Una crítica de “La fruta del borrachero,” de Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Por su propia admisión, Ingrid Rojas Contreras ha escrito una ficción autobiográfica. En La fruta del borrachero toma como narradoras dos jóvenes colombianas que forman una amistad riesgosa en la época de Pablo Escobar, el narcoterrorista de la decada noventa en Colombia.  frutaRojas vivió en Colombia durante esos años — tiempos de inseguridad, secuestros, coches bomba, asesinatos — cuando las alianzas entre los guerrilleros, paramilitares y políticos sostenían una inestabilidad constante.

Chula, una niña de 7 años cuando la historia comienza, vive en una residencial cerrada de Bogotá con su mamá y su hermana mayor, Cassandra. Su papá trabaja como gerente en una compañía petrolera, regresando cada 6 o 7 semanas para estar unos días con la familia.

Petrona, una joven de 14 años, entra en la casa como empleada doméstica. Ella vive con su madre y tres hermanos menores en una invasión, poblado de gente perseguida fuera de sus propiedades rurales por la guerrilla. Petrona es una figura de fascinación para Chula.

Petrona vive la inestabilidad del país de primera mano. Chula la experimenta a través de dos eventos: su participación en una manifestación política que termina con un asesinato y su visita a la abuela que vive en una región lejos de Bogotá. Mientras la familia está allí, la abuela se va de paseo con dos de sus nietos y se quedan atrapados momentariamente en un tiroteo violento entre los militares y los guerrilleros.

En Chula y Petrona, la autora crea dos protagonistas simpáticas envolucradas en un  mundo fantasmagórico. Tanto lo lindo como lo trágico de este libro se encuentra en la dificultad que tienen las dos chicas en negociar su pasaje a la madurez sin perder sus valores y su lealtad a sus queridos.

Al fin y al cabo, La fruta del borrachero termina con un sentido principal de arrepentimiento y de una perdida irrecuperable. Está lleno de corazón.


Posted in Book Reviews, en español, Hispanidad | 4 Comments

A critique of “The Weight of Ink,” by Rachel Kadish


For author Rachel Kadish, a story starts with a question — something that bothers her. In the case of “The Weight of Ink,” it was a question posed by Virginia Woolf: “What if William Shakespeare had an equally talented sister? What would have become of her?”

That question led Kadish to create the story of two women who pursued the life of the mind as far as it could take them. They are separated by four centuries. Helen Watt is an ailing British historian, called to examine a trove of old documents in a seventeenth century house scheduled for remodel. Ester Velasquez is an orphaned Sephardi Jew of Amsterdam, who has followed her protector, a blind rabbi sent to support a fledgling community in London in the 1660s. She becomes his eyes and his pen.

Aaron Levy, an American graduate student floundering with his dissertation, is enlisted to work with Helen. He is the third spoke on a narrative adventure that pieces together the mystery surrounding the author of the documents — some in Portuguese, some in Latin — all of them filled with the philosophical arguments that characterized the thinking of this early modern period.

Although the main characters are fictional, the arguments legitimately recreate the discussions of Hobbs, Spinoza, van den Enden and others.

Kadish creates beautifully embroidered descriptions of place. The sights and smells of seventeenth-century London teem with vitality. The reality of racism and anti-Antisemitism in the age of the Inquisition is glaringly exposed.

Kadish’s dialogue has the ring of truth. Characters move the plot in both settings as past switches to present and back again. But with the exception of Rivkah, an Ashkenazi housemaid, the handful of secondary figures are overdrawn and clutter the story.

My complaint would be that research has gotten the better of both plot and character. By the end of this 732-page book, I began to get whiplash moving back and forth.

And there are just too many words. This may be what happens with historical fiction.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, religion and culture | 2 Comments

Let’s go to the movies!

Time was when going to movies was an escapade. What fun it was to be bundled in the back of the Ford — my sister and me in the back seat, Mother and Daddy in the front. We’d be off to see a double feature at the Irvington.

In 1952, it was The Quiet Man with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara and Carrie, with  Jennifer Jones. (The latter was not a good choice for a nine and eleven-year-old, but there was no IMDB in those days to check it out.) By that year, I was even old enough to ride my bike down to the Colonial for a Saturday matinee of Robin Hood and His Merry Men.

Neighborhood theaters are still alive and well in Portland, Oregon. Yes, the Colonial is gone and the Irvington, only a marquee marking my home district.  But Portland’s east side still has vintage venues, turned into three-screen multiplexes serving pizza and beer in addition to candy, popcorn and sodas. irvington closed 1990

The Laurelhurst, the Bagdad and the  Hollywood, the queen of them all, have stayed the course.


