Category Archives: 2011 Books

Meet Victoria Griffith, author of “The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont”

National Aviation Day takes place Aug. 19 in honor of Orville Wright who, along with his brother Wilbur, launched the first man-powered flight. But Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont also had a role in the beginnings of aviation and he is the subject of Victoria Griffith’s children’s book, The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont.

Griffith is a former journalist who has worked for the Financial Times.

Q: Tell me about your book and the story of Alberto Santos-Dumont. 

Brazilians say Alberto was the TRUE inventor of the airplane, not the Wright Brothers. Leaving that controversy aside for a moment, Alberto certainly deserves recognition for his role in aviation history. He was the only person ever to have run daily errands in a flying machine – a dirigible, or controllable balloon, of his own invention that he would use to hop around Paris. He would tether it to lampposts and ask the waiters in nearby cafes to bring up him some coffee. At the turn of the last century, Alberto was one of the most famous people in the world. Bakers in Paris would make pastries in the shape of his dirigible.

Alberto grew up on a coffee plantation in Brazil. When his father became partially paralyzed after falling off a horse, the family moved to Paris in search of a cure. There, Alberto took his first balloon ride. He was immediately hooked. All his life, he dreamed of making flight available to every one in the world. He complained to his friend, Louis Cartier, that he had a hard time checking the time on his pocket watch when he was up in the air. Cartier invented the wristwatch for Alberto! The Santos-Dumont model, in fact, is still available at Cartier stores.

But Alberto wanted to go farther and faster than his dirigible would take him. In 1906, Alberto was ready to give his airplane a try. No in Paris had heard of the Wright Brothers’ flights, because of their secretive nature. The Wrights were terrified that some one would steal their patents. As a result, there were only a handful of witnesses when they flew in Kitty Hawk a few years earlier. And their plane needed high winds and a catapult system to get off the ground. Alberto’s airplane took off of its own volition, which is why some historians still recognize him as the Father of Flight.

Q: How did you find out about his story? Why hasn’t his story received as much attention as the Wright Brothers?

One day, my daughter Sophia came home from school and said she had learned that the Wright Brothers had invented the airplane. My Brazilian husband was horrified. “Everyone knows that the inventor of the airplane was Alberto Santos-Dumont!” he said. I was intrigued. I had lived in Brazil and heard of Alberto, but I knew little of the details of his work. I was fascinated to discover that there was still so much controversy surrounding the invention of the airplane.

Nationalistic sentiments influence our view of history. So it makes sense that the Wrights would be recognized as the inventors here in the United States and other parts of the world, while Alberto would be seen as the Father of Flight in Brazil. But I do think Americans should make a space for Alberto in the history books.

Q: You lived in Brazil, and your husband is Brazilian. Were there any Brazilian writers that you admired?  What is the literary scene like in Brazil?

Magical realism authors like Jorge Amado enjoyed international fame some decades ago, but in general I think Brazilian writers’ use of the Portuguese language is too sophisticated and specific to translate well to other languages. Take “The Girl from Ipanema” poem by Vinicius de Moraes, used in the lyrics of a very popular Bossa Nova song by the same name. In the English version, the words are pretty banal, a song about a pretty girl walking by. In the Portuguese version, the poet wonders about a beauty that belongs not just to one person but to the world around. It’s so much more profound.

Similarly, one of my favorite children’s books in Brazil is by the songwriter Chico Buarque. It’s called Chapeuzinho Amarelo, and it’s about a girl who’s afraid of everything, but especially the wolf, or lobo. One day, she hears the wolf calling his name over and over. When he stops, the lobo has become a bolo, or cake. Of course, no one can be afraid of a cake, and Chapeuzinho is transformed into a girl who is not afraid of anything. This kind of sophisticated wordplay is difficult to access unless you speak the language.


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Classic book review: Lorraine López’s “The Realm of Hungry Spirits”

Marina Lucero is having a stressful week.

In the first 50 pages of Lorraine López’s 2011 novel The Realm of Hungry Spirits, Marina has to comfort friends who lost their newborn baby; helps a neighbor being abused by her husband; puts up with two young adults crashing in her home; and ponders an offer to have her home cleansed in a Santeria practice.

“It’s like you’re host to a whole realm of hungry spirits,” one character tells her.

