Bookish Love in the Time of COVID-19

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It’s been almost four years since the last time I did a book dinner. Although I’ve missed doing them, I can’t say I haven’t been busy: I’ve gone to grad school, moved cities, started and ended relationships, continued playing roller derby, and tried to keep up with all the other minutiae of life. Hosting dinners requires a lot of time and money that I haven’t really had for the last few years. But I really want to get back into it, because talking about books is one of the few things I get unquestionable, unrepentant joy from. I guess it’s more than a bit ironic that the first one I do after all this time happens in the middle of a quasi-global quarantine. Oh well. Sometimes you’ve got to just roll with the punches.

Since I wasn’t able to invite people over for a home-cooked Cuban meal, I instead invited whoever was interested in participating to a Zoom-enabled cocktail hour, in which the goal was to talk about the book and its themes in a way general enough that even those who hadn’t read the book would be able to participate. Having been living life almost exclusively in leggings and t-shirts, I also took the opportunity to dress up as if I were myself walking the cobblestone streets of Havana, complete with hoops, braids, winged eyeliner, and a halter top–the exact look I’ve worn on many a day of wandering in Caribbean climes. Southern California weather even supplied me with some humid heat to complete the charade, boob sweat and all. Sometimes the act of pretending can make strange circumstances feel a little less unsettling.

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Everyone was encouraged to make their own Cuban cocktail. My dad, the person I can always rely on to support all my bookish endeavors, took it a step further and made his own ropa vieja, a Cuban dish consisting of stewed flank steak and flavor-packed onions and peppers. I made a classic Cuban daiquiri, adapted from this recipe. Be warned, I used less rum and less sugar than the recipe called for since, as the host, I didn’t want to sink into rum-soaked babbling. Irregardless, I was still more than a bit buzzed at the end of the call.

Our conversation mostly revolved around the themes I brought up in my previous blog, such as women’s relationships to and representation in horror films, disappearing (either from one’s own life through various methods or from death), and the generally ignored misogyny of famous men. My derby friend, Iggy Cox (a.k.a. Nikki), brought up the fact that the aggressors in horror movies are almost never women and, if they are, their motives are generally those of a jilted lover and fall into the hackneyed stereotypes of the hysterical woman. Later, we all talked about the likelihood that each of us would emerge victorious from a horror movie (most of didn’t think we would).

Every time I talk to other women about the kinds of violence that happen around and to us, I feel extremely grateful. I often worry that I talk about violence against women and my own traumatic experiences too often, that I “protest too much”, and I begin to feel like perhaps I’m over-exaggerating, maybe the world isn’t so scary for women as I tend to think it is. When the group was talking about historically terrible men, I brought up one quote that was and is (and also may forever be) continually circling my brain like an unsinkable deuce. It was from Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In the Dream House, wherein she mentions Norman Mailer’s assessment of women writers. It goes something like “the sniff off the ink of women is dykily psychotic.” I seem to collect all the horrific things men say about and do to women, often in order to pull one out at the appropriate time and say, “See?! I’m not making this shit up!” But when I hear that other women have the same worries, think about the same things that I do, when I read books like van den Berg’s or Machado’s or Laura Westenberg’s Queer Gothic or Rebecca Solnit’s new memoir Recollections of My Unbecoming, I realize that that feeling of being hysterical is a tool that the patriarchy uses to maintain the status quo. If even I think I might be crazy, then my ability to speak truth to power is lessened. Gaslighting is one way to keep women and other marginalized people silent. So it is profoundly healing to me, even as it is also saddening, to hear my own experiences echoed back to me from the mouths of women I love and trust.

Another profoundly healing thing is to have a father that will sit and listen while women around him talk about their experiences. Unfortunately, it seems all too difficult to find men who don’t feel the need to defend themselves from what they see as accusations against them and all their kind. In keeping with his general sweetness, in order to close out the conversation on an uplifting note, my dad brought up a quote from The Third Hotel in which the narrator, Clare, reflects on her first “moment of wonder” and asked us to think about our own. I have a notoriously terrible memory (I often forget what show I’m watching whenever a commercial comes on), but the exercise of attempting to look back into my childhood and remember the first time I was in awe of the world around me brought up an image I hadn’t thought of in ages. It was one of climbing what felt like a very tall tree at a park my parents used to bring us to all the time as children. I remember climbing as high as I could go and, once there, staring out above the playground and surrounding houses to the ocean a few miles away and feeling the wind move the branches I stood on, as if I myself were swaying in an invisible sea, and feeling as though I were alone in the vast expanse of the world, and yet powerful in that loneliness. I couldn’t have been more than eight, but I can still feel the branches shift beneath me and the wind gently lifting my hair.

With that we signed off and I wandered (a little drunkenly, admittedly) off to bed.

Thank you to those of you who joined me to drink Cuban cocktails and chat about Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel. It is supremely validating to talk about things I love with like-minded folks. If you’d like to join me in reading my next book for this blog, I will be reading Isabel Allende’s Aphrodite, an illustrated book of recipes and a “memoir of the senses.” Depending on the state of the quarantine, I may be able to host a dinner or I might once again host a video meeting. Either way, I’d love for you to come along.

You’d Better Shoot Them: On Women and Horror

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Sometimes it takes me forever to get words on “paper”. I sit down to make an attempt and then clip my nails or pluck wayward hairs instead. Or I finally go read all the articles that are taking up tab space on the top of my screen. Meanwhile, the germ of what I want to write spins lazy phantasmal circles around me. It lacks a definite shape but I can feel it, gently begging to be exorcised into writing or let go into whatever ether unrealized ideas disappear. But generally, eventually–mostly–I get it done. Sometimes, while I’m shuffling my feet and realphabetizing my books, the world shifts into the perfect environment for what I’m trying to write. As now.

