Over the course of my reading in 2021, I’ve often wanted to grab a stool at the bar (or restaurant or café) frequented by the characters in the book and shamelessly eavesdrop for an hour or three. Here are five of the mostly fictional establishments I’d like to visit:
The Corkscrew, favorite gathering spot of the wine-swilling barristers of London’s Lincoln’s Inn that features in Sarah Caudwell’s quartet of mystery novels: Thus Was Adonis Murdered, The Shortest Way to Hades, The Sirens Sang of Murder, and The Sybil in Her Grave. The group, who have an unlikely penchant for getting tangled up in murder given they practice tax law, are forever ordering another bottle of Nierstein. Since the author was a barrister in London, I suspect the Corkscrew is based on a real wine bar—any tips on its identity are welcome.
TheCosy Corner from Ivan Turgenev’s short story, The Singers, which details a wild singing competition in a rural pub—a nineteenth-century version of Russian Idol if you will. I read the story in George Saunders’s collection of great Russian short stories, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, which is enriched by Saunders’s essays following each story and was one of my favorite books of 2021.
Girls & Women, Deborah Levy’s imaginary café from the third and final installment of her excellent “living autobiography,” Real Estate. The menu features an entrée of vodka and cigarettes; guava ice cream is also up for consideration on the bill of fare. I have half a mind to start a crowd-funding appeal to encourage Levy to open it IRL.
El Faro from Jessica B. Harris’s memoir, My Soul Looks Back, in which she reflects on running in the same social circles as James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison. Harris is best known as a food writer, and this year’s excellent Netflix documentary, High on the Hog, was based on her book of the same name. My Soul Looks Back isn’t a food book per se, but she writes especially evocatively of the bustling scene—and shrimp in green sauce—from this late, historic West Village Spanish restaurant.
Giacomino’s Café from Sapienza Goliarda’s novel, Meeting in Positano, written in the 1980’s but released in an English translation only earlier this year. Here on the Amalfi coast, our protagonist orders “rum babas in abundance and cappuccinos by the gallon,” a breakfast of champions if ever there was one. Goliarda lived a life as large as that breakfast, and my cultural wish for 2022 is for someone to make a film about her.
I first read Natalia Ginzburg’s essay collection, The Little Virtues, in a class on post-World-War-II Italian literature during a college semester abroad in Venice. It felt like the first time I had really discovered a writer as an adult reader, despite the fact that Ginzburg was assigned reading. She resonated deeply, especially the last and eponymous essay in the book, in which Ginzburg gives parenting advice on, among other things, the subject of money. The thrust of the piece is that we tend to focus on little virtues at the expense of the great ones, like thrift over generosity. The problem here, Ginzburg points out, is that “the great can also contain the little, but by the laws of nature there is no way that the little can contain the great.”
Even then, thirty years ago, I thought I probably wouldn’t have kids (I didn’t), so my smittenness with the essay wasn’t over the idea of saving nuggets of wisdom for my future as a mother. Rather I was struck by how at odds Ginzburg’s advice was with what I had gotten from my own parents, and how much her advice made sense.
For example, Ginzburg writes “As soon as our children begin to go to school we promise them money as a reward if they do well in their lessons. This is a mistake. In this way we mix money—which is an ignoble thing—with learning and the pleasures of knowledge, which are admirable and worthy things.” I had been rewarded for scholastic achievement starting in the fourth grade when I was paid to memorize multiplication tables, all the way up to a $2,500 check at the end of grad school.
I wasn’t particularly mad at my parents for what I deemed their deficiencies at parenting (although being nineteen, I was judgmental), but rather I think that in reading Ginzburg some part of me opened up to the idea of reading as a way to perpetually parent yourself. I still feel that way about books at forty-eight, and I don’t mean self-help, but mostly memoirs and non-fiction and especially novels, which somehow have a way of using fiction to get at the truest things. For this, her role in making me a lifelong reader, Ginzburg will always hold a special place on the shelves of my heart and home, where I have two copies of The Little Virtues, the better to always have one near at hand.
Periodically something will happen that reminds me of the wisdom of The Little Virtues. Last year it was the occasion of my niece’s thirteenth birthday. She badly wanted a MacBook Pro, and in the months ahead of her birthday started a lobbying campaign with her grandmother (my mother) and me.
She knew better than to ask for the laptop as a gift outright—too extravagant by the norms of birthday gifts in our family—so a couple months before her birthday, she sent my mother a letter with a plan for how she could save up for it, taking into account the money she would receive from my parents for good grades (old habits die hard).
In follow-up calls she planted the suggestion that we might be inclined to contribute to her MacBook-Pro fund as a birthday gift, thus accelerating the realization of her well-thought-out plan. I was onboard, and I was going to suggest to my sister and mother that we all pitch in and give my niece, say, $500 between us to help her reach her goal. But then the spirit of Ginzburg seized me and I decided to just buy her the laptop. I could afford it comfortably, as could my parents and my niece’s parents. Why was the norm of our family not to buy it?
As Ginzburg writes, “moderation in the midst of wealth is pure fiction, and fiction always leads to bad habits. In this way he [a child] will only learn to be greedy and afraid of money…the true indifference to wealth is an indifference to money. There is no better way to teach a child this indifference than to give him money to spend when there is money—because then he will learn to part with it without worrying about it or regretting it.”
In the end, the laptop was not mine to give. I called my sister and her wife with the intent of telling them I would buy the MacBook only to find out they had already bought her a Chromebook for the occasion. It was a well-researched choice, a fancy Chromebook as Chromebooks go, and quite the find in that particular era of the pandemic when laptops and tablets of all sorts were scarce. I was asked to enliven it with gifts of a mouse and stylus which I did, but silently worried about my niece’s potential disappointment. I couldn’t help thinking back to my own parents’ similar displays of frugality, like the time they gave us an Odyssey game console instead of the longed-for Atari.
When my niece’s birthday arrived and the family Zoomed for the opening of presents, the tantrum I feared never arrived. Her reaction was largely one of gratitude with a hint of indifference. Would it have been radically different if she had received the MacBook Pro? I don’t know, but I do know that if I had bought it for her, I would have been disappointed if she had reacted with the same detachment.
