LA Books

The Gifted Gabaldon Sisters, by Lorraine Lopez, is a novel, set in LA, about four sisters . Despite the lack of a compelling plot, I enjoyed this story because of its realistic depiction of a Mexican-American family, the laugh-out-loud humor, and the setting. Aside from novels by Michael Connelly, it occurs to me that though I like reading books set in my favorite city and area (LA County), I more often seem to come across those that take place in New York. Why is that? I’m not talking about “The Hollywood Novel.” Hollywood is almost a different world, one I know little about, having spent little time there. I prefer LA novels, like Connelly’s, that put me in a particular street or neighborhood, where I can almost see and smell my surroundings. Lopez does that, especially with her description of City Terrace.

I searched my memory banks to come up with other LA titles I’ve read but could remember only a few: White Oleander, by Janet Fitch, Paint It Black,  also by Janet Fitch, Black Dahlia, by James Ellroy, and The Zoot Suit Murders, by Thomas Sanchez.

Do authors find New York City a more intriguing setting for their stories? Or have I simply missed some good LA titles?

Book Club Choices

The members of our book club rotate the responsibility for selecting titles. This gives us a broad range of reading material, including non-fiction and fiction. Our most recent choice was one I didn’t enjoy much, though I recognized its merits, and our group had a good exchange of views. With this in mind, I gave thought to why certain books stimulate discussions. Certainly the work has to be more than an entertaining story. It doesn’t have to be controversial, but it should touch on themes or subjects that spark dialogue.

Following is a list of titles, in no particular order, I have read in the past couple of years that would make excellent book club selections:

The Collective by Don Lee. A well-written novel about Korean-Americans that raises issues of racial identity.

Being Mortal by Atui Gawande. A difficult read for those of us who would rather not think about death (which is probably most of us) but a strong reminder that we should. This one we read in  our book club. An excellent discussion followed.

A House of My Own by Sandra Cisneros. An autobiography. Not only is Cisneros an accomplished wordsmith, she is opinionated about politics, family relations, and women’s issues.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. A novel about euthanasia.

Mexican Enough by Stephanie Elizondo Griest. Non-fiction. There is a lot here about immigration, economics, and culture, to spur conversation.

My Antonia by Willa Cather. A classic novel that deals with the subject of immigrants, timely for today’s readers.

The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld. She is a good novelist. Though this is not her best work (that is American Wife, in my opinion), it is a good study of a neurotic, immature young woman. Readers will either like or dislike this story, but they will want to talk about it.

The Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. On the surface this novel might seem like chick-lit, but it is so much more.

Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capo Crucet. One of my favorite 2015 reads. It’s about the challenges of coming-of-age as a bicultural woman.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. It’s a hefty book, but there’s a reason it is a classic. There are many themes here, including truth and justice and keeping one’s dreams alive.

Of course, if one is a book club leader and charged with selecting the material, it’s wise to be aware of your members’ preferences. It might be best not to choose controversial material (e.g. euthanasia) if the group seems to favor lighter fare.

 

 

 

My Role Model

Antonia Chavez, my grandmother, passed away thirty years ago. Recently I transcribed the tapes of an interview she gave my historian/professor brother, John R. Chavez. In an hour and half she described the first thirty or so years of her life, as a child in Mexico to a young mother in Pasadena, California. I learned previously unknown-to-me details of her life. She said she had a happy childhood, but her life became tougher when she married, at eighteen, and started bearing children. Without going into the painful details, I will say that she had a difficult marriage and lost two babies before her first child, my father, lived. With her family, when my father was just a young boy, she escaped war-torn Mexico to cross the border into the US, selling household items to afford the trip.

As I transcribed the tapes, I was riveted by her story and proud of her strength and resilience. I also had the thought, This is where good fiction originates. As a writer, I often pull memories from my head and contort, alter, mold them into vignettes for my novels. But I would never use my grandmother’s stories as fodder for my fiction. I respect her memories too much to use them as such.

My grandmother is a role model for me in many ways. She lived a life I could not have withstood. I might have crumbled to bits faced by such challenges. Her blood flows through my veins, and for that I am proud. Her life proves the point, truth is often more intriguing than any fiction can ever be.

The Reader Wants More

Last week I read the currently popular novel The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware. This week I read Pam Munoz Ryan’s award-winning novel Echo. The books couldn’t be more different. Ware’s novel is suspenseful, heavy in plot, but short on character development. Echo is a children’s book with a touch of fantasy and three distinct stories ultimately tied together with a common theme. I enjoyed both books very much and admire the writing talents of the authors. But despite the differences, these novels have one element in common: the climaxes leave me wanting more.