Many people around the world, myself included, are quarantined. Even those without the means or opportunity to shelter in place have seen the world shift into a strange new reality where people avoid touch, wear face masks and gloves in public, and glare suspiciously at anyone who so much as coughs. An insidious virus, a very real fear that lacks shape or any characteristic that would allow us to see it coming, is burrowing into our collective hearts, into some of our very real, very vulnerable bodies, and reshaping the world into something currently unidentifiable. Many of our daily lives have shrunk drastically, our actions dictated by a paranoiac fear of contagion–not in the sense that our fear is baseless, but in the sense that we have such limited information that it’s hard to know if what we are doing will save us. This is what fear does. When we are afraid of sharks, we stay away from deep water. When we are afraid of being hurt, we hide our hearts away. When we are afraid of being attacked–or infected–, we walk around poised to defend ourselves, or we don’t walk around at all. But the ghosts, the manifestations of those fears, are harder to avoid.

Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel is largely about grief transmogrifying into ghosts, fear metastasizing into isolation. It’s the story of Clare, a woman whose husband, a horror film scholar, has recently been killed in an unsolved hit and run. The couple had intended to travel together to Havana, Cuba, to attend a film festival where the first ever Cuban horror movie was to be screened. Clare decides to go on her own, “to do the things her husband had planned on doing himself but was in no position to do any longer” (4). Semi-delirious from the reality of life post-husband, Clare gets drunk, talks to strangers, wanders around Havana, and begins seeing her husband. When she calls to him, he ignores her. When he walks away, she follows. Is he real? Is she losing her mind? Could both be true or maybe neither? Below and beyond the plot, however, this story is about the way women struggle to exist in a world bent in many ways on their annihilation.

One of the things I was most intrigued by in this book was the way in which van den Berg uses film theory to parallel the deepening alienation Clare feels to the world around her. Van den Berg references tropes in horror films such as the Final Girl, the lone female who survives in most horror movies, and the Terrible Place, where “the killer and the Final Girl [are] forced into their ultimate confrontation” (18). Horror movies are arguably excessively hyperbolic representations of the trauma of female experience. Laura Westengard, author of Gothic Queer Culture: Marginalized Communities and the Ghosts of Insidious Trauma, states that gothic novels, which I would argue The Third Hotel is, “circulate around the pain of female characters as a kind of repetition compulsion to work through the trauma of feminine socialization” (220). Westengard further defines trauma as “unspeakable”, an unhealed wound constantly reopened by its social invalidation. Like the heroines of these stories, women in real life are often targeted by men more powerful than themselves and then disbelieved when they’re brave enough to tell someone about it. Examples of this in the real world are legion. I myself have often considered whether I am Final Girl material, how long I might survive in a zombie apocalypse or the Hunger Games. Clare ponders this as well, when at one point she compares herself to the two women in the Cuban horror film she came to see.

There were two women in the film: a prostitute, whose death occurred within the first ten minutes and was treated like a joke, and the hero’s estranged daughter…. She was an elegant beauty, lithe and damp-eyed, and implied to still be a virgin. Clare herself had simple, pleasant looks–the kind of woman people might call pretty, never beautiful–and was certainly not a virgin but also not having sex all the time. In the average horror movie, she estimated her time of death would arrive approximately halfway through (28).

In my own ruminations, I’ve always thought that I might be the person who dies towards the end, a contender for the Final Girl, but never quite Her. For one thing, feminine virtuousity has never been interesting to me and once I made it to college and lived on my own, I got rid of my virginity as expediently as possible. But on the other hand, I think my success in an apocalypse world would hinge upon who the enemy was. In the book, Clare recalls her husband telling her what it took to be a Final Girl: “…many Final Girls had androgynous names—Laurie, Ripley, Sidney—because to be less feminine than the other women, the ones who stupidly wandered into clammy basements and shadowed alleys and got gruesomely murdered, was crucial to their survival…. To survive, it sounded like, the Final Girls had to be willing to transform into the men pursuing them” (29). In order to emerge alive, we must embody the very patriarchal violence that so threatens us. If I had to kill others like myself, others also caught within the homicidal/suicidal patriarchal structure, in order to emerge victorious, like in the world of The Hunger Games or The Walking Dead, I don’t think I’d make it. But in horror movies, especially ones in which the killer is a man, I think I’d have a better chance. Why? Because I, like many women, have a lot of experience with men who threaten me.  Moreover, the ghosts of what could have been or what still might be, the ever-present threat of patriarchal violation, haunt me constantly.

In a world in which violence against women remains routine, pardonable even, where men who assault women can still become president, where would-be writers gush over acknowledged and unapologetic misogynists like Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, and Ernest Hemingway as literary heroes (the latter who once said you might as well shoot a woman if you’re going to leave her), where our most famous film directors–Hitchcock, Kubrick, Hooper (of Texas Chainsaw Massacre)–all recommend torturing the women to get the best effect… in such a world, how can women do anything but try to conceptualize the probabilities of their own survival?

Okay. So I’ve gotten away from the plot of The Third Hotel, but if you’re looking for reviews, there are plenty of places to find them. Here I chose to focus on what themes the book brought forward for me. While Clare wandered around Havana in pursuit of her dead(?) husband, I couldn’t help but focus on the men around her, who watched her, laughed at her, ignored her. We bring our own experiences to the things we read and The Third Hotel’s underlying tones of uncanny horror reverberated through me. And as I procrastinated on writing this by plucking chin hairs and binge-reading other things, the world around me took on an uncanny horror of its own.

