Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Fruitcake Weather

Saturday, December 11th, 2010

It’s always the same: a morning arrives in late November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blaze of her heart, announces: “It’s fruitcake weather! Fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat.”

That’s how Truman Capote describes the start of an annual ritual in his childhood home, a sprawling old place in a southern country town. His world revolves around the kitchen where he passes his days with a 60-something-year-old cousin and the dog they share.

It’s an insular little world he describes in A Christmas Memory. And he makes that fact palpable by neglecting to present us with almost a single other character. But that world feels whole, as though there’s not much room for anyone besides the simple-minded lady, the seven-year-old boy and their rat terrier.

Capote whittles his story to fit the shapes that memories occupy in our minds: leaving out the mundane details we might rationally ask — where the money comes from to run this big house, who does the shopping for food and prepares the meals — in favor of the stuff that feels important emotionally. We learn about this cousin and the dog, the baby stroller they use to gather pecans, what they eat together for breakfast or supper, and the big stove that heats the kitchen; not much else.

The biggest part of the story he gives over to the intricate preparations necessary to turn out 31 fruitcakes with very few resources besides their own enthusiasm.

So what’s so important about making fruitcakes — a confection that’s become the dull punchline of a dozen holiday jokes in the minds of Americans — and why so many? Whom are they for?

Friends. Not necessarily neighbor friends: indeed, the larger share are intended for persons we’ve met maybe once, perhaps not at all. People who’ve struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt. Like the Reverend and Mrs. J. C. Lucey, Baptist missionaries to Borneo who lectured here last winter. Or the little knife grinder who comes through town twice a year. Or Abner Packer, the driver of the six o’clock bus from Mobile, who exchanges waves with us every day as he passes in a dust-cloud whoosh. Or the young Wistons, a California couple whose car one afternoon broke down outside the house and who spent a pleasant hour chatting with us on the porch (young Mr. Wiston snapped our picture, the only one we’ve ever had taken). Is it because my friend is shy with everyone except strangers that these strangers, and merest acquaintances, seem to us our truest friends? I think yes.

It’s a funny thing about Christmas. It brings out in many of us this need for connection, a need we may have shrugged off the rest of the year. And, in the best of circumstances, those of us who feel that need most keenly reach for it according to the rules of the season, doing for people with whom we want to experience that connection.

Before I’d ever read Capote’s story, I decided to start making fruitcakes for loved ones at Christmastime. It allowed me to feel connected to friends in ways a store-bought gift never could. For some reason, a gift you make yourself — and particularly food — doesn’t seem to impose the same burden of reciprocation. It’s too simple to carry any monetary value and too ephemeral, too easy to get rid of (either by eating or trashing it) to create any real bother. And fruitcake reached back into some collective ideal of Christmas I gleaned early on from Sears catalogs, holiday movies and the ads I saw in magazines as a kid.

In the least invasive way I could imagine, a fruitcake asked people to allow me the favor of feeling close to them for a few months of the year.

I could believe I was reaching back to some age-old tradition of Christmases gone by — though certainly not any tradition I knew as a child — and at the same time, reaching out to people around me in the present season. Making cakes was my willful attempt to weave a fabric of continuity that encompassed mass-cultural memories and the Loved Ones I longed for over the holidays, even if they were people from whom I’d grown distant over the years. It wrapped those friends and me in the warmth of some time-honored Christmas tradition, even if the tradition wasn’t really mine to share, borrowed as it was from my crazy idea of what a Proper Christmas would be.

What did I know about fruitcakes? My childhood Christmases played out in the 1960s, in a depressed little town in central Connecticut where our only traditions were assembling our artificial tree and decorating it with the dime-store ornaments we’d carefully packed away the year before. And, as fond as I was of those ornaments, they only seemed like heirlooms because I couldn’t remember a time when we didn’t have them. This obsessive idea of holiday tradition was something I’d pasted together with the pieces I appropriated from the cover art on Christmas albums and the four-color pages of the Sears Wishbook. The year I announced I would make a plum pudding, it was after months of staring at the photos in our three-volume set of The Life Book of Christmas.

It  wasn’t all my idea, this business of mining the collective culture for memories of a past none of us had ever experienced. On the contrary: the frisson between enshrined memories and the present is a central piece of the Christmas experience. From the earliest days of our modern Christmas — beginning with the stories of Washington Irving and later, Charles Dickens† — looking back to a kinder time, one in which age-old traditions were cherished and revered, was part and parcel of the holiday. It became impossible to separate the holiday from the collective nostalgia around it, even if that nostalgia had been carefully manufactured.

