*****Lola

Bodega, Los Angeles

photo: Alissa Walker, creative commons license

By Melissa Scrivner Love – Lola, the energetic protagonist of this Los Angeles-based crime thriller, is an eminently likeable young woman, flirting with death at the hands of rival drug operatives and flouting the legal establishment.

Lola lives with Garcia, the supposed leader of the Crenshaw Six, a four-person gang in their Huntington Park barrio. In the book’s opening scene, a backyard barbecue Garcia is hosting is visited by El Coleccionista, an emissary from Mexico’s Los Liones drug cartel. When you see how intent Lola is on monitoring the conversation between the two men, you understand she is much more than Garcia’s girlfriend. Lola battles throughout the book with the desire to be known and respected for her fearlessness and strategic acumen and the need to remain invisible for safety’s sake.

One of the gang members is Lola’s younger brother Hector, which poses particular challenges for her leadership, because, unfortunately, Hector keeps messing up. He fumbles a two million dollar cash-drug exchange that could lead to the gang members’ arrest or their deaths at the hands of Los Liones, their Los Angeles partners, or their mysterious and well-heeled competition. She must figure out a way that her gang can satisfy the competing—and apparently irreconcilable—demands of these multiple players, without becoming beholden to any of them.

The drug business is not a business just like any other. It has terrible downstream consequences, and you aren’t spared a glimpse of those either. Lola and Hector’s mother is a frequently relapsing addict, which has caused considerable grief in her children’s lives, a hole in Lola’s heart where maternal love should live.

Love does a persuasive job evoking the barrio flavor—its sights, sounds, and smells. This Latino neighborhood is down, way down, but not out. She expertly draws the desperation and determination of her complex characters. You become so immersed in their world that the degree of their alienation from mainstream society becomes clear only when Lola has to interact with people from outside

This debut crime thriller is exceptionally well-written, with nice literary touches. It offers strong and varied personalities, an intriguing and multi-layered setting, and believably dangerous situations. Finding such a talented new author is a delight!

A longer version of this review appeared on crimefictionlover.com.

*****The Sellout

Elephant - Sam Felder

photo: Sam Felder, creative commons license

By Paul Beatty, narrated by Prentice Onayemi – I write, knowing this review cannot do justice to this stunning satire—winner of both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award—which tackles a tricky subject: U.S. race relations and the essential absurdity of the human species. I can only urge you to read it for yourself as a journey to important places, dark and light.

Near the end of the story, Beatty’s narrator, Bonbon Me comments on a black comic who m.c.’s the Dum Dum Donuts open mic nights. He says the comedian “did more than tell jokes; he plucked out your subconscious and beat you silly with it, not until you were unrecognizable, but until you were recognizable.” Beatty has just spent 285 pages doing exactly that with his readers’ every racial attitude and carefully buried prejudice, whether toward blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, or whites.

Perhaps the only way for Americans to approach this difficult subject is with the tools Beatty wields so well: wicked perceptiveness and devastating humor. He slaps them down like a bricklayer troweling thick mortar, building his case brick by brick.

At first I thought his approach was to come at racism obliquely, like an artist using negative space, rendering everything around an object, not the object itself. Draw all the plants and trees, the shape of the dirt patch, the rocks, the pond, the lines of fencing, and every other feature surrounding an elephant and, when you’re done—voilà—out pops the pachyderm.

His descriptions of his southwest Los Angeles neighborhood, his administratively erased home town of Dickens, his father and his friends, with their intellectual floundering and frustrations as members of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, “the local think tank.” All seemed designed to produce that elephant.

We meet unforgettable characters, not least Bonbon himself: erudite, fearless, hell-bent on offending and sure to succeed. Bonbon’s father was a psychologist who subjected his son to bizarre experiments growing up, which the boy’s psyche was lucky to survive. His slave (yes) Hominy Jenkins, was a minor celebrity in his youth as a member of the Little Rascals cast; on-again girlfriend and city bus driver, Marpessa, tries to talk sense to him. And more. Much.

However, as the story proceeds, Beatty brings the hammer down. As a joke, Bonbon puts a temporary sign inside a bus that reads “Priority Seating for Whites.” When it’s inadvertently left in place, behavior on the bus becomes exemplary. People are treated with respect. Marpessa says, “Crip, Blood, or cholo, they press the Stop Request button one time and one fucking time only. You know where the kids go do their homework? Not home, not the library, but the bus. That’s how safe it is.” The sign is just the start of a Bonbon crusade. If there’s a word for “this is sooo crazy, it just might work,” Bonbon must have had that word in mind.

