Thursday, July 06, 2006

Ex Libris LA

I haven't posted anything in more than week. That's a pretty long time for me. But you see, I've been busy reading, and sometimes I get into what I call "input" mode that will preclude any "output." Now, just pull your minds out of the gutter long enough so that I can recommend two fantastic books I've devoured in the past week. My brain is still processing, so the following reviews aren't mine. I will simply add that Middlesex won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, that Esperanza's Box of Saints is for anyone who loved Like Water for Chocolate, and that the two could not be more different from one another. Right now, I'm reading David Rakoff's Fraud (nonfiction).

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

"I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974." And so begins Middlesex, the mesmerizing saga of a near-mythic Greek American family and the "roller-coaster ride of a single gene through time." The odd but utterly believable story of Cal Stephanides, and how this 41-year-old hermaphrodite was raised as Calliope, is at the tender heart of this long-awaited second novel from Jeffrey Eugenides, whose elegant and haunting 1993 debut, The Virgin Suicides, remains one of the finest first novels of recent memory.

Eugenides weaves together a kaleidoscopic narrative spanning 80 years of a stained family history, from a fateful incestuous union in a small town in early 1920s Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit; from the early days of Ford Motors to the heated 1967 race riots; from the tony suburbs of Grosse Pointe and a confusing, aching adolescent love story to modern-day Berlin. Eugenides's command of the narrative is astonishing. He balances Cal/Callie's shifting voices convincingly, spinning this strange and often unsettling story with intelligence, insight, and generous amounts of humor:

Emotions, in my experience aren't covered by single words. I don't believe in "sadness," "joy," or "regret." … I'd like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic traincar constructions like, say, "the happiness that attends disaster." Or: "the disappointment of sleeping with one's fantasy." ... I'd like to have a word for "the sadness inspired by failing restaurants" as well as for "the excitement of getting a room with a minibar." I've never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I've entered my story, I need them more than ever.

When you get to the end of this splendorous book, when you suddenly realize that after hundreds of pages you have only a few more left to turn over, you'll experience a quick pang of regret knowing that your time with Cal is coming to a close, and you may even resist finishing it--putting it aside for an hour or two, or maybe overnight--just so that this wondrous, magical novel might never end. (Brad Thomas Parsons for

Esperanza's Box of Saints by Maria Amparo Escandon

Where Latin American fiction is concerned, miracles happen every day. Indeed, upon opening a novel written by a Mexican, Chilean, Colombian, or Cuban author, one is slightly disappointed if at least three impossible things don't happen before the opening chapter is over. María Amparo Escandón's first novel fulfills this expectation on its first page when Esperanza Díaz tells her parish priest that San Judas Tadeo appeared to her in her oven window:

He floated toward me, like a piñata dangling from a rope. The grease drippings shone like amber. He looked directly into my eyes. He was so beautiful. His hair was blond and a little curly. He had a beard, just like Jesus Christ. He said, "Your daughter is not dead."

This is a miracle indeed, since Esperanza, a young widow, has recently lost her 12-year-old daughter during a routine tonsillectomy. But when the saint appears to her with his glad tidings, the bereaved mother begins to wonder if her daughter might not have been spirited away by unscrupulous doctors and sold into white slavery. Determined to reclaim her child, Esperanza hits the road, embarking on a picaresque journey that will take her from her little Mexican town to the brothels of Tijuana and eventually to Los Angeles. Along the way she meets a variety of colorful characters including a professional wrestler who just may be the man to change our heroine's mind about never marrying again.

If at times Escandón's blithe tale seems tailor-made for movies, that's because it is. In addition to writing both English and Spanish versions of the novel, she has also authored the screenplay for Esperanza's film debut. In the case of Esperanza's Box of Saints, the cinematic touches nicely complement the book's larger-than-life characters, from best friend and fellow-widow Soledad, or poor Father Salvador, the hapless recipient of Esperanza's occasionally X-rated confessions, to Angel, the keeper of her heart. All in all, this is a book guaranteed to charm and amuse. (Alix Wilber for


At Friday, July 07, 2006 7:04:00 AM, Blogger Diane said...

la - I enjoyed Middlesex too, though I "read" the audio version. Have you read Life of Pi? I enjoyed that one very much too.

At Friday, July 07, 2006 10:38:00 AM, Blogger GetFlix said...

These sound good, LA. Summer is such a great time to read!! I just got three books in the mail today!! But I can't look at them until I get some work done.

At Friday, July 07, 2006 1:44:00 PM, Blogger LA said...

diane - I haven't read Life of Pi, but you're not the first person to recommend it. I'll check it out!

Flix - Work on the house?

At Friday, July 07, 2006 1:52:00 PM, Blogger Diane said...

la - one more recomendation - The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night Time - the narrator is an autistic boy - and the author's ability to present a moving tale from that perspective is amazing!

At Friday, July 07, 2006 1:54:00 PM, Blogger GetFlix said...

Norm's been working on the house/yard all week. He's getting grouchy.

