Nearly three years ago, I mentioned the El Bulli cookbook, which contains the mad scientist recipes of the famous Catalan chef Ferran Adria. At his restaurant, El Bulli, Adria popularized techniques like creating foams and gelatins using unexpected ingredients and layering flavors and temperatures in his dishes in disconcerting ways. In keeping with what some might call the inaccessibility of his cuisine, his cookbook is large, expensive, and pretty hard to get a hold of. A new edition out in 2005 made it a little easier to take a peak at Adria’s recipes, though, even on sale at Amazon, it’ll still set you back almost $200. This hasn’t kept chefs from coveting the book, according to a recent article in the Contra Costa Times. With Adria’s mystique, and the book’s steep price tag, El Bulli would likely be a jewel in any cookbook collection.
On Wednesday, the Aloud Series at the Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles hosted writers Antonya Nelson and Marisa Silver in conversation with Bernadette Murphy. The topic was “The Domestic Drama: Novel Form or Formula?” and, after short readings by Nelson and Silver, the conversation began. Why are we, as American writers, so preoccupied with familial dysfunction?Antonya Nelson called our fascination with stories about family a quintessentially American preoccupation. Family, she said, “is where a lot of our personal battles are lodged,” but that those battles, no matter how small and personal, are also political. Marisa Silver agreed. Silver also argued that stories about family provide a “dramatic rubric”; that is, narratives of family are imbued with desire, conflict, and even, say, an enemy. Later on in the talk, Bernadette Murphy mentioned a lecture at Antioch University given by Dorothy Allison, where Allison argued that all good literature has home at its center. Nelson agreed, saying that family is our most powerful institution, and that the home is the most powerful setting for it. She discussed her most recent novel, Living to Tell, in which her main character, after paying his dues to society (in prison), must return to his family to pay an entirely different penance – and perhaps a more meaningful one. (This discussion of home reminded me of Alice Munro, who has described her short fiction – and I’m paraphrasing my former teacher and friend Dan Chaon – as a house with many rooms one can wander in and out of, and not in any particular order. I’ve always loved that.)Although the conversation was enjoyable, the three writers also bandied about the usual platitudes about how reading allows us to see the world better, that it expands our capacity for empathy, and helps us to understand our own lives. I agree, but we’ve heard such slogans before. Instead, since all three guests were women, I hoped they might discuss the role of the female writer in depicting the home and family. Not that male writers haven’t taken up these topics – they certainly have – but, I wondered, are our perspectives on “the domestic” gendered ones? I’m reminded of a Virginia Woolf quote from A Room of One’s Own, wherein she says, “…the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so.” (Really, Virginia, naturally?) Traditionally, women writers have gone indoors, so to speak, to tell their stories, and to explore what matters to them. What about now? How are women writers redefining (or maintaining) notions of family, home, motherhood, and so on? (I know, I know: I should have raised my hand during the q&a.)Other highlights of the night included Silver’s discussion of the mythologies our families create for us, those roles we are given to play and/or reject. I also liked her description of writing as a “limbo between waking and dreaming.” Antonya Nelson’s reading impressed me deeply; I love her work. She read from the first pages of “Nothing Right,” the title story in her new collection. Check out this passage:He was her second son, and he’d never been the one she understood best. Recently, she’d found herself disgusted by him: She didn’t want to share a bathroom or kitchen, bar soap or utensils with her own boy. His brother, who’d passed through adolescence sobbing instead of shouting, had not prepared her for Leo. The pure ugliness of a more traditonal male’s tranformation to manhood – the inflamed skin and foul odor, the black scowl, the malice in every move – might eventually convince a parent to dispair, to say to that child, “You are dead to me.” Because it would be easier–more decorous, acceptable – to mourn the loss than to keep waging a hopeless battle.Nelson also told an amazing story about a baby-thieving nurse, and described her impulse to write as the desire to “investigate a situation,” and to get at “what the police blotter can only allude to.” She said, near the end of the talk, that, for her, writing is “a way of getting to the bottom of mystery.”The discussion meandered naturally, from references to Marilynne Robinson to Peter Taylor to the world famous Octomom. It wasn’t a bad way to spend a Wednesday evening…
I stepped into a book store in the old city of Barcelona. It was spacious and well lit with dark wood shelves and floors. Many langauges were well represented including a wide selection of English language books. It is very easy to take a shot at American bookstores when comparing them to bookstores overseas, and it’s really remarkable to see the difference in person. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be an expat, estranged from my country, but sometimes yearning for contact. I think I would spend a lot of time in a bookstore like that and it would fill the void for me. With the jet lag and all that, I was having trouble diving into another book. I guess I needed a change of pace to reflect the change of scenery, so I fished into the bag of books I brought with me and came up with this beauty: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware. I have always been drawn to certain of the visual story telling forms: typically not so much the action hero stuff, but certain “graphic novels” have caught my attention. I also like to flip through a collection of “newspaper funnies” from time to time, Calvin and Hobbes, for example, is always a delight. Rarely, however, have I encountered a book that transcends the genre like Jimmy Corrigan. This book has already received a chorus of praise and numerous awards. In a lot of cases, in fact, no one had ever considered that a graphic novel might be eligible to win certain of the awards, but this one was just too good to be ignored. I have been on a good stretch with books lately; I haven’t been disappointed in while, but my next book is a bit riskier: The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez… I’ll let you know how it goes…I’m off to Ireland tomorrow, and there might not be internet there, but I will try my best; if not, we’ll catch up when I get back to the states.
