Monday, October 30, 2006

ManBug

It's Manbug week over at the LBC. Boy, it's a weird book and it's compulsively readable. Once I got into it--and I initally just thought, "oh , dear, this isn't going to work,"--it was an unexpected pleasure. It's the story of a love affair between two men, narrated by the one who suffers from some kind of mild Apsberger's syndrome. This, itself, makes him charmingly pedantic about his surroundings. Check it out.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Five Questions

If you’re looking to expand your horizons and your blogrolls, I hope you’ve been visiting John Baker’s Blog and reading through his many, many mini-interviews. You can find my rather terse answers to his five questions here. But it’s worth poking around in the archives for others.

I’ve updated my blogroll here, too. I have gotten so in the habit of reading via bloglines, that I’m slow to add links from here. Still, there are some excellent places to visit over in the right hand column, so do poke around. For all the linking I do to Light Reading, I don’t quite know why it hasn’t appeared over to the right until now. More recent discoveries include Geoffrey Philp’s blog—great for reading about poetry and Caribbean literature, Bookfox--John Fox’s unapologetically literary blog with a great “mix tape” feature (a cluster of paragraphs on the same theme from different authors), Kate’s Book Blog—because everytime I pop over there, I’m glad to have done so, and Pinky’s Paperhaus—which is just a really peppy, smart, postmodern funhouse of a place to visit. And you probably already know this, but You Cried for Night is now reeling and writhing: this AusLitBlog is always worth a visit. (The address is the same but, as Genevieve notes, the title is a little less despairing...)

LBC Autumn Pick--Firmin

The LBC is doing it again: discussing the three nominees for this quarter, including the wonderful and strange winner, Firmin, a novel about a highly literate rate chewing his way through the contents of a Boston used bookstore.

So, whilst I juggle two adored but tearful babes, hop on over to the LBC and check out the discussion.

Up this week: Sideshow. The author, Sidney Thompson, will be guest blogging today and throughout the week other LBC'ers will be offering up short critiques of individual stories from this eery collection.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Food, Magical Food: Madhur Jaffrey Edition

Yesterday, cooking up some ground beef (it was a lamb recipe, but we’re on a budget this month after the birthday bacchanal and beef was in the freezer) with tomatoes and peas, I had a real sense of the magic of cooking. It’s a Madhur Jaffrey recipe from her Quick and Easy Indian Cooking: a cookbook that has been utterly dependable for me. The recipes are genuinely easy and I am always amazed to discover, after forty minutes or so, that I have put together something that tastes like Indian food to me.

Her recipes are great the way that Julia Child’s are: she describes clearly and concisely each step of a recipe that is truly alchemical. Patricia Wells writes great recipes, as do the folks from Cook’s magazine, but the food they’re asking you to cook doesn’t metamorphose in front of your eyes. They just help you take a chicken that’s raw and turn it into a cooked one. No small feat, but not magic. Magic is going from butter, flour, and milk to a perfect b├ęchamel.

Jaffrey consistently amazes me. It’s as if she’s working magic through me, so little do I know about Indian cooking, so good does her food taste.

Take the beef recipe. You pulverize a bunch of garlic, ginger, and onions into a finely chopped paste and throw them into a generous bit of heated oil. Already, the kitchen changes. But then, you add two spices (tumeric & cayenne) and two seeds (cumin & cardamom) to the mix. It changes color. There’s suddenly depth to the flavor befitting eight ingredients—but, for all the opening of jars and measuring, it’s not super hard. Then, you add another layer: yogurt (always magical heated, I think) and tomato. Only then do you add the meat, salt, and more spice (garam masala). After twenty minutes, it’s chile, cilantro, lemon, and a whole bunch of frozen peas (a decidely underrated gem, I think). And that’s dinner.

When I was in college, I remember going through the cafeteria line with my friend from Pakistan. We were trying to figure out what was edible that day. She complained that all the meat had an unpleasantly meat-y taste, that she was not used to eating meat that tasted like meat. My friend is one of the smartest people I know. One of her great gifts to me in our youth were little wayside observations like this—suddenly something about American cuisine (haute and low) was clear: we like meat-flavored meat and not everyone does.

