Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Sunday, February 28, 2021

"The Invisible Land" by Hubert Mingarelli

I'm pretty sure I finished reading this book a week or so ago, and I'm pretty sure too much time has passed for me to do it justice in a blog post. I really need to be more careful to blog when a book is fresh on my mind (AND before I've allowed it to become eclipsed by reading other books). 

This is another of Mingarelli's subtle but powerful books (that is, of course, impeccably translated). It's novella-sized and, I think, better consumed in one sitting. It tells the story of a photojournalist and the young soldier assigned to drive him around the German countryside in July 1945 in order to photograph German families in front of their houses. As the days pass, apprehension builds quietly. 

Hubert Mingarelli, who sadly passed away just over a year ago, has written a number of novellas centered on or around the Europe of World War II. He is certainly not alone in writing about that time period, but he is unique in his treatment of the topic: oddly serene while simultaneously rife with tension.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

"Big Macs & Burgundy: Wine Pairings for the Real World" by Vanessa Price with Adam Laukhuf

I told Bookworm Child (who I suppose will technically be Bookworm Adult in a few short months?) that the only thing I wanted for Christmas was for her to tidy her bedroom. Well, her bedroom is still a mess, but she gave me a lovely gift bag stuffed full of all kinds of things that she knew I would like. This book was one of them. 

I'd actually seen this book somewhere in the weeks leading up to Christmas (maybe at Target?), picked it up and gave it a look, then put it back down, I guess mostly because I don't eat many Big Macs anyway. But of course if my child gives me a book as a gift, I'm going to read it. 

Unfortunately I'm going to have to hope that my children don't read this blog, because (while wine is for me, and food is for me) this book was not for me. It's cute, and it's funny, and I love the drawings and photos, but ultimately I had to force my way through it, fighting boredom and feelings of pointlessness. In fact, I ended up skipping over most of the descriptions of pairings (though I at least read the title of each one) because, after the first few, they felt a bit meaningless. They struck me the same way as the back labels of wine bottles: sometimes it seems like the writer just made up a bunch of crap. Crap that sounds amazing, of course! But crap nonetheless. 

The first portion of the book is educational, which would be helpful except that for me it did not stick. It's all about levels of acid, sugar, tannins and alcohol, and how these affect the flavor (and other characteristics) of a wine; different wine-growing climates; how to describe the way a wine tastes; and different types of wine. It's obvious that Vanessa Price knows her stuff. But (despite the light-hearted tone and humor) I found it dull reading, and even after reading it, *I* don't know her stuff. 

Then we get to the pairings (which are myriad, and which is where the pointlessness comes in). I'm sure the majority of the food suggested is meant to be accessible for Everyman, but so much of it is crap! I'm not about to eat Marshmallow Peeps or Honey Nut Cheerios just so I can see how great they taste with the wines they're paired with. Not to mention the fact that most of the wine in this book would be impossible for me to find. (And why would I bother trying to find it if I don't want to eat the food it's paired with?) 

I did read all of the "Winesplaining" and other brief articles interspersed throughout the book, which was fun and informative but mostly served to belie the purported accessibility of these pairings. I mean, really, I think the cover and title of this book are misleading. They make you think it's going to be down-to-earth, but it's not. It's hoity-toity and out of my wine league. But it was fun to read about how the "other half" lives! One example of this, which is probably the one part of the book that will stick in my mind, is from Chapter 15 ("Expense-Account Prep Course: For Ladies Who Power Lunch," which obviously is not for Everyman): a dessert called the Arctic Bird's Nest that is served at Aquavit in New York City. I'd like to try that someday. And if I ever have the chance to do so, maybe I can pair it with a Cypriot Commandaria (like Keo St John, which is fortified, or Tsiakkas, which is not). 

I must admit that Sam and I are in a wine rut. We each have a favorite chardonnay, and we share a favorite red and a go-to champagne (ah, excuse me, actually prosecco), so this book temporarily gave me a slight impulse to be a little bit more adventurous, like I was in my wine blogging days. But what was I doing in those days if not looking for my favorite wines? And now that I've found them, why would I start looking again? Besides, I never could decide which wines I liked best unless I tasted several together, and I never could remember what I thought of each without writing it down, but also I never could really put wine descriptions in writing--I was just making crap up like the people who write the back labels for wine bottles. 

Vanessa knows why Sam and I drink champagne every Friday

Friday, February 12, 2021

"So Long, See You Tomorrow" by William Maxwell

This is a beautiful little book, a novella really, that is both subtle and intense. The unnamed narrator, an old man, relates memories from a brief period of his childhood. The writing is evocative and utterly real-seeming, surely because the story is partly based on the author's life (e.g. the narrator's mother dies of the flu in 1918; William Maxwell's mother died of the flu in 1918) which blurs the line between fact and fiction and made it impossible for me to see where the divide occurred. The story deeply but quietly explores the themes of guilt, divorce, trauma and grief. 

