Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Like Water For Chocolate: A Novel In Monthly Installments With Recipes, Romances and Home Remedies by Laura Esquivel

Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel was first published in Mexico in 1989 and has gone on to international bestsellerdom and critical acclaim.  Like Water for Chocolate falls under the genre of magical realism involving scenes in which the supernatural can occur in everyday life.  It's a novel about passionate topics: food, cooking, romance and above all the love that Tita de la Garza and Pedro Muzquiz feel for each other.  When that love is thwarted by Tita's mother, Mama Elena, it will have devastating consequences for all involved.

The novel begins n Mexico at the start of the 20th century.  Tita is the youngest daughter of Mama Elena de la Garza, a mean woman who owns a ranch in northern Mexico.  At sixteen Tita and a neighborhood boy Pedro Muzquiz fall in love and want to marry.  Mama Elena says no because there is a tradition in the de la Garza family where the youngest daughter can never marry so that she can take care of her mother in her later years.  It's a cruel and nonsensical tradition but Mama Elena will not listen to reason.

Tita and Pedro are heartbroken but Tita cannot bring herself to go against her mother who she fears and also Tita doesn't have the stength to break family tradition.  As for Pedro he agrees to marry Mama Elena's eldest daughter Rosaura figuring that if he can't marry Tita he can stay close to her by marrying her sister. This works about as well as you can imagine.

Like Water For Chocolate consists of twelve chapters from January through December but the story itself takes place over years.  Each chapter leads with a new recipe from Tita's kitchen.  Cooking is the one outlet Tita has to express what's in her heart.  She learned how to cook when she was very young spending time in the kitchen with Nacha, the family cook.  These two women  have a special bond and Nacha in terms of love, support and encouragement is the only real mother Tita has ever known.

Tita's cooking has magical powers.  For example forced by her mother to cook the dinner for Pedro and her sister's wedding some of Tita's tears fall into the wedding cake.  Later at the wedding feast all of the guests after taking a bite of the cake are struck with such a feeling of longing and sadness that they start vomiting, including Rosaura who has her wedding day to Pedro ruined.  In a later chapter Tita's other sister Gertrudis, after eating a dinner prepared by Tita is so overcome by passion that she runs away with a young soldier who is part of a rebel army fighting for Mexican independence.  A certain suspension of reality is necessary to enjoy the book but the author does a good job in mixing the mythical with real life.  Like Water For Chocolate is a book filled with profound and beautiful imagery.  I particularly liked "Each of us is born with a book of matches inside us but we cannot strike them all by ourselves".  

One criticism I might make is that more time needed to be spent establishing  why Tita and Pedro's relationship is so special.  Pedro though he plays a central role in the story isn't a major character.  This is above all Tita's story and she spends much more time with Nacha, her mother and John a local doctor who falls in love with Tita than she does with Pedro.  When Pedro does appear throughout the course of the book longing glances between the two are supposed to suffice in convincing us that the chemistry is still there.  But I didn't feel the chemistry possibly because Pedro is not fleshed out enough as a character but maybe it's  different in the movie version of the book which I have not seen.

As we get to the end of the book we discover that the story of Tita and Pedro is being told to us decades later by Tita's grandniece.  Times are different now.  The family tradition of the youngest daughter never marrying is in the past.  These days one is encouraged to follow one's heart but as Tita's grandniece tells us food, cooking and Tita's recipes are traditions worth keeping.

Monday, July 2, 2018

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

I read a number of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot mysteries when I was young  and I remember enjoying them a great deal.  Not sure why I stopped reading Christie.  Sometimes we just move on to other authors but I always thought I might read her again and the 2018 Back To The Classics Challenge - choose a crime classic gave me the incentive.  I chose And Then There Were None (published 1939) which many consider Christie's best novel and certainly a favorite of fans.

And Then There Were None is set in the late 1930's and when the novel begins ten characters have received an invitation from a mysterious Mr. Owen.  He is the owner of Soldier Island off the coast of Devon.  The ten guests, strangers to each other, have been invited by Mr Owens to his mansion for a summer holiday.  None of the ten know Mr. Owen but in each invitation he mentions a mutual aquaintance to throw them off their guard.

