Friday Fave: New York Review Books Classics

Book design deserves more attention than it gets from readers. We pay attention to a pretty cover now and then, but most of us are so accustomed to books being disposable, a story to be read once and then put aside, given away, or returned to the library, that what it looks like matters very little. There are a few stand-out covers every year from the behemoth publishers, but the majority, especially the bestsellers in most genres, are designed to grab our attention more like a flashing sign than a piece of beauty.

Aren’t they pretty? (Torn spine aside. This is one peril of buying second-hand books online…)

I find this to be a great pity. As much as I like e-books–and I do love my kindle–they just don’t provide the same experience as reading a paper book. There’s a sensory experience in reading a paper book that can’t be replicated by a screen. It isn’t just that the book has a smell; a  That sensory experience is heightened when a book’s design is as attractive as its content.

When I was a teenager I was an avid collector of the 90s Vintage covers: The color blocked designs and the stark font used on the spines were immensely appealing to me, and they published my favourite authors–A.S. Byatt, Michael Ondaatje, Jeannette Winterson, Stephen Mitchell’s translations of Rilke. They continue to publish a strong selection of authors, but their abandonment of the plain color spines and black borders was disproportionately disappointing to me.

Happily we now have the New York Review Books Classics imprint. I don’t suppose they’ve won an award for design, because, like Vintage, there’s a single pattern for the series, but each one of these books is a thing of beauty. The font, the plain-color spines and backs, quality of the paper, even the shape and pleasant weight of each book. The colours they use are eye-catching and attractive. The front-cover illustrations are simple, a photograph or other extant image that is relevant to the text, usually a fragment of a painting.  It’s a bit like the New Yorker covers, which often require you to puzzle out how they relate to the main story in each issue.

Beneath the covers is an impeccably curated collection of fiction, memoir, and biography from around the world. The imprint was launched in 1999 to re-publish out of print works from The Reader’s Catalogue, because it was found that many of the “40,000 best books in print” were in fact no longer in print. They have since branched out to include English-language translations of works that are highly regarded in other parts of the world but otherwise unavailable to those like me who never learned to read even a second language to fluency. Unlike Penguin Classics, for which a “classic” must be of a certain vintage–fifty or seventy years after death, I think, depending on when the author’s copyright expires according to U.S. or UK law–these classics are deemed so according to influence and reputation, and the range of interest covered is immense. They have re-printed all of Nancy Mitford’s non-fiction titles, which for a time were much harder to get hold of than her fiction; a collection of troubadour poems from mediaeval France; and a host of novels and memoirs from China, Eastern Europe, and South America that provide personal testimonies and insights into the wars and revolutions of the last century that we have variously lacked access to and ignored in the U.S.

A recent sorting through and reorganization of my library revealed that I have several shelves worth of Vintage and Penguin classics, collected in the many years since I began high school. My NYRB shelf is by comparison puny–only a handful of titles as yet–but I am working on that, bit by bit. They are books to be savoured, rather than devoured in one or two sittings, so I am taking it slow.


Macarons: Or, Why I Am Not A Baker

Airy, tender, chewy, ethereally sweet, a good French macaron is one of the few desserts I am always in the mood for. Until a couple of weeks ago, I never contemplated making them on my own. They have a notorious reputation as finicky, fussy, requiring the right level of humidity and arrogance to pull off. I am a throw-everything-in-the-pot, figure-it-out-as-you go cook. I like breads and pie because they’re playful baking. You can squiggle things around. Macarons? They seemed like the holy grail of the science-minded, detail-oriented baking which is my kryptonite.

What a macaron ought to look like. My role for this batch was strictly junior-assistant level, which no doubt is why it came out so well.

But then my friend decided we should make macarons to bring to a dinner and it went just about perfectly and I was inspired. Sure, she’s a pastry chef, but whatever. I had helped make a great batch–or at least, watched closely as she did. I could do this. The recipe she used was reassuringly un-fussy and backed by absolute truck-tons of Q&A, and developed by Stella Parks, a pastry chef who’s now a senior editor at my beloved Serious Eats. I’d seen it in action. It was a trustworthy recipe. I set aside an entire day and got to work.

Here is the thing about macarons. They sound pretty easy to make.

Step 1: Make a stiff meringue using egg whites, sugar, salt.

Step 2: Aggressively fold in a well-sifted dry mix of almond flour and powdered sugar. The batter should be “molten”: visible peaks should slowly melt back into the rest.

Step 3: Pipe into cute little circles on parchment, and bake at 300 for not quite 20 minutes.

And yet. I made five separate batches over the course of the day. I got three half-sheet pans full of cookies from each batch. Of those 15 trays, three were keepers. THREE. That makes my success rate, what, 20%? That’s not even “F” grade bad. That’s, like, “go to summer school and we won’t speak of this again” bad.

Keepers up front; various types of rejects behind.

