Monthly Archives: April 2013

Book review: Gilbert Hernandez’s “Marble Season” and “Julio’s Day”

MarbleSeasonGilbert Hernandez, the legendary graphic artist who created the Love and Rockets comics with his brothers, has released two books with very different topics – Marble Season (Drawn and Quarterly), an affectionate look at childhood in the 1960s, and Julio’s Day (Fantagraphics Books), a gritty take of one man’s 100 years of life.

Marble Season focuses on Huey, his two brothers and neighborhood pals. The book is a series of vignettes of their day-to-day lives – attempting to play marbles, collecting bubble gum cards and dealing with an obnoxious new kid in the neighborhood. Huey’s biggest problem in life? He’s not allowed to read comic books after his brother got a bad report card and his parents put them away.

Marble Season is retro – there’s a helpful guide in the back that explains the pop culture references. It’s a charming book that children and adults will read with amusement.

JuliosDayBy contrast, Julio’s Day is a far more ambitious and serious. The book opens with the birth of its main character, Julio Reyes, and follows him and several generations of his family through the century as they experience love, go to war and suffer some terrible illnesses. The books ends with Julio’s final breath. (Note: the book has some graphic images of illness, death and sex. You can read an excerpt of the book on this NPR webpage.)

Hernandez’s ability to capture life in just a few short frames would be the kind of books that would appeal to reluctant readers, especially teenage boys. I was especially intrigued with his drawings. With just a few strokes, he’s able to create a menacing sky or depict the ravages of illness.

Both books are entertaining, but your enjoyment may depend on your mood. Marble Season will make you smile. Julio’s Day will make you think.

gilbert_hernandezMore about Gilbert Hernandez:

Hernandez is known for writing and drawing the Love and Rockets graphic comics with his brothers Jaime and Mario. He has been nominated twice for Best Writer/Artist for the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards. He grew up in Oxnard, Calif.

Source: I received a review copy of Marble Season. I purchased Julio’s Day.

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Book review: Isabel Allende’s “Maya’s Notebook”

MayasNotebookNineteen-year-old Maya Vidal is in danger. She is sent to live to what seems like the end of the earth – Chilóe, a small island off the coast of Chile. And it’s there that she begins to find herself – a journey depicted in Isabel Allende’s newest novel Maya’s Notebook (Harper).

Maya, originally from Berkeley, Calif., has had a tough time since her beloved grandfather died from cancer. She turns to drugs and rapidly descends into a life of homelessness and crime – tangled in a web that involves the FBI, Interpol and a Las Vegas gang.

Her grandmother sends Maya to her native Chile to live in a town (population: 2,000) that seems disconnected from the world – the villagers can’t rent DVDs or video games and only see movies once a week at the school. Maya learns to like the villagers and adapts to their customs, such as the women’s gathering in a ruca on the nights of a full moon.

Maya’s Notebook requires some patience. The first 100 pages spend more time describing life in Chilóe and her family when I wanted to know how Maya got into such a mess. But my patience paid off, because when Maya finally revealed the secrets of her past, the story was a fast, fascinating read.

The book also draws it strength from Allende’s elegant writing, with inventive descriptions and metaphors, such as this:

“… Addiction is an astute and patient beast, with infinite resources, always lying in wait, whose strongest argument is persuading you to tell yourself you’re not really not an addict.”

Another great passage describes Manuel, a family friend who faces his own demons and secrets:

“On this blessed island nothing feeds my bad memories, but I make to an effort to write them down in this notebook so I won’t have to go through what happens to Manuel. He keeps his memories buried in a cave, and if he’s not careful, they attack him at night like rabid dogs.”

Beautiful writing – although, at times, I wondered if a 19-year-old brat would sound that sophisticated.

But those passages prove Allende’s excellence. She can make Maya a sympathetic character and take readers from the dangerous streets of Las Vegas to the humble town of Chilóe. Maya’s Notebook is an absorbing book that shows how one woman overcomes a life of terror.

AllendeMore about Isabel Allende:

Allende, who was born in Peru and raised in Chile, is best known for her 1982 novel The House of the Spirits. She also has written 11 novels, including 1985’s Eva Luna and 1999’s Daugher of Fortune, and four memoirs, including 1995’s Paula. She currently lives in the United States.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

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Book review: Rudolfo Anaya’s “The Old Man’s Love Story”

OldMan'sLoveStoryRudolfo Anaya’s newest novel, The Old Man’s Love Story (The University of Oklahoma Press) is a book that will touch your heart because it feels so real – after all, it’s based on Anaya’s own experiences as a widower.

