Category Archives: Nonfiction

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.

The Year of Magical Thinking

Holiday weekends are for food, family, and afternoon naps. For the first of November, also grief and remembrance. I started this book on October 29. I finished five pages. Over the weekend, 200 more. I brought it with me to the cemetery, silently reading a few pages while sitting beside my grandparents’ graves. The aptness of it struck me only today.

Happiness is rarely the hallmark of literature. Fiction or nonfiction, we don’t often find books plotting within the circumference of bliss. This is perhaps reflective of the human condition, which orients sadness as far more permanent and multifarious: to each his own. We have more words for sadness than for happiness. Yet when I try to describe The Year of Magical Thinking I cannot come up with anything but, simply, sad. Sad, because it is without the affected manner of melancholy, the clinical ring of depressed, or the histrionics of woeful. Sad, because it is grief under control—controlled—never scandalous or loud in its mourning, Didion still exhibiting all signs of the “cool customer” she had been on the night of her husband’s death. In fact she only mentions crying a few times in this book, the first one not even appearing until p. 117. Instead she fills the pages with chronologies, medical facts, memories, histories. She quotes Philippe Ariés: “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty… But one no longer has the right to say so out loud.” Here there is no extolling of the departed: no weepy anecdotes, no charming grin—only the remembrance of John’s eyes, “his blue imperfect eyes.”

Didion’s only daughter falls critically ill around Christmas, 2003. Her husband of almost forty years dies a week later. In this book she writes about the “weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness…about marriage and children and memory…about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.” The Year of Magical Thinking does not lead readers anywhere (“I look for resolution but find none”), but it is not a mere overflow of memories and emotions. Carefully structured and extremely refined, it carries an overwhelming sense of loss that permeates almost every page. In my life I am fortunate to have never yet experienced such grief, but among all the narratives I’ve encountered, this is as close as I’ve ever come.

I recognize now that there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy.

People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only to those who have seen that look on their own faces. The look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness. … These people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible.

Why…did I remain so unable to accept the fact that he had died? Was it because I was failing to understand it as something that had happened to him? Was it because I was still understanding it as something that had happened to me?

If the dead were truly to come back, what would they come back knowing? Could we face them? We who allowed them to die?

I used to tell John my dreams, not to understand them but to get rid of them, clear my mind for the day. … When he died I stopped having dreams.

John’s mother was dead. John was dead. And I still had, of the “Wickerdale” Spode, four dinner plates, five salad plates, three butter plates, a single coffee cup, and nine saucers.

Stacking magazines seemed at that point the limit of what I could do by way of organizing my life.

Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.

We imagined we knew everything the other thought, even when we did not necessarily want to know it, but in fact, I have come to see, we knew not the smallest fraction of what there was to know.

The Geography of Bliss

“Perhaps the true road to happiness is not to seek it, but to let it find you,” says a rare nugget of Internet wisdom. Perchance true, but definitely not what Eric Weiner had in mind for The Geography of Bliss. The title tells all. In this project, Weiner sought to map out the happiest places in the world, and to find out exactly what makes them tick. He justifies his journey thus: “With our words, we subconsciously conflate geography and happiness. We speak of searching for happiness, of finding contentment, as if these were locations in an atlas, actual places that we could visit if only we had the proper map and the right navigational skills.” And so the self-declared grump travels to Bhutan, Iceland, Qatar, and many other countries—even making a detour to unhappy Moldova—to probe the depths of their happiness and solve the puzzle of bliss.

Happiness is a tricky topic. There’s a reason why it’s not found in most literature, why it’s often relegated to the self-help section. For most people, happiness is elusive, abstract; misery is always more interesting. But Weiner handles the question of happiness delicately. He does not presume anything, always backs up his claims with evidence. His ubiquitous use of facts and quotes makes you marvel at how much he knows, or at least the amount of research he’s done. True, his essays exhibit a slightly annoying “it dawned on me” pattern, and some mild manipulation—and yes, even the humor becomes predictable sometimes—but overall Weiner did a marvelous job. I haven’t been to most countries he visited, but somehow I think he presented an honest picture of them.

Despite everything, Weiner presents no certainty about happiness. His conclusions are often followed by a cautionary “Or is it?” It gets a bit frustrating, but it does leave you with a lot of room for contemplation. Once, after reading a chapter, I spent a whole drive home just pondering happiness, and now I find myself rating my own happiness level. Even without the promise of certainty, the author offers insights by the bundle. Of happiness and geography, he says, “By relocating ourselves, we shake loose the shackles of expectation. Adrift in a different place we give ourselves permission to be different people.” Reading this, I thought of that one summer I spent in South Korea, and realized I couldn’t agree more.

For me, a place unvisited is like an unrequited love. A dull ache that—try as you might to think it away, to convince yourself that she really wasn’t the right country for you—just won’t leave you in peace.

How amazing, I think, that in this age of broadband and satellite TV, places can still engulf us so thoroughly that they make their world our world.

‘Some people don’t want to be happy, and that’s okay. They want meaningful lives, and those are not always the same as happy lives.’

‘Life is a combination of freedom and destiny, and the beauty is you don’t know which is which.’

Maybe this is how enlightenment happens. Not with a thunderclap or a bolt of lightning but as a steady drip, drip, drip until one day you realize your bucket is full.

