Barking Kitten

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


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

Thursday, June 28, 2007

A Hairball: What to wear while you prepare

I often obsess about my appearance while cooking. It's a meta-experience, thinking of what I look like cooking while cooking. And while I have neither television show nor cookbook, I do have Hockeyman, who relies on me to produce fabulous meals while looking smashing. Just because we are long-married doesn't mean I get to fall into sloth. No way. To this end, I avoid unsightly bulges with a girdle. To ensure my look is, to quote Simon Doonan, "updated wench chic," I wear a Victoria's Secret push-up brassiere. Over all, like Nigella Lawson, one of my many cashmere twinsets. Nigella says she has around 100, at $300 a pop, but we know all girls count their sweaters. I have 103. And spattering tomato sauce over them is one of my favorite activities.

Here is Nigella, commenting on her cookwear of choice:

“I’m pretty bosomy with a very small waist, and if I wear something that’s not tight on the waist, I look like Mama Cass.”

Poor Mama Cass. Though it must be said that Nigella looks nothing like her. Nor, in fact, do I, though like Nigella I am bosomy, with a small waist. But never once have I allowed my Jane Russell build to stand in the way of the good meal.


Those of us who like to cook generally protect our cashmere with simple bits of fabric called aprons. An apron may be yours for $7.99 at Ace Hardware. But if you are like me (and Nigella) you are short-waisted in addition to being bosomy, meaning aprons don't offer sufficient coverage where you need it--my aprons droop too low, with plenty of material around my thighs, which tend to be out of spattering range.

My wench cook outfit of choice is the sleeveless cotton t-shirt, preferably from Target. I have several of these numbers in a broad palette of grays and blacks. Most are stained. (Like the one I am wearing this minute--black, faded, permamently marked by something.) All are comfortable, cheap, and replaceable. When they become too awful to wear, I recycle them as rags. (Isn't that so pc and save-the-earth of me?)

Granted, my utilitarian sleeveless shirts offer little by way of tits-in-meals à la Giada de Laurentiis, but I try to console myself with the knowledge that I will never burn vulnerable anatomy. Instead, like my sexier sisters, shunning aprons or cook's whites, I am at increased risk of burning my arms, hands, and neck. Though again, like Nigella, I cannot bear "sleeves in food." I actually cannot bear having anything obscuring my wrists and hands while cooking. I remove both my wristwatch and otherwise-constant Ace support. Only my wedding band, a narrow round of white gold, stays on.

But suppose you do want to look nice while preparing sole en papillote, or think precautionary measures wise. What's the fashion-forward cooking female to do?

Williams Sonoma to the rescue with the "Summer Toile Apron," featured in the July 2007 "Southern Cooking" catalogue. Follow me to page eighty, where we are reassured that "Our flattering blue-and-white toile apron is charming attire for baking a summer peach cobbler or chatting with guests while putting the finishing touches on dinner. A delightful combination of down-to-earth practicality and vintage southern style..."

(Somebody wrote that copy. A person with an MFA from Iowa, or Northwestern. A person who comes home to a perfect apartment--all that discounted W-S merchandise, dontcha know--and pounds away miserably at her Great Novel. She drinks too much from her Reidel stemware and eats an entire Assorted Set of croissants (plain and chocolate!) herself. Sometimes she kills the pain by burning herself with her Monogrammed Steak Brand.)

(I know. I'm horrible.)

True, "delightful" and "charming" aren't as much fun as "sexy," "wench chic," or "hootchy," but at $48, the apron is a steal compared to Nigella's cashmeres. Because what you look like in the kitchen is just as important than what you're doing in there. Buy now!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Stumbling over veracity

I finished André Aciman's Call Me By Your Name a couple nights ago. I'd read extensively about it and began the book eagerly, only to finish it with a sort of puzzled disappointment.

Name is the story of seventeen-year-old Elio, idling away the summer with his parents in their Italian cliffside villa. Elio's father, a famous professor, invites a guest to join the household each summer, invariably a carefully chosen young academic destined for greatness. In return for luxurious accomodations and the opportunity to write, the guest is expected to help Elio's father with paperwork and be witty at meals.

Enter Oliver, who at twenty-four already has his first philosophy book in press. He has taken leave of his teaching duties at Columbia to spend the summer poolside with his notes, his Italian translator, and the many women who come his way.

Handsome, charismatic, arrogant, Oliver all but charms the birds from the trees. And one of those birds is Elio.

The first three quarters of the novel are devoted to Elio's unspoken yearnings, his resolutions to play it cool, and his strained exchanges with Oliver. The amount of game-playing going on between these young men puts adolescent girls to shame. Oliver and Elio are chatting poolside. Oliver and Elio are giving each other the silent treatment. Oliver and Elio are trading verbal jousts about arcane literary figures. When Elio isn't circling Oliver, who ignores him, both are making it with local girls, eating ice creams, and having fun at the discoteque. It's an enviably lazy life.

Yet Elio is consumed with longing. The book is almost entirely devoted to his inner musings; external plot development is light, merely enough to let reader know precious time is passing. Finally, in a moment of boldness, Elio confesses his love to Oliver, who suggests they ignore their feelings. They do not, and have a brief, intense affair, truncated by Oliver's return to the United States. And though Oliver and Elio will meet a few more times, many years later, they will never again be intimate. Oliver, who has married and had children, does not seem troubled by this. Elio, who tells us he has many affairs but, it seems, never marries or meets a long-term partner, is forever marked by his attachment.

Aciman teaches comparative literature; Name is his first work of fiction. His observations on time and the ways we look backward, wondering what might have been, are aching and true. But for each moment of clarity, there are more where the writing is wordy, obscuring Elio's raw emotional state. As the book progressed, I had increasing difficulty staying with it.

The problem is veracity. What twenty-four year old holds a teaching post at Columbia? (I am not taking about teaching assistantships.) Has already written a philopsohical treatise? How many seventeen-year-olds experience a love powerful enough to subsume the remainder of their lives?

It was this, Elio's obsession, that gave me the greatest pause. I thought back to myself at seventeen--experiencing first love and a wrenching break-up whose effects dogged me for years. But had they forever marked me?

At first I thought no. I was young; eventually I recovered. But the truth is the relationship did have a lasting impact. The man I married is much like that first love from so many years ago. I still think about my first love; sometimes I wonder what happened to him. But these are idle thoughts. He does not obsess me. Given the opportunity, I would not resume a relationship with him. Further, did he color my choices, or were my choices inherent, my lover simply the first person who embodied them? Aciman touches on this when discussing Elio's sexuality; Elio likes women, but a brief teenage interlude in an alleyway opened the door to bisexuality. So was Oliver merely the first attractive conquest, invested with all manner of teenage emotion?

