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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Eating my way through Brooklyn with Peter Mayle

By Hugh Gilmore

Myself in car wishing I could hear something.

 "Be not the first to try the new, nor yet the last to lay the old aside." Spoken by a wise old sage, but I feel more like Denny Dimwit of the Rinkydinks in the old Winnie Winkle comic strip. I'm referring to my slowness to adopt "new" technology.
            We had to drive to New York's Lower East Side last Tuesday and for the first time in my life I listened to a literary audiotape as we rode along. Please don't ask me why I never tried this before. I have no excuse other than the fact that I prefer to live a low-stimulus life. I don't even listen to the car radio, considering it an interference with an opportunity to sort out my thoughts.
            But the Philadelphia Free Library Andorra Branch has been giving away deaccessioned audiotapes and my Francophile wife, Janet, took one and told me she's been enjoying it as she merrily motors about town. The tape features actor Simon Jones reading Peter Mayle's "French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew." (2001) I thought I'd give it a try on the ride to New York. We started it rolling as soon as we got off 309 onto the turnpike.
            Alors! Where've I been all my life? Another fine pleasure I've overlooked. Why? Well, first, I've considered audiobooks to be a cheat: it's not the same as reading!
Peter Mayle
            But now, who cares? Would the author be happy to know I listened to his story? Of course he would. Am I better off for having heard it? Of course I am. Sometimes the restrictions I place on my life are genuinely stupid.
            Second, while I love travel books, I just "don't do Europe." The whole continent seems stagnant and snotty and, well ... it's been done ... just so thoroughly overexposed. Give me the Outback, or the Gobi Desert, or the Patagonian Express. And Peter Mayle -- while I'd never read anything by him, I knew all about him. Too smarmy, too cute for words, too caught up in the miracle of sunshine. Boy was I wrong.
            We zoomed through the Pennsylvania Turnpike, onto the Jersey Turnpike, over the Goethals Bridge and the Verrazano Bridge, through Queens and Brooklyn, in bliss. Mayle's book consists of entertaining vignettes describing the adventure of attending local culinary festivals in France. From frog's legs through truffles to snails, Mayle covers them all with subtle English wit, an amateur's gusto, and an eye for offbeat local detail.
            And all the while, as cars behind us beeped to insist we hurry up, and graffiti whizzed past on Brooklyn walls, we braced up and smelled the garlic. Suddenly, as though we'd been beamed up there, we were parking our car on Essex Avenue, just off Houston Street, in the Bowery. Now I want to find an excuse to take another long ride.


Irony Department: Catching up with author Lynn Hoffman

By Hugh Gilmore
I haven't seen Lynn Hoffman, the Mt. Airy writer for a few weeks, but he assures me he's on the mend.

            I haven't seen Lynn Hoffman, the Mt. Airy writer for a few weeks, but he assures me he's on the mend. Though he owns a house in South Philly, ran a restaurant in upstate New York, worked as a photographer in the Caribbean, lived in Europe several times, sailed in the Merchant Marine for years, and is actually from Brooklyn, I always refer to him as a "Mt. Airy writer" so he seems Local-worthy.

            Lynn, you may recall, is the novelist/poet/food and beverage writer who virtually discovered overnight that he had throat cancer. Stage 4, by the time the symptoms became dramatic enough to get him an accurate diagnosis. That was back in August.

            From September into November I had the privilege of driving him to Fox Chase Cancer Center a few times a week. Except for the motion, and the traveling motive, our ride conversations felt like continuations of our usual porch talks. Drive and talk. Same routine every time: arrive at the Cancer Center (which is an amazement -- like a friendly village set within a reality-based theme park) check in, weigh in, walk into a big dimly lit room, get strapped down, and radiated. Then he'd put his coat back on, walk out and ride home, a little quieter from being zoned out after the orgasmatron beat-down.

            The radiation destroyed his salivary glands and nauseated him. As you might expect, these effects destroyed his appetite. An ironical twist for a man whose career was constructed around his love of good food and drink. And even when he tried to force himself to eat, most food nauseated him. So he started losing weight. And each day, this muscular guy who started out with a big torso and thick arms slipped farther into his shirt and jacket, until by the culminating 35th day of radiation he looked like a little kid wearing his big brother's clothes.

