What I choose to read…

I’ve been away from this blog several months now. There was a time when I would review every book I read and post something new every day. I stopped because it felt like I’d run out of things to say and I wanted a little break which turned into a long one.

Anyway, I’m back because once again I have things I want to share and over the past week in particular, I found myself composing blog posts in my head. There’s been one thing on my mind a lot lately, and that is a significant change in my reading habits.

I say on the ‘about me’ page of this blog that

“I read a lot of books, mostly nonfiction…memoirs, biography, history, science, nature, travel and books about food. I don’t usually read fiction, but I will make an exception every now and then.”

That was very true when I wrote it three years ago. And it had been true for nearly twenty years at that point. But over the last three years I have found myself reading fiction more often than not.

It wasn’t a conscious decision to read more novels. It was something that just happened. I started this blog and then I was reading other book blogs and listening to book podcasts and picking up recommendations…

Reading and listening to other readers gush about certain books made me want to read them. And a lot of the books that I was hearing about were novels. The more I heard about these books and these writers, the more I realised how circumscribed my reading life has been.

I’ve always been quite open when it comes to non-fiction. I don’t stick to authors I know. I’m willing to pick up any book that sounds interesting and really, it is the subject that matters more than the author. As long as the writing is good and the subject is intriguing, I’ll read pretty much any writer.

But my fiction reading has been rather limited. In the sense that mystery novels meant Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen, thrillers began with Alistair MacLean and then there was Arthur Hailey and Jeffery Archer. Science fiction was Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov.

Fantasy meant Tolkien and Pratchett until I finally picked up the Harry Potter books. Throw in Wodehouse and Jane Austen and I’m done. That has been the sum of my fiction reading in the past. And I never considered how limiting it was because I didn’t read a lot of fiction anyway.

So there I was hearing about all these books and so many authors that I’d never heard of, who apparently wrote some very good books and I realised that I was missing out. My ‘I don’t read a lot of fiction’ stance started to sound a bit stupid. I mean why ever not? Why do I not read fiction? I had no good reason to offer other than…habit, perhaps.

So I started picking up a few of these books. The first book that I picked up because I heard about it on the radio was The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. Then I read The Martian by Andy Weir. Then there was A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving and Stardust by Neil Gaiman. All four utterly brilliant books that made me pick up others along the way and caused a fundamental shift in the books I choose to read.

I can no longer say that I read a lot of books, mostly nonfiction. I read a lot of books, period.

Gratitude by Oliver Sacks

It’s been months since I’ve felt like writing a review or had anything in particular to say on this blog. But I have just read something so good and so beautiful, something that moved me so much that I have to talk about it and tell everyone I know to please read this book…

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The book that I am talking about is Gratitude by Dr Oliver Sacks. It is a very short book, just sixty pages. It is a collection of four essays that were written and published at different times in the last two years of his life. (Dr Sacks passed away on 30th August, 2015 at the age of 82.) These essays are meditations on old age, mortality and reflections on a life well lived.

That in itself is not remarkable. What makes this book special is the way Dr Sacks has approached these topics. There is sincerity here, a sense of wonder and an infectious joy that will lift your spirits, make you smile and make you think that maybe life is not so bad after all.

The writing is delightful…lyrical, intelligent, lucid prose that is a joy to read. Despite the fact that Dr Sacks lived in the US for the entirety of his adult life, there is a quintessentially British quality to his writing…a gentle humour and a certain self-deprecation that I find very appealing.

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Here he is in his own words:

“One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’ too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At eighty, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age.”

The above quote is from the first essay called ‘Mercury’. It was written shortly before Dr Sacks’ 80th birthday. The significance of the title is that Mercury is the 80th element in the periodic table. Dr Sacks was apparently fascinated by the physical sciences and the periodic table in particular, ever since he was a child and he always thought of his birthdays in terms of the elements.

Now that is charming. The next essay is called ‘My own Life’ and it was written several months later when Dr Sacks was told that he had multiple metastases in his liver. There are very few treatment options for this particular type of cancer, so he was basically facing the fact that he only had a few months to live.

This essay isn’t an account of what it’s like to have to deal with cancer or the surreal experience of knowing with reasonable certainty that you’re going to die soon. Instead, it is a meditation on a life that’s been long and rich. Dr Sacks doesn’t dwell on his frailties and his approaching mortality, but he looks back on his life and he is clearly happy, because it was a good life, rich in people, relationships, incident and experience…

Here he is again:

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and travelled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

I can’t read these words and not be overcome. Being alive is a privilege, one that we don’t appreciate enough. This book is full of gems like this and if I keep going, I will have to quote it all. So I’ll stop here. There are two more essays in this collection that continue to explore these thoughts and ideas and they are well worth reading. This is a book that I’m going to treasure. I’ve always said that the most valuable books in my life are the ones that I know I’m going to read and read again. This is one of them.

 

24 in 48 readathon 

23-24th July is the 24 in 48 readathon weekend. The idea being that we get in 24 hours of reading over one weekend. I read about this on litsy and I was instantly on board. I love the idea. Not just because it lets me read all weekend, but because signing up for the readathon means that I have to carve out chunks of time for reading…so I get three to four hours of continuous reading at a time instead of the bits and pieces kind of reading that is my normal.

There is nothing better than settling down with a book and reading it in one or maybe two sittings. I used to do that often enough as a kid and a teen (staying up until three or four in the morning to finish my book was completely normal.) But it isn’t something I get to do now. The last book I read in one sitting was Alan Bennet’s The Uncommon Reader. But that is a novella and it only has around eighty pages, so it doesn’t really count.