Ultimately--and this is completely subjective--I can't believe a seventeen-year-old would cling to a fleeting relationship, as Elio does, for the remainder of his days. Remember, yes. Be saddened, yes. Experience regret, yes. But if such a love is possible at seventeen, it must be exceptionally rare. (Romeo and Juliet notwithstanding. It's a play. Shakespeare made it up.)

In fairness, I must note Aciman's moving writing about the ways love transcends physical gender. At no point does the book read as a strictly "gay" novel. Rather, we understand that Elio would have responded to any person embodying Oliver's traits; it happens that the individual in question is male. Aciman's treatment of this fact is beautifully handled and should give any thinking person a deeper understanding of the many ways love is possible.

My final feeling, then, is I may be blinded by my own biases, and if the book were without merit, I wouldn't care enough to mull it over, or to suggest that others may find it more rewarding than I did.

Andre Aciman. Call Me By Your Name. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 2007.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

[Reviewed by BK at January Magazine.]

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Dressmaker's Dummies in the Parking Lot

About six months ago, Hockeyman and I began hearing a strange voice. Female, it loudly issued a disturbing stream of curses, mixed with accusations and incomprehensible babblings. The voice came and went. We had difficulty determining precisely where it came from. Somewhere upstairs. But who? Where?

Half laughing, half distressed, we dubbed her Bertha Rochester.

Bertha rapidly worsened. The babbling came early in the morning, during the day, again around eleven p.m. Sufficiently annoyed, I crept upstairs, where the voice was more than loud: her yells echoed along the building's hallways.

Bertha turned out to be the woman living above us, one apartment over. I telephoned our upstairs neighbors, two elderly ladies. The older one--she's close to 100--answered the phone. I asked what was going on. My neighbor was sanguine. Maybe this comes with great age, or the accompanying hearing loss I know she suffers from.

"She's all alone in there. Nobody hurting her."

"She needs help," I said.

My neighbor demurred. Best left alone. What if something happened and the woman ended up on the street?

This seemed a leap to me; the woman has lived here a few years. Her apartment, my neighbor informed me, is immaculate. "She loves Pine-Sol," my neighbor laughed. "Sometimes we think we'll choke from it!" Her car is nicely kept (we all park in a lot under the building), a recent model. Bertha either holds a job or has some regular source of income. Homelessness wasn't the issue.

The yelling continued. The weather warmed, and people began opening windows. Bertha's screams now volleyed between our building and the one next door, which is about fifteen feet away, separated by a sound-enhancing alley.

I alternated between compassion for her distress and the increasing urge to strangle her. Yes, she was ill, and obviously suffering. But so was my quality of life. Listening to an insane person is not just noise pollution. It's upsetting noise pollution.

I contacted the condo board and very nicely asked for help. My request was hastened by Bertha's decision to put a dressmaker's mannequin in her parking space. This headless object was decked out in a brightly patterned dress and clashing scarf. Once again, we laughed. We also shuddered.


Bertha came to mind as I read this week's JT Leroy coverage. I felt a little smarmy, as if I had picked up the National Enquirer. But there I was, reading along with everybody else about Laura Albert's "respirator."

I have never read the JT books. I remember when Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above all Things were prominently displayed on the new fiction rack, right beside the too-cool-for-school MacSweeney's. One of the covers--Sarah?--showed a Keanean waif looking mournfully out at the viewer. Oh, please. I remember thinking. Not more whining about bad childhoods.

There were more rumblings about this JT Leroy person, how he or she had blown off Dave Eggers or Daniel Handler. JT lived in the Bay Area, so I heard this stuff and didn't really care, except to wonder why people were tolerating Leroy's bullshit. I put my response down to my notorious impatience and read other books.

Then the story broke. One day, for the hell of it, I checked out JT's website. It was what you might expect from a teenager trying hard to be ironically hip, save for one site link: "Laura Ingalls Gets Wilder." (I just searched, and alas, cannot find it.)

What teenaged male (transgender, whatever) truck-stop prostitute knows a damned thing about Laura Ingalls Wilder? Wilder's books, while filled with wonderful things, are also nastily racist about Native Americans. I doubt they are taught in today's schools. But they were wildly popular amongst the young girls attending elementary school in the early seventies. Girls like Laura Albert. Girls like me.

Truck stop reading for a boy in Appalachia? Hell, no!

And then there were the "appearances" of a clearly female personage whose penchant for black top hats invariably reminded me of Slash (who is totally honest about being a bi-racial male named Saul Hudson). The celebrities, the hoopla.

Then came James Frey and Kaavya Viswanathan.

None of these people behaved honorably. But what interests me is why they lied: to get published. In today's market, writing well takes a backseat to a great publicity hook. Drug addled, abused, or too young, really, to write more than an Econ 1A paper? Do you look like Marisha Pessl? Writing yet another biography about a princess who died a decade ago? Well, come in here, dear boy. Have a cigar. You're gonna go far.

Granted, blaming "the publishing industry" is a broad stroke. Good writing still sneaks through the conventional publishing model's cracks. And let us not forget the smaller publishers, who bring out new work whilst struggling for survival.

Increasingly, though, "big" publishing is less about cultivating talent over the long haul than making a pile of money from a JT Leroy, a James Frey, a Kaavya Viswanathan. How is it that nobody--not the agents, the editors, the PR people, the editorial assistants--noticed something amiss until these books went to press?

Maybe they were so happy they could hardly count.


Last week a memo went 'round our building, asking residents to clear any debris from their parking spaces. Bertha was not the only person using her spot for storage; shelving, boxes, and garbage cans were cleared away. The dressmaker's dummy vanished.

Bertha is quiet for the moment. A few days ago we met at the mailboxes. She's a shy young woman, always neatly dressed, her hair covered with a bandana. It's amazing that such a voice--another personailty, when you think of it--issues from this tiny, seemingly harmless creature. As we collected our mail and went out separate ways, I felt a rush of pity.

Whatever will become of her?

"Come in here dear boy, have a cigar, you're gonna go far" and being "so happy they (originally "we") can hardly count" come from Pink Floyd's "Have A Cigar," which appears on the album "Wish You Were Here."

