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Jacket.aspxI am a huge Isabel Allende fan and have read almost everything she has ever written, including essays and interviews.  Back in the days when Borders was in town, I once hastily pre-ordered a copy of one her books, and when it arrived, it was in Spanish.  The English edition wasn’t even available yet.  My love affair began with House of Spirits, a book full of magical realism.  Finally, after a few historical novels, Allende is back to story telling in the style of House of Spirits.

Maya is a nineteen year old in a heap of contemporary trouble.  She has been raised in Berkeley, California by her grandparents and hasn’t been herself since the death of her Popo.  Drugs, porn, violence, and a string of the wrong friends propel her grandmother to send Maya far, far away – to the remote Chilean island of Chiloe.  There her grandmother’s friend, Manuel Arias, an introvert more than twice Maya’s age, has promised to oversee Maya’s removal from society.  No internet, no contact with her past – only notebooks to record her past and recovery.  Told as first person journal entries, the story of Maya’s troubled past is revealed, along Allende’s most complete assessment of Chilean political history.  Allende’s uncle, Salvador Allende was killed in the bloody aftermath of the military coup that created a harsh military dictatorship, lead by General Augusto Pinochet.  This history is interwoven with revelations of character relationships near the novel’s end.

This may not be Allende’s best, but the book is dedicated to the “teenagers of my tribe” and is best read as a cautionary tale.  In recent interviews, Allende has shared just how autobiographic some of the events in this novel really are.   Two of her husband’s adult children have died of drug related causes.  Maya may be a mess in the beginning, as the Spanish cover of the novel clearly shows, but she pulls through with determination.

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I completely swore off my no purchasing of new hardcover books promise to get my hands on a copy of Khaled Hosseini’s new novel.  Of course, I have been a huge fan of The Kite Runner – teaching it for the last 6 years or so of AP English – and its sister novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns.  Of course, when your expectations are that high, you run the risk of being disappointed.  As soon as I finished the lovely, spell-binding opening parable, a presumed bedtime story told by a father to his son and daughter, Abdullah and Pari, I knew the author’s poetic style would still hold me in rapture.  I read the whole book in a few days, and hesitated to see it end, although the first half of the book is the best, by far.  Each chapter reads like a novella.  I found it hard to put a chapter down once I started, partly because the chapters jump so drastically in time and setting – Afghanistan, San Francisco, Paris and Greece.  Although the brother and sister of the opening chapter knit the whole book together, there are almost too many peripheral characters and I sometimes had a difficult time remembering who was who or how they figured into the whole.  Without criticizing the mechanics of the novel, which were sometimes clunkier than Hosseini’s previous two, I would highlight the positives.  This book has little of the violence and heart-break of the other novels.  Yes – it is sad and I had tears in my eyes more than once, but this is a redemptive sibling story.  It is about loss and separation – and of course the ravishing effects of war.  But is isn’t the gut wrenching sort of story that was Amir’s or Mariam and Laila’s.  The book encompasses a long stretch of time, generations of tragedy and recovery, and in the end, it sang of hope.

Jacket.aspxUpon finishing Reconstructing Amelia, I described it in a text message to a teacher friend as a crazy trash can of a novel that most high school students would probably love.  Kimberly McCreight includes one of everything it takes to make a page turner – a possible suicide, some mean girls, a neglectful parent, a bit of lesbian love, a creepy teacher, a jealous best friend, a secret sisterhood and some lurid text messages.  The novel alternates between third person chapters in the present that focus on Kate, the mother, and first person past tense chapters narrated by her 15 year old daughter, Amelia, who has presumably jumped from the roof of her New York private school.  Through emails, blog posts, and investigations, Amelia’s life and death is reconstructed.

I have to admit, I plowed through this novel.  It held my interest even as I shook my head at its unlikely twists and turns.  It reminded me of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, to which it has been compared, along with Jodi Picoult and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl which I have not read.  I know many teenage girls that would call this a perfect beach read.  For my adult friends – by all means, read it if you still miss lunchroom drama.

Our annual drive home from AP grading in Louisville includes a brief detour off of 71N to Smith Berry Winery. Greeted on the way in by owner, Chuck Smith, who claimed we looked familiar, and maybe we did because it was our 4th or 5th visit to this quiet rural antidote to the noise of Louisville.

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The 180 acres used to be a dairy and Burley tobacco farm. The Smiths still raise organic beef cattle, sheep and vegetables, but the tobacco farm has changed over into vineyards, and the wines produced are high quality.

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Today we sampled some dry whites and reds. Our favorite red from last year, Brother John, was not available yet this year, but we did take a liking to the Burley and Cheviot, named for tobacco and sheep respectively. As we tasted, we chatted with Jennifer Cowden, events director, who explained that their every other Saturday summer concert/dinners generally attract 600 people who sprawl on blankets around their outdoor stage.

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We have yet to plan our travels to include time to enjoy the lovely shaded wine garden outside the tasting room. A bottle of the American Oak, a crisp, oak forward Chardonnay, would have been perfect on a day like today.

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As English teachers, we were first drawn to this winery through David’s love of Wendell Berry’s essays and poems about agriculture. Wendell’s daughter, Mary Berry Smith and her husband, are the owners, and several of Wendell Berry’s books are for sale in the tasting room.

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Food writer, Michael Pollan, quoted Wendell Berry saying, “Eating is an agricultural act.” We think sharing wine is, too!

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Rudyard Kipling’s How the Leopard Got its Spots is one of many pieces of literature that The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards alludes to. Perhaps the most telling allusion is the line from an Emily Dickinson poem – “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant”, since Jansma’s book is a series of slanted tales told by a highly unreliable narrator. The fact that you never really even know this narrator’s name enhances the colorful telling of the chapters that read more like individual interconnected tales than a novel. The narrator makes it clear in the opening chapter that he is a writer, and piques the reader’s interest by announcing “I’ve lost every book I’ve ever written.” His life story – from childhood to adulthood – is told through episodic adventures that take him all over the planet. Europe, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Iceland. For a while, he assumes the identity of Professor Wallace and teaches Methods and Practices of New Journalism in Dubai. This entertaining chapter includes a portion of one of Wallace’s supposed lectures on truth in journalism which announcing that, “Ours is a new generation of plagiarists. Armed with Wikipedia and Google, we can manufacture our own truths”. Throughout the novel he maintains a rivalry with Julian, who is also an author, and a romantic quest for Evelyn, who eventually becomes a princess.

At one point, the narrator muses, “Somewhere, once, I read that the only mind a writer can’t see into is the mind of a better writer.” Jansma is clearly a reader’s writer. The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a reader’s theme park of a novel. Holden Caulfield narrating The Princess Bride. Scattered throughout are literary references, doppelgängers and leopard sightings – real and imaginary. I enjoyed this book largely because Jansma fuels my faith in the value of literary fiction.