I confess, I thought I did know, rather in a vague kind of way, a bit about Julia Child before picking up this biography. The image in my mind primarily being the Saturday Night Live Skit — which apparently Julia loved — which had Dan Aykroyd in full Julia regalia cutting himself and bleeding out on camera. And I knew, of course, that she had a love of France, and French food, and had, in some way, changed America’s perceptions about what they might prepare for their table. What I did not know, was how frightfully ignorant I was about Julia herself, as a person, and a woman and a pioneer of public television, food, and too many other things to mention here. In other words, my Julia was a vague sort of cultural icon who I grudgingly accorded some small place in culinary history. I didn’t understand that behind this cultural icon there was an enormously complex, sometimes lost, gawky woman who was hell-bent on making a name and a place for herself in the stifling time in which she was living. And that in so doing she would change our very culture. Fortunately, I can now say that I am now much more informed, enlightened, and entirely in awe of a woman so determined to succeed, so serious about her passion, and so entirely complex that it makes my mind spin. Bob Spitz has given us an extremely thorough, entertaining, and detailed biography of one of the great women of our — or for that matter anyone’s — time. There is so much solid research here and you feel the author’s love and deep respect for his subject, all of which makes a fascinating read.
If you have even the slightest passing interest in food, or culture, or France, or the cultural mores of an America long gone then by all means please put down your knife and fork, or whatever you are holding, and pick up this wonderful book. Sit down with a glass of wine and settle in. And, as Julia herself would tell you, bon appétit.
“I think every woman should have a blowtorch.”
― Julia Child
“Everything in moderation… including moderation.”
― Julia Child
After a lazy summer of reading too many things I was too embarrassed to blog about ( which may be another blog topic entirely) my brain is finally focussed again and just in time to pick up the new novel from A.M. Homes. Homes is a darkly funny writer, who always has a keen eye, and in this case she turns it on the modern American family which she dissects with almost surgical precision. It’s almost impossible to put this book down, which begins on Thanksgiving day and covers approximately a year of time in which we watch the lives of two brothers who have been at constant odds unravel spectacularly and unexpectedly . Like many family dramas this one is a noisy train wreck in startling slow motion. All the characters are eerily familiar and of course while some survive, some others do not and it is the gift of this writer that she brings her own sense of humor into what in other hands would be a book too bleak to contemplate. If all of this sounds entirely too dark for you, don’t worry. There is redemption here and like everything A.M. Homes writes about it unfolds beautifully in the hands of this skilled author.
I am probably just deluding myself that one day I won’t give in entirely to Pym love and join the Barbara Pym Society like every other obsessed Pym fan, especially if I continue to return to my favorite Pym novel Excellent Women. This small and very, very funny book, like her other works, focusses on the genteel but rather drab life of an English spinster, in this case one Mildred Lathbury, whose world seems to consist of jumble sales, long chats with the vicar, and the inevitably endless cups of tea. She is surrounded by friends, of a sort, and associates, all of whom seem to lead more exciting lives than her own and she observes them all closely, with a dark wit and a sharp sense of humor that is second to none. Much like the work of Jane Austen these books are certainly not plot heavy. In fact virtually nothing happens and yet somehow it is Pym’s greatest accomplishment to make this nothing seem like absolutely everything to her narrator, and reader. Mildred’s sharp eye is deeply ironic, and while life hasn’t handed her much she is never sad and seems only reasonably discontent. It is impossible to read this book and not root for her, and the countless other women she represents who stand teetering on the brink of spinsterhood with a teapot in one hand and a china cup in the other. Mildred Lathbury, we salute you!
Barbara Pym (1913-1980) was a moderately successful writer whose work fell out of favor in the early 1960’s for being out of step with the times. For sixteen years she continued to write in obscurity until one day in the 21st of January 1977 issue of the Times Literary Supplement both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil named her “the most underrated novelist of the century.” From that point on she rose to almost instant fame and recognition. She died at the early age of 66 of breast cancer.
“Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, ‘Do we need tea? she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury…’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. I mumbled something about making a joke and that of course one needed tea always, at every hour of the day or night.”
― Barbara Pym, Excellent Women
There are some faces so iconic and unforgettable that just to see them is to make one smile. I think it’s safe to say that without a doubt, “Nancy” a comic strip character created in 1938 by Ernie Bushmiller is one of them.
The artist Joe Brainard (1942-1994) created more than one hundred works using Nancy, and Siglio Press in Los Angeles collected fifty of them for the first time for inclusion in The Nancy Book which also features essays by Ann Lauterbach and Ron Padgett.
