Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

I’m pushing through once more, trying to stay positive about the project. I’ll be honest, it’s harder than I would like right now to read and post, and it’s making me nervous that I’m not going to get to where I want to go. I’m appreciating my promotion at work and my new gig…but I’m busy, and stressed, and between that and trying to stay dedicated to nutrition and exercise, it’s hard to find the time for anything else.

But I found the time for this entry, so I’ll pat myself on the back for that. Two entries in two days is a major win for me, and I’m hoping that realizing I can be semi-prolific while still busy with all those other things will push me over the edge toward progress.

With that in mind, the 21st book of Project 84 is:

A Guide to Recognizing
Your Saints

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints: A Memoir
by Dito Montiel

This book had been on my shelf forever, and I couldn’t remember what had possessed me to purchase it in the first place. Then I saw Channing Tatum on the cover, and it became a bit more clear ;). When I bought it, I had planned to read this book and then see the movie…but I did neither. So I figured I could at least get step one completed.

I’m not sure that finishing this book pushed me to see the movie.

The book is a memoir (and I do love memoirs) in the form of short stories. Because of the format, the narrative is a bit choppy. The short stories go back and forth between present day, childhood flashbacks, adolescent flashbacks, young adulthood...but it’s ultimately the story of Dito, a writer and musician, who grew up in Queens.

During his childhood, Dito was involved with a pretty rough crowd. We learn the stories of many of them – most notably Antonio, another boy from the neighborhood, a sort of older brother to Dito. During a street fight, Antonio kills someone, and his story seems to guide much of Dito’s life. As he grows up up, Dito becomes involved with a semi-successful band – Gutterboy – who receive a giant advance of a million dollars, and are, subsequently, dropped from their label after an unsuccessful debut.

Dito guides us through his life experiences – from modeling in New York, to writing with Alan Ginsburg, to aimlessly wandering around California with a girlfriend who fell from his life.

The book is…poetic. But I’m not sure that makes it good, persay. There were stories in this book that I found so compelling I couldn’t put the book down. And there were others I found almost absurdist and strange, and hard to wrap my head around.

I think the main problem with this book – and this may have been more my problem than that of the author – was that I found it tough to relate to Dito’s life experiences. Obviously, with memoirs, I’m usually reading about events that I didn’t experience. But I didn’t need to go to jail to feel Piper’s plight in Orange is the New Black. I didn’t need to “lose my mind” to identify with Susannah in Brain on Fire. I was able to put myself in their shoes, I was able to identify with them because I could imagine how I would react in a situation like that. I could feel for what they were going through.

With Dito’s stories, I had issues relating. It wasn’t that I’ve never been in the situations he experienced, it’s that I never would be in those situations. I wouldn’t put myself there. The things that he recalled as exciting, I saw as reckless and, for lack of a better word, stupid. The things that he seemed to accept as fact, I saw as absurd.

There’s a point early in the book where he talks about Antonio’s manslaughter charge, and he says this about his sentencing:
“Caught, a disgrace, and erased from everyone’s thoughts for the very same crime that every single one of us was guilty of. I couldn’t understand it.” – page 15
I think that passage is really telling about why I found it so hard to identify to this book. I haven’t been there, I wouldn’t be there. I would never have been guilty of beating a guy to death, no matter what happened. Even if put in that situation where a close friend did such a thing, that would not be how I rationalized it. I do feel for Antonio – he lived a tough life, he was raised tough, and he got into trouble because of it – but he did something for which he should be punished, and it isn’t something that everyone experiences.

Ultimately, I think Dito is a great writer. There’s one story where he talks about “perfect moments” that almost brought me to tears. But, much like Was, I don’t think great writing is enough. Memoirs – no matter how well-written – only work if I am able to identify with the subject. Try as I might, I just couldn’t put myself in Dito’s shoes.

I’m not sure if I would recommend this book. The truth is, I didn’t enjoy it, but that may have been more of my own problem than the problem of the book itself. I think there would be (and are, I’ve seen them!) people who would enjoy this book, so if it sounds appealing to you – give it a try! It’s a quick read, even if you don’t respond to it.


For some reason, this was one of the easiest entries I’ve written so far. Maybe I just knew exactly how I felt about this book, so it wasn’t hard to articulate, but this one seemed to fly out of my fingers. Here’s to more of them being that easy!

Like I said in the last entry, expect a barrage of posts coming within the next few weeks as I try to catch up. I’m sure there will be a lull again, so if you decide you want to wait to read some of these, I wouldn’t blame you. But 21 posts are written, I’ve read 28 books, and I’m close to being finished with a few more. I know I can do this.

Next Review: Invisible by Paul Auster (Expected Posting Date: Friday, June 6th)

**All quotes and annotations refer to this version of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, published by Da Capo Press in 2003**

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