Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Review: The Last War. Pixels 'n Bits.

Ana Menéndez. The Last War. NY: Harper Collins, 2009.
ISBN: 9780061724763; ISBN10: 0061724769

Michael Sedano

Can this marriage last?

She is "Flash", so-called because on a photographic assignment years before, in Afghanistan, she incessantly fires off her flash unit when the other war photogs shoot available light. It's a faux pas she'll never live down, carrying the memory in the name all her friends call her, affectionately, "Flash."

He is Wonderboy. That's what she calls her husband. Everyone else calls him by name, Brando. The nickname, a fulsome compliment dating from early in his career, gets dragged out at parties and bull sessions. To her, "Wonderboy" fills her thoughts and rolls off her tongue with venomous resentment.

No, the marriage is dissolving before our eyes as Ana Menéndez narrates the story of an alienated wife, stuck in Istanbul while her reporter husband is in Iraq, embedded with U.S. forces, coming under fire, dealing with mindless deaths brought by the mindless invasion. A three year old, dropped by a sniper, for example.

Brando professes his desperate love for the wife in phone calls from the war. In the satellite phone, however, the wife discerns in the technology's echoes an emotional distance that feeds into her own distance and unhappiness. The deck is stacked against this couple.

It takes two to tango, and two to muck up a marriage. But in this case, Brando might be the innocent party. Unhappy and isolated by language and culture, Flash opens an anonymous letter from "Mira," informing Flash that Wonderboy is shacking up with a woman in Iraq, another correspondent. Flash proceeds to remember earlier suspicious behavior with other women, unexplained absences, odd coincidences. A violently arguing couple in the upstairs apartment feeds into her burdensome perception of marriage in general.

Into this ambiente of misery, Menéndez introduces a mysterious westerner, Alexandra, who dresses in black muslim garb and follows Flash through the city. Alexandra, Flash observes, appears to be always running from something. Despite Alexandra's mode of dress and apparent language skill, she doesn't really fit, any more than Flash fits in. There's a funny example of this when, just after Alexandra brags of her Turkish lessons and belittles Flash's failure to study the language, Alexandra talks to some men who cannot understand a word she says.

Deeply unhappy herself, Alexandra acts as Flash's confessor, tormentor, analyst, friend in need. It's the blind leading the blind, but Flash doesn't see that in the fog of migraine headaches and her own depression. Because Alexandra had been on the Afghanistan trip, she feeds Flash's paranoia at the same time Alexandra helps Flash seek out solid ground from which to take a sensible decision about either going home to Miami or getting that visa and trekking to Baghdad to be with her husband.

The novel can be a bit misleading--should we empathize with Flash?--until the reader gets more deeply into the story and discovers that Flash is really an unsympathetic woman, regardless of what Wonderboy may have done, or not. Menéndez does a great job without being heavy-handed of delving into the psychology of Flash's gradual descent into chaos. Menéndez illustrates the longevity of Flash's illness in alternating chapters between Istanbul and the Afghanistan trip where the photographer suffers Post Traumatic Shock Disorder after attending Taliban public executions, observing a translator shoot a wounded camel, crashing against the senselessness of male domination in Muslim culture. Are these causal factors in Flash's dissolution, or do such experiences hasten an already deteriorated emotional structure? Can we care?

I was attracted to the novel by the title of Menéndez' earlier work, including Loving Che and In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd. I have come across precious few Chicana or Latina novels lately, so my hopes were high.

Here, the author escapes the confines of Cubana-oriented plots to put a "woman of color"--an expression Flash has difficulty dealing with--into a confusing, hostile foreign landscape that keeps a reader slightly on edge along with the characters. A lot of this edginess comes of the frequent appearance of Turkish phrases and spelling, untranslated. We understand these no better than Flash, and like her, we must move through the landscape to the next desperate moment. Readers will find The Last War an engaging and serious novel to recommend to friends and spur vigorous discussions about love, relationships, foreignness, and blame. That's a lot packed into a short--240 pages--book.

Mitos Y Realidades - Colorist Exhibition at East Los' ChimMaya

Pola Lopez and Isabel Martinez share a couple of characteristics. Both are colorist painters, sparkling conversationalists and photogenic. Their artistic styles, color aside, as represented in their ChimMaya show, separate them.

Martinez' canvases feature botanical subjects, lots of texture. Softly saturated, the matte finish mutes her colors, giving them the look of pastel work instead of acrylic and brush. The canvases could be easily be seen as damask wall coverings woven with intricately patterned abstractions. Their complexity requires lengthy interaction to allow the imagery to penetrate one's emotions.

