Monthly Archives: January 2013

Classic book review: Alisa Valdes’ “The Dirty Girls Social Club”

the-dirty-girls-social-clubYou know how you have that friend that’s funny and entertaining, but sometimes they’re annoying, too? The Dirty Girls Social Club by Alisa Valdes is like that friend.

Social Club, which was released in 2003, focuses on six friends in their late 20s in Boston who met in college and reunite several times a year. The characters are Lauren, the newspaper columnist looking for love; Rebecca, the uptight magazine editor stuck in a stale marriage; Elizabeth, the newscaster with a secret; Sara, the stay-at-home mom in denial about her abusive marriage; Usnavys, the non-profit executive who is torn over her relationship with a man who makes less money than her; and Amber, the musician who is active in the Mexica movement and later changes her name to Cuicatl.

The book has been frequently referred to as a Latina Sex and the City or Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan because of its depiction of strong female friendship. But it’s unique in its depiction of Latina in high-powered professional roles.

Valdes, a former newspaper reporter, writes clearly, so it’s an easy read. One scene in which Sara’s life is in danger is particularly gripping. Valdes has a knack for depicting women’s complex feelings and personalities, and she can nail some funny moments.

Take this scene in which Lauren found out some bad news:

“I feel like killing myself. I stop at the corner Korean market and buy a bag of Hot Cheetos, a carton of powdered sugar donuts, three chocolate bars, and a can of Pringles.”

Or this conversation between two of the characters:

“Back in college, you remember that trip we all took to Cancún for spring, you, me, Roberto, that guy Gerald I was dating, Lauren and that one guy, whatever his name was?”

“Alberto. Pimple man.”

“Alberto. Zits galore. Him.”

But some things tested my patience. The exposition takes too long. The character of Usnavys is so shallow that she’s hard to like. And considering the book takes place in a six-month span, the ending wraps up just a bit too tidy.

Still, just like that friend who can be annoying, Dirty Girls Social Club is also something that can be fun and rewarding.

Alisa ValdesMore about Alisa Valdes:

Cuban-American, New Mexico-based Alisa Valdes’ newest book is the just-released The Feminist and the Cowboy. She’s written two sequels to The Dirty Girls Social Club – Dirty Girls on Top and Lauren’s Saints of Dirty Faith, as well as a cooking blog, in addition to other novels.

Source: I checked this book out of the library.

Note: This review is part of a series of classic books by Latinas, which I’m catching up from last year. Next up: Under the Feet of Jesus by Helena María Viramontes.

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In the news: Sáenz, Díaz win Pura Belpré Awards

The new year brings honors for books released last year. Here’s a look at some recent award winners, plus the usual round-up of new releases and other links.

AristotleDanteBenjamin Alire Sáenz’s 2012 young adult novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe won three major honors today at the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards. His story of two teenagers who form an unlikely friendship earned the Pura Belpré Author Award, which honors books that depict the Latino experience; a Michael L. Printz Honor Book, which awards outstanding books for young adults; and the Stonewall Book Award, which recognizes stories that represent the lives of lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgendered youth.

martin-de-porresThe other Pura Belpré recipients were The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano, an Honor Book winner for author Sonia Manzano, and Martín de Porres: The Rose in the Desert which won the Belpré Illustrator Award for David Díaz.

• Several Latino writers made the 2013 Rainbow List for books aimed at youth that depict the LBGTQ experience. They are Jeanne Córdova, When We Were Outlaws:  a Memoir of Love & Revolution; Rigoberto Gonzalez, Mariposa Gown; Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante; Charles Rice-González, Chulito: A Novel.

SummeroftheMariposasGuadalupe Gárcia McCall’s Summer of the Mariposas earned a place on the Amelia Bloomer Project Top Ten List for feminist books for youth.

Reyna Grande was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in the autobiography category for her memoir The Distance Between Us.

ThisIsHowYouLoseHerJunot Díaz is up for The Story Prize, given to short story collections, for his book This is How You Lose Her. Diaz’s book was also named to the Reference and User Services Association’s 2013 Notable Books List.

Sergio Troncoso’s 2011 novel From This Wicked Patch of Dust won the Southwest Book Award, which is given by the Border Regional Library Association.

• Houston’s Tony Díaz, leader of the Librotraficante movement, will receive the Robert B. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

MyBelovedWorldOut in bookstores:

• Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has the number one book on The New York Times’ Hardcover Non-Fiction chart with her memoir, My Beloved World.

