Reading Sara Review: The Book of Speculation, by Erika Swyler

The Book of Speculation, by Erika Swyler

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Rating: 3.5/5

Hardcover: 352 pages

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press; 1St Edition (June 23, 2015)

Reading Sara Review: I liked this book, not a lot, but I did like it. The Book of Speculation follows Simon Watson, a librarian who lives in a house in Long Island that is beginning to crumble over the cliff into the sea. His life begins to change in multiple ways at once – the younger sister that he raised on his own is coming for a visit after years of being away (traveling with a circus as a tarot card reader), his library is going through budget cuts which will likely impact his job, and a book arrives at his doorstep. The book is what ties it all together, a puzzle that he wishes to solve and connects him deeply with his sister, the ocean, a man across the country who sent the book to him, and his neighbors – who have always been a part of his life, but he had no idea how connected they really are.

The story goes back and forth between two different time periods, and as you read, some of the mystery begins to unravel. This book is full of intrigue, magic (the Tarot and curses kind), and family trust and loyalty.  As usual with these types of books, every time the chapter switches I am a little disappointed because I have become invested in the story, which in general is a good sign.

Simon comes from a family of mermaids (sort of, they can breathe underwater for amazingly long time periods), but the book begins to unravel the mystery of what happens to these mermaids – a mysterious drowning, all on the same date through multiple generations.

What I loved about this book was the underlining theme of the true power of books. A book changed the course of Simon’s life and those around him in powerful ways. At the beginning of the story, Simon is lost, living in a house that literally represents his life (unchanged, surrounded by memories of his parents, and his waiting for something – his sister, love, his job – to happen). In the end, it is a book that brings him to this moment of change.

The Book of Speculation had many side characters that I was interested in learning more about and often wished to get a story from their point of view. However, the novel did a great job staying the course of this story and being true to who the primary characters were, which I appreciated as well.

I had a few concerns with the book. First, I did not understand Simon and his sister Enola’s relationship. Why did they insist on keeping so much from each other? He raised her; did she really feel zero loyalty to him? Why didn’t she tell him sooner to get out of that house? Secondly, Simon and Alice (his neighbor’s daughter)’s love felt a little forced. Are we really to believe that prior to this story there were no feelings between the two of them? That they had grown up together and all of a sudden fell for each other one random day when they had a difficult day at work? I found this all very confusing, especially because I saw no reason why her father would be against the match. More things relating to their family being connected (no, not actually related) come out later – but still, I would think that Simon was the son that Frank always wanted. Lastly, I was underwhelmed by the ending, truth be told. I am curious what other people thought – did it wrap up the mystery?

If you were a fan of The Night Circus or Water for Elephants, this has some of the same themes – not just the circus feeling – but the darker side of that and the mysteriousness that surround the people and certainly the magic.  The characters are interesting, the story is unique – not a favorite of mine, but a good, creative story.

Reading Sara Review: When Everything Changed, by Gail Collins

When Everything Changed, by Gail Collins

The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present

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Rating: 5/5

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; 1 edition (2009)

Reading Sara Review: In honor of Women’s Equality Day this past Wednesday, August 26th*, I wanted to review a favorite book of mine.  I read this book about four years ago and I recall feeling all emotions during the reading of it, but most especially: I want every woman in my family to read this. I wanted to discuss this with my grandmother, I wanted all of my female (and male too) friends to read it right away – and I wanted to have deep discussions with everyone about it. I have calmed down a bit on my absolute raving of this book, but it has stayed with me, and felt absolutely appropriate this week to make it my review.

The book starts in the 1960s, with a story of Lois Rabinowitz, who was chastised by a judge in New York City for wearing slacks to pay her boss’s speeding ticket. The 1960s. Not that long ago, ladies (and men!). Times have changed in so many ways since then for women – including the regular wearing of pants in all professions – but we still have a long way to go.

The most defining section of the book for me was on housework, and how the invention of new appliances changed the opportunity landscape for women dramatically. Women were traditionally in charge of all housework and cooking at home, while the men worked. Before the invention of a washer and dryer, chores would literally take all day. Before the oven and the microwave, cooking would be time-consuming.

