Monday, April 20, 2009

Mexican High by Liza Monroy (The Read Your Way Around the World Challenge)

* Publisher: Bantam Books

* Pub. Date: June 2008

* ISBN-13: 9780385523592
* 352pp

*Genre: Autobiographical fiction

I chose Mexican High by Liza Monroy for the "Read Your Way Around The World Challenge" hosted by Global Voices Online because ig would be my first book set in Mexico City. Also, with Obama just having returned from a visit to Mexico I thought it it might be quite a topical read. If you're taking part in the challenge, please don't forget to tag your post with #gvbook09

It's never fun for a kid to have to change schools and it has to be downright frightening for the kid who happens to be a High School senior who is not only called upon to change schools but to live and study in a different country.

Milago Marquez (who, embarrassed by her unusual name, insists on being called Mila) is the only child of a US foreign service worker transferred to Mexico in Milago's final year of High School. As most highly paid expats are wont to do, Mila's mother enrolls her in a fancy International school that caters to American expats and the kids of the Mexican elite.

The school is mostly divided into two groups of kids....US and international students(many from diplomatic families) and the kids of the Mexican elite (government officials,gangsters and businessmen) aka as "fresas". Fresas are rich, designer-clothes wearing, spoiled kids...highly nationalistic,they will only speak Spanish and they look down on anyone who is not rich like them, especially gringos (foreigners, mostly American) It doesn't take long for Mila to figure out that with her normal US upbringing she sticks out like a sore thumb and that in order to become an insider she would have do what the rest of the kids are doing which included getting high, cutting classes,having sex and drinking hard alcohol. So acceptable is it for Mexican teenagers to engage in alcohol-fueled social events that even at their school-council organized "lunch" parties every Friday after school (Cocteles), Bacardi along with other alcohol was the main staple..there was little or no food served.

I had a rather hard time deciphering which year this book was set in. The author mentions "Nirvana" and the grunge look being the craze of that year and from what I remember Nirvana was formed in the early 1990's so I am going to presume that this is when the story was set.

Initially the book did hold me captive...I was appalled and aghast to learn what these kids (most of them as young as 17) did to themselves, and as the mother of two teenage girls I felt compelled to read on. Also, I did enjoy her glimpses into Mexican culture, however, as more and more absurd subplots entered the story, I started to grow tired of our protagonist, her friends and their antics and I literally just thumbed through the last 70 pages of the book.

What you will take away from the book:

a)Perhaps a better understanding (not flattering) of the Mexican elite and their children...of the politics, corruption and violence that exists in that country( It was not uncommon for Mila's classmates to be summoned home during the school day because a family member had been kidnapped or assassinated) ;

b)A visual image of the environs of Mexico City like "Angahuan" a town destroyed by the volcano Paricutin which erupted in 1944 and where people ride horses instead of cars and speak the local Pur├ępecha tongue instead of Spanish; "Villahermosa", a paradise for anthropologists with its remarkable Olmec ruins, the Chiapas one of Mexico's poorest towns with a large population of agrarian Mayans and a trip Real de Catorce, a rural desert town where Huichol Indians go looking for peyote in the surrounding hills to sell to tourists wanting to undertake a mystical peyote pilgrimage,

c)Mexican food (Monroy got me hooked on "Cafe de Olla" (coffee made in earthernpots with cinnamon, brown sugar and clove), "Sincronizadas" ( ham and cheese quesadillas);

d) A keener understanding of the role of a foreign service worker and e) a fond regard for teenagers in North America, who despite their foibles, seem so much more grounded and focused than Mexican teenagers.

Why autobiographical fiction:

Well, like Mila, Liza Monroy is also the daughter of a US foreign service and spent her last few years of High School in Mexico City. According to the author, many of the characters(and the incidents they got embroiled in) are based on people she knew in High School. Since these characters were based on real people I expected them to feel authentic and inspired, instead, many of Monroy's characters feel empty and souless. I was hoping Monroy would use Mila to give us an insider's view of Mexico City, and I suppose she did, but it's a dark view of a tumultuous city through the eyes a rather conflicted, sometimes-stoned 17-year old girl, so I am not sure I can set much store by it.

A warning: While it is set in high school, "Mexican High" is definitely NOT recommended for any reader under 19.

Categories: Mexican, Beverages
Yield: 6 servings

3/4 c Brown sugar, firmly packed
3 x Cinnamon sticks
6 x Cloves
6 tb Coffee (NOT instant)
6 x Julienne slices orange zest

In a large saucepan, heat 6 cups of water with the brown sugar, cinnamon
sticks, and cloves over moderately high heat until the mixture is hot, but
do not let it boil. Add the coffee, bring the mixture to a boil, and boil
it, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes. Strain the coffee through a
fine sieve and serve in coffee cups with the orange zest.