The last decent sized book I read in one sitting was Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About my Neck. That was eight years ago. I still remember that afternoon. I was at my parent’s house. My kids were still toddlers back then. We’d just had lunch and my kids were busy with my dad and I had nothing pressing to do, so I picked up this book, streched on the couch and started reading. I read and read with no awareness of anything but my book and four hours later, I literally woke from the book to find my kids napping and my mum making tea. It was a wonderful afternoon, a rare indulgence, particularly at a time when I was stressed out and desperately tired from trying to keep up with two very young kids.

Anyway, I am hoping to indulge properly this weekend. I don’t think I can manage 24 hours of reading in two days. Right now, I’m aiming for twelve. Anything more than that is a bonus. The best part about this weekend, though, is that I have managed to get my kids involved in the readathon. They are both confirmed readers who ask for books as birthday gifts. But reading for hours on end is rare for them because they have so many distractions and neither of them has ever read a book in one sitting. I’m hoping they’ll find out what that’s like this weekend.

As for what I will be reading, I have two books going at the moment (being in India, my readathon started eight and a half hours ago,) Now Read On by Bernard Levin and My Grape Year by Laura Bradbury. I have plenty to say about both of these authors, particularly Levin, so I’ll save that for when I post reviews of these books. Now Read On is a collection of essays, drawn from newspaper columns that Levin used to write for The Times (London) and The Guardian back in the eighties and nineties. This particular collection was published in 1990. My Grape Year is a memoir. I’m thoroughly enjoying my reading, so I will go back to my books. I will post an update on my readathon tonight.

Happy reading.

The weekend is over. My readathon is done and it went very well. My daughter and I got in 16 hours of reading and my son managed 15. It was intense and truly wonderful to push everything aside and just read for a whole weekend. It was a great experience for the kids and we’re all looking forward to the next readathon which happens in January.

Film Review : Spotlight

I don’t usually review films on this blog, but sometimes, I come across a movie that I can’t help talking about. Spotlight is one such. This is a movie that comes highly recommended and it lives up to all the praise. It is a thoroughly well-made film. It is a true story and the subject matter is something that we have all seen before, unfortunately. But what makes this movie special is the way the story has been told. It engages you from the very first frame and it keeps you hooked until it is over. And then…it makes you think.

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The movie is set in Boston and at the Boston Globe in particular. ‘Spotlight’ is the name of the team of investigative journalists working at the Globe. And the story under the lens here is that of a few catholic priests in the city of Boston who have been accused of molesting children. The film begins with the arrival of a new editor, Marty Baron, who is an outsider in many ways. He’s not from Boston and he’s a Jew. Not that a big deal is made of his Jewishness, but it is alluded to a couple of times.

Boston is a Catholic town and though incidents of molestation have been reported several times, the police have never filed cases against the offending priests and the victims have been too afraid to speak out. Even the newspapers have given the stories as well as the victims, very little attention. The new editor wants to change that. He believes that this is a story that needs to be told.

Considering how many of these incidents have been reported, he wants the Globe to do a proper story on it, complete with follow ups and details. Because it is clear that neither the accused priests not the Catholic Church will be tried in a court of law and stories like this will continue to be buried and children will continue to be at risk.

The Spotlight team is given this assignment and they find themselves wondering why they haven’t really pursued these stories so far. They just all got buried somehow.  As they start digging and finding out things, they are revolted, angered and looking for some semblance of justice. Soon they are all deeply invested and though they find themselves blocked again and again, they push on and in the end, they get the story with all of the sickening evidence. And they put it out there for the city to read.

This movie tackles a painful and uncomfortable subject, but it does it with grace and restraint. A story like this is always going to feel like a kick in the gut, but since the focus is on the journalistic aspect of it, it is a bit easier to handle. It makes you feel for the victims, but it does so with enviable gentleness and without ever getting preachy.  I’m not going to call it entertainment, but it is a story about people fighting for truth and justice and it is told in a riveting manner. It is a picture of what responsible journalism can be like and it is a must see for that reason alone.

Book Review : Beaten, Seared and Sauced by Jonathan Dixon

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The book comes with the tagline, “On Becoming a Chef at The Culinary Institute of America.” That should give you a fair idea of what the book is about. It is about one man’s experience, training to be a chef. It is a memoir and a surprisingly good one. I have read quite a few such memoirs, so I came to this book feeling a bit blasé.

I was between books and I wasn’t in the mood to pick up anything very heavy or very engrossing. So, a bit of light reading, I thought. And it was. But it was also a surprising amount of fun. This is a good book. The writing is not exceptional, but it is good. And it is written with an honesty that I found rather appealing.

Jonathan Dixon is a writer and a journalist who in his late thirties decided to make a career change. So he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America and he trained to become a chef. He had a lot of doubts and insecurities, obviously.  It is not easy to go back to school when you’re pushing forty. It takes a fair bit of courage and faith in yourself.

Some of the book is about that…the joy and the fear involved in throwing everything up and going off to follow your dream when you’re at an age where you’re supposed to be settled into a career, married, starting a family and so on. It is a difficult choice to make and it is even harder to stick to it once you’ve made it, particularly when you are having money troubles and you’re surrounded by people half your age.

The bigger part of the book is an account of his experience learning to cook. He writes about the CIA, the teachers, his fellow students, all of the things he learns, both small and big and you get a real sense of what it is like to be in culinary school and how difficult and how rewarding the entire experience can be, for someone who loves to cook.

I like to cook and I love memoirs, so of course, I enjoyed the book. But I don’t think you have to be interested in food to enjoy this book. It is a well written memoir, full of interesting characters and it is at its core an account of someone trying to follow a dream.

