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Film Review: ‘Roma’ is a Great Movie

roma 2Realism.  This is the word that summarizes why the film Roma is so great.  It perfectly reflects the realism of Mexico’s class system.  The indigenous people are at the bottom of the society, while light-skinned people who associate themselves with Europeans rule the land.

I well remember the servants I saw in Mexico.  They were from the lower rungs of the ladder.  One of my relatives was extremely poor and barely had the funds to survive.  But somehow she always found some change in her purse.  It was enough to hire neighboring ladies to do some house work; washing dishes or laundering or ironing clothes.  The ladies would be extremely grateful as the change they earned might provide their family with food for a day.

Roma shows prosperous Americans what the life of an indigenous maid in Mexico is like.  It also displays the role of politics in every Mexican’s life and how they react to and handle the current political situation.  And, sometimes disturbingly, it shows the violence in the country that is never displayed on U.S. news programs.

In one situation, Roma shows how everyone helps in an emergency.  The point is well made that we are all dependent upon each other as human beings, regardless of social status.

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Roma is surprisingly good.  I believe it has a solid chance to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.  If it does it will break the glass ceiling in unique fashion and serve as a meaningful tribute to the lives of proud, striving and hardworking people.

Highly recommended.

Alejandro Reyes

Alejandro Reyes is a former production line supervisor for Procter and Gamble.  Educated in Stockton, California, he is enjoying retirement in sunny southern California.

 

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Strange Days

Northwest Corner: A Novel by John Burnham Schwartz (Random House, $26.00, 285 pages)

“The promises they made to each other were hastily scribbled IOUs…”

“Too bad, isn’t it, how the things that one has so long prayed for never do happen the way one wants them to, and never without a price.”

If you loved the novel, or the film version of, Reservation Road the good news is that Northwest Corner revisits the original characters approximately twelve years later.   The bad news is that, well, there’s a lot of it…

Reservation Road was a tale of psychological suspense, and Schwartz’s strength was in building and maintaining that suspense.   In Reservation Road and The Commoner, Schwartz insisted that the reader be patient, promising that the effort would be paid in full at the end of these novels.   There was a sense of quiet determination in the earlier novels, tales that were populated with good people experiencing bad things.

All of this has changed with Northwest Corner, which starts off as too loud and too busy.   I got the impression that Schwartz had written this having in mind someone at an airport shop, thirteen or fourteen months from now, who picks up the trade paperback version and wants to be sure there’s enough action in it to fill a flight from the west coast to Atlanta.   As it begins, this latest work has too much anger, too much violence, too many sexual scenes (that seem to fall from the sky without context), and is filled with too many unlikable individuals.

The latter is a key point.   In Reservation Road, we focused on the innocent Learner family whose young son is killed in a tragic accident.   We observe the Learner’s lives fall apart, as college professor Ethan seeks to get revenge from the man called Dwight – the man who ran over his son.   Unfortunately, Ethan early on disappears from the story in Northwest Corner, so the story instead focuses on Dwight, the former attorney who has divorced his wife and moved to Santa Barbara.   (Dwight now works in a sporting goods store as a clerk.   How he can afford to live in Santa Barbara, as an ex-convict, is never explained.)

This tale is about Dwight, his college baseball playing son who almost kills a man – and who, like his father before  him, seeks to run from the consequences of his actions – Dwight’s weak and ill former spouse, and his new girlfriend who plays too much tennis and teaches at UCSB.   Again, not one of these characters is one we can identify with, which makes the 285 pages of the read seem much more than that.   The truth is, the typical reader will  not care what happens to these characters, as they all seem to view life as some type of evil trap that’s enveloped them without cause or reason.

“The place called home is the one place you can drive into at night after a lifetime away, with no light to see by, and still know exactly where you are.”

John Burnham Schwartz’s first two novels felt, to this reader, like home.   This one, sadly, felt like a trip to a strange place filled with ugly and dangerous people.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Northwest Corner will be released on July 26, 2011.

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Win The Piano Player

On May 27, 2011 on this site we reviewed The Upright Piano Player: A Novel by David Abbott (“Lonely Days”) and we concluded that it is highly recommended.   Now, thanks to Doubleday, we’re offering you a chance to win one of two (2) copies of Piano Player, which has a value of $22.95.Here is the official synopsis of this book:

Henry Cage seems to have it all: a successful career, money, a beautiful home, and a reputation for being a just and principled man.   But public virtues can conceal private failings, and as Henry faces retirement, his well-ordered life begins to unravel.   His ex-wife is ill, his relationship with his son is strained to point of estrangement, and on the eve of the new millennium he is the victim of a random violent act which soon escalates into prolonged harassment.

