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Stephen Siciliano "the highway scribe" (Los Angeles, CA USA)

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The Table Comes First
The Table Comes First
by Adam Gopnik
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.99

1 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 11 Dec. 2011
This review is from: The Table Comes First (Hardcover)
Eat this book!

How far things have come since Yippie philosopher Abbie Hoffman's publisher invited consumers to "Steal This Book," by giving it that very title.

Maybe author Adam Gopnik remembers former French President Francois Mitterand remarking that the United States was "a country waiting to be entertained" when he launched a body of work that mixed food and literature quite so lovingly.

A few chapters into "The Table Comes First," and you may very well try to eat it, or at least take a crack at one of the half-recipes he drops in throughout the essay.

It may be the case that the enjoyment of Gopnik's book rises inversely as one's familiarity with "food writing" drops. That was the case here. highwayscribery cannot say if the food talk contained is food news, only that everything else about it was fun.

Subtitling his essay, "Family, France, and the Meaning of Food," the author stakes out a large swath of human interest and then highlights the ties binding food to our larger life.

"The Table Comes First," passes from the particular (food) to the universal, reading in the tea leaves of peoples' food choices their politics, history, culture, the French Revolution, and the reasons for Catalonian cuisine (to name a few).

In doing so, the book becomes something for everybody, which is somewhat the point: Everybody loves food.

By way of one example, Gopnik discusses a "rule of three" he applies to cooking and life-living.

"Is there a pattern of making here, more universal than it might at first seem?" he asks. "Jasper Johns once said, with the high, significant disingenuousness of faux-naif genius, that the way to make art is to take something and do something to it and then do something else to it."

And it is applied to cooking how?

"There is first the raw thing, then there is the transformative act, and then there is the personal embroidery" and then back to the larger world, "Something borrowed, something done, something only I can do. Natures Way; Our Tribe's Way' My Way. Or else History, My Time, My Talent."

You may or may not find that particular line of analysis useful to your life, but it's a good bet other things Gopnik writes, while conjuring butterscotch pudding from scratch, will ring true.

The writer, who is a remnant of the old Manhattan talky-smart crowd, and writes for no less than "The New Yorker," has a whimsical touch, though there will be times you'll have to bear down and work a little.

It should be worth it.

The investigation into how restaurants came about, took form, and held it, is interesting stuff especially for those who frequent them. It is light fare (pun intended), yet thought-provoking.

The writer provides an exacting, yet almost apolitical look at the meat debate. He puts the "local" strain of food-eating to the test in New York and comes out less-than-convinced the means are resulting in the desired ends (while ingesting a good-sounding repast).

Gopnik hews not to any ideology. He pulls what is good for his diet and mind from raging trends, rejects what does not work, and lets food-love be his guide.

The second half, less historical and less researched, lags a little by comparison. Still there are conversations with top chefs and culinary thinkers in "The Table Comes First," that enlighten.

And those who have only heard in passing what happened at elBulli outside Barcelona will enjoy the insider's view of the process Gopnik provides towards the end. Others mystified by "molecular" cuisine may find their nerves calmed, or irritated further by the contents.

Where the writer seems to be going, without banging the gong too hard, is that breaking bread has a sacred component. A strong one. That may not be a revelation, but how and why are worthwhile topics in this world where everything has already been written or said.

"Losing our faith in art is, in a secular culture," Gopnik closes, "what losing our faith in God was to a religious one."

Frothy dinner guest though he may be, a "Tea Party" invitation is probably not be forthcoming.

I Married You for Happiness
I Married You for Happiness
by Lily Tuck
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 30 Oct. 2011
Early evening, a woman's husband comes home, greets her, goes up to their bedroom and dies. She spends the night by his side, looking back on their happy marriage.

That's the plot, such as it is, to author Lily Tuck's "I married you for happiness."

Philip and Nina are worldly, educated, and well-traveled so that the stuff of their otherwise anonymous lives does not weigh the reader down in boring, quotidian minutiae.

She is a painter. He is a mathematician specializing in the field of probability. The novel is peppered with lectures on this topic, some to his students, some to his wife. These can be interesting or opaque and difficult to understand.

