tribe. It tells of oaths, romance, community, war and the spirituality of the people of the time.

I am much looking forward to the second novel in the series and have high hopes for it.

The Dark Highlander



I picked up this nifty little book at the Del Rey booth at Comic Con and headed back to my booth happy to have something, anything to read in those sometimes slow moments at the booth. The girl at Del Rey said I’d love it, that it was really good and I have to say I had my doubts. I don’t usually read romance novels. Just not my style. However, I was blown away by this one and I’ll be picking up all this author’s titles quite soon.

The Dark Highlander is an enchanting tale of a cursed 16th century Druidic Highlander, who crossed a time portal to save his brother and in so doing, absorbed into himself 13 souls of evil and ancient Druids. He is fighting a losing battle trying to keep these evil souls from totally possessing him and bringing doom to the world. Oh yeah and the way he keeps them at bay is to lose himself in sexual pursuits.

“I am Dageus MacKeltar, a man with one good conscience and thirteen bad ones, driven to sate my darkest desires…”

This Scot is handsome, wealthy and a sex machine! Still, he tormented by the demons and determined to find a way to rid himself of them. He also has the ability to time travel into our century which he does in his search for rare manuscripts which may contain a hint of how to oust the evil souls. The Tuatha de Danan or fairy folk are also involved in this story. It was their Queen who originally trapped the evil Druids which now live inside of Dageus.

Enter Chloe Zanders, student of antiquities and lover of all things Scottish. She finds herself trapped in Daegus’s penthouse and begins to help him on his quest. A dangerous faction of modern day evil Druids are lurking and Chloe and Dageus are dodging danger everywhere.

This is a fine and involved tale and a lovely romance as well. If you’re looking for a heck of a good and entertaining time, then pick this up. I had the best time reading it.

Frida’s Fiestas: Recipes and Reminiscences of Life with Frida Kahlo



This book is one of the most beat up and beloved books in my collection. As a huge fan of Frida Kahlo as well as a cook who’s earliest and fondest memories were of being in the kitchen with my grandmother Lupe Camarillo, this is a treasure. I actually have two copies, one I keep in my kitchen and refer to it often and one that I keep safely stowed away and protected.

Frida’s Fiestas is written by Guadalupe Rivera, daughter of Diego Rivera and Lupe Marin. The book is filled with wonderful, full color photographs of La Casa Azul, Frida’s kitchen, Frida and Diego and food, glorious, astounding Mexican food.

Many of these recipes I grew up eating and hearing stories about why they were made on certain days like the red, white and green rice for September 16th. When I found this book, it was like being in the kitchen with my grandmother all over again and I delighted in taking the time required to build the slow and savory flavors. The book has traditional Oaxacan Black Mole, treats like chiles rellenos en nogada and the oyster soup I made for my son’s wedding dinner.

Through all the photos and recipes are Guadalupe Rivera’s memories of her times with Frida and Diego and of the meals and fiestas that were celebrated. She replicates the tables that Frida took so much care in preparing, sugar skulls for Dia de los muertos, little cut paper flags for Mexican Independence day.

To look at the photos of guayabas poached in syrup or the little clay cups filled with shrimp broth reminds me of the smells in my grandmother’s kitchen and gets me wanting to cook. You can almost smell the chiles and rich spices, almost taste the frijoles borrachos. This is more than a cookbook, it is redolent with scents, flavors and that most entrancing aroma – memories of a life well lived.

Mama: Latina Daughters Celebrate Their Mothers



This beautifully illustrated collection of memories, stories and homage to the mothers of some of our most successful Latina women is simply beautiful. It is filled with love and devotion, hope and loyalty, honor and dignity.

There are stories here from the likes of Celia Cruz, Esmeralda Santiago, Lisa Lisa, Maria Hinojosa, Judge Marilyn Milian, Jaci Velasquez, Rosario Dawson, Christina Saralegue, Christina Vidal, Lauren Velez, Denise Quinonez, Jackie Guerra and more. It is a loving tribute by these famous daughters to their mothers. The book is filled with portraits of mothers and daughters all stunningly done in rich black and white.

Maria Perez Brown interviewed Latinas from many different walks of life, some famous, others not so famous. She spoke with Latinas of many different nationalities and in their own words, each woman tells of the bond she has or has had with her mother. In each, the mother was a strong and resounding force, someone to be respected, loved and honored.

This book is truly an amazing collection and would be an amazing gift for any mother. The stories within will touch your heart and make you laugh, smile and cry.

The Sisters Grimm



This book, the first in a new series by Michael Buckley is a humorous tale of fairy tale detectives. It is the story of two orphaned sisters, Sabrina and Daphne who after a series of bad foster parents end up being taken to live with the grandmother they never knew they had Relda Grimm.

Grandma Relda lives in a strange town and an even stranger house. Little by little, the sisters find that their grandmother is a fairy tale detective, dedicated to tracking down the perpetrators of strange and unusual crimes. Sabrina and Daphne learn that they are descended from the Brothers Grimm whose fairy tales were actually histories to help themselves and future generations learn about fairy tale creatures for their altruistic purposes.

Many adventures happen in this strange town and Sabrina and Daphne are pulled right into the midst of it all. As they begin to trust Relda and meet some very strange creatures along the way, they find theirselves drawn into the solving of a big mystery and in danger. They learn of the race of Everafters, fairy tale creatures now living in this little town in New York state and bound never to leave by an old ancestor of the Grimms.

It is a refreshing new fairy tale, filled with fun, humor and growing pains. I look forward to reading the next in the series.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Mi Hija, Mi Hijo, El Aguila, La Paloma: Un Canto Azteca




Ana Castillo, the reknowned Xicana poet, novelist and essayist has written one of the loveliest little children’s book I’ve ever seen. It is a blessing and a prayer based on an old Aztec flor y canto beautifully illustrated by Susan Guevara.

The book is small and looks something like the facsimiles of the old Aztec codices. It is written Spanish. It begins with Mi Hija, La Paloma, or My Daughter, the Dove; a canto designed to teach little girls of their preciousness, beauty and how to live their lives. It has a charming lilt to it. The first stanza begins:

“Mi hija, preciosa,
como un collar de oro
preciosa
como una pluma de quetzal,
tu eres mi sangre,
mi imagen - ”

“My daughter,
precious like a golden necklace
precious
like the feather of a quetzal,
you are my blood
my image - ”

It continues to extol the virtues of the daughter as well as giving some life lessons, reminding the daughter not to be lazy, to study, to work. It tells that a girl must learn to live her life on the right path.

