Tracking your reading…

I was not around to do a year end post and it is perhaps too late to do that now, but I do have to try. 2014 is the first year in which I have kept a systematic record of my reading. I have reviewed or written about every single book that I read in the past year (except the three that I read in December, which I will review very soon) on this blog.

I tried to track my reading on Goodreads as well, but that didn’t really work for me and I stopped updating my Goodreads account after a few months. I don’t know why I didn’t take to Goodreads, but whatever the reason, blogging about my reading was a lot more fun.

I read 35 books last year, not a particularly big number, but then it is not about the numbers, now is it? Seven of these books were re-reads and 23 out of the 35 were non-fiction. I enjoyed them all, except one (The Apple Orchard by Susan Wiggs which I thought was a bit painful.)

My favourite book of the lot? Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It is a brilliant book and it will stay with me for the rest of my life. The other books that meant a lot to me were The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt, Cooked by Michael Pollan and Provence 1970 by Luke Barr.

I discovered two writers last year, David Sedaris and Laura Bradbury (and by this, I mean writers that I liked enough to want to go look for all their books.) Sedaris is by no means a new writer, but he was new to me. I discovered Laura Bradbury through an Amazon book recommendation. She’s written two memoirs, (My Grape Escape and My Grape Village) both set in Burgundy, France.

The recommendation came up because I’d bought Encore Provence by Peter Mayle earlier in the year. I looked up the two books and I found that they didn’t have many reviews, but all the reviews said the books were wonderful. So I picked them up and now I’m waiting for her next book…I don’t want to say anything more here because I plan to write a proper review of both the books.

It was great fun to do this blog last year and I love that I now have such a detailed record of my reading…and now that my life has stopped being crazy, I hope I can get back to blogging regularly. On a somewhat unrelated note, the last three months have been tough on me for all sorts of reasons and there were so many times when being able to disappear into a book for a while made everything a whole lot easier to deal with. Thank God for books!

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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 : The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

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This was my Wishlist Wednesday book last week. It is a book about books, so I knew that I would like it. But unlike most books of this genre which tend to be non-fiction, it is a novel and it features a very real person, the Queen of England who is the uncommon reader in the title.

It begins one afternoon when the Queen is out walking with her dogs and she stumbles upon a mobile library. She gets talking to the librarian about his books and she feels obliged to borrow one. The Queen has never really been a reader. She has read a lot, but most of it was required of her, so she has never experienced reading for pleasure. This book is about her discovery of what it means to be a reader.

It is a premise that is going to appeal to any serious reader and Alan Bennett does a wonderful job of bringing it to life. Queen Elizabeth II feels very real and she comes across as such a charming person, intelligent, interesting, witty and sometimes snarky. As one reader said, we end up hoping that this is the person that she really is. No one knows, of course, but it is nice to think that this portrait of hers might be close to the truth.

She’s eighty years old and she’s never been interested in reading or had any other hobbies because, “hobbies tend to exclude. It is her job to take an interest, but not to be interested herself.”

She borrows that first book out of a feeling of obligation. It is a novel by Ivy Compton Burnett. She finds it hard going, but she reads it all the way through because,

“…That was the way one was brought up. Books, bread and butter, mashed potato—one finishes what’s on one’s plate.”

When she goes back to return it, she feels obliged to borrow another book. This time she picks up Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, which turns out to be a fortunate choice, because she enjoys it thoroughly.

Then she reads the sequel and she picks up a couple of other books and she quickly discovers how one book leads to another and then another, opening doors to all sorts of interesting ideas.

She is accompanied in her reading by Norman Seakins a young man who works in the palace kitchens. She meets him in the mobile library on that first day and she befriends him. She has him promoted to serve on her own floor much to the chagrin of the rest of her staff who think he’s not “dolly” enough to be in that position.

The Queen thinks that Norman is quite the find because unlike most people he is not intimidated by her and he doesn’t hesitate to voice his opinion. He finds books for her, on the internet, in the London Library and so on and they read and they talk about the books they are reading.

There is one particular scene when the Queen is up in Balmoral for the summer and she and Norman are reading Proust…

“It was a foul summer, cold, wet and unproductive, the guns grumbling every evening at their paltry bag. But for the Queen (and for Norman) it was an idyll. Seldom can there have been more of a contrast between the world of the book and the place in which it was read, the pair of them engrossed in the sufferings of Swann, the petty vulgarities of Mme Verdurin and the absurdities of Baron de Charlus, while in the wet butts on the hills the guns cracked out their empty tattoo and the occasional dead and sodden stag was borne past the window.”

It is such an evocative scene.

