A Latino/a Summer Reading List

A Baker's Dozen of great libros

By Daniel A. Olivas
Published on LatinoLA: July 16, 2003

A Latino/a Summer Reading List

Okay, summer isn?t quite done so there?s still a chance to make a reading list of fine literature to help you enjoy those hot, wonderful days at the beach, park, or your own backyard. I offer you a baker?s dozen of capsule reviews of some of my favorite books by Latino/a authors.

There are novels, poetry collections and books of short stories on this list which only scratches the surface of Latino/a literature. But I can?t spend all my time writing reviews! I gotta go read more books! So, in no particular order, here are thirteen books that will bring you great joy:

1. ?The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz? by Manuel Ramos (St Martin?s Press, 1995) Though I'm not one for buying up every new mystery novel that comes out each year, I had a particular interest in "The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz" by Manuel Ramos because, as with Ramos, I am an attorney, a Chicano and a fiction writer. Well, I wasn't disappointed. Because this is a mystery with a fine, surprising ending, let me just say that I enjoyed the voice of the hardened, divorced, booze-loving protagonist, Luis Montez, a solo practitioner who finds his old friends from El Movimiento?s school days dying all around him. Throw in a beautiful, mysterious Chicana and things really start hopping. This short, tight novel will keep you guessing until the last pages.

2. ?At the Rainbow? by Robert Vasquez (University of New Mexico Press, 1995) I had the opportunity to meet Robert Vasquez earlier this year because we participated on a poetry panel concerning Chicano poetics. He impressed me with his thoughtful and eloquent answers to the various questions from the small but intense audience. So, I bought his book, "At the Rainbow," and I'm delighted I did. His poems are rooted primarily in three things: his identity as a Chicano, his status as a Californian, and the natural world presented by the California terrain. One of my favorite poems is "California Sonnets: Night Sequence," where Vasquez paints a picture of Los Altos, California: "I look up at the night's broad back/gone crazy with tattoos of light, seasonal/signs almost beyond stoppage, and let/the unsayable build skyward." Or in "Coyotes" where Vasquez remembers that as a child, he found "a carcass, split open/and shelled of all gray/sponge-like organs, the heart/and lungs gone from this vest/of coyote...." This is a finely-crafted, powerful collection that will create living images of California in your mind's eye.

3. ?The Stories of Eva Luna? by Isabel Allende (Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1992) These hypnotic, strange and poetic stories deal with the darker side of love. In each tale, Isabel Allende paints mini-portraits of men and women who suffer from the twin-disease of passion and obsession. These stories will haunt you long after you've finished reading this book.

4. ?The Republic of East L.A.: Stories? by Luis J. Rodriguez (RAYO, 2003) Luis J. Rodriguez once again has painted a vibrant and complex picture of those who work, live, love and die in "The Republic of East L.A." Rodriguez's prose is straight-forward yet poetic as he tells us about the varied struggles of cholos/as, a budding journalist, a limousine driver, immigrants, working people, all sorts of gente. My favorite story is "Sometimes You Dance with a Watermelon," where forty-year-old Rosalba (an immigrant living in poverty and already a grandmother) needs to escape her crowded home to get a momentary bit of joy. She rouses her favorite granddaughter, Chila, and they drive to Grand Central Market where they buy a watermelon. Rosalba balances it on her head and starts to walk swaying "back and forth to a salsa beat thundering out of an appliance store." She and Chila get caught up in this joyous dance:

"Rosalba had not looked that happy in a long time as she danced along the bustling streets of the central city in her loose-fitting skirt and sandals. She danced in the shadow of a multi-storied Victorian -- dancing for one contemptuous husband and for another who was dead. She danced for a daughter who didn't love herself enough to truly have the love of another man. She danced for her grandchildren, especially that fireball Chila. She danced for her people, wherever they were scattered, and for this country she would never quite comprehend. She danced, her hair matted with sweat, while remembering a simpler life on an even simpler rancho in Nayarit."

