A Place in the World

A Place in the World coverA Place in the World: Finding the Meaning of Home
Frances Mayes
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:

quoteTune 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.


Will in the World

Will in the World coverWill in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
Stephen Greenblatt
read by Peter Jay Fernandez
Recorded Books (September 24, 2004), 15 hours and 21 minutes
print edition published by W. W. Norton & Company
$22.95 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

I normally read (and listen to) books that are more recent, but the discussion of Will in the World in the Nonfiction Book Club on Goodreads caught my attention, so when my August Audible credit became available, I made it my selection for the month. At 575 pages in the print edition, the book is a comprehensive discussion of William Shakespeare and life in the Elizabethan world.

Author Stephen Greenblatt is very clear about what we know and what we don’t know. We know that Shakespeare’s father was a glove maker and a local official, a sort of justice of the peace. John Shakespeare “married up” when he wed Mary Arden. We know William went to school locally at Stratford-upon-Avon and as far as we know he didn’t attend college. This is notable in that although John Shakespeare was not wealthy, many of his peers sent their sons to Oxford or Cambridge. There is a gap in Shakespeare’s life, from the time he finished school locally until he showed up in London as an actor and playwright. It’s not clear where he got the knowledge of literature and history that are the basis of his plays.

Greenblatt does a lot of speculation. There are many sentences that read, “Shakespeare must have…” or “He most likely…” or “Shakespeare may have been in attendance at…” This is understandable, however, as there are simply gaps in the historical record. But we know a lot about the Elizabethan world so these hypothetical surmises represent reasonable possibilities.

The author is a close reader of Shakespeare’s plays and he discusses in some detail how much of the content of the plays came from Shakespeare’s own experience: assisting in his father’s shop, raising livestock in the country, or legal matters that he possibly learned about as an attorney’s assistant (more speculation here).

Greenblatt writes about Shakespeare’s marriage to Anne Hathaway, and how their first child was born six months after their wedding, something that the Elizabethan world did not look kindly upon. He reflects on the fact that Shakespeare spent most of his time in London, but despite his success he left his family in Stratford-upon-Avon. In fact he bought them a spacious house there. Greenblatt describes how Shakespeare left his wife out of his will almost entirely (getting only his “second-best” bed), while his elder daughter received the bulk of the inheritance. He tells us that Shakespeare was an astute businessperson who invested wisely and was able to retire early.

We get a thorough picture of Elizabethan life. Greenblatt writes about the Protestant strictures imposed on the country, and about how Catholics had to practice in secret and at great risk. He describes the popular spectator games in London, activities which make modern cock and dog fighting look tame. And the author provides a thorough picture of the business of the theater.

Peter Jay Fernandez does a superb job reading the book. Not only is he an excellent narrator, but he slips right into the roles in the many quoted passages from Shakespeare’s plays. If there are books that are best consumed in audiobook format rather than print or e-reader, Will in the World is certainly one.


replacing the last kitchen appliance

Terry and I moved here to Hemet in 2015, as you’re probably tired of me telling you. The house we bought was built in 2006, and all the kitchen appliances were the originals that came with the house. Since that time we have replaced the stove, the refrigerator (twice), and the built-in microwave. We have also replaced the countertops along with the sink and faucet.

That left only the dishwasher, which was chugging along just fine. It did a good job and was working well. The only annoyance was that the silverware compartment was in the drawer, which was awkward. On the other hand, it left more room for dishes in the main compartment.

But in recent weeks the dishwasher was not getting the dishes fully clean. I kept finding bits of food when I unloaded it. After finding just that on a recent Friday morning, I told Terry that we should visit our locally owned Appliance Showroom on Monday, the place where we had purchased two refrigerators, our built-in microwave, and our washer-dryer set, to look for a new dishwasher. She agreed. Later that afternoon, it occurred to me that we had nothing on the agenda that day and suggested that we go right then. Terry also thought that was a good idea.

