This would be a great book club choice. It's gripping, it's a very quick read despite being nonfiction (large font and generous margins make it feel sThis would be a great book club choice. It's gripping, it's a very quick read despite being nonfiction (large font and generous margins make it feel shorter than its 260 pages), and of course it's about a hot topic: illegal immigration to the U.S. from Latin America. The protagonist, Enrique, sets off from Honduras for the U.S. at age 17, searching for his mother, who immigrated twelve years before. The book primarily dramatizes Enrique's dangerous journey through Mexico - jumping on and off of moving trains and evading corrupt and often violent authorities, who seek to deport Central American migrants to Guatemala, as well as the gangs who prey on migrants. All this makes for compelling reading, and is eye-opening; in the U.S. we have little sense of what people have to risk and endure to enter the country illegally. Nazario also writes about the circumstances in Honduras that compel so many to immigrate - for many mothers, it's a matter of not being able to feed their children - and about Enrique's family's lives in the U.S. And she interviews quite a few people who work with or encounter migrants, adding depth to the story.
So I probably should urge all Americans to read this. But. The writing style is a bit simplistic. The present tense is an awkward choice for nonfiction, and the author has the tendency to remind us of simple facts several times over. A bit more context would have helped too. In introducing her project, Nazario explains she wanted to write about a Central American boy who came by train. But the book doesn't give much sense of how many migrants use the trains vs. other routes, and the focus on the train journeys of Central American migrants leaves little sense of what immigration might look like for the Mexicans who make up the majority of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Finally, while perhaps the story can speak for itself, I felt a stronger policy argument at the end would have been appropriate. Instead the author basically says, "okay, now here are some good things and some bad things about immigration," and then it ends.
I still think people should read this, because if you're going to have a strong opinion about something you should be informed about it. But if you can recommend a better book along the same lines, please let me know....more
Because more of my attention is geared toward understanding what's going on rather than analyzing their merits, I think I am normally more forgiving tBecause more of my attention is geared toward understanding what's going on rather than analyzing their merits, I think I am normally more forgiving toward books I read in Spanish. Hence, picking up this one off the shelves of my university library even though no one on the Internet seems to have read it (also, books from Costa Rica are hard to find). It seemed a little odd when the book kicked off with the two protagonists discussing the merits of various types of ships in a didactic manner. Wasn't this supposed to be about an exiled president and his trusty general invading Costa Rica? Let's look back at the bookjacket... nope, this is about an exiled president and his trusty general talking about invading Costa Rica. Abandoned on page 31 due to sheer boredom....more
This is the prototypical first book by an MFA graduate. It’s well-written in a technical sense, with smooth, polished prose and pacing, clear themes,This is the prototypical first book by an MFA graduate. It’s well-written in a technical sense, with smooth, polished prose and pacing, clear themes, and the right characters in the right places. But it isn’t affecting; it’s pleasant, but forgettable.
This volume contains 8 short stories, of around 25 pages each, and one novella of just over 100 pages, with generous margins and spacing. All the stories are set in Panama and with a couple of exceptions, focus on characters living there. The characters for the most part are children to young adults and must navigate relationships with parents and lovers. There is some variation in the stories: while most are realistic, contemporary and centered on relationships, “The Box House and the Snow” is an almost sinister magical-realist tale, and the titular novella widens its scope to depict the U.S.’s invasion of Panama in 1989 from the point-of-view of an adolescent boy. Most of the stories are in the first person, and most feature female protagonists.
I am not surprised to see that Henriquez has had much more commercial success with later books, because she does show promise here. The novella is probably the best story of the lot, as it has the most depth and development. Characters and their relationships seem believable, the settings are well drawn, and the writing is very readable. But the stories lack that spark that would make them stand out, and in large part I fault their endings, which tend to peter out. Maybe it’s just me, but I expect a great short story to end with a bang or a twist – or, barring that, at least a definite conclusion to whatever issue was raised in the story. The slow winding-down, leaving some issues still open, can work well in a novel, which is more about the journey than the destination. But in a short story, the journey is just around the block – so I want some zing. “The Wide, Pale Ocean,” my favorite of the short stories, would have been excellent if the author had taken a risk with the ending, but she doesn’t and so despite some vivid scenes and characters, the story ultimately doesn’t amount to much.
