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.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Barbara Pym's Excellent Women

"Basically, all I ever do is read...and I read English novels. One of my favorite novelists is Barbara Pym, who is an underrated writer, like Jane Austen. Everybody thinks she's just darling, but she is not just darling, she's really tough. One of the great things about Barbara Pym is that the food in Barbara Pym is just wonderful."

Laurie Colwin, More Home Cooking

Barbara Pym is one of those writers I kept coming across. Lots of people note her lack of acclaim the way they talk about American writer Paula Fox. My first encounter with Pym took place in my early twenties; an older friend insisted I would just love her. I didn't. I was too young. I had not read Jane Austen or Dickens and knew nothing about English moral life. Even now, had I not read all of Elizabeth David, I'm certain much of Excellent Women would've slipped past me.

Like many overlooked writers, Barbara Pym has a devoted coterie of fans, who have put up this helpful site.

I found Excellent Women used, and it is indeed a funny, vibrant picture of English postwar life. Mildred Lathbury, daughter of a clergyman, is in her early thirties, unmarried, with a small income. She assists at the Gentlewomen's Society, helping ladies fallen on hard times. When not there, she is often at the home of Vicar Julian Malory, somewhat ineptly looked after by his spinster sister Winifred. What Winifred lacks in domestic ability she compensates for in adoration and an innocent good nature. Mildred herself is good-natured, at least outwardly, one of those "excellent women" the English evidently relied upon at one time to shoulder life's more unpleasant burdens: listening to marital woes, meeting furniture movers, negotiating the politics of the church jumble sale. Only Mildred carries on with the reader, all too aware of her desexed, increasingly settled ways. When dramatic couple Helena and Rocky Napier rent the flat below her, she is drawn into all manner of marital upheaval.

As a contemporary reader, it is difficult at times to understand Mildred's incredible tolerance. All the characters, presumably friends, wish to use her in some fashion; she is the go-between for Helena and Rocky, nearly ends up cohabitating with another spinster (I will not divulge plot) when in truth she loves living alone. She is oft found making tea for some unhappy person, as she observes:

"I was so astonished that I could think of nothing to say, but wondered irrelevantly if I was to be caught with a teapot in my hand on every dramatic occasion." (205)


"I was hoping..."
"What were you hoping?"
"That you might suggest making a cup of tea. You know how you always make a cup of tea on 'occasions' ..."

So he did remember me like that after all--a woman who was always making cups of tea. Well, there was nothing to be done about it now but to make one." (222)

Don't make one! You want to cry. Tell Rocky to shove off! But Mildred doesn't, as it goes against all her training to do so. She reminds herself to behave, as is the Christian way, all the while rueing her faintly ridiculous state. Like Margaret Drabble's Candida Wilton, Midred is that overlooked quantity: a single, plain woman with intelligence. One imagines the arrival of this book, in 1952, quite turned some heads. One certainly hopes so.

For all the tea--and vast quantities are consumed--the food is not all that great in this book, as England is still suffering from postwar rationing. The sole meal that reads even faintly appetizing is a solitary lunch: a salad dressed with "hoarded olive oil" (156), Camembert cheese, a fresh loaf of bread, and greengage plums. Certainly the pain of rationing is aptly described; the meals take more from Atwood, that describer of awful meals, than they do Elizabeth David.

Meanwhile, I now find myself without the rest of Pym, and longing, finally to read the rest of her works.

Laurie Colwin's quore comes from More Home Cooking, Harper Perennial, 1992.

Barbara Pym: Excellent Women. Plume Fiction, New York. 1952, 1978.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Cauliflower via indirection

For a long time I thought I disliked Indian food. I didn't like "curry," meaning, to me, a generic bright yellow flavoring. I didn't like the spices, whatever they were. Further, Indian food gave me indigestion.

At this point I should admit that I have serious digestive tract troubles. Just about any food can give me indigestion. It wasn't until my late twenties that my condition acquired a diagnosis beyond "Jewish stomach" (really), Krohn's Disease (ruled out), or stress of the hysterical female variety. In April 2000 I began a medication regime that allows me to eat like a fairly normal person. By this I mean just about anything is fair game in small portions. Huge meals are out. I'm also inordinately sensitive to anything that isn't fresh. I don't mean to sound like a princess, but many's the time H-man and I have eaten the same thing, leaving me sick and him fine. Once I undercooked a meatloaf and ended up in the hosptial. Hockeyman, who also partook, drove me there and sat patiently bedside. Junk food is an invitation to pain. Hence my tendency toward organic and/or minimally processed foods. But for a long time I was certain that Indian food had an especial tendency to make me ill, and I shied away.

The truth was I had no idea about Indian food. Even writing "Indian food" is something of a misnomer: India is a huge country with a number of cuisines, which, I hasten to add, I still know little about. But it's high time to change that.

Two people were largely responsible for changing my attitude toward Indian food. One is a colleague of Hockeyman's. He is from Northern India--I don't know which state--from a Muslim family. His wife is European. One night they invited us to their apartment. There on the table was a gorgeous spread of food, much of it milk-based. I had never eaten food like that before and have not since. I am embarassed to say I wasn't sure what a lot of it was, so am at a loss to describe it. All I know is it was all fantastic. I pigged out, and was fine afterward.

The second person is a friend of mine from Mumbai. We began going out to lunch together, and one day she took me to a restaurant down University Street in Berkeley. As one travels westward on University, Indian markets and sari shops crop up. The restaurant she took me to was dark, tiny, run by a woman who knew my friend. "You want spicy?" She asked me.

"Yes, please."

She laughed at me, and I knew I would get the white girl version of the dish, a lamb stew over rice, served with naan. It was fantastic. We also frequented a place called Mount Everest, also in Berkeley, on the corner of University and Shattuck. Mount Everest took over what was once a Burger King, probably the only one in history to close for lack of business. The restaurant has been redecorated but remains rather cavernous. It doesn't matter. Their naan is wonderous, pillowy, chewy, perfect for scooping up their phenomenally generous lunches.

These lunches arrive on huge metal platters that are sectioned: the main dish, rice, cucumbers, a fiery condiment with chiles, and something milder--I think it's lentil-based. Small dishes of dal are brought out, along with a sort of rice pudding, mildly sweet and delicious if you aren't too stuffed to eat it.

Mount Everest bills itself as "Nepalese and Indian Cuisine." Being a dumb white lady, I don't know one from the other. But I do know their lamb biryani is wondrous, as is the chicken tikka masala. I ordered it the other day, and managed not to eat it all in sitting. Instead, I brought it home to Hockeyman, who happily devoured it.

My friend has moved to another state, and our luncheons are sadly infrequent. I owe her much for opening this world to me. Now I find myself staring at Madhur Jaffrey Cookbooks, and contemplating the many Laxmi Hiremath recipes found in The San Francisco Chronicle cookbook.

In retrospect, I think my dislike of Indian food was an aversion to cumin--the same spice the put me off some Mexican foods. But one of the joys of living in San Francisco Bay area is exposure to people and their cuisines. I trusted my friend, and ate where she told me to. Hockeyman was equally fortunate in meeting a colleague who took him to Indian restaurants and then opened his home to us. My palate changed. This is where cauliflower enters the picture.

In past posts I've mentioned our weekly box of organic veggies from Full Belly Farm. Contents depend on weather, season, and whatever they want to toss in. Lately we've been seriously cauliflowered. As in last night I had three heads in my fridge.

Cooking instructor and chef Jessica Prentice once mentioned in a class that she considered some vegetables friends. Leeks, for example. She loves them. Garlic and Jerusalem Artichokes are not friends, though she did not go so far as to call them enemies. She is a kind, gentle person. I doubt "enemy" is a word she'd use much under any circumstances.

Cauliflower is not a friend in our house. All the accusations leveled at other winter veggies--brussels sprouts, turnips, rutabagas--are things Hockeyman and I feel about cauliflower. Aggressive taste and texture. Does not play well with others. Does not keep well. Further, when you slice it, little bits of white, gritty floret fly everywhere.

We don't hate it. We just don't love it. But we deal with it. Last weekend I made cream of cauliflower soup. It tasted okay, but it was thin and rather bland. And it seemed to grow in the fridge until I finally--guiltily--tossed it.

Friday came, and with it, two more heads of cauliflower. I recalled eating cauliflower in Indian restaurants--soft, spicy, the brassy flavor tamed by coconut milk. Inspired, I consulted my cookbooks. In Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, I found two compelling recipes: Cauliflower, Spinach, and Potato Stir Fry with Coconut Milk and Indian Style Saute of Cauliflower and Greens.

I did not follow either recipe to the letter, using them instead as a launch pad for Stir Fry of Cauliflower, Potato, Greens, and Chicken with Coconut Milk. I did take the spice amounts from the Indian style saute.

