Into the Mainstream: An Essay From the American Book Review

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“We” — meaning Chicanos, Mexican Americans — “are constantly on the lookout for bits of recognition that tell us someone has noticed that we really do exist, not just as a backdrop for immigration policy discussion, or as another of the tourist attractions of the Southwest, but as an active part of American Culture.” In his introduction to the March/April American Book Review, guest editor Ricardo Gilb explains that this special issue focusing on “The Latino West” is “a celebration of Mexican American writing as it exists right now.” There are contributions here from Yxta Maya Murray, Michael Jaime-Becerra, Dagoberto […]

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Deb Olin Unferth’s ‘Revolution’ and the Costs of Memoir

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Save some long-mothballed, early twentieth-century avant-garde movements, memoir may be the only literary genre requiring a statement of principles. This applies to readers and writers alike. Do you expect a memoirist to show perfect recall, to reconstruct a past with vividly described environments, clear dialogue, and novelistic scenes? Or do you want a memoirist to admit the fallibility of her memory? Perhaps in an introductory preface, and to confess that some scenes, characters, and timelines may be elided, compressed, combined — i.e., do you mind if she makes things up, as long as it’s in the service of a good […]

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Before Goldman Knew of Great Loss There Was First Knowing Great Love

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On a hot, bright July day in 2007, author Francisco Goldman waded into the Pacific surf off Mazunte, Mexico. His wife, Aura Estrada, watched him bodysurf, catching a wave and riding it twenty yards back toward the shore, and decided she’d like to do the same. As the next wave approached, she called out, “This one’s mine!” That powerful wave left Aura unconscious, floating in the shallow waters near the beach, and although she regained consciousness and fought for her life in the hours that followed, she did not survive. Say Her Name (Grove; 350 pages) is Goldman’s wrenching but […]

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Discovering Shostakovich’s True Voice in His Fifteen Quartets

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Before he could reach the keys of a piano, Dmitri Shostakovich showed a secret interest in music. “When our neighbors played quartets, I would put my ear to the wall and listen.”  As Wendy Lesser points out in her new book, Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets (Yale University Press; 368 pages), this image — of the composer as an eavesdropping child — is an apt one for an artist who spent his life under surveillance by the Soviet regime. In her ninth book, Lesser, founding editor of The Threepenny Review, argues that the man best known […]

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‘The Docks’ Reveals the People Inside the Behemoth Port of Los Angeles

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The Port of Los Angeles has earned the not so inviting nickname of the Diesel Death Zone, due to the tons of particulate matter it produces. Yet it’s a facility of such monumental importance, that if disrupted the disturbance “would cause an economic heart attack for the country.”  The Docks (University of California Press; 341 pages) is Bill Sharpsteen’s wildly enlightening trek through this mammoth, messy, and mesmerizing spot. A journalist and a photographer who possesses a penchant for stories with heft, Sharpsteen honed his narrative skills in Dirty Water: One Man’s Fight to Clean up one of the World’s […]

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Otherwise Known as Piercing Perception

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Geoff Dyer, the British novelist, critic and essayist, sums up his new collection of essays and reviews from the past 25 years, “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition” (Graywolf; 432 pages) as “a glimpse of a not-unrepresentative way of being a late-twentieth-early-twenty-first-century man of letters” — one who writes on assignment, covering a vast range of subjects, in addition to creating fiction. “It’s a job for life; more accurately, it is a life,” he writes in the introduction, “and hardly a day goes by without my marveling that it is somehow feasible to lead it.” Dyer’s gigs include magazine essays, […]

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The Strangeness of Loss Imbues ‘Widow’

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A collection of 17 short pieces, Widow (Bellevue Literary Press; 160 pages) is, as the title suggests and the opening story firmly establishes, concerned with a particular loss — that of the beloved partner. Though several of the book’s stories were written after the death of California author Michelle Latiolais’s husband, and the impact of that loss is felt on every page, Widow is not a memoir, yet neither is it entirely fictional. Drawing on a variety of genres (meditations, stories, and poetic vignettes) and points of view, Widow offers a kaleidoscopic view of the world from deep within the […]

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The Heady Price of a ‘Free World’

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It’s no easy thing to make the political personal, but David Bezmozgis has done it in his first novel, which follows a band of Russian Jewish émigrés over the summer of 1978 as they wait, in Rome, to find out which country will take them. The Free World tells a compelling story, dissecting the tangled, and often tortured lives of Samuil Krasnansky, an unreconstructed Communist and Red Army veteran; his loving wife, Emma; his sons, the taciturn, fearsome Karl and the hopelessly sybaritic Alec; along with Karl’s family and Alec’s wife, Polina. All of these characters emerge as distinct beings, […]

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Fancy Takes Flight in ‘Stamboul’

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In The Oracle of Stamboul (Harpers; 304 pages), a flock of hoopoes (the Eurasian bird known for its colorful, showy Mohawk) watches over Elenora, the story’s heroine. The birds, which coat “the town like frosting” upon Elenora’s birth, are the initial hint that something supernatural – perhaps even prophetic – is afoot in Michael David Lukas’s ultimately winning first novel. […]

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