ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
As a child, the writer Oscar Casares did not like to read. But one book changed his mind, as he tells us for our series You Must Read This.
Mr. OSCAR CASARES (Writer): When I was a kid, hearing someone say you must read this actually made me not want to read the book. The truth is, none of the books I read growing up came close to the real-life stories my uncle, Tio Nico, used to tell me - like the time in the 1930s when the Texas Rangers almost shot his cousin dead along the border, or the one from the 1850s when Indians kidnapped my great-grandfather in northern Mexico and brought him to this side of the Rio Grande. So maybe you can see why books couldn't compete for the storytellers in my family.
Two things happened on my way to becoming a reader in my early 30's. I started writing fiction and realized that writing would only ever be possible if I started reading. And the second thing that turned me into a reader was when a friend recommended "The Burning Plain," by the Mexican writer Juan Rulfo. Published originally in Spanish in 1955 with the title "El Llano en Llamas," this collection of 15 short stories takes place across the brutally rugged terrain in the years following the Mexican Revolution of 1910.
To read Rulfo's stories is to inhabit Mexico and, in turn to have Mexico inhabit you. In the story "We're Very Poor," a rural family barely survives a massive flood that takes with it a cow that the father had hoped might someday attract a worthy suitor for his 12-year-old daughter. This daughter, as the narrator tells us, now cries streams of dirty water as if the river had gotten inside her. Another story is about a band of guerrillas fleeing from the army's forces, only later to be picked off by vengeful Indians aiming to break their spines like the rotten branches of the barranca, where they've taken cover.
Rulfo wrote only two books, "The Burning Plain" and "Pedro Paramo." Both classics of Mexican and world literature. These are thin books by any standard, but also so well-crafted you realize each sentence, each line of dialogue, each bit of punctuation had to fight for its life on the page. I remember taking a copy of "The Burning Plain" with me to Mexico when I was researching some of the material for my own novel. To say I felt myself transported back to the time of my distant relatives sounds overly sentimental. But as I reread these stories, I did have the sense that I was listening to a corrido, a Mexican ballad, describing the injustices and hardscrabble life along the border region and to the south. It reminded me of the real life stories of my Tio Nico. Take it from me, someone who didn't start out as a reader, you must read "The Burning Plain" by Juan Rulfo.
SIEGEL: That was Oscar Casares, he's the author of "Brownsville" and "Amigoland." He lives in Austin, Texas, and you can find more recommendations from our series You Must Read This at npr.org.