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.

 

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)