Saturday, February 28, 2009

Anticipating This Year's Biographies


If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll know that I like to read biographies, particularly biographies that offer some insight into the creative process. It looks like it's going to be another good year for those. There are a number that have recently been published or are due out later this year that I'm eagerly anticipating. At the top of the list, arranged in order of publication date, are:

Robert Crawford's The Bard: Robert Burns, A Biography, released on this side of the Atlantic a month ago on Burns's 250th birthday: You wouldn't think there would be much new to say all these years later about a figure already so well known and much written-about. But the catalogue copy asserts, and the reviews so far confirm, that Crawford has dug up some new sources and has offered new insights into Robert Burns—the man, the writer, and the myth—in this one. And given the depth of Crawford's knowledge of and engagement with Scottish literature in general (Scotland's Books: The Penguin History of Scottish Literature) and Scottish poetry in particular (Penguin Book of Scottish Verse), I can't think of anyone better placed to do so.

Brad Gooch's Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, released just this week: Flannery O'Connor is one of the short story writers that I most admire and I'm keen to learn more about her. And, given that I loved every minute of Brad Gooch's biography of Frank O'Hara, I'm looking forward to his take on a new literary subject. Incidentally, I found the review of this book that appears in this weekend's New York Times highly unsatisfying. Reviewer Joy Williams trots out many details about O'Connor that she evidently learned from the book but, apart from remarking that O'Connor, being such a contrast to Frank O'Hara, is an odd subject for Gooch, she largely skirts the question of whether or not Gooch has written a good biography here. No matter; I'll read it and decide for myself.

Lillian Pizzichini's The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys, due out this Spring: Jean Rhys is another writer whose work I admire enormously and she's an enigmatic figure who I'd like to know more about. Much of her fiction has been described as autobiographical, but I have no idea to what extent that's true. I'm curious to see what new light Pizzichini can shed on Rhys and her work for me.

Terry Teachout's Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, due out in December: I'm a fan of Louis Armstrong's music and of Terry Teachout's writing so of course I want to read this biography. There's an added layer of anticipation though, generated by having, as a regular reader of Terry's blog (About Last Night), been privy to a number of posts along the way about his process of researching and writing it.

Which new biographies are you looking forward to reading this year? What have I missed? There must be others that I'm going to want to know about!

Friday, February 27, 2009

John Glassco on Absinthe

John Glassco on his first experience of absinthe during a 1928 jaunt to Luxembourg:

     We went back to the Grosplatz, where the heavy men had now switched from beer and buns to aperatifs and anchovies. Many of them were sitting in front of elaborate ice-filled glass tanks with little spigots extending over their glasses. When I learned these were filters for absinthe I at once ordered one and was served an aperitif glass a quarter full of pale green liquid over which was fitted a flanged and perforated spoon holding a large domino of sugar. A tank of ice was then brought and the glass placed under one of the spigots. I had now only to turn a little tap to let the iced water drip slowly over the sugar until the glass was full.
     The clean sharp taste was so far superior to the sickly liquorice flavour of legal French Pernod that I understood the still-rankling fury of the French at having that miserable drink substituted for the real thing in the interest of public morality. The effect also was as gentle and insidious as a drug: in five minutes the world was bathed in a fine emotional haze unlike anything resulting from other forms of alcohol. La sorcière glauque I thought, savouring the ninetyish phrase with real understanding for the first time.

From John Glassco, Memoirs of Montparnasse.

To see photos of the absinthe paraphernalia that Glassco describes, check out the Virtual Absinthe Museum.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Library Loot

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Eva and Alessandra in which they encourage bloggers to share the books they've checked out from the library. Now, I don't need much encouragement to share my enthusiasm for the library and the glorious stacks of books that I cart home from it on a regular basis. And this week was a particularly good one. Here's what I got and why:

J.L. Carr, A Month in the Country: A brief post at Books, Inq. pronouncing this novella "a minor masterpiece" sent me in search of it. Plus, I've yet to encounter a book published by NYRB not worth reading.

