Michael Chabon on his experience writing his first novel: "My loneliness and homesickness were of intense interest to me at the time, as were young woMichael Chabon on his experience writing his first novel: "My loneliness and homesickness were of intense interest to me at the time, as were young women in short pants, and novels, and my eternal-yet-forever-lost friendships, and when I read a page of Remembrance of Things Past (as it was then known), the book that was my project for the year, I felt all those interests mesh with the teeth of Grammar and Style, and I would imagine myself, spasmodically, a writer. I hope you can infer from the above description that I was not yet twenty-two years old."...more
Doris Buchanan Smith’s A Taste of Blackberries starts with an idyllic childhood moment: two young friends rambling through a blackberry patch, checkinDoris Buchanan Smith’s A Taste of Blackberries starts with an idyllic childhood moment: two young friends rambling through a blackberry patch, checking to see if the fruit is ripe. The lazy summer day continues with races and some mischievous apple thieving, and Jaime, the (unnamed) narrator’s friend, always vying for attention. Jaime is fun, but he’s also melodramatic and a bit of a show off, and his antics are sometimes too much for the narrator to take.
Everything changes when Jaime stirs up a bees nest that afternoon. Many of the neighborhood children get stung, including Jaime, who makes a big show of thrashing around on the ground and yelling. Or at least, everyone thinks it's a big show, until they find out that Jaime was allergic to bee stings. And the one or two stings he received were actually enough to kill him.
Conveying the senselessness of a child's death to young readers is difficult enough, but what makes A Taste of Blackberries even more tragic is the guilt that the narrator feels for ignoring his friend's cries of pain. Smith handles both aspects of this troubling situation with grace and empathy, allowing the narrator to explore a whole range of emotions and mourn in his own way (he feels like he can't eat until after Jaime's funeral).
Equally important, Smith illustrates that caring adults are present everywhere in the narrator's life. Not only his parents, but his neighbors, and even Jaime's mother are there for him as he navigates this difficult time, ready to listen or even just sit quietly with him as he begins to heal. This is an important point for children to take away from such a story--that the adults in their lives are ready and able to be there for them during difficult and painful times. ...more
This book was really instructive for me writing wise, but I didn't really enjoy reading it. He moves between flashbacks and the present with a unparalThis book was really instructive for me writing wise, but I didn't really enjoy reading it. He moves between flashbacks and the present with a unparalleled fluidity and uses words so subtly--it almost makes up for the overwhelming plot. Also--worst title and book cover ever. Fire this jacket designer....more
Kipnis is the wry, well-informed, playfully ranting feminist friend that we should all be so lucky to have. Simultaneous paying respect to the multi-fKipnis is the wry, well-informed, playfully ranting feminist friend that we should all be so lucky to have. Simultaneous paying respect to the multi-faceted, many-phased ‘women’s movement,’ while still being able to approach it objectively, Kipnis is able to suggest that “feminism came up against an unanticipated opponent: the inner woman,” without self-righteous finger-pointing or woman-aggrandizing propaganda (she’s actually remarkably empathetic with feminist backlash against undeserving males). This is what Feminism was asking for originally, she shows us, and this is how it has (or hasn’t) played out according to plan. And if Kipnis has a one particular talent, it’s revealing how principals that sounded so good in theory, really fall apart when put to practical use. Doing so isn’t a devious scheme to undermine Feminism as a whole, but rather to show how far we still have to go.
A fascinating element underlying some of Kipnis’ culture readings is a sort of proto-Marxist economist’s analysis of the female condition. Watch as capitalism co-opts the ‘Revolution,’ with cleaning products sold to women, by women (“female-on-female emotional sabotage”). As pay equity ends up having some unexpected and unjust consequences. Another lynchpin in her equations is the ability to relate abstract social conditions (an obsession with cleaning one’s home) to the female body and how it perceived by both men and women (the social purity movement). In these cases (and many others—her discussion of rape and the gap between actual statistics of victimization and the perceived fear of the likeliness that one will be raped was rather eye-opening for me), Kipnis shows a truly versatile flair for questioning our comfortably held assessments of the female experience.
