Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen -Book

From a Google Image Search – The New York Times

How does a character who relocates wild critters who have wandered too close to a human turn out to be a person of rare and admirable character? That describes Angie Anderson, the main character in Carl Hiaasen’s new book, Squeeze Me. Perhaps Angie stands out because most of the characters in Hiaasen’s book are caricatures. Hiaasen, a Florida author, is famous for creating both mayhem and humor that is recognizably Floridian. He loves Florida but he also sees that it is a wacky place and he mines it for his satirical prose. He knows how to tell good stories.

This time we find ourselves at Casa Bellicosa, a thin disguise for the winter White House. You can probably guess who has the code name Mastodon, and by association, who has the code name Mockingbird. There are secret service men and women all over the place. Mastodon and Mockingbird are getting it on, but not with each other. We also have the Potussies (POTUS + Pussies) a gaggle of old socialite club members who idolize Mastodon.

When one the Potussies disappears the wealthy ladies are sad to lose one of their own but they are also worried that there will be a scandal for their beloved POTUS. Assumptions are made which lead to the arrest of Diego, an illegal immigrant and college graduate who just found his way back to the US where he went to college. He’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mastodon is only too happy to whip up his cult to harass the young man in his cell in the local jail, and to even get cult members arrested so they can try to kill Diego. Sentiments are running high and Diego is in despair.

Angie Anderson has a good idea of what happened to Kiki Fitzsimmons, but the proof keeps escaping from her clutches even though the proof is dead. It’s a romp that feeds into a certain political viewpoint which may or may not be yours. If it is you will surely enjoy Hiaasen’s book, Squeeze Me. I don’t want to give away the yucky parts so this is all I can tell you. If you subscribe to the opposite political viewpoint buy the book anyway. You can always burn it on behalf of the president you love. Support writers.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari – Book

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari is right up my alley, in my wheelhouse, or any other cliché that means Mr. Harari and I like to think about the same things. We like to think about earth and mankind’s place on earth. We like to think about human societies or cultures if you prefer, how they developed, how we got to this particular overcrowded, possibly existential state we currently find ourselves in, and if and how we can find our way back from the precipice. He begins at the beginning when there are two species of humanoids on the planet at the same time, Neanderthals and homo sapiens.

Humans began as just another species of animals. They had the same needs for food and shelter, communal cooperation and reproduction. There are no other animal species that we know of that left drawings on caves though, and that may be the key difference that started the entire chain of human history. In our early days we did nothing that disturbed the natural balance of the planet. We hunted and gathered but animals and plants were plentiful and all living things flourished or experienced hardships together. If life became difficult in one location people simply moved to a new location. Life was ‘a moveable feast’. 

Harari explains that people usually think that it was agriculture that changed the human equation. Of course it did. But, he reasons, what really separated people from other animals was the human facility with storytelling. Animals didn’t name constellations or make up families of capricious gods. But once humans did create these ‘stories’ which Harari calls ‘myths’ humans who shared the same myths began to join together in communities. They could not have done this without learning how to plant seeds and keep a stable food supply nearby. At first these myths might be small and local and they varied from place to place. People fought wars over them. One myth got absorbed into another.

The point at which readers may have difficulty accepting Harari’s ‘myth’ thesis is when we get to modern religions: Christianity, Judaism, Muslims, Buddhism, Hinduism. Whether monotheistic or polytheistic, all of these religions, to Harari, are myths. They are myths that separate us and keep us apart, set back a global future we can hardly avoid unless some disaster drastically lowers the human population or some other life-changing event occurs. Will we ever give up our myths or adopt one worldwide myth?

