Tag Archives: Junot Diaz

A Holiday Book List

Holiday hot gifts list

Looking for a book to gift someone? Here’s a list of a few interesting, recommended books. Not all of these are 2014 releases (why restrict ourselves to a calendar year?). Some will be found at Amazon, some at Barnes & Noble, and some can be ordered through your local bookstore. But you can and should find a way to purchase any of them that may be of interest. Joseph Arellano

The Nobodies Album (trade paper)

The Nobodies Album: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst

A major rock star from San Francisco is accused of murdering his girlfriend. It’s a uniquely told story that’s worth reading and re-reading.

Everything I Never Told You (nook book)

Everything I Never Told You: A Novel by Celeste Ng

A Chinese-American girl tries to find out how and why her older sister died. There’s both more and less here than meets the eye.

Five Days Left (kindle edition)

Five Days Left: A Novel by Julie Lawson Timmer

A woman intends to kill herself on her next birthday, which is five days away. “I sat down with this book after dinner, and when I looked up, it was 2 a.m. and I had turned the last page.” Jacquelyn Mitchard

Junot Diaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: A Novel by Junot Diaz

Wao is a strange yet wonderful novel that’s sad, funny, touching and sometimes aggravating. Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize for this work. “Diaz establishes himself as one of contemporary fiction’s most distinctive and irresistible voices.” Michiko Kakutani

The Poetry Cafe

The Poetry Cafe: Poems by John Newlin

“Poems are like cafes along a street/intimate places where friends ever meet…” Contemporary poems about the life of a poet, and the good and bad things in life.

Alex Haley's Roots

Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey by Adam Henig

This is a valuable introduction to Alex Haley and the 1977 Roots phenomenon, for those too young to have experienced it.

Life and Life Only

Life and Life Only: A Novel by Dave Moyer

Life and Life Only is a story of baseball, love and Bob Dylan. Who could ask for more?

Songs Only You Know

33 Days

Songs Only You Know: A Memoir by Sean Madigan Hoen

33 Days: Touring In A Van. Sleeping On Floors. Chasing A Dream. (A Memoir) by Bill See

Two true tales of bands on the run, living the rock and roll life. Hoen is a surprisingly skilled writer, but See’s story will stick with the reader.

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On the Border

The Madonnas of Echo Park: A Novel by Brando Skyhorse (Free Press, $14.00, 240 pages)

“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 who was Mexican.   Since that time the author, who has worked as an editor in the publishing industry, has learned that he is in fact 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 of 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 hotel maids, and 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 (Hospital) and MacArthur Park are Latino; some Mexicano, 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 curiosity 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 will 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 rachet-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.   “There was a time when the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park was known for silent films — not for drive-by shootings.”   NPR

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Live Dead

The Grateful Dead in Concert: Essays on Improvisation (edited by Jim Tuedio and Stan Spector; McFarland, $35.00, 355 pages)

“Where I enjoyed the music, the audience was immersed in it; they were tuned to the slightest nuances coming from the stage.”   Cristian Amigo

The Grateful Dead in Concert is a non-essential but fun collection of essays about the Dead’s live improvisation, and other things related to the band in its heyday.   This reviewer sees it as non-essential because the notion of writing academic essays on the Dead’s intentionally sloppy musicianship is a little silly.   A comparable book would discuss the classical elements and phrases in the music of Bruce Springsteen.   And does anyone really need a list of the seven Requirements for Strategic Improvisation? 

But there’s some great writing in here, such as the article by Cristian Amigo that calls to mind Junot Diaz; Rebecca Adams’ essay on seeing the Dead play live for the first time; and Joan Millay’s wild and wooly tale of sharing drugs with the band members.   The latter will take Boomers back to the time when they read magazines like Cream, Ramparts, and the then-rebellious Rolling Stone.

This might make a nice gift for an egghead that’s been a closet Dead Head.   Just warn the recipient not to take it too seriously.   As musician Wynton Marsalis said about jazz, “Anyone can improvise, but any improvisation is not jazz.”   Writing about music is not music.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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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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Love in the 21st Century

Love Is a Four Letter Word: True Stories of Breakups, Bad Relationships and Broken Hearts

Let me be perfectly clear about this.   I’m generally not a fan of collections of stories, either true or non-fiction.   Why?   Because the quality level of the writing tends to vary so much in most anthologies to the point where it feels like volunteering to take a ride down a long and bumpy road.   But my instincts told me that this collection of 23 “true stories of seduction, heartbreak and regret” would be the exception.   For me, it was.

Credit must go to editor Michael Taeckens for finding some very talented American writers, of which he is one.   Perhaps I should say equally talented, because it’s almost as if editor Taeckens has applied the writing equivalent of a sound limiter…   Everything here comes off in an ear-and-mind-pleasing mid-range tone.

As for the stories themselves, they separate into two general categories:  the extremely humorous ones in which the writers have accepted the follies and embarrassments of their youth, and the sad and regretful ones in which the writers are still not quite sure who was at fault in their doomed love affairs and relationships.   (The latter, when looking back, are not even sure why they fought so hard with their ex-partners.)

Such is, in the words of Glenn Frey, love in the 21st Century.   As it is, this reader raced so quickly through the 290 pages in Love… that just one question remains.   When is Michael Taeckens editing his next compilation of stories and when, exactly, can I pre-order it?

Joseph Arellano

Thanks to Alexandra at Plume for the review copy!

Note:   There is some adult content in this collection, but nothing that one hasn’t either seen or heard about before.Love is a Four Letter Word (lg.)

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