Our Year in Books: Mark

Article by mark

It wasn’t a conscious act, reading so many novels by Mexican writers this year. It just happened that way. Invariably, I’m always reading translated fiction from Latin America and Spain, but midway through the year, I realized Mexico was playing a larger role than many other countries. I’d chosen a theme, or perhaps a theme had chosen me. The rules for this list were casual. Some of these books are classics--Juan Rulfo’s PEDRO PÁRAMO, for instance--while most are contemporary, published this year or in the past two years. One will be published next year. One is a memoir by an American writing about Mexico City. Some experiment with genre and style; some are slim and can be read in a sitting; others are expansive, dense, and often drunk with language. All the same, these books demonstrate that our neighbors to the south are routinely producing fantastic literature, a cornucopia of styles and voices as exciting as anything being published around the world. Mexico’s literary scene is nothing short of vibrant. 

Pillar of Salt: An Autobiography, with 19 Erotic Sonnets (Texas Pan American Literature in Translation) Cover Image
By Salvador Novo, Marguerite Feitlowitz (Translator), Carlos Monsivais (Introduction by)
ISBN: 9780292705418
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: University of Texas Press - April 1st, 2014

PILLAR OF SALT is the thrilling memoir by Mexico’s avant garde author Salvador Novo. This year saw the book in English translation for the first time. Packed with action--passages from PILLAR OF SALT read like an adventure story--and candid depictions of a man’s intellectual and sexual awakening, PILLAR OF SALT presents Mexico as it moves into the 20th century (there’s even a passage where Pancho Villa’s men murder Novo’s uncle that is especially harrowing). More important though is the culture and life of Mexico as it transforms into a modern nation. Novo’s straightforward and satiric insights about Mexico City’s art and cultural elite are also of singular benefit. PILLAR OF SALT gives a snapshot of Mexico’s birth into modernity with a powerful vision, coinciding with a man’s coming-of-age.

Pedro Paramo Cover Image
ISBN: 9780802133908
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Grove Press - March 10th, 1994

The Burning Plain and Other Stories Cover Image
By Juan Rulfo, George D. Schade (Translator), Kermit Oliver (Illustrator)
ISBN: 9780292701328
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: University of Texas Press - January 1st, 1971

It’s not that modern Mexican literature wouldn’t exist without Juan Rulfo, but it would certainly be hard to imagine. Rulfo’s reputation rests on two slim books: the novel PEDRO PÁRAMO and the collection of short stories THE BURNING PLAIN. Both are exquisite, austere exercises in the form. Published in 1955, PEDRO PÁRAMO is the surreal and haunting story of a man searching the town of Comala for his father, a town populated by ghosts and whispers. The events and psychology of this novel exist deep in the surreal. If Franz Kafka had written a novel in Mexico, chances are it would have been very similar. THE BURNING PLAIN is one of the best collections of short stories I’ve ever read and includes the classic “Tell Them Not to Kill Me,” the story of a man’s fate arriving and his desperation to stay alive. Indeed, Rulfo’s stories, which all take place in bleak landscapes, are rich with themes of revenge and the carnal desire to avoid death. These stories, with their masterful narrative techniques and elemental language, unflinchingly show the violence that dominates the landscape. A precursor to the magical realism that would soon come to represent Latin American literature, Rulfo is indispensable.

Quesadillas Cover Image
By Juan Pablo Villalobos, Rosalind Harvey (Translator), Neel Mukherjee (Introduction by)
ISBN: 9780374533953
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Farrar Straus Giroux - February 11th, 2014

I loved Juan Pablo Villalobos’ first novel in English, DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE, and his second, QUESADILLAS, is another gem of dark social satire. I can’t print the first line of this novel. Suffice it to say, it is explicit and a clear harbinger of things to come. QUESADILLAS is a novel about the struggles of a poor Mexican family--a family whose social and economic lives, and the economic life of Mexico, are displayed by the amount of quesadillas their mother can afford. There’s a lot of children in this family, by the way, so if you get two quesadillas, things are going pretty badly. Five? Eh, things are looking up. There are fabulous insults in this book: to each other, to the government, and even to oneself. There’s also alien spacecrafts, religious pilgrims, and a plethora of “your mama” jokes. This isn’t lowbrow, though; this is an indictment of a government bedeviled by fraud and an economy that can’t sustain itself or look after its own. Like all good satire, there’s a reason, a purpose, and a heart behind the laughs.

