Sometimes, when you open the fridge an hour or so before dinner, you have to make some changes. The cheese you were planning to use has a bit of mold on it, but it could be shaved off; however, the zucchini you bought two days ago is already well past its eat-by date. When that happens, you just move on. You slice the onions, peel and chop the garlic, melt a gob of butter, and get started. When the kitchen starts smelling like that, you’re heading in the right direction.
It may not be exactly what we planned, but let's see what still looks edible.
In Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, when Marmee says to Jo, “I am angry nearly every day of my life,” every woman in the theater draws a collective breath. Because it is true. We are angry, every day. Like Marmee, many of us have trained ourselves not to show it, and we don’t know how to respond when other women urge us to embrace our feelings. We are fearful of anger, the anger of others especially. We try to let ourselves be angry and then tremble at the lack of control it reveals. Of course, being angry about the injustices surrounding us is understandable, but is it right to give vent to that anger? What does ripping a speech in half add to the world except more anger? I’m confident the world has anger enough; what it is lacking is a way forward.
I may never know how to embrace the anger, but I still reread Megan Stielstra’s "An Axe for the Frozen Sea” about once a month.
Alan Jacobs’ complicated and fascinating book The Year of our Lord 1943 took a lot of time and headspace this week. In the book, Jacobs knits together the views of several thinkers trying to cast a vision (a way forward) in the midst of World War II. Taking such voices as Simone Weil, T. S. Eliot, and C. S. Lewis, Jacobs explains how the crisis of global warfare caused these intellectual figures to focus on a right response to both the atrocities and the victories achieved during the war. It is the coincidence, the triangulation of similar ideas, that makes their resonant conclusions so interesting. My interest lies primarily in the overlaps between force, technology, and power. Jacobs paraphrases Weil’s concept of malheur, explaining it as “that created when force reduces a person to a thing. To know that you have been reduced to a status of a mere thing and cannot undo this violation of your being - this, perhaps, is the experience of malheur” (156). What is war if not a reduction of your opponents to things? I can’t help but think we are living in the world Weil and Lewis and the others were trying to avoid, a world where we put all our chips on force and let the wheel spin. The front page of today’s paper does little to dissuade me.
I’ve been thinking about Brett Kavanaugh again this week. C. A. Fletcher’s excellent novel A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World knocked me right down with this insight: “I guess no one’s the monster in their own story. Monsters are just a matter of perspective” (114). Kavanaugh was spittle-raging at his confirmation hearings because someone called him a monster, and he knew he wasn’t one. The question that keeps nagging, however, is when men are going to realize they aren’t always the main character in the story. Maybe every story isn’t their story. Maybe we’d all be better off if we lived like a bit character and not the main character.
Good reminder: It’s always someone else’s story.
In the last several weeks, the confluence of Little Women (the film) and Pride and Prejudice (the book) and Downton Abbey (the show) have repeatedly forced a reckoning with the concept of marriage as an economic proposition. It’s easy to place this notion in the category of “things that were once true and thankfully are no longer,” but is it really safely in the past, or does the trickle of its truth still leak in here and there? Lady Edith can reconcile herself to the fact that "Spinsters get up for breakfast" and end up finding gratifying work in writing because someone else is paying for, preparing, and serving that breakfast. The pressure to marry exists for Elizabeth and her sisters or Jo and her sisters because without a spouse (or a father) you have almost no chance of breakfast at all.
Related/Unrelated: if you are a fan of Pride & Prejudice and have never watched The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, please take a weekend and remedy that error. And watch for a review of Ibi Zoboi’s Pride next week. Both take this story that could be seen as entirely about marriage and romance and remind us of what’s really important: sisters.
A newsletter should talk of the news, no? My latest fascination in the newspaper is the way reporters, especially the Associated Press (AP), are covering the current administration. They will report on a thing (for example, a claim in the President’s SOTU address) and then pivot immediately to a fact that counters that claim. No explanation. No language of correction. Just claim/counterclaim. Speaking truth to power. Or more accurately, perhaps, it's something more like this from Noam Chomsky:
First of all, you don’t have to speak truth to power, because they know it already. And secondly, you don’t speak truth to anybody, that’s too arrogant. What you do is join with people and try to find the truth, so you listen to them and tell them what you think and so on, and you try to encourage people to think for themselves.
The ones you are concerned with are the victims, not the powerful, so the slogan ought to be to engage with the powerless and help them and help yourself to find the truth. It’s not an easy slogan to formulate in five words, but I think it’s the right one.
The act of “catching up” on old issues of The New Yorker may be the ultimate Sysiphean task. Knowing that doesn’t stop me from undertaking it. If I didn’t, I would miss the significant joy garnered from finally getting around to reading Peter Schjeldahl’s stunning reflection “The Art of Dying” from mid-December and this: “If you can’t put a mental frame around, and relish, the accidental aspect of a street or a person, or really of anything, you will respond to art only sluggishly.”
Also this gorgeous poem by Maxine Scates.
Dinner. It isn't always what we expected, or even what we would have ordered. But we won't go to bed hungry tonight. I'll post most Wednesdays. I'll probably archive these once a month or so. You can sign up (here) to receive the periodic newsletter as an email if you'd prefer.
Everyone has a newsletter these days. I follow quite a few of them and enjoy them all. If I had a marketing team, they would likely be urging me to start a newsletter. I'm not yet sure that's a good idea, but there are times when the crowded thoughts start to triangulate and demand something that is not exactly review, not exactly commentary. As any seasoned cook knows, there are times when you take a little wisdom (aka garlic, onions, and butter is never a bad starting spot) and whatever ingredients you need to use, and the combination equals dinner. So, I'm not quite ready to call this a newsletter. Let's call it midweek dinner instead.
My first newsletter was either Kottke's Noticing (currently on hiatus) or Austin Kleon's weekly list. He led me to several others, though I can't remember if he's responsible for connecting me with Robin Sloan's letter (which ended in December but can still be found here for now), or if that came when I finally read Mr. Penumbra last year. Either way, it was those newsletters that compelled me to build this site, to create a space where I could create in space without the trappings of social media to entangle. Though traffic and followers do matter a bit (they help to secure interviews and give credence to requests made as a reviewer), posting to your own site allows you to do the work that matters to you without worrying about, well, everything else.
So, what's on the menu for this midweek dinner? Not sure yet, but here are the ingredients:
Little Women and anger and "spinsters get up for breakfast"
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and sisters
Brett Kavanaugh and the monsters in our stories
Names and hiding
Poetry and Comics and Comics as Poetry
Art and framing and dying and living (via Peter Schjeldahl)
I'll post it here on Wednesdays. You can sign up (here) to receive it as an email if you'd prefer.