Tag Archives: carole reedy

On the Beaten Path in CDMX: Small Eateries with Big Flavors

By Carole Reedy

In a city of 20 million, not all restaurants receive the recognition they deserve, especially smaller venues without the funds for publicity. Reviewers try their best to visit the countless eating establishments in Mexico City, but they do have their limits.

Here I present small (sometimes tiny) eateries, a few of which may be short on ambience but big on flavor. I discovered them while flaneuring through the city or from friends who introduced me to them by enthusiastically declaring “You MUST try … ”

El Auténtico Pato Manila

This might be the best-kept secret in Mexico City. My downstairs, restaurant-going neighbor recommended this tiny venue on the spur of the moment one day as I climbed to my third-floor apartment in Roma Sur. Upon hearing my footsteps he opened his door and said, “Shall we pop out for a bite to eat? Feel like duck tacos?”

That was the start of many visits to Manila Tacos. What a find! The owner has created a small, eclectic menu, with just five items offered:
· Tacos Manila: four duck tacos on corn tortillas
· Tacos Kim: two duck tacos on flour tortillas
· A torta filled with duck (carnitas style) and avocado
· Won ton
· Spring rolls, filled with duck or without

Enjoy these delicacies while sitting at the counter in the wee locale. Take-out and delivery are available too. Each item is made to order and served piping hot with several sauces. A variety of beers is also available, as well as soft drinks. And that’s it! Perhaps you, as I have, will make this a staple in your diet.

Location: I frequent the Manila in Condesa at Culiacán 91. There is also a Manila in Roma Norte on Álvaro Obregón, close to Casa Lamm.

La Selva (move over Starbucks)

Hooked on Starbucks? Mexico offers many high-quality alternatives at much cheaper prices. One of these is La Selva in Condesa, located conveniently a short block from Parque México. Here you will find organic coffee from the Lacandona jungle in Chiapas.

I buy a half-kilo of organic dark roast coffee for about $7 US. There are small eating areas both inside and outside. on the tree-lined street at Iztaccihuatl 36. Unlike Starbucks, La Selva serves full breakfasts and lunches instead of sweetened pastries and expensive sandwiches.

People watching is a satisfying pastime at this location any day, but especially on Sundays when the park is most active.

Location: Iztaccihuatl 36, a short tree-lined street that runs between Parque México and Av. Insurgentes Sur.

Pastelería Alcazar

Good bakeries are a satisfying alternative to restaurants for breakfast or a snack. Alcazar is one of my favorites as they serve marvelous croissants and an English biscuit, a type of scone that my guests request during every visit.

There’s also a selection of small cookies and rich, flavorful cakes, unlike the cardboard, elaborately decorated sugary cakes that adorn many party tables in Mexico. The chocolate truffle cake from Alcazar is especially decadent, with several types of chocolate precisely layered. There are pies too, from lemon-lime to the sweeter fruit pies with whipped cream. Candles and other adornments needed for your celebration are also available.

For lunch, Alcazar offers sandwiches, both vegetarian and meaty, as well as a few salads. In my neighborhood of Roma Sur, all the medical personnel from the hospitals stop at Alcazar for a coffee or lunch, which in my book is a great recommendation.

Need a quick gift? Pop in and buy a packet of chocolate-covered almonds or coffee beans. Coffee sold by the kilo and a variety of teas also make for thoughtful gifts. There’s even a fun selection of coffee cups for sale.

Location: Pastelería Alcazar has many locations around the city … fortunately for us!

Cafebrería El Péndulo

You may think yours truly is confusing her regular book column with this month’s food article. Actually, not only is El Péndulo the most attractive and original bookstore in the city, its cafés offer surprisingly good food. There are seven locations throughout the city, and all have the same cozy ambience of rooms lined with books in Spanish, English, and other languages.

The coffee shops serve not just java but also light meals. The breakfasts are especially tasty. I was happily impressed that a simple goat cheese and spinach omelet could radiate such distinct flavors.

Location: The Polanco location is at Alejandro Dumas 81; in Condesa, it’s at Nuevo León 115; in the Zona Rosa, it’s at Hamburgo 126; and in Roma, Álvaro Obregón 86.

Mallorca

Believe it or not, this little-known restaurant, named for the large island off the coast of Spain in the Mediterranean Sea, is smack dab in the middle of Avenida Reforma, near the Ángel de la Independencia. It is indoor/outdoor, no better ambience for people watching.

Spanish and Mexican cuisine easily blend to give diners a variety of excellent choices and flavors. You’ll find the traditional Spanish serrano ham, as well as our beloved Mexican chilaquiles. Entrees such as salmon a la plancha, risotto, and the traditional cream soup from Córdoba, Salmorejo, star on this appetizing menu.

There’s also a magnificent pastry shop attached to the restaurant that’s filled with scrumptious treats such as brownies, chocolates, scones, chocolatíns, croissants, marmalades, and fine breads.

The hours shift daily, but most days the restaurant is open from 7-8 am until 9-11 pm.

Location: Avenida Paseo de la Reforma 365; there’s another one in Lomas de Chapultepec, at Avenida Explanada 710.

Little Tokyo

Foreign influences abound in Mexico City. Most tourists understand the French and Spanish architectural and culinary fingerprints left all over the city, but there is a considerable Asian influence here as well, including that of the Japanese.

Many of you are aware that Mexico’s landmark tree, the jacaranda, native to South America, was installed in Mexico City by Japanese imperial gardener Tatsugoro Matsumoto in the late 1800s. Ever since, these stately trees with purple blooms have adorned the avenues of the city, most notably in Coyoacán, Avenida Reforma in Cuauhtémoc, and colonia Roma, among many locales. If you visit from February through April you’ll relish the blooms followed by the carpets of purple they drop on the streets. (For the tale of Matsumoto and the jacaranda, see “How the Jacaranda and Blue Hanami Came to Mexico – and the Japanese Paisajista Who Made It Happen,” The Eye, July 2020.)

After World War II, with the many Japanese immigrants arriving on Mexican shores, the area around the Japanese embassy in the neighborhood known as Cuauhtémoc became a popular spot to gather. Here you’ll see the beginning – and subsequent growth and success – of Little Tokyo, in the area north of Reforma around the Ángel of Independencia.

Of course, it began with small informal restaurants but has grown into a formidable Japanese cultural area. This includes the finest of Japanese cuisine and even a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, if you choose to spend a night or two in the area. The inn Ryo Kan boasts a blend of Japanese and Mexican culture, with four tubs on the roof of the inn for your viewing and relaxing pleasure.

Most of the restaurants, the Toki Doki Market with Japanese gourmet goods, and shops line the street of Rio Pánuco. There is a Japanese contemporary art bookstore called EXIT La Librería at number 138. And at number 170 the popular Daikoku Restaurant serves all your favorite Japanese specialties.

A day exploring Avenida Reforma with a stop at Little Tokyo is a perfect way to ease yourself out of the isolation of the pandemic.

Wherever you roam, Buen Provecho!

Novels That Inform And Entertain

By Carole Reedy

The environment, migration, and conservation are not new topics for novelists. For many of us, our first book on change and migration due to a deteriorating earth was required reading. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, is the landmark 1939 novel in which the Joad family is forced to leave their homestead in Oklahoma, ravaged by the Dust Bowl, for the promised land of California.

Hindsight is foresight. In 1962 Rachel Carson was accused of exaggeration by the government and big business when she challenged the use of chemical pesticides in her groundbreaking book Silent Spring.

For this column, I’ve chosen several books from numerous recent novels exploring these increasingly urgent themes.

The Overstory by Richard Powers
The individual stories and plots of the nine US environmental activists who populate the novel play second string to Powers’ intensely detailed descriptions of the symbiotic relationship between trees and forests and their unique role in the survival of our planet.

Winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize and shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2018, this seminal work is referred to regularly in any discussion of the environment and its degradation.

Three Novels by T. C. Boyle (Thomas Coraghessan Boyle)
I’ve written about the novels of T. C. Boyle multiple times over the past eleven years, and with good reason. The Tortilla Curtain remains among my top ten reads of all time and has been lauded as one of the most insightful on migration in Southern California.

Boyle, without fail, entertains while illuminating our grasp on issues that concern him and our planet, and he does it in an amusing style that can prompt readers to chuckle, despair, or contemplate simultaneously.

A Friend of the Earth
This piece of eco-fiction takes place in 2025, which seemed a long way off in 2000 when Boyle wrote it. It was interesting for me to revisit this book in 2021 after reading it 21 years ago. That which seemed far-fetched in 2000 is more realistic now. Many of his premises ring true: the degradation of ecosystems, deforestation, change in climate, the building frenzy, shortened life expectancy, and overpopulation.

