Thursday, February 1, 2018

Tell Me More

Tell Me More: Stories about the 12 Hardest Things I'm Learning to Say
Kelly Corrigan (Random House, 2018)

Kelly Corrigan is a memoirist of exceptional candor. Like her earlier book, The Middle Place (see Tell Me More is full of hangovers, quarrels, and tantrums, narrated in a humane and friendly voice. More important, it's full of family love and deep friendships, and wisdom as a work in progress. We meet her at fifty, having lost her father and a close friend to cancer in the preceding year. It's all too much, some days: " the time it takes to get the mail, I can slide from sanguine and full of purpose to pissed off and fuming."

There's healing magic in the title essay, though. She gets instruction, and practice, in letting conversations happen at the length they need to, rather than leaping in to solve her daughters' problems. It's a great skill at deathbeds, too. The chance to have your regrets heard and absolved may be the ultimate comfort.

Because of her own past as a cancer patient, Corrigan is sensitive to bad comfort. When she had cancer, she says, "Every conversation fell into the same pattern. Cancer was The Enemy, treatment was A Journey, and I was A Hero whose responsibility was to weather the shipwrecks and beat back the sea monsters, returning from the odyssey changed and better." She understands these conversations as defensive, as a striving for meaning where none may be. Life is messier than that, though; bravery may have nothing to do with it. Learning to say 'I don't know' leaves things open, for better and for worse.

The kids at Camp Kesem have seen the worst: they have parents who have had, or died of, cancer. Corrigan visits the Camp to hang out with people who need respite from being That Kid Whose Mom Died. As one of the counselors says, "It's all-consuming because everyone is reacting to it. It's driving everyone's behavior–your coaches, your teachers, your mailman. It's super isolating. But not here." The kids (and counselors) are not Saints, there's not Heroes, but they know something about the times when there's not much more to say than "I know."

The knowledge that other people hold for us is one of the things we really need in life. Corrigan's father was her great cheerleader through false starts, dead ends, mistakes, and misdeeds. Their relationship was a fifty-year skein of compassion and forgiveness. With his bluff encouragement, she kept getting up and trying again every time she messed up. It's like a bar mitzvah, where a kid feels seen and heard in a new way, and expands into the feeling.

"The mentors and rabbis, the grannies on the bema, are certain about things we can't yet believe: that listening is huge, that there's might in the act of committing yourself to a cause, that trying again is both all we can do and our great enabling power. They see clearly that we weren't wrong; our aim was. They knew that we are good enough, as we are, with not much more than our hopeful, honorable intent to keep at it. They tell us, over and over, until we can hear it."

Tell Me More is a book you could read in an evening, but it also might be chewed over for a year, especially if you're having one of those times when events and emotions take up more than the time you have.

Emailed Feb 1, 2018

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Wine Lover's Daughter

The Wine Lover's Daughter: a memoir
Anne Fadiman (2017, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

    Throughout the middle third of the twentieth century, Clifton Fadiman was a name to conjure with: publisher, critic, anthologist, appearing frequently on radio and television, he was the very model of a public intellectual. The Wine Lover's Daughter is his daughter Anne's memoir of his life, and her life in his orbit. It's a brief cultural history of the times he lived and worked in, and a loving rumination on influence and memory. He lived long enough to trim down his literary estate, so that her task as executrix wouldn't swallow up her own life, but she still has plenty to work with with. 
    Anne traces the arc of his journey from the crowded, impoverished streets of Jewish Brooklyn, to Columbia University, to a career that would have fully occupied three or four lesser men. His original goal was to remain at Columbia as an English professor, but the department had a Jewish quota of one, and his friend Lionel Trilling got the job.

