Monday, November 18, 2013

My Literary Love Affair

"I cannot live without books," wrote President Thomas Jefferson to President John Adams in 1815, the year he sold his 6,500-volume library to the United States Congress, in order to restore the nation's Library after the British destroyed it in the War of 1812.  His book collecting spanned 50 years and the resulting library incorporated virtually every subject of possible interest to a literate person.  When offering his library to Congress, Mr. Jefferson wrote "I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer."  He let the buyer set the price because the rebuilt library would become, in his words, "the depository of unquestionably the choicest collection of books in the US, and I hope it will not be without some general effect on the literature of our country." 

Today, the Library of Congress holds over 22.8 million books plus 7.6 million other printed works.  It is the repository of all copyrighted materials in the United States, providing proof of ownership in legal cases among other services for authors and scholars.  This library is second in size only to the British Library.  It's main purpose is to provide research services to the U. S. Congress.  In addition, the Library of Congress promotes literacy and the pursuit of education and preservation of history through a variety of programs including the American Folklife Center and the Center for the Book.  No trip to Washington, D. C., is complete without a visit to the main reading room, a shrine to human excellence and the great American Experiment.

Most Americans own a small number of books, but there are those of us who, like Thomas Jefferson, find books irresistible.  My parents were great readers and I grew up in a house filled to overflowing with books.  To my great dismay, one of the first "adult" books I read in elementary school was William Golding's Lord of the Flies;  I still have nightmares about it.  Fortunately I discovered The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger and I realized that I was not alone in seeing that humans were a greatly troubled species.  Even though I wasn't much of a student, my love of reading provided me with an on-going education that I continue to enjoy.   If I kept every single book I have ever read, I would need a very large warehouse to store them all because becoming a good reader takes a lot of practice.  The books my husband and I keep are ones we would be willing to read a second (or third) time.  It is hard to prevent our bookcases from overflowing because they are filled with books that have earned a permanent place in our lives.  It gives us pleasure to read the spines of the many volumes in our library and remember a passage or a character or feeling a particular book evoked.  When I am too old to get around, I hope I will still be able to read (or listen to) books.  My worst fear is finally having time to read to the end of my list, but not being able to because of physical limitations.  There was a "Twilight Zone" episode about this which upsets me to this day.

The only thing you can bet on in life is that things change, and things have recently changed for my family.  Our reason for living in Florida recently disappeared and sadly we will be leaving this singular place that, against the odds, we have come to love.  Our next move will likely result in a smaller house because our children are grown.  A smaller house, unfortunately, means we will need to leave a good part of our library behind.  How to choose a "permanent collection"?  That is the question.  It would be easier if there were a books equivalent of iTunes so that we could download eBook copies of books we already own, but there is not yet an app for that. 

It makes me sad to think that the days of printed books are numbered, but change is a constant we must accept if we wish to thrive.  I already have 44 books on my Nook eReader and find the experience of reading digital pages to be acceptable in most cases.  There are several advantages to the eReader:  a dictionary or reference source is a click away, there is always something to read, and I feel no guilt about deleting a bad book.  My Nook is best for what I call "disposable books," such as book club selections and popular reading that I am glad not to own a hard copy of.  There are several websites which allow free downloads of books which have outlived their copyright protections and are now in the public domain(  This is a great way to read the classics.  Other websites, devoted to emerging writers, feature free or low-cost eBooks (  Do not despair:  the written word is alive and well, new authors are emerging, and publishing an eBbook can be done in half a day.  It is the big publishing houses that are suffering right now.  Things change.  That's life.