Lopez shows a pair of approaches. One favors figurative compositions peopled by unambiguous forms, and in the other familiar iconography like el arbol de vida decorated with milagro-like icons. She elects a high gloss finish that gathers all the available light so that her impressive canvases take over the tight spaces of ChimMaya's north gallery. A centerpiece triptych takes the form of such cultural icons as Ugly Betty placed into nichos familiar in the architecture of Lopez' native New Mexico. The grey background contains highly detailed decoration echoing Toledano steel or damascene work. A large portrait, part of a series, features a floral background that continues onto the skin of the figure, as if a tattoo, or the female figure were transparent. It's a complicated idea that requires the visitor to spend long minutes studying every element of the canvas (seen over Pola's left shoulder in the central image of the photo).
A few weeks ago I was privileged to attend the "16 x 20," "Duality," and Frida shows at ChimMaya. This visit I made it a point to talk to the owners, Steven Acevedo and Daniel Gonzalez. Gracious hosts, they took time out from the frantic activity surrounding them to give me a tour of the art hanging throughout the store and gallery space. In the course of our conversation, Steven mentioned he heard La Bloga's Monday columnist, Daniel Olivas, has a new novel coming soon, and expressed interest in hosting a reading at ChimMaya when the book comes out. What a happy confluence of events. I get some photos and experience beautiful arte, Daniel gets a marketing contact from one of the hottest arts locales on the East Side of El Lay.

ChimMaya is an easy drive from anywhere in Southern California. South of the Pomona Freeway (60) near Atlantic on Beverly, at 5283 E Beverly Blvd, Los Angeles, 90022

Bits and Pieces

In upcoming Fall events, La Bloga friend, author C.M. Mayo, promotes her novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire. Venues include Virginia's Fall for the Book Festival in September. In October she heads for Washington DC for the Historical Society of Washington DC, and in November, The Texas Book Festival. Find details both on the novel and the promotional events at Mayo's English language site or su sitio hispanoparlante.

Mayo Trailer Project

"Madam Mayo" seeks links to author book trailers. She notes, " I'm interested in video 'trailers' for books as a genre and am preparing some more detailed notes for the blog, so if any of the writers reading La Bloga would like to send me the URL for their own trailers, I invite them to do so via my website."

Reyna Grande - New Novel, Organizing Latino Book Fair, Panel

La Bloga friend and author of Across a Hundred Mountains Reyna Grande's latest novel, Dancing with Butterflies is
about to reach bookshelves near you. Publisher's Weekly gives it a starred review, promising active interest from booksellers.

La Bloga will be reviewing the work in an upcoming column. In the meantime, you can ask your local bookseller about plans to stock the novel for ready local accessibility.

Reyna is a chief organizer in Los Angeles of the upcoming Edward James Olmos and Latino Literacy Now sponsored Latino Book Fair, Saturday and Sunday, October 10 and 11 on the campus of California State University Los Angeles. For the geographically challenged, this is not the Westwood campus of UCLA, it's the El Sereno Campus of CSULA.

With over 65 great Latina Latino authors, 24 panels, and 12 workshops in Spanish, a main stage and a children's stage, this festival is shaping up to be filled with excitement and insight. This is history in the making. The Latino Book Fair has been a recurring and stellar event for a dozen years across the Southwest. This one promises to be the best ever!

A week before the Latino Book Festival at CSULA, Reyna is chairing a fascinating-sounding panel at the West Hollywood Book Fair. Titled "Chicas, Chicanas, & Latinas: Women in Action", the panel features authors Josefina Lopez, Mary Castillo, Margo Candela and Graciela Limon.

Hit List Hits Pasadena This Week, August 29!

Here is wonderful afternoon news. Some of us older gente have a tough time enduring the late night routines of book release events and author readings. Thank you indie bookseller and Pasadena Califas institution Vroman's Books!

Sat, 08/29/2009 - 3:00pm
Location: Vroman's Bookstore
695 E. Colorado Blvd
Pasadena, California 91101

Group event for Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery - featuring: Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Linda Quinn, and S. Ramos O'Briant

A gripping anthology of short fiction by Latino authors that features an intriguing and unpredictable cast of sleuths, murderers and crime victims.

Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery
ISBN-13: 9781558855434
Published: Arte Publico Press, 03/01/2009

There we have it, the ultimate Tuesday of August, the last Tuesday I can claim 63 years and 40 years of marriage. Imagine that, the Beatles wrote me a song that I've had to wait all this time to make meaningful. No Vera, no Chuck, no Dave. But altogether the way it is, a Tuesday like any other Tuesday, except You Are Here. Thank you for visiting La Bloga.


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1 comment:

Thania said...

Latino mistery, hell yeahh!!