Monthly Archives: August 2012

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

My introduction to this book was in a World Literature class I was assigned to teach. I had little knowledge of world lit – my experience has been mainly in British and American lit, so I had to read out of my box. I found this book, In the Time of the Butterflies, to be one of the most memorable book we read that summer (#1 was One Hundred Years of Solitude. If I had been able to I would have gotten all my students T-shirts labeled I Survived One Hundred Years of Solitude – but more about that another time.)

I am old enough to remember the overthrow of Trujillo, but young enough to not have understood what was involved. This book makes it clear what was at stake in the Dominican Republic and what was American policy during the Cold War. If a dictator was anti-Communist, anything he did was just fine by the US. This book is a well-written work that illustrates the unspeakable horrors of the Trujillo Dictatorship and political oppression throughout the society. Alvarez has  immortalized the Mirabal sisters as national heroines.

In the Time of the Butterflies is a skillful mixture of fact and fiction. It is based on the true story of the three Mirabal sisters who, in 1960, were murdered for their part in an underground plot to overthrow the government. They were known as “las mariposas,” or “the butterflies,” in the underground and Alvarez imagines their teenage years and their gradual involvement in the opposition. Although the reader knows how the story ends, Alvarez creates mounting tension as “the butterflies” meet their horrific deaths when they were ambushed and assassinated as they drove back from visiting their jailed husbands. This event was, if not the last straw, significant in the overthrow of Trujillo a few months after their deaths.

The novel begins with the recollections of Dede, the fourth and surviving sister, who feared the consequences to her family and could not bring herself to join her sisters. We also learn the stories of the other sisters: fearless and outspoken Minerva; pious Patria, who forsakes her religious calling faith to join her sisters; and sensitive Maria Teresa, who, in a series of diaries, records the physical and spiritual anguish of prison life.

My students thought highly of this book; it was part of the theme I was following of political and cultural repression throughout the world. Some things haven’t changed, unfortunately, for many peoples in many countries.

Related videos: Half of this is in Spanish, without subtitles, but it gives you a memorable view of the sisters’ home and the respect and love that the Dominican people hold for them. It features Dede, the surviving sister, and how she has lived her life without her sisters. Then, briefly outlines the American Involvement in the Trujillo Era. There are several other YouTube videos on the subject; unfortunately, for English speakers at least, they are in Spanish. Watching Trujillo in action, however, gives you an idea of his power and intimidating demeanor.


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The Age of Doubt by Andrea Camilleri

Inspector Salvo Montalbano loves food, particularly pasta and seafood, and living in Sicily, he doesn’t have to go far to find it. Plus, his housekeeper Adelina is an excellent cook. I always feel like I have gained ten pounds when I read one of the books in this series. I was lucky enough to have visited Florence and Siena and loved the pizza and gelato, but now I want to visit Sicily and eat mussels, sole, shrimp, sea urchins, clams, calamari, olives, anchovies, cheeses, and breads, the pastas, just not the octopus.

So far, according to Wikipedia, fourteen books have been translated by Stephen Sartarelli from the Italian, Sicilian, and Sicilianized Italian in which Camilleri wrote them. Here’s hoping there are more waiting to be translated; I don’t have time to learn all those languages. Sartarelli is thoughtful enough to include explanations of Italian and Sicilian references in the text which Americans otherwise might not understand.

The series has been so popular in Italy that the Montalbano novels have been made into an Italian TV series. Would someone please start a petition to PBS or some cable station to bring that series over here?

When Salvo is eating, he is solving murders. He can find a means to balance the elements of a sinister Sicilian world, a world of shady connections and favors owed and owing, while still keeping his conscience. He has occasional tussles with upper-management, but always finds a way to outwit them. His girlfriend, the temperamental Livia, who lives in another city, has its ups and downs, but he is always faithful, in his way.

I can’t begin to name my favorite book in this series; each seems to be better than the last and, of course, each builds on what happened in the last book. This isn’t a noir series, and it isn’t a cozy series. What it is is a picture of another culture and an altogether individual inspector. And they are very funny (and mouth-watering).

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A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir

It is has always difficult, even dangerous, to be a woman. You had no rights. You were at the disposal of men, first your father, then your husband, and then, possibly your son. Childbirth was dangerous. This was the case until recently in the western world. Even today many of women’s health and well-being issues depend on the beneficence of men.

It was particularly precarious to be of royal blood. Such a woman was a pawn to be betrothed and married for political reasons, all before you were ten years old. And those politics could change in the blink of an eye.

