Wednesday, February 3, 2021

The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa

This historical novel by Nobel Prize author Mario Vargas Llosa is absolutely brilliant in content, craft, and (dare I say) execution. The Feast of the Goat (La fiesta del chivo en español, 2000) recounts the events leading to the 1961 assassination of Rafael Trujillo, the dictator who ruled the Dominican Republic for thirty-one brutal years. This political thriller not only describes what happened, but by getting inside the head of Trujillo and his assassins, we start to understand his motives and how an authoritarian leader can maintain control by psychological manipulation as much as by force.

Not only did Trujillo imprison, torture, and frequently murder any Dominican who opposed him, he was also responsible for the Parsley Massacre of 1937 that killed around 20,000 Haitian residents, including women and children. Trujillo escaped global condemnation by being the leader of the only country to welcome extra Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany (the subject of my work-in-progress). 

It's one thing to abuse your enemies, but Trujillo was also cruel to his most loyal supporters, the Trujillistas. In return for prestige and wealth, he destroyed their integrity and dignity. He even slept with their wives and daughters. People tolerated his abuse in return for the economic prosperity and political autonomy that brought their country out of a near colonial relationship with the USA. All this is true.

Vargas Llosa's novel is told in three alternating points of view; only the first one is fictional. Urania, the daughter of a loyal minister, has returned to the island 35 years after Trujillo's death to confront the ghosts of her traumatic past. She's a 49-year-old successful lawyer who lives alone by choice in New York City. Vargas Llosa occasionally interrupts her third person limited point-of-view narration with a second person voice (you/tú) to balances her accusatory perspective, like a conflicted conscience. This shift in voice and sophisticated vocabulary made the book too difficult for me to read in the original Spanish so I switched to the excellent translation by Edith Grossman. 

The second point-of-view is Trujillo on the final day of his life, reflecting back on his past glories and challenges. Vargas Llosa is at his best getting inside this Machiavellian mind. Trujillo is not interested in acquiring wealth beyond using it to maintain power to achieve his goals. He has a love-hate relationship with the USA: he credits being the strong leader he is to his training as a US Marine but would fight to the death should the Americans try to re-occupy his country. He wants to purge Haitians from the Dominican gene pool, and yet his grandmother was part Haitian, and he is attracted to mulata women. As an antagonist, Trujillo is multidimensional and well-developed, a most intriguing villain.

The final point of view is a chorus of assassins, all of them real people with mostly true backstories. These loyal supporters one-by-one turned on Trujillo. They are willing to sacrifice everything to regain their freedom. As they wait in a car to ambush Trujillo, they recall their past trajectories. Every assassin has a uniquely horrific story, and by sharing it, we learn about the history of the regime and the personal nature of Trujillo's control. El chivo/the goat was the popular nickname for their evil leader.

"Trujillo had also killed with a method that was slower and more perverse than when he had his prey shot, beaten to death, or fed to the sharks. He had killed him in stages, taking away his decency, his honor, his self-respect, his joy in living, his hopes and desires, turning him into a sack of bones tormented by the guilty conscience that had been destroying him gradually for so many years." (p90)

"...Trujillo había matado también, de manera más demorada y perversa que a los que liquidó a tiros, golpes o echándolos a los tiburones. A él lo mató por partes, quitándole la decencia, el honor, el respeto por sí mismo, la alegría de vivir, las esperanzas, los deseos, dejándolo convertido en un pellejo y unos huesos atormentados por esa mala conciencia que lo destruía a poquitos desde hacía tantos años." (p124, es más lírico en español.) 

Read The Feast of the Goat to understand the danger of authoritarianism, a lesson all Americans need to learn right now. We cannot take democracy for granted. Also, this historical novel is fun to read, more like a political thriller than a textbook, but as full of facts. The author brings Trujillo back to life before killing him and destroying his legacy. I'd strongly recommend this book to everyone. I really want to see the film adaptation with Isabella Rossellini playing Urania!

Bruny Rivera, gracias por recomendarme leer esta novela maravillosa.

Greetings from snowy Maine!

