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“Son de Almendra,” 2005. “Dancing to Almendra,” (Translation, 2007)

By Mayra Montero

Also by Montero: “The Red of His Shadow,” “Captain of the Sleepers,” “The Last Night I Spent With You.”

Mayra Montero’s “Dancing to Almendra,” goes back to a time in Cuba’s history that is infrequently mentioned in today’s discussions of the island. Before Fidel Castro, Havana was a freewheeling den of casinos, brothels and organized American criminal activity.

The first half of the novel begs a comparison to Hunter S. Thomspon’s “The Rum Diaries,” set in San Juan. In both novels, a young reporter finds himself in a glittering Caribbean world of gambling and pleasure seeking. Then, the same intrepid reporter sticks his nose in the business of the underworld, a dangerous crowd that resents the intrusion.

Montero did extensive research into the factual incident that drives her novel: the murder of Mafia capo Umberto Anastasia. Montero is Cuban born and a newspaper reporter herself in Puerto Rico. Her prose conveys a continual malaise; the reader gets the sense that all is not as it should be in Havana, and many of the characters are indeed living double lives on the eve of the revolution. The bright lights of the casinos hide the Mob’s plotting in plain site; the seemingly innocent Havana zoo is actually a place where grotesque murders are covered up; acrobats and circus folk are players in the crime scene.

The plot is punctuated with the playing of “Almendra,” the danzón that gives the book its title and lends a moving drama to the action-packed prose.

Readers looking for a literary crime mystery — not an oxymoron in this case — will appreciate this critically acclaimed “Godfather” with a mambo twist.

— Caroline Stauffer

“Eva Luna,” 1988

By Isabel Allende

Also by Allende: “House of the Spirits,” 1982 “City of the Beasts,” 2002, “The Stories of Eva Luna,” 2002.

Fans of Isabel Allende will want to pick up the prolific Chilena’s tell-all memoir “The Sum of Our Days,” released in North America on April 1 and already a best seller in Spanish. The book is a sequel to 1995’s “Paula,” in which Allende explores the tragic experience of losing her daughter. “The Sum of All Days” is an autobiographical continuation, providing key insight into the everyday lives of Allende and her friends and relatives, who have provided inspiration for many of her novels.

Yet I recommend that those not already familiar with Allende’s magical stories begin with one of the author’s classical works of Latin American fiction: “Eva Luna.”

Any novel with a preface referencing Scheherazade, the legendary Persian woman who eluded murder by telling stories for 1,001 straight nights, must have a gripping tale to tell, and Allende’s story is up to the task. Her heroine, Eva Luna, narrates a fantastic set of tales that, not unlike Scheherazade, lead her to a personal salvation.

Eva Luna is born into poverty and orphaned at age 6. She struggles as a servant and is cast out on the streets before an improbable series of events change her fortune. The characters Eva meets throughout her elaborate journey are wonderfully original. Eva’s confidants include a Lebanese emigrant, a Turkish businessman with a cleft palate, and a beautiful transsexual entertainer named Mimi.

Dictatorships and revolutions provide a temporal framework for Eva’s story--this is a Latin American novel after all. Although the novel does not name its physical setting, it is widely thought that Allende had Venezuela in mind while writing. The later parts of the novel address politics head on when Eva and her lover follow guerilla military groups to the mountains.

In the tradition of Gabriel García Márquez (“Love in the Time of Cholera”), Allende dabbles in magical realism, employing outlandish metaphors and flaunting reason in her prose. Eva Luna is in fact conceived when her mother makes love to a dying man, and miraculously revives him in the process. The novel’s fantastic elements, however, ensure that “Eva Luna” is an engaging and original read rather than just another rags-to-riches romance.

If you enjoy this novel, Allende’s 2001 collection of stand-alone short stories entitled “The Stories of Eva Luna” allows Eva to return as narrator of many more enchanting tales.

 

— Caroline Stauffer

“Brother, I’m Dying”

By Edwidge Danticat

Also by Danticat: “Breath, Eyes, Memory,” 1994 “The Farming of the Bones,” 1998 “The Dew Breaker,” 2004.

Edwidge Danticat’s previous work incorporates tales from her native Haiti. She delves into material that is even more personal in her most recent novel. The reader of “Brother, I’m Dying,” becomes a member of Danticat’s family as it faces the complexities familiar to those with relatives split between two countries and cultures. Danticat’s father left Haiti for New York when she was 8 years old, leaving Edwidge and her brother with her Uncle Joseph, a Pastor in Port-au-Prince’s Bel Air community. When her immediate family arranged for her departure to the United States, Danticat truly felt as though she had two fathers. Uncle Joseph remained committed to his parish and his country, though he made several short trips to the United States to see doctors or to escape times of heightened violence in Port-au-Prince.

“Brother, I’m Dying,” carries the sadness suggested in the title, but Danticat also tells her uncle’s story with unbridled anger. She abhors that her father and uncle, so close in age and temper, ultimately spent so little time together. Haitian politics infuriate Danticat, and she implies that the United States and the United Nations have often only worsened the situation for Haitians. She resents the way Cubans are welcomed with open arms in Miami, while Haitians are looked upon with suspicion. Mostly Danticat fails to comprehend the inhumane treatment of her 81-year-old uncle in Miami’s Custom and Border Protection checkpoints and in Krome detention center.

Only one symbolic circumstance offers a glimmer of hope to the heart-wrenching tale. Edwidge is pregnant, and her father is able to hold her daughter in the novel’s conclusion.

