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Reading in Iceland

Written on June 29, 2016:

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I am currently traveling — lots of hiking, biking, reveling in Iceland’s beauty marks — but in flight, or in the lull of a long day (the sun sets at midnight here) I am engaging in my favorite form of travel, flying through the pages of a good book.

I decided to dive into some travel writing: “The Best American Travel Writing 2002” edited by Frances Mayes. As Mayes writes in her introduction, “reading and travel have a natural symbiosis” — reading about a variety of foreign adventures while on an adventure of my own puts me in the traveling mindset — a mindset characterized, in my experience, by a closer clinging to the present moment and a mental, as well as physical experience of dislocation that allows for greater self-reflection, spontaneity, and once again, that in-the-moment mindfulness  thing. (Such an elusive and aspirational practice, at least for me, when muddled with to-do lists and daily routines).

Perhaps reading and travel are “symbiotic” in the way that they transform readers and wanderers by first transporting them. And this process of transformation is built upon the liberty, the privilege, of reflection and mindfulness. Mayes seems to draw on this principle in her selections. She writes:

“Early in the process I began to wonder what exactly qualified as travel writing. I am immediately drawn to the incongruous qualities of spontaneity and reflection. I like to read about journeys when the traveler is charged or changed by the place, when the traveler is moved from one psychic space to another during the course of the trip.”

If the highest purpose of travel (and naturally, the mark of good travel writing) is to, however subtly, transform the psyche of the traveler, this Mark Twain quote, also a part of Mayes’s introduction, comments on one way in which travel broadens consciousness:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

So where does 2002’s “Best American Travel Writing” take its reader?

My favorite essay, so far, is Michael Finkel’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Void” originally published in National Geographic Adventure.

It follows a lone traveler piled into a truck driving across “the giant sand sea at the center of the Sahara.” The void itself, the “giant sand sea,” is fascinating — its disorienting quality attracts an eclectic group of passengers, from a drunk to a widow to an American named Beth who just wants “to feel the wind in her face,” provokes reactions ranging from bliss to terror, and serves as an ever-shifting landscape of haunting, unpredictable beauty. Finkel writes:

“Many of the tourists are on spiritual quests. They live hectic lives, and they want a nice dose of nothing — and there is nothing more nothing than the void. The void is so blank that a point-and-shoot camera will often refuse to work, the auto-focus finding nothing to focus on…”

There’s a strong statement about modern society — that Westerners with hectic lives will haul themselves across the Saharan desert just to bliss out on endless sand, to envelop themselves in a place that represents emptiness and nothingness… Finkel continues,

“After a fortnight of wind, Beth came to a profound decision. She said she now realized what her life was missing. She said that the moment she returned home she was quitting her Internet job and opening up her own business. She said she was going to bake apple pies.”

By contrast, “Forty Years in Acapulco” from Men’s Journal chronicles an eighty-nine-year old Polish immigrant named Mort Friedman whose idea of paradise is stalwart routine, reclining by a pool in your finest swimwear at a hotel. This is not travel as self-discovery or spiritual quest but travel as self-affirmation. The routine of “wak[ing] at nine-thirty; putt[ing] on a brand-new bathing ensemble… fly[ing] down on American Airlines on the same date every year” enshrines all of the achievements that earns Mort his yearly trip.

A third essay, “The City and the Pillars,” describes New York’s immediate response to September 11, 2001, emphasizing the instinct of New Yorkers to throw themselves into a daily routines, such as shopping for groceries or cafe owners hosing down sidewalks, in a stubborn protest of the horrific reality of the towers. Adam Gopnik writes,

“The pleasure of living in New York has always been the pleasure of living in both cities at once: the symbolic city of symbolic statements (this is big, I am rich, get me) and the everyday city of necessities, MetroCards and coffee shops and long waits and longer trudges. On the afternoon of that day, the symbolic city, the city that the men in the planes attacked, seemed much less important than the real city, where the people in the towers lived.”