The story is told through the eyes of the main character, Tyrone O’Shaughnessy Tierwater (Boyle’s character names are as intriguing as his own), a 75-year old disheveled man looking back on his life as an environmental activist. Tierwater’s future seems as hopeless as the state of the earth. Boyle does not politicize, but rather tells a compelling story that keeps your mind spinning. Spoiler alert: it ends on a bittersweet but satisfyingly positive note.

When the Killing’s Done
A compelling premise for this 2011 novel: An animal rights activist takes on the National Park Service, which is removing invasive species (rats and pigs) from the Channel Islands National Park in California. Based on historical fact, here Boyle relates actual occurrences by shrouding them in a family story. Other actual events from the islands make their way into the always engaging story that Boyle tells.

The Terranauts
As I review T. C. Boyle’s novels I’ve come to appreciate them more with each passing year, and this one especially. His books ring true in so many ways, especially during these days of Jeff Bezos and his space exploration schemes.

In this 2016 novel set in 1994, a group of eight prepare for possible colonization on Mars by spending months in a biosphere facility called Ecosphere. As always, Boyle’s insight and exploration of human reactions, relationships, shortcomings, and strengths are the focus throughout the characters’ isolation together.

By the way, T. C. Boyle’s favorite novelist is Gabriel García Márquez.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
Latin America’s favorite son and a Nobel-prize winner from Colombia, García Márquez focuses on his country and its larger setting in the vast collection of novels and short stories he left us. The magical realism woven throughout his novels carries the reader through time and the lush ambience of the country he loves.

There is no better time to read this 1984 novel, which takes place over six decades, during which an intermittent cholera epidemic affects not only South America, but also the world. In addition, the arrival of the 20th century brings with it severe environmental damage from deforestation. For many of my friends who are avid readers and fans of Marquez, this is their favorite.

The Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet
For me, the outstanding characteristic of this novel is the intelligence and perceptiveness of the twelve children compared to the naïveté of their clueless parents. After being forced into a supposedly grand family getaway in a remote mansion, the children rebel when they perceive environmental dangers that the party-loving parents ignore. The children escape to a safer location, leaving their parents to their debauchery.

Millet has earned well-deserved attention from the New York Times, BBC, and Washington Post. This book was a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction.

Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy
Attention bird lovers: the focus here is on the main character’s quest to follow the Arctic terns on what she believes, due to extreme climate changes, to be their final journey from Greenland to Antarctica. The book transports the reader along with its main character, Franny, on a boat from Greenland to the Southern Ocean. While the novel explores her search and the adventure of following the terns, it also delves into her innermost secrets, shortcomings, and personal issues in need of resolution. Franny’s outer search echoes her inner one. Formerly the author of young adult fiction, here McConaghy debuts as an adult novelist.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Considered by some to be the ultimate in environmental disaster stories, The Road has been made into a film. Don’t be tempted – read the book. The book has a power all its own, with multiple elements including the centerpiece father-son relationship. Praised for its ability to portray the earth’s destruction and yet criticized for its minimal plot and characterization, this book is hailed by many as the masterpiece of our climate emergency. The unusual writing style and use (specifically, the nonuse) of punctuation irritates many readers, me among them, though I understand the source and reasoning behind the author’s choice. This short, intense book will transport you.

How fortunate to live in a world filled with brilliant minds who can raise our consciousness, stir our emotions, inform, teach and at the same time even entertain us.

¡Salud! A Toast to The Vineyards of Mexico

By Carole Reedy

Twenty years ago on our tranquil Oaxaca coast, wine imbibers had two choices: a liter box (the same container in which one finds milk) of red Don Simon for 17 pesos ($1.70 USD at the time) or an hourglass liter of red or white Padre Kino. To this day, I still keep one of those empty bottles to use for water or flowers.

Times have changed. Mexico has long been known for its beer and tequila, preferred beverages of locals and tourists alike. But now wines imported from Chile, Argentina, Spain, France, Australia, and the US are available in most places, even outside the big cities of Mexico, Monterrey, and Guadalajara.

More significant is our access to fine wines directly from the local vineyards that dot the Mexican states of Guanajuato, Querétaro, Baja California, and Coahuila. Fewer restrictions than some other countries, good climate, and the variety of grapes, styles, and blends make Mexico a grape-growing paradise. Most of Mexico’s grapes are of Spanish and French origin: Syrah, Cabernet, Malbec, and Chardonnay.

It’s important to note that wine production is not new to Mexico. Hernán Cortés and the Spaniards started growing and harvesting grapes in the 1500s. In fact, Cortés ordered the colonists to plant a minimum of 1000 grapevines per year. Mexican wines became so popular that in 1699, the Spanish Crown, threatened by the success and competition from France and Mexico, stopped production here. Only the Jesuits and other religious orders were allowed to continue making wine for sacramental purposes during this hiatus. The industry was finally revived and refined after the Mexican War of Independence (1810-21), and since has earned respectable status among the world’s finest wines.

In addition to our access to local wines, we can tour vineyards and enjoy a tasting, often accompanied by those tempting tapas. Here are a few of the best of the vineyards that are easy to locate for travelers and residents alike. Each has a variety of wine tours and tastings. It’s best to view your options on the individual websites; most require reservations.

BAJA CALIFORNIA

The 1000-mile long peninsula of Baja California is known predominately for its southern region (Baja Sur) that houses the beach resorts of Cabo San Lucas and Todos Santos. But the region of the North, the larger area of the two, provides a variety of entertainment for visitors and residents alike. Not only are there the beaches of Ensenada, there is also the vibrant city of Tijuana that always seems to get a bad rap.

I have fond memories of Tijuana weekends filled with Sunday afternoon corridas de toros, Saturday night jai alai games, and fish tacos. Just to the south of Ensenada, you’ll find the home of the finest wines of Mexico.

The Valle de Guadalupe has been called the Napa Valley of Mexico due to its commercial success throughout the world. Ninety percent of Mexican wine and half the country’s wineries are from these areas west of the Sierra Mountains that divide the Baja Península. The Pacific Ocean provides the cool breeze for the warm peninsula and its grapes.

Monte Xanic vineyard derives its name from the indigenous word xanic, which means “flower that sprouts after the rain.” The vineyard is located 15 kilometers from the Pacific Coast and 400 meters above sea level, the ideal Mediterranean climate for growing grapes.

In the three decades that elapsed between 1987 and 2017, Monte Xanic managed to position itself as a prestigious brand, especially for easy-consumption young wines, the demand for which is growing.

The vineyard uses computerized irrigation, with sensors located among the roots of the vines to measure humidity levels and the need for water.

The vineyard uses computerized irrigation, with sensors located among the roots of the vines to measure humidity levels and the need for water.

The water used by Monte Xanic comes from several wells in the region. First, water from each well is tested for salinity and then conducted separately to an artificial lake, where further quality control occurs, again focused especially on salt concentrations, ensuring optimum quality water for the vineyards.

Harvesting both whites and reds, Monte Xanic wines range in price from 300 pesos per bottle and up. The reasonably priced Calixa Syrah complements Mexican food, such as tacos arrachera, cecina, and sopes.

L.A. Cetto vineyard, a nearby neighbor, was founded in 1928 by Angelo Cetto, who used the methods he learned in his native Trentino, Italy. Three generations of the family have continued the tradition.

There are several valleys where these vineyards are located: Valle de Guadalupe, Valle Redondo, San Vincente, San Antonio de la Minas, and Tecate. L.A. Cetto is a popular wine in Mexico, very reasonably priced and readily available in restaurants and retail stores alike (probably including your local grocery store!).

Both of these viñedos provide visitors with tours and tastings. If you have never experienced a tasting or tour and you’re a wine drinker, you will discover many interesting aspects and fact about wines. And the tours in Mexico provide that extra warmth that only Mexicans bring to a gathering.

PARRAS, COAHUILA

Casa Madero, dating from 1597, boasts the oldest vineyard in Mexico and is home to one of the most-awarded wines in Mexico. They produce my personal favorite red, Casa Madero 3V (three grape varieties: Cabernet, Merlot, and Tempranillo). For white wine lovers, the Chardonnay is a crisp delight.

The city of Parras, Coahuila, is located in the northeast corner of Mexico, 150 km from both Saltillo and Torreón. It’s considered one of Mexico’s Pueblos Mágicos due to its gastronomy, artesanias (handcrafts), and cultural contributions to the country. It is also a part of the country that, while close to the US border, is not swarming with tourists and thus is a welcome respite for adventurers.

The area and winery have fascinating histories. It seems that even during prohibition they continued with wine production, probably in cooperation with the religious entities.

The vineyards, restaurant, and the accompanying Hacienda San Lorenzo are accessible by advance reservation only, and it appears the beautiful hacienda is available to groups only.

GUANAJUATO

The charming colonial town of San Miguel de Allende has so much to offer tourists, not only within the cobblestone city, but also just minutes outside it.

Close by, on the road from San Miguel de Allende to Dolores Hidalgo (km 73), you’ll find the popular Tres Raíces (Three Roots) Vinatería. Friends of mine recently spent a day enjoying the hospitality of the owner and staff, returning with rave reviews of the tour, wines, and excellent tapas.