 A Dangerous Inheritance is an historical novel that concerns two such girls, separated by eighty years, related by blood, who find themselves in somewhat similar situations. These two girls, Lady Katherine Plantagenet, the illegitimate daughter of Richard III, and Lady Catherine Grey, the younger sister of Lady Jane Grey, known as the Nine Days’ Queen. Neither played major roles in the history of the time, yet their lives are fascinating, tragic, and illustrative of the lives to be had by women of their time and status.

One thing that had would have been helpful on the Kindle edition, which NetGalley kindly provided me, was a family tree. Everyone back then had the same name, and they were all related. Without a family tree, I resorted to Wikipedia. Wikipedia may not be always accurate, but I found myself referring back many times to the family trees on the websites. I was also there (at Wikipedia) a lot, reading the biographies of the characters, reminding myself of what I had read in the past of these times.

One issue that both girls are concerned about is the fate of the famous princes, the sons of Edward IV, who were supposed to have been murdered by their uncle, Richard III. The villainy of Richard III was immortalized in Shakespeare’s play, Richard III. (Remember that Shakespeare was writing during the reign of Elizabeth I, who was the granddaughter of Henry VII who overthrew Richard III. Remember: history is written by the victor.) A classic murder mystery, by Josephine Tey, Daughter of Time, is about a detective, Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, recuperating from a broken leg, becomes fascinated with Richard III and sets out to solve the murder of the princes (from his hospital bed). He proves, to his satisfaction at least, that Richard III was innocent of the crime; Henry VII did it. Henry VII certainly had as good a motive as Richard III to remove these princes from this earth.

This was an excellent read. Even though I knew, thanks to Wikipedia, what happened to these young women, I kept reading to see how Alison Weir would handle their stories. Actually, it is not certain what happened to Lady Katherine Herbert, née Plantagenet. The best guess is that she may have been dead by 25 November 1487, the date of the coronation of Elizabeth of York (wife of Henry VII). This lack of information is not surprising; in history, the fate of women is often obscure. Men wrote the histories, and they were the victors.

Now I have to go back and read all my Weir and Fraser biographies. So many books, so little time.

Alison Weir is a British writer of history books and historical novels, mostly in the form of biographies about British royalty. Her works on the Tudor period have made her a best-selling author. She finds that she considers the Tudor period “the most dramatic period in our history, with vivid, strong personalities… The Tudor period is the first one for which we have a rich visual record, with the growth of portraiture, and detailed sources on the private lives of kings and queens. This was an age that witnessed a growth in diplomacy and the spread of the printed word.”

Weir’s writings have been describing as being in the genre of popular history, which seeks to inform and entertain a large general audience. Weir believes that popular history, despite academic attitudes,  “history is not the sole preserve of academics, although I have the utmost respect for those historians who undertake new research and contribute something new to our knowledge. History belongs to us all, and it can be accessed by us all. And if writing it in a way that is accessible and entertaining, as well as conscientiously researched, can be described as popular, then, yes, I am a popular historian, and am proud and happy to be one.” Lucinda Byatt said of Weir’s popular historian label, “To describe her as a popular historian would be to state a literal truth – her chunky explorations of Britain’s early modern past sell in the kind of multiples that others can only dream of.” Weir’s best-selling works have focused on strong women, and she has been compared to female historians such as Antonia Fraser.

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Sam Cruz’s Infallible Guide to Getting Girls by Tellulah Darling

OK, I admit it, I’m getting too old for this kind of YA book. Sam is a high school senior? How many times has he repeated 12th grade? Because he acts like he is in his mid-20s, at least.

Even Tellulah Darling’s website says that this is for older YA’s. I agree, in their 20s.

Sex, sex, sex. As I’ve asked elsewhere, when do these kids have time to go to school, do homework, finish research papers? All they do is party, use their parents’ credit cards to buy inappropriate clothes (does the school have a dress code?), and have sex. Not having sex is much more life-threatening than not passing a test, apparently.

And the language. Please, one should be able to express oneself without four-letter words. At least, we used to be able to. If you can’t think of another way to say “pissed off,” get a thesaurus. I hear you can get one built in with Word.

When these kids have done it all before they graduate from high school, what do they have to look forward to?

As I said, I’m too old for this book; maybe I’m just too old. I’ve started thinking that that is what young folks want – for us post-war baby boomers to hurry up and die off, we’re such buzzkills.

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Filed under Literary Genres, Young Adult Literature

Lucretia and the Kroons by Victor LaValle

Don’t go near 6D. Not if you value your life. That was where the Kroons live, and they’re crackheads. That’s the advice Loochie’s brother, Louis, gives her, and he is ten years older than she, so he knows.

However, when your best friend, Sunny, who has cancer, is supposed to come play but doesn’t, you take chances, venture up the fire escape and find out whether the Kroons have Sunny.

