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, July 31, 2007

Nicole Mones' The Last Chinese Chef

Nicole Mones has written the same book three times. Her first, Lost in Translation, features an American English/Chinese interpreter who accompanies a Chinese archaeology group on an expedition, falls in love with a Chinese man, and must come to terms with her racist father. The second, A Cup of Light, features a hard-of-hearing American porcelain expert with who falls in love with an American living in China. Her father is absent. In the The Last Chinese Chef, our heroine is food writer Maggie McElroy, one year widowed, on a trip to China to resolve a paternity suit against her late husband, Matt. Though raised by a single mother, Maggie doesn't have parental issues. Sam Liang, the love interest, gets those.

(Warning: plot spoilers ahead!)

Maggie has lived in suspended animation since Matt's abrupt death on a San Francisco streetcorner. Now, flying from California to China to resolve the claim against his estate, she must function. Sarah, her editor at Table magazine, has given her an assignment to write about rising chef Sam Liang.

It is here that the problems begin. Maggie is forty (as Mones ages, so do her leading ladies), Sam, we are told, is older. He is the product of an Ohio Jewish mother and a Chinese refugee father, Liang Yeh. Yeh is the son of Liang We, the last Chinese chef, a man famed for cooking in the Imperial Chinese style and penning the great The Last Chinese Chef.

Liang Yeh, fleeing Communism, refuses to cook in the United States. Nor does he want Sam to. Sam attends college and teaches school for a time, eventually deciding, against Yeh's wishes, to live in China and learn classical cooking. To this end, he seeks out his father's great friends, Tan, Jiang, and Xie, now old men who happily take on the task of training the Last Chinese Chef's grandson.

Sam is an immensely talented cook who, we are told, can prepare chicken soup and brisket. Little else is said about a Jewish woman marrying a Chinese national, doubtless an unusual alliance in the Midwest during the sixties. It is also difficult to accept Maggie's profession; a food writer who travels the byways of America searching out regional specialties, she doesn't like Chinese food. Nor does she realize that American Chinese food and the food served in China might differ. Reading a menu on her first dinner outing in China:

"...what he (the man who wrote the menu's introduction) was describing certainly didn't sound like the food she knew from home...Could the food in China be truly exceptional? Well then, she would eat; she would keep an open mind." (28)

Always a good idea for a food writer, especially one this limited. Later Maggie announces to Sam "I never cook." (128) She doesn't: she can't. Nor does she evince any interest in doing so. Of all the food writers I've read, the only ones who never refer to cooking themselves are Jane and Michael Stern, who, I am certain, have the good sense to realize that what often passes for Chinese food here certainly isn't what Chinese nationals tuck into come dinnertime. The final nail in the career coffin:

"Food writers weren't supposed to be fat." (152)

According to whom? Jeffrey Steingarten, Jane Stern, and John Thorne are far from svelte. All are wonderful food writers.

But back to our story.

Magge and Sam meet and hit it off; depsite his misgivings, he agrees to allow Maggie into the kitchen, where he gently questions her and feeds her a "healing" meal for her grief, a poached chicken that, while delicious, vaguely offends Maggie. She does't want food therapy.

Sam, meanwhile, learns he is a contestant in a major food competition, a cultural festival intended to coincide with the Olympics in Beijing. To this end, he must prepare a banquet for twelve, which will be rigorously judged à la Iron Chef. If Sam wins, he'll earn a spot on a ten-man cooking team. If not, he'll still have the publicity from Maggie's article.


Prior to writing, Mones ran a textile importing business from China. She is fluent in Mandarin and China's labrynthine culture. She and her husband, lawyer Paul Mones, are foodies with an extraordinary grasp on Chinese cuisine and history. Her sumptuous descriptions of dishes and their attendant meanings are the true reason to read this novel. When writing about food, Mones shines:

"She turned to the second platter, which held lotus root and crisp, strong-tasting yellow celery and sausage...Then the beggar's chicken...A magnificently herbed chicken aroma rushed into the was moist and dense with profound flavor...first marinated, then spiked with bits of aromatic vegetable and salt-cured ham..." (129)

"But best of all was the second soup...The live fish had been transformed into pale, fluffy fish balls, light and airy and ultra-fresh. These floated in the perfectly intense fish broth with shrimp, clouds of tofu, and tangy shreds of mustard green." (153)

Her explanations of Chinese culinary history are illuminating to those of us accustomed to Betty Crocker. The Chinese meal is a complex interplay of texture, aroma, fat, literary allusions, political implication, and wordless communication between diner and chef. Much of this is worked into The Last Chinese Chef, which acts a book within the book.


Unfortunately, Mones has opted to hang Chinese culinary history on an increasingly unrealistic plot. When Maggie meets Shuying, Matt's potential daughter, she is almost loving. Shuying, if Matt's child, should be provided for. When Maggie meets Shuying's elusive mother, Gao Lan, her reasonable anger and resentment (Gao Lan admits the suit is a sham) quickly shift into an earnest wish to help no matter what.

Meanwhile, Sam's Uncle Wang Xie lies dying in Hangzhou. Improbably, Sam invites Maggie to join him in the Wang household. Maggie speaks no Chinese and is not even Sam's friend, yet Xie, his wife, and four adult children welcome her warmly. While nice for story purposes, what family dealing with a mortally ill patriarch would wish for a stranger--a person unable even to speak their language--in their home? Never mind. Propped in a chair, Xie harangues Sam into a practice run for the competition. In one day, without help, Sam manages to cook and serve the family a twelve-course menu.

Xie dies on banquet night. Putting grief aside, Sam prepares the festive meal in his empty restaurant (his backer has inexplicably bailed out) with only Jiang and Tan as his assistants. Maggie is invited into the kitchen to watch. Sam chats away with her, taking long breaks to explain various morsels and bits of food culture. Tan, meanwhile, gets drunk. Neither the talkative, relaxed chef nor his elderly, drunken assistants match any real sense of what goes on in a restaurant kitchen, particularly one where a competition meal is being prepared. Tan, sloshed, destoys the signature dish. No matter: Sam's father Yeh appears, and though he hasn't touched a knife in forty years, he saves the day with several complex dishes that keep the judges happy.


The plot cries for pruning. There is the crumpled newspaper photo of Matt Maggie carries everywhere--a photo snapped moments after Matt was killed by a car. An unknown woman kneels beside him. Might it be Gao Lan? Well, no. Gao Lan has never been outside China. And what of the shadowy, unnamed man who is Shuying's real father? Is it Carey, Matt's carousing colleague? Nope: Carey may be a cad, but he wouldn't sleep with Gao Lan, and he wants to help his friend's widow before vanishing once more into the alluring Beijing night.

Oh, Great editors of yore, whither goest ye?

"Too little (information about Matt's affair) would disrespect her." (69)

(Is this a rap video or a novel?)

"It (cooking) did what art did, refracted civilization." (123)

"His head made a tick in response." (259)

Worst of all:

"Of course he had pain and remorse in his suitcase." (261)

Anybody else remember Barbara De Angelis' horribly silly infomerical about relationships? The part where she tries to "hide" a luggage cart loaded with suitcases? Maybe one belongs to Sam.

Psychobabble will wreck litertaure faster than an armed Terre Hautian blogging from a grimy basement.


Mones' deep knowledge is evident in her well-researched novels and fine journalism for Gourmet. It doesn't require a fictional veneer. There's a terrific non-fiction book in there somewhere--maybe more than one. But first the Maggies and Sams must be put out with the compost.