The Woman in Cabin 10 reveals the identity of the killer sooner than one would expect. When the climax arrives, it’s a chase scene that builds suspense nicely. However, because we already know the murderer’s identity, the element of surprise is muted. In Echo, each of the three stories ends with a cliffhanger. The reader has to wait until the end of the 500+ page book for a brief wrap-up that explains how the cliffhangers were resolved. I felt cheated. I wanted more detail. I wanted to know how young Friedrich felt while evading the Nazis. I wanted to know how Mike, the orphan, recovered and accepted his fate. I wanted to know how Ivy, the young Mexican-American girl, reacted to the news of her brother who was fighting overseas during World War II.

I’m currently writing my third novel. The climactic scene involves the heroine’s frantic effort to stop the public showing of a video. Beta readers have praised the suspenseful scene, but more than one commented that they wanted more from the final reveal. I’ve taken heed and am rewriting the scene so it delivers a stronger punch that should satisfy the reader’s expectations.

I learn and grow as a writer by reading novels and by listening to the advice of my beta readers.

GOT BOOKS

Here is a list of how I select my reading material:

  1. Book reviews.
  2. Friends’ recommendations.
  3. Browsing the shelves at libraries and bookstores.
  4. Websites (such as Goodreads) that rate and review books.

Lately I’ve been struggling with choosing my reads. I experience this every so often. I’ll have a period of time when I’ll read a string of mysteries, chick lit, or some other genre–perhaps the entire works of one specific author who is new to me. Then I’ll be at a standstill. What do I read next? That’s when I have to do some research. I pay more strict attention to what my friends are reviewing on Goodreads or visit other websites (such as TheLatinoAuthor.com) for recommendations. Then I make a list of titles, and the next time I visit the library, I search for those books.

Currently I’m reading The Blue Line by Ingrid Betancourt, a story of political intrigue and lost love. When I finish it, I’ll need to search for some new titles. I can’t be without a book to read. For me, it’s like not having food to eat. I welcome suggestions.

We Need Diverse Libraries

I’m a big fan of public libraries. Of course I am. I worked in libraries for many, many years: small ones, big ones, poor ones, not-so-poor ones. Now I visit the library regularly, and it’s where I obtain most of my reading material. Unfortunately, despite living in a large city with a main public library and several branches, too often I am unable to find the books I want to read.

I read a broad range of fiction–mysteries, bestsellers, literary, horror, and some sci-fi–and often want to read books by Latino authors. I’ve blogged before about the shortage of novels that deal with Latino culture, written by Latino authors. When I come across a title I’m interested in, I always check the library first for availability. The other day I searched my local library system for Chicana Falsa, a book of poetry and short stories by the renowned Chicana author Michele Serros. To my disappointment, I found the library doesn’t carry it. A few weeks back I searched for The Amado Women by an up-and-coming Latina author Desiree Zamorano. Again, I did not find it at my city’s library. Curious, I checked for the classic Chicano novel Pocho, by Jose Antonio Villarreal. It wasn’t in the collection either.

In a city that is at least 40% Latino, I would expect the public library to not only have these books at its main facility but at most of its branches, too. Fortunately, I live near a very large county library system with numerous branches (almost 100). I found Chicana Falsa at about ten of those facilities. The Amado Women is only at two. Pocho is more available, located at approximately twenty of the libraries. I could drive twenty miles to the East Los Angeles Library and find all of those books, but why should I have to do that? There is a reserve system, of course, that allows users to request specific titles to be delivered to their local branches, but that still isn’t sufficiently serving the population. Readers often discover titles by scanning the book shelves at their local libraries. I believe books about the Latino experience should be more readily available to readers of all backgrounds. Why limit these books to Latino communities? Ernest Hemingway’s books, for example, are not limited to primarily Caucasian communities; his works are made available in most, if not all, public libraries.

How do we expect readers, especially young readers, to be exposed to other cultures and ethnicities through literature if we don’t make the material available to them?

 

DIVERSITY NOW

I’ve blogged before about my wish to see more ethnic diversity in mainstream fiction. As a lover of fiction, I would like to read novels that more accurately reflect the American society in which I live. When I read books set in Los Angeles, I expect to see a mix of white, Asian, African-American, and Latino characters, but that doesn’t always happen (I do appreciate Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, which are set in LA and always have ethnically mixed casts).

Currently I’m reading a novel set in Chicago, another ethnically diverse city, and so far the only character of color (a minor one) is a “Mexican” speaking parking attendant. A few days ago I finished a well-written action novel that I enjoyed . . . until the last chapter. It contained an ugly stereotype, a Mexican criminal. What a disappointment. Why include a Mexican at all if a negative image is the only one the reader will see? Time and again it is such a letdown to read books that ultimately fail to have diverse characters or simply contain negative stereotypes. In fact, I would prefer to read a book that has no ethnic characters rather than one that contains the stereotypical Mexican maid, gang member, prison inmate, gardener, or spicy/sexy female. Stereotyped depictions do a disservice to minority communities and reinforce negative images.

My Mexican heritage is a rich and colorful one. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans come in all shapes, sizes, colors, professions, income and educational levels. We should be depicted as such. And that’s why I write novels that feature  Mexican-American characters in all shapes, sizes, colors, etc.