Royal Wedding

UnknownA friend recently reminded me the Americans fought a war to get away from the English Royals, yet many of us were happy to succumb to the pomp and ceremony of the recent royal wedding between an American who gave up her religion, her career, and her country for the love of a Prince – a plot right out of the Hallmark Channel.  Most public commentators were either politely politically correct or effusively complimentary; privately, opinions on the dress, the celebrities attending, and the sermon varied – but everyone loved the Queen.

51kkZEjM6bL._AC_US218_I found Anthony Lane’s “Daily Comment” in the New Yorker this morning, and I  laughed so hard, my fascinator fell off.  After reading “Harry and Meghan Look to the Future, but Some Royals Never Change,” I decided to download his collection of New Yorker essays – Nobody’s Perfect.  Since Lane is a movie critic, the book is full of his irreverent reviews from “Indecent Proposal: to “Pearl Harbor.”  Although he skewers the plots, the actors, and producers – even Julia Roberts and Alfred Hitchcock do not escape – the book is full of honest laughs.  The Queen would approve.

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A Quiet Space – Nothing to Do But Be In It

lightning-bolt-clipart-lightning-bolt-hi  Lightning in the area had closed the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit – the Bachman-Wilson house that had been moved from New Jersey to Arkansas, rebuilt, and restored – one of the reasons I was there. I chatted with the gate keeper, a young intern finishing her Masters in Museum Studies; I bought a book about Wright’s vision, and I hoped for the storm to wear itself out.

Ahead of everyone when the storm finally passed that afternoon, I was the first to wander through the narrow entrance, getting the house to myself for five minutes before the world crowded in behind me, mostly teenagers on a field trip. I imagined sitting on the built-in bench, looking out at the woods – my pilgrimage complete.

thumbnail_IMG_4374  The quiet space reminded me of Patricia Hampl’s The Art of the Wasted Day.  I had been prompted to find her book after reading her essay in the New York Times Sunday Review section – Scrap Your To Do List.   Following Hampl’s advice, I was doing nothing for the moment – just quietly staring out a window and wondering.  In her book, she identifies with Montaigne, her hero – and mine, redefining happiness as daydreaming, not afraid to do nothing, not even meditating – just reflecting and being open to insights that can only come in quiet solitude.

Like Hampl, I was trained by the nuns to always be productive, eschewing idleness and daydreaming as devilish pursuits.  Hampl writes:

“The idea of constantly doing something, of always accomplishing something, seems to be woven into the American DNA…while life and liberty are guaranteed, happiness isn’t, only the job of seeking it. The essential American word isn’t happiness. It’s pursuit.”

Sitting alone and quiet can be cathartic, and I am determined to do it more often. Hampl advises:

“Loafing is not a prudent business plan, not even a life plan, not a recognizably American project. But it begins to look a little like happiness, the kind that claims you unbidden…wondering, rather than pursuing…for once you don’t really need to have a to-do list.”

The Art of the Wasted Day was a good purchase, and I will go back to it often.  With references and excerpts from Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, and Montaigne, Hampl forges her thoughts as an essayist into a travelogue of places, people, and memories, successfully convincing the reader that wasting time is not a waste after all.

Go ahead – daydream a little, waste a little time…who knows where it might lead your mind.

Related ReviewSarah Bakewell’s Montaigne – How to Live

Tell Tale – Shorts by Archer

9781447252290tell tale_5_jpg_260_400    After following the characters in Jeffrey Archer’s Clifton Chronicles for years (one character was named after me, but only my first name appears in one of the short stories), it’s a relief to have a few shorts without cliffhangers in Archer’s new book of short stories – Tell Tale.

In fourteen short stories, Archer targets a range of characters and lifestyles, from the bank executive forced to retire months before his pension, to the iron monger who became a theologian.  In one story, “The Holiday of a Lifetime,” Archer offers the reader a choice of endings, and two well-known literary characters pop up in “A Wasted Hour” and “A Good Toss to Lose.”   Demonstrating his talent for writing clever plots, Jeffrey Archer begins and ends his collection with stories confined to 100 words; the others are varying lengths, but each has a surprising O’Henry twist at the end.

Archer’s newest collection of short stories is as entertaining as his novels, and he ends with a teaser for his fans – the first four chapter of his next novel – “Heads You Win” to be published next year – I can’t wait.

