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Antoine Laurain’s newest novel, Vintage 1954, is a sweet story of time travel, romance, and family. One evening in 2017 at 18 Rue Edgar-Charellier in Paris, Hubert Larnaudie, the last member of the family that built his apartment building in 1868, descends to the cellar to look around at the mess he is considering cleaning up. Among heaps of old magazines and the detritus of generations of Larnaudies, Hubert spots a bottle of 1954 Beaujolais. Then some burglars shut him in his cellar and an American named Bob, newly arrived and booked into an apartment in the building through Airbnb, notices he is trapped and helps him out, enlisting the help of two young tenants, Julien and Magalie.

To express his thanks, Hubert invites them all into his apartment to enjoy the wine. Julien recognizes the bottle which comes from his family’s vineyard – where his great great grandfather disappeared in 1978. The same man who became known in his village as “Mr. Flying Saucer” after he saw a strange craft over the vineyard in 1954. The wine, it turns out, was impacted by the spacecraft and anyone who drinks it is transported to 1954. Now the four new friends have to figure out how to get back to 2017.

Like Laurain’s earlier books, especially The President’s Hat and The Red Notebook, there is a bit of romance, some family drama, a little mystery, and some famous historical figures sprinkled through the story. It’s a sweet tale, entertaining and quick to read. Perfect for a plane ride or a day at the beach!

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I picked up My Life in France at last year’s Five Colleges Booksale, but it was something I’d been meaning to read for some time. Although it was written with and finished by her grandnephew, Alex Prud’homme, this is Julia Child‘s memoir of her years in France, from 1948 when she and her husband Paul first went to live in Paris, to 1992, when she gave up her small home in Provence after Paul could no longer travel. It’s a delightful book. How could any book about delicious food in a beautiful place, shared with interesting people, not be a delight?

But there’s much more to this book. Child was an amazing person who put her all into her life’s work — teaching people how to cook well. Until I read her memoir I had no idea how long it took her to research and test her recipes and how scientifically she worked to ensure consistent results for anyone cooking from them, and how carefully she explained why the recipes work. Her incredible work ethic, her astute observations of culture and society, her fond remembrance of people she knew well, from market sellers to her dear husband, make this book a really good read as well as a delightful one.

Paul and Julia Child were both very talented and were really a creative team, and the amount of work they did separately and together is quite impressive. Although this book only touches briefly on their time in the OSS during WWII, it does explore the bureaucratic mess of the postwar diplomatic service and the way McCarthy and his paranoia stretched across the ocean to impact longtime government servants abroad. Her observations are really interesting, and I admire Child’s lifelong efforts to learn and become better spoken about politics and culture as well as her own passions (food, restaurants, wine, cooking, and food production). As a lifelong learner myself, and as someone who didn’t begin to really form my own views until late in my 20s, I could identify with her sense that she hadn’t grown up in college, and she had not thought through her positions on important matters until she was well into adulthood.

I also think Americans who grew up knowing her PBS show don’t realize how much her initial “cookery bookery” as she refers to it was a partnership with not only her cookbook collaborators in France, but with the many French people who contributed to her culinary education — chefs, restauranteurs, shopkeepers, market sellers, teachers, friends, all of whom expanded her repertoire, her tastes, her knowledge and skill. Child’s ethos was her own, however: “nothing is too much trouble if it comes out the way it should,” and “the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite.” Towards the end of My Life in France she sums up her advice to people: “Learn how to cook — try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all, have fun!”

And that sense of practicality, fearlessness, and fun permeates this book.

 

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I came across two references to Giovanni’s Room recently, one in an article about reading fiction to deal with current reality, and the other, a re-post of the New York Times review from 1956 when the book came out, at Literary Hub. At some point in college I’d read some of James Baldwin‘s essays I think, but not his fiction. It seemed like time.

My library has a good bit of older fiction, so we had it on the shelf in an original $0.60 Dell paperback. I could have read it in a couple of sittings, given the time, but I’ve had a lot of reading and writing for grad school, so it took several evenings. If you’ve never read it, I recommend reading it through rather than splitting it into several shorter readings — the impact, I think would be greater.

The book is the story of David, a man old enough that his father thinks he should have settled down already, an American abroad in Paris. The whole book takes place on the evening before his former lover, Giovanni, an Italian who was tending bar when David met him, is going to be executed for murder. David is spending a sleepless night drinking and recalling his time with Giovanni, his early recognition that he was attracted to men, and his attempts to live as a heterosexual man, including only recently leaving Giovanni for Hella,  a woman he planned to marry.

