The Book of Embraces by Eduardo Hughes Galeano

The Book of Embraces by Eduardo Hughes Galeano is an odd book to review. Not that the book is particularly bizarre, though it does have its moments. I more mean that the nature of the book is difficult to pin down, being a literary collage and all, and thus is a little trickier to discuss.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for Sandra Cisneros.)

So, what is a literary collage? I didn’t find much about that in any of the discussion of The Book of Embraces that I had seen, but it is fairly self-evident. Rather than following an overall narrative, the book is made up of a collection of different kind of fragments.

We have some fable-like stories:

            A man from the town of Neguá, on the coast of Columbia, could climb into the sky.

            On his return, he described his trip. He told how he had contemplated human life on his. He said we are a sea of tiny flames.

There are also political discussions:

At the end of 1987, Héctor Abad Gómez reported that a man’s life was worth no more than eight dollars. When his article was published in a Medelliín daily, he had already been assassinated. Héctor Abad Gómez was president of the Commission on Human Rights.

as  well as poetry:

Bankruptcies are socialized while profits are privatized.

Money is freer than people are.

People are at the service of things.

Nor is this all. There are autobiographical slices, history, and even some of the author’s wife’s dreams:

Helena dreamed she was trying to close her suitcase and couldn’t, and she pushed down on it with both hands and knelt on it an sat on top of it and stood on top of it, and it wouldn’t budge. Mysteries and belongings gushed from the suitcase that wouldn’t close.

All these different kinds of fragments are all woven together into the larger whole that is The Book of Embraces. Some are tragic, some full of wonder. Some are so quietly beautiful as to be tiny little marvels.

But…what does it all add up to? These pieces aren’t just jammed together. The parts do add up to a greater sum; it is just a little more difficult to pin down exactly what that greater sum is.

I’ve seen some commentators say that the elements The Book of Embraces combine to create a portrait of Galeano’s mind. Perhaps that is the case. On the other hand, perhaps it is a microcosm of what it is to live in the places and times Galeano experienced. To be honest, I’m not quite sure. Frankly, I’m not even sure that it really matters.

After all, whatever these extremely varied pieces exactly add up to, it is a beautiful thing to read. The fables like elements bring softness to the accounts of brutality. At the same, the reportage of the atrocities of Latin American dictatorships contributes a serious context to the fables. The pieces are wildly different, but they function together in an interesting way. Really, this isn’t something that should be explained anyway. You should read The Book of Embraces yourself and see firsthand what it all adds up to.

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The Stand by Stephen King.

I have a confession.  I _didn’t_ read the Stand in the last week.

However, I feel eminently qualified to talk about it here, as I have read it at least 12 times in my lifetime.  You tend to remember a lot about a book when you read it that many times.  Yes, it is a favorite.  I read it for the first time at 12 years old and probably read it last a year or two ago.

Apparently David Foster Wallace and Jennifer Weiner also felt it was worth it.  They listed it in their top ten.  They might have read it 12 or more times too but maybe not.

I was ecstatic that at least one of King’s books made it in this book.  I personally think The Shining should have also been in here, but eh, I wasn’t asked for my top ten.

Today, I will be covering three areas.  My prior debate partners will be thrilled I’m sure at the three areas and my forecasting of them.  First, I will cover The Stand itself and a couple of brief notes on the mini series made from the book.  Secondly, I will cover why I personally feel this is some of the best apocalypse literature out there.  Finally, I will cover people’s misconceptions about Stephen King and people’s close minded views on him and his career.

First thing about The Stand.  It is long.  I don’t think it’s quite as long as Les Miserables, but it might be.  However, it is infinitely easier to read.  There are no sections on The Battle of Waterloo for the sole purpose of using the last two lines to introduce characters.  There are no sections on argot.  King isn’t interested in making long, involved meanderings from the narrative to make comments on poverty.