You may be thinking, Well, Margaret, at least you learned something! What was so different about those three successful trays? BUT I DON’T KNOW. Of the three successful trays, one was the only success in its batch, and truly came out almost perfect (the other two trays of the same batch? flat as pancakes). The other two successful trays were from my last batch of the day, the one that should have been the most challenging because I added extra ingredients to the meringue. (Gel coloring and flavor extract; at this point, I was like, who cares. If I’m going to fail, it might as well be pretty.)

In order to describe my failure, let me describe success. The meringues should come out of the oven perhaps a warmer color than the white they went in, but not brown. They should peel cleanly off the parchment when done (a handy way to test if they are done). They should rise into cute fat little domes with a separate ridge around the bottom. The ridges are called “feet” and they are highly desirable for some reason. They should be smooth and glossy. When broken open, they should have a consistent lacy internal structure. When eaten, they should at first have a lightly crisp texture, followed by a toothsome chew. After a day or two of aging they should be more universally chewy but still disappearingly light.

Good macarons vs. not-good macarons. Same batch, separately baked trays.

So, failure. Completely flat cookies. Slightly risen cookies, but with no feet. Cookies with okay rise and feet but cracked surfaces. Cookies with uneven or hollow internal structure. Cookies that are crunchy rather than crisp-tender. Brown cookies.

A few of the failures had clear reasons. One batch was for sure overmixed: although I thought I had that molten consistency perfect, it had gone too far. Overmixed batter will not rise. Another batch may have been overmixed as well, but that was subject to a different overriding problem that ruined two whole batches. My oven thermometer, which I was being so careful to use to avoid relying on the perhaps inaccurate oven dial, was–wait for it–inaccurate. By about 30 degrees. The macarons will not rise in a too-cool oven. That was my first incoherent rage-scream of the day (but by no means my last, gentle reader).

I will break down the basic recipe with my lessons learned or questions raised. Mostly the latter.

  • Sift together twice as much confectioner’s sugar as almond flour (8oz and 4oz).
    • When I made this recipe with my pastry chef friend, we used almond flour made from whole almonds. Pushing this through the sieve was something that was “interesting” to do once. Had I had to do this for each of my own five batches, I would have been a puddle of tears by #2. Fortunately, Costco had a big bag of superfine flour made from blanched almonds and that was easy peasy. Get that stuff.
    • I threw in a couple teaspoons of ground cardamom into three of my batches at this stage. You’re not supposed to add liquid flavoring/color to the meringues until you’ve nailed down the recipe, but after a bit of research, it looked like this might be a safe way to play. My hands-down best tray was from one of these batches, so I think it was fine.
  • Beat a very, very stiff meringue from twice as much egg white as granulated sugar, plus a touch of salt (5oz, 2.5oz, half a teaspoon).
  • Beat for 10 minutes total, at increasing speed: 3 min @ medium-low, 3 min @ medium-high, 3 min @ high.

    The meringue should be stiff enough to clump inside the whisk.
  • Add any extracts or color at this stage, but regardless, beat for another minute on high “to show it who’s boss,” as Stella says. The meringue will be clumping inside the whisk at this point.
    • I never had trouble making a good stiff meringue. Fat lot of good it did me. In my research, I have now found that perhaps beating my meringue a tad less might help with the hollowness issue. I was worried that my 325 watt, 5-quart stand mixer would not do as good a job as my friend’s larger model, but that was no problem at all.
    • There are many macaron mystics who claim that the age of the egg and the temperature are critical. Stella dismisses this. I left my eggs on the counter all day as I went. Cold egg whites, from my hopeful morning, seemed to perform just the same in the meringue as room temp ones in the late afternoon, as I was sinking into despair.
    • During round one with my pastry chef BFF, we ran into trouble trying to use liquid egg whites and had to switch to separated whole eggs. The liquid ones may have been over-pasteurized, so watch out for that.
  • Dump the almond flour/sugar mixture in all at once. Fold into the meringue. You’re trying to deflate the meringue, not preserve it, so fold the heck out of it.
    • 40 strokes is what Stella recommends. Apparently I am aggressive? Or something? Because my 40 strokes were definitely too many. I found it took more like 25ish for me to get to the right place: when dropped onto itself, the batter would hold its shape briefly. It would ooze back to near-formlessness after about thirty seconds.
      Considerably decreased in volume, glossiness, and general appeal, this is about ten strokes into deflating the meringue once the flour is added–so-called macaronage.

