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Posts Tagged ‘Luis Alberto Urrea’

The Water Museum: Stories by Luis Alberto Urrea. Little Brown and Co. New York. 2015. 257 pp.

Luis Alberto Urrea’s latest short story collection The Water Museum has a little bit for everyone. As other reviewers have pointed out, there’s drugs and sex and even a little rock n’ roll. I’ve talked about Urrea  and two of his earlier books, Hummingbird’s Daughter and Queen of America (https://wanderwest.wordpress.com/2013/03/16/luis-alberto-urrea-speaks/) and have read the marvelous Into the Beautiful North. I’m a true fan of his novels.

I’ve also read short pieces before, particularly in Orion, where I greeted his places “out west” not “back east” (the Orion staple US landscape) with gladness, and not a little wonderment about what those New England types made of home boys, low riders and alligators. (He did a memorable piece set in Louisiana; granted it’s not the high plains or the Pacific Coast but it sure as heck isn’t western MA.) He now has a column called Wastelander, appropriate for his often blasted out urban landscapes and polluted streams as well as his characters, who possess equally blasted out souls.

WATERMUSEUM2These are the characters that inhabit the short stories in this collection. I don’t think there was one that had a happy ending; and that’s just alright for the folks who populate his world. That can make reading Urrea’s stories bleak at times. But it’s often bleak softened with a sly grin or a wink, especially if the main character is an overlooked, misunderstood “I” who’s trying to get the swing of making it in a tough world.

The most thought-provoking essay for me is the title story: The Water Museum. As much of the West parches, this is a particularly timely allegorical tale about school kids who know water only as it originates from the tank of a water truck. They are taken on a school field trip to “experience the real thing”—even though it’s only a simulation of waterfalls and flowing rivers in a fake children’s “discovery” museum. Their reactions are fascinating, and not a little frightening.

Luis Alberto Urrea is a member of the Latino Writers Hall of Fame and has been inducted by many reviewers into what I consider the Writers Hall of Glowing Reviews. I think he’s a fantastic, unique writer, who inhabits a a space exactly right, carved out by him for himself. At least I haven’t read anybody call him a blue-eyed, red haired Mexican-American Thoreau yet. I guess maybe that’s too much of a stretch, even for reviewers who have been known to get lost in a swamp of superlatives. (Think “magisterial”, “pitch perfect”, “a must read.”)

I thank heavens for that.

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For me, one of the greatest joys of the 2013 Tucson Festival of Books was the opportunity to hear Luis Alberto Urrea speak. A native son of sorts (his latest novel Queen of America begins in southern Arizona and his award-winning non-fiction book Devil’s Highway occurs in southern Arizona) he’s attended every Tucson festival. His presentations are always “sold-out.”91289

Forewarned, I arrived early Sunday. Right off the bat at the first booth, I saw Urrea, winding up a morning signing! There were just two women left, deep in conversation with him. I raced down the aisle, snatched up a copy of The Hummingbird’s Daughter and had him autograph it. My very first author autographed volume! (Does that make me a groupie?) I asked what he would be talking about that afternoon—he didn’t know. He’d heard the Mayor was going to interview him.

Actually Tucson’s Mayor Jonathan Rothschild served as MC. Urrea’s presentation was in a giant lecture hall (it seats about 300) but he managed to make the event seem intimate—he was accessible, personable, self-effacing, informative, warm and very very funny. (Rereading that, I guess it’s safe to say I really am a groupie.)

Luis Alberto Urrea © AME

Luis Alberto Urrea © AME

He began with an off the cuff introduction about himself and the 26 years it took to construct The Hummingbird’s Daughter and Queen of America, a fictionalized account of his relative, Teresita Urrea, the Saint of Cabora. History isn’t just what’s behind us, he suggested. Rather “History is always walking with us.” This feeling certainly permeates the books and lends both a deep authenticity and a wonderful atmosphere of magical realism, that marvelously broadened sense of “the real” that permeates much Latin American literature.

