Tag Archives: southern California

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.

brooklyn theater boyle heights

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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Secret

Anna Blanc

The Secret Life of Anna Blanc: A Mystery by Jennifer Kincheloe (Seventh Street Books, $15.95, 367 pages)

Sweat beaded on Wolf’s brow as he led Anna among the desks to meet the man in charge. His lips stretched in a tense smile, his skin a little paler than before he had hired Anna. “Captain Wells, may I present Mrs. Anna Holmes, our lovely new assistant matron. She types, speaks Spanish, but most importantly, she’s nervy. I say that’s a vital quality for a matron who will be venturing into unsavory territory.”

Fans of the history of southern California will find this remarkably charming mystery an accurate period piece. The opening chapters of The Secret Life of Anna Blanc offer a well-described glimpse into the life of Miss Blanc. Anna is the only daughter of Christopher Blanc, a wealthy banker and business leader in Los Angeles. Mr. Blanc treats Anna as though she were an asset/possession. Who she marries means more to him than does her happiness.

The time is 1907 and the locales for the tale include Riverside and both the wealthy and shabby areas of Los Angeles. The action begins when Anna has eloped from her father’s Bunker Hill mansion with Louis Taylor. They hop onto a train bound for the historic Mission Inn located in downtown Riverside where they plan to marry in the chapel. Due to the strictness of her Catholic upbringing, Anna has never actually touched a man without wearing gloves. The exception is her father. As she and Louis sit in a third class rail car rolling toward their destination, the action speeds up and one thing leads to another.

Jennifer Kincheloe

Author Jennifer Kincheloe infuses Anna with equal measures of spunk and cleverness. Our heroine longs to be a lady detective just like the ones she reads about in the contraband books she hides by using the covers of books that meet her father’s approval. Fate throws Anna into a controversial encounter with the Los Angeles Police Department. This encounter leads to the opportunity she has been dreaming about. Trickery and abundant guts are all Anna needs to launch her career!

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The novel is way too well written to give away any more than the barest of plot details. It’s rare that a thrilling mystery is also a laugh out loud read.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

“Fast, funny, and fabulous. You’re going to love this book!” Lori Rader-Day, author of Pretty Little Things. “A madcap frolic through turn-of-the-century Los Angeles, Jennifer Kincheloe’s debut mystery is an addictive read.” James W. Ziskin, author of Stone Cold Dead.

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Book Lovers

My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop, edited by Ronald Rice (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, $23.95, 384 pages)

My Bookstore (313x475)

In My Bookstore, edited by Ronald Rice, numerous authors pay tribute to their favored bookstores, which are usually, but not always, the ones located near their homes. Eighty-one bookstores are examined, including three of the best, essential bookstores — Powell’s Books of Portland, Vroman’s Bookstore of Pasadena, and the University Book Store in Seattle (across from the University of Washington). Chuck Palahnuik explains that the city-block sized Powell’s is divided into color-coded rooms and “…each of these rooms is the size of most independent bookstores.”

Californians will be pleased to see that ten of the state’s bookstores, including two in San Francisco, are lovingly described here. (But San Franciscans will be shocked to find that both City Lights Books and Dog Eared Books are excluded.) Only 3 of these “favorite places to browse, read, and shop” happen to be in southern California. The underlying message of these accounts is that one-on-one service counts. These private businesses have thrived and survived the onslaughts of Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and now-departed mega-chains.

This collection of essays will no doubt cause some to visit bookstores that they were previously unaware of. And perhaps at some point Mr. Rice will ask book reviewers to write about their favorite places, and this reader will shed a light on Orinda Books and Lyon Books of Chico.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Note: City Lights Books is located at 261 Columbus Avenue at Broadway in San Francisco. Dog Eared Books is located at 900 Valencia Street in the Mission District of The City. Both are worth paying a visit to.

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Midnight Confessions

The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Best-Kept Secret by Kent Hartman (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 292 pages)

Carol Kaye is the female bass player/musician who came up with and played the opening notes on “The Beat Goes On” (Sonny and Cher), “These Boots Were Made for Walkin'” (Nancy Sinatra) and “Midnight Confessions” (The Grass Roots).   She also came up with the opening notes for Glen Campbell’s first hit, “Wichita Lineman.”   These are the kinds of unique, Behind the Music-style, facts cited in The Wrecking Crew, a book whose second subtitle is, “The unknown studio musicians who recorded the soundtrack of a generation.”

