Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Listing Dangerously

'Tis the season to make lists of "bests." Best this of 2006. Best that.

Best books.

There are lots of places offering such lists, most notably the New York Times, the paper we bloggers all love to hate. Critical Mass posted the NYT's lists, then opened the forum for comments. Mouthy lot that we are, many of us (myself included) weighed in in various states of indignitude.

Then I got to thinking about the notion of listing books. It's specious, really. Personal taste cannot be quantified. I respect Liesl Schillinger and Francine Prose. That doesn't mean I share their every opinion. But they are well-known, well-compensated reviewers who arguably hold some power over public reading choices. (Let's not even talk about Kakutani.) Does this mean their favorites are the end-all? Only if you are a nervous person contemplating Christmas shopping for the bookworm in your life, and if you are, buy the bookworm a gift certificate to the local bookstore. Please. We vastly prefer that to some random book you chose because Oprah liked it. Or because you saw it on some "best" list.

"Best" lists also lack depth. Serious readers may start with a new release, but often that book makes reference to another, so we leapfrog. Andrea Lee's Lost Hearts in Italy led me to her first book, the travelogue Russian Journal. Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer led me to Paula Fox's Desperate Characters. These books, previously published, won't be making any best of '06 lists. Nor will the dozens of other books I read this year that were not new. (Yup, we're talking backlist again.)

Utlimately we could argue that "best" lists are unnecessary, catering only to our need to categorize. Barring that, our need to categorize, then argue vociferously about it.

I am not suggesting the listers cease listing. They won't. And in itself listing is relatively harmless ... unlike, say, ignoring the Kyoto Protocol or invading middle eastern countries. Instead, let us take the long view, and remind ourselves that great literature will prevail. Suite Francaise, for example, grievously ignored by the NYT best list , will be read in fifty years' time. It will lose none of its beauty, nor its horror. Special Topics in Calamity Physics?

I think you get my drift.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


Powell's Newsletter has a terrific interview with Kate Atkinson, where she makes some great observations about point of view, magical realism, and the truth about book awards.

"Georgie: How much does the difference between writing in first person and third person narrative feel to you?

Atkinson: The first few books of mine were in first person. They do have third person narratives in them, so they are not exclusively first. However, I had really had enough of first person by the time I had done with the third book. I thought I never want to write in the first person again, and I never want to write in the present tense again.

It was one of the many reasons I wrote a collection of stories at that point, because I wanted to break that voice and get away from it, as well as explore other voices. With stories you can get away with more, and move around, try things on. I discovered the internal monologue in the stories, which I had never written in. My earlier works can sometimes look like internal monologue, but they are not, they are first person narratives. With internal monologue I decided Ah, that's the way I want to go. Because I had written some other stories that are sometimes fantastical — in fact, some might call them "magical realism" — and after that I wanted to write some fiction that was realistic (well, fiction is never realistic, but what passes for realism in fiction). I wanted to write them in different interior monologues so you have different points of view. Once I got the hang of it I found it very liberating, because once you know that character and you want to write them, you just step into their head and think like they think and you write it down, so you can be very fluid and very fluent. I had really enjoyed that — and if I do do a third Jackson Brodie, I will probably continue to use that.

And then after that, I want to do something different. I am working on a proper omniscient narrator, so then it will be different. I'm thinking maybe by then I'll be ready to return to a first person narrator! But yes, you kind of wear out a narrative in a way; you explore every way of using the form, and have to do something different. But to come back to one after some time will be interesting. I am certainly not ready to write something in the first person yet, but I think it will be interesting to return to it. To me, that is part of the interesting thing about writing — working out how you are going to present it. I do love characters, but narrative voice is really intriguing."

Reading this is timely as I am struggling--yet again--with writing fiction. I began something recently with all high hopes only to rapidly run aground. Ain't that the way? Upon rereading I realized the trouble lay with the protagonist. Dull, dull, dull. What writer Anne Lamott calls radio station KFKD began playing loudly in both ears. I moved the narrative over to first person and lo, the character suddenly started talking. At this point she still sounds far too much like me, but at least she's saying something.

The story could still run aground, or even sink (just talking about it here is very bad juju), but point of view was an early problem, and reading Atkinson made me realize--yet again, for perhaps the sixteenth time today--what a limited writer I am. I am not at a point where I can fool around with third person or omniscent or announce I am bored with present tense. For now I am stuck with first person, and can just manage past tense.

Writing can be hell. Sometimes I wish I were the kind of person who has no desire to make art of any kind. The kind of person who watches all those HBO shows my coworkers are constantly yakking about without guilt. Who never sits down with a magazine and thinks: I should be writing now.

Oh well, no use puling, to use a quaint English term.


I am page thirty-three of Lisey's story. I am not enamored yet. So far Lisey seems pretty nebbishy. People she doesn't like are "smuckers." But I'm gonna give her at least until page fifty to call somebody something stronger.

Authors, Writing, Kate Atkinson

Monday, November 27, 2006

More Kent Haruf

(Look at Ms. Kitten, trying to redeem herself with literchure after that horrible post!)

Eventide, Kent Haruf's follow-up to Plainsong, is again set in fictional Holt, Colorado. The book resumes the lives of the MacPheron brothers, Victoria Roubideaux, Maggie Jones, and Tom Guthrie. This time, though, the action moves from Guthrie and his family toward Raymond MacPheron, the young DJ Kephart, and the mentally impaired Wallaces, Luther and Betty.

Eventide met with lesser acclaim than its predecessor, which is a shame. The book displays the same exquisite writing that garnered Plainsong so much attention.

Warning...I'm about to give away part of the story, so stop now if you don't want to know a crucial plot point.

"After a while Harold opened his eyes. He shivered and peered around. Raymond?
Are you here?
I'm right here. Right next to you.
Harold looked up into his brother's face and Raymond took hold of his thick calloused hand.
You got to take care of her by yourself now. His voice was just a thin raspy sound. That little girl too. I won't be here to see how they come out. I was looking forward to it.
You'll see them. Raymond said. You're going to come out of this.
No, I'm done here, Harold said. I'm about finished." (76-77)

Understatement like this so rare these days, welcome tonic to our garish, shrieking media. Though understatement, along with a resolute lack of technology, may be why this book didn't fare better.

There's much more--DJ Kephart, who at eleven is forced to function as a miniature adult, social worker Rose Tyler, who struggles to maintain her psyche as her work drains her, Raymond's attempts to survive life without Harold, the pathetic Wallaces, well-meaning, loving, woefully unable to live independently or care for their children.

If Eventide has a flaw, it lies in a tendency to characterize women as either saviors--Maggie, Rose, nurse Linda May--or as psychologically damaged individuals seeking male caretakers--Mary Wells, Betty and Donna Wallace. Plainsong did this, too, placing Ella Guthrie first prone in the guest bedroom, then fleeing the family to her sister in Denver. Given the breadth of each book, though, this is easily forgiven.

Given the popularity of books like The Echo Maker and Against the Day, I can't help but wonder if writers like Haruf are going to go the way of the dinosaur. Though extinction, in this case, will come not from climate change or asteriods, but from the publishing industry's refusal to take a financial risk on quiet, classically styled fiction.

Kent Haruf: Eventide. Knopf. New York, 2004.

Authors, Book Reviews, Kent Haruf

Forgive me bloggers...

For I have sinned.

Yesterday I went on my bi-yearly trip to Target.

I don't like Target, but they sell things like enormous bottles of Excedrin and facial tissues at good prices. Their candles, strangely enough, are some of the best I've found. (Yeah, yeah, Costco. No way. way.)

So there I was, pushing my basket. In the book aisle. And there, beckoning, was Lisey's Story.

Reader, I bought it.

All day I waited for the Gods of the Independent Bookstores or the Berkeley Thought Police to show up, but neither have appeared. Yet.

Awaiting attacks from the blogosphere.

Books, Stephen King, Berkeley Thought Police

Saturday, November 25, 2006

On eating alone

Much has been written about eating alone. In Cooking for Mr. Latte, Amanda Hesser describes a solo outing to Pearl's Oyster Bar, then a meal at home. Ms. Hesser likes egg dishes and salads, which may account for her oft-noted petite figure.

In "Alone in the Kitchen with An Eggplant," Laurie Colwin observes that "Certainly cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest...People lie when you ask them what they eat when they are alone. A salad, they tell you. But when you persist, they confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep fried and eaten with hot sauce, or spaghetti with butter and grape jam." (27) Colwin goes on to describe her many solo variations on eggplant, none of which I would ever attempt.

Elizabeth David weighs in on solo eating--on Christmas, no less, writing:

"If I had my way--and I shan't--my Christmas day eating and drinking would consist of an omelette and cold ham and a nice bottle of wine at lunch time, and a smoked salmon sandwhich with a glass of champagne on a tray in bed in the evening." (167)

My rare solo eating ventures almost always involve mayonnaise, a substance Hockeyman abhors.

If I have eggs I deem fresh enough, I make the mayo myself. But usually I do not, so I use Hellman's, heavily adulterated with minced raw garlic and lots of fresh lemon juice. With this pseudo-aioli I serve myself an artichoke and some bread to mop up the last remnants of sauce.

Lately I find myself awash in beets, one of the few vegetables H-man flatly refuses to touch. In an artichoke variation, I might roast them, possibly with some garlic cloves and sliced onion, make my mayo, and chow down.

Other solo meals include polenta, a food H-man disliked until I made it a la Paula Wolfert, a recipe involving flour, cornmeal, butter, duck fat, and a lot of time. When he isn't around, I saute lots of onion and garlic in olive oil, then add cornmeal and chicken broth. I also like rice with onions, garlic, greens, and goat cheese.

Recently the topic of solo eating came up with a single friend. Yogurt for breakfast. A salad for lunch. Canned soup for dinner.

