Monday, January 11, 2010

Debut short-story collection depicts loss with understatement and eloquence

The Heavens Weep for Us and Other Stories
By Thelma T. Reyna
Outskirts Press, $14.95 paperback
Book review by Daniel Olivas

In her first short-story collection, The Heavens Weep for Us and Other Stories (Outskirts Press, $14.95 paperback), Thelma T. Reyna depicts loss with such understatement and eloquence that the reader has no choice but to go along for the ride.

In “Marry Me,” the successful, college-educated Diego must leave wonderful job opportunities in Virginia and return to Laredo where his recently widowed mother has now suffered a heart attack. As his mother learns to “reinvent” herself as per doctor’s orders, Diego suddenly finds himself being harassed by the elderly grocery store owner, Kika, who repeatedly asks Diego to marry her. Poor Diego soon becomes the butt of leering jokes while his mother blossoms into a healthier and happier person. We eventually learn the impetus for Kika’s infatuation with Diego which is both surprising and heartbreaking.

The story “Little Box” introduces us to Petra, a retired Arizona native visiting her successful attorney daughter, Celeste, in Chicago. Celeste is married to an equally successful businessman and they both have decided to focus on their careers rather than having children. But their marriage otherwise appears to be perfect.

While walking her daughter’s dog one day, Petra happens upon an empty jewelry box by a trashcan: “She picked up the empty box. Yes, that’s what she thought it said: Neiman Marcus. The graceful golden script was stamped across the cream-colored satin lining the lid.” Petra picks up this almost magical box and hides it in Celeste’s condo for safekeeping. This innocent act eventually leads to unintended and devastating results for Celeste’s relationship. Indeed, despite Petra’s belief to the contrary, her daughter’s marriage has much in common with the pretty but empty jewelry box.

The title story reads almost like a poem in its imagery, intensity and lyricism as we witness the burial of two children: “Black umbrellas clump together, edges wavy with dotted water. Neighbors and brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers meld together in common pain.” With this short piece (not quite three pages in length), Reyna demonstrates an assured literary style, one that captures what should be unspeakable loss. But she does, in fact, give voice to such suffering.

Reyna does not abandon all hope for salvation from life’s many insults and afflictions. For example, in “Saving Up,” a wife recounts the horrible fire that has disfigured her husband, but he remains a vital force in her life despite a painful recovery.

With the twelve stories that make up this collection, Thelma T. Reyna paints a candid and unflinching portrait of what it means to walk this earth and experience both the good and the bad. She offers an urgent voice for those who have survived, or are trying to survive. This is an important, rewarding and ultimately inspiring book.

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

◙ We’ve all read the horrible news about Agustin Roberto “Bobby” Salcedo, an El Monte school official and community activist, who was murdered in Mexico while he and his wife were visiting during the holidays. Though I didn’t know him, by all accounts, he was a remarkable man who gave not only to his family and friends, but to his community. Bobby was a friend of the author Michael Jaime-Becerra, who teaches creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. Michael recently offered this remembrance of Bobby.

◙ Over a the Letras Latinas blog (the Weblog of the literary program of the Institute for Latino Studies, University of Notre Dame), Francisco Aragón posts the responses he received from a group of Latina poets where he asked them:

"[...] to take a moment (a day, an afternoon, a weekend) to think about the period 2000 – 2009 and write 300 words about a ‘poetry event’ that impacted you in some special way—that is, in a positive way. You can define ‘poetry event’ however you like (a book, a person, a poem, a reading or panel you took part in, a reading or panel you witnessed, etc). Write about it, and how it affected you and your work/life as a poet, and what, if any, residue of that ‘event’ you carry with you today [...]"

You’ll enjoy their responses.


New Collaborative Residency Program to Benefit Latino Poets

The Ragdale Foundation was recently awarded a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to fund The Ragdale Collaborative Residency Program for Latino Poets, a new initiative to support the planning and implementation of a collaborative residency for eight outstanding Latino poets to live and work in community at Ragdale for one week. This pilot project is designed to help the Ragdale Foundation continue its role as a vital resource for artists in an ever-changing, multicultural society.

Francisco Aragón, Director of Letras Latinas at the University of Notre Dame, who will develop the program with Ragdale said, “I embrace this opportunity to work with Ragdale as we strive to encourage and support poets who also serve their communities as editors.”

Over the next few months, Susan Tillett, Executive Director, and Regin Igloria, Director of Artists-in-Residence, both of Ragdale, will work closely with Aragón to identify and recruit a group of eight published Latino poets—all of whom also serve as literary editors, at either a small presses or literary journals, to come together in residency at Ragdale in the fall of 2010. The residency will culminate in a public program with The Poetry Center of Chicago which will allow each poet to share their published work in addition to work created while in residency at Ragdale.

For more information on any of Ragdale’s programs or Ragdale’s history, please visit or call (847) 234-1063, extension 205.

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

No comments: