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


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!