Friday, April 10, 2009

# TEA AND OTHER AYAMA NA TALES by Eleanor Bluestein and a GIVEAWAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Publisher: BkMk Press
PubDate: 11/30/2008
ISBN: 9781886157644
Price: $16.95

"Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales" by Eleanor Bluestein is a book of 10 short stories set in a mythical country somewhere in the South-East of Asia. Although Ayama Na is a fictitious land, its characters and their surroundings are vibrantly alive. What the reader gathers quite early on in the book is that Ayama Na used to be a thriving country which was then taken over in a bloody coup. The new tyrants ensured the country became a cultural wasteland by putting to death as many artists, (dancers, playwrights, actors etc.) as they could find. The rest of the people were forcibly taken to labor camps where they toiled day and night in the fields or mines, eventually starving to death. Furthermore, the country was dotted with landmines making it virtually impossible for anyone to escape.

The stories in this book are set in modern-day Ayama Na. The nation is in the process of rebuilding itself emotionally and physically- artists are back at work, American tourists are arriving in the country in droves and the King and Queen have just given birth to an heir - all appears to be good, however, the country is still shackled by poverty, superstition, corruption, tyranny and machismo.

Through these 10 remarkable stories Eleanor B. - winner of the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction - has conjured up a wounded country populated by amputees begging in the streets, a pineapple farmer, obnoxious American tourists, an outspoken beauty queen, novice Buddhist monk, a one-legged prostitute with deep red hair and impoverished fisher-folk living in crude houseboats because they can't afford proper houses. Written with a rare sensitivity about ordinary people confronting the anguish of their past while trying to live meaningful lives in the 21st century, the stories in this volume weave a magical web of emotions around the reader. Bluestein is a captivating narrator often using prose so vivid it makes the land breathe...she also also possesses the gift of description and her wonderful use of colors, smells and sounds evoke the full flavor of life in Ayama Na.

In "Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales", Eleanor Bluestein has created for us a country that will not be easily forgotten. At times bewitching and enticing, at times unattractive and charmless, Ayama Na is a nation at a crossroad...which route will it follow? As I read, I was reminded of our visit to Cambodia last year..they are also a nation fighting to throw off the shackles of the past and learning to embrace modernity much to the angst of the traditionalists. I was intrigued enough to ask Eleanor Bluestein if she had Cambodia in mind when she developed Ayama her interview to see what she says!

**Giveaway** I have a copy here (kind courtesy the author) for one lucky reader- all you have to do is leave a comment and you'll be entered in the draw...good luck!

To order your copy from Small Press Distribution click here, or from Amazon click here

For a brief Q & A session with the author, please go here

Blog Tour Stops:

Wednesday, April 1st: The Bluestocking Society
Monday, April 6th: Bookstack
Wednesday, April 8th: Nerd’s Eye View
Friday, April 10th: Lotus Reads
Monday, April 13th: 8Asians
Wednesday, April 15th: 1979 Semi-finalist…
Friday, April 17th: Ramya’s Bookshelf
Monday, April 20th: Feminist Review
Thursday, April 23rd: Trish’s Reading Nook
Tuesday, April 28th: Medieval Bookworm
Wednesday, April 29th: Savvy Verse and Wit

For more reviews of this, and other fine books, visit TLC Book Tours

April 20,2009

****** I want to congratulate Zibiliee,winner of the giveaway...thanks, all of you, for participating, stick around for there will be more! Zibilee please contact me privately with your mailing address, thank you!**********

Interview with Eleanor Bluestein of "Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales"

Eleanor Bluestein has worked as a science teacher, editor of science textbooks, and designer of multimedia educational materials for Internet delivery. For a decade, she co-edited Crawl Out Your Window, a San Diego based literary journal featuring the work of local writers and artists. She lives with her husband in La Jolla, California, where she writes fiction and volunteers as a court appointed special advocate for foster children. Tea & Other Ayama Na Tales is her first book. (courtesy BkMk Press)

Here is a brief Q &A session with the author:

1. How did this wonderful collection come about? I read you are a science teacher and a textbook editor by profession, so when or how did you make the leap to fiction?

Thank you, Angelique, for that characterization of this collection. I made that leap to fiction in the interval between my six years as a science teacher and my return to work as a science text book editor. I took some years off to be a full time Mom to my son and daughter, and during those years I enrolled in a writing class at UCSD extension (University of California, San Diego) and started writing fiction. I continued to write fiction when I returned to work as an editor, a profession less demanding than teaching. I could never have written fiction at the same time I taught public school (grades 7, 8, and 9).

