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Rachel Kushner

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Book & Bottle #3: The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner paired with Il Fait Soif Côtes du Rhône

Book & Bottle pairs books with winea surrogate for my fantasy of one day owning a combination bookstore and wine bar.

In retrospect, choosing Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room as the subject for one of a series that pairs books and wine may have been foolish, or at least open to misinterpretation. The novel’s protagonist, Romy Hall, is sentenced to two consecutive life sentences plus six years in prison for killing her stalker, a customer of hers at the Mars Room, a San Francisco strip club from which the novel takes its title. Much of the action takes place in a high-security prison, the fictional Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in California’s Central Valley, and in highlighting the inhumanity of the place and the circumstances of its inhabitants, Kushner is also making her case for prison reform. That is to say: I could imagine how a person would find it crass to endeavor to pair wine, whose trappings of tastings, vintages, and cellars can be the stuff of the worst kind of middle-class one-upmanship, with a book that makes the point that the bourgeoisie needs to pull its head out of its ass about the evils of the prison industrial complex.

But bear with me here, because in The Mars Room, alcohol, along with food and books, is as plausible an entry point to understanding the world of prison as it is to understanding the more rarefied echelons of society in books like Brideshead Revisited or The Great Gatsby. It’s just that in prison it’s the scarcity of these items that makes them significant. And as with the outside world, they become items people on the inside use to assert their identity and place in the pecking order.

For example, only prisoners with neither money nor visitors eat in the chow hall, where they are allowed ten minutes in enforced silence to do so. The lucky ones dine on microwave hamburgers from vending machines in the visiting area or buy ramen from the canteen. (I appreciate the symmetry here with the fact that “craft” versions of both these foods have become urban restaurant staples in recent years.) Romy has no money, but she learns to uses her prison woodshop responsibility for the CALPIA (California Prison Industry Authority) branding iron to hustle, toasting other prisoners’ bologna sandwiches in exchange for instant coffee.

For more potent drink, necessity is the mother of invention. A recipe for “punch” requires convincing inmates to set aside their psych meds, hiding them in a dab of peanut butter on the roof of the mouth during pill call. The stash of unswallowed pills is then dissolved in iced tea, the results of which culminate in a prison-block party that’s one of the few moments of release for the women in the entire book. As with hamburgers and ramen, I couldn’t help noticing a parallel in my own neighborhood in San Francisco—awash with young people working in tech—where there’s a bar that specializes in punch bowls at $50 a pop. On any given night you can find a group of twenty-something men in hoodies huddled around a picnic table ladling out Southern Hospitality, a punch made of bourbon, peach, lemon, soda, and, yes, iced tea.

Those of us on the outside may have Napa and Sonoma, but Betty LaFrance—former purported Hanes Her Way pantyhose model, current death row inmate convicted of both a hit on her husband and a hit on his hitman—has a different method for making her prison wine. Using a recipe of juice boxes, ketchup packets, and a sock stuffed with bread for the yeast, she distributes her pruno in shampoo bottles via the plumbing system to Romy and her cellmate, Sammy, taking care to ensure their experience is as classy as possible under the circumstances. Even on death row, Betty has a reputation to maintain:

That’s the best hooch at Stanville but you got double-decant it, honey,” Betty shouted to us up the air vent. “Don’t forget to decant. It’s got to breathe.’

Betty sent up a wineglass next, the plastic kind with a screw-on base.

“Where the hell did she this glass?

“The regular way,” Sammy said. “The vault or canoe.”

Women smuggled heroin, tobacco, and cell phones from visiting inside their vaginas and rectums. Betty was smuggling plastic stemware.

Tableware as a symbol of power emerges earlier in the book when Romy recalls an experience that led her to realize she preferred lap dancing to being a paid date, the so-called “girlfriend experience” coveted by many of her colleagues at the strip club.

You start outward, some prick had said to me once about silverware. It wasn’t a thing I’d ever learned, or been taught. He was paying me for the date with him, and in this exchange he felt he didn’t get his money’s worth unless he found small ways to try to humiliate me over the course of the evening.

Romy takes her revenge on her way out of the guy’s hotel room by stealing a bag from Saks Fifth Avenue stuffed with expensive presents for his wife, dumping them in the trash on the way to her car.

Alcohol signifies shifts in hierarchy that favor Romy when, later in the novel, she moves to Los Angeles to try to evade her stalker (not the silverware-police guy). Here she receives unwanted attention from the Guatemalan plumber at her sublet, who invites her to a Mexican restaurant to drink flaming margaritas. When she declines, blaming the headache-inducing properties of the lighter fluid, he re-ups with an offer to go drink white wine, figuring she “was that classy white wine type.” Romy declines, telling him she has to go to work to spare his feelings. Used to being at the wrong end of the power dynamic, she wields her control here with empathy.

***

Like booze, books also play a role in the power dynamics of the prison ecosystem, including the people who work there. Besides Romy, one of the novel’s most developed characters is Gordon Hauser, who has given up on his pursuit of a doctorate in English literature and ended up teaching in the prison system, where despite his better judgement he’s developed a habit of falling for his students.

