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Still Water Saintsby Alex Espinoza
Synopses & Reviews
"Fresh, magical, beautiful, evocative" says Lisa See, about this wonderful first novel by Alex Espinoza. Still Water Saints chronicles a momentous year in the life of Agua Mansa, a largely Latino town beyond the fringes of Los Angeles and home to the Botánica Oshún, where people come seeking charms, herbs, and candles. Above all, they seek the guidance of Perla Portillo, the shop’s owner. Perla has served the community for years, arming her clients with the tools to overcome all manner of crises, large and small. There is Juan, a man coming to terms with the death of his father; Nancy, a recently married schoolteacher; Shawn, an addict looking for peace in his chaotic life; and Rosa, a teenager trying to lose weight and find herself. But when a customer with a troubled and mysterious past arrives, Perla struggles to help and must confront both her unfulfilled hopes and doubts about her place in a rapidly changing world.
Imaginative, inspiring, lyrical, and beautifully written, Still Water Saints evokes the unpredictability of life and the resilience of the spirit through the journeys of the people of Agua Mansa, and especially of the one woman at the center of it all. Theirs are stories of faith and betrayal, love and loss, the bonds of family and community, and the constancy of change.
"Perla Portillo, 72, owns the unofficial spiritual center of the Southern California Agua Mansa community: at Botanica Oshun, she doles out relics, potions and sage advice to clients coping with death, wrestling with transsexual identity and seeking refuge from sexual predation. In telling their stories, Espinoza skillfully weaves together the alternating narrative viewpoints of Perla and her customers. Poignantly rendered are Az car, a transgendered dancer who is given an unexpected chance at motherhood while mourning the loss of a friend, and Rodrigo Zamora, a Michoac n teen illegal recovering from a traumatic crossing. Encroaching violence in the community shakes Perla's confidence in the talismanic power of her wares and words. The significance of her constant presence amid the changing situation is clear to many of her returning customers, but Perla must redefine her position within the community in order to find strength to change along with the world. The parade of affliction can get wearisome, and Espinoza, making his debut, doesn't quite bring Perla all the way into focus. But he handles the proceedings with a steady, well-rounded reportage that suits the story." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Planting his literary flag firmly in shaky California ground, Alex Espinoza has set his first novel in a place he calls Agua Mansa ('still water'). Loosely modeled on the city of Colton, it's an urban fragment tucked into the sprawling area known as the Inland Empire, located an hour or so east of Los Angeles at the intersection of the I-10 and the 215 freeways and flanked by the larger communities... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) of Rialto, San Bernardino and Riverside. Agua Mansa also sits on the banks of the Santa Ana River at a point where murderous floods, urged by long spells of hard rain, have claimed their share of lives. Naming a city for placid water despite its persistent threat is Espinoza's subtle nod toward the deceptions of the Inland Empire, where beauty and opportunity have long alternated with menace and failure, where the lulling surf-sound of the freeway is routinely overwhelmed by the shriek of the Santa Ana winds, where the bougainvillea and the palm trees, like so many of the people who live here, have been transplanted from somewhere else, and where, if you look carefully, that palm tree might be a cellphone tower in disguise. While cities endowed with straighter lines and clearer rules tend to breed brashness in their writers, the shape-shifting elusiveness of this part of California inspires in its keenest authors a literature of humility. (An anthology of old and new perspectives on the region, including selections by Joan Didion, Raymond Chandler and Espinoza himself, has recently appeared, titled 'Inlandia: A Literary Journey Through California's Inland Empire,' edited by Gayle Wattawa and published by Heyday/Santa Clara Univ.) Thus in 'Still Water Saints' the narrative's few flights of magic realism plunge swiftly back to earth, and while there are clear sympathies for common men and women, there is no grandiose political speechifying. Instead, Espinoza fixes his attention on the daily lives of people who seek the services of a cramped little neighborhood botanica (a shop that sells religious items and alternative medicine) and its owner, a 72-year-old widow named Perla Portillo. If magic is in short supply here among the new housing developments and the strip malls, faith in every incarnation is thriving. (We can hardly fail to notice, as the author leads us beside the still waters, his title's quiet reference to the 23rd Psalm.) It's faith that brings the hopeful and the fearful to Perla's botanica in the fading Prospect Shopping Center, where they seek medicinal herbs, teas, oils and incense as remedies for every ailment from shock to obesity. They also buy objects — seven-day candles, ankhs, amulets, rosaries, tarot cards, statues of Hindu, African and Catholic saints — to encourage love and prosperity and to stave off danger, from gangsters and earthquakes to lawsuits and the police. In restrained prose, with easy, natural dialogue, Espinoza tells their stories, alternating each with a snippet from Perla's life. There is Azucar, a drag queen saving for a transgender operation, who stops in to buy a prayer card for a co-worker who recently suffered an aneurysm. There's Shawn, a kid on a bad path toward petty crime and drug addiction, who needs a 'Stay Away' candle to get rid of his roommate's meddling girlfriend. Newlywed Nancy PÃ©rez has a diabetic father who refuses both medical treatment and Perla's folk remedies. And most heartbreaking is a terrified 15-year-old boy named Rodrigo, whose efforts to cross the border from Tijuana (where Espinoza himself was born in 1971) lead him to hide from vicious assailants in the botanica, where not even Perla can save him. Far from being a saint herself, Perla often doubts her power to heal or protect, and her grief over Rodrigo has roots in old, bitter regrets about her childlessness. As she interacts with the store patrons in each chapter, Perla's personality gradually blooms, while at the same time the chapters themselves interact with one another, the protagonists of one episode popping up as supporting players in another. Seeming at first glance to be merely a set of linked stories, the chapters assume a novel's momentum as they record a mounting sense of danger over the course of a year in Agua Mansa. A cool refuge from the implacable sun and the asphalt-baked harshness of daily life, the botanica offers promises of hope and community to this city's contemporary pilgrims: mourners and seekers, single mothers and meth addicts, artists and fugitives. 'The idols and saints watch us from the shelves,' says Juan Sandoval, who's reeling from his father's death from emphysema, 'some smiling, others with blank expressions, waiting for their chance to perform miracles, to sweat holy oil, to cry tears of blood.' And there is no one in this elegantly crafted novel, not even anguished Perla herself, who is not also waiting, hoping it might be so." Reviewed by Art Taylor, an assistant professor of English at George Mason University and a contributing editor to Metro Magazine in Raleigh, N.C.Richard Lee Colvin, director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a former education writer for the Los Angeles TimesDonna Rifkind, who lives in Los Angeles and reviews fiction frequently for The Washington Post, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"As perfect as the beads of a rosary." Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street
"A well-crafted collection of vignettes, neatly stitched together." Kirkus Reviews
"Espinoza is a refreshing new writer." Booklist
"Despite its flaws, it plunges you into a community that reminds us that all communities, no matter what their ethnic makeup, experience many of the same dilemmas and challenges." San Francisco Chronicle
"Still Water Saints is charming, yet its charm is an uneasy one. Its whimsy has teeth. And that is, absolutely, a compliment." Los Angeles Times
About the Author
Alex Espinoza was born in Tijuana, Mexico, the youngest of eleven children. At the age of two, he migrated to southern California with his family and grew up in the city of La Puente, a suburb of Los Angeles. Earning a B.A. from the University of California at Riverside with honors, Espinoza went on to receive an MFA from UC Irvine, where he was the editor of the university's literary magazine. He now teaches creative writing at UC Riverside. Still Water Saints is his first novel.
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