            But not a word of complaint, even when asked. Never a comment to contrast other people's ongoing pleasures to his own ordeal. The same pleasant, considerate, world-curious person every day. Amazing. A mensch, as they say. Er war ein Mensch through the whole treatment.

            I want to direct you to Lynn Hoffman's Internet blog. I also want to tell you that the blog, which is in diary form -- you'd do best to start at the beginning and work forward -- is just flat-out good writing. You do not have to brace yourself to confront the gruesome while someone smiles through the tears. Hoffman is compassionate and gentle with the curious and sympathetic reader. His story blog is driven by a fascination with the nuts and bolts of treatment, incredibly bold intellectual curiosity, and a delicious sense of irony. It deserves to be made into a book, and it probably will, when his energy returns.  
            You can find Radiationdays.com simply by typing that title into the address line on your computer and telling it to go there.


Chestnut Hill Local's readers' choices of "Most Enjoyed" books of 2010

By Hugh Gilmore

            For the December 30, 2010 issue of the Chestnut Hill Local (chestnuthilllocal.com), I invited interested readers of my column to send their nominees for an end-of-year-list of "the book(s) you most enjoyed reading this year." Nominees did not have to be printed this year, nor represent "the best" in a judgmental way.

Sebastian Barry during Dublin's One City/One Book.
            To avoid the nip of the wind, I ducked into Chestnut Hill's Tavern on the Hill last week. The radiant hostess, Kathyln Egan, seated me and right away told me that her favorite book this year was Sebastian Barry's "A Long Long Way" (2006).  It's the story of a young man who leaves his native Dublin in 1914 to join the Allies on the Western Front -- while Ireland was fighting for its own independence back home. "The characters are so engaging," she said, "they really draw you in. It was so beautiful, and sad." 
             I was soon joined at the table by Mt. Airy poet and writer, Lynn Hoffman. We'd barely begun talking when a young man walked by and muttered at our table, "Mark Twain, 'Letters from the Earth.''"
            You never know what kind of rough things are going to be said to you in a public house.
            I called to his back, "You can't talk to me like that!" A minute later, I was shaking hands with Kevin Kelly, a bright and enthusiastic young man who teaches English at Frankford High School. Still young and already a fan of Twain's dark side --  nice to know.
            When I turned back to Lynn Hoffman, he told me that his most enjoyed book this year was actually a re-read: "The Tailor of Panama" by John Le Carre (1996). It is, he said, "a comic story told with a completely straight face. And the back story is told in brilliant little digressions that don't interrupt the narrative."
            Later, when I'd returned home, I called Eugene Okamoto, President of Harvest Books in Fort Washington, to finish up an interview we'd started. His favorite book this year was "Mr. Phillips," (by John Lanchester, 2000). Set in London, it's the story of a modest man who lives a modestly happy life until he unexpectedly gets sacked from his accounting job. He dresses and leaves for work the next day anyway and for the first time in his life walks around the city noticing everything he's never taken the time to see before." Mr. Okamoto said he picked it up while he was home sick with the flu and "It blew me away." 

