Friday, April 28, 2006

Interview with Carlos Fuentes

In the new political novel by preeminent Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, a Mexican bishop counsels a general to forgive his enemies. "I can't," the general replies. "I haven't got any left. I've killed them all."

On the eve of Mexico's July presidential elections, Fuentes is treating U.S. readers to his fictional sendup of Mexico's baroque political baggage, from the historic mestizo nation that arose from the Mexican Revolution to the murders and political intrigues that marked the end of the seven-decade rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. "The Eagle's Throne" opens in the year 2020, and U.S. President Condoleezza Rice's administration has shut down Mexican satellite communications in reprisal for Mexico's rising oil prices and its opposition to U.S. troops in Colombia.

"This is a satire. Satire knows no pity," Fuentes said last week, sitting under a window that spills soft morning light on his silver temples and aquiline features, and rolling up the sleeves of his white cotton shirt. "It is a book that seeks not to prophesize, but to exorcise. I hope that 'The Eagle's Throne' doesn't happen. But I fear it will be a prophecy, because exorcism can become prophecy."

You can find the review here

Laura Esquivel on La Malinche

Her new book, "Malinche," follows the relationship between La Malinche, or Malinalli as she is called in the book, and Spanish explorer Hernan Cortez, who uses Malinalli as his translator in his quest to overthrow the Aztec emperor Moctezuma and then tosses her aside after conquering Mexico. Hurt and disillusioned, Malinalli discovers true love with Cortez's lieutenant and eventually even forgives Cortez.

Like her previous books, "Malinche" is full of love and longing, with the same plain language that makes for a quick read but at times betrays the author's origins in television.

The book is also something new for Esquivel, serving as a political and historical text. As Cortez's translator, La Malinche has often been called the ultimate traitor, yet her role in Mexican history is more nuanced, Esquivel maintains.

"She is a person who we have yet to judge fairly," Esquivel says, adding that it wasn't hard to imagine why La Malinche helped Cortez. It was about cycles.

For the Aztecs, "there were always cycles that ended, and then came a struggle and a new cycle," Esquivel says. "A woman, in this time, being a slave, would have hoped that a change was coming."

You can find the review here

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Alfaguara Spanish-language literary prize

Peruvian author Santiago Roncagliolo received Spain's Alfaguara Spanish-language literary prize on Monday (April 24) for his novel Abril Rojo, or Red April, which tells of life in his country under the government of former president Alberto Fujimori.

The novel, a detective story set within a political background, unfolds in the Peru of the early 2000s when the government, led by Japanese-born Fujimori, clashed with the hard left Shining Path guerrilla insurgency.

Roncagliolo, 30 years old, is the youngest author ever to obtain the Alfaguara award.

You can find the review here

Giovanna Mezzogiorno in "Love in the Time of Cholera"

Giovanna Mezzogiorno, who starred in Italian foreign-language Oscar nominee "Don't Tell," will join Spanish actor Javier Bardem in "Love in the Time of Cholera," a project based on the novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

You can find the article here

Interview with Luis Alberto Urrea

His best-selling nonfiction book "The Devil's Highway" was a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist. His widely acclaimed novel "The Hummingbird's Daughter" recently shared Pacific Rim Voices' $30,000 Kiriyama Prize for fiction, an award celebrating literature that contributes to greater understanding of the people and nations of the Pacific Rim and Southeast Asia.

Urrea, 50, is about to launch a major book tour promoting the paperback release of "The Hummingbird's Daughter." With the recent national debate over immigration, he is in hot demand on the lecture circuit.

Book critics have compared "The Hummingbird's Daughter" to the work of Nobel Prize-winning Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez. The novel is a fictional account about Urrea's great aunt, a Yaqui faith healer. And if that's not enough applause, both "The Devil's Highway" and "The Hummingbird's Daughter" will be made into motion pictures.

"I'm going crazy, man. Oye, right now it's the crazy season anyway because the big book tour is starting," Urrea said in a phone interview from his home near Chicago, where he teaches at the University of Illinois.

Urrea was among featured authors at the Border Book Festival, which concludes today in Mesilla.

How is Urrea adapting to his recent literary celebrity status?

"I approach it with gratitude. Most of the time, I'm the guy hassling my teenage son to take out the trash," he said. "Then you go somewhere else and people cry or they wait an hour to shake your hand. Then it's kind of startling."

