Thursday, January 31, 2013

How to Love Wine

Eric Asimov's quirky book, subtitled "A Memoir and a Manifesto," has a single, simple message -- wine is one of the great pleasures of life and people should focus on enjoying it, not mastering any arcane expertise in choosing and following wine.

Though as chief wine critic for the New York Times he is part of that world, Asimov relentlessly pokes fun at wine professionals, and repeatedly embarks on scathingly hilarious takedowns of tasting notes that find obscure comparisons for the flavor components of a wine.

For Asimov, a wine is not a score based on a brief mouth rinse in a tasting involving scores of wines, but a living thing that changes over the course in time and brings the most enjoyment in the context of a meal or a gathering made more convivial by the wine. His "manifesto" is for people to stop worrying about what they don't know about wine, stop angsting over a wine menu, and, well, just eat, drink and be merry.

A typical passage: "I've become a firm adherent of the notion that wine is for drinking, not tasting. Only by drinking, swallowing, savoring, and returning to a wine, and repeating the process over time, can one really get a full and complete idea of what's in a bottle and what wine is all about."

Talking about how wine "amplifies" the affinity when friends get together: "Is it just the alcohol? That feeling of well-being inherent in a glass or two of wine? Nobody likes to talk about the buzz factor, but clearly that's a part of the wine experience. I don't mean intoxication, inebriation, or drunkenness. But alcohol is an essential part of wine. It adds a warmth and conviviality to the experience. Nonetheless, alcohol is not the decisive factor....Good wine, shared with friends and family, with a good meal, offers so much more than a buzz. It increases happiness, augments a sense of well-being, and can even comfort sadness."

I'd never read Asimov's wine columns or blogs in the Times before a friend suggested we go to a book signing with him at Weygandt's. In person, he seemed modest and affable, and this comes across in both the manifesto -- really more of a gentle nudge -- and the memoir parts of this book.

Is there enough here for a whole book? The economics of the printed book means it has to be a certain length. In five or ten years, Asimov would probably be able to achieve his goal with a shorter e-book. In this longish version, his comments about wine seem repetitious, because he really is saying the same thing over and over again in different ways. Not that it's unpleasant to meander with him through the world of being a wine critic.

The "memoir" provides what narrative structure there is. Aside from the fact that he is the nephew of the great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov and that his father was a top executive at Newsday, his youth and education are stunningly banal. While I believe he is genuinely modest, there is a false note when he disingenuously describes how to his great surprise he was hired by the Times despite his youth and lack of qualifications without at least acknowledging that his family connections might have played some role.

Ultimately, though, his personal evolution in getting to know and love wine is instructive and perhaps the only way to show readers what he means by the title, rather than just telling them. His enthusiasm is infectious, even though of course he is preaching to the choir because it's a sure bet that only people who already love wine will pick up this book.

There are times when he is too much New York. He puts a lot of stock in finding a good "wineshop" with a knowledgeable merchant who will take the time to help you identify the context of the wine you want, and if that person only rattles off some rated wines, find another shop. Easier said than done in most places outside New York. We have plenty of stores here in DC, but, for instance, I always distrusted the recommendations of the clerks at Calvert Woodley (I never shop there any more) because I felt they wanted to move some large lots they bought.

But his insistence does remind me to patronize those stores, like Weygandt's, that do make an effort to seek out wines and winemakers not on the basis of a score in Wine Spectator but because they like the wine.

I haven't quite finished the book, but I already had a lot to say about it. I'll update if I have anything to add once I do finish it.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A book club after all

Third time is perhaps the charm. I attended an organizational meeting for a book club this week -- my third attempt since coming to Washington. The first one was a new club at the Albermarle, which was fine for awhile but a bit haphazard. The second was organized through the listserv and was supposed to be all men reading nonfiction. The selections quickly became mixed but for me the chemistry wasn't quite right.

My situation has changed, and my reading habits, so I think in general I might be more in sync with idea of a book club. This one, too, was organized through the listserv and again was targeted exclusively at men. Most book clubs of course are composed of just women, and there are some couples' book clubs. Clearly, however, sensibilities in reading can diverge significantly between men and women. Most of the 14 men who showed up for the organizational meeting named mysteries and thrillers among their favored genres, though in the end two of the books we considered reading had recently been read by Andrea's book clubs.

