|Apr/May 2006 Book Reviews|
The Tequila Worm
Wendy Lamb Books. 2005.
When I began The Tequila Worm I thought I knew what it was all about, a nice, comforting book about a Mexican American family with all their charms and quirks in Southwestern Texas. Then the main character, fourteen-year old Sofia, is given the chance to win a scholarship at a prestigious boarding school in Austin. So clearly, now the book was going to be about a young girl fitting into a new environment far from her charming and quirky family. But that turned out not be a correct assessment either and finally I realized that every time I tried to fit Viola Canales's book into a category it spun around and insisted on being considered something else. And although Sofia's family is certainly charming and quirky, (the chapters on the Christmas nacimiento highlight those qualities), the real point of this book is not to point out the differences in families, but to show how very much we are all the same. I found Sofia's concerns about leaving home and seeing her cousin Berta choose to live a life so different from her own to be very very familiar. She does not know which future is the best for her and longs for a combination of all the possibilities that she sees. Canales clearly knows what it is to be torn between tradition and change and writes Sofia's journey with all the discovery and discomfort that those of us who have been there know to expect. That she keeps from dipping too heavily into sentimentality, and makes Sofia's family such a vibrant part of the plot, is a true achievement and what made The Tequila Worm a winner for me.
It's funny, but the first book I reached for when I was done with was Yester Morrow, a sadly out-of-print essay collection by Ray Bradbury. In Tequila, Sofia's abuelita explains the importance of the town plaza. "And this was where recipes and remedies were exchanged, where pictures of babies, quinceaneras and brides, as well as the dead, were passed around. And that's where you--Sofia, Berta, Lucy and Noe--were conjured up too, for that's where my grandfather and grandmother first met and fell in love." Later Sofia's mother decries the lack of a plaza in the barrio, saying, "What this barrio needs is not another fancy TV channel or a new 7-Eleven or even Wal-Mart. No! What it needs is a plaza... I once heard that if you put too many cats in a house big enough for only one or two cats, the cats eventually go crazy and turn violent. That's exactly what's happening to our barrio."
That's where I remembered the Bradbury connection. In his essay, "The Girls Walk This Way; the Boys Walk That Way," originally written in 1970, he describes the town of the future; his dream town. The first thing he writes is: "In Mexico, in any small-town plaza every Thursday and Sunday night with the band playing and the weather mild, the boys walk this way the girls walk that, around and around, and the mothers and fathers sit on iron-scrolled benches and watch." What follows is a beautifully descriptive call for bandstands and theaters, pizza parlors, hamburger joints, bookstores and hardware shops. Everything built and designed for walking through and walking by and sitting around. They have sidewalk cafes in Paris and town plazas in Mexico, Bradbury knows, why do we Americans keep getting it so wrong?
Viola Canales knows the same basic truths about living as Ray Bradbury and she has crafted a collection of related stories that call to mind Bradbury's own Dandelion Wine. You can be in Greentown, Illinois or McAllen, Texas, but either way it is about the joy of knowing your family, yourself, and your community. The Tequila Worm is lovely to read and I hope that Canales keeps telling the same grand family stories for a long time to come.
Dial Books. 2006.
In the first few pages of Paul Acampora's book, Dulcie Jones suffers the sudden and awful loss of her father. In the midst of dealing with her shock and grief, Dulcie's mother drops another bombshell into her teenage daughter's life--she decides that the two of them need to leave behind the small Connecticut town they have lived in all of Dulcie's life and make a new start in California. Dulcie has no choice, and says goodbye to her grandfather and her job to do what her mother wants. But big surprise--California is not what Dulcie needs nor is her mother's new life anything that she wants to be part of. So Dulcie decides to head back to the only home she has ever known and steals her father's pickup truck in order to do it.
From the moment she leaves California, Defining Dulcie seems to be on track as a bit of an unorthodox but predictable teenage road trip novel. But, well, it turns out that there is nothing in Dulcie's life that is going to go as planned. She ends up diverting from the main highway a few times, to see some fainting goats, The Shrine of the Holy Relics and The Great American Museum of Custodial Safety. Everywhere she stopped she sent postcards to her mother and everything she saw made her think a bit more about where she wanted to be and who she really was. By the time she arrives at her grandfather's she is ready to go back to work at his side at John Jacob Jerome High School as a janitor and she knows for sure that she does not want to live in California.
Can you sense the mother/daughter drama building here?
There is more to the story though, particularly in the character of Roxanne, a classmate who also works as a janitor at the school and is hiding a painful secret about her home life. Mostly though Defining Dulcie is just a delightful story about a girl who loves her grandfather and loves all the intricacies of doing a job well while taking the time to better understand the people and world around her. I really liked this kid, I liked how she took the time to see what there was to see on her trip back home and I liked how she was determined to grieve for her father in her own way. Dulcie's mother is not a bad person, she just isn't Dulcie and I thought it was pretty cool that Acampora was able to convey that message so well, while not having to rely on caricatures of bad parenting to get his point across.
Ultimately, of course, Dulcie and her mother have to work out where she is going to live. And there is also the situation with Roxanne that must be considered. Throughout the book the grandfather provides a warm and stabilizing presence--he is one wickedly cool guy--thus giving both the teenage girls an adult they can count on. It's all very well written and effectively told and although Defining Dulcie might seem like a simple story it could very easily have been a badly told one. I thought it was just great and certainly hope that after this debut Alcampora continues to work in the young adult genre.
Sharelle Byars Moranville.
A Higher Geometry.
Henry Holt. 2006.
A Higher Geometry has to be one of the most unique historical novels I have read in a long time. In many ways it is a traditional coming of age story, but setting it in the 1950s with a young girl who wants to become a mathematician is a very unusual twist. What I really liked about it was that author Sharelle Moranville did not turn the book into an examination of the roles of women in the post WWII era, but simply told the story of Anna Conway, the boy she loves and the family who wants the best for her. And Anna is not a modern character born in the wrong time period--she is very much a child of her times and small town upbringing. But Anna was born with an impressive mathematical gift, the kind of gift that she would prefer not to ignore. The tension comes from the people who care about her, and their own mixed feelings about the best choices for her to make.
I see a lot of books set in various time periods prior to the 20th century. The Revolutionary War and Civil War eras are particularly popular and often focus on girls who want equality in a time when such thoughts were impossible to consider, let alone act upon. While I do not doubt that there were young women who wished for more in their lives throughout history, it is hard for me to swallow plots built around the actions of a character who seems more at home in the 21st century then the world they were born in. I really don't think that most teens long for the rights of a distant future like a lot of authors seem to think they did. In many ways Anna Conway almost seems to wish that she didn't have her talent for math--it would make life so much easier if she could just fall for Mike and live happily ever after as wife and mother. But she can not deny her ability or how much she enjoys it--nor can she ignore the attention it brings her. Her struggle to come to terms with herself, while still respecting her parents who are just as confused by what to do with her, makes for a great and unusual reading experience.
I especially liked that Anna's father wasn't an awful monster--something a lesser author might have tried to do. He wants his daughter to graduate from high school and settle down, like every other father wanted in America at that time. The very deft way in which Moranville shows him come to terms with Anna's ability was most unexpected, and very well done.
It's easy to recommend A Higher Geometry on several levels, as a coming of age novel, a gentle teen romance, and a family drama. But more than anything, it is a book unlike any other that I have read in a long long time. For tackling this time period at all Moranville deserves kudos, for doing it with such an unusual and engaging story she has certainly earned my respect.