Monthly Archives: February 2012

Book review: Leila Cobo’s “The Second Time We Met”

In Leila Cobo’s The Second Time We Met (Grand Central Publishing), teenager Rita Ortiz lives in a small town called Edén, but her life is hell.

Her parents are overly strict, and her small town in Colombia is run by guerillas. She falls in love with one of those guerillas, Lucas, and then her life becomes even more complicated: she finds out she’s pregnant. Her parents force her to move into a convert, and she gives birth and puts the baby up for adoption.

The book then goes from 1989 South America to present day California, where that baby – named Asher Stone – is now a college student living with his tight-knit family and dreaming of a professional soccer career. An almost-fatal car accident forces him to rethink his life – and search for his birth mother. But Asher has very little to go on – just her name, a birth date and a letter she wrote to him. Now Asher – and the reader – wants to know what happened to Rita Ortiz.

The book’s plot isn’t original and Asher isn’t as compelling a character as his mother. But the story runs at a good pace, and Cobo writes some killer lines. Take this passage when Rita and Lucas fall in love: “What neither of them reckoned with is that love and lust are transformative, that they peel back layers of your self, surreptitiously, life the softest caress. Before you know it, fragments of you are exposed for all to see, little pieces of you didn’t know carried with you until they found their reason to exist.”

And readers will have good reason to keep turning the pages.

About the author:

Leila Cobo is a native of Colombia and former concert pianist. She covers Latin music for Billboard magazine. Her first book was Tell Me Something True.
She can be found on Facebook and Twitter.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.


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Book review: César Aira’s “Varamo”

In just 88 pages, César Aira’s Varamo (New Directions) contains more quirkiness than a Wes Anderson movie.

The book is named for the book’s protagonist, Varamo, a bureaucrat in Colon, Panama, who lives an ordinary life. But one afternoon, he receives counterfeit money for his salary. Varamo is a decent man and feels confused about what to do with the money.

He tries to go on with his life – such as embalming small animals to create wacky scenes; dealing with his temperamental mother; and going to a club that he hangs out every night. But even his fun is interrupted by something called regularity racing, an auto contest in which the winner is determined by which car deviates the least from a predetermined speed.

I told you this book was quirky.

All of these events led Varamo to write a poem – something he has never done before – that makes him a hero in his country. The poem, called The Song of the Virgin Boy, is made up of the papers Varamo collected from the day’s events, although the reader doesn’t get to see this work of art.

Some readers may find Varamo a little odd for their tastes. And it is at times. But for the adventurous, the book may be a fun way to spend an hour.

More about César Aira:

César Aira, a native of Argentina, has written more than 80 books. His translator, Chris Andrews, talked to The New Yorker about Aira’s work. His fans include actor Daniel Radcliffe.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

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In the news: New books by Sáenz and Aira, plus Cisneros, García Márquez

New releases:

• Coming out this week: the young adult novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, about the friendship between two teenage boys, and Varamo by César Aira, about the making of an epic poem by a Panamanian bureaucrat.

Latino scholars honored:

Latino scholars Teófilo Ruiz and Ramón Saldívar were awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama.

Children’s books:

Pam Muñoz Ryan’s When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson and Esperanza Rising and Antonio Skarmeta’s The Composition made USA Today’s 100 Greatest Books for Kids.

Reading is Fundamental’s 2011-12 Multicultural Booklist includes books by Loretta Lopez, Alma Flor Ada, George Ancona and Gary Soto.

Other stories:

• The San Antonio Current ran an article about author Sandra Cisneros’ impact on the city, which she plans to leave.

Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera inspired Carlos Campos’ latest fashion collection, according to the Los Angeles Times.

• A Toronto librarian found a letter that appeared to have been written by Jorge Luis Borges, reports the Canadian magazine Quill & Quire.

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Classic book review: Julia Alvarez’s “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents”

Julia Alvarez’s 1991 novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents follows four sisters from their adulthood in the United States to their childhood in the Dominican Republic. The book is funny, sad and always readable.

There’s Carla, “the responsible eldest”; Sandi, the “looker” who suffers a nervous breakdown; Yolanda, also known as “Yoyo,” the poet; and Sofía, or “Fifi,” the “plain one” who managed to snag “non-stop boyfriends.”

Instead of a straightforward plot, the family’s story is told in a series of vignettes in reverse chronological order. We first met the women as adults in the 1980s as they go through bad relationships and other problems. The book then goes back to the 1960s, when they first moved into the United States and they have to adjust to a different culture. The last part of the book takes place in the late 1950s, when they lived in the Dominican Republic under dictator Rafael Trujillo‘s rule.

Their time in their homeland makes for some of the most tense moments in the book. Their mother, Laura, severely punishes Yoyo when she inadvertently gets their father, a prominent doctor, in trouble. “You lose your head in this crazy hellhole, you do, and different rules apply,” she says.

It’s lines like that makes Alvarez such a great writer. Here’s another great passage in which she describes young Sandi’s urge to draw: “It seemed with so much protocol, I would never get to draw the brilliant and lush and wild world brimming over inside me. I tried to keep my mind on the demonstration, but something began to paw the inside of my drawing arm. It clawed at the doors of my will, and I had to let it out. I took my soaking brush in hand, stroked my gold cake, and a cat streaked out on my paper in one lightening stroke, whiskers, tail, meow and all!”

One gripe: it’s hard to tell the women apart sometimes. It seems Yoyo receives most of the attention. In fact, she later got her own book –1997’s ¡Yo!.