The viñedo also houses a charming boutique hotel and a restaurant in case you want the full getaway experience into the world of wines.

QUERÉTARO

The areas surrounding the cities of Querétaro and Tequisquiapan are known as La Ruta de Queso y Vino as you will find several notable vineyards here. There are many organized tours out of each of these cities, Querétaro being the larger and more famous of the two, with Tequisquiapan the small charming pueblo, chock full of artesanias. Whichever place you decide to make your base, you will find it easy to explore both the wines and cheeses made in the area. There are different types of organized tours ranging from horseback, tranvía (trolley), walking, and the like, or you can rent a car to explore on your own.

Not only is this area the route of wine and cheese, historically the Bajío – the lowland plain of west central Mexico, is the cradle of the Mexican struggle for freedom that culminated in the War of Independence, making it a treasure trove of history that can be studied in the museums and tours of the cities of Querétaro, San Miguel de Allende, and Dolores Hidalgo.

Finca Sala Vivé by Freixnet México: Are you a sparkling wine fan? This is the place to experience a tour and tasting of that special “bubbly” that adds spark to all occasions. Finca Sala Vivé is the major producer of sparkling wines in Mexico, which it accomplishes through traditional methods. As with all the vineyards, you can buy the wines you taste by the bottle to take home to share with friends.

La Redonda is one of the most frequented vineyards, but don’t let that put you off. It is popular for a reason, and there are never crowds. You will experience the personal attention that characterizes all the tours and wineries in this region.

One plus of La Redonda is the value of their wines. Their prices fall into a very reasonable range for those of us who imbibe daily, and I find their wines to be readily available in many locations in the country, not just in this region.

These vineyards and wines offer a good idea of the state of wine in Mexico. Prices can vary dramatically, and people often are surprised that the Mexican wines can be even pricier than some French wines. Wine prices, like everything else these days, are only rising, in some part due to peso devaluation. I find that when I dine in a restaurant, my glass of wine is often more expensive than my friend’s margarita. But,“Así es la vida! Disfrútala!”

Personal Stories of Migration and the Transition Experience

By Carole Reedy

Home is where you are …
David Byrne

By definition, migration is moving from one place to another, while transition is the process of changing or developing once you arrive. The books listed here tell the stories of both, spanning the globe from Mexico and India to Russia. Accounts of this type have been written since humans put pen to paper. These, I feel, are particularly significant for readers of The Eye.

Homeland Elegies: A Novel, by Ayad Akhtar (2020)

Although pegged as a novel, the immigration story that weaves through these pages is based on the author’s own experiences and family. Akhtar is an American, and he is also a Muslim. In a very personal manner he tells the story of his family in the US, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India: the journeys back and forth and the reactions, attitudes, and beliefs of his family, especially his father.

This modern story of Muslims here and abroad contains a most up-to-date analysis of the US in relation to the rest of the world. Most important to me was the flowing narrative, which appears effortless and addresses a variety of emotions, attitudes, and doubts about modern American society, what it was, and what it has become.

Salman Rushdie calls it “passionate, disturbing, and unputdownable.” It is.

On Mexican Time: A New Life in San Miguel, by Tony Cohan (2001)

Of the many novels written about the US transition to life in Mexico, Cohan’s description of building a home in San Miguel de Allende (SMA) resonates perhaps most clearly to those interested in modern migration and transition.

As background: Two of the original pioneers from north of the border wandered to San Miguel over 80 years ago from Chicago. Stirling Dickinson and Heath Bowman together wrote books about their Mexican and South American travel experiences. Eventually they built a house in San Miguel. Bowman left, but Dickinson stayed in SMA until his death in 1988 at age 89. He contributed to the art and culture of the area, living a simple life from his arrival until his death

Tony Cohan and his wife, after visiting central Mexico in 1985, returned home to Los Angeles, sold their home, and journeyed to SMA, where they bought and refurbished at 250-year-old property. On Mexican Time is the story of the joy, tribulations, adjustment, and drama of their migration and transition to life in Mexico relating specifically to the construction experience.

Cohan’s writing is poignant, fluid, and funny. Most important, though, he finds the perfect phrasing and words to gift readers with a description of the qualities needed to integrate into a culture not their own. On Mexican Time has become a travel classic.

After the success of his first book about Mexico, Cohan went on to expand his writing geography to other parts of this diverse country. Mexican Days: Journeys into the Heart of Mexico (2007) explores the old and new Mexico of coastal and mountainous Veracruz, the sights and smells of Oaxaca, the modern and ancient culture of sprawling Mexico City, the Mayan ruins of the Yucatán, and the indigenous culture of Chiapas.

Burnt Shadows: A Novel, by Kamila Shamsie (2009)

The complete and compelling history of this novel’s families spans countries from Japan in 1945 to Delhi and then to the newly created Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is a time of major world-changing and life-changing events, from the bomb in Nagasaki to the partition of India, the creation of Pakistan, and the jihadist movement in Afghanistan.

An ambitious project, to say the least, but Shamsie creates a cast of believable, sympathetic characters whose lives are shaped by tragic world events. Kirkus Reviews praises Shamsie for her “rare combination of skill and sensitively.”

Lost Children Archive: A Novel (2019) and Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (2017), by Valeria Luiselli

Valeria Luiselli is one of the most visible, influential, and credible writers about migration and transition to grace bookstores in the past few years. She has personally lived the migratory life and experienced its many transitions. She was born in Mexico City, but just two years later Luiselli’s family moved to Madison, Wisconsin. From there her father’s work took them to Costa Rica, South Korea, and South Africa. At age 16 she moved back to Mexico City. She has also lived in Spain and France.

Currently, Luiselli lives in the Bronx. Her work as an intern at the United Nations, interviewing and interpreting for Central American child migrants, led to the two books mentioned here.

Tell Me How it Ends is a simple book that relates her day-to-day work as an interpreter for the children from Central America (not Mexico) who have crossed the US border and have been separated from relatives or have crossed unaccompanied. The title comes from questions her own children asked as she related her daily work to them each evening–they wanted to know “how it ends” for the children. This is a stark rendering of the state of US immigration policy, a short and mostly sad story.

Lost Children’s Archive, Luiselli’s fifth novel, is the story of a family on a road trip from New York to Arizona in which the children learn about their father’s obsession with Geronimo and at the same time are exposed to the grim realities of children crossing the border.

Luiselli is an intelligent and creative woman who writes in a variety of styles. One of her most interesting works is the short book The Story of My Teeth (2015). I won’t say more. Try it. I think you will find it quite amusing … and more.

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story, by Luis Alberto Urrea (2004)

Readers are in love with Luis Alberto Urrea, who is probably the most popular and important of Mexican-American writers, acknowledged on both sides of the border as one of the most accurate descriptors of the border-crossing experience. Many of his books revolve around the economic struggle of Mexicans and their desire to cross over to the life of riches they perceive will be available to them in the US.

Urrea’s most famous book and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, The Devil’s Highway is the true story of 26 Mexican men who, in May of 2001, crossed the Mexico-US border into the most dangerous of deserts, the 130-mile dirt road in the Sonoran desert called The Devil’s Highway. Published in 2004, the subject remains as fresh in our hearts and minds as it did then.

Urrea investigates and shares the motivations of the various people involved, from the men who attempted the crossing, despite warnings of danger, to the border agents in the US and the coyotes who are paid to be “in the know” about all aspects of the crossing and to lead the men across the deadly terrain.

The Devil’s Highway has been called a must-read in age of migration from south to north, but his novels also give us insight into the Mexican way of life via brilliantly depicted characters and situations, some based on his own family. Urrea has also earned well-deserved kudos for The House of Broken Angels (2018), Queen of America: A Novel (2011), Into the Beautiful North: A Novel (2009), and The Hummingbird’s Daughter: A Novel (2005).

A Backpack, A Bear and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir, by Lev Golinkin (2014)
In 1989, the family of the young narrator of this story, which stretches over continents and years, leaves the Soviet Union with three unusual items and little else in tow: a bear, a backpack, and eight crates of vodka.

Told through the eyes of the young son, this memoir begins in Ukraine and ends in the US, with stops in Europe as the family makes its way from repression to freedom. Lev leads a life of confusion, not only about where they’re heading, but of his own identity as a Jew.

The tone at the beginning of this book is amusing and entertaining, but as Lev ages he finds that he needs to address his identity and the people in the past who helped him. His formative years were spent moving and settling, in doubt and even fear. The light touch at the start of the tale becomes heavier as we watch Lev develop into a man.

There are many tales of desperate groups of people seeking refuge and freedom, but Lev’s feelings and his adaptation to a wide variety of circumstances present different challenges. The constellation of emotions evoked in this memoir make it one that will stay with you – it’s also an ideal book for discussion.

