Friday, March 18, 2011


I've been on a memoir tear lately, having torn through biographies or autobiographies of Muriel Spark, Keith Richards, Anne Sexton, Linda Gray Sexton, and Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. I think with the exception of Keith Richards (what a stand-up person; I like him enormously), all these people come across as extremely ruthless. Perhaps Linda Gray Sexton is less ruthless than the rest of them, but I think anyone who tries to commit suicide has a certain obsession with the "ME." And, yes, I realize that enormous amounts of pain--physical or otherwise--can overwhelm to the point where the "ME" is the only thing that matters. I've been depressed and I've experienced horrific amounts of physical pain to the extent I wanted to hang myself, so, yes, there are times when it really is only about you. However, despite all my mental or physical anguish, I have never and can ever conceive of wanting to commit suicide because I do think that's when the ME becomes, well, ruthless.

With the exception of Keith Richards, I find that I do not like these people because of this very ruthlessness. I even find myself feeling irritated by them; these people are compelling and yet also repelling. A. Sexton is enormously selfish; Plath I find something of a fool (I could see her eventual crisis coming from a mile away); Hughes is nothing more a brute with a brain; and Spark is odious. And yet their art is amazing. I'm not one for Hughes' poetry because the whole shaman/life force/superstition/occult metaphor does not work for me, but I can't deny that he was a phenomenal poet. And Sexton's poetry is similar to Plath's in that here they are in the late 50s, early 60s and realizing what a bum deal it is to be a woman, especially a woman competing in a man's world. It's hard to read about Plath's determination to be the happy homemaker/poet/uber wife, seeing herself as second best to her husband; not only seeing herself as second best but relishing that role. Equally painful is reading how Sexton learned how to mine her craziness for her art, not realizing of course that there's only so much crazy people can take before they are worn out. Hughes and Spark are cut from similar cloth; focused and determined and steely (there's no other word for it) they demanded respect and never let anyone push them around. It's a toss-up who I dislike more, Hughes or Spark. Perhaps Spark because there is no dismissing that Hughes was a brute but he did love deeply (if extremely unwisely). Spark hoarded all her love for God and didn't seem to have much for anyone else.

Anyway, I think the point of all this rambling is that I don't see myself as an artist, although I do see myself as a writer. Clearly I'm not ruthless enough. If I were more like any of the above, I would tell my husband, "Yes, I know that we have children with college tuitions looming and we get our medical benefits from me and we have a mortgage and our parents our aging, but I want to sell this house and move to Ireland and write a big book. I know this means we will have little retirement and our kids will suffer from my selfishness but this is what I need to do. I must do it."

That's what these people did. Their art came first. I push my "art" into the corners of my life that are vacant. An hour here, four hours there. I have been selfish in my life, but not ruthless. Although I won't deny feeling envy for people who are.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Books That Changed Me

Below is a list of books that changed me. That upsided me on the head in the most wonderful way, that said, hey, words? They are magic. They will transform you. Take you places you never thought you would. Make you think. Make you cry. Make you grow up. Make you care.

Jane Austen: all her books, ALL of them.

John Fowles: The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman.

Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre.

Ernest Hemingway: For Whom the Bells Tolls (I know it's not his best but there are passages that make me cry at their sheer brilliance).

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender is the Night (could anyone create a more lyrical sentence? I don't think so).

J. K. Rowling: the Harry Potter series (not that these books aren't terribly flawed, but I've made so many friends from this world that, yes, this series changed my life).

Ford Madox Ford: The Good Soldier (what a fascinating book).

J. R. R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings trilogy (no explanation needed).

Calvin Trillin: About Alice (because, wow, what a lovely marriage).

Raymond Chandler: ALL of his works. The man had a way with metaphor and simile that I think is really unparalleled

Dashiell Hammet:  ALL of his novels (although I have to admit the The Maltese Falcon is perhaps the most perfect piece of crime fiction ever written. Except for, perhaps, The Long Goodbye, which is a debate I have with myself constantly. Which is better?)

Vera Caspary: Laura (because, really, a novel with three distinct POV's and so well written, never a slip in voice).

Dorothy L. Sayers: Gaudy Night, because I am basically Harriet Vane and there is no man in fiction that I'd rather be married to (and that includes Mr. Darcy). Plus, wow, really smart plots, Dorothy!

Truman Capote: I love his short stories more than his novels, so The Dogs Bark and The Muses Are Heard make this list, although I do love his writing in general.

Gore Vidal: This is problematic for me because I despise his comments regarding the Polanski affair and am not feeling very charitable toward him these days, but his historical series starting with Burr is truly amazing. If you want to understand the U.S., read this series.

So these are my favorites. Yours?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Recipe: The World's Best Poundcake

Although food looms large in my life (my cookbook collection is obscene), it doesn't seem to loom large here. Let's rectify that. I cut this recipe out of the S.F. Chronicle over thirty years ago, and I have yet to find a better recipe for pound cake. It's frigging perfect.

The World's Best Poundcake

1 c butter (2 sticks) room temp
2 c sugar (I used the superfine baking sugar from C&H)
5 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
2 c all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1/8 tsp nutmeg

1. Butter and flour a bundt pan. Sift flour twice.

2. Cream together butter and sugar until very light and fluffy.

3. Add vanilla to eggs. Add 3 eggs one at a time, bearing at least one minute after each addition. Scrape down bowl. Mix for another minute. Fold in 1/4 cup flour. Mix well.

4. Add remaining 2 eggs, beating well after each addition. This should now have the appearance of whipped cream. Add nutmeg and salt to remaining flour.

5. Stir in flour all at once using a wooden spoon to combine. Mix well until blended but do not overmix. You've just spent ten minutes putting air into the batter, by overmixing it you'll take a bunch of it out.

6. Turn batter into pan. Place in a COLD oven (yes, cold) and turn heat to 350 degrees. Bake 55 minutes or until knife comes out clean.

7. When done, place pan on wire rack for 4 minutes, turn out onto rack to cool.

This cake keeps forever. If I'm serving this to guests, I add a generous spoonful of strawberries and a wee bit of whipped cream, but that's just window dressing. This recipe doesn't need any "props," it's delicious plain.