 

— Caroline Stauffer

"Travesuras de la Niña Mala" 2006
 
"The Bad Girl: a Novel" English Translation, 2007
By Mario Vargas Llosa
Also by Vargas Llosa: "The Green House," 1966, "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter," 1982, "The Feast of the Goat," 2002

This heart-wrenching love story from Peru's best-known author follows Lima native Ricardo Somocurcio as he achieves his only ambition in life: to live in Paris. Ricardo is hardworking and likeable. A loner by nature, a chance encounter with his childhood love interest throws his steady existence working as a translator into turmoil. The uproar brought by the "niña mala" continues throughout the 45 years and four continents the novel spans. Living up to her title nickname, "la niña mala" is cold, calculating and nearly impossible to like. While Ricardo's flair for languages allows him to alter between five different tongues with ease, the niña mala is equally adept at changing her personality, nationality and love interests to best enhance her social stature. Her repeated travesuras throughout the 375-page narrative grow tedious; although Vargas Llosa's masterful prose is engaging.

Vargas Llosa is a frequent mention for the Nobel Prize for Literature, though he has not yet won. A novelist, a literary critic, a playwright, a journalist and a former presidential candidate in Peru, the author accordingly lets his globe-trotting characters in "Travesuras" step into the political and cultural movements in the many countries they visit. Vargas Llosa fits in commentary on the Cuban revolution, the rise and fall of swinging London, Tokyo's red light district, and Peru's economic collapse in the 1980s. Non-detail oriented readers may lose interest in the historical and geographical references, but the commentary and changing settings fill out the narrative that is otherwise exclusively devoted to the amorous misadventures of the two main characters.

— Caroline Stauffer

"Once Upon a Quinceañera" 2007
By Julia Alvarez
Also by Alvarez: "How the García Girls Lost their Accents," 1991, "In the Time of the Butterflies," 1994 "Saving the World," 2006

Alvarez's debut nonfiction work leaves no aspect of the Latina
15th birthday tradition untouched, though the author personally remains conflicted about quinceañeras. Alvarez bemoans the enormous cost of the lavish celebrations and wishes working-class families would invest in college funds rather than DJs and hummer limos. As a feminist, she also questions the relevancy of a ceremony traditionally meant to announce a 15-year-old girl's readiness for marriage and wonders if it is right to offer princess dresses and fairytale celebrations in an age in which statistically no prince charming awaits and the tale may not end happily ever after. Yet Alvarez, who has no children herself, also swells with a sort of maternal pride for the Latina girls who come of age before her eyes at the various quinceañeras she attends, and she finds hope in their accomplishments, talents and ambitions.
Alvarez's many interviews provide fascinating insight, if they do ultimately raise more questions than they answer. Maria," a Dominican cake baker in Queens scoffs at the idea of having had a quinceañera herself in the rural Dominican Republic, though she makes a living off of baking for the events in today's New York City. At a wealthy girl's quincieñera in Santo Domingo, Alvarez joins a group of aunts and godmothers marveling at the changes in the tradition while huddling in the back of a pulsing discoteca. Scantily clad teenagers dance to hip hop and anxiously await a reggaeton performance to top off a night in which no father-daughter first dance occurred, no last doll was presented, and no flat shoes were exchanged for high heels. Back in the United States, Alvarez is also wary of the "blown up Disney quinceañera," a materialistic spectacle influenced by American consumer culture and MTV's my "Super Sweet 16".
That is not to say that Alvarez thinks the quinceañera should go unchanged; that it should evolve is in fact her sole conclusion. She fears, however, that the current evolutions are not building a ritual with the girls' best interests in mind. In discussing next-generation Latinas, Alvarez's narrative reveals her own lonely struggle to balance two cultures and two homelands as a Dominican teenager in 1960s New York. Alvarez is convinced that Latinas now more than ever need what her own childhood lacked: guidance in navigating the tricky path of growing up Latina in today's complex world. She is unsure of whether quinceañera celebrations can help provide this support, but Alvarez shares some of the optimism about the tradition that is so abundant in the young quinceañeras she interviews.

— Caroline Stauffer

"The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" 2007
By Junot Diaz

Also by Diaz: "Drown" 1996 (short story collection)

Dominican-American author Junot Diaz casts a super-nerd as the title character in "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," the long awaited follow-up to his acclaimed short story collection "Drown."

Oscar, the afro-sporting "gordo asceroso," provides the perfect foil to the book's representation of Dominican macho culture. He isn't exactly embraced by anyone at the American Rutgers University either.

This debut novel in fact presents much more than Oscar's pitiful life story. It also transcends the accounts of his mother, sister and Yunior, Oscar's only friend. Diaz integrates his native country's lengthy history with its modern political reality while delving into the American immigrant experience he himself underwent in New Jersey. All of this is under the foreboding auspices of the fukú, the curse that was supposedly unleashed on Hispaniola 450 years ago and has plagued Oscar's family for generations.

Diaz unapologetically peppers his narrative with Dominicanisms, offering readers no explanation when his fulanos speak of their pana, eat chicharron or dique mock pariguayos. He also crafts dialogue in American street-speak for the chapters set in Paterson, New Jersey and Washington Heights, Manhattan.

Diaz is in fact known for blatantly ignoring traditional grammar, preferring to use what he calls the language of the ghetto in its profanity-laden and dialogue-infused glory. Yet he is hailed by establishment publications including The New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. Diaz, an associate professor at MIT, is considered to be an essential voice in modern world literature as one of surprisingly few authors creating a genre of immigrant fiction.

Critics have mostly called the novel a comedy, but I'm not sure "Oscar Wao" quite fits this bill. Diaz's edgy attitude and quick wit do incite some chuckles, but the characters, exaggerated as they may be, are facing issues that are too real to laugh away.

Diaz ultimately leaves it up to the reader to decide whether the family's fortune is actually controlled by the fukú, or if the source of this comedy of errors can be otherwise identified among the themes of racism, fallout from dictatorship, loneliness or the quest for identity.

— Caroline Stauffer