Quesadillas: A Novel by Juan Pablo Villalobos
FSG Originals • $14 • ISBN 9780374533953
On sale February 11, 2014
In Juan Pablo Villalobos' highly hilarious second novel, Quesadillas, the 38-year-old narrator recounts being a teenager growing up in the 1980s in the small Mexican town of Lagos de Moreno. Orestes (“Oreo") is one of seven children—all named after infamous Greeks—born to a high school civics teacher with anger management issues and his homemaker wife, who seems to spend most of her time making quesadillas for her large family and trying to calm her husband down. Money is tight; political upheaval is in the air; and rumors of alien abductions swirl. All of this adds up to a wildly funny farce that's also surprisingly moving.
Here's the opening of the book, which features one of the most memorable first sentences I've ever read. F-bombs (authentic—not the condensed ones below) abound, but they're there to make a point (swiftly and deftly illustrating the character of the narrator's father)—and even the narrator is apologetic for it.
“Go and f— your f—ing mother, you bastard, f— off!”
I know this isn't an appropriate way to begin, but the story of me and my family is full of insults. If I'm really going to report everything that happened, I'm going to have to write down a whole load of mother-related insults. I swear there's no other way to do it, because the story unfolded in the place where I was born and grew up, Lagos de Moreno, in Los Altos, Jalisco, a region that, to add insult to injury, is located in Mexico. Allow me to point out a few things about my town, for those of you who have not been there: there are more cows than people, more charro horsemen than horses, more priests than cows, and the people like to believe in the existence of ghosts, miracles, spaceships, saints and so forth.
“Bastards! They're sons of bitches! They must think we're f—ing stupid!”
The one shouting was my father, a professional insulter. He practised at all hours, but his most intense session, the one he seemed to have spent the day in training for, took place from nine to ten, dinnertime. And when the news was on. The nightly routine was an explosive mixture: quesadillas on the table and politicians on the TV.
“F—ing robbers! Corrupt bastards!”
Can you believe that my father was a high-school teacher?
With a mouth like that?
With a mouth like that.
What do you think, readers? Will you be checking out Quesadillas? What are you reading this week?
If you loved Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, you're going to want to check out Rachel Pastan's third novel, Alena, which pays homage to the classic. In it, a young art curator from the Midwest is offered a job by the handsome, wealthy and mysterious owner of a museum on Cape Cod. The former curator, Alena, disappeared, and the museum staff is fiercely loyal to her. Conflict, drama and twists ensue. (Read our review of Alena.)
We were curious about the books Pastan has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share:
By Andrea Barrett
While writing my new book Alena, which is set in the art world, I read a lot of novels about that world. Lately, as though in response, I have been craving fiction about science. I heard Andrea Barrett on the radio talking about a story in this collection, “The Island,” centered on Louis Agassiz, one of the Victorian era’s great naturalists. I love the clarity and energy of Barrett’s prose, as well as her portrayal of two young 19th-century women who are passionate about science and determined to shape their lives around that passion.
My mother, who gives me many books, gave me this—though I would probably have sought it out anyway because I love Patchett’s work. Many people have praised this novel (also about scientists), which is partly an adventure story set deep in the jungles of Brazil. What I haven’t heard so much talk about is the original way the novel approaches issues around mothers and work. Neither of the two main female characters is a mother, but the price of fertility and the cost of being dedicated to one’s profession are central themes here, as are close bonds between both men and women and their surrogate children.
The Suicide Index
By Joan Wickersham
After hearing the author read from this unconventional memoir about her father’s suicide, I went right out and bought a copy. Organized not chronologically but literally as an index (Suicide: act of, attempt to imagine; factors that may have had direct or indirect bearing on; finding some humor in, etc.), this book is nonetheless (or consequently?) absolutely riveting. Wickersham’s sentences are electric with the energy it takes for them not to fly apart.
What do you think, readers? Will Alena—or any of Pastan's recommended books—be going on your TBR list?
