Thursday, August 19, 2010

MFK Fishing for Meaning

now finished:
The Gastronomical Me by MFK Fisher
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin
Lonely Planet Chicago City Guide

I've been doing a little reading! I like getting the Lonely Planet guide upon moving to a new city. Lonely Planet rules, and I like exploring, so it's perfect. In fact, I recommend getting the Lonely Planet guide to your city/state/province/island/country even if you've lived there for years. You will learn and discover new things, and it's fun to consider a new perspective on your home.

For my take on Ursula's feminist sci-fi classic, I steer you here:
Book Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

Now, onto this MFK Fisher business. No, I haven't undergone a personality transplant. No, it wasn't a dare. I actually read a book from the Food Literature section because it was chosen by my Women's Classics Book Group. Yes, I felt a little dread, because I'm not really a fan of reading/talking/listening/watching about food. It's the one section from my Borders days in which I was never tempted to buy the books I was shelving. (Well, that and maybe Romance novels.) When The Splendid Table comes on the public radio station, it quite literally makes me cringe. I hate it the same way I hated being dragged to three hours of church as an adolescent. Yes, there is information somewhere in the speaker's words that could be useful to me, and even interesting to ponder. But the last thing I want is to be a captive audience, sifting through all the boring jabber looking for something beneficial that I could just as easily philosophize about on my own.

For some reason, people fall all over themselves these days talking about how much they love to cook, watch the Food Network, and even shop for groceries. That last bit is due to the whole green living/farmers' market trend, or as I like to think of it, the we-made-fun-of-you-throughout-the-80s-and-90s-for-being-a-hippie-environmentalist-but-now-it's-suddenly-cool-to-give-a-shit-about-the-Earth movement. I adore fresh fruit and canvas grocery bags as much as the next person, probably more so (I'm the girl who's been trying to make you reduce, reuse, and recycle since 1987 - remember me?), but no, I do not need to read eight thousand articles about how you've "discovered" rutabaga. And no, I don't want a copy of your recipe. It bores me to tears. I cannot tell you how delighted I was by Annette Bening's restaurant table rant in The Kids Are All Right about all the self-righteous heirloom tomato talk.

I am digressing, but I am also honing in on my point. I think one thing that bugs me about all the "foodies," apart from the word "foodie" itself, which I think is retarded, is how impressed they are with themselves. Maybe that's why I like The Next Food Network Star, out of all the shows on that channel: the competitors are fighting hard to prove themselves, not resting on their self-made laurels because they chopped some vegetables this morning. The point is that I started reading this MFK Fisher book expecting to be unimpressed, and I was really happy to see that 1.)it was not entirely about food and 2.)she had some insightful, well-written passages about seriously cool life moments. But then it got really weird. I'm talking off-the-charts "what just happened?" weird.

So The Gastronomical Me leaves you shaking your head a little. I mean, did she even have an editor? Every book needs an editor. Every book. Not just to copy edit spelling and grammar, or trim 500 wordy pages down to 200, or whatever, but for theme and overall cohesiveness. Editors are misunderstood and they are totally necessary. And I'm really not sure this book had one.

The stories start in MFK's childhood (her name is Mary Frances Kennedy, and yet she's not Catholic? Figure that one out) and go through boarding school to life in France and then a trip to Mexico, from Prohibition into World War II, and through a husband and a lover who dies. And yet you really don't ever learn about her or understand what is happening in her personal life. That's why I say it's not well done.

At boarding school, she has a lesbian dalliance with another student - I think. In France, she rescues the neighbor young woman from - something. An aggressive date? It's not really clear. One minute we're in France with her husband and she's tra-la-la-ing about this man she loves as they take a boat somewhere for a perfect meal and wine, and then all of a sudden she's divorced, but she doesn't tell us that. She just tells us she's sailing across the Atlantic home to the U.S. to tell her family she's getting divorced. Her next lover/soul mate dies, but if you want to know what the disease IS that has caused him to LOSE a LEG, you're out of luck. And don't even get me started on Juanito. Seriously random creepy final chapter. Off the charts. I'm not spoiling it here, because I don't really understand what happened, so how could I tell you?

The thing is, much of the writing was interesting. This woman was clearly learning who she was, and that totally comes out, and I really liked her interactions with the Frenchies and lots of her life moments. But it felt like she was deliberately trying to confuse us. I know the 1940s didn't have quite the same tell-all sensationalist style that causes everyone and her dog to write a memoir these days (which I hate, too - memoir. Making my foray into food memoir just about like a descent into hell) but could she at least tell a complete story if she's going to tell it? It was like watching the edited-for-TV version of The Exorcist. You just know there's something you're not getting.

So anyway, I was all ready to give the book 3 or 3 1/2 stars until I got to the final vignette. I might even be willing to read another book of hers if someone can recommend one where something happens and she tells us about it and everyone acknowledges that this is happening. I really think she was born sixty years too soon - she clearly was meant to be writing a blog. Which I might not read. But she does have little epiphanies, and she writes lines such as, "I felt illimitably old, there in the train, knowing that escape was not peace, ever." That's a good line. I think I disagree with her, but it's a good line.

I will say this, too: there's one part where she totally comes to the defense of potatoes. I mean, she goes all out, declaring that "meat-and-potatoes" thinking unfairly relegates them to a "menial position" and that they should be cooked "respectfully." That part was awesome.

I'll take the praise of spuds over creepy gender-bending Juanito any day.

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