Category Archives: 2011 Books

Meet novelist Lyn Di Iorio

Some people fear Afro-Caribbean religions. But Lyn Di Iorio is intrigued by them – so much so that her first book, Outside the Bones, focuses on the mysterious practices. Her novel was released last month by Arte Público Press.

Di Iorio, who was raised in Puerto Rico, teaches English with a focus on Caribbean and U.S. Latino literature at The City College of New York and The Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

She received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, her master’s degree from Stanford University and her Ph.D. from The University of California at Berkeley. 

Q: Tell me about your book, Outside the Bones.

Outside the Bones is a provocative tale of love, murder and mystery steeped in the Afro-Caribbean religio-magical practice of Palo Monte. When the irrepressible, street-toughened, but ultimately tender-hearted main character, Fina, falls in love with her upstairs neighbor, Chico the hot trumpet player, she does what any ghetto bruja would do–takes his picture intending to put a spell on him.  Her spell misfires and two strange women competing for Chico’s favors show up. Fina then ups the ante by asking the powerful Spanish Harlem Palero, Tata Victor Tumba Fuego, for help. All too soon Fina finds herself involved with a spirit whose quest for revenge can’t be stopped. Mixing humor, eroticism and Afro-Latino/a spiritual history, Outside the Bones takes readers on a rollicking, hair-raising, and ultimately redemptive journey through New York City’s Upper West Side, Central Park and Puerto Rico. Fina finds answers that uncover the mystery behind a murder but, more importantly, reveal things about her past she had never suspected.

Q: What inspired you to become a writer?

For one, reading so many great writers. As a child, I loved classic works such as the novels of Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling and so many other writers from all over the world, but I also loved mysteries by Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Dick Francis, and others. When I was a teenager, I started reading work by Puerto Rican and Caribbean women writers that really woke up my eyes to the magical and mysterious world that is the Caribbean. I was also always really fascinated by the fact that the Afro-Caribbean religions were regarded with fear by most of the people I knew growing up. Or, on the other hand, people negated their existence altogether.  But the more I discovered about them, the more they fascinated me. I think, in general and this applies beyond my interest in Afro-Caribbean religio-magical practices, I am really intrigued by surfaces that seem commonplace with little cracks or flaws and, the more you explore the cracks, the more you see that the apparently commonplace surfaces are just facades behind which lie completely different realities.

Q: You’re a professor specializing in Latino literature. What can we do to encourage more people to read Hispanic literature?

Well, I think the publishing world needs to recognize that there is a large population of Latino readers with diverse tastes and interests and that they may not be tapping that diversity. Some Latino readers don’t want to read books that are about growing up Latino because they feel they know that, they lived it; they want to read mysteries, for example, not coming of age stories, and would like to read mysteries with Latino characters or that have strong Latino ambiences. I also think that works by Latino writers should be taught not just in Latino and Caribbean literature classes, but in all kinds of literature classes ranging from American literature to classes with more thematic focuses.

Di Iorio is making several appearances in support of her book, including Oct. 24 at the Barnes and Noble in New York City’s Upper West Side. Click here for more information.

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Book review: Héctor Tobar’s “The Barbarian Nurseries”

Héctor Tobar’s novel, The Barbarian Nurseries (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) covers everything from the immigration debate to suburban angst – and he does it brilliantly.

His novel centers on Scott and Maureen Torres-Thompson, an Orange County couple who have it all – a beautiful home with an ocean view, two bright sons who go to private school and loads of debt. They’ve laid off their gardener and nanny, but have retained their housekeeper, Araceli, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico City who works for them for $250 a week and housing.

After the couple has an intense argument, Araceli is left alone with the two boys, Brandon, 11, and Keenan, 8. Through a series of circumstances, she finds herself lost in the labyrinth that is Los Angeles – and facing serious consequences that she barely understands.

Scott and Maureen also question their lifestyles. As Maureen, a stay-at-home mom, says of Araceli, “I have allowed this person to live in my home for four years without once having a substantial conversation about where she is from, about her brothers and sisters, or about how she got here.”

The book starts off slowly, but once it gets going, you don’t want to stop reading. Tobar, a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter for The Los Angeles Times, keeps the plot tight while zinging ambitious lawyers and politicians, angry white conservatives, do-gooder liberals, and the sensational media along the way. He writes the female characters well, making Araceli a complex character with ambitions beyond cleaning homes. Tobar even nails a romantic scene. Can we give this man another Pulitzer Prize?