In the first question from the audience he talked about his great admiration for Clifton, AZ, a central location and “home” for Teresita. An extended riff on the potential for movies from the books was hilarious and insightful. He noted that early on he’d gone to San Xavier de Bac (a mission just south of Tucson) where at the grotto (a kind of shrine there) he’d promised Teresita he would never give her over to Hollywood. But when they called he reconsidered noting, “Aw hell, you’re a saint. You’ll forgive me.” Movie rights have been sold and pre-production begun, but that’s as far as it’s gotten.

Urrea gave a wonderfully self-effacing account of his interview with Bill Moyers and finished up with some reflections on how he teaches. He admitted he doesn’t like hard ball critique and prefers to “encourage the good stuff.” Nurturing those stories within his students, he’s convinced that writing isn’t doing, it’s being. If there is a story within that can’t not be told, then the writer’s need will make it happen.

My final note from his talk is the word “grace.” A fitting ending to a lovely afternoon.

Book Signing © AME

Book Signing © AME

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Come to the Book Festival!

Come to the Book Festival!

Last weekend, Tucson hosted its Fifth Annual Festival of Books. Part book celebration/extravaganza, part carnival (think kettle corn, life-sized chess games, a huge inflatable Ronald McDonald), in just a few years the two day festival, whose primary sponsors are the University of Arizona and Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star, has become the fourth largest in the nation, behind, in order, Miami, DC’s Library of Congress, and the LA Times. Over 400 authors across every genre (from blockbuster acclaimed to emerging) and 300 exhibitors provided two days of non-stop action—workshops, panels, readings and signings—to an estimated crowd of over 120,000 happy readers and writers of all ages. The complimentary Science City (“Get a Read on Science”) also offered tours, exhibits and open houses across the campus. All supported by an 1800 strong army of volunteers.

From the previous Sunday’s Star, we poured over the 50+ page free festival booklet and still managed to miss a bunch. (Nancy Turner author of one of my favorites, These Is My Words, please come back next year!) But in retrospect, no booklet, no matter how detailed, could have prepared me, the first time visitor. The festival’s too big and complex (and just plain fun) to comprehend without experiencing it. It’s a tribute to the festival planners that with so many moving parts it all seemed to work so smoothly.

There's Fun!

There’s Fun!

There's Food

There’s Food!

Saturday was overcast and chilly. We were greeted at the entrance by an enormous line snaking out of at the first booth. “Bet it’s a Jodi Picoult signing.” Yup. We wandered for blocks down the U of A mall which looked like a huge Bedouin encampment of peaked white exhibitor tents. We saw book publishers, author signing tents, used book stalls, e publishers, non-profit associations. In academic buildings, authors talked and led workshops. We tried to see Timothy Egan and Douglas Brinkley discuss Teddy Roosevelt but the 300+ seat auditorium had filled over 100 people ahead of us in line. Somewhere among the throngs, Ted Danson had spoken to an SRO crowd. Mystery, romance, screenplay, sci-fi, YA, children’s—the sheer volume of possibilities was overwhelming.

Tents

Tents!

And More Tents

And More Tents!

Better prepared on Sunday, we arrived early enough to wander through some of the more interesting booths and soak up the perfect spring desert weather. I jumped online 45 minutes early to hear Luis Alberto Urrea, my latest favorite author. Thank heavens I got in. (More on his talk in the next blog.). Late afternoon as we were leaving, just like when we arrived on Saturday, a huge line was gathering at author signing booth #1. Who was it this time? Larry McMurtry.

A Beautiful Encampment

A Beautiful Encampment

A totally free event to participants (the event coordinators even manage to find free parking all around the campus) its first four years’ proceeds, over $700,000, have been donated to support local literacy programs.

For more info and to get ready for 2014 visit www.tucsonfestivalofbooks.org. See you there!

It's the Tucson Festival of Books

It’s the Tucson Festival of Books
© SR Euston

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