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.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

More on Lionel Shriver

In preparing to write about The Post Birthday World, I read the Powell's interview cited in my last post and this interview by Robert Birnbaum.

I was fascinated by Shriver's thought process when it comes to writing fiction, and found this Powell's interview quote so refreshing:

"I don't necessarily pride myself on formal innovation. That's never been my interest. I'm perfectly happy with the forms that are available. I don't feel constrained by the form of the novel; I don't mind other people who are into that, but I'm just not into that. Certainly, I'd seen Sliding Doors, for example, so I had an immediate model in film. But I had a thematic reason for doing it. It wasn't to execute a gimmick, because I'm not into gimmicks. They don't interest me, and they don't get me to read other people's books."

For somebody like me, who has endured a fair amount of abuse for my disinterest in pomo forms, this is giddily permissive.

Shriver is interested in writing that upends cultural norms--the mother-son relationship, the good wife and daughter. She pushes permissible boundaries. Even writing about a mother-son relationship is risky for a person who doesn't have children. (If I had a dime for every pitying "you just don't understand," from a parent...) Yet Shriver did it successfully.

At one point in the Birnbaum interview, which appeared after the publication of We Need to Talk about Kevin, she says:

"There were certain scenes that I was writing up to that I dreaded, partly because I knew they would be technically difficult."

This was interesting to me because, for whatever cockeyed reason, I've long felt I shouldn't know what I'm writing about, or that while foreknowledge was nice, it wasn't necessary to write fiction. That is, I rarely "write up to" anything. What I thought necessary was the imeptus, accompanied by little more than a shadowy idea. I wrote my first manuscript that way (as it is unpublished, I am hesitant to call it a novel. It just seems too pretentious.) The words flowed; rarely did I struggle for ideas. It was as if, to borrow an image from Annie Dillard, smiling angels were holding an open folio before me, and all I had to do was copy. I haven't had the experience since, doubtless due to agonizing self-consciousness.

Later Shriver says:

"I have painted a couple of incidents that deliberately cast doubt on her version of events, and that's for the naive reader. I am trying to circle that in red."

Hmm. Again, this goes against some falsely delivered wisdom I had about writing, that this sort of "planning" was impure: one had to write from inspiration. Even those rare people who outlined every sigh were suspect. Where did I pick this up? Grad school?

"So I decided to head my reader off at the pass. To also facilitate putting it on the book jacket. It really is a problem marketing a book where the hook is a secret. I thought that was tactically wise."

My God! To admit you're thinking about what goes on the jacket! How many people would confess to thinking about that? Maybe the very published, or the certain-of-being-published. The rest of us are so groveling and stupidly cow-grateful if anybody will even bother looking at our stuff. Suggesting jacket copy? Please.

In this article, Shriver talks about winning the Orange Prize, admitting she wanted it badly. This is an amazing statement from a woman. Oh, I know, we're liberated and all that. But we're supposed to be modest about our talents. It's unseemly, unwomanly, to admit wanting something like a huge prize, even in our modern world. Take a conversation I had with my real estate agent. In the arduous course of buying our condo, it somehow emerged that both of us were erstwhile writers. We traded material. She was complimentary; fortunately I was able to return the sentiment in kind. She told me about her writer's group, an assemblage of widely known writers. I secretly hoped she might ask me to join. We arranged to meet over coffee to discuss "the work."

"So what's your goal?" She asked me.

"To make as much money as possible writing," I replied. This was a few years ago; I was working on that first mss. I was full of confidence. I knew it was good, was certain it would be published. I didn't expect it to make me rich, but was hopeful about the possibility of being launched on a writerly course.

My realtor was horrified. She literally leaned backward in her booth. What was I supposed to say? I am not a Natalie Goldberg writing-is-a-journey type. I never assign myself exercises to see "what will happen." I don't have that kind of time. But anybody who spends as much time writing as I do doesn't qualify for membership in the Mothers of Invention.

Suffice to say I never got invited to her writing group. One of the members went on to write a bestseller, which was dedicated to my realtor. She, meanwhile, remains a real-estate novelist. As for blogging, it's safe to say she'll never read this. I emailed her recently to inquire about the housing market (about as realistic as purchasing Sony). She inquired about my writing. I happily told her about the blog. Her reponse was cool, her implication that real writers are too busy creating litterchure to mess about on the internet.

So she's a real-estate novelist, I'm an administrative hack, and Lionel Shriver, who plans her novels, seeks commerical agents, and admits she really wanted to Orange Prize, has written a bestseller.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Lionel Shriver's The Post-Birthday World

In short: a great novel. Go out and buy it at once.

For a fine explication by the writer herself, see this Powell's interview.

For a longer, more thoughtful, public-discourse-destroying analysis, keep reading.

In Birthday, Shriver employs what seems like a writer's trick to devastating effect. Irina Galina McGovern, daughter of a Russian mother and American father, is happily living in London with her partner, Lawrence Trainer. Irina is a children's book illustrator, Lawrence, a terrorism expert at a think tank. Their near-decade long partnership--somehow, they have never gotten around to marrying--is stable, soild, settled. If Lawrence is emtionally limited, he is also immensely supportive, helping Irina with her career, chiding her about smoking, encouraging her frugal lifestyle. Their domesticity is mostly pleasant, their flat homey, Irina's lovingly prepared meals delicious and wholesome.

Enter Ramsay Acton, famous snooker player, known for his dashing good looks and inability to win the Grand Prix. He and Irina meet through Jude Hartford, Ramsay's wife and Irina's collaborator on a children's book project. When the foursome meet for dinner, all manner of sparks fly. Soon afterward, Jude breaks with both Ramsay and Irina. At Lawrence's urging--he is an avid snooker fan--the couple cultivates a friendship with the lonely Ramsay. Irina begins battling her ferocious attaction to Ramsay; when the two meet for Ramsay's birthday dinner alone (Lawrence is away on a business trip), the book forks into two narratives. There is "good" Irina, playing it safe, staying with Lawrence, watching Ramsay a bit wistfully from afar. Then there is "bad" Irina, acting rashly on her attraction, leaving steady Lawrence and their quiet life for a crash course in sexual gluttony.

Life with Ramsay is tulmultuous, a whirl of endless snooker tournaments, eating, drinking, and sex. Lots of sex. Ramsay, by his own admission, is not an educated man. The politics that obsess Lawrence are little more than meaningless to him; his lifework is snooker and Irina. He is jealous, socially unreliable, and drinks to excess. When Irina feebly attempts to reassert herself by staying off the endless snooker tour to work, Ramsay throws amazing scenes. Yet Irina is powerless in her consuming sexual attraction to this one man. Their fights only lead to more intense sexual encounters.

In her other life, with Lawrence, Irina is diligent, productive, and driven to sneaking cigarettes on the sly. If she is sexually frustrated, she buries it, for Lawrence is so many other things. Brilliant, handsome in his way, Lawrence can be something of a bully; his favorite epithet is moron.

