lunes, 31 de enero de 2011

The Cairo Trilogy II: Palace of Desire

The Cairo Trilogy II: Palace of Desire [Qasr al-Shawq] (Anchor Books, 1992)
by Naguib Mahfouz [translated from the Arabic by William Maynard Hutchins, Lorne M. Kenny, and Olive E. Kenny]
Egypt, 1957

Two thirds of the way into a work I find entertaining, intermittently odd, but far from mindblowing up to this point, I find I'm constantly asking myself: man, is The Cairo Trilogy overrated or what?  Don't get me wrong--I'm mostly enjoying Mahfouz's weird family soap opera in spite of the fact that I normally have little patience for plots so deeply devoted to, ahem, amorous adventures and their messy endings and the like.  Maybe it's the unexpected references to cocaine and hashish use and the frequentation of prostitutes by seemingly upstanding members of mid-1920s Egyptian society that's livened things up enough for my debauched western imagination to appreciate the good more than the bad in part two of the trilogy.  Maybe it's Mahfouz' talent for amusing me with lines that combine a drunkard's flair for observation with a baroque poetic sensibility: "There were Jalila and Zubayda," al-Sayyid Ahmad observed, "each of them as massively beautiful as the ceremonial camel when it sets off for Mecca with the pilgrims" (78). And maybe it's just the fact that Mahfouz can be quite perceptive at times when zoning in on the psychological states of his absurdly high-maintenance characters (for all the negative examples of this I could also cite, I have to say that I thought many of the passages dealing with the teenaged Kamal's broken heart after the loss of Aïda to a romantic rival rang emotionally true to my recollections of being young and unhappy in love).  Good stuff, all of it.  On the other hand, Mahfouz's fondness for Drama with a capital D is almost Undsetian in its relentless repetitiveness--give him some good domestic foibles or manufactured scandal to write about, and he'll lay into it like a jam band guitarist who can't take his foot off the wah wah pedal.  For chapters at a time at that. While there's a lot of food for thought about love and friendship here--Palace of Desire being less intrinsically political than the preceding Palace Walk in its linking of the al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad family's fortunes with the fate of the Egyptian nation--I'm not quite sure what to make of an overheated drama where, among other things and unbeknownst to each other, the womanizing father and his eldest son Yasin share the same sexual partners...twice. Criminy!  (

Naguib Mahfouz

sábado, 29 de enero de 2011

Bread Givers

Bread Givers (Persea Books, 2003)
by Anzia Yezierska
USA, 1925

"It says in the Torah: What's a woman without a man?  Less than nothing--a blotted-out existence.  No life on earth and no hope of Heaven."  (Bread Givers, 205)

Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers, occasionally cited as an important work for its take on modern feminism and the U.S. immigrant experience and read here as the first Wolves group read selection of the year as chosen by E.L. Fay, was a bit of a curiosity for me.  Part female Horatio Alger "success story" and part goofball East Side Kids-style "anthropology" of recent immigrant life on Manhattan, the narrative arc of the novel follows feisty, determinedly studious narrator Sara Smolinsky as she attempts to light out for the Territory and into a teaching career away from Hester Street and her domineering, jobless, and Torah-quoting Polish rabbi father.  While I'm not sure that Bread Givers really has a lot to recommend as a novel (it's caricaturish and predictable, and the lack of anything stylistically bitchin' going on is only magnified when you stop to consider that 1925 was also the year of Mrs. Dalloway), I do think it has something to offer as a portrait of NYC Jewish immigrant life presumably authentic to the zeitgeist of its time and place (caricatures aside, its focus on assimilation, gender roles, poverty, and an ethnic enclave neighborhood full of Zalmon the fish peddlers and other eccentrics lining up to marry the various Smolinsky sisters felt real to me at least).  So is the book worth your time?  Oy vey, such a tough question!  Although inclined to say no, not really, I will say that the eventually endearing Sara and even her unreasonable and perpetually no account father kind of grew on me as characters over time.  Weird.  (

sábado, 22 de enero de 2011

Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West

Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West (Anchor Books, 2007)
by Hampton Sides
USA, 2006

