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


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!

The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell by Joe Loya

Joe Loya is an ex-convict, ex-bank robber turned writer whose correspondence with essayist Richard Rodriguez provides him with an anchor while he is imprisoned.

His story is appalling, violent and absolutely riveting. At times, I had to put it down because some of the things that happened to him or that he did were just so disturbing. Mr. Loya writes so well, however that I kept picking this book back up again to find out what happened.

It's an amazing look into the psyche of this precocious little boy who, through the abuse he suffers from his father slowly evolves into this manipulative criminal. This book shows us so clearly how violence and abuse affect society as a whole. The boy’s father is dealing with his own pain and demons, the loss of his wife.

Mr. Loya’s transition from bible verse spouting boy to manipulative, lying young man, to bank robber, to prisoner and finally, to writer is a journey into a life we rarely, if ever see or want to see. It is a beautifully written and detailed account of his life.

Shadows of Tender Fury

This is the first collection of letters and communiqués by Subcomandante Marcos, that mysterious masked spokesperson of the Zapatista Rebellion. These communiqués were published first in La Jornada, the Mexican daily newspaper. The communiqués are meant to educate the masses to the plight of the indigeous people Chiapas.

The book contains the first four declarations of the Lancandon Jungle and the credo of the EZLN (Ejercito Zapatista Liberacion Nacional) or the Zapatista National Liberation Army. I feel that the first paragraph from the First Declaration, written in January of 1994, gives a great feel for what the book contains and says it all in a nutshell.

From the First Declaration of the Lancandon Jungle
The EZLN’s Declaration of War:


We are a product of 500 years of struggle: first against slavery, then during the War of Independence against Spain led by insurgents, then to avoid being absorbed by North American imperialism, then to promulgate our constitution and expel the French empire from our soil, and later the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz denied us the just application of the Reform laws and the people rebelled and leaders like Villa and Zapata emerged, poor men just like us. We have been denied the most elemental preparation so they can use us as cannon fodder and pillage the wealth of our country. They don't care that we have nothing, absolutely nothing, not even a roof over our heads, no land, no work, no health care, no food nor education. Nor are we able to freely and democratically elect our political representatives, nor is there independence from foreigners, nor is there peace nor justice for ourselves and our children.

But today, we say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.

This book is even more pertinent and necessary now in 2005 then in 1994. We have become jaded and less informed about the struggle in Mexico. How many people realize that still the Zapatistas fight on? With the war in Iraq, the tsunami in Thailand and other world events in the past few years, we are forgetting the struggles in Mexico, so close to home. These are our people, this is our fight. Read Marco’s books, all of them but start with this one. If you’ve read it, read it again. Refresh your memory and get out there and help in the fight.

Goddess of the Americas by Ana Castillo

These essays by modern writers on the Virgen de Guadalupe are incredible. It is so wonderful to read these writers’ thoughts and feelings on the much beloved Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico.

Since La Lupita is such a cultural icon both here in the US and in Mexico, I feel this is an important book. La Lupita permeates the consciousness of the Mexican and Chicano people. Ana Castillo gives the reader, not a glimpse but a full sense of that consciousness. This book is an education and a joy to have.

The poems and stories contained within are a glimpse into the personal journeys and thoughts of important writes and how Tonantzin or Guadalupe plays her magical role in their lives. You will find private and personal reflections by Ana Castillo and Sandra Cisneros (Caramelo); there is a wonderful essay by the very talented writer and documentarian of gang life in L.A., Luis Rodriguez; a brilliant essay by Richard Rodriguez (Hunger of Memory) as well as contributions by writers like my personal favorite Elena Poniatowska, Pat Mora, the beloved Octavio Paz and many others. You will read it over and over again.

Every Night is Ladies Night by Michael Jaime-Becerra

This collection of short stories is wonderful and intriguing. Mr. Becerra's imagery is astounding and beautiful.

I loved how each of the ten stories interconnected and told different parts of each person's very interesting and sometimes sad life. I found myself eagerly turning pages and unwilling to put the book down as I became wrapped up in each story.

From the tired, old mariachi singer in "Media Vuelta" to the widow who drives an ice cream truck each character engaged me with their own personal anguish and memories.

