Read 'em and weep. Seriously.
Antonio's Gun and Delfino's Dream; True Tales of Mexican Migration
by Sam Quinone
UNM Press, $24.95***image1***
If you think you've heard enough about Mexican immigration, think again. Quinones' book humanizes a political issue that has become sloganized into meaninglessness. Today an LA Times reporter, Quinones spent a decade in Mexico, beginning in 1994, and saw from inside the country the beginning wave of what we know now was an immigration boom. Quinones' interest in Mexican immigration does contain elements of political and sociological observation, but the stories he tells are, above all, human and moving. Construction worker Delfino Juárez appears in three of the book's nine chapters, beginning with his arrival to work in Mexico City at the age of 12. Juárez manifests the conflict immigrating to the United States has created for Mexico and its citizens. He had ambition and dreams and came to the US to make them come true. But the money Mexican immigrants make in America and send home has, in many ways, kept Mexico from organically evolving its own prosperity and innovation. At the same time, Quinones delves deeply and with rich and illustrative detail into the cultural ramifications of our shaky borders, from the velvet paintings in Juárez to opera in Tijuana. Quinones doesn't preach, but there are lessons to be learned from his interweaving of Old and New World stories.
by William deBuys
Trinity University Press, $22.95
Last month, when SFR presented a round-up of environmental books [Cover story, May 2: "Green Reads"], we also asked writer and conservationist William deBuys for his recommendations. DeBuys cites authors from Wallace Stegner to Mark Reisner as seminal creators of enviro-reads. But deBuys' latest, The Walk, is more evocative of the great American writer John Steinbeck's The Log from the Sea of Cortez. In the latter book, Steinbeck documents a specimen-collecting trip in the Gulf of California in the 1940s and enfolds his travelogue into a philosophical discussion of humans' relationship to the environment. DeBuys' exploration is of familiar, rather than uncharted, territories. But like Steinbeck, deBuys' story stretches beyond emotional and physical geography into philosophical terrain.
The book is divided into three essays. In the title essay, deBuys takes the reader on the walk he's taken regularly for nearly 30 years around his New Mexico farm. The arroyos are filled with stories, as is the debris. The Walk foreshadows the second two essays, "Geranium" and "Paradiso," about the death of deBuys' horse and the death of an old friend, respectively. Interwoven in these stories are memories and sorrows; the death of deBuys' marriage also is omnipresent throughout. That the book is so movingly sad and beautiful is a testament to deBuys' writing, but also to his thinking about what is both gained and lost by loving people and places. As he writes: "The landscape abounds with flaws, like those who walk it."
On Chesil Beach
by Ian McEwan
Two virgins are about to have sex on their honeymoon. It sounds like the beginning of a dirty joke, but it's actually the premise of Booker Prize-winning author Ian McEwan's newest novel, On Chesil Beach. Violinist Florence loves Edward "…sometimes like a daughter, sometimes almost maternally." She has no desire to have sex with him, is repulsed by the thought of penetration, even when it's only Edward's tongue. Edward, for his part, was happy to learn of the term "self pleasuring" and spontaneously proposed to Florence, it seems, to avoid such activity being his only sexual outlet. These on-their-way-to-being-miserable newlyweds will both be voting for the first time and this act, along with marriage, are steps toward the adulthood craved by each, for youth holds little appeal.
Although the story is clearly rooted in the '60s (England, 1962 to be exact), McEwan's prose carries, at times, the formal delicacy of the late 19th century. The struggle with On Chesil Beach is to allow oneself the pleasure of reading slowly, because the mastery of the writing demands and deserves it. Yet the desire to read quickly and discover what will happen is equally at play. In real time, the story is of one wedding night filled with excruciating, if exquisite detail, but the novel's interstices combine with that one night to create an entire lifetime of pathos.
Falling Man ***image2***
by Don DeLillo
How does one characterize the conscription of 9.11, the event, into a literary genre? Perhaps inevitable is the only conclusion. In the hands of National Book Award winner Don DeLillo, the social, psychological and even literary effects of that September day are handled with care. And yet it remains true, at least for this reader, that it is far from enjoyable to inhabit the viscerality of that day, even within the confines of fiction.
The novel's main character is Keith, who has walked away from the opening ashes of the terrorist attack into a not-so-brave world. Indeed, there is a certain quotidian existential nausea one encounters in the post-9.11 lives of this book, saved perhaps by DeLillo's careful plotting and layering. That an author can still evoke a sense of horror and sorrow within the fictional realm of actual events replayed visually for nearly six years is a testament to the author and, of course, to the sheer weighted impact of the event itself. The last 9.11 novel this reader attempted, The Good Life by Jay McInerney, was so flaccid, maudlin and self-indulgent, a moratorium on such re-enactments was temporarily instituted. But to compare DeLillo to McInerney is a bit like measuring Leo Tolstoy against John Grisham. While Falling Man may not become the definitive novel of 9.11, it certainly takes one several miles down the road of reconstruction.
The Wild Trees
by Richard Preston
Random House, $25.95
They are ancient and massive: possibly 3,000 years old, stretching 35 stories. They are redwood trees and their hugeness is part of their mystery. And they make the expression "go climb a tree" take on a whole new meaning. But there are those, though they are few, who climb the redwoods. Such a feat requires daring and single-minded obsessiveness. It is these people and these trees that are at the heart of Richard Preston's newest release, The Wild Trees.
New Yorker writer Preston's ability to infuse journalism with literary narration is surely what made his book about ebola virus (The Hot Zone) such a gripping-if slightly revolting-read. Here, again, Preston defies clichés: He can see the forest for the trees. And it's a forest filled with the rare opportunity of discovering something new, as well as with the transcendent poetry only nature can supply. Preston writes: "A redwood is a tough tree, however, and when the tree is burned or sheared off at its base it has the ability to send up new sprouts from its root system. The root sprouts rise up in a circle around the stump. In the fullness of time, the root sprouts can become a circle of redwood trees, which is called a fairy ring." The California dreamers/discoverers Preston documents are as compelling as the redwoods themselves; Preston was sufficiently entranced to begin climbing himself. Who could resist such a view?
God is not Great; How Religion Poisons Everything
by Christopher Hitchens
There was a glorious moment last month when CNN's Anderson Cooper asked Christopher Hitchens if he saw any benefit in religion. Hitchens, in his lovely, boozy, dry, British way, grudgingly acknowledged his appreciation of some
religious music and poetry (but not so much devotional painting) and then continued his excoriation of religion and the need for secularists everywhere
to band together.
Indeed, Hitchens' brilliance, even when one disagrees with him (which both the left and the right do regularly) is his pairing of intellect with sardonis extremis. Hitchens does not prove the non-existence of God in his book, nor does he try. What he proves is the flimsiness of much of religions' foundations and the overwhelming evidence that religion can, and has, time and time again, led to evil, evil acts. Hitchens promotes-gasp-the idea that perhaps reason, not religion, should guide our lives. This is not a book solely aimed at the Christian fundamentalists in US society. Hitchens does not play favorites; when it comes to his condemnation of religion, there are no sacred cows.