The Dangers of Smoking In Bed by Mariana Enriquez, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell ( 2021 International Booker Prize Longlist)

I’m not usually a fan of short stories. I like best to be fully immersed in the depth of a novel. But, this collection from Maria Enriquez provides great intrigue. Each story is startling, unexpected, and in its own way, horrific; almost too much to handle if it had been written in novel form.

The first story, Angelita Unearthed, is about a ghost, the rotting corpse of a baby who had died at three months of age. This baby was a sibling of the narrator’s Grandmother, and clearly didn’t like being dug up in the backyard, for it followed her great niece “on her little bare feet that, rotten as they were, left her little white bones in view.” What a contrast this image is, with an innocent baby called Angelita…meaning “little angel.”

The second story, Our Lady of the Quarry, involves a crush of several girls on Diego, a muscled guy who falls for the older Sylvia. When Diego and Sylvia play a trick on the girls at the quarry, a dangerous place named the Virgin’s Pool, the revenge that one of them extracts is much worse.

The Cart tells of an old man who pushed his cart of rubbish, cardboard boxes and whatnot, into a neighborhood where he proceeded to pull down his pants and poop on the sidewalk. Those around him were incensed and reacted violently, all accept for a sweet woman who helped him escape. Before he left, he turned around to give a certain look at all the people except her, and subsequently the rest of the neighborhood was cursed. They found themselves in utter poverty and despair, until they burned the cart…and something that smelled like meat, but wasn’t, on the grill.

There are nine more stories included in this book, which I will not explain here lest I spoil the surprises for you.

I think of smoking in bed, which is not something I do. But, it seems to me to be a pleasure, for those who smoke, which is laced with added danger. What if the bedding catches fire? What if an ash falls somewhere unexpected, and lies there smoldering before erupting in flame? So many things, from a simple pleasure, can go entirely wrong. Such is the case, I think, with each of these stories by Maria Enriquez. Her world is a frightening one to consider, as the most ordinary thing can go dreadfully wrong.

Thank you to Granta for a copy of The Dangers of Smoking In Bed to read and review.

All This I Will Give To You by Dolores Redondo, a Planeta Prize winning novel for Spanish Lit Month and Women In Translation Month

”All this I will give to you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” ~Matthew 4:9 (NIV)

On World Book Day, Amazon gives free books in translation for one’s kindle. (Mark April 23, 2021 on your calendar should you wish to enjoy such pleasures, for they are worthy titles.) All This I Will Give To You, by Dolores Redondo, has been languishing in my queue for such a time as this: Spanish Lit Month and Women in Translation Month. Not only that, it won the Planeta Prize in 2016.

This thrilling novel is intricately woven and beautifully constructed. It follows the labyrinthine path of Manuel who is suddenly woken in the night with the news that his husband has died in a car crash. And when Manuel drives to Alvaro’s family estate for the funeral, he decides to stay to discover what, exactly, was the cause of his husband’s death. The more he searches, the more intrigue he uncovers, for Alvaro’s family bears many hidden secrets.

The waxy, white petals of a gardenia, discovered tucked away in pockets and drawers…the exuberant innocence of Samuel, a four year old boy…the malicious hatred of the Raven, the matriarch of the family estate which has now been left to Manuel, all combine with the help of a policeman and old friend to reveal the truth.

This was a fascinating novel, one I just completed just last night. I leave you with the trailer from the author’s site, as perhaps it will picque your interest even more.

Cathedral By The Sea, and Other Books I’ve Begun for Spanish Lit Month Before It Ends

I have had a difficult time reading this month, and sadly, finishing books for Spanish Lit Month. I began Cathedral of The Sea which, as you can see from the blurb about the author at the end of this post, sounded fabulous. Fourteenth century? Several literary prizes? It held every promise.

However, I abandoned this hefty novel halfway through. After slogging through well over 300 pages, many of which were interesting, the overall effect was too much of a soap opera. There were dramatics from the characters which seemed contrived, and I would have much rather known more about the cathedral itself than their imagined lives.

So, with The Cave being Portuguese rather than Spanish, and Cathedral of The Sea being boring, I tried another book: A Million Drops by Victor Del Arbol. It too, lies abandoned halfway through, although it is an international best seller which was named a Best Book of The Year by The Washington Post, Seattle Times and Crime Reads. Perhaps I will pick it up after I finish All This I Will Give to You, written by Dolores Redondo which won the Pleneta Prize in 2016. Such are my efforts for Spanish Lit Month, the later also qualifying for Women In Translation Month.

