Tag Archives: Food & Dining

Editor’s Letter

By Jane Bauer

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery

One of my favorite things is to rearrange a room and I have found that many spaces benefit from having things removed rather than added. The trouble is we get so attached to having stuff and having things the way they are.

Even if you don’t consider yourself as someone who concerns themselves with design, most of us add our own signature to a space. Think for a moment about your living room, picture it in your mind if you aren’t there. Visualize each item that you have chosen and ask yourself why? Is it for its sentimental tie to a past event – a display of photographs perhaps? Maybe the object has a practical use – a candy dish, or a foot roller you keep tucked under the couch. Why have you arranged the furniture the way it is – to maximize light or seating faced towards the television set?

What about the colors? Were you intentional as you filled this space or did it become layered over itself with time? What might be taken away? How does the room reflect who you are and your habits?

In this issue our writers explore design. We didn’t limit the topic to home design or architecture or clothing and it was fascinating to see what people came up with. From papel picado, to the clothes we wear to the buildings we spend our lives in, what is clear is that no corner of our lives is untouched by design. Unknowingly, we have each curated our lives, piece by piece over time.

You may not consider yourself a symbol of design but the truth is that we all are. Our style is reflected in our clothes, our haircut, our living room, even the plates we choose to eat our dinner off.

As we approach this commercial season what if instead of adding more stuff to our ever-growing piles, we became intentional about the spaces and objects we already have? Decluttering your space has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, and lead to greater creativity.

Let’s lighten our load as we vault into 2024!

Editor’s Letter

By Jane Bauer

“By standing together in unity, solidarity and love, we will heal the wounds in the earth and in each other. We can make a positive difference through our actions.”
Julia Butterfly Hill

This month our writers explore political parties and revolutions. In my cooking classes I always say that the recipe for a revolution is a few very wealthy people controlling everything while poor people do all the work. This has been true during most of the large revolutions of the past that were a reflection of class struggle.

With technology and the decline of environmental quality, we are seeing a new kind of revolution and it doesn’t care how much stuff you have- in fact the less the better.

Back in 1997 Julia Butterfly Hill ascended Luna—a giant 1,500-year-old redwood tree near Stafford, California, and spent 738 days in a tree to protest the logging industry. Her act was seen as radical and perhaps crazy- there is no denying it was a huge commitment. However when examined through the lens of today, while an outrageous act, the philosophy behind it is being embraced more than ever.

People are fleeing urban areas for cleaner air, access to water and nature – planning for survival in an ever growing hostile world. Peasant life is the new rich. With carbon dioxide levels on our planet at the highest they have been in 4 million years, we have seen a rapid increase in temperature, which is leading to drought, forest fires, dying coral, melting permafrost, loss of biodiversity and decimated crops.

Where this will take us is anyone’s guess. As a species we are slow to make immediate changes for long-term gain- we are impatient and want what we want now.

Thanks for reading,


The Green Revolution

By Kary Vannice

When we hear the word “revolution,” most of us think of people clashing with other people, fighting for opposing rights or ideologies. However, in recent decades, a new kind of revolution has emerged, one that differs in its focus and purpose. The “Green Revolution” is not about people fighting one another, but about humans combatting a common and existential threat – climate change. This revolution transcends borders and beliefs and pits humanity against the fallout of its own environmentally destructive habits.

Traditional revolutions seek to overthrow existing political systems or religious ideologies. In contrast, the Green Revolution seeks to transform values and behaviors to ensure a sustainable future. It calls for a shift from consumerism to sustainability, from short-term thinking to long-term planning, and from environmental exploitation to conservation and preservation. The transformation it promotes is not political, social, or religious, but connected to our individual and collective values.

Just as different strata of Mexican society rallied together against foreign occupiers during the Mexican Revolution, millions of people across borders, cultures, and demographics have rallied together in the common goal of combating climate change.

All revolutions have their quiet rumblings that start long before they erupt onto the world stage. The Green Revolution’s rumblings started in the mid 20th-century when books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) began raising concerns about the impact of pesticides on the environment. Within a decade, the state of the environment became a major part of the global political conversation; the first Earth Day was held in 1970 and the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment happened in 1972.

