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Take This Man
Table of Contents
About The Book
One of NBC News’s 10 Best Latino Books of 2014
“A West Coast version of Augusten Burroughs’s Running With Scissors...A funny, shocking, generous-hearted book” (Entertainment Weekly) about a boy, his five stepfathers, and the mother who was determined to give her son everything but the truth.
When he was three years old, Brando Kelly Ulloa was abandoned by his immigrant father. His mother, Maria, dreaming of a more exciting life, saw no reason for her son to live as a Mexican American just because he was born one. With the help of Maria’s ruthless imagination and a hastily penned jailhouse correspondence, the life of “Brando Skyhorse,” the Native American son of an incarcerated political activist, was about to begin.
Through a series of letters to Paul Skyhorse Johnson, a stranger in prison for armed robbery, Maria reinvents herself and her young son as American Indians in the colorful Mexican-American neighborhood of Echo Park, California, where Brando and his mother live with his acerbic grandmother and a rotating cast of surrogate fathers. It will be thirty years before Brando begins to untangle the truth, when a surprise discovery leads him to his biological father at last.
From this PEN/Hemingway Award–winning novelist comes an extraordinary literary memoir capturing a mother-son story unlike any other and a boy’s single-minded search for a father, wherever he can find one.
Reading Group Guide
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In this riveting, heartfelt memoir, Brando Skyhorse shares the story of his turbulent childhood in Echo Park, Los Angeles, with a rotating cast of surrogate fathers and a Mexican mother who refashioned herself and her son as Native Americans. With poignant honesty, he recalls his struggle to reconcile his dual cultural identities, reconnecting with his biological father after more than three decades, and how he finally untangled the truth of his past.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Share your thoughts about Maria as a person and as a mother. Were you sympathetic toward her at all? Why or why not? What were her maternal strengths and weaknesses?
2. What motivated Maria to fabricate a Native American identity for herself and Brando? How did the phrase she repeated (“At least it’s never boring”) shed light on her extreme, often outrageous behavior? Why was Maria able to get away with the lies and stories she told?
3. Discuss the cultural identity issues that Maria’s charade caused Brando. Why did he defy his mother and “come out” as a Mexican when he was in his teens? Was Sofie right or wrong to accuse Brando of lying to her?
4. Grandma June was supportive of Brando—encouraging his love of reading, for example—and at other times was cruel to him. How would you describe their relationship? Was she more of a positive or a negative influence in her grandson’s life?
5. Discuss the atmosphere inside the Echo Park house. How did June and Maria’s relationship impact Brando? What conclusions are there to be drawn from the fact that being on the road, away from the house, “stripped away [Maria’s] characteristic fear and disappointment” (page 58)?
6. How did Brando’s view of his mother, and his relationship with her, change as he got older? How about after he went away to Stanford? Why does he wish he could go back and warn his younger self after arriving on campus? What advice would he give him?
7. Discuss Brando’s relationships with each of his stepfathers—Robert, Paul, Pat, and Rudy—and the impact they had on him. What did he most want from a father figure? How did this shift over time?
8. Discuss the role Frank has played in Brando’s life. What has kept the two of them connected for decades? Why was it Frank, never married to Maria, who became most like a father to Brando?
9. Brando admits that by the time he contacted Candido he’d “had so many fathers that even the idea of a father—the very word father—seemed absurd” (page 3). Why then did he finally decide to reach out to him? Did he get what he had hoped to from Candido?
10. Candido cited the circumstances of his tempestuous parting with Maria and her threats to have him deported as the reasons why he never contacted Brando. Did he give up too easily on trying to be involved in his son’s life? Were his actions justifiable in any way? Why or why not?
11. In what ways are Candido’s daughters “so unlike” the women Brando grew up with, and why is this glaringly apparent to him (page 230)? Why is he able to connect more with his sisters than with Candido?
12. Why didn’t Brando return home for Maria’s funeral? Is his decision understandable? When he was finally able to cry after his mother’s death, what was he really mourning?
