5 of 7
By Luis Alberto Urrea
272 pages; Back Bay Books

Urrea is a master of Dickensian novels that capture the difficult lives of people shuttling between the United States and Mexico. This story collection, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, is more intimate, with quick glimpses into the culture clashes that transform lives across the border. In one story, a man labors to escape the barrio only be roped back into a criminal scheme; the hero of another has to tread carefully when he falls for the daughter of a drug kingpin. Urrea writes about these people with equal degrees of empathy and humor, and conjures up exquisite descriptions of the peculiar landscapes, from Iowa to the Rocky Mountains to a Mexican river thick with clutter: "a green DeSoto with its lights on, a washing machine with a religious statue in it as though the saint were piloting a circular boat, a blond wig that looked like a giant squid, a mysterious star-shaped object barely visible under the surface."