Book Pairings

The Shadow of the Wind & Bodegas Beronia Rioja Reserva 2010

shadow of windThe Shadow of the Wind (In the Cemetery of Forgotten Books 1) – By Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Translated by Lucia Graves. New York: Penguin Press, 2004

“Few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart.”

Young Daniel is told this on his tenth birthday when his father takes him to a Barcelona bookshop in 1945 to select a book. It is not just any ordinary bookshop: it is the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a depository for those books “no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands.” Daniel chooses The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax, and, like his father predicts, the story stays alive in him, sending him on a quest to uncover more writings by the mysterious author and to discover why a man who appears the reincarnation of the devil (his face a mask of black scarred skin with no nose, lips or eyelids) seeks to destroy every last copy.

Part gothic mystery, part coming of age, part tawdry love story, part snapshot on life in Spain during Franco’s rule – Zafon’s book has as many twists as the bookstore labyrinth where the story begins. Five years after first reading The Shadow of the Wind, Daniel tracks down different individuals who were connected to Carax before his disappearance, and supposed death, at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Each one – from his high school mates to his first love to his publisher and many others – give Daniel their own flawed version of Carax’s life story. Expect to be confused as red herrings and ‘double entendres’ abound.

Serving as the equivalent to Sancho Panza on Daniel’s quixotic quest is Fermin Romero de Torres, a former Republican agent now a homeless beggar whose knowledge of women, wine and the streets of Barcelona enable the pair to draw closer to answers. Meanwhile, Daniel’s own life takes on an eerie parallel to Carax’s story, especially when his investigation draws the attention of Fermin – the most sadistic and dogged police officer since Hugo’s Inspector Javert in Les Miserables.

At more than 500 pages, expect to find allusions to other stories of length written by the likes of Dickens, Eco, Twain, Cervantes and Bronte. In fact, part of the fun of reading The Shadow of the Wind is to recall the characters and plots of these other stories. And if the novel really hooks you, read the other two books in the series – The Angel’s Game and The Prisoner of Heaven. But don’t expect to see any of these at the local cinema. Zafon swears he will not sell the rights for movie adaptations.

“A book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us,” Daniel learns. “When we read, we do it with our hearts and mind.”

My Wine Recommendation

beronia-crianza-rioja.jpgSuch a complex story demands a wine equal to the task. When considering a Spanish wine, look no further than Bodegas Beronia Rioja Reserva 2010. Aged in French oak barrels, it has flavors of black fruits, spices, especially vanilla, and chocolate. Its long dry finish will keep you sipping throughout your read and into your next book club discussion. $18.

 

The Queen of the Night & Chateau Baret Bordeaux 2010

Queen of the nightThe Queen of the Night – Alexander Chee. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2016.

Exotic and lavish. Passionate and dramatic. Incredulous, grandiose, exhilarating. And oh, yes. There’s singing. For opera fans everywhere and also for those who don’t know their Verdi from their Wagner, Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night captures the drama and intrigue that is at the heart of every good story.

Set in the last days of Napoleon III’s Parisian court and the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, the story follows the rags-to-riches career of Lilliet Berne, an American-born soprano whose secret past threatens to destroy her fabulous fame. Her story is known to only four people – one who wants to possess her, one who wants to destroy her, one who has forgotten her, and one who is dead.

The book begins at the height of her fame when she is approached at a ball by an unknown writer who desires to produce an opera based on a libretto that is remarkably parallel to her own secret past. Flattered yet afraid, she seeks to find who has betrayed her. Her investigation takes the reader back to her childhood on a Minnesota farm, into the world of a traveling circus, through the doors of a Paris brothel, into the arms of a renowned tenor, behind the pomp of the Second Empire, under the tutelage of a famous voice coach, onto the stages of European opera houses, and finally back to a traveling circus.