It’s hard to express just exactly what makes these works and the book so charming. Or, for that matter, what made the original Nancy herself so endearing.
Perhaps Ann Lauterbach sums it up best in her essay.
“Brainard’s Nancy works, many of which are simple collages, are an inventory of daydreams, a mobile landscape of identifications. Consider: Nancy gets to be a drawing by Larry Rivers, numerous paintings by de Kooning, a sexy blond, an interior decorator, rich, President Roosevelt (her head on Mount Rushmore), André Breton at eighteen months, a New York City building, Abraham Lincoln (as a stamp), a ball, and Art Nouveau. By inserting Nancy into these “public” frames — persons, objects, places, paintings — Joe Brainard gave us not only an intimate self-portrait, but also, because Joe/Nancy was conceived as “everyone”, he left us an astonishingly accurate, funny, and compelling portrait of ourselves.”
I was happy to discover the Modern Library Gardening Series, edited by Michael Pollan, and am making my way through all of them. I couldn’t resist picking up Reginald Arklell’s garden novel Old Herbaceous as my starting point as the title intrigued me. It tells the story of Bert Pinnegar, a shy orphan with one leg longer than the other who nonetheless works his way up from nothing to become the head gardener known as “Old Herbaceous” on a sprawling British country estate. The novel brings us from the Victorian era into the Edwardian, and covers two World Wars, and yet, with few exceptions, we rarely leave the garden. Bert brings it slowly to life and in return, like every garden, it gives him one. This is a simple and beautiful book, with moments of sly humor. Pull a chair up under your favorite tree and read it slowly. If you have ever loved, or dreamed of, a garden you’ll be glad you did. I promise, as you turn the pages you can even smell the soft country earth and the light scent of garden roses.
“Are you old enough, or wise enough to remember and appreciate those country gardens of the early ‘eighties? The moss rose under the kitchen window; the sweet williams, all of one homely pattern; the great cabbage roses and the musk that had not yet lost its scent. Mignonette flourished in the poor, gravelly soil under the holly tree; maidenhair fern carpeted the gray steps of the old summer house and lilies of the valley grew like weeds.”
President Barak Obama’s declaration the other day that he believes marriage is an institution for all was an extraordinary act of courage and it had particular resonance for me, not least because I was in the process of reading A Difficult Woman, the new biography of Lillian Hellman by Alice Kessler-Harris. For those who may not be familiar with the noted playwright and activist Miss Hellman, to say that she was a woman who spoke her mind, no matter the consequence, is an understatement. To have the conviction of one’s beliefs is always admirable in this reader’s humble opinion, and Lillian Hellman had that in spades. During the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950’s she was one of the very few who stood up and absolutely refused to cave in to the paranoia of the times with her simple declaration “I will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”
Bravo Miss Hellman. And bravo Mr. President for telling us what is on your mind no matter the consequences, especially in a closely contested election year. Whether one is standing up to the House Un-American Activities Committee or the Tea Party — and, is there a difference — it takes a tough, uncompromising, and absolutely fierce belief in what is just to speak your mind.
And might I also say, of course it makes an excellent read. I heartily recommend A Difficult Woman to any fan of Hellman or any person who admires the absolutely blunt courage it takes to take a stand, no matter the consequences.
“I was raised in an old-fashioned American tradition and there were certain homely things that were taught to me: to try to tell the truth, not to bear false witness, not to harm my neighbour, to be loyal to my country, and so on. In general, I respected these ideals of Christian honor and did as well as I knew how. It is my belief that you will agree with these simple rules of human decency and will not expect me to violate the good American tradition from which they spring. I would therefore like to come before you and speak of myself.” — Lillian Hellman, Scoundrel Time
And while we are on the subjects of gardens and the writers who love them I would not rest easily if I did not encourage everyone to pick up a copy of The Wild Braid – A Poet Reflects On A Century In The Garden by Stanley Kunitz. The book, written in his one hundredth year, with the poet Genine Lentine, is an absolutely beautiful reflection not just on the garden itself but on life, loss, death and renewal. It is scattered with poems, prose, conversations between Genine and Stanley, and stunning photography by Marnie Crawford Samuelson. I was quite surprised to discover that reading the book was much like wandering in a well-loved garden in the sense that there was always something new and unexpected to discover. Walking through a conversation between the two poets, stopping to admire a photograph of the poet tending his plants and then, suddenly, oh look over here… a poem in the middle of this page right here, growing just where it should.
Needless to say, this little book is as well tended as the poet’s garden. There is nothing here that should be moved around or weeded out.
