Monthly Archives: March 2013

A Book Worth Reading

I went to hear Héctor Tobar speak at University of California, Riverside last month and bought a copy of his novel, The Barbarian Nurseries, which he kindly signed with “a big abrazo.”

Having just read the book, I realize how big that abrazo was and is. Tobar gathered a whole lot of what I love about Southern California and about Mexico in a strong, broad embrace and hugged it (and me) long and masterfully, unwinding a loving, lingering tale.

Lady Pamela and I have been fortunate to travel fairly extensively, and thirty or so years ago spent enough time in a language school in Cuernavaca, Mexico to coax my high school Spanish to a reasonably conversational level. We lived with the Arillo family, who became lifelong friends. They had little need of English, living an hour over the mountains south of Mexico City, and my longing to communicate more deeply with them was impetus to aprender más su idioma. Eric Crocker, a closer friend, was a Uruguayan-born bi-cultural American who lived his final years with his wife on a beach north of Acapulco. I do not have raices latinos myself, other than honorary, but I feel as deep a kinship.

In The Barbarian Nurseries Héctor Tobar pulled me into the contradictions and paradoxes playing out in the hearts and minds and actions of his richly conceived and developed characters. His writing deserves all the accolades he receives, which are many. Reading Tobar is a big abrazo!


Sweet Memory

Invented in Coney Island, New York, in 1912, Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy was a staple in one of the basic food groups of my childhood. It went off the market after sixty years, but the original-formula taffy was brought back in 2010. I just learned this in a throwback candy store in Old Town Temecula, California. A girl of five or six passed between me and the glass display counter with a partially unwrapped, familiar-looking candy bar in her hand and a halo of pale brown around her lips. Before the visual impression even registered, the unmistakable perfume of chocolate Bonomo’s reached my nose. So characteristically cloying and wonderfully redolent of secret ingredients, I didn’t have to taste it to know what it was. The olfactory intrusion brought back a complete multimedia memory, recollected for the first time since I was a little kid in Levittown, New York.

I was flat on my back on a warm asphalt street with Susan Weiss on top of me, holding me down. We were both in the third grade, but Susan had already grown larger, stronger, heavier. She sat on my legs and held my arms down with hers, pinning my scrawny T-shirted body helplessly to the pavement. I could do nothing to prevent little blonde Ellen from sneaking up and kissing me on the right cheek, her lips sticky with chocolate Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy. At age eight, being kissed by a girl is not something most boys welcome, or would admit if they did. When we were teenagers, Ellen and I tried it again without the bondage or Bonomo’s, and it was much better. Six decades later, we’re still friends.

This morning I am soaking in my back deck hot tub, and in the growing light from beyond Mount San Jacinto. Being perched on the eastern slope of an inland hill allows a long view of the arriving day. I muse about memory. If just a scent—or a sight, sound, touch, taste—can “bring it all back,” where was it? Back from where? Was it here all along, masquerading as past but just reposing in a timeless magnetic field, waiting to be activated by a waft of taffy? They say our brains have mapable neurological pathways, but the memories reached thereby are ethereal.

John Clinton Gray
March 8, 2013

An adapted excerpt from Gift of Seeds by John Clinton Gray