Transcript / SSoP Podcast Episode 04 — Mexico: Folklore and Beachy Paradise

Transcript / SSoP Podcast Episode 04 — Mexico: Folklore and Beachy Paradise

Thursday, 23 January, 2020

This is a transcription of Episode 4 — Mexico: Folklore and Beachy Paradise.


David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.

Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.

David: We searched for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated and tell you about the best.

Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.

David: We’re on a trip around the globe. one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.

David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.

Melissa: And I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.

David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it. We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us. [music].

David: Welcome to season one, episode four of Strong Sense of Place. Today we’re talking about Mexico. At the start of every episode we talk about why a writer would be interested in a location, what makes Mexico compelling for writers.

Melissa: Before I jump into that… Fun fact: Mexico is the most popular vacation spot for Americans traveling outside the United States.

David: Because of those beautiful, beautiful beaches.

Melissa: I suspect that is probably the case, but I want to talk about the other things in Mexico. Ancient cultures like the Mayans, the Toltecs and the Aztecs. We also have the conquistadores who brought Catholicism to Mexico and destroyed much of the local population…

David: Yeah. Catholocism and lots and lots of blood.

Melissa: On the upside, beautiful colonial architecture, yes, but probably not worth the loss of life and those cultures. I feel like we kind of have a down start on Mexican

David: [laughs]

Melissa: Let’s cheer it up a little bit. We have beachy paradise, jungles, deserts, snow topped volcanoes. A rich culture of food, family and music. Lucha libre and bullfighting and soccer and baseball. Magical realism and native folklore. There is an entire Pantheon of Mayan gods…

David: Who are fantastic.

Melissa: Yes, and we’re going to explore much of that in the books we’re talking about today.

David: Let’s get to it! But first, but first let’s talk about two truths and a lie. I’m going to say three statements. Mel doesn’t know what these statements are. Two of them are true. One of them I made up. You’re ready?

Melissa: I’m up for the challenge.

David: Number one, Mexico city is the largest city in North America. Two: Spanish is the official language of Mexico.

Melissa: I mean, that seems like a ‘no, duh.’ Maybe you’re trying to trick me. Okay. What’s number three?

David: Mexican can pay taxes with their artwork.

Melissa: I really feel like you’re trying to trick me because the last one sounds too outrageous to be true, but the first two sound too true to be false. You are sneaky. I’m going to say that… Read me number two again.

David: Spanish is the official language of Mexico.

Melissa: I mean how can that not be true? I’m going to say that’s not true. I’m going to say number two is not true.

David: Number two is not true.

Melissa: Hooray! I got one right.

David: Mexico actually has 68 official languages. Which seems great for inclusion and all, but probably a problem when you’re dealing with contract law for instance…

Melissa: … and forms. Hello DMV.

David: How does that even work? Mexico has more Spanish speakers than any other country in the world, including Spain.

Melissa: But it’s not the official language. It’s one of 68 okay, so that means Mexico city is the largest city in North America.

David: Yes. Depending on how you count it, there’s either 8.9, 12 million, or 21.3 million in greater Mexico city. And it has, it also has the most cabs of any city in the world. There are at least 10,000 cabs in Mexico city.

Melissa: There are so many superlatives in Mexico so far.

David: There are, and finally it is true that Mexican artists can pay taxes with their artwork. There’s a program called… I’m not going to butcher the Spanish, but it’s payment in kind. It’s a payment-in-kind program, and it’s the only type of its kind in the world.

Melissa: That seems very supportive of art and I really like that.

David: There’s only about 700 artists to take advantage of it, so I wonder if you have to apply.

Melissa: There must be some kind of process. You just be like, ‘Today I’m an artist, here’s my drawing of my house, which is a square with a triangle on top. That is really cool though. That makes me think of, there’s a museum here in Prague called the DOX and it’s a contemporary art museum and on the wall outside it says ‘Wash your dirty money with my art.’

David: Yeah, I really love that.

Melissa: Paying taxes with art makes me think of that.

David: So let’s start talking about the books. We’ve got five books that we think that we love that we think you will love. The first one is Mel’s. Mel, what is your first book?

Melissa: My pick is Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros. This is a big sweeping family saga. Multigenerational, lots of big emotions, lots of boisterous family members.

David: Big feels.

