Category Archives: 2011 Books

Book Review: Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa’s “Becoming Dr. Q: My Journey from Migrant Farm Worker to Brain Surgeon”

As a young boy in Mexico, Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa admired Kalimán, a comic book character with superhero-like abilities.

Quiñones-Hinojosa has demonstrated the same abilities in his lifetime – jumping over a fence to get into the United States, working his way through college and medical school and becoming one of the top brain surgeons in the country – which he writes about in his autobiography Becoming Dr. Q: My Journey from Migrant Farm Worker to Brain Surgeon (University of California Press).

Quiñones-Hinojosa grew up in Mexicali, showing precocious leadership and academic skills at a young age. He came from a loving, but poor, family that endured the death of one child and worked in the fields of California. Believing he could make more money for his family, Quiñones-Hinojosa crossed the border illegally on his 19th birthday in 1987 – an event that makes for the book’s most riveting chapter.

The laws at the time made it possible for Quiñones-Hinojosa to obtain legal status and, eventually, his citizenship. His hard work and determination drove him to study at the University of California at Berkeley while working as a welder. Inspired by his curandero grandmother and his own desire to help others, he got into medicine, and he was accepted into Harvard Medical School.

“Two gears still drove me forward,” he writes. “One was for the dreamer and optimist in me who imagined, as I had from childhood, that I was destined to live forever. But the other was for the part of me that realized that life could be snatched away at any moment and felt I had to work hard at everything, as if each day were my last to live.”

Quiñones-Hinojosa goes through his residency while working on weekends and raising a young family – and he survives a few brushes with death. But the hard work pays off. He lands a job at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, one of the most prestigious medical institutions in the nation. He was featured on the ABC documentary Hopkins and PBS’s Nova.

Quiñones-Hinojosa, along with co-author Mim Eichler Rivas, writes in a matter-of-fact tone without sounding sorry for himself or arrogant. The fast-paced book is most intriguing when he writes about his early life. The last third of the book focuses on his medical cases, but it doesn’t get too technical and is easy to understand.

This book will appeal to almost everybody, but it should make its way to the hands of young Hispanics, who will hopefully make Dr. Q their own Kalimán.

More about Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa:

• The University of California Press posted an excerpt of the book here, which describes his baby sister’s death.

• Fox News Latino has an excellent article about Dr. Q. He also discussed his book on C-SPAN.

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Book review: José Saramago’s “Cain”

Nobel Prize winner José Saramago is known for his dark words such as Blindness. Who knew he was such a comedian?

The late Portuguese’s last novel, Cain, released last month, tells some of the stories of the Bible from the perspective of Adam and Eve’s son, Cain, who killed his brother, Abel, out of jealousy. After the murder, Cain witnesses historical events from the Bible – the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the creation of the golden calf and the construction of Noah’s Ark.

Through it all, Saramago offers some wry observations – such as when Eve complains about having diarrhea. “What’s diarrhea, asked the angel, Another word for it is the runs, the vocabulary the lord taught us has a word for everything, having diarrhea or the runs, if you prefer that term, means that you can’t retain the shit you have inside you.”

Or this, when Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac: “The logical, natural and simply human response would have been for abraham to tell the lord to piss off, but that isn’t what happened.”

(By the way, Saramago doesn’t capitalize names or use quote marks in the book.)

Of course, Saramago, who was known for his atheist views, is mocking the Bible. Cain frequently questions the Lord’s motives in killing thousands of innocent lives during the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the Golden Calf. Fans of Kurt Vonnegut and Christopher Hitches will love this stuff.

Saramago writes in never-ending sentences and never-ending paragraphs that may have some readers rereading passages. But, at 159 pages, Cain is a quick read and, considering the complexity of his other books, this may be a good starting point for his work.

More about José Saramago:

Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. The Nobel’s website includes this biography.

Margaret Jull Costa, who translated Cain and Paulo Coelho’s recent book Aleph, wrote about him in this article for Granta magazine.

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In the news

New releases: Maria Duenas’s The Time in Between comes out Tuesday. The suspense novel has received great reviews, including a blurb from Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa.  News for all the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media, by Juan Gonzalez and Joseph Torres, came out last month.