Almost Never Cover Image
By Daniel Sada, Katherine Silver (Translator)
ISBN: 9781555976095
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Graywolf Press - April 10th, 2012

Daniel Sada was a giant in Mexico. A literary legend. Sadly, ALMOST NEVER is Sada’s only work in English, the translation just nearing completion when he died in 2011. The story is simple: a young man must choose whether to marry the prostitute he visits each week, or whether to court the young, provincial girl he meets when he goes back home for a wedding. Sada’s writing is dense, funny, and relentless: pages upon pages of unsurpassable prose, a parade of different voices and a cacophony of invention. A small, minute thought can end up meandering for pages (to the reader’s delight), which brilliantly exemplifies the narrator’s indecision. The story is simple, but the way it is told is not. Let’s hope more of Sada’s work will be translated into English in the future. He is a treasure.

Hypothermia Cover Image
By Alvaro Enrigue, Brendan Riley (Translator)
ISBN: 9781564788733
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Dalkey Archive Press - May 2nd, 2013

The stories that make up Enrigue’s first collection in English are varied, bold, and startling for their range as much as their originality. They take place mostly in the United States, peopled by professors and professionals, and in ways both obvious and not-so-obvious, they deal with the immigrant experience. Gringos are mentioned in several stories, and an English-speaking reader immersed in the story will very likely find themselves nodding, Yeah, we are like that, aren’t we? A husband and father on vacation. A deranged garbage man. A family on a bike ride in Washington D.C. caught in a vicious storm. The possibilities of these situations offer Enrigue myriad opportunities to entertain and thrill, and he misses none. The table of contents at the front of the book has the stories grouped by subtitles, and for good reason: the sheer variety of these stories makes for adventurous reading. One is never certain what sort of story awaits them next. This, of course, makes the book exhilarating. The final section, “Two Waltzes Toward Civilization,” follows a Mexican chef who has been invited to compete in a television cooking show in Peru. What follows--told in first person--is by turns hilarious, thrilling, and very sexual. I caught myself thinking I was in the middle of a novel I didn’t want to end. Speaking of novels, Enrigue’s first in English, SUDDEN DEATH, will be published in 2015, and anyone who reads HYPOTHERMIA will be waiting anxiously for its arrival.

Natural Histories Cover Image
ISBN: 9781609805517
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Seven Stories Press - June 10th, 2014

Quiet. Haunting. Surreal. The stories that make up Guadalupe Nettel’s collection NATURAL HISTORIES are subtle, yet they stay with you long after reading. The simplest way to describe these stories is to say they are about the relationships we have with one another and the animals in our lives, but that’s selling them short. Very short. Nettel’s characters are often found at moments of emotional distress. The way we act, behave, and treat ourselves in these instances says a lot about human nature. Is Nettel writing about human nature or animal nature? Or is she writing about the animal inside each of us? In any case, characters have epiphanies with the help of their animal counterparts. In “The Marriage of a Red Fish,” a woman witnesses the collapse of her marriage through the lens of a pair of Siamese fighting fish, whose fatal cohabitation reflects the actions of the husband and wife. Other stories are more subtle and perverse, exploring how the natural world dictates our lives. The English speaking world will be able to read her memoir THE BODY WHERE I WAS BORN in 2015. Additionally, this November, Nettel was awarded Anagrama’s prestigious Herralde Prize, whose past winners include Roberto Bolaño and Álvaro Enrigue. I am excited to read everything by this author.

