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.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Anna Gavalda's Hunting and Gathering

[Hockeyman here. BK's review of Anna Gavalda's Hunting and Gathering is currently up at January Magazine. Check it out, and poke around the rest of the site if you are so inclined.]

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Asparagus: an untitled post

(After arguing with BK Editing Services, this post is offically untitled. "Asparagus" denotes today's topic. Happy reading.--The BK Crew, aka BK and Hockeyman)

It's springtime in California, or what passes for it in these globally-ruined times. This means our weekly farm box is changing. The months of collards, cabbages, lettuces, and the occasional bunch o' turnips are now leavened by spring onions, carrots, a brief flash of fava beans, English peas, and bundles of asparagus.

Asparagus! One is instructed to cook it immediately, lest it lose its inimitable freshness. Can't cook it now? Place the bundle upright, in water, like a green bouquet.

The only suitable vessel I have for uprighting asparagus is an oversized Detroit Red Wings mug featuring a bleeding transfer of Sergei Federov, skating in his dress reds. He should've never left the Wings, and God knows they need him now. But for the moment, he is static in my fridge, holding up the asparagus.

"I don't like asparagus," I admitted to Hockeyman earlier today.

He looked scandalized. "You don't?"

"I like canned asparagus. Isn't that awful?"

His expression said I married this person? "You know," He said. "Alice Waters is going to take away your secret power ring. Canned!"

I know. I never saw fresh asparagus until my late twenties. My mother bought the occasional can, a luxury, and meted out a few twigs of the khaki stuff to each family member. I especially loved the stalks.

Now I never buy canned asparagus. See, I have this fresh stuff from the farm, and I'm supposed to prefer it. So I've dutifully washed it, sauteéd it, squirted lemon over it, broiled it with olive oil and garlic, bathed it in butter. And I invariably find it bitter, fibrous, even minerally at times.

I don't like asparagus.


Food dislikes are a funny business. While individual tastes vary--I have always hated hot dogs, and Hockeyman cannot abide cottage cheese--certain foods are meant to transcend. Asparagus, fresh peas, apple pie (another food I am indifferent to), stuffing, fried chicken. If you live in Alice Waters territory, as I do, you are supposed to swoon at the sight of fresh baby lettuces. I don't. Then again, I love a lot of veggies people profess to hate: rutabagas, turnips, celeraic. I like cabbage well enough and have become so addicted to dark greens that if I go without them a few days, cravings set in.

Even funnier is the guilt associated with disliking certain foods. It's okay to shun MacDonald's, but confessing to asparagus aversion is like admitting you don't get Pynchon: you're a fake. Hand over those Berkeley-pc-intellectual credentials now.


So what's a humiliated palate to do?

Try to like the offending food, of course. Here is Laurie Colwin on stuffing:

"It was years before I could come out and say how much I hated stuffing ... Holiday after holiday I would push my portion around my plate ... Everyone else loved it. It was clear I was in opposition to a national tradition."

After an outing at her home involving an unstuffed turkey, Colwin attempts amends. The perfect stuffing appears to her as she's drowsing: cornbread and prosciutto. Its raging success leads her to conclude:

"After all, an unstuffed turkey is like a jigsaw puzzle of the American flag with a piece missing right in the middle."

Fortunately, asparagus lacks such connotations. But vegetable guilt is a powerful thing. Chef Jessica Prentice, in Full Moon Feast, documents her efforts toward Jerusalem artichokes, or sunchokes:

"I still haven't acheived a fondness for Jersualem artichokes ... (she acquires some from a local farmer and takes them to a catering job) ... I debated whether I should serve the sunchokes as well ... I wanted to like them. I boiled them right there at the catering job and then cut into a steaming hot, knobby little nugget, and plopped it in my mouth, hoping to fall in love. I didn't. Yuck, I thought."

She goes on to say she'll keep trying them, though, in the hopes of acquiring a taste for them.

Both Colwin and Prentice keep trying, as I do--the asparagus keeps coming, and I keep preparing it. I doubt I'll ever come to like it as I do other vegetables. But last night, paging through Chez Panisse Vegetables, I found Green Risotto with Fava Bean Purée, Peas, and Asparagus. It's rather involved, what with peeling the favas, pureeing them, and coping with the whole broth-risotto-experience, so I will tear Hockeyman away from the playoffs to act as sous chef.

The recipe calls for asparagus cut on the diagonal and stirred in the rice toward the end of cooking. But the rest of it--the beans and peas, garlic, butter, broth--looks so wonderul that I think I'll be able to cope.

Or I can direct Hockeyman to slice the stalks into longish lengths. They'll be that much easier to push aside.

Laurie Colwin:Home Cooking. New York, Harper Perennial. 1988: 132-5.

Jessica Prentice:Full Moon Feast. Vermont, Chelsea Green Publishing. 2006: 13-15.

Alice Waters: Chez Panisse Vegetables. New York, Harper Collins. 1996: 143.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

About Alice

Calvin Trillin's About Alice had the misfortune of appearing after The Year of Magical Thinking. This was more than obviously ironic, as Trillin was good friends with John Gregory Dunne. The two attended Yale together, keeping up a lively correspondence thereafter, documented by Dunne in Regards.

Trillin was married to Alice just shy of forty years, and his elegy is as amusing in spots as it is heartrending. While temptingly convenient to compare his book to Didion's, their similarities begin and end at losing a spouse. Trillin, even in grief, quotes the one condolence letter that makes him--and us--laugh. If there's a mite of humor in Magical, I hereby charge the lit crit brigade to find it.

Alice Stewart Trillin's mother was Jewish, a consolation to Calvin's mother. Yet what one notices in the book's two photographs is what Trillin calls her "prettiness" and what the rest of us would call stunning beauty. The Alice shown on the back jacket flap of this slim volume is striding, hand-in-hand, with the man she married moments before. She wears the kind of outfit any woman over age twenty-five recognizes as classic, and very, very expensive: an understated plaid skirt, a matching car coat with 3/4 sleeves, a light turtleneck sweater and beret. Leather gloves, dark pumps. She is that rare thing: a natural blonde. Had she chosen to do so, she could have modeled (she did, a bit, early on) or become one of those actors who doesn't need to act.

But Alice's looks bedeviled her, for "they were exacerbated by the fact that Alice didn't look like who she was." (20) She was an intellect, teacher, and fine writer herself. Trillin describes the sort of people who reacted to her negatively--men anticipating a beautiful woman's haughty grandeur, jealous women. Precisely because Alice was so nice, and because Trillin describes this kindness so well, even those of us with-less-than Alice appearances feel genuinely sorry for her.

