ABR’s #CBR5 Review #12: Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

like-waterI saw the movie “Like Water for Chocolate” years ago, so I knew the story before reading the book. Even so, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the book.

The novel takes place in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution. It is divided into 12 chapters, each representing a month, a recipe and a significant event in the life of Tita, the youngest daughter of Mama Elena De la Garza. Mama Elena is like a Disney villainess – hypocritical, sadistic, abusive and vain. According to tradition Tita cannot marry but must take care of Mama Elena. For generations no one questioned the tradition but then Tita meets Pedro, and he announces his intent to marry her.

Of course Mama Elena denies Pedro. Instead she offers her other daughter Rosaura, and Pedro accepts, if only to remain physically close to Tita. The rest of the novel rotates around the emotional love affair between Tita and Pedro, and their attempts to be together despite Rosaura, Pedro’s children, Mama Elena and the revolution that occasionally interrupts their lives.

But the thing that brings everyone in this novel together and ties all the stories together is food. The author uses the pleasures of food, meal preparation and eating a meal as metaphors for love and life and passion. Tita was literally born in the kitchen so she has always been “wrapped up in the delights of food.” She finds comfort, inspiration, refuge and confidence in the kitchen. And through her cooking she is able to affect her family, her surroundings and her fate. Rosaura lacks Tita’s passion for cooking; her life and her relationship with Pedro is bland and unappealing.

With Like Water for Chocolate Laura Esquivel has created a unique story that is appealing on many levels. It is a love story, a fairy tale and a cookbook. The relationship between Pedro and Tita is sad and sincere and intense. The descriptions of the food and the meals are lush and sensual. And the magical elements of the story – the potions and home remedies and old wives’ tales – add to the story’s appeal.

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ABR’s #CBR5 Review #11: Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bible! by Jonathan Goldstein

ladies-and-gentlemen-coverAnyone who has been to Sunday school will recognize the stories in Jonathan Goldstein’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bible! Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Samson and Delilah – all the Bible’s greatest hits are covered.

But rather than simply retell each familiar story, Goldstein embellishes them with humanity and humor. In Goldstein’s depiction, Adam was a dullard who couldn’t arouse any interest from Eve, and God “feared for Adam’s broken heart as though the whole universe depended on it.” Cain was jealous of his carefree brother and resentful of his parents “as though they had gambled away his inheritance.” Grumpy “old-school” Noah saw the value of hard work and craftsmanship and feared his children, members of the ‘pre-flood generation,” would end up “eating daisies and making out with dolphins.”

In the final chapter called “My Troubles (A Work in Progress by Joseph of N -),” Joseph is depicted as a somewhat jealous boyfriend who realizes “it’s flattering to think that your girl-friend is good enough for God” but he still feels like “your garden-variety guy who’s been cheated on. Sure, you’ve been cheated on with the Lord, but still.”

I personally found the book to be clever and poignant and respectful of the source material. You may not want to give a copy to your devout mother-in-law but it’s definitely good as an amusing and provocative retelling of the familiar Bible stories that over the years have become rote.

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #10: Home by Toni Morrison

home-morrisonToni Morrison’s Home is a slight novel, barely 150 pages, but its size is deceptive. It is powerful story about redemption and forgiveness.

The story is told piecemeal by four narrators. The first narrator is Frank Money, a Korean War veteran who wakes up in a Portland mental hospital bruised, robbed and hung over. Although he can’t remember the events that led him there, he knows his drinking is to blame. Frank begins a journey home to Lotus, Georgia, where he hopes to find his ailing sister, Ycidra (Cee).

Cee is a second narrator. She was literally born on the street, an event her grandmother Lenore said was “prelude to a sinful, worthless life.” Lenore physically and verbally abused Cee and resented the way Frank cared for her “like a pet kitten.” Cee depends heavily on Frank, but when Frank begins to feel suffocated in Lotus, he sees enlistment as his only way out. Without Frank to protect her, Cee spontaneously marries Prince, an egotistical opportunist who was “the first thing she saw wearing belted trousers instead of overalls.” Prince drags Cee to Atlanta and abandons her shortly after their wedding. She is barely making ends meet when she accepts a promising job with Dr. Beauregard Scott.