     You could say he was overcompensating on many fronts: his mother picked his fancy first name out of the phone book; his older –and taller– brother preceded him through Boys' High and Columbia, and helped him acquire the plummy elocution that became his hallmark in broadcasting. He was famously witty, and he practiced self-deprecation as a style of 'English manners', but also as a way of staying ahead of anyone who might consider him lower-class. 
    He cared about that: he had a deep commitment to hierarchies of quality. "My father was partial to all things fabricated with skill and effort: boots, books, bridges, cathedrals, and, especially, food. He preferred cheese to milk, pâté to liver, braised endive to salad." Between his bookworm childhood and the Great Books at Columbia, he had as much knowledge as any man about what was classically considered great in literature. On a fateful trip to Paris, he discovered the pleasures of wine. A couple of years after the end of Prohibition made it possible, he began investing in a similarly curated library of the best vintages he could afford. 
    Anne was the younger child of his second marriage (he'd been divorced, and her mother, widowed.) She grew up in ease and comfort, marinated in culture, language, and English manners; after Harvard, she became a journalist, like her mother. Later, like her father, she began writing essays; the age gap of nearly fifty years made it possible to get out of his considerable shadow. (Though he still gets more hits on Google – she checked.)

    She grew up expecting to inherit his taste in wine, as well. It seemed natural, since she'd grown up speaking the language, at the table of the man who later compiled a giant book called The Joys of Wine. "My father wrote in Joys that 'to take wine into our mouths is to savor a droplet of the river of human history,' a pronouncement I found a tad grandiloquent but whose sincerity I did not doubt." He loved wine, and felt at home with it. He knew its quality first-hand.

    Alas, these things are genetic, and Anne inherited her taste buds from her mother. To her, everything bitter tastes too strong. At the end of the book, she makes a fascinating detour through the laboratories of scientists who study and measure the senses of taste and smell. (At least, I found it fascinating, but then, I would.) Fadiman says, "My researches made me feel different from my father not only in matters of gustation and olfaction but also in character. He liked to leave some things a mystery. I'd rather find everything out."

Any Good Books
January, 2018

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Almost Sisters

The Almost Sisters - a novel
Joshilyn Jackson (2017, William Morrow)

Leia Birch Briggs had the nerdy childhood betokened by her first name, though her father had died before finding out which Star Wars baby his wife was bearing. She spent her childhood summers in Birchville, a small town in Alabama which her father's family had founded, named, and still largely owned. Her grandmother still lives, with a companion, in the family's stately home, overlooking the comings and goings in the town square.

Leia's childhood reading comic books and running around Birchville dressed as Wonder Woman led to a career in drawing comics, including a well-received graphic novel called Violence in Violet. The super-heroic Violence is Violet's protector; but is she also her lover, her sister, or her alter ego? Leia has contracted to write a prequel volume, so it might be high time to figure that out. 

She has a nice life, and makes a decent living. She's also a significant enough celebrity on the Fan Convention circuit to drink with an admirer dressed as Batman, and sleep with him. When she turns up pregnant, she's forgotten his name and lost his number, recalling only that he was tall, Black, and handsome. While she's deciding how to tell her mother, step-father, and step-sister, she's called down to Birchville. Her grandmother's dementia has suddenly announced itself at the church fish-fry with some unexpected truth-telling. Lewy's body dementia has made Miss Birchie unduly frank about sexual matters, since she sees imaginary rabbits in the background busily making more rabbits.

Her bosom friend, Miss Wattie, has kept this under wraps by being constantly at Birchie's side, nursing her and whispering calm into her ear. Wattie and Birchie go back almost ninety years; they were raised together in the Birch household by Wattie's mother, the housekeeper, after Birchie's mother died in childbirth. They are the only people in town who cross the color line to go to church together, whether at Wattie's Black Baptist church or the White one in the center of town.

Leia starts making plans to move the two of them closer to her in Virginia. Her step-sister Rachel pitches in with research and overbearing advice, as is her practice. "As an adult, she'd helped me choose everything from cars to Christmas trees to lip gloss. ...Her genuinely good intentions coupled with her self-assured rightness made the helping both exasperating and impossible to turn down." She lends Leia her adolescent daughter, Lavender, as a travel companion. Ostensibly, Lavender is there to help organize the situation in Alabama, but she's also being sent out of the way of the cracks that have suddenly appeared in Rachel's perfect life.