      Macaronage complete! The batter is glossy again, and about the consistency of a thick pancake batter.
    • I really don’t know how you adjust for this. Slightly under-mixing the batter led to predictable results for the first trays of the batch I piped (cookies that retained their little peaks–let’s be honest, they look like nipples–even after resting and baking). However, it resulted in PERFECT texture for the last tray of the batches in question: smooth, glossy, risen domes with nary a nipple in sight.
      Expert friends are so super handy.
      • As the batter rests, and as it gets scooped into a pastry bag and piped out, it continues to develop. That’s why the last slightly under-mixed stuff to be piped worked so well. How can you possibly pipe all of the batch at the same time? I could let the whole batch rest longer, okay. Then the first piping bag full might be good. But the last two or three definitely would then be over-mixed. (See above, viz. rage-screaming.) This was also an issue that my pastry chef friend ran into, and it matters the least of all the failures–so it’s definitely the lowest rung on my ladder of concerns–but still. STILL.
  • Pipe onto parchment-lined baking sheets.
    • Just breaking this out to share my friend’s method for this, which I really like. As opposed to trying to pipe in a circle, which is tough, simply pipe straight down for a consistent length of time. The batter will spread to make circles. Like, count 1-2-3 as the batter comes out. If you use consistent pressure and time you will get perfectly matched cookies. Piping fifteen trays of meringue cookies did really improve my piping skills, I will say.

      Piped circles of meringue. This batch was a bit overmixed–you can tell that the batter spread too easily. The flecks in this batch are from the ground cardamom.
  • Bake at 300F for 18 minutes, or until the cookies peel easily away from the parchment.
    • Honestly, between my villainous thermometer and my verging-on-antique oven, I’m not sure I can say that I ever baked at exactly 300. I did find that erring on the side of too hot was preferable to too cool.
    • Colored macarons are apparently harder to get the timing right for. They can take up to twice as long to bake. It is true that the first tray of my only colored batch never passed the “done” test–but it’s also true that leaving them in for an extra ten minutes resulted in waaaay overdone cookies (although I was using professional color that should be heat-proof, these also went from rosy pink to yucky brown). It was the only tray I actually threw out. The subsequent two trays also did not peel up cleanly when warm, but I took them out at 18 minutes anyway; when cool, they did peel up just fine. They were even a bit over-done, but with my oven temp being so effing mysterious, I can’t really blame the recipe for that.
      With a few drops of liqui-gel food coloring (red) and some raspberry extract.
      • For reference, I used 3 drops of gel fool coloring and two teaspoons of raspberry extract in this batch, within the parameters Stella gives for her flavored versions.
    • Fill and enjoy! Buttercream, fruit curds, jams, alone or in combination with each other–the options are truly endless. They are best once they have been filled and rested in the fridge for a couple days, giving the meringue a chance to absorb some moisture from the filling and achieve that luscious texture.
      • I chose two different combos for the few of mine that qualified for filling: (1) Cardamom meringue with orange flower and almond buttercream; and (2) raspberry meringue with raspberry buttercream and lemon curd. For the batch I made with my friend, we chose hazelnut buttercream with a Nutella center sandwiched in plain meringue.

The diversity of macarons is actually what appeals to me so much about them. The process may be exacting, but the flavors can be so playful. That’s why I will–at some point–make these again.

But not, like, for a while.

Friday Fave: Mindwalk


I have always thought of my emotional and intellectual development in terms of what books I read at a certain age, and the impact that these have had on me in shaping my reaction to this or that event in my personal life or in the world. One of the few things that doesn’t fit on this shelf–do try to keep a few if not all of these books with me physically, even if I’m only away for a few days or weeks–is the film Mindwalk. It saw it when I was 14, and it completely overwhelmed me. It was made in 1990: the footage is positively grainy now, the transfer from VHS to streaming has made the music a bit wobbly in parts, and Sam Waterston is startlingly youthful–this was a few years before his role on Law & Order, and even in that short time he seemed to age quite a bit–but the content remains distressingly relevant.

I remember reading a review of the film that dismissed it as more of a lecture than a story, and I have never ceased to resent that. The setting of the conversation is important, as is the presence of the different voices; to cast it as a lecture strips away the element of questioning of self, society, and politics that is core purpose of the film. You can listen to it as an audio drama, but leaving out the footage of Mont Saint Michel loses a lot of the scenery that illustrates the most pertinent aspects of the discussion. (It’s also just a gorgeous place to look at, whether or not you’ve been there in person.)

The film introduced me to the poetry of Pablo Neruda, and was one of my early introductions to Renaissance philosophy. It touches on a dozen other things that have become central points of the national and international conversation, not least climate change and mental health. One line that burned itself into my memory when I re-watched as an older teenager is Sam Waterston’s character’s comment that “American voters want their leaders to be dumber than they are. They figure they’ll do less harm that way.” As an adult I have always found the first part of this statement to be perfectly true; the problem is that such leaders invariably do much more harm than the more intelligent ones, as we are now all witness to. It would be wonderful if this miserable administration could at least serve to convince people to see Trump and his ilk for what they are, but I have a feeling his true believers are going to go on supporting him no matter what folly he drags the country into.

It has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray, but with a number of European films I loved as a teenager suddenly becoming available on digital, I hold out hope that this will be remastered and released as well. Until then, it’s available here.

