Sunday, December 14, 2014

Como Agua Para Chocolate

I finished Como Agua Para Chocolate ("Like Water for Chocolate") this week, and enjoyed it a lot. Other than requiring the reader to master a hundred or so words of cooking vocabulary, it should be well-suited to an intermediate reader with a good sense of humor. Young female readers may especially enjoy it, but it's really a fun read for anyone.

Outline of the story (no spoilers)

A basic but boring description

Tita la Garza is the youngest daughter of a wealthy Mexican family whose ranch lies in northern Mexico not far from the US border. The novel takes place during the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s. Tita wants to marry Pedro Muzquiz, the boy next door, but her family's tradition says that the youngest daughter must stay home to take care of her mother. She rebels, but her mother is a very strong woman who brooks no disagreement. Tita boils with repressed anger and passion--like the water one boils to make hot chocolate.

A more exciting description

Strange things happen around Tita. Magical things. Surreal things. Forced to work in the kitchen, she pours herself into the work (and excels at it), but when she's very emotional--for better or worse--all kinds of things happen to people who eat her cooking. Even without Tita's help, the la Garza ranch is a place where people do strange things for stranger reasons, but Tita definitely pushes it over the top.

Strange things happen to the reader too. You laugh. You get angry. You get sad. And then you laugh some more. 

There are twelve chapters, named for each of the months of the year, although the story encompasses more time than that. Each chapter is organized around a particular Mexican dish that Tita will prepare, and you can bank on the fact that something unexpected will happen when people sit down at the table with it. 

The target audience

Unquestionably, this is a girl's book. The heroine is a teenage girl, all the strong characters in the book are women, and cooking is a major part of the story. That said, you don't have to be a girl to enjoy it, and there is a lot here to enjoy. For me, at least, the book flew by. I don't think I was ever bored.

Challenges Reading the Novel in Spanish


Como agua para chocolate has quite a lot of cooking vocabulary. You'll find the names of cooking utensils, actions for preparing and cooking food, and a long list of foods. Assuming you are reading on a Kindle, you'll find that the free monolingual dictionary almost always has definitions for these words, so be sure to check it whenever your bilingual dictionary lets you down.

A trick that is sometimes useful, especially for long lists of unknown words, is to use the translate feature on the Kindle. Although the translation often makes a hash out of complex sentences, when you have a simple list of nouns, it usually does a pretty good job, and it's far faster than looking up seven or eight words in a row.

There are a few references to the Mexican revolution that might throw you. One important one is that a follower of Pancho Villa is a *villista*, but none of my dictionaries told me that--I just had to figure it out.


For this novel, I tried an experiment: during the first chapter, I highlighted every word that I had to look up in the dictionary. I sometimes look up words even though I think I know them, so I didn't highlight anything if the result was what I expected. Just the words I really needed to understand the sentence.

At the end of the first chapter, I created a new deck of flashcards with Anki but instead of using my special template, I used the basic Anki template--the one that assumes you only drill in one direction and that you don't type the answers. On the front sides, I put the Spanish words I had looked up, and on the reverse I put the definitions.

Drilling on those words was really fast. For example, Anki might prompt me with:

I might think "that that means "to shell," and I'd press the space bar. Anki would show me the answer:

In this case, I'd be right, so I'd press space again to mark it correct and advance to the next card. If I was wrong, I'd press the "1" key, marking the card wrong for further review.

Although not as comprehensive as the sort of two-sided cards I create for serious vocabulary review, I could blitz through these one-sided cards like lightening, largely because I didn't have to type anything.

After drilling on the words from the first chapter, I proceeded to read the second chapter. Sure enough, lots of those words occurred again--even unusual ones. I repeated the experiment in chapters two and three. This fairly simple exercise made the rest of the book a good bit easier to read. I'll try this again with the next couple of books to see if I really think it's worth the trouble.

Amazon actually has a built-in flashcard feature called "Vocabulary Builder" which does almost the same thing. Unfortunately, as of this writing, there is a bug in the Vocabulary Builder that causes your Kindle to slow down and eventually lock up if you look up too many words with it. I can't get past a single chapter without having to turn it off.

1 comment:

Vee (Scratch) said...

Some times, I'll just read a chapter without looking up a word. Then I'll read the chapter again and highlight the unknown words. Then I'll look up the words, re-read the chapter and move on.

I also cross my fingers, wishing that the words will come up again in future readings or listening practice.