• Fiction: In Thomas Sanchez‘s American Tropic, an ecoterrorist is on the loose in the Florida Keys. In Kind of Kin by Rilla Askew, an Oklahoma family comes under fire for hiring undocumented immigrants from Mexico.

Literary Magazines:

• The Kweli literary journal, which features works by people of color, is accepting submissions until March 1.

Dagoberto Gilb is among the writers with works in the latest issue of Make: A Chicago Literary Magazine.

Writing contests:

• Feb. 12 is the deadline to submit scripts for consideration for the 2013 Austin Latino New Play Festival, which is open to Texas/Tejano playwrights this year. The festival, sponsored by Teatro Vivo, features a different play each night from May 16 to 18.

Other news:

Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco, who recited his poem at President Obama’s inauguation, was profiled on the Poets.org website and the Poetry Foundation website. Watch that poem and read 14 other works by Blanco on the MediaBistro website. In this Huffington Post article, he talked about how his homosexuality was not accepted in his family.

• Cuban-American Dolores Prida, a playwright, newspaper columnist and the “Dolores Dice” columnist for Latina magazine, passed away last month, Latina reports. Here are articles about her from the Associated Press, CNN, Huffington Post, The Nation and The New York Times. Read Prida’s columns at the Voices of NY website.

• In this School Library Journal story, librarians reacted to a recent New York Times article about the lack of Latino literature in classrooms.

Las Comadres Para Las Americas National Latino Book Club has announced its first book selections of the year – including the anthology Eight Ways to Say “I Love My Life” and Sabrina Vourvoulias’ science-fiction novel Ink.

Los Angeles Times columnist Héctor Tobar interviewed Sandra Cisneros for the LA Review of Books. Tobar also wrote about Latino Books y Más, a bookstore that specializes in Latino literature in Palm Springs, Calif., that is closing down. Cisneros delivered her playlist, with selections from from Chavela Vargas to The Beatles,to the alt.latino website of NPR.

Manuel Gonzales, author of the The Miniature Wife and Other Stories, was featured in The Austin Chronicle. Hear Gonzales read one of his book’s stories, “Pilot, CoPilot, Writer”, on the Poets and Writers website.

• Poet Martín Espada discussed his works, including his most recent book The Trouble Ball, on the TV show Bill Moyers and Company.

• Daniel Alcarón, whose novel At Night We Walk in Circles will come out in the fall, talked to Poets and Writers magazine about the importance of literary awards.

• The Publishing Perspectives website discussed how more translations are needed for books by Latin American writers.

• Natasha Wimmer talked to the website Sampsonia Way about translating the works of Roberto Bolaño.

Joy Castro, author of Hell or High Water, discussed her faith to the In the Fray website.

In February:

• In honor of Black History Month, here’s a look at Afro-Latino writers. Want to read a great romance for Valentine’s Day? Try something from this list of great love stories, Latino-style.

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Classic book review: Michele Serros’ “Chicana Falsa”

chicana-falsaMichele Serros can say a lot in just a few words.

In the 88 pages of her 1993 book of poems and stories Chicana Falsa, she writes about cultural identity, adolescent angst and the quirks of human relationships. In one poem, she shows the consequences of gang violence in just 37 words.

Her poetry is easy to read and, even better for a challenging genre, fun to read. Her poems feature great characters that you would know in real life – the lone Chicana in the gym who “the whole time/I am thinking of/that double-cheese/Chimichanga Supreme/I’m gonna pick up/On the way home”; a worker who gets what she want, including larger cubicle space and extended lunches; and a Chicana who’s yearns to speak Spanish so “I’ll be a perfected ‘r’ rolling/tilde-using Spanish speaker/A true Mexican!”

But her stories are universal. Serros understands the neurotic tendencies of humans very well. In one story, the narrator sticks with some friends just for the free stuff she gets from them. Another story features a family that holds grudges against each other over petty incidents.

The book begins and ends with stories about Serros’ mother, who encouraged her to be a writer – even buying her a desk. Serros grew up wanting to be an author, and she finally starting writing after her mother’s death at an early age. “The purpose? To make someone happy, inspired.” Serros succeeded because reading this book will make readers feel that way.

Michele SerrosMore about Michele Serros:

A California native, Serros has written the books How to Be a Chicana Role Model, Honey Blonde Chica and ¡Scandalosa! A Honey Blonde Chica Novel, as well as for The George Lopez Show TV show and other publications.