You can find the review here

Saving the World by Julia Alvarez

This is the story Alma would rather write. Isabel, the heroine and scarred survivor of this story-within-the-story, lovingly runs the orphanage from which the Spanish boys are chosen to be the living carriers of the vaccine. She accompanies them on their dangerous voyage from Spain to the Americas to the Philippines.

"Saving the World" bounces back and forth between the early 19th and 21st centuries; the somewhat graceless transitions are presaged by Alma's internal struggles, as her mind wanders from her troubles toward the story that compels her.

Other messianic types vie to fill Alma's midlife void and compete with Isabel as saviors of the world: Her friend Tera is a raging extremist for all causes; the psychotic son and daughter-in-law of Alma's beloved dying neighbor call themselves "ethical terrorists," though their psychotic symptoms are limited to lurking about and making scary crank calls.

Then there are the young revolutionaries who take Richard hostage at the AIDS clinic that has become the focus of his mission to the Dominican Republic. Alma poses as a journalist and joins her husband after his abduction. The black-kerchiefed leader of the small band of rebels talks to her. " 'The questions are very simple. Why do we go hungry? Why do our people die of curable diseases? What is it that has excluded us?' "

These are indeed the questions; the answers are complex and only superficially addressed in "Saving the World," as humanitarian efforts fall to terrorism and corporate lies.

You can find the review here

Our Lives Are the Rivers by Jaime Manrique

Though Manuela Sáenz lies buried in an unmarked grave in Peru, her efforts on behalf of South America's liberation from Spain have not been forgotten. And neither has her devotion to the Latin American hero Simón Bolívar, with whom she had a love affair from the time of their meeting until his death in 1830.

This legendary couple and the battlegrounds on which their tumultuous relationship unfolded are masterfully imagined in Jaime Manrique's page-turning novel "Our Lives Are the Rivers".

"With all my wealth, I would devise my own future," claims Manuela, a woman of privilege bitterly attained after growing up an illegitimate daughter of a Spanish businessman.

Her father marries her off to one of his associates, and Manuela rebels by raising funds for the patriot armies that later overthrow the Spanish monarchy in Peru.

As a lifelong witness to the injustices against the criollos (South American descendants of Spaniards), Manuela becomes invested in the revolutionary furor that is headed by the dashing Bolívar, whom she enamors with both her beauty and her commitment to "the only cause worth fighting for."

What follows is an impassioned account of an adulterous affair, the vanity of "the first lady of Gran Colombia," and the ardent obligation that takes its toll on the couple's emotional health.

Bolívar eventually reveals his unflattering temperament; Manuela, her nationalistic fanaticism as she orders the death of a young traitor before his mother, confirming the truth that "no one in the epic of independence could claim not to have blood on their hands."

Fleshing out this tale of a heroine in the making are Jonatás and Natán, Manuela's two slaves and companions in arms, who offer their perspectives, critical of the war-torn 1800s that neglected the rights of the indigenous people and of the women's fellow Africans. And through their eyes, though they loved Manuela, it was she who had sole control over their freedom, not the revolution.

Through this complex narrative, Manrique succeeds in creating a memorable and human portrait of a woman so embedded in the upheaval that she must ask herself, "Had I fallen in love with a man whose true mistress was war?" And under the author's skillful guidance, the romantic banter and lovers' quarrels between Sáenz and Bolívar never slip into vitriol, and the accuracy of historic events and timelines is never compromised.

You can find the review here

The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra

The Spanish novelist Javier Sierra has written a scintillating murder mystery, The Secret Supper, that, like Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, attempts to decode the unique features of this crumbling five-centuries-old fresco on the wall of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan.

Sierra's book, which sold 250,000 in his native Spain (pop. 40 million) before becoming a bestseller throughout Europe, has finally arrived here in a seamless English translation by Canadian writer Alberto Manguel. The Da Vinci Code cannot hold a candle to it for sophistication.

Though they both draw inspiration from the same well, in the words of Australian critic Alan Gold, "any comparison between Sierra and Brown is similar to pitting a Renaissance painter against a graffiti artist."

"I did not read Dan Brown's book until I finished my manuscript; it had just come out in Spanish and I wasn't going to read it but my wife pushed me," says Sierra, whose latest book was first out in 2004 as La cena secreta. It is the 34-year-old author's seventh work (three non-fiction, four novels).

