Thursday, November 12, 2009

Thursday Treat #2: Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood by Ben Alire Saenz

I had to think long and hard about what #2 of my “Thursday Treats” would be. Quite a few of my favorite books are actually young adult books, so I decided to pick one of those as a nice contrast to science fiction aspect of Ender’s Game, last week’s choice.

I decided that the honor of #2 should go to an incredibly moving book that I absolutely love and recommend to as many people as possible.

Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood focuses mainly on Sammy, a boy growing in a barrio in New Mexico during the 1960s. The barrio is nicknamed "Hollywood" and is a home to a large Chicano community. Sammy and his friends face quite a number of issues: love, drinking, drugs, decisions about the future, a friend joining the military and leaving, homosexuality, racism, and death.

It is an incredibly moving story and one that made me cry when I first read it. I say that not to exaggerate its power, but to tell you how touched I was by the voices of these characters.

Sammy, in particular, is a boy after my own heart. They call him the “librarian” among his group of friends, and many of his friends seem to turn to him in times of need. Sammy finds solace in himself, especially after the tragedy he faces in the beginning chapters of the novel.

The other characters also seem to grab hold of you. Pifas is another one of my favorites. He is drafted to go fight in the Vietnam War. His leaving the barrio truly touches the group and brings them closer together.

However, even though the characters are remarkable, it’s the situations and issues they face that really make this book excellent. Together, they face heavy issues that teenagers should never have to face, but do every day. The characters are relatable, so as things seem to move against them, the reader is also on their side. The issue of homosexuality is one that really stands out in this novel in the way it is discussed. I believe that it can really hit home with teenagers in the way that the characters handle it.

This is a book I would love to teach to students, but probably will never be able to. Why? This book is too honest about the lives of teenagers and the darker side of life and humanity. It also contains a lot of profanity, but what I believe to be necessary profanity. It would not have as much power over the reader as it does without it.

The author, Ben Alire Saenz, is also a poet, which is obvious from the way he weaves his words together. Many passages are simply so beautiful that you need to sit back and let them digest a bit before moving on. Unfortunately, I don’t think this book was as well-publicized as it should have been, or as well-known as it should be (Overall, multi-cultural authors are never as “big” as others, which is a shame).

Here is one of my favorite passages from the novel:

“I didn't know anybody could sing like that. And the song she was singing, it was an old Mexican love song entitled La gloria eres tu. She was singing from a different place. And in the moonlight, she didn't seem like a girl at all. She was a soman with a voice. Any man would die just to hear that voice. I thought the world had stopped to listen to Gigi Carmona from Hollywood. I could see tears rolling down Pifa's face. As pure as Gigi's voice. Maybe this was the way the world should end. Not with me and my own thoughts, not with high school boys using their firsts on each other, not with Pifas going off to war - but with the tears of boys falling to the beat of a woman's song, the sounds of guns and bombs and fists against flesh disappearing. This is the way the world should end with boys turning into men as they listen to a woman sing."

This novel is worth the read. Believe me.

You can learn more about Ben Saenz at his site.

He has many other books which I have not had an opportunity to read, except a volume of poetry Elegies in Blue which is phenomenal.

And Ben has no idea who I am, nor does he know about my lowly little blog. This is all my own opinion.

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