Book Reviews

Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas ContrerasRating: 🍁🍁🍁🍁🍁

Before you read any further, you need to understand three things about this book: 1) It has been compared to Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende, probably because it’s easy marketing and they’re all South American, but 2) That does NOT mean this book falls under magical realism, and 3) Just because a Latin American author wrote a Thing, it doesn’t automatically make that Thing magical realism (as many English-language readers on Goodreads mistakenly believe).

The author herself explains it thoroughly: 

“There is a magical understanding of reality that is very specific to South American culture. This cultural perspective does not come from Magical Realism—rather it is the other way around: Magical Realism was inspired by this cultural perspective. In Fruit of the Drunken Tree I wanted to write a South American experience faithful to this cultural perspective without the fabulism of Magical Realism. To give you an example, in Isabel Allende’s excellent memoir, My Invented Country, when Allende is exploring Chile’s religious make-up, she mentions in passing that in addition to the country being largely fundamentalist, born-again, catholic, and atheist, there is also a profound cultural engagement with the idea that devils and evil spirits are real parts of reality. She explains, simply by saying, “My grandfather swore that he saw the devil on a bus, and that he recognized him because he had green cloven hooves like a billygoat.” Any South American can counter this anecdote with hundreds of her own. In Fruit of the Drunken Tree my characters live in this reality—they are beholden to that cultural tradition where the real is perceived within the shadows of the magical.”

Anyway.

Fruit of the Drunken Tree is told from the perspective of two young women: Chula, a girl from a rich family, and Petrona, the family’s maid. 

Their stories are set during the era of Pablo Escobar in Colombia, and we experience most of the anxiety of the times through Chula’s eyes. 

While most of what Chula talks about happens in her mind (things she overhears around the neighborhood or sees on TV), Petrona is the one who actually experiences the violence at a personal level, eventually having it follow her into Chula’s own home. 

By the sounds of it, I thought this would be a harder book to read, in terms of emotional distress, but it really wasn’t. Ingrid Rojas Contreras is one of those authors that can write prose like poetry; and even when she’s discussing awfully violent events, you don’t feel traumatized, but you don’t feel detached either. She’s just excellent at writing complex feelings with tact and candor, yet without aggressively shoving your face into them and leaving you reeling for days.   

This book is one of the best I’ve read in 2018 and it is has so much meaning and thought put into it that it’d be great to discuss at a literature class or at a book club. 

Highly recommended! 

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Book Reviews

Hold Strong: A World War II Novel about Freedom, Forgiveness, and the True Story of the Deadliest Accident in U.S. Military History by Jeff Langholz and Chris Crabtree

Hold Strong- A World War II Novel about Freedom, Forgiveness, and the True Story of the Deadliest Accident in U.S. Military History by Jeff Langholz, Chris CrabtreeRating: 🍁🍁🍁🍁🍁

I received an ARC from one of the authors in exchange for an honest review.

Hold Strong is the first published novel of debut authors Jeff Langholz and Chris Crabtree. 

This book is a fictionalized account of historical events that were exhaustively researched by the authors. And by exhaustively I mean: in the Notes section they have listed their references by chapter, page, and down to the SENTENCE they were used in. Anytime you have a question about historical accuracy, rest assured there will eventually be an answer. 

Hold Strong is the story of the hellish set of tragedies and mass torture suffered by U.S. POWs aboard the Arisan Maru, a WWII Japanese hell ship. This eventually became the site of the “worst naval disaster in U.S. history”, but the authors take the full picture into account and also consider it THE deadliest accident/tragedy of ALL U.S. military history. 

For those reasons, Hold Strong is not an easy book to read. It is downright GRISLY. Few books I’ve read have delivered such psychologically harrowing scenes, displaying every awful violation that can possibly be inflicted upon the human body, including vampirism. It is not for the faint of heart, or something you want to read before bedtime. It is a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life. 

Thankfully, most of that happens during Part I and the first half of Part II. (And to be honest I wasn’t sure if I could handle it and only pushed through because I promised to write this review.)

But I don’t regret it, especially after that literally jaw-dropping ending! (I audibly gasped!) Few times during the hundreds of books I’ve read have I been so surprised by an ending. It is the main reason why I knocked this up from 4 stars to 5. 

The authors took the history of the Arisan Maru and inserted fiction into it to fill in the blanks where not only accounts don’t exist, but also where a more dramatic and profound story could be developed. 

Sam, the main character, is used a vessel to represent the spiritual journey of surviving such an ordeal, experiencing and representing every facet of the human condition. It is because of Sam, and his dear friend Father Thomas Scecina, that you want to read this book. 

Also if you are teaching a literature course, there is so much here to unpack and discuss. It would also work really well in a book club setting. (The book includes discussion questions at the end.) 

I would recommend this to: people who are into grisly endurance stories a la The Road by Cormac McCarthy, people who have tons of WWII books and always casually have a WWII documentary playing in the background in their living room, and Catholic or Christian adherents who would like to read a shining example of a truly good Christian.* 

*p.s. If the mention of religion repels you, don’t let that dissuade you from reading this book. There’s no avoiding it since one of the main characters IS a priest, after all; but religion here is presented more in a spiritual sense that all humans can relate to, rather than as indoctrination. Also, if you know where to look, whiffs of Eastern philosophies are also clearly present in the book.  

Pick up a copy on Amazon!