The Blood Gospel: Another dreary romp through the Vatican

The Blood Gospel: The Order of the Sanguines Series, by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell (Harper Collins Publishes, 2013, 479 pages)

As one hundred cardinals convene in secret behind ancient walls to elect a new pope, it is a great time to pick up a novel about secret goings on in the Vatican featuring a group of monks whose job it is to fight evil, romps through the Vatican tombs, and an array of monsters set upon destroying anything that gets in their way in their pursuit of a book known in legend as The Blood Gospel .

In this book you will meet monsters thought long dead but still alive in pursuit of …well, something: Elizabeth Bathory, aka the “Blood Countess,” still alive and in hot pursuit of settling a score with an older love, a monk named Rhun, who now battles on the side of good. Gregori Rasputin, the “mad monk,” also aligned on the side of evil. And there are hosts of scary creatures called “strigoi,” big mean critters who can however be stopped by a bullet through the head fortunately. Oh, there’s a hungry bear who lives in a cage just waiting for Rasputin to turn him loose on some unsuspecting soul. And Elizabeth has a pet wolf, one who lavishes attention on her and eats anyone she sets him upon.

But in The Blood Gospel we meet a secret sect called the Sanguinists (can you say “secret sect of sanguinists” real fast five times without spitting?) whose sworn duty for all time is to fight the evil. You know, sort of like “The Avengers” only with a holy mission.

An earthquake at Masada, site of the mass suicide of Jews in their desperate attempt to avoid slaughter by the Romans, sets this whole story in motion when a crucified woman is discovered under ground. Alive. Centuries old but alive. Go figure. A dedicated archeologist, a solider, and a cardinal are pulled into the mystery as they search for the Blood Gospel of Jesus Christ,a book whose meaning seems in the final analysis less important than the drama surrounding it.

This book has many inspirations, not the least of which is Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, but there are shades of “The Mummy,” with its moments of witty repartee. Oh, and Raiders of the Lost Ark comes to mind, since there are Nazis that pop up in here as well. “John Carpenter’s Vampires” comes to mind as well, with James Woods as a vampire hunter employed by the Vatican. One gets the impression that the authors–who writes very well incidentally–took a little of this, a little of that, threw it all into one big pot, stirred it up and threw it against the wall. The result is what you might expect: a mish-mash that, while it purports to explain may traditions in the Catholic Church, leaves me wondering why I spent good money on it. It should have left me breathless. But it just left me waiting for the next novel by Dan Brown, who can pull these books off better than any of the various copy cats.

That said, I did make it all the way through. Something kept me reading. Oh, I know! The devil made me do it!

Copyright Isaac Morris 2013

Special: The blurring of reality

Is all that we see or seem / But a dream within a dream?

-Edgar Alan Poe

Casey Anthony – a case study in blurred reality: Source –

The horrific murders of innocents at Sandy Hook ignited a political firestorm over gun ownership, an issue that is really a red herring. Much less mention occurs about our non-existent mental health system, or the effect of violent gaming in blurring the distinction between fiction and reality and thus desensitizing young people to graphically horrific violence.

Yet, when I think about how reality and fiction are blurred I can’t help but think that games like Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, and Medal of Honor are taking up more and more time in the lives of children as young as six or seven years old. Should we be concerned that such exposure might cause people to take fiction into reality at some future date?

Well, when I was growing up my generation was treated to bloodless violence in Westerns, cartoon characters struck by hammers and falling pianos, and Moe slapping and pounding Curly and Larry. Not to mention Superman flying. Now, I’m not saying that someone somewhere didn’t attempt to emulate this behavior with deadly consequences–some may in fact have done so. But neither I nor anyone I knew personally ever thought for one minute that you could hit someone with a hammer and not have it hurt.

So, if in fact young people are influenced towards violence today because of the entertainment afforded them; and if, in fact, we were not thus influenced (which I maintain we were not); what might be the difference?

Was is that we ourselves were more grounded in reality? Or was it that the world we lived in was? Did our parents and significant influences know the difference, and provide us with a security in our reality that is, somehow, missing today?

