Tag Archives: drama

Our House

No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments by Brooke Berman (Harmony Books, $23.00, 251 pages)

“There are so many times I have asked the question: Am I home?

This is a fun one that will remind adult readers of the struggling times in their twenties, looking for stability, romance and a  place that feels like home.   Brooke Berman tells about her period as a struggling young playwright and writer in Manhattan and Brooklyn during the period from 1998 through the summer of 2002.   It was in these years that the chronically  penniless Berman lived in 39 different apartments.

One thing that’s entertaining about this memoir is learning about the language of real estate in New York City.   There are terms like floor-through apartments, couch-surf, railroad flat (I once lived in one in Los Angeles) and 420 friendly.   OK, the latter term is not actually mentioned by Berman but she made apartment shopping in Manhattan and Brooklyn sound so interesting that I came upon the term online.

Note:  420 friendly means that one’s prospective roommates smoke pot and want their new tenant to be cool with that.

There’s also the reminder of what it’s like to be without money among people of prosperity.   Part of the experience, for Berman, is a good one:  “When I’m struggling, I know what to do and who to be:  I don’t spend money…  When I have money, I am forced to make choices.”   I recall a friend who in college said, “I feel pure when, as a struggling student, I have no money.   It feels better than when I do have money and I feel like I’ve done something wrong.”

But because Berman was raised by a stylish mother in the fashion industry in Michigan, she also knows how far she’s fallen…

“I was the only eight-year-old in the Detroit suburbs who could speak on Giorgio Armani’s fall line.  …now I feel like I come more from Avenue A.   From the poppy-seed cafe and dance workshops, downtown sublets and unmatched clothes, care of Salvation Armani.”

That should give you a hint of Berman’s humor which is laced through more serious things.   During this period she seems to be extremely unlucky in love, always choosing the guy who’s exactly wrong for her.   It’s as if she has a personal radar system for finding Not the Right Guy or Mr. Wrong.   There’s also the fact of having to deal with her mother’s illness and apparent demise after not one but two kidney transplant operations:  “My mother’s death is the thing I have been most afraid of my entire life…  The fear of (her) death is more threatening to me, and more primal, than anything.”

Brooke’s mother’s illness seems to stand as a symbol of the things that have gone wrong in Brooke’s life:  “I want to feel better, too.”

While this is an engaging memoir, it does have one disturbing flaw.   Like Julie Metz in her memoir Perfection, Berman tells us far more about her sex life (with whom she did what, and exactly what) than we’d care to know.   Too much information, girl, way too much.   Is there some type of anti-privacy virus going around that makes  people disclose everyone they’ve gotten next to in their lives?

And, yet, the true tale ends with Berman living happily ever after in perfect city abodes, with the perfect “forever” partner and the long dreamt of career.   Who says that modern fairy tales don’t come true?

Recommended.

“To deny change is to deny life.   And the present moment contains miracles.  …I can say now that I have many homes.”

A review copy was received from the publisher.   Thanks to Elaine at Wink Public Relations (wink pr) for her assistance.

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Come Win a Copy of Come Sunday

Thanks to Picador, we have a giveaway copy of the novel Come Sunday by Isla Morley.   This trade paperback book will be released on August 3, 2010 but you have a chance to win it now.   Here is a synopsis of the story:

Abbe is a restless young mother living on the outskirts of Honolulu with her husband, Greg, the pastor at a small church.   Their lives are suddenly riven by tragedy when their three-year-old daughter, Cleo, is struck and killed by a car.   As Greg turns to God and community for comfort, Abbe turns inward and reflects upon her own troubled past.   Isla Morley brilliantly weaves the story of Abbe’s grief with a gripping tale of her tempestuous childhood in apartheid South Africa  – and how Abbe’s father, a villainous drunk, held her family hostage for decades with his rage, until they finally began to plot their escape from him.   Come Sunday is a spellbinding drama about a woman breaking free of her grief and of her past, and what it takes to revive hope when all seems lost.