One of the great pleasures of Birthday is its capaciousness. At 517 pages, Shriver can both burrow into her characters and slide in a great deal of commentary about Americans both home and abroad, Irish politics and the deadly ignorance accompaying them, and the niggling what-ifs most of us harbor.

Shriver has a perfect ear for language. Irina, daughter of a Russian dancer, is fluent; Russian winds its way through the book, a reminder of the good wife and dutiful daughter she is expected to be. Irina is also occasionally prey to Britishisms invading her speech. Lawrence derides her use of words like "gobsmacked" or the verb "to rubbish." While Irina weakly defends her right to incorporate what she endlessly hears around her, Ramsay uses the antithesis of American English. Spannered, gobsmacked, ducky, pet, oi, shite, bird. Here he is, at dinner with Irina and Lawrence, holding forth on snooker balls:

"'Plastic,' said Ramsey, spewing smoke. 'It's thanks to snooker that plastic were invented. Changed the face of the world, this game did. Though some would say'--he clicked a nail against the Perspex salt cellar--'not for the better...Them ivory balls was so bleeding dear that the sport were desperate for a substitute, and put out a reward, right?'" (215)

Shriver's ear for Americans abroad is no more forgiving, with our shouting, long vowels, and honking mispronunciations of ancient names. Nor does she spare us a long windup to 9/11: Lawrence, from his vantage point at London's prestigious Blue Sky think tank, saw the disastrous day from long off. Shriver's handling of this most-dfficult-to-write-about event is admirable. She does not allow two Americans living in Europe to assume ownership of the catastrophe; the careful noting throughout of African, Irish, and earlier American (the first World Trade Center attack, Oaklahoma City) political woes points up 9/11's place in a long series of international crises many Americans tried to ignore. And though 9/11 could serve as a neat pivot point, Shriver doesn't linger unecessarily. Irina, like the rest of us, is swept inexorably forward.

The novel's close is masterful, suprising, and beautifully wrought. I won't spoil it here. Go read this book, and revel in its excellence.

Lionel Shriver: The Post-Birthday World. New York: Harper Collins. 2007.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Dark Neural Corners

I developed insomnia in my late thirties. After four sleepless nights, I placed a crazed call to my doctor's office.

"Are you feeling suicidal?" The nurse asked.


I meant it. Hours later I was given a prescription for Temazepam, a sort of Valium lite, and sent home. The pills helped for awhile. Then I developed a tolerance and they didn't. I became an official insomniac.


I have a friend who had a benign brain tumor on her pituitary gland. For years she lived with it. But then it began leaching calcium from her bones, and doctors removed the tumor. She survived, but her ability to sleep did not.

She described the horrors of not sleeping to me, the passing hours, the growing inability to think clearly. I did not understand. I equated not sleeping with being awake. "Can't you write?" I asked (she was working on her doctoral thesis at the time). "Or read until you're sleepy?"

No, and no. She tried to explain the awful state of muddled wakefulness that is insomnia. Like all champion sleepers, I didn't understand.

"I'm taking Halcion," She told me.

"Doesn't that stuff make people psychotic?" I asked, remembering a Presidential episode of erratic behavior ascribed to the drug.

"Not sleeping makes people psychotic." She said.

A few months later she called me with wonderful news. A new drug called Ambien had come to market. She could finally sleep again.


My insomnia comes and goes: I can sleep well for weeks, then suddenly begin waking with a jolt at three a.m. Always three a.m., precisely, as if my body possessed some demonically programmed alarm clock. I jerk awake. I am hot. My hands, encased in their carpal tunnel braces, are aflame with pain. If I was sleeping on my right side, my shoulder, also affected by CT, will join the chorus. Restlessly I try to find a more comfortable position: my back? the left side? Nothing doing.

Now my mind begins speeding along in its private version of night terrors. Work, health worries, excruciating examinations of situations where I might have acted differently, said the right words.

Four a.m. In an hour, my alarm clock will go off.

Sometimes I doze, dreaming nonsense dreams. Sometimes I can calm myself by thinking about whatever I'm reading, or mulling over things I might like to write. This can lull me back to sleep, only by now it's four-thirty on a Thursday morning, so what's the point? Might as well get up and start the coffee.

The very act of standing upright sends the night terrors scuttling back to their dark neural corners. I make the coffee. I feel awful, as if I were coming down with the flu. My head aches. I must carefully attend to the task at hand: fitting the filter into the coffeemaker, measuring the coffee, counting each scoop lest I lose track, pouring the right amount of water into the machine.

The day unspools before me: getting our breakfasts, packing a lunch, driving the car to work. Then work itself, demanding accuracy and even more unthinkable, civility. Any plans for postwork errands are scuttled; anything beyond the bare bones of surviving the day must wait. No working on the blog, or the promised book review, or the essay so happily begun a few weeks back. I can't string a coherent thought together. I am depressed enough to understand why people commit suicide. Only by now I am also familiar enough with insomnia to recognize my mood is mercifully transient, and will lift after a good night's sleep. What I don't know is when that sleep will come.


Like Joan Didion searching out the causes of Quintana's illness, I studied the literature. That's what bookish types do. We read. We work it up. I learned all sorts of useless things. Keep your bedroom quiet, use your bed only for sex, reading, and sleeping. Don't engage in heavy exercise just before sleeping. No heavy meals before bed. Cut down on alcohol, which might make you sleepy in the short term, but wake you in the middle of the night. Eat properly. Exercise regularly. Avoid naps, which will only throw off your body further. Reduce stress.

Yeah, right. I wasn't doing any of the dont's already. I cut my Excedrin intake, which was alarming anyway. No effect. I returned to the doctor, who gave me a few Ambien to try. I hallucinated, then fell asleep with the lights burning, a book in my lap, my hair still pinned back in metal barrettes that should have been uncomfortable enough to wake me. I don't remember how I felt in the morning.

I went back and got a prescription for Lunesta, which isn't any better than Temazepam. Taking it is a hollow gesture, a comforting ritual. I could just as easily burn sage, drink valerian tea, throw the I ching. I might sleep. I might not.


In my previous life as a sleeper, I did not understand the difference between being awake and wakefulness. My copy of the The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines awake as "cease to sleep; become active; become conscious of; rouse from sleep."

Wakefulness is defined as "unable to sleep; night passed with little or no sleep; vigilant."

Now, in the land of the sleepless, I am often fogged. I am not vigilant; I am too tired. But being tired is no promise of sleep.


There are two solutions, both difficult. The first would be ameliorating stress. For various reasons--my economic well-being, a passing effort to remain acquainted with reality--this is unlikely to occur. The second is to take stronger sleeping pills. Certainly taking Ambien or an equivalent would at least get me some rest. But I fear that sincere efforts to curb my intake would collapse after a couple sleepless nights. Or that the threat of insomnia after an especially difficult day might send me into the medicine cabinet whether I'd been having a bout or not.

Normally I am not an addictive personality. But my friend is right: not sleeping makes you psychotic.


Yesterday my office was quiet: many had begun their long weekends. At noon one of the faculty appeared at my desk. "Go home," he ordered, smiling. "Get out of here."

