Thursday, December 18, 2008

currently reading

~ The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday (Alexander McCall Smith)
Close on the heels of finishing The Careful Use of Compliments, the fourth Isabel Dalhousie novel, I started The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday. Published in September ’08, Muddy Saturday is the latest book in the series. Potential SPOILERS follow so if you haven’t read #4, avert your eyes NOW.

I’m on page 88, but having a hard time getting into this story. It’s possible that this episode simply isn’t as compelling as previous titles. It’s also possible that I’ve ODed on Isabel Dalhousie. Her Edinburgh has become a little stifling. She’s rearing a baby, navigating motherhood, and avoiding a permanent relationship with Jamie, the baby’s father. She’s also the owner of the Journal for Applied Ethics, which she purchased after the previous board wanted to oust her from the position she held as editor. Isabel is asked by an acquaintance to help a doctor who has been disgraced by charges of fraud over a new drug. I really liked Careful Use of Compliments—every word held my attention—but, so far, Muddy Saturday doesn’t even come close to reaching the same heights.

~ Immoveable Feast (John Baxter)
The flap copy calls Immoveable Feast: A Paris Christmas a “witty cultural and culinary education,” which just happens to be one of my favorite book flavors. This travel memoir is a December selection for an online book group I follow. Timely, yes—and I’m glad it was chosen because I might otherwise have missed it.

Australian-born film critic Baxter marries a French woman, and family challenges him to cook their next Christmas meal. For eighteen people. At their ancestral family home. What follows is the meal planning with essays on the individual components—oysters, suckling pig, apples, cheese, and wine.

Here’s Baxter on tasting blue cheese for the first time:
It was a mild, somewhat too-salty variation on Roquefort. But if the phrase “to melt in one’s mouth” has any meaning for me, it was formed in that moment. The fragment disappeared without my being aware of it. Only one other thing evaporated on the tongue in quiet the same way—the communion wafer that I took dutifully at Sunday mass. But that papery piece of bread left nothing behind nothing, not even the taste of sanctity, whereas the Roquefort bequeathed a flavor anyone who truly releases cheese will recognize: a breath of the earth.
His writing style is kind of old-school journalism, and I kind of like it. If nothing else, the way Baxter teases out his subject has had the effect of making me nostalgic for Christmas 1995, which I spent in Bordeaux, France, with John and my family as my sister, Michele, was preparing for her nuptials. Her fiance’s family prepared the most amazing multicourse Christmas meal, replete with oysters, capon, and a different wine for each course. As part of my culinary education, I learned to slurp an oyster from its shell, pressing gently for its brininess and mineral sharpness. Of course it helped that the oysters were local, from the Arcachon basin, where we had, just earlier that day, climbed the Dune du Pyla, paying penance for the assault on our livers.

I'm looking forward to seeing how Baxter's meal turns out.

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