More about Héctor Tobar:

• Tobar, the son of Guatemalan immigrants, writes a weekly column for The Los Angeles Times.

• Tobar is scheduled to make about a dozen appearances across the country in support of his book.

In this NPR profile, Tobar discusses the inspiration for the book.

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In the News

• Writer Sandra Cisneros (pictured at right) will be featured in HBO’s documentary, The Latino List, which premieres tonight. Other Hispanics profiled in the show include former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, actress Eva Longoria and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayer.

Cristina García, as well as dozens of other young adult novelists, will appear at the Austin Teen Book Festival Saturday. Garcia’s latest book, The Dreams of Siginificant Girls (Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers), was released earlier this year.

Héctor Tobar’s critically acclaimed novel, The Barbarian Nurseries (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), comes out on Tuesday. The Hispanic Reader will post a review the same day.

• Also on Tuesday, Luis J. Rodriguez will release It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing (Touchstone), a sequel to his book, Always Running.

• Rodriguez will be one of several speakers during the 6th Annual San Diego City College Int’l Book Fair Monday-Oct. 8. The event will also include a discussion on “Chicano Poetics: the Enduring Experience and Perspective,” with poets Manuél J. Velez, Angel Sandoval and Manuel Paul López.

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Meet novelist Guadalupe Garcia McCall

The seeds for Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s career as a novelist began in school, when her teachers encouraged her to become a writer. McCall’s first young adult novel, Under the Mesquite, was published earlier this month by Lee & Low Books.

McCall was born in Mexico and grew up in Eagle Pass. She is working on a second young adult novel and her poetry has been published in several literary journals. She also works as a junior high English teacher.

Q: Tell me more about your book, Under the Mesquite.

Under the Mesquite is a novel in verse, which came about because my editor, Emily Hazel, came across a small collection of poems I had submitted to Lee & Low. The poems were nothing more than small vignettes, glimpses of my life on the border, but Emily loved the poems so much she asked if I would work with her on turning the collection into a book. I agreed and thus began a three-year journey. Through several revisions, Emily and I decided to make it a work of fiction to allow for more freedom in the creative process.

Under the Mesquite is the story of Lupita, a young Mexican-American girl living the American dream, trying to fit in, dealing with normal teenage angst, until she learns her mother has cancer. The news devastates the family, but Lupita is determined to do whatever it takes to help Mami get better, and that includes taking on the role of parents while her parents travel to Galveston for her mother’s treatments. Unfortunately, life gets harder and harder, and Lupita’s journey is long and painful. However, because she is strong in love and faith, Lupita learns to cope and ultimately survive this difficult time in her life.

Q: What inspired you to become a writer?

Both my parents were an inspiration to me. They were hard-working people, with little education, so they always stressed education for us. My parents wanted great things for each and every one of us. They always made sure we saw how special and talented we were. From an early age, they looked for and fostered our “qualities” or talents.

However, my teachers played an integral role in my desire to become a writer. My third grade teacher, Mr. Hernandez, read a story I wrote in Spanish and asked me if I was going to become a writer. That planted the seed. Then, in high school, Ms. Garcia and Ms. Urbina were convinced I had the talent to become published. Even Ms. Moses, my mentor and math teacher, wanted that for me. I’ll never forget that she gave me a Writer’s Digest book for my high school graduation. I have all my wonderful teachers to thank for this beautiful dream I am living. They planted and nurtured the seed within me. All I had to do was believe them.

Q: What Latino/a authors have been your biggest influence and why?

There are so many authors I admire. I love Sandra Cisneros and Gary Soto and Julia Alvarez. As far as fiction is concerned, the author I love reading is Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I love his One Hundred Years of Solitude. I’ve read and reread that book so many times, and yet, every time, it feels like the first time because there is so much depth to that book. Someday, I want to grow up to write just like him. However, I am especially fond of Pat Mora, who has such beautiful lyrical poetry for children. I love her Dizzy in Your Eyes. She is my inspiration and my idol and “Dia de los Ninos” (her celebration of family literary) is close to my heart.

