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dosgatosazules has commented on (5) products.

The Ruins: A Novel by Scott Smith
The Ruins: A Novel

dosgatosazules, October 6, 2006

(I would encourage the webmaster to "black out" any references to "v****s" in the reviews printed here -- they contain somewhat of a plot spoiler. )

That said, I'll add my thoughts about this movie, book, briefly:

-- It gets a 4 in terms of how fast and completely it sucked me in. I read it in one mesmerized sitting, barely moving to put on a sweater and turn up the lights as the day grew later and colder. Be warned -- don't buy this book without a good chunk of time to read it in.

-- However, it gets barely a 3 in terms of actual story value. Those reviewers, here and elsewhere, that denigrate the story's main antagonist, (I'll say no more about it) as being too far-fetched are missing the point: you have to suspend disbelief here. We're willing to believe in ghosts to read The Shining or Hamlet -- so let's believe what Smith has brought onto the page for his naive Americans to deal with. However, even within the scenario, there are plot holes and twists of logic that I wish a good editor had pointed out. And there are options that, if Smith had had the character take, would have elevated this from a gripping-but-ordinary thriller into a tale with some moral dilemmas and questions posed. Again, I can't say what those options might have been without giving away the plot.
On another note, I got a little tired of the way that the jungle (and the people who live in it) are once again used as a mysterious Other for vacationing white Americans -- in 2006, to repeat that framework without a hint of irony or questioning it at all, and then to paint the native people as nameless, faceless, and incomprehensible ... it's kind of creepy.

(Oh, and to the reviewer who wanted to know why the characters didn't read the journals: if you'd paid attention, you would have seen that the journals were written in languages none of them spoke.)

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Beloved by Toni Morrison

dosgatosazules, September 5, 2006

There is no way I could praise this book highly enough, nor stress how I wish I could make everyone read this novel. I'll give away as little as possible of the plot: Sethe is an escaped slave, living in Cincinnatti, Ohio, with the only child left not chased off by the ghost of her baby daughter. (You learn this in the first few pages.) The ghost is angry, and through the course of the novel you learn why, as you learn the circumstances of the baby's death and the reason why Sethe and her only remaining child choose to stay in the house and learn to coexist. They live in a certain purgatory: no friends or visitors, for layers of reasons you will learn, no lovers or husbands either, and no one's company but their own. Then, eighteen years after Sethe ran away from slavery, up onto the porch walks Paul D, another of the slaves on that same Kentucky farm. His arrival stirs up the past, opens up Sethe's secrets while it gets her thinking about the risk of loving again, and opens the door to something even more dangerous. Not a few days after he shows up, another visitor comes to the house: a woman with skin smooth as a baby's, brand-new shoes she does not know how to tie, a voice with a cadence "just outside music", and a name very familiar to Sethe: Beloved. The name on her baby's gravestone.

And yet to describe the plot is to tell you very little at all about why everyone should read this breathtaking book. This novel is about memory, loss, the risk it takes to love your children when they may be sold out from under you, the fight to preserve something like humanity when you are legally considered less than a human being. The terrible choices you have to make, and then live with, when you do allow yourself to love anyone under these conditions. And what it means to try to make a life when every day starts with, as Sethe calls it, "the work of beating back the past."

Read it for the amazing, singular cadence and voice of the narration alone: look at even the very first lines. "124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom." Or this, from the first chapter: "... suddenly there was Sweet Home rolling, rolling, rolling out before her eyes, and although there was not a leaf on that farm that did not make her want to scream, it rolled itself out before her in shameless beauty. It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. Fire and brimstone all right, but hidden in lacy groves."

And for imagery you can't forget: a slave who stops speaking English because "there was no future in it." A pool of red light cast by the baby ghost. A back so scarred over with whip scars it resembles a tree. A man so horrified by what he secretly observes in a barn loft that he slips out of reality altogether, his journey sealed by the butter he smears on his face, over and over.

Yes, this novel is about heartbreaking pain and the mystery of why some endure while others break. But for all that, it never stops being beautiful, and there is hope too, hidden in these pages, and the ghost of a chance that its characters might find love, and some semblance of peace, and a way to live with the past.