The Beekeepers Apprentice by Laurie R. King

The Beekeepers Apprentice was recommended to me by a fellow avid reader and with great doubt, I hesitantly and reluctantly began to read. With the first page, Ms. King's writing grabbed me and held on till until the end of the book. Thus began a love affair with everything she writes. I avidly wait and watch for her next novel, especially in this sublime series and gobble it up as soon as I get it.

Beekeeper's Apprentice is a great book for any Conan Doyle fan, a lover of literature or just about anyone. It is intelligent and witty, funny and suspenseful. The historical background is well researched and wonderful.

I loved re-visiting Dr. Watson, loved seeing Sherlock Holmes as bored out of his mind with retirement, loved the young and brash Mary Russell.

Buy this book, read it and then buy the next. Better yet, buy them all so that you can read them one after the other in total book gluttony.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

What an amazing debut novel this was! I read it for the first time, just a few days ago and am still so moved by the story.

The Kite Runner is the story of two young boys growing up in Afghanistan. One boy, Amir is the privileged son of a well-respected man, the other; Hassan is a servant boy of the Hazara race, which has long ago been conquered and repressed by the current Afghani regime. Amir and Hassan the “Sultans of Kabul” as they call themselves are fast friends living a perfect life in the stable Kabul of the 1970’s. The reader is given a glimpse of Afghanistan that is without war, beautiful and idyllic.

As the boys start to grow up, slowly, insidiously Amir is poisoned by jealousy, the mocking tones of other boys and his own feelings of inadequacy with his father. He starts to see Hassan as a threat to losing his father’s love. He sees himself as a disappointment to the athletic and powerful father, while Hassan’s own father loves Hassan without reserve. Amir’s own father seems to dote on the boy.

Khaled Hosseini understands a young boy’s tormented heart very well; he makes the reader feel the despair, the anguish, the growing pains, and the guilt. As Afghanistan nears was, the climate of the town becomes more and more tense. Then something unspeakable happens to Hassan and Amir is witness, which further poisons his mind against the loyal and loving Hassan and causes him to act out against him.

Years later, Amir and his father have fled to America and Amir is still tortured by his feelings of guilt, remorse and he is haunted by his own actions. Eventually, he is drawn back to his war torn land under Taliban rule on a personal quest for redemption.

Mr. Hosseni has given the reader an education in such a heartfelt way. The Afghanistan he writes of is filled with beauty and tragedy. There is an instance while they are still living in Kabul when Amir’s father is speaking to him in his study where he decry’s what will happen to the country if the Taliban ever run it. It is horribly prophetic and the statement haunts both Amir and the reader.

The book is so beautifully written that it is hard to believe that this is a debut novel. It hurt to read it and it hurt to finish it. How I wished it would never end! It was simply astounding.

My Invented Country by Isabel Allende

My Invented Country is Isabel Allende’s best book yet, but I have yet to read her version of Zorro which is getting rave reviews including an amazing review by Yxta Maya Murray in the Los Angeles Times Book Review.

This amazing biography takes the reader on a poetic journey though Ms. Allende’s young life. Her writing is stellar and poetic. This book is to be savored for its beauty of language. Writers dream of crafting sentences like these. Lovers of language will adore this book for it’s symmetry and grace. Readers of all ages will love it for its beautiful and absorbing story.

You know, it’s a funny thing about books and readers, the true book lover, not just the person who read the best sellers because they think they should or because everyone in the office is talking about it and they don’t want to feel left out. The true book lover anticipates and lives in hope that the next book will transcend the ordinary, take humble prose and uplift it to something else, something magical. That doesn’t happen often. There are plenty of good and well written books out there, don’t get me wrong. But the sublime, no those are rare.

My Invented Country is one of those to me. I opened the book with my usual hope and expectation, a little more hopeful because it was an Allende book, and was immediately caught up in the beauty of the language. The love Ms. Allende has for her country, her memories and family simply shine through.

I wonder just how many people after reading this book, made travel plans to Chile. I know I wanted to. I know I plan on going soon and that I think is the power of words, to transcend reality, to enthrall, to sweep away on a literary magic carpet, to urge the reader to expand their horizons, to see things in different shades. Gracias, Isabel Allende for the amazing trip!

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Cabaret: A Roman Riddle by Lily Prior

I just finished an ARE (Advanced Reader Edition) of Lily Prior's latest book Cabaret. What a blast and what an amazing little book!