It turned out that the owner, Larry, was on duty when we arrived. Now, Larry is a well-established Hemet business owner but one thing he is not known for is his political correctness. When we walked in I told Larry that we were looking for a new dishwasher. He looked at Terry and asked, “What about her?” My reply: “We’ve spent enough money here that we can do without the sexism.” So Larry, not much chastised, showed us his dishwasher line in white, matching our kitchen appliance set. “We keep the black and the white separate,” he said. An old, stale, racist attempt at humor, the same one he used when we were looking at refrigerators a few years ago.

dishwasher controlsWhat we discovered is that the trend in dishwashers is to put the controls on the top of the door so you can’t see them when the dishwasher is running. Neither of us liked that. He had, however, one model that was marked down as a “ding and dent” unit. Wherever the ding or dent was, it wasn’t where we could see it. And it was a nine hundred dollar dishwasher that he was selling for five hundred dollars. It was also the only one on the showroom floor with a stainless steel interior. And the controls? The controls and display were visible and accessible on the front of the door. We decided we’d better go for it, and we were glad that we showed up on Friday rather than waiting until Monday, by which time it might have been gone. To make things even better, Larry’s service manager scheduled installation for Monday afternoon.

The dishwasher has a lot of differences from the old one and we are still getting used to those differences. The configuration of the baskets is rather odd, and we are having to be deliberate in how we load the thing. But it is a good, solid appliance that we are happy to have found.


Translating Myself and Others

Translating Myself and Others coverTranslating Myself and Others
Jhumpa Lahiri
Princeton University Press (May 17, 2022), 203 pages
Kindle edition $9.44, Amazon hardcover $19.79

When I read several years ago that Jhumpa Lahiri was moving to Italy and was going to start writing in Italian I had a couple of reactions. I wondered whether we were being deprived of one of our best storytellers in English. And I scratched my head, thinking that this was a rather odd decision. In Translating Myself and Others, Lahiri fills us in on why she made that decision.

The specific dates across the introduction and the various essays don’t sync up and had me somewhat confused, but the sequence of events is still clear. Lahiri decided she was in love with the Italian language so she moved there and began to write in Italian. She also became friendly with Italian authors whose work she later translated into English. At some point she returned to the United States to teach translation at Princeton but returned to Rome whenever academic holidays or sabbatical permitted.

The title of the book is an exact description of its contents. She writes about overcoming the fear of translating her own work from Italian into English, and she discusses translating the work of others, in particular novelist Domenico Starnone. Having lived in Italy, Lahiri has a fascination with the Roman poet Ovid and his work The Metamorphoses. She refers to passages from Ovid throughout the book and describes how she is working on a new translation with a Princeton classicist.

Lahiri is open to the criticism of her work. She writes that critics said that her Italian was not idiomatic. That is not the word they used, but that was the essence of their evaluation. She describes how American critics thought she was arrogant to write introductions to her translations of Starnone.

When she writes about the process of translation Lahiri includes the passage in its original language before providing the English version. She really wants the reader to understand what she is doing.

About translation Lahiri writes:

quoteTranslation has always been a controversial literary form, and those who are resistant to it or dismiss it complain that the resulting transformation is a “mere echo” of the original — that too much has been lost in the process of traveling from one language into another.

When I read those words this seemed like a rather narrow perspective, but if I am honest I know I can be guilty of taking such a view. Maybe that’s why most of what I read are books originally written in English. That is limiting, however. One book I thoroughly enjoyed was Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski. I very much liked the writing, but the book I read was a translation into English from the original Polish. I do not know how well translator Klara Glowczewska reflected Kapuscinski’s Polish, but that didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the book.

Another case in point: Isabel Allende. I know she writes in Spanish and her books are translated into English. I don’t know if she translates any of her work herself or if a translator is responsible for the English versions. What I know is that her literary fiction meets with high regard and that I am missing out on some good reading by overthinking these questions.

So, about translation: If the topic interests you be sure to read Translating Myself and Others. You’ll be glad you did.


Between the Listening and the Telling

Between the Listening and the Telling coverBetween the Listening and the Telling: How Stories Can Save Us
Mark Yaconelli
Broadleaf Books (August 9, 2022), 207 pages
Kindle edition $16.59, Amazon hardcover $22.16

This is a rather unusual book. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to read it, but I saw that Anne Lamott wrote the introduction, and I have the greatest respect for her. Lamott tells us that it’s important for us to tell our stories, and that Yaconelli can show us how to do so.