Yuval shows how far we have gotten from the balance of nature into which mankind was born. So many animals are extinct. Men and women no longer collect in caves and live off the land without radically changing the planet. He discusses the role of imperialism and capitalism, the economic idea of perpetual growth which occupies the thinking of so many of us. Can the exponential growth of the Industrial Revolution continue? Can Capitalism get reined in enough to restore some of the natural balance we need. This is not a book about climate change. This is a book that suggests that we “left the garden” when we built towns and cities and empires and our moves have thrown the planet out of balance. Harari explores economics and even the way we treat cattle and chickens. (We really do need to find a new way to treat our food. We know that this is inhumane because it makes no nod to the equal circumstances in which we all began and it weighs on our spirits.) He discusses globalization and the future of mankind but tells us he will offer more in a second book.

In all, it is a sprawling book and it inspires thoughts while immersed in the author’s ideas and long after. It’s a book I will remember, and I go to sleep some nights going over what Harari had to say, some of which is hard to take, but for the most part is not anything we haven’t heard in the corners of our culture where such things are contemplated. Exercise that brain with thoughtful books and perhaps you will solve the riddle of civilization at the same time. Or we will go to space, take our myths with us and do the whole thing all over again because it’s a pattern we like, or we can’t change, or our myths are now too imbedded and we are too committed.

Inland Intrigue by Michael Hughes – Book

From a Google Image Search – Goodreads

Michael Hughes sent me a note asking me to read his novel Inland Intrigue so I did. I had never heard of the Inland Empire, a rather ostentatious name given to a not so ostentatious section of southern California, apparently to help market the area. The story takes place in the Inland Empire town of Riverside and all around the Inland Empire in 2006 and 2012. Tyler and his dad are on the way to the funeral of Bill Higgins, a man who was a friend of his father, a lawyer who worked for a bank called CalCoast that was into subprime housing loans. He died in a car accident. On the way David suggests that Tyler get involved with the Republican Party someday. Six years later Tyler Conway is home from college and staying with mom Linda and dad David at the upscale family home with pool and hot tub. Tyler is at loose ends about what to do with his summer so he decides to do as his Dad suggested. He gets involved in the local Republican election campaign. 

Political campaigns are not exactly hotbeds of activity during the summer months but Tyler’s dad puts him in touch with the Vice Chair of Riverside County Republican Party, Seamus O’Malley. Madison, Tyler’s sister is the only Democrat in the family and she gets some heat as she comes back from Boston to work in a program called Housing Helpers which is supposed to assist those who were hurt when the housing bubble burst. Tyler figures the program is a scam. He is also not sure that his dad’s friend Bill died from natural causes. If he is doing detective work it is the lowest key detective work I have ever experienced, but he does get some answers.

Hughes spends a lot of time describing Tyler’s days which are almost as boring serving the party as they would be if he just stayed home all summer. Is the Groundhog Day pace of the book purposeful, as it really does describe political campaigning several months out from an election, or is it a flaw in plotting? Do we really want to pull into the driveway in Riverside day after day in either the Mercedes Benz E320 or the Land Cruiser and jump in the pool and then the hot tub, or take a nap and heat up a pot pie. I kept reading. I didn’t quit. Perhaps because, often enough, a day would bring one new piece of the puzzle, or one new character to catch my interest. Weekends we often went to dinner with Linda and David and Tyler where conversation seemed scarce. I also had problems with the unusual uses of the word “but” in Tyler’s thoughts and conversations. Is this a regionalism? Is it just bad grammar? Just when it started to bother me the odd usage stopped.

Highways are complex in California and knowing which ones you will take and where your exits are is very important. Is it important to include every detail of each time the ‘Benz’ or the ‘Cruiser’ hit the road? You will have to judge for yourself. However, if you need to know how to get anywhere in the Inland Empire or the route to Tyler’s sister’s place, or to a weekend convention or a photo shoot, Tyler is as good as a GPS. He tells you every highway to take, every exit and even surface street directions if necessary, and he describes the neighborhoods he is passing by. I would consider these kinds of details superfluous as they were not part of the plot, but another reader might appreciate knowing exactly where they were at all times, and it might be a California thing. 

