By Carole Reedy
Whether you’re buying for family or friends, a Mexican or just a lover of Mexico, here’s a short list of gift possibilities. Most you can find in both English and Spanish, as well other languages. The fascinating and bloody history of this enchanting land has been written about extensively–some books good, some not, some accurate and some not. This quick selection gives you the best from which to choose.
Pedro Páramo by Juan Ruflo (1917-1986)
Every Mexican knows Comala, a town 5 minutes from Colima, whose name means “land of comales.” In English it means a griddle or hotplate of metal, clay, or ceramic. This short but dense surrealist novel written in 1955 is about one man’s quest for his Mexican heritage. Among Mexicans, it is one of the favorite reads of all time. Susan Sontag, in her foreword to this book, calls Pedro Páramo “one of the masterpieces of 20th century world literature.” The interweaving of time, interaction of the living and the dead, and surreal sense of everyday life make it original and compelling.
You also can’t go wrong with anything by Carlos Fuentes. His novels capture the essence of Mexico and DF. His death two years ago suddenly at the age of 83 shocked the city and his fans, both national and international.
People’s Guide to Mexico by Carl Franz
For more than 35 years, this classic guide to Mexico has informed and entertained readers. In addition to providing the basic travel information other guides give us, the People’s Guide entertains with a good narrative and helpful advice, covering a range of topics, from bargaining with vendors to driving in Mexico.
The style may be casual, but the level of information is not. There is honest, solid advice about health issues (everyone’s interest), tips for changing money and dealing with the Mexican way of doing things (have patience!), up-to-date information about internet and mail sources, solid hints for enjoying the Mexican culture (including the traditional fiestas), what and what not to be afraid of, and commentary about simply enjoying the Mexican way of life.
The expected information on where to go, what to do, and how to get there is presented in a fresh, friendly, often humorous manner.
The writer/editor team, Carl Franz and Lorena Havens, has travelled in and learned about Mexico ‘the hard way,’ which is evident in their personal, descriptive and exuberant observations about this heartfelt land.
Any of the 100 books by Rius (Eduardo del Rio)
The name Rius is both well known and well loved throughout this country. Born in Zamora Michóacan in 1934, Eduardo de Rio has been described as political, atheist, naturalist, didactic, and irreverent.
As a caricaturist, historian, and writer, he has written more than 100 books that are biting, direct, and yet subtle…and that pull no punches. This entertainment is intended for friends who understand Mexico and its politics. These small books, in Spanish, can be a great stocking stuffer!
The True History of the Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz del Castillo
This is definitely the most comprehensive guide (a big book in size and depth) to the history of Mexico, though it covers only the Spanish conquest. Diaz del Castillo, conquistador and chronicler, wrote this book from Antigua, Guatemala, where at the age of 49 he decided to take up residence. While there, he read an account of the conquest of New Spain written by Francisco Gomez de Gomera (who hadn’t even been in Mexico), in which Cortés is glorified and given all the credit for the conquest. Bothered by this, Diaz del Castillo decided to write his own version. He spent 39 years in Guatemala before his death in 1584, but his book wasn’t published until 1632.
His is a first-hand account beginning with the arrival of the Spanish and thus the initial and ultimate defeat of the Aztecs. There are details found here that don’t appear in other accounts of this period. This comment from one satisfied fan sums it up well: “I smelled its odor of iron, gunpowder, and tired bodies. I was awed by the descriptions of Tenochtitlan, the markets, and Moctezuma’s court. The blood looked fresh on the steps of the pyramids. As Humboldt points out, the exhilaration of a newly discovered world is better transmitted by chroniclers than by poets.”
My Mexico by Diana Kennedy
Many good cooks prefer the recipes and books of Patricia Quintana and Mónica Patiño, but the general consensus here in DF leans toward Diana Kennedy’s contributions to gastronomy. My Mexico, first published by Kennedy in 1988, has been reissued in a new edition with a fresh design and photographs. This is her most personal book, a labor of love filled with more than three hundred recipes and stories.
Kennedy spent years travelling through Mexico to capture the essence of Mexican food culture. She’s published eight Mexican cookbooks, and won the coveted the James Beard Award for Oaxaca al Gusto.
Kennedy is vigilant about preserving recipes of the different regions of Mexico and the different pueblos of each region. She asks for recipes and recommendations from taxi drivers, maids–everyone with whom she comes into contact. You may not find seviche among her favorites (rumor has it she doesn’t like raw fish), but there are dozens of other fabulous recipes. See the August 2013 issue of The Eye for more on Diana Kennedy and on Rick Bayless, another famous writer of Mexican cuisine.