13 February 2014

Friendship: two books

When I first started reading Lydia Millet's How the Dead Dream (brief review here), I thought, "Oh, no, not another book that sets up a laughably self-centered easy-to-caricature figure for us to feel superior." I had much the same initial reaction to the central characters of One Day, by David Nicholls. Scene one, just after university graduation: spoiled, lazy, aimless young man, certain of his own charm; relentlessly progressive young woman, constantly in doubt about her attractiveness; achingly unfulfilled all-night bedroom conversation on the eve of parting. Both Emma and Dex are described with the adjectives and accessories that mark their social niches.

And what a seemingly clunky narrative device: describing one specific day in detail, July 15--that year and every year thereafter, as Dex and Emma pursue their dreams and detours ... to a surprising and very moving conclusion. The deceptively shallow start of this novel leads into a deep exploration of the heart and power of genuine friendship. Give this book a chance to draw you in! (And unless you're one of those who must always read the end first, please don't skip ahead, and don't read spoilers.)

Three personal reflections about this novel:  I was a bit taken aback as I realized, comparing Dex and Emma with my own life, how tiny a role ambition has played in my life. Perhaps as a consequence, at my present age, regret also plays almost no role. It may be that discipleship and Christian community are antidotes to the agonies of uncertain self-worth that mark characters' lives in thoroughly secular novels and films. This has been my experience. However, on the other hand, there are varieties of Christianity that also seem to specialize in generating self-doubt!

Secondly, coming from a family that was devastated by alcohol, I appreciated the novel's bitterly realistic descriptions of the befuddling power of booze to sabotage lives and careers. No moralizing, just sharp writing.

Thirdly, it is hilarious to read, from my perspective at age 60, how 38-year-olds can be worrying about the onset of middle-age decrepitude!!

I hope it's ok to enjoy reading other people's correspondence, because it sure is fun. Julia Child began corresponding with Avis DeVoto almost by chance; actually, Julia first wrote to respond to a brief article on kitchen knives by Avis's husband Bernard in Harper's. Avis answered Julia on her husband's behalf; in turn, Julia mailed the DeVotos some knives from Paris (could this be done now?) ... and a friendship was born.

This friendship is beautifully documented in As Always, Julia, edited and annotated by Joan Reardon. By way of their letters, we get a wonderfully raw stream of impressions of life in the American intelligentsia of the 1950's. Both families were resolutely liberal with strong views on racial justice, conservation, and civil liberties. Some of their political comments--on allies and opponents alike--sound incredibly contemporary, as do their observations on brass-knuckle tactics in election campaigns of the time.

The warm heart of this volume of letters is the chronicle of Julia's manuscript for Mastering the Art of French Cooking, as it made its slow and uncertain path to publication. Their correspondence around this book portrays their abundant mutual generosity. Sometimes Avis seems to believe in the project just as much as Julia, if not more. Both women's hours and hours of recipe testing (and Julia's answers to Avis's own cooking questions) practically pull you right into their kitchens, with the butter sizzling and the sound of knives on chopping blocks. I'm definitely not a cook but I still found these pages delightful. The correspondence also documents the dedicated lobbying that Avis did among publishing colleagues on behalf of Julia's manuscript.

These women's observations on relationships, men's egos, the trials of parenthood, and in particular their candid reflections on their own marriages (and each other's!) are themselves worth the price of the book. Julia's descriptions of France and Germany are also fascinating, as are Avis's descriptions of publishers and their office politics, and of Harvard's Lowell House, where she worked after leaving the publishing world. Julia's care for Avis upon Bernard's death radiates from the pages.

Julia and her husband Paul lived outside the USA for much of their married lives; in fact, they first met in Sri Lanka where both were working for the Office of Strategic Services. Paul's last posting before retirement was in Norway, which itself doesn't take up much of the book, but I loved this fey comment from Julia:
One is certainly at a far corner of the world here in Oslo. I keep forgetting that the whole damned country has only a bit over 3,500,000 people... or is about the size of Chicago. And Oslo itself has only about 350,000. Imagine trying to be a whole country with army, navy, TV, radio, king, and so forth with only that amount of population. I kept wanting the Norwegians to win everything at the Olympics, but had to keep remembering that there are only that number of people to choose from.
Of course it's only fair to report that, years later, after her cookbooks and her television program The French Chef made her a celebrity, she returned to Norway several times and made appearances on Norwegian television. As for the Olympics, we Norwegians do seem to be taking at least our fair share of medals....

"When Does War End? Moral Injury and Soul Repair." The 2014 Willson Lectures at Earlham School of Religion.

In case you weren't aware ... "Evangelicals shouldn't be anti-intellectual." (Thanks to Darrell Jackson for the link.)

Can there really be an NGO that does nothing? Unfortunately, it's not so far-fetched. It might look something like this.

Brendan O'Neill on "The dangers of demonising Russia." Jean-Francois Ratelle on the dangers of demonizing radical Islam. But in any case, don't rely on just one source for commentary on Russia....

Spending too much time in online distractions when you should be doing something else? (Of course reading my blog is special!) Take a look at Self Control; background story here; there's a Linux version here that works on my computer.

Everlasting gratitude to T. Canby Jones, who died today. Along with probably half the Quaker world, I have a million stories about this great scholar and minister. Among my most vivid memories is my very first--hearing his account of returning to the land of his birth, Japan, to visit Hiroshima in the mid-1970's, told in the context of his sermon on Psalm 126:5, "Those who sow with tears shall reap with songs of joy."

Jimmie Vaughan and Kim Wilson provide a completely straightforward, confident serving of blues dessert.


Anonymous said...

Canby was a beloved friend and mentor -- a stalwart in the Quaker Theological Discussion Group.


Johan Maurer said...

When we're back together again, Vail, we should compare stories. How well and fondly I remember Canby laughing at his own jokes. ("What was John the Evangelist smoking?") And I'll never forget his statement that true Christian pacifism requires coming to terms with one's own death. Until I checked just now, I hadn't realized how many times I've quoted him in this blog.