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Recommended Mexico reading: 15 of the best

This historical season is the time to learn about Mexico, so we queried a handful of knowledgeable informants about what they recommend, other than Allyn Hunt’s column. What follows are their favorite books about Mexico in English, be they fiction or nonfiction, wide or narrow in scope. Many were originally written in English, some in Spanish, and many are available in both languages, which can make for instructive side-by-side reading for those wishing to improve their command of either language. We generally omitted books our informants described as “boring,” although this list includes both intellectual and popular titles, many of which can be found in the AMSOC (Guadalajara) or LCS (Lake Chapala Society) libraries, or at Sandi bookstore in Guadalajara.

- Aztec (novel series) by Gary Jennings (1928–1999): Six novels published between 1980 through 2008. One of our informants, Debra Rodriguez, enthusiastically recommended at least the first two in the series — those actually written by Jennings before his death in 1999 and not by his “collaborators,” who produced what some call “tedious re-packagings.” She said that although the first two are popular, not intellectual, books, they make fine reading and were well researched by Jennings, who spent years in Mexico. “The books take a central character,” she noted, “and put him in every single major historical event of the era.” The first two titles are “Aztec” and Aztec Autumn.”

 

- Drums in the Hills (nonfiction) by Frank Dolezal and his daughter Kathryn Dolezal Tyler: A story of the Mexican revolution based on the personal journals of the Austrian Frank Dolezal, who arrived in Mexico in 1910, as told by two of his descendants. The book relates such dizzying adventures as joining Pancho Villa, riding a German submarine from Mexico to Germany, getting kicked out of a Catholic monastery, and being gored in a bullfight. A couple of informants recommend it, while a critic laments that one edition should have been spell checked.

 

- Gods, Gachupines and Gringos: A People’s History of Mexico (nonfiction, 2008) by Richard Grabman:  “Excellent historical overview,” says our informant Carol Wheeler, while Michael Hogan describes it as “an everyman’s (or woman’s) history of Mexico. Fast-paced and fun to read.” Others say the book is “intentionally non-academic” perhaps because the author is not a historian, but a former technical writer. It stretches as far back as pre-Conquest times in Spain.

 

- Heroic Mexico — The Violent Emergence of a Modern Nation (nonfiction, 1968) by William Weber Johnson: This 463-page book, part of Doubleday’s Mainstream of the Modern World series, was written by a Time-Life writer who did painstaking research. “I know how much time he spent on it,” said our informant Kelly Tasker. The book has 46 shortish chapters that can be read as independent essays. The one on the Cristero movement is fascinating. Others focus on top leaders and are written in an insightful, sometimes intimate, style that captures the flavor of the times.

 

- In a Village Far from Home (nonfiction, 2000) by Catherine Palmer Finerty: Our informant Carol  Wheeler calls this book on the author’s experiences among Mexico’s Cora people “one of my favorites.” Author Catherine Finnerty was a member of Saint Mark’s Church who left upper- class Guadalajara to work with the Huichol in the 1970s.  The book doesn’t aim to be national or even regional, but presents a cameo of one small and remote corner of Mexico.

 

- In the Shadow of the Angel (nonfiction, 2011, 624 pgs.) by Kathryn S. Blair: “A fascinating and well-written family history,” says our informant Nancy Brasch, who lived for a time in Mexico City and knew the Havana-born author and some of her relatives, one of whom created the famous “Ángel de la Indepéndencia” statue. “It’s really a biography written from the diaries of the author’s mother-in-law,” Antionieta Rivas Mercado, who was the daughter of a rich architect and committed suicide at age 30 in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. When the author married into the family, she became fascinated with the turbulent life of her mother-in-law and began investigating it. Available in English and Spanish.

 

- The Irish Soldiers of Mexico (nonfiction, 1977) by Michael Hogan: Informant Michael Pierpoint calls this his “favorite history of Mexico.” The book looks at a group of renegade Irish soldiers who were the main component of the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, which fought for Mexico against the United States. The book was the basis of an MGM film. The distinguished and prolific U.S. author has lived for years in Guadalajara. Available in Spanish as “Los Soldados Irlandeses de Mexico” on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

 

- The Holy War in Los Altos: A Regional Analysis of Mexico’s Cristero Rebellion (nonfiction, 1983) by Jim Tuck: “A superbly researched book on the Cristero War,” says our knowledgeable informant Carol Wheeler, “by a former Guadalajara resident (and Reporter contributor).” This is illuminating material, as the Sturm und Drang of the era is still not well publicized in this predominantly Catholic country. Los Altos is the rich farming zone in northeast Jalisco.

