Monday, July 1, 2019

Garlic and Sapphires

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise
Ruth Reichl (Penguin Books, 2006)
     Sometimes, you're the last to know about your own life. In 1993, while she was the restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times, Ruth Reichl got a call from the New York Times trying to lure her back East. The Times already knew her work, and they knew she'd say yes. The department secretary knew. Her journalist husband arranged with his employer for a spot in their New York bureau. She grudgingly agreed to a day of interviews; still thinking she wasn't interested, she was free to say what she really thought, which made them want her all the more. And really–she'd have been nuts to say no.

     As soon as she said yes, she had a new problem: her fame preceded her. Her picture was posted at the waiters's stations in all the best places, with bonuses for spotting her. This could be delightful: "And then fireworks began shooting across the table: black truffles and white ones, foie gras, lobster, turbot, venison. The play of flavors was a symphony, as if we were the only people in the restaurant and fifty chefs were cooking just to please us. Each dish was rushed to the table the instant it was ready; each was served at the peak of perfection." But since that's not an experience most people can ever have, it's not the experience she was trying to review.

     The solution was wigs, or rather, personas. An old friend of her late mother sent her to the right consignment shop, and got her a makeup artist. Ruth became Molly, a wealthy nonentity from the Midwest, someone who could blend in to the point where the service at Le Cirque was actively bad. This was an interesting sociological study: Can a dull, poor person get a decent table? At what apparent age does a woman disappear? Or, on the other end of the power scale, why do the editors of the Times like to be seen with her?

      Even more, as she tried on different looks, Reichl found herself engaged by the psychological implications. When she wore her mother's jewelry and clothing, she understood her perhaps better than ever before. "I felt my mother's joy as I swept up the stairs, breathing in the affluent air. By the time I arrived at the top I was seeing it all as she would, thrilling to the chains rippling seductively across the windows and the deep, private underwater feel of the room."
Plenty of things about the New York of twenty-five years ago seem both familiar and strange: smoking sections in restaurants! Pay phones! The Trump Tower as merely a gaudy temple of excess! The era of classic French restaurants was bumbling to a close, and Reichl sought out ethnic enclaves that seemed bold and new (at least for the Times.) But the gulf between the rich and the poor already yawned like the Grand Canyon, with the same blindness on the part of the wealthy that we see today.

      Reichl's predecessor as critic was somehow still glowering around the office, giving evidence that the job had a limited life span. She was missing too many dinners with her young son. And,by 1998, she started to run out of faces. A few of her later personas were the worst kind of customers— the peevish, the demanding, or the snobbish, occasionally to the horror of her friends who went out with her. 

      Once again, blessedly, the powers that be had a better plan for her than she had for herself. Offered the editorship of Gourmet, she had the good sense to say yes. Time being what it is, you probably can't go back to these restaurants, and you probably wouldn't want to. But the recipes Reichl includes may count as compensation, and the writing itself is delicious.

Any Good Books, July 2019

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Practicing: A Musician's Return to Music

Practicing: A Musician's Return to Music
Glenn Kurtz (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007)
      As a young boy in the early seventies, Glenn Kurtz was accounted a guitar prodigy by the staff and students of his local suburban guitar school. He could play anything, it seemed, from folk tunes like "The Jolly Roving Tar" to the classical 'Segovia repertoire', with side excursions, as the decade went on, into rock and jazz. He was a musical true believer, spending his afternoons in ecstasies of Beethoven and Bach. Practicing is the story of what happened to Kurtz's dreams as he came to maturity.

      Disregarding his parents' skepticism about a career in music, Kurtz accepted admission to the New England Conservatory, which catapulted him into a whole different league. NEC is centered on Jordan Hall, a performance space surrounded by rehearsal spaces. "In every room deeply committed musicians were aspiring to concert careers. The whole structure vibrated with intensely focused ambition and the insidious undertone of competition that came with it. Every hour of the day we were immersed in one another's practicing, each contributing our part to the din." The students study music history and theory, conducting and composition, but what they are really there to do is practice, and practice some more.

