This book was a favorite of a great friend of mine (who gifted it to me in high school, incidentally) and I just now decided to dip back into it becau...moreThis book was a favorite of a great friend of mine (who gifted it to me in high school, incidentally) and I just now decided to dip back into it because I've been trying to do more narrative non-fiction reading and White's essay "Death of a Pig" was referenced by two different authors (Geraldine Brooks and Ian Reid) during a writing workshop I attended in the spring.
There are some lovely essays here—the paean to the pig, yes, but I was also in a bit of a country mode and really enjoyed "Coon Tree" (the bit where he realizes that his poetical description of how raccoons descend from trees is actually just how this one raccoon descends is great) and "The Eye of Edna." And, of course, I have a great soft spot for "Here is New York" with its nearly perfect first line, "On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy."
You do have to be in a mood for 'ol E.B., however, as he can be a great curmudgeon, grumbling about punctuation marks and those galdurn politicians and rambling on at length about his old wood fire stove and The Way Things Were. This isn't to say he's not a nice curmudgeon—he's a curmudgeon I would have gladly spent time with. But sometimes he takes on a sort of muttering, folksy provincialism that can be quite trying.
All the same, a wonderful—and instructive—collection when you're in the mood. (less)
Picked up while browsing the Portland (Maine) public library, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays is, maybe somewhat strangely, my first introduction...morePicked up while browsing the Portland (Maine) public library, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays is, maybe somewhat strangely, my first introduction to Zadie Smith, whose fiction I have always heard all manner of raves about. But I was looking for something in a non-fiction narrative vein--seems to be the mood I am in right now--and a number of the essays in this collection seemed intriguing. I may not read the whole collection, but given the variety of subject matter that she covers, I think I'll make notes on some of the essays as I read them.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?”
This essay opens the collection and I really just flipped to it because I wanted to get a quick feel for Smith's writing style. I tend to actively avoid essays about books I haven't read (and I have not read Hurston as of yet)--I find that authors' examinations almost never bring you into the text (or relate the text outward) in a rewarding way if you aren't already familiar with the storyline of the book they are discussing. But there's so much here for the unfamiliar reader: for one, it definitely convinced me to read Their Eyes Were Watching God in the near future. This isn't just a discussion of a wonderful, important book that Smith loves (and its fascinating author), however: it is one which examines the nature of readership (the common aspiration of many readers to be 'objectively neutral' in their assessment of a book, and why allowing ourselves to personally relate to a literary work and understand why particularly touches us is actually important), the idea that a book or an author can only be (or should only be) the province of a particular group (here, Black women readers), and of course, the titular idea of "soulfulness" (although I think the other topics are actually the focal points of the article). It's a wonderful piece and one which I think would even merit a second read.
“That Crafty Feeling”
This essay is a version of a lecture that Smith gave for writing students at Columbia, and is--like much of her writing, I'm finding--a wonderful mix of personal reflection and intelligent criticism. And she's also very, very funny. When done right, a writerly essay about writerly things is almost always enjoyable for me, and Smith's piece is no exception.
"One Week in Liberia"
This essay is heart-wrenching, and I'd like to know where Smith originally published it, and why. She paints an unflinching portrait of Liberia and its present situation (I say this, of course, as someone who is very unfamiliar with Liberia, its history, and its people) and her portrait of Evelyn, one of the young women she met, was heartbreaking. The essay ends on a somewhat hopeful note, although not without a certain knowing despair. This was a tough one.
"Speaking in Tongues"
This essay was delivered as a lecture shortly after Obama's election in 2008. It deals, elegantly, with the idea of having two 'voices,' two identities, which coexist harmoniously. Smith saw Obama as being a particularly hopeful figure because he was able to so fluently and effortlessly slip between worlds and voices. "He doesn't just speak for his people. He can speak them...The tale he tells is not the old tragedy of gaining a new, false voice at the expense of a true one. The tale he tells is all about addition. His is the story of a genuinely many-voiced man. If it has a moral, it is that each man must be true to his selves, plural." It's a hopeful piece, albeit a cautiously hopeful one: "A lot rests on how this president turns out—but that's a debate for the future." So now, in the midst of Obama's second term, or perhaps even after it, it would be very interesting to read Smith's response to herself in this piece, looking back.
