I’ve been cleaning the study, shelving books, organizing. I discovered that I’d spent a lot of time these past few months reading books from either north or south of the border. Though I have never been personally drawn north (I’m not fond of cold weather), I have for a long time held a special place in my heart for our southern neighbors — Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador and all those beautiful islands spread across the Caribbean. I love the scent of the tropics, the vivid colors, the flowers, and the people. When I’m not there I am apt to be spending time reading about being there, and it doesn’t matter if it’s fact or fiction, poetry or prose, a plot-driven or character-driven story. I like Latin American authors and settings, as well as authors from other places who have experienced this part of the world and write about it with a rich, authentic voice.
Here are a few of my recent favorites (in no special order):
(1) Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks. In this fascinating account, the author sets out in search of exotic ferns – and discovers Mexico. With a group of fellow fern-lovers Mr. Sacks heads to Oaxaca, a state in Southern Mexico where botanists have found more species of fern (almost 700) than are present in all of the United States. But the book isn’t just about wild plants. Though the science is interesting, there is also a whole world of adventure, extraordinary sights, cultural experiences, and layers of history in this lovely little tome. It’s one of my favorite reads of last year. It was a nice surprise, too, that it became a hit with my book club.
2) Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros. A beautiful tale, set on both sides of the border, told by an articulate and observant young narrator. In an attempt to tell her grandmother’s story (the Awful Grandmother, as she is referred to in the book) Lala uncovers the history, lies, and loves of the various members of her family over the generations. The characters and settings are so richly and authentically drawn that reading Caramelo is like opening a colorful family photo album and having a poet whisper its secrets.
3) Lovesick by Angeles Mastretta. I discovered Ms. Mastretta (internationally acclaimed and bestselling author in her native Mexico) this past year. This one is a wonderful love story spanning a half-century of Mexican history. Emilia Sauri, a privileged young woman in Puebla society during the midst of the revolution in the early 20th century, is torn between two loves — one is determined to join the fight wherever it takes him and the other is a physician who helps Emilia realize her own potential as a doctor. This is a story filled with joy and grief, peace and fear, politics and unpredictability. Can a woman love two men at the same time and also be independent enough to pursue her own dreams? Vogue (Spain) calls Mastretta’s work “a kind of alchemy”; I agree. And I couldn’t wait to read the next from this author. I’ve just started reading Women with Big Eyes.
4) Harriet Doerr’s Stones for Ibarra, The Tiger in the Grass, and Consider This, Senora. I read the first of these last January when I was getting ready to head to Mexico and I was so enamored by this author’s beautiful prose that I had to read the others. Ms. Doerr finished her college degree at age 67. She published Stones for Ibarra at 73 and won the National Book Award. The story is intelligent, powerful, and authentic in its portrayal of characters and setting. I’m not sure why it took me so long to discover her books.
My favorite of the three is Consider This, Senora. Doerr’s characters are so well drawn they feel like old friends — both the American newcomers to this small village in Central Mexico, as well as the local families. The landscape is as much a character as the people and it’s wonderfully described through the change of seasons and years, fiestas and times of hardship, failures and triumphs. There are heartbreaking moments and a stunning acceptance of fate. I especially enjoyed the way the novel was written in vignettes. One chapter does not necessarily lead into the next. Sometimes there are days or weeks in between and different characters hold center stage at different times, so it’s a novel that can be read over a period of time, a chapter at a time. The people and their predicaments, against the background — beautiful and ugly, harsh and exciting — are so well realized right from the start that it’s easy to pick up where you leave off.
5) Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo. I picked up this book because I had read that it was a favorite of Gabriel García Márquez and that he had memorized the whole tome! It’s the story of a man who goes on a quest for his heritage. His mother’s dying wish had been for him to search for his father, but the town he finds is in ruins, populated by ghosts, hallucinations, and memories. Published in 1955, this was the first book to use the style that later became known as “magical realism,” which had a huge influence on García Márquez. Readers usually love it or hate it. I fell somewhere in the middle. I found the first part fascinating, magical, hard to put down — and oddly believable. But, for me, it lost some of the momentum midway when the multitude of voices, constantly shifting tenses, and jumping around in time became more distracting than fascinating. However, the setting (as bleak as it was) made me think of the abandoned mining towns, such as Mineral de Pozos, and the ruins of haciendas in Mexico with the strange, magical beauty these places still exude.