Friday, August 31, 2007

The Eugene O'Neill Paradox

It feels sacrilegious, as an American playwright, to admit this, but I've never been able to muster much enthusiasm for Eugene O'Neill. For one, he is an extremely earnest and humorless writer, while my tastes tend more toward the sharp and wry. For another, I don't think he has a good ear for dialogue. He may have been "the first playwright to use true American vernacular in his speeches" (as says Wikipedia), but he does not delight in our pungent vernacular the way that Mark Twain or Preston Sturges do. O'Neill's vernacular mainly consists of writing all of his lower-class characters' dialect phonetically, which is extremely laborious to read:
Waal--I've had a hard life, too--oceans o' trouble an' nuthin' but wuk fur reward. I was a orphan early an' had t' wuk fur others in other folks' hums. Then I married an' he turned out a drunken spreer an' so he had to wuk fur others an' me too agen in other folks' hums, an' the baby died, an' my husband got sick an' died too, an' I was glad sayin' now I'm free fur once, on'y I diskivered right away all I was free fur was t' wuk agen in other folks' hums, doin' other folks' wuk till I'd most give up hope o' ever doin' my own wuk in my own hum, an' then your Paw come... (from Desire Under the Elms)
Compare this with Huckleberry Finn, which captures the idiosyncrasies of an uneducated boy's speech, but reads smoothly and suggests Huck's accent rather than spelling it all out:
Pap he hadn't been seen for more than a year, and that was comfortable for me; I didn't want to see him no more. He used to always whale me when he was sober and could get his hands on me; though I used to take to the woods most of the time when he was around. Well, about this time he was found in the river drownded, about twelve mile above town, so people said. They judged it was him, anyway; said this drownded man was just his size, and was ragged, and had uncommon long hair, which was all like pap; but they couldn't make nothing out of the face, because it had been in the water so long it warn't much like a face at all.
On the other side of the spectrum, O'Neill's "serious" dialogue easily becomes pompous and melodramatic. Ernest Hemingway was O'Neill's contemporary, but Hemingway's dialogue still sounds fresh and modern due to its understatement, while O'Neill's is often old-fashionedly florid. In the late 1920s, both authors invented women whose boyfriends were killed in World War I, before they ever had sex. Here is Hemingway's Catherine (from A Farewell to Arms) describing her reaction to her lover's death--stoic on the surface, but with a palpable underlying sorrow:
I was going to cut [my hair] all off when he died. [...] I wanted to do something for him. You see I didn't care about the other thing and he could have had it all. He could have had anything he wanted if I would have known. I would have married him or anything. I know all about it now. But then he went off to war and I didn't know. [...] I didn't know about anything then. I thought it would be worse for him. I thought perhaps he couldn't stand it and then of course he was killed and that was the end of it.
And here is O'Neill's Nina (from Strange Interlude):
What did I give him? It's what I didn't give! That last night before he sailed--in his arms until my body ached--kisses until my lips were numb--knowing all that night--something in me knowing he would die, that he would never kiss me again--knowing this so surely yet with my cowardly brain lying, no, he'll come back and marry you, you'll be happy ever after and feel his children at your breasts looking up with eyes so much like his, possessing eyes so happy in possessing you! (then violently) But Gordon never possessed me! I'm still Gordon's silly virgin! And Gordon is muddy ashes! And I've lost my happiness forever! All that last night I knew he wanted me. I knew it was only the honorable code-bound Gordon, who kept commanding from his brain, no, you mustn't, you must respect her, you must wait till you have a marriage license! (She gives a mocking laugh.)
I find this extract impossible to read without imagining the high-pitched tones of the melodramatic hysteric. (And this is just Act 1, mind you--there are still eight more acts to go! It is very difficult to begin a play on such a high emotional pitch and keep raising the stakes till the end. Plus it's exhausting for the audience.) Perhaps it would work onstage with a talented actress as Nina, but the writing seems to inhibit truthful, natural acting.

Strange Interlude brings up another problem: the play's innovation of having the characters speak their thoughts aloud is the antithesis of drama! As Walter Kerr points out in this review, it takes away the suspense, over-explaining what should be obvious from the dialogue and the characters' reactions, and constraining the actors by giving them motivations and inner lives rather than letting them discover things for themselves. And if it's hard to write good dialogue, it's even harder to write good soliloquies, and O'Neill doesn't succeed, too often falling prey to his over-the-top pseudo-profundity:
there's something in this room! … something disgusting! … like a brutal, hairy hand, raw and red, at my throat! … stench of human life! … heavy and rank! … outside it's April … green buds on the slim trees … the sadness of spring … my loss at peace in Nature … her sorrow of birth consoling my sorrow of death … something human and unnatural in this room! … love and hate and passion and possession! … cruelly indifferent to my loss! … mocking my loneliness! … no longer any love for me in any room! … lust in this room! … lust with a loathsome jeer taunting my sensitive timidities! … my purity! … purity? … ha! yes, if you say prurient purity! … lust ogling me for a dollar with oily shoe button Italian eyes!
Does your inner monologue sound like this?! Add in some hoary plot devices (which garnered laughs in the production Kerr saw) and no wonder I prefer Groucho Marx's parody of Strange Interlude to the real thing:

In short, because of O'Neill's phonetically spelled dialect, his spots of purple prose, and his penchant for inserting a stage direction before every line (which, like the "spoken thoughts" of Strange Interlude, make things seem mechanical and constrained), I find it very hard to enjoy his work, or even to read it. But I thought, "Maybe I would like O'Neill better if I saw his plays onstage. But where can you see them, nowadays? Hardly anyone produces them!"

And then I thought that it might all be a paradox, or a vicious circle: even if O'Neill's plays work onstage, maybe no one produces them because they do not hold up well on the page. And because no one produces O'Neill, we lose the ability to read his plays as they should be read, to see them as they should be seen...