      Each student, naturally, has a teacher. Kurtz's teacher took him back to the very beginning, because his technique had too much tension in it, and he had trouble getting a clean tone out of the guitar. That was going to be a severe obstacle to being the next Segovia, but so be it–he would start again. The Conservatory being what it was, he was soon schooled in another reality: "Even if I could play the melody by Brahms as beautifully as the pianist next door, Brahms didn't write for the guitar. I had thought I was a musician. Now, for the first time, I realized that I was just a guitarist. Nothing had changed. I still had to practice. But suddenly these études felt like a kind of exile." 
      The guitarists had one notable advantage in the conservatory environment: they were very popular in the gig office. Kurtz could make a modest side living playing in the background at parties and weddings–if he didn't mind playing in the background. But he coveted the concert stage, which is dominated by other instruments. Plenty of pianists since Liszt had made a concert career of the piano, and plenty of violinists since Paganini, but classical guitarists generally need some kind of day job.

     Kurtz made a sojourn in Europe after graduation, but the story was the same. "Nothing prevented me from earning a living as a classical guitarist–I could teach, I could play at cafés and weddings, perform the occasional concert. But this was not the life I had striven for. Time splintered. Exercises became agony; preparing for competitions seemed futile." So, in a fog, he came home and got a menial job in publishing. Going on to graduate school in literature, he left the guitar untouched.

     Kurtz wrote this book because he picked up his guitar again in his mid-thirties with a new attitude, and a new understanding of what it is to practice. "I'm trying not to repeat myself. My first time through, I practiced badly, chasing an ideal that ruined music for me, turning what I had loved the most into torture. Now I'm pursuing not an ideal but the reality of my own experience." 
      It's complicated: he'll never get back some of the speed and ease he had in his twenty-one-year-old hands. But he can play every day; he can be kinder to himself, and more in the moment. Nothing is wasted, really, neither the time he gave to the guitar in his youth, nor the years when he had to put it down and face the rest of life. From now on, it's one day at a time.

Any Good Books, June 2019 Emailed.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen

Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen
Mary Norris (W.W. Norton, 2019)

      When I reviewed Mary Norris's Between You and Me, a memoir about her life on The New Yorker's copy desk, I hoped we'd hear from her again. In Greek to Me, she's back with the story of the obsession that occupied her non-working life. She studied both modern and classical Greek; she traveled all over the Greek world (the book would have benefited from a map); and she immersed herself in Greek myth and drama. She was fortunate to work for The New Yorker, which had a policy of supporting educational opportunities for its employees. Her boss there, Ed Stringham, loved Greece; he helped her plan her first journeys, and loaded her down with books to encourage her new enthusiasm.

     One of Norris's first delights was the Greek alphabet itself. She sprinkles it through the book as a challenge to the reader, but of course, we already know a good deal of it, from the 𝜶 and 𝜷 of the word 'alphabet', to the 𝝍 of 'psychology' and the 𝜒 of 'charisma'. And, of course, there's the noble 𝜴. "Oh! Omega has energy has energy in it, it has breath and inspiration...Nobody seriously translates 'I am the Alpha and the Omega,' the words of the Almighty from the Book of Revelation, as 'I am A through Z.' The Greek alphabet is infinite."

     I love the connections Norris finds between antiquity and the present day. The conversational putty that fills American English ("like, totally, so, you know, OK, really, actually, honestly,...") has its counterpart in the particles of ancient Greek. "I was amazed, in reading Plato's Apology of Socrates, how much nuance these syllables give to Socrates' speech–they act like nudges, winks, facial expressions. You can almost see Socrates poking his listener as you hear his confidential 'don't you know,' a folksy expression from a sage older generation." The casual nature of the smallest words poses a translation problem, as the literal English tends to weigh more than the Greek original. But then, in writing, we have punctuation for some of the purposes for which they only had words. Translation is always, always an imperfect art.