Source: I won this book in a giveaway on Serros’ Facebook page for my random knowledge of Santa Barbara, Calif. Thanks, Michele!

Note: This book is part of my series of books by Latina writers that I began last year. Yes, I know I’m way behind. Next up: Alisa Valdes’ The Dirty Girls Social Club.

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Book review: Alejandro Zambra’s “Ways of Going Home”

Ways of Going HomeWays of Going Home (Farrar Straus and Giroux) by Alejandro Zambra is two books in one.

The book begins with an earthquake in 1985 in Maipú, a suburb of Santiago, Chile. The nine-year-old narrator, meets a girl, Claudia, who lives with her uncle and mother. Claudia asks the narrator to spy on her mysterious uncle and report back to him. Then the girl moves away.

The book then switches to a 30-year-old man who is writing that story. He is in the midst of separating from his wife, Eme, who has inspired the story. The narrator also draws from his own life, as the reader can see in his visits to his parents.

Eventually, he gets back to the story, where the narrator has grown up and reunites with Claudia – who reveals her family secrets.

The book is 138 pages, just the right size for a book that has mostly dialogue and internal narrative and not much action.

Zambra, who is often compared to another Chilean writer, Roberto Bolaño, describes life in Pinochet-era Chile – including a harrowing but brief scene in which a teacher fears he is being attacked in a classroom – but he excels in his observations about the relationship between parents and children.

“We go home and it’s as if we were returning from war, but from a war that isn’t over. I think, We’ve become deserters. I think, We’ve become war correspondents, tourists. That’s what we are, I think: tourists who arrive with their backpacks, their cameras, and their notebooks, prepared to spend a long time wearing out their eyes, but who suddenly decide to go home, and as they do they breathe a long sigh of relief.”

I didn’t feel particularly connected to the main character, except in the first – and strongest – part of the book, when the boy is young and innocent. The older character is more distant and cold, perhaps a reflection of aging.

“I got over to the little shelf holding the old family photo albums. That’s what these albums are for, I think: to make us believe we were happy as children. To show ourselves that we don’t want to accept how happy we were.”

It makes you wish he never lost his innocence. Ways of Going Home is much like life – adventurous and full of curiosity in the beginning, and a bit melancholy and weary as time moves on.

AlejandroZambraMore about Alejandro Zambra:

A native of Santiago, Chile, Zambra has written two other novels, The Private Lives of Trees and Bonsai. The novel was translated by Megan McDowell.

Source: I purchased this book from Amazon.com.

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She has the cure for what ails you: The curandera in Latino lit

Bless Me Ultima, which The Hispanic Reader reviewed earlier this week, features an enduring figure in the Latino culture – the curandera, or healer. That figure has played a role in some of the great books in Latino literature. In this great post from La Bloga, Ultima author Rudolfo Anaya and children’s author Monica Brown talk about the role of curandera. Here’s a look at some great curanderas:

BlessMeUltimaCoverBless Me Ultima – Young Antonio Marez is growing up in rural New Mexico when his family takes in Ultima, an elderly curandera. She helps heal his dying uncle, but townspeople believe she places curses on people. This book by Rudolfo Anaya has become one of Latino lit’s best known and beloved books, and has stirred controversy for its profanity.

The+Hummingbird's+DaughterThe Hummingbird’s Daughter – In revolutionary Mexico, Teresita Urrea learns healing powers from a villager named Huila. Soon, she attracts the attention of hundreds of villagers, hoping she will cure them. The brilliantly funny book, written by Luis Alberto Urrea, rivals Ultima in the amount of profanity. The sequel, Queen of America, in which Teresita’s celebrity takes her to the United States, is now in paperback.

SoFarFromGodSo Far From God Ana Castillo’s book about a mother and her four daughters in New Mexico features a whole chapter devoted to villager Dona Felicia’s remedies. Dona Felicia goes on to teach the remedies to one of those daughters, Caridad, after she is traumatized after an attack. Caridad ends up becoming a saint to villagers because they believe she has special powers.

Clara_and_the_CuranderaClara and the Curandera – In this bilingual children’s book written by Monica Brown and illustrated by Thelma Muraida, the curandera has a cure for a young girl who is afflicted with a nasty case of the grumps.

