Friday, May 29, 2009

It'll Make a Good Story

In high school, my friend H and I wrote three journals we refer to as "The Trilogy." Each recorded a separate event: vol. I, a choir tour up the Eastern seaboard; vol. II, a camping trip on our friend Scoob's farm; and vol. III, our senior ski trip. (There were also some minor works, but I'll decline from cataloging them here.) H and I had matching pocket thesauri and a shared love of purple prose. We esteemed ourselves artisans of the written word, transforming each mundane experience into a harrowing adventure or epic melodrama. We considered ourselves extremely funny, although I suspect you had to be there, and more importantly, be us.

Actually, we really were funny. Damn funny. Still are. But not as funny as Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat.

Jerome's popular work (written in the late 19th century) pairs Wodehousian humor with idyllic descriptions of the English countryside. But really it's just three young guys and a dog boffing about in a boat on the river, experiencing the kind of comical mishaps everyone has on a camping trip, with a generous dose of good-natured bickering. Jerome also has a great tendancy to go off on tangents, and his chapter opener summaries are a hoot. I've laughed so hard in several scenes that tears ran down my cheeks, and when I tried to read sections out loud to Ickie, I hyperventilated.

For your enjoyment, here's an excerpt. "J", Harris, and George get excited about a tin of pineapple, only to discover they haven't packed an opener. Madness ensues.

"Then Harris tried to open the tin with a pocket-knife, and broke the knife and cut himself badly; and George tried a pair of scissors, and the scissors flew up, and nearly put his eye out. While they were dressing their wounds, I tried to make a hole in the thing with the spiky end of the hitcher,and the hitcher slipped and jerked me out between the boat and the bank into two feet of muddy water, and the tin rolled over, uninjured, and broke a teacup.

Then we all got mad. We took that tin out on the bank, and Harris went up into a field and got a big sharp stone, and I went back into the boat and brought out the mast, and George held the tin and Harris held the sharp end of his stone against the top of it, and I took the mast and poised it high up in the air, and gathered up all my strength and brought it down.

It was George's straw hat that saved his life that day. He keeps that hat now (what is left of it) and, of a winter's evening, when the pipes are lit and the boys are telling stretchers about the dangers they have passed through, George brings it down and shows it round, and the stirring tale is told anew, with fresh exaggerations every time.

Harris got off with merely a flesh wound.

After that, I took the tin off myself, and hammered at it with the mast till I was worn out and sick at heart, whereupon Harris took it in hand.

We beat it out flat; we beat it back square; we battered it into every form known to geometry--but we could not make a hole in it. Then George went at it, and knocked it into a shape, so strange, so weird, so unearthly in its wild hideousness, that he got frightened and threw away the mast. Then we all three sat round it on the grass and looked at it.

There was one great dent across the top that had the appearance of a mocking grin, and it drove us furious, so that Harris rushed at the thing, and caught it up, and flung it far into the middle of the river, and as it sank we hurled our curses at it, and we got into the boat and rowed away from the spot, and never paused till we reached Maidenhead."

Friend of the Book Blog World

Thanks to Felix at The Growlery for his thoughtful (and more in-depth) review of The Hunger Games. I'm glad you enjoyed my recommendation!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Being a Foodie

I reckon I had the latent potential for "foodieness" all along. My mom loves trying international foods. When I was growing up, she cooked delicious meals for us every night (her Spaghetti Carbonara and Buttermilk Pound Cake recipes continue to be two of my all-time favorites). She loves to brag that my favorite meal as a 3-year-old was steamed clams and a green salad. As we grew older, once a year Mom and Dad dressed us up and took us to The Nicest Restaurant in Town, where I cleaned my palate with a sorbet course. My grandmother visited us and made mouth-watering Southern meat-and-veg with glorious biscuits. My aunt lived with us briefly while I was in high school and made spectacular creations--I well remember coming home from school one day and being greeted by perfectly browned stuffed game hens.

