Intimations: Six Essays
Penguin Books (July 28, 2020), 111 pages
Kindle edition $8.99, Amazon paperback $6.99
How is it that I have never read Zadie Smith before?
I’m embarrassed. I have long known of her and I have seen her books reviewed, but I have never read any of her writing. Fortunately, when I was looking for my next book I (electronically) picked up Intimations.
Intimations is a small volume, just 111 pages in the print edition, but it is packed with superb writing. The essays in the book are Smith’s reflections on life during the COVID pandemic. Her subject matter is wide-ranging. She writes about observing flowers when the world was shut down: tulips that she wanted to be peonies. She comments on the nonsense spouted by the man who lived in the White House at the height of the pandemic. Smith offers her observations about a young man in the IT department at her university, an African American like herself. The author reflects on the chattiness of a distant relative she encounters at a bus stop and how her mother can exhibit a similar trait.
In one essay, Smith writes about people holding up signs at the park. (I assume she is referring to Central Park.) She offers practical advice on how to deal with the sign holders:
People hold signs up in the park every day. Sometimes they say “Free Hugs.” (Note to pretty Swedish backpackers: they’re not free.) Sometimes they offer a service: tarot reading, personalized poems, a discussion about Palestine, as in “Come Ask Me About Palestine.” (Don’t ask him about Palestine.)
One sign in particular caught her attention: “I Am A Self-Hating Asian. Let’s Talk!” Smith spends some time observing the man and making sure she was reading the sign correctly, but she did not engage with him.
As you have perhaps surmised, Smith writes in the context of the pandemic, but she doesn’t write solely about the pandemic. What I took away from the book is that I can learn a lot about writing from her. She also offers me a practical take on the value of writing. In discussing how we spent our time during the lockdown Smith notes, “We make banana bread, we sew dresses, we go for a run, we complete all the levels of Minecraft.” She then observes:
I write because…well, the best I can say for it is it’s a psychological quirk of mine developed in response to whatever personal failings I have. But it can’t ever meaningfully fill the time. There is no great difference between novels and banana bread. They are both just something to do. They are no substitute for love.
I will keep writing. I have no doubt Smith will keep writing. But she offers a practical viewpoint to help me keep my writing in perspective.
In any given month my audio listening time on my iPhone is divided into two segments: audiobooks and podcasts. On the tenth of each month I receive my Audible credit and select an audiobook, which I listen through to completion. Since an unabridged audiobook might be anywhere between eight and fifteen hours long, the portion of the month spent listening to audiobooks varies greatly. From the time I finish my audiobook until I receive my next Audible credit I listen to podcasts. I write here regularly about my audiobooks, but I haven’t said much about podcasts. I thought my podcast listening deserved some attention.
One of my two favorite podcasts is Word Matters, produced by the good folks at Merriam-Webster. It’s all about language from the perspective of the dictionary. In early August, after their one hundredth episode, they announced they were going to take a break. I thought they would be back after Labor Day, but here it is the end of September and still no new episodes. I’m disappointed.
The other podcast on my top two list is Lexicon Valley, produced by linguist John McWhorter. McWhorter discusses all things linguistic, and since moving to his current podcast home at Booksmart Studios he has delved into matters political as well. Also enjoyable is Lingthusiasm, hosted by linguists Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne. They can get fairly academic, but I do like listening to their podcast. Staying in the realm of language, Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl podcast is much lighter weight, but informative and worth listening to.
As a foodie I must of course have my food podcasts. Food Network has its official Food Network Obsessed podcast, and Ellie Krieger has her independent One Real Good Thing podcast. Both are very listenable.
In the realm of religion I am awaiting season two of Amy Frykholm’s In Search Of podcast from The Christian Century. I have just started listening to the Jewish Chutzpod! podcast, appropriate because we are right now in the midst of the High Holy Days.
If I don’t have an audiobook to listen to I have plenty of podcast choices.
Salty: Lessons on Eating, Drinking, and Living from Revolutionary Women
Broadleaf Books (June 28, 2022), 203 pages
Kindle edition $17.99, Amazon hardcover $22.61
In Salty, Alissa Wilkinson discusses the lives of women she admires and whom she would like to bring together for a hypothetical dinner party. And what a range of women she selects. She devotes each chapter to an individual woman and ends the chapter with a recipe that reflects that woman’s character.
Wilkinson includes two novelists in her dinner party. She writes about Laurie Colwin, whose novels describe ordinary, white, middle-class Americans who manage to mess up their lives. Her recipe is Lentil Soup and No-Knead Bread. But then she discusses Octavia Butler, an African American writer of speculative fiction who died in 2006, but whose work is experiencing something of a revival these days. Butler’s dish is Vegetarian Chili with Winter Squash because the alien race in her trilogy Lilith’s Brood is vegetarian.
