Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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Reading Lolita In Tehran – Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita In Tehran is a memoir by Iranian academic Azar Nafisi, first published back in 2003. She taught Western literature in Tehran in the mid-90s (a particularly fraught career choice in a notoriously troubled part of the world). After resigning from her university job, she started a book club of her own, with seven of her best and most committed students – all women. In her living room, every Thursday morning, they would meet to discuss great works of Western literature: Gatsby, Huck Finn, and yes, Lolita.

Reading Lolita In Tehran - Azar Nafisi - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Let’s start with a bit of a timeline (because the stories related in Reading Lolita In Tehran are a bit wonky). Nafisi returned to Iran, her country of origin, during the revolution of the late ’70s and early ’80s; she’d spent quite a period abroad, studying and living in the U.S. and Europe. She took a job teaching at the University Of Tehran, but left (slash got the sack) after some disputes with administration. In 1981, she took another teaching job, this time at the University of Allameh Tabatabei, around the same time that the Iran-Iraq War really kicked off. She held out as long as she could, but eventually left (slash got the sack) in much the same circumstances as her previous employment.

Nafisi was the Iranian equivalent of a mouthy broad, who didn’t like wearing the veil and didn’t like being told she couldn’t teach her beloved works of English literature, with all their alleged bad influences, to students. This all culminated in her starting a class of her own, effectively a book club with an academic bent, from her living room. It ran for a few years in the mid-90s, before Nafisi and her husband made the difficult decision to leave Tehran and emigrate to the U.S.

She tells her story in four parts, each named for a book or author whose themes resonate with what she covers in that section: Lolita, Gatsby, James, and Austen (though they read much more broadly than that – Nafisi references The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Wuthering Heights, and dozens of others over the course of Reading Lolita In Tehran).

In the first section, Lolita, Nafisi’s living room becomes a “place of transgression”, where women remove the veil and talk about books that their leaders have banned them from reading (and, naturally, the conversations spiral in all kinds of subversive directions). Right from the outset, I found the prose flowery, much more so than I was expecting. Nafisi combines genuinely interesting literary insight with wistful (and, at times, annoyingly insubstantial) personal recollection. She introduces each of her students, but I figured she would later provide more detail to flesh them out, so they could become more than names and pretty outfits under their veils.

But in the second section, Gatsby, Nafisi abruptly abandons the book club for a different set of recollections, that of her return to Iran and her time teaching at the University Of Tehran (eleven years before the book club even began). There’s a few very interesting chapters, depicting a mock trial she and her students held for The Great Gatsby in class, but the rest of it was… well, a bit forgettable, to be honest.

The third section, James, focuses on the daily horrors of living under a totalitarian regime, the intense policing of expression punctuated by bombs going off above your head. It’s terrible, of course, but it all kind of blended together. I kept thinking “wait, is this a war memoir, or a literary memoir? What is Nafisi actually trying to DO here? Has she just published her diaries out of order?”.

The last section, Austen, finally returns to the book club and the lives of the women Nafisi chose to teach – so we’re finally back on the timeline that began in the first section. I’d say this is the strongest part of Reading Lolita In Tehran, where we finally get to understand how these books impacted the women who read them, and what their lives looked like in tangible ways (rather than in abstract). They discuss marriages, men, sex, and revolution – like we would at any book club – and the question of whether to stay in Iran, or whether it’s possible to seek their fortunes elsewhere, is at the forefront of it all.

Another constant throughout Reading Lolita In Tehran is the issue of the veil in Iranian society (in various forms, some adopted voluntarily, others imposed by government). Prior to the revolution, women were not required to wear the veil for decades – some women even faced discrimination for doing so. Of course, the revolution and the Iran-Iraq War turned that on its head. I couldn’t help feeling that Nafisi’s seeming obsession with this one facet of life in the Islamic Republic, to the exclusion of so many others, was strange. The veil was not the only way in which the women of Nafisi’s book club were oppressed, and she didn’t go to any great length to explain her focus on it as symbolic or representative of a broader struggle.