If his students could learn to think well, to enjoy reading books, some part of them would be uncaged. That was what Gordon Hauser told himself, and what he told them, too.

Gordon sends Romy books from Amazon, which puts her in the ranks of prisoners who receive packages and, by extension, means they have family and friends supporting them from outside. But more than status, the distraction of the content is welcome given the prison library’s catalog is limited to the Bible.

Gordon’s first earnest attempt to select books for Romy falls flat. My Ántonia, To Kill a Mockingbird, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings are books she’s already read, but at least she’s able to trade them for the prison luxuries of shampoo and conditioner. His subsequent choices for her, including Charles Willeford’s Pick-Up, Charles Bukowski’s Factotum, and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son are better. Even though Romy is grooming Gordon to try to help her with her young son, Jackson, she genuinely enjoys his GED-prep class (despite having already graduated from high school) and the books. Later, when Gordon leaves the prison to go to graduate school in social work, Romy reflects on him:

Hauser was earnest and gentle. He would have made a good father. I had no way to get in touch with him to tell him so, and the joke had been on me, even as I thought I was using and manipulating him.

Her attempt to get Gordon to intercede on Jackson’s behalf had fallen flat, but not before she’d gotten him to smuggle her a pair of wire cutters. I don’t think it spoils the ending of a book set in prison to note that the wire cutters ultimately do more to uncage Romy than the books.

***

What wine then to pair with reading The Mars Room? One night while I was reading the book, I went to dinner and ordered a glass of Côtes du Rhône. I like Côtes du Rhône, which probably has something to do with the fact that I learned how to pronounce it early in my wine-drinking days—unlike Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Condrieu, the former of which I only learned how to say when the Beastie Boys featured it in a song lyric and the latter of which I still haven’t mastered. Full of the euphoria of one glass of wine and not too much food, I left the restaurant with the conviction that another glass was just what I needed to accompany the reading I had planned for the rest of my evening. I headed to a wine store and, sticking with a theme, selected a $24 bottle of Côtes du Rhône called Il Fait Soif.

As I paid, the clerk complimented my jacket, a purple velvet Gap blazer circa 2006 with one shoulder faded from having been stored in a closet with a west-facing window. She then complimented my choice of wine, pointing out it was “natural” as if to give me credit for selecting something farmed organically, a fact that wasn’t even mentioned on the bottle. Her undeserved compliments were transparently part of her job, and we were both willing participants in the charade surrounding a retail transaction in which the clerk’s role is to make you feel good about your purchase. My status as a customer at a semi-fancy shop secured my right to be fêted, however fleetingly.

It was an example of the subtle experience of privilege that happens to me multiple times a day, only this time I noticed it because it reminded me of the opposite of most of Romy’s interactions in life. In particular, it stood out in contrast to Romy’s denigration by the “square from Silicon Valley,” who paid her for a date that included an etiquette lesson on which piece of cutlery to use. He’s the kind of guy who would have rules about what wine goes with what dish, who would have memorized particular vintages to sound impressive when ordering, who most certainly would have corrected Romy if she mispronounced the name of a wine. He would not have appreciated the casual recommendation on the vintner’s website to drink Il Fait Soif “when feeling thirsty!”

The wine itself is a blend of 80% Grenache and 20% Syrah and drinks easy. Google later informed me that its name, Il Fait Soif, translates as “it’s thirsty work,” and that the winemakers are a woman, Michèle Aubèry-Lauren, and her son, whose name is on the bottle as the producer. I could spin some awkward logic out the translated name and the female stewardship of the wine to justify it as my choice to pair with The Mars Room, but it’s really just the lack of affectation about both the wine and its marketing that make it a good fit. Romy decidedly has flaws, but you’re still rooting for her throughout, including when she’s trashing Silicon Valley Square’s expensive gifts for his wife. Il Fait Soif is a metaphorical middle finger to such perpetrators of pretension.

Books Britain England

My England Diary

Cheltenham Literature Festival

Listening to the radio on the drive to Heathrow after two weeks in England, host Richard Coles (current vicar, former pop-band member) mentions the “deep seams of embarrassment” that are core to the British psyche. His assertion is that tapping into these seams is the key to British stand-up comedy. It strikes a chord with me, too. This more than tea and scones, Shakespeare, cozy pubs or any other emblems of twee Britannia, is the root of my Anglophilia. I am, at heart, a congenitally embarrassed American.