Barbara Caruso, A Painter's Journey: Volume II 1974-1979: Some of you may remember that volume one of Caruso's journals was one of my favourite reads of 2006 and I'm keen to continue through the rest of the 70s with her.

Nick Hornby, Housekeeping vs. The Dirt: It seems to me that this second collection of Hornby's "Adventures in Reading" columns from The Believer has been soundly panned by a number of my favourite bloggers. But I thoroughly enjoyed the first volume (The Polysyllabic Spree), so I'm giving it a go all the same.

Siri Hustvedt, The Sorrows of an American: I read a number of newspaper reviews of this one that piqued my interest when it first came out. And I recall that Litlove and Ms. Smithereens, each of whom has led me to many a fabulous book, have praised other Hustvedt novels highly. So, it seems time I acquainted myself with her work.

Dennis Lehane, The Given Day: I'm curious about the shift Lehane makes here from crime fiction to historical fiction. And, as a former resident of Boston, I'm partial to fiction set there. Plus it got a good review from Ragdoll, another discerning blogger whose recommendations I trust. I've got the audiobook version and will be relying on it to keep me occupied for many hours of subway riding to work and treadmill running at the gym.

Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon (translated from the German by Barbara Harshav): This one caught my attention when I read a description of it on a "best of 2008" list in a newspaper, I've forgotten which newspaper. Plus it will further my quest to read more fiction in translation. (I was going to say that it might be my first foray into Swiss literature, then I remembered Joanna Spyri's Heidi—a childhood favourite that I don't dare revisit as I fear it would come off as dreadfully moralistic to me now.)

Ali Smith, The First Person and Other Stories: Smith's The Whole Story and Other Stories is one of my all-time favourite short story collections, and her latest appears to be in a similar vein—stories about telling stories that nonetheless succeed as stories.

These should keep me occupied for a couple of weeks...

Monday, February 23, 2009

Find the Story

Find the story, Granny Weatherwax always said. She believed that the world was full of story shapes. If you let them, they controlled you. But if you studied them, if you found out about them ... you could use them, you could change them ...

From Terry Pratchett, Wintersmith (2006).

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Muriel Spark as Metafictionist

I just discovered that Brock Clarke's excellent article on Muriel Spark in this month's issue of The Believer is available online, and so hastened here to direct you to it.

I'm a huge admirer of Muriel Spark's work in general and of her first novel, The Comforters, in particular. And I've long thought that Spark's innovation as a metafictionist has been unjustly overlooked. Imagine my pleasure then to stumble upon Clarke's article and find him lauding that very aspect of Spark's work with a particular focus on The Comforters as well as the novel which followed it, Memento Mori.

Click here to read Clarke's article. I hope that it will pique your interest in The Comforters if you haven't already read it.

(Note: The image above is a portrait of Muriel Spark painted by Alexander (Sandy) Moffat in 1984 which is owned by the National Gallery of Scotland. For more information on it, click here.)

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Food and Fiction Meme

I'm not quite done with Marion Nestle's What to Eat yet, so I'll save that review for next week, and this week offer up a meme tailored to my Friday food theme instead. Here goes:

Food from fiction that you'd like to sample:

I don't know if my childhood favourite books are more thoroughly laced with delicious food descriptions than more recent reads, or if those just stick in my head because of repeated readings. But I could happily eat my way through much of the food described in the Betsy-Tacy series (Maud Hart Lovelace), the Anne series (L.M. Montgomery), and the Little House books (Laura Ingalls Wilder). From the Betsy-Tacy books, for example: Mrs. Ray’s fried potatoes, cocoa cooked in a pail on the Big Hill, anything baked by Anna, the peach pie at the Taggart's farm, Joe's sour-milk pancakes, and Aunt Ruth's bread. And from the Anne series and the Little House books, see the passages I quoted in last Friday’s post.

A fictional meal you would like to have attended:

There are a lot of contenders for this one but for now, sticking with the Betsy-Tacy theme, I'll go with dinner on the S.S. Columbic, for the food and the conversation (Maud Hart Lovelace, Betsy and the Great World).

A memorable work of fiction set in a restaurant or a café:

Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place".