Nicole Mones: The Last Chinese Chef. New York: Houghton Mifflin. 2007.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury

In this article from the Sunday New York Times Magazine, Noah Feldman laments his exclusion from the Modern Orthodox Jewish fold. Specifically, exclusion from his Yeshiva's (Jewish day school) alumni events and letters. The school's reason, always unspoken, is Feldman's Korean-American wife. A shiksa: a non-Jewish girl. Hence his being cut, along with his wife, from the tenth anniversary reunion photograph. Hence the school's refusal to acknowledge the births of his children--a son and a daughter, luck any Jew would call a mitzvah--in the annual newsletter's Mazal Tov (congratulations!) section.

Feldman takes these slights as indications of Modern Jewry's struggle to exist in an increasingly modern, irreligious society. He is amazingly forgiving, continuing to send the Yeshiva lively updates from his life. The Yeshiva continues ignoring him.

Feldman writes:

"Despite my intimate understanding of the mind-set that requires such careful attention to who is in and who is out, I am still somehow taken by surprise each time I am confronted with my old school’s inability to treat me like any other graduate. I have tried in my own imperfect way to live up to values that the school taught me, expressing my respect and love for the wisdom of the tradition while trying to reconcile Jewish faith with scholarship and engagement in the public sphere. As a result, I have not felt myself to have rejected my upbringing, even when some others imagine me to have done so by virtue of my marriage.... In the sense of shared history and formation, I remain of the community even while no longer fully in the community."

Feldman, a law professor at Harvard, is measured in his arguments. He understands his classmates and teachers, their difficulty in reconciling faith with modern life:

"The reason for the resistance to such marriages derives from Jewish law but also from the challenge of defining the borders of the modern Orthodox community in the liberal modern state...It is defined not so much by what people believe or say they believe (it is much safer not to ask) as by what they do." (Italics mine.)


It is this final sentence--not what people believe, or say they believe, as by what they do--that enrages me. Feldman is a learned man who has made his decisions; he neither asks for nor needs pity. But why does he continue communicating with the Yeshiva? And what about his wife and children? How do they feel?

Not what they say, but what they do.

Feldman's story recalls the insular Jews of my childhood, people less interested in being frum (holy, clean) than being more frum than their neighbors. The families who walked to shul on Saturday morning, the man striding ahead while his wife, a step behind, shepherded numerous children. Orthodox Jews are Biblically encouraged to procreate. Now, with the Jewish birthrate in steep decline, so are the rest of us. Recently I saw an advertisement in an alternative newspaper, placed by a San Francisco temple seeking new members. Those of us with non-Jewish spouses were especially invited to attend, as were Gays and Lesbians.

On one level it's nice. Some Jews are like Feldman: they've married out, but still feel deeply rooted in Judaism. They want to attend services. As for the LGBT community, it's high time all doors opened to them.

I didn't go.


My first boyfriend was Jewish. In fact, like Feldman, he hailed from a New York Yeshiva. He was scandalized by my secular upbringing, my inability to speak Hebrew, my bluejeans. This while literally trying to get into those bluejeans and pulling a baseball cap over his yarmulke at MacDonald's.

Was he a bad guy? No. He was young, and uncertain about where Orthodox Jewry fit into his life. But he was certain of one thing: marrying me.

"I'm not marrying you," I'd object. "You're too religious. I don't want to wear a babushka and have ten kids. No."

"You'll change your mind."

"I won't." I said. Instead I went home and informed my mother I wasn't marrying a Jewish guy. "I'm telling you now," I said, "so you have time to get used to the idea."

I married a non-practicing Catholic. My parents, to their credit, were sanguine. But my mother's old friends from home remain scandalized. Fifteen years later, they are still waiting for my marriage to crumble.


There were numerous synagogues in my childhood community, from the ardently religious to the "see and be seen by the other machers." Membership cost varying amounts; the more you spent, the higher your social standing.

Synagogues are not like churches. You cannot just walk in. High Holiday services (Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashonah), are like rock concerts, requiring tickets. Like rock concerts, High Holidays sell out. Only there are no synagogue scalpers. No tix, no High Holiday worship for you.


I work with a professor who considers himself observant. He keeps a kosher kitchen; he attends synagogue (sometimes). He once asked how I, being "so Jewish" (and I am, I look and sound like a Woody Allen extra), could "stand" being married to a non-Jew. He is not married, but has a longtime girlfriend, who is not Jewish. He wants her to convert. That way he can marry her and have children. Except...except Judaism is matrilineal. Is a child by a convert Jewish? There are two answers to this question. The first is it depends on who you ask. The second is no, with a caveat. Suppose the girlfriend converts, marries the prof, and has children. Every time she enters shul, somebody will whisper "she converted." Translation: shiksa in our midst.

We Jews aren't like Christians. We don't want you to join the fold.


I realize how terribly bitter I sound. This after many years of watching my fellow Jews behave badly, and sometimes behaving badly myself. Growing up when and where I did, I divided the world into three groups: Jews (utterly recognizable), Goyim (non-Jewish, suspect), and Blacks (like Jews in many ways, marginalized, surviving by their wits, therefore less suspect). This worldview served me well until I arrived in California, where geography does not divide along religious lines, interracial marriages (at least in Los Angeles and the Bay Area) are the norm, and comparatively few people are observant Jews. Having never encountered Indians, Mexicans, Chinese, Hmong, Vietnamese, Native Americans, or Ethiopians, I lacked available stereotypes. My worldview was turned on its head. With great shame I realized I was nastily cavalier--and often racist-- in my assessments of people. It took a long time to change my thinking.


During my mid-thirties I experienced fleeting moments of longing: I wanted to believe. In God, or benign spirits, or something "beyond." But logic prevailed. I can no more believe in God, spirits, or an afterlife than I can believe I will grow wings and fly. Oh, if I could! I could join something! A church, a synagogue, a collection of hippie Universalist Unitarians. I would have, if not explanations, a sort of serenity. Logic is lonely.


I could go on ad nauseum about hypocritical Jews I've known. They draw their lines in the sand, some making genuine attempts at negotiating faith in the modern world. Some succeed; others don't.


We all make our way. I look Jewish, I sound Jewish, I am Jewish. I was raised by a mother who spoke Yiddish before English and a father who was bar mitzvahed. Ours was a culturally Jewish home filled with Yiddishisms and traditional foods. We lit candles on Chanukah and ate charoset on Pesach. But we did not belong to a synagogue. Being Jewish meant we were bookish, academically inclined, lousy athletes. It implied a sense of service: outgrown clothing and appliances were donated to Jewish Family Services. When somebody died, you made a donation to the Foundation for Jewish Retarded Citizens (in those days nobody was developmentally disabled).

All the pork in the world won't alter the fact of my birth. Yet stories like Feldman's only drive me--and many of my contemporaries--further from traditional Judaism. Who wants to be associated with people who cannot wish a new father mazel tov?


The Jews of Feldman's Yeshiva don't recognize Jews like me. Not only did I marry out, I failed to bear children. Therefore I am nothing. I cannot, technically, be buried in a Jewish cemetary.


Jews have been hated since the beginning of time. We understand what it is to be driven from home and killed en masse. if anything, this should allow us insight into the isolation and suffering of others. We should work to alleviate it when and wherever possible. Minimally, we shouldn't promulgate it on our own.

