This Week's Reads

Nina Marie Martínez and Michelle Tea.

¡Caramba! A Tale Told in Turns of the Card

By Nina Marie Martínez (Knopf, $25.95) In the middle of the good-natured chaos that reigns in this debut novel, one of the more ordinary characters (a long-suffering tow-truck driver) tells the familiar story of his parents' emigration from Mexico. The simple anecdote is powerful, but it cannot hold its own against the tidal wave of zany comedy and melodrama that characterizes most of this fun but insubstantial read. Nina Marie Martínez turns on the charm in the rollicking main tale of Consuelo and Natalie, lifelong best friends and residents of the California border town of Lava Landing. The two embark on adventures with larger-than-life characters including Consuelo's deceased father, who's locked up in Purgatory ("the Perg"); devout Christian missionary and mariachi Javier; his incorrigible mother, Lulabell; and transvestite hairdresser True-Dee (so named for a sugar company). Despite such color and antics, Caramba's soap-opera plot is unevenly paced and, at times, awkwardly written. Apart from Consuelo and Natalie, these garish, cardboard characters remain as resolutely superficial at the story's end as they were in the beginning. Martínez has a knack for the absurd but stumbles in her use of fantastical elements—love spells, fortune-tellers, messages from God written on a tortilla. Unlike the truly effective magical realism of Márquez, Allende, or Borges, Martínez's use of such devices seems tacked on, unreal, not organic to the novel's underlying reality. Though goofy and entertaining, they don't carry any weight. The real magic in Caramba is Martínez's witty, ori­ginal presentation of California-Mexican culture, from migrant workers, lunch trucks, and mariachis to Cadillacs, telenovelas, and shoes "de la Payless®." The author shines when she straddles the porous border between old country and new, across generations and income levels, combining classic elements of the lotería with references to Mexican cowboy movies and Patsy Cline. Martínez is a charming writer with an obvious gift for language, irony, nuance, and sly observation. She'll do better next time to spare us the magic and concentrate on reality. SUMMER BLOCK Nina Marie Martínez will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., May 20. Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class

Edited by Michelle Tea (Seal Press, $14.95) To compile 30 essays on this subject without falling into clichés and stereotypes is an accomplishment, which is exactly how Net should be viewed. The dry humor that reverberates through most of this collection avoids both bottom-up whining and top-down patronizing. We simply hear from factory workers, scholarship kids, feminists, and femmes who relate how money woes and uncaring institutions shaped them. Doctors and hospitals are central to many of these essays—from endless stretches of time spent in waiting rooms to crude operations and medications that one woman "hopes she can be deemed crazy and poor" enough to receive. Survival tips for hospital visits include dressing in the sympathetic "poor look" in order to ensure help, avoiding other patients (particularly toothless carnies and nannies with rashes), and trying to ignore the fact that the doctors really think you're too "dirty" to bother with. In her account "It's Just Blood," Hadassah M. Hill describes how women sell their plasma or sign up for drug-testing trials to pay the rent. Still grimmer is Nikki Levine's matter-of-fact "My Mother Was a Whore." But it's not all shame and squalor in Net; there are also loving and supportive environments that belie preconceptions about broken homes and poverty. In Terry Ryan's "A Catholic Leg," there's a mother who supports her giant Catholic flock with her jingle-writing talents. Frances Varian poignantly recalls how her father becomes a janitor at Vassar College so she could have her tuition waived. Humor also helps to surmount—or at least displace—the hardships of school. Teary-eyed liberal teachers are ridiculed for their tendency to romanticize their poor pupils, for their need to "save" them. Other stories about klepto­maniacs, free lunches, and overlooked signs of abuse are much more sobering, but equally well crafted and delivered. These various contributors aren't interested in depicting themselves as martyrs. By mixing humor, passion, and rage, their stories help make the near- invisible position they once occupied into something powerful and unforgettable. HEATHER LOGUE

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