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Monthly Archives: September 2013

“And The Mountains Echoed”

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 7.12.45 AMWhen I saw this book labeled by more than one independent bookstore as the “best yet” of Khaled Hosseini’s fiction, I was tempted by the thirty-five dollar hardback. I came to my senses and recently finished the e-book. Let me tell you about this over-hyped, but fast and engrossing read. The story is told in clipped, broad strokes, covering multiple generations of multiple families in an expansive, light-handed style that places more emphasis on universalities about familial love than it does on any particular narrative. This “wide-angle” style is different from The Kite Runner. From one sentence to the next, a character’s story might jump forward several decades, or a relationship between two seemingly unconnected characters is established. These hare turns are engrossing, both in a superficial way — tracking the pieces of a puzzle — but also in a more symbolic way, mimicking the reality that life moves with a dramatic momentum that we rarely recognize in the moment. I found myself pondering the idea that we are each born into someone else’s story, inheriting the latest strand of a narrative that we presume to direct.

You Get The Gist

Book-ending the story are the characters, Pari and Abdullah. They are brother and sister living in a remote Afghani village in the 1950s. Their father, Saboor, is so burdened by poverty that he gives his daughter Pari to a wealthy, childless couple in Kabul, where his brother-in-law works as a chauffeur. This sets in motion a sort of chronic separation anxiety — this time it is a literal separation of brother and sister, but as additional characters are folded into the narrative, the term “separation anxiety” requires a broader, more liberal definition, more like a pervasive sense of loss — from the secrets of a Westernized, strong-willed mother, to the bittersweet desire of a young Greek doctor to leave his village, or the confusing fate of being the favored son of a corrupt Afghani official. Quick transitions from character to character, or from one character’s life stage to the next, dramatically reveal how these losses take shape, sometimes insidiously, obvious to the reader but unbeknownst to the characters, and sometimes with sudden onset.

A Book By Its Cover

The title, “And The Mountains Echoed” lends an appropriately cinematic tone to a panoramic novel, full of heartbreak. In his acknowledgements, Housseini attributes the title to a poem by William Blake, called “Nurse’s Song.” He uses the word “lovely” to describe it. The poem has an innocent and and sweeping feel that can be felt throughout the novel, despite the reoccurring theme of loss:

“WHEN the voices of children are heard on the green,
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast,
And everything else is still.

‘Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Come, come, leave off play, and let us away
Till the morning appears in the skies.’

‘No, no, let us play, for it is yet day,
And we cannot go to sleep;
Besides, in the sky the little birds fly,
And the birds are all cover’d with sheep.’

‘Well, well, go and play till the light fades away,
And then go home to bed.’
The little ones leapèd and shoutèd and laugh’d,
And all the hills echoed.”

Echoing That Sentiment

It’s an image of hopeful innocence, emphasizing the transience of human-generated conflict versus the permanence of land and history. Speaking of things that echo, this quote by John Muir from Herbert Smith’s biography sends a similar message about the world’s interconnectedness, continuity with the past, and inscrutability — except nature, not humankind, is his focus:

“When a page is written but once it may be easily read; but if it be written over and over with characters of every size and style, it soon becomes unreadable, although not a single confused meaningless mark or thought may occur among all the written characters to mar its perfection. Our limited powers are similarly perplexed and overtaxed in reading the inexhaustible pages of nature, for they are written over uncountable times, written in characters of every size and color, sentences composed of sentences, every part of a character a sentence. There is not a fragment in all nature, for every relative fragment of one thing is a full harmonious unit in itself. All together form the one grand palimpsest of the world” (42).

The most moving passages in And The Mountains Echoed show how characters are inevitably, intimately connected, with each other and with the past, but even so, they struggle to make sense of “one grand palimpsest of the world.”

Homemade Thin Mints, à la Emily D.

Screen Shot 2013-09-09 at 8.39.16 PM“Hope” is the Thing with Feathers Chocolate
That perches ‘tween the teeth
and hurling down one’s gullet,
inspires the soul beneath,

And sweetest in the home is made;
And sore must be the soul
keeping it at bay
when 1/4 teaspoon salt + 1 1/2 cups flour + 3/4 cups cocoa powder
need whisking in a bowl,

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1 1/2 sticks of unsalted butter need mixing with the goal of becoming smooth, plus 3/4 teaspoon peppermint extract + 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract beaten into the electric mixer bowl,

plus 1 cup sugar added in three additions and 1 large egg, whole,
beaten until blended then fold
in the flower mixture gradually (don’t overmix, dough will be sticky) and roll

Screen Shot 2013-09-09 at 8.42.15 PMdough into two discs, between sheets of plastic, keep cold
in fridge for a few hours then preheat oven to 350, line baking sheets with parchment and re-roll

dough to 1/4 inch thickness, cut cookies with cookie cutters, bake about 15 minutes, dole
out onto cooling racks, melt 6 oz of bittersweet/semisweet chocolate in bowl, cool slightly, dip fork into melted

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chocolate and wave back and forth over cookies, that’s all.
Chocolate can be tricky, whether tartlet, sherbet, nougat
But this humble, girl scout wafer, in its minty purity
didn’t ask a crumb of me —
this was chocolate at its finest; I ate the crumbs with glee.

