Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli may be the right book at the right time as far as the critics are concerned, but what of the reading public? It would be easy to cast it — as some of them have — as significantly about our country’s border crisis as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe was about slavery.
In many ways, however, the book is both much broader and much narrower than Stowe’s masterpiece of sentimentality. Stowe’s was an unabashed treatise against slavery, filled with the accepted negro stereotypes of its day.
Luiselli’s approach is more subtle and layered. She sidesteps sentimentality, moralism and typecasting by inviting us to inhabit a fantasyscape. Hers is the rewrite of a road trip in which we accompany a family of four: a husband and wife (known by the children as Pa and Ma), a boy, 10, and a girl, 5. Together they journey from New York City to Arizona’s southeastern border with Mexico and the last stronghold of the Apaches, a place where migrant children have lost their ways and died.
During their journey, they each acquire a new name. Pa becomes Papa Cochise. Ma is now Lucky Arrow. The boy is Swift Arrow. The girl becomes Memphis.
Each parent is driven by professional curiosity. She’s a journalist having worked as a court volunteer translating the accounts of unaccompanied minors illegally entering the United States. He’s an acoustemologist who plans to record the sounds of the Southwest, retrieving the auditory setting of Apacheria. Theirs is a joint venture, yet their paths are diverging.
Their personal dilemma is captured most eloquently in a section titled “Alone Together: “I suppose my husband and I simply hadn’t prepared for the second part of our togetherness,” she writes: “the part where we just lived the life we’d been making. I —had made the very common mistake of thinking that marriage was a mode of absolute commonality and a breaking down of all boundaries, instead of understanding it simply as a pact between two people willing to be the guardians of each other’s solitude.”
This is literary fiction of the highest order in which the narrative flow organizes itself around short subdivisions with titles like Pronouns, Procedures, Credible Fear; examination of boxes containing family member’s “work” equipment; storytelling through tapes and readings of other trips, explorations, migrations.
In fact, it is these very techniques that may blunt the work’s power to move many readers. In a works cited section at the end of the book Luiselli describes the impact of other texts on her work as “dialogue” with the many voices the book sustains with the past. Heady stuff.
What saves Lost Children Archive for me, is the echo a second narrative voice provides of the first. The ten-year-old boy takes over the work of both his parents, leading his sister by the hand. It’s a perilous journey. Together and separately the two narrators — Ma and the boy — reached me on the macro and personal levels of frontiers and borders, the coming together and wrenching apart of families and peoples throughout history.
Now, let’s see how the rest of the reading public sees this ambitious work.
I was thinking the other day that it might be a good idea to read War and Peace. I was fifteen the first time I read it. Then I realized, I don’t have to reread Tolstoy. I read The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai.
Just like Tolstoy, Makkai really knows how to tell a big story small.
Short of running through the streets waving a copy of The Great Believers in my hand — a hard thing to do since I read the Phoenix Public Library’s large print edition at 733 pages — I’m not sure how to underscore the flawless way in which Makkai pulls it off. She tells the story of AIDS in America, not in a preachy, fact-laden way, but rather deeply from within, through two main characters, Yale Tishman and Fiona Marcus, and two settings mid-1980s Chicago and 2015 Paris.
The story opens with the memorial reception for which Fiona’s brother Nico’s friends, part of the greater gay community in Chicago, have gathered at the home of Richard Campo, a photographer. Yale is there with his partner Charlie, the publisher of Out Loud Chicago. Yale is head of donor relations for the Brigg Art Gallery at Northwestern University. He’s a preppy, quiet observer, recently hired from the Art Institute of Chicago, good at his work. As outcast from her parents as was her brother Nico, 21-year-old Fiona is drunk.
Somehow Yale’s losing track of Charlie and Charlie’s insecurity about Yale’s commitment and Fiona’s inebriation develop into the misunderstandings that carry the story forward.
