Friday, December 4, 2009

A World in a Book

60. A Year in the World by Frances Mayes

I don't know if it took me a while to warm up to her writing style, or if it took her a while to warm up while writing this book, but I definitely appreciated A Year in the World more and more as I read it, and it formed a thoughtful, personal, lyrical perspective on place and the meaning of place in a person's life.

I picked up this book that my mother had been reading because the first section is on the author's visit to the Andalucia region in Spain. I am particularly interested in all things Spain at the moment, as I will be studying abroad there next semester. I will be in the Valencia region (yes, as in oranges), but I would like to visit as much of the country as I can. Andalucia is a southern region, where Spanish Visigoth culture collided with Moorish-Arabic culture for hundreds of years. Mayes describes the iconic azuelejos tiles found everywhere, as well as the Moorish half-arches and latticed architecture.

While there is no stated concentration on food, like Anik See whose book I also just read, Mayes seems to be a culinary aficionado, and luscious descriptions permeate the pages of food that she eats in every country and some of what she tries to recreate herself. There are a few recipes, two that I recall from the Scotland section, a friend of hers' mother's summer pudding recipe, and a toffee pudding sauce recipe from a Scottish housekeeper.

In terms of Spain, she especially whetted my appetite for tapas and significantly peaked my interest in flamenco. She also travels to Portugal in the next section, hence my decision to continue, reasoning that I might well find myself there as well. If I do travel there, I hope to meet someone similar to Carlos (pronounced Car-loosh), the chef of a well-known restaurant and baker of an apparently to-die-for chocolate cake, who happily cooks Mayes and her husband a personal Portuguese dinner, and gives them a list of the best, out-of-the-way, seemingly secretive places to dine.

One aspect of the book that I could not get out of my head, and did not contribute favorably to my perception, was the obvious fact that Mayes, her husband, and all of their friends and the people they meet are very wealthy. I might not have noticed this so much in, say, 2007, but in 2009, it's an aspect that can't escape me. Not only are they jaunting over Europe, but they constantly refer to Bramasole, the Italian villa they are restoring (the subject, I gather, of her earlier bestseller Under the Tuscan Sun), another Italian property they are having restored, the three or four star hotels they reside in, or mansion-like homes they rent, the plethora of top-tier restaurants visited and limitless menus they seem to order, and Mayes' constant shopping for evil-eye trinkets, rugs, any native artwork, she buys it all, passionately, but with an obvious disregard for cost.

Mayes is a bestselling author, she's earned her money, but no one I know can afford to travel the way she does. So, while my appetite is whetting for those tapas, I'm planning one or two big nights out when I can have them, and unlike Mayes, I won't be eating dinner afterward. I won't get a churro every day, and when I do travel, I'll be staying in youth hostels and eating at street kiosks, and anything I buy will be a small gift for a family member or friend, carefully chosen. Mayes seems to imagine buying a home in every place she visits, and while I recognize that it's only a dream and part of her overarching theme about learning to belong in a place, it seems just a little bit more possible for her than it should be.

Like I said, I did really enjoy this book, Mayes has a talent for giving a very personal, specific perspective on the places she visits, and she really takes the time and effort to understand different cultures. Her cultural synthesis feels helpful to actually understanding the places. She also quotes from other writers and travel writers about place. One chapter, about southern France, seems to be practically written by Collette. But Mayes' interest in other writers is a glimpse into her influences and why she writes the way she does. There are several digressions about her childhood in Georgia, and how she was affected by that place, and it seemed to strengthen and bolster, rather than detract from, her discussions of other places. She is also the author of many books on poetry, which shows in the lyrical elements of her writing.

I don't know if there are more travel books in my near future, certainly a guidebook on Spain will be purchased, and I plan to read my Zafon book and other Spanish authors if I have time. Any recommendations for must-reads from Spanish authors?

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