Speculative Fiction and Literary Snobbery

When I was a kid spending endless hours in bookstores and invariably doing my English homework first (often to the detriment of most of my other classes) there was “literature” and then there was fantasy/sci-fi and an assortment of other genres of fiction. There was the occasional stray outlier–I first heard of Possession and Joyce Carol Oates’ writing in one of The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy yearbooks, and I studied Tolkien in class–but on the whole there were boundaries.

The thing is, the harder you look at these boundaries, the more arbitrary they are–or rather, the boundaries are based on the writer’s skill, not the aspects of the story. Personally I find this a bit silly. I wholly agree with categorizing novels according to the skill and grace with which a given writer tends to construct sentences, plots, and characters, but not the variety of story he or she tells. I am hopelessly fond of Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices series and have never liked anything that Hemingway wrote, but pretending that the former is in any way substantively better writing than the latter would be absurd; looking down on a novel or other narrative solely because it involves ghosts or dragons or alternate worlds without regard to the quality of the writing, no matter how good, is likewise absurd, but it happens all the time. Where the quality of the writing cannot be questioned, the fantastical elements are either ignored or minimized, or the novel is cast as one that deals with heavy philosophical or existential questions, as though the fantasy or sci-fi setting is irrelevant rather than, as is true in most cases, necessary to the framing of said question.

When dealing with novels that are truly great, the sort of novel that is always going to be in print and studied in high schools and universities for generations to come, the label of “fantasy” disappears–there’s the South American tradition of magical realism applied to the work of Marquez, Borges, and others, but for the most part there’s a strong resistance to admitting that fantasy or any other style of genre fiction can be well-written.  Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Bram Stoker’s Dracula–these are all usually, if not invariably, classified on bookshop shelves and in libraries as “Literature” with a capital L, and never as fantasy, because somehow the skill with which they are written exempts them from being genre fiction–genre fiction being something to be embarrassed about. Even The Book of Strange New Things, which is set partly in a dystopian future Earth and partly in a new planet we earthlings are colonizing as our own civilization is falling apart, is described as “genre-defying” and “defiantly unclassifiable.” No, it isn’t. It is entirely and unapologetically dystopian sci-fi, and has a couple of significant flaws that make me question why it got such a long list of rave reviews, but that’s a different blog post.

Even among fiction firmly classified as genre, fantasy and sci-fi seem to be a lower-class label. When I was in Boston I was telling Margaret about an online course I took I few years ago on fantasy literature; towards the end of my long-winded description of the books I read for the course, I remembered that it wasn’t focused on fantasy literature at all, but on historical fiction. The problem was that of the six books we read, the three I had the strongest memories of were as much fantasy as they were historical fiction, two to the extent that they contradicted the ostensible focus of the course. (It’s hard to discuss representations of the Salem Witch Trials in fiction when the main text for the class is for the most part devoted to a woman in present-day New England who dives head-first into a sexy romance with a local handyman while learning how to cope with her newfound ability to cast magical spells.)

My favourite book for the course was Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride, which deals with the practice of ghost marriages in late nineteenth-century China. There is some history–the beginning offers a clear explanation of the practice of ghost marriages, as well as some of the social divisions of the time and culture in which the story is set. The greater part of the action, however, takes place when the figurative titular “ghost bride” enters a realm of ghosts and demons, and is aided in her quest by a dragon who can take the form of a man. The fact that this novel is defined as historical fiction, while Amberlough and any novel dealing with Robin Hood are listed as fantasy, is beyond me, even as a marketing ploy. (My favourite novel version of the Robin Hood story is Jennifer Roberson’s Lady of the Forest. There is not the merest glimmer of magic in it, but because it’s a Robin Hood retelling, I have always found it shelved as Fantasy whenever I’ve noticed in a bookshop. The same is true of Robin McKinley’s version, The Outlaws of Sherwood, if I remember correctly, and Parke Godwin’s Sherwood, but I discovered them all on the shelves of the Fantasy section as a teenager. The Godwin version, at least, seems to be classified as historical fiction now.)

The Ghost Bride is fantasy. It no more deserves to be labelled historical fiction than Westworld or Firefly should be defined as Westerns. Why there remains a tendency in any corner of the reading world to look down on fantasy or any other sub-category of speculative fiction as inherently less good than other forms of fiction by virtue of its subject matter is beyond me; it isn’t as though Game of Thrones and the Marvel and DC comic book lines have been losing money for their creators. Neither is it a recent invention–the origins of fantasy lie in the mythology and folktales of every culture. Hopefully the growing number of writers who are as brilliant in crafting a sentence as they are in creating new worlds and compelling characters will continue to grow, and the literary snobbery of looking down on speculative fiction will finally become a thing of the past.



