Category Archives: books

Kale soup and harbor view

Sadly, I have pictures of neither.  (Well, kale soup isn’t very attractive, actually, but I’m sorry I can’t show you the view.)  I went down to Fairway in Red Hook this morning, my mouth still sore and sour from some hardcore dentistry on Thursday, intending to buy coffee and olive oil and root vegetables for mashing.  Soft foods, you see, are called for.  I dithered and wondered in front of the vast display of olive oils; no samples had yet been set out.  Gloomy, uncomfortable, and indecisive, I decided to have a cup of milky coffee at the café, look out at the view of New York harbor, and read my library book, To Eat by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd.

The wind was blowing hard from the east, pressing wavelets out of the water; further out a low mist hung over the bay, and dark clouds towered on the southwestern horizon, while others moved quickly westward.  Dock cranes in New Jersey traced white on the dark.  Big barges moved up the river.  Gulls struggled into the wind or found a way to glide, and a couple of ducks flew close to the water.  Everything was damp, the red bricks of the dock warehouses darkened.  When I turned away from the view, I read Eck and Winterrowd’s chapter on chard, which includes a short, simple recipe (from Beatrice Tosti di Valminuta) for Passato di verdure, greens soup, and decided I should have some of that.  My tooth stopped aching.  I finished my coffee, went back inside, tasted a bunch of olive oils and made a decision, backtracked to the produce section and picked up shallots and kale for the soup, and headed for the checkout lanes and home.

The soup is delicious.  The book, too, is charming.

(How to make the soup? Put chopped carrot, chopped onion, chopped shallot, garlic, and shredded greens in a soup pot with olive oil and sea salt, cover with water and simmer an hour or an hour and a half, then blend. The recipe calls for celery, Swiss chard, spinach, and kale, but says you can choose whatever greens you like; since I’m making it just for me, I didn’t feel like getting four different kinds of leaves, so just used regular old kale.  You are specifically not asked to sauté anything but since I threw the vegetables in as I got them chopped, the alliums and carrot wound up cooking for a while in the oil.)

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Reading: Edward St. Aubyn, At Last — update with first chapter link

At Last is the last (apparently) of a series of five novels carrying the life of Patrick Melrose through a rich, brutal childhood and a disastrously messy maturation to whatever point he has reached on the day of his mother’s funeral.  This passage I fear does not do St Aubyn justice.  Try the opening pages, a witty and horrible old friend of the family accosting Patrick on his entry into the funeral home; you’ll know whether this book is for you.  (I was dazzled.)

(I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to see if the publisher had offered the first chapter, but I find that they did, so it’s linked now.)

Patrick is in the funeral home basement, inspecting the surroundings as well as viewing the body of his mother, Eleanor.

ELEANOR had expected to meet Jesus at the end of a tunnel after she died.  The poor man was a slave to his fans, waiting to show crowds of eager dead the neon countryside that lay beyond the rebirth canal of earthly annihilation.  It must be hard to be chosen as optimism’s Master Cliché, the Light at the End of the Tunnel, ruling over a glittering array of half-full glasses and silver-lined clouds.

Patrick let the curtains drop reluctantly, acknowledging that he had run out of distractions, He edged toward the coffin, like a man approaching a cliff.  At least he knew that this coffin contained his mother’s corpse.  Twenty years ago, when he had been to see his father’s remains in New York, he was shown into the wrong room.

At Last, Edward St. Aubyn, p 42.

Reading: David Stacton

There’s something puzzling and original about the flow of consciousness among characters and aphoristic narrator in this bleak novel first published in 1961. Stacton wrote a number of historical novels set in wildly varied times and places, and several genre potboilers under different pseudonyms. His attention to actors — John Wilkes Booth and his brother Edwin – and to the performativity underlying normal life seems somehow unsurprising.

And at noon President Johnson arrived.

That made everybody feel better. It brought life into perspective again, for Johnson was a man they could all understand, a wily hardbitten rogue with cold eyes and something evasive in his manner. He was, he had said so often, a common man. They had nothing against that. Politicians were always common men who did the work that statesmen could not stoop to do. It was the uncommon attributes of Lincoln that had disturbed them. About Lincoln there was always the reserve of a kindly judge who, kind or not, still sits up there, fingering the dossiers of both sides of the case, whether he admits to doing so or not.