It is not easy to write books, even fiction books, so I give Hughes credit for a book that hangs together and has all the necessary elements of a story. Is it an exciting story? Is it great storytelling? I will leave that to other readers to decide. But there was intrigue of a sort and it was uncovered. I had some trouble with Tyler’s reactions to what he discovered. You will have to judge for yourself. Keep writing Michael Hughes. You’re off to a good start. And that’s how writers get better.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – Book

From a Google Image Search – The British Library

Given all the recent interest in a book that was required reading when I was in school, and the new TV series based on the book (which I have not seen), rereading Brave New World by Aldous Huxley seemed in order. It was shocking to find how little I remembered about the book so, good plan. The book is actually a philosophical exploration of the underpinnings of societies and it projects us into a mechanized future with universal happiness as its goal. I’m experiencing this as a sort of a mash-up because I am also reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari at the same time. Harari suggests that the only difference between homo sapiens and other animals is our ability to tell stories, our facility for generating myths that allows us to exist in collective groups greater than the 150 members of the largest groups that prevailed in previous ages. This reverberates with what Huxley writes about in Brave New World in 1931. 

In the society Huxley creates, the god who is at the mythical core is Henry Ford and the model is the assembly line which was the object of both admiration and consternation among various groups. It allowed the production of all those Model A cars and Model T’s that offered the freedom of the open road and seemingly conquered the matters of distance and time. Rather than turning out one vehicle at a time the assembly line could produce dozens in a day or hundreds in a year and the production rates kept improving. So what if you applied the idea of the assembly line to human reproduction. Rather than the whole messy and often tragic process of biological birth, what if birth could be mechanized, removed from the nuclear family and moved into a factory setting. You could even produce different castes of humans depending on the way you controlled the birth environment and later the mental development. Huxley used Greek letters to indicate these castes: Alphas as the highest, Epsilons as the lowest.

We begin our tour of the “World’s State” at the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre. The motto of the State is “Community, Identity, Stability.” Because of the Bokanovsky Process it is possible to create infinite numbers of twins by causing branching in fertilized eggs. These groups of identical twins work very well together without pesky disagreements, and in addition to their genetic content they are mentally conditioned or programmed to enjoy their group identity and their slot in society, however high or low. Alphas and even Betas are individuals and are not ‘twinned’. Epsilons are slated for menial labor. Alphas are, within limits, thinkers.

Sexuality is key to the goals and order of this society. Toddlers are encouraged to engage in sexual play. Many groups are sterile. During naptimes subliminal conditioning is broadcast as nursery rhymes and songs that are treasured in adulthood even as they control the behaviors of the various groups. Alphas and Betas cannot reproduce but they can have as many sexual partners as they wish, although pair bonds are frowned upon. If you live in this Brave New World and you find yourself in any way troubled or unhappy there is a drug for that. Soma will restore your happiness and send you tripping off into musical, light and sexual sensations that make you happy once again, and if that doesn’t work you can really zone out, take lots of soma and take a soma holiday.

An Alpha, rumored to have experienced a chemical imbalance in his birth bottle, promises to take Lenina, a female conditioned to enjoy sexual encounters, to an area that has stayed ‘savage’. There we meet Linda, who was what Lenina is now, but was left for dead by a previous Alpha who toured the same area. Linda was pregnant and was forced to do the very thing she was conditioned to despise. She had to give birth and have the feelings that mothers have. But she had also been taught to perceive of motherhood as a relic of the past, as an unacceptable role for women. It leaves procreation to chance. This combination of biological imperative and conditioned loathing is not a recipe for good parenting. We also meet her son John who does not biologically fit into this tribe in which he has been born. This tribe worships two gods; they worship Jesus and a tribal god. John has been raised with this religious conditioning. His mother acts promiscuously within the tribe and is shunned because of it. That is part of her conditioning, as is her willingness to take the mescalin and peyote available to her as a soma substitute. John is torn. He loves his mother and he loathes her sinful behaviors and the way it spills over into the tribes’ perceptions of him.