Loochie meets monsters and enters a dark fantasyland where she finds lush forests growing from concrete, pigeon-winged rodents, and haunted playgrounds. Are they hallucinations – remember those odd cigarettes Sunny and Loochie smoked? – or are they real?

Victor LaValle has written that this book is partly an homage to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and a prequel to his upcoming novel, The Devil in Silver, but more a tribute to the commitment and grace of two best friends.

In the appendix to The Other, which I have cited elsewhere, Don Chaon calls that book “an intense, lyrical meditation on childhood, nostalgia, and loss.” I think that could apply to this book as well.

I’m looking forward to reading The Devil in Silver, which continues the story of Lucretia and her life without Sunny.

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Filed under Horror, Young Adult Literature

The Other by Tom Tryon

I saw the film based on this book back in 1972 when it was first released. That was forty years ago and it has still stayed with me. I’ve seen other horror movies since, but this had an impact.

I was surprised to see it on NetGalley, since the book was published in 1971, but I had to read it to see if I got that frisson from the book that I had from the movie. Edith Wharton referred to the “fun of the shudder.” I got that from the book, too.

Of course, this time I knew what the mystery was. Neither the book nor the movie is supernatural, but psychological. In the NetGalley edition, there is an afterword by Dan Chaon which compares the book to Henry James’s Turn of the Screw and Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House. I would compare it more to Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle; we learn the truth in the Castle, while we are left to wonder the identity of the evil in the Hill House.

Chaon rightly calls this an “undervalued” horror novel, just as Tom Tryon was probably an undervalued actor. I also saw his one major film, “The Cardinal,” and thought he was terrific. I have read in a couple of sources that he was constantly humiliated by Otto Preminger. From what I have read about Preminger, I can believe it.

The book gives many more hints than does the movie. In the book, there is a first person narrator who interrupts the story two or three times. He is clearly an inmate in an insane asylum and he is telling the story. In the story itself, an attentive reader can work out from the clues the identity of the evil in this story.  

Chaon calls the book “a tour de force of design, a cunning, tricked-out patchwork of thriller tropes …” Tryon creates a truly horrific world from what should be an idyllic one. (Reminds me a bit of David Lynch and the beginning of “Blue Velvet”.) His images are somehow distorted and nothing is what it seems.

According to IDMB, Tom Tryon was disappointed with the film, despite having written the screenplay himself. When asked about the film in a 1977 interview, Tryon recalled, “Oh, no. That broke my heart. Jesus. That was very sad… That picture was ruined in the cutting and the casting. The boys were good; Uta was good; the other parts, I think, were carelessly cast in some instances–not all, but in some instances. And, God knows, it was badly cut and faultily directed. Perhaps the whole thing was the rotten screenplay, I don’t know. But I think it was a good screenplay.”

I don’t know whether to recommend seeing the movie and then reading the book, or vice versa. At any rate, don’t do what I did – wait forty years in between. You’ll have that “fun of the shudder” either way.

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Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire

This is going to offend someone, I fear, having read some of the other reviews of this book, but here it is anyway.

I downloaded it from NetGalley because I had read somewhere, I don’t remember, that it was like those Shades of Grey, which I had no intention of reading, but I thought I might get a taste of what all the brouhaha was about. I don’t know how like Shades of Grey it is; I will leave that to others.

My problem with this book may be generational. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a chapter that doesn’t have a sex scene. Back in my day (sorry for that), a reader had to scan a scandalous book, such as Valley of the Dolls, for the naughty bits. No scanning necessary in this one.

If this is a YA book, then I’m Julia Child (and I’m not – I can’t cook). This is definitely an adult book with many unhappy examples for young women.

I got so tired of the coupling going on between Travis and every woman, that I was wishing that he and Abby would do it, for heaven sakes. Then I got tired Travis and Abby – all the time. Tattoos, condoms, fight club events, smoking (!), motorcycles, the constant description of Travis’s rippling muscles – enough already. This is just a violent bodice-ripper. When did these people find time to attend class, much less do homework or write research papers?    

And then Abby and Travis get married and she’s nineteen! I can only imagine the sequel. I teach at a community college and see many young unmarried girls trying to go to school, work, and rear children. I see many young unmarried boys supporting, I hope, their children or the children of their girlfriends.

The book cover is quite symbolic. Abby is a butterfly, a virgin, an innocent, now caught in a jar from which she’s going to have to try to escape or die.

I don’t expect college-aged kids to be virgins; my experiences, well, we won’t go there, after all I was at The University of Texas at Austin in the late 60s-early 70s. But I found this book to be a example of what not to do. Life is more than sex, or it should be; on the other hand, I’m not writing best-sellers.

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Filed under Fiction, Young Adult Literature