Kathleen Bennett, one of the owners of Allende Books, writes a monthly book review for The Baja Citizen, a local bi-weekly English-language newspaper.  Below are reviews from her column, The Bookstore Kat.

One Hundred Years of Solitude
Oryx and Crake
A Perfect Red
Read in Spanish
José Saramago

Book Review Archives

La Cuidad de las BestiasThe Bookstore Kat
from The Baja Citizen, August 9, 2010

Read Books in Spanish

A while ago, The Baja Citizen ran an op-ed piece stating that if you live here in Mexico, you should make an effort to learn Spanish.  I agree wholeheartedly.  My husband and I have many Mexican friends, and, with one exception, I make it a rule to speak to all of them in Spanish.  (It wouldn't be a rule without an exception, right?)  Although I do speak Spanish well enough to have a conversation about art, or literature, or politics, I will be the first to admit that I still make a ton of mistakes.  However, mistakes or not, lack of vocabulary or not, I usually manage to get my point across.  Or, at least, my Mexican friends are gracious enough to pretend I do.

While I agree that if you live in Mexico, you should make an effort to learn Spanish, I also understand what a difficult process that is.  About five years ago, my husband and I spent the better part of a year exploring Mexico and Guatemala, traveling in our VW Golf and tent-camping.  We first came through La Paz in December of 2005, and stayed for a month to take intensive Spanish classes.  Part of the reason for our trip was to enjoy a different culture.  It's hard to enjoy a culture if you can't speak the language.  But even after four weeks of intensive classes, we still spoke Spanish like children – and not very bright children at that.

In addition to the intensive language courses, we also did a home-stay with a lovely Mexican family that has since become our surrogate family here in La Paz.  This gave us the best of both worlds: a structured school environment in which to learn Spanish, and an unstructured environment in which to practice what we had been learning.

There are two teenaged boys in the family; although when we first met them, they were both still pre-teens.  Despite the language barrier, the boys and I hit it off almost immediately.  All it took was for them to realize I had a totally killer video game on my laptop.  The love of smashing virtual skeletons to smithereens and hurling nasty virtual fire spells at unruly virtual zombies converted the three of us into fast friends.

While the two boys may have been my first real Mexican friends, I can't say that the vocabulary I learned from them has come in all that handy.  I can't remember the last time I had to say in Spanish, “Watch out for the dwarf!  He's got a mace!” or, “Hurry!  Kill the gargoyle!”  Nevertheless, just spending time with them helped me become more comfortable with the Spanish language.

That's the key, I think.  Becoming comfortable with the Spanish language.  I had a teacher who had two suggestions for getting comfortable with Spanish.  One was that everyone should have a glass of wine before trying to speak Spanish.  If you're like me, though, that glass of wine is more likely to lead to dancing on tables than to speaking flawless Spanish.  The other was that everyone who wants to learn Spanish should have a Mexican lover.  If you're single, maybe that's the way to go.  If you're married, you may want to do a cost/benefit analysis of learning Spanish versus really annoying your spouse.  (I'll leave it to the individual reader to decide which is the cost, and which the benefit.)

One thing that particular teacher didn't suggest, however, was reading books in Spanish.  Being a lifelong reader, once I started learning Spanish, I couldn't wait to start reading books in Spanish.  I have to admit that my first attempt was something of a struggle.  I was smart enough to start with a book for kids, but, alas, not one for little kids.  It was a book for young adults.  I could decipher the verb tenses, but the vocabulary and idiomatic expressions nearly killed me.  With the help of my trusty dictionary, however, I prevailed.  And I even enjoyed the story.  I remember coming across three different expressions on one page of that book, expressions that I had to look up in the dictionary.  They didn't seem like terribly common phrases to me, and I wondered if I would ever use them, or even hear them, in conversation.  Two nights later, out for drinks with friends, I heard all three of those expressions during the course of the evening.  All that work had paid off.

Since then, I read books in Spanish as often as I can.  I've moved up from books for kids to books for adults, and read enough now that sometimes I even forget I'm reading in Spanish.  Although I may not be consciously aware that I'm reading in Spanish, doing so subconsciously teaches me so much about the language: proper use of verb tenses, which prepositions are used in various idiomatic expressions, placement of adverbial phrases, etc.  These are things I could study and try to memorize rules for, but becoming familiar with them through reading, at least for me, sticks a lot better.

