Sunday, August 25, 2013

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

  On the cover of my copy of Chocolat there is a picture of Juliet Binoche feeding a piece of chocolate to Johnny Depp.  It suggest a light, sexy romance, belying the dark story in the pages that follow.

It is a dark story that begins when Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk move to a small French town.  Vianne opens a shop where she sells delectable chocolate treats, but the way the townspeople react one would think she was selling porn or drugs.  Lent has just begun and Vivanne's chocolates suggest self-indulgence and gluttony during a time that is usually reserved for self-denial and introspection.  The local priest in particular sees Vianne and her chocolates as a personal affront to him and his authority.  That isn't to say that Vivanne doesn't have her supporters.  After all, who can resist chocolate?  Some people in the town visit her shop secretly, others boldly.

Vianne's standing in the community is not helped by her friendliness toward the gypsies who briefly visit the town.  The hostility of the townspeople towards the gypsies, and especially of the local priest, is frightening and disturbing.  Although they have done nothing to harm anyone else, many assume the gypsies to be criminals.  Local business owners refuse to serve them in their cafes and shops.  

Chocolat was not at all what I expected.  I expected romance and magic (I picked this as the magical realism entry for the literary exploration challenge), but instead found racism, domestic abuse and death.  Not that there wasn't joy as well.  There are those in the town who don't view a chocolate treat as a sin, who treat the gypsies with kindness and respect, and who stand behind a wife who decides to leave her abusive husband.  There is a hint of magic.  Vianne somehow knows what each person's favorite type of of chocolate treat is just by looking at them.  She can sometimes sense what people think and feel.  And then there is the wind...when Vianne came to town it seemed that the wind was bringing some kind of change, or at least that is what some in the town say.  It reminded of Mary Poppins, only darker and without the fun adventures involving chalk art on the sidewalk or tea parties.

I would recommend this book, but with the caveat that not to expect the book to by anything like the movie.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Maya's Notebook by Isabel Allende

Maya's Notebook: A Novel   One of the things I love to do at bookstores (and one reason why I try to buy most of my books at physical stores rather than online) is to walk among the shelves from A to Z and see what sparks my interest.  I can, and have, spent hours doing this.  I distinctly remember being at a Borders store several years ago and gazing at Isabel Allende's row of books.  Prolific authors intrigue me and her books took up one-and-a-half rows.  However, though my interest was piqued, I didn't pick up one of Allende's books that day. 

Through Goodreads I came across Maya's Notebook  I can't remember what it was that originally attracted my attention.  Maybe it was the partially obscured face of a woman on the cover, looking over her tattooed shoulder, set against a haunting greenish-blue-gray background.  Maybe it was the synopsis describing the story as one about a young woman whose life had gone off the rails, and a cast of characters that includes a torture survivor, a lame dog, and a gang of assassins.  I don't know, but whatever it was, I am ever so glad that I have been introduced to the work of Isabel Allende.

The plot is fairly simple.  Maya has been raised by her grandparents, Nini and Popo.  Nini fled Pinochet's regime in Chile and came to the United States via Canada with her young son (Maya's father).  Popo is an African-American astronomer professor who perhaps more than anyone is the calming, steady influence so needed in Maya's life, given her parents' decision that they don't really want to be parents.  Maya is just fine with this and grows up in a colorful house in Berkeley.  All is well until her beloved Popo succombs to cancer.  After that Maya finds her days filled with of drugs and violence. 

The novel opens with Maya's arrival in Chile, where her grandmother has sent her to escape her enemies and the FBI.  It alternates between Chile and everything that came before.  Nini gives the notebook to Maya to keep her company in this country that is foreign to her granddaughter, telling her, "You're going to have time to get bored, Maya.  Take advantage of it write down the monumental stupidities you've committed, see if you can come to grips with them[.]"

This is not a sad story.  Even with passages about rape, torture, and life under a military coup, it is somehow hopeful.  Ultimately I suppose the story is about survival and even thriving after having surviving very bad things.  It is about facing up to one's past, the good and especially the bad, dealing with it and moving forward.  If the copy I read were not a library book, I would have marked up the pages with underlining and tabs.  From the first page I was mesmerized by Allende's lyrical writing.  I can't quite put my finger on it, but something about this story grabbed me right away.  It felt like having a friend tell me her story as we sat at a table drinking coffee. 

I would highly recommend this book.  As mentioned above, this is the first book by Isabel Allende that I've read.  I am looking forward to reading more of her work.  Soon there may be a row on my bookshelf dedicated to Ms. Allende.

