Ex Libris LAI 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 Amazon.com)
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 Amazon.com)