The author gives ample attention to women involved in political struggle. She writes about Ella Baker, who was a civil rights activist in the South and the force behind the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She was not one to spend time in the kitchen but loved sharing meals with people. Appropriately, her dish is Louisiana-Style Shrimp Salad. The political philosopher and anti-fascist activist Hannah Arendt was also not interested in cooking but loved her cocktail parties, where she could engage in extended conversation. Wilkinson assigns Arendt the Stiff Gibson, a form of martini.
Conversely, Wilkinson pays homage to women dedicated to food. She tells us about Edna Lewis, out of the ordinary because she was a Black woman who worked as a chef in New York City in the 1940s and then opened her own short-lived restaurant. She also published well-received cookbooks. Then there is Agnès Varda, who wrote about food and cooking in post-World War II Britain, where many desirable (even essential) ingredients were rationed or difficult (if not impossible) to find.
Of course, such a dinner party would not be complete without Alice B. Toklas. Her life partner Gertrude Stein wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, as we all know, but Toklas wrote The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (yes, it was two words). As an expatriate with Stein in Paris, Toklas did the cooking on the cook’s day off, and had to deal with the shortages of wartime France.
Finally, Wilkinson pays tribute to Maya Angelou, whom she puts at the head the table for her hypothetical dinner party. Angelou, in addition to her other prolific output, wrote cookbooks. Who knew? I didn’t. And Angelou’s dish? Poached Pears in Port Wine.
Salty is delightful reading and pays well-deserved homage to nine strong and capable women.
The Window Seat: Notes from a Life in Motion
read by the author
Recorded Books, May 18, 2021 (8 hours and 30 minutes)
Print edition published by Grove Press
$21.43 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
I had never heard of Aminatta Forna when I saw this book mentioned. It turns out, however, that she is an established author of literary fiction who has won multiple awards. Where have I been?
Forna grew up with a complex family situation. Her father was an African from Sierra Leone, and her mother was Scottish. They divorced when she was very young and both quickly remarried. Her father married a woman from Sierra Leone and her mother married a man who worked for the United Nations, but who was from New Zealand. Her father was politically active in Sierra Leone, and was eventually arrested and then executed. Forna’s stepfather was posted to various countries around the world, and was serving in Iran when the Shah left the country and Ayatollah Khomeini returned. Forna was living with her mother and stepfather in Iran in the midst of these events.
The author describes various aspects of her life in these exquisitely written and wide-ranging essays. The title essay is also the opening essay. She opens the book with the statement, “Here are four words you rarely hear these days: I love to fly.” She has that right. Certainly any of us who have had occasion to fly since 9/11 are not fond of the process. Forna, however, writes about the pleasure of flying as an unaccompanied minor. She did a lot of that, as her father insisted that she be schooled in England. She describes how well the airlines treated unaccompanied minors in earlier decades.
In another essay she discusses the similarities between the way her parents and Barack Obama’s parents met. Both had to do with westerners assisting in African development and becoming acquainted with the locals.
Forna’s writing can cover a lot of ground in a single essay. In one essay she discusses contemporary bias against people of color and then describes how the slave trade was managed in West Africa in the eighteenth century. In another, she starts with a discussion of urban foxes in London and moves on to describing the proliferation of coyotes in the United States. (They’re not only in the West.)
The author also provides some delightful travelogue. Forna writes about how she and her brother took their mother on a trip to the Orkney and Shetland islands in Northern Scotland before she could no longer travel.
Given that she reads her own work one might wonder what sort of accent the author with an African father and a Scottish mother might have. The answer lies in the fact that her entire schooling was in England. (“I went to boarding school [in England] at six and left at eighteen for university in London.”) Forna, then, reads with a clipped English accent, but she doesn’t hold back emotion when emotion is appropriate. This is certainly the case in an angry essay about the perils of women walking alone in the city.
If you decide Window Seat is your cup of tea, and I hope you do, the audiobook is a superb option.
The Shores of Bohemia: A Cape Cod Story, 1910-1960
John Taylor Williams
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (May 17, 2022), 348 pages
Kindle edition $16.99, Amazon Hardcover $29.99
I’m always happy to get my hands on a book about the literary and creative world, so I added The Shores of Bohemia to my to-be-read list when I saw it reviewed. I was not disappointed.
Today we think of Cape Cod as an upscale, elite place, but it was not always the case. It was at one time rural and inexpensive: that’s what attracted the “bohemian” types in the first place. As the subtitle indicates, the book covers half of the twentieth century. That was a span that covered two world wars and the Great Depression.
