Saturday, June 2, 2007
The Handsomest Man in Cuba has just appeared in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, June 2, 2007 - 'The Summer Reading guide'. It's about about 8 inches of review in a Travel book Section.
My agent Peter McGuigan (pictured) says it's very unusual for a first time paperback, especially by a fabulous nobody (actually, he didn't say the latter, but I did) to appear in the guide. A friend in NY said, and I quote, "you should expect to get laid every day for a year now." He's mortified that I actually wrote that, saying it drags the tone of this blog into the gutter. He'd better not read my book then!
Bike Friday even gets a mention! Thanks to all the folks at Globe-Pequot, Bike Friday, Peter McGuigan, and those who made it happen along the way.
Read the full review on the NYT site or read the text of it below.
Read the blurbs from the first two pages of the book.
Travel books can generally be divided into two categories. First there are the ones in which all the traveling is done in the journey to an intended destination, at which point the writer stays put. And then there are the books in which the writer never stops — jetting, cycling, cruising or otherwise gamboling about — often at breakneck, TGV speed.
Miss Manners, a k a Judith Martin, is one of those who know where they like to go and don’t deviate in their devotion. Her latest book, NO VULGAR HOTEL: The Desire and Pursuit of Venice (Norton, $24.95), takes its title from Henry James’s novel “The Wings of the Dove,” whose heroine, Milly Theale, declares that in Venice she will stay in “no vulgar hotel,” but in “some fine old rooms, wholly independent, for a series of months.” As Martin puts it, “Renting — not necessarily a palace, but no vulgar hotel — is also a requirement for savoring the living Venice” and truly understanding the city. It’s the only way, she explains, to reciprocate invitations and entertain the locals, essential aspects of pursuing friendships. (Even on vacation, she remains Miss Manners.)
In some ways, “No Vulgar Hotel” is less an ode to Venice than it is to Venetophiles, those who, with “swaggering unpretentiousness,” consider themselves something other than tourists, buying their fish from “street” vendors and avoiding the day-trippers’ piazzas. Having spent many years renting or borrowing apartments for long vacations, and lately visiting the city up to four times a year, Martin has even gone so far as to study the Venetian dialect. She seems to have read all the other books on Venice and seen every play or film that contains a passing reference to her beloved town.
Reading her book, with its captivating mini-histories of Venetian literary salons, families of note and artists in residence, is like attending a gossipy Continental dinner party, in which Martin not only plays the hostess but moonlights as various guests (the garrulous raconteur, the imperious know-it-all, the great-aunt who doesn’t realize her listener hasn’t a clue whom she’s talking about). Though her artfully coiffed prose can run a bit precious and long, for the most part she enlightens and entertains. The best books on Venice, as Martin says, “deftly mix the past with the personal present in a spirit of light scholarship.” Not only does Martin know what she likes, she knows how to serve it.
Rebecca S. Ramsey’s FRENCH BY HEART: An American Family’s Adventures in La Belle France (Broadway, paper, $12.95) offers no such pretensions. Unlike the flotilla of expatriates who publish memoirs of their sojourns in France, Ramsey is neither a professional writer nor an epicurean, neither an aspiring artist nor a trust-fund loafer. She’s a teacher who shops at J. C. Penney and lives with her husband, a tire designer, in Kensington Farm, “a good subdivision, full of perfectly fine vinyl-sided two-story houses, with a swim team, close to the soccer fields and good schools” in Greer, S.C.
But when Michelin offers her husband a job in Clermont-Ferrand, an unremarkable industrial hub, she’s game to relocate her three children for a four-year stint. “I wanted to understand it all, the Frenchness of this place,” she writes. “Could we be French too, just for a little while?” Could a family of Baptists, whose children attend Vacation Bible School, survive in a land of lapsed Catholics where none of the neighbors “put wreathes on their doors or fake snow on their windows or light-up Santas or manger scenes in their yards the way people did back home”? The answer, conveyed through a series of vignette-like chapters, each wrapped up neatly like a display in the Container Store, is “Not really.” A momentous tumble in a bookstore whose tall shelves are “arranged like a maze for skinny people,” where Ramsey, dressed in a “big red field jacket and clunky black clogs,” falls spectacularly over her rampaging toddler, comically encapsulates the reasons why.