Are we, as a society, blurring the distinction between reality and fiction? If so, are consequences like Sandy Hook and the AMC shootings in Colorado simply symptomatic of this disconnect?

Rob Lowe (L) as Drew Peterson (R).

For the past several weeks, thousands have been glued to TruTV, mesmerized by testimony from a young woman in Arizona who murdered her lover by shooting him in the head, stabbing him 29 times, and slitting his throat. Her serial testimony about the various and sundry sex acts she committed with the deceased has drawn an ardent audience (probably mostly males!) and has been a ratings bonanza. This trial is the consequence of a gritty and horrific event that really happened: a bullet violated a man’s skull, a knife pierced flesh and vital organs, and an ear-to-ear slice across his throat segmented jugular veins. His body decomposed for days in a damp shower stall. Stinking to high heaven.

Now, we turn to TruTV for entertainment: the blood and stink has receded into a fog of unreality. Once the trial is over, it will probably be a year or less before Lifetime turns it into a movie. The reciprocity between reality and fiction will thus come full circle.

This is what happened with the heart-wrenching case of Casey Anthony and her beautiful but unbelievably murdered child Caylee. The performance value of her trial was evident not only in ratings for HLN and TruTV, but in the physical confrontations that sometimes occurred outside the courthouse as people literally fought for a place in line (some having come from many miles away to see the “show”).

And, of course, there was a Lifetime Movie.

There is another thing that connects the Jodi Arias case with Casey Anthony: both young women apparently have to think to tell the truth. Their reality is what they say it is at the time. Are they sociopaths, or are they merely reflective of a larger society that finds the distinction between truth and reality fuzzier and fuzzier? And did the Anthony jury perhaps suffer from the same inability to distinguish truth from fiction?

I could go on. Drew Peterson not only drew television cameras to him, he flaunted his newfound celebrity. And–guess what?– he was the subject of a Lifetime movie.

Now that I think about it, Rob Lowe played Peterson–and he also played the prosecuting attorney in the Casey Anthony movie. Blurred reality seems to have become a full-employment opportunity for Lowe!

Plato once illustrated a philosophy about reality and appearance with a simile about a cave. All people who sat in the darkness could see were shadows of things that were cast on the wall from a wall of flame behind them. Most people took the shadows for the reality, and lived their lives accordingly.

Could it be that we need to clear out the shadows, move into the light,  and ground ourselves in reality in order to live our lives properly? If so, how do we go about climbing out of the cave when it is so comfortable in there?

If I am onto something here, other innocents in the future may be on the path to destruction. And not just because of guns (Jodi Arias inflicted most of her damage with a kitchen knife), but because we can’t judge between what is real and what isn’t.

Sandy Hook was real.

My greatest fear is that we will reduce it to unreality with a–God forbid–Lifetime movie.

Anna Karenina: With love you can’t ask why

Keira Knightlyas the doomed Anna Karenina Her finest performance to date. Photo:

I waited for naught for Anna Karenina to make it to Springfield theaters. I don’t know whether AMC thinks we midwestern rubes are too unsophisticated for a classic tale of love and self-destruction or whether we are, in fact, too unsophisticated for a classic tale of love and destruction. But we might have been given the chance to prove or disprove such an hypothesis. But at last I was able to watch Keira Knightley’s Oscar-worthy but overlooked performance as the doomed St. Petersburg socialite, and it was one of the finest translations of a classic work of fiction that I have ever witnessed. The performances by Knightley, Jude Law, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson–not to mention several dozen other cast members–made this stylish set piece a true dramatic tour de force. And Hollywood barely noticed. Talk about rubes.

Anna was required reading in a world literature course I took in college, and I found it surprisingly easy to read in spite of its length. I have re-read it three times since, and it still is as fresh an experience on each return as it was the first time around.

Anna is a book about family, and may well be the story that someone had in mind when coining the phrase “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.”