The book’s Prologue at the U.S. Supreme Court was a little slow for me, but when Beatty starts to roll, you are in for an amazing, hilarious, heart-breaking ride. Bonbon never breaks character. But at some point, all the comedy flips and you see it for what it is, the mask of tragedy.

It’s also a feast for people who love language. Beatty’s talent as a poet shows up in the rhythm of his prose; in multi-meaning slant rhymes, like the name of his lawyer, Hamilton Fiske; in direct rhymes, like the reference to his father’s farm, “forty acres and a fool”; and his imagery, “he was unpaid-electricity-bill dark.”

I’m sure reading this book in print would be transformative, with the advantage of being able to go back and reread and pause to reflect. Yet, Prentice Onayemi’s narration of the audio version was pitch-perfect. His Hominy addresses Bonbon as “Massa,” with just the right combination of obsequiousness and insolence; Foy Cheshire and the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals bloviate convincingly; Marpessa keeps her wits about her. You see each of them in front of you, just like you cannot avoid seeing the elephant in the middle of our collective living room.

Paul Beatty is coming to Princeton on February 8, 2017, and will appear at the Berlind Theater, 4:30 p.m., sponsored by the Lewis Center for the Arts. Open to the public. Free.

La-La Land

La La Land

Emma Stone & Ryan Gosling dancing in La-La Land

Opening scene: stalled traffic. A Los Angeles freeway at the dreaded standstill. Every car blasting a different aural vibe. What next? Road rage? Coughing fits? Valium-popping? Instead, you get the voice of one driver, smooth as honey, singing loud and clear. She climbs out of her car and starts to dance. Soon everyone is out of their cars—singing, dancing, skateboarding on the Jersey barrier. In other words, once traffic starts again, you’re in for a different kind of movie ride!

That’s a joyful suspension of disbelief moment there, true to the conventions of the movie musical. West Side Story is the only movie I’ve ever seen multiple times in the theater, each time wishing, hoping, praying that when Chino appears at the end with his gun, he’d bring along some different outcome. I recall a youthful knucklehead dismissing the film as unrealistic. Yeah, right. You either go with it you don’t. In the case of La-La Land, I did and hope you will.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle has put together a film (trailer), in which each musical number grows organically from the action on-screen. The music is more than just pleasant, with some memorable tunes.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are excellent in the leads roles and effective songsters for the style of their numbers. The dancing seems mostly theirs too. And they really sell it. Two strivers want to make it in tinseltown—he as a jazz pianist, she as an actress. Will they reach their dreams? Will their relationship survive the journey?

It may be a ride you’ve taken before, but it’s a smooth one. And, according to Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, it’s “a filmmaking trifecta—it hooks the heart, the eye, and the mind” that he says is even better when viewed the second time around.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 93%; audiences, 89%.

Born to Be Blue

Ethan Hawke, Chet Baker, Born To Be BlueEthan Hawke stars in this beautifully acted portrayal of jazz trumpeter and singer Chet Baker during his prime. Know that the film (trailer) treats the facts of Baker’s actual biography, as one reviewer said, more like a chord chart than a score and riffs from there. What is true-to-life is that Baker was an only child, born on a lonely ranch in Yale, Oklahoma, and went on to have numerous relationships with women and a long-term relationship with heroin.

Musically, he was a progenitor of West Coast Swing, but always had his eye on the New York scene, with the mantra: “Look out Dizzy, look out, Miles. There’s a little white California boy coming for you.”

An accident when Baker was 12 caused him to lose a front tooth, after which he had to re-learn to play the trumpet. That was a mere warmup to the effort he had to put in after his drug dealer pistol-whipped him and knocked out all of his front teeth, destroying his embouchure. Yet, he couldn’t stay away from heroin. He thought it made his playing better, and he was all about his music.

While Baker had a great talent for improvisation and sustaining a melodic line, he had no talent at all for being happy. After one important comeback milestone, his manager (Callum Keith Rennie) asks, “Would you try to be happy for more than ten seconds?” This line provides the ironic overlay to the choice of title for the film, one of Baker’s big hits. Hawke did the films vocals; the trumpet playing was by Canadian trumpeter Kevin Turcotte.