I added chicken because Hockeyman does not consider dinner a meal unless an animal is involved. Using the contents of our farm box, the recipe ended up containing the following:

One head cauliflower, sliced

One bunch rapini greens, sliced into ribbons

Four cloves of garlic, chopped

One onion, sliced thin, prepared in separate pan to accomodate H-man

One small carrot, diced

Two russet potatoes, diced and parboiled

Four boneless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces


Garam Masala: cardamom seeds, coriander seeds, cumin, black peppercorns, and whole cloves. You toast these in a skillet, then grind them in a spice grinder. Add cinnamon and nutmeg. I left out the nutmeg. Don't like it.

Mustard Seeds





Two five ounce cans of coconut milk

Olive oil. You should really use peanut oil, but I don't have any in the house.

A little chicken broth as the mixture seemed to get dry toward the end of cooking.

Juice of one lemon.

Madison calls for lime juice and cilantro sprigs. I had neither. Hence the lemon. As for cilantro, it's hard to keep fresh: one must purchase large bunches, which rapidly spoil. Freeze cilantro and you have a blackened, mushy mess. So no cilantro.

One the side: Jasmine Rice

The recipe was quite a production. First I parboiled the potatoes and made the rice. While they cooked I sliced the vegetables and chicken. Once the starches finished, I toasted and ground the Garam Masala, then set out my two large frying pans and divided the coconut milk, spices, broth, and olive oil between them. I don't have a wok and the vegetables were so bulky there was no way I could've cooked the chicken in the same pan.

I began with the cauliflower, the vegetable that required the most cooking, then added the potatoes, garlic, and greens. The chicken cooked rapidly in the other pan.

The suprising thing about this dish was the amount of spice I used with a relatively benign result. Madison calls for one teaspoon each coriander and cumin, a half teaspoon of tumeric, and Garam Masala to taste. Tasting as I went, I added even more cumin and tumeric, serving the dish with the remaining Garam Masala. The result was mixed. Hockeyman said the potato was unnecessary. I disagreed. The cauliflower turned out the way I'd hoped: mellow, soft, coated with creamy, fattening coconut milk. The greens retained some bite, and chicken is always chicken; it's hard to screw up . But the dish was strangely bland. My guess is the spices are old and losing some bite. This is a constant irritation to me. Cookbooks are forever advising one buy spices in small quantity, replenishing frequently. This is fine advice, but most spices come in jars, and unless one is cooking for large groups, items like cumin do take time to get through. Further, good spices are expensive. Mine are Morton and Basset of San Francisco, organic, in nice reusable glass jars. But they've lost potency over time.

We have enough leftovers for lunch tomorrow....and two more heads of cauliflower to get through. Moving away from the Indian theme, there's Cauliflower gratin with tomatoes and feta, courtesy of Deborah Madison...Mollie Katzen's Hot Marinated Cauliflower with Macaroni, which I made the other night using penne....cauliflower paprikash, again from Mollie....there's plain old puree, with potato for a little body.

Soon I'll be bitching about too much cabbage.

Works cited:

Mollie Katzen: The Enchanted Broccoli Forest. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1982, 1995.

Deborah Madison: Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. New York: Broadway Books, 1997.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Sigrid Nunez's The Last of her Kind

Bad books are easier to discuss. They contain so much easy meat: lousy content, horrible sentences one can gleefully quote. I haven't had this opportunity recently. I suppose I should be grateful. Instead I am sitting here with my paperback copy of The Last of Her Kind, trying to conjure adequate descriptors.

The Last of her Kind is about Georgette George, a young woman fleeing her impoverished upstate New York childhood for the unknown world of Barnard University. There she rooms with Dooley Ann Drayton, a wealthy teenager who informs Georgette that she asked "specifically to be paired with a girl from a world as different as possible from her own." (3)

Ann--she immediately drops her family name--scorns her background, her parents, the bourgeouis complacency she sees around her. She attaches herself to Georgette with a fierce devotion, wanting to talk, talk, talk. Georgette scorns her roommate's obliviousness and strange ways. Ann dresses indifferently, eats little, even tries joining the one table of female black students in the cafeteria. When they refuse to acknowledge her, she tells Georgette:

"Now I know...And everyone should know how it feels. For me it was only an hour. Other people have to live their whole lives like that: never seen, never heard." (33)

It is the sixties, a time somebody like Ann may easily reject her social moorings. She becomes active in student protest organizations, quickly growing disillusioned and dropping out of college. She is briefly involved with underground activists, then meets Kwesi Kwame, an older Black schoolteacher. Her relationship with him leads to a confrontation with Georgette, estranging the women.

Georgette has also dropped out of Barnard. As one of the formerly oppressed, she is less interested in protest than survival. She finds work at a fashion magazine and begins a journey of her own: men, drugs, music, books and more books. She views her rape in Central Park less as a traumatic, lasting event than an occurence common amongst women her age. Her real worry is younger sister Solange, a teenage runaway, another statistic in an era of lost children. Their eventual reunion is both happy and heartbreaking, for though Solange has survived by her wits, she suffers bouts of mental illness. Georgette is her loving, despairing caretaker through years of hospitalizations and drugs.

Suddenly Ann appears in the newpapers: she has committed a crime, one that earns her a lifetime prison sentence. Refusing the well-heeled lawyers who could free her, she accepts her sentence with seeming relief. Once inside the Maryville Facility for Women, Ann teaches literacy, assists prisoners with their legal cases, and tends those falling ill with a strange, frightening new illness. (the one Prince dubbed "the big disease with a little name") Thus this complex woman once again takes up residence in Georgette's thoughts.

The women will be meet again, briefly, but to say more is to give away plot.

Nunez is a wonderful writer. The sentences are smooth, easy, often funny. Parenthetical asides wryly aid the plot:

"(I believe you have to reach a certain age before you understand how life really is like a novel, with patterns and leitmotifs and turning points, and guns that must go off and people who must return before the ending.)" (196)

Commenting on the state-paid psychologist testifying at Ann's trial:

"(Oveheard: "I can't believe the state pays for this crap.")" (218)

In Bird by Bird, Ann Lamott comments on the necessity of a likable narrator. Actually, Ann Lamott comments on Ethan Canin's remarks, so I am commenting on both of them, which is just so meta-post-modernist that maybe I should get my Ph.D. in English after all:

"I once asked Ethan Canin to tell me the most valuable thing he knew about writing, and without hesitation he said, 'Nothing is as important as a likable narrator. Nothing holds a story together better.' I think he's right. If your narrator is someone whose take on things fascinates you, it isn't really going to matter if nothing much happens for a long time." (49)

Georgette is a likable narrator; more than that, she is a likable person. Her take is indeed fascinating--alternately credulous, amused, sorrowful, loving. From her opening words as a bruised, frightened teenager to the end, when divorced and middle-aged, Georgette's voice compels us to keep reading. I am like you, she says. And I have a story to tell.

Works cited:

Ann Lamott: Bird by Bird. New York: Random House, 1994.

Sigrid Nunez: The Last of Her Kind. New York: Picador Books. 2005.

Friday, January 26, 2007

On Sloppiness

I finally have the time to comment properly on Ed's post about writers who blog. His comments link to this blog, wherein the writer notes that blogging has made his writing sloppy.

This accusation is oft levelled at bloggers (though, I should clarify, not by Scott at Slushpile, whose post I linked to above): our speed, nay, our very lack of professional capacity, means we are careless and know little of writing mechanics. Naturally we protest. Many of us are pros, or can at least claim to have some publications to our names. On paper. That we were paid for.

The internet is rife with sloppy writing. So is the print world, not to mention everyday speech. The ugly truth is most Americans are not taught to speak or write correct English, so when they blog, much bad writing ensues.

But the blogosphere mimics the real world in another way: good bloggers rise above the masses. Reading Ed Champion, Darby Dixon, Laila Lalami, Pinky, or the folks posting on Critical Mass (doubtless I am missing countless other excellent writers-who-blog. My apologies to all of you) rapidly dispels notions of sloppiness.

Caveat: I am speaking here of bloggers whose primary concerns are books, reading, and writing. I am not talking about Joe Public, who blogs about hunting, his SUV, or golfing. Joe may not care a whit about his sentences. Or perhaps he does. Brad DeLong blogs about economics. I dare anybody to call him a sloppy writer. See also Kevin Drum.

But back to the writer-as-blogger.

In fifteen years of serious commitment to writing, I have written--and published--fiction, non-fiction, poetry, book reviews, and erotica. In July 2006 I acquired a MacBook and an Airport Extreme. I began blogging. I now have more readers than I ever had in any other medium. Futher, they are returning readers, meaning I must keep my material fresh, entertaining, and sharp. Like many bloggers, I have a full-time job and a household to run. Often I am too tired to blog when I feel I "should." Sometimes I sit down to write anyway, and find myself immersed. Other nights I am indeed too tired. The resulting sentences take up residence in the trash.

I am blessed with a husband whose keen editorial eye allows little room for error. Misspellings, confusing locutions, and flawed logic are all mercilessly dissected. I cannot overstate how much I value his unvarnished opinion, not to mention his tech support.

But I still work hard at blogging. I read across the net. I study other people's layouts, their posting frequency, their comments. In fact, I look at a good blog the way I look at an especially fine novel: what makes it work? Why?

