Books

Book Reviews: Life Lessons

Books explore life lessons and jam sessions

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This week’s books, a memoir and a novel, may not have a lot in common as far as their subjects are concerned, but both are good reads with engaging characters.

WOW! 2: THE MEMOIRITO CONTINUES

Author David Pérez continues his memoir, “WOW!” The title happens to be the first English word the author of Puerto Rican heritage spoke, and it’s about growing up in New York City’s South Bronx with a look at his teen years and a little beyond.

The memoirito begins on freshman orientation day at the Cardinal Hayes Memorial High School for Boys when a priest busts Pérez for not wearing his sports jacket after leaving the building. (I imagine educators today would be grateful that would be a student’s only infraction – but, hey, this was 1969.)

Here’s part of his exchange with Father McCormick.

“‘Not a good way to start off, is it?’

“‘Could be worse.’

“The Dean of Discipline smiles cryptically. ‘You’re funny. I don’t like funny.’”

Frankly, though, readers will like Pérez’s brand of funny.

A little background is appropriate here: Pérez’s family came to New York City from Puerto Rico, where they live in the Millbrook Housing complex. His father works in a meatpacking plant. His mother wants the best for her kids. His brother is a talented artist, who illustrated this book and his brother’s first.

And at the novel’s start, Pérez is an overachieving student, proud of his standing in class — No. 3 — and attention to his studies. He’s a stellar athlete.

Ah, but he is quickly torn between being good at school and hanging with his neighborhood pals that enjoy smoking pot, drinking and other mischief. Guess which side is more appealing.

So we stick with the young Pérez while he continues his slide. He does a stint in the Navy and even becomes a father. But happily, he decides to make better choices, thanks in part to Milton Vera, a mentor who educates him about justice and radical politics.

Vera says, “We make everything, David, and yet the boss man owns everything.”

Pérez, who is also an actor, tells his own story with a great deal of humor and energy. Besides being a fun read for us grown-ups, his novel offers lessons for young adults, who may be inspired to make better choices in their lives.

Yes, there will be a “WOW! 3” in the future.

“WOW! 2: The Memoirito Continues” is a 145-page paperback published by Nighthawk Press. It costs $10.

THE UNIVERSE PLAYING STRINGS: A NOVEL

Author R.M. Kinder’s second novel sets the stage for hometown musicians in Tucson, Arizona.

The novel has four main characters who are musically inclined. Among them is Carl Bradshaw, an Oklahoma fiddler up there in years.

Amy Chandler is a young guitar picker who knows a good guitar when she sees one — a Martin D-28 to be specific — but her judgment falls flat when it comes to men.

Jack Martin, the college-age son of a super successful author, can’t seem to get his act together.

Cora is an older woman who longs to be part of the music scene. She and the much younger Jack hit it off, by the way.

Unabashedly, my favorite is Bradshaw. At the start, a woman sweet talks him out of a considerable amount of money before he packs up and heads to Tucson. He is honest about his physical limits with the ladies. And he has a caring heart.

Bradshaw’s contribution to the book’s dialogue is spot on. For example, this is what he tells the owner of an instrument repair shop after he is hired.

“‘I’m working for the discipline more than the money,’ he said. ‘Or I’d turn you down. A man has to keep busy.’”

The novel’s characters meet up at The Kettle, which opened in the ‘60s to give people a wholesome place to jam and do other things.

“The Kettle was not a place; it was a happening at a place. Some do-good organization allowed community use of their ground-floor, street-side rooms. During the week, the building housed religious youth meetings, yoga classes, self-help lectures, and even exercise classes. But on Friday nights, in the two huge rooms, music. Open stage. Folk. Blues. Fiddle. No rock, no sir, no way.”

Kinder arranges the book in sets. We sit in with the characters when they play onstage or wherever the mood hits them. We delve into their personal lives, which are out of tune at times.

She has created a tuneful novel that gives the reader, at least me, a real feel for the people who pick great music and the stories behind the emotions they bring to the stage.

“The Universe Playing Strings: A Novel” is a 227-page paperback published by the University of New Mexico Press. It costs $19.95.

Joan Livingston is a writer and reader who lives in Ranchos de Taos. Her "The Write Stuff" column appears in Tempo magazine of The Taos News. For more information, visit joanlivingston.net.

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