So what happens when our Alpha takes Linda and John back to the World’s Society, the Brave New World? What happens when myths collide? This is exactly the point where Sapiens and Brave New World collide, although they were written decades apart. You can probably make some guesses about what happens but this is a book that should be read and pondered as you question societies and what you believe they should be like.

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore – Book

From a Google Image Search – The Oklahoman

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore, set in the Permian Basin town of Odessa and the oil fields that spring from it and surround it is a modern story whose themes are those recurring modern themes: male dominance and white supremacy. But this story is told by women; women who deal with a hardscrabble existence and men who are, for the most part absent. The men have not deserted them, they are working on the oil rigs and the horizontal drill sites because these jobs pay well and give hope, mostly unfounded, that the family will stockpile enough money to buy their way to a better life. It may work out for some people but tragedy stalks oil work and the climate is killer, made worse by blowing dust and methane flares. The billions of stars visible in the night skies, away from the flares, may be the only compensation Wetmore’s. characters tell us.

“We lose the men when they try to beat the trains and their pickup trucks stall on the tracks, or they get drunk and accidentally shoot themselves, or they get drunk and climb the water tower and fall ten stories to their deaths. During cutting season, when they stumble in the chute and a bull calf roars and kicks them in the heart. On fishing trips when they drown in the lake or fall asleep at the wheel on the drive home. Pile-up on the interstate, shooting at the Dixie Motel, hydrogen sulfide leak outside Gardendale.”

Gloria is 14. She is looking for excitement so she does something that she knows her mother (who she loves) will disapprove of. She allows herself to be enticed into the passenger seat of a pickup truck by an older, but handsome-in-a-beat-up-sort-of-way, man. She wakes up on the ground next to the truck somewhere out in the oil fields, raped and beaten, and lucky to be alive. That man, Dale Strickland is still asleep in the truck as she carefully sets out to find someone who can help her. It is clear that this man could kill her if he awakens and finds her. She has no shoes, we’re not even sure if she is wearing clothing. She cuts her feet on the hard caliche rock and she stops herself from falling and staying there to die by holding on to barbed wire. 

When she appears on Mary Rose’s front porch, the only home in this barren land, Mary Rose is at first reluctant to answer the door. She has a young daughter and she is seven months pregnant. Of course even when she does open the door she almost wishes she didn’t. Close behind Gloria who is wounded and traumatized, the pickup truck carrying Dale Strickland turns onto her property. Mary Rose has a gun but is not sure if it is loaded. Dale Strickland knows he is in trouble and he knows how to intimidate. Robert, Mary Rose’s husband is out with his cattle, nowhere nearby. If the ambulance and the police had not arrived (called by the daughter) who can tell what horrors might have happened at that isolated house full of females.

Mary Rose’s husband always wanted her to move in to town to wait for the birth of the baby. She did not want to give up their ranch. Now it is Mary Rose who insists on a place in town and Robert who doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand that she is having nightmares, that she is afraid that Strickland will come back to hurt or kill her daughter and her. She is planning to testify, to stand up for Gloria in court. There is pushback. Gloria’s last name is Ramirez. Dale Strickland grew up in small town America. He is white, a high school football player. His community writes lots of letters on his behalf and offers character references which show that they are out of touch with this incarnation of Dale Strickland, a mean meth head. Who is likely to win in court?

Mary Rose waits for her court appearance in town, on Larkspur Lane, where she eventually meets her neighbors. These women are such well-drawn characters that we feel like we live with them on Larkspur Lane – Suzanne Ledbetter, Corrine Shepard, and Debra Ann, the young girl that Ginny left behind when she lit out for places unknown. It is a world of casseroles and cigarettes, drinks and target practice, women who can’t decide if it is worthwhile to go on or just give up. Debra Ann is an abandoned child and also possibly headed for trouble.

