Usually around this time of year a recommendation for a beach read is in order, in which case I grasp your shoulders and scream 'American Gods’ in your face, but I’d rather share the most magnificent piece of literature I have ever laid mine eyes upon- that’s right folks, ‘Dragons Love Tacos.’
Do you like dragons? Do you like tacos? If you don’t like dragons or tacos, wanna meet up so we can discuss this egregious lapse in your personal taste? I will sit you down, make a vague comment about the weather, and then graciously proffer ‘Dragons with Tacos,’ my new favorite book.
Yes, it’s a children’s book. Yes, I read those more than I’d care to admit. Sometimes a fellow wants a light read, not a Jojo Moyes-type light read but like a really *really* light read, because you just trudged through the first Game of Thrones book on a stupid whim and barely made it out alive with your brain intact. Thus, I perused the children’s section.
I’ve always held a special place in my heart for children’s books. When you get down to it, they can be extremely poignant. The best ones I’ve read have touched upon exclusion, racism, the individual’s role in society, the meaning of family, even how to handle the idea of death. Shel Silverstein’s poetry, ‘The Little Prince,’ Dr. Seuss’ rhymes, they all carry life messages hidden behind easily-digestible jibber-jabber. My favorite of Silverstein’s, ‘Peanut Butter Sandwich,’ touches upon the consequences of excess. Dr. Seuss himself tackled bigotry and antisemitism in ‘The Sneetches’ and the environmental impact of the human overuse of resources in ‘The Lorax.’ Pretty adult stuff. So I suppose I shouldn’t feel ashamed that I occasionally spend a bit too long shelving children’s books. Literature for kids can be refreshing and illuminating in the way that it explores heavy topics and recognizes how intelligent children can be, in the vein of when Faulkner’s infamous Vardaman from ‘As I Lay Dying’ contemplates the difference between physical and spiritual permanence by watching a toy train in a store window. Goes to show that kids understand stuff better than adults, sometimes.
Where was I? Oh, yes, tacos.
‘Dragons Love Tacos’ caught my eye because, I mean, when’s the last time you’ve seen a book with both dragons AND tacos on the cover? When I found it it felt like my birthday. The book’s illustrations are adorable, the concept is darn near brilliant in its unabashed simplicity, and the writing provides groundbreaking insights and advice such as:
“Taco parties are parties with lots of tacos.”
“Bury the spicy salsa in the backyard.”
“I know you love tacos, dragons, but you’re not gonna love *those* tacos.”
I have misled you. ‘Dragons Love Tacos’ isn’t thought-provoking like the aforementioned children’s titles, and the only life-changing insight it will instill in you is that you may consider hunting down a dragon so you have someone to eat tacos with when you watch Netflix. Nothing is more Russian novel tragic than bringing House of Cards alone in your basement whilst eating many a taco, wondering what deity you must’ve angered to end up here. I know this from experience.
But here’s the deal. I love the book because it’s downright ridiculous. It has absolutely zero reason to exist. Nada. Zilch. None. Yet . . . It does. Great Mother Earth now holds under her depleting ozone layer a book about how dragons hate spicy salsa on their tacos. Stew on that for a second. Think about it. We’re living in a tumultuous time, on a planet slowly headed for eventual annihilation by either galactic explosion, nuclear war, or the sun burning us all to ashes, but it has now been confirmed that dragons love tacos. There is hope for us yet. There is hope.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has been on my radar for several months now. Originally published in 1985, it came back into popularity after movie streaming service Hulu decided to pick it up for a television series. In a similar fashion to George Orwell’s 1984, many readers have taken interest in this dystopian tale as it draws many similarities to current events. While I do not believe that a reality as drastic as the one in Handmaid’s Tale could ever become true, there are still many parallels to draw from. I am a major fan of dystopian stories. Regardless of how depressing they may be, they serve as an honest warning for the future. Atwood’s novel is no exception, taking place in a world so horribly polluted that the majority of babies born are deformed. A new government steps in to solve the problem, leading to dangerously low fertility rates. Women’s rights are slowly taken away to the point where it seems as if the novel takes place in the middle ages. Main character Offred lives in the Republic of Gilead, a state in which the majority of women work as handmaids for the wealthy. After trying to escape with her family, Offred is separated from her daughter and husband with no choice but to be forced to conceive children under the government. With her future unknown, she must learn what survival means to her.