My desire to follow Ginzburg’s advice to be “moderate with oneself and generous with others” was pure, but my own hang-ups with money lingered. Ours was never, as Ginzburg described, “a family in which money is earned and immediately spent, in which it flows like clear spring water and practically does not exist as money.” Instead, ours was a home where my father constantly had CNN on mute to monitor the stock ticker, where money existed sometimes “heavily, where it is a leaden stagnant pool that stinks and gives off vapours,” and my schemed generosity had been tainted with the whiff of my own bullshit in the form of expectation. Just as well that my plan had been averted.
More recently I thought of Ginzburg when watching Fran Lebowitz kvetch on the Netflix documentary, Pretend It’s a City. In episode 4, Lebowitz explains to Scorsese, “There’s only two kinds of people in the world: the kind of people who think there’s such a thing as enough money and the kind of people who have money.”
I am definitely the kind of person who thinks there is such a thing as enough money, and with the not-so-small exception of worrying about how I will pay for healthcare in America for the rest of my life, I feel like I have enough money. In the days after the 2020 presidential election, Roxane Gay touched on this same divide among Americans in an opinion piece in The New York Times, writing:
“The United States is not at all united. We live in two countries. In one, people are willing to grapple with racism and bigotry. We acknowledge that women have a right to bodily autonomy, that every American has a right to vote and the right to health care and the right to a fair living wage. We understand that this is a country of abundance and that the only reason economic disparity exists is because of a continued government refusal to tax the wealthy proportionally.
The other United States is committed to defending white supremacy and patriarchy at all costs. Its citizens are the people who believe in QAnon conspiracy theories and take Mr. Trump’s misinformation as gospel. They see America as a country of scarcity, where there will never be enough of anything to go around, so it is every man and woman for themselves.”
What struck me most in these two paragraphs was the insight into our polarization stemming from one’s fundamental view of America as a country of abundance or scarcity, and how as Lebowitz suggested, this point of view doesn’t necessarily correspond with how much money you actually have. We have all read the narrative about Trump voters being the economically deprived who neoliberalism forgot. But we also know that plenty of rich, educated white people voted for him, not once but twice.
Two places where the discrepancy between the abundance and scarcity mindset shows up in policy disputes is college debt and healthcare. The idea of cancelling college debt rankles people, particularly those who were burdened with it and paid if off. It is not fair: about this they are correct. But on this point I am reminded of Ginzburg’s argument for why we should not reward children for good grades.
“…I think we should be very cautious about promising and providing rewards and punishments. Because life rarely has its rewards and punishments; usually sacrifices have no reward, and often evil deeds go unpunished, at times they are even richly rewarded with success and money. Therefore it is best that our children should know from infancy that good is not rewarded that that evil goes unpunished; yet they must love good and hate evil, and it is not possible to give any logical explanation for this.”
(I can’t help but think of current events at the time of writing this, namely Marjorie Taylor Greene, an antisemitic conspiracy theorist who is newly elected to Congress and who, in the face of reporting on some of her lunatic rhetoric, was apparently rewarded with a slew of campaign contributions. The fact that Ginzburg’s father was Jewish, that she was married to an anti-fascist who was tortured and murdered in a prison in Rome in 1944 for being an anti-fascist, and that she later served in the Italian parliament makes this even more jarring.)
In other words, not cancelling college debt because it’s “not fair” is beside the point, a prime example of mistaking a little virtue for the great one. (And if we want to argue in little virtues, we can look to Germany, which funds college tuition for everyone, even foreigners, because it knows it has a declining birth rate and funding skilled workers is in its best economic interests for the future.)
The same can be said for the line of reasoning that reckons other people’s illnesses are not their financial responsibility and therefore are not in favor of universal healthcare. And yet many of the same people will donate to a GoFundMe for medical bills of somebody, often a stranger, with a financially ruinous illness. The difference between this and voting for candidates who support universal healthcare is that the narrative in the GoFundMe gives the benefactor the illusion of both fairness—the victim seemingly verifiably didn’t deserve this, whereas with universal healthcare maybe the person who is sick smoked or abused drugs—and the feeling of beneficence. Like me and the MacBook Pro for my niece, we need to be appreciated for our generosity. Taxes to fund healthcare just don’t give us that same warm, fuzzy feeling.
One of the criticisms leveled at America by “old world” countries is that we are literal babies, a country less than 250 years old. Our insistence on adhering to a narrative of fairness in a world where history has proven century after century that this is not the case is one way we show our immaturity. The task before us now is to “love good and hate evil,” to side with the great virtues instead of the little ones, lest we permanently become a country of little virtue. We must grow up, and we must parent ourselves. Truth and facts and knowledge still exist, much of it recorded in books. Reading Ginzburg is one way to start.
In January I began a new volunteer gig writing a weekly roundup of literary events in the Bay Area, “Notable San Francisco,” for The Rumpus. It was more research than actual writing, but I happily engaged in this act of literary citizenship with the city where I had been living for only a year. What an ideal way to get better acquainted.
Despite San Francisco’s reputation as a bookish city, every weekend as I researched the column I was astounded at the depth and breadth of literary life in the area—from drag-queen story time at the library to lecture-hall events with marquee names to tiny bookstore author-tour stops, complete with warm white wine in paper cups. I wrote up and attended as many as I could before the pandemic brought a halt to in-person events and the column went on hiatus. One of the more memorable was seeing poet Robert Hass read from his new collection of poems, Summer Snow, as part of the Cal Berkeley lunch poems series. Hass was avuncular, the setting—the wood-paneled, couch-filled Morrison Library—seemed custom made for the occasion, and Rebecca Solnit was in the seat next to mine.
Live events may have gone, but we still had books. Early on in the first shutdown I placed an online order to help support a favorite San Francisco bookstore, the food-themed Omnivore Books, which is how I ended up with food matriarch Ruth Reichl’s latest memoir, Save Me the Plums, about her editorship at the now defunct Gourmet magazine. I had just read Anna Weiner’s excellent memoir, Uncanny Valley, about her transition from the east coast publishing industry to the west coast tech industry, and it was one of those serendipitous moments where you read two books that seem to be in unwitting but useful conversation with each other. Reichl captured the end of an era in publishing while Wiener picks up with a logical, if depressing, progression of what happened to a smart Millennial woman in publishing (hint: she falls for the lure of tech only to get disillusioned and, thankfully for us readers, then write about it beautifully).