Gloria changes her name to Glory because she can no longer stand the sound of Gloria. She slowly recovers but she has to do this without her mother, Alma, who is taken away by immigration. Her Uncle Victor takes her to a motel where they can disappear. A kind woman Glory meets in the pool at the motel finally gives her the empathy she requires. Mary Rose is getting threatening phone calls day and night to try to scare her into reconsidering her decision to testify. Elizabeth Wetmore evokes the despair of life in the Permian Basin in western Texas, she creates these women who struggle to live in what basically seems like hell on earth. There are glimmers of hope. I guess you can tell that I really loved this book. She calls this book Valentine.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins – Book

From a Google Image Search – penguin.co.uk

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins drops us in the middle of the issues of white supremacy and male dominance. It’s the beginning of the 19 th century but slavery still exists in America and, as in this case, on the sugar cane plantations in Jamaica. The owner of the plantation that is the focus of Collin’s story. John Langton, is from London, a transplant, a scientist, a gentleman farmer (who knows little about farming). We meet Frances as a child being trained as a house-slave. There are plenty of secrets on this plantation – probably on any plantation that keeps people in slavery. Slavery is a nasty business and it taints those who practice it. 

John Langton marries Bella who did not get what she bargained for. Not all gentlemen from rich families are wealthy. It depends on their order of birth. To wreak vengeance on Langton, Bella does something forbidden. She teaches Frannie to read. Phibbah, an older house-slave, warns Frances that white women married to gentlemen tend to be very bored and that she should steer clear of any personal relationship with them. But for Frannie learning to read and getting spoiled is just too enticing and she is too young to understand how Miss-Bella is using Frannie to get her husband’s attention, or to punish him. 

Bella’s husband is a sort of scientist making the most common mistake that is made by scientists. He has his theory already formulated and now is just trying to bend the evidence to back it up. It is his contention that black minds are inferior to white minds unless there has been “racial mixing.” We’re talking about the 1800’s here, but there are still people in the 21 st century who make this argument. John Langton takes vengeance on his wife by using Frances (who can read and write very well) to help him with his scientific work. His lab is in the coach house on the property. He measures and compares the capacity of skulls, and then explores other even less savory arenas. Secrets, secrets, secrets. His book is called Crania.

When the coach house burns down, John Langton’s debts are called in and he loses the plantation. The only thing he still owns is Frannie who he takes to London with him and offers her as a paid servant in the house of a rival scientist, George Benham. George Benham is not against slavery (although it is illegal in England). His theses is that owners should treat their human property better. In the house of George Benham Frances meets the bored wife of Benham, Meg. But this time Frannie is a grown woman. Oh, if only she had listened to Phibbah. The book explores both the dangers faced by women in a male dominated, wealth (or class) dominated society, and the complexities of slavery for house-slaves who we normally think of as escaping the worst of slavery. Frannie may be a kind of “my fair lady” character but there is little fairness in her life’s trajectory, which for the most part she has very little control over. I haven’t given away any secrets. This is not perfect writing, but pretty close.

The Order by Daniel Silva – Book

From a Google Image Search 105.1 News Radio KWPM 1450

Daniel Silva has written and published the twentieth book in the series that features Gabriel Allon, the green-eyed, clear-headed, master of intelligence work and art restoration, The Order. Lucky me. I like these cerebral mystery-thrillers that manage to seek out and find bad actors, and also unravel what is revealed in the aftermath of Jewish genocide in World War II. Silva shines a light on anti-Semitism and although we tend to think that it was limited to Germany, Silva uses his fiction to show how much cooperation Hitler found all over Europe. There were collaborators who cheated Jewish people by offering fake documents in exchange for money, paintings, jewels, and who never delivered. When the Jews were transported to the camps the scammers adopted their possessions as their own, displayed them, probably insured them, although they could not prove their provenance. 