Sunday, August 26, 2007

How to Get Marissa's Attention

If any of the following elements are present in a book or article, you can be sure that it'll get my attention:
  • Playwrights, especially female playwrights
  • France or the French
  • Behind-the-scenes political intrigue
  • Larger-than-life personalities
So you can imagine my excitement when there's something in the news combining all four of these topics!

Playwright Yasmina Reza got behind-the-scenes access to Nicolas Sarkozy's presidential campaign and just published a book about it, L'Aube le soir ou la nuit (Dawn, Evening or Night). New York Times article here, some clunkily translated excerpts here.

I think I'm going to want to read this one in French, especially if the English translation is as bad as what the Times just published. After all, it has "dialogue of which the theater could be jealous"! Wow!

Friday, August 24, 2007

Happy Birthday, Frederica Potter

Skinny, red-haired Frederica is said to resemble the young Queen Elizabeth. Or perhaps Cate Blanchett as the young Elizabeth? Photos from and

If Frederica Potter were a real person and not a fictional character, she'd turn 72 years old today--August 24, St. Bartholomew's Day. (Here in the real world, her creator A.S. Byatt turned 71.) Earlier I threatened a big post about Frederica, and what better day to write it? She's my new favorite heroine, and as you see, I've been thinking a lot about the quartet of books in which she appears. Here I'll focus mostly on the first two books, The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life, because in them Frederica plays a bigger part and is closest to my age, so I can relate to her better.

Frederica feels so real and recognizable to me, yet she is very different from the typical coming-of-age-story heroine. When Jane Austen created Emma, she called her "a heroine whom no one but myself will much like," and I imagine Byatt saying the same about Frederica. If anything, Frederica is even less sympathetic than Emma: at least Emma thinks she's helping people by meddling in their lives, but Frederica is only out for herself. I don't mean she's immoral--but others often describe her as "prickly" or "grim" or even "awful." She is competitive and arrogant, she doesn't have a true female friend until she is in her thirties, and despite all that, I love her.

If there's one quote that sums up Frederica, it's this, which could be my motto, too:
ALEXANDER: Can't you just be in a place, Frederica?
FREDERICA: No. I think. I have to think. (Still Life 84)
My post below about laminations gives you some idea of Frederica's overactive mind. She reads incessantly and loves to opine about her reading to others. (Sound familiar?) And a scene in Babel Tower proves that the worst thing you can do to a woman like Frederica (short of hurting her or someone she loves) is to burn up her book collection. In high school, Frederica is the top student and feels she obviously deserves it: "She knew the teachers did not like her, but justice required that she come first on any academic list, and it was the duty of those who made the lists to represent whilst they made them, abstract justice" (Virgin 70). In fact, at 17 she is a raging egotist: "[She] clearly believed herself to be a genius, and expressed this belief [...] grossly and stridently” (134).

Still, Frederica gains a measure of sympathy when it becomes clear that her unpleasant, arrogant behavior masks a deep insecurity. She is ashamed to be a virgin from "provincial" Yorkshire, lacking female friends. The conventionally pretty and sweet-natured high school girls reject her, so to avoid feeling hurt, she convinces herself she's superior to them. She is probably jealous of her older sister Stephanie, who is just as smart but much more pleasant, and feels superior to Stephanie's housewifely ambitions too. Frederica's fullest expression of her insecurities and defense mechanisms comes toward the end of The Virgin in the Garden: "I’m sorry. I only grate on people’s nerves because I don’t know what to do, I don’t fit in anywhere, I’m not seen, for all I flaunt myself so" (409). Frederica believes she is very special and valuable, but since no one else thinks of her that way, her self-confidence becomes shaky. Because how can a girl destined for such greatness be so awkward and unpopular in the here-and-now?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Compartmentalize or Only Connect?

One big theme of the Frederica Potter quartet is interconnection--Byatt takes a multidisciplinary approach to her subject, frequently alludes to other works of art, entwines her characters' relationships in surprising ways, etc. Her brain just seems to work this way--and so does Frederica's, and so does mine. But there's more to it than that, because running through the Quartet is also a theme about how these perceived connections can make you go crazy, and the only way to live in the fragmented modern world is to take it one fragment at a time. Byatt/Frederica calls this "laminations"-- layering thoughts side-by-side instead of letting them tangle.

Frederica develops this theory in a brilliant chapter of The Virgin in the Garden called "The Traveler in Dolls." At 17, she is intensely self-conscious and angry that she is still a virgin, and everything seems to remind her of that: her sister just got engaged; she's reading Racine's sexually charged play Phedre; she had a fumbling sexual encounter with a stranger, who told her a dirty story; she just stumbled upon her crush and his girlfriend in the back of a car; she's on the Yorkshire moors, which inevitably recall the passion of Wuthering Heights; and the last straw is the really phallic-looking church steeple in the distance. She feels like everything is conspiring against her, trapping her in a symbolic pattern. She has to tell herself "Wait. The fact that I'm reading Racine has nothing to do with that that steeple, or with my sister's's just a coincidence." And she realizes "one could let all these facts and things lie alongside one another like laminations, not like growing cells. This laminated knowledge produced a powerful sense of freedom, truthfulness and even selflessness, since the earlier organic and sexual linking by analogy was undoubtedly selfish. It was she [...] who had linked these creatures to each other out of her own necessity" (209-10).

This really resonates with me, because I, too, can convince myself that the world is trying to tell me something, and see only the evidence that confirms my perception. As Byatt says of another character, I have "a Jungian interest in coincidence." I get tickled by the little ones--like, today I was walking down the street trying to remember the lyrics to a Bob Dylan song, and I passed by a guy carrying a book on Dylan. But the bigger ones can drive me crazy, as they do Frederica. One day last month I felt like my life was looping back and folding in on itself, since I was working at JAW and reading Harry Potter, and two summers ago I was doing the same thing, and there are sections of Portland where every street corner holds a memory for me (Portland has a small downtown so everything clusters together), and I won't get into all of it, but I felt like I was trapped in the overlapping patterns of my life thus far. I had to stop, and pull out a notepad, and write that the world felt "unbearably weighty." And then I remembered Frederica, my new heroine, and thought I should learn how to "laminate" my life too.

