A book for Mother’s Day? The mystery of my mother’s reading habits

No two readers are alike. No two mothers are alike. And the only way to really find out what might be a good book to get your mother for Mother’s Day is to ask her what she likes to read.

My own mother’s reading habits have always been a bit of a mystery to me. I don’t remember her reading many books when I was growing up in L.A. as the son of Guatemalan immigrants. She was a single mom, working a series of clerical jobs and raising an only son, and she never had much free time.

So I got on the phone and called Guatemala — my mother retired and moved back to Latin America two decades ago — and asked her: “¿Cuáles son sus libros favoritos?

My mother is perfectly bilingual and her reading habits, it turns out, reflect her journey across borders, from the world of Spanish to English, from Guatemala to the United States, and back. In a sense, her life story is in the list of books she gave me.


She began with two books that couldn’t be more different: “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and the Mayan creation story known as the “Popol Vuh.” Those two books are, in their own way, perfect bookends on her journey as a Guatemalan woman who came to the U.S. at 21 and lived the kind of independent life none of her female ancestors could have possibly imagined.

Next she threw me a curveball, and named two authors I would never have imagined she liked: “Emily Dickenson, even though it’s depressing to me sometimes, and Sylvia Plath, even though she’s even more depressing.” I remembered a very dark time in our family history, after her divorce from my father in 1971 — was she reading Plath and Dickenson then, I wondered?

I’ve been a writer for a quarter century and not once have I talked about poetry with my mother. I felt ashamed for not discovering this fact about her earlier. Today, in the mail, I’m sending her a copy of Pablo Neruda’s wonderful “Elemental Odes.”

Next she named two books about contemporary Guatemala. The first is one that many Guatemalans read as a rite of passage, “Guatemala: Occupied Country,” a history of the dictatorship imposed by a CIA-backed coup, written by the poet and essayist Eduardo Galeano. It’s a book that I’d read myself in college. The second is Francisco Goldman’s excellent account of the 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi: “The Art of Political Murder.”


My mother also likes to read a lot of biographies — “Golda Meir’s life story, I really liked that” — and a lot of self-help books. “I had low self-esteem, and I didn’t know it, until I read Wayne Dyer,” she told me.

And finally, she mentioned a book that I had recommended to her, my father and my in-laws many eons ago (and which they all now own): Jon Lee Anderson’s excellent biography “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life.”

“That book caused me some problems with a lady from the church who came to visit me,” my mother said. The book has an oil painting portrait of Guevara on the cover, and the church lady had seen that image and spread the word that my mother was a radical (which she most decidedly is not).

Later, I wondered what my mother might have found of interest in Guevara’s life. Perhaps it was the impact that book had on her only son, who went on to become a writer. Or maybe it’s the powerful Argentine woman who is the star of the first section of that book: Celia de la Serna, Guevara’s strong-willed, bohemian mother.

My mother asked if I might send her the Spanish version of that book, because the English was a bit hard for her. So I’ll add “Che: Una Vida Revolucionaria” to Neruda in my gift package to her.


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