One downside to reading a collection of travel essays, if you’re reading it cover to cover, is that you occasionally get stuck in a destination that you don’t find exciting, or you find yourself a passenger on a journey that wanders a little too long — in my case, “A Rio Runs Through It,” by Rod Davis from The San Antonio Express-News. You’re obviously jolted from place to place, occasionally leaving you with that feeling of the void: there’s too much and therefore nothing to focus on.

So how are my first four or five days in Iceland affecting my psyche?

As much as I appreciate the beauty of the landscape, the density and crispness of the language, and the friendliness of the people, the answer that first comes to mind is that I’m experiencing a renewed appreciation for certain aspects of the U.S.

For example, in a country where most foods, save sea food, have to be imported, and everything but a hot dog is startingly expensive, I appreciate living in a country rich in access to cheap produce (notwithstanding the obvious problems with our agricultural industrial complex).

And as beautiful as the Icelandic landscape is, I find myself reminded of certain remote parts of Montana or Oregon, and feel gratitude for the tremendous diversity of the American landscape, East to West:

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That being said, the lack of visible poverty in Iceland, except for two homeless men in Rekjavik, points out the visible poverty in the United States and our complacency toward it.

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On a more personal level, the gift of time has given me the chance to reflect on the balance between teaching and writing in my life, and how, in an ideal world, I’d like the balance to tilt. Who knows — maybe enough geysers and hot springs and glaciers and waterfalls will convince me that I need to ditch it all and start baking apple pies. I’ll keep you posted 🙂

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Musicals, Movies, and Mark Twain: Laughing in the Darkness

Zero_Mostel_-_FiddlerWhen I posed the question to my musical theatre history class, “What do the 1960s make you think of?” I got “hippies, Civil Rights Movement, and WEED.” Okay… fair enough… Now, how to connect that general point of reference to Broadway circa 1964, with its blabbering yentes, shtetls, fathers and daughters arguing about arranged marriages, large bearded men waving their arms, humming “ya dadada”? Enter the documentary, Laughing in the Darkness, which does a pretty great job of it, in fact — managing to trace the sing-songy rhythms and big acting style of Tevye the milkman back to his more sober, historical roots.

I thought I’d share some of the film’s insights here, having recently re-watched it for school. (I discovered it a few years ago at “Chicago’s year-round film festival,” The Music Box Theatre, an independent movie house with an ongoing rotation of indie or foreign films, and more recently, its own production and distribution wing). In addition to tracing Fiddler’s back story, the movie details the winding creative process that characterizes the creation of most musicals – for example, building upon more serious artistic material with a greater bandwidth for complexity, and then, depending on your opinion of musicals, either condensing that material into impressively succinct, musical phrases or watering it down completely.

I’m pretty sure that most skeptics would gain respect for this most middle-school-friendly of performance art forms if they realized how much research and artistic collaboration were distilled into the final, big and flashy product. If the product isn’t always sophisticated, the necessary process of collaboration is. Even the silliest, most superficial-seeming song and dance shows have a sort of hidden, layered intelligence that gets masked by the fact that they look and sound like a musical, the dumb blonde of the dramatic arts. Take a classic Rogers and Hammerstein musical like Oklahoma – do you associate it with a psychologically complex ballet in which the protagonist dreams that one of her suitors rapes her, or do you associate it with ten-year-olds dressed as farmers, bopping to “chicks and ducks and geese better scurry…”? Fiddler on the Roof may be less exuberant, but it too belongs to that oft-produced, often poorly produced category of musicals whose catchy songs and universal themes could easily be mistaken as trite.