Even in the latter case, Tuck manages to make it sound good and it's not beyond reason to suspect there was something in the language associated with probability that she found pleasing to the eye and ear.

As Philip's examples and scenarios accumulate, it seems the author is trying to say this happy marriage, with its ebb and flow, glories and pratfalls, was something that might or might not have occurred given the laws governing chance and that, even though it panned out, it was not meant to be forever.

Ms. Tuck is a prior winner of the National Book Award and her command of craft is patent in "I married you for happiness."

The remembering takes place as the night winds on. The reader is kept abreast of the changing light outside, the passing of cars, and barking of dogs. You know Philip is dead and the recollections are more poignant because you know this woman will have no more of them.

There is no chronology. The memories are placed by the author in places she needs them most, the musings on probability the same, yet for all this temporal disorder, an overall impression of control seeps from this thin tome.

Maybe it's the two lives detailed that imposed the order.

Those with happy marriages can mourn along with Nina, even apply the exercise to their won coupling. Those less fortunate can indulge in a kind of guilty pleasure, absolved, up to a point, by the underlying theme of chance and likelihoods.

The Train of Small Mercies
The Train of Small Mercies
by David Rowell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.85

4.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 19 Oct. 2011
"The Train of Small Mercies," doesn't take one any place in particular, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Author David Rowell has applied a subtle hand in portraits of people living places through which the train carrying the slain Senator Robert Kennedy passed.

His chosen cross section for illumination include a white housewife, a black Pullman porter, some middle-class suburbanites with a pool, and a young man who lost a leg in Vietnam.

This is time (1968), place (eastern seaboard) and class (working) literature nicely confected. To have lived through some of what Rowell renders is to be transported anew, something we ask of good literature. One can hope a like feeling affects those born in later years.

You do not have to be a fan of Bobby Kennedy, or even know who he was, to appreciate this novel, which is more about the backdrop than the foreground. Rowell, a journalist, keeps his distance, avoids the trap of Kennedy hagiography, and places the senator in the lives of his characters, uses him more as a giant, temporal bookmark.

You will not know by the end why so many people viewed Kennedy's campaign as a high-water mark in American political life, but you will know they existed and what some of them were like.

Still, there is a positive glow to the senator's swan song, not in some passionate elegy from the writer, but in his descriptions of the faces in the pictures of thousands who lined the train route that sad June day.

Kennedy was killed and the train tracks became a place of gathering and space for shared grief, and the point of focus to a curious, low-voltage novel.

There are clean easy prose and a sense of incompletion to "The Train of Small Mercies," not technically the author's fault. He delivers on the title's promise: A story about a train.

We do not follow the people we've come to know in Delaware, New York, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania once the casket is pulled from the last rolling car in Union Station.

Instead, we get off the train of the story with them and are left to guess not only what will happen to them, but ponder how Kennedy's assassination will alter the course of their lives.

If it has not already done so by story's end.

Child Wonder
Child Wonder
by Roy Jacobsen
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.99

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 16 Oct. 2011
This review is from: Child Wonder (Hardcover)
"Child Wonder" is the story of a boy, his widowed mother, and her reckless decision to take her stepdaughter into their household.

There is something not quite right with the little girl: "Linda was not of this world," the child narrator, Finn, tells us, "one day I would come to understand this -- she was a Martian come down to earth to speak in tongues to heathens, French to Norwegians and Russian to Americans."

Her ailment is developmental, in the head, but never fully revealed by the author, a practice he applies to other issues haunting the family throughout the length of the piece.

Sensing the profile of these issues, while never being fed a full rasher of details, creates a degree of dramatic tension, though the real purpose may be to put us on equal footing with the story's children, around whom it truly revolves.

The kids do not know everything that goes on around them, nor does the reader, which may or may not be a good thing.

There is not much of plot to "Child Wonder." It covers the year after Linda moves in, measures the growing distance between Finn and his inscrutable mom, and their interaction with a lodger whom circumstances have forced upon them.

