A Land More Kind than Home & Reserve Petit Verdot 14

A Land More Kind than Home – Wiley Cash. New York: Harper Collins, 2012.

In the United States, it is estimated that some 125 churches illegally incorporate snake handling and other dangerous rituals into their services. These congregations, mostly situated in rural Appalachia, point to Mark 16: 17-18 as justification for their  practice: “They will cast out demons, they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will place their hands on the sick, and they will get well.”

Told from the perspective of three narrators – a seven-year-old boy, an ancient Sunday School teacher and a sheriff who still hurts and hates – A Land More Kind than Home takes place over one bitterly cold, winter weekend in western North Carolina when Carson Chambliss, pastor of the River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following, convinces parishioner Julie Hall to bring her mute thirteen-year-old son Christopher, known as Stump, to the Sunday morning worship service. He’s been warned not to keep children out of the services – a warning that he has ignored. For the past ten years, 81-year-old Addie Lyle has made it her mission to keep children like Stump out of Chambliss’s reach, offering instead to teach Sunday School at her nearby home. She made this decision after witnessing a death in the church some years earlier. “I was afraid because I knew that church,” she explains. “I knew the man who ran it as if he thought he was Jesus Christ himself, and some of those people who went to that church believed in [him] like he might just be.”

But Chambliss prevails and, as Stump’s younger brother, Jeff, peeps through a crack in the newspaper-covered windows, he sees his brother “laying on the stage and Pastor Chambliss and that other man laying on top of him. Stump’s feet were kicking like he was trying to get away . . . and somebody was just banging away on the piano and just about all of them had their eyes closed except Mama. She was staring at them where they were laying on Stump and holding him down and touching him and she was crying and hollering for them to stop.”

Out of fear for his brother, Jeff cries out, “Mama!” Only that’s not what she, the pastor and the congregation hear. They believe Stump has been healed of his sinful inability to utter a sound. That evening, with Chambliss’s forceful encouragement, she brings Stump back to church. A few hours later, he is carried out.

Addie knows that the community of Marshall for years has been long on religion and short on love. “People out in these parts can take hold of religion like it’s a drug, and they don’t want to give it up once they’ve got hold of it. And when they’re on it, they’ll turn right around and kill each other over that faith, throw out their kids, cheat on husbands and wives, break up families just as quick.”

Even Pastor Chambliss excuses the fire that burned forty percent of his body when he was cooking meth as the hand of God purifying him. He steals another man’s wife with the same godly justification.

But justice and a step toward healing come to the community and the church once the wrath of Pastor Chambliss is gone. “At one time we were like a frostbitten hand that’s just begun to thaw,” Addie ruminates as the paper is torn off the church windows. “First the tips of the fingers come alive, and suddenly they can open and close. And then the palm begins to feel again. Upturned. Waiting. Witnessing. We began to feel again too.”

In short, Cash uses his story not simply as an examination of backward thinking on the part of rural church goers. Instead he examines the heart’s ability to process love, faith, tragedy and forgiveness. Like many Southern writers before him, he channels the voices of the people from his home state to pen this, his first novel. He’s written subsequent books, most recently The Last Ballad, but for many critics and readers, A Land More Kind than Home remains his finest.

My Wine Recommendation

It doesn’t get any more North Carolinian than NASCAR. So it’s no surprise that team owner Richard Childress established his winery in the northwest region of the state close to his racing operations. (And as every racing fan knows, he bought his team from the legendary, late Dale Earnhardt. Just saying.) It took some time for Childress to establish himself in the wine business, but based on a blended wine like the Reserve Petit Verdot 14, he’s making his mark. The folks of Marshall understand all about new beginnings. They would enjoy this red at their next community barbecue, as long as the good church deacons don’t catch them drinking.

 

The Air You Breathe & Vista do Chá Syrah

The Air You Breathe – Frances de Pontes Peebles. New York: Riverhead Books, 2018.