The pandemic also took me to artist Jenny Odell’s nonfiction manifesto How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Odell is the same generation as Wiener and lives, like Wiener, in the Bay Area, which may be part of the reason I saw Odell’s book as being in conversation with Wiener’s. Her Uncanny Valley ends on the bleak eve of the 2016 election, and Odell’s picks up with a guide to how breaking free from tech and paying attention to your local natural environment (something we all had a lot more time to do during lockdown) is a radically political act. I immediately downloaded a plant identification app and became very annoying to take a walk with, stopping every five feet to try and identify every blooming weed on the side of the road. I’m still working on the activism side of things, but I can spot a Peruvian pepper tree from a mile away.
Sometime in the spring I also read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. You don’t need to hear it’s good from me seeing as it won the Pulitzer Prize and all (and the famous PowerPoint chapter really is *chef’s kiss*), but I mention it here solely as evidence that I will get around to reading things eventually. I am sure I’ve had the book since at least 2012 because I remember it being on the bedside table of the house I lived in that year.
In other words, there is hope for all those books I bought to help support bookstores in the pandemic but have no hope in hell of finishing this year. I’m looking at you Elisa Gabbert’s The Unreality of Memory, Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation, Maria Gainza’s Optic Nerve, Sigrid Nunez’s What Are You Going Through, Olivia Laing’s Funny Weather, Catherine Lacey’s Pew, Ashleigh Bryant Phillips’s Sleepovers, Claire-Louise Bennett’s Fish Out of Water, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, and Ben Fergusson’s An Honest Man. For now, talk amongst yourselves on my shelves.
Year of the series
In my end-of-year blog post for 2019, I declared 2020 the year of the series and my intention to finish reading Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s five-book Cazalet Chronicle, and Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, among others. 2020 may feel like a lost year, but this was one commitment I pulled off with pleasure.
I had started reading the Neapolitan Novels and Cazalet Chronicle in 2019 and had three books to go in each, which I alternated between as I progressed. You won’t be surprised to hear that I found these books worked well in conversation with one another, offering alternate views of the lives of their subjects—the Cazalet family in southern England and two Italian women, Elena and Lila—over overlapping spans of the twentieth century. I even found a thread between book three of the Neapolitan Novels, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and Wiener’s Uncanny Valley, when Lila transitions from a grim life working in a sausage factory to being an assistant at IBM, the start of what will be her lucrative entrepreneurial career in tech. Turns out women moving into tech for economic reasons isn’t just a twenty-first century Silicon Valley story.
I am not the first person to wax lyrical about the Cazalet Chronicle (see also Gayle Lazda and Sarah Miller on the subject), but allow me to say that when you read these books you will tear your hair out that you ever wasted your time reading a Julian Fellowes novel and wonder why this hasn’t been made into a TV series. Then you will Google and find out it was made into a TV series that aired in 2001 starring none other than—wait for it—Hugh Bonneville (of Julian Fellowes’s Downton Abbey) as one of the lead characters. Then you will tear out what’s left of your hair wondering why the BBC won’t have mercy on us all and make it available on Netflix. Maybe Britain’s Channel 5, who rebooted All Creatures Great and Small to great success in this pandemic year, can have a go at the Cazalets, too.
I’m still about a hundred pages from the end of the last book, Friends and Heroes, of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, and so far it’s served as a counterpoint to the experiences of a moneyed English family (the world’s favored import of British culture) in the Cazalet Chronicle. Set during World War II and revolving around the life of a newly British married couple as they live in Bucharest and Athens as part of the husband, Guy’s, work for the British legation (a diplomatic arm lower level than the embassy), the Balkan Trilogy novels paint a picture of life during the war for an educated but unmoneyed class of Brits. Its protagonist, Harriet, is smart and frustrated and relatable and reminds me that what links all three of these series of books is that they excel at telling women’s stories of the twentieth century.
No, I’m not going to talk more about Uncanny Valley or the Neapolitan Novels unlikely plot point involving IBM, but rather my three favorite book-related app/site discoveries of the year. First up is The Storygraph, which even in beta is everything I ever hoped for (but long ago gave up on) for Goodreads. I’ve moved all my reading tracking into their mobile app—you can import all your books from Goodreads—and am really enjoying watching the founder and CEO, Nadia Odunayo, develop and grow the site (her engagement with the site’s audience on social media is like a masterclass in product management). Highly recommend.
Next up is libro.fm, a site and companion app for audio books (à la carte and monthly memberships). The beauty is that when you buy books here, you choose your favorite bookstore to benefit from your purchase. It’s a great way to support our lovely local bookstores that are suffering so much during this pandemic.
I downloaded my first book from libro.fm over the summer when I had to take a long car journey, and I’ve since gotten a monthly membership for one book per month. I’ve found I choose things I probably wouldn’t buy in print, so it’s opened up my reading in a bunch of different directions. By far my favorite listen of the year was Kevin Wilson’s hilarious novel about children who catch on fire spontaneously, Nothing to See Here. If children who catch on fire spontaneously (don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt them) doesn’t sound like a rip-roaring read to you, please go and read Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s review of it, which itself is a thing of beauty.
Other books I enjoyed listening to were:
Tayari Jones’s lauded An American Marriage, much of which is epistolary, a format that’s well suited to an audio book.
Lady Glenconner’s Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown which, yes, I know, falls into that category of Americans lapping up British posh toss, but my god this lady really did have an extraordinary life and her friendship with Princess Margaret is the least of it.
Eimear McBride’s Strange Hotel which truth be told I think my brain might be better suited to reading on the page than listening to, but I was happy nonetheless to have finally put a toe into her oeuvre, which also includes A Girl is a Half-formed Thing and The Lesser Bohemians.
Chef and restauranteur (Momofuko, etc.) David Chang’s memoir, Eat a Peach, which is currently my companion to the jogging habit I’ve revived in 2020 as way to stave off the pandemic pounds. If I can’t eat the food he describes, listening to it is a nice alternative.
Finally, I heartily recommend buying books online from the launched-in-2020 Bookshop.org. Like libro.fm, you can select which real-life bookshop you want to support with each purchase. While it’s still best to order online direct from your favorite bookshop when you can, Bookshop.org is the next best thing.
Hooray for Hollywood
All year long I’ve been dipping in and out of I Used to be Charming, a collection of mostly previously published articles spanning the career of journalist and novelist Eve Babitz. She is smart and hilarious and excellent at skewering the bold and beautiful of music and movies while also being their best friends. To wit: one article lays out her theory of Jim Morrison as fundamentally a fat kid while at the same time explaining how she bedded him. Many of the pieces are set in Los Angeles, where I lived for my young adulthood, and San Francisco, where I’ve been living of late, and even though there’s not too much overlap in the time period (the most recent of the articles were published in the nineties) it’s been a joy experiencing those cities through her eyes.
