SILENCE HAS A NAME - Poetry Chapbook and CD, with Music by Mark Hanley

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Books and Borders

Since hearing of the recent closing of our local bookstore and cafe, Borders, I've had little else on my mind but books and the societies they make and how rapidly and radically these are changing. I remember coming upon my first Borders in 1988 in Stamford, Connecticut. For a while I walked around the spacious store, my jaw dropped, unbelieving in the rarity of a cafe bar and books together. The barista actually invited me to pick up a book, grab a cafe and sit and read while drinking. Under a kind of magical spell, I returned over and over again to that nook to write and read to my heart's content. I was an adjunct teaching creative writing at a local university then and had time on my hands to do such wondrous things. Once, while sipping on capuccinos, I sat and read all of Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place. Another time, perhaps inspired by a unique blend of twisted thoughts eeking out of the corners of books and shelves at that Borders, I sat and wrote a 26-page story called "Oliviana," about an affair between a gay man and a transsexual. I loved the characters in that story, which, in my view, pushed boundaries, my own and those of convention.

A good bookstore inspires fresh thoughts no less than good literature and company. But Borders, at least the one in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the town in which I now live, will no longer be working its magic on its residents and neighbors, as it is closing. Book sales have drawn more people to buy up its remains in recent days than perhaps anything else has in a decade. There were the days of course when readings and concerts at Borders drew crowds, but those went up in smoke along with the economy.

The same week I heard the bad news about our Borders closing, I heard that Buffalo Books, formerly known as The Bookery, where I worked part-time for a couple of years while teaching in and around Ithaca, New York, was also closing. The good news is that the community has taken up the cause and will more than likely save the place through some kind of cooperative enterprise. It's good news when people band together when the powers that be try to prevent growth and opportunity. Americans are good like that, and bands of them fighting good causes like that one around the country have inspired me lately. I know Ithaca has the mind and heart and guts it takes to keep a place it wants to thrive, alive. I hope books and literature remain part of its tradition for years to come.

Bookstore cafes have become an American tradition. But the bar of the 90s, where human beings imbibing non-alcoholic drinks mingled in the company of books and each other are now being replaced by virtual cafes and Amazon.com, and perhaps another growing trend -- book clubs. When I expressed my concern to a fellow editor at Pearson Education about the society of books going down the tubes, she was quick to mention book clubs and how fast they are multiplying.

Little societies can have great impact, as long as they keep growing, and as long as they remain open venues for increased participation. Otherwise, they are just perpetrating an elitist cycle, keeping both knowledge and enthusiasm about it away from those who potentially need it most.

In the wake of the bookstore closings I just mentioned, I want not only to launch a book club, but an all-night cafe where insomniac readers, writers and artists of every variety can join in the spirit of non-conformity to talk about their art and experiment with it. While Kelly performs jazz, and Diana paints pictures, and Doug recites his poems, and Donna videotapes it all, I will serve espressos and green tea and Renee's vegan muffins. We will play and grow together. Then, just as the rest of the world comes alive, as the sun shines its full face on our streets and windows, we will close our doors and return once more to the enterprise of dreaming.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Modern Literature's Penchant for Lemons

Here's a link to a rather acerbic assessment of the art that ran in  n + 1 in 2006. It's by Elif Batuman, a young essayist whose own preference is for Russian literature, which became the subject of her book, The Possessed. 

Every paragraph of this essay elicited an internal reaction from me, not all of it contrary to Batuman. What I do appreciate is her call to writers to be more revolutionary, unafraid to write drivel, to be different and step out of line. This can never be a bad thing. Is she aspiring to become a teacher of writing?

I am wondering what those of you who write and/or read with some frequency think of this piece. Do you feel her comments about literature are more or less true in 2011?

Getting Inside the Great Chef's World

This is the second or third time I've picked up The Reach of A Chef, Professional Cooks in the Age of Celebrity by Michael Ruhlman and it's gripped me as much this time as the others, if not more so. I haven't read anyone who matches Ruhlman's insight, sensitivity and intelligence, describing the art of the chef in today's world. His is simply the best book on the subject I have read to date.