Alice was also forthright. One of memior's best moments transpires at a meeting of Yale Alumni. George Pataki has just given a rousing speech about his own Yale experience--that of a postal worker's son. When Pataki returns to his seat at the Trillin's table, Alice turns to him and says:

"That was one of the best speeches I've ever heard. Why in the world are you a Republican?" (43)

She had an ingrained sense of fairness. She taught remedial English in the New York College system, ignoring the outraged shrieks from those who felt people in need of remedial teaching didn't belong in higher education. She believed everyone beyond a set income level should be levied "the Alice Tax." She helped those in need, caring for her ailing, bankrupt parents, writing movingly to a young woman recovering from assault. Her letters to young Bruno Navatsky, diagnosed with a malignant lung tumor, became the book Dear Bruno. Sixteen years later, Bruno wrote: "Thanks for your letter. I really should have answered sooner, but I've been so busy...There was high school to finish, then college. For a few years, I was living in Japan." (72)

Alice was not so fortunate. In 1976, this cigarette-loathing woman got lung cancer. Incredibly, she recovered, but years later--on September 11th, 2001--the damage from radiation treatment exacted its final toll on her generous heart.

At seventy-eight pages, About Alice is a marvel of brevity. Yet the emotional current lends it expansivesess. Trillin deftly sidesteps memoir's worst pitfalls by sticking to the facts. There are four mentions of his sadness: the opening lines, his granddaughter Izzy's resemblance to Alice ("which may be one reason I sometimes have trouble taking my eyes off her.") (12), and this sudden realization in an airport, years after Alice's first illness and recovery:

"I was walking through an airport to catch a plane to New York, when, apropos of nothing, the possibility that things could have gone the other way in 1976 burst into my mind...I think I literally staggered...I was in a condition my father would have called poleaxed. A couple people stopped to ask if I was all right. I must have said yes. After a while, the pictures faded from my mind. I...caught my flight...Alice was there. The girls were there. Everything was all right." (71)

The final moment closes the book. Alice, that incorrigible optimist, would have called living twenty-five years beyond a death sentence meant wonderful luck.

"I try to think of it in those terms. Some days I can and some days I can't." (78)

Calvin Trillin: About Alice. New York: Random House. 2006.

For my neighbor, Ceasar, who died two weeks ago, and his mother, who took such wonderful care of him.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Bad Teeth

I got my braces off yesterday.

Everybody told me I’d be running my tongue over my teeth, marveling at their smoothness. I’m not. My tongue is busy with the new permanent retainer glued to my bottom front teeth. My mouth aches a little bit. I was warned it might. I’m used to dental pain.

How do I look? Like Carly Simon. Long brown hair surrounding total horse teeth. The orthodontist told me everyone says that—how huge their teeth look. When I relayed this to Hockeyman, he said, yeah, but you’ve never really seen all your teeth.

It’s true. My teeth were so crooked I never knew what they looked like aligned. Now I do, and it’s like somebody else’s teeth are in my mouth, on temporary loan.

I have many habits to break, like the one that surfaced Sunday night, when Hockeyman brought the laptop out the to couch. He had it on the camera setting. “We have to take before and after pictures,” He said. He passed the laptop to me. The camera sized me up. The woman looking back at me appeared every minute of her thirty-nine years and then some. Her mouth was closed, as its been since she was ten. “I can’t,” I said.

“Why not? C’mon.” He was celebratory. I had dreamed the night before that I’d visited the orthodontist and he’d refused to remove the braces. I wasn’t taking any chances.

“No,” I said. My left hand drifted up to my mouth as I spoke, and stayed there. “I can’t,” I said through my hand.

He stared, his smile fading into puzzlement. He has perfect teeth. In the fourteen years I have known him, he hasn’t had so much as a cavity. Whereas I have had multiple root canals, crowns, three root canals on one tooth that failed, removal of said tooth and part of the jaw around it, along with countless little fixes.

I handed the computer back to him.

I have been ashamed of my teeth for twenty-nine years. Since I was ten, and my baby teeth, instead of falling out, rotted and decayed. There wasn’t money for the dentist. My baby molars blackened; I covertly spit little pieces of tooth into my palm when I thought my mother wasn’t looking.

She must have seen me, though, because one day her father called me over to his chair and counted a hundred dollars into my palm.

“Go to the dentist. And if you need more, you tell me.”

“Why are you doing this?” What a question from a ten-year-old! What an odd child I was!

“So you’ll remember me when I’m dead.”

My grandfather lost all his teeth as a young man. He had diptheria. Only now does it occur to me that he, too, knew about the shame and suffering associated with teeth.

Everyone knows there is nothing like dental pain. Perhaps it is the immediacy of pain so close to our brains, the way a sore tooth can short-circuit any attempts at logical thought. The way dental pain refuses to capitulate to all but the strongest medications. The way it stops us from the human necessities of talking and eating.

Perhaps it is a deep-seated animal fear: without teeth we are helpless, like infants. Or, more frighteningly, like the very old. If nothing else, depending on your generation, you remember Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man or the X-Files’ Duane Barry. Nobody will ever forget Steve Railsback screaming “They drilled holes in my teeth!”

Thus the American love of a Farrah Fawcett megawatt smile. Tooth whitening centers spring up on corners like so many Starbucks franchises. Entire supermarket aisles are taken up with fancy whitening systems and special toothpastes.

I say Americans because the many Europeans I work with were amazed when I got braces. They all told me I looked fine. When I explained the braces were for medical reasons, not vanity, I was dismissed. I suppose those who have survived world wars have a different take on trivialities like teeth. But I was American, thirty-seven, and down one adult molar. I was told my nasal cavity was too shallow to permit an implant. There was nowhere to put a bridge. Worst of all, my crowded teeth led to endless infections, no matter how vigorously I brushed and flossed.

With my $100 in hand, I went to a dentist who pulled the rotted teeth and advised my mother to wait for my adult molars to grown in. I have a small mouth—child-sized—with an unusually high palate. This drove those adult molars inward: I could lay a finger between my backmost tooth and its neighbor. This also meant no end of trapped food, no matter how much I cleaned. Meanwhile, my Grandfather died, and I remembered him. I did not see a dentist for another seven years.

When I was seventeen, my father got a new job with full dental benefits. I made an appointment with another dentist.

He was horrified. It took him to two visits to clean my teeth. My gums were so tender that I required massive doses of Novocain. Then came the cavities—five—and a replacement crown for the front tooth chipped in childhood.

Then the first root canal of the right back molar. To gain access to the tooth, the dentist had to tilt the chair until my feet were higher than my head. He prescribed Vicodin for the pain, which is how we discovered my allergy to it. I remember crouching on the floor of his office bathroom, my head between my knees. I thought I might be dying, and hoped so, because then I would feel better. My mother and the dentist stood in the doorway watching me, discussing whether or not I should be taken to the hospital.

Instead I was sent to a specialist, who managed to clear up the infection. A couple years later, the tooth infected again. This time it took a portion of my jaw with it. When I visited my regular dentist to remove the gauze packed into my mouth, he pulled it out, looked inside, and abruptly excused himself. I heard him in his office, on the telephone with the specialist. What happened to all that bone?

Infected. Dead. Had to go.

The crown was gold, and lasted until three weeks before my wedding. I was twenty-nine. “Take it out,” I told the latest dentist. “Just take it out.”

He did, extending the remains of my molar in his palm. A shell, the gold eaten away.

This was my adult mouth: prone to tartar, infection, with crooked, crooked teeth that snagged every bit of food.

I become morbidly self-conscious about eating in public. When out with others I ordered soups, pastas, maybe roast chicken. Never, ever meat. Never corn. Never salads. I always excused myself afterward, pulling out my floss and toothbrush in the ladies’ room.

