Monday, March 10, 2014
Dictation by Cynthia Ozick. This book consists of four narratives, each no longer than 50 pages—too short to be novellas and too long to be short stories—but none longer or shorter than it need to be. Cynthia Ozick is a writer who doesn't write according to formula, not with regard to length or theme or plot or anything else; there isn't one word too many, nor one word too few. She's a true literary artist and this collection is a nice sampling of her talent.
The title story is a fictionalized account of a possible meeting between the secretaries of two legendary writers: Henry James and Joseph Conrad. Miss Bosanquet, who takes dictation from Mr. James, is anxious to meet Miss Hallowes, who takes dictation from Mr. Conrad. She believes they have a great deal in common. They are the mediums through which these great figures of literature pour the bounty of their talent; the genius passes through them first and by their transcription alone onto the page. Why should James and Conrad alone get all the glory? Aren't they, too, deserving of at least a subordinate fraction of immortality for their efforts? Miss Bosanquet has a plan to achieve her goal but first she must seduce the modestly reluctant Miss Hallowes into complicity. She starts by initiating Miss Hallowes into the illicit pleasures of sapphic love.
"Actors" is the story of Matt Sorley, an aging workmanlike thespian who never made it far enough to be reduced to a has-been. Unexpectedly, he's getting his belated big break when a trendy up-and-coming director decides to cast Matt as the star in his new updated stage-production of "Lear." At first, Matt is reluctant to take the role. He's disdainful of the young director. He thinks the play is pure schmaltz and the production over-the-top, harkening back, with post-modern irony, to the unabashed emotionalism of old Yiddish theater. But almost in spite of himself, Matt gets into the role—or maybe the role gets into him. Something clicks. The past comes pouring through Matt: suddenly he is Lear reincarnated as an immigrant New York Jew. He feels it with every fiber of his being. It's the role of a lifetime for which he's been waiting all his life. Until the second act of opening night when the authenticity of his performance is challenged by the unexpected appearance of a living ghost.
Frank Castle is a journalist, a Catholic apologist on radio and in print. In "At Fumicaro" he is off to a retreat in the Italian countryside where a gathering of priests and Catholic intellectuals are attempting to define the Church's role in the modern world. It's a world where religion is struggling to survive, besieged on all sides by politics, science, secularism and the failing of faith, and where, in Italy, Mussolini and fascism are on the rise. On the night of his arrival, Castle finds the chambermaid leaning over the toilet in his room, sick and vomiting. Inexplicably, he is struck as if witnessing a vision from God. He takes the chambermaid to bed. By morning, he's obsessed with her. Within days, he decides he must marry her. The girl is a dolt. She's pregnant with another man's child. She's from the lowest social strata. When he returns with her to New York, he'll be a laughingstock; people will think he's gone mad. Maybe he has. Maybe the girl herself will realize that they don't belong together. Frank can't decide. He's going to let fate decide, or God, or the girl, or whatever hand that shapes the cosmos. All he knows for certain is that this girl is his spiritual destiny, his long dark night of the soul. Rather than being her salvation, as he initially supposed, he comes to understand that one way or another, she will be his.
In the final and, in my opinion, most powerful story in the collection, "What Happened to the Baby," a woman works her way through a family history of lies, deceptions, misunderstandings, illusions and self-delusions that have turned her past into a labyrinthine hall of mirrors. As a child, Phyllis was given to understand that her uncle Simon was an eccentric, idealistic genius devoted to creating a universal language that will surpass Esperanto and promote world peace. Conversely, his wife, her aunt Essie, was a vain, selfish, controlling shrew whose unreasonable jealousy of Simon led to their baby's death. But as Phyllis grows older she discovers that the truth is far more complicated, nuanced, contradictory; in fact, it may be altogether unrecoverable. Phyllis—and through her, Ozick--confronts a disorienting and chilling revelation: that whatever the truth may be, it is lost in the telling, told as it is by those determined to shape it to their own advantage. That we may very well use language less as a tool to build bridges between us than as a weapon to destroy each other, less as a means to communicate than as a way to deceive. That we already speak a universal tongue and everywhere it's forked.
