Calvin Trillin

Calvin Trillin, one of my favorite authors, has a witty view of life to simultaneously lift my spirits while connecting me to his cynical view.  Having related to Tepper in Tepper Isn’t Going Out and laughed through his Travels with Alice as well as innumerable articles in The New Yorker, I had avoided his love letter to his dead wife, Alice, until one of my book clubs picked “About Alice” for a discussion. Unknown-2  The shorter version appeared in The New Yorker, published in 2006 – Alice, Off the Page.

In an interview for the New York Times  By the Book Trillan cites “About Alice,” the book he wrote about his wife who died in 2001, waiting for a heart transplant, as his most personally meaningful.  He also listed books that have “broken through {his} resistance to the magical,” with, not surprisingly, another famous humorist’s book in the collection of his favorites (mine too) – Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader.

The New York Times offered a review of “About Alice” in 2007 – Scenes from a Marriage.

Peter Stevenson writes: 

“This book can be seen as a worthy companion piece to other powerful accounts of spousal grief published in the last decade: Joan Didion’s tale of John Gregory Dunne’s fatal heart attack, John Bayley’s memoir of Iris Murdoch’s decline from Alzheimer’s and Donald Hall’s narration of Jane Kenyon’s death from leukemia.”

Since Alice’s death on September 11, 2001, Trillin has continued to write books and articles.  The last one I laughed over was his candidate for the scariest word in the English language – upgrade.  I could relate – maybe you can too?

“As the upgrades increase in frequency, I can imagine a future when, with the latest upgrade, I can’t find anything at all…With the upgrade to my smartphone, the podcasts I used to listen to are lost somewhere in the ether around West Virginia.”

Related Review:

Tepper Isn’t Going Out

 

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College Freshman Reading

unknownWhen the Sunday New York Times offered a short summary of books on the summer reading list for freshman, I wondered what my alma maters and those of my friends has assigned for stirring the synapses of the new generation of college entrants.  Aside from requiring a book as an assignment for a class (usually freshman comp), college administrators are no more successful at guaranteeing the book will be read than are book clubs (unless the host threatens a quiz with strips of questions to be publicly answered).  For someone to read the book, it must be engaging.

Topics for required freshman reading range from diversity and tolerance to best sellers.  Sometimes the nature of the institution reflects the choice, for example, “A Few Good Men” has been a popular choice over the years for The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina.  Berkeley’s 2017 summer reading list includes “What Can We Change in a Single Generation?” and the score from Hamilton, while this year a number of colleges, including one of my alma mater’s, picked “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson – the memoir of an attorney representing poor clients in the South, as he follows  a client on death row for killing a young white woman in Alabama.

9781101947135_p0_v5_s192x300   I was happy to see one of my favorites on the Stanford Three Books List as well as the pick for Connecticut College – Homegoing  by Yaa Ghasi.   I have yet to read Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, but the University of Wisconsin has identified it for its freshmen – a strange pick for a liberal university.

Tufts University is asking its freshmen to read “The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility” by Tufts political science professors Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj.  Mount Holyoke College has chosen “Citizen: An American Lyric” by Claudia Rankine as the 2017 Common Read. The incoming Penn State class will join MacArthur Genius Grant recipient and Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynsey Addario in exploring her passion for photography and how it shaped her personal and professional life by reading “It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War.”  The 2017 University of Pennsylvania freshman read is Walter Isaacson’s “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.”

What about the classics? Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was the only one I could find – for Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota.

Do you remember the book(s) you were required to read as an entering freshman?  For me, it was Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha” – and I doubt I understood its implications until I read again many years later.

For More Freshman Read Titles, check:

Is It Time to Revisit Montaigne?

In the frenzy of caustic political diatribe in the weeks before the vote for President in the United States, Tim Parks offers the voice of reason in his articleShould Novels Aim for the Heart or the Head? in the Book Review section of the New York Times.  

“Montaigne’s position was always that we must be extremely careful about our emotions, in particular our tendency to get emotional about ideas.  He didn’t advise neutrality, but simply that ‘we should not nail ourselves so strongly to our humors and complexions.’ To foster emotions deliberately and habitually was dangerous, because once a strong emotion had kicked in it was very difficult to find a way back.”

The rhetoric of emotional intensity has spilled over from reality show television and action packed books and movies into the political arena, a place where the calm assessment of affairs has been replaced by dyspeptic rants, brutal verbal attacks on adversaries, and “horror for the future.”  Montaigne notes: “No one is exempt from speaking nonsense – the only misfortune is to do it solemnly.”

9781590514832_p0_v1_s192x300   Rereading Sarah Bakewell’s A Life of Montaigne has immersed me into introspection – and a new appreciation for nonfiction.

 It will not stop me, however, from escaping reality and losing myself in the next book of fiction – life seems better when it’s not real all the time.  Alan Bradley has my attention now in the return of Flavia de Luce. 9780345539960_p0_v2_s192x300 

 

 

Obituaries and Recipes

Obituaries are not my favorite reading –  in fact, I usually avoid them – the looming specter of mortality best left ignored – unless it’s news of someone famous.  One in the New York Times today caught my eye – Annemarie Huste, the Chef Who Said Too Much.   Annemarie Huste was able to glean her fame from getting fired by Jacqueline Kennedy, and her obituary prompted me to look for more about her.