"At the Multiplex, 2006"
Smith wrote film reviews of mainstream films for The Sunday Telegraph for the 2006 season, and the resulting reviews were edited into this piece. Reading these, I found myself laughing out loud, repeatedly. This isn't necessarily film criticism with a capital "C," but Smith is an intelligent person reacting to art (or sub-art, as the case may be), and the result was very enjoyable to read, even when I didn't agree with her assessments. Some highlights:
-"Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson. My brain is giving you one star, but my heart wants to give five. I want you to know that Get Rich or Die Tryin' is to ghetto movies what Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot was to Mafia movies, and I love, love, love it...I Love that you keep getting your fellow gangsters to admit that they love you. Really loudly. In the middle of robberies. I love the Beckettian dialog...I love how your acting style makes Bogart look animated."
-"I should lay my cards on the table: I think Spielberg is one of the great popular artists of our time, and I base this upon the stupidity/pleasure axis I apply to popular artists: how much pleasure they give versus how stupid one has to become to receive said pleasure."
-Regarding The Weather Man: "As I see it, this film's central concept is the aversion most right thinking people have to the actor Nicholas Cage. And he accepts this mantle so honorably and humbly in this film that I think now maybe I quite like him."
"Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend"
Another essay I'd like to know the publication origin of. This was an enjoyable read, and certainly not the expected Oscar-fare—Smith pointedly avoided name-dropping ("What if you got assigned to write about the Oscars and you didn't mention a single actor? You know, as a demystifying strategy?"), although she does, in fact, name drop Bret Easton Ellis. I enjoyed this essay, enjoyed the portrait that she paints of a jaded, exhausted, overly-polite, and rather paranoid Hollywood. It wasn't life-changing, but then again, neither are the Oscars.
"Smith Family Christmas" / Dead Man Laughing
I'm discovering that Smith handles personal reflection really elegantly: she gives you a frank window into her life, but keeps the subject matter tight and well-curated. Her reflections are relatable, but don't sprawl endlessly outwards in that Everything-Is-Connected, Let's-Appreciate-the-Grand-Moral sort of way that I, at least, find extremely irritating. Her essay on her deceased father and their shared love of humor (as well as her brother's foray into the world of comedy) was touching, and sincere, reflective, and quite funny.
I found this at the Brooklyn Public Library (my last BPL library rental before the move!) after seeing it in a bookshop--loved the title and the cover...moreI found this at the Brooklyn Public Library (my last BPL library rental before the move!) after seeing it in a bookshop--loved the title and the cover art. Turns out it's more of a cookbook than a book of essays, but the context is interesting. Pellegrino compiled recipes from all over Italy shortly after its unification, something that apparently had not really been done before. and although the book is mostly comprised of recipes, he fills it with fascinating and funny anecdotes about the people who taught him how to cook these dishes, little history lessons about regions of Italy and the progression of cuisine, and more. It's quite the anthropological text, actually.
