Rio Pueblo
book review, Southwest, Taos

Writing about Reading

I’ve done a lot more reading since I became a book reviewer six months ago. My biweekly column, The Write Stuff, appears in Tempo, the arts and entertainment section of The Taos News.

I proposed the column before I left my job as the newspaper’s managing editor, and Tempo editor Rick Romancito agreed. By my count, I’ve read and reviewed 23 books — 25 if you include the two in the column I emailed Rick this week. And I’ve started the next. Right now I am reading Andrew Gulliford’s adventure anthology Outdoors in the Southwest.

So far, my requirement is that the books must have some connection to the Southwest. Either the author lives in this part of the world, or wrote about it, and often both.

I will read books published by presses and by the authors themselves. I know there are newspapers that refuse to review self-published books. I think that’s snobbish given the changes in the publishing industry. (I will save that for another post.) But the book must be available in print.

All I ask is for a hard copy to keep.

I feel a great responsibility when authors, most likely those who have published the books on their own, ask for a review.

So, I read each one cover to cover. As I find a passage I may want to use or quote directly, I mark that page with a sticky note. By time I am done reading and have absorbed what the author was writing about, the notes are handy references when I start composing my review.

I try to have fun with the language I use for my columns, whether the book is serious or humorous. Yeah, I enjoy writing them.

I am not a book critic but a book reviewer. In my mind, that means I give readers my interpretation of the book and let them decide if they want to buy it. I will note what I liked about the book and when I feel it’s appropriate, its shortcomings. Fairness is a word that comes to mind.

Have I loved all the books I’ve read? Of course not, but I admit finding something in each one that was worthy of my time. I’ve read about topics and genres that I would not normally pick. I’ve even read poetry.

A few books made me laugh out loud. (Thank you.) Others made me shake my head.

I have heard from many of the authors, usually to thank me. A few will post the review on line. Others don’t say a word. It’s okay. That’s not why I write them.

I have had a few people send me their books with the caveat: I hope you don’t think my book is awful, or something like that.

After The Write Stuff appears in print, Rick posts it online at taosnews.com. I usually try to tell the world when that happens.

By the way, if you are planning to do a reading in Taos, give me at least a month’s heads-up and a note about the date for the event. For sanity’s sake, I work way ahead of deadline.

Finally, if you are an author who fits the above description, mail your book to: Joan Livingston c/o The Taos News, 226 Albright St., Taos, NM, 87571 or drop it off at the newsroom. The staff will let me know it arrived.

One really last thing, you can find and review my novel, Peace, Love, and You Know What online at Peace etc. on Amazon

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Hank and I hiked a trail at the Taos Valley Overlook. That’s the view of the Río Grande in Pilar at our midway point.

Standard
Apache Wars cover
book review, Taos

The Write Stuff: History Lessons

Here is The Write Stuff column I wrote for the Aug. 18 issue of Tempo, the arts and entertainment section of The Taos News. I am sharing it here.

The two nonfiction books reviewed this week focus on history and the people who lived it in the Southwest and Mexico.

The Apache Wars: The Hunt for Geronimo, The Apache Kid, and the Captive Boy Who Started the Longest War In American History

There’s no doubt the Southwest has a brutal past. And through his extensive research, author Paul Andrew Hutton gets to the grit of one piece of its history: the Apache Wars.

The wars begin in 1861 when the leader of the Araviapa band kidnaps the young son of settlers living in what was called Apacheria. Later known as Mickey Free, he becomes a significant figure during the wars and Hutton’s book.

Hutton writes, “The Apaches, much like the Vikings, lived by raiding. They made a clear distinction between raiding, an economic necessity, and warfare, which was almost always an act of revenge.”

Their revenge is beyond cruel. I will spare you the gory details. But then there’s corruption on the part of the U.S. military and government, plus their typically inhumane treatment of the Apaches and other tribes.

At the wars’ end 30 years later, the frontier was no longer a free-for-all for settlers and the Apaches were banished to Florida or reservations.

Here is a description of the encounter between Geronimo and Gen. Nelson Miles, when the chief makes a pitch so he and his people could return to the White Mountains instead of being moved to Florida.

“Geronimo must now surrender with only the promise that his life would be spared. He and his people would be sent to Florida to join their relatives.

‘This the fourth time I have surrendered,’ he said to Miles.

‘And I think it is the last time,’ the general replied.”

Later, the fierce Apache warrior meets an undignified end.

And who is the Apache Kid? He and his death were the stuff of legends.

Fans of Southwest history will relish this book. Hutton knows his stuff. He is a distinguished professor of history at the University of New Mexico and the former executive director of the Western History Association.

I imagine for Hutton the people and their stories became ingrained as he put this book together. But that is unlikely the case for readers who might not be similarly absorbed in this historic period. Yes, many such as Cochise, Geronimo and Kit Carson may be household names but most are not. A glossary of the players and perhaps a timeline would have been helpful.

Hutton does employ a bit of storytelling including dialogue to make his book more than a historical account. I get it. But as a former journalist, I cringed a bit when I read this line about the Apaches: “Some young men joined because they were bored or wished to escape for a time from their nagging wives.”

The book’s 514 pages include an index, photos, bibliography, extensive notes of sourced materials, plus a satisfying epilogue. Published by Crown, the hardcover book retails for $30.

Hutton will read and sign his book Saturday, Aug. 27, 2-3:30 p.m. at Op Cit Taos at the John Dunne Shops.