I was aware—always—of my four bottom teeth, which resembled a broken yellow fence. I noticed everyone else’s teeth, white and straight. Classy teeth.

Although my natural smile is a wide grin, I began smiling with my mouth closed. Especially for photos, which I avoided whenever possible.

Times passed. My husband and I got jobs with good insurance coverage. I asked my dentist about bonding.

“No,” he said. “braces.”

We paid off the car. At age thirty-seven, I steeled myself against the humiliation of being the only adult amongst so many adolescents and visited the orthodontist for a consultation.

I was told my midline—the top of my teeth compared to the bottom—could never be repaired. Too late. But they could straighten me out. Total cost: $5,100. Total time: unknown. The orthodontists—a team of three doctors—worried about my ability to tolerate braces. Just that week a woman had them put on, then removed. She couldn’t stand them.

I was determined to stand them, and did, for thirty months. Yes, they hurt. They cut the insides of my mouth up. Food got caught in them. Eating publicly went from potentially embarrassing to nightmarish. The rubber bands intended to align my bite gave me such severe migraines that I had to give them, and promise of a better bite, up. I tried every brand of floss on the market and destroyed a toothbrush a month. The braces impaired my speech, caused my lips to swell unattractively, and looked just awful.

Now they’re off, and for the first time in my life, my mouth looks decent. Even good. Oh, I still need some work—a cavity is asserting itself, and the front crown has discolored yet again, requiring replacement, which will affect the retainers. But the smile in the mirror is white and straight and belongs to another person.

I have to unlearn habitually closing my mouth, ordering the pasta, and, hardest of all, that migrating left hand, rising to cover my shameful teeth when I speak or laugh.

The saddest part is all these years later, with my beautiful smile, I realize that likely nobody ever noticed my terrible teeth, or even if they did, didn’t really care. And while the rational part of me understands this, the child with the rotting mouth will have difficulty remembering to keep her hand down for a long time to come.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

I Wish Someone Were Waiting For Me Somewhere

I Wish Someone Were Waiting For Me Somewhere is the second Anna Gavalda book to reach American shores. Each of these twelve short pieces packs a sharp punch at the narrator's expense.

The stories concern lost chances for erotic love or missteps with disastrous outcomes. While the first theme offers some rueful amusement, as in "Courting Rituals of Saint-Germain-des-Prés," the misstep stories are the most breathtaking. In "Catgut," a female veterinarian struggles to establish herself in a chauvinistic farming village, only to be raped by locals. Her revenge will have every female reader clapping with glee (and many men too, I'm sure), but her carefully constructed life is over, and she knows it. "Pregnant" centers on woman who, happily with child, splurges on a beautiful maternity dress for a summer wedding several months hence. When the wedding date arrives she must still wear the dress, but no longer expects the child. The narrator of "For Years," abandoned by his lover, marries and has children whom he adores. Yet he remains guiltily fixated on his former lover. One day she telephones, informing him she is fatally ill. Might they rendezvous a final time? The ensuing meeting is a masterpiece of understated writing:

"We told each other the story of our lives. It was somewhat disjointed. We each kept our secrets. She had trouble finding the right words." (136)

Gavalda's writing is elegantly lean, all short, declarative sentences:

“He’s never slept with his secretaries. It’s vulgar, and these days could cost you some serious money.” (31)

"You never know what's going to happen--how things are going to unfold, or when the simplest things are going to take on demented proportions." (145)

"His name is Alexander Devermont. He's a young man, all pink and blond." (101)

Throughout one is reminded that life is short and all too often ruined by missed opportunity. In both "Leave" and "Clic-Clac," men fantasize about women they love only to refuse their real-life advances. "This Man and This Woman" are a long-married, wealthy, loveless couple riding silently to their perfectly restored country home. The ride, alternating between his rage and her loneliness, is a long one. In “Lead Story,” a rash driving decision causes a catastrophic accident, one the perpetrator learns of only later, watching television in the safety of his apartment. The final story, "Epilogue," offers some levity in the form of a writer's visit to a publisher. The narrator, nicknamed Marguerite Duras by her husband, mails her manuscript to a publisher. When he telephones for an appointment, it is only to inform her that she shows promise. Her ensuing paralysis--she literally cannot move from her chair--will leave all would-be authors squirming.

Interestingly, Gavalda's books have been translated by three different women--Catherine Evans, (Someone I Loved), Karen L. Marker, (I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere), and Alison Anderson (Hunting and Gathering). All are able translators, allowing Gavalda's spare style to shine through the thicket of English. Word choices are wonderfully apt: charming, "Madame" instead of Ms., "brilliant," instead of "great." There is no sense of limping through missed meanings or botched glosses than can make works in translation so frustrating. Gavalda is another fine European writer deserving a wider American audience.

Anna Gavalda: I Wish Someone Were Waiting for me Somewhere. Karen L. Marker, Translator. New York: Riverhead Books, 1999.

Reading Anna Gavalda

French writer Anna Gavalda is the author of three books: the novella Someone I Loved, a collection of stories titled I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere, and the recently translated Hunting and Gathering.

Gavalda's work is concise, elegant, and invariably pointed toward love--familial, marital, erotic. Someone I Loved, her first novel, is a fictionalized account of her husband's sudden departure for another woman. Narrator Chloé, stunned by Adrien's abandonment, numbly follows her father-in-law, Pierre, who insists on bundling her off to the countryside, her two small daughters in tow.

In the family’s remote country house the notoriously reticent, workaholic Pierre lays his life bare to his astonished daughter-in-law. As Chloé moves through her terrible grief, longing once again to be sitting on the Metro, filing her nails and wondering about dinner parties, Pierre divulges a series of shocking revelations. He is sixty-five, his life a “closed fist” whose "strings" he attempts to tug for Chloé’s benefit. His life, he explains, has been one long effort toward safety: a loveless marriage, a demanding profession, emotional detachment from his children. But there is an enormous rent in his life’s fabric: an unexpected love affair, begun at age forty-two. Suddenly Pierre was alive, happy, complete. But he was unable muster the courage to leave his wife and children:

“A thousand times I wanted to and a thousand times I gave it up...I went right to the edge of the abyss, I leaned over, and then I fled. I felt accountable to Suzanne, to the children.” (117)

Later he tells Chloé:

“...I would rather see you suffer a lot today than suffer a little bit for the rest of your life...I see people suffering a little, only a little, not much at all, just enough to ruin their lives completely...Yes, at my age, I see that a great deal...crushed under the weight of that miserable little thing—their ordinary little life.” (123-4)

Chloé, Pierre observes, is full of life, vibrant, talented. Adrien has done her a favor. She is now free to exercise her repressed artistic abilities, to seize her own happiness, to make more of her life than the majority, himself included, who squander their chances.

Initially Chloé resists. She pointedly enumerates Pierre's many flaws and their effects on Adrien. Pierre is stung, but accepts her allegations: he is indeed a bastard. All the more reason for him to tell the truth. At this, all Chloé can do is sit and listen, glass in hand, as Pierre describes a life compressed into series of tiny boxes.