I went to the Hollywood Theatre when I was in Portland recently to see Roma, Mexico’s entry in the foreign film category for the Academy Awards. Scheduled for release simultaneously on the home screen through Netflix, its theatrical showing was a major event.

And the crowds turned out. At the Hollywood we would be watching a 70mm print on the fifty-foot screen originally devised for Cinerama (1961), It promised to be an appreciably more arresting experience than viewing it on a home screen. (As I write, Roma is still playing in Hollywood’s main auditorium which seats 384.)

Portland is a movie town. It has hosted an International Film Festival for 45 years. Organizers are expecting more than 38,000 viewers of the 140 films it will be showing during a two-week run in March 2019.

But the town is filled with preservationists, too: the Hollywood Theatre being  a case in point. Opened in 1926 as a vaudeville and silent movie venue, the Hollywood is an architectural extravaganza. Its over-the-top Spanish Colonial style is strangely exotic. Hollywood-Theater-1926 Oregon Historical SocietyWhen it first opened, the district was a suburb, a less sophisticated sector than its leafy western neighbors of Grant Park and Irvington. Little Ramona Quimby, the Beverly Cleary heroine of the 1950s children’s books, lived nearby and went to movies at the Hollywood. She shopped at Fred Meyer’s first suburban grocery store across the street.

Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, the Hollywood continues to have its supporters. (Years ago, I bought a frequent-goers card. It’s still honored.)


The theater was purchased in 1997 by Film Action Oregon and is run by a nonprofit board.  Starting in 2011, major renovations were done, including new seats, screens, sound systems and an updated paint job. A 2013, a Kickstarter campaign provided enough funds to erect a new marquee, and in 2015, 70mm capability was re-installed.

Recently, the non-profit that oversees the theater has successfully completed a second campaign to purchase Movie Madness, a video store with more than 80,000 titles and memorabilia that includes the knife used by Anthony Perkins in Psycho and William Holden’s shotgun from The Wild Bunch.

Hollywood at PDXPerhaps the most interesting of Hollywood Theatre’s ventures is the installation of a theater in the Portland airport for travelers waiting for a flight. I did that when I had an extra 40 minutes to kill before my return to Phoenix on Dec. 17. It was just enough time to see four interesting shorts by local film-makers.

With the glow of a my Portland visit to the Hollywood and nostalgia for movie-going days of yore, I suggested that we go to the movies on Christmas Day.

It wasn’t a very original idea. Though the AMC at Desert Ridge — in fact the parking lot and whole mall — appeared to be empty, the single box-office cashier told us that it was first-row seating only for the next two showing of Mary Poppins Returns. (This is the same message he gave the only others expecting to buy tickets to a different film: another 55-plus couple.)

You can still buy tickets at the door at some movie theaters.  You can also check where and when movies are playing without using your Smart phone. But it’s hard.

In our case, we returned home Christmas Day. Harrumph! So much for nostalgia! A couple nights later, we tuned into Turner Classic Movies to watched Cary Grant and Eve Marie Saint in North by Northwest. It was a good print without advertiser interruption and almost like a trip down memory lane.



Posted in Commentary, film, Portland | 2 Comments

A critique of “The Incendiaries,” by R. O. Kwon

Where to start with a critique of a short book — 210 pages — that took forever to read and failed to reach me on both micro and macro level? Possibly with a summary and a look at the structure.

“The Incendiaries, ” by R. O. Kwon caroms between three characters, two students and a young cult leader: Will Kendall, Phoebe Lin and John Leal. All have connections to Asia.

Will transfers from a Bible college to Edwards in his sophomore year. He has completed a proselytizing trip to Hong Kong,incendiariesbut has lost his faith. At Edwards, he meets Phoebe, the pampered daughter of divorced Korean immigrants, who blames herself for her mother’s death in a car accident.  John Leal, a dropout from Edwards, returns to town after working in China smuggling refugees to Seoul. He was captured and imprisoned in the North Korean gulag, an experience that provides him with a mission and a story that will assemble adherents.

Purportedly the story is told from three perspectives, but early on, the reader sees that no matter how the chapters are headed they are all filtered through Will and his attempt to understand how it was that Phoebe got caught up in a plot to torch abortion clinics.

The book’s title, “The Incendiaries,” promises to provide the reader with an inside look at what leads someone from spiritual belief to political activism. We know that the two drives can be conjoined. We’ve seen it in movements and cults like the Ku Klux Klan and Rajneeshpuram. Unfortunately Kwon’s storytelling is so schematic that our understanding doesn’t get any farther than a statement made early in a chapter attributed to John Leal: “Some people need leading. In or out of the gulag, they craved faith.”