Goodreads is on the whole one of my favourite web sites, because I’ve had a mania for keeping a record of the books I’ve read and want to read since I was about 11. Getting to do so online where I can see the covers of the books while I write about them and compare notes with friends and virtual acquaintances has been hours of endless fun. The one thing that truly irritates me about the site is its recommendations algorithm, which keeps recommending that I read Fifty Shades of Grey, presumably because I read Outlander and liked it, and read most of the Twilight series in a fit of depression and wish I hadn’t. (Hate reading is a thing. I was thrilled to discover recently that I was not the only person guilty of doing this, although by no means do I encourage it and I’ve done my best to avoid any such rabbit holes since. There is no point in wasting time on poorly written books.)

I usually rely on friends’ recommendations or actively browsing through bookshops to find new authors I want to read; I pretty much ignore the Goodreads recommendations altogether unless I’m looking for books on some obscure aspect of history, for which its algorithm is oddly useful. Back in January, however, it kept insisting I look at Amberlough, so I forgive it its other failings and promise to stop muttering profanities at it as long as it isn’t pushing Ravished by a Rake or some other such rubbish.

Most of my new books these days are either kindle books on sale or second-hand paper books in decent condition; occasionally I’ll find that I like something so much that I need the audiobook and a physical copy. Sometimes, however, a book just deserves to be read in a good-quality hardback edition. I couldn’t manage without my kindle for long, but there’s a pleasure in reading a well-designed physical book that an e-book can’t replicate. I spent a couple of days looking at that lovely cover and decided I wanted this one in hardback.

I haven’t finished it yet–I was waiting for a time when I knew I’d be able to spend hours at a time reading, and it’s been a hectic six weeks–but I finally got a couple of hours when I was clear-headed and not overwhelmed with other tasks, and read the first quarter in one sitting. It is as good as promised. It is not your typical fantasy: There are no dragons, no magical powers as yet, no prophecies or chosen ones, and the setting is an analogue of 1930s Berlin rather than Middle Earth. Donnelly does what I had hoped China Mieville would do in The City and The City, but where I found Mieville’s work disappointingly dry, she knocks it out of the park. She has created “an alien world, faithfully described,” and her characters are as vibrant as the world she builds. The detail is plentiful and lush without detracting from the pace of the story, which quickly becomes intense–Amberlough is as much a political thriller as a fantasy novel.

As much as I love the Tolkein tradition in fantasy, worlds full of magic and dragons and mysterious curses, it’s refreshing to see a new novel that owes more to Bulgakov, Angela Carter, and political thrillers like The Crying Game than to George R. R. Martin. Her characters aren’t struggling with moral dilemmas disguised as quests or having to learn how to manage unexpected supernatural powers; they’re dealing with conflicts that strike closer to home for most of us, such as how honest we are with those we love, how much hardship we’re willing to endure for a political or moral ideal, sexuality and gender identity, and how to make a living when the odds are stacked against us, albeit some of these challenges are on a grander scale for said characters than most of us will ever encounter. Given the current climate of our politics in the West, it feels much more pertinent to real life than most novels, let alone most fantasy, usually gets.

I’m actually glad I didn’t hear about the novel until late January, because waiting more than a month or so for it would have been deeply frustrating. When I was in Boston I went looking for a copy, thinking that I’d read it on the plane ride home; the very helpful woman at the counter explained that it hadn’t been released yet, but that she could order it for me. Then she looked back at the screen and said “oh, I think we need this book. This looks good.” Yes, you need this book. Preferably in its lovely hardback form.

Two Beauties

Every book I have ever read has left an imprint on me. Sometimes it’s so slight as to be forgotten; sometimes, as with Robin McKinley’s Beauty, the mark is indelible. This telling of Beauty and the Beast represents the best of fantasy writing to me: a genuine sense of magic grounded with dimensional, fully realized characters, and writing that may be lyrical but never overwrought.

I did not realize until a couple weeks ago that McKinley–who wrote Beauty at the tender age of 18–returned to her favorite fairy tale as an adult to write Rose Daughter. Since on paper I ought to have loved it, it’s taken me some time to work out why I in fact disliked it so much.

What I did like: Lush descriptions, a carefully built world of real people with real jobs and problems and grime under their nails, the brooding mystery at the heart of the Beast’s story.

What I did not like, not one bit: The lack of magic. There’s plenty of magical accessories to the action of the story. Take your pick of sorcerers and greenwitches, invisible servants, unicorns. But there is no magic.

I took a playwriting class in college. I was terrible at it. I mean, that semester holds some memories so cringe-worthy that I can barely stand to touch on them 15 years later. The only thing my professor liked from me the whole semester was my final. I wrote 60 pages of a play in one night: I realized, at 11pm the night before it was due, that the piece I’d been laboring over for weeks was as dull and lifeless and hateful as everything else I’d done in that class. So I scrapped it utterly and started over with 8 hours left on the clock.

