Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina García

Dreaming in CubanSet against the background of the Cuban Revolution, Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban is a story that spans three generations of women in the del Pino/Almeida family, highlighting the things that tie them together and those which push them apart.

The book opens with a vision of a man walking across water, a vision seen through a pair of binoculars, by Celia, the matriarchal grandmother. The man she sees is her ailing husband, Jorge del Pino who left for the United States four years earlier to seek medical attention. Observing the apparition, she understands that he has passed on.

Her daughter Lourdes from whom she is estranged and her granddaughter Pilar, with whom she communicates through a kind of telepathic relationship, live in America. Celia is pro the Castro regime while Lourdes abhors it. On opposite sides of the revolutionary fence, neither will budge in their views or actions, despite the consequent rupture in their relationship and the knock on effect it has for others in the family, forced to take sides.

Pilar understands her grandmother and hates that the mother and daughter’s political beliefs prevent her from being closer to either of them. She rebels herself without knowing against what exactly, manifesting her discomfort with the world through impassioned artworks that initially disturb her mother and inspire harsh criticism, but which will eventually bring them closer together.

The past is also invoked through a series of letters written by Celia to Gustavo, the man she first loved, who it is revealed is the not the man she married. Though none of these letters were ever sent, they continue to be written over the years, a place where Celia shares her innermost thoughts, desires and regrets.

Her second daughter Felicia never leaves Cuba, marries, has children and at a certain point becomes somewhat deranged, remarrying twice in quick succession, attracting tragedy from the moment of her second marriage. She becomes deluded,  seeks refuge in music and the Afro-Cuban cult of Santeria, becomes a priestess and loses herself completely.

Cristine Garcia

Author, Cristina García

Similarly to Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory, Cristina García explores themes of separation and identity, exile, the survival strategies of women and mother’s and the long threads of cultural connection that continue to exist despite the miles that come to separate those who embrace them.

In literature, it tends to be referred to as magical realism, that occasional departure from the firm reality we are sure of, however it seems almost too easy to dismiss it as a literary device and ignore the connections between and within certain cultural traditions, where this ethereal communication between the living and the dead, those present and those who are not, exists alongside the more mundane communication we all indulge in.

I have noticed this tendency occurring in my recent reading of Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother, Maryse Condé’s Victoire Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory and Cristina García’s work, writers from Antigua, Guadeloupe, Haiti and Cuba respectively and find it adds something essential and attractive to the narrative.

A brilliant addition to a growing collection of literature from this region, in a style I adore. A 5 star read for me. Highly recommended.


2666 by Roberto Bolaño, tr. Natasha Wimmer

26662666 was the last novel written by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño before his untimely death at the age of 50 years due to liver failure, he was near the top of the list for a liver transplant, but sadly didn’t survive long enough to be a recipient.

Knowing of his precarious existence and wishing to be able to support his family for as long as possible, he embarked on the grand oeuvre that would become 2666. He had planned to publish it as five separate volumes, which is no doubt in part responsible for it being such an exceptionally long novel at 900 pages.

Born in Chile, he spent much of his childhood and youth in both Chile and Mexico before moving in 1977 to Spain where he married, settled and eventually would die. His literary success came late in life and with death looming, he appears to have been in somewhat of a rush to pen this last grand tome. It wasn’t until after his death, that his work became known to readers in the English language, though he was widely perceived as the most important Latin-American writer since Gabriel García Márquez.

2666 is structured into five parts, which would have been the five books, though they are meant to be read as a whole. Four of the five parts are reasonable in length and content and intrigue while Part 4. The Part About The Crimes is long, arduous and was for me in parts sickening.  It recounts hundreds of crimes against predominantly young women that occur in Santa Teresa, the one location that connects all 5 parts of the story. It is largely based on the mostly unsolved and still ongoing serial murders that took place in the MExican town of Ciudad Juárez (Santa Teresa in the novel).