The decidedly French setting moves the story along: much of it takes place at table, with Chloé's excellent meals interspersed, in a small moment of amusement, at Pierre's maiden cooking attempt:

"It says 'cut the carrots in medium-sized rounds.' Do you think it's good like that?" (21)

Much is made of opening fine bottles of wine, of a meal of gésiers confits with spaghetti. Promises to continue seeing one another center on lunching at a fish restaurant. The meals mark time: the pain of the moment, the promise of a bittersweet future.

Finally, after a night of revelations, Pierre poses a final question: aren't children happier with a happier father?

On this quixotic note the novella ends, leaving the surprised reader sympathizing with the villain. The question leads to the author’s implicit forgiveness, a broadness of vision seldom seen in American marriages—or divorces.

Anna Gavalda: Someone I Loved. Catherine Evans, Translator. New York: Riverhead Books. 2005.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Sick Despair

I often wonder how much commentary about real world events is appropriate here. This is not a news blog. Yet ignoring certain things might imply disregard. Vonnegut's death, for example: of course I was upset, but so was the rest of the world, and everyone rushed in with lovely words and moving tributes.

Now it's Virginia Tech.

I have worked in academia since I was a student--twenty-one years. I am employed by a large university not dissimilar to Virginia Tech: roughly the same number of students, the same diverse racial make-up, the same opportunities for a deranged individual to wreak havoc.

I find myself incapable of pithy comment. Professional insight? Maybe, but I'm not sure which is making me sicker: so many deaths, so close to home, or the media, swarming around like fat happy maggots.

I am thinking about the administrators at Virginia Tech, the ones who will have to fill out the paperwork, close the email accounts, remove names from enrollment lists, ensure report cards are not mailed. The secretaries who will be charged with cleaning out faculty offices. The custodians, and the awful task awaiting them.

It is easier--though not much--to think about them than it is the dead.

Light a candle for the dead children, their dead teachers, their friends and families.

Turn off your television. Stop reading the news feeds. There's nothing more to know. Light your candle, and weep.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Dark Ladies In Translation

I read these reviews with interest.

Both are pans, especially the first, reviewing Elfriede Jelinek's latest book, which finally sees the light of day in English.

Reviewer Joel Agee rakes Jelinek over the coals for her former Communist Party membership and extreme feminist views. He excoriates the new book, Greed, as a lifeless and mordant exploration into Austrian society. Interestingly, as he makes his dislike of both book and author plain, he neglects to mention Jelinek's crippling agoraphobia: Jelinek so fears travel she could not attend the ceremony to receive her contested Nobel Prize. Her mother, immortalized in The Piano Teacher, was a monster. Her father died in a mental hospital.

I read The Piano Teacher. While brutal, it is a compelling exploration of the impossibly competitive classical music world and the sometimes crazed parents inhabiting it. The book is also provides a fascinating glimpse into Viennese musical culture. The characters are unpleasant; the novel lacks a happy ending. It appears Greed follows suit. Perhaps it is a bad novel, but if Mr. Agee must skewer Jelinek's character along with her book, he might be a bit more even-handed.

Sophie Harrison doesn't sharpen her knives on Natsuo Kirino, which is nice. Even nicer is looking forward to Grotesque, the second Kirino book apeearing in English. I picked up the first, Out, on a lark, caught cold, and read the book in one sitting, tissues piling up about me. Kirino's work is smooth, cool, her characters sharply ruthless. The world depicted in Out is an unrelentingly ugly reality of necessary, mindless work coupled with barren relationships. Like Jelinek's writing, Kirino's sheds light into a part of the world American readers might otherwise never see, in this case, Japanese working-class women. Even better, it shows these women quietly revolting. And getting away with it.

Both Agee and Harrison take issue with the darkness of their respective authors' themes. Jelinek is especially black-humored, but given the current state of affairs, can we blame her? Neither writer offers escapist panacea: look elsewhere. Read Danielle Steel if you want soft lighting and happy endings. I am content to find these dark ladies available in English, and look forward to both, if only for outside verification of the darkness I see all around me.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Jane, concluded.

English Food is the only cookbook I've ever read that evoked dejá vu. This because Laurie Colwin, one of my favorite writers, adored Grigson's works. Colwin was a devotee of all things English, and much of her cookery writing sings the praises of teatime and dishes like Grigson's Sussex Pond Pudding, which appears in a Home Cooking essay titled "Kitchen Horrors."

Having first read of Sussex Pond Pudding as a horror--and it does sounds rather awful--it was strange to happen upon the original recipe. Grigson also cites Joyce Molyneaux's Carved Angel Cookery Book and Margaret Costa's Four Seasons Cookery Book, books Colwin loved.

Still, reading a cookbook written by a woman who died too soon--Grigson was only 62--adored by a writer who also died too soon--Colwin died of a heart attack at 48--is deeply saddening. We will never have more of Grigson's tartly amusing recipes or Colwin's gentle exaltations of domestic life. The world is a lesser place for these losses. Yet each woman's words are kept alive by people like me, who, reading one, earnestly seek the other.

Ultimately, it's probably a good thing that Grigson's recipes do not call out to me, as the quest for English cookbooks is an expensive one. My lust for widely available cookbooks is bad enough. Though I must say Grigson's Charcuterie and French Pork Cooking looks terrifcally tempting.

Which brings me back to the idea of cooking styles. After wanting English Food for months, and going to some lengths to find it, I read it through the way one would a novel. I delighted in its prose while benefiting hugely from its scholarship. Ultimately, though, English Food is destined to be a reference text. Not that the recipes aren't excellent; they simply aren't my style. My style, I realized with a shock, was French Farmhouse/California Organic Princess.

On one level this sounds hideously pretentious, and it's a good thing people don't go around asking each other about cooking styles. It's a subject fraught with conceits and crochets, especially here in the land of competitive cookery, where eveybody is busy trying to out-organic-farm-source everybody else.

But I do have a style, and Grigson's recipes, mixing fruit with meats and lard with cream, brought this home. I was reminded of Amanda Hesser, who, in Cooking for Mr. Latte, laments her lack of a cooking repertoire. This is due in part to her work at The New York Times, where she must test drive any number of recipes for publication. Yet she writes of feeling adrift compared to her mother, who cooked nightly for a family of six, and her mother-in-law, whose recipe jottings went back thirty years. These women had set of recipes to work from, bounce off of, improvise with. Hesser felt inadequate.

"For months, with Tad's (Hesser is married to writer Tad Friend) gentle encouragement, I had been trying to distill the mass of recipes in my head down to a manageable stable of favorites, a repertoire I could rely on and that friends and family, and Tad in particular, would look forward to. I wanted to contain recipes that represent who I am, what I find pleasurable, how I live." (190)

I can't say I ever gave style that much thought, though, interestingly enough, Hockeyman had. He noticed my fondness for stews or food with lots of natural gravy. (It's all about sopping up with good bread.) When The Cooking of Southwest France entered our kitchen, he told me I "cooked French." Envisioning haute cusine, or cuisine minceur, all those perfectly sliced, minimalist dishes with coins of sauce, followed by sculpted sorbets, I objected. It sounded so awfully twee. "I don't cook like that. I can't. I wouldn't."

"You cook French farmhouse," He said.

Well. Cough. I opened the fridge and had a look at the duck confit aging in its glass jar, then into the freezer, stuffed with more duck legs, a pound of duck fat, and a whole organic chicken. I considered the lentils and the insanely expensive French butter. My abiding interest in patés, confits, and garbure.

Guilty as charged. But unlike Hesser, who interpreted her lack of style as a kind of willful immaturity, I remain hesitant to label my cooking. My fondness for all things duck grew from my long-term love of poultry, which in turn came from a childhood of Sabbath chicken dinners, matzoh ball soup, and lots of schmaltz. And as much as I've come to appreciate pork in all its forms for what it brings to a soup, stew, or as the main dish, I still dislike lard.

And tastes change. I may be firmly French at this moment, but Asian foods, particularly Thai and Indian, exert an increasing pull.

It is safe to say, though, that I will never prepare Sussex Pond Pudding.

N.B.: Home Cooking refers to this dish as "Suffolk Pond Pudding." The recipes are the same in both books, and as there is no "Suffolk" recipe in English Food, I can only assume this was an editorial oversight in the Colwin book, albeit a minor one.

Suffolk, or Sussex Pond Pudding, given in American cooking measures:

8 ounces self-raising flour
4 ounces chopped fresh beef suet
milk and water (no amount given)
slightly salted butter (see above)
soft light brown or caster sugar (no amount; "caster" is confectioner's sugar)
1 large lemon or two limes

Butter a pudding basin. Make the first three ingredrients into a dough, reserving a quarter for a lid. Line a pudding basin with the larger portion of dough.

Put about 3 1/2 ounces of cut-up butter and sugar into the pastry basin.

Prick the lemon or limes with a larding needle. Lay it atop the butter and sugar.

Fill the remainder of the basin with equal amounts of butter and sugar. Grigson says "another 100 grams, possibly more."

Roll out the pastry saved for the lid. Place it over the basin, sealing it to the sides for a perfect join. Cover this with pleated foil secured with string, leaving enough string to create a handle.

Lower the basin into a pan of boiling water. The water must come at least halfway up the sides of the basin. Cover and leave to boil 3-4 hours. Should the water level drop, add more boiling water to the pot.

To serve, remove the foil lid. Put a deep dish over the top, invert, and slice, giving a bit of lemon and buttery juices to all.


Colwin writes:

"I followed every step carefully. My suet crust was masterful. When unwrapped from its cloth, the crust was a beautiful, deep honey color...My hostess looked confused. 'It looks like a baked hat,' She said.
'Never mind,' I said. 'It will be the most delicious thing you ever tasted.'
My host said: 'It tastes like lemon-favored bacon fat.'
'I'm sure it's wonderful,' said my hostess. 'I mean, in England.'
The woman guest said: 'This is awful.'
My future husband remained silent, not a good sign." (143-44)

Laurie Colwin: Home Cooking. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.
Jane Grigson: English Food. Penguin Books, U.K. 1992.
Amanda Hesser: Cooking for Mr. Latte. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003.

Jane, Jane, Jane

Barking Kitten dates herself with a Jefferson Starship pun. When did I become such a nerd?

Jane Grigson, that is. In reviewing my notes and the paperback, bookmarked in too many places, I see that limiting myself may be challenging.

One of the best things about English Food is the terminology: butter paper, cornflour, dulse, fingerware. Bloaters, anchovy essence, ham kettles. Kitchen paper. Tins. Isinglass. Imagine Rachael Ray discussing anchovy essence, or the merits of fingerware, which is a kind of edible sea grass. This is why you need to read Jane Grigson.

The first edition of this book appeared in 1974; the revised version in 1992, Grigson having died of cancer in 1990, before she could complete the project. Her daughter Sophie took up the mantle.

Grigson was declaiming agribusiness just as Alice was getting it together on this side o' the pond. Of the people providing "awful food," she wrote:

"'Let them have trash' seems a far worse attitude than 'Let them eat brioche.' The latter came from a complete lack of understanding; the former comes from a conniving complicity in lower standards...To provide worthless things, or things that are worse than they should be, shows what you think of your fellow human beings." (xiv)

Indeed. Grigson also railed against pasteurization, a popular debate amongst foodies. Many of us think the naturally-occurring flora and fauna in unpasteurized dairy are essential to good health, particularly for the immune and digestive systems. Minimally, we should have choices about our milk and cheese. Grigson was also enraged by the appalling conditions leading to tainted eggs. She called the feeding of dead chicks to their living brethern "impious" (27), an "incestuous cannibalism," we pay for in foodborne illness, a phenomenon that has only increased since English Food appeared in print.

On a happier note, Grigson's humor, writing skills and education make English Food an immensely enjoyable read. The preface to a recipe for Halibut with Anchovies informs us that Joseph Conrad loved good food, and was fortunate in having a wife able to prepare it with little income. Shakespeare is invoked in the discussion of dulse-collecting. Writing of salt pork and hams, Grigson cautions the lazy cook:

"Do not use those appalling bright yellow crumbs sold in some grocer's shops and supermarkets." (179)

My personal favorite appears on page 196. I have never eaten smoked chicken, but should I ever find myself in Bristol, I shall hie down to Mr. Millhouse's shop, where the famed butcher smokes poultry on Thursdays and prepares a "beautifully smoked bacon with beech-sawdust from the local coffin maker."

Of paté, that dangerous dish, she writes:

"Often these meat loaves (she referred to those found in English food shops) are absolutely disgusting in a manner that is shamefully English." (199)

The food itself is heavy going. Nearly every recipe calls for a thick sauce; use of cream, double cream, and butter abound, as does all manner of pork and that peculiarly English creation, suet. Meat is mixed with oysters, brains with curry and grape sauce. Sugars and fruits are combined with meats in the old-fashioned manner, culminating, to this reader, in John Evelyn's Tart of Herbs, a recipe dating to 1699. The tart calls for single cream, breadcrumbs, spinach, macaroons, egg yolks, egg whites, sugar, currants, and milk, all to be folded into pastry. More current is the aforementioned smoked chicken, to be served with three melon salad: Galia, canteloupe, and "pineapple watermelon."

American and French palates never took to such dishes, earning England its reputation for awful food. I would respectfully observe that while many of the recipes in English Food do not strike me a particularly appetizing, their use of available ingredients is admirable, and likely more appetizing in freezing wet weather. The range of dairy available to them is enviable--where can we get unpasteurized double cream, single cream, or Jersey milk? Our options are cream, half-and-half, or a variety of "skim" products. As for powdered creamers and liquid dairy substitutes claiming to be healthier, they are analogous to Grigson's comment on English custard powder: " of our minor national tragedies." (246)


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Channeling Iron Chef

Somehow I became possessed by the idea of making this pate. I was planning a trip to the market anyway, and decided I would relax my self-imposed veal ban. Anthony Bourdain came to mind:

"You've made meat loaf, right? You've eaten cold meat loaf, yes? Then you're halfway to being an ass-kicking, name-taking charcutier. 'Ooooh ... pate, I don't know.' Please. Campagne means "country" in French--which means even your country-ass can make it." The Les Halles Cookbook, 90.

