Review of “Las Cosas Que Perdimos en el Fuego,” by Mariana Enriquez
This is the latest in my Spanish reading. The English translation is “The Things We Lost in the Fire.” This is a collection of short stories by an Argentinian author. My first comment is that Spanish in Argentina drops a lot more pronouns than what I’ve read before. I had to read the entire sentence and glean every hint from word endings to know who was doing what to whom. And lots of slang that Google Translate only guessed about half the time. I’ve been listening to an audio lecture series on language and I’m beginning to suspect that written fictional Spanish follows spoken language standards rather than the written (i.e., formal) style. It’s a free for all.
The stories are all set in Argentina in the last thirty or so years, focusing on the seamier side of life for average Argentinians rather than criminals – people struggling with day-to-day life in a nation with extreme income inequality and entire cities of homeless people. There’s also some black magic and gruesome child abuse. The characters are all seriously disturbed but not enough to be institutionalized and the stories are thus real downers (especially when read carefully to try and understand them). I would add that none of the stories have endings; the reader is left hanging with no conclusion – like the cliffhanger season finale of a popular TV show. The depiction of what people are thinking and dealing with on a daily basis is very well portrayed, however, especially when read in the native language of the region. Every story left me with a combination of sympathy and disgust for the plight of any rational person who might find themselves living under the circumstances portrayed in this book.
In general, I don’t like stories like those contained in this book, but I didn’t read it for entertainment. This is a gritty, realistic depiction of life in a developing country where frustration, superstition, inequality, and death are daily events. Just don’t read it if you want some kind of closure.
A Review of “Until I Find You,” by John Irving
I’ve been stalling to write this review. The author is world renowned and this book was a New York Times bestseller. The rave reviews (printed in a special preface entitled “Praise for…”) filled four pages. I must be a Martian. I don’t know how all of those reviewers could have read the entire book, which is 820 pages; after all, this novel takes several days to read and they don’t get paid by the hour. I actually read the entire book at my usual slow pace and I understand it as well as anyone (without using literary jargon meant to confuse and obfuscate). I’m not going to pretend to know what the author was thinking when he wrote it; I’m only going to throw my two-cents-worth into the pot.
The book is grammatically well written and the copy editor did a good job. I only found a few typos and punctuation errors. The style (at first) leans heavily on interjections introduced through parenthetical sentences and even paragraphs, but then the style changes to less-evocative prose. That isn’t my main complaint, however; this book is nothing more than a thin treatment of childhood sexual abuse drowned by irrelevant details. The author was bored with the story before he finished it, and simply threw an ending together. (I don’t blame him.) (BTW these parenthetical sentences are examples of the style used in the first part of the book.)
If you want to learn about tattooing and the (sometimes real) people in the industry; acoustic organs; nineteenth century organ music; the geography of Scandinavian cities; the (imaginary?) life of a small boy in an all-girls school; wrestling; and a bizarre twist of several (imaginary) books and screenplays written by characters in the novel – this book is for you.
The plot got lost in the details and even the author apparently lost track because, when the central character finally found his estranged father (they’d never met), there was absolutely no explanation of what caused a deeply religious man, tattooed from neck to foot, to abandon his son, and (when he got older) to play the acoustic organ in a church before removing his clothes and exposing himself in public. To make the ending even less plausible, the central character (Jack Burns) is suddenly cured of years of sexual child abuse by people he trusted (not his family) and accepts his estranged biological father’s behavior as normal.
This book strains incredulity beyond the breaking point. It read like a never-ending Saturday Night Live skit and not one of the humorous ones. I think I laughed twice while reading it, but I can’t remember when because most of the book was filled with mind-numbing details about topics I couldn’t care less about, especially when presented in such excruciating detail. This book was published before social influencers had taken over, but I don’t think it matters. I’ve read several recent books that were recommended by the news media and they were just as bad as Until I Find You. Nothing has changed, only the medium.
Even if I didn’t have a policy of not reading more than one book by an author, I will never read ANYTHING by John Irving again; I can only speculate that screenplays based on his books (e.g., The World According to Garp and The Cypress House Rules) bore little resemblance to the books.
In summary, this book was as hard to read as The Divine Comedy, except it wasn’t written 700 year ago. I prayed for the ending, which was as much of a let-down as the entire book.