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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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review 2016-03-06 17:01
Huasipungo by Jorge Icaza
Huasipungo - Raul Neira,Jorge Icaza

This is a work of social realism/protest literature, which portrays a dire situation in intimate detail but has limited literary value. Huasipungo was originally published in 1934 (followed by substantial revisions in 1953 and 1960, aimed at making the novella more emotionally effective). It portrays the oppression of indigenous people in Ecuador, who are bound to the land, forced to work for little or no pay for rich landowners, and suffer all kinds of abuse with no recourse – the church is shown to be complicit, with the local priest fleecing the serfs however he can, and the army ready to step in with no questions asked at any hint of rebellion. This system was apparently in effect until land reform in 1964. “Huasipungo” is the indigenous word for the parcels of land worked as subsistence farms – but only at the will of the landowner, who could remove people from their homes at any time.

The narrative begins with a landowner, Alfonso Pereira, who relocates to his property in the Andes after many years of absentee management. His goal is development, aided by foreign investors. From there, the novella is a catalog of the machinations of the powerful and the abuses suffered by the Indians. It doesn’t quite have a protagonist: Alfonso is its most prominent character, but functions as a villain, while its major indigenous character, Andres Chiliquinga, is often absent from its pages.

To the modern American reader, choosing Andres as the symbol of indigenous suffering and vehicle for the readers’ sympathies is puzzling: he beats his wife, and he’s not very bright even compared to his equally uneducated peers. Throughout the book, he is easily manipulated and shows a complete lack of forethought or ability to consider the probable consequences of his actions. This is after two revisions that, according to the introduction to my edition, were primarily aimed at making Andres a more human and sympathetic character. I can only presume that the original readers’ expectations were very different from mine.

Nevertheless, I didn’t wholly dislike this book. The writing is quite vivid, and reading it is a cultural experience. There is a lot of disembodied bystander dialogue, which gives the reader the sense of being a fly on the wall in this place and time. While a challenging read, I think it’s a valuable historical document and learned quite a bit about Ecuador.

If you do plan to read Huasipungo in Spanish, the Stockcero edition seems to be a good choice. It includes both footnotes and a glossary, which were essential to my understanding of the Quichua words that pepper the text. (Quichua, as it turns out, is not a misspelling of Quechua but a variation spoken in Ecuador.) And while a 42-page introduction seems excessive for a 168-page novella, it does include some interesting information. On the downside, the occasionally misplaced punctuation and line breaks are just sloppy.

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review 2015-10-26 01:01
The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa
El héroe discreto (Spanish Edition) - Mario Vargas Llosa

With a bit of patience, this turns out to be an entertaining story about fathers and sons, and about men standing up to intimidation. Its title is oddly chosen; calling anyone in the book heroic seems a bit of a stretch, and certainly no one is discreet.


Felicito Yanaque is a businessman in Piura, Peru, who receives letters demanding protection money but refuses to be bullied. Meanwhile, in Lima, Rigoberto is on the verge of retirement when he’s drawn into his boss’s scheme to disinherit a pair of ungrateful sons. The story takes time to pick up, and there are unnecessary tangents, particularly in the first half. Nevertheless, I did enjoy reading it; the novel ultimately goes the melodramatic route rather than (as it initially appears) examining the state of law and order in Peru or the moral dilemmas Felicito faces in refusing the extortionists’ demands. But it is entertaining melodrama and the characters realistic enough to support it.


In fact, this book is … fine, which is an odd thing to say about a novel by a Nobel laureate. It’s well-written, but not to the point that one stops to admire the author’s use of language. The setting and characters feel strangely old-fashioned, although the book is nominally set in modern Peru. It has a compelling plot that the characters themselves compare to a telenovela by the end. This is a perfectly readable book, but not an important one.

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