Monday, March 29, 2010


I have my daughter mincing apples. She keeps stopping to ask if the pieces are small enough yet. It takes a long time to mince the ingredients enough.

Will I have to do this again?

Yes, every year. Also tomorrow.

I have to do this tomorrow?

Don't worry, it will get easier after you learn to use the food processor.

I could have used the food processor??? Why didn't you tell me that?

You need to have the complete charoset-making experience, grasshopper.

Haven't you seen that show?

Is that from a show? What show is it from?

The Green Grasshopper Hour.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Portal to Heck!

I finished reading "Memoirs of Hecate County," by Edmund Wilson. Add a middle initial of "O" and you would have the name of a 20th century evolutionary biologist, but that would be an entirely different writer. I arrived at this book circuitously. The "Pet Shop Boys" have a song that includes the phrase "Finland Station" which google and wikipedia tell me is the name of a book about the precursors of the cold war. Without being clear on whether "Finland" was fiction or non fiction, I looked for it in a bookstore, and settled for "Hecate County", a collection of interconnected short stories, by the same author.

The writing style was very American. It reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe and F. Scott Fitzgerald. There is a first person narrator who alternates casual straightforward discussion of everyday life with concern that perilous supernatural forces may be at work, because what other reason could there be for the loneliness and ennui affecting everyone in his life. "Ellen Terhune" was the most Poe-like of the bunch. Our narrator stops by to see the title character and finds her sometimes his contemporary, sometimes herself at a younger age, and then, personifying one of her ancestors. The other stories don't rely on the fantastic, even the last one "Mr. and Mrs. Blackburn at Home" where he meets someone who may well be the devil, leaves plenty of room to think that he imagined it after a few too many drinks.

I found a note online erroneously claiming that "Hecate County" contained whole passages in Russian. This seems to refer to the "Blackburn" story which has one word with the Russian suffix "ka" and then a footnote to discuss why. What it does have is extensive use of of French. This starts slowly, a word or a phrase dropped into the English sentences. I muddled through this, not really seeing that it added anything to the story. In between, he comments in English on what was said, or on whether the style of French was sophisticated or provincial or old fashioned. As the sentences stretched out into paragraphs and then multiple pages, I started flipping them over to see where it ended. An afterword written by the author John Updike confessed that he hadn't read all of the French either.

"The Milhollands" story discussed the publishing industry. It showed how publishers began to use book clubs and newsletters to promote their products, and bemoaned the fact that what gets printed, and even what sells, may have minimal content. Ironically, the plot kind of fell apart in this one. I was expecting a snappy ending that never materialized.

"The Princess With the Golden Hair" seems to have attracted the most attention of the critics. Our hero is infatuated with a delicate damsel who lives in a castle-like home in the country. She flirts and he fantasizes that she can't possibly love her husband. He reluctantly admits to himself that as a writer and an art critic, he can't afford the kind of estate where some of his fellow Hecaters entertain, and that this diminishes his marriage potential. While spending the winter in New York city, our hero meets a dance-hall hostess who becomes the unacknowledged princess in his life. Her accessibility at first doesn't seem romantic, and her family life is frightening, but he finds himself growing very attached. Their class differences scare him. He runs back to the original damsel in the story, to find that while lovely, she is hopelessly neurotic, and firmly in love with her husband.

The New York Times published a scathing review in 1946.