The ten characters come from various walks of life.  What they have in common is that each is harboring a dark secret.  Each bears some blame in causing the death of another.  The Doctor who years ago walked in drunk to the operating room causing the death of his patient.  The General who sent a soldier having an affair with his wife to the front lines.  The wealthy playboy who drove recklessly killing a pedestrian etc.  These ten men and women have to a certain extent forgotten these past guilts and so they arrive at Soldier Island relaxed and eager to begin their summer holiday.

Upon arrival the ten get aquainted and wait for their mysterious host to arrive,  They visit their bedrooms where in each room hangs a framed nursery rhyme which begins "Ten little soldier boys went out to dine.  One choked his little self and thn there were nine". They don't notice the nursery rhyme at first or the fact that on a stand in the dining room there are ten little soldier figurines.  After dinner on the first night of their arrival, Ms Christie gives a chilling account of a voice that comes into the room while the ten guests are enjoying their coffee::

"Ladies and Gentlemen you are charged with the folliwing indictments". 

Edward George Armstrong, that you did upon the 14th day of March 1925, cause the death of Louisa Mary Clees".

Emily Caroline Brent, that upon the 5th of November 1931, you were responsible for the death of  Beatrice Taylor"

The voice goes on naming the indictments of the eight remaining characters and needless to say the reaction of the ten is like a bomb going off in the room.  The Butler's wife faints.  Other characters race out of the dining room trying to find the source of the voice.  It will turn out to be a gramophone and it won't be long before the first of the ten, Anthony Maston, tne wealthy playboy, ends up chokomg to death after sipping a glass of wine that's been poisoned.

The ten make a search of Soldier Island and the mansion and discover that they are alone.  They are trapped there because the ferryman who brought them to the island does not return the next day or the day after that and there is no other way off the island.  When the Butler's wife fails to wake up the next morning the ten (now eight) realize that the killer is one of them and he or she won't be satisfied until they are all dead.

Agatha Christie has written that she was inspired to write And Then There Were None "because it was so difficult to do.  Ten people had to die in this book without it becoming ridiculous or the murderer being obvious".  Christie does pull it off.  This is a gripping read but it's a disturbing book as well.  I did not find anyone I could root for in this novel.  There is very little character development and though these ten are flawed I was bothered much more by the vigilante killer at the core of tbis story who has chosen to play God.  Christie is a great mystery novelist but you might want to stick with her Hercule Poirot mysteries which I retain fond memories of.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

New Grub Street by George Gissing

George Gissing (1857 - 1903) was a nineteenth century British Victorian novelist who is not widely known today and that's a real shame. I discovered Gissing years ago when I read his novel The Odd Women (published 1893).  I was struck by Gissing's talent and also his understanding and sympathetic view of the suffrage movement.  I learned that George Gissing's novel New Grub Street (1891) is the book he is most famous for and so I decided to include New Grub Street for my 2018 Back to The Classics Challenge - choose a classic from the nineteenth century and I made a very wise choice indeed.

New Grub Street is set in London's literary world of the 1880's and when the novel begins the Victorian Era is coming to a close and the Modern Age is just around the corner.  Class is beginning to be overtaken by commerce and how much money one can earn.  The book trade is undergoing a revolution as well and no one understands this new world better than Jasper Milvain,  the cynical young journalist who is one of the main characters in the book.  Jasper at the start of the novel explains to his sisters what is required tto succeed these days in publishing:

"But just understand the difference between a man like Reardon and a man like me.  He is the old type of unpractical artist; I am the literary man of 1882.  He won't make concessions, or rather, he can't make them; he can't supply the market.  I -- well, you may say that at present I do nothing; but that's a great mistake, I am learning my business.  Literature nowadays is a trade.  Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skillful tradesman.  He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetizing. ... Reardon can't do that kind of thing, he's behind his age, he sells a manuscript as if he lived in Sam Johnson's Grub Street".

