Thursday, September 30, 2010

Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert

The phenomenon of the celebrity chef was evident Thursday night when Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert joined forces at Clowes Hall. The event was sold-out; the crowd was a mix of well-heeled, privileged foodies from the shiny suburb just north of Indy and sandaled, Whole Foods-shopping, granola types. When I first heard news of this event I was surprised to find it would not include a cooking demonstration, or even a discussion of culinary technique -- and indeed, there were no spatulas or whisks used in this program. In fact, aside from the two couches and coffee table onstage, the only prop was an over-sized bucket of iced beer, the contents of which facilitated the two-hour conversation about food between these two celebrity chefs.

Initially, I was dubious about the idea of hearing these two men talk about food. I wondered if I could connect with them. After all, just because a person can cook, or can cook on TV, doesn't necessarily mean that what he has to say is worth listening to. But Bourdain and Ripert did have something special to offer. There was a genuine affection and a natural chemistry between the two men that made for an engaging and lively discussion. Also, their contrasting personalities played off each other nicely. Ripert's calm and thoughtful manner was the perfect foil for Bourdain's gregarious, unedited and provocative persona.

Some of the more noteworthy moments of the evening came when Bourdain let loose. He took on The Olive Garden (for bastardizing Italian food), and chef Gordon Ramsey (for his punishing ways on the show "Hell's Kitchen"). Bourdain's most entertaining tirade was when he took on one of the more cherished icons of the foodie world, Alice Waters. I heard Waters speak at the Indianapolis Museum of Art a year or two ago, and I remember her mentioning a program that would promote organic school lunches. Bourdain concurred that Water's goal of organic school lunches is laudable, but then put things in perspective by pragmatically suggesting that before funds are directed towards making sure a child's lunch is organic (complete with a flower vase decorating the table!), those funds should first go towards making sure the child can read.

I hadn't expected this non-cooking program about food to be so enjoyable. As I left, I reflected on how the two men, especially Bourdain, connected so well with the audience. Both men, despite being in the spotlight, were able to be themselves onstage. Each came across as comfortable in his own skin. This ease lent them a natural magnetism, and reminded me of what a precious gift self-expression is -- how the ability to express oneself facilitates connections -- and isn't that what we're all looking for, anyway? Bourdain and Ripert made for a fun night -- and this without consuming a single calorie.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

You Don't Love Me Yet, by Jonathan Lethem

Our family's tradition is to hold big dinner parties during the weekend that falls during the eight-day holiday of Sukkot. On those nights big, aluminum trays heavy with lasagna, and baskets of garlic bread cover the table in our sukkah. As the sun sets we light an oil-burning lantern that hangs from one of the roof beams and it casts a cozy, yellow glow over the faces of our guests. This year, though, something unexpected happened. This year, the Bat Mitzvah of the daughter of a dear family friend was scheduled over the holiday weekend so, instead of the frantic bustle of big dinners, we had the honor of attending this special event.

Although I was excited to be a part of my friend's daughter's Bat Mitzvah, because I wouldn't be holding our usual dinner parties, I expected I might feel as though something was missing. What took me by surprise, though, was how meaningful the weekend ended up being despite the absence of our Sukkot dinners. In fact the experience of joining in a good friend's simcha touched my heart so deeply, I didn't miss the dinners at all. That was unexpected.

There were a few moments that stood out. The first came during the ceremony when the rabbi called the Bat Mitzvah girl by the wrong name. At that time the Bat Mitzvah girl was sitting way at the edge of the stage, not exactly close to the rabbi, but she had the moxie to interrupt him, and called out to remind him of her name! Moxie from a 13-year-old girl under the pressure of a Bat Mitzvah ceremony -- who knew? The next moment came later that evening, at the end of the kids' dance party. It was time for the closing song, which was, of course, Green Day's, "The Time of Your Life," (this was expected) and the kids had their arms around each other, singing and swaying to the music. And that's when, spontaneously, six of us adults -- all good friends of each other and the celebrating family -- formed our own little circle. We slung our arms over each others' shoulders, swayed and sang along like the teenagers. Sure, the song has been so overplayed that is has become a cliche, but it isn't every day that I get the chance to celebrate the important place my friends hold in my life. And the third moment? This one still has me floored. Turns out one of the guests at the Bat Mitzvah was just featured in the news. Her parents were killed in the Holocaust and, through several serendipitous twists of fate, JUST LAST WEEK she was reunited with a member of the French family who housed her and helped to smuggle her safely into America.