Kent Hartman writes about most of the hit songs recorded between 1962 and 1975, starting with “The Lonely Bull” (Herb Alpert) and ending with “Love Will Keep Us Together” (Captain and Tennille).   Special attention is paid to 19 specific songs, and if one or more of these happens to be a favorite of yours, you’ll want to read Hartman’s account to find out how the song(s) were written and recorded.   Here’s the list (I’m eliminating the quote marks here for the purpose of clarity):  California Dreamin’; Limbo Rock; He’s a Rebel; The Little Old Lady (from Pasadena); What’d I Say; I Got You, Babe; Mr. Tambourine Man; River Deep, Mountain High; Eve of Destruction; Strangers in the Night; Good Vibrations; Let’s Live for Today; Up, Up and Away; Classical Gas; Wichita Lineman; MacArthur Park; Bridge Over Troubled Water; (They Long to Be) Close to You; and Love Will Keep Us Together.

Back in the day when these songs were first released, not too many radio listeners and record buyers realized that the Mamas and the Papas, The Byrds, Jan and Dean, The Beach Boys, The Grass Roots, The Monkees and others were not playing the instruments on their songs.   A group of select musicians, informally known as The Wrecking Crew, recorded the music in Los Angeles studios while the “performers” played the songs on stage when they toured.   It was generally a “win-win” situation for both the high-paid touring musicians and the highly paid studio musicians, and it allowed Brian Wilson to create and record on his own while the official members of the band that he created were off touring.

To his credit, Hartman does cover the occasional conflicts that arose, especially among the musicians – such as Creed Bratton of The Grass Roots and Mike Clarke of The Byrds – who felt insulted by not being permitted to play on their band’s “own” recordings.   Most of the musicians who couldn’t handle the public fame but private shame were shown the door; one exception being the four members of The Monkees, who eventually gained enough power to overrule their managers and record their own songs.The Wrecking Crew (nook book)

MacArthur Park is melting in the dark, all the sweet green icing flowing down…  Someone left the cake out in the rain, and I don’t think that I can take it, ’cause it took so long to bake it, and I’ll never have that recipe again.   (J. Webb)

The stories of how some of these songs came to be written are perhaps even more engaging and intriguing than the tales of how they were recorded.   And likely the most interesting of all the composition stories is that behind the song “MacArthur Park” and the song suite by Jimmy Webb that eventually became the best-selling album A Tramp Shining by Richard Harris.   It turns out that Webb was quite gun-shy about offering the suite to anyone after it was soundly rejected by the soft-rock group, The Association.   The story of how Harris came to hear what he was to sing as “MacArthur’s Park” is almost worth the price of admission itself.

MacArthur Park

One caveat about The Wrecking Crew is that Carol Kaye has some personal objections to the book which she has expressed on Amazon.   (I won’t attempt to summarize her concerns here.)   Still, this is a worthwhile read for music fans, musicians and future composers.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Wrecking Crew is also available as a Nook Book and Kindle Edition e-book, and as an unabridged audiobook.

Note:  The personal story of the musician Glen Campbell (pictured on the cover of The Wrecking Crew) is covered in some detail in this book.   Campbell was a member of The Wrecking Crew for several years, as well as a member of The Beach Boys touring band.   Interestingly, he went on to record a relatively successful cover version of “MacArthur Park.”

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Waitin’ On A Sunny Day

Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin (Touchstone, $28.00, 494 pages)

I was living in Los Angeles in the winter of 1975 when a live concert by a then-unknown East Coast band was stereo-cast late one evening by a Metromedia FM radio station.   The group, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, was playing at the Roxy Theatre and for all of Southern California.   The performance began with a song called “Thunder Road,” and the band proceeded to play all of the songs that we would soon come to know as the Born to Run album.   (I saw Springsteen and the E Street Band when they hit San Francisco the following year.)

Fans of Springsteen know that despite all of their digging, not much is known about his personal life.   Peter Ames Carlin, author of the well recommended Paul McCartney: A Life, and of Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boy’s Brian Wilson, attempts to remedy this in Bruce.   Carlin draws upon numerous interviews to flesh out a picture of a real human being behind the rock legend.

Some will be surprised to see how vulnerable Springsteen is.   He’s a man who often worries about what others think of him, one who has been unsuccessful in numerous personal relationships, one who has experienced a high level of depression and relied upon years of professional counseling, and one who has often sought a geographical solution to his problems (moving from East Coast to West Coast and back, to the South and back to the West before settling back down in New Jersey).   The mature Springsteen is now a family man, with a wife, son and daughter, who has repeatedly stuck his neck out for social causes and for political candidates – notably supporting Barack Obama in the 2008 and 2012 presidential races.

