Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

“The Muralist”: reading and thinking about art and and the world and other things

Monday, September 19, 2016

I went to see a beautiful exhibit at the Portland (Maine) Art Museum. It highlights the work of four 20th century women artists, three of them far less known than they should be. In addition to paintings by the deservedly celebrated Georgia O’Keeffe was the work of Florine Stettheimer, Marguerite Zorach, and Helen Torr. For each the determination to make art was counter-balanced—sometimes upended--by life’s making other plans in ways that male artists are rarely called upon to negotiate.

Later, in discussing the exhibit with my cousin Judith Lerner, a painter whose work I hugely admire, she mentioned a book she had recently read, “The Muralist,” a novel by B. A. Shapiro about a woman painter in the male-centric art world of mid-20th century New York. Shapiro places her heroine, a young Jewish woman artist, in the circle of Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, and Willem DeKooning and gives her relatives in harm’s way in Nazi-occupied France.  She is at work on a mural that she hopes will galvanize public opinion in support of rescuing those who are beginning to disappear into concentration camps before that becomes an actual descriptive term. The villain is not the distant and nearly unimaginable Hitler so much as the banally evil Breckinridge Long, who, in fact, as a bureaucrat in FDR’s State Department, made it his mission to deny as many visas as possible to desperately fleeing refugees, particularly Jews. Read Muslims, read wall; so many others, so many ways to keep them out.

What made “The Muralist” especially compelling to me was its ability to let the reader in on the passion with which art is made. Mystical, exhilarating, that concentration of energies. (A digression: last week I saw one of my favorite examples of this, Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” that, though it was a lackluster production, still got me teary over Seurat’s and Sondheim’s evocation of “an ordinary” Sunday. Here’s a little gift to you—this terrific video of the original cast doing the Act I finale at the 1984 Tony awards.)

A lot to think about at this moment in the world, in our country. And always interesting how fiction helps us see what’s most true.

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The Occasional (Repeated) Recipe: Panzanella

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

I think the time is right to re-run a past blog post in which I gave a recipe for the Italian bread-and-tomato salad panzanella. After all, it’s the end of August. Farm markets are still open and vegetable gardens are filled with seasonal bounty: there are tomatoes out there, folks.  Made it last night but instead of French bread, I used white bread I had baked.

In case you’re impressed, you should know that the bread recipe I use is as easy as all my other recipes. Takes no longer to mix together than it takes to describe. It’s my dumbed down version of this.  Mix together in a bowl:

            1 ½ c. warm water—pretty warm but not hot
            ½ Tbsp. kosher salt
            ½ Tbsp. yeast
            3 cups flour

Cover it with plastic wrap and let it rise 2-5 hours. Put it in a greased loaf pan and let it rise again, about 20 minutes or so, then bake 30 minutes in 450 degree oven. You can also after the first rising, refrigerate it a few days, then bring it to room temperature, let it rise in loaf pan, and bake. I also make this with half or a third whole wheat and often with the addition of toasted walnuts and sesame, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds. Or other goodies.

And here’s the panzanella recipe I originally posted:

In mid-summer it’s hard to avoid coming home from the farm markets without too much of something that looked delicious. My downfall is tomatoes. Off-season I don’t buy fresh tomatoes: the world is too filled with heartbreak as it is. So during the summer I tend to go a little overboard. Ok, a lot overboard.

On this particular day I had beautiful ripe tomatoes and was thinking of panzanella, that summery Italian bread salad. It seemed easy enough...some tomatoes...some bread...olive oil.....let’s see.  I looked through my three shelves of cookbooks: nothing. (Really, “Nigellissima”?? Really, “VB6”??) I looked online: too much. Too many ingredients, serving too many people. Maybe in the summer you’re always suppose to be cooking for a crowd. Tonight I’m cooking for two. So, as often happens--admittedly, not always with marvelous results--I made up a recipe. And I’m sharing it with you as I made it. No specific amounts, no specific proportions--you’re in charge. I’m just telling you there are ripe tomatoes out there--go make panzanella.