Joshilyn Jackson makes neat use of the generational divides she has set up. The old ladies came up in a town recognizable from To Kill a Mockingbird, where you know people based on what their families are like. In the present, the dominant grapevine for adults is the church phone tree, while Lavender lives on the Internet, scheming with her new friends who live down the street in Birchville.
Jackson also has a wonderfully tender way with the step-sisters' relationship. Leia and Rachel are different in many ways, down to their differing memories of their shared childhood. We hear about Rachel's perfectionism and meddling from Leia's point of view, but when she gets a glimpse of what it's like to think she can solve everybody's problems, she rather likes it, too. 

Wattie and Birchie, for all their fragility, are fierce and strong, especially on each other's behalf. Jackson knows the rhythm and the logic of dementia; Birchie makes perfect sense, sometimes, but you can't always tell when those times are, or what she might still be concealing. Their essential kinship gives Leia reason to hope that her biracial baby represents a new world, as well as a very old one. 

The Almost Sisters is full of the joy of sisterhood, step-, foster-, and otherwise; the rich tastes and sustaining nature of Southern food; and the power of rage, in its own good time.

Any Good Books email
December, 2017

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Eating for Beginners

Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid
Melanie Rehak (2010, Houghton Mifflin; 2011, Mariner Books)

   A decade or so ago, Melanie Rehak was spectacularly well placed to look into the pleasures and politics of food, because her Brooklyn home was in walking distance of a restaurant called Applewood. (Actually, the owners spell it 'applewood', in an ostentatious display of humility, and so does Rehak, but I'll spare you.) Applewood, founded in 2004 by David and Laura Shea, is committed to local, seasonal, organic food - but sometimes you can't have all three at once. The Sheas, who have two small children, make a sensible division of the considerable labor. Laura is front of the house, and David is the lead chef. Applewood's ethos also includes a certain egalitarianism in the kitchen–cooks are expected to think creatively about the food in front of them.

   Rehak signs on as an apprentice cook. Her skills are not bad in her own kitchen, but sixty meals a night, coordinating with five or six other people, is a different matter altogether. A new menu every night, depending on what the suppliers have had available, multiplies the difficulty. In addition to techniques of chopping and plating, Rehak starts to learn what the chefs are thinking about when they stand in the walk-in cooler, imagining meals.

   She extends her research by spending a few days with the vegetable farmers, who work a long day to fulfill the orders they've had from the city. On another farm upstate, she gets practice milking goats, and disassembles a pig. By way of completing the cycle, she gets a ride with the truckers who bring the food into New York City. She goes out on a fishing boat, thinking about regulation and fishing stocks. Time and chance happen to them all: extremes of weather, insects, regulations, traffic; but all of these people work extremely hard (as does Rehak when she gets a chance to pitch in) and they make it happen, day after day.

   The picky kid of the title is Rehak's toddler, Jules, who starts in on solid food by rejecting most of it. He won't eat hot dogs, chicken, or fish. Or ice cream, or noodles, or toast. Rehak is concerned. Does anyone ever grow to adulthood eating only yogurt and bananas? Are there really kids who hate toast? Well, Jules is just wired differently. He likes "intensely flavored foods that would ordinarily be found on side table at adult gatherings–dry roasted nuts, hummus with carrots, red pepper strips, pita chips, unbelievably sour cornichon pickles, and...pickled cocktail onions."

   There are plenty of books about farms out there, and plenty about kitchens. Rehak has read plenty of them: not only James Beard and M.F.K. Fisher, but Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan. Guided by her work at Applewood, she works her way through the issues that balance the health of the planet and the need to feed her family tonight. She'll buy California produce so her son can have vegetables he'll eat, but she'll spend two extra bucks for milk without hormones.

