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review 2018-01-21 15:39
Fruit of the Drunken Tree -- A Luminous novel of girlhood, class, tragedy, empathy and Colombia
Fruit of the Drunken Tree: A Novel - Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Fruit of the Drunken Tree broke my heart a hundred times and fully restored it almost every time.

 

by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Available July 31, 2018

 

 

When I was young, I was frequently chastised for being "too sensitive." I wasn't a wimpy sort of kid; I just felt everything -- deeply. If I was happy, I was practically delirious. When I really felt something, I was frequently accused of being melodramatic. I truly was not trying to get attention. I was just a little different from my very tightly-wound family. I projected thoughts and feelings onto everything from animals to bedsheets. I remember the weighty impact certain realizations made on me when I became aware of them: the vast number of people in the world each living their own life of which I was completely unaware, the horror of being homeless, my cousin Katie who died in a household accident before I ever knew her and who still remains six dressed in a plastic halloween costume in my mind -- that's the picture I had seen.

 

Maybe this is why the luminous story of Chula Santiago and her much-coveted friend, Petrona, resonates so deeply for me. Chula is a child who believes in ghosts and communicates her feelings to cows via impassioned "moo" sounds. She is also a girl who watches, listens and reads the adult world around her. Chula feels everything -- deeply.

 

Despite being set in Bogotá during the Pablo Escobar saga, this book is not Narcos. It is a "normal" yet strange and magical childhood taking place amid extremely unusual circumstances. Two girls from two very different worlds form an unusual bond while the world around them shapes each in her own way. It takes us on a trip from exuberant child in Bogotá to a refugee shadow in East L.A. and shows us how need or suffering can bend and transform anyone. Despite all of that, this is no sad tale.

 

The story opens when Chula's mother is looking for a new "girl" to serve as a maid in their middle-class Bogotá household. The maid, Petrona, is in actuality a 13 year old girl who has to work rather than go to school because her family has been through its own horrors as the result of the narco-war and now lives in a sort of shanty-town of pervasive poverty. As the oldest girl of nine children, Petrona has largely become maid and mother figure to her own family and now must become the breadwinner, which brings her to the Santiago household.

 

Petrona is a mystery to Chula and her sister Cassandra, who hunt the neighborhood for the Lost Souls of Purgatory and play "ding-dong-ditch" all the while trying out the adult words that swim in their minds. They wonder if she is a poet, saint, witch or possibly under a spell. Passionate Chula is impressed with how little Petrona speaks and counts every syllable that comes from her mouth. She is a mystery in their otherwise conventional lives.

 

Behind all the childrens' silliness is the very real war of Pablo Escobar with the Colombian and US governments. In Chula's voice Escobar is both a television star and an entirely inhuman monster, an ever-present source of questions and gossip who serves as an entrée into the grown-up world. The Santiagos work around Escobar's war in the most mundane ways. He is an unusual inconvenience for a family that wants to go to the mall or a movie until events and the news press their way into Chula's consciousness.

 

The book overlays a story onto a real timeline of Colombia. True historical events happen in the fictional story. It's done with a deft grace and while it's not a history book, there are events in this book that even I, an American 'tween at the time, still remember.

 

Real heart runs through all of the characters in this story. From the always-working Papá and his observation that the cows may have recently read Sartre to Mamá's advice on dealing with men and other beings to Petrona's thoughts and private worries and the two Santiago sisters who are strong-willed each in her own way.

 

Eventually, after the Santiago family has welcomed Petrona as much as they ever will and Chula gets her wish of a real bond with Petrona, the country's horrors force their way through the Santiago's door and Chula is forced to begin to grow up -- differently, though correspondingly -- to the way Petrona had before the two ever met.

 

Ingrid Rojas Contreras gives us a very authentic child's voice with laugh-aloud moments and devastating truths sometimes in the same sentence. Chula is haunted by images and events in the way only children can be -- simple and profound all at once. I've been asked not to quote, but I found this a welcome rendering of a fascinating girl that took me back to the magical kingdom of childhood.

 

And then it dumped me, along with Chula and Petrona and all the other characters into the confusing world of adulthood with all its cloying tragedy, but we are all still alive.

 

The novel deals deftly with class differences and the way having enough or far too little molds children. It does a commendable job at showing the way tragedy can morph a confident and spirited child into a anxious mute, squelching any room for passion or flights of fancy. The only thing I want now is to know what became of these two young women after the book ended. I do so wish I could quote the final sentence, uttered in Petrona's voice...

 

My copy has so much highlighting noted as "beautiful" or that made me giggle at Chula's strong spirit, the highlights became useless. Fruit of the Drunken Tree broke my heart a hundred times and fully restored it almost every time. So good, though I've read it, I finished and immediately pre-ordered a hardback copy to keep for myself and read again.