Melissa: Yes, I love it. Our heroine is Lala Reyes and she is also the narrator. The book opens with a family road trip that the family takes every summer and it’s mothers, fathers and uncles, cousins, Lala’s six older brothers. So a small traveling army. They pack up three cars and they drive in a convoy from Chicago to Mexico City to see their grandparents.

David: That sounds like an introvert nightmare.

Melissa: Every summer. [laughter] There are really funny scenes from this road trip where they’re, for example, driving down the highway next to each other, yelling at each other between the cars. So they’re on their way to visit their grandparents and they stay there for the entire summer in Mexico City. And the grandparents, significantly, are always referred to as Little Grandfather and Awful Grandmother.

David: I had an awful grandmother. I can relate to that. I feel like everybody might have one person in their family where they could put awful in front of the name…

David: … and it would be true.

Melissa: So as the story unfolds, we learned the history of the adults in the family and all of their complicated relationships for just a second.

David: So they’re wintering in Chicago and summering in Mexico city.

Melissa: That is correct.

David: This seems ill thought through.Bill thought through.

Melissa: Well, the kids are out of school in the summer. Okay, so the story unfolds. We’re getting the backstory on all of the adults and significantly we’re learning how grandmother became the Awful Grandmother and what that meant for her and the rest of the family. So when you first read it, it’s kind of funny, but of course there’s a painful truth under there. And so throughout the story you grow to have, I don’t know if it’s so much compassion for the grandmother because she really is awful, but an understanding. You understand how she became this person and you see how it’s influenced the whole family and how a very powerful matriarch can kind of trickle down into everyone in the family.

David: That’s a huge empathy trick… rising above. ‘You’re awful, but I understand.’

Melissa: And they love her because of course they do. Okay, so this is a very boisterous family. They’re loud. They tease each other as we’ve seen, they have nicknames for each other and Layla is an introvert.

David: Oh. So it really is an introvert nightmare.

Melissa: It really is literally her nightmare and her life. So she does two things. She retreats a little bit and she becomes a really astute observer of the things around her. And that works to our credit.

Melissa: Her descriptions of the locations in this book are very vivid and we have three primary locations: Mexico City, Chicago, and San Antonio. And she brings everything in those cities to life. The buildings, the people. There’s lavish description of all of the vendors lining the streets with food and tchotchkes in Mexico City. That just puts you right there. There’s really loving attention paid to the food, which makes perfect sense because food is such an important part of the culture.

David: I love a book with good food.

Melissa: Yeah, me too. There’s corn on the cob and candy and chocolates and the smells and the sounds and the experience of biting into a taco. There’s also a touch of magical realism to the story, and some of the characters have, let’s call it a ‘loose relationship with the truth.’ They’re not necessarily outright lying, but early in the book, Lala explains that her family has a tradition of healthy lies, which are things they say to avoid trouble. So we’re never really sure how much a story is being exaggerated, and she’s never really sure what if what she’s being told is the actual truth.

David: Right. So she is a dependable narrator, but what she’s getting may or may not be what happened.

Melissa: And it also, after a while, it kind of raises the question, does it really matter what… is their actual truth? Doesn’t matter what the actual truth of the facts is because the impact they have on people is really what matters and what motivates people is really what matters.

David: And after a while, the stories that we tell ourselves become the truth.

Melissa: The other thing that gives this book a very strong sense of place is that the author drops in references to real people in places in Mexico City, which is really fun. This is another book that’s fun to close read. Just kind of keep a browser window open next to you and Google things as you read along. One that jumped out at me because she reminded me of Betty Page was the actress Yolanda Montes. She was very sexy, glamorous cabaret performer in Mexico City in the 1930s but her stage name and the name that most people know her by is Tongolele.

[audio clip of movie narrator saying Tongolele]

Melissa: There’s descriptions of the cafe where she hangs out. It’s, Oh, it’s so much fun.

David: The name alone just sounds like dancing.

Melissa: I’ll put links in the show notes so you can see picture and video of her. There’s a video of Tongolele performing in a movie.

David: Oh, that’s what we want.

Melissa: I’m just going to say leopard print and leave it there.

David: So who would you recommend this book to?

Melissa: I went on a big emotional journey with his family. So if you like a book that kind of tugs at your heartstrings, and if you have a family that you love very, very much, but also drives you crazy, this book is for you. That is Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros. Dave, what’s book number two?