Featured in a 1968 Weight Watchers magazine article, “Jackie Kennedy’s Gourmet Chef Presents Her Weight Watchers Recipes,” which led to her dismissal, Huste saw herself as a potential rival to Julia Child, with her own television show. The televised series never materialized but she did make it to you tube.  Here is a clip of her, sounding a little like Arnold Schwarzenegger – Preserving Lemons and Limes with Chef Annemarie.

Her fifteen minutes of fame also led to the publication of her own cookbooks and a cooking school.

Her cookbooks are still available for a penny a pound, and I found one of her recipes in hustebook  Annemarie’s Personal Cookbook – a worthwhile legacy.

Pistachio Ice Cream

4 cups heavy cream
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons almond extract
Green food coloring
1 1/2 cups chopped pistachio nuts

Pour heavy cream into a bowl and whip until slightly stiff. Add the sugar and almond extract and beat thoroughly. Add a drop or two of food coloring (easy does it). Fold in the pistachio nuts. Pour mixture into a mold or other container and place in the freezer.

After 1 hour, stir the cream gently so that the nuts are well distributed and don’t sink to the bottom. Finish freezing for at least 6 hours or overnight.

41t3aivw88l-_bo1204203200_  Her recipe for chocolate mousse from her Cooking School Cookbook rivals Julia Child.

Ridiculously Fast Chocolate Mousse 

Yield: 3 servings (can easily be doubled, tripled or more)6 ounces semisweet chocolate
2 tablespoons Kahlua
3 tablespoons orange juice
2 egg yolks
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 cup heavy cream

  1.  In a small pot on low heat, melt the chocolate in the Kahlua and orange juice, and set aside to cool.
  2. Put the egg yolks, eggs, vanilla and sugar in a blender or food processor; blend for 2 minutes on medium high speed. Add the heavy cream and blend 30 more seconds. Add the melted chocolate mixture and blend until smooth.
  3. Pour into a bowl or individual cups and refrigerate several hours or overnight.

 

She Made Me Laugh: My Friend Nora Ephron

9781476796147_p0_v2_s464x700    When Nora Ephron died, her story became legend; how she influenced lives emerged in articles and books, but none so intimate and revealing as Richard Cohen’s inside look at her life – She Made Me Laugh. Cohen offers his platonic love story with the famous writer – a long valentine detailing her quirks, her loyalty, her genius – but with  snarky asides Ephron can no longer challenge.

With a style purposely mimicking Dorothy Parker, her role model, Nora Ephron not only created an enviable collection of essays, plays, and movies but also reigned over her own round table, like Parker, as a social maven and hostess.    Cohen details the dinner parties with celebrities, embellished with perfunctory  discussion topics and after dinner games designed to entertain as well as intimidate – Diane Keaton famously refused to play and Cohen himself admits to cheating to win.

Although I knew most of her body of work through movies and her most recent books, her earlier essays were a surprise and the sheer volume amazed me.   Cohen covers her career, from reporting for The Wellesley College News to mail girl at Newsweek,  to columnist, essay writer, novelist, screenwriter, director, and playwright.  In one evaluation of her prolific work, Cohen offers his own scorching critique:  “For Nora, the story came first. . . . Telling it was her job, her duty. She rarely let sentiment get in the way. . . . It cost her some friendships. It’s not clear, though, if it ever cost her a night’s sleep.”

I remember seeing her last creative effort, the play Lucky Guy about tabloid journalist Mike McAlary, who won the Pulitzer Prize shortly before he died at 41.  In the play he says: “If you are a doctor or a lawyer, you take the case. If you’re a reporter, you write the story.  I didn’t think about being sick.”  When I saw the play, I was impressed by the trademark Ephron wit, but not by the story or the lead character as played by Tom Hanks.  Cohen notes it as Ephron’s determination to leave one last literary mark, using McAlary as a role model of dying: “{The play} was about  Nora Ephron the beloved writer, wit, public personality, film director…” – the reason so many wanted to see it after she died.  He cruelly adds “…it is doubtful {the play} will ever be seen again.”

Ephron’s long illness and seemingly sudden death came as a surprise to her readers.  Only a few knew of her struggle, but her death triggered an avalanche of grief and an amazing amount of writing – about her.  At first, Cohen could find little wrong with his old friend, but as he wrote about their long relationship as fellow writers who witnessed each other’s lives through marriages and divorces, he seems compelled to humanize her with inside gossip about her flaws.  Cohen,  like so many others he identifies in the book, credits Ephron with his own success through her personal and career support, but can’t help disingenuously remarking “You knew some things; she knew everything…if she turned cold, it was more than an emotional rebuff, it was a failure: You had flunked Nora.”

Although I read the book in one sitting, I had to stop now and then to check the references – watching you-tube moments of Mike Nichols and Elaine May and listening to Ephron’s 1996 commencement speech at Wellesley, her alma mater.  Cohen’s memory did not always survive the fact checking, and his disorganized approach backtracked and repeated, but always adding a gossipy note – not always flattering to his subject.

Ephors died at 71, which seems awfully young to me, and of the same AML my brother died of in his forties.  She had rallied with illness for over six years, with very few knowing about it, and in that time, “she wrote 100 blog posts, two plays, directed a movie.”  She is beloved by readers who enjoyed her wit, and may have a place as patron saint of writers, but her old friend, Richard Cohen, had the last word on her indiscreet and sometimes frenetic approach to life.

His book has all the notes of a long friendship, revealing more than most of us probably should know.  Save us from our friends, especially if they are writers.

Related Review:   I Remember Nothing