“Victory, defeat. Victory, defeat. Victory, defeat,” is how she describes opera, and by extension, her own turbulent life. Along the way, she meets possessive lovers, scheming courtesans, political spies, desperate aristocrats, successful composers, and a cast of acrobats, servants, street dwellers, soldiers, survivors, misfits and con artists who serve as the chorus for the five-act drama that is unfolding. Throw in love at first sight, dramatic escapes, grand settings, shameless behavior and fabulous costumes, and Queen of the Night becomes, as the Germans would say, ‘Sturm und Drang’ – a story filled with epic storm and stress.

Lilliet’s first person narrative voice transports the reader into the story much like Author Golden’s  Memoirs of a Geisha. Both books focus on historical events where often those without power can best describe the excesses of those who have it. Throughout her story, Lilliet often feels pursued by a curse that will take her voice from her, which underscores how powerless she feels in the face of forces that are shaping her destiny. Like Carmen in the opera she admires, she sees herself as “a woman with a lover’s impatience with the whole world, a woman who feared when she did not get what she wanted that it meant she was not loved by creation itself.” But Lilliet has remarkable survival skills, best stated by a fortune teller: “When the earth opens up under your feet, be like a seed. Fall down; wait for the rain.”

While knowledge of opera is not needed to follow the story’s plot, Chee acknowledges that the novel is a reinvention of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” who’s Queen of the Night aria serves as the book’s title. To many opera fans, this character is both villain and a symbol of a free woman, someone determined to succeed despite insurmountable odds. Chee also cites Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind as inspiration. Lind gained fame and riches beyond European opera houses when ‘the Swedish Nightingale’ toured America with P.T Barnum in 1850. Lilliet’s fictional life intertwines with real people of the era including composer Giuseppe Verdi who recruits her to sing in his operas, Empress Eugenie whose clothes and furs Lilliet manages, voice teacher and former opera star Pauline Viardot-Garcia, and the Italian Comtesse de Castiglione who was mistress to Napoleon III and whose photograph by Pierre-Louis Pierson serves as the cover for the book.

Like a lavish opera set, Chee’s writing captures the excesses of the time period. Consider the dress Lilliet wears when she performs the Queen of the Night aria:

“Worth had created a costume for me that made me look to be covered in a shower of stars and comets. The embroidery was hand stitched in a technique original to him that shaped the fabric as it was sewn, and the silhouette of the bodice was sculpted as a result. One comet outlined my left breast and wound down to circle my waist, meeting others, all beaded in crystal and leaving long white silk satin crystal-beaded trails that ran across an indigo velvet train. More comets created a gorgeous bustle and the edges of their trails scalloped the skirt down to the floor—the comets looked like wings. On the front panel of the gown’s skirt, more comets streaked across a night sky of indigo silk satin, and clouds hid a crescent moon as rays of white and gold light spread from it, embroidered in silver thread. The moon was beaded in pearls.” Plus, there was a headdress.

With or without the historical references, The Queen of the Night is a ‘tour de force’ – an impressive novel that, while not a masterpiece, certainly captures the ‘over-the-top ‘splendor of the stage and the mega personalities who inhabit it.

Chateau Baret 2010 BordeauxMy Wine Recommendations

For a French wine, I’ve avoided First Growth vineyards like Rothschild’s or Chateau Lafite in favor of one that fits more easily into Lilliet’s budget and perhaps your, too. My choice – Chateau Baret 2010 Bordeaux. One of the most popular wines from the Bordeaux region, the wine has a lightly creamy quality that gives way to a pleasing fruit flourish at the end. $20

 

This Is Your Life, Harriett Chance & Barefoot Bubbly Brute Cuvee or Gifft Pinot Noir Rose

this is your lifeThis is Your Life, Harriet Chance! – Jonathan Evison. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2015.

This is your life, Harriet! Over the course of this book Jonathan Evison mimics the voice of 1950’s reality show host Ralph Edwards who treated Hollywood celebrities to a retrospective look at their lives, complete with appearances from family, coworkers and friends.