King covers a few different main characters from start to finish.  King describes the characters, not by description per se, but by narrative involving them.  For instance, Stu, one of the main characters is in a gas station in a small Texas town in the beginning.  King manages to give you more about his character by showing his reaction to a car plowing into a pump than by the description of him.  Larry, another main character, has a hit that climbs the charts (he’s a musician).  King shows his downward spiral as he throws the longest and hugest party in a long time.  King shows his character by describing his walk onto a beach with an acquaintance who wants to give him the hard truth, then his resulting actions, and his arrival back in New York City and his mother.  He describes Fran, by showing her reaction to a pregnancy and a confrontation with her mother.  He describes Harold, a neighbor of Fran’s by the clothes he wears, the language he uses, his actions of resourcefulness.  He describes Nick, a deaf-mute by the beating and resultant jailing and resultant friendship with the sheriff, more than by his descriptive words of him.  This is one of the things I love about King, he may use a lot of words, but in the end you feel you know the characters almost or better than you know yourself.    The story is about what happens when the government accidentally releases a “super-flu” with a 99% transmission rate and a 100% fatality rate.  The flu works by constantly shifting.  Like if you have the influenza virus, your body creates antibodies to fight it.  The super-flu works by constantly shifting antigens, basically the type of flu you have.  King describes the trail of the beginning of transmission, which I always have felt is neat.  He describes different people as they contract it and die from it.   The main characters (of which I only listed a few) all are immune, as you might have guessed.  At the beginning, before they too are infected, the government does try to find a vaccine (because apparently they weren’t smart enough to have developed it to keep themselves safe) by taking people from Stu’s town to isolate them, then figure out why Stu doesn’t have it.  Eventually, all of the people are dead except those that were immune.  King then takes a few pages to describe the people that die from a second wave of events, like a child falling in a well, a woman firing an old gun that backfires and kills her, a man jogging himself to death due to grief.  The next section of the book describes them making their way across the country (the survivors).  They have been having two dreams, one of an old black woman in Nebraska and one of the “dark man” or Randall Flagg.  The black woman represents security, goodness.  The dark man, terror.  They eventually find Abigail Freemantle, a prophet and seer, who says she has dreams to go to Boulder Colorado.  In the panicked days, a rumor had started that the flu was originating from a source in the city.  There was a mass exodus, leaving the city strangely empty.  They settle there, survivors keep trickling in.  They implement a government of sorts.  Then the battle of good versus evil (side of Abigail vs. the side of Flagg) begins.  This is where I will end, in order not to spoil the ending.

I believe this to be one of the great apocalypse stories for a couple of different reasons.  Unlike a nuclear apocalypse, King derived a way to keep the world intact, if empty of people.  King also describes in great detail the things that the survivors do, like canned food, siphoning gas, etc. etc.  I love how he describes both during and after.  I always think apocalypse stories leave too much out.  It’s probably why I like The Walking Dead so much too.  He does have characters die during the story, but it fits in perfectly into the story he weaves.  I can’t think of any other concrete reasons I can put down here.  I have read a lot of apocalypse stories and this one remains my favorite.

Finally, I get tired of people’s misconceptions and refusal of Stephen King.  There are those that refuse to read him since he got away from the bloody horror stuff.  I know, I know, there are probably straight genre readers of horror and King’s genre readers didn’t like where he has gone.  However, if they bothered to read, they would find many of his stories still carry a tone of horror, a tone of the supernatural.  Many people like this stopped reading way before Bag of Bones, one of King’s greatest horror stories in my opinion.  And they refuse to read it.

Then there are those that stopped reading after Gerald’s Game or some other book that they didn’t like.  Um, the man has written around 68 books as of 2013.  I’m sure that anyone that had written that many  (that wasn’t a franchise writer such as Danielle Steel or Nora Roberts who like to put the same character types in a different setting while trying to tell the same story) would have a dud or two.  I’m sure most of those that stopped reading have never written a thing on their own, so a judgment based on one book they didn’t like is asinine.  I personally disliked The Tommyknockers when I read it, and it was published in the mid 80s.  I still disliked it when I reread it in 2012.  However, there are many of those 68 books written since then that I have adored.  Bag of Bones and Duma Key to name just two.  So I urge those of you that gave up on King after one book you disliked to try again.  You might rediscover an author you previously loved.

