Saturday, June 10, 2023

Books and Movies: A Week Indoors

Avatar 2: A Lot of Blue People

I started watching this very predictable blockbuster with Len. I was so bored that I wasn't very focused on the first half, after which we stopped watching to eat dinner. Then we watched the rest: at least I tried to watch, but I fell asleep. Even the spectacular CGI effects get boring after a while. Nature’s sea creatures interest me much more than exaggerated artificial versions of them.

"Small Fires" -- Big Ego

Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen by Rebecca May Johnson is an appalling mash-up of bad jargon from academia, overdone feminism from the 1970s, and psychobabble. It's unbearably pretentious, and doesn't have anything new to offer anyone who has read feminist or academic or psycho stuff in the last 50 years or so. One of the two blurbs on the cover uses the word "witty." I can't think of any less applicable word for this author's prosaic and pedantic narrative.

What this book most definitely is not: EPIC! What this book is, mercifully, is short.

Here are a few quotes about the deep meaning of a recipe for tomato sauce:

“The recipe is a method for responding to things. Things have agency in many directions. Like words, they have histories and contexts, but when I perform the recipe, things become other things in a messier transformation than words in a sentence. They spatter my shirt red” (p. 51)

“When I cook the recipe, I experience the difference between the knowledge promised by language, and the unboundedness of embodiment, which is both richer and more dangerous that the text can convey.” (p. 73) 

“My ‘reception’ of the recipe – my intervention into the tradition of recipe reception – is to translate text into food. Each time I cook the recipe I produce a new translation of the text. I translate the recipe from the medium of language into the spattering physicality of the ingredients. Like different translations of the Odyssey, my translations of the recipe vary in accordance with the historical moment.” (p. 81)

“When people ask about my work an assumption hangs in the air that I am writing a lovely book of lovely recipes that will be beautifully photographed. … ‘Lovely’ is an acutely gendered adjective that brings my body into the discussion of my writing. It defines my writing through my body… ‘Lovely’ defines and excludes the non-lovely and works to legitimize violence against those who differ from the ideal of an obedient, quiet, thin, clean, happy, grateful, rich, white woman.” (p 98)

In Small Fires, Johnson may be the most extreme name-dropper whose works I’ve ever read. She really wants us to know what a great intellectual literary contemporary reader she is! She mentions writers and creators, briefly alludes to and quotes them, and then moves on to prove how much more she knows! A few of them include: Homer the ancient poet (she has a lot to say about the Odyssey), D.W. Winnicott, Rainer Maria Rilke, Mrs Beeton, Sam Sifton, Claudia Roden, Natalia Ginzburg, Sigmund Freud, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Mingus, Sergei Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin, Simone Weil, Jessye Norman, and many others. Aren’t we impressed? A typical sentence “I look up Jean Laplanche and read a little about his work – he is a psychoanalyst and winemaker who appears in Agn├Ęs Varda’s film Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse.” (p. 166)

The New York Times Review lured me into buying this newly-published book. It said:

"Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen ... aims to upend not only the way we cook but the way we think about cooking. The book regards recipes as sites of dynamic, creative engagement across generations — and notes that most bragging about not following a recipe is simply a defensive response to anxiety about originality. Small Fires, … is brave enough to hurt feelings, and delicious enough for no one to care."

I read all of this little book, and I mostly found it annoying. I will admit that there are a few good passages among all the posturing and long words and blustering and self-promotion, and I understand her point, that making a recipe for tomato sauce (particularly Marcella Hazan’s recipe) is a metaphor for life in general or for the plight of women in society. She isn’t the first one to discover this. I suspect that this book will be popular with other pseudo-intellectuals and aspirants to intellectual giganticness.

My Whole Week Felt Kind of Eerie

Although I read one very good book this week (The Great Influenza by John M. Barry) I was mostly feeling very claustrophobic because from Wednesday morning onward, the smoke from the Canadian fires means it has been too terrible to breathe much outdoors. I can’t take my usual walks, sit in the garden, or otherwise enjoy the cool summer weather. It's depressing and overwhelming, because we know what it means:

“Climate scientists have been saying for decades that global warming would lead to a proliferation of wildfires. Last year a U.N. report warned of a ‘global wildfire crisis’ as many forested areas become hotter and drier. The smoke-filled skies outside my window are, in effect, a validation of mainstream climate science: The experts didn’t predict this particular disaster for this particular week, but this is exactly the kind of thing they’ve been warning us would happen.” (Paul Krugman in the New York Times)

Shared with Sunday Salon at Readerbuzz.
Blog post © 2023 mae sander.


My name is Erika. said...

The photos of NYC with the smoke are truly amazing and scary. Your rhododendrons look lovely. And I haven't watched AVatar 2, but I think it's because I have a feeling I'll be falling sleep too. Have a great weekend Mae. hugs-Erika

eileeninmd said...