Once appliances were more readily available, women simply had more time in the day, especially once their children were at school. This allowed them to seek opportunities outside of the home. The sociological impact of the invention of the washer and dryer absolutely amazes me.

Collins talks about the suburban flight – and that the suburbs were “singularly unfriendly to the concept of a two-income family. Day care was virtually non-existent, and relatives who might have been available for babysitting had been left behind in the cities or on the farm.” In some ways in the 60s, having a stay-at-home wife and a house in the suburbs signified prosper and wealth. Unfortunately, this did not leave many options for work for the women living at home, if they wished to venture outside the home.

Fun Side note: I always wondered why relatives of an older generation referred to the refrigerator as an “icebox.” Well, that is what they grew up with – literally boxes chilled with ice that had their food in it.  An “iceman” came to refill the ice, just as a postman delivers mail. Old habits, right?

The book goes on through the next few decades, discussing the Civil Rights movement and the impact that had on women of all races. The book was originally published in 2009, and ends talking about some pretty important women, Hillary and Sarah. I will not go into politics in this post, but the impact that these two women had in the 2008 presidential election is remarkable. Sarah Palin was repeatedly questioned on how she could handle the responsibility of children and the Vice Presidency. I do not recall any interviews with President Obama asking that same question. Hillary’s pantsuit colors were a hot topic during the election as well, but clothes were not a topic on the male side (though hair and haircuts for men certainly have been).  I agree with Collins that these two women changed the political conversation forever and it seemed fitting to end the book with them.

A lot of amazing women have come before us and live among us now. After reading this book, I went on a spree of learning more about Betty Friedan, Sandra Day O’Connor, Alice Paul, and Gloria Steinem among many others.  Learning about these women is important, they paved our way to be doctors, lawyers, writers, senators – or whatever else we chose. That is what they paved the way for: choice for women. I believe it is critical to continue their legacy by fighting for equal pay, pay while on maternity leave and continued opportunity for choice – these are things that matter for our generation. And I believe that we owe it to these woman and the daughters of future generations to continue this fight.  I don’t care if you consider yourself a feminist (male or female), this is about equality and humanitarianism.

I bought a second copy of this book recently (my first copy was forced among many friends, and was never returned, unfortunately, so I have to hope that it is continually being read and shared among others interested in reading it). The new copy is a “Keepsake” Copy with space to write notes, interview relatives and share memories. How I wish that I had this copy when my grandmother was alive. Her memory was impeccable until her last day, and hearing her stories always transplanted me to another place. I would give a lot to know her thoughts, memories and have them written down. So, call your grandmother, call your mother, call other important women in your life and share this book with them! Start the conversation and learn!  And happy reading!

*Wednesday, August 26 is Women’s Equality Day because it commemorates the day women were granted the right to vote in 1920. For further reading on why we still need a Women’s Equality Day, I recommend this Time article.

Book & Wine Wednesday: Adult Coloring Books (obviously with wine)!

Book & Wine Wednesday: Adult Coloring Books (obviously with wine)!

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Unless you have been living under a rock this past year, then you know that adult coloring books are all of the rage. Admittedly, I first heard about them from my mom – so wasn’t entirely convinced of the cool factor (no offense, Mom!), though I completely supported her doing them as a meditative experience. After a couple of other friends started raving about their coloring books, I decided it was time to get on the bandwagon. I am so glad that I did.

In case you have been living under a rock, I will fill you in and try to convert you: coloring books are totally in and totally awesome right now. The Secret Garden, an Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book is #6 on Amazon’s Best Seller List for 2015. It’s sequel, Enchanted Forest, a Inky Quest and Coloring Book is #10.  Another coloring book is #15, and Balance, the one I chose, is #20. Adults love coloring. Maybe some of this has to do with the goal to unplug from technology and try to get some stress relief from our daily lives and computers (though of course you are likely to see people’s art on their Instagram and Facebook accounts – and here on my blog). If you are not ready to convert yet, you might be interested to know that George RR Martin is overseeing a project for a Game of Thrones themed coloring book (coming out in October of 2015) – tagline “All Men Must Draw.” This coloring book craze is a thing – and I do not think it is going away anytime soon.