I admire Jaffrey’s powers of translation: she helped me make my very ordinary ShopRite 85% lean meat taste less like meat.

I see from Michelle that Jaffrey has a memoir out. I’ll have to add it to my wishlist…

R. W. Apple

“I envy the Swedes their social conscience, their gift for design and urban planning and their fish. Especially their fish.”—R. W. “Johnny” Apple

The Times correspondent R. W. Apple died a couple weeks ago, when this blog was slowed by my birthday, my parents’ visit and the orgy of eating that accompanies them. I can’t claim to have noticed his writing on my own—or to be a great follower of his news and political reporting—but, when I learned that he was a Princeton classmate of my father’s and known as “Johnny” Apple, I took notice. My father has some good Johnny Apple legends, and even without Apple’s presence, stories about him have a way of livening up a dinner.

So, as he has been doing more and more food writing over the past few years, we took to comparing favorite stories about him—be that his derring-do in VietNam (where, I am told, his expense reports made as good reading as his journalism) or his account of eating from street vendors in Hong Kong with restaurateur Jean-George Vongerichten. Best of all, I thought, were the accounts that combined both—as in an article about finding good food in a war zone.

When we heard of his death, we talked about his gifts. What made him such a great food writer? His gusto, his generosity, and the sense he imparted in every piece that what you had missed was not just a great meal but a really fun time. But reading him did not excite envy, for, as many of his friends and associates note, he was not secretive about his finds. His willingness to share a tip extended far beyond his cronies at the Times. His references to “my wife, Betsey,” would make for an easily parodied tic if they were not accompanied by such a genuine sense that he had a better time because she was along.

Adam Nagourney has a lovely reminiscence that shares much of what I admire in Apple’s writing and he aptly describes Apple’s gifts. Reading this, listening to some of the audio slideshows, and reading his piece on ten restaurants worth a plane trip give me but a pale sketch of what surely was an amazingly charismatic, big, fun person. Nagourney writes of a dinner in L.A. during the 2000 Democratic Convention:
Johnny offered Mr. Puck a challenge — “We are in your hands,” are the words I recall — and thus began a four-hour blur of plates and platters and bottles of wine the likes of which I had never seen before, or since, at a Puck restaurant. Two hours into our bacchanal Mr. Puck proved that he knew his Apple: out from the kitchen came a plate of pig prepared four ways, precisely the kind of unpretentiously rustic and absurdly rich dish that could make Johnny literally rise from his chair and yelp in delight. That’s just what he did, before proceeding to correctly guess the farm in Pennsylvania where Mr. Puck had purchased his pork.

He goes on to write of Apple’s equal delight in street food and eating home-cooked meals with friends.

I find this, also from the Nagourney piece, heartrending:
His very last e-mail message, sent the night before he died, was a response to a Times food writer looking for suggestions on pancake recipes for a magazine feature. “Just very quickly since I don’t have my files here,” Johnny wrote. “1. American pancakes — Overrated, as you say. You might try the Bongo Room, in Wicker Park, north of Chicago. 2. Don’t forget Breton buckwheat crepes. 3. From South Asia (states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu in India): they make great dosas.”

Friday, October 13, 2006

The One Book Meme

Fun to read, intimidating to do for all the reasons Ana Maria states, but I get this from an impressive little chain—Ana Maria, who got it from Bud, who got it from James Marcus. Clearly I must play along.

1. One book that changed your life? Anne of Green Gables: I remember coming down to the kitchen and asking, “Mom? What’s a kindred spirit?” I listened to her answer, which filled out the description of Anne’s feelings for her best friend and then declared the obvious: “Anne of Green Gables is my kindred spirit.” But that was the first time I remember finding a friend inside a book.

2. One book that you have read more than once? A Room of One’s Own. I resisted Woolf for years because she was the favorite of my exacting Yankee grandmother. I turned to her at twenty-two just out of a sense that I must and I have never looked back. A Room is my favorite—beautiful, smart, unapologetically feminist, lyrical, intense, funny.