In order to try to make sense of the sum of parts, I created the diagram below after reading, in its entirety it depicts the global, interconnected horrors that have infiltrated and usurped parts of 20th century society, while on the surface story level, it shows the connections between characters, locations and subject, with that Mexican town of Santa Teresa taking centre stage, the one place all these characters are at some time drawn to.

Making sense of Roberto Bolaño's 2666

Trying to Make Sense of Roberto Bolaño’s Five Parts of 2666

The five parts briefly are as follows:

Part 1: The Part About the Critics introduces us to 4 critics from 4 European countries who specialise in the literature of a German writer, they travel to conferences around the world, presenting, discussing his work, seeing each other, pursuing reports of the disappeared writer named Archimboldi, until Mexico. They too become more or less interconnected and though supposedly intellectuals and above the debased actions of the lesser educated, we see that they are no better than the rest and perhaps even worse.

Part 2: The Part about Amalfitano, his daughter Rosa, his wandering wife Lola and the poet in the asylum in San Sebastian, his move from Barcelona to Mexico and the beginning of hearing that voice in his head.

Part 3: The Part About Fate, the political/social journalist, his dead mother, her neighbour,writing up Barry Seaman’s speech, the death of a sportswriter, the fight he covers in Santa Teresa, the Mexicans, the gun, Rosa Amalfitano, Guadalupe Roncal and the albino German singing prisoner.

Part 4: The Part About the Crimes mentioned above, this reader begins to suffer fatigue from the pages and pages of repetition, another young woman, raped a certain way, strangled, the long hair, dumped on a highway or in a dump, the lack of police investigation, that lack of interest, as if to be woman is to warrant such a fate. The reader too starts to become as bored as the police seem to this endless, sordid situation. They have a job to do, but for what reason are we succumbed to having to absorb these hundreds of heinous crimes taking place in one city.

I was relieved when this part was behind me, all those murders in Santa Teresa, the inept investigations, the scapegoat, the media, the Congresswoman, the cause/effect of money.

Part 5: The Part About Archimboldi, in wartime Germany with a man named Hans Reiter. And finally we catch up with Bonno von Archimboldi, the writer pursued in Part 1.

orhan-pamuk-the-museum-of-innocenceOverall, it was a marathon read, that fatigued me, in a similar way to Orhan Pamuk’s lengthy novel of obsession The Museum of Innocence, a book that became a kind of effigy, that morphed into an actual museum displaying a collection of items evocative of everyday life and culture of Istanbul during the period in which the novel is set. Bolaño collected murders and experiences, Pamuk everyday objects and obsessions.

It is a novel highly regarded by many, however I would be reluctant to recommend it without the potential reader reading a variety of reviews to discern whether or not it is something that corresponds to their interest.

I chose to read it as my summer chunkster for 2015 and can relate to the following question raised in the Guardian review I’ve linked to below:

But why would you want to encounter “an oasis of horror in a desert of boredom” in the leisurely days of summer? Because you’ll have time to immerse yourself, for one thing. There’s never a bad time to read a great book, however dark, however dangerous.

Bravo to the late Roberto Bolaño, I believe he achieved his aim, to continue to support his family long after his own demise.

Further Reading:

Guardian Review

“Very long and very violent, this is a journey into the darkest parts of humanity. It’s hard going, but it is a truly great book”

New York Times Review

By bringing scents of a Latin American culture more fitful, pop-savvy and suspicious of earthy machismo than that which it succeeds, Bolaño has been taken as a kind of reset button on our deplorably sporadic appetite for international writing, standing in relation to the generation of García Márquez, Vargas Llosa and Fuentes as, say, David Foster Wallace does to Mailer, Updike and Roth.


Man Booker Prize Short List 2015

While my attention has been elsewhere diverted, the short list for the annual Man Booker Prize 2015 was announced.

MB logoIf you hadn’t seen the long list, which for me with all literature prizes is often where I am likely to find titles that will appeal to me, you can read about it here:

Man Booker Prize Long Lost 2015

On the six titles and authors that made the shortlist, the judges had this to say:

The judges remarked on the variety of writing styles, cultural heritage and literary backgrounds of the writers on the shortlist, which includes new authors alongside established names. Two authors come from the United Kingdom, two from the United States and one apiece from Jamaica and Nigeria.

