Even though he was a fairly prolific writer and frequent guest of This American Life, I didn’t know of David Rakoff until the publication of his last book, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish. It won numerous well-deserved accolades (I loved it), but the book was obviously bittersweet for longtime Rakoff fans; he died of cancer shortly after completing the manuscript.
The Uncollected David Rakoff gives readers such as myself — people who weren’t too familiar with his oeuvre to begin with — a chance to get acquainted with his work. Unlike his other essay collections, all of which center around a theme, this collection draws from various parts of his career: there’s one fiction story, a handful of travel writings, commentary on literature and pop culture, and few interview transcripts. A number of autobiographical pieces are in there, including several writings about cancer; he was diagnosed with cancer at the age of twenty-two, the treatments of which probably caused the more aggressive form of cancer that he died from life twenty-five years later. Rounding out the collection is the full text of Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish.
Twenty years after a terrifying childhood prank taken too far, cousins Danny and Howie meet again in Eastern Europe to renovate a crumbling medieval castle. The tables are now turned: the once-scrawny, awkward Howie — a childhood victim of his cousins’ bullying — is now a handsome millionaire, while Danny is thirty-something NYC hipster with a questionable past. Howie is now intent on turning the castle into a high-end, technology-free, spiritual retreat; he reaches out to his wayward cousin in part to patch up the rift stemming from that childhood event that changed both their lives.
Danny immediately hates it there, especially since there’s no cell phone reception. Everything is old and unsettling, and being around Howie so much dredges up old memories of what Danny did to him when they were younger. Howie, however, doesn’t even bring up the past; he’s freakishly positive about everything in life and insists that Danny has a special something, a magical intuition that will lead this fledgling business venture in the right direction. And he’s right. Skeptical though Danny may be, he knows that for everything to succeed, the need to get into the highest, most secure part of the castle: the keep. The problem is that the ancient matriarch of the family who owned the castle still lives there and has no intention of ever leaving; her family had owned the castle for centuries.
And here, unfortunately, is where the novel begins to unravel in a way that it never fully recovers from.
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Publisher/Year: Books on Tape, 1993
Length: 5 hours, 56 minutes
Narrated by: Kate Reading
What it is: Set on a Mexican ranch at the turn of the century, Mama Elena keeps a tight leash on her daughters. Tita has it the worst; she is expected to spend the rest of her life cooking and caring for her cruel mother. When her chance at happiness arrives and she falls in love with a man named Pedro, her mother refuses to consent to their marriage, and instead arranges for another of her daughters to marry Pedro. As a skilled chef, Tita infuses magical realism into the story, pouring her emotions into the food she prepares, including the wedding food she is forced to prepare for her sister and Pedro.
Why I listened to it: It’s a classic, and I felt like the last person on the planet who had not read this book. This book was also banned in Tucson.
What I thought: I feel like a bad Mexican for saying this, and I know I’m in a very small minority, but I think I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t like Esquivel’s writing. At all. It started a couple of years ago when I read Malinche (which I deemed one of my worst reads of 2010), but since that was my only encounter with Esquivel, I chalked it up to the book. But no, it’s Esquivel. I can see why people like her epic-style storytelling; her writing has a sweeping grandness to it. And I wanted to like Esquivel for writing about some of the problematic gender expectations in Mexican culture. But I just could not get on board with the message. The rest of this part is one big spoiler, so highlight the text to read it: Tita pines away for Pedro for her entire adult life, even though he marries her sister and royally screws her over. When they finally get a chance to be together, he dies (from happiness. UGH, what a douche.)…at which point, her life is no longer worth living, so she goes out with a bang. Please no.
Chicano! the History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement by Francisco A. Rosales
Publisher/Year: Arte Publico Press, 1997
What it is: A history textbook published to accompany a 1996 PBS documentary of the same name. The book focuses on the history of the U.S. – Mexico border, especially the important moments for Mexican Americans in California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The book then builds up to the activism of the Chicano movement in the 1960s through the mid-1970s.
Why I read it: This is one of the books that was banned in Tucson, Arizona, and I’m on a mission to read entire list of banned books.
What I thought: The book is very interesting, and I’d love to watch the documentary to see how the two complement each other. I already knew some of the things that Rosales covered, but there was a lot I didn’t know. I also loved getting to learn a little more about south Texas history, and think of some of the stories my grandfather used to tell me about his childhood and school experiences in the context of the book (like being punished for speaking Spanish).
After being blown away early last year by Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Good Squad, I decided on the spot that I’d read every book she’s ever written. It took me a while to get to my second Egan read, but I finally picked up another book by her this year, Emerald City: Stories.
This book features Egan’s some earlier work; some of the eleven stories were written in the late 1980s and 1990s. Most of them feature what I see appears to be a recurring theme in Egan’s work: lost people who appear to be successful yet struggle with discontentment and unfulfilled lives. In this case, the people in the stories either wealthy enough to travel around the world or have jobs that take them to exotic locations around the world. The settings transport readers everywhere, such as the pristine beach resorts of Bora Bora, the sand dunes in the deserts of Africa, the tourist hot spots in China, and the high-fashion photo shoots in Manhattan.
One of my favorite stories in the collection is “One Piece,” about a young girl (the narrator) and her slightly older brother, Brad, who struggle to cope with a tragic event from their childhood: Brad, while playing around in their idling parked car, shifted the gears and fatally injured their mother. Ever since, their father has treated him differently, as if he were a danger to others. Their father eventually remarries, and their new stepmother is even more obvious about her discomfort around him, especially when he’s near her two daughters. Meanwhile, the narrator examines how the accidents and the ensuing years have eaten at Brad. Her desire to alleviate his feelings of guilt is palpable throughout the story.
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Publisher/Year: Tantor Media, 2008
What it is: A novel revolving around Balram Halwai, a successful entrepreneur who was able to establish himself even though he came from humble means. He finds work as a chauffeur for a wealthy family, which provides an enlightening peek into the servants’ world. Looking back on his journey to the top, Balram coolly recounts the cutthroat steps he took to get to where he is.
Why I listened to it: Curiosity, plus I’d like to work my way through the Booker winners.
What I thought: I was pleasantly surprised. I didn’t think I’d like the book at first; my mind kept wandering and it was hard for me to concentrate. After the first chapter or two, I couldn’t wait to hear what happened next. Balram is dark and sarcastic. He’s a conceited country bumpkin (or “Country-Mouse,” as he’s called) who is fiercely intelligent. He also has a mean sense of humor, and I couldn’t help rooting for him. The book basks in the greedy, caste-driven underbelly of India, and I loved every minute of it. I also thought John Lee, the audiobook narrator, did a great job.
If this book were a beverage, it would be: A cup of strong, black coffee–slowly sipped with proper etiquette, of course.
The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender
Publisher/Year: Anchor, 1999
What it is: A collection of strange short stories.
Why I read it: I love Aimee Bender and think short stories are her strong suit.
What I thought: Like most short story collections, some stories were stronger than others. Overall, I really enjoyed the book. I think the first story, “The Rememberer,” was my favorite. It’s about a woman whose lover is experiencing reverse evolution (I shared the fantastic first paragraph here). Another favorite of mine was “Quiet Please,” about a librarian who sleeps with every male patron in the back room of the library. It’s like Bender takes “normal” narratives, changes one or two things about them, and skews everything so that they’re off-the-wall but still strangely realistic.
If this book were a food, it would be: Chocolate chipotle gelato (which I actually have tasted): sweetly smooth taste at the beginning that tapers off into a spicy, slightly funky–but not unpleasant–lingering aftertaste at the end.