Advertisement for myself: specifically, for an upcoming book discussion I’m leading

March 15, 2008 at 6:40 pm (Book clubs, books)

professor.jpg willa-cather-portrait.jpg Back in June, I wrote about The Professor’s House by Willa Cather. This was my first foray back into classic literature after many years of devotion to new books. Of late, I’ve gotten hooked on new books all over again and neglected the back-to-the-classics resolution that I made upon retiring.

But now, here I am, set to lead a discussion of The Professor’s House next month. I only agree to lead a book discussion if I feel that I would profit by revisiting the book in question. Sure enough, as I re-read Cather’s small gem of a novel, I am feeling enriched by it all over again. In the June post, I quoted her lyrical description of Lake Michigan. Here are some other memorable quotes:

“As [the Professor] left the house he was reflecting that people who are intensely in love when they marry, and who go on being in love, always meet with something which suddenly or gradually makes a difference. Sometimes it is the children, or the grubbiness of being poor, sometimes a second infatuation.”

(And yes, I can’t help thinking right now that you have to hope and pray that the “difference” is something bearable, that it in no way resembles the kind of catastrophe currently confronting Silda Wall Spitzer…)

“I don’t think you help people by making their conduct of no importance–you impoverish them. As long as every man and woman who crowded into the cathedrals on Easter Sunday was a principal in a gorgeous drama with God, glittering angels on one side and the shadows of evil coming and going on the other, life was a rich thing. The king and the beggar had the same chance at miracles and great temptations and revelations.”

And finally, and most provocatively –

“The heart of another is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one’s own.”

If you are local, please consider joining me for a discussion of The Professor’s House at the Howard County Central Library at 11:00 AM on Saturday, April 5. Copies of the book are currently available at the Fiction/Audiovisual Desk.

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Michael Pollan rocks my (food) world – again! – with In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

March 13, 2008 at 12:01 pm (Book review, books, Food)

pollan1_b.jpg food.jpg Michael Pollan says that he began doing the research for In Defense of Food almost as soon as his epochal work on the Western diet, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, was published: “I found that readers were, first, astounded to learn what they were eating, and second, eager to know how they might change the way they eat. I was surprised to discover how confused so many of us are about this most elemental of creaturely activities: figuring out a healthy diet.” There are several reasons for the obfuscation currently surrounding what should be a fairly basic question. For one thing, food and eating have become detached from the cultural context in which they were formerly embedded. Add to that the combined exertions of nutritionists and the food industry, and we find ourselves where we are today: trying to eat in a healthy manner but puzzled as to how to do so.

I especially enjoyed Pollan’s description, in his introduction, of the kind of food his mother grew up eating: “…stuffed cabbage, organ meats, cheese blintzes, kreplach, knishes stuffed with potato or chicken liver, and vegetables that often were cooked in in rendered chicken or duck fat.” He adds that he never ate that food except when they went to visit his grandparents. This was the cuisine of Jews who had recently emigrated from Eastern Europe or Russia, and it describes the kind of cooking my grandparents did as well (except that I also remember the vegetables being boiled to within an inch of their poor lives!). Okay, Pollan, admits, this was one cultural gift that was not the healthiest in the world. But some of it, I can tell you from experience, was really delicious!

However – we digress (always a danger when food is being discussed). Pollan’s little book is full of fascinating contemporary food facts, some of which amaze, while others infuriate. He marshals statistics and cites studies, lightening the tone from time to time with tales of some incredibly bizarre theories from past years and the equally bizarre personalities who espoused them. For instance, it seems that animal protein was the bugbear of many nutrition scientists in the early part of the 20th century. John Harvey Kellogg was of the opinion that it was not only responsible for the proliferation of toxic bacteria into the colon – it also promoted masturbation! Pollan then regales us with tales of the doings at Kellogg’s Battle Creek sanitarium:

“…patients (who included John D. Rockefeller and Theodore Roosevelt) paid a small fortune to be subjected to such ‘scientific’ practices as hourly yogurt enemas (to undo the damage that protein supposedly wreaked on the colon); electrical stimulation and ‘massive vibration’ of the abdomen; diets consisting of nothing but grapes (ten to fourteen pounds of them a day); and at every meal, “Fletcherizing,” the practice of chewing each bite of food approximately one hundred times. (Often to the rousing accompaniment of special chewing songs.)”