The second section is written for a boy, Mi Hijo, El Aguila, El Tigre or My Son, The Eagle, The Tiger begins:

“Mi hijo,
aguila y tigre,
ala y cola
Hijo mio,
Tan querido, tan amado –
¡escuche!”

“My son,
eagle and tiger,
wing and tail,
My son,
So dear, so loved –
listen!”

It goes on to speak of ancestors, of pride, or what our ancestors have left for us in lessons, in our culture, our heritage. It tells of doing good works, becoming a good man, of living life with care and dignity. It asks that the son listen with his heart and go on to become a good man.

The book is illustrated with Aztec symbols from the old codices as well as delicate and powerful paintings on amatl paper or tree bark in the indigenous tradition. The paintings, while done in the style of the ancient people are of contemporary children and their parents and surprisingly, fit in perfectly with the Aztec symbols and images.

It is an astounding message, a lovely and loving book and a testament to Ms. Castillo’s love of our culture. She and Ms. Guevara have created a lasting and honorific tribute to our ancestors as well as a beautiful and contemporary moral poem for children and parents to enjoy for years to come.

Our Word is Our Weapon



In January of 1994, when the Zapatistas took over six towns in the Mexican state of Chiapas, the world was shocked. Then the writings from the speaker of these people, a ski-masked mystery man that reminds me of Zorro began to send his writings to La Jornada and the world.

In the eleven years of the Zapatista rebellion, I have spent much of my time searching La Jornada on the internet for the latest Marcos communiqué or news. I remember in the beginning, when I’d print out the pages at work, run to my danza practice and hand over the pages to our history cabeza for copying and disseminating to our group.

We were thrilled when Shadows of Tender Fury was published and urged everyone we knew to buy a copy. I read it to gang members, to danzantes, to my children, to co-workers that I felt needed to know what was going on. Through all my reading both to myself and aloud of Marco’s writings, I became and remain captivated by his prose and poetry, by his simple eloquence.

Our Word is Our Weapon is another book in the vein of Shadows of Tender Fury in that it encapsulates the writings of Marcos. The difference is that it is years later (eight years when the book was published) and still the rebellion continues. There was a Red Alert issued by Marcos as recently as July 1, 2005.

The book begins with a quote of Cervantes in Don Quixote about madness and knight errants and a poem by Pablo Neruda called The Word which is startling not only because it is an amazing poem, but because it seems to fit this book so very well, almost as if it had been written specifically for it. Marcos, I have always thought, loves poetry as much as I do. He writes his own and constantly quotes from poets like Anthony Machado, Miguel Cervantes or Neruda. Many of his communiqués begin or end with a poem. At least I think so, even though they may not be meant as poetry. Take the detailed communiqué from February 20, 2005 that cites both Shakespeare and Machado and ends in what I think is a poem of his own. He ends with, “The Sup, from the top of a hill, seeing to the west how the sun brings down a fading beam…”

The book contains poetry by Marcos and communiqués, including his letter on the 30th anniversary of Tlateloco and the letter to Leonard Peltier. It is another insight into the Zapatista war against oblivion, another great resource to have for anyone trying to learn about or expand their learning about Chiapas, the Zapatistas or Marcos.

In the beautiful and moving Prologue by Jose Saramago, he states, “This was a victory of the spirit” when speaking of the horrible massacre at Acteal.

The Zapatista Reader



The Zapatista Reader
is one of the most amazing collection of essays, interviews, stories and insights by some of the greatest writers of our time: Jose Saramago, Paco Taibo II, Octavio Paz, Naomi Klein, Elena Ponitowska, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Monsavais, Manuel Vazquez Montalban, John Berger, Andrew Kopkind, Eduardo Galenao, Alma Guillermoprieto, Pascal Beltran Del Rio, Saul Kandau, Jorge Mancillas, John Ross, Regis Debray, Jose de la Colina, Mike Gonzalez and many more.

There is a brief historical timeline and an introduction by Tom Hayden who also serves as editor of the collection. This is an invaluable resource for anyone wanting to learn of the Zapatista movement. Some of the finest reporting and commentary ever are in this collection. It contains eyewitness accounts of the day the Zapatistas took the world by storm, January 1, 1994, the writings of Subcommandante Marcos and essays by some very fine and thoughtful writers.

Paco Taibo II, back in March of 1994 whose article originally published in The Nation, appears in this book and his thoughts of what is happening around him are wonderful. He is awed by this development and angered for the people of Chiapas. He states in this article, “Chiapas lies at the asshole of world, where Jesus Christ lost his serape and John Wayne lost his horse.” He says of living in Mexico City at the time of the uprising, “I haven’t left the house in three days except to buy the newspaper. I talk on the phone, listen to the radio, watch television with the fascination of a blind man seeing an image for the first time."

Eduardo Galeano in his Chiapas Chronicle which originally appeared in La Jornada on August 7, 1996, says “Marcos, the spokesperson, came from elsewhere. He spoke to them; they did not understand. Then he entered the mist, he learned to listen and was able to speak. Now he speaks from them: His is the voice of voices.”

There are less poetic parts of this books, statistics and important pieces of information. It is remarkable to have all these articles and essays compiled into a single book. Now, as the Zapatista battle is in the middle of their 11th year, as Marcos has issued a Red Alert, this book is more important than ever in the war against oblivion. It should be in every Xicano library, it should be read and re-read, quoted and used. It is the thread to keep pulling, it will lead to more and more books on the movement, research and give impetus to find out more.

The Importance of a Piece of Paper



I’ve long been a fan of Jimmy Santiago Baca’s poems and when I found this little book sitting on a dusty shelf of a used bookstore in Hollywood, I grabbed it. I read it coming home on the train on the same day and finished it as soon as I got in the door, forgetting dinner, work or anything else I had to do that night. It’s that good.

The Importance of a Piece of Paper is a collection of short stories, each one a shining facet of this diamond of a book. In Matilda’s Garden, an old man struggles with day-to-day life as he mourns for his dead wife. The story is almost ethereal, a fairy tale of flowers and grief. It is also touching and uncannily real. I’ve seen this kind of grief before. We all have an abuelo, an abuelita, a tia or tio, a mom or a dad who has lost their life partner, their companero who has been with them for so man years that when they lose them, they are lost. This story captures all that grief, longing, memories and love. It’s beautiful and my favorite of the collection.

