Tag Archives: Brooklyn

Don’t You (Forget About Me)

searching-for-john-hughes

Searching for John Hughes: Or Everything I Thought I Needed to Know about Life I Learned From Watching ’80s Movies by Jason Diamond (William Morrow, $15.99, 285 pages)

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” – Ferris Bueller

“It was time to start paying attention, because I didn’t want to miss anything else. I didn’t find John Hughes, but instead I found the things I really needed.” – Jason Diamond

It’s rare to read a book about someone’s unsuccessful attempt to write a book. But that’s what this memoir is about. Jason Diamond spent years researching and writing a book about 80s film director and producer John Hughes. He eventually gave up his quest – which took most of his twenties – literally a couple of days before he believed he would meet Hughes in person. Then, to make things ever more tragic and dramatic, he learned that Hughes had died of a heart attack.

Hughes died not in Chicago, where Diamond was headed at the time, but in New York City. Diamond lived in Brooklyn. So the gods had clearly determined that Diamond’s hip biography of Hughes would never be published.

This would seem to mean that there’s not much of a story for Diamond to tell here. Oh, but there is. It’s the story of a person – all too common these days – overflowing with self-effacing feelings. All Diamond ever wanted to do was write, but his efforts never seemed to pan out. So he placed all his hopes and fears into producing “the book” that was to turn his life around. Of course, there were a few problems and obstacles along the way – chiefly that neither Hughes nor any of the actors in his films ever agreed to meet or be interviewed by Diamond. (As might occur in a bad film, Diamond did come into awkward contact with some of these actors in New York City.)

There was also the fact that the man who said he would be Diamond’s book agent never signed a contract to fulfill that commitment, never did any actual work on Diamond’s behalf, and left the business before Diamond’s bio draft was completed.

Diamond had to learn the hard way that one cannot spend one’s entire life waiting for something that may never arrive. It was only when he erased all of his work on the ever-unfinished Hughes bio that his life actually began. And, yes, this was a good thing.

While Searching for John Hughes does not in fact live up to its ambitious subtitle – it may have been more properly subtitled as My Search for the Ghost of John Hughes – kudos go to Diamond for summarizing the philosophy of Hughes’s work in brief fashion:

Life is full of constant sadness and the world can be a cruel place. Yet what Hughes offers in his films is the idea that one single day can be great, and that’s all you need if you live in the moment. That one day can turn into a second, and third, and many more consecutive great days. There will be pitfalls here and there, chemicals in your brain, tragedy that you can’t prepare yourself for, or tyrannical vice principals trying to hold you down, but the trick is to open yourself up to the idea that great things can just happen, that the good is just as much a part of life as the bad.

And Diamond summarized his own early adult life in this succinct way:

One day you think you have a great idea, then five minutes, hours, days – or in my case – years later you finally realize that it’s time to put it away. Sometimes you have to fail in order to succeed. If you don’t slow down, if you let your obsessions and anger and fear stop you from looking around, you could miss some really important things.

This is a quite enjoyable work by writer Jason Diamond. I very much look forward to reading his next release.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Searching for John Hughes was released on November 29, 2016.

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Movie Review: “East L.A. Interchange” – A Documentary

east la interchange

Does a documentary film about the Hispanic community of Boyle Heights shy away from tackling the major issue of the day?

Boyle Heights, a community just east of downtown Los Angeles, is a very interesting place. When I lived in Los Angeles, I would often head there on the weekend to make use of the parks, eat at the fine hole-in-the-wall restaurants, or soak up the multicultural feel of the community. “The Heights” was once known as the “Ellis Island of the West” because of its multiracial nature (it was once the largest Jewish community on the West Coast until the end of World War II), but tensions have hit the barrio. As the Los Angeles Times (“Gentrification pushes up against Boyle Heights – and vice versa”; March 6, 2016) recently noted: “Once the landing spot not only for Mexicans, but also for Japanese, Russians, Italians, and Jews, Boyle Heights has long been perceived as a neighborhood sitting on the brink of the next metamorphosis.”

Yes, the dreaded Spanish word gentefication, or gentrification in English, has now struck. Like Brooklyn, Sacramento (Oak Park), and San Francisco (The Mission District), Boyle Heights is trying to decide whether it wants to be old, interracial, and comfortable; or hip, progressive, and an expensive place to live. Community activists vociferously argue that there are too many art galleries in the city and they rail against the replacement of neighborhood bars by overly cool brew pubs.