The setting of the story, St. Petersburg high society in Czarist Russia, may put off some readers. But the landscape of the story, the abiding love of family and the destructive effects of adultery, is as modern as today’s Star magazine. There is one major difference, however. The stigma and social upheaval of adultery that existed in Anna’s world no longer exists. Had Anna strayed today, depending on the legal counsel given prior to walking away, she could have ended up with half the property and landed a spot on a Real Housewives reality show. Her ending was much more grim.

Anna is a respectable woman in a loveless marriage to a respected civil servant. They have a son, whom Anna loves dearly. As the story begins, Anna is leaving to go to her sister’s to help save a marriage. Her brother, Stiva,  has been caught in an affair, and his marriage is on the skids. Anna, renowned for her level headedness, is called upon to restore the domestic tranquility to a family torn by a man’s inability to keep certain things to himself. Not the first time in history such things would happen, nor the last; but in one of the most famous opening lines in any novel, Tolstoy reminds us that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

While away, Anna encounters a brash young soldier, Count Vronsky. The Count, a younger man, is immediately attracted to the beautiful Anna and begins to pursue her aggressively. She is amused at first, and puts off her suitor. It isn’t long, however, before she realizes how hungry she is for just such ardor. That ardor had left her marriage long ago, if in fact it ever existed. Eventually, she succumbs. A subsequent pregnancy forces Anna to face the consequences, which include the loss of her beloved son and her respectability in society. As she and Vronsky continue their relationship, her unhappiness makes her more and more self conscious and aware of the age difference between her and her new lover. She becomes a jealous harridan, which has the effect of driving her lover away.

In the latter half of the book, we witness Anna’s decompensation and eventual self-destruction. This unhappy ending is balanced, however, by a parallel story of two young lovers who find lasting happiness in a marriage that began in love and endured because of it. I was heartened to see that this movie adaptation incorporated the Kitty-Levin counterbalance, something that was usually passed over by filmmakers for the sake of the Anna-Vronsky romance. The story of Kitty and Levin is, perhaps, where the true lesson in Tolstoy’s novel lies.

Anna Karenina is a story about forbidden love and the price that it exacts. While the price was higher in 19th century society, the price in terms of pain and family disintegration is as real today as it ever was when love trumps social strictures. But, as Vronsky says to Anna in this very fine film, “You can’t ask why about love.”

This rube from the midwest really loved the movie version. I just wish I could have seen it in a theater. Thanks, AMC. Thanks a lot.

Copyright 2013 Isaac Morris

Gone Girl: A marriage forged in Hades

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn (Crown Publishing Group, 2012, 432 pages)

What do you do if you discover your spouse is a sociopath?

  1. Go for counseling
  2. Seek a divorce
  3. This is something you don’t realize until it’s way too late and then you have to be very, very careful.

Answer: 3. When you finish Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn you will understand.

Gone Girl is a love story forged in Hades, a place in which the happy couple find themselves having never noticed the sign that read, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Amy and Nick are your typical young couple in love. Wrong. There is nothing typical about Amy and Nick, who met and fell in love in New York City. There Nick worked as a magazine writer and Amy lived on the proceeds of royalties for books written by her parents, a series of children’s books bearing the title Amazing Amy. Amy was amazing, you see, because she was the only child of two doting parents who were child psychologists. They had lost all of their children to miscarriage, and so Amy–the only one to make it into this world–was to them nothing short of amazing. She grew up in the shadow of Amazing Amy, the freckle-faced heroine of the best-selling series of books whose image she felt she had to live up to. She spent most of her life being what others–including men–expected her to be. Simply amazing.

Nick is a midwestern boy from Missouri, where he worked as a kid in Hannibal wearing Tom Sawyer outfits for the tourists. At first, their lives were happy–and then Nick lost his job. This novel takes us into the economic hardships that find people everywhere, in New York as well as Missouri, reeling at the sudden changes in their lives. Nick persuades her to move away from her beloved New York, her parents, and everything she knew to Carthage, Missouri, a town along the Mississippi near Hannibal. There they can pick up the pieces, take care of Nick’s ailing father, and Amy can bankroll Nick in his new business venture, a bar he runs with his twin sister. The Amy we come to know from her diary seems to be a throw rug, content to let her husband walk all over her and take her wherever he wants, her feelings notwithstanding. The perfect passive-aggressive wife.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, for things are not what they seem in this book. In time, their marriage is faltering. Nick is growing distant, and as we read Amy’s diary we learn that she is even coming to fear him. He is a changed man, we are told, and she confesses to trying to buy a gun–just in case.

