Summer Reading List

Two tasty memoirs for the beachgoing South Floridian

The mangoes are falling, the temperature is rising, and the tourists are leaving. What does it all mean? The obvious and inevitable, of course -- summer, with all its vacation implications, is upon us.

The bad news is that this is going to be a very domestic summer. Wars and terror attacks are bound to keep us from flying abroad; gas prices are even making long road trips prohibitive. We may actually be reduced to spending our time off lazing around on our own beaches.

Which leads us to the good news: We have really awesome beaches. Not that I've been to one anytime in recent memory. But I hear from various sources that they're pretty darn nice, if you like relaxing on soft white sand and sunbathing under a clear blue sky and that sort of soothing, peaceful thing.

Jeremy Eaton
Closed Location

And to complement the tranquility, a trove of culinary-influenced works has recently come onto the market. Of them, which I will review grouped according to literary category (novels, poetry, etc.) from time to time, two memoirs -- Linda Greenlaw's The Lobster Chronicles and Tom Stone's The Summer of My Greek Tavérna -- are particularly suited for perusing in the pseudo-shade of the adjustable umbrella. Both have familiar island, beach, and ocean settings, though they're in different oceans of the world. Major themes include the two-degrees-of-separation of island living, the frustration of making a living in some fashion at the whims of the tide, and the glaring differences between islanders and tourists -- definitely subjects to which we in South Florida can easily relate. The best part, for some, is that the books include enough references to preparing and eating native fare, as well as recipes, that reading becomes not just lounge-chair traveling but beach-towel dining.

Nor do we have to live completely vicariously. Once our appetites are whetted, any number of South Florida restaurants can sate them with similar if not identical dishes to the ones in the books. After all, we do have our share of seafood restaurants and Greek tavérnas. So as far as half-assed vacations go, opa! This one might not be so lousy.

Not convinced? Consider the alternatives: picking up rotten mangoes, picking up after rotten tourists, or being in the same situation on, say, an island with a population of "47 full-time residents, half of whom I am related to in one way or another," as Greenlaw notes in The Lobster Chronicles (Hyperion). Subtitled Life on a Very Small Island, the memoir is a follow-up to Greenlaw's first, The Hungry Ocean, in which she details her life as a long-line swordfish fisherman. Chronicles begins with her reasons for deciding to leave that male-dominated business and have a go at the closely guarded lobster fishery, a birthright she is entitled to by virtue of being a native of Isle Au Haut. Pronounced I-la-HOE and referred to throughout the text only as "the Island," the tiny spit of land lies off the coast of Maine in Penobscot Bay, what Greenlaw and others call "the lobster capital of the world."

As far as slice-of-life writing goes, the narration can be both evocative and evasive: "The list of what we do have is shorter than that of what we do not have, and those of us who choose to live here do so because of the length of both lists." Fortunately, ambiguous statements are subsequently explained and indeed seem almost a formula for introducing chapters that cover topics ranging from political infighting over the restoration of the island's historic lighthouse to the training of volunteer EMTs to handle medical emergencies while patients are en route to the mainland via lobster boat.

At times, the detail is almost painful -- I'm not sure if I really needed more than two pages of explanation of how to "break a trap over the rail." At other times, the sketch feels like it could use a few more brush strokes. For instance, Greenlaw's lack of a husband and children, which she desires, is addressed, as is her mother's breast cancer, but these issues are never quite resolved. In part, though, this is because the time frame of the book really encompasses only one lobster season.

In the end, The Lobster Chronicles, which proffers a tempting recipe for buttery lobster pie toward its conclusion, is an enjoyable, quick, undemanding read about a very different way of life. And unlike other first-person accounts that deal with food-chain issues, such as Peter Lovenheim's Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf, the thrust of the narrative is not to reveal the cruelty of an industry or guilt us into empathy toward our fellow, edible creatures but to share the insight of why some of us make the choices we do.

The theme of deliberate decision-making versus letting fate take its course is handled with aplomb in Stone's memoir The Summer of My Greek Tavérna (Simon and Schuster). Like Chronicles, the main setting is an island, and the period that is largely addressed is a single summer when Stone is 42, though flashbacks to the past decade are frequent.

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