Book Review : Paris Letters by Janice Macleod

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The blurb for this book is as follows:

“How much money does it take to quit your job?”

Exhausted and on the verge of burnout, Janice poses this question to herself as she doodles on a notepad at her desk. Surprisingly, the answer isn’t as daunting as she expected. With a little math and a lot of determination, Janice cuts back, saves up and buys herself two years of freedom in Europe.

A few days into her stop in Paris, Janice meets Christophe, the cute butcher down the street—who doesn’t speak English. Through a combination of sign language and franglais, they embark on a whirlwind Paris romance.

She soon realizes that she can’t ever return to the world of twelve-hour workdays and greasy corporate lingo. But her dwindling savings force her to find a way to fund her dreams again. So Janice turns to her three loves—words, art, and Christophe—to figure out a way to make her happily-ever-after in Paris last forever.

It sounds like a novel, doesn’t it? It’s a memoir and it could have been cheesy given the well worn, oft-repeated theme, but it isn’t. It is an honest, funny, self-deprecating account of the author’s attempts to turn her life around, to get out of the corporate rut and create a life that is happy and meaningful.

And the way she goes about it is so unusual. She writes letters to people, painted letters. Each letter is set in a particular spot in Paris. She paints the scene, leaving some room for text and writes about that place and that moment in time.

Then she makes copies of that letter and sells them on etsy.com. The letters are beautiful and she has subscribers who get twelve letters a year. Some of them write back and there is this wonderful correspondence in the book between Janice and her grandmother and this other lady, a Canadian called Mary.

The book is written well and it holds your interest all through. The reason for this, apart from the writing is the author herself. She’s funny and quirky and she’s engagingly honest. And Christophe, her husband by the end of the book, is very charming.

She writes lovingly about him and her account of their wordless romance (you can’t talk much when you don’t know each other’s language) is well worth reading about.

Book Review: My Grape Village by Laura Bradbury

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This is the second book by Laura Bradbury, also a memoir, also set in Burgundy. It is set around five years after the first book (My Grape Escape) which I reviewed in my previous post.

At the time the narrative begins, the author and her husband have been running a successful vacation rental business for the last five years and are now looking to buy another house to repair and restore.

They have been living in Canada all these years and have just made the decision to move to Burgundy for good. But it isn’t just them. They now have two daughters, both under five. It is a big move and it is tougher on all of them than they thought it would be.

Their kids have to adjust to a new school, a new culture and a foreign language while the parents negotiate the purchase of a house and once again set themselves an near impossible deadline by which it has to be ready to rent.

It is hard work, made harder by the fact that workmen aren’t readily available, they don’t have a much of a house to live in while they work and their kids seem to be unhappy at school for the first several months.

This is a memoir that is very much about the day to day joys and struggles of a young family trying to adjust to living in a foreign country. There is plenty of musing about what parenting means and how the French see it as opposed to the North Americans. There are the doubts and struggles that every new parent is familiar with….

It is a narrative that could easily descend into being mundane and repetitive. The fact that it doesn’t, is entirely due to the author’s skill with words, her ability to make you see and hear and feel. It is impossible not to care about this young couple and their kids as they make mistakes and learn and just try to keep going.

The writing is excellent and the pacing is smooth…right up until the end when it felt a bit rushed. I enjoyed this book, but I did feel that the last few chapters needed tighter editing. That small complaint aside, it is a delightful read.

Book Review: My Grape Escape by Laura Bradbury

This is a memoir that I read back in December. It was an Amazon recommendation. It sounded good and the reviews were all quite wonderful.

But I hesitated to buy it, because the book follows what is by now a thoroughly overworked theme…the story of someone who bought an old house in a French village and then went about restoring it while experiencing all the joys of rural France.

So I didn’t expect much from it and I was very pleasantly surprised.

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My Grape Escape is an account of the author’s journey from being all set to be a lawyer to giving all of that up to run a vacation rental in Burgundy, in a small village called Magny les Villiers along with her husband Frank who is a native of Burgundy.

The narrative begins with Laura and Frank going from Oxford, where she was studying law to stay with Frank’s family for a while. It is a vacation after all the gruelling law exams that Laura has just finished. Being in Burgundy is wonderfully restful and the author finds herself wondering if she really wants all the stress of the law career that she’s worked so hard for.

She realises that she doesn’t and that is as scary as it is freeing. She finds herself wondering what to do next when almost on impulse she and her husband decide to buy a small house in Burgundy, a vacation home for themselves which eventually turns into a vacation rental and a small business.

They find a house after quite a bit of trouble. They buy it and they get to work fixing it up. They advertise it as a vacation rental and suddenly they have bookings and a deadline they have to meet. It is, of course, a lot of work and they don’t have enough time or money and they have all sorts of troubles.

The author takes you through all their struggles, their doubts and their difficulties with such honesty that you can’t help but feel for this young couple and cheer them on through the tough times, the small victories and the invetivable setbacks.

There’s a whole bunch of interesting people who end up helping them, loads of wine and wonderful food and so many experiences that you can only have in France.

Now I’m an unabashed francophile and I would have enjoyed this anyway, but what made this book so special is the writing. This is Laura Bradbury’s first book, but you wouldn’t think it. The writing is fluid and the pace is just right. The descriptions are beautiful and you can almost see, hear and feel everything.

And the people in the book are so very real. The author is a Canadian and she is surrounded by French people who look at life very differently from her time and goal driven North American way of seeing things. They frustrate her no end, but sometimes they make her stop and think that maybe she doesn’t have to worry so much. Maybe it is okay to believe that things will work out…

It is a thoroughly delightful book and the first thing I did when I finished reading it was to go buy the sequel.