The lesson here, obviously, is that nutrition fads encouraged by nutrition crackpots are nothing new on the scene. While this type of extreme “treatment,” unsupported by hard science, was eventually discredited, the food science of the second half of the 20th century became more serious, more methodical – and more insidious in its effect, or so it seems to this reader.

The basic problem, as Pollan sees it, is the tendency of nutrition science to isolate nutrients and then recommend the consumption of certain foods because they possess those nutrients – and to advise against eating other foods, for the same reason. Of course, the most egregious example of this is the margarine/butter imbroglio, in which it was eventually revealed that the trans fats in margarine were much worse for you than the saturated fats in butter. (In our house, we had a one word response to this finding: HURRAY!!) There needs to be more awareness and acceptance of the fact that the interaction among various foods, when those foods are eaten together, can in itself promote health, for subtle reasons that are not well understood (and possibly don’t need to be).

Toward the book’s conclusion, Pollan offers some specific guidelines on what to eat and what to avoid eating. He has already summed up his advice on this question with a seven word mantra: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” But what does this rather cryptic exhortation actually mean? Well, to begin with: Don’t eat anything that would not have been recognizable as food your mother, or your grandmother – or possibly even your Neolithic ancestors! In other words, stay away from engineered comestibles: anything processed, including food that has had nutrients inserted into its makeup in a way that nature never intended. Rather, eat foods in which those nutrient elements occur naturally

As regards how much to eat, Pollan suggests cutting down – way down – on snacks, in favor of regular meals, preferably eaten in good company, and very importantly, eaten slowly. (See the Slow Food Movement.) Finally, Pollan extolls the virtues of fruits and vegetables, particularly leafy greens. They are rich in all sorts of nutrients that benefit our health. Omega-3 fatty acids are espcially vital. Although we usually think of fish as the primary source here, leafy green vegetables are even better. Fish get the Omega-3 from the algae and seaweed that they themselves consume. As Pollan reminds us, you are not only what you eat – you are what you eat eats!

(And wouldn’t you know it: just as I am resolving to eat more spinach, a story entitled “Report Criticizes FDA Over Spinach Packers” appears in today’s Washington Post!)

I hasten to say here that I’m oversimplifying a very complex subject. Michael Pollan does an impressive job of elucidating these various issues in this relatively short, highly readable volume.. I love his writing style, which is conversational, engaging, and liberally laced with humor. He avoids being doctrinaire, preferring instead to use sweet reason; because of this approach, I find him persuasive and compelling.

My only criticism, and it’s a gentle one, is that I was left feeling a bit wistful regarding the matter of flavor. In Defense of Food is not a recipe book, nor is it intended to be. I still have questions in my mind as to how to make my leafy greens taste delicious without undue adulteration. It was this same voracious quest for flavor that led me down the fatal garden path to – horrors! – Doritos Nacho Flavored Tortilla Chips, to which I was, in my former life, virtually addicted. (The diagnosis of Type II Diabetes put that guilty pleasure permanently off limits some years ago, though I still yearn for them, the crispy little devils!)

By all means, read In Defense of Food. For a real treat, and a thoroughly fascinating treatment of the subject of our diet, read The Omnivore’s Dilemma first. omnivores.jpg

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Here are some of the sites Michael Pollan recommends in the section on resources:

Center for Informed Food Choices. (See especially the FAQ’s.)

Eat Wild

Local Harvest

Weston A Price Foundation. I’m grateful to Michael Pollan for introducing me to Weston A. Price, a dentist by profession, a sort of nutrition visionary by inclination, and altogether a person worth knowing about.

weston-price.jpg [Weston A. Price, 1870-1848]

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All Hail Macbeth! The Folger Theatre’s stunning production

March 10, 2008 at 11:22 pm (Performing arts, Shakespeare)

macbeth-playbill.jpg This is the scariest, most formidable Macbeth imaginable. The play begins, in a sense, before it begins, with a lengthy announcement, presumably from the management. The announcer’s spiel is cut short in a way that theatergoers will not soon forget. (I will say no more about this, in case you are lucky enough to have tickets.)