The time we are living in now resembles a horror movie that might be screened at an independent film festival. The fear of contagion, which is, as far as I can tell, well-founded, is keeping us apart from one another, relegating us to the crypts of our own homes. Unlike a horror movie, we cannot fast forward to the end in order to assure ourselves it will all turn out okay. People are dying and, like in horror movies, those dead and suffering are disproportionately made up of people of color. When it’s over, those of us who are privileged under white supremacist patriarchy will probably be able to return to normal. I hope we don’t. I hope we listen to this fear, pay attention to the ways this cataclysmic event is making clear the structural inequality our privilege is built on and examine the ways we are complicit in that. But also I hope that we as a society might recognize that this fear is the same one that women feel every day. Women fear violence in the same way that we have all come to fear COVID-19. We can’t see it, we don’t know who might infect us, but what we do know is that we are susceptible, vulnerable. And it might kill us.

Jane Eyre, A Party, and a Melancholy Cook

“My world had for some years been in Lowood: my experience had been of its rules and systems; now I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils.” Jane Eyre

How often we turn a corner in our lives and suddenly find ourselves in a place where we feel off balance. For me, it’s like crossing a river by jumping stone to stone and suddenly landing on an unstable one, then wavering momentarily in the vertigo-inducing inbetween, before either falling and getting doused (if, hopefully, the current is gentle and the waters shallow) or continuing on. This feeling, in my experience, generally accompanies big life changes—break ups, deaths, births, coming home. I’m there now, still stuck in that place of weightlessness, unsure of how to regain my balance and move forward.

For now, I cling to the small pleasures.

Last week, I did the dinner for Jane Eyre as a celebration of my mother’s birthday, as it is her favorite book. For two days, I prepared and cooked and fell peacefully into that brilliant and noiseless place in my head where I go while doing something I enjoy. Some of her oldest friends came to share the meal with us, most of whom I’ve grown up with, providing an extended family that Jane Eyre could only have dreamed of. The dinner was full of laughter and warmth and shared histories. I rarely manage to take pictures of the actual event itself, as I’d often rather enjoy myself and the fruits of my efforts, but I think the photos of the process tell their own story.

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Preparations for the vegetable stock that would later become the soup.

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The makings of a Sweet Blueberry Buttermilk Pie with Chamomile Cream: Recipe from Half Baked Harvest
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Roast Chicken & Vegetables (Chicken not shown)

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Blackberry, Mint, and Cucumber Gin Spritzer: Recipe from The Broken Bread

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Roasted Cauliflower and Garlic Soup with Caramelized Onions: Recipe from Brooklyn Supper

Jane Eyre knew the feeling of coming to terms with the turns of life well. Once she left Lowood to be the governess at Thornfield Hall, she would’ve had to reestablish her sense of self in a vastly different environment, where different things were expected of her. As for me, I’m trying. I’m looking for a way to do the things I want to do, the things I need to do, and moreover regaining that sense of joy I felt so often in Ecuador, where for a while I felt that I was using my strengths and interests as tools for shaping the life I wanted.

I know that coming home was still a step towards the life I want, but the path ahead is unclear and branches in many directions. It took courage to buy a one-way ticket to Ecuador, as I well know and as everyone tells me. But it takes a different kind of courage to have the strength and resilience to pull the life you want out of the miasma of the daily struggle.

Until I choose a path and start walking, towards that mythical marriage of life ($1,000 a month on a barista’s paycheck does not quite count) and passion, I will cling to this blog which, in a way, is a micro version of just that.

The Babe with the Power: Rejecting Compromise

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How dare I, Mrs. Reed? How dare I? Because it is the truth. You think I have no feelings, and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness; but I cannot live so...

As we grow from larvaceous little rolls of baby fat into semi-conscious, babbling beings, we learn many things about how to exist in the world. These lessons come from those around us, generally from those who have taken it upon themselves to ensure our survival, to a greater or lesser degree. These lessons are not always directly taught, but rather absorbed through experience. The luckiest among us learn, for example, how to give and receive things like empathy and compassion. We all learn the varietals of shame. Some of us learn to protect ourselves from a world that wants to view us a certain way. We learn to take what we want (entitlement/privilege) or to accept what we are “allotted” (meekness/humility) or, more commonly, to compromise (neutral, possibly).

Compromise is the idea that if two entities want non-complementary things, they must come to some kind of agreement–meet halfway. Long touted as a necessary skill to interacting and being a successful player in society, not all compromise is created equal. In fact, compromise is largely gendered and, if we have learned anything from the news of late, that which is gendered is so rarely equal.

If a man and a woman disagree on something, you can pretty much bet that the woman has been socialized to be more amenable to compromise than the man. Women have been compromising forever, making themselves smooth so others can move more easily over them. Children or a career? A partner or freedom? Though past iterations of feminism have claimed that we can have it all, most of us can’t and frankly, don’t want to. Compromise is fine, I think, when talking about where to eat lunch or go on vacation, but when it comes to life’s big decisions, to dreams and aspirations, I say, to hell with them. Take what’s yours. You are entitled.

In literature, compromise is often the end of a woman’s journey. When she lets go of some part of herself in order to fit more snugly into someone else’s idea of how their life should proceed, often in the guise of marriage, something is forfeited, something the man would never be asked to pawn. But not so Jane Eyre. Although her story ends in marriage, it is marriage on her own terms. There seems to be nothing ideal about her eventual reconciliation and marriage to a newly blind and one-handed Mr. Rochester, and yet she has remained true to herself and her integrity, and thus does she, in the end, triumph.

Throughout Charlotte Brontë’s novel, the eponymous heroine is anything but your average girl turned woman. She does not meekly bow her beribboned head in the face of slander and misplaced blame while in the house of her cruel aunt, nor does she tremble beguilingly when Mr. Rochester enfolds her in his arms and entreats her to stay with him, despite the fact that he tried to marry her without informing her that, not only was he already married, but was keeping his arguably insane wife locked away in a room above Jane’s own. Jane maintains an iron grasp on what she believes to be good and true, on her sense of right and wrong, sacrificing superficial contentment for the furtherance of a deeper, more soul-saturating, though by no means guaranteed, happiness.