Book Review : The Sharper Your Kinfe the Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn

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The full title of this book is: The Sharper Your Knife the Less You Cry – Love, Laughter and Tears at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School. The cooking school in question is, of course, Le Cordon Bleu.

This is a memoir written by a journalist, Kathleen Flinn. It is an account of the time she spent at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, learning to cook.

It was a long held dream and one that she had set aside for years in favour of getting on with life and her career. She had settled into a job that she wasn’t all that passionate about and she stayed… until the day she lost her job.

Instead of looking for another job, she decided to take advantage of her unemployment to follow her dream. She enrolled herself at Le Cordon Bleu, packed her bags and moved to Paris.

This is a record of her time in Paris where she was joined by her (then) boyfriend, Mike Klosar, her experiences at the school, the whole business of learning to cook, dealing with the pressure of the kind of precision that French cooking demands and so on.

Through the course of this book Katheen and Mike got engaged and married. She also met some fascinating people and made a few very good friends.

It is clear that she had an interesting time in Paris and she writes about it all rather well. This is a food memoir, but it is about a lot of things besides food, so there is something for everyone here.

The book comes with a recipe at the end of each chapter. This is a trend in food writing that I don’t particularly care for. I think recipes should be left to cook books, but perhaps there are other readers who will disagree with me.

I like memoirs and this book was no exception. But I did have one complaint. Everyone in the book is is painted vividly, particularly Mike. But Kathleen herself remains a shadow.

She is always the observer. Even when she is taking about times when she is excited or upset about something, the narrative is detached, like she’s observing herself from the outside.

I enjoyed the book, but I wish there had been more of the author in it.

Book review : How Reading Changed my Life by Anna Quindlen

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Reading has defined me all my life. So when I come across a book titled How Reading Changed my Life, I know that I will probably like it. After all there is little that is more interesting to me than talking about books.

This is a charming book. It is small in that it is a mere 96 pages long, but the author manages to use that space discuss a wide variety of topics.  It is divided into five chapters over which Anna Quindlen explores everything from childhood reading to a brief history of printing to worries that the internet will put an end to physical books to literary snobbery, reading habits  and reading lists

She begins by talking about her childhood, hours and days spent in a cozy chair as she devoured book after book while other kids ran around and played outside. She says,

“The best part of me was always at home, within some book that had been laid flat on the table to mark my place, its imaginary people waiting for me to return and bring them to life. That was where the real people were, the trees that moved in the wind, the still, dark waters.”

“There was waking, and there was sleeping. And then there were books, a kind of parallel universe in which anything might happen and frequently did, a universe in which I might be a newcomer but was never really a stranger.”

I felt an instant kinship with her at this point, because this is the way my childhood went as well.

Her parents weren’t avid readers, so she didn’t have many books at home. She describes vividly how it felt the first time she walked into a house that was filled with books. She talks at some length about  all the books she has loved over the years. While I have read and loved very few of the books that she mentions, that it no way diminished my interest in her discussion of them.

Why would you read the same book again?

I often hear people saying that they don’t re-read books, either because they don’t see the point or because they don’t want to waste time on a book that they’ve read already when there are so many other books to read.

Like any serious reader, I too wonder how I am ever going to find the time to read all the books I want to read. I know that I could read so much more if I didn’t keep going back to the books I love. But then I like going back to them.

I fall in love with a book every once in a while and it feels like such a tragedy when the book ends. I can’t bear the idea of putting it aside and never looking at it again. I have to read it and relive it a few times before I feel like I have experienced it properly.

I have been re-reading books ever since I was a kid. Whether it was Little Women , Anne of Green Gables, King Solomon’s Mines or Around the World in Eighty Days…Each of these books was a world that I enjoyed tramping about in and I was always game for a return trip.

The list of books on my ‘to be re-read’ list has morphed and changed over the years but the list itself is a constant. At the moment, it includes books like Arthur C Clarke’s Space Odyssey series and several of his other books, Aldous Huxley’s Island, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, David Grayson’s Adventures in Contentment and so on…

And then there are writers like James Herriot, P G Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett, Agatha Christie and Helene Hanff, all of whose books I will happily read again and again.

I go into a familiar book knowing exactly what happens and that is the very thing that makes it so much fun the second time around. I enjoy the book more because I don’t have to worry about what happens next. I can focus on the characters and the dialogue and enjoy the words and the world that they help create.

Perhaps I should admit here that people and characters matter more to me than plot and action. Maybe that is why I like memoirs so much. And my favourite kind of novel is one that has characters with depth and substance, characters that I can truly care about.

While I loved a lot of the books that I read as a child, the first character that I fell in love with is Elizabeth Bennett with Mr Darcy being a close second. I must have been around fifteen years old when my great-grandmother gave me her copy of Pride and Prejudice and told me that it was her favourite book.

It didn’t take me long to understand why. I have read it many times since and yet each time I am caught by the characters and their world and I read feverishly until I stop myself and try to go slow in an effort to make the book last a little bit longer.

The next book that I fell that crazy in love with was 84 Charing Cross Road.. The author, Helene Hanff used to re-read books all the time. She says in The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, another beloved book, that,

“While other people are reading fifty books, I’m reading one book fifty times. I only stop when at the bottom of page 20, say, I realize I can recite pages 21 and 22 from memory. Then I put the book away for a few years.”

I’ve had to put 84 Charing Cross Road away for that very reason. But I enjoyed living in that book. It was my first encounter with someone outside my family who was as crazy about books as we were.

Reading a book is more than just entertainment or a way to pass the time. It is an experience and some books are so good that I have to go into them again and again just to live in that world for a bit.

