30 December 2010

The Gastronomical Me, by MFK Fisher

I'd heard that Fisher was one of the all-time greats of food writing, so I was really excited to receive this book from Santa (and my parents). I had extremely high hopes for it, and I wasn't let down - the book was every bit as wonderful as I'd expected. Fisher's prose reminded me somewhat of August Kleinzahler's (Cutty, One Rock is still one of my favorite books) - there's this lyrical, simple beuty to her writing that is just so wonderful. Here's a bit from the foreword, for example:

People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating, and drinking? Why don't you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do?
The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mingled and mixed and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it... and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied... and it is all one.
I tell about myself, and how I ate bread on a lasting hillside, or drank red wine in a room now blown to bits, and it happens without my willing it that I am telling too about people with me then, and their other deeper needs for love and happiness.
I am stopping myself, because otherwise I'd just type out the rest of the foreword, and maybe the rest of the book too. It's such a wonderful, beautiful work. There is such passion in it, but also a sense of privacy and restraint, where you don't get every sordid detail, but a really elegant contouring of the world. The descriptions of food are not especially flowery, but they're tremendously evocative ("The solid honesty" of a borscht, for instance - can't you just taste it?), and there's such feeling in the book, a kind of intensity that hums through the pages, with a touch of wistfulness as well. I can't wait to read more of her books.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

I only got through half of this book. I'd been switching back and forth between wanting to read it and thinking it might be kind of terrible. Sometimes you're in the mood for zombies and sometimes you're really not. And I really love Jane Austen, so I was worried that my response would mostly be a kind of peevishness over any modifications to the original. But I was also kind of curious to see what happened when you combined Austen and zombies. So I finally launched into it, and was actually quite amused at first.

When Elizabeth stood, she saw Mrs. Long struggling to free herself as two female dreadfuls bit into her head, cracking her skull like a walnut and sending a shower of dark blood spouting as high as the chandeliers.

You kind of find yourself giggling over moments of extreme gore in Austen's generally well-manicured world. And you sort of suspect that Austen herself might have gotten a kick out of it. But as the book wears on, you get sort of inured to it, and it becomes a lot less entertaining. Austen's sparse descriptive style doesn't really let you get too detailed on zombie attacks without clearly deviating from the overall tone of the original, but zombie attacks are really pretty bland if not described in detail.

Meanwhile, the constant, droning reiteration of how important combat is to Elizabeth, how she was trained by the Shaolin, bla bla bla... oh man, does that get annoying. I GET IT ALREADY. Her violent fantasies of beheading the Bingley girls seems like a clanging hyperbole of her willful character, making her seem more like a petulant child than a high spirited young woman. She's unbelievably contemptuous of everyone, and really smug about her fighting abilities, and it makes her really annoying - which basically destroys your sympathy for her as a character, and makes the book completely ineffective.

So I plowed halfway through the book, and then gave up - not worth my time.

27 December 2010


This is kind of a simple film, in a way - it's about a guy who goes home to visit his father and retarded brother, who run a bathhouse together. The main character is a businessman, so there's the somewhat predictable contrast of his high-powered way of life and the more placid everyday workings of the bathhouse. Which is fine, but the movie really isn't about narrative at all. It's more in the characters themselves. I think there must be some kind of name for this sub-genre of films, generally foreign, that are like vignettes about various characters and their woes. There's a kind of anecdotal quality to it - so-and-so is having marriage problems, so-and-so has self-esteem issues, and the central space/character of the film is usually a kind of therapeutic figure who helps all these people in clever ways. You know what I mean? Shower is definitely in that category.

But it's also, I thought, just a beautiful film. There are a couple scenes that, I dunno, just got to me. Though I guess anyone singing O Sole Mio, even (and maybe especially) badly kind of gets me. The guy who plays the retarded brother emanates a kind of warmth and joy that resonates with me on some deeper level. And I think, in terms of portraying characters with disabilities, the movie does a pretty good job? Though perhaps someone could disagree with me, and I'm be curious what they had to say.

Anyhow, overall - a lovely film. Definitely worth watching.

17 December 2010

Lipstick Jihad, by Azadeh Moaveni

I got this book from a free box*, purely because it looked kind of interesting. I was a little skeptical, expecting a book tailor-made for a Western audience eager to hear about the "realities" of Iran, ie, how much better the US is. What a pleasant surprise this book was. The author is an Iranian-American woman who is raised in California, then moves to Iran. She writes about her bi-cultural upbringing with surprising subtlety and insight, acknowledging, for instance, how skewed her image of Iran has been, and how she continues to feel a sense of insecurity about her Iranian-ness. She's surprisingly open to self-criticism, and willing to admit somewhat unflattering things about herself. And she's a good writer, whose prose is enjoyable, if slightly self-indulgent/melodramatic at times.

