Book Heaven

Where the world of books and life intersect

Location: South Amboy, New Jersey

I am deeply involved in trying to solve the discrepancy between being interested in zen and trying to acquire all the things I've been accumulating

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Feeding a Yen

Who knew that people could be so passionate about food, or that they could write about it in a style that rivals that of the best literature. Ironically, most of this throwaway food writing will probably survive as long as much of the supposedly longer lasting fiction. Feeding a Yen by Calvin Trillin (Random House, 2003) certainly deserves such a long life.

Calvin Trillin is of course a national treasure and reading his musings on food is almost as satisfying as eating the food he is lusting for. Almost. Of course there are few people who get the enjoyment out of eating even their most treasured foods that Trillin does. He seems to experience food on a different level than you or I. He is truly a food Buddha and the rest of us are just wandering in the wilderness trying to find the temple.

I wanted to read this book as soon as I saw it and I'm still not sure why it took me so long to actually get to it. The level of anguish in Trillin's voice is so high that it may be safer to just read the essays individually. As one wanders through them, Trillin's pain is palpable as he recounts the treasures that are on his Register of Frustration and Deprivation, a list of foods that only seem to be available in a tiny geographical area many time zones distant from Trillin's Manhattan. Even when something is within his grasp though, like the gnarly pumpernickel bagels right in his own back yard, they seem to slip away from him, and his loss becomes our gain in the essay devoted to the search for them.

The list of foods that Trillin is desperately seeking is neither exotic nor expensive. I can't really get too exited by most of these -- pan bagnats, boudin, posole, caribbean fried fish, ceviche, and fish tacos -- but I could never tire of reading his musings about them. My favorite essay was entitled Pepper Chase in which Trillin recounts his love affair with pimientos de Padron and his consumption of more of them in a week than most people will consume in a lifetime. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Living With A Writer

On the back cover of Living With A Writer edited by Dale Salwak (Palgrave, 2004), the following question is posed: "what is the cost of a masterpiece or a caring relationship?" The first essay that I chose to read in this book answers that question all too well. In Damned By Dollars: Moby-Dick and the Price of Genius, Herman Melville biographer Hershel Parker tallies the huge cost that Melville paid in plying his craft in the face of a public and a publishing industry that was blind to his talent.

The opening of this wonderful essay sets the stage for this question:

In early May 1851, when he had finished almost all of Moby-Dick except the concluding chapters and late insertions, Melville wrote Hawthorne about 'the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose', a mood that could seldom be his: 'Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar.'

Melville went on to say that because dollars damned him, because he was so rushed, 'the product is a final hash,' and all his books were botches. Certainly nothing could be further from the truth and one need not read very far into Moby-Dick to see it for the classic work that it is. Certainly one of the greatest tragedies in all of literature, it is still astounding to think that nearly fifty years after it was published, Moby-Dick had sold a scant four thousand copies. I am instantly reminded of the classic Gahan Wilson cartoon in the New Yorker in which a modern day Melville is adrift upon a city street and everywhere he looks are whale references, even on the slippers of a young child scuttling by him. The caption for the cartoon is something like, "I wonder if we've oversold Moby-Dick." One can only wonder what Melville might have produced had he not been so beaten down by his lack of recognition and his constant indebtedness, and achieved even a modest success. Certainly he escaped the worst, or maybe not -- one kept expecting his failure to rush him to an early grave but maybe having to work nineteen years as a lowly paid customs worker while stories swirled in your head may have been worse than death.

Reading Parker's fascinating essay on the toll that his masterpiece took on Melville and his family temporarily sends me scurrying for the countless books that I have with Melville references, especially Herman Melville A to Z by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock (Checkmark Books, 2001), which I hope to find the time to read soon. And from the "too bizarre to be true" department, this from HarperCollins Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature 2nd Edition:

Mocha-Dick J.N. Reynolds published an account of this white whale in The Knickerbocker Magazine in 1839, twelve years before Melville's Moby-Dick. It was the earliest account of a white whale legendary among seamen for its fierceness and the difficulty of killing it.

Lucky for Reynolds that he didn't expand his piece into an epic novel. No matter how good it might have turned out to be, I don't think the world is ready even today for Mocha- Dick. Those great white whales may not kill you, but they sure do a lot of damage.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Son of Maltese Falcon

In a previous entry I bemoaned the lack of any supplemental material in the new Maltese Falcon reissue but I've been positively gorging myself on the articles and appreciations that are scattered about the internet. Right about now I'm kind of disappointed that I passed up that Hammett encyclopedia (Greenwood Press?) that I spotted in the Strand bookstore a couple of years back. It was only half the $80 list price but I guess I was in a miserly mood that day.

I was positively shocked to read in Richard Laymon's Library of Congress speech that there are some 2,000 variants between the Knopf text and the five part Black Mask version of The Maltese Falcon. Laymon mentions that there is only one complete set of Black Masks in private hands, and I'm pretty sure I know where they reside. The sad part though is that even if you owned them yourself, you'd have to think twice about subjecting those issues to all that page-turning to read them. Forget about trying to compare the Black Mask version to the Knopf version.

In this age of Director's Cuts and endless supplemental material of dubious merit on dubious DVDs, wouldn't it be nice to have that Black Mask version to read? The stuff that dreams are made of.