Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Essential Ingredients

I recommend Erica Bauermeister’s novel!
When you want like the dickens to be a good writer and you try to produce wonderful sentences in very good stories, you run across someone like Erica Bauermeister and you think about chucking all that desire and walking away from it.
by Charlie Leck

I’m always writing. I love to write. Reading, writing and playing golf are my favorite personal activities. Next to being with my wife, those are the three things I most enjoy doing.

I’m always working on an essay, a short story or a novel (or a blog). Except for my blogs, they’re not for public consumption. I just like doing it and sometimes – on some very infrequent occasions – I feel as if someone else should be able to read all this work I’m accumulating. The feeling passes quickly.

The Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel is grand. Marvin Feldman tried to get there at least once on each trip to New York City. He thought it a wonderful place to have either breakfast or afternoon tea. He entered the hotel off the Fifth Avenue courtyard and, just through a large empty foyer, he saw the welcoming entrance to the restaurant. As usual, it was not difficult to get a table. The Maitre d' handed him a copy of the morning's New York Times and seated him in a quiet corner. A towering palm hovered above him and a genial waiter fluttered over him, mothering him. Hot black coffee splashed gently into a bone china cup. Marvin violated one of his wife's rules and added a dollop of rich, heavy cream. [Charles Leck: Murder by Design]

One of the kids (they’re really not even close to being kids anymore but we always refer to them as such) gave me a stack of books for Christmas this year. I’m not kidding! It was a big stack of books – about a dozen.*

Among the books was one I wondered about and thought would probably go unread. First I finished Jodi Compton’s new book, Thieves Get Rich, Saints Get Shot! I usually like her little mystery stories. This one didn’t cut it. There was too much catching up to past stories in this sequel to her last novel. It’s one of the weaknesses of sequels, I guess. The writer has to take into consideration that the reader might not have read the first installment and, therefore, she has to go on and on to catch people up to stories she’s told before in earlier books. It was one of the great weaknesses and disturbances in reading Stieg Larsson’s trilogy about the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

The School of Essential Ingredients
I began reading Bauermeister’s book only because it was next on the pile. I don't know how it got that position. I thought I had put it on the bottom because I lacked any kind of enthusiasm to read it. I knew nothing about the book. It looked unattractive. “A hymn to food,” one of the endorsing blurbs on the front cover said. “Oh, come on!” I replied.

Nevertheless, somehow – for some reason – I cracked that baby open and began to read. Within a few pages – and after one spectacularly constructed sentence after another – I was totally hooked and read on and on.

“Lillian had been four years old when her father left them, and her mother, stunned, had slid into books like a seal into water. Lillian had watched her mother submerge and disappear, sensing instinctively even at her young age the impersonal nature of a choice made simply for survival, and adapting to the niche she would now inhabit, as a watcher from the shore of her mother’s ocean.

“In this new life, Lillian’s mother’s face became a series of book covers, held in place where eyes, nose, or mouth might normally appear. Lillian soon learned that book covers could forecast moods much like facial expression, for Lillian’s mother swam deeply into the books she read, until the personality of the protagonist surrounded her like a perfume applied by an indiscriminate hand. Lillian was never sure who would greet her at the breakfast table, no matter that the bathrobe, the hair, the feet were always the same. It was like having a magician for a mother, although Lillian always suspected that the magicians she saw at the birthday parties went home and turned back into portly men with three children and grass that needed mowing. Lillian’s mother simply finished one book and turned into the next.”

Well, this opening to Bauermeister’s novel won’t make me quit writing, but it does bring me back to a sense of reality and makes me utterly aware of the difference between me, Jodi Compton and Erica Bauermeister. And the gap between the first two of us and the third is like the great breaches in the Grand Canyons.

This woman – Bauermeister – can really write. She has that wonderful ability to both tell remarkable stories and to tell them beautifully. I must recommend her novel to you if you enjoy such a mixture of talent. You will, I think, thoroughly enjoy reading her work.

As well, she tells an incredibly beautiful story that seems impossible given the subject, a hymn to food! Oh, come on!

“For Lillian’s mother, every part of a book was magic, but what she delighted in most were the words themselves. Lillian’s mother collected exquisite phrases and complicated rhythms, descriptions that undulated across a page like cake batter pouring into a pan, read aloud to put the words in the air, where she could hear as well as see them.”

Yes! Indeed! And that is what it is like reading Bauermeister’s wonderful book. You so often want to stop and reread a paragraph aloud – to hear these words in the air as well as see them on the page.

I have a habit. I often take a pencil and lightly underline sentences in a book that I particularly like and might want to reread or about which I might like to tell some friend. You should see The School of Essential Ingredients now that I’ve finished it. It is a mass of light, pencil underlinings. My gracious! The writer took such care in putting her words down on paper without ever deemphasizing the content and power of the story. What talent!

Another benefit of the really well written book is that it’s easier to read. Really well constructed sentences flow when you read them and your mind and eyes stumble far less often when you’re reading such a book. Think it doesn’t matter? I was able to read the Bauermeister book twice in the time it would normally take to read another book of equal size once.

Now, I suppose Bauermeister’s work would be called “a woman’s book.” I’m not exactly sure what that term means. I guess it’s called that because there’s no murder, mayhem, speeding cars or violent sex.

I can only tell you that this is a book filled with sensations, pleasures and delights. It’s a very sensitive book and will make you both laugh out-loud and weep quietly in happiness.

The story is about a cooking class that meets in a restaurant's kitchen on the one night of the week that the place is closed. You’ll learn something about cooking, but it won’t be entirely practical unless you are adventurous and imaginative. The book is a story about each of the students in this cooking class and the writer does an extraordinary job of character development in introducing us to each and every one of them. This is a talent that few writers ever really achieve. Small vignettes about each of the characters are presented in short break-aways from the main story about the cooking classes.

If you are at all sensitive, you’ll be filled with appreciation and, perhaps, love for each one of these characters and you’ll wish it was all real-life so you could go somewhere to find them and meet them in person.

“I used to know a sculptor,” Isabelle said, nodding. “He always said that if you looked hard enough, you could see where each person carried his soul in his body. It sounds crazy, but when you saw his sculptures, it made sense. I think the same is true with those we love,” she explained. “Our bodies carry our memories of them, in our muscles, in our skin, in our bones. My children are right here.” She pointed to the inside curve of her elbow. “Where I held them when they were babies. Even if there comes a time when I don’t know who they are anymore, I believe I will feel them here.”

Isabelle story is remarkable and you’re left both agonizing for her and envious of her huge ability to appreciate art and her talent for assessing the depth of people she meets.

Geez! If you like to read beautiful sentences, and if you like wonderful character development and description, and if you’d like to understand the impactful influence food can have on us, then you really ought to read this delightful, wonderful novel. What a grand Christmas gift it was (is)!

“Luminous prose,” the New York Times called it (Kate Jacobs). Yes! Yes! I’d call it extraordinary and fantastic prose!

Batuman, Elif: The Possessed (non-fiction)
Bauermeister, Erica: The School of Essential Ingredients (a novel)
Bryant, Howard: The Last Hero: A life of Henry Aaron (biography)
Compton, Jody: Thieves Get Rich, Saints Get Shot (a novel)
Darnton, John: Almost a Family (Memoir)
Greenberg, John: The Celebrant (a novel)
Harbach, Chad: The Art of Fielding (a novel)
Moore, Wes: The Other Wes Moore (non-fiction)
Rohde, David and Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer (non-fiction)
Updike, John: Higher Gossip (essays)
White, Richard D: Will Rogers: A Political Life (biography)

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