But Garcia Girls is an intriguing read about a family loving each other through the years, in good times and in bad. This piece of dialogue between their mother and a psychiatrist sums up their life:

“’The siblings,’ Dr. Tandlemann said. ‘Were they close? Was their any sense of rivalry between them?’

‘Siblings?’ The mother frowned at all this crazy psychology talk. ‘They’re sisters,’ she said by way of explanation.”

More about Julia Alvarez:

Julia Alvarez grew up in the Dominican Republic and came to the United States at age 10. She’s written numerous books, but is best known for Garcia Girls and In the Time of Butterflies. Her next book, A Wedding in Haiti, comes out in April.

Source: I checked this book out of the library.

This book is the second in a series of classic books by Latina authors. Coming in March: So Far From God by Ana Castillo.

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Love, Latino-style: Books and movies for Valentine’s Day

Depending on your point of view, Valentine’s Day is either one of the best or worst holidays of the year. But no matter what your point of view, this is a good time to look at some of the greatest love stories in Latino literature.

For the hopeless romantic:

In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera – young Florentino Ariza loves Fermina Daza from the moment he sees her – and keeps loving her even when she marries another man. This classic book was made into a 2007 movie staring Javier Bardem and Benjamin Bratt.

For the food lover:

Tita’s emotions can be felt in the food she is making in Laura Esquivel’s 1989 Like Water for Chocolate ­– and her emotions are intense when her sister marries the man she loves. The best-selling novel, made into a 1992 movie, includes recipes for the meals.

For a good cry:

Francisco Goldman’s 2011 Say Her Name tells the story of Goldman’s relationship with his wife, Aura Estrada, who died in a swimming accident. His love for her is so palpable that your heart will break along with his.

For the poetry fan:

If you prefer poetry, you can’t more romantic than Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda’s Love Poems. This book inspired the 1994 Academy Award-nominated movie Il Postino, in which Neruda appears as a character who helps a postal carrier woo the woman he loves. 

For the movie lover:

The 2011 film Chico and Rita features the romance between a Cuban pianist and singer in the 1940s. NPR talked to co-director Fernando Trueba about the film, which is up for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film.

Do you know of any other great Latino love stories that should be included here? Post them in the comments.

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A look at Afro-Latino writers

February marks Black History Month. Here is a look at some prominent Afro-Latino authors:

Veronica Chambers, who is of Panamanian and Costa Rican-Jamaican descent, has written the Marisol and Magdalena series about two Latina tweenagers. She also wrote about her experiences as an Afro-Latina in this Essence article.

• Dominican Junot Díaz, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, talked about growing up Afro-Latino to Fox News Latino.

• The late Nicolás Guillén, known for his poems about social justice that he wrote in the 1920s and 1930s, was the national poet of Cuba. He will be honored at Cuba’s International Book Fair Feb. 9-19.

• Brazilian author Paulo Lins wrote the 1997 novel City of God, which became a 2002 Academy Award-nominated movie. He talked to the Hispanic News website about growing up in the poor neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro with blacks and immigrants.

Sofia Quintero has written the Black Armetis hip hop series and other novels, such as Divas Don’t Yield and Efrain’s Secret. In this 2009 article with The, which also features other black Latino writers, she talks about her Puerto Rican-Dominican heritage.

• Puerto Rican-Cuban-American poet Piri Thomas, who died last year, wrote the classic Down These Mean Streets, about his life growing up in Spanish Harlem. The New York Times had a great obituary.

The blog Writing to Insanity has a great list of other Afro-Latino writers, as does The Woynigi Blog. Latina magazine has good coverage of the Afro-Latina community. And other celebrities, such as Soledad O’Brien, discussed their Afro-Latino heritage in this video.


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Book review: Francisco X. Stork’s “Irises”

In Francisco X. Stork’s young adult novel Irises (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic), the Romero sisters lived a life so strict that one of them had never been to the mall. Their father, a pastor, “literally thought the devil was going to sneak in the house through the Internet cable.” No wonder that Kate, 18, dreams of escaping her hometown of El Paso for Stanford University, and Mary, 16, paints to escape her world.

But life soon changes for the sisters. Their father dies suddenly, leaving the young women to take care of their mother, who has been in a vegetative state for two years after a car accident. The sisters must decide how to take care of themselves financially, with their own personal dreams at stake.

As Kate thinks, “What she wanted most of all was a more meaningful life, a life where she was useful to others, a life that in her mind could only be obtained someplace other than El Paso.”

Stork’s writing is easy to read, but the book is startlingly different from many of the edgy young adult books that deal with romance or have paranormal or dystopian scenarios. The book has one mention of sex, and a mild one at that. But Irises – named for the flowers Mary likes to paint – is deeper, digging into themes of faith and the purpose of life.

The characters go to church to seek peace, not just to attend service. Characters discuss their faith. One chapter is devoted to a pastor’s sermon. And Stork writes this in a matter-of-act manner, avoiding overtly religious language that may turn some readers off.

When the sisters have to make tough decisions, they discuss what they want from life. “God wants us to live,” Kate says. “He wants to give us abundant life. He wants to give us light and He wants us to be a light unto others.”

Irises is a thoughtful book that will appeal to teenage girls – and, hopefully, a few adults as well.

More about Francisco X. Stork:

Stork, who was born in Mexico and grew up in El Paso, is best known for his books Marcelo in the Real World and The Last Summer of the Death Warriors. He studied literature under Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz at Harvard and earned a law degree. He works as an attorney in Boston.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

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