Sunday, September 30, 2012

Damaged yet unbeaten heroine from New Orleans

Joy Castro’s new novel, Hell or High Water (Thomas Dunne Books) is a gritty and suspenseful thriller set in post-Katrina New Orleans—damaged yet unbeaten— and told through the eyes of crime reporter Nola Soledad Céspedes.  She is the story as much as she writes the story, as Nola investigates the scary underworld of sex offenders, their many victims, and what if any possibility exists for understanding of and redemption for her tortured past.

Nola is a feisty and savvy 27-year-old reporter for the Times-Picayune, trying to make the leap to serious reporting as she simultaneously struggles to reveal and hide herself to her successful girlfriends.  They don’t know she grew up in the dangerous Desire Projects or that she was fatherless as a child. Nola’s Cuban mother was often drunk even as Mama created “an island of love” amid the muck.  Nola and her mother have also kept many astonishing secrets from each other.

The plot is driven by the abduction of Amber Waybridge, a young tourist who disappears in the shadowy corridors of a restaurant in the French Quarter.  Nola interviews sex offenders about their evil habits and rehabilitation, if any, and empathizes with their victims and the lifelong destruction left behind.  Some of the most suspenseful moments in the novel occur when Nola encounters rich sex offenders as well as poor ones in their own homes.  Issues of class and race transect Nola’s observations about who gets rehabilitation and who does not and the elision of inconvenient history among the well-to-do.  How will Waybridge’s abduction, Nola’s research and newspaper writing, and her history all come together in the end?  For the many sticky situations along the way, Nola packs a Berretta in her handbag.

In Nola Céspedes, Castro has created a character defined by a strong voice, trenchant societal observations, and solitude, as her middle name suggests, Soledad.  What Nola must accomplish she must do so according to her agenda, what she must overcome she must do so alone, and what external and internal demons she must conquer she must do so head-on.   What humanizes Nola in the end is that she recognizes what she wants yet what she lacks.  She is courageous enough to change and act to overcome the real and psychic injustices the world has flung her way.

Hell or High Water is a tightly written thriller where Nola’s first-person perspective and her witty, often cutting dialogue will make the reader believe in the character, and really, care for Nola and what happens to her.  You want to talk to her, you want her to succeed, and even when she is making mistakes you are rooting for her to escape her predicament and survive and defeat her enemies.  Like the city for which she was named, Nola is damaged yet unbeaten.

The novel’s twist at the end reveals that Nola’s primary quest is to heal her own soul.  But to achieve that, like many of us who may have begun with less than nothing and wounds too deep to easily heal, Nola may have to act beyond the boundaries of morality.  Hell or High Water is an exciting, incisive novel.

(This book review originally appeared in the El Paso Times on September 30, 2012.)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Thursday Night in El Barrio

Tonight I read at La Casa Azul Bookstore in El Barrio, at 103rd Street and Lexington Avenue, with the poet-anthropologist Renato Rosaldo. Owner Aurora Anaya-Cerda and her staff have created a great space to read and explore books. Please visit and support this independent bookstore in Manhattan.
With Aurora Anaya-Cerda and Renato Rosaldo
With Raquel Toledo

If you want independent voices in a vibrant culture where not only what sells is available, but also what challenges conventional culture, mores, and politics, then you need to buy books from places like La Casa Azul Bookstore.  You need to support those small and non-profit publishers who nurture these independent voices in print.  You need to buy those quirky magazines and indie literary reviews that give you a fresh perspective on life, that ask you to question your perspective as a reader rather than just reinforce your prejudices.

Afterward Renato, my wife Laura, and a few friends stopped at El Aguila on the corner of the block, for some tacos de carnitas.  Wow, were these tacos excellent, and the agua de horchata!  I didn't want to leave.  And down the block, another taqueria named El Paso.  It was the best Thursday night I've had in a long time.

To end this wonderful night, I am reading one of my son's essays, to help him perfect an already insightful piece on Homer's Odyssey.  It is the simple things that matter, the connections we make with our families every night, the friends with whom you read and share stories and poetry.  Those are the best nights I remember.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Why Read?

I believe this is the crisis of our times: we are losing readers, we are forgetting why reading is important as well as pleasurable, and we are becoming accustomed to a culture focused primarily on images.  What happened to our long-term attention span?  Why are logic and fact-based analysis overshadowed by rhetoric and politics?  Why can’t we slow down?  Why do we believe responding in real time on Twitter and Facebook is ‘meaningful involvement’ with society or family?  Why is reading more important than ever?

Over the past few weeks, I have been reading Edith Wharton’s novels at night, and have marveled at the modernity of the protagonists, from Lily Bart to Undine Spragg, and at Wharton’s ability to keep the story moving, the characters evolving, and the reader surprised.  I like to learn from good novelists, and I am learning from Wharton.