Food you've tried that didn't live up to the expectations raised by a fictional account:

Turkish Delight from C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I figured it must be pretty spectacular for Edmund to be willing to sell out his siblings for a box of it, but I was sorely disappointed when I finally tasted some.

Or petit fours which sounded tantalizing in Elizabeth Enright's The Saturdays but turned out to be oddly generic and tasteless (albeit very pretty) when encountered in a bakery. But I gather that in France the term is not confined to the square pastel-coloured confections that I sampled in my youth, so perhaps there's still hope for me and petit fours.

Food from fiction that you couldn't help but want to try even though you knew you would hate it:

I was a very picky eater as a child and wouldn't have eaten sardines or pork pie at any time of the day or night. But when these items appeared on the menu of a midnight feast at St. Clare's or Malory Towers, I wanted nothing more than to join in:

"Golly! Pork-pie and chocolate cake, sardines and Nestlé's milk, chocolate and peppermint creams, tinned pineapple and ginger-beer!" said Janet. "Talk about a feast! I bet this beats the upper third’s feast hollow! Come on—let's begin. I'll cut the cake."

(From Enid Blyton, The Twins at St Clare's.)

An unappetizing food description from fiction:

I'm generally partial to a fry-up, but after enduring one of the most vivid hangovers in fiction, I didn't find this breakfast any more appetizing than Jim Dixon did:

There was a pause, while he noted with mild surprise how much and how quickly she was eating. The remains of a large pool of sauce were to be seen on her plate beside a diminishing mound of fried egg, bacon, and tomatoes. Even as he watched she replenished her stock of sauce with a fat scarlet gout from the bottle.

(From Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim).

Or, moving from the unappetizing to the downright traumatizing, there's the cake from Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman:

The spongy cake was pliable, easy to mould. She stuck all the separate members together with white icing, and used the rest of the icing to cover the shape she had constructed. It was bumpy in places and had too many crumbs in the skin, but it would do. She reinforced the feet and ankles with tooth-picks. Now she had a blank white body. It looked slightly obscene, lying there soft and sugary and featureless on the platter.

A recipe you've tried or a meal you've recreated from fiction:

I've read the odd novel that included recipes but I've never tried any of them out. I guess the closest that I've come to this is the meal made from Lucy Maud Montgomery's recipe book that was served at the last LMM conference that I attended. The main dishes were delicious on the whole, though a tad heavy for the modern palate. But the desserts were teeth-achingly sweet, too much even for me. Different times, different tastes.

Food you associate with reading:

When I was a kid I often snacked on popcorn or cinnamon toast while reading, and now I find myself craving those foods when rereading childhood favourites.

Your favourite food-focussed book/writer:

I don't have a ready answer for this one, but I'm keeping it in the meme as I'm hoping for recommendations!

Tag, you're it!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Design Flaw


I thought that the cover of Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness (Knopf, 2006) was quite striking when I came upon it in a bookstore. Then a few weeks later I picked up Sonja Lyubomirsky's The How of Happiness (Penguin, 2007) from a library shelf thinking it was the same book. Rather a misstep on Penguin's part, wouldn't you say, so closely echoing the cover design of another recent work of popular psychology on the same topic? Lyubomirsky's is a self-help book, so it will appeal to a somewhat different audience. But they're still likely to be shelved in the same section of the bookstore. And given that Gilbert provided a blurb for Lyubomirsky's book, surely someone on her team ought to have been aware of his book and noted the similarity? I bet he was a was a bit taken aback on first sight of his complimentary copy.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Oliver Twist and Slumdog Millionaire

In Doug Saunders' column in the Saturday Globe and Mail, he traces the parallels between Oliver Twist and Slumdog Millionaire:

Bethnal Green, meet the Dharavi slum; Oliver Twist, meet Slumdog Millionaire.

What has made this genre so enduringly successful is not the melodramatic account of a young person's rise from squalor and poverty to something more elevated. That story had been doing great box office for centuries – including such hits as Cinderella, Moses, Moll Flanders and Jesus Christ.