In this story Harriet is visited by people who take her on a trip down memory lane, sharing some of their deep secrets along the way. She is transported from her home in Seattle where, at the age of 78, she shops for bran cereal and takes calcium supplements, to her 20s when she aspired to become a legal eagle like her father, back to a childhood where she watched the Bacchus style partying of her parents, and through those difficult years of raising two children while her husband seemed to be forever traveling for work.

First to join her on her trips is her loving husband, Bernard. Yes, she knows he is now dead after a slow battle with dementia, but somehow here he is! It was a solid marriage, thinks Harriet, where for 50 years her daily routine was: “Eat what Bernard eats, vote how Bernard votes, love how Bernard loves and ultimately learn to want out of life what Bernard wants out of life.” What she didn’t realize was that Bernard was unfaithful to her on those business trips for more than 40 years. Forty years! Imagine that! And she didn’t have a clue!

The fact that she is now on an all-expenses-paid Alaskan cruise that Bernard purchased might be one hint of the secrets he kept from her because Harriett certainly never expressed an interest in visiting Alaska. The truth is Bernard bought the trip for himself and his mistress, so no wonder Harriett feels a bit unstable as she stares out a porthole at a little harbor wher cre “cruisers gawk and gander and graze, clutching digital cameras and street maps, their sweatshirts emblazoned with moose and grizzly bears.” She wasn’t supposed to be here!

Joining Bernard on stage are her two loving children Skip and Caroline. Of course, she’s happy to see Skip. He’s her favorite. Everybody knows that, especially his younger sister Caroline. Might that be why she was such a difficult child who now, as a middle-aged adult, still battles a drinking problem and can’t seem to hold a job? Could she have known for all those years that she would never measure up to adorable Skip? Or does Harriett have a deeper secret of her own, one that perhaps may explain why Caroline was never close to her father? And Skip, well, perhaps there’s more to him too, like why he is so eager for Harriett to move into Sunny Acres, a senior care facility, and sign over to him the deed to her house. Might his loving concern be more self-interest?

Jonathan Evison goes back in time for the next guest, Uncle Charlie. No, he’s not really Harriett’s uncle but her father’s law partner, yet Charlie always insisted on a more, shall I say, personal relationship with Harriett. Starting from childhood, he liked to get her alone and flatter her, and hug her, and encourage her to come to him at any time for help, for advice, for companionship. There was that one time when she was working late and found herself alone with Uncle Charlie. That’s a secret Harriett has worked hard to conceal.

Finally there’s Mildred, Harriett’s best friend, who was supposed to join her on this voyage. Through the years, Harriett shared all her hopes and wishes and dreams with Mildred. She was Harriett’s faithful friend, kind and considerate. Wonder why she backed out of the cruise? Might she have a secret of her own? Perhaps she will write a letter for Harriett to read once she’s safely in her cabin. After all, what happens on the boat stays on the boat!

So here is Harriet at 78, still following her elders’ advice: “Just be a good woman, and bear the load life hands you. Put on some lipstick and live a little. And order another martini while you’re at it.” But Harriett has to wonder: has she become all that she could have been in life? Between the lines of this glibly written story, Evison shows compassion for his central character and allows the reader to wonder: Am I all that different from Harriett? Have I become all that I once aspired to be?

My Wine Recommendations

barefoot_bubbly_brut_bottleGIFFT pinot roseSince Harriett is traveling on the Carnival Cruise Line, I recommend Barefoot Bubbly Brut Cuvee from the basic wine package. This sparkling wine from California is crisp and lively just like Harriett and pairs nicely with late night buffets! ($9) If she goes for the wine package, then she would enjoy a 2016 Gafft Pinot Noir Rose from the estate of Kathy Lee Gifford in Monterey, CA. Since Harriett is adventuresome (just like Kathy) she should order a bottle delivered to her room with a cheese and fruit board. What fun! ($15)

 

 

Book Pairing: The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty & Ouled Thaleb Shrah

Diver's ClothesThe Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty – Vendela Vida. New York: Harper Collins, 2015.