What She Ate

512EKwsnRSL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_   Every day we make decisions about what food we will put into our mouths; Laura Shapiro’s What She Ate promised a glimpse into how five famous women in history survived.  From Dorothy Wordsworth, the frequent muse to her brother poet William, to Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan, Shapiro offers her research on how circumstances reflected these women’s choices in food.  More an historical perspective than a prospectus of menus, Shapiro outlines portions of each woman’s life, offering delectable information but not always detailing the daily regimen of food items the title promised.

If you know the history of William Wordsworth’s long suffering spinster sister who loyally lived and cooked for him in Dove Cottage in the beautiful Lake Country until he married the capable Mary Hutchinson, you may remember her as the inspiration for the poem Daffodils.   Sadly, Dorothy’s energetic role declined into overweight chronic illness and dementia, reflected in Shapiro’s notes of Dorothy’s food choices changing from the thick gingerbread and delicate gooseberry pies to the awful blood pudding and finally porridge with more butter than grain.

The story of Rosa Lewis is more about how this self-educated Cockney woman became the most famous caterer in Edwardian England.  Shapiro’s references to Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion playing in the theater at the time grounded the timeline for me, but I couldn’t help comparing Rosa to the Downton Abbey cook who would have lived at the same time and also cooked for the Prince of Wales, later King.   With famous French Chef Escoffier as her model, Lewis cooked exquisite French food for the English aristocracy, preparing  elaborate ten course meals, including her local versions of quail pie and Yorkshire pudding.  After World War I, she too declined, as did her famous restaurant/hotel the Cavendish, going from roast duck to plover, but Shapiro concentrates more on what Lewis cooked and who she cooked it for – we can only guess she ate some of her own food.

Since Eleanor Roosevelt “didn’t care what she ate {and} had no palate for food,” she seems an unlikely target for this list of women; however, the promise of food affecting the brain had me reading on.  Supposedly, formal dinners at the White House had terrible food (a nod to the Depression) and expecting the worst, diners often ate before they arrived.  A typical menu might be breaded fish with marsmallow pudding, but privately and separately (they usually did not dine together) FDR dined on roast beef and cocktails, and Eleanor’s expertise with the chafing dish often delivered coddled eggs.   More pages are devoted to her relationship to her mother-in-law and Lucy Mercer and later to her devotion to causes than to the food in her life.

Despite her advocacy for the new home economics major at Cornell University, Eleanor was more devoted to politics than nutrition.  Foods produced in the university laboratory kitchens inspired her to cooking cheap and simple foods – prune pudding is mentioned.  Later, on her own with women friends at Val-Kill Cottage, she would make salads and a pancake dessert, a layer cake with maple syrup.  As with the first two women in the book, Eleanor Roosevelt’s tastes changes as she aged; for her, life and food became better when she was away from her husband.

Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, is another unlikely candidate for this group of women, yet Shapiro focuses on the champagne and cake behind the scenes.  To sustain Hitler’s image, Braun gave interviews with magazines (Life, The Saturday Evening Post) and noted her expertise with potato dumplings and apple strudel.  Privately, she preferred salads.  Hitler was a vegetarian and had special meals prepared only for him, while others at the table dined on food no longer available in the Europe he held hostage.

Shapiro focuses more clearly on food when she writes about British novelist Barbara Pym.  By reviewing Pym’s extensive notebooks, Shapiro was able to connect the author’s observations to her fiction. Her diaries reflected her attention to the details of food often repeated in her fiction, for example, a note about “lettuce dressed with oil and salt, gruyere cheese and greengages – crusty bread” she had eaten in a restaurant found its way into her famous novel Excellent Women.   Shapiro describes Pym’s decline into obscurity and her resurrection years later through an article in the Times Literary Supplement, naming her as most underrated author of the century; soon after her Quartet in Autumn “where most of the food reflects the narrow, often lonely circumstance of the four main characters,” was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  Shapiro says Pym would eat anything – fine food or frozen dinners.  When at publisher’s luncheons or dining out with friends she noted having lobster, smoked salmon, profiteroles but at home she cooked fish fingers and apple tart, often adding spices from India when she had them.