The subject of migration and transition has always been with us and will remain a dominant issue for novelists and writers of memoirs for years to come. And, of course, they will provide seductive material for this column.

Women Writers Off the Beaten Path

By Carole Reedy

Not every writer creates a book that achieves best-seller status or wins a literary prize. Glancing over my 2019-2020 list of the books I read, particular authors caught my eye. Not the brilliant and popular Elena Ferrante, Joyce Carol Oates, or Maggie O’Farrell, but equally notable women writing from a variety of places and perspectives. Here are a few of my favorite unique novels, most with woman protagonists off the beaten path.

Magda Szabó: Stunning character development is her trademark

This Hungarian writer died in 2007 at age 90. Although popular in Hungary and parts of Europe, Szabó didn’t gain status in the English-speaking world until the 21st century, when her novel The Door (1987), which centers on a relationship between a prominent writer and her housekeeper, was translated into English by Len Rix (2005). Although The Door was translated for the American market by Stefan Draughon, Rix seems to have a particular talent for translating Szabó. Since that success, his translations of her novels Katalin Street (1969, tr. 2017) and Abigail (1970, tr. 2020) have won several prominent literary awards.

Szabó’s early writing career was interrupted by the repression of the Stalinist era from 1949 to 1956. She was labeled an enemy of the Communist Party because her work did not conform to the social realism it demanded. Her husband, a writer and translator, was also censored.

The four novels translated by Rix are readily available in English now, both in book form and on Kindle. The best known, The Door, was listed in the New York Times Book Review’s Top Ten Books of 2015. Abigail, a story of a young girl who is sent by her father to a girls’ boarding school in Hungary during World War II, is among her more popular books.

Iza’s Ballad (1963, tr. 2016 by George Szirtas) is my personal favorite, the tale of a doctor’s relationship with her mother and the toll that personal and professional obligations take on her life. The primary women characters are not always likeable, but Szabo’s ability to home in on the circumstances and details of their lives makes for a most compelling read. We are given an understanding of the characters from their hidden thoughts as well as their actions, and it’s in this intimacy that Szabó’s talent lies.

Katalin Street also takes place during Hungary’s struggle sunder German occupation in World War II and Stalin’s subsequent Communist regime. It is the story of three families over a period of time in which both the living and the dead tell their tales of happiness and hardship. Again, stunning character development is Szabó’s trademark.

Miriam Toews: Growing up in a Mennonite community

The early years of Toews’ life spent growing up in a Mennonite household provided this author plenty of fuel for writing about women.

Women Talking: A Novel (2018) is based on actual events that took place in a Mennonite community in Bolivia. Nightly attacks by men in the community result in the “women talking” of the title. Simple, while at the same time complex and revealing, this is a short but emotionally charged story.

In an interview with The Guardian, Toews explains her impetus for writing this story: “I felt an obligation, a need, to write about these women. I am related to them. I could easily been one of them.” In fact, Toews, like the Bolivian Mennonites, is descended from the Molotschna colony, a Russian Mennonite settlement in what is now Ukraine.

All My Puny Sorrows (2014) is another novel centered on a Mennonite family, but this time the focus is on one member, a concert pianist, and the people who love her and their attempts to stave off her suicide attempts. Her mother, husband, and dearest of sisters struggle, as does the protagonist, against demons in an attempt to lead normal lives. Toews’ own father and sister both committed suicide within a ten-year period.

Siri Hustvedt: Elaborately structured works

Probably the most diversely accomplished of the women writers mentioned here, Hustvedt received a doctorate from Columbia University in the US, as well as three honorary doctorates from Norway, France, and Germany. Her writing encompasses all the literary arts: essays, short stories, nonfiction, poetry, and six novels. In 2019 she won the prestigious Princess of Asturias Award for Literature.

In addition, Hustvedt’s fascination with psychoanalysis, neurology, and psychiatry has led to a second career as a lecturer on these subjects.

Hustvedt also writes about art, yet another topic on which she’s extremely knowledgeable. The Blazing World (2014) invites us into a world of art in which a woman artist presents her own work not as her own, instead tagging them with the names of men. The novel won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction in and was long-listed for the Booker Prize.
Memories of the Future (2019) is elaborately structured (as are all her books), bringing together a diverse set of themes that permeate our lives: memory, perception, and sensation. I especially warmed to the beginning, which describes the dismally fractured life of a young writer in New York City.

Hustvedt and her author-husband Paul Auster, along with their singer-songwriter daughter Sophie Auster, gathered members of the literary community including Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, and Russell Banks to form the group Writers Against Trump to oppose “the racist, destructive, incompetent, corrupt, and fascist regime of Donald Trump, and to give our language, thought, and time to his defeat in November.” The group still meets in a continuing effort to protect the country’s democracy.

C.M. Mayo: A fine blend of Mexican and American

Mayo’s Mexican husband smiles when he notes that she was just five miles from being born Mexican. She was indeed born in El Paso, Texas, in the US, just a hop, skip, and jump from the Mexican border. And she’s lived in Mexico City for many years with this same husband.

Mayo has a wealth of writing to share with us. She has written poetry, essays, novels, and has a delightful blog featuring all types of extraneous writing. Her website is a trove of surprises, all warming a reader’s heart and all about Mexico. While the offerings are geared toward English speakers, both Mayo and her writing are a fine blend of Mexican and American.

Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (2006) is the place to start. This is a compilation of 24 pieces of fiction and prose by Mexican writers, many translated for the first time. Filled with the jewels of Carlos Fuentes, Juan Villoro, and Laura Esquivel, it is organized according to sections of the country. The Los Angeles Times tells it’s a book we should “throw in a suitcase or mochila (backpack) on your way to Mexico or just settling into a favorite patio chair. It will open your eyes, fill you with pleasure and render our perennial vecinos a little less distante.”

The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire was named the Library Journal’s Best Book of 2009. Indeed, it’s an exhaustively researched novel based on the fascinating story of a little-known adopted son of Maximilian, the archduke of Austria, during his short reign as Emperor of Mexico in 1864.

In another vein, Mayo gives us Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico (2002). Her exploration of the thousand-mile peninsula is filled with beauty and reflection on this most-separate Mexican entity, about which John Steinbeck said, “The very air here is miraculous.”

Garnett Kilberg Cohen: Characters you wish you had known

Cohen hails from my hometown of Chicago and her work was recommended to me by a friend, to whom I’m grateful. Kilberg Cohen is the recipient of multiple literary awards and is a professor of creative writing at Columbia College, Chicago.

The most popular of her works is a book of short stories called Swarm to Glory (2014). Several of the stories have appeared in publications throughout the US. Kilberg Cohen populates these small gems with characters you wish you had known while simultaneously relating simply and directly an utterly complex idea: the something we are looking for in our lives.

How We Move the Air (2010) is a short novel made up of the recollections of seven friends (each with his/her own chapter) who recall the suicide of a dear friend. It is filled with extreme emotion and insights into what and how we remember.

This may be just the time to try some new books and authors, because really … what else do we have but time?

A Year of Reading: Ten New Books for Post-Pandemic 2021

By Carole Reedy

Among the many worlds that man did not receive as a gift from nature but created out of his own mind, the world of books is the greatest. …Without the word, without the writing of books, there is no history, there is no concept of humanity.
— Hermann Hesse

We’re reading now more than ever, and not just because of the pandemic. A new Gallup Poll indicates that more Americans went to libraries in pre-pandemic 2019 than to the movies; 2020 has also revealed a return of readers to independent bookshops.

If you’re already pondering books for 2021, there are numerous new titles from which to choose. Here I present ten I think The Eye audience will want to read (based on your past most-welcome comments). May each of the following new books, by many of our favorite old authors, brighten spirits that perhaps have been dimmed by life during a pandemic.

Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World, by Simon Winchester (2021)

A new book by British/American author Simon Winchester cannot go unnoticed. He’s given us many hours not only of enjoyment, but also of pertinenent and often hidden information and analysis about our world, present and past. His two books about creating, of all things, a massive dictionary (The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary [2005] and The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary [2004]) are truly, believe it or not, compelling reading that will keep you on the edge of your seat. With his in-depth research, Winchester has created a plethora of books on various subjects, including the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Krakatoa, and Calcutta. This newest book, Land, explores a subject dear to the hearts of humans, past and present: ownership and property, its history and our future.

Double Blind: A Novel, by Edward St. Aubyn (Anticipated March [U.K.], June [U.S.] 2021)

I think the author Anne Enright says it best when she describes St. Aubyn’s writings: “Everything St. Aubyn writes is worth reading for the cleansing rancor of his intelligence and the fierce elegance of his prose.” Certainly, we saw that in the Patrick Melrose novels/series that he wrote few years back. Art, science, and philosophy are interwoven with psychoanalysis, ecology, love, fear, and all that is human in this new novel, which follows three friends for a year in London, Cap d’Antibes, Oxford, and Big Sur. St. Aubyn’s ability to be blunt yet delicately introspective makes this author one of the most respected and admired in Britain and the world.

