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Powerful reads: Book of the week reviews

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Making a list of holiday gifts and checking it twice? Before you make your final check, allow me to intervene to suggest books for your gift-giving.

• “Some Are Born Under a Star/Unos nacen con estrella,” by Jim Sagel (Museum of New Mexico Press).

This is a charmingly told bilingual novel set in the fictional northern New Mexico town of San Buenaventura. There are parallels between townspeople and the characters they portray in the traditional Christmas play “Los pastores.” For one, there’s Marta Chacón, who gives birth to a boy, Jesús. She portrays Mary in the play. A guiding star over Bethlehem unexpectedly foreshadows her demise; she doesn’t know she has only 23 days to live. But the main stories in the novel are about the intersecting lives of the Hispanic townspeople, especially the extended families of the Chacón and Mascareñas clans and their friends.

Jim Sagel

Sagel’s novel, his only novel, is now published 20 years after the Española resident’s death. Sagel wrote well-remembered short stories and poetry but he was widely known for the columns he penned for the Journal in the 1980s and ’90s. The forward of “Some Are Born Under a Star” is by Las Cruces author Denise Chávez, who wrote, “This book will live long. Many will find in it mercy, compassion and understanding of the great drama that unfolds for each of us and for those we love – the miracle we call life.” Michael L. Trujillo, associate professor of American studies and Chicano/a studies at the University of New Mexico, edited the novel and wrote an introduction and a preface.

• “Dewey – The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World” by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter (Grand Central).

This is the 10th anniversary edition of a book that tells a hard-to-believe but true story. Myron and the town of Spencer, Iowa, adopted Dewey Readmore Books, a kitten she found stuffed in the library’s returned book slot. For 19 years, the library was Dewey’s home. He died in 2008. The book is a story about a cat that became the symbol of a proud, resilient farm community and an inspiration for millions of readers. There’s also a related picture book, “Dewey’s Christmas at the Library.” (Every library needs a cat.)

• “When the Men Were Gone: A Novel” by Marjorie Herrera Lewis (William Morrow).

On the home front during World War II the iconic Rosie the Riveter declared “We Can Do It!” telling women they could handle jobs men left vacant to join the armed forces. A recent book tells a World War II tale based on the true story of Tylene Wilson. When the head football coach enlisted, his replacement took over, and then he also joined. Tylene persuaded the high school in Brownwood, Texas, to let her coach football. She said there weren’t any men around who knew the game like she did. Despite the hardened opposition, Tylene gave the town a football season to remember. While writing the manuscript, Lewis, the author, a veteran journalist, landed a job as an assistant defensive backs coach at Texas Wesleyan University. Talk about female empowerment.

• “Broadway to Main Street: How Show Tunes Enchanted America” by Laurence Maslon (Oxford University Press).

Broadway show tunes have become so popular that many have risen to become pop hits. From 1949 to 1969, 15 original Broadway cast albums went to No. 1 on pop music charts. Maslon’s book explains the phenomenon of how show tunes have endured as an integral part of our popular culture. He also addresses the influence of the range of media on show music’s popularity – from sheet music, radio and 78-rpm recordings to television, CDs, the Internet and streaming.

• “Kiss Me at Christmas” by Valerie Bowman (St. Martin’s Paperbacks).

Lady Regina is dead-set against marriage, though she is intent on finding a gentleman who can be a romantic distraction during the holidays. But the lady may be in danger. Daffin Oakleaf to the rescue. Set in Regency England, this historical romance novel is in Bowman’s popular Playful Brides series.