Judging New Books

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Like I told him during his most recent appearance on my podcast, when Dan Cubias sent me an advance copy of his new collection of essays, I figured I already knew what was in it. I don’t review a lot of books, but I used to review them regularly, mostly by Latino friends and acquaintances hoping I’ll blurb a bit of praise they can plaster across their social media. In the beginning I followed the typical book review recipe: two scoops of applause and a dash of criticism, topped with an overall endorsement. I did this for every book that appeared in my mailbox, whether great or awful, since I didn’t want to offend anyone or burn bridges just as they were being built, and I needed to practice my reviewing anyway. Plus it’s hard to bash the work of anyone honestly trying to create art, especially in these increasingly artless times.

But then I got sent some very bad books, which I couldn’t bring myself to applaud in the slightest, no matter how friendly I was with the author, or how much I wanted to support his or her ambition. At the end of the day, I have to stay true to what I believe and think. As a writer, my beliefs and thoughts are all I have — along with my style, they are what separate me from all the other scribblers — and if I start burying what I think and feel with nice words, then I’m no better than a politician.

So, now, if and when someone sends me their bad book, I read as much of it as I can take, and leave it at that. (“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all” — how different the internet would be if we all took Thumper’s advice.)

I promised Dan I’d review his book in a month or two, but that stretched to a little more than half a year. I was procrastinating (typical), but I was also avoiding what I thought would be another bad book by another buddy, a Latino at that, whom I didn’t want to offend, and whose creative spark I didn’t want to stamp out, but whose book I didn’t want to lie to the world about. And not only that: I keep a growing reading list of books, mostly the classics, which I’m dying to stroll through. So any new book only pulls me away from the old classics I want to read.

An old classic adds to you, whether you ultimately judge it good or bad, whereas reading a bad new book feels like a complete waste of time. To hate I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is not the same as hating House of Spirits. It’s hard to explain why that is, but it is, at least in the meantime. Maybe it’s just nearly impossible to judge your contemporaries fairly: just because something they do isn’t my cup of tea, or isn’t exactly how I would’ve done it, doesn’t make it any less good. As Pope Frank said about gay Catholics, “Who am I to judge?” I’m only 34, and haven’t seen or read enough to really know what’s good. I have strong inklings at most. And even if I could read every good and bad book ever written, my judgment would still be based on my personal experiences and perspective. The more books I read, the more I’m able to compare and contrast between a new book I’m reviewing and all the other books I’ve read, which helps me better decide what I like and don’t like about the new book. But the books I’ve read act only as a light, or a magnifying glass. In the end, I like what I like because of who I am.

That’s not to say I’m a relativist when it comes to art. I believe in good art, bad art, and very bad art. And there is plenty of good art that bores me — again, because I am who I am and like what I like. I recognize Huck FinnAugie March and Savage Detectives as good art, but I’d rather re-read Women by Bukowski than revisit one of them — heresy, literarily speaking, but true nonetheless.

Art must be made in the present, but it can only be truly judged in the future. A young James Baldwin famously criticized Native Son, written by his mentor, the canonical Richard Wright, but I imagine Native Son, and especially Wright’s memoir, Black Boy, are read more today than any of Baldwin’s own fiction (though Beale Street may have topped them all, now that it’s been made into a movie). “I knew Richard and I loved him,” Baldwin told The New York Times Book Review in 1984. “I wasn’t attacking him; I was trying to clarify something for myself.”

That’s what criticism of contemporary art basically is: self-clarification. We don’t so much as judge the work itself, but decide what we would’ve done differently and why. We do the same with the classics too, of course — that is, any good writer does — but because they’ve stood the test of time, the classics are our gold standard. They are the writer’s guiding-lights, his North Star, showing him not the model but the way. Homer will always be Homer, Shakespeare will always be Shakespeare, and Gabo will always be Gabo. Moby-Dick was barely read during Melville’s lifetime, but since the first centennial of his birth, it’s never not been read (and, for the sake of the English language and American literature, let’s hope it never won’t be).

Then again, a part of me still wonders whether I hesitated in cracking open Dan’s book of essays because he’s a Latino writer. It isn’t because Latinos are lesser writers. You need only think of three names — Martí, Borges, and Neruda — to quash that idea completely. But English is the Anglo’s game — he grows up with it seeping into his bones — and so Latinos tend to be lesser writers in English. Again, that’s not to say Latinos can’t rise to the heights of English-language masters, and plenty of non-native speakers have taken up English as a second language and put native speakers to shame (Conrad and Nabokov come to mind). But because Latinos are trained in a predominately Spanish-language culture, the odds are against a Latino becoming the next Toni Morrison.

All of what I’ve just said doesn’t apply to Latinos born and raised in the United States, or in other places where English saturates everything, for obvious reasons. (And I can already see the angry comments this essay will invite. Don’t bother writing them. I’m just writing it how I see it.)

So this is what I was thinking and feeling when Dan sent me his book, The Hispanic Fanatic: A Decade of Rants, Raves, and Uncomfortable Truths. And, despite it all, the book was a very plenty surprise.

The book is a collection of Dan’s blog posts stretching back to when he created his blog, Hispanic Fanatic, in 2008. And, because Dan is such a sharp social and political observer (as any regular reader of Enclave knows), the book acts as sort of a time capsule for those years, a decade which includes the Obama years, the 2016 election, and the rise of Trumpism, as well as cultural comments on everything from music, comedy, health, conspiracy theories, the internet, and social media, plus Dan’s own personal stories (my favorites are the two about his mom’s life and how his family tricked his grandma into quitting cigarettes). Not since Drown has a book so captured what it’s like to be a Latino, specifically a Latino man, in this day and age. I found myself laughing and shaking my head at times, and a tiny tear or two might’ve formed in my eye. And, as always with Dan’s writing, I walked away with a lot of facts, figures and bits of trivia that have left my understanding of the world, and this moment, much fuller.

This book has also changed how I write. I’ve been writing political pieces for so long that I’d forgotten writing (and reading) is supposed to be fun. Dan displays that perfect mixture in an essayist of writing well about serious topics, but with plenty of lightheartedness, humor, and fun. And Dan is near Orwellian in his fairness: even when you feel his contempt for someone or something simmer below the surface, it never boils over the page, and his tone is never severe or too harsh. He’s just writing it how he sees it, which is the very most a reader should want from a writer. In all art, truth is what we’re after — not so much reality as is, but the truth about reality. Hyperbole won’t do.

I’m not going overboard by saying that Dan’s book, The Hispanic Fanatic, is very good. But don’t take my lousy word for it — pick up a copy, and decide for yourself.

 

The Hispanic Fanatic: A Decade of Rants, Raves, and Uncomfortable Truths

By Daniel Cubias
Angry Cherub Publishing: 472 pages

Hector is the editor and publisher of Enclave. A Chicago writer now floating on the edge of Las Vegas, he is also the former deputy editor for Latino Rebels, as well as the former managing editor for Gozamos, a Latino art-activism site based in his home town. He has contributed to RedEye, a Chicago daily geared toward millennials, and La Respuesta, a New York-based site for the Puerto Rican Diaspora, plus a number of publications, including The Huffington Post. He studied history (for some reason) at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where his focus was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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