Atwood's novel has been adapted for opera, ballet, and film throughout the years. The story of The Handmaid’s Tale has captivated readers for generations as it makes them realize how much they take for granted. While the book was certainly a page turner, I dreaded learning of what horrible things would happen to Offred in the next chapter. The story is incredibly disturbing, yet beautiful. It sheds light on how women have been mistreated throughout the years, yet are still able to fight. The Handmaid’s Tale is gruesome and may be too much for some, but I believe it was essential for a young women like me to read. I would highly recommend this book as well as watching the Hulu series. For aspiring novelists and film directors, there is much to be learned from Atwood’s storytelling.
Conquest is the history of the defeat of the Aztec Empire (hereafter called the Mexica) by Spanish Conquistadors under the command of Hernando Cortes in 1519 through 1521. It is the story of one empire ascending, the Spanish, and one at its peak and perhaps beginning its decline, the Mexica, whose gold and land in its fall fed the explosive growth of power in those who had subdued them.
The Mexica, led by Emperor Montezuma, held 125,000 square miles of land (more than 5 times the size of Pennsylvania), and had built a city, Tenochtitlan, that was home to over 150,000 people. The Conquistadors thought it the most beautiful city they had ever seen.
The Mexica gold and featherwork and their picture paintings were exquisite, their farming productive and sustainable, their ruling structure stable, their warrior’s reputation fearsome, their poetry superb.
However, they sacrificed human beings to the God of the Sun and their limbs were eaten by the powerful so that they could become more powerful. Sixty thousand skulls decorated racks in the central pyramid. The priests wore the skins of their victims and dyed their own skin black. When Cortes landed near present day Vera Cruz, Indian allies flocked to him. The Mexica were hated.
The Mexica had two additional weaknesses. They “had constructed their history on a myth of eventual cataclysm” (28). They believed their lives were always on the brink of disaster unless they made all the right choices for “nothing in Mexico was seen as happening by chance (180).” Their Gods were too numerous and capricious. Man always had to interpret the many signs they left and then had to choose just the right path of action. One bad choice could bring disaster. Second, they were led by Montezuma, a man who “considered flight, who considered hiding”, upon hearing of the invader’s horses’ “high as rooftops” and their dogs’ “blazing yellow eyes” and of their steel swords and lances, helmets, breastplates and of their cannon (180).
Then they had Cortes as their adversary, someone who “had that capacity of all successful men of being able to conceal his real intentions” (135). He had emerged from Medellin in Spain, a backwater dominated by “thefts, murders, illegal imprisonments, brawls, acts of menace and the improper occupation of lands” (121). He had received a further “education in brutality” in the Spanish conquest of Cuba (133) where he had learned that “absolute ruthlessness sometimes pays absolutely” (132). More than just a feral adventurer, he had a firm grounding in Latin and the Law. He was a gifted speaker, fearless but prudent, charismatic, deeply religious, a perfect man of his time and place who was convinced that his duty was to convert Indians to the one, true faith, a man supremely confident in the superiority of his Spanish heritage but also someone who desired gold, who in speaking to one of Montezuma’s diplomats, told him that “gold was good for a bad heart” and that “some of his men were ill with that complaint” (178).
What followed was inevitable: misunderstanding, Spanish arrogance matched with Mexica indecisiveness, overreach and overreaction, threat, murder, massacre, Mexica resistance, destruction. The death of Montezuma, the Night of Sorrows when the Spanish retreated along a causeway, the terrible torch-lit battle that ensued, the siege of Tenochtitlan, its fall, the enslavement of the Mexica, their demographic collapse, 300 years of Spanish colonial rule.
