Monday, July 30, 2007


As my wife, son and I were planning a little summer vacation for later in August, I started to dream about which books to take with me. So, for those of you who are likewise getting ready to take a little time off before the impending end of summer, here are some reading suggestions for adults, teens and children. I note that the following reviews first appeared in the MultiCultural Review (spring and summer 2007 issues). As I mentioned recently on La Bloga, the MultiCultural Review is always looking for talented reviewers; the editors currently have a particular need for those interested in reviewing books with Latino and LGBT themes. In any event, I hope these reviews give you some good ideas about what to pack along. Happy mid-summer reading.

Other Fugitives and Other Strangers: Poems
By Rigoberto González
Tupelo Press
78 pp.

With this his eighth book, award-winning poet, novelist and memoirist Rigoberto González brings us an unapologetically erotic and, at times, brutal homage to Gay relationships in all their permutations. In the title poem, the narrator contemplates the inherent danger—and exhilaration—of meeting a man at a bar: “I dance, I drink, I follow. / I can trust a man without clothes. / Naked he conceals no weapons, no threat / but the blood in his erection.” There’s the surprise of finding a lover who has a button fetish in “Breads That Hunger”: “He yanks each piece of / plastic with his teeth and swallows it, then inserts the / cusp of his tongue into the buttonhole.” And yes, there are unabashed love poems with erotic tributes such as these first lines from “In Praise of the Mouth”: “Your throat, moan-cluttered, opens / like a desert’s flower.” But in “Body, Anti-Body,” there can also be disillusionment when boredom sets in: “His lust became wallpaper- / tame after only a year / in his bed.” In all, González offers us tough, lancing language that celebrates love and sex and loss as nothing less than essential and unified elements of life.

Farmworker’s Daughter:
Growing Up Mexican in America

By Rose Castillo Guilbault
Heyday Books
189 pp.

Guilbault’s moving and wonderfully-detailed memoir grew out of a series of essays first published in the San Francisco Chronicle. She recounts her cultural, emotional and intellectual journey from her youth in the border town of Nogales, Mexico, to growing up in King City nestled in California’s Salinas Valley. Many know Guilbault as an award-winning broadcast and print journalist. Today, she is vice president of corporate affairs at AAA of Northern California. Her memoir helps us understand how a child can fight her way through racism, difficult economic circumstances and a sometimes broken family to obtain the American Dream. María Luisa, Guilbault’s mother, marries a charming traveling salesman, Tito. Tito shows little interest in raising his daughter leaving that to his wife. Eventually, the small Mexican community buzzes with rumors of Tito’s philandering and the existence of second family. With the emotional and economic support of a distant female cousin from California, Guilbault decides to take escape her abusive marriage. One morning, Guilbault and her mother board a Greyhound bus in the hope of finding personal and economic freedom in the United States. Guilbault’s mother eventually marries José García, a moody fieldworker who ultimately proves to be a good husband and father. But all three must work either in the fields or canneries. It is also difficult for this intelligent, college-bound girl to fit in with her mostly white classmates who do not see higher education as a goal. In the end, this is a poignant tribute to one young woman’s unshakeable belief in her own self-worth and potential.

Still Water Saints
By Alex Espinoza
Random House
242 pp.

“She could walk on water,” begins Alex Espinoza’s luminous and heartbreaking debut novel. The “she” is Perla Portillo, 72 years of age and widowed, the proprietor of Botánica Oshún, a strip mall storefront in a Southern California community called Agua Mansa. This is where patrons can be advised by Perla who has a “cure” for everything from heartbreak to business problems: herbs, soaps, teas, religious relics and statues. In truth, Perla cannot walk on water (as many believe) but is as ordinary as her customers except she offers two things missing in their lives: hope and a sympathetic ear. Espinoza adeptly uses Perla and her botánica to introduce fully-realized characters who search for answers and struggle to make sense out of their lives. The novel moves briskly from character to character, creating a mosaic of this predominantly Latino community without ever falling into melodrama. In the process, Espinoza demonstrates an unfailing eye for detail that creates a richly-textured, believable world. Espinoza, who was born in Tijuana, Mexico, and earned his MFA from the University of California (Irvine), has created a world that is as grounded in reality as it is eloquently rendered. Still Water Saints is a beautiful and potent debut.

Mercy on These Chimps
By Gary Soto
147 pp.

