Saturday, January 28, 2012

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street

It took me some time to read this horrifying novel by Hilary Mantel, not because it isn't well-written or compelling, but because often it's simply so painful to read. There is a mystery, a shadowy bit of skulduggery that gathers force toward the end, but the impact of the book is not in this artifice but in the portrayal of life in Saudi Arabia based on the author's own experience of living there.

We all know this backward desert of Wahabism is terrible, but just how offensive it is to Western sensibilities, how hypocritical the royal family is to commit every sin in the Koran while inflicting this puritanical code on its citizens, and how corrupt this combination of hypocrisy and wealth can be is -- painfully -- drawn with Mantel's gifts of description and characterization.

I visited Riyadh briefly on a reporting trip at about the same period Mantel describes -- when the bloom of the oil gold rush was fading and the Kingdom was forced into budget cuts that led to many grand building projects being abandoned. The place gave me the willies, but I was there and gone in a few days. More telling is the experience of a reporter colleague of mine who had spent much more time there and knew it well. He had the bad luck to be in the country when a story of his appeared in the West that was more than a little critical of the regime. Some Ministry called him at his hotel and said he should come around to discuss the article with them. Because he knew the country so well, he said, sure, I'm staying for several days so why don't I come by day after tomorrow. He hung up the phone and called a cab to the airport to take the first flight out of the country. I don't think he ever returned.

Mantel's depiction of the mortal threat of living in a country that has no rule of law is devastatingly realistic. Her biting and brutal humor seems at time like satire -- except there's no exaggeration involved. The Pakistani neighbor of the protagonist, Frances Shore, tries to reassure her by explaining that they don't really stone adulteresses any more -- they throw a few token stones then shoot her. "I was so relieved," Frances wrote mordantly in her diary. The British expats discuss some of the more famous customs of the country, like cutting off the hands of thieves, by noting in passing that they use anesthetic and have doctors standing by to bind up the wound.

The expats tell each other, as they are told, that they must respect the cultural differences of the host country. You might as well say you should respect the customs of cannibals or acknowledge that slavery is legitimate if it's part of the local culture, because the Wahabi perversion of Islam is as benighted and savage. The portrayal of this culture in Mantel's novel is enough to turn the biggest fan of multiculturalism into a raving advocate for the mission civilatrice of the West.

The novel works at many levels, however, and is also a crushing indictment of Western materialism and greed. Frances -- who, irrelevantly for the novel, is described as a cartographer -- and her architect husband go to Saudi Arabia, with all its known hardships, because the money is so good. They are willing to take on the deprivation (no alcohol is the least of it) to make a pile that will enable them to buy a flat in central London. Their colleagues are other expats similarly motivated by greed, who are willing to put up with a little hell to get ahead. So imagine their dismay when the checks don't arrive and they're still stuck in hell.

Frances and her husband, Andrew, are not able to get into one of the foreigners' compounds when he goes to work on a new ministry building in Jeddah and instead are installed in a company flat in an apartment block along one of the main roads. The reader sees immediately that this will not be a good situation for Frances when her husband, who had arrived earlier, locks her into the apartment her first day there, for her own protection. Her sense of isolation and alienation become palpable with the description of her endless days of nothingness, with the choice of staying in a blank apartment breathing the stale air-conditioned atmosphere or venturing outside into the blazing, fly-bitten heat and hazarding the leers and catcalls of Saudi men who consider unveiled Western women to be whores.

Out of desperation, Frances becomes friends of sorts with the Pakistani woman across the hall and the Arab woman living upstairs, each of whom explains her dismaying rationalization for the role of women in this puritanical society. The flat directly above Frances and Andrew is supposedly empty, but Frances hears sounds of life there. She is then told that in fact the flat is used by a junior member of the royal family for illicit trysts, but she comes to suspect that is simply a tale put out to satisfy a foreigner's curiosity.

The development of this mystery and its denouement are not the most effective pieces of the novel. The frustration and futility of trying to find out exactly how the tragedy unfolds is more poignant than the actual events. In fact, this gothic part of the story is almost a subplot, or a symbol for the much more mundane corruption that is portrayed throughout the novel.

