Category Archives: Classic Books

Classic book review: Helena María Viramontes’ “Under the Feet of Jesus”

under_the_feet_of_jesusUnder the Feet of Jesus by Helena María Viramontes has been hailed as one of the great books of Latino literature with its lyrical prose and depiction of the struggles of farmworkers. But to me, it was challenging to read.

The 1995 novel follows a family of migrants as they move from one farm to another, looking for work. Petra is the mother, who is accompanied by her much older companion, Perfecto, and her children, including a pair of twins and her daughter, Estrella.

Estrella soon becomes smitten with a young man named Alejo. It’s a hopeful sign in a life filled with struggle. Biplanes fly over the fields, spewing pesticide over the farmworkers. Alejo soon becomes sick.

At times, Viramontes’ descriptions are absolutely breathtaking. Take this scene with Estrella in the fields.

“Carrying the full basket to the paper was not like the picture on the red raisin boxes Estrella saw in the markets, not like the woman wearing a fluffy bonnet, holding out the grapes with her smiling, ruby lips, the sun a flat orange behind her. The sun was white and it made Estrella’s eyes sting like an onion, and the baskets of grapes resisted her muscles, pulling their magnetic weight back to the earth. The woman with the red bonnet did not know this.”

But the book moves so slowly. Instead of a well-paced plot, Viramontes spends most of the times describing little things and creating metaphors. Take this scene at a clinic:

“There was a row of glass jars filled with flat tongue depressors that reminded them of fat ice cream sticks, gauze pads and cottons swabs on skinny wooden sticks that looked like the legs of ballet dances in tan nylons and white shoes; thermometers in a glass tube and a big jar of cotton balls.”

That’s some nice imagery, but it doesn’t tell me anything. Fortunately, that passage in the clinic turns into the most riveting scene in the book. The family only has $9.07 to its name and a car with no gas, and they must seek medical help for Alejo – forcing Estrella makes a drastic move to get help. I finally was swept up in the novel.

For readers who love descriptions and metaphors, this is a great book for them. But readers like me who prefer a strong plot will find this book frustrating.

HelenaMariaViramontesMore about Helena María Viramontes:

A California native, Viramontes also wrote The Moths and Other Stories and Their Dogs Came With Them, and co-edited Chicana (W)rites: On Word and Film and Chicana Creativity and Criticism with Maria Herrera Sobek.

Source: I checked this book out of the library.

And this marks the end of my 2012 reading challenge of classic books by Latinas. My reading challenge for 2013 is classic Latino novels. Check out this list of books about the farmworkers movement.

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Classic book review: Alisa Valdes’ “The Dirty Girls Social Club”

the-dirty-girls-social-clubYou know how you have that friend that’s funny and entertaining, but sometimes they’re annoying, too? The Dirty Girls Social Club by Alisa Valdes is like that friend.

Social Club, which was released in 2003, focuses on six friends in their late 20s in Boston who met in college and reunite several times a year. The characters are Lauren, the newspaper columnist looking for love; Rebecca, the uptight magazine editor stuck in a stale marriage; Elizabeth, the newscaster with a secret; Sara, the stay-at-home mom in denial about her abusive marriage; Usnavys, the non-profit executive who is torn over her relationship with a man who makes less money than her; and Amber, the musician who is active in the Mexica movement and later changes her name to Cuicatl.

The book has been frequently referred to as a Latina Sex and the City or Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan because of its depiction of strong female friendship. But it’s unique in its depiction of Latina in high-powered professional roles.

Valdes, a former newspaper reporter, writes clearly, so it’s an easy read. One scene in which Sara’s life is in danger is particularly gripping. Valdes has a knack for depicting women’s complex feelings and personalities, and she can nail some funny moments.

Take this scene in which Lauren found out some bad news:

“I feel like killing myself. I stop at the corner Korean market and buy a bag of Hot Cheetos, a carton of powdered sugar donuts, three chocolate bars, and a can of Pringles.”

Or this conversation between two of the characters:

“Back in college, you remember that trip we all took to Cancún for spring, you, me, Roberto, that guy Gerald I was dating, Lauren and that one guy, whatever his name was?”

“Alberto. Pimple man.”

“Alberto. Zits galore. Him.”