Stanley Kunitz was honored and awarded just about every prize for poetry one can think of including the Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Award, A National Medal of the Arts and the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America. He served twice as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress and as the U.S. Poet Laureate. He was a teacher at Columbia University, an editor of the Yale Younger Poets, the founder of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and also of the Poets House in New York City. And he was a gardener. He died in 2006 at the age of 100.
All these beautiful photographs are from the book, taken by Marnie Crawford Samuelson.
“Thinking of a new season in the garden feels different from imagining a new poem. The garden has achieved its form; it doesn’t have to be new each year. What it has to do is grow. You’re not going to uproot the entire garden and start all over. The poem is always a new creation and aspires to a transcendence that is beyond telling at the moment when you’re working on it. You know you are moving into an area you’ve never explored before and there is a great difference.”
“I wonder if those birds ever tire of their song –I wonder whether a bird ever thinks, ‘Today I’ll try a new song.'”
I admit I have been lax about reading and reviewing lately so perhaps it’s time to offer an explanation. I have become, finally, a gardener. And it is Spring. And I can hardly take the time to dress after waking to rush from the bed to the garden to see what has happened. Because a garden is a miracle, and no more so than in an unseasonably warm Spring when everything is behaving not as it should but as we hoped for. Today, however, when the sun finally disappeared behind the thick grey curtain of fog and clouds I went indoors and wandered about a bit. I felt, quite honestly, bereft. I tried this and that to amuse myself but it was difficult to start anything when every few minutes I kept rushing to the windows to see if the sun had come out in the garden. Needless to say, it had not.
No worries however, for I soon figured out what to do and picked up a favorite books of mine by the late fiction editor of The New Yorker, Katharine S. White. Everything about this book is wonderful if you love to garden as much as I do. Like any avid gardener Katharine was a reader and collector of garden catalogues and this book consists of her reviews of them, as well as her thoughts in general about the garden. The reviews themselves originally appeared in The New Yorker in the 1950’s and what a surprise it must have been at the time to elevate the seed and garden catalogues of the day in the pages of the magazine. An editor and writer of great note on her own Katharine was also married to E. B. White, who provides a fine introduction to this excellent volume. I highly recommend anyone who takes an interest in the earth beneath us put this book by their bedside to dip into when it is too cold or dark to venture out into the garden itself. It is a truly wonderful volume for the gardener and writer in all of us.
“As I write snow is falling outside my Maine window and indoors all around me half a hundred garden catalogues are in bloom.” — Katharine S. White
For the first time in 35 years, the Pulitzer Prize judges did not award a work of fiction. This, despite that fact that three very good finalists were up for consideration. They were, the late David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia and Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams.
Needless to say, the Pulitzer committee beat a hasty retreat with no explanation given. No doubt for the obvious reason that they could not string a sentence of explanation together themselves, or, for that matter, recognize a good sentence if it was presented to them. It’s quite sad, in this reader’s honest opinion, that when the average person reads fewer and fewer books every year the Pulitzer Prize committee seems to agree with the majority of the population which is constantly saying: “There is nothing worth reading”. Or, even worse, “It is not worth your time to read.”
But…perhaps I am too harsh? Maybe the Pulitzer judges were simply too busy. They were probably so terribly caught up in The Hunger Games trilogy that they simply did not have time to read these three excellent finalists.
Since they can’t seem to do their own job, does anyone mind terribly if I do it? This years Pulitzer Prize for fiction…no, wait, what am I thinking? Scratch that. Who cares about the Pulitzer now anyway? This years Persnickety Reader’s prize for fiction goes to The Pale King, by the late David Foster Wallace.
I’m not saying I wouldn’t have had some kind of childhood without the books of Beverly Cleary, but I think it’s fair to say it might not have been much of one. And I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels this way. Henry Huggins, his dog Ribsy, Beezus and Ramona and all the other children and residents of Klickitat Street were sometimes more real to me than the world outside my own front door. From the introduction of Henry Huggins in 1950 Beverly Cleary has probably done more for children’s literature, or literature in general for that matter, than any other author. For the first time children could finally pick up her books and read about children just like themselves. And that’s no small accomplishment. So it’s no wonder that along the way Beverly Cleary has won three Newbery Awards. A National Medal of Arts. And The Library of Congress has named her a Living Legend. Today she is 96. Happy Birthday Beverly, from Henry, Ribsy, Beezus, Ramona, and me. As well as countless children around the world whose lives and hearts you touched.
“Quite often somebody will say, ‘What year do your books take place?’ and the only answer I can give is, in childhood.”
― Beverly Cleary