Reading Life 10

We Happy Few by Rolando Hinojosa
How's this man do it? In such a short book Hinojosa manages so much. But you can't read just the one title by this grand-master writer. You must read as much as you can get your hands on of this saga, of this Texan epic, that all started out with Estampas del Valle, later translated into the English and titled simply The Valley. Read Hinojosa's entire work to begin to get what he's about. It's no surprise why his Klail City writings have been compared to Faulkner's works.
I am sad I finished the book. It left me wanting the next installment, and soon.


Reading Life 9

Ball Don't Lie by Matt de la Peña
This is what I'm talking about: a book that is so fresh, so on-the-forefront, so chockfull of genuine voice it's not even funny. It's no wonder ALA chose it as one of its Best Books for YAs or why all the positive reviews. What is a wonder is why it wasn't chosen as the Printz winner. Or the National Book Award.
Sticky, the soon-to-graduate ball player knows nothing else but the court on which, when he's on he flows, he lives in the moment of the arc of the shot headed right smack-dab into the hoop, nothing but net. When his girlfriend, Annie, asks him one night what makes him the happiest, aside from spending time with her, of course, his answer is expected: playing ball, but not just playing, excelling in it, outplaying even the toughest of opponents, jab-stepping, and going for his shot, the one out of a thousand possiblities. Always dreaming of playing college ball, maybe even in the NBA. He's that good, this kid.
The kid's lived a hard life, in and out of foster homes, being dropped off back at 7FLOW, his "foster pad," having lost his mother early on, having lost himself in that tragic moment. Making all kinds of rash decisions outside of the Lincoln Rec center (and his naivete hurts you). Making it worse, he suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, he knows it, and tries to force himself to stop being that way. It takes another near-tragic moment for Sticky to find himself. And one of the most beautiful things he finds in this very emotional roller-coaster of an ending is Annie, having spent the night at the hospital watching over him, even in her sleep. She hasn't quit on him, no matter all the dumb things he's done.
What I love about de la Peña's writing is the language: it's poetic, it, like Sticky's most perfect shot, flows, but it flows in a very new way. It seems private at first, very much the lingo of the court, an insider's language; within pages, though, a reader will grow into it, understand it, be able to speak it. I'm not talking about the b-ball lingo; I'm talking about the writing langauge. This story could not have been told in any other tongue.
It's a wonderful novel!


Reading Life 8

Before the Frost by Henning Mankell
Like many, I love a good mystery. More than a good mystery, I love a well-written detective, one with tragic flaws, a normal everyday sort of guy who just happens to also work at solving crimes. Such is Kurt Wallander, Mankell's hero, of sorts, a much-flawed gumshoe who does his think in the south of Sweden. In this book, we are introduced to his daughter, Linda, who recently has graduated from police training and comes to live, as temporarily as possible, with her father before she becomes a beat cop in Ystad. She's suffered her own tragedies in life, and in Linda, Mankell introduces his readers to a new hero.
She has a week or so before she officially begins work, so in the meantime she spends time with her childhood friends, Anna and Zeba. Not much time passes (as often happens in the genre) before Linda finds herself in the middle of a bookload of trouble, and it isn't up to her father, the great solver of crimes to get her through to the final pages. She learns from him what she can, watching him conduct an interview, listening to him listening to his colleagues, and managing meetings during which the crew goes over details of the crime. When I first started reading Mankell, I was thrown off by how often these Swedish detectives met to go over the same old clues, ocassionally adding new ones, trying to decipher what was what. And how long the meetings! But now these meetings are among my favorite parts of Mankell's writing. As a matter of fact, in Before the Frost, many of these meetings are elliptical, that is, we see the group come together, sit around the table, and within a few sentences, Mankell announces it's now three hours later, and a great bit of information has been dealt with.