As a kid, I’d imagine that the very traditions I loved — listening to carols, decorating the house, exchanging gifts — were not only those I’d performed for most of my seven or eight years on the planet, but were also the same traditions carried on by those Victorian ladies and gentlemen depicted on Christmas cards or inside the gatefold of our Mitch Miller and the Gang album. As I’ve grown older, the layers have grown deeper and more complicated, blending fragments of Christmases from my childhood with those manufactured memories of Christmases from some golden era. Before my mother died, I was able to get hold of a few of those remaining dime-store ornaments. And as I take them out of storage each year, I feel myself floating in a dream spun from my own memories and those I borrowed from the images I saw around me as a kid.

In the most beautiful and subtle ways, Capote recreates that same frisson of memory as we read A Christmas Memory. We’re never unclear that this is a story from the narrator’s past, a narrator who is now a full-grown and articulate adult. And to remind us, he’s careful to lift us gently from that past from time to time.

When Christmas morning finally arrives for our characters, the two best friends can’t wait to exchange their gifts for one another. Unable to afford anything more, each has made a kite for the other, as they did the year before and the year before that. They’re eager to get outside and to launch their new gifts:

The wind is blowing, and nothing will do till we run to a pasture below the house where Queenie has scooted to bury her bone (and where, a winter hence, Queenie will be buried, too).

That simple aside reminds us that our story is — as its title announces — only a memory. And the memory is all the more precious because time has changed the world in which it first took shape, dissolving all the beautiful details our narrator describes.

So each year, I begin the same ritual as Capote’s characters. I search for some connection to people in my life — however distant our actual connections may be — and for a connection to some golden past of tradition and ritual. Beginning in mid-summer, I start to collect the ingredients that will go into my cakes.

Fruitcake is the mirror opposite of a delicate confection. It involves no skill. What makes or breaks the quality of the cake is what goes into it. And the only reason I can imagine that most Americans don’t like — or even know — these cakes, is that the store-bought varieties use ingredients that just don’t taste good.

Like a stew, the flavors of the various ingredients that go into a fruitcake should hold onto their individual characters, even as they blend together to form an overall impression. A good fruitcake offers a variety of fresh nuts, dried fruits with a range of flavors (not just an endless parade of raisins), and candied fruits and peels made with real skill to preserve their flavors and textures. All this stuff can be hard to find and costs money. So if the search for the components of a proper fruitcake won’t give you pleasure, you should probably forget the whole thing. It’s precisely because the ingredients are rare that the process — collecting the ingredients, baking the cakes, and bathing them with brandy as they ripen over a couple of months’ time — takes on meaning and importance. With every moment or dollar I spend in this enterprise, I feel that I’m doing something special. That makes the gesture feel special. And in some distant way, it makes me feel special, too.

Finding nuts isn’t much of a challenge; I use equal portions of pecans, English walnuts, hazel nuts and black walnuts. Black walnuts aren’t as easy to find as the other three, but their deep and oily flavor makes a good base for the higher-pitched notes some of the fruits will bring.

Dried fruits are pretty easy to come by these days, too. So arriving at a suitable mix of flavors, colors and textures isn’t a big challenge; figuring out your own mix is part of the fun. A small portion of raisins is fine, but too many will leave the cake with an insipid uniformity of taste. I use black or red raisins (Thompson or Red Flame), along with some golden variety and even a small amount of currants. Try to get organic varieties whenever possible, if only to avoid the nasty addition of sulfur dioxide used to keep light-colored fruits from turning brown as they dry. Cape gooseberries add a bright tang to the whole, as do dried cranberries. Dried sour cherries contribute a surprising richness with their combination of sweet and sour.

Candied fruits present the biggest challenge. When I was a kid, you could find containers of mixed ones in the baking aisle of the local Stop & Shop. And those same nasty, particolored bits are still available in most stores today. But you’ll want to find candied fruits and peels that would be delicious to eat on their own, confections made with care and skill. For reasons I don’t understand, it seems that no one on this side of the Atlantic wants to put that kind of effort into their production. So we look to the other side. I’ve always found a great selection made by Agrimontana at the Chelsea Market in Manhattan. When I moved to Toronto this year, I brought this year’s supply along with me. Until I find a local supply, I’ll continue to rely on my New York source.

Candied sour cherries, lemon peel, orange peel, grapefruit peel, whole clementines and citron sparkle like semi-precious stones when you cut them into pieces large enough to be recognizable in a slice of cake. But the most important ingredient — and the most difficult to find — is the candied stalk of the angelica plant. [For a quick point of reference, consider that angelica is a primary ingredient in Chartreuse.] I can’t say with confidence that without its subtle herb flavor the cakes would taste any different; I’m not even sure that anyone knows it’s in there besides me. But its importance grows in direct proportion to the difficulty I have finding it. The more precious the ingredients, the more precious the gift … you get the picture.