Posted by mcw at 9:41 AM
Sunday, March 9, 2014
Saturday, March 8, 2014
Friday, March 7, 2014
Rice pie, or grain pie, is something that, like with many Italian families, was served primarily in our house at Easter. We never saw hide nor hair (nor cotton-tail) of it any other time of year. Like pumpkin pie, I suppose, which most people also normally associate with a single holiday season, rice pie sadly comes to mind only in spring, but can be good virtually all year round.
Italian rice pie can be made with any kind of rice, depending on the texture you want, or with barley, or a mixture of the two. For those who've never had it, the best way to describe it is as a kind of cross between Italian ricotta cheese cake and coconut custard pie, but with rice, of course, instead of coconut. I suppose it must sound pretty weird and un-desertlike to someone who's never tried it (the way sweet potato pie can sound downright weird when you're a kid), or to someone who thinks of rice as primarily something to eat with chinese food or as a side dish from Uncle Ben. Think of it instead as rice pudding poured into a pie-crust and you're on the right track.
Like most custard pies, I used to think it must be really difficult to make, subject to some kind of arcane only-mother-knows magic, but actually just the opposite is true. It's pretty easy to put together and one of those wonderful things whose ingredients are so inherently yummy that even if you somehow, inexplicably, screw it up, the result still tastes pretty good.
First thing you need is a pie crust. You can always buy a frozen one and defrost it but it's better if you make your own. Making a pie crust from scratch is another one of those things that people think is the product of some sort of alchemical hocus-pocus but it, too, is quite simple. Here's how you make a very simple, basic pie crust:
Take a bowl and put 2 cups of flour in it, a tablespoon of sugar, and a pinch of salt. Next add two-thirds to three-fourths of a cup of cold butter (or margarine or other shortening; I like to use Earth Balance). Use your fingers to bring it together, adding cold water sparingly until you make a ball of dough, being careful not to overwork it. Wrap the ball in saran wrap and put it in the fridge for at least twenty minutes, during which time you can start on your pie filling, or, if you have plenty of time, go back to reading John Banville's The Sea. Simple right?
When you and/or the dough is ready, you take it from the fridge and place it on a floured surface. There you flatten and roll it out and then lay it in your preferred pie tin ready for the filling. Now it sounds complicated when all the steps are broken down like this in such excruciatingly minute fashion, but so would a description of breathing or walking to the front door to fetch the mail or bending over to scratch the bottom of your foot. And, yes, I suppose it would be easier to just buy a frozen pie crust and let it sit on the kitchen counter to defrost and leave it at that, but then, it would be easier to just buy the damn pie itself at the bakery. Or to pay someone to live your heartbreaks, but wouldn't that be missing half the point? Trust me, life is hard, but it's not hard to make a pie crust.
Now it's time to make for the filling. Many recipes that you see are misleading. For some reason, they typically give you the fixings for two pies or more, often, inexplicably, without pointing out the fact. Not that making two pies is necessarily a bad idea. They're that good and likely to go fast. But here's how you make one pie.
First you boil up some rice. As I mentioned, any rice or grain will do, depending on the texture you desire. I used Arborio rice for the pie pictured above, which gives you a super-creamy, smooth-textured pie, much more custardy than if you were to use wild rice, for instance. I use plenty of rice—a good cup and a half to two cups (cooked) for a single pie. I used a rice cooker to do this, which is the easiest way to make rice. I went upstairs and got dressed while this was happening. When I came down, the rice was cooked and I set it aside for the time being, letting it cool.
Now I get to work in earnest on the filling. I put 15 ounces of ricotta cheese in a bowl and with an electric hand blender, mix in a cup and a half of sugar. I beat together three eggs and mix that in, too. Next I add a teaspoon of vanilla extract. Oh, put in another teaspoon, why not, vanilla is good. Then slowly add the rice, continuing to mix it together with the electric hand blender until its smooth and creamy.