The weekend's lesson: even if I don't get what I expect, if I am able to keep an open mind, I may end up with something even better. Take Jonathan Lethem's, "You Don't Love Me Yet." I've never read a Lethem novel, but because he is scheduled to speak as part of Butler's writers series I felt spurred to fill in this particular literary gap. In "You Don't Love Me Yet" Lethem tells the story of the four members of a garage rock band. At the start, an avant-garde performance artist sets up a complaint hotline as an art exhibit and the female member of the band is charged with answering the phone. One of the callers, known only as The Complainer, intrigues the band member and the story is off. YDLMY was one wild ride, and although I didn't understand it, I sure liked it. What is Lethem's theme? I have no idea. In YDLMY, just as in my Sukkot weekend, I didn't get what I expected. But I sure had fun.

Check out the link below for the Bat Mitzvah guest's amazing story -- and no, unlike the recent fiction of the story of the man who reunited with the girl who tossed him apples over the camp fence -- this one is for real!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Yusef Komunyakaa

Yet another perk of being a grad student at Butler is that not only does Butler bring in an astounding array of writers to give readings, but the writers also hold a separate Q & A session just for Butler students. This afternoon I sat in on Yusef Komunyakaa's Q & A session, amidst a couple of dozen undergrad and grad students.

Right away I could tell we were in for a treat. Mr. Komunyakaa has a distinctive demeanor: he was playful and thoughtful at the same time and had a warm, mischievous grin. He introduced himself by saying that his poetry carried a lot of insinuation and many possibilities of meaning. When he answered students questions, his answers were not straightforward, but open-ended, feeling as full of insinuation and possibility as his poetry.

Two aspects of the session warmed my heart. The first was that the students around me had a high level of attentiveness and preparedness; they were no slouches, and brought with them a plethora of intriguing and insight-drawing questions. Second, Komunyakaa was up and open to the challenge. Much later in the day when I saw him again, and I mentioned that the Q & A session had gone well, and K. agreed, saying it had developed into a good dialogue. And that was exactly right. Komunyakaa was clearly not an author going through the motions to sell books; he was utterly engaged in the mutuality of discussion -- reflecting on our questions, speaking his thoughts, and even tossing a question or two back to the students.

Here are some gems from his part of this thoughtful dialogue: K. told us that poems take us back to the oral tradition, and are templates for extended possibility...we read them to bring us to a mystery. Poems invite the reader to bring his or her own meaning to the words, thereby making the text elastic. When K. was asked why people write poems, he answered that we do this in order to have a dialogue, to understand. Lastly, he told us that poems have to have tension.

I had a few questions for K. about music, especially since his poetry is said not only to be lyrical, but have rhythm and tonality. First I asked K what his relationship is to jazz, and he responded that he loved the freedom of expression embodied in jazz. In addition, he told me jazz informs his poetry by giving an example of a wandering away from and then returning to a central theme. K. related this to his poetry, and said when he writes he likes to add discursive elements that are outside the logical narrative perspective. When I asked K. what he held close to his heart about Charlie Parker, the jazz saxophonist who is the subject of some of K.'s work, he said he is still struck by the astonishing tonality of Parker's work, along with the duality of Parker's love for his art and the agony the demons within him caused.

When I ask how he became a poet, K. recalled that the seeds of his poetry-making were sown in his childhood, in his singing to the radio, and reading of Whitman as well as the poets of the Harlem renaissance. For Komunyakaa, language is music, and the best way to gain access to the notes is to read.

K. devoted a portion of the discussion to poems about his tour in Vietnam and how it took him 14 years to write about his experiences there.

Lastly, I asked him about the 11 years he lived Bloomington, IN. K. said those years stayed with him, in a positive way, noting that much innovation in this country happens between the coasts.