13. The book’s title, Take This Man, draws attention to the men in Brando’s life. Why do you suppose this title was selected? Do you think it’s an accurate reflection of the book? Overall, how are men presented in the memoir?
14. What lasting effects has Brando’s upbringing had on him as an adult? In what ways has it impacted his romantic relationships, his emotional well-being, and other aspects of his life?
15. What is your overall opinion of Take This Man, including your thoughts on Brando as a narrator? Which aspects of the book particularly resonated with you? How does it compare to other memoirs your group has read?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. On a visit to Istanbul, Turkey, Brando participated in the tradition of writing messages to loved ones, living or departed, on scraps of paper. Have members do the same and pen notes to someone special, whether or not you release the missives into the wind.
2. Brando and his grandmother were movie buffs and saw eight to ten a month. Share who you would cast as Brando, June, Maria, Frank, and others featured in the book if Take This Man were made into a film.
3. Pair your reading of Take This Man with Brando’s novel The Madonnas of Echo Park, which is set in the Los Angeles neighborhood where he grew up.
4. Take a virtual tour of the Central Library, where June and Brando were regulars. Today the building is considered an architectural highlight of downtown Los Angeles. Visit http://www.lapl.org/branches/central-library and click on “Art & Architecture in Central Library.”
A Conversation with Brando Skyhorse
Q: “Every storyteller needs more than good stories. He needs to understand why he’s telling the stories he tells,” you state in Take This Man. Why did you decide to write this memoir?
A: It started in 1996. My writing professor Geoffrey Wolff knew a partial sketch of my life story—being raised by five different stepfathers—and thought it could make a good book. In the eighteen years since his first suggestion, my mother and grandmother died, I went through years of therapy, and reconnected with my biological father and his new family, which includes his three daughters. So as these various life events accumulated, my reasons for writing this book evolved from a simple accounting of crazy experiences—and then I had another dad!—into something deeper and more complex. It went from trying to understand my circumstances to trying to understand me.
Q: You describe your mother as “a siren whose songs were her stories.” Did writing Take This Man help you better understand, or perhaps even come to terms with, your mother and her “mythmaking”? How so?
A: There’s a part near the end of the memoir where I write, “narrative is breath . . . stories sustain us.” My mother’s stories sustained her version of the life she wanted to live, something she thought was impossible to do otherwise. She was so desperate to “be” an American Indian that she wanted to convince enough people and make her lie a reality. I know now that my mother wasn’t trying to be malicious or cruel. She thought she was paying homage to a people and a culture she loved. My use of the word “siren” was intentional, though. Sirens can draw people to places filled with pain, and my mother’s songs often came attached with difficult consequences. What’s more, a siren lives only until the moment someone who hears their songs passes them by. My mother died a month after I left Los Angeles for good. There’s still a small part of me that feels I was responsible because I wasn’t there to listen to her stories anymore.
Q: You come across as incredibly honest in Take This Man. Were you ever tempted to gloss over certain details that were painful to revisit, or leave them out altogether?
A: I spent years unknowingly—then knowingly—lying about who I was because the truth felt more complicated and dangerous. I thought people would reject me if they knew about both my mother’s lies and my own. Being able to write this memoir was an extraordinary gift, and a privilege, because at last I could put the whole story down somewhere. My mother led a sad and unhappy life in part because she tried to omit all the things in her past that had hurt her. For me to tell anything less than the whole story as I understood it would have been pointless and wrong. I would have been guilty of selling out my own creation and cheating every reader who picks up this book.
Q: Tell us about the experience of writing Take This Man. How was the memoir-writing process different from crafting your novel, The Madonnas of Echo Park?
A: Everything about this book was difficult. How long it took to write it, sell it, title it, even start it, though I’m grateful now for that particular challenge. This story seemed so massive and challenging that I had no idea where to begin. Kitt, who’s mentioned in the book, suggested that I try to find my birth father Candido. She thought that detailing my attempts to find him would be a good place to begin. I never thought the search would be successful nor did I think it would take just ten minutes on whitepages.com.
