Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book review: Javier Marías’ “The Infatuations”

The Infatuations Javier Marías’ The Infatuations (Knopf) begins with an intriguing premise.

A young woman, María Dolz, eats breakfast every morning at a café in Madrid that is frequented by an attractive couple, Luisa and Miguel.

“The nicest thing about them was seeing how much they enjoyed each other’s company. At an hour when almost no one is in the mood for anything, still less for fun and games, they talked non-stop laughing and joking, as if they had only just met or met for the every first time.”

One day, she discovers Miguel is murdered. She becomes friends with Luisa as well as with Javier, a friend of the couple who helps the widow out after her husband’s death. María becomes entranced by the mystery of Miguel’s death — and Javier may have played a role in the part.

The Infatuations sounds like a great thriller, but it’s more intellectual. Whether you’ll like it depends on your tastes in literature.

The characters often talk in long monologues than can go on for paragraphs or even pages. Who talks like that? At times, I wanted the story to hurry up and get to some action. The book — which ran about 50 pages too long — is best read in small doses.

But those long pages of conversations also had elegant writing (translated by the great Margaret Jull Costa, who also translated José Saramago’s Cain and Paulo Coelho’s Aleph). Marías has some great observations about the human condition.

On memory:

“We gradually learn that what seems really important now will one day seem a mere fact, a neutral piece of information. We learn that there will come a time when we don’t even give a thought to the person we once couldn’t live without and over whom we spent sleepless nights, without whom life seemed impossible, on whose words and presence we depended day after day, and if we ever do, very occasionally give that person a thought, it will merely be to shrug and think at most: ‘I wonder what became of her?’ without a flicker of concern or curiosity.”

On fate:

“The bad thing about terrible misfortunes, the kind that tear us apart and appears to be unendurable, is that those who suffer them believe or almost demand that the world should end right there, and yet the world pays no heed and carries on regardless and even tugs at the sleeve of the person who suffered the misfortune, I mean, it won’t just let them depart this world the way a disgruntled spectator might leave the theatre, unless the unfortunate person kills him or herself.”

On relationships:

“We think men will change their mind or their beliefs, that they will gradually discover that they can’t do without us, that we will be the exception in their lives or the visitors who end up staying, that they will eventually grow tired of those other invisible women whose existence we begin to doubt or whom we prefer to think do not exist, the more we see of the men and the more we love them despite ourselves; that we will be the chosen ones if only we have the necessary staying power to remain by their side, uncomplaining and uninsistent.”

Patient readers will be rewarded with an interesting twist about the murder. The ending also makes you think about the significance of the title and how people can get caught up in each other’s lives. Think of The Infatuations as literary fiction with a wicked side.

Javier_MaríasMore about Javier Marías:

Marías, who was born in Madrid, is considered one of Spain’s top contemporary novelists. He has written thirteen novels, including the award-winning The Man of Feeling, All Souls and A Heart So White.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

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Book review: Patricia Engel’s “It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris”

Engle-ItsNotLoveThe title of Patricia Engel’s It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris (Grove Press) suggests a fun, quirky romance in the world’s most glamorous city. But it’s a thoughtful look at the tough choices and emotions humans go through to attain love.

Lita del Cielo is a college student from New Jersey who spends a year living in a house run by a 90-year-old socialite and filled with other young adults. Even though Lita comes from a family that runs a huge Latin American food company, she feels out of place compared to her more sophisticated housemates. Then she meets Cato, a Frenchman. Of course, not everything is perfect — Cato is in fragile health. Lita must decide whether to stay in Paris with the love of her life or return to the United States and be with her family.

Although the book was more serious than I expected, it was an easy read. Engel has some great observations about love, and she shows how Lita’s heritage — her family is from Colombia — affects her in different ways, from racist remarks from her housemates to her emotions as she goes through tough moments:

“Of course I cried. Until my eyes swelled and my face ached. In English the world for crying feels trite, empty. The Spanish llorando is so much better. To say it feels like a cry, the way you have to open up your mouth and throat, concluding on the tip of the tongue, the back of the teeth. The French pleurer sounds too pretty, restrained, a costume of sadness. I wanted to invent a new word for crying without tears. The broken feeling. The disillusion.”

It’s Not Love is a mature, unique take on love — and how wonderful and awful it can be at the same time.

PatriciaEngel-Photo1More about Patricia Engel:

Engel, like her character Lita, is the daughter of Colombian parents who grew up in New Jersey. Her first book, Vida, won numerous literary prizes and her short stories have appeared in numerous publications. She lives in Florida.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

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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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Book review: Mario Alberto Zambrano’s “Lotería”

LoteriaIn Lotería: A Novel (Harper), Mario Alberto Zambrano uses a piece of Mexican culture to tell a story of human tragedy.

The book’s narrator, 11-year-old Luz Maria Castillo, remembers playing the popular Mexican folk game – similar to bingo – with her friends and family after Mass. After a lifetime of abuse that leads to one dramatic incident, her older sister ends up in the hospital and her father is arrested.

Luz writes in her journal from a youth detention center. For each chapter, Luz uses the image on the lotería card to tell a story from the past. That premise seems like a gimmick, but Zambrano makes it work with his simple prose and a compelling storyline that alternates between the present and the past.

The book is both easy and tough to read. I had to take breaks from it when the situation got too intense. But the writing is easy to understand and it’s written in short chapters, and Zambrano can express raw human emotions that make you ache for Luz.

For example, in the chapter called La Dama, Luz tells God about the mixed feelings she had about her mother, who suffered terrible abuse from her husband – and fought back.

