Saturday, April 29, 2017

How I Read the Newspaper

In which order do you read the sections of a newspaper? I have noticed that different people read them in different orders. And over my years of faithful daily newspaper reading, I have found myself reading the paper in different orders. When I was a kid, I would go for the comics and then a cursory read of the headlines in the first section. As a teenager and young adult, I would dutifully read or at least skim the paper from front to back. (Apparently I was a nerd….) For a long time I would automatically dismiss the sports section from my reading, or at most glance at the front page of that section in years when local sports teams were doing well. Once a fellow passenger on a plane asked me for my copy of the newspaper (after I was clearly finished with it) but then his face fell with evident shock and disappointment when I told him he was welcome to it, but I had thrown away the sports section in the airport. Now that I have become an enthusiastic Golden State Warriors (basketball) fan, I actually start with the sports section (I know, I know…in the past I would have been shocked to read this sentence about myself!), then go to the Bay Area section, which has lots of local news and several excellent columns about politics and life. Then the Arts/Entertainment section, but read less thoroughly than in the past, and finally the front section, with its world and national news. Given that the front section reports on the most important news, why do I read that section last? Perhaps because the news is so often so grim? Actually the very last section I read, after the front section, is the Business section, and sometimes I put it in a pile to be read later. Of course all of this is becoming somewhat of a moot point, since fewer and fewer people read newspapers in print, and when people read online, I believe they read in a less linear fashion; I know I do, on the occasions that I read online. I still greatly prefer reading newspapers (and magazines, journals, and books, for that matter) in print; my husband and I linger a bit over the newspaper along with our morning coffee, exchanging sections as we go; it is our morning ritual. (He reads them in this order, usually: front section, sports section, Bay Area section, arts/entertainment section, and business section.) I know that this post “outs” (or confirms) me (and my husband) as old-fashioned, but I can live with that.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

They Call Them "Foodoirs"

I somehow missed learning the term “foodoir” until I saw it in The New York Times Book Review of 4/16/17, though I am a great fan of this type of book. It means, as is obvious, memoirs about food. It seems a little artificial and awkward, but it does concisely describe what has become a growing genre of books. A quick Internet search told me that this vocabulary item has been in use since at least 2010. Learning this term reminded me of some of the food memoirs I have read and thoroughly enjoyed over the past few years, and in many cases written about here. These latter include a list of several such books posted on 2/4/10, as well as posts about former San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times food critic’s Kim Severson’s “Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My life” (6/29/10); Gabrielle Hamilton’s “Book, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef” (4/26/11); Marcus Samuelsson’s “Yes, Chef” (7/21/12); novelist Kate Christenson’s “Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites” (8/1/13); Michael Gibney’s “Sous Chef” (1/10/16); and several others. I am remembering with special fondness two of the famous food critic Ruth Reichl’s beautifully written memoirs that I read before I started this blog: “Tender at the Bone” and “Comfort Me with Apples.” I find the world of food, especially the world of restaurants, fascinating, and am especially interested to read how chefs, food writers, and other food professionals became so interested in making food the center of their careers. In the cases mentioned here, they also became writers about their lives in the world of food, and their great love of food, cooking, and sharing food; the ones I have listed are all not just writers, but good writers. Of course not all “foodoirs” are good ones, or well written; in fact, I have read some very mediocre ones. But when they are good, they are a joy to read.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Birth of a New Bookstore in My Neighborhood!

It is a lovely, light-filled space in beautiful downtown Sausalito, looking out on boats bobbing in the sparkling water. It is a brand new bookstore, Book Passage, a branch of the mothership a few miles north in Corte Madera (a local treasure for many years), and a cause for great celebration! I walked into the shop a couple of days ago with great delight. A new independent bookstore in the area is good news indeed! After years of hearing the sad news of many bookstores closing, there has been a recent resurgence of such stores. Hurray! I have long been a frequent customer of the Corte Madera Book Passage, a large bookstore a few miles north of where I live, with many readings and other events going on all the time; it is one of the two bookstores that I most regularly patronize (the other is Books, Inc., in Laurel Village in San Francisco, near where I teach), although of course I go to many other bookstores when possible. The new store is, as I said, in Sausalito, which is the next town over from ours. Although smaller than the Corte Madera store, this new store will continue the tradition of readings, although on a smaller scale, about two or more a week, as the manager, Jeff, told me on my visit to the Sausalito store. The store only opened in February of this year, but both locals and tourists are taking notice, and as we approach the peak tourist months, Jeff hopes, as do I, that many of these tourists will visit the store. I wish the store great success, and I plan to be a regular visitor and customer there. (Please forgive the giddy tone of this post, but I am very excited both by the opening of this specific bookstore in this specific location near where I live, and by what it represents in terms of the survival and growth of bookstores in an age when they were thought to be dying out.)

