A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the March 13, 2014 edition of The Monitor
As late as 1970, very little Mexican-American literature was bein...moreA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the March 13, 2014 edition of The Monitor
As late as 1970, very little Mexican-American literature was being published, and virtually none of that was about the Rio Grande Valley. Then Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, a Mercedes native who had just wrapped up his doctoral studies at the University of Illinois, published a short story set in the Valley with the budding Quinto Sol press out of Berkeley, California.
The story was warmly received, and Hinojosa was inspired to write a longer work. Released in 1972, Estampas del Valle became an urtext for Valley letters, demonstrating how the lives of working-class Mexican-Americans in small border towns could be leveraged into vital, important literature.
Over the next decade, Hinojosa crafted an English-language “rendition” of the original Spanish, which was published in 1983 by Bilingual Review Press as The Valley. The book formed the nucleus of his critically acclaimed “Klail City Death Trip” series. On the occasion of his being awarded the National Book Critics Circle’s Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, Arte Público Press has re-released the two versions as a single bilingual book.
The Valley: Estampas del valle consists of a series of vignettes set over seven decades in the fictional South Texas county of Belken (corresponding roughly to Hidalgo and Starr). Using a sort of epistolary approach, Hinojosa weaves newspaper articles, gossip, interview transcripts, court documents and stripped-down dialogues that read like scenes from a play to build up in overlapping layers a portrait of the community in and around Klail City (a stand-in for Mercedes).
Though Hinojosa introduces us to dozens of residents of the Valley with intersecting lives, a good portion of the novel is dedicated a series of particular men. Jehú Malacara, orphaned at a young age, finds a father-figure in old Don Víctor, a veteran of the Mexican Revolution who teaches Jehú the carnie trade.
Bruno Cano, a ne’er-do-well and con-man, finds himself trapped in a hole he is digging with fellow treasure-hunters, certain that he’s being attacked by a ghost. The reaction of the local priest is not what he’d expected. Baldemar Cordero, fed up with verbal abuse and humiliation from Arnesto Tamez, finally snaps and fatally stabs the man. Though no one in the community can find fault in his actions, the law does.
Dozens of shorter sketches and incidents fill in the narrative quilt, leaving the reader with a collage portrait of a community caught up in the same loves, lies, conflicts, ethnic betrayals, land-grabs, victories and joys of any other, but with that particular border flavor unique to the RGV.
Hinojosa’s style in English is reminiscent of Mark Twain’s, bemused and satirical while remaining empathetic and respectful. The range of spoken and written registers he manipulates with ease is impressive, and his Spanish (often bolder and less circumspect than the English) is a delight to read.
Any lover of literature and the Valley who has not read this book (and the rest of Hinojosa’s work) needs to remedy that oversight soon. This is where it all started.(less)
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the March 6, 2014 edition of The Monitor.
Recently the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studie...moreA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the March 6, 2014 edition of The Monitor.
Recently the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies announced its 2014 Tejas Foco Awards, and many deserving authors were awarded, including our native sons Xavier Garza and Isaac Chavarría, as well as UTPA professor Marci McMahon. It also happens that a book I’ve been reading — flesh to bone by South Texas poet ire’ne lara silva — was selected Honorable Mention winner for the Tejas Foco Fiction Award.
The author of two chapbooks and a collection of poetry, silva tries her hand at short stories in flesh to bone, with amazing results: nine haunting, beautiful and harrowing tales that emerge from a familiar yet alien place at the intersection of magical realism, fantasy and lyrical verse.
In “hunger/hambre/mayantli” a mother struggles with two unusual children: a thin son whose dreams are full of inexplicable hunger and a daughter who cannot stop the flood of seemingly random Spanish words that tumble from her lips. The siblings together manage to give release to a ghost, unleashing strange secrets of their own. The tense “hiding-place” retells the cucuy legend with nail-biting claustrophobia.