For a California boy with an unfortunately all too inadequate understanding of how the West was won and lost,  I thought Blood and Thunder was a solid, entertaining, and ultimately an entirely adequate introduction to a subject I hope to be spending some more time with over the course of the year.  Its many bibliographical suggestions should prove quite useful as well.  Using a biography of famed frontiersman/Indian fighter Christopher Houston "Kit" Carson (1809-1868) as the focal point of an ambitious three-pronged narrative also having to do with the U.S. war with Mexico and the U.S. military's often genocidal war on the American Indians, Sides brings the "Manifest Destiny" era to life with a measured account that manages to be very readable and nuanced despite the sprawling scale of the worlds-in-collision events under consideration.  While I'm tempted to complain that the 578-page chunkster is maybe a little too long for its own good in parts (like an overly chatty friend, the journalist Sides apparently never met an anecdote that he didn't like), I suppose that's a small price to pay for a work as sensitive to the costs of American expansionism on the continent as this one.  Perhaps because of my own pro-Mexican and Native American and anti-settler biases for this time period, though, I have to say that I often found myself less interested in Carson's remarkable life story than in what was going on around him.  Sides writes, for example, of an occasion in 1846 when the so-called Army of the West encountered a "vast herd of buffalo, easily a quarter million strong" near Pawnee Rock on the Santa Fe Trail--part of an overall buffalo population of "as many as 50 million [which] roamed the Great Plains at this time" (69).  In thinking about these astounding numbers--way greater than what I had remembered from reading about the senseless slaughter of the buffalo back in my high school days--it's naturally only a short hop, skip and a jump to thinking about the human population losses that also resulted from U.S. westward movement.  To give you just one small example, Sides later writes of the one out of every three Navajos who died in captivity at the first western reservation experiment at Bosque Redondo from 1863-1868 (481).  Whatever your feelings on whether these tradeoffs were necessary to bring about an eventual shopping mall culture in 20th and 21st century America, it's hard not to feel an ubi sunt moment for the eradication of an entire way of life out west even knowing the outcome of the story in advance.  (

Hampton Sides

U.S. diplomacy in action: November 21, 1846
"The United States," [Col. Alexander Doniphan] began, "has taken military possession of New Mexico and her laws now extend over the whole territory.  The New Mexicans will be protected against violence and invasion, and their rights will be amply preserved.  But the United States is also anxious to enter into a treaty of peace and lasting friendship with you, her red children, the Navajos.  The same protection will be given to you that has been guaranteed the New Mexicans.  I come with ample powers to negotiate a permanent peace between you, the New Mexicans, and us.  If you refuse to treat on terms honorable to both parties, I am instructed to prosecute a war against you.  The United States makes no second treaty with the same people; she offers the olive branch, and if that is rejected, then she offers powder, bullet, and steel."
(Blood and Thunder, 189)

domingo, 9 de enero de 2011

La ciudad y los perros

La ciudad y los perros (Punto de Lectura, 2006)
por Mario Vargas Llosa
Perú, 1962

--A la mitad los mandan sus padres para que no sean unos bandeleros  --dijo Gamboa--.  Y, a la otra mitad, para que no sean maricas.
(La ciudad y los perros, 202)

La muerte en circunstancias misteriosas de un cadete al Colegio Militar Leoncio Prado en Lima es el punto de partida para una fuerte crítica social en esta estupenda primera novela de Mario Vargas Llosa.  Es difícil creer que éste fue su debú como novelista.  Aunque la historia se narra de manera deslumbrante con narradores multiples, flashbacks cinematográficos, y cambios de perspectiva entre la primera y la tercera personas, el "avance" del argumento es rápido y feroz.  Además del vigorizante estilo de narrar, lo que más me gustó en la novela era la destreza de Vargas Llosa en cuanto a la caracterización.  Si ninguno de los personajes esté representado con el éxito completo del dictador Trujillo en La Fiesta del Chivo, la verdad es que el novelista lleva a cabo algo casi igualmente difícil dentro de estas páginas: un retrato vivo de un grupo de estudiantes como individuos de carne y hueso y como miembros de un grupo en proceso de formacíon por su ambiente militar (con todas las humillaciones que eso implica).  Mientras que el manejo de estos personajes distintos --Ricardo Arana, "el Esclavo"; Alberto Fernández, "el Poeta", el miraflorino rico; "el Jaguar", el matón del grupo; los limeños y los serranos; etcétera-- es siempre creíble a lo largo de la obra, yo ya estaba sorprendido ver ocurrir la transformación de los adolescentes desde inocentes hasta los perros rabiosos de la tapa delante de mis propios ojos.  En resumen, un excelente comienzo al año de lecturas de 2011.  (