There are other stories as well, each one with it’s own message, feel and emotion. The Importance of a Piece of Paper, the title story tells of a brother who has sold his piece of inherited ranch land out from under his siblings. The story tells of the feelings of betrayal, rage, hurt and of the struggle of keep the land that has been in their family. Again, Santiago Baca touches his fingers to the pulse of who we are, how we think and feel. This story could be about any of us Mexicanos, we’ve all known something a little like this.

In Enemies, another of my favorites the story is about three prisoners of different races who have spent years in solitary confinement and hating each other. Suddenly, unexpectedly, they are released and are left with only their hatred of each other. The journey they make, both on their way home and within themselves is revealing and gives much room for thought.

Jimmy Santiago Baca’s masterful use of words in this lovely collection of stories and leaves the reader wanting more.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

The Widow of the South



The Widow of the South was based on events that took place in Robert Hick’s home town. It is the story of Carrie MacGavock, a woman who’s home was commandeered as a field hospital in the time of the Civil War. Mr. Hicks writes eloquently of Carrie, her husband and the wounded soldier, Zacariah Cashwell, she comes to love. Carrie is an amazing and quite human woman. She has lost several children and is very depressed, almost to the point of madness at the time of the commandeering of her home in Tennessee. A bloody battle takes place in Franklin where almost 9,000 men perish.

The battle scene is bloody and most violent, the period is well researched and Civil War buffs will love this book for it’s astounding attention to detail.

Of interest to me, and what kept me riveted to the book, is how this amazing woman fought to keep the dead bodies of soldiers she didn’t even know from being plowed over by rich and bitter neighbor who has lost his only son in the battle. Carrie has the soldiers dug up and re-buried in her own land and creates a cemetery for the soldiers. The real Carrie and her husband actually did this, creating the only private Confederate cemetery.

I was amazed and moved by this book. The author was able to delve into the psychological impacts of war, death, depression and rage, taking us deeply into the psyches of each character. His characters were very real and very human to me. It amazed me that a woman, caught up in her own sorrow was able to care for the soldiers dying in her home, comfort them and then give up her own land to bury them and dignify them. The chaste love story that emerges in the background of this battle, these deaths, the fight for the right to bury them is transcendent and beautiful and illuminates the book with such perfect grace.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

The Witch's Boy



Oh, what a refreshing and unbelievable fairy tale this is! The book begins with a witch who finds a child in a basket outside her home with a child so ugly his mother has abandoned it with only a note that says “a devil’s child for the devil’s wife.” The note hurts the witch; she is misunderstood but fancies she will keep the child. She does so against the advice of her familiar and gets a bear to be the boy’s nanny and an enslaved and conniving djinn to be the boy’s tutor.

Lump, as the boy is called grows up not realizing he is ugly. The witch has little time for him and his bear nanny raises him as she would a cub. Eventually, Lump is exposed to cruelty and the realization of his ugliness.

Lump eventually finds his way into the world, always wearing a mask to hide his face and the ugliness he is so sensitive about. He overcomes bitterness and hurt, makes friends and enemies and finds himself. He fights battles both in the world and within his own heart to find self-worth, love and happiness.

Mr. Gruber weaves a fine tale, tying in old and familiar fairy tales into this one with a twist. His insight into parents and their children, the misunderstandings and the hurt they unknowingly bestow on each other is amazingly accurate. He exposes prejudice and fear, love and forgiveness with a skilled hand. His fantasy world is just wondrous and his tale that much more so. I hope to read more in this genre from Mr. Gruber, as this was one of the most brilliantly written stories I’ve ever had the pleasure to read.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Bent to the Earth - Blas Manuel De Luna



I just finished reading the most astounding collection of poetry from a Tijuana born poet and writer, Blas Manuel De Luna. It is incredible!

The title poem Bent to the Earth speaks of the violence against migrant farm workers, the beating, the fear, the loss. Separation of husband from wife, mother from son, neighbors and friends gone. It brought tears to my eyes as did my favorite from the collection, My Father, Reading Neruda. The beauty of this final stanza moved me so deeply that I found myself crying in the early morning rush to get ready for work.

“But now, Neruda. Now, poetry. Now, poems.
I go near him. He is near
the end of the book; his finger marks
his place in a poem, in the poetry
that we have in common,
and that carries us both.”

The slim volume is packed with heart wrenching and sadly, true accounts of the life of the immigrant farmworker. Blas Manuel de Luna writes poignantly and beautifully of despair and loss, death and violence.

In his poem Into America, one can feel the anxious waiting for the darkness that will possibly give a few brave souls access into a new life on the other side or maybe just waiting another day with their desire to cross.

Mr. De Luna is one of the most eloquent and insightful poets it’s ever been my pleasure to encounter. His writing is crisp and conveys a depth of feeling so profound and haunting that it stays long after the book is closed. Read this portion of his elegiac poem to his little brother, The Sky Above Your Grave.

“If you could see through satin and wood and earth
and bits of grass,
if you could see through the trees in winter
when their leaves are gone.
if, little brother, there were a way for the dead to see,
you would see all the ways the sky has to be beautiful.

I feel that this is such an important little book for so many reasons. It is a slim volume and packed with such powerful messages. It is a lesson in humanity. It is the voice of protest. It is a call for action.

Monday, June 27, 2005

The Painted Drum



Faye Travers, an estate antiquities expert is startled to hear the sound of a drum as she is cataloging the contents of a house. She follows the sound and finds an Ojibwe painted drum carefully wrapped in a blanket. Moved by the feelings the sound and sight of the drum bring to her, she secrets it away and steals it.

As Louise Erdrich’s masterful storytelling unfolds, the drum too unfolds coming to life as the stories of the lives the drum has touched almost weave themselves into the rich and elegiac tale.

We follow Faye as she deals with her grief in losing her sister and father. She has an oddly touching yet reserved relationship with her lover, the sculptor Kurt Krahe that lives nearby. Her tentative and careful relationship with her mother slowly blossoms into something other as the drum works its magic and brings them to the drum’s home, the Ojibwe reservation and home of her grandmother.

When Faye talks of the frozen and dying apple orchard or of the ravens she loves to watch, I can see and smell the desiccated branches. I hear the ravens call.

The drum sings its song of grief and loss, of the children who died, of the children it saves. The drum and the story are magical, the language of both so elegant, so poignant, so warm.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

The People of Paper



Wow! This has to have been the most weird, wild and wonderful book I’ve read in the longest time. The book begins with a boy who creates paper organs to save his butchered cat and becomes the world’s first origami surgeon. The book goes on to tell of monks in secret factories, a woman of paper, a little girl named Merced and her father who cures himself of sadness by burning his flesh.

