It’s been gray, snowy and cold here at Quiet Farm this weekend, and I think I can confidently speak for most of the United States when I say we are ready for spring. Between polar vortexes and bomb cyclones and Snowmageddons and white-knuckle drives over mountain passes and goodness knows what other chilliness, this winter has been…lengthy. Despite our grumbling, though, we are of course entirely dependent on that winter moisture for our spring and summer irrigation, so we are truly grateful. And all that snow and mud means no outdoor projects, so we have more time to read, too!
At Mesa’s Edge, Eugenia Bone
I read this book years ago, because it was about cooking and food and Colorado. And I picked it up again this winter because the entire book is set in our tiny corner of the state, and on this second reading I realized how many of the people and places mentioned I actually knew. This was a revelation. Ms. Bone is rather a local celebrity in our county, and I saw her speak last fall on her new book, Microbia (review coming soon!). Though she’s still considered a newcomer here (as we will be for the next thirty years), and she doesn’t live in Delta County full-time, her ode to this land we now call home brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion. She loves this place, and so do we.
Coming to My Senses, Alice Waters
If you’ve ever eaten mesclun mix or goat cheese or seen the name of a farm prominently displayed on a restaurant menu, you’ve known the influence of Alice Waters. Along with Julia Child, Waters is most responsible for the evolution of the American diet over the past forty years. She is regularly criticized for her elitist Left Coast sensibilities and somewhat out-of-touch attitude (we don’t all have Meyer lemons in our backyard in the middle of winter), but there is no arguing her legacy. Although she’s written a number of cookbooks, and although there have been many books written about her, this is the first book written in what comes across as her own authentic voice. I have a huge amount of respect for her and her success in a male-dominated industry, and this book was well worth the read.
The Viking in the Wheat Field, Susan Dworkin
This is a biography of the Danish plant scientist Bent Skovmand, who spent thirty years researching wheat and working tirelessly to keep seed banks free and open to the public; this battle was (and still is) fought against enormous ag-chem companies who want to control the world’s seeds for their own benefit. The tale is inherently fascinating, but the book jumped around haphazardly which made it difficult to keep track of a complicated story, numerous organizations and dozens of major and minor characters. Additionally, the author regularly interjected her own asides and personal anecdotes, which was both disruptive and unnecessary. Ultimately, though, while I appreciated these scientists’ attempts to keep seeds freely available to the public, I found that once again “solving world hunger” was approached from the wrong side. I no longer subscribe to the notion that solving hunger can be done by people in lab coats. We produce plenty of food but we manage it really poorly, and until we address that, people will starve. I wanted so, so much to enjoy this book…and didn’t.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest, J. Ryan Stradal
This book was not at all what I expected. I thought it might be a sort-of Midwestern Like Water for Chocolate, with recipes and family history and a bit of magic sprinkled in. Instead, it’s a tart, prickly story about an exceptionally talented chef, Eva, whose life follows a progression that dovetails the larger American food scene. Rather than being told in Eva’s voice, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is almost a collection of vignettes about Eva by various characters in her orbit. It’s a tricky book to describe, and one that requires a bit of effort on the reader’s part, but books don’t often take me by surprise – and this one certainly did.
At Home in the Vineyard, Susan Sokol Blosser
Autobiographies by remarkable women seem to be exactly what I want to read right now, and this one knocked my socks off. Even though I spent years in the food and wine industry and fancied myself quite knowledgeable about the birth of American wine, I didn’t know the Sokol Blosser story. (If you’ve ever enjoyed the legendary Evolution No. 9, you know of Sokol Blosser wines.) Susan Sokol Blosser presents her tale with refreshing honesty and wry, self-deprecating humor, and I loved every page. She’s now one of the titans in American wine, and everything she accomplished was done through grit, grace and determination. I’m looking forward to reading her follow-up to this, The Vineyard Years.
Gulp, Mary Roach
I adore Mary Roach’s books. She writes detailed, well-researched, funny non-fiction about everyday activities, including death, sex, and in this case, digestion. She’s wicked smart with a sharp sense of humor, and it’s hard not to like a book where you’re both learning and laughing at the same time. She doesn’t shy away from the more gruesome details, either, which I appreciate. I defy you to pick up one of her books and not learn something.
Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter
This book was perfectly pleasant, if nothing particularly memorable. There is a provincial Italian innkeeper, an army veteran-turned-screenwriter, a supposedly dying American movie actress, a successful Hollywood film producer and his idealistic young assistant, and of course Richard Burton. All of these disparate characters drift together and apart over the course of fifty years. Beautiful Ruins was neither amazing nor terrible, but the author showed flashes of dark brilliance that make me look forward to reading his other novels.
In a Dark, Dark Wood, Ruth Ware
If you’re looking for the next Gone Girl, this isn’t it. Don’t waste your time. Please.
The Outrun, Amy Liptrot
This is a beautiful, difficult, haunting book that I cannot stop thinking about. After a decade of seriously hard partying in London (her story about carelessly destroying art while wasted at a gallery opening made my stomach hurt), the author decides to go home to get sober. Home happens to be a desolate, windswept island off the Scottish coast, and there isn’t much in the way of distraction here. There is, however, plenty of space to walk and think and heal. Partly a sobriety memoir and partly a natural history, The Outrun contains some of the bleakest yet most resonant literary imagery I’ve encountered recently. I’ll admit to being a big fan of sobriety memoirs (see: A Drinking Life, The Liars’ Club, Drinking: A Love Story and so on) and this one fits squarely at the top of the genre.
What have you read recently that you’ve loved or not loved? Please share below!