Category Archives: Classic Books

Classic book review: José Saramago’s “Blindess”

BlindnessJosé Saramago’s Blindness (Harcourt Brace) grabs you from the first page and doesn’t let you go.

The 1995 novel by the late Portuguese author is one of the most acclaimed works in literature. Saramago won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998 and Entertainment Weekly named it one of the 100 greatest novels ever. The book was made into a 2008 movie with Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo and Gabriel García Bernal.

The novel begins in an unnamed city when a man is suddenly struck blind while driving in traffic. Soon, everyone he meets, including an eye doctor, becomes afflicted with “white blindness.” Hundreds become blind and are quarantined in a mental hospital. People are left starving or are shot if they approach those who can still see. Chaos erupts in the ward and the city.

“In a downpour like this, which is almost becoming a deluge, you would expect people to be taking shelter, waiting for the weather to improve. But this is not the case, there are blind people everywhere gaping up at the heavens, slaking their thirst, storing up water in every nook and cranny of their bodies, and others, who are somewhat more far-sighted, and above all sensible, hold up buckets, bowls and pans, and raise them to the generous sky, clearly God provides the cloud according to the thirst.”

But one woman — the doctor’s wife — retains her vision and is able to see the destruction around her. She leads the way for a small group to find some sanity.

None of the characters are given names or any details about their lives. At times, I would have liked to have known more about them, but I understand that Saramago did this intentionally to focus on their present circumstances.

I was intimidated by this book, but it proved to be a gripping read, even though Saramago writes in long paragraphs and uses very little dialogue. (The book’s translators, Giovanni Pontiero and Margaret Jull Costa, deserve credit for a great job.) The novel contains some disturbing images, including a scene in which a group of women are brutally raped. But that chapter also ends with a moment of great humanity.

Blindness is an extraordinary book, a novel that makes you hate and believe in humanity at the same time. You will never forget this novel, even after you’ve read the last page.

JOSE-SARAMAGOMore about José Saramago: Saramago‘s other books include The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, which drew controversy for its anti-religious views; Cain, a retelling of Biblical stories; and Raised From the Ground, which depicts the lives of Portuguese peasants.

Source: I checked this out of the library.

And that’s a wrap of my series of classic Latino novels. Check out my other list of classic novels by Latinas.

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Classic book review: Manuel Puig’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman”

Manuel PuigBefore it was an Oscar-winning movie, before it was a Broadway musical, before it was a widely produced play, there was the novel Kiss of the Spider Woman (Vintage).

Manuel Puig’s 1976 book may be better known for its incarnations as a Tony Award-winning 1993 Broadway musical, with Chita Rivera and Vanessa Williams in the title role, and Oscar-winning 1985 movie starring Sonia Braga, Raul Julia and William Hurt.

The book takes place in the 1970s in an Argentine prison. Two seemingly opposite men — Molina, a gay window dresser, and Valentin, a political dissident — are stuck together. To pass the time, Molina tells the plots of movies, comforting Valentin while he suffers from physical illness and emotional heartache from leaving his girlfriend.

The book consists mostly of dialogue, and Puig excels at writing conservations that sound natural. But I had to endure Molina’s movie plots that drag on for pages and dryly written footnotes that discuss the history of psychiatry’s view of homosexuality. I confess I skipped through some of these passages.

But Puig conveys their loneliness well, such as in this passage:

“It’s as if we were on some desert island. An island on which we may have to remain alone together for years. Because, well, outside of this cell we may have our oppressors, yes, but not inside. Here no one oppresses the other. The only thing that seems to disturb me … because I’m exhausted, or conditioned or perverted … is that someone wants to be nice to me, without asking anything back for it.”

Then the book delivers a hell of a twist — one of the prisoners may be betraying the other.

Spider Woman is a novel that tackles big issues such as homosexuality and Argentine politics. Some of it was tough to get through, but it’s easy to see how it has endured through the years and in many forms.

puigMore about Manuel Puig: The Argentine author, who was born in 1932 and died in 1990, is best known for Spider Woman, but his other books includes 1968’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworth and 1973’s The Buenos Aires Affair.

Source: I checked this book out of the library.

