Monthly Archives: September 2013

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.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Classic Books, Fiction

Happy Independence Day, Chile!

Chile declared its independence from Spain on Sept. 18, 1810. The South American country has a turbulent history — and one of the richest literary traditions in the world.

gabriela_mistral• The only Latina to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Gabriela Mistral (1889-1956) is best known for her poems that touch on the subjects of children and motherhood, such as in the book Ternura (Tenderness). Mistral is the subject of her own children’s book, My Name Is Gabriela: The Life of Gabriela Mistral, written by Monica Brown.

Pablo_NerudaPablo Neruda‘s (1904-1973) love poems have made him one of the most beloved poets in the world, winning the Nobel Prize. He is featured as a character in Antonio Skarmeta’s Il Postino, which was made into a 1994 Academy Award-nominated movie, and is the subject of Roberto Ampuero’s excellent The Neruda Case, which shows him in the last days of his life as he reflects on his past loves and President Salvador Allende’s government is about to be overthrown.

A._Skármeta• Besides Il Postino, Antonio Skarmeta has written some other memorable works, including the children’s book The Composition, named one of Scholastic Parent & Child’s 100 Greatest Books for Kids, and the play El Plebiscito, a story about the advertising campaign against President Augusto Pinochet that became No, a 2012 Oscar-nominated film.

AllendeIsabel Allende has won worldwide acclaim for her books that depict life in Chile, including The House of the Spirits, Eva Luna, Daughter of Fortune and her most recent novel, Maya’s Notebook.

roberto-bolanoThe novels of Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003) — such as 2666, winner of the National Book Critics Award — have become more popular after his death. He also won the Romulo Gallegos Prize for The Savage Detectives.

AlejandroZambra• Winners of the Cervantes Prize, given to Spanish language writers, include Jorge Edwards, Gonzalo Rojas and Nicanor Parra. Other contemporary Chilean writers include Alejandro Zambra, right, author of Ways of Going Home.

Sources: Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica

Leave a comment

Filed under Nation profiles

Happy Independence Day, Mexico!

Mexico declared its independence from Spain on Sept. 16, 1810. The North American country is the largest Spanish-speaking nation and perhaps the most influential Latin American nation in the world. Its close proximity to the United States has given writers great fodder for literature. Here’s a look at its writers:

OctavioPazOctavio Paz (1914-1998), right, won the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Cervantes Prize for Spanish language writers for his collection of poems, including 1957’s Sun Stone, which revolves around the Aztec calendar and was adapted into a play, and 1950’s The Labyrinth of Solitude, which focuses on his homeland.

Juan Rulfo Juan Rulfo (1918-1986), left, had a tremendous influence on writers, including Colombian writer Gabriel Gárcia Márquez, despite releasing only two books, 1955’s El llano en llamas/The Burning Plain and 1955’s Pedro Páramo. Short story writer Juan José Arreola (1918-2001) is known for his humorous writings, which are collected in the book, Confabulario and Other Inventions.

carlos-fuentes• Novelist Carlos Fuentes (1928-2012), right, was part of the Latin American boom in literature of the 1960s. He is best known for 1962’s The Death of Artemio Cruz, about a dying man looking back on his life, and 1985’s The Old Gringo, the story of an American writer in the Mexican Revolution. He also won the Cervantes Prize.

• Other winners of the Cervantes Prize are Sergio Pitol, a diplomat who described his international experiences and his life in Mexico in his 1996 novel El arte de la fuga/The Art of Flight, and José Emilio Pacheco, a poet and short story writer. Winners of the Rómulo Gallegos Prize include Fernando del Paso for Palinuro de México; Ángeles Mastretta for Mal de amores and Elena Poniatowska for El tren pasa primero.

LikeWaterforChocolate• Contemporary Mexican writers include Laura Esquivel, author of the hugely popular Like Water for Chocolate, and Juan Pablo Villalobos, author of Down the Rabbit Hole. Mexican-American writers include (among many others) Rudolfo Anaya, Sandra Cisneros, Alex Espinoza, Reyna Grande, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Michele Serros, Luis Alberto Urrea and Victor Villasenor.

Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica, Poets.org, Wikipedia

Leave a comment

Filed under Nation profiles

Happy Independence Day, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua!

On Sept. 15, 1821, five Central American countries declared their independence from Spain. (It also marks the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month, with several Latin American countries celebrating their Independence Days in the next 30 days.) Here’s a look at the writers and books from these nations:

CocoriCosta Rica: Poet and novelist Joaquín Gutiérrez wrote several books, including Cronicas De Otro Mundo; the children’s book Cocori, which has been translated into several languages and produced as a play; and Chinto Pinto, a book of Costan Rican proverbs and songs for children.

RoqueDaltonSmallHoursEl Salvador: Poet Roque Dalton (1935-1975) now is considered a revered figure in his native country for his works, collected in the book Small Hours of the Night. But his left wing politics sent him in exile from his country and led to his death. Héctor Tobar of The Los Angeles Times had a fascinating story about his execution.

asturiasGuatemala: Miguel Angel Asturias (1899-1974), right, won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his novels — The President (El Senor Presidente) and Men of Maize: The Modernist Epic of the Guatemalan Indians (Hombres de Maize) — that depicted life in his country. Contemporary novelists Francisco Goldman, Héctor Tobar and Sabrina Vourvoulias have Guatemalan roots.

enriques-journeyHonduras: Novelist Froilán Turcios (1875-1943) is best known for his collection of short stories Cuentos del Amor y la Muerte (Stories of Love and Death). Roberto Sosa (1930-2011) won awards for his poetry. The non-fiction book Enrique’s Journey, based on Pulitzer Prize-winning series by Sonia Nazario, follows a young Honduran boy as he travels to the United States to find his mother.

Rubén_DaríoNicaragua: Poet Rubén Darío (1867-1916), right, is considered one of the finest wordsmiths in the Spanish language, with poems that experimented with the language. They can be found in the book Selected WritingsNovelist Silvio Sirias, who was raised in California, drew upon his cultural heritage for such books as Meet Me Under the Ceiba and Bernardo and the Virgin.

Sources: Answers.com, Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, Poets.org, Los Angeles Times, Vidagranada.com

Leave a comment

Filed under Nation profiles

Book review: Patricio Pron’s “My Fathers’ Ghost is Climbing in the Rain”

myfathersghostMy Fathers’ Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain (Knopf) by Partricio Pron has a premise as intriguing as its title.

The first part begins somewhat mysteriously, with the narrator, returning to his native Argentina from Germany, remembering scraps of his and his family’s past — drug abuse, a car accident, his father’s illness. (“My father was lying beneath a tangle of cord like a fly in a spiderweb.”) The sections are not numbered in correct order (1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10).

The second part deals with the disappearance with a father’s friend, Alberto José Burdisso, in 2008. The son finds a collection of articles and pictures saved by his father, who only knew the man briefly in primary school.  This leads to several questions, such as:

“Who would want to kill some sort of Faulknerian fool, poorer than a church mouse, in a town where his disappearance would be noticed immediately, a town, where, moreover, many people would know who Burdisso was, what he had done and who was with him in his final hours?”

And why does his father, a journalist, take such an interest in this poor man’s death?

Pron builds up an compelling storyline — and the answers lies in Argentina’s haunted past and the father’s role in politics, even though the man’s death occurred decades after the Dirty War.

“I noticed it had started to rain again, and I told myself I would write that story because what my parents and their comrades had done didn’t deserve to be forgotten, and because I was the product of what they had done, and because what they’d done was worthy of being told because their ghost — not the right or wrong decisions my parents and their comrades had made their spirit itself — was going to keep climbing in the rain until it took the heavens by storm.”

Pron is a great writer. The 212-page book, which was translated by Mara Faye Lethem, is simply written with evocative language and a plot that kept me reading. My Father’s Ghost shows the effects of the Dirty War though generations and years.

patriciopronMore about Patricio Pron:

Pron, an Argentine native who lives in Madrid, has written three short story collections and four novels. He has won the Juan Rulfo Short Story Prize and the Jaén Novel Prize.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Leave a comment

Filed under 2013 Books, Book Reviews, Fiction

Happy Independence Day, Brazil!