And, of course, I am still always learning vocabulary – although at this point the vocabulary is a little more esoteric.  Some of it is quite useful.  In the last book I read, I learned the word for host (anfitrión), and heard it in use less than a week later.  Some of it is less useful.  In the same book, I learned the words for top hat (chistera), bagpipes (gaita), platypus (ornitorrinco), and a heather-covered moor (brezal).  If any of my Mexican friends ever decides to have a conversation about a platypus wearing a top hat and playing the bagpipes on a heather-covered moor (and where else would a platypus be playing the bagpipes?), I'm all over that topic.

Tres CerditosIn keeping with my love of reading in Spanish and my belief that people should improve their Spanish skills, we have a number of Spanish-language and bilingual books here at Allende Books.  These range from fairy tales like The Three Little Pigs/Los tres cerditos and The Ugly Duckling/El patito feo, to La ciudad de las bestias (The City of the Beasts) by Isabel Allende and La historia interminable (The Neverending Story) by Michael Ende.  The first two are written for very young children, and the last two for young adults.  We also have a selection of books with a difficulty level between the two: including Scooby-Doo y el castillo hechizado (Scooby-Doo and the Haunted Castle); and, featuring everyone's favorite super-hero, Las aventuras del Capitán Calzoncillos (The Adventures of Captain Underpants).  If Scooby-Doo and Captain Underpants aren't exactly your style, we also have a bilingual collection of traditional Mexican folktales, as well as many other choices.

Do yourself a favor: discover the joy of reading in Spanish!  Stop by Allende Books and check out our selection of bilingual and Spanish-language books.

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A Perfect RedThe Bookstore Kat
from The Baja Citizen, June 14, 2010

A Perfect Red

by Amy Butler Greenfield

A few months ago, a friend of mine recommended a book to me – A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire by Amy Butler Greenfield.  From what she told me, the book was non-fiction about the historical search for the perfect red dye.  While I like wearing a sexy red dress as well as the next woman does, I can't say I've ever had much interest in the history of how the dress become red.  (The price is usually of much greater interest to me.)  But I respect the opinion of the friend who recommended the book.  She's never steered me wrong with one of her recommendations, so I decided to give A Perfect Red a try.

Before I started reading, I feared that I would have no interest in the topic and would find the book unutterably boring.  Despite my misgivings, I was intrigued from the first paragraph of the prologue.  The author starts by pointing out the significance that the color red has always held for people.  She notes that “We roll out the red carpet, catch crooks red-handed, and dread getting caught in red tape.  We stop at red lights, ignore red herrings, and celebrate red-letter days.  Depending on our political persuasions, we wave the red flag or fear the red in the bed.  When hot rage overpowers us, we say we see red.”  Huh.  I had never made the connection between all those phrases before.  Perhaps the history of the color red could be interesting after all.

Further along in the prologue, we discover that the quest for the perfect red dye lead to cochineal, found by the conquistadors in Mexico in 1519.  Cochineal “produced the brightest, strongest red the Old World had ever seen.”  Spain, having Mexico as a territory, also had a monopoly on cochineal – and took every advantage of that monopoly.  The Spanish empire amassed a fortune selling cochineal to dyers around the world.

So the history of the color red is about more than just a dye.  It's also about the history of Mexico.

The author begins the tale of the search for the perfect red by placing the quest into historical context: how cochineal was domesticated and cultivated by the Aztecs in the New World; what dyes were available in the Old World before the discovery by the conquistadors of cochineal; and why red fabrics were held in such high esteem by the Europeans of the era.  All of that is interesting, but it becomes truly fascinating when the conquistadors actually discover cochineal in the New World.

Initially, the conquistadors were searching mainly for gold.  While they did find cochineal, they are dismissive of it – despite their love of red clothing.  However, after cochineal's commercial value was recognized, attitudes changed.  The Spanish crown, finally realizing the value of the discovery, did everything in its power to monopolize the trade of cochineal powder.  This extended to the point of not just regulating trade, but to attempts to hide the exact nature of the powder, and to controlling visas to the New World in order to prevent spies from stealing cochineal itself.

These two pastimes – discovering the exact nature of cochineal and attempting to steal it – occupied Europeans for centuries.  Scientific treatises were written on whether cochineal was a plant or an animal (or a combination of the two), heated debate on the subject abounded, microscopes were invented and used to study the dried cochineal powder, and fortunes were won and lost wagering on the topic.  Expeditions to steal cochineal from the New World were financed and organized, adventurous men schemed, and espionage reached new heights.

And I thought the history of red dye would be boring.

This is a fascinating book, well-written and well-researched.  The story is not just interesting and informative, but also filled with delightful arcana and amusing tidbits.  The author takes a seemingly esoteric subject and brings it to the forefront of history.  She brings it alive for us and makes us actually want to know the history of red dye.

And as an added bonus, we get to learn a little bit more about Mexico.

