In the event of election fraud, citizens of some countries actually take to the streets in protest. Historian and novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II culled his behind-the-barricades memoir, '68 (Seven Stories; paperback, $12.95), from a series of notes he took during the student uprising in Mexico almost 40 years ago. Thousands took to the streets of Mexico City to contest the recent elections and demand more input in the university system. The ensuing government crackdown resulted in "four hundred dead, many of them nameless corpses tossed from military airplanes into the Gulf of Mexico that same night." To date there has been no serious international outcry for justice.
Taibo -- author of more than 50 books, including a biography of Che Guevara -- doesn't provide any detail about the political conditions that led to the protests, except to acknowledge that the students "lived in thrall to the magic of the Cuban revolution and the Vietnamese resistance." He does, however, describe in vivid colors the day-to-day struggle without lapsing into the excessive, aging-hippie sentimentality one might expect.
Truth became the first of many casualties, especially as the mainstream press sided with the authorities and frequently blamed the students for the military's actions. "The press was lying: the door of Preparatory 1 [one of the university's many schools] had not been destroyed by bazooka fire but by Molotov cocktails thrown by the students themselves; those clubbed to death had not been clubbed, they had died from eating a tainted cheese sandwich." After months of clashing with police and battling over propaganda, the uprising came to a head on October 2, when the army's attack on the rally in Tlatelolco left so many students dead and missing. "When it was said and done, it had been nothing but a student movement lasting one hundred and twenty-three days. No more and no less," Taibo writes. "Yet it had given us -- given a whole generation of students -- a past and a country, a ground beneath our feet."
Only because of accounts like this -- published in 1991 and now appearing in English for the first time -- have the atrocities of those times gained public attention. Taibo's is an immensely valuable counternarrative to the official history.
"It's an entirely typical morning here." So begins Letters to Jane (Ausable, $24), Hayden Carruth's yearlong string of correspondence to the poet Jane Kenyon, who was suffering through the final stages of cancer. There's no indication if she responded in detail, but that's beside the point. The considerable beauty of these letters from an old poet -- written from April 1994 to April 1995 -- derives from the clear-eyed charm that enlivens Carruth's best writing.
These letters describe one man's private experiences in a way that makes them applicable to our own lives. But I can't help wondering at what point Carruth realized he would one day publish these seemingly private letters, and how that self-consciousness affected their composition. Either way, he spends considerable time bellyaching about his own woes but otherwise comes across as extremely charming.
The best sections are when he gets out of the house and finds new things to complain about. "Here I am on my balcony with a finger or two of cognac, a cigar, and a laptop computer, wearing my black jeans and my Reeboks. God, it's awful." Now in his eighties, Carruth has become one of our foremost masters of perceiving the minute details of our quotidian lives. Even at his grumpiest, there's genuine wisdom here. "My New Year's resolution is to write something for myself every day, or least every day when I don't have a hangover." Every poet, young or old, would do well to follow suit. And the rest of us may just be tempted to switch off our e-mail programs sometime soon and pick up pen and paper instead.
Daddy's Little Girl
"You are living in a dumpster off University. You O.D. at regular intervals, have grand mal seizures, get beat up with crow bars, have your wallets stolen, come down with pneumonia."
This kind of finger-wagging isn't typically displayed in memoirs, but Eleni Sikelianos is no ordinary memoirist. She is first and foremost a poet, and it's the precision and thoughtfulness of her language that draw us in. Her short, fractured The Book of Jon (City Lights; paperback, $11.95) is a love story. In it she explores her troubled love for her father in a series of short chapters that incorporate observations, rants, dreams, letters, a family tree, photographs, poetry.
No clear-cut narrative path could do justice to the conflict and confusion she faces when recalling her father's colorful life. It seems relevant that he got along better with animals than people, and that he would bring specimens home from his job at a zoo. "Nights, he might take his keys and go swimming with the seals in an old holding pool that had windows in it for children to see the shadowy black shapes sliding through the water." There's jealousy here but also reverence.
While recounting his attempt to quit heroin by taking the family for a cross-country drive, Sikelianos captures the subtlest shades of the emotional palette. She counters every burst of her anger with a simultaneous outpouring of compassion. "For every racist comment, for every fag joke, there were also the times he fought or almost fought someone else who uttered the word 'nigger.' In either stance, shadow boxing some version of himself." Despite her father's flaws, or perhaps because of them, Sikelianos makes him an engrossing, unforgettable character.
Slices of His Life
Augusten Burroughs has garnered enormous popular and critical success by producing the literary -- if that's the correct word -- equivalent of reality television. His collections of witty, snippy essays appeal to the same general demographics as "Fear Factor" or "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." Like his best selling Dry and Running with Scissors, the fun of his new Magical Thinking (St. Martin's, $23.95) comes from that same voyeuristic, glad-it's-not-me sensation of watching someone eat live bloodworms. But just as the primetime tastemakers need to continually amp up the level of depravity -- see Borges's story "The Lottery at Babylon" for a full elucidation of this phenomenon -- so too does Burroughs plumb deeper and deeper into his sadly twisted psyche.
Perhaps because Burroughs is too content to go for shock value and cheap laughs, these 27 "true stories" quickly conform to two or three simple cookie-cutter formulas. There's the here's-how-I-got-so-messed-up story, which typically opens with lines such as "When I was seven" or "When I was ten years old." Then there are the look-how-irreverent-and-witty-I-turned-out stories, such as the one in which he tells us he has gone to jazz concerts to please his lover, but truthfully he "would rather listen to retarded children pounding on pan lids with wooden spoons."
The brutal humor never fully hides the serious anguish lurking behind it, or approaches the genuine warmth of his earlier books. Maybe Burroughs is running out of material. Or maybe he's just trying too hard. But he does manage to provide a series of hot-flash epiphanies -- such as yet another frank assessment of his own alcoholism and subsequent sobriety -- in which he stops pandering to his basest authorial instincts. If you do find yourself crying halfway through this book, it won't always be as a result of Burroughs's intense humor.
Fragments of Beauty
In her second memoir, Fierce (Scribner, $24), Barbara Robinette Moss takes on many of the same topics that Burroughs does -- alcoholism, physical abuse, a screwed-up childhood -- and ends on a similar, now-everything's-peachy note of redemption. Her account of the area between point A and point B, however, makes for a far more compelling and frightening story, one that frequently reads as you would expect from the post-Self Help generation. (That's the genre or the Lorrie Moore collection, take your pick.) Tellingly, the shout-outs on the copyright page go to Stephen Crane, Derek Wolcott and the author of Women Who Love Too Much. Moss assembled Fierce in the shape of a patchwork quilt. Her chapters, "like seemingly separate pieces of cloth sewn together, create a pattern, the very thread of this life." It's an approach that allows her a degree of narrative flexibility, and even if some events of her life seem notably absent, each patch is vibrant enough to sustain our interest. Although her litany of abusive husbands and financial struggles becomes overwhelming at times, she shows a rare talent for locating captivating images and building startling anecdotes around them.
When yet another crazy lover leaves her, Moss smashes most of the good china on the front lawn before realizing that a neighborhood child is watching. Rage turns to embarrassment, and she enlists the boy's help. "I could tell it disturbed him to break the cups, even though I had fooled him with the idea of making art from the pieces. Two cups remained in the snow." Amid the violence, Moss never fails to find a glimmer of beauty. By striking that balance, she invariably brings us closer to her own molten emotional core. *
Andrew Ervin is a writer in Champaign, Ill., and recently completed his first novel.