In Which I Repeatedly Declare My Love For MFK Fisher

MFK Fisher at her typewriter.

I have what I optimistically (and, I suspect, irritatingly) refer to as an Artistic Temperament (my apologies for sounding like a pretentious ass). Quite frequently I am a jumble of emotions, flitting from one to another. My self medication comes in the form of hot tea, striding walks, good solid food (cold beets work wonders, as do digestive biscuits), and my favorite writers. When it comes to the latter I usually turn to my beloved Virginia Woolf. The passion, the momentum that her writing contains propels me forward, keeps me going. When my nerves are completely rattled and I can not sleep few things beat MFK Fisher. For this Christmas I received The Art of Eating, the gargantuan omnibus that contains five of her books (Serve it Forth, Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Woolf, The Gastronomical Me, An Alphabet for Gourmets), a book that I now keep on my bedside.

Fisher’s writing is (Is it tacky to refer to it as a cool, refreshing glass of water? Ah well…) a cool, refreshing glass of water. No, no, I take that back. Let us scrap the water metaphor and instead replace it with tea. Take this: Agatha Christie is a cup of milky tea with sugar, Virginia Woolf is a mug of the blackest of black teas (Russian Caravan*, perhaps?) brewed to its most bitter and powerful best, and MFK Fisher is a cup of Earl Grey (Caffeinated please, I am not a child**.) that clears away the mind’s fog and refreshes the soul.

There is something so honest in her writing. You, or at least I, believe that Fisher is earnest in her statements, earnest in her love for food. Her language is casual without being sloppy, intimate without being gossipy, informed without being pretentious. When you read it you can see Fisher at her desk dashing out a sentence, pausing it to reread it, and passing down her judgement if it is good or bad. If it is the former she carries on but if it is the latter she, with a faint smile on her face, shakes her head and then scratches it out. In this edition of How to Cook a Wolf Fisher returned to her 1942 work almost ten years later (The book was written to provide advice to those dealing with the rationing of WWII and her updates carry this book into the realm of general home economics.)  to update the text with “copious marginal notes and footnotes and a special section of additional recipes” (p. 187). These notes highlight the honesty that I find  in her work. Several of these notes update her information but I would say that the bulk of these notes are her commentaries on her younger self’s writing. She, without any sense of forced good-will, chastises her younger self, argues with herself, rolls her eyes at the ideas she once held. Take these snippets:

Let the whole thing rest for a few hours… a day is better [... not better, best] (p. 266)

It is usually expensive, in a mild way. [How can extravagance be mild? And what is mild about a minimal $1.25 bird? But I still say it is worth it, now and then.] (p. 277)

Besides being honest Fisher’s writing is also refreshing. She is direct and does not mess around with unnecessary embellishments, but this directness does not mean that her writing is bland. No, nothing could be farther from the truth. Let us return to the Fisher-Earl Grey tea comparison. Earl Grey does not have the medley of exotic flavors of its sister Lady Grey. Instead of coming across as flat or dull Earl Grey is a complex tea that refreshes and delights. Her directness allows her messages to come across clearly.

I am also completely in love with the stories that Fisher tells. Fisher uses one of the most memory laden aspects of our culture (food, of course) to wander about in her past. Yes, several writers attempt this and end up sounding like the most boring people in the world and you just want to shoot them; however, Fisher has three things going for her:

  1. Her writing (see above) would make even the most boring story fascinating.
  2. She stays on topic. I feel like one of the biggest mistakes that food writers make when combining food and memories is to completely forget about the food aspect. They write a paragraph about turkey, relate the way turkeys look to the way that their father’s face looked, write six pages about their father, write a paragraph about turkey, call it done. Fisher never forgets the food. She doesn’t use food as an excuse to write about her life but rather writes about her life experiences with food.
  3. Her life was fucking fascinating. Private schools, the early 1900s, trips across the Atlantic ocean, unwise marriages, Switzerland, and more.
Even when Fisher is offering suggestions for the cook facing rationing she weaves in the most brilliant stories. Who else has lived a life that enables them to write :
I have eaten a great many pigeons here and there, and I know that the best one was one I cooked in a cheap Dutch oven on a one-burner gas-plate in a miserable lodging. (p. 278)
Her life has stories of wolves at doors, generous bank accounts, and everything in between.

—–

*I would like to refer you to something I once had an older British woman say to me when she described Russian Caravan: “It’s a beefy tea. English Breakfast Tea with hairy legs we like to call it.”

**This is no disrepect towards those who drink decaffeinated teas. I personally associate the stuff with being a child and being forbidden caffeinated teas. To this day I insist that I can tell a difference between what I call “proper Earl Grey” and “that flavored water”.

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My New Baby

Welp, I finally broke down last June and bought that e-reader I had my eye on. (Read this for the backstory.) It’s a darling little thing. A black touch Kobo, all sleek and pretty and the back has a diamond pattern on it so it looks like one of Chanel’s quilted purses. I’ve put Virginia Woolf on it, some of my university readings, P.G. Whodehouse, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and a medley of other fantastic reads.