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Faces in the Crowd Cover Image
ISBN: 9781566893541
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Coffee House Press - May 13th, 2014

Sidewalks Cover Image
By Valeria Luiselli, Christina Macsweeney (Translator), Cees Nooteboom (Introduction by)
ISBN: 9781566893565
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Coffee House Press - May 13th, 2014

Subtle, intelligent, philosophical, Valeria Luiselli’s writing is hard to pin down. And that’s a good thing. This year saw the English debut of her novel, FACES IN THE CROWD, and her book of essays, SIDEWALKS. Both are elegant and multifaceted, and both should be read immediately. FACES IN THE CROWD focuses on a young mother living in New York who, while working on her novel, inadvertently begins blending with her own story the life of Gilberto Owen, a dead Mexican poet who haunts her. The past mixes with the future, and the book the young author is working on becomes the book you, the reader, are reading. It’s difficult to explain her novel--which, of course, is a good thing. It’s literary and original, and the prose leaves fingerprints on your mind. Luiselli’s essays are no less astonishing. SIDEWALKS roams the streets of the world, considering such things as the layout of Mexico City, the differences between walking and bicycling, and the psychology of place, which is especially important as the reader goes from the Bronx to Mexico and even to poet Joseph Brodsky’s grave. Luiselli’s novel THE STORY OF MY TEETH will be published in English this April.

The Interior Circuit Cover Image
Unavailable from Brazos Bookstore
ISBN: 9780802122568
Availability: Out of Print - Not Available for Order
Published: Grove Press - July 2nd, 2014

I fell in love with Mexico City through Roberto Bolaño’s THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES. Novelist and journalist Francisco Goldman (partly responsible for bringing Bolaño to the states) only confirmed my love with THE INTERIOR CIRCUIT, his heartbreaking paean to this dynamic mega-city. Part memoir, part reportage, it follows Goldman as he emerges from the grief of losing his wife, Aura, five years earlier. The book begins with Goldman wanting to learn to drive in Mexico City--no simple task, as seasoned taxi drivers are known to get lost in its serpentine routes. It is to honor his late wife that Goldman attempts this game of “destination and chance,” since both shared strong attachments to the capital city. Goldman writes that the streets suggest “a metaphysical limitless, a bewildering chaos that is actually possessed of a mysterious order that even those who’ve spent a lifetime exploring the city can only dimly perceive.” Reading THE INTERIOR CIRCUIT, I felt I had explored every chaotic inch of Mexico City, from youth marches and student rallies to art galleries and decadent cantinas. What stands apart from the amazing descriptions of restaurants and apartment houses and Goldman’s close friends is Goldman’s writing itself, which, quite simply, is something to behold. He is that rarest of authors that the reader feels he or she knows intimately after reading something, anything, they’ve written. For anyone interested in Mexico City--its politics, arts, and, yes, its police and government corruption--look no further: you have found an exalted guide.


Signs Preceding the End of the World Cover Image
By Yuri Herrera, Lisa Dillman (Translator)
ISBN: 9781908276421
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: And Other Stories - March 10th, 2015

A stark, visionary tale of a young woman crossing the border from Mexico into the United States to find her brother and deliver a package, Yuri Hererra’s SIGNS PRECEDING THE END OF THE WORLD is a masterstroke of storytelling. The young woman, Makino, makes her way through this hellish and surreal landscape, only too aware of the constant threats of men, cartel, border patrols, and natural elements. Everything in this compact novel is expressed with economy. The dialogue rings true, and the language a hybrid of border lingo (with English being referred to as Anglo). There is something fantastical about this novel, yet one realizes it’s because it’s too true. The reader can't help but realize that, at this moment, someone is escaping something bad in hopes of finding something better. And not always with success. There are tinges of Cormac McCarthy and Juan Rulfo in Herrera’s story, yet he is a writer confident and assured. SIGNS PRECEDING THE END OF THE WORLD can be read in one sitting, perhaps two, and will stay with you much longer. It will be released in March of 2015.

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