Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a Nigerian writer who divides her time between the U.S. and the land of her birth. She is a skilled novelist with important stories to tell. In The Thing Around Your Neck (Anchor, $15), her first collection of short fiction, she writes about the experiences of her fellow Nigerians, here and at home. In the title story a young woman comes to the U.S. and finds this is not the America of her dreams. Another woman lives in the lap of luxury in Philadelphia but learns from friends that her husband has moved another woman into their Lagos home. The sense of isolation and betrayal these women feel is palpable. Adichie makes real the fear of both the medical student fleeing a riot and the Muslim woman who shelters him in “A Private Experience.” The beauty of short-story collections is that they can be read one piece at a time—perfect for summer.
When The Madonnas Of Echo Park (Free Press, $14) came out about a year ago, I was certain that Brando Skyhorse would be recognized as one of the best young writers working today. This novel comprises interconnected stories set in a once lustrous, but now working-class and Chicano, neighborhood in Los Angeles. The characters are realistic, the sights and sounds are vivid and exciting, and the stories pack an emotional punch. Take a moment and read the first page of this marvelous first novel—you’ll be hooked.
Brando Skyhorse’s debut novel, The Madonnas of Echo Park, recounts the lives of Mexican Americans living in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park, once a fashionable home for people in the movie business and now a working-class community. Through a series of shifting points of view, we meet Felicia, a cleaning lady, and her daughter Aurora. We meet Efren Mendoza, a bus driver, and his brother Manny former jefe of the street gang Locos and father to Juan who’s just enlisted in the Army. And there are others - all of these people who make up a neighborhood, people we see every day, never imagining the richness of their lives, or knowing how they intersect. The title comes from an incident that shaped the whole community, an accidental shooting, affecting some tangentially and affecting others deeply and crucially. This is a fine and beautiful novel by any standard, but as a first novel, it is astoundingly good.
The Madonnas Of Echo Park (Free Press, $23), by first-time novelist Brandon Skyhorse, tells the story of a community of Mexican-Americans living in Los Angeles. The group includes a bus driver, a cleaning lady, a student, a retail clerk, a mom, and a gang member. The lives of this disparate bunch of middle-class people are affected—some immediately and some tangentially—by an act of senseless violence. Skyhorse unfolds the narrative with enormous compassion and beauty; it resonates long after you put down the book.
Luis Alberto Urrea’s Into The Beautiful North (Back Bay, $14.99) is a particularly lovely and haunting variation on the quest novel. Joblessness and poverty have chased all the men from Tres Camarones, a tiny, remote village in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. But when drug bandits threaten to overpower the town, the feisty, teenaged Nayeli and her three friends vow to sneak across the U.S. border and bring their fathers and brothers home. After a terrifying interlude in crime-ridden Tijuana, the ragtag group does make it to “El Norte” and back again–but with surprising, bittersweet results.