Philip Roth: The Biography, by Blake Bailey (Anticipated April 2021)

With an emphasis on “The,” this has been a book years in the making. Bailey was given complete and independent access to Roth’s archives and was actually appointed by Roth, before his death, as his official biographer, so this is the book to read for fans of one of America’s greatest chroniclers. It will always be a bone of contention among those of us who idolize Roth that he never was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Letters to Camondo, by Edmund de Waal (Anticipated April [U.K.], May [U.S.] 2021)

The Hare with the Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (2010) was a memoir that elicited extreme emotions, either love or strong dislike, in response to style and content. It was, for me at least, a fascinating depiction of the decline and fall of the Ephrussi family dynasty in the banking empires of Europe, specifically Paris, Vienna, and Odessa. It also delights with a side story about netsuke, tiny Japanese wood and ivory carvings. This newest by de Waal spins a similar tale in a different style, this time a Jewish banker and art collector who loses his family in the Holocaust. This “memoir” is a series of 50 imaginary letters that the author writes to Moise de Camondo after he’s invited to make an exhibition of his well-regarded ceramics at the Camondo mansion.

Whereabouts: A Novel, by Jhumpa Lahiri (Anticipated May 2021)

Several years ago, Lahiri decided to learn the Italian language not only for her lifestyle (she relocated her family to Rome in 2011), but also for the voice in her books. This new novel was written in Italian and translated into English. Well-known for her award-winning book of short selections Interpreter of Maladies: Stories (1999) and for the novel (and movie) The Namesake (2003, 2019 [2 ed.]), Lahiri is the recipient of many literary prizes, including the Pulitzer. Whereabouts is her first book in a decade. It will be most interesting to analyze the difference between this novel, written originally in Italian, and those that emerged from her English tongue.

Should We Stay or Should We Go: A Novel, by Lionel Shriver (Anticipated May 2021)

The Queen of Sarcasm is the way I think of this witty, spot-on observer of modern-day life in our confused world. In each of her novels Shriver dissects a new fad, lifestyle, and even the tragedies that permeate our 21st century lives. This latest novel looks at old age and the attitudes toward and self-realization of our older population. Always humorous, yet serious, and clever, yet practical, Shriver weaves her stories with silk thread. Although she is known for her award-winning novel (also a movie) We Need to Talk about Kevin: A Novel (2003), her other novels equal and even surpass that honor, among them So Much for That: A Novel (2010 – my personal favorite), Big Brother: A Novel (2013), The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047 (2016), and Property: Stories between Two Novellas (2018).

Light Perpetual: A Novel, by Francis Spufford (Anticipated May 2021)

Although I’m utterly unfamiliar with this writer, my interest sparked when I read the style of this newest compared to Kate’s Atkinson’s Life After Life: A Novel (2013) and Paul Auster’s 4321: A Novel (2017), both using the parallel-lives device, which can be so effective for writers and readers alike. The novel creates stories for five working-class children in England in a moment best described as “what if they hadn’t died from a bomb that hit a Woolworth’s shop in 1944, killing 168 people instantly.” It also gives us a glimpse of and new perspective on London and England in the 40s and beyond. Spufford’s first book, Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York (2016), was well-received by critics and won the Costa Award for best first novel. Spufford hopes that this book “has the fascination of following out strands in the lives where everything makes sense when you look backwards, but you are constantly surprised going forwards.”

Harlem Shuffle: A Novel, by Colson Whitehead (Anticipated September 2021)

A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (2017, 2020), Harvard-educated Whitehead has left quite an impression on our planet. With this, his eighth novel, a crime story, he takes us to the world of Harlem in the 1960s. It’s a novel he conceived some time ago, but has just completed, in bits and pieces, during the COVID quarantine period this past year. We know Whitehead for his fiction, specifically The Underground Railroad (2016) and The Nickel Boys: A Novel (2019), but his larger career is impressive and diverse. Not only does he write works of fiction and non-fiction, but he has written for the most notable of newspapers and magazines, taught at Princeton University, been a writer-in-residence at Vassar, and received the MacArthur Fellowship (aka the “Genius Grant”).

Crossroads, A Novel (“A Key to All Mythologies,” Book 1), by Jonathan Franzen (Anticipated October 2021)

In my world, this is the literary announcement of the year. In his first book in six years (since Purity: A Novel, in 2015), Franzen has written not one, but three new novels, a trilogy to anticipate over the next several years. Chicago 1971 is the setting and the romp will carry us along with the Hildebrandt family as they “navigate the political, intellectual and social cross-currents of the past 50 years.” Franzen, a passionate birder, outspoken critic of social media, and the leading novelist of his generation, is gifting us, according to his publisher, “a tour-de-force of interwoven perspectives and sustained suspense.” If this is correct, I, for one, cannot wait!

Something to Hide, by Elizabeth George (Anticipated October 2021)

Are you a devoted fan of the Lynley detective series? If so, this is book 21, and I’m sure you’ve read the previous 20, as have I. Others may have watched the PBS television series created from the books. I’ve refused to watch it given what I view as the abhorrent misrepresentation of the character Detective Barbara Havers, one of the brilliant creations of Elizabeth George in the book series. You’ll have to wait until October to find out what snags Barbara creates while honing her fine detective skills under the direction, and often to the distress, of Inspector Lynley.

And thus we move in 2021, led and encouraged by our favorite authors and new artists on the horizon.

Year of the Ox: Read a Chinese Tale to Celebrate

By Carole Reedy

What better way to start the new year than by discovering writers from across the Pacific? Novels by Chinese writers seem to get short shrift in the review sections of our modern media, and I confess to ignoring the grand culture of the Chinese in my own reading. As a result, I did some research and sought advice from a friend who is knowledgeable about all things Chinese, has lived and taught in the countryside of China, and is an avid reader of both Chinese fiction and nonfiction.

Here are several selections you might enjoy, based on your responses to the previous recommendations in this monthly column.

Interior Chinatown, by Charles Yu (2020)
Two months ago, Taiwanese-American writer Charles Yu walked away with the National Book Award for Fiction 2020 for his second novel, Interior Chinatown. Yu also has experience in screenplay writing (HBO’s Westworld series and other notable features), evident in the structure of this prize-winning novel that tells the story of aspiring actor Willis Wu.
Within seconds of the announcement of the National Book Award winner, avid readers were scrambling to enter their names in their library waitlist, yours truly included. I was most impressed to read that Yu is a fan of Philip Roth and claims to have read more of Roth’s novels those of any other contemporary writer, definitely a plus in my book! Wu’s first novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010) received kudos and awards, as have many of his short stories.

The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck (1931)

Probably the best-known and universally respected novel from China is The Good Earth, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1932. Buck, the daughter of missionaries, lived many decades in Zhenjiang before returning to the US in 1934. In 1938 she was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and The Good Earth is now considered a classic.

Set in China at the beginning of the 20th century, this is the story of a farmer and wife caught in the web of history before the Revolution. Through their story Buck gives us a peek into the history and culture of the era, as well as into the emotions and desires of its people. One reader assures us that “the book has a contemporary feel despite being written nearly 80 years ago.”

The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up, by Liao Yiwu (English edition 2009)

A public toiletries manager, a leper, a grave robber, and a professional mourner, among others, are the subjects of the 27 interviewees of China’s forgotten population. Each vignette ranges from 15 to 20 pages. The research took the author 11 years, and attention from the Chinese censors followed, of course. The book has received rave reviews, with the San Francisco Chronicle claiming “Reading The Corpse Walker is like walking with Liao. Even though our feet are not blistered and our bodies are not starved, in the end we are shaken and moved.”

Red Sorghum: A Novel of China, by Mo Yan (English edition 1993)

Mo Yan, which literally means “don’t speak,” is the pen name of Guan Moye, a man who has won almost every Chinese literary prize as well as the Nobel Prize for Literature (2012).

Perhaps the best way to describe this book’s tone is in the writer’s dedication. “With this book I respectfully invoke the heroic, aggrieved souls wandering in the boundless bright red sorghum fields of my hometown. As your filial son, I am prepared to carve out my heart, marinate it in soy sauce, have it minced and placed in three bowls, and lay it out as an offering in a field of sorghum. Partake of it in good health!”

The book’s structure is a series of flashbacks spanning three generations (it seems many Chinese family sagas take place over three generations), taking the reader through the turbulent times between 1923 and 1976 both inside and outside China.

Amy Tan, brilliant and popular Chinese-American writer, praised Mo Yan: “Having read Red Sorghum, I believe Mo Yan deserves a place in world literature. His imagery is astounding, sensual and visceral. His story is electrifying and epic. I was amazed from the first page. It is unlike anything I’ve read coming out of China in past or recent times. I am convinced this book will successfully leap over the international boundaries that many translated works face. … This is an important work for an important writer.”