Written and directed by Robert Budreau, the movie has an opening scene that shows how a girl he picked up after a performance casually introduced him to heroin, and he didn’t say no. This scene turns out to be part of a movie being made about him and whether such a significant life event happened in such an offhand way, we don’t know. The insertion of black and white scenes, some of which may be from the movie (which was never finished) or from his memory, plays with the order of events, especially early in the film, an improvisational approach to history that mimics jazz music itself.

Although Baker does get clean for a several years as he is recovering his playing ability, a return to heroin remains a risk in the music business. As his parole officer says, “You go into a barber shop and sit in the chair long enough, you’re going to get a haircut.” Still, his parole officer, his girlfriend—the delectable Carmen Ejogo (playing a composite of several women)—his manager, and many musicians wanted him to succeed, including Dizzie Gillespie and Gerry Mulligan. Miles Davis, notoriously prickly, was not a fan, and we’ll get a chance to get his side of the story in the biopic with Don Cheadle, coming soon.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 86%; audiences: 84%.

*****Dodgers

police car

photo: P.V.O.A., creative commons license

By Bill Beverly – A modern crime classic in the tradition of Richard Price’s Clockers, Dodgers is the story of a youthful soldier in the south Los Angeles drug trade. East, a black 16-year-old, is a yardman for a drug house, which means he runs a team of younger boys who look out for approaching trouble, 24 hours a day.

Somehow, trouble slips past them, and when the police converge on the house, sirens shrieking, East narrowly escapes. But before he flees, the curious younger girl who has approached him is caught in the crossfire and dies before his eyes, an innocent whose death he cannot shake.

After the raid, of course, the house is compromised, and the drug lord gives East a new assignment. He and three others are to drive to Wisconsin and kill a man about to testify in Los Angeles against one of the gang leaders. In the great American tradition of road trips, East heads east on a fateful journey with an ill-assorted group of companions: Michael Wilson, a self-assured, one-time UCLA student who thinks he’s by far the intellectual superior of the other boys; Walter, an overweight age-peer of East’s with an aptitude for electronic crime and a greater understanding of the big picture; and, unexpectedly, East’s younger brother Ty, a stone killer at age 13 whose internal dynamics East cannot begin to comprehend.

The interactions among the four are full of youthful wit and jockeying for position, even though the outcome of the journey is uncertain and potentially catastrophic. The last piece of advice they receive before leaving LA? “Don’t make no friends.”

The book takes its title from the boys’ purchases at the sports apparel store they visit before their departure. There they purchase shirts and caps emblazoned with the logos of the Los Angeles Dodgers, not because East or the others have ever cared about the team personally, but because “White people love baseball. White people love the Dodgers.”

The trip across America and the notice four young black men arouse among the residents of the middle-America states—and the fear of the notice they may arouse—are significant and compelling features of the plot, while he nuanced depiction of East’s mental state makes for a rich and engaging reader experience.

Beverly is a teacher of American literature and writing at Trinity University in Washington, D.C., and the quality of his writing is a great strength of the book. Take this simple description: “There was a gas station. The lights in the cold made the cars gleam like licked suckers.” Any author who can conjure up an image like that deserves to be savored.

A longer version of this review previously appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com.

Asian Immigrants’ Tales

suitcase, Asian

adapted from Roger Wagner, creative commons license

The recent success of the movie Brooklyn has reminds us of the universality of immigrant stories in American history (even as anti-immigrant, anti-refugee positions characterize the political discourse). While the immigrant experience is a common thread running through our national character, and the experiences of Irish and Italian immigrants relatively well known, each country’s immigrant story is in many ways as unique as the person and family who dons this new cultural garment.