            In the meanwhile, e-mail responses had begun coming in. The first was from Alex Bedrosian, of Chestnut Hill: "Hugh: While 3-inches thick and weighing approximately 5 pounds, "Gustav Mahler, Volume 4," by Henry-Louis De La Grange (2008), is a 1758-page tome that is the quintessential text on the famous composer/ conductor, depicting the latter years of his life through his death in 1911. It was so good, I even read the bibliography! I especially enjoyed reading about his time in Philadelphia."
            "Why Volume 4?" I wrote back.
            He replied, "I am a former university educator from NJ, now retired (since 1989). We (my wife, Sally and I) moved to be near our son and his family in Glenside ... or, to die!! I decided to read Vol.4 of the Mahler, after reading Vol 1 ... wanted to learn of the final years of his life ...what he died from etc. Have always enjoyed reading biographies...probably my favority literary form. Being octogenarians, we have limited time remaining in this world ... hence our interest in reading all we can...until Yahweh calls!!"  
            In a separate e-mail, Sally (Sara) Bedrosian had her own titles to nominate. "I enjoyed finishing a book by Oliver Sacks recently: "Uncle Tungsten, Memories of a Chemical Boyhood." (2001) Our son recommended it. I found it hard going at first, but then became fascinated with his family history, wartime experiences in England, and many experiments he performed, encouraged by his uncle.  Also many interesting footnotes!"
             Another early entry came in e-mail form from Joan Adler, MD, of Mt. Airy. Her choice: the highly acclaimed "Cutting for Stone," by Abraham Verghese (2009). In this story, "a devout young nun leaves the South Indian state in 1947 for a missionary post. Seven years later, she dies birthing twin boys: one of whom narrates his own and his brothers' long, dramatic, biblical story. It's set against the backdrop of political turmoil in Ethiopia, the life of the hospital compound in which they grow up, and the love story of their adopted parents. Astounding story, characters. An epic."

            Most people found it impossible to choose one favorite from among the many books they enjoyed. That was certainly the case for Carol Rauch ("You can describe me as a resident of Chestnut Hill and dog lover," said the author of "The Artful Bouvier.") She too nominated "Cutting for Stone," along with a half-dozen others, and told me to emphasize her list however I wanted. The one book she wrote the most about was "Ordinary Wolves," by Seth Kantner (2005). "It's classified as a novel but is really a memoir of growing up in the Alaskan wilderness. The writing is exquisite, the environment astonishing and wonderful to discover. The difficulties of growing up against the pull of the cities and what happens in the city to those more comfortable hunting caribou and traveling by sled are poetically documented. It is a discovery of a piece of America few know.

            Those of you with a Springside connection probably know Deborah Dempsey, a former English teacher there, who now describes herself as "retired and . . . spending the rest of my life reading ... The blockbuster for me this year was Janet Browne's careful, thoughtful two-volume biography of Charles Darwin," (1996/2003). I raced through it like a mystery and now have to re-read it .
            Deborah Dempsey has become the peninsula's Johnny Appleseed of books. She wrote, "I'm giving 'Under Heaven,' by Guy Gavriel Kay (2010) to anyone who doesn't know about this wonderful blend of historical and fantasy literature." And sure enough, when I saw Ned and Joan Coale, of Chestnut Hill, last week, they both wanted to nominate "Under Heaven." If you guessed that it was pressed on them by Deborah Dempsey, you are quite correct.
            Lest it be said that a prophetess is not honored in her own country, I should tell you that my wife, Janet Gilmore, had an interesting nominee. She said, "My favorite book of 2010 is: "A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire," by Amy Butler Greenfield. It's about the fevered quest in the 1500-1600's to discover how to dye cloth bright red. The answer was found in the cochineal beetle of Mexico. The dye, shipped to Europe created a sensation, producing the brightest red the world had ever seen. Spain's cochineal monopoly was worth a fortune. The political, technological, social and commercial warfare over that monopoly were fascinating. I love books about the world being shook by small discoveries."

            Joe Ferry, of Erdenheim, one of my favorite correspondents, wrote, "The two best books I read this year were "Matterhorn," by Karl Marlantes, and "Freedom," by Jonathan Franzen. Two great yarns by extraordinarily gifted writers. I also enjoyed Joe Queenan's memoir, "Closing Time." (2009) He was five years behind me at St. Veronica's and Cardinal Dougherty and I don't remember him but do remember some of the people and all of the neighborhoods he describes so accurately."

            Nancy Pugh, also of Erdenheim, is the former travel agent/owner of Tortuga Travel. Now retired, she recommends "Cutting for Stone" (a third vote!) and Jeannette Wall's "The Glass Castle" (which also received three mentions). Nancy found Wall's memoir to be "in the same literary tradition of Frank McCourt.  How this family survived, and in other ways did not, kept me glued to this book."