So Professor Feldman, mazel tov on your marriage. Mazel tov on your children. And shame on your Yeshiva.

"Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury" is a Michael Franti song from a CD of the same name: Island Records, 1992.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Anthony Bourdain's The Nasty Bits

Hockeyman is a heavy-metal fan who avidly watches Headbanger's Ball, now on MTV2.

I have fond memories of this often unintentionally silly show, as our courtship consisted largely of watching the orginial Headbanger's, hosted by Rikki Rachtman, an idiot if ever one existed, while lolling in bed and smoking illegal substances. Now, almost fifteen years down the line, the youthful, tattoed toughs we watched have lost hair, gained weight (Zakk Wylde! Dude, we love ya, please lay off the Doritos!), cleaned up, married, and had kids. They are being replaced by a new generation of headbangers who are largely mediocre and amazingly fat. Whatever happened to the starving Guns n' Roses look? I mean, look at Lemmy! He must be nine thousand years old, and he still looks like a teenager.

(Hockeyman would like to add that it seems all that speed hasn't hurt the Lemster one bit.)

Last week offered a breath of fresh air in the form of Dave Mustaine. Mustaine is a bright, articulate guy. He also has the best head of hair in the business. I am a sucker for long hair on men. But a bright man with long red hair? I'm in love. Only Dave and I are both married. To other people. And Hockeyman has a great head of hair himself.

When asked about the current crop of heavy metalers, Dave observed their sameness. You can always recognize Sabbath, he said, or me, or James (Hetfield, of Metallica). You always know when it's AC/DC. These guys all sound the same. They have nothing unique to say.

I thought about this while reading The Nasty Bits, which is a sort of collection of uncollected writings. Bourdain is no Hemingway, but his voice is unmistakeable. No cookie-cutter "I have an MFA from Irvine" for this guy. Here is a swearing, bushwacking, New-Yorkese dude whose is refreshingly unrepentant. He smokes. A lot. He drinks. Even more. He has overcome addictions to both heroin and cocaine. And he's been all over the world, which is what this book is about.

Is there food in here? Yes, but no recipes, nothing twee. His one mention of Nigella Lawson observes that she is not a cook, even if she does advocate pork consumption.

Bourdain, known for his take-no-prisoners, we-are-outlaw-cooks mentality, has softened up some. Seeing the world--and the many starving people and animals inhabiting it--has that effect. When he does rail, which is often, it's difficult to disagree. He is outraged by America's continuing refusal to acknowledge the Latinos that populate restaurant kitchens, doing the day-to-day, physically difficult, often poorly-paid work of serving your food. He is enraged by the fools (I agree with him on this one) who terrorized Laurent Manrique because he served foie gras. These animal rights folk destroyed his restaurant, vandalized his car, then took photographs of his wife and infant playing in their yard. They mailed these photos to Manrique, threatening his family. Manrique caved. Who wouldn't? But Bourdain suggested these well-meaning do gooders apply themselves to something more pressing than geese, like Oakland street crime or the dog and cockfighting taking place all too near my home. But, he rightfully points out, the gangbangers and dogfighters carry guns. Manrique does not, making him the easier target.

Bourdain goes on to say he is not a fan of animal cruelty. Nor am I--just this morning I paid an outrageous amount for a humanely raised pork hock. But terrorizing people? Nope.

As for the Slow-Food, organic, artisanal folks (i.e. liberal tenderfeet like me) he writes:

"There is more than a whiff of dogma in the Blood argument (this being local, sustainable, etc etc food)...The 'slow food' lobby, arguing for sustainable sources of food, organic and free range products, cruelty-free meat, and a return to a photogenic but never-to-be realized agrarian wonderland, seem to overlook the fact that the stuff is expensive, and that much of the world goes to bed hungry at night--that most of us can't hop in the SUV with Sting and drive down to the organic greenmarket to pay twice the going rate." (38-9)

Yep. From here he rhapsodizes about the wonders of ugly food--food that begins as something nasty, like feet or heads or livers, and is lovingly turned into something good. Made a lovely pot of tripe? Bourdain's the man to call for dinner. His travels have led him to any number of things Americans would cringe at: bugs, fish heads, seal eyeballs. But then again, he is at pains to point out that Americans willingly consume "paper-wrapped morsels of gray 'beef' patties with all-purpose sauce. The unbelievably high-caloric horrors of beef-flavor-sprayed chicken nuggets, of 'milkshakes' that contain no milk and have never been shaken, of 'barbecue' that has never seen a grill, 'cheese' with no cheese." (14) Compare this to his loving descriptions of Singaporean or Vietnamese street foods, all cheap, most often healthy, always delicious (his evocation of Viet Nam will make you wish you could get on the next flight to Hanoi), and you can't helpt but feel like an Ugly American indeed.

There are some missteps, invariably when Bourdain tries to veer off into fiction. "A Drinking Problem" and "A Chef's Christmas" would have been better left on the cutting room floor, but rest of The Nasty Bits compensates. it's hard to argue with a guy who dedicates his book to the Ramones, who remained defiantly, skinnily, excessively themselves to the bitter end.

Anthony Bourdain. The Nasty Bits. New York: Bloomsbury Books. 2006.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Friday Cat Blogging: Lord of the Couch

And you wanted to sit here?
Silly human.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Hilary Mantel's A Change of Climate

A lazier blogger would direct you here. Joan Accocella says it all with her usual verve and enthusisam. So feel free to skip this blog.

Prior to the above article I'd never heard of Mantel. I lodged her in my mental "to be read" pile, where she resided until I bought Climate used. The book languished for months while I read other works, until BLCKDGRD suggested I check her out.

Warning: plot spoilers ahead. And none of them have to do with that kid from the wizard school.

A Change of Climate is the story of Ralph and Anna Eldred, Low Church Missionaries sent to South Africa in 1956. As Apartheid draws its noose, the couple are briefly imprisoned for consorting with the ANC. Enraged and horrified, they are deported to Bechunaland, now Botswana. There they are forced to take up residence in a rotting backwater populated by sullen, inpoverished Africans who openly resent them.

Ralph and Anna are very much products of their Victorian parents, resolutely small, mean people rationalizing their narrowness in the name of Christianity. Neither family has much use for Darwin, the unsettling truths uncovered by Ralph's interest in geography, or the lower classes. Their hopes for Ralph and Anna are vague--do good, be good--yet immovable. Ralph must not be a geologist, as this goes against all right thinking; Anna must be a virtuous girl, then an endlessly forgiving wife and mother. For this is how good English people behave.

Unable to break from their parents' lives, which are the epitome of quiet desperation, the couple initially view Africa as both an opportunity to help those less fortunate and a marvellously distant escape. But their arrest, followed by their residency in the Bechunaland village of Mosadinyana, are a grim journey into human evil.

The book alternates between the present--1980, where Ralph, Anna, and their children reside in the English countryside--and their time in Africa. Only the brief spells set in the present day alleviate this novel from a nearly unbearable sense of foreboding. Mosadinayana is a waking nightmare of snakes, thieves, and beggars. Dogs and cats are abused; Enock, Ralph and Anna's sullen gardener, kills the plants, poisons their dog, steals Ralph's clothing. When Anna, at her wits' end with his theft, finally fires him, he exacts revenge.