Friday, April 14, 2017

Julian Barnes' "The Sense of an Ending": Book, Film, and Unsettling Birthday Experience

It was my birthday, and as a gift to myself, I went to a movie. Let me back up: I hardly ever go to movies during academic semesters, although I do go during breaks in the academic year. But I had been wanting to see the new movie version of Julian Barnes’ “The Sense of an Ending” (a Booker-prize winning novel about which I posted here on 1/6/12; readers can find out more about the story there; today I instead focus on my own experiences and feelings before, during, and after seeing the film). On my birthday morning, I thought I would check online to see how much longer the movie would be at a local theater, and found that the last showing before the film left the theater would be in the late afternoon on that very day. OK, so it was apparently meant to be. I left campus a little earlier than usual, got to the theater a little early, and casting around for something to read to pass the time, leafed through a book I had put in my trunk in order to return it to the library, having decided not to read it after all: Peter Orner’s “Am I Alone Here?” This is a book about books, and as I flipped through it during those fifteen minutes before the movie was to start, within seconds my eye was caught by a very negative mention of Barnes’ novel; in fact, Orner claims he threw the book out of a car window, reacting very strongly against the main character in the book, Tony, as well as sarcastically impugning it as a "book club copy." The story was meant to be humorous, but the negative feelings came through. This was unsettling on several levels. First, what a coincidence that glancing through a book I had already "rejected" myself, I happened across a reference to its author rather scornfully rejecting a book I had liked very much, the film of which I was about to see! Was this somehow the book’s revenge on me for rejecting it? A message from the universe? With mixed feelings, I watched the movie, and I liked the movie, although I didn’t love it. I mainly liked it because it was about the juxtaposition and connections between our older selves and our younger selves (something I have had reason to think about a lot lately), and because the two lead actors – Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling – were excellent. Also, more generally, I especially like movies set in England, and "quiet" movies about people's lives and relationships (as opposed to "action" movies, "big" movies, genre movies, and movies where the action is more important than the conversations). But against my will, Orner’s emphatic dismissal of the book left its mark, and I found myself comparing my feelings with his as I was watching the movie. In other words, I couldn’t ignore what I had read about the book and by extension the movie, and although I disagreed with and resented Orner’s comments, they had insidiously worked their way into my brain and affected my response to the film. This small tale of my birthday gift to myself made me reflect on coincidences in our lives, as well as on how easily we are influenced by the opinions of others, even those we actively resist.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

"To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters," on PBS Masterpiece

I have always been fascinated by the Bronte family, as have so many other readers of their novels. Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” and “Villette” have been of special interest to me; I have read both multiple times, and taught “Jane Eyre” several times. So of course I was pleased to hear that PBS’ Masterpiece was presenting “To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters” (March 26, 2017). It is a fascinating look at the lives of the three sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne) and their unfortunate brother (Branwell), as well as their overwhelmed father. I already knew the story of their lives quite well, from studying and reading about them in various sources. This PBS production is partially based on Charlotte’s letters. It is a riveting but extremely bleak look at the family’s intensely intertwined lives in the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth, Yorkshire, over a period of three years when their novels began to be published. You would think that the time of these publications would be an occasion for joy for the family, and there were a few -- very few -- moments of joy, but these were muted, and any expressions of such emotion was suppressed by societal and family concerns. The societal concerns were, of course, the fact that women writers were not generally encouraged, respected, or accepted at that time. The family concerns were that the Bronte sisters’ brother, Branwell, was expected (by his family and by Branwell himself) to be the writer in the family, the one who would be published and gain fame, but he never did, perhaps from insufficient talent but mostly because he was an extreme alcoholic whose life was chaotic, full of debt, and much complicated by a failed love affair with a married woman. These were the two reasons the sisters (famously) chose to write their novels under pseudonyms. The three of them who were living at the time of this portrayal (two other sisters had died in childhood) were constantly having to take care of their brother, rescue him, cover up his misdeeds, and go along with his delusion that he was the gifted one in the family whose work (as a writer and as an artist) would soon be recognized. In other words, Branwell was the dysfunctional and highly disruptive center of the family, and the sisters were forced to be, and also chose to be, his enablers. Their mother was dead, and their father was bewildered and overwhelmed by dealing with his deeply troubled son. Branwell’s role in the family was a huge part of the grimness of the sisters’ lives, but it was exacerbated, it seems, by their isolation in a small town in Yorkshire, by the spare and cold aspect of the Parsonage where they lived, and by money worries. This Masterpiece production emphasizes the bleakness, the grimness of the lives of these amazing writers, through its portrayal of the parsonage, the scenery, the claustrophobia of the family members’ lives, the sisters’ plain clothing and severe hairstyles, and the fact that almost no one in the production ever smiles or laughs. There is affection among the family members, especially the three sisters, and they are a great support to each other, but the overall situation is depressing. In fact, I realize in writing about this production two weeks after I saw it that I am remembering it as if it were in black and white, although the actual show was in color. The sisters are portrayed very well by three strong actresses, and the actors playing Branwell and the family’s father are also good in their roles. This is a powerful piece, and of interest both to those already devoted to the Brontes and their work, and to those who know less about them but want to learn more.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

