Muerte en una estrella – Shooting Star: An excellent, disturbing novel in first English translation – #fiction #bookreview

 

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Muerte en Una Estrella – Shooting Star

Sergio D. Elizondo

English Translation by Rosaura Sánchez and Beatriz Pita

(Arte Público Presspaperback)

Available for the first time in English, this excellent and troubling bilingual novel imagines the dying thoughts of two Mexican youths after they were shot by Austin police in March, 1968, apparently while running away from a shouted order to “Halt!”

Originally published in 1984, the novel is a eulogy for Oscar Balboa, 16, and Valentín Rodriguez, 19, who were both unarmed and on leave from Camp Gary, a Job Corps training facility near San Marcos, Texas.

Their deaths occurred during a nationally troubled time that was rife with bigotry and racial discrimination. And Shooting Star gives some important insights into efforts and actions by the Chicano civil rights movement during that time period.

In the novel’s English translation, Oscar Balboa and  Valentín Rodriguez are described as “strutting icons of Raza manhood worthy of a guitar ballad.” And after they are shot, their dying thoughts cover a wide and often moving range of memories, thoughts and impressions. As one example, Oscar remembers coming north from Mexico to work in the fields, and he remembers taking part in farm worker protest marches with his father. Meanwhile, Valentín is not really sure if he has been shot or not, but he knows he cannot move, nor make Oscar hear him. And he feels what he thinks is dew on his back as he recalls some of his own life and his brief time with Oscar.

Shooting Star definitely is worthy of its praise as “a classic” in Mexican-American literature. This excellent first English translation will introduce the author and the book and its insights to many more readers.

Si Dunn

 

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The Valley – Estampas del valle: Now in bilingual paperback for the first time – #bookreview

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The Valley / Estampas del valle

Rolando Hinojosa

(Arte Público Press – paperback)

The long-turbulent Texas-Mexico border is in the news once again. So this is a timely moment to introduce or reintroduce readers to the famed Klail City Death Trip Series, fifteen books written by Rolando Hinojosa. The series is in a mythical Texas county on America’s southern frontier, in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

The first book in that series, The Valley, introduces readers to life in Belken County, where Anglo Texans and Mexican Texans live side by side, and people die, or encounter death, on nearly every page. Their stories of everyday events, including love, weddings, births, friendships, affairs, discrimination and dying, are told mostly in short, well-written vignettes that cover the time period generally from World War I to 1970.

Arte Público Press recently has published the first bilingual, English-Spanish edition of The Valley, which initially appeared as Estampas del Valle in the early 1970s. And this is a noteworthy literary event for fans of both Hispanic literature and American literature in general.

Rolando Hinojosa’s fictional Belken County has been compared very favorably with William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County and with Gabriel García Márquez’s fictional city, Macondo, in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Klail City is just one of several fictional towns in that appear as settings in Hinojosa’s imaginary county.

Hinojosa has spent his entire–lengthy–writing career bringing new characters, situations and locations to the Death Trip Series. And his books have won numerous prestigious writing awards, including The National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award and, in 1976, the most prestigious prize in Latin American Fiction, Casa de las Américanas, for the best  Spanish American novel. He is now a professor of creative writing at the University of Texas in Austin.

Si Dunn

 

Matzo Frogs – A hopping-good children’s book about acts of kindness – #bookreview #children’s books

Matzo Frogs

Sally Rosenthal (author) and David Sheldon (illustrations)

(NewSouth Books hardcover)

Matzo Frogs is a fun tale, delightfully told and superbly illustrated. It tells and shows how one act of kindness can lead to another:  “Mitzvah goreret mitzvah.”

The book has been created for children and for parents of children who are still learning to read. But adults also need to be reminded about the special powers of kindness and working together. Matzo Frogs can help with that task, too.

Matzo Frogs tells the story of kind-hearted Minnie Feinsilver. Her favorite cousins are coming over for Shabbat dinner, and Minnie is up early, fixing matzo ball soup. Unfortunately, Minnie has an accident and spills the soup. And she doesn’t have time to prepare a new batch. She has promised to spend the day helping a friend who is bedridden with a broken leg. So she goes off to do that good deed.

Her next-door neighbors, a colony of frogs living in a pond, know what has happened to Minnie, and they decide to help, to do a mitzvah, by preparing a new batch of matzo soup in her kitchen.

David Sheldon’s artwork brings the cooking adventure to hilarious life as the frogs hop into action, opening the recipe book, gathering the special ingredients, making the matzo balls, cooking the soup and jumping back home just before Minnie returns home to her surprise.