One rainy night Ralph, ever the soul of Christian kindness, opens the door to beggars seeking shelter--or so he thinks--only to find Enock and another man, both armed. Though Ralph puts up a fight, he is injured. Enock and the other man kidnap Ralph and Anna's twin infants, Kit and Matthew. Kit is left in a creekbed to drown, but is found and survives. Matthew, it is surmised, is killed for body parts, popular with witch doctors. His tiny body is never found.

The shell-shocked Ralph and Anna are sent home, where they decide to bury the past. Kit is not told of her twin; their time in Africa is not discussed. Three more children are born. Ralph becomes involved in rescuing the drug-addled children constantly sent out to live with the family (dubbed by their children as "sad cases" or "good souls.") while Anna tries to distract herself with motherhood and the maintenance of their crumbling home. She fails: unlike her husband, she can neither forgive nor forget. Her Christian faith is a sham, her patience eggshell thin.

The children, meanwhile, are aware something is greatly amiss. But they aren't sure quite what; as Kit presses Ralph's sister Emma for information, Ralph begins an affair with a local woman. This brings the book to a climax: Anna's rage, for years repressed, explodes. The marriage and family, it seems, will shatter, yet at the final moments of the book a strange redemption arrives, bleak in its own right, yet suprising even in its existence. Mantel's view of humanity is so terribly dim that the smallest bit of possibility is surprising. And terribly tenuous, for the ending, while comparatively uplifting, promises nothing.


Mantel's prose style is densely evocative, particulary of England's often distasteful weather:

"The Norfolk climate gave Anna a bloodless look, tinged her thin hands with violet. Every winter she would think of Africa; days when, leaving her warm bed in a hot early dawn, she had felt her limbs grow fluid, and the pores of her face open like petals, and her ribs, free from their accustomed tense gauge, move to allow her a full, voluptuary's breath. In England she never felt this confidence...English heat is fiful; clouds pass before the sun." (17)

When Emma visits Walsingham Church after the death of her long-time married lover, the weather is again bitter:

"Across the flat fields towers spiked the snow-charged sky, the clouds pregnant and bowed by cold..." (24)

The weather is synonymous with the characters' hearts, for once outside Africa, beyond youth and innocence, Ralph and Anna freeze.


So why read this definitively unbeachy, wintry novel? Well, to avoid becoming the sort of person who reads animal books. To read about what happens when well-meaning white people go where they are unwanted. To recall that religion is often used to veil hypocrisy. To know what happens when secrets fester.

To turn yourself over to a fine writer who staunchly refuses to produce a bouncy, idiotic animal memiors while Rome burns.

Hilary Mantel. A Change in Climate. A Marian Wood/Owl Book. Henry Holt, New York. 1994.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

early influences

I'd been pondering the link between music and writing when Murakami beat me to the punch. Murakami writes of how jazz affected his sentences and pacing. I was not influenced by jazz or even the cadences of the music I heard as a child. What influenced me were song lyrics.

While always an avid reader, I can't say Nancy Drew or even Sidney Greenstreet's All of a Kind Family series, which I loved, ever made me wake up one morning and decide to become a writer. I fell into writing much later, almost accidentally. But my childhood was filled with Proustian moments, almost all muscial.

I come from a family of music lovers. My father, dissatisfied with our home stereo system, built a Heathkit in the basement. Then he built some speakers, an amplifier, and a pre-amplifier. I may be getting the order of these wrong. What I do remember is turning on the stereo in my home entailed a specific order of switches I never mastered. Turning things on in the wrong order meant one might "blow something up." We took this quite seriously. I would sooner have piled up the family station wagon than turned on the stereo, though looking back I have no idea what it was we would have exploded. The amplifier tubes? The wiring? The house?

All this tinkering meant much sound testing, usually using Donna Summer's "I Feel Love," a song notable for its extended synthesizer solo. My father and his buddies played this song repeatedly, listening closely for something--I know not what--as the notes blared between the speakers.

I had--and have--excellent hearing. It is the bane of my existence. I know when my neighbors eat, shower, run their dishwashers. It's hell. For all that, though, I have a tin ear. While my siblings went on to become musicians, one professionally, I couldn't pick out middle C at gunpoint.

It may be that my tin ear led me to listen to words more closely than music itself. When we were very small, my parents had an eight-track tape player. They played music before out bedtime: Joan Baez, Simon and Garfunkel, the Tokens singing "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." At three, I loved the Supremes. I was also fond of Melanie's "I Got a Brand New Pair of Rollerskates," a song I recently heard covered by Melora Creager on the Rasputina remix "Transylvanian Regurgitations." It's safe to say that at three, I had no idea what Melanie meant by inviting her friend to "get together and try them on and see."

I remember hearing "Big Yellow Taxi" while in the car with my mother. I was beside her in front, big enough to be out of an infant seat, but still too small to see over the dashboard. I remember my feet in their Buster Browns, which did not reach beyond the edge of the car's vinyl seat. I hated Joni Mitchell. Her voice drove me crazy. This amused my parents. Only when Adam Durwitz, another musician whose voice drove me crazy, covered the song, was I able to appreciate the lyrics.

Other memories include Gary Wright's "The Dream Weaver." Besides being the first time we heard Moog synthesizers, it was the first time I saw a man wearing eyeshadow. I was seven. My parents were also early BeeGees fans, listening to "Children of the Night" and "Main Course," albums that unfairly faded after "Saturday Night Fever" came out. "Wings at the Speed of Sound" was big in my house. I was especially fond of "San Ferry Anne" and "Wino Junko."

Cat Stevens, Carole King, Neil Diamond, Andy Williams, Dionne Warwick ("Do you know they way to San Jose" took on a whole new meaning when I moved to Los Angeles, at age seventeen). America, The Doobie Brothers, Carly Simon. Motown, of course. My mother's elementary school classmate, a motherless girl named Aretha. Stevie Wonder, still referred to as "Little Stevie Wonder" by some when I was growing up.

My first real memories of understanding lyrics are associated with a few records: the Eagles' first release, particularly the song "Earlybird." ("The Earlybird will wake one day to find his life is gone.") Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon," the song "Time" being especially nightmare-inducing:

"Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun."

This song scared me senseless; it was arguably a driving force behind the frantic studying of my high-school and college years, words that sent me into overdrive. I was somehow certain that if I did not apply myself relentlessly, I would be that person. I would miss the starting gun.

"Wish you were Here" also had a strong impact. I was too young to remember Syd Barrett. I wasn't, alas, too young to have experienced loss. And songs like "Welcome to the Machine" and "Have a Cigar" were wryly comforting as I grew older and increasingly disenchanted with my peers. Pink Floyd's lyrics were able to articulate something I could not, and offered great succor: somewhere out there, far away, were other people who thought like I did. "The Wall," released in 1979, cemented this notion at a time I needed it most. I was twelve, in the throes of middle school, watching my peers with amazement. They were so...stupid. So worried about blacking out the waist sizes on their Levi's. Carter was finishing up his term, Detroit was a smoking economic ruin, and the nation was about to elect an actor who called his wife Mommie to office. Things were not exactly great, and here was this wonderful, soaring indictment of almost everyone around me. It was simultaneously exhiliarating and depressing. I listened to the entire double album every day after school for a year. My record player was a 1956 RCA Victor with tubes, four record speeds, and a metal tonearm that chewed vinyl. I destroyed my first copy of "The Wall" and had to go purchase another, which I still have.