Friday, June 22, 2007

What we talk about when we talk about food (II)

As I was saying... this is where Kamman comes in. Her recipes are possible without multiple drum sieves, endless clarifying, or stone hearths. And while you certainly can clarify your stocks, she does not call for three different kinds of skimming (that's écumer, dégrassier, and dépoullier to you). Hers, in short, is home cooking. Olney's is cooking for show; even reading a menu of crudites, shrimp quiche, chicken in red wine, steamed potatoes, wild green salad, cheeses, and flamri with raspberry sauce ( a fruit dessert with semolina) is exhausting. I can't imagine actually preparing it. Or, for that matter, consuming so many items in one sitting. Let's not even discuss the four wines (!) called for.

I suppose this makes me a lightweight after all. A girl who doesn't grill.

Incidentally, Olney and Kamman met is Kamman in When French Women Cook:

"A few years back I was intriuged by a course offered by Richard Olney in Avignon. I decided to join him on a culinary investigation of Provence. Richard's 'frenchization' proved to be about as successful as my americanization, but I shall be forever grateful to him for introducing me to...Magaly Fabre." (310)

Well, ahem.

Further proof of their disparity (if it's still needed) rests in the traditional trou normand, the practice of taking a shot of Calvados midway through a meal. Calvados is apple brandy, and excellent for what ails you. Kamman, writing of family friend Henriette's cooking:

"Then came the first trou Normand; a nice solid shot of Calvados smack in the middle of the meal, to reopen the stomach to more of that silky-tasting Normand food...Not only were stomachs reopened, but dispositions lifted...Munich, Hitler, and Chamberlain were altogether forgotten, and strength was unknowingly gathered for the war that was to come." (102)

Olney on the same subject, as it relates to the Provençal treatment of a spring vegetable stew:

"...unattended by meat, the palate not distracted by unrelated sauces, their purity and fragrance is thrown into relief...the course is an automatic relaxation point in a meal (perhaps more attractive to many modern-day gourmets than the archaic mid-menu sherbet or the somewhat barbaric trou normand, a straight shot of powerful Calvados thrown down halfway through a meal.) (291)

Hmph. Who would you rather eat with?

This isn't to say Olney's book is bad. It isn't. The French Menu Cookbook is well-written, researched, and entertaining reading. (Mousseline forcemeats! Marsh rabbit! (Muskrat) Fish terrines!) But its strict, almost condescending tone can be off-putting; Olney refers numerous times to the "housewives" he assumed were his audience. The sexual revolution was in full swing when this book appeared in 1970. Further, there is little room for improvisation. If you lack gray shallots, veal sweetbreads, or sheep's brains, forget it. It isn't the kind of book that will send you running eagerly into the kitchen, though it may have you reaching for the Calvados.

Madeleine Kamman. When French Women Cook. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press. 1976, 2002.

Richard Olney. The French Menu Cookbook. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press. 1970, 2002.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

What we talk about when we talk about food (I)

Since the beginning of time, intelligently (or not so intelligently) designed men have killed animals and drug them home to us grateful womenfolk to cook up.

A little further down the evolutionary path, folks figured out how to cultivate land. They collected a few domestic animals 'round the steading and agriculture was born. This allowed the boys to supplement hunting with planting, while the womenfolk continued to cook up whatever their fellows brought home. The womenfolk also kept busy with ducks, chickens, pigs, geese, and babies. Everybody worked really, really hard. There was no Prozac. The word artisanal didn't exist. Back in the day, everything was artisanal, and everybody was too damned busy making bread from the wheat and babying the sourdough from one baking to the next and churning the butter. It was artisanal or starvation.

Let's take a leap here, one traversing nation states, wars, imperialist regimes, mass migrations, and a religious upheaval or two. Voilà, French cuisine is born. And it is, in all ways, the cuisine of men.

This is not a shocking or novel observation. Until quite recently--the past two decades or so--formal restaurant cookery was the province of men. Sure, a few women popped up in four star kitchens, but more often they were at home, doing the cooking for the family, with a kid slung on one hip and another banging pots together nearby.

Another huge jump, again filled with generalizations, to Madeleine Kamman and Richard Olney.

Kamman is a frenchwoman who left France for America, and penned several homesick cookbooks. Olney was an Iowan who built a home in Provence before the region became synonymous with Alice Waters and foodie tourism. He also penned several cookbooks, none of them a bit homesick. And though both write passionately of French food, their approaches are utterly polarized.

Olney's meals, even his "simple" ones, are laughably complicated. There is no such thing as a Tuesday night quickie in the Olney oeuvre. Nor, notably, were there women or children. And while none of Kamman's meals are thirty minute mains (a Gourmet Magazine feature), most are reasonably easy for an experienced cook. Many are "nourishing" or "good for children."

Here is Olney describing one of the few times he worried about cooking for somebody, chef Georges Garin:

"Garin's visit...marked the only time that I have ever been terrified by the notion of preparing a meal. To avoid the possibility of errors, I opted for simple preparations and fine wines." (12-13)

His menu:

Artichoke bottoms with two mousses
A rapid saute: Ortolans
Tepid Apple Charlotte

I am leaving off the wines.

Anything involving mousses, pastry, and game birds is, by my lights, damned fancy. Olney would doubtles think me a plebe. One imagines him the sort (Paul Bertolli, in his introduction to The French Menu Cookbook, describes Olney as "irascible.") who would despise bloggers.

Kamman is more the type to shrug. While she has her dictatorial moments, they are directed at the poor quality of frozen foods or tomatoes out of season. She is not frustrated with the cook.


Reading this far you might think I dislike Olney. I have almost finished The French Menu Cookbook, and while I can't say I'd ever have wished to meet the guy, the book is engrossing. He begins with an historical approach to French cooking, explaining the French service, courses, and that dreaded thing, international hotel cooking (Elizabeth David really went on about this, too.) His detailed explanation of French wines, which includes a lesson in label-reading, is an astonishing exercise.