Given the coming changes in my life, I have decided that this will be my last blog post on the topic of reading,  and so I will leave you, dear readers, with a list of a few books that I have appreciated (in no particular order) across the past twenty or so years, but haven't had the chance to write about:

  • ·         Generations of Winter by Vasily Aksyonov (1994)
  • ·         Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (1983)
  • ·         West With the Night by Beryl Markham (1942)
  • ·         The Ciderhouse Rules by John Irving (1985)
  • ·         The Life and Work of Martha Graham by Agnes de Mille (1992)
  • ·         The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan (1991)
  • ·         A Lesson Before Dying by Earnest J. Gaines (1993)
  • ·         Praying for Sheetrock by Melissa Fay Greene (1991)
  • ·         Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver (1989)
  • ·         Babel Tower by A. S. Byatt (1996)
  • ·         Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett (1996)
  • ·         Dreams of My Russian Summers by Andreï Makine, translated by Geoffrey Strachan (1997)
  • ·         Out of Egypt by André Aciman (1994)
  • ·         A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul (1961 and later)
  • ·         Gallileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel (2009)
  • ·         The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (2007)
  • ·         Waiting by Ha Jin (2000)
  • ·         Straight Man by Richard Russo (1998)
  • ·         Personal History by Katharine Graham (1998)
  • ·         American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1998)
  • ·         Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley (2000)
  • ·         Escape from Lucania by David Roberts (2010)
  • ·         Songs of the Kings by Barry Unsworth (2003)
  • ·         The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (2002)
  • ·         The Magician's Wife by Brian Moore (1997)
  • ·         The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster (2002)
  • ·         The Big Sky by A. B. Guthrie, Jr. (1947)
  • ·         The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (2003)
  • ·         The Reivers by William Faulkner (1962)
  • ·         Graceland by Chris Abani (2005)
  • ·         Snow in August by Pete Hamill (1998)
  • ·         The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (2001)
  • ·         The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch (1992)
  • ·         Two Lives by Vikram Seth (2006)

And, in honor of a happy decade in south Florida,

  • ·         A Land Remembered by Patrick D. Smith (1984)
Copyright 2013 by Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved

Monday, October 28, 2013

An Equal Music

By Vikram Seth

When words fail there is music, the universal language.  This great mystery of human experience gives us the sense of some higher power or greater intelligence at work outside of the known world.  Very few writers dare to describe music's connection to the divine and most of those who do fall short.  Only a virtuosic writer, on a par with the world's greatest composers, should approach this task and even then, very carefully. 

Having read and loved A Suitable Boy, I was prepared to like An Equal Music, by Vikram Seth.  Instead, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the writing because I could hear the music and feel the passion so transcendently described in this novel.  It is a story of love between a man and a woman, of love for music and musicians, between parents and children, husbands and wives, teachers and students, friends and rivals. 

In a taxi in London, Michael Holme -- second violinist in the Maggiore Quartet -- hears the ghost of his great love playing piano in Beethoven's piece for string quintet in C minor, opus 104.  He knows it is Julia on the piano but also knows it cannot be because she has disappeared completely from, his life,  the classical music scene, and the world at large.  And yet, there is something about the touch on the keys and phrasing that is as unique as her fragrance.  Michael scours music libraries and record stores for scores and recordings of the music he has heard and finally, by chance, obtains an obscure eastern European LP.  Coincidentally, on the bus going home with his prize Michael, heading in one direction, locks eyes with a woman who can only be Julia heading in the opposite direction.  He jumps off the bus and catches a taxi, following Julia's bus only to discover that she is not on it.  Worst of all, he has left his Beethoven record in the taxi and knows he will never find another copy.  And then one day, the doorman at his apartment building hands it to him saying a strange woman has dropped it by.

Julia reenters Michael's life as abruptly as he had left hers, but resuming the romance of ten years past is more complicated than he understands it to be.  When they parted ways in Vienna, Michael was in the throes of a psychological breakdown at the hands of his Svengali-like violin teacher Carl Käll who sees in Michael the musician he could never be.  By the time Michael is well enough to face Julia again, she has disappeared and no one in her family will help him find her.  When she suddenly reappears, following a concert given by the Maggiore Quartet, Michael is thunderstruck as if he has been given a chance to save his soul from eternal damnation. 