Friday, August 9, 2013

A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire #3)  
A Storm of Swords (ASOS) is the third book in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire Series. A Game of Thrones (AGOT) introduced the rich world of the Seven Kingdoms, Westeros, and those battling for the iron throne.  The story stalled a bit in A Clash of Kings (ACOK) but eventually picked during the last third of the story.  In ASOS the story grabbed hold of me and never let go.  There were revelations and surprises I didn't see coming.  I can see why so many people consider ASOS the best entry in the series.

Rather than relying on one main character or an omniscient narrator, Martin tells the story of the battle for the throne through multiple characters.  In ASOS there are point-of-view chapters from Jon Snow, Arya Stark, Sansa Stark, Bran Stark, Catelyn Stark, Samwell Tarly, Davos Seaworth (the Onion Knight), Jaime Lannister, Tyrion Lannister, and Daenerys Targaryen.  Arya, Jon, and Tyrion have been favorites of mine since AGOT because... 
  • Arya because she is a girl who, after constantly being told who she is and should become, stood up and said no, that's not me.  This is who I am. She learns how to use a sword even though it isn't considered lady like.  She is smart and brave, reminding herself that "fear cuts deeper than swords" when she gets scared.  When things start to go sideways for her family in AGOT, she doesn't wait for someone to rescue her.  Arya rescues herself.  This isn't to say that she doesn't get help, she does, but she doesn't sit back waiting for others to fix everything for her.  I would a read a book just about Arya.
  • Jon because despite growing up with a stepmother (Catelyn) who was never shy about letting him know about how much she despised him (not because of anything he did, but simply because he existed), and despite growing up with everything he could ever want right before his eyes but out of his reach due to his parentage, Jon is a good guy.  He's loyal, brave, and defends those weaker than him against bullies.  Unlike most Jon is capable of seeing things from the point of view of others and even seeing the good in those that would be his enemies.  Jon's bravery and sense of right and wrong is as evident as ever in ASOS.
  • Tyrion because he's smart and funny.  He's a dwarf, a "crime" he remarks at one point, that he has been made to pay for his entire life.  Like Arya, Tyrion doesn't let other people's view of him decide who he is.  Without the physical strength or beauty of his older siblings Cersei and Jamie, Tyrion instead relies on his wit and brains to carry him through.  He is no pushover, but is capable of being kind, even to those who are unkind to him.
In addition to my favorite characters, I enjoyed Sansa's and Jaimie's chapters.  Though Sansa has never been a favorite character, I suppose she  is meant to represent the fairytale version of a world with kings and queens, pretty princesses and gallant knights, all attired in beautiful clothes.  Unfortunately for Sansa, she doesn't live in fairytale land.  Her king turns out to be a teenage terror and the knights are not so quick to rescue a damsel in distress.  So far Sansa has largely been a pawn in the game of thrones, manipulated by friends and foes alike.  Still, I'm hopeful that Sansa is growing and changing.

It was interesting to learn about Jaimie and his past.  For years he has been involved in an incestuous affair with his twin sister Cersei.  Of all the Lannisters, Jaimie is perhaps the most loyal.  He defies a king to save his father, pushes a child out of window to protect his sister (and their shared secret), and unlike father or sister, respects and cares for his little brother Tyrion.  Not that I'm entirely sympathetic towards him, but he isn't quite the monster he has been made out to be in AGOT and ACOK.  It will be interesting to see how he changes now that he is, shall we say, less than the man he use to be.

There also chapters with Daenery's point of view.  For me, this is becoming a weakness of the series.  After three books her story still seems unconnected to the rest of the story, so much so that whenever I get to one of her chapters it feels like I'm reading a separate book - a good book, but still a separate book.

The one question I have about this series is, where is all this going?  What's the endgame here?  In reading this I was reminded of another long series, Lord of the Rings.  In that series the reader knows that the goal is to get rid of the ring.  Things happen a long the way that distract the main characters, but ultimately it's all about the ring.  With the Song of Ice and Fire series, I'm not clear on the endgame here.  I suppose the general the goal is for peace to be restored, but that's kind of vague. And so with each book, I keep asking where is this all going?

The next book in the series is A Feast for Crows.  I'm anxious to see what happens next for my favorite characters, but can't imagine picking up another thousand page book for awhile.  My next book will be shorter.

In case it isn't clear, I would definitely recommend this, though it would be best to start the series from the beginning.  I haven't yet decided if ASOS or AGOT is the best book (ACOK isn't even a contender), but both are definitely worth the month or so it takes to read them.