His menus, while fascinating, are nothing I'd ever cook. He's sieve-happy, for one thing. His menus lean inordinately on artichokes and truffles; his "Elaborate Formal Dinner Party" is so complex he writes:

"I feel uneasily almost as if I owed an apology to my readers, who may justly consider it an archaic curiousity but nearly impossible of execution, particularly in a servantless household." (210)

One needs much time, space, and equipment. A large stone fireplace, while not essential, would certainly help. An inheritance would also assist in paying for the truffles, not to mention the wines. This not family cookery, but showmanship. And great showmanship it is. Olney paved the way for Waters and Bertolli, who together changed the face of American cooking. But dining at Chez Panisse or Oliveto (when Bertolli cooked there--he is now involved in a sausage-making venture) is not the same as putting a nice dinner on the table after a long day at the office. And this is where Kamman comes in.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Susanna Moore's The Big Girls

The Big Girls, set in Sloatsburg Women's Prison, is one of Moore's seamy books. (As opposed to her "lyrical and nostalgic" books--see this Kakutani review). Its characters are reminiscent of In the Cut: those who should be the good guys--i.e., doctors, policemen, the warden--are bad, while the bad guys, or in this case, the bad girls, evoke our sympathy. On the good-who-are-bad side we have Dr. Louise Forrest, chief of Psychiatry, Captain Ike Bradshaw, an ex-narcotics officer and nasty fellow who sleeps with Louise, a staff of doctors with ruined resumes (blood trafficking, iffy degrees), and Louise's ex-husband, Rafael Rivera, now a Hollywood set designer.

The prison population, women incarcerated for hideously violent crimes, is at times quite likable. Most, if not all, are victims of sexual abuse and beatings, which we are meant to understand led them to their current state. Particularly poignant is Helen, a psychotic woman who murdered her two children to save them from Satan. This may sound familiar, as does a cameo from a teacher named Tracy, who had sex with her young student and intends to marry him upon release.

Nothing I've read about Moore's book mentions Andrea Yates. In Helen we have a beautifully imagined version of this obviously sick woman. Raped by her stepfather since childhood, Helen has a long psychiatric history of cutting herself and hearing voices. She is tormented by monsters on horseback she calls The Messengers. For all this, her voice is plaintive: she neither asks nor expects forgiveness. When inmate Wanda decides to protect her, she is pathetically grateful. Prison is actually safer for this tortured soul than life outside.

When Louise Forrest arrives at Sloatsburg, she is given Helen's case and quickly grows unduly attached. Louise is a strange, damaged woman with a mental history of her own. She arrives at Sloatsburg terrified, dreamy, and unprepared. She has an eight-year-old child, Ransom, whom she loves almost to excess but cannot parent. Her relationship with Captain Ike Bradshaw is perverse; he is manipulative and unkind. When Ransom levels an outrageously false accusation at him, Louise refuses to react. A saner man would run, but Ike is drawn to Louise, her chilly, fragile demeanor, her increasingly unprofessional behavior. Neither are what you'd call likable narrators.

Sexual abuse and power dominate the book: in the women's prison "families," in Louise's history of inappropriate attachments, in Helen's terrible life. Are we meant to think sexual abuse is rife, or that we as a population are obsessed with it?

Enter Angie Garbarsky, aka Angie Mills, an ambitious, naïve young actress. In a series of unlikely coincidences, Angie becomes Rafael's girlfriend, whereupon she establishes a warped if well-meant relationship with Ransom. Angie's voice offers a counterpoint to Sloatsburg's battered inmates. Uneducated, often drugged, a devoted shoplifter, Angie relentlessly pursues fame. Her own difficult childhood is best forgotten, as are any people or events standing between her and her goal.

Helen, struggling terribly with her illness, decides Angie is her sister, and writes her to this effect. Angie, touched but uncomprehending, writes back warmly.


Moore's ability to move between literary styles is admirable, yet her propensity to do so raises questions. Did she write In the Cut, a sexually explicit murder mystery, in an attempt to break from smaller literary circles into the larger (Hollywood) market? Is she, like Joyce Carol Oates, genuinely fascinated by human ugliness manifested in transgressive behaviors? Or is Moore turning the lens back on the reader's fascination with these subjects?

Kakutani, wearied by the graphic nature of The Big Girls, writes:

"Ms. Moore’s willful focus on the brutality that goes on there and the brutality that has shaped so many of these women’s lives begins to feel both sensationalistic and numbing as the book progresses."

Perhaps Moore intended this. Who among us is not increasingly desensitized by the news?

Yet Moore's crime descriptions do more than numb; they illuminate her characters. How could Helen, so gentle and sweet, a woman who loved her children, do what she did? What about Darla, who helped dismember her boyfriend's wife? Her lack of remorse is alarming until we're told she thinks she was instructed by an Owl on Venus. Her actions then become terrifying.

Other prisoners acted under the influence of drugs--crack, meth, heroin. And yes, their crimes are grotesque. But so is our societal urge to plumb their lurid depths while refusing to address their underlying causes. Moore's writing may repulse us, but she is not to blame for holding a mirror to our darker collective traits.

Near the book's end, Angie's implied relationship with Helen takes center stage, with all manner of televsion appearances and competing tell-all memoirs rushed to press. Delighted by the turn of events, Angie hurries to write her own book. And, of course, make the movie.


I doubt Moore could write badly if she tried. Her prose is fluid and unintrusive, and the plot moves at a rapid clip. And though The Big Girls is flawed, Helen's voice alone makes it a worthwhile, if disturbing, read, as do the lingering questions about our societal fascination--always from a safe distance--with our sickest members.

Susanna Moore The Big Girls.
Knopf, 2007.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Friday Cat Blogging

Disciplining wayward shoelaces.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Kamman and a crisis of faith

I was gearing up to write about Madeleine Kamman's When French Women Cook when I had a crisis of faith.

Maybe people are really sick of me yammering about French cooking. Like, enough already! Does this woman read any literature any more? Or has she gone totally Lee Miller?

(After World War II ended, photographer Lee Miller found herself creatively adrift. She took to alcoholism and obsessive gourmet cooking.)

This in turn led me to thinking about writing to please myself vs. writing to please an audience, and the ensuing mental morass led to a migraine aura.

One may write to please herself and let the audience come to her. This view holds reading audiences are like shy toddlers. Act disinterested and soon the cute kid will be in your lap, pulling your hair. Then again (and here is where the crazy-making thinking comes in), shouldn't you extend candy to the toddler to hasten things along? Write what you know audiences will like?

Round-ups, for example. Round-ups, in the right hands, can be an excellent means of finding compelling information or new voices you might never find yourself. Conversely, round-ups can be endlessly self-referential, sending the reader ping-ponging through the same six sites day after day. Either way, the blogger who regularly rounds up will garner hits.

Then there is the popular business of bashing. Richard Ford bashes us, we bash back. Tanenhaus bashes, then sends Dwight Garner (does this guy realize what he's in for?) into the fray, and the blogosphere rocks like a boat upon rough seas.