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Against this background, I had high hopes for the documentary East L.A. Interchange, a one-hour documentary film narrated by actor Danny Trejo. It’s a film that’s currently being screened at selected colleges. To my eyes, it’s a missed opportunity.

One problem is the title. East L.A. Interchange leads people to think this is either a program about East Los Angeles – which is just east of Boyle Heights, or about the Los Angeles freeways. A better title might have been La Colonia: Boyle Heights.

I will return to the problematic issue of gentrification. What Interchange does well is to deal with the history of Boyle Heights, as heard mostly from U.S.C. professors. And one of the intriguing points made in the documentary is that social discrimination issues began to ease as the predominantly Mexican-American students at Roosevelt High School began to learn about the history of their city: “One of the cradles of Mexican-American culture in the U.S.” Knowledge precedes pride.

To its credit, Interchange is not only well researched but beautifully filmed. And yet its Achilles heel is that the documentary refuses to take a stance on the key issue of gentrification. We learn that Jews first left the community, then Russians were forced out by freeway construction, and now the low to middle-income Hispanics who live in Boyle Heights are threatened by newly prosperous Hispanics and rich hipsters.

BH protest

In order to afford a typical new housing unit in the area, one needs an income of $90,000 and above. Yet the median household income in the Heights is $41,821. It’s a big problem and results in stress, grief and anger. As one current resident states, in Spanish: “I would like it to stay just as it is.” Gentrification, of course, will make this impossible.

The creators of Interchange, after illustrating how the poor have been displaced from the area in the past, inform the viewer that 1,187 affordable housing units are scheduled to be destroyed and replaced by 4,400 new and pricey units. And yet, even after imparting this information, they remain neutral.

The documentary asks the question, “What constitutes beneficial (versus harmful) development?” but fails to answer it. Instead, at its conclusion we hear an elderly Jewish gentleman assure us that, despite recent changes in the neighborhood, everything will be alright. It’s hardly convincing.

Boyle Heights

One key statement heard in Interchange is, “We’re not trying to get out of the barrio. We’re trying to bring the barrio up.” Fine, but in life one must ultimately choose between stasis and change. In electing to support neither the status quo nor change – neither the past nor progressivism, East L.A. Interchange loses its raison d’etre.

Joseph Arellano

The reviewer was provided access to a press screener. The film was directed by Betsy Kalin.

This review was first posted on the Blogcritics site:

Movie Review: ‘East L.A. Interchange’ – A Documentary

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(Not Quite) By The Numbers

Crooked Numbers Amazon

Crooked Numbers: A Raymond Donne Mystery (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 320 pages)

Tim O’Mara’s Crooked Numbers, the second in the Raymond Donne mystery series, follows a very familiar – perhaps too familiar – path for those who read his debut novel Sacrifice Fly.

Donne is a former police officer turned public school teacher in Brooklyn. He had to leave the force when injured in the line of duty but just can’t get the cop out of him.

In Crooked Numbers, a young kid with a promising future, Doug Lee, is killed. Lee’s mother approaches Donne for help, and soon thereafter another teenager turns up dead and yet another end up in the hospital. Donne can’t fight his instincts and springs into action. Similar to the storyline in Sacrifice Fly, he becomes more valuable than the actual police in solving the mystery and catching the bad guys.

Well known characters permeate the scene – Uncle Ray, also a former cop; Allison, the love-interest newspaper reporter; and Muscles, the physical therapist who pushes Donne to return to normal functioning all reappear.

Crooked Numbers back Amazon

O’Mara’s writing is solid, and Donne is generally an interesting fellow. But there isn’t a lot of intrigue in this story that would move it into the page turner category. It is good, but perhaps a bit of a sophomore slump. Odds are that the third installment will bounce back with a little more needed oomph.

Recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Oddly, none of Tim O’Mara’s books are available in trade paperback form.

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in Illinois, and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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“Brooklyn” – New World versus Old

Brooklyn-Movie-Poster-Saoirse-Ronan

“Brooklyn,” which was nominated for a 2016 Academy Award for best picture in a list of much more intensely themed dramas, is an easy movie to fall in love with. A classic boy-meets-girl coming-of-age film, set in the early 50s and reminiscent of movies of that era. Two young immigrants meet in Brooklyn and fall in love, yet the young woman still yearns for the country and home she left behind. Based on Colm Toibin’s novel of the same title (screenplay by Nick Hornby), “Brooklyn” conveys a specific historical time and worldview but the wounds and dilemmas are universal.

