I haven’t given up I swear I just keep being out of town and not having time to blog… so I will announce a hiatus after it has been made entirely apparent…


On Truth and the Lie

The whole truth-in-memoir thing has apparently jumped the shark. I’m behind the times trying to get in on this, but this sunday’s Times had a profile of David Sedaris which covered his run-in with the memoir police. A reporter for the New Republic published a piece attempting to out Sedaris for having lied about various matters in his essays. Sedaris’ reply to his critic in the times article was pretty amusing:

[Sedaris] also said that some details in his essays are obviously fictionalized. “Naked,” for instance, has a story “where my mother hits a cat with her car, and the cat dies, and the cat comes back to life and says, ‘You killed me,’ ” he said. Speaking of Mr. Heard, he added, “That’s what he was fact-checking, that book.”

My concern isn’t with Sedaris in particular. I enjoy his work, and found his interview yesterday on Fresh Air to be entertaining. Still he seems to be getting a bit less funny every time out, whether it is the result of success and domesticity or of my being too familiar with his style. Anyhow, as he points out succintly in the above quote, he is a ridiculous as a target of fact-checking. Nonetheless, one critic in the times remarks in the Times piece ““There’s a whole section in every bookstore for what a guy like David Sedaris does: it’s called the fiction section.”

Is it just me, or is this absurd and insulting to readers? And does it not reflect an absurd understanding of “truth?” And, for that matter, of “fiction?”

As an eighteenth-century literature scholar, I find the fuss over the “truth” of memoirs to be silly and wrongheaded. The entire modern genre of the novel emerged out of faked memoirs; the rationale was that there was more “truth” in a (fictional) representation that attempted to be true to life than in wilder, supernatural romance fiction. In the eighteenth century, one could argue, there was sometimes more truth in fictional fake memoirs than in real ones, as the fictional memoirists had more investment in conveying a sense of the true than did real memoirists, who had to avoid implicating themselves too deeply in crime and sin, and who had a motive to make themselves look good.

Still, the eighteenth century also saw the invention of the modern memoir, usually dated to Rousseau’s Confessions, a wonderful book that, in addition to lacerating self-incrimination may also contain much invention and/or paranoid self-delusion.

I am in the process of editing an eighteenth-century memoir that has never been published before. I hope and believe that it is “true,” at least in the senses of being based on an actual life, and of conveying a convincing and meaningful sense of the author’s experience of the world. But, like the debate over whether or not the great slave -narrative writer Olaudah Equiano was really born in Africa, I also believe that fudging some facts does not invalidate the greater truth of the memoir. Although I would not extend this argument to validate the recently exposed fake gang-life memoir, I did find Scott Simon’s declaration on Weekend Edition that, as a novelist, he knows that there is much more to writing a novel than there is to writing a fake memoir to be pompous, grating, and historically ill-informed.

In the end, I am convinced by Borges’ great story “Funes the Memorious.” Any attempt to convey a complete truth of memory would be impossible. And, of course, any redaction of the truth, even if only for purposes of communication is to some degree compromised, distorted and untrue. Nonetheless, it is possible to write from memory with the intent to convey the truth of one’s experience. I don’t think that truth can be measured by a fact checker. The quality of the overall reading experience ultimately matters more than sum of the “truth” of the details.

Like NYC, but with Half the Calories

One of the magical things about the old NYC of my day (10-20 years ago) is that you could get a good egg sandwich everywhere, on almost every corner, from either an old diner or a bodega. None of this phony biscuit/English Muffin with American cheese fast-food crap either. Default bread was Kaiser Roll. (BTW, there is something kind of gross about the Starbucks fancified version of the McMuffin too… I can’t put my finger on it exactly but I think it has to do with the oversized English Muffin they use. Definitely not right. And the cheese too. IIRC it is too slimey).

Well, swimming–as reported on below–may seem like an effort at being healthy, but the flip side is that we just might come back from the pool hungry and feel like we’ve “earned” a hearty breakfast.

The other day just this happened and Laura and I began reminiscing about the old ubiquitous NYC Egg sandwich. We almost instantly realized that we could throw together a decent simulation right there in our kitchen.

We lacked for real breakfast meat, but we settled pretty happily for Morningstar fake bacon. This stuff has “only” half the fat etc of real bacon, which seems like an awful lot of fat for very flat tofu strips. Manolis, if you are reading, this is the stuff I made for you the other day that you didn’t like much. Problem? I followed the directions on the back. If you instead fry the stuff in a decent amount of olive oil, it is really, really good. Note the bacon-like grease under those yummy fried strips. It is in fact pure olive oil. Despite being surprisingly high in fat, the thing that actually makes these fake bacon strips good is their very intense smokiness. And, when fried, they are very satisfyingly crisp.