I don’t want to give away the reveal, but “cortando las nubes” retells a very famous legend from a wholly unexpectedand heart-wrenching perspective. In “duérmete,” a nurse who was once victim of terrible spousal abuse finds magical release with the help of an elderly patient of hers.
The many Mexican myths of supernatural owls are blended in the unforgettable “tecolotl,” in which a shape-shifting woman who has lost her love and her unborn child must make an impossible choice. A mother has a final chance to make amends with her dying daughter and understand her hermit brother in “thorn forest.” The plight of las desaparecidas of Juárez is explored in “la huesera” as a ghostly entity attempts to reknit the broken body of a victim, absorbing her story along the way.
The consequences of taking a goddess for a lover are interwoven with the tragic story of an immigrant family in the sensual yet heart-breaking “desembocada/the mouth of the river.” And finally, a pregnant woman risks her child and her happiness to take care of her dying father, only to discover horribly truths that leave her bereft.
With a wholly original voice that interweaves sacred and mundane, light and shadow, lyric and realism, inner life and vast landscape into an unforgettable tapestry, ire’ne lara silva emerges in the volume from the mists of folklore and custom to establish herself as an important and necessary figure of Texas letters.
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the February 20, 2014 edition of The Monitor
As late as the 1950s, the world primarily knew the story of Me...moreA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the February 20, 2014 edition of The Monitor
As late as the 1950s, the world primarily knew the story of Mexico’s conquest by the Spanish through the accounts of the victors, men like Hernán Cortés, Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Francisco López de Gómara. Though glimpses at the true nature of the indigenous people shine through, as does the terrible majesty of the Aztec hegemony, these histories celebrated Christian and Spanish ascendancy. There was no real balance.
In 1959, however, young anthropologist Miguel León-Portillo edited together the translations done by his mentor Ángel María Garibay Kintana of various texts written in Nahuatl by native Mexicans in the years after the Conquest. Titled Visiones de los vencidos, it was published English in 1962 as The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. Fifty-two years later, it remains a singularly important work.
The bulk of the book consists of a chronological reordering of excerpts from different codices and histories, though no attempt is made to streamline the narrative, so the reader often gets several perspectives on a single event, occasionally with some contradictions.
The Broken Spears begins a decade before the arrival of Cortés, discussing the omens that seemed to indicate the approach of some dark tragedy (comets, the inexplicable burning of temples, two-headed monsters). Then the Spaniards arrive with their hunger for gold, their weapons, their horses. Moctezuma, the emperor of the Triple Alliance, seems to spiral into despair as his every attempt to keep Cortés from marching into the highlands of central Mexico fails.
Several times the gods of the Mexica warn of the impending doom, claim the chroniclers. The goddess Cihuacoatl cries out in the deep of night, weeping for the loss of her children. The god of chaos, Tezcatlipoca, appears to messengers of Moctezuma and tells them their fate is sealed.
And the Spaniards, like a cruel force of nature, keep coming. Aided by the linguistic prowess and quick mind of young Coatzacoalcan Malinalli Tenepal (la Malinche), they ally with the disgruntled peoples who have kept a steady stream of tribute and sacrificial victims flowing into Tenochtitlan. They slaughter Otomies and Cholulans. Eventually they reach Tenochtitlan, capital city of the Triple Alliance.
Though welcomed by Moctezuma, the Spaniards turn on the emperor once inside his palace. When Cortés is called away, his men slaughter innocent Mexica during the festival of Toxcatl and are driven violently from the city. But the most dangerous weapon of all soon decimates the population: smallpox. The weakened citizens withstand eighty days of siege, but in the end Tenochtitlan falls. The death toll is some 300,000 men, along with countless women and children.