As my world books challenge book for Panama, I liked this fairly well, and read through it quickly. It’s not at all bad. But it could have been better....more
This is a work of social realism/protest literature, which portrays a dire situation in intimate detail but has limited literary value. Huasipungo wasThis is a work of social realism/protest literature, which portrays a dire situation in intimate detail but has limited literary value. Huasipungo was originally published in 1934 (followed by substantial revisions in 1953 and 1960, aimed at making the novella more emotionally effective). It portrays the oppression of indigenous people in Ecuador, who are bound to the land, forced to work for little or no pay for rich landowners, and suffer all kinds of abuse with no recourse – the church is shown to be complicit, with the local priest fleecing the serfs however he can, and the army ready to step in with no questions asked at any hint of rebellion. This system was apparently in effect until land reform in 1964. “Huasipungo” is the indigenous word for the parcels of land worked as subsistence farms – but only at the will of the landowner, who could remove people from their homes at any time.
The narrative begins with a landowner, Alfonso Pereira, who relocates to his property in the Andes after many years of absentee management. His goal is development, aided by foreign investors. From there, the novella is a catalog of the machinations of the powerful and the abuses suffered by the Indians. It doesn’t quite have a protagonist: Alfonso is its most prominent character, but functions as a villain, while its major indigenous character, Andres Chiliquinga, is often absent from its pages.
To the modern American reader, choosing Andres as the symbol of indigenous suffering and vehicle for the readers’ sympathies is puzzling: he beats his wife, and he’s not very bright even compared to his equally uneducated peers. Throughout the book, he is easily manipulated and shows a complete lack of forethought or ability to consider the probable consequences of his actions. This is after two revisions that, according to the introduction to my edition, were primarily aimed at making Andres a more human and sympathetic character. I can only presume that the original readers’ expectations were very different from mine.
Nevertheless, I didn’t wholly dislike this book. The writing is quite vivid, and reading it is a cultural experience. There is a lot of disembodied bystander dialogue, which gives the reader the sense of being a fly on the wall in this place and time. While a challenging read, I think it’s a valuable historical document and learned quite a bit about Ecuador.
If you do plan to read Huasipungo in Spanish, the Stockcero edition seems to be a good choice. It includes both footnotes and a glossary, which were essential to my understanding of the Quichua words that pepper the text. (Quichua, as it turns out, is not a misspelling of Quechua but a variation spoken in Ecuador.) And while a 42-page introduction seems excessive for a 168-page novella, it does include some interesting information. On the downside, the occasionally misplaced punctuation and line breaks are just sloppy....more
With a bit of patience, this turns out to be an entertaining story about fathers and sons, and about men standing up to intimidation. Its title is oddWith a bit of patience, this turns out to be an entertaining story about fathers and sons, and about men standing up to intimidation. Its title is oddly chosen; calling anyone in the book heroic seems a bit of a stretch, and certainly no one is discreet.
Felicito Yanaque is a businessman in Piura, Peru, who receives letters demanding protection money but refuses to be bullied. Meanwhile, in Lima, Rigoberto is on the verge of retirement when he’s drawn into his boss’s scheme to disinherit a pair of ungrateful sons. The story takes time to pick up, and there are unnecessary tangents, particularly in the first half. Nevertheless, I did enjoy reading it; the novel ultimately goes the melodramatic route rather than (as it initially appears) examining the state of law and order in Peru or the moral dilemmas Felicito faces in refusing the extortionists’ demands. But it is entertaining melodrama and the characters realistic enough to support it.
In fact, this book is … fine, which is an odd thing to say about a novel by a Nobel laureate. It’s well-written, but not to the point that one stops to admire the author’s use of language. The setting and characters feel strangely old-fashioned, although the book is nominally set in modern Peru. It has a compelling plot that the characters themselves compare to a telenovela by the end. This is a perfectly readable book, but not an important one....more
This is a very short novel, almost a novella, written in a simple, rather dreamy stream-of-consciousness style: first person, no quotation marks, jumpThis is a very short novel, almost a novella, written in a simple, rather dreamy stream-of-consciousness style: first person, no quotation marks, jumping around and speeding through events. The subject is the plight of rural Mexicans, particularly women, and I phrase it that way because I get the sense the author was driven to write more by the subject matter than the plot or characters. Despite the brief page count, the book includes the stories of many minor characters, facing everything from kidnapping by drug traffickers to AIDS to nearly dying in an attempt to cross the border.
As for the plot, the book follows its narrator, Ladydi, through her childhood in a mountain village nearly empty of men, then as a teenager leaving the village and getting into trouble. It’s an interesting story that I flew through, full of adversity and of women helping one another. None of the characters are three-dimensional, however; for instance, apparently the most important trait of Ladydi’s best friend is that she had a cleft palate as a child. Even though she has corrective surgery, Clement can’t seem to stop talking about the fact that Maria once had a cleft palate whenever she appears. The others have a bit more personality, but they still feel more like representatives of tragedy and resilience (or lack thereof) than strong characters in their own right.
