Like Water for Chocolate

Two Mexican women prepare food Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate defies categorization, as you might guess from the subtitle: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances and Home Remedies.

Each of the 12 installments is about some specific event and features a related recipe.

Part romance, part social criticism, and part historical novel, the story feels like a fairy tale. As in fairy tales, the focus is on the story, not on why the story is important.

The story is about Tita De la Garza, who is literally born in a kitchen on a ranch in Mexico around the turn of the 20th century. As she grows older, Tita becomes a culinary artist in a time when cooking was backbreaking labor.

As a teenager, Tita wants to marry Pedro, a neighbor boy. Mama Elena (Tita’s real mother, though she acts like a wicked stepmother) insists Tita, as the youngest daughter, remain unmarried and care for her in her old age. So, Pedro is wedded to Tita’s older sister.

At the wedding (for which Tita has to make the wedding cake), Pedro tells Tita he only married Rosura so he could stay close to her.

If Esquivel’s unusual novel doesn’t tickle your fancy, it will certainly make you appreciate your microwave.

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen, trans.
Doubleday. ©1992. 245 p.
1993 bestseller #9; my grade: B+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Mexico by James A. Michener

James A. Michener’s Mexico opens with these words:

I had been sent to Mexico to cover a murder, one of a remarkable kind. And since it had not yet happened, I had been ordered to get photographs, too.

Clearly, this isn’t the standard Michener formula.

The journalist is Norman Clay. Born and reared in Toledo, Mexico, he left for the US in 1938 after the Mexicans confiscated oil wells his family owned. Clay served in the American armed World War II, and worked as a journalist ever since.

Clay, 52, is back in his hometown to cover a bullfight that’s rumored to be a confrontation the equivalent of murder.

an Indian stone figure lighted by the sunHe revisits places he knew as a childhood, tracing his roots to Mexico’s three primary population groups: Indians, Spaniards, and English. Readers get to see how differently pivotal historical personages and events were viewed by each of the three groups.

Some of the historical facts are grisly: men’s beating hearts ripped out of them to appease a stone god, nuns burned alive, women made to work in a silver mine, never seeing daylight.

With the brutality, there’s also art, music, public service, bullfighting, and an ending with just the right degree of happy ending for a 52-year-old journalist.

Mexico by James A. Michener
Random House. ©1992. 625 p.
1992 bestseller #8; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Texas: 450 years of history

A single-star Texas battle flag decorates the front cover of "Texas"
That’s the Texas battle flag

In Texas, James A. Michener varies his usual format for place-based historical novels: He sets Texas within a context of an imaginary task force whose job it is to decide what the state’s students learn about Texas history and how they should they learn it.

The task force allows Michener to present the history of the lone star state beginning with Spanish explorations in the 1500s up to the 1980s and to also provide commentary and interpretations of that history.

Michener clearly likes Texans, even when he dislikes some of the things they do.

Readers get Michener’s familiar history-by-the-eras formula with a unique Texas twist: Michener presents Texas as a state composed of seven state-sized, unique areas.

What makes Texas a state seems to be those areas’ sense of their superiority to any place that’s not Texas.

Texas is pure Michener: meticulously research, lyrically written, and almost flawlessly edited.

I can’t say that I liked the Texans I encountered in the pages of Texas, but I’m glad I read the novel.

It’s good preparation for understanding issues America is wrestling with today on its Southern border and elsewhere across the country: lack of water, climatic changes, and the need for migrant workers and the desire to restrict immigration.

Texas by James A. Michener
Random House. ©1985. 1096 p.
1985 bestseller #2; my grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Burr: Scapegoat or scapegrace?

In his “Afterward” to Burr, Gore Vidal says that with the exceptions he describes, “the characters are in the right places, on the right dates, doing what they actually did.”

Cover of Burr shows close-up of dueling piece.
Dueling pistol trigger mechanism is background image.

One of the exceptions is Charlie Schuyler, Vidal’s invented narrator.

Charlie is working as a clerk in Burr’s law office ostensibly with an eye on joining the bar; in truth, he wants a literary career. That vantage point lets Charlie record personal and public information about Burr from a wide range of sources, including Burr himself.

Charlie agrees to dig up dirt on Burr for publishers with political as well as mercenary motives.

The facts about Aaron Burr that today’s typical reader knows appear on the first page of Vidal’s novel. While vice-president, Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Three years later, Burr was charged with treason in connection with a plot to invade Spanish territory and make himself emperor of Mexico.

Readers get to sift all the dirt and make up their own minds about Burr’s character.

Tidbits of the novel are fascinating (eg: George Washington wanted to be addressed as “Your Mightiness”: Thomas Jefferson wanted to send slaves back to “their original latitude.”).

Vidal’s writing is witty while it reveals how much—and how little—America has changed in 200 years.