There was a further twist to this club that appealed to me and I suspect to the others as well. It was convened for a Wednesday afternoon -- effectively excluding anyone who works full-time in an office. So it was a group of mostly retired men, some of them for 10 years or longer. Some still do consulting work or of counsel in a law firm. For the first time in a long time, I once again had the sense of being the youngest in the room or at least one of the youngest.

I think the importance of this age similarity is often underestimated. The two successful book clubs Andrea belongs to consists almost exclusively of women in the same age range. The shared experiences, cultural cues and icons, the view of the world vary considerably among people in different age groups, and especially in generations.

Our first selection is a nonfiction book, Monsoon by Robert Kaplan, which I brought to show around and recommended on the basis of other books of his that I've read. I was a bit surprised at the alacrity with which this suggestion was taken up, indicating how curious everyone is about Asia's role in the future. I of course like Kaplan because he is focused on the relationship between geography and politics and so is one of my role models for Superregions. We decided that the person recommending a book should host the meeting, unless he doesn't want to for some reason.

A couple of people suggested Art of Fielding, a novel by Chad Harbach and one of the books Andrea read at her club, so that will be our second book.

With my resolution to read more this year, I worry less that one of the four books I read each month might be one I wouldn't necessarily have chosen. In fact, as we discussed possible choices, one suggestion of Why Does the World Exist by Jim Holt sounds so interesting I may read it whether we choose it for the club or not.

One of the things that has changed for me is that after more than five years working at home, I'm feeling the need for some outside community. It was one of my motivations for embarking on an Italian course, and I think it is primarily the social interaction that appeals to me about this club. One of the organizers, in fact, was someone I met at our series of bridge classes, which was a nice community over a period of months.

So we'll see how many people show up for the next meeting. In the previous men's book club, an initial group of a dozen-plus was quickly winnowed to half a dozen and there was trouble sustaining that number. We'll see how this one goes.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Devil's Highway

Novelist Luis Alberto Urrea, who writes in the magical realism tradition of Latin literature, has written a searing narrative nonfiction account of the deaths of 14 Mexican immigrants who got lost in the Arizona desert while trying to enter the U.S. illegally.

With his in-depth portrayal of the mixed motives and flawed characters on both sides of the border that led to this tragedy, Urrea brings the debate about immigration policy out of the clouds and down to some terribly sad facts on the ground. The victims, of course, are honest people seeking an escape from Mexico's grinding poverty to build a better life for their families. The official U.S. response of sealing off the border is shown as the hypocrisy it is because American businesses -- and families -- are always eager to exploit this low-wage work force.

Urrea tells his story in an episodic fashion following only a loose narrative in way more characteristic of a novel than a journalistic account. But his painstaking research into the official investigation and transcripts, his interviews with the 12 survivors from the group of 26 that originally set out to enter the U.S. through the desert known as the Devil's Highway, his first-hand descriptions of the locales involved from the departure point of Veracruz through the desert landscape to the hospitals in Tucson and Yuma where the survivors were nursed back to health, lends a painful authenticity to the tale. The reader cannot forget for a moment that this is not just a story -- it really happened and continues to happen every day.

The Migra -- the U.S. Border Patrol -- is the enemy in the eyes of the immigrants and the Coyotes who gouge them for outlandish fees to guide them across the border, but they are hardly the villain of the piece. While they are portrayed in all their macho glory, they are also shown to be genuinely concerned about the mortal dangers faced by those trying to cross the desert. One of the most telling details furnished by Urrea was that these hardened law enforcement officials paid for "rescue towers" out of their own pockets, beacons in the desert informing those "walkers" who were lost that they could not walk to safety from their present location and providing a panic button for them to summon a rescue from the Migra.

But the heart of the book is Urrea's unrelenting account of the brutal and painful fate that met the 14 people who died. The author describes in excruciatingly clinical detail the stages of sickness and death from hyperthermia and reconstructs how it must have played out for these individuals. While he sticks to documents for the words he puts in quotes, Urrea uses his novelist's sense of drama to get inside the heads of the victims with indirect discourse, conveying to the reader a sense of what these people were like and how they must have suffered.