Lily is a third narrator. She was the only thing that distracted Frank from flashbacks and drinking when he returned from the war traumatized. But eventually Lily becomes disenchanted with Frank’s indifference and depression. One day he asks her to loan him money to visit his sister and she is relieved to see him go.

The final narrator is Lenore, the cruel grandmother. Lenore is bitter and resentful. She is alienated from nearly everyone in her community and provides a stark contrast to the other women in Lotus who ultimately play such an important role in Frank and Cee’s lives.

After Cee suffers a traumatic and unnerving accident in Atlanta, Frank tracks her down and reluctantly brings her back to Lotus. In their youth both Frank and Cee hated their hometown. Cee believed “if she hadn’t been so ignorant living in a no-count, not-even-a-place town with only chores, church-school, and nothing else to do” she wouldn’t have fallen for Prince and ended up in Atlanta, working for Dr. Scott. Frank thought Lotus was the “worst place in the world, worse than any battlefield.“ In Lotus “there was no future, just long stretches of killing time … nothing to survive or worth surviving for.” But upon their return they recognize a feeling of “safety and goodwill” they hadn’t noticed before. Frank now finds Lotus “fresh and ancient, safe and demanding.”

Cee, who all her life knew only the cruelty of her grandmother, develops an affection for the women of Lotus, the women who nurse her back to health with wisdom and potions. She is transformed by the women who “took responsibility for their lives and for whatever, whoever else needed them.”

As Frank watches his sister recover physically and mentally, he vows to address something from his past that has been troubling him, an event that has been hinted out throughout the novel. In the final chapter we find out his secret.

Each narration is like a puzzle piece, and bit by bit each character’s story is revealed. By cutting from narrator to narrator Morrison not only creates suspense, but it gives the reader diverse perspectives on the events of the novel. It also reinforces the theme of family and community that is so often present in Morrison’s novels. It proves that our stories, our histories and our fates are often intertwined and interdependent.

Home may be a small novel, but it packs quite a punch.

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #9: The Tenth of December by George Saunders

saundersThe first time I tried to read George Saunders’ Tenth of December, I had been drinking. After two pages I had to put it down. If you tackle Saunders’ book of short stories, I recommend you do so well-rested and sober. I mean that as a compliment. It should have your undivided attention.

It’s true, Saunders’ writing style takes some getting used to – it’s part diary, part stream of consciousness – and sometimes there’s not much regard for grammar or punctuation. Some of the stories start mid-action. And sometimes, as with our own lives, the endings are abrupt.

But once I got started, I was fascinated by this collection of unnerving and surreal stories. A review by Jennifer Egan on the book jacket called the book subversive and hilarious. While I agree with subversive, I thought nearly every story was quite sad. Some stories will make you cringe. Some will make you flip back and forth between pages to make sure what you think happened actually happened. Nearly all have a sense of dread and a fantastical element that isn’t quite science fiction, just a sense that the stories take place in a not-to-distant, not-to-nice future.

While the time and place of some stories is unclear, the characters are all very human. They are all weighed down by their humanity and as a result, most act in desperation. Maybe that’s what makes the book so sad.

Saunders deftly writes as a variety of characters – boys, girls, mothers, fathers. In “Victory Lap” there’s Alison, an idealistic teenager, who dislikes the neighborhood boys because they “name their own nuts” and “aspire to work for CountryPower because the work shirts were awesome and you got them for free.”

Callie is the desperate mother from “Puppy” who goes to extreme ends to keep her son safe, but questions her actions, “Who was it that thought up the idea, the idea that had made today better than yesterday? Who loved him enough to think that up? Who loved him more than anyone else in the world loved him? Her. She did.”

And then there is the sympathetic Eber from the “Tenth of December” who has a last shot at redemption and life and realizes “if some guy, at the end, fell apart, and said or did bad things, or had to be helped, helped to quite a considerable extent? So what? What of it? Why should he not do or say weird things or look strange or disgusting? Why should the shit not run down his legs? Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them?”

The book is composed of 10 short stories. The shortest is a mere two pages, and the longest, the spectacular “Semplica Girl Diaries,” is just 60. I didn’t read the book in one sitting, but I read each story without interruption.

If getting wrapped up in a good book is like running a marathon, reading Tenth of December is like sprinting through an obstacle course. There are many things that can trip you up on the way, but once you get used to Saunders’ style, with all its idiosyncrasies, it is worth the effort.