David: Book number two is _The True History of Chocolate’ by Sophie and Michael Coe.

Melissa: You said chocolate, and I sat up a little straighter.

David: I know. Me too. I was doing research for books on Mexico. This came up and I was like, yes, everything, now. This book is a nonfiction history of chocolate.

Melissa: A biography of chocolate?

David: Yes. A biography of chocolate. Where did you start? Where you’re from, what’s happened to you since?

Melissa: What are your influences? What are your dreams for the future? My dream is to go into Melissa Joulwan’s mouth…

David: So it turns out we have the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican people to thank for chocolate. Thank you, Mexico and central America. You have provided so much joy in my life. The book takes you from chocolate to beginnings, which are about 3000 years ago, through the Mayans and the Aztecs and the Spanish invasion. You find out a bunch of cool things like, uh, the fact that pirates had chocolate.

Melissa: Of course they did. They had all the good stuff. Parrots, swords…

David: … and chocolate. Yeah, they had hot chocolate. They had all the good stuff. There’s chocolate pirates. We learned that when a chocolate got back to Europe, Italians experimented with it in pastas and meat dishes and macaroni. I felt completely vindicated by this because of my suggestion that we put chocolate in the chili a long time ago. Turns out the Italians are with me on that one. We hear that Catholics argued about whether or not you can eat liquid chocolate during Lent, which I think is a fascinating philosophical problem.

Melissa: So whether you can eat liquid chocolate during lent, but solid chocolate was okay?

David: Well, so solid chocolate actually wasn’t a thing when they were having this question. The question was if liquid chocolate was too much like food.

Melissa: Okay.

David: We hear about the rise of industrial chocolate and the beginning of modern chocolate. The chocolates that we know that are solid eating chocolates was relatively late to the game. Uh, 1700s I think. We hear about Milton Hershey. America has chocolate Baron and his chocolate town.

Melissa: I grew up about 45 minutes from Hershey.

David: We’ve been to Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Melissa: I’ve been on the rollercoaster at Hershey park many times, as well as in Chocolate World, which is a very undangerous, unthrilling ride where you sit in a cart and they take you through the life of a chocolate bar…

David: Which I found less interesting than this book.

Melissa: [laughter] But does the book smell like chocolate?

Melissa: Mm. I can make the book smell like chocolate. Then we find out about how to make chocolate and it was…I found that so enticing that I was like, ‘Can I do this as a hobby?’ And follow up question, how many friends would I have if I’ve figured out how to make chocolate as a hobby?

Melissa: And I have to admit that when you told me that, that you were thinking, ‘Oh, chocolate might be a fun hobby’ for about 20 seconds, I was really mad because I can’t get you to make dinner.

David: That’s fair.

Melissa: I mean I guess if his hobby became making chocolate, that would be okay. I would benefit from that.

David: I don’t think I’m going to do it. If you’re thinking about reading this book, I would, I dunno, caution seems like a harsh word, but word of warning? Heads up, maybe? It reads a little scholarly.

Melissa: So elaborate on that. What do you mean by scholarly? Like is it dry?

David: It’s written by two professors, and they are deeply in love with chocolate and they really want you to know about chocolate, but it’s chocolate school. You’re definitely getting the sense that this is a half-step from a lecture.

Melissa: So it’s a good book for people who like to know the inside workings of things?

David: Yes.

Melissa: Kind of similar to the restaurant book that you talked about in episode two.

David: Right. Exactly. Um, you should also know, this book has a heartwarming backstory.

Melissa: I am always on board for heartwarming backstory.

David: So one of the writers, Sophie Coe, she’s a an anthropologist and she’s a food historian. She has a PhD from Harvard. She’s been working on food history her entire life. She published a book called America’s First Cuisines, which talked about food before Columbus in America. And she just finished that and she decides she wants to work on the history of chocolate and she starts working on that and she’s in Rome and she’s looking through 400-year-old books that have chocolate history and details in them… but she doesn’t feel right and she goes to a doctor and she finds out she has cancer and she only has a few months to live.

Melissa: I hope this story is going somewhere a little bit happier.

David: Yeah. So her husband, Michael Coe is a professor of anthropology at Yale and he tells her he’ll finish the book, but she has to remain the senior author since the book would be almost completely based on her research. And then she died, but he finished the book because he loved her.

