Sunday, July 19, 2009

Down to the Bone--Mayra Lazara Dole (book review)

Down to the Bone is fiction, but inspired by a true incident in author Mayra Lazara Dole's life:
At fourteen, my first love and I were thrown out of a Miami Catholic high school due to a love letter she sent me about our first time making love. . . . They read the letter to my mom who’d been dragged from one of her factory jobs to attend the infamous finger-pointing experience (finding out her little girl was a total homo)–Mami was so shocked she punished me harshly: I could never again see or speak to my beloved. (Mayra Lazara Dole, in an interview with Teen Book Review)
Down the the Bone begins as Laura experiences the same humiliation Dole recalls, and the subsequent rejection by her school, her mother, and many of her friends. Laura and the other characters are Cuban Americans in Miami, and one strength of this book is that it's so thoroughly enmeshed in that vibrant community. Everything, from the dialogue to the food to the attitudes towards homosexuality, is Cuban to the core. Me, I thought the characters were over-the-top, but what do I know? Dole herself says (as quoted on Chasing Ray) , "Cubans are over-the-top and I’m always asked to drastically tone down my characters." So, apparently I was experiencing a bit of culture shock.

I don't think it was just the culture shock that kept me from connecting with Laura, though. Her focus on who she wants to kiss and who she's willing to be seen with made it hard for me to take her seriously. Her "I'm not gay, I'm just in love with a girl" would have rung truer for me had she struggled at all with her feelings for the girl in question. Instead she's so cotton-candy sweet in-love that I had to brush my teeth afterwards and instead of feeling sorry about their separation, I was relieved. Let's just say this: private nicknames like "Pookie" and "Scrunchy" should not be legalized for public consumption, no matter the genders of the happy lovebirds.

So, not one of those YA books that I (twenty-plus years past the target audience age) fell in love with. But as an alternative to the plethora of books out there in which blonde, blue-eyed girls obsess over who they're willing to be seen with and which boys they want to kiss? I hope Ms. Dole has more where this one came from.

The Soundtrack: Here's Pitbull taking you on a tour of his hometown while singing Ay Chico. If you refuse to listen to rap or are bothered by mildly suggestive lyrics (the Spanish part is fairly tame, basically he's singing for everybody to get down, don't be afraid to stick your tongue out, and he doesn't want water he wants a drink), by all means turn the video's sound down and listen to Tito Puente or Gloria Estefan instead--the faces of Miami are worth watching to any soundtrack. Pitbull, born Armando Christian Pérez, was born in Miami in 1981 to first generation Cuban immigrants, who raised him right: with poetry. They made him memorize the works of nineteenth century Cuban poet José Martí.


  1. Yes - no Pookie or Scrunchy for me please ;)

  2. I loved this book! And Mayra is a super nice person.

  3. Laura is a teen. Her sexual identity might be clear to the reader, but not to a teen who has only loved once, one whose culture outwardly and quite harshly criticizes it and Laura like a lot of people has set idea of what it means to gay. And she's a teen? Let's not forget that. A lot of things that don't make sense to us, makes perfect sense to teens. Her denial was one of the things that made her real to me.

    Call me weird. Or maybe its because I know enough teen girls who have gone through this period.

  4. Hi Susan! I totally get the denial, if anything I wanted more of it. It was the contrast between that and the gushy "I'm yours forever and ever" between her and Marlena that didn't mesh for me.

  5. I hear you. I guess the contrast felt natural to me. I have two girls. One is currently in the throes of teendom and in some ways she acts like Laura.

    My teen was caught sucking face with a boy. Yes, she caught it (drama from me) for that, too. Same teen insists she's not that into said boy. He's not her boyfriend. This wasn't a casual hookup either (thank, Maude). Still in my teen's head, these contradictions are not contradictions.

    I think it's very realistic that it takes Laura times to connect the dots.