But Marina, a divorced teacher in the Los Angeles area, turns to Buddhism to practice compassion for others. It’s something she’s needed for a long time.

“(I wonder) why my life has to be this way: long stretches of mundane nothingness interrupted by a succession of tortuous days,” she says.

This book has plenty of drama, including one stunning twist at the end, but Hungry Spirits is actually a funny, fast-paced book that reminded me of Denise Chavez’s Loving Pedro Infante.

Take this line when an old man looks up her skirt.

“My palm tingles, so strong is the impulse to slap the lewd grin from his ancient face, but striking an old man is surely no way to attain Buddhahood.”

Or this:

“A small crucifix dangles from a slender gold chain around her neck, and I marvel anew at the way Christians blithely display artifacts commemorating the sadistic torture and murder of their founding leader. I know, I mean Christ is supposed to have died for their sins and all that, but still, adorning oneself with his crucified body, doesn’t that strike anyone but me as weird?”

My one complaint is that the book is stuffed with so many characters that I should have created a chart to keep up with everyone.

But López does a great job of showing the importance – and annoyance – of family in Latino life and, in a nice touch, she also mentions a few Hispanic authors.

A special nod should go to the book’s publisher, Grand Central Publishing, which has published several terrific novels by Latinas in the past few years – including Julia Amante’s Say You’ll Be Mine; Leila Cobo’s The Second Time We Met; and Gwendolyn Zepeda’s recently released Better With You Here.

Like Hungry Spirits, these are easy to read books that women will relate to and enjoy.

More about Lorraine López:

Lorraine López is the author of the short story collections Soy la Avon Lady and Other Stories and Homicide Survivor Picnic and Other Stories, the young adult novel Call Me Henri and the novel The Gifted Gabaldón Sisters. She teaches at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Source: I purchased this book through

Note: This book is part of the series of classic books by Latina authors. Next up: Pamela Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising.

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Best of 2011

At the end of the year, critics, bloggers and anyone else who wants to makes their own “best of” list, so I decided to make my own Latino literature favorites for 2011. Keep in mind that I started my blog in August, so I missed out on some books, such as Lorraine López’s The Realm of Hungry Spirits and Jon Michaud’s When Tito Loved Clara, and I’m keeping the list to just five books instead of the usual ten. Here are the books I loved the most from 2011:

• Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name was a riveting love story – loosely based on his own marriage to writer Aura Estrada – that covered the beginning of their relationship to her death in a swimming accident. This book will break your heart.

• Héctor Tobar’s The Barbarian Nurseries was a fast-paced, unputdownable novel about an undocumented maid who is thrust in the middle of an immigration debate when she is left alone with her boss’s children. The book has great description, strong characters and terrific observations about politics. It’s a shame this book didn’t receive more attention.

• Although I consider myself an avid reader, how did I not discover the awesomeness that is Luis Alberto Urrea until this year? I absolutely loved his 2005 book The Hummingbird’s Daughter, a funny, beautiful novel about a woman who discovers her healing powers in revolutionary Mexico. Her father, Don Tomas, just may be one of the best literary characters ever. The 2011 sequel, Queen of America, shows Teresita coping with her success. The tone is more somber than Daughter and there’s not enough Don Tomas, but the book is still pretty terrific.

• Sergio Troncoso wrote two books this year – a book of essays, Crossing Borders, and a novel, From This Wicked Patch of Dust – both of which draw on his experiences of living on the Texas-Mexico border. I liked Borders for its riveting essays on family dynamics and relationships – and it’s unusual to see a male author talk about work-life balance. His works deserve a larger audience.

• Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa’s Becoming Dr. Q is a fascinating look at one man’s journey from an undocumented immigrant from Mexico to one of the top brain surgeons in the United States.

I also liked Justin Torres’s We the Animals, Dagoberto Gilb’s Before the End, After the Beginning and Lyn Di Iorio’s Outside the Bones. For my non-Latino books, I loved Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain and State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.

What were your favorite 2011 books? Post in the comments.

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Book review: Maria Dueñas’s “The Time in Between”

In Maria Dueñas’s novel, The Time in Between, Sira Quiroga goes from humble dressmaker to World War II spy in just a few years. The transformation is a mostly fascinating and sometimes frustrating tale.