I had such a great time reading about the bizarre Freda Lippi, her parrot Pierino and the wonderful cast of characters that populate her world. I loved Freda's interactions with the sexy Detective Balbini and the chemistry between them. Freda's sister Fiamma is quite interesting as well.

The book starts off with Freda coming home to find her home overrun by detectives, her fat ventriloquist of a cheating husband missing along with her beloved parrot. Freda's quest to find her parrot, passion for Balbini, and memories of how her life came to the place she was in now were all so insane and strange but so well written and amusing.

It was great fun and the last sentence quite shocking. I almost jumped out of my seat! I felt as if I had been to the theatre. How marvelously entertaining it was. I thouroughly enjoyed Cabaret and will be on the look out for more from Lily Prior.

Burro Genius by Victor Villasenor

Victor Villasenor is an incredible, wonderful writer. He is all the more so when you read this biography and learn of the immense challenges he faced from the educational system, his extreme dyslexia and from bigotry.

Mr. Villasenor writes with pathos about growing up during a time when Mexicans were thought of as dirty, lazy and sub-standard. Forced to not speak Spanish in school, he was taught to be ashamed of his parents, ashamed of being Mexican. The teachers were horrible and abusive. I can’t believe the child that was so abused and mistreated grew up to be such an astounding writer.

As I read this book, I became more and more aware of how important it is as a Mexican-American or, as I refer to myself as a Mexica, to keep our culture, to speak our Spanish, to teach our children who they are and where they come from. So much was taken from us in ways such as you will read in this book that we can’t let any more be taken. We have to make a stand and start taking back what belongs to us, starting with our culture.

This astounding book will make you laugh, cry and incredibly angry. It should be required reading in any school and certainly for anyone with Mexican heritage

Rain of Gold by Victor Villasenor

The first time I read Rain of Gold, I thought to myself, “My God this is my family!” Victor Villasenor has the ability to draw in the reader and make he or she feel that they are living the story. This is particularly true in Rain of Gold.

The book follows two people and their families very different journeys through the hard times of the Mexican Revolution and into the U.S. and the very different life waiting for them there. They meet new challenges in and find each other as they adjust and learn to make a life in this new country.

The book abounds with the mystical love of spirits, nature and God that is so commonplace for us Mexicanos. I believe it is hard for people not of our culture to understand just how real the spirits are to us. This is not magical realism but daily life us. Mr. Villasenor shows that aspect of our culture, our grandmothers so well that it brought tears to my eyes as I remembered my own mystical, wise and wonderful grandmother.

The fact that Victor Villasenor is extremely dyslexic and encountered myriad problems in school at a very young age makes this book all the more astounding. He writes with pathos, humor and his love for his beautiful family shines through it all. His simple style of storytelling makes you feel you’re sitting on the floor listening to an uncle or other family member and you are completely enraptured and caught up in his spell

The Presumed Alliance by Nicolas Vaca

For those of you that wouldn’t think about reading a book like this, that it wouldn’t be interesting and maybe too much like reading statistics or a schoolbook, stop thinking and read it anyway.

When this book first came to my attention, I knew I had to review it but dreaded doing it because it seemed so studious and dry. I wondered if I could do it justice or that I’d become bored and not write a good enough review of it. I dragged along for a few months just avoiding doing it. However, upon reading the first page of the introduction, I became so fascinated and enthralled that I finished the book on the train ride into work.

Nicolas Vaca explores the political alliance between Latinos and African American as supposed by White America. It was amazing to me. He also explores racial tensions, population growth and unveiled hatred between the two groups. The statistics that Mr. Vaca quotes are astounding in terms of population growth among the Mexican American community. I couldn’t believe how much our community had grown in twenty years. Mr. Vaca also delineates points of conflict and issues that he feels will arise. He cites the L.A. Riots and how many of the incidents that occurred were African American against Mexicans, not Caucasians.

I’m a Xicana women and have always known about the racial tensions between these two groups because I have lived but I never really got a good sense of just how deep and hw damaging those tensions are to both groups until I read this book. It’s a controversial book and bound to incite a lot of bad feeling and anger among many groups, not least White America. I think as Xicanos, we are obligated to read this book and see how potentially powerful we can be politically and economically. The statistics and numbers are simply powerful. I know I felt tremendously empowered just reading the percentages of us in different states across the union.