This book can be difficult, both for its subject matter and its narration: it is not told in linear fashion, but unfolds the way memory does: it comes out in pieces and incomplete, and you have to piece it together. But it's worth the effort, ten times over. This book made an indelible impression on me over 12 years ago, and hasn't stopped since. Read it, read it, read it ... and then go back and read it again.

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Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx
Close Range: Wyoming Stories

dosgatosazules, September 1, 2006

Most people will buy this book for "Brokeback Mountain", its final story. For that story alone, this book is worth its price; the writing is spare and epic and beautiful. Proulx has achieved something rare among the writers I have encountered (other than maybe Toni Morrison or Cormac McCarthy): a distinctive cadence. Her tone, the imagery, and the actual rythym of the words themselves are unique to her and match perfectly the setting and characters.

The book has several standouts; in addition to "Brokeback Mountain", "Job History" is another gem about the life of a Wyoming farmer and his wife, told in journalistic snippets of their catastrophes. My only quarrel might be that I found no story to equal Brokeback Mountain (I realize "The Half-Skinned Steer" has also been showered with praise, but I couldn't get into it after several tries) but they're all unique and possessed of Proulx's singular voice.
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Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy
Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West

dosgatosazules, September 1, 2006

I really, really wanted to finish this book ...

... but I couldn't.

As a lover of literature, I consider myself a pretty patient -- even stubborn -- reader. I don't give up easily on books, even when I have decided it's not the book I thought it was, or even if I've determined the writing isn't very good or the plot uninteresting. I've slogged through 700- and 900-page novels before out of sheer determination, even if halfway through I knew it probably wouldn't be worth it, and never once skipped to the end to get the "payoff". I have a great deal of respect for the journey the author wants us to take, and choose to trust the author for the one or two or even twelve hours I am spending with their creation.

I say all that to say that Blood Meridian, not even 400 pages, beat me. There's a lot that's good about it: McCarthy has a unique and very compelling style (something that's all too rare in today's literature) and his imagery is stark and memorable: I still remember the incredibly written scene where the Indian tribe roars into view, shouting terrible war cries and decorated with war paint and bones and in all other ways appearing so ferocious they strike fear into the heart of their supposed conquerors.

And yet after about 20 or 30 pages in, it became a chore to get through each page. I had to make myself read a few pages at a time and then let myself have a break. Finally, I gave up at about the 100-page mark, trying several times to make myself pick it back up, and failing.

I don't know if it was the run-on style of writing that forced me to pay close attention to every word: it meant that I could never catch the novel's rhythm and escape into the world the author had created. (Imagine trying to enjoy a song that stops and starts every 10 seconds, and you'll get some of what I mean.)
It might have been the relentless violence: I'm not squeamish, but there was no relief, no redemption, barely a pause. If the characters went to a town, I knew better than to hope there'd be a moment of peace or even a moment of reflection -- on their part on on the part of the reader -- but more likely they'd start a fight and slaughter the townspeople instead. I began to dread each page.

It might have been the fact that there was not one character to root for in the novel. I'm not saying novels have to contain at least one "positive" or "good" character -- it's one of the skills of a great writer to make a character sympathetic even if the reader neither likes nor agrees with that character. But I couldn't feel any of that for a single character -- all I felt was revulsion.

