Adventures in Reading

Nonfiction: ¡Ask A Mexican! by Gustavo Arellano

After reading Suzuki’s Words in Context, I was encouraged to broaden my language learning studies to pick up a bit more on the cultural and linguistic aspects of Latin American Spanish. After a variety of fiction and nonfiction works, I stumbled across ¡Ask A Mexican! by Gustavo Arellano. A columnist for the OC Weekly, Arellano’s column responds to queries put to him about Mexican lifestyle, culture, heritage, etc. ¡Ask A Mexican! is part collection of some of these queries intertwined with newer works and a few essay style ponderances.

When I first saw the cover of Arellano’s book at work, I had doubts. Being from one of those “middle states” I had no idea who he was or what this could be about, but that a stereotyped Mexican was smiling at me from the cover. The title turned up once again in my search for reading materials and I decided, “Why not?”

Arellano’s responses are consistently humorous, often informative, and always unapologetic. The columnist does play up the idea of the stereotyped Mexican at times, but often in jest and only as frequently as stereotyped questions are asked of him. (Seriously, I was amazed at some of the questions. A good assumption to make is that people, all over the world, aren’t quite that different from you.) This is not to say that at times the book isn’t offensive or that the reader should get all of their information on Mexico’s culture and people from Arellano, but he is a spokesman in an interesting position and with a lot to say.

I was asked by Joanne if Arellano’s treatment of Latino stereotypes. I found Arellano very much a believer in the idea that some truth exists in every stereotype and he fully exploits/explores this to various humorous possibilities. However, on a more subtle level he often takes issue directly with these stereotypes, points out the stereotypes existing in the questioner’s environment, and by exploring a wide range of Mexican immigrant from migrant farm worker to professionals. It’s a humorous book and I now regularly check in at Arellano’s column.

My partner and I frequent a local Mexican restaurant because it’s tasty, inexpensive, and within walking distance (bring on the pablanos and margaritas). I couldn’t help but grin when I noticed a variety of the workers sitting at the bar were all drinking bottled water while my partner and I drank from our glasses. One of Arellano’s responses was to such an inquiry about Mexican’s drinking bottled water and I had a moment of feeling on the “in.” ¡Ask A Mexican! is a fun and entertaining view of Mexicans in America.

Conclusion: Returned to the library.

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Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories

During my years as a literature major I have repeatedly been assigned Flannery O’Connor’s short stories A Good Man is Hard to Find and Good Country People. These two stories seem staples in the English major repertoire, and don’t get me wrong because these are phenomenal stories, but seldom does an undergraduate read anything else. I have heard rumors of people reading The Artificial Nigger, but even with this addition that is only three stories out of her numerous books of short stories (not to mention the novels O’Connor wrote). When I started reading her Complete Stories I suppose I was just as interested in the stories I had not read as much as wondering why the previously mentioned stories are so academically popular.

All of O’Connor’s stories are focused in or at least on the southern United States, and any discussion of O’Connor cannot escape commenting on the southern gothic. I had never made the comparison until I ran across the portrait the other day, but a great way of explaining the term southern gothic is comparing it with Winslow Homer’s American Gothic. It is a quintessential representation of a geographical location and the people and customs from that region. Gothic writers tend to stereotype their characters but still maintain to perplex and astound the reader at what they reveal through their writing. Being described as southern gothic also classifies O’Connor with the southern United State’s literary tradition along with Margaret Mitchum, Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams.

O’Connor’s stories largely focus on religion and brokenness (yes, a word I am making up), and often how these themes tie together. I do not specifically recall O’Connor’s personal relationship with god, but I think it is safe to say that she was a troubled Catholic. In the introduction an excerpt from a letter from O’Connor describes, “That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence.” However, I cannot recall one story out of the thirty-one that I read that favorably represents religion, but there are quite a few stories that interestingly juxtapose atheism and christianity.

As for brokenness, all of O’Connor’s stories focus on an idea of brokenness and this is reflected in a tangible manner through her characters. Chronologically early in her writing, her characters may singularly be morally, religiously, or financially broken, but the stories she wrote later in her career also have her characters physically “broken” with missing limbs, deformities, and mental illness. For example, in Good Country People Hulga-Joy (how I fondly recall the character from class discussion) has a prosthetic leg and all of the characters can be described as broken or corrupt in a fashion.

Another theme I find fascinating, but that appears less in her writings, are her many characters relationship with the academy and education versus the “uneducated.” (By uneducated I do mean to imply ignorance or stupidity (though it would apply for certain stories), but simply characters that have received formal or public education.) This creates a terrific tension of displacement similar to Jane Austen’s character Harriet in Emma, who receives enough education from Emma to find herself displaced from the social groups she is acquainted with but without the peerage to formally belong to a different social group. O’Connor’s stories are brimming over with various themes and these are only a handful of teasers.

Both A Good Man is Hard to Find and Good Country People were written in the middle of O’Connor’s career, and a definite development exists between her early stories and the later ones. One reason why I love the short story is because of the twist. A good short story must have a twist. For lack of a better word, a twist is the point in the story where you have to set the book down and spend time pondering, “What exactly happened?” Novels usually are developed so that the conclusion is a neat and tidy package. Certainly not all novels (one exception that comes to mind is Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale), but most novels seem to leave the reader satisfied that the story has been completed. Short stories, however, tend to build up a familiarity, then remove you from the structured comfort zone, and often purposefully leave you on edge. This process the author puts the reader through is the twist, and O’Connor’s Good Man and Good Country People have excellent twists that leave the reader feeling blindsided.

Some of O’Connor’s short stories certainly are weaker or less dynamic, but as a whole collection I am by no means disappointed. Her later stories gain in length, and I wonder (without knowing the dates) how much this bridges her shorter stories and novels. Then again, short stories should be read over and over again and I do not want to pass unfair criticism on stories I am less familiar with. As for why A Good Man is Hard to Find and Good Country People are consistent favorites – I don’t have an answer. They are tremendous tales but valid arguments seem to exist for the inclusion of at least half the stories in this collection.