The experience of the Mexica (and later the Spanish and all other Empires) is “one reminder that any interpretation of human evolution based on the idea of unilinear progress forward is an illusion” (91).
Few histories better describe worlds this strange that existed close to us both geographically and in time. Thomas’s book is a great narrative and as such is filled with scenes of both beauty and horror that will stay with you.
Marine biologist and writer, Shannon Leone Fowler, expresses her passage of mourning in her memoir “Traveling with Ghosts” with such maturity, wisdom, and grace that it is incredibly moving. It is quite a touching journey. Although this book is about loss, it is an uplifting and heartening story. Then only twenty-eight years old while backpacking in Thailand, her fiancé, Sean – love of her life and her partner in adventure – was stung by a box jellyfish and died immediately on the beach after a late afternoon swim in paradise.
The picture painted of the romance of the free-spirited couple almost makes you dismiss the seriousness of the relationship at first glance. Upon Sean’s death, however, she details the stages of her grief with such humility and candor that the reader recognizes the depth of their love.
After Sean’s death, already in a dark and vulnerable place, Shannon travels alone to places she planned to visit with Sean to remote and not-so-pleasant places in the world. It was as if she could not be more distraught, but she wanted to feel the agony more deeply in her solitary travel. She didn’t want to further torture herself; it was if she needed to experience the places and travel through the pain. She goes to Poland, Bosnia, Romania, and more. She visits Auschwitz on a cold and rainy day. Her vivid description of the Holocaust memorial with the personal items shown and stories told is so vivid. Given the wide-open place from which she expresses herself, her account of Auschwitz is one of the most moving I have read. It is almost as if it deserves only to be described by someone at the depths of their own despair to truly feel it.
She also tells the story of the two young Israeli women who witness her with Sean’s body right after his death. Shannon is helpless; the two women stay with her for days until she is able to get through all of the paperwork for the body to be released. Shannon realizes much later that these two women, who become dear friends, were following their Shiva rules on how to handle death. She describes, “The girls had let me initiate the conversations, or they’d let me choose to be quiet. They made sure to talk about Sean, to use his name and to say it often…they’d brought me food, and encouraged me to keep eating and drinking. And they’d done their best to avoid leaving me alone…they had even changed their flights to stay on the island until I was allowed to leave with Sean’s body. They changed their plans rather than leave me behind.” She found these rituals of death so meaningful and beautiful. She would have been lost without them. Her gratitude was immeasurable.
As she travels, she rebuilds; although, she still had a long way to go. She gradually gets herself back into her work and research, but even more slowly, she overcame her fear of getting back into the ocean. But she does heal, and her story is inspirational, remarkable, and incredibly brave. It was even encouraging because her passage teaches us that loved ones lost can be recognized in everyday experiences, near and far.
Hannah Tinti (The Good Thief) delivers a father-daughter saga with a twist.
We meet Samuel at the beginning of the book – he is a truck driver and takes his daughter Loo everywhere with him. Loo loves her life with her father. When Sam realizes that she is too isolated, he moves back to where he lived with his wife (Loo’s mother who died when she was young). Sam takes up fishing for a living and puts Loo in school.
Loo experiences ridicule and physical punishment by her classmates. Her father is the reason – his mysterious history she knows nothing about. Sam has a violent temper and how he wields it in the town makes pariahs of them both.
The “Twelve Lives” correspond to twelve bullet holes that have scarred over on Sam’s body. Each one has a story and as the book progresses we are drawn into the random, violent and criminal life that Sam has led. In NPR’s interview with the author she said, “. …one of the connections I made was between Samuel Hawley and the myth of Hercules - actually, the structure of the myth of Hercules with his 12 labors. So, I'm interested in heroes that are flawed. And I wanted to translate those 12 labors into the 12 lives of Samuel Hawley and show how sometimes you have to do really bad things to accomplish your goals.”