"It was not news to me: many of his sources were well-known to me," he says. "His book is not well finished; the end is poor. But it excited the imagination of people and invited them to look for more information, and that has been wonderful for my book."

The Secret Supper has been published in 35 countries and is set to explode here. When we spoke in Toronto this week, Sierra was finishing a 10-city tour with his wife Eva, a ballet teacher whom he credits with helping him develop the psychology of his characters. An avid traveller, he speaks fluent English.

If you have not yet read The Da Vinci Code, this is your spoiler alert - Brown's plot hinges on the supposed marriage of Mary Magdelene and Jesus, based on the contention that the feminine figure next to Christ in The Last Supper represents the Magdelene. In Sierra's scheme, and according to art historians, that figure is John the Evangelist.

"Many masters in the Middle Ages used female models to paint John to give the idea of his purity," says Sierra. "I am sure Leonardo's model for this character was a lady, but the figure is John. We know that from Leonardo's notes. If we accept that it's the Magdelene, then where is John? We are missing a very important disciple."

The Secret Supper is set in late 15th-century Milan and most, though not all, of Sierra's characters are carefully researched historical figures. The story is told by a fictional monk, Father Augustino Leyre, who is dispatched by the Inquisition in Rome to check whether the unconventional fresco Leonardo is painting embodies heretical notions.

If Leonardo is not a heretic, why do Christ and his disciples not wear halos? Why is there no chalice or Paschal lamb on the supper table? Why no Eucharist? Who are the models for the Apostles and why do some have their backs turned to the Saviour?

You can find the review here

Interview with Junot Diaz

Junot Diaz arrives late for his interview, ticked off and out of breath. The Dominican American author, whose work is onstage at Intersection for the Arts, was walking down 15th Street in the Mission when he saw a white woman on the sidewalk, berating a Mexican woman for her lack of English.

"We were just talkin' about immigration and stuff and there is this woman screaming, 'Learn English! Learn English!' I was like, 'Yo, what the f -- is your problem, yo?' It was like nasty, dude. The poor woman she was screaming at was trembling."

Diaz, 37, emigrated from the Dominican Republic when he was 6 and grew up near Perth Amboy, N.J., on the periphery of a landfill. He knows about poverty, racism and marginalization; he knows how immigrants become targets for misdirected resentments.

"This immigration s -- has got people flippin'," he says.

A few deep breaths. A slug of water. Focus. And then Diaz, a slender, tightly wound man, is ready to move on. He sits at a long table at the Intersection's upstairs gallery, looking slightly shell-shocked.

In fact, the incident he witnessed on 15th Street is indivisible from the kind of thing he writes about. Diaz is the author of "Drown," an acclaimed 1996 short-story collection, mostly semiautobiographical, about growing up in the Dominican Republic and New Jersey during the '70s and '80s.

It's a scary time for new Americans. With the Bush administration putting the clamps on illegal immigration and legislators calling for a 700-mile wall to stop Mexicans at the border, Diaz says it's more important than ever to speak up.

You can find the interview here

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Borges and the Eternal Orangutans by Luis Fernando Verissimo

The first detective story, Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), has an unexpected villain. When a woman's corpse is discovered, thrust up a chimney in a room that has been locked from the inside, the Parisian police force fudges its inquiry into the grisly crime. It takes the all-seeing eye of the amateur detective Auguste Dupin – the model for many of the great literary sleuths – to accumulate evidence and put the case to rest. Dupin arrives at an extravagant solution – the perpetrator in Poe's story turns out to be an orangutan.

In Borges and the Eternal Orangutans, the Brazilian novelist Luis Fernando Verissimo recycles the "locked room" story. At an academic conference on Edgar Allan Poe in 1985, the keynote speaker is murdered in his Buenos Aires hotel room. The door to room 703 was bolted, the chain pulled across. The spare key hadn't left the drawer in the hotel manager's desk. But Joachim Rotkopf was stabbed, once in the throat and twice in the stomach. Verissimo's dense, clever novel poses a double mystery. Who committed the cold-blooded crime? And how could he, or she, have got in and out of the room?

You can find the review here

Friday, April 21, 2006

Sergio Pitol wins the Cervantes Prize

Mexican writer Sergio Pitol received the Spanish language's most prestigious award, the Cervantes Prize, on Friday, after which he kicked off the yearly marathon reading of Cervantes' masterpiece, Don Quixote.