There were two other lyrical bombshells in my childhood: Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" and the first Dire Straits album. Obviously, I wasn't the only person deeply affected by these records, and likely not the only one to pull out "Rumours" during a bad romantic spell and run the emotional gamut from "Go Your Own Way" to "Songbird." (Though I am far less able to forgive than Christine McVie, who is clearly a better person than I am.)

Dire Straits was a different story. I have never been to London, and in fact understood nothing about East End life at age eight. But Mark Knopfler's lyrics are so evocative that even an urban American child could get a feel for being young, poor, and hungry in a freezing European city. "Down to the Waterline" was an early favorite, a song that would haunt me years later, after a comparable experience:

Sweet surrender on the quayside
You remember we used to run and hide
In the shadow of the cargoes I take you one at a time
And we're counting all the numbers down to the waterline

Near misses on the dogleap stairways
French kisses in the darkened doorways
A foghorn blowing out wild and cold
A policeman shines a light upon my shoulder

Up comes a coaster fast and silent in the night
Over my shoulder all you can see are the pilot lights
No money in our jackets and our jeans are torn
Your hands are cold but your lips are warm

She can see him on the jetty where they used to go
She can feel him in the places where the sailors go
When she's walking by the river and the railway line
She can still hear him whisper
Let's go down to the waterline

There was also "Sultans of Swing," of course, and "In the Gallery"--songs that, nearly thirty years (gulp) later, have lost none of their power.

There were other band that imprinted themselves--Led Zeppelin, J. Geils, Boston, Queen, The Cars. But these came later, when I was a teenager and beginning to read the adult literature that would shape me in turn.


I do not mean to imply utter indifference to music: I have a vivid memory of listening to WRIF one winter afteroon; the disc jockey, a woman named Karen Savelley, announced "a band from Canada called Rush," The opening chords to "The Spirit of Radio" blared through my bedroom. I was ten.

I also remember the first time I heard the Police. The song was "Walking on the Moon," and in my naïvete, I thought maybe they were a punk rock band.


The impact of hearing music like this at an early age led me to utter impatience with bubblegum. When MTV appeared, I was hooked, but found much of the music trash. Toni Basil, Madonna, Haircut One Hundred, A Flock of Seagulls: drek, par excellence. The musical equivalent of Judith Krantz and Danielle Steel, both beginning their repsective literary ascents at the time.

As the eighties became the nineties and Alternative music became popular, I began losing touch. I hated early REM, with its indecipherable lyrics, and could not understand the appeal of bands like Sonic Youth or Meat Puppets. Clearly I am in the minorty; that's fine. I don't have to get it. But I think much of my not getting it was not getting the lyrics. What in hell did Michael Stipe mean when he sang about throwing the chairs into the fireplace?


I began writing seriously in my mid-twenties. Like every other person my age, I was hard under the sway of the Vintage Editions writers. We all wanted to write like Amy Hempel, or, even better, Raymond Carver. But as I have grown older, and written more, I find myself looking back to those early songs: they way they encapsulated a feeling, moment, place, or, at their best, entire stories in just a few minutes. "Down to the Waterline" is three minutes and fifty-five seconds. "Earlybird", three minutes. The stories they tell are no less captivating for their brevity than "Today will be a Quiet Day" or '"A Small, Good Thing."

So even if I don't hear the rhythms as Neil Peart does, or am unable to hold a note like Joans Obsborne or Baez, I can return to their music not only for the pleasures they bring, but the lessons they impart.

"Earlybird" is by Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon, Kicking Bear Music.

"Time" is by Roger Waters, TRO-Hampshire House Publishing.

"Down to the Waterline" is by Mark Knopfler, Straightjacket Songs, LTD.

Friday, July 13, 2007

kitten in the kitchen

Today I began preparing my fortieth birthday dinner by starting a fresh batch of duck confit.

My birthday is the week before Thanksgiving. This is the beauty of confit: like me, it only improves with age. (Well, we know the confit will, anyway!)

I went to Enzo's butcher shop for the duck fat and decided, in my attempt to be local and pc and low carbon footprint-y, to buy the duck legs there as well. Berkeley Bowl carries Pekin duck legs of unknown origin; that is, they are behind the butcher counter in a tub reading "Berkeley Bowl Duck Leg." Enzo's carries duck legs from Grimaud, which is in Stockton. Not around the corner, but not across the country, either.

I bought Muscovy duck legs, which my cookbooks tell me are bigger and leaner. Not so these Grimauds, which are no larger than the Pekins and only marginally less fat. I trimmed the legs as usual and tossed them into a sauté pan with a little water to render. They are now salting down with thyme, pepper, garlic, and shallots. The actual cooking will happen tomorrow, the eating six months hence, when I will recall the final days of my thirties and the warm July day when I planned my meal.


Three weeks ago H-man and I found ourselves with four heads of farm cabbage. I like cabbage well enough, but Hockeyman is indifferent, and I could not possibly get through four heads without them spoiling. So we made sauerkraut (something he will eat) using Jessica Prentice's recipe from Full Moon Feast.

Jessica is an acquaintance of mine and a terrifcally talented chef. So this is a full-on plug to buy her book.

The idea is you shred the cabbage, then pound it until the liquid runs out. You then put the cabbage, liquid, caraway seeds, and enough salted water to cover in a jar or crock. Weight the cabbage with something--I used a glass of water sitting in the mason jar of cabbage--and drape a cloth over all. Allow this to sit at room temperature for three days to a week, ensuring the water level is always above the cabbage.

After a couple days you'll smell a good sour smell when you check your jar. We left ours out a week, then sealed and refrigerated it. Jessica uses whey when she makes kraut--she drains yogurt--which gives a nice tart taste. I had no yogurt, so our kraut is mellower, but still good. Even better, in its fermented state it will last long enough for us to finish it.

Have I mentioned sauerkraut is good for you? Of course cabbage is healthy. But so is the natural fermentation process that transpires during sauerkraut-making, as it allows the development of digestive enzymes and lactic acid, things most of us lack in our modern diets. And for people like me, who suffer from digestive disorders, foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi can help keep our guts happier. And if you think I'm just being my usual food weirdo self, take a look at all those "probiotic" supplements in your neighborhood GNC. Myself, I'd rather eat sauerkraut.


Today's final kitchen act was making butter.

Oh, I know. You were with me through confit and pork rillettes and duck au pistou. But butter? Perfectly fine butter may be purchased damn near anywhere. Hell, I bet you can find butter in some gas stations.

The inspiration came from this NYT article, which has since become part of Times Select, meaning if you want the butter recipe you gotta pay money. Hmph! Undeterred, I found Michael Chu's Cooking For Engineers. Very cool. Check it out.

My Mom gave me her Kitchen-Aid stand mixer a while back. Thanks, Mom! So I poured a pint of Straus Organic Whipping Cream into the bowl, screwed in on the whisk attachment, and let rip.

Watching cream progress from softly foamy to thick to I-want-to-eat-this-over-gelato-to butter is hypnotic. It also takes longer than you might think; a good twenty minutes from start to finish.

As I watched the mixer do all the hard work, I remembered Laura Ingalls Wilder's description of her mother making butter. Caroline Ingalls used a churn and dash, which she had to scald. The dash so heavy she needed breaks while churning. Depending on what the cow ate, the butter could be pale. Mrs. Ingalls liked her butter yellow. So she scraped a carrot across a milk pan punched with holes, put the shredded carrot into a muslin bag, and squeezed the juices into the butter. Nowadays we need not color our butter: we have annatto seeds, which are used to add a yellow cast to foods. We also have juicers, food processors, and Kitchen Aid mixers.