I thanked him. I drove home. It was a beautiful day, sunny and cool. "Try and get some rest," My husband urged when I called him. But the laundry had piled up. The apartment was dusty. And if I spent the afternoon asleep, what would happen come night-time?


There is a certain quality of mind that accompanies sleeplessness. The aforementioned depression, the inability to think, linked to a kind of feverishness. Sunlight looks thinner, yet yellower; distances appear curved, bent, further than I know them to be. This makes driving especially dangerous; I once almost hit a pedestrian while underslept. When he saw how upset I was, he, poor man, apologized to me.

Time warps. Long periods of wakefulness make seven p.m. feel like midnight, while outside it is the cusp of summer, daylight barely fading.

I cry more easily, like a child who has missed her nap. Last night we watched a PBS presentation about China. This third episode of the four-part series was about pollution. We gasped at the footage of filthy waterways. But it was the dead frogs, choked by poisoned water, that brought me nearly to tears. I sniffled discreetly, embarassed by my uncontrollable emotions.

As for thought, that running narrative we all carry within, well, it takes on a distance. I am not thinking, as I most often do, about reading or writing or whatever daily task is at hand. Instead I am off to the side, removed. At best I am coasting, the way one might feel while driving a familiar route and listening to music. Suddenly you return to yourself: five miles have passed, and with them, a small bit of your life. Where did it go? It doesn't matter: it's irretrievable.

And that's the worst part of insomnia. Ironically, all those waking hours, and the many hours required to recover from them, are time lost.


In the end I did the housework. I prepared a nice dinner. I watched the special on China. By then it was nine-forty-five. I brushed my teeth, taped my hands into their braces, and lay down. I slept. Not perfectly: from two onward I woke several times, but was able to sink back down. I slept--lightly--until seven. And today I am tired. But not as tired. I am able to think. I can write. Tonight, or in three days, or in a week, I will begin sleeping normally again. I will recover my mental stamina. Until the next bout. There is nothing I can do but abide it.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Hairball Roundup

One: Karen Hess has died. The NYT obit is here. Food historians owe their professions to her trailblazing, incisive study of American foodways. The rest of us have masterworks like The Taste of America and The Carolina Rice Kitchen, the book on how slaves influenced lowcountry cookery.

Two: Miss Snark has called it quits. Apparently she's said her piece, and is now returning to a life of Agenting, Gin, and George Clooney. Hapless writers everywhere will flail once more.

Three: Newt Gingrich has "written" an "active history" novel. Remember, this guy was an elected official. Recall also that he left his first wife as she lay in bed, battling cancer. Think cobwebby thoughts about his efforts to impeach Clinton, only to be found screwing around himself and booted out by his own party.

Now he thinks he's a writer, grammar and historical veracity be damned.

I think we've located the spring from which all lowered public discourse flows.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

An ecological footprint

I'm halfway though Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, the latest dispatch from the world of ecologically sustainable eating. The book is excellent, highly readable even if you flunked biology and can't tell a rosebush from a rototiller.

The book includes some scary sidebars by Kingsolver's husband, biologist Steven Hopp, and some charming essays by Barbara's nineteen-year-old daughter, Camille.

If, like me, you're a longtime Kingsolver fan, there's definitely a moment where you freak out--Camille is nineteen! Whoa! Once over that, you realize she is a gifted writer who, unlike many people her age, is passionately involved in, and knowledgable about, the natural world.

Having spent thirty-six of my near-forty years in urban settings, I know nothing about gardening. For all my kitchen expertise, I am so bad with plants that I've pretty much given up trying to grow anything. My current abode offers nothing more than an enclosed patio. I've nowhere to transplant or deal with dirt without making a huge mess. So it is that my gardening fantasies are just that. Fantasies.

The Kingsolver-Hopp clan, by contrast, has a huge farm where they grow most of their food. The family also raises chickens and turkeys, bakes their own bread, and makes their own cheese.

And people think I'm weird for making confit.

All this reading about oil guzzling, empty calories, and the horrors of modern chemical farming sent me into my supposedly pc kitchen. Guiltily I began opening cupboards, pulling down cans and bottles, reading labels. I dove into the fridge, rooted through the freezer, skidding ice across the floor in an effort to read the back of a tortilla bag. I stared at the plastic grocery bags I hoard for cleaning Kitty's box, the paper towels, the napkins. What was I doing right? What could I do better?

Well, there are those paper napkins. The paper towels. The plastic bags, which Oakland may soon outlaw, saving me the trouble of my conscience.

Back to the food. I should be buying local, organic, grass fed, etc., etc., you know the drill. Mostly I do. But there are definitely some cans around.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that most of my pantry staples come from California. The Juanita's canned hominy, something I expected to be a major offender, contains hominy, water, and salt, and hails from Santa Rosa, fifty miles north. Though on further examination, I'm not sure where the hominy itself comes from.

Thai Kitchen Organic Coconut Milk says California on the can, but coconuts don't grow here. The Barilla Rigatoni is from Illinois. The actual flour that went into the pasta? God knows. My pure cane white sugar is Hawaiian and probably really from beets. The Muir Glen canned tomatoes are from Washington.

The real offenders:

La Tortilla Factory Tortillas, which are from Santa Rosa but have an ingredient list longer than Remembrance of Things Past. These must go. Either I need to find a locally-made (and healthier) brand or make them myself. Tortillas are one of the easiest breads to prepare: water, oil, salt, flour. Mix. Allow to sit for thirty minutes. Roll out thinly. Heat your comal or cast iron pan. Toss a tortilla on the hot surface. Allow to cook until browned and puffy on both sides. Then, if you can stop yourself from eating them all immediately, freeze them. You don't even need yeast, and believe me, you will be amazed by how good they are.

Cascadian Farm Organics tater tots. I am embarassed to admit how much we like these. Cascadian Farm is huge, with a rather capacious definition of organic. These frozen morsels are wondeful popped into a hot oven and served with hamburgers, one of my default hurry meals. Where the actual potatoes come from, and what happens to them on their journey from potato to tot is, well, worrisome. The chicken McNugget sequence in "Supersize Me" comes to mind.

Even worse than the tortillas is the bag of hamburger buns. Close inspection reveals them to be Sara Lee. (Gulp. The pc police are on the way.) Like the tortillas, they possess a daunting ingredient list and come from St. Louis, Missouri.

Again, I can make hamburger buns. Or I can buy a reasonable local approximation from any of the four supermarkets within a five mile radius of my home, where the shelves are literally stuffed with a variety of wonderful, locally made breads, rolls, and English muffins.

I realize many people don't have these kinds of options. But I do. Meaning I should exercise them.


