July 2010

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Southbound and Down

My intention was to make this column all about recent books on Cuba, because I have seen quite a few for middle-grade and young-adult readers in recent months, and thought that the world really ought to know about the recent rise in Cuban literature for kids. Then Chin Music Press sent me a copy of Tracey Tangerine’s utterly original Buddy Zooka in the French Quarter and Beyond, and I decided this would be a column on southern writing instead -- or at least two southern locales -- because I had to write about the strange yet compelling nature of Buddy Zooka right away. It is Weetzie Bat in New Orleans with a male protagonist, and an environmental spin. And an alligator that lives in a hat. And a reincarnated magician and puppets. To be honest, I have no idea how to quantify this book, but I’m going to try because mind-blowing originality is such a precious commodity in the YA world in particular that it must be celebrated whenever a reviewer comes across it.

Buddy Zooka is a horn player who exemplifies everything outrageous (his clothing) and determined (his impressive work ethic) about New Orleans. Dressed in trademark hat and suspenders, he enters the story early on by becoming involved in an unfortunate hot sauce spillage incident in the French Quarter. From there, he continues about his morning schedule all the while covered in red sauce (that he really wishes he had time to clean off) until he has a brief mystical experience that might involve the earth speaking to him about the way we’ve been mistreating it. The story then diverges into that of traditional plot unfolding over several days (Buddy joins a friend on a city tour, meets an outrageous friend with a cable access show, and becomes involved in a community fundraiser) and a parallel sequence of fantastical episodes (he meets a talkative alligator reminiscent of The Princess and the Frog, loses his smile, dreams about avenging puppets and hears more than one pleading voice about nature at risk). Thankfully, for all that, this book is a wake-up call about the environment. But it never preaches or becomes didactic, and Tangerine clearly is more determined to paint an accurate picture of her home city’s quirkiness than anything else. For as odd as Buddy is (regaling others to have a “zookarific” day), he also likes his friends, the local food and a good book. He’s as colorful as his hometown, and on that score in particular, Tangerine successfully walks the line of creating a character who both exemplifies New Orleans while not dissolving into parody. It’s likely only someone from the city could accomplish this, and kudos to her for pulling it off.

Listed as “a novel for all ages,” it’s hard to know just exactly who is the best audience for Buddy Zooka, as it’s more about the reader then their age. You have to like your stories offbeat, and your characters larger than life, but even with those caveats, this is a very charming novel with an element of sweetness tempered by humor and occasional silliness (the hot sauce incident) that makes it broadly appealing. The design is also impressive -- Chin Music has gone out its way to give the book a vintage feel with everything from the cover illustration to end papers to closing “advertisements.” To say that Buddy Zooka will stand out on the shelves is an understatement, and further proof of just what an indie press has to offer that the big publishers (so fond of their black and purple photo illustrated covers) have yet to embrace.

Now onto Cuba!

My Havana: Memories of a Cuban Boyhood is a total delight. Written by Rosemary Wells with Secundino Fernandez and gloriously illustrated by Peter Ferguson, it is an interesting approach to a MG memoir. In a brief afterword, Wells explains that she heard New York architect Fernandez in a brief radio interview discussing his childhood in Havana. Intrigued, she eventually met him, and the result is this fictionalized account of young Dino Fernandez growing up in Cuba, Spain, and ultimately New York City. It is rich in the beauty of Havana, and features a child in love with his home, the “Paris of the Americas.”

In 1954, when he is six years old, the world is admittedly quite sweet for young Dino. His eyes are perpetually set on the buildings around him, a joke to family and friends who appreciate how he is forever sketching windows and doors. His bliss is interrupted by a prolonged family visit to Madrid, a place then laboring under the oppressive regime of Dictator Francisco Franco. Dino does not draw Madrid, a city that is grey and brown, where the “windows are solemn, like eyes that won’t look at you.” As delighted as the family is to return to Cuba in 1956, unfortunately life under Fidel Castro is no better. In 1959, Dino must leave nearly everything behind and move with his parents to New York. There is no word for “sleet” in his language; he has never encountered such cold before, and he does not fit in. As he did in Madrid, Dino clings to memories of Havana, going so far as to create the town on his bedroom floor in wood and cardboard. His love of Cuban architecture helps him hold together through the many changes that are forced upon him until he finally becomes comfortable in his new city. Dino learns to fit in, but never forgets what he left behind, and never stops loving the Havana he knew.