Julia, however, has moved on.  She is married and mother to a seven-year-old son.  Rekindling her young love for Michael would be a betrayal of everyone and everything she holds dear.  And yet, so much between them is unresolved.  Only the music of Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert comes close to expressing the depth and richness of what they had together.  When Michael left, Julia was as devastated as he was ill but found a way rebuild her broken heart and life.  Michael, for his part, limped along with his borrowed violin until the Maggiore Quartet had an opening for a second violin.  The first violinist and viola player -- Piers and Helen, respectively -- are siblings and Billy, the cellist, might as well be given their often childish interactions.  Michael, with his own emotional baggage, fits beautifully with the Maggiore and the four become a loving if somewhat dysfunctional pseudo family. 

In an interview for Random House, Vikram Seth discusses his use of a string quartet as the framework for Michael's life:

Basically, a quartet is a very odd structure. There are four musicians: two violins (which adds a bit of complexity and competition), a viola player, and a cellist. The music they make has to be cooperative--you can't have a virtuoso sticking out. And yet, though there's cooperation on stage, there may be bitter rivalries, dislikes, intrigues, and conflicts among the four players. They spend more time with each other than with their families--very often on the road and very often under pressure on stage. It's a bit like a platoon under fire or a marriage of four people--with all the complications that a marriage of two people entails multiplied in more combinations than I can calculate. Using a quartet also allowed me to introduce other characters to enrich the background of the novel's main story, the love story between Michael and Julia.

Under pressure from Michael and after much deliberation, Julia agrees to perform with the Maggiore in Vienna and Venice, the cities where she and Michael had loved and lost each other ten years earlier.  Their performances are a brilliant success and the five musicians decide to tackle Bach's "Art of the Fugue", a piece which spiritually bound Michael and Julia together as young musicians and lovers and which pushes the quartet to the breaking point.  As deeply as she still loves him Julia refuses to leave her husband for Michael who suffers another breakdown and resigns from the quartet.  Meanwhile, the owner of the violin Michael has played for his entire career, who was also his first music teacher, begins hinting that her son wants to inherit the violin so he can sell it to finance his children's education.  Michael had always known that the violin might disappear from his life and accepts this coming loss as another devastating heartbreak.  While he dearly wishes that Mrs. Formby would simply give him the violin, he understands that family comes first and does not hold this against her.  He visits her as often as he can and frequently corresponds with her out of appreciation for her lifelong mentorship and genuine affection for her, his oldest friend.  

An Equal Music could have gone in a very conventional direction, but Vikram Seth is not a conventional writer.  He speaks a number of languages, has lived all over the world, and considers himself bisexual.  He was born in Calcutta, India, was educated in England, and worked as an economist until writing began taking up too much of his working time.  His best-selling  A Suitable Boy, an epic novel of Indian family, cultural, and social life is a masterwork which took him ten years to write.  After that, he had to take a long break before he could pick up a pen.  It was a few years later, while walking and people-watching in a park in London, that the story of a heartsick musician took root. 

Interviewers frequently ask Mr. Seth if he is a musician and the answer is not.  In order to write An Equal Music he had to spend countless hours studying music and musicians in order to bring Michael to life and to describe the emotional experience of listening to the pieces played by the quartet.  Most striking is how, even without knowing the pieces, one hears music playing throughout this beautiful story.  It reminds me of how choreographer George Balanchine famously spoke of "seeing the music" and how composer Igor Stravinsky likewise "heard the dancing" in their collaborations.  Only a great artist could express him or herself so perfectly.

Where composers paint pictures with music and great artists compose music with paint brushes, great writers capture beauty and spiritual experience with words.  The title of this lovely book comes from "Our Last Awakening", a prayer by John Donne (1571-1631):

Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity: in the habitations of thy majesty and glory, world without end. Amen.

After leaving him again and forever, Julia sends Michael a message through music that is an answer to this prayer.

