Archive for April, 2009

Peter Mayle: A Year in Provence

Posted by nybookworm on April 19, 2009

topper-provence1British writer Peter Mayle’s books chronicling his relocation to and life in Provence, France have become one of the most widely read travel books around.  A Year in Provence (1991) is about Mayle’s first year living in Provence with his wife and their quest to restore an 18th century farmhouse at the base of the Luberon mountains.   I read somewhere that when it was first published, the publisher agreed to print 3,000 copies and promised to give Mayle a discount to buy them to give as Christmas gifts. The first printing sold out within a few weeks and this book as well as his subsequent chronicles of Provencal life have now sold several million copies worldwide.  No matter how many books are written on the topic and how trite the idea becomes of relocating to an idyllic southern European country with a slower paced lifestyle and fresh local food, this type of travel book will always find an audience because we’ve all bought into the myth  (or at least those of us in big cities glued to our laptops).  We use to have the American Dream- we now have the Provencal or Tuscan dream.  But I digress.  This book is good not just because it sells an idea whose time has come but because the story is told with just the right amount of that wry wit Brit writers are able to convey with facility.  Mayle manages to poke fun at French culture and stodgy traditions while good naturedly maintaining a clear veneer of admiration for his subject.  His books are immensely entertaining and even more so if you’re a fan of French food (truffles, tarts, wine and various innards make several appearances).   I have read all of his books on Provence (Toujours Provence, Encore Provence and Provence A to Z) and have enjoyed all of them mostly because Mayle is a great writer who manages to hold your attention and capture your imagination even while he tells you how much better his life is than yours.

Amazon link here: http://www.amazon.com/Year-Provence-Peter-Mayle/dp/0679731148


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Geraldine Brooks: People of the Book

Posted by nybookworm on April 17, 2009

sarajevo-haggadahPeople of the Book (2008) is the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah (Jewish prayer book for Passover) and its 500 year history in  Southern Europe.  Conveniently, the narrator is an Australian antique book expert who has been asked to evaluate and restore the haggadah.  Each clue to the origins of the haggadah she finds leads to a new chapter in which the reader learns an additional piece of the haggadah’s history.   We start in 1996 in post-war Bosnia, pass through World War II, pre-war Austria, the Spanish Inquisition and end up with a Moor in Seville in 1480.  The book is clearly fiction but the Sarajevo Haggadah does exist and some of the details Brooks uses to craft the story are real.   People of the Book was actually another book club selection and while I enjoyed it, it’s not one of those books that made me think or feel any differently.  I like that Brooks stays away from historical themes that could be trite and really focuses on her characters and their lives rather than on the bigger events surrounding them.  I recommend this book if the topic is right up your alley but I would not be heartbroken if you didn’t jump up to buy it this second.

Amazon link here: http://www.amazon.com/People-Book-Novel-Geraldine-Brooks/dp/067001821X

PS: Apparently, the picture to the left is of the actual Sarajevo Haggadah.

Posted in Contemporary Fiction | 3 Comments »

Maeve Binchy: Tara Road

Posted by nybookworm on April 13, 2009

tara-roadThis was another airport bookshop purchase but one I did not regret.  Maeve Binchy is, of course, the Irish-born novelist whose fictional stories of life in Ireland have become bestsellers all over the world, and in some cases, made into successful Hollywood movies (see Circle of Friends).  Tara Road (also made into a movie) is much like her other novels, set in Ireland and filled with Irish characters, many of whom are almost caricatures of Irish protagonists you might imagine populate Dublin and its surroundings.  Tara Road’s main character is Ria, a petite dark-haired woman, who goes on to marry a good-looking, fast talking real estate agent and build a life with him in a house on Tara Road, an upscale residential street in Dublin.  Tara Road  is the story of Ria’s life which, of course, does not turn out exactly as planned.  I like Binchy’s books for vacation and leisure reading and they really are an interesting glimpse into modern Irish life.  Binchy herself has lived in Dublin her whole life, so I have to assume her potraits are fairly accurate .  If you saw The Holiday (the movie where Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet exchange houses for Christmas) you’ll see some similarities.  Warning: this is a long book but it goes fast and was difficult to put down.  Another warning (or not?) this was an Oprah’s Book Club selection. 

Amazon link here: http://www.amazon.com/Tara-Road-Oprahs-Book-Club/dp/0440235596

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Indu Sundaresan: The Twentieth Wife

Posted by nybookworm on April 11, 2009

twentieth-wifeI was a history major in college, partly because I got to college and was amazed by how much of world history is entirely neglected in high school curriculum.  High school world history is a requirement but very little, if at all, is taught about Asian and African history and even less about the Indian sub-continent (none for me, but that may have changed since I graduated high school).  Which is partly why I loved The Twentieth Wife,  a fictional account of some of the major figures of the Muslim Mughal empire in India around the 16th and 17th centuries.  In particular, it is about the Mughal emperor’s imperial zanana (harem) and one woman, Mehrunissa (known as Empress Nur Jahan), who emerged to be Emperor Jahangir’s closest advisor and a huge influence in Mughal affairs.  Mughal emperors had several wives over a lifetime and each lived inside the palace in the zenana, an all woman (and eunuch) living quarter where they vied for the power and attention of the emperor.  Mehrunissa was the twentieth wife and, at the age of 34, already considered too old to be the wife of an emperor.  She shocked the empire and the emperor’s closest advisors by becoming Jahangir’s favorite wife and his most valued political advisor.  The novel is fascinating portrait of one of the most opulent times in Indian history and Sundaresan’s vivid description of the wealth and extravagence of palace life is very engaging.  Oddly enough, though Mehrunissa was the most powerful of the Mughal wives, it is her niece Arjuman who married Jahangir’s son who lives on in history as the inspiration for the Taj Mahal. 