Climate change has been a major headline grabber for the last two decades, so most of us are familiar with the public figures like Greta Thunberg, Jane Goodall, Al Gore, and Leonardo DiCaprio, as well as the most talked about climate concerns like extreme weather events, renewable energy, deforestation, carbon emissions, and rising sea levels. But, as individuals, it’s difficult to take action against such monumental concepts and global threats.

However, we each have ways in which we can contribute to change for a more sustainable future.

Consumer choices have a significant impact on environmental sustainability. People are increasingly using their purchasing power to drive change, demanding eco-friendly and ethical products. Consumer activism and ethical purchasing are all about supporting sustainable businesses, reducing single-use plastics, and opting for renewable energy sources. By making informed choices and asking companies to adopt sustainable practices, individuals play a pivotal role in the Green Revolution.

Financial institutions and investors are recognizing the value of green finance and investments in driving this environmental revolution. Financing renewable energy projects, green infrastructure, and sustainable businesses is essential for transitioning to a low-carbon economy. Green bonds, sustainability-linked loans, and impact investments are key financial instruments that can be employed to support environmentally responsible initiatives.

Green funds typically invest in companies that follow sustainable practices such as renewable energy, clean technology, conservation, and other environmentally responsible activities. By investing in green funds, individuals or institutions can align their investments with their values, contributing to both environmental and financial goals.

Shifting thinking from a “buy-use-dispose” mindset to a more circular “reduce-reuse-recycle” mindset may seem like a small contribution to a mammoth problem, but every big revolution was won because of a series of small battles. In our communities here in Mexico, as well as back home in the US and Canada, it’s generally the low-income and vulnerable communities that bear the brunt of negative environmental impacts and extreme weather events. Before disposing of an unwanted item, consider whether or not it might still have some life left in it for someone else. Donating items rather than throwing them away can extend product lifecycles, minimize environmental impact, and create a more sustainable economic future.

Participating in local, grassroots community clean-up projects like “Playas Limpias,” supporting community-run farmer’s markets, and buying local, sustainably made products can put you on the front lines of the Green Revolution.

The Green Revolution is not just about averting environmental catastrophe; it’s about preserving the planet for future generations and, like many revolutions throughout our history, is a testament to the potential for positive, collective change. The Green Revolution represents a turning point in the way humanity confronts its most significant challenges.

Saving Fish from Drowning

By Jane Bauer

‘Do not feed stray dogs and cats.’ I recently posted this opinion on a thread and received a snappy comment from someone who called me cold-hearted and that they couldn’t believe we had friends in common, as though who would be friends with someone who wouldn’t feed stray animals.

While I have seen our community grow, I have seen the stray animal population grow as well.

Different cultures have varied standards for how they regard different animals. In Ecuador eating guinea pigs is a norm, while in the US and Canada they are regarded as pets. While much of the world considers dogs and cats as pets rather than food, there are still many countries where they straddle into the food category. In the Philippines dog meat is the third most popularly consumed meat after pork and goat. In Vietnam fried cat meat and beer is a popular dish in Hanoi. When I was in Switzerland, I was surprised to find Canadian horse meat on offer at the local grocery store. In India cows are considered sacred and not-food, in fact, there are entire towns that are vegetarian. All this to say that there is a wide spectrum of cultural divide in how animals are treated.

While in North America (Canada, US, Mexico) cats and dogs are non-food, there are discrepancies with how they are cared for. For many, pets become a part of our family, they are treated like children that are helpless and require human care for all their needs. For others, they are nice to have, but they also serve the purpose of protection, status or keeping other unwanted critters away.

As the coast has become more developed there are some wonderful organizations that have done amazing work with spay and neuter clinics to help keep the dogs and cats from overpopulation. This is very important because overpopulation of stray animals can lead to pack mentality, they can carry disease and take a toll on the other wildlife.

Then there is the feeding. Each morning during the tourist season as I drive into work, I see a blond woman putting out bowls of food in front of her condo, a pack of dogs cluster around her and she looks very pleased with herself. However, for the rest of the year these dogs roam the neighborhood looking for humans to feed them and have been known to get aggressive.

I recently pulled up to Chahue beach for a sunrise meditation and witnessed a man surrounded by about thirty cats as he doled out kibble, the cats were practically clambering up his legs. While I am sure he believed he was doing a good deed, science would tell you he was not.

