Archive for March, 2010

This is not for the MS13

Monday, March 29th, 2010

Last week I got a question on the reference desk about the Salvadoran gang Mara Salvatrucha.  Because I had watched a terrifying and very affecting movie last summer about these guys, I was uncharacteristically excited to work on this question.  As I had found myself so disturbed and moved by this film, I was surprised to discover there is very little out there on the MS13, and that that is published is in Spanish.  This particular faculty member requested that the materials all be in English, so I was even more surprised to discover that there are precisely 2 books in the Pittsburgh area in English on the MS13.  I feel guilty about this, but I immediately checked out one at the public library.

This is for the Mara Salvatrucha (Samuel Logan), had for starters, one of the worst book covers I’ve ever seen: ms13

See?  Pretty bad.  The MS13 are notorious for their Mara tattooes, and Logan & his publishers really capitalized on this for the cover.  While I am taking issue with silly things, I will also take issue with the subtitle, as at one point in the narrative he writes that they are not in fact the most violent gang, but one of many.  These are by and large cosmetic flaws, so I can let them slide.

I never really bought much into true crime books, but boy, was this ever one.  I loved the material Logan was working with, and the pure shock value of much of the story almost could have carried the narrative alone.  The book is about a girl–Brenda Paz–who got jumped into the MS13 at age 15 and was ultimately murdered by her “homies” when she was 17, pregnant, and an informant.  Logan writes Brenda as this supremely likeable girl–he talks of her being nicknamed “Smiley,” and emphasizes how cheery and adorable she was, but this got really annoying after the 9th or 10th time he writes about “Smiley.”  I think Brenda’s story worked best when framed by details of the MS13–how it started, how they migrated north to the US, etc, but there frankly wasn’t enough of this.  The framing that Logan does manage to do is superficial at best, and comparable to the MS13 Wikipedia page.  Which is to say brief, and possibly nonfactual.

Reading this book got tedious and repetitive.  It was a little like how I’d imagine reading the transcripts from 20/20 would be.  Very dramatic, all in a passive voice, with very little description.  Literally every sentence was written in the past tense (I started to count how many times he used the word “had” but lost track after one chapter).  In my youth, I was a non-fiction major, and we had a saying, “Show, don’t tell,” that we would liberally scrawl all over everybody’s writing every time they skimped on dialogue and setting, and holy cow, was I tempted to write “SDT” all over Logan’s book.  I confess to having been majorly absorbed in the plot (enough so that I secretly got mad at OMC when he started to simultaneously read it as HIS bedtime reading), but the writing made me want to bang my head off of a wall.  I think I might have been better served reading the Paz/cop transcripts or something.

Which brings me to my last point.  I haven’t really researched the research behind Paz’s story, but Logan attributes nothing.  Not one thing.  I’m not asking for a 45 page annotated bib, but I don’t think it’s asking too much to include a small sampling of citations so interested readers at least have other places to turn for further (and maybe better) research.

Lies: that wasn’t my last point.  Logan paints this bleak & terrifying picture of how the MS13 is going to take over America and eat your babies and shoot your grandma and steal her Camry but he never offers much in the way of a solution.  So what, I want to say.  They’re coming and there’s nothing we can do about it?  There’s lots of room for further research and writing here, so maybe this is my way to make up for the many failings of This is for the Mara Salvatrucha.

In which I convince myself I like something I previously disliked

Friday, March 19th, 2010

This is mostly so I don’t forget, but this week I finished the End of the Story, by Lydia Davis.  A few months ago I read, and plainly adored, her later book of short stories, Varieties of Disturbance.  I had been putting off reading something different by Davis, partly because I was so taken with her talent as a short story writer, and also partly because I found something actually a little magical about her as a writer, in general, and I didn’t want to cloud my brains with too much magic all at once.  The End of the Story received largely rave reviews when it was published (1995), and thus I am confused by my own disappointment with it.  I actually found this book a little boring, a little monotonous, and surely a little repetitive.  While I felt that Davis shone when able to tweak format & structure (as in VOD), I don’t think–and I might be wrong, because EofS is the first novel I’ve read of hers–she can necessarily shine in a long form quite as well.

HOWEVER, if I were to look at this book with fresh, virginal Lydia Davis eyeballs, I probably would have been completely taken aback by it.  I did note that my library copy had been virtually dipped in highlighter–somebody was that impressed with almost every other sentence  (this was, for the record, totally distracting.  Dear world, STOP WRITING IN LIBRARY BOOKS.  Thanks.).  It probably isn’t fair to compare this book to another of hers, and then judge it critically for not being what I wanted, which is to say: jokes, and short stories, and stuff, and here I must ask myself, who reads a novel looking for short stories, anyway?  Me, apparently.  I loved the subject matter of this novel (in short, an older woman who works as a translator [this is partly autobiographical, I think], is left by a younger lover, and the book is mostly a retrospective about how she was kind of cruel to him, and thus deserved to be left anyway, and then she STALKS HIM, which is creepy, but admittedly really well written), and I am really quite affected by her writing style, which additionally worked very well with this subject matter, but oh, I don’t know.  Maybe I did like it after all.  I don’t even know anymore.  Ok, Friday afternoon, you win.

fact vs fiction

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Last week I lingered (for too long, maybe, longer than a week at least) over Mario Vargas Llosa’s Feast of the Goat, which is a really brutal tale of Trujillo and his, er, failings (politically, diplomatically, humanely and, best of all, physically). Things about this book & my life as of late:

  • Fact: one of the torture scenes in this book was so horrific & explicit that I almost barfed on the bus.  In all honesty.
  • Fact: most of the details of this book are true (how is that for barfy?)
  • Tangent: I love Latin American literature more than probably anything else (duh)
  • Fact: the structure of this book is wonderful
  • Fact: I have never read anything by Vargas Llosa, but I am a convert and will hereafter read everything I can get my little hands on
  • Fact: I work in a library with an outstanding Latin American lit collection & can get my little hands on everything LA just by walking upstairs
  • Fact: when I think about things like this my life feels really privileged and awesome
  • Fact: OMC & I just returned from New York, where I fell in love all over again with Strand, bread pudding, tacos & my honey
  • Fiction: PA is beautiful by bus
  • Fiction: I am good at job hunting

Upcoming events: guest blog by now defunct blogger Blah & Order, I gush about Lydia Davis, and perhaps I give “advice” to hopeful librarians (a brief summary of this would be: don’t try).  Don’t forget about me!