In Ramsey’s eyes, her provincial counterparts are neither categorically adorable nor absurd, despite their indecipherable mutterings and behavior. Her accounts of their prosaic routines are unexpectedly engrossing. Although she can occasionally be sentimental, the mostly genial Ramsey can also be satisfyingly snippy and droll.
Another departure from the French-travel-book formula comes courtesy of the cookbook author Georgeanne Brennan, whose latest offering, A PIG IN PROVENCE: Good Food and Simple Pleasures in the South of France (Chronicle, $24.95), recounts more than 30 years of living, working and vacationing in Provence. Brennan and her first husband, former grad students from the University of California (he studied animal husbandry and philosophy; history was her specialty), buy a farmhouse in Provence in 1970, intending to make their own goat cheese. Like members of a less-hyped counterculture subset (instead of popping magic mushrooms in the Haight, they forage for chanterelles in Haute-Provence), they embrace the art of cheese-making well before the word “artisanal” has graced its first American menu.
Unlike more leisurely chroniclers of Provençal life, Brennan has little time to dissect her neighbors’ quaint mannerisms. She’s too busy trying to wrench a stuck kid from a laboring goat and participating in the jour du cochon slaughter of a pig: “It all happened so quickly and with such swift, sure movements that I barely had time to register the emotion I felt at the passage from life to death. At one moment the pig was a living, breathing, heaving animal, one I had known for the last year ... and in the next moment he was an inanimate object, ready to become food.”
For an epicurean read (punctuated with recipes that echo the culinary themes of each chapter), Brennan’s book is startlingly gory. Even intrepid carnivores may flinch at her vivid descriptions of pieds-et-paquets, a dish composed of sheep stomach and lamb feet cooked with pork belly, a specialty of Marseille (where no offal is, apparently, too offensive to waste). With her historian’s appreciation for fading and bygone traditions, Brennan offers fascinating accounts of the mass sheepherding known as transhumance and the habits of the itinerant food purveyors of the Provençal hinterlands. She revels equally in the preparation and consumption of the regional cuisine, whether it’s chocolate cake moistened with pig’s blood or le grand aïoli, a local festival in which snails and vegetables are doused in garlic and olive oil and gobbled up at communal tables. “In listening to people recount their food memories around a table, I’ve seen their eyes glow and their body language soften with the telling of the taste, smell and texture of a beloved dish.” You can almost hear her lips smacking.
Far less appetizing is Pete Jordan’s DISHWASHER: One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States (Harper Perennial, paper, $13.95), an example of the dashing-around travel book. Or in this case, dishing around. Jordan, a college dropout and willful idler, decides that for lack of a better calling he will attempt to wash dishes professionally in all 50 states. “I could envision it so clearly,” he writes. “Traveling the country, seeking out intriguing workplaces in exotic locales, enjoying the freedom of living a life consciously devoted to a lack of responsibility.” Probably in spite of, and not courtesy of, its irresponsible narrator, “Dishwasher” is almost compulsively readable. Even those of us who have spent time as waiters, waitresses and busboys may have little knowledge of what takes place in the dishpit — or of what goes on among dish dogs (otherwise known as pearl divers, plongeurs, dishwashing bums, sudsbusters, dish studs, dish pigs and, more rarely, dish mistresses and dishgals).
Though one would like to imagine a hidden world of George Orwell geniuses splashing around in a sea of detergent, most of Jordan’s fellow dishwashers are workaday folks, usually with a decidedly loose commitment to their vocation. Among other bits of dishwasher lore, we learn that their ranks have included Burt Reynolds, Robert Duvall, Richard Gere, Jay Leno and Sidney Poitier.
Jordan tells us what it’s like to wash dishes on an oil rig off the Gulf Coast and to “share” dishwashing duties on a communal farm in Missouri. He learns to follow kosher rules in a kitchen in Portland, Ore. (where a Trekkie co-worker tries to thwart his adherence to the rules), discovers the racial politics of dishwashing in New Orleans and researches the radicalism of early culinary-worker unions. In one survey, dishwashing ranked No. 735 among 740 occupations in terms of status (only envelope stuffer, prostitute, street-corner drug dealer, fortuneteller and panhandler ranked lower). “Dishwasher” may not raise your opinion of the average dish dog, but it will help you understand why not.