Merced and her father Fernando de la Fe leave Mexico and wind up in El Monte, California picking carnations. They encounter gangs, the woman of paper, and a whole assortment of strange and unusual characters. An unlikely war begins against the planet Saturn and the gang members from Monte Flores, led by Fernando.

The People of Paper is violent and bloody, haunting and strangely beautiful. A man’s tongue bleeds and bleeds from paper cuts received while giving a woman of paper cunnilingus, a wife leaves her husband because she is fed up with sleeping in pools of piss, turtles become armored tanks. It is unreal and real, fantastic and sublime.

The book is allegorical, beautifully written and most surprising. There are paper tricks throughout the book as well that normally would annoy me but in this, they just fit so well with the story that I found myself enjoying them hugely. What really surprises me is that this is a debut novel.

Salvador Plascencia was born in Guadalajara, Mexico in 1976.

Zorro



When I first heard Isabel Allende had written a novel about Zorro, I went crazy with excitement. Ms. Allende is one of my favorite authors and Zorro, one of my favorite and beloved characters. What a pairing! I wasn’t disappointed. Allende’s Zorro is wonderful.

Told from the point of view of a close friend of Zorro’s aka Don Diego de la Vega, the novel tells of Zorro’s origins from his birth to his time in Spain to his return to California. Diego is born to Don Alejandro de la Vega and Regina, a mestizo whose real name is Topurnia. The character of Regina is fascinating, she is herself a warrior, chosen by wolves and she meets Don Alejandro while storming the very mission he is there to defend. She teaches the young Diego the language of her people and takes him without her husband knowing to the Indian village where he learns of her people’s ways and traditions.

Ms. Allende’s storytelling leaves no detail unturned, we meet Diego’s milk brother Bernardo and learn of their strong bond of friendship, and we travel to Spain, a Spain during the Napoleonic era. Diego is wonderfully complex in learning to live with his duality both as Diego/Zorro and as a Spanish hidalgo/indigenous man. His concept of honor is developed early, his love for his mother’s people is deep, and his horror at the way the Dons treat indigenous people is captured perfectly by the author.

We learn of his instruction in swordsmanship by the famed Escalante, which eventually leads to the joining of a secret society. There is intrigue, travel, romance, and betrayal. We even get to meet the famed pirate Jean Lafitte.

Isabel Allende offers a fresh, action-packed new dimension to her Zorro and he crackles with his new life in this fantastic and swashbuckling novel.

Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution



Villa and Zapata!

Those two generales so huge a part of our history, so often wondered about, quoted and misquoted, understood and misunderstood are brought to life in this book by Frank McLynn.

I bought the book for research and as part of my quest for a better understanding of the Mexican Revolution and was not disappointed. The book chronicles the Mexican Revolution, the beginnings of these two men who went on to become so much larger than life. McLynn also portrays many of the key players, like Porfirio Diaz, Francisco Madero, Pascual Orozco and others known and less known. There are maps, photos and details from documents.

He manages to give the reader an insight into what it must have been like living in that time, to get to know almost personally these men and what drove them, what motivated them into their roles in this very important part of Mexican history and how they changed not only their world, but the world as a whole, how they are even now influencing us. It reads more like a thrilling novel than a history and I couldn’t put it down.

I learned about Zapata and his sense of style, his brother Eufemio, his uncanny ability with horses, how he studied all the historical documents of Anenecuilco and other fascinating facts such as how an American woman who ran a hotel called him “The Attila of the South”. Each chapter is vividly written, chronicled in such a comprehensive and fascinating way that I couldn’t get enough of it. The book is like water to the thirsty.

I read of the battles, large and small, victories and crushing defeats, of betrayal, of in-fighting, of women and men who had such passion for their convictions, for their land, for the cause they were fighting for. There is no glorification. McLynn ensures that the faults of both men are just as clearly delineated as their greatness.

For lovers of history, for someone with even the slightest interest in either of these men or the time they lived in, this is a treasure of information. I encourage everyone to buy this book, read it and then read it again.

Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake


To me there is no greater woman journalist than Mexico’s beloved Elena Poniatowska. Every book I read of hers touches me in so many ways. This book in particular haunts my days and nights. Nothing, Nobody is the chronicle of the earthquake in September of 1985 that devastated Mexico City.

It is the story of the search for bodies amongst the rubble and the Mexican government’s failure to respond. There is such poignancy in the writing, the post-earthquake testimonies from survivors, from aid workers and most of all, from the people who never did find their loved ones. It is a story of the heroism that exists in even the most insignificant of us. There is courage in the face of disaster, hope and hopelessness.

As if the testimonies and the stories in this book weren’t enough to touch the heart, to outrage the mind, there are photos of the devastation, of the faces of the people, of the tears.

Ms. Poniatowska weaves together each story with her usual mastery. She is able to put a face on the side of Mexico that gets shoved under the carpet – the poor Mexican. This book was written pre-Zapatista uprising and I feel that by reading Elena Poniatowska’s fascinating chronicles of important events in the years leading up to it, we can all better understand why the Zapatista movement had to happen. There are many books about it and many opinions on why – but I think that all we need to do is read books like this to see the face of the forgotten, to feel their pain and frustration, to know them intimately. Once we do that, there is no need to suppose or wonder about the worthiness of the fight against oblivion – we just know.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Queen of the South


The Queen of the South is a fast-paced thriller with the most unlikely of heroines, Teresa Mendoza, the girlfriend of a drug runner and pilot, Guero Davila in Sinaloa, Mexico. The book starts with Teresa’s special phone ringing, the phone that is the indication her lover is dead and they are coming for her. With the ringing of the phone, we are thrust into Teresa’s world, one of drug trafikkers, killers and mafiosos. Teresa has to think fast, run fast and outwit the people coming to kill her simply because she was Davila’s woman. Riverte takes us on a wild chase with this daring and soon to be dangerous woman. We explore the underbelly of Mexico, Spain and Morocco as Teresa’s life changes and she becomes a woman to be reckoned with – The Queen of the South.

At times frightening and always thrilling the book spans 12 years and follows Teresa and a host of characters. There is the frantic escape from Culiacan, the deadly boat race from the law while running drugs with her new lover, a boat ride that lands her in prison and many other fascinating bits of her life.