Between the Listening and the Telling is part memoir and part instruction manual. Yaconelli writes about his own background and how that led him to his vocation. He also describes his process for enabling people to tell their own stories.

Yaconelli tells us that his father took on a variety of roles, one of which was part-time volunteer minister. Shortly after he became a minister himself Yaconelli had a friend whose brother was killed, and the friend asked Yaconelli to conduct the service. He turned to his father, who told him to simply let the mourners tell their stories.

However, Yaconelli’s relationship with his father had its rifts. His father left his mother and ran off with his secretary. His mother, meanwhile, was seriously mentally ill, at times a real danger to herself and others. No one seemed willing to do anything about this, however. Later, Yaconelli tried to reconcile with his father, taking time at an Episcopal retreat center to talk things through. The mission almost failed, but in the end was successful.

Yaconelli explains how he tried to set up a storytelling event at a local bar, where individuals could tell their tales of love and loss. The event got off to a shaky start, as the biker locals did not like their space being violated. All turned out well in the end, however.

The author describes how he was called upon after a mass shooting at a community college in Oregon. He recruited volunteers so the community could share their stories of loss, either by vocal recording or in writing. He was soon called on the carpet as the relatives of the victims were not given a voice in this project. Yaconelli realized his error and quickly adjusted the process.

Yaconelli’s book is neither profound nor groundbreaking, but it is an important reminder about the importance of our being able to tell our stories.


using the MasterCook recipe software

I wrote about having to retire my old laptop computer and therefore having to say goodbye to the recipe software I loved so much, Living Cookbook.

The question, then, was what program to move to. There aren’t a lot of choices for recipe software, and most of them are subscription and cloud based. I have enough damn subscriptions as it is, and I’m not wild about storing my recipes in the cloud. It also appears that a lot of the programs are not actively maintained.

MasterCook screen shotI finally decided on MasterCook. It has been around for a long time and they released an updated MasterCook 22 not long ago. Recently enough that the developer says they tested it on Windows 11. Of course the MasterCook folks would rather that you go with their web-based subscription version, but at least they offer a locally installed, one-time purchase version.

So there it is. I have MasterCook. It is not Living Cookbook, but it does the job. It certainly doesn’t have the flexible search capabilities I had in Living Cookbook. The user interface is rather old-fashioned and clunky. Something tells me that is intentional: a way to get you to subscribe to their more modern cloud-based version. Sometimes I will be in the middle of doing something and the program will simply close. Blip! Just like that.

I find it annoying that I cannot, apparently, do an “and” search. For example, if I search on “Italian” and “Stovetop,” I get all the Italian recipes and all the Stovetop recipes, not the recipes that are tagged both Italian and Stovetop. The program does offer multiple formats for printing recipes, but none of them are as clean and well-laid out as Living Cookbook’s format. But, hey, it’s what I’ve got.

So I work with what I have. I have access to all of my recipes and I can add new ones fairly easily. It will have to be sufficient.


Graceland, At Last

Graceland at Last coverGraceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South
Margaret Renkl
Milkweed Editions (September 8, 2021), 296 pages
Kindle edition $10.69, Amazon hardcover $13.99

I’m always interested in finding well-written essays, and since Graceland, At Last won the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, I decided I needed to add it to my reading list. I was not disappointed. The book consists of essays that Margaret Renkl originally published as a columnist in The New York Times. One can recognize the New York Times style: men’s last names are preceded by “Mr.” and women’s by “Ms.”

Renkl writes widely about life in the South. The range of topics is made clear by the titles of the various sections of the book: Flora & Fauna, Politics and Religion, Social Justice, Environment, Family & Community, and Arts & Culture.