I'm still not sure of Byatt's true message about connection vs. compartmentalization: her prose style links everything up into big patterns, but her characters suffer if they think that life holds a pattern for them. Byatt has fun devising appropriate character names (e.g. Frederica's violent, macho husband is surnamed Reiver, which means "plunderer") but tragic consequences occur in A Whistling Woman when Joshua Ramsden/Lamb thinks that his name foretells his destiny. I can't decide whether this is a contradiction and a flaw, or whether there is some way to resolve the two positions. Should I try to connect these opposing viewpoints? Or let them lie side by side as laminations?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Still Life, Persona, and Meta-Art

I thought some more about A.S. Byatt's Still Life and realized the things I don't like about it are the same things I don't like about Ingmar Bergman's film Persona. That is, in the middle of a perfectly absorbing story rooted in human psychology, the author/filmmaker inserts herself/himself to point up the artifice of it all. It feels jarring--and yes, that's the point, to "shock us out of our complacency," but sometimes I like being complacent in the face of a good narrative, OK?

What annoys me even more is that these metafictional elements often win these works of art their greatest praise. One critic wrote of Still Life: "Among the best new novels I've ever read. (...) Byatt, at last, shows that a novel can think about itself without resorting to nervous Borgesian paper-puzzles, tricks, tics" (citation). Woody Allen called "the opening montage of Persona" and "the chutzpah to stop the engrossing story at intervals and let the actors explain to the audience what they are trying to do with their portrayals" "moments of showmanship at its best" (citation). These statements irk me because they imply that a work of art is automatically brilliant if it makes reference to the fact that it is a work of art. Does that mean these critics wish every work of art had a metafictional twist?

A great theme, by itself, is not enough to make a great work of art. For example, film scholars adore Rear Window because it's a metaphor for how movie-watching appeases our secret voyeuristic desires. That's true, but misses the larger point. If Hitchcock had made a movie with the theme "character's voyeurism implicates the audience's voyeurism," but it was poorly paced or badly acted or just plain dull, it would not be a brilliant film in the same way that Rear Window is a brilliant film. This hypothetical movie might be "smart," its theme might provoke discussion, but if its aesthetic qualities weren't good, it would be forgotten two weeks later. Meanwhile, the craft and narrative of the real Rear Window strengthen its point about the seductive lure of watching. It comments on itself, but much more organically than Persona does.

I should perhaps give Bergman the benefit of the doubt: maybe his meta-games were truly shocking, innovative and ingenious at the time (though don't they descend from Brecht's alienation effect?). But it's 80 years after Pirandello and 50 years after Borges: the time has come to either go a lot further in our metafictional experiments, or to give them up. Nowadays, meta gestures, no matter how stale, are just something that artists know will get their work called "smart" and thus "worthy"--cheap shortcuts to critical success. Or, they're an easy way of inserting ideas into a narrative without properly establishing and dramatizing them. For instance, it's hard to write exposition, but these days, you don't even need to try: just baldly state the necessary information, interspersed with jokes about how hard it is to write exposition. Cf. Urinetown, The Little Dog Laughed, Orson's Shadow--and more.

Oh, but there's always a flipside. How can I rail against meta-art when I've already admitted to loving Rear Window--and Adaptation and Borges and Arrested Development besides? Well, it's all subjective, but I feel like the self-referential qualities in these works don't disrupt their rhythms the way that Persona's or Still Life's do. For instance, you're always aware that Adaptation is just a movie and the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is not the same as the character Charlie Kaufman, but the movie never needs to explicitly state this. These works of art expect you to be smart enough to identify the meta games that underlie their entire structure, rather than alternating passages of straight narrative with passages of the author's metafictional commentary.

In short, a great work of narrative art must, in addition to its themes, have great craftsmanship that will dramatize these themes and make them feel organic to the composition. Only in this way will we create art instead of essays, polemics, or propaganda.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Summer Reading: The Frederica Potter Quartet

Two nights ago I finished my other summer reading goal (mentioned here): A.S. Byatt's Frederica Potter Quartet. Actually, I read the first book, The Virgin in the Garden, last March, and the others, Still Life, Babel Tower, and A Whistling Woman, this summer. I'll probably get several blog postings out of the series: because I enjoyed it so much; because it's so dense with character, incident, allusion, and commentary (and nearly 2000 pages total); and because in my opinion people don't talk enough about it! Earlier this summer The Sheila Variations did a big series of posts about Byatt, including reviews and excerpts of the first three Frederica novels... this is a great resource and made me excited to read more Byatt!

I'll begin by simply describing and discussing the series and its books. Basically, the Quartet looks at England from 1953 to 1970, centering on Frederica Potter (aged 17 when the story begins), her family and friends. I have no idea how autobiographical the series is supposed to be, but there are certainly similarities between Frederica and her creator, A.S. Byatt--they share a birthday (though Frederica is a year older), they are both from Yorkshire, they went to Cambridge when it was rare for a woman to do so, etc. Frederica is not the most likable character--others often perceive her as pushy or irritating or superficial--but I am actually quite fond of her. I feel like I often have "Frederica moments."

In the first book, The Virgin in the Garden, it's 1953, and Elizabeth II is about to be crowned, and up in Yorkshire they are producing a big outdoor play about the life of the first Queen Elizabeth, written by a man named Alexander Wedderburn. Frederica fancies herself madly in love with Alexander (who is probably twice her age) and is thrilled when she gets cast as the young Elizabeth. Much of the novel takes place backstage, and I have to say, Byatt completely gets what theater people are like. Though the characters are British people from a half-century ago, they are totally recognizable to anyone who's hung around actors. For this reason alone--a character like Frederica in a setting like the theater--I loved the book. Meanwhile, Frederica's siblings are also learning about sex and love. Stephanie (calm, pleasant, a few years out of college) falls in love with Daniel Orton, an intense, big-boned clergyman. Marcus (about 15 years old and very awkward--he seems to have Asperger's, though this is never stated) gets into a dangerous relationship with a mentally disturbed teacher named Lucas Simmonds. Their stories did not resonate with me as much as Frederica's did, and I thought Byatt sometimes strained for metaphorical or other significance. Still, even though The Virgin in the Garden seems plotless at first, it's actually based around some compelling narrative questions. Will Stephanie actually marry Daniel? What is Lucas Simmonds doing with Marcus? And, to whom will Frederica lose her virginity?