This sort of dedicated study is the ongoing work of the writer, be you Barking Kitten or Philip Roth. Writing is a grueling apprenticeship, no matter your medium. Speed can be the enemy, but plenty of journalists produce amazing work on tight deadlines. For those of us toiling anonymously, the reward lies in our readers, who care enough about our words to keep coming back, and in our increased writing facility.

Yes, increased facility. Blogging has not made my work sloppier: far from it. While my "fiction" voice is far different from my "blogging" voice, both are carefully crafted. The fact that this blog can be accessed by anybody and everybody is never far from my mind. The idea of just tossing off some paragraph in a spare moment is right up there with a midnight joyride through downtown Detroit: ain't gonna happen.

Finally, the impact of blogging on print media is enormous. Inescapable. Those who long held themselves arbiters of taste increasingly find their opinions questioned (hell, savaged) by intelligent people who are tired of being patronized. Readers and writers may now communicate directly, self-publish, post work rejected by the New York Houses, pass along their favorite writers. Are we sloppy? Some of us, sure. Is the old guard scared?

You bet.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Hairball of the week

Again, courtesy of Ed. Thanks again, Ed. What would I do without your keen bullshit meter?

Here, courtesy of MSNBC, one of the finer news websites out there (ahem) we have news of a "Little House" makeover.

I realize many of you may not have read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. With their depiction of frontier life, hatred of Native Americans, and religious leanings, these books are both dated and often painfully politically incorrect. They are, however, collectively one of the finest documents of frontier life available.

Laura Ingalls Wilder was born in a Wisconsin log cabin in 1867. The ten Little House Books take the reader from Laura's childhood to her marriage, at age eighteen, to Almanzo James Wilder. As Laura grew, her family moved "westward," gradually working their way from Wisconsin to the then-open prairies of North Dakota. The hated Indians are never far from the narrative, particularly in "By the Shores of Silver Lake," which documents Native American/Caucasian clashes and the Native Americans' forced departure.

The only way to read these books today is by understanding them in the context of their era; when Ingalls began writing her books in the early twentieth century, Native Americans, African Americans, and Asians were all openly reviled. Wilder never mentioned Jews; I doubt she encountered many settling the Dakota prairies. To read her is not so much to excuse her as to understand that tolerance had little precedent in her lifetime. It's rather like putting up with Hemingway's misogny and Anti-Semitism. And one is amply rewarded: Ingalls tells us what early settlers ate, wore, where they slept, how they survived. The Ingalls family and their neighbors possessed an innate toughness most of us can only marvel at. How many of us can build our own homes, sew our own clothing, build our beds, sew sheets, quilt, and butcher animals? How about farming and then living all winter off the harvest? Surviving Malaria? Even worse was the illness Laura called Scarlet Fever, more likely Meningitis, that blinded older sister Mary, then a teenager. Interestingly, Laura, who like her father Charles did not fall ill, was the only child of the four Ingalls daughters to bear a child herself. I've always wondered about that "Scarlet Fever," and whether it left younger sisters Grace and Carrie sterile.

Incidentally, Laura was an excellent food writer. Both daily meals and celebratory feasts are described in loving detail, from the crop-destroying starlings Pa shot to the Christmas jackrabbit. While living on Plum Creek, the family existed on fish caught in a wooden trap set beneath a waterfall. One fishing trip to Lake Pepin brought back fish the size of six-year-old Laura. Praire Chicken--now nearly extinct--was common fare, as were bears, rabbits, hare, and all manner of fowl. Read Little House in the Big Woods and you'll know how to churn butter and make hoop cheese. Yeast was a rarity, meaning sourdough bread was the norm. Milk depended on owning a milch cow, not always available, and oranges were such a luxury Laura recalled them sixty years later. White sugar was strictly for company; candy holiday fare.

All of this packaged in a readable, friendly format, charmingly illustrated by Garth Williams. Only now....well...

"Girls might feel the Garth Williams art is too old-fashioned," says Tara Weikum, Executive Editor for the 'Little House' series...(The new tag line: "Little House, Big Adventure.")"

Two little girls, ages nine and ten, agree that "real pictures" are better. After all, says ten-year-old Rachel Ross: "I like seeing real people better than drawings...Drawings look sort of fake."

Here is Laura, writing about sewing Mary's best dress for college. After years of scrimping--fifteen-year-old Laura spent a summer sewing men's shirts, earning nine dollars--the Ingalls family has saved enough to send Mary to Vinton, Iowa, to attend college for the blind. Laura's nine dollars purchases dress fabric of brown cashmere. Tremendous care is taken with this garment, which Mary will never see herself wearing. Laura hand-sews whalebone stays into the bodice; Ma trims the skirt with shirred plaid. Machine-made lace (Laura notes it is not handmade) cascades from the collar. The skirt is made to accomodate hoops, lest they return to fashion; the dress sleeves are snug, as is the bodice, covering as it does Mary's corset.

"Mary was beautful in that beautiful dress. Her hair was silkier and more golden than the golden silk threads in the plaid. Her blind eyes were bluer than the blue in it. Her cheeks were pink, and her figure was so stylish." (96)

Envisioning some designer copying this garment, then sticking some model into it for the updated photo shot, then--I bet this happens--trying to market the entire outfit simply sickens. Isaac Mizrahi for Target, anyone? Meanwhile, the Garth Williams illustration of Mary in her best dress is lovely, and heartbreaking, for blindness in the 1890's meant a severely circumscribed life. This, for a girl who told Laura "I am planning to write a book someday," (These Happy Golden Years, 136)

Returning to Ms. Weikum's comments, we may note that Little House IS old-fashioned. That's the point, to show how people lived without Game Boys, Shock Radio, cell phones, and all the other garbage we think we need to survive. Almanzo courted Laura by taking her on buggy rides. They also attended singing school together. "Literaries" were popular: the entire town gathered in the schoolhouse on Friday evenings for spelling bees, musical performances, and debates. Unimaginably innocent pastimes.

As for real pictures, little Rachel, there's this thing at the top of your spinal cord. It's called a brain. It houses (I hope) imaginative capacity, which separates you from lower life forms like George Bush. You, Rachel, can use your imagination to picture Mary's dress. All by in your own head.

Imagine that.

Five hairballs. On white carpet.

Sunday, January 21, 2007


These little birds incited the previous post: I was pre-salting them when I took note of the new Morton's box.

But on to happier topics. Quail is a favorite meal in our household, but doesn't seem to have taken hold in the States as home food. It's difficult to find, even here. I've never seen it fresh, only frozen. The quail I buy comes from Quebec, nine birds to a package. This package is primarily in French and says little about how the birds lived or died. One suspects the worst. I can only hope it's farmed by a burly guy named Marc-Andre who thinks Quebec should secede from Canada and that NHL expansion teams in the southern United States are a blot on mankind.

My favorite recipes come from two British Isles cookery (that's what they call 'em there) folks: Fergus Henderson and Tamasin Day-Lewis. Let us begin with the latter. Yes, she is one of those Day-Lewises, daughter of Cecil, sister of Daniel, and has inherited the family good looks and fame. As if this weren't enough reason to hate her, she is a talented cook. I bought Good Tempered Food about a year ago, on remainder. It's published by Miramax and is the penultimate in food porn. Tamasin comes across as somebody who is working hard to ingratiate herself in the humble home cook's kitchen but cannot resist remarks like: "My first trip to Sicily this year was to the heights of Erice..." (28) or her words on making a Bloody Mary: " is my pre-Sunday lunch, post eight-mile-run-and-bath ritual..."(34) On potted shrimp: "Short of catching them myself-- which I do in the west of Ireland--" (42)

This is all enough to make one wish to toss the book into a sous vide bag, but the recipes are all very good. I can safely say this is only cookbook in my collection that inspires such divided feelings. But of course she includes quail, which she cooks "long leg," meaning the entrails are still inside. Maybe this is okay if you have an incredibly fresh, organic source for your birds. If not, like me, get your cleaned birds from our Quebecois friends. You will not be disappointed.

Tamasin Day Lewis' recipe for quail calls for olive oil, salt, pepper, balsamic vinegar, and chicken broth. You broil your quail for five minutes on one side in the oil and seasonings, add the balsamic, turn them, broil another five minutes, add the broth, turn them on their backs, and give 'em five more minutes. Allow them to rest. Eat.

This recipe is wonderful, easy, and always comes out fine. It's on page 36 of a book that may annoy the hell out of you, but you'll cook from it.

On to Fergus Henderson, whose London restaurant, St. John, is beloved among offal eaters. His cookbook, The Whole Beast, took awhile to reach the United States, and was long a cult find amongst foodies. Now it's easy to get, and even if you aren't into cooking or cookbooks, you should grab this. Henderson is witty, refreshing, and calming. He may inspire the most timid to venture kitchenwards. I have prepared his duck legs with carrots countless times. His recipes for pig's trotters, crispy pig's ear salad, and lamb's tongues will change the way you think about variety meats. Besides, it's impossible not to love somebody who writes things like "There is almost nothing as reassuring as having some stock up your sleeve." (3)

On the presence of capers in his famed Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad:

"Do you recall eating Raisin Bran for breakfast? The raisin-to-bran-flake ratio was always a huge anxiety, to a point, sometimes, that one was tempted to add extra raisins, which inevitably resulted in too many raisins, and one lost that pleasure of discovering the occasional sweet chewiness in contrast to the branny crunch. When administering such things as capers, it is very good to remember Raisin Bran." (35)

His words on quail are no less informative or amusing. Quail, he writes, "falls into a kind of bird purgatory; it is not a game bird...but is now a throroughly farmed bird...and it is denied joining the chicken's gang, as it seen to be too fiddly to eat. Then finally, to kick the quail while it's down, people say it has no flavor." (106)

Fergus' recipe is even simpler than Tamasin's: season the birds inside and out with sea salt, pan brown them, then toss them into a 425 degree oven for twenty minutes with some olive oil. He notes quail are easygoing and will allow themselved to be overcooked without becoming livery. He suggests serving the birds on a bed of watercress, which I second with any kind of salad greens, which pick up the bird's juices and are wonderful.

A final note about Tamasin and Fergus: whilst Tamasin is glibly running her marathons, gentle, kind Fergus Henderson is debilitated by Parkinson's Disease and can no longer cook. (One more reason to be all in favor of stem cell research and hope that if there is a hell, Rush Limbaugh soon finds himself in it.)

Caveat Emptor: quail is not elegant eating. It is sort of food best consumed with close friends and/or loved ones, as fingers and teeth are required to really get the meat off all those wee bones. Once you've scarfed down every bit, save the carcasses: they make wonderful stock, more deeply flavored than chicken. For a truly transcendant stock, one you will be very happy to have up your sleeve, add duck bones.

A final word from Fergus:

"Do not be afraid of cooking, as your ingredients will know and misbehave. Enjoy your cooking and the food will behave; moreover it will pass your pleasure on to those who eat it." (xx)

Tamasin Day-Lewis: Good Tempered Food: Recipes to love, leave, and linger over. Hyperion/Miramax Books, U.K. 2004.

Fergus Henderson: The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating. Ecco/Harper Collins, New York. 2004.

Morton's (not exactly) Kosher Salt

Every three years or so I find myself needing a new box of kosher salt. Off I go to market and buy a three-pound box of Morton's Kosher Salt. Why Morton's? Because my mother bought it. Because my grandmother bought it. Because that iconic blue box with the girl in the yellow dress has always been in my life.

Yesterday I opened my fresh box, noting that even venerable Morton's has spiffed up their packaging. Where the girl and her umbrella once took up the entire front of the box, she's now shrunken to allow a still life of fresh vegetables--doubtless to encourage healthful associations. Below the veggies, the lettering, still the same:

Coarse Kosher Salt
Great for Gourmet Cooking

Below that, the Star of David and, as April nears, the words "Kosher for Passover."

One side of the box still tells you how to kosher meat or poultry (soak the meat in cool water, then place it on a tilted cutting board, which allows blood to run down, and salt liberally. Rinse.) For years the back panel advertised a recipe for salt-crusted beef tenderloin. Now we have a recipe from one Nikki Norman, pictured beside her creation: Baked Asian Shrimp with Thai Sauce. Nikki Norman is not Jewish. Nor is shrimp, which, as shellfish, officially qualifies as a bottom feeder, rendering it treyfe.

While not a hairball, this is worthy of a WTF, an slang appelation I recently learned. I understand Morton's wants lots of people to buy their salt, and that restricting themselves to a shrinking population of Kashrut Jews is economically unwise. But surely they must realize that many Jews will be put off--even refuse--to have a box like this in their home?

Given my professed treyfe lifestyle and Catholic husband, it would be hypocrisy for me to stop buying Morton's. And of course a recipe on a box is small thing in light of current events...but is nothing sacred? There are countless recipes out there calling for salt....most recipes! Surely Morton's could've printed something less egregious. Chicken, for instance, a food popular with Jews and non-Jews alike. Fish with scales. How about potatoes baked in salt? Then even the vegans are happy.

I know, I know. Trivial. But a Star of David on the front and a shrimp recipe on the back?


Thursday, January 18, 2007

Hanging out with the Boys

For a long time I've been guilty of a reading sin: I read far more female authors than I do male. Darby has visited this problem over on his blog, only in reverse. He vows to be better, as do I.

The question is why. I'm not certain I have a good answer, which troubles me.

Some of my favorite authors (yeah, right, sure) are male. Andre Dubus. Ernest Hemingway. Kent Haruf. William Gibson. But far more are female...Atwood, Didion, de Beauvior, Kathyrn Harrison. My shelves reflect my bias, canting dramatically estrogenward.

I suppose in reading I look for the unknown point of view, but seeing through a female character's eyes is reassuring. Most female writers these days have some stock in making their way in our weirdly sexualized society, and I am drawn toward those who have some pithy rejoinders therein. Atwood epitomizes this, but Susan Choi certainly had plenty to say about being an Asian female, and my current read, Sigrid Nunez's The Last of Her Kind, dissects growing up in the sixties, free love, rape, and all.

Good God. I sound like a raving, unshaven feminist. I'm not. I'm equal opportunity: I think everyone should be treated fairly and most people are jerks. This is a most unfortunate view, but seriously, look around you. How many people in your life are jerks?

I rest my case. Still, good readers read widely. That means across the proverbial gender divide. Hence my game attempt at Ian McEwan. My slow realization that I should really join the masses and read Richard Powers. I'd like to read Calvin Trillin's memoir of Alice, except I am afraid of bawling all over it. The new Roddy Doyle sounds good, too.

Both of the aforementioned are about...women.

Well, a thorough rereading of Raymond Carver, untouched since grad school, is clearly in order. I am trying. I won't call it a resolution. It's too late for that. But a game attempt.

On a final, sorta related note: my past two fiction projects (one abandoned, may or may not complete, the other current) involve male narrators. Go figure.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Failure to read

Now and then even the most dedicated reader happens on a book he or she cannot get through. I am not talking about picking something up only discover it's the next Who Moved My Cheese. I mean literature. The good stuff.

Bibiliophiles have a variety of responses to this phemomenon, ranging from tossing the book down with nary a regret (rare), to slogging through dutifully, eating their spinach (or bran flakes, or whatever) to get to the Haagen Daz. Then there are the types that read fifty pages and put it on the shelf, promising to return come the next vacation. Which never comes. Then there's me. I am rarely able to stop reading a book. Until this most recent one, I cannot recall the last book I abandoned.

Time to 'fess up. I read eighty-one pages of Ian McEwan's Saturday, marveling at his felicitous sentences, his ability to introduce backstory, even liking his main character, but approaching the book with a vague dread. By page eighty-one McEwan was finally moving inexorably toward THE BAD THING that would move the plot from Rich English Family--very lucky--in an incredible English Mews Home (what is it about the English and real estate? they make Californians look like dilettantes!) to not-so-lucky after all. As the plot inched toward this moment--a traffic accident, but I didn't get that far--there was lots of musing about Iraq, terrorism, and 9/11.

It was strange. I knew something bad was coming and just didn't feel up to dealing with whatever it was through Henry Perowne's meticulous surgeon's eyes. I knew it would be awful and then resolve, because the Henry Perownes of the world are intended to live on three floors with libraries and Victorian Chandeliers, contemplating Middle Eastern bloodshed from an anguished if safe remove. And I just couldn't do it. Partly this had to do with the 9/11/terrorist theme. Of course it's timely and relevant and hideous, and you know what? I don't want it in my fiction. The reality is awful enough--plenty of anguished bloodshed at a safe remove for me.

I realize my stance could be interpreted as a refusal to meet reality in fiction. To seek escape. To paraphrase Joyce Carol Oates, people read to get into other people's skins. Sometimes we meet a skin we'd rather not step into, no matter how beautifully rendered. Most serious readers are taught to be ashamed at this--how many people admit they find Joyce, or for that matter, Pynchon--impenetrable? Might as well turn your credentials in at the door. Not being able to get through McEwan, whose prose is crystalline? More's my shame.

I do plan to shelve this one, rather than turn it around for used book credit. I think--hope?--the time comes when I can read it without feeling beaten about the head by it. Meanwhile, I have begun Sigrid Nunez's The Last of Her Kind (I seem stuck on Patty Hearst themed books) and scored a copy of Barbara Pym's Excellent Women. Claire Messud and Jane Grigson are on order. So the stack is reassuringly high, even if I am not the intellectual giant I'd wish to be.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Hairball of the week

And it's only Monday. Maybe I need to refine this into the Hairball Roundup, or some such. Maybe a hairball rating? A scale of one to five?

This article discusses the endless quest to turn Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged into a movie.

Poor Ayn Rand. People love to hate her, and with good reason. She was not generous. She did not play nicely with others. She hurt those she loved. And she wrote those nasty books promulgating selfishness.

I like Ayn Rand's books. I don't agree with much of her philosophy, though her thoughts on taking responsibility for one's actions are worth recalling. Perhaps the President might read her books and admit wrongdoing. Perhaps I might grow wings.

Anyway, I read Atlas and Fountainhead as a teen, and those cold, sharp, decisive characters made an impression. Especially Dagny Taggart, who, as a woman running a railroad, arguably paved at least some of the way for the concept of female leadership. Remember, this book was published in 1957. Betty and Gloria weren't on the scene yet. We women were supposed to be happy housewives having babies. Not beautiful Dagny. She was power suiting before Armani, showing off her sexy legs in high heels, having an affair with steel tycoon Henry Reardon, and running Taggart Transcontinental.

My paperback copy of Atlas Shrugged is 1,084 pages. Even the most dedicated, honest moviemaker would have difficulty condensing that much material into a decent two-hour screenplay. But this latest band of would-be Atlas makers is cause for concern. Phil Anschutz? I knew little of the guy, but Hockeyman hit the roof when he read this. So I went to Wikipedia, where I learned Anschutz is the 31st richest man in the United States. And an evangelical Christian. Huh? Then I clicked over to "social causes" and found this:

"Anschutz has been an active patron of a number of religious and right-wing causes:
Helped fund Amendment 2, a ballot initiative to overturn a Colorado state law protecting gay rights.[1]
Helped fund the Discovery Institute, the conservative Christian think tank that is the center of the intelligent design movement. [1]
Supported the Media Research Council, which generated nearly all the indecency complaints with the FCC in 2003. [1]"

How Angelina Jolie, who appears to be interested in singlehandedly rescuing Africa, could possibly be involved with this pond scum boggles my little mind. (Let's not even discuss how ill-cast the va-va-voom Jolie is in this role...nope. Or who on earth would play John Galt. Brad Pitt? George Clooney?)

Having a bunch of Right Wing Christians mucking about in the former Alice Rosenbaum's masterwork is--hell, let's say it--sacreligious. Rand was a passionate atheist, and while none of us know what she'd make of issues like gay marriage, we all know how she'd feel about the FCC (she fled Russia after the revolution) and the notion of "intelligent design."

Non-believers can only hope the project falls through. The faithful ought to pray.

Four hairballs.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Susan Choi's American Woman

I've been remiss, because I finished this book last Tuesday and only now have the time to write about it.

Nominated for the Pulitzer in 2003, American Woman lost to Middlesex. I would have hated to be a judge in that contest.

A thinly veiled rendition of the Patty Hearst abduction, American Woman is seen primarily through Jenny Shimada, a twenty-five year-old Japanese American on the lam after blowing up a government building. She's been on her own for a year or so when Rob Frazer, a fellow traveler, asks her to look after three younger people who need protection. In no position to argue--Rob has helped her remain underground--she is horrified to find herself in upstate New York with Juan, Yolanda, and kidnapped heiress Pauline. After weeks in a closet, Pauline professes to accept her captors' worldview, willingly participating in a bank robbery that culminates in their safe house being firebombed. Her face and story are everywhere.

The story unfolds in a complex narrative, moving between Jenny's difficult childhood, racism, feminism, and the upheaval that defined Berkeley in the 1960's and early '70's. We learn of Jenny's lover, William Weeks, who masterminded the bombings that left him in prison and Jenny alone on the run. We learn about Pauline's upbringing, basically the Hearst story, complete with castles and bigotry, about the almost pathetic innocence that drove these middle-class children into violent rebellion. We also hear from Jenny's father, Jim Shimada, whose imprisonment in Manzanar poisoned his life. The book's movement from past injustices to present events shines light on the characters' motivations; people we might otherwise dislike are sympathetic, if misled.

Choi shows us the human cost of life outside society: a life of constant fear, loneliness, and physical discomfort. Well-paying work, leading to decent housing and adequate clothing, is impossible. One cannot fall ill, as seeking medical care means arrest. Normal human relationships--friendship, love, contact with family--are unthinkably dangerous. Thus Jenny's terrible loneliness and increasingly close bond with Pauline, who, we come to know, can and will do anything to survive.

Choi's evocation of California is marvelous: her familiarity with Berkeley and inland California root the book firmly in place. Her description of cadres and revolutionary cells is almost sad; it is difficult to envision an American teenager over age thirteen who isn't hopelessly jaded about world events or the possibility for renewal, violent or otherwise. Yet no reader can escape the irony of Islamic fundamentalism's fatal parallels.

I don't want to give away the ending, but be warned: you won't be able to put the book down until you get to it, and unlike many current works, this one takes its time, sewing up threads, leaving the reader completely satisfied. Well, not really--it's the kind of book you want to go on forever. Barring that, we can look forward to Ms. Choi's next work.

Susan Choi: American Woman. New York: Harper Perennial, 2003.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

New Feature: Hairball of the Week!

I began this blog I thinking I'd refrain from excess snarking. The blogosphere abounds in it, and though I am not the personification of Christian Loving Kindness, nor am I Attila the Hun. Thus, no withering book reviews, no wholesale potshots under conver of anonymity.

Of course my noble goal rapidly fell to the wayside. I began mouthing off just like everyone else. Though I did, and do, try to be level. I would never drag a writer through the dirt because if felt good (exceptions: Mitch Albom, Danielle Steel. But are they writers? No. They are pretenders. But I digress...). Even if somebody wrote a real turkey, he or she is still a person with feelings. Like, well, me.

It was with these warm fuzzy thoughts that I read this article yesterday. Then, before I could even begin mustering my unkind words, I found this over at Ed's site. Thank you, Ed. I think.

These unsavory bulletins from the place known as reality had me bummed. Still, I worked, came home, cooked a nice meal, petted Kitty. Whilst performing these domestic actions Andi MacDowell's voice crawled through my mind, uttering the opening line from "Sex, Lies, and Videotape."


And the Hairball of the Week was born.

Only this week we have two inaugural hairballs. How fortunate we are.

Let us begin with hairball one, so apt after my recent breakfast post.

I find it alarming that a nursing student (!) goes to Starbucks to "fill up on coffee so I won't be tempted to eat to get an Egg McMuffin before lunch."

I hope to God I am never in the hospital where she works. Don't nursing students have to take basic nutrition?

Worse is the information that so many of us buy breakfast, and happily shell out for the Egg McMuffin. I love eggs and cheese as much as you do, but you know what? They aren't really healthy day after day. And McDonald's is NEVER healthy. As for Starbucks and their plans to "roll out" "premium and upscale ingredients, bold and layered flavors", hey, this breakfast, not the Detroit Auto Show.

Still eating at Starbucks? How about this?

“One region might have a more dialed-up pumpkin flavor depending on what we know about local tastes,”

The words "dialed up" make me think I should contact Amnesty International, not taste the muffin.

And how are all those kitchenless Starbucks, which multiply like mold spores in the night, going to prepare all those upscale, dialed up egg sandwhiches?

"To produce hot breakfast sandwiches without building a kitchen in every store, Starbucks has made a huge investment in new high-speed, high-heat ovens. The ovens, developed by companies including TurboChef, combine microwave and convection technology and can be used both for cooking (a chocolate cake, TurboChef claims, can be baked in 1 minute and 15 seconds) and for reheating."

I don't know about you, but for me chocolate cake is an event. It is a debauch, a treat, something I'm gonna be working off in the days to come. This means I want a chocolate cake that is perfect. That somebody sweated over, weighed out the flour, the Vahlrona chocolate, the Lurpak butter on a tared scale before lovingly mixing it in a KitchenAid professional mixer. And baked it in goddamned conventional oven for at least an hour. I think even Hostess Snack Cakes take more than one minute and fifteen seconds to bake.

You don't have time for breakfast. I know. Nobody does. The French are right about that 36 hour workweek. My advice to you is to buy breakfast at your market. Even if it's a box of doughnuts you pluck from the freezer. Minimally you'll save money. You will not be contributing to our friends the Kroc family, or eating things that have been centrally prepared, frozen with nitrogen technology, then shipped a zillion miles, only to be zapped in a TurboChef. Hell, you could even smear some butter on bread, which will take you no longer than stopping in either store.

Just a thought.

On to our second hairball.

Ah, the literary contest. Recently such a corrupted event, what with high entry fees, cancellations, winners who are sleeping with the judges. ( I know a contest judge--this was student contest, but still--who awarded first prize to her boyfriend. The award winning entry included the word 'fragrence.') Sobel was bad enough, but this contest, with its demand that you sign a non-negotiable contract within five days of running the voting gauntlet, is, in a way, worse. One is tempted to enter the first chapters of East of Eden just to see what happens.

Ask yourself the following: "What would Margaret Atwood do?"

Enough said.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Invalid cookery and other culinary adventures

Hockeyman came home sniffling last night, and boom, over the barrel we go into winter cold land. He's sicker than I am. I think he's been awake two hours today, and it's almost one. But I suspect we'll both live.