Not a book I’d discourage people from reading, but not one I expect to linger long in my mind. I would be interested in finding a book by a Mexican author that tackles similar subjects, and with more space to develop the characters and their stories....more
I had a good time with this book, and would like to give it 4 stars for enjoyment, but some significant flaws detract from my ability to recommend itI had a good time with this book, and would like to give it 4 stars for enjoyment, but some significant flaws detract from my ability to recommend it to others.
State of Wonder is about a scientist, Dr. Marina Singh, working for a pharmaceutical company that is attempting to develop a new fertility drug in the Amazon. The company sends Marina to the research site to report on the progress of the drug, the brainchild of Marina’s former teacher, Dr. Swenson. But Marina, naturally, finds much more than she bargained for.
The story never failed to engage me; while not hard to put down, I was always happy to pick it back up and read more of Marina’s adventures in the Amazon. Patchett’s fluid, accessible prose is easy to fall into, and she does a good job creating a vivid setting. The relationship between Marina and the formidable Dr. Swenson is especially interesting and true to life, and Dr. Swenson is a great character who steals every scene she’s in; I can’t recall ever encountering a character like her in fiction before, although she reminds me of one or two people I’ve met.
But there are some problems. The book’s structure is lopsided; the first 200+ pages out of 350 are introductory, while the conclusion is rushed. Meanwhile, Marina herself is a dull character, as if Patchett went too far in making her a foil for Dr. Swenson; she’s passive, fearful, and so lacking in common sense that she manages to lose all her luggage, twice! There are some point-of-view oddities; while 99.9% of the book is told from Marina’s POV, the occasional jarring sentence seems to come from someone else's head: “Dr. Budi smiled shyly, having made so few successful jokes in her life.” Marina could not possibly be responsible for this comment, having only just met Dr. Budi.
The story is also full of improbabilities, beginning with the pharmaceutical company’s allowing someone on its payroll to operate for years in an unknown location and without giving progress reports, and including some important plot points. (view spoiler)[Like, Barbara, Milton, and Mr. Fox, all English-speakers, are on a boat on a remote tributary of the Rio Negro and when a white guy rushes toward them yelling in English for them to wait, somehow only Barbara notices, and she mistakes him for her dead father? Really?
Also, the assumption that a drug company wouldn't bother to develop a malaria vaccine that was within its reach because malaria mostly affects poor people? Certainly drug companies are driven by profits, but the plot itself belies the claim that there's no market for such a drug--Marina has to take an antimalarial, and has had to do so every time she traveled to India to see her father. Clearly, there are a lot of tourists (and a lot of people in India) who could and would pay for it if available. Hence the reason you can get vaccines for other diseases you might pick up in less developed countries: typhoid and so on. (hide spoiler)]
And as for the ethical issues it supposedly examines.... they are not so much explored as mentioned in passing. Dr. Swenson will explain why she doesn’t think the doctors should treat the local people.... and that’s it; there’s certainly room for readers to discuss the issues, but the book doesn’t follow up with new twists on the question or explore the consequences of the scientists’ choices. This is particularly unfortunate with regard to the local tribe they’re studying. Patchett likely wanted to say something about their treatment (and it’s surely deliberate that the only local character to play any significant role is deaf and literally voiceless), but wound up creating a childlike group of natives, who never get to speak for themselves and apparently have nothing better to do than cheerfully mob the foreign doctors upon all their arrivals and departures. Yikes.
Despite the problematic elements, though, I genuinely enjoyed this book. It’s not quite as good as Bel Canto, but for me it was worth the read....more
I have yet to read an Allende book that I don’t like. This one is short, but there’s a lot packed into those pages, and I had a wonderful time with itI have yet to read an Allende book that I don’t like. This one is short, but there’s a lot packed into those pages, and I had a wonderful time with it.
This is a book about life under a military dictatorship in an unnamed country that can only be Chile. Irene, a reporter, and Francisco, a psychologist-turned-photographer, are forced to confront the ugliest side of the regime when a teenage girl disappears immediately after an interview.
