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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

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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

laraandluca sign

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

Dark Thriller   Leave a comment

book cover of Nightblind

Once again, Ragnar Jonasson kept me in suspense throughout Nightblind. It picks up five years after Snowblind, the first in the Ari Thor Arason series set in a small town in northern Iceland.

Ari Thor’s new commander has just been murdered and Tomas, his old chief, is called in to investigate. Ari Thor was off duty thanks to being home sick. Part of the thrill is his feeling that had he been on duty, he would have been the victim.

Tomas has relocated to Reykjavik and doesn’t appear to mind being called back to his former stomping grounds. It’s apparent that Ari Thor is pleased to have his old boss around.

Of course, there’s more than just the murder to investigate. A new mayor, his assistant and an alleged drug ring in town arouse Ari Thor’s curiosity. Interspersed among the chapters focusing on the murder are excerpts from a journal written by an unnamed young man in a psychiatric ward. The reason for his presence there is only alluded to and never made entirely clear. It’s a tandem story: both mysteries with only the insinuation of a common thread.

Although Ari Thor is not officially part of the investigation since he’s a member of the local police, he still manages to keep busy following leads and trying to fit pieces together. Meanwhile, another murder and an uneasy feeling about the new mayor make for a fast-paced narrative.

Deceit, family secrets and small-town politics all figure into this engaging, satisfying mystery.

Nighblind
Four-and-half Bookmarks
Minotaur Books, 2015
206 pages

Not So Neighborly   Leave a comment

The Woman Next Door

The title of Yewande Omotoso’s novel The Woman Next Door is pleasantly ambiguous. There are actually two women living next door to one another with much more than a property line separating them.

Both women are older widows, had impressive careers; one is white and the other black. The setting is suburban Cape Town, South Africa. Neither is happy and each covets something the other has. Despite these similarities they are barely civil to one another.

Of the two, Hortensia is the most acerbic, although Marion is only slightly less prickly. The interactions between them are exercises in seeing who can sling the deepest barb. Marion is not Hortensia’s only victim; her caustic manner assumes an equal opportunity approach. Hortensia might as well wear a t-short with a warning label: stay out of my way.

In a well-paced style, the author reveals the women’s past which helps explain their attitudes toward each other and the world. An accident forces the pair together, but the situation is far from amicable. Even though it is Hortensia who offers the first semblance of a peace offering, it’s evident the gesture has ulterior motives. Meanwhile, Marion’s efforts to extend an olive branch appear more genuine.

Omotoso’s writing is vivid and engaging. The story begs an answer to the questions of Hortensia’s universal dislike of people and Marion’s general unhappiness.

At the risk of needing a spoiler alert, the ending is the weakest element of the narrative. However, overall it’s poignant on many levels.

The Woman Next Door
Four Bookmarks
Picador, 2016
278 pages

Beneath the Surface   Leave a comment

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Jennifer Egan is masterful at setting the scene and evoking another era in Manhattan Beach, her recent novel. Her characters, their emotions and their resolve are captivating. The narrative is part love story, part gangster tale in an historic World War II, (mostly) New York City setting.

As a young girl, Anna Kerrigan tagged along with her father, Eddie, on his errands, presumably for the union. On one such outing, the 11-year-old and Eddie visit Dexter Styles at his mansion-like home on a private beach. It’s evident that the Kerrigans don’t share the same lifestyle as Styles.

By contrast, Anna’s family lives in a small, sixth floor apartment. Her younger sister, Lydia, is severely disabled requiring constant care.

Fast forward and Anna is now the sole provider for her mother and sister thanks to her job at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where she becomes the first female diver. Her father disappeared years earlier and the country is at war.

The progression of sorrow Anna experiences regarding Eddie begins with anguish which evolves into anger before settling into indifference. For the reader, however, his long absence is hard to ignore. Egan wants it that way. Meanwhile, Styles resurfaces. Anna remembers him; even though she catches his attention, he has no recollection of her as a child.

The interactions of this trio of main characters across time, complete with back stories, hopes and foibles, provide the book’s focus.

Ultimately, it’s about reinventing oneself and the toll it takes to do so.

Manhattan Beach
Four-and-a-quarter Bookmarks
Scribner, 2017
433 pages