As his ex-wife’s illness becomes grave, it is apparent that there is little time to redress the mistakes of the past.   But the man stalking Henry remains at large.   Who is doing this?   And why?   David Abbott brilliantly pulls this thread of tension ever tighter until the surprising and emotionally impactful conclusion.   The Upright Piano Player is a wise and acutely observed novel about the myriad ways in which life tests us – no matter how carefully we have constructed our own little fortresses.

And in a review in The Huffington Post (“Upright Piano Player is gracefully constructed”), Michelle Wiener called this: “(A) quietly devastating debut novel…  It moves slowly and deliberately in delicate prose, gracefully and wholly consuming.”

In order to enter this giveaway, just post a comment below with your name and e-mail address, or send an e-mail message with the heading Piano Player to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   For a second entry, tell us when you encountered a test in your life (literal or otherwise) and how you got past it.  

In order to be eligible to enter this contest, you must live in the continental U.S. or in Canada, and be able to supply a residential address if you’re contacted as a winner.   Books will not be shipped to a P. O. box or to a business-related address.   You have until 12:00 Midnight PST on Tuesday, July 19, 2011 to submit your entry or entries.   The winners names will be drawn at random on July 20th, and those contacted by e-mail will have 72 hours within which to supply their residential mailing addresses. 

This is it for the complex contest rules.   Good luck and good reading!

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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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Lonely Days

The Upright Piano Player: A Novel by David Abbott (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $22.95, 264 pages)

“In the old days he would inspire them, lift their spirits, and send them back to their desks with renewed energy and enthusiasm.   Now he simply wanted to say goodbye and slip away.”

Henry Cage is a man who has earned the right to enjoy a quiet life.   At least it appears this way before his life turns into a series of explosions.   Cage, the founder of a highly successful international advertising firm based in London, is suddenly forced into retirement in November of 1999 – outfoxed by a legion of new, young and restless (rudely ambitious) partners who cannot wait for him to ride off into the sunset.

Henry Cage is barely out the door of the advertising firm when he learns that his ex-wife, Nessa, is gravely ill.   Nessa lives in Florida.   She does not have much time left and would like to see Henry.   Henry very much loved Nessa until she had a well-publicized affair with an actor, something that brought shame and ridicule to Henry once it was mentioned in London’s daily papers.   Although decades have passed, Henry’s not sure that he’s forgiven Nessa and he certainly has no desire to revisit past events.

And then there’s an angry young man out there on the streets of the city, a failure in life – a man with a broken arm (broken like his future) – who seeks to take his anger out on a symbol of success.   By chance, this man happens to pick Henry as the person whose life he will make miserable…  So miserable does he make Henry that it appears a confrontation between the two is inevitable; it’s likely to be a confrontation so dramatic that only one of them will survive.

The reader also learns, through a non-chronological device, that Henry will have even more to deal with – the loss of the one thing that he sees as irreplaceable.   This is a morality tale about good versus evil, hope versus surrender, and love versus despair.   You’ll want to root for Henry to survive as he’s a representation of us all as we battle the unexpected (and often undeserved) events in our lives.

If you’ve read and loved the novels of Catherine O’Flynn (What Was Lost, The News Where You Are), you will no doubt also love this work.   Like O’Flynn, Abbott writes in a quiet, reserved English voice.   Although you may rush through it, the impression is given that the writer had all of the time in the world to construct the tale – there is never a sense of modern-day impatience.

Abbot’s ability to capture and make meaningful the small details in life calls to mind John Burnham Schwartz (Reservation Road, The Commoner), whose novels are always engaging.   Further, there’s a tragedy in Piano Player that mirrors something that happened in Reservation Road.

David Abbott, whose real life just happened to be a lot like the life of Henry Cage, has fashioned a wonderful debut novel.   I certainly look forward to reading his next story.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   The Upright Piano Player will be released on June 7, 2011.

“David Abbott’s The Upright Piano Player is a wise and moving debut, an accomplished novel of quiet depths and resonant shadows.”   John Burnham Schwartz

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What Is Life

The Stormchasers: A Novel by Jenna Blum (Plume; $15.00; 369 pages)

“…while they are crossing the grass their movement startles a flock of birds in the vacant lot next to the motel, and she stops to watch them rise as one and circle the sky.   It seems an omen of something.   Karena just doesn’t know what.”