I summarized the writing process on my Facebook page in 2013. I’ll save you the trouble of looking for it:
1996—Took a memoir class with Geoffrey Wolff. Told him I wanted to write “something” about my five stepfathers. “Think about a book,” he said, and “start taking notes.”
1999—Submit sample pages and a short proposal to the Maui Writers Conference. Get 19 queries from agents wanting to see more. Every agent sees more, then passes.
2002—Write a new proposal. Find an agent who sends out the proposal to 23 editors. I get 23 passes. One editor says, “Love the story, hate the writing.”
2009—Resubmit with a new agent a much shorter version of the 2002 proposal with a just finished novel (this was Madonnas). We send out on a Friday afternoon. We get our first offer Monday morning for both books.
April 1, 2009—Start writing the memoir.
2011—Submit finished draft to my editor in December.
2012—Get first round of edits. Massive revision follows. Turn in new draft. Another massive round of edits follows. Brainstorm many book titles, all of which are terrible.
2013—Turn in third revision. Another massive revision follows. More title brainstorming.
Halloween 2013—Submit “finished” memoir draft, ready for copy editing and proofreading. Book publishes in 2014, eighteen years after I thought I wanted to “write something” about my family.
Q: Why did you decide on Take This Man as the title? Were any others ever considered?
A: There were many—MANY—other titles considered. Things My Fathers Taught Me was a front-runner for a long time, but my publisher found it confusing. Take This Man feels perfect to me. It’s half of a traditional wedding vow (Do you take this man to be . . . etc) and god knows I heard those words enough growing up, attending all the weddings my mother had. As I thought it over, I started to see I was the man seeking acceptance from almost everyone in my life. I wanted to be taken in. I still want it, I think, if I’m being honest.
Q: You previously worked in book publishing before becoming a full-time writer. What is it like now being on the other side of the editorial desk?
A: Writing books has been my dream gig since college. I’ve been doing it full-time for the past five years and love it, but I was also an editor for ten years. I’d be lying if I said I don’t miss it, which is why I still edit the occasional manuscript freelance. I was privileged enough—and it was a privilege—to work on Bob Shacochis’s extraordinary novel The Woman Who Lost Her Soul. I miss listening to writers and learning what they know. Editing a manuscript from an enthusiastic author is like auditing a college course with an incredible professor. I’m not sure my editor feels that way about me!
Q: Your mother taught you to read at a young age, and your grandmother nurtured your love of reading by taking you to the library and to bookstores. How much of their influence do you credit to your making a living in the book trade?
A: I hadn’t made that connection but it’s an interesting one and probably right. My grandmother taught me to value books as physical objects while my mother showed me how important it is to appreciate the stories (and by extension the storytellers) themselves. Those loves drove me to work in books at the height of the late 1990s dot-com boom, making a fraction of what others my age were, but somehow it didn’t matter. Books were a special occasion purchase growing up and reading them was the one guaranteed time I could spend with my mother and grandmother that wouldn’t end up in an argument. Makes sense that I’d want to surround myself with them as a livelihood. Books were my safe place.
Q: Did you inherit your grandmother’s love of mystery fiction? Who are some of your favorite writers?
A: As I mentioned in the memoir, the first book purchase I remember is A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney. I knew Rooney could make my grandmother laugh when she watched 60 Minutes on Sundays, so I was really looking for something that I thought would make my grandmother happy. She wanted me to make my own choices, though, and never made any reading recommendations. She trusted me to find my own space in the books I grabbed off the shelves. Over the years, books from my favorite writers opened up a room for me to write in. It’d be impossible for me to do what I do every day without them having created that space for me. Just limiting the list to living writers, they include Edward P. Jones (our greatest American writer working today), Amy Hempel, Annie Proulx, Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich, Luis Alberto Urrea, and countless others.
Q: Your mother and your grandmother were both outspoken women. What do you think their reactions would be to you writing a book about your childhood?
A: I’m not sure there would be a book if they both hadn’t passed away. I don’t know if I would have been courageous enough. If they were still alive, though, my grandmother would be shoving a copy in every neighbor’s and shopkeeper’s hands in Echo Park. As for my mother? She’d write a glowing five-star Amazon review declaring this book worthy of the Pulitzer Prize. Twenty minutes later, she’d post a scathing one-star review with a subject line, “Email me if you want the whole story.” That’d give me a two-and-a-half-star average, right?