We are in the middle of someone else’s story: Yale’s and Fiona’s. Being gay in a cosmopolis like Chicago in the mid-80s is a fearsome, reckless, exciting place to be. Being the younger sister of one who dies of AIDS turns Fiona into the little sister of 200 other big brothers, all of them potential victims of the disease. It overshadows her life for decades, infecting the relationship with her grown daughter Claire whom she chases across America and to Paris in 2015.
How soon we forget how terrified the general public was of AIDS and of homosexuality, how inadequate health care facilities were for dealing with it, how easy it was to turn Ryan White, a young boy infected with a tainted blood transfusion, into an acceptable poster boy for the illness.
The Great Believers brings the period all home.
Just as strong as the main story of relationships is Yale’s commitment to a 90-year-old donor, Nora Marcus Lerner — Fiona and Nico’s great aunt — who claims possession of a dozen original drawings from the 1920s when she studied art in Paris and knew Modigliani, Soutine, Pascin and Foujita. Yale and others from the gallery and university make trips to Wisconsin to gain access to the art and Nora’s story.
Alway with Makkai, humor is just a few sentences away. “Yale had wanted to ease into things slowly [with Nora], logically; he’d thought of several way to frame the conversation, none of which had to do with mint-bombing rodents,” she writes.
And she adds short bursts of lovely color: Charlie’s British accent ingratiates him to a hostess as Yale’s partner: “Charlie had already won her over, in two sentences. It helped that his accent contained a top hat and monocle.”
Yale’s story is much the more interestingly and fully explored than Fiona’s, as well it should be. It is filled with philosophical riffs that leave one pondering. Yale thinks about time-travel as described by his benefactor Nora. Going back instead of forward: “the older you got, the more decades you had at your disposal to revisit with your eyes closed.”
But then, Makkai writes: “If you had to choose when in the timeline of the earth, you got to live, wouldn’t you choose the end?” Yale muses. “You haven’t missed anything then. You die in 1920, you miss rock and roll. You die in 1600, you miss Mozart. Right?”
Being from the West Coast with family and friends in the Bay Area, it was easy for me to think that both the larger and smaller AIDS story as one that begins and ends with the losses closer to home, among my own family and group of friends. I appreciated living both the small and larger story as it unfolds in Chicago, fictionally but with a ring of authenticity.
And, of course, the story continues. AIDS is not a horror story of the past. There are still one million people infected with HIV in the United States today. That’s one million small stories.
This deftly written page-turner juxtaposes two narratives, both of them set in historical time periods. In 1945, Charlotte (Charlie) St. Clair is a pregnant college student with an Appointment to get rid of her Little Problem at a clinic in Switzerland. Her story is told in first-person present.
In 1915, Evelyn Gardiner is a London file clerk with a stutter, whose knowledge of German and French gets her hired as a spy for the Allies in Lille, France. Her story is told in the first person as flashback.
The stories of the two women are intertwined when Charlie gives the slip to her mom in London and looks up Eve as a link for finding a missing French cousin. It is possible that Rose had been in the employ of a collaborating French restaurateur during World War II. Eve had spied on him in Lille during World War I. A search for what became — or becomes — of this villain, René Bordelon, is worth staying the course.
Kate Quinn makes switching from Charlie’s 1945 narrative and Eve’s 1915 memories an easy task for the reader. The language, landscape and window dressings in each seem appropriate to its time. The pace of the action, with cliffhangers between each shift made me want to get on with the story.
Quinn has done her research well, not only in period spy work, but culture — horticulture, interior design, art and poetry. For the most part, dialogue and turns of phrase not only ring true, but are often standouts.
“Alice,” the titular head of the spy network, is based on a real person. She urges Eve to take on a difficult assignment: “No one puts a crackd cup back on the table and trusts it to stay in one piece,” she tells her. A superior, Major Allenton, supports Eve’s work to her boss: “This girl’s keen as mustard,” he tells Captain Cameron.
But descriptions are often tired and repetitive. Long-fingered and mangled hands get full-frontal attention, as does Charlie’s budding belly. Metaphors don’t always work. (“We lingered inside our fragile bubble of happiness, the kind of happiness that sits on top of melancholy as easily as icing on a cake.” I kind of get that, but not really.)