But some things tested my patience. The exposition takes too long. The character of Usnavys is so shallow that she’s hard to like. And considering the book takes place in a six-month span, the ending wraps up just a bit too tidy.

Still, just like that friend who can be annoying, Dirty Girls Social Club is also something that can be fun and rewarding.

Alisa ValdesMore about Alisa Valdes:

Cuban-American, New Mexico-based Alisa Valdes’ newest book is the just-released The Feminist and the Cowboy. She’s written two sequels to The Dirty Girls Social Club – Dirty Girls on Top and Lauren’s Saints of Dirty Faith, as well as a cooking blog, in addition to other novels.

Source: I checked this book out of the library.

Note: This review is part of a series of classic books by Latinas, which I’m catching up from last year. Next up: Under the Feet of Jesus by Helena María Viramontes.

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Classic book review: Michele Serros’ “Chicana Falsa”

chicana-falsaMichele Serros can say a lot in just a few words.

In the 88 pages of her 1993 book of poems and stories Chicana Falsa, she writes about cultural identity, adolescent angst and the quirks of human relationships. In one poem, she shows the consequences of gang violence in just 37 words.

Her poetry is easy to read and, even better for a challenging genre, fun to read. Her poems feature great characters that you would know in real life – the lone Chicana in the gym who “the whole time/I am thinking of/that double-cheese/Chimichanga Supreme/I’m gonna pick up/On the way home”; a worker who gets what she want, including larger cubicle space and extended lunches; and a Chicana who’s yearns to speak Spanish so “I’ll be a perfected ‘r’ rolling/tilde-using Spanish speaker/A true Mexican!”

But her stories are universal. Serros understands the neurotic tendencies of humans very well. In one story, the narrator sticks with some friends just for the free stuff she gets from them. Another story features a family that holds grudges against each other over petty incidents.

The book begins and ends with stories about Serros’ mother, who encouraged her to be a writer – even buying her a desk. Serros grew up wanting to be an author, and she finally starting writing after her mother’s death at an early age. “The purpose? To make someone happy, inspired.” Serros succeeded because reading this book will make readers feel that way.

Michele SerrosMore about Michele Serros:

A California native, Serros has written the books How to Be a Chicana Role Model, Honey Blonde Chica and ¡Scandalosa! A Honey Blonde Chica Novel, as well as for The George Lopez Show TV show and other publications.

Source: I won this book in a giveaway on Serros’ Facebook page for my random knowledge of Santa Barbara, Calif. Thanks, Michele!

Note: This book is part of my series of books by Latina writers that I began last year. Yes, I know I’m way behind. Next up: Alisa Valdes’ The Dirty Girls Social Club.

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Classic book review: Rudolfo Anaya’s “Bless Me, Ultima”

BlessMeUltimaCoverIt’s easy to see why Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima has become one of Latino literature’s greatest classics and a well-read book in the classroom. The story of one boy’s struggle to find faith touches readers on a personal and cultural level.

Ultima was first published in 1972 by a small press, then grew in popularity through the decades – and has been the subject of banning at schools due to profanity. The book has been made into a movie that will be released this year.

The book is told through the eyes of 6-year-old Antonio Marez, who lives in rural New Mexico with his family in the 1940s. His mother wants him to become a priest, hoping for a more stable life than his brothers and some of the other villagers. The family invites Ultima, an elderly curandera, to live with them and she makes an instant connection with Antonio.

Antonio begins having visions as his town experiences some tough situations – including a shooting he witnesses. Some townspeople are angry at Ultima, accusing her of being a bruja who places curses on others.

But Ultima also heals people. As he undergoes his First Communion, Antonio begins to question his Catholic faith.

“I had been thinking how Ultima’s medicine had cured my uncle and how he was well and could work again. I had been thinking how the medicine of the doctors and of the priest had failed. In my mind I could not understand how the power of God had failed. But it had.”

The book is a fast read, with a well-paced plot and vivid descriptions about the land. Anaya also balances the dramatic passages with funny scenes at a Christmas pageant and Holy Communion.

Many Latinos – such as novelist Julia Amante, La Casa Azul bookseller Aurora Anaya-Cerda and writer Richard Yañez and others in a series of essays in the El Paso Times – cite this as one of their favorite books because they saw themselves depicted in the novel.

Bless Me, Ultima features some of the most prominent elements of Latino literature and the universal themes such as the importance of family and the toughness of growing up. Little wonder why it’s a classic.