 This book is part of my series on classic Latino novels. Up next: Jose Saramago’s Blindness.

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Classic book review: Oscar Hijuelos’ “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love”

MamboKingsPlaySongsofLoveOn a Saturday night in East Harlem or the Bronx, N.Y., Cesar and Nestor Castillo would perform songs from their homeland of Cuba. Clubgoers would mingle as Cesar sang and played the drums and Nestor performed the trumpet, and life’s troubles would disappear as they danced into the night.

Then the sun would rise and reality would set in.

The lives of the Castillo brothers are depicted in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (HarperPerennial) by Oscar Hijuelos. Released in 1989, the book won critical acclaim and Hijuelos become the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. And, perhaps more significantly in the realm of pop culture, it became a 1992 movie that made Antonio Banderas a star in the United States.

The brothers immigrated from Cuba to New York in the 1950s. Working by day, they play by night, getting gigs around the East Coast, releasing albums and landing a spot on I Love Lucy.

Hijuelos’ writing comes alive when he describes the brothers’ performances.

“He’d get up on the stage, dancing before the microphone while his musicians took the music forward. The glory of being on a stage with his brother Nestor, playing for crowds of café-society people who jumped, bounced, and wriggled across the dance floor. While Nestor soloed, Cesar’s heavy eyelids fluttered like butterfly wings lilting on a rose; for drum solos his hips hook, his arms whipped into the air: he’d take backwards dance steps, gripping his belt with one hand a crease of trouser with the other, hiking them up, as if to accentuate the valiant masculinity therein; outline of the big prick through white silk pantalones. Piano taking a ninth chord voicing behind a solo, he’d stare up into the pink and red spotlights, giving the audience a horse’s grin. Woman in a strapless dress dancing a slow, grinding rumba, staring at Cesar Castillo. Old woman with her hair coiffed upward into a heavenly spiral, starting at Cesar. Teenage girl, Miss Roosevelt High School Class of 1950, thin-legged and thinking about the mystery of boys and love, staring at Cesar Castillo. Old ladies’ skin heating up, hips moving like young girls’ hips, eyes, wide open with admiration and delight.”

Cesar is the definition of machismo. He almost seems defined by his “big thing” in the book’s frequent depictions of his sexual conquests. He devours sex as much as food and alcohol.

Nestor has a stable family life, but he’s more melancholy and introverted.

“Nestor tried, heaven helped him … After six years in the United States, he was still living with a growing dread of things. It wasn’t that he feared one thing in particular; he just had the sense that things weren’t going to work out, that the sky would fall in and lightning would strike him as he walked down the street, that the earth might open up and swallow him.”

Hijuelos is such a natural and beautiful writer that the book is easy to read, but sometimes it drags on too long. (We get it. Cesar likes to have sex.)

But as the book ends, Cesar realizes how his life has taken a toll on his body and his soul.

“The thing about one’s body coming apart was that, if anything, you felt more.”

And that’s the brilliance of Hijuelos’ writing — he can make you feel like you’re dying or dancing.

OscarHijuelosMore about Oscar Hijuelos: Hijuelos, whose parents immigrated from Cuba to New York, also wrote the books Our House in the Last World, Mr. Ives’ Christmas, Empress of the Splendid Season and Dark Dude. His most recent book is his 2011 memoir, Thoughts Without Cigarettes.

Source: I checked this book out of the library.

This book is part of my series on classic Latino novels. Up next: Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman.

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Classic book review: Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude”

100 Years of SolitudeGabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (Harper Perennial) has been named frequently on literature’s all-time greatest book lists. It also ranks high on Good Reads’ “didn’t finished” list. I can see how it made both lists.

Solitude defeated me once before. I attempted to read it when Oprah Winfrey put it in her book club, but I quit when I couldn’t keep up with all the characters. (I was able to complete and enjoy Love in the Time of Cholera.)

This time, I was prepared, ready to take notes and absorb this greatly loved story.

The book has an aura about it. It was released in 1968 during the Latin American boom in literature in the 1960s. The novel helped García Márquez win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. The book has numerous fans — including former President Bill Clinton — and it even makes an appearance in the Tom Hanks movie Turner and Hooch.