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

To get inspiration for my work-in-progress about Jewish refugees in the Dominican Republic during World War II, I've been binge-reading historical novels. Last year, I was blissfully browsing in a New York bookstore, when I got in a conversation with a woman whose favorite genre was historical fiction. She recommended We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter, a novel based on a true story about a Jewish family's escape from Nazi occupied Poland. The author's grandfather was the luckiest one. His harrowing journey to Brazil and the opportunities he found there reminded me of my great grandfather's mission to help bring Jewish refugees to the Dominican Republic. 

The scope of We Were the Lucky Ones was surprisingly broad given the focus on one family. The five siblings and their parents in Poland scattered to Vichy France, Siberia, West Africa, Italy and Brazil. A family tree and chapters labeled by character, date, and location helps the reader keep track of the sprawling narrative. The Kurk family experienced a wide range of possible outcomes and witnessed a multitude of atrocities. 

As a Jew, I would have found We Were the Lucky Ones hard to read without the promise that at least this family would survive. Even so, the mostly true story is an emotionally charged page-turner. My only criticism is that I wish there had been more chapters about Addy in Brazil since his story provides much needed light. However, debut author Georgia Hunter does a great job of humanizing history without minimizing tragedy and still manages to leave the reader with hope. 

A long year ago, I wondered if I'd be up to the task of portraying a world-wide tragedy that would change the course of history, and now at the end of 2020, I can imagine that darkness. Nazi Germany and the Holocaust were far worse than our pandemic, but I can relate to the constant stress of a global catastrophe coupled to shocking attacks on democracy and scapegoating of the most vulnerable. Worse than any virus is the epidemic of fear, prejudice, and xenophobia. 

There is no vaccine for hate, but we can learn how to avoid the mistakes of our past by studying history. Also a scientific study has shown that reading literary fiction increases empathy. On top of that, novels allow us to escape the confinement of our homes and to meet new people without any risk. This year my family won't be gathering in person, and we will be giving books as gifts.

My to-be-read stack of historical fiction: The Feast of the Goat (La fiesta del chivo) by Mario Vargas Llosa, Suite Française by Irene Némirovsky, Small Island by Andrea Levy, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, and the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante.

Do you have any other mid 20th century historical novels to recommend to me?

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Writers & Lovers by Lily King

Lily King's recipe for Writers & Lovers will entice all readersstart with raw, confessional honesty, add a passion for gourmet food, spice with good and bad sex, mix well with poor judgement, and finally roast all the characters at high heat. If you're looking for a fun escape from these dystopian times, here's your time machine to 1990's Harvard Square. 

A couple of years past thirty, Casey Peabody lives in a dingy room above a garage, working double shifts as a waitress to afford a few early hours to focus exclusively on her literary novel. Unpaid student loans and credit card bills are tossed directly into the garbage. She bikes to work, past squawking geese on the Charles River, her tears mixing with the incessant rain. Casey is mourning her mother's recent death, failed love affairs, and a traumatic childhood. She writes both to escape and to find herself. Her true name isn't even Casey.

"You don't realize how much effort you've put into covering things up until you try to dig them out."

I recommend reading Writers & Lovers slowly to savor the perfect sentences. This a writer's book, expertly crafted but still easy to read. The writing never distracts from the story-telling nor slows the pace. Humorous interludes, passionate moments, and sumptuous descriptions of food brighten the shadows of the backstory. The characters are equally enticing as flawed. It feels so real and familiar. This marvelous book captures, more than any other I've ever read, the hardships and rewards of the writer's life and gives me hope to keep working on my own novel. 

Writers Disclosure: I have a personal connection to Writers & Lovers. After moving from Cambridge, Massachusetts to coastal Maine, I met Lily at the school our children attended. She looked so familiar, but I couldn't place her until reading her latest book. My husband and I had celebrated anniversaries, special birthdays, and graduate school degrees in the gorgeous rooftop garden of the old Upstairs at the Pudding in Harvard Square. Lily had been the perfect waitress, remembering everything without writing it down...until now. Brava, Lily!

My author interview and review of Euphoria (Lily King's previous novel).