The book wanders, meanders, not tied down to the usual overarching plot and cohort of subtexts; a series of events that unfold and build up, sort of, to the ending, and author Roy Jacobson is in no hurry to divulge them.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just so you know.

If you've read your fair share of dysfunctional family dramas, the real novelty to "Child Wonder" may turn out to be where it is situated. The novel unfolds in Norway, which renders it, for the uninitiated, something of a passport to a small country not very much in the headlines, but worthy of revelation to the curious among us.

For certain, you'll not recognize "the old style swimming belts, lineed with reindeer fur," nor the heavily public and collective way people exist with one another, in the 1960s, as post-World War II Europe begins to spread its economic wings.

"Child Wonder," will not blow you away, shock you out of your shoes, or haunt you long. It's impact is indirect, its motives and purpose well below the surface of the page, working hard to demonstrate what becomes of our hearts and souls with age.

Manana O Pasado: El Misterio de Los Mexicanos
Manana O Pasado: El Misterio de Los Mexicanos
by Jorge Castaneda
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.36

4.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 28 Sept. 2011
Según Jorge Castaneda, México es como un niño olvidado quien ha desarollado ciertos mecanismos para sobrevivir, pero que ya no le valen en el mundo moderno.

Los Mexicanos, por ejemplo, resultan ser individuales que acuden muy pocas veces a los proyectos colectivos como puede ser construir un estado de derecho o una sociedad civil.

Es lo principal y aqui dicho por Castaneda, "La supuesta devoción mexicana por la democracia choca con el individualismo de los mexicanos, y con su rechazo categórico a cualquier red horizontal de solidaridad, asociación, trabajo voluntario o forma simple de organización. El país presenta altos grados de desconfianza hacia sus instituciónes; carece de un sentido de la representación política y muestra un sentimiento profundo de ineficiencia e intolerancia politíca, ademas de un desapego generalizado respecto a la ley y una concomitante propensión a la corrupción."

Mucha palabrería, pero traza bien las fronteras de la propuesta encontrado en "Mañana o pasado, el misterio de los mexicanos."

Este deseo solitario nace de muchas cosas, entre ellas una "completa desconfianza mexicana hacia el gobierno y las instituciónes" en un país donde "la posesión de una parcela de tierra sigue representando la mejor defensa frente a un mundo exterior predatorio," opina el autor, un ex-ministro de asuntos exteriores en la administración de Vicente Fox.

Pero México anda camino hace el nuevo mundo. Castaneda nos informa que, "Para al final del periodo de Felipe Calderon, la población del país será, más o menos, dos terceras partes de clase media con todo lo que ello impílica política, económica, y socialmente; pero tal vez no, desafortunadamente, en terminos culturales."

Otro imperfección, o sea cosa poca perfecta, es la tendencia de esquivar el enfrentamiento.

Para el mexicano, "El único benefício posible derivado del la confrontación directa es que alguien pierda y alguien gane, y casi siempre, el que pierde va a ser mas 'mexicano' o mas' 'popular' que el ganador."

O, dicho de otra manera, el mexicano piensa que "Es mejor decir aquí corrio, que aquí murio."

Se tropieza con este tendencia en los ambitos de la economia, la política, los sindicatos o los medios de communicación.

En lo que se refiere al la democracia, los mexicanos lo valúa como un instrumento para "permitir y promover la convergencia entre fuerzas políticas" en ver de guarantizár que las divergencias "permanezcan en el rango de las resoluciónes pacíficas," tal y como el autor lo prefiere.

El país también sufre de una concentración del poder, poca sana para el futuro de la sagrada clase media.

Sugiere el autor que estas actitudes son arraigadas en la historia indígena de Mexico, "un tanto distinta de las otras por que la víctima es rey, la derrota es glorificada y las influencias y agentes extranjeros son decisivos e implacable," dice Castaneda.

El autor utilíza tal cantidad de datos que casi se aburre al lector, salvo que estos ejercícios académicos son compaginados con otros pensamientos mas curiosos, si no tan empiricos, como puede ser lo significado del cantor Juan Gabriel, el arte de Cantinflas, o el por que la selección Mexicana de futbol no vale diez pesos.