The book begins in 1935 in Madrid, where Sira is, as one character describes her, a “young dressmaker filled with tenderness and innocence,” and engaged to a civil servant. But, she says, “a typewriter shattered my destiny.” While visiting an office supply store, she meets and eventually falls in love with another man. She moves with him to Morocco with the promise that they will start their own business. But, through a series of rather unpleasant surprises, Sira has to return to her sewing skills as a means of survival. She makes friends with several people on the social scene, and she returns to Madrid to design clothes for the wives of German Nazis – and tries to find out about their husbands’ plans as World War II begins to brew.

Sira’s means of spying is one of several clever twists in the book – and Sira goes through plenty of life-changing events that will elicit a few gasps. Like any spy novel, the book has its share of intrigue and coincidences. But I wish the 600-page book, which was translated by Daniel Hahn, had more dialogue and shorter paragraphs. Although Dueñas writes beautifully, the book dragged at times and needed a faster pace. I also wished two of the more colorful characters – her feisty landlord, Candelaria, and a fun next-door-neighbor, Félix – had stuck around longer.

Still, Sira makes a strong feminist character and, although the ending doesn’t suggest a sequel, I’d read a series of her spy adventures. And if we can’t get that, can we get a movie starring Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem?

More about María Dueñas:

Dueñas, a professor in Spain, based some of the characters on real life people involved in World War II. She talked about the book to Publishers Weekly when it came out earlier this fall.

Source: I checked the book out from my local library.

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In the news: Best of 2011, La Casa Azul bookstore, World Book Night

Best of 2011

• Here’s some more Best of 2011 lists: Entertainment Weekly put Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name on its Top 10 Fiction list. Barnes and Noble picked When Tito Loved Clara, by Jon Michaud, about a Dominican Republican woman trying to settle in New Jersey when her old lover returns.

• Sergio Troncoso’s From This Wicked Patch of Dust and Richard Yanez’s Cross Over Water both earned spots on the Southwest Books of the Year by the Pima County Library in Tucson, Arizona. Two books by Rudolfo Anaya made the list – La Llorona: The Crying Woman and Randy Lopez Goes Home: A Novel, as did the children’s book, Juan Verdades: The Man Who Couldn’t Tell a Lie / El hombre que no sabia mentir by Joe Hayes.

• Rigoberto Gonzalez made his list of the best Small Press books, including Chulito by Charles Rice-González.

Body art by Mia Roman. Photographed by Johnny Ramos.


• Congratulations to Aurora Anaya-Cerda, left, who plans to open La Casa Azul bookstore in East Harlem in the spring. Publisher’s Weekly and the New York Daily News wrote articles about the bookstore, which was funded through a donation drive.

World Book Night

• Junot Diaz’s awesome The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was chosen as one of 30 novels that will given out for World Book Night April 23. You can apply to be a book giver here.

New releases:

All Yours, a paperback crime novel by Argentine Claudia Piñeiro, came out last week.


In this article in The Guardian, Spanish novelist Lucía Etxebarria announced this week she would stop writing because she opposes the downloading of books. Brazilian Paulo Coehlo has taken a different view, allowing readers to download his books in some countries, according to this New York Times story published in the fall.

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In the News

Year in Review: Junot Díaz and Justin Torres recommended their favorite books of 2011 to New York magazine, while Héctor Tobar and Torres gave their choices for the year’s best in Salon and Julia Alvarez revealed her picks to the Algonquin Books blog. Book editor Marcela Landres made her own best of 2011 list, including Outside the Bones by Lyn Di Iorio and Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall. The Washington Post cited Esmeralda Santiago’s Conquistadora and Justin Torres’s We the Animals as some of its favorite 2011 novels. But why stop at 2011? Dagoberto Gilb named his favorite books of all time in The Week magazine.

New releases: A paperback of Purgatory by the late Tómas Eloy Martinez, who was born in Argentina and lived in Venezuala, was released last month.

• A library in honor of Mexican writer Juan Jose Arreola is being constructed in Mexico City, with the opening expected for spring 2012. The library organization Reforma posted some pictures of the building on their Facebook page.

• According to this BBC article, the remains of legendary Nobel winning poet Pablo Neruda, pictured at left, have been asked to be exhumed to see if he was poisoned.