Melissa: That is a really beautiful story.

David: Isn’t that nice? Yeah.

Melissa: I also want to say that I raise a cup of hot chocolate to these two because they took their combined research experience and applied it to chocolate..

David: Also, they’re a super cute couple. There’s a picture of them we’ll put in the show notes, but they’re really, really cute. He wrote in the introduction and I just found this lovely, so I’m going to read it. He wrote in the introduction:

Finally, lest it be thought that it was some kind of burden or sacrifice for me to finish Sophies’ book, I want to state here that it was a true pleasure.” And then – “I have learned much from Sophie, even posthumously, while writing this history. Although I could never hope to duplicate the wry and ironic humor that enlivens her previous book, I hope that something of her wit and scholarship can be found in this one.

David: Isn’t that nice?

Melissa: That is really beautiful. He seems like a lovely man.

David: So if you’re interested in hearing about the early history of Mesoamerica or the long road to chocolate from a crazy little tree to your neighborhood gas station and you’re not afraid to get schooled by too sweet, sweet professors, I highly recommend The True History of Chocolate by Sophie and Michael Coe. What’s your next book?

Melissa: My book also has chocolate in the title.

David: Excellent.

Melissa: It is Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. I know that this is the classic and that potentially a lot of our listeners have read this book already, but this is my plug to read it again, and if you’ve never read it, I hope this will inspire you to pick it up because it is really magical from beginning to end. This is another family saga, but the tone is completely different than Caramelo. This is straight-up uncut, 100-percent pure, magical realism.

David: So let’s stop for a second and talk about magical realism.

Melissa: Yeah, let’s unpack that a little bit. So I, to me, I always think of magical realism as a story that’s set in our world but has magical elements. And then I thought to myself, ‘what are the experts saying?’ [laughter]

Melissa: Magical realism is a subset of fantasy.

David: So all magical realism is fantasy.

Melissa: Yes. And here’s what some experts say. I’m going to leave this to our listeners to decide if they agree, because I feel like you can debate it. But this is the definition that I’ve been working with as I’ve been reading books for this podcast. In fantasy, you have a world created in its entirety from an imagination.

David: So something like The Lord of the Rings

Melissa: Yes, it has its own set of rules for how the world works and it’s created whole cloth from imagination. Magical realism is set in our world, but magical things happen. And then, what some peoples in literature say, they take it a step further and say when those magical things happen, the people that they’re happening to don’t think they’re unusual. Something magical happening is just part of the world. It’s not that strange.

David: So I wake up in my bed and there’s a magical toad at the end of my bed. There’s a toad at the end of my bed and the toads start to explain to me what my day’s going to be like.

Melissa: And you’re like, ‘Thanks, Toad, for telling me what’s up today.’

David: Yeah, just rolling with it. You’re not, like, ‘Holy cow! There’s a talking toad.’

Melissa: Good?

David: Yup.

Melissa: We have a shared definition. Listeners, feel free to leave comments on show notes and let us know what you think of our definitions. [laughter] Okay, so back to the book. This book weaves together food and family in a way that makes perfect sense, but there are over-the-top magical things happening that are simultaneously beautiful and sad and kind of wacky. I’m going to get to some examples in a minute, but first I want to talk a little bit about the setting. It’s set in a Mexican border town around 1900 so that’s the time of the Mexican Revolution. So we have a family story, which is very intimate and small scale, playing out against the backdrop of the larger Mexican Revolution. And at the heart of the story is a forbidden love. A young girl and boy are desperately in love with each other, like, fireworks from the first second they see each other… David: Actual fireworks, magical fireworks?

Melissa: I don’t think they were actual fireworks. I’m scanning my mind now to remember if that was one of the magical things that happened. I don’t think so. I think they were metaphorical fireworks. But this is like the only place. As the youngest daughter, it is Tita’s responsibility to take care of her mother until her mother’s death. And her mother is completely overbearing.

David: So Tita is in love with a boy, but Tina’s problem is that she has to take care of her mom.

Melissa: Forever. So even though it’s doomed, the two of them are completely nuts about each other. I want to read you a quote from the book so you can understand the fire that burns between these.

When Tina felt Pedro’s gaze on her, she understood exactly how raw dough must feel when it comes into contact with boiling oil.

David: Whoa.