Can a bad person be a good parent? Can a violent man atone for his past? Is Sam redeemed in the book? Can Loo learn a different path…how to live without her anger? These are provocative questions that are left for interpretation.
An interesting and unpredictable fiction – you cannot see around the corners.
We’ve discovered that author Fredrik Backman has a gift for making unlikeable people quite lovable. Remember the curmudgeon, Ove, and the obsessive/compulsive Britt-Marie? Both characters wore their way into our hearts despite their quirks. We were charmed by these characters and their stories.
In Beartown, however, Backman has deviated from (I could also say he has grown away from) his successful formula and given us a novel deep in sociological truths.
Beartown is not a charming story. Beartown is a Scandinavian community that eats, sleeps, and dreams the game of hockey. The wellbeing and future of the town rest entirely on the success or failure of the high school hockey team. The star player, Kevin, is revered, fawned over and pampered. He is the center of the universe around which the rest of the community orbits. Kevin however takes a potentially fatal step when he rapes the teenage daughter of the hockey coach. The resulting tsunami of conflict, division and anger catapults the reader deep into an exploration of loyalty, values, and family.
No question, Backman is a great developer of character. Equally compelling to me is his skilled development of community. In his first three novels, A Man Called Ove, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, and Britt- Marie Was Here, community gathers around our protagonists, lifts them up and offers them friendship and love. In Beartown, community takes on a whole new depth of meaning – and some of it is pretty ugly.
No, Beartown is not a charming story. It is however, a deep and authentic story of how and who we love. It is a story of despair, desperation, and truth. In the midst of scandal, greed and violence, there is ultimately redemption in this story.
Backman has done it again in a whole new way.
Beartown comes out in hardback on April 25th.
Ariel Levy has written an unflinchingly honest memoir about her life choices and their heartbreaking consequences.
Written in fast-paced, staccato form, the reader is thrown into Ariel’s world – a successful writing career with the New Yorker, a marriage, an affair and a pregnancy. The dire consequences of Ariel’s choices and her unforgiving accountability for them, give the memoir its gritty realism.
Ariel does not bend to societal norms (“rules”) that dictate how she should behave. But her high risk taking behavior, which she does not recognize as such, suggests that the flip side of such freedom is not so pretty. She marries a woman who she loves deeply, craving a stable, domestic life - but then chafes under the constraints and has an affair which unsettles her wife to the point of madness. When the relationship recovers, Ariel and her wife decide to have a child (via in vitro with a friend as the sperm donor). Happily pregnant, Ariel, still fiercely ambitious, flies to Mongolia to conduct research for an article she is writing. The resulting crisis is the crucial turning point of the book.
Is Ariel the hero in her own story? She allows herself no redemption, no glory in the path she has walked. But, for the reader, her accountability for her actions and her resilience in the face of crisis, may suggest otherwise.
In 1999, close to the Ojibwe reservation in northern North Dakota, two families, neighbors, one white, one Native American, have been friends for years: the Ravich's and the Iron's. The men married half-sisters. They help each other. But Landreaux Iron accidently shoots and kills Pete Ravich's five-year old son, Dusty, while hunting.
How does either family go on after such a catastrophe? How do they not implode under the weight of grief, guilt and rage? Those questions form the heart of the novel.
Landreaux and his wife recall their Ojibwe traditions, and in an impossible, perfect, fraught action, give their five-year old son, Larose, to the Ravich's to raise as their own -- a life for a life.
LaRose is the latest in a line of LaRose's, and a mysterious boy who has the gift of second sight and of seeing the dead, the same gifts as his antecedents. Erdrich weaves into the narrative a wholly convincing magic realism, an Ojibwe version.
She creates an integrated community made up of sisters on a high school volleyball team; a priest, an ex-Marine and survivor of the Beirut barracks bombing; brazen, elderly Ojibwe women in a nursing home, and Romeo, an addict and a damaged man whose desire for revenge brings the plot to its climax. But it is LaRose at the center of it all, a boy of resourcefulness and courage, who has a intuitive understanding of his role as the link between families: he is the one who is to be loved.