I bought the book Balance by Angie Grace, she has a series of similarly titled books such as Centered, Whimsy, and Cool. Balance was the first, and honestly, what I was seeking through this coloring experience.  There are many other options (if you are also into this and can give me recommendations, please do!), but some seemed a little too detailed or specific. In addition to the book, I also bought new gel pens in many colors so that I could really let my creativity fly.

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Before I show you my current drawing, I feel that I need a huge disclaimer: I am NOT an artist! I do not color inside the lines all of time.  I do not even really understand what colors harmonize together. But guess what? That doesn’t matter! So, please don’t judge, I do not expect my husband to hang these masterpieces on the refrigerator anytime soon, but I love it!

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I have not had the opportunity to color every day yet, but have found myself drawn mostly to find “Balance” when I come home from work. I have been around people all day, faking being an extrovert, and am finally able to sit at my dining room table and have some peace and quiet. I am keeping my hands and mind busy, while taking a break from reality and the world around me. It is the perfect opportunity for unwinding. In addition to that, it is utilizing a different part of my brain than I use at work (which will hopefully lead to positive long-term great memory!)

I have also found drawing to be a great break from reading. It trains your mind in a different way. I let my mind wander for a bit, and then bring it back to the moment. It really is a quiet, meditative time to focus on something mindless (in a different way that is much more restful for me than watching mindless television). I love reading, and reading relaxes and inspires me also – but sometimes my eyes need a break.

Curious about something else that is great about adult coloring books? No one is telling you what colors to use, this is not paint by number – it is your creation. Sometimes I find myself using darker and deeper colors, other times I grab the glittery pens. This ability to express my emotions, whether I am conscious of it or not, is actually quite relieving. I do not overthink it, I just draw.

Wine Recommendation: Coloring and Wine go together like peanut butter and jelly, my friends. It is still hot here in Denver, so tonight I am drinking a white wine that I have had chilling for the past two weeks waiting to drink. As you can see in the picture above, it is the Honey Beast 2014 Roussanne from Paso Robles, California (2 hrs north of Santa Barbara). Here is the description from the back of the bottle: “Delicate yet robust, Roussanne has a well-deserved reputation for being a difficult grape to grow. However, once you taste the Honey Beast’s golden liquid, you’ll be drawn in by the full-bodied texture, honeyed richness and distinct apricot flavor. Drink it now, or age if for the next 4-6 years.” Yeah, thanks, I’m going to drink the golden liquid now.

Friday Fun: This is what our President is Reading!

Last week, Washington Post reported on President Obama’s summer reading list.

One thing that I love about reading is knowing how many other people (some of them quite powerful) have been moved by the same passages, the same characters, and felt the same feels as I did in my favorite books.

Knowing that Oprah loves a book as much as I do is a bit thrilling to me (and likely thrilling to others as well, shown by the power of her Book Club). But equally as thrilling is knowing that my friends, my loved ones also loved a book as much as I did. This is one of the primary reasons that I started a blog – I want to know what other books my friends cried over, could not stop thinking about and share those experiences.

Check out President Obama’s Summer Reading List: 6 Books on President Obama’s Reading List. Which of these on President Obama’s list have you read?

I have only read two – be sure to see my review on Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I have not written a review on All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr just yet, but it is a lovely read as well.

Wishing the President happy reading this summer – wondering if maybe he’ll start blogging as a post-presidency hobby?

Book & Wine Wednesday! Reading Sara Review: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler

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Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler

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Rating: 4/5

Paperback: 375 pages

Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin; Reprint edition (March 4, 2014)

Published: 2013

Amazon Book Description: When beautiful, reckless Southern belle Zelda Sayre meets F. Scott Fitzgerald at a country club dance in 1918, she is seventeen years old and he is a young army lieutenant stationed in Alabama. Before long, the “ungettable” Zelda has fallen for him despite his unsuitability: Scott isn’t wealthy or prominent or even a Southerner, and keeps insisting, absurdly, that his writing will bring him both fortune and fame. Her father is deeply unimpressed. But after Scott sells his first novel, This Side of Paradise, to Scribner’s, Zelda optimistically boards a train north, to marry him in the vestry of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and take the rest as it comes.