Where “The Alice Network” really falls down is in Quinn’s attempt to get under the skin of the main characters. Frequently they seem to be cardboard cutouts. At times, the book comes off as nothing more than a glossy historic romance novel. The love scenes are bodice-rippers or, in one case, a pants-stripper.
All in all, I can see why “The Alice Network,” by Kate Quinn, is a best-seller. It is a fun read.
Until a week ago, I thought Jorge Luis Borges got it right when he imagined Paradise as “a kind of library.” That was before I went to the Tucson Festival of Books.
In its eleventh year, the book fair is the third largest in the country. In 2018, attendance reached 140,000. This year, the fair hosted 350 authors and panels, held workshops, provided storytelling, culinary demonstrations, sold books by the carload. All of it took place at 36 different venues on the University of Arizona campus, March 2-3.This extravaganza is co-sponsored by the Arizona Daily newspaper.
And it’s free.
I heard about the Festival last year through Changing Hands bookstore in Phoenix, where I attend the First Draft book club the last Wednesday of each month. For a nominal fee, Changing Hands transports book lovers to and from their stores in Phoenix and Tempe the first day of the event.
What a luxury! Coffee and baked goods, a tote bag to carry books home and the good company of other readers and writers with whom you can discuss favorite authors and works.
Some of the events are ticketed, but attendees simply order these free tickets online when they become available. If you miss getting one for a favorite panel, line up early for general admission or catch it on a C-Span transmission at spots throughout the Student Union.
The Festival website publishes the calendar of presentations, so I was able to map out my own schedule before arriving in Tucson. Once our bus had deposited us at the north end of the Student Union and I had picked up a Festival guide and map to venues, I decided to stop for a Starbuck’s iced latte before heading over my first event: a presentation by James and Deborah Fallows, whose most recent book, Out Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America, had serialized in The Atlantic Monthly. HBO is making a documentary based on the book.
Unfortunately, this non-ticketed event was already at capacity when I got there. No problem, I took a chance at a nearby presentation, “Sinister Sisters.” Two mystery-writing siblings, Rosemary Simpson and Eileen Brady — one, a veterinarian, the other, a medieval historian — gave concrete information on how they researched, wrote and supported each other. Their advice about mentoring, critique groups and multi-book contracts was practical and realistic.
I attended three more events during the day, as well as grabbed lunch at the justly tauted Tucson Tamale and browsed book stalls where I picked up a paperback copy of Luis Urrea’s 2004 The Devils Highway, a nonfiction Pulitzer finalist. Urrea was at the festival promoting his latest book, The House of Broken Angels. He is much admired in Arizona as the summa instorytelling and would be signing books at the Tempe Changing Hands store Monday following the Tucson event.
I was happy not to miss meeting Jon Talton, the long-time Arizona Republic business columnist now with TheSeattle Times. Talton appeared on a panel, “Mid-Century murder,” with two other mystery/thriller writers. Talton is the author of a series of mysteries featuring David Mapstone, a historian who goes to work for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s department researching cold cases. His most recently published book, The Bomb Shelter, a fictionalization of the Don Bolles car bombing.
Talton was as entertaining and crusty in person as he is in the blog he regularly posts about Phoenix and Arizona (www.roguecolumnist.com). A fourth-generation Arizonan who has kept a condo here, Talton regularly rails against what he calls the Real Estate Industrial Complex that runs Phoenix and the Kookacracy that runs the state.
Talton was joined by Lou Berney, whose November Road features a criminal on the run and a single mom in the wake of the Kennedy assassination; and Martin Limon, the author of the Sergeant George Sueño series, which are based on the 10 years he spent in Korea in the U.S. Army. His new mystery in this 13-book series is The Line.