Anyway, back to the book: the prologue introduces us to Erik Westin, the sole survivor of the Jim Jones massacre, who, for all intents and purposes, is dead to the world, assumed dead at the mass suicide/murder site. For the next 20 years or so, Westin, disillusioned by Jones's ego, works out the kinks and eventually builds his own sect. He also searches for and finds his long lost daughter Anna, the person he feels God means to take over his church and vision. What sets the story in motion, aside from the introduction of Westin as cult leader, is a very horrific and violent murder scene: a woman's remains are located in an out of the way hut in the woods, her head and hands severed from her body, her hands folded as though in prayer, and the rest of her nowhere to be found. Then Anna goes missing. Then she turns up again, then she goes missing, and turns up again, but this time to announce that Zeba is also missing. A couple more mysterious murders take place, the sect meets in other out of the way places, and an assault on religious institutions around Sweden is planned. The assaults will take place just before, but are unrelated to our own September 11, 2001 tragedies. Interestingly, Westin says at one point that his bombings will most likely be blamed on Muslim extremists, his number one enemy.

Christian though they claim to be, don't be fooled. Westin's is nothing more than another sect, extremists in their own right, and just as bent in their way of thinking and living. Fundamentalists they are not. An awesome book, and great author!

(Other Swedish Recommendations: The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg)


Reading Life 7

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne is a tale of innocence gone largely undisturbed. Bruno, our 9-year-old hero, the son of the newly-appointed commandant at OutWith is, much like any other 9-year-old boy, more concerned with how the world is supposed to revolve around him than with the horrible reality that he is thrust into by the Fury. He sees not Shmuel, a Jew in a death camp, but initially as a "dot in the distance, which in the meantime had become a speck, and then began to show every sign of turning into a blob. And shortly after that the blob became a figure. And then, as Bruno got even closer, he saw that the thing was neither a dot nor a speck nor a blob nor a figure, but a person," a boy in striped pajamas and matching cap. And for the life of him, Bruno cannot understand the severity of the suffering going on in this place on that side of the fence. Instead, he imagines it to be like his own Berlin, with streets and avenues that lead to squares surrounded by houses with front porches on which old people sit and tell stories and boys and girls play hopscotch and soccer and the like. For a year, he walks quite a ways away from his own house on the pretense of exploring but really to meet his new best friend for life, Shmuel, his mirror image, only pale and overly-skinny. More so like twins when Bruno gets his head shaved clean to deal with a lice problem. And what does this naive boy wonder? Whether a lice epidemic explains why all the people who live in huts in OutWith are shaved bald, too.
After so long of wishing to be back in Berlin amongst his other best friends for life, Bruno begins to forget what they look like, and even their names, and so he is confused about the meaning of "home" when his father announces that it is time for his wife, his daughter, and his son to return to their home in Berlin. Later he shares the bad news with Shmuel, who has bad news of his own: his father left for work one day and he hasn't returned. The man is lost, and would Bruno help find him? The day before they are scheduled to leave OutWith, Bruno agrees to dress the part of a Jew to explore that side of the fence, and in the meantime, look for clues that might lead to finding Shmuel's missing father.
What Bruno finds on that side of the fence is nothing like he had imagined. But one thing his does find there is a best friend for life.
Boyne handled the topic of the Jewish death camps very responsibly and respectfully, even though some readers might disagree because it is a very naive look at the horrors the Jews and others suffered through at the hands of the Nazis and their "Fury." But we must remember, Boyne is telling the story through the eyes of a 9-year-old boy, not of a grown and mature person who is world-savvy. A great book!


Writing Life 4

A couple things on my mind: one, my recent trip to South Texas went better than I could ever imagine. Friday, April 27, I visited with a great group of high school students who make up a reading group calling itself G.R.O.W.L. from P.S.J.A Memorial (and please forgive me for not remembering what the letters stand for even though I asked several times--Readers is one, Wolverines is another). I got to hang out with them from around 8a.m. til around 1p.m. Thanks, Liza Puente, for that wonderful experience. We talked books, the importance of reading (I was preaching at the choir), we videoconferenced with another couple of schools (actually lunching with P.S.J.A. HS too), then drove like a maniac to Donna ISD where I met with 99 middle schoolers who had read The Whole Sky Full of Stars. I was iffy at first to meet with this younger set because my story deals with the problems of two high schoolers and here they were, middle schoolers, and yet, they seemed to have enjoyed it. I enjoyed passing time with them.