Melissa: So Pedro realizing that he can’t marry Tita, who he loves, does the only reasonable thing: He decides to marry her older sister so he can be close to Tita.

David: Yes. That’s the only possible thing you can do.

Melissa: Just pause for a minute and meditate on that terrible, terrible decision.

David: That’s a really bad decision.

Melissa: Bless his little heart.

David: Cause now he’s sort of ruined at least three people’s lives.

Melissa: That goes about as well as you would expect. There are ramifications all over the place, and the rest of the book is pretty much the story of how that decision impacts everyone around them. Because they’re just like concentric circles of impact in their family, in the village, their friends. This touches everyone.

David: But that’s some compelling reading cause you want to know how that works out.

Melissa: Absolutely. I mean thank you Pedro for making a really terrible decision because what’s bad for you is great for us.

Melissa: Yeah, let’s talk about the magic. Tita spends almost all of her time in the kitchen. She is the best cook anywhere and the food that she makes becomes infused with her emotions. This has some ramifications.

David: I would imagine so.

Melissa: For example, she makes this savory sauce from Rose pedals and it smells wonderful and it tastes delicious and it makes everyone who eats it go crazy with passion,… literally sitting around the dining table, squirming in their chairs, sweating. Her sister gets up and runs out and bursts into flames and she goes into the outdoor shower and the water evaporates off of her skin. She is on fire with passion.

David: Wow.

Melissa: Because Tina’s burning love for Pedro. Went into the dinner later when she cries into wedding cake batter, the people who eat the cake feel a devastating sense of longing and sorrow.

David: It’s a really like fascinating way to talk about how someone’s emotions, even when you’re trying to cap them and push them down are still going to affect everyone around you in a certain kind of way.

Melissa: They’re going to come out whether you want them to or not. The descriptions are absolutely beautiful and once you get used to the magical realism and stop being like, ‘wait, how would that work?’ And just kind of give yourself over to it, it’s really beautiful and completely captivating. Like, I kind of want to live in this world for a little while. I want to eat the wedding cake and see what that feels like.

Melissa: As a reader, I was completely invested in every member of the family and the mother character whoo, boy, she is tough. These are really tremendously conceived characters. Each chapter begins with a recipe. Some are very realistic. You could make them; you could take that list of ingredients and make the thing. And some of them are more fantastical, but what makes them really effective is that the recipes relate directly to the action and the emotion in the story. I’ve never read anything like it. It is really moving and really effective. The story itself is wistful and dramatic. It’s sometimes very funny, and it’s always really magical.

David: Like Water for Chocolate, that’s the name of the book. What’s up with the title?

Melissa: That phrase — ‘like water for chocolate’ — is a Spanish idiom. That means that your emotions are on the verge of boiling over.

David: Oh, so it’s like the hot chocolate that we were talking about. It’s your boiling water. To make hot chocolate.

Melissa: Yes, and your emotions are just about to froth up. And the emotions in this book are frothy all the time. Last March it was announced that this story is being developed into a TV mini series. I checked recently to see if there have been any updates on that. There have not, but everyone keep your eyes up and for that. Okay. If you like food and love and a dash of magic in your everyday life, you will love this book. It’s Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. All right, Dave, that was a delicious book.

David: Yes. Yes it was.

Melissa: What have you got?

David: My next book is called I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter and it’s by Erika L. Sanchez, and I have to say it had me at the title. I am not your perfect Mexican daughter. It’s, like, I’ve never been there, but I’ve been in that neighborhood. I know what they’re talking about. That’s like, it’s a fantastic title.

Melissa: I think we can all relate to the feeling that we are perhaps not the child we were supposed to.

David: It’s a young adult book. The story is told in first-person by Julia, who’s 15 years old and she lives in Chicago with her parents who are Mexican immigrants. On just page one, chapter one: Her sister’s just died in a bus accident and the book opens at the sister’s wake. And it’s presented like a 15 year old would be there. It’s just kind of almost flip… almost, but there’s also the darkness that’s kind of there. The dead sister Olga was the perfect Mexican daughter. She did everything right. She was the golden child. She was doted on by her mother who loved her. And Julia, the main character thinks it’s her fault that her sister is dead.

Melissa: So if all guy is the golden child, and Julia knows her mother loved her. Where does Julia fit into this story?