Armageddon in Retrospect

I will always associate Kurt Vonnegut with Mike. He’s the one who lent me The Sirens of Titan, and it’s his book I’m reviewing again now (or at least it used to be—he gave it to me for my birthday). Armageddon in Retrospect is not your usual Vonnegut novel. This collection includes a letter written by the author as a soldier in 1945, a copy of his last speech in 2007, a nonfiction essay, ten short stories, plus several of his own illustrations.

Vonnegut’s son Mark writes the introduction, but in it he hardly talks about the book. Instead (and more interestingly) he introduces the reader to his father. He paints this picture of Kurt Vonnegut: intensely private man, profound humanist, dedicated writer, enigma to everyone around him. The next pages reveal the author through his own writing. Vonnegut’s nonfiction—even when not meant for publication (like his 1945 letter)—displays a balance of humor and gravity. His letter to his family: a tongue-in-cheek narration of a common (albeit extremely lucky) soldier’s life. His last speech: a series of jokes interspersed with commentaries on world issues. “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets” offers more sobriety. It is an affecting memoir about the destruction of Dresden, which Vonnegut asserts was “surely among the World’s most lovely cities.” He describes the bombing’s depressing aftermath, with soldiers more interested in personal looting than salvage work, and ends his memoir with the following declaration: “I would have given my life to save Dresden for the World’s generations to come. That is how everyone should feel about every city on Earth.”

The succeeding ten stories share more than just thematic similarity. Judged as traditional fiction, they fail in terms of character (flat, one-sided), but what I like about them is their collective insistence to avert regular standards. Vonnegut’s fiction claims an appraisal based on idea: what it is trying to say and how it is expressed. Imbued with a sense of humor that prevents them from teetering into total seriousness, these stories explore nearly all aspects of war: past and future; us and them; American, German, civilian. But Vonnegut’s vision extends beyond fiction, even beyond words. It reaches into the minds of his readers, for ultimately what we take from this book is nothing but his perspective of the world: what it is, what it can be, what it should be.

Introduction (Mark Vonnegut)

In my early-to-mid-twenties he let it slip that he was afraid that therapy might make him normal and well-adjusted, and that would be the end of his writing. I tried to reassure him that psychiatrists weren’t nearly that good.

Reading and writing are in themselves subversive acts. What they subvert is the notion that things have to be the way they are, that you are alone, that no one has ever felt the way you have.

Guns before Butter

‘Before the war, everybody was overweight, living to eat instead of eating to live. Germany has never been healthier.’

The Unicorn Trap

‘The wreckers against the builders! There’s the whole story of life!’

Unknown Soldier

If television refuses to look at something, it is as though it never happened.

Spoils

‘You’re the victors, you know, you’ve got a bloody good right to anything you like.’

The Commandant’s Desk

‘I feel almost as though being alive were something to be ashamed of.’

‘…those who can’t afford beautiful things love the idea of there being such things somewhere.’

Letters to a Young Poet

Some things are better the second time around. I first read this the year I turned eighteen: the book was a birthday present from Gica. I have absolutely no recollection of that initial reading, except that I did not understand anything. The book left no impression on me. Now, at the brink of twenty-one, and almost graduating, I want to believe that I am better equipped for it, that in three years I have matured enough as a writer and a person to undertake a second reading.

Ten letters make up this slim volume. The “young poet” they address is Franz Xaver Kappus, who had written to Rilke in 1903 in the hopes of finding an artistic adviser or, at the very least, a confidant. He proved to be much more. In his replies, Rilke examines the complications of human experience as well as burdens peculiar to the artist. One can only imagine Kappus asking him: What does it mean to be an artist? to be human?

Rilke begins with an image of the artist as a solitary creature. He characterizes artistic work as an exploration of one’s inner self, a cultivation of the “vast space” surrounding each individual: a lifelong development of poetics. “Everything is gestation and then birthing,” he says, comparing the creative process to sexual union, creation, fruition (the word appeals to the senses). On humanity, he advises openness to life: everything is tied to mystery, and the experiences we are unable to explain must be surrendered to something greater than us.

I could not finish Letters in one sitting. Though written with simple words, the text requires so much from the reader. I found the content heavy, suffused with insights too profound to be swallowed all at once, insights that can only have come from a life deeply and fully lived: “Don’t think that the person who is trying to comfort you now lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes give you much pleasure. His life has much trouble and sadness, and remains far behind yours. If it were otherwise, he would never have been able to find those words.”

Some reviews back I said that I believed no book is worth reading thrice. Now I am forced to recant that statement. A few years down the line, I would probably be up for a third reading of Rilke’s Letters.

Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existence, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.

No one can advise or help you—no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.

A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it.

…for ultimately, and precisely in the deepest and most important matters, we are unspeakably alone; and many things must happen, many things must go right, a whole constellation of events must be fulfilled, for one human being to successfully advise or help another.

Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.

And in fact the artist’s experience lies so unbelievably close to the sexual, to its pain and its pleasure, that the two phenomena are really just different forms of one and the same longing and bliss.

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and…love the questions themselves… Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything.

What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours—that is what you must be able to attain.

…ask yourself…whether you have really lost God. Isn’t it much truer to say that you have never yet possessed him? …and if you are terrified to feel that even now he does not exist…what justifies you then, if he never existed, in missing him like someone who has passed away and in searching for him as though he were lost?

It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.

The future stands still…but we move in infinite space. How could it not be difficult for us?