David and Giovanni have a brief affair but one that profoundly impacts David. At first he is amazed by the way Giovanni so freely and openly loves him. But eventually he reverts to his old emotional pattern of shame and dread. Having grown up in America where being gay is not only scorned, but illegal, he has never felt anything else about his own sexuality.  Ultimately though, David’s shame isn’t simple self-loathing, it’s also tied up with confusion he feels in not really being able to reconcile who he is with who he feels he should be.  When he tries to live into this perception he holds, he ends up being more like what he dreads — heartless, thoughtless.

His recollections show how shame can infect every aspect of someone’s life, their aspirations, their relationships with family and friends as well as lovers. And Baldwin is an incredible writer, whose descriptive passages amaze even as they repel, as in this section describing a woman David has just taken to bed to forget his conflicted feelings about Giovanni and Hella: “She wore the strangest smile I had ever seen. It was pained and vindictive and humiliated, but she inexpertly smeared across this grimace a bright, girlish gaiety — as rigid as the skeleton beneath her flabby body. If fate ever allowed Sue to reach me, she would kill me with just that smile.” Is that not the most gorgeous writing about something terrible?

Some of the conversations about what men and women are like are hard to read; perceptions of gender in society haven’t really progressed much, I fear. And the story is obviously emotionally difficult. But although it can be wrenching it isn’t bleak, even at the end when David is alone. He will go one, it seems, even if he isn’t any surer how than he was before: “The morning weighs on my shoulders with the dreadful weight of hope . . . .”  It’s dreadful for now, but there’s a sense David will survive.

I think I’ll be mulling this book over for some time.

 

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One of my book club friends mentioned Less was what she wanted to read next and it’s on several “best” of the year lists. Which I have a long history of quibbling with — I don’t like them because I feel like people should read whatever they like, which is not necessarily what critics like, but the former Teen the Elder convinced me to to stop judging and just have fun with them. Good advice. End of digression. Anyway, it was on the shelf at my library, and I hadn’t read Andrew Sean Greer‘s work before, so I decided to give it a try.

Less refers in part to Arthur Less, the hero of the story, whose former longtime lover, Freddy, is about to get married. Less decides to avoid the wedding by accepting a series of trips — some related to his work as a writer, some for pleasure — and string them together into a months long exodus from San Francisco, where he and Freddy live. He’ll venture from California to New York to interview a more famous author, to Mexico for a conference, Italy for a prize ceremony, Germany to teach a writing class, Paris on an unexpected layover, Morocco for a 50th birthday of the friend of a friend (Less will turn 50 there, too), then India for a writing retreat and Japan to write about kaiseki meals.

Less is a writer of lesser known novels, and in New York his agent tells him that his longtime publisher has rejected the most recent one. He’s also most well known for being the former partner of a Pulitzer prize winning poet. The reader begins to realize that this status as less-than is the defining characteristic of Arthus Less. Also he’s the type of person who bumbles into minor mishaps such as not being able to get into his German apartment, speaking foreign languages badly, losing his favorite suit to a tailor’s dog, getting locked in a room when a 400 year old door is stuck, and losing his luggage. Although really, who could travel that far without a bag being misrouted? He also bumbles into more pleasant surprises, which are so delightful I won’t spoil them for you here.

All of this endears Less to readers and to his friends. His story resonated with me in a way because I too faced that milestone birthday this year, and the wistfulness it can incite. My life hasn’t been as colorful or accomplished as Less’s but I get the feelings. Greer’s writing is beautiful and original without being overdone in that “look at me, I’m writing unconventional fiction” way that can be annoying. While the narrative is linear with a lot of passages looking back at earlier times in Less’s life, the narrator asserts himself as someone who knows Less, rather than as an impersonal third party, a little like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. But the narrator also turns out to be a character described in the third person throughout the novel as well, which is fun.

The language is fun too — describing Less trying a new outfit in Paris boutique, Greer writes, “He looks like a Fire Island supervillain rapper.”  There’s a wonderful passage where Less loses the “wedding” ring his famous author partner gave him (pre-marriage equality) in a bin of mushrooms and a group of other men think he’s going to be in trouble with his wife and try to help him find it. In Japan he sees “tourist buses parked in a row along the river their great side mirrors like the horns of caterpillars” from a rental car that “basically feels like an enameled toaster.” All the details of his travels are also delightful.

Less seems like a sad book, or at least a melancholy one, at first. But as you journey with Less things begin to look up and the ending is just lovely. It’s a book about a flawed human bumbling along but mostly doing fine. And even being happy here and there. A good read.