Babitz has had a revival in recent years, rightly being recognized as the more fun peer of Joan Didion who somehow never got quite the same acclaim. She suffered a terrible accident in 1997 that left the lower half of her body badly burned, and she now reportedly lives a reclusive life that includes being a MAGA supporter, a piece of information I find hard to square with the whip-smart woman that’s on every page of this collection.
On that note, I’ll look with optimism to 2021 and having a president back in the White House who reads books and brings culture back to political life. May your 2021 be full of both!
For a long time, I’ve resisted the idea of reading books that are part of a series. With so many good books out there, it seemed risky to devote too much of my precious reading time to a single author, much less a single series by a single author. I was suffering from the reader’s version of FOMO.
It hasn’t always been this way. As a child I had no problem devoting myself to the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Ramona Quimby; to chronicles of both Narnia and Sweet Valley High. But not until Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, the first of which came out in 2014, was my impasse with reading a series of books broken for me as an adult. The thing is, there was so much else going on with Cusk’s books—ripping up the conventions of fiction and such—I almost didn’t notice I had become a serial book reader again. It took another author, Elizabeth Jane Howard, to make me fall in love with the multi-volume form again. (Hat tip to Sarah Miller, whose essay about Howard and The Cazalet Chronicle is what got me started on them.)
As I write this, I am lingering in the last pages of the second volume, Marking Time, of Howards’ Cazalet Chronicle, an English family saga that starts on the brink of the Second World War and excels in its depiction of women and children. The third, Confusion, was purchased in a secondhand bookstore in Chicago earlier this year before I had even started on the second—that’s how sure I was I wanted to continue reading these books. My enjoyment of the Cazalet Chronicle has prompted me to plan a year of reading books in series for 2020. This means starting a few new ones as well as returning to some I’ve already begun, often in the middle. Here’s what’s on my list.
First up is returning to Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. I read and loved the first, My Brilliant Friend, which has in common with Howard the strength of its depiction of girls and women in the early-to-mid-twentieth century. The Story of a New Name’s patient wait on my bookshelf is over.
Next I plan to tackle Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy, which a friend recommended during a random conversation in which I professed my adoration of Alan Bennett, who starred in a 1980’s television adaptation. This led me to pick up Manning’s bewitching The Rain Forest, which I read and loved this year. A foreword from a reissue of The BalkanTrilogy that appeared in Rachel Cusk’s 2019 essay collection, Coventry, pushed the series near the top of my 2020 reading list.
Also featured in Coventry is an essay about D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow and its sequel Women in Love. I’ve read neither, and if I get an itch for expanding my repertoire of classics, I will turn to these.
I will seek mirth from Nina Stibbe’s Reasons to Be Cheerful, the third in a series I started in the middle in 2018 with the sweet, funny Paradise Lodge. Featuring the adventures of teenager-into-young-adult Lizzie Vogel (I’m sensing a theme here in my tastes), it’s nice to have someone to cheer for. Continuing my theme of six degrees of separation from Alan Bennett, Stibbe also wrote a book, Love, Nina, about the time she spent as the nanny for the editor of the London Review of Books, who happened to be Bennett’s close friend, sometimes publisher, and neighbor.
The podcast of Bennett’s 2019 diary reminded me that Scottish used-bookstore-owner Shaun Bythell has a sequel to his curmudgeonly delightful Diary of a Bookseller. The follow-up, Confessions of a Bookseller is something I’ll save up for when I need some comic relief in 2020 (I’m guessing around election time in November).
Sticking with memoir, I also want to read the first in a planned trio by Deborah Levy, Things I Don’t Want to Know: On Writing, which is a response to George Orwell’s Why I Write. The second book of this series, The Cost of Living, was one of my favorite books of 2018. Here’s hoping the third of the series comes to fruition in 2020, although if not, I’m also keen to read her 2019 novel, The Man Who Saw Everything, not least because it’s partially set in Berlin.
Back to fiction, I finally plan to take the plunge with Ben Lerner and his 2019 TheTopeka School. In the last month Lerner has been interviewed on most the culture podcasts I enjoy, so I guess the marketing has worked. It’s the third of a series, but a prequel of sorts to the first two, so I don’t feel too bad about starting at the end.
Finally, I’m bad at sticking to plans and there are a few things on my horizon that don’t fall into the category of a book that’s part of a series, including Nell Zink’s 2019 novel, Doxology, Ottessa Moshfegh’s forthcoming novel Death in Her Hands, and Lucy Ellmann’s 2019 Booker Prize nominated Ducks, Newburyport, which at over 1,000 pages may as well be a multi-volume series, albeit written largely as a single sentence.
It’s the time of year for resolutions, but before I go, here’s a quick look back at my favorite books read in 2019 and published in the last decade. Happy new year, and may your 2020 year in reading be filled with new favorites!
Book & Bottle pairs books with booze—a surrogate for my fantasy of one day owning a combination bookstore and bar.
Having once written my own London-to-Cotswolds story, I can’t believe it took me this long to discover Christmas Pudding, Nancy Mitford’s 1932 riff on the city-girl-goes-country trope. But it did, and it happened with a bit of serendipity, the way all the best book purchases do. (Shoutout to the tiny-but-perfect The Story of Books‘s bookstore in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, for facilitating said serendipitous moment.)
The plot of Christmas Pudding centers on a love triangle between Paul Fotheringay, a budding London novelist who has written an earnest book mistaken by critics for a comic masterpiece; Philadelphia (Delphie!) Bobbin, the beautiful, sullen daughter of Cotswold matriarch Lady Bobbin; and Lord Michael Lewes, a diplomat just returned from Cairo and first cousin of Delphie (what can I say, it was written at a time when the cousin thing was less taboo).
The heart of the tale, however, is with its two female leads, who orchestrate the events of the slim novel like master puppeteers. Mitford’s country mouse is the fox-hunting-obsessed widow, Lady Bobbin, who loathes London and all things frivolous. Town mouse is the former courtesan, Amabelle Fortescue, who managed to transition into the upper echelons of London society by marrying a member of parliament. Said MP thoughtfully died a respectable three years hence, leaving Amabelle to entertain all and sundry, including us readers.
