Monthly Archives: January 2012

Insatiable

I rarely describe anything as difficult to put down, but this book surprised me. Light and easy to read, Gael Greene’s memoirs about food and sex (plus everything in between) engage the reader in a way that interests, amuses, and ultimately fascinates. With the expertise of a top food connoisseur, she leads readers inside a world unfamiliar to most middle-class consumers. The book is quite thick, but its short chapters keep egging you to read on, read on. Although it proved addictive at first, eventually the excitement tapered off with the realization that it’s the same formula again and again: mind-blowing gourmet food, lusty affairs…repetitive, but irresistible all the same.

Peppered with recipes from Gael (inimitable unless you own an oven), Insatiable excites the palate with barely cooked fillets, generously buttered scallops, and melt-in-your-mouth desserts. Quenelles de brochet, poulet au vinaigre…half the time I couldn’t pronounce—let alone decipher—their names. Uninitiated as I was (not knowing a sorbet from a sherbet), I found myself mostly just wondering what dishes looked like, before even imagining how they tasted. I was more curious than hungry (although one night I did dream of food). The most interesting essays are the ones on Gael’s own life, brief attempts to chart the plot of her tumultuous love life. Character profiles also figure in the book, as Gael introduces a parade of famous chefs, critics, and actors. I particularly enjoyed “meeting” Le Cirque owner Sirio Maccioni. What I didn’t appreciate were Gael’s periodic updates on the New York gastronomic scene, an entire decade’s worth of history on which new bistros sprung up, which restaurants closed, and which were on their way to earning three Michelin stars. To the outsider, these appear little more than blind name- and place-dropping. I skimmed as quickly as I could.

In this book, Gael Greene compiles sweeping stories of her fast-paced life, revelatory confessions of a much older woman. Readers are hooked on this vicarious experience of a decadent lifestyle. The author maintains that there are more important things besides food and sex, but, as she herself puts it, she just can’t help herself. Insatiable is a fun read, a pleasure for the senses, but—while it is peppered with a little poignancy—it’s not something I would savor for a long time. Read it with the same motto Gael used for her marriage—“for as long as it’s wonderful.”

My first gastrointestinal disease. My first alcohol-based cure. What could Detroit possibly offer me after moments like these [in France]?

What was happening to us? We’d promised to be children together forever, loving, spontaneous. How had we gotten so stodgy?

…Don did understand that I needed to wake slowly and would bring me goodies and deep dark espresso with the Times Book Review on the wicker bed tray even till the end. No wonder I was confused. In all the years since, I’ve been waiting for the man who understands my need for breakfast in bed.

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The Body in Question

Apart from its obvious complexity, there is something else that is vaguely perplexing about the human body. This common apparatus predicating our existence bends so easily to our will that it jolts us to realize that it is a mere contraption, subject to the flaws and failures that characterize our world; that it escapes collapse daily is in itself a source of infinite wonder. As in the physical world, chronic organization also manifests itself in the body’s structure, and this partly accounts for the mystery of our daily survival. Still, this only leads us to ask another question: how did this arrangement come to be? In this book, Jonathan Miller elucidates some of the answers.

Part medical history and part scientific philosophy, The Body in Question links information from the vast pool of the author’s knowledge and combines them into a unified chronology of modern medicine. Its chief endowment to readers is not so much rote knowledge but a deeper understanding of how the body works, and how this understanding came to be acquired. Often punctuated by words like “paradoxically” and “ironically,” Miller’s text prompts further reflection on our understanding of the body by pointing out several contradictions that further complicate the matter. Looking at the various activities of the body, one cannot help but wonder: Why this process and not another? Why this ability and not that? By introducing the brain to the methods and processes of its own existence, Miller awakens in readers a fundamental curiosity about the human body. His descriptions of its unconscious everyday efforts to manage mini-catastrophes are nothing short of astonishing, all the more because it takes place within this shell we rarely give meaningful notice.

Aside from its combination of history, philosophy, and medicine, what separates The Body in Question from straightforward textbooks is the author’s ability to unravel the mysteries of the human body in a way that is undeniably intelligent but without an overt reliance on scientific jargon. Marked by the abundant use of metaphor, Miller’s flowing yet pragmatic prose makes his book stand out as both an informative text and a good read.

Science is not a blasphemy; the wilful rejection of its insights is. …one of the most effective ways of restoring and preserving man’s humanity is by acknowledging the extent to which he is a material mechanism.

Living in a body that acts so faithfully in obedience to his will, man has found it almost impossible to shake off the conviction that the changes of the physical universe are the outcome of mental processes like his own and that any alteration in the state of things is the expression of agency as opposed to causality; in short, that all events are actions.

A Pocket Book of Short Stories

A Pocket Book of Short Stories is something I have seen in National Book Store since I was in grade school. Over the years, I developed the impression that these old stocks waited year after year for buyers that rarely came along. I never thought I would actually own a copy until Kai gave me her book.

With the increasing number of must-read authors nowadays, I rarely get the chance to read (or reread) classics. Each year, circulating before-you-die checklists remind me of how little of classic literature I’ve read. The short stories included in this collection, diverse as they are, share one thing in common: they all belong to a different time, and that is exactly what constitutes a classic—something recognizably dated, yet still works even after all those years. Nevertheless, certain problems arose in my reading which I think mostly have to do with chronological distance. I had to read “The Killers” twice to appreciate it (like my first time with “Hills Like White Elephants,” which grows better with every reading). Other stories I grasped immediately. I admired O. Henry’s narrative skill in “A Municipal Report” and Somerset Maugham’s excellent characterization in “Rain,” which had a strong impact on me, that deviously crafted story. Then there are those I completely fail to appreciate, despite repeated readings, like Sherwood Anderson’s “Seeds.”

