Book Reviews

Review of “The Gods of Tango”

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In a mean era for the tango — in the days of papal condemnation, of Queen Mary’s censure — De Robertis sets her potboiler of a novel, “The Gods of Tango.” And it is into the overcrowded conventillos of turn-of-the-century Buenos Aires, those squalid slums filled with luckless immigrants and the stench of plonk, sweat and foul meat, that she thrusts her virginal heroine, a 17-year-old Italian bride named Leda. Read the review.

Bolaño’s “A Little Lumpen Novelita”

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 November 17, 2014

The irony of Latin American letters is that the torch has not passed to the living. It has gone from dead giants of the boom — Paz, García Márquez, Cortázar, Borges — to a fresher voice, a voice that speaks to millennials — except that that voice, too, belongs to a dead man. Roberto Bolaño, who died at 50 in 2003 and whose fame skyrocketed soon after, has become Latin America’s trendiest literary lion in a whirl of posthumous publication. From one international triumph to another — “By Night in Chile” to “The Savage Detectives” to “Nazi Literature in the Americas” and “2666” — his frantic, fearless and perceptive narratives have captured something about the Latin American zeitgeist that the living have not. Bolaño is, for all his mortal remove, the region’s most vibrant expositor: an acid-tongued, truth-telling, peripatetic genius, who lived all too briefly, wrote in a fever and did not go gentle into that good night. Read more here.

Ishiguro’s “Buried Giant” Defies Easy Categorization

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There are authors who write in tidy, classifiable, immediately recognizable genres — Jane Austen, Alexandre Dumas, William Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez, to name a few — and then there are those who adamantly do not. These others can surprise us with story lines and settings that are guises to be worn and shucked after the telling. Masters of reinvention, they slip from era to era, land to land, changing idioms, adapting styles, heedless of labels. They are creatures of a nonsectarian world, comfortable in many skins, channelers of languages. What interests them above all in their invented universes is the abiding human heart.

Kazuo Ishiguro is such a writer.

He was born in Nagasaki, Japan, was raised in England from the age of 5, and, for all intents and purposes, is English. But his sensibility is neither Japanese nor English; it stands apart from any one culture. Best known for his achingly astute novel “The Remains of the Day,” about a consummate English butler in a fading postwar manse, he is esteemed, as Joyce Carol Oates put it, as “one of our most eloquent poets of loss.”

Read more here.

Marie’s review of José Saramago’s “Skylight”

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Saramago’s just published and long-neglected novel is a sketchbook for the superb work that Saramago would ultimately produce. And yet, there is no shortage of wonders to be found in it. More . . . 


By José Saramago

Review by Marie Arana

“The journey never ends,” José Saramago once wrote. “Only travelers end.” We may proclaim the voyage over, but we know in our hearts it isn’t true. There will always be the need to see all we’ve never seen; see again what we saw before; see in spring what we saw in summer; see in daylight what we saw at night.

Now, in a twist straight out of a Saramago novel, a traveler begins long after his life is over. “Skylight,” a manuscript penned in the 1940s and stranded in an editor’s drawer for almost 40 years, has just been published in translation. In it, we see what Saramago called “the green that preceded the harvest” — the beginning of his brilliant, Nobel Prize-winning career.

Although Saramago tinkered with fiction as a young man, a publisher’s blatant inattention to his early manuscript brought him to a creative standstill. He didn’t attempt to write another novel for 20 years. Nor did he garner international fame as a novelist until he was 60, with the wildly successful “Baltasar and Blimunda.” He had been born into humble circumstances in a tiny village in Portugal, the grandson of illiterate pig farmers, and he came of age in 1930s Lisbon, where his father worked as a police officer. He started out as a garage mechanic, became a welfare agency functionary, then moved to printing, proofreading and eventually journalism. Fired from his job at Diário de Notícias for his passionately communist commentary, Saramago began writing novels as a last resort. He was 52.

“Skylight” by then was all but forgotten, a book he had written in his 20s and submitted to a Lisbon publisher when he was 31. The work had languished in editorial limbo well into Saramago’s successful career as a novelist — before he got a telephone call from an editor who had stumbled upon it, found it delightful and was interested in publishing it. Saramago refused the offer, collected the yellowed original, brought it home and deposited it on his desk, where it sat for more than 20 years. Read more

The extraordinary life of Cabeza de Vaca, Marie’s review

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Almost 500 years ago, the newly formed Empire of Spain — forged by the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, blessed by the pope, and unified by the eviction of Moors and the forcible conversion of Jews — issued a declaration that would forever define the Americas. It was called the Requerimiento, and it stated unequivocally to natives of the New World that the land on which they stood belonged to the Spanish Crown, that they would henceforward be Christians, and that any effort to resist would be met with war, seizure and enslavement. Never mind that no indigenous American understood what was being said. Never mind that the declaration went unheard as it was shouted from hilltops, bellowed from ships or roared as conquerors gave chase after fleeing Indians. It was law in the Americas, and though called into question by conscientious Spaniards and human rights activists of the day, it became the legal basis for rampant bloodshed and slavery.

Few made efforts to spare the cruelty. One of the most notable defenders of Indians in Americas North and South was the explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spaniard who earned his sympathies the hard way: He had once been a slave to Indians himself. Read more.