Most of the plot occurs at a remove from the narrator; he is an observer rather than an active participant. He tells the story of his classmate, Cletus Smith, and the love affair between Smith's mother and the farmer next door that causes the fracture of both families and the death of the farmer. The narrator puts his memory of what he was aware of as a child together with newspaper accounts and realizations that occur to him as an adult, and fills in the gaps with speculation. 

This is one of those books that doesn't spell everything out clearly--it requires some reading between the lines, which I appreciate because I feel it is a sign that the author has respect for the intelligence of his readers. I enjoy the challenge of reading books like this. However, I also find it mildly frustrating, especially if I am uncertain as to whether I am interpreting everything the right way. My solution in this case? After finishing this book, I literally immediately reread it to try to parse out more of its secrets. (This didn't take long, at 135 pages.) It's a sure sign of the quality of this book that I didn't find the re-read boring, and I do feel like it solidified my confidence in my interpretation. For instance, in my first read-through I thought I detected hints that the murder was committed by someone other than the character everyone suspected; my second read helped me determine that wasn't the case.

I just have two question remaining. First, on page 5 of my copy, the narrator says, "one of the crimes mentioned in that book took place in a house on Tenth Street, one street over from the house we lived in when I was a child." I tried to make this crime out to be something that is described in further detail later in the story, but I think I have come to the conclusion that it's merely tangential and is never mentioned again. Second, the ear (also mentioned on page 5) . . . I don't understand why this was done (or where it ended up). After reading the book twice, I'm pretty sure it's up to me to decide the answers to the ear question.

Monday, February 8, 2021

"Dept. of Speculation" by Jenny Offill

You know that song "Up the Junction" by Squeeze, that covers the whole arc of a relationship from its happy early days to its sad death? Dept. of Speculation is that song in book form, only not quite so upbeat. 

Not that this is a bad thing. I found it a really good book, in spite of or along with or because it is heartbreaking. It's written in a very similar style to Offill's newer book Weather, with the same brief, loosely-connected paragraphs. And of course it has the same clean, concise, evocative writing. 

I would definitely read this again someday. Despite the fact that I am approaching (or possibly even already in) the second half of my life, despite the fact that I'm feeling the pressure of too many books and not enough time left in my life to read them all, I would spend part of what remains of my precious reading time in re-reading this book. 

Sunday, February 7, 2021

"The Sociopath Next Door" by Martha Stout, PhD

This book caught my eye on a recent trip to Books-A-Million. I definitely prefer fiction over non-fiction, but I picked this one up and read a few tidbits from it and was interested enough that I couldn't just put it back down and forget about it.

Before reading this book, I was never very clear on the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath. Since reading, I've decided I'm pretty sure that they're the same thing except that the psychos aren't disguised as normal humans. 

According to this book, a sociopath is a person with no conscience. They feel no guilt or shame and have the freedom to do whatever they want with no moral restrictions. Some dominate the business world, some operate out of envy and try to bring others down, some are incredibly lazy and feel no compunction about sponging off others. Some are unusually charming, hiding the hollow interior where normal human attachments are ordinarily formed; some are more irritating and grating. Contrary to popular belief, not all are criminals (though those who are feel no remorse). 

I'm just speculating here, because obviously I'm far less knowledgeable than the clinical psychologist who wrote this book, but I wonder if it's more nuanced than that? Maybe some sociopaths just have an underdeveloped conscience instead of completely lacking one. Maybe some people have some sociopathic tendencies or sometimes engage in sociopathic behavior but aren't always completely inhuman. Either way, reading this book has led me to identify three likely sociopaths: one that I know personally, one that I know tangentially, and one that I know from the news. Obviously I'm not gonna name any names here. And I could be completely wrong! But it's definitely food for thought.

Monday, February 1, 2021

"The Girl Who Reads on the Métro" by Christine Féret-Fleury

This is another little perfectly-sized book. I love the look of it, and I love the feel of it--the weight of it in my hand, and the velvety smooth dust jacket--but as far as the actual reading of it      . . . meh. 

The tone of the story is mostly light-hearted and quirky, and utterly French, all of which makes me think of the movie Amélie (even though it's been so long since I watched it that I really don't remember anything about it). And it's all about books, and loving books, and reading books, which is of course right up my alley. But it kind of gave me the impression that it's also intended to be deep and meaningful, like some sort of parable, though really it's just weird. And it never really hooked me. Case in point: I bought it (at Half Price Books!) last November and started reading it right away, then kind of forgot about it for a few months before rediscovering it and finishing it this week. 

This is the story of Juliette, who lives in Paris and works at an estate agent's and seems kind of bored with her life except when she reads. One day while on her way to work she happens upon a gate that is wedged open with a book, so of course she goes inside. And there she finds Soliman and his young daughter and piles and piles of books. Soliman supplies the passeurs of Paris: people who leave books throughout the city for passersby to take. Can you guess who then becomes a passeur? It all sounds magical, doesn't it? But unfortunately somehow, for me, the whole was lesser than the sum of its parts.