"All Grown Up," by Jami Attenberg

Jami Attenberg’s “The Middlesteins” (2012) was a bestseller, a sprawling family story. Her new novel, “All Grown Up” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) is a smaller and quieter book, focusing mainly on one character. That character, Andrea, narrates the book in a series of chapters that are almost like individual short stories, telling of different aspects of, and episodes in, the character’s life. They are not in chronological order; they skip back and forth from Andrea’s twenties to her forties, often going over the same ground more than once, from different angles. Although the focus is on one character, and the writing is straightforward rather than out-and-out stream-of-consciousness, I noted elements of a Virginia Woolf novel, “The Waves,” in the recursive style. Although there is mention of and attention to Andrea’s family members, friends, and work colleagues, “All Grown Up” is predominantly inward-looking. However, we readers are not allowed to learn too much even about this character. The closest we get is peeks into Andrea’s ambivalent-yet-close relationship to her mother, and her description of her beloved brother and sister-in-law, who are barely coping with watching their young, very disabled daughter die in slow motion. Andrea herself feels her life is going nowhere, yet doesn’t quite know what it is she wants. She has a decent job but doesn’t really like it. She has a fairly nice apartment in New York City, not an easy thing to find. She dates quite a bit, but doesn’t have a long-term partner or husband or child; she claims not to want these, and yet seems sad not to have them, and surprised to find herself forty years old without having acquired any of them. She has friends, but seems to be disconnected from them for long periods of time. She is an art-school dropout who rarely practices her art, yet spends many hours over many years drawing and re-drawing the Statue of Liberty, which she could see outside her apartment window until a new, tall building blocked her view. This latter sequence is surely symbolic of her own status in her own eyes. “All Grown Up” doesn’t have much drama, doesn’t really “go anywhere,” yet perhaps encapsulates what becoming an adult consists of for some people: not being dramatically successful, not dramatically failing, but being somewhere in the muddled in-between state where many people exist as their lives proceed in ordinariness (and that is if they are fortunate; I know the whole context is one of privilege). I applaud Attenberg for capturing this common condition, but I also have to say that reading about it is rather dispiriting.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Poetry "Speaks Truth to Power" in These Troubled Times

The Sunday, March 12, 2017 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle’s book section announces that it has just begun a new weekly feature, “State Lines: California Poetry.“ Every Sunday, it will publish a poem by a California writer, or a poem about California. The announcement goes on to note that “the appearance of poetry in public forums is more important than ever before. When language – even the language of verified truth and scientific fact – is attacked by the institutions we rely on for safety and prosperity, poetry plays a vital role. Not only does poetry offer us comfort and moral nourishment, but it speaks truth to power” (p. 35). Amen to that. As the article points out, publishing poetry in newspapers used to be more common in the distant past; I welcome this small move toward wider exposure of poetry. And while I am on the subject, I thank the general interest magazines that do publish poetry regularly, most notably The New Yorker, but also The Atlantic and The Nation, among others. The inaugural poem in this new San Francisco Chronicle feature is “Almost Livin’ Almost Dyin’: For all the Dead,” by Juan Felipe Herrera, the current U.S. poet laureate and former California poet laureate. The poem is “a breathless, breakneck poem” that “teeters, like life itself, between mourning and praise”(p. 35). It references many of the issues of today, including racism and the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
 
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