January 04, 2017

The Best Books of 2016


The Best Books I read in 2016 --  alphabetical by author, because, goodness, we must have some order in this world:

Dancers in Mourning, by Margery Allingham: I continue to read through the Edmund Campion mysteries (out of order, with lots of re-reads in between), but this was a new favorite. One of the earlier Campion stories, it has two notable threads that display the depth of Allingham's understanding of human character (and the nobility of her hero): the destruction wrought by artistic obsession and single-mindedness, and … Campion falls in love with a married woman. It is very fine. 

This Old Man, by Roger Angell: A surprise Christmas gift from Mom last Christmas, this collection of essays from the last 10 years is much like his stepfather, E. B. White's many collections of essays -- a perpetual delight. I keep a current volume of E. B. White at my bedstead year round, and tick off with a red pencil the essays I've read. This volume by Angell took White's place this year. A genteel man of letters, a lover of baseball, words, New York, humor, and those little curious details that make life worthwhile. 

The New California Wine, by John Bonne: Bonne was the first wine critic I read regularly (he was the critic in the SF Chronicle for 10 years), and like all genuinely good critics, he has very strongly held opinions that are clearly stated, so they offer a barometer for your own experience and appreciation of whatever they are critiquing. This book explores the working thesis of his time in SF: that California wine went off the rails when it became obsessed with big ABVs. He profiles a lot of the California winemakers I love -- terroir driven, obsessive explorers and historians, the dedicated farmers that make California diverse and incredible place to grow wine. I don't 100% agree with his thesis, but his natural enthusiasm for these winemakers (and his honest assessment of their wines) make this book valuable and essential for understanding this new generation of wine in California. (More on CA later…)

Interrogations at Noon, by Dana Gioia: Gioia might be my favorite living poet, and this volume is no exception. I kept it in my purse for all of May and June, reading and re-reading. It shows you how terrible a blogger I've become (as if anyone had any doubt) that I didn't post a single one on here -- though I loved so many of them. A poem for New Years, then:

Curriculum Vitae
The future shrinks 
whether the past
is well or badly spent

We shape our lives
Although their forms
Are never what we meant.

A Breath of Air, by Rumer Godden: Inspired by "The Tempest," Godden explores the themes of power and innocence, wisdom and knowledge and folly, the simple life and the life of the mind. The narrative is especially engaging as she switches between perspectives and shorelines: the wise but proud governor, his innocent, beautiful, good daughter, the adventurous and love-struck pilot who landed on the island, his co-pilot, a thoroughly modern man (Hooper, ten years after the war), the islander who mistakes knowledge for wisdom, the native islanders who love their wine, their women, their work, etc. etc. 

Setting the Table, by Danny Meyer: I might be obsessed with this book because it seems to be the only one out there: a book about the restaurant industry that is from the point of view of the Front of House -- and the business owner -- not from the chef's perspective. Danny Meyer is obsessed with the idea of hospitality, and, once I got past the requisite (and tedious) biographical chapters, I found a book that puts into words all the things I've thought but not been able to express about hospitality and service. It also made me crave Shake Shack almost constantly.

The Human Comedy, William Saroyan: Picked this little volume thanks to the next book on the list, and, I'll say the final chapter is one of the very best I've ever read. 

California, by Kevin Starr: I finally dove into this condensed version of Kevin Starr's 7 volume "Americans and the California Dream" during a super-homesick-for-California phase this winter. It took me almost all year to read it because I kept getting distracted by the things he was writing about, and had to follow all side roads and diversions and recommendations (including his treatment of agricultural communities in the Central Valley explored in The Human Comedy). For any lover of California, this is a must read. 

Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck: Can you believe that I've never read any Steinbeck till now? A huge gap, I know. Well, I didn't start with his novels: instead, I read this travelogue of a 6 month drive around the United States with his King Poodle, Charley, in 1960. Witty, observant, a little melancholic, and well worth your time. (We discussed a favorite passage on one of Sally and Zach's The Vernacular Podcast, here.) I promise to post a few quotations in the coming week.

