Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Review: Cages. The Gluten-free Chicano Cooks.

Review: Sylvia Torti. Cages. Tucson, Arizona : Schaffner Press, Inc., 2017.
ISBN 9781943156184 1943156182

Michael Sedano

Big research university campuses have at least one featureless structure with heavy air conditioning units running noisily 24/7, security locks on the steel entry door, and if there’s a sign it might read “Vivarium,” or “Birdsong Lab,” as in Sylvia Torti’s 2017 novel, Cages.

Cages goes past the security gates into the labs where walls two stories high are lined with bird cages and the air a cacophony of tweets from thousands of captive birds.

Random males paired with a female produce songs designed to win sex from the experimenter's random selection. That's her reproductive choice, too.

Down the hall, in the quieter workspaces, scientists cut the birds open, hook wires to their insides, suture. Then the songbirds get wired to computers that count muscle contraction, breathing, and convert their melody into raggedy lines on a printout.

The fall of a sparrow is cursed for costing a week’s work and the necessity of doing another bird.

Torti’s writing offers rich enjoyment for birders and photographers who hang around birders. Scientists will get a kick out of a story about doing science that doesn’t pull many punches for the nonscientist and digs into thorny ethical territory. Some researchers might raise a brow at the author’s antivivisectionist tone. Some readers my be freaked out by casual euthanasia.

Torti’s focus is not for the birds but the people and their courtship patterns. Cages builds underlying tension drawing parallels between questions asked of birds that are answered as the people play out their everyday interactions. In some ways people's suffering comes from what they do to the birds.

The story grows from four people and their connections. A first-love story pairs two abused strangers, Rebecca, the lab factotum, and the Südtirolean Post-Doc researcher, Anton. A love triangle mixes the outstanding in his field principal researcher, David, his clinical psychologist wife, Sarah, and Ben, their best friend.

The author apportions each character space to find a place in the narrative. Anton is an emotionally damaged son of an absent mother, a famous photographer. Rebecca is a photographer fleeing violent rape by a famous photographer mentor. David’s research has him on the verge of publishing in Science. He wants to answer why do females prefer some males to others when the birds sing?

Sarah is the one character who remains an unkown. She’s an interesting woman. Sarah deserves some development. From David’s point of view, he’s been abandoned by his wife, who’s gone to the Peruvian jungles seeking Ben’s cot. Why, Sarah? Torti is perhaps intentionally withholding more insight, or she ran out of room. There’s a slew of answers pushed across the page as the novel closes.

Ben is supposed to be more presence than character. The best friend, he’s a birdsong recognition expert, the Practice to David’s Theory. In Hebrew Ben David means son of, a linguistic coincidence suggesting the two are the same man.

David torments himself envisioning Sarah in the sack with Ben in some virile jungle setting. She must see Ben as a magnificent and dashing adventurer while David is the solid experimentalist, wondering what makes a bird sing, why do females prefer some males to others? Why, Sarah?

Rebecca’s a humanist, multiplying her outsiderness at the bottom of the lab pecking order. Except she’s a looker, and David notices. But Anton makes a move. The lovers consummate their secret relationship while David is off to a prestigious conference.

At work, the lab assistant speaks her mind, and heart. For instance, David and Anton feverishly speculate on avian musculature and a method to answer surgically why one bird sings and another won’t? Rebecca offers a simple proposition, maybe they don’t want to sing. Deep down, she has an effect.

Anton has an answer, other than the bird’s feelings. Humans have a brain and opposable thumbs. Humans experiment on living creatures because we’re superior. The foreigner is joined in this arrogance by the boss, but David goes hot cold. One moment David holds warm thoughts for an aging dove, the next he’s coldly evicting the dove to make room for a useful bird. For the author's perspective on obsessive research praxis, Torti sends Anton to old age baking cookies for village kids. Someone else discovered the engram and now, in the end, it made no difference.

