Years ago, when my wife and I were visiting my sister-in-law in Paris, she regaled us with the ingredients for the tart we were having for dinner at her apartment: leeks and asparagus and goat brains. My wife reminded her that we were vegetarians. “You’re vegetarians, not barbarians,” she chided us gently. “Everyone eats goat brains.”
I recalled that moment while reading “The House in France” (Knopf, $26.95), Gully Wells’s delightful memoir of growing up the daughter of eccentric, celebrity parents in France and England. Among the book’s many virtues is the way Wells offers guidance on how to serve beef tongue that looks disturbingly phallic: Tell the squeamish it’s “very special chicken.”
Her book was one of three new travel memoirs I devoured recently, each wildly different in tone, but all fascinating, satisfying and revelatory. As Henry Miller wrote, “One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.” Indeed.
Wells is the features editor at Conde Nast Traveler, so it’s no surprise that she is capable of beautifully conveying geographies as disparate as the south of France (including Bikini Beach in the 1960s), London and Greenwich Village. What makes her memoir so distinct is the combination of her voice — erudite, wry and very funny — and the way her parents’ celebrity worlds influenced her childhood. Her stepfather was the renowned British professor A. J. Ayer, and her mother was the mercurial American columnist Dee Wells, a woman as brilliant as Ayer but with a mouth more reminiscent of a sailor than an Oxford philosopher (a spectacularly learned sailor, perhaps, but still a sailor).
Making cameos in Wells’s book are — among many others — Martin Amis, Stephen Spender and Antonia Fraser. In Amis’s case, the cameo is in her bed. But this isn’t just celebrity namedropping because the stories reveal so much about a place and time, and they are often a scream, such as this moment involving a very elderly Ayer, Naomi Campbell and Mike Tyson. Tyson is trying to force himself upon Campbell at a party, when Ayer comes to the model’s rescue:
Tyson: “And who the [expletive] are you?”
Ayer: “I happen to be rather a famous philosopher. My name is Professor Sir Alfred Ayer. And who are you, if I may ask?”
Tyson: “I’m Mike Tyson — the heavyweight champion of the world.”
Ayer: “Well in that case, my dear boy, we are both supreme in our field.”
Meanwhile, Campbell is able to escape.
American Robert Rodi’s Seven “Seasons in Siena “(Ballantine, $25) is precisely opposite in tone from Wells’s memoir. While Wells is the consummate insider, Rodi’s whole book is about being an outsider — an American from Chicago who falls in love with Sienese culture and wants desperately to become a part of one particular neighborhood, or contrade, in the small Tuscan hill city. Over seven seasons between 2003 and 2010 he returns to Italy, hoping to earn the locals’ affection and respect. Much of his book focuses on Siena’s Palio, the explosive, frenzied bareback horse race around the city’s main piazza. He meets the jockeys, he deconstructs the rituals and history, and he vows to make a lengthy pilgrimage on foot across the Tuscan countryside if his chosen contrade’s horse wins.
Rodi’s voice is charming as he recounts the locals’ preternatural patience with his spectacular ineptitude involving all things Tuscan. When he described the tight gym shorts — more like a young woman’s booty shorts — he’s expected to wear as part of a relay race between Siena and Montalcino, I was laughing so hard I nearly spit out some very pricey Brunello I was sipping in support of his bighearted efforts to blend in.
Finally, Joseph Dane brought me back from Europe to America with “Dogfish Memory” (Countryman, $23.95), a poignant, wistful and complex book that’s as much about memory as it is about Maine. The first clue to Dane’s strategy is the dogfish itself. “Dogfish are sharks two to three feet long and have two large spines on their dorsal fins,” he writes, and then tells a story of a soldier screaming to be shot because he is being eaten alive by dogfish. But “all the details I know are impossible,” he admits. Soon enough, dogfish are rechristened “cape shark” so they can be sold as swordfish, a marketing change that has driven them to the edge of extinction.
Dane sails up and down the Maine coast, with different rocks and shoreline and even fog serving as his Proustian madeleines and resurrecting for him his family, his childhood and Linda Jane — the one woman and all women whom he has loved or spurned or pined for. It is, in the end, a deeply moving book. And it also made me want to see Maine.
I think Henry Miller would have been pleased.
(This review originally appeared in the Washington Post on June 19, 2011. Chris’s next novel, “The Night Strangers,” will be published in October.)