After spending time mostly in the company of female fiction lovers, it was refreshing to join a roomful of men with a predilection for politics, current affairs and history. “Democracy in its Foundation,” featured a magazine journalist, Stephen Fried (author of Rush: Revolution, Madness, and Benjamin Rush, the Visionary Doctor who Became a Founding Father); historians Greg Grandin (author of The End of the Myth: From Frontier to Border Wall in the Mind of America); and H.W. Brands (author of Heirs of the Founders about Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun).
Consider me crazy, but I don’t know what I would do with two days of such excitement. Certainly not if I had to drive back and forth to Tucson from Phoenix by myself.
What did I learn? For one thing, I would become a supporter, at least at the level that one Tucson couple has done. Michael and Marge have access to advance ticketing to any event, an opportunity to pre-order lunch and an early breakfast on event days. For another, I learned I am not alone in buying
books and filling my bookcase with volumes I may never read. (We all have our extravagances.) I even found other addicts who go to their local library and pick up a book they’ve put on hold — in my case, The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai — and end up check out a second one they spy on the NPR shelf — Transcription, by Kate Atkinson.
Ah, well! What a lovely ride home with a sachel-full of new books!
Tourists rarely stop in Ajo. Traveling south from Tucson or Phoenix on your way to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument or on to Rocky Point (Puerto Peñasco), the Mexican resort on the Sea of Cortez, roadsigns advertising travelers’ insurance scream: Keep moving.
The town’s spotty assortment of motels and restaurants, all of which seem to be closed, also encourage you on your way. Though it is hard to bypass the town’s Spanish Colonial plaza anchored by its historic railway station and two gleaming churches — one Protestant, one Catholic — only a stretch of the legs seems warranted.
We decided Ajo was worth more and decided to stay over.
For one thing, a friend from Portland had stayed at the Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center awhile back, when she visited the area on a Road Scholar tour. Her week’s stay took her to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, with nature walks and hikes led by a Northern Arizona University professor and U.S. Forest Service personnel. Her report titillated our appetite for the natural wonders of the surroundings.
For another, we have become fascinated with Arizona’s mining history. On other occasions, we’ve spent some time in Jerome, near Sedona; we’ve gaped at open pit mines passing through the Globe-Superior areas and taken a guided tour of the Copper Queen in Bisbee. After all, copper is one of the four “c’s” that distinguished Arizona historically to visitors and transplants alike (The others are climate, cotton and citrus.)
This was an opportunity to step up to the rim of the oldest open-pit mine in Arizona and stare down into the 1100-foot depth of the New Cornelia, which at one time was the largest producer of copper in Arizona. In 1959, it was the third larget open pit copper producer in the United States.
But first things first: We stopped at the Chamber of Commerce, housed in the old railway station, and then walked around the corner to the Desert Rain Cafe, where we could get a better-than-decent hamburger and secure a place for breakfast the next morning.
Next up: Find a place to sleep. The 21 rooms at the Desert Inn and Conference Center were fully occupied by a visiting hiking group, but Emily Seigel, who together with her husband Stuart, manages the Inn, directed us to a nearly Airbnb (360 Degree Views).
Here, we met host L.T. Sparrow, who — like me — has Portland roots. It was quite a surprise to meet someone in Ajo, who not only was born in Portland and attended Roosevelt High School (I attended Jefferson), but who had spent many years in Bolivia and was conversant in Spanish. I lived in neighboring Peru and also have kept up my Spanish.
Sparrow, as L.T. prefers to be called, is also a massage therapist, and well connected in this town that has attracted the same kind of free-spirited and artistic folk we’ve found in other Southwestern places like Jerome, Bisbee, and El Morro in New Mexico. Though the Agave Grill and Desert Rain were closed for dinner, Sparrow mentioned that soon-to-be-opened Arriba! was having a “soft” opening that evening.
Were we ever glad we went! Arriba! gave us a wonderful cross-sectional view of Ajo’s ethnic roots. Everyone seemed to know each other — Mexican, Native American, Anglo — all of them moving from table to table, greeting each other with handshakes. I think we were the only out-of- towners. As it turned out, people had learned of the opening by text-message from one of the employees.