What you need:
red onion
dried cubes of French bread
olive oil

I cut the tomatoes, bread, and cucumber in nice-size chunks; you can do the same depending on your idea of nice size. I cut some red onion in smaller pieces, because that’s what I prefer. I added a little olive oil and salt and pepper. I tore a bunch of basil leaves. Not “a bunch” as in what Whole Foods puts in a rubber band, but a “bunch” as in what my plants were offering and what I thought looked like a good amount.  I tossed it all and took a moment to enjoy how it reminded me of the Italian flag. And then I set it aside in a (non-metallic) bowl for a few hours. Do not refrigerate it. Refrigeration does terrible things to tomatoes.

At this very moment it is still in progress, the tomatoes’ juices and the olive oil doing their magic on the bread cubes. I plan to taste a little throughout the afternoon because the one amount I was unsure of was the olive oil. But I’m thinking this is going to be very good. And I’m hoping that if you find something that could make it better, you’ll let me know.

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"A Little Life"

Thursday, August 25, 2016

I heard an NPR interview with David Denby about his new book “Lit Up”and his concern that the distraction of the ubiquitous screen is crowding out the pleasure of reading for today’s children and young adults. I was hearing this just as I had had that mystical experience of coming to the end of an engrossing book, closing the cover, and continuing to live in its world. It’s a feeling I’ve had many times throughout my life, one I know my daughters have had, and one I hope my grandchildren and their peers do, too. I can’t imagine my life without books. For me, one of the basic questions for those close to me is, “What are you reading.”

And what I just read is “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara. Remarkable, absorbing, provoking much thought and conversation. A tough book, dark and sad—be warned. But read it anyway.

The jacket flap copy mentions “brotherly love” and some reviews say “gay novel” but neither of those descriptions feels right to me. What I saw was love and human connection with no limiting description. The central relationship is, yes, between two men, but it’s love between two human beings; gender doesn’t feel like what matters.

A lot has been said about the novel’s darkness. It certainly has sadness at its heart, along with unspeakable cruelty, degradation, damage. But also compassion, kindness, and love at its most unquestioning and unconditional among a remarkable assortment of people.

One of the main character is a painter who becomes wildly successful (one of the book’s oddnesses is  just how wildly successful each of the original four friends becomes) with several series of paintings of the other three at mundane moments in their lives, most memorably, listening to someone tell a story. There is also a moment when one of the characters looks around at a room that holds signs of an absent beloved—clothes draped across a chair, a book splayed open—all signs of  how our lives are lived not only in large moments and large events, but also, powerfully and memorably, in the small moments that make up the little lives we are given.

The jacket photo is titled, “Orgasmic Man,” but it looks to me like someone who is reacting, not necessarily to sexual pleasure but to the intensity of those “little life” moments—to the cruelty we want to look away from, to love of incomprehensible magnitude, to losses, to pleasures, to the whole enormity of what they add up to.

I do have to say, unfortunately, that the book illustrates the importance of editors, noticeable here in the breach, with passages that can go on too long and lead nowhere, with the singular masculine pronoun whose referent can be nearly indecipherable. And copy editing—idiotic things like “binging” for “bingeing” that feels like an infuriatingly sloppy betrayal of a gifted author who has, for 720 pages, worked to give the reader an unforgettable experience.

But that’s small potatoes. My annoyance with that is just that it interrupts, taking you out of the beautifully-written flow of the words. I wanted to stay in those words, in that world in which, for all its darkness, I found optimism. I found hope in the thought that someone so irreparably damaged in body and spirit could endure as long as he did, could find moments of true delight, could be surrounded and supported by the love of people who hoped that would be enough. That it wasn’t didn’t feel like a triumph of the darkness, but a testament to the power of the human connections that, at least for a time, were successful in sustaining the light.

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