Overall, there's this weird double bind to reading books like this one - on the one hand, I think people should know about different parts of the world and what life is like there. I especially think Americans should know about life in places they're at war with. And I think they should be confronted with why people don't like them (there's a really impressive moment where Moaveni talks about being shocked by her friends in Iran who were indifferent to 9/11. It's a bit diplomatic on her part, because it allows her to be outraged - not to say that she wasn't - while also presenting their rather seething critique, namely, that Americans have led to the death of thousands in the Middle East and not cared, so why should people in the Middle East care when lots of Americans die?). So anyways, yes, on the one hand, this book is a refreshingly bracing perspective on life in other places, with a bi-cultural narrator who can sort of present both sides of the equation, and I think that's great. On the other hand though, I am slightly uncomfortable with the presentation of the "exotic" Middle East as feel-good reading for a western audience. There's really nothing to be done about this dilemma, and I should add that Moaveni is, in a way, a book you can feel good about precisely because she IS on both sides of the coin, and is very self-aware of what that implies. And she seems careful to avoid the exoticizing tendency or the overly simplistic emotional draws (the kind that make Reading Lolita in Tehran feel so... gross). Overall - a very interesting book. Definitely worth reading.

*Ok, ok, ok. It wasn't a free box. It was a box collecting books for underprivileged children. I've been feeling so guilty about this that I feel compelled to announce my crime to all who will listen. If it helps at all, the only things I took were this and Bernard Williams' Shame and Necessity, and I attempted to compensate for it by giving the children a big bag of books in return. One of them was an A.A. Milne book I've owned since childhood - that was the real penance.

15 December 2010

Tiny Furniture

I was utterly charmed by this movie. The path had been paved already by the New Yorker piece on Lena Dunham, which gave me the sense that she's a precocious, quirky, slightly self-absorbed young woman who makes movies with lovable, interesting characters. So perhaps that's why I saw the movie in those exact terms. I know I come back to this often, but once again - I couldn't help thinking of Funny Ha Ha, which I hated. Because this is another one of those movies about an angsty, confused recent college graduate, where there's no real plot or change in the character. Yet it turns out to be highly entertaining, wildly funny, and often quite touching. I don't know if it's because it's set in New York, so life is just more interesting, but I don't think that's it. I think that what makes Funny Ha Ha fail and Tiny Furniture succeed is realism - the thing about Funny Ha Ha is that the characters are annoying and self-absorbed - and I really don't think most people are quite as awful as the people in that movie are. The characters in Tiny Furniture are occasionally annoying, often self-absorbed, sometimes wildly immature and melodramatic - but they're also warm and human and kind of great, even when they're not. You have this sense of recognition - like, oh man, that's EXACTLY what a guy like that would do in that moment. She really nails it, even on minor details. It's so satisfying.

Some things I really liked about the movie:

One, the fact that Dunham, who does not have, shall we say, a supermodel's body, regularly appears in her underwear, or with somewhat blotchy skin, or greasy hair. And has scenes in the movie where she explicitly confronts the fact that people refer to her as fat. And she says it makes her feel bad, but she also doesn't make a big deal out of it. The scenes of her half naked in the movie are there, it seems, for the purposes of realism, not to make some kind of statement. And man, it's nice to see thighs on the big screen.

Two, the characters, who are over the top and ridiculous, but still completely believable. There's a degree of restraint in how larger-than-life she lets them be, and it's brilliantly balanced.

Three, spoiler alert, the whole thing with the jerk chef. He's a jerk, you know it and Lena knows it, but you also both know that she's going to sleep with him (and the film does a great job portraying the lead-up to that, the sense of slight excitement that always accompanies seduction), and that it's not going to work out well. And indeed, they have sex, lousy sex, albeit with some adventure involved, and she feels crappy afterwards. Not traumatized, not raped, not my-life-is-ruined, just crappy. It's so wonderfully true to life, in the sometimes you do dumb things even though you know they're dumb, and you feel kind of wretched about it, but in the grand scheme of things, it's ok. It's not the central plot point of the film, even though it's positioned as if it were a climax - it's just kind of another thing that happens.

Four, her relationship with her mother, especially the physical side of it. I feel like it's pretty rare that parents and children are really physically affectionate on screen, and maybe the world would be a better place if they would.

Overall - it's great. Check it out. And then read the New Yorker piece, because you'll come to love Lena Dunham even more. But don't read it beforehand (though I did), because you'll probably appreciate the movie more if you don't know most of the plot beforehand.

06 December 2010

The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin

A short, fascinating book containing two essays, one a letter to his nephew, the other a kind of biographical reflection on Christianity's role in African American life that opens out onto broader thoughts on the civil rights movement. I read the entire book in less than two hours, and have been thinking about it ever since. The most powerful aspect of the book, I think, is its reflection on love. To quote:

And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what it must become.

Baldwin argues that the root of racism is white delusion, an inability of white Americans to see themselves as they truly are. They project their fears and anxieties onto black people in order to avoid facing them within themselves. Thus, Baldwin argues, what is necessary is not only for blacks to realize that what they are taught about themselves is untrue - they must also make whites see the world as it really is, and they must do this with love. He doesn't really explicitly spell out how this will work (the love part), but in a way, this is what I liked about the book - that it lays the groundwork for all these really complex philosophical reflections in extremely plain, but enormously suggestive, terms. It's also quite radical in its insistence that blacks and whites must learn to live together, and stop seeing themselves as different. There's also a really fascinating moment where he discusses the wisdom that comes from suffering, and the way in which black music can be both joyful and melancholy at the same time.

Almost 50 years later, the book is still a classic, and still, I think, relevant and worth reading, with insights that remain valuable and even timely. Check it out.