Feeding stray animals causes them to congregate in small areas where they are at greater risk from car traffic. If they are not fed by humans, they will expand their search for food and spread out. Cats or dogs hanging out in one spot means they will poop in one spot. If this is an area where people walk their domesticated pets or children play, they are at risk for a variety of zoonotic diseases. Stray cats that are fed by humans are more likely to breed. One study found that stray cats NOT fed by people have smaller litters and lower kitten survival rate. Long-term feeding makes animals dependent on humans and contributes to breeding.

“Sure, some animals do need our help as we often need theirs. But most of them are doing perfectly well on their own and our failure to recognize that not only undermines their natural instincts and intelligence, but can also send us down the rabbit hole of martyrdom and hero syndrome which we can all do without.” Rubaiya Ahmad, founder of Obhoyaronno – Bangladesh Animal Welfare Foundation which is leading the charge for animals in Bangladesh.

So why do people feed stray animals? Check your own bias and needs that are being filled by this act. I have sponsored two spay and neuter clinics in my village and have been asked by many people ‘but why do white people steal dogs.’ Seeing a dog off a leash does not mean it is homeless. If you want to help animals I suggest making a donation to an organization that does spay and neuter clinics.

And why dogs and cats? There are many animals that can use our help. Save marine life by not using sunscreen when you swim or go vegan. Save a chicken, and bring it home with you to Calgary. Studies have shown that chickens feel empathy, experience REM dreams, are behaviorally sophisticated, and demonstrate thinking skills on par with mammals and primates.

A good rule of thumb I use before feeding a stray animal is to ask myself whether I am willing to domesticate it all the way. This means to provide housing, regular food, spaying/neutering, and vaccinations over the course of its lifetime. If the answer is no, walk away.

The best way to help street animals is to financially support organizations that perform free spay and neuter clinics.

A Cultural and Culinary Concierge for Oaxaca

By Anna Von Frances

Mario Rubén Ramírez López, better known as the cultural guide Mario Come Oaxaca (“Mario Eats Oaxaca), is already waiting for me at a corner table in the back of a blink-and-you’d-miss-it Middle Eastern restaurant tucked away on a cobblestone side street in Xochimilco. I don’t have to look for him, even though the restaurant is relatively full, because his presence, although subtle, commands attention wherever he goes. There is a sort of fairy dust that Mario emits, that it-factor prerequisite of 70s rockstars – people are naturally drawn in. Mario somehow manages to be understated and over the top in the same exact breath. He’s wearing a traditional Oaxacan dress and giant faux fur sandals – he does not blend, and yet, you feel at home with him. In fact, he’s so at home, he’s like a ballerina gliding her body through the space around her.

Mario also seems to glide though markets, past street vendors and around restaurants, comfortably working any room in front of him. His love of Oaxacan food, art, culture, and the people who create it is so infectious you can’t help but get excited yourself. I mean the excitement is palpable.

He doesn’t care that I am late. In fact, he doesn’t even mention it. In some ways we are meeting for the first time but have been in contact for years. I have been taking note of all his recommendations and writing to him about tours and restaurants since I found him three years ago in the midst of the pandemic.

I hesitate to describe “Mario Come Oaxaca” as a food tour, or even an “experience,” because both would come off as trite. Mario is more of a culinary concierge to the city than a tour guide, and it shows. As both a chef and artist in his own right, he has a very carefully curated selection of food and art vendors, built up over decades of working in Oaxaca. Going out with him is an intimate experience – he’s simply inviting you into his culture, and sharing his best recommendations. Eschewing Airbnb and all other mass marketing strategies, he simply books through his social media channels. Want more information? Click the link and you will be directed to his personal What’sApp – which is exactly how we met three years ago and have stayed in touch ever since. It feels as if we are friends and I imagine that is how all his guests feel. It is effortless how he navigates these relationships (which are really his work), always inviting you in and making time for you, always offering you a menu suggestion or a great mezcal.

There is no equal to Oaxaca in terms of its culinary prowess. Mexico, as a nation, enjoys a UNESCO designation on its cuisine, but Oaxaca is the jewel in that crown. It’s where the tortilla, tomato and cacao were born, the cuisine is literally and figuratively endless. In a world of culinary kings, Oaxaca is a king maker. For generations, it’s been a tourism beacon to international chefs, foodies and Mexicans looking to get caught up in an infectious cultural cornucopia of mezcal, cacao, corn, and mushrooms.