Not everyone is pleased by the Queen’s reading, though. Her absorption in books makes her less willing to bear with the tedium of all the events and ceremonies that she’s supposed to preside over. It makes her less particular about her clothes and her jewelry. It renders her perpetually late. But worst of all, she begins to ask all her visitors what they are reading and as one of her equerries puts it, “most people aren’t reading anything, the poor dears.”

The more she reads the more the Queen realises how little she knows of literature and how much catching up she needs to do. She regrets all those times when she’d met writers like T S Eliott,  E M Foster and Walter de la mare and had nothing to say to them because she hadn’t read anything that they had written…

This is a charming book. It is a novella, a mere 120 pages long. But Alan Bennett has packed an astonishing amount of story, character and detail into those 120 pages. The writing is beautiful. It is witty, sharp and very engaging.

This is one of those rare books that drew me in so completely that the world disappeared for a bit. I would have read it in a single setting, if I’d had the time. As it is, I read it in two. And when I finished, I wanted to start over.

Book Review : Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

The first Terry Pratchett book that I read was Interesting Times. That was nearly 17 years ago. I had read a lot of science fiction by then, but I hadn’t read any fantasy or speculative fiction and this book (which is by no means Terry Pratchett’s best) pretty much blew my mind.

It was sharp and clever and funny and it had such wonderful characters. I feel in love with the Discworld and all it’s madness and I wanted more of it. So I went back to the library and I found a long list of titles. I read Equal RitesWyrd Sisters, Witches AbroadSmall Gods, Soul Music and so many others.

I liked all of them, but Wyrd Sisters is one of my favourites. In fact I love all of Terry Pratchett’s books featuring the three witches. So this was a re-read but it’s been so long since I read it first that I had forgotten most of it and it read like a fresh book.

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It kept me engrossed all through and I was taken again, but how clever the book is. This is Pratchett’s take on Shakespeare, complete with a theatre called the Dysk and a performance of Macbeth featuring three very real witches, a murderous Duke and his scheeming wife.

There is a fool who is sick of being one, the ghost of a King who has been murdered and a play that is put up to prove the innocence of the Duke who murdered the King, but ends up exposing him instead. So it is a bit like a performance of Macbeth, in the middle of Hamlet.

Through all this there are the three witches who save the dead King’s son and meddle with time and everything else to get the Duke off the throne and crown the real King.

It is such an engrossing book, an absolute romp from start to finish. If you like Terry Pratchett, you will love this book. And if you haven’t read him before, this book is a great place to start.

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.

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.

Nightfall the short story and Nightfall the book by Issac Asimov and Robert Silverberg

In my post about Issac Asimov last week, I mentioned that he wrote a short story called Nightfall in 1941 which is still considered one of the best science fiction short stories ever written. I looked it up and I was intrigued by the premise. The story is set on a planet called Lagash which has six suns. Since one or the other of their suns is always up in the sky, the people of Lagash have never known the night or darkness in any form.

In fact, darkness is one of their phobias, an experience that most of them simply cannot handle. Now for the first time in 2049 years they are going to experience darkness (cause by an eclipse which happens every 2049 years, a fact that their scientists have only just discovered.) They are a bit disturbed to find that their prediction coincides with that of a religious cult called the Apostles of Flame who have been preaching about the coming darkness and urging people to join their cult to save themselves from the darkness…

The story begins on the night of the eclipse. The scientists of Saro University are ready with their instruments and their computers. The Apostles of Flame are busy fanning fears. But the people of Lagash do not believe either the scientists or the Apostles. They are simply unable to conceive that such a thing as nightfall can happen…and then the eclipse begins.

It is a dramatic story and it is told very well. The people of Lagash are very much human. They don’t feel alien at all. They even refer to themselves as mankind, which is a bit of a let down when you’re reading a story that is supposedly set on another planet. But despite this and despite a couple of plot holes, Asimov tells an engaging story with multiple plot lines all of which come together very well. He builds a complete tale with a history and a very believable back story.

The characters are not very well fleshed out, but that does not matter because the story is driven by plot and action rather than the characters. It was a perfectly enjoyable read.

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I can see why Robert Silverberg thought there was enough material in it to turn it into a book. Nightfall the novel was written in 1990, so in some ways, it is more sophisticated than the short story. Silverberg takes the very briefly sketched out back story in the original and fleshes it all out. This part of the book is very interesting. I enjoyed seeing the back story laid out in such detail.

He also fleshes out the characters and adds some new ones. I was glad of this for most part except when he brought in a romance towards the end that felt out of place and down right awkward at times. The characters are also a bit more emotional here and while that adds to the story in some places, it also takes away.

Silverberg sticks to the story laid out by Asimov until the eclipse. He even uses Asimov’s words and descriptions, particularly in the sequence leading up to the eclipse and right after.  Asimov’s story ends soon after the darkness sets in. He gives you a hint of what is to come and stops, letting you imagine the rest.