You may know the feeling: You arrive in a foreign country after a long, uncomfortable flight. As you accept the complementary drink the flight attendant pours, you fantasize about the man seated across from you. Perhaps you will meet him for dinner one evening and compare notes over a refreshing drink in Rick’s Bar.

The fantasy disappears as you leave the plane, still half asleep from the sleeping table you swallowed with your second glass of wine. As you start the long walk to baggage claim, you feel jetlagged, disoriented, perhaps wonder what made this trip so appealing two months ago when you booked it. You look with judging eyes on a woman who seems unable to stop the shrieks of her child. All you want is deep sleep.

You arrive at your hotel, tip your driver in American dollars, and present your passport and a credit card to the front desk. You return these items to your carry-on. Your body aches for a cold drink, a warm shower and a comfortable bed. But when you reach down to pick up your carry-on, you realize the worse has happened: Your bag is gone – the bag containing your passport, your money, your phone, your camera and your computer. In short everything that contains your identity is now missing. You don’t even have the local currency to make a phone call.

What do you do?

This is the dilemma that begins The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, a what-if novel that traces the actions of an unnamed narrator who arrives in Casablanca and finds that in order to survive, she must reinvent herself. Written in second person (you), Vida takes the reader moment by moment through the nerve-wracking, suspense-laden thoughts and actions of the narrator. Like most travelers, the narrator first tries to go through proper channels (i.e. the police) to recover her stolen property. But when the chief of police declares the crime solved and, “like a blackjack dealer giving you his last card”, thrusts a bag with a passport of another woman into her arms, she realizes that “extreme circumstances require radical change.”

The narrator assumes this new identity and begins a Kafkaesque lifestyle of altered identities, first as the woman in the passport whose credit card affords her a much-needed hotel upgrade, then as a stand-in for a “famous American actress” who is filming on location in Casablanca, and later as a reporter following a political candidate deeper into Morocco. With each twist of the plot, the narrator reveals what has driven her from her home in Florida and made her so willing to embrace a new identity.

It is a deep secret, a sadness that propels her further and further into the harsh, unforgiven Moroccan landscape. And in her head are the constant cries of a baby and the deceptive eyes of her sister.

The book’s title comes from a Rumi poem about feeling both present and absent in life, being in the ocean while at the same time dressed in the clothes on the shore, feeling hunted and a hunter. The theme is underscored by the landscape – the blinding sunlight, the exotic scents, the crowded shops, the labyrinth streets, the staggering heat – producing a story that is both entertaining and disturbing.

My Wine Recommendation

oulet_thaleb_syrah_mv_750Such an exotic book requires an equally exotic wine like the 2012 Ouled Thaleb Shrah from Morocco. This bright red has flavors of cherry and pomegranate with a luscious finish of orange zest. Wine experts give it high points for its balance of smoky, spicy and fruity notes. $16.

 

Book Pairing: The Book of Strange New Things & Chateau Ste. Michelle Cabernet Sauvignon

strange new thingsThe Book of Strange New Things – Michael Faber. New York: Penguin Random House, 2015.

When Peter meets Beatrice, it seems a match made in heaven. She is a nurse, trained to heal broken bodies; he is an addict with not only a broken body but also a broken spirit. Like Dante’s Beatrice, she heals him, falls in love with him and converts him to Christianity; he gets sober and with her help starts a church in a low-income neighborhood in London.

Several years later they have a chance of a lifetime – to serve as missionaries to a settlement named Oasis on a remote planet being colonized by USIC, an American-based corporation. He gets selected for the mission; she does not. He leaves for a six-month adventure spreading the word of Christ to the native inhabitants; she is charged with keeping the home fires burning while the world around her falls apart. Soon both of them experience the ultimate test of their love and faith.

Yes, Michael Faber’s most recent novel The Book of Strange New Things is science fiction, but like many writers of this genre, his focus is less on the science behind colonizing another galaxy than using a scientific premise to examine the effects that separation and alienation can have on relationships and core beliefs.

