"A Year In The World"

A Year In The World by Frances Mayes

This is a very well written travel book, one of the best I've read. It's a little different in that the author has taken her experiences from various trips to different places over several years and strung them together to produce a narrative describing a year's worth of travel. Usually I want a book to let me stay in one place longer than this one does, but the writing is so good it's impossible not to love it.

Mayes totally immerses herself in the places she visits and the reader reaps the happy results. Her travel stories can make you feel you've been there yourself. She must do a lot of research or maybe she just knows a ridiculous amount about everything, because the book is full of information on the history, politics, culture, art, and literature of every destination. She talks with ease about their poets, novelists,  musicians, and artists. And she is remarkably observant, noticing and sharing small details of local people, buildings, food, flowers, and landscapes that make each place and person come alive.

Frances Mayes will remind you how fascinating the world is if you've forgotten. I confess to being more than a little envious. To travel the world staying in the smaller cities and towns must be such a rich experience. The Londons and Romes and Barcelonas of the world have their attractions, but to stay in places where you see how the everyday people of a place live - how they spend their mornings, afternoons and evenings, how they work and socialize and interact with each other - must be incredibly satisfying. 

It's apparent from the first page that this is an intelligent, educated author. I admit I found her vocabulary a little intimidating, but I kept the dictionary handy for words like obsidian, anneal, quotidian, dithyrambic (which even Microsoft Word didn't recognize), marmoreal, peripatetic, sybaritic and aphoristic. I tend to read too quickly most of time, but not with this book. Mayes' erudite writing forced me to slow down to get maximum enjoyment from the reading. I loved it from the first word to the last. 

The chapters I enjoyed most were on Italy, France, Greece, Scotland and England, not necessarily in that order. I also enjoyed, but am less intrigued by, Portugal, Fez and Turkey. I was absolutely smitten with Capri. It sounds like a dream.   

There are some nice maps printed on the insides of the covers. I spend an inordinate amout of time reading maps, looking up settings from books or places in the news, needing to know where they fit into the world, what countries or oceans border them. I get a bit obessive aboout it, but I need to know. Having maps in this book gave me the opportunity to see where the authour was taking me and I referred to them often.

Another thing I like about Mayes' travel stories is that she and her husband do a lot of their exploring on foot. I've long been convinced you can't really experience a place until you've walked it. Driving through a town you get a general impression, but when you walk it you get the details - the textures, sounds and smells that make it real. That intense sense of place is something she is able to share with her readers and it's very satisfying.

At times the author is critical of other tourists, and I understand that when you travel you don't want to find yourself always surrounded by your own countrymen. Of course you go to experience other cultures and people, but it does seem a bit smug to hold yourself superior to "other" tourists, even if you are more knowledgable about the place. You may appreciate different things or have a different travel "style", but live and let live I say. Travel and let travel.  

It's a great book, one I recommend to anyone with a passion for travel, even of the armchair variety.

"Hear Heaven"

Hear Heaven by Sheila Davidson

This is a fairytale set in the twelfth century with all the needed elements: romance, a battle between good and evil,  and a shining white castle at the edge of the sea. I do love a castle setting, especially if the wonders inside are described in detail. This one obliges with details of polished wood tables, huge four-poster beds covered with old quilts, long corridors with closed doors leading to room after room, and tall fireplaces with baking ovens in the stone-floored kitchen. And you can see the sea from the second floor window. How perfect is that? It's my dream home. Well one of them anyway. There's also the villa with terracotta tiles on Majorca, the terraced stone vineyard house in France and the white stucco, blue tiled roof house on a hill by the sea in Greece. Cliches all, I know, but cliches make pretty good fantasies.

As a story, this one has some good plot elements: an evil woman who practices the dark arts, a good man blessed with a unique supernatural gift, a young girl who leaves home for a new life for which she is not qualified. The story moves along at a good pace with enough twists and turns to be entertaining. I stayed up reading far too late one night because I couldn't make myself close the book.