 

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I’ve written about two of Antoine Laurain‘s other novels here at bookconscious: The Red Notebook and The President’s Hat.  Like those books, The Portrait is about an object that changes someone’s life. In this case, as you can guess from the title, the object is an eighteenth century portrait that Pierre-Francois Chaumont, a Parisian patent attorney with a lifelong love of collecting, finds at an auction and buys because the man in the painting looks just like him. He has no idea who it might be, but there is a coat of arms in the painting so he researches it.

I don’t want to spoil the story by saying exactly what he finds out, but it leads him to discover, if you will, a whole new self. I had a little trouble with the plot — Chaumont basically walks entirely away from his old life, taking time to bully and blackmail someone into helping him do so. Then he takes a great deal of trouble to recover his collectibles and antiques only to lose them again in what seems a very preventable accident. Also no one in his old life seems terribly troubled by his absence, based on the tiny glimpses we get of the aftermath.

The idea that an image could be a portal of sorts is appealing, and I enjoyed as always the details about France and French life. A minor character, Pierre’s Uncle Edgar, was more interesting than Pierre himself to me, but the other minor characters were nearly one dimensional. Pierre seems rather self absorbed and sees women as merely beautiful body parts.

So if you want to try Laurain, I wouldn’t start with this book, but it was, overlooking the disagreeable main character, a diverting short read. It might be interesting to talk about with a book group because the plot poses an ethical, if completely improbable, question: is it right to take on someone else’s identity if no one seems to really get hurt?

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My dad and I share books and he brought me Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee  by Thomas J. Craughwell the last time he visited. It’s the story of how Jefferson’s slave, James Hemings, learned French cooking in Paris when Jefferson was sent to France in 1784 as an American envoy. Jefferson took James, who was Sally Heming’s older brother, along, promising that if he learned to cook like the French and agreed to teach a slave back at Monticello, then Jefferson would free him. The book also explores Jefferson’s love of food, gardening, and wine. It’s a quick read, with some interesting digressions, such as some brief observations of Jefferson from John and John Quincy Adams and a bit about Jefferson’s difficult relationship with Alexander Hamilton. The French revolution began when Jefferson was preparing to leave France, and those events appear in the book as well. There’s also a fascinating look at 18th century travel and details of Jefferson’s three month trip around the south of France and northern Italy.

But mainly, it’s about what Jefferson liked to eat and drink, what was superior about French cooking (for starters they cooked on stoves, rather than over hearths, and had better pots and utensils), and how Jefferson tried to improve American agriculture through what he learned abroad (bringing plants, seeds, techniques, and even a rice cleaning machine home). Craughwell credits Jefferson with introducing French cooking to America along with champagne, which wasn’t often consumed here. He and James also brought home macaroni and cheese, that all American food which was unknown here before Jefferson’s French sojourn.

Because not much is known about James Hemings, Craughwell can only speculate about how he felt and why he did not claim his freedom in France, where he could legally do so. Hemings’ altercations with his former French tutor in Paris, and later his tragic death in America, are also mostly a mystery. It’s sad that this man’s life was valued so little that he’s mostly a shadow in the historical record.

Another man who played a large role in the life of a historical figure and then was almost erased from history is Abdul Karim, Queen Victoria’s “munshi,” or teacher. Like James Hemings, he changed culinary history, as he introduced the Queen to curry. In fact writer Shrabani Basu was working on a book about curry when she learned of Abdul’s life, and she went on to write about him and his beloved royal pupil. I went to see the film adaptation of Victoria & Abdul a couple of weekends ago and that got me curious about how much of it was true, so I read the book. If you haven’t heard of the film or the story, Abdul Karim was a Muslim Indian clerk in Agra who was sent to London for the Queen’s golden jubilee and ended up becoming her teacher and friend. His elevation from simple servant to confidant who Queen Victoria bestowed with gifts, including homes at Windsor, Balmoral, and the Isle of Wight, caused so much conflict with Victoria’s household, family, and even some government ministers that she was physically ill from the stress of defending her friend.

The film compresses what was actually thirteen years of service into what appears to be a much shorter time. But it does depict the racism, bigotry, and classism of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and his allies in the Queen’s household. Quick aside — the film is worth watching just to see Eddie Izzard being a racist jerk and Judi Dench having none of it. While Victoria, in her late sixties when she met Abdul, was curious and open to learning about his culture and religion, and mastered Urdu enough to write and speak it, her family and many of the government officials tasked with administrative powers over India were disdainful of India, couldn’t be bothered to distinguish between Muslim and Hindu servants, considered Abdul low born, and even questioned whether Victoria was of sound mind. Some wished him dead, others just wished he’d disappear, and several conspired to try to find dirt on him. The Queen dealt with it all, and stood by her friend.