Minor complaints: I’m not sure that The Female Thing is as cohesive a text as it could be—I for one, could have certainly used a ‘let’s put the pieces together now’ type of conclusion—but each topic (Envy, Sex, Dirt, and Vulnerability) is approached with such a fresh perspective that I’m happy to have read what could have easily been free-standing essays all together. And granted, Kipnis’ sarcasm and irony is spread on a little thick at times—and she’s far too fond of suggestive ellipses—but, all things considered, these are balanced rather gracefully. (A notable example of this is found in the final chapter, when Kipnis takes on the indomitable Andrea Dworkin, whose work and feminist legacy Kipnis has frequently--albeit rather playfully--challenged. Here, Dworkin is described as “a bit unhinged,” but nevertheless is still a “gripping—and symptomatic—figure…” when teasing out the many contradictions at work within “female emotional life.”)
But all knit-picking aside, Kipnis has certainly provided a valuable trampoline for us to spring from. As she says at the very end of her book, “A full accounting of the female situation at the moment would need to start roughly here.”
I've been working my way through this collection of New Yorker essays (there's fiction, too, but that's not why I picked it up) at a pretty good clip.I've been working my way through this collection of New Yorker essays (there's fiction, too, but that's not why I picked it up) at a pretty good clip. This is a wonderful collection, interesting not only for the variety of food essays and styles of writing (OMG--long form journalism!), but also because it provides a sort of snapshot of The New Yorker from the 30s through the present day. I am not a regular reader of the magazine--or really, of any magazine or journal or newspaper (I'm appallingly bad at keeping up with periodicals)--so this is a very interesting socio-historical window for me. I'm also enjoying that many of the pieces are as much, if not more, about the people involved in the production of food/meals as the food itself.
The collection is divided into several sections, which I've marked below in bold. Some thoughts on each piece as a I go:
I think it says a lot that in a collection of New Yorker food writing spanning the 30s to the 00s that four of the seven pieces in the "Dining Out" section are at least tangentially about French cooking. (I think three out of those four were written prior to the 70s, so perhaps this is more a function of the fact that French cooking was, until relatively recently, rather exclusively synonymous with fine cuisine, but still.) I don't have an overwhelming interest in reading about French cooking, though, so I'll probably skip over a fair amount of these.
I also find Anthony Bourdain to be far too proud of himself for saying things that he believes to be bold and shocking, as he does in the first line of his irritatingly titled "Don't Read Before Eating This," essay: "Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay." Skipping that on principal.
Nor Censure Nor Disdain by M.F.K. Fisher (1968)
A short meditation on the American casserole, and leftover cooking in the U.S. in the 60s. It's a fun concept, and decently written, but perhaps a veers a little off course and loses focus toward the end.
Good Cooking by Calvin Tompkins (1947)
A wonderful long form essay about Julia Child, still written in her heyday, but well after she had become a household name with the publication of her Mastering the Art of French Cooking cook books, and her TV show, The French Chef. The piece details the development and publication process of her cookbooks (they took over ten years to co-author and the first draft had to be entirely scrapped), the way her show was initially produced, and her life and incredibly close relationship with her husband Paul.
They would have been fascinating people even if Julia hadn't become the Grand Dame of French cooking in America--they met as employees of the Office of Strategic Services in Ceylon, worked together throughout WWII, and were married shortly after. They lived in Paris, in Marseille, in Norway (she learned some Norwegian, actually); they didn't have children; Julia was 10 years younger than Paul; they did pretty much everything together, as far as I can tell: and following Paul's retirement, he was incredibly supportive in bolstering Julia's career.
Anyway, I already thought Julia Child was fascinating--this only increased my interest. Great piece.
(After having read more of the collection, I think it also worth commenting that it's impossible overestimate the resonance of Mastering the Art of French Cooking--I think that cookbook (and Julia Child/her TV show) are referenced in at least half, if not more, of the pieces throughout the book.)