I preferred it when Nafisi spoke of the lives of women in ’80s and ’90s Iran as a spectrum, and invited us to understand how literature – and access to literature – became a refuge from tyranny. Books like Lolita and Gatsby represented comfort and safety to Nafisi, and gave opportunity to her students to imagine a different world. That’s what I’d expected when I picked up Reading Lolita In Tehran, but unfortunately I found very little of it.

Naturally, Nafisi copped a lot of criticism – on all sides – when Reading Lolita In Tehran came out. She has been accused of misrepresenting the lives of Iranian people, misrepresenting the intent of the Iranian government, framing Afghan women as “helpless victims”, encouraging Western interventions… basically everything short of seeking to become Ayatollah herself. Nafisi has remained remarkably dignified and, when asked about it, has said only that she’s willing to engage in “serious argument… [but] debate that is polarised isn’t worth my time”.

On the whole, I didn’t enjoy Reading Lolita In Tehran as I read it, but I don’t think that’s the fault of Nafisi or the book. Rather, I think I went in with the wrong set of expectations – perhaps the fault of misleading marketing or inflated reputation. I thought this memoir would revolve solely around the book club, sketching intimate portraits of its participants and their engagement with the forbidden novels. It’s much broader in scope than that, and much more focused on Nafisi’s own experiences and understanding. Read this one, by all means, but perhaps it’s best to adjust your own expectations accordingly.

Banned Books Around The World

Earlier this year, five people were arrested in Hong Kong for “conspiring to publish, distribute, exhibit or copy seditious publications”. The publications in question were a series of children’s books about sheep. The Guardians Of Sheep Village sought to explain to children the 2019 democracy protests, The Janitors Of Sheep Village depicted sheep workers going on strike, and The 12 Braves Of Sheep Village saw twelve sheep escape their village’s wolf overloads by boat (in reference to the twelve Hongkongers who sought to escape by speedboat to Taiwan last year). It seems unthinkable that, in the 21st century, there are governments in the world still trying to control and censor what their constituents read… but here we are. Take a look at some of these banned books around the world.

Banned Books Around The World - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Note: I’ve chosen not to delve into the books banned in Nazi Germany, partially because it’s such a long list in and of itself, but mostly because there’s a lot of potential for insensitivity that I wish to avoid. Plus, I didn’t want to give the impression that book banning and book burning are problems specific to one geography and government…

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

Lady Chatterley's Lover - DH Lawrence - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about, but a lot of governments sure did get their knickers in a knot over it. In 1928, the Chinese translation by Rao Shu-yi was denied publication by China’s Central Bureau, and booksellers weren’t allowed to stock or sell any version of the novel. It was also banned in Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, for violation of their respective obscenity laws, until the 1960s. There was quite a famous court case about it, and current editions of the book (like mine) are dedicated to the jurors who acquitted the publishers on charges of obscenity. Read my full review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover here.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Huxley’s Brave New World depicts a (you guessed it) brave new world, where everyone’s high and having sex, and babies are made in test tubes. It’s a sort of dystopia in utopian clothing, if you will. In this cautionary tale, the Irish government found “comments against religion and the traditional family”, as well as “strong language” and “sexual promiscuity” – grounds enough to have it banned in 1932. They weren’t alone in their condemnation; Australia also banned Brave New World the same year, and the Indian government called Huxley a “pornographer”. I guess we know which countries to avoid if we want sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll after the apocalypse… Read my full review of Brave New World here.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

The Satanic Verses - Salman Rushdie - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Oooh boy! *cracks knuckles* If there were awards for most banned books around the world, The Satanic Verses would surely be a contender. Salman Rushdie was roundly condemned for his alleged “blasphemous treatment of a character modeled after the Prophet Muhammad and of the transcription of the Qurʾān”. The Iran Ayatollah was so ticked off, he put a hit out on Rushdie (a fatwa), forcing him into hiding for years. He couldn’t leave his safe house (which changed every few months) without protection. The book was banned in (*deep breath*): Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Kuwait, Liberia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Senegal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and Thailand.

Special mention: Hitoshi Igarashi, Rushdie’s Japanese translator, was murdered in 1991 as a result of his involvement with The Satanic Verses and the fatwa issued on anyone involved with its publication. Always, always, always #NameTheTranslator – sometimes they die for the work they do. Vale.

Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s hard to imagine any government finding offense in Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. It’s a children’s book, for goodness sake – and largely nonsensical, to boot! I’m sorry to say that doesn’t stop them. In 1900, a school in the United States proposed that the book implied expletives and alluded to masturbation (no, I’m not kidding), and “other sexual fantasies”. I mean, I personally am not turned on by the Cheshire Cat, but go off, I guess. Later, in 1931, the powers that be in Hunan, China, banned Alice and co. because anthropomorphised animals are “insulting”, somehow. General Ho Chien contended that teaching children to regard humans and animals as equals would be “disastrous”. And then finally, back in America in the 1960s, a whole new batch of parents worried that Alice’s adventures would encourage kids to try hallucinogenic drugs. All told, these are some of the most ridiculous reasons I’ve heard for banning books. Read my full review of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland here.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein - Mary Shelley - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Banning Frankenstein might seem funny on the face of it (or warranted, depending on your view of the macabre), but there’s actually a dark truth behind this one. In 1955, the South African government banned Frankenstein for containing “obscene” or “indecent” material. The thing is, this was shortly after the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and amendments to the Immorality Act, introduced to prevent “Europeans” and “non-Europeans” forming families. Yes, this is some awful apartheid shit. The government saw in Shelley’s science fiction an “indecent” message, about the “amalgamation” of people. Just thinking about it makes me shudder… Read my full review of Frankenstein here.

Ulysses by James Joyce

Ulysses - James Joyce - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Turns out a book about a bloke who wanders around Dublin for a day, drinking and wanking and forgetting to pick up the perfume he bought for his wife, raised some eyebrows. Who could have guessed? Ulysses has been banned by various governments since it first appeared in serial form in 1918-20. An excerpt featuring the aforementioned cheeky wank came to the attention of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and they did everything they could to suppress its circulation – the United States Postal Service even burned copies that were sent in the mail. A landmark court case, United States v. One Book Called Ulysses in 1933, finally caused the ban to be lifted. The United Kingdom also lifted their ban on its distribution shortly after. Australia held firm, though, and suppressed its circulation until the 1950s. Read my full review of Ulysses here.

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

The Second Sex - Simone de Beauvoir - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Simone de Beauvoir once said that The Second Sex was her attempt to explain “why a woman’s situation, still, even today, prevents her from exploring the world’s basic problems”. Luckily, she first published it in France, where permissive attitudes and effective absence of obscenity laws meant that anything goes in publishing – even broads getting mouthy about their shitty circumstances. Francoist Spain held a different view, and banned the book for “advocacy of feminism” (they didn’t even try to cloak it in euphemism, bless them); they didn’t account for the brave feminists who would smuggle in copies of the book and circulate it themselves, until the ban was lifted and an accurate translation permitted for publication.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom's Cabin - Harriet Beecher Stowe - Keeping Up With The Penguins

One of the very first books to be formally banned in the United States was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In 1852, upon its publication, the southern Confederate States banned it for its abolitionist philosophy and for “arousing debates on slavery”. (Funnily enough, the States – now “United” – are still having that same argument about, for instance, The Hate U Give, alleging that it arouses abolitionist arguments regarding policing and debates about racial profiling.) Stowe’s novel was also banned in Russia by Nicholas I, because in presenting a view that, y’know, all humans might be equal it “undermined religious ideals” of the country.

Tropic Of Cancer by Henry Miller

Tropic of Cancer - Henry Miller - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Forget about Lady Chatterley and her lover: Tropic Of Cancer is the go if you want 20th century smut. Unsurprisingly, it was subject to similar bans and censorship. It even caused the pearl-clutchers in France a bit of bother. They initially allowed its publication because it was written in English and intended only for English-speaking readers… but once word got out about its misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, and straight-up eroticism, authorities and conservatives pushed for an outright ban. Meanwhile, around the world, it was banned decisively and immediately. The United States objected to its sexually explicit content and vulgarity up until the 1960s, South Africa until the 1980s. Interested readers, of course, got around these restrictions by smuggling the book everywhere that wanted it, leading to a lot of court cases and criminal trials, which in turn only boosted Miller’s popularity as a purveyor of literary porn. Read my full review of Tropic Of Cancer here.