Also, even though it was written over a century ago, it reads as a very contemporary text, that is, until you get to cooking instructions about placing your pot or pan on the open fire that apparently was in every kitchen. Thinking about how to convert instructions--such as those about keeping a pot near embers but not over an open flame--to work on contemporary stoves was also a fun exercise while reading. (less)
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....moreI'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."(less)
I'm sitting in on a class this semester which explains and contextualizes postmodern thought by surveying (pre-)modern philosophy. It's great for me--...moreI'm sitting in on a class this semester which explains and contextualizes postmodern thought by surveying (pre-)modern philosophy. It's great for me--I never really read Descartes or Locke or Kant or Rousseau, let alone really spent any time working on Nietzsche texts. So far, this is a great compendium, too--each thinker/excerpted text has a straightforward introduction which provides some background and points out the main ideas of the piece and their significance. It's an excellent crash course in the thought and philosophy which has defined the 19th/20th/21st centuries. (less)
On "European Literature as a Eurovision Song Contest," by Dubravka Ugresic:
I picked this collection up because of an essay it contains by Dubravka Ugr...moreOn "European Literature as a Eurovision Song Contest," by Dubravka Ugresic:
I picked this collection up because of an essay it contains by Dubravka Ugresic (I'll be reviewing a new essay collection of hers shortly). The essay, called "European Literature as a Eurovision Song Contest," is fantastic. Ugresic discusses nationality, nationalism, identity, authorship, and more both imaginatively and incisively. It's a short essay--if you have any interest in any of the topics above, I highly recommend you read it--it also provides useful a context/parallel for much of Ugresic's other writing. A particularly stand-out quote:
"Some ten years ago I had an elegant Yugoslav passport with a soft, flexible, dark red cover. I was a Yugoslav writer. Then the war came and--without asking me--the Croats thrust into my hand a blue Croatian passport...The new Croatian authorities expected from their citizens a prompt transformation of identity, as though the passport itself was a magic pill...With my new Croatian passport I abandoned my newly acquired "homeland" and set off into the world. Out there, with the gaiety of Eurovision Song Contest fans, I was immediately identified as a Croatian writer. I became the literary representative of a milieu that did not want me any more and which I did not want any more either. But still the label Croatian writer remained with me, like a permanent tattoo.
At this moment I possess a passport with a red cover, Dutch. I continue to wear the label of the literary representative of a country to which I am not connected even by a passport. Will my new passport make me a Dutch writer? I doubt it. Will my Dutch passport ever make it possible for me to reintegrate in Croatian literary ranks? I doubt it."
or the uninitiated, Dubravka Ugrešić’s essay collection Karaoke Culture provides an emblematic, if occasionally disjointed, snapshot of the author’s notable body of work. Available now just a year after its initial publication (very unusual for a translated work), Karaoke Culture is a timely collection on topics from the rise of participatory culture and “the anonymous artist” (the title essay), the preferred nomenclature and adopted personas of third wave feminists (“Bitches”), the “psychopathology” of reflexively loving a homeland you didn’t choose (“No Country for Old Women”), and a personal reflection on the vicious media harassment which led Ugrešić to emigrate from the newly-formed Croatian state to the Netherlands in 1993 (“A Question of Perspective”).
Reading Karaoke Culture is—in the best way possible—much like sitting with a highly caffeinated intellectual over tea. Ugrešić is a conversational writer; the zig-zagging structure of her essays suggests a fluid writing process that hews close to the author’s thoughts as she works from each initial observation to a final, incisive epiphany. Her cultural touchstones are restricted neither by country nor time nor genre: within the collection she makes easy reference to everything from Gone with the Wind and IKEA to Bulgarian Idol and Henry Darger. When these disparate references cohere within one essay, the effect is luminous. Only rarely within the dense collection does Ugrešić’s elliptical logic-dart miss its mark, leaving a few of the essays feeling somewhat over-determined.
The 22 essays in Karaoke Culture read fast—several are only two or three pages—but the collection rewards rumination. On first reading, it might appear that Ugrešić is herself channel-surfing, hopping among divergent topics to simply cover as much ground as possible. But so much the better. Here she diagnoses contemporary culture in all its facets, underlying the parallels between ideologies and societies that have long understood themselves to be diametrically opposed.
Throughout the collection, Ugrešić’s outspoken, absurdist humor and her genuinely global perspective shine through. Karaoke Culture is a rarity: a thoughtful, personal and informative work of socio-cultural critique that doesn’t take itself too seriously. (less)
Alda Sigmundsdottir is the author behind the popular blog (now Facebook page) "The Icelandic Weather Report." After living abroad for many years, she...moreAlda Sigmundsdottir is the author behind the popular blog (now Facebook page) "The Icelandic Weather Report." After living abroad for many years, she returned to Iceland and found herself at once "one of us" but also very much unfamiliar with the "social mores and standards that prevailed in Icelandic society." So The Little Book of Icelanders is a short, anecdotal collection of observations ("sweeping generalizations and subjective opinions," she admits) made by a woman who is at once inside of Icelandic culture and yet is able to view it as (almost) a foreigner as well.
