Monthly Archives: June 2012

Classic book review: Cristina García’s “Dreaming in Cuban”

Cristina Garcia’s 1993 novel Dreaming in Cuban shows life under Fidel Castro’s rule from the point of view of three generations of strong women.

The del Pino family is led by Celia, who spends her last days patrolling the Cuban seas from any attacks from foreign invaders while memories of her past invade her mind. Celia has two daughters – Felicia, who faces abuse by her husband, and Lourdes, who goes to New York City and runs a successful business. Lourdes has a daughter, Pilar, who as a child of the late 1970s, rebels against her mother and yearns to go back to Cuba.

Occasionally, a male voice – such as Ivanito, Felicia’s son, gets a few pages – but this story is clearly about the women.

Garcia writes wonderfully descriptive passages, including the beginning of the book when Celia is out by the sea and sees her husband: “His blue eyes are like lasers in the night. The beams bounce off his fingernails, five hard blue shields. They scan the beach, illuminating shells and sleeping gulls, then focus on her.” The book also has some great observations about life. “Everything is mixed up, as if parts of me are turning in different directions at once,” Ivanito says.

But the book is challenging to read. The story is told in fragments, jumping back and forth in time and from narrator to narrator and from first person to third person. The mood of the book is mostly heavy – especially Felicia’s passages, so it’s a relief when Pilar comes along in with her wry observations or when Celia judges family disputes as head of the People’s Court. But, much of the time, the book drags because it doesn’t have a linear storyline that keeps the reader riveted.

If you like books with great description, Dreaming in Cuban is something you might enjoy. But it may be a frustrating read for those who prefer a strong plot.

More about Cristina Garcia:

Cristina García has written numerous novels, including The Lady Matador’s Hotel and, most recently, the young adult novel, Dreams of Significant Girls. Like the character Pilar, she grew up in New York City and attended Barnard College.

Source: I checked this book out of the library.

Note: This book is part of the series of classic books by Latina authors. Next up: Lorraine López’s The Realm of Hungry Spirits.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Classic Books, Fiction

Happy birthday, Luis Valdez!

Luis Valdez was born June 26 in 1940. He is regarded as the father of Latino theater and the playwright of perhaps the most famous Latino play of all time – Zoot Suit.

A former migrant worker, the California-raised Valdez was inspired to go into theater after a teacher cast him in a school play, according to the San Jose Mercury News. He didn’t perform in the production, but the experience led him to study drama at San Jose State University.

In the 1960s, he marched with United Farm Workers leader César Chávez. He founded El Teatro Campesino – with shows performed on flatbed trucks and union halls during the Delano Grape Strike.

The company later moved to San Juan Bautista, Calif. In 1977, the theater performed Zoot Suit, which was inspired by the 1940s riots in Los Angeles. The play was a smash – going on to Broadway in 1979 and becoming a movie, which Valdez directed, in 1981.

Valdez also directed the 1987 movie La Bamba, about music great Ritchie Valens. His theater company continues to produce plays today. He recently talked about his career in this radio interview.

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Filed under Author Profiles, Movies, Theater

Book review: Robert Ampuero’s “The Neruda Case”

Roberto Ampuero’s The Neruda Case (Riverhead Books) is a fascinating book that combines a missing persons case, one of Chile’s most historic events and the life story of Latin America’s greatest poet.

Detective Cayetano Brulé is living in Valparaíso, Chile, in 1973 when he is asked by poet Pablo Neruda to find an old lover. The search takes Brulé to Mexico, Cuba and Germany – and he discovers some things about Neruda that lessens his deep admiration for the 70-year-old.

While the search is going on, Neruda is dying of cancer and remembering his past lovers from his life, including his time as a diplomat. He is feeling regret, including the abandonment of his wife when their child was born with a birth defect. Meanwhile, the country of Chile is under tumult as the government of Socialist President Salvador Allende – Neruda’s friend – is under siege from General Pinochet.

Ampuero, who used to live near Neruda when he was a child, kept most of the historical details but fictionalized the missing lover case. Ampuero writes at a fast pace so that even his descriptive passages don’t slow down the story. The book only becomes more intense as General Pinochet is preparing a coup. But, like Brulé, readers may have a different impression of Neruda as they read the book. He comes across as a selfish cad – or maybe just more human than his romantic poems.

The Neruda Case, which was translated by Perla author Carolina DeRobertis, is a great book that is not to be missed.