Un tóque suave ejerce Castaneda aqui. No grita, no insiste, sino sugiere y hasta entretiene con sus propuestas para México que, si no resuelven las grandes cuestiones aquí enumerados, abren camino hacía posibles debates y respuestas.

Para los que se interesan, quieren o aman a México, merece la pena sorber algúno de los pensamientos aquí presentados.

Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile
Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile
by Ariel Dorfman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.51

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 28 Sept. 2011
Ariel Dorfman's dissection of exile doubles as a portrait in unrequited love.

In "Feeding on Dreams," the Chilean playwright, novelist, and essayist -- exiled voice of the anti-Pinochet resistance throughout the 1980s and '90s -- blows long on the strange forces that subvert the expatriate's efforts to reconstruct a life.

But "Feeding on Dreams" is also a story of rejection. The Chile of revolutionary struggle and progressive experimentation Dorfman was forced to flee is gone once the dictatorship is lifted and he returns.

His adopted country's embrace of neo-liberal policies during the author's 20 years in the hinterlands changed Chile for good, structurally and spiritually. We learn from this account that the literal massacre of the left opposition is an act with permanent ramifications.

As Dorfman worked abroad to keep the dead and deposed president Salvador Allende's ideas alive, while exposing the Pinochet dictatorship's chronic addiction to murder, the country had moved on.

Written over a backdrop of big history, a U.S.-backed coup and narrow escape into exile, "Feeding on Dreams" is really a tale of subtler things. Dorfman lost a country and status and he writes of the slights and adjustments endured.

Trying to shield their children from the fear of capture or murder beclouding their lives, mother and father eventually learn they have done nothing of the kind. That they live in danger, insecurity, and their children are fully affected by them.

Dorfman is something of a relic: the engaged leftist intellectual who uses his art to further the working class cause, while actively pursuing goals in the political arena. They just don't make them like this anymore.

His time is one when the world was split into two large camps represented, more or less, by their choice of economic religion. Dorfman's crowd was typical of the post-war left, rainbow in aspect, but driven by communist discipline, numbers and money.

He survives exile thanks to the assistance of countless solidarity groups spawned by the socialist and communist parties around the world. Their tenacity and commitment are noteworthy and detailed.

The good and the bad.

Residing in Holland thanks to assistance from some local and left-wing outfit, the author runs afoul of a good friend and ally through some strange misappropriation of money he was given.

The help was firm, but the qualifying criteria stringent.

Dorfman made two returns to Chile, once during the dictatorship and then post-Pinochet. Neither went well. There was a nagging guilt at having escaped what became a rather expansive concentration camp. There is the change in once-idealistic allies' more cynical view of politics and its purposes.

Having not lived the fear, Dorfman stakes his claim to a rightful place in the Chilean intelligentsia by writing a play that gets up everybody's noses. Those who have lived the horror have agreed to not talk about the horror, to try and leave it behind.

Dorfman's play, successful in other places, fails miserably in Chile. They are not ready for his in-depth accusatory. He has no constituency there and ends up in North Carolina.

The author is humble, bemused, and possessing of aplomb throughout this difficult account of a man slipping, stubbing, and stumbling across the planet. He is frank about his self-assessment when it came to marketing his writings on Chile to the top newspapers in the U.S. and aware the value his personal tragedy gave that work.

He is a writer and given to metaphorical flight. Be prepared to know that a stick of a tree growing somewhere in Santiago actually signifies exile and return, a long-ago friend who has held the flame of continuity even as the spurned son floundered overseas...

But we jest. The literary insight to the things Dorfman has seen open up broader vistas, engage the spiritual as much as the factual.

He writes lovingly of the place and longingly for the politics of solidarity that put him at the maelstrom of Chilean history. His pain is clear, because he confronts it in this book.

My Favorite Band Does Not Exist
My Favorite Band Does Not Exist
by Robert T. Jeschonek
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £2.92

3.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 3 Aug. 2011
"My Favorite Band Does Not Exist," (MFBDNE) tracks the progress of two young men, one who has a complex about being controlled by others, the second fearful of failure.