And overnight I wrote something magical–that is, a transformation took place on stage. It may not have been a play that anyone should ever produce (I never even wanted to finish it), but I had arrived at something. I stopped thinking about how an actor could change costumes that fast, or how something that size could get on stage, or how that effect would be visible to the back row; I just wrote the magic and it worked.

Robin McKinley’s Beauty is the true magic that I got a glimpse of that one frenzied night. Rose Daughter never gets there because it is crushingly concerned, like I was that whole awful semester, with how and why the magic could happen. It’s the difference between a rose blooming for a month and a day because it is enchanted, or because it happens to be from really great stock and its fertilizer was at just the right pH.

But Rose Daughter worked its own kind of enchantment on me–or broke one I hadn’t known was there. Over the past year I have written very little. I think about my novel and feel tired of it, defeated by it. Reading this lovely yet empty story by this wonderful author made me realize where I’ve gone wrong with my book. I’ve been looking behind the curtain, telling the stage manager what to do, worrying about how the sound will carry. As that so-frustrated professor kept trying to tell me years ago, I ought to be looking at what’s on the stage. That’s where the magic happens.

blooming orange rose

To Happier Anniversaries and Recommitting to Goals

This month Salt Sweet Bitter turned a year old. Happy birthday, little blog!

When Margaret first suggested the idea of a shared blog to me, I was not at all certain I was the right person to trust with such a venture–I have always had a bad track record for beginning things with great enthusiasm and abandoning them when I run out of steam weeks or months later, and at the time I was still struggling with grief and severe anxiety. I really liked the idea, though, so I said yes.

I have been glad I did so every week. I have not always been able to finish my posts on the deadlines I have set myself, but I have kept to them more often than not. My baking projects were a large part of what pulled me out of the depression I had been struggling with since before my mother’s death, and learning to write coherently about politics has been a buffer against some of the despair that set in after the election. Having a place to report about these things, however informal and forgiving, has proven to be vital.

Last week I got to spend time in Boston with Margaret for the first time in far too many years, and it was glorious. She graciously guided and drove me to various locales so that I could indulge my obsessions with history and chocolate and bookshops. We also did lots of talking and lots of eating popcorn while watching films and television, and lots of cooking. And more eating. If you have not been to Boston, the food is flipping incredible, whether it comes from Margaret’s kitchen or any of the innumerable awesome restaurants. (I expected I would lose a few ounces due to all the walking that I am not used to. This did not happen, because Burdick’s and lobster rolls.)

I do not think I am a bad cook, and I will certainly stand up and say I am a good baker of most things that are not bread–at least, not yet–but my range is limited. I can do a few excellent cakes, good roast potatoes, and I can manage baked salmon and fried pork chops without drying them out. I haven’t practiced enough to call it a talent yet, but I’ve had remarkably good luck with joints of roast beef thus far, even the cheaper cuts that are likely to turn out tough. Margaret’s abilities, however, remind me that if I’m not exactly a beginner, neither am I far into the intermediate level, and as much as I enjoy making salmon en croute and noodles and shrimp with lime-sesame dressing, there are only so many times one can serve these things to guests before everyone gets bored.

One recent success: Christmas morning cinnamon rolls using an ATK recipe, which were in all honesty the best I’ve ever had, if I do say so myself. Including Cinnabon.

Without quite noticing, I’ve found over the past couple of months that I’ve achieved a lot, if not all, of what I kept telling myself I had to do after my mother died. The house is mostly tidy, a great deal of the clutter has been either parted with or better organized, and cleaning takes a fraction of the time it used to, even if I still hate doing the ironing and the carpets need vacuuming on almost a daily basis (because cats…). The silver kittens are almost full-size cats and very affectionate, if still shy. I have done some reorganizing of the house, and have a clearer idea of what else I want to do. So far this year has been devoted to politics, writing, and reading. I have no intention of giving up any of those, but I have worked through enough grief and despair to start focusing on some of the other things I love again, especially cooking. I have a growing collection of cookbooks that I am quite proud of; it is time to start using them more frequently, trying out dishes I am entirely unfamiliar with and finding new ways to cook foods I know I like. I have a collection of herbs in the garden that have been entirely neglected while I focused on the inside of the house, so they desperately need some care and attention. I am also determined to become a very good baker, particularly of bread, including sourdough. It should be interesting, if nothing else; in between the political writing and gushing about chocolate and pop culture, I promise to get back to documenting more of what I’m working on. I would love to hear more from our readers–if you have any suggestions or requests regarding recipes, please do let me know.


Friday Fave: Dirty Dancing

This week in oh hell I feel old now: Dirty Dancing celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in a scene from the film ‘Dirty Dancing’, 1987. (Photo by Vestron/Getty Images)

Are there any women who have seen this film and don’t like it? I don’t think I’ve met them. There used to be a time when I was certain that a few of my friends wouldn’t like it, so I never asked; I later found that they did like it, very much so. There are very few films of which this is true–maybe The Princess Bride and Labyrinth? (Which also both turn 30 this year, as does Some Kind of Wonderful. 1987 was a hella good year for films.)