My ass is decidedly urban. I decided to try it anyway.

In perusing the ingredient list you might notice this dish is a heart attack waiting to happen. Barring that, it is very, very un-kosher. Pork and cream. Together. Veal is kosher but no pc foodie worth her organic-free-trade views would be caught within a mile of a dead baby cow.

Never mind. I ordered organic pork shoulder, some veal, bought a bottle of Straus organic cream, came home and cracked open a beer.

I do not have a food processor, but my immersion blender came with a chopper/bowl attachment. It's a plastic two-cup job with a chopping blade. You fit a plastic lid over it, attach the stick, plug it in, and go.

I cubed the meats, hoping the chopper could handle it. It could; everything was quickly reduced to an impressive mush.

The recipe calls for three slices of bacon to be blended with the meats. A shred wrapped itself around one of the blades. I fussed with a spatula: nothing doing. Like a mindless idiot, I reached into the bowl.

The dulcet sounds of my swearing interrupted Hockeyman, who was absorbed in the Sharks/Predators playoff game. Jonathan Cheecho got hurt in the second period. Friends, the Sharks are toast. You heard it here first.

[Final score 5-4 Sharks in the second overtime. Take that! - Hockeyman]


"Nothing. I cut myself. Oh, fuck." Blood everywhere. I stood over the sink, surveying my messy domain. I'd slashed my right middle finger, near the nail. It didn't look deep. Just annoying. The counter was spread with dirty cutting boards, knives, garlic. I plastered bandaids over the wound and returned to my meat. It was time to add the cream.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah." I noticed the immersion blender's cord had migrated into the sink, acquiring a soap-bubble sheen. Oops. If I didn't bleed to death I'd electrocute myself. Either God was punishing me for making such a treyfe dish or I was having a Bobby Flay moment. I swore a little more.


"I'm fine. Really."

I finished blending everything, did a final mix with the spatula, admired my gorgeous handiwork, then poured it into a baking dish. I lovingly spread more bacon over the top and tucked it into the oven. The kitchen looked like a toddler had torn through it. The dishtowels bore alarming pink smears. The chopper's unfamiliar noise had frightened Kitty, who took refuge in the closet.

Never mind. I felt stoked. All amateur cooks are secretly happy when they cut or burn themselves. There we are, manfully holding our maimed extremities over the sink, far from the food, waiting for the dripping to cease so we may resume our culinary handiwork. We can play like the big boys. We're tough. We're Bobby Flay, or even better, Masaharu Morimoto, whose knife skills trounce Flay's. We are Julia Child, smiling as the omelet falls to the floor on live television.

We are Dan Akroyd mimicking Julia Child on Saturday Night Live. O, humiliation.

But, soft! What light through yonder bandaid breaks? Is the bleeding slowing? Might we survive to consume our terribly treyfe, politically incorrect pate?

Bon Appetit!

(Meanwhile, the Sharks, having given up a 4-2 two lead, are heading into their second overtime. Go Wings!)

Monday, April 09, 2007


Since beginning this blog I've read a great deal about the impact of blogging on media, literature, and the world at large. I've read the recent dustups courtesy of certain literary mags and writers who felt the need to insult litbloggers as fools with Dell laptops. I've read about Kathy Sierra. I've read about self-imposed civility codes and whether or not they impede free speech. I wasn't going to comment, and I wasn't going to comment some more. Then, today at work, I received the April 6th issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, where the "Lit-Blog Wars" merited a Critical Mass column. See page B4, if you are interested.

And now I'm going to comment, and I hope this is the only time.

I decided to blog because I wanted to talk about books and writing. Literature is my passion. I look forward to certain books the way other people look forward to opening day or the Superbowl. I reread other books time and time again for their beauty, their comfort, their enlightenment. I also blog because I want to write as well as the authors I love, and blogging is one way to do so. Conventional literary avenues, always narrow, are now all but closed except to a fortunate few. While it's convenient to blame the publishing industry, the reality is fewer and fewer people are seriously interested in reading. I'm not the first to notice the market for literature is shrinking. I think this denotes a poorly educated society.

When I began blogging, literary criticism was the furthest thing from my mind. Contrary to the nervous naysayers, I believe it is possible to talk about literature without framing it in criticism. I say this as a person with a Master's Degree in English Literature. I was trained in Deconstructionism, Marxism, Feminist Readings, New Historicism, the works. I loathed it. Detested it. I will never forget taking a course where all the reading material was criticism of Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping. None of us had read the book. It was neither required nor suggested that we do so. But we had to read all the critical material, which was of course meaningless without the source literature.

Another class focused on Dickens. The class--all seven of us--fell into arguing about Dickens' lack of feminist sympathies. I raised my hand and asked how we could criticize Dickens, a writer whose writing illuminated the appalling conditions of the poor, particularly poor children, for not being a good feminist in the Steinem/Friedan mold. Further, I went on, this brand of feminism hadn't taken root as a movement until well after Dickens was writing. How could we, as modern readers, blame him for failing to address what had yet to happen?

I stopped talking. I was certain I'd destroyed my credibility.

I never thought of that, the professor replied.

So much for critical thinking in the academy. This is not to say criticism is worthless, or that grad school is a waste of time. But if you sit down and read Dickens, you're bound to learn something whether you're in school or not. And formal criticism will never have the impact that scientific discovery does. Another Julia Kristeva article will never get as much attention as stem cell research; the "unwashed masses" are more interested in reading about potential cancer cures than they are the new Irene Nemirovsky translations. Perhaps this is why some academics are so terribly touchy about their work, and see litblogs as a great target for their anxieties.

Which leads us to civility. It may be observed that we are not especially civilized these days. Road rage, cell phones, blaring radios, unjustified war, and ignoring the Geneva Conventions all come to mind. So the fact that people are badly behaved out here in the 'sphere is sad, but not surprising. I can only say I strive to be civil here, even when I'm criticizing a writer or poking fun at catalogues. I am not a big enough fish to get much real nastiness, and what little I've received has been deleted. You are most welcome to disagree with me, but in my little corner of the world, I'd ask that we treat one another decently. You can go just about anywhere for abuse. You don't need it from me, nor I from you.

Finally, in all the litblog nastiness we forget why we're even doing this. We love books. And there aren't as many of us as there once were. Instead of fighting about mediums or grandstanding about our credentials, we should be banding together beneath the flag of literature. We don't have to like the same books or even each other. But mutual respect should be a given. The energy we're wasting sniping at one another could be used reading, writing, and promoting literature.

We have work to do.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Jane Grigson's English Food, part one

It took months of searching, but I finally got English Food from Powell's Books.

I am 59 pages into a 373 page book, not including the index. It's fascinating reading. Like Elizabeth David, Grigson is a meticulous historian. If, like me, you were always stumped by Welsh Rarebit, Welsh Rabbit, and pease porridge, this is the book for you. Now good luck finding it. Should you, like me, finally score a copy, feeling like you managed to smuggle Tropic of Cancer through US customs, you'll long for Grigson's full, equally elusive ouevre.