Edwin Reardon, of whom Jasper speaks, and his wife Amy Reardon, are also main characters in New Grub Street.  Edwin is a talented writer who prior to his marriage was able to publish three well reviewed novels but they did not sell well.  Since their marriage Edwin has not been able to publish anything and Amy is not supportive.  In fairness, Amy is justifiably worried about their financial situation since they have a young son.  But when Edwin tries to write any sort of book just so it will sell, Amy is worried about what their friends will think:

"But darling, he took her hands strongly in his own.  "I want you to disregard other people.  You and I are surely everything to each other?  Are you ashamed of me, of me myself?"

There was silence

"Edwin, if you find you are unable to do good work, you mustn't do bad".

Later when Edwin gets his old job back as a hospital clerk so they can make ends meet, Amy is not happy with that either.  She was counting on Edwin rising in the literary world when they married so that she could be the wife of a great man.  Amy and Edwin separate and as the book proceeds the lives of Amy and Jasper go quite well.  While the fortunes of Edwin Reardon and Marion Yule decline.

Marion Yule is the fourth major character in New Grub Street.  She is an intelligent, shy young woman who helps her parents and spends her time in the British Museum researching and writing her father's scholarly articles.  It is at the museum that she has the misfortune of meeting and eventually falling in love with Jasper Milvain.  Jasper does care about Marion but his plan is to marry a woman with an income larger than his own so that as he puts it "casualties may be provided for" and Marion does not have alot of money.

New Grub Street is a cynical look at what it takes to succeed in publishing and in life.  Tragedy looms in this book but there are also lovely moments in which Gissing shines a light on friendship and the love of books.  Here for example are Edwin Reardon and his fellow impoverished writer friend Harold Biffen having dinner in a coffee-shop.  Edwin has been complaining bitterly to Biffen about Amy having left him but then:

"They ate their ham and eggs and exilerated themselves with a cup of chicory -called coffee.  Then Biffen drew from the pocket of his venerable overcoat the volume of Euripides he had bought, and their talk turned once more to the land of the sun.  Only when the coffee-shop was closed did tney go forth again into the foggy street, and at the top of Pentonville Hill they stood for ten minutes debating a metrical effect in one of the Fragments".

George Gissing during his short life published twenty three novels and in New Grub Street what he had to say about literature, poverty, love, social standing, money is as relevant today as it was back in the Victorian Age.  If you are a fan of 19th century British novels, or great novels in general, your collection is not complete without New Grub Street.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser

I was sure I was going to like Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser (published 2017).  Prairie Fires has received widespread critical acclaim and has been awarded this year's Pulitzer Prize for Biography.  It can be daunting to give one's views on such a book but I have to be honest and say I struggled to get through Prairie Fires and the question is why?

I'm a fan of the Little House TV series so you would think I would be an ideal candidate for this biography.  But though I am a fan of the TV show, I have never gotten around to reading any of Ms. Wilder's classic Little House children's novels.  I think that matters.  It would be like reading a biography of Charlotte Bronte without having read Jane Eyre.  You should always read the author's work before tackling a biography about the author.

That said, for me the most interesting part of Prairie Fires takes place in the first third of the book as Charles, Caroline and their children try to make a living on the Great Plains during the 1870's.   The second and third parts of Prairie Fires  revolve around Laura and her husband Almanzo Wilder's life in Mansfield Missouri.   We don't hear much about Laura's parents and sisters again.  Instead the story shifts to Mansfield, MO where Laura and Almanzo who arrived there as newlyweds would spend the rest of their lives.

Almanzo Wilder was a private man and Laura though more outgoing was also rather private.  She became an important member of her small town community in Mansfield, writing a column for the local newspaper, and she had a job for many years processing loan applications for her neighbors.  Laura was an active member of social get togethers in her town but until she started jotting her childhood memories down in her later years her life was not the stuff of biography.   Her daughter Rose Wilder Lane is another story however and the deeper one gets into Prairie Fires the more Rose's life begins to take over the book.  Caroline Fraser to put it bluntly cannot stand Rose and though Rose was a hard person to like I couldn't help wonder are we getting the full story when you factor in Ms. Fraser's distaste.

