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Search tags: read-in-spanish
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review 2018-02-08 17:37
El Tiempo entre Costuras/The Time In Between by María Dueñas
El tiempo entre costuras - María Dueñas

This is a fun, lively work of historical fiction, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It follows the adventures of Sira Quiroga, who in the 1930s is a young, immature Spanish seamstress from a working-class background. She makes some poor life decisions which leave her alone in Morocco, indebted and unable to leave the country, and through a combination of dangerous adventures and hard work, manages to grow up and open a high-class dressmaking business. Which comes in handy for the Allies in World War II, when she is recruited as a spy.

I am typically less critical of books I read in Spanish, since the language requires much more concentration from me than English; this book I enjoyed almost entirely for its fun and sometimes exciting plot, rather than for any exceptional character development or insight into human psychology. But it is a lively and enjoyable plot, and I was quickly immersed in Sira’s struggles. The book provides a satisfying balance between lighter and darker elements: unlike in a lot of historical fiction, which focuses on the wealthy and privileged, the obstacles Sira faces are major and the stakes often high, but at the same time she builds a support network that keeps her story from ever becoming too dark. Similarly, most of the book takes place against a backdrop of war, but Sira waits out the Spanish Civil War in Morocco and spends WWII in Spain, so never encounters war firsthand. It’s a balance, in other words, that allows the story to be gripping without being brutal, and fun without being frivolous.

It’s also a good choice for readers who like to learn about a historical place and time through fiction: even while Sira has her own personal struggles, the book is engaged with its historical milieu, and real historical figures play major secondary roles. It does tend to assume (at least in the Spanish edition) some knowledge of the Spanish Civil War, prompting me to do a little of my own research. And I certainly learned from it; I had little knowledge about the bond between Franco and Nazi Germany, for instance, nor how close Spain was to entering the war on the Axis side. The author’s background is as a professor, and she does an excellent job of combining rigorous research with great storytelling.

Overall, this isn’t a life-changing book for me and it’s one I’ll remember more for its enjoyable plot than other literary accomplishments, though in terms of writing style and especially doing the research it is a cut above the general run of historical fiction. I enjoyed and would recommend it.

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review 2017-10-30 21:17
Camino de Hormigas by Miguel Huezo Mixco
Camino de Hormigas - Miguel Huezo Mixco

This was a somewhat confusing book, at least for me reading in my second language. We start off reading about an older man from El Salvador who lives and works in a stable in California, and has written a manuscript based on his experiences fighting in the war there, which he mails to an unknown friend. The protagonist of the novella isn’t the narrator from the frame story – or is he? The last chapter seems to blur the line between the two, while each individual chapter slips between multiple time periods and focuses on a different episode from the protagonist’s life. Although the backdrop is the war, the episodes are about the protagonist’s many sexual and romantic liaisons. I never really lost the sense that I’d rather have read the “true” story about the fictional writer’s past than about the misadventures of his promiscuous alter ego.

Nevertheless, the book was engaging enough (and short), and while the protagonist didn’t especially interest me, the women he got involved with did. I also learned a bit about El Salvador, its war and the lives of the guerrilleros. To my knowledge this hasn’t been translated to English, but I think it is likely worth translating.

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review 2017-07-02 19:14
Marcos Ramirez by Carlos Luis Fallas
Marcos Ramírez - Carlos Luis Fallas

This is an enjoyable tale of a boy growing up in Costa Rica in the 1910s and 1920s. It is mostly episodic, without an overarching plot, and Marcos spends most of his time misbehaving and causing trouble, so the Tom Sawyer comparison feels apt. The specific details of Marcos’s life feel real rather than drawn from fictional tropes, so I suspected the book was autobiographical even before learning from the brief autobiographical essay in the front that all the facts of Marcos’s life match Fallas’s.

 

It is a colorful and entertaining book, and it’s not your stereotypical Costa Rica: the boys, including Marcos, are quite violent, and at one point he runs off with the army when war with Panama is brewing. Marcos is a lively if sometimes exasperating character, though there’s little development of anyone else – we get to know his mother and uncle a bit, but the book’s autobiographical nature means his friends are represented by an ever-changing stream of boys who put in brief appearances, and few other characters register much. Toward the end we read more about Marcos’s schooling, which is interesting but not in the same way; there’s a lot of school politics and criticism of teachers for whom memorization is the highest form of learning. But the couple of episodes in which Marcos uses cruelty to animals to revenge himself on their owners were my least favorite.

 

Overall though, this is a fun book; Fallas seems to be one of those few authors who can write about childhood from the inside rather than imposing an adult viewpoint on the narrative. It’s a shame this book apparently has never been translated to English, as I suspect it could find a healthy readership.

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review 2016-11-20 17:15
A Lupita le gustaba planchar by Laura Esquivel
A Lupita le gustaba planchar: [Lupita Always Liked to Iron] (Spanish Edition) - Laura Esquivel

I’m a little surprised that this book has as low a rating as it does – though only a little, since flawed female protagonists seem to draw a lot of hate. I definitely liked this one better than Esquivel’s major hit, Like Water for Chocolate; this book is much more grounded and contains very little romance (both the romance and the male lead in Like Water for Chocolate are incredibly unattractive).

This book makes no bones about being a parable for modern Mexico, with a broken woman representing a broken country. Lupita has had a hard life and coped poorly, and though she’s somehow become a police officer (an explanation would not have been out of place, since she previously served time), she struggles with addiction. Her fragile sobriety is shattered when she witnesses an at-first-inexplicable political assassination, which kicks off the novella.

I found this to be an entertaining book, with a good mix of action and forward momentum with introspection and backstory. Esquivel also brings the setting to life well; a reader would learn much more about Mexico from this book than Like Water for Chocolate. It is quite explicitly political, which isn’t in a fault in itself, as books should reflect life. Most Americans would probably be surprised to learn that Lupita’s opinions about the drug trade – that American consumers are largely to blame for generating demand in the first place – are commonly held in Mexico. However, the book’s solution for Lupita and for Mexico is simplistic, seeming to suggest that a reversion to indigenous beliefs (often explained in set-asides from the text) would bring instant healing of all wounds. An additional couple of chapters at the end could have done a much better job of wrapping up the story.

All told, then, an okay book, and the writing is better than I remember from Esquivel. Still not one I’ll recommend widely.

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review 2016-06-26 23:01
El General y El Presidente by Rafael Ángel Méndez Alfaro
El general y el presidente - Rafael Ángel Méndez Alfaro

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 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.

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