june: notes on molly wizenberg

July 9, 2009

I went and had a little summer fling. I suppose I can blame it on those long afternoons by the lake and the absence of responsibility. And surely the hammock had something to do with it.

I was supposed to spend my afternoons with E.B. White. I promised you I would–or at least I’d promised to devote June to him. But I was behind in reading for my little project and had planned to use the long weekend to catch up. Then Molly Wizenberg hopped into my book bag and poor Mr. White never got even a glimpse of the lake.

summer bliss

If you aren’t addicted to blogs, there’s the chance that you’ve never heard of Molly’s A Homemade Life, the book which grew from her popular blog, Orangette. I came to Orangette late, maybe six months or so ago. I was quickly smitten though, because Molly’s posts are long and writerly. She writes about food, but each post reads like a short essay. And you know I’m a sucker for that.

When the book came out a few months back, it got mentioned on several blogs I follow, almost invariably, it seemed, with a nod to the recipe for coconut macaroons with chocolate ganache. I assumed the book was a cookbook. I imagined recipes and glossy, artsy food photos. I found the book’s virtual waitlist at my library’s website and got in line.

Was I surprised when I finally had the book in my hands. There wasn’t a single photo. It’s a book of essays. There are recipes, sure, and some pretty tempting ones at that. But the recipes are secondary, really–codas to the stories which precede them. Stories, well-told, about food. After reading Orangette, I don’t know why I expected anything less.

It’s funny–I don’t write much about food here. Which means I’m giving the wrong impression. You probably don’t realize that I’m the sort of person who plans vacations around where we’ll eat each meal. Who goes to New York City without seeing a show because that means we can fit in one more restaurant. Who thinks that when it comes to birthdays, getting to eat your favorite foods is as important as the gifts you’ll get. For H’s seventeenth this year, I went to Bakesale Betty the day before, bought one of their famed fried-chicken sandwiches, disassembled it into separate containers so it wouldn’t get soggy, and sent it to school in his backpack for his birthday lunch. (He requested bacon for breakfast and burgers for dinner. This is what comes of having a vegetarian mother.)

Molly’s book charmed me right off. I’d read an essay, and then another. It was like having a plate of her chocolate-glazed macaroons beside me. Oh, just one more, I’d think. And I’d turn another page.

The fact that I find myself referring to her as Molly, rather than Wizenberg, speaks of her chatty, candid style. She may write about food, but she also writes about her embarrassment at being a debutante (albeit one with a pierced nose), about sleeping in her French boyfriend’s tiny bed at twenty-one, and about her beloved father’s death. She writes about meeting the man who would become her husband via her blog, a story with as much romance as the meeting of Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson in that poppy field in A Room with a View.

I suppose this collection is a bit less weighty than most of the others I’ve read for this project. It’s a book of small stories, about first kisses and first apartments, about pies and pickles. But the telling compels you to keep reading, which is a fine quality in an essay. It also makes you very hungry.

What more could you want from a summer fling?

a few lines to love:

On dating:

“…I learned some important lessons. I learned that some things, like whether or not a man makes the bed, aren’t that important. I learned that men who like to dance are, in general, more fun than their non-dancing counterparts. I learned that kissing a man while leaning against a warm dishwasher is a lovely, lovely experience. (Go ahead! Try it! I’ll wait.)”

Still haven’t tried it. Are you reading, Sweetie?

“I’ve never liked the word blog. It’s kind of weird and lumpy. When you say it, it tumbles out of your mouth with an unbecoming thud.”

Yep. Here’s more on that:

“I guess you could say that having a blog is a little like the windows of a house I used to live in during my sophomore year of college. I loved opening them wide during the day, so that the smell of the eucalyptus trees outside could drift in and sweep out the rooms. But occasionally I would come home and fine a squirrel on my desk. A live squirrel. He would have climbed up the tree outside and jumped in through the window, and now here he was, rifling with his tiny, scratchy claws through whatever he found, tearing up every paper and scrap. Blogging is a little like that. It’s an incredible pleasure to open the window, to put yourself out in the world that way. It’s even better than the scent of eucalyptus. But occasionally you come home an find a squirrel on your desk, so to speak: a nasty comment, maybe, or even worse, something you wrote yourself, probably late at night, when you should have been sleeping, something that makes your cheeks hot.”