Since COVID, however, Oaxaca has been flooded with a new kind of mass market tourism that has made it harder to get straight to its authentic heart. People have always flocked to Oaxaca to eat, but now they are driven more by price point and Instagram selfies, which has somewhat muddied the waters.

Looking for a tour online can be overwhelming. The commodification of Oaxaca is ever present online and in the streets. Lineups have formed. The hot sauce is not spicing like it once was. Day of the Dead is sponsored by international vodka brands now, bringing in electronic music DJs from Europe. Mario calls this the “Coco effect,” after the Pixar movie, which may have had a heavy hand in it. But for me it’s more of a global trend – vaguely reminiscent of a homogenized Starbucks lineup.

We need hosts like Mario more than ever. His story starts in an all too familiar place: three years ago, he was working as a chef in the kitchen of a mezcaleria and lost his job because of COVID and had to move back to his home town of La Mixteca, which is almost at the border of Puebla to the north. Mario was already known around town for his impeccable taste, regularly invited to share a mezcal and his recommendations at the tables of guests in restaurants he worked in. From his family home, he put out some feelers on his Instagram page and booked his first tour within an hour. And things have only grown since that first timid post.

What drew me to him was his taste. Bar none. So many guides who were once locals-in-the-know have been swallowed up by the Starbucks line up and now work with big brands for cash, shedding the small local artisans that made them so popular in favor of branded content and paid-in-full vacations. Mario is a staunch foodie – as a chef, he’s always on the hunt for quality, and there is no shortage of it to showcase in Oaxaca either. You come to Mario when you want to discover something new, when you really want to learn how to eat. And the best part is, whether it’s your first time and you want a proper intimate introduction to Oaxaca cuisine, or you have been a hundred times and you’re looking to up your game, he has both covered with style.

In recent years, Mario has added tours out of the capital city to towns in the Isthmus, as well as the north; most notably his tour to Huautla, home of the mushroom majesty herself, María Sabina. Each of Mario’s tours is off the beaten path and works with locals who are featured directly. On these tours you will still get salsas that pica and mezcal served in unmarked bottles.
To get the best out of his experiences, Mario suggests, “that you come with an open mind, ready to integrate into the culture.”

Here are his top favourite haunts to take visitors to:

  1. Mercado de Abastos: “My number one, because it’s the largest market in Oaxaca, where you will find anything and everything.”
  2. Tianguis de Tlacolula: “It’s the oldest market in the state, where corn and cacao were previously exchanged for goods.”
  3. A tie between the markets of Ocotitlan and Zaachila: “They may not be as well known, but they have retained their essence and authenticity.”

For more info or to book a tour, please visit his Instagram page directly @mario.come.oaxaca.

Photo by Guillermina Foto @ stamatti_foto

COTTON: Politics and Production in Mexico

By Julie Etra

Did the Mexican Revolution start with a prohibition on “underwear”?

Cotton, Coercion, Morality, and Modernization

Porfirio Díaz, the 33rd president of Mexico, was a complicated and controversial character; by the end of his seventh (and last) term, many considered him a dictator whose policies led directly to the Mexican Revolution. His successive administrations focused on modernization, economic development, and trying to “Europeanize” Mexico.

In the late 19th century, Díaz prohibited men from wearing the traditional white cotton clothing known as calzón de manta. This very Mexican clothing originated in pre-Hispanic times, particularly in the warmer regions of Mexico. It consists of loose-fitting, long-sleeved white shirts and pants, woven from 100% cotton and often tied with a colorful red or blue belt. The design promoted cooling airflow next to the body, and Porfirian administrators saw it as peasant underwear – immoral and definitely not modern.

Calzón de manta was worn particularly by campesinos (rural farmers), and Díaz associated these clothes with the backward, uneducated, and unrefined lower classes; from his perspective, calzón de manta symbolized a Mexico that prevented social and economic growth. Some urban communities, including Guadalajara, required that men arriving from the countryside remove their calzon de manta and rent more appropriate pants, including a type of denim, before entering the city.