The six titles on the 2015 shortlist are:

ManBooker Shortlist 2015A Brief History of Seven Killings , by Marlon James (Jamaica) – explores the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in the late 70s.

Satin Island, by Tom McCarthy, (UK) – postmodern philosophical novel of ideas on how we experience our world.

The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria) – 4 brothers encounter a madman whose prophecy unleashes a family crisis.

The Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeev Sahota (UK) – migrant workers in a Sheffield house, all fleeing India in desperate search of a new life.

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler (US) – three generations of the Whitshank family, their stories, secrets and longings.

A Little Life , by Hanya Yanagihara (US) – epic saga of friendship, self-destructive behaviour and a lot of misery, the bookish version of an addictive TV series?


I have only read one title from the list, Anne Tyler’s book and with my predilection for literature that crosses cultures and enters other worlds, the titles that attract me most are Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen and Marlon James A Brief History of Seven Killings, although there are other titles on the long list such as Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account that sound interesting as well.

The Winner! 

The authors will be reading at the SouthBank Centre in London on 12 October and the winner will be announced on Tuesday 13 October.

Do you have a favourite to win? Have you read any of the shortlisted titles?

MB Prize

Women in Translation #WITMonth

During August many I will be reading novels by women that have been translated from a language other than English. It’s an initiative created by Meytal Radzinski at Biblibio, Life in Letters and can be followed on twitter using the hashtag #WITMonth.


Literature in translation represents less than 5% of published works in the English language, compared to nearly 50% for example in France and of works translated, approximately 30% is attributed to women.

I have gathered together a stack of books I already own that are works of translation and it is from this pile that I will be reading this month. It coincides with my interest in reading what I call cross cultural fiction, or literature from another perspective than that which we have grown up and/or been educated around, which in my case was very Anglo-focused.

WIT Month

If you have a favourite book by a woman, that has been translated, please tell us about it in the comments below so I can add it to my list for next year.

So far in 2015, I have read and reviewed the following books by women that have been translated: (click on the title to read the review)

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (Spain) translated Laura McGloughlin, Paul Mitchell (Catalan)

Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi (France) translated Adriana Hunter (French)

Tales From The Heart, True Stories From My Childhood, by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe) translated Richard Philcox (French)

Ru by Kim Thuy (Vietnamese-Canadian) (read in French, available in English)

The Wall by Marlen Haushofer (Austria) translated Shaun Whiteside (German)

Victoire: My Mother’s Mother by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe) translated by Richard Philcox (French)

Happy Reading All.

Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

Breath Eyes MemoryNarrated from the point of view of the grand-daughter Sophie Caco, who we meet while she is living with her unmarried Aunt, Tante Atie in a village in Haiti, we enter the difficult world of being female and being raised by women, in an environment where an innocent life, a contented child can turn into a tormented adult, ravaged by recurring dreams and nightmares.

“I know old people, they have great knowledge. I have been taught  never to contradict our elders. I am the oldest child. My place is here. I am supposed to march at the head of the old woman’s coffin. I am supposed to lead her funeral procession. But even if lightning should strike me now, I will say this: I am tired. I woke up one morning and I was old myself.”

Maryse Condé’s novel Victoire: My Mother’s Mother, a book that recounts the facts as she could gather them on the life of her grandmother, helps us understand the importance of memory in the context of a historical narrative of people’s lives. I find her comments important in relation to Edwidge Danticat’s work which also harvests the ‘rich landscape of memory’.

In an interview with Megan Doll, responding to a question about how she went about researching the life of a woman who had died before she was born:

“…people will tell you that in places like the Caribbean, West Africa and so on, we have two distinct elements. We have history which is written in books about the white people — how they came to Guadeloupe, how they colonized Guadeloupe, how they became the masters of Guadeloupe — and you have memory, which is the actual facts of the people of Guadeloupe and Martinique — the way they lived, the way they suffered, the way they enjoyed life. We are trained to rely more on our memories and the memories of people around us than on books. So I interviewed people, I asked questions to everybody who knew her or knew my mother or my father. It took me about three years to write Victoire. I wanted to find the history of my immediate family but at the same time the history of Guadeloupe – a period of time that I didn’t know, which was not too distant, after all, but was distant in terms of the behaviour of the people of Guadeloupe.”