Come Labor Day weekend, I mix all of my finds with a lot of eggs and butter, some flour and blackstrap molasses, and a healthy dose of allspice. Then I bake them slowly for three hours or more and bathe the finished cakes in brandy over the next eight weeks. In early December, I pack up each one, attach the gift card I’ve made to describe each carefully considered ingredient and ship them off.

From most of the recipients, I get a polite acknowledgement; from some, no acknowledgement at all. A few dear friends seem to recognize how much the giving means to me and send a heartfelt note in return. But my closest friend always gives me so frank and detailed a critique of each year’s offering that I truly feel the connection I hoped my gift might conjure.

Another Christmas comes and goes. But for a moment, I feel connected; wrapped warmly in a web strung between the past and the present, among friends and family far away. And inside that web, I have shape and meaning and purpose; maybe just for a moment, but in the scheme of things, a moment like that is nothing to sneeze at.

† Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-20) contains a string of stories about a country manor where Christmas is kept as tradition would have it. However, the traditions described were carefully fashioned to fit a new ideal of the holiday; one much more domestic and far less raucous than in documented traditions of the period and preceding centuries. Similarly, Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) uses the holiday as a method to promote his very personal political agenda: charity and social conscience over the encroachment of an industrial economy ever more ruthless in its use of (and contempt for) the lower classes on whose backs it was built. Interestingly enough, the politics of the two authors couldn’t have been further apart, one from the other.

For a careful and truly inspired examination of the origins of our modern Christmas holiday, see The Battle for Christmas (Stephen Nissenbaum, Alfred A. Knopf, 1996).


Monday, May 31st, 2010

It seems a natural segue from all this talk of my obsessive preoccupation with body parts to a story about putting those parts together to create something new. And as I suggested — even if a bit obliquely — in my last post, when you put all those things together, the new whole is in many unexpected ways something much different, much bigger than the sum of its parts.

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was just 18 years old and published the novel anonymously the following year, in 1818. Deep inside that story are ideas compelling enough to hold my interest almost 200 years later. It seems that such compelling ideas trailing from the pen of such a young woman has generated speculation over the years that it was her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who actually wrote the book.

But that brings me to my other point about the book. To put it nicely, the storytelling in the novel isn’t as impressive as its ideas: it leans heavily on grand gestures and flowery language to cover the awkwardness of a really rambling plot. It’s unlikely that so seasoned a poet would be the real author behind such a book.

I found a quote on the matter from a woman named Hilary Bailey. Her most important credential is that she’s written her own sequel to Frankenstein. I don’t know if her book’s any good or if she’s any better a writer than Mary Shelley, but I did get a chuckle from her comment on the whole question of the novel’s authorship:

The style of Frankenstein is, to be brutal, clotted and pedestrian. Shelley didn’t write it, and if he did, it would be kinder not to say so. 1

So, let’s just say that it’s not the best writing in all of English literature. But somehow it’s easy to see through all the clumsy Romantic flourishes — the mechanical references to Milton and Goethe, Victor Frankenstein’s really dull habit of swooning with profound emotion every 25 pages — to the wonderful character at its heart: the monster. Remarkably (especially in so highfalutin a story-telling style), he seems very much like us, much more so than any of the human characters in the book.

The monster is trapped inside a physical self that doesn’t rightly belong to him, that doesn’t fit his spirit or intellect. He’s as repulsed by his body (made of dead things, pieces stolen from others) as are the people he encounters. And when his pain turns to anger and hatred after so many rejections and acts of cruelty, we don’t blame him a bit.

Sure, it’s baffling when he explains at length how he compares with Milton’s Satan. But that’s only because we don’t need any big analogies to find nobility in the character. Just knowing his intentions and hearing him describe his feelings are enough to win our sympathies. And Shelley handles these passages very well. We understand that the monster means well, that he tries hard. But he gets only hatred and rejection in return for all of his efforts. And the most guilty in failing to love the creature is his own creator, Victor Frankenstein.

The monster is only about a year old through much of the story; everything is new to him. Shelley goes to uncomfortable lengths to explain how he happened to learn such eloquent language and to acquaint himself with Romantic literature. Whatever. The point is that he’s an adolescent who finds himself trapped inside this body with its own demands — both physical and emotional — which he doesn’t really understand or want to own. I’m not so old that I don’t still remember the feelings of confusion (and wonder) at what was happening to me at that age. And because I was a budding homo, I also remember my anger and revulsion at the realization that I was becoming something I didn’t want to be: something loathed, something outside of society and its careful codes of appearance, action and (most of all) desire.