“I, Ronaldo Gonzalez, better known as Ronnie, was like any other boy until I turned thirteen and woke up a chimpanzee,” begins Gary Soto’s insightful and hilarious novel for readers aged twelve and up. Is this a Kafkaesque tale for the young folks? Sort of. But instead of turning into a large cockroach, Ronnie finds himself becoming a gangly, big-eared, smelly teenager. His best friend, Joey Rios, also suffers this embarrassing turn of events. Throw into the equation a pretty girl (here, a star gymnast, Jessica), and these chimps’ lives go from bad to worse. The problems start when Joey attempts to show off to Jessica by climbing up a rafter to get her escaped balloon during an awards banquet. Coach “Bear” angrily calls Joey a “monkey” leaving the humiliated teenager no choice of but run off and hide in his tree house. Ronnie, being the good chimp friend that he is, embarks on a comical quest to find Jessica and convince her of Joey’s love. During his search, Ronnie runs into a series of colorful characters and funny situations. The plot is less important than Soto’s skill at creating memorable characters while letting young people know that growing up might be difficult but good friends can help lighten the load.

Tales Our Abuelitas Told: A Hispanic Folktale Collection
By F. Isabel Campoy and Alma Flor Ada
Illustrated by Felipe Dávalos, Viví Escrivá, Susan Guevara and Leyla Torres
Simon & Schuster
116 pp.

In the introduction to this delightful and informative anthology of Hispanic folktales, the authors remind us that “[w]hen we open our minds and hearts to the words of a story, we enter a world of wonders.” So true. But this is more than a simple recounting of beloved tales handed down one generation to the next. The authors include a generous dose of historical and conceptual context that is, on many levels, as engrossing as the stories themselves. Right up front, they inform us in the introduction that while most of the folktales in this collection have Spanish roots, many other cultures helped these stories evolve because Spain has been a “cultural crossroads throughout history.” Thus, there are influences from the Greeks, Phoenicians, Basques, Celts, Jews, and on and on. The authors also include sections on how to begin a story (“In Grandmother’s time…”), and how to end it (“…this story entered in a silver trail; it came out a golden one”). At the conclusion of each tale, the authors give a little context, explaining how the story evolved throughout the years and where a version of it first appeared in print. The tales themselves are such fun. There’s poor Juan Bobo who cannot obey simple requests from his mother which leads to several hilarious results. And there are lessons to be learned from the shenanigans of all sorts of talking animals that seem to be as competitive and vain as humans. This is an entertaining and educational addition to the folktale tradition.

Come Together, Fall Apart: A Novella and Stories
By Cristina Henríquez
Riverhead Books
306 pp.

Cristina Henríquez’s moving debut collection centers on contemporary Panama where Noriega’s shadow offers a disconcerting backdrop as ordinary people struggle for love and meaning. With eight short stories and a novella, Henríquez demonstrates that such struggle doesn’t always translate to defeat though sometimes it comes perilously close. In “Beautiful,” one of the more disquieting and powerful pieces in this collection, the young protagonist begins her story mid-sentence: “And then that summer when the heart felt like wading through molasses and the streets hummed in a desperate sadness all day and all night, God came down from heaven and paid a visit to our family in two ways: My father returned home and my uncle got rich.” A divine visit, however, does not guarantee happiness: the prodigal father eventually preys on his daughter. But ultimately, she imposes her own kind of justice on the abuser. “Chasing Birds” brings us tourists (a married couple) struggling with their relationship as they visit Panama. The husband is more interested in bird watching than romancing his disaffected wife. The result is not surprising but nonetheless heartbreaking on many levels. The title novella weaves together two strands of narrative: the U.S. invasion of Panama and a young boy’s unrequited love for a girl who is more interested in his best friend. Henríquez’s storytelling is at its most potent in this longer story where she seamlessly blends the political with the personal. Taken together, these stories from the young Henríquez demonstrate a fully-matured and well-honed artistic vision of the human condition.

The King of Things / El rey de las cosas
Written and illustrated by Artemio Rodríguez
Cinco Puntos Press
32 pp.

Born in the city of Tacámbaro in the state of Michoacán, Mexico, Rodríguez came to the United States at the age of twenty and settled in Los Angeles to begin his life making art. He now runs his own studio and gallery, La Mano, and has become an internationally-recognized artist. Rodríguez is probably best known for his highly-detailed and evocative prints (woodcuts and linocuts), twelve of which graced Dagoberto Gilb’s short-story collection, Woodcuts of Women (Grove Press, 2000). Rodríguez now brings us this bilingual picture book inspired by the famous Mexican game of lotería which is similar to the game of bingo but with one major difference: instead of numbers and letters, the Mexican game uses colorful drawings of various characters. Riffing on some of the more popular lotería images, Rodríguez’s book is about a little boy named Lalo who tells us: “I am three years old. I am so strong, I am so smart, look at what I own!” Lalo then recounts the various items in his kingdom: characters from lotería such as the sleepy moon, smiling sun, beautiful mermaid, strutting horse, and others. In each, Lalo plays a part in Rodríguez’s version of Mexico’s beloved images. In the end, the elegant simplicity of this book encourages children to be masters of their imagination, the reigning kings and queens of their playtime.