But it is true that all books are not as good the second time, even the well-loved ones. Some books hold a magic for us because of a particular time or place in our lives when we read them, a magic that cannot be recreated a second time.

I think this is particularly true of the books we read as children. I discovered this recently, when I tried to read King Solomon’s Mines. I have such fond memories of this book and I was sure I would enjoy reading it again…I didn’t. I couldn’t even finish the book. And it made me feel awful, like I’d gone and messed up a wonderful memory.

And then there are books that suffer from over-exposure like The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series. I love these books and I have read them both a couple of times.

But I’ve seen the movies so many times, thanks to my kids who were obsessed with both of these series and would watch nothing else for months on end that it is going to be several years before I can go back to them and find them fresh again. But I know I will go back to them someday and that I will enjoy them thoroughly.

If I love a book, I will read it again. I have to read it again. Not doing so is like throwing away a treasure after holding it just once. Or to quote Anne Fadiman who put together a whole book called Re-readings,

“…the reader who plucks a book from her shelf only once is as deprived as the listener who, after attending a single performance of a Beethoven symphony, never hears it again.”

Book Review : Cooked by Michael Pollan

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This is a book that is hard to describe. It is a bit genre defying or genre busting as one critic called it. It is obviously a book about food and cooking, but it is a lot more than that.

Pollan begins the book by saying that he has spent years writing about the industrial food system, nutrition and health. He’s explored the production end of it and the consumer end of it but he has somehow never focused on the the process in the middle: cooking.

That is what he tries to do in this book. He explores the different processes of cooking by apprenticing himself to experts…barbecue pit masters, chefs, bakers, cheese mongers, brewers and fermentos.

So the book is a memoir of sorts, a record of his experiences in the process of learning to cook. It is clear that he’s had a lot of fun and that he’s worked hard and learned a lot of new skills. That in itself would have made interesting reading.

But the book is more than a memoir. There is the history of barbecue, the science of sourdough bread, the mechanics of sauerkraut and the social and political implications of handing over the business of cooking to corporations.

Through the book he stresses the importance of cooking for yourself. “Cooking is a political act,” he says. By buying fresh, local ingredients and cooking for yourself you are choosing against food companies and industrial farms.

These are themes that he has explored before, but he weaves these ideas rather deftly into his exploration of cooking and makes the discussion more nuanced than it would otherwise have been.

The book begins with a trip to Aiden, North Carolina to sample authentic whole hog barbecue. Then Pollan chronicles his experience learning to cook with barbecue pit master Ed Mitchell.

The next section is about cooking with water, in covered pots the way women have done for centuries. Here Pollan apprentices himself to a chef, Samin Nosrat, a woman who was once his student.

Then comes baking and learning to bake bread. For this he goes to Chad Robertson of Tartine bakery. He learns to bake bread but is then forced to face the fact that his beautiful loaf of white bread is nutritionally empty. This leads to the exploration of whole grain flour and the challenge of baking with it.

Then there are all the intricacies of fermentation from yoghurt to sauerkraut to beer to kimchi to cheese. And the whole science of gut bacteria.

The book has a very broad range and it is fascinating. It is well researched and extremely well written. And despite the history and science and philosophy of the different kinds of food and cooking that Pollan includes here, he manages to keep it interesting.

This is not easy reading by any means. It is information heavy and I found it easier to read in bits and pieces than straight through.

Cooked is a good book. It is an important book and one that will make you think whether you are interested in food or not.

Book Review: Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr

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The full title of this book is : Four Seasons in Rome : On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World. Now if that is not an intriguing title I don’t know what is. This is a memoir of four seasons or one year that the author spent in Rome with his wife and two infant sons. In 2004, the day after Anthony Doerr and his wife had twins, he received a letter informing him that he had won the Rome Prize, one of the most prestigious awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and with it a stipend and a writing studio in Rome for a year.

While it was daunting to move to another country with infant twins to take care of, particularly when you don’t speak the language, Doerr and his wife Shauna made the move because they knew they would regret it if they didn’t. Their sons were six months old when they landed in Rome and took possession of a small apartment with a huge terrace that gave them a lovely view of the city. Doerr had a studio at the American Academy that was next door to their apartment building.

He would go there every morning and spend a few hours trying to work on a novel set in France in world war two (All the Light We Cannot See which was published earlier this year), but he ended up spending more time writing in his journal than working on his novel and that that journal is what turned into this book.

It is very much a journal in that he chronicles the ordinary and the every day, visits to the grocery store, walks to the piazza, staying up all night with kids who will not sleep and so on, but then there’s the day they walked down to the Vatican which was less than a mile from their apartment, the day they took their sons to the Pantheon, visits to ancient temples and cisterns, the night he  took one of his sons to watch the starlings flying over the city, the week long trip to a village in Umbria, they day he joined thousands of people keeping vigil over the dying Pope John Paul II (whose funeral is the one referred to in the title) and so on.

It is a chronicle of one year that was full of new experiences both mundane and grand. What I loved about it was the engaging honesty with which it is written. There is a lot here about children and what it means to be a parent and how difficult it can be and yet how joyful. And then there’s the dramatic experience of not just being in another country, but being in one of the oldest cities in the world where there’s art and history everywhere you look and the food is fabulous, the people are interesting and quirky…

They don’t have any great adventures. They’re parents of babies just trying to get through days dominated by their kids, just as they would have been of they’d never left home, but just being in a new place, being taken out of context like that somehow made even the ordinary spectacular. And Doerr manages to convey that feeling so well.