"I would starve on that," I said. "That's like, one meal for me."

She hastened to add the midday salad had pork tenderloin in it. Once a month, she roasts a large batch, slices it, and freezes the lot. "And I vary the salad vegetables," she added.

And the canned soup dinner? "I eat bread and butter with it."

As you might expect, she's slender, though not emaciated. I would be, if I ate like that. She claims to hate cooking, to not really know how to, to not want to bother. She mentioned a friend of hers who lives in an elderly building with an ancient stove, which gives off a constant gas smell. After numerous conversations with the landlord, she turned off the stove and bought a hot plate.

I have lived all my adult life with H-man (we were in our early twenties when we took up coupledom). Having never lived alone, I can't honestly say how I'd feed myself. I suspect I'd cook less elaborately. Eat more poultry and less red meat (H-man loves cow). But I know I'd cook for myself, however modestly. If one cannot find sufficient self-respect, there are always reasons of health. Though health may fall under self-respect?

Ultimately, there's something terribly sad about existing on salads and canned soups, though in fairness I may be projecting how I'd feel if I ate that way.

In terms of the woman with her hot plate, I'd move out. Period. Hot plates are for dorm rooms and the impoverished, who sadly have no choice.

Tonight H-man is going out with his buddies. I am deciding between the beets, greens and all, with my funky mayonnaise and a bowl of rice, or going out to dinner myself. I almost never do this, but there's a causal Italian place on College Avenue I love. The bookstore is a couple blocks down. Ravioli, a glass of merlot, a nice long look in Pendragon Books while the wine wears off.

Decisions, decisions.

Books cited:

Laurie Colwin: Home Cooking. New York: Harper Collins. 1988.

Elizabeth David: Is there a Nutmeg in the House? Viking Penguin Books International, 2002.

Amanda Hesser: Cooking for Mr. Latte. New York: W.W. Norton Books 2003.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Luck with Duck

Today is "Black Friday."

"Did the stock market crash?" I asked Hockeyman.

"No. It's called Black Friday because it's the busiest shopping day of the year."

Hell is not just other people. Hell is other in people in a mall, with only a Waldenbooks selling the complete Chicken Soup series.

There is only one rational response to Black Friday: holing up at home, simmering the duck carcass from last night's dinner into soup.

Last night's dinner (I am afraid to write the T-word, lest I get more spam from some lady whose cyberexistence appears to center on garnering hits to a "blog" that is purely commercial. I doubt she really reads this. If she does, you know who you are. Knock it off.) was my first colonialist holiday success. Our friend the Flyers Fan, who is a particular eater, pronounced the meal "excellent."

The menu:
Raspberry Armagnac Aperitif
Ginger Duck
Rice cooked in ginger duck broth
Hubbard Squash pureed with butter and sesame oil
Green Salad with oranges, pine nuts, and capers with olive oil vinaigrette
fresh bread, courtesy of Flyers Fan

White wine

Mixed berry galette (store bought)

The breakdown:

The aperitif came from Paula Wolfert's Cooking of Southwest France. One is to take raspberries in season, cover them with sugar, then cover it all with Armagnac, seal in a bottle or jar (I used canning jar with a rubber gasket), and forget about it for six months.

I assembled this in July, then put it on a high shelf in our coat closet, where the liquor would be protected from light.

Last night seemed a fortuitous time to decant it. I did the honors while Hockeyman prepped the salad, carefully straining off the fruit, which is unfit to eat, then poured us a small glass of the deep red liquid.

Six months of sugared fruit in brandy means more fermenting, and the resulting liqueur tasted deeply of berry while packing quite a wallop. We were quite pleased with out little experiment until Flyers Fan said it tasted like cough medicine. She is a good enough friend to say things like this, but still.

"Does it really taste like Robitussen?" I asked H-man after she'd left.


On to the duck. For all my experimentation with duck legs, this was only the second time I'd dealt with a whole duck. It was a frozen Maple Leaf Farms Pekin from Canada, weighing about four pounds.

I found Ginger Duck with Rice cooked in Ginger Broth in Amanda Hesser's Cooking for Mr. Latte, a diary of her courtship with writer Tad Friend, including recipes. The duck recipe actually comes from Hesser's mother-in-law, Elizabeth Friend, who adapted it from her family's housekeeper, Margaret Dunn. The recipe is directly from the book, and may be found on pages 68-69.

1 duck, giblets removed
1 onion, peeled and halved, or three peeled shallots
2 stalks celery, cut into three-inch pieces (I forgot to buy celery, and did not miss it)
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup soy sauce
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup sherry
1 bunch watercress, trimmed and washed (No watercress for us. We have more salad greens than we can eat. I wasn't about to buy more.)

The day before you plan to serve, stuff the duck cavity with the onion and celery. Place the duck in a deep soup pot. Fill the pot with water until it comes about halfway up the duck. Add the ginger. Cover. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat until you have a lazy simmer.

An hour later, turn the bird over. Add the sugar, soy sauce, and salt. Allow to cook for another hour, then turn a final time and cook for another hour. The bird will begin falling apart. That's okay.

Remove the duck to a platter and allow to cool. Refrigerate.

Pour the poaching broth into a container. Taste it, then call your significant other at work and inform him/her it didn't come out, so you can eat it all yourself. Or employ willpwer, allow the broth to cool, and refrigerate until the next day.

The next day....

A layer of fat will have risen to the top of the broth. Discard it.

Bring the duck to room temperature. Put it in a roasting pan.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Add one cup of the cooking broth to the duck along with a half cup of sherry. Allow the duck to brown for a half hour to forty-five minutes, basting occasionally. Hesser advises serving the duck on the bed of watercress to disguise where the wings have come loose. I just put it on a platter and subjected to the poor thing to my terrible carving skills. Flyers fan and Hockeyman didn't care. Neither did Kitty.

Not only was it sublime, poaching meant the fat that can make duck greasy did not permeate the meat.

The rice...

Chop one onion and one clove of garlic. Melt two tablespoons butter in a pot, then saute the onion and garlic until translucent. Add one cup rice and stir until nutty-looking. You may need to add more butter.

Pour in two cups duck broth. Bring to a boil, then cover and cook at low heat until the rice is cooked.

Cook's Notes:

--I used a five quart Le Creuset to poach the duck. I also roasted the duck in the same vessel with fine results.

--I used a scant half-cup sugar in the poaching broth and will use less next time. It was just a hair too sweet for my taste.

--The leftover broth can be frozen and used in soups, stews, and rice. (This from Amanda Hesser)

The squash was simple: I roasted it whole for ninety minutes. H-man sliced it, scraped out the seeds, mashed the pulp, and added butter and sesame oil. The sesame worked nicely with the ginger/soy flavors.

I am proud of the salad, which I invented. Duck with orange is a classic pairing, and I knew my sweet-with-savory aversion needed to be set aside in the interests of culinary greatness. We used crisp lettuce, meticulously dried and chopped by H-man, tipped in capers, segmented Valencia oranges, and at the last minute, pine nuts I'd toasted stovetop. I mixed a simple red wine vinegar and olive oil dressing. Not a leaf remained, though I did end up giving my orange segments to H-man.

Non-traditional, but today we aren't overly full, swimming in leftovers, or wondering how to deal with dessicating turkey remains. Nor was the meal terribly labor-intensive; much of the time the duck was left to itself, as were the squash and rice. Numerous side dishes are well and good if you have a large kitchen, numerous serving utensils, and a hungry crowd. I had none of these, so did not miss wondering how I would get brussels sprouts and parsnips and cranberry sauce prepared and plated.

Afterward we ate the berry tart, drank coffee, and played Scrabble. The question of Christmas Dinner has arisen. Hockeyman, being a meat-and-potatoes sort, hazarded the idea of standing rib roast.

I would be just as happy with duck.

Amanda Hesser: Cooking for Mr. Latte. W.W. Norton, New York. 2003.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


Feeling too full? Had it with the heavy prose of Against the Day? Need the literary equivalent of a grappa?

Plainsong, by Kent Haruf, will cleanse all those gunky neural pathways.

Plainsong follows seven characters through their lives in Holt, Colorado, a small farming town. Maggie Jones is high school teacher, strong, certain, kind. Victoria Roubideaux is the pregnant teenager who seeks Maggie's help. Maggie leads Victoria to the elderly MacPheron brothers, gruff ranchers living outside Holt who agree to take Victoria in. Tom Guthrie teaches history where Maggie works. His wife, Ella, has left the family to live with her sister, leaving their sons, Ike and Bobby, at home.

Haruf's prose is akin to the land he writes of: spare, elegant, precise. His sentences are reminscent of Hemingway's in their ability to convey much minimally. The book opens like this:

"Here was this man Tom Guthrie in Holt standing at the back window in the kitchen of his house smoking cigarettes and looking out over the back lot where the sun was just coming up. When the sun reached the top of the windmill, for a while he watched what it was doing, that increased reddening of sunrise along the steel blades and the tail vane above the wooden platform." (1)


Here is Maggie, running into Harold McPheron at the market:

(Note: Plainsong does not use quotations when characters speak. I am following Haruf here.)

"This look recent to you? he said. He held the meat out toward her.
It looks bloody, she said.
I can't tell if it smells good. They got it wrapped up in all this goddamn plastic. You couldn't tell the working end of a skunk with this stuff on it.
I didn't know you ate skunks,
That's what I'm talking about. I can't tell what I'm eating with this goddamn plastic wrapped around it. It ain't like our own beef from the meat locker--when we get it I know what I'm getting." (161)

This amusing exchange highlights the timeless quality of Haruf's writng. There are no computers, cell telephones, satellite televisions, or handheld computer devices. In an interview with Robert Birnbaum, Haruf says "I don't pay that much attention to the internet. And I don't do much email. I don't care for it."

