Archive for November, 2008

The Seamstress: A Novel

Sunday, November 30th, 2008

By Frances de Pontes Peebles

The Short Take:

Every once in awhile you encounter a book that isn’t merely a good story with fascinating characters but that actually transcends the realm of good non-fiction. The Seamstress is one of those books. 


I have no idea why some books become classics and others disappear into oblivion. This one certainly deserves the former option.

It’s a great read, but it is also so much more. This is true literature. Not the kind that makes you think of mandatory school reading, but the kind that makes you think, opens your mind, and brings you wonder.

Set in Brazil in the 1920s and 30s, the novel follows two sisters who follow different men into totally different lives. The contrasts in their lifestyles could not be stronger, yet the similarities in their circumstances are striking.

Both women contend with demanding new social situations that require them to develop new survival skills. Yet their childhood occupation as seamstresses continues to play an integral part of their new lives.

The Seamstress is very much placed in the real world of Brazilian politics and policies, though no characters are historic. The land, its climate, flora and fauna, and social structure are all an integral part of this beautifully detailed and deeply haunting novel.

I can’t recommend it enough.

Want Some Plot?

Trained as seamstresses, sisters Emilia and Luzia anticipate very different lives. Attractive Emilia dreams of moving from the hard life of the country into city refinements with a dashing husband. With an arm disfigured by a childhood accident, Lucia has no hope of marriage and prays desperately for a different life.

When the infamous Hawk, leader of a band of cangaceiros (a group of bandits with Robin Hood-like tendencies) comes to their village, he demands that Luzia leaves with him. Unexpectedly, Luzia finds herself immersed in a new world of dangers and loyalties; and she develops the skills to thrive in it.

A man also takes Emilia away. Degas Coelho is a diffident suitor but Emilia is so enamored with the idea of city life she subdues her doubts and marries him. Upon arriving in Recife, she finds her romanticized vision of married life bares no resemblance to the lonely and highly restrained existence she finds in the Coelho family home.

Despite the vast gulf between their lives, the sisters maintain a love for each other that still influences their actions. Each takes great risks to help the other even though they remain apart.

The results are bittersweet, and wholly believable.

Visit the author’s website by clicking here.

Back from Vacation

Sunday, November 16th, 2008

I’ve been away for the better part of three weeks. You might think I would use that time to read new, just-released books. Wrong. I packed my bags with a bunch of oldies — including one that was first published around 250 years ago.

Anytime I travel I follow a “read and release” policy: After finishing a book, I leave it behind for someone else to enjoy. My office closet has a whole area devoted to books I pick up at secondhand stores or other discount sources. One of my favorite parts of packing is selecting my reading material — there’s much to chose from and variety is key.

This time I selected:

“The River King” by Alice Hoffman: Very typical of her work — which you either love or hate. I just really get into the way she uses natural imagery of flora and fauna in such an unnatural and magical way. Men beware: her books are very girly. (Sorry, Amazon offered no link for this book.)

“Shadowfires” by Dean Koontz: I get more comments from fellow travelers when reading Koontz than any other author. They always want to know if I have read some other book of his. Unfortunately I have a hard time remembering the titles. In fact, once I started this thriller I had a sneaky suspicion I had read it already. Nothing was familiar however — until the end. Oops. I need to start a “previously read” list on Koontz. Problem is, I’ve read so many but am not sure exactly which ones those are.

“Original Sin” by P.D. James: Another “previously read” mistake. But I recognized this mystery from the first sentence. Oh, well, someone else will get to enjoy it. I do keep a list of previously read P.D. James books, but hadn’t written this one down. Any list is only as good as its maintenance. I do love P. D. James, however. Her mysteries are so smart.


“The Secret Supper” by Javier Sierra: I had heard it wasn’t very good. It wasn’t. This is a genre I enjoy, too. Maybe a lot was lost in translation.

“The Mysteries of Pittsburgh: A Novel” by Michael Chabon: Interesting, but not near as good as his more recent titles.

“The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling” by Henry Fielding: Actually, I haven’t finished this one yet — it has close to 900 pages long in my 1950s era paperback edition. Small print to boot. This probably wasn’t the best choice for vacation reading, but it is a major hoot. Very, very funny in a low key, satirical way. I know I’m missing a lot of the humor involving other authors of Fielding’s time and it is easy to get impatient with the constant digressions into philosophical discussions, but it’s well worth the time invested.

I brought a couple of others just in case — I can’t abide being without a book. They’ll go back into the closet for another time. 

And now it’s back to reviewing new books. I’ve got one all ready to go up in a couple of days.


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November 2008