 • Book festivals: The Miami Book Fair International begins Nov. 13 and runs through Nov. 20, with the street fair running from Nov. 18-20. One session includes Francisco Goldman, Elizabeth Nunez, Esmeralda Santiago and Héctor Tobar – all in one room! Other writers include Ricardo Cravo Albin, Jose Alvarez, Sandra Rodriguez Barron, Jorge Casteñada, Maria Duenas, Christina Diaz Gonzalez, Martha Medeiros, Ana Menendez, Javier Sierra, Justin Torres, Ian Vasquez and Luis Alberto Urrea. Awesome.

Sandra Cisneros announced this week that she plans to leave San Antonio to concentrate more on writing, according to this San Antonio Express-News article. She has put her home up for sale, and she is considering moving to New Mexico. The fate of the Macondo Foundation for writers remains unclear since Cisneros said she had difficulty balancing her writing with her charity.

 Writing contests: Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz will judge stories (no longer than 1,000 words) based on their narrative voice for the Figment writing website. Deadline is Nov. 30. For details, click here.

Feb. 1 is the deadline to submit noir fiction for the Valley Artistic Outreach’s “Border Noir: Hard-Boiled Fiction from the Southwest,” an anthology of short stories to be edited by Machete co-screenwriter Alvaro Rodriguez. The book will come out in May. Stories can be sent to For more information, click here.



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Book review: Sergio Troncoso’s “Crossing Borders: Personal Essays” and “From This Wicked Patch of Dust”

“Without words I can’t return and easily remember and appreciate my life behind me,” Mexican-American Sergio Troncoso writes. “I can’t see the road I traveled and how much I changed. Without words, I feel as I have never existed.”

In his two recently released books, Crossing Borders: Personal Essays (Arte Publico Press) and the novel From This Wicked Patch of Dust (University of Arizona Press), Troncoso tries to bring more meaning to his life and the world.

The title of Crossing Borders comes from the fact that Troncoso’s life bridges two cultures – as a former resident of the border town of El Paso; as a husband in an interfaith marriage and as a writer who belongs to an almost all-white literary group. In the 16 essays, Troncoso tackles issues such as the drug wars, immigration and literature. But Troncoso is at his best when he gets personal.

In an unusually honest essay, he talks about an intense argument with his father. He describes how much he loathes some of his father’s characteristics, yet still loves him. He also discusses his own role as a father to two boys. He can be temperamental toward them, too, when he succumbs to the pressures of life. But he is a devoted work-at-home father who admits his career takes second place to his children. “To make a good home for my children, I have sacrificed the only thing that matters more than my family: I have novels in my head which I may or may never get a chance to write,” he says.

After reading Borders, you can find similar elements of Troncoso’s life in From This Wicked Patch of Dust, which follows an immigrant family living in El Paso through five decades. One of the characters, like Troncoso, goes to college at Harvard and becomes a writer, marries a Jewish woman who works in the finance industry and raises two sons in New York City.

The stories are told in vignettes that capture a moment in time. The book can move slowly at times and Troncoso dwells on describing things that don’t need description. (You can skip a paragraph devoted to calculating the average depth of terrain). But Troncoso avoids clichés, with one character going through an interesting and surprising transformation in the book. Troncoso is an elegant writer whose work will make readers grateful that he writes his life down.

More about Sergio Troncoso:

• Troncoso discusses his writings on his blog, Chico Lingo. You can also find him on Facebook and YouTube.


Filed under 2011 Books, Book Reviews, Fiction, Non-Fiction

Book review: Dagoberto Gilb’s “Before the End, After the Beginning”

In his collection of short stories, Before the End, After the Beginning, Dagoberto Gilb uses ordinary men to talk about the big issues of our time.

Gilb tackles the economy, the immigration hysteria in Arizona and the painfulness of life in these ten short stories. Gilb knows the last subject all too well – in 2009, the Texan suffered a stroke. His best story, “please, thank you,” is about a man who is recovering from a stroke. The narrator, who does not use capitalization or most punctuation, describes how the nurses help him through his excruciating therapy.

“i do exercises on the padded table. stretches of the calves. then the quads. then i get on my stomach. i am supposed to lift my foot and calf ninety degrees, starting with the left. nothing, easy. when i try my right, its like nothing connects the two leg bones but kneecap. my calf flops on either side of my body. it doesnt hurt, theres no physical pain, but inside me, silently, it might be the worst indignity yet, so hard I cant cry or rage. its as though I have been slugged very hard and the pain hasn’t checked in.”

