Monday, November 24, 2008

The Mexican and the O.C.

Acerbic columnist gives paradise a different spin

Orange County: A Personal History (I've Been Taking Notes) by Gustavo Arellano (Scribner, $24 hardcover)

Book review by Daniel Olivas

Riding the crest of his wildly successful -- and controversial -- syndicated column "¡Ask a Mexican!" (and a best-selling book of the same name), Gustavo Arellano brings us a memoir, Orange County: A Personal History (I've Been Taking Notes) (Scribner, $24 hardcover).

If you were to ask a person on the street what Orange County stands for, you likely would hear such things as Disneyland, John Wayne, idyllic suburbia and expansive shopping opportunities.

If you ask Arellano, you would get a decidedly different answer. In fact, as a lifetime resident of Orange County, he felt that there was a need for a book that told the truth about his hometown. When I chatted with him recently, I asked which O.C. myth he most wanted to dispel with his memoir.

"That Orange County is Eden," he said. "It's not. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else on earth, but I acknowledge the corruption, the Mexican-bashing, the iron grasp developers have on county residents, the class warfare across O.C."

Not to worry. Despite this rather serious goal, Orange County is crammed with Arellano's mordant wit mixed with a healthy dose of personal and cultural history. The result is an often-funny, sometimes-moving tale that stands in stark contrast with the mythology of Orange County. The O.C. will never be the same.

Interestingly, Arellano relies heavily on his experiences growing up in an immigrant neighborhood that suffered from tough economic circumstances but which maintained family strong ties with Mexico. He touches upon his adolescent awkwardness, his father's drinking problems and other familial imperfections.

I wondered why Arellano decided to combine a cultural history with a memoir.

"The two books I always wanted to write were a history of Orange County and another telling the mass exodus of the ranchos of my mami y papi to Anaheim and points beyond," he explained.

"My agent was excited about the Orange County angle, but he was more enthralled by the tales of my family's four generations in Anaheim."

Arellano agreed to the double focus, but it took some work: "Guided by my editor Brant Rumble, I was able to accomplish the tricky feat of the hybrid that both told a serious history of a much-stereotyped region but also wove in the modern story of Mexican migration to los Estados Unidos."

Arellano sprinkles his book with little boxes that offer pithy descriptions of O.C. communities such as Buena Park ("One of our many cities with a stupid Spanglish name"), Newport Beach ("No ghettos here, but a lot of recovering-addict homes"), and Costa Mesa ("The city that wished it were like neighboring Newport Beach").

And because Arellano has been a food critic for the OC Weekly for the past four years, he includes food recommendations for each community, such as Abel's Bakery in Lake Forest -- which, he informs us, was once a Jewish bakery but is now run by a Mexican Mormon. Whether he's writing about Mexican, Greek, Korean, Cuban or Persian cuisine (to name a few), your mouth will water as Arellano describes local delicacies.

Arellano said he's finalizing details to publish another book for Scribner. The tentative title: "Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America (And Soon, the World)."

He asked me: "Did you know that tacos are all the rage in Sweden, except their tacos make Taco Bell look like the masterwork of a lonchera?""

I didn't know that. But I always learn something new from Gustavo Arellano.

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

Rigoberto González, an award-winning writer living in New York City, reviews in the El Paso Times Tato Laviera's new book of poetry, Mixturao and Other Poems (Arte Público Press, $12.95 paperback), a book "that celebrates the varied linguistic forms of expression of U.S. Latinos..." He observes that this new collection "is a wonderful, forward-looking book, and Laviera is an important poet for all people." Read the complete review here.

◙ That’s all for this week...a bit abbreviated because of the holidays. So, in the meantime, enjoy the intervening posts from mis compadres y comadres here on La Bloga. And remember: ¡Lea un libro!

1 comment:

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