The next time you're looking for a great non-fiction read, pick up A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire by Amy Butler Greenfield. You´ll be glad you did.

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Oryx and CrakeThe Bookstore Kat
from The Baja Citizen, April 19, 2010

Oryx and Crake

by Margaret Atwood

A few years ago, my husband and I were driving across the southern US through Tennessee.  As we breezed down the interstate, we tried to find something, anything, other than country music on the radio.  Because we happened to be passing a fairly metropolitan area, we lucked out and found the local Public Radio affiliate.  We caught it just in time for PRI (as in Public Radio International, not the Mexican political party).  They were having an interesting discussion on the future of biotechnology, bioengineering, and ethics.

In addition to several scientists and experts on ethics, they also interviewed two authors who had written novels touching the topic.  One was Kazuo Ishiguro, author of Remains of the Day.  In this instance, there were discussing his book Never Let Me Go, and the future it envisions as related to bioengineering and ethics.

It was a fascinating discussion, but what I really wanted to hear was the interview with the second author, Margaret Atwood.  I hadn't read the book they were going to discuss, Oryx and Crake, and was eager to hear about it.  I love Atwood's work.

Naturally, the radio station faded just after the commentator introduced Ms. Atwood.

I never did hear the interview with Ms. Atwood, and didn't read Oryx and Crake at the time.  Recently, however, I finally had the chance to get to it.

The story is told from the point of view of the self-named “Snowman.”  From the start, it is apparent that Snowman's world is not our world.  Something has happened to civilization as we recognize it – an apocalypse of some sort – leaving Snowman as the sole human alive.  He is not alone, however.  He has under his care a group of childlike people he refers to as the “Children of Crake.”  Exactly what has happened in the world, who the Children of Crake are, and who Crake is, is initially left unexplained.

From this enigmatic and tantalizing beginning, Atwood takes us back in time, back to before the apocalypse, when Snowman was still Jimmy and civilization still existed.

Calling Jimmy's pre-apocalyptic world “civilization,” however, is questionable.  It doesn't take the reader long to realize that Jimmy's world is more than a little Orwellian.  It is a world where mega-corporations dominate, a law unto themselves, and where the employees of these mega-corporations all live in “Compounds,” a world unto themselves.

The Corporations all seem to be involved in bioengineering – not just bioengineering, but genetic engineering gone mad.  Jimmy's father, for example, works for OrganInc Farms, a corporation which has engineered the “pigoon,” a transgenic pig host capable of growing multiple human-tissue organs for transplant.  While the pigoon may sound like a medical breakthrough, the lack of ethical thought that went into its creation (as is evident from the text) is chilling.

It is during that time, Jimmy's childhood, that we also first meet Crake; and later, Oryx.

As we bounce back and forth between Jimmy and Snowman in the pre- and post-apocalyptic worlds, Atwood cunningly gives us hints about both worlds, about the apocalypse, about the Children of Crake, about Oryx, and about Crake himself.  She doles these hints out a bit at a time, keeping us constantly fascinated with the worlds we are in, fascinated with the characters, absorbed and eager to uncover the story.

That in itself is delightful.  Equally delightful is Atwood's style.  One of the things I enjoy most about her novels is that she writes in so many different voices.  Her work is always good literature, eminently readable, and amazingly perceptive; but it isn't always the same.  At times her voice is quite serious, at others ironic, often funny, and occasionally almost whimsical.

She displays all these qualities in Oryx and Crake.  At times I laughed out loud at her wit, at others I was stopped dead by the veracity of a description of the human condition.  There are far too many great quotes from the book for me to include them all, but here is one line I particularly liked:

“The prospect of his future life stretched before him like a sentence; not a prison sentence, but a long-winded sentence with a lot of unnecessary subordinate clauses...”

Concise, eloquent, dryly humorous.  And often, sadly, true.

I had been wanting to read this book since I first heard about it on PRI years ago.  I'm glad I finally did.

Oryx and Crake is a well-written, thought-provoking novel.  The story, the worlds it is set in, and the characters are all utterly absorbing.  And this is all enhanced by Ms. Atwood's wit, sense of whimsy, and brilliant perceptions.  I highly recommend it.

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100 Years of SolitudeThe Bookstore Kat
from The Baja Citizen, March 22, 2010

One Hundred Years of Solitude

by Gabriel García Márquez

In my first semester of college, many years ago, I took a literature course entitled “Modern Classics.”  The teacher was a real firebrand – a confirmed hippie judging by his looks, and a card-carrying communist by his own proud admission – but he knew his subject matter.  We suffered though the expected titles: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf; The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.  But the professor included other works that, for that time, were less expected: Triton by Samuel R. Delany; The White Hotel by D. M. Thomas. And One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez.

