Book Reviews

The Volcanoes
from Puebla

Review by Carl Franz

The Volcanoes from Puebla © 1979 by Kenneth Gangemi, Marion Boyars Publishers Inc., 99 Main St., Salem, NH 03079 ISBN 0-7145-2577-4 $9.95

Many years ago, while Lorena and I were living in San Miguel de Allende, I received a review copy of Kenneth Gangemi’s The Volcanoes from Puebla. I immediately made two errors: the first was in assuming that the author’s impressive literary credentials meant I could expect a difficult, intellectual 'read'. The second mistake was loaning the book to an intellectual, deadbeat friend. Needless to say, I never saw it again.

Then, lo and behold, a second copy of The Volcanoes from Puebla appeared here in our Acme mailbox, attractively reincarnated in a quality paperback edition. Along with the book was a note from the author, gently inquiring about the long delay in my reply to his first letter, written fourteen years earlier. Suggesting that I might yet review his book, Gangemi drily noted, "This time I won’t hold my breath."

As Lorena says, all good trips to Mexico begin and end at the beach. The Volcanoes from Puebla begins in Acapulco — not because the author’s trip began there, but because the resort’s name is the first in a long series of topics and observations, 159 in all, neatly arranged in alphabetical order. From Acapulco and Bakery, through Cerveza... Grievances... Lowest Moment... and Mangoes..., Gangemi’s attention shifts from Political Notes... to Street Snacks... and, finally, Zocalo. It is a clever device, one that allows the reader to dip in and out of the book with ease. As I soon realized, however, the book’s apparently casual construction and spare, economical tone conceal a sharp hook. Having thoroughly enjoyed the author’s thoughts on Beggars and Blankets, how could I resist following his musings through to Bohemia, and then on to Books, Calle Bolivar and Cantinas?

Topic by topic, I learned that Gangemi is traveling solo on a powerful motorcycle, working his way slowly through Mexico. He isn’t in a hurry and seems to find something of genuine interest or enjoyment wherever he turns. "I considered it an achievement, for someone of my background, to be able to sit quietly in a plaza and do absolutely nothing. When I lived in Mexico I had the time for such a worthwhile activity. Sitting in the plaza I had the time to think about the really important things, such as the differences between the morning and afternoon sunshine."

Thanks to the author’s considerable skill as a writer and poet, The Volcanoes from Puebla works on many levels. I found Gangemi’s images of daily life in Mexico to be especially engaging, with a prose rhythm that is almost hypnotic. Whether he is sharing practical observations on travel or contemplating the romantic aura of jungle tigers, the cumulative effect of Gangemi’s writing is quite powerful. Structured as an 'album' of personal observations and vignettes, The Volcanoes from Puebla not only reflects Mexico’s own allure, but draws the reader back to its pages time and time again.

Highly recommended!

As a postscript to this review, I must mention Gangemi’s talent for creating quotable lines. Among my favorites:

"An American should have meaningful work to do in Mexico, and maintain a discipline. It is not enough to be an artist or writer. You must have multiple interests and activities, for it is a very long day in a Mexican village."

The Volcanoes from Puebla
©1972-2000 by Carl Franz & Lorena Havens
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