They are unfamiliar with one another, but Idea Deity has confected a fake band over the Internet that has gone viral, at the very same time Reacher Mirage's rockin' combo is rehearsing under THE VERY SAME NAME.

Author Robert Jeschonek has gone Yin-and-Yang, sun-and-moon, night-and-day, complete-me-complete-you in a text that fully embraces dualism and puts his protagonists on a track towards unity. It's for their own good and for the good of the "chain of realities," or something like that.

Their progress is aided by two sprightly girls, each with a tattoo of the other's face on the back of her head. Jumping back between Reacher's and Idea's stories, MFBDNE also inter-cuts with a novel both men are simultaneously reading called "Fireskull's Revenant."

It would result in a spoiler to say anything more than that the protagonists' fates are inextricably mixed with the two comic book-style characters, Lord Fireskull and Johnny Without, the author fashions in some alternate reality.

Follow? It's not that complicated really. MFBDNE is nothing if not a smooth read.

Mr. Jeschonek's background includes turns as a writer of the Pocket Book "Star Trek" series, podcasts, a Twitter serial, and work for D.C. comics. His first novel follows in the same vein.

There is just enough characterization to make this a novel and something other than a comic-book-in-text. Jeschonek's little machine of counterweights inter-spliced with a metaphor-laden fantasy book drives itself nicely.

He even takes Miguel Unamuno's "Abel Sanchez" a step further, empowering Idea, as character, to rebel against the intentions of his creator/author and choose a proper destiny.

For all its cartoon-like pyrotechnics, MFBDNE is mostly an oneiric yarn concerned with interior lives of its primary subjects.

The test for individual readers will be whether they care if Idea and Reacher resolve their inner conflicts. It's highwayscribery's guess younger readers will while their elders shrug.

Don't let the edgy, punky cover fool you. Jeschonek's are straight ahead, white-bread prose that take no chances and break no new ground.

That said, he writes the heck out of his story, fully developing his many threads, punching up his yarn in every sentence, and with every named character, so that nothing seems lazy or unnecessary to the piece. It is hard not to be pulled along by the writer's exuberance, as he barrels forward, tongue ever in cheek, playfully approaching his task.

"My Favorite Band Does Not Exist," is meant for the denizens of the younger generation currently afoot and, perhaps, for those who want to understand something of their reality.

Ten Thousand Saints
Ten Thousand Saints
by Eleanor Henderson
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 17 July 2011
This review is from: Ten Thousand Saints (Hardcover)
A good and quick way of describing "Ten Thousand Saints," would be to call it a bohemian consort to Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom."

The Berglunds, Franzen's vehicle for sifting and weighing distinct facets of contemporary American life are troubled and wacky (like all of us). But they have college degrees, own a sweet house, and (on and off) hold jobs that exceed the value of their pedigrees.

They are quintessentials (made-up word) woven from the American myth, strivers on a mad lurch upward, their familial idiosyncrasies pushing and pulling.

The parents in Eleanor Henderson's novel, by way of contrast, are pot-smokers/dealers, glass bong-blowers or long-departed.

Two of the kids in the cast, Teddy and Jude, engage in youthful tomfoolery such as snorting industrial compounds, and well, stuff so inane that Henderson's acknowledgements inform her son that he can "do anything but don't ever do any of the stupid things in this book."

Teddy dies (not a spoiler but forecast in the book's opening sentence) while they are inhaling something out of an air conditioner duct in the freezing Vermont night.

Before he did that though, Teddy had sex with Jude's step-sister, Eliza, and impregnated her.

The loss of a beloved friend and brother spurs Jude, and Teddy's senior sibling Johnny, to form a protective cloister around Eliza and nurture her to delivery.

That's your story. It moves from Vermont to New York, where Johnny and Eliza already live anyway, and situates them in the "straight edge" movement clustering throughout Alphabet City, Manhattan, in the late 1980s.