As is to be expected from an Allende book, the plot meanders a bit and gives life stories of minor characters; I love this, as it results in a richly textured and interesting cast. They are a diverse bunch, from a wealthy family struggling to maintain their traditional lifestyle, to middle-class immigrants, to impoverished farmers. Without exception, they’re vivid and well-developed, and I was easily drawn into their stories. There is of course a romance between the two protagonists, which I quite enjoyed (okay, I’m a little in love with Francisco myself).
Overall, this is a well-written, well-crafted book, with such a three-dimensional setting and characters that it’s only too easy to relate to their situations and wonder what you would do in similar circumstances. This book seems to get less attention than many of Allende’s other works, perhaps because it was published nearly 30 years ago, but it is still relevant today. I didn’t love it as much as, say, House of the Spirits, but it’s still an excellent novel and a worthy read....more
Bel Canto is an intensely romantic book based on (or inspired by) the events of the 1996 Japanese embassy hostage crisis in Peru. But it’s not the traBel Canto is an intensely romantic book based on (or inspired by) the events of the 1996 Japanese embassy hostage crisis in Peru. But it’s not the trashy sort of book you might expect when you hear “romance” and “hostage crisis” in the same sentence, with a young female captive falling in love with the terrorists’ strong but sensitive captain, etc. Instead it’s a leisurely-paced story of life inside the captured vice-presidential residence during a months-long stalemate between the militants and the government. While they wait, the boundaries between captors and captives are eroded and people fall in love, discover new talents and reevaluate their priorities.
The reason this book works--for me, anyway--is balance. The extent to which the story is an out-of-body experience for everyone involved is balanced by the mundane details of daily life. The hostage situation seems to bring out the best in everyone; but still, the characters are well-developed and feel real and human and believable in their roles (with one exception, discussed below). There’s romance--more in the general atmosphere than of the lovey-dovey sort--but there’s also self-centeredness, and the characters have believable interior lives. There’s intense emotion, but proportionate to the circumstances, and the characters’ behavior is generally reserved. The result is a lovely story that--while we can envision it developing quite differently--accommodates the suspension of disbelief and steers clear of melodrama.
Only two aspects of this book fall short. The ending is rushed, and the epilogue feels tacked-on and makes little sense. And the terrorists’ teenage foot soldiers (comprising the majority of the group), while realistic enough as teenagers, aren’t quite believable as terrorists. None seem to have any strong feelings or opinions about their cause, nor any particular propensity for aggression. The three “Generals” are fully believable, but kept on the story’s periphery. Leaving the impression that Patchett assumed she couldn’t get readers to sympathize with major characters who are committed to the cause they’re supposedly fighting for, and thereby sold herself short. (I created a “militants, terrorists and guerrillas" shelf just to prove how many authors have in fact pulled this off successfully, and even I was surprised by how many books I found to put on it; almost all portray their militant characters sympathetically. Apparently, terrorists are only really villainous in thrillers. Which I don’t read.)
Opinions on this book vary drastically, from those who consider it literary fiction to those who think it’s trashy pop lit. I’d put it right in the middle, as a fluidly written piece of mainstream fiction. Recommended for those looking for an unusual, romantic story with solid characterization....more
This is an eminently forgettable story of Cuba's past and of modern-day Cuban immigrants in Miami. Not terrible, but everything here has been done befThis is an eminently forgettable story of Cuba's past and of modern-day Cuban immigrants in Miami. Not terrible, but everything here has been done before, and better, by other authors.
This is one of those books that alternates every chapter between present-day and historical storylines, in which the modern-day character learns the story of the historical ones. The modern chapters feature Cecilia, an angsty young Cuban reporter living in Miami. Cecilia meets an old woman in a Cuban bar who begins to tell her stories, following three families which represent different groups of immigrants who relocated to Cuba and contributed to its culture: one Chinese, one Spanish and one African. For the first 150 pages or so these stories are separate (and all together get about as much time as Cecilia), but they begin intermarrying until by the end there's one historical thread alternating with the modern one.
Unless you're a big fan of Cuban music, which appears frequently, there's really nothing about this book that would compel you to seek it out: not the superficial and predictable plot, not the bland and underdeveloped characters, not the vague impressions of Havana that do little to immerse the reader in the historical period. Beginning with Cecilia, though: a perennial risk with novels structured this way is that too little happens in the modern-day story, or that the events that do occur are too trivial, to compare to the historical thread. This book falls into that trap, as Cecilia does little beyond angst about the fact that she has some bad memories of Cuba (never explored in any detail), and yet the country is still a part of her. She also dabbles in the supernatural, which appears frequently in the book without much affecting the plot. There's no real momentum to her story, and she spends a lot of time on mundane activities like washing dishes and paying tolls. Her supporting cast consists of a large number of minor characters who fulfill essentially the same roles: the old woman and her great-aunt, who both tell her stories about the past; her two male friends, whose only role is to get her out of the house; the four young women who provide hints about supernatural phenomena. She also has two love interests, though the book spends a lot of time on the one that doesn't work out and hardly any on the one who apparently will.
