Julia Alvarez, A Wedding in Haiti, and Dagoberto Gilb, Before the End, After the Beginning
I have the perfect summer reading sandwich for you. Grab a glass of tea with menta from your garden, settle into your hammock, and start reading. Dagoberto Gilb's exquisite book Before the End, After the Beginning can form the bread; read the first five short stories, then make a wonderful filling with Julia Alvarez's A Wedding in Haiti, and then the last five stories from Gilb's collection. Yummy! Warm your palate with these stories from their experiences of family, friends, and memories.
These two sandwich-size books are easy to hold and read; they are seductive, yet both are quite provocative. In my opinion, the styles of both books are unique yet different from the writers' previous books. They are both concise in their writing, raw with the emotions exposed, and their identities are divulged as they cross into different contextual settings. Gilb has always had that straightforward staccato articulation that sets a great rhythm and momentum, while Alvarez's use of detail or journalistic reflections gives us great visual descriptions that put us next to her as she moves along in her storytelling.
Because Gilb's short stories are so powerful in their simplicity, you need some time to breathe. Alvarez's descriptions of a friendship with a sister country she hardly knew gives you respite. Gilb's first story, "please, thank you," seems to be a personal account of his months of recovery and relearning after a debilitating stroke that also affected his writing hand. It is a forceful stream of thought written in lower case as Dago struggles with typing using one finger and the protagonist deals with the indignity of having to relearn everything after his stroke. Then, stories follow about bad friends, bad experiences, a lovely, sad birthday, and then, a coming-of-age story, "Uncle Rock," and his love for a young boy's mother. A relationship that embarrasses little Erick, magnifies his insecurities, and compounds his understanding of adults; so bona fide that even at our age it can still make us squirm.
What I love about Julia Alvarez at this point in her life are her reflections on her personal life as she describes her present life crossing different types of borders as she goes from the Dominican Republic to Haiti with her husband, coping with her aging parents in the midst of Alzheimer’s, and assuming the role of madrina to a young Haitian couple. The book is so filling for it is written like a diary recounting all the adventures that take place surrounding the wedding, the young marriage, the coming of age of Piti, the groom and father, and all the people that flow in and out on a daily basis. And then, an earthquake in Haiti, one of the poorest nations in the world, so horrific an event that a comment often heard, "We are thankful and we are in mourning," makes sense.
It could be called a travel book, but it is a story. As Alvarez puts it: "Like the Ancient Mariner, we feel compelled to tell the story over and over again. As a way to understand what happened." So descriptive, so real, so insightful, we are also thankful and we also mourn how people's lives are affected as we read and cross the same borders that Alvarez illustrates.
And now, before the end, Gilb's final five short stories, which explore the borders of the Southwest and Texas, of maleness, of feelings, of baseball and beautiful women, of tragedy and of hope, of Latino, Chicano, and U.S. culture, of limits and frontiers, and most of all, of reaching for the sun. The book is just like the photograph in the cover—a maguey—tall, spiky, succulent, and with all that is needed in life contained within. Put a slice in your sandwich or, better still, finish off with a shot of tequila or mescal.