Maybe the second book's title, Still Life, should have tipped me off that it would have less of a plot. It's the shortest of the four books, but for me, it felt the loosest and least compelling. The other books in the Quartet follow disparate plotlines with increasing urgency, until they all draw closer together and come to a head. Still Life doesn't do that--instead, Byatt-as-narrator breaks in to discuss the philosophy and representation of color, metaphor and language, Vincent and Theo Van Gogh, her own goals in writing this novel, etc. I find this irritating and pretentious--or at least, poorly dramatized. Still, I love all the characters, and the individual steps of their journeys are often well done. Frederica goes to Cambridge and is in her element, surrounded by books, learning, and young men. But life is harder for Stephanie, who struggles with the old work vs. family conundrum. *SPOILERS* In lieu of a really well-built climax, Byatt kills Stephanie off in a freak accident (she's electrocuted by an un-grounded refrigerator--the perfect death for a reluctant housewife). I resented feeling like this sympathetic character was killed to make a point about the status of women, as well as to make Frederica distraught enough to marry her current boyfriend, the wealthy "man's man" Nigel Reiver. Also, Still Life introduces a lot of characters who become important in the next two books, but don't have much of a function in this one (e.g. charismatic minister Gideon Farrar). In the scheme of the Quartet, this novel feels like a placeholder.

The next book, Babel Tower, though, comes roaring out of the gate and doesn't let up. It has the strongest plot, the most at stake, and the fiercest questions animating it. We jump forward in time to the mid-sixties: Frederica now has a 4-year-old son, Leo, and is chafing under her husband's control. In the longest chapter of the Quartet, Nigel becomes physically abusive and Frederica and Leo run off to "Swinging" London. There, Frederica seeks a job, a divorce, and custody of her son--not easy, because this is before the days of no-fault divorce. Meanwhile, a derelict man named Jude Mason has published a book called Babbletower, which gets put on trial for obscenity. Excerpts from Jude's story weave in and out of Byatt's--it's about a utopian community that degenerates into a Sadeian nightmare, and the question is whether its literary merit outweighs its gruesomeness. Personally, I think it's great, and gutsy: a fable about the dangers of unlimited freedom, a kind of warning to the 1960s idealists. It also brings in the big theme of "group behavior," which continues to the end of the series. (It's even present in the earlier novels, though not as obviously. The backstage scenes of Virgin are all about group behavior!)

Anyway, Frederica's divorce trial and Jude's obscenity trial coincide, along with the hippie/mod mid-sixties, resulting in a really big, explosive novel about freedom, censorship, individuality, and society. Another major theme of Babel Tower, and the Quartet, is interconnectedness. Not only does Byatt love symbolic patterns and interdisciplinary allusions, the characters' relationships are also tangled. For instance, Frederica's brother-in-law, Daniel, answers phones for a crisis hotline, which Jude Mason keeps calling, and Daniel's boss and Jude are both published by Frederica's boss...

Frederica takes a lesser role in A Whistling Woman, the complex interrelationships of her friends and acquaintances coming to the fore. In terms of intellectual concerns, this novel pays new attention to the social and natural sciences. Much of it takes place at the University of North Yorkshire, which is touting a multidisciplinary approach and planning a conference on Body and Mind (another theme that runs through the Quartet). Byatt, too, takes a multidisciplinary approach to the late '60s: the university conference and Frederica's pop-intellectual talk show allow her to analyze things from a variety of perspectives. Meanwhile, the themes of group behavior and individual freedom continue from Babel Tower. A group of hippie students is agitating for an "anti-university," and a religious cult is forming nearby. One of my favorite parts of A Whistling Woman involves Brenda Pincher, a sociologist who pretends to be a cult member but is actually there to observe how cults form. Brenda's letters to a colleague get increasingly paranoid and desperate; this, and other events, build up the tension in the same way that Babel Tower did.

As you can see, the books get more complex and harder to summarize as the Quartet goes on, and by the end of it, your head can really spin with all that Byatt has crammed in there. Still, I think my two favorite books--The Virgin in the Garden and Babel Tower--can stand on their own; Virgin because it's the first entry and Babel Tower because it is so different from, and so much better than, the book that preceded it. A Whistling Woman is a good and satisfying conclusion, but I wouldn't recommend it if you haven't at least read Babel Tower first. Still Life is a must if you want to get the most out of the series, and there are some great scenes in it, some good observations, but ultimately it wasn't compelling enough for me. (Byatt has much more to say about the '60s than the '50s.) Still, at least one person thinks it's the best of Byatt's novels, and if it's not explosive like the other three, it--as its title suggests--is quiet and contemplative, and perhaps I'll like it better when I reread it. As I surely will, sometime. It will take much more than one reading to wrestle with all the ideas that Byatt has put into her Quartet.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Weekend Inspiration: Liz Putnam

NBC Nightly News' inspirational "Making a Difference" segment tonight highlighted a woman who certainly deserves it: Liz Titus Putnam, who graduated from Vassar in 1955 and immediately founded the Student Conservation Association. The SCA is still active today, recruiting high school and college kids to work in national parks. Click here to watch the segment (I can't figure out how to embed it in my blog).

The SCA grew out of Putnam's Vassar thesis. Evidently, Vassar was one of the first American colleges to offer courses in environmentalism; Putnam took one and became inspired. She created her own major (another cutting-edge Vassar thing) in "Conservation" and became dismayed at the lack of opportunity for young people in the '50s to actually do something to help the environment. So she proposed helping out the understaffed Park Service by letting young people work as rangers, etc., for a summer. The Park Service gratefully took to the idea, and an organization was born. This inspirational interview tells the whole story.