But I think it was actually the combination of all of those things that finally beat me -- I realized that, if I kept reading, I was in for more than 250 pages more of relentless violence and horror; I realized there'd be no character who changed or transformed, and that nobody I could identify with was going to come onto the scene. So I began to ask myself what was the tradeoff for suffering through so much more of it.
From what I could glean of the book's message, it was this: the border at that time was a dehumanizing, monstrous place that produced soulless, amoral humans capable of unthinkable destruction. And I could see that McCarthy was portraying all "sides" -- the Indians, the Mexicans, and the Americans-- as equally guilty. For the first part of the message, I don't know why it would be necessary to take hundreds of pages to simply repeat, over and over and over, the events and horror that McCarthy wants to use to make such a point. A well-written 40-page short story would have done just fine. And as for the second part -- that all the parties were the same -- I just can't agree. Were the Apaches, who were resisting the theft of their land by both the U.S. (and before that, by Mexico), on an equal par with those stealing their land? All sides committed bloody, vicious acts, but to portray things as if they were all equally wrong is to be untruthful. And I don't remember who I'm quoting with this, but: "Fiction tells lies to tell the truth." Everyone knows that fiction is not "true" in one sense: they know the characters and events didn't actually exist, they know there's no Captain Ahab or Iago or Kid in real life. But fiction is, ultimately, saying something about the world, through all the elements of its story, and I feel that nobody should use the power of their pen to tell what in actuality amounts to lies -- not the "lies" of the fiction they create, but an actual lie that comes through in what they are ultimately saying about their subject or the world at large. Would anyone want to read, for example, a novel that argued that the horrific rubber trade in the Congo (where the colonists chopped off the hands of those that didn't bring in enough rubber) was good for the native peoples? Or a novel that ultimately argued that there is no global warming, no environmental problem, and that actually the earth is doing just fine and dandy?
I admire the author's style, and even further admire his setting out to depict the border and the wars of conquest in a way that does not romanticize or even identify with the conquerors, as so much fiction set at that time and place do. And furthermore, I can appreciate that so much of what made the book hard to read -- the run-on style, the spare brutality of its prose, the amoral and vicious characters, the endless violence and sense of dirt and filth that the reader can almost taste -- are part of the world the author is depicting. But I just couldn't see putting myself through so many more pages of one of the more horrifying books I'd ever read, for a message I had already grasped 30 pages into it. Maybe there was more I would have gotten out of it if I'd stuck with it -- and maybe one of these days I'll make myself try again.
Hopefully my own story will help you decide for yourself if this book is worth it -- but know what you're getting into.
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Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx

dosgatosazules, August 29, 2006

This is a gripping, heartbreaking book, written so creatively that every once in a while I would glance at the cover to remind myself this was non-fiction.

The central characters of this tale are children. Old before their time and given little chance to be children, but children all the same -- teenagers when we first meet them. The young women and their children contend with everything that comes down on young, poor, Puerto Rican women in this society: child abuse, drugs, jail, police brutality, bearing children when they are still children themselves, parental abuse and neglect, and a poverty that would wear down even the strongest of souls.

One fascinating thing I found when reading this was the way in which the oppression of these young women is a terrible mix of modern, American-style commodification, where women are treated as sex objects, and some women give up sex for shiny new sneakers so they won't look poor -- along with feudal-style type of oppression. Meaning that it's common for one boy to have a main "wife", and a string of secondary girlfriends, kind of like the old Chinese or Biblical model of main wife + concubines. Having a son can bump you up to the status of main wife; LeBlanc reports on one character this way: "One month later, [name omitted to prevent spoilers] gave [more name omitted] his first son. Her position as his wife was secure."

The choices these children are forced to make -- leaving their own children with questionable people, staying in bad relationships because there is no other way to manage motherhood alone -- can and do have terrible impacts on the people you meet in this book. This book will show you, in ways you likely have not read anywhere else, how the decisions these children make, however self-destructive or short-sighted or desparate they can be, are responses to a situation they did not create and and prevented from fundamentally changing. And a world in which they are trapped; just like in feudal villages, where it was common for serfs to spend their whole lives in a three-or-four mile radius, most of these people rarely leave the few square blocks of their neighborhood -- except when they are taken to or are visiting jail.

If you have ever seen young single mothers struggling to survive on minimum wage or welfare and asked yourself, "How do they manage?", this book will tell you -- and it will tell you what price they, and their loved ones, really have to pay.

My one quarrel with this book -- and this is not a spoiler -- is that the author rarely reports on what the characters think of the larger world. What do they think of why society got to be the way it is? Do they dream of changing it? How do they see the choices they are forced to make? The author gets to know her subjects very intimately and goes to greath lengths to report their actions, good and bad and ugly, objectively. But her view of them is somewhat limited by this omission.

Overall, however, this is a fascinating read.
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