What comes, here at the dawn of the Jazz Age, is unimagined attention and success and celebrity that will make Scott and Zelda legends in their own time. Everyone wants to meet the dashing young author of the scandalous novel—and his witty, perhaps even more scandalous wife. Zelda bobs her hair, adopts daring new fashions, and revels in this wild new world. Each place they go becomes a playground: New York City, Long Island, Hollywood, Paris, and the French Riviera—where they join the endless party of the glamorous, sometimes doomed Lost Generation that includes Ernest Hemingway, Sara and Gerald Murphy, and Gertrude Stein.

Everything seems new and possible. Troubles, at first, seem to fade like morning mist. But not even Jay Gatsby’s parties go on forever. Who is Zelda, other than the wife of a famous—sometimes infamous—husband? How can she forge her own identity while fighting her demons and Scott’s, too? With brilliant insight and imagination, Therese Anne Fowler brings us Zelda’s irresistible story as she herself might have told it.

Reading Sara Review:  Biographical fiction has always been a favorite genre of mine, and this story of Zelda Fitzgerald fit that genre perfectly.  I always walk away from these books with inspiration to learn more and enchanted by a different time, place and group of people. This book is clearly very well researched, and while the actual conversations probably did not occur, Fowler seemed to stay factual to the character’s personalities of those times in a true way. Reading about all of the fascinating people that they interacted with (Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Sarah and Gerald Murphy), made this book a fun time-traveling escape that made me want to re-watch the movie Midnight in Paris, or just go back to Paris!

Zelda Fitzgerald is a fascinating character in her own right, outside of being the wife of famous author F. Scott Fitzgerald.  She is passionate, lovely, and ambitious.  Zelda was very much a woman of her time – seeking a calling for her own pursuits as well as supporting those of her husband (even if she did not consider herself a feminist – which I believe was likely rooted in her southern upbringing of that time).

Was she as crazy as Hemingway made her out to be? Was the Fitzgerald’s relationship as tumultuous as her book claims and their friends claim? Probably. But that just makes their story even more exciting. I have not read Tender Is the Night (F. Scott Fitzgerald) or Save Me The Last Waltz (Zelda Fitzgerald). If you have – you know more than me on this topic.  In each, they give their own account of what happened to their marriage, which again, some truth likely comes from each.  This novel paints Zelda in the more positive light, and rightly so, because I think this book finally made it clear that it was Zelda’s turn to shine, as history (and Hemingway) were not kind to Zelda.

The relationship between the Fitzgeralds and Hemingway is certainly fascinating in its own right. The impact that Scott’s friendship with Hemingway had on his marriage makes for interesting gossip and speculation.  Hemingway’s passion of hating Zelda honestly seems strange and confusing. I enjoyed Fowler’s speculation of what might have occurred to make Hemingway turn against Zelda, especially because it seems to be in line with other things I have read about Hemingway.

I had no idea about all of Zelda’s talents – from the ballet dancing, to her writing and her art. She was truly much more than a muse and a wife. It seems to me that throughout her life she was continuing to search for a form of expression that would define her. Often times, it seemed she was too late or that she was simply in the wrong era for a career. And her illness so early in her life certainly stifled her own passions.

Modern doctors have said that Zelda likely suffered from bipolar disorder. I truly believe so much would be different for Zelda had she lived 50 years later – not just in the end, rather than be in asylums and institutions because of her mental illness – but she would have had a different type of freedom. She would not have had to wait until Scott Fitzgerald was rich to marry him, and she would have been free to pursue her passions alongside her husbands.

