Tuesday, March 11, 2008

April Book Selection: Dreaming in Cuban

We'll be reading Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban. Discussion will start April 30th.
"Set in Havana, Brooklyn, and the Cuban seaside in the 1970s, Dreaming in Cuban unravels the lives and fortunes of four women of the colorful Del Pino family. Celia is the aging matriarch faithful to Fidel . . . Felicia is her mad (and possibly murderous) daughter . . . Lourdes, her other child, is a capitalist counterrevolutionary . . . and her daughter, Pilar, is an artistic punk filled with impossible Cuban dreams."
I noticed that there were also several copies of the book on BookMooch so you may want to check that out. Thanks so much everyone for voting (and working with my schedule!). I hope this is a book we'll all enjoy.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Latin America

Hi Everyone – Thank you for letting me offer some selections for our next book discussion. I hope you’ll enjoy taking a trip down to Latin America. I’ve chosen some writers who’ve been on my radar for some time now. I admit I haven’t read anything by these authors but the reviews I read sounded very promising.

Below are the choices which are available on Amazon. I couldn’t find any of these on BookMooch but I did notice that BookCloseOuts has some of these titles at a great price.

Please vote in the comment section. Let’s say everyone vote by Monday, March 10 and I’ll announce the selection then. Discussion will start on Wednesday, April 30.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano (Chile) -- This highly stylized novel is ostensibly about two poets, leaders of the Mexican visceral realist literary movement, and their search for an obscure icon of the movement and its repercussions. The book spans a decade and follows the poets from Mexico City to the Sonoran Desert, Guatemala, Barcelona, Paris, Israel, Congo, Liberia, and the U.S. The narrative becomes secondary to the voices of the people who meet these poets as this long novel told through the personal stories--some humorous, some inscrutable, some tragic--of the eclectic assortment of characters they encounter on the way becomes less about the search and more about literature and language.

Drown by Junot Diaz (Dominican Republic) -- The 10 tales in this intense debut collection plunge us into the emotional lives of people redefining their American identity. Narrated by adolescent Dominican males living in the struggling communities of the Dominican Republic, New York and New Jersey, these stories chronicle their outwardly cool but inwardly anguished attempts to recreate themselves in the midst of eroding family structures and their own burgeoning sexuality. Diaz's restrained prose reveals their hopes only by implication. It's a style suited to these characters, who long for love but display little affection toward each other. Still, the author's compassion glides just below the surface, occasionally emerging in poetic passages of controlled lyricism, lending these stories a lasting resonance.

Women with Big Eyes by Angeles Mastretta (Mexico) -- The women who come to life in Mastretta's engaging bilingual story collection are independent and passionate individuals, and she writes about them with compassion and, above all, humor. Each story portrays a different woman as she enters a crucial point in her life, such as Aunt Daniela, who "fell in love the way intelligent women always fall in love: like an idiot." Or Aunt Amanda, who suddenly marries her deceased mother's ex-lover in order to quiet the townspeople's gossip about her parentage. Part fable, part mysticism, the stories are tied together with details of everyday life in the author's native Puebla, Mexico.

Eccentric Neighborhoods by Rosario Ferre (Puerto Rico) -- Ferre creates a colorful family saga as a way to explore the modern political and social history of her native Puerto Rico. The narrator, Elvira Vernet, claims descent from two prominent families whose divergent natures effectively embody contrary strains in the national character. Elvira's mother, Clarissa Rivas de Santillana, grew up among a privileged family made wealthy by its several sugar plantations. One admires Ferre's ferocious ingenuity and energy as she depicts a society and century in flux. This most demanding of her novels so far is probably also the best.

Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia (Cuba) -- The title is beautifully evocative of a book of dreams, dreams of three generations of a Cuban family living both in Cuba and Brooklyn. These dreamers are Celia, who, loyal to Castro, writes letters addressed to her lover Gustavo, although he has fled to Spain; Celia's troubled daughter Felicia, who also remains in Cuba; Celia's other daughter Lourdes, who opens a bakery in Brooklyn, consuming vast quantities of her own baked goods; and her daughter Pilar, a defiant bohemian painter. Deeply evocative, by turns funny, poignant and grotesque, this ambitious novel weaves together the lives of its characters in a complex, haunting web of vignettes, which convey a strong sense of place and history."

