Part Harry Potter, part Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman compels the reader’s imagination to relinquish, among other things, fear of the unknown. It’s worth the little effort needed to suspend belief, but Gaiman makes it very easy through his sensitive story telling that mixes memories, nightmares, and hope into one gripping tale.
The story begins as the narrator returns to his hometown for a funeral. He recalls how 40+ years earlier as a shy, reclusive seven-year-old he is befriended by Lettie Hempstock, who lives with her mother and grandmother. The boy has no friends, but Lettie, who is four years his senior, draws him out of himself. It’s Lettie who believes the pond on her family farm is an ocean.
At the same time, a nanny, Ursula Monkton, arrives in the boy’s home. It will come as no surprise that Ursula isn’t what she appears to be. In fact, she appears as many things. Lettie becomes a protector who in the process of caring for her young charge takes on numerous risks – dangers the young boy would never face on his own, but who willingly approaches them with Lettie.
Gaiman blends magic, mystery and the passage of time into a single cauldron where dreams, recollections and reality are hard to distinguish. The now-grown man finds himself at the Hempstock farm with whom he initially believes is Lettie’s mother since it’s unlikely, in his mind, that Grannie Hempstock is still alive. Yet.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane
William Morrow, 2013
It should come as no surprise from the title of Hannah Kent’s debut novel, Burial Rites, that death plays a major role since it overshadows the entire plot. It is also obvious from the onset who will die and why. What is less clear is the unexpected empathy that develops for the condemned.
Kent creates an unlikely protagonist in Agnes Magnusdottir, charged with the brutal murder of her former lover. While awaiting her execution, Agnes is sent to live with a farmer’s family apprehensive of have a murderess in their home. Like the harsh, cold Icelandic setting in which the story occurs, warmth toward to Agnes is slow to kindle.
The beauty of Kent’s writing lies in her ability to develop an emotional response in readers in much the same way the host family members relinquish their reluctance, revulsion and fear of having Agnes in their midst. The transformation is hard won.
Told in part from Agnes’s perspective, a few official letters, and an omniscient narrator, each character is skillfully portrayed through personality quirks, physical descriptions, and overt reactions. It’s easy to envision the pompous, narrow-minded District Commissioner who inflicts his will. Kent is equally successful in developing Toti, the young assistant reverend Agnes has requested as her spiritual advisor. This uncertain young man, and his faith, evolves as Agnes grows more comfortable sharing details of her life.
The novel, a fictional account of actual events, demonstrates hardened hearts can be softened by honesty, profound interaction, and a good storyteller.
Little, Brown and Company, 2013
The Chipotle formula for selling freshly-made burritos is increasingly commonplace. What may be unusual, however, is finding a fast Mexican eatery with authentically good food. Azada Mexican Grill makes the grade with its “Build Your Burrito” menu.
Six meats, including grilled chicken, shredded pork and carne asada are offered. I couldn’t decide between shredded beef with green chile sauce or the Rojo, pork in red chile. I was offered samples of both, although that only made the decision more difficult since both were abundant in flavor. Sensing my inability to choose, I was asked if I wanted to sample anything else. I did, but I suspected it would only hamper my decision-making abilities.
Ultimately, I opted for the Rojo. Azada makes its own flour tortillas, which are also sold by the dozen. These are just the right density to contain the contents of a burrito, but not pita-thick. A choice of Mexican Rice and Cilantro Lime Rice, refried or whole Beans are part of the package, as are several salsas. The tender pork in piquant red sauce rendered a salsa superfluous. I did ask for a dollop of sour cream to temper the subtle kick of the sauce.
Breakfast burritos and a handful of entrees are also available.
Not only is the food fresh and delectable, but the staff is friendly and solicitous. Orders are placed at the counter and burritos are made as you wait. Still, the staff checks to ensure everything is fine, all of which sets Azada apart from the pack.
Azada Mexican Grill
16 E. Bijou
Colorado Springs, CO
I confess, my dog has me tied around his leash – literally and metaphorically. I love my dog; my kids love my dog; the jury’s still out on my husband, though.