Two years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Liz Putnam when she was at Vassar co-chairing her 50th reunion and I was working as a reunion assistant. We assistants were consistently impressed with her organizational skills, warmth, enthusiasm, and joie de vivre. When we attend our 50th reunion, we can only hope to be as cool as Liz and her husband were. Obviously, working with young people has kept Liz young at heart, and you can tell that she genuinely cares not only about the environment and conservation, but also about the students in her program.

Congratulations, Liz, on 50 years of the SCA!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Update: Authentic Thai Food Found in PDX!

In last night's entry, I wondered where I could ever get real, non-Americanized Thai food here in the States...turns out, it was much easier than I expected. Pok Pok Thai/Whiskey Soda Lounge won the Oregonian's Restaurant of the Year award a few months ago, and their mission is to bring authentic Thai street food to Portland. And tonight, I paid a visit.

It's perfect--exactly what Jeffrey Steingarten describes in his "Thailand" essay. There are very few noodle dishes on the menu, because those are actually more Chinese than Thai. You eat not with chopsticks (also Chinese) but with your fingers, or using a fork to push food onto a spoon. Steingarten makes a big deal of how the Thais blend their ingredients in a mortar and pestle, and that's what "pok pok" means--it's onomatopoetic!

I started out with the house limeade, and even that epitomized the mix of flavors that characterize genuine Thai food. It wasn't just a basic sugary-tart lime confection. There was salt in it as well, and that brought out the deeper flavors of the lime (as in a margarita).

Pok Pok made their reputation as a food cart serving perfectly roasted, juicy game hens. We shared half a hen, and it was very good--especially if you made sure to eat some of the lemongrass mixture that was rubbed into its cavity. If I lived in Southeast PDX, it might become my new comfort food. But aside from the lemongrass, it didn't really taste Asian or have that complexity of Thai flavors I was seeking. I was ready for something more complicated.

And that was the signature green papaya salad. I don't even know what green papayas are supposed to taste like (and dislike red-orange papayas when I've tried them) but what with the fish sauce, peanuts, lime, tamarind, tomatoes, and dried shrimp, it makes a delicious Thai dish, hitting the four-point "sweet-sour-salty-hot" flavor profile.

We also had two meat "salads," one of sliced flank steak, one of boar chunks; they had chili, lime, garlic, cilantro, and other flavors in common. One was nearly perfect; the other had mint in it, which I tend not to like--I usually think it overpowers everything else, and not in a good way. As a palate cleanser, the boar also came with "chilled mustard greens," and Pok Pok means that literally--the greens arrived on a plate below a heap of ice cubes!

We had this all with sticky rice, which you break off in chunks and eat with your fingers. I'm used to so-called sticky rice being wet and pasty; but this stuff was dry and clumped up nicely into cakes, with no messiness.

Now, I'm still going to appreciate inexpensive pad thai as a healthy, filling lunch, or massaman curry on a cold rainy day... but my culinary world has just been expanded.

Pok Pok Thai/Whiskey Soda Lounge is at 3226 SE Division St. See also the review at PDX Food and Drink, which also includes a Thai Food Primer covering many of the same points that Jeffrey Steingarten does.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Summer Reading: Jeffrey Steingarten

I'll admit it, I semi-regularly read Vogue magazine... to feel chic, to learn what's fashionable this year, to find out if I can ever acquire a veneer of classic style (not unless I marry someone really rich and/or aristocratic, it seems), to see gorgeous pictures like this one:

(Pretty! But I think the colors were even better on the printed page)

or, alternatively, to make fun of pictures like this one:

in which the two Masai warriors on the left are obviously pointing at the camera and talking about how stupid the whole thing is: "Wait. So we've lived on this savannah for thousands of years, and all they care about is this skinny white girl? Oh, and if we're talking fashion, our shawls beat her ridiculous skirt, any day."

But the section of Vogue from which I derive the most reliable pleasure is its food column, written by Jeffrey Steingarten. Steingarten is a serious, food-obsessed gourmand, and I find that more understandable and more accessible than being fashion-obsessed. Sometimes you get the impression that the fashion writers at Vogue scorn anyone who spends less than $500 on a handbag or $25 on a lipstick, but Steingarten is more democratic than that. He'll extol 3-star Parisian restaurants, but also great street food, roast chicken, even Milky Way bars!

Or, to put it simply: I feel more akin to someone who writes "Do you go through phases where you simply can't get pizza off your mind? I certainly do" than to someone who thinks I care about fashion advice from "Quinn Jackson, who's fifteen and loves [clothes by] Chloé" (actual quote from August's Vogue).

So when I discovered a collection of Steingarten's columns called It Must've Been Something I Ate on sale at Powell's, I snapped it up. It contains 38 Vogue pieces, mostly from 1997-2001.

Steingarten's typical shtick is to go on an elaborate quest for the "perfect" method of cooking a dish, or other culinary secrets. The first essay has him catching his own bluefin tuna for toro sushi. He also destroys his oven trying to get it hot enough for pizza crust; taste-tests 13 different salts and "maybe $4000 worth of caviar"; roasts dozens of chickens and geese and makes one Turducken; and hunts in the far corners of butcher shops for ingredients for pot au feu, coq au vin, and boudin noir. Then, he has the talent to write it all up in hilarious style, emphasizing the lengths to which he has gone for his culinary art. Another of his comedy methods is to apply gourmet judgment in a situation where it seems excessive, as in "The Man Who Cooked For His Dog" (asking renowned French chefs what to feed his golden retriever puppy) and "Wilderness Enow!" (debating what foods to bring on a backpacking trip). And "Taro Taro Taro" uses the time-honored comic device of pain and humiliation, as Steingarten and his wife nearly get poisoned by a leafy garnish.