Minnie realizes that while she was out helping her friend, someone else has helped her by saving her Shabbat dinner for her cousins. And, when she finally figures out who did the mitzvah, she thanks them in a kind and special way.

The book’s author, Sally Rosenthal, is an Emmy Award-winning documentary film producer. Matzo Frogs is her first book. The illustrator, David Sheldon, has created artwork for more than 80 children’s books.

By the way, if you are hungry for some matzo soup but don’t want to gather  up and cook the ingredients or wait for kind frogs to fix it for you, here’s a link to a well-known packaged mix.

Si Dunn

 

 

 

2014 Poet’s Market – Yes, you can get published and maybe even make (very little) money – #poetry #bookreview

2014 Poet’s Market

Edited by Robert Lee Brewer
(Writer’s Digest Books – paperback, Kindle)

C’mon, admit it. You hated poetry in high school, and you seldom read it now. Yet, you sometimes find yourself moved to write a poem–or at least attempt to. And you wonder if the ones you actually finish are good enough to get published.

The 27th annual edition of Poet’s Market shows how and where you can submit poems for possible publication (and, much rarer, possible payment for your work). The sites listed include The New Yorker (“which receives approximately 4,000 submissions per month”) and The New England Review (which receives 3,000 to 4,000 poetry submissions per year and accepts about 70 to 80).

Hundreds of other printed and online publications are covered, along with their submission procedures and the types of poetry they are seeking. For example, at the online publication Necrology Shorts: Tales of Macabre and Horror: “We expect deranged, warped, twisted, strange, sadistic, and things that question sanity and reality.”

The 505-page 2014 Writer’s Market contains interviews with poets, a quick and helpful overview of poetic forms, plus 15 fine, well-displayed poems to keep you inspired and/or jealous. And the book contains solid information on how to promote yourself as a poet and give effective poetry readings.

If you are serious about writing poetry–and even if you choose to self-publish your works–you will find a rich array of how-to’s, hints, cautionary tales, marketing tips and other worthwhile resources in the 2014 Poet’s Market.

Si Dunn

Book Briefs: Cormac McCarthy, Prehistoric Central Texas, Rio Grande border – #bookreview

Here are three specialized books for serious readers of specialized topics. The first provides a “comprehensive yet concise overview” of Cormac McCarthy’s “legacy in American literature.”  The second examines a 14th century civilization in Central Texas that “represents the last prehistoric peoples before the cultural upheaval introduced by European explorers.” And the third delves into the complex, often violent history of the Rio Grande border area that separates Mexico and the United States.

***

The Cambridge Companion to Cormac McCarthy
Edited by Steven Frye
(Cambridge University Press – paperback, hardback)

An “international team of McCarthy scholars” provide more than a dozen insightful essays that examine and analyze some of the prolific and reclusive author’s “best known and commonly taught novels,” as well as his “work in cinema, including the many adaptations of his novels to film.” Some of the titles reflected upon include The Road and All the Pretty Horses.

***

The Toyah Phase of Central Texas
Late Prehistoric Economic and Social Processes
Edited by Nancy A. Kenmotsu and Douglas K. Boyd
(Texas A&M University Press – hardback, Kindle)

In this important gathering of “studies and interpretive essays,” the editors and other contributors focus on a mobile, prehistoric society of hunter-gatherers whose culture “arose in and around the Edwards Plateau of Central Texas” and whose homeland covered much of Central Texas and South Texas in the 14th century. They were, the book contends, “never isolated from the world around them”–a world that included neighboring tribes and groups in northern Mexico and eastern New Mexico, plus newcomers such as the Apache and Comanche. Yet these “last prehistoric peoples” soon would have their culture changed and overturned by the arrival of European explorers.

***

River of Hope
Forging Identity and Nation in the Rio Grande Borderlands
Omar S. Valerio-Jiménez
(Duke University Press – paperback, hardback, Kindle)

America’s border with Mexico has a complex and troubled past, a complex and troubled present, and likely will have a complex and troubled future. In this thoughtful, well-researched study, Omar S. Valerio-Jiménez, an associate professor of history at the University of Iowa, focuses on how the people who lived in the border area during the 18th and 19th centuries fared as Spain, Mexico, and the United States all vied for control. Ultimately, Spanish colonists near the border became Mexican citizens but then became Americans, whether they wanted to or not, as political and military power shifted and territory changed hands. Meanwhile, those who were caught up in the seesaw battles did not “adopt singular colonial or national identities. Instead, their regionalism, transnational cultural practices, and kinship ties subverted state attempts to control and divide the population.” In short, they intermarried, formed defensive alliances (Mexican, Indian, and Anglo), and identified more with where they lived than with any distant capitol that allegedly controlled them.

