Category Archives: The Bookshelf

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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“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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“The Song of Roland” [A Review]

Eight stages of The Song of Roland in one picture

Not the book's cover but it is depicting a scene from the poem. --Image via Wikipedia

Few things make you feel better about yourself then realizing that you just picked up an eleventh-century Norman poem for light reading. And can I just say that The Song of Roland (my edition was put together by Glyn Sheridan Burgess) is extremely light reading. In fact, if I was to translate it into cinema terms I would say that The Song of Roland is the, I don’t know, Transformers of books. Yes, it’s fun, but it’s also pretty mindless, full of action, and with very clearly defined bad vs. good guys.

As opposed to Autobots vs. Decepticons The Song of Roland gives us Emperor Charlemagne’s Franks versus King Marsile’s Spanish Arabs, or, as the poet likes to refer to them, the pagans. As the story begins, Charlemagne and his army, who, according to this poet, took over the British Isles, are in Spain, trying to expand their territory. The protagonist of the story is Roland, a relative of the Emperor, and a loyal knight, with one hell of an ego and a scheming uncle. Due to some duplicity on the part of Roland’s uncle, Roland is asked to lead the rear-guard, the knights who will soon be attacked by the Spanish Arabs. There’s some fighting, people die, and then the Franks run through the Spanish. (In all fairness there’s more to the underlying structure of the story- for example, its political implications- but since I’ve done little reading about this time in history I’m sticking to the literary appeal. I would strongly recommend reading the introduction to the book as it provides some fascinating back story. Though there are some spoilers in there, so if you might want to read it after reading the poem itself.)

Perhaps my favorite part of The Song of Roland is realizing that though we’re separated by a thousand years or so, we humans are barely different then the humans of Roland’s day. The poem reads like a cheap political rally, I could just hear the cheering crowds listening to the descriptions of the Frank supremacy. Rather similar to a crowd shouting: U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.! In fact, if you substitute the word “Frank” for the word “American”, who basically have a season of 24, complete with Arab stereotypes. It was rather comforting for me to be reminded that narrow-mindedness and a tendency to generalize the “enemy” aren’t new phenomena- Throughout the poem it is asserted that the Muslims worship “Muhammad” and “Apollo”.  Another great example of this is the fact that the leaders of the Arabs refer to their own followers as “Pagans”.

That little spiel shouldn’t deter you from reading The Song of Roland. My point wasn’t to make you think, “Racism, let’s not read that.” I was just pointing out an interesting anthropological perspective that should enhance your reading experience. Mr. Burgess also does a fantastic job of translating it into understandable English so if you’re worried about a language barrier of any kind, don’t. If you’ve got a day, and trust me, at 128 pages of poetry this won’t take longer, and you want some fluff I’d recommend this with a smile.

3/5 stars. 

The Song of Roland. Edited by Glyn Sheridan Burgess. 1990. Penguin Groups.

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“Freak Show” [A Review]

Cover of "Freak Show"

Cover of Freak Show

When Perez Hilton gives a book a rave review (or at least a rave blurb on the back cover) my neck-hairs go up. It’s not that I don’t like Perez Hilton, it’s that I don’t see us having many similar interests (besides men). As it turns out, it wasn’t a bad thing that I didn’t put down James St. JamesFreak Show but if I had, I wouldn’t have missed anything big.

I’ve always felt that the GBLTQ* community has been underrepresented in books, particularly the TQ portion and specifically in the young adult genre. As books about gays, lesbians, bisexuals have increased books about gender diversity have stayed fairly marginal. There was Julia Anne Peters’ lovely 2004 trans-focused Luna and there was of course… er, none else spring to mind. So what I’m saying is that we need more gender-diversity centered books for teenagers.

Freak Show bravely steps into where few other books go and it does it with feather boas, glitter and deliciously campy references. The story it tells is of Billy Bloom a, well, he’s not a cross-dresser or a transvestite (as Billy makes very clear on page 212) so we’ll use one of my favorite descriptions he uses: GLITTEROID! As a young male who sews his own costumes that screw with gender Billy really doesn’t fit into his Floridian high-school into which he was recently replanted after an episode with his mother. The plot meanders around during the first two-thirds of the novel but in the final bit it turns into an empowering story that skews the traditional school outcasts rebelling against the status-quo.

While the story is endearing I found Billy Bloom to be… I wanted to throttle him. I’m a fairly no nonsense sort of Lady and so dealing with Bloom’s hyperbolic narration (it was like being shouted at) was something that I personally found grating. Now I will say that Bloom is written to have mood swings which Mr. St. James pulls off wonderfully, though it will sometimes result in a brain cramp as you try to keep up with his highs and lows. My slightly homicidal feelings for Bloom did wear off during the climatic student rebellion during which point I was cheering him and his posse on.

There were some delightful scenes that made me chortle happily, particularly the ones full of references to various dramatic woman that have inspired homosexual America (Liza Minnelli, Martha Stewart, Zelda Fitzgerald, etc.) And when you come across lines such as:

I LIKE THE WAY THIS DAME THINKS! (201)

Really! How indelicate! In front of Flossie! And giving Flip an eyeful, I’m sure! (108)

He’s got that white-hot blond hair, with those killer bangs…a nose like a ski slope…those blazing, dragon green eyes…and  smile so white and so bright, it guides Santa’s sleigh in dense fog! (119)

you can’t help but chuckle.