Laura did the eggs while I worked on defrosting and toasting the buns. Turns out see always ordered her Egg Sandwich scrambled in the city. I had no idea–I always got fried.

I assembled the layers of the sandwiches. Our buns were actually Organic Whole Wheat Hamburger buns from our Co-Op. Sounds lame, but they got the job done. Started with Cheese–supermarket extra sharp cheddar.

I covered the eggs with salt and pepper; a dash of Habanero for me, none for Laura. Perhaps the key ingedient is the salt: super-cheap and delicious Korean sea-salt. People often ask me what brand it is. Honestly, I have no idea. Consult the photo and tell me if you can figure it out. The stuff is delish and costs less than two bucks for a good-sized bag.

So I’ll end this photo essay with a picture of the salt and the habanero sauce, both from that miracle, Carbondale’s own Monah’s International Market, known locally as “international.” This shop deserves an essay of its own, and probably will get one soon. But suffice it to say that it makes Carbondale a much better place to live.

Oh, and the sandwiches were damn good.

Spaghetti Frutti di Mare

I feel this blog drifting toward food… As a guy who really wanted to have dinner with me in College and would not take no for an answer said, “a guy’s gotta eat,” so I should have some material. The odd thing about that guy is when I said I had to study all day, he proposed that I should roast a chicken for him as I wouldn’t be able to go anywhere anyway. So anyway last night I made a good dinner that was pretty easy and quick, although given that it is based on seafood and I was cooking it in Carbondale, I spent most of the time I worked on it defrosting the main ingredients. I used no recipe; it was very simple. I had this dish (of course it is just Spaghetti with assorted seafood) in Miami earlier this year, and it was good, but I thought “I can make that and it might even be better.” All the seafood was good at the restaurant, but there was a key flavor missing. When I got home, I called my Dad and asked him what herbs or spices he would use to cook this, and he said “nothing but Rosemary.” It works beautifully. I got shrimp, New Zealand Green Mussels, and a little piece of “Alaskan Cod,” all, alas, frozen.

I started the dish by heating Olive Oil and chopping a medium onion and a few little cloves of garlic. When they were going, I added canned whole tomatoes, about 1 and a half cans, and about two tablespoons of tomato paste. I threw in a handful of fresh rosemary. Once the tomatoes were simmering away, I started adding the seafood, starting with the shrimp, then the mussels, and finally the fish. The sauce remained a bit watery, so I removed the seafood in reverse order and simmered it down a bit. I also took the opportunity to shell the shrimp, hoping that I would get the best of both worlds, having the intense flavor of cooking shrimp in shells without the hassle of shelling them. I don’t mind shelling my own shrimp, but when the kids need me to help shell theirs too I don’t get much chance to eat while the food is still warm. The meal was a hit, particularly with my younger daughter whose two favorite foods are spaghetti and shrimp. She was even into the mussels. Sadly, my older daughter is very sick with a virus, and not only did she not get to eat this feast, but she kept waking up in the night complaining that the house smelled weird. At one point she said “Daddy, can you go take a shower so the smell will go away?” But I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me, it was the lingering scent of Fruitti di Mare.

Backstroke to Destiny

I’ve been taking swimming lately. A few months ago, L. talked me into taking a weekly joint swimming class with our younger daughter’s swimming teacher at our community pool. It’s been great fun going to the pool with Laura, although I have recent progressed so much that I am even willing to go alone. One day recently I went alone and the pool was completely empty. I felt that I had to perform some wonderous feat of water-borne altheticism. As this impulse rapidly faded, I wondered where it had come from. I think the only time you ever see someone alone in a pool or gym is in a movie or TV show when they are in training for the big event, and they are showing both intense dedication, and a surprising depth of previously unrevealed talent.

I am happy to report that I completed more than 2 or 3 complete laps all alone in that pool.

I love swimming. I got my red cross swimming card when I was a kid–through the vigorous intervention of my Aunt Edna, herself a famous swimming crusader–but it turns out my technique had gotten worse and worse over years of neglect. Indeed, I thought the embarrassing thing about going to the community pool was going to be changing and showering in public, things I managed to avoid in high school by signing up for gym units like “women’s self-defense” and “modern dance.” Turns out, that doesn’t really bother me anymore (although it took me a while to realize that).

Instead, the most embarrassing things about swimming all have to do with… swimming. Our swimming teacher is great and has completely reconstructed my stroke from the violent flailing I started out with into something workable. Indeed, I can now, as revealed on my date with destiny alone in the pool, actually swim complete laps either with a crawl or a backstroke. And, if I remember to put on my googles, my eyes don’t sting all day. But (embarrassing thing #1) I still have crazy, uncontrollable happy feet in the pool. Try as I will, I cannot stop my feet from kicking wildly in the water. The only cure so far that works is (embarrassing thing #2) swim fins. Swim fins are awesome; they make you cut through the water like you know what you are doing, and I highly recommend them. What’s embarrassing for me is that I feel obliged to take them off and try to actually swim across the pool unassisted now and again… And let’s just say the results ain’t pretty. Which leads to embarrassing thing number 3. I was backstroking along happily, with fins on, cutting through the water while freely breathing as much oxygen as I wanted, contemplating something fascinating, such as why Doc Rivers lets Sam “Alien Baby” Cassel play so much in the playoffs, or what to post on my blog next, when KA-thunk. What’s that? Oh. My skull connecting with the edge of the pool. Ouch. That was too weeks ago, and the old noggin is still quite sensitive. Worst of all, my backstroke has deteriorated, as I now spent the entire lap worrying about hitting my head again.

OK, the really humiliating thing is that I breath with my mouth in the water. Can’t get the nose-breathing working. I guess there’s no reason anyone needed to know that.

An ancillary benefit of swimming is that it has awakened in my for the first time ever an interest in what my friend Patrick refers to as “products.” I’ve been packing little bottles of shampoo and lotion I’ve collected from hotels in my gym/pool bag, and I’ve discovered that a)if I remember to rub lotion on my body after my shower, far from having that horrible chlorine ich all day, I feel all glowy; and b) Aveda Mint-Rosemary shampoo not only doesn’t make my scalp feel like it’s burning, it actually smells good… Not unmanly, but less like a roasted lamb than the name suggests.

Yuppie Disaster Survival: or, Rolling Pin Coffee

Woke up this morning after a lovely book party that Laura threw me to find out that we had no electricity. Here in rural southern Illinois (jocular t-shirt abreviation: So. Ill.) we lose our electricity–quite literally–in a stiff wind. Luckily my brother was here and figured out how to open the garage door manually . But the most frightening problem, worse than missing mother’s day bagels if the car was trapped, worse even than the potential loss of all our party leftovers–how to make coffee when we had only whole beans and electric grinders? We generally use a French Press (despite the fact that it has burned Laura with an explosion of boiling water a few times), and I could light the stove with a match to boil water, so there was hope. But what to do about the beans?

I came up with–I thought–an ingenious solution. I got out the rolling pin and scattered coffee beans on a wooden chopping board. But, slick oily little guys that they are, they refused to stay still for crushing, particularly when the crusher was a long round tube.

I tried covering them with wax paper (weird idea, I know) and that did little to fix the problem. Finally I tossed them into a plastic bag (we have no zip locks due to a conspiracy between disorganization and environmental concern). That worked. It was crude, and they tore the bag, but I could crush them.

Unfortunately, I got frustrated quickly, and I tried to make a pot with mostly large bean framents; no good, too weak. Then I tried again, first wrapping the beans in wax paper, and then putting the wax paper packet into a plastic shopping bag. I beat it with the pin for a few minutes, and then rolled it for a long while.

The most powdery crushed coffee stuck to the wax paper, and some spilled out into the bag through rips. It took a while to shake it all into the french press. But man did that strong cup of coffee taste good when I finally got to drink it.

Reminds me–I better get some ground coffee and stash it in our emergency kit (which doesn’t yet exist) in case a tornado knocks down our house. Imagine how awful it would be to have your house knocked down AND not to be able to have a cup of coffee in the rubble. Just think of the headache.

PS: Sorry about the bad taste in posting this today. I only heard about the actual tornado disaster today after I posted it, due to not having electricity until the afternoon…

Desert Island Books

A very smart former student wrote to me (well, emailed me) last week to ask me for reading recommendations. The way he put it was that he wanted recommendations for 5 books, other than stuff I teach (so there goes Clarissa). I have been thinking about this often since getting his message, and it is really, really hard. How do I balance factors–the impact a given book had on me at a certain moment, vs. those that later helped me make sense of many other things? Should I make sure to include an array of genres, or centuries, or styles, or nationalities? Should I credit things I read 20 years ago and loved intensely but haven’t thought about much since then? Should I prefer authors who’ve written lots of great books over those who’ve written one undeniable masterpiece? Should I prefer neglected classics over more obvious things? Should I work in the fact that I probably read Trollope and Wodehouse more than any other authors these days (for fun, anyway)?

I’ve decided to err on the side of what might be called “pure reading experience.” And I had to break it down into separate categories for all-time and recent books… Mixing the two just seemed ridiculous.

All Time:

Cervantes–Don Quixote


Jorge Luis Borges–Labyrinths

George Eliot–Middlemarch

Henry James–The Bostonians

“Recent” books

J M Coetzee– Disgrace

Robert Hass– Praise

Jhumpa Lahiri–Interpreter of Maladies

Anne Carson–The Beauty of the Husband

Ian McEwan–Atonement


Wallace Stevens–The Palm at the End of the Mind

(could go in either category really)