What about meat? I am able to get local, ecologically raised red meat at Berkeley Bowl. I can get Niman Ranch pork. But poultry is a whole other deal. Berkeley Bowl carries Happy Dan, Rosie Organic, Rocky Natural, Coastal Range Organics, and Empire Kosher. I grew up eating Empire and adore it, but I doubt the chickens have a happy life. I've heard Coastal Range and the Rocky/Rosie people fall into the "expansive" use of organic labeling, but don't know enough to make an informed judgement. I've been buying Happy Dan, which tastes fine. A quick internet search reveals Happy Dan is a subsidary of Martinelli farms. I don't know much else.

As for some of my other favorite foods, the duck legs and chicken livers I purchase from Berkeley Bowl sit behind the butcher counter in unmarked bins. Where are they from? What's in them? Couldn't tell you. The quail we're so fond of comes from Montréal. The packaging says nothing about happy quail roaming little bits of quail real estate, watching the Stanley Cup playoffs.

[Of course not. Montréal didn't even make the playoffs this year. - HM]

So I'm stuck. Had I endless time, I could forage for Hoffman poultry at various butchers. I could haunt farmer's markets. Only I don't have the time. What's a well-meaning person to do? Give up poultry? Do as much as I can, and let the rest slide?

One thing is certain: CAFO (That's concentrated animal feeding operations) meats are out. Read Kingsolver's book and feel ill. Eat the meat coming out of these places, and get even sicker (other fun reads along these lines include Ruth Ozeki's My Year of Meats and Michel Faber's Under the Skin.) At this moment, I am not sure how--or even if--we will be able to continue our love affair with chicken livers. Which sucks. So many things must be relinquished these days: world peace, voting rights, free speech, a woman's right to choose, recreational drugs.

And now chicken livers.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Hairballs: A Sequel

Lucky, lucky American public: the second sequel to Gone With the Wind is on the way. Life as we know it--in all its denatured, ParishiltonAnnaNicole glory, can continue.

America, we need a sequel to Gone with the Wind. After all, don't all perfect books demand encores? Specifically, sequels?

From the article:

"Most of all, readers will get inside Rhett’s head as he meets and courts Scarlett O’Hara in one of the most famous love affairs of all time."

I don't know about you, but I've been just dying to know what Rhett was thinking. And I don't care, nosiree, not a whit, that the person telling me what Rhett thought is not Margaret Mitchell, but one Donald McCaig, an advertising exec/sheep farmer/civil war writer, found after a desperate editor wandered into a bookstore.

More from Motoko Rich, who must write this stuff:

"But the new book is also, in some senses, a bid for redemption by the estate of Margaret Mitchell, who died in 1949 and steadfastly refused to write a sequel to 'Gone With the Wind' herself."

Gee, why'd Mitchell have to go and leave perfection alone? The nerve! Maggie, your estate needs the money! C'mon!

"Mr. McCaig took on the commission, he said, out of 'six parts hubris and four parts poverty.' He declined to disclose how much the estate was paying him."

Uh-huh. At least he's being honest about the money, though he leaves out the getting-real-famous part. As for hubris, I'd feel pretty weird taking on a sequel to, oh, A Farewell to Arms, or Oliver Twist. Real weird. As in weird enough to refuse.

Yeah, it's easy to sit here in obscurity, railing. But I did have a comparable experience. I wrote erotica, of all things, for a popular, well-known publisher. Not only did I make a fair amount of money, I received fan mail and numerous offers to write more. Had I kept it up, I probably could have earned quite the living. Only there were a couple problems. One was how strange I felt penning graphic sex. I have nothing against erotica or the writers who create it. The genre just wasn't for me. And while some of the industry folk were friendly and professional, many were not. So I stopped. The fame, letters, offers, and money dried up. But I felt much better in my mostly unpublished, literary wannabe state.

And this never happened to me:

"He delivered chapters to his editors as he finished them. Occasionally the lawyers for the Mitchell estate would be invited to weigh in as well."

Writing by committee. Writing sequels to a book you didn't write by committee.

To borrow a line from Miss Snark, dear dog in heaven.


I have trouble with the entire sequel business. That is, sequels akin to Labradoodles: forms never intended by their orignial authors. Imagine what Jane Austen would think of the industry grown round her books. Margaret Mitchell is on the record saying she didn't want a sequel to Wind. As for Sylvia Plath, if she knew of all the books falsifying, analyzing, and fictionalizing her short life, she'd likely gas herself all over again.

And I wouldn't blame her. Certainly the lives of our fellow humans are rich fodder for imagination. Take The Sun Also Rises. Brett Ashly is based on Lady Duff Twysden, but you don't need to know that to enjoy the novel. And we all know that unlike the besotted Jake Barnes, Hem was, ah, intact. See, he made some stuff up. And wrote a great book. See also Kathryn Harrison's Exposure, about a woman who must survive the legacy of her father's famous photographs (Sally Mann, anybody?), or Susan Choi's American Woman, which turns the Patricia Hearst story sideways.

My point is while people succumb to herd mentality, writing up sequels or barely fictional versions of real life events, they could be writing fiction. Or non-fiction. Whatever. Just not taking up a dead writer's leavings and making money off them because publishers think Sylvia, Margaret, and Jane are safe bets.

I can't stop this idiocy. None of us can. What we can do is vote with our buying dollars, and leave this derivative stuff on store shelves, virtual or otherwise.


On that note, BK, Hockeyman, and kitty will be off the air for a week, giving public discourse an opportunity to resume its former stratospheric heights.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Monday Catblogging

'Cause we'll be out of town Friday. This is Kitty, captured by our new camera. Note how he parks himself on the couch rather than the sheet (the bit of white above him), which is spread out expressly for his shedding benefit.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Destroying public discourse, one blog at a time

Two caveats before beginning my rant.

The first is I don't want to become a shrill, screaming blogger who shrieks every time somebody takes a potshot.

The second is I am a big fan of The New Yorker. I've subscribed for years and have no intention of stopping.

In the May 14th issue, writer Lauren Collins has a feature on the English graffiti artist Banksy. Banksy has been around awhile. His m.o. is to drop into a location in the dead of night, leaving a politcally scathing painting on a building, or perhaps on some of the wall dividing Israel from Palestine. He declines interviews, hides his identity, and has cultivated an enormous following. He is now very, very rich, and feels hugely guilty about moving from the fringes to the hot art mainstream. He continues to hide his identity, even as Brad Pitt and Keanu Reeves attend his openings.

Banksy is a talented guy. Nobody is arguing that. Some people are little pissed about his choice of medium--buildings that, um, arent't his. And though he's a great artist, I can sort of understand people being upset....kind of how I feel when I see graffiti all over my city. Only we Oaklanders don't have guerilla political artists. We have gangbangers conversing amongst themselves in an ugly, violent territorial scrawl.

This all by way of background. Fine, okay. But then:

"The graffitist's impulse is akin to the blogger's: write some stuff, quickly, which people may or may not read. Both mediums demand wit and nimbleness. They arouse many of the same fears about the lowering of the public discourse and the taking of undeserved liberties.'

I'm feeling a little shrill.

I never write on buildings, or anything else that might be construed as another's property. Nor do I write quicky. How I wish I did. In terms of people reading or not, we can safely say that about any writing. I mean, nobody reads everything. Some people don't read anything at all--not The New Yorker, not me, not even goddamned People.

