Book Pairings

The Dogs of Babel & Stinson Vineyards Monticello Rosé

dogs of bable coverThe Dogs of Babel – Carolyn Parkhurst. Little Brown Company, New York. 2013.

In her debut novel, Carolyn Parkhurst blends love, grief and mystery with the devotion and companionship of a good dog. When college professor Paul Iverson arrives home from work one day, he is confronted with horrible news: His wife Lexy has fallen to her death from the apple tree in their back yard. While the police quickly rule it an accident, Paul has his doubts when he begins to notice “clues” around the house – books rearranged on shelfs; a frying pan used that day to cook a choice steak. Without any witnesses to the accident, his grief drives him to investigate the incident further with the help of his dog Lorelei. She is the only witness to Lexy’s fall, and if she could only talk, he would have the knowledge he seeks.

A linguist by training, Paul takes a leave of absence from his teaching and embarks on a series of grief-fueled experiments to teach Lorelei to talk, an endeavor as confounding as the biblical tower referenced in the book’s title. Locking himself away from friends and colleagues, his project draws him into memories of his meeting, courtship and marriage to the creative free-spirit that was Lexy. Yet for every memory of her joie de vivre approach to life are equal measures of her rage and despair.

Parkhurst heightens the story’s mystery with references to the afterlife – from a ghost Lexy is convinced she sees in a New Orleans lobby during Mardi Gras, to the death masks she creates for grieving families. Even Lorelei’s name has meaning as it refers to a powerful river-spirit who bewitches men to their deaths.

In the end, Paul must decide whether the woman he loved did indeed slip from a high branch on a beautiful sunny day or intentionally plunge to her death in front of the one creature she loved even more than Paul – her dog. Parkhurst’s powerful and haunting story rewards the reader with a conclusion that offers peace and comfort in a fur lining.

stinson vineyards roseParkhurst sets her story in Virginia so it goes well with the Stinson Vineyards Monticello Rosé. As described on the bottle, the wine is “a crisp and refreshing Southern France style rosé. Fresh and fruity with a hint of smoke on the finish,” just like Lexy. It pairs well year round with seafood, poultry and light Mediterranean fare. (Suggested retail price – $17)

 

We are All Made of Stars & London Cru Chancery Lane Chardonnay

we are all made of stars coverWe are All Made of Stars – Rowan Coleman. New York: Ballantine Books, 2015.

Can a novel set in a hospice be joyful? Can a book about death-bed letters be uplifting? It can when crafted by the capable hands of Rowan Coleman, whose writing style is often compared to Jojo Moyes (Me Before You). During seven days in a London neighborhood, the lives of seven characters evolve from being stranger to companions, friends, and love interest.

Stella, the central character, is a night nurse at the Hospice of St. Francice. She chooses this shift so that she and her husband, Vincent, can co-habit as he struggles with PTSD and alcoholism after losing not only a leg and but also a close friend in Afghanistan. She occupies the long night hours writing letters for dying patients. It is one such letter that gives the book its title: “I am the air, the moon, the stars,” a patient writes to his beloved. “Everything made becomes part of the universe, and everything that is part of the universe becomes us. For we are all made of stars.” Whether the letter’s intent is to apologize, to confess, to advise, or to reassure, Stella faithfully pens them, promising not to mail them until after each patient passes on.

It’s a promise she keeps until she meets Grace and hears her dark secret – a secret she feels Grace should share while she is still alive.

Across the hall from Grace is Hope, a twenty-year-old with cystic fibrosis who is recuperating at the hospice from a dangerous infection. A college dropout, book cover designer, and writer of songs, she is resigned to living her life with her mum and dad, safe from the outside world. Her best friend, Ben, sees it differently, encouraging her to take a chance and embrace life. “When you feel afraid,” he advises her, “go outside at night and look up, because when you do that, and you think of all those other stars out there, nothing on this earth is frightening anymore. Nothing.”

Down the street from Stella’s home lives Hugh – a reclusive historian whose daily routine is interrupted by a new next door neighbor, Sarah. A struggling single mom to a ten year old son, she encourages Hugh to live in the now: “It’s not easy, being in this world. Picking yourself up, getting yourself together, time after time, only for some bastard to whack you back down. But what else can you do, right?”