Sholem AleichemBut the rambling interior monologue of the character, Tevye, the rhythms of his speech, the ticker tape of his religious and personal doubts, his penetrating but wise-cracking, resigned perspective on his family’s increasingly marginalized existence, all of these elements are pulled directly from the historically based short stories of the first widely read Yiddish author, merchant by day, writer by night, Solomon Rabinowitz. Under the pen name, Sholem Aleichem (Hebrew for “peace be with you”), Rabinowitz wrote about the character, Tevye for over 20 years. He was based on an actual village dairyman of the same name, who, just like the character, had several independent-minded daughters and a penchant for chatting up his neighbors.

Like Tevye, Rabinowitz grew up in an insular, rural, Yiddish speaking village (a shtetl) inside the Russian Pale, which was a sectioned-off area for Jewish residents, designated by the Czar. Also like Tevye, mass acts of violence (pogroms) against the Jewish population forced Rabinowitz to migrate, and eventually he found his way to America. By the time he reached the U.S. around 1916, he was considered a world famous Yiddish storyteller, hailed by the Jewish immigrant population in New York as the Jewish “Mark Twain.” Despite being a 47-year-old Russian immigrant who wrote strictly in Yiddish, his stories captured something essential about the American spirit – the tension between old and new, the challenge of preserving one’s heritage within a changing culture, the generation gap between old and young, each progressive in their own way.

Fanny briceThe New York City that Solomon Rabinowitz, aka Sholem Aleichem walked into resembled the song from Spamalot, “You won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews.” Yes, the turn of the 20th century was the gestation period for what eventually became the American musical, spearheaded by Jewish writers and actors: Florenz Ziegfeld, Israel Baline Irving Berlin, Fania Borach Fanny Brice, to name a few.  On some level, a Jewish “sound” – Jewish humor, patterns of speech — were woven into the fabric of the earliest show tunes, from Irving Berlin drawing on the melodies of his rabbi/cantor father to Fanny Brice’s comical Jewish impersonations. Same with Fiddler, about 50 years later, in which lyricist Sheldon Harnick tweaked a lot of Rabinowitz’s original language — for example, “If I were a Rothschild” into “If I were a rich man…”

Sholem_Aleichem_funeralIt turns out that Rabinowitz wasn’t so successful in the states — his foray into playwriting was a huge disappointment and he ended up returning to Western Europe, selling the rights to his stories and travelling from shtetl to shtetl, reciting his works for an adoring following, everyday villagers like those he grew up with. He ended his life in a state of poverty, near-homelessness, and chronic disease, continuing to write, despite the difficulty of holding a pen. World War I forced him back to the states, this time for good. When he died in 1916, 200,000 people attended his funeral, drawing unprecedented attention to the influence and power of the Jewish American community.

Mark_Twain_by_AF_BradleyThe phrase, “laughing in the darkness” refers to the author’s belief that even the most terrible, unspeakable of circumstances contain humor – not as a form of escape, but as an alternate way of appreciating the irony and injustice of a situation. It reminds me of the Oscar Wilde quote, “Life is a comedy to those who think, and a tragedy to those who feel.” The comparison to Mark Twain is apt – as Twain did with American literature, Rabinowitz’s stories, and later, Fiddler on the Roof, use a sense of humor to satirize the injustices and hypocrisy that men are capable of, capture the distinctive, everyday speech of Jewish characters, and create a widespread, popular work based on Jewish culture.

Fast forward to the 1960s, when Fiddler opened. It seems that even in that hairy, free-loving, hippie-driven heyday, America was still coping with Mark Twain-esque, Solomon Rabinowitz-esque questions: how much change can we accept as progressive without losing ourselves? What happens when children exercise the freedom that their parents have given them? Is it possible to laugh through the darkness?