This idea that the people around him can’t see beyond the monster’s appearance, through his physical self to something more truthful, more beautiful inside; that they can’t recognize the nobility of his spirit and the goodness of his intentions; it’s horribly disappointing. And that his own father — his creator, his god — can’t give him even a small bit of the love he deserves … well, isn’t that just the core of our human experience? Aren’t we always looking for that affection from our mother or father or some god; for that unconditional love, the recognition that we are so much more than the sum of our parts? And when we can’t get it from them (and can’t find it in ourselves), aren’t we left feeling bitter and angry and abandoned?

We don’t need the careful comparison to Paradise Lost to get the point. But, however precious the reference feels, I have to allow Ms. Shelley that it’s an appropriate one. That lack of recognition is, after all, why Satan is so much more compelling a character than that insipid little daddy’s boy, Jesus. And however hideous his appearance may have become, that dark and brooding fallen angel is beautiful enough to hold our attention through all the stanzas of his story.

Looking to capitalize on the success of its earlier release, Dracula (1931), Universal rushed into production that same year another ghoulish tale from the public domain: a movie based on Shelley’s novel.

While much of its story draws on events and characters in the book, Frankenstein (1931) is far from a faithful retelling. The aim in producer Carl Laemmle, Jr.’s mind was to spook, not to present philosophical questions or high Romantic ideals. But Laemmle hired a first-rate director for the project; one who wasn’t too crazy about making a monster movie for the matinee crowd. And that director, James Whale, understood precisely which elements of the novel made the story worth telling, spooks or no spooks.

The movie’s script gets away from the book’s high Romanticism. It elaborates on those ghoulish details the book leaves purposefully vague — collecting body parts, the apparatus of their reanimation — and builds a certain amount of suspense by concentrating on murders and abductions. But it doesn’t remove our reasons to sympathize with the creature. We don’t get any long explanations of the monster’s lofty intentions; we don’t need them. The script spells out clearly and simply how the other characters misunderstand and mistreat the monster. We can see for ourselves how Frankenstein and his assistant torture him.

Moreover the movie’s monster is mute and much more simple than Shelley’s character. He’s not able to articulate his feelings in flowery speeches stuffed with literary allusions. But speeches prove unnecessary.

Most of the performances in Frankenstein are uniformly bad: overly melodramatic or just weak. The important exception is Boris Karloff, who never speaks a word of dialogue, but brings to the monster remarkable depth, nuance and subtlety. His performance makes sure that we not only feel sorry for the monster, but that we identify with him. And that’s so much more satisfying than long speeches, anyway.

Frankenstein was a huge success. And that prompted Universal to put much more time and money into a sequel which some people (me, for one) think is a much better movie than even the original: Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

Whale was apparently even more reluctant to make this movie, but finally agreed. After rejecting several script treatments, he began to work on his own adaptation with a screenwriter, pulling elements from the novel that the first movie had passed over.

The witty dialogue and a couple of really fine cast members make this movie feel very different from the first in its refinement. But the theme of the first movie — this idea of a noble, if simple creature trapped inside an unfortunate body — becomes even more specific as the monster seeks a mate, someone who will be a constant companion, a friend.

In a lovely scene, the monster enters a wood accompanied by Franz Waxman’s pastoral theme music. He nibbles on a root and goes to the stream for a drink. The way the monster moves, the little sounds he makes communicate in a subtle way how delighted he is with these simple pleasures. But as the surface of the water quiets down, he sees his own reflection. Angry and horrified by his own appearance, he splashes until the image no longer haunts him.

The one person who’s able to accept the monster on his own terms and with genuine affection is a blind man. And like all those blind men in movies (and highfalutin Romantic literature), he can see clearly the heart and soul beneath the veneer of the physical. It’s corny. And the hammy performance of the blind man (O. P. Heggie) does little to bring it home. But the scene works because, once again, Karloff is masterful in the subtlety and nuance of his performance.

I can’t help myself: I ignore the old man. I ignore the crucifix superimposed clumsily over the image. I forget the very funny parody of the scene in Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein. I’m engrossed in this moment.

The monster’s disbelief at his good fortune, the moment of discomfort that comes with not knowing how to respond: you can read each of these experiences in Karloff’s performance. And when that wave of emotion consumes him and a tear runs down his cheek, I find myself sobbing right along with him.

Bride of Frankenstein is a very different movie from its predecessor. The mix of high style (Expressionistic set pieces, Elsa Lanchester’s goth-glam makeover) and high camp (Ernest Thesiger’s very clever and very gay Dr. Pretorius) add texture and depth to the movie without taking away any of its poignancy. It feels much more grown up and much more satisfying than the first. It feels much more queer.

If the homo experience is one of being on the outside and looking in with the rich mix of wit, cynicism and compassion that such a position can produce in the best of souls, then this movie captures much of that sensibility. In fact, I’d say it throws into greater relief those same themes which had been a bit harder to pick out in the first movie.

The decision to give the monster speech in the sequel must have been a difficult one; it could have sullied the simple clown-like character and made it more difficult for an audience to identify with him. Instead the growth of the monster’s character into one who can articulate his feelings emphasizes the spirit beneath his flesh. It calls into deeper question the connections between our physical self and the person inside. And, most importantly, it allows the monster to describe why he has to die; even if it’s really that over-wrought Doctor Frankenstein we want to get rid of, and not the three best — and most homo-friendly — characters in the story.

Antony Hegarty is a singer and songwriter who performs under the name of Antony & The Johnsons. He sings in a falsetto that has all the richness of a true counter-tenor and seems to float above the melody of his songs. More than one review and quote on liner notes have described his performances as “angelic.”

Antony’s 2005 album, I Am a Bird Now explores his experience as a transgender person in lyrical compositions that are often less than direct in their exposition of meaning. In references to himself (or to the speaker in the song), he doesn’t describe his gender as clear and specific. His life as a boy seems like some immature physical state tied to the past; the promise of his life as a woman is still off somewhere in the future. The connection of his self to his body is in flux, to say the least.

One day I’ll grow up
and be a beautiful woman.
One day I’ll grow up
and be a beautiful girl.
But for today, I am a child.
For today, I am a boy.

(from “For Today I Am A Boy”)

On the CD single from that album — Hope There’s Someone — he’s added an extra track entitled “Frankenstein.” The exact meaning behind the lyrics is opaque. But there are themes that echo those of Shelley’s book: cold and ice, a longing for love, and a dissociation from the pieces of his body.

Listen to Antony & The Johnsons perform “Frankenstein”

In the song’s first verse, the singer describes a sort of confusion about his body, as if he’s unclear where it ends and where that of some loved one begins.

Well, I’m falling into a chasm.
Well, I’m falling with you in my arms.
No wait, these are your arms,
Your arms of love that I’m falling into.
Is this a vision of love?

This theme of disconnection from his body feels right at home with the other songs from the album which describe an impression of gender that spans some in-between place, neither one nor the other. But unlike the monsters in our book and movie, there’s no hint of pain here.

The monsters in the novel and the movies suffer horribly, caught between men and animals, the dead and the living, sympathizers and antagonists. But our song’s narrator finds in his lack of definition a kind of communion with the object of his love. The feeling of falling he describes is less about a plunge into a dangerous place, than it is a sensation of floating free from the confines of his individuality. It’s as if, in love, he’s found a moment of such complete communion that he’s no longer clear which pieces belong to his body. He and that other person have bridged the gap created by their separate physicalities.

At first, the references to the monster of the title seem literal and specific. In fact in the context of a story about a body made of spare parts, the confusion about whose arms are which sounds comical.

But then there’s the unexpected juxtaposition of his grown womanhood and his strong, cold arms. It’s as if he’s giving us a different spin on Shelley’s monster, as if the relief and joy that come with that connection to another being has freed the monster from the pain of his physical self. It’s as if the distance he feels from the parts of his body allowed him to appreciate them in the way someone else might. It’s as if he’d learned to love what’s unique about himself.

You can see these arms;
They are big and strong now baby.
Well I’ll prove to you these arms can hold you tight, hold you baby.

It’s as if our monster — low and miserable — had blossomed into a kind of super hero.

And somehow this message coming from the voice of an angel, with layers of his own voice creating a choir in the background, is heroic, too.

In another post I described how, as a kid, I conquered my fear of the monster in my closet by imagining that he would become my secret friend and protector. Shelley’s monster never finds that resolution. Once Victor Frankenstein is dead, the monster only regrets the sympathy he never found with his creator. We’re left to understand that he remains miserable for the rest of his life.

Something inside me still wishes we’d found one another when we needed each other the most, when we could have given each other the love and support we were both looking for, the scared little homo and that big scary monster.

But Hegarty’s description plays back the happy image of that protector, freed from his misery by my love. Two misfits who have found one another in a big, cold world. Two creatures taking care of one another, each offering the other what he’s missing from himself. Yes, that’s a vision of love.

1 “Frankenstein’s Fraud” on, March 25, 2007