The Vegetarian – Han Kang

Once in a while, when you’re lucky, the book you pick up will have an opening line that will catch your eye and drag it down the page. Take this one, from The Vegetarian: “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.” Isn’t that just… *chef’s kiss*? It promises a fascinating story to come. The Vegetarian is “a beautiful, unsettling novel in three acts about rebellion and taboo, violence and eroticism, and the twisting metamorphosis of a soul”, and it’s off to a strong start.

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As the opening line suggests, The Vegetarian is a story about Yeong-hye, an ordinary woman with an ordinary husband, who up-ends her life and the lives of those around her by deciding to commit to vegetarianism. In Part One, narrated by her office worker husband, she wakes from repeated visceral dreams of slaughter and blood. He finds her standing in front of the fridge in the middle of the night, calmly removing all animal products and summarily binning them.

To her husband (who gave me a Humbert Humbert vibe, though not in a way I can articulate clearly – is it his self-interest? his unshakeable expectation that the whole world should naturally submit to his inclinations?), this is a shocking act of subversion, only worsened by Yeong-hye’s steadfast commitment to the whole thing. She attends one of his business dinners, with colleagues he’s desperate to impress, and offends them all by refusing to swallow their meat, and their attempts at small talk into the bargain. His reaction runs the gamut from frustration to horror to rage. When even Yeong-hye’s family cannot convince her to take a bite of pork, he declares her unwillingness to submit to his will untenable, and divorces her.

“Now don’t go making me out to be some kind of villain. Anyone can see that I’m the real victim here.”

The Vegetarian (Page 70)

Throughout this initial section, the husband’s narration is occasionally interrupted, in shocking contrast, by italicised passages from the perspective of Yeong-hye (the only opportunity in The Vegetarian that she has to speak for herself). These interjections are visceral, stomach-churning, and I must offer a big-time trigger warning for cruelty towards animals (specifically a dog). That was almost enough to put me off The Vegetarian altogether, but I persisted for the purposes of this review.

Part Two of The Vegetarian is set two years after Yeong-hye’s conversion. It’s told in third-person, and focuses this time on Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, a flailing (slash failing) artists with his own bizarre obsessions. He is haunted by images that he struggles to distill into art, a love-making scene between two people decorated with painted flowers.

Conveniently enough, Yeong-hye has a petal-shaped birthmark. Now that she’s all crazy and vego and everything, he figures she might just be game to pose for him – which she does. He paints flowers all over her body, and that of a male model too, but unfortunately the male model is unable or unwilling to, ahem, perform as he should. So, the brother-in-law steps in to do it himself. What a guy!

When his wife, Yeong-hye’s sister, discovers evidence of their, ahem!, “art”, she calls emergency services and claims that it’s evidence of mental illness. They are both escorted away, and Yeong-hye is institutionalised for “treatment”.

In Part Three, Yeong-hye’s sister visits her at the psychiatric hospital every Wednesday. Yeong-hye is still refusing to eat meat, eventually refusing to eat altogether, and seems to have started identifying as a tree. The sister is confused, fearful, and – strangely – a little jealous. She wonders if she had no children, like Yeong-hye, whether she might be free to tether her thread to reality as well. The doctors try to force feed Yeong-hye, in front of her sister, which is thoroughly distressing to all involved. The story ends with Yeong-hye and her sister in an ambulance, Yeong-hye being transferred to another hospital for end-of-life care (if you don’t eat, you don’t shit, and if you don’t shit, you die).

So, The Vegetarian is a pretty fucked-up twisted story, all told, and one that (ironically) says very little about the philosophy of vegetarianism or why one might wish to eschew meat from their diet. It actually began as a short story, which Kang says drew on her strange idea of “a woman turning into a plant”. Don’t come to this book looking for an impassioned defense of animal rights or the case for plant-based foods; instead, you’ll find an allegory about patriarchal oppression in Korean society and the ways that etiquette can kill.