Big science makes big money. Torti says that’s not worth the human cost, David agrees. David does small science with big implications. David’s classmate rides a trajectory leading to billions of dollars from a pill and who knows what other discoveries? Fire the Post-Docs and hire three grad students for the same money. Throw cheap labor like firing a shotgun. Bound to hit something.

Engram is only one of the weighty considerations Sylvia Torti challenges herself to incorporate into her novel’s scientific dimension. Where Cages’ people live, vocabulary from the deeper reaches of science informs their daily patter.

Axons, synapses, syrinx and bird physiology, engram, instinct, learning, measuring technology, these rest far from the lingua franca of many an educated reader’s tongue. Without "mansplaining"Torti teaches enough to open readers to appreciating David’s sense of urgency about birds.

David believes his bird findings inform conclusions about human communication. Torti keeps this narrative can of worms firmly sealed. She doesn’t have another three hundred pages to develop that story line. Besides, David doesn’t see the answers slapping him in the face. What makes “his” female prefer Ben to David? He imagines he knows. He's wrong.

Because she wants to. Because she can. And there’s the rub, Sylvia Torti doesn’t want to explore that just yet, why Sarah makes her choices. As the novel winds down there’s a device, a diary like an omniscient Greek chorus, who lays out Sarah’s predicament, allays Ben’s paranoia, and epitomizes David’s career illustrating how some questions are only grammatical expressions that are incapable of defining the world about them. Some conflicts loving two people have no resolution, they only look like choices. You have to do both.

Cages by Sylvia Torti is different from her Chiapas-set novel, The Scorpion’s Tail., where women lead the way for a male protagonist. Here, David might be heading the right direction owing to the woman and Anton is exiled for his convictions, but it's page 296 and that's all she wrote. Readers will enjoy Cages and will want to read both. And if Sarah finally gets her say, we’ll all want to read that, too.

mail bag

It's OK to be raza and support the hispanics in New Mexico. Up there, they call themselves that without vomiting, so when in Barelas, do as the Latinos do.

The NHCC has an idea I recommend to other cultural organizations. NHCCmarketers promoted a deal with community retailers and a big internet marketer to fundraise from supporter purchases. The Shop and Give Program makes great sense. Click here for info.

Boyle Heights Street Pachanga November 30
Artists, performers, musicos can jump on the bill for this sure to be lively community event promoted by a host of people listed here:

Music, art, and food festival at Mariachi Plaza and along East 1st Street in Los Angeles (Boyle Heights).

Workshop Stations along East 1st Street:
- Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory
"Chicano Student Walkouts Silkscreen"
- Liliflor Art
- Maricela Sosa
"Papel Picado"
- La Victoria Trio

Art Curators & Artists along Paseo del Arte:
Quetzal Flores (626) 429-4261
Emmanuel Deleage (323) 263-7684 x1003
Nico Avina (323) 762-4564

Vendors & "Rising Stars" on Plaza Mariachi Stage:
Beatriz Zaragoza (626) 203-2050

Watch for details at the Facebook. 

The Gluten-free Chicano Cooks
La Cruda

Miguelito sat in the small unpainted room between the front room and the kitchen, leafing through a Your Hit Parade magazine. Dany Landeros was spinning rancheras on the radio. The boy looked away from the black marks on the paper to study the photograph of “Woozy” tacked to the wall by his Uncle John. “Woozy” must have been the name of the four-eyed man.

Woozy was an American, meaning a white man. Jesus next to him was white, too, hasta en color, but that's different, it was a drawing. Woozy’s grizzled unshaven face made him look like a bum in grainy black and white. Miguelito recognized retouching without having a word for it. Somehow the photographer had duplicated Woozy’s eyes giving the bum two sets of eyes, over-under. Fake but compelling to the small boy.

Pondering the provenance of Woozy’s photo—did Uncle John pay for it? Did Woozy give it to Uncle John? Why two eyes?--the boy had not noticed Uncle John stumble into the room. Tall, unshaven like Woozy, Uncle John smiled down at his nephew, his hard-working little sister’s own little boy. Smiling made John wince in pain.