So why bother making all this stuff?

Many of us modern first worlders make virtually nothing with our hands anymore. We spend our days seated before machines. We give ourselves repetitive motion injuries typing, then come home and watch television, futzing with a remote control. I think much of the resurgent interest in things like artisanal food preparation, gardening, knitting, and quilting stems from a longing to create something tangible. Something useful. There's a sense of accomplishment in confit absent in adding yet another document to the office server. For the next six months that confit will be in my fridge: I'll see it when I go to make a meal or grab a beer. It'll be there if, heaven forbid, something awful happens and we cannot get to the market for fresh food. (You need not wait to eat confit, and it holds without refrigeration in all but the hottest weather.) The Excel doc, on the other hand, stands an excellent chance of gathering virtual dust.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Sausage: an eater's manual

My continuing obessession with charcuterie manifested itself in an order to Powell's books for Jane Grigson's Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery. For those of you longing to know the details of boudin noir prep (that's blood pudding sausage) I highly recommend this book. That is, if you have an extra thirty bucks lying around. That's what you'll pay for wanting an obscure English cookbook.

Seriously, Grigson is such a fine writer that she makes even the oft-unsettling mechanics of sausage-making compelling. It is safe to say I will never prepare a recipe from this book, but I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Why won't I prepare anything? Well, I haven't a cool larder to hang meats, nor stoneware jars, ham kettles, fish kettles, or metal lettuce baskets. I haven't a temperature-controlled cellar, a real estate oversight that continues to haunt me. Nor do I have ready access to snouts, ears, tails, flair fat, back fat, mesentery, green bacon, brains, or tails. I cannot purchase pig blood (maybe in Chinatown...except I'm a white girl...), spleen, lights (them's the lungs and windpipe), or kidneys. But I did once see a package of frozen trotters at Andronico's. They were quite an alarming sight.

Nonetheless, it's fascinating to read about the incredibly inventive ways people came up with to fend off hunger, which is what pork preservation and its friends the confits are really about. Somebody figured out that pig's blood could be mixed with onion, cream, spinach, or garlic and be nutritious. Somebody actually cooked up the pig's testicles (yes, really) and called them a delicacy.

(Should you want to try this, breading and frying are recommended.)

Then, after people figured out this stuff and survived to reproduce, Jane Grigson came along. Originally a translator of Italian, Grigson spent four years researching and writing Charcuterie, which appeared in 1967. The book is laced with suggestions for those without refrigerators and contains this tart observation about offal:

"Organs, offal in other words, or variety meats if you live in the United States, can be a point of prejudice. Before the war I remember hearing 'Ai never eat Offal', spoken with emphasis and pride...yet another pea felt through twenty mattresses. War shortages taught better sense." (286)

Few Americans my age can relate to such shortages, or the suggestions about cleaning pig intestines for those possessing bathtubs with taps. And it is indeed easy to recoil from recipes for blood, spleen, and tongue, a personal, ridiculous prejudice I find myself unable to transcend.

Still, should you ever wonder how a pig is slaughtered and divvied up into parts, this is the book for you. And if you agree with Anthony Bourdain that life resides in the nasty bits, you'll love Jane Grigson.

Here she is on pig's ears:

"Here in England your butcher will very likely give them to you free...If you buy a whole head...ask if you could have some extra pairs of ears as well; then you will have the making of a separate dish for the whole family." (246)

But take care:

"Charred ears are not attractive." (248)

(An observation that leads inexorably to Quentin Tarantino and Steeler's Wheel...along with David Lynch and Hamatramack's finest, Bobby Vinton...)

Like Bourdain, Jane sings the praises of tripe, which she lived on whilst a poor student of Italian. After giving precise preparation instructions and many recipes, she comments that tripe in cream sauce--a blanquette--is possible but:

"...the only word to describe the texture of tripe under these circumstances is slithy." (285)

Slithy! Is that not the greatest adjective ever? Would you ever see it in a contemporary American cookbook?

How about this?

"I find larding one of the most satisfactory of the quieter kitchen occupations. It is a soothing and unhurried performance; and I like being reminded, too, of Perrault's Princess, in Riquet à la Houppe, who saw the ground open before her, and a number of roasting cooks emerge..." (310)

I am a worm who has never heard of Perrault's Princess. Maybe you haven't, either. See what you can learn from a cookbook?

Suppose, though, you are like me, and this blog has inspired a blinding desire for something piggish. Suppose, like me, you lack the necessary equipment, namely, a French farmhouse kitchen or an extraordinarily expensive facsimile thereof. What are worms like us to do?

Make this:

Sausage with Pasta and Tomato Sauce

This recipe, in the spirit of Jane Grigson and her great contemporary, Elizabeth David, does not much bother with measures. You know how many people you're feeding, right? Want to take it for lunch tomorrow? Make extra.

Sausage of your choice, squeezed from its casings. I bought 'Fra Mani, which is made by Paul Bertolli. It has recently become available in the Bay Area. It's fantastic. I used three links of Italian Sausage. I'dve used the spicy, but H-man doesn't like it as much.

Garlic to taste, minced. (I used two big cloves.)

A little olive oil for the pot.

A little salt--be careful, as the sausage is likely salty.

One sliced carrot.

As much diced onion as you can slide past your husband (cough...).

A tablespoon of tomato paste.

Cook the above ingredients down over moderate heat in a heavy pot, breaking up the meat, allowing it to brown a bit without getting overdone.


One 14 ounce can of Muir Glen (yes, Muir Glen and only Muir Glen) whole tomatoes.

One dried hot pepper, crumbled. (This is optional.)

A little pepper.

A goodly glug of white wine or red wine. I was out of red.

A bit of Armagnac or Brandy. Like a tablespoon. Not too much or it will take over.

Cook over medium-low heat, covered, stirring occasionally. Don't let it get too hot or the meat will become rubbery.

Now boil the pasta of your choice in another pot. I used De Cecco's Spinach Penne Rigate, which gave a the final dish a red-and-green Christmas in July effect.

Boil your pasta. After years of expensive dental work, I like my pasta somewhat beyond al dente. This is up to you. Drain. Add the pasta to the sauce (taking great care not to spoil your Williams Sonoma $48 apron). Stir. Serve with bread.

Try not to eat it all in one sitting.

Jane Grigson. Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery. London: Grub Street. 2006 edition.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Mr. Weinstein kindly responds

Marc Weinstein, owner of the Amoeba Records chain, emailed me this morning with a kind note of apology. He also corrected me on couple points, the first being a ramp leading to the "jazz room." I've never seen it, but hey, he owns the joint. He also agreed that the narrow aisles do make it diffcult for wheelchair users, so staff often help those in need.

Most importantly, he apologized for what happened. He said he would share my letter with his employees. I appreciate that. Thank you, Mr. Weinstein, for taking the time to respond, and restoring a bit of my faith in humankind.


Sunday, July 08, 2007

An open letter to Amoeba Records

Marc Weinstein, Owner
Amoeba Records

Dear Mr. Weinstein,

Yesterday my husband and I took out-of-town visitors to your Berkeley store. One of our party uses a power wheelchair, which often sets off store alarms. I informed the three young men taking checking bags at the front counter that this might happen.

"We're used it." One drawled sacastically. "We're professionals here."