Extreme stagecraft was employed in this production. Sudden loud noises, abrupt appearances and disappearances, blindingly bright strobe lights – and buckets of blood. In the capable hands of directors Teller (of Penn and Teller fame) and Aaron Posner, these elements intensified the focus on Shakespeare’s language and on the anguish of the characters. A collective “Ah!” seemingly arose from the packed house on many occasions. I felt as though I were watching the prototype of tragedy, reduced to its most laserlike capacity to terrify.

macbath.jpg Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth is transfixed by “a dagger of the mind.”

The acting is first rate. I admit to a prejudice where Shakespeare performances are concerned: I prefer the actors’ speech to have a British inflection. These were American actors, so they spoke American English. After the first five minutes or so, it ceased to matter. I was mesmerized and stayed that way, right to the end.

As this most inexorable of tragedies unfolded, certain lines of dialog seemed to leap out and hang in the air. Many of them were uttered by that archetype of bad influence, Lady Macbeth:

“The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements.

“We fail!/ But screw your courage to the sticking place / And we’ll not fail.

“Look like the innocent flower / But be the serpent under’t.

There she is, giving her hapless husband lessons on how to be evil! But of course all of it catches up with her and overpowers her in the famous sleepwalking scene in Act Five. Here she plaintively voices her amazement:

“Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”

And finally, this line, which for some unaccountable reason chilled me to the bone: “The Thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now?”

macbeth1.jpg Ian Merrill Peakes, with Kate Eastwood Norris as Lady Macbeth

The play’s most famous speech is uttered by Macbeth himself, when he hears of his wife’s death:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

These may be the most despairing, nihilistic lines Shakespeare ever wrote.

bloom.jpg In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom observes: “Macbeth suffers intensely from knowing that he does evil, and that he must go on doing ever worse.” Later in the same paragraph: “He scarcely is conscious of an ambition, desire, or wish before he sees himself on the other side or shore, already having performed the crime that equivocally fulfills ambition. Macbeth terrifies us partly because that aspect of our imagination is so frightening: it seems to make us murderers, thieves, usurpers, and rapists.”

I think Bloom is saying that because Macbeth seems at first to be a decent sort – decent in the way we like to think ourselves as being decent – that his swift descent into an infamous kind of Hell seems to exemplify a fate that could befall any one of us. Perhaps this accounts for the claustrophobic unease of the viewer caught up in the play’s precipitous downward trajectory.

macbeth200.jpg “By the pricking of my thumbs, / Something wicked this way comes.” The three witches, truly gruesome hags, were played by male actors. The witches are more often referred to as the the weird sisters. shakespeare-garber.jpg In Shakespeare After All, Marjorie Garber tells us that “Wyrd is the Old English word for “fate,” and these are, in a way,classical witches as well as Scottish or Celtic ones, Fates as well as Norns. The Three Fates of Greek mythology were said to spin, apportion, and cut the thread of man’s life. But the Macbeth witches are not merely mythological beings, nor merely historical targets of vilification, and superstition; on the stage, and on the page, they have a persuasive psychological reality of their own.”

The run for the Folger’s production of Macbeth has been extended; tickets are currently almost impossible to get. People are advertising for them on Craigslist. I’m not surprised.

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Addendum, March 11: I meant to mention Thomas De Quincey’s tremendously insightful essay, “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth,” first published in 1823. In this passage, De Quincey describes the moments that follow Duncan’s murder:

“Here, as I have said, the retiring of the human heart and the
entrance of the fiendish heart was to be expressed and made sensible.
Another world has stepped in; and the murderers are taken out of the region
of human things, human purposes, human desires. They are transfigured: Lady
Macbeth is “unsexed;” Macbeth has forgot that he was born of woman; both
are conformed to the image of devils; and the world of devils is suddenly
revealed. But how shall this be conveyed and made palpable? In order that a
new world may step in, this world must for a time disappear. The murderers,
and the murder, must be insulated–cut off by an immeasurable gulph
from the ordinary tide and succession of human affairs–locked up and
sequestered in some deep recess; we must be made sensible that the world
of ordinary life is suddenly arrested–laid asleep–tranced–racked into
a dread armistice: time must be annihilated; relation to things without
abolished; and all must pass self-withdrawn into a deep syncope and
suspension of earthly passion. Hence it is, that when the deed is done,
when the work of darkness is perfect, then the world of darkness passes
away like a pageantry in the clouds: the knocking at the gate is heard; and
it makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced: the human has made
its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat
again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we
live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had
suspended them.

