Photo: Hungarian market fruit vegetables

A Hungarian market is one of the settings in Valeria's Last Stand.

Photograph by Catherine Karnow, Corbis

By Don George

May 2009

Book of the Month: 
Valeria's Last Stand,
by Marc Fitten

You don't have to know Hungary to feel at home in Zivatar, the perennially overlooked village that is the setting for Marc Fitten's delightful debut novel, Valeria's Last Stand. This stripped-down modern-day fairy tale depicts Zivatar as a place where not much new happens—until one fateful day when the town grump, 68-year-old Valeria, sees the elderly village potter as if for the first time, and is thunderstruck with love. As is he. Much of the charm of this tale lies in the portrayal of Zivatar, a place so far off the beaten track that German tanks (during WWII), Russian tanks (during the 1956 revolution), and even the modern highway all ignore it. In this marvelously mundane outpost, life revolves around three places: the market, where traditional carrots, turnips, rutabagas, tomatoes, parsley, pears, and asparagus lately share space with Valencia oranges, California red peppers, Chinese boom boxes, and German cassettes; Ibolya's Nonstop Tavern, the wood and cinderblock pub where exhausted farmers find smoke-saturated, beer-fueled rejuvenation away from field and hearth; and the new train station that the ambitious, younger-generation mayor hopes will bring the world to his domain. The tale's other charm is the simple love story at its heart—Valeria, a woman who has steadfastly shut herself off from passion for almost half a century, tumbling like a schoolgirl for the widowed, white-haired potter, who finds in this unexpected thaw a fount of artistic inspiration. The transformations their love unlocks echo other evolutions at work in the town: the transitions from farm to factory, bicycle to Mercedes, and communism to capitalism. Valeria's Last Stand offers an enchanting introduction to 1990s Hungary—a country, like the village and the couple Fitten so engagingly portrays, re-creating itself in the cradle of change.

New-Book Roundups:
European Touchstones

In Eiffel's Tower, Jill Jonnes takes readers behind the scenes of the construction of that most iconic of Paris icons, built as the spectacular centerpiece of the 1889 World's Fair. Her fast-moving, detailed account also brings to life the celebrities and artists—from Annie Oakley to Paul Gauguin—who traveled to Paris for the expo, and the Belle Epoque city in which they mingled. Victorian Oxford provides the gothic, mysterious setting for the novel The Ingenious Edgar Jones, by Elizabeth Garner. The title character is a boy born in Oxford on a night of meteors, pointing to his future greatness—or so his father, a night porter at Oxford University, believes.

Picture-Book Sampler

Parisian Hideaways, by Casey O'Brien Blondes, brings together a compendium of intimate Paris hotels selected for their interior design, authenticity, and personal service—accompanied by luscious images by Béatrice Amagat. One Hundred & One Beautiful Small Coastal Towns of America, by Stephen Brewer, ranges from Port Townsend, Washington, to Montauk, New York, and is bound to inspire that next seaside getaway.

Reading Matchmaker
If You Like...

...beach reads with literary chops, check out Sag Harbor, by Colson Whitehead. Acclaimed author Whitehead captures the summer of 1985 from the perspective of Benji, a black teenager who attends an almost all-white Manhattan prep school, secretly likes Abba, and spends every summer in the all-black community of Sag Harbor on Long Island. With endearing humor, Benji learns to navigate social landmines and gets closer to defining his own identity—all amidst the fizzy details of summer: Karts-a-Go-Go, Belgian waffle cones, and hot-footing it over black-sand beaches.

One Last Thing
Northern California Feasting

I moved to Northern California more than a quarter-century ago. At first I was drawn by the progressive worldviews the Bay Area seemed to cultivate, but over the years I have been equally seduced and sated by another kind of cultivation: the extraordinary bounty of fresh fruits, vegetables, and other savory fare that are produced virtually year-round here. Jonah Raskin celebrates this bounty in his sprightly new account, Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating, and Drinking Wine in California. Taking readers inside Sonoma County's envelope-pushing farms, orchards, and vineyards, Raskin works the fields, meets the farmhands and winemakers, and crafts an intimate appreciation of Northern California's traditional farming heritage and contemporary organic renaissance. Field Days re-awakened for me my first sun-dappled Sonoma County picnic, which climaxed with the sparkling-wine-and-strawberry realization that, after years of world-wandering, I had found a new home.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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