     That's why people sometimes perform ancient Greek plays in the original language. Norris joined the Barnard Columbia Greek Drama Group in the chorus of the Electra of Euripedes, walking around New York City in a fog of memorized Greek texts. The following year, she was promoted to the lead in The Trojan Women, as Hecuba, Queen of the defeated Troy. Her husband and son have been killed, and her home is burning. "The play is an exercise in comparative and superlative: Hecuba starts out sad and gets sadder and sadder and sadder until she is the saddest woman who ever lived." She wrote to Katharine Hepburn to ask for advice about the pacing of all that sadness, which is totally ludicrous, except it's exactly what Mary Norris would do. She misses no opportunity.

     Norris had time to do all this because she was single. There was nobody to mind if she got caught up in study and forgot to eat dinner or collect the mail. As a woman traveling alone in Greece, she attracted the attention of every man with a pulse, which could be awkward, especially given the imperfect state of her spoken Greek. Even more, however, her love of Greece had a liberating effect.

     Her Catholic girlhood had offered Norris a very limited menu of ways to be a woman, either a mother or a nun. "Other women and girls may favor a different goddess. Many opt for Artemis, the huntress; someone who longs for children might identify with Demeter; great beauties are chosen by Aphrodite. Hera is not popular; in her Roman guise as Juno she is statuesque and confident, but what a bitch. For me, it had to be Athena. Whereas the Virgin Mary is a model of humility and servitude, Athena is the template for a liberated woman." Mary Norris has taken full advantage of that template, and the result is glorious.

Any Good Books, May 2019 email edition.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Dreyer's English

Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style
Benjamin Dreyer (Random House, 2019)

     One day I'm going to write a review consisting solely of large chunks from the book, because the writing is just so damned sprightly. I don't think this is that day, but it wouldn't be a bad one to choose. Benjamin Dreyer, in his capacity as the Copy Chief at Random House, has made the world a better place by cleaning up the prose of innumerable writers. He knows a good sentence from a bad one, and he has written a beautiful, witty book about how to tell the difference. 
    "A good sentence, I find myself saying frequently, is one that the reader can follow from beginning to end, no matter how long it is, without having to double back in confusion because the writer misused or omitted a key piece of punctuation, chose a vague or misleading pronoun, or in some other way engaged in inadvertent misdirection."

    The book is mostly a catalog of misdirections Dreyer has known. He hastens to say that it's not actually comprehensive; you still need The Chicago Manual of Style "whose edicts I don't always agree with but whose definitive bossiness is, in its way, comforting," and Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, in addition to a few good dictionaries. 
    But what a catalog! Under "Notes on Proper Nouns", under "Colombia", this: "South American country. Two o's. Columbia, with a u, is, among other things, a New York university, a recording company, a Hollywood movie studio, the District also known as Washington, the Gem of the Ocean, and the female representation of the United States." 'Among other things?' Seriously? Nice. 
    You will find at least a few things you didn't know in that chapter, as you might in "Notes on Easily Misspelled Words" and "The Confusables." Some of you, though, spoiling for an argument, will turn directly to "Peeves and Crotchets." "The thing is, everyone's peeves and crotchets are different. People who couldn't care less about 'could care less' will, faced with the use of 'impact' as a verb, geschrei the house down, and that mob that sees fifty shades of red, scarlet, and carmine over the relatively newfangled use of 'begs the question' to mean 'raises the question' may well pass by a 'comprised of' without so much as batting an eye." 
    Some entries ("Based off of") get "No. Just no." Some get "I don't think that's asking a lot." Others get "Move on already," or, at greater length: "As to people who object to supermarket express-lane signs reading '10 items or less'? On the one hand, I hear you. On the other hand, get a hobby. Maybe flower arranging, or decoupage." Good writers avoid some expressions because they're wrong, and others because people will come running to tell them that they're wrong. 
    That same mob of peevers and pedants are the indirect subject of the chapter on "Rules and Nonrules," such as 'Never End a Sentence with a Preposition,' and 'Contractions Aren't Allowed in Formal Writing.' "Why are they nonrules? So far as I'm concerned, because they're largely unhelpful, pointlessly constricting, feckless, and useless. Also because they're generally of dubious origin: devised out of thin air, then passed on till they've gained respectable solidarity and, ultimately, have ossified." All good reasons. 
    No matter how many books on usage you already have, you want this one. It's funny; it's timely; it's authoritative, but in a way that keeps the conversation going. Dreyer again, by way of conclusion: "There's no rule without an exception (well, mostly), there's no thought without an afterthought (at least for me), there's always something you meant to say but forgot to say. There's no last word, only the next word." And thank Goodness for it. 