Historian Florencia Gutiérrez, Ph.D., of the Colegio de México, ties the prohibition on calzón de manta to the Porfiriato’s concern with eliminating alcoholism and improving personal hygiene; as for calzado (footwear), huaraches were bad, too.

All about Cotton

But cotton, it turns out, is not just a peasant fabric despised by 19th-century elites. Cotton is called algodón in Spanish; the word is ultimately derived from the Arabic name al-qutun. Cotton is known as ixcaxíhuitl in Náhuatl, and taman, piits’ in Mayan.

The scientific name for the species cultivated in the western hemisphere is Gossypium hirsutum; its origin and evolution may be parallel to that of Gossypium barbadense, a cotton that emerged near eastern Sudan in the Middle Nile Basin around 5000 BCE.

The first cultivated cotton fabric of the species G. barbadense appeared around 3000 BCE in the Indus River Valley (present-day Pakistan). Around 2500 BCE, Chinese, Egyptian and South American civilizations begin weaving cotton fabrics. Although Mexico claims to be the origin in the western hemisphere, the oldest cotton fabric was found in Huaca Prieta, an archeological site in Peru, and dated to about 6000 BCE. It is hypothesized that Huaca Preita is the western hemiphere’s site of domestication; cotton seeds and rope dating to about 2500 BCE have also been found in Peru.

Some of the oldest cotton bolls (the mature flower) were discovered in a cave in the Tehuacán Valley in Puebla, Mexico, dating to about 5500 BCE. By 3000 BCE, cotton was being grown and processed in Mexico and the southern United States (the town of Algodones on the Arizona-Mexico border is currently dedicated to dental tourism). In the 1700s, cotton was grown in the Keres and Tiwa native American pueblos in southern Arizona, then sold to other pueblos. Drought and lack of arable land, combined with raids by the Apache led to the demise of cotton cultivation in the area.

Columbus found cotton growing in the Bahama Islands in 1492, and by 1500, cotton was known generally throughout the world. In the United States cotton is said to have been planted in Florida in 1556 and in Virginia in 1607. By 1616, colonists were growing cotton along the James River in Virginia.

Cotton’s Cousin – the Lovely Hibiscus

Cotton is closely related to hibiscus and they both reside in the mallow family, Malvaceae, which also includes the common hollyhock (Alcea rosea), globe mallows (Sphaeralcea), and checker mallows (Sidalcea).

Hibiscus plants are tropical ornamental shrubs, common around Huatulco, and one of my favorites, given all its varieties and showy flowers. Hibiscus is not native to Mexico, with India and Africa the disputed origins. However, we do have a beautiful native with sealed petals, Malvaviscus arboreus, found along trails and the forest edge. According to a 2007 article in the Boletín de la Sociedad Botánica de México (Bulletin of the Botanical Society of Mexico), the Malvaceae family comprises 2.7% of all species in the Huatulco National Park, with 11 genera and 18 species. (You can learn more from Diagnóstico de los Recursos Naturales de la Bahía y Micro-cuenca de Cacaluta (Assessment of the Natural Resources of the Bay and Micro-Basin of the Cacaluta River), available at the UMAR bookstore for 258 pesos).

The Malvaceae family also includes Hibiscus sabdariffa, aka flor de jamaica, whose fragrant and sticky calices are steeped to make the delicious beverage, agua de jamaica; this plant, however, is native to Africa, having found its way through trade routes to the West Indies and on to the tropics of Mexico and Central America.

Much to my irritation, hibiscus is also a favorite food of iguanas, and in my stubbornness, I continue to replant them and try to protect the younger plants, usually to no avail. I sometimes catch the athletic reptiles devouring the flowers and tender shoots. Our friend Juan just laughs at me, gestures, and points at his stomach, indicating that they make a fine stew and medicinal soup, at least the black and white iguanas.

Mexican Cotton Today

Today, all cotton is obtained from four domesticated species; of these, the Mexican highland cotton (G. hirsutum) comprises 90% of world production. Countless traditional Mexican clothes – way more than calzon de manta – and fabrics are woven from cotton. It is also used in the production of rope/twine, paper, banknotes, cooking oil, packaging, cosmetics, hammocks, and even livestock feed.