Grigson's discussion of eating habits in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries brought home what kiddies we stateside folk are. The Colonists arrived at a relatively recent hour in history, and did their best to replicate foods from home. Later immigrants followed suit. Hence our continuing difficulty defining "American" food. Yes, there are the Native American foods: corn, squash, beans, the turkey. Here is an interesting site with numerous Native recipes, divided by region. Few have entered the national cooking repetory. How many of us cook with raccoon, acorns, praire dogs, or woodchucks? And while you're busy cringing, stop and wonder why chickens and cows are considered desirable foods while the foregoing are not. Further, game, once a staple food for Natives and Colonizers alike, has become the expensive province of adventurous foodies or fortunate home hunters.

After a spate of colonialist guilt, I began considering my own cooking style. I grew up eating traditional Jewish foods, along with the limited vegetables available during the seventies in a place with long winters. So: briskit, chicken, chicken livers, cow liver, hamburgers, the occasional steak. Canned green beans, frozen peas and carrots, iceberg lettuce. Ethnic foods like gefilte fish and matzoh ball soup. We cooked in butter or chicken fat.

On leaving home and learning to cook, I acquired Jennie Grossinger's The Art of Jewish Cooking, Mildred Bellin's The Jewish Cook book, and various editions of The Joy of Cooking. I limped along with these for years, using the Jewish books more as touchstones for familiar dishes. Joy guided me in unfamiliar waters.

Then I met somebody who was a wonderful cook. She subscribed to Gourmet, used garlic and lemons, and had one of the most exotic cookbooks I'd ever seen: Mollie Katzen's The Enchanted Broccoli Forest. I borrowed her copy, then went out and bought myself one at Arcata's Tin Can Mailman. My cooking journey, peculiarly American in its global scope, had begun.

I bought my first Laurie Colwin books in the same bookstore, but did not find Home Cooking and More Home Cooking until later. My copies, in constant use, are falling apart. It was Colwin, with her professed love of English foods, that turned me on to both Barbara Pym and Jane Grigson. A quick check of More Home Cooking shows Jane cited six times. Thus, in the grand tradition of reading your favorite writer's favorite writers, I have found Jane Grigson.


There is lots and lots to talk about, and if I continue here, Hockeyman will yell about needing to divide up the post. Thus isinglass eggs, the argument for unpasteurized dairy, the concept of savory (savoury, that is) puddings will have to wait, and stylistic revelations will have to wait.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Anne Lamott's Grace (Eventually)

From Simone de Beauvior's The Woman Destroyed:

"Anxiety began to mingle with my distress. The friends to whom I had sent my book ought to have written to tell me about it: none had done so...Not one (reviewer) had grasped the originality of my work. Had I not managed to make it clear?
'Well, what did you think of it?' (the narrator is querying a young friend)
She answered me in well-balanced phrases...The book was an excellent synthesis; it clarified various obscurities...
'But in itself, does it say anything new?'
'That was not it's intention.'
'It was mine.'
...I went on and on; I badgered her...No, I was producing nothing new...the book was rather a well-based restatement and summing up." (61-62)

Simone de Beauvior's character is devastated, mortified by her oversight. She is unsure whether, at her age, she can attempt something new.

I hope Anne Lamott does not think this, and have no wish to contribute to her well-documented insecurities. Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith is Lamott's third book of religious essays, a collection, like the first two, of amusing, often self-deprecating observations on modern life viewed through the lens of Christianity. Only where Traveling Mercies and Plan B win the reader with laugh-out-loud lines and the author's wry awareness of her own lunacy, Grace takes us nowhere new. Instead we revisit same ground: body image, single motherhood, Lamott's transformation from alcoholic druggie to leftist Jesus freak, her own damaged mother. Where the other books were surgically irreverent (Bush the Second is likened to Yertle the Turtle; of her suddenly teenage son: "Maybe I fed him too much"), this latest is rather like a meringue: all airy white light. I don't doubt for a moment that Lamott has suffered terribly and deserves every moment of what reads like a much easier life. But it makes for lousy reading.

Take The Muddling Glory of God. Lamott, like most American women over the age of three, has struggled with body image and weight issues her entire life. Like many of us, she coped using the usual methods: starvation, exhaustive exercising, falling apart and binging. Over time she pulled it together enough to cope with the fact that she will never resemble Kate Moss. Few of us do. But on this particular day she was in a bad way, and attacked Safeway in a mad search for apple fritters. The first Safeway was out, so she drove to another store, where she purchased the fritters, ice cream, Cheetos, cookies, jalapeno poppers, and a few other deeply scary items. She went home, ate wildly, then began bailing herself out:

"I got myself some cool water, a pair of soft socks...I was finally able to call a couple friends." (57)

Well, good. Really. Except one thing stuck in my craw: how many women have time for this sort of behavior? I understand the self-hatred, the secret eating, the avalanche of loosed feelings. But the time to go not to one store, but two? To schlep it all home, eat it, then get into bed? Sitting up for water, clean socks, and calling a few friends?

Only rich people have this kind of time. Only rich people have free time to drop their kids off at school, then experience a "Holy Spirit Snatch," wherein one swerves back to the main road for a little unplanned hike with the dog.

Perhaps, as a woman forced to work both in and out of the house, I am a not the best reviewer. It could be I'm a little touchy about bikini crises endured on Hawaiian beaches. (See A Field Theory of Beauty.) But there's an awful lot of navel gazing going on, along with an unending wish for rescue. From the woman who dusts her off after a fall skiing, to the insane exchange with a corrupt carpet salesman, Lamott is constantly looking outward for help. She's a one-woman Verizon commercial, followed by a group of friends ever available for a hike or telephone chat. These people, who she dubbed her "pit crew" in Operating Instructions, act as cheerleaders, ego-boosters, reminders of holiness. None appear drained by her needs, or busy doing things like unloading the dishwasher or mowing the lawn. It's a rarefied world over there in Marin County.

The book features many hikes up Mount Tamalpais. Invoked to conclude some of the thinner essays-- Dandelions, The Last Story of Spring, Bastille Day, Junctions-- these hikes don't explain how she came to tolerate her friend's awful husband, or whether anyything concrete arose from her political activism. They are lovely passages in themselves, but they aren't enough.

Worst is the essay At Death's Window, where Lamott describes her active role in assisting a friend's suicide. The friend is terminally ill with cancer, and his decision a carefully reasoned one. I have no trouble with that, but Lamott gets in and out in seven pages, leaving the reader's mouth open. Wait! You drop this bomb and that's all?

I'm being relentless only because Lamott is capable of so much more. Bird By Bird is one of the best books on writing out there. Operating Instructions, alternately elated and crazed, should be required reading for new Moms. Traveling Mercies and Plan B are compelling explorations of the pull to faith. Lamott's political activism and obvious generousity to charitable causes is admirable. And it's really hard not to like someone who loathes Bush with such desperate intensity.

In the end, we're left wondering if Lamott on religion is Smiley on horses, or Kingsolver on the environment--each writer excellent, each giving her best to an obssession, threatening to leave even the most devoted fans behind.

