Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

Shit Lit

Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, former reporter for the Albuquerque Tribune, has churned out another book as part of her moneymaking machine. This one’s called The Husband Habit. Because I forced myself to read it, I know it’s about Vanessa Duran, a chef at an upscale Albuquerque restaurant. And—wouldn’t you know it?—she has the unlucky habit of unknowingly dating married men. What is a thirysomething to do? Swear off men, that’s what! Of course, that’s when a handsome man enters the scene. I wonder what happens?


~Erin Adair-Hodges, Alibi, July 9-15, 2009

That is the title and opening paragraph to a short review of Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez’s latest book, The Husband Habit. The review appeared in Albuquerque’s Alibi, a weekly alternative newspaper.

Now, negative reviews, and especially downright mean ones—I mean, “Shit Lit”??—tend to function in the same way that positive reviews do. They catch your attention and make you want to find out what all the fuss is about.
I’m familiar with Valdes-Rodriguez. She hails from New Mexico and is widely known for the outrageous success of her first novel, The Dirty Girls Social Club. But before that book came out, I worked with her father at the University of New Mexico. He’d been my professor, then later an associate. (He and I once led a group of travelers to Cuba for a tour in the mid 1990s, during a brief time when travel to the island was allowed for academics and journalists.) I remember him boasting that his daughter had landed a job with the Boston Globe and was making more than he was. Clearly proud, he spoke of her often.

I moved on to a new job and didn’t hear of Valdes-Rodriguez again until her father sent me an email telling me that she was moving back to NM to start a family. She then called to inquire about jobs at my company, although she made it clear that she was a writer and wanted to work in that field.

The next time I heard about Valdes-Rodriguez was when her debut novel came out. What interested me most, more than the book itself, was the story behind it. Here, from the Encylopedia of World Biography, is the reason I was fascinated:

After Boston, Valdes-Rodriguez moved on to the Los Angeles Times in 1998, where she covered the Spanish-language music industry. She also married and became pregnant, and she and her husband decided to move to her home state.Her letter of resignation to her LA Times bosses was a lengthy e-mail screed that made it onto the Internet, and gained Valdes-Rodriguez a certain measure of notoriety. In it, she excoriated the paper’s editors for grouping the diverse nationalities of Central America, South America, and the Caribbean under a single umbrella term. “‘Latino’—as used in The Los Angeles Times—is the most recent attempt at genocide perpetrated against the native people of the Americas,” she asserted, according to a New York Times article by Dinitia Smith.

Not surprisingly, Valdes-Rodriguez had a difficult time finding another job in journalism thanks to that letter. She scraped by, doing freelance public-relations work for Hispanic entertainers, and had to rely on Medicaid to cover the cost of her son’s delivery. But when she submitted a proposal for a nonfiction book about Hispanic pop divas, the editors who read it asked if she had written any fiction instead. Valdes-Rodriguez had been working intermittently on a manuscript for several years, and decided to leave her infant son at home with her husband and head for the local Starbucks. “The staff thought that I was strange because I was there all the time,” she recalled in an interview with London Daily Telegraph writer Marcus Warren. “I would be there 10 to 15 hours a day for two weeks.”

The submitted manuscript sparked a bidding war among publishers, who had long sought a “Latina Terry McMillan” to jump-start fiction aimed at Hispanic-American female readers. Valdes-Rodriguez earned a $475,000 advance on the book’s royalties when she signed with St. Martin’s Press, though that had not been the highest offer tendered….


alisa valdes-rodriguez


Someone loaned me a copy of The Dirty Girls Social Club. It was a fast read, and I could understand how it made headlines by rejecting the notion that there was such a thing as a homogenous Latino population. Valdes-Rodriguez went on to publish several other novels, some aimed toward young readers, although I’ve never read anything more by her. While I admired her for busting the myth of the Latino label, I didn’t find her writing to be epecially deep.

