Restless book club

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This should be a gorgeous shot of the San Juan Mountains; unfortunately they are completely obscured by smoke.

A heaviness sits over our Western Slope mesa right now. For two weeks we’ve seen evidence of numerous wildfires nearby plus California, too; the normally clean, crisp air is thick with a sickly haze and it smells as though you’re standing in the middle of a campfire. Our pure blue sky hasn’t been seen in some time, and you can almost taste the ash on your tongue. The rains are infrequent, but when they do come – even when they disrupt an annual town potluck – they seem to wash the smoke away, and people rejoice. It feels charred, dry and desperate here, and we’ll be the first to admit that we’re getting restless. We’re mired in an enforced and extended waiting period on the farm we’re trying to purchase, so while there have been plenty of farm visits, long, hilly bike rides, hiking in Grand Mesa National Forest, fruit picking and hours of tennis, there is also a lot of escapist reading going on these days.

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We Begin Our Ascent, Joe Mungo Reed

Since devouring Wheelmen (truly one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read; N agrees) I’ve been enthralled with the Tour de France. I’m fascinated by that level of athleticism and training and competition, and how riders who keep their bodies in pristine condition are willing to dope in order to win. We Begin Our Ascent is short and compulsively readable fiction centered around a pro cycling team competing in the Tour; it gives nothing away to say that doping is a key pillar of the story. But the book is also about the sacrifices we make to pursue what we love, and the sacrifices we’re willing to make for family. A quick read and worth the time.

Commonwealth, Ann Patchett

I’ve loved Ann Patchett for a long time; The Magician’s Assistant and Bel Canto are two of my favorites. She also revitalized an independent bookstore in Nashville called Parnassus Books; anyone encouraging others to read (and fighting the tide of online booksellers) is a hero to me. Commonwealth is a complicated, layered family drama centered around Franny; she’s a child of a decidedly not Brady Bunch mixed family, and her affair with a successful older writer brings all sorts of secrets and misunderstandings to center stage. This is a sad, difficult, honest book. Of late I’ve been studiously avoiding most fiction, finding it a little too raw for comfort, but I’m reading this for our next book club and expecting an impassioned discussion.

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South Wind Through the Kitchen, Elizabeth David

“At dawn they will be unloading their melons and asparagus, their strawberries and redcurrants and cherries, their apricots and peaches and pears and plums, their green almonds, beans, lettuces, shining new white onions, new potatoes, vast bunches of garlic. The air of the Place is filled with the musky scent of those little early Cavaillon melons, and then you become aware of another powerfully conflicting smell – rich, clove-like, spicy. It is the scent of sweet basil, and it is coming from the far end of the market where a solitary wrinkled old man sits on an upturned basket, scores and scores of basil plants ringed all around him like a protective hedge.”

With Bold Knife and Fork, M.F.K. Fisher

“These soft eggs are often called, in classical cookbooks, a substitute for the properly poached ones, and I like to think that even skilled cooks have found them much easier to make look beautiful than any of us could ever do in a shallow pan of fumey turgid water, all naked and raggedy as they might become. Left in their shells while they cook, they can emerge almost as perfect as when they were rolled out. To be served hot, or cold as I prefer them for aesthetic as well as nostalgic reasons, they are boiled for six or seven minutes in their shells, chilled under cold running water, and then gently cracked and peeled. I think there is something glamorous about them, obviously. They can be served as a chilled garnish, or alone with a good mayonnaise or vinaigrette, and all sorts of dainties alongside. Once I ate them with caviar, lots of it, and plenty of fresh black pepper and lemon juice. This, of course, is the sort of thing that cannot happen too often.”

England, and by extension America, doesn’t have the rich history of eating for pleasure that countries like France and Italy and Spain do. Elizabeth David and M.F.K. Fisher, each in their own way, transformed our Puritanical attitudes towards food through their travels and writing. In addition to Alice Waters and Julia Child, few other women have had such an impact on food culture and writing in the past century. It’s borderline impudent for me to even review these two women; their works on food are so singularly important that if you haven’t read them, please start immediately.

