Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

I feel subsumed by The Argonauts. It has been a long, long while since I have felt this dizzying sense of expansion at the reading of a piece of text.

Nelson’s discourse is everything that resonates with me—unifying instead of divisive, inclusive rather than exclusive, nuanced, and willing to go beyond the widely-held rhetoric. It’s so, so thoughtful.

I’m so glad that I listened to the voice inside me that insisted that I put The Argonauts on hold despite leaving Bluets at the 20% mark twice.

I feel about The Argonauts the way I feel about poetry—not yet ready to write about it but filled with this desire to simply share the pieces that speak to me.

And so that’s what I’m going to do here. Simply share some of the pieces of The Argonauts that have stood out for me so far (I’m halfway through).

Many feminists have argued for the decline of the domestic as a separate, inherently female sphere and the vindication of domesticity as an ethic, an affect, an aesthetic, and a public. I’m not sure what this vindication would mean, exactly, though I think in my book I was angling for something of the same.

~ Bolded part courtesy Susan Fraiman

What if where I am is what I need? Before you, I had always thought of this mantra as a means of making peace with a bummer or even catastrophic situation. I never imagined it might apply to joy, too.

~ Bolded part courtesy Deborah Hay

In other words, she wanted it both ways. There is much to be learned from wanting something both ways.

As someone who’s been thinking more and more of motherhood—that is to say I’m becoming more and more sure that I WANT to be one, I loved reading the part below, especially as I have wondered about this as well:

Winnicott acknowledges that the demands of ordinary devotion can be frightening for some mothers, who worry that giving themselves over to it will “turn them into a vegetable.” Poet Alice Notley raises the stakes: “he is born and I am undone—feel as if I will / never be, was never born. // Two years later I obliterate myself again / having another child . . . for two years, there’s no me here.”

I have never felt that way, but I’m an old mom. I had nearly four decades to become myself before experimenting with my obliteration.

Then there’s this which is by William James:

We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue or a feeling of cold.


It’s the binary of normative/transgressive that’s unstable, along with the demand that anyone live a life that’s all one thing.

And then this, tucked in, amidst everything else:

We bantered good-naturedly, yet somehow allowed ourselves to get polarized into a needless binary. That’s what we both hate about fiction, or at least crappy fiction—it purports to provide occasions for thinking through complex issues, but really it has predetermined the positions, stuffed a narrative full of false choices, and hooked you on them, rendering you less able to see out, to get out.

Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer: A Golden Treasury of Classic Treats by Jane Brocket

Question: What makes a good book even better?
Answer: Good food to go along with the story!

Question: What makes good food taste even better?
Answer: A good story to go along with it!

So what happens when you find out that there exists a book about the food of your childhood stories? If you’re me, you go slightly bonkers! You feel like an energizer bunny—with enough enthusiasm to bounce right off the walls! You fervently plead with your Inter Library Loan Services to please, please, please locate the book! You cannot decide whether you should read the whole thing in one go or should take breaks in between to test out all the delicious sounding food!

cherry cake and ginger beer jane brocketIn case you missed all those exclamation points—this book hit my sweet spots in the sweetest of ways!

Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer: A Golden Treasury of Classic Treats is a journey through the literary food worlds of Enid Blyton, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Noel Streatfeild, Susan Coolidge, and other favorites of children the world over. It discusses, dissects and most important of all GIVES RECIPES for the best macaroons, and jam tarts, and currant buns, and apple cakes that one has only ever read about so far! It invokes in the mind’s eye rolling countryside, and in the ear’s drums insects buzzing and the quietness of a warm summer afternoon. I could easily say for this book what Jane Brocket says for Enid Blyton’s The Circus of Adventure:

As I read, I am transported to a cosy, homely kitchen table with pots of geraniums on the window sill, a red-and white-checked tablecloth, a warm oven and a smiling hostess. I picture this beautiful still-life of food, colors, shapes and textures, and can feel myself getting hungry.

There’s food for elevenses, and food for tea-time. There’s aromatic baked delicacies and sturdy comfort food. There’s food (lots of it!) that I want to make RIGHT THIS MOMENT and food that makes me scratch my head (I give you Sugar on Snow from The Little House in Prairie books that is apparently maple syrup on fresh snow—yeah, fresh snow falling down from the skies). There’s also an ode to fruit cake:

It comes in slabs, slices, hunks, and chunks. It is found in knapsacks, bicycle baskets, wicker baskets, hampers, tuck boxes. It is served at match teas, nursery teas, afternoon teas and high teas. It is dense, moist and perfectly portable. It goes with cocoa, lemonade, ginger beer, jam tarts, ripe plums, golden apples, and potted meat sandwiches. It is, of course, good, old-fashioned, reliable fruit cake and it pops up everywhere in children’s fiction. . . . It’s the workhorse of the tea table or picnic, the solid, filling cake that never lets you down.