Amabelle and Lady Bobbin’s worlds collide when Amabelle decides to take a house in Lady Bobbin’s neck of the Cotswolds over Christmas, a whim she explains to her gobsmacked best friend like this:
I read a book about the Cotswolds once when I was waiting for a train at Oban, I don’t know why, but I bought it off a book-stall. I suppose I wanted change for a pound note.
Amabelle’s rented house turns out to be more olde worlde than old world, which one of her house guests sends up wonderfully with his interior design suggestions:
You ought to send up to Soloman’s for some rushes to strew about the floor; then, when you’ve hung a couple of Fortmason hams on to those hooks in the ceiling and dressed all your servants in leather jerkins, you’ll have arrived at the true atmosphere of Ye. If I think of any other homey touches, I’ll let you know.
(Did I mention I have a whole chapter in my book Americashire about trawling the antique arcades and architectural yards of Gloucestershire for such homey touches? I’m ashamed to say that until a decade of winter finally destroyed it, the backyard of our Cotswold cottage boasted a wagon wheel poised jauntily against the stonewall of a shed.)
Despite its architectural shortcomings, Amabelle’s rented house, Mulberrie Farm, turns into the social hub of the hamlet, where residents of Lady Bobbin’s home, the joyless and champagne-free zone of Compton Bobbin, secrete themselves daily for card games and general merriment. To keep warm, they fortify themselves with cherry brandy, which seems an obvious choice of a bottle for the reader to enjoy with this book, especially when compared to the warm beer and cider cup on offer from Lady Bobbin.
Regardless of their different approaches to hospitality, Mitford imbues both women with more than enough comedy to sustain this delightful Cotswold jaunt. May your own holiday season be filled with parties hosted by the Amabelle’s of the world, and a stocking stuffed with cherry brandy, a shiny new flask, and a paperback that manages to be as effervescent and scathing as this one.
And finally, since it’s the gift-giving time of year, it seemed opportune to take a look back at my Book & Bottle blog posts from 2019 and glean a few gift ideas for the bibulous bibliophiles in your life. (I’ve amended some of my original bottle recommendations to be a bit more gift-y.)
Sayaka Murata’s wonderful, offbeat, and stocking-size novel, Convenience Store Woman, with a bottle of premium sake;
Anne Fadiman’s memoir about her bibulous bibliophile dad, The Wine Lover’s Daughter, and a bottle of Burgundy or Bordeaux;
Max Porter’s Lanny, and a bottle of fancy British gin (I like the Sipsmith labels, which evoke the English folk-story feel of this novel);
Ling Ma’s Severance, which melds zombie dystopia with literary fiction, and a bottle of decent whisky;
Nancy Mitford’s Christmas Pudding, packaged up with a bottle of brandy.
Book & Bottle pairs books with booze—a surrogate for my fantasy of one day owning a combination bookstore and bar.
I am not the kind of
person who likes zombie books, not even when they’re dressed up like Jane
Austen à la Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
Dystopia of any type is not my go-to genre, reality being dystopian enough for
me most days, thank you very much. But rules are made to be broken, and Ling
Ma’s excellent debut novel from 2018, Severance, proved that, on
occasion, I am in fact precisely the kind of person who likes a good zombie novel
set in the dystopia of our recent past.
Given my prejudices, it will not surprise you to learn that what attracted me to the novel in the first place was something other than spending time in the company of the walking dead. Rather, it was the promise of reading a book about work, which was implied in both the title of Ma’s novel as well as the color of its cover—pink, as in slip. I have been trying to write a non-fiction book about work for a few years now, which mostly means I’ve been reading other books about work. My reading list on the subject has veered sharply from the What-Color-Is-Your-Parachute?-type books to fiction, which lately seems to me to do a better job at treating the topic that subsumes the majority of our earthly hours with the imagination it deserves. A line from Severance comes to mind: “When you wake up in a fictitious world, your only frame of reference is fiction.”
But before work:
zombies. Or more specifically, the fevered, which is what most of America has
become when the novel opens. The fevered—cause unknown, but blamed on spores
originating in China—are stuck in a loop of “mimicking old routines and
gestures they must have inhabited for years, decades…They could operate the
mouse of a dead PC, they could drive stick in a jacked sedan, they could run an
empty dishwasher, they could water dead houseplants.” They pose no real threat
to the survivors, a fact that the novel’s protagonist and narrator, Candace Chen,
points out early in the book to Bob, the aspiring-cult leader of the small band
of survivors who rescued Candace semi-conscious from a taxi she stole to get
out of New York City. Bob is pontificating about whether their reality is more
akin to a zombie or vampire flick—zombie in his estimation since vampire
stories are character-driven—when Candace dares to challenge him for the first
but not last time. Bob pontificates (and worse) a lot.
The novel slips
effortlessly between Candace’s life as a twenty-something in New York City in
the runup to the apocalypse and her life as one of the group of survivors dealing
with its aftermath. In between slaying zombies—which the survivors do at the
end of their supply-collecting “stalks” of the homes of the fevered on the
purported ethical grounds of putting them out of their misery—we learn about Candace’s
life at work at a book production company call Spectra. There she project manages
outsourced-to-China Bible production, a job she fell into through a short-lived
romance with the brother of the owner of the company.
Candace, a Visual Arts major and amateur photographer, isn’t particularly enamored of the job, but she is good at it. More than that, she can lose herself in the work.
“I answered emails. I measured spine widths to the exact millimeter. I ordered prototypes of Bibles for clients. I drew up specs for new Bible projects, sent them to the Hong Kong office for an estimate. I calculated the volume and weight of the books to estimate packing and shipping costs. I received a call from an Illinois publisher, and assured their team over speakerphone that the paper for their prayer-book series was indeed FSC certified, without the use of tropical hardwoods. I don’t remember if I took lunch or not.”
Candace’s job reminded me of my twenties, when I spent three years working as a financial analyst at Capitol Records, a deeply unglamorous job with a lot of glamorous trappings, including an office in the iconic tower on Hollywood and Vine. I got enough comp’d tickets to shows to woo my now-husband, but I spent my days in the bowels of Excel macros modeling seasonal variations on CD shipments and returns back in the days when we still had brick and mortar record stores. Like Candace, the terrible and wonderful truth was that I didn’t hate my job. In that job, as in most my jobs, I could find the same flow in mundane tasks as Candace does.
