2016 Reviews: Book #10

by Donna McLaughlin Schwender

Urrea CoverThe Water Museum by Luis Alberto Urrea (Named one of the Notable Fiction Books of 2015 by The Washington Post and listed on numerous “Best Books of the Year” lists; the author was also a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for his non-fiction book, “The Devil’s Highway”) – I’m so glad to not only have friends that share my passion for reading but that also share their recommendations and reviews. Without them, I’d likely never have crossed paths with this book. Thank you, Robin, for this one.

One thing I’m noticing more with all of the reading I’ve been doing lately is that there are books that simply entertain me (which is really no “simple” task) and books that manage to subtly teach me something, all while being entertained. I’m certain that’s always been the case, but I’ve never given it much thought until now. For me, this book of thirteen short stories definitely falls into the category of educationally entertaining.

I confess (something I’m doing on here a lot lately, but, this time, I’ll simply blame it on being a Catholic during the season of Lent) – I’m pretty clueless about the Mexican culture. Maybe that’s to be expected of someone who grew up in a small northeastern town named Pine City and who hasn’t really ventured very far from that sheltered neighborhood. The fact that I spent a day in Tijuana, Mexico when I was nine years old (and yes…there are photos to document the occasion) obviously means nothing. It’s embarrassing to admit it, but whatever the reason, this book taught me what some people might consider “simple” things – or at the very least, things that a 49-year-old woman should already know. Things like the words “Chicanos” and “Mexicans” do not refer to the same group of people (I told you I was clueless – I thought they were synonyms!). It also had me Googling definitions for words like vato and güey. Don’t get me wrong, though – not all of the stories are rooted in Mexican culture. All of them, however, are well written.

Another thing I’m noticing lately is that there is no direct correlation between story length and greatness. Some of the best stories in this collection are the shortest. “Carnations” required only 321 words (yes…I counted) to not only create an impact but – within those few words – I learned yet another new one. “Brogans” – a word of Gaelic/Irish derivation that refers to a sturdy shoe extending up to the ankle. Who knew? Not me. And I’m Irish. And I own a pair of shoes that would meet the definition. (Obviously, I’m clueless about many cultures.)

I also can’t remember another recent book I’ve read that sent me on such an emotional roller coaster ride. I probably laughed more than I should have at “The Sous Chefs of Iogüa,” but I’m guessing that I cried bucketloads like most other readers probably did at “Bid Farewell to Her Many Horses.” The award-winning story “Amapola” sent bullets through my older-than-I-realized heart with sentences like, “…most of us had no idea who Alice Cooper was. VH1 was for grandmothers…” and then later, “I got stamps and envelopes. I was thinking, what is this, like, 1980 or something?” Just when I thought I’d survive that unforeseen assault, along came the title story of “Welcome to the Water Museum.” Its futuristic twist (which I didn’t even detect until I was more than halfway through it) left me parched and pondering how real it could one day be, as well as how very soon that day could actually arrive.

In the end, it was 255 pages of time well spent in this reader’s estimation. If you’re interested, the first 15 pages of “Mountains Without Number” (the first story in the collection) can be sampled here. If you’re like me, you’ll finish the book in less than 24 hours and immediately go in search of more of Urrea’s work. (5 stars)