I could write about all this instead of cooking with walnut oil. I bet I'd have more readers. I'd get ARC copies, and get my name on the NBCC site, and pretty soon I'd be the next fucking Julie Powell, right?


Maybe not.

(Swallow headache meds.)

You see where I'm going with this.

There are some problems, though. The first is inclination. Much as I like reading round-ups, I have no urge to go rounding myself. Nor do I have the time these dedicated souls put in to finding the good stuff. As for the bashing, well, I loathe the entire business. It's idiotic, it's unnecessary, we have enough actual blood on our hands without quibbling over print on trees vs. print onscreen.

(Mildly stoned on headache meds. Scintillating visual disturbance still there.)

And isn't there something a little whorish about "cultivating" an audience with content I personally don't care about?

( she takes the moral high ground!)

I am condemned to the niche. The long tail. Out here in the blogosphere (there are no stars, and we are stoned...oh, 'scuse me...) I will tread my narrow path. Books, cooking, insomnia, migraine. I will not endless scrutinize Google Analytics (whose new verson I cannot decipher anyway.) I will not technorati myself. I will try, try, try not to think about dying an underpublished administrator with an incipient case of secretary ass.

On that note, the Kamman book is excellent, and well worth your blood-for-oil dollars.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

A mess in the kitchen

Yesterday I made pork rillettes. For those of you sane folk who don't like smearing your kitchen with fat, rillettes are like confit: meat, usually pork or duck, is long cooked in fat and then sealed in jars. Rillettes came about as a way of dealing with scraps left over from butchering the pig or dealing with stray bits of Donald. Unlike confit, which benefits from aging, rillettes can be eaten in a few days.

I'd seen several recipes for pork rillettes in my French food reading, and always been interested. But the ingredients are a bit daunting: most call for fatback or pork belly, easily obtainable if you have a farm, less so if you don't. I am on the record as not having enough acreage to support a puppy. And my usual market haunts have neither fatback nor belly.

Undeterred (or quite possibly just foolish), I asked the Berkeley Bowl butcher if there was any fatback or something like it in back. He gave me a funny look. Berkeley Bowl meat guys are accustomed to weird questions. They generally deal with this by acting surly. It is only after my shopping there week in, week out, for years that they will actually acknowledge me. And they do know me. I'm the white lady who buys chicken feet.

The butcher went in back, returning with a plastic bag filled with white pork fat. I thanked him profusely and took my bag home, where it joined the bone-in pork shoulder Madeleine Kamman calls for in When French Women Cook.

Kamman is a Frenchwoman who married an American and moved stateside. She ran a restaurant, then turned to teaching and cookbook writing. When French Women Cook is a memoir/recipe compendium. Each chapter is devoted to a woman she knew and that woman's particular recipes. The women are from all over France, and the result is a compelling work, evoking a time when abundant fish ran in healthy streams and everbody ate lots of fresh, unpasteurized dairy.

The writing is direct, even bossy at times. Originally published in 1976, each recipe gives amounts, seasons to prepare said dish, cost, appropriate wines and difficulty level. Most are difficult. I've had the book two weeks and prepared two recipes so far: the Duck with Basil Sauce, last week's anniversary meal ( A four-hour cooking extravaganza) , and yesterday's rillettes.

Kamman's recipe calls for the following:

--six pounds pork meat, 2/3 lean, 1/3 fat

--two pounds meaty pork bones (we are warned these are essential)

--1/2 pound fatback

--salt and pepper

--one teaspoon dried thyme

--one bay leaf

--1 1/2 teaspoons quatre-épices (a spice mixture of cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and coriander)

The idea is to cook all this down in a pot for eight hours, shred the meat, and pack it into jars.

It soon became evident that my little bag of fat would be insufficient. Nor, I realized, was the bone in the roast going to provide enough gelatin. I consulted Paula Wolfert's The Cooking of Southwest France, the bible of such matters, and found a recipe for pork confit. Wolfert advises making the confit with mostly duck fat. Relieved, I pulled the leftover duck fat from my last confit adventure from the freezer, then moved on the to bone problem. I had some chicken bones. I'd use them. I worried that French women were spinning in their graves from my heresy. I worried about combining chicken bones, duck fat, pork fat, and pork. There was a possibility this combination might not taste good.

It might be awful.

But then again, what are rillettes? For millenia, foods like rillettes and confit were an economical way to utilize scraps. A way not to starve during the winter months. They were not snobby, pickled ramps sorts of foods until the foodies got their snobby, moneyed, never-been-in-barnyard hands on them.

I decided to live on the edge.

I threw the fats into the pot to render. Sliced the fifteen-dollar Niman Ranch roast. Carefully added it to the gently bubbling fat. Skimmed. Added the meats. Took this picture:

Damn, that is scary ugly, eh?

Kamman instructs you to add the spices, which turned everything a muddy brown color, and let it simmer four to five hours.

I did so, but also consulted Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook. Bourdain calls for similar ingredients--the same meats, the fatback, but no quarte épice. He says cook six hours.

I started at noon. By two the house began smelling good, a reassuring sign. I plucked some meat from its fatty bath and fed it to Hockeyman.

"This is awesome. Taste it."

"I can't. I have my retainers in."

"Take them out!"

I declined. After four to five hours one is supposed to uncover the pot and allow the liquid to absorb until "there is no more than one inch at the bottom of the kettle." (190) This would take an additional three hours.

By seven the liquid had barely reduced. I took the pot off the heat, waited until the mess had barely cooled, then began picking the meat out. It was so hot I more dropped it into the jars than shredded it. Then I made a mistake: I treated the meats as confit, ladling the fat through a strainer to cover. I let this cool, then sealed it up with duck fat:

Bourdain advises waiting three days to eat this. I reason that although there's lots of duck fat in there, we don't have to consume it all, and besides, how can you go wrong with duck fat?

The kitchen, meanwhile, was a disaster. Splotches of fat on the stove, the countertops, the floor. Three coffee cans filled with sludgy stuff, including much the Berkeley Bowl pork fat, which stubbornly refused to render. Two very slimy dishtowels, one gritty skimmer, one sweaty, unshowered cook. I did what any reasonable person would do under the circumstances: I opened a beer.

Thus refreshed, I tackled cleanup, wondering yet again what how those French farmhouse ladies kept their stone kitchens, with their enormous hearths, so nice and spotless (all these books say things like: "In Mme Reblonchette's immaculate stone kitchen, hung with her Grandmére's copper pots..."). I also contemplated how a huge pot of stuff could cook down into two small jars.