As lovely as Rosemary Wells's version of his story is, and as deeply affecting as the memories of Dino Fernandez are, it is Ferguson’s deep rich illustrations that lift the reader up and carry him away. The illustrator has embraced the old colors of 1950s Havana -- the rich browns and russets and lush corals that are not at all the Miami Vice version, but rather a romantic Hemingway literary portrait of the country. You see Cuba in a whole other way through Ferguson -- you see it the way Dino Fernandez sees it in the story. It makes perfect sense why this boy would feel compelled to draw every inch of his city; if only we all could draw and capture our love of home the same way! My Havana is a jewelery box of a story, something small and perfect that gives readers a vision of a place whose history and culture has been stolen by its politics. Wells is determined to bring some of what Cuba was back to the limelight, while not forgetting what Castro (along with Che Guevera) stole away. She made a splendid decision when she sought out Fernandez, and together with Ferguson, they have created a book that will easily stand the test of time. Readers will feel for Dino, and cheer his determination not to forget his home. They will also be happy to know that he never stopped drawing buildings, or looking at his windows and doors.

Christina Diaz Gonzalez, daughter of Cuban immigrants, reaches into her family history for the very emotional novel The Red Umbrella. Set in 1961, shortly after Castro came to power, and written from the perspective of teenage Lucia, this is the story of a family that makes the gut-wrenching decision to send the children to another country for their safety. Lucia’s wake-up call to her country’s drastic new turn is horrifying and impossible to ignore, and just as she can not believe her friends are embracing Castro’s new revolutionary call to arms, she also can not deny that it is the wrong choice for her family, and that something must be done.

The trip to America is only supposed to be temporary, but as readers know, nothing about Castro’s presidency has been short-lived. Still, we follow Lucia and Frankie first to a church dormitory in Miami, and then a host family in Nebraska, as they find themselves falling into new lives while living for long distance (and expensive) phone calls with their parents. On the one hand, Lucia has a very American teen life, while on the other, her heart breaks a little more every day. For every good thing that happens, from making friends to the kindness of her host parents, Lucia’s life is a rollercoaster ride of epic proportions, and as much as the specifics might be unfamiliar to American readers, the fears and concerns explored here are transcendent. While initially the point-of-view was rough for me, as the chapters began to fly by and the situation in Cuba became increasingly tense (very “reporting on your neighbors to prove your own loyalty”), I fell harder and harder for Lucia. Her story is that of any teenager who wants the promised carefree life that is her due but loses it to the whims of politics. Freedom is indeed never free, but the price paid in The Red Umbrella is especially hard. That Diaz Gonzalez makes this story still both hopeful and heartwarming (and a testament to the eternal power of home) proves what a good writer can do with a truly brutal subject.

“Operation Pedro Pan” is also a big part of Enrique Flores-Galbis’s 90 Miles to Havana. In 1961, Flores-Galbis, at age nine, left Cuba with his two older brothers on a Pedro Pan flight, and this novel is based on his experiences in a South Florida camp. The protagonist, Julian, does not leave for a kindly foster family like Lucia and her brother, however. Julian and his older brothers find themselves in an environment controlled by bullies, with children terrified by threats of schoolyard abuse and the very real threat of being separated from their siblings. If the author had chosen to keep his characters at the Miami camp, I think 90 Miles to Havana would be a more successful story, as those chapters are the most easily identifiable for readers. Flores-Gablis chose to incorporate several other plot elements, however, a decision which sends the novel uncomfortably careening into implausible directions. It is still an interesting read, but less successful then it might have been.

Like Wells and Gonzalez, Flores-Gablis also opens in Cuba where Julian and his family have enjoyed a happy middle-class life. After Castro takes control, they watch with growing consternation as change comes to their neighborhood and friends are forced to leave everything behind. A late night mission to recover a treasured piece of family jewelry from the next door neighbor’s vacated home brings them unwanted attention, and it is decided the boys must go. In short order they find themselves in Camp Kendal and discover a bully from back home who is now happily running the place because he keeps the kids in control for the administrator.

There is a lot of battling in Kendal as kids pick sides, get into fights and discover ways to wrestle back control. Flores-Galbis is on firm ground here, although it was frustrating to see that some of the supporting characters were given attention that seemed to rise and fall as needed by the plot. Things start to veer out of control when Julian’s two older brothers are whisked away to another state and he makes the decision to run. From there he meets another boy who is hard at work preparing a boat for a rescue run to the island to pick up his parents. Julian falls into the plan and makes the trip while staying one step ahead of the police, who or may not be trying to get him to his parents (who may or may not be in the States). The shift from the contained action of the camp to the drama of the high seas is rather abrupt and reads very much as a forced connection between two entirely different stories. The only thing between the two sections of the book is Julian and Cuban history, and honestly, it is just a little too convenient that Julian lands where he does, and ends up on such a big adventure.

Taken together, The Red Umbrella and 90 Miles to Havana have a great deal in common and can certainly be read side by side. Umbrella is the stronger book, largely because while not as exciting, Lucia’s story reads as more real. Flores-Galbis certainly could have written about a boat rescue (they have been relatively common), but would have served that section of the story better by spending more time on that boy, Tomas, and less on Julian. Of course, that would have meant writing a separate book, and concluding Julian’s story is a different way. Readers will have to decide if the race across the ocean serves this narrative well or if, indeed, the author tried to force something that does not fit.