Uh, right. We wended our way through your store's narrow aisles, reaching down and over for the many items out of our friend's reach. We all politely avoided the vinyl selection down several rampless steps.

We bought a few CD's and one more worked our way to the crowded front doorway.

For those of you unfamiliar with Berkeley's Amoeba records location, it is on Telegraph Avenue. The area is populated by homeless, druggies, skateboard punks, students, and tourists. So the managers of Amoeba are right to be concerned about theft. Hence, once again, I said to our cashier, "the wheelchair will set the alarm off."

Which it did.

"We've been over this already," That voice again, sarcastic, loud, mean. This guy was literally above me, on a sort of platform. Talking down to me.

I was stunned. I was trying to be polite. This guy had no call to be such an asshole. In looking at Amoeba's website, I see the following:

Our staff is an all-star team of music retail veterans, with a collective depth of knowledge that is virtually unparalleled in the business. Many of us are musicians, or make music our lives in one way or another, and we take seriously the importance of our customers' relationship to music. We put customer service first and foremost -- our mission is to bring people and music together and to make everyone feel at home.

Well Amoeba, you failed. Our friend did not feel at home in your store. Your employee, "the professional" (evidently he is an expert on wheelchairs?) made it embarassing and painful.

Our friend's life is hard enough without employees like yours.

I have shopped Amoeba for years. I have avoided the box stores and online retailers in an effort to keep independent stores like yours in business. Now I'm not sure why I made the effort. In Amoeba's case, I never will again.

Should you wish to contact me regarding your employee's appalling behavior, I may be reached at

Barking Kitten

UPDATE: Mr. Weinstein Kindly Responds

Thursday, July 05, 2007


At the arguably early age of sixty-two, Annie Dillard has announced her retirement.

No tours, no blurbs, no letters, no panels. No writing. She wants to sit and read. This, after all, is the woman who wrote "Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading--that is a good life." (33) I read that sentence over a decade ago in the Humboldt State University Library. I was not a student at the time; only after two applications did the English program deign to accept me. But there I was, reading my used copy of The Writing Life in their decidedly underfunded stacks. Now Annie Dillard wants to retire, depriving me of further memories.

(You can see I'm taking this a little personally.)

Dillard has dozens of magnificent sentences; hence her joking remark to New York about selling off her unused metaphors.

More from The Writing Life:

"A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days." (32)

"Write as if you were dying, At the same time, assume you are writing for an audience consisting of solely terminal patients. That is, after all, the case." (69)

Here are a few sentences plucked at random from For the Time Being:

"An infant is a pucker of the earth's thin skin; so are we. We arise like budding yeasts and break off; we forget our beginnings." (8)

"Is it not late? A late time to be living? Are not our generations the crucial ones? ... No, we are not and it is not. These times of ours are ordinary times, a slice of life like any other." (30)

I could go on. Better you read her books yourself. Then you can join me in lamenting her retirement.


Dillard is not the first to announce her exit from publishing: Alice Munro is stepping down, and Stephen King has made some serious noises.

It's understandable that some writers, no matter how successful, grow tired of the head-banging experience known as writing. Writing is exhausting. It never gets easier. Even for Joyce Carol Oates.

Even more exasperating is the business side of writing, which may be likened to a parasite on the writer's time and energy, or more charitably, an octopus.

But--speaking as a little-published, thus-far (don't give up hope yet, kids!) unsuccessful novelist, I can't imagine waking up one morning and just ... stopping. Sure, I've had my moments of desperation, but these were related to external factors. The difficulty of breaking into publishing is enough to destroy anybody's ego. But Dillard, Munro, and King have all paid their dues. Dillard is a Pulitzer prize winner, for heaven's sake. Why stop when you're on a roll?

There's always quitting whle you're ahead. Munro and King both cite declining creativity. In this Edmonton Journal article, Munro noted that "it's rare for outstanding work to be produced in a author's later years." We all have contrary examples, but Munro alone knows her own mind. Let her exit on the strengh of The View from Castle Rock.

King fears--and is often accused of--recycling plots, but in fairness, taking potshots at King's work has become the literary equivalent of NASCAR.

But back to the idea of just stopping. Will these writers unlpug their word processors, cap their pens, box up their papers and sell them off to Thomas Staley?

What then?

Real life, long marginalized: travel, friends, family, golf, reading. All that free time. How liberating.


Over the past few months several famous ballerinas have retired: Kyra Nichols, Alessandra Ferri, Darcy Bussell, Muriel Maffre. All are in their early-to-mid-forties. A lifetime of standing on their toes has exacted a physical toll.

I studied dance for twenty-five years. I danced the way I now write: daily, obsessively, for hours at a time. Like all dancers, I endured a continual series of injuries, some minor, a few major. In my mid-twenties my left hip began, literally, to go: I had worn away to connective tissue securing my femur in its socket. Below this unstable hip my kneecap, bearing up under the pressure of a failing joint, dislocated. By age twenty-nine, my dancing days were over.

And I was heartbroken. Bereft. Depressed. For years afterward I could not bear anything associated with dance. I threw away my leotards, cancelled my subscription to Dancemagazine. Even watching televised figure skating was impossible. Compounding the loss of my beloved art was an accompanying physical decline: the tiny, solid muscles of my inner thighs softened. My abdomen, still muscular, is now wrapped in gentle layer of fat. Not flab, not a muffin-top, but what was once rock is now pillowy. The continuing instability of both joints means vigorous exercise is out. I am advised to do nothing more strenuous than walking.

This retirement left me without a means of self-expression. Annie Dillard will never again experience " at its most free. It (writing a novel) is life at its most free, if you are fortunate enough to be able to try it, because you select your materials, invent your task, and pace yourself...The obverse of this freedom, of course, is that your work is so meaningless, so fully for yourself alone, and worthless to the world, that no one except you cares whether you do it well, or ever." (11)

True enough. But nobody ever says that about macrame.

So what happens the next morning, when Alessandra Ferri awakens to a day without class, rehearsal, or evening performance? How does she contemplate her body, with its many injuries? Does she get that wayward hip replaced? Learn to eat breakfast? What, exactly, does she do?

Many dancers become teachers, or coach younger dancers. A few stay around for character roles, which are less demanding: Cinderella's Wicked Stepmother, The Sleeping Beauty's Carabosse. A few open catering companies or attend college. None of these things is remotely like being onstage, holding a bouquet of roses as the audiences calls bravo! Nor do any of these activities encompass the wordless joy of moving well, cradled in music.

Writing is less dramatic, but that study looms. And the public announcement of retirement, heard by the masses, may be missed by the subconscious. What if a gripping idea suddenly leaps to mind? Does the retired writer ignore it, sighing resignedly, muttering go away under his breath? Or does he start making a few notes on the back of the grocery list? Or do retired writers really become what I've always privately called "normal" people? Normal people do not feel compelled to move in ways that lead to arthritis, or write stories nobody wants to read. Normal people do not, as Helena Maria Viramontes did, spend two decades writing a book about their Latina childhoods.

Normal people watch tv. They play golf. They drive their children to soccer games. They never castigate themselves about not writing enough, or compare themselves to other, more successful writers. They do not spend hours trying to capture a fleeting feeling evoked by a certain song.

I have always secretly felt normal people are better off. I wonder if Annie Dillard will agree. I hope not. I hope she finds retirement loathsome, and ends up back in a windowless cabin, living a life..."colorless to the point of sensory deprivation." (44) I hope the writing life continues to hold her down, wringing out those incredible sentences for her greedy audience.