Embarrassment has been a sort of leitmotif of my visit, which coincided with the annual Cheltenham Literature Festival. As with past years when I’ve been able to attend, one of the festival highlights was the event featuring four of the Man Booker Prize finalists (alas not the winner, Anna Burns). When Rachel Kushner, author of The Mars Room, stood at the lectern and started to read, she immediately interrupted herself to ask the person in the audience that sounded like they were slurping their drink through a straw to please stop. She did this with a sort of comic abrasiveness that elicited a laugh from the audience. No sooner had she started again than she interrupted herself once more to ask the offender to really, please stop. At this point someone near the front of the auditorium helpfully called out to Kushner that the noise distracting her was someone with breathing difficulties. I died inside for Kushner, wondering how she would handle the faux pas. In her shoes, I would have apologized profusely and immediately left the stage while self-flagellating with my belt or whatever object made itself available. Kushner instead gave a subtle, self-deprecating wince and immediately got back to her reading, which was dazzling and therefore effective on its own at moving the audience on from what had just happened.

After the event, all the authors shared a table for the book signing. Robin Robertson, author of The Long Take, a novel partially in verse that was one of the long shots for the prize, sat quietly with his hands folded, waiting for an autograph-seeking reader to materialize while his fellow nominees wielded their Sharpies with abandon. I was in line waiting for Kushner to sign a copy of her book, but such was my unsolicited self-consciousness on behalf of Robertson that I almost bought a copy of his book and asked him to sign it to alleviate my own discomfort—despite having enjoyed his reading the least of the four authors on stage. (Now I feel bad about saying I didn’t particularly enjoy it. To atone for this, I will add that it’s an epic novel about a World War II veteran set in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and you should definitely buy it if that sounds like your kind of thing.)

Me looking not at all embarrassed to be holding a book about poverty while eating in a gastropub.

 

In the end I bought four books over the course of the festival. In addition to Kushner’s The Mars Room, I also got Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari (his talk was the other highlight of my experience at the festival), Olivia Laing’s Crudo, and Sally Rooney’s Normal People (from the delightful The Suffolk Anthology bookstore). In the past I’ve feigned embarrassment on social media over my unbridled acquisition of books, but this is at least one area where I’ve managed to cure my own feelings of self-consciousness. My corporate job is fine as far as corporate jobs go, but the one unfettered joy its compensation brings me is the liberty to buy books whenever the mood strikes, which is often. It’s a pleasure to compensate authors—who pour years of their lives into this work—and stimulate my intellect, or simply decorate my shelves, with this sort of material indulgence. For this I offer no apology, feigned or otherwise.

***

After Cheltenham, we spent a couple nights in London, including one with an old if not particularly close friend of my husband’s. He and his family live in a home in North London that’s like the kind of home you see in a film like Notting Hill. He’s very hospitable—especially considering we see him approximately once every seven or eight years—and most striking, perhaps the least embarrassed British person I’ve ever met.

One way this manifests is in the almost-delightful-in-its-unselfconsciousness amount of namedropping he manages over the course of the ten or so hours we spend in his home. The next morning over coffee my husband and I tot up the list and come up with:

  1. Neil Kinnock, a former British politician who, apropos of nothing, our host informed us was the father of someone he and his family had recently vacationed with.
  2. The actor Damien Lewis’s brother, who is either a producer (like our host) or a director and whose profession I misstated as one of those at some point in the evening, only to be sternly corrected. Our host also gleefully explained how he and Mr. Lewis’s brother refer to Mr. Lewis as a cat’s arse because of the way he puckers his mouth. It is an image I can’t quite shake and am worried is going to affect my enjoyment in watching Billions.
  3. A British actor who plays a captain on Star Trek whose name I can’t remember, but is not Patrick Stewart, who I definitely would’ve remembered.
  4. Richard Curtis (screenwriter of Notting Hill, appropriately), his partner Emma Freud (great-granddaughter of Sigmund), and their daughter Scarlett, who coincidentally interviewed her father at an event I’d attended in Cheltenham the previous Saturday. Our hosts reliably inform us the Curtis clans runs herd over an entire village in Suffolk before thrusting a copy of the new Scarlett Curtis-curated anthology, Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and Other Lies, at me and insisting I take it. The implication is that their connection to the Curtises has somehow resulted in them having a stash in a cupboard somewhere.
  5. Elton John, mentioned when I asked about a painting hanging in the hallway—a riff on a Penguin book cover—that I liked. Apparently the painter, Harland Miller, is “big with celebrities” like Sir Elton, but our host acquired this piece long before that was the case, natch.

If our host is reading this—which he’s almost certainly not—please don’t be mad, and please keep inviting us to stay at your house every seven or so years so you can regale us with throwaways about famous people. We shamelessly like it.

***

And now on a plane back to California, where I’m writing this. Early in the flight I was annoyed by a young woman speaking loudly. Assuming it was someone wearing headphones who didn’t realize they were talking at such a high volume, I was keen to catch their eye and give them the kind of disapproving look I’ve perfected for such occasions on shared transit. Then, in a flash, I remembered Kushner’s misstep in Cheltenham and wondered if the person speaking loudly may have an impairment. She did, which I discovered shortly into the flight when she was helped to the bathroom by her caregiver. I breathed a sigh of relief I hadn’t given her daggers earlier and said a silent thank you to Kushner for sparing me the mortification if I had.