Sunday, October 30, 2011

First Lines from Books I Love #5: Angelina's Bachelors

Since becoming a writer at 11 years old, I've learned so much about writing, and surely still have much more to learn that will sustain me through the rest of my life.

I've learned not to be so prickly about language. People will end sentences with prepositions. It's not a heinous crime against humanity. (I'm not against this, but I have seen disturbing militancy from others about it.)

Contractions are ok; they help keep word counts low and prevent stuffiness.

And if you take away colloquialisms, you take away culture and how people live every day in language. I was born in South Florida, and grew up saying "Yes'm," and "No'm." I have not and will never say "Yes ma'am" and "No ma'am." That's not how I grew up, and I want to keep that part of my heritage.

But what I also learned is that I'm not the one to decide if my writing is impressive. I write because I want to, and however it turns out is because of the ideas I have of how it should be, along with assistance provided by editors. When I wrote my essays for What If They Lived?, I wasn't nervous about it being my first book, but my writing sure was. I overwrote the introduction to my James Dean essay, trying to tie in a visit to Universal CityWalk in Los Angeles, to a magnet store there with ones of Dean and Marilyn Monroe, to Dean's lasting appeal. Phil Hall, my co-author, thankfully looked over my essays and rewrote that introduction. I made sure it conformed to my writing style (Whatever that might be, but I make sure I'm comfortable with the words expressed), but was relieved, because in hindsight, it was an introduction more suited to a blog entry. In fact, I may post it here soon as a reminder of the time I spent writing that introduction, reading those paragraphs over and over, hoping that they clicked together without fighting it. I'm never embarassed by writing from years ago or writing I've scrapped. I always have to start somewhere, and that's where I did.

When I read The Men Who Would Be King by Nicole LaPorte, I was excited at the thought of writing with that level of detail, resulting from so much research that I hope to undertake as well for my own projects. I'm passionate about these subjects, so that will be easy.

Reading Angelina's Bachelors by Brian O'Reilly, I want to write with that much care, that much love. And it's huge. This is not just the product of O'Reilly's experiences being surrounded by cooking for decades, with his wife Virginia O'Reilly having cooked since she was little, not just him being the creator of Dinner: Impossible on Food Network, but him having a true love for words and for reading. At the beginning, Angelina's husband Frank dies (There's no reason for a spoiler alert here because it's mentioned in the copy on the back of the book and it's the impetus for everything else here), and even though Frank is given only five and a half pages before his death, O'Reilly knows him so well that we're affected by this, not only because Angelina is going to lose a beloved husband, but he seems like a very good man.

After the funeral, and after a cooking spree that produces dishes and soups that are delivered to neighbors, as well as a lasagna to Dottie, her across-the-street neighbor, Dottie's brother Basil returns the empty lasagna pan and proposes to Angelina an arrangement whereby she'll cook him breakfast and dinner six days a week and he'll pay her for it, a sum to help her keep on living and not have to worry so much about future finances, as she is already.

I wish I had brought Angelina's Bachelors into Sprouts yesterday. I hadn't had lunch before my family and I left on afternoon errands with the hope that we might eat out (I've been thinking again about a pastrami sandwich and Ultimate Chili Cheese Fries (which just means diced onions and sour cream included) at Weinerschnitzel). No luck, so by the time we reached Sprouts, I was famished, and grabbed a few samples from the bulk items, including chocolate-covered peanuts, and chocolate-covered cashews, and yes, not ideal, so I made sure that in the bananas we bought was a ripe banana to eat while driving a very short few hundred yards to Target nearby.

Had I read Angelina's Bachelors while walking around Sprouts, after grabbing a few containers of my favorite lemon yogurt from Casacade Fresh, my favorite yogurt actually, I would not have been inclined to scarf down chocolate. The descriptions of Italian food and Angelina cooking each dish is glorious, reverent, and it feels spiritual, a real connection not only with food but also with the bonds it creates between people. Wait until you read about Don Eddie's connection to marrowbones and toast, and the memories it brings to Big Phil, his nephew. Phil is my favorite character because he doesn't say a word, at least until it matters the most. It makes the impact of his later gesture huge.

Angelina's Bachelors is going into my permanent collection. I need it for reference not only in the gentleness of writing, but also how each word matters most. Every single word keeps you in the neighborly and caring world that Brian O'Reilly has created. Humanity has found another magnificent ally.

And now, the first lines:

"Perfect," whispered Angelina.

Standing alone in the moonlit warmth of her kitchen, she stroked them each softly in turn and applied the slightest, knowing pressure to each. They were cool to the touch now, all risen to exactly the same height, the same shape and consistency, laid side by side by side on the well-worn wooden table. The dusky scent of dark chocolate lingered in the air and on her fingers."

Angelina's Bachelors is also a vacation. Take a few hours for it, and you will return looking at the world anew.

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