Fiddler_on_the_roof_poster(Food for thought, for the next time you sit through through “Tradition!” “To Life!” or “The Bottle Dance”… I’m sure it will happen soon enough…)

[Photo credits: “Zero Mostel,” Wikipedia Commons, “Sholem Aleichem,” Wikipedia Commons, “Fanny Brice,” License, ky_olsen, CC BY 2.0, “Sholem Aleichem Funeral,” Wikimedia Commons, “Mark Twain by AF Bradley,” Wikimedia Commons]

Turning the Page

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.37.10 AM‘Tis the season for list-making! I recently shared a fantasy smorgasbord of Christmas cookies (one down, four to go), and today I feel compelled to share a few books on my shortlist, an homage to that other, all-consuming winter pastime: curling up on the couch with a good read. From literary criticism to historical fiction to memoir to spy novel to a book lover’s self-help manual, Forrest Gump might liken my selection to a box of chocolates, as in, “you never know what you’re gonna get.” I’m cool with that — it aptly describes the pleasure I derive from bookstore browsing. Here are some of my far-flung finds:

Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.38.41 AMAt least once before on this blog, I have tried to put my finger on what is so doggone compelling about Henry James, going so far as to cite Zadie Smith’s insights and dignifying the ridiculously overwrought The Golden Bowl with a detailed book review. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that my desire to understand James — how he crafts such highly sympathetic, surprisingly tragic characters — is still burning. It’s a nerdy fixation, but one that evidently plagues other members of his fan club, including Michael Gorra, author of Portrait of a Novel, which I discovered in a September 2012 issue ofThe New Yorker. In essence, Gorra’s book distills James’s literary genius into an analysis of his most famous and critically acclaimed novel. Reviewer Anthony Lane is another ebullient fan, and points out the dramatic potential of a “book about a book” by emphasizing how James’s poised, understated prose somehow left “the equilibrium of [its] readers shaken,” all starting with this innocuous opening line: “‘Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.’” For obvious reasons, Lane reserves his recommendation of Portrait of a Novel — part biography, part textual analysis, part literary criticism — for those with an established attachment to Portrait of a Lady. However, he ends his review with a message for less ardent fans, saying we “need him [Henry James] more than ever,” referencing Gorra’s assertion that Portrait of a Lady’s greatest accomplishment is exposing the “limits of self-sufficiency.” Yes, I’m wholeheartedly onboard — Isabel’s misplaced trust in her own bright and promising future, with such an all-American commitment to her own destiny, is what makes the failure of her choices “shake our equilibrium” as cock-eyed, optimistic Americans. If the current state of our economy has made many people more open to the fallacy of the American dream, if TV shows like “Girls” garner accolades for depicting modern-day Isabel Archers on their hapless journeys toward self-actualization, then perhaps there’s never been a better moment to explore the coming-of-age story of the twenty-something author who called us out on our false pretenses circa 1880.

The Paris Wife

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.39.29 AMA few months ago, I spent some time perusing this 2011 historical fiction novel in a bookstore. It seemed like a light diversion, telling the story of a 28-year-old midwestern woman, Hadley Richardson, and her whirlwind relationship with Ernest Hemingway. Rich with references, it contains a glamorous cast of real-life legends — Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, in addition to Hemingway — a fabled setting — Chicago and Paris circa the roaring twenties — and the intensity of a love affair in which wife equals literary muse. According to Janet Maslin of The New York Times, The Paris Wife is addled with clichés and clumsy pastiches of the characters that populate its pages, but who really cares? I have a feeling that much like Woody Allen’s disjointed film, Midnight in Paris, this book earned its popularity for more sentimental reasons, serving as a wistful ride back in time and across the atlantic.

A Story Lately Told

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.39.53 AMI enjoy the fact that memoirs are a kind of inclusive, “bottomline” writing endeavor, concerned with honestly sharing the writer’s experience rather than word-smithing. More than other genres, the art of writing a memoir (and the pleasure of reading one) seems to be purely about the transfer of information, about illuminating the myriad layers contained in a single life. I’m drawn to Angelica Houston’s recently published memoir as a way to glimpse into pop culture history. She touches on the marital dynamics between her flamboyant, self-absorbed film director father and her young, beautiful, ballet dancer mother, her pastoral upbringing in Galway, Ireland, her power couple status vis-a-vis Jack Nicholson, even her unapologetic embracement of fashion as a source of aesthetic pleasure and self-expression. It cracks the surface of a life mostly known through images, whatever your generation.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.40.56 AMI’ve never read anything by acclaimed crime writer John Le Carré, but he’s been on my radar via book reviews and recommended reading lists since the publication of his 2008 novel, A Most Wanted Man. His name seems to pop up with increasing frequency, from film adaptations (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 2011) to new works (A Delicate Truth in 2013) to the increasing relevance of espionage in our culture (the NSA, Edward Snowden, the popular TV show, Homeland, to name a few examples). Touted in Anthony Boucher’s 1964 New York Times review as “a novel of significance, while losing none of the excitement of the tale of sheer adventure,” The Spy Who Came in from the Cold seems like a good place to start within Le Carré’s formidable oeuvre. The protaganist, Alec Leamas is disillusioned with espionage work, undertaking one last assignment before quitting the field. The story doubles as a suspenseful account of his assignment and a deeper, psychological portrait of a man “permanently isolated in his deceit.” Having just finished season two of Homeland, this description sounds eerily like Carrie Mathison and Nicholas Brody, and their mutual experience of being “isolated in deceit.”

How Proust Can Change Your Life

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.41.39 AMI read de Botton’s The Art of Travel last summer, which I have written about at length on this site. After confiscating the book from my husband during our road trip down Highway 1, I quickly became smitten with de Botton’s ability to expound upon broad, timeless topics in a manner both original and unexpectedly practical. De Botton has a singular focus on essay writing, and rather impressively sticks to large, universal subjects, such as Art as Therapy, Status Anxiety, and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. If the measure of a good cook is their most basic dish, the same test applies to writers — the best ones can take on well-worn topics head-on, infusing them with flavor. The Art of Travel mustered a lot of flavor, and from what I’ve read, How Proust Can Change Your Life contains the same mixture of insight and practicality. According to de Botton’s website, the book developed out of the notion that literature is a transformational thing, a belief widely proselityzed by English teachers but rarely examined in-depth. So de Botton examines Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, characterized as “a byword for obscurity and irrelevance,” to demonstrate some of the ways in which literature can literally be a guide to real life. I have never read any of Proust’s books, which may speak to the unsubstantiated claims of English teachers, but why not start easy, with “a self-help book like few others”?

[Photos: “Turn the Pages,” Krissy.Venosdale’s photo stream via Creative Commons, and photos of the books’ front covers]

Something Added

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.27.29 AMOne of my English professors used the phrase “something added” to sum up the value of books. I have expanded it to include food, and for that matter, anything artistic, insightful, or whimsical that we encounter on a daily basis — works of art, fleeting images from our day, snippets of conversation, or home cooked meals. The value of these things lies in their being “added,” a reminder that our work-centered, often self-centered culture is filled with side notes. There is a creative pulse worth taking, observing, contemplating. Last week I was doing research for an article on brownies (what else?) and I found this lovely blog: http://www.101cookbooks.com. In the author’s words, it “chronicles a cookbook collection, one recipe at a time.” I love blogs that document ongoing, behemoth projects — http://101books.net is another good one — and it got me re-evaluating my broad, blurry approach to blogging. At a certain point, though, follow through is everything. As much as I enjoy reading your admirable, impeccable, immaculately groomed sites featuring elegant variations on a well-defined theme, I’m going all-inclusive with this post as a mark of solidarity with my fellow generalists. I invite you to enjoy my sloppy smorgasbord of inspiration this past week. Something added is always welcome 🙂