(Author photo © Carina Romano)
• With Valentine's Day right around the corner (two weeks from today, fellas), the Huffington Post assembled a steamy list of the 15 hottest affairs in literature, which includes the one featured in Graham Greene's The End of the Affair (right).
• A Martin Scorsese-helmed documentary about the New York Review of Books featuring the likes of Michael Chabon and Joan Didion? Yes, please!
• My Modern Met introduced us to the whimsical and clever book art of Terry Border (left).
• Attention book lovers with an aversion to sports! Quirk offers up an amusing and timely guide to getting away with covertly reading during a Super Bowl party this Sunday.
Tiffany Baker's delightful debut, The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, was met with critical and audience acclaim when it was published four years ago. Baker's just-published third book, Mercy Snow, tells the stories of two disparate families living in a small New Hampshire town. Our reviewer declares Baker as "an expert in placing the reader into the souls of her characters. Readers will be eager to see what’s next from this talented writer." (Read our full review of the book.)
We were curious about the books Tiffany has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites. She graciously agreed, giving us not three recommendations, but four!
I’m one of those people who always has a minimum of two books going at once and stacks of books by my bed. Usually, I’m reading something for fun, something for research and then something because someone has recommended it as useful. Oh, and cookbooks. I like to browse those, too. Here’s what’s in my pile right now:
Delicate Edible Birds
By Lauren Groff
This is a short story collection that came out in 2009 and that I periodically dip in and out of. I am a huge fan of Lauren Groff. Her writing is simultaneously dreamy and precise, spare and lush, and she is very, very smart. I don’t usually love short stories, but the tales in this collection feel so complete and each one is so interesting. She rewrites the story of Abelard and Heloise, imagines the downfall of a dictator’s wife, and the title story, set in World War II, is simply amazing.
I’m late to the party with this one, I realize, but this book is so completely amazing. Kushner absolutely pulls off making you feel immersed in the tropical confusion of Cuba right before the revolution. Also, without spoiling anything, I can’t believe some of the gutsy character moves she pulls off—and gets away with. I’m totally envious of and pleased with this book. It’s one of those novels that gives you ideas in the best possible way.
Quiet: The Power of the Introvert
By Susan Cain
When two of your three children’s teachers tell you to read this book, you do, and I’m so glad that I am. It’s so easy to overlook the more introverted child, or to try to push them to be different, and it’s also so easy to put those pressures on yourself. This book reminds me that it’s easier to paddle with the current than fight against it. You’ll go much farther much faster.
A dear friend gave this to me for Christmas, and it’s everything you’d want in a cookbook. Gorgeous photographs, friendly and engaging writing, and oh my goodness, the food is to die for. I can’t wait to cook everything in it over the course of 2014—the perfect break from writing.
What do you think, readers? Will Mercy Snow—or any of Baker's recommended books—be going on your TBR list?
(Author photo by Lauren Drever)
Very few people are lucky enough to love their job as much as David Menasche loved teaching high school English in Miami. One of his favorite lessons was called "The Priority List," in which he asked his students to rank ten words—wealth, love, education, for example—in order of importance to them.
Even after he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2006, David continued teaching—until a debilitating seizure in 2012 made returning to the classroom impossible.
Instead of giving up and letting his illness become the focus of his life, David reevaluated his own priorities, ultimately deciding to end his treatment and embark on a journey to reconnect with former students, who were scattered across the country. Fifty cities and 8,000 miles later, David has reunited with more than 100 students, all eager to let him know the positive influence he's had on their lives.
Menasche shares his courageous journey in his new, incredibly moving memoir, The Priority List, which will inspire readers to reflect and reassess their own priorities. In this guest blog post, David shares the story of the "no-going-back" day he realized he wanted to become a teacher.
For me, teaching wasn’t making a living. It was my life. Nothing made me happier or more content than standing in front of a classroom and watching my students “catch” my passion for language and literature.
For 16 years I taught 11th graders at a magnet high school in Miami, and my classroom was my sanctuary. So much so that on the day before Thanksgiving in 2006 when, at the age of 34, I was diagnosed with Glioblastoma multiforme, an incurable form of brain cancer, and told I had less than a year to live, I did what I always did: I went to school.