As for the historical stories, the book merely skims the surface, often skipping decades at a time; this part follows around seven main characters, none of whom have much personality and all of whose stories are rushed, reading like weak summaries of other novels. There are a lot of family sagas and immigrant stories out there, and this book brings nothing new to the table, nor does it have the sort of depth or insight that would justify another version of an oft-told tale. And though it spans more than a century, we learn virtually nothing of history. The fact that I didn't even realize until halfway through that the African and Spanish stories begin some 40 years before the Chinese one is indicative of the amount of historical detail included.
Given the title I should mention the romances: everybody is supposed to be in an epic romance with someone, and this takes up a great deal of the plot, but readers aren't given much reason to invest in these relationships ourselves. Though, in fairness, I like to see fictional romances develop more, the opposite of the tendency in Latin American literature, which often features all-consuming love-at-first-sight.
In the end, this book just doesn't stand out. The writing is fine, though not brilliant. The dialogue is adequate, though even that can't bring these flat characters to life. The plot is enough of a soap opera that if you happen to be stuck somewhere with this book as your only reading material, it would probably keep you occupied and be better than nothing. But fortunately for you, this is unlikely to ever happen, and you'll miss nothing by skipping this one entirely....more
I enjoyed this book, which tells a compelling story of a young woman in early-21st-century Argentina struggling with the repercussions of the “dirty wI enjoyed this book, which tells a compelling story of a young woman in early-21st-century Argentina struggling with the repercussions of the “dirty war” (the military government’s campaign against so-called subversives in the early 70s and late 80s), her father’s participation in it and her own identity.
This is a short book, but its scope is narrow enough that the story it tells is complete. The plot is compelling, and doesn’t depend for suspense on its major secret as I’d thought it might--anyone who knows anything about modern Argentine history is likely to guess the secret after reading the blurb, but the book anticipates that. The focus is really on the title character, how her father’s past has affected her life and relationships, and how her understanding of who she is changes throughout the book--I won’t go into any more detail than that. But there’s a good balance between the internal (a lot of the book’s action is internal) and external events like character interactions, which keep the book from bogging down too much in Perla’s head.
The characters feel authentic, and the dialogue is pitch-perfect--throughout, I could envision real people having these conversations, which is not a common experience for me. Even the minor characters are utterly believable, and De Robertis does a great job of exploring the complexities of the characters’ relationships, particularly among family members. The setting is also well done--I spent about six months in Buenos Aires around the time of the story’s “present day” and the descriptions of the city are much as I remember it. There are some short but brutal scenes from the dirty war, presenting an impressionistic approach to history--more about imagery than hard facts like names and dates.
The novel is certainly well-written, but in some places (generally in the shorter segments from Perla’s guest’s point-of-view) seemed a bit overwritten, with multi-page paragraphs bursting with figurative language. Those who prefer florid prose will appreciate that more than I did. But I do think the book is written in such a way as to appeal both to historical fiction aficionados and lovers of contemporary family stories--although it might sound like the latter, I’m solidly in the former group and thoroughly enjoyed it.
My verdict, then: absolutely a good book, with surprising depth and authenticity. And the ending is perfect. I would have been happy to read more about Perla, which is a good thing, but rarely have I read such an excellent last page....more
The Invisible Mountain is a family saga, following the lives of three generations of Uruguayan women--Pajarita, Eva, and Salomé--through most of the 2The Invisible Mountain is a family saga, following the lives of three generations of Uruguayan women--Pajarita, Eva, and Salomé--through most of the 20th century. It’s an enjoyable book; nevertheless, it’s quite derivative of Allende’s House of the Spirits (among others), and Allende’s work is the better book.
Some SPOILERS follow.
Like House of the Spirits, The Invisible Mountain features a matriarch with ties to mysticism and magical realism, who after a brief courtship enters a problematic marriage; a conservative patriarch who’s on occasion violently abusive but ultimately portrayed as redeemable; their daughter, who becomes estranged from her father, carries on a decades-long forbidden love affair, and marries someone from the opposite end of the social spectrum; and her daughter, who gets involved with a leftist movement, becomes a political prisoner, is raped and tortured, and as a result gets pregnant with a daughter whose father she can’t identify. Psychological trauma causes Clara, in House of the Spirits, to become temporarily mute; here, Eva goes temporarily lame. Both also respond to a beating from the family patriarch by not speaking to him for years. In both books, a brother flees to the United States to escape an oppressive regime. And so on.