At the end, the dead gather with the living at a celebration, and LaRose listens to their song:
"We love you, Don't cry, Sorrow eats time, Be patient, Time eats sorrow."
We also hear the song, of course, invited into knowledge by Larose's talent, and invited into the peculiar power of some novels to also change us and make us better.
LaRose comes out in paperback April 11th!
I am not a fan of “coming of age” novels. I have already come of age and that road was rough enough for me. History of Wolves opens with a hauntingly beautiful description of Northern Minnesota, marred by the decrepit remains of a defunct commune. The last family on the commune, an eccentric and pseudo-functional couple, has a 15-year old daughter, Linda. She is angsty, an outcast at school with few friends. Linda is desperate to be out of her house as much as possible and is able to get a babysitting job with a mother, Patra, and 4 year old son who live across the small lake.
Fridlund subtly hints of a sexual awakening in Linda. She has a fascination for a student who, allegedly, has been molested by a teacher (although it turns out not to be true). She also develops a “crush” on Patra – and on one occasion sleeps closely next to her and kisses her.
Hmm. So far I was skeptical – reads like that coming of age genre. I was soon to be surprised. Linda’s meets Patra and her 4 year old son, Paul. They are on vacation across the lake. Patra hires Linda to babysit Paul and, later, the dominating father joins them at the lake. The novel takes a chilling twist, as we are drawn into Linda’s discovery of parents who neglect their child in an unimaginable way. Linda must confront her complicity – and guilt. She is now adrift from her own family – as well as her new “adopted” one – when Patra places the blame for the tragedy on her.
History of Wolves raises questions about wrenching decisions made in a religious context (to explain it in more detail would give the story away). Don’t expect a happy ending here. Fridlund leaves the reader with an ethical conundrum – and with Linda who, left on her own to move into adulthood, is irreparably damaged.
Wolfie began to eat my copy of War and Peace very early on my birthday morning. I was upstairs shaving. Spread out on the couch in the living room, his head rested on its arm, his usual pose. I had set Tolstoy on the edge of the cushion, about 8 inches from his mouth. What me worry? I am fortunate that Wolfie did not move on and eat words or paragraphs. I love this book.
War and Peace is a realist novel. Tolstoy’s Russia before Napoleon’s invasion of 1812, during and after, is a description of an entire society caught in a cataclysm. He concentrates on showing the travails and evolution of members of the aristocracy, the educated classes, but in 1215 pages he made a canvas so encompassing that serfs, merchants, officers and ordinary soldiers all receive their humane due – that is, their measure of Tolstoy’s capacious empathy and insight into the human condition.
It takes an initial effort to begin to read 1215 pages. It takes an effort to fight off our noisy, frenetic, globalized world and descend into an early 19th century Russia where family names, status, connections and passionate attachments undiluted by irony are the norm. Do not be put off by its length. You will do yourself a disservice if you put this novel down because of its heft and the commitment you believe is required to read it. After orienting yourself to its setting and pace, the narrative moves quickly.
Reading this novel is akin to slowly descending into a cavern. You lose the light and sounds of our world by increments as you descend, but at some point, Tolstoy’s sharply drawn characterizations and his perfectly chosen details of dress and landscape and manner and action take you over and begin to live inside you so possessively and passionately that sometimes when you raise your head from the book, when you step away from the cavern, the light of your real life can be disorienting. After a particularly powerful scene, you emerge stunned; sometimes I found myself saying aloud, “Daaamn!”
The reader begins inside a center of intrigue surrounding the deathbed illness of Count Bezukhov, one of the wealthiest men in Russia. From there it expands into other families of Counts and Princes and Princesses who all speak French, who think of marriages as unions of families and as the engines of generations of wealth and privilege — as the reader you know that an earthquake is coming, and that their lives will be shaken, erased, burned out. You listen to them express their admiration for Napoleon, their coming destroyer. Their comfortable world is coming to an end at the bayonet point of Napoleon’s 600,000 men, and no one can see it. You watch them earnestly and blithely making plans, and many of them matter so much to you that you are anxious to know that they will be safe. Many will not be safe.
