One-Minute Book Reviews

September 2, 2008

Bonnie and Clyde in Brazil — Frances de Pontes Peebles’s First Novel, ‘The Seamstress’ (Books I Didn’t Finish)

Filed under: Books I Didn't Finish,Historical Novels,Latin American,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:21 am
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The latest in an occasional series of posts on books I didn’t finish and why I didn’t finish them

Title: The Seamstress: A Novel. By Frances de Pontes Peebles. Ecco, 641 pp., $25.95.

What it is: A historical saga about two orphaned sisters, trained as seamstresses, whose lives diverge and converge in dangerous ways during their early adulthood Brazil in the 1930s. Emília marries into high society in Recife and opens a dress shop that thrives on the patronage of the prominent friends of her in-laws. Luzia lives among bandits after being abducted at an early age by cangaceiros, roving groups of men and women who for centuries plundered and protected the countryside of northeastern Brazil.

How much I read: The first 50 and the last 75 pages, about a quarter of the book.

What I stopped reading: This novel resembles a cross between a Brazilian Bonnie and Clyde and a Dominick Dunne novel. Like Dunne, Frances de Pontes Peebles has a strong sense of pace, uses her research well and maps the intersection of sex, crime and social status. She also weaves into her plot an appealing sewing motif, showing how rewarding and arduous dressmaking could be when Singer’s hand-cranked machines were giving way to electric ones. In The Seamstress the tape measure is a metaphor for truth or trustworthiness, the ability to give a straight account. But for all her painstaking attention to detail, de Pontes Peebles draws her characters broadly. She tells us that people called young Luzia “the yolk” and Emília “the white,” and the sisters have that yolk-and-white quality in the novel. Interesting as some of the material was, the book didn’t have enough depth to hold my attention for more than 600 pages.

Best line in what I read: “Beneath her bed, Aunt Sofia kept a wooden box that held her husband’s bones.”

Worst line in what I read: Would a Brazilian woman living in 1928 have used the phrase “state-of-the-art” (as in “a state-of-the-art machine: a pedal-operated Singer”)?

Published: August 2008 www.harpercollins.com/books/9780060738877/The_Seamstress/index.aspx

Furthermore: The Seamstress is the first novel by de Pontes Peebles, who was born in Brazil and grew up in Miami.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 20, 2008

Martín Espada Wears His Causes on His Sleeve in ‘The Republic of Poetry’

A visit to Chile helped to inspire a collection that includes anti-war poems

The Republic of Poetry: Poems. By Martín Espada. Norton, 63 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Martín Espada wears his causes on his sleeve, and it’s a heavy sleeve. Many of his poems read like editorials in verse, but without the surprise endorsements that most newspapers serve up occasionally. His politics are as predictable as an incumbent’s stump speech. He opposes torture, apartheid, dictatorship, police brutality and, apparently, war in general and the war in Iraq in particular. (Two of the poems in this book appeared on the site Poets Against War www.poetsagainstwar.net.) He supports poets and poetry.

Espada visited Chile in 2004 for the centenary of the birth of the Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, and his trip inspired a dozen poems that form the core of The Republic of Poetry. In “City of Glass” he writes of the ransacking of Neruda’s home by soldiers loyal to Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who had overthrown the elected Salvador Allende. The opening lines set the tone for a poem that turns the fragility of glass into a graceful metaphor for the fragility of democracy in Chile:

The poet’s house was a city of glass:
cranberry glass, milk glass, carnival glass,
red and green goblets row after row,
black luster of wine in bottles …

Elsewhere Espada reaches frequently for images that are banal or strained. On a visit to his childhood home in Brooklyn, he recalls a youthful injury with the mawkish line: “Blood leaked on the floor like oil from the engine of me.” In a bar he has a vision of a wooden figure he saw in Neruda’s home: “He likes for me to be still, / she grinned …” That “she grinned” isn’t bad poetry so much as hack writing in general; it would be as bad in your local newspaper as in a book. Espada can do better – and sometimes he does – but he clearly has the spirit of Chilean poets who once protested their oppression by bombing the national palace with bookmarks imprinted with poetry. In his way, he’s bombing you, too.

Best line: All of “City of Glass,” one of two poems in the book first published in The New Yorker.

Worst line: In “Black Islands” Espada writes of a meeting the Chilean father of a five-year-old: “ Son, the father said, this is a poet, / like Pablo Neruda.” That “like Pablo Neruda” could mean two things: “a poet, as was Pablo Neruda” or “a poet similar to Pablo Neruda.” Either way, this is unappetizing self-congratulation. You wonder what Neruda would have thought of that self-congratulatory “like Pablo Neruda” in “Black Islands.”

Published: October 2006. Paperback due out from Norton in April 2008.

Furthermore: Espada www.martinespada.net was born in Brooklyn, New York, and teaches at the University of Massachusetts. He has written seven other poetry collections, including Imagine the Angels of Bread, which won American Book Award.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. She would like to expand One-Minute Book Reviews to include podcasts, broadcasts and other services, such as online book discussion groups or forums in “real time,” and is looking for a home for this blog that would make it possible to provide these.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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