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British Heritage Magazine

March 9, 2008 at 2:15 pm (Anglophilia, Art, History, Magazines and newspapers, Scotland, Travel)

british-heritage-magazine.jpg Every time a new issue of British Heritage arrives, I make myself put off reading it until I can’t stand it any more. I can be certain that I’m in for a treat once my self-control gives way, but I have to say that the May 2008 issue is really exceptional. For one thing, there are so many fascinating news items in the “Dateline” section at the beginning of the magazine that I have yet to move on to the longer articles at the heart of this splendid publication!

First, there’s the piece on Sherwood Forest, which used to comprise some 100,000 acres. Alas, it has presently shrunk to a mere 450! Think how exposed Robin of Locksley and his Merry Band would have felt amid such reduced acreage. But efforts are underway to renew and reinvigorate this storied place. The forest still contains 997 old-growth oak trees. And when they say old, they’re not kidding; these trees can live 900 years. These oaks are carefully tended. Pride of place among their number goes to the Major Oak.

major127.jpg The Major Oak, as it currently appears

major128-no-supports.jpg The Major Oak, with supports digitally removed

And before we go on to other things, have a look at the annual Robin Hood Festival.

bamborough.jpg Next, interesting news from the art world: Sotheby’s auctioned a J.M.W. Turner water-color for a cool $6 million. Formerly owned by various members of the Vanderbilt family, Bamborough Castle had not been seen publicly since 1889. Meanwhile, a Faberge egg containing a clock fetched an even cooler $18.5 million at Christie’s. This exquisite timepiece, commissioned by the Rothschild family in 1905, is now the highest-priced ever Russian objet d’art. faberge.jpg

romanfinds.jpg A sensational treasure trove of “Romano-British artifacts” has been found at the bottom of a well at a place called Draper’s Gardens in London. According to Jenny Hall, the curator of Roman London at the Museum of London, “Nothing like this has ever been found in London before, or anywhere else in Britain.”

Now – on to the Royals. Yes – I do interest myself in their doings, I freely admit to it! Queen Elizabeth has a new grandson, the second child born to Prince Edward and Sophie, Countess of Wessex. (He was actually born right before Christmas. We across the pond here are a tad late getting the news – or, at least, I am.) The little tyke will be known as James Windsor, Viscount Severn. wessexs3rex_468x548.jpg wessexbabypa_468x341.jpg

Finally, two items about Scotland. First: plans are under way for a gathering of the Scottish clans next year. Called, not unexpectedly, The Gathering, the event will be part of a larger celebration called Homecoming Scotland. Prince Charles will be the royal patron. This exciting series of events has all the makings of a party to end all parties!

banner_events.jpg The Gathering will feature massed pipe bands, Highland games, live music, Scottish Highland dancing, and much more.

Finally, news of the Helix Project, the purpose of which is to “…fund a new section of the Forth and Clyde Canal connecting the canal to the Firth of Forth.”

forthbridges.jpg The Firth of Forth

In addition, approximately twenty miles of paths for walking and cycling are planned, and some 750,000 trees will be planted. As if all this wasn’t sufficiently exciting, a sculpture consisting of two enormous horse heads is slated to be the crowning glory of the Helix Project. This massive installation, designed by sculptor Andy Scott, will be about one hundred feet high. The inspiration for this work is the kelpie, defined by Mysterious Britain as “…the supernatural shape-shifting water horse that haunts the rivers and streams of Scotland.”

kelpies_cropped_large.jpg Prototype of The Kelpies

I speak as an outsider who has spent very little time there, but it seems to me that the spirit of Scotland, animated by a justified pride in that country’s distinguished heritage and bright future, is on the rise. My husband and I felt that we were standing at the heart of this resurgence when we visited Edinburgh this past fall. While there, we toured the new Scottish Parliament building and learned the story of its creation, a stirring tale of triumph mixed with tragedy, like something out of a novel.

parliament-public.jpg

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The Doomsters by Ross MacDonald

March 5, 2008 at 11:39 pm (Book review, books, California, Mystery fiction)

I’ve already written fairly extensively about Ross MacDonald. (See The Way Some People Die.) And I just posted a quote from The Doomsters this past Sunday. But can I read a MacDonald novel and not write about it? Never!