I read this book because one of the volunteer staff at The Washington Independent Review of Books named it in a tweet as her favorite read in 2012. As the immigration debate comes in for long-overdue attention in Washington, this book can be a vital help in understanding the human tragedy of our misguided and ineffective policies.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Mendel's Dwarf

Simon Mawer's novel is almost Shakespearean in its scope, ranging from sly farce to a tragedy that takes on its own momentum. In this skillfully crafted and as always marvelously written story, he takes on big themes about determinism and identity and the role that choice does in fact play.

The narrator, Benedict Lambert, is a geneticist and great x 3-nephew of Gregor Mendel, the 19th-century Augustinian friar who founded the science of genetics. He is also a dwarf, the result of a small but fateful mutation in the DNA of his two normal parents. He is unhappy with his fate and makes it his mission to isolate the chromosome responsible for his condition. He tells people who condescendingly call him brave that he is not brave, because to be brave you must have a choice.

But of course he does have choices, and for the most part he makes good ones. The drama comes, however, from some bad choices he makes. In his willingness to tinker with genetic makeup, Lambert mirrors on a small scale (sorry for the pun, but it's the kind Ben makes all the time) the ethical quandary facing geneticists in our time -- where is the border between genetic screening and genetic manipulation?

The parallel narrative goes back in time to Mendel himself, and looks at how this priest, who was curiously lacking in the normal expressions of piety, patiently monitored his pea plants to formulate a theory of dominant and recessive genes that remains one of the most revolutionary scientific concepts in history. The depiction of Pater Gregor's devotion to his experiments is on a par with the passion for scientific discovery that Andrea Barrett portrays so well in her novels and short stories.

Like Barrett, Mawer immerses the reader authoritatively in arcane discussions of science, but these are woven so skillfully into the narrative that the reader is compelled to follow. Mawer is in fact a trained biologist and has taught the subject, so he is totally comfortable with the science and makes the reader feel the same way.

Ben's self-pity is never maudlin, but it is very real. It reminds us that even in a world where we admire film performances of an actor like Peter Dinklage, dwarfs in real life experience a type of rejection we can hardly comprehend. Mawer's portrayal is sensitive, never shying from silly or even crude observations, but avoiding any number of pitfalls. Ben remains a thoroughly sympathetic character even through a denouement that is intimated rather than actually shown.

Much as I liked The Glass Room, I think I might like this book even better. It is set primarily in London, with Mendel's life taking place in Brno, now in the Czech Republic. Mawer once again has an opportunity to feature the composer Leos Janacek and particularly his piano piece "On an Overgrown Path." The writing is terrific in both novels, but I think the seamless compression of so many layers of meaning is even more successful in this book.

Just a short sample of Mawer's art as Ben describes going to his new job at the Royal Institute for Genetics:
It is housed in one of those redbrick piles in Kensington that serve indifferently as museums, hospitals, Anglo-Catholic churches, or university colleges -- buildings reeking with that nineteenth-century neo-gothic conviction that almost everything has been done and proved, and anything missing is just around the corner and will be pretty straightforward when you come to it. 
The Institute is strung out uneasily between the old and the new, between tradition and innovation, between the imperial past and the empirical present. On the one hand there is the old building with its ogive windows and gothic vaulting and statues of long-dead scientists in niches like sex maniacs skulking in the shadows; on the other hand, very much on the other hand, accessible through the kind of elevated plastic walkway that you find in airports, gleaming and humming like a machine, are the Gordon Hewison Laboratories, a cathedral of the new age where priests and scribes decipher and transcribe the texts, and find damnation written there just as clearly as they ever did in medieval times.
As a personal footnote, let me add that I was a bit distracted early in the novel by Mawer's references to Mendel as a friar and his garb as a soutane. After my years in the Jesuits, I feel like something of an expert on ecclesiastical nomenclature and dress. I had it in my head that Augustinians are, like Benedictines, a monastic order whose members are more properly referred to as monks. Finally, I went to Wikipedia and found out that Augustinians are indeed a mendicant order like the Franciscans and Dominicans and are properly called friars. In an article on St. Thomas Abbey in Brno, Wikipedia even address the anomaly of it being called an abbey and its head an abbot, though by rights it should be priory and prior. Still a mystery to me is the description of Mendel's dress as a soutane, when it should be a habit. But in fact the standard images of Mendel show him in what looks like a normal cassock with buttons rather than a habit with scapular and hood. At this point, however, I'm ready to concede that Mawer has done his research and has his reasons for describing things as he does.