Special Politics and Prose event: Michael Chabon's in town to read and discuss The Yiddish Policemen's Union tonight at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue (600 I Street NW). This is a ticketed event. Two tickets with the purchase of the book at P&P or $12 per ticket.
Guest Blogger Scott Reynolds Nelson will be speaking about his book Steel Drivin’ Man tonight at the Arts Club of Washington. His book won the Club’s first National Awards for Arts Writing. 7pm. Free.
How I got Interested in the Legend of John Henry, the Steel Drivin’ Man, and Then Found Him in the Archives: A Cautionary Tale for the Wise, the Wizened, and the Faint of Heart
“You should write something about John Henry,” Leon said. “I think he worked on one of your railroads.” For a graduate student finishing his dissertation there is no most frightening sentence from an advisor than one beginning with “you should.”
It was 1994, and I had just finished a dissertation on the Southern Railway, and my research trips to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Blacksburg, Virginia, and Washington, DC had caused me considerable pain already. The directors of the Southern Railway, it turned out, were a secret cabal of capitalists, swindlers, and rough men who held their meetings in a private room on Liberty Street in New York City. Their charter was dubious and they had bribed legislators to gobble up railroads throughout the South. If these men were difficult to study, their principal opponents were worse. The White Brotherhood, or Ku Klux Klan met at night, in the forests of the rural Southeast where they fumed about the new railroad and plotted the murder of black railroad workers. That story became my first book, Iron Confederacies.
Needless to say I never found the minute books of either of these secret organizations. Newspapers, senate investigations, spy reports, coded telegrams – those were my sources. If it was marked secret, or “destroy this immediately”, and it was written in the 1870s, then I had looked at it and filed it away on my computer. So Leon’s suggestion that I look at John Henry, a mythical man who died building a railroad tunnel seemed like a genuinely terrible idea.
John Henry was a song about a black railroad man, sung by black railroad men. And unlike the few letters or scraps of speeches I had found, it was a powerful story, about pain and grief, overwork and early death.
I'm at the tail end of my book tour for the paperback of my story collection Instant Love and I'm weary but happy. I know some authors really hate touring. They don't like to be away from home or they don't like standing in front of audiences or they don't like getting on and off planes every other day but oh my goodness do I love it. It's totally exhausting but it just makes me realize that there is a whole wonderful world out there of interesting people who love books. It almost makes me a little pro-America even. (Almost.)
Anyway, on Sunday I'm swinging by Bethesda, MD (a town I am very familiar with because my mother grew up there and I still have family in the Rockville area) to read at the Writer's Center. I think I have some family members coming to this event, but I would really love to see some new faces. I will probably read something only mildly dirty from Instant Love (I try not to read sex scenes during daylight hours as a rule), and I am also going to read a little bit from my new novel The Kept Man, which will be published by Riverhead Books in December. I hope some of the Happy Booker readers can make it out!
(tHB adds: anyone care to send us a FotHB report on the event?)
While Madam Booker is away, the iPod will play. Today's guest DJ is author Sam Quinones.
A reporter for the LA Times and author of two books of nonfiction, Quinones spent 10 years in Mexico covering the country as a freelance writer. His first book, True Tales from another Mexico, featured stories of drag queens, narcoballadeers, pistoleros, Oaxacan basketball players, immigrants, and the village that got rich making Popsicles.
In his latest book, Antonio's Gun and Defino's Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration, released this spring, Quinones explores the history of velvet painting on the border; the story of the Tomato King who returned to Mexico to run for mayor of his hometown; the emergence of opera in Tijuana; and a soccer season in Southwest Kansas. Through it all is the story of Delfino Juarez, a modern-day Huckleberry Finn, who had to leave his village to change it.
Called "genuinely original work, what great fiction and nonfiction aspires to be," by the San Francisco Chronicle, Quinones will be reading from Antonio's Gun tonight at Olsson's Books in Dupont Circle at 7.
Today on the Happy Booker, Quinones has put together a list of the top Mexican immigrant corridos by Los Tigres del Norte, the most important bi-national band and the foremost musical chroniclers of the Mexican-immigrant experience.
Guest DJ Sam Quinones
When people risk everything to escape poverty for a shot at a better life, it is grist for breathtaking stories.
And for fantastic music, as well.