More about Roberto Ampeuro: Ampuero has written a dozen novels in Spanish, with The Neruda Case being his first published in English. He serves as Chile’s ambassador to Mexico and is a professor of creative writing at the University of Iowa. He wrote about his memories of the poet in this essay published in The Daily Beast/Newsweek.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

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Filed under 2012 Books, Book Reviews, Fiction

Classic book review: Laura Esquivel’s “Like Water for Chocolate”

In the early 1990s, Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies by Laura Esquivel was one of the most popular books in the world, thanks to a well-made movie and an intriguing love story. Its popularity was well-earned.

The main character, Tita, has been told that she must take care of her mother Mama Elena in her old age – denying her a chance to be with Pedro, who has declared his love for her. He agrees to marry her older sister, Rosaura, so he can be closer to her.

While Pedro and Rosaura are raising a family and the revolution rages in Mexico, Tita is running the family ranch. The events of her life push her to feel “‘like water for chocolate’ – she was on the verge for boiling over.’”

In fact, her volatile emotions are felt in the meals she cooks for her family – causing those who eat her food to feel the same emotions she does. (The recipes are printed at the beginning of each of the 12 chapters, although they seem too elaborate to cook.)

Although it’s story about love, Like Water is also interesting when depicting family dynamics and early feminism. Mama Elena is portrayed as a domineering woman who rules the household, and Tita questions why the youngest daughter has to take care of the mother. Here’s one great passage that describes her life:

“At her mother’s, what she had to do with her hands was strictly determined, no questions asked. She had to get up, get dressed, get the fire going in the stove, fix breakfast, feed the animals, wash the dishes, make the beds, fix lunch, wash the dishes, iron the clothes, fix dinner, wash the dishes, day after day, year after year. Without pausing for a moment, without wondering if this is what she wanted.”

I’m not always a big fan of magic realism, but it works well in this novel because, oddly, it seems natural. This is a great book that – thanks to its creativity and strong heroine – is as satisfying as one of its meals.

More about Laura Esquivel: Laura Esquivel, who lives in Mexico City, is a former teacher who also has written the books The Law of Love, Between Two Fires: Intimate Writings on Life, Love, Food, and Flavor and Malinche. The book was translated by Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen.

Note: This is part of a series of classic books written by Latinas. Next up: Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban. (Yes, I’m running a bit behind.)

Source: I bought a hardcover version of this book for $1 at a thrift store. Don’t you love it when that happens?


Filed under Book Reviews, Classic Books, Fiction

A look at LGBT Latino writers

June is Gay Pride Month. Here’s a look at some Latino writers who have written about the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgendered experience:

• Poet Francisco X. Alarcón, right, is best known for his Pura Belpré Honor Award-winning book Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems/Jitomates Risuenos y Otros Poemas de Primavera, but he has written about the gay experience in his numerous poems and is working on an anthology of gay Latino poetry.

Jeanne Córdova, left, was on the forefront of the gay rights and women’s movement in the 1970s. Her most recent book, When We Were Outlaws: A Memoir of Love & Revolution, was partly written in Mexico. The book recently won the Lesbian Memoir/Biography prize from the 24th Annual Lambda Literary Awards.

• The late Manuel Puig, right, wrote one of Latino literature’s most famous works – the 1976 novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman, about a gay man and a revolutionary who are trapped in prison together – which became a play, a popular 1985 movie and Broadway musical. He also wrote 1968’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworth and 1973’s The Buenos Aires Affair.

Charles Rice-Gonzalez, left, wrote the 2011 book Chulito, about a young gay man growing up in the Bronx, and co-edited the book From Macho to Mariposa: New Gay Latino Fiction with Charlie Vázquez. Vásquez is active in promoting gay Latino poetry, and has created poetry readings for gay Latino writers in the East Village in New York City.

Alex Sanchez, right, has won numerous awards for his young adult novels about being gay. His books include Rainbow Boys and Boyfriends with Girlfriends. His website offers resources and other book selections for LGBT teens.

Anybody I miss? Let me know in the comments.


Filed under Features, Fiction, Non-Fiction, Poetry, Young Adult Books

Book review: Malín Alegría’s “Border Town: Crossing the Line”

Malín Alegría provides something the book world badly needed – a great young adult novel depicting Latino life.

Border Town: Crossing the Line (Point/Scholastic) is the first in a series of books modeled after the popular 1980s series Sweet Valley High, which followed the lives of two high school sisters living in California. Border Town features Fabiola Garza and her sister, Alexis, as they attend high school in the small (and fictional) town of Dos Rios in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.