Of all the pinup girls who graced the lockers of GI’s in World War II, none was more electrifying than Carmen Miranda. Known as the Brazilian Bombshell, she got the hips of North America swinging to Samba. At the age of 15, she was already a singing sensation in Rio de Janeiro where her thousands of fans bought her records like hotcakes. When Broadway producer Lee Shubert saw her perform, he immediately signed her for his newest Broadway musical where she became an overnight star. Soon, Hollywood lured her away. There she made nine films with Fox throughout the 1940’s, always dressed like an eye-popping nymph in her signature platform shoes, bare midriff outfits, and her “tutti-frutti” headwear, rolling her eyes in rhythm with her hips. Sadly, she died of a heart attack at the age of 46.

Author Frances de Pontes Peebles draws on Miranda’s life for her novel The Air You Breathe. In her story, the central character is a girl named Graca Pimental who grows up as the “Little Miss” on a sugarcane plantation owned by her father. Believing that singing is as important to life as the air she breathes, she runs away from convent school to pursue a musical career. Graca already has chosen her stage name: Sofia Salvador. “I’m going to sing on a stage,” she declares as a young girl. “I’m going to make people swallow my songs and hold them inside. I’m going to be known. I’m going to be seen.”

Craca’s rise and fall from fame is narrated by her handmaid and best friend, Jega – a dirt-poor, dark-skinned kitchen girl who becomes Graca’s companion and friend. She narrates the story looking back from old age with a voice as sad and aching as the Sambas she later writes. Like Graca, she too dreams as a young girl of being a singer, adopting the stage name Maria Dores. “All my brief life I’d felt a perpetual ache, like a rotten tooth I could never cure,” she reflects. “Jega was not allowed to want anything beyond the most base desires of the human condition: a meal, a bed, survival. But Dores? She’d been granted a notebook, a pencil, lessons, books, and words. She’d been granted music and an audience. She’d been granted a friend.”

Yet despite Jega’s longing to be famous, it is Graca who is truly the star, which forms the novel’s main conflict, just as her early death haunts the narrator’s tone. Whether it be for voice lessons, song lyrics, or a handsome guitarist, the two girls compete to have it all, always knowing that neither can survive without the other. For both, music is their one true love. “Music can do anything,” Jega says. “It can hit any note, move at any speed, play as loudly or as softly as our imaginations allow. In the deepest, purest parts of our imagination, there is no male or female, no good or bad, no villain or hero, no you or I. There is only feeling.” Yet despite their friendship, they each become increasingly selfish in their pursuit of music.

Their stage life begins in the Lapa neighborhood of Rio – an area favored by musicians, artists, intellectuals and “successful businessmen” who offer their protection to merchants and newcomers like the two girls. It is here that they learn the two-four rhythm of Samba – a musical style that dates to Brazil’s history of colonialism and slavery. In its beat and lyrics, there is “lament, humor, rebelliousness, lust, ambition, regret,” says Jega. “And love. There is that, too.”

They take the Samba to Hollywood, along with the backup band, the Blue Moon Boys. Their sound brings them fame, but also destruction as the Hollywood machine amplifies what is already a risky lifestyle filled with alcohol, uppers and downers. The story’s climax occurs when Graca and the Boys return to Brazil to perform at the Copacabana Palace – the one stage she was denied at the start of her career. It becomes her best and worst performance.

What can be said about Samba can be applied to the two girls. They are always there for one another. Crying, laughing, climbing, failing. In short, they are each other’s air. Dores. Graca. Jega. Sofia. The names do not matter. A good friend is simply that. Always there for the other …  until they aren’t.

My Wine Recommendation

If you had only one word to describe Carmen Miranda, it would probably be “vibrant.” Weighing less than 100 pounds and barely 5 feet tall, she nevertheless, delivered an energy and charisma that few could resist. For that reason, she deserves a vibrant, full-body wine like Vinicola Guaspari, Vista do Chá Syrah, 2012. Expressive and highly aromatic with multiple layers of blueberry, mature blackberry, bacon, black pepper, smoke and graphite, it earned a 95 from the Decanter World Wine Awards. Its palate is concentrated and firm with a savory, spicy, smoky flavor, with a note of liquorice on the finish. It’s a full-bodied Syrah that has lots of personality, just like Carmen. $45.

 

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