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

February 26, 2008

Does ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ Perpetuate Stereotypes of Mexicans?

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Latin American,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:07 am
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This week I’ve been slogging through books that all seem to read like bad translations from an extinct language, like Coptic or Proto-Slavic. To reward myself, I’ve been rereading Nobody’s Perfect (Vintage, 752 pp., $16.95, paperback), a collection of Anthony Lane’s writing on books and movies for The New Yorker.

I began with Lane’s witty account of reading all the books on the New York Times fiction bestseller list for May 15, 1994 (a companion piece to a report on the list for the July 1, 1945). The essay includes this comment on Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, a tale of a woman doomed to spinsterhood in early 20th-century Mexico:

“Mexican readers fell on this book avidly, it seems, although its subsequent global triumph should surely give them pause; the main effect, after all, has been to perpetuate the myth of their homeland as lust-ridden, superstitious, and amusingly spicy.”

Why is this point so rarely made by books and Web sites that recommend Like Water for Chocolate to reading groups? The novel may have other qualities that make it worthy of consideration by book clubs. But shouldn’t the stereotypes be mentioned, too?

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. The site will announce the shortlist for the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books beginning at 10 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 29.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

March 30, 2007

Gabriel García Márquez on the Difference Between Novels and Journalism … Quote of the Day #15

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Latin American,Novels,Quotes of the Day,Reading,Reporting,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:14 pm

Gabriel García Márquez on truth in fiction and nonfiction …

“In journalism just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work. In contrast, in fiction one single fact that is true gives legitimacy to the entire work.”

García Márquez ‘s answer to, “Do the journalist and the novelist have different responsibilities in balancing truth versus the imagination?” Peter H. Stone asked the question in an interview with the Nobel laureate that appears Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews: Sixth Series (Viking, 1984). Edited by George Plimpton. Introduction by Frank Kermode.

Comment by Janice Harayda:

This is one of the most perceptive comments I have read on the difference between writing fiction and nonfiction. How many times have you read a newspaper article that had a small — even trivial — error that fatally undermined a good story? And how many times have you read a novel with a detail so wonderful that you forgave any defects in the book?

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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