The Broken Spears ends with a few heart-rending laments from the Cantares mexicanos, then explores the long-term fall-out from the Conquest with later indigenous documents. The reader is left to dwell on the tragic outcome of this clash of two mighty and brutal nations. The clear difference between the cultures was that the Spanish wanted eradication and transformation, whereas the Aztec sought power and tribute.(less)
A TOP SHELF review originally published in the January 30 edition of The Monitor
When people from the Rio Grande Valley mention Jan and Carl Seale, we...moreA TOP SHELF review originally published in the January 30 edition of The Monitor
When people from the Rio Grande Valley mention Jan and Carl Seale, we nod our heads and arch eyebrows in respect. Texas Poet Laureate. Conductor Emeritus of the Valley Symphonic Orchestra. Artists. Professors. Pillars of the community. Wonderful parents, grandparents and friends.
But for the past 20 years they have also struggled day to day with an uninvited guest: the Parkinson’s Disease that has forced Carl’s brain “into cement shoes.”
Now Jan Seale has published a cycle of unforgettable verse tracing the couple’s experiences with the incurable neurological condition, which impacts the lives of 7 million people around the globe. Featuring a stunning cover and color photos by the couple’s son Erren, this chapbook from Lamar University Press is valuable, not only as a piece of literature, but also as an exposé on Parkinson’s itself.
The Parkinson Poems comprises four sections. Onset shows the early stages, with the disease chillingly personified in “The Guest” as an uninvited visitor who goes from nearly invisible to a cruel alpha dog. “Forced Laughter” lampoons overly cheerful literature on the condition as showing people “so happy one would think the world / would be a better place if everyone had Parkinson’s.”
Section two, Progression, explores how the disorder appears at first to come and go, gradually converting the ordinary into the perilous: “Now there are venomous tile floors, / the wily smiles of shining lobbies, / man-eating sidewalks, / spidery chairs, / the distance between here and there / waiting in ambush.” In her sad yet bemused way, Jan shows us the inexorable slowing and freezing of a man for whom movement was once everything.
In the Treatment section, the poet tries for greater levity, as the names of drugs and other scientific nomenclature lend themselves to punning and satire. “Dear Dr. Parkinson” winks at the dubious fame of the condition’s discoverer; “Mnemonic” contemplates the sameness of medical visits; “Group Therapy” acknowledges the need for commiseration.
Arguably the most powerful, moving work appears in Abiding. In “Evenings” the poet sees in her husband’s eyes “a flicker of remembrance / when a kiss wasn’t postlude but prelude.” In “Sleep-talking” she reflects, “His words waking me are like the light pebbles / he tossed upward at my dorm window in the days / when we loved, both dreaming and awake.”
The many repercussions of the shift of power in their relationship are explored in the aptly titled “Power.” The couple gets a few brief moments of tender respite in “At 2:30 a.m.” that are abruptly balanced by “In Bitterest Moments.”
When I finished the last poem, “What You As the Parkie Have Given Me,” I was moved beyond words. Luckily, Jan’s were right there: as lucid, brave and beautiful as ever.
The Parkinson Poems is an eloquent, poignant and very human testimony to the power of love, not to conquer all as in some naïve fantasy, but to endure. To abide.To make life, no matter how difficult and heart-breaking, ultimately worth living. (less)
In the mid-16th century, just a few decades after the Spanish conquest, a group of Mayan nobles in the town of Santa Cruz del Q...moreFantastic translation.
In the mid-16th century, just a few decades after the Spanish conquest, a group of Mayan nobles in the town of Santa Cruz del Quiché (in what is now Guatemala) set out to preserve in phonetic Latin script one of their culture’s most important documents: the Popol Vuh or “Book of the People,” a history of their community beginning from the creation of the world.
The Mayans living in Santa Cruz del Quiché had emigrated there from the Yucatan peninsula several centuries earlier, when the mighty kingdom of Chichen Itza had collapsed. Their culture, carefully preserved despite Toltec and Aztec influences, was dealt a heavy blow when Pedro de Alvarado, second-in-command to Hernán Cortez, burned their city of Q'umarkaj to the ground, along with much of its literature.