 

magical realism:

2 : a literary genre or style associated especially with Latin America that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction (from Merriam Webster)

 

The book isn't being marketed, at least in its advanced review copy, as magical realism, and I don't really think it is. But since the story is told through the eyes of a child, and children live in their sometimes magical imaginations perhaps especially children raised in the Catholic religion, this broadly fits the category and would probably appeal to anyone who can immerse themselves fully in the world of a lusciously-written character on a page.

 

I received an advanced reader's copy of Fruit of the Drunken Tree from NetGalley and this is my honest review.

 

A few interesting Colombia/Author things:

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review 2017-11-04 14:06
Ascension of Larks by Rachel Linden
Ascension of Larks - Rachel Linden

When globetrotting photographer Magdalena Henry loses the only man she’s ever loved, she risks her stellar career to care for his widow and young children on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest. Free-spirited and fiercely independent, Maggie adores her life of travel and adventure. But she has a secret. She can’t let go of her first and only love, renowned architect Marco Firelli, now married to her best friend Lena.

When Marco drowns in a kayaking accident, Maggie rushes to the Firelli family’s summer home on San Juan Island. Once there she discovers that Marco was hiding something that could destroy his family. As fragile, perfectionistic Lena slowly falls apart, Maggie tries to provide stability for Marco and Lena’s three young children. When Maggie is offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance to compete in the world’s most prestigious photography competition, she thinks she’s found the answer to their problems. Then Lena makes a choice with unexpected and devastating consequences, forcing Maggie to grapple with an agonizing decision. Does she sacrifice the golden opportunity of her career or abandon the Firellis just when they need her the most? Gradually the island begins to work its magic. A century-old ritual to beckon loved ones home offers hope in the midst of sorrow. And a guilt-ridden yet compelling stranger hiding on the island may offer Maggie a second chance at love, but only if she can relinquish the past and move forward to find joy in unexpected places.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

For years, globetrotting photographer Magdalena "Maggie" Henry has been in love with her first love, architect Marco Firelli, whom she met in college. Problem is, Marco is married to Maggie's best friend (and college roommate) Lena. Or at least he was, that is...Maggie just got news that Marco has been killed in a kayaking accident. Now Maggie must rush to Lena's side to offer emotional support to the fragile widow as well as help with the Firelli children. 

 

While helping Lena through this difficult time, Maggie can't help but revisit old emotions she thought she had overcome. Memories of early days with Marco come swirling back, the possessiveness she felt over him, having known him first before introducing Lena to him. Lena had tearily confessed that she was struggling to make friends at school. Thinking she was doing a good friend a favor, Maggie introduces Lena to Marco, having no idea that the two would hit it off quite so well, quietly slipping under her radar and falling in love. Though she loves (in different ways) both of them, she can't help but feel a combination of jealousy and annoyance at the turn of events. 

 

So as you can guess, it was largely an unrequited love for Maggie. Marco expresses interest, even a love of sorts, but confesses being drawn to Lena because he and Maggie are too alike in their intense, all-consuming artistic temperaments while Lena was more level-headed and easy-going in nature, more suitable for building a life & family with him. Taking into account Maggie's behavior up to the moment of this confession of Marco's --- her desperately reading into every passing glance from the guy, speaking of them as "kindred spirits", "twin souls" etc --, she likely found this revealing speech quite romantic. To me, however, it came off more as "let her down easy" spin.

 

But rather than go the crazy "he's MINE!" route, Maggie bows out of the running with a fair amount of grace, serving as main witness at Lena & Marco's wedding and then promptly starting up her work as globetrotting picture-taker extraordinaire.  Over the years, the trio is able to put the college drama behind them and become the close-knit crew they were before. Maggie even becomes "Aunt Maggie" to the Firelli children as they grow up. Now, in the wake of tragedy, Maggie doesn't hesitate to be at Lena's side. But only too late does she realize the timing could not be worse. 

 

While staying with Lena and the kids, Maggie's agent calls to notify her that she has been offered an opportunity to submit some of her work to one of the most prestigious photography competitions in the world. But how is she to find the time to prepare a presentation for submission in the mix of everything else going on? Will she have to decide between helping a friend and need and jumping at the chance of a lifetime (professionally), or will the fates allow her to have a solution to both?

 

There is also the mystery of this Daniel guy who spends most of the book hanging out creeper-style in Lena's bushes, observing the family from afar, always hesitating to reveal himself. What is his connection to Marco's death and what does he feel so guilty about? 