Mantel spent four years in Saudi Arabia with her real-life geologist husband, and she says in a Q&A in the back of this edition that the day she left Jeddah was the happiest moment in her life. She brings her considerable literary gifts to bear in a fictional account of her stay that makes you understand why. Frances is still in the country when the novel ends, now settled in a sparsely inhabited compound surrounded by freeways, but the reader is oh so happy to get an exit visa and leave this oppressive world.

Mantel is now famous as the author of Wolf Hall. This earlier novel makes it clear that she is anything but an overnight success. The terrific empathy and the skillful craftsmanship that distinguish the winner of the Man Booker Prize are already abundantly evident in this book.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Groupthink book culture

One of the consequences of the concentration in book publishing and the concentration in media is that our mainstream book culture has become extremely narrow. Catering to a largely female market focusing on book clubs has reinforced a tendency to create a buzz about a relatively small number of books that educated people are pleased to find everyone has heard of.

Whether it's The Help or The Art of Fielding or The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, relatively mediocre books skyrocket to a disproportionate fame and commercial success because of this groupthink approach to book culture.

My neighbor recently recommended How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell. Of course, he didn't actually rattle off this unwieldy title, but rather said "I'm reading this great book about Montaigne," and I knew immediately which book he meant because I had downloaded it on my Kindle, even though I could tell him neither the title nor the author.

Now, Montaigne, who turned the French word for "attempts" into the literary genre of essays, has been illuminating readers for centuries. But it took a new book with a lot of buzz to bring him to the attention of my septuagenarian neighbor.

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with any of this but I do find myself bristling with resistance against this type of cultural regimentation. People are too unwilling to pick up a book that doesn't have a buzz or try an author they have never heard of. So many books, so little time, etc. What difference does it really make which books you read? If the criterion was literary greatness then everyone would read the established canons of great literature and not waste time on any of these new books. Otherwise, the only difference between these bestselling titles and hundreds of others like them in any given year is that they for one reason or another get a lot of buzz.

Perhaps the cream does rise to the top and these books do distinguish themselves by being better written, more insightful or more entertaining. Given my experience dipping blindly onto the remainder shelves or into ebooks, I'm not convinced. I have made discoveries among these books that I think are the equal if not better than many of the trendy books. I think you can get an idea from reading the first page or two whether a book has potential, and you will either be vindicated or disappointed if you take the book and read on.

So why, given the millions of readers in this country, are such a relatively small number of books read and talked about? Why aren't book clubs adventures in exploration instead of reading the same books everyone else has read, and now even using discussion questions crafted by the publisher?

We have many forms of diversion -- films, television, theater, YouTube and Facebook. Our time is not so precious that we have to be careful to read only those books that a consensus of popular opinion has judged to be acceptable.

That's why the ebook revolution is such a great thing. It is progress, really, that people now are able to read umpteen books about vampire teenagers that are sprinkled with typos and grammatical errors. Readers enjoy these books, they are entertaining to them. They don't have to wait for the cachet from the New York Times Book Review or a meaningless blurb on a jacket cover to tell them they want to read this book. And hopefully soon people will be talking to their friends about and recommending books no one else has ever heard of, instead of same tiresome list of books contained at one point or another in the 10 pages of bestseller lists in the NYTBR.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Extra Virginity

My review of Tom Mueller's Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil appeared today in The Washington Independent Review of Books:

