20 Books of Summer, #9–11: Asimov, St. Aubyn, Weiss

My summer reading has been picking up and I have a firm plan – I think – for the rest of the foodie books that will make up my final 20. I’m reading two more at the moment: a classic with an incidental food-themed title and a work of American history via foodstuffs. Today I have a defense of drinking wine for pleasure; a novel about inheritance and selfhood, especially for mothers; and a terrific foodoir set in Berlin, New York City and rural Italy.


How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto by Eric Asimov (2012)

(20 Books of Summer, #9) Asimov may be the chief wine critic for the New York Times, but he’s keen to emphasize that he’s no wine snob. After decades of drinking it, he knows what he appreciates and prefers small-batch to mass market wine, but he’d rather that people find what they enjoy rather than chase after the expensive bottles they feel they should like. He finds tasting notes and scores meaningless and is more interested in getting people into wine simply for the love of it – not as a status symbol or a way of showing off arcane knowledge.

Like Anthony Bourdain (see my review of Kitchen Confidential), Asimov was drawn into foodie culture by one memorable meal in France. He’d had a childhood sweet tooth and was a teen beer drinker, but when he got to grad school in Austin, Texas an $8 bottle of wine from a local Whole Foods was an additional awakening. Following in his father’s footsteps in journalism and moving from Texas to Chicago back home to New York City for newspaper editing jobs, he had occasional epiphanies when he bought a nice bottle of wine for his parents’ anniversary and took a single wine appreciation course. But his route into writing about wine was sideways, through a long-running NYT column about local restaurants.

I might have liked a bit more of the ‘memoir’ than the ‘manifesto’ of the subtitle: Asimov makes the same argument about accessibility over and over, yet even his approachable wine attitude was a little over my head. I can’t see myself going to a tasting of 20–25 wines at a time, or ordering a case of 12 wines to sample at home. Not only can I not tell Burgundy from Bordeaux (his favorites), I can’t remember if I’ve ever tried them. I’m more of a Sauvignon Blanc or Chianti gal. Maybe the Wine for Dummies volume I recently picked up from a Little Free Library is more my speed.

Source: Free from a neighbor

My rating:


Mother’s Milk by Edward St Aubyn (2006)

(20 Books of Summer, #10; A buddy read with Annabel, who has also reviewed the first three books here and here as part of her 20 Books of Summer.) I’ve had mixed luck with the Patrick Melrose books thus far: Book 1, Never Mind, about Patrick’s upbringing among the badly-behaving rich in France and his sexual abuse by his father, was too acerbic for me, and I didn’t make it through Book 3, Some Hope. But Book 2, Bad News, in which Patrick has become a drug addict and learns of his father’s death, hit the sweet spot for black comedy.

Mother’s Milk showcases two of St. Aubyn’s great skills: switching effortlessly between third-person perspectives, and revealing the psychology of his characters. It opens with a section from the POV of Patrick’s five-year-old son, Robert, a perfect link back to the child’s-eye view of Book 1 and a very funny introduction to this next generation of precocious mimics. The perspective is shared between Robert, Patrick, his wife Mary, and their younger son Thomas across four long chapters set in the Augusts of 2000–2003.

Patrick isn’t addicted to heroin anymore, but he still relies on alcohol and prescription drugs, struggles with insomnia and is having an affair. Even if he isn’t abusive or neglectful like his own parents, he worries he’ll still be a destructive influence on his sons. Family inheritance – literal and figurative – is a major theme, with Patrick disgruntled with his very ill mother, Eleanor, for being conned into leaving the home in France to a New Age organization as a retreat center. “What I really loathe is the poison dripping from generation to generation,” Patrick says – “the family’s tropical atmosphere of unresolved dependency.” He mentally contrasts Eleanor and Mary, the former so poor a mother and the latter so devoted to her maternal role that he feels there’s no love left for himself from either.

I felt a bit trapped during unpleasant sections about Patrick’s lust, but admired the later focus on the two mothers and their loss of sense of self, Eleanor because of her dementia and Mary because she has been subsumed in caring for Thomas. I didn’t quite see how all the elements were meant to fit together, particularly the disillusioning trip to New York City, but the sharp writing and observations were enough to keep me going through this Booker-shortlisted novella. I’ll have to get Book 5 out from the library to see how St. Aubyn tied everything up.

Source: Free bookshop

My rating:


My Berlin Kitchen: Adventures in Love and Life by Luisa Weiss (2012)

(20 Books of Summer, #11) Blog-to-book adaptations can be hit or miss; luckily, this one joins Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia and Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life in the winners column. Raised in Berlin and Boston by her American father and Italian mother, Weiss felt split between her several cultures and languages. While she was working as a cookbook editor in New York City, she started a blog, The Wednesday Chef, as a way of working through the zillions of recipes she’d clipped from here and there, and of reconnecting with her European heritage: “when I came down with a rare and chronic illness known as perpetual homesickness, I knew the kitchen would be my remedy.”