A couple of years ago, a few others books around Zelda came out – which doesn’t surprise me. We are always interested in the woman and the life that she led behind the scenes.  Scott and Zelda could arguably be considered one of society’s first “glamorous couple.” They were famous for their public drunkenness, their lifestyle and spending habits. If you are unfamiliar with the Fitzgeralds, this story will be a fun way to learn about them – knowing that it is historical fiction about real people, so while there may be some truth, you will have to judge much of it for yourself.

This book inspired me to read many others – of which, I have only read one so far. What wonderful Jazz era books surrounding the Lost Generation do you recommend?

Wine Recommendation:  Well, because Zelda and Scott were fairly serious party people, I would recommend something celebratory – a champagne! My personal favorite is Moët & Chandon, which retails for a little more than my average Wednesday night wine at around $60. Save it for a special occasion (or use it to create a special occasion – my favorite way!) and toast to Zelda!

Reading Sara Review: I’ll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson

I’ll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson

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Rating: 4.5/5

Hardcover: 384 pages

Publisher: Dial Books; First Edition first Printing edition (September 16, 2014)

Amazon Book Description: Jude and her twin brother, Noah, are incredibly close. At thirteen, isolated Noah draws constantly and is falling in love with the charismatic boy next door, while daredevil Jude cliff-dives and wears red-red lipstick and does the talking for both of them. But three years later, Jude and Noah are barely speaking. Something has happened to wreck the twins in different and dramatic ways . . . until Jude meets a cocky, broken, beautiful boy, as well as someone else—an even more unpredictable new force in her life. The early years are Noah’s story to tell. The later years are Jude’s. What the twins don’t realize is that they each have only half the story, and if they could just find their way back to one another, they’d have a chance to remake their world.

Reading Sara Review: This is one of those books that I know I will think about in years to come because of the lovely and unique way the story was told, the beautiful flawed characters and the redemption that comes from setting the truth free. As cheesy as it is, I laughed and cried and felt deep emotions for these characters, and that is a feeling that I will not easily forget.

As the description notes, Jude and Noah, fraternal twins, only have one side of the story, and it is told alternating from their point of view and in different time periods. They are teenagers, coming-of-age, learning who they want to be, who their real friends are and learning that every action comes with consequence. The story is a mystery, because the reader does not know how things unfold, how everything became so complicated until the time periods come together.

I loved reading Noah’s POV. His artistic passion came out at every scene, his conflicted heart and desires were right there on the page. It felt like with his artist’s eye, he could really see through people (most especially Jude), he knew when they were closed off, sad or something else entirely. Rather than speaking with other people, he used his drawings. I know that some critics of this book felt that the artistic metaphors go completely over the top, and honestly, who knows if a 13 year old boy would be that advanced in his artistic expression, but I did not mind. I thought it was a unique form of expression for a book to describe art in this way, and I felt like I could see the art each time in my mind (when you read it, you will know what I mean!). I knew what each drawing, sketch, sculpture or painting looked like just from the words, and that is really amazing writing.

This book is in the young adult category, but the themes and characters are much deeper than many young adult novels go to. The bond between the twins is deep and certainly a primary theme throughout the book. The bond is not always positive though – because Jude and Noah associate themselves so much with one another, that association can come with jealousy, hurt and misplaced anger as well as the pride, love and friendship.

This book is so real – about families, secrets and teenage angst – but on the other side, it’s magical (no, not in the Harry Potter sense), but magical in the ghosts, the prophesies and the worlds colliding seemingly unintentionally, but it most certainly was some form of magic, was it not?

The story did end pretty perfectly, which I hope is not a spoiler, but I feel like it should be a warning, because a lot of people do not like their novels with everything tied up in a bow. I hope instead that the happy ending proves that secrets have a way of coming out, and the anticipation and worry is often much worse than the actual result.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book (no spoilers!)

“Everything is true at once. Life is contradiction. We take in every lesson. We find what works.”

“We were all heading for each other on a collision course, no matter what. Maybe some people are just meant to be in the same story.”

“Who knows if there are ghosts or just the living, breathing memories of your loves ones inside you, speaking to you, trying to get your attention by any means necessary?”

