What I’ve Been Reading: Allende, Austen, Anders, & Literary Links

You may ask, Is Mirabile Dictu finally done with Ladies’ Greek?

Yes, I am reading, reading, and reading novels again!

Here are brief remarks on a South American masterpiece by Isabel Allende, Jane Austen’s first novel, and and Charlie Jane Ander’s acclaimed science fiction.

1. The Chilean-American writer Isabel Allende’s stunning  first novel, The House of the Spirits, was translated by Magda Bogin and published in the U.S.  in 1985. This lush, witty, poetic masterpiece is laced with magic realism, and  reminiscent of the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Allende narrates the story of the rise and fall of three generations of the Trueba family in a politically unstable  country in South America.  The strong women of the family ignore Esteban Trueba, the volatile family patriarch, and live their own lives. I am especially fond of Clara, the  psychic matriarch who opens their enormous house to eccentrics and adds on rooms and staircases that go nowhere; her daughter, Blanca, a potter who teaches Mongoloids; and her radical granddaughter, Alba, who  feeds the homeless and hides refugees in the wake of a fascist coup. Even the tyrannical patriarch, Esteban Trueba, a landowner and far-right politician, is appalled in old age by violence of the new regime and begins to understand the women. Not only was I reminded of how very great Allende is, but I am eagerly looking forward to her new novel, In the Midst of Winter (October).

2. A rereading of Jane Austen’s Northanger AbbeyThe heroine, Catherine Morland, is one of Austen’s most comical characters, and I enjoyed my rereading of this charming little book.  Catherine, a fan of Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and other “horrid” Gothic novel, hopes to find a ghost or secret manuscript when she visits the Tilneys at the elegant  Northanger Abbey. Her witty boyfriend, Henry Tilney, one of the very few of Austen’s heroes I heartily approve, brings Catherine down to earth when she gets carried away.  He, too, is a novel reader, and has a good sense of humor.  He says,

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.  I have read all Mrs. Radliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure.  The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again,–I remember finishing it in two days–my hair standing on end the whole time.”

3.  Charlie Jane Anders’s All the Birds in the Sky.  A nominee for the Hugo Award, this  science fiction novel was highly lauded.   Parts are charming, parts are a bit awkward and rambling, but it should appeal to fans of Harry Potter and Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy.  The story of the relationship between Patricia, a witch, and Laurence, a brilliant techie, includes lots of magic, science, sex, and global warming.  Though this novel seems to me very slight, it is a good weekend read.

 

AND NOW FOR TWO LITERARY LINKS.  When I spotted an online review at the TLS of Ann Hood’s bibliomemoir, Morningstar,I paid a month’s subscription fee to read the review.  Well, I will also benefit by reading other reviews for subscribers only.   I loved Hood’s memoir, and hope others will enjoy it, too.  (You can read my post on Morningstar here.)

Jenny Hendrix writes in the TLS,

…[Hood] credits her childhood bookishness with setting her on a path to the literary life of her dreams. Hood reflects on ten works of fiction that guided her through adolescence in the late 1960s and early 70s, and her discovery through them of how to live “the mysterious, unnam­able, big dream life I wanted”: “My parents learned about life from hardship”, she writes. “Me? I learned from books.”

In her blue-collar Rhode Island mill town, Hood was an oddity in a household of non-readers; in her hard-working Italian immigrant family, books were seen as a waste of time and money. But, after she had enjoyed a chance encounter with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, literature opened Hood’s eyes to possibilities beyond her immediate milieu. She learnt what it meant to be a writer from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar; learnt to love language via the poet Rod McKuen; and credits John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath with teaching her how to write. There were other, extra-literary lessons as well, in subjects her family didn’t discuss. As the Vietnam War drew to a close, the novel Johnny Got His Gun sharpened her political thinking; the free-loving teens of The Harrad Experiment opened her eyes to the mechanics of sex. Together, these books built Hood an off-ramp from what she experienced as the dull and uninspiring trajectory of her peers: baptized in the church at one end of the town’s main street, married at the club in the middle, and buried by the funeral parlour at the same street’s far end.