With The Stormchasers, Jenna Blum has delivered a stunning and magical story about the price of family.   Karena Jorge is a twin whose brother Charles suffers from bipolar disorder.   The condition causes Charles to act out in ways, both verbal and physical, that are harmful to both himself and those around him.   It seems that medications don’t work to alleviate his symptoms, they simply replace his anxieties with new physical maladies.   The only thing that appears to help the erratic, high-IQ Charles calm down is to move around the center of the U.S. chasing active storms.

“Charles is, after all, a genius…  But trying to make sense of what he’s saying now is like hearing a piece of music with one wrong note played over and over…”

We join the Jorges in 1988, as Karena is about to depart for college and experience a respite from being her brother’s keeper.   But then Charles disappears and Karena is aware that at some point she will need to do her best to find him.   It takes her 20 years, 1 month and 6 days to do so, and only when she has assumed the identity of a reporter writing a story on stormchasers.   This is not, however, the point at which the story ends, it is, rather, where it actually begins…

The Charles of 2008 is a very troubled character – in fact, he’s mentally disturbed, if not fully insane.   Karena believes, to her dismay, that she loves her brother more than she will ever love anyone who will enter her life.   This means that she will either destroy her own life as his caretaker, or let Charles – who is jealous of anyone receiving Karena’s attentions – do it for her.   There seems to be no way out until, incredibly, the recklessness of the Jorges places them in trouble with the law.   It’s then that both Karena and Charles must locate their moral centers and the path to a better life.

“…sometimes when you throw yourself upon the world, it will hold you up.”

Jenna Blum does a masterful job of instructing the reader on the beauty of storms created by nature:  “She never would have known about this wild and violent beauty, (had she) not experienced it firsthand.   She stands in the road, watching, for a long, long time.”   By analogy, she teaches us that the storms in our lives must sometimes be approached directly – literally finding the eye of the storm – rather than avoided.   For, once an active storm breaks, we’re gifted with a new ability to appreciate the quiet serenity of life.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.


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Tragedy

Every Last One by Anna Quindlen (Random House; $15.00; 352 pages)

“Most of our fears are petty and small…  Only our love is monumental.”

In Every Last One, author Anna Quindlen gives us a monumental – yet quietly reserved – look at the life of a typical American family, before and after the family is rocked by an unimaginable tragedy.   This is the story of Mary Beth Latham, a basically stay-at-home mom who operates a landscaping business; her ophthalmologist husband, Glen; daughter Ruby; and her fraternal twin sons, Max and Alex.   Although we observe their lives through Mary Beth’s eyes, we come to know Ruby the best.   She’s a senior in high school who is about to leave the nest for a yet-to-be determined college.

Mary Beth at one point ponders whether it is a woman’s role to persevere after everyone she loves has left her.   But she thinks about this at a time when everyone she loves remains close to her.   This is when she’s the woman who worries about the smallest of concerns, when her life goes on as normal.   But normal is not lasting…

Daughter Ruby has known her friend Kiernan since childhood, and he becomes obsessed with her and all of the Lathams.   Kiernan comes to become less of a boyfriend to Ruby than a stalker, and someone who uses any excuse to keep company with the Latham family.   Ruby realizes that she’s going to have to reject Kiernan soon – and before she departs for her future life.

When tragedy strikes Mary Beth must become a survivor.   Everyone around her fails at offering comfort; instead, they impose their expectations on her as to how they believe she should act.   The people she worked so hard to please, to impress, to be close to all let her down.

Eventually Mary Beth comes to see – as we all must – that she cannot live her life in a manner that pleases others.   She simply must continue, even if the reasons for doing so are not clear.

“It’s all I know how to do.   This is my life.   I am trying.”

It is impossible to describe the nature of the calamity that Mary Beth experiences without betraying the story, and this summary does not disclose it.   Suffice it to say that when it occurs the reader will think the narrative is over.   In the hands of a less skilled writer it would be.   But Quindlen is at her best in writing the tale of a woman who is strong when the world believes she has been stripped of her heart and her soul.

“The silence is as big as the sky…”

Author Quindlen teaches the reader that life is not predictable, that one must be prepared to start over at any time.   It is, after all, the nature of every life.   Life, for better or worse, every year, month, day, and each and every minute.   It is all to be treasured, and readers may come to justifiably treasure this impressive work from the subtly gifted mind and pen of Anna Quindlen.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Every Last One will be released in trade paperback form on Tuesday, March 22, 2011.

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