Sunday, March 31, 2013

Lawrence Coates and Eric LeMay: Ohio Writers Take Up Wine and Cheese

I am an admirer of many Ohio writers, and that list just got a bit longer with two very fine and recommendable books. In The Garden of the World, Lawrence Coates uses spare, poetic prose to walk a contemporary Easterner through early 20th century California vineyards. The land and processes are described in incredible, yet fascinating, detail, intertwined with the lives of this patriarchal immigrant family. The crushing pressures of the outside world are expertly woven in: racism, WWI, the Spanish flu, prohibition. From the believable characters come exquisite dialog. The writing is emotionally restrained, yet disappointment, bitterness, hope, and tenderness evoke a sympathetic response. With excellent pacing, plot twists are a complicated blend of choices and circumstances beyond control.

The impressive detail of life in this time and place includes baseball equipment, dry goods store, riding a bike on a country road, a chatty teenage girl telling her girlfriends what she’s learned about sex from her older sisters (her purse full of sheaths). The close-up scenes are a marvel, including a walk in thick dawn mist down rows of grapevines with the sulfuring machine called the Hurdy Gurdy. The sentient description includes the way the family/household/car smells depending on the father’s work: dairy farmer, printer, vintner. The third person point of view is used to give access – we circle around events to see how each character takes in the small, every day gestures that lead us to our conclusions. The writing never gets carried away with itself – it remains restrained, with a unified voice. The fact that it’s fiction, that these individuals are created in Coates’s imagination and then situated so convincingly in a time and place far from here, makes this a book writers will love, but non-writers will appreciate it, as well.

There’s a family story about my grandfather and me when I was about two. He loved Gouda cheese, slicing creamy yellowness through its red casing with that small, wooden handled knife. As the story goes, I stood beneath him and said, “She likes cheese,” until he handed down a piece. I can't imagine anyone would find this story interesting unless you knew my grandfather, but my point here is that family histories are riddled with cheese.

And when I got older, I rediscovered that I do like cheese, just not the Americanized, factory version. I didn’t get further than that until I read Eric LeMay’s Immortal Milk: Adventures in Cheese. I nodded through his observation that “America eats around nine billion pounds of cheese a year, but most of it amounts to the tasteless, rubberized fat that Domino’s and Taco Bell slather on gummy nachos and greasy dough.”  Now I am an armchair cheese lover, and I can’t wait to go sampling.

This is a delightful read. I was drawn in from the opening quotes. LeMay’s prose is bright and witty. By page eleven, I had laughed out loud six times – not just LOL. By the end of the second chapter I had recommended the book to a friend who is a cheese connoisseur and also an Anglophile, since some of the cheeses LeMay tracks down are in the British Isles.

A book about cheese has a few pitfalls to avoid. One is the snob effect. If, on page twenty-three, you’re going to dis something Americans eat nine billion pounds of, that’s a lot of Americans who won’t buy your book. But LeMay keeps it real with his gentle wit, walking us through the quirky, and often stinky, world of traditional cheese. His humor is often endearingly self-deprecating. Nor does he let the storytelling get bogged down with encyclopedic pedanticisms. It’s packed with specifics, but they’re handed off with captivating stories about farmers, mud, the heartbreak of limited choices, festivals, enthusiasts and misadventures of LeMay and his sensitive female companion, Chuck.

This book is timely, riding the wave away from a homogenized household landscape, the idea that it’s better to have a small amount of something made by an artisan than a refrigerator drawer full of scientifically manipulated food substance your grandfather wouldn’t recognize. This is a great book for all these reasons, but mostly because it’s just so fun.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Karen! I appreciate your kind words and wish you many cheesy adventures. Eric