I was nine when the film came out, but I don’t think I was allowed to see it until I was 11; I spent a few weeks in England with family that summer, and remember practicing dance steps on a short brick wall in my grandparents’ garden, in imitation of the scene where they dance on the tree that had fallen across the river. (It may have been that I just hadn’t had the chance to see it until then–I can’t remember when we got our first VHS player, and it was usually 18 months between a film appearing in the theatre and being shown on tv back then.)

I will never get bored of this film. It’s an awesome love story, but for a simple storyline there’s so much more going on. I love that as a coming-of-age story, Baby spends very little time agonizing over her choices; she has her moral convictions and they stand her in good stead. As a love story it is in some ways the quintessential fairy tale romance, but it abandons the usual narrative of one partner on an active campaign to win the other’s heart. Baby is smitten the moment she sees Johnny, but she does not set out on a campaign to win his heart, first being convinced that she doesn’t have a chance and second because, having found a cause that she can help, she’s too busy learning to dance. In between being refreshingly, honestly awkward. It is Johnny whom we get to see falling in love, a la Pride and Prejudice but with the social roles reversed, with a woman who irritates the hell out of him until he recognizes that she isn’t just another spoiled brat who thinks she can have whatever she sets her eyes on.

I think the quality of the acting in much of the film is stellar, and often overlooked because it isn’t a heavy drama. Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze had worked together on a film before, and weren’t overly impressed with one another; halfway through filming Dirty Dancing, they were finding it so hard to work together that the director had to sit them down and show them their screen tests to make them see what they were capable of. The only hint of this evident in the finished film fits perfectly to the characters’ personalities and frustrations when Baby is trying to master the Mambo to exhibition level–there is no trace of it in the last third of the film. Their chemistry is electric all the way through. Jane Brucker also deserves notice for playing Baby’s jealous, shallow older sister Lisa to perfection.

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The politics in the film remain relevant, thirty years on. It focuses on class divisions that U.S. public discourse has often preferred to pretend don’t exist, and portrays female sexuality and the consequences of making abortion illegal without shaming Baby and Penny for their actions. I particularly like that a story dealing with themes that are as serious as it gets, particularly in today’s political climate, ends with sheer, uncomplicated joy. Baby’s father apologizes to Johnny and reaffirms his love for Baby, Baby’s mother demonstrates that she does indeed get both her talent and her good sense from her, and Baby and Johnny get to walk, if not ride, off into the sunset. I have often wondered if Johnny would have moved down to Massachusetts to stay close to her, and if Baby would have given up joining the Peace Corps for him. Or convinced him to go with her.

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The thought of doing remakes of films like this usually fills me with dread–surely there are new stories to be told without wasting the money on rehashing a story that has already been told to perfection. The sequel (prequel? companion piece? almost entirely unrelated film about dancing that they just tacked the name on to and gave Patrick Swayze a cameo in?) they did about ten years ago was entirely forgettable, which is quite an achievement for a film starring Diego Luna and Romola Garai. In this case, however, I would honestly like to see an updated version of the story, focusing on race and/or LGBTQ equality in addition to class issues, particularly given the current attempts to reverse Roe v Wade. It would be interesting to hear how many people would decry a classic film being “politicized”.

The Moral High Ground

Politics has always been a matter of morality to me. I know politicians lie: I think you’d be hard-pressed to find one who doesn’t. Victories are exaggerated, the nature of or reasons for defeat manipulated, everyone is begging for money all the time but no one wants to admit it. I would like to live in a United States where the amount of money legally permitted to be spent on an election was severely limited and campaigns could only last for a certain amount of time, but our reality being what it is, I’ll take Elizabeth Warren identifying herself as being of Native American descent based on family lore over Aaron Schock using his government expense account to recreate Downton Abbey in his senate office and to go to the CMA ceremony any day.

Probably due to having grown up in the South, for a long time I had the distinct impression that the Republicans were the party of morals and family values, while the Democrats were self-aggrandizing, their fondness for money second only to their thirst for power. When I was about five I came home from school and recited the pledge of allegiance for my parents, altering one key phrase–I managed to change “and to the Republic, for which it stands” to “and to the Republicans, for where they stand.” My mother, despite still being a conservative at that point–at least as far as U.S. politics were concerned–had a fit; she did not forbid me to continue making the pledge at school when required, but she made very sure I understood what it was I was saying and that the Republicans were in no way synonymous with the Republic.