Putting the Flora & Fauna section first was a wise move. Those essays drew me into the book. Renkl writes beautifully about the natural world both in her native Alabama and in her adopted Tennessee. By the time I got to the Politics & Religion and the Social Justice sections I was hooked, even though the reading was less pleasant. The essays in the book were published between 2018 and 2021, so well after the inauguration of that blustering man with the orange hair. Renkl has much the same opinion of him that I do, and she doesn’t mince words. Nor is she reticent to state her opinion of laws in the South that make life more difficult for the poor and minorities. She is not, however, strictly negative. She writes about attending Jimmy Carter’s Sunday School class in Plains Georgia and his constructive outlook for addressing our social issues. She recounts how people have worked together to solve community problems.

Renkl’s writing can be clear and lucid.

quoteI grieve what is happening to the natural world, and I understand perfectly well that my own efforts to help are far from enough. But when I watch a bluebird introducing his mate to the nest box I’ve installed for them, it’s impossible to give up. When the tiny hummingbirds make it back from far across the Gulf of Mexico, it’s impossible to give up.

Renkl is outspoken in her feminist views. She writes about a female college soccer star who kicked off the second half of a men’s college football game because the team was so depleted by COVID. She recalls insisting on trying out for her college’s football team shortly after Title IX went into effect, not because she wanted to be on the team, but because she was beginning her career as a writer and she wanted to test how the law was being followed at her college.

If you appreciate the art of the essay Graceland, At Last will be well worth your time.


letting go of the old laptop

I had to do it. It just got too painful.

I have known for a long time that I was going to have to give up my Living Cookbook software. The program has not been updated since 2014 and the company has been out of business for a while. The program was on my laptop, which was over ten years old. That laptop had been growing progressively slower and less responsive for some time. I can’t move the software to my desktop because that would require the publisher to generate a new license key and the publisher isn’t there. I tried a workaround, believe me, but the workaround didn’t work.

laptop computerThe unfortunate thing is that the Living Cookbook software worked just fine. The surrounding pieces were what was failing. The computer became incredibly slow. Norton Antivirus would no longer run and would not reinstall. I installed a more lightweight antivirus program with a smaller footprint, and even it became balky. Finally, with everything running as slow as molasses, my Chrome web browser refused to open. That was it.

So finally on a recent Friday I went through the painful and tedious process of doing a full reset on the laptop, wiping out all of my data and personal information, then reinstalling Windows 10. The next day was one of the fortnightly electronics recycling days here in Hemet so I dropped it off. I saved the wireless mouse which I liked and hooked it up to my desktop – a nice and comfortable change from my old wired mouse.

I hated to give up the old laptop, but it was no longer usable in any real sense. I found the original packing list and it showed a ship date of August 31, 2010. That’s just short of twelve years. Pretty darn good for a laptop computer.

And how am I replacing Living Cookbook? I selected MasterCook. Not ideal, but serviceable. Details on that soon.


Rebel with a Clause

Rebel with a Clause coverRebel with a Clause: Tales and Tips from a Roving Grammarian
Ellen Jovin
Mariner Books (July 19, 2022), 396 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $24.29

I believe that I first encountered Ellen Jovin on LinkedIn where she posted a photo of her grammar table. Ellen is a language educator who took conversations about grammar to the city street. She set up a table in New York City with a sign offering to answer grammar questions. From there she took her table around the country. Her husband joined her, making video recordings of her conversations. She took those conversations and made them into a book.

Jovin is brave. Her first chapter discusses the Oxford comma. There is nothing more likely to tie the knickers of grammar nerds into a knot than the Oxford (or serial) comma. To my disappointment, Jovin is only lukewarm in her support of the Oxford comma. She writes that she once had a job with an organization that did not use the Oxford comma, and though she has since begun to use it she does not feel strongly that others use it. I’m very aware that neither the Associated Press Stylebook nor The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage use the Oxford comma, but I am a Chicago Manual of Style guy myself and they support it.

My favorite example in support of the Oxford comma is in a book dedication, probably apocryphal, in which it is omitted:

I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

I had originally inserted a snarky comment here, but I’ll let the example speak for itself. Discussions about both Ayn Rand and God can stir up potent emotions.