My winter reading project this year is War and Peace. On an average night I make it through 15-20 pages before I become too tired to follow the story anymore. At this rate I should be done by Easter.
I have read Anna Karenina and The Death Ivan Illych so I am well-acquainted with the pleasures of Tolstoy. A 2007 NYRB article on a new translation of War and Peace described those pleasures well: “No other writer,” wrote Orlando Figes, “can recreate emotions and experience with such precision and economy.”
Reading War and Peace, there is the sense of beginning one of the great experiences one might have in a lifetime. It is an enervating feeling, but also a melancholy one. I imagine I will feel a step closer to death 1,300 pages from now.
But before that happens, I’d like to annotate the most beautiful, strange, penetrating and sublime moments from the book. This desire owes in part to the natural inclination to want to share something as good as Tolstoy. But there are selfish motives at work, too. I hope that I might, by sharing the experience of reading War and Peace, be able to hold onto it a little longer.
First, A few of my favorite passages from the first third of the book:
I found his description of obligatory and irreproachable idleness to capture an unexpected pleasure of parenthood: that even something as lazy as a late-morning nap feels purposeful, even dutiful, when taken alongside a sleeping child.
The Bible legend tells us that the absence of labor—idleness—was a condition of the first man’s blessedness before the Fall. Fallen man has retained a love of idleness, but the curse weighs on the race not only because we have to seek our bread in the sweat of our brows, but because our moral nature is such that we cannot be both idle and at ease. An inner voice tells us we are in the wrong if we are idle. If man could find a state in which he felt that though idle he was fulfilling his duty, he would have found one of the conditions of man’s primitive blessedness. And such a state of obligatory and irreproachable idleness is the lot of a whole class- the military. The chief attraction of military service has consisted and will consist in this compulsory and irreproachable idleness.
It’s astounding how often in War and Peace Tolstoy is able to write about overwhelming elements of human experience as easily as if he were observing a rock in his front yard:
After dinner Natasha, at Prince Andre’s request, went to the clavichord and began singing. Prince Andre stood by a window talking to the ladies and listened to her. In the midst of a phrase he ceased speaking and suddenly felt tears choking him, a thing he had thought impossible for him. He looked at Natasha as she sang, and something new and joyful stirred in his soul. He felt happy and at the same time sad. He had absolutely nothing to weep about yet he was ready to weep. What about? His former love? The little princess? His disillusionments?…His hopes for the future?…Yes and no. The chief reason was a sudden, vivid sense of the terrible contrast between something infinitely great and illimitable within him and that limited and material something that he, and even she, was. This contrast weighed on and yet cheered him while she sang.
I often wonder whether the elements of our lives—the Internet, chain stores, abundance, self-consciousness—influence a conscious experience that is unique to our time. Tolstoy’s answer is that they don’t:
“Yes, that is true, Prince. In our days,” continued Vera—mentioning “our days” as people of limited intelligence are fond of doing, imagining that they have discovered and appraised the peculiarities of “our days” and that human characteristics change with the time.
Jeffrey Eugenides became a household name among many readers thanks to Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides. Eight years after Middlesex, Eugenides has quietly become one of the most admired American novelists working today, and it’s likely that many fans are looking ahead to October, when Eugenides’s next novel, The Marriage Plot, is set to be released.
FSG’s catalog copy describes a campus/coming-of-age/love-triangle novel (some may recall the protagonist Madeleine Hanna from an excerpt that was published in the New Yorker in 2010), but the The Marriage Plot‘s first paragraph sets the stage for what may be a very bookish novel, with some serious literary name dropping and a mention of John Updike’s Couples.
To start with, look at all the books. There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Bronte sisters. There were a whole lot of black-and-white New Directions paperbacks, mostly poetry by people like H.D. or Denise Levertov. There were the Colette novels she read on the sly. There was the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now to provide textual support in her English honors thesis on the marriage plot. There was, in short, this mid-sized but still portable library representing pretty much everything Madeleine had read in college, a collection of texts, seemingly chosen at random, whose focus slowly narrowed, like a personality test, a sophisticated one you couldn’t trick by anticipating the implications of its questions and finally got so lost in that your only recourse was to answer the simple truth. And then you waited for the result, hoping for “Artistic,” or “Passionate,” thinking you could live with “Sensitive,” secretly fearing “Narcissistic” and “Domestic,” but finally being presented with an outcome that cut both ways and made you feel different depending on the day, the hour, or the guy you happened to be dating: “Incurably Romantic.”