I’ve had three dogs in my adult life. All hold special places in my heart, but with Jackson, my German Short Haired Pointer mix from the humane society, I feel something different. I think I know more now, and I should. Afterall, I’ve spent more time, more money, more efforts to train him and more affection on him than I like to admit. As Michael Schaffer points out in his book, One Nation Under Dog, I am not alone.
Schaffer examines the emotions and economics of dog ownership in the U.S. The two factors are closely aligned but it’s clear Schaffer puts emotions in the driver’s seat, why else would we dog owners be part of a $43 billion industry that continues to grow, and in some ways, has evolved as somewhat bizarre?
In a conversational tone, Schaffer recounts the many ways humans and their pets (primarily dogs and cats to a lesser extent) cohabit. He shares his personal experience as a dog owner, provides anecdotes from other owners, and interviews professionals: vets, trainers, dog walkers, breeders. He addresses everything from food to pet accessories. His research also includes legal concerns, dog parties, and dealing with the loss of a pet. The details eventually begin to bog down. Fortunately, Schaffer’s point of view includes a sense of humor and irony.
One Nation Under Dog
Adventures in the New World of Prozac-Popping Puppies, Dog Park Politics, and Organic Pet Food
Henry Holt and Co., 2009
288 pages, including notes
Brunch is one of those meals I really enjoy but don’t often have. I like the possibilities it implies: sleeping in, a combination of breakfast and lunch foods, the likelihood of not eating much later in the day, and it’s usually shared with friends (or family, which recently was, in fact, one in the same)
The Pincho Factory is recognized in the South Florida area for its fresh all-beef burgers. I didn’t try one, but Pincho deserves accolades for its brunch offerings. These include inventive twists on traditional morning fare: Nutella Waffle, Banana Bread French Toast (above), Red Velvet Pancakes, Steak and Eggs, and a Bacon Wrapped Omelet. A handful of sandwiches are available, as was a special: Vaca Frita Toston, which was a spin on the Cuban Ropa Vieja.
Here’s the description on the chalkboard at the place-your-order counter. Cuddled is not the word I would have used, but I was hooked at slow braised. The shredded beef, which practically melted in my mouth, was dressed with a subtle but tangy cranberry sauce and nestled between hamburger bun size fried plantains (below). It was an unusual but successful combination of flavor and texture.
The four-egg omelet boasted 12 slices of bacon sounds like an invitation to a cardiac arrest. A bacon basket effect was created by weaving the pieces together for the omelet, which was covered with lettuce and tomato. At least it looked somewhat healthy.
Slightly More Than Four Plates
30 Giralda Ave.
Coral Gables, FL
All I knew about Peruvian food had to do with potatoes; it has around 4,000 different varieties. After dining at CVI.CHE 105 in Miami, I know a little more.
Let’s start with the restaurant’s namesake: ceviche, raw fish in citrus marinade. The acid from the citrus, “cooks” the fish. It didn’t seem right not trying an order, but it was difficult to know which among the dozen or so options to choose. Our server recommended the evening’s special: a mix of shrimp, squid and snapper in three different sauces. The first was a pesto cream sauce, the second a yellow pepper sauce and the third a red pepper sauce with a slight kick. Each layer of flavor was like a perfect dance partner to the firm succulent pieces of fish.
The large menu was filled with mostly unfamiliar dishes. I opted for Beef Stew Frijoles con Seco. This deconstructed stew featured three stacks of fork-tender beef between thick slices of potato and carrot all smothered in a rich brown sauce of onions and peppers. The frijoles (beans) were earthy and creamy.
I came close to ordering Lomo Salteado (steak with yellow peppers and onions), but at least got to taste it. Sautéed pieces of skirt steak were lightly coated with soy sauce and had a depth of flavor usually found in thicker, more expensive cuts of meat.
The restaurant is lively and popular. As the night wore on the number of those waiting for tables kept growing.
105 N.E. 3rdAve.