The 1987 Chinese film, Red Sorghum, based on the book, received much recognition, including the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1988.

The Novels of Amy Tan

The observation from Amy Tan above brings to mind her several novels about Chinese-Americans, especially the relationships between mothers and daughters. Tan was born in the US, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. The conflict among the young new Americans and their Chinese heritage is a constant underlying element in her stories.

The first of Tan’s successful novels was The Joy Luck Club (1989), followed by several others, all receiving the kudos they deserve. The Bone Setter’s Daughter (2003) was even made into an opera that had its debut in 2008 at the San Francisco Opera.

An interesting note about Tan – she was a member of a charity garage band called “Rock Bottom Remainders” (remainders being an author’s unsold books that are then “remaindered,” or made available at reduced prices). She served the group as the lead rhythm “dominatrix” backup singer and second tambourine. The rest of the group was made up of renowned authors, including, among others, Dave Barry, Stephen King, Mitch Albom, Barbara Kingsolver, and Scott Turow, along with some actual professional musicians. Their yearly gigs raised over a million dollars for literary programs. The group disbanded in 2012 following the death of their founder, Kathy Kamen Goldmark.

Although Tan’s fans love all her books, The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991) and Saving Fish from Drowning (2005) are among my favorites. When asked her favorite books, the following were on Tan’s list: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, and the Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.

Death of A Red Heroine, by Qiu Xiaolong (English edition, 2000)
Everyone loves a mystery! Here’s another inspector to add to your collections from Sicily, the Dordogne region of France, London, Scandinavia, or Scotland.

Death of a Red Heroine is the first in a series starring Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai police. The true value of favorite mystery novels lies in the opportunity to steal a glimpse of life into each country. Here it’s the People’s Republic of China. Each book in the series tackles a different political and economic situation, making the novels intellectually stimulating as well as enjoyable.

Qiu’s just-published latest offering, called Hold Your Breath, will be of special interest at this time as it takes place in the midst of the pandemic in Wuhan.

Iron & Silk, by Mark Salzman (1986)
Renaissance man (writer, artist, cellist) Mark Salzman famously has pursued several careers in his 60 years. In addition to an impressive resume that includes graduating from Yale University summa cum laude, receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship, and being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, he is described by friends as “a cool and kind person.”

Aside from academics and writing, he makes time to play the cello. In 1996, he performed as guest cellist with YoYo Ma, pianist Emmanuel Ax, and others at Alice Tully Hall for the 20th anniversary performance of Live from Lincoln Center. If fact, one of his novels, The Soloist (1995) is about this passion.

His connection to China? He always had a passion for China, even as a boy when he chose to walk barefoot to school, to the amazement of the other boys. In the early 1980s, Salzman taught English at Hunan Medical School, where he also studied martial arts. Iron & Silk bore on its cover the descriptive subtitle “A young American encounters swordsman, bureaucrats and other citizens of contemporary China”; it garnered several literary awards and was made into a film for which Salzman not only wrote the screenplay and but starred as himself.

Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China, by Jung Chang (2019)
The Soong sisters have to be the most famous sisters in China, ever. This triple biography is their story, which traverses China and the US. The three daughters were born between 1888 and 1898 of a Methodist preacher turned Shanghai entrepreneur, Charlie Soong, and their mother Ni Kwei-tseng, whose own mother, Lady Xu, was a descendant of the Ming Dynasty. They were the first Chinese girls to attend university in the US.

When the three returned to China in 1909 they found themselves in the middle of a revolution in which they became wholeheartedly involved, although they ended up on different sides. To sum up their adventure: Chingling marries Sun Yat Sen, Mayling ends up with Chiang Kai Shek, and Ei-ling becomes an advisor to Chiang, making herself one of the richest women in China. They became the most powerful women in China, never to be forgotten.

The Washington Times sees the greatest value in the book as a stepping-stone for Westerners to understand this era: “The complicated history of China during this period is little-known to most Westerners, so this readable book helps fill a gap. By hooking it onto personalities, Jung Chang has been able to chart a comprehensible way through these decades and an immense mass of information that could otherwise be difficult to digest.”

On top of that, The New York Times calls it a “riveting read.” My Chinese-expert friend also is enthusiastic about this particular book.

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, by Jung Chang (1991)

This three-generation family history, which culminates in Jung Chang’s own autobiography, received rave reviews and is listed as one of Amazon’s most read books.

Simply put, it is the story of Mao’s impact on China from a woman’s point of view. Chang shares with us the extraordinary lives of her family members: her grandmother, a warlord’s concubine; her mother’s struggles as a young idealistic Communist, her parents’ experience as members of the Communist elite, and their ordeal during the Cultural Revolution; Chang herself was a Red Guard briefly at the age of fourteen, then worked as a peasant, a “barefoot doctor,” a steelworker, and an electrician. At an early age she took a shine to reading and writing. Once again, a story of three generations!

This book sold over 10 million copies worldwide, but is banned in the People’s Republic of China. Along with her husband, Irish historian Jon Halliday, Chang has also written an 880-plus page biography on Mao Zedong, Mao: The Unknown Story (2005). Chang now lives in London, although she has said “I feel perhaps my heart is still in China.”

For me, and perhaps for you, there is a hesitation to read novels from regions we know relatively little about, perhaps for fear of not relating to or understanding the characters and their motives. The books above are among the best in their category and I believe can help open our hearts and minds to the unknown.

My Favorite Reads of This 2020 Pandemic Year

By Carole Reedy

One advantage of the pandemic is the illusion – or is it an illusion? – of excess time. With limited lunch dates, relaxed shopping, and evenings out, perhaps there actually are more hours in the day for reading.

In my wayward hours when I’m not actually reading, I’ve been pondering writing and reading and how it all comes together.

What makes a book? Start with a room, a desk, paper, and pen. Add a key ingredient, the human imagination. It all seems quite simple. In this day, most writers substitute a computer for pen and paper, but some of our favorite authors, such as Woody Allen and Paul Auster, still use a manual typewriter (Woody an old Olympic) after scribbling notes on whatever scrap of paper is available when an idea sparks.

But arriving at the finished product remains a mystery to those of us who admire the resulting work of the icons of art. Whether it’s War and Peace, the Mona Lisa, or the Moonlight Sonata, it’s the creator’s imagination that creates our universe.

The novels I read this year, which span the globe and the centuries, will permeate my life forever. Perhaps you’ll experience a similar feeling upon discovering these gems of literature.

History of the Rain, This Is Happiness, and The Fall of Light, all by Niall Williams

What took me so long to discover this ethereal writer who has been creating novels for more than 20 years? Several months ago a close friend and avid reader insisted I read History of the Rain (2014) “Because it’s all about reading, Carole.”

Williams’ novels take place for the most part in western Ireland and are written with the gentle lilt of speech and style accompanying the spirit of the Irish heritage the world so envies. It became apparent to me as I read these masterpieces that a mixture of charm and intensity permeates the landscape of the characters and setting. I’m not a fan of the magical realism so prevalent in Latin American writers, but here within the ambiance of the Emerald Isle it more than works for me

The three books differ in plot, but brilliantly depicted characterizations and sublime settings remain a staple of the structure. I would recommend the finely crafted History of the Rain as your first read. The Fall of Light (2001) is a lengthy satisfying saga of the Foley family in 19th-century Ireland and other environs. This is Happiness (2019) centers around the remote town of Faha in the 1970s and the struggle over so-called progress.

Williams takes me to another axis. One observant reader sums it up: “Niall Williams writes like one who has seen the face of God.” Move over, Proust, you have met your match!

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (2020)

A Glaswegian friend advises me that the first name is pronounced with the “u” as in “jug.” Shuggie is a loving nickname for Hugh, the young protagonist, named for his father. The time period is that of the moral destruction resulting from the policies set forth by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s: miners out of work, everyone on the dole, hope lost. Be forewarned: there are few happy moments in the book, although tender emotions are hidden among the travesties.

Stuart, a native of Glasgow who now lives in New York City, didn’t set out to write a book. He merely started putting his thoughts and experiences on paper. It turns out he wrote a best-selling novel that has just won the 2020 Booker Prize (it was also a finalist in the National Book Award for fiction).

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (2020)

Maggie O’Farrell’s remarkable skill is her ability to create a variety of characters, changing tones and plots, each novel vastly different from her others.

Hamnet, her latest, is the story of William Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son (Hamnet is a variation of the name Hamlet) who dies in the plague of the 1590s. Although little is known about the life of Shakespeare or his family, Maggie O’Farrell has woven a world in which Agnes, Shakespeare’s wife, is the protagonist.

Good writing for me falls into two categories: books that are written so well that you can’t put the them down and books that are written so well that you intentionally put them down in order to slowly savor them. Hamnet falls into the second category. It is a mesmerizing read.

The pace is set by the thoughtful, resourceful wife instead of by her frenzied husband. A friend writes, “I liked so much that Maggie O’Farrell reclaimed Agnes as one who had her own worthy life.”