Edwidge Danticat’s novel is a tale that encompasses four generations of women, where stories are passed on, secrets are sent away and a lantern observed in the distance will tell us whether a boy or girl has been born.

“There is always a place where women live near trees that, blowing in the wind, sound like music. These women tell stories to their children both to frighten and delight them. These women, they are fluttering lanterns on the hills, fireflies in the night, the faces that loom over you and recreate the same unspeakable acts that they themselves lived through. There is always a place where nightmares are passed on  through generations like heirlooms. Where women like cardinal birds return to look at their own faces in stagnant bodies of water.”

Sophie’s mother lives in New York, she knows little about her and relates to her Aunt more as a mother figure, she doesn’t know why her mother lives far away, nor is she curious about it, but when she turns twelve her mother sends a plane ticket, it is time for her to join her.

Her mother is a care worker and initially takes her with her to work, until school begins. She presses on her daughter the importance of education, the only escape, opportunity for a girl child to have choices. Sophie witnesses her mother’s violent nightmares, a fear she can not assuage, she learns the reason for her mother’s disturbing state of mind and discovers the ways mother’s ‘test’ their daughters.

Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat

Despite a protected adolescence, Sophie falls in love, she concocts a lie to put her mother off, but suffers the torment of suspicion and decides to rebel against it.

Eventually she returns to her Aunt and grandmother, to the familiar, the women who have known her from birth, to try to make sense of things.

It is a compelling story of a family, their traditions and superstitions, their aspirations and fears, the things they accept and those they run from. It also touches on the sadness and dissociation of the immigrant from their culture and roots, that in order to attain their desire, it is necessary to give up much of their identity.

“It is really hard for the new-generation girls,” she began. “You will have to choose between the really old-fashioned Haitians and the new-generation Haitians. The old-fashioned ones are not exactly prize fruits. They make you cook plantains and rice and beans and never let you feed them lasagna. The problem with the new generation is that a lot of them have lost their sense of obligation to the family’s honour. Rather than become doctors and engineers, they want to drive taxicabs to make quick cash.”

A simple read and an extraordinary book, the lives of these characters seep into the reader, these generations of women raising their daughters alone, living with their demons of the past, trying to ensure nothing of their own suffering passes on to the next generation.

Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti in 1969, raised by her Aunt and joined her parents in America when she was twelve. Breath, Eyes, Memory was her first novel, she has written many award-winning short stories and novels including The Farming of Bones, The Dew Breaker and her most recent Claire of the Sea Light.

Man Booker Prize 2015 long list

The long list for the Man Booker Prize 2015 was announced today, Wednesday 29 July.

The ‘Booker Dozen’ 13 novels feature three British writers, five US writers and one each from the Republic of Ireland, New Zealand, India, Nigeria and Jamaica.

Marlon James, who currently lives in Minneapolis, is the first Jamaican-born author to be nominated for the prize. Laila Lalami, now based in Santa Monica but born in Rabat, is the first Moroccan-born. There are three debut novelists, the literary agent Bill Clegg, Nigerian Chigozie Obioma and New Zealand author Anna Smail.

The longlist is:

Bill Clegg (US) – Did You Ever Have a Family

– On the eve of her daughter’s wedding, June’s life is devastated when a disaster takes the lives of her entire family, all gone in a moment. June is the only survivor.

The Green RoadAnne Enright (Ireland) – The Green Road

– Spans 30 years, 3 continents and narrates the story of Rosaleen, matriarch of the dysfunctional Irish Madigan family and her four children. Sounds promising.

Marlon James (Jamaica) – A Brief History of Seven Killings

– a fictional exploration of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in the late 1970s, featuring assassins, journalists, drug dealers, and even ghosts.