In his other stories, Gilb writes about ordinary guys caught up in complicated situations, sometimes through no fault of their own – a man looking for work who stays with his mysterious aunt; a family celebrating a child’s birthday amidst crime in the neighborhood; and a musician who doesn’t like the way a contractor treats the employees hired to paint his home. Gilb writes in simple prose that is as unpretentious as his characters. The reader gets caught up in these people’s lives, hoping that the character doesn’t suffer too much.

In a few of the stories, the main character seems to get in some sort of trouble with the police, making these stories seem a bit repetitive. It would have been nice to see a couple of more humorous stories like “Uncle Rock,” in which a boy goes to his first baseball game. But, overall, these stories are a pleasure to read.

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More about Dagoberto Gilb:

• Gilb will tour several Texas cities with Aztec Muse magazine editor Tony Diaz. They’ll be in San Antonio Wednesday; Dallas, Thursday-Friday; and Houston, Nov. 16-17.

• The San Antonio Express-News ran an interview with Gilb about the book.

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In the news

Puerto Rican/Cuban-American poet Piri Thomas (pictured at left) passed away last week. His book, Down These Mean Streets, described his life growing up in Spanish Harlem and became a staple in classrooms, according to this New York Times obituary.

• Here’s the round-up in book festivals this coming weekend:

Luis Alberto Urrea will speak at the Louisiana Book Festival Saturday in Baton Rouge.

The Dallas International Book Festival, on Saturday, will feature novelist Esmeralda Santiago (pictured at right), children’s author Lucia Gonzalez, young adult author Ray Villareal and poet Joaquin Zihuatanejo.

The 31st Annual Book Fair of Santiago will run from Friday-Nov. 13 if you just so happen to be in Chile.

• Monday will be a big day for Arte Publico Press – it’s releasing several children’s and young adult books that day. The titles are: Don’t Call Me a Hero by Ray Villareal; The Lemon Tree Caper: A Mickey Rangel Mystery by René Saldana Jr.; ¡A Bailar! Let’s Dance! by Judith Ortiz Cofer and illustrated by Christina Ann Rodriguez; Clara and the Curandera by Monica Brown and illustrated by Thelma Muraida; and Adelita and the Veggie Cousins by Diane Gonzales Bertrand and illustrated by Christina Rodriguez.

Dagoberto Gilb, whose short story collection Before the End, After the Beginning comes out Tuesday, will tour several Texas cities with Aztec Muse magazine editor Tony Diaz. They’ll be in San Antonio Nov. 2; Dallas, Nov. 3-4; and Houston, Nov. 16-17. The Texas Observer covered his speech at last week’s Texas Book Festival, as well as Sergio Troncoso’s and Richard Yanez’s discussion about El Paso literature. (Scroll down the page for the articles.) Texas Monthly also excerpted a story in its latest issue. The Hispanic Reader will post a review of his book next week.

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Book Review: Lyn Di Iorio’s “Outside the Bones”

If Kinsey Millhone or Stephanie Plum were Puerto Rican brujas, they’d be just like Fina, the lead character of Lyn Di Iorio’s first novel Outside the Bones (Arte Publico Press).

Like those smartass, crime-solving creations of Sue Grafton and Janet Evanovich, Fina uses her wits and attitude when she finds herself entangled in a murder mystery. But unlike many mysteries, Bones features mostly Hispanic characters and uses Afro-Carribean rituals as a mystery-solving device.

Fina is a New York City clerk who has a crush on her neighbor, musician Chico de León (another character with that great last name!). She puts a fufú, or curse, on him that goes badly – and leads to Fina to investigate Chico’s mysterious past in Puerto Rico, where his infant daughter and wife died while he was having an affair. Then his mistress and a woman claiming to be Chico’s daughter show up. So Fina enlists her “badass Godfather in the magic arts,” Tata Victor Tumba Fuego, to help conjure up spirits that may help solve the mystery. And then things start getting crazy.

The book gets its strength from Fina’s voice. If you don’t like attitude, bad grammar and foul language, you won’t like her. But then you would be deprived of such great lines as this, when Fina is taking a rooster to be sacrificed by Tata Victor: “Animal blood is the offering favored by the nkisis and nfuiris. And I understand the primitive principle behind it all. Blood is the most sacred form of energy, and when the spirits drink they become enlivened to help us in this world. But shit, we ain’t on the island no more, we don’t sacrifice in the mountains of Africa or Cuba; we do it in our apartments. Can’t we substitute and modernize a little with the other aspects of the religion? Streamline and make it more up to date?”