Spain's King Juan Carlos presented the award to Pitol, 73, during a ceremony in the central university town of Alcala de Henares, birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes, the 17th-century author of Don Quixote.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and Culture Minister Carmen Calvo were just two of an array of political and literary figures who attended the midday ceremony.

In his acceptance speech, Pitol recalled his life and his contacts with the world of literature.

Pitol said that news of the prize in December came "on a magical day when my life looked to have changed."

"Since that day I have remembered unexpectedly different phases of my life, some radiant, others horrific," he said.

He went on to relate how he was left an orphan at four years old, and fell victim to malaria. He said his grandmother introduced him to the delights of reading, and that by age 12 he already had read Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, was familiar with the authors Jules Verne, Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson.

King Juan Carlos said Pitol's work had enriched the Spanish language.

"Queen (Sofia) joins me in congratulating you, from our hearts and with the greatest appreciation and admiration, for this truly deserved distinction," the king said.

Pitol's well-known titles include Flower Games (Juegos florales), The Parade of Love (El desfile del amor) and The Married Life (La vida conyugal) (1991).

You can find the article here

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Interview with Juan Goytisolo

On a blazing blue afternoon last winter, I met the Spanish expatriate novelist Juan Goytisolo at an outdoor café in Marrakesh, Morocco. It was easy to spot the 75-year-old writer, sitting beneath an Arabic-language poster of himself taped to the café window.

He was reading El País, the Spanish newspaper to which he has contributed for decades. Olive-skinned, with a hawk nose and startlingly pale blue eyes, he had wrapped himself against the winter chill in a pullover, suede jacket, checked overcoat and two pairs of socks.

Considered by many to be Spain's greatest living writer, Goytisolo is in some ways an anachronistic figure in today's cultural landscape.

His ideas can seem deeply unfashionable. For him, writing is a political act, and it is the West, not the Islamic world, that is waging a crusade. He is a homosexual who finds gay identity politics unappealing and who lived for 40 years with a French woman he considers his only love.

You can find the interview here

Seeing by Jose Saramago

It's election day in an unnamed capital. A ceaseless, torrential rain keeps voters away from the polls.

The rain finally stops and residents rush out to vote, but the outcome of the election rattles the very foundation of the democracy: more than 70 percent of the ballots are blank. A second election only makes things worse. This time, 83 percent of the voters submit a blank ballot.

So begins "Seeing," Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago's unsettling allegory of power and politics that stays with you long after the last page is turned.

You can find the review here

Across a Hundred Mountains by Reyna Grande

As the public discourse over undocumented immigration becomes more heated and, at times, outright ugly -- particularly in the blogosphere -- attacks on such immigrants are often made in broad strokes and with gross generalizations.

This should not be a surprise, because it is easier to denigrate and reject a group of people if you dehumanize them and make them faceless.

But that's where talented writers come in: With skillful prose, they can focus on a small group of undocumented immigrants and make their struggles and humanity real to the reader so that it becomes difficult to dismiss their plight with a bumper-sticker slogan or the waving of a flag.

Two years ago, Luis Alberto Urrea did exactly that with "The Devil's Highway", in which he brilliantly chronicled the plight of 26 Mexican men who, in 2001, crossed the border into an area of the Arizona desert known as the Devil's Highway. Only 12 made it safely across. The book received wide acclaim and was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.

Now comes a fictionalized story of undocumented immigration in Reyna Grande's debut novel, "Across a Hundred Mountains" . Grande tells her story in evocative language that never falls into pathos.

In the nonlinear narrative, chapters alternate between her two female protagonists, Juana Garcia and Adelina Vasquez. First, we have Juana, a young girl who lives in a small Mexican village in extreme poverty. When a flood leads to yet another death in her family -- a death that Juana feels responsible for -- Juana's father believes that he must earn more money to house his family in safer quarters. He believes that there are abundant opportunities "en el otro lado," based on a letter from a friend: "Apá's friend wrote about riches unheard of, streets that never end, and buildings that nearly reach the sky. He wrote that there's so much money to be made, and so much food to eat, that people there don't know what hunger is."

