Category Archives: Fiction

Book review: Matt de la Peña’s “The Living”

the+living+matt+de+la+penaShy, the main character in Matt de la Peña’s The Living (Delacorte), is not having a good week.

The 18-year-old cruise ship worker watched a passenger jump to his death. Some of his family members have fallen sick. His crush is engaged to another man. And, oh yeah, a catastrophic earthquake has hit Los Angeles, leading to a tsunami that upends the ship and leaves Shy stranded in the ocean with some sharks.

“ ‘What the hell!’ he shouted, angrily pushing himself off one of the corpses and sloshing through the water to pick up the raft oar. Now he was pissed. On top of everything else he had to deal with this? He stood and started beating at the ocean and screaming down the sharks: ‘Get your asses away from here!’”

The Living combines the drama of 90210 with the adventures of Yann Mantel’s Life of Pi and the mystery of the TV show Lost.

The book has multicultural appeal with Shy and his friend, Carmen, boasting Mexican roots and coming from border towns in the San Diego area. de la Peña has an easygoing style, with relatable characters and language (including a few curse words) that will draw teens, including reluctant readers.

Although the exposition and some parts of the book could have been speedier, the last 40 pages provided a great plot twist that kept me riveted. The ending made me wish that I didn’t have to wait until fall 2014 for the sequel, The Forgotten, to come out.

The Living is one heck of an adventure.

Matt de la PenaMore about Matt de la Peña: de la Peña is the author of four other novels, including Mexican White Boy, Ball Don’t Lie (which was made into a 2008 movie), We Were Here and I Will Save You. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

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Classic book review: José Saramago’s “Blindess”

BlindnessJosé Saramago’s Blindness (Harcourt Brace) grabs you from the first page and doesn’t let you go.

The 1995 novel by the late Portuguese author is one of the most acclaimed works in literature. Saramago won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998 and Entertainment Weekly named it one of the 100 greatest novels ever. The book was made into a 2008 movie with Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo and Gabriel García Bernal.

The novel begins in an unnamed city when a man is suddenly struck blind while driving in traffic. Soon, everyone he meets, including an eye doctor, becomes afflicted with “white blindness.” Hundreds become blind and are quarantined in a mental hospital. People are left starving or are shot if they approach those who can still see. Chaos erupts in the ward and the city.

“In a downpour like this, which is almost becoming a deluge, you would expect people to be taking shelter, waiting for the weather to improve. But this is not the case, there are blind people everywhere gaping up at the heavens, slaking their thirst, storing up water in every nook and cranny of their bodies, and others, who are somewhat more far-sighted, and above all sensible, hold up buckets, bowls and pans, and raise them to the generous sky, clearly God provides the cloud according to the thirst.”

But one woman — the doctor’s wife — retains her vision and is able to see the destruction around her. She leads the way for a small group to find some sanity.

None of the characters are given names or any details about their lives. At times, I would have liked to have known more about them, but I understand that Saramago did this intentionally to focus on their present circumstances.

I was intimidated by this book, but it proved to be a gripping read, even though Saramago writes in long paragraphs and uses very little dialogue. (The book’s translators, Giovanni Pontiero and Margaret Jull Costa, deserve credit for a great job.) The novel contains some disturbing images, including a scene in which a group of women are brutally raped. But that chapter also ends with a moment of great humanity.

Blindness is an extraordinary book, a novel that makes you hate and believe in humanity at the same time. You will never forget this novel, even after you’ve read the last page.

JOSE-SARAMAGOMore about José Saramago: Saramago‘s other books include The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, which drew controversy for its anti-religious views; Cain, a retelling of Biblical stories; and Raised From the Ground, which depicts the lives of Portuguese peasants.

Source: I checked this out of the library.

And that’s a wrap of my series of classic Latino novels. Check out my other list of classic novels by Latinas.

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In the News: New releases, remembering Oscar Hijuelos and more

Here’s the latest new releases and news in Latino literature for the month of November:

FamilyTroubleAlready out: In her book Family Trouble, Joy Castro explores what happens to writers when they reveal their family secrets. Judith Ortiz Cofer and Rigoberto González are included in the book.

