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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Slog Commenter Book Report: Enigma Tackles El Monstruo

Posted by on Tue, Apr 6, 2010 at 3:48 PM

Enigma grabbed El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City by John Ross at the last Slog Happy. Here's what she had to say about it. Any errors are the fault of the editor of the piece. I am the editor.

The farther I read into the book, the more El Monstruo lived up to its title. It’s a great beast of a read, with parts you can’t put down and others where you forget why you were riveted a second ago. It’s uneven, to say the least, and I think that’s the biggest compliment I can pay to it. Nominally, it’s about the history of Mexico City. And it touches on all 50,000,000 years of the development of the land that would be Mexico. John Ross has a great love for the space, but an a good editor could have condensed that love into a manageable tome without the self-aggrandizement Ross gets to later in the book.

I was hooked for the first 150 pages or so. Learning about the Aztec culture, the Conquistadores and Mexico City politics during the Revolution was fascinating. The problem was this all took place within the first 200 pages with about 300 more pages to go. (Total page count: 453, with 7 more pages of Ross explaining the process of writing the book after the acknowledgments.) In his Books article this week, Brenden Kiley mentions this book collecting dust on the side of his desk, and I don’t blame him in the slightest.

Much more of Enigma's smart analysis can be found after the jump.

Ross is a leftist journalist and an old Beat from New York, and he writes about Mexico City from a personal perspective. His politics are hard left and he gives much sympathy with the student protests and militant movements of the country. It’s great to hear about these groups because so often they are maligned in the mainstream press, but repetition of his sympathies made me a little sympathetic for the people in power. Unfortunately, even with his bias toward the left, none of the groups he writes about gets nuanced views. Ross takes one or two events from a political cycle and projects motivations from the various political entities based on party line. And it gets monotonous. Even Toss acknowledges repeating himself more than once, which just makes the monotony more obvious. I wanted to finish this book in a week. I should have been able to—not to brag, but I’ve read a 500 page book in 4 days because I could not put it down. After 200 pages of El Monstruo, it stayed in my bag for about a day before I picked it up again because it got too dull.

Which is to say, I’m sad I didn’t like it more. There are great elements to this book, and it opens up a city I’ve never really thought about before despite having family there. Ross intersperses the history of a city with short personal histories of people he knows from a diner he’s frequented for 20 years. Those personal stories are great and I anticipated them as a respite from the political theorizing.

I would say this is a book to keep by the bedside or on the coffee table. Take it in chunks and you’ll have a new view of our neighbor to the south, one full of depth and heart you don’t get from the only stories we usually get from Mexico- drugs and murder. But unless you’re a great history buff (guilty) or have a great interest in socialist politics (for which I have sympathies), you’ll be bored by the end of the first chapter.

Many thanks to Enigma for the thoughtful book report. If you'd like to review a book you've picked up at Slog Happy, just write the review and send it to me; it's just that simple!


Comments (11) RSS

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Fnarf 1
I've heard similar reviews elsewhere. It's too bad, because I desperately want to read more about Mexico City, along the lines of David Lida's "First Stop In The New World", but I gather this isn't that book. Oh, well. I'll probably have a stab at it anyways.

Mexico City's socialist politics are of course deeply colored by the massacre of some unknown number of students (probably well over a hundred) in the Plaza of the Three Cultures in 1968. Think "Kent State" times fifty, but completely covered up by the government. Socialism always comes up stronger when faced with true fascism, which is a fair way to characterize some of Mexico's generalissimos. It's too bad, because it's taken the left a long, long time to get over that day, and find a way to a new realism. It sounds like Ross still hasn't.
Posted by Fnarf on April 6, 2010 at 4:10 PM · Report this
TVDinner 2
Thank you for saving me from reading this book, Enigma. I totally would have fallen for it and then felt betrayed when it got dull 200 pages in.
Posted by TVDinner http:// on April 6, 2010 at 4:11 PM · Report this
Nice review.
Posted by MEC on April 6, 2010 at 4:19 PM · Report this
Enigma 4
Thanks everyone.
I am really annoyed I didn't like it more. And it was so big taking up space in my bag I kind of started resenting it. But I'm a book collector, so I'm sure a conversation about leftist politics in Mexico will come up in my future (rarer things have happened) and I'll have a good jumping off point thanks to the book.
Posted by Enigma on April 6, 2010 at 4:19 PM · Report this
Sben 5
Would this be worth getting from the library and reading the first 200 or so pages?
Posted by Sben on April 6, 2010 at 4:26 PM · Report this
Enigma 6
Sben, I'd say so. Ross does write well about the earlier eras of the land that would become Mexico City. I'd say that once you can't keep track of all the nicknames everyone has, it's time to cut your losses.
Posted by Enigma on April 6, 2010 at 4:38 PM · Report this
Mr. Fnarf - Some writers who really know about Mexico City, beyond David L. (who just relocated to New Orleans, the rat) are fiction writers. But you probably already know that. And you probably already know about Paco Ignacio Taibo II (Calling All Heroes, about the massacre in 1968, and '68 his memoir of Oct. 2 1968). But in case you don't, he has some really good police procedurals that take place in the DF.

Earl Shorris is a journalist whose tome The Life and Times of Mexico is pretty good too, esp in smallish bites. He's got other volumes abt Mexico too, co-authored w/Miguel Leon-Portilla. I think Life and Times is the best. . .

But I am on a campaign to get people reading Mr. Taibo. He's one of my heroes. I bet you'd like him.
Posted by LuisitaPhD on April 6, 2010 at 4:44 PM · Report this
Enigma - thanks for an excellent review and for telling us that the book gets uninformative. . . I'll have a look at pages 1 - 200 (at the library).
Posted by LuisitaPhD on April 6, 2010 at 4:50 PM · Report this
Fnarf 9
@7, I've never read Taibo, but I put one of his books on hold at the library just minutes before your post. So we'll see.

I'm a big fan of Earl Shorris. His "Latinos" gets bogged down in a number of places (but is still worthwhile; I liked Hector Tobar's "Translation Nation" better), but "The Life and Times of Mexico" is magnificent. That's exactly what I'm looking for -- a thousand more pages of that!
Posted by Fnarf on April 6, 2010 at 5:05 PM · Report this
@9 Looking forward to hearing what you think of Taibo.
Posted by LuisitaPhD on April 6, 2010 at 7:18 PM · Report this
Fnarf 12
Thanks, Grant.
Posted by Fnarf on April 6, 2010 at 8:07 PM · Report this

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