Even if you’re skeptical of the supernatural or the plot, Fina may make a believer out of you.

More about Lyn Di Iorio:

• Di Iorio talked to The Hispanic Reader about the inspiration for her book and how to encourage more people to get into Latino literature.

• Di Iorio will make several appearances for her book, including tonight at the Barnes and Noble at New York City’s Upper West Side.

• Di Iorio talked to the New York Daily News about Afro-Caribbean religions.

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In the news

• New on the bookshelves: Kami Garcia’s latest book, Beautiful Chaos, part of her Beautiful Creatures series written with Margaret Stohl, comes out Tuesday. Cain, a retelling of the Biblical story from the late, Nobel Prize-winning novelist José Saramago, was released earlier this month.

• The Texas Book Festival, which runs from Saturday-Sunday in Austin, will feature 250 authors, and it features some great programs with Latino authors:

Dagoberto Gilb (pictured at right) will discuss his latest book, Before the End, After the Beginning.

Mary Romero, author of the non-fiction The Maid’s Daughter: Living Inside and Outside the American Dream, and Héctor Tobar, author of The Barbarian Nurseries, will discuss Mexican women working as maids in the United States.

Sarah Cortez, René Saldaña, Jr., Sergio Troncoso and Gwendolyn Zepeda will talk about the mysteries they contributed to the Arte Publico Press book for young adults, You Don’t Have a Clue: Latino Mystery Stories for Teens.

Alex Sanchez (pictured at left), author of Bait, will receive the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award.

Troncoso and Richard Yanez will discuss stories from their hometown of El Paso. Kami Garcia, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith and Justin Torres will speak at other sessions.

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Book review: Paulo Coehlo’s “Aleph”

Paulo Coelho’s Aleph is not just a novel – but also a guidebook on how to live life in the present.

Coelho is the best-selling, beloved Brazilian novelist of The Alchemist and, like that book, Aleph is about a spiritual journey. The main character – a best-selling, beloved Brazilian novelist – is going through a mid-life crisis when he spontaneously decides to travel through Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway to meet his fans.

While on the trip, a 21-year-old woman named Hilal insists on traveling with him. Although he is turned off by her aggressive behavior, he finds peace when he experiences an “aleph” – “the point at which everything is in the same place at the same time” – and sees scenes from his past lives.

They soon realize they’ve experienced the same thing. “The great Aleph,” the narrator tells Hilal, “occurs when two or more people with a very strong affinity happen to find themselves in the same Aleph.”

Now they must figure out their shared connection. They find the mystery frustrating, since Hilal is very stubborn and Paulo is very married.

The book, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, is a quick read that has an intriguing twist about Paulo’s actions to Hilal in a past life. It is also filled with life-affirming metaphors, such as the mode of transportation: “Life is the train, not the station.”

Whether you love the book depends on your view on life. Some readers, such as those who follow Eckhart Tolle, will enjoy the passages in the book about living in the present and forgiving yourself and others. But other readers may find the book – with its touchy-feely New Age philosophies and talk of reincarnation – not for them.

More about Paulo Coelho:

• has an interesting article on Coelho.

• Coelho discussed his secrets to reaching fans on social media to The Wall Street Journal.

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In the news

Rigoberto González (pictured at left), who was born in California and raised in Mexico, releases his latest collection of poetry, Black Blossoms, today. The book centers on the struggles of women of color.

• The Brattleboro Literary Festival, which runs Oct. 14-15 in Vermont, will feature Julia Alvarez (pictured at right), Martín Espada and Luis Alberto Urrea. Alvarez’s latest children’s book, How Tía Lola Ended Up Starting Over (Knopf Books for Young Readers) was released last month. Alvarez is touring this month in support of the book. For more of her schedule, click here.

• Alvarez and Carlos Eire are scheduled to speak at the Boston Book Festival Oct. 15.

• The Southern Festival of the Books will take place in Nashville Oct. 14-16. Lisa D. Chavez, Lorraine López, Helena Mesa, Justin Torres and Marisel Vera are on the schedule.

• Brazilian Paulo Coelho’s latest book, Aleph, reached number six on The New York Times bestsellers list for hardcover fiction. The Hispanic Reader will publish a review later this week.

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