Oh Kobo, you satisfy me in countless ways. Actually, Kobo, you satisfy me in five concisely worded bullets:

  1. So convenient! With your long-lasting battery I can toss you in your travelling case (I highly recommend a case, by the way, scratches incurred from not having a case can make it difficult to read.), toss the case into my purse and know that even if I’m driving back from the Retina Center of Vermont I have all my electronic books at my finger-tips. The ease of mind of knowing that when I finish reading a biography of Queen Elizabeth the First I will not be stranded in a car with nothing else to read. (Note: that was not just a random made-up example, that was  a random real-life example. It happened about five hours before I wrote this.) It’s also great for when I’m about to embark on a trip, say to visit family in Brooklyn, I can pack a paperback book and take my Kobo as well, effectively taking along over a dozen books with me.
  2. Easy on the eyes! Besides having an aesthetically pleasing look to it (Please refer back to the Chanel reference.) the adjustable features available for the font mean that as it grows dark out I can make the font MASSIVE and therefor easier to read. This is also useful if you are returning from the above mentioned retina center and have dilated eyes that read large print easier than tiny print.
  3. Access! Say, just say, that you are interested in Andrew Lang. Interested enough that you really want to own more of his books. Now say that you are on a college-student budget. Bummer for you and your book owning plans. Except, if you don’t mind not having physical copies of the book then you can toddle over to Kobo’s e-bookstore or Google eBooks and download a couple of Andrew Lang’s books that are in the public domain for free. Hooray! Free fairy-tales and analysis for free! (And if you are also me then you make a note to buy these books from your local Independent bookstore as soon as you have an income.)
  4. Annotations! Now this might not be a big deal to you if you didn’t own a Kobo touch before a few months ago but up until then you could only highlight text. As of a recent update to the Kobo we can now add marginalia to our texts! How great is that? (p.s. If anyone can tell me how, if it’s possible, to add highlighting and marginalia to my texts put onto my Kobo through Adobe Digital Editions that would be most grand, thanks.)
  5. Did I mention its convenience, ease on eyes, access, and annotating ability? Because I should have, they’re all keen features.

However, all is not rosy in my Kobo world. But for more on that, come back in a week.

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Sunday Steals 1/15/2012

The Inside Story: It took Thanhha Lai 15 years to write her first novel, but it was well worth the wait

School Library Journal (which I suspect I read more often than most eighteen year old Antho/Classics majors) has several great blogs attached to their website (for a complete list click HERE) and this interview posted to their “The Inside Story” blog is really quite super. Here Thanhha Lai is interviewed regarding her experiences as a first time published author and her fascinating life story. Not just an interview with an author this is an interview with a well-spoken author who shares several great stories and provides inspiration to fellow writers.

Mrs Fry’s Indispensable Guide to Twitter

A rather useful post from the online diary of Mrs Stephen Fry, a goddess among mortals.

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A TARDIS Please.

English: This diagram gives a detailed overvie...

There’s a little game that I like to play, and I bet you’ve played it yourself, where people answer the question: If you could live in any time period what would it be and why? Of course, being the irritatingly anal person that I am I ask: If you could live in any section of society in any time period (assuming that you will be a healthy individual who will not succumb to the local illnesses such as, for example, the Bubonic Plague if you are in Europe in the 14th century) who would you be? If you are playing with thoughtful and intelligent people this can provide you with hours of fun (alright, maybe I spend too much time with History majors).

Since I know that you are all curious about what my answer to this would be, here it is:

I would quite like living as myself in England at anytime during the Interwar period (1918-1939). Theoretically I would prefer to be eighteen years old just at the end of WWI, just able to avoid the draft but be old enough to enjoy life on my own, and I would enjoy becoming involved with the Bloomsbury Group (I suppose it goes without saying that I would need to be, at the very least, upper-middle class). The Interwar period, or the much more elegant Interbellum, has always held my fascination. Great Britain, and Europe, have just come out of one of the most shocking events in living memory: a slaughter held not even in their backyard but in their own house. The trauma of this shook the Victorian-Edwardian sensibilities of Great Britain’s society and helped to launch new schools of thought that began to reshape their world. This was the era of the Woolfs, Kafka, new philosophies, a changing world.

In my head I see myself taking tea with brilliant artists, locking myself away in a cottage to finish my most recent piece of writing, indulging my “artistic temperament”. There would be poetry readings, writing blistering literary reviews, gay dinners. (I would of course use this time period to become intimately acquainted with Quentin Crisp, Coco Chanel, Virginia Woolf, JRR Tolkien, among others.)

I do recognize that this time is not just the foundation of a brave new world but was also marked by racism, antisemitism, classism, along with a plague of other issues. The fact that as a white male I would have substantial societal privileges can not be denied (although my pansexuality, disregard for gender norms and Hebrew heritage would be factored into this I would still end up in a very cozy spot in the hierarchy). But isn’t this true at anytime? I mean, we still have a white male privilege system in effect today. This was also a time where some of these norms were being challenged (look at the Woolfs or Lytton Strachey or a variety of others) and I like to think that I would be directly involved.