Si Dunn

Lunch with Buddha – An entertaining, engrossing, thought-provoking American road-trip novel – #bookreview

Lunch with Buddha
Roland Merullo
(PFP/Ajar, Kindle, paperback)

To be honest, I was not really aware of Roland Merullo until his publisher contacted me offering a review copy of an enticingly titled new novel, Lunch with Buddha.

I could blame my “Who?” reaction on my intense focus toward reviewing technology books over the past two years. And I could blame it on empirical evidence that it’s really tough to sell works of fiction these days.

Indeed, several writers of novels and short story collections have told me they don’t get much publicity help from their publishers. Some also have declared they were taking up self-publishing so they could (a) get their books into print (or its digital equivalent), (b) keep more of their paltry earnings, and (c) try their hand at book promotion. Furthermore, I have data — very hard data — showing that virtually no one on Planet Earth has yet read my novel, Erwin’s Law, nor my experimental novella, Jump.

Thus, bottom line, I have not been paying very close attention to the world of fiction lately.

Immediately, I was impressed  (and jarred) to learn that (1) Roland Merullo’s seventh novel, Breakfast with Buddha, is now in its 14th printing; (2) Lunch with Buddha, published late last year, is his eleventh novel and already in its second printing; AND (3) Lunch with Buddha’s completion and publication was funded, at least in part, with significant Kickstarter contributions from Merullo fans.

Intriguingly, Roland Merullo turned down a six-figure advance from a major publishing house and chose a small, independent publisher to bring out his new book.

So he must be good, right?

He’s better than good, actually. Roland Merullo is one of the best, most entertaining writers I’ve encountered in a long time. Seldom am I hooked by a book’s first few paragraphs. But, in Lunch with Buddha, Merullo blends verbal calmness, clarity, wit and depth to create an engaging, absorbing story that flows smoothly from darkly humorous opening to meaningful end.

His new tale is a road-trip novel that covers an odd, yet very American, route: from Seattle to North Dakota, in a borrowed, battered pickup truck nicknamed “Uma.”

Otto Ringling, a New York editor of culinary books and recent widower, is taking the journey with reluctance, while searching for peace of mind and new meanings for his suddenly altered life.

His traveling companion on the drive is his sister’s former guru, “His Holiness” Volya Rinpoche, a Siberian “semi-Buddhist” who now is the sister’s husband and father of their young daughter, Shelsa. Volya still has many questions and misconceptions about life in these not-so-United States. But he also has an infectious spirit, an unshakable spirituality, and plenty of confidence that all will be well and work out in the end.

Otto, meanwhile, is just trying to get a renewed grip on existence. “One of the side effects of losing a spouse–at least for me–had been a peculiar inability to perform the most mundane tasks,” he says in the book, adding:

“Making plane and hotel reservations, shopping for food, setting out the trash on time–these duties, which ordinarily I would have completed with a practiced ease, now seemed as daunting as the learning of a Chinese dialect. I let things slide. For the first time in family history, bills were paid late. The dry cleaners had to call three times to remind me to pick up my shirts. My children could be harsh with me about these failings, but I took their casual criticisms like a battered old fighter takes punches. I would stand. I was determined to stand. I was determined to stay sane, and love them, and help them envision a new life after our old one had been ripped to pieces.”

While Otto and Volya drive across Washington state, Idaho, Montana, and into North Dakota, Otto’s sister, Cecelia, her young daughter Shelsa, and Otto’s children Anthony (20) and Natasha (22), are all riding Amtrak, taking a separate route. They’ve been to Whidbey Island, off the coast of Washington state, to witness Otto scattering his wife’s ashes. Now they are heading for Dickinson, North Dakota, where Celia and Volya live — in Otto’s view — “on the far side of some line that marked the boundary of ordinary American reality.”

Along the way, Otto and Volya have several humorous–and sometimes troubling–encounters with contemporary American culture and values. Otto, for example, tries to explain to Volya the meanings of some strange signs they see along the highway, such as “REPTILE ZOO AND EXPRESSO” and “EAT BIG FOOD.”

Otto and Volya also have debates over religion and spirituality as the widower seeks understandable meanings he can attach to life, death, and whatever lies beyond our mystery-shrouded finality. For example:

 “What is the goal?” I asked, trying to slip away from it. “What’s the whole point? Enlightenment? Eternal life? What?”