◙ Alejandro Morales, a novelist and professor of Chicano/Latino studies at the University of California, Irvine, is the recipient of this year's Luis Leal Award for Distinction in Chicano/Latino Literature. The award is presented annually by the University of California, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara City College, and the Santa Barbara Book Council.

Considered one of the country's premier Latino writers of fiction, Morales is the author of several biographical novels in which he tells the fictional story of a character's life using historical events. He has published a total of seven books, including his newest, The Captain of All These Men of Death (forthcoming from Bilingual Review Press). His novels have been published both in the United States and Mexico.

An award-winning author who grew up in East Los Angeles, Morales has said many of his ideas come from real life experiences. For example, The Brick People (Arte Público Press), which tells the story of an immigrant family settling in Simons, California in the early 1900s and going to work for Simons Brick Company, parallels the lives of Morales's parents, who lived in Simons and worked for the same company.

The award is named for Luis Leal, professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at UCSB, who is internationally recognized as one of the leading scholars of Chicano and Latino literature. He will celebrate his 100th birthday this year. Morales will receive the Luis Leal Award at the Santa Barbara Book & Author Festival on September 29 at 3:15 p.m. at the Faulkner Gallery in the Santa Barbara Public Library. Previous recipients of the Leal Award include Helena María Viramontes, Oscar Hijuelos, Rudolfo Anaya, and Denise Chávez. For more information, visit the UCSB website.

◙ Ana Castillo will be reading and signing her new book, The Guardians (Random House), at IMIX Bookstore, 5052 Eagle Rock Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 91114. Website:

WHEN: Wednesday, August 1, 2007
TIME: 7:00 p.m.

Ana Castillo is the author of Peel My Love Like an Onion, So Far From God (a New York Times Notable Book), Sapogonia, and The Mixquiahuala Letters (winner of the American Book Award), as well as the short story collection, Loverboys. Her books of poetry include My Father Was a Toltec, I Ask the Impossible, and Watercolor Women Opaque Men (a novel in verse). She is the recipient of a Carl Sandburg Prize and a Southwestern Booksellers Award. She lives in New Mexico.

Praise for The Guardians:

“Ana Castillo is a formidable presence on the American scene… The characters are as real and quirky as your own neighbors, though you start to realize they are also people you have probably never met before. A vital work of healing and astonishment from a medicine-woman at full power. America needs to read this story.” –Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The Hummingbird’s Daughter

“Ana Castillo is a fearless storyteller… This brave, unflinching novel shows the tragic consequences that come from not facing what is happening in our communities to those without true guardians to protect them.” –Julia Alvarez, author of Once Upon a Quinceañera

For a complete schedule of Castillo's upcoming book appearances, go here.

◙ In yesterday’s El Paso Times, Rigoberto González tells us of a new bilingual short-story project:

“Tameme, a now-defunct journal, courageously produced and published English-to-Spanish and Spanish-to-English literary translations from 1999 to 2003. A new series of chapbooks -- starting with Mexican writer Agustín Cadena's An Avocado from Michoacán (Tameme Inc., $6.95 paperback) -- keeps the spirit of the nonprofit Tameme foundation alive. Translator and editor C.M. Mayo is issuing the single-author chapbooks. They include a story in its original language along with a face-to-face translation, valuable translator's process notes and a brief interview that adds insight to the author's vision and also provides a glimpse into the author's cultural and literary environment.”

Go here to read the entire El Paso Times piece. You can learn more about Mayo, her writing and this new series by visiting Mayo’s blog. And for La Bloga’s coverage of this new bilingual series, go here.

◙ Also in yesterday’s El Paso Times is my profile of the novelist Salvador Plascencia, author of The People of Paper now available in paperback from Harvest books. My full interview of Plascencia (which was the basis for this profile) appeared last December in The Elegant Variation.

◙ SEX IN THE CIUDAD: The new issue of Tu Ciudad focuses on La Bloga's second favorite topic: S-E-X. To subscribe, visit here. It's also available at many bookstores and markets near you.

◙ All done. So, until next Monday, enjoy the intervening posts from my compadres y comadres at La Bloga. ¡Lea un libro! --Daniel Olivas


Anonymous said...

Hola Dan, Enjoyed reading this column and thanks so much for the mention of Tameme's review in the El Paso Times--- by Rigoberto Gonzalez, no less!

Daniel A. Olivas said...

Como no, Catherine.

msedano said...

so many books, so much time, i think i'll read them all. (btw, the "here" links don't work

Go here to read ***series, go here.


Daniel A. Olivas said...

Gracias...and I've fixed those "here" links. Don't know what happened.