Wit and nimbleness. Yep, I do strive for those. What writer doesn't?

In terms of lowering the public discourse, in reviewing my posts over the past ten days, I see entries on trashy writers like Wendy Lesser, Jim Harrison, Calvin Trillin, and Anna Gavalda. I see I've neglected some of the more popular current celebs, classy folk like Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and Brangelina.

Stupid me.

I forgot to watch CNN last night, or check in for a dose of reality with Fox News.

I haven't listened to Michael Savage.

I think Wolfowitz is a public embarassment and should be fired.

I guess I've taken some undeserved liberties.

As for you, my kind, wonderful readers, well, you're complicit in this lowering of "the public discourse."

What are these people so scared of? Don't worry, Lauren, most of us bloggers still need our day jobs.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Necessary Expenditures

I read Mark Bittman's article with a combination of amusement and mild indignation. What, he asks, are the most important tools to outfit any kitchen? He answers his own question with a trip to the restaurant supply house, where he furnishes a kitchen for $300, eschewing good knives, heavy pots, roasters, or immersion blenders. On the need for quality equipment, Bittman writes:

"Like cookbooks, kitchen equipment is a talisman; people believe that buying the right kind will make them good cooks. Yet some of the best cooks I’ve known worked with a battered batterie de cuisine: dented pots and pans scarred beyond recognition, an old steak knife turned into an all-purpose tool, a pot lid held just so to strain pasta when the colander was missing, a food processor with a busted switch."

He's right, and I would extend this obsession to all material things: Americans want the best object of its kind, regardless of how much they'll actually use it. Hence the need for Hummers in urban areas with little or no parking, McMansions, and the Williams-Sonoma inventory.

And yes, it is possible to prepare good food with flimsy pots and cheap knives. I did it for years, and it was a hassle. I slowly collected a few high quality knives (and yes, they cost more than $100), All-Clad pots (not the top of the line, but still), and one Le Creuset roaster that set me back $220. Breathtakingly expensive, I know, but since that pot's arrival in my kitchen two years ago, it has seen almost daily use. It is far better than the $6 sheet pan Bittman suggests.

Of course good cookware will not transform an inept cook into Jean Troisgros, but it sure as hell improves things if you are halfway adept. Sharp knives allow better control and neater slices, while heavier bolsters lessen the chances of slippage. Heavy pots and pans both hold heat longer and distribute it more evenly, meaning the food cooks when and how you want it to. Thinner cookware causes hot spots, warping, and, in the case of non-stick pans, disintegration of the coating. Who wants Teflon in their food?

Citing poor knife skills, Bittman splurges on a Japanese mandoline. I am no Morimoto but have managed just fine without one. Yet he is dismissive of lids, objects I always, always use (and unlike Bittman, have no trouble finding. My kitchen, to paraphase Laurie Colwin, is the size of a postage stamp.) Bittman likes cast iron, which is cheap, safer than nonstick, and holds heat until Christmas. Unfortunately, you need to be the California governor to heft a cast iron pot filled with hot food, and like copper, cast iron needs a lot of babying. I have neither the wrists nor the time.

Bittman advises purchasing a food processor (from Amazon, natch)--another item I've done without--and a salad spinner. My salad spinner comes from Target, and as far as I can tell, lettuce emerges from it no less sodden or muddy than before. I do have a Microplane grater, a fun tool, but as for "oft-used asafetida," well, not in this house.

He describes blenders as "a bit more optional." I disagree; at some point anybody cooking beyond the Swanson dinner stage will wish for one. Blenders fall into a category I'll call necessary evils. That is, unless you are Mollie Katzen or a smoothie freak, you won't use your blender daily. But when you want to make margaritas, or puree the soup, you really need a blender. Nothing else will do.

And there's the rub. Many kitchen tools are expensive, take up space, and don't see daily use. But they are the exact tool for the job: the immersion blender, the cleaver, the standing mixer. Even worse, you will indeed get what you pay for. Le Creuset costs a fortune, but will last not only into your lifetime but your grandchild's. Kitchenaid is the queen of standing mixers for good reason: mine is about ten years old and behaves like a frisky teenager.

And knives? Here is Anthony Bourdain on the subject:

"You need, for God's sake, a decent chef's knife...Please believe me, here's all you will ever need in the knife department: ONE good chef's knife." (76)

Bourdain goes on to wax dreamily about Global knives, allowing that blade-happy cooks might also want boning knives, a serrated knife, and a paring knife. But it was his simple plea that sent me to my first serious knife back in 2001: a six-inch Henckels chef's knife that never sees the dark of a drawer.


Is Bittman wrong? No. But cooking is so personal that creating anything beyond the most rudimentary kitchen inventory invites debate. Cookware is also subject to the idiosyncrasies of personal taste. Bittman sees no need for a roaster. My cooking style, which leans heavily on roasting and braising, requires one. Bittman makes no mention of slow cookers; mine is crucial for preparing decent meals on busy weekdays. He dismisses stockpots "until you start making gallons of stock at a time." I don't make gallons at a time--hell, there are only two of us--but I cook and freeze a pot of stock nearly every weekend. A stockpot also serves as the pasta pot, the polenta pot, and, of course, the soup pot. As for rice cookers, I don't use one. But as a starving grad student, I worked as a maid in student housing. I always knew the places where the Asian students lived; they all had rice cookers.


In "The Low Tech Person's Batterie de Cuisine," Laurie Colwin weighs in on kitchen equipment. She had little, and like Bittman, advocated a minimal approach. Neither have much use for microwaves. I only use mine for a few things, and could live without it, but it's nice to have when confronting a frozen bagel at five a.m. Colwin didn't have a toaster. Neither do I--the broiler does a nice job, and what little counter space I do have is taken up by a number of things Bittman says I don't need: wooden cutting boards, expensive cutlery, the blender, the standing mixer. Colwin was a big fan of mixing bowls. I have several, too, and would like a really large one for bread dough.

Colwin's list of necessary items departs from Bittman's in the areas of roasting and casseroles, but she acknowledged "special interests that must be catered to." (18) She had a chicken fryer, used only twice yearly but "...the right tool for the job." (18) She also wanted a lemon zester for her madeleines.

I have a few items like that: a marble mortar and pestle, bought expressly for pesto-making but used for all sorts of spices; the aforementioned Le Creu pot; the Wüsthof cleaver, which I use (with great gusto, I must add) to hack up poultry bones for stock; the immersion blender, which I dithered over for months before breaking down and buying the damned thing.

That said, I will never buy an enormous suite of All Clad pots just to have them; my six-pot set serves me quite nicely. I love big bad knives, but if I buy more it will be sheer indulgence.


Well then, what should a person furnish a kitchen with? You won't go horribly wrong with Bittman's list, at least in the short term. Realistically, many of us start with a motley collection acquired from parents or picked up during the transient housing situation known as young adulthood. From there American kitchens branch out: there are the people who want the good stuff and the people who don't care and never will. Within the don't care, never will group is a subset of people who have Viking kitchens they never set foot in. Factor into this the many ethnic cuisines in our diverse land--with their woks, griddles, comals, and kimchee jars--and it becomes nearly impossible to create a universal kitchen list.