I laughed at him as he said this. “I am not an angel,” I asserted; “and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself. Mr. Rochester, you must neither expect nor exact anything celestial of me–for you will not get it, any more than I shall get it of you: which I do not at all anticipate.

As a woman, the expectations Jane Eyre faced in her little world of 407 pages (in my edition) were varied, diverse, and deeply-embedded in the society in which she lived. Despite her extraordinary resilience and loyalty to her own integrity, these societal influences showed. She referred to her boss as Master. She almost, almost married St. John, the (in my opinion) slightly sociopathic wannabe missionary, just because 1) he asked, and 2) he cited the impossibility of an unmarried woman being allowed to do much good in the world. Yet her resolve held, and in the end led to the fulfillment of her desire to marry Mr. Rochester legally and honorably.

“Keep to common sense, St. John: you are verging on nonsense. You pretend to be shocked by what I have said. You are not really shocked: for, with your superior mind, you cannot be either so dull or so conceited as to misunderstand my meaning. I say again, I will be your curate, if you like, but never your wife.

The compromises routinely asked of today’s women are not so different, and are still largely ruled by the whims and behavior of men. Women want free and easy access to birth control and reproductive freedom, but those who claim to have our interests in mind preach abstinence and strip away our “alienable” rights, as Roxane Gay calls them, one by one. Women want to wear clothes that make them feel good, men take that as an opportunity to catcall, leer, or W.C.S. (worst-case scenario), rape. So the compromise is that women should wear more conservative clothing.

I admire Jane Eyre. She thrived in the face of insuperable obstacles, but we have come a long way and times have, in some ways, changed. She had no friends, no vehicle of voice with which to protest. She lived in such a small world, and that world has grown large. We, women, have choices and voices she could never have hoped for, and we need to take responsibility for them. We need to make what is alienable inalienable. The time for compromise is over. Our bodies are not board room tables over which compromises are made. We must show the same kind of integrity that Jane showed and keep the greater goal in mind. We must not be tempted by momentary appeasement to give up the game. Charlotte Brontë’s heroine knew the merit of not compromising, and she suffered for it. She was homeless and hungry and near death, yet she persevered. We would have pardoned her for giving in, but she never did. We need to show the same resilience. We need to acknowledge that when it comes to our bodies, our futures, the time for compromise has passed.

Though the world would have you believe otherwise, believe this, tell yourself this in moments of doubt:

I am no bird, and no net ensnares me.

 

A Long Ago Dinner with the Don

How funny time is–in the moment it seems to crawl, but then, looking back, how deceptively quickly it flew by. Sometimes, when remembering an event in the past, time–a thing without form, measured only by how it is felt–seems to bend in upon itself to bridge the gap.

I wrote the review for Mario Puzo’s The Godfather over a year ago, on the eve of my second departure to Ecuador. Since then, I’ve left and come back and left again, but here I am, back in Orange County, and it feels like only yesterday that I slipped into my vintage polka dot dress and put liberty rolls in my hair before putting on an apron and making spaghetti with meatballs, only after which I ran out to Santa Monica Seafood to buy cannoli for dessert, having forgotten to do so beforehand.

On that night, the men of my family dressed up in pin-striped suits and dagger collars, the women rolled and blow dried and sprayed their hair and sipped wine while balanced on tasteful heels. It was a night on which my heavily Irish-blooded relatives played Italian for a day, drinking grappa, spearing olives on toothpicks, passing the tomato sauce from hand to hand. We ate, and we talked. We drank, and we argued, about politics and gossip and culture–more openly, one would think, than the real Don would ever have permitted. At our table, however, with my uncle Bob assuming the role of Don Kinsch, seriousness made way for levity, family business was fair game, and the women made their voices heard just as loudly as the men. Despite being neither so serious nor so jowly as Marlon Brando, I think he carried it off quite well.

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It may almost feel like yesterday, but here’s the god’s honest truth: I don’t remember many details of this dinner. Technical difficulties kept me from writing this entry until I came home for good, so what I do remember has the tang of exaggeration, the lemon-lit glow of embellishment. It was a long time ago and so much has happened since. What my memory does provide is the smell of simmering tomatoes and garlic, the laughter as we each appeared wearing what we considered to be 1940s attire, the crunch of the cannoli, the gleam of the beautiful bottle of expensive grappa, but what I actually remember (scout’s honor) is exactly the reason I continue to do these dinners and maintain this blog: I remember my family together, enjoying themselves, and being happier than any Puzo character ever was.

 

Coming up! I’m back in the country and back on track, so expect posts much more often. June’s book is a surprise, as the dinner will be part of my mom’s birthday celebration! If you’re interested in what I was doing in South America for all this time, check out my other blog, La Güera Viajera.  In the meantime, keep reading!

The Godfather — For President?

Among the myriad of reasons for why books are almost unfailingly better than their cinematic counterparts, the most important is that they are capable of the kind of depth and detail and backstory that screenwriters do not even dare to dream of. In order to achieve the same depth, a movie would have to be so long that even the most devoted moviegoer would flag in their enthusiasm. In the classic movie The Godfather, which I had seen twice prior to reading the book, I remember being both enthralled and repulsed by this glimpse into New York’s underground crime rings of the 1940s. Regardless of the fact that the story itself is fiction, I was floored by the nonchalance of murder and the impunity via political connections enjoyed by the Families. But I was also disdainful that these people should believe that they had the right to be the makers and enforcers of their own laws and moral codes within the larger framework of the United States government. To me it seemed irresponsible, unsympathetic to the consequences sure to ensue. From the movie, I understood that it was greed and a thirst for power that fueled these organizations. But then I read the book and I came to understand not only why these pseudo-governments came into existence but even (although I am not so naive as to think that greed and power did not play their part) why they were justified in doing so. As my eyes raced over the words on pages that dealt with whole layers of backstory that the movie didn’t even touch on, I came to see on a deeper level what it was truly about and what, arguably, the movie missed completely: the reality of immigrant life in America.

