Latino Holiday Book List

Los libros traen alegr?a y la sabidur

By Daniel A. Olivas
Published on LatinoLA: November 30, 2004

Latino Holiday Book List

All right, mis amigos, it?s time again for me to make a few literary suggestions as we enter the season of gift giving. With the kind graces of LatinoLA, here are some books that will delight and inform your loved ones. I tried to mix it up a bit with some fiction, poetry, anthropology (yes, I said anthropology), biography and even a Chicano murder mystery. Though I like all types of books, as is my custom, I include on this list books by and/or about Latinos/as. Los libros traen alegr?a y la sabidur?a.

1. Every Night is Ladies Night (HarperCollins: Rayo) by Michael Jaime-Becerra

One of the truths revealed by Los Angeles fiction is that it includes, by necessity, tales from those small cities that adhere to the ragged edges of Los Angeles proper. In Michael Jaime-Becerra?s subtle and beautiful debut collection, ?Every Night is Ladies? Night,? we are introduced to one such city: El Monte. Jaime-Becerra spins ten interlocking stories around the hub of El Monte, a working-class community of just over 100,000 people, the vast majority of whom are Latino. The stories bounce back-and-forth from 1984 to 1989 with one leaping thirty years further into the past. The protagonists reappear all tied to streets like Valley and Live Oak, businesses such as Road Runner Liquor, Pick-A-Part, Tortillerilla Bienvenida and the ubiquitous McDonald?s. People scrape together livelihoods as mechanics, fast food managers, tattoo artists, truck drivers and musicians. We see how children, teens, parents and grandparents try desperately to fit in, keep their dreams alive, fall in love. Most of the characters we meet are members of the Cruz family. Jaime-Becerra knows that not all life experiences lead to grand epiphanies or dramatic personal growth. With great skill, he shows us that we often battle just to stay in place. This is a beautiful, accomplished debut.

2. Women of Chiapas: Making History in Times of Struggle and Hope (Routledge) by Christine Eber and Christine Kovic (pictured)

Christine Eber and Christine Kovic, who both teach anthropology at the university level, tell us that their book "highlight[s] the concerns, visions, and struggles of women in Chiapas, Mexico." Specifically, the editors intend to "deepen the awareness of these conditions by exploring several issues that have taken center stage: poverty, discrimination, and violence; religious change and women's empowerment; and women organizing for social change." Relying not only on scholarly articles from experts in the field, the editors also include first person accounts in the form of narratives, poetry, song lyrics and even a short play. This important and accessible book fulfills the editors' goal of deepening our awareness of the women of Chiapas thanks in large part to the words of these very same women. I highly recommend this book.

3. Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties (Farrar Straus Giroux) by Felicia Luna Lemus

With her debut novel, Felicia Luna Lemus treats us with a story filled with heart and a deceptively easy style. Her protagonist, Leticia Marisol Estrella Torrez, is a young Angeleno who struggles to blend her lesbian life with that of her traditional Mexican-American family. Funny, soulful and heartbreaking, this is a fine novel that establishes that the personal is often political. I hope this is the beginning of a long writing career for Felicia Luna Lemus.

4. Malinche?s Children (University Press of Mississippi) by Daniel Houston-Davila

Daniel Houston-Davila's "Malinche's Children" heralds the introduction of a wonderful new voice in Chicano literature. Spanning a hundred years of love, hate, work and struggle in the Southern Californa barrio of Carmelas, Houston-Davila paints in vivid colors the lives of people he certainly knows well. His language is muscular, poetic and vibrant. "Malinche's Children" marks the beginning of what I hope to be a long, productive writing life for Houston-Davila.

5. Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo (Perennial) by Hayden Herrera

The greatest compliment one could offer a biographer is that she has brought to life her subject with honesty and insight. Well, I offer this compliment to Hayden Herrera. It is supreme understatement for me to observe that the Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, was a complex person filled with great contradictions. Yet, through liberal use of Frida's letters coupled with Herrera's own insightful analysis of her painting, "Frida" brings this great artist to life for us to bask in her brilliance, energy and strength. "Frida" is one of the most remarkable, illuminating and fulfilling biographies I have ever read.

6. The Iceworker Sings and Other Poems (Bilingual Press) by Andres Montoya

It is so sad that Andres Montoya left this world at such a young age. Aside from the obvious loss suffered by his family and friends (I never had the pleasure of meeting him), we wonder about the poetry and other writing he would have produced in the wake of his beautiful and accomplished collection, "the iceworker sings." Much has been written about Montoya's first book which was the winner of the 1997 Chicano/Latino Literary Prize (University of California at Irvine). Montoya's Fresno is filled with love, lust, hate, suffering and protest sung in a clear Chicano voice. Suffice it to say that the brutal yet eloquent honesty of Montoya's poems has assured that "the iceworker sings" will be read and studied for decades to come.

7. Crossing Vines: A Novel (University of Oklahoma Press) by Rigoberto Gonzalez

If you were unfamiliar with Rigoberto Gonzalez, it wouldn't take many pages of reading his first novel, "Crossing Vines," to suspect that his prior book was one of poetry, not prose. Each sentence, every paragraph, all chapters possess the clarity and music of poetry even in recounting the often harsh and always difficult lives of a crew of grape pickers. In a series of vignettes focusing on different characters, Gonzalez allows us into the lives and painful pasts of these workers. Gonzalez avoids the melodramatic and clich? when it would be easy to fall into such traps. This is a poetic, powerful first novel.

8. Rumba Atop the Stones (Peepal Tree Press) by Orlando Ricardo Menes

Orlando Ricardo Menes brings to bear his Cuban-American identity in this dynamic, magical and, at times, gritty poetic vision. Menes weaves the vastly divergent elements of the Caribbean identity: European, African and indigenous people - along with their languages and distinctive lives - to fill the pages of this book. Menes is a craftsman with soul and an eye for the sublime. His is a voice that cannot be ignored.

9. The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz (Northwestern) by Manuel Ramos

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 - the Chicano political movement - 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. This is a new edition published by Northwestern.

10. Base Pairs (Swan Scythe Press) by Maria Melendez

I made a very wise literary purchase a couple of years ago. 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.

About Daniel A. Olivas:
Daniel is a Chicano writer living in the San Fernando Valley. He will be signing his new book, "Devil Talk" (Bilingual Press), on December 4, noon to 4 p.m., at B. Dalton's in the Topanga Plaza, Canoga Park. Visit www.danielolivas.com for details.

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