Sources: Wikipedia, Challenging Realities: Magic Realism in Contemporary American Women’s Fiction by M. Ruth Noriega Sánchez

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Classic book review: Rudolfo Anaya’s “Bless Me, Ultima”

BlessMeUltimaCoverIt’s easy to see why Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima has become one of Latino literature’s greatest classics and a well-read book in the classroom. The story of one boy’s struggle to find faith touches readers on a personal and cultural level.

Ultima was first published in 1972 by a small press, then grew in popularity through the decades – and has been the subject of banning at schools due to profanity. The book has been made into a movie that will be released this year.

The book is told through the eyes of 6-year-old Antonio Marez, who lives in rural New Mexico with his family in the 1940s. His mother wants him to become a priest, hoping for a more stable life than his brothers and some of the other villagers. The family invites Ultima, an elderly curandera, to live with them and she makes an instant connection with Antonio.

Antonio begins having visions as his town experiences some tough situations – including a shooting he witnesses. Some townspeople are angry at Ultima, accusing her of being a bruja who places curses on others.

But Ultima also heals people. As he undergoes his First Communion, Antonio begins to question his Catholic faith.

“I had been thinking how Ultima’s medicine had cured my uncle and how he was well and could work again. I had been thinking how the medicine of the doctors and of the priest had failed. In my mind I could not understand how the power of God had failed. But it had.”

The book is a fast read, with a well-paced plot and vivid descriptions about the land. Anaya also balances the dramatic passages with funny scenes at a Christmas pageant and Holy Communion.

Many Latinos – such as novelist Julia Amante, La Casa Azul bookseller Aurora Anaya-Cerda and writer Richard Yañez and others in a series of essays in the El Paso Times – cite this as one of their favorite books because they saw themselves depicted in the novel.

Bless Me, Ultima features some of the most prominent elements of Latino literature and the universal themes such as the importance of family and the toughness of growing up. Little wonder why it’s a classic.

Rudulfo AnayaMore about Rudolfo Anaya:

Anaya wrote Bless Me Ultima while working as a teacher in New Mexico in the 1960s. He went on to write many other books, including Alburquerque and the Sonny Baca mystery series, and he is considered the father of the Chicano literary movement.

Source: I checked this book out of the library.

Note: This is the first in my series of reviews of great Latino novels. Next up: The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges.  

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Book review: Manuel Gonzales’ “The Miniature Wife and Other Stories”

Miniature WifeManuel Gonzales can make a skeptic believe vampires and werewolves are real, even human.

In his book, The Miniature Wife and Other Stories (Riverhead), Gonzales conjures up all sorts of wild scenarios – and he uses those situations as metaphors for larger issues about the world we live in.

The book starts off with two strong stories – “Pilot, Copilot, Writer” – in which the narrator sits on a plane that is stuck in the air for 20 years, and the title story, about a man who shrinks his wife to the size of a coffee cup. Crazy stuff, but they speak about the stagnation of life and the world’s treatment of women.

A few stores – “The Artist’s Voice,” about a composer who speaks with his ears, and “Harold Withy Keith: A Meritorious Life,” about the inventor of a vascular system made out of plants – get so bogged down in technical detail that I felt like I was reading a science textbook.

But the book roars back with great, inventive stories – “All of Me,” about a zombie who crushes on a co-worker; “One-Horned and Wild-Eyed,” about a man whose friend finds a unicorn; and “Wolf,” a graphic but fascinating account about a father who turns into a werewolf.

How good are these stories? I’m not into paranormal books because I can’t take them seriously, but Gonzales makes them believable with clear, matter-of-fact writing and relatable characters who are forced to make heartbreaking decisions.

Take the zombie in “All of Me”:

“I don’t understand how hard it can be to keep our baser selves in check or how much easier it is, ultimately, to go back to the evil we knew and understand, the evil we have lived with for so long that it feels an inherent and important part of ourselves, to go back to this evil and tell ourselves that we had no other choice, that we didn’t opt for this decision, but that really there were never any other options for us to take. I know about choices and about not having choices and how it feels when it seems you have no other choice.”

So you get crazy scenarios mixed in fine writing and profound thoughts about the human condition and the state of the world. Manuel Gonzales can make you believe anything.

Manuel_GonzalesMore about Manuel Gonzales:

Texas-based Gonzales runs the Austin Bat Cave creative writing center for children and bakes pies on the side. His work has been published in The Believer, Esquire and the Dear Teen Me website. Read “The Animal House” from The Miniature Wife on the FiveChapters.com website.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

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