Monday, April 20, 2009

Mexican High by Liza Monroy (The Read Your Way Around the World Challenge)

* Publisher: Bantam Books

* Pub. Date: June 2008

* ISBN-13: 9780385523592
* 352pp

*Genre: Autobiographical fiction

I chose Mexican High by Liza Monroy for the "Read Your Way Around The World Challenge" hosted by Global Voices Online because ig would be my first book set in Mexico City. Also, with Obama just having returned from a visit to Mexico I thought it it might be quite a topical read. If you're taking part in the challenge, please don't forget to tag your post with #gvbook09


It's never fun for a kid to have to change schools and it has to be downright frightening for the kid who happens to be a High School senior who is not only called upon to change schools but to live and study in a different country.

Milago Marquez (who, embarrassed by her unusual name, insists on being called Mila) is the only child of a US foreign service worker transferred to Mexico in Milago's final year of High School. As most highly paid expats are wont to do, Mila's mother enrolls her in a fancy International school that caters to American expats and the kids of the Mexican elite.

The school is mostly divided into two groups of kids....US and international students(many from diplomatic families) and the kids of the Mexican elite (government officials,gangsters and businessmen) aka as "fresas". Fresas are rich, designer-clothes wearing, spoiled kids...highly nationalistic,they will only speak Spanish and they look down on anyone who is not rich like them, especially gringos (foreigners, mostly American) It doesn't take long for Mila to figure out that with her normal US upbringing she sticks out like a sore thumb and that in order to become an insider she would have do what the rest of the kids are doing which included getting high, cutting classes,having sex and drinking hard alcohol. So acceptable is it for Mexican teenagers to engage in alcohol-fueled social events that even at their school-council organized "lunch" parties every Friday after school (Cocteles), Bacardi along with other alcohol was the main staple..there was little or no food served.

I had a rather hard time deciphering which year this book was set in. The author mentions "Nirvana" and the grunge look being the craze of that year and from what I remember Nirvana was formed in the early 1990's so I am going to presume that this is when the story was set.

Initially the book did hold me captive...I was appalled and aghast to learn what these kids (most of them as young as 17) did to themselves, and as the mother of two teenage girls I felt compelled to read on. Also, I did enjoy her glimpses into Mexican culture, however, as more and more absurd subplots entered the story, I started to grow tired of our protagonist, her friends and their antics and I literally just thumbed through the last 70 pages of the book.

What you will take away from the book:

a)Perhaps a better understanding (not flattering) of the Mexican elite and their children...of the politics, corruption and violence that exists in that country( It was not uncommon for Mila's classmates to be summoned home during the school day because a family member had been kidnapped or assassinated) ;

b)A visual image of the environs of Mexico City like "Angahuan" a town destroyed by the volcano Paricutin which erupted in 1944 and where people ride horses instead of cars and speak the local Pur├ępecha tongue instead of Spanish; "Villahermosa", a paradise for anthropologists with its remarkable Olmec ruins, the Chiapas one of Mexico's poorest towns with a large population of agrarian Mayans and a trip Real de Catorce, a rural desert town where Huichol Indians go looking for peyote in the surrounding hills to sell to tourists wanting to undertake a mystical peyote pilgrimage,

c)Mexican food (Monroy got me hooked on "Cafe de Olla" (coffee made in earthernpots with cinnamon, brown sugar and clove), "Sincronizadas" ( ham and cheese quesadillas);

d) A keener understanding of the role of a foreign service worker and e) a fond regard for teenagers in North America, who despite their foibles, seem so much more grounded and focused than Mexican teenagers.


Why autobiographical fiction:

Well, like Mila, Liza Monroy is also the daughter of a US foreign service and spent her last few years of High School in Mexico City. According to the author, many of the characters(and the incidents they got embroiled in) are based on people she knew in High School. Since these characters were based on real people I expected them to feel authentic and inspired, instead, many of Monroy's characters feel empty and souless. I was hoping Monroy would use Mila to give us an insider's view of Mexico City, and I suppose she did, but it's a dark view of a tumultuous city through the eyes a rather conflicted, sometimes-stoned 17-year old girl, so I am not sure I can set much store by it.

A warning: While it is set in high school, "Mexican High" is definitely NOT recommended for any reader under 19.