A lawyer and a writer, Falcones’s first book, La catedral del mar (Cathedral of the Sea), was published in 2006, when he was nearly 50. This historic novel is set in 14th-century Barcelona, when the Catalan empire was at its greatest. Cathedral of the Sea won Falcones several international awards, including the Spanish Qué Leer award, the Italian Giovanni Boccaccio award, and the French Fulbert de Chartres award. His second novel, La mano de Fátima (The Hand of Fatima), which is set during the Moorish era, received the American-Italian Roma Prize for best foreign literature. Since 2013, he has released three books. (From culturetrip.com)

The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabazon Camara (translated from the Spanish by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Mackintyre, Booker International Prize 2020)

This cover reminded me of Pippi Longstocking at first, with those two long braids erratically standing up. As I read, I learned that they belong to China Iron, “china” being the name for someone’s woman, and “iron” coming from Fierro, her deceased husband’s last name. She cut her braids, and put on the clothing of a gaucho, as she travelled with Liz through the pampas of Argentina in 1872.

Elizabeth is a Scotswoman, familiar with English, tea, lavender-scented sheets, and soft leather shoes. China is entranced by her.

But, I am entranced by the descriptions of their beautiful, and often fearsome, surroundings. Here is an example:

Suddenly everything goes still, the wide pastures – that usually ripple and wave – stop their swaying, a heavy silence descends over everything, a black thunder cloud that had seemed far off is right overhead, imminent in an instant, billowing, swollen, whorls of mottled grey. Although its texture might appear soft to the eyes of those of us on the ground below, in the short time it would take us to get the jerky into the wagon, a torrent of rain would pour down on us, and violent lightning would flash, striking trees and sometimes animals. (p. 53)

The Adventures of China Iron is a “subversive retelling of Argentina’s foundational gaucho epic Martin Fierro…a celebration of the color and movement of the living world, the open road, love and sex, and the dream of lasting freedom.” (Charco Press)

Personally, I could do without the feminist, LGBT point of view, but that sort of thing appeals to the culture right now, so it makes sense that this novel would be included in the long list for the Booker International Prize 2020. There are other books with a more interesting perspective which I am hopeful will win.

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes, Booker International Prize 2020)

This book is violent and upsetting and something I will never forget. Usually, by the time I finish the Booker International Prize long list, my feelings are raw, and this book brought no relief.

I don’t think it is meant to.

I read on Twitter today, the following Tweet retweeted by Fitzcarraldo Editions:

‘I was left buoyed up by Melchor’s anger, elated because she had shown me things I needed to be faced with.’ @mjohnharrison reviews HURRICANE SEASON by @fffmelchor, tr. @hughes_sophie for @GuardianBooks

I would not call what I felt, after reading this book, “buoyed up.” But, being “shown things I needed to be faced with”? Most definitely.

I know a world where men protect me. For all of my childhood, my father lived an honorable life of integrity which supported our family, and my husband does the same. I didn’t see, until I read Hurricane Season, how truly brutal some families are. I didn’t understand that the fourteen year old daughter can not simply “buck up”, gather strength, and change the trajectory of her life. It is so much more complicated than that, to overcome a mother who keeps looking to men to solve her problems, keeps getting pregnant, and expects her eldest to care for them all. Her mother looks for a savior in all the wrong places, finally bringing home a stepfather who more closely resembles a demon.

I didn’t realize the pervasiveness of drugs, and alcohol, and poverty in endless cycles without hope.

I didn’t expect pages with such violence, and profanity, that I am unwilling to leave quotes here as I normally do. They are admittedly powerful. They are also horrific.

For the way that this novel will remain in my mind, it cannot be dismissed as I may have wished to do with a low, and scornful, score. It would be turning away from a dreadful reality, back into my narrow fantasy that life can be made into what we want it to be.

Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, Booker International Prize 2020) An incredibly unusual, and important, book.

When my son was in second grade, Tamagotchis were all the rage. I bought him one, as he longed to fit in with the other kids, and he spent hours “feeding” it, amongst the other things required to “keep it alive”.

“But,” my parents said, “it’s not real!” They could not understand the significance of a virtual pet, and I must say that I agreed with them. How do you keep a machine alive? How can a machine be a pet?

Twenty years later we come to Samanta Schweblin’s magnificent novel, Little Eyes. I was riveted from the first page, and I stayed that way throughout my reading. For it is about technology, and socializing, and the way that people can put feelings on a plastic animal covered with felt or feathers.