"Are you serving it next week?" Hockeyman asked. In an attempt at social life, BK has invited a couple over for dinner.

"No! God, no! They'll take it the wrong way! It's so pickled ramp!"

"They will not."

It's true. The couple in question are unpretentious people. But the husband is a highly accomplished cook.

"No way."

"You're crazy."

No argument there.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Friday Cat Blogging

An action photo (or not) of Boshko. Photography by Hockeyman.

Lydia Davis: Disturbed at Disturbance

Known for her upending of traditional narrative in favor of pieces she calls "stories" and the rest of us have no name for, Lydia Davis has finally arrived at genius status. Just ask the MacArthur Foundation, or consult her many fine reviews.

Some Davis pieces are one sentence; others run forty pages. All are unified by a unique take on the world and the language best chosen to depict it. Her latest, Varieties of Disturbance, is no exception. Take "How Shall I Mourn Them?" a piece comprised of sixty-one questions.

"Shall I have problems with typewriter ribbons, like K.?"
"Shall I admire the picture of the beautiful President of Iceland, like R.?"
"Shall I speak against my husband to the grocer, like C.?"

There is no narrative, beginning, middle, or end. Davis seems to collect random moments for later formulation into contexts that mildly warp reality. In "The Senses," Davis writes:

"Many people treat their five senses with a certain respect and consideration...But most people make their senses work hard for them day after day...The senses get tired. Sometimes, long before the end, they say: I'm quitting--I'm getting out of this now...If it all quits on him, he is really alone...He asks himself: Did I treat them wrong? Didn't I show them a good time?" (26)

Other observations, while more widely applicable, must be extricated from Davis' hallmark sinuous sentences:

"What was happening to them was that every bad time produced a bad feeling that in turn produced several more bad times and several more bad feelings, so crowded that almost nothing else could grow in that dark field." (20)

While the book is indisputably able and innovative, Varieties has a detached quality that chills the pristinely sculpted prose. In "Burning Family Members," a nameless person is interrogated about the death of his or her father in clinical, detached sentences. The elderly man lives in a nursing home. It is decided that he will be starved to death, then cremated. The interrogator is less interested in the person than the details of death and cremation:

"They will put him in a coffin?
No, actually it's a cardboard box.
A cardboard box?
Yes, a small one. Narrow and small. It didn't weigh much, even with him in it." (132)

"Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality" is formulated as a scientific analysis of two aged, healthy women and the factors contributing to their long lives. It is nearly Jane Brody-like in its solemnity: the benefits of long walks, fresh air, and healthy food are all noted, along with church involvement and supportive family members. "Helen and Vi" is unique its character development; Helen and Vi are minutely dissected, their personalities positively lush compared to the disembodied, nameless voices populating the rest of the book. The piece could be read as instructive were it not for the eight brief sections dedicated to one hundred- year-old Hope, whose ways often contradict Helen and Vi's wholesome existences. Hope is grumpy. A picky eater, she wears a green tennis visor at meals to shade her eyes from the chandelier. As a younger woman she took lovers; she has always partaken of alcohol. Older than Vi or Helen, her lifestyle destroys any notion that Helen and Vi's preventive measures are truly effective.


Davis is also a well-known translator from the French, particularly Proust. In "The Walk," she puts her linguistic skills (or perhaps it's revenge?) to sly use: two translators meet at an conference in Oxford. One, a rather surly academic, dislikes the protagonist's recent Proust translation. After a presentation where he manages to insult nearly every translator in the room by criticizing examples of their work, the two find themselves on an improbable evening walk. As the they explore the ancient town, the protagonist thinks of a parallel that might contest the academic's dislike of her work. She offers the reader the examples: two longish passages from Proust, one rather old-fashioned and flowery, the other succinct but still flowing. The second is Davis', though she doesn't tell the reader.


I am on the record as liking Davis' work, which is all the more reason my lukewarm response to Varieties surprised me. The book's chilly tone, shot through with moments of pain ("Head, Heart," Traveling with Mother", a few references to deaths of parents) bothered me. What something different? Some pieces aren't as strong as others, but none are so weak as to make Davis fans shy away. Yet the book displeased me. Why?

In true blogger-in-a-Terre-Haute basement style, I gave it a couple days. And I arrived at an explanation.

All last week, while reading Varieties, I was involved in an event at work that gave somebody great power over me, which she took advantage of. As any objections were likely to lead to negative fallout, I behaved politely. Actually, I was friendly to this person, as I felt circumstances dictated I must be. Now the event has run its course, and I understand that the next time something like this happens--and there will be a next time--I need not be so kind. But reading a book about faceless, nameless people coming at life from weird angles only reminded me of the known people coming at me.

So the fault lies not with Lydia, but with me. If you like Davis, you'll like this book. You might even like it if you are currently experiencing a traumatic event; people are all different. That's what makes us so exciting.

Lydia Davis:Varieties of Disturbance. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux. 2007.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Bill Buford's Heat

[Reviewed by BK at January Magazine. - HM]

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Hairballs in the kitchen

Ah, Wednesday. If you are from the Midwest and of a certain age, Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti day. It's hump day. It's the Addams family's daughter's name.

It's the New York Times' Dining and Wine day. Of the many reasons to look forward to Wednesday, this certainly ranks highly. Especially when there are articles like this one.

I am an admitted food snob. I love cooking. I love eating. But I also try to avoid the behaviors that make people hate food snobs. After all, food snobbery is a luxury. Many people don't have enough to eat. It behooves all of us to remember this.

So what should we do when faced with friends the like the sausage makers? How do you handle people who treat pickled ramps with the reverence once reserved for BMW convertibles? People who invite you to their homes and serve foods you might otherwise expect from Chez Magnifique? People who might be your friends (sort of), meaning you must invite them back?

Surely these are questions for some modern-day Emily Post. Barring that, bloggers rush into the void.

Hockeyman and I know a woman who acquired both a house and a do-it-yourselfer husband in short order. They turned their aging home into a showcase, right down to the Ralph-Lauren-painted walls and the wine charms. Their large yard, perfect for entertaining, boasts a goldfish pond, a barbecue, and lovely outdoor seating. At their summer parties, one is served mushrooms in puff pastry, which the husband has made himself. Skewers of marinated steak, chicken, and shrimp await their turns on the grill. Jewel-like mezze are arrayed on a long trestle table, along with a variety of chic Napa wines.