Then, Amy suddenly disappears. We read the confusion in Nick’s voice as he tries to comprehend what has happened, who might have taken her–or worse. But as we read further, we realize that Nick is not the innocent here. In fact there are no innocents here. It soon becomes evident that only one person, Nick, could possibly have been responsible for her disappearance–and that she is probably dead at his hand. As the novel goes on, the evidence builds such that, even without a body, it is almost conclusive that he is the culprit. He is going down, no doubt about it.

In this book we are treated to what could possibly be the perfect murder, perpetrated by a sociopath who is disciplined and can plan out even the most minute details months ahead of time (or improvise brilliantly on the fly, if necessary). But, as I said, nothing in this story is what it seems. On one level, this novel makes a statement about the media’s tendency to turn spousal disappearance and possible murder into entertainment, complete with a Nancy Grace character and attorneys who spend as much time spinning for the public as preparing a defense. Meanwhile, the reader is spinning as, little by little, the whole truth unravels in all of its convolutions.

I can’t say too much more without spoiling the plot, but this is one of the most puzzling books I have ever read. The reader is led into a cavern, and just when you realize that you don’t know which way to go or what is going to confront you next, it is too late to go back. You are already lost, and you won’t figure it all out until the last chapter. The only thing you are clearly coming to understand is that this is the most screwed up couple you will ever come across in fiction. They truly deserve each other.

I wasn’t at all interested in reading this book when I first noticed it on the New York Times best seller list. I was even less interested when I learned that the movie rights had been sold and the film would be produced by Reese Witherspoon. I shy away from trendy. But in the end I took the bait.

I was amazed. You will be too.

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

Sneak Preview: A Mature work by a good writer

This is a sneak preview of Touch and Goby Lisa Gardner (Penguin Group USA, 2013, 400 pages) Available February 5, 2013.

When does love start going south? Why?

Many people can remember the days when that special someone was in our heads every minute of every day, and how we prized whatever time we spent with them laughing, playing, making love, or just hanging out. They were the focus of our universe, and we just knew we were the focus of theirs. What a wonderful trip. But then, sometimes–even after years of marriage with children–we notice that that special look we used to see is gone. Is it just because the intoxicating whiff of Emeraude has been overpowered by eau de Vicks VapoRub–or is there something more fundamental, more selfish going on? And what do we do about it? Let is slide? Hope it gets better? Or bury our heads in the sand?

And what if it doesn’t get better?

In Lisa Gardner’s new novel, Touch and Gowe encounter a family in crisis. On the surface, things couldn’t be peachier. Justin Denbe is a self-made millionaire, owner of his own construction company, who happens to be damned good looking to boot. His beautiful wife, Libby, grew up on the wrong side of Boston, and happened to fall head over heels (I hate cliches, but it works here) in love with Justin the first time she saw him. After almost two decades of marriage, they have a beautiful 15-year old daughter and they live in the Back Bay section of Boston where real estate is out of reach even during a downturn in the economy. Life couldn’t be better.

Then we learn that things aren’t as good as they seem on the surface. Cracks are beginning to show up. Justin, it seems, has developed certain behavioral characteristics that his father was famous for–one of which is that he can’t keep his pants on around good-looking women. Libby is secretly hooked on prescription pain pills and never met a physician with a prescription pad she didn’t like. And 15-year old Ashlyn? She is watching this whole thing develop and feels helpless to do anything about it. She essentially feels abandoned.

So, in many ways, this is a book about a family in crisis–and how that family finally comes to face the crisis. Or is it too late?