Reading “The Incendiaries” I felt as if Kwon wanted me to consider each sentence as carefully as she had constructed it. I had hoped to be carried along through spiritual fervor to a crescendo of terrorist idiocy. Whether it was because of the book’s structure or the narrator’s lack of candor, that didn’t happen. Instead, I was left wallowing in what it is like to be young and purposeless. That’s not very interesting.

At the sentence level, the writing also fails. Kwon front-loads nouns with curious adjectives. “God-haunted” is a favorite. Many images simply don’t work. (“Old ambitions flopped like stranded fish.”) And she struggles to make her points as if writing poetry: “The Lord had peeled the flesh off His corpse. He had spread it as a bloodied veil upon this earth, a flailed red carpet to ease His people’s fall.”




Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary | 2 Comments

Eating in good company

How good can a pancake be?

That was the question running through my mind when my high school friend Ancil and his partner, Molly, picked me up in Portland last week for a drive across the Columbia River into Vancouver, Washington.  We were joining friends for breakfast at Duck Tales.

Back in Portland for a pre-Christmas week to see my sons, my sister and old friends, I was lured by the promise of a walk along the river after breakfast.

“Duck Tales is run by the family that owned Waddles,” Molly told me.

Waddles was a landmark for those of us who grew up in Portland in the ’50s. It was across the Interstate from Jantzen Beach, the amusement park on the Oregon side of the Columbia River. In fact, the first time my friends set off to meet others at Duck Tales they mistakenly thought they’d find it at the old standby’s original location, now occupied by Hooters.

No such thing. Duck Tales (612 N. Devine St.) is on an unprepossessing strip mall in Vancouver. It has none of the pizazz of the original site.

On the way over in the car, my friends went on and on about the fabled pancakes. I’d never eat a better pancake, they told me.

“They separate the eggs, beat the whites, then fold them in,” Molly said. “Strange, though. The pancakes aren’t particularly fluffy.”


Molly with a “waddler”

I’m not a pancake aficionada, if there is such a thing, but I remember my father’s “eggy” pancakes fondly. Pancakes at Duck Tales are reminiscent of those childhood treats — not particularly attractive and substantively lacking in uniformity.

My short stack —  two, rather uneven disks, five or so inches in diameter — arrived with a couple of chubby sausages. And even though the waitress managed to spill the tiny pitcher of syrup all over my plate on the way to the table and I spent the first few minutes rinsing my fingers and knife handle in my water glass, I’d have to agree with my friends.

Up until the moment I took my first bite I had always thought of pancakes as a way to conduct maple syrup to my mouth. Never again.

Of course, good company has everything to do with what constitutes a good meal. My trip back to Portland also included a lunch with my sister, Leslie, and Widney and Glenn Moore. Leslie and Widney attend Sonata Piano Camp in Vermont, where they have became roommates and friends with more than music in common. Leslie had had a lively discussion with Widney’s husband Glenn about Robert Frost when he visited Vermont the previous year. The Robert Frost Stonehouse and Museum, connected with Bennington College, is nearby.

Our delicious lunch at Allora (504 NW 9th Ave), a small Italian restaurant in Portland’s Pearl district, was accompanied by an exegesis of one of Frost’s early poems, Home Burial.

Leslie had the spaghetti carbonara and pronounced it as good as any she had ever eaten. I ordered the lunch special: halibut with roasted cherry tomatoes and capers over pasta. It was all I could do not to tip the plate to slurp up the remaining sauce.

Yet the talk was as satisfying as the food. In the quiet of Allora, Glenn, who had made a study of Frost’s work and life, pushed the discussion to a broader understanding of the poem’s images in the context of Frost’s own struggles with loss, depression, and death.

Sometimes, quiet itself is the necessary ingredient that makes a meal memorable. The last night I was in Portland, I walked the five blocks from the house to our favorite neighborhood eatery, Milo’s City Cafe (1325 NE Broadway St.) milos2

It was one of those cold, glistening nights more typical of weather in Phoenix than in Portland, where overcast skies blot out the stars. I sat at a booth near the bar facing the street. I could look past the strings of Christmas lights framing the windows at sidewalk passersby as I drank my red wine.

The meatloaf with mushroom sauce served on a bed of mashed potatoes and a side of fresh roasted broccoli and baby carrots was enough for lunch the next day. (I took half of it home.) My chilled lemon souffle with whipped cream and berries was just enough. Un bocadito served on a vintage Santa plate.

Sitting at table with friends or even alone can be such a pleasure. It fuels the spirit.

Posted in Eating Well, fun stuff, Portland | 8 Comments

A critique of “The Friend,” by Sigrid Nunez

thefriendBook covers don’t lie. “The Friend,” by Sigrid Nunez is about a dog. It’s about a dog and a woman and a man. The man — the woman’s friend, her soulmate, really — has committed suicide. The woman has inherited his dog.