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #8: The Story of O by Pauline Réage

story-of-o

It’s easy to see why the Story of O was controversial and scandalous. It is a sexually graphic, sadomasochistic novel that was published under a pseudonym in the 1950s. For decades readers and critics speculated on the author’s identity and debated the meaning of the novel. And then, in 1994 a British journalist revealed the author’s identity, a French woman named Dominique Aury. That Aury, a refined, professional woman, could write such a novel only fueled the controversy.

Discrediting most theories about the book, Aury claimed the novel was simply a response to a challenge. She wrote the book when Jean Paulhan, her married lover who was a fan of the Marquis de Sade, claimed women couldn’t write erotica. Aury set out to prove him wrong and the result was the Story of O. Aury didn’t intend to publish the book but wanted to write her version of a love letter in which she played on the fantasies of Paulhan and the unfounded beliefs that women didn’t share those fantasies.

In short, the book is about O, a French woman who is brought to Roissy, a chateau-like brothel, by her lover René. There she is trained to sexually serve the members of an elite group of men.

After training that involves gang rape, sodomy, bondage and flagellation, she is reunited with René, who promptly gives her to Sir Stephen. Eventually O falls in love with Sir Stephen and agrees to become his, meaning she consents to being branded (literally) and pierced with his insignia. As his property, she is expected to succumb to him and his friends at any time. When Sir Stephen decides she needs more training he takes her to Samois, where she is sexually and physically abused and mutilated to become a better servant. Despite her complete subservience, she is abandoned by both René and Sir Stephen. In the end O realizes she is about to be abandoned and asks Sir Stephen if she can commit suicide and he consents.

Obviously the Story of O is criticized as misogynistic. It’s true O doesn’t seem empowered. She is never in control of her situations. She is told how to dress, bathe, sit, sleep, eat and talk. She is expected to succumb to anyone her owner chooses. “At the first word or sign from anyone you will drop whatever you are doing and ready yourself for what is really your one and only duty: to lend yourself.” In the end she is abandoned and suicidal because her owners no longer find her valuable.

But ultimately it is O who controls the pleasure of the men she serves. It’s control by servitude. To her, it isn’t abuse, it’s pleasure. She admits the restraint, “which should have bound her deep within herself, which should have smothered her, strangled her, on the contrary freed her from herself.” She finds value and dignity in what most people consider degrading and oppressive. “That she should have been ennobled and gained in dignity through being prostituted was a source of surprise, and yet dignity was indeed the right term.”

At possibly the lowest point of the book, O has an epiphany in which “she has finally come to accept as an undeniable and important verity …. She liked the idea of torture, but when she was being tortured herself she would have betrayed the whole world to escape it, and yet when it was over she was happy to have gone through it, happier still if it had been especially cruel and prolonged.” To her it is no different from Christians serving a vengeful God. She “considered herself fortunate to count enough in his eyes for him to derive pleasure from offending her, as believers give thanks to God for humbling them.”

I found the book alternately repulsive and compelling. It’s graphic but the writing is succinct and graceful, almost elegant. Yes, there are passages that will make you blush. And passages that will make you grimace. If you finish it, you will probably feel a little dirty. It may not be an enjoyable read but it’s certainly an interesting one. Truth be told, it was hard to put down.

If you read the book, I highly recommend the documentary the Writer of O. It uses interviews, film footage and movie clips to give context to the book and its controversy, and I think it fosters a greater appreciation of the book and its author. Its depiction of Aury is sympathetic and favorable, and if the documentary is to be trusted I believe she truly set out to write a passionate story for her lover and was surprised by the fervor that resulted. Even though the interview was many years ago, what she says is provocative and relevant today: “When a woman writes an erotic book, it’s an outright scandal. I feel that, underlying that, this kind of judgment is an absurd esteem for female morality. Women are as immoral as men, period. No one seems to have noticed that.”

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #7: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

gatsbySomehow I made it to adulthood without reading The Great Gatsby or seeing the 1974 movie. But I wanted to read the book before I saw the latest movie version later this year. While there are elements of the book that will translate to the screen (especially in a Baz Luhrmann film), I was disappointed in the book. I know it’s considered a classic, but overall, it’s not an engaging read.

The plot is straightforward. The narrator, Nick Carraway, is a college graduate and war veteran working in New York City, living in West Egg. His next-door neighbor is a mysterious millionaire named Jay Gatsby.