Riverte, who unabashedly emulates Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo creates the most amazing Edmund Dantes in Teresa. The Chateau D’If is the prison El Puerto de Santa Maria, where Teresa meets her spoiled drug addicted partner Patty who will eventually lead her to a fortune. Teresa, however becomes the leader and dominates the world in which Patty taught her to live in.

The Queen of the South
is a fascinating look in the world of the underbelly of the world we live in. Teresa is not your typical character and honestly, I didn’t like her, but you don’t have to like her to be caught up in her world, to be swept away before you know it. Arturo Perez-Riverte has written yet another captivating and interesting novel with fast-paced narrative, elaborate story and scary characters.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Becoming Naomi Leon


Becoming Naomi Leon is one of the best children's books that I have read in many years. It is the touching story of a bi-cultural brother and sister abandoned by thier mother and living in their Grandmother's trailer named Baby Beluga in Lemon Tree, California. Naomi is a shy, quiet girl who carves soap into animals and makes lists. Owen is an FLK (Funny Looking Kid) who dreams of bicycles and wears tape on his clothes for comfort. Grandma is a fiesty, postive thinking, loving woman who tries her best to expose the children to their Mexican culture. They live in relative happiness until one day, their mother shows up. She devotes her time and gifts to Naomi, ignoring Owen in spite of his obvious desire to have her love.

As Naomi's mother spends more time in Lemon Tree, her motives for coming to see her children become threatening and Grandma and the wonderful Mexican neighbors band together to protect the children.

Becoming Naomi Leon is eloquent and moving story of an extended family, a mother that is a danger to her children, a hunt for a father that takes you to Oaxaca and the beauty there. It is simple and elegant; painful and sweet. This book will touch your heart and show you love in it's purest form.

Pam Munoz Ryan has written an ageless and beautiful story that will stay with me for a very long time.

Benjamin & the Word



Benjamin and the Word is a beautiful grade 1-3 picture book which delivers a powerful message about the issues of bigotry, race and difference.

Benjamin is on the playground playing when suddenly he hears “the word”. The book doesn’t tell you which word it was that hurt him so and bothered him so much and this absence just makes it that much more powerful. We don’t need to know the word to know that words hurt and that children can be cruel to each other.

In the story Benjamin is hurt and it shows. The word is eating at him and his father sees that something is bothering his child. He waits for Benjamin to tell him what transpired and once hearing the word, he skillfully teaches his son his own worth.

Mr. Olivas, who scared us with his Devil Talk, now takes us on a journey through childhood and the playground. He skillfully shows us how we learn racism and bigotry and how it can be unlearned; how children can be educated to be accepting and aware of the impact of their words.

Don Dyen, the illustrator has masterfully captured the essence of this simple, yet powerful punch of a story with soft watercolors that bring the quality of a dream to this rich and colorful book.

I encourage all parents to buy this book for your children and to be honest, maybe we all need to read it. It brought home some simple truths to me and made me reconsider some things I would have said without thought. Be careful of your words.

The Story of Colors - Highly Recommended



This book is a wonderful folktale from the indigenous people of Chiapas, Mexico. The original text is taken from the communiqué dated October 27, 1994 from Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos to the Mexican People. Originally published in Mexico with illustrations by Domitila Domínguez as La Historia de los Colores © 1996 by Colectivo Callejero, Guadalajara.

The amazing thing about this book is the controversy it caused. On March 9, 1999, the National Endowment for the Arts revoked the funding for the book. This was a clear instance of the NEA revoking funding for issues dealing with cultural diversity. Cinco Puntos Press fought to publish and distribute this book. You can read more about Cinco Puntos’ fight for this book by visiting their website:

http://www.cincopuntos.com/storyofcolors.ssd


Told by Subcommandante Marcos, who is the spokesperson for the indigenous army currently at war with the Mexican Government,
The Story of Colors is a lovely little folktale written with such virtuosity, that you can imagine sitting at Don Antonio's feet and hear his voice as he tells how colors came to the world. Marcos is known for being a wonderful storyteller and he is at is best in this amazing story of the Colors. The illustrations by Domitilla Dominguez who is indigenous from Oaxaca are beautiful and quite stunning. They perfectly compliment the story and give a fantastic feel to the book. This book is a treasure in many ways. For me, the biggest pleasure of this book is knowing how it was almost kept from us.

Questions & Swords


On the Seventh Anniversary of the Zapatista Uprising Subcommandante Marcos and Comandante David wrote:

Indigenous Brothers and Sisters of Mexico:
In this, the seventh year of the war against oblivion, we repeat who we are.
We are wind, we are. Not the breast that breathes for us.
We are word, we are. Not the lips which speak to us.
We are steps, we are. Not the foot that moves us.
We are heartbeat, we are. Not the foot that moves us.
We are a bridge, we are. Not the lands that form a union.
We are road, we are. Not the point or arrival or departure.
We are place, we are. Not those who occupy that place.
We do not exist, we are. We only are.
Seven times we are. Seven times we are.
We are the reflection, we are.
The hand that just opened the window, we are.
We are the timid knock at the door of tomorrow.

So begins the amazing Questions and Swords: Folktales of the Zapatista Revolution. Once again, Subcomandante Marcos and the incomparable Don Antonio color our minds, hearts and souls with their beautiful folktales. Don Antonio tells of Votan Zapata, a story of water winning over sword and the story of questions with such simple beauty and grace that they pack a powerful punch. The artwork of Domitila Dominguez, the indigenous Oaxacan woman is luminous, primitive and astounding.

With essays by Native American poet Simon Ortiz and the incomparable Elena Poniatowska, Mexico’s grande dame of letters, the book is a revolution that you hold in your hands. It teaches, it entertains, it enlightens. Once again, Cinco Puntos Press and the Colectivo Callejero have worked together to bring these powerful works, our history to the light.

The Hummingbird's Daughter



I just finished reading the most remarkable book by Luis Urrea called The Hummingbird’s daughter. It was absolutely astounding and I would encourage everyone to run out and buy a copy of it right away.

The book is based upon a relative, a distant aunt or cousin who was something of a legend called the Saint of Cabora – Teresita Urrea, a sixteen year old illegimate daughter of Cayetana, an indigenous woman called the Hummingbird and Don Tomas Urrea, the powerful rancher.