She comes off better than Abdul in the book; he sometimes appears vain and he did ask for a lot of favors. But he also knew that he was suspected and looked down upon. Victoria interested me enough that I may seek out more books about her — Basu’s portrayal of her is that she recognized how prejudiced and selfish people close to her were and did what she wanted to the extent she could. Basu’s book also illuminated for me that even though Victoria was a very powerful woman, she lived in a man’s world, and many of the men around her did not credit her with being smart or worldly enough to know what was best.

Both books are entertaining; Victoria & Abdul seemed like it couldn’t done with some editing, as some information repeats. Neither takes long to read — I finished both in the last couple of days. If you like history and are interested in the stories beyond the headlines, either book is a good read. If you enjoy food history, both are interesting additions to that genre, although Victoria & Abdul is only marginally about food.

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Despite a shovel-able amount of snow on Thursday we were one of the only educational institutions  around here NOT to have a delay. Still, bingo beckoned, so I kept working on my squares this week. Actually over the past couple of weeks I’ve been working on the “An ebook or an audiobook” square, listening to Paris in Love by Eloisa James, a memoir about her family’s year living on Rue du Conservatoire. At first I didn’t like the format, because the chapters are so brief, but I got used to that. I enjoyed hearing the author read, and what’s not to like about Paris? It was hard not to be a little envious, knowing that a year in Paris would never be possible for my family. But the descriptions of shopping, eating, and exploring the City’s many museums are irresistible. James is the pen name of Shakespeare professor Mary Bly, daughter of Robert Bly. It seems unfair that one person is so successful at two careers — as an academic and a romance writer — and lives variously in New York, Paris, and Florence. Did I mention it was hard not to be envious? But the author’s tone is very down to earth. I enjoyed it.

For “A book with a number in the title, ” I decided to read a Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of Four. Besides the mystery at the heart of the plot, this book also tells the story of how John Watson and Mary meet and get engaged. I’m a big fan of Elementary (Best. Watson. Ever.) and have also watched other big and small screen versions of the great detective’s tales, and we visited 221B Baker Street when we went to London.But I’d never actually read any of the Sherlock stories or novels, even though I have a library discard copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes in two volumes.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and I can really see how well Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller have incorporated things Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Sherlock into their portrayals of him.

For “A book about art or artists,” I am still reading Mrs. Jack but decided it’s really more about Isabella Stewart Gardner, so I read The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum which is the official collection guide. If you’ve never been, the ISGM is different than other museums in many ways, one of which is that there are no placards on the walls explaining what you’re looking at. There are laminated room guides but when we visited last, I decided I wanted to buy and read the guide before our next visit. It’s an interesting read, because it tells a fair bit about the artists and their works but also how ISG came to own each piece and how she decided what to put together in the different rooms. It was really enjoyable and I look forward to going back to ISGM soon, I hope.

For “A book from the Children’s Room,” I chose a New Hampshire Downloadable book version of the highly lauded Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, with illustrations by Christian Robinson. It’s a colorful portrayal of a boy and his grandma taking the bus from church to a soup kitchen where they volunteer. Along the way the boy, CJ, asks a LOT of questions, and his grandma gives interesting answers. for example: “How come that man can’t see?” “Boy, what do you know about seeing?” Nana told him. “Some people watch the world with their ears.” CJ and Nana are brown-skinned, and the people in the book are rendered in many shades, ages, sizes, and styles. CJ envies his friends who don’t have to go anywhere after church and don’t ride the bus, and some kids who get on listening to music through a set of shared earbuds. Nana has a reply to assuage each of his longings. It’s a beautiful book, although I was thinking that Nana may find in a few years it’s not so easy to try and explain the world to CJ, who clearly already has a sense of the disparities and disgraces of the world, “How come it’s always so dirty over here?” he asks, as he gets off the bus with Nana. She tells him, “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.” And they head in to serve lunch. A book that could lead to interesting conversations, for sure.

Feeling at loose ends for reading this weekend, at work I checked out a couple of Margaret Drabble novels I haven’t yet read, to choose one for “A book you haven’t read by an author you like,” and I started an audiobook memoir, Wesley the Owl: the Remarkable Story of an Owl and His Girl, for “A biography or memoir” on my commute today. That will leave me with “Any book in a series,” “Re-read an old favorite” and two “Reader’s Choice” squares before the deadline, March 3. Stay tuned!

 

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