He patted me on the shoulder for the millionth time, and said, “You purify. You go and go. Life cuts you and you try and try and try and pretty soon–”

“You become beautiful.”

“Yes. Good.”

“But toward what are we going and going? What does the beauty look like?”

He shrugged almost helplessly, and for a moment I was gripped hard by the hand of doubt. He seemed only an ordinary man then, and I wanted more than that from him, more than cryptic answers and shrugs. A small inner voice suggested he’d been fooling us all these years, playing a role, maybe even working a scam.

“I can show you,” he said. “I can’t tell you.”

“All right. Please show me, then. I’m having a crisis of faith. I’m a little bit lost.”

He nodded sympathetically. “We find you,” he said. “Don’t worry too much….”

Lunch with Buddha has the same key characters as Roland Merullo’s best-selling Breakfast with Buddha. And a third book, aptly titled Dinner with Buddha, is said to be in the works.

Fortunately, Lunch is written so it can be picked up and immediately enjoyed by those who have not previously read Breakfast. Indeed, Lunch with Buddha will make many readers go back and devour Breakfast, then eagerly anticipate Dinner–and check out some of Roland Merullo’s other works of fiction and nonfiction while waiting for the next serving.

Geoffrey Chaucer and Jack Kerouac are the two names that  pop most quickly to mind when the debate topic is “classic road-trip novels.”  I move that we now add Roland Merullo to that short, but esteemed, list.

Si Dunn

The Silver Lotus – fine historical fiction by Thomas Steinbeck – #bookreview

The Silver Lotus
By Thomas Steinbeck
(Counterpoint, hardback, list price $25.00; Kindle, $9.99)

Written in the style and language of a 19th-century novel, The Silver Lotus is a grand, sweeping, absorbing tale of Pacific seafaring, romance, family, and business and cultural interactions that ultimately help spur the growth and development of the Northern California coast.

This elegant work of historical fiction has surprisingly little dialogue. Its author, Thomas Steinbeck, son of the great novelist John Steinbeck, relies, instead, on heavy doses of exposition. Yet The Silver Lotus remains an engrossing, well-written story throughout. And it is a refreshing change from books full of fast and furious action and characters who engage in taut exchanges of clever words, while revealing little about their feelings, emotions or sense of place.

Thomas Steinbeck’s novel begins in Canton, China, the late 1890s, in the home of Master Chu-Woo Yee, a man of “high moral principles.” He also is a successful grain merchant with profitable experience in “a great many [other] varieties of exported and imported goods.”

Master Yee allows very few foreigners into his home. But one of them fascinates and intrigues him: Captain Jeremiah Macy Hammond, “one of the last of a long line of the great Nantucket seamen.”

Steamships now have begun to dominate cross-ocean trade. Yet Captain Hammond continues to transport his cargoes under sail, for a very practical reason: profit. He has amassed a small fleet of schooners that can carry large cargoes while sailing inexpensively with only a few crewmen.

When political turmoil suddenly erupts in China, Captain Hammond uses two of his ships to help to move Master Yee, his family, and the Yee fortune to safety in Singapore. Soon, Captain Hammond and Master Yee’s beloved daughter, Silver Lotus, are in love, and Master Yee is in no position to refuse their marriage.

Lady Yee, as Silver Lotus is known, is a remarkable woman with many talents and interests, as well as uncommon beauty. Before their marriage, she informs Captain Hammond that if he chooses to go back to sea, she will “sail with him, and make her life and home by his side.”

In her honor, Captain Hammond repaints his newest ship his wife’s favorite colors, emerald green with yellow trim outlined in black, and rechristens it “The Silver Lotus.” And Lady Yee proves very adept at living at sea beside her husband. She takes “total interest in everything to do with her namesake, her crew, and her cargo.”

Despite its calm narrative and languid pace, Steinbeck’s book has plenty of action and tensions. There are encounters with pirates, sea storms, illnesses, racism, drug abuse, great wealth, and death. There also are dangerous rescues and glimpses into the intricacies and risks of seafaring commerce, as well as clashes over medical and immigration practices in early 20th-century California.

At one level, The Silver Lotus is simply old-fashioned, entertaining historical fiction, enjoyable to read. On another level, however, Thomas Steinbeck’s second novel is a modern, intelligent reflection on how the melding of cultures, talents, dreams and resources has been a driving force behind the growth and prosperity of Northern California, as well as the rest of the United States.

Si Dunn