Tolstoy creates characters geologically; in 1215 pages he has given himself the luxury of time, space and pressure for his men and women to take evolving shapes – his psychological perceptions are better than any other novelist I have read. His third-person narration leads us through door after door of a character’s consciousness – through layers of sensations and of shifting, minutely observed scenes and emotional, moral, and intellectual reactions. These are never dull because Tolstoy has found a way to tell the truth about all of this – you find yourself saying “Yes, even though I would not have predicted that reaction, that is what he or she would do or say. That is authentic.” For example, this three sentence paragraph gives you a sense of his method: “Anna Mikhailovna was already embracing her and weeping. The countess was also weeping. They wept because they were friends; and because they were kind; and because they, who had been friends since childhood, were concerned with such a mean subject – money; and because their youth was gone … but for both of them they were pleasant tears….” You read of their weeping, you witness their embrace, and then the cascade of impressions increases – weeping because they are childhood friends, because they are kind to each other, and ashamed of their desire for money, and aware of their lost youth, and yet their tears are “pleasant”. All of these impressions are occurring simultaneously. In separating them, Tolstoy makes us aware of our own wash of feelings, all of them moving at high speed. We move closer to them because we recognize our own consciousness in motion in them.
For example, Pierre Bezukhov, arguably the central character of the novel, captured by the French when they occupy Moscow, is taken in a forced march on the French retreat. The French are shooting those prisoners who cannot keep up with the column. Pierre had made a good friend of Karataev, a peasant soldier. Karataev becomes more and more sick and finally signals to Pierre to come to him. Pierre pretends to ignore his signal. It is implied that Pierre knew that Karataev’s end was near. Pierre moves away from him, and when the march resumes, goes on. Tolstoy tells us that “Pierre did not look any longer. He went limping up the hill.” Note the absence of any emotional reaction to the abandonment. Then, “from behind, where Karataev had been sitting, came the sound of a shot. Pierre heard the shot clearly, but the moment he heard it, he recalled that he had not finished [a] calculation … of how many marches remained to Smolensk. And he started to count.” Later still: “Like him, his soldier comrades, walking beside Pierre, did not turn to look at the place from which the shot had been heard and then the howling of the dog; but there was a stern look on all their faces.” Pierre (and Natasha) is one of two most rigorously humane characters in the novel, the ones with the deepest capacity for empathy for others, but here he and his comrades shut themselves off from sympathy. They have no control over what happens to Karataev. They focus on staying alive. They block their emotions. They seem to focus only on going on, on enduring. In my most secret admission to myself, would I not have done the same?
Powerful scene after scene passes under our astonished gaze: the description of the battles of Austerlitz and Borodino*, the cavalry officer Denisov’s attack at the bridge at Austerlitz, the burning of Moscow, the execution of the `arsonists’, Kuragin’s attempted seduction of Natasha, Prince Andrei’s death scene (I cannot believe that another novelist has written more sensitively and perceptively about death), Natasha’s rescue of her mother after her brother Petya’s death through her “… love, persistent, patient, … a summons to life.” . Prince Andrei, his sister, Princess Marya Bolkonsky, Pierre, Natasha Rostov and her brother Nicholas Rostov – these characters are alive the same way that Hamlet or Lear or Iago or Ahab or Desdemona is alive. They take up so much sympathetic space in your imagination because you spend so many intimate moments with them.
Marya finally comes out of her sorrow for the death of her brother when she understands that “life did not stop, and one had to live.” Napoleon’s army is destroyed. Peace returns. The dead are mourned. Wounds close. Life does not stop. I closed the book grudgingly. I did not want this story to come to an end. I will read it again.
*Read David Howarth’s short history Waterloo: Day of Battle for another, more direct and comprehensive description of how late 18th/early 19th century battlefields would have looked and felt.
Staff of Wellington Square Book Shop