Mr. Komunyakka, it was a pleasure. Next visiting poet: Jean Valentine.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder

This morning my husband, Charles, asked if I had a good audiobook, as he needed something to listen to on his long drive to work. I recommended "Strength in What Remains."
"What's it about?" asked Charles.
"Well," I responded, "it's a genocide memoir."
There is a trend towards genocide memoirs these days. Despite the discomfort this label can evoke, these books have the ability to transform a story so mind-numbingly overwhelming in the scale and scope of its horror into a singular, compelling narrative. I'm reminded of Dave Eggers's "What is the What," another story of a massive-scale tragedy told through the eyes of one person. And what could possibly be more compelling than one person's story?
"Strength in What Remains" is the story of the recent genocide in Burundi and Rwanda, as told by Deogratias, a medical student from Burundi who is forced to travel through Rwanda to escape. Once in America Deo works delivering groceries and sleeps in the park. Ultimately, though, amidst Deo's gruesome struggles both in Africa and America, he finds help, and eventually returns to Burundi to help rebuild his homeland. Through Deo's efforts in Burundi, the reader is reminded that goodness can prevail over the suffering inflicted by the misguided or evil among us. Ultimately, what remains is hope.
"Strength in What Remains" is a difficult and inspiring story, and like all genocide memoirs it also educates, one of the side benefits of stories like these. The history, geography and political science (the stuff I snoozed through in high school and college) that informs the plot are told through the lens of one person's story, rendered, finally, in a personal, attention-holding way. Here's the tidbit that fascinated me the most, one I gleaned from Kidder's explanation of the seeds of the Hutu, Tutsi dispute: These two peoples coexisted peacefully until Belgium and Germany colonized the areas. The colonialists, in order to maximize their profits, chose to spend the majority of their time in Europe and therefore needed to use natives in order to implement their plans. To facilitate this, the colonialists created a mythology. They spread the story that the tutsis were white, even though their skin was black. Then the colonialists gave the tutsis power over the hutus, charging the tutsis with enforcing their mandate that the hutus do their back breaking labor. By the time Burundi and Rwanda reverted back to self-government, the rift between the tutsis and the hutus had been cemented.
I was glad to have listened to Kidder's beautifully told story about Deogratias. Next time, though, if I want Charles to listen to something other than NPR, I'll have to find a way to rephrase the genocide memoir label.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Kim Addonizio

I recently had the honor and privilege of being included in a group of faculty and students that took poet/novelist Kim Addonizio out to dinner before her scheduled reading. I was so psyched. As a new grad student in Butler's English department, my mission is to milk the experience for all it is worth. Butler brings in a lot of famous writers, and in service of my mission I am determined to meet as many of them as possible. Now that I had a spot at Addonizio's dinner table, though, panic struck. What would I talk about with this famous author? But wait, I thought. Kim Addonizio's novels are set in the Bay Area, and the author herself lives in Oakland. That's something! I grew up in San Francisco, and my mom lived in Oakland. That small sliver of commonality in the Venn diagram of our lives gave me hope. Maybe all I had to do to connect with Addonizio was find a way to oh-so-casually drop this little tidbit into the dinner conversation. "Kim," I would say, "did you know we share a common geography?" and our Bay Area sisterhood would instantly forge. Like a true insider I would ask, "Is McArthur Boulevard still teeming with streetwalkers, and do they still get incrementally fancier the further you drive? And -- don't laugh -- but as I pictured her acknowledging my savvy, in-the-know question, this is how I imagined she would reciprocate: "Oh, Susan, they do!" And hey, have you ever had the Black and Tan sundae at Fentons?" (Fentons is Oakland's semi-famous ice cream parlor, and ice cream has always been my drug of choice.) And if all that wasn't enough grist for the mill to establish our sisterhood, there are the small matters of grit and bad decision making. The characters in Addonizio's novels tend to show both these qualities, and I was certain this was born of the grit Addonizio showed and the bad decisions she must have made in her own life. Double kinship! Kim and I were going to be tight! I couldn't believe how much we had in common! Well, except for the "tats," of course, but I was confident that, despite my unadorned skin, Kim and I were sure to bond. Our tablemates were going to sit by and watch our friendship meld with open-jawed awe.