Carlin has an insider’s ear for music and provides a quite satisfying amount of information about Springsteen’s recording sessions over several decades; some of the insights may cause readers to purchase albums or revisit the ones they already own.   Carlin’s best, detailed work comes in reviewing how The Rising album – a work of healing and redemption if there ever was one – was recorded after 9/11.   His analysis is excellent except for the fact that it fails to mention the very best song on the album, “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day.”   (How did that happen?)

“(Springsteen is) an artist fixated on the intimate stories of ordinary folks whose labors make wealthier mens’ dreams come true…”

Bruce provides the insight that Springsteen has crafted his albums in the same manner in which a movie producer crafts a film.   Each album is intended to represent a story, generally about the people left behind in an otherwise prosperous society.   It’s no wonder that Springsteen’s most recent release pleaded for us to take care of our own.

This story of a performer and his unique band of brothers is more satisfying than most musician bios and it makes for a fast read despite its length.   It is, however, likely to have a short shelf life as the “definitive” biography – to quote Publishers Weekly – of The Boss.   As with bios of Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Mick Jagger and other rock notables, there’s certainly more to come

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

“There are many things I could and should be doing right now, but I am not…  I am reading and rereading this book.   Why did you do this to me?”   Jon Stewart to Peter Ames Carlin  

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Tequila Sunrise

Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America by Gustavo Arellano (Scribner, $25.00, 320 pages)

“Americans: unite under Mexican food, just like your ancestors, just like your descendants!   It doesn’t matter your dish choice: it’ll sometimes be derided, sometimes mysterious, oftentimes scorching, and not always good, but always, always eaten.   A lot.”

I can guarantee you one thing about this Mexican food survey book by the finely-named Gustavo Arellano.   Read it and you will feel…  hungry!   Of course, it’s probably politically and factually correct to say that this account is about Mexican-American food, although Arellano does often clarify which foods had their creation in Mexico – before being adopted north of the border – versus those foods that are known as Mexican but are purely American/Mexican-American creations.

A trip through the table of contents shows the order in which the food topics are discussed.   They are: the burrito, tacos, enchiladas, Mexican cookbooks written by Anglos, the late Southwestern cuisine, the virtually doomed and much-attacked world of Tex-Mex food, Mexicans cooking food for other Mexicans (really?), the arrival of Mexican food in our supermarkets, the tortilla, salsa and tequila.   There’s also a bonus chapter on the five greatest Mexican meals served in the U.S.; at least it’s one man’s humble listing of the meals that are “just bueno.

“Mexican food had arrived to wow customers, to save them from a bland life, as it did for their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents.   Again.   Like last time – and the time before that.”

The author has great fun in praising the heroes of the Mexican-American food movement (or revolution, if you prefer), such as Larry Cano who developed the El Torito chain of restaurants.   He even praises Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle Mexican Grill (the second-largest Mexican food chain in the U.S.), and Glenn Bell, the founder of the ubiquitous Taco Bell food stops.   If you’ve ever wondered where Bell got the recipes for his tacos, the answer is found in Taco USA – and it happens to be a hole-in-the-wall taco shop in San Bernardino, California.

On the flip side, Gustavo names names when it comes to finding villains.   Two of them are Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy who have repeatedly called out for “authentic” Mexican food while allegedly – by Gustavo’s account and others – being somewhat less than authentic themselves.   And then there’s Tex-Mex:

“Tex-Mex.   Tex-Mex.   A hyphen separates two cultures that faced off in blood but are forever linked around the world.   Each exists on its own, each is fine separate from the other, but together the phrase now conjures up something almost universal:  culinary disgust.”

On this, we shall leave the details up to the reader – and an opinion on this much-appreciated or highly-despised cuisine.

What Arellano does quite well is to present us with the scope of the popularity of Mexican food in this country.   For example, you may have heard that more salsa is sold than ketchup, but were you aware that the sale of tortillas is now an $8 billion a year industry?   It’s mind-boggling, and thanks to Taco USA the facts are now literally on the dining table.

“Is the (Sonora) hot dog truly Mexican?   Who cares?   In Tucson, the birthplace of Linda Ronstadt, Americans became Mexicans long ago; it’s now the rest of the country that’s finally catching up.”