Stir, Jessica Fechtor

Stir follows in the footsteps of many other cooking blogs turned into actual paper books; see also A Homemade Life, Julie & Julia and My Berlin Kitchen, among many others. After immersing oneself in the brilliance of M.F.K. Fisher and Elizabeth David, though, this doesn’t stand a chance. While the story itself seems compelling – young, healthy woman suddenly has brain aneurysm; will she or won’t she recover and return to the kitchen? – I found the writing to be, well…boring. In the hands of someone more skilled with prose I think this could have made for a fascinating tale, but as it stands it reads like most blogs-turned-memoirs – an entirely superficial rehashing of previously published posts, with recipes interspersed throughout. (I look forward to the day when we turn this blog into a book and someone writes that same sentence about us.)

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The Mushroom Hunters, Langdon Cook

The concept sounds mundane, not the kind of book you might pick up: “Underground community harvests mushrooms and other wild foods, sells to brokers, food ends up on exceptionally fancy restaurant menus.” But the story is so much more than that. It’s conservatively estimated that the mushroom foraging industry is worth more than $40 million a year in the U.S. That amount is merely a guess, however, because this clandestine trade is conducted entirely in cash and secrecy. Groups of “pickers,” mostly Southeast Asian, travel all over the Pacific Northwest to harvest insanely valuable fungi, which they sell to somewhat shady brokers set up in cheap tents outside gas stations and abandoned campgrounds. This is a truly fascinating story about some truly fascinating people who exist entirely under the radar, and you will never look at wild mushrooms the same way again.

Poser, Claire Dederer

I want to be a yoga person. Very, very much. I want to be someone who attends yoga classes regularly, with an almost religious devotion. I want to be tall and lean and strong with well-developed muscles honed from years of achieving a perfect downward dog. I want to believe that $150 yoga pants are a necessary investment in my own personal wellness quest. I want to drink fancy alkalinized bottled water infused with rose quartz. I want yoga to help me deal with chronic anxiety and depression, and to help me live in the moment.

Unfortunately, none of my experiences with yoga have allowed me to achieve any of these goals, and this book didn’t do much for me, either. Dederer’s upper middle-class white woman (a sort-of stay-at-home-mom-writer) driving to a variety of costly suburban yoga classes in an oversized SUV, followed by a half-caf skinny latte with three Splendas and an intense anti-husband bitch session, only perpetuated shockingly accurate stereotypes. Autobiographies are by their very nature self-absorbed, but I’d like the subject to at least Learn An Important Lesson by the end. This book is a bag of Doritos – you can inhale the entire thing, but you may feel both sick and empty when you’re done.

Up next: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, The Viking in the Wheat Field and Personal History, plus a bunch of goat books!

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What are you reading these days? Please share in the comments!

P.S. N reads constantly too; his selections are primarily military history. If you need recommendations in this genre, please ask!

P.P.S. Want more book recommendations? Go here, here and here!

6 thoughts on “Restless book club

  1. I have been awake and reading since 5:00 this morning. I have started Nomadland at your recommendation. Have finished Small Great Things, a good read. Loved A Piece of the World, by Christina Baker Kline. It was a gift from Maggie. And a while back I read Keeper of Lost Things. I have read my share of fiction this summer for entertainment. I garden and then take 15-30 to cool off and relax. Thank you for your recommendations, I have a stack by the bed, on the end table and in the guest room. So many books! My library card is getting a good work out! All the best to you, and tell Nick hello!!

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    • Nancy, thanks for these terrific recommendations; I’ve added them all to my book list. Glad to hear that you’re getting so much reading done this summer and I’ll bet your garden looks amazing! I cannot wait to get my hands in the soil again.

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  2. So sad about the fires in CA and CO. Haven’t seen a clear view of the mtns here on the eastern slope in over 2 weeks. I was in the Black Hills over the weekend and it was definitely more clear up there but still a little hazy.

    Just finished The Sports Gene and enjoyed it so much!

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    • Hi Kelly, glad you liked The Sports Gene! And yes, the wildfires this season have been particularly awful – but to quote California Gov. Jerry Brown, this is “our new normal.” And we’ll need to adapt.

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