Our zesty server immediately alerted us to everything we couldn’t order — alcohol (no license yet), chicken, seafood, tamales. (We noticed that a handful of motorcyclists went out to the parking lot periodically while waiting for their meal, which may be how they handed the alcohol question.) Our food, which arrived an hour after we were seated, was standard “border” fare. Bruce cleaned his combination plate clean. I ate my rice and taco, leaving behind the refried beans for him to attack.
No matter. Our perch at a table near the entrance gave us a bird’s-eye view of the cosmopolitan nature of a town that has held onto its polyglot and multicultural past.
We learned more about this with a visit the following day to the Ajo Historical Museum and an exhibit in a park alongside the Ajo Copper News, the town’s 100-year-old newspaper.
I may be reading too much into the diversity of the Generation Z’s I saw exiting an open-bed truck at the lip of the New Cornelia the next day. Among them were young people with Mexican, Native American, Anglo and African American roots. They all seemed to be local.
The volunteer guide who showed us around the Historical Society Museum paid his respects to the Tono O’odham members of the mine’s Indian Village, and those of Mexican town, who supplied the menial labor that kept the mine running until it closed in 1985. The mission-style building that houses museum is the former chapel and monastery of the clergy that ran the Indian school. (The Tono O’odham Reservation to the east of Ajo has 30,000 residents.)
It was John C. Greenway, the general manager of the New Cornelia Copper Company and the Cornelia & Gila Bend Railway, who left his stamp on Ajo’s architecture and industry. In his New Cornelia posting, he led the development of the Ajo town site and pioneered a system for providing water to its inhabitants by tapping into an ancient lava flow. It was his and his wife Isabella’s vision that resulted in the Spanish Colonial Revival architecture of the arcaded town square with it grassy, palm-tree lined plaza.
Greenway had been instrumental in the Bisbee Deportation of 1917, which removed 1300 striking miners and supporters from Bisbee by rail and deposited them in a lonely desert strip in New Mexico. (We will learn more about Greenway and the Deportation, once we have seen “Bisbee 17,” a film documentary showing in Chandler, March 6.)
The next day we headed toward Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, less than a half-hour from the Mexican border.
Passing through the curious town of Why, we were intrigued by the town’s roadside store and cafe. Not so much by the Border Patrol ‘s gargantuan facility nearby. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a 517 square mile UNESCO Biosphere Reserve commemorated in 1977. It is smack dab in the middle of a route traversed by migrant foot-traffic. It is well-patrolled.
I’d like to say we took full advantage of our stop at the Monument. We arrived at the same time as a tourist bus. We joined them for a good video dedicated to Bill Broyles who fought years for the creation of the Sonoran Desert Preserve. Unfortunately, we were unable to reserve seats on the van that guides visitors on a two-hour, 21-mile loop through a forest of Organ Pipe cacti. The rough road was too much for me recovering as I was from sciatica. Ditto one of the hiking trails. We’ll save this for a future trip, maybe one that took us to Mexico.
No, the fact of the matter is that Ajo is what stimulated most our imagination. On the way back to town, we drove along a slag hedge that borders the town to the northwest, a route promoted as a mountain bike loop. Many RV tourist sites are scattered along this rutted and poorly marked road. A couple miles from downtown Ajo, it still feels remote.
Like many places in Arizona, the environs of Ajo invite the adventurous, the eccentric, the intrepid. We ate dinner our second night in town at the Agave Grill — a real microcosm of townfolk and visitors.
We were resigned to wait for a table, but a couple about our age motioned us over to join them. Johnny and Nancy had been spending every winter at an RV park behind the Siesta Motel in their fifth wheel trailer for years. They were from up north. No, not Minnesota. They live in Farmington, New Mexico. It was their anniversary.
It is impossible to predict how Ajo will continue to evolve. Population here swells from about 2,300 to almost twice that during the winter months. Year-rounders are the first to admit summers are brutally hot.