It is important to understand these tensions and challenges that present themselves to us. We must educate our children and ourselves for the future. Hispanics are the fastest growing minority in the United States and the numbers are mind numbing.

Nicolas Vaca, a graduate of Harvard Law School, and also holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California at Berkeley is a Mexican American practicing attorney in the Bay area.

Friday, May 13, 2005

The Mexicans by Patrick Oster

The Mexicans: A Personal Portrait of a People was previously published in hardcover in 1989 and I find the book is just as pertinent and important today at the beginning of the new millienium. Patrick Oster, the former Mexico City Bureau Chief for the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, writes intelligently and with great understanding of a complicated people.

This collection of intense, brutally honest stories both compels and chills. We hear about Enrique, a doctor in the economically depressed barrio of Nezahualcoyotl struggling to earn a living as well as save babies dying from caused by the city’s bad water. There is a story of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas and his fight to change Mexico, to become president. He eventually lost to Salinas-Gortari but this short story of his quest is profound.

The book is a marvellously complex weaving of political intrigue, torture, hunger, dreams or lack thereof, class tensions, angry punk gangs, pick pockets and corruption. It also speaks of both the ugliness and incredible beauty of Mexico. There are stories of illegal border crossings, the tragafuegos or fire eaters who daily shorten their lives by consuming kerosine to breathe fire for a few pesos.

Patrick Oster has written an important book and has an understanding of the Mexican people as a whole that not too many have. His writing is to the point and without emotion, yet compels the emotion and stirs the heart. Some of the stories will make you cry, others will outrage you. Not one story will leave the reader unmoved and each will stay with you forever and change your perspective of this complicated and magical Mexico and its people.

Soldaderas in the Mexican Military by Elizabeth Salas

Elizabeth Salas’ Soldaderas in the Mexican Military: Myth and History is such a fascinating and useful book. I first came across it when I wanted to find out more about the Soldaderas in the Mexican Revolution. I was shocked to find that there wasn’t very much material on the subject except for brief mentions in books about the Mexican Revolution and of course songs like La Adelita. I was angry that there was so little material on a subject that I believed to be highly overlooked.

I bought the book, not expecting much after all the dead ends that I had found on this subject and was blown away by it’s detail and wealth of information.

Ms. Salas book is an excellent reference tool and an absorbing read. It sheds light on these amazing women who fought bravely for their country. Ms. Salas not only references the Mexican Revolution, she goes from pre-Conquest times and the warrior women who fought then to the Xicana activism of the 1970’s.

Soldaderas in the Mexican Military breaks the stereotype of the soldadera being a camp follower or a basket toting wife of a soldier. Sala’s tells of women who held high ranks in the military and even drew pension. She lets the reader know just how important these women were and how hard they fought. These women were spies, lieutenants, corporals and generals. They provided food, smuggled in arms and fought just as hard as any man. Viva la Mujer!

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America

Eduardo Galeano is a Uruguayan essayist, journalist and historian. He was editor in chief of Marcha, a weekly journal with contributors such as Mario Vargas Llosa and Mario Benedetti. He also wrote for Epocha and University Press. In 1973 after a military coup in his country, Mr. Galeano was imprisoned and then exiled from Uruguay. In exile in Argentina, he started the magazine Crisis. In 1976, another military coup forced him from his adopted country and put him on the list of those condemned to death. He then moved to Spain where he wrote Memory of Fire.

Open Veins of Latin America won the Casas de America prize in 1970 and was the first of his books to be translated into English. He writes with eloquence of Latin America's 500 years of occupation and of the cultural, emotional and physical genocide of our people and our land. His prose is so beautiful, even while writing of rape, pillage, abuse of power and other atrocities. He combines both fact and imagery into a sublime reading experience.

Mr Galeano documents meticulously the statistics of exploitation and murder - the facts, the numbers, and most importantly the emotions and situations behind the well documented data. He speaks of how the genocide of Latin America’s indigenous peoples and the enslavement of the African people were the very foundation for “the giant industrial capital”.