At Friday, July 07, 2006 5:20:00 PM, Blogger kookla@work said...

Middlesex is great. Jeffrey Eugenides is one of my favorite authors because of The Virgin Suicides. I was so glad they stayed true to the book. I'm guilty of zero input, but doing alot of that output you speak of.

At Friday, July 07, 2006 5:20:00 PM, Blogger Heather said...

Nice blog, yo. I randomly saw your Stevie Haloscan avatar, and had to check you out. I adore the lady dripped in chiffon.

At Friday, July 07, 2006 6:39:00 PM, Blogger M-M-M-Mishy said...

Ooohh, I agree with Diane's recommendation for The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night Time. A very good read.

LA, you've been a busy bookworm lately. I'm trying to step up my summer reading as well.

At Saturday, July 08, 2006 3:24:00 PM, Blogger ffleur said...

Diana is right on. I've read both "Curious Incident..." and "Life of Pi" So excellent.

I don't know if I could handle either of your two books LA, beause for some reason, I have a hard time reading emotionally wrenching books. My heart is too soft I think. I had to read "Lolita" for my book club and was almost physically ill from the pedolphilia and how that man wrecked her life. I (who am never violent) wanted to kill him in a slow, torturous way.

Similarly, my book club is now reading "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and in the first few chapters a dog has been drowned by attaching a boulder to him. I was so upset thinking about the cruelty to this dog and how his owner mourned him. I had to put the book down and haven't picked it up again.

What is wrong with me? Why can't I handle these books?

At Saturday, July 08, 2006 4:39:00 PM, Blogger Diane said...

ffleur - I hope you have been reading the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books - they are joyful books that celebrate the good in people and life's simple pleasures . . . and if I'm reading a book that includes passages of animal cruelty or child abuse, I simply skip ahead, just like I would change the channel or cover my eyes at the movies . . .

At Saturday, July 08, 2006 7:39:00 PM, Blogger ffleur said...

Diane: I've never read any of the No 1 Lady Detective Agency books but of course I've seen them at the book store. I'm reassured by what you've said. So now I will def pick them up.

Right now I'm reading Simon Brett's "The Fethering Mysteries" which are just wonderful for an Anglophile like me. Set in a small English village and like Angatha C books, no real violence but a really good mystery. (as you can see, I'm still avoiding Uncle Tom's Cabin but I'll get back to it, may take your advice on the bad parts)

At Saturday, July 08, 2006 8:01:00 PM, Blogger Diane said...

ffleur - Oh, I'm going to check out Simon Brett - I love a good English mystery (I'm reading an Elizabeth George Inspector Lynley book right now . . .).

At Saturday, July 08, 2006 10:19:00 PM, Blogger LA said...

Diane - My sister emailed me after reading your comments to say she has The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night Time and will loan me her copy. Then, she ordered Life of Pi from her book club! I can't wait!

ffleur - I'm like you. I had to walk out of the movie "Life is Beautiful" when they got to the concentration camp because it was too gut-wrenching for me. My brother calls me an MW (movie wuss). I'm a book wuss, too. I'm very confident you'll be able to handle Esperanza's Box of Saints. It's written in a very magical kind of way with a very strong measure of optimism throughout.

Middlesex really only bothered me a little bit at the beginning when the earliest generation of the family was fleeing Asia Minor during WWI when the Turks come to burn down the city. If you read it, skip the part when the Turks raid the Armenian neighborhood. It was unpleasant, and you'll know at the end of the chapter which characters survive. Otherwise, Middlesex was totally palatable. The hermaphrodite's coming to grips with gender issues is written in such a way that the reader is both curious and fascinated. S/he (and I use both pronouns because the character lives as both genders at varying times in the novel) is actually rather analytical about the whole thing, and I think you'll love the use of metaphors as they relate to Greek mythology. I also love the way historical events are woven into the story. It's really a superior read.

Kookla - I need to get my hands on Virgin Suicides. I've neither read nor seen it. I think I'd prefer to read it.

Heather - Welcome!

At Sunday, July 09, 2006 8:54:00 AM, Blogger prunella jones said...

You guys are a well read bunch. I'm embarrassed to admit that I usually only read trashy novels but I also like a bit of history. Right now I'm reading A History of the World in 6 Glasses. It's all about people's preferences in beverages throughout history and the effect it had. In case your curious those drinks are: beer, wine, rum, coffee, tea and coca-cola.

At Sunday, July 09, 2006 9:59:00 AM, Blogger LA said...

Prunella - That actually sounds really interesting. I might have to look into that!

At Sunday, July 09, 2006 10:02:00 AM, Blogger LA said...

Incidentally, my drink of choice from that list (beer, wine, rum, coffee, tea and coca-cola) would be coffee. It's the only one of those I drink daily.

At Sunday, July 09, 2006 11:07:00 AM, Blogger prettykitty said...

don't feel bad, pru. i only read the rags and the occasional celebrity autobiograhy. right now i'm reading "complicated shadows" about elvis costello.


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