Q: In Take This Man, you include an excerpt from your mother’s unpublished memoirs, in which she wrote: “If anyone takes anything away from this book, it’s this: don’t waste your life hiding away like I did.” What would you like readers to take away from your memoir?
A: There’s a reason this book ends with a quote from Christopher Hitchens asking you not to waste a single moment in reaching out to anyone “who might benefit from a letter or a visit.” When I found my father on whitepages.com, I wrote him a letter. That letter both changed my understanding of the life I’d lived up to now and, with the introduction of my three new sisters—all of whom I’m crazy about—the life that lies ahead. I started this book as a way to understand why my mother made the choices she made. I finished this book to understand how those choices made me who I am. For years I wanted to find a true story on the shelves that would make me feel less broken. I never found it so I wrote it instead. If readers take away one thing, I hope they learn that a broken family can become a whole one with patience and empathy. I want them to then take that knowledge and spread that empathy to their own families, their friends, and save some of it for themselves. That would be a great start.
Q: What are you working on now? Will you be returning to Echo Park in any future works?
A: I’ve got ideas for one, maybe two, novels. Echo Park has been my Yoknapatawpha County for two books. It’s been a good home to me but perhaps it’s time to explore some new undiscovered country.
Learn more about the author at www.brandoskyhorse.com
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster (June 23, 2015)
- Length: 272 pages
- ISBN13: 9781439170892
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Raves and Reviews
“Hilarious and deeply moving…This is a wild read that will move you to tears and laughter simultaneously.”
– NBC News
“A searingly funny and fearless book….written with such velocity and stark recollection that it feels as if the author is writing to save his life.... Take This Man should be on the same shelf with Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, or maybe it should occupy an off-tilt, splintered shelf of its own....[It] would make a terrific movie, if that weren’t an undignified thing to say about such a fine literary work. I say this because Skyhorse’s writing has such vivid immediacy, beautifully drawn scenes and cameo appearances by all sorts of unusual, memorable characters.... [A] tour-de-force.”
– The Washington Post
“Skyhorse has a fascinating story to tell, and he tells it with the skill and sway of a novelist.... It's a story that's almost too big to be true. Yet it reveals so much that's universal, about human longing and belonging, about the endless capacity we have to betray and rescue ourselves and the people we love.”
– San Francisco Chronicle
“Skyhorse's memoir is a West Coast version of Augusten Burroughs'Running With Scissors... [A] funny, shocking, generous-hearted book.”
– Entertainment Weekly
“Skyhorse is a thoughtful, lyrical writer, and his memoir is filled with epigrammatic observations that keep his story from becoming a mere catalog of misery.”
– Boston Globe
“Top this: Skyhorse grew up poor in a claustrophobic 1980s Echo Park home with a Chicana mother who pretended they were Native American, a bisexual grandmother who pretended she was straight, and five no-account stepfathers who each got out when the getting was no longer good... Skyhorse really is a star, transcending a wack-ball family and a then-sketchy neighborhood to become a gifted writer... Skyhorse's last page works so well, it gilds the rest of the book in a sweet, retroactive glow. Sometimes a book catches you in a weak moment, so I went back to read the scene a few weeks later, just to make sure. Knowing what was coming made it only better.”
– Los Angeles Times
"A writer on the rise.... this [is a] gripping memoir."
“Take This Man is earnest and searching, genuinely interested in exploring the complex arrangement that we call family.... [with] exquisite prose, but also a mature acknowledgment of the complex nature of memory, longing, love, and disappointment.”
– The Los Angeles Review of Books
“[A] moving and poignant search for identity under impossible circumstances... I sobbed through the final section. Part of that power comes from Skyhorse’s understanding of narrative, his novelist’s eye... One ends Take This Man rooting for Skyhorse, hoping that he can take all these stories and turn them into something worthwhile. This book is certainly a start.”