One of the strengths of the novel is how Ma handles such nuances of our relationship to work. Candace’s boyfriend, Jonathan, is a writer who freelances odd jobs to pay his bills and has grown disillusioned with the expense and consumerism of New York. He is a foil to Candace in this way, and although she admires his idealism, she also sees the price he pays. Before he leaves New York for good, Candace thinks but doesn’t tell him, “You think this is freedom but I see the bare, painstakingly cheap way you live, the scrimping and saving, and that is not freedom either.”
Despite the title of the novel, Candace never loses her job. Late in the book we learn that she actually tried to resign after her first year at Spectra, but was talked out it by her boss. She even finishes the lucrative contract she agreed to as the Shen Fever epidemic heightened, a fact she only realizes when she heads to an ATM and finds her account flush with cash from the bonus due on the last day of her contract, November 30, 2011. The catch is that there’s nowhere to spend it anymore. New York has been abandoned.
It turns out that the
Severance of the title refers to other types of severance: from China, Candace’s
home country; from her parents, who have both died (not from Shen Fever, but
from a car crash and dementia, both at a premature age); and from her
boyfriend, Jonathan, who left New York just before the fever gets a grip on the
city. In the end it is these types of severance that may explain why Candace is
spared. Hers is an untethered life, and what little evidence Candace has about
the cause of the fever seems to indicate there’s danger in nostalgia, in a
longing for a home that no longer exists.
What then to drink while reading Severance? At first I was thinking a Bloody Mary, not just for its ghoulish name but because barring the celery—which I think we can all agree is the least best part of a Bloody Mary—its primary ingredients are things that one might reasonably find in a well-preserved state while raiding the pantries of your fellow citizens who’ve been struck down by Shen Fever. But the thing is, a Bloody Mary needs ice, and ice is hard to come by when the power grid is down.
Which then begs the question of what cocktails taste good at room temperature? Friends, meet Rob Roy, a stiff (pun intended) concoction of whisky, bitters, and sweet vermouth that just happens to be named after a seventeenth-century Scottish outlaw turned folk hero, i.e., exactly the kind of guy you would want around in the wake of an apocalypse—the anti-Bob so to speak. Also, the drink was invented at the bar in the Waldorf Astoria, a few blocks away from Times Square, which was a few blocks away from the Spectra office where Candace worked.
But mostly it’s the
room temperature thing. I know because I tested it out and can confirm it
tastes good that way and also that you won’t care what the temperature is—or
about anything else—after a few sips, which strikes me as the kind of thing
that would come in handy in the wake of the apocalypse, even if you’re just
reading about one.
Book & Bottle pairs books with booze—a surrogate for my fantasy of one day owning a combination bookstore and bar.
August: the last gasp of summer and with it, the cherished idea of summer reading. The multi-week vacation to the beach where you devour books sounds wonderful but also mythical—at least I don’t know anyone who actually does this, although weekend newspapers and magazines would have you think it’s the norm. I suspect those summer reading spreads, roundups of the what-and-where-the-great-and-good-are-reading-this-summer, are convenient filler for when the journalists themselves are taking a break.
The bulk of my own summer reading happened back in June, plane-side rather than poolside thanks to an unusual spate of mostly work-related travel. Rather than devote this Book & Bottle to a single book as I’ve done in the past, I’ll do like the media do and make this one a roundup of three of my favorite summer reads from that period, pairing literary libations with each. Join me here at the literary poolside of my dreams, where everyone gets a sun lounger, a drink with an umbrella in it, and a hardback so good you’d rather burn to a crisp than put it down to reapply the sunscreen.
Max Porter’s Lanny and Long Island Iced Tea
First up is Max Porter’s Lanny. I’ve been wanting to write about this book since I read it, but it was so good I immediately gave my copy away after finishing it to maximize my chances of having someone else to talk to about it. Set in an English village, it is perhaps the most quintessentially English thing I’ve ever read while simultaneously unlike anything I’ve ever read. The plot centers on the disappearance of a boy, the Lanny of the title, but I hope this doesn’t discourage parents wanting to avoid the vicarious anguish of the setup from reading it; this is not Leïla Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny, with its murderous opening sentence.
While Lanny is the supposed center of the book, he’s more absent than the other characters, even before he disappears. Porter structures the book from the perspective of these other characters, including each of Lanny’s parents; Pete, an artist in the village who at the request of Lanny’s mom gives Lanny art lessons; and Dead Papa Toothwort, a shape-shifting, eavesdropping embodiment of ancient English folklore.
In the face of all this Englishness, my first thought about what drink to pair with Lanny was elderflower champagne. Years ago when I was living in an actual English village, I watched someone make it—on a TV episode of River Cottage—and always thought I’d like to give it a try. Cue visions of a quaint village show, a beribboned bottle of my wares on display next to the other competition winners: plum jam, a wonky brown loaf, a child’s cap knitted in the design of a Christmas pudding.
I never brewed my own elderflower wine, but on any given day in May or June I could have stepped outside our cottage in Gloucestershire, walked a block or two up the road and picked the eight elderflower heads the recipe calls for. Here in San Francisco, though, the closest thing to picking elderflower is ordering a cocktail with St. Germain. Perhaps Lanny would pair better with a traditional cider or perry—also very English, but something I could probably find at a Trader Joe’s.
And then I listened to David Naimon interview Max Porter, and I realized I had been getting this all wrong. Dead Papa Toothwort may be drawn from English folklore, but he’s far from the twee stereotypes of village life. He’s a throbbing hot mess, and Porter tells us as much in the first paragraph of the first page:
Dead Papa Toothwort wakes from his standing nap an acre wide and scrapes off dream dregs of bitumen glistening thick with liquid globs of litter. He lies down to hear hymns of the earth (there are none, so he hums), then he shrinks, cuts himself a mouth with a rusted ring pull and sucks up a wet skin of acid-rich mulch and fruity detrivores. He splits and wobbles, divides and reassembles, coughs up a plastic pot and a petrified condom, briefly pauses as a smashed fiberglass bath stumbles and rips off the mask, feels his face and finds it made of long-buried tannic acid bottles. Victorian rubbish.
Dead Papa Toothwort is, of course, a Long Island Iced Tea incarnate. He could never be anything other than a Long Island Iced Tea, that garbage fire of gin, tequila, rum, triple sec, gin, and Coke that belongs in my personal drinking history to the bar at my southwest Florida hometown Benningan’s (TGI Friday’s cooler cousin) in the early nineties, when I was in my twenties and possessed a constitution that could better withstand the morning after a night of drinking cocktails consisting of five spirits.