The bait-and-switch of the title doesn’t seem to have affected the book’s reach, however. Since its initial publication in Korean in 2007, it has been translated into 23 different languages around the world. This version, “elegantly translated into bone-spare English” by Deborah Smith, was awarded the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 (it beat out the front-runner, Elena Ferrante’s The Story Of A Lost Child). The award catapulted The Vegetarian to the top of book wishlists, and the publishers had to work overtime to fulfill 462,000 orders. Kang said she was “overwhelmed, [she] thought the previous 20,000 copies sold was good enough”.

I’m not sure whether I actually enjoyed The Vegetarian, or whether it was simply a gruesome scene from which I couldn’t pull my eyes. It was certainly well-written, and short – I read it in a single sitting without actually trying to do so. It’s a compelling read, but also (at times) a horrifying one. The vegetarianism angle is interesting, but I’m not sure it makes any points that haven’t already been made more memorably elsewhere. All in all, the only way to know if The Vegetarian is for you is to try it – as it is with everything, suck it and see.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Vegetarian:

  • “I can honestly say that after reading this book I felt dirty and offended by its very existence. And in case you were misled by the title — no, it’s not about vegetarianism. This book is grotesque, bizarre, and has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I found myself wanting to violently torture to death the main character almost from the first page. I read it through to the end only because I was waiting for the non-horrible parts to emerge or at least to watch this miserable wretch of a main character finally die. Neither thing happened. Every line of this book was a defilement of my brain cells and an assault on my will to live. This book literally made me wish I were dead just so I could escape the memory of having read it.” – Chloe pitbull
  • “I didn’t read this- but my sister did, her name is bucky. she liked it a lot. talked about it a lot. She even finished reading it (usually she just pretends to finish books) but she finished this one, which is why I gave it five stars.” – Muna Amry
  • “After the first twenty pages, I was like “Yeah, this is great.” By the time I got to page 80, I was like “Hmmm, I don’t want to finish this.” Would have been a good short story. Also, this made me want to eat more meat since the vegetarian in the book is so unlikable.” – Eli Cook

What Is Magical Realism?

Keeper Upperers, if you’re anything like me, you didn’t know fear until a book nerd brought up “magical realism” in a conversation and you had to nod along like you knew what the heck they were talking about. What is magical realism? Is it, like, realism that’s so good, it’s magical? Not quite. I’m here to save you from my fate (looking like a fool among people far smarter than me) with this handy for-beginner’s guide to one of the trendiest literary genres of the 20th century.

What Is Magical Realism? - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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What is magical realism?

Let’s start at the very beginning with a basic definition. Magical realism is a literary genre where stories are set in the real world, the one you and I know, but there’s an element or undercurrent of magic running through it. It falls in the middle of the Venn diagram between literary fiction and fantasy. True lovers of the genre would balk at it being described at “fantasy lite”, and they’d have a lot of really good explanations as to why that’s not right, but for our purposes here, that explanation will do.

What Is Magical Realism? - Venn Diagram of Literary Fiction and Fantasy - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Essential Elements of Magical Realism

There are a few key things that every work of magical realism will have. Keep an eye out for:

Realistic Setting

All magical realism novels take place in the real world. The writer doesn’t invent a new world – the Planet Zorb 3959 or Land of Egelaria – as the setting for their story. You’d believe the story was taking place in your neighbourhood, or one like it, until… something weird happens.


The second key component of magical realism is, well, magic. Even though the story is set in the real world, there’s something supernatural or physically impossible that sticks its nose in at some point. That might be a talking animal, a levitating grandmother, a child that doesn’t age… And there’s no “abracadabra” to introduce them. They’re just presented as normal, the way the writer might introduce a pot plant or a traffic sign.

No Explanation Needed

So, a fancier guide to magical realism might call this “authorial reticence”, but this ain’t one of those. When the author/narrator introduces the magical part of a novel written in the magical realism style, it’s very important that they don’t explain to you why it’s happening. Fantasy epics will have reams of backstory, explaining exactly how the magic works and how the present situation came to be. In magical realism, pigs just start flying, and you’re meant to cope with it all on your own. The narrator is completely indifferent; in fact, if they’re doing it right, you might not even notice at first that something very weird just happened.