But even given my lack of enthusiasm for Valdes-Rodriguez, the Alibi review of her latest novel seemed brutal. Perhaps the reviewer was trying to get back at the author; The Husband Habit is set in Albuquerque and apparently mentions the city’s “juvenile alternative weekly.” Still, these snippets from the review strike me as being over the top:

The novel’s slight attempt at being something more than a cut-and-dried romance comes in the form of Vanessa learning that her snap judgments of the handsome man (Dave? Steve? I can’t bear the thought of picking up the book again to find out) were wrong.

There’s more to hate: The cartoonish boss, the drama involving Vanessa’s parents that seems to be important but is later completed dropped, the lines like “Men totally suck.”

…I’ll say this: I’d rather snort a basket of dog farts than have to read this again.


There does seem to be more than your average amount of controversy surrounding Valdes-Rodriguez. An incident from earlier this year had to do with her apparently coming out as a bisexual in an email interview with GLBT website After Ellen, then later denying it. The website’s editor explained the debacle in a column titled The Woman Who Cried “Bisexual.”

And if you do a Google search of her name, you’ll find several other unflattering items, which I had not read until I decided to do a post about the mean-spirited review. I’m not particularly interested in a rehash.

All of which leaves me with this. When I first came across the Alibi review, I asked myself, Is it Envy?? That would make sense. Valdes-Rodriguez did and continues to do what most of us only dream of. But now I’m left thinking that maybe it’s Earned. I don’t know. I suppose it could be both. In fact, it very well might be both.

If you figure it out, would you let me know?


Postscript: Speaking of Envy, don’t forget the Out of The Blue Films “ENVY Contest” at red Ravine. Read the essay Cracking Envy (Or How I Learned To Stop Romancing A Deadly Sin) and then go to the Contest Submission Guidelines to learn how to participate and compete for an Amazon Kindle.

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        On The Road, Summer 2007, photo by QuoinMonkey, all rights reserved.

On The Road, Summer 2007, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

In September 2007, I finished reading On The Road. It was the day the book turned 50. I have this thing for Kerouac. I consider him the James Dean of writers. I guess I’m easily swayed by myth.

On The Road didn’t sweep me off my feet like James Baldwin’s Another Country or Giovanni’s Room. And it wasn’t understated and elegant like John Williams and Stoner. The book dragged in places. The relationships were passionate but doomed. And I couldn’t understand why Sal clung to the inconsiderate, egotistical Dean like the stabilizing, wagging tail of a kite.

The story didn’t find ground for me until I found myself sweeping across the yellow prairies of Nebraska, pounding through the arid, western Colorado desert, and driving over the mountainous Continental Divide. I like Kerouac because he was a boundary buster. He helped other boundary busters – the artists, writers, poets, and musicians of his time – find their voices. He changed the definition of writer.

There has been a lot of hoopla over On The Road in the last year. Primarily because the 120-foot, $2.4 million dollar scroll he wrote it on (over 20 days in April of 1951) is touring the country. But Jack didn’t write On The Road in 3 weeks. He’d been gathering, composting, scribbling in a pocket notebook, and dreaming about it for years. He was a disciplined writer who sat down between travels and wrote with a vengeance. He had been living this story a long, long time.

On the eve of the book’s publication, Kerouac was so poor he had to borrow money for a bus ticket to New York from Joyce Johnson, his girlfriend at the time. When the book became famous, he’d been done with it for several years. And after he hit it big, Johnson recalls mobs around him at parties: “Women wanted him to make love to them and all the men wanted to fight him.”

         Dreaming Of Summer, reading on the deck, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Summer 2007, photo by QuoinMonkey, all rights reserved.     Dreaming Of Summer, reading on the deck, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Summer 2007, photo by QuoinMonkey, all rights reserved.     Dreaming Of Summer, reading on the deck, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Summer 2007, photo by QuoinMonkey, all rights reserved.     Dreaming Of Summer, reading on the deck, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Summer 2007, photo by QuoinMonkey, all rights reserved.