The book begins as the old man (no name is given) sees his wife dying after an illness. The grief is profound as he thinks about her everywhere he goes – including the grocery store.

“A flickering memory suddenly burned bright. His wife’s lovely breasts. Other memories came piling on him. Whenever he passed won the cereal aisle, tears filled his eyes. He would never again buy her favorite cereal.”

He tries to be active – going to a water aerobics class, eating dinner with friends and family, and even dating a high school friend who lost her husband. But the memories keep coming up as he deals with growing older. (“Old people know bathrooms are dangerous places.”) He thinks about their travels and the rooms she carved in his heart. At one point he tries to conjure up her spirit by placing her pictures in a circle.

“He couldn’t say the magic word and have her appear. He would never again hold her in his arms.”

The book, at 170 pages, is easy to read thanks to Anaya’s simple prose. I thought the book would be depressing, but it’s not. Anaya writes in a matter-of-fact tone that doesn’t sound self-pitying and many readers will be able to relate to his struggles.

I have one minor complaint about the book. The old man seems to idealize his wife – which is natural, but I would like to know if they had any arguments or is she did anything that annoyed him.

Still, The Old Man’s Love Story is a beautiful love story. Your heart aches for the old man, as he tries to live each day without his soulmate. You may wish you had a love like they did.

Rudulfo AnayaMore about Rudolfo Anaya:

The New Mexico-based Anaya is best known for his 1972 classic, Bless Me Ultima, which was released as a movie earlier this year. He has written numerous children’s books and novels, including the Sonny Baca detective series and Randy Lopez Goes Home.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Another excellent book about a man dealing with the death of his wife, although in different circumstances, is Francisco Goldman’s 2011 novel Say Her Name.

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¿Tienes hambre? You will be after you read these books about food

This spring, Gustavo Arellano’s Taco USA comes out in paperback and Pat Mora’s Delicious Hullabaloo/Pachanga deliciosa celebrates its 15th year in publication. So it seems like a good time to look at books in which food is the main ingredient.

Children’s books:

delicious-hullabaloo• Pat Mora’s Delicious Hullabaloo/Pachanga deliciosa is a bilingual poem in which a passel of creatures cook up a meal. Another one of her books, Yum! MmMm! Que Rico!: America’s Sproutings, features foods that originated in the Americas.

ArrozConLeche• In a series of books, Salvadoran Jorge Argueta covers a range of foods in poetry form – Arroz con leche/Rice Pudding: Un poema para cocinar/A Cooking Poem, Guacamole: A Cooking Poem/Un poema para cocinar, Tamilitos: Un poema para cocinar/A Cooking Poem, Sopa de frijoles/Bean Soup and La Fiesta De Las Tortillas/The Fiesta Of The Tortillas.

TooManyTamales• Tamales are featured in Too Many Tamales, by Gary Soto, in which a young girl faces trouble while cooking the food; Growing Up with Tamales, by Gwendolyn Zepeda, in which two sisters learn how to make the Christmas classic; and Tia’s Tamales by Ana Baca, in which a girl makes the food with her grandmother. Baca also wrote Chiles for Benito/Chiles para Benito and Benito’s Sopaipillas/Las sopaipillas de Benito.

magdastortillas1• In Becky Chavarria-Chairez’s Magda’s Tortillas/Las Tortillas de Magda, a 7-year-old attempts to make the food for her family. The round bread also plays a magical role in Joe Hayes’ The Day It Snowed Tortillas/El Dia Que Nevaron Tortillas, which is part of a collection of bilingual folktales.

Like_Water_for_Chocolate_(Book_Cover)Books for adults:

• In the Laura Esquivel novel Like Water for Chocolate, the characters feel what the main character Tita is feeling when she makes her elaborate concoctions – and those emotions are all over the place as her heart is breaking. The 1992 movie was hugely popular.

tacousa• In exuberant prose, Gustavo Arellano reveals the origins of Taco Bell, tortillas, margaritas and other culinary delights in Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. Just one question – where’s the section on menudo?

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Happy birthday, Gary Soto!

gary_sotoGary Soto was born April 12, 1952 in Fresno, Calif. The California-based novelist and poet is best known for his gritty portrayal of the lives of Mexican-Americans.