For almost 40 years, Los Tigres del Norte have created the best of it, combining music and tales into a series of terrific corridos, ballads.
The band is as unknown to non-Mexican America as the immigrants to whom they sing.
Los Tigres left Mexico in 1968, a child norteno band of brothers and a cousin —led by accordionist/singer Jorge Hernandez —and came to San Jose, California.
Since then, their stories of drug-smuggling shootouts and the anguish of immigrant life, backed by cheerful accordion polkas, transformed Mexican pop music.
Their best songs gauge Mexican immigrant feeling better than any anthropologist. (Transcribing their songs, which are sung in clear Spanish, can be great homework for those learning Spanish, by the way.)
They still tour 10 months a year on both sides of the border. Their dances in Mexico start at midnight and go to 5 a.m.
The band has released several greatest-hits albums:
Here are five of their best songs about Mexican immigration, plus one album worth noting:
VIVAN LOS MOJADOS (Long Live The Wetbacks): Recorded in 1976, it was the first Mexican pop music hit about illegal immigrants, most of whom at the time were farmworkers.
The song was the first to express how they saw their situation, and asked the question “when the wetback goes on strike, who will pick the onions, lettuce and beets?” In small towns across America, Los Tigres heard a roar go up every time they started the song and realized that undocumented farmworkers ached for songs that recognized them. Vivan los Mojados spawned a wave of jokey mojado songs by other bands in which the ingenious immigrant fools the bumbling Border Patrol.
LA JAULA DE ORO (The Gold Cage): Years later, the immigrant has outwitted the Border Patrol. He finds himself imprisoned in his new country. He has all he needs, but is unhappy. He cannot go outside for fear of being deported. His children, meanwhile, reject being Mexican and don’t speak Spanish. In the middle of the song, his son, in English, says, “Whatcha talking about, Dad? I don’t want to go back to Mexico. No way.”
PEDRO Y PABLO (Peter and Paul): The story of two orphaned brothers, inseparable friends. The oldest goes to the United States to earn money so his brother will be able to study. While he’s away, his girlfriend takes up with the younger brother. The kind of melodrama drenching many great Tigres’ songs.
El OTRO MEXICO (The Other Mexico): The Mexico in the United States. The song was a response to an attitude, common in Mexico for many years, that immigrants were betraying their country for leaving it to work in the United States. The song insists it is immigrants who keep Mexico alive.
”While the rich go abroad to hide their money and travel Europe,” the band sings, “the campesinos who came here illegally send almost all our money to those who remain back home.”
TRES VECES MOJADO (Three Times a Wetback): The story of a Salvadoran immigrant who must cross three borders to get to the United States.
The band recorded it in 1988 amid the exodus of Central Americans to the U.S., gaining them a huge following there. One radio station in Guatemala has a daily Tigres del Norte hour.
The only unbelievable part of the song is when a Mexican gives the Salvadoran immigrant a hand in his trip – an uncommon occurrence, according to many Central Americans.
JEFE DE JEFES (Boss of Bosses): One of the few double albums in Mexican pop history, it was recorded in 1997. The album title refers to a fictional drug boss and the album has several narco songs.
But the album was also a response to the anti-illegal immigrant feeling created by California’s Proposition 187, which would have denied various government services to illegal immigrants.
Three of the album’s best songs are about immigrants and their conflicted feelings toward Mexico and the United States. El Mojado Acaudalado (The Wealthy Wetback) is about an immigrant who’s made his money and, not feeling welcome in the United States, is returning to Mexico. Mis Dos Patrias (My Two Countries) has an immigrant naturalizing as a U.S. citizen, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and protesting that, again, he is not a traitor to Mexico, but simply wants to protect his pension in the country where his children were born. Finally, Ni Aqui Ni Alla (Neither Here Nor There) doubts that immigrants can find justice in either country.
Our favorite holiday is coming up this week: Mother's Day. Admittedly, we are pretty easy to shop for; everyone knows how much we love our iPod. Hmm..could we be getting a solar powered swim suit or perhaps a romantic "Sounds of the Sea" iPod dining experience? We'll just have to wait until Sunday to find out.
Just in time for Mother's Day, Mindt gives us a book about… Fathers —okay, so it might work better as an early Father's Day gift. In the 1990s, Mindt set off on a journey to discover America. He went to every corner of the country, driving the back roads and freeways. Male of the Species chronicles of the fathers he met on his journey—fathers of every race and class–heroic fathers, pathetic, abusive fathers, comical, desperate and brave fathers.
