The Lost Vintage by Ann Mah

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Hello, World.

I am so excited for my review of this book. I actually finished this book in Starbucks and had to try very hard to not tear up. As you know, I’ve been trying to read as much as possible this summer, and I’m really proud of myself for actually accomplishing that goal. It’s been so refreshing to reach for a novel rather than a TV show (though I still watch The Bold Type each week because it’s amazing). Anyway, I’ve read seven books (!!) this summer so far. Of the seven, I think The Lost Vintage may be my favorite. This book was a perfect blend of historical fiction, contemporary fiction, coziness, intrigue, and romance. Honestly, it’s the total package. Also, wine snob that I am, I was so happy with the wine component of this book. I now kind of want to read up on the Master of Wine test… *begins thinking about taking the exam someday*

I’m one of those people who likes to research a book before I buy. I usually read reviews, look at what press attention the book receives, stalk the Instagram hashtag to see first impressions, etc. This book, however, I saw on Instagram and decided to just go for because the person who posted it had similar feelings about The Female Persuasion as me and I decided that was enough for me to plunge into The Lost Vintage. Also, there is the fact that upon my third re-watching of Under the Tuscan Sun and my fourth re-watching of Eat, Pray, Love, I was desperate for a book that would transport me to a wine-filled, cozy corner of the world and Burgundy, France seemed like just the place. I’m mildly concerned this review is going to be too long, so bear with me, and pour yourself a glance of wine if you want!

This book follows Kate, a young woman who lives in San Francisco, but her family has owned a vineyard in France for generations. Swearing to never return to France after a disastrous break-up, Kate is now living her life in San Francisco where she is studying for the Master of Wine exam, an intense exam where you have to identify all aspects of wine by blind taste and answer a series of essay questions on wine theory. The test is a “three strikes you’re out” kind of test, and she’s already failed twice. So, in an attempt to pass, her mentor recommends she go spend time on her family’s vineyard to learn more about French wine, the only wine she consistently messes up on the exam. So, she heads to Burgundy, France to assist her family in the year’s harvest. Running alongside her narrative is the narrative of her relative during the German ccupation of France in WWII. Only the reader is privy to this story, though it is interwoven in Kate’s narrative as well.

Two narratives, two heroines, can be hard to accomplish as a writer. When I read books that are written in this manner, I often greatly prefer one story over the other. This one, however, kept me wanting more from each story. The reason I think this book works so well is that we watch Kate and her family attempt to piece together her relative’s life and fate through the history left behind, despite holes and uncertainties. But as the reader, we know the truth, so when Kate missteps or misunderstands we feel anguish and sadness for her relative’s legacy is remembered incorrectly. The other reason I enjoyed the WWII aspect is that I was largely unfamiliar with the Occupation, the separations that occurred within families as some members resisted German control and others believed succumbing to the Germans was the only means of survival. I also have never studied what the French did to Nazi sympathizers or collaborators. While I think the actions of the people who supported Nazis were despicable, it was hard to swallow what happened after the war, especially knowing women were often bearing the brunt of French anger while the men who collaborated went largely unpunished. In this regard, this novel gave me so much to think about and absorb and made me want to learn more about the Occupation, post-liberation France, and the familial divides that occurred.

I adored both heroines of this story. Kate was spunky, stubborn, but also funny, warm, self-aware. Helene was strong, unwavering, and so very intelligent. I loved that this book explores what happens when we learn things about our ancestors we don’t like, how we can take accountability, how we can be better than those who came before us. While I did think one part of the resolution-portion of the novel was wrapped up a little too quickly and perhaps not tenderly enough, I still adored this novel. I found myself thinking about it all day, trying to figure out how much reading I could squeeze into the day. To be honest, this was the first book where I really liked all the characters (well, all the characters I was supposed to like). I read this book so quickly because I couldn’t put it down, I wanted to figure out the mystery, I wanted Kate to know the truth about her relative, and I wanted to know if she’d pass the exam. I was thoroughly engrossed in every aspect of this story and did not want it to end.