These seven characters are interconnected by a cat. At the hospice, where he seems to know exactly who needs comforting, his name is Shadow. When he is eating bacon at Hugh’s house, he’s known as Jake. And when he snuggles next to Sarah’s son, he answers to Ninja. In some ways, he is the living embodiment of the book’s theme – the connections between people and the universe that surrounds them. Cats live in the now – a lesson that all the characters learn. “This is what matters,” Hugh realizes. “This moment, this present, this life, this death.”

The book ends, appropriately, with a letter written from Stella to Vincent addressing, among other things, the importance of hand-written letters. “On the page,” she writes, “words become immortal, beautiful, personal, heartfelt, and special. A letter is a memory that will never be lost, will never fade or be forgotten.”

 

My Wine Recommendation

London CruA short trip across town would take these characters to London Cru – a winery based in a former gin distillery in South London. Using grapes sourced from Germany and the south of France, they produce cool-climate wines that have won numerous awards. For a versatile bottle that would please everyone, choose their 2017 Chancery Lane Chardonnay. With a taste more like Chablis than an oaky Napa Chardonnay, the wine is light and fresh with flavors of apples and pears. It pairs well with game, oysters, or even a fresh English garden salad. $20

My Brilliant Friend & Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso DOC

my brillant friendMy Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante. New York: Europa, 2012.

Childhood memories are often dominated by someone like Lila – the one who excels in every subject, the one who throws rocks at bullies, the one who cares nothing about what others think of her including her teachers, the one who takes her best friend’s hand and leads her on big adventures. On the outskirts of Naples, Italy following the Second World War, a brazen friend like Lila can help a timid girl navigate the domestic complexities of her working-class neighborhood and dream about a life beyond the piazza.

Elena Ferrante (the name is a pseudonym of the unknown author) draws perhaps from her (or his) own experiences growing up in post-war Italy to pen the four novels that follow the coming-of-age lives of the narrator, mild-mannered Elena Greco, and her courageous best friend, Lila Cerullo. My Brilliant Friend is the first in the “Neapolitan Quartet” and vividly captures the personality of a community through the antics of children; much like Harper Lee did in To Kill a Mockingbird. From the neighborhood ogre Don Achille, whose presence looms over the novel, to the mad widow, Melina Cappuccio, to the handsome yet cruel sons of the neighborhood bar and pastry shop, Marcello and Michele Solara, Ferrante draws the reader into the tapestry of a story where family poverty and plenty live side by side.

“Our world was full of words that killed,” Elena ruminates. “Croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection. With these words and those years I bring back the many fears that accompanied me all my life.”

The central struggles in the novel center around two factors that determine the girls’ futures – education and money. While Elena and Lila begin as equals as they play with their dolls and enter first grade, it is soon evident that as the daughter of a city hall porter, Elena has more advantages than Lila, whose father is a lowly shoemaker. Elena’s parents agree to pay for a tutor so that she can excel on the entrance exam for middle school, while Lila’s parents refuse the expenditure, feeling that it is time for her to work in the family store. In the years to follow, Elena struggles with her studies and worries about puberty, while Lila embraces shoe design and the growing advances of young men, especially handsome Marcello Solara and the upwardly-mobile Stefano Carraci. Struggle seems bred into the girls since they see so much of it around them. “We grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they make it difficult for us,” Elena explains.

Adding to their struggles is their gender. As was often the case for females in the 1950’s, both girls gradually realize how dependent their lives are on the fortunes and misfortunes of men, especially if they wish to escape the confines of their neighborhood. Escape is, indeed, a key theme to the story. Chapter One begins with the adult Elena learning that her old friend Lila has disappeared from her home in Naples – a feat that the young Lila often expressed: “She wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear.” The final chapter of the story shows the beginning steps Lila is willing to take on her transformation journey.

Elena’s telling the story of their friendship from its inception is her way of recreating what has long since disappeared through the years – two girls who once were inseparable.

My Wine Recommendation

lacryma christiLegend says that when Lucifer was expelled from heaven, he managed to steal a strip of it and bring it with him to earth, so forming the Gulf of Naples. Pained by the loss, Christ began to cry, shedding tears upon Mount Vesuvius. When these sweet tears blossomed the grape vines on the mountainside, they created a heavenly taste: Lacryma Christi. In actuality, the wine that carries the name for Christ’s tears, Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso DOC, comes from the Sannino winery, founded in the early 1900s on the fertile ground of the Vesuvius near the city of Herculaneum. Their 2016 vintage has an intense ruby-red color with aromas of cherries , raspberries, and black pepper. Naturally, it pairs well with spaghetti and meatballs, Bolognese sause, and pizza Margherita. $17.

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.