Every Xicano should read this book. It has actually been prohibited in some countries and is well documented. I’ve read it over and over again. It has enraged me, made me cry, frustrated and motivated me. Every time I feel overwhelmed and get to feeling that all my protesting and marching aren’t letting me have a real life, I read the first chapter of this book. It gets me angry, that cold, purposeful anger that drives me, that pushes me out the door into the rain and cold to protest by dancing barefoot in the streets in my traditional Azteca traje de gala (Aztec regalia) to preserve my culture. Any book that does that for any of us is not only much needed, it should be required.

We need our eyes open. After 500 years, we’re still here fighting the good fight and God willing, 500 years from now we’ll still be here, culture intact and reading this book to remind us.

One of my favorites quotes by Mr. Galeano is this, "I'm a writer obsessed with remembering, with remembering the past of America above all and above all that of Latin America, intimate land condemned to amnesia." This book won’t let us have amnesia. Read it.

A Cafecito Story by Julia Alvarez

A Cafecito Story is the story of Joe, a farmer’s son from Nebraska who finds himself in the Dominican Republic on holiday. Joe meets a family who are growing coffee in the traditional way, organically.

The book is charming in its simplicity and folkish look. Belkis Ramirez, one of the Dominican Republic’s most accomplished artists, does the woodcuts that so beautifully illustrate the pages. It is a bilingual book with the Spanish story in red and the English in black. Zapatista colors, I think to myself. A good sign.

This isn’t your typical Xicano book, not by any means. The author is Dominican, living in Vermont and married to an American. It is something we should read because it is about positive change, about going back to what we had, about Mother Nature. It is about the symbiosis between plants and animals. It is about songbirds singing happiness into the coffee beans. It is about giving back what we take. It is an attempt by the author to save her land from being raped by the huge coffee companies.

In the afterword by Bill Eichner, Ms. Alvarez’ husband, he talks about the “green deserts” of modern coffee farms eating up the land. He speaks of the future and of the choices we make. A Cafecito Story is a story about taking back the indigenous ways, of saving land, of working in a cooperative. Think about it while you’re drinking your Starbucks instead of Zapatista or Alta Gracia coffee.

There is a beautiful passage in the book as Joe is practicing his high school Spanish before leaving on his trip, three simple words that mean everything. Saber, sonar, surgir. To know, to dream, to rise.

Note: Julia Alvarez is the co-owner of a small, organic coffee farm called Alta Gracia. She is also author of In the Time of Butterflies, Before We Were Free and How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents.

Across the Wire by Luis Alberto Urrea

Luis Urrea is a San Diegan who was born in Mexico. During 1978 – 1982 he worked in Tijuana for an aid group and wrote these haunting and beautiful essays for the San Diego Reader. I first read this book about five years ago and immediately afterwards grabbed everything I could find from Mr. Urrea. This book, as I understand it, is required reading for some Chicano or World Lit classes but it is not as well known as it should be in our community.

The first chapter, Sifting Through the Trash talks about the people that live near the garbage dumps on the border. He speaks of people picking through trash, finding pieces of meat that are not too rotten to eat. There are the people who watch the dompe, or junkyard every night to see what gets tossed that can be of use.

Urrea writes with beauty of the horror of such abject poverty just across the border away from the vast consumerism in the United States. He makes us appreciate what we have, and opens our eyes to what we take so for granted

The Queen Jade - Yxta Maya Murray

The Queen Jade is a story of the love between a mother and daughter, Lola and Juana Sanchez. Juana, the mother is an adventurous archeologist, while Lola, her daughter is content to read her books and supervise D&D tournaments in her quiet little bookshop, The Red Lion.

When Juana turns up missing during a hurricane in Guatemala, Lola, along with Eric Gomara, Juana’s colleague and rival begin to search for clues. They discover that Juana has gone off in search of The Queen Jade, a mythical blue jade stone of the ancient Maya said to impart its possessor with incredible power.

Lola and Eric set off to Guatemala in search of Juana, but to find Juana they must unlock the clues to finding the Queen Jade. The book takes the reader on a gorgeous tour of Guatemala and into the mind of the ancient Mayan. This is post-civil war Guatemala and there are still tensions between the soldiers and the people and the author touches this in such a way that it leaves an indelible mark on the reader.

This is a story of love and loss, of friendships broken and repaired, of secrets and lies, of discovery of ones self as well as of a country and a legend. The women in this book are strong, intelligent problem-solvers. They are multi-faceted and complicated, funny, loving and true. The book is riveting and fun. There are puzzles and riddles, poetry and legend. I found this book to be marvelously written and well researched. Yxta Maya Murray has outdone herself.

