Tuesday, July 26, 2005


Posted by Daniel Olivas…

Ah! The balmy winds of summer beckon. In other words, it’s time to ask: What shall I read as I sit on the beach and wiggle my toes in the hot sand? Well, I’ve been reviewing books like crazy this last year and want to offer a small sampling of wonderful libros by Latinos/as that will make your summer that much better. I’ve got some poetry, two epic novels, short-story collections, a dissertation on Spanglish and even a critical biography of an important name in Chicano literature. Longer versions of some of these reviews first appeared here and at other fine sites such as The Elegant Variation, LatinoLA and Moorishgirl not to mention that New Mexican glossy, Southwest BookViews. ¡Lea un libro!

The People of Paper (McSweeney’s Books)
by Salvador Plascencia

Salvador Plascencia’s debut novel is a wonderfully strange, hallucinogenic and hypertextual blending of fiction and autobiography. The Prologue’s first sentences thrust us into an almost familiar yet purely mythical world while introducing Plascencia’s sly brand of humor: “She was made after the time of ribs and mud. By papal decree there were to be no more people born of the ground or from the marrow of bones. All would be created from the propulsions and mounts performed underneath bedsheets—rare exceptions granted for immaculate conceptions.” What an astonishing, strange and deeply moving novel this is. In all his playfulness, Plascencia nonetheless grapples with troubling issues of free will, religious fidelity, ethnic identity, failed love and the creative process which he melds into a dreamscape that is impossible to forget. Plascencia—the God of his paper people—has given us a startling work of fiction that stretches not only the norms of storytelling, but also the bounds of our imagination.


Furia: Poems (Milkweed Editions)
by Orlando Ricardo Menes

Orlando Ricardo Menes brings a multicultural palette to this his third collection of poems: born to Cuban parents, raised in both Peru and Miami, with one family line traced back to China. But if one were expecting Furia (Milkweed Editions) to be a wistful, balmy paean to culture and place, one would be shocked starting with the first poem of this three-part collection. This collection packs an emotional wallop drawn as it is from coarse yet colorful threads of divergent cultures. But Menes, through sharp, unsparing and rich language weaves these threads to produce an unforgettable, cohesive and utterly fulfilling poetic narrative.


Pity the Drowned Horses (University of Notre Dame Press)
by Sheryl Luna

In one of the last poems of Pity the Drowned Horses, Sheryl Luna's richly textured debut collection, the narrator in "Las Alas" asks: "Can one return to a desolate / past, before one knew one was poor, / before the luxurious perfume?" This desperate query-which is never answered-is the fantasma that haunts every line of this book. Various identities grapple with each other seeking superiority and control: poor vs. middle class, Spanish vs. English, borderland vs. big city, atheist vs. believer, brown vs. white. In "Bullfight," this battle is a bewildering "river / that divides me, crosses me daily like the forgotten / history of my grandmother." The narrator has lost much of her ability to speak Spanish and "[e]ven the people I longed for, / la raza, forgot my face." Yet she knows that her mother, who is half Jewish, suffers this same rupture of identity: "Her own lost / heritage buried in a cemetery plot." But in "Learning to Speak," she admits that something must be done despite likely cultural humiliation: "I spoke / Spanish broken, tongue-heavy. I was once too proud / to speak Spanish in the barrio.... Quiero / aprender español, I whisper." And her would-be teacher responds without words: "He smiles." The risk is taken, and a reward received. Luna's poems have graced the pages of some of the most prestigious literary journals published today: Prairie Schooner, The Georgia Review, Puerto del Sol, Kalliope, and many others. A native of El Paso who now teaches in Denver, she was a finalist for the National Poetry Series book awards and the Perugia Press Intro Award for women poets. With this collection, Luna won the first Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize sponsored by the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame; she has set the bar high, indeed, for future prize candidates.