I have timed my reading to finish whenever a Yankee game is on the Yes Network, and if no game is at hand, then at least Storage Wars or American Pickers.  That’s it.  That’s about the only TV I watch, or I feel is worth watching.  My kids rarely watch TV, and my wife only watches the news, if that.  They do see episodes of The Office, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report on their computers, which prompts me to consider whether I should cut cable TV once and for all.  But I don’t.  Not yet.  I want to, but I don’t.

Since Aaron and Isaac were toddlers, my wife and I read to them.  Every night.  Thirty minutes for Laura.  Thirty minutes for me.  This was our religion through their grade school years.  Not surprisingly Aaron and Isaac as high-school students are enthusiastic readers for pleasure.  After school, they are as likely to guffaw at Stephen Colbert on their MacBooks as they are to read their novels in bed.  But this family culture of reading, if you can call it that, took years to foment, took attention and care to implement and nurture, and took active dismissal of what I would call the normal American culture of not reading.

I am often asked how I became a reader, in part because many know that I grew up poor along the Mexican-American border of El Paso, Texas.  My parents did not read to me.  They could read and did read in Spanish, but most of my reading was in English.  My parents did hand me two or three dollars for paperback books I ordered at South Loop School from Scholastic Books every other Friday.  But more importantly, they left me alone.  They left me alone with my massive collection of paperbacks, and they never disparaged my love of reading.  The opportunity to read and the space to read are as important as having your parents read to you.  I still remember the lime-green bookshelves my handy father built in my room.  These bookshelves housed my treasures.  I have never forgotten how he took the time to do what mattered to me.

So I don’t know if you are made a reader, or if you are born a reader.  What I do know is that reading widely —reading beyond your time and culture, reading different genres, reading in different languages— changes your perspective profoundly.  Television becomes a bore, and what is said and done on television is amusing.  But it’s rarely important.  The crisis of the day or the outrage of the day becomes just more inane shouting to get your attention.  On the Internet, online status updates are interesting little notes about your life, but never more than that.  It’s not really who you are, and well, a serious reader would know that.  But you worry about the others.  Those who don’t read. Those who take television as the truth.  Those who sell stocks at the clarion call of another ‘crisis,’ or buy gold as they anticipate a Mayan apocalypse, or attack an ‘other’ because ‘they’ are after us, aren’t they?

Yes, I worry about our American culture and how it is shaping us.  It’s short-term-ism, if you can call it that, its obsession with fluff and images, its endless talk about who stunned in what dress.  Are any of us ever going to look like Victoria Secret models?  Will any of us ever get a chance to date them?

We are not ‘censored’ in the traditional way in the United States: writers are not beaten or killed because of their words, and no Ministry of Truth enforces an official version of what can be printed and thought.  But in this culture of images, we are censoring ourselves.  That may be more insidious and long-lasting.  What I mean is that we disparage long-term complexity, and extol superficiality.  We ignore reading, and lavish time on images.  To read, in my mind, is to consider and to think.  To see an image is to react.  What happens when we start believing the world and what is important in it are only these reactions and prejudices?  What have you become when the most expected of you is simply to press a ‘Like’ button?  What kind of gulag is it when its inhabitants are too stupid to understand they are its prisoners?

Because I live in a different milieu of my own creation, and also because I’m rather humorless unless the joke is really quick and clever and insightful, I’d rather be reading and catch a Yankee game afterwards.  For me, that’s the perfect night.  I can kiss my wife goodnight, and kiss my boys goodnight too (yes, remarkably, they still let me), and know that I am happy to do things the simple way, the slow way.  I focus on how I find meaning in my life over the long-term.  That is how I work to be free.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Distance to Tucson

Distance—whether it be psychic, physical, linguistic, ethnic or cultural—allows us to easily stereotype individuals, groups, and even places. I wrote a novel, The Nature of Truth, in which I argued—yes, in my novels I argue, sometimes with myself—that the pursuit of truth through abstraction is often rooted in hate. Years later I read Anzaldua’s Borderlands in which she says, “In trying to become ‘objective,’ Western culture made ‘objects’ of things and people when it distanced itself from them, thereby losing ‘touch’ with them. This dichotomy is the root of violence.” I knew I had found a kindred spirit.

So it was upon my arrival in Tucson. What I expected after being outraged by the banning of books and the elimination of Mexican-American studies in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD), and what I discovered after talking to people at the festival, were two different things. The all-too-neat abstraction in my mind was challenged by the complexity on the ground.

A Salvadoran taxi driver (a naturalized citizen) drove me to the hotel and said he feared Governor Jan Brewer and Sheriff Joe Arpaio from Maricopa County near Phoenix “porque son racistas,” that is, “because they are racists.” I could not disagree with him. But he also pointed out that it wasn’t necessarily like that in Tucson.