Gonzalez & Daughter Trucking Co.

I first encountered Maria Amparo Escandon in her lovely little novel, Esperanza’s Box of Saints which made me a die hard fan for life so it was with great joy that I finally got to meet her at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Ms. Escandon was charming and very gracious. While there, I bought Gonzalez and Daughter Trucking Co. and brought it home to read. While I expected a wonderful story, I in no way expected to be so moved, so absorbed. I finished the book in less than a day and have to say that this far surpasses her first novel. I loved it!

Gonzalez and Daughter is the story of Libertad and her father Joaquin who was once a professor in Mexico City in the time of the massacre at Tlateloco told by a woman in a Mexicali Prison for women who has taken for her nickname, Libertad.

For reasons I won’t get into (buy the book), Joaquin escapes into the United States and becomes a trucker. Libertad grows up in the 18-wheeler and the book is littered with wonderful characters, interesting stories within stories and the growing pains of a young girl who longs for a home that doesn’t move. Libertad and her father love books. He is after all, a former college professor. They have no room in the truck to store all the books and so when they are finished with a book, they toss it out the window and onto the highway.

Their story is a beautiful one, filled with love, loss, misunderstanding and the trials of life. It is about learning and growing, about friendships made and true devotion. I was sad to finish it and happy to find out what happened to them.

There are other stories as well, as Libertad is a Mexican-American Scheherazade, jealously guarding her stories until the next week’s installment of the prison Library Club. Both the prisoners and the reader are caught in the spell of Escandon’s masterful pen and we hold our breath captivated by it.

I, even now an hour after finishing the last chapter am still enthralled and will read it again tomorrow and probably a few more times before sending it on to a loved one currently stationed in Iraq in the hopes of brightening his time there. Having typed that last sentence, I realize I can’t part with the book and will just go out and buy another copy to send as well as maybe a few more because this is a book that just screams to be shared, to be talked about, to share passages with your dearest friend.

Unsettling - Lynda Sandoval

I loved this book. The characters were very real and so much like the wonderful Mexicana women I know. It speaks of true sisterhood, friendship, and the strong bond of being a Latina woman living as an American woman and how we deal with the strange dichotomy of having a foot firmly planted in each world.

The book starts with the correspondence amongst a group of friends, Mercedes, Christina and Annette gathering together to stand by Lucy Olivares, a police officer and bride to be notoriously terrified of being married yet full of love for her fiancé, Ruben. Lucy is terrified of the family curse. Every woman in her family’s first marriage ends in divorce with the second marriage being the lasting one.
Mercedes is the driven career woman, Christina the beautiful socialite wife and Annette the happy homemaker. Each very different and complex woman has her own issues, secrets, problems and private heartaches yet they all manage to gather to get Lucy to the altar.

When Lucy bolts right after the wedding, the women begin a journey together, a quest to help Lucy face her fear and save her marriage to the man she adores. On this quest, each woman finds her own answers, has her own personal quest and journey of the soul to make. The book is insightful and revealing and Lynda Sandoval knows just how to make us care desperately about the outcome of each personal odyssey.

Strong, intelligent, warm and funny, the characters leapt off the page and into my heart. I really liked these women. I wanted them as my friends. The problems they had and they ways in which they dealt with or avoided them were touching and real.

Unsettling made me laugh and cry. It was wonderful storytelling with well-developed and believable characters. I have recommended it to my own circle of wonderful, strong Xicana women and they loved it too. I eagerly await more from Ms. Sandoval.

The Hot Kid - Elmore Leonard

Speakeasys, gun molls, a handsome lawman, oh my! I've been a huge fan of Elmore Leonard for years and have always thought he was the master of dialogue. Never more so than in this exciting, gritty little novel set in one of the most fascinating times in history to me. I think I just fell for Carl Webster and was completely entranced by the story. I stayed up all night and couldn't put it down! I loved the dialogue, the plot, the whole story and hope there's a sequel coming because I am dying to know what that Hot Kid is up to next.

This is Elmore Leonard's 40th novel, quite an achievement. He writes with a wry humor, great dialogue and his characters are rich, complex and just plain interesting. He brings back that era in full, brilliant color.