The Hummingbird's Daughter: A Novel (Little, Brown)
by Luis Alberto Urrea

In the harsh yet thriving landscape of Mexico, circa 1880, the poor, illiterate and unmarried Yaqui woman (known by her tribe as The Hummingbird), gave birth to Teresita with the help of the town's healer, the curandera called Huila. Huila-one of Urrea's most remarkable creations-is as cantankerous as she is powerful. So powerful in fact that she lives in a room behind the kitchen of the great hacienda owned by the wealthy Don Tomás Urrea. Don Tomás does not care much for religion but he knows that Huila is an asset and puts up with her magic as much as Huila puts up with her patrón's habit of spreading his seed despite having a beautiful, attentive wife and several children who populate the hacienda. Teresita eventually-and literally-wanders into Don Tomás's life and is subsequently taken under Huila's wing. Huila notices two things about this unusual girl: she resembles the Urrea family and she possesses the power to heal. Don Tomás ultimately owns up to paternity and is determined to make a lady out of this barefooted urchin. But as Teresita matures, her powers grow until all know that she is the curandera women should go to when they are about to give birth or when a child becomes ill. Then one day, when Teresita goes out to the fields, she is raped, beaten and eventually dies. But on the third day, at the end of burial preparations, in the midst of five mourning women, Teresita awakes. The town is abuzz with news of this miracle. With her resurrection comes greater healing powers and, of course, fame. The Yaquis, as well as other native tribes, mestizos, and even Americans, make pilgrimages to the Urrea hacienda. The Catholic Church views this "saint" as a heretic, the vicious and corrupt government of Porfirio Díaz considers the girl a threat, and revolutionaries want to insinuate themselves into her sphere of influence for their own political cause. The climax brilliantly mirrors the immigrant's experience of seeking safe passage to a foreign land while relying on loved ones as well as fate. Urrea, who is the award-winning author of ten books-fiction, non-fiction and poetry-tells us in an author's note that Teresa Urrea "was a real person"-his aunt. The Hummingbird's Daughter is his fictionalization of family lore based on twenty years of intense research and interviews. The result resonates with such passion and beauty that it doesn't matter whether Teresita's legend is based more on a people's wishful thinking than truth. The Hummingbird's Daughter is a sumptuous, dazzling novel to which no review can do justice; one simply must read it.


Chicano Sketches (University of Arizona Press)
by Mario Suarez

In their introduction to Chicano Sketches, the editors assert that the late short-story writer Mario Suárez "represents a unique case of an early Chicano author who remained faithful to his original purpose of creating a distinctively Chicano literary space." How early? The first eight of the 19 stories included in this collection were first published by the Arizona Quarterly between 1947 and 1950. The "distinctively Chicano literary space" Suárez created was grounded in the harsh realities of a barrio in Tucson called El Hoyo (literally "The Hole") which the editors term "an urban wasteland." Suárez, who was also a journalist, social activist and educator who relocated his family to Southern California in 1958, possessed a sharp eye for quotidian human experience. He populated his "sketches" (his term) with preening pachucos, avuncular barbers, unrepentant womanizers, chisme-loving comadres, clever swindlers and many other examples of humanity. Suárez did not romanticize the Chicano experience; indeed, he acknowledged such social dysfunctions as alcohol abuse ("Cuco Goes to a Party" and "Loco-Chu"), indolence ("Kid Zopilote") and economic struggle ("The Migrant" and "Los Coyotes") while celebrating the beauty of Chicano culture ("Mexican Heaven"), human kindness ("Doña Clara" and "Señor Garza") and the work ethic ("Something Useful, Even Tailoring"). Quite often, Suárez relied on biting irony and comedic juxtapositions to illustrate his characters' vices and virtues. No collection of Chicano literature will be complete without this volume.


Dancing With Ghosts: A Critical Biography of Arturo Islas (University of California Press)
by Frederick Luis Aldama

Frederick Luis Aldama notes that he could have written a hagiography because of Arturo Islas' "sensational and melodramatic 'up-from-the-bootstraps' story and its tragic dénouement." But that would have been dishonest. Despite his talents as a writer, Islas was plagued with self-hate and was often moody, manipulative, narcissistic and unpredictable. Yet he could be brilliant, gentle, soft-spoken and, above all, generous. Aldama succeeds in synthesizing the disparate elements of Arturo Islas to produce what doubtless will become a seminal biographical study of an important figure in Chicano letters.