They are called kentukis, these creatures costing $279.00 which come in a box and must be activated with a special code. People who buy them become ‘keepers’, while those who are connected to them via technology are called ‘dwellers’. The two people never meet, yet their lives are intimately woven together as the kentuki has ‘eyes’ which serve as cameras, and wheels allowing them mobility; the apartments which they occupy, and the privacy therein, is shown in all its reality to strangers with whom they are connected.

However, the strangers gradually cease to feel that they are anonymous. Suddenly, they find themselves caring deeply about the lives of the people who own the kentuki; worse,they care deeply about the kentuki itself, as if it was real. Or, capable of human emotion.

…it seemed like the idea of kentuki liberation had just been invented. It occurred to someone that mistreating a kentuki was as cruel as keeping a dog tied up all day in the sun, even crueler if you considered that it was a human being on the other end. Some users had tried to found their own clubs and free kentukis that they considered were being abused.

I have never read a book like this. The imagination of Samanta Schweblin is extraordinary, and the world she brings to life is frightening. For I do not believe we are far from the power that machines can exert on our lives.

About the Author: Samanta Schweblin was chosen as one of the 22 best writers in Spanish under the age of 35 by Granta. She is the author of three story collections that have won numerous awards, including the prestigious Juan Rulfo Story Prize, and been translated into 20 languages. Fever Dream is her first novel and is longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. Originally from Buenos Aires, she lives in Berlin.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, for Spanish Lit Month, for Stu’s read-along

20190731_064801It’s almost a mystical experience, to read One Hundred Years of Solitude. Exaggeration abounds, and emotions take on physical qualities like this:

…the persistence of Amaranta, whose melancholy made the noise of a boiling pot. (p. 216)

Seemingly endless streams of sons are named Aureliano, or Arcadio, until I become thoroughly confused, giving up on their specific heritage and simply reading for what I wanted to know: the meaning of the title.

Melquídas, an ancient gypsy who visits the Buendía family through its many generations, refuses to translate his manuscripts, the letters of which “looked like clothes hung out to dry on a line, and they looked more like musical notation than writing.”

“No one must know their meaning until he has reached one hundred years of age,” he explained.  (p. 201)

The novel contains war, and firing squads, gold coins and illegitimate children. There are explanations for religion and political parties which seem as if they could apply to America today.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, who had received their power directly from God, proposed the establishment of public order and family morality. They were the defenders of Christ, of the principle of authority, and were not prepared to permit the country to be broken down into autonomous entities. (p. 104)

But.

It has become so tedious to continue. I feel I am treading water, getting no where, and sinking deeper. The story has lost its magical quality for me as I become mired in its opacity, and I cannot go any longer with no clear story line…nothing happening but more sons of the same name being born.

More than three-quarters of the way through, I’m laying it down. Sorry, Stu, I tried. And I look forward to your thoughts on a book so many people love more than I can.

For Spanish Lit Month: The Linden Tree by César Aira

9E80336C-5BE0-4B6B-B669-77F8D2C692EE

I have chosen The Linden Tree by César Aira for Spanish Lit Month, and like so many books I read for blogging “events”, it has enriched my reading pleasure and knowledge of another country. (I think of José Saramago’s books, both Blindness and Skylight which are deeply memorable to me, or Javier Marias’ most excellent books such as Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, or Fever and Spearor Thus Bad Beginsor A Heart So White.)

César Aira creates a fictional town of Pringles in Argentina under the leadership of Perón; he is the boy telling us of life in his town, and it could be the first person voice that makes it so resonant of my own childhood, or the innocence of youth some of us are lucky enough to experience.

A child’s father is a model, a mirror, and a hope. More than that, he’s a typical man, a specimen of fully formed, adult humanity. A kind of Adam constructed from all the fragments of the world that the child progressively comes to know…The father is like a big, complex riddle whose answers appear one by one over the course of the child’s life. I would even venture to say that those answers are the instructions for living. “What about people who don’t have a father?” somebody might ask. But to that I can reply: Everyone has a father. (p. 22)

His father is black, his mother is dwarf-like, with glasses so thick they resemble marbles, and these two form the backbone of his understanding. They live in one room of an empty building containing 24 rooms, which they rent. But, since the landlord will not give his father a receipt, his father will not pay the rent, and so there they reside in a stalemate which seems to work for everyone.

Throughout the novella, we glimpse the life of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the decade under which Péron led Argentina.