             Music teacher Pat Downie, of Mount Airy, wrote, "Dear Mr. Gilmore, I so enjoy your articles." Ahem. She recommended "The Glass Castle," writing, "It could be subtitled, "How to raise 3 successful children by going against ALL child rearing teachings, including not feeding and clothing them regularly, and moving them around to avoid Dad who was drunk 60 percent of the time. (There actually were four children, but the jury is still out on the 4th and youngest child)."

             By now, most of the readers in town know about the great success this year of Eliza Griswold, who wrote "The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam." (2010) Great things seem to be in store for this brilliant and brave young woman.
            I wondered if her father, Bishop Frank Griswold, of Chestnut Hill, former Bishop of the Episcopal Church, had any (other) books he'd recommend to our readership. Graciously, he wrote, "Hugh, Here are my suggestions: "Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years," by Diarmaid MacCulloch (2010), Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University, who describes himself as a 'candid friend of Christianity.'  His account is both brilliant and critical.  In spite of the length of the book - more than a thousand pages, and, therefore, not to be read in bed - the text is lively, illuminating and never dull."
            Bishop Griswold also recommends "Home Town," by Tracy Kidder (1999).  "A carefully and compassionately observed and described encounter with the heights and depths of the human condition as it is encountered in the lives of the long term and occasional residents of a New England college town."

            And now, the book I most wish I had also read, if I could have discovered it under the same circumstances. Tom Tarentino, of Chestnut Hill, wrote, "The book I most enjoyed this year was "Helmut Ditsch: The Triumph of Painting." (2009) It features large-scale paintings of glaciers, mountains and ice. I found the book in a lodge in Patagonia, where the view was of the very glaciers painted. The book also contains a rather intoxicating essay by Reinhold Messner, the greatest mountaineer in history.  It was presented in 2009 at, of all places, the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair."

            Mellon Bank Officer Gail Morse, of Oreland, wrote, "Lots of good books read this year. At the top of my enjoyment list would be "The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo" trilogy.  I also enjoyed "The Outlander" (2007) by Gil Adamson.  The year is 1903 and, having just killed her philandering husband, nineteen-year-old Mary Boulton flees into the Canadian Rockies wilderness while being pursued by her two revenge seeking brothers-in-law. A fantastic portrayal of the natural environment and living conditions of the time, with great character development.  Good suspense throughout."
            Bill Hengst, of Mt. Airy, is both a professional gardener ("I drive a purple truck") and a writer of short stories and poetry, with a poetry chapbook ("Yard Man") to his credit. He was the subject of a long appreciation by the Inquirer's Gardening Editor, Virginia Smith, last year. Bill wrote to tell me it was hard choosing a favorite from among the books he read this year, but that, if he had to, he'd choose, T.C. Boyle's "The Women," (2009) first, and then "Angela's Ashes," by Frank McCourt (1996). "Each of these books," Bill wrote, "pulled me into the narrator's story with enough sauce, pathos and pain to make me want to keep reading."  

            A Chestnut Hiller contributing to this column was Melissa Dribben, the compassionate and observant Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer. Melissa wrote,  "I LOVED "The Help," by Kathyrn Stockett (2009). I thought it was masterfully done. The protagonists were complex and believable and so were all but one of the racist Southern women - and that one was so delicious to despise that nuance hardly mattered. The story revealed itself in perfect timing, the history and pathos and humor and suspense had me blubbering and laughing and horrified. And there is one line in it that any woman who has ever been patronized on a date will never forget."
            She added, "I also loved "City of Thieves," by David Benioff (2009), which did not at first seem like a book that would appeal to me - a buddy story set during the siege of Leningrad. But the two young men prove to be a fascinating pair - and their saga will stay with me for years to come. Again, there was one line that will be etched forever even in my pathetic memory. The insomniac in the pair talks about "babble on the brain." How well I can relate."

            And finally, from Professor Moylan Mills of Penn State, Abington, "Finishing the Hat," by Stephen Sondheim (2010) tells how he wrote the words for his wonderful Broadway songs. Along the way he has anecdotes, gossip, and snark about his show biz colleagues, as well as inside info on the creation of his shows. Not to be missed if you are, like me, a Broadway Baby."
              Thanks to everyone who contributed. I enjoyed and appreciated your