Shawna Yang Ryan, writing for LitHub (“From There to Here: Five Essential Tales of Immigration”) says “Immigration is anything but pedestrian. To displace one’s self in adulthood, to uproot, to leave behind ways of speaking, moving, being that are second nature is a feat of true grit.” She tells of her own mother’s move to the United States from Taiwan after marrying an American GI, which helped inspire her novel Green Island. Among the tales from other immigrants that she recommends are:

  • Carlos Bulosan’s autobiographical America Is in the Heart, about the struggles and prejudices faced by Filipino farm workers. They worked in America legally (and, by the way, served in the U.S. military), but, says Ryan, were barred from citizenship. His book has been called a brown-skinned Grapes of Wrath.
  • The Namesake, a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, about the Ganguli family’s move from Kolkata (Calcutta) to Massachusetts and the inter-generational rifts that creates. Pulitzer Prize-winner Lahiri has now taken displacement one step further, living part-time in Italy and writing in that language
  • The “graceful essays” by Andrew Lam, collected in Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, not only examine what it’s like to come to American, but also the experience of a return visit to Vietnam

On this  theme, I would add these classic award-winners from my bookshelf:

  • Anne Fadiman’s non-fiction The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, the tragic consequences for a Hmong family, whose child is afflicted with epilepsy, when their traditional beliefs collide with modern medicine. (National Book Critics Circle Award, 1997)
  • The unforgettable memoir, The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston, relates her “girlhood among ghosts”—both her female relatives’ ghosts from China and the New World ghosts she encounters: Policeman Ghosts, Social Worker Ghosts, Garbage Ghosts, and Wino Ghosts. (National Book Critics Circle Award, 1976)
  • Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker—one of the early books selected for community-wide reading—about Korean American Henry Park, the “perpetual outsider.” (PEN/Hemingway award for best first novel, 1996)
  • Asian American Dreams, by award-winning journalist Helen Zia describes the transformation of Asian Americans from a small and largely invisible minority to a presence in virtually every facet of American life.
  • In the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Korean American businesses were especially targeted for destruction, with some 1500 looted and destroyed. Blue Dreams, by Nancy Abelmann and John Lie, explores the reasons Koreans were singled out and what happened in the aftermath.
  • The classic Strangers from a Different Shore, by historian Ronald Takaki, lays out the successive waves of Asian immigration in American history, with each nationality’s experience taking place in a different context.

Reader Question:

What favorite books would you recommend that tell the immigrant story?

****The Crossing

watch works

(photo: readerwalker, creative commons license)

By Michael Connelly, narrated by Titus Welliver – What a pleasure it is to enter the Los Angeles airspace of Harry Bosch and his half-brother Mickey Haller. Teaming up his two protagonists from the Bosch and Lincoln Lawyer series was a brilliant move by Connelly, and I’ve enjoyed every story of the two of them, fighting crime and for justice. In this latest double-outing, Connelly does not disappoint.

In The Crossing, Bosch takes the lead. He’s retired, not by choice, and rattling around his garage doing not very much. Haller approaches him about serving as an investigator on a difficult case he’s undertaken: a man accused of a brutal murder based on supposedly irrefutable DNA evidence, but Haller is convinced his client is innocent. Bosch is doubtful. Worse, if he agrees to help the defense he’s “going over to the dark side” in his own eyes, and it will be seen as a betrayal by all his former police department colleagues. Still, reviewing the case files does raise a few unanswered questions and, as we might expect, Bosch’s investigatory instincts soon overrun his reservations, and, with nothing more than the box for a luxury wristwatch to go on, he’s off. But meanwhile, a couple of rogue cops are up to something, and the brothers are in their sights.

Seeing Bosch and Haller work in their respective roles—investigator and courtroom advocate—lets Connelly show off his characters’ different skill sets and keeps the reader (listener, in this case) well entertained. It’s instructive to hear Haller’s reminders that, while Bosch may be on a search for the truth, the client must be their uppermost concern.

As to the effectiveness of the audio version, Welliver’s excellent reading, combined with Connelly’s clear writing style, made it easy to keep track of the characters and the story. Welliver is super-prepared for this reading, as he played the character of Harry Bosch in the eponymous Amazon television series that premiered in 2015. An interview with Connelly and Welliver is included in this Crime Fiction Lover preview of the television series.

****A Better Goodbye

doorbell, red

(photo: Thomas Hawk, creative commons license)

By John Schulian – If you’ve wondered what goes on in those sketchy “massage” parlors, this expertly written and well paced debut thriller is your chance to find out. Set in Los Angeles on the bitter fringes of the entertainment industry and reeking of fake glamour, the story pulls you into its world from the opening chapter. It’s classic noir, dealing with people who don’t have much going for them who will probably never go far. Schulian has done a remarkable job recreating their lonely world, an inspiration he describes in this interview.