5. ?Elements: Short Stories? by Stephen Gutierrez (FC2, 1997) This collection is a hybrid consisting of short fiction and personal essays where Stephen Gutierrez traverses the intricate and never satisfied road to being both a Chicano and a writer in this great, imperfect country of ours. In his essays, Gutierrez offers an unflinching and always engrossing view into the mind of a struggling artist who is constantly battling his own self-doubt and left-handed compliments from peers while clinging to those all-important words of encouragement from his mentors and family members. His short fiction gives us unvarnished glimpses into the lives of Chicanos who suffer from the same type of struggles except this time in their day-to-day attempts ? often futile ? to draw some meaning from life or even death. This is an essential book for Latinos who have taken that crazy, unreasonable step to become writers. In sharp, honest and evocative language, this book will demonstrate to you that you are not alone.

6. ?The Last City Room? by Al Martinez (St. Martin?s Press, 2002) In this page-turner of a first novel, Al Martinez deftly plunges us into the wild and revolutionary days of San Francisco circa 1965. At the center of this novel is the once-great San Francisco newspaper, the Herald, which is dying a slow death. Our "hero" is the young reporter William Colfax who joins the paper after a fighting in Vietnam. We see a world that no longer exists both within the outside of the Herald: student protests, bombings by "revolutionaries," and hard-drinking, computer-free reporters. This novel rings true and benefits from Martinez's many years as a Bay Area reporter. Bravo!

7. ?Interesting Monsters: Fictions? by Aldo Alvarez (Graywolf Press, 2000) In his first short story collection, Aldo Alvarez bounces us from sublime, stripped-down emotion ("Heat Rises" and "Fixing a Shadow") to hilarious, over-the-top surrealism ("Rog & Venus Become an Item" and "Death by Bricolage"). But through it all, we are reminded that we, all of us, search for the same thing: To love and to be loved. I look forward to Alvarez's second collection.

8. ?Base Pairs? by Maria Melendez (Swan Scythe Press, 2001) I made a very wise literary purchase recently. I had just learned of the new publisher of poetry, Swan Scythe Press, and ordered several of its chapbooks. The first one I read was Maria Melendez's "Base Pairs." I was immediately caught up by Melendez's unusual rhythm and word-use in the first stanza of the first poem, "The Bothered-By-Questions Method":

"How do you tell the difference?" "Lunate scar within the ligule
signals Great Basin witch grass."
(The new-moon birthmark on his underarm--)
"Am I prying?"

As you can see, we are immediately thrown into a conversation with words that seem both familiar yet strange. Where is Melendez taking us? What is she telling us? We are sucked into her world in this way. She mixes in a few prose-poems such as "Sensing Home: Aural" where easy vernacular tells us a story of culture with concise beauty. My favorite poem is "In Birute's Camp," a fearsome telling of the rape of a researcher's assistant by a male ex-captive orangutan. These poems are not meant to lull and comfort the reader. Melendez offers us powerful, evocative and surprising language to tell important stories, stories about life and all its shadows. She also offers the reader a nice feature: She ends her chapbook with notes on selected poems to give a bit of background to help us know a little about where some of her ideas come from. This is a beautiful, enchanting little book.

9. ?Aunt Carmen's Book of Practical Saints? by Pat Mora (Beacon Press, May 1999) A couple of years ago, I had the remarkable luck to have one of my poems edited by Pat Mora for the children's poetry anthology, ?Love to Mama? (Lee & Low Books, 2001). The grace, care and loving attention she gave to my simple lines -- communicated through several e-mails -- confirmed in my heart what my mind already knew: Ms. Mora is one of our literary treasures. "Aunt Carmen's Book of Practical Saints" puts her joy of language on perfect display. In poems that resonate regardless of your religious beliefs, she shows how one can communicate joy, sorrow and hopes through prayer to various "santos/as" who are shown here in beautiful photographs of statues and paintings. This is a handsomely-produced volume of heart-felt, finely-crafted poetry from one of our finest poets. I also enjoyed Ms. Mora's "code switching" -- i.e., mixing Spanish with English -- which gives the poems a wonderful flavor. It is a joy to read.

