I began reading Paulo Coelho’s 2007 novel The Witch of Portabello because of the Being Latino Book of the Month group on Facebook. This month they’re reading Junot Diaz’ The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and I’ve read that book. So when I received Coelho’s book in the mail after purchasing for last months assigned reading for the group I thought why not read. The book is not on Sergio Troncoso’s suggested reading list I’ve been following but I thought I’d take a chance.

What I liked about the book had to be the risk Coelho took with the form. The book is organized around the main character of Athena—we find later they are transcripts from interviews with those closest to Athena. Nothing directly from Athena other than dialogue in other characters’ transcripts/testimony. We learn in the beginning Athena has been murdered and perhaps the interviews are to explore the death and mystery.

What I didn’t like was that the chapters and those characters speak very similarly. They have different perspectives but the language seems so similar. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the novel was translated from Portuguese. The characters were also very overly dramatic and I wonder if that too was due to translation. At any rate the tone throughout is similar and for transcripts they create some pretty detailed scenes and interactions that were hard for me not to criticize. Many of the conversation become in depth philosophical and New Age meditations rather than character studies. I also felt bogged down in exposition—the way I felt overwhelmed by story in Garcia Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera. The difference being that book is a more unique character study. That has to be my second biggest complaint. My biggest complaint has to be the trick ending. I won’t give this away but the ending left me groaning. The way an episode of a poorly plotted television show makes me groan.

Next time I won’t stray from Troncoso’s suggested reading list.

I remember Kerouac biographer Ann Charter arguing in the documentary King of the Beats that Kerouac could write in any form and style and that in her extensive study of the man and his work she could see the struggle for a more unique and distinct style. In the Sea is My Brother and also in Atop an Underwood, another pre-On the Road manuscript I’ve read lately, I can see what Ann Charter means. His early work, or “juvenile work” as some reviewers I’ve read have called it, contrasts sharply with his later spontaneous prose style or his more stream of consciousness writing made famous in his classic On the Road. That wasn’t much of a surprise. I was expecting text similar to Town and the City than The Subterraneans. And I wasn’t surprised to see a third person limited omniscience means of perception but I guess I was most surprised in reading the book as to find more themes of brother searching or mentor searching.

The plot shows a very young Kerouac developing themes of friendship and perhaps also themes of the individual choosing more direct experience over the academic or over the intellectual experience. I also thought it interesting that much like Sal Paradise chasing Dean Moriarty in On the Road Kerouac gives us the similar William Everhart and Wesley Martin. William is the bookish and frustrated Columbia English Professor and Martin is the more experienced seaman who entices and convinces the lesser traveled Everhart to sign up for sailor duty. Again as in On the Road we see themes of travel and romanticized world experience—also travel without amenity as romanticized by young men. We also see another trend of Kerouac’s which is to show young men choosing friends, travel and experience—also choosing liquor and excess—over marriage and more secure pursuits. Or as Leonard Gardner calls it in the novel Fat City, choosing the fraternity of men.

My critique of the book is that so many of the conversations seem unnecessarily weighted. Folks drinking and talking about philosophy, communism and socialism rather than more organic and less-telegraphed thematic notes. We see much more subtle dialogue and interaction in On the Road. Again, as in Town and the City I feel like he is trying to be Thomas Wolfe or F Scott Fitzgerald—or maybe even Jack London—by giving important themes in a heavy handed way instead of giving us more natural and spontaneous emotion and dialogue. The sea here is a heavy metaphor whereas the metaphor of the road from later work seems much more effective. Kerouac’s ear for capturing voices and dialogue was evident though. The editor’s note at the beginning of the book is quick to remind that Kerouac sailed with the Merchant Marines and quotes pages from his 1942 “Voyage to Greenland” journal reminding us of Kerouac’s keen eye and ear for observing and his deftly drawn character studies.

In his article “In the Watery Part of the World”, Sam Sacks of the Wall Street Journal calls The Sea is My Brother a “bad book” and shows the young Kerouac’s “inexperience” and I guess I agree. But I have to say I find the study of Kerouac’s so-called failures and inexperience important in the way I admire reading Salinger’s uncollected stories. (I’m waiting for Salinger’s estate to publish a nicely produced version of those as well as the Hapworth 16, 1924 manuscript.) Seeing a major writer’s flaws can give insight into our own process and failures as well as give a strange encouragement.