Yesterday we got the first basil of the season. Hockeyman is official pesto-maker in our home. I asked whether he preferred the automatic chopper, which is a sort of baby food processor, or the mortar and pestle, a handsome, heavy marble set my mother-in-law gave me last Christmas.

He decided to test drive the mortar and pestle. "Wow," he said. "Smell that! Look at the leaves!"

We watched the fluffy emerald mass collapse into a soft paste. We added cheese, garlic, pine nuts. The smell of garlic and basil rose, demanding several taste tests, scientifically carried out with our fingertips.

We mixed the pesto with rigatoni and ate the entire bowlful.

"Which would you use next time?" I asked. "The mortar and pestle or the chopper?"

"Definitely the mortar and pestle. I'm a slow food kinda guy."

This from a man who, when I met him, didn't know basil from barware, and further evidence that kitchen accessories are truly a matter of taste.

Anthony Bourdain: Kitchen Confidential.New York: Ecco Press. 2000

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

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Wendy Lesser's Room for Doubt

Wendy Lesser is editor of The Threepenny Review and author of eight books. Apart from The Pagoda in the Garden, all her work is nonfiction. She is, in her own words "an eighteenth century man of letters who happens to be female and lives in twentieth century Berkeley." (The Amateur, 5)

This inclination toward scholarly work outside academia brings us Room for Doubt, three extended essays. In this era of linked short fiction, postmodern fantasia, falsified memior, and cheesy self-improvement, Lesser is an anomaly. Reading her work is like brain floss: thanks to her thoughtful arrangement of words, sentences, and ideas, the world is suddenly (briefly, alas) a clearer place.

Part One, "Out of Berlin," discusses the Jewish reaction to Germany. Germany, Lesser realizes, remains a forbidden, frightening place to even the most deracinated Jews. Lesser herself is a vehement atheist whose relationship to her Jewish roots is akin to her having red hair: no more than a simple genetic trait. Yet she is in her fifties before a fellowship leads her to spend several months in Berlin, a city she comes to adore.

Lesser makes some excellent points about the tendency of some Jews to view the Holocaust as especially horrific, somehow worse than other genocides, of a more serious magnitude than the Armenians or Native Americans or Darfurians. Of course the Holocaust was horrific, but we Jews haven't cornered the market. And Lesser's very lack of religious feeling makes this clear to her perhaps sooner than to other Jews. Germany has compounded the Jewish inclination toward prioritized suffering by filling the nation with any number of wrenching plaques, museums, and memorials, not to mention the preserved camps themselves. Yet Lesser also find the German way of recalling human capabilty instructive:

"There is a level of moral awareness that invades everything in the country's daily existence, from the way it is governed to how people act toward each other on trains...what it has done is to produce a nation of people who are very much alive to their own capacity for unforgivable behavior--a capacity, they have learned, that is completely in keeping with being a nice, civilized, conventional sort of person in ordinary life." (13-14)

It is impossible to read these words without thinking of American culpability in certain international arenas; indeed, Lesser makes short work of the current Adminstration. Visiting the Reichstag, which is filled with artwork symbolizing the Final Solution, she writes:

"And I couldn't help thinking, as I looked at them, how differently we do things in America, where oblivion and cultivated ignorance are the government's chief mechanisms for getting through the day, and where commemoration of our national misdeeds--espcially through any kind of publicly funded art--would seem to be unthinkable." (16-17)

Lesser goes on the comment on the quality and availablity of German artistic performance. Because the arts are funded by the government, the insane ticket prices to the opera, concerts, or ballet that Americans endure are nonexistent in Germany. For twenty-five dollars, one may purchase an excellent seat, then go out to eat afterward. (Restaurants stay open late, and the reservation games we play here are nonexistent in Berlin.) The irony-laden pretension dicating the New York art scene is absent; people from all walks of life partake of cultural life the way Americans shop at Target.

The second essay, "On Not Writing about David Hume," documents just that. At one point Lesser set out to write a short, accessible biography of Hume. She failed, and the unwritten book followed her spectrally. She describes the sick feeling only a dead book can give a writer (and all writers, I think, have at least one dead book buried someplace). Hume appeals to her innate orderliness: by her own account, Lesser is impatient, given to polar thinking, honest to the point of brusqueness. Hume's decency appeals to what she calls "this lack of inherent kindness" in herself. (85)

Hume reminds Lesser of her friends, especially the poet Thom Gunn, who went to great lengths to conceal his own mania for orderliness. Gunn, like Lesser (and like me) was intolerant of spontenaity, a manic planner who always had a backup plan lest the worst occur and things go awry. While Lesser doesn't speculate on the origins of this mania, I suspect it has to do with a chaotic childhood--or a perceived one. Planners are hedging against the uncontrollable, which remains, for all our careful planning, uncontrollable.

Hume lamented what he saw as the division between society and scholarship, writing that "Learning has been as great a Loser by being up in Colleges and Cells, and secluded from the World and good Company." (Quoted from Essays Moral, Political, and Literary) This in 1742; what would Hume make of the blog wars, the Mendelsohns and Tanenhauses and Fords aligning themselves against the hoi polloi? We'll never know, though Lesser agrees with his assessment:

"We too are starved for intelligent conversation-" (109)

We are, and arguably this starvation has given rise to fools like me, who are compelled to read and write critically for no other reason than community with fellow travelers, nasty critics be damned.

The final essay, "Difficult Friends," is a tribute to the writer Leonard Michaels, who died 2003. It seems I keep finding myself in the midst of elegies. Lesser's is most unusual in its honesty: Michaels was a difficult man, stubborn, prickly, quick to seek out enemies. By Lesser's account the two had numerous serious fights leading to periods where they did not speak. Yet they always reconciled; Lesser, notoriously unforgiving, always forgave Michaels. She even introduced him to his fourth wife, her best friend Katharine. Lesser's clear-eyed account of the normally composed Katharine disintegrating as Michaels lies dying in Alta Bates Hospital is painfully affecting. At one point Katharine wants to block the door to the waiting room, as if this futile gesture will somehow keep bad news out, even if the room's inhabitants suffocate in the heat.

I found this final section difficult for an odd reason: the events take place in Berkeley, in restaurants and hospitals I am intimately acquainted with. When Lesser discusses meeting Michaels in their regular café, or her wish that he like the painting she's hung in her Victorian dining room, I can all too easily envision the places she describes. Ironically enough, I recently began Bill Buford's Heat, a book that could not have less in common with Lesser's text. Yet:

"I was living in Berkeley as a student until 1979 and now appreciate that the revolution had begun only a few blocks away at Chez Panisse...I had two meals there and two recollections...a specific one of Leonard Michaels, a fiction writer and English professor, eating at the next table. Michaels had grown up on New York's Lower East Side, had an urban, jaded manner, and was refreshingly suspicious of wacky California enthusiasms. But on this occasion, Michaels, surrounded by three rapt disciples, was holding forth with uncharacteristic animation on a piece of food--an asparagus spear." (Heat, 22)

I say ironically because I have also eaten at Chez Panisse in the company of Berkeley faculty, though my experience did not include analyses of aparagus spears. Nevertheless I can see the tiny dining room; only this morning I drove past Alta Bates, my car inevitably slowing to accomodate the never-ending march of pedestrians to and from its buildings. While doing so I recalled Michaels' absence, and realized that Lesser had been successful in her wish to record him, lest anyone forget.