A lot of public and private dollars have gone into refurbishing the town. The Cornelia Hotel is a moldering relic on its way to being demolished as is the abandoned Phelps Dodge Hospital that served the mining community. But live/work units for artesans have transformed the Curley School into an artistic hub that a coalition of supporters brought into being with federal dollars and the participation of the International Sonoran Desert Alliance and the University of Arizona schools of Architecture and Engineering.
The ISDA is also responsible for the transformation of the old Curley gradeschool into the Sonoran Desert Conference Center and Inn and an apprenticeship program for the trades.
Yet the town is resistant to prettifying. That’s okay. Ajo may be on the way to a number of places. It is still off the grid.
Laura Esquivel es un tesoro mexicano — más bien — latino con un sabor bien mexicano/indígena. En 1989 se estableció a la pantalla mundial como escritora de “Como agua para chocolate,” transformada a una película del cine en 1992.
Ahora, en “Mi negro pasado” sigue con el mismo linaje: “La saga contin úa” anuncia la portada del libro a los aficionados de esta autora. Las dos protagonistas del segundo libro, María y su abuela materna Lucía son descendientes de Tita y Pedro cuyo romance involucró a un público de lectores bien diversos.
Aquí Esquivel utiliza canciones populares de jazz de los años treinta en vez de recetas tradicionales mexicanas para propulsar la historia de María quien redescubre su herencia familiar por medio de Lucía.
Es una relación que se establece después de que María da a luz a un bebé negro que nadie en su familia inmediata acepta como producto legítimo de su relación con su esposo Carlos, cuyo cutis era tan blanco como lo de su esposa. María y su bebé van a vivir en el rancho de Lucía, una química de 81 años que practica la herbolaria y vive de lo que siembra de sus propias tierras.
La breve historia viene con un árbol de familia esqueleto al que Lucía amplifica con cuentos, objetos y fotos de los antepasados. Lucía sana al espíritu de María, enseñándole a cocinar, tejer y cuidar al bebé. Y la relación con María sana a Lucía también, quién debe excavar a unas memorias tristes de su propio pasado.
El sello distinto de “Como agua para chocolate” es el aprecio de los sentidos palpables — el olor, el sabor, el oído, el tocar. También en “Mi negro pasado.” El sexo es explosivo.
Aquí, Esquivel es didáctica en cuanto a la importancia de preservar las tradiciones y la espiritualidad animista de sus antepasados. En cierto sentido la narrativa sufre de sus predicaciones nutritivas y espirituales. Gracias a la ingenuidad de la autora, María baja de peso y empieza a dormir mejor por las actividades que Lucía le enseña: como hacer tortillas — un ejercicio agotador — y tejer lana — un enfoque contemplativo. ( Y como decía un compañero: “Es difícil comer y tejer a la vez.”)
A veces el trama carece de coherencia. El acción sufre de saltos y huecos. Unos personajes desaparecen y reaparecen; una hermana inexplicablemente se olvida de la raza de un abuelo. Los ramos del árbol de familia se confunden.
Pero, no importa. Es un libro que se puede apreciar por el encanto de sus personajes y la fluidéz del lenguaje. Es una buena lectura.
Samanta Schweblin escribe en un estilo sin mucho adorno, pero con una mescla de detalles a la vez confortantes y absurdos. No todos estos cuentos cortos resultan satisfactorios. O sea que la introducción de lo fantástico con lo corriente a veces llega a la confusión y no a la claridad visceral.
Sabe bien como prolongar una parodia de la complacencia por medio de una familia que intenta solucionar la depresión de una pariente en “Mi hermano Walter.” Excava lo macabro con mano ligera (“El cavador”) o mano brutal (“Bajo tierra”). Pero algunos son simplemente espeluznante, como “Cabezas contra el asfalto.” (En ese, un pintor quien gana millones con cuadros grandes de cráneos quebrados revela su trayectoria de misantropía singular desde niñez.)
Sobre todo, admiro mucho el talento de Schweblin en provocar la risa, como en “Conservas” con su receta inventiva del aborto. ¡Qué genial es esta cuentista!