Madre by Liza Bakewell – Book Review

Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun by Liza Bakewell
Published by W. W. Norton & Company

Madre means mother, right? Well, technically. Madre may mean mother in Spanish, but it means a whole lot else besides that in Mexico. There is an extensive list of madre idioms, nearly all of which have negative meanings along the lines of disaster or whore. How can this be, when mothers traditionally hold a very high place in Mexican society, in a land where the Holy Virgin, the mother of Christ, is so venerated? What question could be more fascinating to a social anthropologist with an interest in linguistics and feminist leanings from the United States living in Mexico? It was this first question, in fact, that turned Liza Bakewell from a social anthropologist into a linguistic anthropologist with a particularly interest in madre and the intersection of gender and language.

“It can be dangerous to say madre in Mexico. Underscored and italicized. His words would blow fire across the screen. A kind of watch-out fuerte, not only powerful, but really powerful. Like a match to gasoline, or a blow to the face.” -p. 47

Out of this fascination came Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun. The subtitle of Madre is really the best description of what this book is. Far from a strictly academic treatise, Madre is more of a travelogue/memoir combo by someone who is simply very intelligent and likes to think deeply about issues of language and society. In spite of this, the chapters are organized topically within the larger subject of madre: talking about piropo and albur, the grammatical dominance of maleness even in a room predominantly female, las mentadas de madre.

Perhaps this begins to explain the origins of the symbolic dilemma of madre in Mexico. The Church believes the bride, once married, is Eve, not the Virgin. -p. 175-176

Maybe it is just me, maybe I missed my calling as an anthropologist, but I think that the intersection of gender, culture, and language is a fascinating place to linger and observe, and I’m so grateful that Bakewell brought me to this particular intersection. Even better, she does not manage to lose a non-Spanish speaking, non-linguist on her journeys. It could be occasionally disconcerting to have the very personal style interacting with the linguistic and anthropological insights, but overall it worked very well.

A very interesting book, if the concept interests you, then I can recommend Madre.

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The Heart is Not a Size by Beth Kephart – Book Review

The Heart is Not a Size by Beth Kephart

When Georgia sees a notice on the corkboard at the grocery store about a summer trip to Anapra in Juarez, Mexico, she knows immediately that she needs to go. ┬áThe first step is to convince her best friend Riley to go, the next to convince her parents to let her go. Promising to spend the rest of her summer corralling her younger brother Kevin should do it, though. Georgia and Riley really need this escape from the ordinary; Georgia has panic attacks and Riley’s mother dismisses her as ‘average.’ Something seems particularly wrong with Riley, actually, she is disappearing almost before Georgia’s eyes. Although Ampara was a bit of a whim initially, it will end up touching the girls in a very special way.

Beth Kephart’s writing is, as always, gorgeous. There was a lot in this novel: eating disorders, panic attacks, poverty, invisible people, rape and murder and disappearances. One thing that was particularly interesting to me was that Georgia was supposed to be somewhat heavy – her friendship with the much smaller Riley being the origin of the title – but either the reader doesn’t get any hint of this until at least a third of the way through the book or I totally missed it until that point. I appreciated that, this wasn’t a ‘fat girl’ book, but a book about the live of a girl who just happened to be somewhat overweight, but whose weight is not her main attribute.

I sort of wish “The Heart is Not a Size” had been about twice as long as it was. So much really wasn’t explored as much as I would have liked: Georgia’s weight, her panic attacks, the lives of the people in Juarez and Anapra, the muertas, and more. However, none of those things was really the point of this book, and that’s okay. As with the other of Kephart’s books I read, “The Heart is Not a Size” was really about a regular girl finding irregular strength to deal with the difficulties that arise in her life.

I don’t think I liked “The Heart is Not a Size” quite as much as I liked “Nothing But Ghosts,” but that’s a little like saying I don’t like chocolate quite as well as chocolate mixed with peanut butter; both are fantastic, one is just ever so slightly more fantastic than the other. If you haven’t read anything by Kephart yet, you really need to get on it ASAP – she’s not just for the young adult audience, but for everyone who likes lyrical writing and thoughtful stories.

Buy this book from:
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound

This review was done with a book received from a friend.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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