With even less dedication than the average dishwasher, Evan McHugh, the Australian author of PINT-SIZED IRELAND: In Search of the Perfect Guinness (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s, $23.95), assigns himself the task of tracking down the best pint of Guinness in Ireland. McHugh undertakes this quest in the company of his girlfriend, Michelle, to whom he refers as Twidkiwodm for “the-woman-I-didn’t-know-I-would-one-day-marry.” That he calls her this name not once but throughout the book’s 280 pages will either amuse you or vex you to the point of distraction.
Giving away which camp I fall into, I can only surmise that McHugh, a Sydney-based newspaper columnist and the author of two Australian travel guides, realized that in order to turn his pub crawl into a book, he needed a stunt, and that rather than uncover branches of his family tree or travel exclusively by unicycle, he chose to write about “moother’s milk,” the ultimate Irish tipple. Except that he doesn’t really do that. Had McHugh made more than a desultory effort to find out what makes one pub’s newly poured glass of black stout different from that of the next, this might have been a worthwhile project. Instead, his approach is mostly cursory. Arriving at the Guinness brewery moments before closing time, he skims through the exhibits and never bothers to return.
Elsewhere, one can learn that five years ago Guinness made what many consider a blasphemous decision: after years of insisting on a slow pour, in which three-quarters of a glass is allowed two minutes to settle before being topped off, the company created a new version that could be poured in 15 seconds. Apparently, a new generation of drinkers was unwilling to wait; even sales in Ireland had dropped 4 percent. If McHugh had explored the reasons behind this declining market or delved into the history of Irish beer, “Pint-Sized Ireland” might have proved more interesting than a post-collegiate journal. Instead, he backpacks and hitchhikes through youth hostels, issuing stale observations that manage to be both mundane and inane: “As someone who likes to zig when everyone else is zagging, I know you can always find ‘the road less traveled.’ Or at least a quiet corner, a snug in a pub perhaps, where you can settle back and talk about life’s adventures.”
For real adventure, readers would do well to turn to THE HANDSOMEST MAN IN CUBA: An Escapade (Globe Pequot, paper, $14.95). Four years before her arrival in Cuba, Lynette Chiang chucked her computer programming job, three-bedroom house and boyfriend in Sydney and set out to travel the world, inviting readers to join her midway through. By the time she hits Cuba, she has already mastered the art of the Bike Friday, a fold-up bicycle, and learned to travel on the cheap and skinny, entering the country with a small stove, a tent, a sleeping bag and $2,000 in cash. Chiang isn’t a purist — she’ll get off her bike when necessary or convenient— but she’s about as gutsy a bargain traveler as they come.
In some ways, Chiang’s book parallels McHugh’s: Both writers hail from Australia (land of the 13-week paid sabbatical and culturally sanctioned wanderlust) and both barrel around nonstop. Like McHugh’s, Chiang’s writing has an informal, bloggy feel. We learn when she wakes up in the morning, what kind of vermin inhabit her quarters and what she eats for breakfast. Fortunately, we also learn about Cuba, which she visits at the height of the Elian Gonzales frenzy.
The notion that you understand a place only after you’ve traveled the gritty road, getting to know the postal worker and the Laundromat operator, has become more than a little trite, but Chiang really does make an effort to connect with the locals. Traveling as a 34-year-old single woman, she cycles through backwater villages and stays in deserted campsites and unlicensed private homes. On a whim, she joins a boorish South African sailing a dinghy to the tourist town of Trinidad, only to endure severe storms, a broken engine and high winds. After 17 hours of violent sea sickness, she finally sights land: “I stare at this chimera of terra firma, drained of all energy save for a few flickering calories to focus my retinas on my bikini top flapping in the railing, then on the island in the background, then back to my bikini in the foreground, as I have been doing in a trance for the past six hours.”
Though she’s nearly arrested for attempting an illegal house stay, flashed twice, punched in the face, involved in a truck collision and robbed, Chiang’s rosy vision of Cuba remains undimmed. “No matter how poor or disillusioned, wretched or enlightened, almost every Cuban has someone to go home to, whether it’s a family of their own making or someone else’s,” she writes. “Cuba, not Australia, may well be the lucky country.”
Pamela Paul is a frequent contributor to the Book Review and the author, most recently, of “Pornified.” Her next book will be about the business behind child rearing.