Burr by Gore Vidal
Ballantine Books, © 1973, [paper] p. 564 p.
1973 bestseller #5. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Reviewer’s note: Get the hardbound edition. The yellowed pages of the paperback were painful to read.

54-40 or Fight has lost its power to excite

You can not tell how large a trouble may be started by a small politician.

Emerson Hough’s 54-40 or Fight takes a great story and renders it dull as dishwater.

The story is told by Nicholas Trist, confidential aide to John C. Calhoun. It opens as Calhoun becomes Secretary of State in President Tyler’s cabinet.


54-40 or Fight by Emerson Hough

Arthur I. Keller, illus.  A. L. Burt Co. 1909 bestseller #7. Project Gutenberg EBook #14355. My grade: C+.


Calhoun believes it is in America’s interests to annex Texas, which has declared its independence of Mexico. Calhoun would also like to get the entire Oregon Territory for the US, including land above the 49th parallel—if it can be done without fighting Britain.

Britain would like to get access to Texas’s cotton and silver if it can do so. And Britain wants to hold on to Oregon for its valuable fur trade.

Mexico wants to hang on to Texas.

Texas President Sam Houston would like to make Texas a nation to rival the US.

And Americans on each side of the Mason-Dixon line fear what could happen if a slave-holding Texas becomes a state.

The historical facts need no glamorous double-agent to make them exciting.

They do, however, need better context to be intelligible to today’s reader.

The real life Nicholas Trist studied law under Thomas Jefferson and married Jefferson’s granddaughter.

In defiance of orders from the President, Trist negotiated the treaty which ended the Mexican-American War and added Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of three other states to the U.S.

Trist reflects:

Now our flag floats on the Columbia and on the Rio Grande. I am older now, but when I think of that scene, I wish that flag might float yet freer; and though the price were war itself, that it might float over a cleaner and a nobler people, over cleaner and nobler rulers, more sensible of the splendor of that heritage of principle which should be ours.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Captain from Castile finds love in a nasty era

The eponymous captain from Castile is Pedro de Vargus, a handsome young cavalier from a distinguished Spanish family of modest circumstances.

Pedro has taken Luisa de Carvajal as his lady, but the spirited serving wench Catana Perez has her sights on Pedro as well.


The Captain from Castile by Samuel Shellabarger

Blakiston, 1945. 503 pages. 1945 bestseller # 8. My Grade: B.


Masts of replica of 16th century Spanish ship
The ship in which Pedro de Vargus sailed to Spain’s New World colonies probably looked much like this replica.

In 1518, Pedro sails for the Caribbean, followed soon by Cantana.

Hernando Cortes is raising an army to invade Mexico, contrary to the orders of the Spanish Governor of Cuba.

Pedro distinguishes himself in the campaigns to conquer, convert and loot the natives.

Cortes sends Pedro back to Spain to persuade the Crown to support further colonization. Pedro has trunks full of golden persuaders to use.

Pedro barely sets foot in Spain before he’s arrested.

He has to use his wits and his sword to save himself and his family, serve his General, and get the girl he truly loves.

Samuel Shellabarger keeps his focus on the story, refusing to make the novel into a history book. Without knowing a bit about 16th century history, however, readers will find it difficult to understand the plot.

The characters and general outline of this novel are romance staples. Its selling point is its setting: Shellabarger makes the Spanish Inquisition and Spain’s conquest of the Aztecs truly repugnant.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Photo credit: The still photo is from a video of El Galeon, a 16th century replica Spanish sailing ship,  docked in New York Harbor.   The 2 minute video is at   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5U0CC4uxHQ

Ship of Fools is vehicle for unpleasant truths

Ship of Fools is not a pleasant story, but Katherine Anne Porter’s rendition of the ship of the world voyaging to certain disaster makes compelling reading.

A German ship, the Vera, leaves Veracruz, Mexico, for Bremerhaven, Germany Aug. 22, 1931. Most of the first class passengers are ex-patriots returning home. They are joined by a sprinkling of students going to study in Europe, tourists, Catholic priests, and an aging Spanish Contessa who has been deported from Cuba for political reasons.

In steerage are 876 Spanish agricultural workers being deported from Cuba because the sugar industry in which they worked has failed.

Despite the number of characters, Porter makes them distinctive individuals. Each elicits , if not sympathy, at least a measure of understanding.

Being confined in a small ship for 27 days brings out the cruelty and bigotry of individuals. National and religious biases are magnified. All leave the ship with relief at finally being home in a familiar, comfortable place.

Readers see what the voyagers do not: home will not be better. Europe will soon be torn apart by cruelty and bigotry on a colossal scale, yet World War II will change nothing. People will remain blind to any interests but their own.

Ship of Fools
Katherine Anne Porter
Little, Brown 1962
497 pages
 1962 #1
My grade B+
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni