A Month in the Country, J.L. Carr & A Month in Siena, Hisham Matar
These two books live next to each other on my bookshelf, because—with apologies to my librarian friends and ancestors—I’m not about to let some sort of logical, alphabetical organization system get in the way of this natural companionship.
Both are short, emotive stories about place, memory, and human attachment, and both center art. Both, in other words, are roughly 1,000% on brand. In a fictional English village, a recovering World War I veteran restores a church fresco. In 21st century Siena, a memoirist takes a sabbatical to stare at quattro- and quinquecento paintings and grapple with the loss of his father. Not a lot happens in either setting, so if you’re looking for action-packed adventure maybe give these books a miss. But as someone to whom a ponderous internal dialogue is basically catnip, I adore them. They explore some of my favorite questions and ways to peer into someone else’s mind, by asking about what we look at, how we connect, and what ever-shifting meanings we project onto objects and the past.
A month is, to borrow one of my favorite lines from ee cummings, “just so long and long enough.” It’s long enough for big things to happen, but also feels like just the beginning of any real change. A whole month and only a month! are concurrent feelings that each book toggles through the way any traveler would.
Travel can force you to live harder and faster, trying to observe everything you can and soak up your surroundings while they’re available. It can also make you love deeper in some ways, because you don’t have the luxury of letting a person or a place grow on you. Meeting with other immigrants to Siena, Matar forges that strong link between outsiders in a foreign place—always recognizing that it is limited by the length of his stay. Carr’s narrator has a quiet emotional affair, bounded by the terms of his restoration project and his own reserve.
If we’re lucky, travel introduces us to places that immediately feel like home, however long we stay or live there, and even if we never get to return. (John Phipps calls this concept “the other city” in a nice piece.) These places stay with us and change us. Carr evokes one with nostalgia’s soft stab, looking back at the month in the country decades later. Matar is musing on his throughout. I appreciate these particular Months for their landscapes as much as for the way they’re written, because they remind me of places I have loved and grown in, too—for just so long and long enough.
If you like them
Contemplative travelogues abound, but if you’re intrigued by historic ones like me try The Silent Traveller in Paris, by Chiang Yee. It won’t show up on the Bookshop list because it’s out of print, but is worth hunting down for Yee’s humor and insight.
If you don’t
Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado is about an American girl in 1950s Paris—funny, fast-paced, and totally different in spirit from these two. Rather than a quiet learning from the landscape, she goes after what she wants with the imposing force of her personality. How utterly American.
Things I’ve written lately:
How museums are making meals out of art (The Economist) - Museums are collaborating with chefs and historians to offer virtual programming that reinterprets artworks into drinks and dishes. And getting to write about the intersection of art and food was pretty much a dream. If you think “Uffizi da mangiare” is my new favorite cooking show, you are correct (RIP Bake Off).
Eating your way through art history (Hyperallergic) - Maite Gomez-Rejon has been leading food and art history classes for over a decade, creating great collaborations in LA and beyond. I was so excited by her work during my research for the Economist piece I had to find a way to write a full profile.
The art of wine labels (Wine Enthusiast) - same as last month, but now online!