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Saoirse Ronan plays Ellis, a young Irish woman who has few options back home in the Green Isle. Adventurous but devoted to her widowed mother and sister, she feels unanchored, desperate to find a more welcoming environment in which to navigate her adulthood. Tenderhearted, gentle, and hesitant in speech, Ellis soon falls in love with a young Italian immigrant whose culture is every bit as new to her as living in Brooklyn.

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The film “Brooklyn” is much more than a simple coming-of-age tale, however. It is a story of choosing between the family one grows up in and the one created as an adult. Brooklyn – the location – symbolizes new frontiers of freedom and opportunity with little regard for the economic decisions Ellis must make. Ellis must find her own identity while choosing between two value systems and two futures.

Ronan, who was nominated for Best Actress (and cast in “Attonement,” “Lovely Bones,” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel”), gives a stunning performance as the innocence-lost maiden who has to understand what truly is the nature of home. Her moral choices are somewhat predictable but the dilemma is a universal one – choosing another’s happiness over one’s own, deciding on one’s own future first, or trying to have both. This young twenty-two year old actress is a pleasure to watch as she gains confidence one small victory at a time.

The overarching theme is one of possibility (which can be frightening) and independence (which can be depressing and isolating) versus the tradition and comfort of family. The known versus the unknown. Many have to make the decision of which path to take in life. These aren’t the life-and-death stakes we typically see in the movies but they’re the decisions that often dictate or determine fates.

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“Brooklyn” is classic! Highly recommended.

Diana Y. Paul

To see more reviews and articles by Diana Paul, go to:

http://unhealedwound.com/

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Pop Fly

Sacrifice Fly A Mystery

Sacrifice Fly: A Mystery by Tim O’Mara (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 320 pages)

“Noontime, and I’m still pushin’ myself along the road, the darkest part
Into the narrow lanes, I can’t stumble or stay put…” Bob Dylan, “I and I”

O’Mara Connects with Sacrifice Fly

Tim O’Mara’s debut novel Sacrifice Fly is one of the better mystery novels this reviewer has read in recent years.

Raymond Donne is a Brooklyn school teacher and former cop who becomes entangled in the disappearance of one of this students, Frankie Rivas, and his sister when their father is murdered. Donne, whose police career ended due to a freak injury, can’t resist his innate urges to play detective when he is disappointed with the actions of the men in blue. Donne gets in over his head, making for enough drama that his uncle, the chief of detectives, has to get involved to help bail him out.

The best aspect of the novel is the consistency of storytelling and voice from start to finish, which is not easy to pull off. The only blip here is the incident when Donne is on a date at a police gathering and lets some of his blue machismo surface unnecessarily. This is out of character for him and does not seem to fit.

Frankie is billed as a baseball phenom whose “way out” of the neighborhood is a scholarship to a local private high school baseball power that Donne helped him secure. However, this does not actually have much to do with the story, so any reader expecting a story focusing on baseball will likely be let down.

Sacrifice Fly back cover

The story is told without pretense and it works. The reader gets a happy ending, though Donne himself is left dangling with the loose ends of his relationships and physical rehabilitation still in limbo, which screams for a sequel.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Tim O’Mara’s novels have only been released in hardback and Kindle and Nook Book editions, not in trade paperback versions.

Dave Moyer is an education administrator, and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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The Big Hurt

Hurt Machine: A Moe Prager Mystery by Reed Farrel Coleman (Tyrus Books, $15.95, 320 pages)

If you recognize the song title above, you’re a contemporary of Moe Prager, the hero of this, the seventh book in the mystery series.   Reed Farrel Coleman is a prolific author whose ability to spin an engaging tale is obvious in this well-paced novel.   Although Coleman’s work is new to this reviewer, the comfortable intimacy of Moe Prager’s first-person narrative made the story meaningful.

Faced with a nasty stomach cancer diagnosis just weeks before his daughter Sarah’s wedding, Prager ponders his mortality.   He references past characters who have informed his life, some living and some, like Israel Roth, gone from this world.   Since the story is part retrospective and part reality check, the appearance of former wife Carmella is the perfect segue into the past.

Prager is a former cop whose array of acquaintances comes in handy when he takes on Carmella’s request to clear up her sister Alta’s good name.   Alta and a co-worker walked away from a dying man which was an unforgivable sin, considering the two were emergency medical technicians with the New York Fire Department.   Not long after the episode, Alta was murdered in the street near a famous restaurant.   Well, the restaurant, actually a pizzeria/gelato spot, is famous by Brooklyn standards.