This perspective started to shift during the attempt to impeach Bill Clinton. I could understand finding him repellent for his inability to keep it in his pants; I could understand, and did myself, question bitterly his leadership skills when he launched airstrikes against Iraq, as I personally was convinced that he did so as a distraction from the allegations about his womanizing. What I couldn’t understand were the complaints that he was unfit to lead because of his womanizing. I’ve always been fascinated by histories of monarchies, particularly that of the British royal family, and as a teenager branched out to biographies of more recent political and military leaders. Many of the most revered of these men had affairs by the dozen. Horatio Nelson. FDR. Douglas MacArthur and possibly George Patton (with his niece, ugh). Churchill was known to have had at least one affair (very likely more), but I’ve yet to hear anyone fault his leadership on that score. You can desecrate your marriage vows and still be a good leader.

It isn’t so much that I think moral relativism is necessary in a political context; it’s that I don’t see how it can be avoided if we are to make useful choices, given the scope of the choices we have to make when we vote in an election. I believe that Bill Clinton used his position to persuade women to indulge his sexual proclivities, and I find that repellent, but in terms of scale it doesn’t match the vicious, degrading, and often physical harassment that Donald Trump has bragged about, let alone the credible claims of rape that have come from several women, including his ex-wife and another woman who was a child at the time of the alleged assault. Could Hillary have granted greater access to the President in return for donations to the Clinton Foundation, the proceeds of which she did not personally benefit from? Possibly, but I haven’t heard any convincing evidence that she did so (if you disagree, please feel free to enlighten me), and if the story is true, in no way does it compare to Trump’s refusal to divest himself from his businesses and the numerous ways his hotel empire opens him up to direct violations of the emoluments clause. If Hillary had won the electoral college as well as the popular vote, there would have been no immediate drastic change in the situations in Syria or the Ukraine, there would have been no quick fix for the military and moral quagmires that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 set off, innocent people would have continued to die. If she had won, however, Putin would not have immediately intensified its assistance of Assad and attacks on Ukraine. Fewer people would have died. As I heard someone else point out recently on Twitter, I would far rather have spent the next four years arguing and wishing and voting to push Hillary further to the left than waking up every morning wondering if WWIII has started and if we still live in a republic rather than a dictatorship.

The U.S. has never truly had an inviolate moral high ground. The extermination of the native inhabitants of North America, slavery and later Jim Crow, the imperialistic acquisition of Hawaii, the voyage of the St Louis, the Vietnam War, the invasion of Iraq–we’ve never had a spotless record. What we did have was a government that didn’t silence people who spoke out against it; dissent has always been present and loud, whether it attracted only a handful of listeners or grew to such influence that it started the Civil War. Now I and the millions of other people who voted for Clinton are genuinely scared we are going to lose this. Putting aside all questions of financial corruption, climate change, women’s reproductive rights, and creationism being taught in school, if Trump’s refusal to denounce Duterte and his open admiration of Vladimir Putin doesn’t scare you, either you are not paying attention or you lack any shred of moral integrity, full stop. Even disregarding the allegations against Putin that are supported only by circumstantial evidence–the blowing up of apartment buildings, the manipulation of Russian state oil companies, the fifteen or so journalists he is suspected of having had killed–we have plenty of evidence that he’s an authoritarian dictator with no interest in preserving freedom of speech and no respect for the concept of innocent lives. He was not troubled by the distraught relative of one of the sailors lost in the Kursk disaster being involuntarily drugged live on television as she demanded answers from the then deputy prime minister; he has demonstrated that he is quite willing to kill hostages along with terrorists in the event of a crisis, as happened in the Dubrovka Theatre crisis and the Beslan school siege. If we have to work with Russia because it is better not to have the country as an enemy, because there are people who depend on the oil and gas that Russia sells to European countries, because the citizens of a country should not be conflated with its leader(s), that is one thing. It is quite another to hold up Putin as a leader to be admired and even emulated, as Trump has done.

In the months since the election I’ve started to separate Trump supporters from conservatives and Republicans as a collective group. There are plenty of Republicans–not least a number of the party’s most prominent leaders–who would not vote for Trump, even if they couldn’t bring themselves to support Clinton either. There are those who supported Trump and started to regret it as soon as two weeks after the election; there is the celebration on the part of the stridently anti-semitic, xenophobic, neo-Nazi demographic, of whom I expected no better. What troubles me most are those who have watched the actions Trump has taken in the weeks since his election, the steady stream of lies, deflections, and misinformation coming out of the White House and across Twitter, and yet continue to argue that all this is acceptable because of “the conservative agenda,” believing that said agenda is morally desirable and benefits everyone. I have often wondered what this conservative agenda is–the rise of Trump has proven that it is not in fact about fiscal conservatism, an admiration of honesty and marital fidelity, or a disdain for corruption and authoritarianism. The only thing it seems to be nowadays is the privileging of private (corporate) profit over the collective good, respect for personal autonomy, and human life itself. If the U.S. is to preserve the Constitution, let alone any shred of moral integrity, it’s a damn good thing the people are rising up against Trump’s Putinesque, Bannon-directed “conservative” agenda.