Bill Buford: Heat. New York: Knopf. 2006.

Wendy Lesser: The Amateur: An Independent Life of Letters. New York: Pantheon Books. 1999.
Room for Doubt. New York: Pantheon Books. 2007

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Laura Shapiro's Penguin Lives biography of Julia Child

[Hockeyman here again. BK is a book reviewing machine lately. Her review of Laura Shapiro's biography of Julia Child is up here, at January Magazine once again. Have a look.]

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Alternative realities

Jim Harrison’s Returning to Earth is the most troubling book I’ve read this year. Troubling because it began so strongly, sucking me in, then gradually spit me out, character by character, until I closed the book in bewilderment.

Set in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Returning to Earth is narrated by four voices. The book opens with forty-five year old Donald, a half-Finnish, half-Chippewa man dying of ALS. Having decided to end his life on his own terms, he first dictates to wife Cynthia his family history. Donald is a strong character, literally a huge man—280 muscular pounds before illness devastates him—who talks to us about fishing, his love for his wife and family, and his deep seam of Native faith, which carries him past conventional "white" notions of illness and death:

“I won’t go into this because it’s religious. I saw this evangelist on television and it embarrassed me that this man could talk about God as if he was a buddy next door.” (41)

Donald and Cynthia have been together since their teens. They have two children, Clare and Herald, both in their early twenties, sharing an apartment in Los Angeles. Other family members include Cynthia’s brother David, David’s ex-wife Polly, Polly’s son Kenneth, who goes by “K,” and Flower, Donald’s cousin. Cynthia’s parents, the Burketts, play a large if offstage role, as does Jesse, their former caretaker, and Jesse's daughter, Vera.

Donald’s voice carried the greatest veracity. Even as his body weakens he is clear in his wishes—to be buried in the Canadian wilderness—and asks for nobody’s pity. His portion of the book closes with his impending death.

K opens the next section, and here the unrealities begin to accrete.

K is about 24, a drifter moving around Michigan. Unable and unwilling to settle into any semblance of study or career, he survives as a handyman. His work on a University of Michigan Dean’s Ann Arbor home affords him access to any University course that might interest him. He spends much time in the woods, fishing or wandering around thinking. His taste in women, while widely democratic, is one of the major failings of the novel. He says “I still think Dietrich’s left thigh in The Blue Angel is sexier than any photo I’ve ever seen in Penthouse or Playboy.” (77)

I work at a University and spend a great deal of time with men in their twenties—people born in 1985 or thereabouts. Most are fine, open-minded people who have never heard of Marlene Dietrich, let alone watched The Blue Angel. And while it’s nice to read about men who appreciate a variety of women, K is unconvincing. His tastes are those of a man in his sixties--that is, the author's. K is also in love with forty-four year old Cynthia. She tells him to buzz off, so he moves instead to Clare, who is his age. And though the two are not blood relatives, they were raised as cousins. This neatly avoids incest but remains disturbing as the novel piles on more sexual strangeness.

David is just plain annoying. Like K, he is functionally unable to do anything but read, write, and wander around a great deal. Though middle-aged, he is paralyzed by “Certain problems of late trying to force pieces of U.S. and world history into logical constructs.” (147)

“Again, how do we manage to live with what we know? mind wanders back to my dithering obsession with the destructiveness of history.” 149

How do we manage? We haven’t much choice. And unlike David, most of us do not have family money. We haven’t time to dither. But David cannot wrench himself free of his childhood, especially his monstrous father, a drunk with a dangerous taste for young girls. David ties himself in knots trying to make amends, pouring the family money into survival packages for Mexicans trying to sneak over the Arizona border. Besides trouble with coyotes and US police, he loses a great deal of money for his sufferings, largely because he ignores his lawyer’s correspondence. Instead he naps three or four times daily and contemplates various women: Polly, whom he slept with long past their divorce, Vernice, a poet living in Iowa, and Vera. David and Cynthia grew up with Vera, Jesse's beauiful daughter. Unfortunately, the senior Burkett raped Vera when she was barely out of her teens. Jesse and a pregnant Vera returned to Mexico, where they built a coffee farm. Vera’s child, a boy (whose name we never learn), suffers a childhood head injury that leaves him permanently impaired; his violent behavior lands him in a criminal institution.

None of this curbs David’s abiding love for Vera, now a Mexican businesswoman in her forties. Initially it appears Vera wants nothing to do with David, which makes perfect sense, but she suddenly agrees to go to a hotel with him. Which doesn’t. Why would a beautiful woman with money and numerous suitors take up with the son of the man who raped her? A son who has no job, no sense of reality, and by his own admission is a slob and lousy cook? More older man’s fantasy. Sorry. And once again, though these two are unrelated by blood, Vera is the mother of David’s half-brother. Sex between these two is strange.

After David’s section we have Cynthia. By this point I was hoping for some kind of redemption. None came. Cynthia moves through life mechanically, reading a great deal and shuttling between her parents’ home, a small house purchased after Donald’s death, and various trips to Chicago, New York, and Au Train, where the aging Flower lives a traditional native American life.

All the characters are in constant motion. They go here, they go there. There’s a lot of hiking, a lot of stopping at cabins, small diners, bars. Cynthia is worried about her daughter Clare, who has come home from her job as a wardrobe stylist in Los Angeles and fallen into a deep depression.

Though we see Clare only through other people’s eyes, her character represents another set of problems. Despite what we’re told is her interest in clothing, she is described as a tomboy who loved fishing with her father and copies his habit of wearing bib overalls. You show me a Los Angeles wardrobe stylist who wears only bib overalls and I will produce a talking frog. Compounding this is Clare’s announcement to K that she may leave her work to attend grad school in Berkeley that fall to study Human Geography. The University Administrator in me popped up immediately. It’s June, you’ve been working in the wardrobe business and you think Berkeley’s gonna take you just like that? In fall?

At this point I began doubting myself. Certainly writers are permitted liberties. (Anne Tyler's geographically altered Baltimore comes to mind.) Nor should they be intimately acquainted with Berkeley’s admissions system, as I am. But by this point in the book—not even halfway through-- the accumulation of strange plot twists and warped relationships were beyond my ability to suspend belief. I had overlooked the way Donald’s decline was written—by the time of his death, he has difficulty breathing and swallowing, but is still able to barely hobble with a walker. Sadly, I have a close relative with neuromuscular disease. A person with advanced ALS cannot walk. In fact, walking is one of the first things to go. I had overlooked David’s interest in his half-brother’s wife and Clare and K’s relationship. I found both K and David puzzling, but pushed on until Clare made this announcement, following it up by saying she wanted to get pregnant with K’s child and have him join her in Berkeley.

