Good. I'm glad we're on the same page here.
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
by Gertrude Stein (#8)
I'm not one of those people who hates Gertrude Stein. I've never been tempted to read The Making of Americans, that's for sure, but I read Three Stories a long time ago, and it was okay. And that probably would have marked Stein's sole blip on my radar if I hadn't recently read this essay, which made me want to read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas with such intensity that I actually checked it out of the library. (I'll say it again, in case it bears repeating: I love the libraries. The libraries, they love me. Mostly because I give them tens of dollars in late fines every time I check out a book. Therefore, I avoid the libraries.)
Let me pretend to be Amazon for a second:
If you liked A Moveable Feast, you'll like The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas!
Autobiography has a lot of the same elements as Feast: gossip about Paris in the '20s, talk about writing, and -- watch your toes! -- lots of name dropping (not surprising, given that Stein was best buddies with Picasso and her parlour was frequented by folks like Ford Madox Ford, Henri Matisse, and Jean Cocteau). I alse see similarities between Stein's prose and Hemingway's, but Stein's definitely has a more free-associative quality.
Among (many) other things, this book is a fascinating account of the beginning and peak of the modernist art movement, seen through the eyes of a person who can be said to have been instrumental in creating the movement. Think what you like about Stein's writing, you have to pause and give her props for having so unerringly picked out -- from among the hundreds or even thousands of artists working in Paris at the time -- the ones who were destined for greatness. Stein doesn't pat herself on the back for this; instead, she seems to have a Monty Burns-like sense of her own aesthetic: "I'm no art critic, but I know what I hate, and I don't hate this."
That aside, I found more humour in this book than I expected to. The conceit -- that of writing a paeon to yourself through the eyes of your partner -- is inherently funny. Throughout the book, Toklas always refers to Stein as "Gertrude Stein" -- never "Miss Stein" or just "Gertrude." And several times throughout the book, Stein has Toklas interrupt herself mid-tangent and say something to the effect of "But that's not the point I'm trying to make right now. I'll get to that later." And then she never does. And at one point, Stein has Toklas stop mid-anecdote to say:
Speaking of Spain also reminds me that once we were in a crowded restaurant. Suddenly in the end of the room a tall form stood up and a man bowed solemnly at Gertrude Stein who just as solemnly replied.That's it. End of story. Hee.
I'm explaining this badly, but it all adds up to a deceptively sly, funny narrative. Or maybe it just appeals to me because, like Stein, I like making jokes that nobody gets but me. Not that you'd know a joke has happened, because I don't laugh. (Unless I'm with close friends, who will attest that I have no problem cracking myself up.) Hm. I explained that badly, too. I'm on a roll. Maybe it's time for a segue?
Let's call this sentence a segue.
Down and Out in Paris and London
by George Orwell (#9)
So after reading Gertrude Stein's version of Paris, a Paris filled with art and parties and genteel talk about art and parties, I wanted to flip that over and read about another Paris: a Paris of poverty and drudgery, as seen through the eyes of Orwell. And man, dude knew a thing or two about poverty and drudgery.
The book starts with Orwell realizing how low his funds are, meaning he has to find work fast. And then he doesn't. He's promised a job, but it doesn't start for a couple of weeks. In the meantime, he engages in some quiet starving. And then he starts the job, as a plongeur (which roughly translates to "dishwasher/untouchable") in a hotel kitchen, and this phase of things makes the previous starvation phase look like spring break. It's dirty, nasty, backbreaking, dehumanizing work. The plus side is that he does it for seventeen hours a day, so he doesn't have a lot of free time to dwell on how much it sucks. And then he quits this job after being promised a better job, but then that job falls through, and we're back to starvation again. And so on and so forth for the half of the book that takes place in Paris.
Finally, mercifully, a friend in London hooks Orwell up with a gig acting as attendant for a child with developmental difficulties (note: "developmental difficulties" is not the term they used back in the not-so-PC 1930s). So Orwell boots it to London, where he find out that -- no surprise -- the job has fallen through. The logical next step is to become a tramp, which he does. The second half of the book chronicles his travels from homeless shelter to homeless shelter around London, as he joins up with the city's huge community of vagrants.
Throughout this book, Orwell displays an ironic sense of humour about the proceedings. You get the sense that, despite his abject poverty and the humiliating circumstances in which he finds himself, at the time he was able to -- if not rise above it -- at least detach himself. This isn't that surprising when you consider his youth, his background, and no doubt his sense of his own abililities and prospects. (In my own way, I can relate to this detachment. I've been poor. As in "I'm completely on my own, I have no food, and I'm not quite sure when I'll have food again." But when you're young and semi-full of yourself, this kind of poverty doesn't translate into the soul-destroying poverty that you see crushing people in other circumstances.)