One may also ask in a biography about Laura Ingalls Wilder why is Rose taking up so much space?  But then again, how could it be otherwise?  Laura and Rose as the author tells us had a loving but complex relationship.  Rose Wilder Lane was a talented writer and journalist who during her life had articles and short stories regularly published in the newspapers and major magazines of the day.  A few of her short stories were nominated for O'Henry awards.  Rose would return to her mother's home in Mansfield MO during the Great Depression and begin helping her mother turn the drafts of her Little House books into publishable products.  But the question will always remain did the substantial editing Rose did on the Little House books cross the line into rewriting?  Prairie Fires makes the case that it may have and if so co-authorship for Rose Wilder Lane on the Little House books was warranted even though Rose never requested it.

So, should you read Prairie Fires?  I think if you have read and loved the Little House books you should. There will be much to suprise as Caroline Fraser separates fact from fiction regarding what life was really like on the prairie of the 1870's.  The real Ingalls family as opposed to their fictional counterparts had a much tougher road filled with hardship and peril that the books and the TV series have tended to gloss over.  But fans will be pleased to know that the books, the TV series and the biography are all in agreement on one thing, Charles and Caroline Ingalls were remarkable people who struggled to keep food on the table for their children against all odds while providing fun times as well.  All her life, Laura Ingalls Wilder loved and idolized her parents and she was right to do so.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Ten Nights in A Bar Room And What I Saw There by Timothy Shay Arthur

"He loved his mother, and was deeply afflicted by the calamity; but it seemed as if he could not stop.  Some terrible necessity appeared to be impelling him onward.  If he formed good resolutions  - and I doubt not that he did - they were blown away like threads of gossamer, the moment he came within the sphere of old associations.  His way to the mill was by the Sickle and Sheaf, and it was not easy for him to pass there without being drawn into the bar, either by his own desire for drink, or through the invitation of some pleasant companion, who was lounging in front of the Tavern". - Ten Nights In A Bar Room by Timothy Shay Arthur.

Ten Nights In A Bar Room by Timothy Shay Arthur was published in 1854 and it was a very popular novel in its day dealing with the subject of temperance.  Only Uncle Tom's Cabin did better in book sales during the 1850's.  Yet today Ten Nights in A Bar Room has fallen into obscurity.  That fascinates me, once popular books that are no longer read or remembered  I have a number of such novels in my kindle and are they worth reading?  Do they have lessons for modern times?

And so when Ten Nights In A Bar Room begins it is the mid 19th century in the fictional town of Cedarville.  The novel is narrated by a business man whose name we never learn.  His work keeps bringing him back to Cedarville over a ten year period.  Each time the narrator returns he rents a room for the night at the Sickle and Sheaf, the local saloon.  The Sickle and Sheaf starts out as a promising enterprise for the town and its owner Simon Slade.  However as the years go by the Sickle and Sheaf detiorates into a den of vice and corruption which eventually destroys the lives of the owner, his family, the young men who frequent the tavern, their long suffering mothers and wives and pretty much anyone who walks through its doors. 

As the novel progresses a young girl is killed by a flying bottle when she comes to the bar pleading for her father to come home.  Willie Hammond, the son of Judge Hammond,  who is the light of his parent's lives and who is one of the nicest young men around who tne town has high hopes for, develops a drinking and gambling problem.  Simon Slade the owner of the bar gets seriously injured in a bar fight.  His wife loses her wits seeing what has happened to her family.  Their son, sixteen year old Frank Slade, starts out helping his father run the bar and takes up with a bad crowd.   At various points in the novel the subject of temperance is discussed and despite the damage that the saloon is doing to Cedarville, many of the bar patrons are not willing to go there.  As Judge Lynan states:

"The next thing we will have will be laws to fine any man who takes a chew of tobacco or lights a cigar.  Touch the liberties of the people in the smallest particular, and all guarantees are gone.  The Stamp Act, against which our noble forefathers rebelled, was a light measure of oppression to that contemplated by these worse than fanatics".  