Later that night several contributors to the anthology edited by Dagoberto Gilb titled Hecho en Tejas gathered for a performance at Cine El Rey. David Garza's music was haunting, no matter what language or genre he sang in. Hanging out with former students Becky, Ronnie, and Tanya (whose boy Christian is awesome!). The following day several authors did readings, workshops, signings at the first annual literary festival at Region One Educational Service Center. It went so smoothly largely due to the hard work of Maria Elena Ovalle and her people at the center. I hope it'll go on for another 20 years, at least.

All this to say this other thing: part of the work of the writer is to hang out with the readers.

Item two on my mind: book reviews. Generally, I do pay attention to them. That is not to say I let them get to me; if they're positive (as is the recent starred review in Booklist) or negative (like the one found in School Library Journal). I take the good and bad in stride. What other cliches can I use: I got thick skin; It don't stick; No skin off my nose; Sticks and stones...? I've been blessed with good reviews mostly. Reviewers who have critiqued my work have done so in a contructive way: not enough character development, weaknesses in plotting, etc. Stuff I can work on if I want to please the critics, which I don't, really. That is, I don't want to write to cater to this very particular group. I want to communicate my story as clearly as possible to all readers. That's what drives my writing. That includes thinking very seriously of who my characters are, what drives them, etc. The latest review, though, the one in School Library Journal, seems ignorant to me. It doesn't bother me that Marie Orlando, the reviewer, is bothered that the dialogue seems false, or that the ending is overly-simplistic, or that the characters are flat. All of those come with the territory. What I feel is uncalled for, though, is Orlando's statement that I give my Mexican American characters a "mere passing nod to the boys' ethnicity." I don't know how to read this statement: my initial reaction, that I documented in an email to my editor, was that Orlando's is a closeted sort of racism. Sleeping on it, I had time to let her silliness settle, and yet, I still had no clue what to think. So maybe bigoted (intentional or not) or simple ignorance on her part (or simple arrogance). Should I have had my characters scream from rooftops their Mexican Americanness? Would that have made mine a better story, the writing stronger and clearer? If that is what she means, then I could do the same thing; that is, I'd expect gender and sexuality and faith or lack of faith and all ethnicities to be treated in a very stereotypical manner. Our young narrator's supposed to be Black in C.P. Curtis' Bud, Not Buddy, but can you make him sound Blacker still? Lucky, in Patron's award-winning book, isn't girl enough because she's word-curious (read intelligent) instead of being boy crazy and crippled by her looks (not enough of this or too much of that body part). You see how dumb this train of thinking is? It's racist, it's sexist. Ugly. I could give Orlando the benefit of the doubt and let her off easy: she's giving my book a very superficial read. I'm not saying it's a work of genius, but there are choices I made that address everyone of her issues with my story; I'll address this one, though: the characters' nicknames are Alby and Barry. Alby's real name is Alberto, and Barry's is Bartolomeo. They've opted to go with the more Anglocized versions of their names. They've been in the U.S. a long time, or long enough to let pop culture influence them. I challange Orlando to find one instance in the whole, entire book a lick of Spanish coming out of either of the boys' mouth. She won't be able to do it. I didn't put the language in their heads. They, like so many other young people who are Mexican American in South Texas (even on border towns, which Mission is not, which is where my story takes place) either can't speak it or choose not to (too much to get into about why either choice, but it's written about in so many places). Their parents do, but even they stress speaking English, so aside from describing Alby and Barry's dark brown skin, the switchblades they carry in their pockets, their misogynistic behavior, their lack of dedication to education, their broad smiles that expose such white teeth, their taco/burrito/bean eating habits, their overall laziness, what can I do to give these boys' ethnicity a passing nod, when it was my intention to write them as boys who don't think about their ethnicity? And now I wonder what rang false about their dialogue? Is it that they don't speak Spanish? Man, I'll leave it there. Except to say this: I thought readers were supposed to be enlightened, forward-thinking.