In all fairness, though, not only do many details diverge, but there are significant differences between the books. While House of the Spirits focuses on a wealthy, landowning family, the Firielli clan are regular, working-class people. The grandfather and the brothers get much less page time in The Invisible Mountain. This book ventures more beyond national boundaries, primarily into Argentina, and there’s less magical realism, which is confined to Pajarita’s early chapters. And the point-of-view here is limited strictly to the three women, each in her own section, which is perhaps more disciplined than House of the Spirits, but has the effect of relegating each prior protagonist to a minor character as the story shifts to her daughter.
As for this book’s merits: it tells a good, interesting story. Pajarita’s tale felt a bit bland, but Eva’s and Salomé’s more than make up for that. Both are vivid, engaging and believable characters, and their stories are compelling. There are also some colorful background characters. Given Uruguay’s status as the first Latin American country to recognize same-sex unions, the LGBT representation is particularly appropriate here (although I didn’t think much of the trans character him/herself; with the sex change comes a personality morph so complete it’s baffling). De Robertis does a good job with complex family relationships; there are secrets the characters never share and sometimes they have trouble connecting with one another, but they still manage to muddle through in a realistic way.
I am surprised to find that so many reviewers disliked all the male characters. Several seemed perfectly decent to me; both the men and women have virtues and flaws. Furthermore, the unfortunate truth is that people who grow up in troubled families are more likely to find themselves in troubled situations as adults, so it’s quite realistic that multiple men in the book commit acts of abuse.
At any rate, this book does a decent job with setting the cultural scene. Like House of the Spirits, it avoids going into much detail with history, but gives enough to make sense of the story in its wider context. The writing is competent, although, as in De Robertis’s other novel, Perla, it can become rather florid for my taste. For instance, two of the women fantasize about disappearing into words, in passages like this: “She wanted to do more than read: she wanted to shrink and crawl into its words, move between its letters, dig for secrets in the attic of an A, climb a Y into its branches and listen to its dreams, slide along an S toward its hot and hidden source, enter an O and taste the mad brightness or bright madness at its core....” (If you can take that passage, you and this book will get along wonderfully.) Fortunately, there’s a decent amount of dialogue to keep this sort of thing from going on too long.
I debated whether to round my star rating up or down, but ultimately decided to go up: this is a compelling story with engaging protagonists, and I enjoyed it. I would have liked it more had it been less derivative--but House of the Spirits is such a fantastic book that you can’t go too far wrong with that as the source material....more
So far this book has not been well-received, and while it isn’t terrible, I have to agree with the other reviewers that it also isn’t very good.
DespitSo far this book has not been well-received, and while it isn’t terrible, I have to agree with the other reviewers that it also isn’t very good.
Despite the title, Conquistadora is mostly about Ana, a young Spanish woman who, enthralled by the journals of a conquistador ancestor, moves to mid-19th century Puerto Rico to live on a sugar plantation. The book follows the next 20 years of her life, as well as the lives of her relatives and slaves.
Probably the best thing about this book is the historical background. I’ve studied a bit of Caribbean history, and the author captures it pretty well here. We see the tense relationships between the plantation owners and the slaves: Ana spends most of her time surrounded by slaves and believes she has relationships with some of them, but at the same time, the whites are terrified of the slaves, the more so the more they hear about revolts and slaves being freed in other countries in the Americas. And being terrified makes them even more despotic. Meanwhile, there’s tension between the native-born criollos and the Spanish-born elite although, unlike in other Latin American countries, this never culminates in a revolution.
Then there’s the plot and characters. I found the book relatively interesting: the plot moves along, although mostly it’s just telling the story of the characters’ lives; don’t expect a lot of action. The characters are somewhat interesting although not necessarily nice. But I respect Santiago for not whitewashing the slave owners: she creates the kind of people who would be able to successfully run a plantation depending on slave labor, and so, yes, they’re selfish and coldhearted. Ana cares about “her people,” to a certain degree, but she cares about her profits more and she’s willing to overlook brutality. The men who run the plantations are worse. Santiago does create more sympathetic, if flatter, characters in Elena and Miguel (who of course don’t live on the plantation), as well as giving voices to a few of the slaves. But ultimately I was disappointed: key characters like Ana don’t really seem to grow and develop. I didn’t expect her to do an about-face politically, but at some point the natural change that a human being experiences with age and new relationships seems to stall, and she becomes less interesting.
