Sunday, November 25, 2007

two short books

I have recently devoured two short books—one a novella and the other a travel essay.

A few weeks ago, my friend Krista kindly sent me a book care package. One of the books was The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, which I had a week or so before it arrived, put on my reading list. Kismet. The premise of the book involves Queen Elizabeth, who was minding her own business walking her corgis one day, stumbles upon a bookmobile on the grounds of Buckingham Palace. She chats up the librarian, checks out a book, and becomes a reader.

I did a lot of head nodding over bits like this:
To begin with, it's true, she read with trepidation and some unease. The sheer endlessness of books outfaced her and she had no idea how to go on; there was no system to her reading, with one book leading to another, and often she had two or three on the go at the same time.

There are great passages about the queen's distressed staff that can't go about their business because of her new habit, such as when she begins to ask of commoners in receiving lines and heads of state at dinners: What are you reading?

It's a deliciously subversive and humorous book that I look forward to reading again.

In early October, John and I visited Napa Valley. Just outside of Calistoga, we took a hike up Mount St. Helena, following the Monument Trail. When we hit the monument, roughly at this spot pictured above, we learned that Robert Louis Stevenson, yes, the author of Treasure Island, lived in a cabin. He and "his bride" (according to the inscription on the monument, a book on a pedestal that was carved out of red granite) spent their honeymoon here, and during that time, RLS wrote vignettes that would become the travel essay, Silverado Squatters.

It's not unusual for me to read books set in my travel destination—before, during and after my trip. But, it has been a long time since I've read something so site specific about such a random place (actually, it's been twenty years since I read Dracula after visiting Whitby Abbey). From the first sentence, I was transported back to that mountain and to Napa Valley, where wine was already being made. RLS writes about the state of wine:
The inconquerable worm invades the sunny terraces of France, and Bordeaux is no more…Chateau Neuf is dead, and I have never tasted it… A nice point in human history falls to be decided by Californian and Australian wines.
I wonder if Stevenson would be amused to learn that French vineyards recovered from phylloxera by grafting disease-resistant California vines, which allowed French wines to remain dominant until the 1976 when California wines beat Bordeauxs. Or that Australian wines didn't gain respect in this country until the 1990s.

As John and I stood on the site of the abandoned silver miner's cabin, we marveled at the remote location and wondered where the couple got water, as surely the cabin had no plumbing. It certainly was gratifying to find the answer in Silverado Squatters—RLS drilled a hole in the rock to capture run-off.

Here is a serene view of Napa from the trail leading to the monument:

Hard to find in book form, UC-Berkeley graciously offers the entire text online.

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