CAFE DE OLLA (MEXICAN SPICED COFFEE)
Categories: Mexican, Beverages
Yield: 6 servings

3/4 c Brown sugar, firmly packed
3 x Cinnamon sticks
6 x Cloves
6 tb Coffee (NOT instant)
6 x Julienne slices orange zest

In a large saucepan, heat 6 cups of water with the brown sugar, cinnamon
sticks, and cloves over moderately high heat until the mixture is hot, but
do not let it boil. Add the coffee, bring the mixture to a boil, and boil
it, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes. Strain the coffee through a
fine sieve and serve in coffee cups with the orange zest.



21 comments:

Auntie, aka Dog Girl said...

Hello,
What an interesting book! Why? Because my own father was in the US foreign service, and we traveled so much. In my four years of High School, I went to 4 different schools, in three different countries! Thank goodness I didn't meet any sinister characters!
But back in the day, all kids (regardless of backgrounds) would hang out together...there didn't seem to be any cliques...maybe because we were all so transient.
I loved it!
PS
I am furiously trying to finish my own book review, and will post in a couple days!
ack! what a dead line!

Madeleine said...

Yet annother book I absolutely want to read. Very interesting. Thank-you for yor great reviews and added information.

I know a little about moving while being in school, me and my brothers had to move from school to school depending on my fathers business and sometimes the moves included a new language....very difficult.

Bookfool said...

Excellent review, as always, Lotus! It must have some very adult content if you don't recommend it for people under the age of 19!

Sanjay said...

Lotus, what a wonderful thing to do with the read around the world challenge. That is a lot more than some of us do (which is not get to read much at all), but due to your book reviews, I learn so much more than I otherwise would have, so a "thank you" is in order.
Loved the book review as always.
In some ways the way the story shook out did not surprise me, setting aside the issue of the non-Mexicans v/s Mexicans, the cliques, the desire to fit in, drugs and the sex. Sounds all too familiar to what might happen in a lot of other places too.
Did you feel that the alcohol fueled social events where more commonplace than the ones north of their border?
Also your observation than teens in North America were more grounded than the ones south of the border, is news to me. But do you think this might be due to fact that the person writing the book draws upon experiences that come from being in a privileged circle rather than the more ordinary folks? Any idea how this book was received in Mexico?
Since these characters were based on real people I expected them to feel authentic and inspired, instead, many of Monroy's characters feel empty and souless.Perhaps they are meant to be empty and soulless?
The Mexican coffee sounds absolutely delicious! Thank you for the recipe and this interesting review, it does help me understand a bit more about life in Mexico, seen from a different perspective.

Lotus Reads said...

@Dog Girl ~ Wow! OK, so that is one explanation for why you love reading about different cultures so much! How awesome to have traveled so much though I daresay that when you were in High School all you probably wanted to do was to stay put, right? Which amongst your father's postings is your most memorable?

@Madeleine ~ Ahhh, but the great benefit of having traveled so much and having had to school in these different countries is that you are now multilingual, something I envy highly!

@Bookfool ~ Hello, lovely to see you!!! I have an 18-year old at home and as a parent I would not be comfortable knowing she read this book. Although she is a level-headed young woman, I believe teenagers are easily influenced and some of the things these High School kids (in the book) get up to make your stomach churn...I would hate for teenagers to think it's OK to do what these kids are doing. I'd be interested in knowing how other parents view this book. It could well be that I am being a tad too cautious?

Brown Paper said...

I had a similarly disappointing experience with my Iceland book :( I just couldn't get into it. My post is up at http://niranjana.wordpress.com/2009/04/23/read-your-way-around-the-world-challenge-iceland/

But, as I said in my post--right author, wrong book. I'm going to try other works by Laxness.

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Sanjay!

Sorry that you are unable to read as much as you used to...guess work got in the way huh? When I am much too busy to read I also find myself scouring the review sections of favorite blogs and newspapers. A well-written review is almost as enjoyable as the book, I have come to believe!