I will say, without giving any spoilers hopefully, that I felt like Kate’s inability to master French wine, specifically white burgundy, was intertwined heavily with an emotional block. She had repressed so many emotions she had for the people who produced the wine that in doing so she became unable to learn the wine. This mirrored, in my mind, some actions by people in the WWII narrative and how, upon refusing to acknowledge certain people or realities, they became unable to fight. I’m not sure how to articulate this idea without spoilers, so I will just say read the book!

I’m surprised this book hasn’t received more critical attention. The only press attention I could find was pretty meager in comparison to books I read earlier this summer. Perhaps because Ann Mah is a newer author The New York Times, The New Yorker and other publications haven’t reviewed her yet. But they certainly should as this novel is so important and places Mah among some of the strongest voices in contemporary fiction. This novel was touted as Sweetbitter meets The Nightingale and though I haven’t read The Nightingale, I would say that the description is accurate. The Nightingale focuses on WWII France (beautifully from what I hear), and the amount of wine and wine culture in this book clearly aligns with Sweetbitter, though our protagonist is more akin to Stephanie Danler (author of Sweetbitter) than her protagonist, Tess, because Kate is very well-versed in wine unlike Tess, who is only beginning an appreciation for good wine. So, if you pick up one book from all the books I’ve read this summer, make it this one. I have a serious book hangover and will probably need a day or two before I start Euphoria, the next book on my July TBR.

Important takeaways as a reader: I should reach for more historical fiction. When done well, historical fiction can be a mesmerizing, humbling, deeply emotional experience.

I am so excited for Ann Mah’s future books and I sincerely hope this book begins capturing the attention of more readers. Again, if you need a new read, make it this one! I never say this, but I may re-read this book in the future. I went through it so quickly, I hope to revisit the story again. For now, next up is Euphoria by Lily King… I won’t lie, this one is a bit outside my comfort zone and I debated swapping it out for Emily Giffin’s new novel, but alas… I will read it! It’s going to be my last book while in DC and then I have some Book of the Month books waiting for me in California.

Truly,
Callie Leigh

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June To-Be-Read (TBR) (and why there’s overlap with May)

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Hello, World.

May was not the best reading month. What I read was great, but how much I read was less than I wanted or expected. I think in the chaos of ending finals and trying to move to DC and then start working I just wasn’t in the mood to read all the time. I also, admittedly, was spending a lot of time binge-watching Riverdale, which is so addicting. So, I only got through Little Fires Everywhere and The Great Alone. Had I chosen a smaller second book I may have gotten further on my list, but I wanted to tackle the clunkier books first, so as to get them out of the way early. I don’t mean to imply they are lesser or not as good. The Great Alone was a great read (review is here), but at 430-ish pages, it’s a bit heftier than the other books. Right now I’m working through The Female Persuasion and it’s addicting. I find myself needing to read as much as possible because I love everything in it and I’m enjoying the style of writing. This is another monster book, however, at 450-ish pages. Still, I’m 100 pages in after about 2 days of reading, so hopefully, I find some good reading time soon.

Because my June TBR is more realistic than my May TBR, the list is essentially the books I didn’t get to in May. July and August will hopefully have 3-4 books each. I figure if I can get through a book a week, then it’s manageable. I want to read more and I’m loving the reading I chose for myself. Last summer I tackled a very long novel that was a slow read, so I didn’t read as many books as I would have liked. I want reading novels to be an active part of my life and so I’m trying to watch less TV and read more. I figure binge-watching shows are easier when I’m in school, so I should use the summer downtime to read rather than watch shows.

So, in case you missed my May TBR, June will consist of the leftovers:
The Female Persuasion
An American Marriage
Educated

Truly,
Callie leigh

Why You NEED to Watch The Handmaid’s Tale If You Haven’t Already

Hello, World.