Here are some of the critical comments about this work:

“A heart-wrenching tale of unthinkable loss and hard-won healing.   This is a novel to savor.”   Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants

“A phenomenal debut…”   San Diego Union-Tribune

“A compelling tale of survival, reinvention, and hope, in the end, Come Sunday is…  about personal redemption and resurrection…  Vivid and poignant.”   The Boston Globe

“An intense and ambitious first novel, and an exquisitely detailed exploration of the mother-daughter bond.”   Los Angeles Magazine

“Firmly establishing her in the pantheon of such insightful authors as Chris Bohjalian, Sue Miller, and Anita Shreve, Morley’s…  read-in-one-sitting tale of loss and renewal will haunt readers.”   Booklist

To enter our contest, just post a comment here or send an e-mail with your name and e-mail address to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   For a second entry, just post another message here or send a second e-mail with the words, “This is my second entry.”   Easy, huh?

The winner’s name will be drawn by Munchy the cat, our contest administrator, and the winner will be contacted by e-mail.   This person will be asked to supply a residential (street) mailing address in the U. S. – not a P.O. box or business address – so that Picador can ship the book directly to him/her.  

You have until Tuesday, August 10, 2010 at Midnight PST to submit your entry/entries.   Good luck and good reading!

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Over the Borderline

The Madonnas of Echo Park: A Novel by Brando Skyhorse (Free Press, June 2010)

“A work of fiction is an excellent place for a confession.”

To be truthful, this is a collection of short stories with a common theme, not a novel.   As author Skyhorse makes clear in the introductory author’s note (items which always take away more than they add to the reading experience), one of the stories is based on something that happened to him in grade school.   At the time Skyhorse presumed that he was a Native American and, thus, refused to dance with a young girl because she was a Mexican.   Since that time the author, who has worked as an editor in the publishing industry, has learned that he is primarily Mexican-American.   This collection of stories, then, is intended to honor the culture – and the people – he once snubbed.   It is an act of contrition, of penitence.

In the eyes of this reviewer, this collection worked a bit more than half the time but was not fully successful.   On the positive side, Skyhorse gives life to people on the peripheries of Los Angeles who are often invisible.   They are the house cleaners, the bus boys, the daily contractors who scrape along in L.A. without set plans for their future.   Many of them are Hispanics (who have displaced African-Americans but themselves are threatened by newly arriving Asians) from Mexico or Mexican-Americans born in the U.S.   As Skyhorse makes clear, these are the people who take buses to work across the great expanses of L.A. and their lives tend to be at the mercy of factors beyond their control.

“The areas around St. Vincent and MacArthur Park are Latino; some Mexican, some Salvadoran.   A new influx of Koreans hit the area several years ago, but there aren’t enough of them yet for tension.”

The short tales are interesting and make for relatively fast reading.   But I did not find the boldness, the vividness in the telling that some have focused on.   If anything, Skyhorse too often writes in the style of Junot Diaz and Oscar Hijuelos, as if starkness and drama and scenes that are a bit too descriptive – and occasionally disorderly – are essential to Hispanic writing.   This is offered as a critical point because a number of the tales were just this side of charming, and that charm was lost in the translation to grittiness.

Hispanic readers – and most especially those who have lived in L.A. – are likely going to see these tales as non-exceptional reflections of real life.   This is fine, but it’s hard to expect that most non-Hispanics will relate to them except as curiousity  pieces.   And while Skyhorse pays tribute to Mexicans/Mexican-Americans, he also shows in one particular story that there can be troubling differences, and real anger, between the two groups.   This was a bit troubling even if it reflects reality – the laundering of dirty cultural linen in public.

Some readers may be put off by the round-robin nature of the tales, which cross-reference each other in terms of characters and situations.   What seems at first cute becomes somewhat tiring after the first hundred pages.   The most troubling issue for this reviewer, quite surprisingly, had to do with editing.   Mentioned repeatedly is the fact that the Mexican-American residents of Chavez Ravine were forcibly evicted (and their homes destroyed) in the early 1950s to make way for what would become Dodger Stadium and the LAPD Academy.   This is raised as a grievance in so many of the stories that one becomes surprised that Skyhorse did not catch his own repetitiveness and deal with it.   Or was it meant to be disruptive to the reading as an analogy to the disruption of these residents’ lives for what was claimed to be the greater good?