Marie reviews Murakami’s new novel, “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage”

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Nestled into the title of Haruki Murakami’s new novel are the words “Years of Pilgrimage.” It’s a common enough catchphrase for a coming-of-age story, and easy enough to dismiss as mere packaging. But as we peel the onion of this remarkable novel — as it takes us on a spellbinding descent through the rings of hell in Tsukuru Tazaki’s young life — that spectral phrase takes on new meaning.

Soon it is clear that Tsukuru’s “years of pilgrimage” are an echo of Franz Liszt’s masterwork for the piano, “Années de pèlerinage,” especially its elegiac solo “Le mal du pays” (or “homesickness”), a melody that worms its way into the heart of our hero and suffuses his story with an exquisite sadness. Add to its haunting strains Liszt’s inspiration for that music — Goethe’s groundbreaking 19th-century novel about disillusionment, “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship” — and “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki” becomes a virtual symphony of literary and musical referents. Murakami’s wizardry lies in his ability to pack all that cultural and spiritual resonance into a book that is as tightly wound as a Dashiell Hammett mystery. Read more here.


Marie reviews Amy Bloom’s “Lucky Us”

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If America has a Victor Hugo, it is Amy Bloom, whose picaresque novels roam the world, plumb the human heart and send characters into wild roulettes of kismet and calamity. Her best known work, “Away,” was an epic adventure set in the early 20th century. In it, a Jewish mother survives a devastating Russian pogrom, comes to America, becomes a famous actor’s mistress, then traverses the country, joins the African American underworld, and crosses Alaska and Siberia in search of her daughter. There are few who feel the immigrant impulse as keenly as Bloom. There are fewer still who understand that Americans are the “lucky us,” the anointed ones who can shuck the past again and again until, by dint of wit and will, we reinvent ourselves. “It’s good to be smart,” a character in Bloom’s new novel tells us; “it’s better to be lucky.”

“Lucky Us” is a bustling tale of American reinvention. Like Hugo, Bloom fills her narrative with surprising twists and turns, betrayals, passions and no little scandal. But unlike Hugo’s, Bloom’s work is blessedly short and suffused with a modern sensibility. Although the setting is World War II and the action takes us from Ohio to Hollywood to Brooklyn, not to mention American internment camps and the bombing of Dresden and Pforzheim, there is nothing old about this story. It moves like today’s news. Read more here.


Marie reviews Sebastian Barry’s “The Temporary Gentleman”

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It is a measure of our distraction that Sebastian Barry — one of the best writers in the English language — is not better known in this country. His soul-wrenching narratives and incantatory prose rival those of British novelists who are far more famous on these shores: Ian McEwanHilary MantelKazuo Ishiguro. But whereas those artists write about twists and turns in what we might consider the familiar, Barry plunges us headlong into the realm of the strange. His dark Irish tales of discarded souls are powerful canvases of the human spirit and models of the storyteller’s art.

Perhaps it’s because Barry began as a poet and playwright that his sentences are lapidary, his dialogue unerring. But his novels are also a sprawling web of related stories, most of them centering on his mother’s hometown of Sligo and all of them seemingly plucked from his family tree. Taking center stage in his new novel, “The Temporary Gentleman,” for instance, are Jack and Mai, characters from a 1998 play, “Our Lady of Sligo.” Roseanne, the madwoman of his memorable novel “The Secret Scripture,” makes an appearance here, too. Even the eponymous, wandering hero of “The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty” streels in as casually as any cousin at a spirited Irish reunion. Grace and disgrace can attach to any family, as Barry well knows, and there is ample evidence of both in his own. “As our ancestors hide in our DNA,” he says, “so do their stories.” His brilliance is that we, too, feel part of that intimate circle.

“The Temporary Gentleman” is Jack McNulty, an Irishman whose commission in the British army makes him an officer and a gentleman only for the duration of World War II. It is 1957, the war is long over, his wife is dead, his daughters are grown, and he is sitting in Accra, Ghana, a shadow of his former self “after many comings and goings.” Read more here.

Review of William Easterly’s “Tyranny of Experts”

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Can a whole global development community be wrong? Can it be that it’s been wrong since the beginning? That the glittering palaces dedicated to fighting poverty — the World Bank, the United Nations, the Gates and Rockefeller foundations, not to mention the aid agencies, think tanks, and well-meaning initiatives by policy experts and Hollywood stars — are built on sand? Could it be that for 65 years they have operated on false premises and expended untold billions to prop up the very systems that undermine the poor?

William Easterly thinks so.

In his provocative “The Tyranny of Experts,” he lays out a passionate, if fitful, argument against the conventional approach to economic development. In the realm of benevolent intervention, the standing rule has always been that you can walk into a poor country and, with enough experts, supplies and bureaucratic correctives, make it rich and alleviate the woes of poverty. But according to Easterly, this is a fatuous idea that has sparked more havoc than good. Read more here.

Marie reviews Richard Russo’s memoir

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“The writer’s only responsibility is to his art,” William Faulkner once remarked, and the phrase became good as law. A writer, he said, was “driven by demons.” If he was any good, it was because he was ruthless, willing to sacrifice whatever it took to tell his story. Forget pride, honor, decency: If a writer had to rob his mother, he wouldn’t hesitate. Literature was a maw that had to be fed.

Indeed, robbing mothers is the least of it. The best writers have been known to rob fathers and forefathers, too; sisters, cousins and aunts. They’ll burgle their own children if they have to. If there’s a novelist or memoirist in your family, you know what I mean. You’re in for identity theft. You’re taking your chances.

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