Next you want to squeeze out the juice and zest the rind of one lemon. Now what you don't want to do is do what I did next. Which is to leave the electric hand blender in the lightweight plastic bowl and turn away, thinking to yourself, "that probably wasn't a such good idea" and in that very instant hear a loud thwack and turn round to see the bowl tipped over on the table and half the contents of your cake filling spilling over onto the floor.
"Fuck it, fuck me, fuck this stupid pie," you shout, almost in tears, because your husband has gone out to a lunch to which you haven't been invited and aren't welcome, and instead your home alone making a goddamn pie! You're kneeling there on the floor with a roll of paper towels cleaning up the slop and shouting to the empty house "why is this fucking floor so filthy anyway?" when the paper towel comes black under the pie filling. Who's dirt is this? Not mine! It's thirty years of filth, left here by the soles of shoes that walked these floors long before I ever got here, and here I am cleaning it up, baking pies. Why? What a fucking loser I am! What a pitiful doormat! Aren't I tired of it yet? Fuck this! I'm not making any pie! Let them make their own goddamn pies if they want to eat pie!
And then you picture your husband coming home in the midst of this invisible emotional hurricane, this interior dark storm in a recurrent dark midnight of the soul, blameless, really, unaware for the most part of your hazardous feelings, and you realize that, in blaming him, you will be putting him in a more or less impossible situation and you will become like one of those impossible women that on normal days you disdain of ever becoming, that you swore you'd never be. So you finish cleaning up the mess you made through your own distracted carelessness, that you more or less caused to punish yourself for you sense of inadequacy and failure, deep down having known better than to do what you did, but doing it anyway, blinded by an impulse toward self-destruction, as willful as it is beyond your conscious will, another you, an anti-you who seeks to punish you for god knows what sins you are or are not guilty of committing, a milder form of self-abnegation, thank god, than what you've been subjected to in the past.
You use up the entire roll of paper towels to clean the mess, working mechanically, hardly aware of what you're doing, lost in a private replay of all the humiliations of your past. By then the tears have left your eyes and you can see that there is still enough filling in the bowl to salvage your pie. You have enough extra ricotta and rice to replace what you've lost. You work by instinct now, estimating what you'll need to do the job. There are no recipes written to cope with these kinds of situations.
You break another egg and mix it in, add another half cup of sugar, squeeze the lemon, chop to smithereens the rind, adding more lemon, maybe 3 teaspoons of lemon juice and two of rind instead of the one teaspoon of each that the official recipe calls for because life seems more tart and more bitter than sweet to you at this moment, at all moments really, only in this moment and those like them is it more obvious.
At last you take up the hand blender again.
When you go to fetch your pie crust from the fridge you leave the hand blender propped in the bowl just like before—out of defiance...of what, of who, of life, of other people, of cosmic indifference, of fate itself perhaps?—yes and no and not exactly. This time you take precautions. You've learned your lesson but you won't surrender, not totally, not yet, not in the middle of this recipe, anyway. This time you turn the bowl in such a way that the gravity of the precarious situation won't be working entirely against you.
You dip a finger into your improvised, doctored, and patched together filling. You put your finger in your mouth. Surprise—it tastes pretty damn good! You'd never know what happened.
You pour the filling into the pie crust and into an oven preheated to 375 you slide the pie and let it back for 45 minutes to an hour, until the crust is brown and the filling is golden and firm. Then you remove the pie and let it cool on the counter so that it sets.
When it's cooled, you can cut it and serve it at room temperature, but it's customary to put it in the fridge to further set for another couple of hours. The longer it sits the firmer it sets. It can then be served re-warmed later (less common), chilled, or at room temperature (most common. Each way of partaking of this pie has it's unique and sweet, though not too-sweet, charm.
Posted by mcw at 12:16 PM