Laughing Gas, by P.G. Wodehouse: Leant by a friend, this might be my new favorite Wodehouse novel. Set in Hollywood -- with a "Freaky Friday" scenario: our English hero, Lord Havershott, a boxing enthusiast with a face like a gorilla, switches souls with a child movie star, Joey Cooley, during a routine dental procedure. Madcap farce brightened by California sunshine. I really don't know why someone hasn't made a movie of this one. 

RE-READ:
I tried to steer clear of re-reading too many books this year, and this marks the first year I did not read any Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene or Penelope Fitzgerald or Muriel Spark. But re-reads worth noting: Jane Austen's Lady Susan and other early and half-finished works. I read it in anticipation of Whit Stillman's film "Love & Friendship" (favorite movie of 2016, btw) -- We can get all scholarly and talk about the refinement of her wit through manners and courtesy, and how her mature novels are better for that graciousness with which she treats her characters (etc. etc.), but the fact is: these early works are a reminder that Jane Austen is, quite simply, one of the funniest writers in the English language. 

I also re-read, on Emma's wonderful recommendation, the 6 final novels of the Betsy-Tacy series, relating her highschool years, and then a tour of Europe and her first year of marriage. While Anne of Green Gables and Little House on the Prairie are marvelous and I loved them as a child, the Betsy Tacy series is, to me, the best representation of the good life. 

August 11, 2016

Climbing the Mountain of Time

We climb up the mountain of time, bearing with us the instruments of our own death. At first the goal is far distant. We do not think of it; the present is enough: the morning on the mountain, the song of the birds, the sun's brightness. We feel we do not need to know about our destination, since the way itself is enough. But the longer it grows, the more unavoidable the question becomes: Where is it going? What does it all mean? We look with apprehension at the signs of death that, up to now, we had not noticed, and the fear rises within us that perhaps the whole of life is only a variation of death; that we have been deceived and that life is actually not a gift but an imposition. Then the strange reply, “God will provide”, sounds more like an excuse than an explanation. Where this view predominates, where talk of “God” is no longer believable, humor dies. In such a case man has nothing to laugh about anymore; all that is left is cruel sarcasm or that rage against God and the world with which we are all acquainted. But the person who has seen the Lamb—Christ on the Cross—knows that God has provided... Because we see the Lamb, we can laugh and give thanks; from him we also realize what adoration is.
—Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) Images of Hope

July 28, 2016

A Perfect Scene from Raymond Chandler



A tall fine-looking man in a gray suit cut by an angel suddenly stood up from a small table by the wall and walked over to the bar and started to curse one of the barmen. He cursed him in a loud clear voice for a long minute, calling him about nine names that are not usually mentioned by tall fine-looking men in well cut gray suits. Everybody stopped talking and looked at him quietly. His voice cut through the muted rumba music like a shovel through snow.

The barman stood perfectly still, looking at the man. The barman had curly hair and a clear warm skin and wide-set careful eyes. He didn't move or speak. The tall man stopped talking and stalked out of the bar. Everybody watched him out except the barman. The barman moved slowly along the bar to the end where I sat and stood looking away from me, with nothing in his face but pallor. Then he turned to me and said: "Yes, sir?"

"I want to talk to a fellow named Eddie Prue."

"So?"

"He works here," I said.

"Works here doing want?" His voice was perfectly level and as dry as dry sand.

"I understand he's the guy that walks behind the boss. If you know what I mean."

"Oh. Eddie Prue." He moved one lip slowly over the other and made small tight circles on the bar with his bar cloth.

"Your name?"

"Marlowe."

"Marlowe. Drink while waiting?"

"A dry martini will do."

"A martini. Dry. Veddy, veddy dry."

"Okay."

"Will you eat it with a spoon or a knife and fork?"

"Cut it in strips," I said. "I'll just nibble it."

"On your way to school," he said. "Should I put the olive in a bag for you?"

"Sock me on the nose with it," I said. "If it will make you feel any better."

"Thank you, sir," he said. "A dry martini."