The tough women criticizing women at the TLS always find a few negative things to say, and so Hendrix calls the book “heart-warming,” which is not the worst thing I’ve ever heard!  Overall, she liked the book.

If you like free reviews, and don’t we all, you can read the insightful review at  The Minneapolis Star Tribune .  Laurie Hertzel, the book page editor, aptly describes Hood’s graceful book.

In these 10 appealing essays, Hood deftly recounts pivotal moments in her early life, recalling not just what happened, but how she felt and how wonderful it was that the right book seemed to appear at the right time. “Once again,” she writes, “my world had been cracked open by a book.”

Hood’s book is actually one of my favorite books of the year.

Short Stories by Latin American Women: The Magic and the Real

 

I missed the so-called” Latin American boom” of the ’60s and ’70s. I was not seduced by magic realism.  In fact, I did not finish Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude on a beach vacation in Mexico where I got the worst sunburn of my life.  ( I wasn’t happy till I found a bookstore in Veracruz.)  It wasn’t until  years later that I discovered the surreal stories of Borges.  Then I fell in love with  Garcia Marquez,  Julio Cortazar, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz.

I realized recently I have read only a  few Latin American women writers; in the last decade, only the brilliant Isabel Allende and Angelica Gorodischer, the Argentine science fiction writer who has been translated by Ursula K. Le Guin, come to mind.

And then I found this stunning anthology, Short Stories by Latin American Women:  The Magic and the Real, edited by Celia Correas de Zapata.  It includes the work of 31 writers, among them Allende, Clarice Lispector, and  Josefina Pla.   The stories are so marvelous that I tried to find their books.  Very few of these wrtiers have been translated.

Men have traditionally dominated Latin American literature.  And I wonder if that is still true of the translators.

This book is a gem:  at the end, there are short biographies of all the authors and translators. Isabel Allende writes in the preface:  “For women in South America, setting down a short story is like screaming out loud; it breaks the rules, violates the code of silence into which we were born.  Through these stories, each author selected by Dr. Zapata shouts out defiantly and reveals our experience to the world.”

Allende’s short story, “An Act of Vengeance” is my favorite. Her always colorful, poetic language is interwoven seamlessly with a plot made vivid by magic realism.    The style reminds me of that of Louise Erdrich, and the opening sentence is worth the price of the book.

On the glorious noonday when Dulce Rosa Orellano was crowned with the jasmines of Carnival Queen, the mothers of the other candidates murmured that it was unfair for her to win just because she was the only daughter of the most powerful man in the entire province, Senator Anselmo Orellano.

Dulce Rosa is beautiful, not so much physically as for her charm, grace, and infectious happiness.  Tales of her beauty have spread, and poets in distant cities praise her. Even the guerilla Tadeo Cespedes  has heard of her, but never dreams he’ll meet her.  And then Tadeo raids the town of Santa Theresa with 120 men, and kills  the senator, who is the last man standing.  The sight of Dulce Rosa drives Tadeo into a frenzy, and he rapes her. As she washes off his semen, she vows she will get revenge.  Thirty years go by…and the plot twists and turns.

In  “Culinary Lesson,” Roario Castellanos’ humorous monologue is reminiscent of a Dorothy Parker story mixed with the musings in Sue Kaufman’s feminist classic, The Diary of a Mad Housewife.  The heroine cannot cook, and cannot understand the cookbooks, and I empathize.  In Rosario Ferre’s “A Poisoned Tale,” a fairy tale book turns out to be lethal for an evil stepmother.  In “Blame the Tlaxcaltes,” a wretched housewife lives in two different times, with two different husbands, and only the maid understands she does not belong in the present.

I could go on, on, and on, but you’ll have to read it.  I  am giving it to everyone for Christmas.

And it’s Women in Translation Month.  Finally, something I can get behind!