Copyright 2013 Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse

By Thomas McNamee

According to the NRA  (National Restaurant Association), 71% of adults surveyed in 2013 said they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers locally-produced food items.   Twenty years ago, the surveyors might not have thought to ask the question, unless they were from California  – specifically, Berkeley – where Alice Waters has been championing locally sourced food since 1971.  Alice’s restaurant, charmingly named Chez Panisse, at 1517 Shattuck Avenue, was and is an ongoing demonstration that “how we eat can change the world.”

The subtitle of  Thomas McNamee’s book, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, “The romantic, impractical, often eccentric, ultimately brilliant making of a food revolution” says it all. In 1971, at a time when fast food restaurants were springing up like weeds in summer, a charismatic and energetic young woman with more ideas and passion than common sense and money opened a small restaurant in a shabby little house in a sleepy area of Berkeley, California.  Neither Alice nor her staff had much in the way of restaurant experience or culinary training, but despite the odds, and two devastating fires, the restaurant remains one of America’s dining Meccas because of who Alice Waters is and how she changed the way Americans eat.

During Alice Waters’ time in France in the mid-1960s she discovered that her sense of taste was more highly tuned than the average person’s.  Additionally, her “taste memory” was such that she could replicate flavors she had previously enjoyed and create new flavors by combinations of tastes remembered.  Of critical importance to flavor, she found, was the freshness of her ingredients.  In Paris, Alice had lived above the market street where she shopped daily for her foods.  Upon returning to the US, Alice began cooking for her friends and developed a reputation as an innovative cook.  When she opened the doors of Chez Panisse on August 28, 1971, the line of people waiting for a table wrapped around the block.  It would not be the last time she ran out of food.

The American food renaissance began in the early 1960s with the publication of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and her PBS TV series “The French Chef”.  Having lived for several years in France where she trained at Le Cordon Bleu, Mrs. Child and two friends developed a methodology for cooking in  the French style with commonly available American foods. Her emphasis was on technique and practice so that cooking well would become second nature; the quality and freshness of ingredients were assumed to be inferior to what could be found in France and the recipes reflected that.  Thanks to Julia Child, Americans learned to eat quiches, soufflés, pâtés, and mousses and our restaurants improved as a result.  

At the same time that Americans were learning to eat gourmet foods, factory farming began to overtake family farms.  These massive farms produced pesticide-laced fruits and vegetables as well as antibiotic- and hormone-saturated meat and poultry.  In addition, agricultural laboratories developed artificial means of extending the shelf life of fresh foods so they could withstand weeks of refrigerated storage before appearing at a grocery store.  The result of these innovations is abundant and low-cost produce and meats, sadly lacking in flavor and nutrients.  Moreover, the long range effects of ingesting chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones are not fully understood, but are certainly not benign. 

The food we eat is a product of where and how it is grown.  Alice understood at an early age that foods grown from healthy soil, and animals raised on small farms by caring farmers not only tasted better, but were better for us.  As she became knowledgeable about farming practices in her constant quest for local food sources, Alice developed a vision of feeding America, and the world, in a way that would nourish both the consumers and the earth.  Her growing celebrity paired with her vision inspired what came to be called the “Slow Food” movement. 

Rome, Italy, is a place where the continuum of history lives in plain sight.  In the late 1980s, McDonalds opened an outlet at the foot of the Spanish Steps, one of the city’s greatest gathering places.  The outrage over this assault on culture, tradition, and history led to the founding of “Agricole”, the world’s first official Slow Food organization.  If “fast food” is mass-produced in factories weeks or months before it is sold, “slow food” is grown on small farms, harvested at peak ripeness, and quickly brought to a chef’s kitchen for consumption that same day.  Italian food has always been “slow” which is why it tastes so much better in Italy than in America.  The appearance of McDonalds in the heart of the eternal city signaled a coming and unwelcome change to centuries of land stewardship and food production in Europe.  Alice Waters endorsed the Slow Food movement and became a vocal advocate.