Ever since the English and smattering of French and Dutch settlers who first came to North America conveniently “forgot” the fact of their own immigration, American-born citizens have looked down on and otherwise made life hard for immigrants. Whereas today it is the Central and South Americans that suffer this fate, in the early part of the last century, it was the Italian immigrants escaping crushing economic conditions in their home country (especially southern Italy and Sicily) who faced poverty, manipulation, and unfair treatment as their Welcome Wagon to America. It was because of this reality that the underground rule of crime “Families” flourished like dark things do in the damp and untended corners of society. The following is Michael Corleone’s attempt to explain who his father, the Godfather, is:

He doesn’t accept the rules of the society we live in because those rules would have condemned him to a life not suitable to a man like himself, a man of extraordinary force and character. What you have to understand is that he considers himself the equal of all those great men like Presidents and Prime Ministers and Supreme Court Justices and Governors of the States. He refuses to live by rules set up by others, rules which condemn him to a defeated life. But his ultimate aim is to enter that society with a certain power since society doesn’t really protect its members who do not have their own individual power. In the meantime he operates on a code of ethics he considers far superior to the legal structures of society (365).

It is still the same story. Why do we continue to be surprised that people whom we as a nation try to take advantage of eventually organize in order to protect themselves and their interests? These are the same conditions that birth violent gangs formed mostly by underprivileged minorities in urban areas today. Granted, these power structures lack the finesse and coordination of the Godfather and the Corleone Family, but it’s the same principle. How can anyone expect a group of people systematically neglected and pushed to the fringes of society to simply allow this to happen until time or some sense of human compassion causes those in power to see them as equally needful of the same benefits and protection afforded to the native-born, usually white citizenry?

It is this unwillingness to allow xenophobic injustice and prejudice to dictate their lives that makes the Godfather and the other heads of family men to be emulated, in character if not action. I am not condoning murder or coercion as a political or personal weapon, but I can not deny the strength of will and the desire to protect their families and friends that spurred these men from humble beginnings to positions of power.

All of these men were good listeners, patient men. They had one other thing in common. They were those rarities, men who had refused to accept the rule of organized society, men who refused the dominion of other men. There was no force, no mortal man who could bend them to their will unless they wished it. They were men who guarded their free will with wiles and murder. Their wills could be subverted only by death. Or the utmost reasonableness (287).

It is that last line that caught my attention like a fishhook to the mouth. These are not madmen deaf to reason and sentiment. They are ruthless and condemn men to death with the wave of their hand but their violence is not arbitrary, their cruelty not lacking in focus. Our own “legitimate” government openly tortures, murders, and otherwise uses the force of their political weight to achieve its own ends, often in the name of freedom and liberty. The American government, in spite of benevolent and inspiring semantics, has never been especially worried about the lower classes. In action, it has always been the interests of the rich at the expense of those of the poor. Don Corleone is a wealthy man, interested in retaining and growing his wealth, but he is simultaneously a friend to the laborer, the artisan, the helpless and dependent. It is vital, however, to point out that African-Americans and other minorities did not fall under the protection and benevolence of the Families. Today, corporations get to vote as if they were people, money can keep criminals out of jail and put psychopaths and idiots in political power… but does our government listen to the utmost reasonableness? When I think of our current bipartisan government, reasonableness is not a word that comes to mind.

Understand that I am not advocating capital “M” Mob rule. For one, as I pointed out, the Italian families cared little for the fates of other minorities, especially blacks whom they considered little more than animals. Also, despite the Families’ insistence that civilians were not harmed in their wars, that women and children were completely off-limits as targets for blood feuds and vendettas, it would be of the utmost naiveté to believe that there were never innocents caught in the cross-fire. We see this in the book when Michael is in exile in Sicily where the ravages of years of wars between Families has devastated the region. Even Michael’s new young wife, Apollonia, is murdered accidentally in a failed assassination attempt. I am of the belief that violence begets only violence and can never be a long-term solution. I also believe that everyone should be treated as equals, regardless of faith, income, skin color, gender, sex, etcetera ad infinitum, but still I can admit that there are aspects of the Godfather’s rule that seem preferable to how my government runs things. It seems beneficial to have the ruling members of a society remember what it was like to be one of the outcasts, what it felt like to be the “other”. In such cases, it would seem more difficult to forget them later, as legislation seems to do when it tries to penalize abortion with one hand while stripping people of their welfare benefits with the other, or withholding citizenship from those who need it to survive, or sending military instead of university recruiters to high school classes of low-income or minority students.

In all honesty, I would not cast my vote for Don Corleone for president. But the whole idea does provide some food for thought, does it not?

The Perennial Question: Clam or Cod?

The equivalent of 1/6 of a whaling voyage has passed since I wrote my last entry on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, or, the Whale. That’s 8 whole months to those who aren’t paying attention. In that time I’ve been dealing with some minor leviathans of my own, a few pilot whales perhaps, and one sperm whale. I’ve been fired from a job I hated by a man who rivaled Ahab himself for megalomania, hired short-term at a job I loved, moved away from San Francisco, city of my heart, and embarked on a trip of indefinite length and nebulous itinerary to South America. Like I said, there have been some developments of leviathan proportions this year. But, here at the furthest culmination of all that excitement, sitting in a room on San Cristobal Island, in the Galápagos, where I’m staying for free in exchange for working (barely) at the hotel, it is comforting to think back to the first day of 2014, when I took on the semi-daunting task of cooking two different kinds of chowder.

If you haven’t read Moby-Dick before, just know that, of all food-related scenes in literature, the 15th chapter of this novel is one that has always stuck with me. Maybe you’ll agree:

[Mrs. Hussey] ushered us into a little room, and seating us at a table spread with the relics of a recently concluded repast, turned round to us and said- “Clam or Cod?”