I am particularly fond of two stories about women: Dorothy Parker’s “Big Blonde” and Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss.” I remember Mansfield’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which I taught in class last semester. If anything, this second encounter made me realize how much I want to read more of her. I looked up her story collections, but the only one available from the Rizal Library—The Garden Party and Other Stories—is dilapidated to the point of decay.

Although some stories here barely leave any impression on me, there are also those I would want to assign to my students if ever I teach again—stories I would want them to remember. For these are not stories you simply breeze by and forget. You contemplate them because they bother you, and eventually you find that in the course of such reflection, the story has carved out a space inside you, a small repository of beauty that you will carry with you wherever you go.

Introduction (M. Edmund Speare)

The desire to tell stories and to listen to them is one of the qualities inherent in all human nature, and the storyteller’s art is perhaps the oldest of all the arts in the world, and the best-loved.

[The short story] is just the right length in a world of tumult and hurry…

The essential quality of the short story is its economy. …here everything must show intensity of concentration, a squeezing of a slice of life into the narrowest of compasses…

The Devil and Daniel Webster (Stephen Vincent Benét)

There was sadness in being a man, but it was a proud thing too.

Big Blonde (Dorothy Parker)

To her who had laughed so much, crying was delicious.

There was nothing separate about her days. Like drops upon a window-pane, they ran together and trickled away.

Somewhere in her head or her heart was the lazy, nebulous hope that things would change and she and Herbie settle suddenly into soothing married life.

Paul’s Case (Willa Cather)

It was at the theater and at Carnegie Hall that Paul really lived; the rest was but a sleep and a forgetting.

Seeds (Sherwood Anderson)

There is a note that comes into the human voice by which you may know real weariness. It comes when one has been trying with all his heart and soul to think his way along some difficult road of thought.

‘We all want to be loved and the world has no plan for creating our lovers.’

‘I have seen under the shell of life and I am afraid.’

Bliss (Katherine Mansfield)

Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at—nothing—at nothing, simply.

Disorder and Early Sorrow (Thomas Mann)

Bert is blond and seventeen. He intends to get done with school somehow, anyhow, and fling himself into the arms of life.

Rain (W. Somerset Maugham)

But the most striking thing about him was the feeling he gave you of suppressed fire. It was impressive and vaguely troubling. He was not a man with whom any intimacy was possible.

A Municipal Report (O. Henry)

I must tell you how I came to be in Nashville, and I assure you the digression brings as much tedium to me as it does to you.

She was exquisite, she was a valuable discovery. Nearly everybody nowadays knows too much—oh, so much too much—of real life.

‘Isn’t it in the still, quiet places that things do happen?’

A Lodging for the Night (Robert Louis Stevenson)

‘As for change, let somebody change my circumstances. A man must continue to eat, if it were only that he may continue to repent.’

The Procurator of Judea (Anatole France)

‘It is a knotty point, how far one is justified in devising things for the commonweal against the will of the populace.’

October Sky (1999)

Obsessions can be dangerous things. We know how they can drive people to do the most shocking deeds. Serial murderers, psychopaths, hoarders—we’ve seen them all, at least on television. But obsessions also tread on the realm of possibility, by allowing ordinary people to dream the unthinkable. Crazy ones, we call them. “Rocket Boys,” a bunch of them were called in a small coal mining town in West Virginia, 1957.

“What do you want to know about rockets?” Quentin asks Homer. “Everything,” he says. After seeing Sputnik 1 cross the skies, Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) aspires to one day reach outer space. Encouraged by his teacher Miss Riley (Laura Dern), he and his friends fashion crude rockets with the hope of entering the national science fair and winning college scholarships. But rocket-making proves to be a difficult venture, and Homer faces failure after failure, attracting the ire of his perennially disapproving father (Chris Cooper).

Based on Homer Hickam’s memoir Rocket Boys, October Sky chronicles the beginning of a lifelong adventure. A biographical film, it joins the ranks of inspiring, based-on-real-life movies like A Beautiful Mind, complete with black-and-white title cards detailing what happened afterwards. Unlike A Beautiful Mind, however, October Sky follows a more familiar formula for conflict: an ambitious youth struggling against his critical father. But that concerns the material itself. What is interesting about this movie is that, both in the film and in Homer Hickam’s life, there is a clear opposition between the boy’s desire to reach the sky and the town’s insistence that his life be spent underground, in the mines. The desire to escape is palpable, that much is clear, but that the opposition be this striking is in itself worth wondering at.

When the Rocket Boys succeed in launching their first rocket, everyone rejoices. Beyond the initial amazement, I think the townspeople felt this victory all the more because it directly opposes their everyday reality. The last scenes are particularly poignant because of this. In that last rocket, in Homer, the people of Coalwood caught a glimpse of a life beyond coal mining. Perhaps for the first time, they saw the possibility of a different life.

While not groundbreaking in any way, October Sky does elicit that warm, fuzzy feeling that characterizes successful feel-good movies, and—barring undeniable lapses into dramatic fictionalization—succeeds in portraying its material in a credibly realistic yet emotional manner.

‘Look at it go, Homer. This one’s gonna go for miles.’