Favorite 2016 Books of Expats Living in Mexico

By Carole Reedy

In an attempt to add some spice to the Favorite Reads 2016 column, I decided to narrow the selections to choices from expats living in Mexico. These readers are from the US, Canada, South America, and Great Britain. To my delight they presented me with a wonderfully eclectic list to share with you. Their task was to select a favorite book they read in 2016 (not necessarily published then), relate what they liked about it and identify their own country of origin. The result is a basket of memorable books you may want to add to your 2017 list.

++Originally from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Brooke Gazer and her husband packed their bags looking for a new home in Mexico. They ended up building and now operating Agua Azul B&B in Huatulco, Oaxaca. Brooke says: “The two books I liked best this year could not be more dissimilar. The first, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, is set in Bombay and based on his own life. Roberts escaped from an Australian prison and fled to India, where he interacts with a diverse range of people—from the ultra-wealthy to the devastatingly poor. Brooke questions whether Roberts is a villain or a victim, or possibly both. On the other end of the spectrum for her is The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, a heartwarming story of a man with a mild case of Asperger’s syndrome who is desperate to find a wife. “I loved this story because of the charming quirky characters and the hilarious situations they get themselves into. It made me laugh aloud.”

++Betty Bertele came to San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, from San Francisco 22 years ago. Her favorite book was The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende. “It is a magical love story and multigenerational epic that stretches from San Francisco in the present day to Poland and the US during World War II. Brilliant writing on old age and dignity.”

++Marcia Chaiken wasn’t sure she was suitable for inclusion as technically she isn’t an expat; but she spends many months in Mexico each year and for that I think she qualifies. Her choice is Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea, which she describes as “Screamingly funny, yet portraying the harsh realities of life on both sides of the border through the eyes of three teenage chicas and their gay companion. I didn’t want the book to end, and yet the end was so satisfying.”

++Ajijic (Jalisco) resident Harper Jones also chose Urrea’s novel as her favorite, saying “This is my second read of this book. It is that good. I have enjoyed all of Urreas’ books, starting with The Hummingbird’s Daughter. The characters are beautifully developed and it’s funny and painful with witty dialogue and descriptions.” Harper lived ten years part-time in Oaxaca and now is a full-time resident, having spent seven years in San Miguel de Allende and the past two in Ajijic.

++Susan Keyes Hernandez came to Mexico 46 years ago from Washington State and since then has been introduced to many Latin American authors; one Cuban author in particular left a lasting impression on her this year: Leonardo Padura, whose novel The Man Who Loved Dogs includes many historical events leading up to Trotsky’s death in Mexico. For pure enjoyment, Susan liked Nutshell by Ian McEwan, which she calls a “welcome break in an otherwise serious year. The story is narrated by an unborn fetus, and was true to form with his typical wit and humor.”

++Nancy Gurrola, originally from the US, has been settled in Mexico for 55 years. For 50 of those years she taught at the University of the Americas and the University of Iberoamericana. It gives me great pleasure to report that her favorite books of 2016 were written by one of my favorite authors, the world-famous madrileño Javier Marías. Of Marías she says, “He is so full of astute observations on human behavior, such well-developed and interesting characters, and plots that don’t let you put down the book!” Among Marías’ finest are The Infatuations, Thus Bad Begins (the latest just published in English), Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, and A Heart So White.

++Born in Valparaiso, Chile, Sonia Rabow lived in London, Lima, New York, Boston, and Madrid before settling in Mexico City. Her favorite book was recommended by her book club buddies: A Spy Among Friends, by Ben Macintyre. “Interesting, as I had heard about Kim Philby and could relate to the period of the story. Incredible that this could take place over such a long time, that he wasn’t caught, and that he fooled everyone, even his family.”

++Julia Musi, who hails from England, has lived in California and has graced Mexico City for the past 48 years. Her favorite book of 2016 was The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. “I was so impressed to read about an explorer who changed the way we see the world and influenced people like Darwin, Jefferson, and Thoreau.”

++Coincidentally, Jenny Burton Ruiz, who, like Julia, began her life in England and has lived in Mexico City for the last 48 years, also chose the book about Alexander von Humboldt as her favorite. Jenny says “I knew next to nothing about Von Humboldt, but realized that he must be a VIP as the German schools here in Mexico City are named after him. What a fascinating read. He was really the first ecologist and managed to publish 36 books during his lifetime. Through his minute observation of the world around him, and after collecting thousands of specimens in Europe and South America, he was able to conclude that, depending on altitude and latitude, he knew which plants would be growing there. Sadly, despite his connections, his desire of exploring India was thwarted by the British, who did not like his negative comments about colonialism and slavery. Congratulations to Andrea Wulf for her ability to handle so much information while creating such a readable book.”

++Transplanted from bonny old Scotland to Mexico City 45 years ago, fellow flaneurer and avid reader Barbara Lambie Robledo chooses as her favorite book “one that absorbed me with its long complicated world, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. As someone who has lived more years outside my country of birth than inside, and with the nostalgia and critical eye that the objectivity of distance offers, I feel a certain identity with an Indian writer, now living in Canada, who brings alive a long, sometimes terrible, and moving story about four disparate characters who form a quasi-familial bond. For me, always, the beauty of a novel lies in how completely one is absorbed into and by its reality. A Fine Balance pulls one into the sights, sounds, flavours, daily tasks, and horrors and then, sometimes, the gentle side of life in India at that time (from Indian Independence up to the Emergency of Indira Ghandi).

++New San Miguel de Allende resident Mary Abernathy, formerly a resident of Denver, Colorado, appropriately chose Mexico, Sunlight and Shadows: Short Stories and Essays by Mexican writers. Mary tells us that “Being a newly transplanted expat, I enjoyed each of the 15 contributors’ writings, centered on their experiences and observations in different areas of Mexico. All are notable writers and have presented a rich collection of stories that depict the spirit of Mexico.”

++Another book about Mexico was chosen by Kevin Kelley, seven-year Oaxaca resident from Chicago who manages the very popular Zipolite bar El Colibrí with his gracious Mexican wife, Gilda. Kevin read (or rather reread) La Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. “A bit of history, well written and very funny.” El Colibrí offers travelers not only spirits, but also music, games, sports TV, and books to buy. Both owners can give you advice about the Oaxaca Coast.

++Yet another Oaxaca resident, this one from the city, Jeannie Kes chose noted playwright Wendy Wasserman’s novel Elements of Style, the story of a small group of people from New York’s Upper East side. Jeannie tells us that “at first I thought that this depiction of uber-rich spoilt people would be of little interest. However, each chapter took me into a deeper understanding of the very human struggles of the city. With her ironic wit, Wasserman pierces that society and shows its underbelly.” The book was written in 2006, the year of Wasserman’s untimely death.

++As most of you know from my top-ten reads published last month, my favorite book of the year was Dave Eggers’ novel You Shall Know Our Velocity! As regular Eggers readers understand, he is always innovative, intelligent, introspective, and just plain unstoppable. He takes you with him wherever he goes. But the most striking feature of his writing is his ability to inject humor into even the darkest hours. I also read Zeitoun, his account of a family and their survival during Hurricane Katrina. It was unputdownable (I know that isn’t a word, but there’s no better one!), as are all his books.

There may or may not be a pattern to the reading habits of expats in Mexico, but there’s certainly a hint of adventure in all the choices and a curiosity about unknown worlds and eras. This seems to be the case for the many thousands of immigrants who choose to call Mexico “home.”

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