He sets the novel in the near future with references to popular magazines and news events and spends little time on explaining how humans arrived on Oasis (it’s simply called “the jump”). By eliminating a lot of the sci-fi elements from the story, the reader is better able to identify with the main characters as they struggle to stay connected to one another and to the God they both love.

At first Peter is the one who has the harder task. Not only must he adjust to a different planet where daylight and darkness last for hundreds of hours, water tastes like melons and the humid atmosphere makes you move like an underwater creature, he shares nothing in common with the other USIC employees. They want nothing from him or his religion and treat him as an amusing outsider. In contrast, the natives treat him like the second coming. To Peter’s surprise, the majority of them have already been converted by a previous minister and refer to themselves as Jesus Lover One, Jesus Lover Fifty-two, Jesus Lover Seventy-eight, etc. They simply want someone to teach them more about what they call the Technique of Jesus, especially the stories where Jesus heals the sick.

So like the Biblical Peter, he throws his energies into building them a church with a steeple and translating Biblical passages into language they can understand. He dresses like them, sleeps with them and works in the fields with them. In fact, the more time he spends with them, the more alienated he becomes from the people at basecamp and life back on earth. As he tells his flock, “I never went to Bible School. I went to the University of Hard Drinking and Drug Abuse. Got my degree in Toilet Bowl Interior Decoration.” Over time he becomes disoriented, emaciated, and disconnected. Like the addict he was before, his addiction now is to them and his Bible, what the natives refer to as The Book of Strange New Things.

Peter’s only contact with earth is through emails exchanged with Beatrice whose letters are filled with her struggles in a world coming apart – corporate meltdowns, infrastructure collapse, tsunamis, earthquakes, rioting, destruction, total chaos. She also is pregnant and is fearful of bringing a child into such a world. Peter reads about her anguish, responds with encouraging Biblical passages, reassures her of his love, feels badly about the demise of society, but frankly would prefer that she not include such matters in her correspondences as they distract him from his mission.

“Nothing shall hurt you, said Luke. When thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned, said Isaiah. The Lord healeth all thy diseases, said the Psalms,” he writes to her. He might as well have told her to ‘keep on truckin’ as Beatrice reaches a breaking point. “Horrible, ghastly things in the news,” she writes. “I can’t bear to read, can’t bear to look.” She advises him to stay on Oasis forever because she has finally accepted that there is no God, at least not in her world.

In the end, Peter has a choice to make: to stay in a place of spiritual contentment or return to a world in chaos where the one person he loves the most desperately needs his help. In this way, he is a fictional Everyman whose faith is tested as all those about him question its very purpose. Faber’s writing pulls the reader into both characters’ dilemma. “Where is God in all this?” they ask themselves and one another. Where, indeed, we echo.

My Wine Recommendation

Chateau-Ste-Michelle-2013-Indian-Wells-Cabernet-SauvignonAlthough Peter is a recovering alcoholic, a good communion wine is ideal for this novel. With its low alcohol percentage and deep crimson color, I recommend Chateau Ste. Michelle 2013 Indian Wells Cabernet Sauvignon. It has a dark fruit aroma and flavor and pairs nicely with duck, lamb, veal, stuffed peppers and dark chocolate – just the sorts of foods you would crave if you were living in outer space. $20.

 

Book Pairing: When the Moon is Low & Biblia Chara Areti Red

when moon is lowWhen the Moon is Low – Nadia Hashimi. New York: Harper Collins, 2015

Since the Russian invasion of 1978, close to six million people have left their homes in Afghanistan to seek asylum. Currently, the country is the second largest refugee-producing nation in the world behind Syria. Many of these people flee to neighboring Pakistan and Iran, but others follow a trail through Turkey, Greece and Italy in hopes of joining family or gaining asylum in European countries like Germany or England. Some make it to safety and a better life; others die dreadful deaths or simply vanish along the way. All endure hardships.

