Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Battle with Depth

Today I tried The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted by Bridget Asher. I left at page 24 because of its stubbornly impenetrable nature. I skimmed through the rest of a flashback and found that the featured wedding lasted for a decent-sized chunk of pages. Some details were beautifully written, such as the family property in Provence, France, but the entire book felt like it was written out of reach. You can observe the events, but you can't feel them. And if you try, the book moves further and further out of your grasp.

Frustrated by it, I moved on to The Kitchen Congregation by Nora Seton. Beautiful writing here too, tapping into deep wells of emotion of family, of cooking, of the descriptions of kitchens and Seton's mother's friends, which take up the first part of the book. She tries for poetic descriptions and accomplishes that sporadically, with some other passages feeling workmanlike, just a way to get to the next part of the thought.

I lasted until page 176. The book ends at page 246, and it's a better average than The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted, which ends at page 422. I just shuddered a bit while typing that, imagining trying to get through the rest of it, which I probably would have done if this book had been around in my teens (Although actually, I probably wouldn't have, because I checked out more movie history books than any other kind back then). But I don't have the time now. There's so many books in the world, so much to explore, that if a book doesn't work for me, even after page 20, away it goes for good. If a passage pops up that makes me want to give it a bit more of a go, then I read through the next few pages and decide. My reading list isn't finite, but my life is, and I want to make these decades most enjoyable in reading.

I considered giving up on The Kitchen Congregation during the chapter on Senta, who lived below Seton and her husband "on the first floor of a villa in Zurich." Seton's writing is heartfelt at times, but it feels so removed. You try to reach in and you can't get close enough, not because there's a secret password to declare, but because Seton is so deep into her memories, the emotions conjured up by those memories, that it feels like she forgets to look up and see those who are reading about her life. We are welcome, but please, don't get too close. These floors, these walls, are sacred. Look, but don't touch. Learn, but don't feel as much as she has. Sentimentality shouldn't be mawkish, but it shouldn't make you feel like you have to either learn the secret handshake or beg to know about someone's memories, especially with what they describe in food. Clearly Seton is a fine cook, and loves the life she lives in the kitchen, but everything else here doesn't have the same feeling.

I first skimmed past where I had stopped in the Senta chapter while considering whether to leave this book, finding the same writing style throughout. What's established at the beginning isn't going to change. But the next chapter, "Two in the Kitchen", starts with this:

"When I first saw my husband chopping green beans into uniform inches, I thought the marriage would never last. It was so precise, so painstaking. It was the way his mother did it. He liked his green beans cut small, but then he went and married a woman who manhandled green beans--no knife, no ruler."

"Ok, ok," I thought, "I'll stick with it to see the differences between her method of cooking and her husband's method. I want to know about that."

Seton is a careful writer, and she's thought about these various passages a great deal. She wants her words to be as well-cooked as the dishes she produces in her kitchen. But it feels like she holds onto them too tightly. She doesn't want any to slip out of place and upend the entire production. Most of the time, her writing feels too gentle. When she describes the actions of her children Hugh and baby Maddie while she and they visit Ida, an elderly lively friend, she hits upon the kind of writer she should have been throughout the entire book, including Maddie eating many things such as a pocketbook. It's a welcome shot of amusement that should have been suffused throughout the rest of the sentences here.

By page 176, I became disenchanted with it again and couldn't read any more pages. I appreciate the gentleness of Seton's words, but I wish she had looked up, beckoning the reader to get comfortable and settle in. I felt like I was standing up the entire time, smiling in parts, but mostly watching. Just watching. Never feeling.

After giving it up, I opened up Consuming Passions: A Food-Obsessed Life by Michael Lee West, which was the first in my "First Lines" series of entries (, even though I hadn't read any of it beyond that first paragraph. I like it already and I think it's going to bloom into love because West isn't self-conscious about her words. She writes well, but she wants the reader to come on in right away, to get to know how she became obsessed with food after her grandmother's funeral, because her grandmother's recipe for buttermilk biscuits would have disappeared had it not been for her, urged by her Aunt Tempe to write down the recipe since she remembered it. So far (and I suspect it'll last through the rest of the book), West's writing is warm and genial. And it is full of good-natured Southern life.

My plan for the weekend had been a double header of Kitchen Chinese by Ann Mah and Angelina's Bachelors by Brian O'Reilly, since The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted hadn't arrived by Friday. It came on Saturday, and by that time, I had given up on Kitchen Chinese because despite the delicious descriptions of Asian food, the story became very boring. There's no other way to describe it but just that and move on. I devoured Angelina's Bachelors afterward, and then came The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted and the beginning of the entry you just read. So three books came into view this weekend, and only one survived. I'm never perpetually impatient with books, just those I absolutely cannot continue.

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.