What Dickens introduced was a new character – the slum itself. The East London shantytowns of Clerkenwell and Bethnal Green loom so large in Oliver Twist that they serve as the novel's main antagonist, throwing all manner of spectres and challenges at the hapless Oliver. At the end, while Oliver is fixed and catalogued, the slum remains a blank-faced mystery.

Danny Boyle's Mumbai, which at the story's outset has not yet been robbed of its name Bombay, is similarly compelling, similarly menacing, similarly inscrutable. It appears as a vast and gorgeous figure, responsible for most of the film's plot twists.

For the rest, click here.

The Hardest Part of Writing

I can totally relate to this bit of the interview with Alan Bradley (whose The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie I look forward to reading) that appeared in the Saturday Globe and Mail:

"The hardest part of writing," he confides, "is sitting down. Once I'm there, I'm good – I write about 1,000 words a day."

For the rest, click here.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Histories of Food and Eating


In his excellent In Defence of Food, Michael Pollan steers the reader away from the highly processed stuff that dominates grocery store shelves and toward "real" food with this bit of advice: "Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food." He suggests that you imagine your great grandmother at your side as you make your way through the store, and look at each item through her eyes as you pick it up and scan its ingredient list.

Because my actual great grandmothers are less vivid in my mind than their fictional contemporaries, I found myself adapting Pollan's exercise to consider the meals of some of my favourite late 19th/early 20th century characters as possible dietary touchstones. Think, for example, of the meal that Anne Shirley plans for Mrs. Morgan's visit in L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Avonlea (set in the early 1880s):

"I'll have a light soup to begin with ... you know I can make a lovely cream-of-onion soup ... and then a couple of roast fowls. I'll have the two white roosters." [...] "Then I'll have peas and beans and creamed potatoes and a lettuce salad, for vegetables," resumed Anne, "and for dessert, lemon pie with whipped cream, and coffee and cheese and lady fingers."

Or the box of groceries that Betsy and Joe receive as a mysterious housewarming gift in Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy’s Wedding (set in 1914):

     Betsy was sitting on the kitchen floor beside a huge box overflowing with groceries. A smiling delivery boy was just closing the door.
     "Who sent them?"
     "He wouldn't say. But they're for us."
     Joe dropped down beside her. He lifted out a dozen eggs, a half dozen tomatoes, a cucumber, some onions—two bottles of milk, a pound of butter, bacon, a slab of strong cheese—a loaf of bread, a coffee cake, doughnuts.
     "Pretty good," he said, devouring one.
     Betsy was pulling out coffee, cocoa and tea, vinegar and oil, salt and pepper, oatmeal, tapioca, molasses, raisins.
     "And coconut!" she cried. "I can make you a coconut cake as soon as I learn how!"
     Next came flour and sugar, baking powder, soda and vanilla. Beside a box of graham crackers stood a jar of jelly and one of pickles. Potatoes and apples spilled from their sacks.

Or, the evening snack that provokes a disquisition on the history of popcorn from a young Almanzo Wilder in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy (set in the late 1860s):

     Almanzo sat on a footstool by the stove, an apple in his hand, a bowl of popcorn by his side, and his mug of cider on the hearth by his feet. He bit the juicy apple, then he ate some popcorn, then he took a drink of cider. He thought about popcorn.

I would be happy to reconfigure my diet along any of these lines.

Alas the pleasure of this exercise can slide too easily into romanticism about the pure and nutritious food people ate in the good, old days. Note that Pollan advises avoiding anything that your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food; he doesn't advocate adopting her diet, being well aware that many of our great grandmothers had very poor diets indeed whether out of choice or necessity. As an antidote to that romanticism and as a means of figuring out how we got to where we are now as far as food production and distribution and the dietary habits that flow from them are concerned, I've been dipping into a pair of social histories by Harvey Levenstein: Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (covering 1880-1930) and Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America (spanning 1930 to the present).