I am most disturbed that O’Farrell’s novel was not present on the Booker Prize short list. Who knows what politics drive these awards?

Flights and Drive your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, both by Olga Tokarczuk

These two novels by the Polish-born winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature make it difficult to categorize the works of this intense and unusual author. I saw this charming woman interviewed at the Hay Festival this year and was quite surprised and pleased to see such a light-hearted, amusing person since her novels reflect a more serious and daring nature. It must be that dichotomy that factors into the unusual ambiance she creates.

The title Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (2009) is enough to perk up the attention of any avid reader. This is a novel of a mysterious nature with colorful characters and a riveting plot.

The novel Flights (2018), on the other hand, is structurally more free-flowing and even more philosophically intense and satisfying. Based on thoughts of movement, the uniqueness of every moment and risk-taking, the numerous short vignettes solidify and flow to create the novel, a well-deserved and winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize International Prize (shared with Jennifer Croft, her translator).

The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes (2019)

Any book by Barnes always makes my best-books list. Barnes’s writing is consistently engaging, and the themes of his novels are diverse. Here’s a new twist. The man in the red coat is a gynecologist from 19th-century France who is part of the Belle Époque society crowd. Enough to capture your attention? As many of you know, Barnes is an utter Francophile, and his knowledge of everything French captures the interest of even those who have never visited the European continent.

The physical book is a joy to behold (making it an excellent Christmas gift or a special treat for you in these times of pandemic) with its high-quality paper and large size, as well as beautiful color photos of all the engaging characters of the era.

Leave the World Behind: A Novel by Rumaan Alam (2020)

“Awestruck” is the only word I can find to define this short novel. I started reading one afternoon, went reluctantly to sleep at 11:30 pm, only to awaken a few hours later with the characters invading my disturbed sleep. I heeded their message and stayed up to finish their story.

Concurrent feelings of certainty and uncertainty dominate the characters’ actions and emotions. This is the story of two families caught up together during an apocalyptic event in New York. Alam’s fast-paced framework for the disaster and the reactions of the various people involved makes for disturbed but exciting reading. Leave the World Behind was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Awards.

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal (2010)

This memoir of the European/Jewish banking Ephrussi family, originally from the Ukraine, kept popping up from time to time in discussions with varying opinions of its worth. Essentially there are those who love it and those who are utterly bored by it. I finally bought a copy and found myself in the first camp. The descriptions of Paris and Vienna are riveting, significant, and timely in our world today.

De Waal introduces us to his uncle’s collection of netsukes (miniature sculptures from 17th-century Japan) that follow the family and lead us through the journey of success and destruction of this once-prominent family.

The Pull of the Stars: A Novel by Emma Donoghue (2020)

Here’s another work I read in two long sittings for the simple reason that the theme, the influenza pandemic of 1918, is close to our hearts and minds these days.

Most of the story takes place in a cramped storage room that has been converted into the maternity/influenza ward in Dublin. Donoghue’s story is simple and intense, involving just a few female characters to engage us in a world rife with uncertainty, pain, and hope.

A Backpack, A Bear and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir by Lev Golinkin (2014)

The title implies a light-natured, entertaining tale. It starts out thus, but midway through the tone becomes darker, revealing the effects in his later life of the protagonist’s youth. This is a memoir of hardship and prejudice against a Jewish family in the Ukraine and their subsequent lengthy journey and eventual re-settlement in the US.

The skillfully written memoir makes for another page-turner.

So, dear readers, here’s to 2021 and the inspiration that the pandemic may bring to new and old authors alike!

Quarantining in Mexico, But Still …Places to Go and People to See

By Carole Reedy

For nearly eight months COVID-19 has driven living restrictions in Mexico, as it has elsewhere. As I write, the red/orange/yellow/green semáforo (stoplight) recommendation for quarantine teeters between orange and yellow, depending on the state in which you’re situated.

The state of Campeche is notable for having achieved green status. All of Mexico is given daily updates from our Presidente at 7 am and from our Sub-Secretaria de Salud at 7 pm.

Apart from federal requirements, each state or city has its own way of managing the quarantine. For example, you may find that in San Miguel de Allende, you’re stopped by police for not wearing a mask, whereas in Mexico City this is highly unlikely. The San Miguel mayor is taking particular precautions to protect this “best small city in the world” (Condé Nast Traveler, October 2020). Mexico City has many citizens who work day-to-day, so you’ll see more people on the street than in other places, mostly masked.

If you’re tired of sitting at home, working, or just in need of a diversion, Mexican culture and adventures beckon, albeit with restrictions. Here are some opportunities open to you.

MEXICO CITY

Apart from lying on a sunny beach under a blue sky, sipping a margarita on the Pacific Coast or the Yucatán, the pyramids of Teotihuacán, just a half-hour outside Mexico City, are a main attraction of this historically rich country. After being closed for six months, they’re now open to the public. Normally 6,000 visitors a day would visit the site on weekends, but the number has been cut to 30% occupancy.

Also note you will not be able to climb the Pyramids of the Sun or the Moon, and the museum remains closed. As with all other tourist attractions, museums, stores, and restaurants in the country, your temperature will be taken and your hands sanitized before you enter. You’ll be asked to wear a mask and honor social distancing of 1.5 meters (about 5 feet). Hours of operation also have been shortened. The site is now open 9 am to 3 pm every day of the week, and still free on Sundays.

(The archeological sites of the Yucatán, including the famous Chichen-Itza and Tulum, are also open with restrictions similar to those at Teotihuacán.)

Museums in Mexico City as well as other parts of the country are open with the restrictions stated above. A wonderful surprise is the re-opening and extensión of the multimedia Van Gogh Alive exhibit, sharing space on the plaza Monumento de la Madre at Insurgentes and Reforma streets. The exhibit will be held over for viewing through January. You can make a reservation through Superboletos.

Another notable exhibit is the The Paris of Modigliani and His Contemporaries at the white marble Museo Bellas Artes, one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, located in the centro histórico, Juarez and Lázaro Cárdenas streets. Open 11 am to 5 pm Tuesday thru Sunday, with COVID-19 restrictions.

Museo Soumaya, with its curving facade inspired by Auguste Rodin’s sculptures, houses more than 60,000 pieces of art, including works by Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent van Gogh. Carlos Slim’s gift to the city is free to all and open every day of the year. Currently, just 30 percent occupancy is permitted along with other COVID-19 precautions. The Museo is located in the classy Polanco Colonia. It is quite airy and open with its high ceilings and lovely circular staircase.

Your other favorite museums are open too, but be sure to look online for shortened hours and to see if you need to reserve a place in advance. All require the strictest of Covid regulations.

A favorite pastime of visitors and residents alike is flaneuring through the streets and colonias of the city. Most parks are open, including Parque México and Parque España in Condesa.

Roaming the Avenida Reforma is a pleasure not only for the sculptures dotting the walkways, but for the people watching and window shopping. Yes, most stores are open and even offering discounts.

In Colonia Roma you can enjoy street art in the Romita section and then stroll along Álvaro Obregón where there are a number of outdoor restaurants offering everything from fine dining to street tacos. Here you will also find used and new bookstores as well as eclectic shops.

EL BAJÍO

The Bajio region includes parts of the states of Aguascalientes, Jalisco, Guanajuato, and Querétaro, located to the north and west of Mexico City. Go for the natural wonders in the midst of small colonial cities.

Tesquisquiapan Wine and Cheese Tours

Charming Pueblo Mágico (Magical Town) Tequisquiapan is known as La Ruta del Arte, Queso y Vino; it’s also famous for its mineral spas as well as its hand-woven crafts. The climate is perfect year-round, and it’s the jumping off point for the wine and cheese tours of the region. From Mexico City it will take about three hours by car or bus (from Mexico Norte bus station). It sits a mere 52 kilometers from Querétaro, the capital of the area, another interesting, but larger, colonial city.

Most of us think of the fine Mexican wines as those from Enseñada, Baja California, but this region boasts several excellent wineries: Ezequiel Montes, Freixenet, and Viñedos Azteca. Take your own car or join a tour from Tequisquiapan.

Speaking of wines, I’d like to mention my favorite Mexican wine, though it is from the state of Coahuila, not the Bajio region. The winery is Casa Madero, the oldest in Mexico. The wine is Casa Madero 3V, a dry, fruity, full-bodied red. Another favorite is the Casa Madero Chardonnay, a dry crisp white. Tours of the winery take place in Parras, Coahuila. Put it on your list!

Bernal
A short drive from Tequisquiapan is yet another Pueblo Mágico, Santiago de Bernal. The highlight for most travelers is the hike up the Peña de Bernal, the third largest monolith in the world. At night, you can see the dancing fountains at the foot of the monolith.

There are places to get shamanic cleanses or detoxing temazcal steam baths in the area. It is also a good place to purchase hand-made and loom-woven textiles.