After a bad breakup (for which she prescribes fresh Greek salad, ideally eaten outside), she returned to Berlin and unexpectedly found herself back in a relationship with Max, whom she’d met in Paris nearly a decade ago but drifted away from. She realized they were meant to be together when he agreed that potato salad should be dressed with oil and vinegar rather than mayonnaise. After a tough year for Weiss as she readjusts to Berlin’s bitter winters and lack of bitter greens, the book ends with the lovely scene of their rustic Italian wedding.

Weiss writes with warmth and candor and gets the food–life balance just right. I found a lot to relate to here (“I couldn’t ever allow myself to think about how annoying airports were, how expensive it was to go back and forth between Europe and the United States … I had to get on an airplane to see the people I love”) and – a crucial criterion for a foodie book – could actually imagine making most of these recipes, everything from plum preserves and a Swiss chard and Gruyère bake to a towering gooseberry meringue cream cake.

Other readalikes: From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home by Tembi Locke, My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff, and Only in Naples: Lessons in Food and Famiglia from My Italian Mother-in-Law by Katherine Wilson

Source: A birthday gift from my wish list last year

My rating:

18 responses

  1. I may just have to add My Berlin Kitchen to my list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was a lovely read, whether you know Germany and its food or not (I basically don’t; I’ve been to Freiburg for a few days and have passed through some German airports and train stations, but that’s it).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Berlin’s one of my favourite cities!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m nearly finished on Mother’s Milk. I seem to remember trying it before, back when it was shortlisted for the Booker – but I don’t see how anyone could get much out of reading it on its own when it links back to the other books so much. I think the NYC trip near the end is the freeing event that marks change – I could be wrong. I have ended up with a lot of sticky tabs to look back at for my own review in this volume, as many for references back than for quotes this time. Looking forward to the final fifth one a lot. Thanks for encouraging me to read the first three in time to join in with you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed reading the series so much! Patrick does vow to give up the drink while in America … let’s see in Book 5 if he follows through on that decision.


  3. I’ve actually been to a couple of wine tastings, which I enjoyed, but the Asimov does sound a bit much!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve done a couple of wine tastings at vineyards, but they only involved maybe 3-5 wines. I can’t imagine trying to take in 20 or 25 in one sitting (and he said that even that number is conservative, whereas some would do 100+; it involves a lot of spitting out!). I’ve also done wine pairings as part of two posh meals. That’s a really special experience; I appreciate that the hard work of figuring out the best companion wines is done for you.


  4. I’m rubbish at wine and can’t even drink the red stuff!! That last one sounds really fun, though. And well done on your progress. I’m reading books 12 and 13 at the moment on mine and hoping to get them read and reviewed by the end of the month …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I much prefer white for just drinking on its own; red only seems to go with hearty/heavy foods, so I associate it with winter.

      I’m sure you can make it through those by the end of the month. I just finished another this morning and I’m working on another four, all NF, that will probably take me a while.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. […] series by St Aubyn. Mother’s Milk is the 4th, and I read it alongside Rebecca (her review here). I read and reviewed the first three […]


  6. “I felt a bit trapped during unpleasant sections about Patrick’s lust…”

    Uh oh…surely this is going to lead to all sorts of interesting search strings for the 2020-2021 follow-up to your previous post.


  7. […] quickly learned to avoid her dishes made with ingredients that were well past their best. Like Eric Asimov and Anthony Bourdain, whose memoirs I’ve also reviewed this summer, Reichl got turned on to food […]


  8. Ha! Yes, it sounds like Asimov’s “accessible” may still be a bit out of my reach as well. I love the idea of enjoying wine without being snobbish about it and I’d be very interested if he has recommendations for finding wine you enjoy other than trusting ratings or trying to understand tasting notes. I don’t think I’m ever going to be someone who gets something out of tasting more than 20 wines at a go though. I’m sure they’d all run together!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He advises going to a wine store and buying (or ordering online) a 12-bottle sampler box with lots of variety, and going through it gradually to see what you like. My in-laws have done that recently as part of an online “wine tasting”.


  9. […] meal (a common experience in several other books I’ve reviewed this summer: Kitchen Confidential, How to Love Wine and Tender at the Bone). After his mother’s death, the extended family relocates to London and […]


  10. […] connections with my other summer reading: there are mentions of both Eric Asimov and Ruth Reichl visiting Babbo in their capacity as food critics for the New York […]


  11. […] Only 2. Hmm. (I reviewed the Weiss, and the Houston appeared on my Best of 2019 runners-up […]


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