The Reach of A Chef explores the lives of such culinary luminaries as Thomas Keller, Melissa Kelly, Grant Aschatz and Masa Takayama, in amazing, often breath-taking detail. The book reads like a top-notch thriller.The reader is left not only wanting to taste great recipes, but meet the chefs, study and work with them. Ruhlman describes -- the innovative Aschatz, concocting recipes that are more like strange experiments at Alinea in Chicago; Kelly plucking fresh produce from her garden in Maine, demanding the best, proving over and over again that a powerful woman in the kitchen who also happens to be petite, cannot be underestimated; the quiet and intense Keller, managing four four-star restaurants on the east and west coasts -- the fourth being Per Se in New York City; and Masa, who is not interested in evolving a brand, but runs the most expensive restaurant in New York, where for $450 (including tip), a customer can expect to dine on food designed, prepared and served entirely as Masa sees fit.

In the end, one has to wonder, where will Masa, Le Bernardin and Per Se be 10 years from now, from the customer's standpoint? Will they still attract moneyed foodies? Or just clientele willing to relive the thrill of days gone by? It is clear that running a successful restaurant requires a specially driven individual, but developing a brand, as superstars Cat Cora, Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, and most notably, Emeril and Rachael Ray have done, requires a special kind of personality, not only driven, but infused with magical timing, focus, persistence and endurance.

Emeril was always a maniac in the kitchen, cooking fast and furiously, but not always the nice guy. In the early days, he cursed out employees, until, one night, in the middle of service, a restaurant's owner, passed him a piece of paper on which was written a life-changing message: "You're too damn smart to be so damn stupid." Emeril re-read the note when he got home that night and determined he was going to change his attitude and habits and become as supportive and positive as he could be. The first life changer, he claims, was a book he read called, The Magic of Thinking Big. In Emeril's world, anything is possible, and this is the key message of his brand, and perhaps the reason he attracts so many people. His enthusiasm is highly contagious.

Cora's branding name and theme is also the title of her second book, From the Hip. A Culinary Institute of America (CIA) graduate, she is now a celebrity chef, and a regular on Iron Chef America, where I recently saw her beat out a French chef contestant with her extraordinary focus and versatility, working a menu with cherries as a theme.

According to Ruhlman, a great chef must possess "infinite energy and stamina...and massive ambition." It's not just the massive energy and product of great American chefs Ruhlman brings to the reader, it's also their process and art. And this is where both his narrative and its central figures, as well as Ruhlman's skill at depicting them, transcend being merely compelling, and become sublime.

This, fellow foodies, is what it's all about:

"The enduring image I have from my short time in Masa's kitchen was from watching a lunch service.

"At this particular lunch service, there was a single customer, an older woman, seated centrally at the hinoki bar. Masa stood before her unsmiling but looking comfortable in his loose clothing, his round shaved head glowing in the carefully lighted space. He bowed in plying his trade, in cutting fish on his board with his gorgeous knife. He first served the series of nonsushi dishes, ginkgo nuts, the uni risotto for which he's famous, the lobster-and-foie shabu-shabu for which he should be famous, the elaborate blowfish dish, before moving into the sushi performance that included a dozen carefully prepared bites of toro, mackerel, grouper, shima aji, tai, hirame, ken, ika, tako, kanpachi, anago, ebi, eel. He cuts each piece before the woman, forms a small ball of rice and seasons it with a bit of fresh wasabi or one of a few simple sauces, folds the fish over the pillow of rice, and sets it on a dark stone disk in front of her. The woman lifts it with her hand and, with a small dip of her head, like a bow, eats it in a bite. 

"The meal lasted more than two hours. Occasionally, Masa would take a break in the kitchen, talk on his cell phone, to have some tea, who knows -- maybe check in with his bookie or reserve a Sunday tee time, or just relax for a moment. But when his customer, the old woman, had been alone for the right amount of time, he would return and resume his work.

"The entire restaurant was empty but for these two people, with fine spots lighting them both up vividly against the black walls of the restaurant, Masa slicing and serving exotic fish and the woman eating what he placed before her, all of it in perfect silence. I stood and stared transfixed from my hideout in the kitchen. They were beautiful to behold. A monk serving a monk." - From The Reach of A Chef, by Michael Ruhlman