I also want to address those “literary” types.  King has been criticized his entire career by critics, by other authors and by those readers that read a book because it makes them look intelligent.  Again, the man has written 68 original books (each story is different and unique, not formulaic at all), have any of those people done that?  I think a little bit of it is jealousy.  There seems to be a prejudice against an author that makes a ton of money and sells a lot of books.  Maybe they believe that only books that sell limited copies and make limited amounts are good, as your average reader doesn’t like great works of literary fiction.  King has won a medal for Distinguished Contribution to American letters.  Here is a list of the number of awards King has won since his career began.  It might be time for people to suck it up and read one of his books.

King tells a good story.  That is his main goal.  And that is what he achieves in most of those 68 books.  If you dislike horror, guts and gruesomeness, read his later works.  Some of them are almost not even close to horror.  If you like blood and guts, read the earlier books, then read the rest.

If you want to read what King himself thinks of “literary” types,  read the introduction of Full Dark, No Stars.  Which by the way has some very non horror fiction in it.

Thanks for listening to my rant 🙂  As you can tell, King ranks up there on favorite authors for me.  I grew up with him.  Well he was already an adult of course.  I read my first King novel, Firestarter at 10.  I’ve been reading him since.  I have re-read a lot of his books.  I read them so fast the first time that I want to find the things I missed.  And they are just as good as the first time.  Also, another note, King always, always makes sure his novels are unabridged when put on audio format.  He also reads Bag of Bones himself, which is amazing.  He finds the best audio book narrators.  If you don’t feel like reading one of his books, pick one up and listen.

Ok.  The end.

Les Miserables! Finally!

Ok, so I finally finished Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo.

I know some of you have probably been looking askance at my posts about the length and how long it has taken me to read it.  However, I have one thing to say that sums up how I feel about this book.

Wow.

While reading the book, you will have moments when you wonder what Hugo was really doing.  Was he telling a story?  Or explaining French history to us?  Was he detailing and painting characters with a fine nuance?  Or was he using fiction to deplore social conditions in France in the mid 1800s?

I think he was doing both.  I think Hugo had a lot to say and poured most of it into Les Miserables.  He had published prior books, but the length of time it took him to write this shows how much heart he put into it.  I can’t imagine having to write it all by hand!  Which he had to.

Chris Bohjalian was the author that picked Les Miserables as one of his top ten.  And thinking of the books I’ve read by him, he also uses fiction to make a social statement.  He’s a bit less obvious about it than Hugo, but almost two hundred years can make a big difference in narrative styles and techniques.

I cursed parts of this book to Dave over the last few weeks.  Sometimes, I felt a little cheated.  I’d be reading this great story and be really into what was happening.  Suddenly I’m in a forever long section about Waterloo and Napoleon.  Now, I do enjoy histories, however I don’t enjoy them when they’re slammed down in the middle of a book, with the sole purpose seeming to be the introduction of two characters who then really don’t become relevant for another 500 pages.

But, the thing that saved this book for me, and that makes me extremely happy that I’ve read it, is simply the story that Hugo tells.  How he builds his characters and how invested you get in them.

Hugo follows these characters for years.  Jean Valjean is a released prisoner, who simply can’t find anyone that will accept him.  A bishop (whom Hugo spent chapters describing him, for the sole purpose of his role for Jean Valjean) accepts him.  And through that Valjean finds religion, finds peace in Christ.  He goes on to change his identity and basically save a town from complete ruin, in the process becoming very rich even though he has the tendency to give away large amounts of money.

The book details the beginning and descent of Fantine, a young woman who gets pregnant with a rich nobleman’s child, a rich nobleman who thought it would be funny to take her out on an outing, then just walk away and have a waiter deliver a note awhile later with the essence of “Been fun, gotta run”.  She has the child, but can’t find work.  As she leaves to go to a town, she finds a woman outside an inn with two of her own children.  Fantine asks if they will watch her daughter, named Cosette, that she will send money for the upkeep.  The woman agrees.  And in comes the Thenardier family, Thenardier ending up being the reprehensible evil character.  The story then goes on to describe Fantine’s descent all the way into prostitution and Valjean’s saving her.  She makes him promise to get her daughter.