Although Gatsby’s past and the source of wealth are unknown, one thing is certain – he throws extravagant parties, attended by anyone and everyone. “People were not invited – they went there. They got into automobiles which bore them out to Long Island, and somehow they ended up at Gatsby’s door. Once there they were introduced by somebody who knew Gatsby, and after that they conducted themselves according to the rules of behavior associated with an amusement park.”

At one of these lavish parties Nick meets Gatsby, and despite his mysterious past, his questionable wealth and his shady business associates – or more likely because of them – Nick develops a fondness for Gatsby.

Unbeknownst to Nick, Gatsby once dated his second cousin Daisy, who is now married to Tom Buchanan and living in fashionable East Egg. Tom has cheated on Daisy throughout their marriage. His current mistress, Myrtle Wilson, is married to a witless cuckold, who also happens to be Tom’s mechanic.

When Daisy learns that Nick is Gatsby’s neighbor, she coerces him into organizing a reunion with Gatsby and they soon rekindle their romance. Daisy is intent on flaunting the relationship in front of Tom, and he tolerates it, perhaps as retribution for his infidelity, until one awkward evening. After a night of drinking Tom confronts them. Gatsby and Daisy leave together. As they are racing through town, they pass the home of Myrtle Wilson. She and her husband have also been fighting; Myrtle’s husband George knows she is having an affair, but he doesn’t know it is with Tom. Gatsby and Daisy hit Myrtle as she is running to flag down the car and escape George. In the wake of the accident Tom and Daisy appear to reconcile and leave town. Gatsby reveals his back story to Nick, who encourages Gatsby to leave town as well.

Tom tells George that Gatsby struck his wife, and George assumes Gatsby was her lover. He tracks down Gatsby and kills him. Nick is left to contact Gatsby’s family and plan his funeral. Despite his popularity while alive, Gatsby’s funeral is only attended by three people.

I know The Great Gatsby is widely read and much loved, praised by critics and readers for decades. But to me this is a book whose parts are greater than its sum. The individual characters are interesting, but collectively they are the worst type of clique – selfish, aloof, devoid of sympathy or remorse. Even though Nick is likable and pitiable, he’s impressionable. I wonder why he’s so interested in the ‘in crowd’ even though he recognizes how fake they are. I’m not even sure Fitzgerald liked his characters, especially the women. There is not a single admirable female character in the book. They are either materialistic, androgynous or home wreckers.

Moreover, the love story between Daisy and Gatsby, the quintessential love story that was the impetus for all the events in the book, isn’t convincing. In fact, it’s as impulsive and affected as Daisy’s other whims (including the daughter she completely ignores).

In the end Nick finally realized what we’ve known all along, that Daisy, Tom and Gatsby “were careless people … they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” He acknowledges that the East, with all its “superiority to the bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio” has lost its luster for him.

Ultimately Nick wasn’t profoundly affected by the fateful tale of The Great Gatsby, and neither was I.

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #6: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

6lonesomeI believe the words ‘epic’ and ‘sweeping’ were invented for a book like Lonesome Dove. Written in 1985, Lonesome Dove was the first of a series of books by Larry McMurtry that tells the stories of several retired Texas Rangers as they drive a cattle herd from Texas to Montana.

The book opens in 1876 at the Hat Creek Cattle Company and Livery Emporium in the Texas border town of Lonesome Dove. Captain Augustus McCrae (Gus) and Captain Woodrow Call are retired Texas Rangers who now spend their days drinking, stealing horses and gambling. When Jake Spoon, a charming but lazy acquaintance returns to Lonesome Dove, he raves about the land and riches awaiting in Montana. Gus and Call are persuaded to round up a crew and a herd and head ‘Up North.’

What happens in the next 900 pages could be a stereotypical story of wizened cowboys, naive cowhands and lovelorn women, but McMurtry’s characters are developed so fully and richly. There is love and drama and tragedy but nothing is overwrought. Bad things happen, good things happen, and much like the massive cattle herd, the novel moves on.

I wouldn’t say Lonesome Dove is an easy read. It is long, and there are a lot of characters. Some have a large role in the novel, some you only learn their fates through the stories of the primary characters. But it is a rewarding read, especially if you savor the way the novel seems to perfectly capture the harshness of the era and the fortitude of the people who survived it.