All in all, this is a fine debut for a first-time author.   Yet this reviewer feels that Skyhorse has a choice to make when it comes to his next release.   He can either use his calming voice to write about life in a style that is a bit more positive and charming, or he can ratchet-up the grittiness and become an angry voice.   It is hoped that calmness prevails.

Joseph Arellano

Take Away:   Skyhorse has a lot of obvious writing talent, but let’s hope that next time he pens an actual novel.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Everything Lovely

Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe: A Novel by first-time author Jenny Hollowell will be released by Henry Holt and Company,Inc. on June 8, 2010.   Here is a preview look including a synopsis of the novel, blurbs from other authors and an excerpt from its opening pages.

Synopsis

A young woman caught at the turning point between success and failure hopes fame and fortune will finally let her leave her old life – and her old self – behind.   Birdie Baker has always dreamed of becoming someone else.   At twenty-two, she sets off to do just that.   Walking out on her pastor husband and deeply evangelical parents, she leaves behind her small-town, part-time life and gets on a bus to Los Angeles.

Quotes

“Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe introduces a strong new voice, poised and sharp, beautifully suited to both the satiric task of dismantling Hollywood, and the empathetic one of rendering a young actress’s grinding struggle for stardom.”   – Jennifer Egan

“There’s some Joan Didion here, some Lorrie Moore, some Nathanael West, but really, it’s all Jenny Hollowell, a new name to remember.”   – Christopher Tilghman

“Jenny Hollowell’s writing is gorgeous and edgy, lyrical and in-your-face.”   – Sheri Reynolds

Excerpt

Prologue

Ask Birdie how she got here and she’ll pretend she doesn’t remember.   “Honestly,” she’ll say, “it all blends together.”   She doesn’t want to talk about the past.   It’s only cocktail talk, but still everyone wants a story.   That’s Los Angeles for you.   Everything’s a pitch.   Sell the beginning and give the end a twist.

The truth is rarely filmic.   Lies are better.   Once she’d told a director she was sleeping with, or who, more accurately was sleeping with her:  My whole family is dead.   We were in a car accident together.   My mother, father, and sister were killed and I am the only survivor.   What did he say?   “What an amazing story,” which meant that he was sorry but also that it would make a great movie.

Semantics, anyway.   There was never any car accident but still she has lost them all.

Ask Birdie how she got here and she will smile and laugh and look down into her glass.   Two things she’s good at:  drinking and keeping secrets.   In the melting cubes she sees the past…

At her agent’s insistence her bio contains the basics:  1979, Powhatan, Virginia.   Even that doesn’t matter.   Redmond changed it to 1983.   “Whoever said thirty is the new twenty-two wasn’t trying to get you work.”   Proof positive: no one really wants the truth…

Going West and the Rest, 2001.   In Powhatan, she leaves a letter that says:

To Judah and My Parents,

I don’t know if you will be surprised to find this note.   I am not surprised to be writing it, though I know it will hurt you and I hate to do that.   But you have to know I have no other choice.   I have been a liar and a hypocrite.   I have tried to be a Believer, but I am not.   Every day, I am full of doubt.   I would rather be honest about my feelings in this life than lie to preserve an eternal hope I am unsure of.   Let’s hope God understands my decision.   I’m sorry.

Love, Birdie.

PS – Don’t try to find me.   I’m safe, but I’m going somewhere far away.

The bus ride to Los Angeles takes two days, seventeen hours, and five minutes.   For the first day, she imagines that Judah is following her, that when the bus stops at a rest area he will be standing there stormy-faced, waiting to take her back.   But by the morning of the second day, as serpentine mountain roads begin to flatten and give way to low flat stretches of highway, her escape begins to feel real.   Nothing is familiar – the scenery, her fellow passengers, the gravity and speed of the bus as it rockets westward past towns, sprawling lights, empty desert, road signs.   Her face reflected back at her in the thick safety glass of the bus window appears ghostly and doubled.   She glances back and forth between both sets of eyes and watches the reflections react – her fractured face bobs and shifts across the glass.      

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