When the Moon is Low is a story of one family’s journey to escape the ravages of the Taliban. It is not a book about politics and violence; it is rather a book about families and love. It begins with Fereiba, a baby whose birth caused the death of her mother. When her father remarries in order to have someone to care for his children, he chooses KokoGul – a woman who soon has four young daughters of her own and whose love is like “powdered sugar on burnt toast.” Like the wicked step-mother of fairy tales, KokoGul treats Fereiba as a servant – not allowing her to attend school or have any activities outside the home.

Finally when Fereiba is sixteen she persuades her father to allow her to attend school. She is smart; she becomes a teacher; she marries a suitable young man who is kind to her; they have three children. But then the Taliban arrive soon after the departure of the Russians. Her husband is taken, and Fereiba is left with nothing except a young daughter, a younger son and an infant with a heart condition.  She finally does what millions of others are doing – she sells everything and begins her journey to England where a younger sister lives. Guiding her like a star is her memory of a man who spoke to her one day as a young girl: “In the darkness, when you cannot see the ground under your feet and when your fingers touch nothing but night, you are not alone. I will stay with you as moonlight stays on water.” She believes this man is her guardian angel.

Village by village, step by step, Hashimi traces the family’s journey. They endure hardships, but they also encounter caring people like Hakan and Hayal Yilmaz who welcome them into their small home in a Turkish farming community. “I nearly sang out with joy when we laid our heads on soft pillows, our full bellies and the kindness of strangers keeping us warm,” says Fereiba. Her son finds work on a farm; his sister helps with housework; they procure medicine for the baby.

They could stay in this Turkish village, but their goal is England and family. They continue their journey. Soon they arrive in the port city of Izmir where they board a freighter to Athens. Here they experience the horror of migrant life. There is no asylum in Greece for refugees; there is no shelter or food or clothing or medicine. Hashimi vividly characterizes the plight of this family through the anguish of Fereiba: “I hold back my tears. I’ve had enough. I’m tired of being trapped. Each morning when I wake and find that nothing has changed, I think I am finished. Were it not for my children, I would be. For them I cannot be finished yet.”

The son, Saleem, a skinny teenager, takes on the mantel of family protector and finds them a room in a dilapidated hotel. “If we hide in a room every time we are nervous, we will never make it to England,” he bravely tells her as he hits the streets to steal food. But soon, their money is gone. They live in squalor, even sleeping at night in a playhouse in a park. Saleem is educated to the life of migrants from others who live on the streets. They warn him to avoid Pagani, the local detention center. “It is a cage,” they say. “Men, women and children go for days without stepping outside. There is no real asylum. You must have work to get asylum. So you need a work permit. And for a work permit, you must apply for asylum. You see the problem?”

Another guardian angel enters their lives in the form of Roksana, a young girl close in age to Saleem who is a volunteer with an aid organization. “The train is the best way to go,” she advises them. “In Europe they do not check for passports.” Fereiba gives her gold bracelets to Saleem to pawn so they can afford four tickets. These bracelets were placed on her mother’s wrists when her parents wed. Her father hid them until it was Fereiba’s time to marry. Without looking back on the life she has lost, she removes her bracelets and sends Saleem to the pawnshop. He never returns.

The last section of the book follows Saleem as he struggles to stay alive and reunite with his family. He lives like an animal relying on instinct.  He watches, he waits, he pounces when the opportunity is right. He also learns much about his homeland. “Afghanistan is a land of widows and widowers,” he realizes. “Orphans and the missing. Missing a right leg, a left hand, a child, or a mother. Everyone was missing something, as if a black hole had opened in the center of the country, sucking in bits and pieces of everyone into its hard belly.” He also learns much about Western countries that treat refugees as invisible. “Somewhere in the world, there must be a place where we will be welcomed as a long-lost sister,” prays Fereiba, “Not stoned away like an unwanted snake in the garden.”

Hashimi takes the title of her book from an Afghan poem “Dropping Keys” by Hafiz. “The small man/ Builds cages for everyone/ He/ Knows. / While the sage,/ Who has to duck his head/ When the moon is low,/ Keeps dropping keys all night long/ For the/ Beautiful/ Rowdy/ Prisoners.”