In high school, I had to do a project called an “extended reading.” They were sort of the worst things ever, but alas, I was in AP English and they were required. Extended readings were used to make sure we knew a broad range of literature that we could write about/needed to know about for the AP exam come April. So, each student in my class would choose a book to read and then give a spoiler-ridden presentation on to the class. The presentation was supposed to offer an in-depth summary of the work, themes, motifs, character biographies, etc. Basically, people should felt that they actually read the book by the end of your presentation. I hated public speaking in high school, so I got hives everytime I stood at the front of the room to give my presentation. So, what does this trip down memory lane have to do with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale? Well, my senior year of high school, my AP English teacher recommended I read it and present it to my class.

So, I read the novel. It was one of the first books, besides maybe To Kill A Mockingbird, that I read for class that I loved. Honestly, I loved the way it was written, I found the storyline fascinating, and I just could not put the novel down. I built a reading schedule, but quickly surpassed all of my goals and finished the novel in a matter of days. When Hulu decided to come out with a TV version of the book, I was hesitant. I was scared it wouldn’t live up to my impression of the book and would fail to capture the essence of the Atwood’s words.
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In September, I finally sat down to watch the show. I was hesitant but had been told several times it was amazing. The show also won a ton of Emmys, so I decided maybe it was worth watching. I sat down in bed to watch one episode and was hooked. I ended up watching three in a row. I finished the show within a week but re-watched portions a second time, just as I had re-read portions of the book years before. The show tweaked some aspects of the book, but I felt most tweaks were appropriate and didn’t detract from the overarching message and themes of the book.

Elisabeth Moss did an incredible, incredible job playing Offred/June. Honestly, I think she brought emotion and rawness to the character that was even better than the book. Due to the clinical nature of the world created by Atwood, sometimes emotions didn’t come through as well in written form, but the acting of the Hulu cast was powerful. The subtle emotions, the complete outbursts, the debilitating fear an uneasiness…the cast portrayed that well. I heard someone complain the acting was too mechanical. Ironically, it’s supposed to be mechanical. It’s supposed to feel cold and detached while highlighting small moments of hope and integrity and resistance.

I particularly enjoyed seeing the build-up to how Gilead formed. I think when I read the book, as a somewhat naive seventeen-year-old girl, I thought, “Oh this could never happen.” Today, I’m not so sure. Quiet movements led by enraged, blame-focused groups seem real. The stripping of women’s rights doesn’t seem far off as we, women, have yet to receive all the rights we should. I think watching people walk through the beginning of Gilead thinking, “oh, it’s fine. They’ll never get their way,” and then watching those same people struggle with the fallout, the rights-stripping, and the dehumanizing behavior of Gilead leadership is uncomfortable in the best way. At the end of the day, “that would never happen,” is the wrong mentality to have when you think someone problematic is gaining traction. “That would never happen” is essentially a call for the unimaginable, the seemingly impossible to make itself realized. I think if the TV Handmaid’s Tale gives us anything its the message that passivity is detrimental. We shouldn’t need our world to become Gilead to push change or resistance to problematic movements and ideologies.

Offred is strong as hell and though she’s inherently feminine –  seeing as her driving force is getting her daughter back, which is maternal – she pushes boundaries, she questions her Commander, she pushes back in the slightest ways that seem insignificant at the moment, but provide hope to those of us clinging to the edge of the book or sitting tense on our couches watching Elisabeth Moss say, “is this bullshit life enough for you?” Because it’s not enough for her. Though Offred is in the worst situation, she convinces herself that Gilead is temporary… that the wrongs of the leadership will be corrected, overthrown, people will gain their rights back. However, this is important insofar as it reminds us that all of this was absent when Gilead leadership bulldozed the country into submission.

I don’t want to spoil the show, as I think it’s a must-see, but I will say there were moments that made my stomach turn. There were moments when I wanted to scream at characters (specifically Serena Joy, who helped create the society that then stripped her dignity and belittled her intellect). I think shows like this, however, are uncommon, and I think the writing is just as powerful as Atwood’s novel is. So, if you haven’t watched The Handmaid’s Tale… I encourage you to do so!

Truly,
Callie leigh