David: Julia is a little like Jan Brady. She’s sort of sidelined and her mother loved Olga and Olga is dead and Julia feels guilty about it and Julia suspects, her mom thinks she had something to do with it because they were together when Olga died

Melissa: Oh! Julia was with her when she died?

David: Yeah… This is a really great coming of age story with strong plunges into Mexican culture both in the States and in Mexico. It’s been a long time since I was 15, but it felt so emotionally accurate to me. I was reading reviews and there were some complaints about Julia being sarcastic and arrogant and volatile and sometimes downright nasty. And I was like, that’s exactly my memory of it.

Melissa: That is being a teenager trying to figure stuff out. You’re kind of lashing out at other people. I mean I suspect too, if you lost a sibling that early, you would be angry at the world.

David: She is…

Melissa: And you wouldn’t have the tools to really express that appropriately. Adults don’t have the tools to express that appropriately.

David: Yeah, exactly. And in the book, Julia goes through her shock and grief and depression and she’s trying to get a handle on boys and who her friends and the relationships and what our own culture is like and where her family’s from and just all of this stuff and it’s handled so well. She’s struggling to prove who she’s NOT because I’m not your perfect Mexican daughter, but then she ends up going around the back way to figure out who she is. There are some family secrets that Julia runs into.

Melissa: Family secrets in novels are my favorite thing and secrets in real life are my least favorite thing.

David: [laughs] So some of the secrets are heartbreaking. Some of the secrets are illuminating and she finds her way through all of that stuff. This book is such a great exploration of that age and what it’s like to want so much when you have just so little.

Melissa: This sounds a little bit heartbreaking, but also like I want to go read it immediately.

David: Yeah, that’s right. I would agree with that.

Melissa: While you were describing this book, it was reminding me of a book that I read set in Mexico that I really loved, but I’m not talking about on the podcast and it’s called Sea Monsters, and it is also about a teenager who is struggling to understand her identity and she manages it in a completely different way, so there’ll be a write up on our blog.

David: All right. Both of those books are great. The one I read was, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L Sanchez. Okay. That brings us to our last book. Mel, what’s our last book?

Melissa: This pick is completely different than everything else we’ve talked about today. It is a straight-up beach read set in Tulum, Mexico. It’s called Girls’ Night Out and it’s by Lisa Steinke and Liz Fenton. This is not the kind of thing I would usually pick because the characters are really not very nice and they make really bad decisions and usually I get frustrated with those kinds of characters. But this is such a page-turner. I had to know what was going to happen.

David: So is it like Gone Girl?

Melissa: It’s not quite as dark and twisted and creepy as Gone Girl. But it’s definitely on that spectrum where you’ve got people who you’re more curious about then maybe emotionally invested in. You’re just like, ‘What are you doing?’

David: You don’t want them in your life.

Melissa: No, but it’s kind of fun to read about the train wrecks that happen. So what I’m about to tell you is not a spoiler. It happens in the first three pages of the book… A woman wakes up on the beach in Tulum. She’s just a few yards from her hotel room and she has a banger of a hangover and she can’t remember anything from the night before. The night before was a painfully desperate drunken girl’s night out with her two lifelong friends. They are not having a good time. They are chasing a good time and they are doing it with copious amounts of alcohol. So she gets up, she staggers to hotel room and when she gets there she realizes that her roommate Ashley is missing.

David: And not just down at the buffet.

Melissa: No.

David: Just gone, gone?

Melissa: Gone, gone. And now we are off to the races. So to understand the why and the how of her disappearance, we have to get to know these three women. And they are awful. Bless their hearts.

David: [laughs]

Melissa: The tension is ratcheted up because of the way the authors have structured this book. It’s moves backward and forward in time and just circles around the big night out. So we get flashbacks to the beginning of their trip and to the beginning of their friendship and slowly learn about how they came to be friends and how they ended up in this bad situation. They have been keeping big secrets from each other. And these secrets are behind Ashley’s disappearance.

David: So they might not be as good friends as they originally thought.

Melissa: You’ve hit the nail on the head, Dave.

David: It wasn’t hard to get there.