I am not making this up.

I fear all pastry. I forgot to buy a place with yard. How can I possibly turn round and volley back a wonderful meal from my tiny kitchen? With nary a wine charm in sight?

We know another couple who, like us, inhabit an apartment. Unlike us, they have a gas stove and a large kitchen, which they use to turn out an amazing spreads of Indian food. At least a dozen elaborate dishes regularly grace their table. No wine charms here, but they own more than seven dinner plates.

Then there's Hockeyman's colleague, an avid cook. We invited him to dinner with his partner. He looked up from the simple bowl of pasta I served him and said with genuine amazement "This is really good."

He expected merely an edible meal, but no more. He expected food that would be merely decent, food he could pass judgement on, only to be surprised by a good, plain meal. "This is good!"

Well, yeah. I'm a good cook. But let's stop a moment and parse that. How did I become a good cook? Why?

I never did much cooking until I moved in with Hockeyman. I was twenty-six, and could sort of navigate a kitchen. I took it up without a thought. Hockeyman was always hungry in those days. He was also extremely skinny. So I cooked.

And I liked it. I could come home at the end of a frustrating day and chop things into nice, organized piles. It was creative. It smelled nice. Hockeyman gratefully consumed my efforts, even the lesser ones.

I began reading cooking magazines and acquiring cookbooks. I branched out. My skills increased. Then we began grad school. I became adept at pasta: cheap, nutritious, and filling.

We graduated, moved the Bay Area, got real jobs, and began earning real money just as the organic food movement was taking off. My nascent snobbery, fed by availabilty and increased income, mushroomed into full-blown CSA/organic/how-far-did-that-lamb-travel to-reach-my-table lunacy.


I am not much of an entertainer. We have people over occasionally. This most often involves watching hockey, by definition an informal activity. Nobody cares about pickled ramps when Ottawa has blown Canada's chance at a Cup. They just want more beer.

[Beer? Make mine hemlock. - HM]

Most of the time, though, I avoid dinner guests. If people are judging me based on whether or not I made the tortillas, they need other friends. Take Alex Birsh:

"'As soon as something becomes overpopularized, I don’t want to serve it anymore,' Mr. Birsh said. 'I wouldn’t want anyone to be able to identify something I made as being from a book or a restaurant. I don’t want anyone to be able to say, oh, I see where he got this idea to put microgreens on top of his fish fillets.'"

Jesus wept.


So what's a sane person to do? Four options:

1. Arrange to meet your friends in a restaurant.

2. Try to compete, making yourself crazy in the process.

3. Prepare extremely simple foods for guests. A plain roast chicken. Rice (not risotto). Pasta with something easy--basil and cheese, fresh spinach, olive oil (which need not be artisanal) and garlic. Green salad with olive oil and red wine vinegar. Buy the bread and the dessert.

4. Opt of the entire business altogether.

Why cook, after all? If you and the people you eat with are engaged in some unspoken version of Iron Chef, well, more power to you, but is that what you call friendship? Are your buddies the ice-cream makers, so critical of your bottled catsup, the people you're gonna call when the chips are down? Or are you going to telephone your friend who sat drinking Pilsner Urquell and weeping with you while Mickey Mouse skated the Cup?


Food writers talk about nourishment, love, the love that goes into the food. I see none of that in the competitive cookery amongst our acquaintances or the folks chronicled in the NYT.


Last Friday was our eleventh wedding anniverary. I had the day off, and had come across a Madeleine Kamman recipe for duck au pistou. The pistou, a heart-stopping basil-butter infusion, called for duck giblets, broth, wine, a bouquet garni, garlic, and butter. Then there was the basil to contend with, not to mention the duck itself. There were numerous steps involving browning, reduction, chopping, creaming, and roasting. I used every dish in the house. Bits of basil migrated far and wide.

I would never make this dish for company. It's too complicated. Then there's eating it. Unless you are picking daintily, there is nothing neat about duck with a stick of butter. And those flecks of basil were no less unruly for being incorpporated in the sauce. We won't even discuss the need for dental floss, or the way kitty inserted himself in the proceedings, loudly demanding his share of the bird.

The recipe required four hours of sustained cooking. The resulting dish was one of the best I've ever made. We opened a white Bordeaux, purchased specially for the occasion, and had a wonderful meal. H-man, worried he'd get pistou on his work shirt, stripped to his undershirt. I wore a stained, sleeveless tank top from Target. We were decidedly inelegant.

Neither of us missed the pickled ramps.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Dani Shapiro's Black and White

The bad book mentioned in Friday's post.

Black and White opens with thirty-two year old Clara Dunne receiving a phone call from her sister, Robin, summoning her home to New York, where their mother Ruth, a famous photographer, is dying from lung cancer.

Clara has spent the last fourteen years in Maine, married to jeweler Jonathan Brodeur. The couple have a daughter, nine-year-old Samantha. Domestic life is uneventful, if fraught, for Clara is a disaster area. She is a woman constantly battling back tears, clenching her hands into fists, experiencing so many episodes of pounding heart and thrumming blood that you expect her to have a heart attack at any moment. She is "foggy," the memories placed "on the high shelf of her mind" falling into her consciousness. Throughout the text Clara "really needs to focus." Until the entirely predictable, earthbound ending, she spends much time "floating". You get the picture.

And pictures are indeed the trouble. For glamorous, selfish Ruth settled on Clara as her sole subject, creating a series of technically gorgeous shots whose content is disturbingly intrusive. Clara is three when the photos begin, fourteen when they end. The photos bring Ruth fame and fortune. They also wreak havoc within the family: husband and father Nathan is enraged by his wife's work, and his failed attempts to halt it, while Clara's older sister, Robin, ignored by Ruth, is deeply resentful. At eighteen Clara leaves home, hiding out in a Yale dorm room with a former Brearly classmate. Not that Clara is a student. She is too damaged and adrift to do more than hang out in the library, where Jonathan finds her and strikes up a conversation.