The book is full of observations and insights that make you stop and think. Here’s an example:

“The mind craves ease; it encourages the senses to recognize symbols, to gloss. It makes maps of our kitchen drawers and neighborhood streets; it fashions a sort of algebra out of life. And this is useful, even essential— X is the route to work, Y is the heft and feel of a nickel between your fingers.

Without habit, the beauty of the world would overwhelm us. We’d pass out every time we saw— actually saw— a flower. Imagine if we only got to see a cumulonimbus cloud or Cassiopeia or a snowfall once a century: there’d be pandemonium in the streets. People would lie by the thousands in the fields on their backs.”

Talking about the election of the new pope, standing in front of St Peter’s along with thousands of other people he says,

“Are we here because we want to know who will become pope? Or are we here out of vanity— because we want to be able to say we were here? Both, of course. The Church is making narrative, and this is the story’s climactic moment. Right now we’re here mostly because we want to know what will happen next, because we’re most of the way through a rich and complicated story. The curtain is up, the orchestra is playing; this is the thrill of drama and the Catholic Church is the most experienced dramatist in the world.”

He spends a lot of his words trying to describe Rome and while some of his descriptions are lyrical they are never cheesy or over the top. For example:

 “It seems impossible but today is more beautiful than yesterday. The sky is a depthless, flawless cobalt. Everywhere little chamomile daisies open their white faces to the sun— the lawns look as if they’re covered with snow.”

“What is Rome? It’s a place where a grown man can drive a tiny car called a Panda or Musa (the Muse) or Punto (the Dot) or Stilo (the Stylus) or Picasso. It’s a feast every damned week. It’s maddening retail hours. It’s a city about to become half old-people’s home/ half tourist museum. It’s like America before coffee was “to go,” when a playground was a patch of gravel, some cigarette butts, and an uninspected swing set; when everybody smoked; when businesses in your neighborhood were owned by people who lived in your neighborhood; when children still stood on the front seats of moving cars and spread their fingers across the dash.” 

The book reads very much like a journal in that it jumps from one topic to another, dwelling for a while on this and then on something else, moving between observation and musing, thoughts and descriptions. There is a certain immediacy in the writing that makes it all very real. It makes you feel as if you are right there with the writer seeing what he sees and at least to some extent feeling what he feels.

It is a thoroughly charming book and one that I made me want to rush through it and savour it all at the same time.

 

 

Reader’s Block and a couple of reviews

I have been away from this blog for over two months. Some of it was life getting in the way, but mostly it was a lot of not reading. Sometimes I get into this rut when for whatever reason, I can’t seem to find a single book I like. It seems absurd, considering how many books I have that I still haven’t read, but for whatever reason, I just can’t seem to get interested in anything.

The last book I mentioned here was Dearie by Bob Spitz. It was interesting and I read it through, but only because the subject (Julia Child) was interesting. The writing was not. The book was at least a 100 pages too long. It could’ve done with tighter editing and and a more interesting manner of presentation. There is a wealth of research here, but it is poorly organised and a lot of times it felt like an information dump rather than the story of somebody’s life…

Anyway, I couldn’t read anything for a few days after I finished this. Then I picked up The Apple Orchard by Susan Wiggs. I had never heard of this author before and I didn’t know anything about her style of writing. I only picked up the book because it had an interesting premise and a lot of good reviews.

The book started well and it drew me in, but somewhere around the middle it began to unravel.  The story has a complex plot and it deserved a far better resolution than it got. A lot of the conflicts which had been built up rather well, were resolved, with what I thought was unrealistic ease. Towards the end, I was only reading it because I wanted to find out how it all ended…

Since then I haven’t been able to settle on anything to read. At least until a couple of days ago. I am now reading and thoroughly enjoying Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr. I am only sixty pages from the end, so I will be done by tonight and I should be able to post a review tomorrow.

 

I’ve been away for a while…

But now I’m back and I hope to get back to posting regularly again. The last book I read was Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Cracked From Side to Side. It is a Jane Marple mystery and it was entertaining but nothing very special. I finished it few days ago and I have been reading magazines ever since.

I get Intelligent Life on my iPad every month and I haven’t read the last three issues. So I’m reading my way through that. Then I’ve been reading a bit of National Geographic. They started a series this May called ‘Feeding 9 Billion’ about food and agriculture and the desperate need to rethink the way we grow food. I am finding this particularly interesting.

Then there’s the fact that The New Yorker has opened all it’s archives to the public for the summer. This is stuff that usually only subscribers get to see and I’m not a subscriber. I like the magazine, but I don’t want to subscribe because I doubt that I would have the time to actually read it. I like what I have been reading and it is a nice change of pace, but no matter how good the magazine, it is still a bit insubstantial when compared to a book.

I picked up a new book yesterday. It’s called Dearie and it is a biography of Julia Child written by Bob Spitz. I’ve long been interested in Julia Child. I’ve read My Life in France and I really enjoyed it, so this is a book I very much wanted to read.

I’m about five chapters in and I find it interesting, but it was slow going at first…Much as I tried, I couldn’t get all that interested in the story of Julia’s grandfather’s life and then her father and her mother. Most biographies are written like this and I understand the importance of the story of the family that a person comes from, but it honestly bores me and I often find myself skipping ahead to what I think of as the real story.

Anyway, the real story is about to begin, so I will get back to my book. Happy reading, everyone.

 

Review : Yes Chef by Marcus Samuelsson

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I am a bit conflicted about this book. It’s a good book. It says on the cover that it is about the life of a chef and it certainly delivers on that count. I gives you a real insight into a chef’s life, the long hours, the training, the mistakes, the learning experiences,  the joys, uncertainties and difficulties of the restaurant business. It is also the story of Samuelsson’s life and it is told with an honesty that I appreciate. He talks about his mistakes, his errors of judgement, his (excessive) ambition and (complete) self absorption without trying to hide or gloss over anything.

But the problem is that the nothing is treated in depth. There are plenty of family stories and emotional moments that should have been given a lot more space than they were. Like his reaction to his father’s death. Samuelsson was in the States cooking at Aquavit when his father passed away. He made the decision not to go to Sweden for the funeral because leaving the States then would have affected his visa situation. That would have a been hard call to make. And it does portray him in a negative light. Now I’m not about to make judgments on anybody’s choices, but the way the incident was presented…it lacked the emotional depth it should have had. He keeps saying that his father’s death was real blow to him, but the way he says it, makes that a bit hard to believe.

Another incident that comes to mind is his first meeting with his daughter who he basically ignored for the first fourteen years of her life. This part of the book reads as if Samuelsson just wanted to rush through the narrative as quickly as possible.  Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t want to face the emotions it brought up, but why write about it, if you cannot treat it with the honesty and the emotion that it deserves? The nature of the narrative here, makes it seem as if this man does not care about anything or anyone. It’s all about the cooking. Even when he talks about meeting his wife and falling in love with her…there is a distinct lack of emotion in the writing that is a bit off putting.

Samuelsson didn’t write the book himself, of course. He had a writer friend do it for him. The writing is fairly fluid in the beginning of the book, but then it starts to read like a bunch of anecdotes strung together rather than a coherent story. There is a lot of writing here about food and it is all very good…whether it talking about the idea behind a dish, the emotion or the tradition behind it, the writing makes you feel as if you can see and smell everything if not taste it.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the quality of writing in the book is inconsistent. It’s a good book. But it could have been so much better.

Review : Encore Provence by Peter Mayle

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This is the third in the series of memoirs about his life in Provence that Peter Mayle has written. It has all the spirit and the flavour of his earlier books. It is perhaps a bit special because it was written a few months after Mayle and his wife returned to Provence after a four year long stay (hiatus? Mayle might actually call it exile) in the US.

So it is written with all the fervour of a man who is incredibly happy to be back in his beloved home. As far as Mayle is concerned, Provence is home. He says and I quote:

“…we did our best to adapt. And yet there was something missing. Or rather, an entire spectrum of sights and sounds and smells and sensations that we had taken for granted in Provence, from the smell of thyme in the fields to the swirl and jostle of Sunday morning markets.  Very few weeks went by without a twinge of what I can best describe as homesickness.”

“Provence is still beautiful. Vast areas of it are still wild and empty. Peace and silence, which have become endangered commodities in the modern world, are still available. The old men still play their endless games of boules. The markets are as colourful and abundant as ever. There is room to breathe and the air is clean.”

There are stories here about planting olives, trying to grow truffles, the glories of olive oil, how and why the people of Provence are as long lived as they are, all the lazy and seriously enjoyable things you can do in Provence (not for the serious tourist), life in a typical Provencal village, the art of creating perfumes, the importance of the perfect corkscrew and so on. There are of course, several descriptions of wonderful meals and extraordinary restaurants.

It is the sort of writing that we have come to expect from Peter Mayle, stories and observations about the little things in life, the small pleasures and the everyday joys. He writes lovingly about Provence and its people, even when he’s poking fun at them. This is a man who is happy. It seems to take a particular place to make him so, but he has found it and Provence has found him.

Of the three memoirs, A Year in Provence continues to be my favourite, but the quality of writing in this book is far superior. The narration is tighter, the stories are told in a more engaging fashion and the open eyed wonder  that comes through the first book has been replaced by a warmer, deeper appreciation of life in his beloved Provence.

 

 

 

On the reading front…

I bought a book last night…Encore Provence by Peter Mayle. It is the only one of his memoirs that I haven’t read. It is the third in the series that began with A Year in Provence which was published back in 1989. I love travel books and memoirs of all shades and Peter Mayle is by far my favourite writer of both genres. I’m not a big fan of his novels, but his memoirs are delicious.

I couldn’t wait to get into my new book. So what did I do? I put it aside and I picked up A Year In Provence (I have already read it several times, but not in the last three or more years) and I started at the beginning. And remarkably, it feels every bit as fresh and delightful as did the first time around.

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I read A Year in Provence a long time ago and like millions of readers around the world, I fell hopelessly in love with Provence and Mayle’s lighthearted  account of his life there. I was two pages into that first book and I was hooked. Mayle talks about how he and his wife finally made the decision to move to Provence, a place that they had long been dreaming about living in and he says:

“… And now, somewhat to our surprise, we had done it. We had committed ourselves. We had bought a house, taken French lessons, said our goodbyes, shipped over our two dogs and become foreigners. In the end, it had happened quickly-almost impulsively- because of the house. We saw it one afternoon and had mentally moved in by dinner…”

“It was a mas, or farmhouse, built from local stone which two hundred years of wind and sun had weathered to a colour somewhere between pale honey and pale grey… Attached to the back of the house was an enclosed courtyard…There were three wells, there were established shade trees and slim green cypresses, hedges of Rosemary, a giant almond tree.  In the afternoon sun, with the wooden shutters half closed like sleepy eyelids, it was irresistible.

And from that point on, so was the book and it’s charming author. There is an ease in Mayle’s writing and a certain whimsy. He is clearly enamoured of Provence and he’s charmed and amused by the people and the customs and it all comes through in his writing.

