Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Speed Reader

By Dorothy Cole, J. M. De Biasi, Ann Peterpaul, Sarah Reinhold

JUNE 7, 1999: 

Days of Plenty, Days of Want by Patricia Preciado Martin (University of Arizona, paper, $9.95)

In this slim collection of short stories by Chicana writer Patricia Preciado Martin, a thread of nostalgia for an idyllic past serves as a connecting force binding these various poetic tales together. There is a sense of loss for a way of life, which although demanding and poverty stricken, was spiritually uplifting. Preciado Martin tells the stories of Mexican Americans whose memories run deep and take on supernatural tones in scenes reminiscent of magical realism.

In the story "Ruins," a dispossessed woman cannot let go of hundreds of tiny pieces of paper involving homesteads, property transfers, baptisms, weddings, etc. She takes them with her when she goes to live in an abandoned building after her ancestral home is razed. They are taped all over the ceiling but are eventually lost in a blizzard and carried by the winds back to Mexico.

In "Earth to Earth," the dust from the demolition of a family's home finds its way to the river bed from which the adobe blocks had come. The warmth used to describe generations living in that home is in stark contrast to its violent destruction by a bulldozer manned by an Anglo named Sam Morgan, who personifies the monster of profit-at-any-cost capitalism.

To Preciado Martin, the past of her people was so full of quasi-sacred tradition, of strong ties to the earth, of the all-consuming importance of family, that nothing in the present compares. Some of her characters appear to be so frozen in their rigid attitudes that one longs for them to show a little individuality. But in "Maria de las Trenzas," there is a refreshing exception to this when a young girl quietly rebels against her numbing duty to a widowed father.

The stories are striking in their understated passion, clear and simple prose, and ability to communicate the bare-bone essentials of life. Preciado Martin succeeds in drawing us into her magical but grounded world where the present and past are inextricably bound.

1998 Seedlisting, Native Seeds/SEARCH (Native Seeds/SEARCH, paper, $1)

This little black-and-white newsprint pamphlet is more than just a list of available seeds and their prices. Native Seeds/SEARCH is an organization devoted to continuing traditional Hispanic and Native American gardening practices and to preserving heritage seed stocks from Mexico and the Southwestern United States. Their headquarters are in Tucson, and many of the seeds they carry are best suited to the hotter climate of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts.

The seedlisting itself is divided not by climate but by type of plant. Each variety has a symbol next to it indicating whether it is suitable for low desert (a little saguaro cactus) or high desert (some triangular hills) gardening. I've found that the ones with both symbols together seem to do best in my yard. This may be because the definition of high desert puts us together with higher elevations, like Santa Fe and some of the northern Pueblos, whose summers are crisper than ours. It also may be a reflection on my admittedly lame gardening skills.

Like any good gardening publication, this one includes tips on how to grow the different varieties and a few suggestions on how to prepare them. Because of the nature of the organization, they also provide fairly specific instructions on how to save seeds once you've "grown out" a particular vegetable or herb. They encourage gardeners to share any extra seeds, either with neighbors or by parti-cipating in their own grow-out program.

What's fun about this listing, though, are the sections that aren't about seeds and growing things. They offer tapes of Tohono O'odham "Waila" music, minimally processed foodstuffs, and craft items from the mountains of Mexico. If all you hunger for is information, there are short thumbnail introductions to "The Original Seedsavers" right in the catalogue, or you can order books on growing, cooking and living in the traditional Southwest. Native Seeds/SEARCH maintains a branch in Albuquerque and has a Web site.

Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys by Dan Kindlon, Ph.D. & Michael Thompson, Ph.D. (Ballantine, hardcover, $24.95)

The ramifications of unchecked adolescent male anger confront us daily in bloody headlines. Most disturbing, these bombings, shootings, beatings, deaths and maimings are as likely to be reported from the local high school as from the country in which our older sons are currently maintaining peace. Raising Cain is a timely response to the growing death toll within our home comfort zones. Drawing upon 35 years of professional experience, impressive educational pedigrees and myriad anecdotes, Kindlon and Thompson conclude that boys are different than girls. Attributing the differences equally to nature and nurture, the authors conclude that it is adult expectations of and reaction to these differences that sow the dangerous seeds of emotional illiteracy whose final, inevitable fruit is violence.

Other startling new insights offered in this book are that boys abandoned by fathers are more likely to become troubled and troublemaking teens, that the diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder and subsequent medication are foisted on male children who really just need the opportunity to blow off a little steam, and the breakthrough suggestion that boys who feel bad about themselves do bad things. Kindlon and Thompson also clearly denounce the constant reinforcement of females as the keepers of emotion and the default wellsprings of nurturing. They say when boys cry they are chastised, yet when they do something spiteful they are excused as "just being boys."

The answers in Raising Cain are not bad answers, and the presentation is fair. Still, there is nothing new here. Granted, no one was talking about "emotional literacy" a decade ago when Scott Peck challenged us to take a Road Less Traveled, but the message is the same. So, is anyone new listening?

In the Drink by Kate Christensen (Doubleday, hardcover, $22.95)

If In the Drink were a beverage, it would be spilling over with character development. It would also have some powdery residue, yet to be dissolved, lingering on the bottom of the cup (possibly blue raspberry Kool-Aid). This would be the plot. That's a good thing if you adore the protagonist like I do, but it can sure get tedious waiting around for something to happen.

The novel follows the adventures of Claudia Steiner, a 29-year-old ghost writer for a withering, obnoxiously rich hag named Jackie del Castellano. Claudia is a dual purpose doormat, used to write books and do secretarial work for Jackie. She lives with her introverted cat, an army of roaches, and an enormous stockpile of alcohol. Her free time is divided up between her friend and love interest William, a wealthy lawyer, and Frieda, a tall, neurotic agoraphobiac. With them Claudia visits posh night clubs and attends underground plays performed by nude transsexuals.

Her mother maintains a shrine to Sigmund Freud and is a zealous psychoanalyst. She used Claudia's childhood as a way to test Freud's developmental theories in action. Consequently, Claudia once had to pretend to admire her own feces, as evidence of the existence of the Freudian anal stage, just to make her mother feel vindicated.

Kate Christensen does a smashing job sneaking in various social insights. Enhanced by vivid description and analogy, this book has affected my behavior and outlook in several ways. I find myself trying to adopt Claudia's carefree mentality. She has $30 in the bank, but why not stop to get that tasty bagel? I love bagels. Bagels are delicious. And after about four years of being a devout "Talk Soup" fan, I now understand what John Henson is talking about in reference to "pre-op" and "post-op" transsexuals. Any book that solves that (obvious) mystery is definitely worth reading.

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