Devil Talk: Stories by Daniel Olivas

In these startling stories, men and women are challenged and confronted with demons, both real and imagined. Some of the stories are chilling, some funny and they all leave you wanting more. They are surprising and the reader never knows what is going to happen next from one story to another or even within each story in itself.

This is the first time I have read Daniel Olivas and I was quite taken with his use of language and wry humor. A few of his stories scared the hell out of me and made my blood run cold. The story of the Devil who lives in Malibu and a demonic game of dominoes was, I think my favorite.

Mr. Olivas touches on our fears, he brings back La Llorona and the Cucui stories of our youth and he brings back that same chill that made us run for our Abuelita’s warm kitchens, hugs and a cup of champurrado.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

In Perfect Light by Benjamin Alire Saenz

In Perfect Light tells the story of a tormented young man named Andres Segovia and the counselor, Grace Delgado who works to find the source of his torment and rage while at the same time, working through her own torment and issues. As Grace works to save Andres, she saves herself. We meet the most astounding people in this book. There is Mister, Grace’s son, Vicente, Liz and Dave each person searching and finding their own light.

It is a story of how people touch your life, bring sadness, pain or joy to it. Mr. Saenz’ characters are rich and complex, each one’s thoughts and emotions fully illuminated by the intricate tapestry of simple words woven into the most extraordinary sentences.

"They were in a park, and he was studying the look on Liz’s face as she kissed their son. In the light”.

"And then he laughed. His laughter filled the kitchen, then the house. The entire world, it seemed, was filled with this boy’s laugh. And then he let go of Mister’s face, patted his right cheek – and kissed him. “Bendita sea Dios,” Mrs. Rubio whispered.”

These two passages, stuck me as so beautiful in their simplicity, so telling, so rich with wonder that they stopped me, caught me up and blazed with the light of this book. This is a perfect example of what good writing is - to take the ordinary and create something divine.

The book has its dark side as well. We journey to the hell of exploited and abused children of Juarez. We find child molesters seeking new prey and people who look the other way. Benjamin Alire Saenz makes a powerful statement in a gentle, yet powerful way.

I will read this book again and again because of all his books, this is the most exquisite.

On the Blue Shore of Silence

On the blue shore of silence
Poems of the Sea
Pablo Neruda

Of all the Neruda anthologies that I have read, this is by far the most eloquent tribute to his love of the sea and his home on Isla Negra in Chile.

The English translations are done by Alastair Reid, Mr. Neruda’s favored translator and it flows as naturally as does the Spanish original. I speak both languages and it is always such a pleasure to see a translation so elegantly done.

The artwork by Santa Barbara artist and writer Mary Heebner is as sumptuous as Pablo Neruda’s poetry and truly reflects the feel of the ocean. Her paintings capture the mood of each poem perfectly and add to the emotion of his words. (See her site for further viewing of all the Isla Negra paintings and her amazing collages).

It is I believe the only anthology that has focused solely on his poems of the sea.

The book is bilingual with the text in Spanish on one page and English on the other. It contains my favorite of Neruda’s poems, The Soliloquy of the Waves.

Even the typeset and Neruda’s name on the dust jacket painted in a blurry sea blue reflect the ocean that the poems are about.

Pablo Neruda has been a favorite poet of mine for many, many years and this stunning book is a wonderful addition to my collection of his anthologies. It is a beautiful piece to celebrate his centenary.

The Stupidest Angel

I love Christopher Moore. I stumbled onto him one day in a book store when I couldn't resist the title Island of the Sequined Love Nun. Since then I've been a huge fan and these are my thoughts of his book, The Stupidest Angel.

This book was so funny that I was laughing aloud while on the train to work. People were staring at me but I just didn't care. I've long been a fan of Christopher Moore and he outdid himself with this hysterical and truly fun novel. An evil developer, zombies, a Micronesian Fruit Bat named Roberto that wears custom-sized Ray Bans, a psycho warrior babe and assorted other insane and wonderful characters had me howling with laughter. Raziel the angel, from the book Lamb is back again and dumber than ever. The crazy characters were so engaging and real that I really liked them in spite or perhaps because of their very nuttiness. Molly in particular is completely and wonderfully insane. It's been two days since I finished the book and I am still laughing and smiling at odd moments. Truly infectious!