If I was blurbing this book, I might just say "I laughed a lot, I learned a lot." As a newbie chef, I appreciate knowing why a certain cooking method works better than another--something Steingarten teaches me but cookbooks don't. And since I've always felt clueless at steakhouses, I loved the 24-page analysis of quality steak: cuts, marbling, aging methods, etc. I also liked the thorough dissections of salt, espresso, caviar, and Parmesan cheese. His essay on genuine Thai food was so enthusiastic, and everything sounded so savory, that I feel like I must find a non-Americanized Thai restaurant (good luck!). And I'm annoyed I didn't have this book six months ago, so I could try all his favorite Paris boulangeries.

Recipes are included with 1/3 or 1/2 of the essays. A lot of them are really complicated, asking for strange equipment (e.g. a baking stone) or endless cooking time and ingredients (the coq au vin recipe is nearly 6 pages long and requires about 4 days of planning and cooking). Perfection doesn't come easy! Still, I plan to make his Parisian hot chocolate and his "perfect" gratin dauphinois sometime. I am also tempted by the carne asada tacos and salsa (perhaps not the tortillas, though), some of the desserts, and his method for cooking steaks in a cast-iron skillet.

One of Steingarten's biggest pet peeves is people who claim to be allergic to ingredients that they don't like or are mistakenly paranoid about. In one chapter, he discovers that most people are not affected by MSG; he also reveals that lactose-intolerant people can eat cheese, and no one, least of all the FDA, should fear unpasteurized cheese. The day after I began It Must've Been Something I Ate, I had the chance to put this spirit into action. I was at a bed-and-breakfast and the innkeeper set a hearty slice of cantaloupe in front of me. I've never liked melons and didn't feel like starting now, so I politely told him "No, thank you."

"Oh, you're allergic?" he said. "You should have warned me!"

"No, I'm just not particularly fond of cantaloupe," I replied. In that moment, I felt like Jeffrey Steingarten would have been proud of me, if only he was there to share the meal (which, aside from the cantaloupe, was delicious).

Photos from

Monday, August 13, 2007

August: Clackamas County

I've got two more weeks before I go back to school, the crickets are chirping outside my window as though counting down to the end of summer, and this post is titled in tribute to a new play, August: Osage County, which seems to be creating quite a furor in Chicago.

I mean, Charles Isherwood even raved about it--a rare occurrence! And I am completely intrigued. First of all, by the sheer size--13 actors, 3 acts, 3 hours 20 minutes--a canvas that hardly any American playwright uses anymore. How many plays have had 13 cast members recently? The Kentucky Cycle? Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play? I'm looking forward to the complexity of human relationships afforded by having more than 5 or 7 cast members.

Second, I'm curious whether and how playwright Tracy Letts has done something original with his subject matter. Can a play that incorporates "drug abuse, alcoholism, adultery, pedophilia, emotional and physical abuse, and special bonus horror: incest!" rise above the shock value of those elements, escape the trappings of cheap melodrama and soap opera, and actually say something? Isherwood calls it "more a potboiler than a heart-scouring tragedy," and compares it to Martin McDonagh's style of ultra-violent ultra-black comedy...but I'm a fan of that. I'm actually glad that Isherwood says it is "ferociously enjoyable," rather than an entirely serious and melodramatic consideration of Important Issues.

As Isherwood's review proves, the classic American plays have always been about families--larger-than-life families. And there haven't been many larger-than-life characters on the American stage recently, I feel. Rabbit Hole is about a family, but they're everyday, relatable people going through a crisis--not dramatic personalities in their own right. The makeshift family of Angels in America are some of the last American stage characters that have become iconic figures. And I never get urges to write plays about families--perhaps because I'm an only child. Does this mean I'll have a harder time creating iconic characters or dramatic situations? (Aristotle would have you believe that the only possible plays are about families!) So I'm excited to see or read this dysfunctional-family drama, and meet what may be the newest additions to the list of iconic American characters.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Gee, Officer Ramone

It's not just tight jeans and leather jackets they have in common. West Side Story photo from Ramones photo from

Took a road trip this week, tooling down the Columbia River Gorge listening to a Ramones compilation CD. It's only recently that I got into the Ramones; for a long time, I avoided them. I'd always heard them described as "loud," "tough," "punk," "attitudinal," etc.--and I have delicate sensibilities! But what no one ever told me is that, deep down, the Ramones are pop. I love how they take chords, choruses, and other motifs from old girl-group and bubblegum pop, rev them up and play them with a gleeful irony. They may be loud and tough, but their songs are always catchy-melodic and their playing always precise. They may sing "Beat on the brat with a baseball bat," but you never honestly believe that they are going to break into your nice suburban neighborhood and beat up your kids, the way you fear that death-metalheads will kidnap your children and use them in satanic rituals.

I'm surely not the first person to mention the pop antecedents of the Ramones--for instance, that the first two lines of "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" virtually copy the Beach Boys' "Fun Fun Fun." But I bet I am the first person to hear the song "We're a Happy Family" and say "It's just like 'Gee, Officer Krupke' from West Side Story!"

Stylistically and thematically, the two songs are close cousins. In both, tough New York street kids sing about their hilariously messed-up family lives in a tone of faux innocence. The Jets interject "Golly Moses!" and "Leapin' lizards!" and pretend they're blameless. The Ramones insist "We're a happy family!" despite all evidence to the contrary.

Here's some excerpts from Action and the Jets (via Stephen Sondheim):
Our mothers all are junkies,
Our fathers all are drunks.
Golly Moses, natcherly we're punks!

Dear kindly Judge, your Honor,
My parents treat me rough.
With all their marijuana,
They won't give me a puff.