When the Moon is Low not only puts a face to the thousands of migrants who huddle today in camps in Turkey and Greece and Italy and France, it also shows their hearts.

My Wine Recommendation

biblia-chora-areti-redIf the family were to reunite in a Athens trattoria, they should order a bottle of 2012 Biblia Chora Areti Red.With its deep ruby-red color, it delivers a berry flavor with a hint of cocoa and black pepper. It’s a serious table wine that pairs well with the earthy spices of Greek food.($22)

 

 

Book Pairing: The Art of Hearing Heartbeats & Aythaya White

Art of Hearing HeartbeatsThe Art of Hearing Heartbeats – Jan-Phillip Sendker (Originally published in German as Das Herzenhoren)
New York: Other Press, 2002.

“Do you believe in love?” the old man asks. “Can words sprout wings? Can they glide like butterflies through the air? Can they captivate us, carry us off into another world? Can they open the last secret chambers of our soul?”

Jan-Phillip Sendker does just that in The Art of Hearing Heartbeats. Part contemporary mystery, part ancient fairy tale, the story weaves together two time periods, two cultures, and two lives lived by the same man – Tin Win, a Wall Street attorney who on the morning of his daughter’s college graduation disappears. “I love you, little one,” he tells her that morning. “Never forget that.” Later that day he flies from New York to Los Angeles, from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, and from Hong Kong to Thailand where his passport is discovered in a ditch.

Four years later, his daughter Julia attempts to solve the mystery of why her father left her and why he never spoke of his boyhood in Burma or Mi Mi, his “beloved.” Julie knows of Mi Mi from a love letter she finds written but never mailed by her father. The letter states how Mi Mi has been with him for each of the five thousand eight hundred and sixty-four days since he last heard the beating of her heart. “When the time comes,” he wrote, “I will return.”

U Ba, the old man now seated across from Julia in a Burmese teahouse, promises to answer her questions about her father and his Mi Mi if only she will listen to his tale, and what a tale it is for the young Tin Win that U Ba describes is nothing like the successful man-about-town that Julia knew. This Tin Win is the cursed orphan of peasants who is cared for by a loving, sympathetic neighbor. As a young man he studies with Buddhist monks where one day he meets Mi Mi. Each is physically challenged and as their friendship grows, so does their love – a  love that echoes a fairy tale that Tin Win regularly told Julia as a child – the Tale of the Prince, the Princess, and the Crocodile.

The beauty of the novel is the way Sendker weaves Eastern spirituality with the lush yet impoverished world of Burma, a place that dramatically contrasts with the hurried pace of upscale New York. It’s as if the two exist in parallel worlds – in New York, U Ba observes, people “love to be dazzled” and rely “too heavily on eyes and neglect other senses.” In Burma, people “learn to divine the true nature of things, their substance, and the eyes are rather a hindrance than a help.” Sendker draws together these two worlds and their contrasting priorities to reconcile how a father could leave a child, and in so doing, allow the child to see that there is more to life than is visible.

As Julia undergoes her quest, the reader travels with her not only into an unfamiliar place but also into the soul of the characters, especially the soul of her father who understands the meaning of pure love. In Burma he “possessed all the happiness a person could find. He loved and was loved. Unconditionally.”

My Wine Recommendation

Aythaya WhiteThe Art of Hearing Heartbeats is a joyous book, a fairy tale for adults that brings a sense of happiness that will stay with you for a long time. In addition to the box of tissues you may need as you read, my wine recommendation is Aythaya White from the Myanmar (Burma) Estate.  A lush wine made of 80% Sauvignon Blanc and 20%Chenin Blanc, it has contrasting yet complementary aromas of gooseberries, grapefruit and green apple. Like the story, it delivers a fresh and pleasant after-taste. ($9 when ordered from the estate at http://www.myanmar-vineyard.com.)