“Sometimes I wondered if she were praying because of something she’d done to Papi. Or something he’d done to her. Or maybe she felt bad for calling him names for hitting him with something she grabbed from the kitchen drawer. I wanted to let her know that I was okay and that You’d understand. I pulled on her dress but she reached out and pinched me without even looking. I didn’t even know what happened, but I remember my skin burning and thinking how much I hated her. I called her names and stuck my tongue when she wasn’t looking even though You were right there between us. But I only hated her for a little while, for as long as I could feel the sting on my arm.”

In El Cantarito, Luz feels guilty when she sees her sister in the intensive care unit.

“Standing there, all of a sudden, I was like a jug of water trying to be taken from one place to another, and little by little, I was spilling.”

In that same chapter, a social worker tries to get Luz to talk:

“It’s like in Lotería, instead of playing the four corners we play the center squares. But midway through the game you find out that you have the corners and you’re missing the center squares. And if you would’ve played the corners you would’ve won already. But that’s how it is, isn’t it?”

Each chapter begins with a gorgeous, full color illustration, done by Jarrod Taylor. The drawings differ from the traditional lotería game, but carry the same spirit.

Lotería turns an ugly subject into a beautiful book.

ZambranoMore about Mario Alberto Zambrano:

Lotería is the first novel for Zambrano, who grew up in Texas and is a former professional ballet dancer. He currently attends the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

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Book review: Cristina García’s “King of Cuba”

king-of-cuba-coverCristina García’s King of Cuba (Scribner) is a wickedly awesome book.

The novel features two aging Cubans who went to college together and took two separate paths in life. El Comandante, based on Fidel Castro, became the country’s dictator, and Goyo Herrera ended up living in Florida and yearns to assassinate the man – or at least see “that son of a bitch in Havana to die first.”

After all, like many Cubans, Goyo has been through a lot.

“His brother had died in the Bay of Pigs, his father had shot himself from grief, his first love had hung herself over that tyrant. Goyo’s hatred was incontestable, lavish beyond measure.”

While Goyo also has to deal with an unruly son and health problems, El Comandante has to face political prisoners and other assassination attempts.

The book, at 235 pages, is easy to zip through because of Garcia’s great voice, which captures the bitterness of Goyo, the arrogance of El Comandante and the agony of old age. The book features generous amounts of profanity and sex and descriptions of their bathroom problems and penises. (Yes, you read that right.)

Aside from the foibles of the two main characters, the novel is a serious book – featuring anecdotes by everyday Cubans describing their struggles to make a living. King of Cuba makes a good companion to the recently released The Death of Fidel Pérez by Elizabeth Huergo, which also showed the effects of life under Castro’s regime.

Despite all he and his fellow Cubans have been through, Goyo still loves his homeland, as displayed in this beautifully written passage:

“ … the skies were embossed with the same moon and stars. The older he got, the more vividly his memories of Cuba returned – its dialects, its minerals, its underground caves, its guajiros, its hummingbirds, its fish, its chaos, its peanut vendors, its Chinese lotteries, its cacophonies, its myths, its terrors. Maybe this was what happened when a man approached death; senility and longing conspired to overtake reality. Perhaps Cuba had become nothing but an imaginary place, unrelated to any truth.”

King of Cuba is a book that will leave you thinking and laughing at the same time.

CristinaGarciaMore about Cristina García:

García, who grew up in New York City, also is the author of Dreaming in Cuban and The Lady Matador’s Hotel, as well as children’s books and poetry. She lives in Texas and New Mexico.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

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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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Book review: Isabel Allende’s “Maya’s Notebook”

MayasNotebookNineteen-year-old Maya Vidal is in danger. She is sent to live to what seems like the end of the earth – Chilóe, a small island off the coast of Chile. And it’s there that she begins to find herself – a journey depicted in Isabel Allende’s newest novel Maya’s Notebook (Harper).

Maya, originally from Berkeley, Calif., has had a tough time since her beloved grandfather died from cancer. She turns to drugs and rapidly descends into a life of homelessness and crime – tangled in a web that involves the FBI, Interpol and a Las Vegas gang.

Her grandmother sends Maya to her native Chile to live in a town (population: 2,000) that seems disconnected from the world – the villagers can’t rent DVDs or video games and only see movies once a week at the school. Maya learns to like the villagers and adapts to their customs, such as the women’s gathering in a ruca on the nights of a full moon.

Maya’s Notebook requires some patience. The first 100 pages spend more time describing life in Chilóe and her family when I wanted to know how Maya got into such a mess. But my patience paid off, because when Maya finally revealed the secrets of her past, the story was a fast, fascinating read.

The book also draws it strength from Allende’s elegant writing, with inventive descriptions and metaphors, such as this:

“… Addiction is an astute and patient beast, with infinite resources, always lying in wait, whose strongest argument is persuading you to tell yourself you’re not really not an addict.”

Another great passage describes Manuel, a family friend who faces his own demons and secrets:

“On this blessed island nothing feeds my bad memories, but I make to an effort to write them down in this notebook so I won’t have to go through what happens to Manuel. He keeps his memories buried in a cave, and if he’s not careful, they attack him at night like rabid dogs.”

Beautiful writing – although, at times, I wondered if a 19-year-old brat would sound that sophisticated.

But those passages prove Allende’s excellence. She can make Maya a sympathetic character and take readers from the dangerous streets of Las Vegas to the humble town of Chilóe. Maya’s Notebook is an absorbing book that shows how one woman overcomes a life of terror.

AllendeMore about Isabel Allende:

Allende, who was born in Peru and raised in Chile, is best known for her 1982 novel The House of the Spirits. She also has written 11 novels, including 1985’s Eva Luna and 1999’s Daugher of Fortune, and four memoirs, including 1995’s Paula. She currently lives in the United States.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

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