• In the novel The Accidental Native by J.L. Torres, a man comes to Puerto Rico to bury his parents, only to discover he was adopted.

Almost White• Actor/writer/director/producer Rick Najera, whose credits include the screenplay for Nothing Like the Holidays, explores his time in the entertainment industry in Almost White: Forced Confessions of a Latino in Hollywood. He talked about the book to NPR. In another memoir, Illinois Rep. Luis Gutiérrez talks about his life in Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill.

Don'tSayAWordDon’t Say a Word, Mama/No Digas Nada, Mama is the latest children’s book from Joe Hayes. The story focuses on two sisters and the garden they make with their mother.

Nov. 5: Chris Pérez remembers his wife in the memoir To Selena, with Love (Commemorative Edition).

Nov. 12: In The Living by Matt de la Peña, an 18-year-old cruise ship worker finds himself fighting for his life when a huge earthquake and tsunami hits the Pacific Ocean.

Mi_Familia_CalacaNov. 19: In the children’s book Mi Familia Calaca/My Skeleton Family by Cynthia Weil and illustrated by Jesus Canseco Zárate, the artwork of Oaxaca, Mexico is used to illustrate the diversity of family structures. Richard Blanco describes the process of writing the poem for President Obama’s inauguration in the book For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey.

• Dec. 3 – Spaniard Antonio Muñoz Molina depicts life during the Spanish Civil War in the novel In the Night of Time.

OscarHijuelosRemembering Oscar Hijuelos: Oscar Hijuelos, the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his 1989 book The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, died at age 62 last month. Here is his obituary from The New York Times. His friend Gustavo Perez Firmat remembered him in this NPR interview.

Other features:

Daniel AlarconDaniel Alarcón, left, talked about his new book, At Night We Walk in Circles, to Latino USA, Guernica and Vogue magazines, the LA Review of Books and NPR.

Sarah Cortez discussed her life as a poet and a police officer to Voice of America.

Junot Díaz and illustrator Jaime Hernandez spoke to The Washington Post and Complex.com about the making of the deluxe edition of This is How You Lose Her. Huffington Post featured several of the images.

PatriciaEngel-Photo1Patricia Engel, right, author of It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris, was profiled by SouthFlorida.com.

Reyna Grande talked about her memoir The Distance Between Us in an interview with KPBS.

• NBC Latino featured Tim Z. Hernandez, author of Mañana Means Heaven, and Nicolás Kanellos, the founder of Arté Publico Press.

• Poet Charlie Vázquez announced the introduction of Editorial Trance, which will publish ebooks by Latino writers.

• This is awesome: The Shortlist website compiled “30 Pieces of Wisdom from Gabriel García Márquez Novels.”

• Great story: Public Radio International traveled to Peru and discovered its writers are spreading their stories through Lucha Libro writing.

• Read the writings of 16 emerging Cuban writers compiled by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo. (Hat tip to The Millions website.)

• Here is coverage from the Latino Information Network at Rutgers of the Las Comadres and Compadres Writers Conference writers’ workshop that took place in October in Brooklyn. The School Library Journal also reported on the event.

• The Scholastic Book Box Daily Blog featured a great profile on Pura Belpré, the New York Public Library’s first Latina librarian and the woman whose name appears on the American Library Association awards for young readers’ literature aimed at Hispanics. The Pura Belpré Awards will be announced in January.

Latinas for Latino Lit has a great package for families with young children — reading kits featuring a book (on Belpré, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and Celia Cruz), along with a booklet and pencils.

• In an article for The Texas Observer, San Antonio writer Gregg Barrios discussed the lack of Latino writers at the Texas Book Festival that took place last month. Officials from the organization responded by saying they were late with the invites and some authors declined to attend.

• Seven books that were banned by the Tucson school district — including Occupied America by Rudolfo K. Acuña, can now be read by students in the classroom, reports the Huffington Post.

• Publishing Perspectives took a look at the children’s book market in Brazil.

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Book review: Daniel Alarcón’s “At Night We Walk in Circles”

AtNightWeWalkinCirclesIn the Daniel Alarcón novel At Night We Walk in Circles (Riverhead), Nelson is a young man who decides to jolt his life by joining a political theater troupe that tours an unnamed South American country. The experiences changes his life in ways he could not imagined. Or, as the narrator, puts it: “And that is when the trouble began.”

