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"The Vintage Caper" by Peter Mayle

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Peter Mayle tickles our imaginations yet again with The Vintage Caper, an offering that makes good on Mr. Mayle’s ongoing promise to amuse and satisfy with a lightsome confection set in France.

This entry features a highly valuable (worth about $3 million) cache of wine which is stolen from an L.A. entertainment lawyer. The odious man, who craves attention and lives to gloat, raises unholy hell with the cops, his insurance company, and eventually our hero, Sam Levitt. Sam has a checkered past and an unfixed broken nose, which as his girlfriend reflects, saves him from being handsome. He’s gone straight after some criminal – but never violent! – activities, and hires out as an investigator. 
The trail leads to the Bordeaux region of France, and Sam teams up with the lovely Sophie and her cousin Phillippe to track down the purloined goods. After the action takes us to France, the book begins to read like a travelogue through the wine-producing regions there, with acknowledgements to all the high-end wines from each region. The investigation proceeds gently, as always in Mr. Mayle’s books, and Sam proves that he has a real knack for this detecting business. The conclusion strikes me as an odd combination of facile and abrupt, and could have used fleshing-out. Just me, though.
It’s no wonder that the French people have made Mr. Mayle a Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur. Every time he writes about France, I want to go back. His books are delectable introductions to that beautiful country and its beguiling people. You don’t need to be a Francophile to enjoy Mr. Mayle’s books, but if you make a practice of reading them, you’ll place yourself in danger becoming one. Take this up for a light, merry read.

"The Swerve" by Stephen Greenblatt

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Subtitled: How the World Became Modern

There are several salient truths about Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: it serves as a highly instructive history about remarkable events of six hundred years ago and persuades us of the inexpressible importance of those events; from beginning to end it presents its observations in highly engaging language, which never even veers close to academic jargon; the combination of these and other characteristics won for it the 2011 National Book Award for non-fiction and the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. I exhort you to take it up and find out why.


On a chill January day in 1417, an out of work scholar and former secretary to a disgraced pope, a man named Poggio Bracciolini uncovered a musty manuscript in a German monastery, and altered history in ways and to an extent he could never have foreseen. For he had unearthed Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura). Published around 50 BCE, this long, challenging, and stunningly beautiful poem expounds some remarkably modern-seeming concepts: matter is made up of atoms, that these atoms cannot be destroyed, that they are constantly in motion, that nature is always experimenting, that the universe was not created for or about humans, and that human society began in a primitive battle for survival.

The logical ends of these ideas put Lucretius’ adherents into some terribly hot water in the 15th and 16th centuries: Lucretius held that the soul died, that there was no afterlife, that all organized religions are superstitious delusions, and that nothing generates a deeper sense of wonder than understanding the true nature of things. These ideas would generate controversy even today, but they opened the way for and informed the most glorious flowerings of Renaissance art, for Copernicus and Galileo, and for Francis Bacon and Shakespeare, to mention only the merest few.


The other salient truth about this book is that it focuses us on the recovery of a long-forgotten poet and his long-suppressed ideas and the massive and irreversible influence they have wielded on the world. Mr. Greenblatt’s accomplishment matches his concept: it is as grand as it is accessible, as persuasive as it is engaging. For anyone interested in the traditions of Western thought, this is a must read.

"Other People's Lives" by Johanna Kaplan

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On the outs. One point of view dominates the novella and five short stories of Johanna Kaplan’s Other People’s Lives. And most often, this outside-looking-in stance results from a combination of culture and self-imposed exile. This tension plays out with pathos, and often laugh-out-loud humor in this remarkable collection.

The title piece is the novella, and it contains the story of Louise, who is placed in the apartment of a famous dancer’s family. It establishes the collection’s tone and point of view and theme right away, and goes further: it puts the story in the consciousness of a mental patient, Louise, who sometimes can’t trust what she sees and hears. She apparently has hallucinations, and may have petit mal seizures. A healthy portion of the energy of this story comes from Maria, the German wife of the famous dancer, who manically mangles English, to terrific comic effect.

Other stories feature girls in junior high or high school, at camp, or home sick from school, or babysitting. They have in common an intelligent, if a little eccentric, female Jewish protagonist, who sees and approaches the world on her own terms. Often there is a wise-cracking vulnerability to these appealing creatures, and few have any problems speaking up to the frequently addled adults they live with or near.

  
Other People’s Lives rides a groundswell of endearing, exposed, nervous humanity. Its mouthpieces already have a couple of strikes against them, being Jewish and female (except for one Chinese girl in Vietnam), and they stake out their ground in ways that range from sassy to cranky to plaintive. This is a highly assured collection for a debut piece, was nominated for the National Book Award in 1976, and won the National Jewish Book Award. Reading this collection was a delightful experience and I recommend it highly.

"Pomegranate Soup" by Marsha Mehran

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Not everyone in Marsha Mehran’s Pomegranate Soup is sweet-tempered, but the story itself bursts with the sweetness of family, charity, and excellent food. Capturing the harrowing history of three Iranian sisters who just manage to escape the country during the revolution of 1979, the narrative finds them, seven years on, in what seems like their last chance at refuge, on the west coast of Ireland.

The citizens of this town fit into some fairly straightforward types: the town magnate/bully; an old gossip-monger, bitter and incontinent; the friendly, nonconforming hairdresser. But these props serve the story of the more nuanced sisters, who struggle with haunting memories and the pressures of establishing a café. Dramatic tension builds as the pushy entrepreneur does everything he can to run them out of town, and his dull, pushy son nearly succeeds when he assaults the youngest sister, only 15 years old.

Characters sometimes act from motivation that strains credulity: the middle sister runs off without a note or a call on fairly flimsy grounds. A dim and hopeless shopkeeper believes in leprechauns because of miscreant teenagers, and the attempted aggression against the young girl honestly seems a bolt from the blue. But: this is a generous story about healing; each chapter opens with a recipe for a traditional Iranian dish; the parish priest writes a ribald and very funny play; the café’s grandmotherly landlady looks after the girls with sage advice and minestrone.

This is a lovely confection on balance. Take it up, and follow a small interlude in the lives of these young lovelies, one that promises that the best is yet to come.