The Reporter's Kitchen by Jane Kramer (2002)
One of my favorite pieces in the collection by far. Kramer writes a reflection about how cooking has aided her in her writing as a professional journalist throughout her lifetime. Her meditations on the act of cooking as a simultaneous tactile and mental process and her reflections on her life experiences are equally wonderful--she's lead an amazing life and, in its course, eaten and learned to cook some amazing food. There are the 'dream cookies' that she made while working on a story of inter-village bridal feuds in the foothills of the Middle Atlas Mountains in Morocco. The pasta and chocolate sundaes she ate at an awkward dinner at Ed Koch's home while he was mayor of New York City. The "fish grilled by a group of young Portuguese commandos in the early summer of 1974--I covering their revolution; they were taking a break from it--over a campfire on a deserted Cabo de Sao Vicente beach." The "small Thanksgiving turkey, two Christmas rib roasts, and an Easter lamb," that she made one April while struggling with a piece on an Afghan refugee. "Good cooking," she says, "is much easier to master than good writing."
Fishing and Foraging
A Mess of Clams by Joseph Mitchell (1939)
I've enjoyed Joseph Mitchell's writing from Up in the Old Hotel, and I also appreciated his straightforward, unobtrusive, and rich descriptiveness in this essay. Mitchell travels out to Long Island (with a handwritten "note of introduction," which I loved) to join one Captain Clock on his "buy-boat," the Jennie Tucker, from which the Captain buys the day's shellfish from local boatmen each day. The essay has a great narrative flow, and Mitchell's ear for dialog is spot-on.
A Forager by John McPhee (1968)
I was recommended this book because of this essay, so it was the first I read in the collection. A good 40 pages, it follows the author and Euell Theophilus Gibbons, author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus and forager extraordinaire, on a planned foraging trip downriver in Pennsylvania in the late fall/early winter. The piece is wonderful--in part an essay about foraged food, but mostly a nuanced profile of a fascinating man who has lived a fascinating life all over the US (Hawaii, New Mexico, LA, Pennsylvania), foraging for both pleasure and survival.
The Fruit Detective by John Seabrook (2002)
Another great portrait of an eccentric food specialist (David Karp) and the US fruit market in general. Karp, once a wealthy and brilliant young man, succumbed to drug addiction in the 80s and 90s, and recovered, in large part, due to his new found fascination with fruit, which, Seabrook speculates, has become something of a substitute for the heroin of Karp's younger years. He describes Karp peeling a cherimoya: "The focus he brought to the task, the specialized equipment he used, and the obvious tactile pleasure he took in the procedure, combined with the prospect of an imminent mind-blowing experience, were all powerfully reminiscent of the David Karp of twenty years ago."
Gone Fishing by Mark Singer (2005)
I just seem to like these profiles--this another good example, a portrait of David Pasternack, the chef at Esca, an upscale, Italian-style fish restaurant in Manhattan. Although Pasternack spends full days, five or six days a week, in his kitchen, he lives in Long island and does much of the fishing for the restaurant himself.
On the Bay by Bill Buford (2006)
Another profile, this of Mike Osinki, a former businessman turned oyster man in Greenport, Long Island. This is an interesting piece, both for the profile itself and also for the details about how oysters are farmed and distributed to local restaurants. It's a good piece, but I didn't like the writing of this one as much, though, in part because Buford is personally a big presence in the story and I wasn't really that interested in him. He's a bit verbose, a bit faux metaphysical, and kind of irritating in each respect: "...I found myself marveling at the speed with which a creature can be transported from ocean to stomach, dispatched from the dark and deep to--well, the dark and deep," or "But I was left wondering: Is an oyster a primordial meal?" Blah, blah.
The Homesick Restaurant by Susan Orlean (1996)
I have a journalist friend who idolizes Orlean, but I've never read any of her work (Orlean's), so I was particularly interested in this one. It's a rambling essay about the Centro Vasco restaurant in Miami, a Basque-style restaurant which has become a gathering place for Cuban expats in the city, and is an almost exact replica of the owner's first restaurant (also the Centro Vasco) in Havana, Cuba. Orlean travels to Cuba to see the original restaurant in the middle of the essay, which adds an interesting layer. I like her writing style a great deal, but as a whole, the piece felt a little 'without' to me. There's a lot of back story, a lot of resonant implications about expatriat life and nostalgia and memory, but I'm not sure the overall effect is as strong as it should be.
The Magic Bagel by Calvin Trillin (2000)
A sweet, personal piece about Trillin's mostly-but-maybe-not-totally farcical attempt to track down the baker of his California-based daughter's favorite, but now unavailable, pumpernickel bagels in an effort to convince her to move back to New York. I'm very glad that Trillin has other pieces in the collection--he's great fun to read.