Ten Nights In A Bar Room is not shy about conveying its message with regard to the evils of alcohol.  It can be overwrought, particularly as we get near to the end of the book.  On the whole though its decently written and it did cause me to think.  Nowadays the temperance movement looks foolish and fanatical but if you look at the situation from a 19th century perspective saloons opening up in small towns across the country could cause real problems.  When Ten Nights was written for example what could a young man (women weren't allowed in bars back then) do for fun?  This was before television the movies, radio, the telephone, automobiles.  It could get boring and lonely in small towns and saloons were a place of commraderie.  But the book points out that in many of these saloons gamblers would arrive.taking advantage of customers too inebriated to know what they were doing.  Women were hit hard by the saloon culture as well.  If a woman was married to a man who drank what recourse did she have?  Divorce was not an option back then and there were no jobs for women to help feed their families.

So I am glad I read Ten Nights In A Bar Room.  I think its worth reading for its historical value, a window into a different time and why temperance became such a big issue in the 19th century.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin

Boris Akunin is a contemporary Russian writer who currently lives in Moscow and is best known for his Erast Petrovich Fandorin mystery series.  These novels are hugely popular in Russia and internationally Boris Akunin's books have received  acclaim as well.

The Winter Queen published in 1998 is the first novel in the Pandorin series and when the novel begins it is 1876 and Erast Pandorin's supersvisor at the police department, Xavier Grushin, is looking through that day's edition of the Moscow Gazette.  He comes upon a shocking story that reads as follows :

"Yesterday the Alexander Gardens were the scene of a sad incident only too distinctly typical of the cynical outlook and manners of modern youth when Mr N., a handsome young fellow of twenty-three, a student at Moscow University, and the sole heir to a fortune of millions, shot himself dead in full view of the promenading public ... It would appear tnat the fashionable epidemic of pointless suicides, which had thus far remained the scourge of Petropolis, has finally spread to the walls of Old Mother Moscow ... O tempora, o mores!  To what depths of unbelief and nihilism have our guilded youth descended if they would make a vulgar spectacle even of their own deaths?  If our home grown Brutuses adopt such an attitude to their own lives, then how can we be suprised if they care not a  brass kopeck for the lives of other, incomparably more worthy individuals?"

The suicide is particularly disturbing since the young man, Mr N, who shot himself  did so in front of a young woman and her governess sitting on a park bench. He did not know these two women.  Why would he do such a thing?  It also seems like a closed case.  But Grushin is bothered by this story and asks young Erast Pandorin to investigate.  Earst who is twenty and has had only clerical duties to perform is very eager to take on a real case   As the book progresses and Erast Pandorin digs deeper we will see that what started out as a sensless suicide in Alexander Gardens is in reality a much wider conspiracy with international implications.  Our young detective matures a great deal throughout the book as he uncovers plot twist after plot twist and by the time the novel ends Erast Fandorin is not the same naive twenty year old who we began the book with,

I was impessed with the Winter Queen.  Over the years I have read a number of 19th century Russian novels and though the Winter Queen was published in 1998,  Boris Akunin's depiction of 19th century Russia is very well done.  The dialogue, the characters, the whole ambiance rings true.  You feel you are in Moscow in the late 19th century and that is a credit to the author's talent.

I do have criticisms though.  First, Erast Pandorin, our young hero, survives multiple attempts on his life throughout the novel and I began to find it implausible that he could escape both physically and emotionally so many close calls.  I also felt by the time I got to the end of the novel that we were far afield from the suicide that began the book.  For me there were too many plot twists along the way and a resolution of the mystery that I can't see happening in reality.

But I closed the Winter Queen deciding that I would like to give the Erast Fandorin series another try.  Maybe skip to book five or six when our young detective  is older, has more of a personal life and the crimes he is asked to solve a little more straightforward.   One thing is for sure, the author doesn't need gimmicks, international conspiracies and plot twists to move his books along. He is a very fine writer and that alone kept me turning the pages.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (published 1937) is book two in my 2018 Back To the Classics Challenge - Choose A Classic From the 20th Century. It's a moving, beautifully written story centering on Janie Crawford, an African American woman in her early forties living in Florida during the early 1900's.  I wanted to quote so many passages in this book.  Hopefully the one's I have chosen will give people a sense of why the praise for this novel is so well deserved and thank you Brianna for lending me your copy.

