Monday, February 11, 2013

Damn you, nonfiction!

This is why I avoid nonfiction:  it makes me feel bad.  Even when it's good, and funny, or moving, or beautifully written, or evocative of far-away places where I really want to be, it just makes me feel, gosh this is embarrassing, JEALOUS.  Lord help me, I know it is deeply immature but I just can't get past it.  I also dislike it when it feels like academic work, but that was my topic last time.  

Two examples (both of I recommend despite the fact that they made me feel bad):

Mindy Kaling may claim that she looked like a dork as a kid - actually she doesn't have to claim it, see the snap on the back of the book, she did - but she looks terrific now as an adult.  And she's super smart, and has awesome friends, and a great job that she works really really hard at and that is obviously wildly fulfilling.  Goddammit, why can't we all have that?   Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns) (Three Rivers Press, 2011) isn't the angst-fest that the title suggests.  Rather, it's basically How Mindy Made It with funny stuff about her views on men and fashion and other stuff and you can learn some cool stuff about comedy writing and that she has really funny friends and that you'd never ever hang out without her.  Plus which, she is apparently the World's Greatest Daughter, and talks to her parents every day.  Every day!  While I could do without how she totally killed it in college (at Dartmouth, no less), I found her chapter on "When You're Not Skinny, This is What People Want You to Wear" to be crie du coeur, a call to arms, a manifesto for the could-lose-20-lbs. set. For the record, I don't think Mindy needs to lose any weight.  Rock on gal.  And also for the record, I do have friends, and I'm not an idiot, and I have a good job.  And I have an awesome husband and kids so suck on that, Mindy.  Then please hire me.

Now, Mindy talks of her quirky Indian-American upbringing as a vaguely outsider experience, but Luisa Weiss is in fact way more of an outsider.  And a whole lot more serious too.  The insensitive reader might say jeez, lighten up!  Daughter of an Italian mother and American father living in Berlin, Weiss has to figure out where she fits in after they divorce and Dad moves back to the States, and My Berlin Kitchen (Viking, 2012) is her chronicle of her efforts to find herself and love in the process. It's billed as a "love story" (so that is a red flag right there) "with recipes" because in addition to being totally cosmopolitan, she is also a budding food writer, creator of the popular blog "The Wednesday Chef" (blog titles:  italicized like books?  Just in quotes?) and the story is also that of her evolution from editor to writer.  Our heroine bounces back and forth, here and there between New York and Paris and Berlin with a lot of Italy thrown in, and she works through a couple of serious relationships and jobs but never quite feeling like she's found her place until she realizes that The One (the practically perfect in every way Max) and The City (Berlin) and The Job (writer) have been there all along.  Get it - watcher, controlled observer, on the fringe, moving to the center, letting go, taking a change and finding herself and her voice thanks in part to falling in love?  

Now look, divorce is unsettling, I completely relate to that.  And the sense of where am I from ergo who am I, well hello central concern of my life.  But I found myself just a little bit consumed with jealousy for someone who got into publishing and rode the blog wave successfully and travelled and married this wonderful fellow, in Italy, for chrissakes.  And I am supposed to feel her pain in all of this soul-searching?  They had fritto misto at their wedding!  Me likie, as Tina Fey would say.  

Yet reluctantly, I do get it.  Weiss ends up living in the Berlin she started in, which she paints as not quite a paradise but certainly a place where you, or I at least, would really really like to live.  It is full of deep family resonance for her but also lively and interesting and and forward-facing while existing if not comfortably then at least engaged with its history.  It is a place where there are lots of apartment building parties and fruit-picking and warm family get-togethers and much kaffee und kuchen which I think we could all do with more of.  It seems to be a place - and I don't remember this from Germany but I was young and my parents had their own take and it was a totally different city in the west - that takes family and neighbors and human connectivity and nature seriously.  I suppose everyone's reality is different, but I'll have what she's having.  

Each chapter has a recipe associated with it, and some are classically German - Quark cheesecake, rote grütze, Pflaumenkuchen - while others reflect her fabulous Italian heritage and even her dad's cooking.  I'll probably make some of these recipes, and yes, I've even checked out The Wednesday Chef and yes, it is worth following.  A teeny quibble is that Weiss uses the descriptors silky and slicked a little too much, words I'm tired of reading in food descriptions, but you know sometimes they work and generally evoke a tasty sense of whatever recipe or food experience she's discussing.  

So the point of all my kvetching here is to say that nonfiction sometimes gets a little close, and that's why I generally stay away from it.  Don't get me started on great romances or The Human Condition as a subject.  But you know, these are the books that are sticking around in my head right now. 

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