Thursday, March 29, 2007

BOOKS: How to Eat a Book

You know how it is when you're on a reading bender and each book blends seamlessly into the next and you feel like it could go on forever but then you realize it can't possibly go on forever and as you near the end of your current book you become increasingly filled with dread that the next six books you read are going to be total duds?

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
Or is there another book out there that's a logical, brilliant, no-brainer must-read for me?

*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.


Nicole said...

Have you read Waiting for Gertrude? It's Alice B. Toklas, but this time reborn as a cat living in the Pere Lachaise Cemetary. Bill Richardson is the author, and if you have read and enjoyed Bachelor Brothers Bed and Breakfast, you will certainly enjoy this one.

anne57 said...

Hi, I just discovered your blog a few days ago and have been catching up.

I'd read the Espresso Tales- if you hated Bruce in the first book, you'll love what happens to him in this one. If you want to read another book about food related things, maybe try Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires about going undercover as a food critic.

Anonymous said...

I've never read it, but I like to think that AlternaDad is like high-concept version of Ghost Dad.

Anonymous said...

I'd recommend going with A Cook's Tour by Anthony Bourdain. It's part tour guide, part description of foods of the world.

Or, Kitchen Confidential, also by Bourdain, which is his story of his life as a cook.

awsnapmexico said...

Completely unrelated to anything in this blog, except the part where you asked for suggestions:

I'm reading "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" by Johnathan Safran Foer. And it. Is. Amazing. Absolutely.

Disregard if you've already read it.

PS - Love the blog.

Oddmonster said...

I second the recommendation for Kitchen Confidential above, but also recommend Reckless Appetites, by Jacqueline Deval, for yet another angle on cooking and food: mad cooks and their bad romantic entanglements. Love it.

notanillusion said...

Being that it's almost Easter I really MUST insist that you read Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore. The only way I can think of you not liking it is if you're uber religious and I hadn't noticed.

I do the same thing with libraries. It ends up being cheaper just to buy the damn book. :)

Anonymous said...

The Unconsoled is an enormous waste of time. I say this with much regret, as I'd call The Remains of the Day one of my favorite books ever, and I quite liked Never Let Me Go. But The Unconsoled is just one big, dull, anticlimactic dream sequence.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever read You Remind Me of Me? Oh, do read it.

Quillhill said...

Follow the thread beyond the end until you are forever lost in the maze.

How true is that second statement of Orwell's.

Lisa Jean said...

Down and Out in Paris and London was one wonderful book. I had kind of forgotten about it until you reminded me. And SOmeone mentioned You Remind Me of Me by Choan. That one is a winner, worthy of being put on your list.

Sandy D. said...

Another recommendation for Bourdain here, but I say go for "The Nasty Bits" - he discusses plongeurs and a lot more there.

Here's a mini-review I wrote for some friends last year:This is a very uneven collection of essays written over the last five years. Bourdain is a fantastic (often very snarky and rude) writer, so even the lame pieces are worth a chuckle or two, and the really good ones....damn near priceless.

Halfway through the book, I started getting peeved because it was clear that some of the essays were written for a particular audience, and I wanted to know what/where. Then I looked at the back of the book, and saw a section called "Commentary". My god, this was wonderful. He not only provides the info. I was wishing for, he critiques his own work mercilessly. I think that the commentary should be right at the end of each chapter - otherwise, no complaints at all about this book, despite the fact I didn't agree with some of his pieces at all. And when I read the commentary, I found that Bourdain often didn't agree with himself anymore, either.

A quote to tempt you to take a bite: (from the Preface): "When I look back on the last five years since I wrote the obnoxious, over-testosteroned memoir that transported me out of the kitchen and into a never-ending tunnel of pressurized cabins and airport lounges, it's a rush of fragments, all jostling for attention. Some good, some bad, some pleasurable - and some excruciating to remember. Much, I suspect, like the pieces in this collection."

As an aside, I now know about plongeurs, degustation, fusion vs. regional cooking, and all kinds of good things to order next time I go to a Vietnamese restaurant. And dammit, I want $500 to blow on the food-porn sushi bar.

Anonymous said...

I second the recommendation of Lamb by Christopher Moore. Very funny.

Also, it's vomitoria.

Andi said...

Oooh, you've got me jonesing for Alice B. Toklas now (well, maybe not HER, but the book). I adore A Moveable Feast, so it's an enticing connection. I enjoyed Three Stories somewhat, so I'd be up for more Stein.

As for recommendations, I just finished The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures and found it delightfully funny and odd. Louis Theroux is a fantabulous writer (son of American travel writer, Paul Theroux).

Dave said...

Bit of a segue, but did you ever see the CBC miniseries Hemingway Vs. Callaghan? It was an adaptation of That Summer in Paris. Decently acted, but mostly dull. I did come away with a giant crush on whoever played Morley Callaghan’s wife though (who’s name and face I’ve long since forgotten). I only bring it up because it was the last time I learned anything about the Paris in the ‘20s crew, and I remember thinking, “This is fascinating! I’m going to read, watch, and eat anything I can find that has anything to do with this.” Then I promptly got distracted by, I don’t know, maybe a squirrel outside my window, and I never got back to it. But your review of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas are making the urges come back.

BabelBabe said...

read all the Bourdain, starting with KC. but not now. after MFK Fisher, I suggest John Thorne (I love him just for his recipe for brussel sprouts), Laurie Colwin (comfort food reading) and/or Michael Lee West (funny, and with fabulous recipes). I also just read a very amusing book called Death by Pad Thai, different famous-ish writers on food. I am a bit of a food freak, in case you wondered :)

In other topics, read Scarlett Thomas' PopCo. In fact, take a break on food books and read PopCo next.

Anonymous said...

I've been pressuring you to read The Unconsoled ever since you read that that other one, the one whose title sounds like an 80's pop song. Don't You Forget About Me? I can't remember. But I promise that The Unconsoled will not be at all like the other book you loved. I doubt you'll see what's-his-name repeating himself.

(We just had a baby here. No sleep. Brain not recalling properly.)

I'll give this sure-to-be-terrific entry a closer read later, as well as the comments that I've skipped for now, but I just want to say before I go: Three Stories made me want to gouge my eyes out. Just saying.

Also, did I miss the once-promised blog about Oprah? And what do you think of Oprah and Cormac McCarthy? Strange pairing, or made for each other?

Sorry for the loopiness. Sleep hard to come by these days. I said that already. You understand.

AlienEm said...

Picking up on Orwell's theme of homelessness and poverty, if you want to have all of your ideas about these things overhauled and also make yourself very uncomfortable, read Marge Piercy's The Longings of Women. It's a quick read, and the cover makes it look like a trashy romance, but it's pretty awesome.

Anonymous said...

"My Kitchen Wars" by Betty Fussell. An autobiography, post - WWII housewives in competition with each other to see who is the better cook or hostess. Fascinating.

Bybee said...

I'm almost done with How To Cook A Wolf, and I sure do hate to see it end! My favorite chapter so far is "How To Stay Alive"