Melissa: So if this was only a suspense thriller, we would not be talking about it on this show. But it’s set into Tulum, Mexico and the authors have done a brilliant job of capturing the vibe of Tulum. For people who haven’t been there, there are a lot of dichotomies in Tulum. It’s a really beautiful place. The beach is pristine, the water is crystal blue. There are Mayan ruins on this cliff overlooking the ocean so you can tour the ruins and then go down these kind of terrifying rickety wooden stairs to the most perfect beach I’ve ever been on.

David: You were an I were lucky enough to go to Tulum, and when I got down to the beach, I turned around and looked at the Mayan ruins and I was like, ‘This beach is why those ruins are here.’ They got here and they looked at that beach and they were like, ‘yes, let’s do it! We’re here.’

Melissa: And they were absolutely right. It is a fantastic spot. And when you’re in the water you can look at the cliffs and see iguanas running around. It’s just fantastic. But, Tulum also has a kind of hippie side where there’s a lot of crystal gazing and burning incense and lots of yoga retreats because I think there’s a real, because of the Maya connection, there’s, it’s a spiritual center as well. And then there’s another aspect, which is margaritas. All day long, man.

David: Absolutely! It’s kind of a bit like a Vegas at an archeology dig. It’s kind of, you’re not sure which one you should be paying more attention to. [laughter]

Melissa: So I feel like the novel really delivers on that and finds a way to weave those parts of the Tulum culture into the story in a way that moves the plot. So it’s really fun. This is a very tense novel about, let’s say, mildly terrible people. They’re not murderers, but they’re not always making the best decisions. It’s a little like eating tortilla chips and salsa.

David: The book.

Melissa: Yeah. It’s like maybe I should stop because it’s too much, but ah, it’s so good. I don’t want to stop. It’s like that. So if you’re headed to Mexico to lie on the beach, or maybe you just want a mental beach vacation…

David: I’m always down for a mental beach vacation.

Melissa: This book is for you. All right. Fun fact. This book was written by two women who I’ve mentioned, Lisa Steinke and Liz Fenton. They’ve written six books together and they’ve been friends for 30 years.

Melissa: In the acknowledgements of this book, they shared a little bit about the challenges of writing this one and all I could think when I was reading it was ‘I hope they were not as mean to each other as the characters in this book.’

David: [laughs] What if they’re in a hotel room thinking about horrible things they could do to each other…

Melissa: ‘and then they turned it into a novel. I am so sick of her crap.’ [laughs] Anyway, that is Girls’ Night Out by Lisa Steinke and Liz Fenton.

David: Okay. Those are five books we’d love set in Mexico. Visit our show notes at for links and details. Mel, can you tell us about this blog posts he wrote for this episode?

Melissa: I had a lot of fun creating the content for this week. First off, in honor of The True History of Chocolate, we have a recipe for Mexican hot chocolate plus variations for other hot chocolates around the world. We also have six novels that celebrate the culture and beaches of Mexico because I read a lot of great novels to pick out the three that I talked about today. I could easily have swapped others into this episode. And there’s a recipe for mole meatballs that was inspired by Like Water for Chocolate.

David: Guaranteed to set everybody at your table on fire.

Melissa: Send photos.

David: Thank you for listening to Strong Sense of Place for more on Mexico, including the books we discussed today, additional book recommendations, and literary landmarks in Mexico, visit our webpage

Melissa: Be sure to sign up for our free weekly newsletter. It’s packed with our favorite book and travel related things.

David: Please follow us on Instagram or we are @strongsenseof for photos, illustrations, short book reviews, and more bookish fun.

Melissa: If you enjoyed the podcast, please rate it, review it, and definitely tell a friend and don’t forget to subscribe so that you never miss an episode.

David: Mel, where are we going?

Melissa: On our next episode, we’re breaking out our tartan, plaid, and a dram of whiskey in Scotland.

David: Thanks so much for listening.

[cheerful music]


Top image courtesy of Jezael Melgoza.

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Tropical coasts, lush jungles, ancient Mayan and Aztec ruins, majestic colonial architecture, fresh margaritas — Mexico is an inspired background for all kinds of stories about sun, fun, friendship, and family.
The pages of 'Like Water for Chocolate' burn with the various ways humans can love each other: passionately, platonically, painfully — and food is a full-fledged character in this lush, satisfying family saga.
Forget everything you know about hot chocolate! This luscious recipe is rich, creamy, and not too sweet — the perfect thing to sip while you snuggle up with a book. Ready in minutes, no paper packet of brown powder in sight.

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