The book begins with Teresita’s birth in the poorest of circumstances. Her mother abandons her and leaves her with an aunt who mistreats her and abuses her. Teresita is a strong and determined child and overcomes much. She is determined and driven and somehow finds her way to the ranch where she meets Huila, a crusty and wonderful old curandera. Huila finds something in Teresita, a power to be reckoned with and begins to teach her the indigenous ways of healing, of plants, of power and dreaming.

As Teresita grows to young womanhood, she learns more and more. She demands to be taught to read, something even the rich lady wife of Don Tomas isn’t allowed to do. Teresita learns. She learns of the unrest in Mexico as well, learns of the whispers of revolution and the plight of the Yaqui Indians. She learns more of healing from an apprenticeship with an old curandero at Cabora and begins to feel her own power.

There comes a day when Teresita finds out that Don Tomas is her father and he in turn realizes she is in fact his daughter. He brings her to live in the ranch house and tries to turn his wild daughter into a young lady. Teresita again proves her strength and fights for her independence. She will only concede so much. She continues to do her healing, to work as a partera or midwife with Huila. She and Tomas have long discussions, argue about politics and novels. She begins to blossom.

One day something terrible happens and Teresita lies in a coma from which everyone believes she is dead. The doctors can do no more for her and a coffin is made. Imagine everyone’s surprise when she awakens! Now Teresita is more powerful than ever and has the gift of prophecy. Pilgrims flood Cabora and Teresita is worn out with all the healing. She begins to be a threat to the Diaz regime as well as the Catholic Church and insists on writing political commentary and demands the land back for the people who work it.

This is an amazing book and an equally amazing journey into a life before the revolution. Mr. Urrea is a fantastic storyteller who writes with conviction and amazing poetry. The language of the book is stunning, intense and panoramic.

Teresita, Tomas, Huila and the rest of the characters were so real to me that I could see them. There is Aguirre, an engineer turned revolutionary, Buenaventura, the bastard son of Tomas who is hated as much as Teresita is loved, Loreto, Tomas' wife, Gabriela, his mistress and other rich characters. Each of the characters in this amazing book crackle with life and energy.

Two decades were spent researching and writing this novel that is based on old family stories about his aunt Teresita. His descriptions are vivid, colorful and magical. The Sonoran desert, the ranch, the corrupt political officials, bandits and Rurales are all vividly portrayed. This is truly a book to be treasured and read over and over. It is simply remarkable.

The Woman Who Outshone the Sun



This is one of my most beloved children’s books.

The Woman Who Outshone the Sun/La mujer que brillaba aún más que el sol is such a beautiful and moving story. It is based upon a poem by Alejandro Cruz Martinez, who was a young Zapoteca poet who spent years collecting the oral traditions of his people. The Zapotecas are great storytellers and the tale of Lucia Zenteno comes from that grand tradition. In 1986 he published his version of this story as a poem and was later killed in 1987 while organizing the Zapotecas to regain their lost water rights.

The book is about Lucia Zenteno, a woman who was so beautiful she outshone the sun. All of nature loved Lucia and in this magical story, the fish in the river and the river itself love her so much that she combs them in and out of her glorious long black hair. The people of the village, however are afraid of her because she is different. They whisper about her and are so cruel in their fear of her. The village elders are different. They warn the villagers that Lucia is a woman in touch with nature and they hurt her at their own peril but the villagers don’t care to listen. She is too different, too odd. Finally, Lucia, hurt by their taunts and whispers, leaves the town followed by her beloved pet iguana.

The river and nature mourn her loss and leave with Lucia caught up in her hair. It is only when the village, now desolate and dry that the villagers repent of their cruelty and seek Lucia out.

The book is fabulously illustrated with lush and magical paintings by the acclaimed painter Fernando Olivera who was a close friend of Alejandro Cruz Martinez. Each page is a fantasy of beautiful Zapoteca indigenous dress, nature, animals and of course, the river which is as much an important character as Lucia Zenteno.

The story has a strong moral message for both adults and children and I cannot help but think that to Cruz Martinez, this story was an allegory for the water rights he died defending as the water plays such an important role. His widow gave Children’s Book Press – a wonderful independent publisher that specializes in multi-cultural books that is based in San Francisco the permission to adapt the story and all royalties are paid out to her.

I encourage everyone to purchase this book and to read it to your children or just enjoy it yourself. It is bilingual in English and Spanish and is just such a beautiful and compelling book.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Loving Pedro Infante

If you’re Mejicana or Mejicano and don’t know who Pedro Infante is, you should be tied to a hot stove with yucca rope and beaten with sharp dry corn husks as you stand in a vat of soggy fideos”

- Denise Chavez (Loving Pedro Infante)



Okay, I just had to start my review off with that passage because when I read it, I laughed aloud. It is just such a typical Xicano, Mejicano curse that I’m sure we’ve all heard something like it from our abuelitos or our parents.

Loving Pedro Infante is the story of Teresina Avila and her friend Irma “La Wirms” Granados who live in Cabritoville and belong to the Pedro Infante Club #256 along with other women in the small town. These women are Pedro crazy and I can understand that being a big Pedro Infante fan myself.

The story is also about love and obsession. Tere is in love with an hijo de la… named Lucio who is of course, married and a slimy worm. That doesn’t stop Tere from loving him though and from being obsessed. She sneaks off to meet him in a motel, battles with her best friend over him, hides and sneaks. She is ashamed of the relationship but that doesn’t stop her from seeking him out. Why do some guys do this to us? I think all of us women have had our Lucio. Handsome devils, good at making us feel that we are unworthy when all the time, the problem is their own insecurities, bullshit and emotional issues.

The book is great. I loved the characters, was at times frustrated with Tere, liked her, thought she was an idiot, wanted her to kick Lucio’s tight Mexican butt all the way out of Cabritoville and cheered her on. The fan club were so much like all my abuela’s old friends that swooned over Pedro Infante and loved their daughters and families fiercely. Denise Chavez tells a hell of a story.

Denise Chavez’ Loving Pedro Infante is a book that I started off loving and couldn’t put it down to a book that I tossed behind my bed in a corner to collect dust and accuse me until I picked it up again. Why did I toss it? Because the character that Teresina Avila is in love with – Lucio was so much like my own hijo de la… ex boyfriend that it made me uncomfortable. We were in yet another or our cycles where we were together again after having been broken up and the book made me see things in him that I didn’t want to see or wasn’t ready to. No, mine wasn’t married but he was still an hijo de la… all the same. He pulled his disappearing acts like Lucio and he was just generally unavailable and I was just as obsessed as Tere which is probably why I was so darn mad at her for half of the book.