Even though Alegría lives in California, she perfectly captures the Valley beyond the characters’ meals of menudo and pan dulce. Here’s a line when Fabiola runs into her old Sunday school teacher while she’s buying personal items: “This was exactly why she hated living in the Valley. You couldn’t do anything without running into someone you knew!” (I used to live in the Valley, and that line is so accurate, I laughed out loud.) Fabiola yearns to escape small town life – seeing nearby McAllen as the oasis of cosmopolitan life. “This was how civilized people should live, Fabi though as she grinned to herself – with movie theaters, a mall, art galleries.”

The plot covers typical adolescent angst. Alexis begins attending Fabiola’s high school and runs with the cool kids. Fabiola gets jealous, and accuses one of Alexis’ new friends of committing a crime. The ending is a bit Nancy Drew-ish and unrealistic. The book also is a bit innocent in portraying high school life. While the girls attend a party where they can smell marijuana, sex isn’t mentioned at all.

But Border Town is a fast-paced, easy-to-read book that Latino teenagers will enjoy to read – mostly because they will see themselves in the pages.

More about Malín Alegría: Alegría also wrote Sofi Mendoza’s Guide to Getting Lost in Mexico and Estrella’s Quinceañera. Quince Clash, which comes out in July, is the next book in the series.

Source: I bought this book at Barnes and Noble.

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Filed under 2012 Books, Fiction, Young Adult Books

In the News: New books and short stories, and plenty of awards

Hello, summer! Here are some June book releases to keep you entertained:

Already in bookstores: Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt depicts the life of Irish human rights activist Richard Casement.  La Roja: How Soccer Conquered Spain and How Spanish Soccer Conquered the World by Jimmy Burns covers the world’s most popular sport. Daniel Orozco’s critically acclaimed book of short stories, Orientation, is now in paperback.

June 14: The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero features a private eye solving a case for poet Pablo Neruda during his final days. Carolina DeRobertis, author of Perla, talked to Publishers Weekly about translating the book.

June 26: Spanish author Felix J. Palma’s The Map of Time explores time travel in Victorian London.


Congratulations to the winners of Latino Literacy Now’s International Latino Book Awards, which were announced last week. Honorees included some of The Hispanic Reader’s favorites – such as Becoming Dr. Q: My Journey from Migrant Farm Worker to Brain Surgeon by Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa and Crossing Borders: Personal Essays by Sergio Troncoso, which won first place and second place, respectively, in the Best Biography category; Outside the Bones by Lyn Di Iorio and Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman, which earned honorable mentions in the Best Popular Fiction – English category; and The Time in Between by Maria Dueñas which received first place for Best Novel – Historical.

• The Skipping Stones 2012 Honor Awards – given to books with multicultural themes – honored Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match by Monica Brown.

When We Were Outlaws: A Memoir of Love & Revolution by Jeanne Córdova and Gay Latino Studies: A Critical Reader, edited by Michael Hames-García and Ernesto Javier Martínez, won prizes at the 24th Annual Lambda Literary Awards, which honors lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgendered literature.

New short stories and other works:

Junot Díaz talks about the science fiction short story, “Monstro,” he wrote for The New Yorker. He also remembered science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, who passed away earlier this month, in an article for the magazine.

Luis Alberto Urrea will have a short story included in Esquire’s ebook aimed at men, You and Me and the Devil Makes Three, out June 12.

Carlos Andrés Gómez put up a new poem, How to Fight, in response to recent shootings.

Author profiles:

NBC Latino profiled Julia Alvarez and her new book, A Wedding in Haiti.

Pulitzer Prize winner Oscar Hijuelos talked about his memoir, Thoughts Without Cigarettes, to The Morning News.

Carmen Gimenez Smith, New Mexico State University assistant professor of English and editor of the literary magazine Puerto del Sol, was featured in the Las Cruces Sun-News about being NPR’s NewsPoet.

Body art by Mia Roman. Photographed by Johnny Ramos.

Other news:

La Casa Azul bookstore, which specializes in Latino literature, opened in June in East Harlem by Aurora Anaya-Cerda (right), and was featured in The New York Times.

Aztec Muse publisher Tony Diaz earned the Open Book Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors for his Librotraficante work.

• Here’s an interesting story, published in the The Daily Beast/Newsweek, about how Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude brought down a banana empire.
Note: This post was updated to correct that Sergio Troncoso won second place in the International Latino Book Awards and to add the Garcia Marquez link.


Filed under 2012 Books, Awards, Children's Books, Fiction, News, Poetry