Wednesday, September 7, 2016

2016 #5 Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of Culture (Lévi-Strauss)

This is not actually number five--I read this last semester while prepping my Orpheus and Music seminar. But I temporarily mislaid the book, so I wasn't able to write the review until now. :-)

 Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of CultureMyth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of Culture by Claude Lévi-Strauss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"In order for a culture to be really itself and to produce something, the culture and its members must be convinced of their originality and even, to some extent, of their superiority over the others; it is only under conditions of under-communciation that it can produce anything. We are now threatened with the prospect of our being only consumers, able to consume anything from any point in the world and from every culture, but of losing all originality." (20)

Observations like this abound in Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of Culture. Lévi-Strauss, whose blending of anthropology and philosophy made him one of the most interesting scholars of myth, here offers a set of expanded lectures originally broadcast in 1977 on a CBC radio program called Ideas. In the second essay, "'Primitive' Thinking and the 'Civilized' Mind", Lévi-Strauss reveals the "totalitarian ambition of the savage mind" as distinctive from scientific thought, and how the former results in only the illusion of understanding. He also notes, however, that primitive people had the capacity for "civilizing" the mind, but simply had no need of it, calling upon instead a "fantastically precise knowledge of their environment and all its resources" (19)--something we have (regrettably) lost in our "civilized" state. This supports his concept of myth as a conceptual framework for binaries. It is these binaries that move us toward more qualitative scientific thinking, helping us to "understand a great many things present in mythological thinking which we were in the past prone to dismiss as meaningless and absurd." (24)

This collection of five essays would be a great introductory primer for the reader not yet ready to dig into The Raw and the Cooked or The Savage Mind. The most sage advice comes from Wendy Doniger in her most excellent foreword: "The trick is to jettison Lévi-Strauss right before the moment when he finally deconstructs himself." Indeed, those words apply to the works of many of our great contemporary thinkers.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

2016 #4: The Poe Shadow (Matthew Pearl)

The Poe ShadowThe Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Pearl's The Dante Club is a favorite, so I had looked forward to reading this. I found the historical note at the end to be the most interesting part of the book. The narrative is uneven--it floats in and out of a nineteenth-century literary style, and I found both the narrator and Duponte to be tiresome and self-involved characters. "Bonjour" is definitely the best female character, but she fizzles out by the end. Perhaps there are too many "unknowns" in the actual historical accounts of Poe's death to make the book convincing. I felt that Pearl was trying not to take the same sorts of liberties he did in The Dante Club--fair enough. The entire book read like a struggle, however, between character development and interpolation of history. The plot twists seem to come out of nowhere (which, while that can be a boon, gets tiresome when it happens consistently) and characters are introduced but hardly developed so that one has a hard time keeping track of who has done what. Still, the book reflects a lot of Pearl's gifts as a writer--he does manage to combine wit with drama in a way few modern authors can. Having had such vastly different reactions to The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow, I am now eager to read The Last Dickens, because I do enjoy Pearl's writing on the whole. While the book was not a favorite, I'm glad I read it.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

2016 #3: Atelier Crenn: Metamorphosis of Taste

Atelier Crenn: Metamorphosis of TasteAtelier Crenn: Metamorphosis of Taste by Dominique Crenn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a gorgeous book from start to finish. Part cookbook, part autobiography, Dominique Crenn's Atelier Crenn: Metamorphosis of Taste is a feast for the eyes, with photography by Ed Anderson, and poetry for the soul (and here we must recognize also the work of Crenn's co-author Karen Leibowitz, whose Mission Street Food: Recipes and Ideas from an Improbable Restaurant (co-authored with her husband, chef Anthony Myint), is probably my favorite cookbook that I've ever "read."))

This is not a book of practical or convenient recipes. It is a book about art. One might classify Crenn's work as "molecular gastronomy" but that flattens the poetry of what Crenn achieves with her creations. Indeed, "poetry" isn't just a fancy overwrought description--Crenn actually offers a poem to accompany her Chef's Grand Tasting Menu at her restaurant, Atelier Crenn. She describes the meal --and the poem changes seasonally with the menu--with lines such as: "Here, the earth proffers its juicy, vermilion gifts/and above the half moon floats, silky and smoky/In summer's green dappled light/the forest radiant with possibility." Having food communicate on the deeper level where poetry can also touch us is what Crenn calls "poetic culinaria."

While the average kitchen may not be fully equipped to prepare the recipes in the book, they will serve as a fount of inspiration for flavor combinations, textures, and plating. Behind her dishes, there is a respect for sustainability and nature as well. She's a fully committed omnivore, but offers, "We must eat less meat, we must eat it more thoughtfully, and we must make it so delicious that our cooking becomes a way of showing respect for the animal that has given up its life for us." This last part echoes the thread that runs through the book--that of cooking as ritual. The compelling description of a day in the life of Atelier Crenn seems almost monastic--the cooks arrive beginning at 9:00 am and follow a liturgy of preparation, cleaning, and sharing a meal together.