Tom McCarthy (UK) – Satin Island

– A “corporate ethnographer,” narrator, U. is tasked with writing the “Great Report,” an all-encompassing document that would sum up our era. A big essay of a novel.

The Moor's AccountLaila Lalami (US) – The Moor’s Account

– the imagined memoirs of the first black explorer of America, a Moroccan slave whose testimony was left out of the official record, historical fiction from 1527.

Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria) – The Fishermen

– In a Nigerian town in the mid 1990’s, four brothers encounter a madman whose mystic prophecy of violence threatens the core of their close-knit family.

Andrew O’Hagan (UK) – The Illuminations

– Anne battles dementia, her grandson Luke is in Afghanistan, on his return they set out for an old guest house where they witness the annual illuminations, dazzling artificial lights that brighten the seaside resort town as the season turns to winter. Love, memory, war and fact.

Marilynne Robinson (US) – Lila

– Revisiting characters and setting of Gilead and Home; Lila, homeless and alone after years of roaming the countryside, steps inside a small-town Iowa church—the only available shelter from the rain—and ignites a romance and a debate that will reshape her life.

Anuradha Roy (India) – Sleeping on Jupiter 

– a young girl ends up in an orphanage run by an internationally renowned spiritual guru, before being adopted abroad, haunted by memories, she returns to the temple town of Jarmuli to tie up loose ends and keep promises made long ago, intertwined with the stories of three women she meets on the train.

Sunjeev Sahota (UK) – The Year of the Runaways

– an unlikely family thrown together by circumstance, three men – Tochi, Randeep and Avtar – live together with other migrant workers in a house in Sheffield, all fleeing India and in desperate search of a new life, the woman, Narindar, is married to Randeep but barely knows him and lives in a separate flat.

The ChimesAnna Smaill (New Zealand) – The Chimes

– set in a reimagined London, a world where people cannot form new memories, the written word forbidden and destroyed. In the absence of both memory and writing is music. Simon Wythern has a gift that could change all that.

Anne Tyler (US) – A Spool of Blue Thread  (see review)

Hanya Yanagihara (US) – A Little Life

– follows the complicated relationships of four young men over decades in New York City, their joys and burdens, Jude’s journey to stability, having been scarred by a horrific childhood with its prolonged physical and emotional effects.


The only one I have read is Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, the book I’ve been hearing the most about recently, is Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (albeit in a big fat book), a little too hyped for me and I’m already committed to my #chunkster for summer, which I started today, Chilean Roberto Bolano’s epic 2666.

One of the titles that intrigues me most from the list, that I have also read a few excellent reviews of recently is debut novelist Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen.

I’ve also listened to Anne Enright being interviewed and I’m sure The Green Road will be a great read. Based on the blurb alone, I like the sound of Laila Lalami’s historical novel, The Moor’s Account, particularly being a voice and perspective from outside the established literary quarters.

No predictions, but the shortlist of six books will be announced on Tuesday 15 September and the winner on Tuesday 13 October.

So which of these titles appeals to you, or  would you like to read?


Victoire: My Mother’s Mother by Maryse Condé tr. Richard Philcox

Maryse Condé is the author I discovered on the Man Booker International long list, the author that stood out for me, even if she didn’t win the prize. Since discovering her, I have read and reviewed the book she recommended for those wishing to discover her work, Tales From the Heart: True Stories From my Childhoodvignettes of her life growing up as the youngest and 8th child of a civil servant (who had been a school principal when her mother married him) and school teacher in a black bourgeoise family.

I decide to follow this up with another tale Victoire: My Mother’s Mother, though publishers label it as fiction, it is based on the life and facts of her grandmother. Victoire was an illiterate, white skinned woman she never met, who worked as a highly reputable cook for a white Creole family, the Walbergs, a connection that her mother Jeanne, though raised, supported and educated by this family, appeared to reject.

VictoireMaryse Condé wrote this account in a desire to learn more of her family history, a quest that began by researching the life of Victoire Elodie Quidal, speaking to a lot of people and a project that would take three years to complete.