It’s not often that an writer can look into the reader’s heart and soul and pluck the strings so well that the reader believes the book is about their own life. Denise Chavez does this easily and while I was uncomfortable at times, it was a damn good book and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I loved reading about Pedro Infante too. She gives lots of great tidbits of his life and films, which were a nice bonus for this Infante fan.

Viva Pedro Infante and Viva Denise Chavez! Oh, and to my Lucio (you know who you are), go stand in the soggy fideos!

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Back From BEA


Hola everyone! I haven't posted because I have been in New York at the Mecca for someone like me, BEA or BookExpo America 2005 which was held this year in New York City at the Jacob Javitts Center. I had a fantastic, if exhausting time. I met with authors, publishers, editors, journalists, booksellers, librarians, book buyers and everyone in between. I was there representing my day job at AWN, Inc. and it seemed to be one big blur of meetings and books. I spent three full days on the exhibit floor walking around, having meetings, getting books, standing in line for coffee and autographs and just bumping into the nicest people.

The lovely Calla Devlin over at Chronicle Books invited me to a party and book signing for Eric Chase Anderson's beautiful little book, Chuck Dugan is AWOL which is illustrated with maps. Chronicle publishes the coolest stuff ever. The party was held in a charming and tiny bookstore called Three Lives and Company in Greenwich Village. When I hopped out of my taxi the store was already full and people were stnading outside. I got to meet Calla, who I've only known from e-mails and phone calls. She is just as sweet and wonderful in person as she is in correspondence. I saw John Searles there standing outside chatting with Naomi Wolfe. W0w. I should have gone over and said hi but was just too blown away by the combination.

In the Cinco Puntos booth I met Ruth Tobar from Children's Book Press. What a sweetheart she is! She took me under her wing and introduced me to more people. She even went to the trouble of getting me a much coveted ticket to the Consortium's party at Studio 4 but sadly, I made the mistake of going back to the hotel for a nap and slept right through to the next day.

I met Frank Miller after standing in line for what seemed like hours. Other authors I met were Barbara Ehrenreich who was charming, Candace Bushnell, Carl Hiassen, Audrey Niffenegger and so many others I can't list right now that I'm back and overwhelmed.

Here's the best part. I shipped home three HUGE boxes of books!!! That and the suitcase full that I brought on the plane which made the super shuttle guy ask me "Whatcha got in der Missy, rocks?" and my son who helped me drag it up the steps "Ah Mom, you gotta be shitting me!" I am going to be busy reading and writing my thoughts on these for a long, long time. Other exciting news - I am currently reading The Hummingbird's Daughter by a favorite author of mine - Luis Alberto Urrea. Not only that, but I get to interview him soon and will be writing it up for Xispas so be watching out for it there. If anyone has questions they'd like me to ask, please post them and I'll do my best to get them asked and answered. I'm also getting The People of Paper which I hear is strange and wonderful and I am so looking forward to getting it.

More soon!

Gina

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Bitter Grounds by Sandra Benitez



A week ago, I finished Bitter Grounds by Sandra Benitez for the second time in five years. The book is an epic story spanning three generations of women from two families, one rich and the other poor. It is more than just the story of these two families, it is the story of the brutal massacre of indigenous people, the story of the conflict and bloody history of El Salvador, the battles of rich and poor, of tradition , against so called progress.

The women in this story are strong, determined, vibrant survivors. There is love here between mothers and daughters, sisters and friends. There is betrayal and anguish, the loss of children, loss of life, loss of a way of life. Ms. Benitez speaks eloquently of El Salvador’s beauty and the brutality against the indigenous. I ached when I read of the massacre. I cried bitter tears when the melodic language of the Pipil was silenced and when I read that they had given up their beautiful rainbows of color in their indigenous dress so as not to attract the attention and brutality of the Guardia.

At times, this book was so brutal in it’s truth; the violence and death were so senseless that I had to put it down for a day or two just to get past it. I wanted to hate the rich family that made their money on the backs of indigenous workers picking their coffee, working their fields but Ms. Benitez made them so human, so likeable that it was hard to find a villain. I sympathized and agonized with both. I wanted to stop things, make them see the inevitable disaster and got so involved with the story that I felt I was there. To be so involved in a book is a blessing no matter how hard the subject matter. Sandra Benitez is such a wonderful storyteller that for the days I read this book and long after, it absorbed me and changed me. It made me think. It made me want more. It made me educate myself more about El Salvador and its history.

How many books can do that? How many books can you retain so much of for such a long time? The second reading was just as hard to digest. Brutality, violence, terror, war and injustice aren’t meant to be easy. It is, after all these years just as hauntingly beautiful as when I first read it. Maybe more so now than before. I remain torn between the families, torn by the violence and injustice, want to work harder than ever for social change, for promoting peace and tolerance, more motivated than ever to protect my culture, my native language, the costumes my family wears for our Aztec dances, our traditions. I don’t know what else I can say about this book other than to encourage everyone to read it. It’s not some new buzz book – the publication date on my old copy is 1998 but look it up, buy it, borrow it, read it. Don’t leave it in the darkness of some old library shelf. It deserves much better.

Music of the Mill by Luis J. Rodriguez



Pulitzer prize winning John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath in 1939 about the Joad family - their poverty, their desperation and above all their dignity. It was and is an amazing social commentary and Luis Rodriguez’s Music of the Mill is as well. Everyone knows about the Great Depression but how many people outside of the little South L.A. towns where the steel mill ruled for so many years and about the economical and social decline the closing of those mills caused? Billy Joel sang about Allentown and the whole nation was made aware of the loss of mills in Pennsylvania. Who sang for Huntington Park, Maywood, and South Gate, those little sad towns in Los Angeles? Luis J. Rodriguez has now done so.


In Music of the Mill, Luis Rodriguez writes about the Salcido family and their 60-year relationship to the mill called Nazareth Steel. The story starts with Propocio and Eladia walking most of the way from their home in Mexico to a new life in the United States. They wind up in Los Angeles and Procopio gets a job in the big steel mill. Rodriguez’s portrays the union battles, tesions between Blacks and Mexicans, the white domination in the union, in the mill itself and the fight of the Salcido family for equality and safety within the dangerous mill.

Johnny Salcido, the main protagonist is as strong of a character as any I’ve read. He has his dark side yet he is strong in his love for his wife and family. His portrayal - the young vato loco getting in trouble to the young, green mill worker to the activist and father all are so amazingly well done that you just feel like you know him and maybe you do. There is a lot of Johnny Salcido all of us, the rebel, the fighter, the lover of hearth, home, family.