Los Vargas Llosa, 1967

*Mario Vargas Llosa's great 1962 debut novel is available in English under the title The Time of the Hero*

martes, 4 de enero de 2011

Wolfish and Non-Wolfish Reading

"Official" Wolves Badge
(Designed by Frances)

With the hectic end of the year, I kind of forgot to mention the group read line-up that my smart but occasionally trash-talking blogging buddies Claire, E.L. Fay, Emily, Frances, Sarah, and I (a/k/a "The Wolves") have come up with for 2011.  In the hope that you'll consider joining us for a discussion of at least one of the following works, here's a list of the titles that we'll be taking a look at during the course of the year.  The name of the selector and hence the nominal host/hostess for each month's read appears in parentheses.
Discussions for the monthly reads will take place at participating blogs on the final weekend of each month, and any and all are welcome to join in.  As an additional  incentive for newcomers to read along with us, please note that it isn't necessary to provide coffee and doughnuts or other munchies for the "host" except in the months of March and September! 
    Rejected Wolves Badge
    (Discovered by Emily)
A little secret: Although it took dozens of e-mails to finalize this year's reading list, it only took one to nix the fashionista wolf image!
    The TBR Dare
Moving on to something completely different, I've decided to accept C.B. James' counterintuitively appealing TBR Dare.  Yeah, the one in which known print junkies are urged to masochistically limit themselves to only reading books from their own TBR stockpiles for a certain period of time.  Since I have enough books stockpiled to get me through two or three years of no new books privation but probably only enough willpower to last a week or two at best, I've challenged myself--even though, like the man says, this is a dare and not a challenge--to go all of January without reading anything that's not currently part of my TBR and/or already checked out from the library.  Naturally, I took advantage of one of the loopholes in the rules to stock up on some last minute library books and make two 12/31 purchases (Conrad's The Secret Agent and Proust's In the Shadow of the Young Girls in Flower) to help me make it through the end of January and possibly longer.  The TBR Dare sign-up page is here for those wanting a little more information about C.B. James' reverse Fantasy Island.

The 2011 Roberto Bolaño Reading Challenge

While the vast majority of reading challenges are easily as lame/uninteresting as adult YA bloggers bragging about reading below their grade levels all the time, Rise of in lieu of a field guide has baited a very different type of challenge hook with his 2011 Roberto Bolaño Reading Challenge.  I haven't joined yet, but it's probably only a matter of time before I give in given the circumstances and the Bolaño-loving company (Stu of Winstonsdad's Blog, another international lit fave of mine, is also participating).  Ok, hell, I give in: please sign me up at the Godzilla level, Rise.

sábado, 1 de enero de 2011

13 Is My Lucky Number

Please pardon the apparently self-serving nature of this post, but I've just been informed that I have to submit a best of the year list for books I read in 2010 to maintain my blogging credentials for 2011.  First half-truth of the year out of the way, Happy New Year to all of you!  And away we go...

My favorite novels (in alphabetical order by author)

1) Roberto Arlt's Los siete locos (Argentina, 1929)

2) Roberto Bolaño's La literatura nazi en América (Spain, 1996)

3) Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary #1, #2 and #3 (France, 1857)

4) Le Comte de Lautréamont's Maldoror (France, 1868-69)

5) Herman Melville's Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (USA, 1851)

6) Georges Perec's Life A User's Manual (France, 1978)

My favorite nonfiction work

7) Euclides da Cunha's Backlands: The Canudos Campaign #1, #2 and #3 (Brazil, 1902)

My favorite poem

8) Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy I: Inferno (Verona, 1314)

8) Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy II: Purgatorio #1, #2 and #3 (Verona, 1315)

8) Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy III: Paradiso (Ravenna, 1321)

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order by author again)
9) Roberto Arlt's El juguete rabioso (Argentina, 1926)
10) Thomas Bernhard's Wittgenstein's Nephew (Austria, 1982)
11) Tomás Eloy Martínez's Santa Evita (Argentina, 1995)
12) Marcel Proust's Sodom and Gomorrah (France, 1921-22)
13) Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (England, 1925)