Additionally, the plot just isn’t as good as it could have been. Sometimes it veers into melodrama. Other times scenes meant to have emotional resonance aren’t built up to at all and fall flat. Late in the book a character suddenly falls in love with that character’s spouse of several years--for no apparent reason, and literally in the space of one page. Poof! Love! Um. And then there’s some magic realism that’s frankly silly; maybe Santiago thought she ought to have it because she’s a Latin American writer, but someone having visions adds nothing to this book. And the ending was just poorly done.
To add to all this, the writing just isn’t all that great. Santiago’s prose style is average at best. And she has an unfortunate tendency to tell rather than show, so we get passages like:
“Like many of their contemporaries, Ana and the twins were ambivalent about the institution of slavery. But living among slaves now, they were confronted with every aspect of its reality. At the same time, what humanitarian feelings pricked at the edge of their conscience were tempered by the urgent need to realize a gain on their investment in brazos for the fields.”
Which I’ll let speak for itself. I also get the feeling she’s much more comfortable writing in Spanish; the text is peppered with often unnecessary Spanish words and phrases, to the extent that I’d hesitate to recommend it to someone who hasn’t had at least a year or two of Spanish in school; many of the most emotionally charged comments are in Spanish. And there’s some misuse of English words (apparently she thinks “pupils” are the colored part of the eye)--but I read an advance review copy, so hopefully this will be corrected in the final version.
Ultimately, I think I would recommend this book--with caveats--to someone who’s interested in the setting and time period. But the comparisons to Gone With the Wind and Isabel Allende’s work are hyperbole at best; a great work of fiction this is not....more
I love Isabel Allende's writing: I read Daughter of Fortune and House of the Spirits, and found this one good but not quite up to the quality of the oI love Isabel Allende's writing: I read Daughter of Fortune and House of the Spirits, and found this one good but not quite up to the quality of the other two; lacking a distinct plot of its own, it mainly serves to tie the other two (standalone) books together. Still, it was an enjoyable book: Allende's character development and writing style are excellent as always, and I'm in the camp that loves to use fiction as a way to learn about the history of other countries, which this one certainly provides.
Still, the structure was somewhat odd. I would describe it as three novellas tied together to make a novel:
1. The continuation of the story of Eliza and Tao Chi'en (and company) from Daughter of Fortune. On the positive side, we finally get that love scene that went missing from the previous book; on the other hand, so many beloved characters come to tragic ends that I'm not sure bringing them back was a good thing.
2. The backstory on Severo and Nivea (and company) from House of the Spirits. This was my favorite part of the book: I liked them in House of the Spirits and like them even more now, and as it turns out, there was a lot we didn't know! This is also the plotline where we get to read about 19th century Chilean wars, politics and such.
3. The story of Aurora, the narrator, who does not appear in either of the other books. While not as well-developed as many of the other characters, she's the glue that holds the rest of it together. Her life is interesting enough, but the truth of the Big Terrible Secret from her childhood is obvious from quite early on (perhaps intentionally so), and she lacks the strength and character of the heroines in Daughter of Fortune and House of the Spirits. I didn't think that setting her up as the narrator worked very well; she winds up describing in detail conversations that took place before she was born, other people's sex lives, etc., and generally stretching credibility.
Others have mentioned Paulina del Valle as the main character, and I think there's some truth to that (although I see her in more of a supporting role): she raises Aurora and is around for most of the book, and certainly has the stronger personality of the two. She's one of those trademark Allende characters who make fascinating character studies, but are hard to like.
I would recommend this book, but primarily to those who have read some of Allende's other work and liked it; if not, I'd recommend starting with House of the Spirits, which is her masterpiece. Come back to this one once you've read that and Daughter of Fortune and are looking for the rest of the story. ...more
I rather enjoyed this book, as a fun way to practice my Spanish. But I have no idea why anybody thinks it’s capital-L-Literature.
Like Water for ChocolI rather enjoyed this book, as a fun way to practice my Spanish. But I have no idea why anybody thinks it’s capital-L-Literature.
Like Water for Chocolate is a total soap opera, complete with several love triangles, fights over babies, embarrassing diseases and people having sex on horseback while galloping across a field. (Really!) I won’t come down too hard on it for this, because Esquivel is in control of it; the resemblance to a telenovela is clearly intentional. It’s also a novel about cooking, divided up into twelve chapters by month (although it’s unclear why, as the novel covers far more than a year and events tend not to take place in the month corresponding to the chapter in which they appear). Each chapter begins with a recipe, each one crucial to the story, where the protagonist is able to express herself and exert control over her world primarily through her cooking.
