An American in Burgundy, Part Deux: Maximillian Potter’s Shadows in the Vineyard

photo (110)The subtitle of Maximillian Potter’s Shadows in the Vineyard* is “The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World’s Greatest Wine,” which conjures up images of ski-masked men in dark cellars lacing bottles of wine with cyanide or arsenic.

The truth is somewhat different; a more accurate subtitle would have focused on the vineyard and the vines that produce one of the world’s most expensive and highly-regarded wines. While no cyanide appears in Shadows in the Vineyard, two vines in the Domaine de la Romanée Conti vineyard were indeed poisoned, and the man who did it threatened to poison more. These events were the subject of a Vanity Fair article penned by Mr. Potter, which was then expanded into this book.

The book as it stands is less about the crime than about the history of the vineyard and its tangled web of owners and winemakers; Mr. Potter in particular focuses on Aubert de Villane, the Domaine’s current proprietor, a serious, kindly, humble man who clearly cherishes his vineyard and its wines. (I started to think of him as “the grape-whisperer” as I read Shadows in the Vineyard.)

Earlier this summer I reviewed Ray Walker’s The Road to Burgundy, which is one man’s tale of leaving it all for the love of terroir. Shadows in the Vineyard is more invested in territory, in how this famous vineyard came to be, in the forces that shaped both winemakers and winemaking.

The organization of the book leaves much to be desired; Mr. Potter attempts to build tension and flesh out a short true-crime story by coming back to the poisoning plot time and again even as he digresses into other subjects (history, the wine market, tensions among the DRC’s owners, etc.). A better strategy, I think, would have been to frame the poisoning plot as just one of the many challenges the vineyard has surmounted over hundreds of years, and using it to bookend his study of Aubert de Villane and his vineyard.

Still, there’s much to learn, and if you’re a wine connoisseur, you won’t want to miss this book given its focus on vineyards and the history of burgundy wine (especially the Domaine’s). For the rest of us mere mortals, who will probably never taste a wine valued at thousands of dollars a bottle (really: check out this Sotheby’s auction listing), Shadows in the Vineyard offers carefully drawn portraits of Monsieur de Villane (though I rather wish the author would not purport to know exactly what the man was thinking at such-and-such a moment), his family, and even the vine-poisoner.

Mr. Potter, and many others, consider the best kind of wine to be a consumable work of art, a da Vinci painting, say, in a glass; what would drive a person to deface that kind of beauty? If you’re interested in the question, you might like Shadows in the Vineyard.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

“Fair she braved War’s gaunt disease”: Edmund Blunden’s “The Festubert Shrine”

As you probably know, World War I began 100 years ago yesterday.

Today, here’s Edmund Blunden’s “The Festubert Shrine,” and old-fashioned sort of poem that features a few arresting images. It’s a glimpse of the war’s destruction of significant local sites, in this case a shrine to Mary in the French village of Festubert. In Festubert, as in many places, buildings that had stood for hundred of years were damaged or destroyed by shelling and shrapnel.

Most of Festubert was rebuilt after the war.

Edmund Blunden survived the war. A prolific poet and critic who became Professor of Poetry at Oxford, he died in 1974. Flanders poppies were laid on his grave.

A Not-Quite Reading List for the Centenary of World War I

All summer long, I’ve wanted to post a World War I reading list, a syllabus, if you will, of literature related to the Great War. Today would be the perfect day to post such a list, since it’s now officially 100 years since the war began.

When my list reached thirty titles, however, it became clear that a long post will have to wait until August. In the meantime, here’s a preview of some of the titles I’ll be talking about.

World War 1 Lit Collage__CarolynOliverIt’s my very first collage (as you can tell, I’m sure). I’m moving into the twenty-first century, Dear Readers.


Recommended Reading: God is an Astronaut, by Alyson Foster

photo (109)Alyson Foster’s debut novel God Is an Astronaut* considers questions of personal and public ethics as its protagonist, Jess, sorts out the reverberations from several shocking events.

Jess is a professor of botany, and her husband, Liam, is an engineer and part of the leadership of a space tourism company; they live quietly with their two children in Michigan. When one of the company’s shuttles explodes just after takeoff, Liam and Jess’s lives are upended as the investigation into the cause of the crash begins.