When Their Eyes Were Watching God begins Janie Crawford is returning to her hometown in Eatonville.  Janie left Eatonville, FL about a year prior to join her lover Tea Cake in the Everglades.  The neighbors in Eatonville were shocked.  Janie running off with a younger man so soon after her husband died?  As Janie walks by, worn out, but with her head held high, the neighbors speculate about why Janie is back and what happened to Tea Cake.  Why isn't he with Janie.  Did he take her money and  run?  One of Janie's neighbors, her good friend Phoeby Watkins, confronts the gossipers:

"You mean you mad 'cause she didn't stop and tell us all her business.  Anyhow, what you ever know her to do so bad as y'all make out?  The worst thing Ah ever knowed her to do was taking a few years off a her age and dat ain't never harmed nobody.  Y'all makes me tired.  De way you talkin' you'd think de folks in dis town didn't do nothin' in de bed 'cept praise de Lawd.  You have to 'scuse me, 'cause Ah'm bound to go take her some supper".  

The rest of Their Eyes Were Watching God is Janie telling her friend Phoeby her story not only what happened to Tea Cake but her entire life story.  Being raised by her grandmother in West Florida.  Janie having an epiphany at sixteen about how for her, the only marriage worth having is a marriage of love, a marriage of soulmates.  But Janie's grandmother who grew up in slavery and faced hard times steers Janie at age sixteen into a marriage with a well off, much older man so Janie can have security.  It doesn't work out and a few years later Janie meets Joe Starks, a handsome go getter who has great plans for the future.  Janie runs off with Joe who will become her second husband.

Joe and Janie move to Eatonville where Joe becomes Mayor.  At first everything is fine but Joe Starks reveals himself to be controlling and jealous.  Janie is faithful to Joe for the 20 years they are together but it becomes a loveless marriage, two strangers living in the same house, barely speaking.  When Joe dies, Janie finally feels free to do whatever she likes and then she meets Tea Cake.

Tea Cake is charming and he makes Janie laugh.  He's ten years younger than Janie but they have a true bond.  There is a touching vulnerability about Tea Cake and though he is certainly not perfect, the author, Zora Neale Hurston, does an excellent job in letting us see why Janie would love Tea Cake so much.  But tragedy looms for Janie and Tea Cake and in the midst of her sadness and fear, Janie thinks about God:

She looked hard at the sky for a long time.  Somewhere up there beyond blue ether's bosom sat He.  Was He noticing what was going on around here?  He must be because He knew everything.   Did He mean to do this thing to Tea Cake and her?  ... Maybe it was some big tease and when He saw it had gone far enough He'd give her a sign.  She looked hard for something up there to move for a sign.  A star in tne daytime, maybe, or the sun to shout, or even a mutter of thunder.  Her arms went up a desparate supplication for a minute.  It wasn't exactly pleading, it was asking questions.  The sky stayed hard looking and quiet so she went inside the house".  

At the end of the novel Janie tells Phoeby that if she wishes she can tell Janie's story to the curious neighbors but Janie doubts they'll understand about her and Tea Cake and the love they had for each other:

"Ah know all dem sitters-and-talkers gointuh worry they guts into fiddle strings till dey find out whut we been talkin' 'bout.  Dat's all right, Phoeby, tell 'em.  Dey gointuh make 'miration cause mah love didn't work lak they love.  If tney ever had any.  Then you must tell 'em that love ain't somethin lak uh grindstone dat's de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch.  Love is lak de sea.  It's a movin' thing, but still and all, it takes it's shape from de shore it meets, and it's different with every shore".  

Their Eyes Were Watching God is not a very long book.  Some have said they found the dialect a little hard to follow but I had no problem.  And as I hope the above passages I've quoted prove, this is a novel packed with beautiful poetic imagery and profound things to say about love, God, relations between men and women, black people and white people and the meaning of life in general.  It's therefore shocking that this novel was out of print for decades and the author Zora Neale Hurston having died in 1960, buried in an unmarked grave.  Thanks to the writer Alice Walker in the 1970's Their Eyes Were Watching God was rescued from obsurity and today it is available everywhere, taught in high school and colleges and internationally acknowledged as a classic of 20th century literature.