These days I fear the bartenders in San Francisco’s hipper establishments may eject you for attempting to order a Long Island Iced Tea, but I’ve done the legwork and am happy to tell you both the Cliff House and The Buena Vista feature a Long Island Iced Tea on their cocktail menus. If you’re ever in town, hit me up for happy hour at either.
Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and Heineken
Ocean Vuong is a poet, and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeousis his first novel. As someone who has struggled with appreciating poetry—a fact I use as an indictment of my own rigidity, not the form—I welcome when a poet chooses to write in a format that I find more accessible. (Hat tip to poet Patricia Lockwood for her memoir, Priestdaddy, which also fits this bill.) The genre of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a little more amorphous than the words “A Novel” on the cover might have you believe, but it was enough to trick my brain into believing we could read this thing.
This “thing” is anchored by the construct of a son writing a letter to his mother, who cannot read. It is about their lives as Vietnamese Americans in Hartford, Connecticut, and the lives of his grandmother and mother before in Vietnam. In the interviews I’ve listened to with Vuong (he is a compelling speaker, one of those rare writers who’s as eloquent off the page as on), he talks about the importance of writing their experience into the Western canon, of declaring that this experience too is worthy of literature. In one such interview, he drew a striking comparison to what Chaucer was doing with The Canterbury Tales, specifically
writing a new English with no standardized spelling at a time where the Latinate reigned supreme. He stubbornly said, English life in English is worthy, and I think I’m working in the same tradition.
A more contemporary precedent for what Vuong is doing here is Toni Morrison. Following her recent death, I was reminded she did much the same thing for the black experience in America. Curiously, I had earlier thought of Morrison while reading this book, specifically through Vuong’s recurring use of the imagery of a herd of buffalo running off a cliff. The main character, Little Dog, and his grandmother, Lan, watch the scene on a nature program, and Lan asks Little Dog why he thinks the buffalo “die themselves like that.” Later, Little Dog asks the same thing of his lover. Finally, Vuong uses the imagery at the end of the book as part of a metaphor for what Little Dog is running away from and simultaneously embracing. It is reminiscent of the ending of Song of Solomon, when Milkman also leaps and takes flight.
As for the what-bottle-to-pair-with-this-book question, I started by looking for a cue from how booze shows up in the text. Opioid addiction plays an important role, but alcohol is less present. I was, however, struck by a scene where Little Dog’s grandmother, Lan, drinks a single Heineken at a child’s birthday party and, with “her face the shade of raw ground beef,” begins to sing a morbid Vietnamese folk song. The lyrics feature a woman looking for her sister “among corpses strewn across sloping leafy hills.” Even though the song is in Vietnamese and none of the Americans at the party can understand the lyrics, Little Dog’s mom, Rose, is horrified, and tries unsuccessfully to get Lan to stop.
It is a scene that has extreme resonance today (and probably always) as our access to real-time news makes us hyper-aware of the extreme cruelty and injustice in the world, in the face of which we mostly just keep going about our daily lives pretending as if nothing has changed, or if it has, that it doesn’t affect us. Our response is not rational. In this context, Lan is not the crazy one. Lan is the only sane one at the birthday party, her single Heineken a portal to this breakthrough that looks more like a breakdown to everyone else. (Heineken marketers, you can thank me later for this undoubtedly on-brand interpretation ?.) (See also: The hypersane are among us, if only we are prepared to look.)
So here we are, quite a bit off piste from the fluffy idea of pairing a book with a drink, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that if a beer or some other intoxicant can give us a moment’s access to the pain and suffering in our world in such a way that might be transformative rather than destructive, then by all means consume it.
Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s Heads of the Colored People and Delaware Punch
My final recommendation is Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s Heads of the Colored People, a short story collection focused on the contemporary lives of black people in southern California. Like Vuong, she was motivated by wanting to read experiences that reflected her own, including “more stories about awkward, nerdy black people,” as she explained in a recent interview. Two of my favorite stories are “Belles Lettres”, a bitchy epistolary between two mothers of children at a private school, and “Suicide, Watch”, which features a social-media-obsessed young woman who posts a fake suicide note online, and reads like an episode of Black Mirror.
The setting for many of Thompson-Spires’s stories is the Inland Empire, a huge metropolitan area east of Los Angeles. My mother grew up in San Bernardino, one of the cities of the Inland Empire, and I spent a lot of time there visiting my grandparents as a kid. Most people today know it from the mass shooting that took place in 2015; it is not the kind of place that typically shows up in Literature. And yet here they were, the place names of my summers: Baseline and Foothill, both streets that seem to run forever; Stater Brothers grocery stores; a mall in Montclair.
There was a thrill in recognizing in print these names seared into my childhood brain, markers as we drove the 10 Freeway the seventy miles east from LAX. I was reminded intensely of summer vacations spent at my grandparent’s house, where one of my finest pleasures was to go to the refrigerator in the garage (which, for reasons never explained, was not plugged in and always had a paper bag between the refrigerator and the door that you were supposed to put back in place after you opened it), retrieve a can of Delaware Punch, then drink it over ice from my plastic Disneyland mug featuring a decal of Donald Duck on its transparent base.
Delaware Punch was special, in part because it was nowhere to be found in Florida, the state where I lived at the time. (It’s still almost impossible to find now, save for Amazon where I found a 12-pack for $21.95.) If you’ve never had it, you’ll just have to trust me when I tell you it’s the purple-red, non-carbonated, rocket-fuel-level-of-sugar fruit punch of every child’s dreams. And so for the question of what beverage to pair with Heads of the Colored People I’m going to go away from alcohol and suggest whatever drink is the one that reminds you most of your childhood, or of a place you loved—something from the canon of You, which is as worthy as anything in those other canons preceded by words that start with a capital letter.
Book & Bottle pairs books with wine—a surrogate for my fantasy of one day owning a combination bookstore and wine bar.
Having drank up memoir and literary fiction in the first three Book & Bottles, I thought I’d try some genre fiction for the fourth round. When I’ve read detective novels in the past, it’s usually been prompted by a curiosity or affinity with a place, thus Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series set in Venice and Martin O’Brien’s Jacquot novels set in Marseille.