Important note: There’s also a political aspect to a lot of magical realism, where the weird stuff is used to criticise a government or political incident of the day. However, those aspects are kind of unique to the time and place in which they’re written, and often left up to interpretation, so I’ve left them off the “essential” elements list here.

History of Magical Realism

Authors actually pinched the idea of “magical realism” from art (the paint-on-canvas type). In 1925, a German art critic named Franz Roh coined the term “magischer realismus” to describe New Objectivity, a popular style of painting (at the time) that sought to make the ordinary look extraordinary. It was a whole find-the-beauty-in-every-day-objects deal.

Some writers were using magical realism long before that (think Kafka and his giant bug in The Metamorphosis, published ten years before Roh put pen to paper), but this was still a major turning point in our understanding of – and the popularity of – magical realism as a literary genre. Over the course of the 20th century, there were a few major “movements” or peaks in the publication of works of magical realism (one in the ’20s, another in the late ’40s, and a third in the late ’60s-early ’70s). Now, it’s kind of settled in as an accepted style/genre of literature, alongside all the others.

(Well… mostly. There’s still a lot of academic debate – isn’t there always? – about what “counts” as magical realism, whether magical realism even exists, etc. etc. I tried reading through and summarising the major talking points for you, but honestly, it made me want to pluck my eyes out with a fork. Suffice it to say: haters gonna hate.)

Magical Realism and Geography

Magical realism is most commonly associated with the literature of Latin America (the southern areas of the continent that speak Romance languages, which is a disingenuous way of saying were-ravaged-by-colonialism). One of the first magical realists was Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentinian author who was writing that way before that German bloke came up with a fancy name for it. Now, we most commonly associate magical realism with Gabriel García Márquez (Colombian), and Isabel Allende (Chilean), and a handful of others from the same rough geography and time period.

That’s not to say that other parts of the world haven’t produced awesome writers of magical realism; it’s just that their work isn’t usually described in those terms. Take Haruki Murakami, with his blokes chasing cats down wells and all the freaky shit that happens there – that’s absolutely Japanese magical realism, but it’s rare that anyone says that in a review. Closer to home (for me, anyway), I would consider Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip a fabulous example of First Nations magical realism in Australia. So, geography might influence the way that we think about and identify magical realism, but it certainly doesn’t define it, and it doesn’t stop anyone from anywhere in the world writing it.

Examples of Magical Realism

So, now that you’re sorted with a bit of history and a solid definition of magical realism, you probably want some examples, right? Well, you’re getting some, either way. Check these out…

One Hundred Years Of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez - Keeping Up With The Penguins

One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

Yes, Gabriel García Márquez is the Granddaddy of magical realism in the sense that he’s the name people most commonly associate with the literary style. He also won the Nobel Prize for it in 1982, so there’s that. One Hundred Years Of Solitude is one of his best-known works; it’s not an easy read, necessarily, but it’s a must if you’re planning on having any conversations or debates about magical realism any time soon. Read my full review of One Hundred Years Of Solitude here.

Like Water For Chocolate - Laura Esquivel - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Like Water For Chocolate is probably one of the best for-beginners books of magical realism. The concept is quite simple to grasp, even though the narrator never explains it explicitly: a girl loves to cook, and her emotions are infused into her food. If she’s sad while she’s baking a cake, everyone who eats it will feel sad, too. There’s a fun love story and a crazy cast of characters, and a few good recipes to boot! Read my full review of Like Water For Chocolate here.

Beloved - Toni Morrison - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is where we traipse onto territory that might be more familiar to us in other terms (American literature, slavery narratives, etc.) but is also actually a good example of magical realism. In Morrison’s story, a ghost is the embodiment of the collective history of black slaves, and given agency to tell their story throughout the narrative. A brilliant device, if a harrowing read.

The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake - Aimee Bender - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender is a really interesting writer who incorporates magical realism into much of her work. She primarily writes short stories, all of which are worth a read as examples of magical realism and as excellent yarns, but The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake is a novel-length version. Think of it as the other side of the Like Water For Chocolate coin: in this story, a child develops the magical ability to taste the emotions of others in their food.