There is a detective in the story, Javert, who believes the mayor is Valjean (it is), which would make him a criminal of the worst sort.  Now, you think Javert is a bad guy.  However, he is just built in a very uncompromising manner.  In the end, this manner takes him to his demise.  Javert comes to arrest Valjean while he’s at the hospital with Fantine.  Valjean goes.  Fantine dies.

Time passes.  One day, into the Thenardier inn comes a shabby looking old guy.  Cosette has been mistreated by Mrs. Thenardier for years, and Mr. Thenardier has used the money he did receive before Fantine’s descent into poverty and death for his own purposes.  Cosette is a scared little girl.

Then lots of time passes.  Marius and his grandfather are introduced.  They become estranged, as Marius discovers his father was a Napoleon guy and becomes utterly devoted to his father, after his father dies.  His grandfather is a man who believes in the sanctity of royalty.  Marius goes off on his own.

He & Cosette fall in love.  They are parted.

A revolution, a street one, of 1831 occurs.  Marius’s friends lead a movement, where they block off a tavern and fight.  It all ends horribly wrong.

I don’t want to give the ending, as it will ruin the experience of reading it for yourself.

However, Jean Valjean is a pitiful hero.  And I don’t mean that in the usage of pathetic that many do.  I mean, you really have to pity the man.  He has so little happiness in his life, and everytime he does, it gets ripped away.  In the end, he only has the faith that the Bishop inspired and the love that Cosette showed him he had (oh yes, he rescues her from the Thenardiers).

The Thenardiers remain evil through and through, and the only surprise with Mr & Mrs is the depravity they have.  Their daughter Eponine though?  She surprises you.  She starts out as someone you think of as definitely a Thenardier to the core.  However, love changes her.  In the end she makes a huge sacrifice that she knows will come to the worst possible outcome.

Javert…well he is a man of unbending principles.  He has prided himself all his life on this, and has lived his life by these principles.  Hugo shows the effects that life events can sometimes have on people like this.

Cosette, she is flighty.  But her love for Valjean and for Marius is inspiring.

Marius, is noble in a way.  During the whole time he was estranged from his grandfather, he lived in poverty.  He very rarely borrowed money.  He is the one who almost comes out as the “hero” in this, as he is the opposite of Valjean.  For most of his life, he has good happen to him.  When bad does happen to him, and he is miserable, good suddenly occurs.  I like how he is almost opposite of Valjean, like almost mirror like.

These are the main characters.  However, Hugo has filled in chinks of the story with more minor characters that sneak into the chinks of the story and cement the whole.  The urchin, Gavroche, (who is the unloved son of the Thenardiers so he lives on the streets) is one.  Marius’s friends who stage the revolution in the inn are others.  He paints even the most minor characters in huge detail.  For instance, Cosette & Valjean’s serving woman, has very little said about her.  However, Hugo brings her to life.  She stutters.

I can definitely see how this would make a great show.  I have never seen the Broadway play…but want to.  I also really want to see the movie but made myself wait until after reading the book.  I think that is best in this instance.  Otherwise, you’d expect the book to move like the show or the movie, which considering it’s over 1500 pages, it simply cannot.

Please, don’t let the size of this daunt you.  It would be a great book to read a few pages of in a night.

However, just skim the pages about Argot.  It’s hideously boring and I think Dave agrees with me, if anything could have been cut from Les Miserables and not have it hurt the story line…it’s this section.

Please be sure to check out Sage Magazine, where I talk about Peony In Love by Lisa See.  It’s an amazing book, and I’d definitely put it up there in my favorites.  It’s also a much shorter book haha.

 

Les Miserables is still long. And I’ve learned everything about argot I wish to know.

Yes.  I still have not finished Les Miserables.  I almost feel like I should just get a hotel room and stay there for 24 hours and do nothing but read.  I should have it done then!

Just wanted to let y’all know since I did say yesterday there would be something here today.  And there is!!

I also wrote a review of Dave’s book for The Lit Pub.  And it’s prettier than my review on here yesterday, it has quotes and everything!  So if you’re still curious about Dave’s book, head on over there, as I review entirely different parts in there than I did yesterday here.

That is all.

*heads back to argot and Les Miserables*

Les Miserables is Long Long Long. Today I will talk about Bones Buried in Dirt.