“What’s that about Cods, ma’am?” said I, with much politeness.

“Clam or Cod?” she repeated.

“A clam for supper? a cold clam; is that what you mean, Mrs. Hussey?” says I, “but that’s a rather cold and clammy reception in the winter time, ain’t it, Mrs. Hussey?”

But being in a great hurry to resume scolding the man in the purple shirt who was waiting for it in the entry, and seeming to hear nothing but the word “clam”, Mrs. Hussey hurried towards an open door leading to the kitchen, and bawling out “clam for two”, disappeared.

“Queequeg,” said I, “do you think that we can make a supper for us both on one clam?”

However, a warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh! sweet friends, hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits, and salted pork cut up into little flakes! the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt. Our appetites  being sharpened by the frosty voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favourite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we despatched it with great expedition…

Now if that’s not the kind of writing that makes you feel like you’re sitting right there on that bench between Ishmael and Queequeg, trying to shake off the chill by getting a warm meal of delicious chowder, I don’t know what is. In my attempt to stave off the not nearly comparable (to New England) winter chill of San Francisco, I looked up a recipe for clam chowder on my go-to, TasteSpotting, and found the perfect recipe on the blog Inspiration Kitchen. With my chef roommate and a New Year’s Day hangover in tow, I drove all over San Francisco looking for the ingredients. Once I’d found everything I needed, we headed back home, pulled out my big stockpot usually used for storing baking supplies, and set to work. Several hours later, I served the finished product to my famished and equally hungover friends, along with a Porter from the local Anchor Steam brewery. I was very pleased with the results as I had been a little worried by the amount of clam juice called for in the recipe which, in spite of the fact that it is clam chowder, seemed exorbitant. It was the perfect meal on a day when it was cozy within and dreary without, and the chowder was well-received and vivifying, as I hoped it would be.

DSC_0001I love soups. All soups. In fact, I can’t think of a soup I’ve ever run into that I didn’t like, including my recent encounter with some kind of chicken-based soup with very questionable looking pieces of what may or may not have been stomach lining. Tasty. I also love to make soups, but they can definitely be labor-intensive, especially, I found, chowders. But I wasn’t happy with just one chowder. I had to make two, simultaneously, and in my tiny kitchen, that was no small feat. But I couldn’t not make the fish chowder, not when it comes from such a great scene.

… when leaning back a moment and bethinking me of Mrs. Hussey’s clam and cod announcement, I thought I would try a little experiment. Stepping to the kitchen door, I uttered the word “cod” with great emphasis, and resumed my seat. In a few moments the savoury steam came forth again, but with a different flavor, and in good time a fine cod-chowder was placed before us.

We resumed business; and while plying our spoons in the bowl, thinks I to myself, I wonder now if this here has any effect on the head? What’s the stultifying saying about chowder-headed people? “But look, Queequeg, ain’t that a live eel in your bowl? Where’s your harpoon?”

Fishiest of all fishy places was the Try Pots, which well deserved its name; for the pots there were always boiling chowders. Chowder for breakfast, and chowder for dinner, and chowder for supper, till you began to look for fish-bones coming through your clothes. 

I used, of course, cod for this chowder, and paired it with Drake’s Drakonic Imperial Stout. Unfortunately, I was not as happy with this chowder as it was neither as thick nor as tasteful as I had hoped. It could also have been that we ate this one after the flavor-packed clam chowder and so it seemed lackluster in comparison, but in any case, the clam chowder definitely took the prize. I think Ishmael, Queequeg, and Mrs. Hussey would have applauded my effort, if not wholeheartedly my results. If the latter were around, I would definitely ask her for a few pointers.

DSC_0006Ultimately, I very much enjoyed making these chowders that are so lauded in Moby-Dick. Perhaps the making of hearty, hangover-relieving soups needs to become a New Year’s Day tradition.

Next up: One Hundred Years of Solitude (or Cien años de soledad since I read it in Spanish!) by Gabriel García Márquez. Thanks for staying tuned!

 

Self-Sacrifice Aboard the Pequod

Imagine for a moment spending four years on a ship. It is musty with dampness, creaky, never for an instant motionless. You are without exception subjected to every whim of the weather, with no choice but to stand watch during the worst storms, in winter or summer, at other times unshielded from the fiercest beatings of the sun. Your duty will be to chase creatures as large as the ship you inhabit, whose slightest movement could crush you like waves crush rock into sand. You will not set foot on land for 1,460 days and see no other human being other than those on board with you. And no, you do not have a smart phone. Can you imagine it?

Neither can I.

In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the narrator, Ishmael, is our window into the exclusive and now mostly extinct world of whaling. Although he both begins and ends the novel as a man with his own will and personality, his time on board the Pequod is characterized by an almost total lack of either. He has in essence become only another appendage of the many-limbed animal that is an efficient whaling crew, his every action dictated by the mates, his captain, and above all, the sea. To be a valuable part of a crew, or any team in which the only hope of success lies in working together seamlessly and almost instinctually, there has to be a certain sacrifice of one’s individuality, at least temporarily. Ishmael likens signing on to a whaling voyage to suicide when he says,

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses… then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship (2).