In this case we learn more about the ways that many European Catholics not only failed to protect the Jews, but actually collaborated with Hitler in exterminating them. At the heart of the book are the questions of whether the Jews killed Jesus, whether that explains anti-Semitism, and an exploration of the validity of the gospels. 

Gabriel is the head of Israeli Intelligence. He is married to a beautiful Venetian Jewish woman and they have young twin boys. Chiara, Gabriel’s wife, finally books a vacation in Venice with a promise of a painting restoration. She knows how to tempt her husband. Then Pope Pietro Lucchesi dies. What does Israeli intelligence have to do with the Vatican? Well, it happens that Gabriel knows the Pope personally and saved his life once before. The Pope’s secretary, Luigi Donati and Gabriel have found that they work very well together. They also agree that the Pope did not die of natural causes. He was murdered. They have to move quickly to find the guilty party before the Cardinals lock themselves away in the Conclave to name a new Pope. 

A shadowy Catholic organization which has been mentioned in other Silva books adds menace to this tale. What is the connection between the fate of the Jews and the Order of Saint Helena? Is there an actual Gospel of Pontius Pilate? The ‘Author’s Note’ at the end of the book gives the facts that are known to be true and these facts provide some authenticity to the events offered up as fiction. The Order is classic Daniel Silva and partners him with his team who we have come to know and care about.

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell – Book

From a Google Image Search – slate.com

Utopia Avenue, David Mitchell’s new book, ‘hooked’ into memories of things I learned to love long ago that have stayed with me all these years. I was just out of college in the years Mitchell sets his band, called Utopia Avenue, down in. If you want to invent a rock band there is not a better era than that musical era that contained so many great bands and solo artists. After all that was the age of Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Joanie Mitchell and Graham Nash, the Grateful Dead, Cream, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface. I sat in summer-green parks and watched children chase bubbles and whiled the afternoons away listening to great music. I saw the Moody Blues in concert. I went to Woodstock. I cannot help enjoying Mitchell’s story.

He gives us great characters too. Dean Moss is the first band member we meet and he is having a very bad day. He is not playing in a band at the moment and a pick pocket rips off his rent money. He gets evicted by his cruel landlady. He left his last band, Battleship Potemkin, a poorly designed band that tried to rock out to some Communist ideology. He asks at the coffee shop where he now works if he can have an advance and he loses his job. All the while the juke box in the diner plays an ironic soundtrack. But then the day ends with an astounding piece of luck. Dean runs into Levon Frankland who has heard Dean play his bass guitar. Frankland wants to put a band together with the best musicians he has seen at the London clubs.

We meet Elf, a girl folk singer with a user boyfriend, and he isn’t using drugs, he is using Elf, who has talent and character. Griff plays a harmonica and he is also the drummer. Jason sings and plays guitar. Elf plays guitar, piano, any keyboard instrument; she writes great songs and is a singer with some recording chops already. Dean sings and writes songs and so does Jason so this band would have a deep bench. They are lucky that Levon is the manager who found them because he is honest, and the music scene was and is loaded with managers who are happy to rip-off their artists.

David Mitchell usually writes dense books that play with time and offer up symbolic doses of social commentary; books that are sometimes like a mind puzzle. This book worked a bit differently. It plays with time in the sense that Mitchell sees parallels between 2018 and 1968. If you were around in both of these times, which Mitchell was not, but I was, the time travel happens inside my mind, inspired by Mitchell’s story. The people he mentions as contemporaries of Utopia Avenue are the same people I listen to on my stereo today. Yes I still have a stereo, but it only plays CD’s. So the reverberations of this book in my own life are trippy enough, but that is an accidental effect since I don’t think the book was aimed at only old hippies. It’s difficult for me to perceive, though, how it affects a younger reader. I say take a chance. Go for it. If you’re alive, you know rock bands.