 

One of my favorite aspects of Ascension of Larks was the exceptional environment building author Rachel Linden offers. Whether on location with Maggie in Nicaragua, moving through her memories to past international travels, or at the Firelli summer home in the Pacific Northwest (where the bulk of the novel is set), the reader is fantastically immersed in the textures of all the various landscapes. Just as an example, check out this little snippet where Maggie recalls a distinct memory of her Puerto Rican mother:

 

The kitchen was always warm, redolent with the smell of cilantro and oregano, and in the background, playing on the crackly cassette player on the fridge, was the music of her mother's youth -- folk singers like Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary, songs of peace and protest from the sixties. Ana had especially favored Joan Baez and Linda Ronstadt because of their Hispanic heritage. She would let Maggie rifle through the shoe box of cassettes and choose one tape after another. In those moments, in the tiny kitchen with a pot bubbling on the stove and the calls for peace and love ringing out with the strains of guitar and tambourine, it felt as though nothing could touch them, as though if they could stay there in the kitchen forever, nothing bad would ever happen.

 

That being said, the plot itself had its share of tiring moments for me. I enjoyed the secondary characters such as Daniel and the charming motorcycle riding Pastor Griffin (the way Linden writes his character reminded me a bit of John Corbin's portrayal of the DJ Chris on the 90s tv show Northern Exposure). But storyline-wise, it veered on the soapy, most noticeably when it came to Lena's accident. When Lena acts all weird at breakfast that day, I immediately guessed (correctly) where Linden was headed with the plot. And that is where a good chunk of my investment in the plot checked out! 

 

Still, this novel offers up another, unexpected but important side story that serves almost as a moral lesson to readers with children -- the importance of having your final wishes regarding dependents, godparents, etc all clearly outlined on paper! What Linden illustrates here, the power of the state to come in and completely tear up a home because they don't agree with the living arrangements (regardless of how happy and well-taken care of the children seem) is seriously terrifying! I don't even have kids and I was disturbed at the thought! So, people, get your final wishes on paper! 

 

The children's lives were suddenly being decided by people who understood the letter of the law but knew nothing about them, not who they were and certainly not what was truly in their best interest. They didn't know Gabby would fall asleep only if Bun Bun's head was tucked under her chin, or that you had to keep sweet snacks hidden behind the bins of beans and flour in the cupboard so Luca couldn't sneak them. And Jonah... she winced when she thought of Jonah, those dark, somber eyes and the downward slope of his young shoulders. He was a little boy carrying a misplaced guilt so heavy it was slowly crushing him. 

 

While maybe the plot fell short for me here, as I mentioned earlier I did quite enjoy Linden's writing style in general and would be interested to check out more of her work in the future. 

 

FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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review 2017-10-30 21:17
Camino de Hormigas by Miguel Huezo Mixco
Camino de Hormigas - Miguel Huezo Mixco

This was a somewhat confusing book, at least for me reading in my second language. We start off reading about an older man from El Salvador who lives and works in a stable in California, and has written a manuscript based on his experiences fighting in the war there, which he mails to an unknown friend. The protagonist of the novella isn’t the narrator from the frame story – or is he? The last chapter seems to blur the line between the two, while each individual chapter slips between multiple time periods and focuses on a different episode from the protagonist’s life. Although the backdrop is the war, the episodes are about the protagonist’s many sexual and romantic liaisons. I never really lost the sense that I’d rather have read the “true” story about the fictional writer’s past than about the misadventures of his promiscuous alter ego.

Nevertheless, the book was engaging enough (and short), and while the protagonist didn’t especially interest me, the women he got involved with did. I also learned a bit about El Salvador, its war and the lives of the guerrilleros. To my knowledge this hasn’t been translated to English, but I think it is likely worth translating.

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review 2017-07-02 19:14
Marcos Ramirez by Carlos Luis Fallas
Marcos Ramírez - Carlos Luis Fallas

This is an enjoyable tale of a boy growing up in Costa Rica in the 1910s and 1920s. It is mostly episodic, without an overarching plot, and Marcos spends most of his time misbehaving and causing trouble, so the Tom Sawyer comparison feels apt. The specific details of Marcos’s life feel real rather than drawn from fictional tropes, so I suspected the book was autobiographical even before learning from the brief autobiographical essay in the front that all the facts of Marcos’s life match Fallas’s.

 

It is a colorful and entertaining book, and it’s not your stereotypical Costa Rica: the boys, including Marcos, are quite violent, and at one point he runs off with the army when war with Panama is brewing. Marcos is a lively if sometimes exasperating character, though there’s little development of anyone else – we get to know his mother and uncle a bit, but the book’s autobiographical nature means his friends are represented by an ever-changing stream of boys who put in brief appearances, and few other characters register much. Toward the end we read more about Marcos’s schooling, which is interesting but not in the same way; there’s a lot of school politics and criticism of teachers for whom memorization is the highest form of learning. But the couple of episodes in which Marcos uses cruelty to animals to revenge himself on their owners were my least favorite.

 

Overall though, this is a fun book; Fallas seems to be one of those few authors who can write about childhood from the inside rather than imposing an adult viewpoint on the narrative. It’s a shame this book apparently has never been translated to English, as I suspect it could find a healthy readership.

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