Mexico with Like Water for Chocolate

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“Life had taught her that it was not that easy; there are few prepared to fulfill their desires whatever the cost, and the right to determine the course of one’s own life would take more effort than she had imagined.”–Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate

  • Here’s what happens:
    • This is the story of lovesick Tita de la Garza, the youngest daughter of a well-born Mexican family with an aptitude for cooking. Though she is in love with Pedro, she is told by her mother that the youngest daughter must remain single forever to care for her mother in her old age. Throughout the story, she and Pedro pine for each other, and Tita uses her cooking as a way to channel her emotions in this painful and complicated predicament–which produces deliciously unexpected results.
  • It’s good because:
    • This is magical realism at its very best. Rich and sensual, this story is colorful and dark at the same time, blending the full scope of love–in all its pain and glory–with fantastical elements of folklore, set against the backdrop of revolutionary Mexico. It reminded me of One Hundred Years of Solitude, one of my all-time favorite novels (seriously–I love this book so much I rarely recommend it because I couldn’t bear to hear if someone I knew didn’t enjoy it) with its doomed and eternal portrayal of love and bizarre twists of fate.
  • Read if:
    • Like me, it’s been a while since you’ve read something you loved. I’ve been in a bit of a book draught (the last book I enjoyed this much was Girl at War, which I read in March!), searching for something I just couldn’t put down. Like Water for Chocolate was that book. Relatively short and extremely quick-paced, this is a standout piece of literature.

Up next: Israel with Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent!

Canada with Fall on Your Knees

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“There is love, there is music, there is no limit, there is work, there is the precious sense that this is the hour of grace when all things gather and distill to create the rest of my life.”–Kathleen Piper, Fall on Your Knees

  • Here’s what happens:
    • The story follows the Piper women and their odysseys through love, loss, and fulfillment. This is an epic, multigenerational saga that reminded me of One Hundred Years of Solitude in its unbelievable scope and tragic twists of fate, and Little Women in its focus on the complexities of sisterhood and young womanhood. Starting with the scorned elopement of young Materia Mahmoud and ambitious James Piper, the book chronicles the struggles and journeys of their four daughters: the talented opera singer and diva-to-be Kathleen, the pious and dutiful Mercedes, the wild and off-kilter Frances, and the innocent youngest Lily.
  • It’s good because:
    • For me, it was as unexpected and complicated as life itself–but of course, set against the backdrop of the early 1900’s on a disparate Canadian island, slightly more iconic and romantic than everyday life. I truly found myself wondering about the fate and mysteries of the Piper women–and more importantly, even sympathizing with the worst of them–up until the very last page.
  • Read if:
    • You like reading about the full scope of the human experience–even the dark, nitty gritty crannies that we often leave unexplored. MacDonald boldly and beautifully inspects less savory aspects of life like war, prostitution, racism, and suicide, while still managing to paint an intricate picture of the bonds of sisterhood, as well as the building, and sometimes the destruction, of family.

Up next: The Dominican Republic with Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao!

Cuba with the Old Man and the Sea

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“A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”–Santiago, The Old Man and the Sea

  • Here’s what happens:
    • The old man embarks on an epic battle of strength and will with a large fish, leading him to reflect on his capabilities, his purpose, and his relationship to the sea.
  • It’s good because:
    • It’s a succinct, no-nonsense narrative of what one can achieve. Not to mention, it’s a classic, and a quick one at that.
  • Read if:
    • You enjoy Hemingway’s brief and sharp story-telling, or if you’re feeling defeated and could use a new perspective from which to evaluate your pitfalls and triumphs.

Up next: Zambia with Alexandra Fuller’s Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness! 

April–Regarding England, Mauritius, Brazil, & the U.S.

aprilApril was a delightfully busy month (although, the older I get, the more I realize they ALL seem like busy months), but it was also surprisingly full of wonderful books. Even though this month held big changes like moving, a job offer (more on that later), a few birthdays, and quite a bit of travel, there was somehow time to read four books: The Cuckoo’s Calling, Me Before You, Eleven Minutes, and The Marriage Plot.