A plan is cooked-up whereby Johnny claims paternity and marries Eliza as a legal and tender way of keeping parents, grandparents and state agencies from assuming their traditional roles in the lives of confused teen-aged moms.

They form a band, The Green Mountain Boys. After running afoul of some local toughs back in Vermont, a van tour is launched, second rate venues played, and junk food imbibed on the open American road.

Sex, spirits and narcotics, are eschewed because that's the "straight edge" credo, perhaps at the story's expense.

There is something monkish about the trio that makes them not very much fun to follow, despite their admirable do-it-yourself musicianship and earnest efforts at hacking a unique path for themselves through the complex new world of maturity.

They take a shot at the open road, another American myth; The one that says somewhere in all that vastness, there is a place better than where I'm at.

"It was ten o'clock in the morning, and it was summer, and these were the best years of their lives, and they were crossing George Washington Bridge, the Hudson a spangled blue ribbon laced through it.

"On the boom box that served as car stereo was the new album by Side By Side, with whom they had just performed; behind Jude were one thousand copies of their own seven-inch record, which had just been pressed in Haworth, New Jersey, and released on Green Mountain Recordings, the label Delph had produced out of thin air."

Here, that myth is either false or a thing of the past.

The kids can't seem to escape their parents, bouncing between them, renewing entanglements. Yes they've made the big jump to The Big Town, but Les, Jude's pot-smoking dad is there, along with Eliza's overweening mom, Di.

"Ten Thousand Saints" is very nicely written by a woman with all the academic bona fides of today's top publishing recruit, but readers may split on whether the talent might have been lavished on something other than a brief bohemian idyll in Manhattan of some less-than-inspiring youths.

by Esmerelda Santiago
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £24.15

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 13 July 2011
This review is from: Conquistadora (Hardcover)
Esmeralda Santiago's "Conquistadora" is many stories in one.

It is the story of the headstrong young Spanish girl, Ana, struggling to make it in the new world. It is the political story of a Puerto Rico running on slavery, though still in colonial shackles. It is the story of a sugar plantation that destroys a pair of families seduced by the promise of tropically tinged wealth.

The narrative covers 20 some odd years at the plantation, "Los Gemelos," with occasional visits to San Juan for an update on the temporal situation, in Puerto Rico and beyond, while recounting the progress of sundry relatives and lovers residing there.

The reader is treated to a systematic dissection of a sugar plantation's workings. Ample detail regarding slave life, and existence in Africa prior, is rendered. A thread covering the rebellious maneuvers of intellectuals with nationalist yearnings in the capital is also pulled through the fabric of "Conquistadora."

Overlaying its alternately brutal and luscious landscape is Ana's quest to make a go of the farm, which had defeated an illustrious ancestor. The plantation devours most everyone and everything around, save for Severo, a hybrid foreman and landowner who has much in common with Ana, save for social class, which favors her.

This reviewer is not familiar with Ms. Santiago's earlier works, which have achieved acclaim and significant circulation. And it is not easy to say that something with so much work put into it doesn't quite come out right.

In her efforts to provide a panoramic picture of the island and capture a historic moment, the author has peopled her landscape with many characters fighting for the space to blossom.

Santiago's portraits of the slaves are most compelling, but they are not very well woven into the overall text. There are many slaves at "Los Gemelos" and it is not easy to keep track of them given their fragmented insertions into the narrative.

Ana is the primary focus, but for all the time spent on her, compared to the others, it seems she never truly wins anyone over, either in the story (characters), or outside of it (the reader).

She and Severo appear rather calculating people who will do anything, and use anyone, to keep their precious farm functioning.

In the midst of a perilous moment in their joint enterprise, Severo comforts his lover and partner by noting,

"Don't forget. Bad weeds don't die."

To which she responds, "If bad weeds don't die. We'll both live forever."

Yes, Santiago may be making a point about what it took to be a "conquistadora," in those rough and tumble days of early Puerto Rico. But authenticity and empathy don't always come in the same package.

Perhaps too much was tried here. Sometimes a novel with epic sweep can dwarf its own characters.