Nelson seems to come to life as he performs in the play with Henry Nuñez, a former political prisoner, and Patalarga, a theater operator. Both men are a generation older than Nelson and hope to revive  political activism in the country through their performances.

“What, Henry argued, is a play without an audience? Isn’t a script simply potential energy until that magical moment when it becomes something more? Isn’t alchemy like that only possible when the words are made real, when the actors step out from behind the curtain (or the tarp, in this case) and perform?

But Nelson is saddened by some big news given by an ex-girlfriend that he still pines for. Then the trio  stops in one small town and Henry meets with a family who once played a significant part in his part — and Nelson ends up having to give the greatest performance of his life.

The reader knows Nelson is doomed. The narrator — who has a small connection to Nelson and the story — foreshadows the events that kept me riveted and wanted to know what happened.

Circles is an excellent read thanks to Alarcón’s artful plotting, beautiful writing and astute observations.

Daniel AlarconMore about Daniel Alarcón: Alarcón, a native of Peru, also is the author of War by Candlelight and Lost City Radio. He also runs the Radio Ambulante podcast.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

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Let’s play Lotería!: Books about the classic Mexican game

The game of Lotería is hot this year. The game is similar to American bingo, but uses images — such as el gallo and la dama –  instead of numbers and letters. This year, Mario Alberto Zambrano won acclaim with his book Lotería, earning the cover of Booklist’s Top 10 First Novels of 2013. Then the Texas-based fast food chain Taco Cabana co-opted it for a promotion, and Texas artist Karina Garza used the cards as inspiration for a political poster for gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis. But the game always has been a classic in Mexican households — and a popular subject for Latino writers. Here are some books featuring the game:

PlayingLoteria• In the 2005 children’s book Playing Lotería/El Juego De La Lotería by René Colato Laínez, a young boy learns to speak Spanish and grows closer to his abuela when he visits her and starts learning the riddles in the lotería cards.

LoteriaCardsandFortunePoems• Poet Juan Felipe Herrera created poems for each card and artist Artemio Rodriguez created contemporary lithographs as illustrations for the 2001 book Loteria Cards and Fortune Poems: A Book of Lives.

Loteria by Stavans, Villegas• The 2004 gift book ¡Loteria! features an essay about the culture of the game by noted Mexican-American scholar Ilan Stavans and illustrations by Teresa Villegas. Villegas’s website has a great section about the game, including its history.

LoteriaRubenMendozaCarambaNineMarieMartinezLotería and Other Stories by Rubén Mendoza is a 1998 collection of short stories structured around the game. In the 2005 novel ¡Caramba¡ by Nina Marie Martinez, the card game is used to illustrate two women’s adventures in getting a deceased father’s body back from Mexico.

Loteria• Released this year, Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano, shows how a teenager communicates about the abuse in her family through the game. Each chapter begins with a gorgeous, full color illustration, done by Jarrod Taylor, that differ from the traditional lotería game, but carry the same spirit.

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Classic book review: Manuel Puig’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman”

Manuel PuigBefore it was an Oscar-winning movie, before it was a Broadway musical, before it was a widely produced play, there was the novel Kiss of the Spider Woman (Vintage).

Manuel Puig’s 1976 book may be better known for its incarnations as a Tony Award-winning 1993 Broadway musical, with Chita Rivera and Vanessa Williams in the title role, and Oscar-winning 1985 movie starring Sonia Braga, Raul Julia and William Hurt.

The book takes place in the 1970s in an Argentine prison. Two seemingly opposite men — Molina, a gay window dresser, and Valentin, a political dissident — are stuck together. To pass the time, Molina tells the plots of movies, comforting Valentin while he suffers from physical illness and emotional heartache from leaving his girlfriend.

The book consists mostly of dialogue, and Puig excels at writing conservations that sound natural. But I had to endure Molina’s movie plots that drag on for pages and dryly written footnotes that discuss the history of psychiatry’s view of homosexuality. I confess I skipped through some of these passages.