This was several years before García Márquez won the Nobel Prize for literature.  He was relatively unknown outside of the Spanish-speaking world at that time, and I had never heard of One Hundred Years of Solitude, or of Gabriel García Márquez.  After Virginia Woolf and Thomas Mann, I wasn't quite sure what to expect.

When I couldn't avoid it anymore, I dutifully picked up the novel, started to read, and promptly fell in love.  I was captivated by the story, and entranced by the author's style.  I couldn't put the book down.  I neglected my other classwork, ignored my friends and family, and lost myself in García Márquez's world.

When I finished the book, however, I was appalled by the ending.  I couldn't believe it!  I thought it was the worst ending possible for such a remarkable book.  It's not like I was expecting “and they all lived happily ever after.”  But I certainly wasn't expecting... what did happen. I threw the book down in disgust, vowing to give the professor a piece of my mind when we discussed the novel in class the following month.

Over the next few weeks, however, I found myself thinking of that ending at the oddest moments – doing the dishes, paying bills, trying to study chemistry.  And slowly it dawned on me.  It truly was the best ending for the book.  Not just the best ending, but the perfect ending.  It was inspired.  It was brilliant.  There was no other way the story could have ended.  Fascinated by this insight, I dug the book out from under the stack of other texts and began to read it again, this time knowing what to expect.

It was even better the second time.

Over the years, I have read One Hundred Years of Solitude at least a dozen times.  There are other books I have read multiple times, but none as many as I have read García Márquez's masterpiece.  Each re-reading transports me to another world.  Each re-reading is a revelation, and a joy.

One Hundred Years of Solitude follows the Buendía family over the course of several generations.  It is not, however, just another multi-generational saga.  Several factors set it apart from your run-of-the-mill family saga.  One of these factors is the genre to which García Márquez's work belongs – magical realism.

In works of magical realism, fantastical things happen in an ordinary world.  These fantastical occurrences are accepted by the characters in the stories as simply part of the ordinary world.  For them, a ghost inhabiting the house or a daughter ascending to heaven while hanging the laundry are no more remarkable than a son getting married or a husband getting drunk.  These magical events abound in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

While the fantastical events that occur may not be startling to the people who inhabit the story, to us, the reader who lives in the mundane, un-magical world, they are a source of wonder.  How beautiful would the world be if there really were men who were always preceded by yellow butterflies; or if the success of a farmer's crops depended not on the vagaries of the weather, but on the physical love of the farmer and his wife?

Scholars, including my old firebrand professor, will tell you that the fantastical events are external manifestation of the character's internal states; that the fantastical events are steeped in symbolism, and that the symbolism of the events is as important as the events themselves.  Perhaps, if one is a scholar of magical realism, that is true.  If you're Jane Q. Public, like me, the magical events are simply another reason to delight in the story – without the need for scholarly analysis.

Another factor setting One Hundred Years of Solitude apart from the average family saga is García Márquez's lush prose.  His descriptions are both so beautiful and so startling that when I read his work, I feel a sense of awe, nearly a religious reverence.  Consider the following quote, a passage describing an expedition through a jungle.

“Then, for more than ten days, they did not see the sun again.  The ground became soft and damp, like volcanic ash, and the vegetation was thicker and thicker, and the cries of the birds and the uproar of the monkeys became more and more remote, and the world became eternally sad.  The men on the expedition felt overwhelmed by their most ancient memories in that paradise of dampness and silence, going back to before original sin, as their boots sank into pools of steaming oil and their machetes destroyed bloody lilies and golden salamanders.”

In these few phrases, García Márquez gives us not only a physical sense of the jungle, but also a gut-wrenching insight into the state of the characters' psyches.  He does this deftly, seemingly effortlessly, by the unconventional description of the world as “eternally sad,” as well as the juxtaposition of “paradise” with “dampness and silence.”  Notice, also, that the men's machetes are destroying both “bloody lilies,” as well as “golden salamanders.”  When we encounter the bloody lilies, we find a knot in our stomaches, almost nausea.  We don't know why they are bloody lilies, but we know they are wrong.  We feel a mild horror at their existence.  The destruction of the golden salamanders makes us feel unutterably sad.  Perhaps in the bloody lilies we see the bleakness of what the expedition has become.  Perhaps in the destruction of the golden salamanders we see the shattered dreams with which the expedition started.  We can never know for sure if this is what García Márquez meant us to see in the lilies and salamanders, but we can know that he meant us to feel a sense of emotional desolation.  And this he accomplishes.  Masterfully.  In three small sentences, García Márquez has given us both a physical, impenetrable jungle that we can practically see, and an achingly strong sense of emotional loss.