Music means everything to me. In fact, I always listen to music when I write. Many of the stories in Male of the Species were either directly influenced by specific songs, or were affected tonally by what I was listening to at the time.
"Sabor A Mi" is one of the most beautiful songs ever written, and it's the title of the first story in the collection. Juan, the old Mexican immigrant spends much of the story reminiscing (sentimentalizing, really) about dancing with his wife to that song. But he's never truly heard the song, never really listened to it, not until he hitchhikes to protest his daughter's lesbian wedding and watches her dance to it with her new lesbian partner. "I gave you so much life," the song says. "I do not pretend to be your owner. I am not in control." Through the song, Juan comes to a deeper understanding of himself, and his relationship with his wife and daughter.
"Gypsy in My Soul" is an old, lesser known jazz standard, and one of my favorites. The song winds its way through the story called "The Gypsy," about a young man burdened by too much responsibility at too young an age. Dressed in a Gorilla costume, he entertains a an old retiree at his retirement party. "If I am fancy free," he sings, "and love to wander, it's just the gypsy in my soul."
"My Sweet Carolina." I saw Ryan Adams debut this song one night in Seattle. He literally said, "I wrote this one last night in my hotel room." After he was through, silence lingered for five seconds or so, before people started clapping. The entire room was shocked by the song's beauty. I went home that night and wrote a response to Ryan's song, my own love letter in story form to my former home of North Carolina. That's how the story "Reception" was born.
Wednesday, May 9, 7pm Brookland Reading Series, Vrzhu Press reading with Hiram Larew and Kim Roberts. Brookland Visitors Center, 3420 9th St. NE, DC. (202) 526-1632. Hosted by Michael Gushue and Dan Vera. Free Admission.
Busy weekend has us still trying to catch up. Here's a few good links not to be missed. Tune in tomorrow, we're going to have some new ipod tunes and cool guest author DJ—stay tuned.
Get thee to the LBC for Alan De Niro week. We will be discussing his story collection, Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead, all week. Look for a Happy Booker posting on this collection in the days ahead.
This Saturday join the staff and instructors of the Writer's Center for an open house from noon to 3 p.m. Here's your chance to find out about workshops being offered this summer. While you'rethere, check out the book gallery which stocks one of the finest collection of literary journals and magazines we have ever seen.
Weekend Plan #1 Matthew Sharpe reads from Jamestown, his latest novel. Rich with jokes, allusions, and well-barbed wit, Sharpe’s novel conflates America’s colonial past with a possibly apocalyptic future. Pocahontas, Powhatan, and one Jack Smith are here, along with the Manhattan Corporation, the ruins of skyscrapers, and the remains of the interstate highway system. Friday, 7 p.m. Politics & Prose
You know what they say about all work and no play... Here's an open invite from our favorite folks at Barrelhouse Magazine:
Hey, Happy Bookers, Bookees, and Bookends!
Many of you are FOBs...that is, Friends of Barrelhouse, and we are having a Release Party for our 4th Issue this Cinco de Mayo...featuring readings by poet Valzhyna Mort, writer Paul Maliszewski, and a performance by a crossdressing reincarnation of Edie Sedgewick, aka Justin Moyer, formerly of influential bands El Guapo and Supersystem.
At the Big Hunt Basement Bar in DC (1345 Connecticut Ave NW, Dupont Metro south exit), from 8-10. $5 will be charged at the door, you know, for the kids, and Issues 4 will be sold at a discount!
Hope to see you there!
Now, I don't want to hear any complaining about there's nothing going on this weekend! TGIF, folks. xxoo, tHB
For those participating in D.C.'s Big Read, Chapters Bookstore hosts a weekday lunchtime Marathon Read-a-Loud of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston's classic novel. Brown bags welcome, beverages provided.
Today's featured reader: Washington Post columnist Colbert King.
Can't make it for lunch? Stop by at 3pm for Zora Neale Hurston: Writing under the Jim Crow Laws with Murad Kalam, the author of Night Journey, a finalist for the PEN/ Hemingway Award for First Fiction. Kalam draws on his legal career to discuss the Jim Crow Laws under which Hurston created Their Eyes Were Watching God.