Such an apt analogy.

After scattering her father’s ashes in Paris:

“I say that Paris is the place where I’ve been loneliest, and also where I’ve been happiest. But what I mean is harder to say. The thing I call loneliness is delicate and lovely, like a blown-out eggshell. It’s both empty and hopeful, broken and beautiful. Paris couldn’t be anything else for me now, because it’s full of my father.”

Another nice analogy. (And another example of her tendency to overuse the word lovely. A tendency I share. It’s a lovely word.)

“Plus, Brandon once showed up at my door with a quarter pound of a very rare type of cured pork, and nothing makes a girl feel googly-eyed like getting pork from a vegetarian. Especially if he’s just visiting, only for ten days, so the gesture is especially poignant. And even more if, over the span of those ten days, he makes her a batch of pita, a vat of hot sauce, ten caneles, two lunches of Thai green papaya salad, rocky road candy with homemade marshmallows, a quart of milk chocolate ice cream with cocoa nibs, cilantro chutney, sticky tamarind sauce and the finest chana masala ever to flirt with her lips. There’s no reason to ever look elsewhere.”

There’s nothing like a well-placed list in an essay. This one is pretty irresistible. (And so seems Brandon.)

And more on that chana masala:

“After the onion comes a small but spirited parade of spices, a tin of tomatoes, and some cilantro, cayenne and chickpeas. Then things simmer for a little while, during which time you can safely enter the kitchen to do some dishes or kiss the cook, which will cause him to wrinkle his brow and mumble about cumin.”

It’s the brow-wrinkling and mumbling that I find endearing.

In addition to many more lovely lines of writing, there are all those recipes. I’m looking forward to trying the Fresh Ginger Cake with Caramelized Pears, the Pickled Grapes with Cinnamon and Black Pepper and, of course, those chocolate-coated macaroons. I’ll have to return my library copy for the next person in the queue, and buy one of my own.

the plan for july: I’ll stay out of hammocks and get back to E. B. White. I’ve already read several of his essays and have found him quite charming in his own right. How can you not be charmed by a man who loves pigs?

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

susan July 9, 2009 at 9:47 am

I am so glad you enjoyed your fling. I have a request for your next month. Will you reread Elements of Style and note every time E.B. violates his commandments to good effect? I am out of love with him as a theorist of style but I love his writing.

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patricia July 13, 2009 at 10:35 pm

Well no, I can’t promise that I’ll reread the Elements of Style–but you have me intrigued. Spotting violations of commandments certainly sounds fun–almost as much fun as does breaking rules of grammar to good effect.

One of White’s essays is on Strunk; I’ll read it and see what’s there…

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melissa s. July 9, 2009 at 2:02 pm

I assumed it was a cookbook, too. Now I’m even more excited to read it. Mumble about cumin, love that line!

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Kristin July 13, 2009 at 8:21 pm

I ‘eat up’ books about food. I too don’t need pictures if the writing is good. Lately I’ve noticed that your notes on essayists are making me examine what I am reading more closely, so thanks. I’ve been thinking what my comments would be about what I’m reading; I would never share them, but I’m glad that you do.

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patricia July 13, 2009 at 11:05 pm

It’s neat to hear that my posts are having an effect on your reading!

Close reading is a nice thing to try, once in a while. You learn a lot from it, whether you share it or not. I’m sharing my reading on the blog mostly because it holds me accountable to actually doing it. Writing the posts takes a fair amount of time, but I’m learning an awful lot about what makes a well-written essay.

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose is a wonderful book on reading carefully, and paying attention to the craft of writing. If you want to have a peek at it, let me know!

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chris July 20, 2009 at 2:47 pm

Everyone should have a summer fling! I’ll be home tonight with a quarter pound of cured pork. Make sure the dishwasher is warm.

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