Silverberg tries to continue the story and this is where the novel breaks down. It becomes tedious and needlessly descriptive. The same events are gone over by a whole bunch of people, so it is repetitive as well. The plot meanders along with the characters and you begin to wonder of there is an end in sight.

I was bored by this point, but I kept reading because I wanted to know how it would all end. The resolution was not lame perhaps, but definitely disappointing.

 

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.

 

Book Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles

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This was my first pick from my Classics Club book list. I’ve read it before, of course, but that was nearly two decades ago. So while I had a general idea of the story, I had forgotten a lot of the specifics which was good, because it made my experience of the book a lot more fresh than it would have been otherwise.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is probably the most famous of Conan Doyle’s stories which is both fitting and surprising. Fitting because it is such a good story and it is told so well. The suspense builds and builds until the reader feels as if his head is going to explode from all the tension and then comes this giant hound with glowing eyes and a glowing mouth to push the tension up even further…

Surprising, because of all of the Sherlock Holmes stories, this is perhaps the most atypical. It begins in the same way as most of the other stories, with the arrival of a client and the unfolding of a mystery. But it reads more like a thriller than a detective story. There are clues aplenty, but working out the clues is less important to the progress of the story than the unfolding action which is brilliantly written.

All the characters, Sir Henry, Dr Mortimer, Stapleton, Frankland, Barrymore…each of them is important to the story and each has a role to play in the unfolding mystery. Stapleton and Frankland in particular are written very well.

The story is full of great sequences, but my favourite is the night on the moor when Dr Watson and Sir Henry go looking for Seldon, the escaped convict and hear the awful howling of the hound for the first time. It is a chilling moment. Then there is the part where Dr Watson goes looking for the other man hiding on the moor and finds Sherlock Holmes…the suspense that is built up here is just wonderful.

Conan Doyle is a very visual writer and he has an amazing ability to paint a scene and describe a place…the moor is a very important part of this story and he really makes you feel the coldness, the isolation and the darkness of the place.

The book is very well paced and it goes easily from fast paced action to slow building tension. It was a joy to read.

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.

Current Reading: Yes Chef by Marcus Samuelsson

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This is obviously a memoir written by a chef and it is a book about food and cooking. I love food memoirs and that is reason enough to pick up this book. But what makes it particularly interesting is the chef in question.

Marcus Samuelsson is an unusually talented chef who has led an interesting life. He was born in Ethiopia, adopted and raised in Sweden and he now lives and cooks in America. His idea and experience of food has to be fascinating.

To quote the publisher:

This book is a love letter to food and family in all its manifestations. Yes, Chef chronicles Samuelsson’s journey, from his grandmother’s kitchen in Sweden to his arrival in New York City, where his outsize talent and ambition finally come together at Aquavit, earning him a New York Times three-star rating at the age of twenty-four.

Since then, there have been White House state dinners, career crises, reality show triumphs, and, most important, the opening of Red Rooster in Harlem. At Red Rooster, Samuelsson has fulfilled his dream of creating a truly diverse, multiracial dining room—a place where presidents rub elbows with jazz musicians, aspiring artists, and bus drivers. It is a place where an orphan from Ethiopia, raised in Sweden and living in America, can feel at home.

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.

Review: Mr Darcy’s Diary by Amanda Grange

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This is yet another reworking of Pride and Prejudice and it is the best that I have come across so far. It is,  as the title says, Mr Darcy’s diary. It is his side of the story and because it is told in the first person, we get to see and hear his thoughts as well as his words and actions. The original tells you nothing at all about Darcy’s thoughts, so this required quite a bit of imagination and I think Amanda Grange pulled off very convincingly.

There is a lot of the story in Pride and Prejudice that happens off screen, as it were…Wickham’s attempt to elope with Georgiana, Darcy’s attempts to find Wickham and Lydia, Lady Catherine trying to convince Darcy to give up Elizabeth and most importantly, Darcy’s change of heart as he begins to realise just how badly he had behaved while proposing to Elizabeth…all of these scenes are fleshed out here. And done well, at that.

Unlike Austen, Amanda Grange does not stop at the point when Darcy and Elizabeth get married. She gives us a look at their life in Premberley, their life as a couple which I liked quite a bit. There is also a surprising and an entirely satisfying new pairing.

But I found myself wondering as I read this if it could be a stand alone novel, if someone who hadn’t read Pride and Prejudice could read this and understand all of the goings on and get a flavor of the original. Honestly, I don’t think so. It works well as a companion volume, it is complimentary to the original, but it cannot stand alone.