John wore the suspenders and creased baggy trousers he wore last night at El Resbalón. His left leg bore a dark stain and drops of blood dotted his undershirt pointing to swollen crusty nostrils and a bruise coloring Uncle John’s face with black and blue and green and yellow blotches against his deep brown left cheek.

“Sientete, Mi’jo,” gramma told him. She didn’t say it the way she invited Miguelito to sit to a bowl of Cocido and her hand-made tortillas hot off the comal. Miguel detected sadness and the stress of helplessly aguantando the fact her oldest child was a wino. In a few weeks, she’d give him money for the Greyhound to Stockton or Fresno from where he’d pick his way down the valley. All his mother had to do every year was worry and send money.

John ignored the chair and leaned into the ice box. He took a drinking glass off the top of the white appliance and two eggs from inside. He hastily cracked each blanquillo into the jelly jar, bits of brown shell clung to the viscous egg. Juan looked at Miguelito with his one good eye, the other swiveling with it under the swollen lid. “Salud!” he saluted the youngster. John tilted his head back and let the raw eggs slide into his mouth.

“La cruda,” Uncle John said. Miguel recognized the statement as both fact and lament. The boy stared at the empty jar on the table. A single drop of albumen glistened on the rim in the light from the window. A thread of eggwhite stretched and slowly glided down the outside of the glass. Woozy stared blankly from the other room. The moment burned itself into Miguelito’s awareness and he would never forget it.

Gramma used her apron to pull open the firebox to stoke up the heat with a piece of orangewood that she pushed into the coals. Then she poured water from the olla into a shiny steel soup pot. In a practiced blur she peeled six tomatillos, sliced a small onion, halved and sliced a yellow lemon into the pot with a Bay leaf and black peppercorns.

She walked out to the garden to pick six slender green chile pods and all the red chile piquin on one bush. She tore off two leaves from the tall blue-green plant and walked back to the stove.

Uncle John breathed in deeply. The blooded nostril gave off a shrill wheeze and bubbled when he exhaled. He pulled a wadded handkerchief from his back pocket and emptied his nose. Miguel couldn’t avoid seeing the green and bloody mocos Uncle John folded away into his pocket.

Gramma added the chiles whole into the pot, followed with a generous sprinkle from a round cardboard box of salt.

She pulled the blue-green leaves from her apron pocket. Laying one leaf flat on her palm, she slapped the other palm sharply onto the leaf, three quick slaps. Gramma looked at the leaf between slaps. The surface had a whitish cast now. Gramma peeled off the transparent skin to produce a wet poultice. She did the same to the other leaf and placed them on Uncle John’s face. He went “mmmm,” the pain hidden below the leaves’ cool healing tissue. Gramma cured Miguelito’s frequent headaches with the same tall blue-green plant, whose name he never learned.

The scent of burning leña and earthy lemony steam filled the kitchen with deliciously fragrant breaths. Miguelito inhaled deeply and made a secret vow that he would never forget the aroma, nor the moment’s complex of feelings.

In a few minutes, gramma ladled some broth into a bowl adding a few tomatillos, onions, and lemon slices. Setting the clear liquid in front of her first born, she said a single word. “Caldillo.”

Caldillo is chiloso with lemony flavor from tomatillos and lemon. Not only does gramma’s Caldillo cure la cruda, it cures the common cold. Naturally gluten-free with about 70 grams of carbohydrates in the whole pot, according to Google.

6 – 8 whole tomatillos, dehusked.
1 yellow lemon (or lime), halved and sliced.
1 medium white onion, sliced.
6 pods fresh or dried chile arbol.
3 pods chile piquín.
2 cups water.
Bay leaf.

Add to water and bring to low boil.
Serve steaming hot.
Breathe steam, sip soup, wake up, breathe clearly.

Make a pot of Caldillo for the steam. A bowl brings a good sweat and a clear upper respiratory tract. And it tastes really good.


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