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Stone Angel Then and Now

(Cross-posted at Kate's Book Blog)

I was fifteen when I first read Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel and it made an enormous impression on me. I welcomed the opportunity to reread it when it was voted this month’s selection by the Slaves of Golconda, but I was a bit nervous as well. What if it fell flat for me so many years later? I need not have worried. The novel has retained all of its power for me, and this time around I had the added pleasure of being better equipped to understand the source of that power.

What I recall most vividly about my teenage response to the book was that, after reading it, I never looked at my grandma quite the same way again. My grandma was in her late seventies then and was nothing like Hagar Shipley, the ninetysomething narrator of The Stone Angel. My grandma survived into her nineties as well and must have had a ribbon of steel at the core of her. But she chose the path of least resistance always whereas Hagar runs headlong at every obstacle no matter how fruitless her opposition may seem in any given circumstance. Nevertheless, witnessing Hagar showing the face of a rather meek and sentimental old lady to the world on the bus home from the doctor’s office, yet knowing the passion and anger and regret that roil within her all the while, I couldn’t help but realize that a great deal more than I could know must also be going on beneath my grandma’s cheerful old lady facade and, indeed, in the hearts and minds of random old ladies that I encountered on buses.

I also clearly remember from my teenage reading of The Stone Angel how strongly I identified with Hagar throughout. The conventional wisdom of those who market books to teenagers seems to be that to get kids reading you have to give them characters that they can “relate to” which much of the time translates into giving them characters of roughly their age who are grappling with what are thought to be universal teenage problems. Perhaps then my firm identification with Hagar was surprising. But, then again, perhaps not. After all, that sense of being at the mercy of others, of being perfectly capable of making decisions for yourself but being prevented from doing so, is something shared by the young and the old. Although the primary source of frustration for the young teenager is being thwarted while on the very cusp of independence, whereas for the very elderly it must run much deeper, having once had that independence and now being deprived of it with no prospect of ever regaining it. I think that Laurence plays on this identification directly, albeit briefly and subtly, in the relationship that develops between Hagar and the girl in the next hospital bed near the end of the novel.

That was The Stone Angel then. What about now? What did I see in the book as an adult reader that may have escaped me as a teenager? I think that this time around it was much more apparent to me how skilfully Laurence structured the novel and depicted Hagar’s character such that the reader is drawn fully into her head yet can simultaneously see her from the outside. She’s such a strong character and the reader can’t help but stand with her and rail against the indignities she suffers by virtue of her failing body, and also the wrongs that have been done to her by unsympathetic characters throughout her life. But at the same time, the reader can’t help but recognize how impossible she is, how difficult she must be to care for, and also to recoil at the wrongs that she has perpetrated against others throughout her life. Hagar is a thoroughly unsympathetic character herself who nevertheless generates much sympathy. This double vision is made possible and made incredibly vivid, I think, by virtue of the fact that Hagar shares it. And ultimately that’s the chief tragedy of the book. She has gained enough self-knowledge over the course of her life to be able now, at least periodically, to see herself as others see her, but she can’t go that step further to change how she behaves, even toward those that she loves most deeply.

The other facet of the novel that I was very much struck by this time around was the earthiness of it, both in the depiction of Hagar’s physical decline and in its evocation of sex. Sex and sexual desire are described euphemistically, as one would expect given Hagar’s vintage and character, but never coyly. The enduring sexual desire that she felt for her husband that she was never able to communicate even to him seems to me another of the great tragedies of her life. This aspect of the novel may have been somewhat controversial when it was first published in 1964. I’m not sure about the history of this novel in particular, but I know that several of Laurence’s novels were banned on the basis of sexual content and that this caused her much anger and pain.