So that's how I found myself, Thursday night, sitting nervously on a mile-high stack of unrealistic expectations, across the table from Kim Addonizio, ready to dish about our shared hometowns. And how did it go, you ask? Well, Kim was congenial, pleasant and affable, but she was pretty much all business. Not exactly forthcoming about her own life, and not especially inquisitive about anyone else's at our table . I guess I assumed a wide-eyed curiosity would be the hallmark of any writer, but Addonizio came off as, to me at least, a little guarded (perhaps it was me who was guarded?) When I look back on the evening, though, I have to laugh. Why should I have expected an instant friendship with a total stranger just because we both hail from the same part of the country or because we both have an interest in writing? There could have been a million things on her mind that night. Who knows, maybe she was tired. Maybe it ends up being a big drag to travel across the country to spend time with strangers (who carry all sorts of expectations with them!) and read the same poems over and over. And the Bay Area connection I so unrealistically thought would magically bond us? The couple of attempts I made at bringing up our common Bay Area provenance were met with nonchalance.

After dinner we all moved on to Butler for her reading. At Butler Addonizio pulled out all the stops, reading poems and accompanying some of them with blues harmonica, which made for an entertaining and informative evening. That my construct of a Bay Area sisterhood, (born of my fantasies of immersing myself in the world of famous writers), didn't pan out didn't take away from the fact that I HAD DINNER WITH KIM ADDONIZIO!

I'll remember Addonizio best by the button on the lapel of her jacket. She draped it over the back of the seat in front of me during her reading. It read: "F@ck the world. I'm an artist." (The button didn't make use of the "@.")

Well, it's on to author number two in Butler's series, another poet, Yusef Komanyakaa.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Blame, by Michele Huneven

Friday night marks the beginning of the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. Commonly translated as The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and contemplation. On Yom Kippur we don't ask for forgiveness from the people we have hurt; we should have already done that. On Yom Kippur we ask for God's forgiveness for our transgressions against Him.

It is particularly timely then, in this season of accepting responsibility and granting forgiveness, to review Michelle Huneven's "Blame." In an inventive plot, Patsy MacLemore, a History professor and reckless alcoholic has, in one of her standard evenings out, a blackout. When she wakes up she finds she is in jail, and discovers that while under the influence she had a terrible accident in her own driveway, killing two people. The bulk of the novel goes on to explore the changes Patsy goes through when she is convicted, serves her prison sentence, is subsequently released, and, with the help of AA, slowly learns how to rebuild her life, accepting the blame for the deaths of two innocent victims.

I had a few minor squabbles with "Blame." The first section concentrates not on Patsy, but on one of the book's supporting characters, and I felt a little mislead and confused when I finally realized, a third of the way through the book, that this minor character wasn't the protagonist. Was this just my peri-menopausal-brain's need for simplicity? Perhaps. Also, I found the last scene, although quite poetic, a little heavy-handed in its attempt at allegory. Still, if you're looking for a well-crafted, thought-provoking read in this season of atonement, then check out "Blame." (Also perfect fodder for book clubs)

Also, in a nod to Yom Kippur, here is Marjorie Ingall's article on the uber popular young adult novel "Hunger Games" and how it relates to this season. Due to my technical skills, or lack thereof, you'll have to cut and paste this as the link didn't come through....

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Embers, by Hyatt Bass

I won't even try to give "The Embers" a just review. My brain is so sluggish from an over-generous Rosh Hashana lunch that I can barely eke out a coherent sentence. Still, I have had something to say about this book for awhile now. I've been "sitting" on this review for over a week now. I've been stalling, not sure about how I want to say how I feel about this book.

I try to find something admirable in every person I meet, and I try to find something compelling in every book I read. I was intrigued by Bass's plot: an exploration of a family as the daughter plans her wedding on the spot her brother's ashes are buried. As is my custom, I borrowed the audiobook from the library, and forced myself to listen to the first 3 CDs before I cracked and gave up. Not only was I not getting into this book, I simply wasn't getting it. Is there an actual plot to this novel, I wondered, or am I too obtuse to catch the subtlety? So I tried again, but to no avail. I am not a reader that needs to be hit over the head with gunfights, car chases and sex scenes, but I do need some sense, amidst the everyday chatter that fills in between more dramatic scenes, that there is something happening in a book that moves the plot along, and I could not find that in "The Embers." But just as people are different, so are books. "The Embers" didn't light a fire under me (who says I didn't inherit my Dad's pun gene!) doesn't mean that it won't do it for you.

Meanwhile, Shana Tova!