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Daniel H. Wilson: IMG The Powell’s Playlist: Daniel H. Wilson



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    Robogenesis

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Lost City Radio: A Novel by Daniel Alarcon
Lost City Radio: A Novel

olivasdan, February 25, 2007

Novelist finds hope in the aftermath of war

[This review first appeared in the El Paso Times]

With the publication two years ago of his short-story collection "War by Candlelight" (HarperCollins), Daniel Alarcón received critical acclaim that included comparisons to Mario Vargas Llosa, Flannery O'Connor and Ernest Hemingway.

Born in Peru and living in northern California, Alarcón unflinchingly portrays people battered by civil strife, natural disasters and governmental abuses. He now brings us his first novel, "Lost City Radio" (HarperCollins, hardcover $24.95), a potent, disturbing, but, in the end, hopeful portrait of a nation torn by years of war and betrayal.

Set in an unnamed South American country, Alarcón's novel centers on Norma, the host of a popular program, "Lost City Radio," in which she reads the names of missing persons and lends an understanding ear to callers who hope she can help them reunite with lost loved ones. Norma has become a celebrity, a voice everyone knows, the apolitical salve for a nation that has lost too much.

Why Norma? "She was a natural: She knew when to let her voice waver, when to linger on a word, what texts to tear through and read as if the words themselves were on fire."

Norma's unctuous boss, Elmer, wants high ratings without angering those in power. Government authorities are more than willing to make radio employees disappear if they seem to sympathize with the Illegitimate Legion, a guerrilla faction based in the nation's mountains and jungles. Though the war with the IL is technically over, suspicion and distrust are ingrained in the nation's psyche.

Norma is no stranger to loss. She nurses the hope of finding her husband, Rey, who disappeared 10 years earlier.

Rey, an ethnobotanist, would leave Norma for long stretches to venture into the jungle, ostensibly to study indigenous remedies. With cities and villages stripped of their original names, Rey often visited "Village 1797." He failed to return home after one such foray. Rey's covert jungle activities as an IL sympathizer has convinced Norma that the government is responsible for her husband's disappearance.

One day, a village boy, Victor, is brought to the radio station to meet Norma. "He was slender and fragile, and his eyes were too small for his face. His head had been shaved -- to kill lice, Norma supposed." The boy carries a letter from the residents of Village 1797, who pooled their money to send Victor to the city for a "better life." The letter includes a list of lost people, some of whom may have fled to the city. "Perhaps one of these individuals will be able to care for the boy," says the letter.

The list of names includes one Norma recognizes: an IL pseudonym once used by Rey. Could Victor be Norma's last and best chance of finding her husband?

Norma and Rey share the stage with unforgettable characters whose histories connect in compelling and poignant ways. Manau, the village schoolteacher who takes Victor to see Norma, is a man whose body is covered with sores from his life in the humid jungle, a man who enjoyed a too-brief romance with Victor's late mother, Adela. And there's Zahir, another resident of Village 1797, whose hands were hacked off by zealous members of the IL. Though falsely accused of stealing food, Zahir accepts his punishment because of other evil things he has done.

Alarcón's narrative has the ebb and flow of a dark dream. With a fluid chronology that curves upon itself and doubles back effortlessly, he allows the past to mingle and compete with the present. There are no false steps or strained sentences. "Lost City Radio" is, quite simply, a triumph. Alarcón has created a sublimely terrifying, war-ravaged world populated by unforgettable and fully realized characters. But at the novel's core is a story of hope, one that renders the resiliency of human nature in all its imperfect glory.
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Things Kept, Things Left Behind (Iowa Short Fiction Award) by Jim Tomlinson
Things Kept, Things Left Behind (Iowa Short Fiction Award)

olivasdan, February 4, 2007

Book Review

By Daniel A. Olivas

There's much to be said for those who pen their first books at an age when many working folks are winding down their careers. Such writers can draw upon decades of experience, giving their writing the kind of nuance and ambiguity that comes with mature hindsight.