One of the best Kerouac accounts I’ve seen is the Audrey Sprenger interview by Jeffrey Brown that aired on the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour, September 5th, 2007. Sprenger takes an honest look at Kerouac, beyond the myth, to see the writer as he was:

I think the continuing popularity of the book stems from the fact that Jack Kerouac was brave enough to defy social convention and comfort to do quite a radical thing, which was to simply be in the world and write about it. He was a deeply, deeply disciplined writer who was committed to documenting America every day as it was lived by people, and I think that he really captured the ways that people lived and spoke. And that is what he was committed to as an artist, trying to develop a new way of American writing which would be evocative of how people actually lived, whether or not it followed the rules of grammar or literary convention.

  -Audrey Sprenger, Sociologist, interview from On The Road, Kerouac’s 50th Anniversary Celebrated

Why I Love Reading, Summer 2007, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo by QuoinMonkey, all rights reserved.   Why I Love Reading, Summer 2007, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo by QuoinMonkey, all rights reserved.   Why I Love Reading, Summer 2007, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo by QuoinMonkey, all rights reserved.   Why I Love Reading, Summer 2007, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo by QuoinMonkey, all rights reserved.

Kerouac died young, in 1969, at age 47. Was it alcohol, stress, Benzedrine, fame? Perhaps a deadly combination. We may never know. But On the Road continues to sell over 100,000 copies every year. I count myself among the minions.

Not all reviews are favorable. Suzanne Vega wasn’t a big Kerouac fan even after her Book Of Dreams. Herbert Gold didn’t give On The Road a good review at its release in 1957. But I tend to fall in the same camp as Kerouac scholar Douglas Brinkley, and can get behind what he says in a 2002 NPR article by Renee Montagne, Kerouac’s On The Road:

If you read On the Road, it’s a valentine to the United States. All this is pure poetry for almost a boy’s love for his country that’s just gushing in its adjectives and descriptions. You know, Kerouac used to say, ‘Anybody can make Paris holy, but I can make Topeka holy.’

I’m saving the best for last. Like the writers before him, Kerouac wrote haiku. He loved to do readings in Jazz clubs in New York. You can hear him recite Some American Haikus (a few of my favorites: the bottoms of my shoes, nightfall, in the morning frost) and read the history of his recorded haiku at Kerouac Speaks. It’s a gift to hear a writer step inside his own voice.

Jack Kerouac, On The Road, Summer 2007, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo by QuoinMonkey, all rights reserved. 

After decades of never making it past the first few chapters, I’ve finally completed On The Road. And discovered Kerouac’s haiku in the process. It only took me 30 years. Who knows what my blocks were to reading it. Every book has its time.

I’ll end with an excerpt from Part III:

In the spring of 1949 I had a few dollars saved from my GI education checks and I went to Denver, thinking of settling down there. I saw myself in Middle America, a patriarch. I was lonesome. Nobody was there – no Babe Rawlins, Ray Rawlins, Tim Gray, Betty Gray, Roland Major, Dean Moriarty, Carlo Marx, Ed Dunkel, Roy Johnson, Tommy Snark, nobody.

I wandered around Curtis Street and Larimer Street, worked a while in the wholesale fruit market where I almost got hired in 1947 – the hardest job of my life; at one point the Japanese kids and I had to move a whole boxcar a hundred feet down the rail by hand with a jackgadget that made it move a quarter-inch with each yank. I hugged watermelon crates over the ice floor of reefers into the blazing sun, sneezing. In God’s name and under the stars, what for?

At dusk I walked. I felt like a speck on the surface of the sad red earth. I passed the Windsor Hotel, where Dean Moriarty had lived with his father in the depression thirties, and as of yore I looked everywhere for the sad and fabled tinsmith of my mind. Either you find someone who looks like your father in places like Montana or you look for a friend’s father where he is no more.

    –On The Road, Jack Kerouac, 1957

-posted on red Ravine, Thursday, November 29th, 2007

-related to post, Kerouac Goes To War

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