Published by email,
Any Good Books, April 2019

Friday, March 1, 2019

Counting Backwards

Counting Backwards: A Doctor's Notes on Anesthesia
Henry Jay Przybylo, M.D. (W.W. Norton, 2018)

     Anesthesia is a mystery, even to its practitioners. Dr. Przybylo (who goes by Dr. Jay around the hospital) has administered anesthesia over thirty thousand times over his career, and he doesn't exactly know how the gas he uses does what it does. "Despite decades of research, its mechanism of action remains a mystery. I must have faith in my anesthesia gas." He has faith, as well, in his experience; and in his preparation, which is invariably meticulous. A mistake he made in his first year of practice, when he picked up the wrong syringe, led him to work out a standard approach to setting up his operating area. "The basic needs must be within an arm's reach and not concealed in clutter. The anticipated is one step away; the potential, another step beyond."

     From this cockpit, Dr. Jay manages the drugs, both gaseous and intravenous, that render the patient insensible and pain free, to make surgery possible. He has drugs to dispel anxiety, prevent the formation of memory, stop pain, and prevent movement. At the same time, he has to keep tabs on the vital signs of the patient: he doesn't want to suppress the heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing of the patient too much. Depending on what the surgeon is doing, the body may respond with lulls or surges, and the maintenance of stability may require anticipation–verging on art–from the anesthesiologist.

     Because Dr. Jay specializes in the care of children, he has need of a few other arts. While an adult may understand that she needs a shot to begin the process of anesthesia, a child will probably see that as unacceptable. "Since every step taken toward a procedure room increases the anxiety of my patient, my goal is to shorten or disguise the time from that first step until my anesthesia coma is induced. Distraction is a major tool, and maintaining an ability to distract keeps me young, or at least requires that I stay current and informed."

     Indeed, he seems to be a lifelong learner on many fronts. He studies what the other people in the operating theater are doing, learning the rhythms and habits of the surgeons he works with. He understands cardiology, cancer, and diseases of the lungs. He has learned more and more about preventing post-operative pain, and has improved the way he speaks to people he isn't sure can understand him.

    Dr. Jay has a deft touch with the history of his field, from recreational ether to sonar-assisted lidocaine shots. He's also very good with simple explanations of how things work, and what kinds of things can go wrong. But what really makes me recommend Counting Backwards are the lessons that all of us could use. Setting up his space the same way every time, for example, is critically important to working as efficiently as possible; at the same time, it's an exercise in mindfulness, a way of preparing himself from the inside out.

   Thus prepared, he makes the machinery an extension of himself, and, seemingly, vice versa. But he doesn't fall into the machinery completely. No matter how long the procedure goes on, he prefers to stand up and watch over the drapes, rather than sitting down. "Far too often, when the readings waver, all eyes home in on the monitor screen. I've resorted to placing a towel over the screen to stop residents from watching it instead of the patient." As long as the patient is a human being, the doctors have to be, too.

Any Good Books published by email,
March 1, 2019