He is a gifted story teller with an eye for detail and an ability to write the most evocative prose, particularly while describing the beauty of his adopted home:

“The Luberon mountains rise up immediately behind the house to a high point of of nearly 3,500 feet and run in deep folds for about forty miles from west to east. Cedars and Pines and scrub oak keep them perpetually green and provide for cover for boar and rabbits and game birds. Wild flowers, thyme, lavender and mushrooms grow between the rocks and under the trees, and from the summit on a clear day the view is of the Basses-Alpes on one side and the Mediterranean on the other.”

And who can blame him, considering that Provence, the part of it that he lives in, looks like this:

 

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But it isn’t just the beauty of the place, it is the sheer quality of life that comes from living in the countryside, where the pace of life is slow and there is time to appreciate the good things in life, like a morning spent at the market, an evening at the cafe watching a game of boules, a dinner at a friends house, a walk through the mountains, a wine tasting, a spectacular meal at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere… and France,  particularly Provence seems to have an abundance of the good things. In the end, what appeals to me the most in Mayle’s writing is the sheer joy in life that comes through the pages of his books.

 

 

 

 

Book Review : The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

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This is a book about a book, De Rerum Natura or On the Nature of Things written by Titus Lucretius Carus over 2,000 years ago. Lucretius was born nearly a century before Christ and nothing much is known about him. He was an accomplished poet; he lived during the first century BC and he was devoted to the teachings of Epicurus all of which he wrote eloquently about in his magnificent poem, De Rerum Natura. 

The Swerve is an account of the rediscovery of this poem after it had been forgotten for centuries after the birth of Christ and the revolutionary impact it had on the writers, artists and scientists of the time when it was discovered in a monastery in 1417. This epic poem is presented in six books and it undertakes a full and completely naturalistic explanation of the physical origin, structure, and destiny of the universe. Included in it are ideas such as the atomic structure of matter and the emergence and evolution of life forms over the millennia.

On the Nature of Things laid out what is a strikingly modern understanding of the world. Every page reflected a core scientific vision—a vision of atoms moving constantly in an infinite universe, coming together to form first one thing and then another. The poem claimed that atoms are at the core of everything in the universe, from the trees to the oceans to the animals to the stars to human beings. It claimed that there is no such thing as an afterlife, no heaven or hell and that it is foolish to believe in an all powerful, all seeing God who is so minutely concerned with human affairs that he sees everything we do and will eventually reward us or punish us for it.

All of these ideas were of course, considered heresy back in the 15th century and the Church tried its best to denounce Lucretius and to prevent the circulation of his epic poem. But despite their best efforts the poem was copied again and again and it was circulated fairly widely. The ideas in the poem inspired the Renaissance. It influenced artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and had a revolutionary influence on writers such as Montaigne and Shakespeare and even Thomas Jefferson.

That, briefly, is the story behind this book. It is interesting in itself, but it becomes more so in the hands of Stephen Greenblatt who takes a tremendous amount of information and brings it all together in a very engaging narrative. Despite the wealth of information here and the many different threads of the same story, the narrative never gets dense or heavy.

Greenblatt paints a vivid picture of pre-rennaisance Europe. There is a reason why that period is referred to as the dark ages. It was a time when every word and every thought had to be censored and where intellectual curiosity was deemed a crime…The author writes about it all very casually and that more than anything else, makes it a chilling portrait.

We all know that Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake and that Galileo was persecuted for stating that the Earth is not the centre of the universe. All of that is brought to life vividly here. And when taken against the thought of all the knowledge and wisdom of ancient Greece and Rome that was lost for over a thousand years and had to be painstakingly learned and rediscovered …it is almost as if the world went backwards for a thousand years before it found its way again.

I knew all of this already, but Stephen Greenblatt paints such a vivid picture of the people and the time that I found myself feeling an acute sense of loss.

I took my time in reading this book, forcing myself to go slow because I didn’t want to miss anything. But much as I learned, it made me want to learn more…both about ancient Greece and Rome and about the Renaissance. This is a wonderful book and must read for anyone interested in history.

Wishlist Wednesday : Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

Wishlist Wednesday is a meme hosted by Pen to Paper, where bloggers get the chance to show which books they’ve added to their wishlist this week.

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This is to some extent a biography of E M Foster, but the narrative is centered around the writing of A Passage to India, which is widely considered to be Foster’s greatest work. The title of this book is drawn form Foster’s last, unfinished novel.

Synopsis:

In 1912, the SS Birmingham approaches India. On board is Edward Morgan Forster, novelist and man of letters, who is embarking on a journey of discovery. As Morgan stands on deck, the promise of a strange new future begins to take shape before his eyes. The seeds of a story start to gather at the corner of his mind: a sense of impending menace, lust in close confines, under a hot, empty sky.

It will be another twelve years, and a second time spent in India, before A Passage to India, E. M. Forster’s great work of literature, is published. During these years, Morgan will come to a profound understanding of himself as a man, and of the infinite subtleties and complexity of human nature, bringing these great insights to bear in his remarkable novel.

Arctic Summer is a fictional exploration of the life and times of one of Britain’s finest novelists, his struggle to find a way of living and being, and a stunningly vivid evocation of the mysterious alchemy of the creative process.

I haven’t read A passage to India. I was unfortunate enough to encounter Foster in literature class. We read Howard’s End in my second year of college and I hated it. It was not the fault of the novel, it was just reading it in class that killed it for me (I had the same response to Emma. I couldn’t read it for years after I left college. It is still my least favourite Austen.)

Getting back to Arctic Summer, I heard an interview with Damon Galgut on the BBC and I was intrigued. I am drawn to biographies and memoirs anyway, but this one seems a bit special, because it is as much a biography of a book as it is of the man who wrote it.