Amazon link here: http://www.amazon.com/Twentieth-Wife-Novel-Indu-Sundaresan/dp/0743427149

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Anthony Bourdain: Kitchen Confidential

Posted by nybookworm on April 7, 2009

anthony_bourdain31Kitchen Confidential is more or less Anthony Bourdain’s autobiography of his working life as a chef- the restaurants he worked at, his cooking philosophy and his work ethic.   Unlike some of the other chef autobiographies that have been written, Bourdain is actually a writer and definitely has a distinct conversational tone that makes his writing very approachable.  He makes it very clear from the beginning that his chief aim is to provide a realist view of the life of a chef.  To that extent, there are many pages spent describing the nocturnal life, the manual labor, the sexists and vulgar kitchen atmosphere, the lack of room for creativity and the ungrateful diners.  At times there is definitely a feeling that he’s trying very hard to discourage home cooks aspiring to culinary school to forget it.  That being said, this book was published in 2001, at the naiscent stages of the Food Network and celebrity chefs and it is definitely a condemnation of the glorification of the celebrity chef.  Bordain wants us to understand that it is a gritty, thankless job that very few home cooks could ever endure across a lifetime.  Ironically enough Bourdain himself has since become a celebrity chef/writer of sorts with his own travel show (No Reservations) and follow-up books and articles.  He has become far less famous for his cooking (he was a chef at Les Halles an NY brasserie) than his writing about cooking and having eaten at Les Halles, to me, that makes sense.  He continues to be an inflammatory and entertaining contrarian voice to the Rachel Rays and Bobby Flays of the world and this is not the last of his books that will be reviewed on this site.

Amazon link here: http://www.amazon.com/Kitchen-Confidential-Adventures-Culinary-Underbelly/dp/0060934913

Posted in Beach Reading, Biography/Autobiography, Chefs/Food, Funny, Nonfiction | Leave a Comment »

Nick Hornby: Slam

Posted by nybookworm on April 5, 2009

tony-hawkI guess Slam (2007), Nick Hornby’s latest novel,  is supposed to be for “young adults” but the airport book shop didn’t tell me that so I read it anyway.  This book is about a teenage Tony Hawk devotee (famous pro skateboarder for those of you as uncool as me) who impregnates his also teenage girlfriend.  Don’t worry I didn’t just give away the ending.  The story is told from the point of view of Sam the impregnator and has that naive narrator angle  that works so well when addressing uncomfortable adult topics.  Although the plot is about as cliche as you can imagine (broken home, lonely teenager, no experience with sex, etc.)  since this is geared toward “young adults” the story is cute and fun to read.  It makes for good airplane reading and it’s not like you’re reading Twilight or anything so don’t be embarrassed to buy it.

Amazon link to Slam here: http://www.amazon.com/Slam-Nick-Hornby/dp/0399250484

Posted in Beach Reading, Contemporary Fiction, Funny | Leave a Comment »

Robert D. Kaplan: Balkan Ghosts

Posted by nybookworm on April 3, 2009

kaplanI am considering filing this book under the “classics” category because it’s definitely a book from another era in more ways than one.  Balkan Ghosts is based on Kaplan’s travels through the Balkans in the 1980s and was published in 1994 only after interest in the region escalated in the early 90s.  It’s famous for its prescient predictions of ethnic strife in the region and is supposedly one of the books Bill Clinton read when deciding whether to take action in Bosnia.  If you’ve been to the Balkans you know that they are eerily beautiful- mountains covered in fog, oldstyle farms, stern peasants, beautiful gothic cities and very diverse people (thanks to the Ottoman Empire).  I think Kaplan does a great job of conveying a sense of each place he travels and of the political and historical backdrop that colors each place.  Yes, he is pretty heavy-handed with the mysticism..after all we are in the “East” and probably simplifies some of the history and the leaders of the region but I think that’s probably a necessary side effect of writing a readable travel memoire.  I liked this book very much and if you enjoy some substance with your travel books (not “Tom Friedman substance” but real history and politics) you will be as engrossed as I was.

Amazon link here: http://www.amazon.com/Balkan-Ghosts-Journey-Through-History/dp/0679749810

Posted in Classics, Nonfiction, Travel | Leave a Comment »

Khaled Hosseini: A Thousand Splendid Suns

Posted by nybookworm on April 1, 2009

thousand-sp-suns-compThis book is Afghan writer Khaled Hosseini’s second novel and if you know anything about Hosseini you probably have already guessed that this is not light-hearted vacation reading.  As with his first novel, Kite Runner, Afghan history including the rise of the Muhajideen, figure prominently.  The novel follows the story of two women from very different backgrounds whose lives are intertwined in the chaos and bloodshed that accompany and follow the civil war.  As with a lot of the novels being published about Iran and Afghanistan these days, the plot revolves around juxtaposing the relatively normal lives the main characters were leading prior to the civil war with the post-civil war repression that the world now thinks of (thought of) as the norm in these countries.  Hosseini’s writing is powerful and although you think you know the story, you realize that the devil is in the details; in this case details of domestic abuse (physical and emotional), of virtual house arrest and of smart and capable women repressed past the will to live.  This book is not about politics or religion. It is just about the lives of two women who had perfectly ordinary expectations of how they wanted to lead their lives that were destroyed. 

The Amazon link to the book is here: http://www.amazon.com/Thousand-Splendid-Suns-Khaled-Hosseini/dp/1594489505

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