I can't give a full account of either yet, but I'm far enough along in Revolution at the Table to tell you that it makes for fascinating reading. Levenstein's premise is that the years between 1880 and 1930 marked a dramatic transformation in how and what Americans ate. In the opening chapter he paints a vivid picture of "The American Table in 1880" and throughout the rest of the book tracks the shift that occurred thereafter and the multitude of forces that prompted it: for example, technological advances that changed the processes of food production and distribution as well as the way people prepared it in their homes, a new ethos of advertising that saw enormous sums of money employed to develop mass markets for new food products to supplant existing staples, and reform campaigns rooted in a burgeoning nutritional science which were designed to persuade people to eat not what they liked but what was good for them.

A particular strength of the book is the attention that Levenstein pays to regional differences and to class. He makes very clear that what Americans ate in 1880 and how the shifts that occurred thereafter affected them had much to do with where they lived, how much money they had in their food budgets, how much time they had to devote to preparing food, and whether or not they had the help of servants in doing so, as well as to dietary preferences shaped by tradition and culture. By way of illustration, here he is summing up a chapter on "the New England Kitchen experiment," a reform effort that sought to improve the diets of the working classes in Boston, New York, and other cities in the northeast U.S.:

It is tempting to regard the founders of the Kitchen as they saw themselves: people of learning and vision frustrated by the ignorance and prejudices of the class they most wanted to help. After all, within decades, much of their message on nutrition had become part of the conventional wisdom. Yet to concentrate solely on the wisdom of their message would be to ignore their manifest failings. Like many reformers of their time, they went about their mission among the working class with the smug assurance that with "science" on their side, they were touting a way of life far superior to that worked out by millions of people in their daily struggle to survive. Once rejected, rather than re-examining their message and its audience, they dismissed the working-class as ignoramuses whose only hope lay in their propensity to imitate their betters.

Note the quotation marks around "science." Here's why:

The great irony of this attempt to bring the benefits of science to the eating habits of the lower-class was that many of the things the reformers advocated were, by the light of today’s nutritionists, both dangerous and unhealthy. As we have seen, one of the banes of the workingman's diet was the dearth of fresh vegetables and fruits. Yet because they preached in the era before the discovery of vitamins, the New Nutritionists denigrated most fruits and vegetables, which emerged from the labs as mostly water and carbohydrates. Atwater urged Americans to eat more white flour and fewer potatoes because the former was a much cheaper source of carbohydrates. The bran of the wheat and the vitamin-packed skins of the potatoes were to be discarded as "refuse." The tomato was dismissed as useful only in small quantities as a flavoring agent with no food value of its own. If one insisted on eating green vegetables, they were to be well boiled, to make them more digestible and lessen the waste of energy necessary to digest them. Only condensed milk, laced with sugar but deprived of Vitamins C and D, was used in the Kitchen. In short, if America turned en masse to follow their advice, rickets, beri-beri, scurvy, and other vitamin-deficiency diseases may have reached epidemic proportions.

There are a lot of strands to the story that Levenstein is telling in this book which can make for a somewhat disjointed reading experience. I think that's inevitable though as a more focussed narrative would require too much narrowing or distortion. In fact, the structure of the book makes it perfect for dipping into and out of as I like to do with this sort of richly detailed non-fiction. I expect I will be sharing more titbits here as I continue to work my way through it and move on to Levenstein's follow-up, The Paradox of Plenty.

Next Friday: Marion Nestle's What to Eat.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Launch of a Novel and an Imprint

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the launch of Marianne Apostolides first novel, Swim. If my interest in the novel hadn't already been piqued by ongoing conversations with Marianne about books and the writing process (her author bio neatly sums up her preoccupations thus: "her current writing explores the contact zone between genres — poetry vs. prose, fiction vs. non-fiction, creative vs. critical"), the excellent reading that she gave from it would certainly have done the trick. And it's a gorgeous looking book as well. I arrived home late in the evening, signed copy in hand, well pleased with myself. I can't wait to read it.

Here's a full description lifted from the back cover:

Attuned to a body in motion, Swim pulls the reader beneath the logic of prose, into the eroticism of language itself. The arcing rhythm of a body breathing – a woman marking her birth as she swims in a pool – sustains the unique and hypnotic language that becomes the medium through which this story moves.

