Sympathizer Update

A couple of notes on The Sympathizer. It improves with each chapter. I predict a successful movie if Hollywood continues to overcome its struggles with diversity. There’s a fabulous opportunity here for a movie within a movie and commentary on Hollywood’s need to make every movie about white males.

My favorite sentence so far: “Drenched in café au lait stucco, the mall was bordered by an example of America’s most unique architectural contribution to the world, a parking lot.”

Reading about the food made me think, “How could I have been so stupid?” Followed immediately by, “Am I the only person in the world who hasn’t figured this out?” It had to do with the Vietnamese dish “pho,” which I’ve known about since I lived in Philadelphia. Americans say it with a long “o,” but it is properly a cross between “eh” and “uh.”

That part I’ve known for some time. The revelation came because of a conversation I had over the weekend with a friend who told a funny story about making onion soup back in the 1970s. It included a call to the renowned chef James Beard who had taught her mother. The daughter wanted to know where to buy pot au feu in a can. We laughed about the idea that forty years ago this staple of French cuisine might show up on grocery store shelves in a can. After we rang off I went online and found Emeril Lagasse’s recipe, which I was going to send her.

That night as I was reading The Sympathizer I came to the section in which the narrator does a Recherche du Temps Perdue as he recalls skimming the foam off his mother’s pho. That skimming and the mention of onions and carrots—and the light bulb ignited. Of course it’s pronounced “feu,” the French word for fire! It’s pot au feu with a Vietnamese accent!

What I’m Reading Now

When I need a break from The Sympathizer, I turn to my latest acquisition, a gift from my dear friend Thelma. Of course I had heard of The Jemima Code when it came out and added it to the reading list. It is even better than advertised. In writing of cookbooks published by African Americans, Toni Tipton-Martin has produced a gorgeous work that contributes mightily to the understanding of how we have shaped, and continue to shape, American culture.

This is a big book in every respect with its coffee table size and exquisite illustrations making it ideal for dipping in and out.

One of the first pages I turned to, quite by accident, was Melrose Plantation Cookbook by Clementine Hunter and François Mignon, published in 1956. Both the place and the author were familiar because I had learned of Ms. Hunter on my first visit to New Iberia when I dined at Clementine Dining and Spirits. The maître d’ pointed to one of her paintings and said how proud the owner was to have it.

Melrose Plantation came to my attention when I began reading about the extended FPOC Metoyer family who owned much land and many enslaved people in the Cane River area of Louisiana beginning in the 1700s. Ms. Tipton-Martin doesn’t say so in The Jemima Code, but Ms. Hunter toiled as a sharecropper before she became the head cook and later award-winning artist.

Ms. Tipton-Martin describes the cuisine as “A fusion of French technique, African finesse, and native ingredients had dissolved naturally over generations into the cosmopolitan culinary landscape, resulting in creolized dishes …”

Anyone who wants to try out this fusion cuisine will have to look elsewhere for complete recipes. While these pages serve up culinary magic, don’t expect detail. Via Ms. Tipton-Martin, Ms. Hunter’s measurements include a “blade” of mace, “an egg-sized piece of butter,” and “a wineglass of brandy.” Thus no chance for complete instructions for Beef Bamboula, described elsewhere as Sloppy Joe, but actually s.j. in pie crust or Bass a la Brin, brined fish with a lemon-parsley sauce, or Tomato Robeline (maybe named for the town, located about 10 miles from Melrose Plantation?).

Throughout the book, I kept thinking about the women (and a few men) who created these delicious, sometimes nutritious dishes without the benefit of even heat sources to go along with the lack of exact measurements. These people were geniuses.

Malinda Russell writes with a different lack of directions in A Domestic Cookbook, published in 1866. As Ms. Tipton-Martin observes, the author assumes that “the reader has some basic kitchen sense.” On that basis I’m tempted to bake “Cream Cake”: one and half cups sugar, two cups sour cream, two cups flour, one or two eggs, one teaspoon soda, flavor with lemon. That’s the entire recipe. Based on my kitchen sense, I’m pretty sure you sift the flour, then sift again with the other dry ingredients, beat the eggs until lemon colored, blend in the sour cream, stir in the lemon (a teaspoon?) and then add that mixture to the dry ingredients. Beat till fluffy and pour into a greased loaf pan lined with parchment (wax paper). Bake in a preheated 325-degree oven for an hour. Yum.

What I’m Reading Now

One of the joys of the veterans’ writing group is the exchange of recommendations for books, films, news articles, sometimes music. We’re all desolated that we won’t be meeting till March, but in the meantime I’m sending out resources and getting back recommendations.

The suggestion for the novel The Sympathizer by Viet Thahn Nguyen came from a Vietnam veteran who said it offered an accurate image of Saigon, the last days before the Communists took over, and the aftermath.

I can’t attest to the accuracy but can certainly recommend it as a crucial addition to understanding the impact of our war on a part of world that had been torn apart for years before the Americans sent in advisors and escalated the confrontation beyond repair. The gruesomeness has forced me to turn to other reading once or twice, but the writing makes it too good to stop.

In the early pages, Nguyen alternates scenes of decadent excess under American controlled South Vietnam with the austerity of the protagonist’s (so far unnamed) imprisonment under the Commandant. The prisoner tells us that he was a double agent – a mole working for the Americans whom he despises.

At about a quarter of the way in, I’m not sure what to believe. We’re deep in Smiley world here, but with more insightful cultural observation, a promising arc, and a forceful voice. One blurb writer said no one had captured such force since Humbert Humbert.

Nguyen has the better of Nabokov, I think, because he’s less wrapped up in his own experience and more willing to write in magnificent and colorful detail of the good (friends who protect each other), the bad (the venal bribe givers and takers), and the ugly (pretty much everyone else).