I thought the writing was good for a first novel. I like the way Ms. Davidson puts words together; it feels fresh, and intelligent. A sentence I particularly like is "Their words were interrupted by a flurry of blond hair and blue dress exiting the main door". That phrase "a flurry of blond hair and blue dress" is very appealing to me. I have no idea why. Isn't it strange how a particular phrase will jump off the page for one person and mean nothing at all to anyone else. How do those particular words become poetry or music to one and not to another? I don't know how it works, but I read to find those phrases and when I do I feel like I've uncovered buried treasure. I read it over and over, silently then out loud. I mark it in the book so I can find it again. They are a delight to me, thought I don't know why.

I came across a few spots that I thought were overwritten, or where the characters over reacted. Things like one character saying something just slightly funny and the other character is said to have "roared with laughter". And when Isgore, the main character, falls for the wrong girl it all seems to happen too fast. He is rendered near stupid by one look at the beauty, and more disconcerting is how completely the evil girl bewitches him and turns him away from all that he believes. I wish his faith in the "one true God" had caused him to experience at least some small doubt about her. His whole personality changed way too fast to be realistic for me, even in a fairytale.

 The characters are suited to a story of this kind, the evil ones are pure evil and the good ones are pure good, except when the good one gets taken in by the evil one for a time. He comes to his senses in time to avoid a disaster and he never leans toward the dark side again. I usually want characters to be more human, a mixture of good and bad, but somehow it doesn't matter so much in this kind of story.

I must mention that the paper used in this book is very nice, the smooth bright white gives the black print good contrast and makes it easier to read than some. These things are important when you're my age.

There is one aspect of the book that I'm ambivalent about. I wish I could make up my mind, because I keep running into it and having the same argument with myself over and over. The book portrays spirituality as believing and following the "one, true God". Some of the characters are followers, some are not, and some become followers as the story unfolds. I don't have any problem with that in itself, but the book talks only of God. There's no mention of Jesus. The last thing I want to be is legalistic, but what do we do with the fact that the Bible says the only way to God is through Jesus? Could the book be giving people false assurance? I had the same questions about the tv show "Touched By An Angel". They were good, wholesome stories but they left out Jesus. I'm all for clean books and tv, the more they put out there the better, but I worry that we're leading people the wrong way. Am I being legalistic or are we leading people astray? Or is there a middle road that I'm not seeing?

I'd recommend this book to most of my women friends, as well as young girls maybe 13 and up. It isn't great literature, but it is a satisfying story. I don't know if the authour will write any more books, but if she does I'd probably read them.

"To Dance In The Desert"

To Dance In The Desert by Kathleen Popa

The cover shows a dancing woman's silhouette against the sunset bronze of the desert. That, and the title, convinced me to give this novel a try, in spite of my dislike for the genre in general. I've read too much badly written Christian fiction with it's overused melodrama and endless stereotypes and just can't bring myself to read any more. The cover on this one appealed to me though. The woman holds a scarf or shawl in her outstretched arms that is catching the wind and billowing out behind her, suggesting a freedom, an uninhibitedness that was hard to resist, so, I read the book.

It wasn't bad. It was certainly an improvement over some of what I've read in the past, particularly the Christian fiction that's been written specifically for women. I don't know if the quality of the genre has improved over the past few years or if I just happened to stumble upon one of the better authours. Either way it was a relief to find it a pleasant book to read.

The first few paragraphs are interesting enough to draw the reader in, although I stumbled over part of a description in the opening line. The main character is describing a woman standing on a bluff: "...her arms stretched to the horizons, her face dry as sandstone, her silver hair blowing...". "Her face dry as sandstone"? The character watching is doing so from a distance and probably can't see her face. Maybe it's saying the woman resembles a statue carved from the cliffs, but isn't that in direct contrast to the other image being painted, an image of movement with a woman dancing and the wind blowing? I know it's a small thing, I just found it odd.

Popa has developed a story line that is fresh and original, and that held my attention well enough to keep me turning the pages. There were a couple of situations that I thought were a bit far fetched but on the whole the actions and back stories of the main characters were credible. I found the characters to be fairly well written on the whole, but among the secondary characters there were a few well worn cliches. There was the stereotypical legalist preacher, a predictable rugged cowboy type and a few others. The two main characters were the most believable, both fairly well rounded, both complex enough to be interesting.  