Mitchell also does that ‘horology’ thing he does. Jason’s last name is de Zoet. Jason hangs on to sanity by a thread, via a drug prescribed for him and a strange encounter on a beach. Is Knock-Knock real? Is knock-knock a joke. Is Jason schizophrenic? Jason is able to forget the battle in his head when he’s on stage but when he is not performing he keeps expecting the quarantined Knock-Knock to return at any moment. He has seen ‘Knock-Knock’ and he takes the form of an imperious oriental figure who wants Jason dead. If you have read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet then you see the connection right away. If you didn’t read it, just go with the flow. All will be explained and it will be sufficiently freaky.

When the band gets famous enough, they are offered performances in America. Mitchell is able to fit in some observations about America through the eyes of Brits who have some delusions about the USA.

“I’ve never associated America with violence,” says Elf.

“Violence is on every page of our history.” Max mops up his gazpacho soup with a crust. “Brave settlers massacring Indians. Some days we’d cheat them with worthless treaties, but mostly it was massacres. Slavery. Work for me for nothing till the day you die, or I’ll kill you now. The Civil War. We industrialized violence. We mass produced it, years before Ford. Years before the trenches of Flanders. Gettysburg! Fifty thousand deaths in a single day. The Klan. Lynchings. The Frontier. Hiroshima. The Teamsters. War! We need war like the French need cheese.” Page 424

So not quite as abstract as some of Mitchell’s other books but packed with enough material for several readings. I don’t know why he chose a band as his vehicle but it worked for me. It’s an ‘Is it real, or is it Memorex’ moment. You may not be old enough for that reference either. He still sits firmly on my ‘great writer’ list.

Dirt by Bill Buford – Book

From a Google Image Search – foodandwine.com

So many people mentioned that they were reading Dirt by Bill Buford that I succumbed to peer pressure and downloaded the book. I’m not really a foodie, except for an unhealthy addiction to sweets, which I am trying to break. But I am a Francophile of sorts because some of my ancestors were French, so I enjoyed Buford’s adventures in Lyon. Mr. Buford is not a chef, he’s a writer, most recently for The New Yorker, but he had done some stints in Italian kitchens and he met Michel Richard, a French chef in Washington, DC.

Although he and his wife Jessica had newborn twin boys, he commuted on weekdays to Washington DC from New York City and was only available to help out with those twins on weekends. If I were Jessica, I think I might have shown him a few creative uses for pots and pans, or, even better, rolling pins, but Jessica is not faint-of-heart. She handles challenges with grace, occasionally requires better spousal behavior and shares her husband’s sense of adventure.

The two had hoped to move to Paris but ended up in Lyon because Chef Richard had connections there. With twins, now toddlers (moving to Lyon is complicated) the family decamped to Lyon. Bill worked for a while with the boulanger (bread maker) downstairs from their apartment who made bread for restaurants and people all over Lyon. Buford wondered why Bob’s bread was so much better than most bread. His search led him into the Dombes, marshes in the foothills of the French Alps and it led to the essential role “dirt” plays in the quality of food.

Buford did not pick up languages easily but fortunately Jessica did. The boys were in preschool in Lyon and also picked up French quite naturally. Bill took some time. He attended an Institute of French Cooking and did some “stages” at restaurants in Lyon. He did pick up in-depth knowledge of Lyonnaise cooking.

Bill kept wanting to find a connection between Italian cooking and Lyonnaise cooking with Italian cooking at the roots of the French cooking and he did form some interesting theories through his researches. He must have been a very charming guy because he got away with this in the chauvinistic city of Lyon. But he also learned not to speak of these theories to anyone in Lyon.

It turns out that much of the cooking in Lyon came from a few famous “meres” (mothers) whose food was so legendary that it formed the basis of a “mere” restaurant. Some “meres” left handwritten cookbooks for their offspring. Often these “mere” kitchens are now just about the exclusive domain of men.

Dirt by Bill Buford is about food and also about the historical roots of food, and about making friends in a place where newcomers are regarded with suspicion and are snubbed. Informative and enjoyable; sometimes giving in to peer pressure is a good thing. I enjoyed the book every much.