  6. not sure it's my thing but it sounds interesting! :-) i think i need to read more YA :-)

  7. Interesting. If I'm understanding right, it's a rap video about a woman's pleasure? I can get behind that!

  8. Marie, let me know if you ever want some recommendations for YA novels that make great adult reads.

    Julia, I didn't listen that carefully to the English lyrics, just well enough to decide they weren't too offensive to post--but you may have a point, there.

  9. I've been meaning to read this for a while. I'll probably feel the culture shock too, but like you said, this is different from so much of what's out there. That alone makes it very appealing to me.

  10. sometimes a little culture shock is good for us. I will have to check this author out...thanks.

  11. Sometimes a little culture shock is good for us.

    Couldn't have said it better myself!

  12. OUCH! i understand that not all books are for everyone, but disliking an over-the-top culture and its nicknames, Alisonsita? i long for the days when authors review bloggers. HA! (can't wait!)

    you say, "Pittbull's mildly suggestive lyrics?" you can't possibly be a POC, right? you have no clue what he's referring to? the second, less hidden meaning, has Pittbul and everyone in our culture, sticking their tongues out at you for this review! "Todo el mundo con la lengua afuera!!!" LOVED the video and wish you'd loved my book. maybe next time... my next book has zero nicknames, i swear!

    signing off: scrunchiloni macaroni
    : D

  13. Hi Mayra,

    You cracked me up about the lyrics--yes, even though my ethnicity is Anglo-European I do know the other meaning! :-) It was actually the English lyrics I was talking about as mildly suggestive, though. No double meaning, there, much as I wish there was! My sons listen to a lot of rap and they're fairly young--I could write a whole post about lyrics and how I decide and re-decide what's okay for their ears.

    I didn't think I said I disliked the Cuban culture, so I'm sorry that's what you heard. "One strength of this book is that it's so thoroughly enmeshed in that vibrant community." I loved that about it!

    Here's the thing: certain characters (Laura's mom, for example) didn't ring true for me. When I read the Chasing Ray article, it occured to me that could be a cultural issue. I was trying to acknowledge, in my review, that maybe the reason they didn't ring true is because I'm less familiar with their culture. Did it come off as me dissing the culture itself? Yikes, that's horrible. That's not what I meant at all! I apologize.

    I think nicknames like Pooky are a cross-cultural phenomenon, though! But the way it makes me cringe could very well be part of my own cultural background. Interesting.

    Can't wait to read your next book, Mayra, and I'll tell you what--as my thanks to you for taking the time to comment on my blog--if I don't love it, I'll skulk away quietly and keep my thoughts to myself.

  14. Ali, there's a severe need for a literary landscape that reflects POC and LGBT people of color in the US and i hoped my book would have been celebrated with open arms by all.

    thanks for responding. please don't ever keep your thoughts to yourself. yes, unfortunately, it sounded as if you didn't like parts of my culture, since every aspect of my book is drenched in it (but i know you didn't mean it as it came across). the mom, which doesn't ring true to you, is drawn from a real Cuban mom who is far more over-the-top than the character. Pooki and Scrunchi are the nicknames of real live Cuban American closeted teen girlfriends who were in my LGBT teen focus group. they feel a great sense of pride in my having used the nicknames they gave each other in my book.

    when the focus of a bad review has to do with the blogger's personal taste, or anything cultural, instead of on literary challenges, in my perspective, the blogger loses credibility. granted, a blogger might dislike my book and that's OK because para los gustos se hicieron los colores (colors were made to please folks' tastes)... but i would have appreciated a critical review, pointing out the literary strengths and weaknesses. I LOVE to listen and learn.

