Tables Turned: A Review of Junot Diaz’s “This is How You Lose Her”

(A word from our sponsor: Not sure how to avoid plagiarism? I use Grammarly because copy and pasting is for kids that eat Elmer’s glue.)

Image courtesy of Goodreads.com

Image courtesy of Goodreads.com

This book made me miss my train stop.  ‘Nuff said.  Oh, you actually want to hear what the book was about and what about it kept my attention rapt? Well, then I will continue.

I was introduced to Junot Diaz by a friend a little over two years ago. Since then, I’ve read one novel and two short story collections of his, including “This is How You Lose Her.” I’ve loved his sassy, authentic, Dominican characters.  This particular collection focuses on Yunior, a twenty-something born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New York. He can’t seem to help but cheat, and I was worried that this entire collection would just be tales of his escapades. But, of course, Junot Diaz is too good of a writer to simply create one-dimensional characters.

I was delighted to find that Yunior has a rich backstory since, on the surface, he seemed like the stereotypical macho Hispanic man. This book served to remind me that everyone acts the way they do for a reason or several reasons.

This collection chronicles Yunior from the teenage years and above. There are women he’s loved and lost, some of which he actually cared about. Diaz also develops the relationship between Yunior and his brother, a macho man idol in Yunior’s eyes. The brother becomes ill with cancer, devastating our main character. It is these bumps in the road that mold and harden Yunior.

These bumps can be seen, and are fully explored, in the last short story, “A Cheater’s Guide to Love.” In this tale, Yunior’s fiance finds out he has been cheating on her during all the years they’ve been together. They split, and the journey begins. Diaz divides the story into 6 parts, each representing one year of Yunior’s life post-breakup. Karma catches up with him, which had the vengeful Latina in me cheering. And yet, by year 2 or 3, I found myself feeling sorry for him. By then, I felt like he got what he deserved and should be able to move on. But he couldn’t. Any attempts to genuinely start a better life for himself were thwarted not only by mental anguish, but by physical pain and friend problems as well.

Is there such a thing as too much pain or punishment? Diaz subtly poses this question and many more in his book. He makes the reader question “right” and “wrong” because he paints the human experience in the richness of gray and complexity.  Another aspect of his writing that I appreciate is the fact that he includes Dominican history and snippets of the Spanish language. While some may argue that this makes his work inaccessible to some, I’d argue that it lends another layer of authenticity to his stories.  Personally, while I am half Dominican, I am not familiar with that part of my heritage, and I’m thankful to Diaz for filling me in. His use of Spanish and Spanglish makes his writing feel like home to me. It is the kind of writing that makes me break the surface of reality two train stops late…and I’m ok with that.

I’d recommend this book to those who would like Latin-inspired fiction that is by turns conversational and profane. Also, if you want another good Diaz read that gives backstory on Yunior’s father, I recommend “Drown.”

Lastly, below is a speech/Q&A given by Junot Diaz. In it, he talks about “This is How You Lose Her” and Yunior’s character. I was surprised to find that there are still more layers to the character that have yet to be written about.

2013: The Year in Review

It’s the end of the first 2014 day, so I’d like to recap my 2013 goals:

1. Work out at least once a week
Mission accomplished! I wasn’t doing so hot with this one earlier in the year, but since August, I’ve been consistently kickboxing each week.  I hope to keep this up in the new year.

Book collection

Book collection (Photo credit: Ian Wilson)

2. Read 20 books I own that I have not read yet
This one wasn’t as successful. I only read one book in this category (Elegy with a Glass of Whiskey – Crystal Bacon), but I suppose it’s better than nothing.

3. Read 10 of the books on my Goodreads list.
I was so close to reaching this goal.  I read 8 books (list below), and I’m hoping to get in a full 10 this year.

  1. Bake Sale – Sara Varon (January 2013)
  2. The Medusa Plot – Gordon Korman (January 2013)
  3. A King’s Ransom – Jude Watson (January 2013)
  4. The Dead of Night – Peter Lerangis (January 2013)
  5. This is How You Lose Her – Junot Diaz (February 2013)
  6. Slapboxing with Jesus – Victor LaValle (July 2013)
  7. Drown – Junot Diaz (May 2013)
  8. Matched – Ally Condie (July 2013)

4. Publish a poetry chapbook with a press
This one, I now realize, may have been a misguided since I can’t control whether or not my chapbook gets picked up.  I can really only submit and hope, but I’m glad I at least tried.

5. Create more art (which is to say, work on a piece at least once a week)
This one had the opposite progression of my first goal: I started out really good, and then the art productivity steadily dropped. Unfortunately, I haven’t worked on a piece of art in months, but I do hope to change that as I have a couple of weeks off before the start of the semester.

Music guitar

Music guitar (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

6. Practice guitar at least once every other week
I don’t think I touched a guitar this year, which saddens me. However, this result did show me that while I like guitar, it’s not a priority in my life right now. I’d rather focus on activities that really excite me. Once time for those things is carved out, perhaps I can branch out into guitar.