The dialogue was also better than I would have expected, with a natural feel, easy to read. I usually find myself frustrated and rolling my eyes over the unnatural dialogue in some Christian fiction but not so much in this one, although there was a poem written by the cowboy and read at a party that was so embarrassingly corny it was hard to read it all the way through.

A lot of 'women's' novels  (in my admittedly somewhat cynical viewpoint) have nice, neat impossibly happy endings for everyone involved, but this one is thankfully a little more realistic, with the main character aware of the uncertainties of the future and facing it with her eyes open. I liked that the authour gave her doubts and let her express them; it's so much more realistic than everyone living happily ever after.

The goal of this story, I think, is to tell women that there is hope, that there can be healing, no matter what awful thing life has thrown at you. And I think the authour succeeded in doing that. I'd recommend it to women who enjoy Christian fiction, particularly anyone in need of encouragement or reassurance. It's a solid story, fairly well written if a little predictable at times. But it's also realistic enough to make you stop and re-think your own attitudes toward life and that's always a good thing.

"Home By Another Way"

Home By Another Way by Robert Benson

This is the story of how Benson and his wife fell in love with a small Caribbean island and adopted it as their second home. I am a huge fan of travel books, so I couldn't really go wrong with this one. It met all my requirements for a good travel book: it let's you stay in one place long enough to become familiar with it, it was written by someone who wasn't arrogant enough to think this foreign place should adapt itself to them, and the descriptions were vivid enough that I can close my eyes and be there. I have developed these requirements over time with the reading of some really bad travel books.

The Caribbean setting was a huge plus for me because I've been there and remember the sounds and smells of the islands. The Island under discussion is St. Cecelia, which the author admits is not it's real name, but one made up to keep his favorite island from becoming too popular. From what he says though, I suspect I know the real name of that island because it all sounds so familiar and some of the landscape is just too similar to be coincidence. It made me feel a little homesick. Not that I spent that much time there, but the place get's under your skin quickly. I probably will never set foot on that particular piece of the earth again, but I will always be wishing I could.

 I like Benson's writing. He has a simple, straightforward style that doesn't ask much of the reader, which can be a very nice change. All you have to do is show up and gratefully go along for the ride. I haven't read his other books, but this one is restful, gentle, calm. He has a quiet dry humour that I love and an understated way of saying things that is most appealing. I read the book in just a couple of evenings and was a little sorry to see it end. I wasn't ready to come home yet.  

In addition to writing about the island , the authour tells us about himself and his wife, their relationship and how they spend their time. It's about the lives they live when they're on the island though; we only get glimpses of his "real" life in the U.S. I was glad of that because I wanted more of the island than anything else. My wishing there was less about them and more about St. Cecilia does not indicate any flaw in the book. The book is exactly what it was meant to be, the story of their lives on the island. I'm just a little too greedy for the Caribbean.

I think I'll look for a copy of this book for myself; the one I read was borrowed. I'd like to read it again, and maybe again. It may not be great literature - thank goodness there are books that aren't - but it is a quiet, enjoyable book that nicely fed my travel addiction. I recommend it to anyone looking for some light escapism.

"My Life In France"

My Life In France by Julia Child

This wasn't just a book, it was a  time machine transporting me back through time to mid-twentieth century France. I loved every minute of it. I have long wanted to see France and this is the closest thing to being there that I've found since Peter Mayles' "Provence" books. Those books were set in peaceful rural Provence; this one takes you into the heart of a radiant Paris and let's you meet it's people, see it's sights, hear it's sounds and smell it's smells. Other cities are part of the story, but Paris shines the brightest and will, in my memory, always be the setting for this book.

I confess I have not been a fan of Julia Child. Watching her just a few times on television, I found her somewhat intimidating. She seemed pushy to me, bombastic, unlikeable even. "My Life In France" discloses far more of who she was and how she related to people than I was able to glean from a few half-hour cooking shows. What I found was that like the rest of us she wasn't perfect, but there was a wonderful and infectious exuberance in her every day living. She celebrated life, seeing beauty and finding joy in the every day things the rest of us might overlook. I think she must have laughed a lot, and the older I get the more convinced I am of the part laughing plays in keeping us sane. I like her better after this book, and even more after watching Merryl Streep play her in the movie "Julie and Julia".