There's not a lot of analysis or deeper connections drawn in the course of Alda's Little Book, but then again, she really hasn't promised any such thing. It's not an anthropology text, after all. But the book is chock full of Fun Facts About Iceland, some of which, I think, circulate rather widely, and some of which were delightfully new to me. Some of the more entertaining and interesting Fun Facts Alda shares throughout are as follows:
--Family names (as in the sort of last names used in the US) have been "unequivocally illegal" in Iceland since 1991. Traditionally, Icelandic names are patronymic and end in "-son" for men and "-dottir" for women. So Bjarn Gudmundsson is Bjarn, son of Gudmund. His son would be, hypothetically, Karl Bjarnsson. But at some point, taking non-patronymic family names became very popular in Iceland, and people were just making things up "willy-nilly." So, to preserve tradition, no new family names can be taken.
--Continuing with the name-related rules: Iceland has a "Name Committee" that parents must submit the name of their child to for approval. And less traditional names, such as "Pixiebell or Apple or TigerLily" can absolutely be rejected. Alda explains: "Fascist? Perhaps. But consider: Icelandic is one complicated language...and one of its more difficult features is that the nouns, as opposed to just the verbs, decline according to case. They change. Either their endings change, or the whole name changes." So one of the Name Committee's jobs is to make sure that it's possible to decline a name in Icelandic without any trouble.
--As of 2010, 92% of Icelandic households had an internet connection--one of the highest rates of connectivity in the world. Icelandic dependence on Facebook is also unusually high: the post-meltdown revolution was, according to Alda, "largely organized through Facebook."
--Even though the current Icelandic Prime Minister is a woman, she is--in official correspondence--referred to with a male pronoun. Says Alda, "...an official committee appointed by the Icelandic authorities declared that all people in Iceland shall be referred to as 'men' and use the pronoun 'he.'"
--Icelanders rarely, if ever, say "excuse me."
--For Icelanders, the hot tub serves the same social purpose as the British pub or the Turkish teahouse. "It's where people go for rest and relaxation and also where they discuss current events and social affairs of prime importance."
--Icelandic children are universally made to nap outdoors in their prams, regardless of the weather. "This is believed to strengthen the child's constitution...All warmly ensconced in their lambskin-lined pouches, tucked behind a nylon net or blanket to keep out leaves, snowflakes, or other stray matter."
There's a lot more, all generously and humorously explained by Alda. The book is going to come out in hardback soon, but in the meantime, can be purchased as an e-book, here:http://icelandweatherreport.com/the-l...
(For another observational exploration of Icelandic Culture with a bit more structure to it, check out Ring of Seasons by America-to-Iceland transplant Terry G. Lacy.)
I'd been planning to read Holm's book of essays, Windows of Brimnes for quite some time. Not because I'm familiar with his poetry, but because it's a...moreI'd been planning to read Holm's book of essays, Windows of Brimnes for quite some time. Not because I'm familiar with his poetry, but because it's a book (travel narrative/memoir) about Iceland. But reading these essays spread over about a month in the best of circumstances--on trains, before bed, with my morning coffee--I found myself constantly going back and forth on how I felt about the collection--and Holm--over all.
On one hand, Holm is observant and anecdotal and rather funny, in a crotchety sort of way. He is nostalgic and sentimental and writes about nature and small communities and memory with an eye for detail and a distinctly romantic lyricism.
On the other, he can be really a pretty irksome narrator, chastising the reader for his/her dependence on cell phones and television, for not being able to play the piano, for not having read Spinoza. (I don't have cable, I read every day--I still can't play Hayden myself and don't feel the worse for it...)
Windows of Brimnes is a distinctly, explicitly post-9/11 meditation, but even when you agree with Holm, it's hard not to be aggravated by his often self-righteous kvetching. It becomes a case of Old Man Yelling a little too often.
But all the same, there are several really wonderful essays in this collection, so even when I was irritated, I found myself returning to the book. I'd even consider reading another one of Holm's essay collections, provided that I had something else to turn to when I'd had enough of his tsk-tsking.