Monday, February 20, 2012

Go Out and Play in the Snow

It's been a snow-in-the-cumquats kind of week here — both of us with coughs and sniffles, impatiently awaiting spring. A smudge or scuff on the lens. A good time for reading if not much else.

Just finished Mavis Gallant's Varieties of Exile, a collection of short stories I highly recommend, recommended to me on Twitter by someone whom I now have reason to trust in matters of literary taste.

Of course I chose that title of hers for starting out. Don't we all want to see how our own exile stacks up against others'? And where else could I have found Marigold, an imaginary town whose citizens "were cut out of magazines: Gloria Swanson was the Mother Superior, Herbert Hoover a convent gardener. Entirely villainous, they did their plotting and planning in an empty cigar box."

Gallant creates a little Linnet happy in her cozy, imaginary world. But "parents in bitter climates have a fixed idea about driving children out to be frozen," ordering her, as countless parents before and since have, to "go outside and play in the snow."

Gallant's places, though, Montreal and the south of France, feel much more real than imaginary. Her stories span generations and as such her exiles are as much about time as space. You are an exile on Sherbrooke though you have lived there for forty years. There's nothing to stop the changes. The decays. The deaths. The petty happenings that make up a life.

The second book, which has also been pleasantly surprising me this week, is Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones & Butter. I tend not to be too much of a food writer reader though I do remember racing through Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential in some kind of a poor prose stupor.

Hamilton's book, or she I should say, does exhibit a rawness — whether it's cleaning up the contents of bloated, maggot-filled rat just newly fallen off the ledge onto the stoop behind her restaurant, or her description of an angry bartender who had just told her off, "his back lit by glowing liquor bottles like that black-pawed critter who has just ripped apart your garbage" — but that rawness for me equals honesty.

And happily the tender moments aren't too cheesy. Though when she starts going on for page after page about braised rabbits and broad beans and olive trees and grapes, I start to nod off and think about asking for the check.

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