For nearly two centuries after the phonetic transcription, the elders of the nearby town of Chichicastenango kept the Popol Vuh manuscript hidden from Spanish eyes until a priest named Francisco Ximénez was given access in the early 1700s, and he transcribed and translated the document into Spanish. His translation was soon forgotten, until republished in the mid-1800s. The Mayan version was finally rediscovered in 1941.
The Mayan holy book has been translated into several languages, including English. The most recent of these is Allen Christensen’s 2004 Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya. Twenty-five years in the making, this translation is clear and accurate, with copious notes and great ancillary materials.
The most accessible sections of the Popol Vuh are contained in the first half, which recounts the multiple creation attempts by a group of creator gods including the pair Heart of Sky and Feathered Serpent (equivalent to the Aztec Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl). Like most Mesoamerican myths of the primordial world, the gods have to destroy and remake their work, refining it as they go.
In the midst of this account, the story of the Hero Twins is told. Two brothers, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, are summoned to Xibalba, the Underworld where their father was killed years earlier by the rulers of that place. They succeed in tricking the nobility of the netherworld and revive their father, who becomes a god of maize.
That very corn becomes the key ingredient in making the final version of humanity. The first men and women are too wise and far-seeing, however, so their vision has to be clouded. Nonetheless, these ancestors of the Quiché Maya grow to prominence in Mesoamerica, having dealings with the mighty city of Tollan and receiving authority to rule from the demi-god ruler of central Mexico.
For anyone fascinated by the indigenous cultures of Mesoamerica, this tale of the rise of a chosen people and a way of life is essential reading. (less)
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the February 6 edition of The Monitor
For the past 15 years, writer K.J. Parker has been exploring a strang...moreA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the February 6 edition of The Monitor
For the past 15 years, writer K.J. Parker has been exploring a strange niche in fantasy fiction, publishing three trilogies, five stand-alone novels and a bevy of novellas and short stories all set in largely magic-free alternative medieval universes.
Rich with allusions to Byzantine and late Roman culture, these literary worlds use politics and dark-age technology to explore tragic themes, typically centering on the hells created by protagonists’ good intentions. Despite the twisting and often bleak plots, Parker’s books are also extremely witty, with crisp, sarcastic dialogue and lots of cathartic laughs.
Having read nearly all of the author’s later work, I decided to go back and catch up on the first series, The Fencer Trilogy. The first volume, Colours in the Steel, is set in Perimadeia, famed as Triple City and the mercantile capital of the world. The protagonist, Bardas Loredan, is a veteran, survivor of a vicious war against the more primitive tribes of the plains. In Perimadeia, many legal cases are resolved by armed combat, and Loredan has become a fencer-at-law.
When son of a fallen tribal chief makes his way to the Triple City to work as a blacksmith and study the engineering techniques of that mighty nation-state, a chain of events is set in motion that will put the lawyer in charge of the defense of Perimadeia.
But Loredan has other issues to face as well. The consequences of his well-intentioned actions during his childhood, during the war and in his profession converge with the misguided help the city’s spiritual leader has provided one of the lawyer’s former fencing students. The resulting chaos may just mean the end of Perimadeia’s economic and political ascendancy.
Colours in the Steel contains many of the same thematic elements that are explored with greater finesse in Parker’s later work: shades of grey rather than simplistic good and evil, the conflict between technologically advanced and backward peoples, the contingent or expedient nature of religion and politics. The plot, however, is not as tightly constructed as it could be, and the characters don’t all resonate as fully (and Loredan is shoe-horned into a hero role that Parker largely dispenses with in other books).