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News from Latino authors

Chilean Ariel Dorfman (pictured at right) and Brazilian Paolo Coelho will release new books on Tuesday. Dorfman’s book, Feeding on Dreams (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), discusses his exile from Chile after the Pinochet coup. He will make several appearances across the country, including at the New York Public Library tonight. Coelho’s book, Aleph (Knopf), is a novel similar to his megabestselling, The Alchemist. The New York Times has a great article on Coelho, who discusses how Jorge Luis Borges inspired his work and why he loves Twitter.

• Author Sergio Troncoso writes about his life – from growing up on the El Paso/Mexico border to studying at an Ivy League college –  in his new book, Crossing Borders: Personal Essays (Arte Público Press), out on Friday. He spoke with KUHF, the Houston NPR station, about the book.

Outside the Bones, a mystery with Afro-Carribbean elements written by Puerto Rican Lyn Di Iorio, will be published Friday by Arte Público Press.

• The West Hollywood Book Fair will take place Sunday. David A. Hernandez, Melinda Palacio, Felice Picano, Héctor Tobar, Justin Torres and Marcos M. Villatoro are scheduled to speak.

Kami Garcia (pictured at left), co-author of the Beautiful Chaos books, will speak at the Orange Country Children’s Book Festival on Sunday in Costa Mesa, Calif. Beautiful Darkness, written with Margaret Stohl, came out earlier this month in paperback.

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News from Latino authors

Here’s some news happening this week with Latino authors:

• Cuban-American author Alisa Valdes (formerly Valdes-Rodriguez) released her third book in The Dirty Girls Social Club series, Lauren’s Saints of Dirty Faith, this week. She’s selling the novel by e-book and paperback through an online merchant instead of through traditional bookstores. An excerpt of the book can be found in the October issue of Latina magazine.

The Guardian reported that Colombian Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez’s 1996 book, News of a Kidnapping, has been selling out in Tehran because it has drawn similarities to kidnappings in Iran.

• Puerto Rican writer Justin Torres continues to get critical acclaim for his book We the Animals, and, as this Reuters article points out, he has made it to the New York Times bestsellers chart.

• A campaign to bring a Latino-oriented bookstore, called La Casa Azul, to East Harlem has drawn attention from the Shelf Awareness e-newsletter and the Huffington Post. The owner hopes to raise $40,000, which an anonymous donor will match.

• Brazilian Paulo Coelho, (pictured at right) author of one of the mega-bestselling book, The Alchemist, will release his latest novel, Aleph, on Sept. 26.

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Book Review: Justin Torres’s “We the Animals”

Justin Torres’s debut novel, We the Animals, can be described in one word – wow.

The book is a series of short vignettes about three brothers – half-Puerto Rican, half-white – growing up in upstate New York. The narrator begins the book using “we” as he describes the boys’ exploits around their neighborhood. The title’s metaphor is perfect, as demonstrated in the book’s opening lines:

“We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV til our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more,” he writes in the poetic first story, “We Wanted Everything.”

The book starts out with stories that are funny and innocent, just like the boys. But life gets tougher for the children, especially as their young mother and father experience stressful jobs and marital problems. Torres’s dialogue and descriptions are so real that you feel like you’re in the room with the family.

Sometimes, the scenes can get stark.

“You talking about escaping?” Ma asked.

“Nobody,” Papa said. “Not us. Not them. Nobody’s ever escaping this.”

As the boys get older, the narrator uses “I” instead of “we” as he emerges as the smarter, more responsible brother. But the book – and the title’s metaphor – takes on an unexpected and disturbing tone as the family discovers a secret about the narrator.

We the Animals is a thin book – only 125 pages – that readers will zip through in a couple of hours. But the memories of the book will last with them.

More about Justin Torres:

• An interview with Torres and excerpt from the book can be found on “The Diane Rehm Show” website.

• Torres talked about his short story, “Reverting to a Wild State,” to The New Yorker.

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A look at fall books

Many publications have released their list of “hot fall books,” and Hispanic authors are nowhere to be seen.

They’re not on BookPage’s list. Not on the Atlantic’s list. Not on New York’s list. This is odd, since there are some interesting books coming out by Hispanic authors this fall. They include:

Justin Torres’s We the Animals, about three boys raised by a Puerto Rican father and a white mother, is already out. He has gotten a lot of media attention, as noted by Syracuse.com, and the Shelf Awareness e-newsletter.

 

 

Ariel Dorfman, the author of Death and the Maiden, writes about his life after the 1973 Chilean coup in Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of a Unrepetent Exile. The book will be released in September.