I am making jook. Jook is Chinese rice porridge, also called congee. It is considered a breakfast or luncheon item by the Chinese. It's also a great thing to make when you or somebody you are fond of is under the weather.

The basic items for jook are water and rice. The idea is to allow the rice to cook for a long, long time, which releases its starches and creates a thick, comforting soup. From there you can add--or not--chicken, duck, or turkey. Scallions, ginger, and garlic are also nice (Garlic! I forgot the garlic. Excuse me a minute here...).

(Three cloves of garlic later...)

Where was I? Additions to jook. A splash of soy sauce. Lots of sesame oil, which cookbook writer Mollie Katzen says has a "deep, dark, initimable smell." (I can't find which book this quote comes from. Sorry, Mollie. Please don't sue me.) Also some chili oil, which will purge your body of congestive yucky stuff. Or at least that's what people here in California think.

Jook should cook for at least ninety minutes. On my stove, with raw chicken in the soup, I give it two to three hours on a low burner. Jook is a nice departure from chicken soup, easily digested, and nourishing.

And now, for the adventuresome part. I know you kind readers rely on me to enliven your lives with my exotic, Iron Chefesque cookery. I vow, even in the midst of my cold, not to let you down. Last night I prepared farro.

Farro is a grain. I've heard of it, even seen it in cunning little packages over in the expensive dried bean section at the market. But I never picked it up until reading Chez Panisse Vegetables, which has recipes for farro in soup and as a side dish. Alice Waters says it goes well with roasted meats, and who am I to argue with Alice? So when I saw the cunning little package at the market again last week, I bought it.

I prepared it used one cup of grain to four cups of liquid, in this case, chicken broth. I added thyme, garlic, shallot (in deference to H-man's onion aversion), a diced carrot, and a good handful of kosher salt. Initially it smelled bitter, almost burnt, and I worried that I paid more for looks than taste. But after an hour we had a pleasant side dish that tasted a lot like barley, only mellower. I will definitely add it to the starchy side dish brigade, which could use a little widening.

This concludes Tuesday's installment of BK's cooking adventures. With a sniffle and sneeze, I bid you adieu. Happy cooking.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Quiet Desperation: Not Necessarily the English Way

Margaret Drabble's The Seven Sisters is a wonderful book in the old-fashioned sense: a beginning, middle, and end, all relayed by a character at turns self-pitying, remorseless, droll, and amusing.

Candida Wilton is a woman of a certain ago whose marriage to the pefect Andrew fell apart after he took up with the more alluring Anthea. At least, this is what we are told when the book, told in diary form, commences. We are told a lot of things that turn out to be not quite the case, all the more evidence that to dismiss older women as washed-out fools is our mistake.

Drabble packs a lot into this novel: how technology is changing society, the dismissive attitudes taken toward women in late middle age, dealing with one's adult children, what to do when the life you were raised to live does not work out. Her prose is a feat of economy while incorporating the sarcastic sidelong commentary seen in Atwood:

"Now isn't it wonderful that my spellchecker on this wonderful laptop machine accepts the word 'unladylike' without protest, but doesn't like the word 'ungentlemanly'? Shall I try 'ungentlemanlike'? No, it doesn't like that either. A small triumph, or a small defeat, for the ladies. But which? I love my spellchecker." (42)

"Tuscany, apparently, is out fashion these days. Tuscany has been done to death. Tuscany is old hat and overrun by yesterday's people. In other words, says Julia, the media are tired of Tuscany. They gave birth to it like Saturn and now wish to devour it." (90-91)

Initially Candida has little to do with her time. She's bought a flat in Ladbroke Grove, a chic if dangerous part of London. There she attends a health club that once housed an adult education center, where she briefly took a class on Virgil. It is this class, and the people she meets there, that propel her from solitary living into a new reality.

Drabble, like her sister A.S. Byatt, possesses a formidable command of classical literature and languages, including French and Latin. I do not possess these things, so while I can appreciate the depth of the novel, I know some of it got past me. I haven't read the Aenied, know nothing of mythology, and thus missed any number of allusions to them as they intertwine with the book's plot.

Candida is both shy and achingly proper. To speak to the crying girl in the Health Club locker room is too direct. To telephone her Virgil teacher, the widowed Mrs. Jerrold, is unthinkably direct. The fact that exotic Anais, a friend from the Virgil class, telephones to ask Candida to the movies is amazing, for surely Candida isn't good company. As for her old friend Julia calling up from France, well, Julia always did keep up with her. Heaven knows why.

Gradually Candida moves out of her shell, calling Mrs. Jerrold only to be warmly invited to the sort of English mews house one might find in the New Times Thursday Styles Section. Back home, Candida contemplates her Virgil, stares out the window at the amazing view her dangerous apartment affords, and dreams of traveling in Virgil's steps through Africa and Italy.

When an unexpected windfall allows her just that opportunity, she rounds up a group of women--fat Sally Hepburn, a woman she barely tolerates but cannot seem to escape, and four women from her Virgil class. With guide Valeria rounding the number to seven, the sisters embark on their trip, which brings life-changing news to three of them. Numbers are important to Candida, and play a large part in the book; sevens and threes predominate. Candida, in a courageous moment, buys a lottery card. This momentous purchase, alas, does not pay off. But it does demonstrate growing courage.

The book takes some interesting narrative turns; the first section is narrated in first person, by Candida, in diary fashion. The second half, the Italian trip, moves into third person omniscent. There is a brief interlude narrated by Candida's daughter Ellen, then we are back to Candida. There is more, but I would ruin the plot if I divulged it. Suffice to say Candida does indeed go on a journey and return a changed woman. The ending is not roundly, sappily happy. Instead it is hopeful: Candida has re-established contact with her daughters, has a wide circle of friends, and a few male acquaintances. It is refreshing to read a realistic portrayal of a woman in late middle age; apart from Anita Brookner's depressing ouevre (am I the only person who thinks they are all the same book?) and Atwood's recent Moral Disorder, one doesn't read much about aging women, much less aging women who refuse to capitulate to lives of quiet desperation. Which may not be the English way after all.

Margaret Drabble: The Seven Sisters. New York: Harcourt Books. 2002.

On Breakfast

A meal I have just finished.

There are people who cannot face food before noon. I married one of them. Then there are people like me, who aren't fully awake until they've eaten. And had coffee.

Coffee is essential.

I began drinking coffee as a youngster. My grandfather got me hooked. It happened like this: I spent the weekends at my grandparents' apartment. They had set eating rituals, including snacking after 11:00 news on Stella D'Oro cookies and coffee. From there they retired to bed, sleeping soundly despite the coffee.

My Grandfather usually woke first, and bustled about fixing Cream of Wheat with tons of butter and salt. I was an adult before I realized people sweetened hot cereal. And he made more coffee, with lots of cream and saccharine. He was diabetic, and in those days one bought saccharine from the pharmacy in little glass bottles with blue tops.

We sat down to this meal and tucked in. I loved it so much that at nine, I decided to give my parents' coffeemaker a whirl at breakfast time. I've been drinking coffee ever since.

During my teens my coffee habit grew to six cups a day. This was long before the Starbucks revolution or Fair Trade Organic or Peets or Blue Bottle. This was Yuban into the old pot. I drank it with sugar and cream unless it was after dinner. Then I took it black.

Of course that much coffee has a deleterious effect, even on the very young. So it was I developed an ulcer and was told to lay off the coffee. I cut down to one cup. And there I stay. I don't smoke, I don't do drugs, I exercise, I drink moderately. I am NOT giving up coffee.

So there I was this morning, with my coffee (Illy, made in a crummy pot), toasted bagel, and cream-cheese substitute.

I have eaten the same breakfast for years: a bagel with cream cheese. The bagel in California are awful. Nobody west of Chicago can get them right. I compensate for this by toasting, which does not solve the problem but helps mask it.

I used Philadelphia Cream Cheese for centuries, until one day at Berkeley Bowl when I discovered Nancy's Cream Cheese, which, in addition to being politically correct, has lots of yogurt-type good bacteria. I bought some, and was soon hooked on it. Nancy's is not as firm as Philadelphia--no guar gum, I guess--but has a tangy, bright flavor. But in the past couple months Nancy's has suffered. I don't know what happened or why, but the cream cheese is now so runny it's more like pourable cream. It still tastes good, but it's impossible to spread on a bagel.

Last week I searched the market for substitutes. There was Philadelphia. Organic Valley had sold out. Maybe a bunch of irate Nancy's customers cleaned out the supply.

It was then I remembered yogurt cheese.

Yogurt cheese is made by straining yogurt through cheesecloth into a bowl. The whey slowly drips out, leaving firm yogurt cheese behind. One may add any number of things to yogurt cheese: lemon, herbs, garlic. You can then serve this alongside Middle Eastern or Indian style meals, or, if you are me, take it to work and eat it with a spoon. All those happy bacteria are good for your gut, and there's lots of calcium, too.

I reasoned I might be able to create a Nancy's substitute. So I bought a pint of Straus Organic whole yogurt, which is made in Marin Country and about as pc as you can get, and dumped it into a strainer. This morning I spooned out a little and spread it on a waiting bagel.

