Umami, by Laia Jufresa

Let me start out by saying this: Americans don't read enough Mexican literature. I mean, we don't read enough translated literature anyways, but the omission of Mexican authors is glaring. I'd bet that even most booksellers would be hard-pressed to come up with the name of a Mexican writer at all. South American, sure, but aside from the rather newly-noteworthy Valeria Luiselli, I can think of no one off the top of my head. It's embarrassing. So my pleasure at finding Mexican author Jufresa's Umami so delightful is two-fold: first because it's a great book I can now hand sell at my bookstore, and second because now I can point to a Mexican author all American bookworms should read.

The format of this book takes a bit to get used to, but it's really quite brilliant. We follow four characters (mostly), in chronological order, but backwards. That makes no sense; let me try again. Our characters are Ana, Marina, Alfonso, and Luz. There are four sections of the book, and each character gets a chapter in each section, in descending chronology. So we have Ana in 2004, Marina in 2003, Alfonso in 2002, and Luz in 2001, and each Ana 2004 section follows the next in time. These characters are all suffering the loss of a person, someone dear to them, and each is dealing with his or her grief in a variety of fashions, with varying degrees of success. All except Luz, who is one of those who is lost. This isn't a spoiler, I promise, we learn this within the first few pages.

Our protagonists are all fascinating people, intellectuals in their own way, with very distinct outlooks. Grief, and the mews they live in, connect them, and while they assist one another through their losses, they also must deal with it in their own ways. There is also a kind of learning of Mexico City culture through osmosis, which is fun for those of us who haven't been. Heritage and custom are strong themes, particularly when we hear from Alfonso, an academic whose area of expertise is culinary anthropology with a particular interest in amaranth. Which is a psuedo-cereal, by the way, did you know?

I feel it's important for Americans to read this book and books like this to broaden the scope of connotations when we hear the word "Mexican." Literature is a fantastic way to be introduced to another culture, while simultaneously highlighting the commonalities we all share. We all feel grief and sadness and self-doubt, no matter the language we speak about it in. This is a lovely book for men and women alike, of all ages, plus it's got a kick ass cover.

Pre-order the paperback now!


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