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review 2017-09-03 18:32
The Discreet Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa, trans. Edith Grossman
The Discreet Hero: A Novel - Mario Vargas Llosa,Edith Grossman

This book put me in a bind: while I found the story and characters engaging, fun, even, there are aspects that offended me. As I read, I would wonder: "Is this attitude or behavior endorsed by the author, or just described by him in depicting this place and these personalities?" By the end, I decided that there are definite ideologies at work here, including the beliefs that when it comes to family, blood is all; that the younger generation is responsible for squandering the hard work of their parents'; and the conservative viewpoint that if one only works hard enough, one can be successful. Other troubling attitudes that are questioned by characters but nevertheless feel condoned by the narrative: blaming victims of rape or sexual coercion; treating women as objects; racism; masculine pride as more important than the lives of loved ones.

 

After I finished the book, I read several reviews as I tried to work out my opinion of it. These mention that Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature but that this may not be his best work; that he used to be a social progressive but became a conservative who ran for president of Peru; that some characters appear in other books of his; that some elements are based on real events and his own life.

 

The book is divided between two alternating and converging narratives with separate protagonists, both fitting the "discreet hero" label of the title. The stories take place in two different areas of Peru, one Lima, one provincial, and their plots appear to have no connection. When they link up, it's very satisfying, even though the connection is quite minor. Each plot has elements of a mystery-thriller that propel the story; I found it hard to put down. The characters are often charming and easy to root for (until they're not). In story one, a man who worked his way up from nothing and owns a transport company is anonymously threatened unless he pays for protection; he refuses. In story two, a man on the verge of retirement and a long-awaited trip with his wife and son finds his life upheaved when his wealthy boss decides to marry his servant to punish his errant sons; at the same time, the protagonist's teenaged son is being approached by a mysterious stranger who may or may not be real, the devil, an angel, or just the kid fucking with his parents (this last mystery is left ambiguous).

 

Other elements I enjoyed included the relationship between the second protagonist and his wife, his feelings about art's role in life, the police sergeant from the first story, and learning about Peruvian life across two settings.

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review 2016-03-18 15:55
Esquival's Like Water for Chocolate
Like Water for Chocolate - Thomas Christensen,Carol Christensen,Laura Esquivel

This is a magical realist novel.  Some people think that it is high literature, but it isn't.  IT is very derivative of Garcia Marquez but without the wonderful language. The book is divided into twelve chapters named after the months of the year.  That is done for no apparent reason that I could see and felt like a poorly executed gimmick.  There is also a recipe for every chapter which is included into the chapter and where the cooking creates an accidental magic spell.  The book is set during the Mexican Revolution but this is more a colourful backdrop than anything else.  

In general, the book is a pop version of Garcia Marquez.  It's not bad although the prose is very simplistic in a bad way.  Its light fluff posing as serious literature.  I have always preferred serious literature that poses as light fluff.  It's magical realism for the bored unintellectual housewife really.  It's not bad, it's just bland.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2015-02-14 00:00
Three Trapped Tigers (Latin American Literature Series)
Three Trapped Tigers (Latin American Literature Series) - Guillermo Cabrera Infante,Donald Gardner,Suzanne Jill Levine This is not the first Latin American novel to which I suspect I would give five stars, were I only smart enough to fully comprehend it. What is it with these guys? I loved the first 350-400 pages of this, and there was this 20-page chapter that truly blew my mind, but then the end was this seemingly endless night of baffling conversation, capped by a completely indecipherable page of stream-of-consciousness bizarrity.

In other words, I didn't get it, but for the most part, I loved it. If anyone reading this can tell me what the hell the last 100 pages were about, I would be most appreciative.
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review 2014-12-12 02:27
[REVIEW] Cien Sonetos de Amor de Pablo Neruda
Cien sonetos de amor (Spanish Edition) - Pablo Neruda

Realmente Neruda y yo no somos compatibles.

Recuerdo con frustración que me asignaron su autobiografía "Confieso que he Vivido" en bachillerato y no pude terminarlo por lo aburrido que era.

Su poesía me desespera. Sus constantes aluciones al trigo, al pan, y el horno que levanta la levadura me hace pensar que tenía un sueño frustrado de panadero. Eso o Matilde, su bienamada, era un pan en otra vida.

Si acaso disfruté de dos o tres de los sonetos es mucho.

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review 2014-11-20 12:56
Diaz's The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz

The most important work of the post second world war literature is 100 Years of Solitude.  I would have preferred Lolita, 1984 or Last Exit to Brooklyn to be the most important work.  While I love 100 Years of Solitude, it has led to a lot of disappointing writing.  Oscar Wao is very much in that tradition, but Diaz is far superior a writer to similar contemporaries such as Eugenidies and Chabon.  

The book feels as if it is written on speed.  Unlike so many other contemporary writers, Diaz takes the shortest possible time to  get from A to B.  He also freely helps himself to any technique, such as writing in the second person when he feels like, putting in footnotes, switching into Spanish dialogue and filling the book with pop culture nerd references.  In the nerd references, he is very like Neil Stephenson or Bryan Lee O'Malley, but his use of them is more assured and purposeful.  It might interfere with the book lasting, because it is hard to get the book without a basic knowledge of Dominican history, the mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons and so on.  You can see a great deal of influences in the style.  As well as those already mentioned, he draws on Mario Vargas Llosa and there is a clear influence by Nabakov.  In its anarchic experimentalism, its close to Pale Fire in more than just the use of footnotes.

The whole thing is a delight.  I kind of feel that it is too good to have won the Pulitzer, which I find a suspect award even by the standard of literary awards.  I see that a lot of people have reacted negatively to it, but the sheer speed of the prose, throwing away of the rule book, along with an actual understanding of human beings is really refreshing.  It is also influenced by the post punk music that it references, you can see the influence of The Pixies, for instance.  Its anarchic speed and joy in suffering are pulled out of that music and inserted into a work of literature.  Its the only time I've seen that done in the forty years this music has existed.

The biggest problem that I see is that along with almost all contemporary writers of literature he has picked up from Garcia Marquez and other writers like Vonnegut an unfortunate tendency to patronize his characters.  In that the Scott Pilgrim comics, arguably the closest thing to this book are superior.  

Its a fantastic synthesis of so much writing of the last 40 years, and is written as if the author was on speed. It is bedeviled by the patronizing of the characters and in particular the ending, which finds beauty where it should find none is a problem.  If Diaz can learn to treat his characters as equals, he has the potential to become a great novelist.

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