What happened to Estrella? Why won’t eleven-year-old Luz speak? From the beginning, Mario Alberto Zambrano’s Lotería is shrouded in this mystery. Luz’s older sister lies in intensive care and her father sits in jail. Her aunt is not a U.S. citizen and cannot take custody of her, so Luz is now a ward of the state, traumatized into silence by whatever happened. At her social worker’s urging, Luz’s only confidant becomes her journal. Using a deck of lotería (Mexican bingo) cards as her inspiration — each chapter is inspired by one card from the deck — Luz’s story slowly starts coming together.
The book’s exposition kind of reminded me of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. Both feature a young Mexican American girl whose life unfolds through a series of vignettes. But where Mango Street follows its protagonist as she comes of age, Lotería is limited to a handful of years of Luz’s young life; Zambrano’s book is certainly the darker of the two.
In her eleven years, Luz has had to deal with domestic violence; she and her sister have witnessed her father beating their mother and have occasionally been the target of his abuse as well. Though Luz was born in the United States, her sister and parents came from Mexico; it’s especially awkward for Luz, who doesn’t speak Spanish very well, whenever they go visit family in Reynosa, Mexico. The sisters have a love-hate relationship that’s common with siblings their age, but they always turn to each other whenever things get rough inside their household. No matter their disagreements, whatever put Estrella in ICU has obviously taken its toll on Luz.
Like many of Shohreh Aghdashloo’s non-Iranian fans, I first became aware of her in 2003 when House of Sand and Fog was released. Her performance garnered a well-deserved Academy Award nomination, and she’s been working steadily in Hollywood ever since. But before being cast in House of Sand and Fog, Aghdashloo was already a beloved personality in the Iranian American community, working nonstop with her playwright husband to produce his Iranian-themed plays around the world. And before that, she was an established actress in Iran, fleeing the country and starting over in the United States after the Islamic Revolution.
The Alley of Love and Yellow Jasmines recounts Aghdashloo’s life growing up in pre-revolution Tehran (the title is a reference to this happier time and remains a symbol of her hope for a free Iran). Although “Shohreh” means “famous” in Farsi, her parents wanted her to be anything but: acting wasn’t considered an appropriate career for a young woman of her affluent upbringing, and she was expected to become a doctor. Still, she knew she wanted to be an actress ever since she was a child. Though her parents expressly forbid her from pursuing an acting career, her first husband, Aydin Aghdashloo, a worldly and forward-thinking artist, was supportive of her acting aspirations. They were a perfect match for each other, and both of their careers took off.
Then, in 1978, the Islamic Revolution began. Artists, actors, students, and educators were all disappearing or being taken in for questioning under the new regime, but her husband loved Iran and refused to leave. As someone who vocally opposed what was happening to her country, it was becoming increasingly apparent that Shohreh needed to leave; to stay would mean putting her husband, family, and friends in danger. She made the difficult decision to leave her husband behind in Iran and escaped to Europe, then eventually made her way to the United States to try making it in Hollywood.
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Diana Dalziel was born in 1903 to a life of extreme privilege. With a wealthy father and a mother who had deep roots in New York society circles, Diana could have easily chosen to marry well and settle into the life of a well-kept society woman. Instead, she married well and ended up making an indelible mark on fashion as editor-in-chief at Vogue. Rather than settle down to retire, she then became the fashion consultant for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, turning the dowdy affair into something more along the lines of the star-studded fashion event it is today. Jacqueline Kennedy turned to her for fashion advice. Truman Capote and Andy Warhol were but two of a revolving cast of famous people who came and went through her doors. Designers’ careers were launched with her support. Some argue that she even created the concept of “fashion editor.” And remarkably, twenty-five years after her death, Amanda Mackenzie Stuart’s Empress of Fashion is the first full-length biography ever written about her.
I have to hand it to Stuart: I probably would have gone insane trying to write this book. If there’s one thing Diana (pronounced Dee-Ana) was known for, it was embellishing the truth. Take her childhood, for instance. She was born in Paris and lived there only briefly before moving to the United States; Diana was still an infant. They grew up here all along. To hear Diana tell it, though, she had a marvelous European childhood and had the worst time transitioning to life in the States. She and her sister couldn’t speak a word of English and were miserable at school; as such, she barely learned a thing.
It was true that Diana was probably miserable at school, but it had nothing to do with language. Diana was a bit of an outcast growing up, always out-shined by her beautiful, intelligent, talented younger sister, Alexandra. By comparison, Diana was an ugly duckling, and her image-conscious mother never let her forget it. But whatever Diana lacked in the looks she was born with, she made up for by paying attention to the smallest details. Beauty and appearance were everything to her, and the ability to come across as cultured and refined was of the utmost importance. It didn’t hurt that she had strong personality and a colorful way with words; as an adult, she would be the life of the party.
We sat a long moment in the dark car. The white flakes landed like news from heaven: notes from elsewhere, fallen from the stars.
Yesterday, I wrote about Jennifer Haigh’s second novel, Baker Towers. Centered on the Novak family, the novel begins in the 1940s and focuses on small town America at its peak, then shows how economic hardships during the next three decades impacted the community. Most of the mines shut down, leaving much of the town unemployed. When we last see the remaining Novaks, Dorothy and her sister Joyce are settled in Bakerton and are doing what they can to put their youngest sister, Lucy, through college so she can get away and be successful. The two brothers have long since left. It’s a very open ending that leaves readers aching, considering everything the Novaks privately struggled with throughout the novel.
The fact that Jennifer Haigh was releasing a new book would have been enough to fill me with joy, but I was positively ecstatic to learn that her new short story collection marked a return to the familiar grounds of Bakerton, Pennsylvania. In terms of time frame, News from Heaven overlaps with Baker Towers but goes past where it left off in the 1970s. This time, the Novaks aren’t the central focus. Haigh gives a few secondary characters from Baker Towers their chance in the spotlight and introduces completely new characters from Bakerton who have been displaced by the economic hardships that hit their town. The Novaks also get a few stories of their own and finally offer readers some closure.
If you’ve read Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves (2008), the name “Coutts” will probably ring a bell. In her newest book, The Round House, Erdrich returns to familiar grounds and picks up where Geraldine and Bazil Coutts left off. Now married and the parents of a twelve year old boy named Joe, the happy family’s life is shattered when Geraldine is brutally assaulted one evening somewhere within the premises of the Ojibwe reservation where they live.
When all of this happens, it’s 1988 and Joe is eager to be treated like an adult. He and his friends are barely coming of age and trying to navigate this tricky passage into adolescence. After his mother is attacked, Joe is forced to grow up quickly, regardless of how much information Bazil tries to keep from him. Meanwhile, his mother is traumatized and depressed, isolating herself from everyone and refusing to divulge any information about what happened.
Bazil is a tribal judge and feels that the attack had something to do with him; he hesitantly enlists Joe to help him pore through old case files to look for anyone who might have a serious grudge against him. What emerges are several harsh truths about life on a Native American reservation: the investigation is hindered by federal, state, and local laws (which, naturally, ties the hands of the tribal law enforcement, even though the crime happened on their land). When the attacker’s motive begin to come together, even more complex layers of injustice are added to the mix. And through it all is our young narrator: scared, angry, confused, and wanting nothing more than for his mother to feel safe again.