• Luis Alberto Urrea appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered to talk about his latest novel, Queen of America, which he describes as his “Lady Gaga book.”

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Book review: Roberto Bolaño’s “The Third Reich”

The Third Reich is a mystifying book.

Reich (Farrar Straus Giroux) was written by the late Roberto Bolaño, who was known for his critically acclaimed books such as The Savage Detectives and 2666. In this novel, German Udo Berger and his girlfriend, Ingeborg, visit a Spanish resort town that he used to visit as a child. While there, they meet a couple – Charley and Hanna – and spend a good deal of time with them.

But Udo is more interested in his war games that he’s set up in his hotel room. The game, called the Third Reich, is a simulation of World War II battles. Udo is Germany’s national champion at war games – a hobby even he finds a little odd when he goes to one of the conventions. “For my part, I came to the conclusion that eighty percent of the speakers needed psychiatric help,” he says.

But he has distractions from the game. Udo flirts with the hotel’s owner, Frau Else, who returns his affections despite having an ailing husband. Charley has an explosive, unpredictable personality that puts him in danger. Udo strikes up a friendship with a man named El Quemado, a muscular man with horrible burns all over his body – and soon rivals Udo at his own game.

While that seems like a lot of plot, it’s not. The book moves slowly. Udo has a passive personality that makes you wonder what he’s truly thinking, even though the book is told in first person. The book, translated by Natasha Wimmer, is easy to read, but readers may wish there was more action other than reports of his breakfast and technical descriptions of the game.

Fortunately, the conclusion of the book moves quickly and keeps you intrigued. The book has some deep observations, with World War II serving as a metaphor between Udo and El Quemado. And Bolaño, who wrote the book in 1989, is eerily prescient about how some of today’s gamers are isolated from society.

More about Roberto Bolaño:

Roberto Bolaño was born in 1953, grew up in Chile and Mexico City and died at age 50. The Third Reich was written in 1989 and found after his death. He won the National Book Critics Awards in 2009 for 2666.

Source: I received an advanced copy of the book from the publisher.

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Book Review: Rolando Hinojosa’s “Partners in Crime” and “A Voice of My Own”

Rolando Hinojosa may perhaps be one of the greatest storytellers from the Rio Grande Valley. Hinojosa, who grew up in Mercedes, Texas, a small town near the Mexican border, has written about the land’s quirks and contradictions in more than a dozen books. The Valley plays a big role in two books just released by Arte Publico Press, the detective story, Partners in Crime, and the collection A Voice of My Own: Essays and Stories.

Partners is part of the Klail City Death Trip series featuring Lieutenant Detective Rafe Buenrostro and taking place in Jones City, which appears to be modeled on Brownsville. In the novel, three men walk into a bar and start shooting up the place with their automatic rifles. The detectives must seek out the one clue about the murderers left by witnesses – a cream-colored Oldsmobile.

Partners was originally published in 1985 and the story takes place in 1972. It’s amusing to see how detectives worked without the Internet and cell phones, but the plot isn’t particularly captivating. The book’s strength comes from Hinojosa’s brisk writing. Like the detectives in the novel, he gives no bull but plenty of wit.

While Partners is an easy read, Hinojosa’s collections of short stories and essays are a little more frustrating. The 15 essays and four short stories – six of which are in Spanish – covers more than 25 years of writing about his life in the Valley and his thoughts on literature. Hinojosa, who is a creative writing professor at the University of Texas at Austin, can be wordy and unfocused in his pieces about literature. He uses the word “digression” often. He’s more interesting when he talks about his personal life, such as growing up in the Valley, describing his school days at the UT in the 1950s or showing how he wrote a poem.

The book ends with a few short stories. “Miami, Nice Climate” is a fast-paced  tale in the Rafe Buenrostro mode. “Es El Agua” is a beautiful and heartbreaking story about a migrant worker who recalls the travels in his life – from France, where he fought in the World War II and his brothers lost their lives, to the Midwest farms where he worked. But his home remains the Valley, the narrator says.

“It’s the water, the Rio Grande water,” the narrator says. “It claims you, you understand? It’s yours and you belong to it, too. No matter where we work, we always come back. To the border, to the Valley.”

