Body and Soul

Although I’ve forgotten most of the story, but remember it was among my favorite reads – Frank Conroy’s Body and Soul.

Conroy led the prestigious Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa and wrote his only novel about a poor boy who grows up to be a famous pianist and composer.  I’d read it again.

Today, I came across a review in the New York Times that mentions Conroy as mentor to an obscure writer, Tom Grimes, author of Mentor: A Memoir.

Columnist Dwight Garner cautions…

“Don’t give this forthright and bewildered book to the would-be writer in your life. It

might make him or her climb a tall tree and leap from it.”

Grimes could be a failed author with talent recognized only by Conroy and lost in the mires of publishing house editors –  or more likely just someone trying to capitalize on  Conroy’s name and talent.  The memoir seems to be more about poor Grimes than brilliant Conroy, who died in 2005.

After checking out Grimes’ novels –  Amazon lets you “look inside” – I’ll probably go back to read Body and Soul again instead.

The Novelist Who Suddenly Could Not Read

Imagine opening the newspaper one morning to see the letters and words translated into a language you cannot understand. The author, Howard Engel, suffered a stroke that left him with the ability to write – but not to read what he wrote.

After reading Oliver Sacks article, “A Neuroligist’s Notebook – A Man of Letters” in the June 28th New Yorker, about the clinical details of Engel’s stroke, I wanted to know more.  Sacks, the author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings – later made into a movie with Robin Williams – explains the medical condition that leaves Engel forgetful and unable to recognize colors, faces – worst of all, unable to distinguish letters or read.  Sacks summarizes Engel’s slow recovery in his article, connecting the medical information to a fascinating correlation to visual perception, and explains Engel’s using his sustained ability to write to recover his brain and to rescue himself.

The article ends with Engel’s determination…

“The problems never went away,,,but I became cleverer at solving them.”

And Sacks’ diagnosis…

“That he was able to do so is a testament to the adaptability of the human brain.”

After his stroke, despite his continued difficulty reading words, Engel wrote a memoir – The Man Who Forgot How to Read, and rebooted his writing career with a new detective novel, Memory Book.

The Man Who Forgot to Read is a slim volume that briefly outlines Engel’s rise to fame as a Canadian author, writing detective stories around his sleuth, Benny Cooperman.   But most of the book is devoted to his dramatic life change when letters suddenly changed from English to “Korean markings” or “Serbo-Croatian” – unreadable to him.

Unlike Sacks’ medical approach, the memoir lnvites you inside the personal drama. With wit and charm, Engel softens his situation – “It was plain that I was no longer playing with fifty-two cards…” – yet, he clearly conveys his difficulties and subsequent depression, as he makes his way through rehab to recovery.

Determined to write another novel, Engel describes his trials as he writes, but cannot read what he wrote – no rewrites, no editing, no clues to where he stopped. When a computerized auditory program corrects his “Ma and Pa” to Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, he resorts to a support system of friends. They come through, as does he, and he successfully writes and publishes Memory Book, and is planning yet another novel – despite his continued problems with memory and reading.

Of course, I had to read the novel.  Engel opens the book with his key character, the Canadian detective Benny Cooperman, suffering from the same “alexia sine agraphia” as the writer – he can write but cannot read.  This time it’s a mysterious blow to the head – in just the right spot – that has left Benny, a Canadian Sam Spade, with little or no short term memory, and the inability to read.

Engel cleverly includes his own experiences in the hospital,  in rehab, and in his methodical compensation for his injury,  as the detective solves his injury as well as a murder.  Memory Book is as much fun to read as any good detective story, and when you think how the author wrote it – without his own ability to read it – it’s amazing.

The Afterward by Oliver Sacks in Memory Book reiterates Engel’s story and adds more information on his medical history.  If you pick up only the mystery book without all the background, you might want to read the Afterward first – makes the story even more amazing.

Lunch in Paris

After reading Julia Child’s My Life in France and swooning with Meryl Streep over buttery trout in “Julie and Julia,” I thought to follow the gourmand’s footsteps on my next trip to Paris – seeking out all those gastronomical wonders.   It’s still a possibility, but now I’ve added another repertoire of places and foods in Paris – thanks to Elizabeth Bard’s Lunch in Paris.