So I thought I’d concentrate on the language of the novel. As I was reading, I placed post-it notes at particularly memorable passages. So of course, by the time I finished the book, it resembled the literary version of a porcupine, fairly bristling with little yellow scraps of paper. (How, one wonders, did we ever manage before the invention of post-it notes?)

doomster.jpg The Doomsters (1958) has a strange opening: “I was dreaming about a hairless ape who lived in a cage by himself. His trouble was that people were always trying to get in.” Lew Archer is awakened from this hallucinatory vision by someone knocking at the side door. It’s a young man, wild-eyed, dishevelled, agitated. His name is Carl Hallman and he has just escaped from a nearby mental hospital. Archer lets him in. And of course, into the private detective’s life Hallman brings the inevitable world of trouble. Welcome to Archer/MacDonald country, where love shades into hate in an instant; motives are nothing if not suspect; women are either saints, lushes, whores, or some combination thereof; corruption, especially among public officials, is rampant; and family members desperate for money and power seem hellbent on destroying one another.

Sounds like rough terrain, doesn’t it? It is. It can be violent, depressing, hopeless. Why do I keep returning to it? I don’t know.

Well, I do know, sort of. There is something grimly compelling about watching these families implode like something out of a Greek tragedy. The glimpse of a used-to-be southern California, with its vast orange groves and its oil wells, certainly fascinates. And finally, there’s the mordant wit, the economy of expression, the figurative language and the rapier-sharp dialog that make Ross MacDonald’s prose so compelling:

“I went in through the curtains, and found myself in a twilit sitting room with a lighted television screen. At first the people on the screen were unreal shadows. After I sat and watched them for a few minutes, they became realer than the room. The screen became a window into a brightly lighted place where life was being lived, where a beautiful actress couldn’t decide between career and children and had to settle for both.

“Veins squirmed like broken purple worms under the skin of his nose. His eyes held the confident vacancy that comes from the exercise of other people’s power.

“She had the false assurance, or abandon, of a woman who has made a sexual commitment and swung her whole life from it like a trapeze.

“The dining-room had a curious atmosphere, unlived in and unlivable, like one of those three-walled rooms laid out in a museum behind a silk rope: Provincial California Spanish, Pre-Atomic Era.

“Headlights went by in the road like brilliant forlorn hopes rushing out of darkness into darkness.

“‘He oughtn’t to have ran,’ [Sheriff] Ostervelt said. ‘I’m a sharpshooter. I still don’t like to kill a man. It’s too damn easy to wipe one out and too damn hard to grow one.’

The Doomsters is the seventh of the eighteen Lew Archer novels. While it has many of the signature qualities that make this series so memorable, it is not without flaws, the chief of which is a verbose, almost hurried explanation of what has actually occurred in the course of a very complicated investigation. This lengthy exposition is delivered by a single character and is crowded into the novel’s concluding chapters. It was the only time the plot lost momentum. And I have to say that if anything, it left me even more confused about just who did what and why.

But up until that point, I was, as usual, enthralled. The Doomsters marks the end of MacDonald’s apprenticeship, as it were. It was followed by the terrific Galton Case, The Wycherly Woman, and my all time favorite, The Zebra-Striped Hearse.

I thought the title of this book was some kind of made-up word. Turns out it was made-up all right, but not by Ross MacDonald. On p.226, he quotes these lines:

‘Sleep the long sleep; / The Doomsters heap / Travails and teens around us here…’

I googled them and found that they were from a poem by Thomas Hardy: “To an Unborn Pauper Child.” Well, that’s what you get when you have a writer of hardboiled fiction who also happens to have a Ph.D. in English (awarded by the University of Michigan in 1951).

ross-macdonald.jpg Ross MacDonald 1915-1983

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The First and the Latest by Sue Miller: The Good Mother and The Senator’s Wife

March 4, 2008 at 6:00 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books)

good-mother.jpg In 1986, when I found myself reading Sue Miller’s The Good Mother, I had been single for four year and had a young son. Miller’s protagonist in her first novel has also recently left her marriage with a child in tow. The Good Mother is the story of what happens to Anna Dunlap when she begins to have relationships with men – more specifically, it is about what happens to her, at this crucial juncture in her life, as a mother.