My father is a bastard,
My ma's an S.O.B.
My grandpa's always plastered,
My grandma pushes tea.
My sister wears a mustache,
My brother wears a dress.
Goodness gracious, that's why I'm a mess!
And here are Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee and Tommy:
Sitting here in Queens
Eating refried beans
We're in all the magazines
Gulpin' down thorazines

We ain't got no friends
Our troubles never end
No Christmas cards to send
Daddy likes men

Daddy's telling lies
Baby's eating flies
Mommy's on pills
Baby's got the chills

I'm friends with the President
I'm friends with the Pope
We're all making a fortune
Selling Daddy's dope
I doubt this similarity is intentional--more likely it's just something in the New York City air and attitude. I've heard the Ramones called the first urban rock band. And West Side Story might have been the first urban (as opposed to urbane) musical. You can hear it in both these songs.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Summer Reading: The Harry Potter Septet

In honor of the final Harry Potter book's publication, I reread the whole series as my big summer reading project. Actually, the project has a second component: I call it "Harry Potter and Frederica Potter," as I am also reading A.S. Byatt's Frederica Quartet. The combination becomes even funnier when you realize that A.S. Byatt can't stand Harry Potter.

Me, I'm one of those kids who grew up with Harry. I read the first book at age 11 1/2, when I was a fantasy-book nerd. (The previous Halloween, I'd even dressed in a homemade wizard's cape.) So I can't credit my love of reading to him, as some can, and I no longer read much fantasy, but I'll always have a soft spot for Harry. The end of the series is almost like the end of my childhood: will I ever read books like this again until I have children of my own?

What follows are my thoughts on each book, gleaned from my summer's reading. SPOILERS for all, naturally.

Books 1 and 2 are kids' books--smart, exciting and captivating kids' books, but no more than that. Nowadays it seems fashionable to call them the "worst" of the series. But to get so popular, they had to have done something right--and they did, creating a detailed and appealing world. Every kid wants to discover that he is special, that the people he lives with are not his true family, and his real parents were famous and heroic--every kid wants to go to wizard school! Rowling enhances the experience with a wealth of details--names of spells, shops, famous wizards. (In all this, I agree with A.S. Byatt, though unlike her, I can't see why it's so terrible.) As a precocious 11-year-old, I got a kick out of Rowling's witty allusions, such as an intelligent woman named "Minerva." The adventures are suspenseful, even if in Book 1 the words "Sorcerer's Stone" aren't mentioned till page 219 of a 309-page book, and Book 2 takes too long rehashing Harry's situation for people who haven't read the first book. I still think Book 2 is pretty weak, what with the unspeakably annoying house-elf Dobby, the lurid monster-movie tone, and Hermione out of order during the climax. Still, by this point, Rowling has begun to demonstrate her gift for characterization. Gilderoy Lockhart is a hoot, Dumbledore's nutty sense of humor subverts and humanizes the archetypal "wise old wizard," and we've become attached to Harry, Ron, Hermione, Hagrid...

Luckily, when I first read the series, I didn't have much time to reflect on how bad Book 2 was, since Book 3 came out a few months later, and everything became much more expansive, and much better. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is just a great novel: longer than the first two books but not over-stuffed, consistently suspenseful and well-plotted (the Time-Turner climax is smart and thrilling), darker in tone but still with good jokes. Most importantly, it adds a new note of ambivalence into the series. Books 1 and 2 end with unequivocal triumphs for Harry. In book 3, he triumphs in rescuing Sirius and Buckbeak, but fails to prevent Peter Pettigrew's escape. This event (and his earlier decision to save Peter's life rather than letting Sirius kill him) is literally the turning point of the series. Had Peter not escaped, Voldemort might never have risen again, and certainly not in the same way, at the same time.

For the first time in Prisoner of Azkaban, we meet Harry's parents' friends, which adds a multi-generational component to the saga. And the adult characters are more complex than ever before, which makes the climax so intriguing (despite the fact that Voldemort doesn't make a personal appearance, as he does in Books 1 and 2). Lupin is a genuinely kind and talented professor, but also a werewolf; Sirius is not a vicious murderer, but a persecuted innocent--and yet he is still vengeful and half-crazed from his time in Azkaban; Harry's dad and his friends were the coolest guys in school, but played vicious pranks on Snape; Snape's dislike of Harry now makes a little more sense, and he actually seems to have Harry's well-being in mind, trying to protect him from Sirius. And Ron's rat is actually an Animagus, Muggle-killer, Voldemort's most loyal servant, and a cringing coward! Even Voldemort becomes a bit more than a cartoonish Evil Guy: we see that he and his followers are capable of betraying old friends, killing Muggles cavalierly, blaming the innocent. And the dementors are scarier than the basilisk ever was. Byatt writes that "nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family," and maybe that was true in the first 2 books, but with Book 3, Harry's (and Rowling's) world starts to balloon out.

I read Book 4 (Goblet of Fire) when I was 13, at summer camp. I'll never forget being two chapters from the end when one of the counselors came into my room and told me to turn my light off, as it was way past bedtime! Nor will I forget being one of eight girls sprawled in one room as the sun set, all reading Harry Potter. Goblet of Fire is another great achievement. It provides some of my favorite set-pieces: the Quidditch World Cup, Triwizard Tournament, Rita Skeeter's interviews, the Yule Ball. (Soon I'm gonna do a post about Hermione Granger's finest moments, including the Ball and surrounding events. I have to--she's a smart-girl icon!) It is maybe a little long, and the explanation (Barty Crouch Jr. disguised as Moody) a little convoluted, but the shift to a darker tone is handled well (set up by Book 3), and you sense J.K. Rowling's grand design, as she brings back elements from earlier books. Who knew that Harry and Voldemort’s wands having the same core would be that important? Along with Book 3, Book 4 feels like the heart of the series.