Among the first residents were playwright Eugene O’Neill and novelist John Dos Passos. In its latter days as a bohemian haven the likes of literary critic Alfred Kazin spent time there. Notable figures such as Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy (who for a time were married) lived there.
The book’s angle of vision is not limited to Cape Cod. O’Neill wanted, obviously, his plays to reach as large of an audience as possible. He developed some of his plays at Cape Cod, but then produced them in New York City. In fact, many of the Cape Cod bunch spent part of the year in New York. Author John Taylor Williams also shows us what many of the group did in Europe, especially during the two world wars.
Politics was a big part of these people’s lives. Many of them were sympathetic to the Communist cause, and some were members of the Communist Party of the United States. Many, however, became disenchanted with Stalin’s brutality and distanced themselves from Communism while perhaps still being sympathetic to socialist ideals.
If you think that sex and relationships were a big part of the lives of artists and writers in the first half twentieth century, this book will not disabuse you of that notion. There were relationships, marriages, extra-marital affairs, and divorces aplenty and The Shores of Bohemia documents many of them. There was no shortage of hanky-panky in that world.
One particularly poignant chapter near the end of the book discusses the children of this group. Obviously, the divorces and affairs had an effect on the kids, and the author takes the time to examine how that lifestyle affected them. That chapter is followed by a discussion of the Bauhaus and other schools of architecture, material that seemed somewhat out of place.
Ending the narrative in 1960 was not an arbitrary decision on the author’s part. It was a time when politicians began forming the concept of the Cape Cod National Seashore and when the remaining residential areas began to take on a suburban character. It was clearly the end of an era.
The Shores of Bohemia is a well-written look at a fascinating slice of American cultural history.
When I buy postage stamps I make a point of buying commemorative stamps rather than the plain vanilla generic stamps. I have noticed, however, that the United States Postal Service (USPS) has not offered any terribly interesting stamps during the past couple of years.
That changed earlier this summer, however. The USPS issued a Pete Seeger commemorative stamp. I have long been a fan of Pete Seeger and admired his conscience and social activism (never mind his powerful folk music). Now, like most of us, I don’t put things in the mail much anymore. And at the time I was really in pretty good shape as far as postage stamps went. But Pete Seeger? I bought two twenty stamp panes because… Well, because Pete Seeger.
And now the postal service is making things interesting again. They issued a Hubble Space Telescope stamp on September 8 and there will be a set coming out on September 30 honoring Charles Schulz and his Peanuts comic strip.
But I don’t have anyone to whom I need to send mail.
Maybe our Christmas cards this year will have Hubble or Peanuts stamps on them.
The Mind in Another Place: My Life as a Scholar
Luke Timothy Johnson
Eerdmans (March 22, 2022), 330 pages
Kindle edition $10.67, Amazon hardcover $11.62
I have been familiar with Luke Timothy Johnson for some time. I have listened to at least two of his Great Courses lecture series, and I have long known of his popular books on Christianity. Johnson’s memoir, The Mind in Another Place, adds a whole new dimension to Johnson for me. Far from simply being a popularizer of the New Testament and early Christianity, I discovered he is a scholar who has done significant original work and is an important contributor to the academic world of biblical studies.
Johnson lost both of his parents at a young age and had to move from the Midwest to the South to live with relatives who were not particularly happy to have to raise him and his brother. Fortunately, he was able to attend a Catholic day school. The head of the school saw his potential and arranged for him to go away to seminary for high school. He completed college, was ordained a priest, and earned his PhD under the aegis of the church.
Johnson’s life took an odd twist when he met and fell in love with a woman named Joy, ten years older, who was married and had children. They realized they were meant to be together, and she got a divorce (a very Bad Thing in the eyes of the Catholic church) while he abandoned the priesthood, even though the church refused to release him from his vows. Joy suffered from a chronic autoimmune ailment, which informed much of their life together. She frequently needed medical attention, and the medical bills put a strain on their finances. Nonetheless, the two remained together until Joy’s death in 2017.
The author traces his academic career from Yale, where he held a non tenure-track position, to Indiana University and then on to Emory University, where he remained until retirement. Johnson describes in detail the politics involved in the academic world, and the ulterior motives often embedded in the hiring process. He describes his efforts to build a solid doctoral program out of a mediocre one at Emory, and discusses his heavy workload in directing PhD candidates, preparing classes, grading papers and exams, and doing the requisite committee work. Johnson also gives us a picture of his involvement in the academic controversies of his day. (Johnson, for example, takes the position that the pastoral epistles in the New Testament were written with Paul’s approval, if not actually written by him. The majority scholarly opinion is that they were written by followers of Paul after his death.)
