If you keep a book journal, you know the feeling. You’re in the middle of a great book, or perhaps two great books, and you mean to write a blog entry but decide to read a few more pages instead. Pretty soon you’re six or ten books behind in your journal. You decide to switch to keeping a cat blog.
It has been an astonishingly good summer for reading. The two books I am writing about today fell into my hands by chance. Brian Kiteley’s 1989 classic, Still Life With Insects, reissued by Pharos Editions, is one of those small gems I will be loudly recommending for the rest of my life. Carolina De Roberti’s’s The Gods of Tango , a well-crafted, entertaining novel, tells the story of a female immigrant in Buenos Aires in the early twentieth century who disguises herself as a man so she can play the violin in a tango band.
Kiteley’s spare but dazzling Still Life With Insects is one of the best books I have ever read. Reissued by Pharos Editions, a small press that is reissuing out-of-print American books, it was selected and introduced by the novelist Leah Hager Cohen. (Other Pharos Books have been chosen by Sherman Alexie, Diana Spiotta, and David Guterson)
This masterly, layered novel is written in the form of an amateur entomologist’s journal. Each brief entry is headed by a note with the date and place of the insect finding. For instance,
Sifted out of wheat taken from corners and behind liners of empty boxcars. New Prague, Minnesota. July 22, 1950.
The narrator, Elwyn Farmer, a “cereal chemist” for a flour company, writes about insects, but also describes scenes at work and home. Gradually we get to know his family, his kind wife, Ettie, his oldest son, Henry, his colleaguef, and his need to collect insects. Elwyn matter-of-factly mentions his nervous breakdown. It was the doctor’s idea that he relax with a hobby.
The doctor asked if I had any hobbies. Something easy plus cutting down to a ten-hour day might help. I don’t know why I told him about my unfinished Ph.D. in entomology; it might get back to the company. The man they fired when the boss discovered his M.A. still pops up in my wife’s late-night chatter. I should never have told her.
Insects save Elwyn. He finds beetles on his travels around Canada and the U.S. , whether inspecting wheat or vacationing with his wife. He finds them in the rotting floorboards of an outhouse, in dry riverbeds, in fallen trees, in fermenting oranges in a dump. During a spot inspection of Robin Hood Flour sacks in boxcars,, he checks for seed beetle infestation. The FDA agent says, “If you ask me, we were getting more nutritious flour when all those beetle parts were ground up into it.”
Once, when Elwyn has been on the road for weeks, his son, Henry, who is getting a Ph.D. in philosophy, calls him at the phone booth from which he has just called his wife. Elwyn has no intention of going home, though he is nearby, because he wants to check the woods for insects, but Henry insists that he must come home and see his wife. Elwyn explains to his wife Ettie that sometimes he can’t come home: just looking at the house gives him the feeling he is having a breakdown. But after he learns that Henry phoned him as an excuse to call his ex-fiancee at the phone company–she gave him the number of the phone booth–he laughs and decides he will go home, after all.
I can’t capture the beauty of this novel. The artistry is reminiscent of a perfect novella by Tolstoy.
I was browsing when I found Carolina De Robertis’s third novel, The Gods of Tango. I have a weakness for novels set in South America, and I became so caught up in De Robertis’s smooth, workmanlike prose that I had to buy the book. I agreed to God knows what Faustian bargains of housework and vegetable-chopping for lasagna before my husband kindly granted me an entire weekend to read this book. The author, who has a Uruguayan background, explores the roots of tango in South America, and follows the fortunes of a tango band that plays in brothels and cabarets. She spent a year and a half in Uruguay and Brazil researching and writing the book.
I loved this book, guys. It is well-written and it makes me hear the music. The heroine, Leda, has always loved playing the violin, and when she travels from Italy to Buenos Aires to join her cousin/husband, Dante, whom she has married by proxy, she carries her father’s violin as a gift. But when she arrives, she discovers Dante has been killed in a riot.
And so she has to make a way for herself. She lives in a tenement with 60-some people who share one bathroom. She sews all day with the other women but barely makes any money. When she hears tango for the first time, she is enthralled, and annoys some of the women by playing her violin along with the men. She knows she can be a musician if she is given a chance. The problem is that women are not allowed to play tango. And so she runs away and disguises herself as a man. She calls herself Dante, after her husband. She is a stunning violinist, but where to live?: she cannot share a crowded room or undress in front of male roommates in a tenement. Finally, she rents a tiny room, actually a closet, so she can be alone. She can practice the violin and bathe without being outed as a woman.
Cross-dressing frees Leda: she gets more respect as a man. But she has a sexual crisis. She discovers she is a lesbian who cannot reveal that she is a woman. She takes a crash course from a whore in pleasing women, but when her lovers want to touch her, she cannot allow it.
I loved Leda’s story, and the story of the music. The musicians ask, Is it still tango when you add instruments, the piano, the bass, and vocals? Of course tango is all about change.
There is violence at the cabarets. Band members fight, drunks attack each other, good friends get stabbed. Careers are made and lost. When a woman singer joins their band, Leda feels defensive. What was her work for if this woman gets to join as a woman? Like Leda, she cross-dresses, but doesn’t bind her chest or hide her curves. Everyone knows she is a woman dressed like a man.
There are many sexual and gender issues as well as tango scences.
Sure, it wasn’t nominated for the Man Booker Prize, but perhaps that’s a good thing. Anyway, there’s always the Baileys Women’s Prize next year, right? De Robertis is a very good writer, and this is an excellent read!