It’s everywhere. In recipes, on supermarket shelves, in restaurants — everywhere you turn you encounter extra virgin olive oil. In fact, you virtually never see any kind of olive oil except extra virgin. What seems even better, it’s cheaper than ever. You can now get a big bottle of EVOO (as it is known to its friends) for less than $10.
All this is not necessarily cause to celebrate, as Tom Mueller makes clear in this fascinating book, which somehow manages to be magisterial in a very compact space. The oil you buy with the extra virgin label may very well be the high-quality oil produced solely by mechanical means from fresh olives that it is supposed to be. But in an industry in which standards are vague and enforcement is lax, it may well not be.
In fact, Mueller concludes, extra virgin olive oil you buy in the supermarket has a good chance of being cut with refined olive oil (produced with solvents and/or heat and chemically “deodorized” to remove defects) or even with seed oils produced by these same chemical methods.
Mueller, a writer for The New Yorker and other publications, in effect tells us that we have to spell “caveat emptor” in capital letters when it comes to buying olive oil.
First of all, ignore the “extra virgin” in the label — it has become ubiquitous and so lost any meaning. Second, forget everything you ever heard about “first pressed” or “cold pressed.” These terms have become obsolete as most producers have switched from presses to centrifugal means of production.
The only sure-fire way of knowing whether the oil is truly extra virgin is to taste it. But here comes the biggest surprise of all — you are looking for tastes that may seem counterintuitive to your idea of what makes a great olive oil.
The truly good, high-quality extra virgin oil should taste bitter — this signifies a high level of antioxidants, one of the qualities that make olive oil so healthful. The other two taste characteristics of premium oil are “pungency,” indicated by a peppery taste, and fruitiness. (By the way, don’t look to the color of the oil as an indication of fruitiness; at tastings, the oil is often in tinted containers so participants don’t even see the color.)
Many of us may have found bitterness and pungency off-putting in an oil and preferred a milder, blander, if still fruity, version. In fact, one purveyor of supermarket oil advertised its product with these qualities, implying they were the signs of truly fine oil. Not so, our author tells us, and there is every chance that these milder oils are not pure extra virgin.
Extra Virginity is a passionate book. Mueller, who lives in Italy outside Genoa, preaches the gospel of olive oil with the zeal of a convert. He interviews some of the leading figures in the olive oil industry, whose own enthusiasm is infectious. The author’s blend of historical tales and reporting on contemporary innovators in oil production and marketing makes for a heady blend of oil euphoria.
Mueller sees hopeful signs as well as clouds on the horizon. New producers are making finer oils than ever and consumers from Italy to California are developing new appreciation for high-quality oil. But massive fraud in production of substandard oils that do not merit the “extra virgin” moniker are driving down prices and forcing producers of true extra virgin oil out of business.
“Are we witnessing a renaissance in olive oil, or the death of an industry?” the author asks. “Will extra virgin olive oil become the next premium food phenomenon … or will it sink into the anonymous mass of fat that is the legacy of our post-industrial food supply?”
As a reporter, Mueller does not answer that question, which is anything but rhetorical. Despite the advent of oil bars, the growth of New World production in California and Australia, and the effort of traditional producers in Italy and Spain to adopt innovations and maintain premium quality, the battle for good oil is far from won.
In the end, Mueller suggests, it is the consumer who will supply the answer. Only if consumers are educated as to what constitutes good oil and are willing to pay premium prices for a premium product will non-fraudulent producers be able to stay in business.
The author provides a “buying guide” as an appendix, but don’t expect a list of labels you can go out and look for. Rather, he says, the best way to buy is at a place where you can taste the oil and learn where, how and most important, when it was made, because olive oil deteriorates rapidly in quality with age.
Mueller also advises that it is better to buy a bulk oil that has been kept in proper conditions, or failing that, oil in dark bottles (light hurts quality) that has the harvest date, not an expiration date, on the label. The author provides numerous sources of research and information where a devoted consumer can keep up with where and how to find good oil. He also has a website,, though for some reason, this was still largely under construction when the book was published in December.
This may require more commitment than many people are willing to make. But for anyone who has developed a taste for the fabulous Mediterranean cuisines, or who loves cooking these flavorful and healthful dishes, or, indeed, anyone who reads this book, with its passion for the history and benefits of genuine extra virgin olive oil, the choice to help support that renaissance will be easy.
Darrell Delamaide, a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, took courses at Cordon Bleu and other cooking schools when he was stationed in Paris. He is the author most recently of The Grand Mirage, a historical thriller.