Someone once told me that the way children's brains process books is very different from the way adults process them, and the dividing line comes at age 13. That's certainly true with me and Harry. By the time Order of the Phoenix came out, I was 16, I hadn't read a fantasy book in years, I was curious about Harry's fate but no longer consumed by it. And the first time I read Order of the Phoenix, I really didn't like it. So long (they made the margins smaller to fit more in, and it's still the longest book!), with Harry acting like a pissy adolescent for the duration. However, I've reread it twice, and each time I like it more. It makes sense for Harry to be moody--he's spent four books acting like an archetypal hero, well-adjusted and mature for his age, but anyone would snap after what he's been through. Moreover, I LOVE the continuation of the moral ambiguity: it's not just good vs. evil in this book, it's good vs. evil vs. fear and apathy (represented by the Ministry of Magic). The idea that bureaucratic incompetence, denial, and narrow-mindedness can be just as damaging as pure malicious evil is quite sophisticated. Umbridge is so deliciously loathsome, like something out of Dickens, and you cheer for Dumbledore’s Army against her.

As it stands now, Half-Blood Prince is my least favorite book. I don't have fond childhood memories of it, as I do of Books 1 and 2--and besides, those books at least work as children's literature, while I'm not sure Half-Blood Prince works at all. It has the weakest suspense plot of any book—the question of “What is Draco up to?” never gets significantly developed. In all of the other books, Harry finds clues that only make sense after the fact (e.g. he thinks Ginny’s behaving strangely in Book 2 because she has a crush on him, but really it’s because she’s possessed by Voldemort), but Half-Blood Prince doesn’t tie together so cleverly. Mainly, it's a conduit for information that will become important in the last book: Voldemort’s past, the Horcruxes, the budding romances, and whether Snape is good or evil. It’s a series of scenes rather than a complete plot. The last 100 pages are very fine, exciting, painful and sad, but the book takes too long getting there.

Fortunately, Deathly Hallows is one sustained burst of excitement. If the previous 6 books were school stories (and derive much of their appeal from that), this is a man-on-the-run story. It’s Harry Potter crossed with North by Northwest, very cinematic--Rowling's time dealing with the movie industry has been well spent. Book 6 suggests that she was getting a little sick of Hogwarts, so Book 7 solves that problem by taking place in Gringotts, the Ministry, Godric’s Hollow... And I was worried when Rowling introduced the important magical concept of Horcruxes halfway through the sixth book—such a big quest! So many to find and only one book left to do it!—but the pacing of Deathly Hallows is quite excellent. It also takes on the most mythic resonances of all the books, with its quest plot, three questers, three Hallows, retelling of a fairy tale, and the hero’s death and rebirth. And it’s great that Rowling found a way for Voldemort to get defeated, once again, by “Expelliarmus.” Rowling is obviously working hard to make her moral points—what with the Christian themes, Snape’s redemption, and the fact that Harry never kills—but it’s still satisfactory. She may be gunning for literary legitimacy by giving Deathly Hallows epigraphs from Aeschylus and William Penn, but the true epigraph of the whole series is that line from Oscar Wilde’s Salome: “The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.”

Finally, a word on Rowling’s style. No, she is no master of prose-–I don’t even want to count how many times she mentions Snape’s “curtains of greasy black hair”! (Then again, if we’re faulting her for this, shouldn’t we also fault Homer for “rosy-fingered dawn”?) But her jokes are consistently funny, she is very skilled at naming characters and objects, and she usually puts in just the right amount of detail. Most importantly, she is great at characterization and psychology. Her children talk and behave like real children at boarding school, and age believably as the story progresses. Though at first presenting us with seemingly uncomplicated, one-dimensional characters, she knows how to deepen them, reveal their flaws. Due to this, she stands head and shoulders above someone like Dan Brown, whose characters have bodies that rush around and minds that cogitate, but no souls, no backstories, no psychological motivation. Anyone who can keep us guessing for nearly 4000 pages as to whether Snape is good or evil knows how to tell a story! Unfortunately, Rowling's ear fails her in the last line, the hollow "All was well." I wish she'd stuck to her original idea, which she revealed on her Dateline interview: "Only those who Harry loved could see the lightning scar." It's a sentence that lingers in the mind far longer. But the series as a whole, it seems, will linger a long while yet.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Taking a glass at the Grand Hotel

This fall I am going to be writing a play set in 1934, and I'm getting a jump on my research this summer. It's fun: for the next month, I'm going watch lots of early '30s movies! So, some of my comments and thoughts about that era will probably pop up here at marissabidilla for the next several months.

My project started last night with Grand Hotel (1932). Not the greatest movie--everyone's acting style clashes, though I find that interesting from a historical standpoint. Joan Crawford's sassy modern girl was my favorite. And I wondered if there was any 1930s "stand up for the little guy" social commentary involved in the plot where bookkeeper Kringelein tells off the industrial magnate.

There was a hit musical version of Grand Hotel in the early '90s and everyone talks about its showstopping number, "We'll Take a Glass Together," so I sought it out on

Wow! I think what impresses me most is that it's showstopping, but it's simple. Too many musicals use elaborate sets or costumes or acrobatic choreography, but the magic just isn't there. Next to those kinds of trying-too-hard numbers, "We'll Take a Glass Together" is practically minimalist. It has just the right elements, in just the right combination:
  • The song itself is not the greatest thing I've ever heard, but the staging turns it from a simple paean to drinking into a moment that reveals character.
  • The "rubbadub, rubbadub!" backing vocals are terrific
  • The focus is on two men, identically dressed but with very different physicalities and personalities. It's specific.
  • No elaborate sets--just a railing that functions as bar and barre. Economical!
  • No elaborate costumes for the chorus, either--maids, not showgirls
  • The choreography for the back-up dancers is mostly a very basic Charleston--it makes you want to get up and dance, rather than intimidating you--but because it's so tightly synchronized, it's impressive.
  • The back-up dancers are necessary to kick up the energy level, but they know not to distract from the lead characters in the foreground.
  • Because, most importantly, this dance is not just to entertain the audience. It's to help tell the story--to illustrate Kringelein's journey--to show his joy when he learns to let loose. And isn't storytelling what theatre is all about? "We'll Take A Glass Together" is a showstopper, sure. But it's not a spectacle.
  • Oh, and while part of me wishes the video quality were better, I also like how it makes Michael Jeter's dancing feet blur like in a "Roadrunner" cartoon. He's so happy, he's floating!