Just to answer some of your questions:

Did you feel that the alcohol fueled social events where more commonplace than the ones north of their border? I can't say that there more alcohol-fueled parties in Mexico than in the US, but I will say (from what I gleaned from this book ofcourse) that minors are not turned away by drinking establishments and that alcohol is served at parties sponsored by High School councils! There is a saying in Mexico,"you are old enough to drink if you can look over a bar table" So how tall do you need to be? 4 ft? :)

Also your observation than teens in North America were more grounded than the ones south of the border, is news to me. But do you think this might be due to fact that the person writing the book draws upon experiences that come from being in a privileged circle rather than the more ordinary folks? That could well be Sanjay...but I also based it on what I see and what I read, take this article in particular:

http://www2.macleans.ca/2009/04/10/generation-tame/


Any idea how this book was received in Mexico? No idea at all! Not too well I guess, but then you never know!

Since these characters were based on real people I expected them to feel authentic and inspired, instead, many of Monroy's characters feel empty and souless.Perhaps they are meant to be empty and soulless? Perhaps, yeah I think you have a point there.

The Mexican coffee sounds absolutely delicious! Thank you for the recipe and this interesting review, it does help me understand a bit more about life in Mexico, seen from a different perspective. You're welcome Sanjay. Ever travelled there? I'd love to go visit sometime...drinks and drugs apart it does seems like a great place to explore with a culture so distinct from our own.

Lotus Reads said...

@Brown Paper ~ Sorry the book was so hard to get in to...I know how frustrating that can be. Don't give up on Laxness....according to other reviewers this book is his weakest one.

Auntie, aka Dog Girl said...

Hello all,
I've finally uploaded my debut book review!
It's at http://listen2auntie.blogspot.com/2009/04/read-your-way-around-world-challenge.html

Thank you for inspiring me to keep reading!!!

Angela in Europe said...

I've been really disappointed with my reading selection of late. Of course a lot of it is chick lit so I know it's not going to be high-brow literature, but still...some chick lit can be entertaining and well-written. It's a shame that this book isn't better. I read a review about it and considered reading it, but I don't want to read anymore mind numbing books.

Jen said...

Lotus-

You said you hadn't read anything from Mexico City...have you read other Mexican literature and if so what would you recommend?

I decided to read Snow, by Orhan Pamuk. I read that you were interested in it and would definitely recommend it. Really transformative as far as my own personal understanding of poverty and provincialism goes, and I definitely learned a lot about Turkey!

http://feralgirlscout.blogspot.com/2009/04/snow.html

Zibilee said...

Your review was really insightful. I don't think I would enjoy this book very much, for all the reasons that you mention. I am not really into the whole drug-addled foreign teenage scene. Sorry you didn't enjoy it, but thanks so much for posting that recipe!

Lotus Reads said...

@Angela ~ I would stay away from this one! It's not as if it's a bad book..just didn't care very much for the story and being the mother of teenagers it got me very worked up!

@Jen ~ You know, I completely misunderstood this challenge! I thought the organizers wanted us to read "about" another country...didn't strike me they wanted us to read "literature" hailing from another country. Big difference, no? If I had read that correctly I might have gone with Cristina Garca, Laura Esquivel or Jorge Volpi.

Thank you so much for the "Snow" endorsement! I have the book already but I am also going to download it at audible so I can listen as I do housework. Looking forward to the listen, thanks Jen!

Lotus Reads said...

@Zibilee ~ I've been fairly lucky with books...but,every now and again there comes along a book that I have struggled with and "Mexican High" was one of those. Zibilee, I mailed you out the winning book last night- "Tea and Other Ayama Tales". Sorry I couldn't do so earlier. Hope you enjoy the read!

Zibilee said...

Thanks! Also I wanted to let you know that I have given you an award over on my blog.

Anali said...

Hmm. Interesting. Based on your review, I'm not dying to read the book, but I do like the recipe. I may give that a try! ; )

gautami tripathy said...

Now I like that recipe!


BTW, everything distils into reading is my new blog. Please do visit it, subscribe to it or follow it! Do help me spread the word.

Angela in Europe said...

Hey Angelique-Just wanted to let you know, I gave you a blog award.

Booklogged said...

Hello Lotus! I wish I could express my feelings and thoughts about a book as clearly and precise as you do. I hope I will learn.

I don't think I'm interested in reading this book. I'll bet it was hard reading about teen girls behaving badly with 2 daughters of your own. It would be for me, too.

Hope you are doing well. Spring has finally arrived in Utah and it is glorious. Are your trees and flowers budding, blossoming and grass greening. I love the new birth of spring.

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A Writer from India said...

Lotus,

I shudder to think of such a high school, that even a book on it is not even recommended reading for teenagers.

Great review as usual.