In this case, Ishmael seems to welcome this relinquishment of personality, of individual responsibility and care in exchange for becoming part of the unified body of the ship’s crew. For further proof of this self-sacrifice, one only need look at Queequeg, the fascinating cannibal whom Ishmael goes into such detail about in the beginning of the novel. Queequeg is a towering man, covered from head to foot in tribal tattoos, who goes everywhere accompanied by his razor-sharp harpoon. And yet both Ishmael and the reader quickly come to find that his threatening exterior conceals a gentle and tolerant soul, which contrast makes Queequeg one of the most intriguing characters in the book. Before embarking on the whaler, Ishmael and Queequeg become fast friends, and Ishmael even makes sure that Queequeg is hired on the same ship. However, almost immediately after setting foot aboard the Pequod, Queequeg is suddenly mentioned rarely, and often only in passing. It seems that Melville created this fascinating and wild character and then almost completely muted him in order to show the reader just how little individuals mattered aboard a whaling ship. However, the bond between Ishmael and Queequeg is not broken by joining the crew; instead it is transformed from one of friendship to one of universal interdependence. In one of the gruesome scenes where the dead whale is being carved into its valuable parts, Ishmael reflects on the extent to which their fates, and ultimately the fate of the crew, are interwoven:

So strongly and metaphysically did I conceive of my situation then, that while earnestly watching his motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two; that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death. Therefore, I saw that here was a sort of interregnum in Providence; for its even-handed equity never could have sanctioned so gross an injustice. And yet still further pondering… I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes; only, in most cases, he, one way or other, has this Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals. If your banker breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die…. Nor could I possibly forget that, do what I would, I only had the management of one end of it (329).

In this excerpt, Ishmael brings up a very interesting point. How connected are we to the people around us? The answer is invisibly and irrevocably so. While driving on the freeway, you are unconsciously trusting that the people around you are paying attention. Should the driver in front of you lose focus and then suddenly slam on the brakes to avoid something, you will most likely smash into him. Should the person making your dinner fail to wash the vegetables they’ll be serving you, you may find yourself becoming all too intimate with the toilet. Or, if a chemical processing facility near your town should forgo safety checks on the containment of hazardous materials, you just might find yourself without clean water for drinking, preparing food, showering, or any other of the daily things we think so little about when we have them at our disposal.

It is a wonderful asset of literature that it allows us to find parallels between our own lives, whatever they may consist of, and the very different lives of others. I would never have considered that my life had any similarities with that of a whaler aboard the Pequod, but as Ishmael states above, in some ways there is very little difference. So although I started this entry by attempting to have you imagine being a whaler and pointing out that we could not know what it felt like, perhaps now you’ll agree with me. There is no occupation, no social status, no state of wholeness nor disability, that does not maintain within it some thread of similarity with the existence of every single other human being on the planet. I think the world would be a nicer place if we all reminded ourselves of that more often.

 

Voulez-vous Manger Avec Moi Ce Soir, Monsieur le Empereur?: Chicken Dinner Napoleon-Style

The world of food is one of limitless potential for creativity and innovation, yet it’s common to find that any given person’s favorite dish is a simple one, though they may harbor a weakness for pot au feu or Puebla mole. Napoleon, for example, fancied himself the predestined emperor of the world, and so could have eaten any number of delicacies at any time of the day or night. But no, his favorite dish, at least according to The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, was a simple roast chicken. “[He] had such a passion for chicken that he kept his chefs working around the clock. What a kitchen that was, with birds in every state of undress; some still cold and slung over hooks, some turning slowly on the spit, but most in wasted piles because the Emperor was busy” (3). I have to agree with him on this even if I’m not quite on board with the whole world domination schtick. For this dinner, I made roast chicken the main course and focus of the meal, and then took advantage of some artistic liberties to fill in the rest. Luckily for me, I was not preparing this meal in a soggy, miserable army camp on the banks of the English Channel like poor Henri, but instead was in one of my favorite places in the world: my grandmother’s house on the California Central Coast, in Cambria. But hey, you gotta give a girl points for effort.

It was one of those serendipitous weekends when things just come together on their own. My grandmother called me to say she and her boyfriend would be going up to Cambria for the weekend and couldn’t I come to? It happened that I could (there aren’t many things I wouldn’t move around in order to go to Cambria with her). Then, even more luckily, my dad was able to come up as well. I figured one of my book dinners would be a fun way to celebrate being able to come together so spur of the moment-like, even though so much of The Passion is about being separated from the places and people you love. But one big theme in this novel is taking advantage of the present as its the only point in time you have any control over whatsoever.

It’s hard to remember that this day will never come again. That the time is now and the place is here and that there are no second chances at a single moment (19).

I only recently learned how to make roast chicken from my new chef roommate, so for once I was able to make something without a recipe. It’s amazingly simple. Just salt it, put some thyme on it, tie it up like some Sadeian submissive, and roast for 45 minutes.

DSC_0001While that was in the oven, I prepared the side dish of sweet potatoes and fennel, sprinkled with olive oil, salt & pepper, and herbs de provence. I love this dish. It’s so freakin’ easy and the fennel and sweet potatoes complement each other so well. It’s instant comfort food.

DSC_0015While I did that, my dad (one perk of making dinner for others is sometimes they help!) blanched and peeled peaches from Cambria’s Farmer’s Market for a cobbler. Like I mentioned, roast chicken was the only thing actually mentioned in The Passion but I figured that sticking with simple, country fare with basic ingredients was still appropriate.

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One of the things I love most about making food with fresh ingredients is the naturally vivid colors of certain ingredients like sweet potatoes or peaches. At a loss for certain ingredients generally found in cobbler crust, my dad substituted granola from the local Corner Bakery. It’s one of my favorite granolas because it has macadamia and pine nuts in it, and it made an excellent topping.

DSC_0062Finally, it was time to eat. We all sat down, opened a bottle of Venetian wine, and got to it. There weren’t many instances in the novel where characters got to sit down and enjoy a meal with good company. Henri sure didn’t get to partake in the delicious chickens he roasted for Napoleon, whose appetite never waned even in the vast frozen wastelands of Russia. Even in such desolation however, Henri never lost sight of the overall goodness and beauty of life, an attitude which unfortunately makes him more of a martyr than anything else. I’ll end this entry on a happy note, though the ending of the novel was somewhere between sadness and contentment. I read this book twice, almost immediately, and loved it both times. I’m looking forward to doing more Jeanette Winterson books on this blog.