The final section of the book lists the qualities that Johnson believes a scholar should have: both academic and moral. It was somewhat interesting, but he could have ended the book with his retirement and I would have been happy.
The Mind in Another Place offers both a fascinating account of one man’s life in academia and the world of New Testament scholarship. (The title, by the way, refers to his need to focus on academics while assisting his wife with her illness.) For those interested in the academic life and for those interested in New Testament scholarship, this book will be a worthwhile read.
On Friday major league baseball made some expected rule changes official for 2023, for the most part over the objections of the players. I wrote about these when the lockout ended, but since they’re official now I thought it worth revisiting.
- The pitch clock. I’ve seen this in other forms of the game, for example, in women’s softball. Obviously it has been tested in minor league games, but I haven’t had the opportunity to watch any of those. When I did see it, I found it annoying and distracting. And there’s all kinds of fine print as to when it is reset, when it is suspended, and so forth. I think it’s adding an unnecessary layer of complexity.
- Increased base size. Base sizes will increase from fifteen to eighteen inches square. I don’t really like the idea, but if it helps reduce injuries (that’s debatable) perhaps it’s not so bad.
- A ban on the shift. I like this one. When the pitcher throws the ball the infielders must be on the dirt, two on each side of second base. The idea of the third baseman playing on the grass between first and second base is just goofy.
These changes don’t fundamentally alter the nature of the game, but they do make it more complex and they add to the number of rules the umpires have to know. I’m not sure the result will be worth the implementation.
We needed to replace our stove in 2019, and we used the opportunity to get a stove with a convection oven. Having that new convection oven, I resumed my habit of baking bread, something I did regularly after our kitchen remodel in Gilroy.
In early August I realized I was getting tired of my own bread, even though I always have a variety of flours on hand (from King Arthur, of course) and even though I bake with different combinations from one week to the next. I keep a batch of sourdough starter going, and I also alternate loaves with and without sourdough.
Nonetheless, I was getting tired of my own bread, so I decided it was time for a break. I needed to get away from my own work for a while, and besides it has been just too damned hot to have the oven going. I have taken the opportunity to explore different varieties of store-bought bread, and there are some good ones out there. In particular there are some seriously tasty brands of sourdough that provide a flavor that I simply can’t replicate.
So it’s a nice change. I’ll get back to bread baking when the weather cools off. In the meantime I’m enjoying the work of other bakers.
A Place in the World: Finding the Meaning of Home
Crown (August 23, 2022), 304 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $23.99
I read the author’s Under the Tuscan Sun when it first came out in about 1997. I enjoyed her account of carving out a life in rural Italy. I therefore took notice of the publication of her latest book.
A Place in the World takes a much wider view of Mayes’s life and homes than did her Tuscan book. She writes about renting homes in Italy for the summer when she was an academic, a precursor to her purchase of the home in Tuscany with her husband Ed. She writes about the end of her first marriage and about how she and Ed kept returning to Italy when the other couple in the summer rental scheme dropped out. In the introduction she lists the various places she has lived, including a house on Hamilton Street in Palo Alto, a location I know well.
Mayes tells us about her childhood in Alabama, and about purchasing a home in North Carolina. We learn about the sale of the property, an in-town rental, and the purchase of another rural location in the area. She discovers the region was home to several distant relations about whom she knew nothing.
The author discusses family, holidays, and cooking. In one section of the book each chapter ends with recipes prepared on holidays and special occasions. She writes about life under COVID and how she and Ed had to return to Italy for the olive harvest under those conditions. She even tells us that early in her adult life she went to Provence to study cooking with Simone Beck (one of Julia Child’s two coauthors of Mastering the Art of French Cooking) at a time “before glorious farmers’ markets bloomed, before the nonstop master chefs, recipe blogs, and home cake makers trying not to look foolish on bake-offs, before the proliferation of excellent food websites.” And Mayes talks about the differences between American and Italian cooking: “I have never seen measuring spoons for sale in Italy.”
Mayes mentions the fact that Under a Tuscan Sun was made into a movie. I made a point of not seeing it, as I recall the reviews characterized it as a romance, something the book definitely was not. Mayes makes no complaints about the movie, however. I’m sure she collected a tidy sum for the movie rights.
I found A Place in the World highly readable and entertaining. It was an enjoyable diversion in these difficult days. In fact, Mayes tells us how to navigate difficult days:
Tune out, tune in. Unfollow those Facebook zealots who get on your nerves; even cat videos on Instagram are better. Víkingur Ólafsson on the piano or Joshua Bell on the violin or Yo-Yo Ma on the cello will justify the world every morning, raising your natural exhilaration and zest, rather than weighing the bloodstream with lead.
That’s advice I can pay attention to.