Friday, February 25, 2005

Friday: When Is Enough, Enough?

by msedano

My wife is a fan of war novelist Tim O'Brien. But I couldn't get past the opening pages of A Lake in the Woods, it was so plodding. I caught a break, though, when around page 18, the author says something like "dear reader, if you think this is slow and plodding, give up because the remainder of my writing is more of the same." So I quit reading.

When does one give up on something that isn't so obvious as O'Brien's engraved invitation to dump the effort? Like I have picked up Denise Chavez' Face of An Angel five times, and each time been so unmoved I haven't gotten more than a few pages beyond where I left off the previous effort. Yet I enthusiastically recommend Loving Pedro Infante, although that one required a month and two tries to get through.

I'm reading Nina Marie Martinez' Caramba! A tale told in turns of the cards. In fact, I've been reading it for 6 weeks now. And I'm about 2/3 through. As its subtitle suggests, Martinez has a clever but by now familiar idea. Each chapter takes off from a loteria card. Martinez tells a bizarre tale set in rural California with a foray into Mexico to free a restless spirit from purgatory. It's a buddy book, its two main characters seemingly heavily influenced by Loving Pedro Infante, although writer Sandra Cisneros' blurb on the back cover calls the novel a chicana "Thelma and Louise". Martinez has some clever character ideas, a born-again mariachi who falls madly in love with a gun-toting pinta, who finds it thrilling that the unknowing paramour might be her brother. Sexual passion links several characters, including a transgender hairdresser frustrated that she can't find a loving man, an older woman tired of on-again off-again romances who urges a suitor to consult a brujo to cast a love spell, and a cast of minor players.

Caramba! is supposed to be fun, but most of the time, it's not. But I keep reading because here and there the writer drops an insight onto the page that takes my breath away. Martinez' keen wit, highly developed sense of irony keep me reading for those occasional gems. So, I'm gonna finish it, and I'll share some of those insightful gems, maybe that will move you to pick up the novel. You'll read it, find it wondrous and grand, then write back to tell me where I went wrong, what I missed.

Or, maybe you'll write to tell me I shoulda followed my instincts and found something else to read.


Manuel Ramos said...

There are so many good books and so little time that it really is true that life is too short to waste on a bad book. I've read very good and very bad. Only in exceptional cases has it turned out that the bad feeling I had about a book in the first 50 pages changed by the end. If the author can't get into a reader's head by page 50 both the author and reader need someone else, imho.


Anonymous said...

I go with what Ramos on this.
Back when I was just a nationalist, I'd labor thru all 500 pp. of a book just 'cause a Chicano had written it. (I won't mention names, unless I did/do a review of it.)
We oughta hold ourselves to (almost) the same criteria we use with others. Si no, how's we's gonna get better?