Brazil declared its independence from Portugal on Sept. 7, 1822. The country is host to Carnival, the 2014 World Cup, the 2016 Summer Olympics — and some memorable writers.

Machado_de_Assis_aos_57_anosJoaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908) is considered to be one of the greatest writers from Brazil and perhaps “the greatest writer ever produced in Latin America,” according to writer Susan Sontag. His most famous novel is The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, which chronicles one man’s romantic pursuits. Here’s a great article from The New York Times from 2008 about his legacy.

Mario_de_andrade• Poet and novelist Mario de Andrade (1893-1945) was an innovator in many ways — by promoting music, modern art and literature around the country; by using magic realism in his best known novel, Macunaíma; and by writing in Brazilian dialect instead of formal Portuguese in his poems, which are collected in the book Poesias Completas.

paulo_coelhoPaulo Coelho is the author of one of the world’s most read books, The Alchemist, which has been on The New York Times best-seller list for more than 250 weeks. His other books include Veronika Decides to Die, as well as recent best-sellers Aleph and Manuscript Found in Accra. A movie based on his life is in the works.

 Jorge AmadoJorge Amado won acclaim for his 32 books — including Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon and  Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands — that reflected his country’s culture and people. The BBC ran this great story about his life and work last year for his 100th birthday and the Jorge Amado Foundation website has a great overview about his work.

paulo-linsPaulo Lins wrote the 1997 novel City of God, which became a 2002 Academy Award-nominated movie. In this New York Times article, he talked about growing up in the poor neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro with blacks and immigrants.

Sources: Wikipedia, The New York Times, Encyclopedia Britannica, Matueté

Leave a comment

Filed under Nation profiles

Book review: Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s “The Sound of Things Falling”

Sound of Things Falling After a game of billards with his friend Ricardo, Antonio Yammara walks out into the streets of Bogotá, Colombia, and gunfire rings out. Antonio is injured and Ricardo dies. The incident haunts Antonio for years until he decides to find out why Ricardo was killed.

The Sound of Things Falling (Riverhead) by Juan Gabriel Vásquez shows how the drug war affected the lives of the people in Colombia. Two of the characters recall how they learned of the fatal shootings of government officials and politicians just as Americans remember where they were when President John F. Kennedy or civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. were shot.

Antonio’s investigation into Ricardo’s death draws him closer to Ricardo’s family and his country’s history. Antonio even makes a visit to the abandoned home of drug lord Pablo Escobar, where a rhino still roams the land. Throughout the novel, he uses the imagery of flight — I won’t reveal anymore than that — to symbolize the characters’ emotions.

It’s these vivid details, along with some beautifully written passages, that make Sound a terrific read. His work reminded me of Afghan writer Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner, And The Mountains Echoed). Like Hosseini, Vásquez is able to convey his country’s trials on a personal basis with a compelling plot and simple, accessible language so I was drawn to the story without feeling lost or confused. (Translator Anne McLean deserves a great deal of credit.) Vasquez also eloquently conveys the tragedy and puzzle of life, as demonstrated by this passage:

“Adulthood brings with it the pernicious illusion of control, and perhaps evens depends on it. I mean that mirage of dominion over our own life that allows us to feel like adults, for we associate maturity with autonomy, the sovereign right to determine what is going to happen to us next. Disillusion comes sooner or later, but it always comes, it doesn’t miss an appointment, it never has. When it arrives we receive it without too much surprise, for no one who lives long enough can be surprises to find their biography has been molded by distant events, by other people’s will, with little or no participation from our own decisions. These long processes that end up running into our life — sometimes to give it the shove it needed, sometimes to blow to smithereens our most splendid plans — tend to be hidden like subterranean currents, like tiny shifts of tectonic plates, and when the earthquake finally comes we invoke the words we’ve learned to calm ourselves, accident, fluke, and sometimes fate.”

The Sound of Falling Things is an unforgettable read.

juan-gabriel-vasquezMore about Juan Gabriel Vásquez:

Vásquez was born in Bogotá and has lived in France, Belgium and Spain. His first two books were The Informers and The Secret History of Costaguana.

Source: I purchased this book.

3 Comments

Filed under 2013 Books, Book Reviews, Fiction