In another chapter Jovin discusses the appositive, where a noun or noun phrase further identifies the subject of the sentence:

WH Auden, my favorite poet, captured the spirit of his time.

The phrase “my favorite poet” is the appositive. Jovin then combines appositives with the Oxford comma, and things really get gnarly. I’m not going to try to explain that here; you’ll need to read the book.

Jovin devotes a chapter to singular “they,” something else that gets people’s knickers in a knot, not all of them grammar nerds. While sometimes it is better to recast the sentence, there are times when it makes sense to use it. Chicago in its latest edition, the seventeenth, began allowing this.

In a chapter on lie/lay confusion, Jovin goes to a great deal of trouble to set the visitors to her table straight. She always keeps a notepad at her table and she reproduces a diagram she would sometimes draw to clarify all the various forms. She seems to be something of a stickler on this point, though things get rather arcane, especially with tenses like the present perfect of lie (which is lain). I tend to agree with linguist John McWhorter who in a recent podcast suggested that in this case we should probably let sleeping dogs lay. I mean lie.

Jovin covers a variety of topics: the book has forty-nine chapters. She discusses affect/effect, adverbs, semicolons, commas, apostrophes, and many other topics about which the visitors to her table brought questions. What’s great about Ellen Jovin is that she is always congenial, she is never confrontational or dogmatic. If she brings her table to your town stop by and visit.

And whether she does or not, consider buying Rebel with a Clause. You’ll enjoy the conversations.


The Planter of Modern Life

Planter of Modern Life coverThe Planter of Modern Life: How an Ohio Farm Boy Conquered Literary Paris, Fed the Lost Generation, and Sowed the Seeds of the Organic Food Movement
Stephen Heyman
W. W. Norton & Company (April 14, 2020), 350 pages
Kindle edition $9.97, Amazon paperback $12.78

Louis Bromfield was once an influential individual in the United States, both as an author and as an advocate for agriculture. Yet until I came across this book I had never heard of him.

Bromfield grew up in rural Ohio. His father was a not-very-capable businessman who tried to pull off various agriculture-related deals. When World War I broke out Bromfield went to Europe and worked as an ambulance driver. In letters home he claimed to have mingled with the elite in his off-duty hours, but the author says that there is no evidence that he actually did so.

One might call Bromfield a member of the Lost Generation, though he never received that label as did the likes of Gertrude Stein and Hemingway. After the war he stayed in France and decided he wanted to farm. He found an old farm outside Paris owned by some elderly sisters. He could not convince them to sell but entered into a complicated lease arrangement. Bromfield spent a lot of money on improvements and created a productive working farm. He held regular Sunday gatherings there and the likes of Stein and Edith Wharton would show up.

Bromfield was able to finance all this because of his success as an author. Author Stephen Heyman quotes The New York Times as saying that Bromfield was “the most promising of all the young American authors writing today.” According to the New York Post, “We have added a new fixed star to the American literary firmament.” And yet we hardly know Bromfield’s name today.

In the thirties Bromfield could see what was happening in Europe and sent his family home for safety. He followed shortly thereafter.

Back in the United States Bromfield bought a farm in Ohio near his childhood home. He bought it in winter and when the snow melted in the spring he discovered the land was hardly arable. Fortunately, he found a farm manager who knew how to make farmland productive. The farmhouse was dilapidated but Bromfield wanted to preserve it while at the same time add on to and enhance the house. This made his architect crazy, but everyone was happy with the house as it was eventually built.

Bromfield’s politics were left of center and he made friends with the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt. However, during World War II he saw the demands that the government was making for the war effort were hurting American agriculture and he spoke out about it. This alienated Mrs. Roosevelt and others in that camp. But contemporaries also noted he possibly helped the country avoid food shortages during the war.

Bromfield did a lot of work in the area of sustainability and spent a lot of time on the road speaking about agriculture. He was one of the first to warn of the dangers of DDT.

Late in his life he became more dogmatic and set in his views. His health also began to fail. By the time of his death he had lost much of his popularity and credibility.

Stephen Heyman’s biography is a fascinating and revealing look at an important American figure about whom we rarely hear these days.