When she questioned her mother Jeanne, a woman with no discernible palate, incapable of boiling an egg, she was shocked to learn her grandmother had been a cook.

‘And she didn’t teach you anything, not even one recipe?’ She continued without answering the question. ‘She first worked in Grand Bourg for the Jovials, some relatives of ours. That ended badly. Very badly. Then …then she migrated to La Pointe and hired out her services to the Walbergs, a family of white Creoles, right up until she died.’

Maryse wanted answers, but that was as much as her mother would share, they never resumed the conversation, the years passed by, in a kind of chaos, however that conversation never left her curious mind and her grandmother began to seep into her imagination.

Sometimes I would wake up at night and see her sitting in a corner of the room, like a reproach, so different to what I had become.

‘What are you doing running around from Segu to Japan to South Africa? What’s the point of all these travels? Can’t you realise that the only journey that counts is discovering your inner self? That’s the only thing that matters. What are you waiting for to take an interest in me?’ she seemed to be telling me.

Victoire’s mother Eliette was a twin who died in childbirth at the age of fourteen. More than the shock of her pregnancy and sudden death, was the appearance of a child with clear eyes and pink skin. No one was aware of her having crossed paths with a white man, there were no whites in La Trielle where she lived except priests and at one point a garrison of soldiers, who’d been training in the area, before being despatched back to France.

Eliette’s mother Caldonia raised Victoire and became close to her, when most people were wary of her with her too white skin and transparent eyes. The only education she received was religious and at the age of 10, the Jovial’s requested she come and work for them in the kitchen. Given only the thankless tasks, she observed the others and began to acquire the culinary skills she would become so well-known for.

Obtaining a position as cook for the Dulieu-Beaufort family was a turning point in her life, perhaps even more so than finding herself pregnant at 16-years-old, for in this family she would meet her lifelong friend Anne-Marie, her same age, outraged at having been married off to Boniface Walberg, Victoire’s future employers and the beginning of a mysterious and enduring relationship, one that set people talking and would be seen by her daughter Jeanne (Maryse’s mother) with utmost disapproval.

Apart from a brief period when Victoire fell in love with another, causing a period of separation from her daughter, and a significant turning point in their relationship, she would stay loyal to the Walberg’s all her life. Though she could neither read or write, she accepted her life, despite suffering the disapproval of her unforgiving daughter Jeanne, who would obtain an excellent education and position, marry a man twenty years her senior, removing all risk of insecurity that she’d observed in her mother and previous generations, determined to avoid a similar fate.

In an interview with Megan Doll, in Bookslut Maryse Condé explains her desire to write about her grandmother:

Maryse Condé‘The story is, of course, about my grandmother but the real problem was my mother. I lost my mother when I was very young — fourteen and a half. And during the short time that I knew her I could never understand her. She was a very complex character. Some people — most people, the majority of people — disliked her. They believed she was too arrogant, too choleric. But we knew at home that she was the most sensitive person and I could not understand that contradiction between the way she looked and the way she actually was. So I tried to understand as I grew up and I discovered that it was because of a big problem with her own mother. She seems to have failed; she had the feeling that she was not a good, dutiful daughter. I had to understand the grandmother and the relationship between my mother, Jeanne, and her mother, Victoire, to understand who Jeanne was, why she was the way she was, and at the same time understand myself.’

Condé also finds a connection between her and Victoire through their creativity, her grandmother’s through her renowned cuisine, Condé’s through her writing. At times she almost appears to channel her grandmother, as she senses what she may have been thinking or why she reacted in a certain way,  connecting with this mysterious woman who was so different to the mother she knew, a woman equally misunderstood by the community around her.

This was the perfect follow-up to Tales of the Heart and an intriguing look into the impact of circumstances of birth of three generations of women, how the past constantly threatens and can mock one’s position in the present, somewhat explaining Jeanne’s instinct to distance herself from her illiterate mother while fulfilling her ambitions and then her guilt at having treated her mother badly, when she only wanted the best for her.

The two books I have read were translated from French into English.