It tasted like yogurt on a bagel. But I am undeterred. I ate my yogurt bagel up. Then I cut some fresh cheesecloth, transferred the cheese to it, and weighted it down with a bowl. The entire mess is now in the fridge: a towel covering a small bowl, resting atop cheesecloth-covered-yogurt cheese resting in a strainer sitting in large Pyrex bowl. This sounds like the culinary equivalent of Supercalifragilisticexpealidocius; the intention is further cheese firming.

The bottom of the Pyrex bowl is filled with whey. Some people use this whey to bake bread or pickle vegetables. I am not that advanced yet. I throw my whey away. (take that, voice recognition software!)

The outcome remains indeterminate. Should Organic Valley stock up, I may abandon my cream cheese exploits. But Philadelphia is out. After years of eating natural stuff, Philly tastes wrong. Off. Like, well, guar gum.

If all else fails, I will resort to butter. The Sunday bagels of my childhood, piled with cream cheese, Nova Lox, onion, and tomato will take on Proustian overtones. Though, alas, I don't expect I'll be dipping one into my coffee any time soon.

Saturday, January 06, 2007


Doubtless many in the blogosphere will be all over Richard Powers' essay on voice recognition software in today's NYT. I haven't read him, so I am not one of the rabid minions.

The essay extols the joys of the technology, citing many fine writers who composed aloud--Proust, Dickens, Wallace Stevens.

On one hand (what opportunity for punning!) , Powers must be on to something. He did win the National Book Award. And all writers are well-advised to read their work aloud. What better way to detect a clunky adjective or find those typos the eye misses? Further, Powers feels the divine connection of word to paper--or in this case, to computer--is facilitated when the creator isn't hampered by the qwerty keyboard.

I read the article with something verging on dread. I suffer from severe carpal tunnel syndrome, and fear it is only a matter of time before I am forced off the keyboard. Yeah, I know, I can have the surgery. But the surgery is only a temporary fix: your carpal tunnel will return. And while I am a trouper regarding most medical procedures, I cannot abide anything related to my hands. I won't even get a manicure, much less allow somebody to cut into my wrists. I mean, hands are rather essential, and you have only two. And if you an ambidextrous type, like me, you want them both. Intact.

Laser surgery is increasingly replacing the old-fashioned slice-'em-recover-for-months technique. I might consider that when the time comes. Might. If I am given lots and lots of Valium before, during, and immediately afterward. Until then, I type, I hurt, I sleep in big wrist braces.

Beyond the physical aspects of voice vs. typing lay the psychological concerns. Powers admits "writing" to the sound of his own voice was jarring initially, but freed from the keyboard, he happily grew accustomed to speaking his work. He likes the speed, even if he must go back to fine tune those words the computer "mishears."

I think if I wrote using VRS I'd go mad. Just moving from pen and paper to computer was difficult, but typing is easier than writing. I am no longer able to hand write much more than a grocery list. Thus, the computer.

Speaking my writing, to me, almost doesn't seem like writing. Rather, it would be speechmaking, that old-fashioned form of discourse used before the advent of electronic media. I suspect my work would suffer. I am a person who needs to see the words on the virtual page. That is, I need to produce them. I need to see how the words fit together, what the sentence looks like. After all, most contemporary writing is not intended to be read aloud. It is, Powers writes, "subvocalized." Heard internally. Most readers hear internally as they read; characters' voices are a critical part of the imagined world one enters while reading. Or writing.

Of course, every writer's method (not that I am comparing my unknown worm self to the Great Powers) differs, and whatever works is the best method. Though I can see all manner of Powers wanna-bes rushing off to wherever one purchases vrs (Wherever that might be. Target?) in the futile hopes of duplicating his efforts.

Method fascinates. Read any interview with an author and the subject comes up. Joan Didion begins "The Year of Magical Thinking" by opening MS Word. In "Writing Matters," Julia Alvarez describes her writing ritual thus:

"Even as recently as this very day, I walk into my study first thing in the morning, and I fill up my bowl of clear water and place it on my desk. And though no one told me to do this, I somehow feel this is the right way to start a writing day." (279)

Alvarez composes on a computer, by the way, correcting printed drafts with colored pens.

Hemingway, in Paris with Hadley, rented an unheated room in a hotel. From "Miss Stein Instructs":

"(he wrote) a room that looked across all the roofs and the chimneys of the high hill of the quarter...Up in the room I had a bottle of kirsch that we had brought back from the mountains and I took a drink of kirsch when I would get toward the end of story or the end of the day's work...It was in that room too that I learned not to think about anything I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day." (11-13)

The sketch goes on to say a great deal more about writing, including the now-shopworn adages about stopping when you know what happens next and writing the truest sentence you know. Shopworn, but still effective. Kirsch, a Parisian view, a room devoted strictly to writing, along with the time and money to do so, are also helpful. But they will not make you Hemingway.

Annie Dillard disagrees with a view. Much of "The Writing Life" is devoted to the hardships of writing, the mind-numbing labor of it, the sense of meaninglessness that pervades most writers' lives. Why are we spending all this time lining up words into sentences and paragraphs and pages when, most likely, we will be unread? A fine question. One I ask myself daily, if not hourly, following up with a roundly severe questioning of my abilities. But back to Dillard:

"Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark...Once, fifteen years ago, I wrote in a cinder block cell overlooking a parking lot." (27)

Voice recognition software. MS Word. Bowls of water. Views. Kirsch. None of the above. What is a budding writer to do?

Find her own way. Or his. In writing this blog, I realize I have few set methods. No rituals. Maybe this is why I am not a famous writer.

I do not have a room of my own. I have a study, shared with Hockeyman. I do have a desk of sorts--a length of countertop perched on two filing cabinets. Atop this desk I have a black and white photograph of Hockeyman and Kitty. I took this photograph for a class in graduate school. I printed and matted it myself. Kitty was a still a kitten, with fuzz and a teeny tail. Hockeyman's hair fell halfway down his back in gorgeous curls. Other items: a mug filled with disused pens. A red paper mache bowl. A map of Michigan printed in 1904. A small clock H-man gave me. A cheap desk lamp. A power strip. This laptop.

But I don't always write here. Sometimes I write in bed, propping the computer on pillows. Sometimes I write at the kitchen table, but it's too high and aggravates my hands. Sometimes I sit on the floor in the living room, propping the laptop on a thick book. Cookbooks are handy for this.

But no chants,no kirsch, no water. No prayers or incantations. No views. The truth is I just don't have the time--I grab whatever moments are available. And until the unlikely day when I am discovered by Amanda Urban or somehow end up writing full time, my method will remain unvarnished: slogging away on the laptop whenever I can.

Julia Alvarez: Something to Declare. North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 1998

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

Ernest Hemingway: A Moveable Feast. New York: Scribners. 1964.

Friday, January 05, 2007

A farewell to Jasmine

Jasmine, adorable cat, internet pioneer, and companion of Kevin and Marian Drum, died today. She was nine.

You are either a cat person, or you aren't. With qualifications: one can like dogs, as I do, or even be a dog person, as Hockeyman is, and still be a cat person.

Jasmine and Inkblot are the original catblog stars. Countless people visited Mr. Drum's site to check out his cats or send photos of their own feline friends. The New York Times wrote an early article about Mr. Drum and his cats, though only Jasmine was willing to pose for the photographer. Finally, after years of "Friday Cat Blogging," Mr. Drum grew exhausted and began intermittent cat photos. Still there, was always the occasional cat blog to enjoy, until today's unhappy post.

Amazingly, 353 people responded with condolences (full disclosure: me, too.)

We can all point to zillions of ways the world is going to hell, but the outpouring of fellow-feeling is reason for a sliver of hope.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Get a Life

Nadine Gordimer's Get a Life is ostensibly about South African ecologist Paul Bannerman's bout with thyroid cancer and the treatment that leaves him temporarily radioactive. Weakened and a danger to his wife and young son, he retreats to his parents' home, recuperating in their garden.

Gordimer uses Paul's situation as a flimsy construct to preach about the exploitation of South African lands, political corruption, AIDS, and lingering post-apartheid inequities. Paul falls ill as he is working to prevent the construction of a nuclear plant; everything, from his bodily fluids to the potential reactor, is radiant. While these are all real concerns, at times I felt the characters were mere cover for Gordimer's true topics, and if ecological and political disasters were what she wanted to discuss, she might have done away with the novelistic veneer.

That said, she keenly limns both Paul's marriage to advertising executive Benni and Adrian and Lyndsay's long, bumpy union. Paul and Benni's relationship is most disturbing. Their careers are exemplify their differences: Benni is concerned with slick surfaces and the business of selling them, while Paul loves the land, spending days away from Benni working in remote areas of the country with his mates.

