Setting is one of the important factors that draw me to reading a book, especially when I’m trying out an author for the first time. I find that there are certain settings that appeal to me more than others, and sometimes, the setting alone influences my decision to purchase a book that I’ve never even heard of.
I’m particular about setting because by nature, I’m an escapist reader – I like getting lost in the imagery of the words, transported to the very heart of the story, forgetting for the moment the never-ending to do lists, looming deadlines, and the general chaos of daily life. The setting just makes everything so much more real for the imagination, bringing the plot and characters to life.
I like the centers of art: Florence (as in Sarah Dunant’s Birth of Venus, Diane Haeger’s The Ruby Ring) and Delft (Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring); the musical city of Vienna (Eva Ibbotson’s A Song for Summer and Star of Kazan); Spain, rife with mystery (Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind and Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas and The Fencing Master); the English countryside, sometimes romantic, other times forbidding (Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, Eva Ibbotson’s The Morning Gift, Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale); the vibrant Venice (Sarah Dunant’s In the Company of the Courtesan, Zizou Corder’s Lionboy, Donna Jo Napoli’s Daughter of Venice); and the exotic Morrocco (Barbara Hodgson’s The Tattooed Map, Zizou Corder’s Lionboy) or Greece (Eugene Trivizas’ The Last Black Cat).
The Italian countryside can be quite charming (Under the Tuscan Sun, Every Boy’s Got One), but for a rustic gastronomic adventure, books set in the French countryside always hit the spot for me, providing a heady experience of sights, sounds, tastes, and textures, as in Peter Mayle’s Chasing Cezanne and A Year in Provence; or Joanne Harris’ Chocolat.
Today’s books are non-fiction, but also set against the backdrop of pastoral France: Champagne: The Spirit of Celebration by Sara Slavin and Karl Petzke; and Sara Midda’s South of France: A Sketchbook (books #84-85 of 2009), both rummaged at Book Sale for P20 ($0.40) and P40 ($0.80) each, respectively (squee!).
A toast to Champagne
Champagne: The Spirit of Celebration is a pictorial commemoration of the sparkly, golden nectar associated with toasts and special occasions.
The book’s first two paragraphs summarize this quite nicely:
“It only takes one sip of champagne for the spirit to feel miraculously restored, elegant, frivolous, chic, and extravagant. Champagne can soothe the soul, enliven the heat, and propel even the most reserved person into lively conversation or onto the dance floor. Romance may be ignited: certainly the chances of a kiss are more likely.
Champagne has launched millions of ships and a billion celebrations. Champagne stimulates the appetite, dispels timidity, overcomes sorrow. It is a friend for life – at weddings, christenings, everywhere and anytime life bursts into song.”
The book takes us to the Champagne region in Northern France, with its chalky land perfect for cultivating vineyards. According to the book, the chalk in the soil reflects sunlight back into the foliage, giving the countryside the feel of an Impressionist masterpiece.
The book also explores the history of champagne-making in the region, from the traditional methods to modern innovations, and key personalities such as the “father of champagne” Dom Perignon (the cellar master of the Benedictine abbey of Hautvillers) and the legendary La Veuve (the widow) Cliquot, who invented the “riddling” process that changed champagne from cloudy and gritty to the clear liquid we drink today.
I like this book because aside from the interesting facts about champagne (including deciphering champagne labels, types of champagne vessels, how to open a champagne bottle without spilling, and champagne rituals), it also includes literary passages, champagne-based and complementary recipes, and a beautiful collection of photographs.
Splashes of Color
Sara Midda’s South of France: A Sketchbook was a delightful discovery while I was rummaging at the store. I recognized the name from my Flipper friend Sana’s Shelfari bookshelf, and I was doing mental handsprings at the checkout counter because the book was awesome and I got it for a song.
The book is quite literally, a sketchbook, meaning there’s no narrative – just notes hastily scribbled here and there – but a dazzling showcase of watercolors depicting bits and pieces of life in the French countryside.
Divided into monthly chapters (with a page of notes for each month), the sketchbook is packed with delightful pictorial details documenting a year spent in Provence: rows of brick houses, patterned espadrilles, fresh herbs and flowers, old chapels, locals playing boules, clotheslines, fields, cross sections of fruit, potted plants, signboards of local establishments, crockery, fabric patterns, seeds, local cuisine, nibblies, patisserie samplings, sugar packets, types of bread, house numbers, and even little cartoons (there’s a very funny one about a man searching for a striped shirt)!
Being watercolor-challenged, I am in awe of this beautiful book that simply looks like each page ought to be framed. Midda has a great eye for detail, and the watercolors gently yet perfectly capture the languid pace of life in the countryside, making you just long to be right there to experience it yourself.
Sigh. Destination: France? Someday, i swear, someday.
My copy: Champagne: The Spirit of Celebration, paperback; Sara Midda’s South of France: A Sketchbook, hardcover with dustjacket, both rummaged at Book Sale
My rating: Champagne: The Spirit of Celebration, 4/5 stars; Sara Midda’s South of France: A Sketchbook, 5/5 stars