We see events only from Jess’s perspective, because God Is an Astronaut is an epistolary novel, composed entirely of emails from Jess to her colleague and friend, Arthur (we never see Arthur’s replies — just his subject lines when Jess keeps an “re:” thread going). As Jess explains what life is like with constant media scrutiny, staged press conferences, and even a documentary crew underfoot, Ms. Foster gradually reveals the unraveling seams of Jess’s marriage, and the ways that she’s tied to Arthur.

The epistolary form creates both intimate and distancing effects. Because Jess (apparently unafraid of the NSA) shares with Arthur not only Liam’s company’s secrets, but also her own struggles and desires, and the mundane workings of ordinary life, the reader is drawn close, a feeling compounded by the voyeuristic pleasures of reading someone else’s mail.  On the other hand, Jess’s emails are both lengthy and extremely detailed, and it strains credulity that a busy working parent with a surly husband and a publicity crisis would have time to write such lyrical missives. This, combined with the effort required to imagine Arthur’s words from Jess’s replies, pushes the reader an arm’s length away from the material.

Nevertheless, the novel’s lyrical meditations on our responsibilities in the world — to our spouses, children, family, friends, colleagues, customers, the earth itself — are quite lovely. If you’re in the mood for an extended character study, or you’d like to feel better about not being able to afford a Virgin Galactic ticket, this is the novel for you.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

“the light blue sea / Of your acquaintance”: Kenneth Koch’s “In Love with You”

I confess that I am not particularly well versed (poetry joke!) in the New York School poets. I’ve read a bit of Ashberry and a bit more Frank O’Hara, but never much Kenneth Koch. It hasn’t been a conscious omission; I simply found other poets first who claimed my attention.

Last week Kenneth Koch’s “In Love with You” popped up in my inbox as the Poetry Foundation’s poem of the day, and I was hooked by its exuberance, its vitality; it features non-ironic exclamation points!

While I admire many love poems, most of them are so intimate, so particular to a person or time or place that I find myself distanced from them. Like Whitman’s poems (at least for me), however, “In Love with You”‘s specificity crescendoes into a feeling of overwhelming universality. And I love a love poem that makes me grin.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to find a book of Kenneth Koch’s poetry.

Do you have a favorite grin-worthy love poem?

Recommended Reading: George Prochnik’s The Impossible Exile

photo 1 (19)George Prochnik’s The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World* is an amalgam of forms, combining elements of biography, family history, intellectual and cultural history, and literary criticism.

Its subject is Stephan Zweig, an Austrian writer of prolific output who was one of the best-known cultural figures of his day. Zweig was a proponent of international humanism, a cosmopolitan in every sense of the word, a stalwart supporter of all the arts, a music aficionado, and mentor to many aspiring writers. His books — fiction and nonfiction — were the most widely translated of the 1930s and were more often than not bestsellers.

When the Nazis rose to power, however, Zweig (who was Jewish) found himself exiled from his beloved Austria, drifting from country to country, increasingly demoralized and depressed. In 1942, he and his wife killed themselves in a small Brazilian town.

On the surface, this was an inexplicable act. Zweig was only sixty. had just published two books (his memoir and a study of Brazil, a country he loved), was, by all accounts, deeply in love with his much-younger second wife, and was still one of the most popular authors in the world. The Impossible Exile seeks to understand his situation by exploring Zweig’s life, shifting cultural milieu, and his work.

photo 2 (16)

As you can tell from the photo above, I found this book utterly fascinating. I read Zweig’s biography of Marie Antoinette when I was a teenager, but at that time had no idea of the reach of his influence (or that he wrote with purple ink); The Impossible Exile was an education. Mr. Prochnik takes pains to provide a rounded portrait of Zweig that includes his many foibles and failures, as well as his brilliant successes. As Mr. Prochnik writes,

Zweig’s life illuminates abiding questions of the artist’s responsibilities in times of crisis: the debt owed one’s fellow sufferers relative to the debt owed one’s muse; the role of politics in the arts; and the place of art in education. His tale also raises questions of how we come to belong anywhere–of responsibility to family and ethnic roots relative to ideals of cosmopolitanism. (8)

For Mr. Prochnik, investigating Zweig’s life in exile has personal resonance, since his own father and grandparents fled Austria in 1938 to escape the Nazis. Too often, he writes, the successful escape is the story; we don’t read or hear about the particular experience of exile with its concomitant losses.

