The Girls – Emma Cline

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Photo via: https://unsplash.com/@akvoltolini

Lyrical and deadly, much like its historical inspiration, The Girls unfolds from the memories of a former member of a Manson Family-like cult, Evie. She starts to reminisce about her wayward summer when sharing a beach house with two teenagers who are (understandably) fascinated by her past. By framing her novel this way, Emma Cline casts a light back onto the reader, who undoubtedly shares the morbid fascination with the murderous cult.

So unfolddt.common.streams.StreamServers a story about losing oneself. Cline’s novel becomes an untraditional ‘coming-of-age’ where innocence isn’t so much lost as it is slowly siphoned away by a calculating predator. She peels away the gritty, movie-like glamor with which many see the Manson family and often narrows in on banal details: the food they were eating, the cleanliness (or lack thereof) of the rooms, sleeping arrangments.

Cline resists the urge to make our protagonist a sticky sweet ingenue who deserves our pity and instead paints a more nuanced picture of a girl without roots. Rather than fall into the thrall of the Charles Mason-like-leader (dubbed Russell) she is under the spell of the enigmatic and seemingly carefree women who surround him. Reading the book, I recalled a long-rehashed conversation from my college days, in which a guy friend wondered aloud about women’s fashion, pointing out that it took very little in the way of fashion prowess to impress men. This prompted a lively debate. Women didn’t get dressed to impress men, the girls of the group insisted, they got dressed to impress other women. To date, I think there is a lot of truth to this statement. Who better to accept judgment from than a group of our peers?

Despite its grisly inspiration, The Girls never waded quite as deep as I’d wanted it to. The real Manson, in addition to being charming, was also sadistic and vicious; this is never fully explored. Nor so are child neglect and the cruelty of his followers. But that Cline captures an enigmatic world and weaves transfixing tale, there can be no doubt.

Like Water for Chocolate – Laura Esquivel

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Like Water for Chocolate, the first novel by Laura Esquivel starts with onions and a birth. Chopping onions, that bring about a wave of tears. This opening is apt because the entirety of the novel weaves together food and emotions.

For me, this is actually a re-reading. My copy is a stolen one, taken from a beach house my family stayed in one spring, probably after I’d finished all the mystery novels I’d brought down with me. I’m not sure why I grabbed it. Maybe I gravitated toward the cheery cover, or perhaps the moderate size. Still, I’m glad I did. Because once I started reading, I was fully sucked in.

Like Water for Chocolate was my first intro to magical realism, now one of my favorite storytelling tools. Tita de la Graza, our passionate protagonist, finds her home in the kitchen of her family’s large Mexican ranch. Nurtured by the stove from a young age, she connects with flavors and food in a way that most people only dream of. She also wins the heart of Pedro Muzquiz, a boy from their neighborhood and is heartbroken when she is told by her mother that they can never wed, due to the family tradition of the youngest daughter having to stay home and take care of her mother as she ages.

Pedro, unable to bear the idea of being separate from Tita, marries her sister Rosura instead, turning the ranch into a hotbed of love, lust, jealousy and heartache.

Tita’s haven is her kitchen and her artistry is in cooking, so the food she makes is imbued with the emotions she feels. Heartbroken, and her cake will make you sick. Lustful, and her meal causes one of her sisters to run away with a rebel.

Like_Water_for_Chocolate_(Book_Cover)No – the story is not particularly realistic. The emotions are sweeping and devastating in their fury, the love is steadfast and unchanging…and I’m fairly certain it’s impossible to make hundreds of partygoers sick just because you were sad when you made the cake batter.

The rich emotions give the novel a timeless, mythic feeling.

Nonetheless, Esquivel uses these grand, almost operatic turns of phrase to tug at the reader’s heart. For don’t we all know that feeling?

I had been meaning to reread this book for years (tellingly, unlike so many others, this one has never been donated or lent away). The setting and culture, particularly the food, are undeniably impactful on the story, but overall it’s a story about love, longing and the confounding ties and responsibilities that come with family: universal feelings, to be sure.

 

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

I’ve passed this book before. It’s one of those intellectual best-sellers that sits on tables in the front of bookstores. I’ve picked it up, perused the pages, moved on. Somehow it really never held my attention. But after the enthusiastic recommendations of both a coworker and cousin, I finally picked it up. I’m so glad.

Anne Fadiman has a thoughtful tone that illustrates intense experiences without resorting to hyperbole and reviews historical events without devolving into a textbook. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down focuses on the journey of the Lees, a Hmong family that is resettled in Merced as refugees. When one of their children is diagnosed with epilepsy, the miscommunication between them and their Western doctors leads to tragedy and heartache.

In between chapters about the Hmong’s struggle, Fadiman reviews the turbulent and often tragic history of the Hmong people. Fadiman does not spell out any overt conclusions; her tone remains nonjudgmental and descriptive instead of preaching.

Nonetheless, the historical context paints a picture of an independent people. Additionally, Fadiman demonstrates how the qualities that allowed the Hmong to thrive in hostile environments backfire when thrown into the context of the American medical system. On the other side, while the doctors operate with the best of intentions, their inability to communicate with the Lees cause much of their hard-work to be in vain.

The indisputable takeaway is that without mutual understanding, our best intentions may go to waste.

Anne Fadiman’s descriptive and well-wrought book was one of the highlights of my non-fiction reading. Definitely recommended. Thought-provoking and engaging.