The novel covers the Buendía family over four generations in the town of Macando, founded by José Arcadio Buendia. García Márquez is an innovator of magic realism, so the villagers experience insomnia together and its rains endlessly for years. But the characters also experience real life — love, heartache, work, illness, death.

“It was as if God had decided to put to the test every capacity for surprise and was keeping the inhabitants of Macondo in a permanent alternation between excitement and disappointment, doubt and revelation, to such an extreme that no one knew for certain where the limits of reality lay.”

García Márquez writes in long sentences and paragraphs that makes the book seems longer than its 421 pages. The book, translated by Gregory Rabassa, demands intense concentration as García Márquez gives long descriptions and plenty of action, but little dialogue. Fortunately, the book had a family tree that I frequently referred to since so many characters share similar names.

Readers are rewarded with beautiful language — rich in description, humor and theme. And the stories are wonderfully crazy. One character, a colonel in the the military, insists no one come more than 10 feet of him. One woman kills men with her beauty. And, near the end, one shocking incident happens that uses both magic realism and hard core reality.

Solitude can be a challenge, but it’s a terrific challenge.

Gabriel Garcia MarquezMore about Gabriel García Márquez:

Born in Aracataca, Colombia, in 1928, García Márquez is one of the best beloved writers in the world. His other books include News of a Kidnapping and Memories of My Melancholy Whores.

 Source: I purchased this book.

Note: This review is part of my series of classic Latino novels. Up next: Oscar Hijuelos’ The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.

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Classic book review: Carlos Fuentes’ “The Death of Artemio Cruz”

Death of Artemio CruzThe Death of Artemio Cruz (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Carlos Fuentes is the elegantly written novel about an enigmatic man.

The book was released in 1962 in the midst of the Latin American boom in literature that brought novels from Gabriel García Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Julio Cortázar. The book is considered the greatest work from the Mexican writer, who passed away last year.

The book begins with 71-year-old Cruz, a businessman and former Congressman, lying in a coma in a hospital. His wife, Catalina, and daughter, Theresa, would like to see him die – for financial and emotional reasons. Cruz drifts in and out of the coma, thinking about the experiences in his life – taking advantage of peasants to add to his fortune; having affairs with numerous women, including his wife’s best friend; fighting for the government, and betraying a friend, in the Mexican Revolution. He recalls these and numerous other incidents without any sense of guilt or remorse.

I was intimidated by Cruz, but the book was fairly easy to read thanks to Alfred Mac Adam’s clear translation. The book requires patience at times. Fuentes writes in long paragraphs that almost seem like they will never end. The situations may take some time to figure out because they often begin in the middle of a scene or conversation.

But in those long paragraphs, Fuentes makes some great observations about the choices people make in life.

“It’s much easier to say: this is good and that is evil. Evil. You could never say, ‘That is evil.’ Perhaps because we are more forsaken, we do not want to lose that intermediate, ambiguous zone between light and shadow, that zone where we can find forgiveness. Where you may be able to find it. Isn’t everyone, in a single moment of his life, capable of embodying – as you do – good and evil at two mysterious, different-colored threads that unwind from the same spool, so that the white thread ascends and the black descends and, despite everything, the two come together again in his very fingers? You won’t want to think about all that. You will detest me for reminding you of it.”

The rights for the movie version were sold last year, and I’d be interested to see how this book translates to film. Artermio Cruz, the character, is not easy to like. But Artemio Cruz, the book, is an intriguing experience.

carlos-fuentesMore about Carlos Fuentes:

One of Mexico’s best known novelists, Fuentes also wrote The Old Gringo, Aura and other novels. He won the Cervantes Prize, given to Spanish-speaking writers, in 1987. He passed away in May 2012. Here’s his obituary from The New York Times.

Source: I checked this book out of the library.

Note: This review is part of my series of classic Latino novels. Up next: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez.

 

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Short and sweet: A look at Latino short story collections

May is Short Story Month. When it comes to this particular form of storytelling, Latino authors have produced some memorable and diverse collections.

AlephBorgesJorge Luis Borges: Considered a master of the short story, Borges’ works in the 1949 collection The Aleph will take you from the ancient times to the 20th century, from Argentina to the Middle East, from wars to personal revenge. One thing is certain – the ending will surprise you.

