Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Redacting my Recommendation

Wow, what a disappointment. The first half of Blood, Bones & Butter was luminous. The second half was just plain bratty. The beauty of this genre is that a memoir helps you understand where someone is coming from. This book left me bewildered. Hamilton was a troubled, drug-using adolescent who poses as several years older in order to hold down waitressing jobs. But she comes across as pettier and brattier in the adult years of the memoir than she did as a poorly supervised teen.
"People who know me well understand fully what I am saying when I suggest that I am working an appetite and that we'd best be making our move. This means it is time to hit the road before my blood sugar--what's left of it--crashes to that point where I'm going to ruin your fucking day. My friends dive into their pockets, backpacks, and purses and proffer any peanut, energy bar, lint-covered M&M that they can lay their paws on, because friends are great like that."
But oh no, a lint-covered M&M isn't good enough for Hamilton, at least not when her husband is doing the proffering:
"Meanwhile, I don't eat $8.99 brunch with a free mimosa. I have rules. Standards.

I do not get vague or generic appetite, which will be satisfied, more or less, with just anything that is handy. I will skip a meal rather than eat the corner joint's interpretation of eggs Benedict with spinach, button mushrooms, and "blood orange" hollandaise sauce. I don't eat that kind of shit. Michele, from the backseat, kept saying, "I rrrremember a place, verrrry good brrrunch, up here on the left." But when we approach and I see the chalkboard on the sidewalk advertising free mimosa, I speed up and drive on."
When I was in class I took a personal essay writing class. I wrote a lot about my family, but I felt uncomfortable doing so. I was using them to entertain others; I was opening them up to scrutiny when I know how dearly they value their privacy. The class professor--a kind, astute, wonderful woman--and I wrangled over every detail, no matter how apparently benign to an general audience, because I could see how my recording the observation might make them cringe. How unfair to spend so many words on an anecdote that only captures how they are most or only some of the time, when there must be tens or hundreds of counter-examples?

Hamilton comes across as an insensitive writer. In her book, she disdains people who I at first read quite liked, and thought were kind and decent if flawed:
"...As I'm trying to get away from her, and to endure the compulsory cheek-kissing, I notice her shoes, sensible sand-colored crepe-soled shoes from Payless. Made in China. And she's wearing oatmeal-colored socks on which the elastic has worn out, which she is holding up at each knee with rubber bands. I'm so taken aback, I point at them. Mistaking me, she proudly sticks out her leg to model the shoe, with an insouciant little twist of her still outrageously elegant dancer's ankle, which I recall my entire life seeing in a good Dior heel. 

'Pas mal, eh?' she boasts, about this ugly, sensible number that is one step up from a Velcro-closing sneaker.
'Twelve bucks!' she continues, delighted, vainglorious, the cat who ate the canary. "
She loads down tiny anecdotes with ridiculous judgmental significance, as she does with her description of the ravioli her husband made while wooing her, at first showing a glimmer of the Hamilton I loved in the book's first half:
"some profoundly beautiful ravioli small and delicate and a beautiful yellow from the yolks in the pasta dough and you could see the herbs and the ricotta through the dough like a woman behind a shower curtain"
But then, at the end of the chapter in which she explains how she left her long-term girlfriend to marry her Italian paramour so he could get a green card, and how she treated the wedding as a "performance art" piece despite knowing that he was dead serious, Hamilton pettily observes:
"I should have known from those ravioli. Those many years ago when he was so heavily courting me, and he painstakingly made those ravioli, and presented them on a paper tray--so tender and translucent and beautiful. When we cooked them for family meal at the restaurant the next day, we took special care to use a slotted spoon to remove them from the water and we browned a little butter with a few leaves of rubbed sage and we all took our first bites and had to spit them out immediately they were so inedibly salty. Michele had failed to blanche the pancetta and additionally had overseasoned the ravioli filling and so several dozen handmade gorgeous little beauties, which looked so enticing and appealing from the outside, went to waste as we opened them up and took out the filling and ate only the few bites we could salvage of the empty pasta alone with the butter and sage. I should have paid attention to that."

And, after making me so love her animated and distinctive childhood, she dismisses it, along with every grain of family pride:
"I am suddenly wondering what I've been so afraid of and what I've so diligently kept my distance from these past twenty years. A quiet internal frenzy starts in which I try to recall and to catalogue all of the reasons I might have ended my relationship with this perfectly nice woman who has roasted chickens, built a fire, and who is now casually fixing herself a disgusting wine cooler that would've been way beneath her when I last knew her. To be clear, all of our 'differentness' when we were growing up was not merrily enjoyed in a live-and-let-live, a chaque'un son gout kind of benevolence. Something in our household was being arduously protected. Our shit was fiercely defended and prioritized. Everybody around us went to the Jersey Shore for vacation but my mother would never. All of our school friends lived in plain houses with a swing set in the backyard, but we lived in the burned-out ruins of a nineteenth century silk mill with pigeons and bats, and said unkind things about the cookie-cutter developments called Sunset Drive and Village Two. Most people ate Mrs. Paul's frozen fish sticks and Kraft macaroni and cheese and Oscar Mayer bologna, but we ate coq au vin, sesame bread sticks, and le puy lentils for less money than the store-bought stuff. Other people had rec rooms and television, but we were forced to entertain ourselves outdoors, even in the rain, from waking to bedtime. Other people threw all of their garbage into one big bin, but we composted, recycled, and separated, and drove it all to the center. Other kids got Partridge Family lunchboxes with Snack Pack puddings, but we got ratatouille sandwiches on homemade bread in oily brown paper lunch bags. And we were taught by her to see ourselves as infinitely better for our dedication to high culture."
Hamilton is a strong writer. Her prose is beautiful, witty, and cogent. But that prose left me more sympathetic to the people in her life than to her, and her betrayal of them--so often thoughtless and frivolous--left me feeling betrayed as her reader.

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