   This is what it comes down to: "I knew it wouldn't always be possible to be choosy–at restaurants or out on the road. There are times when you just have to eat, and if one of those times turned out to be the moment when Jules first decided to try any kind of meat, I wasn't going to stop him no matter where it came from–but I also knew what I was going to choose when I could."

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Cork Dork

Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste.

Bianca Bosker (2017, Penguin Books)

    The first sommelier Bianca Bosker met was preparing to compete to be the World's Best Sommelier. Her journalistic curiosity engaged, she started watching videos of competitors "uncorking, decanting, sniffing, and spitting" and walking in elegant circles, like so many show dogs at Westminster. Just imagine if those same dogs could also find a child at Disneyworld after one sniff of his jacket: a master sommelier is capable of tasting a glass of an unknown wine and telling where and when it was made, down to the vineyard.

    This seemingly occult ability is not born, but learned, by thousands of tasting experiences over a professional lifetime; for purposes of journalistic immersion, Bosker boiled that time down to a year and a half. With a goal of passing the first round of sommelier certification, she plunged into training. The typical tasting group is a half-dozen somms, who gather on some weekday morning around six bottles of wines with foil covering the labels, and try to guess what's in them. The basic properties have physical manifestations: the more alcohol a wine has, the more it burns your throat, and the higher the acid level, the more you salivate. Together with sweetness, body (density in the mouth) and tannin levels (the mouth-puckering quality from grape skins, or aging in oak barrels), these properties find their characteristic balance in each type of wine. Matching all that to the grape variety, the location of the vineyard, and the year's weather? Flash cards, flash cards, and more flash cards. 

    That's to say nothing of the scents the somms claim to detect, because that's where a lot of what we think of as taste comes from. "That first sniff was crucial. If it was intense and unmistakably fruity–plum, fig, cherry, blackberry–that would be a vote for a New World wine, meaning it came from anywhere but Europe. More restrained, savory aromas–dirt, leaves, herbs, even stones–would trigger thoughts of the Old World, aka European wines." These descriptors are conventional, part of the agreed-upon jargon; "If you know the language, you can decipher the code. Mentioning rose and lichee is a giveaway that you're heading for Gewürtztraminer. Olive, black pepper, and meat mean you're barreling toward Syrah. Plum? Merlot. Cassis? Cabernet."

    In addition to drinking herself silly with her hard-drinking tutors, Bosker looks into some scientific, historic, and commercial aspects of wine. Some scientists analyze the chemical components of the classic properties, though their language doesn't translate terribly well into the social world of wine. The wine in your grocery store has very likely been subjected to chemical tweaking, in the interest of producing ten million bottles that all taste the same.

     Of course, that's not what the Park Avenue sommelier is going for. He's looking for a reason to sell the man in the twenty-thousand-dollar watch a seven-hundred-dollar bottle of wine, and make him grateful for it, or at least a little proud. Oneupmanship and conspicuous consumption certainly lead people to try things they're told are good, rather than what they might like best. (The sommelier competitions include a table service section, in which the somms are expected to act like excruciatingly correct English butlers, never spilling a drop, while answering the demanding and impertinent questions idle rich people might ask.)

     Between the industrial-grade wines and the pointlessly extravagant ones, there really is a field of knowledge and pleasure for Bosker, and an astonishing increase of knowledge. "I'd dissected cadaver heads and lugged cases down ladders and eaten dirt and probably done irreparable damage to my tooth enamel. I'd been driven by a desire to understand what made cork dorks tick, what came with a more sensory-aware existence, what it was that made wine so endlessly fascinating, and which aspects of the bullshit-prone industry were meaningful."

     Cork Dork is highly worthy to join your shelf of books about things people obsess and do that you never have to do yourself. Bosker's journalism by immersion is more literal than you ordinarily see, yet she keeps her eye on the nub of the question: "What's the big deal about wine?" Even though Bosker drank more wine in a week than I will in my life, I'm a lot closer to understanding that than I was. Cheers!