    After authors put so much hard work, time, effort, love, passion, focus, sacrifice, sweat and tears into writing a novel (especially POC), the feeling of receiving a non-professional bad review might be akin to a Cuban blogger visiting your home. she leaves and on her blog bashes your children: "the ugly kid with large ears is always picking his nose. the stinky, bratty child must be hyperactive with a bad case of ADD. the mother has no parenting skills. she's so cool, calm and collected. why, she's never even given those poor children nicknames! don't visit this family. they are just too white middle class. Culture shock alert!"

    do you see what i mean?--you certainly weren't mean and you didn't bash. you were just stating your thoughts and that's important, but what if i went around and trashed your reviewing skills for all to read after the efforts you've put into having the best possible blog?

    the perspective of a POC author who's book has been trashed, instead of critically reviewed, might look like this: "we're out there to be clobbered, but most bloggers are masked and safe. you don't know our culture yet you can tear at our hearts, bring our ratings down, have people not buy our books, and not give us a chance to succeed in the white market, but we don't even know your full names thus we can't fight back." it seems unfair, but, on the other hand, that's the nature of the business and it's highly important for bloggers to state their opinion. i come from a communist country and speaking what we feel is extremely important. so... believe it or not, i appreciate your honesty, Ali. i just wish the bad parts had been stated in a way where i could have learned from them. and once again, i wish you had embraced my culture and my book.

    regardless, thanks for your review and input. no harsh feelings, i promise. : D

  15. what if i went around and trashed your reviewing skills for all to read after the efforts you've put into having the best possible blog?

    What if? I think you just did.

    So, the answer is, I would step away from the conversation for the time being, as I'm going to do.

    Any recommendations of other books with a Cuban American theme? I'd love to read more.

  16. so sorry. : ( good idea about stepping away.

    i don't know any other authentic Cuban American YA novel. the Cuban novelist, Zoe Valdes, is more Cubana que las palmas y el cafe. she wrote, I GAVE YOU ALL I HAD (translated from Spanish to English)--it's over-the-top in an authentic Cuban way and wasn't edited or toned down. if you read it, i'd love to know your thoughts on the book. if you have a Cuban restaurants by your neck of the woods, i could recommend some delicious Cuban food and we can make friends and forget the past?


  17. Sounds like a good plan to me. I put a hold on I Gave You All I Had at the library and have put it on my reading list for this year.

    As far as Cuban restaurants, we have two that are well-liked around here--Pambiche is the closest to my neighborhood, has great music on their website, and looks more like home-cooking style. And, I just looked at the "bakery" section of their website: wow! Oba! looks more formal, with fancier food, more of a date place rather than a place to take the kids to. I was just looking at their menus online, both look delicious in different ways. Too bad it's eleven at night, I'm hungry now!

  18. Pambiche's has authentic comida criolla! Fantastic! Oba seems neuvo rich, uppwardly mobile gourmet Cuban (what we call here, YUCA). you've got to eat at Pambiche. everything looks exquisite. i recommend el Plato Cubano (drizzle the black beans with olive oil), Ropa Vieja or Arroz on Pollo for beginners. guanabana shake is delicious. after dinner, have a cafecito (Cuban shot of espresso). i searched for flan, but couldn't find it for desert. i hope you get to eat there and enjoy the food! let me know how it goes.

  19. Ali, it just dawned on me after all these months that I didn't mean the review your wrote was BAD. I wish I had expressed myself better. What I meant by BAD review is that I didn't get a favorable review. I now realize that you must have thought I was saying that your review was awful and badly written. My apologies. In no way was I talking about the way your review was written. Now I understand why you might have been upset and why your response. My apologies for not being clearer. Hope all's well and that you visited the Cuban restaurants and enjoyed the food. Best, Mayra Lazara Dole (needed to write Anonymous because my remark didn't go through).

  20. Thanks, Mayra. We did go to Pambiche, and it was amazing! I ordered the Vaca Frita with maduros, and my husband got Pescado con Coco with tostones. Then we ordered two salads, Ensalada de Remolacha, and
    Ensalada Caribeña. I'm a big fan of citrus flavors in savory dishes, so I was in heaven. And the plantains were awesome. Oh, and for dessert we had the Pudin Diplomatica. My husband's comment on the dessert was "Ay, if we could all get along like pound cake, caramel sauce, and cream." :-)

  21. Ali. I can't tell you how happy it's made me that you enjoyed our food! Next time, order ROPA VIEJA (literally means: old clothes). BTW and FYI, Pambiche is the way Cubans say Palm Beach.
    Ps. glad there are no hard feelings. ; )