Friday, October 8, 2010

Solidarity: A Couple of New Book Reviews

Just finished reading Vanishing Acts: A Tragedy, the debut novel by Bogota-based author Forrest Hylton, about a young American anthropologist working in Medellin, Columbia. I must confess to being a bit shocked, at first, by the language and the somewhat graphic sex--and I am not easily shocked. However, the writing is quite good--I really saw his scenes unfold, whether in noisy Medellin bars, or on rural comunes. Hylton's characters are also richly drawn, even the ones whose actions are enigmatic, and ultimately, I was moved by the story of this guy's search for both love and meaning.
The depiction of Columbia's working people was an eye-opener to me--the fictional anthropologist character found, as I've found in Mexico, that not everyone welcomes drugs or the violence they bring. Turns out most people everywhere want to live a decent, simple, life, as long as they can live that life with dignity and human rights. Hylton knows of what he speaks; he has written extensively on Columbia (and Bolivia), check out more about him on wikipedia
Vanishing Acts is highly unusual in having two versions of its text bound together, one completely in English (with the stray word in Spanish) and the other in which the book's dialogue is all en espanol...And a wonderful polyglot of New York City-Columbian-Spanglish at times.
Another new novel to recommend--this one set in San Diego and Los Angeles--is Jim Miller's Flash. This compelling tale follows a no-longer-young hipster journalist who has held on to little but his principles in his life's journey and must now learn how to be an adult and a father.
Discovering traces of a long-dead labor activist in some historical archives, the journalist sets out to discover who Bobby Flash was, and what made him champion the working man so relentlessly. The time-frame of the labor struggles (riots, strikes, marches, and every sort of abuse) was fascinating to me--I've always been interested in the period from the 1900s up to the Great Depression in the "United Snakes", and this was even more intriguing to me, as the book's story-within-the-story is mostly set in Southern California.
Riding the trolley through San Diego's neighborhoods, reading about workers almost a century ago trying to better their lot in life, I was struck by how little life has changed for today's working people. Other than cell phones and second hand designer clothes, the people that clean American's homes, watch their children, and tend to their landscapes, are the same poor class they were in 1916. No one I speak to seems to resent this situation, or dreams of strikes, or of unions, or even of a vastly better life, though there are appeals to be treated with dignity. And many of them are immigrants who'd like at least the possibility of citizenship someday. (It seems to me to be little enough to promise them.)
Flash has an upbeat and even hopeful ending, which makes it all the more melancholy to consider its theme.
We're heading south of the border today to the Baja Book Festival in Rosarito Beach area.
Hasta pronto!