…anti-Peronism eventually came from the same direction as Peronism, that is, from above. And when the dream of being able to forge one’s destiny evaporated, the result was disillusion, and shame at being so naive. (p. 54)

But, I didn’t find it to be as concerned with politics as I did with the life of a child in a small, poor, Argentinean town. It brought to mind memories of my own youth, for in some ways, childhood fears and dreams are universal.

I felt nostalgic for time itself, which the Plaza’s spatial stories made as unattainable as the sky. I was no longer the small child who had gone with his father to collect linden blossoms, and yet I still was. Something seemed to be within my grasp, and with the right kind of effort, I felt that I might be able to reach out and take hold of it, like a ripe fruit…So I set out to recover the old self. (p. 92)

I read this for Spanish Lit Month hosted this year by Stu; it is also my sixth book for Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer.

A Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

I’ll make this short, as I don’t like to disparage authors or their hard work. Also, I sent my opinion out in Twitter and Instagram, so you may already know this.

I didn’t like A Mouthful of Birds.

This collection of short stories had an auspicious beginning. The first story, “Headlights”, tells of a bride abandoned by her husband while she’s still in her wedding dress standing by the side of a road. One has the idea that the field nearby is filled with abandoned brides who are screaming; near the end, a trail of headlights are seen coming back.

Another story, “Preserves”, has a pregnant woman not emotionally prepared to have her baby yet. After seeing a doctor, who has developed a solution, she spits an almond shaped object into a jar of fluid.

The story taking the title of the collection, “A Mouthful of Birds,” has a set of parents who do not know what to do with their daughter who thrives on eating birds. Alive and whole.

“The Test” is a horrible story about a man who must kill a dog to prove that he can follow orders and eventually kill a person. He bashes a dog over the head with a shovel, but doesn’t quite kill it. Instead, the dog is in agony, and the man learns he didn’t qualify because he hesitated when given the order to strike.

Each story is more upsetting then the previous one. I suppose you could say the writing is imaginative; it certainly is bizarre. But ultimately, the dark violence became overwhelming, and I came away from this book quite distraught. If literature reflects life, I am concerned about how Samanta Schweblin sees the world.

The Shape of The Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated by Anne McLean (Man Booker International Prize 2019 long list)

The Shape of The Ruins is a novel of historical fiction which dwells on many themes: the past, coincidence, conspiracy, how mistaken we might be about what we are told is factual. What if the Twin Towers in New York did not fall just because two planes crashed into them? What if John F. Kennedy was not shot by Lee Harvey Oswald alone? And, what if Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, the Liberal leader of Bogata, was also part of a nefarious plan when he was assassinated on April 9, 1948?

I like how Juan Gabriel Vasquez highlights pieces of American history and parallels them with that of Colombia’s, in terms of possible deception to the people. He presents governments who, at the very least, have distorted or omitted facts for their own political agenda. And, he presents himself as an author within this book, for authors have the freedom to interpret what happened in the past.

And nevertheless, that was the only thing that interested me as a reader of novels: the exploration of that other reality, not the reality of what really happened, not the novelized reproduction of true and provable events, but the realm of possibility, of speculations, or the meddling the novelist can do in places forbidden to the journalist or historian. (p. 181)

Juan Gabriel Vasquez gives us many interpretations of what the past can mean, this being one which particularly stands out to me:

That’s what the past is: a tale, a tale constructed over another tale, an artifice of verbs and nouns where we might be able to capture human pain, fear of death and eagerness to live, homesickness while battling in the trenches, worry for the soldier who has gone into the fields of Flanders and who might already be dead when we remember him. (p. 224)

The plot within these pages is quite involved. It is detailed, in some places, to the point of being tedious. (Especially the section from page 290-390 which describes the murder of General Rafael Uribe Uribe.) Facts, as we know them, have been intertwined with the author’s conjecture, portraying a country’s history as tenuous at best.

I don’t know when I started to realize that my country’s past was incomprehensible and obscure to me, a real shadowy terrain, nor can I remember the precise moment when all that I’d believed so trustworthy and predictable—-the place where I’d grown up, whose language I speak and customs I know, the place whose past I was taught in school and in university, whose present I have become accustomed to interpreting and pretending I understand—-began to turn into a place of shadows out of which jumped horrible creatures as soon as we dropped our guard. (p. 441)

The last section of the book pulls me in with sentences like that. I remember being a child who believed that teachers taught you, doctors healed you, and leaders led you. Now that I am grown up, I, too, see the shadows all around me, and for that reason I think The Shape of The Ruins has an impact far beyond its pages. Far beyond Colombia or America. Perhaps all of us can find a certain disillusionment in what we thought to be true about our country.