A story of a love gone awry over property in a strange land was enough to win with, but the author strains to fit all of Puerto Rico into the narrative of some rather starcrossed people.

Santiago resorts to description that often reads like a "National Geographic" article ("Horses, mules, pigs, goats milk cows, bulls, chickens ducks, guinea fowls, and doves to be tended...") and merely adds to the surfeit of information slowing the story's progress.

Her sentences and paragraphs often break down into listings of items, people, occurrences or actions that give the novel an unfinished feel.

Like this one from the very same page 123: "Slaves cleaned and improved the building where the cane was processed, repaired machinery, maintained the tracks from the canebrakes to the 'batey,' raised berm between fields, built and cleared ditches. They staked new fences and mended deteriorated ones, dug trenches for drainage, built canals for irrigation."

Otherwise known as farm work.

But most of all, the conquistadora herself is a tough sell. Raised under the harsh yoke of Spanish Catholicism, she engages a lesbian lover, marries a man with a twin brother, beds down with each, and then barters an only son away, without ever losing her mind.

It is dark stuff and Ana, young and sheltered as her upbringing has been, remains remarkably unaffected for someone steeped in the gothic influences of Seville.

In the end, it seems as if Santiago draped a new world archetype -- a pre-feminist heroine -- over an old world silhouette. It is a tough purchase, the idea that this character's passion for books combined with a rebellious nature could so effectively inform a provincial girl in the ways of modern independence.

Daughter of Siena
Daughter of Siena
by Marina Fiorato
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.99

12 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 8 July 2011
This review is from: Daughter of Siena (Hardcover)
Siena, take a bow.

In Marina Fiorato's "The Daughter of Siena," the principal characters turn out bit players, and the Tuscan city, a star.

Set in 18th century Italy, this is a tale of sanguinary political tribes, horseracing, love unrequited, and palace intrigue with a Sienese flavor.

The novel charts the slow-forming alliance of the low-born Riccardo Bruni, a maiden groomed for sale via marriage, Pia Tolomei, an ineffective duchess, and a street urchin, in their battle against some treasonous nobles bent on sacking Siena for their own enrichment.

"The Daughter of Siena" is as hermetically sealed as any self-respecting provincial European municipality.

The author effectively weaves Siena's ever-present swallows, rival "contrade" or neighborhoods' vibrant colors, and legendary "Palio" race -- the city's landmarks and identifying symbols -- into the stuff of the story.

The dome, towers, scalloped central square, urban landscape, pageantry and peculiar ways of the provincial burg not only inform the story, but are the very stuff it is made of.

The novel's tightly wound plot makes it difficult to do a summary without giving things away.

Perhaps it is enough to say that the cast are introduced, en masse, in the first Palio of summer, and the city's fate, which all will enlist to influence, is tied to the outcome of a second run in August.

"It is a little risky," says Pia. "To bet a city on a horse race."

Arrayed against the motley, but loveable, crew recruited to save the rein of the de Medici clan in town are some sinister city fathers with bloody predilections and a difficult-to-crack plan for seizing power from the Duchess Violante de Medici, of whom the omniscient narrator comments:

"She was aware of the new thinking, the new sciences, the enlightenment of the world, but she devoured instead legends and tales of old, because she herself was preserved in the amber of a bygone era."

As are the literary passions of Ms. Fiorato.

When Riccardo apprises Pia of so much that has occurred during her imprisonment at the hands of evil-doers, she observes, "He might have been telling her fairy tale by the fire, so incredible did it sound to her ears."

A fairy tale for adults, wherein the history and culture of a unique location are skillfully strung in narrative threads the writer successfully resolves, without the facts about Siena and its history ever appearing inorganic or forced.

The narration is rendered in a straight-up grammatical English and the whole is well-polished.

Subjectively speaking, highwayscribery prefers things a little raggedy, whereas this story stays between the lines, ties up all loose ends through sensible set-ups that can, at times, appear obvious. The resolutions comes across as neat and pat.

But that is mostly a matter of taste, not the skill so amply on display in this story of characters trying to cope with the weight of Siena, and it's history, on their efforts to hack individual paths through Italian life.

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