Much is made of these mates, who share his passion and are conveniently racially mixed. Thapelo is black, proud of his streetwise background and fluency in numerous dialects: he gets on well with Adrian and Lyndsay's servant Primrose. His visits Paul during his dangerous convalescence; radiance flies. When Paul recovers, halfway through the novel, Benni decides to initiate social life with Thapelo, Derek, their wives and children, inviting them to weekend luncheon. She includes some friends from her office, including an American and a lesbian, then twists herself into knots patting her own back. The reader is left wondering why Paul married this superficial woman to begin with, and can only follow along as he gradually arrives at the same conclusion.

Lyndsay and Adrian, married far longer, have overcome Lyndsay's four-year affair and appear to be on the road to an active retirement. Adrian has retired from civil service and looks forward to traveling, where he will indulge his passion for archeology (giving Gordimer more eco-political fodder). He is hoping to talk Lyndsay into leaving her law office to accompany him. They care nervously for Paul, acutely aware not only of his potential mortality but the strangeness of having an adult child home again. Upon his recovery and departure, they fly to Mexico.

Paul's illness and recovery are described with surprising speed. He is ill, treated, cured. His revelations as he recuperates--about his marriage, his distant siblings, his work--do not add up to significant change. His newfound awareness of the distances possible between intimate family members is examined, then put aside the moment he is cleared to go into the bush.

The action then moves to Lyndsay, who leaves Adrian in Mexico for an important case. Adrian extends his stay, sending letters documenting his travels. Then comes the letter annoucing the truth: he has fallen in love with his guide, a woman decades his junior. He has decided to pursue this late-life liasion. Lyndsay accepts this with near equanimity, moving forward almost heedlessly. Gordimer weaves environmental and ecological woes throughout; we learn of the endangered animals, the toll roads running through preserves, exploited native communities, orphans. Paul and Benni stay married. Lyndsay and Adrian do not. The end.

Gordimer is a great writer--she the won the Nobel, for heaven's sake--and the stylistic liberties she takes bespeak her skill. Dialogue is set off with dashes instead of quotation marks, emphasizing missed or otherwise poor communication between characters. Language is minimal:

"The pesitilent one, the leper. The new leper, that's it, how he thinks of himself, sardoncially flip." (6)

"What do you do when you have no purpose, are allowed no purpose but something his mother has called 'recuperate.'" (20)

Benni is referred to as Benni or Berenice, or, most often, Benni/Berenice, denoting the warm wife and mother and her other, the decisive career woman. As the book progresses, the boundaries between these personas blur, and she becomes Benni/Berenice at all times.

Ultimately I cannot say I liked the book, but her writing is impressive and I would try other works.

Nadine Gordimer: Get a Life. New York: Penguin Books: 2005.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Disagreeing with Daniel Mendelsohn

Part of my holiday catch-up reading included Andrew Crawford's piece about Daniel Mendelsohn in the September/October 2006 issue of Poets and Writers.

Mendelsohn is author of 1999's The Elusive Embrace and 2005's The Lost. Both are memoir, the first of Mendelsohn's life as a gay man in New York City and part of a heterosexual relationship in Trenton, the second of his quest to learn the fate of relatives lost to the Holocaust.

I've read neither book--though I intend to. Mendelsohn is clearly a brilliant guy with a broad grasp of literature (he has a Ph.D. in Classics from Princeton), the sort of educated polymath rapidly disappearing from our abysmally educated society. Crawford tells us Mendelsohn writes in bed, the television tuned to CNN, or more often, Lifetime. He is as enthusiastic, we are told, about Greek tragedy as he is about popular cultural fare. He has collected any number of prestigious awards and is lionized by the elite--the article is dotted with testimonials from Chip McGrath and Robert Silvers.

I read along, thinking, this is the sort of person I'd like to model myself on. What Wendy Lesser, in The Amateur, calls "an eighteenth-century man of letters, though one that happens to be female and lives in twentieth century Berkeley." (5) It isn't too much of a stretch to place Mendelsohn in the analogy, with proper nods to maleness, New York City, and the twenty-first century.

So far, so good. Toward the article's conclusion we learn that Mendelsohn considers all his writing criticism. Very well. To this end, Mendelsohn is embarking on a series of lectures on the importance of criticism and its endangerment by the internet. I do not have direct quote permission and can see P&W breathing down my neck, should they find my insignficant little self, so I will summarize. Mendelsohn feels passionately that criticism is the business of trained folk. That discerning good from bad is the bailiwick of people like him.

At no time does the word "litblogger" appear anywhere in the piece; such an appelation would not go with Mendelsohn's professed fondness for Venetian glass and his antique-laden pied a terre. But there it is: the internet is ruining criticism.

The internet is like any other media outlet: a great deal of garbage, a bit of greatness. There are many writers on the net whose breadth and intelligence merit serious consideration. Laila Lalami is far from uneducated. The people writing Critical Mass are all working writers with daunting fact, one of them is Laura Miller, part of Mendelsohn's "Sunday Schlockers" movie club. I dare anyone to question Ed Champion's intelligence, range, or commitment to the written word.

Mendelsohn goes on to say the novel is dead, and that serious writers are now doing non-fiction, broadening the personal into the general.



Initially I read the piece, finished the magazine, and tossed it into the recyling bin. But the article stayed with me; I brought it up at dinner with Hockeyman last night.

You should write about it, he said. Otherwise Mendelsohn's assertions go unchallenged.

Okay. Here I am, sticking my neck out. I think Mendelsohn is wrong. Are there bad litbloggers? Of course. But there are poor print reviewers as well. Ours is a society fond of trash. Reality television. Chicken Soup Books. Britney Spears records. Howard Stern.

Good litbloggers direct serious readers to writers they might not otherwise find. The New York Review of Books is an august publication. It is also a limited one with an aging readership. The NYTBR is sinking beneath its own ponderous weight, which is pathetic considering the kind of readership and talent they command. Local newspaper coverage of writing has shrunken to the point that even dyed-in-the-wool print journalists like Jerome Weeks are out there blogging.

Finally, I think Mendelsohn is talking out of both sides of his mouth. He reminds me of man I know who considers himself a devout Jew--attends shul, keeps kosher, the works--yet lives with a non-Jewish woman. Kosher in the kitchen but not in the bedroom. Mendelsohn is writing his erudite critiques to a background of Lifetime Television for Women and then bemoaning the internet? Am I channeling Didion when I say there is a profound disconnect here?

A New Year, with resolutions

I have not made New Year resolutions since I was an overweight teenager. Why set myself up to fail? Life is difficult enough. But these are blog-related, therefore interesting and easy to keep.

1. Keep a list of books read.

Everybody else--Ed, Darby, the nice woman at Pages Turned--does this seemingly as a matter of course. They were all able to post about their reading achievements and failures this year. I feel like a newborn animal from my husband's "The Life of Mammals" video set, stumbling to get my feet under me and get the hang of walking while all the other baby kangaroos play-fight.

2. Keep a list of books I'd like to read.

Are you horrified I haven't? Until this blog business started I either kept track of writers I loved (Ann Patchett's new book will be out in Fall. Jane Smiley's--woo-hoo!--next month) or just wandered around the bookstore, randomly picking up books. I will not abandon this method entirely, as it leads to some rewarding finds, but the more time I spend in the blogosphere, the more I realize a great deal of the good stuff is coming from smaller publishers. Or is unsung by the big guys. I mean, I knew this, but not until I read the Underrated Writer's List did it really hit home. I'd never heard of most the writers listed therein. Nor had I heard of Scarlett Thomas until Ed all but threw The End of Mr. Y over the San Francisco Bay at me.

Which leads me to something most of you already know (the baby kangaroo is catching up ...)--the literary world is cleaving into the old and new guards, with all the pains one might expect. But the interesting stuff, for the most part, is happening here in the 'sphere. This is not to say good work doesn't appear from the old school publishing/reviewing machine, though increasingly that seems a happy accident rather than the norm.

I could throw in my two cents here about the divide, the way print editors take potshots at litbloggers and vice versa, but the truth is the internet ain't going away, and as Darby so aptly put it about Tannenhaus: "You keep making what should be your primary audience hate you. Way to be!"

Eventually some sort of merger will occur...not because we'll all suddenly join hands and sing "Give Peace a Chance," but because some nineteen-year-old will figure out how to make lots of money from what to him/her is an obvious solution. Then we'll all lean on our canes and talk about the good old days before Sony Betamaxes and Commodore 64s and email.

On that happy note, here is the first list of 2007:

1. Nadine Gordimer: Get a Life

I've never read any of her work beyond the occasional New Yorker short story. Where have I been? I started this last night. Great book. Great writer. More on this soon.

2. Sheila Heti: The Middle Stories.

I was all excited about this book but Ed warned me off it. Now it keeps migrating to the bottom of the pile.

3. Margaret Drabble: The Seven Sisters

I've read most of A.S. Byatt but none of sister Margaret. Time to get with it!

4. Ian McEwan: Saturday

Again, the only McEwan I've read is in the New Yorker. (Shameful blush)

5. Susan Choi: American Woman.

I was looking for Dana Spiotta's Eat the Document but found this instead. Another riff on the Hearst abduction.

Happy 2007!