The plot--daughter suffers at the hands of a greedy mother--is nothing new. Were Shapiro a better writer, this wouldn't matter. But Shapiro's characters have all the depth of an Ann Geddes card, minus the cute factor. Ruth is talented, gorgeous, and imperious. Art dealer Kubovy Weiss is a caricature of the smooth European businessman, delighted to be avant garde while raking it in. Nathan, the book's honorary Jew (how a Jew ever got the name Dunne is beyond me), is a hard-working lawyer and loving father who dies at his desk (thus neatly excised from the proceedings). Robin, the brainy older sister, emulates Nathan, becoming a high-powered lawyer whose life is lifted straight from a New York magazine article: three children (Harrison, Tucker, and Elliott, a girl), a pristine apartment filled with Murano glass, a nanny/housekeeper, personal trainers who keep her whittled into size two Prada dresses. Clara's husband Jonathan is handsome in a craggy, L. L. Beanish way, and adores Clara, though it's hard to understand why. Her refusal to discuss her past upsets him, but not enough to take action. Samantha, who knows nothing of her mother's past or the existence of an extended family, becomes sullen and anorexic until Clara takes her to New York. And though the visits with the obviously dying Ruth and the tremedous family stresses might upset another child, Samantha is enthralled by this shriveled, witchlike granny.

How long does Clara plan to keep her past secret from her child? We don't know, because Clara doesn't know. Clara spends her waking hours willing away her past, stupidly hoping it will stay on that high shelf forever. Early in the novel, you want to shake her, hard. You have a nice husband, a sweet daughter, a Victorian home in Maine with a kitchen straight out of Good Housekeeping. Get over yourself!

In lieu of depth we have brand names: Duane Reade, Essentials Plus, Prada, Costume National, Rick Owens. We also get name names: Timothy Greenfield-Saunders, Ingrid Sischy, Gary Indiana, Irving Penn, Cindy Sherman. This facilitates envisioning a certain echt New York without adding much to Clara's personality. We also get pat metaphors: Nathan managed to stop Ruth's work for one year, when Clara was nine. Now Samantha is nine and bears a strong resemblance to her mother at the same age. Yet when Clara takes the child to MOMA to see the infamous Ruth Dunne photographs, Samantha is unfazed. She thinks it's "cool" to see her mother in a museum and asks, in an unwitting Tarantino moment, if they can get something to eat.

Therapyspeak, that insidious replacement for genuine communication, is everywhere:

"He's quiet on the other end. Waiting. Giving her the space to say whatever it is she wants to say." (39)

"'I can't accept it,' Clara fills the silence. 'It's too much.'
'What are you saying?' Kubovy asks." (80)

"'I know what you meant,' Robin says. 'It's all about you, Clara. It's always been all about you.'" (90)

"Ruth and Nathan Dunne did most of their fighting outside of the house...their arguments, which, though rare, could spiral into a place full of scalding rage." (196)

Worse are the clunky sentences, inexcusable from Knopf Books:

"If only she had a mantra, something she could repeat to herself right now, over and over and over, a calming phrase to hold on to if all else fails." (11)

"A huge, hardy rubber plant spills out from behind a bald girl in her twenties." (56)

"She is living on Tamara Stein's floor. Tamara had been a year ahead of Clara at Brearly, and honestly they hardly knew each other." (108)

"Nathan had to go away on a business trip, is all." (165)

Lest you still want to read this book, I'll spare you the treacly ending. Suffice to say Clara's sudden recovery into a whole, happy person (wearing a little black dress, natch) is unearned.


Shallow storyline and bad writing aside, somebody else already wrote this book, and did a better job of it.

Kathyrn Harrison's 1993 Exposure is about Ann Rogers, daughter and subject of famed photographer Edgar Rogers. Like Black and White, Exposure deals with the death of a photogpraher parent, moving betweeen past and present. Both Ann and Clara are damaged, poorly functioning women married to kind men who work in the arts--Ann's Cal restores houses. Both are dealing with uwanted legacies in the public eye. Both endure protest movements: Clara's Angels deface Ruth's photographs; a young woman sets herself afire outside an Edgar Rogers exhibit.

Is Black and White a ripoff? Yes and no. Harrison got there first, but there are significant differences: Clara has a child, Ann is a diabetec drug user. None of Harrison's pristine sentences appear anywhere in Shapiro's clumsier attempt. Cal and Jonathan are similar--handsome, kindly, artistic--but where Jonathan caves to Clara's feeble excuses, Cal threatens divorce. And he means it.

It is also notable that while Shapiro's book is inspired by Sally Mann's photographs, Harrison's work appeared well before Jessie Mann, now an adult and "professional muse," began her collaboration with photographer Len Price. Further, Harrison's obsession with absent parents and painfully documented incestuous experience with her father lead naturally to a book examining photographic exploitation. Shapiro, by contrast, takes an obvious question about an artist's child to a predictable, sanitized conclusion.

Read the Harrison.

Examples of the Prince/Mann Collaborations may be seen here.

Kathryn Harrison: Exposure. New York: Random House, 1993.

Dani Shapiro: Black & White. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Bad Books

I'm reading one right now. I almost stopped, then realized how few bad books make it into my personal corner of blogland. I like most of what I read, but then again, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy, as I tend to acquire books I know I'll like.

The last book I read and disliked was Harrison's Returning to Earth. And though I found it flawed, nobody could argue that it lacked originality. The plot, setting, and characters were uniquely realized. The sentences read like a pileup on Interstate Five, but hey, Harrison is famous without me.

The book I am currently reading is so close to another writer's novel that I'm surprised there haven't been rumblings. The characters are annoying, thin, stereotypical. The sentences clunk. Many all but weep for commas. Metaphors repeat, an unforgivable sin. Never, ever repeat an adjective on the same page. Avoid doing it through the entire chapter. Hell, English is rife with adjectives. Don't repeat them at all!

I'm halfway through: things are crashing along unevenly. I want to smack the protagonist, which means perhaps the author was successful after all: she has elicited a response.


Yeah, I know. You want to know the book. I'm almost done and will talk about it this weekend. Try to quell your excitement.

What struck me in reading this particular work, with its spectacularly awful sentences, is how my reading tastes have changed. And I blame the blog.

Once upon a time I was able to read a lesser book--i.e., a novel by somebody besides Atwood or Oates or insert your fave writer here--and enjoy it. Something lightweight, with a few off-key sentences, was okay. Now I am Ming the Merciless. Missing comma? Therapyspeak? Unreal (to me) situation trying to pass itself off as reality? To the gallows, or at least, the resale pile. Give me Irene Nemirovsky! Lionel Shriver! Trillin's beautifully economical sentences!

Why the blog? Because blogs are nothing without fresh content, and that means a lot of reading. Because blogging eats--no, devours--time. And that means the media feeding it better be worth that time--mine and yours.

Because life is just too short for bad books.