Puerta del Sol (Bilingual Press)
by Francisco Aragon

Francisco Aragón's verse has graced the pages of several chapbooks and innumerable literary journals not to mention anthologies published by W.W. Norton, Heyday Books and Soft Skull Press. Aragón is also the founding editor and publisher of Momotombo Press which promotes emerging Latino writers and is housed at the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame where Aragón is a Visiting Fellow. His talents at translation have been utilized for a half dozen books including those by the great Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. Aragón's honors include an Academy of American Poets Prize and an AWP Intro Journals Project Award. With Puerta del Sol, Aragón offers us his first full-length book of poetry. And it is about time. Whether confronting terrorism on Spanish soil, memories of his late mother, or lamenting love lost, Aragón allows his images to travel from one continent to another, between English and Spanish, from hard, present tense reality to amorphous, malleable memory. Aragón's poems are stunning little mirrors that reveal the shimmering complexity of our lives and dreams. This is an eloquent collection that deserves attention.


Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language (HarperCollins/Rayo)
by Ilan Stavans

Ilan Stavans has produced a treat for all language fans in his excellent book Spanglish: The Making Of A New American Language. The book contains both Stavans' excellent opening essay - La Jerga Loca - and the lexicon of Spanglish words and phrases that he has compiled over the last decade or so. As a bonus, Stavans includes his Spanglish translation of the first chapter of Don Quixote De La Mancha in the appendix. The lexicon alone makes the book worth owning, but the essay is the frosting on this treat. Although referred to as the introduction, the opening essay is preface, introduction, acknowledgments, and much more all rolled into one. Towards the end of the essay, Stavans addresses concerns over shining a spotlight on Spanglish, which some consider a destruction of Spanish or a come down for people who should be learning English. He correctly notes that their shouldn't be a problem with studying a phenomenon - Stavans is a professor of Latino and Latin American culture! - especially if it helps people learn more about themselves as a culture. I teach students for who English is a second language and I always encourage them to improve their English, but I'm also fascinated by the conversations in English, Spanish, and Spanglish that swirl around me every day. Spanglish by Ilan Stavans should appeal to all those interested in language, especially the evolution of language, and Latino culture. I found it to be an excellent book and highly recommend it.


Every Night Is Ladies' Night : Stories
by Michael Jaime-Becerra

One of the truths revealed by Los Angeles fiction is that it includes, by necessity, tales from those small cities that adhere to the ragged edges of Los Angeles proper. In Michael Jaime-Becerra's subtle and beautiful debut collection, "Every Night is Ladies' Night," we are introduced to one such city: El Monte. Jaime-Becerra spins ten interlocking stories around the hub of El Monte, a working-class community of just over 100,000 people, the vast majority of whom are Latino. The stories bounce back-and-forth from 1984 to 1989 with one leaping thirty years further into the past. The protagonists reappear all tied to streets like Valley and Live Oak, businesses such as Road Runner Liquor, Pick-A-Part, Tortillerilla Bienvenida and the ubiquitous McDonald's. People scrape together livelihoods as mechanics, fast food managers, tattoo artists, truck drivers and musicians. We see how children, teens, parents and grandparents try desperately to fit in, keep their dreams alive, fall in love. Most of the characters we meet are members of the Cruz family. Jaime-Becerra knows that not all life experiences lead to grand epiphanies or dramatic personal growth. With great skill, he shows us that we often battle just to stay in place. This is a beautiful, accomplished debut.


Anonymous said...

For a bigger treat, look for Ilan Stavans in person, hopefully, in a lecture setting, panel, or special appearance somewhere. In my opinion, Mr. Stavans is proof of guardian angelship on earth and in the flesh.

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