Review 1373: The Queen of the Caribbean

I was intrigued enough when I wrote my Classic Author Focus article on Emilio Salgari for The Classics Club that I ordered one of his books. Salgari was an early 20th century adventure novelist whose work inspired other writers and film makers.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really do my homework and ended up picking a book with an appealing cover and title. The problem was that it is the second in Salgari’s Black Corsair series. Unlike many old adventure series—I’m thinking of, for example, Tom Swift—The Queen of the Caribbean depends heavily on its predecessor, The Black Corsair, which I had of course never read.

I was a bit taken aback when I opened the book to find a modern map of Southern Mexico and Central America labeled “West Indies, 1600.” The only concession to the 1600’s was a hasty label “New Spain.” Panama, which wasn’t even a country until a couple of years before the book was published in 1905, was delineated. Apparently, Salgari or his publishers (assuming this was a map that appeared in the original publication and not a creation for the republished copy) chose to use modern place names, some of them even in English.

Other than that, Salgari appears to have some knowledge of pirates, sea-going, and the flora and fauna of Mexico and Florida. Unfortunately, he sometimes stops the action dead in its tracks to tell us about some plant or animal. In a way, this book reminds me of those of W. H. G. Kingston, which I had a small collection of that never reappeared after our move. However, Kingston was better at working his facts into the story.

The Black Corsair is pursuing his enemy, Van Guld, who betrayed his followers in battle. Later, after the Black Corsair and his brothers turned pirate in pursuit of their enemy, Van Guld was responsible for the deaths of the corsair’s brothers. All this apparently happened in the first book. In The Queen of the Caribbean, this pursuit leads them to attack Vera Cruz, an event that actually happened. During the search in Vera Cruz for Van Guld, the Black Corsair hears rumors that his lady love, who he thought was dead, may be alive.

Although the Black Corsair behaves nobly, he doesn’t seem at all disturbed by the mayhem wrought upon innocent people by his pirate friends. Perhaps Salgari was attempting to portray pirates more realistically than is usual in adventure fiction. He seems, however, to have an admiration for what are essentially bloodthirsty cutthroats. I don’t think I’m applying my 21st century standards here, because I’ve managed to enjoy many other adventure novels, including ones about pirates. The characters in this one are cardboard figures being put through their paces.

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Day 1001: The Story of My Teeth

Cover for The Story of My TeethHi, all, apparently I actually published this article by mistake last week. It was supposed to come out today. So here it is again.

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I enjoy the occasional experimental novel, especially one that plays with structure, but The Story of My Teeth was a bit too much for me. It begins with a fairly straightforward narrative, although a whimsical plot, but at each section does something different.

Gustavo (Highway) Sánchez Sánchez claims to be the world’s best auctioneer. He has accumulated a collection of teeth belonging to famous people and agrees to auction them off for the church. But his long-lost son Siddhartha shows up at the auction and things begin to get strange.

Perhaps I should have had more patience with this novel, because I quit reading it just before the New York Times review claimed it got really interesting. I stopped reading in “The Allegories,” and that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows me. I just got a feeling of terrific impatience and realized I wasn’t enjoying the novel. So, I stopped.

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Day 66: The Lacuna

Cover for The LacunaBest Book of Week 14!

My experience with reading Barbara Kingsolver has been uneven. Her first books were interesting and heartwarming, but some of her later work is more political and sometimes degenerates to lecturing on certain causes. However, The Lacuna is an absolutely enthralling historical novel.

Harrison Shepherd is a young man, half Mexican and half American, who survives an upbringing by a feckless mother and a cold father and finally begins making his own way in 1930’s Mexico. He finds a job working in Diego Rivera’s kitchen and ends up as the cook and plaster mixer in Rivera’s household with Frida Kahlo. Later, when they give Leon Trotsky a home, Shepherd works for Trotsky as a secretary and translator, and finally he returns to the United States to write Aztec historical potboilers.

The novel covers major historical events in a turbulent period, including the Communist Worker’s Movement, Trotsky’s assassination, FDR’s terms in Washington, World War II, and the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Although Shepherd’s life is extraordinary by any standards, Kingsolver was able to make it feel absolutely persuasive. While I usually dislike historical novels where ordinary people keep running into famous people, I completely accepted every sentence of this book.

Told by diary entries, newspaper articles, and letters, the novel gets going a little slowly, but eventually enthralls. Kingsolver does a great job of creating colorful and believable characters from the lives of real, historic people, something that is not simple, and completely involves readers in the events of their lives.