I want to shop at Passage Vivienne, have lunch at L’Hermes, buy bread at the boulangerie…

Bard’s Love Story with Recipes, her subtitle, is more about the food – with several recipes at the end of each short chapter and a wonderful eight page index at the back of the book.   You could skip the Sophie Kinsella dialogue and go straight to the recipes, but then you’d miss all the happy banter. Bard’s voice is her twenty-five year old self, so beware of twenty-something anxieties, but her story is fresh and lively and fun.

Like the old Single Girl’s Cookbook by former editor of Cosmo, Helen Gurley Brown, Bard pairs food with possibilities, e.g.,  “Recipes for Seduction” and “Family Heirlooms.”   You will want your own andouillette when she exclaims

“ Nothing says ‘I love you’ like a plate full of sausage.”

She progresses from eye-contact to marriage, with lots of tasty experiences – and food – along the way.  As she recounts her life as an American in Paris, you will be reminded of others who found relocation to the City of Lights not so easy –

“…nearly a year had passed, but I still felt like a stranger…”

Eiffel Tower

But, this is a love story, and the most important person in her life lives in Paris.

“…one of the great gifts of an intercultural relationship is that when you fight, you never quite know if you are mad at the person, or … is he just being French?”

It takes awhile, but she knows she’s “not a tourist anymore” when a French girl asks her for advice.   I remember the same feeling when someone in Paris asked me for directions.

For most of the recipes, you’ll want Julia to prepare; however, there are a few that seem easy and manageable.  The easiest is her “Lemon Sorbet with Vodka” – pour a shot of vodka over a scoop of lemon sorbet.    See my post in “potpourri” for a few more recipes – with a few more ingredients.

Lunch in Paris is more than palatable; it’s tasty and enjoyable – and a quick read.

You can follow the author – and get more recipes – on her blog…

Remembering Smell

Have you ever fallen asleep on an airplane, only to be awakened by the strong smell of a salty, cheesy snack? Or wondered why the person sitting in front of you at the theater decided to use the entire bottle of perfume. The sense of smell doesn’t draw attention unless it’s strong – or missing. And, like most things, you don’t miss it until it’s gone.

In “Remembering Smell,” Bonnie Blodgett tells her true story – a gardener and lover of flowers who loses her sense of smell by inhaling an inocuous cold preventative. As she takes you from the trauma of discovery to her worry that she is on the verge of Alzheimer’s, it’s easy to relate to her anxiety. Her journey from ENT doctor to psychiatrist is not easy, but she becomes an expert on the olfactory system.

Blodgett tells you more about the mechanics of smell than you need to know, but some of her scientific ramblings are fascinating, and her historical references to gourmet cooking and the perfume industry are informative.

You might think that smell is not that crucial, but when Blodgett describes her great-grandfather’s comfortable wing chair as “a sponge for (nostalgic) smells,” the sadness of her dilemma becomes clearer. Try to imagine eating without tasting – or cooking without sensing flavor.

Eating became mechanical and never satisfying, and depression became a constant. When Blodgett describes her loss of pheromone radar, she gets downright clinical.

She finds that reading about odors actually triggered the memory of smells for her, although the books she cites – “The Kite Runner,” “East of Eden” – may not evoke the same sense for those still able to smell. Sadly, her reading of books becomes more research than pleasure.

Blodgett’s story has a happy ending, and she regains smells with a new appreciation – like anything precious that was lost and found again. She provides a substantial body of information along with the emotion – and a good reminder to savor the smells around you.

Crazy in the Kitchen

Could not find a sfingi (Italian cream puff) – so had to settle for malasadas.  Today is St. Joseph’s Day – an Italian excuse to eat sweets during Lent.

For a list of books by and about Italians, including the St. Joseph Day fest,  go to

Not on this list is Louise deSalvo’s not so typically Italian American memoir, Crazy in the Kitchen. The book serves up an emotional look at her immigrant family, while she is trying to understand her own connections to food and cooking.

This is not Julia Child’s lovely musings.  DeSalvo also wrote a biography of Virginia Woolf (she is a Woolf scholar), so count on angst and courage in her Crazy story, but it will give you a different perspective on Italian cooking and probably make you hungry for Italian food.