So.  Like Dave told you last week, I was working my way through Les Miserables.  He kindly went two weeks in a row so that I could finish.  And I’ve been trying.  Really.  And I might have been able to do it, but after 200-250 pages a day, you really can’t read more.  So.  I am getting close to the end and should be exploring it with you guys TOMORROW, February 8th, 2013.  So tune back in tomorrow for my talk about Les Miserables (where I will discuss its length but also discuss the beauty of it, trust me, it will be a scintillating discussion.).

Today, I decided to talk about something else.  While Dave has mentioned this on his own personal blog , he has yet to discuss it on here.  Dave had his first book published!  He’s been rocking short story publications for awhile now.  He had quite a few of those short stories that went together, all told by the same narrator.  Together they form a novel.   It’s titled Bones Buried in Dirt, and if you press that link it’ll take you to the amazon page for it.  It has a 5 star rating.

Dave gave me the opportunity of reading it directly prior to publication.  I loved it!  If you remember, in a prior entry about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Dave talks about children narrators.  At some point in the course of our blog, one of us will be rereading To Kill a Mockingbird, probably one of the most famous examples of child narrators.  My point, before I digressed, is that Dave’s book has a child narrator.  His name is Peter and the stories that make up the book start around age 4 and follow him to age 12.  The time frame for the story is mid 80s to 90s (from what I can tell from Dave’s cultural references in it).  The setting is Omaha, NE.

The following is a list of why I think Dave’s book deserves accolades and its 5 star rating on Amazon:

1)  I sometimes forgot that the _author_ of the book was an adult, he wrote the child narration so well.  (And this is even with knowing the author!)

2)  Dave captured, through Peter, a lot of events that echoed in my own life, and probably in yours as well.   Dave covers the literalism of a preschooler, and the hurt that can sometimes happen due to that literalism.  He covers the time frame of sexual experimentation during elementary school years (and it’s not the fuzzy kiss the pillow stuff you normally read in literature about childhood).  He explores how it feels to lie to an authority and a friend after a betrayal.  First love.  Living with a parent with some obvious mental illness issues, who as an adult, you can see is trying his best, and to Peter is normal.  The burgeoning relationship with a father.

3)  He does all of this in an unflinching, raw, sometimes painful to look at way.   People glamorize and romanticize childhood way more than we should.  Childhood is painful.  It’s raw and it hurts.  A reviewer on Amazon said this about Bones Buried in Dirt “It rips away the fuzzy, pink insulation that is normally wrapped around memories
of childhood, leaving behind jagged edges that cut and wound” .  And his book does.  That’s what sets it apart from the other books out there.

4)  He details Peter’s growth as an individual from preschooler to preteen amazingly well.  We see Peter’s mindsets, thought processes and compassion levels change and develop throughout.

5)  He uses the locale of Peter’s neighborhood in such a way that it almost becomes another full character in the book.

 

There are a lot of other reasons, but those are my main ones.  I do definitely believe I will reread Dave’s book at some point, just because some of it was so raw that it was hard to process a first time.  Raw, emotionally, not writing wise.

Go the following places if you’re interested in knowing more:

Dave’s blog–where he talks about the publication and ongoing information on the book.

Amazon, where you can both purchase the book and read reviews on it.

Tattered Cover, an amazing independent bookstore in Denver Colorado.  If you are ever in the Denver area, run, run, drive like it’s the Indy 500 to Tattered Cover.  I only went there once, in the mid 90s and I still think of it in the way a dieter thinks of hot caramel sundaes or an ex smoker thinks of a cigarette.  You can either go physically to the store to buy a copy of Dave’s book, or you can order it online.  For those of you that would like to support an independent bookseller versus a giant like Amazon, this is the option for you.

Goodreads, where you can’t purchase it but can read the reviews on it to make your final purchasing decision, or if you have a Goodreads account, could add it to your to be read pile as a reminder to pick it up once you’re ready to purchase.  (By the way, Bones Buried in Dirt has a 4.92 rating on Goodreads as well).

And finally, Facebook, where you can like the page for Bones Buried in Dirt and maybe beg Dave to sign your copy somehow 😀

 

I urge all of you to read it.  It’s an amazing book, and phenomenally well done.