I do not think Avatar would be a movie I want to see.
I think our skies are finally looking better, not as hazy.
Your rhododendron blooms are beautiful.
Have a happy weekend.

ashok said...

Lovely post

Vicki said...

My mom had breast cancer and at her 5 yr. check up they found she had colin cancer which she couldn't take treatment for because a 21 year old girl hit them and totaled their car. Both my mom and dad were hurt, and the drs. said she was in too bad a shape to handle chemo etc. The cancer took her life.

Sorry that you weren't a fan of Avatar 2. I loved the first one and was looking forward to it. I still may watch it.

Sorry you were feeling claustrophobic. I get that way in different situations. I know how worried a fire near you can be. I used to live at the edge of the Withlacoochee Forest. One year during a "contained" burn, the burn got out of control and was working it's way to our house. We were evacuated, but they didn't get the fire completely out unti it was just a few acres from our house, which had only been finished being built for about a month.

I don't understand why some people don't believe in global warning. I live in Florida and it was nowhere near as hot when I moved here as it is now. I hope you're alble to get back outside soon.

Bill said...

The rhododendron blooms are beautiful. I hope the smoke starts to go away for you.

anno said...

I thought Avatar 2 was pretty boring, too. My husband, though, liked it a lot, so I slogged through it with him. Thankfully, we usually had something good to eat at the same time.

And thanks for your review of Small Fires. This one has been on my radar as well, although I've been a little uneasy about it for many of the same reasons you mention here. Right now, I have a hunch I might skip it.

If you're in the mood for something long and epic, you might try The Eighth Life. I think it clocks in at around 1000 pages, and I'm only about 20% (thank you, Kindle) through it, but I'm enjoying it a lot, despite the pretty devastating history it covers (Soviet Union, 1900-present).

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

My son who lives (somewhat) near you in Chicago looks forward to summer so much; it's the most wonderful season there, I think. I imagine you also look forward to being outside in summer, and it has to be horribly disappointing to be unable to safely do so.

I stay away from nonfiction that reads like a textbook. A person donated a bunch of her home schooling materials to my friend who just opened a bookshop, and I was helping her sort through those today. I thought that if I had to do all those awful workbooks, I'd cry. And that's what the passages from Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen sound like.

Jinjer-The Intrepid Angeleno said...

Sorry the movie and book weren't that exciting. :-(

Ugh...the wildfire smoke. We get plenty of that every year or so here in L.A. so I know how awful it is.

Mark Baker said...

I wasn't that impressed with the first Avatar. I'll probably watch the second eventually, especially since it is on Disney+, but I have no desire to rush out and watch it.

Harvee said...

I haven't seen the new Avatar but might watch it because of all the blue and because I'm a water person, lol. Have a good week.

Debbie said...

my niece, age 40, was surprised i had not seen avatar. "oh you must see it aunt debbie, you will love it", she said. i saw it was on last night but i just wasn't sure, so we have it scheduled to be recorded. personally, i do not think i will like it, that it will be a "knitting" movie. the hubs feels the same way!!

i joined a book club and i am reading for the first time since college!! i'll skip small fires!!

have a great sunday!!

dancewme said...

I love Avatar. and those flower pics of amazing. I hope to see more of them.

Terrie said...

Your excerpts from Small Fires perfectly illustrate your opinion. It sounds atrocious and I wouldn't have finished it. Too bad you paid good money for it. The air here in the PNW has cleared quite a bit recently and haze is gone. Like you, we're close to Canada (well, Seattle) and last summer the smoke from their wildfires hung around most of the summer. I hope it's different this year because that smokey air is terrible.

Thanks for the visit Mae - and have a terrific week.
Terrie @ Bookshelf Journeys

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

I have never seen an Avatar film and don't plan to. Didn't interest me, even though the CGI was supposed to be phenomenal.

That "Epic" book sounds like a pass to me.

I was telling Sharon on Thursday that I could smell smoke from the fires, but she said she didn't smell it. I smell it every time I go out to water my herbs. I feel for you because the fires have now headed east, and all we get in the midwest is residual smoke. I read the fires are now being contained. Let's hope you can get outside again soon. Invest in an N95 mask like I did.

Elza Reads said...

Hi Mae!

Hope you are doing well!

My husband started watching the new Avatar, I didn't last 5 minutes. My husband also didn't finish it. But he probably will still.

I had to laugh at your review for Small Fires! Now that was witty! LOL!!

Have a great week Mae and stay safe.

Elza Reads

thecuecard said...

Yeah the smoke is dismal and a wake-up call that summers could be like this all the time in the future. We've had it smoky now for the past few summers in Alberta. Usually it's been in August but now even starting in May & June. How grim.

Helen's Book Blog said...

You all had it so bad with the fire smoke and to have not a great week of reading on top of it is disappointing. I am glad the air quality is improving!