Though we know little about K.J. Parker (the pseudonym of a purportedly female lawyer in southern England), I definitely recommend her body of work to those who find history, politics, medieval technology and sword-fighting intriguing. But I would probably start with her third series instead of this.(less)
After the 2011 HBO production of his play The Sunset Limited and last year’s Hollywood film of his script The Counselor, Cormac McCarthy’s work as a p...moreAfter the 2011 HBO production of his play The Sunset Limited and last year’s Hollywood film of his script The Counselor, Cormac McCarthy’s work as a playwright began to intrigue me. Known more for his description-laden prose, McCarthy (arguably one of the most important American authors of the late 20th century) doesn’t at first blush seem like the kind of guy who could pare his style down enough for the stage.
Clearly, though, he is fascinated by drama. He was likely inspired by director Richard Pearce, who approached him in 1974 to write the script for an episode of the PBS series Visions. The resulting two-hour episode, which aired in 1977, secured an Emmy nomination for McCarthy.
The only other work in this genre he has produced is the 1995 play The Stonemason. Set in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1970s, this five-act tragedy centers on the Telfairs, a family of stonemasons. The protagonist in Ben, who has abandoned his college studies of psychology to apprentice himself to Papaw, his grandfather, who even at the age of 101 continues to practice “the trade” with the younger man.
The two live in the house of Ben’s father, who runs the family stonemasonry business. With them reside Ben’s wife, mother and sister, single mom to Soldier, a troubled teen. While the plot nominally follows various problems that threaten to tear the family apart, the core of the play is the relationship between grandfather and grandson.
While many critics focus on the unusual monologues given by Ben while the actor’s double carries out a sort of dumbshow, I was drawn more to the interactions between Ben and Papaw. The older man shares a unique vision of the world predicated on his fealty to the craft. Stonemasons, differently than other stone workers, pull stone directly from the ground where they work and set those undressed stones, whole and unhewn, using mortar when needed, but seeking to use gravity and physics ("the warp of the world") to hold masonry in place.
Papaw implies that this is the true will of God and that human attempts to chisel the world into other shapes are doomed to fail, being effaced by time and tragedy (a major theme of all of McCarthy's work). The blows to the Telfairs arise from their betrayals of the family trade and from Ben's insistence on trying to control and reshape the lives of his loved ones. Tellingly, though a fine stone mason, Ben violates the journeyman code that insists a man complete the work that can be done during the course of a normal day, leaving for the morrow the work that remains. Arrogantly or anxiously, he wants to get things done as quickly as possible.
McCarthy's novels are replete with spot-on, terse dialogue as well as odd philosophical pseudo-speeches, so it's no surprise that the play excels in those areas. Some of the secondary characters (Soldier and Ben's father) are too one-dimensional for their fates to have the impact needed, however, and the relationship between Ben and his wife feels jarringly out of sync. However, though it doesn't approach the impact of other portraits of working-class African-Americans (like A Raisin in the Sun), the ideas in The Stonemason make it well worth reading.(less)
A TOP SHELF review originally published in the January 9, 2014 edition of The Monitor
In 1954, J.R.R. Tolkien published his massive follow-up to his 19...moreA TOP SHELF review originally published in the January 9, 2014 edition of The Monitor
In 1954, J.R.R. Tolkien published his massive follow-up to his 1937 children’s book, The Hobbit. The three-volume work of fantasy known as The Lord of the Rings was a tough sell at the time, and Tolkien’s publisher turned to established authors for blurbs and marketing, including Naomi Mitchison.
Just two years earlier, Mitchison, who was a fan and friend of Tolkien’s for years, had herself published a slim fantasy novel titled Travel Light. The book in many respects reads as a conversation with or response to Tolkien’s work. Both authors were adapting epic heroic tales to modern sensibilities, but Mitchison arguably went further than her peer, turning the genre utterly on its head.
Travel Light tells the story of Halla, a princess who narrowly escapes the clutches of her murderous stepmother. She is brought up for a time by bears before being adopted by a dragon, under whose tutelage she gains the ability to speak to all living creatures and other small practical magicks.