Consider, too, exploring the San Antonio de Cal community behind the Peña de Bernal. Otomí-Chichimeca customs remain intact within this community, which is why UNESCO named the region a World Heritage Site.

San Miguel de Allende
Not only have readers of Traveler magazine repeatedly named San Miguel the “best,” but they’ve also given top marks to some hotels, including #1 status to The Rosewood. Even if your budget doesn’t allow for a sleepover at this deluxe inn, go for sunset drinks on the terrace.

San Miguel is a shopper’s and artisan’s delight. Just roaming the cobblestone streets is a delightful adventure (watch your step and wear sturdy shoes!) and good exercise. The Jardín (garden) in front of the Parroquia (main cathedral) is a popular meeting place and the center of Sunday meetings, dances in the evenings, and other entertainment.

International restaurants abound, as well as great taco places. Here you’ll find Lebanese food (La Fenice, my personal favorite), Peruvian (La Parada, another favorite), and Argentinian beef (Buenos Aires). The best bakery is Petit Four, now also serving a full breakfast in their new digs on Jesus, just around the corner from the Jardín. Do try the chocolate mousse cake. Outdoor terrace dining and drinks are always fun at Azotea, just off the Jardín.

Some of the more popular tours in the city have been canceled due to the virus. Visitors have enjoyed the regular Sunday morning House and Garden Tours as well as the History Tours offered by Patronato, which closed for the pandemic in March, but may be offering private tours or smaller tours (https://historicalwalkingtour.org/, historicalwt@patronatoproninos.org./, 415 152 7796). Investigate when you arrive as both tours are informative.

A few hot springs – La Gruta, Escondido, and Taboada – lie just a short drive outside of San Miguel, accessible by car, taxi or bus. Enjoy a day here dipping in the thermal waters and taking in the sun and the fresh air of the countryside away from the dust of the city. Food and drinks are served at some locals.

Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary
The brightly colored Monarch butterflies find their home in the mountains west of Mexico City. Morelia or Pátzcuaro are good bases for the tours, though there are tours out of San Miguel de Allende as well. November through March is the season, with mid-January being peak viewing. Look at the Mexperience.com site for more information about tours and access to this natural wonder.

La Ruta de la Independencia
A few other towns a short distance from San Miguel de Allende – Querétaro, Dolores Hildago, and Guanajuato, among others – are well-known as the Route of Independence because this is the place where Padre Hildago, Ignacio Allende, and others plotted and executed their plan for independence from the Spanish in 1810. It is a bloody, intriguing history and a trip to these well-preserved colonial sites is a must for Mexico travelers.

All of Mexico is vigilant about safety during this pandemic. Although your visit may be impeded somewhat by restrictions, the warmth of the people remains just as strong as ever.

Continuing in Quarantine: Autumn Reading Repertoire

By Carole Reedy

Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are – Mason Cooley

The good news during this pandemic is that our reading recommendations do not diminish, even with the virus hovering over daily activities and dictating our routines. The novels here cover a variety of subjects and eras, all of them fighting for the top of my “2019-20 favorite books” list.

THE PULL OF THE STARS: A NOVEL, by Emma Donoghue

Dublin, 1918, war, a flu epidemic, midwives and nurses, pregnant women and their offspring, and even Sinn Fein: these are the elements that make up this fast-paced, electrifying novel.

The day I started it I was up until 2:30 am engrossed in the story of the midwife, her colleagues, and the patients in the Maternity/Fever Ward of a Dublin hospital. The book’s setting over just a few days provides real insight into the political, economic, and social history of the era of war and pandemic in Ireland … and probably of the world.

Many readers thought highly of Donoghue’s well-regarded book regarded 2011 novel Room (though I did not). Whether or not you appreciated it, you’ll be pleased that this one is totally different in approach and style. The writing is fluid and descriptive, the characters most admirable and lovable – even the grumpy ones.

THE OTHER RICHARD III, by John Birney

Turns out that Richard III wasn’t such a bad guy after all, according to author John Birney, who wants to portray Shakespeare’s most evil and disagreeable king in a different and perhaps truer light.

After I read and wholeheartedly recommended Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague (a variation on the name Hamlet) by Maggie O’Farrell (2020) to my friends Larry and Sue, they, in turn, knowing my admiration for Shakespeare, suggested I read this modern play written in old Elizabethan blank verse, authentic and archaic, but with the sweep of a modern hand.

Simply described, it is beautifully rendered. I’m in awe of any author who can take an historical figure and a play written by Shakespeare and create a new story and aspect of the play. Kudos, Mr. Birney, for tackling this project and recreating a classic story into a readable, modern, compelling, and most enjoyable piece of literature without deprecating the original.

THE LYING LIVES OF ADULTS, by Elena Ferrante (tr. Ann Goldstein)

I awoke from a deep sleep at 12:01 am the morning of September 1, immediately knowing the reason: the newest Elena Ferrante novel was due at that moment. I stretched my arm out to reach for my iPad, always at my bedside for easy access to middle-of-the-night reading. And sure enough, there I found the link to purchase and download the book, which I did immediately for fear the electricity might go out in the night and prevent my reading the first words bright and early. Avid readers will understand completely this motive and the resulting action.

Fans of the four novels that make up The Neapolitan Quartet will not regret the five years they waited for Ferrante to publish this newest gem. Dayna Tortorici, reviewer for The New York Times, assuages any doubts about the newest book: “What a relief it is when an author who has written a masterpiece returns to prove the gift intact.”

Like the Quartet, the setting is upper and lower (class and physicality) Naples, a band of adolescents the focus, along with the dishonest parents of the title. Again, the array of characters and their predictable and unpredictable actions and reactions is the driving force behind Ferrante’s genius.

And, no, we still aren’t certain of her identity despite much speculation by journalists and others.

THIS IS HAPPINESS, by Niall Williams

This summer another book by Niall Williams, History of the Rain: A Novel (2014), caught my attention, and I proceeded to recommend it to everyone I knew who loved reading. I’ve already decided it’s one of my favorites of the year. It brought me back to childhood, Ireland, reading, and parental and family relationships in words, sentences, and paragraphs that flow like the River Shannon.

Naturally, I was eager to read this more recent book by Williams. In This Is Happiness, the author returns to the fictionalized town of Faha on the Shannon in Ireland, but this time with the story of a troubled young man, his grandparents, and an assortment of amusing, and sometimes disturbing, residents of the area. Once again, Williams carries us to a different time, locale, and world with his quirky, instinctive talent for descriptive presentation.

DADDY: STORIES, by Emma Cline

Cline surprised us a few years ago with her novel The Girls: A Novel (2016), an insight into the followers and would-be followers of convicted murderer Charles Manson. Now, with Daddy, a group of short stories, she explores further the interactions between men and women.

The Guardian’s review observes: “There is … always an awareness of economic imbalance in these interactions and the pressure put on women to be sexually available and ‘not waste [their] prettiness.’ As in The Girls, Cline is acute at exposing how women internalize the expectations of men.”

Each of these stories is a small gem, but don’t expect to derive much happiness from them. After all, she’s writing about male and female relationships (!).

THE MAN IN THE RED COAT, by Julian Barnes

Lovers of the Belle Époque and, of course, followers of the respected author and Francophile Julian Barnes will revel in his latest book about a man, this dreamy era, and the people who dominate the ballrooms of the time. If you read the hardcover edition, you’ll be swept away by the quality of the paper, the illustrations of the characters, and the entire presence of the book, which enhances the story within. Every aspect of time and place is immaculately and decorously presented, just as the era itself projects.

Who is The Man in the Red Coat? He is renowned French surgeon and gynecologist Samuel Jean Pozzi (1846-1918). Barnes entertains us with the story of his life, as well as the delicious gossip about the outlandish characters of the Belle Époque that surround him, Count Montesquiou and Sarah Bernhardt among many others. Readers of Proust will recognize their favorite personages from Remembrance of Things Past (À la recherche du temps perdu) among the friends of Pozzi and Montesquiou.

Of course, it takes Barnes’ extraordinary talent to weave the narrative of Pozzi’s life into a fine piece of literature.

TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM: A Novel, by Yaa Gyasi
You’ll recognize this author who a few years ago wrote the gripping novel Homegoing: A Novel (2016), which follows the descendants of two Ghanaian girls through seven generations from Africa to the US.

Gyasi’s newest novel, which James Woods of The New Yorker thinks is the better, takes place in the US, the narrator a not particularly likable 28-year-old Ghanaian/American woman. Just out this week, I’ve not had a chance to read it, but it’s at the top of my list. If you haven’t read Homegoing, you’re in for a treat. It’s extremely clever without being trite and the provided genealogy chart makes easy work of keeping track of family lines.

These spell-binding novels are wreaking havoc on my sleep cycle, but, after all, we are in the midst of a pandemic. I can take a nap whenever I choose. Stay safe and happy in your reading!