When it came out, the book caused something of a sensation. Up until then, very little had been written about what life was like for newly single mothers who, after a long absence, were attempting to re-enter the dating pool. At the time, I had many friends with children who were also struggling to navigate past the flotsam of broken marriages. We all read The Good Mother, and we took it as a cautionary tale. What happens to Anna could happen to you. You may not, after all, have an untrammeled right to another shot at finding a soul mate – at least, not without paying a very heavy price. (I am happy to report that virtually all of my friends from that turbulent time eventually landed happily on their feet, myself among them – with plenty of help from those same friends, and others!)

while-gone.jpg lost-forest.jpg senators.jpg I have since read three other novels by Miller: While I Was Gone, Lost in the Forest, and most recently, The Senator’s Wife. I enjoyed them all, though in the case of The Senator’s Wife, I have a few reservations. For one thing, I encountered some surprisingly graceless writing. For example, here’s one of the main the characters, Meri, describing a book that her husband Nathan is writing: “It was about the Great Society programs. It interspersed an account of the politics that had dictated the shape of those programs with the life stories of five people who were supposed to have benefited from them, bringing their histories up to the present.”

Another problem I had with The Senator’s Wife was its length. It’s a good example of a book that would have profited by some judicious editing. The main thrust of the story kept getting buried under details, some of them of an extremely prosaic nature. At one point, I thought if I was told once more that someone was either loading or unloading the dishwasher, I would scream! This tendency on the author’s part to regale us with the minutiae of domestic life was all the more frustrating because the story in and of itself really was very intriguing, with an outcome that I for one could never have predicted.

Judging by the title, I thought this book would have more to do with politics than it did. But I should have known better. Miller’s interest and expertise tend to be concentrated, often very intensely, in the sphere of domesticity. Tom Naughton, the senator in question, is characterized as an old style liberal where his political convictions are concerned. With regard to his marriage, however, the word libertine would be more apropos. The way in which Delia Naughton accommodates her husband’s wayward tendencies is the central mystery that drives this provocative novel. (If by this description, you are sensing a likeness to a certain real life high profile political couple, well, it’s probably not pure coincidence. Yes, there’s more than a soupcon of Clinton here, but there are also important differences.)

The Senator’s Wife is going to make a terrific discussion book. I was subbing at one of our library system’s branches on Saturday, and a patron mentioned that she had just finished this book. We immediately embarked on a wide-ranging analysis of the characters and their motivations. We had trouble stopping ourselves – it was great! I’m slated to attend a book club discussion of The Senator’s Wife next month and am very much looking forward to it.

sue-m-pic.jpg Sue Miller

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Quotes for a Sunday

March 2, 2008 at 2:15 pm (books, Eloquence, Mystery fiction)

Michael Pollan, on the subject of nutritionism:

“Ideologies are ways of organizing large swaths of life and experience under a set of shared but unexamined assumptions. This quality makes an ideology particularly hard to see, at least while it’s still exerting its hold on your culture. A reigning ideology is a little like the weather–all pervasive and so virtually impossible to escape.”

food.jpg In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan

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From The Doomsters by Ross MacDonald:

“We passed a small-boat harbor, gleaming white on blue, and a long pier draped with fishermen. Everything was as pretty as a postcard. The trouble with you, I said to myself: you’re always turning over the postcards and reading the messages on the underside. Written in invisible ink, in blood, in tears, with a black border around them, with postage due, unsigned, or signed with a thumbprint.”

doomster.jpg The Doomsters, written in 1958, has been reissued by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard. It exemplifies the way in which great crime fiction endures across decades.

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Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon, by Andrea Di Robilant.