But Puig conveys their loneliness well, such as in this passage:

“It’s as if we were on some desert island. An island on which we may have to remain alone together for years. Because, well, outside of this cell we may have our oppressors, yes, but not inside. Here no one oppresses the other. The only thing that seems to disturb me … because I’m exhausted, or conditioned or perverted … is that someone wants to be nice to me, without asking anything back for it.”

Then the book delivers a hell of a twist — one of the prisoners may be betraying the other.

Spider Woman is a novel that tackles big issues such as homosexuality and Argentine politics. Some of it was tough to get through, but it’s easy to see how it has endured through the years and in many forms.

puigMore about Manuel Puig: The Argentine author, who was born in 1932 and died in 1990, is best known for Spider Woman, but his other books includes 1968’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworth and 1973’s The Buenos Aires Affair.

Source: I checked this book out of the library.

 This book is part of my series on classic Latino novels. Up next: Jose Saramago’s Blindness.

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Classic book review: Oscar Hijuelos’ “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love”

MamboKingsPlaySongsofLoveOn a Saturday night in East Harlem or the Bronx, N.Y., Cesar and Nestor Castillo would perform songs from their homeland of Cuba. Clubgoers would mingle as Cesar sang and played the drums and Nestor performed the trumpet, and life’s troubles would disappear as they danced into the night.

Then the sun would rise and reality would set in.

The lives of the Castillo brothers are depicted in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (HarperPerennial) by Oscar Hijuelos. Released in 1989, the book won critical acclaim and Hijuelos become the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. And, perhaps more significantly in the realm of pop culture, it became a 1992 movie that made Antonio Banderas a star in the United States.

The brothers immigrated from Cuba to New York in the 1950s. Working by day, they play by night, getting gigs around the East Coast, releasing albums and landing a spot on I Love Lucy.

Hijuelos’ writing comes alive when he describes the brothers’ performances.

“He’d get up on the stage, dancing before the microphone while his musicians took the music forward. The glory of being on a stage with his brother Nestor, playing for crowds of café-society people who jumped, bounced, and wriggled across the dance floor. While Nestor soloed, Cesar’s heavy eyelids fluttered like butterfly wings lilting on a rose; for drum solos his hips hook, his arms whipped into the air: he’d take backwards dance steps, gripping his belt with one hand a crease of trouser with the other, hiking them up, as if to accentuate the valiant masculinity therein; outline of the big prick through white silk pantalones. Piano taking a ninth chord voicing behind a solo, he’d stare up into the pink and red spotlights, giving the audience a horse’s grin. Woman in a strapless dress dancing a slow, grinding rumba, staring at Cesar Castillo. Old woman with her hair coiffed upward into a heavenly spiral, starting at Cesar. Teenage girl, Miss Roosevelt High School Class of 1950, thin-legged and thinking about the mystery of boys and love, staring at Cesar Castillo. Old ladies’ skin heating up, hips moving like young girls’ hips, eyes, wide open with admiration and delight.”

Cesar is the definition of machismo. He almost seems defined by his “big thing” in the book’s frequent depictions of his sexual conquests. He devours sex as much as food and alcohol.

Nestor has a stable family life, but he’s more melancholy and introverted.

“Nestor tried, heaven helped him … After six years in the United States, he was still living with a growing dread of things. It wasn’t that he feared one thing in particular; he just had the sense that things weren’t going to work out, that the sky would fall in and lightning would strike him as he walked down the street, that the earth might open up and swallow him.”

Hijuelos is such a natural and beautiful writer that the book is easy to read, but sometimes it drags on too long. (We get it. Cesar likes to have sex.)

But as the book ends, Cesar realizes how his life has taken a toll on his body and his soul.

“The thing about one’s body coming apart was that, if anything, you felt more.”

And that’s the brilliance of Hijuelos’ writing — he can make you feel like you’re dying or dancing.

OscarHijuelosMore about Oscar Hijuelos: Hijuelos, whose parents immigrated from Cuba to New York, also wrote the books Our House in the Last World, Mr. Ives’ Christmas, Empress of the Splendid Season and Dark Dude. His most recent book is his 2011 memoir, Thoughts Without Cigarettes.

Source: I checked this book out of the library.

This book is part of my series on classic Latino novels. Up next: Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman.

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