You can find the review here

Saving the World by Julia Alvarez

Evaluated by the standards of sheer entertainment value, Saving the World, Julia Alvarez's sixth novel, has much to recommend it - a relatively fast pace (especially in the second half), a couple of big action scenes, a through-line of up-to-the-moment ecopolitics, considerable injections of tragedy and sadness, and a reaffirming resolution.

Starring Alma, a 50-year-old Latina writer with more than a passing resemblance to Alvarez, and featuring a novel-within-a-novel, Saving the World tells the story of what happens when Alma's husband travels to the Dominican Republic (Alma's birthplace) on business and Alma stays in bucolic Vermont, her adopted home, to try to answer persistent calls for a next novel and to prove to herself that she can still do some things on her own.

You can find the review here

The Lost City directed by Andy Garcia

Andy Garcia directs and stars in his latest film, “The Lost City,” a dramatic and historical romantic tribute to his native Cuba set against the background of the Cuban revolution. Garcia left Havana when he was five years old when his family fled to Florida after Fidel Castro’s takeover, and he has been nurturing this project for 16 years. Unfortunately, while the film is handsomely produced and shot on location in the Dominican Republic, it is seriously marred by weak direction and a poorly realized screen adaptation.

Written by Cuban master novelist, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who became one of the most important voices of opposition against the Castro regime, the film follows the bittersweet tale of one family, three brothers and a beautiful woman whose fates are dramatically intertwined with that of a nation caught up in revolutionary turmoil in the late 1950s. Fico Fellove (Garcia), the owner of Havana’s classiest music nightclub, El Tropico, struggles to hold together his family, his club, and the woman he loves. The entertainment that takes place nightly on the stage of his nightclub mirrors what is happening to his country. Indeed, the club serves as a microcosmic theater of the absurd where national historic events play out.

You can find the review here

The Crime of Padre Amaro directed by Carlos Carrera

A review of The Crime of Padre Amaro directed by Carlos Carrera based on the novel by Eça de Queiróz.

''El Crimen del Padre Amaro,'' a suds-filled political melodrama that bashes the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico with a contempt that verges on hysteria, could be accused of many things, but timidity is not one of them. The film, an updated adaptation of a late 19th-century novel by the Portuguese author José Maria Eça de Queiroz, tells the story of Father Amaro (Gael García Bernal), a dreamy-eyed 24-year-old cleric dispatched to a small parish church in Los Reyes to assist its aging priest, Father Benito (Sancho Gracia). If Father Amaro proves a cooperative partner, it is a given that he will one day take over the parish.

Arriving in town, Father Amaro hasn't the foggiest inkling of the political rats' nest that's about to consume him. As played by Mr. Bernal, who has become an international star with ''Amores Perros'' and ''Y Tu Mamá También,'' the young priest projects the dewy naïveté of a Robby Benson character from the 1970's. Mr. Bernal's physical resemblance to that former icon of milk-and-cookies wholesomeness is so pronounced that you half expect the movie to turn into ''Ice Castles'' or ''Ode to Billy Joe,'' but of course it doesn't.

What Father Amaro discovers is a corrupt church bureaucracy collaborating with local drug lords who donate huge sums of money to favorite church charities. In return the church hierarchy turns a blind eye to their activities, which include the violent appropriation of land occupied by poor rural farmers. Any priest who seriously dissents from the bishop's party line risks excommunication.

With one heroic exception the procession of church officials parading through the film are an unsavory lot who justify their money laundering by smugly pointing to the good works to which the funds are applied. Running the diocese is an obese, porcine-eyed bishop (Ernesto Gómez Cruz), whom the movie views with a palpable physical loathing.

The scandalous nature of ''El Crimen del Padre Amaro,'' directed by Carlos Carrera from a screenplay by Vicente Leñero, has helped make it the highest-grossing home-grown film in Mexican history. But what probably accounts for its popularity isn't its indictment of money laundering and conspiracy but its prurient, nostril-flaring portrait of a handsome young clergyman violating his vows of celibacy.

You can find the review here

The Eagle’s Throne by Carlos Fuentes

Had they been contemporaries, Carlos Fuentes and Ambrose Bierce would have revelled in each other’s company.

Bierce was the satirist nonpareil and “laughing devil” of the San Francisco newspapers of the late 19th and early 20th century. In 1913, aged 71, he rode down into Mexico to witness -- or perhaps even join in -- the revolution that was playing out there. Bierce disappeared, but he has not been forgotten.