Halla also learns to hate and mistrust heroes, whom dragons see as dangerous ideologues rushing off to murder and ransack. Indeed, great tragedy befalls her at the hands of a hero. Forced to leave the dragons’ world of treasure and ancient lore, she faces Valkyries, unicorns and other mythical creatures before being told by Odin All-Father to “travel light.”
Wandering through the world and the centuries, Halla finds herself in the company of men, whose tendency to want to rescue maidens from dragons without consulting with the ladies has always seemed suspect to her. But this particular band of men seeks to get justice from the Emperor in Constantinople, and Halla’s unique skills and world view are a godsend for them.
Right down to the twist of an ending, Mitchison is deftly subversive with genre and gender expectations while managing to tell a beautiful, moving story. She tackles issues of government, religion and tradition with a light but critical touch so that the book is simultaneously very accessible to children and immensely rewarding for adults.
Mitchison, who lived to be 101 and wrote some 90 books, may have been largely forgotten while her male colleagues Tolkien, C.S. Lewis et al. have been immortalized, but this engaging, witty and intelligent book needs to get into the hands of all the fantasy lovers you know, both young and old.(less)
Fantastic. Sahagún preserved key elements of Aztec rhetoric and ethical framework. I'd love a more modern translation (and a regularized transcription...moreFantastic. Sahagún preserved key elements of Aztec rhetoric and ethical framework. I'd love a more modern translation (and a regularized transcription of the Nahuatl), but this is quite good. (less)
Literature professors Roberta and Peter Markman crafted in the 1990s a seminal volume for the study of Mesoamerican religious texts and art. A follow-...moreLiterature professors Roberta and Peter Markman crafted in the 1990s a seminal volume for the study of Mesoamerican religious texts and art. A follow-up to the California couple’s Masks of the Spirit, this sprawling volume applied the tools of textual analysis to a wide range of images and translated native writing.
The Flayed God: The Mesoamerican Mythological Tradition brings together a host of translations of Spanish and native-language documents from just before and right after the Conquest, many of these English versions crafted specifically for this volume by scholars like Willard Gingerich.
These narratives, hymns and prayers are brought stunningly to life by some 100 reproductions of ceramic and stone objects, paintings, masks and architectural creations, a quarter of them in full color.
After an initial fascinating (if not precisely cutting-edge) establishment of the historical and methodological framework for the volume, the Markmans explore three different trends in the art and literature they are examining. In the section “The Fourfold Unfolding: The Myths of Creation,” the authors attempt to demonstrate a trend in Mesoamerican religious thought viewing the universe as the product of an ongoing unfolding or opening up of a primordial first cause (Ometeotl for the Aztecs, the Makers/Begetters of the Yucatec Maya, etc.).
In “Flayed Gods, Snake Women, and Were-Jaguars: The Myths of Fertility,” readers are exposed to the bloody but lofty cosmovision that requires sacrifice of both human and divine participants in order to keep the wheels of the universe moving in a cycle of death and regeneration.
Finally, in “Feathered Serpents and Hero Twins: The Mythic Structure of Rulership,” the Markmans examine the transition from agricultural beginnings to urban hegemonies as played out in hero journeys in both Mayan (the Hero Twins from PopolVuh) and Nahua (the story of Toltec ruler/god Quetzacoatl) traditions, as well in the legend of the Aztec’s exodus from Aztlan.
At its best, The Flayed God serves as a compendium of vital native Mexican texts that I believe need to be more widely read and studied. They also manage to demonstrate the subtlety and sophistication of pre-Conquest religious thought, which rivaled philosophical systems in every corner of the globe.
The principal flaw in the book is the over-reliance on outdated sociological theories and the introspective, non-scientific tools of literary and artistic analysis. For example, though their unfolding thesis is engaging, the professors’ belief that all religious traditions follow a single evolutionary pattern blinds them to the likelihood that Aztec religion in particular had moved beyond simple dualism into the sort of monism espoused by Advaita Hinduism.
Still, if only for the art and texts, this is a very worthwhile book.(less)