The Impossible Exile is a thoughtful, sensitive work, and highly recommended. I also recommend this excellent long review in the New York Review of Books, which also includes a brief discussion of Wes Anderson’s recent film The Grand Budapest Hotel, which inspired in many ways by Zweig and his ouevre.  (it’s an excellent movie; I love Wes Anderson movies, and The Grand Budapest Hotel represents real branching out for him).

If you’d like to read some of Zweig’s own work, I can recommend from personal reading experience his biography of Marie Antoinette; New York Review Books is also re-issuing some of his works in new translations.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

An Interview with Rebecca Makkai, Author of The Hundred-Year House

Yesterday I reviewed Rebecca Makkai’s inventive and engrossing second novel, The Hundred-Year House.  Ms. Makkai graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

In the Acknowledgments that follow The Hundred-Year House, you write, “This book started as a short story about male anorexia.” Given that beginning, which section of the novel, or which character, came first?

Rebecca Makkai Author photo (c) Philippe Matsas

Rebecca Makkai
Author photo (c) Philippe Matsas

RM: That short story was a small slice of what’s now the first (1999) section of the novel. There were two couples (Cameron and Z, and Steve and Miranda) living in a coach house. The fact that “Steve and Miranda” didn’t set Sex and the City alarm bells ringing should be a sign of how long ago this was… Cameron became Doug, Z became Zee (after I realized British readers would pronounce her name “Zed”), and Steve and Miranda became Case and Miriam. Steve was the anorexic, and Cameron – although he was working on ghostwriting children’s books, as he is in the novel – was primarily preoccupied with proving Steve’s anorexia to everyone else. It wasn’t a very good story.  

photo (108)How did the novel’s unusual structure fall into place?

RM: I set the short story aside for many years, and when I came back to it I realized it could be a novel – but I initially saw it all happening in that one time period. My own curiosity about what had happened in the past was what led me to open those doors and actually write about it… and so the backwards order of those sections was actually completely organic. There was a load of planning involved, it didn’t just come flying out, but the sections are ordered as they came to me.

At one point in The Hundred-Year House, there’s a distinction made between “haunted” houses and “haunting” houses. Is that a distinction readers are meant to make with regard to the characters, too?

RM: I suppose that’s true. As we go back in time and meet certain characters, it might become clear that they’ve been the ones haunting the previous sections of the book. And some characters are much more receptive than others to the haunting influence of the house (which often takes the form of ridiculous luck, whether good or bad). Case is a prime example, in the 1999 section – he’s like a lightning rod for the house’s energy.

Visual arts play an important role in The Hundred-Year House. How did you conceive of the different artworks?

RM: I wish I could be a visual artist—I have a lot of ideas for art—but my hands won’t execute what I see. So I have to settle for writing about it instead. Certain works in the book are modeled on real-life art, though; Zilla Silverman, an artist in the 1929 section, is partly based on Georgia O’Keeffe, and her works are similar to O’Keeffe’s.

Laurelfield was once an arts colony, and The Hundred-Year House is dedicated to Ragdale and Yaddo. Is the novel’s section about the arts colony drawn primarily from your own experience as a resident, or from research into early twentieth-century artists’ colonies, or both? Who are some of your favorite writers who stayed at artists’ colonies?

RM: I actually conceived of Laurelfield before I’d ever set foot at a residency. I started applying to them as I worked on this book not only because I needed the time and solitude to work (I have two small children) but because I felt like I needed to know that world better. I was not disappointed. And I was able to do a bit of research into the history of Yaddo while I was there, which informed the book enormously. In terms of who stayed at colonies… You’d be hard-pressed to find a major American artist of the last century who didn’t stay at an artists’ residency. There’s a library at Yaddo of books by past residents, and it’s basically just like a normal library. There’s practically no one missing.

What’s next on your writing horizon?

RM: My story collection, Music for Wartime, will be out next summer. And I’m working on a novel set in the Chicago art world amidst the AIDS crisis.

My thanks again to Ms. Makkai for her time and thoughtful answers. You can read more about Ms. Makkai, and The Hundred-Year House, on Ms. Makkai’s website, Follow Rebecca Makkai on Twitter: @rebeccamakkai