The mill itself is portrayed as dangerous, toxic yet seductive monster. Mr. Rodriguez brings the reader into the mill; you feel its heat, its intensity, its ugliness and its beauty. From workers grilling their carne asada on an ingot to the racial tensions and divisions, you are in that mill. You can feel the tension, smell the carne. People die in the mill, lose limbs, breath in bad fumes. Workers turn to alcohol, drugs to stay awake in order to work more shifts. It is all too real.

I grew up a Xicana in the shadow of Bethlehem Steel in the 1970s. I remember the men that would come home dirty, black from the fire of the mill and tired. I remember when the mill closed and the rise in drug use; sales of such and violence began to escalate in the barrios where I was now raising my children. I never really tied the two instances together until I read this most remarkable novel.

It is as much a social commentary and as well written and gripping as Steinbeck’s. I read one review where the book was well received but the reviewer had a problem with Mr. Rodriguez’s socialist bent. I didn’t see that all. I found the book to be most realistic, the characters were people you cared about, wanted to find out more about. He is a master storyteller and one of the best social commentators of the Xicano in L.A.

No one understands the gangs, the drugs, the jail culture, the strong Xicana men and women, the love we have for our children and culture, the strong worth ethic of the modern and past day Mexican-American as much as Luis J. Rodriguez. He is our Steinbeck. The Music of the Mill hammers out its own glorious song and will be one day a force to be reckoned with. This is more than just a novel. This book has a destiny.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Thirteen Senses by Victor Villasenor



When I first heard that Victor Villasenor had written Thirteen Senses, I was excited. I adored Rain of Gold so much, that I expected even greater things of his new book. I trekked down to Olvera Street from nearby Echo Park to attend his signing and discussion there. I wasn’t disappointed. Mr. Villasenor spoke eloquently, vibrantly about his life, about his dyslexia and most of all his love of family. My son Phillip and I had a wonderful time after the discussion, speaking with Victor and his wife about the book and about life in general. We had to buy two copies of Thirteen Senses because we were both fighting over who would read it first. Two hours after the event saw my 18-year-old son and myself both deeply engrossed on each end of the sofa books in hand. Neither of us spoke for a while but occasionally one of us would laugh out loud and the other would look over the pages with smiling, happy eyes. We both finished the book late that night or rather early the next morning and we both had the same conclusion – we LOVED it.

The story starts at the 50th wedding anniversary and wedding vow renewal of Lupe and Juan Salvador Villasenor. When the young priest performing the ceremony asks Lupe if she will obey her husband, she shouts out no to the shock of her family and friends. She goes on to say that she will love and cherish him but obey? How dare the priest ask such a question? After the ceremony, her children ask her if she really loved Juan Salvador and the ensuing chapters go on to describe their first years of marriage.

The book is filled with the family’s mystical connection to spirits, God, angels and each other. There is pain, betrayal, love, laughter, wonder and joy throughout the lives of this couple and their children. One reviewer states that the mysticism is too much even for California, but the reviewer obviously isn’t Mexican. I grew up with this and found the book very real, very Mexicano and very human. I think I will always love Rain of Gold more than Thirteen Senses but that is not to say that one is better than the other. The truth is that they are both equally excellent, it’s just that for me Rain of Gold is more about the romance, the finding of that other, that other half of yourself, your soul mate and that sense of wonder and of floating on a cloud. Thirteen Senses is about a different kind of romance, one based on daily life, everyday things like changing diapers, making the beds, sex, grown up love, paying the bills and building a life together and the work it entails. There is fighting and making up, hurt feelings and anger, love and sex. In Rain of Gold we are taken back to our first love, young love and in Thirteen Senses we grow up.

Monday, May 23, 2005

The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald



This beautiful novel by Ann-Marie MacDonald (Fall On Your Knees) is darkly sumptuous and astonishingly beautiful. It follows the McCarthy family on their journey back home to a military base in Canada. While the subject matter is dark, a child is murdered and may be hard reading for most (it was hard for me), the beauty of the language is so rich, so lyrical that it just begs to be read, to be finished.

The book takes place in 1963 Canada and the narrator, nine year old Madeleine tells a both beautiful and horrible story of her family’s joyful trip back to the father’s old Air Force base. From the joy of that family ride with her parents, mother Mimi, father Jack and brother Jack in their station wagon the book becomes increasingly gruesome. There are secrets and lies as Jack works covertly for the government. Madeliene has her own secrets and lies. The hard topic of child molestation and child murder are brought all to glaringly to life.

There are such beautiful passages here, such delectable language.

Outside the car windows the corn catches the sun, leafy stalks gleam in three greens.”

Fronds spiraling, cupping upward, swaddling the tender ears, the gift-wrapped bounty.”

If you move around all your life, you can’t find where you come from on a map. All those places where you lived before are just that: places. You don’t come from any of them; you come from a series of events. And those are mapped in memory. Contingent, precarious events, without the counterpane of place to muffle the knowledge of how unlikely we are. Almost not born at every turn. Without a place, events slow-tumbling through time become your roots. Stories shadowing into one another. You come from a plane crash. From a war that brought your parents together.”

Yes, there are many beautiful passages, so many that I could spend the day just copying them into my report on the book. For the language alone, I loved the book. The darker stuff, well, it was hard to read. It was absorbing, difficult and so well written that I, a mother who shies away from books dealing with anything that involves the hurt of a child, was transfixed and couldn’t put it down. I was drawn into the McCarthy family, indulgently smiled at the perfect couple, secure in their love for each other, gasped in shock at the awful things that happened, wanted to scream at Madeline to say something, anything, was dismayed at the distance that grew between Jack and Mimi, was saddened by the death of a child and the repercussions that followed.

The book is a mystery, complex and evolving. It’s an incredible story and one filled with interconnected plots. I had never read this author before, but I’ll be watching for her next and going back to grab anything previous.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Pearl Diver by Sujata Massey



I found this book to be stylish, well written, poignant and beautiful. Sujata Massey is a master of storytelling. She weaves such a beautiful mystery with astounding, life like characters that you feel for and want to know. Her prose is simple, to the point and absolutely gorgeous. I could not put this book down. It was intricate and I loved the ending. Rei Shimura and Hugh are characters I want to see much more of. Aunt Norie has to come back as well. She is wonderful!