Yes, Gustavo’s listing of the five best Mexican meals in the U.S. includes the bean-wrapped Sonora hot dog that’s served only at El Guerro Canelo in Tucson, Arizona.   And while it’s not a bad list (which includes stops in Oklahoma, Arizona, Southern California, Texas, and Colorado), I think he missed one place that I’ll gladly take him to the next time he’s in the Capitol City of California – which is Emma’s Taco House in West Sacramento.   It’s been in business at the same location since 1953, and there’s a reason why this is true.   It is one of the most muy bueno taco houses in all of Taco USA!   And as the fans of Emma’s like to say, if you don’t like “real” Mexican food, there’s a Taco Bell right down the street!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Taco USA is available as a Nook Book or Kindle Edition download.   Gustavo Arellano is also the author of Ask a Mexican! and Orange County: A Personal History.

Note:   Gustavo would and does argue in Taco USA that ALL Mexican/Mexican-American food is “real” and “authentic”; probably as real as “Chicken Nuggets” from McDonald’s. (Which part of the chicken does the nugget come from?)

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I Feel the Earth Move

Fault Lines: A Novel by Anne Rivers Siddons (William Morrow, $12.99, 352 pages)

In all the world I had never seen anything so strangely inhumanly beautiful.   In this place, man would soon seem simply extraneous.   I shivered.   I did not think I would feel welcome for long in this world where the very earth spasmed and the great trees would not acknowledge my presence.

Between finishing college and starting graduate school, I was lucky enough to have a summer job that involved taking young people camping in the Santa Cruz Mountains in northern California.   This is a unique area – a special place – filled with ancient redwoods and wild animals, including bears, and being there is an other-worldly experience.   If you can’t take a trip there, you may wish to read Fault Lines, which permits the reader to experience the place via the eyes of a Southerner making her first trip to California; and, for good measure, Siddons throws in visits to Los Angeles and San Francisco in this novel about a woman whose life is shaken up – a woman who experiences “an earthquake in the soul.”

Merritt Fowler is a proper Atlanta housewife, married to a succesful physician named Pom, and mother to Glynn, her sensitive sixteen-year-old daughter.   For years she also served as a pseudo-mother to her younger sister Laura, an actress who fled to southern California after finding it impossible to live in the household of the stern doctor Fowler.   Pom turns out to be one of those good men (he provides free health care to the poor of Atlanta) who practices good deeds everywhere except in his own home.   He’s also unable to face reality when his mother – whom he insists be referred to as Mommee – is afflicted by Alzheimer’s and her actions become literally life-threatening.   When Glynn insists that Mommee be placed in a residential care facility, Pom becomes so hostile toward his daughter that Glynn runs away to join her aunt Laura in Palm Springs.

Merritt has been the responsible and forgiving one her entire life, but this single incident permits her to see that her husband has become (in the words of Jackson Browne) a “perfect fool”   She stands up to Pom for the first time, and elects to go and find her daughter and bring her back home.   Once she gets to California, she sees that both Glynn and Laura are different people there than they were in Georgia…  and the environment begins to also take hold of her actions, and of her very being.

In California, Merritt – who is said to resemble the late actress Kay Kendall – realizes that she and her sister and daughter are all viewed as great beauties, even in a city (Los Angeles) filled with actresses.   And she begins to become fascinated with the notion of earthquakes, especially after experiencing her first one.   She’s unaware that the big earthquake, in her personal life, is soon to hit.

Oh, it was such a day, it really was.   A pinnacle day, a ball bearing on which a life turns.

While this novel starts slowly, filled with dialogue that initially seems to be both clumsy and awkward (I had an image of actors practicing their lines off-screen – never able to get them right), the reader’s patience is rewarded with an engaging story that warms up to the point where you don’t want to put the book down.   If Merritt begins as a cardboard figure, she soon turns into a person alive as you or me…  Merritt’s a person – a mature person – who is still trying to find her place in the world.   She’s lost herself in the air somewhere between Atlanta and LAX, and now she has to decide if she’s the Merritt of Old Atlanta or the Merritt of the New West.   The way in which she finds herself will surprise you.

Highly recommended.   Siddons is a writer who wisely pulls her punches before delivering a knockout blow.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “A literary meteor shower…  One great read.”   Detroit News/Free Press

Note: There is one glaring error in the novel.   The college in Santa Cruz is called USC Santa Cruz on page 274, when it is actually the University of California, Santa Cruz (UC, Santa Cruz or UCSC).

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