Raw Faith by Burkhard Bilger (2002)
This piece, about Mother Noella Marcellino (the "cheese nun") and the raw milk cheese she makes at her abbey in Connecticut, was probably inspired by the concurrent culinary dramas surrounding the relatively safety of cheese that has not been pasteurized for 60 days or more. The raw milk question is interesting in its way--and Bilger has a lot of science seamlessly folded in about cultures and bacteria etc--but I was more interested in Mother Noella, who not only spent a year on a Fulbright scholarship studying "the ecology of French cheese caves" but is also obtaining a Ph.D. microbiology. Also, her fellow nuns are also a fascinating group of people as well (several are obtaining Ph.Ds in sciences in order to further their cheese/agricultural research). As Bilger describes:
The abbey is a medieval place with a modern soul. The nuns are worldly and educated. (A number hold advanced degrees; one is a former movie star who gave Elvis his first on-screen kiss.) Yet their living areas are walled off from outsiders, and they sustain themselves on what they can grow and make on their 360-acre farm. Seven Latin services punctuate the day, and in between the nuns work as beekeepers, cowherds, and blacksmiths; they make their own pottery, grow and blend their own herbal teas, raise their own hogs, and sell some of their products in a gift shop.
Night Kitchens by Judith Thurman (2005)
A poetic essay on Thurman's trip to Japan, where she met with several master tofu-makers who each undertake painstaking, time consuming, heritage processes to make their own unique kinds of tofu. "When a tofu master offers you a slice of bean curd he has just unmolded, he is inviting you to partake, insofar as a stranger can, of what it means to be Japanese."
It's certainly an interesting topic, but for whatever reason, this one didn't really do it for me.
Dry Martini by Roger Angell (2002)
A nice, short history of the martini and its cultural cache throughout the years.
The Red and the White by Calvin Trillin (2002)
I didn't like this as much as his bagel piece, but its still rather fun. Trillin tries to suss out whether a notorious study--in which people with a knowledge of wine were asked to identify whether a wine they drank out of black glasses was red or white, and routinely failed at this task--was actually conducted at UC Davis. (It probably didn't, or at least, not exactly.) He then replicates the test himself.
The Russian God by Victor Erofeyev (2002)
Another well done cultural history--this time of vodka, and its place in the Russian imagination (and history). Erofeyev waxes a little too poetic on occasion, but overall, very good.
Two Menus by Steve Martin (2000)
A menu from a fictional restaurant in Paducah, Kansas (King's Ransom); a menu from a fictional restaurant in Beverly Hills, California (Synergy). Martin's not one for subtle jokes, but a few of the entries were pretty funny.
The Zagat History of My Last relationship by Noah Baumbach (2002)
A funny idea and format that wasn't executed as well as it could be.
Bock by William Shawn (1934)
A good topic for a short-form piece--the annual release of German bock beer, and some fun origin anecdotes--but not enough orienting details. It starts, "Shortly now, pictures of goats will be hung up in drinking places and bock beer will make its traditional spring appearance for the first time in fourteen years." (This was written in 1934, it bears noting.) I'm not sure what city this takes place in (I suppose we can assume New York), or more of the background. It's only a two page piece, so maybe there wasn't space, but a little more context would have been useful, I think.
Slave by Alex Prud'Homme (1989)
A satisfying short profile of Albert Yeganeh, the real-life "Soup Nazi" (as he was dubbed in his fictional representation on Seinfeld). Good snippet:
"My regular customers don't say anything. They are very intelligent and well educated. they know I'm just trying to move the line. The New York cop is very smart--he sees everything but says nothing. But the young girl who wants to stop and tell you how nice you look and hold everything up--yah!" He made a guillotining motion with his hand.
Under the Hood by Mark Singer (1989)
Singer takes a drive uptown with Chris Maynard, one of the authors of Manifold Destiny: The One! The Only! Guide to Cooking on Your Car Engine. It's appropriately quirky, but doesn't really deal with Maynard's engine-cooking much. He puts a foil package of veal scaloppine on the engine of his 1988 Ford Taurus at the beginning of the piece, but then it becomes more about their jaunt to Tony's, "an Italian-owned place that serves Jewish food as well as Italian to a mainly Irish clientele" and home of the corned beef doughnut. Still fun--and there are engine-cooking anecdotes sprinkled throughout--but the piece has a little less focus than maybe it should.