Finally, Helen Gurley Brown rounds out this small group.  A woman notoriously thin and always on a diet, she created her own cookbook – The Single Girls’s Cookbook (I once had a copy).  I could not connect how Brown who often had jello for dinner and considered a plate of poached fish a treat, could create a cookbook full of beef stews and decadent desserts.  But the book was meant for the single girl trying to catch a man through his stomach, and Shapiro spends a number of pages detailing how Helen chased her eventual husband David Brown.  Brown’s eating habits were miserable with only staying thin as the goal; Shapiro notes Brown must have always been hungry.

Styling herself as s culinary historian, Shapiro did extensive research for the book, but the result seems more like short biographies of each woman, with a nod to food.  Although the descriptions of well-known historical events sometimes seemed overdone, I did learn more about each woman than I had known before.  The theme has possibilities – perhaps Shapiro will write a sequel – how did food influence other women in history?  Florence Nightingale, Beatrix Potter, Alice Waters, and M.F.K Fisher would be good candidates.  Whose meals would you like to know better?

 

 

 

 

Escaping into Yourself – Lions

Unknown   A small town on the Colorado Plains, with a sign off the interstate directing passersby to the “ghost town,” frames Bonnie Nadzam’s Lions, a complicated allegory of the conflict between being true to your roots while yearning for a better life.  Nancy Pearl of National Public Radio (NPR) compared Nadzam’s story to books by Kent Haruf, but its mysterious message, ambiguous hero, and haunting setting reminded me of the Man Booker 2016 longlisted book, The Many by Wyl Menmuir .

Nearly deserted but for the one bar across from the one restaurant, a dive serving strange combinations of sandwiches and hearty stews, both on the one short street, the town has housed the Walker family for generations.  The latest in the long line of talented welders, Jim, declines offers for more money in the city, sometimes trading for food or other items when the  locals cannot pay.  His reputation brings in enough work to keep him busy; when it does not, he spends his off-time leisurely reading paperback Westerns and eating canned peaches and sardines in his shop,  Life is good for Jim; he doesn’t seem to need or want much.

Although he has trained his son, Gordon, to follow in his trade, Gordon’s girlfriend, Lizzie   wants to escape.  The two are the only young people in town, and Lizzie yearns to go to college, and never come back.

After descriptions of the stark landscape and the despondence lingering in the air, Nadzam begins her story with a stranger and a dog coming into town.  The mystery of his background is never solved, but his death triggers a series of events leading to a confrontation.

When Jim suddenly dies of a heart attack, his dying wish imprisons his teenage son to a life of welding and a mysterious bondage to care for someone living in the hills.  For years, Jim has carried supplies to a site miles out of town, staying for days, and then returning to his welding.  The local gossip created mythology around these trips, delegating Jim as a savior for a long-lost Native, possibly now a ghost, who lives in a hut in the hills.  Later, Jim’s wife laughs off the lore by saying she always thought Jim’s out of town excursions were merely his way of escaping for awhile, but Nadzam nurtures the possibility of someone dependent on Jim’s visits, and mysteriously never offers an answer.

Determined to leave, Lizzie convinces Gordon to enroll in college, leaving his mother in the care of the neighboring bartender and eatery owner.  After a quick trip to Walmart on the way, Gordon helps Lizzie move into her dorm room, and goes to his own dorm, unpacking his father’s favorite chair and paperbacks, but never attending classes.  Within weeks, Jim is ready to return, stealing off in the middle of the night, leaving Lizzie behind.

From here the story becomes even more obscure.  Gordon returns only briefly to unload his father’s chair, then drives off into the hills with the familiar supplies his father often brought.  When his truck is found deserted on the road, Lizzie returns to help with the search, convinced he is hiding somewhere.

What happens to the town? to Lizzie? to Gordon?  Let me know if you read the book, and we can discuss it.

Lions is not for everyone, and it is not as good as the promised Kent Haruf clone, but the story did hold onto me, and still does.  While some still can ignore modern technology, refusing to have a computer or participate in social media, how long will it be before they are swept away into history – unless, of course, they choose privacy, secluding themselves from it all.  Nadzam offers a few phrases worth remembering, as she deftly underscores Lizzie’s struggle and the determination of those who would remain in the dying town – perhaps more the point than the story line:

“Deserve has nothing to do with what we get.”

“You didn’t always get – you almost never got- the whole story of every man, woman, or child who asked something of you in this world.  What  you got was the moment they stood before you.  You’d have to take your chances, make your best judgment, and do whatever you were going to do.  There was a sort of resolve you had to consult that went deeper than the fact of a man’s personal history…”