Then I went overseas and tried everything that was set in front of me. I spent a summer eating wurst and gelato in Germany. I spent two years in Indonesia eating grilled fish with my fingers and cultivating an appreciation for avocado juice with chocolate syrup. I had dim sum for the first time in a Chinese restaurant in Malaysia. I ate a slice of lemon pie in Australia with a meringue so enormous it hung off the edge of my plate. I slurped enormous bowlfuls of Tom Yum soup for breakfast in northern Thailand. I dolloped fresh mayonnaise on my cold roast beef in Paris.

Food has always excited me, but I didn't start cooking until I got married. And for the first year or so of our marriage, Ickie was treated to commonplace casserole fare. Then I read Cooking for Mr. Latte by Amanda Hesser. I've read other food books since (I'm currently reading the beautifully written A Homemade Life by Orangette blogger Molly Wizenberg), but Mr. Latte was my original foodie book inspiration. Suddenly I was putting lemon zest in everything and making my own salad dressing.

I began to recall the noodle soup stands I frequented in Southeast Asia. They always had a basket of condiments on the tables: fiery sambal, syrupy soy, astringent vinegar. I gleaned that I could construct a great meal by combining salty, hot, sweet, sour, and bitter flavors. Then I moved to Santa Barbara, where I learned anything works if you begin with fresh produce and really good olive oil. I've become a person who doesn't follow recipes to the letter. Ever. I'm a sloppy, impatient person when it comes to creating anything, yet generally the end result is darn yummy.

We foodies are snobs in different ways. For example, I'm incredibly picky about pancakes. They have to be made from scratch, with buttermilk, cooked in an iron skillet with good unsalted butter, and served with REAL maple syrup. Yet I don't insist on warming the syrup and plates to go with my pancakes, whereas my brother-in-law does. I can make some tasty potatoes, but I don't cradle them in dish towels lovingly like Ickie's sister. I have strong opinions about wine and can really throw back Italian Nebbiolo. However, I really don't know jack about beer, a fact my beer aficianado friend probably considers unsettling. I love love LOVE corndogs.

Here are a few books I've enjoyed that pair narrative and recipes:

Cooking for Mr. Latte, A. Hesser
A Homemade Life, M. Wizenberg
Like Water for Chocolate, L. Esquivel
Untangling My Chopsticks, V. Abbott Richardi

Thursday, May 14, 2009

"The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones."

It's hard to conceive the inhumanity of which humans are capable. I don't claim to be an especially nice person, but I still can't imagine maiming someone else. I'm not even sure I could do so if my life depended on it. I wonder if only some or all people are capable of really terrible things. I often think of my rector's (from my church in St. Louis) answer when asked why bad things happen to seemingly innocent people. He said we live in a fallen world and we're all just kind of spreading the sin around.

I'm pondering this because of two stories I recently completed. One was the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus by Art Spiegelman. The other is Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

Maus (I & II) is a graphic novel and is a brilliant example of the genre. Spiegelman's layered narrative shows his interactions with his aging father, who in turn tells of his experiences in WWII Poland. Spiegelman depicts the Jews as mice, the Germans as cats, the Poles as pigs, the French as frogs, etc. They have human bodies with these animal heads. The animal caricatures work well although I can't explain exactly why. There are many stories about the holocaust, but this one is unique in contrasting the resourceful young man surviving a concentration camp with the aging, neurotic father, as seen through the eyes of his son. Spiegelman struggles to get along with his difficult father, understand his past, and conceive of how it has impacted his own life. Ickie and I both found the last panel moving.

Hunger Games is a young adult novel Jackamo described as a cross between The Running Man and The Lord of the Flies. The main character is a teenage girl who supports her impoverished family. The story is set in a dystopia with a government-mandated annual lottery that pits teens in an arena where they fight to the death. The death match is broadcast like a season of Survivor. It's bizarre and frightening. It's also really hard to put down (I read it in less than two days). As in her Underland Chronicles, Collins' protagonist is a poor teen (who has lost a parent) forced to fight in a violent, evil world. The whole book is one big ethical headache--my head is swimming just trying to write down my thoughts and emotions during and after reading it. It's the first in a series, which is good because there's a lot more story to tell, but the ending was strong enough for this first story to stand alone.