I started off the month trudging through a book leftover from March, The Cuckoo’s Calling. Though I normally love a good underdog story of unexpected heroism, and I absolutely love J.K. Rowling, this book was not one of my favorites. I blamed my pace on how hectic life was. I was interviewing for a career change, trying to pack up my house in Phoenix, traveling to San Diego, and also trying to squeeze in a few necessary things like doctor’s appointments and a haircut. The truth of the matter, even though I often identified with Cormoran Strike’s attempts to get back on his feet and his assistant Robin’s pursuit of adventure and meaning in her life, this book was still a bit of a chore for me. However, a large part of this reading challenge is to guide me into reading different genres, and murder mysteries are certainly not something I typically pick up, so at least this book was outside of my literary comfort zone.

I had been looking forward to reading Me Before You for a while, and I was happy that my excitement was merited; I tore through this book in less than 24 hours. As I mentioned, a lot of my life is in (very exciting) flux, and as I near in on my 25th birthday, I’ve been teetering on the brink of a quarter life crisis. This book was a lovely antidote to such a crisis. Louisa is not my typical, favorite heroine. I tend towards smart, brave ones like Hermione Granger, Katniss Everdeen, and Scarlett O’Hara. Lou, on the other hand, is not particularly brainy (although she does prove herself to be a lot smarter than she thinks she is), and she’s very silly. She has minimal direction in her life, but a strong sense of duty to both her family and Will Traynor. She is an inspiring and lovable companion en route to discovering what you want out of life, and what you want your impact on others to be.

I read Eleven Minutes by Paolo Coelho on flights from Phoenix to Oklahoma City (This is both a testament to what a quick read this book was, and how inconvenient and lengthy it is to travel to Oklahoma City). In the midst of all the turmoil that is one’s mid-twenties, my boyfriend and I have often found ourselves enmeshed in disagreements about our lives, our futures, and where we go from here. We are at a junction where we must make deliberate and big decisions about what we want from life, and this frequently means considering how one another factors into these choices. Eleven Minutes was a refreshing reminder of what love is, how we show our love, and the effect it can have on your life. It was also a peaceful and reflective respite from airports.

Lastly, I wrapped up this month’s books and this challenge’s 10th book with The Marriage Plot, written by one of my absolute favorite writers, Jeffrey Eugenides. He specializes in the heartwarmingly bizarre coming-of-age story, and this book certainly fell within the scope of that specialty. When my boyfriend saw the title of this book, he jokingly rolled his eyes and said, “Now you’re reading books on it too?!” And even though this novel isn’t exactly a promotion of marriage, he has a point. In our post-grad, fumbling years of young adulthood, marriage is something that frequently crosses many of our minds. The Marriage Plot is a restorative reminder that this curiosity towards love and commitment is normal–as is the resultant uncertainty–and that there’s also more to life than rushing head-first into domesticity, so we don’t need to panic about finding The One right off the bat. It’s a message we know, but one that is still good to hear from time to time.

I’ve got some big things in the works–turning 25 in May, heading to Europe with my boyfriend and best friends in June, starting a new career in July (again, details once it’s closer)–and I panic about all these milestones, like any (semi) normal person. It’s wonderful to have the stories of unlikely and insightful heroes and their beautifully uncommon plights to join me on the journey. And yes, I’ve realized my monthly reflections have often expressed gratitude for the hapless and surprising adventures of the quirky heroes–but hey, I guess the right books find you when you need them!

 

The United States with The Marriage Plot

Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 10.50.07 AM“There were some books that reached through the noise of life to grab you by the collar and speak only of the truest things.”–Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot

  • Here’s what happens:
    • Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell graduate from college in the 1980’s, enmeshed in the tribulations of deciding what to do with their lives as well as being implicated in a complex love triangle. Mix in some world travel, religious speculation, classic literature, and mental illness, and you’ve got this atypical and darkly illuminating coming-of-age story.
  • It’s good because:
    • Almost any book with protagonists aged 13-25 can be classified as “coming-of-age,” so the path of self-discovery can often feel familiar and repetitive. However, this story is unexpected, and is true to its characters, by not always giving them what they want (or even, letting them know what they want) while still allowing them to cultivate the wisdom and direction that young adulthood should bring.
  • Read if:
    • You want to discover one of the great American novels, before it’s actively being force fed to students who have to analyze the symbolism and diction of every chapter. This is an important and timeless novel, and you’ll leave it knowing you’ve read something very intellectual and profound, without the headache of having waded through the laborious text other classics tend towards.

Up Next: Ireland with Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes!