Short Takes

Julia Alvarez


Algonquin Books

BREAKING WITH CONVENTIONAL format, Julia Alvarez's third novel tells its title character's story via 16 short narratives from people she encounters--first as a small girl growing up in a wealthy, powerful family in the Dominican Republic; later as an immigrant, writer and teacher in the U.S. It's essentially the same story related in Alvarez's popular first work, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, told from a different perspective.

While the author's earlier works may have shed more light on Dominican culture and on what it's like for a family of political exiles to land on foreign shores, ¡Yo! probes the difficulties of straddling two such different realities. "The Suitor" is narrated by one of Yo's exes, the pot-smoking Deadhead Dexter Hayes, who follows her on a visit to the family compound in the Dominican Republic. Yo struggles to play by Dominican rules, introducing her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend to her extended family as a journalist from The Washington Post who has asked her to be his "guide" during the impending elections.

Dexter, however, is unable to navigate the chasm between what Yo's upper-crust family expects in terms of proper behavior and how they themselves really act. Yet in a later chapter, a more Americanized Yo breaks those rules herself, reaching out to a family servant whose life is collapsing.

The life story that unfolds here is supposedly autobiographical and, indeed, bears a striking resemblance to the life of Alvarez, who fled the Dominican Republic with her family at the age of 10 and currently teaches at Middlebury College. But the protagonist's voice is never revealed to the reader: Yo's life slowly develops a trajectory, but only through the differing narrators; she herself remains frustratingly distant. It's an ambitious structural device, but ultimately this novel's greatest failing. (Beth Hawkins)

Jack Blake

Comes The Millennium

St. Martin's Press

JACK BLAKE USES the end of the millennium to frame a lively discussion about anti-intellectualism, religious mania and hysteria in America. For Blake, the "end times" countdown speaks to not only our fascination with apocalypse, but to broader issues regarding race relations, intolerance, and political polarization. At times his extensive examinations into science, art, Christianity, homosexuality, utopias, evolution, crime, and violence (and many other un-light topics) are cumbersome and pedantic, but they also allow the author to make statements such as: "Those who cannot 'understand' abstract, non-literal or otherwise offensive art are really those who are uncomfortable in the absence of authority."

This book is full of simple, logical realities that support Blake's desire for a steady ship in a sea of insanity. Comes the Millennium is a defense of objectivism, rationality, and the human brain, yet Blake isn't just tooting his horn to make waves. Included in the book are chapters titled "What to Tell Your Children" and "Thinking Big/Acting Small," in which Blake rolls out endless lists of things one can do to keep a clear head in a volatile social and political climate. All in all, this is a noble effort, but I wonder if it can make a dent in that great American motto, "The Mob Rules." (Paul D. Dickinson)

Leslie Marmon Silko

Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit

Touchstone Paperback

CONJOINING THE PERSONAL and the political is always risky business for a writer, judging from how often the results are fraught with dogma and self-indulgence. Leslie Marmon Silko does it as well as anyone, for a couple of reasons: Her spare, plainspoken prose neatly counterbalances her passion; and her Native American upbringing and ancestry not only make the personal and political indivisible, but allow the spirituality and magic of nature to resonate through the mix.

As she explains in myriad autobiographical pieces that comprise about half of Yellow Woman's 22 essays, Silko grew up in an adobe house next door to her great-grandmother's place, and by age 11 was more comfortable riding a horse out in the Arizona wilderness than she was interacting with people. Seduced by ancestral storytelling, her understanding of the natural world has always been organically devoid of guile and fear. Through the stories, Silko discovered that the character and personality of local landmarks can be as vivid, and their activities as useful in devising parables and morals, as any human's. Along the way she learned that even rocks and stones have a kind of spirit, being on the same cycle of birth and dilapidation as plants and animals.

Silko's essays reinforce these beliefs by adopting the purposefully rambling and repetitious mode of storytelling; that she does this without sacrificing focus or concision is a feat that adds credibility to her outlook. In style and in substance, her profound adherence to her roots--and the resulting near-total alienation from prevailing political trends--gives luster to the times when she does stoop to rhetoric. In other words, support for the rebels of Chiapas (who are of Mayan descent), the betrayal by whitewashed tribal councils, and the tactics of the border patrol all acquire both a personal and historical context. And even in her rage, Silko makes it softly, effectively luminous. For those needing to know her before embarking on her lengthy masterpiece, The Almanac of the Dead, Yellow Woman is a worthy primer. (Britt Robson)

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