Birnbaum remarks "It's a brave new world."

Haruf: "Yeah. To me, I don't find that interesting. I feel I'm still in the previous century. I have not entered the 21st century."

How refreshing to hear that without guilt or shame. Richard Powers, speaking with John Freeman at Critical Mass, had this to say about technoogy:

"... so I think what has happened as the writers of my generation have come into our 40s I think there is an increasing comfort of readers to recognize that technology is not "out there" -- it's inside us. We build our technologies as a way of addressing all our anxieties and desires. They are our passions congealed into these prosthetic extensions of ourselves. The machines have changed the laws of time and space for us -- they do it in a way that hasn't been imposed on us from the outside in some inexorable march of greatness, but they do it in a way that reflects what we dreams ourselves capable of doing. All the things we used dream about -- instantaneous communication, flying through the air -- all of them have been born out."

Indeed, they have. For that very reason we must remember that great literature is about people. People who must make moral decisions, act well or badly, carry themsleves through life without the dubious distraction afforded by iPods or Playstations. People who do not turn to the internet in times of moral crisis, instead looking inward. A lot of people are forgetting how to do this. Or they never knew how to begin with. Or they suffer from the peculiar passivity that comes from a life spent staring into computer screens and televisions: they do not expect to act. Rather, they wait to be acted upon.

Haruf's characters are nothing like this. When Tom Guthrie is threatened for failing a student, he refuses to capitulate to the principal. When the boy attempts revenge on Ike and Bobby, Guthrie takes immediate action. He does not call the police, an injury lawyer, or the media. He acts, and he acts correctly.

As Victoria enters the final days of her pregnancy, she calmly awaits birth. When the contractions begin, "She wanted to do this right. She didn't want to be cheated by alarm or false emotion." (280)

Victoria never once falters, and is rewarded, as are we.

Robert Birnbaum's excellent interview may be found here.

Kent Haruf. Plainsong. Vintage Contemporaries, New York, 1999.

Authors, Book Reviews, Kent Haruf

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A quick note about Kent Haruf

I did finish Plainsong, and hope to write about it tomorrow, when I am rested and can do it justice.

The Book as Object

In the film Hannah and Her Sisters, Barbara Hershey's character is married to an ornery older artist. In a pivotal scene, a potential buyer visits the artist's studio to view some paintings.

The dealer is nervously eager; the buyer wealthy and ready to spend. The artist takes a stab at civility as the visitors wander his studio, making inane remarks.

Finally the buyer pauses before a large canvas. "I don't know," He says. "I don't think it will match my couch."

Whereupon the artist ejects the man from his studio, sending Barbara Hershey running into the arms of Michael Caine.

The scene came to mind after reading this article.

People like Tara Riceberg are the reason I continue to identify as a Detroiter despite twenty years in California. For $500, or three hours, Tara will come to your house and make "stories" out of your stuff. That is, she'll artfully rearrange your crap, while saying things like this:

"Ms. Riceberg told another story, about running with a supermodel who lives in Fiji. The famous friend loped away, leaving Ms. Riceberg panting in the dust. “I can’t keep up with her,” Ms. Riceberg worried out loud. Another friend remarked, like a New Age fortune cookie, 'Why would you want to? It’s your journey. Do your own thing.' These phrases now appear in Ms. Riceberg’s press kit."

Tara also worries about how her thighs will appear in the photos taken to accompany the story. "Cali girl's got issues."

Have a look at the photos. I am certain you will agree when I say Tara would benefit from a hard smack.

Okay, I'm not being very nice. But this is what she says about books:

"She approved of the 'drama' of the floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, and itched to tighten it up. 'I love stacking and flipping books as much as anyone,' she said, 'but you’re blessed in books. We can put them all together, and all upright. We might take their covers off, too.' She stroked one without a dust jacket. 'Look how raw and interesting that is. I advise clients to read the book with the cover and then remove the jacket.' I made a note. 'Read with jacket,' it said. 'Remove after.'”

Jesus God, somebody hit this girl. Blessed in books?

Tara, darling, bookshelves are not about drama, stories, or blessings. Bookshelves serve a purpose. To hold books. For serious readers, the idea of "arranging" our books to fit some design aesthetic is idiotic. When we urgently need to know exactly what Gertude said to Ernest about his Michigan stories, we do NOT want to be bothered shoving aside artfully arranged stacks. When four people we work with have cancer and we await the biopsy results of a fifth, we want to find Raymond Carver's final poems immediately, if not sooner.

And what of removing covers to display a book's textural qualities? What if the cover happens to be nice? Tess Gallagher's latest book, Dear Ghosts, (sic), features a cover painting by Alfredo Arrequin. It is a gorgeous book, one whose cover I would remove only to frame it. The Anais Nin Diaries have lovely jackets in shades of lavender, pink, and orange.

Some of my books are missing their jackets. A young adult book called "Glenna", written by one Josephine Lawrence in 1929, handed down to my mother from a dear cousin. That same cousin's copy of Gone with the Wind, a 1937 fourth edition. Are they attractive design items? I don't know. I cannot separate my love of the stories the books tell from the love I had for this cousin, who died when I was twelve.

And what are we supposed to do with the jackets? Toss them?

Heresy! Blasphemy!

I shared the article with a colleague. She's heavily into interior design and took a class in staging, which is the art of arranging furniture and tchochkes to utmost display. She once told me spent the weekend putting her "fall things" around the house. Upon further inquiry I learned that "fall things" are vases and baskets of leaves and so forth.

I am not a "thing" person. In almost fourteen years of married life, I have purchased two decorative objects: a painting and a pottery jug. Incidentally, the painting hangs over an oak bookshelf I am especially fond of. I must admit it matches the couch, though that isn't why I bought it.

I asked my colleague about arranging books.

She told me stagers are taught to pile books artfully, interspersing them with "figurines or nice vases." That removing covers was de rigueur.

"What if you need to find a book?" I asked. "They might be hard to find if they aren't alphabetized and their jackets are gone."

She looked at me strangely. "Well, you'd find them," she said. She went on to say books cannot just be "clumped" on shelves without lining them up in order of size. it looks "wrong."

I can agree that books as objects are decorative, attractive, worthy of our visual appreciation. But there's obviously a demarcation between those who buy books, read, and reread, and those who buy books and put them on the coffee table or beneath a tchotcke intended to "embrace an ecru story."

Some of my books have their covers. Others do not. Then there are the paperbacks, which Riceberg would likely toss. My books are alphabetized, wending their way from "A" (next to the fridge) through the living room (beneath the painting), piled on the entertainment center (ugly, in need of replacement, breaking all staging rules), into our bedroom ("L" though "P") into the study, where "Q" though "Z" mingle with various reference texts, Hockeyman's engineering tomes, my English Literature anthologies, erotica, Gray's Anatomy, and The Guide to Pier Fishing in California.

I guess I'm blessed.

Monday, November 20, 2006

A nod to the backlist

A few days ago I wrote the difficulty of blogging about fresh material while reading two long books.

On further reflection, I realized I'd fallen into a sort of blogging pit: the self-imposed requirement to write exclusively about the newest literary releases. Suddenly I had the perfect excuse to buy lots of new hardcover fiction while feeding my fear that writing about anything else would sent kindly readers packing.

Blogging exclusively about new fiction was not my original intention when I began this strange venture. In fact, I hoped to talk about some the older fiction I love, the obscure, the outdated, or otherwise unrecognized. This isn't to say I am abandoning new books. I'm not: I would read new books whether I blogged or not. But the Joan Didion omnibus and Joy of Cooking reminded me of my inital goals. With these thoughts in mind, I went to my bookshelves and pulled down Kent Haruf.

Kent Haruf was critically acclaimed but not widely read until 1999's Plainsong, which was excerpted in the New Yorker (where I first read him) and later nominated for the National Book Award. Eventide, his next work, revisits the fictional town of Holt, Colorado and many of the characters from Plainsong. I am hesitant to call Eventide a sequel, with all its Hollywood connotations. Both books may be read as singular, complete pieces; reading both is a great enrichment but one does not need the other.

I am now about halfway through rereading Plainsong, and hope to write about it Wednesday. Meanwhile, it's been an interesting lesson in la vida blogger.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Ducking Thanksgiving

The holiday Native Americans loathe, England sniffs over, and the rest of the world ignores is nearly upon us.

Thanksgiving. Like me, you may feel ambivalent about celebrating a meal that amounted to colonialism and genocide. Or, if you live outside the Bay Area and aren't brainwashed, you might consider turkey day a time to gather the family round and eat hearty.

Maybe you're just elated at the thought of a four-day weekend.

In honor of the upcoming event, I surveyed my cookbook collection, seeking insights into the great day. I was surprised to realize I have few cookbooks dealing with strictly "American" cuisine. There's plenty of French and Italian, a few Jewish cookbooks, vegetarian, and lots of unclassifiable "continental" cookery: Tamasin Day-Lewis, Fergus Henderson, Paul Bertolli, Alice Waters. Elizabeth David, alas, had little to say about our national eating habits. A few acerbic Davdian quotes would certainly be bracing.

In the end I pulled five books from the shelves: Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, the 75th Anniversary Edition of Joy of Cooking, Christopher Kimball's The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook, and The Gourmet Cookbook.

Joy gives a the standard classic meal, from bird to cranberries. The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook offers one of Kimball's bizarre "life on the farm" introductions, including harvesting apples, cider-making, and postprandial games of parcheesi before the fire. The recipe for slow-roasted turkey is simple compared to Cook's Illustrated's usual (effective) culinary shenanigans, so perhaps we'll overlook the introductory musings.

Gourmet: again, as straightforward as can be, with a recommendation to cook the bird upside down for a perfect breast. No bizarre stuffings. A recipe for brining. Nothing about deep frying, an excellent way to test the adequacy of your homeowners insurance policy.

Laurie Colwin has much to say about Thanksgiving. She is generous enough to note how stressful holiday meals can be, what with family and culinary drama. She also admits to disliking stuffing, which is tantamount to heresy.

I love stuffing, but only one kind: my grandmother's. Her stuffing calls for a loaf of challah, which she baked herself, or later, as she got older, bought fresh from Modern Bakery on Nine and Greenfield in Southfield, Michigan. Modern's baked goods weren't as good as their rival's, Zeman's, but their bread was peerless. Tear the bread into small pieces in a ceramic bowl. Put aside. Melt a lot of butter into a pan. Chop onions and celery. Sauté in the butter until soft but not browned. Allow this to cool enough to handle, then pour it over the bread and mix with your hands. Add an egg (be sure the mixture isn't too hot or the egg will cook). Mix until you have a stuffing that holds together nicely. Salt lightly. Try not to eat it all raw, on the spot. This will be difficult.

You can stuff a turkey with this, or you can stuff a chicken, as my grandmother often did. If you fear poisoning your guests by stuffing a large turkey, bake the stuffing in a dish and serve tableside with your fancy serving spoon. Leftovers, should you be lucky enough to have any, may be attacked later that evening using one's fingers.

Other stuffings involving prunes, raisins, nuts, or sausage are not stuffings to me. At their worst, they are abominations. Edible versions--no fruit!--are tolerable but unworthy.

Naturally, this admission opens the door to family unrest. Hockeyman swears by his mother's stuffing, which invariably includes raisins. Occasionally she sneaks some dried fruit in there, too.

From stuffing it is but a short leap to gravy. Milk gravies are not a part of Jewish cookery, as milk and meat never go to table together. Gravy, when it does appear, is more au jus--simply the dripping the meat or poultry gave off as it roasted. Thus my maiden holiday cookery outings were met with genial confusion. Where was the gravy? I would point to the cooking vessel. In here.

Even now, in my highly treyfe kitchen, I dislike milk with meat. The textures and tastes clash. My concession to Hockeyman's gravy cravings involve chicken broth, wine, and sometimes butter, also treyfe but lacking milk's heavy, tongue-coating aspect.

But now for the big disclosure....

I don't like turkey. I never have. No matter what you do to it--brine, inject it with fancy marinades, deep fry it, roast it at 300 degrees for six hours--it ends up dry. Even if by some miracle you manage a moist bird, it tastes about as exciting as a bowl of Quaker oatmeal.

And there is always so goddamn much of it.

Hockeyman, normally an agreeable and rational individual, does not share my view. Only by dint of my great affection for him have I overcome this quirk in his make-up. Further, I have catered to it. Last year I purchased a six pound, free range, organic, politically correctly killed Willie Bird, which set me back twenty-six dollars. I tenderly drove him home and made room in the freezer.

I re-consulted my cookbooks. I bought the Bon Appetit Thanksgiving issue, which walked the novice through the entire T-Day experience. I bought stuffing makings and a pie. I was ready.

Lacking space, I did not brine the bird. I defrosted, salted inside and out, buttered the breast, stuffed the fellow, and tucked him into a low oven. I basted and covered and watched. After 2 1/2 hours the bird was ready. It looked perfect, a deep, glazed brown, sitting regally amidst a worshipful little surround of potatoes and carrots.

Well, you could've used Willie for flooring material. He was dry, tough, and tasteless. I was terribly disappointed--all that time and care with such a lousy result. The side dishes were fine, as was the pie, and we managed to wash it all down lots of wine, but that was my last outing with turkey. I'm sorry. I know some people love it. More power to 'em.

This year I am making duck. Side dishes will come from the farm box: greens, butternut squash. The duck recipe calls for poaching, so I will use the poaching liquid to make rice. A mixed berry galette for dessert, because in addition to disliking turkey and being judgmental about stuffing, I hate pumpkin pie. This will be more than ample for two, and provide a moist, flavorsome carcass for soup.

Thus we will celebrate a long weekend, trying very hard all the while not to think about the holiday season, bearing down upon us as the anvil does on Wile E. Coyote.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

On The Road Again

Every decade or so the urge to re-examine the Beat writers asserts itself in a flurry of new books. See this week's NYTBR for the latest clutch of works excavating the lives of Neal, Jack, Allen, and friends. Welcome Courtney Love to the fold. Will appearing in the NYTBR palliate her monstrous hunger for fame and adulation? Let us pray it does.

I experienced a Beat phase as I was finishing high school. In fact, it followed hard on the Paris-in-the-twenties-writers phase, overlapping in places. At the time I did not find this odd.

I read all of Kerouc, some Ginsberg, the Ann Charters biographies, the Joyce Johnson cottage industry that sprung up after her brief affair with Kerouac. I tried Paul and Jane Bowles but neither grabbed me. Maybe I was too young. There was the time I brought Naked Lunch to the dentist's office, where I was having protracted work on a tooth that did not survive. The dentist spotted the book and began talking enthusiastically about its greatness. Burroughs must've laughed in his grave at the scene: a staid-looking dentist yakking about Naked Lunch to a prone, numbed patient, paralyzed by a mouthful of dental implements.

My penultimate Beat experience was driving across the country while reading On The Road. I was seventeen years old. I kept a journal of the trip, writing at night in motels along the way. I threw the journal out in my early twenties, a colossally stupid act I still regret.

Once in Los Angeles, I got into Bukowski. My big outing in those days was to navigate the 405 Freeway (which terrified me), take the curving Wilshire offramp (for both exiting and merging vehicles) and find parking in Westwood. I would then eat dinner at The Olde World restaurant, where I drank my first espresso, and walk to the bookstore at the end of Westwood Boulevard. I don't remember what this place was called, only that I spent inordinate amounts of money there. I was attracted to the Bukowski books by their covers. They were Black Sparrow Press Editions, thick, pebbled paperboard, resolutely plain. It never occurred to me that the man himself was merely a few miles away, documenting his squalor. I read him as I might read dispatches from foreign land. Essentially they were, and while I appreciated his talent, the repetitive material, the endless obscenities, and his general hatred of women finally wore me out.

Ultimately I came away from Kerouac and Bukowski feeling both wasted their considerable talents. Thumbing your nose at the establishment is great, and it makes for very attractive reading at certain ages--late teens and middle age come to mind--but finding a way to survive within the establishment whilst thumbing your nose is even better. Consider writers like Zadie Smith and Jane Smiley, who have skewered numerous aspects of society yet remain welcome at the Big Important Writers Table. William Gibson and Margaret Atwood, friends from the Great White North who miss nothing. The venerable Ferlinghetti. And how about that Tom Pynchon, who has managed to make himself a fine writer's life without giving one interview to People Magazine?

We must continue boring from within.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Fooling the Berkeley Masses

I ate lunch at La Rose Bistro today.

In this land of wonderful restaurants, Hockeyman and I almost never go out to eat. This is due in equal measures to my love of cooking and aversion to being around groups of people. Thus the bulk of my restaurant experiences involve work lunches.

I am extremely fortunate to work within walking distance of Thai, Greek, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, American (amusingly, this is hardest to find), Nepalese, or Indian food. For seven dollars or less, I can eat a fine meal.

I rarely give much thought to my lunches; most are solitary ventures taken at my desk. But today I was with friends, celebrating a birthday, making the meal a special occasion.

La Rose Bistro serves French/Asian fusion food. It is Zagat rated and well received by the East Bay Express, our local alternative rag.

Today's menu included beet salad, garbure, linguine with clams, and crab cakes with aioli and garlic fries. The hungrier could order duck confit with star anise and dried cherries (it was unclear whether was the star anise and cherries were preserved with the duck or served alongside) and "bak" choy.

One of my friends ordered the garbure, which resembled thin vegetable soup. It contained duck confit but neither duck nor goose fat. To quote the esteemed Paula Wolfert:

"Just before serving, check the consistency ofthe garbure; it should be so thick that a wooden spoon stands up straight in the center." (45)

Go ahead and call me a snob. But I felt the place attempted to fool the diner into thinking he or she was having an honest gastronomic experience when in truth "bak" choy and dried cherries should never be within kissing distance on a plate calling itself French. I don't object in principle to these foods appearing together. We still live in a free land. But don't tell me it's French. That's just bullshit, and I'm paying for it. And linguine with clams and shrimp? Italy-by-way-of-New Jersey.

Still, the place was full, waited on amazingly well by one clearly overworked waiter who deserves a medal for his grace under pressure.

I ordered the crab cakes with aioli and garlic fries. The meal arrived on a square plate, nicely arranged: a heap of mesclun (Alice Waters has ruined salad in Berkeley), a tangle of fries, a china clamshell of catsup, and two crab cakes set atop a piece of bread. The bread was toasted with cheese and onions. The aioli was squirt-bottled across the crabs cakes in neat zig-zags.

A generous portion, dinner-sized, really. Seven hours later I am still patting myself on the back for not eating all the fries, which, honestly, were no better than what you can get at Oscar's, the greasy spoon a few streets eastward. The crab cakes were good, their bread/cheese/onion bed leaden. The salad was quite nice, its balsamic vinegar cutting the heaviness of the crab. But everything was oversalted; for the remainder of the afternoon I had that heavy sodium aftertaste one gets after eating at Denny's.

It wasn't that the food was awful. But it wasn't great. It was okay, and that's okay, but this restaurant is pushing itself as Berkeley-French-Elegant, at Berkeley-French-Elegant prices. And it appears, from the fine reviews and the folks sitting next to me with their Sur la Table bag, that they are succeeding. On one level this is sad, but on another, I inhabit the land of food snobbery. Compared to a lot of other Bay Area denizens, I am a Mickey-D-eating-plebe. If my fellow diners think star anise belongs in duck confit, they deserve what they get: dented Amex Golds and indigestion.

The Paula Wolfert quote on Garbure comes from The Cooking of Southwest France. The next time you have $35 to spend, instead of heading to La Rose, buy this book and make yourself something from it. Your belly will thank you.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

On Reading Multiply

That is, reading multiple books simultaneously. I know a lot of people who can keep five books going at once. I can't. I never could. I can read a cookbook and a novel, or a magazine and a book, but anything more and I lose the writer's voice, the narrative thread.

I mention this as I am now in the midst of the new Joy of Cooking and the Didion omnibus, not to mention two issues of the New Yorker (Our mail is not what it could be). Were I not a valiant member of the blogosphere, I woudn't mind. But weeks of yakking about one or the other will become boring. This means I need to factor some shorter books into the mix.

Fortunately both big books are comprised of pieces--recipes or essays--and can be read in discrete chunks. But the idea of having so much going simultaneously is distasteful. Reading is the last place I care to multitask, and I comfort myself with the idea of Thanksgiving. In reality this is ridiculous; even Evelyn Wood couldn't roar through two thousand pages over a long weekend.

Such are the perils of bibliophilia.

Books, Reading

More on King

I have never been to Powell's Books, located in Portland, Oregon, but compensate with their terrific newsletter, which includes regular updates on the adventures of Fup, store cat.

Today's newsletter contains an interview with Stephen King that has me rethinking Lisey's Story. As a participant in what is becoming a long marriage, I am a sucker for reading about one. Besides that, King is on the mark about the whole "literary" vs. "popular" writer bit. Check it out.

The newsletter also containts an essay by writer Gillian Flynn, whose first novel, Sharp Objects, is all about "bad women." escape to the bookstore is in the offing, graciously underwritten by the folks. Thanks, Mom and Dad!

Authors, Stephen King

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Joan Didion and the art of poor introduction

I met Joan Didion. She was appearing at a church in Berkeley to promote Where I Was From, which I had purchased from Cody's Books.

I found out about the reading the day it was taking place. I was doing one of my run-from-work-to-the-bookstore jaunts.

"She's coming to read tonight," The person behind the counter informed me, whereupon I ran back to work, called Hockeyman, and told him of our evening plans.

This was in late 2003, about three weeks before John Gregory Dunne died. Quintana, their daughter, was still a healthy newlywed. Everything was still in place.

The church was packed. Didion wore all black: a sweater, short skirt, tights, and beautiful suede lace-ups that screamed "Manhattan" in an understated way. She was indeed thin, but she's a tiny woman, child-sized, really, with incongruously large hands.

Didion was interviewed by Vendela Vida, whose achievements include the novel Now You Can Go and marrying Dave Eggers. Vida was in her early thirties. She was as equipped to interview Didion as I am to go deep sea diving. Her questions, alas, lacked the sea's depth, and though I was thrilled to see Didion in the flesh, I couldn't understand why the event organizers couldn't dig up a better interviewer. We were mere blocks from Didion's Alma Mater, and even if everyone at Berkeley was busy that November night, it must be noted the surrounding area is choked with notable writers.

We suffered through Vida's well-meaning if idiotic questions ("What influence does music have on your writing?" was one of the gems.) Didion was gracious. The audience was very large-brooch-and-beret Berkeley, that is, the intellectual types who vacation in Paris garrets and read Proust in the original. You get the idea.

There was a long line for the book signing. We were instructed to keep it brief, as Ms. Didion was exhausted. By the time my turn came, I felt like Wayne and Garth meeting Aerosmith. I mumbled something incoherent about what her work meant to me. She just looked at me like, yeah, yeah, heard it all before.

I thought about that evening for a long time afterward. Didion and her family were, to me, the writerly equivalent of the Kennedys--talent, money, good breeding, impeccable roots, slightly disreputable relatives, tragedy (Didion's niece, actress Dominique Dunne, was strangled in Los Angeles). Didion lived the uber-New York writer's life, complete with that incredible ability to craft those amazing sentences.

Then Dunne died, which was upsetting enough. But then Quintana also died, and I understood the fallacy of the perfect life.

Then came The Year of Magical Thinking, with its attendant awards, and now we have We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, the Everyman's Library of Collected Non-Ficition.

I started the book last night. This necessitated reading the introduction by John Leonard.

My mother warned me the introduction was bad. But it's worse than bad.

It's Godawful. John Leonard's writing credits include being the former editor of the New York Times Book Review and writing for Harper's and The Nation. Maybe he's better when he isn't cowed by his material. I hope so.

"They come at you (he is referring to her sentences) if not from ambush, then in gnomic haikus, icepick laser beams, or waves." (x)

Gnomic haikus?

"As usual, of course, this bad news is fun to read, in a prose that moseys (Moseys! God help us!) from sinew to schadenfreude to incantation, with liturgical/fatidic tendencies (Slashes lend academic gravity. Heed this, o budding grad students) toward the enigmatic and oracular, seasoned sarcastically." (xii)

Reading this sort of thing, it is easy to understand Didion's famous tendencies toward migraine, nerves, and judicious doses of bourbon. If somebody wrote about my writing like this, I'd jump off the Bay Bridge.

But then a wonderful thing happens: the introduction ends, giving way to Didion's forward to Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Her words about dislocation, centers flying apart, and the inability to find meaning in life are balm.

It's always nice to find people who think like you do.

My advice to all comers, then, is to skip the introduction. Amuse yourself with the scholarly timeline that plots the events of Didion's life against politcal goings-on and the publication of Henderson the Rain King. Plot your life against hers. Compare. Note your artistic worthlessness along this timeline. Realize that perhaps the only people equal to the task of introducing Joan Didion are John Dunne and Quintana Roo Dunne Michael.

Sadly, neither are available.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Lisey's Story: to read or not to read?

I’ve read numerous reviews of Lisey’s Story, including this one, appearing in today’s NYTBR.

I was introduced to King after seeing Carrie on television. I was nine. At the time John Travolta was the guy from Welcome Back, Kotter, Amy Irving an unknown teenager, and Sissy Spacek some freckled kid. Piper Laurie, a neighbor’s relative, was reputed to be as insane in person as she was in the film.

I still have my childhood copy of Carrie, a 1975 Signet paperback costing $2.25. My name is neatly penned on the inside cover. I would say the script is childish, but written in the days before I had carpal tunnel, it is neater than my current signature.

After Carrie I read The Stand, another paperback that I’ve managed to hang on to. This Signet paperback set me back $2.95. The book is fragile, the cover stuck to the spine with drying tape, the pages yellowed. I have a distinct memory of reading this book during the winter of 1977. I was sick with what I now realize was likely mononucleosis: I lay ill with fever all that freezing winter. I read the Stand, which is 817 pages of 9 point print, in three days. I was enthralled, and for years afterward it was my favorite Stephen King book.

I read new Kings as soon as I could grab them from the local library. Barring that, I waiting impatiently for paperback releases. Hardcovers were unthinkable in those days.

I bought paperbacks with babysitting money: The Dead Zone, expensive at $3.50 and horribly depressing to boot, ‘Salem’s Lot, which I loved (4.95!), and The Shining, which scared me so I had to leave my bedroom, where I sat reading alone, and sit in the family room, terrified but unable to put the book down. My copy contains photo stills from the film: a young Shelly Duvall, Jack Nicholson with hair.

My first paperback copy of Night Shift had a fancy cover, a drawing of a bandaged hand with cutouts: you turned this page to second illustration of eyes looking at you through said cuts. But I forgot the book atop my seventh grade locker. It was stolen, and though I quickly bought a new copy, it was a later printing, lacking the fancy overlay.

In eighth grade I had a history teacher who was also a King fan. He lent me the Kirby McCauley anthology (Oh, to be lent a book by a favorite teacher!) Dark Forces, containing King’s novella “The Mist,” a story so insidious it is still with me. King’s refusal to give this one a happy ending, or any real closure, is what does the job of scaring the reader.

Because of King I went through a horror novel period lasting from about sixth through tenth grade. I recall those years by grade, by whatever book I was trying to vanish into as my classmates squealed around me. Most of it was trash—sitting on the middle school steps reading The Amityville Horror comes to mind—but the books did their job. They removed me from the untenable situation known as adolescence.

As I grew older, my tastes matured. Fifteen saw the discovery of Hemingway, then Fitzgerald and even an attempt at Stein’s The Making of Americans. I remember sitting in the entryway of the building where I held my first co-op job, reading Carlos Baker’s Hemingway biography. I was sixteen, freezing, and thought that damned SEMTA Connector Bus would never arrive.

I still read all the King books. At that point I liked them all.

My ardor began cooling during college. I thought It and Tommyknockers were a mess, Misery more gore than horror, Gerald’s Game weak. By 1990 or so my reading became erratic. The last fictional King book I read with any real enthusiasm was Bag of Bones, a book I read quickly—too quickly, for I recall little of it. But it exemplifies King’s great talent: plot construction. At his best, he sucks the reader in immediately. Characters are divided: the good guys vs. the bad guys, each with just enough depth to push the story forward. His novels are primarily plot-directed: what happens when a child can light fires telekinetically? what happens when a town succumbs to vampires? When a flu wipes out the country?

There are exceptions: The Gunslinger is about Roland and his companions Eddie and Susannah. Though I loved the first book and eagerly awaited The Drawing of the Three, I had a harder time getting through this second book. By Wolves of the Calla I’d lost interest—the books were too sloppy, too wordy, a predictable cycle of violence, trudging, reflection, more violence.

When King suffered the catastrophic car accident in 1999, I was upset in that odd way one feels for public figures. I fervently hoped he’d pull through and was relieved when he did. But I didn’t go back to his books, save for On Writing, excellent both as autobiography and writing instruction.

I don’t know what catapulted King into “respectability.” Perhaps the accident got people’s attention, or his prolific bestsellers, or his refusal to go away. As Jim Windolf notes in his review, some of King’s younger readers grew up to become writers themselves (i.e. the Tin House people), and are partly responsible for his entry into the land of Literature.

So does King belong in the literary pantheon?

A few months ago I pulled The Stand from the shelf. I wanted something engaging, engrossing, yet moderately light. Remembering how much I’d loved the book eighteen years earlier, I figured was in for the unique pleasure that comes from re-reading a beloved childhood novel with adult appreciation.

I was bitterly disappointed. The Stand’s plot has only gained in relevance. You could even call the book scarily prophetic. But the writing was clumsy enough to stop me cold in several places. Somewhere between the sick ten-year-old and the weary thirty-nine year old I cultivated an expensive taste in sentences. I put the book back on the shelf and moved on.

Last night I paged through ‘Salem’s Lot and found it as I remembered. The writing is tighter than The Stand’s. The gore factor that characterizes the later work is absent. The first vampire victim, a child, is depicted in Barlow’s arms with a simple “It became unspeakable.”

So does King belong?

Do we need to bang our heads against the wall over questions like this?

I am always the first to hurl nastiness at the writers I find dreadful—Judith Krantz, Mitch Albom, the Chicken Soup people. But they’re easy targets. Nobody is lining up Wallace Stegner beside Danielle Steel on the proverbial Great Books Shelf. But I’d bet you the Stegner folks have at least one King paperback floating around someplace.

Is King a Great Writer? No. But few are. He’s good, and that’s enough. Too much time is spent nitpicking the great from the good, and to what end? Those of us who are neither (I sure as hell don’t have a bookshelf of works to my name. Do you?) would better spend our time reading and writing about what we’ve read, if for no other reason than to get the word out about the good stuff.

So....Lisey’s Story.

Should a remaindered copy appear, I’ll pick it up. Otherwise, I’ll wait for the paperback. But I will read it, and see if the writer who lured a sick child out of herself so long ago still has the magic stuff.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

And now, back to the kitchen...

To make more squash soup.

This recipe comes almost entirely from Paula Wolfert's The Cooking of Southwest France. I have no desire to get sued for copyright infringement, so let it be shouted to the treetops: the recipe is hers, hers, hers. The only thing I did differently was substitute a leek for the onion, because we got leeks from the farm this week and H-man prefers them to onions.



About one pound hard winter squash.

1/2 pound potatoes, peeled and diced.

1 onion or leek, chopped.

3 cloves garlic, two chopped, one peeled and sliced in half.

Approximately five cups chicken broth.

Salt, pepper, a pinch of hot red pepper.

Duck fat, olive oil, or butter.

1/2 cup heavy cream.

Bake the squash in the oven until soft. Do this ahead of time, or risk getting overwhelmed. This is a recipe that requires much last minute rushing. More on this later.

In a soup pot, heat your olive oil, butter, or duck fat (or a combination). Add the potato, garlic, and leek. Allow to cook for about 15 minutes, until softened and lightly browned.

Add the chicken broth and let everything simmer for about thirty minutes.

Peel and seed the squash. Put the squash in a food processor or blender. Add some of the hot broth. Puree.

You are then instructed to puree the contents of the soup pot with the squash. This is where things can really go to hell fast, as they did for me. The blender was already dirty from the squash, which I'd scooped into a bowl. The soup was hot, and I had to somehow get everything into the blender--in batches--without burning myself or blowing out the blender's motor. All of this in a small kitchen. I managed to puree the soup in batches, moving from pot to blender to bowl, then pouring everything back into the pot, whereupon one is to add the cream, bring to a boil, and simmer for a few minutes.

Meanwhile, the squash puree, which was mealy and gloppy, got everywhere--the floor, the counters, down the sides of the blender jar. The dishtowels sported orange smears.

I put the soup back on low heat and hollered for help. Hockeyman appeared, and armed with a clean dishtowel, helped me set things to rights.

So, a couple notes:

1. An immersion blender is the way to go for this soup. I need to buy one. If you plan to make this soup, you should, too.

2. If, like me, you want to prepare the croutons (recipe follows), work ahead or get help. It's tricky to pull all this together simultaneously.

The croutons....

Heavy cream not enough for you? Add the croutons, which consist of slices of baguette topped with pancetta, fried in duck fat, then rubbed with garlic. One is instructed to add these little bombs to the soup, but you could just chow down on them, like we did. They would make terrific appetizers at a holiday shindig.

The dish was fantastic. How can you go wrong with heavy cream and pancetta? I mean, you might drop dead, but you'll be happy.

Seriously, this dish exemplifies the French Paradox. It's so rich one is quickly full. Even I, weak before the possibility of ice cream, felt no desire for dessert.

Wolfert, Paula: The Cooking of Southwest France. New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons.

The recipe Autumn Squash Soup with Country Ham and Garlic Croutes is on page 67.

Remembrance Day

Hockeyman does not play hockey. Rather, he watches it. He is half-Canadian, so hockey plays a large part in his winter existence. As a Detroiter, I found his obssession pretty easy to accept. I would feel differently about football or golf, but hockey sucked me in. Now we're both fans.

After a few years of contending with American television's abysmal coverage, we finally got a satellite feed, and may watch, among other things, that venerable institution known as Hockey Night in Canada.

Watching Hockey Night in Canada, you may come away with the following assumptions about Canada:

1. Everybody offroads

2. Molson Canadian is THE beer.

3. There is little racial diversity in Canada.

4. You can buy damned near anything from Canadian Tire.

5. Don Cherry is insane.

You may also get the impression, game brutality aside, that Canadians live up to their "civilized" reputation. Cherry rails constantly about player behavior on and off-ice, insisting they adhere to a "code" of decency. A winning team should be gracious. The victory dances seen in football are to be avoided. When in public, wear a tie.

Watch enough Canadian hockey feeds and you'll realize that although the country is large, it is sparsely populated. The hockey community is sprawling but small: if a relative dies, expect to hear condolences on the air. When a young player suffered a severe injury last week, a call was put out to Canadians to contribute to his medical expenses. When they lose a soldier in Afghanistan, you'll hear his or her name on the air. Mind you, this is hockey, not the local news.

So it was last night that a commerical came on during the Calgary game. A series of natural disasters were depicted: flooding, forest fires, a commerical ship sinking. In each vignette a helicopter or firefighter or strong swimmer appeared and saved the day, literally grabbing people and pulling them to safety. Help in distress, the screen read. There were other words, which I cannot recall, but they were something like comfort for suffering, a hand in time of need.

It was an ad for the Canadian Armed Forces.

I sat there on the couch and thought about Hurricaine Katrina, and how our Army, ragtag by then, was deployed in time of need. And what little they did once in Louisiana. This led me to thinking about the veterans of Iraq, kids returning with rattled brains and mangled limbs and nightmares that will chase them for the remainder of their days. Bush and his loathsome crew have not only destroyed Iraq; they've wrecked the lives of numerous young Americans.

Regardless of how we feel about the war--and it seems most of us are finally getting the clue--we have an obligation to help these people. Their suffering transcends politcal leanings. If we ignore them--and I fear our government is doing just that--we will see them on the streets, just as we see the Viet Nam vets out there now.

Last Tuesday's happy results are the beginning of a long road back. And today, as we remember those who fought, for reasons good or bad, we might consider the Canadian notion of an armed force: a group of people intent on rescuing fellow citizens from drowning.

Friday, November 10, 2006

More on Joy

Whilst many of my fellow bloggers are piling their way through the latest Pynchon, I'm up to page 115 of the new edition of Joy of Cooking. That leaves only 957 pages, not counting the index.

Kim Severson was right--the book has instances of Becker cultishness that are unnecessary. Links to Ethan's knife business and exhortations to visit the Joy website feel contrived. Astonishingly, there is a mistake in the Author's Note:

"In response to many requests from users of the JOY who ask 'are are your favorites?' we having indicated these recipes by using word significant to our family."

Go ahead and call me persnickety, but copyeditor Judith Sutton, thanked in the acknowledgments for her hard work, should perhaps consider another vocation.

The book offers some truly clunky language:

"Arranging a tray is a fun and creative pursuit." (69)

"Now and always, a pot of soup simmering on the stove epitomizes home cooking." (114)

Let's just say Susan Becker is less adept a mimicking Irma than she'd like to think.

Homestyled anecdotes aside, the cookbook delivers on the ultimate Joy promise: to give questioning the cook directions, explanations, and basic recipes. Joy is not Paula Wolfert or Julia Child. it is how to manage a roast, prepare stock, deal with chayote. Don't want to bother with beurre manie? Dump a can of cream of mushroom soup into the pot. Yes, it makes me cringe, but once upon a time I didn't know hollandaise from Hellman's. Now that I do, I usually have the time and knowledge to prepare sauces (or stocks, or biscuits) from scratch. Many people lack inclination, ability, time. But they want to put (mostly) fresh food on the table. This is the book for them. And for me: recently Hockeyman asked if I knew how to make Shepherd's Pie. I did not. But there it is, on page 102. So I'll overlook "Becker Chicken Soup", which distingushes itself from all other soups by dint of curry powder. We'll all hope Ethan and Susan take the hint and don't turn Joy into the cult of Half Moon Ridge.

Rombauber, Becker, and Becker. The Joy of Cooking. Scribers, New York. 2006.

And if they don't...well...look what happened to the Republicans.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Loving Lydia

I just finished Lydia Davis's Samuel Johnson is Indignant, a 2001 collection of short pieces. Some are stories, others paragraphs, or in a few cases, especially provocative sentences:

"We were sitting together, my digestion and I. I am reading a book and it is working away at the lunch a little while ago."

"Companion," 21

This wondrous bit describes all that is remarkable in Davis's work: awareness of language, unusual sentence structure, an even more uncommon take on life's ordinary aspects: jury duty, marital bickering, the potential minefields in wait on the annual family car trip.

"Jury duty", slyly set up as a Q and A, is a meditation on group behavior, the ways we willingly surrender our individuality for very little information. Because the bailiffs are "gentle" and "calm" in their demeanor, the potential juors relax into a nearly silent wait:

"It wasn't emotional. Going to church would be emotional. Going to an AA meeting or even a concert would be emotional. This was the most unemotional thing you could imagine. Maybe that's why it was such a relief." (56)

Davis also works as a translator from the French, and until her recent MacArthur Genius Grant, I believe translation was her primary income source. Her bilingualism affords her an acute consciousness of language generally granted only to interperters, translators, and poets. Much of her work toys with the roots and sounds of words: "A mown lawn" is an entire tiny story based on the variant words possible therein; "Special Chair" manages to tackle academic hierarchy and the all the possible interpretations of an object one sits upon in a page and a half, while "Marie Curie, So Honorable Woman," renders the famous scientist's biography into twenty heartbreaking pages.

Davis is droll chronicler of the mind regarding itself. In " Thyroid Diary," the narrator, undergoing initial treatment for Hashimoto's Syndrome, gives extensive thought to the slowness of her own thinking, whether her mind is affecting her body, or vice versa. Will her slow thinking impair her translation work, or improve it? Even more baffling, as she is the mind regarding her own thought processes, how will she know whether the work has improved?

Where so many experimetal writers leave me cold, Davis's unique style and spare, meticulous sentences enthrall me. She is sui generus: a reader would never mistake her work for another writer's. Only Lydia Davis would realize that the care she affords an old, rare dictionary is more lavish than that she gives her son. Only Lydia Davis could write about a New Year's resolution aiming for nothingness, noting the difficulty of absence after a lifetime of trying feel worthwhile.

An excellent interview conducted by Francine Prose may be found here.

Lydia Davis: Samuel Johnson is Indignant. McSweeney's: New York 2001

Authors, Book Reviews

Monday, November 06, 2006

On writing (about food) well

I have Critical Mass for to thank this article, which, forgive my saying so, offers ample food for thought.

One of blogging's perils is the need to post regularly or lose readers. But the need to get words up three to five times weekly means speed, which in turn can affect quality. I am not a full-time blogger. I haven't the luxury of hours at my desk, polishing every word. This has forced to me think carefully about how I write about books. I had given less thought to food writing, though I should have known better. Powers's article is a needed shove.


Prior to reading Powers's review I intended to write about peppers. Now I am having a complete writerly crisis. Maybe the topic is dull. Laurie Colwin already wrote about peppers, and did a much better job. Maybe my take on peppers is utterly pedestrian and represents the worst the blogoshpere has to offer.

On that note, I will admit that peppers are not a favored veggie in the BK/Hockeyman household. (I refer here to fresh peppers like Gypsies or green peppers, not dried or high scoville like habaneros, with their specific role as palate burners.) Hockeyman won't eat them at all. I think they're okay, but I'm not wild enough about them to singelhandedly consume the bagfuls arriving from the farm. But the sight of all those beautiful peppers--red, yellow, green--slowly softening and rotting in the fridge made me terribly guilty. I resolved to find a way to eat at least some of them.

I found a recipe for Sauteed Peppers in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Basically, you take peppers, onion, and garlic and cook them down in olive oil. Add tomato paste diluted with 1/4 cup of water, cook that down, then add some balsamic vinegar and cook until glazed. The resulting sludge can be stirred into whatever your imagination decides. Mine opted for polenta. I made a batch, stirred in the peppers, and now have a week's worth of lunch.

The result is okay. Not magnficent, but fine for lunch, cheaper than eating out, probably healthier. I wish I could like peppers more. They're so pretty, and so good for you. But like rosemary, they have a way of crashing the party and taking over before you remember why they were invited to begin with.

I still have four peppers left, though. They taunt me from the vegetable bin. Peperonata's next.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

But does it match the couch?

Now you can color-coordinate your outfit to match what you're reading.

I know that's important to you. It's important to me, too. The relief I am feeling upon learning that "Time Warner Book Group routinely changes the color or design of book jackets at a store's request so the book will color-coordinate with the merchandise" is inexpressible.

Not to be outdone, Harper-Collins is casting spring books in "margarita and sangria", colors that will be dominating spring's "color palette." Thank God. I was thinking I would have to toss all my books--so few, after all, resemble a Chevy's Menu.

Seriously, Julie Rosman's article is a mostly depressing examination of marketing to lifestyle purchasers. Who in hell wants to buy books at the outrageously expensive clothing store Anthropologie? Ruth Rennert does. Interviewed whilst paging through (yet another) glossy book about Jackie Kennedy, she announces this is much nicer than the stress of "enduring the hustle and bustle of big bookstores."

Go to an independent bookstore, fool!

There is something to marketing books in non-traditional spots--even Berkeley Bowl sells a Bruce Aidells title at the meat counter. It's presence never struck me as irrational. As for selling books at farm-supply houses, great. if I lived in the middle of nowhere, I would be grateful.

But "You walk into Restoration Hardware and you want the couch and the vase and the nightstand, and then you want the two books that are on the nightstand." Ms. Rosen said. "The books complete the story."

What story? The story of how wealthy you are, how chic, what flawless taste you have? How perfectly of a piece your life is, right down to the doorknobs? What books are on that nightstand, anyway? German art books? The work of Rem Koolhass? English gardens?

Do the book jackets match the furniture?

Never mind content. Never mind quality, or whether you have any interest in actually reading the damned book. It's merely an object. It completes the story you are telling yourself. If you tell the story correctly, that is, buy those sangria-toned books, you will no longer require your therapist, acupressure practitioner, marriage counselor, SSRI's, or Lunesta.

Nor will you have to make decisions about what to read. Starbucks will help you. Anthropologie will help you. Feeling old? Losing your edge? Clothing retailer Martin & Osa is creating a "reading list" of "things that aren't mainstream, more unusual, more unique." Dress cool, read cool. Spend lots.

I have an alternate story to offer:

You are an intelligent person. You enjoy reading, maybe even love it. You know what you like and why, but are confident enough to venture into unknown territory--the occasional mystery, that new Stephen King nobody can agree on. Your bedside table belonged to your grandmother. It came from the extremely unglamorous JC Penney, but it has immeasurable emotional value to you. Incidentally, it's a pretty nice piece of furniture.

You have never set foot in Anthropologie, and the very thought of all those fake vintage doorknobs at Restoration Hardware is enough to send you running for the valium. Instead, you haunt used bookshops, spending too much time and money amidst the dusty stacks. You consider this activity akin to treasure hunting.

The smell of used bookshops makes you happy. Finding unusual editions--unedited galleys, European releases, elusive translations from the French--makes you even happier. You will take these home and pile them upon your already overburdened JC Penney nightstand.

You will not wonder whether or not the books "complete the story" your bedroom furnishings tell. You'll be too busy. Reading.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Recipes are clear and will never fail you

The Joy of Cooking saga continues with this article from Kim Severson, asking “Does the word need another ‘Joy’? Do You?”

Severson goes into great depth about the unhappy infighting surrounding the 1997 edition, dismissing it as the “New Coke” of cookbooks. Blame is laid squarely at editor Maria Guarnaschelli’s feet for the book’s modern, “clinical” feel. The newly restored Joy gives us homey Rombauer/Becker headnotes, albeit a few penned by Susan Becker, Ethan’s wife, who “says her background in advertising gave her the ability to mimic the voice of Irma Rombauer.” This alarming quote aside, we can relax and enjoy the restored the canning and ice-cream sections, along with the game chapter, even if the raccoon recipes are gone.

“The good news,” Severson writes, “is that no amount of infighting or spin can alter the essence of the book....”Joy” is the Swiss Army knife of cookbooks.”

Agreed. But....

“The bad news is that this new version forces a decision. Which ‘Joy’ do we want?”

The question is a specious one. There is no reason a cook must decide to use only one Joy of Cooking. Do we feel this way about the Fannie Farmer series? Reject new editions of the Junior League Cookbook? As Severson points out, the 1997 “took on and largely succeeded at what was a daunting task: mastering the mountain of culinary changes that took place between the mid-1970’s and the mid-1990’s. It became a contemporary, efficient and thorough study on cooking with impeccably researched recipes.”

In 1997, I just becoming serious about cooking. I was also in graduate school and could barely afford to buy food, much less a library on preparing it. My mother bought me the ’97. It was nothing short of a godsend, and remains a book I turn to repeatedly.

My other two editions—a ’64 and the fabled ’75—see less actual recipe use. Instead I troll their “about” sections. I turn to them for solid advice on table setting, alcoholic beverages, their peerless pages on coffee and tea service.

But every Halloween I open the ’64 for the roasted pumpkin seed recipe. My husband adores roasted pumpkin seeds; it is my wifely duty to separate string and slime from those precious morsels. I could probably roast pumpkin seeds without the book, but the ’64 Joy reminds me to set the oven at 250 degrees, not 350 or even the 400 I was planning on, saving me from burning my beloved’s once-yearly treat.

Here is Laurie Colwin, writing of her 1942 edition:

“Because it was published during the war, it has recipes for eggless cakes and long-lasting cookies that you could send to your boys overseas. The recipes are clear and will never fail you.” (More Home Cooking, 126)

“The recipes are clear and will never fail you.” They will also tell you about the society your grandparents inhabited, the way your mother was told to cook when she married, and the way you live now. In 1942 we sent our boys cookies. We planted victory gardens. We were in the right, and we knew it.

The '64 has a page of menus for Afternoon Tea. Suggested dishes include mixed seafood newburg, pineapple biscuits with cream cheese, canape snails, and cucumber lilies. In 1964, Americans were not sitting before computers at four o’clock, or running off to the gym, or driving their kids to soccer while arguing on a cell telephone. Some were sitting down to tea with canape snails and cucumber lilies. Then they went home to dinner, which might be Salmon Loaf with Cheese Sauce, or Pork Tenderloin Fruit Casserole. Jack was gone, but race riots and hippie revolt were still a couple years off.

By 1975, we'd been in, then out, of Viet Nam. We sent our boys nothing, then ignored them when they returned. The hippie era had come and gone. Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Jimi, Janis, and Jim were all dead. Nixon lied and was pardoned (and how quaintly civilized his crimes seem today, in the grim light of comparison). Vegetarianism was creeping into the mainstream. In the ’75, Afternoon Tea menus shrink to a half-page; we have cold glazed salmon, soybean casserole, seviche.

Leap forward, to the maligned ’97. True, this edition won’t tell you how to skin a porcupine. But when where you last challenged by this onerous task? The “tired” little dishes include salmon pate and tapenade; the grains section includes Thai coconut rice and couscous. The beef, poultry, and fish roam the earth’s cuisines without being prohibitively difficult to prepare.

Now, hopelessly mired in yet another losing war, parents send their boys (and girls) body armor as Scribners gives us a “repaired” 75th edition of Joy.

I’ll buy it and simply add it to the burgeoning cookbook shelf, and so will a lot of other people. And a cookbook shelf lined with editions of Joy is indeed a joyous sight. Devotees see an honest, reliable cookbook, from the first collection assembled by a grieving housewife on down to her grandson, his wife, and a host of publishing people looking to cash in this holiday season. Yes, there are some bad things about this latest edition. There are bad things about all the editions. But Joy is uniquely American, in all its incarnations. Our history, both national and personal (how many of us have our mother’s Joy? How many of us received it as a wedding gift?), is bound up in it. The recipes are clear and will never fail you. It would be nice if we could say this about American governmental policy. We can’t. But here is Joy, 75 years old and going strong.

Does the world need another Joy? Do you?

Do you even need to ask?

The Colwin quite comes from More Home Cooking, Harper Perennial. 1988

Thursday, November 02, 2006

More Desperate Characters

Only these characters are real. You can read about them here.

The people chronicled in Julian Dibbell's article adhere to an eating regimen called caloric restriction. So do the monkeys in this article.

Caloric restriction is just what it sounds like: limiting your calorie intake to the minimun required for survival. The difference between CR, as it adherents refer to it, and anorexia lies in the pursuit of health. A person on CR seeks nutrient dense calories, whereas the anorexic seeks, well, nothingness.

Numerous scientific studies indicate that CR extends lifespan in monkeys, worms, yeasts, and, perhaps, humans, though we're not sure yet. Until recently, it was difficult to locate volunteers, and most of the current crop aren't old enough yet to crow about their successes.

The CR acolytes in Dibbell's article weigh every morsel they intend to ingest; meals are an intricate mathematical calculation of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. April Smith, a CR doyenne with a popular blog, is described as she removes a scallop from a salad: too much protein. Her boyfriend, Michael Rose, is viewed as the John Galt of the CR movement. He is six feet tall and weighs one hundred fifteen pounds. He maintains this weight by eating 1,913 calories daily. His hands are orange from the relatively high proporation of beta-carotene in his diet. His emaciated appearance is defended by fellow CR acolyte Paul Mclothin:

"Men are sterotyped and still associated with Arnold Schwarzenegger...but...when I see a man like Michael, I think thats how a man should be. I think he looks absolutely handsome--intelligent, dapper, sexy. It's a mark of intelligence, of how a great role model should be: slim, bright, calorie restricted!" (130)

These people are crazy. You'e realized that by now, right? No? Let's consider what they eat. Vegetables, nuts, low/non-fat dairy, an egg subsitute called Eggology. No meat. No full fat. No sugar. No bread. Droplets of red wine, due to resveratrol.

And Quorn. That's not a misspelling. Quorn is a fermented soil mold grown in fermentation vats and processed with additional vitamins. Like tofu or tempeh, it can then be used as a high protein meat substitute.

If you are okay with eating fermented soil molds.

Starving yourself does come with downsides: you need to be careful, lest you begin losing bone and muscle. Your sex drive will go wacky. April Smith claims her has soared, while her boyfriend notes his has dropped. Still, they claim their sex life is wonderfully enhanced by their empty bellies.

I wonder about maintaining bone density, partcularly in those women prone to osteoporosis. What about pregnancy? Raising children? How do you feed them? What, and how much? Illness?

I am averse to any "food" not naturally occurring. Eggology and Quorn fall under this admittedly broad category.

What about the hunger pangs that must plague these people? Hunger is the body's way of conveying information about the state of the organism. Namely, it needs fueling. What's next? Prolonged thirst? Ignoring the urge to relieve oneself?

Yes, we all know about the mystical high starving people experience, but years of adhering to a low calorie diet must dull the glassy edges; like any drug, at some point you need more--less, in this case--to maintain that elusive state.

But why would you? There is no promise of living longer on CR. You might, but quality of life enters the picture. Starvation may not save you from hearing loss, cancer, or ALS, the disease the killed CR researcher Ray Wolford at age 79. Yes, he was 79, but so was my grandfather when he died. My grandfather smoked heavily for over forty years. He ate chicken fat smeared on bread and drank his coffee white with milk and sugar. He loved Cream of Wheat with loads of butter and salt. (No lumps! He would say to me as we dug into our respective bowls.) My grandfather died after a brief illness with his wife of 53 years at his side. Dr. Wolford died of a disease that rapidly destroys the ability to walk, talk, move, breathe, or swallow. It's a horrible disease, a horrible death, and all those refused plates of pasta didn't do a damned thing in the end.

Are the CR people totally wrong? Probably not. We all know getting fat is unhealthy. But if extremely limited eating by choice were the human norm, I think it might have appeared earlier in our evolution. We wouldn't see native diets loaded with fats like yak butter, lard, or fish oils. We wouldn't be drawn, as a species, to animal husbandry. No confit. No pigs. No cows to milk. We wouldn't have all those meat-tearing incisors or omnivorous digestive systems.

Finally, though, the quality of life issue is what gets me most. Starve for years and you might live a long time. And then what? In Simone de Beauvior's All Men are Mortal, the young protagonist comes upon a man lying listlessly in a chaise beside a hotel pool. Day after day he lies unmoving. Finally she approaches him and learns he has been granted the gift of eternal life. But the gift is a nightmare: the man has repeatedly loved and lost friends and lovers. He has witnessed mankind's foibles ad infinitum. Life has lost all savor. The girl is horrfied, unable to believe that human life is ultimately defined by the unavoidable fact that it will end.

Julian Dibbell. The Fast Supper. New York Magazine, October 30, 2006.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Paula Fox's Desperate Characters

I finished reading Paula Fox's Desperate Characters last night. At one hundred fifty-six pages, this tidy little bomb hasn't a word to spare. It's about as inspirational as a bottle of bad bourbon on a lonely Saturday night. Starbucks wouldn't touch it with a latte stirrer.

Published in 1970, Desperate Characters is the story of Sophie and Otto Bentwood, an upper-middle-class couple living in Brooklyn. Childless and houseproud, their marriage a sham, they pick at one another with muted, desperate rage. Sophie is indolent, a translator from the French who cannot find the energy to work; Otto, a lawyer, is outraged by the changing society he inhabits. Underpinning the unraveling marriage is Otto's separation from his law partner, Charlie Russel, whose desire to take on charity cases makes Otto livid.

"There's Family Court," Charlie said, pointing up the street. "Your husband won't set foot in there. Too low class." (35)

Indeed, it is too low class for Otto, but also for Sophie. Both are horrified by the garbage, poverty, and urban ugliness of their city; much is made of the street they inhabit:

"With one or two exceptions, each of the houses on the Bentwoods' block was occupied by one family. All of the houses had been built during the final third of the last century, and were of brick or brownstone. Where the brick had been cleaned, a chalky pink glow gave off an air of antique serenity. Most front parlor windows were covered by white shutters. Where owners had not yet been able to afford them, pieces of fabric concealed the life within behind the new panes of glass. These bits of cloth, even though they were temporary measures, had a certain style, a kind of forethought about taste...what the owners of the street lusted after was recognition of their superior comprehension of what counted in this world, and their strategy for getting it combined restraint and indirection." (12)

Sophie and Otto own a second home, a farmhouse, in the village of Flynders. They drive up one weekend to find locals have systematically vandalized the paintings, the paisley couch, broken the wooden broom. The Bennington-ware pitcher is shattered. "She went into the living room and looked around the bare walls. All the sweet, pretty things were gone, things she had found in junk shops or picked off the ground, or bought in antiques stores." (140)

The caretaker and local law enforcement don't bother to hide their malice. They are the underclass, dependent on summer people like Sophie and Otto to keep their economy solvent.

Everything and everyone is drear; the filthy city, the slovenly neigbors, the unhappy friends. When Sophie finally visits the emergency room to seek treatment for a cat bite, the scene is from Kafka, complete with a scowling guard seated behind a high desk.

Ultimately the book leaves us with nothing but the pitiless light trained on this unhappy couple. Otto and Sophie will continue as they are, nearly paralyzed with unhappiness, rendered incoherent. The anomie, social isolation, and middle-class obsession with a highly perfected sort of real estate are all shockingly contemporary. But for the lack of computers, this book could, sadly, be a current publication.

Paula Fox: Desperate Characters. New York: W.W. Norton, 1970.

Authors, Book Reviews