Our ancestors. Our belonging. The future is foretold from the past and the future is only possible because of the past. Without past and future, the present is partial. All time is eternally present and so all time is ours. There is no sense in forgetting and every sense in dreaming. Thus the present is made rich. Thus the present is made whole (62).

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DSC_0071P. S. Just so you understand the context when I say I had the pleasure of cooking this meal in my favorite place in the world, just check out the view from the kitchen… I mean, really.

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As I Consume, I Also Am Consumed: A Study of Passion

I often find myself thinking about how I am going to fill up the time I have left in my life, not in any melancholy way, but rather in a practical one. This generally happens when I’m sitting at a stoplight or on a lazy Sunday afternoon where I’m flat broke and afraid to leave the house for fear I’ll spend money I don’t have. What am I going to do for the rest of my life? Not just in the grand scheme of things, but also in the small, everyday things. One thing I know I’ll always do is read and it was in reading Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion that I realized a simple truth. It doesn’t answer all my questions about the time ahead but it does provide a sort of key. In this book, there are many different manifestations of passion: monomaniacal, self-sacrificing, and hedonistic are some examples, but what each of these has in common is that they lend a sort of impetus to the character’s lives. Their individual actions are often trivial, sometimes unalterably life-changing, but always fueled by passion.

The story is told directly from two different perspectives, that of Henri, and that of Villanelle, and yet there is another character whose passion brings these two together: that of Napoleon Bonaparte himself. We never see the story from his perspective and yet it is all the more poignant seeing him through Henri’s eyes. Henri is Napoleon’s personal chef of sorts when he is with the army, serving him roast chicken (apparently Napoleon’s favorite dish) at all hours of the day and night. In Napoleon’s case, his passion for chicken emulates his passion for the world. Imagine him looking at a globe instead of a covered dish of roast chicken as “he [would] lift the lid and pick it up and push it into his mouth. He wishes his whole face were mouth to cram a whole bird” (4). His appetite for chicken is his appetite for conquering the world, just as unquenchable, just as unreachable. He is the Ahab of world leaders. His great white whale is Europe, and in just the same way, his monomania consumes him until there is nothing left but a good story.

The passion of Villanelle is similar to that of Napoleon in its veracity, but whereas Napoleon sought to conquer whole civilizations to slake his passion, Villanelle’s desires are more earthly and attainable, and yet more transient. Hers are the passions of experience, of carnality, of youth. She seeks to enjoy everything, and she finds both her imprisonment and her freedom in this. Her passion has her teetering wildly on life’s knife-like edge, “somewhere between fear and sex” (55) at all times. Unlike Napoleon however, whose passion is like a wildfire that burns fierce and bright until it suddenly finds itself unable to sustain its ferocity and dies, Villanelle’s passion is tapered to a point, like a blowtorch, driven to unbearable heat because it is focused on one area at a time. Her description of kisses demonstrates this:

I like such kisses. They fill the mouth and leave the body free. To kiss well one must kiss solely. No groping hands or stammering hearts. The lips and the lips alone are the pleasure. Passion is sweeter split strand by strand. Divided and re-divided like mercury then gathered up only at the last moment (59).

I like that idea of Passion split strand by strand. It’s the idea of indulgence, but controlled enough to prolong the consummation of whatever pleasure is the end goal, like a tasting menu that builds up to some magnificent pièce de résistance. This is the secret to Villanelle’s flame: that she is able to protract the completion of her passion to such a degree that she never runs out of fuel or burns herself up.

Henri’s passion is of an entirely different breed than that of the latter two. His is passion tempered with rationality and self-sacrifice, which is ironic considering of the three Henri is the only one to end up in a madhouse, though happily, it would seem. Henri is the martyr. He gives all of himself to the people he loves, first to Napoleon and then to Villanelle, who loves him back in her own way but cannot reciprocate in the manner Henri needs. He is carried along on the fast-moving Lethe-like rivers of other people’s passions until he almost loses himself. There is a moment when he gets a taste of the more destructive and violent strain of passion when he kills Villanelle’s creepy, abusive husband. He describes it as follows:

Travellers at least have a choice. Those who set sail know that things will not be the same as at home. Explorers are prepared. But for us, who travel along the blood vessels, who come to the cities of the interior by chance, there is no preparation. We who were fluent find life is a foreign language. Somewhere between the swamp and the mountains. Somewhere between fear and sex. Somewhere between God and the Devil passion is and the way there is sudden and the way back is worse (68).

Unlike Villanelle, whose being has been virtually fireproofed in order to sustain the strength of her passion, part of Henri is burnt up in this act. It is after this that he relinquishes any hold on Villanelle. He very calmly takes responsibility for the murder and is sent to prison, and then to a madhouse. This madhouse becomes his haven, the four walls of his cell confine his existence in a way that comforts him. And it is within these walls, where Henri sometimes looks out his window to see Villanelle rowing her boat by his window, his small passion all but smothered while hers still burns with white-hot intensity, that the story ends.

In my story, I am sitting at my desk at a job that I am explicitly not passionate about. I am currently looking for the means to change this. Obviously, I do not want a passion that consumes me completely, like Napoleon’s, nor do I want one that is inextricably linked with the passions of others, carrying me with them, bumping and scraping along. I hope to find a passion more like Villanelle’s. Hers is one of freedom, of wild joy and insuperable curiosity. At the same time, I can see the selfishness of this, as one can never pursue only enjoyment and adventure if other people are in the picture. True freedom is total independence and true freedom is lonely. Maybe some day I will find a happy medium that will, like I mentioned initially, give a sort of impetus to the everyday. I need to find a passion that will become a catalyst for a meaningful life.

Next: A chicken dinner Napoleon would have left off savaging Europe for.