How Alice Waters not only kept her ineptly managed restaurant alive and changed the way Americans feel about fresh foods is a fascinating and well-told story.  One of Alice’s gifts is that she is a people magnet.  She has always had many friends and as her fame grew, she attracted celebrities to her circle.  This access to the rich and famous enabled her to reach a wider audience than her restaurant patrons.  She began lecturing and publishing books, traveling frequently, and delegating responsibility for Chez Panisse to others.  Her management style, if she has one, is capricious.  She breezes into the kitchen, examines this, tastes that, and as often as not changes the entire menu requiring emergency produce runs and reprints of the menus (if time permits).  Surprisingly, turnover is low as employees know they will never find another restaurant where the sourcing, preparation, and presentation of food is a quasi-spiritual experience.

In 1983 Alice gave birth to her only child, Fanny, and her worldview changed abruptly.  Suddenly a “grownup” she circulated a memo to the restaurant staff stating the “five causes for immediate dismissal:”

  • Stealing from the restaurant or employees
  • Being drunk on the job
  • Fighting on the premises
  • Throwing food on the premises
  • Smoking marijuana on the premises during hours of operation

Her biggest concern, however, was that her child grow up appreciating and having access to untainted food.  This led to the nurturing of farmers who rejected the use of pesticides, chemicals, and other unnatural substances, opting instead to renew the soil with compost and crop rotations.  Procuring organic food for the restaurant became a daily race against the clock as suppliers were scattered all around and transportation arrangements were a challenge to choreograph. 

After several years of complicated logistics, one of Alice’s friends, Sibella Kraus, set up a meeting of organic farmers and restaurateurs which resulted in more efficient means of bringing the farm to the table while broadening the market for clean produce.  Farmers and chefs began working together to coordinate menus with seasonal produce and the results have been far-reaching.  Farmers’ markets once scarce, are now regular fixtures in major cities and towns throughout the US, giving people access to fresh vegetables and fruits as well as baked goods, preserves, honey, and crafts. 

As Fanny grew and entered school, Alice noticed how few children ate nutritious lunches and this prompted her to champion an “edible schoolyard” program.  Her vision was an interdisciplinary program in which the children would tend the garden while learning about plant biology, teamwork, and planning and sequencing of tasks.  Garden produce would supply the school cafeterias with fresh vegetables and fruits; organic waste would be composted and eventually returned to the garden beds.  Alice, ever the visionary, viewed the schoolyard gardens as a way of healing the planet from the ground up.  She lobbied President and Mrs. Clinton relentlessly about planting a kitchen garden at the White House, but they never warmed to the idea.  Alice’s dream of a White House kitchen garden finally came true in 2009 when Michelle Obama enlisted a local elementary school to plant a garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

The economics of running a restaurant are sobering:  according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics roughly 60% of restaurants fail within the first three years of operation in spite of being run by seasoned professionals with strong financial backing.  Alice Waters’ food service experience amounted to making small sandwiches in a department store tearoom across one summer, and a few short stints as a waitress.  Her financial backing was a small loan from her parents.  Chez Panisse literally ran on Alice’s will power for years, losing money and running up debts thanks to sloppy bookkeeping and non-existent inventory control.   The financial story of Chez Panisse and Alice Waters reads like a combination of ponzi scheme and check-kiting scandal, but the story of the food is pure fairy tale, with Alice as the Artemis-like heroine.

Given all this, it is almost miraculous that Chez Panisse is still thriving at the age of 42.  If you ever have the pleasure of dining there pay attention to the details:  the place settings, flowers, lighting, and plating.  Your menu will feature a woodblock printed cover and list the four course set menu inside.  At Chez Panisse, there are no choices so you have to be willing to eat what you are served, even if it is different from what is printed on your menu; because if Alice isn’t happy with something, it will not appear on your plate.   Dining at Chez Panisse is never the same twice so if you don’t like it the first time, you will the second or third time you go.
Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, written by one of her many close friends, may change the way you think about food and might even inspire you to plant a kitchen garden.  If we are what we eat, this book is definitely food for thought.

Menu from Chez Panisse, Saturday September 17, 2011 

Copyright 2013 Teresa Friedlander