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Sigh, Gone by Phuc Tran

In 1975 Phuc Tran was only a toddler when his family fled the chaos of Saigon for rural Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Although nearly all of the residents were white, Phuc refused to be defined by his ethnicity. Instead, he reinvented himself with the help of punk rock, skateboard tricks, and classic literature. His debut memoir, Sigh, Gone captures both the despair and exhilaration of being a misfit American teenager. 

Phuc struggled growing up with parents who could barely speak English and with neighbors who couldn't pronounce his name or see beyond the Vietnam War. Although driven by love, his father's demand for academic perfection frequently crossed the line into physical abuse. Searching for a sense of belonging, Phuc found a chosen family of skateboarding punks, who shared his passion for iconoclastic music and reckless pranks. They accepted him as he was and offered him the loyalty he deserved.

While working at the public library, Phuc found salvation in literary heroes. Reading through an obscure list of great books by dead white men, Phuc aimed to master them all to win a scholarship to a New York university. Every chapter of his memoir is labeled after a great book, and their themes reverberate in his tumultuous life. His confessional story will make you laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time. 

Phuc Tran and his advisees at the Waynflete School
©Sarah Laurence

My family had been waiting eagerly for Phuc's memoir, and Sigh, Gone lived up to our high expectations. My daughter was lucky enough to have Phuc as her advisor in high school, where he taught Classics. Weekly "Awkward Lunch with Phuc" helped Gemma and many others survive those stressful but formative years. Phuc always put his students first and offered them the emotional support he wished he'd had in high school. 

I would highly recommend Sigh, Gone to anyone mature enough for uncensored teenaged boyhood. Although written for adults, I'm certain teens would enjoy its brutal honesty and ironic humor as well. If you want a preview, watch Phuc's Tedx talk, "Grammar, Identity, and the Dark Side of the Subjunctive." 

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Staycation reading: Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

I usually try to match my vacation reading to the destination so being stuck at home this year was well timed. Twelve years ago, I'd devoured Olive Kitteridge by my part-time neighbor, Elizabeth Strout. Her eponymous protagonist was deeply flawed: judgemental, abrasive, and brutally honest. Olive was prejudiced toward rich and attractive urbanites and quick to blame the Jews, but she was also willing to put hate aside to help anyone in need and felt remorse for her mistakes. Olive was deliciously human and larger than life. How often is a retired middle school teacher the protagonist of a Pulitzer Prize winning novel?

Nine years ago at a small event for library volunteers, Liz Strout mentioned a few more Olive stories, a tenacious character who continued to haunt her as much as her fans. Olive, Again was finally published last fall, but I didn't want to read about home while traveling in Latin America. Due to the pandemic, we decided to rent a house on the water this summer, only ten miles from home. My son and his girlfriend joined us from Boston after Covid tests. Midcoast Maine was the perfect spot to read these stories, and made me appreciate our quaint hometown all the more. Crosby is a fictionalized blend of Brunswick and Harpswell. I know the bookshop keeper, have dined at the Dolphin, and often drive out to the point. 

Olive, Again brought me home to my staycation. Like its predecessor, the stories featuring Olive as the central character are stronger than the ones in which she only plays a cameo. They link together to form a chronological novel. Of the thirteen stories, only three were disappointing: "The Walk" was as trite as a Hallmark greeting card, and "The End of the Civil War Days" as edgy as an elderly relative cracking a sexually explicit joke. "Exiles" was a follow up to The Burgess Boys, not my favorite of her novels. However, the other ten stories were stunning: original, emotionally resonant, and perfectly crafted. "Arrested" picks up where Olive Kitteridge left off: what happened between Olive and Republican Jack? "Labor" is classic Olive with childbirth disasters. "Light" might be the best story I've ever read about supporting a loved one with terminal illness. "Friend" connects Olive to a character from an earlier novel and gives us a satisfying ending.

When I finished Olive, Again, I was so bereft that I immediately reread the last story in Olive Kitteridge, which my daughter had just finished herself. It was a joy to share Olive with my daughter, to sit side by side, reading on the deck, overlooking the mudflats. We may not be able to visit friends and extended family, but I'm grateful to have had this time close to home with my husband, our children, a dog, and dear old Olive. 

See you at low tide! 

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@Barrie Summy