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.30.06 AMI saw the national tour of this musical at The Oriental Theatre (in Chicago) this weekend. It won the Tony for best musical, and now I understand why. It is an understated, humorous love story carried by beautiful music. The staging is also beautiful: the actors play their own instruments and move seamlessly in and out of scenes set in a pub turned music shop turned recording studio. All this is accomplished with wooden chairs, mirrors, tables, and a few supertitles. The audience mingles onstage as the ensemble warms up, visiting the onstage pub during intermission. The staging/choreography was subtly timed, almost self-effacing, which enhances the music.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.32.21 AMMy main squeeze and I visited an art gallery, Hilton-Asmus Contemporary, that converted itself into a movie theatre for a free pop-up film festival dedicated to John Ford. We saw Ford’s 1940, Academy-Award winning classic “How Green Was My Valley.” The surrounding photographs by Dennis Manarchy of the American West — cowboys suspended in swirls of sand and looming clouds, an enormous buffalo posing demurely — granted the film’s black-and-white images of coal mines, craggy countryside, and weary villagers a sort of unspoken kinship.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.34.23 AMDeb Perelman’s recipe for a chopped Mediterranean salad is my October lunch of choice: A hearty, healthy, slightly briny salad with chopped cucumbers, olives, feta, pickled red onions, and peppers is as colorful as an art gallery, eh? That, and it gets tastier with time. See link at the bottom of this page.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.35.19 AMRead this book by Muriel Barbery, author ofThe Elegance of the Hedgehog. It profiles the last waking hours of a famous food critic. He waxes poetic about various meals seared in his memory, digging for a delicacy that has slipped to the recesses of his mind. Meanwhile, various members of his household — from doting wife to bitter children to the bemused Venus hanging over his desk — express their grief, hatred, and utter indifference toward the dying aesthete. It’s wry, diverting, and food-filled.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.37.55 AMI found a killer tomato sauce. By “found” I mean the google search I did worked out very well for me. This sauce is all over food blogs, which is promising, because a delicious sauce has a way of getting all over everything. You literally take a 28 oz can of whole tomatoes, dump them in a pot, and simmer for 45 minutes with an onion, peeled and halved, and several pads of butter. That’s all. It’s unbelievable. In this case, the “something added” philosophy falls flat. You could add a little salt, pepper, or possibly some parmesan cheese, but that’s a highly emphasized maybe. It’s an exercise in silky, luxurious minimalism. See link at the bottom of this page.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.39.14 AMCooking with apples is an autumn ritual for me. I have made several batches of sweetened applesauce and I am reminded that this humble dessert need not be relegated to school cafeterias. The version I adapted from “Apple Cookbook” by Olwen Woodier is thick, rich, loaded with fresh, tart apples, and spiked with cinnamon, ginger, and brown sugar. You peel, core, and slice about 10 medium apples, place them in a large pot with three T. of apple juice or cider, and simmer until they break down. Instead of puréeing the soft apples, I simmered them a little longer and mashed them with a potato masher right in the pot. Stir in 1/3 c. brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger and cinnamon, as well as several T. butter. I like to use really tart apples. A warm bowl for breakfast hits the spot.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.45.19 AMSpeaking of soft, comforting foods that signal shorter, darker days, I was inspired to make “baked polenta with vegetables” from a cookbook called “The Pleasures of Cooking for One.” (For more where that came from, see my book review). I was drafting an article about polenta, then scrounging in my cabinets for dinner, and voilà, the food muse materialized. In the form of instant polenta. This creamy, cheesy “cornmeal mush” used to be the Venetian grain of choice. Now pasta exists, but it still makes a decadent receptacle for leftover vegetables (and, as it turns out, a cushy sop-up for my “killer” tomato sauce.)