Chalet School Apple Cake

My Chalet School Apple Cake as laid out in Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer

This book mixes the joy of the many, many summer vacations that I spent tucked in a corner reading away with the very adult discovery of my love for food and cooking. It made me recall how much Fatty (from the Five Find Outers and Dog) loves macaroons and what a gourmand Snubby of the Roger, Diana, Barney, and Loony the dog gang is. It made me remember that I too “happily read all the German food references [in the Chalet School series] without understanding a word, and that this never once bothered me.” Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer made the stories of my childhood come alive in an all together new way.

I loved this book. However, it might not suit everyone’s palate. Brocket does nothing to balance the stereotypes encountered in the stories she talks about and if anything invokes a slight nobody-bakes-nourishing-treats-at-eleven-in-the-morning-anymore tone through the book. Which, as I said, might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

I really do believe in what Alana Chernila says in The Homemade Kitchen: “Enjoyment might just be a nutrient in itself—in fact, it might be the most important one of all.” This book was pure enjoyment for me. If you love food, or any of the authors that are covered in this book, you have to give it a try!

Adam Gopnik’s Winter

via Wired Science

via Wired Science

For the longest time I could not imagine how or why any poet would choose to write a paean to summer (or really any season for that matter). Indian summers are bristling, oppressive, and inconvenient and I’ve never found anything even vaguely poetic about them. Add to this the fact that for the last ten years I’ve experienced the four seasons as gradations of heat—hot, hotter and hottest is how I would describe the triumvirate of winter, monsoon and summer.

So you can perhaps understand my awe at living in a place that has seasons with not only clear-cut boundaries but also seasons that span the scale from 100 to 0 degrees Fahrenheit. This past year I’ve seen the trees around me bloom to life and then slowly wither away to stark bareness. It’s fascinating how life in all its forms adapts itself, or rather has to adapt itself to nature’s rhythm.

As winter slowly started poking its head out I found myself wanting to read more winter themed books. Adam Gopnik’s Winter appealed to me particularly. The subtitle is “Five Windows on The Season” and that’s exactly what it is—five essays on the season of Winter. I’ve finished just the first one so far and find myself enchanted with both Gopnik’s musings as well as his writing.

The first essay called “Romantic Winter” traces the very evolution of winter in our collective imagination for as Gopnik says:

We see and hear and sense in winter emotional tones and overtones that our great-great-grandfathers and grandmothers did not.

He posits that

The romance of winter is possible only when we have a warm, secure indoors to retreat to, and winter becomes a season to look at as much as to live through.

I love how Gopnik takes something as routine as a season and gives it layers that provoke thoughts. For instance, winter in the early 19th century became “a form of national self-assertion” by the Germans (and also the Russians) in the face of a little French aggression called Napoleon Bonaparte. He gives examples of how winter is “potently labile,” and has the capacity to allow both the “sublime” and the “picturesque” to bloom from its folds.

He goes on to talk about the subtle influence of the “Japanese aesthetic” with its sophisticated sensibility of a “stylish winter and stylish snow” on the musicians and artists from Europe in the late 19th century and that immediately put in mind the New Yorks and the Londons of today’s world with their Christmas décor and grand window displays. And that in turn made me think of history’s influence through time—of how subtle influences 150 years ago trickle down through time to become a cultural mainstay.

I thoroughly enjoyed his final analysis on how the progress in science and its demystification of “the vast, scary iceberg [that became] a sort of image of the über-soul, in the same period the tiny, sweet snowflake [came] to represent distinctiveness of the human personality” has not in any way taken away from the wonder and refuge that we humans continue to find in nature:

The nine-tenths of the iceberg sunk beneath the water simply follows a natural rule of physics and is not a peculiarity of glaciology. . . . Snowflakes, it seems, are not only alike, they usually start out more or less the same. It turns out that, while it’s true that snowflakes often start out alike, it is their descent from the clouds into the world that makes them alter. (“As a snowflake falls, it tumbles through many different environments. So the snowflake that you see on the ground is deeply affected by the different temperatures, humidities, velocities, turbulences, etc., that it has experienced on the way,” Australian science writer Karl Kruszelnicki writes.) Their different shapes are all owed to their different paths downwards. So snowflakes actually start off all alike; it is experience that makes each one just different enough to be noticed.

In a way, the passage from “Snowflake” Bentley to the new snowflake is typical of the way our vision of nature has changed over the past century . . . Romantics generally, believed in the one fixed and telling image. We later moderns believe in truths revealed over time—not what animals or snowflakes or icebergs really are, mystically fixed, but how they have altered to become what they are. . . . The sign at Starbucks should read “Friends Are Like Snowflakes: More Different and Beautiful Each Time You Cross Their Path in Our Common Descent.” [rather than saying, “Friends Are Like Snowflakes: Beautiful and Different] For the final truth about snowflakes is that they become more individual as they fall; that buffeted by wind and time, they are translated, as if by magic, into ever stranger and more complex patterns, until at last they touch the earth. Then, like us, they melt.