This time was no different. Michael Dibdin’s 1998 Aurelio Zen mystery, A Long Finish, is set in Piedmont in the north of Italy amongst winemakers and truffle hunters. I was jumping into the middle of a series—the sixth of eleven books—but it seemed like a good excuse to get to know more about Barolo and Barbaresco.
In the setup for the novel, a winemaker has been killed in a grisly murder for which his son has been arrested. A famous director and obsessive wine collector based in Rome enlists the services of Dottor Zen, a Criminapol officer—not for the sake of justice, but rather to get the accused son out of jail to ensure that the vintage is produced that year and the director’s wine collection is therefore completed. In return, he will use his clout to help Zen secure a prime location for his next post, a fact that isn’t supposed to make us think less of Zen but rather establish the realities of law enforcement in Italy.
The director gives us our first lesson on wine:
Barolo is the Bach of wine…Strong, supremely structured, a little forbidding, but absolutely fundamental. Barbaresco is the Beethoven, taking those qualities and lifting them to heights of subjective passion and pain that have never been surpassed. And Brunello is its Brahms, the softer, fuller romantic afterglow of so much strenuous excess.
Thankfully we are not subjected to anymore of the director’s pontificating beyond the second chapter. Instead, a mystery within the mystery emerges, this one involving a stalker who calls Zen in his hotel room in Alba using a voice changer to disguise her identity. It turns into one thread in a broader theme of Zen’s obsession with paternity.
The other thread of this theme began earlier when Zen told the director that he has a son, a baby named Carlo. Shortly after we learn that a woman “with whom he had once had a transient, desultory affair” had aborted a pregnancy for which she claimed he was responsible. This pregnancy is presumably the basis for Zen’s earlier declaration of fatherhood, as well as a bizarre episode midway through the book in which Zen inhales some secondhand hashish, mistakes the word “sun” for “son,” then proclaims to his companions, “I never told you I had a son! And I don’t. He’s dead. She killed him, and I wasn’t even there!”
And yet this is nothing compared to the denouement of this particular plot line in which, spoiler alert, Zen decides to let an adult woman—the mystery caller—believe he is her biological father despite having genetic proof otherwise. Perhaps the outcome of his previous experience in the “transient, desultory” affair is supposed to explain this choice, but this is not a plot line that has aged well. Zen rationales to himself,
Acquiring a twenty-something daughter about whom he knew next to nothing certainly promised to be interesting—and if it goes seriously off the rails, a weasel voice reminded him, you can always tell her the truth.
Weasel voice indeed. At this point—actually far earlier—I needed a drink. Forget about the Beethovens and Bachs of wine. I just needed something to get me through the remaining pages without my head blowing off in a feminist rage. Plentiful and cheap were my criteria, and there it was, prominently displayed as I entered the wine store: a €7.99 bottle of a red blend from Piedmont with a truffle hound on the label. (Dibdin would have done well to give us more of Anna, the truffle hound belonging to another local who turns up dead after the winemaker Manlio Vincenzo is first murdered. Alas, we get nothing so likable as a dog.)
The wine was drinkable enough, and the label, twee as it might be, was subtler than some of the similes Dibdin hoists on the reader. My favorites include:
At dawn the next morning, as the dull exhausted light strained to heave the insensible darkness off the lagoon like an elderly whore trying to get out from under a drunken client…
A vision of her supine and naked, her large breasts lolling around on her chest like half-trained puppies with a mind of their own.
Illustration by Harry Clarke, printed in Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, 1919.
Back to the “murder-in-wine-country” strand of the book, things aren’t going much better. The dead winemaker’s son had originally been arrested for his father’s murder under the pretense that his father was a homophobe and the son, who was gay, murdered him in a fit of rage. Soon we learn that, doh!, it was all a big misunderstanding: the son’s betrothed, Andrea, is just an American woman, not the Italian man his father assumed an Andrea would be. Meanwhile, the dead bodies keep piling up.
Despite its flaws, the last chapter of the book, which wraps up the mainline murder plot, is a corker. In his acknowledgements, Dibdin cites Poe and The Cask of Amontillado, claiming “a few echoes of which may be discerned in the second chapter.” I will offer no spoilers here other than to say I think it’s actually the last chapter that’s pure Poe. I haven’t felt so deliciously creeped out by a closing scene since I watched a black-and-white version of The Tell-Tale Heart in my sixth-grade English class. The finish, unlike the rest of the book, wasn’t long enough.
Just back from two weeks in England, half in the Cotswolds and half in London. In the former, there were some disheartening changes to one of our favorite pubs in a neighboring village. The old snug bar has been dismantled, its fireplace-facing easy chairs displaced by a pack of dining tables that lend this fifteenth-century pub all the charm of a high street Pizza Express. Still, I wish anybody willing to take on a country pub well. If it was easy, they wouldn’t change hands and shape so often.
My disappointment was allayed when I was introduced to a pub, The Golden Fleece, in Stroud that seems to be getting everything right in balancing old and new. We only had time for a half pint, but I look forward to going back and whiling away an entire afternoon there, as our neighbor seemed to be doing with a pint and a paperback.
Instead, we cycled down the canal to check out the relatively newly renovated Stroud Brewery. It’s wildly different than the original, much larger and slicker, and our hearts initially dropped with the sense that another gem had been lost. Then we found a spot in a snug overlooking the vast beer-hall-style ground floor and, over the course of a few hours and a few pints of Alederflower Pale Ale, had a lovely time chatting with our fellow patrons. Vélo Bakery and Pizza is still onsite in the brewery and provided our excellent dinner.
In London, our standout meal was a lunch at the Persian restaurant, Berenjak, in Soho. We sat at the counter and watched the team of cooks work the tiny open kitchen, delivering dish after exquisite dish from the clay tanoor over, grill, shawarma spit, and fryer. We chose conservatively but were still rewarded: hummus with taftoon (sourdough seeded flatbread from the tanoor), an aubergine stew, and a fancy riff on a late night kabab, piled on a bed of fries and topped with a hand-tossed lettuce and onion salad, all washed down with a house lager and a Bibble pale ale.
After lunch, we walked over to Second Shelf Books, the jewel box of a bookstore selling first editions of books by women writers. There’s a profile of it here, and it’s a must-visit if you love book stores. I bought a first-edition of Carson McCullers Clock Without Hands after ogling a much more expensive copy of Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado. Like Berenjak, I’ll be back.
Book & Bottle pairs books with wine—a 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.