Overall, this book is guilty pleasure reading--the writing is simple even in the original Spanish (although still much better than the awful English translation), the characters archetypical, and although it’s set during the Mexican Revolution, we learn almost nothing about the time period, which mostly serves as a backdrop for the parallel rebellion against authority in the De la Garza household. There is some humor, which foodies in particular will appreciate: “Just let me take this off the burner, and then you can go right back to crying, okay?” says one character in an emotional moment. The magic realism feels a bit awkward, but is at least consistent, and the idea of an oppressed woman rebelling through her cooking--which often has magical properties--explains some of the attention from literary critics.
But most readers will be more interested in the romance, which caters to a particular taste. I suspect this book is popular in large part because of current trends in fictional romances: these days we like to see reasons for our protagonists’ falling in love, we want to be shown that they’re compatible, we want their sexual relationships to be characterized by mutual respect and clear consent. I include myself in that “we,” while understanding that for many, that just isn’t very romantic. Maybe you like love at first sight, that strikes like lightning and has just as much logic behind it; maybe you like sex scenes that look like rape, but aren’t, because the woman actually wants it. If you are that kind of reader, you’ll likely enjoy the romance here much more than I did. (Although, taste aside, the main love interest still has no positive qualities, except perhaps for consistency. He’s jealous and whiny and has no courage, common sense or strength of character.)
Overall, this is a fairly entertaining book, especially if you are a foodie and/or want to read a Mexican soap opera. The positive response from literary types still baffles me, though....more
I have a hard time writing five star reviews; it can be hard to avoid gushing and to say something that hasn't already been said. But this book deservI have a hard time writing five star reviews; it can be hard to avoid gushing and to say something that hasn't already been said. But this book deserves the effort, so here goes.
As others have recounted, The Seamstress is about the lives of two Brazilian sisters in the early twentieth century. They're raised together in the highlands of the state of Pernambuco, but early in the book each departs on her separate journey: the younger sister, Luzia, is taken by a group of bandits that happens through the town, leaving the older, Emilia, alone and forced to make a hasty marriage in order to fulfill her dream of living in the city. Chapters alternate between the two for the rest of the book. I found them equally interesting, and they provide an excellent contrast: Emilia lives in the city, and observes its progress and the making of history firsthand, while Luzia remains in the countryside, acquainting readers with its harsh landscape and traditional lifestyle. The thematic implications here are obvious, and the settings are beautifully drawn. I know some reviewers have complained that the book is too long, but the plot is only part of it: without the little character-illuminating moments and the descriptions so vivid I felt as if I was there, this book wouldn't be nearly as good as it is.
The development of the main characters was excellent. I had sympathy for both of the sisters from the very beginning, and found them interesting throughout despite their making some rather difficult decisions. Luzia's development in particular was fascinating: I could tell early on that her story was not going to be romanticized as the girl-kidnapped-by-outlaws usually is, but was still surprised at the (inevitable, in retrospect) direction that it took. Emilia seems to be the more difficult character to like for many readers: she's more conventional, struggling against the traditional roles of women in high society, even while she loves fashion and dressmaking. In some places the author uses major political events and drama to liven up her chapters. But ultimately (and perhaps surprisingly given her character at the beginning of the book) I found her the more admirable of the two.
The flip side is that, while the most important supporting characters in each narrative are also well-developed, the more secondary and minor characters seemed a bit flat, including those who shouldn't have been given the amount of page time they received (Lindalva, Ponta Fina). Still, I loved the nuances of the relationships between the characters. And while writing style, as long as it's competent, is not my first priority in choosing what to read, I can say that the prose quality here is excellent.
The only thing I didn't much like about this book is its divergence from history: for instance, it seems fairly obvious that Celestino Gomes is meant to represent Getulio Vargas, but why change the names at all? It reminded me of Isabel Allende's work in that respect (and a comparison to Allende is a huge compliment, even if refusing to include the real names of historical figures does annoy me in both cases). Also, there's no excuse for not including a glossary at the end of the book; Portuguese words pepper the text, and while most can be understood from context, it's standard practice to include translations and pronounciation help for readers unfamiliar with the language.
Ultimately, I both fully enjoyed and was impressed by this book--an excellent combination. I recommend it to aficionados of both historical and literary fiction. ...more