Rudulfo AnayaMore about Rudolfo Anaya:

Anaya wrote Bless Me Ultima while working as a teacher in New Mexico in the 1960s. He went on to write many other books, including Alburquerque and the Sonny Baca mystery series, and he is considered the father of the Chicano literary movement.

Source: I checked this book out of the library.

Note: This is the first in my series of reviews of great Latino novels. Next up: The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges.  

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Classic book review: Esmeralda Santiago’s “When I Was Puerto Rican”

Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican (De Capo Press) is a beautiful book – one whose beauty often comes from deep pain.

The book is a memoir of Santiago’s early childhood in Puerto Rico, where the country dwellers are called jibaros. She grew up poor, describing her home as “a rectangle of rippled metal sheets on stilts hovering in the middle of a circle of red dirt.”

Through the years, young Esmeralda – called Negi by her parents because she was so dark as a baby – moves from the country to the city and, eventually, to Brooklyn – as her unmarried parents separate and reunite repeatedly. Negi takes care of her seven younger siblings as she experiences school, impending womanhood and, in one amusing chapter, the food program from the United States.

The book’s strength comes from Santiago’s style of writing – so simple that the book is a fast read, yet so elegant in its gorgeous and inventive descriptions.

Take this passage when Santiago’s family flies to New York City:

“Several times I bumped into Mami as I walked backwards, unwilling to face the metal bird that would whisk us to our new life … Neither one of us could have known what lay ahead. For her it began as an adventure and turned out to have more twists and turns than she expected or knew how to handle. For me, the person I was becoming when we left was erased and another one was created. The Puerto Rican jibara who longed for the green quiet of a tropical afternoon was to become a hybrid who would never forgive the uprooting.”

Although Santiago never feels sorry for herself, my heart broke for her all that she had to through in her young life. Fortunately, the great ending makes you grateful you went on the tough journey with her.

More about Esmeralda Santiago:

When I Was Puerto Rican was Santiago’s first book. She wrote two sequels, Almost a Woman and The Turkish Lover, as well as several novels, including America’s Dream and Conquistadora.

Source: I purchased this book at Barnes and Noble.

Note: This review is part of a series of classic books by Latinas. (I’m running a bit behind.) Next up: Chicana Falsa by Michelle Serros.

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Classic book review: Pam Muñoz Ryan’s “Esperanza Rising”

Pam Muñoz Ryan’s 2000 book, Esperanza Rising, is a young adult novel set in the 1920s, but readers of all ages will enjoy reading this story with its themes and issues that resonate today.

Esperanza Ortega is about to celebrate her 13th birthday on her family’s luxurious ranch when her family faces a series of tragic circumstances. As the revolution rages in Mexico, her mother decides they must go to the United States and work the fields. Esperanza quickly learns she must adjust to a new life, which includes living in a cramped two-room home with five other people and working the fields with workers who want to strike for better working conditions.

Muñoz Ryan writes beautifully with great descriptions of the land, but the novel’s greatest strength is its way of introducing relevant social issues – such as racism and immigration – to young people.

For example, Esperanza and her family go out of their way to a Japanese merchant because he treats them well, even stocking up cow’s intestines for menudo.

As her friend Miguel says:

“Americans see us as one big, brown group who are good for only manual labor. At this market, no one stares at us or treats us like outsiders or call us ‘dirty greasers.’ My father says that Mr. Yakota is a very smart businessman. He is getting rich on other people’s bad manners.”

As Esperanza accepts her new life, she also thinks about other people – such as the way workers were treated during a raid by immigration officials.

“Some of these people did not deserve their fate today. How was it that the United States could send people to Mexico who had never even lived there?”

Esperanza Rising won the Pura Belpré Medal – which honors works for youth by Latino authors – and it deserved it. It’s a great book with a strong character that young adults will identify with.

More about Pam Muñoz Ryan:

Pam Muñoz Ryan was inspired to write Esperanza Rising for her grandmother, also name Esperanza Ortega, who came from Mexico to the United States to pick the fields. The California native also has written Riding Freedom, Becoming Naomi León and The Dreamer, as well as numerous picture books.

Source: I checked this book out of the library.

Note: This book is part of the series of classic books by Latina authors. Next up: Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican.