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

For the Time Being.New York: Knopf. 1999.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Recently I spoke with an acquaintance who brought up a woman we know. The woman’s son, now in his early twenties, is halfway through a prison sentence, serving time for a variety of serious crimes.

He was always a bad seed, my acquaintance commented.

I agreed.

Then she added: His mother never did anything about it when she could.

True. But the boy was always a monster. Even if his mother had acted, she might not have succeeded in curbing his ways. In fact, I doubt she ever had an iota of control.

The conversation was an ironic one, given that I was in the final pages of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.


Eva Khatchadourian is happily married to Franklin Plaskett. Theirs is a union of opposites: Eva is the fatherless child of an Armenian immigrant, a woman whose relationship to her fellow Americans is an uneasy one. Franklin is a blond, easygoing Republican who loves his country with touching fervor. He likes nothing better than to travel in his pickup, Springsteen blaring, scouting sites for ad companies. Eva, an avid traveler, has a flourishing business publishing travel guides. Together they live a New York life filled with friends, parties, fine food and wine. But as time passes, the notion of a child takes hold in Eva’s mind.

Not that Eva craves a child in the hormone-blinded, madly longing way many women describe. Her desire is a questioning self-examination, fueled partly by her mother, an agoraphobe. In her efforts to be as unlike her mother as possible, Eva has spent her life forcing herself to face down fear. Faced with a challenge, Eva deliberately, incrementally wades in. So it is she becomes pregnant at age forty-one. And is consumed with dread.

Franklin, meanwhile, is overjoyed. So Eva begins sixteen years of lying. Do her lies lead to the devastating consequences? Impossible to say. Narrated in a series of letters to the now-absent Franklin, Eva unspools a hideous family drama.

Kevin Khatchadourian enters the world reluctantly, two weeks past due. He is a screamer who refuses to nurse, a malevolent toddler who terrorizes nannies, is cruel to his mother, to waitresses, to his classmates. Shriver’s evocation of this little monster is chilling. Eva finds herself unable to love this changeling who refuses to speak, toilet train, or even play. He is a child who hates everything, including cookies and television. Eva is beyond horror.

Yet Franklin will not—cannot—acknowledge how terribly troubled their son is. He epitomizes the bluff, hearty father, all too eager to forgive the many “mistakes” that occur whenever Kevin is around: the little girl with eczema, found in the bathroom with Kevin, scratching until she is covered with blood, his taunting remarks to a waitress with a disfiguring birthmark, his amazingly destructive shenanigans with a squirt gun. (Think fresh wallpaper. Now think permanent ink.) Instead, Franklin blames Eva: she is a bad mother who does not love her son, a woman obsessed by her work. And because Eva loves Franklin, she capitulates. Never once, she admits, does she think to leave.

One of the scariest things about this book is its familiarity. Reading Kevin is akin to reading The Shining in that both will scare you senseless. But we know Jack will meet his end in the Overlook hotel. And though we also know Kevin Khatchadourian is behind bars, there’s no comfort in the fact, for there’s a line of Kevins right behind him. And we know these people. The bad seeds. The strange ones. The sibling or cousin or neighbor child everybody regards with such puzzlement, for he or she comes from such a nice family. A family who lives in a nice house with a manicured lawn and a nice mom and dad with good jobs. We cannot push the Kevins of the world to the margins, or explain away their behaviors with socioeconomic factors or absent parents or ADD. Shriver takes great pains with this point: there is no complete explanation for the American proliferation of Kevins. They are the products of a culture lacking spiritual inclinations or especial suffering. Their lives are remarkably empty.

Kevin the teenager is truly frightening. He has no interests apart from archery. He has one friend, a dull lowlife who helps toss bricks from an overpass onto passing automobiles. His only other hobby, if one could call it that, is collecting computer viruses. His speech ranges from the sarcastic to the mean; he affects a bizarre dress style of clothing several sizes too small. His classmates are too intimidated even to make fun of him.

Eva’s protests to Franklin continue being met by increasing resistance: even when Eva has a second child, the docile Celia, Franklin refuses to see the obvious. Celia’s missing pet is dismissed. So is a horrifying “accident” involving Drano. Predictably, the marriage suffers.

Eva is bitterly unsparing: she blames herself, squarely, and metes out the measure of her suffering in her post-Kevin life. She writes her letters with hindsight’s terrible clarity, realizing all the while there was little she might have done to halt events. There are, as some of us are beginning to understand, few means of punishing those who think they have nothing to lose.


Shriver takes a risk in writing about ambivalent motherhood. Though optional childlessness is beginning to lose some of its taboo in American culture (at least here in the liberal Bay Area), admitting you are flummoxed by pregnancy, or worse, do not love your own child, is unthinkable. At best, you can love your child without liking him or her, and even that in select company. But the truth remains that many women have children simply because they are supposed to.

Case in point: Hockeyman and I spent last weekend in a large National Park. Hockeyman spent his days fishing while I read Kevin. No fish were harmed during the making of this vacation, though we tender Bay Area folk both acquired hellish sunburns. (Yes, yes, we bathed in sunblock.)

At one point, as my husband was stringing his line, a little boy of six or so approached us. He was entranced by Hockeyman’s Fenwick tackle box, filled with a lifetime accumulation of shiny spinners and lures. He asked to see the box, actually leaned over my husband’s arm to get a better look. He began speaking rapidly, prefacing his remarks with “You know what?”, whereupon he launched into numerous tall tales with great speed. Here was a child nobody listened to, speaking with complete strangers.

From across the lake came “JA—AACK!!!!!” Again. “JACK! GET. OVER. HERE. NOW!”

“That’s my mom,” he informed us, then ran over to where she sat under an umbrella with other family members.

Clearly he was being told to quit bothering us. He obeyed, trotting to another part of the lake, where he approached another man and began talking his ear off.

Two things struck us. The first was this child’s willingness to talk with—even touch—strangers. At his age I was well-indoctrinated by Officer Ron, who visited my elementary school every Thursday afternoon: when approached by a strange adult, I was to take off screaming. Under no circumstances was I to initiate conversation with persons unknown. Granted, I grew up in Detroit during the Oakland County Killer’s reign, but still. The second, even sadder, was this child’s mother. She was bored by her son. Annoyed. She wanted him in her sight but out of earshot. This much was abundantly clear.

Do little boys like this one grow in Kevins or Eric Harrises or Dylan Kleebolds? Not necessarily. But being unloved and unwanted leaves a hole no amount of friendly strangers with tackle can fill.


Thursday arrives, the horrible Thursday. Kevin kills seven students, the English teacher who likes him, and a cafeteria worker in the wrong place at the wrong time. Kevin's plan is meticulous, his use of Kryptonite Locks (this book was written in 2003) painfully prescient. There are lots of Kevins we need to talk about.

I can’t say you’ll enjoy reading this book. My edition has a P.S. section, a sort of reading-groupy thing I normally despise, but the afterword contains an interview with Shriver where she says “writing that novel was slog.” It isn’t a slog to read—anybody who read The Post Birthday World can attest to Shriver’s literary skills—but even as you race through the plot, your heart sinks. And if you're a crier, don't reading the ending in public. But you do need to read We Need to Talk about Kevin, because there will be another Kevin, and forewarned maybe, maybe, might be forearmed.

Lionel Shriver. We Need to Talk about Kevin. New York: Harper Perennial. 2003.