Book & Wine Wednesday! Reading Sara Review: Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal

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Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal

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Rating: 4.5/5
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books (July 28, 2015)

Amazon Book Description: Kitchens of the Great Midwest, about a young woman with a once-in-a-generation palate who becomes the iconic chef behind the country’s most coveted dinner reservation, is the summer’s most hotly-anticipated debut.

When Lars Thorvald’s wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine—and a dashing sommelier—he’s left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own. He’s determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter—starting with puréed pork shoulder. As Eva grows, she finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota. From Scandinavian lutefisk to hydroponic chocolate habaneros, each ingredient represents one part of Eva’s journey as she becomes the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club, culminating in an opulent and emotional feast that’s a testament to her spirit and resilience.

Each chapter in J. Ryan Stradal’s startlingly original debut tells the story of a single dish and character, at once capturing the zeitgeist of the Midwest, the rise of foodie culture, and delving into the ways food creates community and a sense of identity. By turns quirky, hilarious, and vividly sensory, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is an unexpected mother-daughter story about the bittersweet nature of life—its missed opportunities and its joyful surprises. It marks the entry of a brilliant new talent.

Reading Sara Review: This book was such a fun treat that it only took me two days to read (though I wish it had taken longer because I loved it!). Great Kitchens of the Midwest tells the story of Eva, who has an incredible passion for cooking and a palate that comes “once in a lifetime.” The story is told in such a unique way that I simply could not put it down. Eva’s life story is told only once through her own eyes and instead is mostly told through other people, some who meet her only briefly (but perhaps come back in the end, you will have to remember some names!), and some who clearly have deeper connections with her. In this way, you watch Eva grow up and develop into a person that you cheer for to succeed – you worry about her struggles with bullying as an adolescent, you cannot believe that she can eat such spicy food at a young age – and you watch her come into her own as a chef. The end was touching, surprising and left me wanting more resolution, but sort of happy that it is left to the reader’s imagination.

I loved Stradal’s writing style. While the chapter featuring Broque, Eva’s cousin,  was hard to read, he captured her personality (a very angry college freshman girl) in a way that made you cringe – in good way. The writing took on each character with fervor and helped the reader become invested in each part of Eva’s life. I look forward to more books by J. Ryan Stradal to see his writing continue in this interesting and unique way and evolve even further.

The concept of Eva’s pop-up restaurant was intriguing, and a creative way to showcase her own personal creativity as a chef. It represented what and who she was passionate about in a way that no normal restaurant could do. Even though this book is about Eva, she is still a little mysterious to the reader since we do not always read from her POV. The pop-up restaurant concept fits within this well, because it was always a mystery – what people she chose to attend the gatherings, what food would be served and where. And it certainly left me dreaming of her food (and knowing that even if was real, I could not afford the $10,000 meal price tag!).

The Midwest in and of itself was an influential character in this novel. It shaped who Eva met through her youth and her frequent moves. It also clearly influenced her food, her tastes, and what flavors she explored at different points in her life.

Oh, and did I mention that there are recipes that guide each chapter? I am positive that I cannot master the recipes in the way that Eva or Lars could have, but it can certainly make for an entertaining culinary adventure. This book was a fun way to explore the prominent foodie culture in America, while telling an excellent story of a young girl, who grows into an indescribable woman, and how some things are meant to happen through chance, whether we are ready for it or not.

Wine Recommendation: I am not a sommelier, but reading this book and trying to match the incredible recipes with wine sounds like an adventure to me!  Unfortunately, I have zero training in that – am only trained in enjoying wine and enjoying reading. So instead, I am going to recommend a wonderful summer white that may or may not go with what you are making, but is still a delicious wine that I think you will enjoy. Benessere Vineyards in Napa Valley, like this book, is a treasure. I have been twice, and both times am mesmerized by the beautiful scenery (grapes & vines, obviously) and the kind winemakers. I think that they do Italian varieties the best, and recommend their Pinot Grigio (about $22). With hints of fruit and lemongrass, this will pair well with whatever dish you decide to make from the book (maybe, because again, I’m not a sommelier, so I do not really know).