Tag Archives: penitence

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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True Colors

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman (Spiegel & Grau)

“Cancel my subscription to the resurrection/ Send my credentials to the house of detention/ I got some friends inside.”   The Doors (“When the Music’s Over”)

“This was the penitence that sometimes happens in the penitentiary.”   Piper Kerman

Orange is the New Black is the primarily angry, but eventually calming memoir from Piper Kerman, a young woman who was locked up for more than a year in the Danbury federal correctional facility.   Her case is somewhat unique not only because she is white and raised middle-class (a graduate of Smith College) but because she had a decade-long wait between her arrest on drug charges and her incarceration.   Kerman had ten years to wonder whether she was going to be behind the bars in a so-called Club Fed or a type of nightmarish facility where her personal safety would be at risk among hardcore offenders.

When Kernan is sentenced to serve her relatively short 15 months term in Danbury, she has found a boyfriend/prospective husband in New York City, and is leading a stable life.   Being forced to leave this behind results in this true story that begins with a lot of hostility expressed in words that begin with “f” and “s”; they appear on about every other page.   This reviewer was surprised that an editor had not elected to remove the terms which became repetitive and annoying.

Early on, Kerman also expresses anger at the federal prosecutors who tried one of her fellow inmates:  “I wondered what U.S. attorney was enjoying that particular notch in his or her belt.”   This appears to be the opposite of blaming the victim.   Instead of blaming herself or her fellow inmates for their crimes, Kerman attempts to label the criminal justice system’s officials as evil.   It just does not work.   As they say, if you can’t do the time then don’t do the crime.

After some months are spent at Danbury, Kerman comes to find that she has a second family among the group of women she encounters and resides with.   This results in her continuing her memoir in a calmer voice…   We can literally feel the calmness and acceptance that attaches to her story.   This is when she talks of penitence and accepting the harm she has caused to her future husband and family members and friends.   It is also when she sees that she has true friends who stick by her when the going gets tough.

Kerman begins to so highly value her fellow inmates that when any one of them is released, it becomes more a time of sorrow and regret than elation.   This reminds the reviewer of another flaw with the editing of Orange.   Each time that Kerman writes of the departure of another inmate, the reader is told that the departing inmate’s prison affects will be distributed to those left behind.   This point is raised too many times, although we understand that Kerman looks forward to giving away her own prison garbs and possessions when she leaves.

In the end, a painful tale of incarceration winds up as a positive story of self-acceptance.   Kerman cannot change what she did as a reckless youth – one without the best of judgement – seeking excitement.   But in prison she comes to see that she can and will value her life from this point forward.   Upon her release, she runs toward the future, “No one can stop me.”

The journey that Piper Kerman takes the reader on in this memoir is at times a rocky one on a winding road, but the destination makes the journey worthwhile.   Well done.

Recommended.

A pre-release review copy was provided by the publisher.

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