While this particular example is one in which reality is unpleasant, García Márquez is equally adroit at descriptions in which life soars and the soul sings.

Every page of this masterpiece transports us to a world where the fantastic is an accepted part of life; a world we can see and smell and taste, and feel, through the author's unparalleled descriptive abilities.  Every page of this masterpiece presses upon us the sadness, the exuberance, the solitude, and the joy of being.

You know that old saw about “If you were stranded on a desert island, what three books would you want?”  I'd have to think about the other two, but I know without doubt the first one would be One Hundred Years of Solitude.

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The CaveThe Bookstore Kat
from The Baja Citizen, February 22, 2010

The Works of José Saramago

Sometimes it's so easy to see the ugliness that surrounds us – poverty, politics, war, pollution.  It's hard not to let it color our outlooks.  When that happens, when it does begin to color our outlooks, we need to take a step back and remember all the beauty that also surrounds us.  Of course, Mother Nature is the grandest creator of beauty.  What can compare to the hush of a snow-covered forest, or the brilliance of the stars on a desert night?  And while mankind is no Mother Nature, we're no slouch, either.  Humans are capable of creating great beauty.  Perhaps it is precisely because humans are also capable of creating great ugliness, when someone does create great beauty, it affects me. 

Encounters with great beauty are something one always remembers.  Many years ago, I went to a special art exhibit in Seattle.  There was a bronze sculpture of a Chinese warrior there.  I don't remember the title of the work or the artist's name, but I will always remember the grace of that sculpture.  My first visit to the Chicago Art Institute was incomparable, and will always be a cherished memory.  The first time I heard Beethoven's 7th Symphony performed live, I was so entranced I could barely breathe.  Once I was privileged to see Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor performed.  During the “mad scene”, the soprano hit and held the high E-flat.  One perfect, clear note created by a human voice. 

One can also find great beauty in literature.  I am often deeply touched by a compelling story, a beautiful allusion, a stunning description, a closely-held sentiment I had been unable to put into words.  And I am often impressed by the author's mastery of the written word.  But only once have I been moved to tears sheerly by the beauty of the prose – not the sentiment, not the story, not a description of something held dear to my heart, but solely the beauty of the prose.  The author was José Saramago. 

Saramago, a Portuguese author, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998.  The first work of his I read, Blindness, I picked up shortly after he won the prize – not because I really wanted to read it, but because I felt I should read it.  Maybe it was my high school lit teachers coming back to haunt me, but I felt obligated to read something by the Nobel laureate of the season. 

After I finished Blindness, I gave a silent prayer of thanks to every underpaid and under-appreciated lit teacher still haunting me. 

Superficially, Blindness poses the question, “What if... What if blindness were an epidemic? What if everyone in a city, over the course of a few weeks, suddenly went blind?”  Think about that for a minute.  What would be the government's initial response?  What would happen when even the government can no longer function?  Would society completely break down?  Would we revert to our baser natures – might makes right and every man for himself – or would we retain the ability to cooperate for the greater good?  That is just the surface layer of Blindness.  These few prosaic queries don't begin to touch the complexity and depth of this allegorical novel. 

Seeing, the sequel to Blindness, explores the nature of democracy.  The Cave revolves around an artisan whose work no longer has a place in today's modern, mass-production society.  All the Names follows a bureaucrat's quest to find a woman whose file he comes across by chance.  Death with Interruptions looks at what happens when Death takes a holiday.  The idea has been presented before and addressed in both book and film, but the examination of it through the eyes of Saramago is unique. 

Saramago has written over 25 works, about half of which have been translated into English.  I could give you the titles and a synopsis of each, but that wouldn't tell you why you should read his works.  Let me tell you why you should.  José Saramago is one of the greatest novelists living today, and possibly one of the greatest novelist of all time.  His novels are always inventive, and often controversial.  His writing style is fluid, paradoxically both straight-forward and convoluted.  His themes are both timely and timeless, restricted to place and yet universal.  And his mastery of the written word is unparalleled.  It is truly exquisite.  Read his description of the creative process in The Cave, and if you are not moved to tears by the sheer beauty of his prose, I suspect you have no soul.  (Or at least you don't cry as easily as I do.) 

If there is one author who should be on your “must-read list”, it is José Saramago.  Reading his novels won't solve world hunger or stop any wars.  But I'll take beauty where I can find it.  And I definitely find it in the works of Saramago. 

Stop by Allende Books and ask what we have in by this fabulous Nobel Prize winning author.

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