I was intrigued with Julia's relationship with her husband, Paul Child. They seem eminently suited to one another, both unflinching romantics. The book gives us more of Julia's personality than it does Paul's but you come away with the feeling that they were both intelligent, straightforward people with a truly committed love and admiration for each other. They stayed fast friends as well as lovers, refreshing in this capricious world where marriages often don't last beyond the first serious disagreement.

This book is primarily the story of how Julia Child learned to cook and how her book "Mastering The Art Of French Cooking" was written. I think we tend to believe that chefs are born, not made, but Julia blows that theory out of the water. She begins, begins, at the Cordon Bleu school in Paris when she was in her thirties. I understand it was a different and probably simpler time, but today the Cordon Bleu is the very epitome of all things culinary. Can you imagine anybody even thinking of enrolling there to take the first steps in cooking? But then Julia lived her life based on it's possibilities, not on it's limitations. She was in Paris and wanted to cook; why not the Cordon Bleu?

The process of learning, and then putting what she learned into a book for American women was long and arduous; her goal was to teach the everyday woman how to cook in the French style. Julia prepared the same foods time after time until she was satisfied the recipe was absolutely foolproof, which meant finding ingredients and methods that would work in America as well as in France. She worked with two French women, friends who had begun the book before meeting her, but only one of whom was really committed to doing the work required. The three very unique personalities, facing first the difficulties of writing the book and then dealing with the whims of the publishing world, make for a story that is funny, poignant and completely engaging.

The preparation and eating of food play a big role in this story. Julia's attention to detail, her insistence on careful measuring, selection of ingredients and adherence to French techniques bring cooking to the level of a science with her kitchen as the lab. She conducted fascinating experiments with poultry, fish, eggs, flour, sugar, chocolate, cream and lots and lots of butter. The result is that the reader is torn between wanting to keep reading and wanting to rush to the kitchen to try some of her experiments. Beware: whatever you're having for dinner while you're reading this book is going to pale sadly in comparison to what Julia's having.

I found it curious that Julia seemed to divide people into two groups: intellectuals and non-intellectuals. It comes up often enough that it stands out. Then in one chapter she says that her father and his wife want her to be "nice and amenable and dumb, with no thoughts or feelings about anything." Her preference for "intellectuals" may have been a result of a natural desire to freely hold and express opinions, but it struck me as odd that in describing her deceased mother she said, "She was a warm and very human person, though not intellectual." It's difficult to tell what she means by that exactly, but it seems to indicate she saw it as a flaw. In different chapters she refers to groups of intellectuals she felt comfortable with, and groups of non-intellectuals she dismissed as not worth her time. Was she a snob? Nothing else in the book suggests that, so I hope not. I prefer to think of it as just one of the little idiosyncrasies that, woven all together, made her such an interesting personality.

One particular aspect of of Julia Child's personality that I first saw in these pages and greatly admire was her self-acceptance. She was 6'2" in a country of petite women. She found it hard to get clothes that fit her. At one point she and her even taller sister appraise themselves in a mirror and decide "not bad....but not great", then they laugh together and get back to living their lives. She didn't let her unusual height define her or give her any self-doubt. She was never afraid to be herself, even when she failed at something. She accepted what was and moved on, expecting success to come eventually. I love that confidence.

My favorite line from this book?  Describing a scene in England she said, "The countryside was poetic, filled with such great trees, cows, hedges and thatch-roofed cottages that I felt compelled to read Wordsworth." I enjoy that quirky humour. My one small disappointment with the book was that there were no recipes in it. It was never meant to be a cookbook, but I thought there might be a recipe or two tucked into the narrative somewhere.

If you have an interest in cooking, read this book. If you don't, read it anyway because it's such a good story and it's a free trip to Paris. Paris! It is a wonderful book, but enough about that. I'm off to the kitchen to try an experiment of my own.