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Sitting in Awe, Not in Judgement   1 comment

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I read Tattoos on the Heart several years ago. Gregory Boyle, the Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy Industries (HBI) in Los Angeles, wrote about his experiences working with gang members. Each chapter left me in tears at the heartfelt stories Boyle shared of those attempting and often overcoming daunting challenges of their life circumstances and poor choices.

Barking to the Choir, Boyle’s new book, is more introspective. It has plenty of heartbreaking vignettes of homies facing incredible odds, but its pull on the heartstrings is looser. In both books an abundance of joy fills most pages even in the direst situations; but this time Boyle’s messages about hope and acceptance are tempered with his interpretation of understanding God’s word. This isn’t a bad thing.

Simple acts of kindness, not just from Boyle, but among the marginalized he writes about are moving. Major leaps of faith, again, not just from the author, but among those populating his world are thought-provoking. I’m left to consider blessings in my own life and the positive choices I’ve been able to make because of the family environment I had.

Father Boyle injects a healthy amount of humor while recounting events of those who pass through HBI’s doors. He isn’t preaching, or barking, but he certainly leaves the reader with much to consider. Two ideas, in particular, in the book resonate with me: awe and judgement. The former is what we should aspire to in our interactions with others; the latter is, unfortunately, more prevailing.

Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship
Four Bookmarks
Simon & Schuster, 2017
210 pages

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The Intersection of Fate, Life and Death   Leave a comment

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Fate and the power of suggestion collide in Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists. It’s 1969 and it’s in the midst of summer’s heat and doldrums when siblings Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon Gold need a distraction. They seek out a woman known to foretell the exact date on which one will die. The children are 13, 11, 9 and 7, respectively. This seemingly-innocent adventure profoundly and ultimately affects each of their lives.

The narrative then jumps to the late 1970s. Each chapter focuses on one of the Golds, their interactions with each other, the choices they make and how that long-ago visit to the psychic is embedded in their lives.

The fortune teller, along with Eddie O’Donoghue, a police officer turned FBI agent, are characters who move in and out of the story through often unlikely scenarios. They alternately represent good and evil. Their presence is unnerving if only because they’re initially perceived as simply passing through. Yet, it becomes clear that the author doesn’t want the reader to relegate them to cameo appearances.

The Immortalists
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
G.P. Putnam’s sons, 201
346 pages

Food, Families and Fate   Leave a comment

The Comfort Food Diaries

Emily Nunn knows food. She wrote about it as a staff writer for The New Yorker and Chicago Tribune, among other publications. She also knows heartbreak and self-damaging behavior, which she shares in The Comfort Food Diaries.

A description of her seemingly-ideal life in Chicago where she lives with her boyfriend, dubbed “the engineer” and his lovely daughter, “the princess,” fades quickly. After Nunn learns that her brother has committed suicide she begins her own self-destructive tailspin through alcoholism and ending the romantic relationship.

Nunn reveals her backstory as she seeks to find balance in her life. The loss of her brother, her parents’ dysfunctional marriage – and ultimate divorce – her relationship with other siblings, relatives and friends fill the pages. At the suggestion of a friend, she embarks on a “comfort food tour.”

The direction of this tour is different than what I anticipated. Rather than a road trip around different parts of the country in search of consolation fare, Nunn sojourns to the places of her past and the role of food in her past and present. This isn’t a one-food-fits-all look at comfort, it is only about Nunn and her perceptions.

My family, for example, has dishes deemed “classics” in lieu of comfort foods. Not because they are universal, instead because they’re unique to us. Nunn, with her family and friends, has her own.

In addition to narrating her quest, Nunn shares recipes with her memories and new experiences. Her writing style is conversational and honest. She also knows how to whet the appetite.

The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
Atria Books, 2017
310 pages

Emerging from the Hills   Leave a comment

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Hicks, rubes, country bumpkins and hillbillies all conjure the same image: poor and uneducated. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, subtitled: “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” examines the consequences of the often unbroken cycle of poverty. The poor have fewer choices and those available are not always the smartest or best options.

Vance, a self-identified hillbilly and Yale Law School alum, describes his damaged upbringing in Ohio and his family’s strong ties to the Appalachia region of Kentucky poignantly and, occasionally, humorously. There’s no sugar coating.

Vance is quick to note that his background is not unique. Single parents, drug addiction, low-paying wages, unemployment and teen pregnancy are among the detrimental factors faced by many, including the author’s mother. Vance credits his grandparents, with whom he lived for much of his childhood, for instilling a sense that life could offer more.

Although he didn’t initially embrace the idea, a stint in the Marines after graduating from high school and his grandparents’ efforts, eventually Vance recognizes the value of education as a means of changing his life’s direction. Being aware of not wanting to replicate his mother’s behavior also helped.