 

- The Labyrinth of Solitude (nonfiction, 1950) by Octavio Paz (1914-1998): Our informant Michael Hogan and others recommend this classic. Hogan calls it “a series of non-fiction essays on what makes the Mexican tick, with historical anecdotes.” More a work of art than journalism or history, this study by Paz, Mexico’s foremost writer and the 1990 winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, explores the Mexican character and culture. Some of it is given over to Mexican exiles in California (the “pachuco” culture of the 1920s and 30s) and, as the title indicates, the pervasive loneliness engendered by this rootless lifestyle. Not light reading, but not academic. It can easily be found both in English and Spanish (El Laberinto de la Soledad).

 

- Lake Chapala through the Ages — An Anthology of Travelers’ Tales (nonfiction, 2008) by Tony Burton. Chapala has not always been the magnet for expatriates that it is today. This book covers the Lake Chapala area from the arrival of conquistadors in the early 1500s to the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. It is based on letters and articles from past centuries and was recommended by more than one of our informants. The British author, with a background in geography and ecology, has done extensive exploration and research in Mexico.

 

- Mexico (historical fiction, 1992) by James Michener: Michener was practically an institution, and generated prolific books weaving the history of many places and cultures with a personal story. The massive tome on Mexico, although it spans many centuries, basically follows an American journalist who travels to Mexico to report on a duel between two matadors, but becomes fascinated by the story of his Mexican ancestors. Our informant, avid reader Michael Harvey enjoyed it and “thought it not so much as a book about Mexican history but more of a book that transmits a spiritual feel of Mexico and a sense of how so many cultures clashed and blended together.”

 

- Mexico Revisited (nonfiction, 1955) by Erna Fergusson (1888–1964): This distinguished New Mexico writer mostly wrote in the 1930s, and this, her last book, with 346 pages and a chapter on Jalisco and Guadalajara, is much more than a guidebook to the country. It includes lively personal profiles, for which Fergusson was well-known, and records many trenchant observation of Mexican society. It was recommended by two informants.

 

- The Nine Guardians (fiction, 1960) by Rosario Castellanos (1925-1974). This is a classic novel, rather short at 180 pages, that details a small but representative time and place (Chiapas in the 1930s, just after the Mexican Revolution) in which quintessential, Mexican class conflicts play out, with tragic, supernaturally fated results. The drama is tempered by an upper-class, 7-year-old protagonist in whose voice most of the story unfolds and by her nurturing Indian nana — another fixture of the national psyche. It was written by a distinguished female author who also was the Mexican ambassador to Israel, where she died. Spanish version: “Balún-Canán.”

 

- Rain of Gold (family history in a story-like style, 560 pages, 1991) by Victor Villaseñor (1940–). A “marvelous book,” said an informant. “I gave copies to all my kids.” It focuses on one family, especially the rock of the family, the mother, and their history in Mexico and California, going back to the time of the Mexican Revolution, where they live in a mining town whose name, Lluvia de Oro, gives the book its name. The clan, like almost everyone else, flees the town due to the depredations of fighters involved in the Mexican Revolution and ends in relatively serene California. The author lives outside San Diego. Translated version: “Lluvia de Oro.”

 

- The Political Evolution of The Mexican People (426-page popular history, 1900) by Justo Sierra (1848-1912): This is a very good history of Mexico by one of the country’s luminaries — a teacher, writer, and historian — and was recommended by more than one informant, including Michael Pierpoint, who donated a copy of the English version to the AMSOC library. Sierra held a post in the government of President Porfirio Diaz but in his writing condemned Mexican leaders of the early 20th century as self-aggrandizing. Originally written in Spanish as “La evolución política del pueblo mexicano.”

 

- Under the Volcano (fiction) by Malcolm Lowry: Calling it “grim” and “a tough read,” our informant (CHK) Bayard Shaver and others nevertheless recommend this novel, which was made into a movie. Shaver notes that the author’s daughter-in-law is a member of the Lake Chapala Society. The plot details a day in the life of a troubled, alcoholic consul overtaken by diabolical forces and may mirror the life of the author who “died a drunk,” adds Shaver.

 

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