Soto grew up working the fields and living in the barrio, and he used those experiences in his poems – including his first book of poetry, 1977’s The Elements of San Joaquin and his collection New and Selected Poems, which was a finalist for the 1995 National Book Award.

His young adult books depict teenagers in tough situations. The  1996 novel Jesse takes place during the Vietnam War and the 2006 novel Buried Onions shows life in a gang.

He also has a more whimsical side, as seen in his picture books, chapter books, short stories and poetry for children.

Read his poems on the Academy of American Poets and Poetry Foundation websites. You also can find out more about him by visiting the Gary Soto Literary Museum in Fresno, Calif.

Sources: Gary Soto website, Wikipedia, Amazon.com, Poetry Foundation

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Classic book review: Paulo Coehlo’s “The Alchemist”

TheAlchemistThe Alchemist (HarperOne), the 1988 novel by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, is such a popular book that The New York Times called it a “regular fixture in paperback on the front tables of bookstores.” It’s also been a regular on The New York Times best-seller list for 249 weeks. Celebrities such as Julia Roberts and Bill Clinton have praised the book.

It’s easy to see why it’s a classic. The book tells the story of a boy (no name is given) from Andalusia, Spain, who works as a shepherd and has a dream that he will find treasure in the Egyptian pyramids. An old man calling himself the King of Salem tells the boy that he knows his Personal Legend – his purpose in life – but most times a mysterious force tells people that the legend won’t happen and they give up.

But the old man says, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

Along the way, the boy encounters obstacles that he manages to turn around. He eventually gets to travel in the desert – where he falls in love with a young lady and he meets The Alchemist, who may be able to help him find his treasure. Just when he’s near his treasure, the boy faces one more obstacle.

The Alchemist a simple, fast read at 189 pages. But whether the reader likes it depends on a person’s tastes. For Oprah-loving types who believe life is about the journey, not the destination, this book will speak to them. More cynical types will find this a bunch of New Age hooey. I appreciated the message of the story, but it didn’t touch me in a way that other readers have raved about.

Still, I would recommend this book, especially to young people who seeking their way in life.

paulo_coelhoMore about Paulo Coelho:

Coelho, who was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, was a law student, songwriter and political prisoner before his first book, The Pilgrimage, was published in 1980. His other books include Aleph and the just released Manuscript Found in Accra.

Source: I checked the book out of the library.

Note: This review is part of my series of classic Latino novels. Up next: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz.

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Book review: Elizabeth Huergo’s “The Death of Fidel Pérez”

FidelPerezIn the novel The Death of Fidel Pérez (Unbridled Books), Elizabeth Huergo weaves in the recent history of Cuba with the tormented lives of its residents – all in a story that takes place in one day and begins with the shenanigans of two misfits.

One morning, an intoxicated Fidel Pérez is bereft that his girlfriend has run off with another man. He and his brother Rafael fall down the balcony to their deaths. Their neighbors cry out “Fidel has fallen” – and townspeople believe they’re talking about Cuba’s dictator Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul.

From this quirky start, Huergo focuses on three characters –  Saturnina, a viejta who is still grieving the death of her son Tómas, a student who was killed while working for the Revolutionary Directorate against Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s; Pedro, an aging college professor who is haunted by the ghost of his best friend, Mario, who died in jail defending his cause; and Camilo, a student who is observing the action as the townspeople head toward La Plaza de la Revolucíon.

The commotion happens to take place on July 26, the anniversary of the Castros’ attacks on the Moncada Army Barracks in Santiago de Cuba, leading to their imprisonment, social unrest and their eventual power of Cuba.

The book shows how the Castros’ dictatorship affected the lives of Cubans – especially emotionally. The character of Pedro is particularly touching, as he deals with his guilt and the effects of living “in the belly of the monster.”

As one character tells him:

“There is no history written of those who quietly endure, Pedro. … There are monsters everywhere. They represent some necessary confrontation with ourselves. Their chaos, inflicted upon us, renders us to ourselves, reminding us of something integral that we need to remember.”

My only complaint about the book is that Huergo’s use of description – some of it is beautiful; other times, it drags the action. Still, the books moves swiftly and The Death of Fidel Pérez serves as an excellent history lesson and intriguing story.

LizHuergoMore about Elizabeth Huergo:

Huergo, who was born in Havana, Cuba, and immigrated to the United States as a child, based the character of Saturnina on a woman her mother knew. Huergo also is a poet.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

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