At my table at the Authors’ Dinner on Friday night, this point was repeated by the well-to-do crowd; some were Latino, but most were not. They argued that Phoenix was the more politically conservative city, and Maricopa County had the burgeoning population, many of them newcomers from California and the Midwest. It was this group, or a part of this group, that had voted in a radically conservative legislature and passed a state law to ban Mexican-American studies and installed the State Superintendent of Public Instruction in the TUSD who implemented the misguided, punitive agenda. Some at the table whose families had lived in Arizona for three or four generations, who were blond and blue-eyed and spoke excellent Spanish, were as vehemently against Brewer and Arpaio and John Huppenthal (the Superintendent) as I could have ever been. So the first thing I learned is that Tucson is not Phoenix, and vice versa.

The gifted storyteller Luis Alberto Urrea delivered a rousing keynote speech at this dinner. He gleefully mentioned having the most books banned at the TUSD, and thanked the district (to great applause) for increasing his books sales and Twitter followers. Urrea was funny and irreverent. But at the end, he pointed to the 900-plus attendees at the dinner, all of them booklovers in one way or another. He reiterated an important point: they were really the heart of Tucson, and the tens of thousands who would attend the Tucson Book Festival would emphatically repeat that point. The retrograde media image of the city did not do justice to how people often came together for books and culture in Tucson. Urrea received a standing ovation. Again, I appreciated that Tucson is not Phoenix, and certainly not Maricopa County.

Throughout the Tucson Book Festival, as I attended my panel and signed books at the University of Arizona Press table, people could not have been friendlier. It was one of best-organized book festivals I have ever attended. I spoke to high school kids protesting the TUSD's book banning and elimination of Chicano studies. They had a table next to the Nuestras Raices big tent featuring Latino authors. At this table, the kids displayed all the banned books. I bought two of their t-shirts featuring a Mexicano with a sombrero seemingly asleep with his arms crossed in one picture, only to look up in the next picture as he reads a book. The title on the t-shirt: “Think Again!” I’m giving the t-shirts to my sons.

In fact, the only time I heard comments in support of Sheriff Arpaio’s camera-ready crackdown on undocumented workers in Maricopa County was Saturday afternoon from a California writer, a Latino no less. Go figure.

At the festival, what I often did witness was talk of recalling Governor Brewer, petitions for signatures to make that happen, and people organizing for the next election to counter the crazy conservative elements that have for the moment dominated this state. Yes, I also saw many hairdos from the 1950s and 1960s, and too many new-age books about aliens hiding in the desert or plotting the end of the world. Yet I also experienced the variety and plurality of books and people and discussions that could have easily taken place in Brooklyn.

I would argue that the conservative politicians in Arizona do not know Chicanos. I would argue that they also do not know what studying Chicano literature and culture does to a group of students who too often feel put down by those who don’t take the time to understand them. When I was a teenager in El Paso, I sometimes felt worthless because of the stereotypical images I would see in the media about Mexicanos being lazy, stupid, and even dangerous. When Latino administrators at my high school yelled at me and repeated, “They don’t take people like you at Harvard,” reading Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima gave me hope. I saw myself in literature for the first time.

I read Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Acuña’s Occupied America (banned books at the TUSD) at Harvard, but I didn’t become a bomb-thrower, nor did I grow to resent groups in power, even after I learned what they had once done to the downtrodden and the weak. I did vow never to forget where I was from. I vowed to understand more about my history and culture. And ironically, as I grew to believe in myself over the years, I was able to appreciate and seek out allies and even opponents from all backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and cultures.

This is what the hateful conservative politicians of Arizona are missing: the context. They assume that studying your race and ethnic history, for Chicano students, is exactly how they—the rich and powerful—would be if they studied their race and history. It’s racism by projection, in a way. For a downtrodden group, for a historically disparaged group, studying about who you are helps you to overcome and understand and eventually move beyond the hateful images you have to struggle against. Ethnic studies by and for a group in power, and ethnic studies by and for a relatively powerless group, are two different subjects with different motivations, for those with a reflective mind.

Radically conservative politicians in Arizona exploit the distance between the powerful and the powerless. Forget about getting them to acknowledge what it means. They simply don’t have the goodwill. But at the Tucson Book Festival, I also believed I shouldn’t act similarly with the city of Tucson: what it was in my mind before I arrived and the city I found on the streets were vastly different.

I remember at Harvard how I often saw undergraduates protesting South Africa, spending countless hours organizing protests against dictators in Central America, and so on. Yes, I agreed with them. But I also wondered why these same students didn’t focus on the racism in Cambridge, or why they too often mistreated their own friends in the dorm room next door. In a way, it was safe to focus on a faraway cause, to create the perfect and distant bogeyman, to abstract and so perfect an enemy in the mind, and to ‘act’ but not really to act, to improve this world.

I vowed to practice my politics locally, with my family and friends most of all. I vowed I would always check what I thought I knew in my mind with what I experienced. I wanted to seek out what Aristotle understood as knowledge: the practical work for the good that is grounded in what you see and hear and find out for yourself. Tucson is book country. That I know. At the Tucson Book Festival, we shared that common ground.