El Paso author’s sharp collection explores immigration, exile
Sergio Troncoso’s “A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s Son” is full of linked tales of exile and the quest to belong in an unwelcoming world.
“Heart attack last night. I thought you’d be happy. Karma.” So says a Japanese American friend to Merrill Lynch analyst Ricky Quintana, a habitué of big city coffee shops and gourmet groceries, remarking with satisfaction on the death of a right-wing TV blowhard “who hates immigrants.” Ricky, born, like author Troncoso, in the border city of El Paso gets no particular satisfaction from the talking head’s demise, despite his own surreptitious role in it; as with the Bruegel portrait of the fall of Icarus, nothing in his world is rattled, and “nothing seemed out of place.” So it is with David, who, Gatsby-like, materializes in New England, leaving his father, “a crazed Mexican Vulcan, forging the meat of labor into capital,” and mother behind in El Paso to become a rare brown face at Harvard — and then a man who thereafter had to throw himself against one obstacle or another until, as he notes, quietly, “I got old, and that made everything better, including me.” Carlos, the “peculiar” son of the title, is contemplative, aware of the differences between him and the people around him. So is Maribel, who cleans motel rooms while studying algebra, aspiring to a better life; for all her efforts, she finds nothing good in the “piss-colored light” of Jamaica, Queens. Troncoso’s New York is a place of splendid possibilities and sad endings, a place where the reviled Other, far from home, searches for a safe place to land — the “Library Island” of the dark story by that name, a “sacred haven” where one is safe to read and El Pthink, at least until the “Outer World” bursts in; the wintry streets of Manhattan; even the cemetery.
Troncoso’s sharp-edged stories speak to the difficult lives of those who, as he writes, are born behind in a race they must run all the same.
(Troncoso will speak and sign copies of his book at 5 p.m. Sunday at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd. Information: bookpeople.com.)
How we work
Intrepid explorer and popular travel writer Bill Bryson journeys inward — literally — to explore our mortal coil in “The Body.”
A narrative by Bryson rarely involves the unfolding of a grand thesis; instead, it’s a congeries of anecdotes, skillfully strung, always a pleasure to read but seldom earthshakingly significant. So it is here. The author does some on-the-ground digging, talking to scientists and physicians, while plowing through libraries of literature to get at the story of how our bodies work. Early on, he pokes at the old bromide that the human body is an assemblage of a few dollars’ worth of assorted chemicals and minerals. Not so, he writes: We’re made up of 59 elements, including carbon and oxygen. But, he adds, “who would have thought that we would be incomplete without some molybdenum inside us, or vanadium, manganese, tin, and copper?” Bryson employs the example of an “obliging Benedict Cumberbatch,” of medium height and build and good health, to venture that the real cost of a human is “a very precise $151,578.46,” a figure that turns out to wiggle and wobble as we layer on additional costs. As ever, the author collects lovely oddments and presents them as so many glittering marbles: The largest protein in the body is titin, whose “chemical name is 189,819 letters long, which would make it the longest word in the English language except that dictionaries don’t recognize chemical names.” The heart, which, Bryson notes, doesn’t really look like a valentine, does only one thing: It beats, “slightly more than once every second, about 100,000 times a day, up to 2.5 billion times in a lifetime.” Along the way, the author considers whether the old surgical practice of bleeding was really a good thing to do (it wasn’t), how "cytokine storms” work, and what the winning combination is for a long life — one factor is wealth: “Someone who is otherwise identical to you but poor … can expect to die between ten and fifteen years sooner.”
A pleasing, entertaining sojourn into the realm of what makes us tick.
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