This has been a rather rambling post, but rereading The Stone Angel sent my thoughts spinning in a number of directions. I relished the experience and I’m keen now to reread the rest of Laurence’s Manawaka novels. For those of you new to Laurence’s work, she set several novels in and around the fictional town of Manawaka, Manitoba, Hagar’s hometown. But each focuses on different characters from different segments of the town’s population and they range across different time periods, so you may catch glimpses of characters from one novel in another, but only peripherally. For example, the Tonnerre family with whom Hagar’s son John gets up to no good is mentioned only in passing in The Stone Angel but plays a central role in The Diviners. I would recommend any of Laurence’s novels, but the ones that stand out for me particularly are The Diviners, which I consider her masterpiece, and A Bird in the House, which is an early exemplar of the linked short story collection.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Biblio Brat's Review of The Stone Angel

The Stone Angel (1988)
By Margaret Laurence
Fiction, 308 pages

The branches will wither, the roots they will die,
You’ll all be forsaken and you’ll never know why.

Hagar Shipley is ninety years old and is finding herself more and more pulled by the past, forced to reflect upon events which she felt she had no control over; but in truth, did.

Does that make her want to change the way she was, or even change the way she has become? No. She is strong-willed and tenacious; holding onto whatever little life she has left, just as she has all her life. She knows in reality, nothing can be changed – not even her indomitable nature. At times she feels she must make an attempt at tact and civility, but knows all too well the difficulty in trying to be something you are not:

“I will be quiet, I swear, never open my mouth, nod obligingly, keep myself to myself for good and all. And yet, even as I swear it, I know it’s nonsense and impossible for me. I can’t keep my mouth shut. I never could.”
Pride is her protection; her barrier against being perceived as weak. Others would welcome help, accepting it as an act of compassion and mercy. Not Hagar. To her, their ministrations are derived from pity, and she has no use for others feeling sorry for her:

“I’ll drink from this glass, or spill it, just as I choose. I’ll not countenance anyone else’s holding it for me…I wrest from her the glass, full of water to be had for the taking. I hold it in my own hands.”
In The Stone Angel, Margaret Laurence skillfully uses flashbacks to reveal to us, and Hagar, how this unflinching personality has affected her life and relationships:

“How is it my mouth speaks by itself, the words flowing from somewhere, some half-hidden hurt?”
This hurt, this pain half-hidden in her mind will not show itself easily. And it is not until the end of her life, and the end of the book, we see why.

“I’ve waited like this, for things to get better or worse, many and many a time. I should be used to it…I don’t even know what I was waiting for except I felt something must happen – this couldn’t be all.”
In this statement we see her true ‘frailty’, her ‘weakness’. Her life was built around expectations that no one, not even she, was able to meet. She has paid a high price for her obstinacy, and it is not until she is facing her own death that she able to consider coming to terms with what she has done, and who she has been.

Time is finite. We all are limited in the life that we are given. As Hagar Shipley faces the end of hers, she sees that her pride was not the best part of her character. But this is who she is, and all she could ever be. She never knew any other way but her own.

“I can’t change what’s happened to me in my life, or make what’s not occurred take place. But I can’t say I like it, or accept it, or believe it’s for the best. I don’t and never shall, not even if I’m damned for it.”
It is not a path many of us would take. And that is why I liked this book. I get to see someone else go down a road I could not, so through her eyes I see what could have been, or, perhaps, what could be.

I really did not care for Hagar Shipley. She is not a very likable person. However Margaret Laurence has done an excellent job in developing the story and her characters. If this story was simply about Hagar in her youth, I doubt that I would have ever come to feel anything but contempt. But as an old woman, facing death and struggling against the frailty she has fought so hard against all her life, I cannot help but feel sympathy and compassion. She is stubborn and prideful, yet she is brave. She faces everything head on and never gives an inch. You have to admire someone who remains true to their character so completely.

I am giving The Stone Angel 3 of 5 Stars as I do like the story and the telling of it, however it was not one that was so compelling that I couldn't wait to finish it or felt bad about letting it sit around for a day or two before picking it up again.

Cross posted here.