 

 

• Ballet dancer Jock Soto, who is half Puerto Rican and half American Indian, discusses his life and career in Every Step You Take, out in October.

 

 

 

The Barbarian Nurseries, coming out in October, centers on a Los Angeles family and their Mexican maid. Author Hector Tobar, whose parents are Guatemalan, writes a column for The Los Angeles Times. (And kudos to More magazine, which put the novel on its fall books list.)

 

 

• Texan Dagoberto Gilb’s collection of short stories, Before the End, After the Beginning, comes out in November.

 

 

 

• Mexican-American Luis Alberto Urrea will release Queen of America, his sequel to The Hummingbird’s Daughter, in December.

Do you notice something missing from this list? Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any books coming out from Latinas. If you know of any other fall books, let me know at Hispanicreader (at) gmail (dot) com.

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Book review: Esmeralda Santiago’s “Conquistadora”

Conquistadora is the tale of a strong, feminist Latina living in the wrong century.

Esmeralda Santiago, best known for her 1994 memoir When I Was Puerto Rican, has written the epic story of Ana Larragoity Cubillas, a 19th century Spainard who yearns to live an adventurous life overseas after reading the journals of her ancestors who traveled to the New World three centuries earlier. At the age of 18, she convinces her husband, Ramón, and his identical twin brother, Inocente, to run a sugar cane plantation in Puerto Rico.

“I don’t expect to be happy all the time,” Ana tells a friend. “I’d rather be surprised by one moment every so often to remind me that joy is possible, even if I have to pay for it later.”

Good thing she has that attitude because, over the course of two decades, Ana endures the death of loved ones, adultery, family disputes, a fatal cholera epidemic, and bad accounting practices. But Ana leads the large plantation to success, employing more than seventy-five workers – many of them slaves. At the same time, the United States is in the midst of the Civil War over its slaves. Some of Ana’s family members support abolition in Puerto Rico, and the slaves’ uprising leads to the story’s tragic conclusion.

But readers can be tested to reach the ending of this thick book. The story drags at times – especially when Santiago provides historical background that, while providing context, makes the novel seem like a history book. Still, readers will keep turning the pages because they will want to know how Ana handles the next obstacle in her way.

More on Esmeralda Santiago:

• Santiago talked about and read from her book to PBS Newshour earlier this month.

• She wrote an essay about retirement for AARP VIVA.

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Book Review: Francisco Goldman’s “Say Her Name”

Francisco Goldman has turned his pain into one of the most eloquent and most praised novels of the year.

Goldman writes about his young wife’s death in the book, Say Her Name. Goldman was married to Aura Estrada, a Ph.D. candidate in literature who died in a swimming accident in 2007, and he keeps their names and many real life incidents in the novel.

In the book, he describes their first meeting, their difficult families, and their lives spent in New York City and Mexico. The first hundred pages are particularly riveting and, although the subject can be heavy, Goldman’s details make the reader know the characters intimately and feel Francisco’s heartache. Many times Goldman sounds like a teenage boy who can’t believe his crush likes him back – such as this passage in the beginning of their relationship, when he calls Aura and her roommate answers the phone:

“She had a young cheerful voice that came through the phone line like a fresh breeze of spring. Aura was in the shower, she told me. She was in the shower. That phrase evoked so much – it was about six or seven on a weekday evening, normally not an hour for showering unless she was going out, most likely on a date, or whatever it is, I thought grad students call ‘dates.’ Even now it hurts to imagine her engaged in that sweet ritual for anyone other than me: coming out of the bathroom with her hair turbaned in a towel, another wrapped around her torso, choosing her dress, blow-drying her hair, putting on the dress, studying herself in the mirror, applying makeup, taking off the dress and putting on another – one that’s less pretty and sexy but that’s in a way that covers the yin-yang-faced sun-moon tattoo on her chest above her left breasted that she’s had since she was fifteen – reapplying her lip gloss with a Zen calligrapher’s perfect touch, padding around the apartment in still bare or stockinged feet, in that state of restrained excitement just before going out into the night.”

Looking back on her life, Goldman is charmed even by Aura’s annoying characteristics – such as her habit of losing or forgetting things. And his grief is so profound, he kisses a tree that he walks by every day because he imagines seeing her face on it, and he even goes out in the middle of a frigid night because he had forgotten to kiss the tree earlier that day.

Just as Goldman is haunted by his wife’s memories, readers will be haunted by his words.

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