Recipe adapted from Bon Appetit Desserts.

Growing Up Is Hard To Do

“When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.” ― William Shakespeare, King Lear

Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 1.58.18 PMIn the case of Blue Jasmine, directed by Woody Allen and starring Cate Blanchett, this “great stage of fools” involves frequent crying, flamboyant crying, on park benches, while mumbling to strangers, in vodka-gulping gasps, punctuated by dripping mascara
Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 2.05.03 PMand sweat-soaked armpits, in melodramatic fashion, or behind mammoth sunglasses, clutching a bulging Louis Vuitton bag to tragic effect.
Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 2.04.08 PMThis is a movie that honors the deep vein of folly, ineptness, coming-up-shortness that runs through life. In being so over-the-top, Jasmine’s blues are not a bore, in fact, just the opposite — Cate Blanchett’s acting chops breathe eloquent life into a well-documented universal truth, from Shakespeare to the Bible, how foolish  mere mortals are…

Oh-so-blue Jasmine is a former Manhattan socialite who moves to San Francisco to live with her sister in the wake of her investment banker husband’s downfall. She is hanging by a thread, and we hang right alongside her. I was content to watch the antics of one, martini-guzzling, zanex-popping title character and her open-hearted, scattered brained sister with the name “Ginger” to match (as someone actually named Ginger, I invite you to notice my eyes rolling). What is so engrossing about Jasmine’s pathetic plight?

It’s a vicious cycle of sympathy, ridicule, lack of redemption, and more sympathy. You can see the character, “Ginger” (played by actress Sally Hawkins) riding the same waves of disgust and compassion for her sister. The more we sympathize with Jasmine’s determination to carry on, the more we recognize her accountability, the more we see her self-deprecating awareness of past mistakes, and her tragic, stubborn inability to change course.

This cycle harks back to A Streetcar Named Named Desire. Both protaganists — Blue Jasmine, Blanche DuBois — muster sympathy and ridicule in an unpredictable, fitful pattern. Actress Cate Blanchett played Blanche Dubois at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and excels at the “woman on the verge” rhythms. Ben Brantley’s praise of Streetcar could easily be applied to Blanchett’s performance as Jasmine.
Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 9.40.25 PMSpeaking of life “as a great stage of fools,” I saw the next installment in the Up Series, 56 Up. Can you imagine having your life edited into a movie every seven years? Beginning in 1964, the Up Series documents the lives of a group of British school children. As the subjects get older and more reflective, the strange, Truman Show effect of the series becomes a major talking point. Many are eager to speak candidly about the burden of the Up Series on their unfolding sense of identity. This is another movie that deals with baggage, not too far from Jasmine and her cumbersome set of designer luggage.Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 10.03.11 PMOne of the sadder stories is that of Neil Hughes. Now a district councillor in rural England, he is depicted at age seven as an exuberant, smiling kid, playfully dodging director Michael Apted’s questions. In his twenties, he is homeless, wandering rural Scotland. He fidgets nervously when Michael answers pointed questions about his mental health. In 56 Up, he says that viewers have treated him with tremendous generosity, but at the same time, people who say “they know exactly what he feels like” are mistaken.

Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 10.07.45 PMEngineering professor Nick Hitchon puts it less defensively: “It’s not an absolutely accurate picture of me, but it’s a picture of somebody.” It’s a collective picture of human striving, a group of “somebodies” discovering happiness, seeking purpose, and coping with challenges. It depicts the universal drama of life, and the vitality of the project seems to draw back participants, reluctant but curious each go-around.

Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 10.02.14 PMSuzy, a wife and mother with an upper-middle class upbringing, admits to having a “ridiculous loyalty to the series.” In 21 Up, she states that “she was pressurized into doing it by her parents.” At age 56, Suzy says that she hasn’t had a distinguished career, but she “feels fulfilled.” When asked about the next installment, she smirks, saying “it’s like reading a bad book. I’ll still read it. I’ll still see it through.”
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That’s the spirit. Some solid advice for Jasmine, Blanche, and other femme fatales.

[Photos: taken from Netflix]

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