WomanHollering+Creek.wix_mpSandra Cisneros: In her spectacular 1992 collection Women Hollering Creek: And Other Stories, Cisneros writes about everyday people’s struggles – a 11-year-old having a bad day at school; a woman in love with Emiliano Zapata; a group of people who pray to the Virgin de Guadalupe (a story that inspired a play) and, in the title story, a woman who compares her troubled life to La Llorona, the weeping woman.

ThisIsHowYouLoseHerJunot Díaz: Yunior de las Casas, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, is the main character in Díaz’s two collections, 1997’s Drown and 2012’s This Is How You Lose Her (and Díaz’s novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao). You may not always like Yunior’s bad language and misogynistic attitude, but you can’t stop reading about his ordeals with love and life.

Miniature WifeDagoberto Gilb and Manuel Gonzales: These two Tejanos have produced two wildly different collections of short stories in the last two years. Gilb’s 2011 Before the End, After the Beginning shows the gritty lives of men facing tough decisions. Gonzales’ 2013 The Miniature Wife and Other Stories features men dealing with unicorns, werewolves and zombies.

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Classic book review: Junot Díaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”

OscarWaoI first read Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead) when it came out in 2007 for a selfish reason – I was excited the main character, Oscar de León, had the same last name as me.

I reread it again this year and rediscovered the awesomeness of the book.

Oscar Wao became an instant classic when it was released. It won the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize and propelled Díaz into literary stardom.

Most of the book is narrated by smart-ass Yunior de las Casas, who also appears in Díaz’s other books, Drown and This Is How You Lose Her. As with those books, Oscar Wao’s big strength is Díaz’s voice, in which the characters tell their stories as though they are talking to you over a beer.

The focus is on Oscar, the youngest son of a single mother who has immigrated from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey. He loves science fiction and hasn’t kissed a girl. His nerdiness may stem a family curse – or fukú – his family has been under since Oscar’s grandfather offended Rafael Trujillo, their homeland’s dictator.

“It seemed to Oscar that from the moment (his classmate) Maritza dumped him – Shazam! – his life started going down the tubes. Over the next couple of years he grew fatter and fatter. Early adolescence hit him especially hard, scrambling his face into nothing you could call cute, splotching his skin with zits, making him self-conscious; and his interest – in Genres! – which nobody has said boo about before, suddenly became synonymous with being a loser with a capital L. Couldn’t make friends for the life of him, too dorky, too shy, and (if the kids from his neighborhood are to be believed) too weird.”

Yunior goes on to describe Oscar’s further exploits as they room together in college. Just when Oscar may have found love, the curse comes back to haunt him.

The book put me through many emotions. I laughed out loud many times, especially during the opening pages. I nearly cried as I read the portion narrated by Lola, Oscar’s sister, as she recounts the struggles with her verbally abusive mother, Beli – although this passage, when she runs away from home, made me laugh:

“I kept waiting to run into my family posting up flyers of me on the boardwalk … but the closest I came to any of that was someone had put up for a cat they lost. That’s white people for you. They lost a cat and it’s an all-points bulletin, but we Dominicans, we lost a daughter and we might not even cancel our appointment at the salon.”

I also was fascinated by the sections about the lives of Beli and her parents in their native country – stuff I didn’t learn, as the book says, during “your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history.” Díaz weaves in other bits of Dominican history seamlessly – a minor character always seems to have a connection with someone in the Trujillo regime.

Some caveats: Some readers may be offended by the vulgar language and frequent use of the “N” word. Non-Spanish speakers may need a dictionary to keep up with the Spanish phrases. And many readers, such as myself, may not get the references to The Lord of the Rings (a series I’ve successfully avoided all my life).

But don’t let those things deter you from reading the book. Even if you don’t get the Gollum reference or a Spanish phrase, Oscar Wao is a brilliant book that successfully combines history, tragedy and humor.

JunotDiazMore about Junot Díaz:

Díaz was recently awarded a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. He is active in Freedom University, a college for undocumented immigrants.

Source: I check this book out of the library.

This book is part of my series of classic Latino novels. Up next: Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz.

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