March 1, 2008 at 10:36 pm (Book review, books, History)

venetian-affair.jpg In 2003, Andrea di Robilant, a correspondent for the Italian newspaper La Stampa, wrote a book entitled A Venetian Affair. In it, he tells the poignant love story of Giustiniana Wynne, a young Venetian who lived in genteel poverty with her mother and sisters, and Andrea Memmo, scion of one of Venice’s oldest and most distinguished families. For many reasons, Giustiniana was disqualified as wife material for Andrea; among the strikes against her was her illegitimacy. But although they were never able to marry, they remained devoted to each other. That devotion was chronicled in numerous letters which were discovered by the author’s father in the attic of Venetian palazzo which had at one time been owned by the family.

lucia.jpg Di Robilant used those letters to terrific effect in A Venetian Affair. And now comes Lucia, the sequel, as it were. Once again we meet Andrea Memmo, only now he is older and wiser and a widower with two daughters. The younger is Paolina; the older, Lucia. The story begins in the year 1786. We learn that Andrea has been working hard to arrange a marriage for sixteen-year-old Lucia to Alvise, scion of the distinguished Mocenigo family, who, like themselves, are Venetian. At the time he was engaged in these machinations, Andrea was Venice’s ambassador to the Papal States. Negotiations were thus taking place over long distance while he was fulfilling his obligations in Rome and in Naples. The proposed match encountered some obstacles, but these were eventually overcome. There followed an exchange of letters between Lucia and her betrothed. We don’t have Alvise’s side of the correspondence, but we do have Lucia’s. Her letters are filled with sweet anticipation and girlish delight. They are filled with hope, and alas, very naive. But she learns, oh, does she learn…

In fact, this book could have been called “The Education of Lucia.” Alvise wasn’t a terrible husband, just a largely absent one. Lucia had to learn to fend for herself, a proposition made all the more daunting by the chaotic dangers of the outside world. The Napoleonic Wars were raging over the face of Europe. Poor Venice, mired in an antiquated, reactionary system of government, didn’t stand a chance against the powers that were vying for control of it. La Serenissima was anything but serene. As a result of all the turmoil, Lucia commenced an almost nomadic existence, living for a time in Vienna, in Paris, and in a number of smaller principalities. But her love for Venice, her fierce loyalty to her homeland and her determination to return to it, never wavered.

I want to just come out and say it: This is a wonderful book! The times were dangerous and fascinating, true, but Lucia’s remarkable life is the star of the show. andrea-di-robilant.jpg I dearly hope that Andrea Di Robilant can tease at least one more book out of that treasure trove of letters. His writing is fluid and graceful; he is a born storyteller.

For a truly a wonderful reading experience, I’d suggest reading both books, starting with venetian2.jpg A Venetian Affair. Then kick back, relax, and prepare to be enthralled!

Addendum, March 2: I forgot to mention that Lucia’s favorite author was none author than the prolific and redoubtable Madame de Genlis! Writing phrasebooks for travelers, it turns out, was just one of the versatile Mme de Genlis’s many writerly occupations.

Lucia, by the way, was Andrea Di Robilant’s great-great-great-great-grandmother.

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Death, where is thy sting?

March 1, 2008 at 2:30 am (Eloquence, Film and television, Magazines and newspapers, Poetry)

buckley.jpg William F. Buckley was an iconic figure for those of my generation, even if our politics were diametrically opposed to his. That wit, that urbanity, the multisyllabic vocabulary, the faux-British accent – it all added up to a package that was hard to resist.

George F. Will has a nice valedictory piece, “A Life Athwart History,” in today’s Washington Post. In it, he quotes a stanza from “Vit(ae) Summa Brevis Spem nos Incohare Longam” by Ernest Dowson. I have seen this poem before but forgotten its haunting beauty. Here it is in its entirety:

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate;
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

Poor Ernest Dowson! He was one of those wayward, sensitive souls doomed to flame out at an early age. Here is a brief, poignant memoir of his life by the poet and critic Arthur Symons.

Some will recognize the phrase “days of wine and roses” as the title of a terrific film from 1962 starring Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon. The film depicted the ravages of alcoholism in a way that has rarely been equalled, before or since. And from another poem by Dowson comes the title of an acclaimed American novel that became an even more acclaimed movie. See line 13 in “Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae.”

dowson.gif Ernest Dowson 1867-1900

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