Cotton production in Mexico occurs primarily in the border states of Baja California, Chihuahua, Sonora, Tamaulipas, Coahuila, and the centrally located Durango. Cotton requires both water and some fertilizer, along with a warm climate and full sun – these northern Mexico states provide ideal growing conditions. In 2021 approximately 164,000 hectares were under production, with the primary market being the U.S., followed by El Salvador.

In terms of world production, India and China vie for producing the most cotton worldwide, with India in the lead for the moment, followed by the U.S., Brazil, and Australia. In the 2018-19 growing season, Mexico was the world’s 9th-largest producer, but as Mexico has outlawed genetically modified (GM) cotton seed and the herbicide glyphosate, it has dropped back to 13th in worldwide cotton production. Press reports indicate that some Chihuahuan cotton farmers are looking for alternative crops, because non-GM cotton seeds don’t produce well enough to be profitable.

Mexican Cotton for Your Home

For excellent quality hand-woven cotton tablecloths, napkins, bedspreads, etc., you can look in any number of weaving shops in La Crucecita, mostly in the south end of town – for example, Casa Textil Escobar is located on the corner of Cocotillo and Bugambilia, while Textil Arte Huatulco is closer to the central square, at Flamboyan 116.

Day of the Dead and Sukkot: Dead Ringers?

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

When we first were in Mexico for Day of the Dead (an autumn more than 25 years ago), we had the feeling of deja vu or, more appropriately, ya hemos visto. No, not because of the superficial similarity with Halloween. As we were escorted around a cemetery by a proud local resident who explained Day of the Dead customs and told stories about the members of his family who were interred there, we were struck by the similarities with the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

Both Sukkot and Day of the Dead are autumn festivals. Both have been celebrated for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The celebration of Sukkot is described in the Torah, aka the Old Testament (OT), partial copies of which have been scientifically dated from around 500 BCE. Although Day of the Dead may not be quite as old, there’s reportedly archeological evidence that the celebration occurred centuries before the Spanish began colonizing the Americas in 1493. Both holidays should actually be called holy days since there is a deeply spiritual significance for both practices – and these holy days (two days for Day of the Dead and eight for Sukkot) are synonymous with the practices in many ancient tribal cultures of providing thanks to divine beings for that autumn’s agricultural harvest.

Both holy days involve building a relatively small temporary structure. The Day of the Dead altar, or ofrenda, has three distinct levels. The sukkah, or booth of Sukkot, is defined by three walls. The top level of the ofrenda is an open arch and the top of the sukkah must be open to the sky. The building and decorating of both structures is commonly communal and cooperative. Flowers, especially marigolds in Mexico, are generally brought from individual and community gardens to beautify the ofrenda and sukkah.

Both structures are viewed as portals through which ancestors can visit the living, or at least the living can remember and honor the memory of deceased relatives. The ofrenda, as the name implies, provides a table for holding food and drink preferred by deceased relatives along with photos of the dearly departed. The sukkah walls are traditionally decorated with pictures of ancient ancestors – Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah and Rachel – plus, in more modern times, photographs of more recent forebears. A table is set up in the sukkah where foods made from favorite recipes from previous generations are served.

Prayers and spiritual ceremonies are an important element of both Sukkot and Day of the Dead. Subsequent to the conversion to Catholicism of the indigenous people of Mexico by the Spanish conquerors, it is not surprising that Day of the Dead prayers ask for blessings on the souls of the departed in the name of Jesus Christ. But more ancient elemental spiritual Day of the Dead ceremonies focus on fire, water, earth and wind. Sukkot prayers and ceremonies also include these elements: fire in the form of candle lighting, water in prayers for rain, earth in the form of the branches of three plants (palm, myrtle, and willow) that are bound together to form a lulav and are held together with an etrog (citron), and wind created by shaking the lulav in all four directions plus up toward the heavens and down towards the earth.

At first glance, both observances appear to be grave in tenor. Day of the Dead ceremonies take place in cemeteries, both Holy Days take place at the time of year when flora and fauna are entering their dormant stage, days are growing shorter and darker, and the focus is on dead ancestors. But both Day of the Dead and Sukkot observances are joyous. In fact, Jews and everyone in their communities are literally commanded in the Torah (OT) to be happy. And, as part of the joy, both Holy Days involve storytelling, music and dancing.