A multiple point-of-view story, the principal characters are Jenny Yee, a Korean college student earning tuition money in the massage business, Scott Crandall, a washed-up out-of-shape television actor whose main source of income is the massage business he owns, his would-be friend Onus DuPree, and Nick Pafko, a former boxer still haunted by the freak accident that killed an opponent when the poor sap hit the ropes exactly wrong.

Scott was glad to hire Jenny, as his last Asian girl was leaving, and in their business he needed someone to please the “rice chasers.” Meanwhile, her priority is a new job where there is someone to provide security. A string of vicious massage parlor robberies has made the women nervous. An out-of-work ex-boxer who will also keep the books sounds like just what Scott needs. Nick can’t quite get over being offended to be working in a jack shack, but it soon becomes obvious the girls need him.

Always playing the angles, Scott has no respect for the girls, for Nick, or, for that matter himself. “What a f— town. Shake a tree and whores fell out of it. Whores and actors, like there was any difference between the two.” Scott is drifting into a closer orbit with his scary friend DuPree, putting everyone at increased risk—not from the cops or any of the other forces of order, but from the climate of violence DuPree creates, like a mountain making its own weather.

One thing about this book is you learn a whole new vocabulary [!] and a lot about a subculture of desperate young women. IRL erotic massage is estimated to be a $1 billion a year business in the United States, often involving immigrant women with few choices. The exploitation isn’t a surprise, nor is the potential for violence, but Schulian’s uncanny ability to get into the minds of these quite different individuals makes for a compelling read.

He comes by his skills honestly, with respect to character development and a driving storyline. Although this is his first novel, he has published short stories, and his main career has been as a Hollywood scriptwriter, working for television programs such as L.A. Law, Miami Vice, and JAGS. He co-created Xena: Warrior Princess—for a while the world’s foremost syndicated TV series. He has been a sports and magazine writer and has edited two anthologies of writing about boxing, which no doubt contributed to the authenticity of his character Nick’s voice.

The book title comes from a Patty Griffin song, “And I wonder where you are, And if the pain ends when you die, And I wonder if there was some better way to say goodbye.” A knockout.

A somewhat longer version of this review appeared on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

****The Long Goodbye

$5000 bill

“The Madison” (photo: wikimedia.org)

By Raymond Chandler – This hardboiled detective story from 1953 is one of Chandler’s last featuring detective Philip Marlowe, and all the usual appeal is here—Los Angeles riffraff, a complex plot, and the sly, ironic first-person tone of wiseass Marlowe, who narrates. Although the prose conjures the voice of the ultimate Marlowe interpreter, Humphrey Bogart, the movie version was on ice for two decades, awaiting the deft touch of Robert Altman, with Elliott Gould as Marlowe. (FYI, the Rotten Tomatoes critics give this one a 96% rating, so it’s now on my Netflix list!)

Lots of alcohol gets sloshed in this story, written at a period when Chandler—an alcoholic himself—was at a serious low point (his wife was dying) and discouraged about his writing. It was late in his career, and he wanted to be taken more seriously. A few plot elements don’t quite hang together, and “the Madison” (a $5000 bill a client sent him) is not the unbelievable windfall it was in 1950, yet the writing propels you forward from sentence one: “The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers.”

Keep reading, and you’re rewarded with thrilling descriptions (“His eyebrows waved gently, like the antennae of some suspicious insect.” “On the window sill a bee with tattered wings was crawling along the woodwork, buzzing in a tired remote sort of way, as if she knew it wasn’t any use, she was finished, she had flown too many missions and would never get back to the hive again.” A metaphor that probably says as much about how Chandler—and Marlowe—were feeling at that moment as it does about how the fictional bee may have felt.) Of course, Chandler was equally observant and precise in his descriptions of people: “There was the usual light scattering of compulsive drinkers getting tuned up at the bar . . ., the kind that reach very slowly for the first one and watch their hands so they won’t knock anything over.” Oh yeah.

In a crime fiction anthology published in 1995, mystery writer Bill Pronzini called The Long Goodbye “a serious and significant mainstream novel that just happened to possess elements of mystery.” Contemporary novelist Paul Auster wrote, “Raymond Chandler invented a new way of talking about America, and America has never looked the same to us since.” A pity Chandler didn’t anticipate that the critics’ unwavering praise of him ultimately would extend beyond genre borders.

If the books leave you wanting more, take the awesome Esotouric Raymond Chandler Tour or get the map of his Los Angeles settings, described in this popular post from last fall.