Regardless of the plot twists and interwoven groups that populate the story, it is the effort that Prager makes to reconcile his longing for Carmella, the obvious love offered to him by current girlfriend Pam, and his yearing for future grandkids that compels the reader to move along with him to the last page.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Hurt Machine is also available a Nook Book and Kindle Edition download.   “…contemporary who-dunits don’t get much better than Shamus-winner Coleman’s seventh Moe Prager mystery.”   Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Gin and Juice

The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance by Thomas McNamee (Free Press, $27.00, 339 pages)

This is the biography of Craig Claiborne, a food writer and premier restaurant reviewer for the New York Times, who was to attack the bland, boring, heavy American diet of the 1960s and substitute, in its place, “a refined, if painstaking, cuisine.”   The food championed by Claiborne was international, primarily French, but with the understanding that each and every culture in the American melting pot offers outstanding dishes.   It may be that Claiborne’s prime mission was to de-anglicize the starchy, meat and potatoes diet that was once the province of the American cafeteria; a diet that – ironically – has returned to rule the roost via fast food outlets (with all the related health problems attached to such a non-diverse menu).

Claiborne might have said that variety  is the spice of diet, and he was nothing if not courageous in popularizing Chilean, Mexican, Greek, Turkish, Indian and other foods during his career.   Thomas McNamee earlier wrote the highly acclaimed bio of California’s Alice Waters,  Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, and while he praises Claiborne, this account is much less laudatory.   It seems that Claiborne had a number of issues as a human being, and they’re all put on the table in this telling.   (Unfortunately, the account is harmed by some odd typos and errors.   For example, on page 97 of the finished book, the year 1961 is referred to as “Ninety-sixty-one”.)

Claiborne grew up rather poor, but he came to identify with what we would now call the “one percenters.”   He was always to fly first class on his frequent trips to Europe, even when he had very little money to his name.   Later, the Times would take care of his expense accounts but Claiborne became controversial for his outlandish spending habits.   In 1978, he wrote a front page story about a $4,000 dinner he arranged in Paris.   The paper received 1,000 letters of complaint – there was a recession on after all.   At least two-thirds of the letters were very negative about Claiborne’s “in your face” ostentatiousness.   As McNamee notes, three years later interviewers were still asking Claiborne – the once poor boy from Sunflower, Missouri – to justify his behavior.

While Claiborne’s mother ran a bed-and-breakfast and taught him much about food preparation, he was to literally disown her and refused to attend the funerals of his mother and his brother.   Claiborne was in the closet during his lifetime, and he attached himself to two different married men, neither of whom went on to leave his spouse.   And while Claiborne lived to the age of 79, his days included no exercise and no less than 14 alcoholic drinks per day.   Claiborne was to openly admit to People magazine that he drank six margaritas before dinner, six glasses of wine during dinner, and as many stingers “as he needed…” until he got the “click in (his) head that makes me feel peaceful.”   In 1979, his blood pressure rate was found to be 186/112 – compared to an upper normal rate of 140/80 for a man in his late 50s.

You might wonder how Claiborne, as a public figure, got away with all of this…?   Well, he had his tricks.   After suffering a brain hemorrhage, he was to enlist his physician in his drinking activities.   Yes, his own doctor, who had ordered Claiborne to significantly reduce his alcohol intake, was charmed enough by the then-celebrity to sit and drink with him in restaurants.   Sometimes the doctor even included his wife in these drinking parties.

McNamee is just as honest – despite the book’s title – about Claiborne’s role in changing American eating habits.   Although Claiborne wrote the national bestseller, The New York Times Cook Book, McNamee admits that, “it is impossible to say whether the book had caught the wave of an entirely new American enthusiasm for food and cooking or had set it in motion.”   But the man is given full credit, as is his due, for popularizing the foods of all cultures and changing the once-dull face of food in The Big Apple:

“The clear result of his critical rigor was a continuous increase in the quality of New York’s restaurants and in others across the country…  By the time Craig left the Times, New York was teeming with restaurants as varied as the city’s clans, cults, allegiances, and heritages.   From the Bronx to the Battery were Chinese restaurants galore – including the fiery (regional dishes) that Craig had done so much to popularize.   Virtually every corner of Italy was represented.   Japanese cuisine of high refinement was easily had.   There were Brazilian, Vietnamese, Cuban-Chinese, Swiss, Swedish, and Syrian restaurants.   No longer were Greek, Indian and Mexican food served only in cheap joints.

Craig Claiborne may have been a man flawed in his personal habits, but he was also a visionary who proved the truth of the words that in diversity there is strength.   This is an engaging read for foodies and non-foodies alike.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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