10. "The Flower in the Skull" by Kathleen Alcala (Harvest Books, 1999) This is a haunting, beautiful and well-researched novel that begins deep in Mexico's Sonoran Desert in the late 1800s and follows three generations of women up to the present. Alcala's language is clear, evocative and, at times, heart-wrenching as she tells this story of diaspora, lost family connections and personal discovery. One of the most moving chapters (titled, "The Girl in the Closet") is Alcala at her best as she captures the almost overwhelming fears of a woman beaten down by the sexual transgressions of her employer: "If I just stay here, I will be fine. Before I shut the door, I got a box of crackers from the kitchen, so I will be fine."

11. ?Barrio on the Edge? by Alejandro Morales (Bilingual Press, 1997) In this beautifully translated edition of Alejandro Morales's breath-taking and heart-wrenching novel, we are invited to re-live (or experience for the first time) the modern, barrio existence. Lives filled with violence, sex, drugs and, yes, hope, are embodied in Morales's protagonists, Julian and Mateo. The novel now includes an insightful introduction by Francisco A. Lomeli (who also translated the Spanish text) as well as a bibliography of works by and about Morales. This Bilingual Press edition juxtaposes the English text on the left with the corresponding original Spanish text on the right for easy comparison. This is a powerful novel that should be read by all.

12. "Woodcuts of Women" by Dagoberto Gilb (Grove Press, 2000). This is one of the most honest, entertaining, well-crafted short story collections about love and lust that I've read in a long while. Dagoberto Gilb doesn't spare us when he allows his male characters to delve deeply into their obsessions with the opposite sex. In "Maria de Covina," the first story in the collection, a young Chicano (nineteen but he thinks he passes for twenty) simply tells us: "This is the thing: I like women. No, wait. I love women." In "The Pillows," the male protagonist, Jorge, thinks he figured out why his pocho friend, Danny, is having women problems: the only pillows he owns are old, raggedy and dirty. Jorge is obsessed about this particularly while housesitting for Danny. Jorge tells his own girlfriend: "I can't imagine a woman getting in a bed with those pillows. I can't imagine a woman wanting to, even to take a nap." Some of the stories are heartbreaking, like "Shout," where poverty pushes a man to be abusive to his wife and children; even here, there is a glimmer of hope, hope based on love of women. Gilb is a master at ambiguities, our ambiguities as people searching for companionship. The only bad thing about this book is that it is too short (a mere 167 pages). Much praise is also due to the artist, Artemio Rodriguez, who illustrated each story with linocuts (similar to woodcuts); these illustrations capture the wonder, danger and craziness of loving women too much.

13. "The House on Mango Street" by Sandra Cisneros (Vintage Books, 1991) Well, I think it's now safe to say that Sandra Cisneros's "The House on Mango Street" is a classic. Not just a "Chicano/a Classic," but a book that rightfully is included in school curricula throughout the United States. This heartbreaking coming of age novella is presented in short but powerful chapters. Esperanza Cordero (obvious note: "esparanza" means "hope"; "cordero" means "lamb") is about a young girl in a poor Latino neighborhood who tells us her story in vignettes. One of the most moving chapters is "Red Clowns" where Esparanza tells her friend Sally about being raped at the carnival: "Sally Sally a hundred times. Why didn't you hear me when I called? Why didn't you tell them to leave me alone? The one who grabbed me by the arm, he wouldn't let me go. He said I love you, Spanish girl, I love you, and pressed his sour mouth to mine." This short chapter displays the beauty and potency of Cisneros's prose: she uses simple language, that of a young girl, and juxtaposes the child-like world of the carnival with the adult ugliness of rape. This a moving, well-crafted book that should be on your list of "must reads."

About Daniel A. Olivas:
Daniel is a Chicano writer living in the San Fernando Valley. His first short story collection, "Assumption and Other Stories," will be published by Bilingual Press at the end of July. Visit his website and say "hola": http://www.danielolivas.com.

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