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


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.


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:


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!