"[A] stunning memoir of emotional dysfunction and hard-won understanding.... Skyhorse has a keen ear for language and for story but his capacity to understand and forgive, to find the humanity in the difficult people around him, should elevate his work to a literary classic."
– Shelf Awareness
"A harrowing, compulsively readable story of one man’s remarkable search for identity."
"A wickedly compelling account of a dysfunctional childhood. By turns funny and wrenching, the narrative is an unforgettable tour de force of memory, love and imagination."
– Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
“By turns darkly comical and moving, this powerful memoir of a family in flux will stick with readers well after they’ve put it down.”
– Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
"A beautiful, compassionate, but also hilarious and hair-raising tale of one boy’s life, the lies and truths his mother told, and the damage and the magic she created. Brando Skyhorse is an irresistible writer with an incredible story."
– Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle
"Take This Man is as astonishing a memoir as I've ever read. Brando Skyhorse's beautifully-told tale of his truly bizarre childhood and his search for a father moved me in a way that few books have. I will never forget Skyhorse's charismatic mother and grandmother, nor the tortured triangle the three of them formed. I was reminded at times of Geoffrey Wolff's The Duke of Deception, and also of The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls and The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer. But I guarantee that this is a family story unlike any you've read before. It deserves to become a classic."
– Will Schwalbe, New York Times bestselling author of The End of Your Life Book Club
"Take This Man reaches beyond the bounds of my imagination. We use the word “survivor” with disgracefully casual ease. But this writer truly survived being held hostage, raised by wolves. Brando’s grandmother and mother are terrifying and mesmerizing. Their cruelty to their biographer was audacious, calculated and thrilling to read. Stories molested him and nourished him. And it is with relief that I read in Take This Man flashes of Brando’s bitterness and heat, sane fury directed at the Scheherazades who toyed with him. Whatever else they did to him, when he escaped he knew how to tell a story, and this is one hell of story."
– Geoffrey Wolff, author of The Duke of Deception
"The details of Brando Skyhorse’s life are as outlandish and attention-grabbing as his name. Imagine the kind of mother who advertises you for adoption in the back of a magazine and then denies it to your face, or the kind of stepfather who calls his prison ‘Arizona State,’ as if discussing his alma mater. Take This Man is a funny and harrowing and touching portrait of the abyss in families between what we know we should do and how our hearts lead us to behave."
– Jim Shepard, author of Like You'd Understand, Anyway and You Think That's Bad
"Brando Skyhorse’s unputdownable Take This Man is one of the most moving and mesmerizing memoirs I’ve ever read. I’m still reeling. Its familial dysfunction rivals The Glass Castle, the poetry of the language echoes This Boy’s Life, and the bravery in Skyhorse’s search for answers, for a family, conjures up Wild. Yet Skyhorse’s memoir is wholly and uniquely his own. As his mother’s mantra went: ‘At least it’s never boring.’ And it never is. This is a miraculous memoir from a spectacularly talented writer."
– Susannah Cahalan, New York Times bestselling author of Brain on Fire
"This gorgeous, wrenching, ultimately uplifting book is a testament to the large and generous heart of its author. Brando Skyhorse has made art out of the chaos of his own extraordinary family history, and, in so doing, has raised the bar, not only for memoirists, but for us all."
– Dani Shapiro, bestselling author of Still Writing
"Take This Man is a grand story full of fantastic characters--characters whom the author brings vividly to life because they ARE his life. Skyhorses's shifting identity creates an intense quest for meaning, a kind of whodunit memoir that explores the sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking, often absurd, and always fascinating childhood that the author, no matter his lineage, has no choice but to claim as his own. Pour a shot of Wolff's This Boy’s Life, add a jigger of Moehringer's The Tender Bar, throw in a splash of Rivera's Family Installments, and this is what you get: a heady cocktail of memories with a twist."
– Kim Barnes, author of In the Kingdom of Men
Resources and Downloads
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- Book Cover Image (jpg): Take This Man Trade Paperback 9781439170892
- Author Photo (jpg): Brando Skyhorse Photograph © Eric van den Brulle(1.6 MB)
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