3. One book you would want on a desert island? The Complete Works of Shakespeare. I hate loneliness and boredom. I love writers who seem to create a world, writers who can appear to give you the full palette of human experience. Joyce does this; so does Dickens. Still, for me, there are only two: Woolf and Shakespeare. Shakespeare offers consolation and distraction and I would need both, I think.

4. One book that made you cry? It’s been a long time since I cried from reading a book. The burning stables in Black Beauty are devastating.

5. One book that made you laugh? I laughed out loud a couple times at Michael Martone, last quarter's LBC pick. There are laughs this quarter, too, so stay tuned...

6. One book you wish had been written? A novel by Katherine Mansfield.

7. One book you wish had never been written? That does seem a little mean, but I wasted far too much time on D.H. Lawrence’s Fantasia of the Unconscious. I love Lawrence—and can tolerate him even in the late, hateful Mexican phase—but the fake psychoanalytic stuff is really horrible tripe and doesn’t add anything to the world but meaningless meanness.

8. One book you are reading currently? People I Wanted to Be by Gina Ochsner.

9. One book you have been meaning to read? So, so, so many of these—my whole apartment feels like a giant to-be-read list. I like Bud’s approach to the question and will copy it: On my nightstand is Achmat Dangor’s Bitter Fruit, which never quite seems to rise to first spot. But every change of season, I think that perhaps this is the moment to get further than eighty pages into Proust. I would love to read Remembrance of Things Past. Soon.

10. Pass it on: Carolyn because she's funny & doesn't pull punches.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Kew Gardens

Ana Maria was kind enough to send me over to A Curious Singularity where a lively and smart discussion of Woolf's story "Kew Gardens" is ongoing this week. "Kew Gardens" is one of Woolf's first breakthrough modernist works and an early publication from her own press, illustrated by her sister. It's got a long and storied history in the world of Woolf and in the world of modernism. It's moving and wonderful to read so many writers grappling with it today.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Lady Ott

Exciting news from the Guardian (via the Woolf listserv):
A cache of unpublished letters from the novelist Virginia Woolf and scores of first editions inscribed by leading writers and poets of the early 20th century has emerged in the contents of the library of Lady Ottoline Morrell, the society hostess who became one of the most flamboyant, loved and mocked associates of the Bloomsbury group.

The Guardian quotes generously from a letter from Woolf but does not indicate how large this cache might be.

Lady Ott is always interesting and she seems to have been so for many, many interesting people. The caricatures of her in modernist fiction are both cruel and loving: one wants to have had the privilege of going to Garsington and deciding for oneself to mock or simply enjoy the hospitality.

Bertrand Russell’s comment seems to me to capture a kind of sexual frankness that’s very different from anything current today (except perhaps in campus brochures from the Dean’s Office): "For external and accidental reasons I did not have full relations with Ottoline that evening but we agreed to become lovers as soon as possible."

Duly noted.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Where I’ve been…

I had a bunch of October 1 deadlines and, miraculously, met nearly all of them because I wanted to be free to celebrate my birthday. So, I worked like a bee the whole last week of September, anticipating Friday the 29th.

I turned forty.

That’s very hard to believe.

But the shock was significantly leavened by the surprise arrival of my parents from Seattle. The popped in to the bar at the Algonquin on Friday night and we moved from there on to dinner at Per Se. That, in fact, had been my fantasy of the perfect fortieth birthday—dinner with my parents and my husband at Per Se. I am still reeling from the strange, thrilling pleasure of having a fantasy come true. My husband engineered it--wow!

Those October 1 deadlines don’t slow down the blogging while I’m working—writing a quick blog entry is often a good way to keep me at my desk even if I cannot still work on the task at hand. But the orgy of work followed by the shock of a new decade, accompanied all the while by the demands of the gorgeous, funny, demanding daughters, and leavened by all kinds of treats from my husband and my own parents made the next week one in which I couldn’t really get to Fernham. There has been a lot of eating (more foie gras!) and a lot of reading in the intervening time. I look forward to sorting it all out in prose in the coming days…