But wait! I am sure you are saying, “Isn’t Lisa Gardner  a mystery writer?” Why yes, she is. And a good one at that.

So what’s the mystery?

Well, the family may never have faced their crisis at all but for one fortuitous (or devastating–you decide after reading this) event: On a Friday evening, after Justin and Libby arrive back in their townhouse after a “date night” (something they had been doing to patch up little things like Justin’s infidelity), the entire family is kidnapped. And the kidnappers aren’t amateurs. They are very professional–and very scary.

The depth of the family’s misery is revealed slowly after the kidnapping, and from Libby’s point of view. She is the narrator of their experience inside the place where they are being held. Here, although they are facing the uncertainty of their situation (why were they kidnapped? For money? Or for something else? Will they be released–or does someone want them dead?), they are confined in a cell and the three of them, forced together in close quarters, have no choice but to confront their demons. Sort of a forced therapy, if you will. Their experiences with each other, with all of the love-hate overtones, are truly touching in places and it is clear that Gardner is maturing into a writer with more than forensics and body-farm smarts going for her. She has a heart.

As though their family issues aren’t enough torture, there are the kidnappers themselves. Scary guys with tattoos on their heads, probably former military. Although violence is just beneath the surface, they seem to want to keep the family alive–at least for a while. But they are really scary people.

I have read Gardner’s books before, and have always found them entertaining. This one is different. Maybe because Gardner is different. She is growing, maturing, turning into more than just a writer of formula thrillers. Yes, we do have a story involving an investigator who has appeared before in her books–Tessa Leoni. We also meet a savvy detective from Northern New Hampshire, and a few FBI agents who become involved in the case. But this isn’t about the investigators. It is about the family. And that I find refreshing.

Author Gardner-maturing nicely. Source: Barnes & Noble

For over twenty years, mysteries have been paeans to the art of serial killing. It was intriguing for a whlle to read about sociopaths, forensics, body farms, blood work, autopsies, and the like–but after twenty years our fascination with Bundy-like antagonists needs to come to a close and deal more with the feelings of real crime victims rather than with their mutilated corpses. Gardner has taken a big step for a writer and a giant leap for “reader-kind” in this her newest novel.

But she has not sacrificed suspense. If, as Hitchcock once implied, suspense is created by the audience knowing what is on the other side of the door when the hero has no clue, this book is filled with suspense. As readers, we know where the family is being held and we are waiting, hoping, praying for the cops to pick up a map and figure it out for themselves–before it is too late.

This is good stuff.

Copyright 2013 Isaac Morris!

The Time of the Wolf: A bloody good read

By the time I was in high school, I had learned that 1066 was the year of the Norman Conquest of England by William of Normandy (aka “the Bastard,” aka “the Conqueror”). I don’t know whether kids learn this stuff any more, especially since some college graduates have a hard time locating England on the globe. But the battle for the windswept island, which was eventually won by the Northmen (the Normans were descended from the Vikings), grafted the military expertise and cunning of the Normans onto the culture of the Anglo-Saxons with their passion for jurisprudence and hero-worship. The result was a people with a stubborn streak and a stiff upper lip.

The period immediately before and following the Norman invasion is the setting for The Time of the Wolf: A Novel of Medieval England, by James Wilde (Pegasus, 2012, 336 pages). Wilde (a nom de plume for Mark Chadburn ) has previously written mostly mist-shrouded British fantasy novels but in The Time of the Wolf his subject is historical:  a Mercian with anger management issues known as Hereward. History calls him by several names: Hereward the Wake (“the watchful”), Hereward the Outlaw, and Hereward the Exile to name but three. You’ve heard of Robin of Locksley (aka, “Robin Hood”) and King Arthur (aka “The Sword in the Stone”)? Well, in Britain, Hereward is as renowned as those other two–with one big difference: Arthur and Robin were shades of the legendary past whose forms were filled with the straw of folklore; Hereward is no less a man of legend, but his historical framework was very real and very intimidating.

