“By now I knew that French food was it for me.”

my life in france

I spent the summer of 1987 in Paris, studying beginning French at the Sorbonne and staying at the Cité Universitaire, in a program geared toward older students. Some of them wanted to take a cooking class, and the Sorbonne organized it for them. They needed one more student to make it go, and I was browbeaten into filling the empty space.

Understand, I was raised on the five Alaskan staples of Spam, Bisquik, Velveeta, pilot bread and Carnation Instant Milk. If we didn’t get our moose that year we didn’t eat meat, except on my birthday, when I got pork chops no matter what. We got all the salmon and king crab we could eat for free. The salmon was mostly fried. The crab was mostly boiled. The first fresh milk I ever drank was in college. The first real cheese, same. Remember those Kraft Cracker Barrel packages of four logs of four different kinds? Until then I thought I hated cheese.

So at the time I went to this cooking school, my most complicated prepared meal was a hamburger. Claudine, our chef, went around the class, asking where we were from, and when I said Alaska her eyes lit up. “Alaska,” she said, “sauvage…” and made up a roux for wild game on the spot just for me.

I’ve been playing catchup in the kitchen ever since. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to discover Julia Child.

This book is the story of her life in France, from the first oyster in Rouen to the last pot roast at La Pitchoune in Provence. It’s a love story, of her marriage with Paul Child, who is about the most intelligent, charming man I’ve ever met between the covers of a book. It’s a voyage of discovery into French cuisine, into the science of cooking, into collaborating on and writing a cookbook, or any book for that matter. And it’s a mesmerizing walk through Paris looking over Julia’s shoulder. The first year she says

By now I knew that French food was it for me. I couldn’t get over how absolutely delicious it was. Yet my friends, both French and American, considered me some kind of a nut: cooking was far from being a middle-class hobby, and they did not understand how I could possibly enjoy doing all the shopping and cooking and serving by myself. Well, I did! And Paul encouraged me to ignore them and pursue my passion.

(You’ll remember what I said about Paul being intelligent and charming.)

The how-to portion of this book is fascinating. French ingredients are different from American ingredients and the French learn cooking by watching, not reading recipes, so Julia would take the recipes of her French collaborators and translate them and the ingredients and the measurements of the ingredients into something an American cook could, first, buy the ingredients for in America, and second, understand and recreate. And then she’d test them and test them and test them and test them again, and she and Paul would eat them and eat them and eat them and eat them again until it was foolproof enough to unleash upon American cooks. “No one is born a great cook,” she says, “one learns by doing.”

In between they’d drive around France and eat in great restaurants. In a more perfect world I would have been their child.

She concludes with a remembrance of that first, marvelous meal in Rouen

…the sole meuniere I ate at La Couronne on my first day in France, in November 1948. It was an epiphany.

In all the years since that succulent meal, I have yet to lose the feelings of wonder and excitement that it inspired in me. I can still almost taste it. And thinking back on it now reminds me that the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite — toujours bon appetit!”

The tusks that clashed in mighty brawls.

On the Vanity of Earthly Greatness

The tusks that clashed in mighty brawls
Of mastodons, are billiard balls.

The sword of Charlemagne the Just
Is ferric oxide, known as rust.

The grizzly bear whose potent hug
Was feared by all, is now a rug.

Great Caesar’s dead and on the shelf,
And I don’t feel so well myself!

–Arthur Guiterman

Arthur Guiterman

Today’s earworm.

Actually? This month’s earworm. Who am I kidding–this year’s earworm. This is such a brilliant takeoff on the traditional American musical tune, sung by that ol’ traditional white guy, King George III. And the bonus is–he’s not wrong. Also, just a foot tapper of a song, and Groff is just, oh god. He crazy laughs on the soundtrack in just the way you might think George must have a time or two. I only wish the song was longer.

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Sixteen-year old Nettie Lonesome, half Indian half black, abandoned by parents she was too young to remember, has spent the last fourteen years slaving for abusive, drunken Pap and Mam on their broken down ranch outside of Gloomy Bluebird, a town barely worthy of the name in Durango territory. Aside from a talent for bronc busting encouraged by Monty, her only friend and a cowhand at the neighboring Double TK, her existence is pretty joyless, until one night she sort of accidentally stakes a vampire. Then she starts seeing monsters everywhere, more vampires, shapeshifters, chupacabras. Worse, she sees their victims, including a woman who dies and then begins to haunt her from horseback, calling for Nettie to go after the Pia Mupitsi, or the Big Cannibal Owl, who stole away the woman’s child. Nettie refuses the call to adventure until the monsters give her no choice and off she goes, even if she only barely knows how to shoot her newly acquired pistol and has no idea where to find or fight the Big Cannibal Owl.

What I like most here is the voice, reminiscent of Charles Portis in True Grit in its plainspoken and unflinching delivery of the facts, just with monsters. Here she meets Coyote Dan, a shapeshifter from whom she learns some monsters aren’t bad.

Nettie sighed deeply and cleaned her black-stained knife on her now-ruined pants. “Well, lead on, mister. You don’t seem to know what pants are, but you know where I’m hurt and how my horse is feeling, so I suspect you can at least find water.”

He shifted the bow on his shoulder. “You are an unkind woman.”

Not unkind, just careful. From Dan she discovers that she is the Shadow, a warrior destined to kill monsters, and she begins to remember that she wasn’t always Mam and Pap’s slave. Here she interviews for a job with the Rangers.

“Can you shoot?”

“Yep.”

“Can you fight?”

Nettie shrugged. “I can stab a monster in the heart. Probably stab a man, too.”

Yep. Fun stuff, and an obvious first book in a series.

“Another adjective.”

 

The film about the reporters and editors of the Boston Globe who investigated and reported the story of pedophile priests in Boston and, it turned out, all over the world. Don’t miss the film even if you’re grossed out by the topic, because it’s the best film of last year (Astonishingly, even the Academy Awards voters thought so.). It made a thriller out of the writing of a story, of all things, and I didn’t think that was possible without drama-ing it up (see All the President’s Men).

My absolute favorite line from this film is when they’re sitting in Marty Baron’s office reading through the final draft of the story and Baron circles something and Bradlee says “What?” and Baron says, “Another adjective.” I suppose only another writer could understand why I love that so much. Which also probably excludes the understanding of all boys from 10 to 14, for whom most movies are written today. This, gloriously, isn’t one of them.

I also love the film because it shows journalists doing their jobs, even those who you can tell really don’t want to, like the assistant managing editor and the publisher, either of whom could have put the kibosh on the story from the getgo. It is extremely well written, and the acting is uniformly superb. I didn’t know Liev Schreiber could do subtle, Michael Keaton has just never been better, and I could mention Stanley Tucci but come on, when isn’t he great (“I’m not crazy. I’m not paranoid. I’m experienced.”). It is so very well scored, mostly a single, melancholy piano, and I’m thinking especially of that one scene where the piano melds into church bells ringing.

And it is so very well filmed. Every other scene of a Boston street has a church tower in the background. That scene where Patrick, one of the first victims they interview, is pushing his baby in a swing as Rezendes’ taxi speeds by in the background, court documents in hand that provide incontrovertible proof of the church’s coverup of pedophile priests going back decades. Every long shot of the newsroom has Baron in his office (Yes, I noticed! Thank you, Tom McCarthy, for knowing I’d be smart enough to. So few directors do.).

There is also a scene where the Spotlight team finds out that the 13 pedophile priests in Boston they think they are writing about may really be more like 90 (eventually it will be 249 in Boston alone). The camera pulls back so excruciatingly slowly, dwarfing their figures in the story’s shadow. It’s the perfect visual metaphor for both the story of the reporters doing their jobs and the story they are writing.

Note: Netflix will be live-streaming Spotlight beginning June 22nd.

One good soldier doing the right thing

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Third in Rachel Bach’s Paradox military sf/romance trilogy. Deviana Morris quits the mercenaries to sign on as security on a small trade ship called the Glorious Fool, only to discover that that is no trade ship. Her crew is made up of two Paradoxians, one suspiciously calm Terran cook, one aeon bird navigator, one human-eating lizard doctor, the captain’s eerie daughter who is of course no daughter, and Cotter, another Paradoxian and Devi’s number two whether he wants to be or not. The trilogy is one extended battle scene with Devi’s mad fighting skills front and center, but there is good world building and dialogue and the relationships work, too, and the whole story is an exemplar of one good soldier ending a 70-year war by…doing the right thing. Kind of heartening, really.