Like Water For Chocolate (New York: Doubleday,1992) is a strange debut novel written in the magical-realism tradition. The title comes from “an extremity of feeling” – perhaps sexual desire – where intense emotion melts the human heart, mind, or soul, just as boiling water melts chocolate.
Esquivel explores the impact of old Mexican traditions within modern culture, examining the filial responsibilities of a child to its parents, gender issues, personal sacrifice for the greater good, and the role of food as a metaphor for human feelings.
While I like the original premise that recipes contain secrets and can change with the fluctuating moods of the cook, this is not a book I would read more than once because the breaks from reality, sequencing, and characterizations sometimes make the tale a little too hard to swallow!
The Dovekeepers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011) tells the tragic story of the Siege at Masada in70 CE, when 900 Jews were trapped on a mountain in the Judean desert surrounded by an army of hostile Roman soldiers. After many months of resistance the rebels chose to commit mass suicide rather than surrender themselves into slavery. Only 2 women and 5 children survived. They gave their testimony to a scholar named Flavius Josephus. Alice Hoffman then turned their extant accounts into this epic historical fiction.
The Dovekeepers follows the lives of four women: Yael, the daughter of an assassin; Revka, a baker’s wife who lost her daughter in a brutal Roman attack; Aziza, who was raised as a male warrior; and Shirah, “The Witch of Moab.” These four women arrive at Masada on very different paths yet they all become dove keepers at the fortress. Shirah and Yael survive the final massacre.
Hoffman’s lengthy book is vivid and powerful, with a dramatic mix of magic and Judaism that some readers may find offensive. And some of the supernatural elements, like the cloak of invisibility, stretch the bounds of belief. Nevertheless, the book resonates with the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity, and is a wonderful reminder of courage, sacrifice, and fortitude.
I found Shirah the most compelling character. She is an Alexandrian wise woman with uncanny insight, gifted in magic and medicine. Shirah was trained by an Egyptian priestess and passes on some of her skills to Yael. Her bravery helps the few survivors to escape through their underground cave system – the final proof of her resilience, adaptability, and cunning powers.
The Dovekeepers is a great Book Club selection, generating a lot of insightful discussion. But its length and density makes it more demanding than some other popular choices.
Lord of the Flies
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) tops my list of all-time favorite books!
In the wake of a nuclear war, a group of school boys are being evacuated from England when their aircraft is shot down. The survivors land on an isolated tropical island with no adult presence. Here,they have to fend for themselves. The children ultimately form two rival gangs and soon cross the line from civilization into savagery.
There are three main reasons why Lord of the Flies is the perfect novel. Firstly. it is an allegory that makes readers question their moral, spiritual, anthropological, and psychological beliefs about childhood innocence. Secondly, Golding produces a beautiful cocktail of modern and poetic language where every sentence advances the action, or reveals something important about one of the central characters. And thirdly, he incorporates mythology, magical realism, anthropological research, religion, and psychology to build up the tension with carefully crafted foreshadowing and symbolism. This is a very tight, taut, controlled horror story full of unpredictable events, where the only relief comes right at the end.
Lord of the Flies exposes the darkness of the human condition. It is a pessimistic examination of everything we hold sacred. And that is why it so wonderfully terrifying.