Monday, October 20, 2008

The poet of East L.A.: Debut brings women's stories to wider audience

Peeping Tom Tom Girl (San Diego City Works Press, $12.95 paperback) by Marisela Norte

Book review by Daniel Olivas

In the introduction to Marisela Norte's first book of poetry, Peeping Tom Tom Girl (San Diego City Works Press, $12.95 paperback), the scholar George Lipsitz dubs Norte the "poet laureate of the people." This urgent, gritty, sexy and engrossing collection of poems supports Lipsitz's grand pronouncement in every respect.

Norte is a native of East Los Angeles who, remarkably, does not possess a driver's license. She rides the bus and, when necessary, walks in this city that seems to live and breathe on exhaust fumes.

But Norte's mode of transportation has the effect of bringing the poet even closer to those she writes about, with a particular emphasis on the Chicanas, Mexicanas and tough-girl cholas of her community.

As she notes in the title poem:

I am a peeping tom tom girl
And from my seat on the downtown bus
I have been driven through
Been witness to
Invaded by
Las vidas de ellas.

Norte is a storyteller, and she allows her imagination to fill in the blanks of the lives she witnesses from her bus seat or the sidewalk's vantage point. In the poem "Big Red," we are introduced to middle-aged "Disco Grandma" who gets out

Of her big, black, sport utility vehicle
The one she parked with great difficulty
Between a baby blue Mazda mini truck
And a forest green Lexus.

Norte does not pity Big Red. In fact, she wishes that "I were brave enough / To follow her on to the dance floor." Norte praises those who know who they are and what they want, even if the rest of the world might not think much of their efforts.

Norte undermines the mistaken belief held by many that poems should be "pretty" or "beautiful" in the most banal and harmless sense of those overused adjectives. For example, in such pieces as "Daily Grind," she recounts a young woman's rape after a wedding by a "friend of the family." The woman's degradation is heightened by the subsequent abortion and the male doctor "who barely looks at" her and who tells her to open her legs: "'Wider! Wider!' he says, 'I know you're used to that.'” In a sense, the protagonist is raped again.

Norte sings of the lives of women -- primarily Chicanas and Mexican women -- such as an aunt who, in the poem "Act of the Faithless," crosses the border each day: "She worked as a hotel maid / In the El Paso Holiday Inn." The discards of hotel guests become her treasures:

Decorated her home with
Objects of rejection
Turistas left behind
Salt and pepper shakers
Shaped like ten gallon hats
Lone Star state of the art back scratchers
All the way from Taiwan

The above stanza's last line is emblematic of Norte's irony, which she deftly employs to prevent her protagonists' lives from devolving into pedantry or too-easy pathos.

For too long, Marisela Norte's poetry was known and appreciated mostly in Southern California. But upon the publication of her first book, many others will no doubt discover this singular talent.

[This review first appeared in the El Paso Times.]


The Slacker's Guide to Law School: Success Without Stress (The Fine Print Press) by Juan Doria (paperback, $16.95)

Oh, I wish I had this book when I was applying to law school.

Juan Doria’s easy-to-read, sometimes hilarious but always practical guide to succeeding in law school without losing one’s mind (or soul, for that matter), should be required reading for all new law students.

Doria earned his B.A. in English literature at Indiana University – Bloomington, and then did what many such majors have done (I’m included in this cohort): he applied to law school – after traveling through Italy for a bit.

In the first chapter entitled, “Should You Go to Law School,” Doria recounts his reasoning in making this decision, reasons that will sound familiar to all those liberal arts majors out there: I don’t know what else to do; my parents (spouse, friends, etc.) expect me to go; I want to make money; and the ever-famous last words, I can do anything with a law degree.

You can see where this is going. But, in truth, Doria is being honest: his point is that you, the potential law student, should think long and hard before making the emotional, intellectual and financial investment in going to law school.

Doria divides his book in logical progression beginning, as noted, with the initial decision to go to law school, moving to the application process, taking the LSAT, choosing a law school, beginning classes, studying for exams, graduating, finding a job, and taking the bar.

Doria does not hold back. He readily recounts the alcohol and drug abuse that is all-too-common within law school. Every potential friend and study mate is also a competitor. Law school nerds are annoying and to be avoided. Romance is possible (Doria got married in law school and became a father) but he warns against dating a fellow law student (I married my law school sweetheart 22 years ago so I have some qualms about this advice).

As I read The Slacker’s Guide to Law School, I realized two things. First, the practice of law has been much more fun than law school itself (I got the sweats reading some of Doria’s chapters, especially on test taking).

Second, Doria is no slacker. To the contrary, he knows how to work hard but he also has an excellent bullshit detector. Doria simply reminds us that there is no reason to kill yourself in law school when there are practical and less painful ways to avoid the usual soul-crushing mistakes made by new students.

If you’re thinking about applying to law school or have a friend or family member thinking about it, buy this book!


Join the Friends of the Signal Hill Library to welcome guest authors, Margo Candela, Mary Castillo, Reyna Grande, and Jamie Martinez Wood, who will discuss their fictional accounts of the Latina experience from three different perspectives. This free program is sure to be a thought provoking evening.

Monday, October 20th
7:00 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.
Signal Hill Park Community Center
1780 E. Hill St.
Signal Hill, CA 90755

◙ Gregg Barrios gets interviewed over at La Opinión, the Spanish-language daily newspaper published in Los Angeles (it is the largest Spanish-language newspaper in the United States and second-most read newspaper in Los Angeles after the Los Angeles Times). Barrios discusses his hit play, Rancho Pancho. Read it here.

◙ Things are hoppin’ over at C. M. Mayo’s blog (which she provocatively calls, Madam Mayo). First, there’s a guest post by Sergio Troncoso entitled, Things Every Writer Should Know About Money (a must read). Then Stephanie Elizondo Griest offers the gripping Glimpses into the Mexican Underworld. You can catch all prior guest posts by clicking here.

◙ Yesterday the San Antonio Express-News gave a rave review to Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature (Bilingual Press). Written by Gregg Barrios, the review may be read here. Here's a short excerpt of the review:

In citing the present Latino population of Los Angeles County at 4.6 million, the Los Angeles Almanac adds an arch footnote: "A late 19th Century editorial in the Los Angeles Times predicted that the 'Mexican' population in Los Angeles would disappear by the early part of the 20th Century."

Latino writers might be hard-pressed to find solace in this. For in the world of mainstream publishing, they are still barely visible. And in the more rarified literary quarterlies and best stories anthologies, they are an endangered species.

Daniel A. Olivas edited this collection with this in mind. Yes, there is a respectful nod toward established and overlooked writers, but the lion's share of its 34 stories comes from previously unpublished writers — some seeing their fiction, their byline in print for the first time.

Long overdue, "Latinos in Lotusland" is a literary GPS guide to El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles, aka the city of Angeles as seen through Latino — mostly Mexican American and Chicano — writing.


"Latinos in Lotusland" is a movable feast that bears witness to the incredibly talented writers that reclaim Los Angeles as their own.

◙ In yesterday's El Paso Times, Rigoberto González reviewed a new graphic novel by the multi-talented and prolific Ilan Stavans, Mr. Spic Goes to Washington (Soft Skull Press, $15.95). González notes that it’s “an illustrated comic tragedy that answers the question: What if a keep-it-real Chicano infiltrated the U.S. Senate?” You may read the entire review here.

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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the mention, and delighted to learn about Ilan Stavans's latest. Blog on!