Hereward’s fame had more in common with William Wallace than with Robin of the Hood. In Braveheart (1995), Mel Gibson’s paean to Wallace, we were treated to medieval warfare at its goriest, and similarly explicit descriptions of the many beheadings and blood spraying arrow, spear and sword piercings lend a cinematic effect to Wilde’s writing that suggests he is angling for a movie option. Wallace and Hereward both fought for freedom against tyranny. Wallace was a man unknown beyond his own country before Mel Gibson brought him to life. And I had never heard of Hereward the Wake before picking up this novel.

Gibson’s portrayal of William Wallace captured all of the fury and gore of a fight for freedom. Source: photo

This book would make a good movie, no doubt about it, but as much for the story as for the bloodletting. When we first meet Hereward, he is arising from a pond like some demon from Hell to avenge the slaughter of an entire village by men who were sent to kill him. Later, an unlikely friendship is formed between Hereward and Alric, a monk who is running from his past. Both have something in common: they were each responsible–or thought to be–for the murders of women they loved. In Hereward’s case, the murder was committed by an agent of a usurper to the throne in a failed attempt on Hereward’s life. The monk killed his woman by accident, in the act of defending himself from an attacker. Hereward was innocent, Alric only partly responsible. But their anguish helped them form a bond.

It is not an easy bond to form given their oil and water mix of personalities. Hereward’s youth was wild, unchecked, and brutal and his service to the crown as a warrior reflected his quickness to anger. Alric was a man of God who felt the heat of damnation for his great sin, and who saw his chance to find salvation in his efforts to save the soul of this Devil he met with in the north of England. Hereward wants many things, but having his soul saved is the least of them. He is damaged goods. He seeks only revenge and blood and to erase the memories of his childhood especially that of the day his father beat his mother to death.

The novel revolves around intrigues in the court of King Edward (the Confessor), whose passion for rebuilding St. Peter’s in London into what would later be known as Westminster Abbey brought him derision from his peers whose concerns are more worldly. His heir apparent has been murdered, and Hereward uncovers this plot and immediately becomes a target — and a hunted exile. Harold Godwinson, the mastermind behind the plot, will later usurp the throne of England as Harold II. However, succession had been promised to William of Normandy. When Harold takes the throne, all hell breaks loose and the history of England will change dramatically.

In the thick of it all is the sword of Hereward, hacking, slicing, splicing, and shish-ke-bobbing. Blood literally runs in the streets and leaves the fens with a coating of bile and blackened gore .

There is love in this story (women aren’t put off by his blood stained clothing and ill manners apparently) and there is treachery. Hereward is a man whose trust is sometimes misplaced. Once William conquers England, Hereward finds his true claim to fame. He fights against the tyrant William, and continues to fight against him from his hiding place in the marshy Fens, deviling the Normans the way Francis Marion (“The Swamp Fox”) would later devil the British in the Carolinas during the American Revolution. This is a great read because it is more than the story of a man, it is about the spirit shared by many like the legendary Arthur, Robin of the Hood, Hereward the Wake, William Wallace, Francis Marion, and Davy Crockett. It is the spirit of men longing to be–and to stay free.

Copyright 2013 Isaac Morris

The House of Disorder – Who Hasn’t Lived There?

This review of the House of Order first appeared March 17, 2012. In the past week, the author–John Paul Jaramillo–was recognized as one of the top 10 new Latino authors by “Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature”. Jaramillo has reviewed for The Morris Chair. Congratulations, John Paul!

The House of Order, by John Paul Jaramillo, is billed as a “composite,” and is a series of short stories linked by a familial network whose complex relationships become more or less clear as you read them all. It is apparent that these stories were written at different times, like snapshots taken from memory, and then placed, at first haphazardly,on the mind’s refrigerator. Later, they are arranged in some order that makes sense to the author and which will, hopefully, make sense to the visitor. We put memories in such places because they touch us deeply and we prize them in some fashion. It is a rare instance when they touch the hearts of others–but in The House of Order, they touched me.