Orwell wouldn't be Orwell if, between recounting stories, he didn't try to make sense of it all in some new way you'd never thought of before. After describing his time in Paris, he says:
To sum up. A plongeur is a slave, and a wasted slave, doing stupid and largely unnecessary work. He is kept at work, ultimately, because of a vague feeling that he would be dangerous if he had leisure. And educated people, who should be on his side, acquiesce in the process, because they know nothing about him and consequently are afraid of him. I say this of the plongeur because it is the case I have been considering; it would apply equally to numberless other types of worker. These are only my own ideas about the basic facts of a plongeur's life, made without reference to immediate economic questions, and no doubt lrgely platitudes. I present them as a sample of the thoughts that are put into one's head by working in a hotel.The equivocation with which Orwell ends this passage is absent from this next bit, taken from near the end of his tramping stint. He expresses some strong ideas about the false way we value work and money, and therefore people:
Then the question arises, Why are beggars despised? --for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modern talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except "Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it"? Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised. If one could earn even ten pounds a week at begging, it would become a respectable profession immediately. A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a business man, getting his living. He has not, more than most modern people, sold his honour; he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich.I'm still trying to digest all that. And speaking of digestion, one last thing I'll mention: after reading Orwell's description of the kitchens and practices of fine hotels and restaurants, I may never eat out again.
Serve it Forth
Consider the Oyster
How to Cook a Wolf
by M.F.K. Fisher (#10-12)
You see where I'm going with this, right? After being utterly repulsed by so-called fine dining, as described by Orwell, I thought I'd engage in a little mind-fuckery with myself by reading one of the English language's most exquisite (yet down-to-earth) writers on the subject of food.
Serve It Forth does a neat job of alternating fascinating historical information about decadent dining throughout the ages with Fisher's current-day (well, current to her, since this book was published in 1937) ruminations on topics ranging from snails to the art of dining alone. And man, if Orwell's book made me a bit guilty about my relatively comfortable life, Fisher's account of early Roman feasts gave me a better sense of my place on the decadence spectrum. Wealthy people would bankrupt themselves serving lavish dinner parties. Honoured guests would drank from goblets carved from giant gemstones. And cooks would make dishes that involved stuffing a snail inside a songbird inside a quail and so on and so forth inside larger and larger animals, then roasting the whole thing, then DISCARDING everything but the snail, and serving just the one little mollusc. That's a hell of a marinade.
Consider the Oyster is all about -- wait for it -- oysters. You would think it'd be difficult to write umpteen pages and dozens of essays about oysters, but that kind of thinking is emblematic of the great divide between mortal souls like us and divine foodie entities like Fisher. I don't even like oysters all that much (though I once made rather a spectacle of myself stuffing my face at the free oyster bar at a media event; let me just say that if the libidinous myths about oysters were true, I would have multiple restraining orders against me now), but I devoured (get it? devoured) every single chapter.
And then How to Cook a Wolf hauled me back from the decadence of Roman vomitoriums (vomitoria? vomitorii?) and chichi shellfish. This is an interesting text in that it's a series of essays Fisher wrote during the Second World War about how to deal with the hardships of rationing and still find joy and nourishment in food. Interestingly, this book sort of takes me back to Orwell, because I'm sure he could have benefited from Fisher's excellent tips on how to feed yourself for eleven cents a day.
Of all of Fisher's books, this is my favourite, partly because -- it being a collection of individually published essays -- it contains copious editorial notes and comments by Fisher as she later adds new information she's acquired since the essays were first published. She also likes to make fun of her own writing, which I both relate to and enjoy.
The other reason I'll be referring back to How to Cook a Wolf is because it has some excellent-looking recipes for things like cream of potato soup (yum) and minestrone (double-yum), as well as instructions for the perfect omelet. For some reason, I can do frittatas, but I can't do omelets. Also: I can't spell "omelet" without having the word in front of me. Again, "frittata" comes easily. Both of these stumbling blocks are a source of great frustration to me, which probably makes me sound like a freak. Though perhaps not to anyone who's actually still reading this post. Hi! How's it going?
My brain's all swirly with variously interconnected thoughts about food and beauty and hunger and art and work and social class. I dig it. I've got one more book by Fisher -- The Gastronomical Me -- waiting to be read. And then where do I go? Do I try to keep this thread of ideas going? Do I take a sharp left turn in my next set of reading choices? I'm on the pointy horns of a dilemma here. Help.*
Here are some of the books I've got sitting on my to-be-read pile. What should I hurl myself into next?
- The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty
- The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro
- Espresso Tales, by Alexander McCall Smith
- Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behaviour, by Temple Grandin (This one intrigues me because Grandin was recently honoured by PeTA for her work in designing humane methodologies and devices to be used in slaughterhouses. So, you know, another angle on the whole food thing. Plus: more mindfuckery.)
- Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert (I may need to save this to read after The Unconsoled.)
- AlternaDad, by Neal Pollack
- House of Meetings, by Martin Amis
*With problems like this, what an easy life I must have! Well, no, not really. I've got other fish to fry (ha! I can't seem to stop myself), but this at least is a problem I have total control over.