Do people like this exist in a reality I am too narrow to accept? People who sleep with family members when a larger population is available? People who wander and take four naps daily?

Clare does not get pregnant. Deeply depressed, she takes to her room and reads books about bears. Bears play an enormous role in the novel as native American totems and beings in the landscape. Donald loved bears; Flower does not eat them for religious reasons, and Clare, in her grief, hopes to become one. She seeks out Flower’s wisdom in this effort. The two women decide to build a sort of rough shelter on Flower’s land, where Clare hopes to “hibernate” over the Michigan winter. Given Northern Michigan’s freezing temperatures, Cynthia has good reason for concern.

To this end Cynthia hangs around Flower’s place, eating the venison mincemeat pies Flower is renowned for. Harrison loves to write about food, and there’s no shortage of male cookery here: venison, bear, a squirrel tail, and pot roasts washed down with plenty of whiskey. And though Cynthia is constantly shown eating Flower's mincemeat pies, we are told she is losing terrible amounts of weight.

Even stranger is Cynthia’s profession: she is a schoolteacher who is doing sub work after Donald’s death. Nothing is said of the tremendous strain of this job; after tossing her schoolbooks down the basement steps she says:

“It had become quite evident I didn’t want to teach in Marquette ... The smallest possible light bulb went off in my head when I remembered that in late September a young man who taught human geography at the college had suggest I might tutor some native students who tended to get lost out of shyness.” (250)

Maybe they got lost in the thicket of that sentence. But enter Vincent, a handsome, strapping young Native American with reading difficulties. Cynthia does more than just tutor him: she offers him the apartment out back and then seduces him. Nowhere is it suggested that a forty-four year old tutor working with a younger student might think twice about this behavior; instead we are led to think the young man is delighted with his good fortune.

“Before dipping into the hell of grammar study I led Vincent out to Jesse’s apartment ... I felt a little wobbly on the way up the stairs and wondered if my butt was worth looking at. In the apartment were standing next to each other and he looked around and said ‘I can’t believe my luck’ and gave me an impulsive hug. I didn’t let go and he looked at me oddly as if making sure of himself.” Afterward, studying, “We laughed quite a bit during our lessons.” (264)

Putting aside the teacher/student relationship, I wonder at Cynthia's choice of partner. We are told she was fourteen when she took up with Donald. The two married young and had children by the time Cynthia was twenty. This makes it reasonably safe to say that prior to Vincent, Cynthia had slept only with Donald. Would a grieving, sexually inexperienced woman choose a twenty-one year old dyslexic as her first sexual partner after her husband's untimely death?

Uh, no. At least, it seems a bit off to me. I mean, will Joan Didion, who said recently that she could see herself in a relationship again, take up with Ashton Kutcher's little brother?

Uh, no.

A little while later Cynthia lands in the hospital with double pneumonia and falls into a semi-coma, dreaming about moving to Lame Deer, Montana to teach (her term) “Indian Kids.” Upon waking and recovering, she does just that. David and Vera, meanwhile, have decided to adopt a child. Herald has married his girlfriend, a Mexican stripper attending community college. (Oh, please.) Clare and K wander off together.

In sum, a book with precious little basis in reality. And that was my biggest problem: the book is intended to represent reality. Returning to Earth is not The Time Traveler’s Wife, or a Lethemesque fable where the unexpected is set into reality like a ruby in a ring. We are told this is a family coming to terms with an early death; we are given a real and beautiful Michigan landscape, some excellent asides about the disasters of modern life, and wonderful insight Native American life.

But the plot is simply improbable; the easiest parts to accept are the those describing native American religious experiences, men who fly or become bears, an old woman living in a shack, making venison mincemeat and communing with animals. It’s the white characters, with their poor choices and shambling sentences, that leave me shaking my head. At one point K says:

“She had a sense of reality alien to any perceptions that I had ever had.” (90) that about sums up this book for me.

Jim Harrison: Returning to Earth
New York: Grove Press
2007 280 pp

Thursday, May 03, 2007


An argument arose between Hockeyman and BK today. Both were at their respective day jobs.

BK emailed H-Man a handbook draft for his consideration. He telephoned. "This font is awful. You have to change it."

"It's Comic Sans MS! What's wrong with it?"

"It's awful! Horrible! Use Courier!"

"Courier is not a welcoming font," BK said sanctimoniously.

Hockeyman began laughing uncontrollably. "A welcoming font! A welcoming font!"

Bk, miffed, told him he sounded just like his father. He did.

"Use Helvetica, then," he managed between gasps.


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The George W. Bush award

For open-mindedness and fair thinking goes to Richard Ford.

Congrats to Ed, who I suppose is now officially famous, and hometown hero Dan Wickett. We Detroiters do more than build cars.

I realized this week that I'd fallen down on my promise to deliver weekly hairball reports to you, my faithful readers. But Richard came through for me. I may be a dumb blogger without so much as a basement to opine from, but at least I try something before I knock it.

Richard, you're worse than disappointing.

But the best thing to do about disappointment is overcome it, no? We'll make a valiant attempt. To this end, let us peruse Barking Kitten's mail.

Barking Kitten's real name, which is not Diane Leach, has been sold by the New York Review of Books. This is the only possible reason for the shiny folded page advertising Virginia Tufte's Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style.

Oh, no. This is either hilarious, or awful, or both, but in searching for Virginia Tufte online, we find this.

Let us quote BK to Hockeyman upon receiving the mail: "Graphics Press in Cheshire, Connecticut? What, is it a vanity press run by retired people with goats in their yard?"

Basically, yes, only the Press is run by Mr. (Dr?) Edward Tufte.

Never mind. The brochure, which encourages us to purchase the text, tells us Artful Sentences examines:

"...more than a thousand excellent sentences chosen from the works of authors in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The sentences come from an extensive search to identify some of the ways professional writers use the generous resources of the English language."

Notice, friends, the many passive structures of the above quote. Contemplate what sentences might appear. Call me Ishmael. He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this.


Forging onward:

"Both new and experienced writers will find inspiration: the book is not about 'errors' but about successes. If you are already a good writer, Artful sentences can help you to become excellent."

Herman, Ernest, Raymond, buy yours today!!

Still not sold? Virginia has excellent street cred. She is a distinguished professor emerita from USC. She specialized in Milton, Renaissance Poetry, and (here come them passives!) "the history and grammar of English."

Here is Professor Tufte herself, a woman of a certain age, photographed on a sunny beach. Below the photo we are treated to a pithy quote:

"The syntactic means are relatively simple and few but the stylistic effects are countless."


Five hairballs for Ford. Three for Tufte.

The sentences come from Moby Dick, The Old Man and The Sea, and Raymond Carver's A Small, Good Thing.