Another shared practice is feasting with family and friends. Foods are distinctly ethnic but fundamentally similar. Bread is an essential component; aside from the addition of anise, Pan de Muertos (bread of the dead) resembles the challah served on Sukkot – they have virtually the same ingredients and much the same taste. At both holy feasts, it’s common to serve seasonal fruits and vegetables seasoned with sweeteners, as well as stuffed ancestral foods: kreplach (little dumplings stuffed with seasoned chopped meat) for Sukkot and tamales for Day of the Dead. Children of both cultures enjoy candied apples – albeit decorated as skulls for Day of the Dead.

Perhaps these similarities are based on the core principle of both observances – the realization that life on Earth is temporary, that one day we will all join our ancestors. And the hope in both cultures is that just as we remember those who came before us, we in turn will be remembered for good by those who come after us.

Into The Stretch: Year-End 2023 Notable Novels

By Carole Reedy

Catch up on your reading now, because the last few months of this year are filled with new works from our favorite writers.

But who’s missing? Donna Tartt fans are combing the web in search of her next book. It seems she publishes one every ten years: 1992, The Secret History; 2002, The Little Friend; 2013, The Goldfinch. 2023? Tartt’s novels are long and lush with unforgettable plots that twist and turn. They always feature vivid characters and an imaginative writing style that captures the reader from the start. My search for her next work has been unsuccessful as of this writing.

In better news, here’s a selection of new books that have been published or will soon be during the second half of 2023. This list includes some of my favorite writers and, judging from your messages to me, yours too.

Provocatively, there are three books of short stories on this list. I consider myself and readers of this column literary novel admirers, but these brilliant collections just may just have turned my head.

Crook Manifesto: A Novel, by Colson Whitehead
Second book in the Harlem Trilogy

This is Whitehead’s second novel in his Harlem Trilogy. While you can enjoy Crook Manifesto on its own, for maximum pleasure take time to read Harlem Shuffle (2021) first. I like to call the Trilogy Whitehead’s love story to Harlem. This second novel takes place in 1976 as the bicentennial celebrations are in full swing. However, it’s business as usual for crooked politicians and the manipulation of the poor and disadvantaged by up-and-coming “wannabes.”

Ray Carney, everyone’s favorite furniture vendor, seems to find himself once again in the midst of the machinations of less-than-savory company, including a shady candidate for political office who is ironically actively supported by Ray’s wife Elizabeth. Ray’s family has a welcome presence in this second book, and we hope will again in the third.

Delightfully dark and mysterious characters, though tinted with affection, sprinkle the text. This is Whitehead’s magic: he gives us the harsh reality of Harlem from the inside out. He goes to the heart of the city, as well as to the heart of his characters, offering a glimpse into the soul of the ‘hood and the denizens who struggle there daily.

Zero-Sum: Stories, by Joyce Carol Oates
Despite more than 100 extant novels, short story collections, nonfiction books, and essays, Oates delivers every year new creations to equal and even surpass her past successes.

Oates is audacious and intrepid, conveying that which often goes unsaid. Her latest collection does just that with a wide range of characters, emotions, and settings in place and time.

The most memorable of these is a story called “The Suicide,” told from the point of view of the one attempting to commit it. He mesmerizes us with his confusion, determination, apprehension, and pain.

Three other stories especially will remain with us and even haunt our dreams. We who have experienced a pandemic now have visions of our future world. Oates delivers a triad of stories about the future years of our planet. Need I say more?

Cravings: Stories, by Garnett Kilberg Cohen
Garnett Cohen popped into my life several years when a Chicago friend gifted me her novella, How We Move the Air (2010). A collection of seven linked stories, it was an unusual and stunning read in many ways, leaving me craving (no pun intended) more from this author. Since then I’ve religiously read Cohen’s collections of short stories as well as her individual works published in a diverse range of magazines. I and my band of avid readers highly recommend her short story collection Swarm to Glory (2014).

Through the details of everyday life, Cohen opens up a character’s world. The slightest phrase evokes a flood of emotions. At one point I felt, “This author knows me; I feel this way too.” There is good variety in the selection of these stories: they’ll make you laugh, cry, or just sigh. Like Joyce Carol Oates, she can be dauntless, an admirable and necessary quality in a writer.

