Book Column: More than one way to discuss a book

08/10/2012 11:00 PM |

Food and literature both sustain us and it is a wonderful thing when they do it together. The book ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ by Laura Esquivel has been the occasion for much delicious collaboration this summer. I first read the book when it was published in 1989 and I remember liking it well enough, but it seemed somewhat slight and girlish compared to the giant works by other Latin American magic realists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes.

It was the first novel by a 25-year-old woman who had been working as a kindergarten teacher in her native Mexico. The novel became a huge success there and then was translated and published abroad and was an international best-seller. It was based on her own family stories and was organized into 12 chapters for the 12 months of the year, each chapter preceded by a recipe. Actually, the whole title is “Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances and Home Remedies.”

Reading it a second time this summer, and talking about it with the book discussion group, revised my original, somewhat dismissive, opinion. It is quite wonderful on its own terms and doesn’t deserve to stand in the shadow of its macho contemporaries.

The book was made into a film by the Mexican director Alfonso Arau, which was screened at Floyd Memorial Library as part of our summer Fantastic Food Film Fest. Members of the library’s book discussion group, who read the novel in July, were urged to come see the movie and participate in a post-film potluck supper and discussion. One of the participants had been at the New York premiere of the film 20 years ago and had been invited to the after-party at a Mexican restaurant, where the menu was created using the book’s recipes. In the book and film, eating these foods, made with much emotion by the protagonist Tita, causes huge spiritual and bodily upheavals in the people who eat them. Apparently, neither after the New York premiere nor after the Greenport screening was anybody seen running naked through golden fields and jumping up on a galloping horse ridden by a handsome Zapatista revolutionary — but you never know.

The author, Ms. Esquivel, was married for a while to the director, Mr. Arau, and has continued to write books, none of them as successful as her maiden effort. Many of them have not been translated into English. One of them that was translated and published here in 2006, ‘Malinche,’ is more of a historical novel about the woman who was translator for and mistress of the conquistador Cortés, with less magic realism and more polemical politicizing. I found it much less appealing than her first book. Often, a writer’s career that starts off with great success may falter a bit with a second book — the sophomore slump — but pick up again as the writer’s talent matures and deepens. In Ms. Esquivel’s case, maybe her first book will always be her best, but she has put her talents to other use, becoming a successful and respected political leader in her home district in Mexico City.

Sharing responses and opinions about literature can be done face to face sitting around a dinner table, in a discussion group or in a classroom. I learned about a new way to do it from my daughter, a school librarian. She helped the AP English class in Southold use an online “platform” to tweet and blog their responses to each other and their teachers. They still meet face to face in the classroom, but instead of little sticky notes or index cards and underlines, the students have an entire archive of relevant posts by themselves and their peers to cite, discuss and study.

Another family member, my sister, a classics scholar turned lawyer and a voracious reader of novels, used an interesting neologism the other night when we were sitting around the dinner table talking about books. She talked about “audibly reading” a book series, which means she was “reading” the books, “The Forsyte Saga” by John Galsworthy, by listening with earbuds and an iPod to the text being read out loud by an actor. Other people at the dinner table then chimed in with discussions about their preferred or less preferred readers, everybody agreeing that Jim Dale did a bang-up job on the Harry Potter series. Yet again I was made to feel a bit of a dinosaur. My ears feel invaded if I put earbuds in them and I still prefer to hold the paper object and read with my eyes, but I accept that I am limiting myself and that it is an idiosyncratic preference, not a moral imperative. One thing about audible reading is that it allows for multitasking. You can exercise or clean house while audibly reading, not that I ever actually want to exercise or clean house.

Audible reading also allows one to imagine classrooms of the future where all first-graders might not be pressured to advance at the same speed in the skills we now associate with being literate. Some could be audibly reading while others are reading reading, but all of them could be parsing out meaning from words and stories, sharing their ideas and dreams and nourishing themselves. Buen provecho!

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

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