The dog is big: a Harlequin Great Dane. The woman is small, but her grief at losing her friend is aptly represented by this huge burden she must regularly walk and may well lose her apartment over.

Sigrid Nunez has written a deceptively short book deeply, about what it is to experience loss and to go on living. Just as you can’t hurry love, you can’t hurry grief. A psychologist might see the narrator’s transference of love for her friend to his dog as psychosomatic. Indeed, we learn late in the story that the woman is seeing a psychologist: Dr. Obvious, she calls him.

In the meantime, we learn a lot about dogs. “You really are a different species,” the narrator writes, as she describes how Apollo (the dog) examines every aspect of her body through his smelling receptors. We also learn how closely related dogs are to humans. “The Friend,” is riven with research about dogs. We learn about dogs in literature, in film, in history. It turns out Apollo likes to be read to. Did her friend read to him, too?

You don’t have to be an animal lover or a lover of dogs to find this book a wonderment. The narrator is a fiction writer and writing instructor. Her soulmate was her professor when she was in college — a well-known womanizer. Always her mentor, they retained their friendship throughout his three marriages. In fact, he sends her a reading list that might help in an upcoming writing project as his last communique.

Amidst the writer’s bewilderment over the suicide, then, is her questioning of her own life work. “The Friend” is filled with myriad references to what others writers have said about writing. Martin Amis, Elizabeth Bishop, Edna O’Brien, Doris Lessing all have something pithy and pertinent to say.

Monumental loss creates monumental re-examination. This is no to say “The Friend” is a deeply sad book. Grief and humor are close companions here. Walking through campus, the protagonist sights some graffiti on Philosophy Hall. “The examined life ain’t worth it either.”

Winner of the National Book Award for 2018, “The Friend” is such a well-crafted book, one wonders where Nunez started. Was it with grief? Seeing the sight gag of a small woman servicing her large Great Dane in the street, shoveling up the shit?

All I can say is Reader Beware: Do not skip ahead to Part Eleven: How should the story end? Great insight and wisdom lie ahead, laughter and tears. Nunez is at the helm.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary | 7 Comments

Read the Acknowledgements first!

Recently, a good friend wrote me she had just finished and enjoyed Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, recently included in the New York Times “100 Notable Books of 2018.” She said she had perused the acknowledgements at the end of the book and thought my name should have been included since I had hired Susan in the early seventies as a music critic for Willamette Week.

I thanked her for her support, but I was hardly instrumental in Susan’s rise to the that pantheon of sociological reporting in which writers insert themselves into the narrative.

The thing I remember most vividly about Susan was that the day after I hired her, she appeared at the office wearing an umbrella hat affixed to her curly red head. (You’d have to see it to appreciate her quirky, bold  commentary on Portland weather.)

“What have I done?” I asked myself.

It turned out, she was a virtuoso of descriptive prose as well as a gimcrack researcher: the hallmarks of the long pieces she later produced for The New Yorker and a string of nonfiction books.

My friend’s email got me to thinking about acknowledgements and when and why I always read them. Sometimes I read them almost immediately upon opening the book, sometimes midway through, sometimes at the end.  And I always read them from start to finish.

In some sense I think I am looking for my name, or the name of someone I know, or someone whose name I recognize. My perusal of the acknowledgements probably dates from flipping to the back of Shot in the Heart, by Mikal Gilmore, a memoir of growing up with his brother Gary Gilmore.

Gary Gilmore was executed by firing squad in Utah in 1977 for murdering two people. Mikal had also written music reviews for me at Willamette Week before he went on to write for Rolling Stone. He had dropped by newspaper before the book was published and had told me he was going to include me in the acknowledgements.

He didn’t.

No matter. Acknowledgements are just plain interesting and that’s why I read them. It feels almost like a litany to read the names of those the authors see as being instrumental to their endeavors. In addition it can give you background on what led to a book’s creation.

These end notes vary greatly. Sometimes they are humorous, as when Juan Pablo Villalobos, author of No voy a pedirle a nadie que me crea, both apologizes to his mother and assures her that she is nothing like the mother in the book. Sometimes they are revealing, as when Akwaeke Emezi, author of  Freshwater, recognizes her mother’s support: “you told me to treat it like a method actor, to surrender.”

Sometimes, the references only seem matter-of- fact, as is the case in The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez, recently awarded the 2018 National Book Award. Nunez is the author of seven other books. She thanks three people and two foundations by name. A seasoned professional, she’s as minimalist in her acknowledgements as in her writing exercise.

My husband might say I read the acknowledgements because I am ever the journalist, always motivated by curiosity. Perhaps so. On the other hand, I believe attention must be paid, not only by the author, but by me the happy recipient of the holy work of a book’s production.



Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, good thoughts | 1 Comment