Swim entwines the present with those past actions and consequences that have brought Kat to the Greek mountain village where her father was born. She swims laps while her fourteen-year-old daughter reclines on a chaise lounge, poolside, reading a book. Without ever leaving the pool we enter discrete scenes with Kat's parents, daughter, husband and lover. On entering each point in this history, Kat reveals an undertow of sound, rhythm and words in their rippling meanings. Each new lap moves Kat closer to her impending decision: whether she will leave her husband. But the deeper tension within this innovative novel derives from the writing itself – its vital urgency that extends the possibilities of narrative beyond the fixed and into the fluid.

For publisher BookThug, last night's launch of Marianne's novel also served as the launch of the new imprint under which it appears, the Department of Narrative Studies which is devoted to the publication of innovative fiction. BookThug is an independent press, best known as a publisher of poetry, whose stated mission is "to enrich and advance the tradition of experimental literature." I've been challenged and delighted by a number of their poetry titles (The Men by Lisa Robertson is one of my all time favourites), and I'm excited to see where their foray into fiction will take them.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Alicia Giménez-Bartlett’s Inspector Petra Delicado Series

What a happy discovery Alicia Giménez-Bartlett's Inspector Petra Delicado series has proven to be.

I usually like to begin a series at the beginning and, although the translations of the Petra Delicado novels have been published out of order (as is so often and so annoyingly the case with European crime fiction), the first three books are all now available in English. But Prime Time Suspect, the third in the series, was the first to turn up on the library hold shelf, so I dived in there.

I confess that it took me a bit of time to fully enter into the book. I was distracted by a slightly off-kilter quality to the dialogue which I initially assumed to be a flaw in the translation. But I soon realized that the source of the dissonance wasn't the dialogue but rather the character of Petra Delicado. She never responds in quite the way one would expect, whether to a new development in the investigation, an emotional scene with her visiting sister, or a bit of banter with her (also rather eccentric) partner Sergeant Fermín Garzón. Her methods, her politics, and her philosophy of life are sufficiently unconventional that I found myself reading avidly as much to see what she would do and say next as to get to the bottom of the plot. Mind you, the suspense of the plot propelled me along nicely as well with plenty of twists and turns that had me guessing right to the end. And the glimpses of Spain, a country of which I know little, were a bonus as well. The series is set primarily in Barcelona, but the investigation at the heart of Prime Time Suspect had Inspector Delicado and Sergeant Garzón travelling back and forth between Barcelona and Madrid a number of times, and reflecting on the distinct character of each city in very interesting and illuminating fashion.

By the time I finished Prime Time Suspect, the copy of Death Rites that I'd ordered had arrived. So now I'm well into it, and relishing the opportunity to learn some of the back story: how Delicado developed into the woman and the police officer that she has become, and how her partnership with Sergeant Garzón developed.

That leaves me with just one more to acquire: Dog Day. But a quick google search reveals that at least seven novels in the series have been published in Spanish, and I dearly hope that more of them are due to be translated into English, as I'm keen to continue following the adventures of Inspector Delicado and Sergeant Garzón.

(Thanks to Danielle whose mention of Alicia Giménez-Bartlett prompted me to seek out these books—and I see that she too has enjoyed her first encounter with Petra Delicado.)

Friday, February 06, 2009

Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life is part memoir, part treatise/meditation on sustainable agriculture and ethical eating. In it, she recounts a year-long experiment in which she and her family opted out of the industrial food chain, eating only what they could grow or raise themselves on their Virginia farm, or purchase from their neighbours, save for a very few fair trade indulgences (coffee, hot chocolate and spices such as cinnamon and turmeric) shipped from afar. Kingsolver explains the endeavour and something of the motivation behind it thus:

This is the story of a year in which we made every attempt to feed ourselves animals and vegetables whose provenance we really knew. We tried to wring most of the petroleum out of our food chain, even if it meant giving up some things. Our highest shopping goal was to get our food from so close to home, we'd know the person who grew it. Often that turned out to be us, as we learned to produce more of what we needed, starting with dirt, seeds, and enough knowledge to muddle through. Or starting with baby animals and enough sense to refrain from naming them.