He took three steps away from me, and then came back and leaned across the bar and said: "I made a mistake in a drink. The gentleman was telling me about it."

"I heard him."

"He was telling me about it as gentlemen tell you about things like that. As big shot directors like to point out to you your little errors. And you heard him."

"Yeah," I said, wondering how long this was going to go on.

"He made himself heard -- the gentleman did. So I came over here and practically insult you."

"I got the idea," I said.

He held up one of his fingers and looked at it thoughtfully. "Just like that," he said. "A perfect stranger."

"It's my big brown eyes," I said. "They have that gentle look."

"Thanks, chum," he said, and quietly went away.

I saw him talking into a phone at the end of the bar. Then I saw him working with a shaker. When he came back with the drink he was all right again.

(Chapter 17, The High Window, by Raymond Chandler)

July 05, 2016

Cinnamon Toast

The Ultimate Best Cinnamon Toast Recipe

This is the kind of thing that drives me crazy about food culture today -- and I say this fully self-aware, as a member of this industry, always seeking a new or improved way to do something and wow people with food -- but cinnamon toast! We don't need to glamorize this dish . It is perfect in its simplicity: toast, butter, cinnamon, sugar. 

If you're obsessed with it, then maybe you already have a jar of cinnamon sugar in your cabinet. But that's the only improvement acceptable. Everything else is overkill.

May 31, 2016

C Minor by Richard Wilbur

C MINOR
by Richard Wilbur

Beethoven during breakfast? The human soul,
Though stalked by hollow pluckings, winning out
(While bran flakes crackle in the cereal bowl)
Over despair and doubt?

You are right to switch it off and let the day
Begin at hazard, perhaps with pecker-knocks
In the sugar-bush, the rancor of a jay,
Or in the letter box

Something that makes you pause and with fixed shadow
Stand on the driveway gravel, your bent head
Scanning the snatched pages until the sad
Or fortunate news is read.

The day's work will be disappointing or not,
Giving at least some pleasure in taking pains.
One of us, hoeing in the garden plot
(Unless, of course, it rains)

May rejoice at the knitting of light in fennel plumes
And dew like mercury on cabbage hide,
Or rise and pace through too familiar rooms,
Balked and dissatisfied.

Shall a plate be broken? A new thing understood?
Shall we be lonely, and by love consoled?
What shall I whistle, splitting the kindling wood?
Shall the night-wind be cold?

How should I know? And even if we were fated
Hugely to suffer, grandly to endure,
It would not help to hear it all fore-stated
As in an overture.

There is nothing to do with a day except to live it.
Let us have music again when the light dies
(Sullenly, or in glory) and we can give it
Something to organize.

(via Image Journal)

May 25, 2016

Happy 75th Bob Dylan

Love Dylan. Love his music. Love his music covered by others. Happy Birthday, Dylan!

















April 18, 2016

The One Where I Learn About Podcasts












Guys! I was on a podcast! Huge thanks to Sally and Zac Crippen for featuring me on their weekly podcast, VERNACULAR -- we talk about how food is an essential part of culture, we talk about vocation, I go on this weird tangent about Genesis, we learn the word "peripatetic," I try to convince Zach to drink rosé, and I say "so" and "like" way too much

S.3E.5: The One Where We Talk About How Food Makes Us More Human

Thanks so much Zac and Sally! Can't wait to be on the show again. (Can you send boxes of those chocolate chip cookies to all your contributors? They sound AMAZING.)

April 05, 2016

St. Augustine on Psalm 148 for Easter

Our thoughts in this present life should turn on the praise of God, because it is in praising God that we shall rejoice forever in the life to come; and no one can be ready for the next life unless he trains himself for it now. So we praise God during our earthly life, and at the same time we make our petitions to him. Our praise is expressed with joy; our petitions with yearning. We have been promised something we do not yet possess, and because the promise was made by one who keeps his word, we trust him and are glad; but in so far as possession is delayed, we can only long and yearn for it. It is good for us to persevere in longing until we receive what was promised, and yearning is over; then praise alone will remain.

