issue 35: Mar - Apr 2003
index of book reviews for all issues
|Note: TBR encourages readers to buy books at their local independent booksellers, but not all UK books are available in the US and vice-versa. For on-line book ordering of UK books Amazon UK carries all titles reviewed in TBR; all US releases carried by Amazon.com unless otherwise noted.|
|Adios Muchachos by Daniel
Chavarría: Serpents Tail (UK), 2003
translated from the Spanish by Carlos Lopez
Back in the distant past books and films in translation always seemed to verge on the arty side. This has changed over the last ten years or so with the proliferation of popular fiction in translation. The last two offerings I have read for TBR (both from the Spanish) - Raul Nuñezs The LonelyHearts Club and Pedro Juan Gutiérrezs Dirty Havana Trilogy - are typical of this trendy new wave. These novels are anything but arty; in fact, I doubt there is a word as long as pretentious in either one. Adios Muchachos follows in this tradition. For those having a sense of déjà vu this is the UKs first publishing, and Serpents Tail, following the 2001 release in the US, have given the book a graphic-design cover, but made it brighter, more modern and, appropriately, toned down the illustration to a less tarty looking girl. The cover boasts 2002 Edgar Award Winner for best original paperback; and Martin Cruz Smiths blurb: Pulp fiction in Castros Cuba sex, scheming, and, well, more sex. So, we have a mystery-cum-sex book (sic).
The opening line says a lot about the speed, style and content of what follows: "When Alicia decided to become a bicycle hooker, her mother agreed to sell a ring that had been in the family for five generations." Straight in, no messing about, we know mum is going to invest heavily so her daughter can become a prostitute. Not your everyday family setup then. In fact mum cooks fantastic meals for the foreign-tourist-johns that Alicia brings home through a scam with her built-to-break-down bike. It is a good investment and soon the two have a healthy stockpile of refrigerators, air conditioners and so on as Alicia doesnt really do it for money; she is even insulted if money is offered. No, what she wants is a stinking rich husband who lives anywhere other than Cuba, so to blatantly come across as a hooker is not on.
The scam goes something like this: You are a rich tourist, Cuba is full of hookers, the sex tourist trade is huge so getting laid is no problem, but then a beautiful girl with an incredible arse cycles past. She is carrying what looks like rolled-up architectural drawings in a knapsack - obviously a student. Suddenly the pedal falls off and the girl is sent sprawling on the ground. You help her up, dust her down and, being a gentleman with a grateful curvaceous babe on your arm, you offer to take her, and broken bike, home. Here you meet a mother who thanks you profusely and offers to cook for you. There is a photo of a painting of the girl in the nude, you are taken to see the original which is in the girls bedroom, and even if you are ugly and fat with an erection problem, you are made to feel very at home. Suddenly something happens, like the creaking fan stops running, and this makes the girl angry. After sex you offer to pay, girl gets angrier, so, you think, she is not a whore, she must have screwed you because she likes you. You offer to buy a new fan/air conditioner/bicycle /replace the food /buy even more food etc. Hell, you think, she is so cute and smart and likes me for what I am, I could even marry her!
Now, it is up to Alicia to find out how rich you are before she says yes. She has a shortlist but nothing has really come along. Then one day her choreographed bike trick lures in Victor King and suddenly scammer meets scammer. What Victor (a dead ringer for Mel Gibson) really wants is too much a part of the plot to reveal here, but he has a curiously mysterious wife, Elizabeth, and her needs are very interesting indeed. In the lucrative position of a kept woman Alicia finds herself with lots of money, surrounded by luxury she could only once imagine, servicing selected business contacts of the Dutch conglomerate Victor works for. But an innocent disaster leads to more scams and double-dealings to escape possible arrest and imprisonment, and one is left with the type of farcical situation Hollywood would love to make a movie of but just couldnt because of the content and subject matter.