Johnson stepped forward to the bier and looked down at that head from which Willie Wright, in whose bed the President had died, had saved some of the brains in a handkerchief, with the thought of giving them to Robert Lincoln, at the appropriate time. When a corrupt man becomes incorrupt, that merely means he uses the force of corruption for incorrupt ends. Unlike a man born good, he is hard to dislodge. But as yet nobody had had the chance to find that out.

David Stacton, The Judges of the Secret Court: A Novel About John Wilkes Booth. p. 120

And when is the appropriate time to hand to a son the spilled brains of his murdered father?

Reading: Leeches, David Albahari

The second of my Belgradian books. No one could regard this involuted and unparagraphed meditation on prejudice, madness, and mystic experience as a young adult novel.

That word conspiracy again, except this time it had far more credence. Somewhere deep down I saw the flash of Margarete’s thigh, which I still blame for everything.

Leeches, David Albahari, trans Ellen Elias-Bursac, NYRB edition, p 290

Leeches in a jar, in an apothecary’s window, are among my family’s memories of Sarajevo, circa 1970.


Reading: Tea Obreht

The vagaries of library New Book shelves and my own TBR brought to me two books in a row written by people born in Belgrade. Surely unusual for a reader who is not herself Serb?  Téa Obreht’s author photo makes her look like a Minnesota homecoming queen (I mean, she is young, blonde, and perfectly lovely), a schoolgirlishness refuted by the confidence and sophistication of her prose. (Not everyone agrees.)

Zora finished her cigarette, but continued to hover, peering out the window.  Then she checked the bedroom door.

“Do you suppose they lock up downstairs?”

“Probably not,” I said.  “Doors are probably wide open, and blowing a breeze of paramilitary rapists.”

She turned out the light reluctantly, and for a long time there was silence.  She was awake and staring at me, and I was waiting for her to drift off so I wouldn’t have to think of something to say.

Downstairs, muffled by the towel covering his cage, the parrot said: “Wash the bones, bring the body, leave the heart behind.”

The Tiger’s Wife, p 31


Reading: Alan Lomax by John Szwed

It turns out that Alan Lomax was not only a devoted and wide-ranging collector of folk music and other folklore forms, but the possessor of a Big Idea. As John Szwed puts it, Lomax was convinced that “folk music can become a historical touchstone like the radioactive substances studied by geologists.” In pursuit of this idea, in order to give scientific rigor to folklore studies and allow them to be both diagnostic and productive, he spent years assembling teams to record, review, code and analyze folk music (“cantometrics,”) dance (“choreometrics”), and even speech. (See Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World, John Szwed.)

Reading: Millard Kaufman

Real estate and murder in L.A. The narrator hires Scrap Iron and his boat to sail to a Mexican island of dubious activities.

“Oh, I like wimmen,” he said vaguely.
“At a distance?”
“No, I like . . . .” he frowned, and the big busted nose on his wrinkled face twitched like the flaring nostrils of a horse. “What I like,” he went on gravely, ” is to smell ’em. Never knew a girl to smell bad in my life. If you just smell ’em,” Scrap Iron said, “they don’t expect nothing from you. Most times they don’t even know they’re being smelt.”
“What happens if it kind of dawns on them?”
“You got to be careful,” he said. “They could raise a stink – wimmen are funny — and you could get your tee-tee throwed in jail.”
“Just for smelling?”
He nodded sagely.

MISADVENTURE, Millard Kaufman, p. 100.

Kaufman, who had a long career as a screenwriter, died at age 92 in 2009, before Misadventure, only his second novel, was published by McSweeney’s.

Reading: Kate Atkinson

A rambly, unfocused novel, moving back and forth in time, and nesting times, for no apparent reason. But there is some nice stuff here and there, and some interesting characters. Here is the hero, Jackson, musing on literature.