Because there are these two periods of time — the one that now is, beset with the trials and troubles of this life, and the other yet to come, a life of everlasting serenity and joy — we are given to liturgical seasons, one before Easter and the other after. The season before Easter signifies the troubles in which we live here and now, while the time after Easter which we are celebrating at present signifies the happiness which will be ours in the future. What we commemorate before Easter is what we experience in this life; what we celebrate after Easter points to something we do not yet possess. This is why we keep the first season with fasting and prayer; but now the fast is over and we devote the present season to praise. Such is the meaning of the Alleluia we sing.

Both these periods are represented and demonstrated to us in Christ our head. The Lord's passion depicts for us our present life of trial — shows how we must suffer and be afflicted and finally die. The Lord's resurrection and glorification show us the life that will be given to us in the future.

Now therefore, brethren, we urge you to praise God. That is what we are all telling each other when we say Alleluia. You say to your neighbor "Praise the Lord!" And he says the same to you. We are all urging one another to praise the Lord, and thereby doing what each of us urges the other to do. But see that your praises come from your whole being; in other words, that you praise God not with your lips and voices alone, but with your minds and lives and all your actions.

We are praising God now, assembled as we are here in this church; but when we go on our various ways again, it seems as if we cease to praise God. But provided we do not cease to live a good life, we shall always be praising God. You cease to praise God only when you swerve from justice and from what is pleasing to God. If you never turn away from the good life, your tongue maybe silent but your actions will cry aloud, and God will perceive your intentions; for as our ears hear each other's voices, so to gods years here are thoughts.
— Sermon of Saint Augustine on Psalm 148 for the feast of Easter.

February 23, 2016

POETRY: Lying by Richard Wilbur












LYING

By Richard Wilbur

To claim, at a dead party, to have spotted a grackle,
When in fact you haven’t of late, can do no harm.
Your reputation for saying things of interest
Will not be marred, if you hasten to other topics,
Nor will the delicate web of human trust
Be ruptured by that airy fabrication.
Later, however, talking with toxic zest
Of golf, or taxes, or the rest of it
Where the beaked ladle plies the chuckling ice,
You may enjoy a chill of severance, hearing
Above your head the shrug of unreal wings.
Not that the world is tiresome in itself:
We know what boredom is: it is a dull
Impatience or a fierce velleity,
A champing wish, stalled by our lassitude,
To make or do. In the strict sense, of course,
We invent nothing, merely bearing witness
To what each morning brings again to light:
Gold crosses, cornices, astonishment
Of panes, the turbine-vent which natural law
Spins on the grill-end of the diner’s roof,
Then grass and grackles or, at the end of town
In sheen-swept pastureland, the horse’s neck
Clothed with its usual thunder, and the stones
Beginning now to tug their shadows in
And track the air with glitter. All these things
Are there before us; there before we look
Or fail to look; there to be seen or not
By us, as by the bee’s twelve thousand eyes,
According to our means and purposes.
So too with strangeness not to be ignored,
Total eclipse or snow upon the rose,
And so with that most rare conception, nothing.
What is it, after all, but something missed?
It is the water of a dried-up well
Gone to assail the cliffs of Labrador.
There is what galled the arch-negator, sprung
From Hell to probe with intellectual sight
The cells and heavens of a given world
Which he could take but as another prison:
Small wonder that, pretending not to be,
He drifted through the bar-like boles of Eden
In a black mist low creeping, dragging down
And darkening with moody self-absorption
What, when he left it, lifted and, if seen
From the sun’s vantage, seethed with vaulting hues.
Closer to making than the deftest fraud
Is seeing how the catbird’s tail was made
To counterpoise, on the mock-orange spray,
Its light, up-tilted spine; or, lighter still,
How the shucked tunic of an onion, brushed
To one side on a backlit chopping-board
And rocked by trifling currents, prints and prints
Its bright, ribbed shadow like a flapping sail.
Odd that a thing is most itself when likened:
The eye mists over, basil hints of clove,
The river glazes toward the dam and spills
To the drubbed rocks below its crashing cullet,
And in the barnyard near the sawdust-pile
Some great thing is tormented. Either it is
A tarp torn loose and in the groaning wind
Now puffed, now flattened, or a hip-shot beast
Which tries again, and once again, to rise.
What, though for pain there is no other word,
Finds pleasure in the cruellest simile?
It is something in us like the catbird’s song
From neighbor bushes in the grey of morning
That, harsh or sweet, and of its own accord,
Proclaims its many kin. It is a chant
Of the first springs, and it is tributary
To the great lies told with the eyes half-shut
That have the truth in view: the tale of Chiron
Who, with sage head, wild heart, and planted hoof
Instructed brute Achilles in the lyre,
Or of the garden where we first mislaid
Simplicity of wish and will, forgetting
Out of what cognate splendor all things came
To take their scattering names; and nonetheless
That matter of a baggage-train surprised
By a few Gascons in the Pyrenees
Which, having worked three centuries and more
In the dark caves of France, poured out at last
The blood of Roland, who to Charles his king
And to the dove that hatched the dove-tailed world
Was faithful unto death, and shamed the Devil.

January 22, 2016

Who I'm Fighting For


WHO I'M FIGHTING FOR
One third of my generation was killed by abortion. May the same not be true of these, my friends' children. May they know a world of joy and peace, a world where every life is cherished.

Angelica, Zita, Julia, Ronia, and Ida, Edmund, James, and Nora, Lucy, Alice, and Robert, Montsy and Cecily, Augustine, Maximilian, and Thomas, Gretta, Knox, and Simone, Maximilian, Abigail, and Charles, Xavier, Markos and Mirabelle, Alexander and Adaryn, Madeleine, Penelope, and Eloise, Noémie, Cordelia, and Jonas, Hugh, Gregory, Margaret, Edith, William, Alexander, and Zelir, Timmy, Henry, and Zachary, and Lucy, Isaac and William, Gianna and Dominic, William, Hugh, Mattias, Raphael, and Mio, Sophia, Timothy, Genivieve and Violette, Kathleen, Emily, John Paul, and Monica, Owen, Emma, Johnny, Bella, Dominic, and Samuel, Alexandra and Isaac, Gabriel and Dominic, Ava, Avila, and Maxon, Frederick and John, Olivia, Gianna, and Maria, Adelaide, Clarence, and Eloise, Dairinne, Sarah, Grace, Emma, and Danny, Victor, Karl, Henry, Vincent, and Frederick, Hannah, Natalia, and Lucia, Emma and Corinne, Marianne, Anne, Clare, Maxwell, Cordelia, Raphael, Benedict, Simeon, and Felicity, Macie, Magnus, Aerland, and Hilja, Bertie, Edith, and Vincent, Abigail, Cordelia, Felicity, and Anastasia, Maria and Aurelia, William, Joseph, Gemma, Paul, and Dominic, Kolbe, Lucia, and Blaise, Sebastian, Evelyn, and Cecilia, Anna, Philip, Molly, and Nora, Nick, Patrick, Bailey, Maddy, Grant, Grace, and William, Caroline, James, Alexander, Kristiana, Anne, and Lucy, Claire, Eve, Luke, Liam, Ignatius, Lucy and Margaret, Gerard, Philip, Sotera, Mary Margaret and Lillian, Tessa and Daniel, Anne, Joseph, Julian, Francis Xavier and Isaac, Alex, Michael, Caitlin, and Joshua, Chloe, Hannah, Alastair and Aibhilin, Joseph, Ambrose, and Gussie, Nate, William Augustine, Stella and Max, Ambrose, Augustine and Peter, Jack and Ana, Savannah and Langdon, Dorothy, Inez and Vinny, Claire and Adam, Ava, Dominic, Paul, Mark, David, Gabriel, Gerard, Matthew, Frederick and John, Charlotte, Chase, and Camden, Evangelina and Eamon, Sylvia, Timothy, Ambrose, Miriam, Cecelia, Jude, Hanna, Gabriel, Dorothy, Maria Stella, Adelaide, Victoria, Becket, Charlie, Rafael, Lillian, Charles, George, Rosalie, Abhilin and Cillian, Vincent, Esther and Theodore, Catherine, Luisa, Miriam, Isaac, Julia Marie, Evelyn, Jackson, Lucy and Magdalena, Frederick and Desmond, Esther, Grace Lynn, and Archimedes, Esther, Caleb, Charlotte, Irene, Logan and Deagan,  plus 15 babies in utereo.



Thus says the LORD: 
"A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not." 

Thus says the LORD: "Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded, says the LORD, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.

There is hope for your future, says the LORD, and your children shall come back to their own country.
- Jeremiah, 31:15-17


December 19, 2015

Two Poems for Advent by Scott Cairns






Christmas Green

Just now the earth recalls His stunning visitation. Now
the earth and scattered habitants attend to what is possible: that He
of a morning entered this, our meagered circumstance, and so
relit the fuse igniting life in them, igniting life in all the dim
surround. And look, the earth adopts a kindly áffect. Look,
we almost see our long estrangement from it overcome.
The air is scented with the prayer of pines, the earth is softened
for our brief embrace, the fuse continues bearing to all elements
a curative despite the grave, and here within our winter this,
the rising pulse, bears still the promise of our quickening.



Overshadowing

Deep within the clay, and O my people
very deep within the wholly earthen
compound of our kind arrives of one clear,
star-illumined evening a spark igniting
once again the ember of our lately
banked noetic fire. She burns but she
is not consumed. The dew falls gently,
suffusing the pure fleece. Her human flesh
adorns its Lord, and lo, the wall comes down.
And -- do you feel the pulse? -- we all become
the kindled kindred of a King whose birth
thereafter bears to all a bright nativity.


by Scott Cairns

December 17, 2015

February 17, 2015

Ratzinger on Mardi Gras

Fasching—Mardi gras—is certainly not a Church festival. Yet on the other hand, it is unthinkable apart from the Church’s calendar. Thus if we reflect on its origin and significance, it can contribute to our understanding of faith. Fasching has many roots, Jewish, pagan and Christian, and all three point to something common to men of all times and places.

But behind this exuberant, worldly feast, there is also an awareness of that temporal rhythm which was given classical expression in the Book of Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted; …a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance”. Not everything is appropriate at all times, man needs a rhythm, and the year gives him this rhythm, both through creation and through the history that faith sets forth in the yearly cycle.

This brings us to the Church’s year, which enables man to go through the whole history of salvation in step with the rhythm of creation, simultaneously ordering and purifying the chaotic multiplicity of our nature. Nothing human is omitted from this cycle of creation and history, and only in this way can all human reality, its dark side and its light side, the world of sense and the world of spirit, be saved.

Let us go back to think about the roots of Fasching. As well as the Jewish, there is the pagan prehistory whose fierce and menacing stare at us in the masks worn in Alpine, Swabian, and Alemannic parts of Germany.

At this point we can observe something of great significance: in the Christian world the demonic mask becomes a light-hearted masquerade, the life-and-death struggle with the demons becomes fun and merriment prior to the seriousness of Lent. This masquerade shows us something we can often see in the psalms and in the prophets: it becomes a mocking of the gods, who no longer need to be feared by those who know the true God. To that extent, Fasching actually does contain elements of Christian liberation, the freedom of the One God, perfecting that freedom commemorated in the Jewish feast of Purim.

In the end, however, we are faced with a question: Do we still enjoy this freedom? Or is it not a fact that, ultimately, we would like to free ourselves from God, from creation and from faith, in order to be totally free? And is not the consequence of this that we are once again handed over to the gods, to commercial forces, to greed, to public opinion? God is not the enemy of our freedom but its ground. That is something we ought to relearn in these days. Only love that is almighty can ground a joy that is free from anxiety.

—Joseph Ratzinger

All the same, dear Pope Benedict, I'm going to have a Sazerac tonight and several bowls full of beignets! HT: John Herreid