The family Ortiz puts the “fun” in dysfunctional. The men are frequently abusive, the women, though mostly compliant, carry on with inner strength to provide some semblance of “order” to The House of Disorder which this life really is. The children–like the most frequent (although not the only) narrator, Manito–are getting further away from the old ways (at one point, the Abuelita–“grandma”–complains, “Goddamn kids don’t know their own language!”). Violence bubbles away beneath the surface of their lives, to burst open at any time. The setting of their lives is forlorn, the most popular color of their vehicles primer, the foundation of their lives burnished with rust.

Jaramillo can evoke atmosphere with a skill that I, quite frankly, envy. Consider this description of the lives the Ortiz family leads, as narrated by Manito:

…around Huerfano County “deserted” means losing a ride out to the lanes for work in the onion fields. Quitting school to work and contribute to the mortgage. Ignitions that won’t fire and friends who won’t come around. Cousins dropped off from New Mexico to share beds and food. Half fixed televisions for Saturday morning cartoons and radios smashed before the World Series. Couches and chairs dropped onto back porches gone un-mended and machine parts and tools sacrificed to the rust of early winters. Here it means CF&I Steel picking up and closing offices, union negotiations breaking down. Husbands who aren’t faithful. Fathers dying. Lies and stories half-told and then forgotten unless pressed and pushed.

The family includes Manito, and his brother Romes (who really isn’t his brother). Manito’s father, Relles, isn’t in the picture, although we learn something of him (he is a sometime narrator). Relles doesn’t end up well. The phrase “crash site” pops up occasionally, and such an occurrence is said to mark the sad end of Relles. In any event, the person to whom Manito looks for any sort of paternal guidance is the hapless Ernesto (“Neto”), Relles’ brother. He is hardly the best role model, but it is clear that he loves the boy. Neto is a man who preaches a good work ethic, but falls short of it and,like so many in this House of Order, turns to drink to his detriment (and to the detriment of those around him).

Jaramillo can evoke emotion with a rare economy of words. After the grandfather, Santiago (“Jefe”) becomes angry with his wife, Cordelia (“Jefita”, aka Abuelita), he drags her “by the forearm and then the hair in a frightening dance:”

And as he slapped her face the house went dead quiet. No television or laughter. No boys crying or calling for their mama. Later as the Jefita walked the backyard to smoke her cigarettes and stared up into the cloud-infested skies, she thought back to her father’s words about the Jefe and his kind.

Love is there, mixed up with the violence. It is clear at some point, when anger erupts between Santiago and his brother Metidio during a jailhouse visit that Cordelia pulls the soul strings in the family. She quiets the two, shaming them into realizing that they are, in the final analysis, brothers and are all either of them have.

There are times when, because of the way these stories are stitched together, it becomes difficult to assess just who is talking. In many cases, the story is narrated by the young Manito. In one story, I was surprised to find near the end that the narrator was Manito’s father, Relles. The more I read, I was eventually able to determine by the context who was talking. Sometimes, the story is rendered in the third person, even if Manito (“the boy”) is the subject. However, any one of these stories could stand on its own and still convey the power of what is in the writer’s heart. Standing together, they present a challenge not unlike a jigsaw puzzle–but a challenge that I, for one, was willing to meet given the skill with which Jaramillo creates the pieces.

I hope this book, these stories, will not be pigeonholed as “Latino” lit. It is true that they speak perhaps most persuasively to Mexican-Americans because the picture is one they can better relate to (the setting, in time, is recent–from the 60s through at least the early 90s, as near as I can tell). But the story speaks to anyone with a family that leaves something to be desired, where there is love, hate, or a combination of the two. And today, when more and more people find themselves unemployed, even those in the more comfortable middle class are finding that primer is not such a bad color.

I get the strange feeling, reading these stories, that I am experiencing something fresh and that someday I may (if I live long enough) just see the name John Paul Jaramillo in an anthology of short stories, or a novel by same in a college literature class as required reading. I hope so. I think he has the stuff.

However, if this happens, I hope it is in an American Literature class, not just a Latino Literature class. These stories speak to all of us.

Rating 3/5
Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris (Originally posted March 17, 2012)