Four years ago, Margarita Engle’s emotional and award-winning The Poet Slave of Cuba shared the history of Juan Francisco Manzano. She has since returned to Cuba’s past with two subsequent titles: The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom and The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba. Once again, she brings history alive and proves the accessibility of poetry when portraying individual experiences to share a collective past. More than anything, though, she writes very gripping historical fiction, and if you are interested at all in Cuba, then consider Engle a must read.

The Surrender Tree is about Cuba’s three wars for independence, beginning in 1868 when a group of planters freed their slaves in defiance of Spanish law. In the thirty years that followed, until after what Americans refer to as the Spanish-American War, battles were waged on the island, and nurses and doctors tended to the injured and ill in the jungle. One of those healers was Rosario Castellanos, the protagonist of Engle’s book. In shifting voices, Engle primarily writes as Rosa, her husband Jose, and a slave catcher tracking them, as the population is uprooted and tormented in the ongoing quest for freedom -- both from slavery and colonization. In The Firefly Letters, she writes about the voyage of Swedish suffragette Fredrika Bremer, one of the world’s earliest advocates for women’s rights. She traveled to Cuba in 1851, and her papers and sketches document her experiences with a young African slave who was loaned to her as a guide and translator. It is primarily in their voices that Engle writes, although a fictional character, the daughter of the slave Cecilia’s owner, also plays a powerful part of the narrative. As in The Surrender Tree, the author manages to make big history small as readers become consumed by the stories of the women involved.

There are several winning aspects of Engle’s books, especially the intensity of her poems. Readers are lulled into these stories by the brevity of each passage -- rather than facing a 400-page book of dense Cuban history, she writes on page after page of life in the jungle, being hunted, being afraid and alone and overwhelmed with longing for home. But even though the stories are largely fictional (her excellent research on the history involved notwithstanding), readers turn the last page with no small amount of knowledge about nineteenth-century Cuba. The parallels with US history can not be discounted, nor can the alarming reverberations still felt from this period be overlooked. The American military base at Guantanamo exists because of the Spanish-American War; the first incarceration of civilians by their government in “reconcentration” camps occurred in Cuba; the U.S. asked more than once to purchase Cuba from Spain, and for an extended period we administered the island in Spain’s wake. Our mutual history is long and entangled, but knowing the dates and the places, the names of commanders and battles, tells us only who and how and where. To understand what life was like, you need storytellers like Engle, and with her latest two offerings, she proves yet again how very well equipped she is to bring Cuba home to American teens. Outstanding must reads, one and all.

COOL READ: One Hundred Great French Books by Lance Donaldson-Evans is an absolutely fantastic overview of French literature from the Middle Ages to the present. With two page entries for everything from Tristan and Iseult to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the author provides not only capsule summaries of the books, but pertinent (and often scintillating) information about the writers themselves. Donaldson-Evans also has a comfortable style -- he writes about the scandal surrounding Denis Diderot’s late eighteenth-century novel The Nun, and notes that Madame Bovary is so entrenched in popular culture, it was once a book club choice on Desperate Housewives. Anyone studying French needs to pick this one up. It’s useful for all sorts of obvious reasons, but even more than that, it's just a flat-out good read. It’s certainly a perfect gift for those in love with all things France, and a dandy introduction if you know a teen who is lately raving about Dumas and Hugo.

If French isn’t your thing, then consider It’s All Greek To Me by Charlotte Higgins. Subtitled “From Homer to the Hippocratic Oath, How Ancient Greece Has Shaped Our World,” this is an eminently readable survey of Greek literature with a heavy focus on The Iliad and The Odyssey. Higgins doesn’t just recite chapter and verse of what happened in the two books (and other Greek literature), she goes through a series of thematic explorations on everything from love to war with a variety of pop culture references and stops along the way. You have Antigone described as “the first, and perhaps, the greatest detective story”; you have T.E. Lawrence referenced in connection with Homer; you have Margaret Thatcher dropped into a discussion of Thucydides (did she or didn’t she read him during the Falklands crisis?). Readers learn about how women are the root of all evil to some Greek writers (although not Homer, who gave us many powerful goddesses in The Iliad as well as Hector’s great love, Andromache), and there is a frank discussion of just what kind of love we’re talking about when it comes to Achilles and Patroclus (I’m with Higgins here -- if those guys weren’t one of the great romantic couples in literature, I’ll eat my hat). Oh, and in case you’ve never understood Plato then just follow the author along with Neo in The Matrix -- and that’s the Greek’s whole analogy of the Cave in a nutshell.

Smart, sassy and witty as hell, It’s All Greek To Me is the kind of book that makes clear all those things that professors assume you know in class, but never take the time to explain in a way that is actually interesting. She includes a rundown of all the major players as well as a glossary of terms we have taken from the Greeks and use in everyday language (draconian, dog days, skeptical). Perfect for teens, this one is truly a gift from the gods. Delicious!