2. I am most curious as to why you chose to base your stories in a mythical country over a real one and which country actually inspired Ayama Na. I have my guesses (Cambodia?) but I don't know for sure if I am right. And as a second part to the question, why the South East of Asia? What is your connection to that part of the world?

You are right. It was mostly Cambodia that inspired these stories. I’d traveled there and also to Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam. All these countries found their way into the Ayama Na tales (in Thailand, I visited hill tribes, for example), but the characters’ back stories, the war-torn landscape, the nation’s tragic recent history, the tension between tradition and modernization derive in large part from what I saw and learned in Cambodia. The choice of a mythical country evolved as I wrote the stories. A mythical country gave me the freedom to combine elements of real countries and to add purely fictional elements, such as the long drought. I have no connection to that part of the world, really, except that I was a tourist in South East Asia on three separate trips—relatively brief trips at that.

3. You have sketched some very entertaining and unforgettable characters in this volume of short stories. I was particularly taken with Dali-Roo, the robot-obsessed peasant; the one-legged prostitute in "The Artist's Story" and lil' Aleeta from "A Ruined World" you have any plans to use any of these characters in other stories or maybe in a novel? And while we're on the subject of characters I may as well ask you if you drive the characters and architecture of these stories, or have you found it is the other way round? :)

Thank you, again, Angelique. These characters are all fictional inventions, although the robot AIBO is real—an expensive Sony product, now discontinued. I saw it demonstrated at a mall shortly after returning from Cambodia. At present, I have no plans to use these characters in other stories or a novel, but I’d never say never. I have imagined Aleeta’s future. The second part of your question is so interesting to me and so hard to answer. Sometimes, when I’m very lucky, the characters take over—this happens for me especially when writing dialog. At other times, story is a cerebral act, thinking, thinking, trying this or that, seeing what works. And sometimes it just seems a miracle to pull off a paragraph.

4. The tourists in your stories are all pretty obnoxious...did you deliberately sketch them that way to make us think about our responsibilities as tourists? In the story titled "The Blanks", the guide Kenchoreeve was of the opinion that people who gawked at his country had an obligation to shop. It was the price they paid for the right to treat Ayama Na as if it were a third world theme park. I found that very interesting because it spoke to me as a tourist, reminding me that when I visit a country, I really do have a duty to give back.

No, I didn’t consciously intend any lessons for tourists, but I definitely found myself examining and using my own attitudes about travel as I wrote these stories. I didn’t say so aloud, but I didn’t like to be taken to crafts shops—I thought it a waste of time; I considered riding an elephant too hokey. I also left “good” jewelry back in America, took out hand wipes or Purel and sanitized my hands before eating, and I certainly liked knowing about a tour guide’s personal life. Maybe that’s why I feel forgiving and affectionate toward the Americans in these stories.

5.What's next for you Eleanor? Will you continue writing short stories or do you have your sights set on something different now?

I’m working on a novel that takes place in San Diego, the city I call home. I also have a completed novel that I’m trying to market. That one takes place in Los Angeles and France. It’s a newspaper story, literary mystery, and romance.

6.Have you been back to South East Asia recently?

I traveled to Thailand and Cambodia in 2003 and to Viet Nam in 2005, but not since. I would very much like to return to Cambodia, which was just at the beginning of a huge tourist influx when I was there—hotel construction all over the place. The country was modernizing rapidly and has changed.

7. What's the last book you read and immediately passed on to someone else?

Indignation. Philip Roth. I passed it along to my son. We have different reading tastes, but we are both huge Philip Roth fans.

**please leave your comments on the main post...thank you!**

Friday, April 03, 2009

Global Voices Book Challenge

The folks at Global Voices Online are hosting an incredible reading challenge..."Read Your Way Around The World".

The challenge rules are as follows:

1) Read a book during April from a country whose literature you have never read anything of before.

2) Write a blog post about it during the week of April 23.

3) Tag your posts with #gvbook09 so we can find your posts.

I'd like to invite you to take the challenge with me! Just leave me a line letting me know which books you intend to read and I'll make sure I visit and comment on your blogs when the reviews are up.

This challenge is particularly exciting because it encourages you to pick a book from a country you have never read anything of before! I've been thinking about exploring Indonesia, but I can't find a suitable title. If Indonesia doesn't work out I'll probably go with Mexico (at the moment I am thinking of "Mexican High" by Liza Monroy) or maybe something from Turkey...any recommendations?