Monday, June 29, 2009

Well said...

Mary Pierce Brosmer at Women Writing for (a) Change sent me this commencement address:

Well said, Mr. Hawken. These words were a gift.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Au Revoir To All That: Food, Wine and the End of France

Remember back a few years ago when Americans all hated France? What was that about? We renamed french fries freedom fries and we wouldn't drink french wines. I think it had something to do with the French government's stance on the Iraq war. The French are just a little too superior to Americans, and we don't like that so we won't drink your wine. So there.

Michael Steinberger is an American who loves France. More importantly he loves eating and French Food and wine and has written a lovely memoir--almost an elegy--about the decline of French gastronomy. Fine french wines and restaurants and cheeses are all is various states of decline and ruin. And are being eclipsed by the English, the Americans and *gasp* Spain.

I approached this book feeling like it was something I needed to get through, but I came away very taken with the beauty of these timeless french industries and the history and culture behind them. The author really led me in to the French restaurant industry -- the three start restaurants and how they were earned and what they said about a man (no women here) and his love for fine cooking.

The book tries to explain what has happened to French restaurants and does so with loving care. While I lost interest during the long parade of french chef's and how they were inter connected, I loved the chapter called "The Last Gentleman of Europe" where Steinberger profiles the last of the big three star Parisian Restaurants to loose its star. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book. I also loved the chapter about McDonald's role in France. Contrary to popular belief, the french love their McDo.

Steinberger points his finger at France itself for the demise of some of its most cherished industries (not at crass Americans or
stupid Spaniards.) He discusses French policy and politics towards industry and regulations, and calls to France for some basic reforms to save its own products and culture. One chapter is all about the Michelin guide and how it serves to encourage tourism, but is also filled with hypocrisy. After all, Michelin really just wants to sell tires.

I was surprised that I enjoyed this book as much as I did. The real story here is not that long parade of French chef's who cook and influence French culture, but the farmers and cheese makers and restauranteurs who are trying valiantly to remain French and carry on their long standing traditions. Each chapter surprised me a lot and taught me something new about France. Although this may not be your best summer beach read, it is a great story about France and its people. It will make you feel a little bad about all that French wine you do not drink.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Luck Factor

Several friends have been blogging about luck in the past few days. Steph writes of a formula to partially explain her luck. (Luck=opportunity + preparedness) Quite serendipitously, I was reading a book about luck. Richard Wiseman, a scholar from the UK, has spent his career studying the luck phenomenon and all things paranormal. In his work, he takes a hard look at serendipity, and one of the many conclusions that he reaches, that I love, is that serendipity is really not so serendipitous--it is really quite ordinary. We may not recognize it, but luck/karma/serendipity happens all the time. He teaches us to attune ourselves to it.

He asks readers to write down the memory of how they met their partner or spouse, how they found their current career, and how they met their closest friend. Was there some chance encounter at play in founding that relationship or causing the spark that made that decision for you? Most people begin to realize how lucky they are when they imagine how they met their best friend and realize that they wouldn't know this person if they had taken a different class or their car hadn't broken down in front of that store. When you take the long view of luck, you begin to see how lucky you really are.

Wiseman concludes that improving your luck is a factor of several things: 1) Opening yourself up to as many experiences as possible. Doing things, going places, meeting people, trying new foods. 2) Following your instincts and hunches. 3) Knowing what you want and going after it. 4) (My number one) Learning to recognize and appreciate how lucky you are. Becoming a glass half full kind of person goes a long way in making yourself feel more lucky.

So Steph and Dr. Wiseman and the Lucky girl seemed to have stumbled upon some great wisdom. I wish you all much luck and the wisdom to know when you have it. Please let me know about your lucky encounters. Or better yet, open up your journal and write about them.

Monday, June 15, 2009

This just in...

The local author I mentioned a few weeks ago has just had her book selected as one of the top 25 best reads of the summer by Oprah! She's number 14!

Friday, June 12, 2009

A Book We All Should Write

I picked up Not Becoming my Mother: and Other Things She Taught me Along the Way by Ruth Reichl after hearing her interviewed on NPR a few weeks ago. It is not your usual memoir. It is more an elegy for her mother. It is remarkable in several ways.

First, Ms Reichl has always known her rather colorful mother has kept a shoebox full of her letters and diaries but had never found it. One day she stumbles across this treasure trove of writings by her mother and decides she needs to write the book her mother would have written. What a gift for any daughter! To find your mother's letters and writings and to begin to understand her in a way that you had not before, would be a priceless treasure. Our mothers can be mysterious. At the same time, they are the women we are most like and we strive to most understand. We love them, honor them, respect them and cherish them, but as the author suggests, we try not to repeat the same mistakes they did. Relationships with mothers are always bittersweet.

Second, Ms Reichl makes an important argument for why women need to find important and fulfilling work. She writes of her mother's boredom at being part of a generation of women who were educated, but could not work because it was not respectable. Reichl knows after watching her mother and father interact that the true secret to happiness is having something meaningful for yourself. She knew this and sensed this from her mother and always understood that she would have a career. Her mother's gift to her, realized in the writing of this simple book, was that she wanted her daughter to do everything in her power not to be the same woman she was. A second amazing gift and understanding. From mother to daughter.

Last, it is a very simple and beautifully written narrative. It is short enough to finish in an evening, but it is so beautiful it will leave you thinking for hours. (or better yet , thinking about writing your own story for your own mother.) I would love to be so gifted that I could write a book like this.

So try to write your mother's story and see what it stirs up in you. Remember, we've come a long way baby!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Audio Books

I picked up The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell as a 6 CD audio book. I only listen to audio books on long solo car trips with much time and Interstate space to fill.

Sarah Vowell is a frequent contributer to NPR programs. I have heard her several times on This American Life and I love her voice (she voiced Violet in the Pixar animated film The Incredibles). Among other things, she writes about history with a twist, and I had just heard her read a great piece on This American Life about General Lafayette's triumphant return to America in 1824.

The Wordy Shipmates is a commentary and non-fiction account of the pilgrims and the puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the mid 17th century. I was looking forward to listening to this because she is very funny and very observant and again, she has this great reading voice and the CD's promised to bring in guest actors to read the parts of the pilgrims. (If you are marginally familiar with pop culture and look at the CD jacket you'll note an impressive array of guest readers.)

Well, I have to admit, it was not the most rousing work to listen to on a long car trip. My attention kept wandering. Yes, she used some of her characteristic humor, but I do not think she could decide if she wanted to book to be a funny piece that was a comment on history and the religious underpinnings of our nation or a serious historical work that happened to have some snarky comments injected in the narrative. As an audio book, it did not hold my interest for the 12 plus hours of driving I had to do.

Generally, I think that listening to a story and reading a story are different adventures in understanding a narrative so don't let me discourage you from exploring this work and others by her. She really is a quite astute observer of life and interpreter of history. Check out This American Life to listen to one of her many audio stories.

Do you have a favorite Audio book? Do you prefer listening or reading yourself?