And so, as the snow finally settles onto our little mountain, I dream of a past world. Tweeds. Walking through the halls and cobble streets of venerable Oxford. Striding across country fields. Crammed omnibuses. Rich voices over the wireless. Cold rooms where the fireplace can not reach. Music that swung. Discussing Homer and Plutarch and Montaigne in country homes as winter piles up outside.

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“The Voyage Out” [A Review]

Virginia Woolf Smiling? Surely not…

Miss Virginia Woolf (Image by spratmackrel via Flickr)

If there’s one thing I love it’s a bitter cup of hot Earl Grey tea. And also Virginia Woolf.

My love for Virginia Woolf has grown to the point where I can honestly say that even my least favorite work of hers that I’ve read (Jacob’s Room, in case you were wondering) is on my top 100 Books Ever List. I’ll be the first to admit that this love runs the risk of making me a terrible reviewer of anything Miss Woolf wrote. I will try, however, to give a level-headed and concise reflection on this novel.

First, let me just say: GAAAAHHHH!!!! THIS BOOK IS SO FUCKING AMAZING!!!!! I WANT TO MAKE LOVE TO IT AND MARRY IT AND GO TO A NURSING HOME WITH IT AND BE THERE FOR IT AS IT DIES AND THEN KILL MYSELF BECAUSE I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT IT!!!!!

Now that that’s out of the way, let me say this:

The novel begins with Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose, a nice couple who set sail with a small collection of family and friends from London, but the cast of characters quickly opens up as their boat arrives in a resort town in South America. The closest that this novel comes to having a main character is Rachel, the niece of Mrs. Ambrose. A young woman who has been brought up in the strict society life of her widower father she follows her aunt and uncle to South America. Her journey introduces her to new worlds, particularly the more liberal world of her aunt. This of course runs the risk of being the physical journey that is a perfect symbol for the character’s emotional, a trope that is often quite stale, but Miss Woolf’s deft use of language and her insight into various types of personalities makes this feel fresh and sprightly. Far from feeling like yet another self-discovery story The Voyage Out feels electric, a characteristic that I find common in Miss Woolf’s writing.

I had several highlights in this book. One of which was the use of Mr. and Mrs. Dalloway. I had fallen in love with this couple in Mrs. Dalloway and it was a treat to see them again, particularly to see them through Rachel’s biting eyes. The Voyage Out introduced me to another couple to fall in love with. Mr. Hirst and Mr. Hewet are young, intellectual male friends staying with each other in the hotel near the house rented by the Ambroses. As a person who likes to project LGBTQ* diversity into every nook and cranny of his life Mr. Hirst and Mr. Hewet are nearly as great a treat as Holmes and Watson are. While Mr. Hewet does indicate his heterosexuality throughout the book (or, as I like to think of it, his bi- or pansexuality) Mr. Hirst definitely read as homosexual to me (or possibly asexual…) I also took delight in trying to decide how much of herself Miss Woolf put into the character of Mrs. Ambrose (the book’s Wikipedia article does say that Mrs. Ambrose is more likely based on Miss Woolf’s sister but I can’t let that ruin my fun).

In The Voyage Out we are given a unique and engaging coming of age story that has Miss Woolf’s characteristic style while still being accessible to new Woolf readers. It also gives us this wonderful quote from Mrs. Dalloway (Chapter 4):

How much rather one would be a murderer than a bore!

5/5 stars.

The Voyage Out. Virginia Woolf. 1915.

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Sunday Steals (1/8/2012)

–The Pervocracy–

From her blog’s “about” page: “The Pervocracy is a kinky, feminist sexblog. I write about my experiences as an active member of the BDSM community, a partner in a polyamorous relationship, and an all-around completely horny slut. I also write editorials from a sex-positive feminist perspective, advice on sexuality and kink, and humorous critiques of sexism online and in the media.” A very talented blogger who combines her knack for writing with her intellect and puts it to good use. Not really SFW work but not pornographic, just frank. (Her “Cosmocking”, where she dissects issues of Cosmo, is not worth missing.)

–Hermione Loves Books Postcard–

Look how amazingly great this card is!

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Sunday Steal (5/29/2011)

Who Gets to Speak?

I’m not quite sure when I first came across the blog Notes from Rumbly Cottage, but I’ve been enjoying the tender, amusing posts about family life for at least a few months now. The link above takes you to a post from May 23, in which the blogger contemplates free speech in America. I found it to be well thought out piece, with particular emphasis on what our personal responsibilities are.

Lady Gaga takes tea with Mr. Fry

I’m not a huge fan of Lady Gaga, I’m not a “Little Monster”, but I do find her to be a fascinating person. And who better to interview a fascinating person then another fascinating person? Namely Mr. Stephen Fry. The interview, conducted for the Financial Times is quite good, rather interesting, and a nice read.

59 Things You Didn’t Know About Virginia Woolf

Talk about fascinating.

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