 More about Rolando Hinojosa:

Hinojosa, who sometimes uses his mother’s name Smith, talked about his book of essays to the Austin Chronicle before his appearance at the Texas Book Festival earlier this year.

Source: I received advance copies of the books from Arte Público Press.

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Book review: Luis Alberto Urrea’s “Queen of America”

Luis Alberto Urrea has done it again.

Urrea has released his new book, Queen of America (Little, Brown), the sequel to his brilliant 2005 novel, The Hummingbird’s Daughter. And while the tone of the books is different, the book is classic Urrea.

In Daughter, Teresita Urrea (the author’s great aunt) discovered her healing powers, earning her the name “Saint of Cabora” and leading an uprising of Mexican revolutionaries that prompted her and her father to escape to the north. America describes her journey to the United States, taking her from Arizona to El Paso to California to St. Louis to New York City. Teresita finds love along the way, but she also realizes the negative effects of being a celebrity, such as in this passage when she thinks about how her friends think of her now:

“They had once been her neighbors and friends, and then they become her followers. She felt a small chill of horror. Followers! It was terrible to have followers. But it was more terrible that part of her liked it.

Of course, she could not control her fanatics, only herself. Balance, again. When she had followers, she was watched over by the government and the newspapers. People copied her words in notebooks. She caught herself wondering what she had said and worrying all night if this time her careless utterances would lead to someone’s death or some outbreak of madness she could not have foreseen. Sometimes you just want to speak without measuring your words! Sometimes you want to laugh and sing! Sometimes you just want to ride your horse!”

That passage shows why Urrea is such a great writer. He’s just so much fun to read. Besides his beautiful descriptions and witty dialogue, he also creates some memorable characters, such as Teresita’s father, Don Tómas. His selfishness, arrogance and lack of self-awareness brings some of the biggest laughs in the book.

Check out this dialogue between Teresita and Tómas:

“‘I never said I was a saint … I am a prophet.’

‘Oh God, no,’ he said. ‘What you are is nineteen years old.’”

Or read this conversation between Tómas and a businessman seeking to exploit Teresita:

“‘You will provide for her with your Consortium profits. You incorporate. Partners. But structured so that she can honestly say she took nothing. It will honor her, shall we say, religious beliefs.’

‘I love America,’ Tómas said.”

But Tómas is absent from the last half of the book as Queen focuses mostly on Teresita’s journey. And then the book becomes somber, as Teresita realizes that not everyone has the best intentions for her and she yearns to return to her homeland. The reader becomes a bit melancholy, too, as another great book comes to an end.

More about Luis Alberto Urrea:

Urrea spent 26 years researching and writing The Hummingbird’s Daughter and Queen of America, and he did it while writing other books, such as Into the Beautiful North and the non-fiction The Devil’s Highway.

Urrea has a great website, which includes tour dates and a blog. And follow Urrea on his Facebook and Twitter feeds. He’s a lot of fun on there, too.

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In the news

Awards: Pam Muñoz Ryan picked up the PEN Center USA award in Children/YA Literature earlier this month for her children’s book about poet Pablo Neruda, The Dreamer. Francisco Goldman took the Prix Femina Étranger, a French literary award, for his novel, Say Her Name, the first American to win since 2005.

• This is cool: The prestigious University of Iowa creative writing program is adding a master’s degree in Spanish Creative Writing, officials announced last week.

• Here’s some interesting articles about young adult authors: The Dallas Morning News profiled Ray Villareal (pictured at right), whose Don’t Call Me a Hero is published by Arte Publico Press, and NPR did a story about the popularity of Malín Alegría’s 2006 book Estrella’s Quinceanera.

• Spanish poet Tomas Segovia died last week. Segovia, who later lived in Mexico, won numerous awards for his work.

New releases: Luis Alberto Urrea’s Queen of America, the sequel to the awesome The Hummingbird’s Daughter comes out Nov. 29. Arte Público is releasing two books from Rolando Hinojosa Nov. 30: Partners In Crime: A Rae Buenrostro Mystery and A Voice of My Own: Essays and Stories. The Third Reich, written by the late Chilean author Roberto Bolaño, will come out Dec. 1 by Farrar Straus Giroux.

• The Hispanic Reader will return with reviews of those books after a weeklong holiday break. Happy Thanksgiving!

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