Thoughts of Proust and involuntary memory come to mind when reading these stories. From the end of “Hors d’oeuvres,” the first story: “Our memories travel with us over the years, popping up when least expected.” As an avid traveler, I love to think of my memories traveling with me, at home and abroad.

I would have liked to point to my favorite story from the collection, but I can’t. I admired them all, each in its own way.

Roman Stories, by Jhumpa Lahiri
Many of us were crushed a few years ago when Lahiri announced she was moving to Italy to write and publish her future books in Italian. This endeavor proved successful, and we’ve now been rewarded for our patience. Lahiri has created an homage, a collection of short stories where the main personage is the magical city of Rome. She wrote these stories in Italian and translated them to English with Knopf editor Todd Portnowitz.

Kirkus gives the collection a starred review, praising this new work from a veteran writer: “A brilliant return to the short story by an author of protean accomplishments … filled with intelligence and sorrow, these sharply drawn glimpses of Roman lives create an impressively unified effect.”

This is Lahiri’s first short story collection since she published Unaccustomed Earth in 2008.

It’s also appropriate to mention here Lahiri’s first novel written in Italian, which she then translated into English. Called Whereabouts (2021), it consists of 46 chapters, or rather entries into a diary, that are one woman’s reflections on her life. Highly praised by critics and a definite thumbs-up from me.

Baumgartener, by Paul Auster
One never knows what to expect from this icon whose repertoire over 38 years always surprises and never disappoints. His range of subject matter is vast, as are the style and breadth of his 18 novels.

This newest asks, “Why do we remember certain moments in our lives and not others?” The protagonist is a soon-to-be retired philosophy professor and phenomenologist. Auster’s prose takes us on a literary journey with characters Sy Baumgartner, his dead wife Anna, and his Polish-born father, a dressmaker and revolutionary.

This is his first novel since the extraordinary 4 3 2 1: A Novel was published in 2017.

Recently, Siri Hustvedt, Auster’s renowned philosopher/author wife, posted on Instagram that Auster is suffering from cancer and being treated with chemotherapy and infusions. As a fan since 1972, this news breaks my heart.

Day, by Michael Cunningham
It’s difficult to contemplate writer Michael Cunningham without conjuring up thoughts of an equally imposing author, the illustrious Virginia Woolf. Cunningham resurrected the memory of Virginia Woolf with his Pulitzer-winning novel The Hours: A Novel (2019). In The Hours, Cunningham relates moments in the life of Woolfe through three separate characters and stories. It is a tour de force that will haunt you long after you finish it.

In his newest novel, Cunningham takes us through three days (April 5 in 2019, 2020, and 2021) in the lives of a New York family.

The highest praise comes from another famous writer, Colum McCain (Let the Great World Spin, 2009) “Michael Cunningham crafts a glorious sentence, and at the same time he tells an achingly compelling story that speaks precisely to the times we live in. And it all flows so damn gorgeously that at times you just want to suspend the sacred day itself and hold it close, never let it, or the characters, go.”

The Bee Sting: A Novel, by Paul Murray
Rave reviews everywhere. Long waitlists at the library that include yours truly. The Los Angeles Times calls it a masterpiece, saying “it ought to cement Murray’s already high standing…it’s a triumph of realist fiction, a big, sprawling social novel in the vein of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. The agility with which Murray structures the narrative around the family at its heart is virtuosic and sure-footed, evidence of a writer at the height of his power deftly shifting perspectives, style and syntax to maximize emotional impact. Hilarious and sardonic, heartbreaking and beautiful.”

Plus a sneak preview …

March 2024
James, by Percival Everett
Move over Demon Copperhead, James is coming. Everett reworks Mark Twain’s classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884 in the UK, 1885 in the US) in this most anticipated novel. We’ll be eager to see if he can accomplish what Barbara Kingsolver was able to achieve in her brilliant and award-winning novel Demon Copperhead: A Novel (2022), which possesses the bones and heart of the beloved Dickens classic David Copperfield.

Percival Everett’s most recent books include Dr. No: A Novel (2022, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award), The Trees: A Novel (2021, finalist for the Booker Prize and the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award), and Telephone (2021, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize).