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.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Breaking Clean

It isn't often one has the opportunity for such an apt title.

Born in 1954 outside Malta, Montana, Judy Blunt grew up with four siblings on a ranch in near-poverty conditions. My paperback edition includes a photo of Blunt and two siblings taken circa 1958. Dressed in ragged clothing, torn shoes, and sporting home haircuts, the children resemble a Dorothea Lange photograph. Blunt's description of her childhood home barely strays from the impression: for years the family relied on wet cell batteries for what little indoor power they had. Laundry got done with a wringer; the toilet was outside, and bathing happened once weekly in large tubs filled with water so high in sulphurs and alkalai visitors sickened from drinking it.

The Blunts raised wheat, alfalfa, and cattle--hamburger on the hoof. And while Blunt's father was better to his herd than most, ensuring they were well fed, making every effort to protect them from harsh weather, soft city readers like me blanch at the no-nonsense attitude taken toward ill-behaved or simply ill animals. Pregnant cows were kept alive until they could give birth. Calves, after all, meant money. Too many cats? Kill some females. Breaking horses meant depriving them, if necessary, of the comfort associated with barns. All of this not to be cruel, but to simply survive. Blunt knew better than to become attached, but fell in love with Ajax, an enormous bull with a puppy's disposition. Against Blunt's better instincts, she bonded with the animal until the day she came to dinner to find his heart on her plate. She ate it, a good girl, but could not bring herself to consume his tongue.

Blunt attended a one-room schoolhouse until eigth grade, then followed older brother Kenny to Malta to attend high school. There she boarded with an elderly woman and began living as an adult. She was thirteen. Her initiation into the mores of high school makes for painful reading, but we root with her as she drops baby fat and learns to enough to pass. After school she waitressed, commencing a long life of hard work both on the ranch and away from it.

Adolescence brought the first feelings of difference. A tomboy with amazing physical strength, she was told in both word and deed that a woman's place was "dishing up" supper for the men. Yet when women were needed out of doors, they were expected to pitch in there as well, coming in with the men not to collapse in armchairs but to cook, clean, and herd the children. All this without modern conveniences like electric stoves, microwave ovens, or dishwashers. Blunt's rage was physical as she grew up watching a mother who was an expert horsewoman and partner in running the ranch acquiesce to her husband's rule. Yet she agreed to marry John, an older rancher, when she was only eighteen. Never mind that shortly before the wedding, in an inchoate rage, she put her hand through a plate glass window.

There are good moments. A summer spent on horseback with sister Gail is lovingly described. Both girls were such skilled riders that they moved bareback through the lands around their home, often lying flat on their horses. "Our legs had grown so strong we no longer held on with our hands, even bareback at full gallop...knotting my reins, I fell back and closed my eyes, head rocking side to side on my mare's rump as she picked her way beneath the willows that draped the steep banks on either side." (143) Yet even this idyll was marred--by Judy's adolescent attachment to a filthy coat, intended to hide her developing body, by the porcupine she killed with her sister, the two of them taking turns beating the animal with sticks. They reassure themselves they are performing a service: porcupines are vermin. Even when they are encountered far from the ranch, on a horseback ride.

This steady undercurrent of anger carries Blunt through her marriage and birth of three children, surfacing in clashes with her meddling in-laws, a growing chasm in her marriage, an initial sleepy refusal to be a "good ranch wife."

The book closes with two anecdotes before abruptly ceasing. The first is a harrowing description of daughter Jeanette's febrile seizures. The young family was forced to race to the distant hospital in rain--meaning the unpaved roads muddy enough to break tires. Blunt telephoned her parents before beginning the arduous journey. Her parents, in turn, called the neighbors. Everyone took to their pickups, creating a string of lit points along the dangerous roadway. A few follow Blunt and her husband until they reach the highway.

The second concerns Blunt's solo efforts to help a calving cow at 3 a.m. The story is emblematic of her early feminist leanings; when she comes upon the cow, she should fetch her husband. Instead she smoked her illicit cigarette and got to work, delivering the animal of her calf not in the standard (male) methods, which she reasoned (rightly) were unnatural, but by allowing the cow to lay on her side, pulling the wayward newborn as the cow pants through contractions. Again the city reader is amazed at Blunt's skill and sheer physical strength. But there, suddenly, the memior halts. We are never told whether the calf she worked so hard to deliver survived. Instead she is driving away from ranch life in an afterword.

The years following Blunt's divorce are a document of single parent suffering. Blunt enrolled in college, learned to lay and sand wood floors, and ran a painting business on the side. Somehow she managed to find writing time, creating a book whose lean, sharp prose reflects the unsparing beauty of Montana. Her deftness and willingness to work hard are more than admirable. They are awe-inspiring. And yet I wished the memoir had contained just a bit more--what happened to elder sister Margaret? To bubbly younger sister Gail? Did the calf live? But herein is the difficulty of writing about living people: at some point one must stop writing, even as the life or lives documented continue.

Judy Blunt: Breaking Clean. New York: Vintage Paperbacks. 2002.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Confit and Cookies

Two foods we may agree are bad in combination (unless you are Grant Achatz) but delicious consecutively.

As I write two logs of lemon clove cookie dough are chilling in the freezer. These yummy morsels are little more than an excuse to eat butter and sugar together (a combination we can all agree on). The recipe comes from Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Menu cookbook and is so easy to make even I can do it. Have I ever mentioned I am not much of a baker? I can bake cookies and do reasonably well with squash bread, but I'm no cake baker. And the mere thought of pie crust makes me anxious. Who wants to fuss with shortening and icewater?

More importantly, it's confit time again. This is my third go at the business, guided by Judy Rodger's Zuni Cafe Cookbook. In addition to duck legs, I am confiting chicken gizzards in a separate pot. Gesiers Confits--as Rodgers notes, it sounds so much nicer in French.

Until two days ago I'd never bought gizzards. They were an impulse purchase. I was thinking I could try a ragu. I was also thinking about Anthony Bourdain's admonition in the Les Halles Cookbook: "I urge you to buy the cheapest, toughest--but best quality--beef you can get. Then challenge yourself to make something delightful out of it." (121) So this isn't beef, but if it works, it will be delightful, and, at 58 cents for the gizzards, cheap.

Later that same afternoon...

First error of confit adventure numero tres: I bought eight duck legs. The pot holds six. This horrific oversight demands we eat the extra two for dinner tonight. Molly Stevens to the rescue with duck leg ragu. I now have duck in the oven and atop the stove, with the gizzards bubbling away alongside. The kitchen table is covered with by the computer and four open cookbooks. The entire place smells pungently of duck fat. Madness has set in.

Even later...

The confits stand cooling beside the stove in their respective jars. The duck ragu is cooling in the oven (which is off). Hockeyman is watching the French Canadian feed of Montreal vs. the Florida Panthers. Hockeyman does not speak French. Nonetheless he is elated to watch Martin Gelinas get interviewed between periods. It's easy to guess his comments: we need to beat them, they're a great team, etc, etc. They say the same thing every time.

The kitchen still smells like a flock ( a school? a group?) of ducks flew in for rendering, but the the cookbooks are put away and things are basically under control.

Is it a brace of ducks? A vee?

Thursday, December 28, 2006

At loose ends

At year's end. I'm trying to get through the sort of stupid projects people load themselves with on vacation: cleaning out the fridge, attacking perilously overstuffed closets, tossing tons of paper. I am catching up on various bits of reading: the past three issues of Poets and Writers, the Didion omnibus, and Judy Blunt's Breaking Clean, a book I started months ago and then left on the shelf.

P&W offers excellent information to the would-be writer while being incredibly dull. Reading it is like eating cornflakes: the essential nutrients are there, stripped to mere palatability.

Didion is DEPRESSING. It's one thing to read her books individually, but the Everyman's is relentless. One downer essay after another, all enhanced by my increased familiarity with California (I first read her in college, a recent transplant) and the joys of getting older. It's also difficult to encounter Quintana, as one does repeatedly, tagging along with her mother on a book tour or begging to meet Georgia O'Keefe. John Gregory Dunne is everywhere, too, but I'm finding that less upsetting: he died at 71. Quintana was 39.

Blunt is just that: anybody haboring variants on escape-to-Montana fantasies would do well to read her unsparing account of life on a Montana ranch. Everyone works from sunup to sundown, the weather is brutal, the cattle require endless care. One farm accident or storm can destroy years of grueling work, as a 1964 blizzard did, leaving over half the Blunt family cattle dead. As winter eased into spring, even more died from the continuing effects of exposure, losing ears, tails, hooves. Many delivered stillborn calves.

I'll talk more about the book when I'm finished. For the moment I can only wonder how a writer--a person who hungered for books and the symphony--emerged from such beginnings.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Holiday Dinners

Well, it's over for another year.

The day after Christmas is always a combination of relief and letdown. Even for me. I'm not sure why. We had a nice day; we received great gifts. For me, two cookbooks, Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Vegetables and Jennifer MacLagan's Bones.

I am most of the way through Bones, which is full of wonderful recipes for everything from fish to frog legs. The book's sole disappointment is actually not the book's fault: gnawing bones is one of the best ways to wreck orthodontia. I once knocked a bracket off (the square metal "braces") chomping on the remains of a pork chop. Naturally I thought God was punishing me for eating treyfe. But no: the punishment is having crooked teeth and having to wait to make Deviled Beef Ribs until I am metal-free. Whenever that is.

But back to happier topics. I thumbed through CP Vegetables, found brussels sprouts with butter and chicken broth, and prepared them last night.

After some consideration, I had decided not to go overboard with the Christmas cooking this year. It's only the two of us, and while we both like to eat, neither of us possess large appetites. A huge bird with four side dishes and dessert would only overwhelm. So we went the simple, albeit expensive, route, purchasing a small prime rib roast from Enzo's Butcher in Oakland's Market Hall. With the roast--three pounds, two ribs--we ate the aforementioned sprouts and fingerling potatoes roasted in the crock pot. Dessert was a pie (purchased--no pie maker I). A bottle of Barbaresco. That's it. And we still have leftovers.

The roast intimidated me. I'd never prepared prime rib before. And my oven, while adequate, is no Viking. So here I was, with a fifty-dollar piece of meat and a case of nerves. I consulted all my Joys, like a good girl, and basically got the idea: a brief period of high heat, followed by a longer period of gentle roasting. Even I can handle that.

On Sunday I trimmed the meat of its excess snowy fat, mindful of the knife. Trimming fat is entertaining and it's easy to get carried away. This is fine with lamb, but the Romabuer Becker clan warns us that some fat must be left of on rib roast. I contained myself, then gave the meal a salt rubdown and tucked it back in the fridge.

Yesterday I took the roast from the fridge at 3:30 and heated the oven to 450 degrees. At 4:30 I popped it in. After half an hour I turned the heat down to 325 and waited. While waiting I opened the Barbaresco, which the wine merchant said needed to time to aerate before drinking. Oenophile that I am (not), I decided a small taste test was necessary. Very nice. It is safe to say that wine, like scotch, has a direct relationship to its price. This wine tasted every penny of its thirty dollars, which sort of made me wish I'd never bought it.

Taste test concluded, I set about making a jus (Jews do not do gravy. We just don't). This consisted of a cheaper red wine, butter, shallots, dried mushrooms soaked in hot water, the water strained for grit and added to the pot, and a bit of chicken stock. I let this reduce while the roast did its thing. By six o'clock the meat had browned nicely and read just under 130 degrees on my meat thermometer.

Every cookbook tells you to take the drippings and make pan gravy. Frankly, these drippings were so fatty I stuck with my wine/mushroom concotion.

Carving was a challenge as I have no carving knife. I made a few game slices with Hockeyman's eight-inch Henckels. Kitty offered his assistance, but I managed to carve the thing without bludgeoning it. (Or Kitty, who was in the way but only trying to help.)

Hockeyman, it turns out, had never eaten prime rib and of course though it wonderful. For a modest boy he has an expensive palate.

I was just relieved that damned thing turned out, and ate carefully around my latest bit of broken orthodontia, a loose wire.

We do indeed have leftovers, but not the overwhelming kind you end up guiltily tossing. We'll eat more meat tonight, but I am hoarding the beefy ribs for tomorrow's meal: lentil soup with beef bones, carrot, and (if I get to the market) leeks.

Oh, for a bandsaw in the kitchen.....

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Barking Kitten, Official Mossback

In this article, we read of the lucky few chosen to lay down linguistic law.

What wordy type doesn't harbor a wish to be on such a committee?

"Such a split (between word usage) does not unsettle Barbara Wallraff, a panel member who writes the syndicated column 'Word Court.' 'It doesn’t mean half of us are right and half are wrong,' she said. 'It means that educated opinion is divided and you won’t look like an idiot either way. And if you want to be more traditional, that will be pretty clear; if you want to be in the vanguard, that will be clear.'"

So usage is merely a matter of fashion?

'You can think of it that way, and I often do,' Ms. Wallraff said. 'Some people shop at Brooks Brothers and they don’t want this year’s outfit because it won’t be current next year. Other people say, ‘I need something with a little metallic in it, so I’ll look like I know what’s going on out there.’"

And what kind of a word shopper is Ms. Wallraff? "I have a big closet.''

David Foster Wallace, also on the committee:

"Mr. Wallace, meanwhile, is a self-described Syntax Nudnik of Our Time, or Snoot. In his 2005 book of essays, 'Consider the Lobster,' he explained: 'The Evil is all around us: boners and clunkers and solecistic howlers and bursts of voguish linguistic methane that make any Snoot’s cheek twitch and forehead darken. A fellow Snoot I know likes to say that listening to most people’s English feels like watching somebody use a Stradivarius to pound nails. We are the Few, the Proud, the Appalled at Everyone Else.'"

Amen, brother! I work with somebody who uses the article "a" before all nouns. "A apple." "A bus." "A accident." She is a native speaker of English, a high school graduate with a professional working history. I like her immensely, but her speech often makes me want to scream.

Of course she isn't the only linguistic criminal. It's college application time, that dread moment when would-be doctoral students must submit both a "personal statement" and a "statement of purpose" along with their transcripts and glowing letters of reccommendation.

I read every application to our department. This is, for the most part, a grueling experience. I am not speaking here of the international students; many have understandably fragmented English. It is the native speakers who give me grief.

Out of nearly 150 essays, perhaps four are well-organized, utilize correct spelling, punctuate accurately, and generally adhere to some notion of linguistic "flow." Most are disorganized heaps of words tossed into the computer like so many pieces of Play-Doh hurled at the wall.

Though I would love to quote, I cannot, as it violates student privacy laws. And it isn't a nice thing to do anyway.

Our applicants are the proverbial cream of the crop. Most are white, the progeny of wealthy, highly educated professionals able to send their children to the best schools. These kids do not need to work; they spend their summers working in labs, go abroad for junior year, participate in kiddie orchestra or the cycling team.

But their written English reflects none of this privilege. Most have impoverished vocabularies; in their effors to sound educated, they make poor word choices: "discernable" instead of "clear", "abstract" instead of "confusing," "currency" instead of wealth. [Hockeyman here - BK says the criminal in question really meant "wealth" by "currency", not "money". I asked. Horrors!] One wrote "fare" instead of "fair." [HM - AAAARRRRRRGGGGH!] I realize these missteps aren't so terrible out of context, but collectively they add up to an illiterate nation.

Hell, just listen to Bush, if you can bear to.

Am I a mossback language prescriptivist? Yep. That is, I have no objection to the appalling slang that stands in for English communication these days, provided people are taught to read and speak standard English. It appears most are not, robbing them of the choice to either communicate in slang or utilize what my college linguistics professor called "high register" speech. As a nation we are the poorer for it. Individually, lack of standard English is economcially hurtful; it is difficult to find employment in, say, a law firm when you cannot answer the telephone professionally. We're less inclined to admit you to our Ph.D. program when you cannot articulate your research interests.

Nor do you care whether the dictionary determines "factoid" or "irregardless" as standard. You don't realize they aren't, and never will be, irregardless of how the New Oxford American Dictionary Committee votes.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Monsters of selfishness

I am currently in the middle of Edna O'Brien's Penguin Lives biography of James Joyce.

I read both Brenda Maddox's biography of Nora Joyce and Noel Riley Fitch's of Sylvia Beach years ago, but don't recall either well. In fact, I owned them, until one awful day in grad school when Hockeyman and I, desperate for funds, sold seven shelves worth of books. We received seventy dollars, which we immediately spent at Safeway. But there are books I miss to this day, Maddox's and Fitch's being only two of them.

But back to James. I confess I've never been a fan. I limped my way through Portrait, picking up Finnegan's Wake and Ulysses only to put them down immediately. Wordplay, as I have oft said, is not my thing. But Joyce and Nora were seminal figures, indeed larger than life types, so at least I can extend myself by reading about them.

I understand the man was brilliant, and though Nora was uneducated, she wasn't stupid. But my God--James was a monster. Were he and his brother Stanlislaus alive today, poor Stan would be seeking therapy for codependency, the Joyce family would stage an intervention on James' boozy proclivities, and poor Lucia would receive the lithuim she desperately needed as Giorgio heads off to a nice, calm prep school.

But Finnegan would never be written! No Ulysses! No Dubliners!

Nope, probably not. Some folks thrive in twelve step, but I can't see Joyce, with his hatred of the Church, giving it up to a higher power while Stanislaus heads off to a woodland yoga retreat.

But. But. Joyce is one in a long line of genius writers who are selfish monsters. Hemingway. Colette. Kerouac. Anais Nin. Fitzgerald was not, but Zelda was, and she, along with booze, finished the job. Woolf was monstrous in her way: capable of cruelty to those she thought dull, violent during her sieges of illness. It is said Andre Dubus Sr. spent all of his time writing, neglecting three marriages and six children. Simone de Beauvior and Jean-Paul Sartre were, by their own admission, terrible users of others.

The question, then, is how to be a writer without being a monster. The monstrousness can stem from either a sense of greatness or paralyzing self-doubt; in some cases it is a demand for time, accompanied by the certainty that one's writing is worthy of such demand. I am thinking here of Anais Nin, who dressed herself in velvets and fucked around while husband Hugh sacrified his own dreams working in a bank. Nin's maid, Emilia, not only cleaned out the tub but helped conceal her mistress' countless infidelities. Colette, freed of her early marriage to Willy, ignored her dying mother's pleas to be visited and treated her one daughter atrociously, excoriating her for lesbianism, conveniently overlooking her own long liasion with Missy, the Marquise de Belboeuf. (Thanks here to Judith Thurman's magnificant biography of Colette for Missy's full title.)

Among current writers we have interviews, hearsay, and our own nosy opinions. Marge Piercy, poet and novelist, comes across in her memoir, Sleeping with Cats, as a nasty, self-centered woman quite assured of her genius. Kate Atkinson is damned good. Just ask her. Jonathan Franzen excels at foot-in-mouth while Chuck Palahniuk is all over the map. Even poor Alice Munro is subject to daughter Sheila's interpretation of life with a Great Writer.

Where, then, is balance? Is there balance? Jane Smiley comes across as unfailingly nice, even as she blasts the current Administration. Margaret Atwood, she of the acid tongue, is the epitome of Canadian graciousness. Kent Haruf is amazed and gratified by his recognition. Carol Shields managed to raise five children and run a household, writing all the while. Joyce Carol Oates des not have children, but is long-married and a committed professor. (As in she actually teaches courses, unlike many of the luminaries on certain university payrolls.) Joan Didion is polite to the point of self-effacement. Somehow these writers have found something approximating balance, or, barring that, a means of juggling competing demands.

I am not a genius. I am not always a nice person (thought I try to be) , but nor am I a selfish monster. If I were, I'd get a lot more writing done. This much is certain. I would also get a lot more writing done if I were willing to live in a dirty house, avoid the laundry, exist on take-out. Oh, and ignore my husband while expecting him keep me as I pen my way toward greatness.

I am unwilling. And so my writing suffers.

I struggle with this: maybe my obsession with housekeeping is indicative of deeper lack. Geniuses care not about dust.

Annie Dillard writes:

"During that time (she was writing the second half of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) I let all the houseplants die. After the book was finished I noticed them; the plants hung completely black-dead in thier pots by the bay window...

'I understand you're married,' a man said to me at a formal lunch in New York my publisher had arranged. 'How do you have time to write a book?'


'Well, ' he said, 'you have to have a garden, for instance. You have to entertain.' And I thought he was foolish, this man in his seventies, who had no idea what you must do. But the fanaticism of my twenties shocks me now. As I feared it would." (37)

There is comfort in this, and comfort in not being the sort of person who "touches" others for money, as Joyce did. In not ignoring a homesick mate caring for two small children in appalling conditions. In not expecting a sibling to do all the heavy lifting while I feed my brilliance.

Likely then I am condemned never to have a Penguin Lives written about me. I will not be remembered as a genius. But nobody will ever read about me--or you, bogged down in holiday preparations--and think: what a selfish monster.

Annie Dillard: The Writing Life. New York: Harper and Row. 1989.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A child of royalty speaks

I like biography and memoir as much as the next book freak, with a special fondness for biographies/memoirs about women. Basically, I want to see what I'm doing wrong, or be reminded how talentless I really am. Thus Judith Thurman's bio of Colette, Noel Riley Fitch on Sylvia Beach and Anais Nin, Alice on Gertrude, Virginia both about herself and as observed by others. And the list goes on.

But then there are other biographies...Linda Gray Sexton's Searching for Mercy Street. Diane Wood Middlebrook's Anne Sexton: A biography. Both of these books were controversial, Sexton's for its unrelenting portrait of her mother, Middlebrook's for its liberal use of the Sexton's psychiatric notes. Both books were revealing--arguably too much so--and created something of an industry around an alluring subject.

From here it isn't even a leap to the Plath/Hughes industrial complex, complete with movies starring Gwyneth Paltrow (as if) and Daniel Craig (currently making his mark as the new Bond), any number of scholarly and not-so-scholarly works, "fictionalized" books. An academic cottage industry based on attacking Ted Hughes for his decision to destroy part of Plath's journals to spare her children.


A few years ago I attended a book awards ceremony. Before the proceedings, the nominees milled with the hoi polloi, everybody sipping white wine and attempting to appear relaxed. I found myself in conversation with Kate Moses, author of Wintering, a fictional account of Plath's final months. Moses was friendly if very shy, telling me she was there representing Wood Middlebrook, who had been nominated for Her Husband.

I was mortified. Of course I knew of both books; I considered my decision not to read them a political one. I was offended by the wholesale plundering of the Hughes' lives. Ted Hughes was dead, but his children with Plath, Nicholas and Frieda, were, and remain, alive and well. I could not--cannot--imagine how awful it must be to be born into such scrutiny, to have your family's life judged by people who never earned the right to invade. Most of us are fortunate in being born to non-public figures whose errors large and small are not writ into literary history. One more reason to be thankful this holiday season.

I was nice to Moses, pretended I'd never heard of her, her book, or Middlebrook. I sipped my wine. Her Husband did not win.


Leap back to the present, finding me (again) in Pegasus, holding Frieda Hughes' volume, "forty-five." In her own words:

"On my fortieth birthday, April 1, 2000, I wanted to celebrate what was a significant date for me...Being a poet and a painter, I thought of writing a poem and painting a picture for each year of my life, from birthday to birthday--" (xi)

The poems are accompanied by paintings--not in the book, alas, but here.

The book is an extraordinary document. Hughes, to her credit, doesn't even try to set herself apart from her famous parents. Instead, she describes, and becomes herself in the description. Her life has been hellish, marred not only by her mother but a loveless stepmother, physical illness, bad men. Poverty that surprised me. Where is all that money from the movies and books going? Back to the creators, the writers and producers. How naive of me.

I am no Helen Vendler, and will not subject anybody to poetic analysis. The book is accessible to anybody, exquisitely worded, sad. That Hughes survived at all, making art in two mediums, is testament to her incredible strength. I suggest you leave the vultures, popular and academic, in their nitpicking trees and buy this book immediately.

Frieda Hughes: forty-five: poems. New York: Harper Collins. 2006.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Flirting with disaster

Many of us have experienced music playing in our heads, a stray bit of soundtrack that suddenly strikes us as appropos to a situation. I daresay, though, that rarely does one think of Molly Hatchet whilst making cream of broccoli soup.

The disaster began, as so many do, with good intentions.

Last night I was defrosting a chicken for tonight's dinner. This meant I had a neck, along with gizzards. I had a cache of duck bones in the freezer and three (that's two too many) bunches of farm broccoli in the fridge. I would make a broth, then add the broccoli, a little cream, and bring out my new cooking toy and puree it all into a nice hot soup on a really cold night.

Well, this bright idea occurred to me at 4:30 in the afternoon, which was a bit late for broth from scratch if we wanted to eat by seven. Never mind. I sliced leeks, carrots, and garlic, added the bones and neck, and got everything simmering.

This left me with the broccoli. What to do? If I boiled it in the broth, the whole thing would taste bitter. I decided to slow-roast the broccoli in the oven.

Big mistake. I didn't cut the broccoli into small enough pieces. The stalks remained stubbornly tree-like at 6:15. I cut everything up in the very pan it roasted in (don't try this. just don't), tossed it into the now boiling hot soup, sifted out the bones, and lowered the immersion blender into the mess.

Bad noises. Splattering. Foaming of the cream into a latte-like froth. Swearing. Hockeyman pulling himself from Hockey Night in Canada to help.

Cleaned up, sliced the broccoli more, discarding all but the florets. Immersioning again, with somewhat better results, though the broccoli disintegrated into those tiny annoying bits. I ladled the soup into bowls, grated a bit of cheese over them, and tasted. H-man said the soup was too thin--ever wonder why cream soups call for for potatoes? The cheese helped, as did the tortillas we shredded and tossed in. This sounds awful but was actually okay.

Lessons learned: cut vegetables into small pieces. If said veggies are hard, like broccoli, parboil them. Be careful about texture: thin soups are okay if they lead into a larger meal, but otherwise, add that potato.

Because Molly Hatchet is not what you want to hear in your head when making dinner.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Publishing: lower and lower

I was to happy to read of Judith Regan's firing. To quote Stella McCartney's T-shirt at father's Paul's induction into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame, about fucking time.

I had a moment of quiet (well, not really. I yelled a few choice things) satisfaction. A brief moment. Then I met the "Yummy Mummy." Interestingly, this article appears in the NYT's Style section, not the Sunday Book Review. Maybe nobody in the book section wanted to be associated with this garbage? God knows.

Motherhood as topic? The article cites Toni Morrison and Sue Miller, forgetting Marilyn French, Margaret Atwood, or Anne Tyler, whose most recent book was about adoption. Never mind. Today's generation of Mommy-Lit is different:

"They are written in the wry voices of a generation of women who came of age after feminism, and they have a newly competitive, higher-end set of woes: $10,000 pacifier consultants, nanny-swiping and Harvard-like nursery school applications. Also present is chick-lit’s familiar cast of characters: the single best friend, the dutiful boyfriend (now husband) and a seductive other man who threatens to upset the apple cart."

Give me a fucking break. These writers are but a sliver of society, the hopelessly out-of-touch wealthy inhabiting the coasts. The article does give mention to blogs complaining about this rarified air, but the publishing world, personified by editor Stacy Creamer, who brought us masterwork "The Devil Wears Prada", is all over the trend, anxious to capitalize on a strollerful of publications before the Mummies turn to divorce and menopause.

And the Mummy authors are upset, too. We aren't taking them seriously. Ayelet Waldman, an intelligent woman who should know better, says The Corrections was about a family but nobody called it Daddy lit. Because it wasn't. Because at no point in the book does Franzen write of nannies, stolen or otherwise, strollers, or the woes of the correct preschool. Because the term "Yummy Mummy" would never pass through the man's word processor.

Let us hope the Yummy Mummies go the way of Judith Regan, whose increasingly offensive antics finally got her shitcanned. Though I fear, like yeast infections, both will persist.

Friday, December 15, 2006

I never promised you a rose garden

Some of you may remember the Lynn Anderson song. Others may recall the 1964 Joanne Greenberg novel, which is what I am talking about here.

I've had the book since childhood (yet another bearing my sadly neat childhood script on the inside cover), and read it greedily in adolescence. Over time I read many other Joanne Greenberg novels--With the Snow Queen, Of Such Small Differences, In this Sign.

I picked up Rose Garden again idly, looking for something to read between new books. The reread had all the ephemeral qualities of something remembered yet seen entirely differently through the lens of adulthood. I missed much about this book as a young woman--the literary references, Anti-Semitism in the wake of World War II, the toll protagonist Deborah Blau's mental illness takes on her family.

For those new to the book, a quick summary. I Never Promised You A Rose Garden is the story of sixteen-year-old Deborah Blau, a schizophrenic who, to her parents' dismay, is finally hospitalized after a suicide attempt. The story is set in postwar Chicago, where the Blau family has struggled to achieve a noblesse oblige amidst openly anti-semitic neighbors. Precocious, artistically talented Deborah is always different; after years of confusion and taunting, she withdraws into the secret world of Yr, a land populated by alternately mocking and loving gods, with places both ugly and beautiful. Yr has its own calendar, rules, and language; a Censor carefully monitors Deborah's every action in the shadowy place most of us call reality. Over time the good parts of Yr give way to pain, terror, and punishments. Deborah's weak attempts to survive in the real world collapse; upon hospitalization, Doctor Clara Fried, an eminent psychiatrist, agrees to take on her case. Three years of talk therapy rebuild Deborah into a coherent, functioning young woman.

The story is modeled directly on Greenberg's illness and hospitalization as a teenager; the created world is hers, the eminent psychiatrist real.

Apart from being well-written, the book's representation of mental illness and treatment is dated in all the wrong ways. Save for the wealthiest amongst us, few have access to the kind of care Deborah receives: three years in a hospital populated by skilled nurses, doctors, and attendants, many good at their work and pleased to be doing it. It is impossible to imagine such a scenario today, when dire nursing shortages make it necessary to seek workers offshore. When skilled attendants are nearly impossible to come by and so atrociously paid that few can afford to stay in the field. We cannot envision a poluation of mental patients sedated only at bedtime. In fact, the very words "mental illness" are now indelibly associated with a host of medications easier to get than tobacco products. Paxil, Effexor, Zoloft, Prozac, Lexapro.

Even talk therapy has become contested, a dinosaur in light of pharmaceutical therapy. Not to mention expensive and time-consuming. What HMO allows endless therapist visits, much less daily visits?

Equally amazing is Greenberg's Deborah, whose schooling is hopelessly fragmented by illness--no mainstreaming for this young woman--yet she remarks to Dr. Fried that the young nurse escorting her from the office back to the ward cannot understand them, because "Charon spoke in Greek." (25) When the doctors refuse to believe her regarding an abuse attendant, she asks "Is Pilate everybody's last name around here?" (125) Not only does desperately ill Deborah, cut off from books, newspapers, media, know these things, so too, is the reader expected to know them.

Deborah's emergence into wholeness is an examination of a world the sane take for granted: trees, food, seasons. Bodily sensation in response to stimuli. Expression. Comprehension of others. Friendship and love.

The book is a good one, well worth reconsideration as the goverment dithers over the efficacy of black box warnings on SSRI's and the chronically mentally ill, freed from hospitalization courtesy of Reagonomics, sleep in the streets.

Greenberg is in her seventies now; it would be interesting to know her thoughts on the turn psychotherapy has taken since it saved her life so many years ago.

Joanne Greenberg. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. Signet Press: 1964.

N.B: This book sometimes appears with Greenberg's pseudonym, Hannah Green.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Holiday Reading

I am in the process of assembling my holiday vacation (ten days! ten days!) book pile. Thus far I have four books, including the Everyman's Joan Didion, which I am barely a quarter of the way through. The other books:

The Middle Stories, by Sheila Heti.

Sheila Heti is Canadian, and before two o'clock this afternoon I'd never heard of her. I was browsing in the University bookstore in an effort to find a gift for Hockeyman. In six years of working on campus, I've spent little time in the bookstore; it's subcontracted to a conglomerate and stocked rather shallowly. But it was raining and I didn't want to go back to the office quite yet. So what the hell, right? There on the sale table was Lydia Davis' Samuel Johnson is Indignant for $5.98. Sometimes remainders are a bummer. Like, this great book has to be remaindered? Never mind. Here was this Sheila Heti person. The book design grabbed my attention: a small paperback, about the size of my hand, with a photo of two Asian teenagers standing on a foggy beach. My description doesn't do it justice. It's a collection of short stories, put out by MacSweeney's. I am not a MacSweeney's fan, but this book looks appealing. There are some great Canadian writers that are hard to find Stateside. We'll see if Sheila is one of them.

Holy The Firm, by Annie Dillard.

Six dollars at Pegasus. Holy the Firm is seventy-six pages of Annie Dillard trying to make sense of life while living on an island in Puget Sound. Like Didion, she is one of the great composers of sentences, so this should be great, even if it's over and read in ninety minutes.

James Joyce, by Edna O'Brien.

This a biography in the Penguin Lives series. Evidently the folks at Penguin seek out contemporary writers to compose brief bios of influential persons. War historian John Keegan wrote one about Winston Churchill; Nigel Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West's son, wrote one about Virginia Woolf; Jane Smiley's on Charles Dickens is charming. All are roughly two hundred pages, with elegant dust jackets and Bodoni Book font.

I'll need more. I read quickly. But I am trying to economize a bit, looking for remainders or new stuff that's coming in used. I'd like to read Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, but not enough to spend full hardcover price on it. Ditto the Accidental. I am also hankering for Chez Panisse Vegetables, which is thirty-five dollars unless I order it (wince) from Amazon.

Reading and cooking are damned expensive habits.

A solitary meal with Elizabeth Friend

Tonight is Hockeyman's office holiday party. He was not clear whether spouses were expected/invited/required to attend. I was only too happy not to press the issue. It's Wednesday, for Godssakes. I got up at five a.m. and worked all day. I gotta do it again tomorrow. An evening alone with a solitary meal sounded divine.

I decided on chard with olive oil, garlic, shallots, and a little butter. Rounding this out, some rice, cooked in the ginger duck broth leftover from our Thanksgiving dinner.

I blogged about that dinner, the recipe coming from Amanda Hesser, who got it from her mother-in-law, Elizabeth.

I sat down to dine with the December 18th issue of The New Yorker, freshly arrived. It's rare that I get first dibs on New Yorkers--H-man always grabs them first, his pile of unfinishd back issues notwithstanding. But I was alone! Ha!

I turned to the table of contents and found Tad Friend's Personal History: "The Playhouse," an essay about his mother, Elizabeth, the woman whose ginger duck broth sat cooling beside the magazine. I then had the singularly coincidental, unplanned experience of reading about the woman who created the meal I was eating. This is not the same as reading about Alice Waters whilst eating something out of Chez Panisse Cooking; generally, cooks plan a recipe. Eating it whilst reading about its creator may come after the fact. Or not.

But here was Elizabeth, so much of her time and place: bright, repressed, WASP-y. Denied a father. Subsuming her talents into marriage and motherhood. Coming into her own a bit once those children--one becoming Tad Friend, staff writer for the New Yorker--were grown.

Doubling the oddity of the experience was my misguided sense of already "knowing" Elizabeth Friend via Amanda Hesser's flattering portrait in Cooking For Mr. Latte. Here, from an entirely different perspective, was the woman I knew whose kitchen was "the workshop of a true cook." (66) That superbly designed kitchen, it turns out, was the result of intense design work by a woman obsessed with architectural detail, a hoarder who remodeled vigorously.

I read the essay, which is sad, forgiving, beautifully written. Elizabeth Friend died soon after Amanda Hesser's depiction of her, killed by the cancer everyone thought she'd beaten. I finished my rice, which had soaked up all the broth, and silently thanked Elizabeth Friend, all too human, for her recipe, and her unexpected company.

The quote comes from Amanda Hesser's Cooking for Mr. Latte. "The Playhouse" appears in the December 18th issue of the New Yorker.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Fully immersed

The blender was successfully test-driven by Hockeyman last night, who declared it "a bit anticlimactic." Perhaps because it turned a laborious operation into a ten-second run through the pot, topped off with an additional ten-second rinse in the sink. What a relief after the blender.

We did indeed make lentil soup:

A ham hock

Chicken broth

Three stalks of young garlic, green parts included

One and one-half cups boring brown lentils (Le Puys, touted by cookbook writers everywhere, are a fortune)





Amounts...well, I didn't measure anything save the lentils. I tossed the onion, garlic, and carrot into the soup pot with some butter, let it brown, then dumped in everything else. It seemed a bit dry, so I added white wine and a little water. The soup took about nintety minutes to cook, and was a bit bland. I attribute this to the ham hock, which had spent considerable time in the freezer. So I added a shot of hot sauce, which picked the soup up nicely without being overwhelming. I made sourdough scones and that was that.

But new soupy vistas in the supermarket I bought some Straus cream, and am thinking seriously about the broccoli in the crisper. Hmm.....

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Immersion Blender joins the family

Thanks to Mom and Dad, whose birthday check underwrote this fine expenditure.

I actually got the blender several days ago but have been too busy to even open the box. Last night, coming to after a day-long nap, I promised Hockeyman I'd clean the house up bit today.

H-man, who could care less whether or not I clean (okay, so I'm a little obsessive) waved his hand dismissively. "I want to use the immersion blender," he said. He wore that man-with-a-new-toy expression. So, soup tonight. The weather is perfect for it, wet and windy.

After much thought, I have lit on lentil soup with a ham hock ( which I will remove before blending) and lots of vegetables. Definitely potatoes and carrots. The new garlic that came in the farm box. Possibly some greens, though I'm not sure they'll work with the rest of the ingredients. I'll have to play with it.

Meanwhile, let's open the box.

Okay...we have here the instruction booklet for the Cuisinart Smart Stick Hand Blender, complete with whisk and a little plastic bowl that acts as a mini-food processor. I am warned not to kill myself or children by doing stupid things with this tool.

Box fully opened...

I am surrounded by a whisk, a gearbox attachment for the whisk, the mini-processor (with its own sharp blades), a plastic 2-cup measure, and the actual hand blender, which is stainless steel and rather intimidating. I didn't realize I was getting all this stuff. Hmm. Well. The question of where to put everything arises.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's full soup report.

Joyce Carol Oates

From Annie Dillard's The Writing Life:

"It takes years to write a book--between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant...Faulker wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks; he claimed he knocked it off in his spare time from a twelve-hour-a-day job performing manual labor. There are other examples from other continents and centuries, just as albinos, assasins, saints, big people, and little people show up from time to time in large populations." (13)

From Amanda Hesser's Cooking for Mr. Latte:

"He (Hesser's husband, writer Tad Friend) brings food into conversations in his own way. 'Eating meat is good for writing,' he said....'Look at Salinger. After he went vegetarian, he didn't publish another word.'....'How about Joyce Carol Oates?' I asked.
'Not sure,' he said. 'She certainly writes like a vegetarian.'" (107)

Joyce Carol Oates does indeed refrain from red meat. I learned this reading Robert Birnbaum's interview with her, which you may read here.

For a comprehensive website listing her numerous publications (several published in the fifteen minutes I've been writing this piece), look here.

Oates has written so many books that even those of us who aren't completely won over have read something. A short story, an essay, one of the shorter fictions. In rummaging amid my shelves I am surprised to find eight Oates books. In no special order:

--Where I've Been, and Where I'm Going

--Unholy Loves

--The Faith of a Writer


--You Must Remember This

--Middle Age


--The Female of the Species

I've also read The Tattooed Girl, Because it is Bitter, and Because it is My Heart, Black Water, American Appetites, Marya, A Life, and part of The Falls, which I couldn't get through.

Working as I do in academia, I have a soft spot for any fiction set therein. Oates is a fine chronicler of academic antics in Unholy Loves and American Appetites. By extension, her eye for the wealthy and their accoutremonts is honed and unsparing. Often these wealthy are academics or the professionals surrounding them; Oates understands what it means when hell visits suburbia.

Though she is from upstate New York, Oates lived in Detroit for a decade, teaching at the University of Ontario. For those of you unfamiliar with Michigan/Canada geography, Windsor, Canada is but a tunnel or bridge trip away from downtown Detroit, and in the halcyon days before 9/11, people went back and forth all the time. Canadians came to rock concerts and hockey games; we went to Canada to drink (the drinking age is nineteen), or to just escape Detroit's drear for a day. Others worked in Canada and crossed daily, as Oates did.

Her time in Detroit and mine overlap, though I was a child then. Like Oates, I have traversed the Detroit-Canada Tunnel countless times, that damp passageway beneath the toxic Detroit River. Like Oates, I vividly recall the horror of the Oakland County Killer, a person who kidnapped boys from the Detroit suburbs, leaving them raped, dead, and immaculate in ditches and, in one instance, behind the supermarket where my mother shopped each Saturday. I remember the fear--we were so innocent then, child killers had tremendous power to terrify. We were not allowed to walk to school. To play outside alone. Every Thursday Officer Ron of the Southfied Police Force came to my elementary school and lectured us, the collected, cosseted children of Detroit's elite, not to get into a stranger's car. Nobody's car. Not a doctor or a nurse or a priest's car. If a car stopped near us, we were instructed to run as fast as we could. Screaming.

This event informed Oates' work tremendously, as is evident in her horror stories, which, while "supernatural" or technically unrealistic, are close enough to reality to chill. It is as if her attempts to understand the motivation to kill gained her access to the heads of madmen. Zombie, a book I could not bear to read, is a case in point, as is the story Angel of Wrath, found in The Female of the Species.


Much has been written of Oates' incredible output; interestingly, she tells Birnbaum that her books gestate in drawers for a couple years. One can only imagine the backlog this woman has. The incunks lie in wait.

Her speed has the occasional power to hurt, as it did in the October 9th New Yorker "Landfill" dustup. And The Falls was messy, in dire need of sharp editing.

Taken as a whole, though, her bookshelf's worth of work, besides being intimidating, is awe-inducing. I am toying with the idea of reading all her books in 2007. The great Oatesian quest. But given her publishing record, it might rapidly become The Great Sisyphean Oatesean Quest That Failed.

Funny, her books aren't on any of the best of lists proliferating like kudzu in these waning moments of 2006....

Works cited;

Annie Dillard: The Writing Life. Harper and Row: New York. 1989.

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

Saturday, December 09, 2006

On Being Alone

By now it's a trope that writers tend to be solitary types. But what about readers? I ponder this question--not for the first time--on the morning following my office's holiday party.

It was exhausting.

We have an in-house event planner who loves her work. She's the type who rearranges all the furnishings in little perfect groupings and makes certain the Christmas decorations (no nods to the many Jews in the office--more on this later) are all just so. I was her assistant this year, meaning I spent yesterday putting up Christmas lights, helping move said furniture, setting up the kiddie party, and winding holiday greenery up the railing leading from the first to second floor. (This was a two-story shindig.)

The event planner was astonished that I had never before strung Christmas lights. Jews don't string lights, I kept saying.

But don't you DECORATE?

Uh, no. I mean, now I'm married to Hockeyman, who is Catholic in name only. We get a Christmas tree. We decorate that, then set my Grandma's Menorah beside it and admire the effect. That's it.

Interestingly, she did not understand that the decorations she saw as "holiday"--red and green glass balls, silver garlands, dolls dressed in santa gear, the students who volunteered to act as elf and Santa--are not holiday. They're as Christmas as the Poinsettas spread all over the office.

I kept my mouth shut, but wondered what the many Jewish students and faculty thought. Maybe they're used to it? Maybe they were too drunk to care?

Whatever. By five o'clock, when the party began, I was dead tired. Naturally, the first real storm of the year arrived, raining and blowing. I longed to be at home, in bed with a book and a glass of scotch.

But the weather was no deterrent. In no time the building was swarming with students, faculty, postdocs, important administrators, and lots of small children. People were having a ball.

Except me. I wasn't having a terrible time--the catering was good, I had a glass of wine--but all I wanted was for it to end, so I could go home and be alone.

At nine o'clock, I got my wish. I groped my way home through a blinding storm, crawled into bed, awoke at one, and unable to sleep, ate some of the beef stew I'd made for H-Man and read until three. Went back to sleep a few hours. Awoke. Remain dead tired.


As a four-year-old preschooler, I often sought solitude just outside the classroom door, in the cool corner created by the milk machine and brick wall. The milk machine was deep blue and seemed enormous; with my forehead against it I could shut out the mayhem generated by my classmates.

Of course I thought myself undetected, but the teacher had telephoned my mother. Both agreed my behavior was nothing serious, as I was already able to read and socialized well enough when I was in the mood. Today I'd probably be sporting some acronymed diagnosis and a prescription. Back then, they let me be.

As I grew older, I remained a loner. I always had a couple friends; once I had a best friend, an intense relationship that lasted three years before combusting. Now I have a few people I could socialize with more, were I so inclined. The thing is, I'm not.

It isn't the people--all are what anybody would want in friends: kind, funny, generous, bright. It's me. I prefer being alone. That is, I have to be alone. Too much time with other people--working late Thursday, when I had to run a meeting, followed by the party less than 24 hours later--and I fall apart. I feel raw, disjointed, stressed. Today will be all but lost to recovering, to sleeping, to regaining my equilibrium before Monday comes again and I am forced back into my public self.

I think my love of books is deeply related to being a loner. I am somehow able to "be" with people (and yes, I know how crazy that sounds) in literature in a way I rarely can with actual humans. Sad? I suppose so, but awareness of my isolationist tendencies is half the battle. I understand I cannot hide beside the milk machine forever, as much as I might like to.

But in all honesty, many are the moments I close a favorite book and wish to be THERE, rather than here. These moments are most intense during the holiday season, with all its frantic socializing. As I decline invitations to numerous functions, I can't help but wonder if I am the only person who ever wished to be at the holiday party that opens Simone de Beauvior's The Mandarins instead of last night's blitz. Or eating a ham sandwhich in bed on Christmas Day, as Elizabeth David longed to. And what of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Christmases, lovingly recounted? Where the gifts were simple, handmade things--mittens, an apron, a rag doll so famous she is now in a museum? Where people were thankful for the roasted hare and a tiny bit of butter was such a wondrous treat the writer recalled it sixty years later?

Of course, it's easy to idealize books. The Mandarins, after all, is far from joyous, Elizabeth David had her heartbreaks, and the Ingalls family suffered greatly for those mittens. And even the most appealing characters are static, frozen in their stories. Our relationships with them are unto those who follow celebrities: strictly one-way.

(God, imagine how many lit-crit-theorists I just pissed off. )

And there are inherent contradictions in preferring books to people: after all, people write books, and populate them with more (albeit invented) people. Meaning the characters I am so fond of are created by the very masses I shy away from.

Atop all this is my new life as a blogger. Suddenly I am gabbing away with people I would never otherwise meet. But I am hidden. Anonymous. And as we all know, a computer can be shut off.

I will be always be the four-year-old listening to the milk machine's hum. As I age, and my tendency to isolate likely increases, I know I will have to be careful or risk getting strange. Hence the volunteer work in a community kitchen, the party assistance, the occasional visit from the fellow hockey fan.

And then the reward, the respite of solitude and a good book.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Love in a Thousand Faces

I know I've departed from books this week, and have come nowhere near food. Please bear with me; a near family member is seriously ill (though now on the the mend) and I have learned I must work late tomorrow and Friday evenings. I promise a nice long weekend post about Joyce Carol Oates.

But now I have to talk about Max.

In the roundabout way that seems the nature of information these days, I learned that musician Max Vague jumped off the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge on on August 13th. You can read Jim Ridley's sad, lovely elegy here.

I knew Max when both of us were living in Los Angeles in the early 1990's. I cannot say he was a friend, exactly, but he was more than an acquaintance. We met because two mutual friends played in his band. I was with him and his then wife, Laura, at the New Year's Eve celebration that heralded 1991. I'd been brought there by a friend, a person who was kind enough to be keeping a close watch on me: I had just ended an abusive, hideous relationship with a man who did not mean me well. I was in a fragile state of mind. Actually, I was actively considering suicide. But this person insisted I join him for the party, which he promised would be small.

I went along, covered in a heavy flannel shirt certain to hide anything womanly or attractive about me. At that point, I was terrified of all men save my father and brother.

The party was indeed small, perhaps six people in a plain San Fernando Valley home. There were drinks and munchies. The company was kind. We were sitting in a circle; Max sat beside Laura on the couch. I was on a folding chair, which I pulled back to be outside the conversation.

Max noticed. He leaned forward and told me to pull my chair in. "You can talk," he said. "you're allowed." And he drew me out. He talked to me about books and music and the world in general. He had dark curling hair and intense eyes behind John Lennon spectacles. He talked with me as if my words were fascinating, as if I were an attractive young woman with something intelligent to say. I was captivated. When midnight came, and he kissed his wife, I was jealous.

I only saw him once more. We were eating spaghetti with meat sauce, which he pushed to the side, eating only the pasta. He was too polite to tell the hostess he was a vegetarian. We talked about Stephen King, agreeing we liked The Stand best of all his books.

Some time later I learned he and his wife were moving to Nashville. Given Max's musical aspirations, I thought this odd, but wished him well. I had a copy of his CD, Love in a Thousand Faces. I knew his real name, then an enormous secret. Life moved on, and I forgot about Max until this most recent, awful news.

The photo of the sad, squinting man in the photo accompanying the article breaks my heart. The musical success he longed for--indeed, deserved--eluded him, at least to his thinking.

In time, when I am past this initial stage of grief, I will be angry with him. I'm waiting, because anger will feel better than what I feel now, which is pain mixed with a kind of empathy. What happens to a dream deferred?

It jumps off the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge.

Ridley interviewed Vague's mother, Gay Cameron, who wants to know what was playing on the car radio when her son jumped.

I think I know.

Max loved the Beatles. Worshipped them. Thought they were the best band ever.

I think he listened to the Beatles as he jumped, and they harmonized him down his long, long road to peace.

At least, I'd like to think that.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A Visitation from the Birds, who sing in Greek

I am a migraineur. That is, I have suffered from incapacitating headaches since age 22. Two of my immediate family members are also migraineurs. Another is epileptic. Our symptoms are remarkably similar.

In my early twenties my attacks were frequent and uncontrollable, leading to vomiting and countless emergency room visits for Demerol and Phenergan. I tried Fiornal, Dihydroergotamine, Midrin, and Talwin. I took Valium and Xanax. Later on some genius came up with the Triptan drug family--Imitrex. I graduated from the pill to the nasal spray to the monoject. For several years I took Inderal, a blood pressure medication said to prevent the blood vessel dialation that causes migraine. It helped, but left me dizzy.

Eventually I came to understand my headaches a bit better and could identify their triggers--invariably severe stress. Eating junk food, irregular sleep patterns, and refusal to rest are all triggers. Red wine is impossible unless I am very rested and relaxed; alcohol in general is a double-edged sword. It can help me relax, but if I'm headachey, it's deadly.

Over time the headaches have tapered off to a nuisance, although lately I'm seeing a resurgence into the hellish zone. Gotta love the holidays. So it was Sunday night at 2 a.m. found me (very neatly, mind you) losing dinner. I had some Phenergan--a strong anti-nausea med--left over from summertime bout of stomach flu. I took it and slept until two o'clock Monday afternoon, awakening weakened and woozy.

The neurological phenomena of migraine is well-documented in Oliver Sacks' book of the same name, a book I am unable to read much of. Just reading about migraine gives me a migraine. Still, in my headache-free moments I comfort myself with the good company I keep: Hildegard of Bingen, known for her "migraine art"; Joan Didion; Virginia Woolf. And while the birds have never sung to me in Greek during the worst of my pain, as they did Virginia, migraine definitely warps perception. Speech becomes impossible to process; replies are tough to formulate. During one emergency room visit I was so incoherent the nurse thought me on drugs, refusing to believe I wasn't until I thrust my Medic Alert bracelet in her face.

I suffer all the visual abnormalities: scotoma, or scintillation, flashing points of light, photophobia. I become clumsy and often lose contol of one side of my body. Sometime I become moody and mean before an attack, and Hockeyman will tell me to take my medication. I have learned to listen.

Other warnings include dry sinuses, shaking hands, and a sense that my mind has sped up. My thoughts run rapidly, irrationally, sometimes frighteningly during a migraine. It's a little like being a small child with a high fever. Sometimes I can think creatively on the downside of the headache, after the storm has passed. And that is indeed the sensation: the storm has passed, the high winds and heavy rains have swept through, leaving everything clean and fresh. Yesterday, drifting in and out of a drugged sleep, I thought about the fiction piece I've been wanting to write (oh for time!) and suddenly saw how to structure it.

In Mark Salzman's Lying Awake, a nun is gifted with divine poetry. She pays dearly for her gift with crushing headaches, and learns she has a brain tumor. To remove it and lose her gift, or keep it, and the words it gives her?

This is not a choice I must face. Migraine, for me, is the dark side of being alive. It is the hairy edge of sanity, the dark forest of Boo'ya moon. All the healthy food and exercise and attention to bedtime will not stop the (blessedly) rare night visitations, when all I can do is keep the icepack nearby, abide, and wait for the pain to vanish, as mysteriously as it came.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Lisey's Story

I just finished Lisey's Story. Like many of King's books, it is long--513 pages, including the afterword--and complex. Also like many of his books, it is an absorbing, can't-put-down page turner long on plot and short on characterization.

Let's talk about the good things first, because there are lots of them. Lisey's Story is a good book. A good read, the kind of book you sit down meaning to spend a couple hours with and end up reading until midnight, as I did last night. No, it isn't Ulysses or Against the Day. It's a hell of lot more accessible than either of those, and perhaps this is what gets Harold Bloom's back up. Lisey's Story will sell a zillion copies. Harold and his fellow nitpickers will never be able to install heated pools in their Maine basements based on book sales. Nor will anyone try making a movie of Deconstruction and Criticism. I can see brothers Miramax all over Lisey, though.

By now you pretty much know the story: Lisa "Lisey" Landon, widow of famed writer Scott, must confront demanding professors, siblings, and an arch lunatic while considering the best way to deal with her husband's papers. Winding through these real world problems are memories Lisey has tried to bury: Scott's horrific childhood and his way of coping with it, an alternate reality he calls "Boo'ya Moon."

Boo'ya Moon is both beautiful and terrifying, a place to avoid after sundown, when the monsters come out. It is also a place of healing, home to "the pool," the place where words and stories swim.

Boo'ya Moon is a marvelous act of sustained metaphor. It's rare for writers to really talk about what imagination means, how a rich fantasy life often teeters along sanity's fine line. Good writers, and possibly the bad ones, hear a lot of voices. And it's either write them down or take Lithium. Sometimes it's bad enough to do both, or self-medicate with liquor and/or drugs, as King has. Either the voices are speaking too loudly, or they've fallen silent. How tempting it is to still them.

But King never has, and in a way, he's brave. Here is a man who's been to hell and back--I doubt even Harold would argue that--and managed to incorporate his experience into his work. When Scott Landon falls fatally ill, King shows us the hosptial with the kind of small, chilling details that can only come of being there:

"To the left of the door is a sink where Jantzen washes his hands...On a gurney to the right are gauze masks, latex gloves in sealed packets, stretchy yellow shoe covers in cardboard box with FITS ALL SIZES stamped on the side, and a neat stack of surgical greengowns." (427)

Scott Landon, like his creator, struggles with drinking. Interestingly, he is never into heavy drugging, and manages to quit smoking. But his demons are never far, and get him in the end, leaving Lisey with her quest.

King's depiction of long marriages, with their in-jokes, self-referential language, and wordless communication will bring nods from many. The pain of Lisey's loss is soberingly elegaic. King's serious health problems--the seed of the book sprang from Tabitha King's remodel of her husband's office while he was hospitalized with pneumonia, an aftereffect of the '99 accident--aren't easily dismissed as "penny dreadfuls." Scott Landon was a lunatic, but he loved his wife. And she loved him.

At times, though, it is only the strength of Lisy's affection that allows us to set aside some of the book's weaker aspects. Lisey is not an entirely realized woman. Early in the book we are shown Lisey and Scott reading novels:

"Scott reads people like Borges, Pynchon, Tyler, and Atwood; Lisey reads Maeve Binchy, Colleen McCullough, Jean Auel,...Joyce Carol Oates, and just lately, Shirley Conran." (56)

I took this list at face value--Lisey is not an intellectual, though King is at pains throughout to depict her as intelligent, resourceful, practical. But a woman who reads Joyce Carol Oates isn't likely to avoid Atwood or Tyler. When Scott proposes to Lisey, he uses the adjective "holistic" to explain part of his love for her. She asks him what it means. As they grow wealthy from Scott's worst book, traveling widely, one wonders why the obviously game Lisey, who follows Scott to Boo'ya Moon and hangs in there even as the uglier details of his past unfold, doesn't grow with him intellectually. Lisey is seemingly content with her lot as the practical wife, and has little of her own personal life. She does not work. They do not (wisely, we find) have children. What is she doing all that time Scott is writing? Being practical and grounding?

Some of the language, meant to invoke the Landon marital code or family life, can get annoying. "Smucking" and "blue-eyed wonders" need a rest. And why are Lisey's parents Dandy and Good Ma? The endearment "little Lisey" goes only so far when we have no idea what Lisey looks like until the book is nearly finished. Call me trivial, but early on Scott Landon is detailed from his dandruff to his nail biting. We never even learn Lisey's haircolor. Finally, on page 360, we learn that Lisey is slim and that Scott once described her face as "a fox in summer." Huh?

This lack of physical detail does have one great benefit: the gorefests that once reigned (or rained, if you want to be grossly literal) in King's novels are seriously toned down here. Even when Lisey's stalker finally gets his prey, we are shown little, and what we do learn is flatly told. Scenes from Scott's childhood are told almost starkly, only adding to their horror--and believability.

In the end, King says it himself, referring to the professors longing to get their hands on on Landon's papers:

"Oh, maybe a little treasure for the more rabid Incunks, the collectors and the academics who maintained their positions in large part by examining the literary equivalent of navel-lint in each other's abstruse journals; ambitious, overeducated goofs who had lost touch with what books and reading were actually about...." (416)

About being taken from this world to Boo'ya Moon.

Stephen King: Lisey's Story. Scribner, New York. 2006.

Books, Stephen King, Book Reviews