This attempt at betterment had extended beyond paintings and piano rentals and museum artifacts, he had also been grimly working his way through the world’s classics. Fiction had never been Jackson’s thing. Facts seemed challenging enough without making stuff up. What he discovered was that the great novels of the world were about three things — death, money, and sex. Occasionally a whale. But poetry had wormed its way in, uninvited. A Toad, can die of Light! Crazy. So that here he was, thinking of his long-dead, long-lost sister, bolstered by a woman who felt a funeral in her brain.

— Kate Atkinson, Started Early, Took My Dog, p. 48


Sir Kenneth Clark acquired popular fame as the presenter of the television series Civilisation, broadcast in 1969, after a long career as an art historian and museum director. He was born in 1903 and, when the second volume of his autobiography, The Other Half, opens in 1939, he is already Director of the National Gallery and Surveyor of the King’s Pictures. With the start of the war, his first duty is to protect the artworks. It’s suggested that they be sent to Canada, but Clark instead looks for an underground storage space. In any case the shelter “had to be near a town and station . . . It had to be strong and dry; and above all it had to have one door, or window, big enough to allow the passage of the largest picture in the Gallery, Van Dyck’s Charles I on Horseback” (p.1). “When pressure was put on me to export the pictures I sent a short memorandum to Mr Churchill. It came back the same day, with a note in red ink ‘Bury them in the bowels of the earth, but not a picture shall leave this island, W.S.C.’ Like a fool I never had this document photographed” (p.5).

A slate quarry in Wales with an enormous cave is discovered and approved. The scientific advisor, F.I.G. Rawlins, seeing that the road had to pass under a bridge, figures that “by hollowing out the road it would be possible for our largest cases to pass underneath. He miscalculated by half an inch, and the case containing Charles I on Horseback and Sebastiano del Piombo’s Raising of Lazarus was stuck, irrevocably as it seemed under the bridge. We all stood silent, and I was reminded of the moment in Ranke’s History of the Popes, when the ropes lifting the great obelisk in St Peter’s Square began to fray. The crowd had been sworn to silence, but one sailor from Bordighera could not restrain himself, ‘Acqua alle tende’ he shouted. Silence was broken. ‘Let the air out of the tyres’ we all said in chorus. It was done and, grinding under, scraping over, the huge packing case passed through” (p. 6).

In 1942 Clark is sent on a diplomatic mission to Sweden; he has to listen to many recitals of the songs of Carl Michael Bellman (“whom the Swedes think is like Burns, but who is in fact almost identical with Tom Moore” [p 50]). He gives lectures on English art, and is afflicted by owners, or hopeful owners, of English pictures. “An unexpected handicap was that so many Swedes believed that they owned paintings by Constable.” Why Constable? Who knows.

One picture of a stormy sky was brought to the Embassy so often that I had to look at it to save the butler trouble. I said “I’m afraid it’s not even English.” “Yes, yes, is English.” “Why do you think so?” “Because I read the story of a great dog.” (I was defeated.) “A terrible dog.” Of course, The Hound of the Baskervilles. I have known some strange arguments advanced in favour of an attribution, but nothing as strange as that the authenticity of a Constable could be proved by a reference to The Hound of the Baskervilles.

pp 51-52

See also my reading of John Pope-Hennessey:

Reading: Kenneth Clark

Reading: Spurious, Lars Iyer

A curious little book. The narrator has some trouble with damp. He and his friend W. discuss — stuff; we could wish that W. were kinder to the narrator.

I’m not like him, W. notes, for whom every conversation is on the verge of becoming messianic. W. likes to journey with his interlocutor through the apocalyptic and towards the messianic, he says. He believes in his interlocutor, not like me. He believes in conversation. I’m slumped, drunk and silent at one end of the table, W. says, while he is waiting for the Messiah at the other.

pp 148-149.

W wonders whether we too have discovered the infinite in our own way. Our incessant chatter. Our incessant feeling of utter failure. Perhaps we live on some version of the plain, W. muses. Am I the plain on which he is lost, or vice versa? But perhaps the plain is the friendship between us on which we are both lost, he says.

p 188