For these reasons, one may rejoice in Jim Tomlinson's debut short-story collection, "Things Kept, Things Left Behind" (University of Iowa Press, $15.95 paperback), for which Tomlinson won the prestigious Iowa Short Fiction Award.

Born in 1941 three weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Tomlinson grew up in a small Illinois town and now lives in rural Kentucky. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the 11 short stories in this collection have the Bluegrass State as their backdrop and have struggling, working-class folks at their center.

An example is LeAnn McCray, who appears in the two title stories, "Things Kept" and "Things Left Behind." In the first, we learn that LeAnn sometimes "felt restless, strange to her own skin. It was a troublesome feeling, one that would come on her without warning, as it did one Tuesday afternoon in late October."

That day, LeAnn's sister, Cass, needs to talk about helping their stubborn and widowed mother, Georgia, out of debt. Cass suggests that LeAnn ask a mutual friend, Dexter Chalk, for help. The married LeAnn agrees, never letting on that she and Dexter are having an affair. The plan to aid Georgia spirals into an unintended climax, in which LeAnn learns that it's not just the living who have secrets.

In "Things Left Behind," LeAnn's secret affair with Dexter is unwittingly divulged to her husband, Lonnie, by a well-intentioned hotel maid. Because Lonnie is far from a perfect husband and father, Tomlinson allows ambiguity to seep into LeAnn's infidelity.

In "Prologue (two lives in letters)," we are introduced to two young, idealistic teenagers, Davis Menifee Jr. and Claire Lyons, through a sampling of their correspondence spanning 34 years.

Thrown together as delegates to the 1963 Congressional Youth Leadership Conference for one week in Washington, D.C., Davis and Claire become close friends in the wake of Kennedy's assassination and political uncertainty. But they take radically different paths. Claire becomes an activist lawyer and eventually a member of Congress. Davis protests the Vietnam War and flees to Canada to evade the draft.

Both start families, question their choices, wonder where their youth has gone, and hope for better times. For many readers who have spent a few decades on this good earth, the words of these two Americans may be painfully familiar.

There are other gems in this collection: In "Stainless," Warren and Annie have one last dinner together as they divide up their belongings at the end of their marriage. In "Squirrels," a man is bedeviled by his ex-wife because she is bedeviled by squirrels that invaded her attic. And there are the two brothers in "Lake Charles" who share a bond forged in a horrendous, life-altering childhood accident. In such stories, Tomlinson keeps his observations and humor sharp, his prose lean as a marathon runner.

Sometimes in a Tomlinson tale, it's difficult to tell the winners from the losers, the resilient from the fragile. But his magic lies in the shadows of people's lives, those dark recesses where uncertainty reigns.

It's as if Tomlinson holds a mirror up to us and says: It's all a confusing mess, but we will survive because the other option is just too damn scary.

This is unadorned wisdom earned through experience. And it takes a skilled, mature writer such as Tomlinson to bring it to life.

[This review first appeared in the El Paso Times.]
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Inlandia: A Literary Journey Through California's Inland Empire
Inlandia: A Literary Journey Through California's Inland Empire

olivasdan, January 23, 2007

Book Review

By Daniel Olivas

Long the Rodney Dangerfield of Southern California, the Inland Empire sits about an hour east of Los Angeles and encompasses the fast-growing counties of Riverside and San Bernardino.

Far from the beaches of Malibu, it is a tough land, some say, the home of biker gangs and urban sprawl, a land buffeted by the unrelenting Santa Ana (or "Devil") winds that can flip cars and jangle nerves. Tell an Angeleno that you make your home in the Inland Empire and be prepared for the condescending half-smile followed by a wisecrack: "Oh, the methamphetamine capital of the world."

But this era of insult might have come to an end, if Heyday Books and Santa Clara University have any say in it. Inlandia: A Literary Journey through California's Inland Empire, meticulously edited by Gayle Wattawa ($18.95 paperback), is an ambitious collection that finally gives the area its due as a culturally and historically vital component of Southern California.