For one thing, there is Fuentes’s popular novel, The Old Gringo, a myth-making tribute to Bierce. For another, there is Bierce’s great legacy, The Devil’s Dictionary (issued also in amplified form as The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary).

Bierce’s caustic dictionary entry for politics could well serve as the epigraph for Fuentes’s latest novel, The Eagle’s Throne: “Politics, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”

Fuentes here ploughs new ground, as well as returning to familiar fields.

The Eagle’s Throne revives the epistolary novel while taking as subject the endless, abject manoeuvres and manipulations that characterise the politicking classes. In the Fuentes oeuvre, it is arguably the work most directly engaged with the moral compromises of Mexican politics and society since his first two novels, Where the Air is Clear (1960) and The Good Conscience (1961).

Indeed, it is tempting to view The Eagle’s Throne as the last in a triptych. Fuentes attempted to define national identity in philosophical and psychological terms in Where the Air is Clear, then moved on in The Good Conscience to the painful realities inherent in changing society from agrarian to urban, peasant to middle class. These were reflections of Mexican life; so too is The Eagle’s Throne, but it has another, prospective function: it is, as Fuentes himself has been careful to emphasise, in the manner of a prophecy.

You can find the review here

La Mujer de Mi Hermano, directed by Ricardo de Montreuil

Some movies sell and you don't know why. With "La Mujer de mi Hermano," a big-screen romantic drama with the aura of a nicely steamed telenovela, you know why: because the three stars look good in plush white bathrobes, that's why. Uruguay native Barbari Mori, Peruvian-born Christian Meier and Colombian heartthrob Manolo Cardona ooze the sort of high-gloss charisma required by Peruvian novelist Jaime Bayly's story, trading in many of the usual soap opera suspects--family secrets, closeted homosexuality and high-grade terry cloth among them.

A large hit all over Latin America, "La Mujer de mi Hermano" ("My Brother's Wife") unfurls in a dreamy, high-end Mexico City. (The novel took place in Peru.) On the surface Zoe (Mori) lives the sweet life with her husband Ignacio (Meier) in their ultra-chic rectangular slab of a home, all concrete, glass and chrome. Underneath, trouble: The childless couple's sensual currents have gone flat, and the grind of Ignacio's infertility has taken its toll.

You can find the review here

Monday, April 17, 2006

Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario

A review of Sonia Nazario's Enrique’s Journey by Luis Alberto Urrea author of “The Devil’s Highway” and “The Hummingbird’s Daughter.”

Joseph Campbell would recognize “Enrique’s Journey.” It’s the stuff of myth. A lone child embarks on a terrible journey through a landscape of monsters and villains. His goal is noble, almost chivalric – he travels through hardship and dangers to find his mother, lost in the far mysteries of the north. To add another layer to the story, it contains a vehicle right out of a fairy tale: a Fury-haunted freight train known as El Tren de la Muerte – the Train of Death.

Sonia Nazario, however, is not writing myths: “Enrique’s Journey” is true.

The story begins in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where Enrique’s mother, Lourdes, supported several children by selling tortillas and gum on the street. It was a small step up from begging or picking garbage to live. One day, Lourdes saw visions of Las Vegas on a customer’s TV screen. It was a revelation – she could risk everything and try to earn enough money to save her children from grinding poverty. But to do so, she had to leave them behind, like thousands of mothers before her. And like thousands of those mothers’ children, when Enrique’s sorrow grew too great to bear, he followed her north. When his mother left, Enrique was 5 years old. He made his own journey 11 years later.

You can find the review here

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Brief History of Puerto Rico's Literature

Puerto Rico's literature dates back to the era of conquest and colonization. The early settlers, along with friars and governors, began to describe the new land they had discovered and its Taíno inhabitants. Their letters and documents provide clues to what life was like in the Caribbean before the coming of Columbus.

Notable in this collection are letters written by Puerto Rico's first governor, Ponce de León, to both the rulers in Spain and the ecclesiastical hierarchies in Seville. Here are found the first descriptions of the "conquistadores", the vocabulary and descriptions of the mythological rites of the Taíno people appear for the first time. Many pre-Columbian names have survived, town names such as: Humacao, Coamo, Utuado, and Caguas. It is believed that the Taíno language became extinct by mid-16th century, although pockets of Amerindian culture may have survived in the remote hinterlands.