Despite having a frantic pace and an off-the-wall narrator that’s hard to pin down the story is sweet with moments of  charm that are pulled off in a sometimes vulgar manner. Not one of the decade’s great books (though it was among this year’s Green Mountain Book Awards finalist) Freak Show is a fun read if you’ve a few hours to kill or if you feel the need to get in touch with your inner fabulous, fierce, flaming Queen.

3.5/5 stars.


*Gay, Bisexual, Lesbian, Transgender/Transsexual, Queer/Questioning. I’m aware that there are many variations on this acronym but for simplicity’s sake I’m afraid I’ll be brief, explaining all the various pairings of letters can go on for years.

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It’s National Poetry Month!

Emily Dickinson

Image via Wikipedia

Happy April! Happy National Poetry Month! And if you live in Northern Vermont: Happy Still Having Several Feet Of Snow In Your Yard!

Let’s ignore that last one and focus our attention to poetry. I’m not going to lie, I’m about to weasel out of writing a big post. The fact of the matter is that school’s a bitch right now and updating my blog is important but will not help me get straight “A”s (if you get an “A” in a subject you don’t need to sit for the final exam which means less time in a room thinking about how I know how Harry felt when sitting with Dolores). So here are some of my favorite poems from:

Emily Dickinson

(Who kicks ass all around)

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,

One clover, and a bee.

And revery.

The revery alone will do,

If bees are few.

——————————–

I taste a liquor never brewed –

From Tankards scooped in Pearl –

Not all the Frankfort Berries

Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of air – am I –

And Debauchee of Dew –

Reeling – thro’ endless summer days –

From inns of molten Blue –

When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee

Out of the Foxglove’s door –

When Butterflies – renounce their “drams” –

I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats –

And Saints – to windows run –

To see the Tippler

Leaning against the – Sun!

——————————–

Nature — the Gentlest Mother is,

Impatient of no Child —

The feeblest — or the waywardest —

Her Admonition mild —

In Forest — and the Hill —

By Traveller — be heard —

Restraining Rampant Squirrel —

Or too impetuous Bird —

How fair Her Conversation —

A Summer Afternoon —

Her Household — Her Assembly —

And when the Sun go down —

Her Voice among the Aisles

Incite the timid prayer

Of the minutest Cricket —

The most unworthy Flower —

When all the Children sleep —

She turns as long away

As will suffice to light Her lamps —

Then bending from the Sky —

With infinite Affection —

And infiniter Care —

Her Golden finger on Her lip —

Wills Silence — Everywhere —

———————————-

Best Witchcraft is Geometry

To the magician’s mind —

His ordinary acts are feats

To thinking of mankind.

————————

Witchcraft was hung, in History,

But History and I

Find all the Witchcraft that we need

Around us, every Day —

—————————

They shut me up in Prose —

As when a little Girl

They put me in the Closet —

Because they liked me “still” —

Still!  Could themself have peeped —

And seen my Brain — go round —

They might as wise have lodged a Bird

For Treason — in the Pound —

Himself has but to will

And easy as a Star

Abolish his Captivity —

And laugh — No more have I —

——————————-

Thanks to poets.org and americanpoems.com for helping me get the full text to these non-copyrighted poems.

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I Suppose Writers Are the World’s Constants

The poet then gave Orlando the full story of his health for the past ten years or so. It had been so bad that one could only marvel that he still lived. He had had the palsy, the gout, the ague, the dropsy, and the three sorts of fever in succession; added to which he had an enlarged heart, a great spleen, and a diseased liver. But, above all, he had , he told Orlando, sensations in his spine which burnt like fire; another about second from the bottom which was cold as ice. Sometimes he woke witha  brain like lead; at others it was as if a thousand wax tapers were alight and people were throwing fireworks inside him. He could feel a rose leaf through his mattress, he said; and knew his way almost about London by the feel of the cobbles. Altogether he was a piece of machinery so finely made and curiously put together (here he raised his hand as if unconsciously, and indeed it was of the finest shape imaginable) that it confounded him to think that he had only sold five hundred copies of his poem, but that of course was largely due to the conspiracy against him. All he could say, he concluded, banging his fist upon the table, was that the art of poetry was dead in England.

How that could be with Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Browne, Donne, all now writing or just having written, Orlando, reeling off the names of his favourite heroes, could not think.

Greene laughed sardonically. Shakespeare, he admitted, had written some scenes that were well enough; but he had taken them chiefly from Marlowe. Marlowe was a likely boy, but what could you say of a lad who died before he was thirty? As for Browne, he was writing poetry in prose, and people soon got tired of such conceits as that. Donne was a mountebank who wrapped up his lack of meaning in hard words. The gulls were taken in; but the style would be out of fashion twelve months hence. As for Ben Jonson- Ben Jonson was a friend of his and he never spoke ill of friends.

No, he concluded, the great age of literature is past; the great age of literature was the Greek; the Elizabethan age was inferior in every respect to the Greek.

–Virginia Woolf, Orlando

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