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Classic book review: Cristina García’s “Dreaming in Cuban”

Cristina Garcia’s 1993 novel Dreaming in Cuban shows life under Fidel Castro’s rule from the point of view of three generations of strong women.

The del Pino family is led by Celia, who spends her last days patrolling the Cuban seas from any attacks from foreign invaders while memories of her past invade her mind. Celia has two daughters – Felicia, who faces abuse by her husband, and Lourdes, who goes to New York City and runs a successful business. Lourdes has a daughter, Pilar, who as a child of the late 1970s, rebels against her mother and yearns to go back to Cuba.

Occasionally, a male voice – such as Ivanito, Felicia’s son, gets a few pages – but this story is clearly about the women.

Garcia writes wonderfully descriptive passages, including the beginning of the book when Celia is out by the sea and sees her husband: “His blue eyes are like lasers in the night. The beams bounce off his fingernails, five hard blue shields. They scan the beach, illuminating shells and sleeping gulls, then focus on her.” The book also has some great observations about life. “Everything is mixed up, as if parts of me are turning in different directions at once,” Ivanito says.

But the book is challenging to read. The story is told in fragments, jumping back and forth in time and from narrator to narrator and from first person to third person. The mood of the book is mostly heavy – especially Felicia’s passages, so it’s a relief when Pilar comes along in with her wry observations or when Celia judges family disputes as head of the People’s Court. But, much of the time, the book drags because it doesn’t have a linear storyline that keeps the reader riveted.

If you like books with great description, Dreaming in Cuban is something you might enjoy. But it may be a frustrating read for those who prefer a strong plot.

More about Cristina Garcia:

Cristina García has written numerous novels, including The Lady Matador’s Hotel and, most recently, the young adult novel, Dreams of Significant Girls. Like the character Pilar, she grew up in New York City and attended Barnard College.

Source: I checked this book out of the library.

Note: This book is part of the series of classic books by Latina authors. Next up: Lorraine López’s The Realm of Hungry Spirits.

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Classic book review: Laura Esquivel’s “Like Water for Chocolate”

In the early 1990s, Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies by Laura Esquivel was one of the most popular books in the world, thanks to a well-made movie and an intriguing love story. Its popularity was well-earned.

The main character, Tita, has been told that she must take care of her mother Mama Elena in her old age – denying her a chance to be with Pedro, who has declared his love for her. He agrees to marry her older sister, Rosaura, so he can be closer to her.

While Pedro and Rosaura are raising a family and the revolution rages in Mexico, Tita is running the family ranch. The events of her life push her to feel “‘like water for chocolate’ – she was on the verge for boiling over.’”

In fact, her volatile emotions are felt in the meals she cooks for her family – causing those who eat her food to feel the same emotions she does. (The recipes are printed at the beginning of each of the 12 chapters, although they seem too elaborate to cook.)

Although it’s story about love, Like Water is also interesting when depicting family dynamics and early feminism. Mama Elena is portrayed as a domineering woman who rules the household, and Tita questions why the youngest daughter has to take care of the mother. Here’s one great passage that describes her life:

“At her mother’s, what she had to do with her hands was strictly determined, no questions asked. She had to get up, get dressed, get the fire going in the stove, fix breakfast, feed the animals, wash the dishes, make the beds, fix lunch, wash the dishes, iron the clothes, fix dinner, wash the dishes, day after day, year after year. Without pausing for a moment, without wondering if this is what she wanted.”

I’m not always a big fan of magic realism, but it works well in this novel because, oddly, it seems natural. This is a great book that – thanks to its creativity and strong heroine – is as satisfying as one of its meals.

More about Laura Esquivel: Laura Esquivel, who lives in Mexico City, is a former teacher who also has written the books The Law of Love, Between Two Fires: Intimate Writings on Life, Love, Food, and Flavor and Malinche. The book was translated by Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen.

Note: This is part of a series of classic books written by Latinas. Next up: Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban. (Yes, I’m running a bit behind.)

Source: I bought a hardcover version of this book for $1 at a thrift store. Don’t you love it when that happens?

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Classic book review: Denise Chávez’s “Loving Pedro Infante”

Denise Chávez’s 2001 Loving Pedro Infante is one of those books that becomes your friend.