The experiment was very much a family affair and so too is the book. It contains sidebars by Kingsolver’s husband, biologist Steven L. Hopp, on relevant aspects of environmental science, the food industry and legal regulation thereof, and local food activism, and occasional short essays by daughter Camille offering up a teenage perspective on the experience as well as seasonal menus and recipes. But the primary voice is Kingsolver's and a very engaging voice it is. I've read a few books in this vein that suffer from an excess of earnestness and a dearth of writing skill. Kingsolver, by contrast, has produced a smart, funny, thought-provoking, and highly evocative book.

A good bit of it is devoted to a day-to-day, season-by-season, nuts and bolts description of the small-scale farming that brought food to their table. In the introduction, Kingsolver is quick to say of this aspect of the book that it is not intended as a "how-to," and making a case for the relevance of it to urbanites like me who lack the resources or the inclination to contemplate growing our own dinners:

...think of the agricultural parts of the story as a music-appreciation course for food—acquainting yourself with the composers and conductors can improve the quality of your experience. [...] Knowing how foods grow is to know how and when to look for them; such expertise is useful for certain kinds of people, namely, the ones who eat, no matter where they live or grocery shop.

But it turns out that I didn't need to be convinced on utilitarian grounds. The agricultural parts of the story proved to be my favourite parts. They're beautifully written and were frequently something of a revelation to me. Early on, when I found myself reading a lengthy bit about asparagus (pages 26-29 of the hardcover edition) aloud to Eric, it was clear that I was hooked. I've been enjoying asparagus for years but I had not previously so much as pictured how it looks in the ground. Ditto for peanuts. I was so taken with Kingsolver's description of cheese making that I'm contemplating learning how to do it myself despite being borderline lactose intolerant and not even slightly domestic. And who would have thought that there could be such suspense in a tale of turkey mating? The book was truly a pleasure from beginning to end. I highly recommend it.

Soup of the Day: Today's soup was a delicious Lentil and Carrot, made from a recipe in Cooking With Foods That Fight Cancer. It's the third soup recipe from this book that I've tried that has produced stellar results (the other winners are Cuban Black Bean, and Mediterranean Bean) and the Shepherd's Pie proved excellent also. This book is a companion to another that explains the cancer-fighting properties of the various foods that figure in the recipes, Foods That Fight Cancer. I haven't yet read the nutritional science behind it all, so for now I'm recommending the recipes simply on the basis of deliciousness with the healthiness factor in the background as a potential added bonus.

Next Friday: A post on Harvey Levenstein's Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet, a most interesting social history of eating in the U.S. that spans the apparently pivotal years of 1880-1930.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Ian Rankin and Anthony Powell

This is a connection that would not have occurred to me, courtesy of David Geherin:

Rankin lists Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, a multi-novel series which paints a panorama of English society, as his favourite novel. In twelve volumes published over a twenty-five-year period, Powell chronicled the changing fortunes of Britain's upper class from 1914 to the 1960s. Rankin began to see how he could explore not just a single character in depth, but also a place and, like Powell did, an entire society. "Everything I wanted to say about Scotland," he realized, "I could say in a crime novel."

From David Geherin, Scene of the Crime: The Importance of Place in Crime and Mystery Fiction (2008).

Shifting Away from the Narrative Desire Typical of Crime Fiction

Andrew Nestingen on Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander novels:

Mankell shifts away from the narrative desire typical of crime fiction--investigation and disclosure--yet maintains crime fiction's tension by substituting a narrative desire focused on the affective state of the protagonist. Readers may be less interested in the crime and its investigation than in how Wallander will respond to the next crisis in the investigation. Can he endure? What does he think? How does he feel? With this method, Mankell uses the police procedural to shift reader investment from anticipating and learning the outcome of the investigation to anticipating and knowing Wallander's responses, which requires engaging the ethical and political arguments about global interconnection these entail.

From Andrew Nestingen, Crime and Fantasy in Scandinavia: Fiction, Film, and Social Change (2008).