The early chapters set in the oppressive tropical and airless spaces of Vietnam make good reading on nights when the outside temps are circling 15, and it’s promising to snow/sleet/rain again.

RIP, my dear little girl

It’s the fourth anniversary of her death. I can’t believe it. Never did write a proper tribute because it hurt too much.

Every afternoon I still think of her as I make my way from study to kitchen, saying, “It’s tea time.” I used to add, “Baby Ise.” That came about because when my mother was dying one of her friends brought her a Beanie Baby (remember those?) that Mother told me was “Baby Isis.” It was actually a chipmunk, but I went along.

After Mother died, Daddy was ready to pitch it until I told him how much Beanie Babies  were commanding on the resale market. I still have it around here somewhere, but it’s in a closet. I wouldn’t let the real-deal Isis near it. No need for her to tear up her namesake.


What I’m Reading Now, Part II

This continuation of the post on On Paper was supposed to go up Friday, but the book drew me in with tales of forgery, counterfeiting, and murder. Plus, where would Watergate and the Pentagon Papers be without their main ingredient? And there’s all that red tape, which we learn was literal.

Returning from overseas to the United States, the Crane manufacturing enterprise in Dalton, Massachusetts, offers a portrait of Yankee know-how and recession-proof business. The story begins with Zenas Crane, nephew of a papermaker, finding an ideal location on the banks of the Housatonic River where he began a modest operation. Seven generations later Crane and Co. still produces the finest of stationery with 100 percent rag content (no wood pulp). Oh, and for the past one hundred thirty years, all of our currency comes out of the factory, still located on the banks of the Housatonic. Based on the magnificent descriptions in On Paper, I’m planning a visit to the Crane Museum of Papermaking.

Even the book’s cover has texture, a burlap-type paper that felt good even through the library’s plastic.

As mentioned in the discussion of Japanese paper and U.S. currency, Basbanes extends his topic far beyond paper used for writing. I’ll never view Kleenex and other facial tissue – or sanitary napkins – the same way again.

On Paper continues to be enthralling and supremely informative.


What I’m Reading Now

Another in the series and another that’s been on my reading list for years. I going to divide this entry into two parts because of pressing work and some nagging health stuff. The cover of Nicholas A. Basbanes’ book tells the story, On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand Year-History by a Self-Confessed Bibliophiliac.

And indeed it does begin even before the Chinese invented paper with a brief survey of other writing surfaces, none of which proved as portable and durable, though papyrus gave it run for some time.

Basbanes is writing the history of the world in one substance in global terms – movement of people and goods, the development of literacy, etc. He includes some terrific details that add context to the global sweep. For example in the years preceding the Civil War only two percent of paper mills operated in the Confederacy, which led to shortages of currency as well as newspapers and other printed material. A shortage of the rags used to make paper forced extreme recycling. Publishers bound one book in yellow polka-dotted wallpaper, Basbanes reports.

So far my favorite chapters are “Goddess by the Stream” and “The Sound of Money.”

The former offers detailed information on the dying art of Japanese papermaking where all is done by hand. I loved that a Shinto shrine is dedicated to the ruling goddess. The close attention to every minute detail of the process needed to produce the revered washi reflects an aspect of the Japanese character – and at the same time becomes an expression of that character, which Basbanes explains with loving care.

Paper in Japan was not always put to benign use. The book includes a description and drawing of Fu-Go, the paper bombs that the Imperial army sent along air currents to the United States during World War II. The fact of these bombs never received wide notice even after six people died near Klamath Falls, Oregon. For more on Fu-Go, check out Radiolab.

Tomorrow: Crane and Co.


The annual list of media corrections came out some time ago but is still worth reviewing. It’s long, so I’ll give the highlights.

Errors in geography occurred on both sides of the Atlantic. Following on Gary Johnson’s Aleppo gaffe, the NYTimes confused Aleppo, Raqqa, and Damascus. Meanwhile the Guardian went Down South, Up North, and South Down all at once. And MIC moved a university from Scotland to England.

In some cases the correction seems irrelevant as when the NYT said there were seven not nine stones in the bride’s engagement ring. I’m sure the editor who took that call/email was just thrilled.

I find the most outrageous goofs the ones that appear in LARGE TYPE, such as “Trump Wienery.”

This one from CNN’s obituary about Fidel Castro  had decades to update, so there’s no excuse: “One Castro or another has ruled Cuba over a period that spans seven decades and 11 U.S. presidents. Fidel Castro outlived six of those presidents, [[[NOTE: change to seven if George H.W. Bush dies before Castro]]] …”

Write on!

Banish These

Lake Superior State University has issued its list of words to be banished in 2017, otherwise known as “List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness.” I won’t repeat all of it, but here are my “favorites” followed by the school’s explanation for the choice:

  • focus, good word, but overused when concentrate or look at would work fine.  See 1983’s banishment of, We Must Focus Our Attention.
  • on fleek, anything that is on-point, perfectly executed, or looking good. Needs to return to its genesis: perfectly groomed eyebrows.
  • disruption, nominators are exhausted from 2016’s disruption. When humanity looks back on zombie buzzwords, they will see disruption bumping into other overused synonyms for change.

The committee also chose listicle, which I thought was hypocritical since that’s what they used and I’m using here.

Here’s what I want banished. They were on my list for 2015 

  • brand, except when referring to cattle
  • team unless it’s a sports reference
  • metrics, limit this one to meters in poetry
  • price point, drop the point
  • seriously when one is being sarcastic, especially if followed by a question mark; ditto really
  • illegal alien unless the creature arrived by UFO and was accompanied by a sick bird