I am a pragmatic man. I know there is no reason I should still be alive. The cancer never lets me forget that it and ultimately it will win this battle of wills. But I choose to live for today and cherish the memories of yesterday. I may no longer get to be in a classroom, but my time as a teacher was time well spent.
The novelist Alice Sebold wrote, “Sometimes the dreams that come true are the dreams you never even knew you had.” I backed into my dream-come-true while I was studying journalism at Eugene Lang College at the New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village. One of my favorite professors convinced me to sign up for the Teachers and Writers Program. The program placed aspiring writers in New York public schools and gave them the opportunity to teach. I was sent to teach a group of eager first-graders in upstate New York.
The small village, with its frozen pond in the center, was enchanting to a Miami kid like me. On my very first day, I decided that I wasn’t going to teach the kids by the book. Instead, I read to them from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. I couldn’t help but be animated and energetic when I read it, as Whitman had always had that effect on me. When I looked out at my six-year-old students, sitting Indian-style in front of me, I saw wonder in their eyes. Their hands shot up, and they called out questions before I’d even finished reading. Watching their reaction to Whitman’s poetry, I got an idea. “Tell you what,” I said, “why don’t we go outside and write our own poems.”
The kids squealed with delight. I bundled them up and marched them outside like a flock of ducklings. Giving each one a small stack of yellow Post-it notes and crayons, I asked them to write down the things they saw—one item per piece of paper. They ran around looking at everything, and like Whitman, I thought, they had a blissful enthusiasm for their surroundings. They wrote words like “rock” and “leaf” and “snow.”
After I noticed one of my little duckies with frozen snot on her upper lip and shivering, I shepherded everyone back inside and asked the kids to stick their notes up on the board and rearrange them until they were in an order that they liked. When they were finished, they had written a poem. The students jumped up and down with the same sense of accomplishment and joy that I felt watching them learn.
That was it for me. There was no turning back. That was the moment I knew I wanted to be a teacher.
Thank you so much, David. Readers, The Priority List is out now, and you can continue to follow David's journey on Facebook.
(Author photo by Chris Granger)
Calling all BookPage readers: We want to hear from you! What types of books do you most enjoy reading? What is your favorite section of BookPage? What would you like to see more of in our issues or online? We've created a brief reader survey so that you can share your reading preferences and, in doing so, help us make BookPage better for you.
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*12 monthly mailings of 4 or 5 books selected by BookPage editors in the genre of the winner's choice
• Free eBooks alert: The Getty Museum has just launched a virtual library, where you can browse and even download more than 250 art books for free! Now there's no excuse not to know the difference between a Manet and a Monet.
• Is there a famous literary bar near you? Check out BuzzFeed's collection of historic watering holes frequented by infamous writers, including Vesuvio (right), where I've tippled many-a-beverage myself.
• So cool: It's six 16th-century books in one!
• If you're feeling a little weary of work, check out this article on Publishers Weekly that features 10 of the worst jobs in books. You'll likely feel a renewed sense of appreciation for the fact that your line of work doesn't involve being a queen, a concubine or a clone.
With February right around the corner, let's take a look at the February LibraryReads list, which features 10 books coming out next month that librarians across the country are the most excited about sharing with their patrons.
Topping the list is Red Rising by Pierce Brown, which Cindy Stevens of the Pioneer Library System in Norman, Oklahoma, proclaims as "the next great read for those who loved The Hunger Games."
While the list offers up lots of suspenseful thrillers to curl up with by the fire—The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon (our Top Pick in fiction for February!) and The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin, among them—it also features much-anticipated new novels from best-selling authors Matthew Quick and Wiley Cash. See the full list right here.
What do you think, readers? Any of the books going straight to the top of your TBR list?
Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby
by Sarah Churchwell
Penguin Press • $29.95 • ISBN 9781594204746
On sale January 23, 2014
Some people may be tired of reading about F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby and the 1920s . . . but I'm not one of them. My feet are firmly planted in the can't-get-enough camp when it comes to my favorite novel of all time. Which is why, this week, I'm reading Sarah Churchwell's new book, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby.
In it, Churchwell focuses on one particular year in the life of Fitzgerald: 1922, the very year in which The Great Gatsby would be set (and, many say, the pivotal year that ushered in modernism). In 1922, Fitzgerald was just 26 and a rising literary star. He and Zelda settled right in the midst of a bustling New York City (and on Long Island), partying it up with the literati and everyone else snubbing their noses at Prohibition. As Churchwell points out, Fitzgerald was also doing a little first-hand research for a new book idea.
In her meticulous research, Churchwell combed through Fitzgerald's Princeton archives, through old newspaper articles, and other historical records, resulting in this fascinating account of a brilliant writer, a vibrant city and a tiny slice of American history and culture. While reading, you can almost imagine how the wheels must have turned in Fitzgerald's head.
In this excerpt, Churchwell describes the familiar landscape that Scott and Zelda (accompanied by none other than John Dos Passos) drove through while on a car trip from Manhattan to Long Island, where they were hunting for a house to rent:
About halfway between New York and Great Neck, just beneath Flushing Bay, stood the towering Corona Dumps, vast mountains of fuel ash that New York had been heaping on swampland beyond the city limits since 1895, in a landfill created by the construction of the Long Island Rail Road. By the time the ash dumps were leveled in the late 1930s (and eventually recycled to form the Long Island Expressway), the mounds of ash were nearly a hundred feet tall in places; the highest peak was locally given the ironic name Mount Corona. . . . By 1922, desolate, towering mountains of ashes and dust stretched four miles long and over a mile across, alongside the road that linked the glamor of Manhattan to the Gold Coast. In the distance could be seen the steel frames of new apartment buildings braced against the sky to the west. Refuse stretched in all directions, with goats wandering through and old women searching among the litter for some redeemable object.
What are you reading this week?
In her just-released YA novel, The Impossible Knife of Memory, Laurie Halse Anderson presents a powerful story of a young woman coping with her father's PTSD. Our reviewer predicts that "longtime Anderson fans won’t be disappointed, and readers newly discovering her work will understand why she’s earned a reputation as one of the most honest authors writing for teens today." (Read our full review of the book here and a Q&A with Anderson about the book here.)
We were curious about the books Laurie has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
I was lucky enough to receive an advanced reading copy of Longbourn by Jo Baker. As soon as I finished the last page I drove to my local indie bookseller and bought a copy in hardback, because I felt I owed the author a debt for the reading experience I’d just enjoyed. Longbourn is, without a doubt, the best-written, most satisfying historical novel I’ve ever read. This is Pride and Prejudice stood on its head, told from the perspective of the servants of the Bennet household. Dare I say this? Baker is a better writer than Jane Austen, and she tells a more interesting story. I am considering offering my services as cook, housekeeper and scullery maid to her so she’ll write another book as swiftly as possible.
I have to drive all day to get to New York City, but I can make it to the Canadian border in an hour. This proximity is what first brought me to the wonderful Inspector Gamache mysteries by Louise Penny. Her ability to weave a great story and make me stay up much too late at night reading is what sends me back every time she publishes another one. This is the ninth novel in the series, but it can easily be read on its own. The layers of the story; the mystery of the first death, the building tension as the police involvement takes a dark turn, and the pitch-perfect characters work together seamlessly. This well-paced tale of secrets, betrayal and love set in a remote Québec village is the perfect book to curl up with on a dark winter’s eve.
I bought this the day it went on sale, but saved it for weeks to read on my birthday. Best. Decision. Ever. The story transported me to that rare, magical place that only the best books can unlock. Gaiman is a once-in-a-generation storyteller. This could be his once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece.
What do you think, readers? Will The Impossible Knife of Memory—or any of Halse's recommended books—be going on your TBR list?
(Author photo by Joyce Tenneson)