Working my way through Sergio Troncoso’s list of suggested Latino authors. I began with Troncoso’s novel From This Wicked Patch of Dust and moved on to Daniel Chacón’s collection of short stories Unending Rooms. This has been a long week of grading final composition and literature portfolios so finding the time to read has been difficult. I’ve been reading late at night and early in the mornings. In many ways I’ve been willing it. The professor I share office space with asked me just today, “How do you find the time?”

And I found the answer in the book itself. Chacón writes:

What if the way we read a book is the way we live our lives? If we can’t stand the reading and are always looking at the bottom of the page, toward the end of the chapter, counting how many pages until the end of the book, surely we must live life the same way, impatient with a walk in the city or with sitting in a garden, waiting only to arrive, never to be. (81)

And this week I wanted to be the person who focuses and reads to escape to explore other possibilities but also to enjoy and understand–to complete. And in many ways I wanted to escape my students’ term papers and my own grading rubrics for some fictive spaces. It’s been a long-term.

And Chacón’s book came at the right time as many of his stories in this fine collection involve fictive spaces—alternate realities of the mind and place we are awoken to and also spaces we find ourselves trapped. But also spaces we can escape.

Chacón also writes: “Reading should be like entering different rooms of a house, creating walls that rise up around you and then dissolve into a mountain range or a tree on a hill” (230). These stories are well crafted and Borges-esque. I particularly enjoyed the Epilogue: Borges and The Xican@. I felt this story or essay or whatever one wants to call it is where I felt closest to the author and empathized with the experience. I also enjoyed the Meta aspect of the story and was fascinated as the author, the character/persona of Danny and Borges himself wrangled over the aesthetic at play in the book.

available now: amazon.com, barnes and noble.com

Jaramillo - Cover - Final.indd2013 International Latino Book Award Finalist–The Mariposa Award–Best First Book–Fiction

“If you like writing that is unpredictable and makes you think, this collection is for you.  These short stories have characters with complex, sometimes depressing, but always fascinating lives.” —Latino Stories.com 2013 Top Ten “New” Latino Authors to Watch (and Read)

“Raw and highly emotional at times, Jaramillo’s stories give a realistic look in to the lives of his characters as he presents short vignettes that hint at a deeper family saga. His style is easy to read and his concise wording retains a surprising amount of detail. All in all, The House of Order is a compelling set of stories and should Jaramillo continue to present such fantastic storytelling, there is no doubt he will gain many new readers.” —San Francisco Book Review

“Jaramillo is writing about working in Southern Colorado farm fields, driving and drinking beer and smoking pot; visiting family members in the state penitentiary; about tattooed pregnant girls, dirty kids in laundromats and their desperate mothers–and the pain-filled list goes on, back through several decades. What saves these stories is the grace in which they are written.”–Mary Jean Porter, Chieftain.com

“Each story in Jaramillo’s collection stands alone, but together they make a powerful combination, with vivid descriptions, realistic characters, and strong emotions that will make readers cry, laugh, cringe and hope.” —Latina Book Club

The House of Order is an enticing read that shouldn’t be overlooked for those looking for a down to earth short fiction collection.” —Midwest Book Review

“These stories find John Paul Jaramillo hitting his stride as an acute observer and chronicler of hard and valuable lives. The writing conveys great warmth and understanding. This is a career to watch.” —Tracy Daugherty, author of One Day the Wind Changed

“Besides the razor-sharp writing which brings even those characters whom we meet only briefly vividly and memorably to life, what compelled me was my affection and concern for the narrator, who sets out to record the stories of his elders, and through them, to understand the forces that have shaped and directed his own experience. The result is a collection of stories that holds together like a shattered vessel, whose fragments have been gathered and expertly glued. Manito himself, battered by drink and drugs and the abuses of combat, barely holds together sometimes — but even at his lowest and darkest, the impulse remains in him to comfort and assist. It’s this that saves him, and that sets this collection apart — and above, in my opinion — less forgiving depictions of people struggling to take control of their lives.” —Jennifer C. Cornell, author of Departures