Spanish cronists like Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, Fray Tomás de la Torre, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, and others are among the most notable writings about the island...

You can find the review here

La Extranjera

The Stranger (La Extranjera)

She speaks in her way of her savage seas
With unknown algae and unknown sands;
She prays to a formless, weightless God,
Aged, as if dying.
In our garden now so strange,
She has planted cactus and alien grass.
The desert zephyr fills her with its breath
And she has loved with a fierce, white passion
She never speaks of, for if she were to tell
It would be like the face of unknown stars.
Among us she may live for eighty years,
Yet always as if newly come,
Speaking a tongue that plants and whines
Only by tiny creatures understood.
And she will die here in our midst
One night of utmost suffering,
With only her fate as a pillow,
And death, silent and strange.

Gabriela Mistral

Monday, April 10, 2006

Saving the World by Julia Alvarez

Alvarez, an acclaimed author and teacher, grew up in the Dominican Republic, a setting she mines compellingly in her fiction, essays and poems. She has an impeccable grasp of Latin culture and history, and she brings them to life fully.

Readers unfamiliar with the times and places of the stories may lose their way occasionally amid the many historical and political details in this ambitious novel.

Nevertheless, "Saving the World" is a rich and satisfying work of fiction that bridges two worlds -- the one within that tries to define who we are, and the one beyond our grasp that will always pull us to defy our boundaries.

You can find the review here

In the complementary tale set in contemporary Vermont and the Caribbean, Alvarez further probes the roles of medicine, politics, devotion and the explosive mix of ambition and altruism. Unlike Isabel, Alma is plagued by angst and even anorexia, and overreacts to crank phone calls and encounters with her neighbor's unstable son. She finds herself turning to Isabel to calm herself. And when she must rush to Richard's side to try to rescue him from a local takeover of the clinic where he is being held hostage, she must deal with bungling bureaucrats and overzealous militia. "Make believe you're Isabel," she keeps reminding herself.

Paradoxically, she decides she must also try to help the misguided muchachos who see themselves as "ethical terrorists" and whom she sees as teenage boys who would have been satisfied with a pool table, and a training program that would have led to jobs, money, and a chance to be treated as human beings. In the end, like Isabel, she realizes "you cannot live entirely for your own time; you have to imagine a story bigger than your own story, than the sum of its parts."

As in her novel In the Name of Salome, also based on a historic Hispanic woman, Alvarez's heroines encounter corruption and must grapple with disappointment and an ongoing undercurrent of pain. And similar to In the Time of the Butterflies, her best-known novel about three sisters who gave their lives in the struggle against Trujillo, Alma's story builds to a gut-wrenching climax. In each she deals with women who dare to act beyond themselves to help save the world, or at least try.

"I have desperately to dream to go on living," Alma discovers. But she also realizes that she too is a carrier, "carrying this story which would surely die unless it took hold in a future life."

This latest work reflects Alvarez's creative agility, political insight and spiritual depth, and should add to her already impressive reputation.

You can find the review here

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Interview with Javier Sierra about The Secret Supper

In ``The Secret Supper'' Leonardo da Vinci is accused of heresy as his latest and overly original painting showing Jesus Christ dining with his 12 disciples provokes the fury of Pope Alexander VI.

Just translated into English, the novel by the Spanish journalist Javier Sierra is already a bestseller in Spain, where it has sold about 250,000 copies since its 2004 publication. Those are huge numbers, if not quite up to the ``other'' thriller featuring Jesus and the works of Leonardo, Dan Brown's ``The Da Vinci Code,'' which has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide.

Sierra spoke with me at Bloomberg's New York headquarters about da Vinci's genius, his own novel and the competition.

Schatz: People inevitably compare ``The Secret Supper'' to ``The Da Vinci Code.'' How are they different?

Sierra: Dan Brown uses Leonardo da Vinci like a cultural reference. In my book, Leonardo is still alive; he's painting his masterpiece ``The Last Supper'' in the convent Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.

My main purpose was to get in contact with the mind of the genius, to enter the mind of Leonardo. And that was not the purpose of Dan Brown. The ``Da Vinci Code'' is a page turner; mine is also a page turner, but ``The Da Vinci Code'' is a contemporary thriller and mine is more like Umberto Eco's ``The Name of the Rose.''

You can find the full interview here