Kafka On The Shore - Haruki Murakami - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Kafka On The Shore by Haruki Murakami

I mentioned earlier that Murakami is a great example of an incredibly popular and critically acclaimed writer who writes magical realism without it (usually) being called magical realism. Kafka On The Shore is one such example. Keep an eye out for the talking cats in this strange dreamy novel about two people at the opposite ends of life who are drawn together by powers seemingly beyond their control.

Like Water For Chocolate – Laura Esquivel

Let’s kick this off with a fun fact, shall we? Like Water For Chocolate, the 1989 novel by Laura Esquivel, takes its name from the Spanish phrase como agua para chocolate, which is an expression to say that one’s emotions are on the verge of boiling over. It’s a neat nod to the book’s contents, the story of a woman named Tita whose overwhelming emotions are often cooked into the delicious food she serves to her family. This edition was translated into English by Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen.

Like Water For Chocolate - Laura Esquivel - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The front cover of Like Water For Chocolate promises “a novel in monthly instalments with recipes, romances and home remedies” – and that’s exactly what you get. Even though the timeline of the story is far longer than a year, it’s divided into twelve months, each preceded by a recipe that the characters cook in the following chapter. Hot tip: make sure you’re not hungry when you pick this one up, because the recipes and cooking chat will have you drooling!

The story is a bizarre history of sorts, of the De La Garzas: Mama Elena (husband deceased), her daughters (Gertrudis, Rosarua, and Tita), the cook (Nacha), and the maid (Chencha), all narrated by Tita’s grand-niece sometime in an unspecified future. They live on a ranch in Mexico, near the U.S. border. The family legend is bolstered in the South American style of magical realism, where tears can turn into rivers and bitterness alone can kill.

It begins in January with a recipe for Christmas Rolls (not one of the more delicious offerings: sardines, chorizo, and chiles serranos? Ho, ho, no!). They are youngest daughter Tita’s favourite dish. Tita is the star of Like Water For Chocolate, though her supporting cast is also stellar. As the youngest, she is forbidden – by long-standing family tradition – from marrying, so that she can stay home and care for her mother for the rest of her life. Tita’s fine with this, until she meets the hunk-a-spunk Pedro. It’s love at first sight, for both of them, but Mama Elena isn’t having a bar of it.

When Pedro comes to ask for Tita’s hand, Mama Elena suggests that he marry Rosarua instead. Pedro reluctantly agrees, reasoning that at least marrying into the family will allow him to stay close to his true love, Tita, for life. Yeah, yeah, that’s a little problematic, but let’s not let it ruin the romance, eh?

The only thing Tita loves as much as she loves Pedro is cooking. Unfortunately, her dishes are infused with her emotions, sometimes with disastrous consequences. The lust of her rose petal sauce (made from the roses Pedro gave her) causes her sister Gertrudis to run away naked and work in a brothel. Tita’s desperate longing baked into Rosarua’s wedding cake causes everyone who attends the wedding to become violently ill (and delays consummation, ahem!). This supernatural effect is woven into the narrative very naturally, so that it almost feels like a given.

Despite the looming specters of death and heart-break, Like Water For Chocolate reads like a well-written rom-com. It’s certainly a lot more fun than, say, One Hundred Years Of Solitude – I’d say it’s closer to the love-child of My Brilliant Friend and The Alchemist, with a sprinkle of romance and magic. It’s easy to read, but it’s not without substance. The recipes are a neat hook, but that’s not all there is to love about this short, bittersweet family saga.

Like Water For Chocolate has sold over a million copies in Spain and Hispanic America, and a whole bunch more in translation around the world. It was also made into an award-winning film of the same name (no, I won’t bother watching it, the book was delightful enough and I’m worried they’d ruin it). I can certainly understand its enduring popularity, and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to wade into the pool of South American literature, rather than diving all the way into the deep end.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Like Water For Chocolate:

  • “Read this or stab yourself in the eye? Stab yourself in the eye. Hands down the worst thing I’ve ever read (and I’ve read ‘Mansfield Park’).” – Ben
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