The photography alone might make this a "coffee table" book, but it is well worth spending some time with the prose. Crenn and Leibowitz offer us an understanding of symbiosis between food and art. And maybe, just as the amateur painter might be inspired by a visit to the Louvre, a home chef who reads this book might venture into dehydrating quinoa, bringing different cultural flavors together, or simply arranging food in a way that honors both its origins and its possibilities.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

2016 #2: Homer and Langley (E.L. Doctorow)

Homer & LangleyHomer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After reading up a bit on the Collyer brothers, I changed my assessment of this novel. I don't take issue with the liberties of timeline and birth order, but I don't understand why Doctorow did it. Sure, the journey through the 1950s-70s was interesting and the Collier brothers would no doubt have been an intriguing lens for such times, but why make Homer the pianist and the younger brother? Admittedly, I knew little about the Collyer brothers before reading the novel and I think that added to my enjoyment. What struck me is that it is a story about stories in some sense. For much of the world, there were mysteries behind those doors of that brownstone that were sensationalized, yet fantastically truthful. What Doctorow does, however, is digs through the labels of "disorders" and reveals a relationship between two people. Two secluded brothers in history are perfect fodder for fictionalization and maybe that is their legacy--to generate stories. There's a safety in fiction, especially now that they are gone. But Doctorow asks us--with this story--to look beyond all in our present that is eccentric and "unknown" to find the touchstones. Maybe I'm giving him more credit than I should, but that was my takeaway from the book.

Friday, January 8, 2016

2016 #1: Flight (Sherman Alexie)

FlightFlight by Sherman Alexie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Three pages in, I was prepared not to like this book. It had all the indications of being a Catcher In The Rye-type novel, and I have no great love for that book. I stuck with it, however, and soon I realized that Alexie had a far different story to tell that was much larger than the angst of his teenage protagonist, Zits. He keeps it edgy without being obnoxious, and the questions that the book invokes are never fully answered but you realize at the end that it matters not. Here is an author that understands that violence is perhaps a universal potential that we conveniently put in racial and ethnic boxes when it suits us to think better of ourselves. Fantastic book!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015 #14: Stones From the River

Stones from the RiverStones from the River by Ursula Hegi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this novel because Hegi does such a wonderful job of weaving the narratives together without ever making it overwrought and preachy. It is not a story about a Zwerg (dwarf) woman in Germany prior and during World War II. It is a story about Trudi Montag, whose experiences and fears are a mirror to our own trials and tribulations--perhaps not in severity, but in the lessons that can be learned. Despite the sometimes difficult subject matter, Trudi is a redemptive protagonist (at least for the reader), and the book is a beautiful tribute to the challenges of humanity.

2015 #13: Going on Faith-Writing as a Spiritual Quest

Going on Faith: Writers on a Spiritual QuestGoing on Faith: Writers on a Spiritual Quest by William Zinsser
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Trust William Zinsser to bring together four novelists (David Bradley, Frederick Buechner, Mary Gordon, and Hugh Nissenson), a poet (Allen Ginsberg), and a religious historian (Jaroslav Pelikan) -- "men and women from various points of God's compass"-- for a lecture series that was originally published in 1988 as Spiritual Quests: The Art and Craft of Religious Writing (now out of print). Ten years later, he broadened the book by adding three more writers to the pool: Diane Ackerman, Patricia Hampl and Hillel Levine. For those who have read Zinsser's books on memoir writing and his wonderful chapter on interviewing in On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, his influence is felt in each of these three essays, without compromising the voice of the author. Zinsser wanted to "preserve the oral integrity of the book as a collection of talks" so he recorded each of the three authors and then "edited the transcript[s] into narrative."

What is striking is how many of the authors are quick to challenge the idea of being "religious writers" or even "spiritual" writers. For some, they set out on a different path altogether, and the process became spirit. My favorite moments included Hillel Levine's description of meeting the history of Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who was responsible for saving thousands of Jewish lives in the summer of 1940. Hillel found that "what was heroic about Sugihara was his ordinariness...the power of his moral leadership was so great that he was able to evoke goodness in other people" (81). Frederick Buechner opens with a story of a strand of blue thread, a tie clip, and the evocation of his own name that soon blossoms into an excellent essay on faith and fiction. He says, "In both faith and fiction the people you meet along the way, the things that happen to happen, the places--the airport bar, the room where you have a last supper with some friend--count for much more than ideas do. Fiction can hold opposites together in a story simultaneously...and so can faith, which by its very nature both sees and does not see" (51).

All of the lecture-essays are excellent, and I do recommend reading all of them in order. Together they form a narrative as a whole, as provide a thoughtful sustenance for those who write and read.