Weekly Words about New Books in

Independent Bookstores

September 18, 2022

New Memoirs Describe a Harrowing Childhood Migration and a Liberating Life on Broadway

Solito: A Memoir by Javier Zamora. Salvadoran poet and activist Zamora saw his father flee El Salvador when he was one and saw his mother follow suit when he was five. Both 'migrations' were caused by U.S.-funded Salvadoran Civil War, and his debut poetry collection, Unaccompanied (2017), explores the impact of the war and immigration on his family. With Solito, he recounts his own migration - a 3,000-mile journey from his small town in El Salvador, through Guatemala and Mexico, and across the U.S. border. A harrowing trip under any circumstances but this one made more extraordinary because he was only nine years old at the time.   

Traveling alone with a group of strangers and the "coyote" hired to lead them to safety, Javier's trip is supposed to last two short weeks. He cannot foresee the perilous boat trips, relentless desert treks, pointed guns, arrests, and deceptions that await him; nor can he know that those two weeks will expand into two life-altering months alongside the group of strangers who will come to encircle him like an unexpected family.

Solito is Zamora's story, but it's also the story of millions of others who have had no choice but to leave home.

In its glowing review, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote "The magic of this book lies not only in the beguiling voice of young Javier, or the harrowing journey and immense bravery of the migrants, or in the built-in hero's journey of this narrative. The magic comes from the deep humanity with which Zamora tells the story. . . . It's hard to reconcile the fact that this book hasn't always been with us. How can something so essential and fundamental to the American story not already be part of our canon?" 

Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green. I was initially reluctant to write about this (auto)biography, not because it isn't hugely entertaining (it is) or because it doesn't contain lots of fascinating history (it does). I just wasn't sure how many people would be interested in a memoir about life in the Broadway theater world. But Shy is ensconced on national bestseller lists, and I'm a big theater fan, so here goes.

Mary Rodgers was born in 1931 and died in 2014. Her father was famed composer Richard Rodgers, who with partner Oscar Hammerstein created musicals like Oklahoma, The King & I, and The Sound of Music. Her son, Adam Guettel, wrote the score for the Tony award-winning The Light in the Piazza. Being stuck in the middle of such a talent sandwich often had Mary saying, “What am I, bologna?" Funny, but hardly accurate. Rodgers herself was an accomplished composer, author, and screenwriter. She was the author of the novel Freaky Friday and of several other novels and wrote the music for Once Upon a Mattress, which was nominated for a Tony. Bologna indeed.

Rodgers was outspoken, sardonic, and very funny, and all those traits are on full display. But Shy also tells the story of a woman liberating herself from disapproving parents and pervasive sexism to find art and romance on her own terms. And all that would be more than enough for a great read, but the author's anecdotes and remembrances are embellished by annotations, contradictions, and interruptions from Jesse Green, the chief theater critic of The New York Times. Green's contributions add to the accuracy and enjoyment of this dishy and delightful look at the mid-century New York theater scene through the eyes of one of its most idiosyncratic creative minds.

Now in Paperback - Literary Historical Fiction Brings Thomas Mann to Life

The Magician by Colm Toibin. The author of Nora Webster and Brooklyn (among others) wrote a well-received fictional biography of Henry James called The Master back in 2005. With The Magician, he tackles another literary - albeit very different - figure, Thomas Mann, in an epic family saga set across a half century spanning World War I, the rise of Hitler, World War II, and the Cold War. Mann was perhaps the most successful novelist of his time, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, and a public man whose private life remains secret. Here's a brief description:

The Magician opens in a provincial German city at the turn of the 20th century, where the boy, Thomas Mann, grows up with a conservative father, bound by propriety, and a Brazilian mother, alluring and unpredictable. Young Mann hides his artistic aspirations from his father and his homosexual desires from everyone. He is infatuated with one of the richest Jewish families in Munich, and marries the daughter Katia. On a holiday in Italy, he longs for a boy he sees on a beach and writes the story Death in Venice. He is expected to lead the condemnation of Hitler, whom he underestimates. He flees Germany for Switzerland, France and, ultimately, America, living first in Princeton and then in Los Angeles.

“An incisive and witty novel that shows what good company the Nobelist and his family might have been… The Magician is Mann-sized, but it canters along not only on the strength of Tóibín’s graceful prose, but also because the reader can hardly wait for the next bon mot from a family member or guest.” — Dennis Drabelle, The Washington Post

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Hi, I'm Hut Landon, and I'm a bookseller in an independent bookstore in BerkeIey, CA.

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