The Women of La Raza: An Epic History of Chicana/Mexican-American Peoples

This book is obviously a labor of love for its author Enriqueta L. Vasquez, who explores and promotes the contributions of women in Mexican and Mexican-American history. They include queens, scholars, activists, revolutionaries and even a saint.

La Raza coverAmong my favorites were in the chapter, “Women of the Independence.” Several were women of privilege such as Leona Vicario. No jail could hold her. In one escape Vicario returned home to gather her jewels and money to help finance the revolution.

Then there was Gertrudis Boca Negra, who prior to her execution, tore off her blindfold and said in part, “The day of freedom will arrive. You who love me and have come to grieve for me, carry on the fight.”

Vasquez spent years on her research and its ultimate end product — a historical book augmented with footnotes and glossaries. Her book is so jam-packed with stories of strong women, however, at times the information is overwhelming. I recommend reading in chapter-sized bites.

While Vasquez is straightforward in her factual presentations, she is not hesitant to give opinions grounded in her own background as a person of Mexican-Tarascan parentage, especially regarding Mexico’s warfare with the U.S.

Certainly likeminded students of history will find this book informative.

Vasquez, a Taos County resident, was on the editorial staff of the Chicano newspaper El Grito del Norte in Española. The Women of La Raza is available in paperback for $15.

 

Standard
coyota
book review, Taos

The Write Stuff: Two Books on Life and Death

Here is my first book column, which appeared in the May 19 fiber edition of Tempo, the arts and entertainment magazine of The Taos News. I was away at the time, so here it is.

The two books have common themes about life and death. A Taos artist, known for using images of death in her works, reflects on having a life in full in her food-infused memoir. Meanwhile a psychic shares interviews she collected of people whose lives were never the same after undergoing near-death experiences.

Coyota in the Kitchen: A Memoir of New and Old Mexico

Artist Anita Rodríguez aims to nurture readers with recipes and stories about her life in the two Mexicos.

First, an explanation about the book’s title is in order: coyota is a term for a female of mixed heritage — half-Hispanic and half-gringa.

Rodríguez’s father was a Taoseño who worked as a druggist on the Plaza. Her mother, who had a genteel Southern upbringing, came from Texas to study art.

She recalls classmates taunting her for being a “coyota,” which inspires her to create stories in which the animals are her real relatives.

“Don’t pay attention to those two-leggeds. They’re stupid. Come with me. Let’s go steal chickens and howl at the moon!” she imagines a coyote saying.

Such cruelty makes one sad for that little girl.

But then again, Rodriguez’s own opinions about outsiders come through with such observations as: “A person doesn’t exist in Taos without an identifying family. Until you have lived here for two generations, you are transparent.”

In her take on the food-based memoir, Rodríguez recalls good cooks and some really horrible cooks such as her paternal grandmother Hipólita Ramírez Trujillo. Grandmother’s food had one constant ingredient: rancor.

“Occasionally, Mother’s food was good, but mostly it was just so-so. Once in a while, it was a disaster,” she writes.

Likewise Rodríguez gives unflinching descriptions of her relatives.

Her life story thus far includes working in a California restaurant, where she learns about good cooking from its owner. Later, as a single mother in New Mexico, she raises a daughter under harsh living conditions. She searches for gainful employment and finds it as an enjarradora creating mud plaster for adobe structures and building fireplaces, hornos and mud floors. She lives in Mexico for 15 years before returning home.

Rodríguez is an artist whose paintings and illustrations typically contain images of death — skeletons enjoying what the living do. “Besides, death is so deeply a part of the human story that omitting it diminishes life, takes away its wholeness. If that’s not enough, you can blame my love of painting skeletons on a near-death experience, after which I became an artist, hiding in plain view the knowledge that life is eternal.”

“Coyota in the Kitchen,” a paperback published by the University of New Mexico Press, contains her illustrations and several paintings, including “Pie for the Dead” featured on its cover. Unfortunately the plates inside the book are not large enough to do her art justice.

Now about the food: Rodríguez includes numerous recipes throughout the book from Biscochitos to Frijoles con Chile Colorado to Chicos from the Ground Up. Several recipes were discovered during her travels.

Her advice for making Chile Caribe begins: “If you are going to make a lot of chile caribe, use rubber gloves. If you handle enough of it, your cuticles and hands will begin to burn.” Readers certainly will be grateful.

Life After Near Death: Miraculous Stories of Healing and Transformation in the Extraordinary Lives of People with Newfound Powers

lifeDebra Diamond left behind a successful career as a Wall Street money manager and university professor after discovering her psychic and clairvoyant powers during a transformational experience in 2008.

Diamond, who is a part-time Taos resident, shares first-person accounts of “science-based, cognitive and physiological near-death aftereffects.”

The people she interviews developed such new skills as heightened musical and artistic talents, spontaneous healing and electrical super-sensitivity. A man she meets in Taos has enhanced hearing among other gifts.

Given the subject matter, this should be a fascinating book. Perhaps it will be for those involved in the field. But as a layperson, I wanted to know far more about the people Diamond interviewed and less about her psychic abilities.

Do we really need to know she took a sip of lemonade while talking with a subject or that she put two crystals beside her computer before she did a Skype interview? I wanted to read about the transformation her subjects underwent.

Life After Near Death, published by New Page Books, is available in paperback.

Standard