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.47.40 AMI recommend this documentary called “Park Avenue: Money, Power, and the American Dream.” It uses NYC neighborhoods as a lens for broader economic disparity. Park Avenue on the upper East side of Manhattan is contrasted with Park Avenue in the Bronx, a ten minute  drive away. One Park Avenue consists of high rise apartment buildings populated by some the world’s most politically powerful billionaires, and the other displays a community lacking basic resources and social agency. The proximity of these two streets is startling, a symbol of the boldness with which high concentrations of political and socioeconomic power are seized and retained. It’s like a Monopoly board, literally. I had just taught a class to a group of high school freshmen on Chicago’s far West side who, generally speaking, were several years behind reading level — a direct correlation to the schools in their neighborhood. Everyday we witness these inequalities in our respective cities. From the power base of New York City, the contrasts are even starker.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.48.44 AMFellow writing enthusiasts, are you familiar with Becoming A Writer, by Dorothea Brande? Five bucks at Armadillo’s Pillow bought me a reissue of the 1934 classic. Its scope is fundamental and timeless, that of helping writers to cultivate self-awareness: of their passions, subconscious feelings and perceptions, convictions. In the foreword, John Gardner writes that “the root problems of the writer are personality problems… and [Ms. Brande’s] whole focus, and a very valuable focus indeed, is on the writer’s mind and heart” (15). In the sea of information about writing, this sounds like clarity, consistent with the wisdom that, to quote a line from Theodore Roethke, “we think by feeling.”

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 11.06.08 AMIt’s interesting to think about the fleeting words or images that leverage us to take action. In Becoming A Writer, Brande writes that “the author has at his command, in the mere exercise of stringent honesty, the best source of consistency for his own work. If you can discover what you are like, if you can discover what you truly believe about most of the major matters of life, you will be able to write a story which is honest and original and unique. But those are very large ‘ifs,’ and it takes hard digging to get at the roots of one’s own convictions” (123). I feel like this little man furrowing my brow over which apple to pick. I’m just trying to decide what I want for lunch.

Links:

[Photo credits, in order: Craig Damlo’s photostreamBroadway Tour’s photostreamdrmvm1’s photostreamJon Pinder’s photostreamartizone’s photostreamkahala’s photostreamMGF/Lady Disdain’s photostreamArchives New Zealand.]

Paris To The Moon

Screen Shot 2013-06-24 at 7.50.51 PMI recently finished this book by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik. It is a collection of essays reflecting on the idiosyncracies of French culture, written during the author’s expat stint with his wife and pre-school age son. Described in Le Monde as a “witty and Voltairean commentator on French life,” Gopnik has a knack for extracting the essence of French sensibility from everyday encounters…

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 12.31.52 PMIn a way, Gopnik’s writing is like an “amuse-bouche,” a French culinary term that could be liberally translated as “mouth tease,” a carefully selected hors d’oeuvre that primes the diner’s palate. His anecdotes touch on essential truths of French culture, but it’s a controlled sampling, inviting the reader to savor the details and imagine the rest.

In part, Gopnik’s Paris is so charming because it proves to be so stereotypically French. For example, Gopnik’s pursuit of a gym membership yields a comically French result. It is called Régiment Rouge, where elegantly coiffed women in red tracksuits arrange several one-on-one meetings to ensure the thorough completion of his dossier (file), throw a crèpe party to celebrate the installation of “high intensity” machines, and then grant him the right to use his membership as frequently as once a week, advertising le régiment as “‘très New Yorkais.’”

(In my experience, Non-Parisians live up to their stereotypes with equal flair –accordion players on cobblestone street corners, men in berets, baguettes in hand…  They don’t disappoint.)

Perhaps the singularity of French culture is best articulated in the last chapter of the book, preceding Gopnik’s move back to New York, with his wife, son, and now Parisian born daughter. He is standing on the Concorde Bridge with his son, Luke, watching Christmas lights on the Eiffel Tower. Luke says that the tower “‘looks like champagne,’” which gets the author thinking philosophically about the century-old, recycled symbols of France, such as champagne and the Eiffel Tower. Should he be depressed that these worn out emblems of French-ness are being incorporated into his young son’s consciousness? Is that what France is reduced to?

Then he recalls another writer’s argument that the Eiffel Tower is in fact a greater invention than Isaac Newton’s Principia, because

“‘the principles of physics have a permanent general existence outside ourselves… while the tower, in all its particulars, could have been built only in Paris at Eiffel’s moment by Eiffel…’”

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 12.45.01 PMWhether you love or hate the French, chances are that your feelings are partly directed toward this possession of a singular, idiosyncratic sensibility that is as stubbornly French as the Eiffel Tower is Eiffel’s.