Protein Source by Mark Singer (1992)
If the setting of the piece were different, Singer and his fellow guests (all characters) might be the central point of interest of this piece--there's a lot of journalists/The Media versus pest control agencies dialog that is weird for its level of venom. (Like, who would have thought that an exterminator from Queens would, as a pest control professional, have cause for such negative feelings against the press: "We do our best to treat them [the press] as nontarget organisms. As exterminators, we tend to target only four-legged, six-legged, and, on occasion, eight-legged organisms. We don't normally go after two-legged creatures, although, if you were really interested, I could set you up with someone."
However, since this piece takes place at the New York Entomological Society hundredth anniversary dinner, at which all of the dishes are insects--"cricket-and-vegetable tempura, mealworm balls in zesty tomato sauce, roasted Australian kurrajong grubs..."--the interpersonal dynamic is a bit distracting. But maybe that's for the best--I am not culinarily enlightened enough to be able to read about people eating a fancy bug dinner without feeling a little green. Especially when the piece ends with the guests selecting two-inch Thai Water Bugs (a cockroach by any other name...) from a buffet table.
A Sandwich by Nora Ephron (2002)
Basically, a pitch for the pastrami sandwich at Langer's Delicatessen in Los Angeles. The sandwich sounds very tasty, the piece itself was just okay.
Sea Urchin by Chang-Rae Lee (2002)
A memoir-style short essay about a trip that Lee took to Seoul in 1980 when he was fifteen. I remember reading this one for some reason--I was going through a phase with Lee's novels and essays for awhile, so maybe that's why--and I definitely enjoyed it the second time, although probably not as much as the first. The ending is a bit too heavy-handed with the emotional resonance.
As the French Do by Janet Malcolm (2002)
Another one with a quirky premise that kind of comes out of nowhere. Malcolm opens with a quote out of the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (from the recipe for 'Hearts of Artichokes a la Isman Bavaldy') an opaque, strangely written instruction about holding an asparagus spear upright as you build a "wall of sauce" around it that is supposed to hold it up. I'm not sure what the impetus for writing about her experiment with this strange recipe was, although there is a nice section about Malcolm's first experience cooking from the book--seven years before the publication of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she reminds us--when Malcolm was "stunned by suave deliciousness of what [she] had produced." (Coq a vin, or Cock in Wine.) She then reprints both the original Toklas recipe and her own "sort of hovering Jewish mother's version."
It's a bit muddled as an essay, but still interesting, which maybe I'm starting to realize is a New Yorker thing? Esoteric, kind of random, personality-heavy narrative essays?
Blocking and Chowing by Ben McGrath (2002)
I really liked this piece--it's just the right subject matter for the length (2 pages) and it conveys the main subject's (Randy Thomas, offensive lineman for the New York Jets) personality and voice well in the context of the larger milieu (the free, all-you-can-eat cafeteria at the Jets annual training camp). the funniest part is certainly where the players discuss several of their favorite restaurants. "Major's Steak House, on Long Island, is one favorite, and East-West, an all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant in New Jersey, is another; Thomas ran afoul of the management in East-West two years ago when he put away sixteen lobster tails. ("I've fucked up some buffets, man," Thomas says.)"
When Edibles Attack by Rebecca Mead (2003)
Another fancy dinner profile piece--this one at the Food Allergy Ball at the Plaza Hotel in 2003. It does a good job of presenting the milieu early on: "The guests...were drawn from that class of New York society which includes Fortune 500 CEOs and senior partners at corporate law firms and exclusive interior decorators: the fortunate few who are largely sheltered from many of life's afflictions. But food allergies...can strike even the most pampered New Yorkers, and, more significantly, the children of the most pampered New Yorkers, for whom a rogue peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich in the lunchroom can present a deadly threat." However, it's just not that interesting a subject (to me) somehow, and the dinner they congratulate themselves on ("cit[ing] 'the right to have a fine culinary experience without fear'") doesn't really sound that great.