In the anthology's introduction, Riverside native and National Book Award finalist Susan Straight tells us that she has striven to infuse her writing with "the fierceness we retain in these small places where people loved their own with the vehemence, the stubborn and suspicious and inventive qualities required to survive this part of Southern California."

Straight is not alone in attempting to depict all the complexities and beauty of the Inland Empire and its people. More than 70 authors are represented in fiction, poetry, native legends, journal entries and other writings from the 1700s to the present.

Some of the writers enjoy worldwide fame and have been translated into many languages. We're treated to an excerpt from a 1930 tough-guy novelette, "Blood-Red Gold," by Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason. And there's the exquisitely creepy essay, "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream" by Joan Didion, concerning a woman accused of murder in the 1960s. Other "big names" abound, including Norman Mailer, John Steinbeck, Joan Baez and Raymond Chandler.

Wattawa includes newer voices, writers who have lived or are living in the region and who feel compelled to chronicle the history and culture of their home through fiction. Kathleen Alcal?, who grew up in San Bernardino, offers the short story "Gypsy Lover," a haunting tale of one girl's attempt to come to terms with her older sister's mysterious disappearance. And in "Georgie and Wanda," Michael Jaime-Becerra skillfully fictionalizes the racial bigotry faced by a young couple in Riverside circa 1956.

Many of the nonfiction pieces are simply heartbreaking. Diary excerpts from George Fujimoto Jr. starkly recount the federal government's rounding up of his family members, who were housed in Arizona internment camps for the duration of World War II. Similarly, Malcolm Margolin's "The Cupue?o Expulsion of 1903" details the removal of a native people for their valuable land.

Smaller-scale tragedies are perfectly rendered here, too, as in Alex Espinoza's powerful short story, "Santo Ni?o," that brings us into the lives of two young women as they battle economic hardship, infertility and strained relationships. And in "hap & hazard highland" by Keenan Norris, a young ex-con tries to reconnect with his old neighborhood as well as with his youthful dreams.

At the turn of each page, there are surprising little shocks as we enter themes radically different from the one before. For example, after the essay "909," Percival Everett's wry and provocative contemplation of Riverside County, out of the blue follows Sholeh Wolp?'s poem, "Morning After the U.S. Invasion of Iraq," in which the community of Redlands seems unfazed by the beginning of the war: "The chatter is as always, quiet, / The smiles as always, broad."

No review can fully capture the breadth and spirit of this remarkable anthology. Suffice it to say that each author surprises, informs and entertains. Inlandia paints a complex and compelling portrait of a region that is simultaneously beautiful and harsh, multicultural and alienating, vibrant and destructive. Without question, it is a portrait that commands our respect. [This review first appeared in the El Paso Times.]
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Chicana & Chicano Visions of the Americas #2: Crossing Vines by Rigoberto Gonzalez
Chicana & Chicano Visions of the Americas #2: Crossing Vines

olivasdan, December 29, 2006

Review by Daniel Olivas

If you were unfamiliar with Rigoberto Gonzalez, it wouldn't take many pages of reading his first novel, "Crossing Vines," to suspect that his prior book was one of poetry, not prose. Each sentence, every paragraph, all chapters possess the clarity and music of poetry even in recounting the often harsh and always difficult lives of a crew of grape pickers in California. In a series of vignettes focusing on different characters--young, old, gay, straight, male, female--Gonzalez allows us into the lives and painful pasts of these workers. Gonzalez avoids the melodramatic and cliche when it would be easy to fall into such traps. The final result is a mosaic of disparate and sometimes desperate lives that all connect to the backbreaking farmworker experience. This is a poetic, powerful first novel.
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Big Lonesome by Jim Ruland
Big Lonesome

olivasdan, November 27, 2006

Review by Daniel Olivas

There are no disappointments in this collection; each story offers something different while displaying a mastery of language and an empathetic understanding of what makes us human. Jim Ruland is a remarkable writer who has produced a debut collection that cannot be ignored. He's not afraid to challenge our assumptions, and in doing so we get to look at the world from a slightly off-kilter angle. [The full review first appeared in The Quarterly Conversation.]
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