7. Watch every Jason Statham movie
This is another mission accomplished! I finished back in September, and it was a great feeling. This was definitely a fun, quirky resolution, and perhaps I’ll pick another actor’s movies to watch in the future.

8. Try to post something brand new on Etsy at least once a month
This goal, like my guitar resolution, showed me what is important—right now, Etsy is not. Honestly, I grew weary of working on a piece of art and wondering if it would sell.  I want to get back to working on art because I love it, because it’s therapeutic, because it helps me relax. For the time being, I’ve closed my Etsy shops.  I’m not sure if they’ll make a reappearance. I’d like to hope they will, but time will tell.

9. Post on this blog twice a week
The progress with this goal was sort of a wave curve. I started off great, then dropped off, then got back on track, then dropped off again. It was definitely progress, but I don’t know that I’d count it as a solid win.  

Money cash

Money cash (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

10. Pay off one of my two credit cards
Another not-quite-win here. I paid down one of them, but it hasn’t been paid off yet. Meeting financial goals is hard, but, like most goals on this list, I’d rather try than make no progress at all.

I definitely didn’t keep as many resolutions as I thought I would, which left me disappointed. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that this list helped me to establish what is important to me and what can fall by the wayside. This new knowledge has helped shape my 2014 resolutions, and I’m hoping that I’m able to stick with them a bit better than last year’s goals. Then again, it’s not always the items ticked off the list, but the journey, that counts.

Of Mitres and John Coltrane: My Thoughts on Blue Like Jazz

Blue Like Jazz: The Movie

I think Don Miller is pretty cool.  If you’ve spent any time around me, you already know this.  I’ve been reading his books for a couple of years now.  He seems like the kind of guy you could sit down with at a coffee shop and talk for hours, which might be why I keep reading.

The reason could also be that his work is real.  Don doesn’t sugar coat life or faith or the hard work it takes to get where you want to go.  So I was thrilled to learn his memoir, “Blue Like Jazz,” was going to be made into a movie.  And after this surge of anticipation came a wave of dread.  Books turned movies don’t always translate well (“The Lightning Thief” anyone?).

As a book, Blue Like Jazz is a beautiful fusion of faith and wrestling and life and interactions with people that seem really off-beat (in the best way.)  To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the film.  Many movies under the “Christian” label can be quite biased and unrealistic.  This movie could also swing in the opposite direction, creating a piece devoid of any deeper meaning.

After I saw the movie this past Friday, I was happy to find that Blue Like Jazz is delightfully balanced, showing both the reality of life (specifically college life) and all of its complexities when you throw in wrestling with faith.

Sure, there will be the people who may expect a sermon and will not be happy with the fact that the movie doesn’t end with Don’s character parading around the campus of Reed College handing out Bibles and yelling, “Repent!”  There will also be people who won’t like it because of all the God talk.  But, ultimately, this movie serves as a great discussion piece.  Not to say that the cinematography wasn’t good or that the dialogue felt forced.  But the movie is more than close-ups and funny one-liners.  Blue Like Jazz is a movie that isn’t afraid to wrestle with the larger life questions and refuses to present clear-cut answers simply because we all have our own experiences, which almost never produce a neat answer when we add them all together.  Life is art, not math.

There are certainly big differences between the book’s accounts and the movie’s portrayal.  But the film tells a good story (and, really, isn’t that what a movie should accomplish?).  There is one scene I keep coming back to where Don’s character is speaking with his father.  His dad is sitting on a lawn chair outside of his trailer, drinking a beer, and listening to Coltrane when he says two lines that have stuck with me: “Life is like Jazz music.  It doesn’t resolve.”  This is the main theme I took away from the movie.  It’s a theme that is nuanced, and certainly opens the floor to discussion.

A Love Supreme

All of the people Don interacts with along the way (Penny, Lauryn, “the Pope”) are three-dimensional.  They are not dismissed as heathens or God girls or merely intellectuals.  There’s depth to them, qualities that made them all human.  This is perhaps my favorite aspect of the movie, mostly because I can relate.  I have a friend who reminds me of Lauryn and a friend who is pretty much “the Pope” (minus the mitre).  And these friends have struggles and beauty and flaws.  And yet, I feel that some would box them in, then write in big, bold, Sharpie letters “THE LESBIAN” and “THE PAGAN.”  Blue Like Jazz shows that people are more than the sum of their labels without being preachy.  That in and of itself is quite a feat.  I hope movies (both Hollywood and “Christian”) will take a hint from this movie and create more films with complex characters.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the film not because it was made by a Christian author or marketed to a specific audience.  I enjoyed the movie because it is refreshing, because it is honest, because it celebrates the very human freedom to question and draw conclusions from our own messy and beautiful experiences.

It has been five days since I’ve seen this movie. For whatever reason, I can’t stop listening to John Coltrane.

Listen to a song by Coltrane here: Acknowledgement by John Coltrane from the album A Love Supreme