The fact that he’s a successful lawyer and is happily married does set him apart, though, from those he grew up around. A few family members provide exceptions, but not many. Interspersing statistics with his own experiences, Vance notes that the region and the cyclical existence of its inhabitants make it difficult to merge into a more positive lifestyle.

Hillbilly Elegy
Four Bookmarks
Harper/Collins, 2016
261 pages

Wine Tales   Leave a comment

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When I was a kid, my grandparents lived in Napa. I dreaded the inevitable drives with my parents through the valley to the small, mostly-family-run wineries. Curvy and narrow roads and not being old enough to even sip wine further contributed to my discomfort.

The roads remain narrow, but seem to wind less; my grandparents aren’t alive, and now there are more wineries than I could have ever imagined. Several years ago, my husband and I discovered HALL Wines, so I looked forward to reading A Perfect Score by Craig and Kathryn Hall.

The co-proprietors of HALL and WALT Wines are relative newcomers to the industry; they didn’t launch their first wines until 1995. Although, Kathryn grew up on her parents’ vineyard in Mendocino County (California); Craig, on the other hand, admits to once having little knowledge of wines.

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This is several stories woven into one: How the couple met, came to purchase property in the Napa and Sonoma valleys and ultimately how one of their wines, a Cabernet Sauvignon, earned 100 points from wine critic Robert Parker, Jr., in 2013.

The Halls had their share of setbacks, but their apparent optimistic dispositions and a lot of good luck served them well. The book addresses life in Napa Valley, the camaraderie among vintners, the concerns of neighbors regarding the Halls’ construction plans, the philanthropy of winemakers, the caliber of the Hall staff and more.

This is a quick, fun read and made me want to open a bottle of HALL wine.

A Perfect Score: The Art, Soul, and Business of a 21st Century Winery
Three Bookmarks
Center Street, 2016
207 pages

Seeing What We Want to See   Leave a comment

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Don’t be fooled by the fact that Erika L. Sanchez’s novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, falls into the Young Adult category. Family relationships, immigration, education and mental health are among the issues Sanchez addresses. These are matters that should be of interest to everyone, regardless of age.

Julia Reyes, a bright and funny 15-year-old girl, lives with her family in a poor Chicago neighborhood. Her parents entered the U.S. illegally years before and work in menial jobs. Julia dreams of being a writer and going to college in New York City. Her older sister, Olga, considered the good and obedient daughter, has just died in a freak accident.

Julia and her parents express their grief differently, but none are able to reach out to the other for support. Julia has always been at odds with her mother while her father has grown more distant. Much to Julia’s annoyance, Olga was idolized by everyone around her – especially her mother. Yet, Julia discovers some questionable items in Olga’s bedroom leading her to suspect no one in her family truly knew her seemingly perfect sister.

The author incorporates humor and has crafted well-developed characters to move the narrative beyond the life of a poor inner city girl. Julia is aware of the limitations around her, but doesn’t want them to define her. As she struggles to learn more about Olga, she learns things about her parents and herself. Fortunately, Sanchez uses a light hand when conveying such heavy themes.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2017
344 pages

Chilaquiles Heaven   Leave a comment

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Lara & Luca has no view of the beach, but it was my favorite restaurant in Playa del Carmen thanks to the well-prepared food and our exceptional server. The hip little eatery far from the tourist scene also serves up some impressive chilaquiles. The fresh-made juices aren’t too bad, either.

Nothing beats fresh-squeezed orange juice (jugo de naranja); those who ordered the green juice (jugo verde) were equally pleased. The latter is a blend of fruits including pineapple, orange and chaya – tree spinach – and perhaps other ingredients we didn’t quite hear or correctly interpret. In either case, it was deemed refreshing.

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Breakfast is served until 2 p.m. The menu features a variety of egg dishes, French toast, croissant sandwiches and pancakes. Most in our group of 10 ordered the chilaquiles, topped with two fried eggs or shredded chicken. Typically, I am not a fan of eggs, especially runny ones, but for some reason I wanted the traditional version — gooey eggs and all.

The silky yolk provided a subtle balance to the full-bodied green chili sauce. Pieces of fried corn tortillas mixed with onions and cilantro are covered sauce. The eggs and a dollop of cream practically float on the mixture. This was a hearty serving. Although I tried to finish the plate, it was too much.

The restaurant is clean and comfortable. The playlist had us tapping our feet and discussing the musical artists. When it came time to leave, our server and the owner stood out at the curb to hail a cab. Stupendo!

Lara & Luca
Four-and-a-half Plates
Diagonal Aeropuerto MZ 29 LT 4, Playacar,
77710 Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico