Falling: The Rocks by Peter Nichols

mallorca

Have you ever thought that life would all make sense when you got to the end of it and looked back? Have you identified those moments, decisions, actions in which life changed course immediately? The Rocks, Peter Nichols’ second novel, raised these questions in my mind but didn’t answer them reassuringly. It did, however, give me a very enjoyable read.

When the book opens, it is 2005 and long-divorced couple Lulu and Gerald have encountered one another for the third time in the sixty years since their disastrous honeymoon, despite being two ex-patriot Brits living on the same small Spanish Island. The chance meeting at a local market, ends on the road to Lulu’s resort hotel, the Rocks.

Mallorca coast. Photo credit Pixabay.com

Mallorca coast. Photo credit Pixabay.com

[Gerald] caught up with Lulu just outside the Rocks. He grabbed her arm again with strength field by rage, and spun her round.

“You never — he stared, with a smoker’s bulling growl, but his chest was empty of air, heaving spasmodically.

Again, Lulu shook off his grip. But she was surprised and immensely pleased to see the effort Gerald had made, how overwrought, breathless, and unwell he was. It occurred to her that with just a nudge, he might easily die of a heart attack right in front of her. “You’re pathetic, Gerald. An empty, hobbling husk of a man.” A flame of old anger rose in her. “You’re a belter! A miserable, wretched shit of a fucking —

You never developed the film! Did you!” The furious, strangled world erupted wetly out of Gerald’s chest, his body pitching forward. “I lured them away! Do you understand? I got them away ! I — ” His blue-and-gray glistening face thrust into hers, but he had no more breath.

The encounter ends, shall we say, badly and without further explanation. Over the course of the next several hundred pages, Nichols leads the reader back in time through the lives of Gerald and Lulu, Gerald’s daughter Aegina and her child Charlie, Lulu’s son Luc and his frustrated careers, and illuminates motivations, temptations, sins, and omissions in reverse. The Rocks drops the reader into 2005, 1995, 1983, 1970, 1966, 1956, 1951, until, finally, we reach the beginning in 1948, and the revelation of what happened on Gerald and Lulu’s honeymoon voyage.

It reminded me a bit of one of my favorite novels of the last few years, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, reviewed here: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/08/17/simply-beautiful-beautiful-ruins-by-jess-walter/.

Emma Straub’s 2014 novel The Vacationers, https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/08/29/the-vacationers-by-emma-straub/ is also set during a disintegrating family’s vacation on Mallorca, but other than setting has little in common with The Rocks. 

Gerald Rutledge, my favorite character of the book, has devoted his life to three things: repeating Odysseus’ voyage and

John William Waterhouse, 1891

John William Waterhouse, 1891

finding the actual locations of incidents in The Odyssey; raising his daughter Aegina; and working and preserving his own little bit of Mallorcan paradise with its olive groves and lemon trees. Lulu, conversely, I didn’t like at all. She devotes her entire life, seemingly, to scheming revenges, neglecting her child, and plotting sexual pairings.

Kate Christensen, reviewer for the New York Times Book Review, read Nichols’ memoir Sea Change.

As I read, I had a series of “aha!” moments; the parallels between Nichols’s own life and marriage and those of his fictional characters were deeply satisfying to uncover. Nichols, like his character Luc, grew up partially on Mallorca, the son of divorced parents. Like the novel’s secondary lovers, Luc and Aegina, Nichols and his ex-wife met as children on the island, and their own romance failed, in part, because of their inability to transcend their childhood knowledge of each other and ­become adults together. The memoir, like the ­novel, contains a precipitous nautical elopement, dope smuggling in Morocco and a young wife held hostage by pirates. People getting into trouble, both on boats and in marriages, might be said to be the common theme between the two books.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/24/books/review/the-rocks-by-peter-nichols.html

I very much enjoyed The Rocks. The themes of regret, misunderstanding, romantic love and adventure will be excellent fodder for your book club’s discussion.

MENU

On board Szabo’s yacht, a luxurious menu is served.

Two young crewmen appeared with bowls of salad. They poured wine for each of the guests. . . . the plates were handed out: cold grilled quail with a reduced fig sauce, tiny warm new potatoes, avocado halves filled with pomegranate seeds, plates of toast with pate de foie gras.

Gerald’s own menu is much simpler: “Aegina had made the tumbet she had learned from her mother: a Mallorcan dish full of aubergines, tomatoes, onion, garlic, goat cheese, and olives from Gerald’s trees.”

This recipe for Mallorcan Tumbet fromSpanish Sabores blog looks like the genuine article:  http://spanishsabores.com/2013/09/15/mallorcan-tumbet-recipe/

MUSIC

Aegina listens to her father’s favorite records while painting. Those mentioned, pastoral music of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century English composers, are: “Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Butterworth, Holst, Finzi, Alwyn, Bantock, Parry, Bridge, Delius, Moeran.”

iTunes has a $7.99 album of Elgar’s music. Elgar: Enigma Variations, Introduction & Allegro. Spotify has an English Song Series by Butterworth you could play for free.

MOVIE CASTINGthe rocks

Gerald – Benedict Cumberbatch

Lulu – Emily Blunt

Luc – Jamie Bell

Aegina – Oona Chaplin

Happy Reading & Eating!

Easy links for purchase:

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A Dog’s Tail: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

edgar sawtelle coverSeveral years ago, I read a beautiful, haunting, mesmerizing book about a boy and his dogs. I have recommended it to friends, loaned it to my fiancé’s son and give it a place of honor on my book shelf. The fact that Oprah chose it for one of her book club recommendations didn’t stir me to buy it; in fact, I didn’t even know Oprah had chosen it for her book club until I began writing this blog post. But since today, August 26, is “National Dog Day,” I thought it would be a good time to revisit The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski’s debut novel, was published in 2008 and became an international bestseller. (Thank you Oprah!) And for good reason. It’s a wonderful tale. To date, it’s the only book Wroblewski has published.

Trudy and Gar Sawtelle live in Wisconsin. They have developed and sell to approved buyers a very special breed of dog, a type of dog very nearly human in terms of communication ability. After a series of miscarriages, Trudy gives birth to Edgar.

Wroblewski never specifically defines what the Sawtelle breed looks like, so my dog Maggie will stand in.

“This will be his earliest memory. Red light, morning light. High ceiling canted overhead. Lazy click of toenails on wood. Between the honey-colored slats of the crib a whiskery muzzle slides forward until its cheeks pull back and a row of dainty front teeth bare themselves in a ridiculous grin.”

Born mute, Edgar nevertheless communicates with great effectiveness with his parents and with the dogs, particularly one named Almondine. And in the Sawtelles’ world, all is well until Gar’s brother, Claude, comes to stay on the farm.

If this sounds a bit Shakespearean to you, you are correct. Wroblewski borrows gently from Hamlet as you may have

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamletnoticed. Gertrude, Claudius, etc. And Speaking of HAMLET! What I wouldn’t give to see Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. He premiered in London’s West End last night. http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/aug/25/hamlet-barbican-review-benedict-cumberbatch-imprisoned-prince  

But I digress. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle succeeds in – much as a great production of Hamlet, as the New York Times said,”exert(ing) a strong, seemingly effortless gravitational pull. The reader who has no interest in dogs, boys or Oedipal conflicts of the north woods of Wisconsin will nonetheless find these things irresistible. Pick up this book and expect to feel very, very reluctant to put it down.” http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/13/books/13book.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

The exposition I most love about this book is the times the author translates what the dogs are feeling.  At times, it is truly heart-breaking.

To her, the scent and the memory of him were one. Where it lay strongest, the distant past came to her as if that morning: Taking a dead sparrow from her jaws, before she knew to hide such things. Guiding her to the floor, bending her knee until the arthritis made it stick, his palm hotsided on her ribs to measure her breaths and know where the pain began. And to comfort her. That had been the week before he went away.

He was gone, she knew this, but something of him clung to the baseboards. At times the floor quivered under his footstep. She stood then and nosed into the kitchen and the bathroom and the bedroom-especially the closet-her intention to press her ruff against his hand, run it along his thigh, feel the heat of his body through the fabric.

Places, times, weather-all these drew him up inside her. Rain, especially, falling past the double doors of the kennel, where he’d waited through so many storms, each drop throwing a dozen replicas into the air as it struck the waterlogged earth. And where the rising and falling water met, something like an expectation formed, a place where he might appear and pass in long strides, silent and gestureless. For she was not without her own selfish desires: to hold things motionless, to measure herself against them and find herself present, to know that she was alive precisely because he needn’t acknowledge her in casual passing; that utter constancy might prevail if she attended the world so carefully. And if not constancy, then only those changes she desired, not those that sapped her, undefined her.

And so she searched. She’d watched his casket lowered into the ground, a box, man-made, no more like him than the trees that swayed under the winter wind. To assign him an identity outside the world was not in her thinking. The fence line where he walked and the bed where he slept-that was where he lived, and they remembered him.

 Read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle with your book club. Fair warning: it is a long work, and a dense one. GIve yourself time to savor the thoughts, the words, the emotions. The philosophy.
“I think it’s just as likely that someone could say that this place, right here, is heaven, hell and earth all at the same time. And we still wouldn’t know what to do differently. Everyone just muddles through, trying not to make too many mistakes […] Half the time we walk around in love with the idea of a thing instead of the reality of it. But sometimes things don’t turn out that way. You have to pay attention to what’s real, what’s in the world. Not some imaginary alternative, as if it’s a choice we could make.”
MENU
Since the setting is Wisconsin, I would focus my menu on Wisconsin foods. Cheese, brats, sausage. http://whoonew.com/2015/01/wisconsin-food-traditions/
But I also found in my research something called a Butter Burger that sounds quite good.  Here’s a recipe from Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives:  http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/better-butter-burger.html
MUSIC
In a previous blog, I posted a dog music list: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/03/24/vacation-my-dogs-life/. You could definitely go with that. Or if you want to get musical in another direction, you could opt for the music of Wisconsin’s own sons and daughters.
Al Jarreau
Les Paul
Liberace
Steve Miller
Woody Herman
MOVIE CASTING
According to a 2008 press release, Tom Hanks and the Divine O herself acquired the movie rights to The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, but I can’t find any more information about whether a film is actually being made.  It has all the elements of a great movie, so I hope it does come to fruition.
Gar: Jason Bateman
Claude: Robert Downey, Jr.
Trudy: Meg Ryan (I’d love to see her in this role)
Edgar: I don’t know. This might be a casting director’s dream and/or nightmare. A young Josh Hutcherson would have been perfect, but he’s aged out.
jason-bateman75meg ryan
Happy Reading & Eating!

The Great Train Robbery, Michael Crichton

steam-train-502120_640

    Victorian “gentleman” Edward Pierce is a sharp dresser, a ladies’ favorite and a criminal mastermind in Michael Crichton’s 1975 best-seller The Great Train Robbery.  He’s a compelling anti-hero who puts together a collection including a screwman (locksmith), a snakesman (burglar), a lady of the night, a bank employee, a train guard and a corpse.  Crichton loaded The Great Train Robbery chockfull of Victoriana, from fashion, to prisons, gentlemen’s clubs, politics, and of course, steam locomotives in telling the story of the real 1855 robbery of 200 pounds of gold, on its way to pay the British soldiers fighting in the Crimean War.

victorian_mens_fashion_17  Image found in the Gazette of Fashion and Cutting-Room Companion

     The novel is one of process rather than character.  In fact, Pierce, if that is his real name, remains mostly a brilliant mystery.  He collects the crew, creates the process, conquers all setbacks thrown into his path and ultimately pulls off what was considered the greatest crime of his century.  Pierce is a man who easily travels between the highs and the lows of Victorian society, from ratter contests and the tops of steam engines to wooing.  “This singular gentleman was Edward Pierce, and for a man destined to become so notorious that Queen Victoria herself expressed a desire to meet him – or, barring that, to attend his hanging – he remain an oddly mysterious figure.”  Is it any wonder that Sean Connery was cast to play Pierce in the 1979 movie based on the book?

Connery

     Michael Crichton’s notes from the film include the following anecdote, which is frankly, just how I always imagined (hoped!) Sean Connery would be:

Finally we are shooting along take where Sean comes running up the length of the train, jumping from car to car. Because we are shooting in all directions, the camera operator and I are hanging out on a side platform, and everyone else is inside the train. I am trying to watch the scene and also to remember to duck down at the right time so the camera lens can swing over my head.
Filming begins. Sean runs up the length of the train. I smell a harsh acrid odor. I feel a sharp pain on top of my scalp. I realize that my hair has been set on fire by the cinders from the locomotive. I am frantically brushing at my hair, trying to put the fire out, because I don’t want smoke coming from my head when the camera swings over me.
While I am doing that, Sean jumps to the nearest car, stumbles and falls. I think, Jeez, Sean, don’t overdo making it look dangerous. He is carrying a bundle of clothes, a story point. He drops the clothes as he falls and I realize Sean would never do that, that he must have really fallen. Meanwhile, I am still trying to put the fire out on my head. Sean scrambles to his feet, retrieves the clothes, and moves on, wincing in genuine pain. I get the cinders out of my head as the camera swings over. We make the shot.
Afterward we stop the train; everybody gets off. He has a bad cut on his shin that is being attended to.
“Are you all right, Sean?”
He looks at me. “Did you know,” he says, “that your hair was on fire? You ought to be more careful up there.”
And he laughs.

     I really enjoyed the book.  Pierce was a genius, and much like many of my own criminal clients, probably had the ability to earn a fortune in a legitimate way but chose to work outside the lines because he found it more fun, or challenging.  Some things never change.

MENU

   There wasn’t a whole lot of good food in the book, so I think my book club menu would include:

Steamers (soft shell clams):  Recipe from Epicurious.com

http://www.epicurious.com//recipes/food/views/Steamers-in-Beer-102041

Wild Rice

Steamed Sugar Snap Peas

Yellow Cake with buttercream icing — to represent the gold

MUSIC

Blues in the Night, Ella Fitzgerald

Folsom Prison Blues, Johnny Cash

John Henry, Hugh Laurie’s version (because he’s British)

Chattanooga Choo Choo, Harry Connick, Jr.

Hobo Blues, John Lee Hooker

MOVIE CASTING

I can’t do any better than Sean Connery.  Unless it’s Benedict Cumberbatch.  And actually, I think a remake of this would be excellent.  Very exciting.

The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro

1111-bw-lanvin-19

Madame Zen a legendary and mysterious Russian perfumer who lived and worked in Paris, created Lanvin’s famous My Sin perfume, among others. Kathleen Tessaro’s character Madame Zed in her novel The Perfume Collector is, according to Tessaro, based on “a fistful of facts” surrounding the real perfumer. Thus, Madame Zed is both at the heart of and absent from The Perfume Collector.

In The Perfume Collector, Madame Zed launches at least one of the careers of Eva d’Orsay and also holds the secrets to Grace Munroe’s past.  She is the both the top note and base note in the novel, to employ the perfume phrase.

Eva D’Orsay works in the Warwick Hotel in New York City in 1927.  Grace Munroe is an unhappily married former debutante in England circa 1955.  When Eva dies at the opening of the book, she leaves specific instructions to dispense a plane ticket to Grace for her travel to Paris to collect an inheritance that includes a luxurious apartment, stock portfolio and a box of cheap, glass tchotches.  Grace has never met Eva, has no idea who she is or why Eva would leave her an inheritance with the bequest that Grace be able to “choose for herself.”

warwick       The setting in the Warwick Hotel certainly appealed to me, as it’s one of my favorite places in New York, both to stay and just to stop into the bar for a drink.  I always expect to see Carey Grant right around the corner.  Tessaro said in an interview with the Keep Calm and Read a book blog:  “I researched and used the Warwick Hotel in New York City, which has the kind of glamorous history that embodied the extravagant, wildly optimistic spirit of the age. Built in 1925 by William Randolph Hearst, it catered to the needs of his Hollywood friends and especially his mistress, Ziegfeld Follies, and screen star Marion Davies, who had her own specially designed floor. It was always a show business hotel and so was from the outset, was accustomed to dealing with outrageous and larger than life characters. It was also the New York home of Carey Grant for twelve years.”

https://keepcalmandreadabook.wordpress.com/tag/kathleen-tessaro/

   So between New York in the Roaring Twenties and Paris at the height of Dior’s New Look and post-war euphoria, the setting of The Perfume Collector are marvelous.  And there’s a mystery at the heart of the book, that even once you have solved, keeps you turning the pages for a bit more information.

   But to me, the most appealing element of the novel are the descriptions of the perfume creations:

My Sin, the label read, in gold lettering.

Very carefully she opened it, holding the gold stopper to her nose.  Up wafted the intense floral top notes of narcissus and freesia, warming to a dark, almost animal muskiness.  It was intoxicatingly beautiful and, at the same time, dangerous, with jarring hidden depths.

My Sin has been discontinued, alas.  And from what I can find, the perfume named Aureole Noire by its creator Monsieur Valmont has never actually existed.

Bright, icy clear and yet tender at the same time — built on the original idea of contrasting states that had inspired him with rain.  Top notes of velvety violet leaves, luxurious white flowers and light geranium, warmed to fiery depths, created from ambers resins, smoky wood and smoldering dry citrus leaves.  Underlying does of ouhd and ambergris lent it a melting, shifting quality; metamorphosing from an apparition of pure light, to a burning dark core and back again.  It was a scent that lacked coyness, made no concessions to charm.  Like standing on the edge of a great and terrifying cliff, it was shocking, beautiful, sublime.

napoleon

  The novel is a swift, pleasant, escapist journey that transports the reader through exotic places and scents and times without requiring much effort from her.

  While writing this post, I found a beautiful blog on perfumes with reviews, history, and even personalized recommendations.  http://boisdejasmin.com.  You might want to check that out.

MENU

Salade Nicoise

Use Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa recipe.  We had this at book club recently and it was the most popular dish ever served.  Our hostess mounded the salmon and vegetables on a beautiful platter and made the dressing easily available for us to serve ourselves.  Heaven!  http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/roasted-salmon-nicoise-platter-recipe.html

Crusty French bread (buy it)

A French wine, perhaps a white Burgundy, Macon-Villages

For dessert, beautiful French chocolates

MUSIC

Josephine Baker is a must.  Blue Skies, Bye Bye Blackbird

American in Paris, Leonard Bernstein

Soundtrack from Gigi

MOVIE CASTING

Madame Zed:  Shirley MacLaine

Eva D’Orsay:  Shailene Woodley

Grace Munroe:  Natalie Portman

Andre Valmont:  Chris Colfer

Roger Munroe:  Benedict Cumberbatch

Monsieur Tissot:  Jean DuJardin

Enjoy!

*Vintage Lanvin ad, postcard of the Warwick Hotel