Amanda Grange has been very faithful to Austen and she has not deviated from the original except to make a couple of small additions. The characters are much the same, though I think she softened Darcy a little. Both the language and the tone of the narrative recall the original…

I have one complaint, though. One of the things that made Pride and Prejudice so special was the character of Elizabeth Bennett. She is so vividly written. She gets a bit lost in this book. We hear a lot about Darcy’s admiration for her, but we only hear her in the dialogue which she has with him or someone around him and that is just not enough to paint the vivacious picture of her that Austen did.

Nonetheless, it was a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Revisiting the Classics

I read a lot of classics when I was a kid…all in abridged children’s editions and I loved them. I knew they were abridged and I had a vague notion that I would read them, properly, the way they had been written, once I grew up.

I never did. My kids are reading those books now. I was sitting with them yesterday as we went through a stack of books, both new and old as I helped them pick their next read…My son was looking through King Solomon’s Mines and Robin Hood while my daughter picked 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, all books that I have read and loved and largely forgotten.

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King Solomon’s Mines is the only one I remember with any clarity. Not surprising, considering how many times I read it as a kid. It is a marvelous story and one that I am keen to revisit. Thanks to Project Gutenberg, I got myself a copy of the book in less than ten seconds (I will never cease to marvel at this).

So it is time to see if the story still holds the same magic for me that it did back when I was a wide eyed ten year old reading breathlessly wondering what on earth was going to happen next.

Currently Reading : The Swerve and Mr Darcy’s Diary

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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt.

Synopsis:

Nearly six hundred years ago, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That book was the last surviving manuscript of an ancient Roman philosophical epic, On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius—a beautiful poem full of the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion, colliding and swerving in new directions. 

The copying and translation of this ancient book—the greatest discovery of the greatest book-hunter of his age—fueled the Renaissance, inspiring 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.

This book traces the effects of Lucretius’ magnificent poem on the renaissance. I have just started reading it, so I can’t say much about it, except that it is written well and it seems very interesting.

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Mr Darcy’s Diary by Amanda Grange

Synopsis:

Monday 9th September
“”I left London today and met Bingley at Netherfield Park. I had forgotten what good company he is; always ready to be pleased and always cheerful. After my difficult summer, it is good to be with him again. …””

The only place Darcy could share his innermost feelings was in the private pages of his diary…

Torn between his sense of duty to his family name and his growing passion for Elizabeth Bennet, all he can do is struggle not to fall in love.

Mr. Darcy’s Diary presents the story of the unlikely courtship of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy from Darcy’s point of view. This graceful imagining and companion to Pride and Prejudice explains Darcy’s moodiness and the difficulties of his reluctant relationship as he struggles to avoid falling in love with Miss Bennet.

Though seemingly stiff and stubborn at times, Darcy’s words prove him also to be quite devoted and endearing – qualities that eventually win over Miss Bennet’s heart. This reimagining of a classic romantic novel is charming and elegant, much like Darcy himself.

I picked up this book more out of curiosity than anything else. I am a 120 pages into it and I like it. It is fanfiction, but it is fanfiction of the best kind. The author, Amanda Grange is thoroughly respectful of the original, she uses Austen’s words wherever possible and she stays faithful to the original. She is simply telling the same story from a different perspective.

Review: The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Shwalbe

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This is a good book. It’s just not the great book that it could have been. The book has only 337 pages and yet, it felt like it went on a bit too long. The problem, I think, is that it  has been billed as a book about books and it is that, but the book talk forms only a small part of the book.

What it is, is a memoir, a record of the two years that Shwalbe had with his mother from the time she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at 73 until the end when she lost her battle with the disease and died.

Those two years involved many tedious hospital visits and long hours spent waiting for treatment, time that could have felt tedious. The author and his mother took advantage of all that time by choosing to read and talk about all the books they were reading, just as they had done all their lives.

They read a whole lot of books, starting with Crossing to Safety by Wallace Steigner, and going on to  A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly, Suite Franchise by Irene Nemirovsky, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by JR R Tolkien and a 100 other books besides.

I found it really charming that instead of getting depressed about the cancer, mother and son spent what little time they had, reading books and talking about them. It helped them connect and it helped them talk about things like death, that would otherwise have been very difficult to talk about.

This book, similarly, seems to have served as a way for the author to talk about his mother, Mary Ann Shawlbe, who was a truly remarkable woman. She was the director of admissions for both Radcliffe and Harvard back when it was highly unusual for women to work outside the home.

She helped found the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children when she was in her fifties. She served as the director of the organisation for several years. She went to Afghanistan, Liberia, Sudan and Bosnia among other war-torn places to work with and help the people displaced by war.

The book is really about her life and everything that she achieved and about all the trauma and difficulty of living with a cancer that is not curable. The end of your life book club is part of the story, but it felt almost incidental at times.