Tere Avila is an “educational assistant” – teacher’s aide – in Cabritoville, near El Paso. She’s a divorced, 30-something woman who spends her time hanging out with her best friend, Irma, at Tino’s La Tempestad Lounge every Friday and Saturday night and serving as secretary in the Pedro Infante Fan Club, whose members watch the Mexican actor’s old movies from the 1940s and 1950s and analyze them as though they were in an English literature class.

Tere’s ordinary, somewhat lonely, life gets a jolt when she starts an affair with Lucio Valadez, a married man whose daughter attends the school she works at.

Sounds like an ordinary plot, right? But what makes Pedro Infante so wonderful is Chávez’s writing. Tere speaks to the reader in first person, and the conversational tone makes you sympathize with her, laugh with her and, at times, want to scold her. (Fortunately, Irma does that for us.) Think of it as a Mexican version of Bridget Jones’s Diary or a small town Sex and the City.

The minutes from the Pedro Infante Fan Club meetings are particularly hilarious, but here’s some of the better lines:

On her love for Lucio: “There’s nothing a Mejicano or Mejicana loves more than the burning, stinging pain of thwarted, frustrated, hopeless, soulful, take-it-to-the-grave love. Nothing gets us going more than what I call rabia/love of the te-juro-you’re-going-to-pay-for-all-the-suffering-you-caused-me variety.”

On visiting a curandera’s house in a poor neighborhood: “Doña Meche was one of the richest women in Cabritoville. … She loved to invest in the stock market. Oh yeah? Well, invest in your neighborhood, and your yard, girl!”

On a visit to the bathroom with Irma: “I could hear Irma’s spurty but intense urine stream. She was a fast pisser and in this session she outdid herself. I could barely keep up with her, and I flushed early to make a number of deep growly farts.”

I absolutely loved Loving Pedro Infante. Please stop what you’re doing and go read it now.

More about Denise Chávez:

• A native of New Mexico, Denise Chávez has also written A Taco Testimony: Meditations on Family, Food and Culture, Face of An Angel and The Last of the Menu Girls. She is the director of The Border Book Festival, which will take place Thursday-Sunday in Mesilla, New Mexico.

Source: I checked this book out of the library.

This book is fourth in the series of classic books by Latina authors. Next month: Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate.

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Classic book review: Ana Castillo’s “So Far From God”

I was so close to loving Ana Castillo’s 1993 novel So Far From God.

So Far From God takes place in a small village in New Mexico, where Sofi is taking care of her four daughters after her husband Domingo has left her. There’s Esperanza, the oldest daughter who works as a television reporter in the Middle East; Fe, who suffers a nervous breakdown when her engagement ends; Caridad, who is attacked by a mysterious creature, ends up living in a cave and becomes a saint to villagers because they believe she has special powers; and La Loca, who dies as an toddler, but wakes up during her own funeral and lands on the church’s roof.

And that’s just the first four chapters, folks.

This book reminded me of Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, which also focused on four daughters in a non-linear story. But Garcia Girls is a realistic book and, if you couldn’t tell already, So Far From God uses vast amounts of magic realism and myth.

Sofi is the backbone of the family, running the family’s carnicería and even becoming the leader of her small village. Castillo keeps a light, conversational tone throughout the book even when the women suffer through some terrible tragedies.

As Sofi says, “God gave me four daughters, and you would have thought that by now I would be a content grandmother, sitting back and letting my daughters care for me, bringing me nothing but their babies on Sundays to rock on my lap! But no, not my hijitas! I had to produce the kinds of species that flies!”

I enjoyed the stories and I liked Castillo’s sense of humor. But Castillo packs so much into her sentences that I had to reread them and hunt for the verb. I was also annoyed by her frequent use of double negatives. I would accept this – reluctantly – if the book had a strong first person narrator or if it was used in the dialogue, but I didn’t think they were necessary. In fact, wanted to stab the book with a red pen so the double negatives would bleed to death.

So, I just liked So Far From God when I could have loved it.

More about Ana Castillo:

Ana Castillo is a Mexican-American author who has written numerous books and poems, including 1992’s The Mixquiahuala Letters and 1999’s Peel My Love Like an Onion. Her next book, The Last Goddess Standing, is expected to come out later this year.

Source: I checked this book out of the library.

This book is third in the series of classic books by Latina authors. Next month: Loving Pedro Infante by Denise Chávez.

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