A Good Year (Flips Flipping Pages September book discussion)

Today I took a break from the Manila International Book Fair for a much awaited occasion — the Flips Flipping Pages September Book Discussion: Peter Mayle‘s A Good Year, paired with a mini wine appreciation seminar at the Cyrano Wine Shop.

I’m afraid I didn’t have time to reread the book, with the MIBF under way, but I read it last year. Unlike the others, I had very low expectations before I read “A Good Year.” I read Mayle’s Chasing Cezanne and expected it to be a thrilling art heist, but it had to be the most lackadaisical chase ever, as the team in pursuit of the forged painting stopped to dine at practically every restaurant they walked past! Figuring plot isn’t one of Mayle’s strong points, I set out to read A Good Year just to enjoy it. And I did. I enjoyed reading about the Provencal wine industry and its quaint practices, and Mayle can write the copy of an ad for garbage bins and I think I’ll still enjoy his prose.

Anyway, while the group in general was disappointed with the novel, we all enjoyed the wine appreciation seminar!

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Wining and Dining in Provence (A Good Year by Peter Mayle)


I’ve always been a fan of Peter Mayle, because he’s a wonderful foodie writer, and I love books set in the idyllic South of France.

I haven’t read any of Mayle’s fictional works since Chasing Cezanne, though, as lately I’ve been reading his non-fiction: Acquired Tastes, A Year in Provence, and A Dog’s Life.

I was yearning for something light and soothing one night, so I picked up one of Mayle’s novels, A Good Year.

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Frenching it up

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.


the escapist reader
the escapist reader


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!).
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Doggone it!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m not a fan of talking animals.

I love animals (I have a pure white shorthair cat named Missy, and a shih tzu- maltese mix named Macky), but in books, they’re usually one of three things: a) sickeningly cutesy, b) wise and all-knowing, or c) sarcastic and wisecracking.

The persona in Peter Mayle’s A Dog’s Life (book #72 for 2009) belongs to that third category, unfortunately.

Now I’m a big fan of Peter Mayle, but this is probably my least favorite book of his, not that it isn’t well written (he’s one of the best contemporary writers I’ve read), but because I just couldn’t get myself to buy the fact that it was a dog talking to me.

A Dog’s Life is about Boy, the Mayles’ dog, and how he goes from unwanted puppy to abused servant to thieving stray, and finally as a member of the Mayles’ Provencal household. In all fairness, the idea of a dog narrator is quite original, and Boy is very eloquent (with an astoundingly sophisticated vocabulary!), but I got the feeling that he talked too much.

Boy was going on and on and on about well, dog stuff — going after the mailman, getting a girlfriend, jumping on the bed, knocking down a glass of wine, chasing cats, chewing shoes, and all other things dogs do — and some of it is amusing, but it gets tiring after awhile. I mean, just how long can a person stand reading about the excruciating details of a dog’s life?
I love dogs, but this book still fails to sustain the interest for me.

My copy: trade paperback, local mooch

My rating: 2/5 stars


By the way, this was the only book I finished during the trip I took up to the mountains (Sagada, Mountain Province and Bontoc, Mountain Province) with some book club friends.

Caught reading on the bus

I brought along four other books but between the long hours of travel (mostly on zigzagging roads), the seven-hour spelunking and the various other treks we made, I didn’t even make a dent in them. But it was a great trip, and my reading ratio can afford to slack off a bit. Here are some photos, just so you know what I’ve been up to:

Squeezing through
in front of a mushroom-shaped rock

on top of a frog-shaped rock

by the waterfalls

what locals refer to as taplod (top load)
giant bamboo

the rice terraces

More photos here:

I’m off on an islandhopping trip next week, hopefully I can get some reading done then.

An exercise in self-control

“The well-known food of Provence is summer food — the melons and peaches and asparagus, the courgettes and aubergines, the peppers and tomatoes, the aioli and bouillabaisse and monumental salads of olives and anchovies and tuna and hardboiled eggs and sliced, earthy potatoes on beds of multicolored lettuce glistening with oil, the fresh goat’s cheeses…

It had never occurred to us that there was a winter menu, totally different but equally delicious. The cold-weather cuisine of Provence is peasant food. It is made to stick to your ribs, keep you warm, and send you off to bed with a full belly…

It was a meal that we shall never forget; more accurately, it was several meals that we shall never forget, because it went beyond the gastronomic frontiers of anything we had ever experienced, both in quantity and length. It started with homemade pizza — not one, but three: anchovy, mushroom, and cheese, and it was obligatory to have a slice of each. Plates were then wiped with pieces torn from the two-foot loaves in the middle of the table, and the next course came out. There were pates of rabbit, boar, and thrush. There were saucissons spotted with peppercorns. There were tiny sweet onions marinated in a fresh tomato sauce. Plates were wiped once more and duck was brought in… We had entire breasts, entire legs, covered in dark, savory gravy and surrounded by wild mushrooms.

We sat back, thankful that we had been able to finish, and watched with something close to panic as plates were wiped yet again, and a huge, steaming casserole was placed on the table. This was the specialty of Madame our hostess — a rabbit civet of the richest, deepest brown — and our feeble requests for small portions were smilingly ignored. We ate it. We ate the green salad with knuckles of bread fried in garlic and olive oil, we ate the plump round crottins of goat’s cheese, we ate the almond and cream gateau that the daughter of the house had prepared. That night, we ate for England.”

When you read about food being described like that, you’ll be sorely tempted to eat the pages off the book!

The passage is from Book #37 for 2009: A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle, who is one of the best food and travel writers I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. It’s also my book 6 in the Diversity Challenge (memoir).

This book wittily chronicles adventures in the French countryside as Peter Mayle and his wife move into a 200-year old stone farmhouse and live as the locals do, and it takes you right there with them.

The chapters are divided into months of the year, and each chapter regales you with engaging stories of settling into life in Provence: getting to know their neighbors, their first winter, renovating the house, farming, truffle-hunting, Provencal real estate, mailbox burglary, local markets, cycling, entertaining guests, ritual kissing, goat racing, and other comic anecdotes.

The highlight of the book is easily the cuisine: whether they’re in their own kitchen, out in the garden, at the neighbor’s house, in a cafe packed with tourists, or at a little-known haunt several hours’ drive away, the food is always glorious, glorious food described so vividly you can almost taste it.

The Mayles’ farmhouse (from www.petermayle.com)

If only I could pack my bags and move in with them, I’d do it in a heartbeat!

Googling the book, I found out on IMDB that it was adapted into a BBC series… Now that would be interesting to watch. I still have several Peter Mayle books in my TBR — I think I’ve got A Good Year, Toujours Provence, Anything Considered, A Dog’s Life and Hotel Pastis in there; I look forward to reading those this year.

My copy: trade paperback, mooched locally

My rating: 5/5 stars