From an airplane window, the Eiffel Tower looks oddly large, as if it were randomly plopped onto Paris like a mismatched toy. This sounds like France’s relationship with much of the world: surrounded by many other sprawling cultures, the French uphold their French-ness in glittering, upright, iconic glory. It’s hard to hate them too much for it — after all, we Americans understand this notion of being true to one’s character.

Besides French-ness, there is another culturally rich set of ideas running through Paris To The Moon, that is, the reality versus the fantasy of displacing yourself, of choosing to be a foreigner, of watching your young child construct his own five-year-old Parisian existence before his parents transplant him back to New York to continue growing up.

The liberation and joy that come from being a willful outsider is in a way, less interesting than the ennui that sets in at the end of the five years, prompting a move back home, the growing desire to be an American in…America. Do the same forces propelling someone to travel propel him to return home? This gets at the meaning of home, the role of the traveler in defining his destination. Gopnik quotes his wife at the beginning of their stay:

“She felt, she said, as if she had died and gone to heaven — but with the strange feeling that that dying and going to heaven mean parting, leaving, and missing the people you left behind on earth” adding that “the loneliness of the expatriate is of an odd and complicated kind, for it is inseparable from the feeling of being free, of having escaped…”

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Like the arc of many stories, the falling action of Paris To The Moon leads its characters from whence they came, across the Atlantic and back to New York, decidedly not to the moon, whatever the title suggests. Perhaps there is inherent wisdom in that.

[Photos: “Eiffel Tower On A Moonlit Night,” RejiK’s photo stream, “1st Course: Amuse Bouche,” ulterior epicure’s flickr photostream, Robyn Lee’s flickr photostream]

Bill Cunningham New York

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Here is another documentary worth seeing, available on Instant Netflix. Bill Cunningham is an eighty-something street fashion photographer for The New York Times, living in a studio apartment in Carnegie Hall, surrounded by the now vacant artist studios of such legends as Mark Twain, Marlon Brando, Leonard Bernstein, and Isadora Duncan. He lives and breathes street fashion, sleeping in a twin bed sandwiched between messy filing cabinets.

We follow his daily routine: walk his bike down the stairs in the a.m., make a pitstop for a three dollar sandwich, flit from ritzy event to nightlife hotspots to cover New York’s social butterflies, making a point to decline any food or drink. In one scene, the camera follows Cunningham as he photographs a lavish birthday party for a high society matron, working the crowd with murmurs of “child” and “kid.” He hops on his bike and works the same magic with a gathering of drag queens in a different part of town.

Having made his life behind the lens, Bill is a mysterious subject. Interviews with an assortment of fashionistas, fashion editors, designers, and socialites provide incomplete snapshots of his private life. Some observe his comfort with people of privilege and his ambivalence toward money, speculating that he grew up in wealth. Others admit that they are have no idea whether Bill Cunningham is lonely, or if he has a life partner or what his living room looks like. Everyone does have memories of “being photographed by Bill,” seeing their wool coat or pink ankle boots or bowler hat in print, through the eye of his lens.

This documentary really touched me. Okay, it made me tear up a bit. Why? It’s a portrait of someone who is thoroughly kind, an octogenarian who has been biking around New York City for decades, living in relative anonymity, taking pictures of what he finds original, personality-filled, beautiful on the street. Forced to vacate his apartment in Carnegie Hall, Bill faces the prospect of having a kitchen, a closet, a window with a view. You can see that he is wary of these accoutrements. This is someone who sustains himself behind the camera, on the street, cramped between filing cabinets of film negatives until the next day’s search for something beautiful.

[Photo: “Right Back Atcha,” hunter.gatherer’s photo stream]

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