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.