Killing Dinner by Gabrielle Hamilton (2004)
A well-written and evocative, if visceral, memoir-style piece about Hamilton's first experience killing a chicken. (I'm not sure who Hamilton is--I really wish there was an author appendix in this collection--but she apparently is now very well-versed in the process of slaughtering and butchering livestock.) "There are two things you should never do with your father: learn how to drive, and learn how to kill a chicken."...more
I'm reading all three volumes of Kjærstad's 'Wergeland' trilogy this summer (The Seducer, The Conqueror, and The Discoverer) and will be reviewing theI'm reading all three volumes of Kjærstad's 'Wergeland' trilogy this summer (The Seducer, The Conqueror, and The Discoverer) and will be reviewing them as a whole in August or September after the publication of the last book. It's an epic task--perhaps more epic than I realized when I started--but even as I was getting a bit exhausted by the end of The Seducer, it ends on such an expansive note that I suddenly feel like I have this new burst of momentum.
Faces is the type of book that you really need to be in the mood to read. I say this not because there aren’t ample things to enjoy about this book (tFaces is the type of book that you really need to be in the mood to read. I say this not because there aren’t ample things to enjoy about this book (there really are), just because I’m feeling a bit guilty about not being more enthusiastic about it. The author, Tove Ditlevsen, was a much beloved, chronically depressed Danish poet, memoirist, novelist, and advice columnist, and apparently, her death in 1976—by suicide—provoked quite an outpouring all over the country. (I’m trying to remember the last time that an author’s suicide in the US gleaned as much of a reaction as those of actors or rock stars. Feel free to remind me if I’m overlooking someone, but it seems to me that we tend to focus our literary attentions on rising stars and major contributors dying of natural causes. Perhaps we’re really, truly past the moment when American authors lead highly visible, highly fraught and dramatic lives? No more tragic author superstars in the 21st century? But I digress…)
Faces starts off plot-heavy, if only to quickly adjust us to a reality that will promptly come unhinged. Its protagonist, Lise Mundus, is a successful author whose artistic success has alienated her from her family. Her children have adopted their LSD-experimenting, pop-philosopher, dilettante housekeeper, Gitte, as a mother. Her husband, declaring that he ‘cannot go to bed with a piece of literature,’ begins having serial affairs which he keeps Lise well apprised of. And while Lise keeps to her room (never leaving the house) and writes, Gitte begins to fill in for her: she sleeps with Lise’s husband (claiming it’s for Lise’s own good). She sleeps with one of Lise’s sons. She preaches about the problems of the world (it’s set in the 60s, often referencing escalations in Vietnam), and lectures Lise for her inability to feel the same love for suffering strangers as she does for her own children. She is the embodiment of Lise’s shortcomings, both perceived and realistic, and continues to haunt our protagonist in one form or another throughout the novel.
The story actually opens when one of Lise’s husband’s mistresses kills herself. This sets off a chain of events that drives the already psychologically tenuous Lise to believe that her husband and Gitte are trying to subconsciously drive her to kill herself. Thinking she’ll escape them, Lise swallows a bottle of sleeping pills, calls her doctor to come get her, and spends the next three weeks in a mental institution.
What makes this novel truly interesting is the way in which Lise’s perceptions are written into the text as fact. Lise is obsessed with faces, with the idea that everyone is wearing a mask that can be swapped out and manipulated in order to disguise the wearer’s true intentions. When a person is unable to maintain a façade, Lise sees their face shift and melt, or even mutate into grotesque caricatures. It’s a well-recognized metaphor on human interactions made horrifyingly tangible. But even knowing this, the reader finds herself struggling along with Lise to determine what is real—who is wearing a mask and who is not. The close third narration that Ditlevsen employs allows the reader to view Lise’s predicament from a distance, but also be inside of her own thinking. This blurs the line between reality and delusion, madness and sanity. Perhaps Lise’s paranoias were justifiable after all.
In a poignant twist, Lise declares herself ‘finally gone insane’ just as the doctors inform her that she’s actually recovering. It’s a moving juxtaposition, and one that calls up the reader’s own biases and perceptions about what kind of negotiations and compromises each of us need to make in order to function in the world, in order to be perceived as ‘sane.’ ...more