This is a fun book - short, fast, funny, mildly erotic but with tragedy, of a kind,
also woven in. The author is apparently a classics professor and if one wanted to look
closer at this work I suppose they could find elements of classic Greek comedy, but being
ignorant of this fact certainly wouldnt hinder ones enjoyment one iota. In
fact it was a bit pretentious of me even to mention it. MGS
Strictly Casual: Fiction for Women in Love, edited by Amy Prior: Serpents Tail (UK), 2003
For some diverting reading try out this anthology of sixteen short stories by such writers as A.M. Homes, Pagan Kennedy, Julia Bell and Laura Hird. As editor Amy Prior states in the introduction: "The days of an easy Mills-and-Boon ride are over. For the single girl, it seems relationships are becoming a much trickier business, fraught with complications and confusions previous generations probably never could have predicted . . . . The outcome: there are now far fewer ground rules in love. The moral: we just have to make them."
Its true, I cant conceive of my mother ever having been in the situation of the thirty-year-old single girl in Elizabeth Gravers "Between": shes living with a handsome and affable gay, Paolo, who cooks, shares the housework and is her best friend. Each dates others, and they even try at relationships, but cant seem to let go of their comfortable, hassle-free "marriage." Bridget OConnors "Inappropriate Random" gives us three good-time girls knocking back triple gins during Happy Hour at the local pub. Then, as can happen, one turns sad and teary, and the efforts of the others to help her along prove to be disastrous (and very funny). In Laura Hirds "The Happening" a single girl awakens in an alcoholic haze the morning after that most dangerous of annual events - the Christmas office party. She must now try to figure out just who the naked teenage boy is asleep in her bed.
Brett Ellen Blocks "The High Month" follows a cheeky girl whos just "stolen" her boyfriends Mustang. Hes nuts over it, shes jealous and just wants to teach him a lesson, but all doesnt go according to plan. Caren Gussoffs "Love Story" follows the business-like correspondence of a single girl who, on the referral of a friend, applies to a guy for "the open position as your girlfriend" and dutifully includes her résumé. Detachment also figures in Anne-Marie Paynes "Web Diary of AMP." Here we follow a media writer whiz, who prefers relating to others electronically, on her slide down the chute during the dot com crash.
A female bike messenger in London meets with a lovely lady every Wednesday at Espresso Espresso in Julia Bells charming tale "Strictly Casual"; while in Bonny Griers "A Map of the Tube" a spoiled, wealthy, overweight New York Buppy, in love with an English guy after a one-night stand on Marthas Vineyard, tries to track him down in London; shes pathetic but has plenty of conviction, and her sassy voice is funny as hell.
Taking an edgier turn, Cris Mazzas "Cookie" traces the life of a young woman who breeds, trains and shows Shetland sheepdogs at her very own dog facility behind her home; alone in her world of dogs all is well, but her equilibrium is thrown off balance when strange neighbors move next door and her water delivery man begins to come on to her. There is unease as well in A.M. Homes "Raft in Water, Floating" where a dreamy American teenager seems to have created her own world, afloat on a raft at home in the pool.
The darkest and most perverse of the stories is Barbara Gowdys "We So Seldom Look on Love," which follows the making of a female necrophile. She becomes a hearse driver in her teens and what goes on behind the closed doors of the funeral home would make Poppy Z. Brite proud. Its positively gross and I loved it. Have I mentioned Pagan Kennedy yet? Shes in top form in "Fish Without a Bicycle," where an environmental worker must come to terms with her boyfriends sudden split. And there are more stories as well.
Strictly Casual is a fun read and says something, too, about the new world order of the single female: she must indeed make her own ground rules. The women in these stories seemed oh-so familiar - like who hasnt over-indulged at an office party? - and I enjoyed following their escapades. Necrophilia is a bit outside my realm of experience, but hey, thats just this girls thing! You cant stand between a woman and love. And dont try to predict what shell get up to. Twenty-first century, mate. J.A. [See Laura Hirds story "The Happening" in this issue of TBR.]
tbr 35 March - April 2003
Alexei Sayle: Barcelona Plates
Laura Hird: The Happening
Barbara Lefcowitz: Medea, The Girl from Albania, The Walking Tree
picks from back issues:
Des Dillon: The Blue Hen
Pedro Juan Gutiérrez: Buried in Shit and Stars and Losers
Gretchen McCullough: March 2003: Letter from Cairo