Monday, December 29, 2008

The Power of Fiction

Daniel Chacón's cutting short stories explore effects of lies on life

Unending Rooms: Stories (Black Lawrence Press, $18 paperback) by Daniel Chacón

Book review by Daniel Olivas

A recurring theme in Daniel Chacón's new short story collection, Unending Rooms: Stories (Black Lawrence Press, $18 paperback), is the manner by which fiction informs our lives, and vice versa.

In the first piece, "John Boyd's Story," the narrator tells us about a graduate seminar in fiction writing at the University of Oregon. He is Chicano, and the only other "brown" person in the seminar is John Boyd, a Native American who was "a skin off the same rez as Sherman Alexie."

The white writers in the group love Boyd's stories -- until he writes one about a Native American who does a bit of violence against a condescending white graduate student doing a study on reservation life. The white writers complain: "What happened to those beautiful stories you used to write? Where are your trees and mystical rivers and schools of metaphysical salmon, slipping between the rocks?"

You can almost hear Chacón chuckling to himself as we read those words.

The power of fiction works its way into "Daniel 13," where two old men attempt to rape the young and beautiful Susana, the wife of an older, wealthy rancher. When Susana reports the attack to the police, the newspapers, at first, report the truth, "but the old men asserted their power, and then some papers reported another version."

In time, the newspapers stop referring to the "attempted rape," instead calling it a "sex scandal" based on the fictional version offered up by her assailants.

Eventually, a reformed "hardcore gangbanger" named Daniel becomes enraged when he learns of these lies. He becomes not only Susana's avenger, but also an avenger for truth over vicious fiction.

Chacón's characters are often obsessed with books and the stories in them, sometimes to an unhealthy degree. In "Page 55," a man enters a rather odd used-book store that resembles a house more than a place of business. He finds an ancient tome, "The Life Expectancy of the Dog," which at first seems boring -- but he suddenly "got this sensation that it was worth more than the bookseller knew." He buys the book and goes to an outdoor café to read it.

A beggar interrupts him but he ignores the request for money. The beggar eventually issues a curse: "May you die reading that book." This malediction turns the man into an obsessive reader, who now believes that he will die at the same age as the number on the page he stops reading. Unfortunately, the book is far from compelling.

Sometimes, books are used by young men to romance the opposite sex, but not always successfully. In the hilarious "The Day They Discovered Rain," the narrator decides to convert one of his spare rooms into a library:

"How nice, I thought, to be able to come home from a long day at work, to plop my half-dead body on a leather armchair and read a good book, something classic ... ."

He spends too much money on magnificent lawyer bookshelves, only to find that he still has piles of books without a place to put them. He subsequently develops a crush on a bookstore clerk who is decidedly unimpressed by his book collection until, one day, he makes up the title of a poem -- which also serves as the title of the story. At the young woman's urging, he "quotes" from it. Word to the wise: Do not woo a woman by making up allegedly famous poems.

The two dozen stories in Chacón's Unending Rooms reveal the sharp insight and cutting humor of a consummate writer who is obsessed by the power of fiction and the way we weave it -- purposefully or inadvertently -- into our lives.

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

◙ Tony Barboza, staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, tells us about MacArthur award winner Rueben Martinez’s new gig:

Rueben Martinez is known for his many callings: Barber. Longtime bookstore owner. MacArthur award winner. Speaker at high schools, colleges and universities across the country. Holder of more honorary degrees than he can count.

And now Martinez, 68, is a college professor. A presidential fellow, to be exact.

Starting next month, Martinez will be responsible for Chapman University's efforts to recruit first-generation students, especially Latinos, into science and math programs.

University administrators said the fellowship is part of a twofold strategy of boosting its science enrollment while more aggressively recruiting students from such central Orange County communities as Santa Ana, Anaheim and Orange -- where the 6,000-student campus is located.


[Mike] Pelly, the admissions vice chancellor, said that Chapman plans to commit more scholarship money to math and science students.

But even hiring Martinez was not sure a sure bet. Martinez balked when Cardinal approached him, saying that he lacked the standard credentials. "I have a high school diploma, how am I qualified to do this job?" Martinez recalled asking.

But he has slowly come around to thinking of himself as an educator. When he recently received a letter from Chapman addressing him as Professor Martinez, it was such a source of pride that he showed it to all of his bookstore customers.

"I've walked through campuses all my life but never attended classes," he said. "Who would ever think that people would be calling me professor?"

Read the rest of the story here.

[Photo credit: Robert Lachman for the Los Angeles Times.]


A Daughter's a Daughter

by Nash Candelaria

From the publisher: A Daughter's a Daughter follows three generations of women in a family, beginning with Liberata, the only daughter of the most prosperous farmer in Los Rafas. When she decides to marry a handsome opportunist, Liberata unquestioningly expects to live out a happy life along the traditional course set forth by her forebears, only to discover that her husband is abusive and unfaithful. Liberata communicates her distrust of men to her daughter, María, who does not understand, but instead follows her mother's example and obediently conducts her life with traditional values. The women in the family repeat the lives of their mothers until María's daughter Irene breaks the pattern. In the process, she discovers and learns to value her Chicano roots and rebels against the oppressive gender roles of the previous generations. Finally, as Liberata lies dying, Irene discovers a shocking secret about the origin of the legacy she has been given.

As 2008 comes to an end, we’re seeing many “best of” lists being published. Over at the San Antonio Express-News, staff writer Deborah Martin noted that “[t]here was quite a range of material covered on San Antonio stages this year — the strongest work included a musical that included puppet sex and a bracing Sam Shepard play about embattled brothers.” And here’s one play she includes on her list that we at La Bloga have covered…in Ms. Martin’s words:

"Rancho Pancho" and "The Glass Menagerie," Classic Theatre: The Classic premiered with a sensational one-two punch. "Rancho Pancho," San Antonio playwright Gregg Barrios' piece about the little-known relationship between Tennessee Williams and Texan Pancho Rodriguez, was a dazzling debut. (And, as marvelous as it was at Jump-Start Theater, it was even stronger in Massachusetts, where the troupe performed it as part of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival.) The Classic built on that promise with a truly gorgeous "Menagerie," including Terri Peña Ross' heartbreaking turn as Amanda Wingfield.

Read the entire list here.

[Actors pictured: Benny Briseno as Pancho and Rick Frederick as Tennessee.]

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

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