Works cited:

Simone de Beauvior: The Woman Destoyed. New York: Pantheon Books. 1969.

Anne Lamott: Grace (Eventually) Thoughts on Faith. New York: Riverhead Books. 2007.

-----Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. New York: Riverhead Books. 2005.

-----Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year. New York: Fawcett Columbine Books. 1993.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


Thanks once again to Ed for this link, wherein writer Terry Teachout reams the stage adaption of Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking."

We still have freedom of speech in our fine country, all Administration efforts to the contrary. This means Teachout is entitled to his opinion of the play. He loathed it. Fine. Like I say, at this moment, we are still free to express our opinions. Hallelujah.

What upset me were his opening words:

It surprised me when Joan Didion published "The Year of Magical Thinking," for I identified her so completely with California in the '60s that I'd almost forgotten she was still alive. Of course she continued to publish--a fat volume of her collected essays came out last fall--but somehow I had come to see her as a figure from the distant past, a chronicler of strange days for which I felt no nostalgia whatsoever.

He'd forgotten she was still alive? Excuse me? After Henry, with its painful acuity, emerged in 1992. How about the instant bestsellerdom of 1996's The Last Thing He Wanted? Or that other dull little number, 2003's Where I Was From, which hardly sank without a trace. As for The Year of Magical Thinking, was Mr. Teachout on vacation when it won the National Book Award?

A figure from the distant past? Mr. Teachout, do you live beneath a rock?

Don't get me wrong--it's clear Teachout is no Didion fan. Of the book, he writes:

Yet I found it hard to shake off the disquieting sensation that Ms. Didion, for all the obvious sincerity of her grief, was nonetheless functioning partly as a grieving widow and partly as a celebrity journalist who had chosen to treat the death of John Gregory Dunne as yet another piece of grist for her literary mill. All the familiar features of her style, hardened into slick, self-regarding mannerism after years of constant use, were locked into place and running smoothly, and I felt as though I were watching a piece of performance art, or reading a cover story in People: Joan Didion on Grief.

Well, I think he was alone on that one. Ms. Didion's style has served her well over the years: how was she supposed to write? And how many of us would choose to push the boundaries of a searingly successful style once we're past seventy? How many of us--writers, wannabe writers, impassioned critics--could have pulled ourselves together to create such a document?

Oh well, whatever, nevermind. He isn't a Didion fan, and that's okay. I am not a fan of Dave Eggers' writing. I find Pynchon unreadable. This doesn't mean I am free to dismiss them, or their influence, out of hand. People writing seriously about reading, writing, and writers have an obligation to know what's out there. To borrow an analogy from hockey, one of the things that made Gretzky great was his ability to envision the ice surface, and everybody on it. He played center. And he always, always knew where his guys were--Kurri, McSorley, Messier, Coffey. He could pass to any of them without raising his head. He knew all the angles, the give in the boards, the furthest corners of the ice. He hung out behind the opposing net, moving back and forth, until with one sudden move the puck was in the net and the goalie cursing wildly. All this from a physically unprepossing man with the gift of great hands who saw the ice the way we wordy types should view the literary landscape.

We need to know who's publishing, what they're writing about, and who's reading them. Did they get a tour? Is Oprah courting them? Did Michi pan them? Is Starbucks stocking them beside the fair trade organic coffee grown by starving Columbians? What are their angles? Are they working the edges, as Cormac McCarthy does, or hanging out in the center, where the ice is soft? (Mitch Albom comes to mind.)

We may not want to read all these writers, and frankly, there's no way we can. This doesn't give us permission to be ignorant, or arrogant. To think Didion a relic is inexcusable from writer of Teachout's stature. To insult a writer of Didion's accomplishment and indisputable skill is worse than inexcusable: Teachout discredits himself.

No hairball count, as I am still choking.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

On Finishing The Lost

This is the first time I've discussed a book whose author invited me to a public showdown over the state of the novel. I would be remiss if I pretended this didn't affect my approach to the book, which innocently got caught up in this strange, unwanted crossfire. But that's for another post.

If you pay any attention to the lit world, computerized or not, you don't need me to tell you this is a good book. Mendelsohn, a rabid geneaologist, has been keeping records about his family since childhood. I've never known another American Jewish family able to trace European lineage back as far as Mendelsohn can. He has the rare good fortune of knowing real names--something many Jews, with our whitewashed-off-the-boat surnames, cannot boast.

As a child, Mendelsohn so resembled his grandfather's brother, Shmiel Jager, that relatives cried upon seeing him. This resemblance, along with an earful of grandfather Abraham's stories, feeds Mendelsohn's compulsion to know what precisely happened to his Great-Uncle, Aunt, and their four daughters, killed by the Nazis in Bolechow, Poland. This quest takes on near-epic proportions, traveling across the world and time to uncover exactly when and where the Jagers--six of the six million--perished.

Intensively researched (Mendelsohn will abide the internet for this purpose), full of emotional interviews with survivors and graphic detail, The Lost is not for the faint of heart or gut. His description of what happened during the first Aktion--wherein the Nazis herded Bolechow's Jews into local meeting house-cum-movie theatre and tortured them before marching them to the forest and opening fire--will give you nightmares. A book like Mendelsohn's, honing in as it does on the deaths of six people, scales mass murder down, into the uncomfortably personal. The reader following Mendelsohn on his quest becomes invested. What was little Bronia, about twelve when she died, like? Here is her photo, smiling out between her sober-faced parents, Ester who was so nice, Shmiel, who was a little toip (Yiddish for deaf). What of Frydka, who fell in love--God forbid--with a young Polish boy who tried to save her? Did Lorka really hide out in the woods? Mendelsohn wants, passionately, to know what his relatives were like. We do, too.


I say I had difficulty being objective, but once I began the book it was blessedly easy to put aside the blogging, which allowed in a newer pain: his family was--is--so like mine. He is served the same foods I ate as a child: gefilte fish, kreplach(a meat-filled dumpling), kasha varnishkes (buckwheat groats with bow-tie pasta), matzoh brei. Everybody spoke Yiddish, a language I have not heard in twenty-five years. His deeply religious grandparents, like mine, kept strictly kosher, down to the blue and red striped dishtowels. His description of his grandmother's Pesaydikh (pronounced, in my house, "PAY-sa-DIK-hah") dishes--the set kept separate for Passover, a holiday beginning tomorrow night--could be my Grandma's, right down to the flowered borders with their golden rims. Everywhere he goes--Stockholm, Denmark, Poland, Israel--somebody is bringing out the cake and coffee.

I was also a child who resembled a dead relative, and had the identical experience of walking into a room and causing tears. One person could never bring himself to speak to me. He would appear, at infrequent intervals, and seeing my eight or nine or ten-year-old face, literally avert his head.

Over time I have come increasingly to resemble my mother, but this relative, who never did speak to me, did not live to see my adult face.

Mendelsohn's writing is unabashedly academic, his sentences long, complex, layered. There are numerous digressions into Torah readings that, while bearing on the story at hand, aren't truly necessary--the story itself, of these six people, fixed in a lost society recounted by elderly people fled to the corners of the globe--stands sadly on its own.