It was one of those lightening bolt epiphanies.
I was barely into the second chapter of How To Be a Woman and the truth plunged me into free fall. I am a 20th century woman, and hey gang, this is the 21st.
I can’t say it made me feel old. Rather, it made me feel like I missed the bus and was wandering and wondering aimlessly in the 1970s and 1980s. Just a few written pages let me know I was a transistor radio in an age of iPods.
As I go about regaining my equilibrium, I will stray a bit from the usual topics of gardening and gathering. I’ll share with you the stack of books on my bedside dresser competing for space with my wind-up alarm clock, tissues, wristwatch, reading glasses, calming lavender sachet, Hurricane Sandy flashlight, and Tiger Balm – my nighttime essentials.
I have my “chef-phew” (chef-nephew) to thank for Katie Couric’s The Best Advice I Ever Got. When we got together with Wille in September at Rouge Tomate, he was raving about the book. Lo and behold, he mailed it to me, along with the previously mentioned lavender sachet. Now, I’m no fan of TV celebrities or, quite frankly, overly perky people…so I would not have picked Best Advice off the 50-cent paperback table, but I’ve been proven wrong before.
Here are three of my favorites, and yes, it did occur to me that two of the three deal with food and drink:
Chef Mario Batali: “Life is not a recipe. Recipes are just descriptions of one person’s take on one moment in time. They’re not rules. People think they are. They look as if they are. They say, ‘Do this, not this. Add this, not that.’ But, really, recipes are just suggestions that got written down.”
An anonymous TV producer: “Kid, today you may be drinking the wine. Tomorrow you could be picking the grapes.”
An anonymous Today show producer: “A boat is always safe in the harbor. But that’s not what boats were made for.”
For nighttime reading, I love a good mystery. And my latest love is Donna Leon and her stories of Venice through the eyes and stomach of Commissario Guido Brunetti. In every book I return to my June visit to Venice with the mention of a vaparettto stop at the Arsenale or Rialto, a stroll down Via Garibaldi or Riva degli Schiavoni, a glass of Prosecco or a sip of grappa.
And actually, I have an affinity for Guido’s wife Paola. She’s often on the couch reading, inviting the likes of William Faulkner or Jane Austin into their walk-up apartment, or cooking in the kitchen with detailed descriptions of the workings of pot and pan: Risotto con zucca (orange chunks of a squash grown in nearby Chioggia) or Guido’s favorite dish, polenta with liver.
Leon’s plots are creative and her words, memorable. Writing about the industrial pollution of the mainland and its result on the centuries-old Venetian architecture, she complained that the tainted air was “turning marble into meringue,” a description I can’t get out of my head.
One day Richard put a book on my bed (there was no room on the nightstand) that I’ve been enjoying in small doses. Not only does reading Great Tales from English History make me feel that Marina is just across the Thames instead of on the other side of the Atlantic, but Robert Lacey is a wonderful storyteller of all that is British.
He starts with c.7150 B.C. and I’m only up to 1605 A.D. Even so, his stories are fresh and fascinating. He explains why during Edward I’s reign archery was encouraged while Parliament outlawed tennis, cricket and football: military might to defeat the French took precedence over recreation.
Lacey’s description of how Bubonic plague was spread still gives me the willies. You know all of those cute 14th-century thatched-roof cottages with rustic rafters? Well, infected rats crawling with likewise infected fleas on their backs scurried along those rafters, dropping the fleas onto unfortunate humans below.
He tells of Thomas More coining the word “Utopia” from the Greek words for “no” and “place”. Think about it.
More’s wordsmithing didn’t stop there. His vocabulary to degrade Martin Luther and his reforming ideas consisted of “merda, stercus, lutum, coenum” (for those of you who forget your Latin, “shit, dung, filth, excrement”) and went on to categorize Martin Luther as a drunkard, liar, ape and arsehole who had been vomited onto earth by the Antichrist, writes Lacey. Makes our 21st-century political-jabberwocky sound pretty tame.
Yes, back to the 21stcentury and How To Be a Woman. Caitlin Moran, named Columnist of the Year in 2010 by the British Press Awards for her writing in the Times of London, incredibly speaks to a 20th century former-farmer-turned-secretary in State College, PA, USA. Although I missed many of the British cultural references in How To Be a Woman, as I read I kept dog-earing pages to share with a co-worker that spoke to the work culture of our male-dominated office.
In How To Be a Woman, Moran zeroes in on the basics of workplace maneuverings with a twist. Forget women sleeping their way up the career ladder; Moran focuses on a much more prevalent phenomenon: men constantly flirting with male bosses.
“That’s basically what male bonding is. Flirting,” writes Moran. “They’re flirting with each other playing golf, they’re flirting with each other going to football, they’re flirting with each other chatting at the urinals…”
As a lowly secretary in a construction office, I sit at the hub of activity. I don’t have a window, but my desk faces the men’s restroom and the office pretzel tin. Such power can’t be taken lightly when you know How To Be a Woman. Laurie Lynch
Holiday Wish: That one of these books will capture your attention and take you to a brave new world in a brave new year.