Héloïse

Reading the letters of Pierre Abélard, one gets a good sense of his character: he is pompous, entitled, and conceited.  His letters are close to unbearable.  Héloïse, by contrast, is much easier to read, and her letters rarely feel like manifestoes of self-importance, but the personal testaments to a woman under extreme circumstances.  Of course, they both went through horrific hardship.  Yet it is only Héloïse that I ended up having sympathy for, despite Abélard literally haing his genitals cut off, presumably unanesthetized.

Héloïse was between ten and twenty years younger than Abélard when they met, when he sought to seduce her for her class and intelligence.  He manipulated his way into her home and under the guise of lessons, began an affair with the much younger woman.  She then did what he wanted.  She entered a convent when he encouraged her too, though she resented being told to do so so soon before he entered a monastery (she was devoted to him and would have followed regardless, so why push her to do it so early?)  In their letters they discuss at length the place of marriage for women especially, yet she preferred to be Abélard’s mistress, bound by love, than wife, bound by institution. But is it romantic when the sacrifice was ultimately made for him alone, so that marriage would not mar his career? (by which I mean the initial act of denying marriage — he certainly suffered for this too).  She performed these acts of sacrifice out of love and devotion to an unlikeable, self-centered man (it’s really hard not to judge him), who was driven to begin their relationship out of his own pride and lust.  And she, in her letters, questions him on this: was it just lust?  Or did he actually love her?

Héloïse seems to be a woman trapped by many circumstances: she was a victim of her time, for certain.  But would her life have been better without Abélard?  What would her life have been like if a man hadn’t been so very determined to seduce her to satisfy his lust — would she have had any recognition today, or would she have had a traditional marriage, or would she have still ended up in a convent?  Both Abélard and Héloïse went through horrible things because of their relationship, but reading their letters it is difficult for me to see it as a relationship of true love and ill-fated romance, when the whole thing feels like the unfortunate consequences of male entitlement.

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The Art of Cuisine

I will be trying some of the vegetarian recipes periodically, and so cannot comment on the quality of the food in this cookbook (I’m a bit short on funds and cooking is expensive).   Mostly this is just interesting, and a good read, for what people ate and how (that is, with upwards of 5 pounds of butter per dish).  The variety of food is amazing, as are the descriptions and quantities.  And the illustrations, of course.

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Here is an excerpt from my favourite recipe, ‘Stewed Marmots (Civent de Marmottes)’:

“Having killed some marmots sunning themselves belly up in the sun with their noses in the air one sunrise in September, skin them and carefully put aside the mass of fat which is excellent for rubbing into the bellies of pregnant women, into the knees, ankles, and painful joints of sprains, and into leather shoes.
Cut up the marmot and treat it like stewed hare which has a perfume that is unique and wild.”

That’s it, that’s the whole recipe.  For every fifteen normal recipes, there is one or two like this, which makes reading the whole book worthwhile even if you would not normally read (or skim) an cookbook cover to cover.

8/10

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From the State Hospital Attic

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I got The Lives They Left Behind from the library after reading a description that I found by chance: several hundred suitcases belonging to ex-patients were found in the attic of the abandoned Willard Psychiatric Centre in New York; this book uses these suitcases to explore the lives of patients and look more broadly at the state of psychiatry in the past.

At its base, it’s a very interesting premise: it allows for stories which would be otherwise untold to be heard, while the personal element of the patients’ suitcases (with photographs and descriptions of items such as handkerchiefs, clothing, photo albums, or letters) makes the stories more moving, in a way.  These aren’t just the stories of nameless masses, but of real people — nameless masses don’t keep sewing notions or silk gowns.  It’s the human interest touch.  And rather than making these personal stories simply individual cases, they are used to expand upon broader social issues, such as the place of gender, race, colonialism, immigration, trauma, and class in connection with diagnoses of mental illnesses (usually dementia praecox, or schizophrenia).  This was great!  Although I thought overall the book was not written that well (the tone felt too casual for my taste), I appreciated this look at intersectionality, which was insightful.  I also appreciated historical background on psychiatric facilities, medications, treatments, therapies, and so on, as well as the sensitivity with which the authors dealt with each patient referenced, attempting to understand what brought these people to Willard.

However, the biggest problem I had was with the way the authors seemed intent on almost denying that any of the patients were unwell.  The agenda of this book was clearly an anti-psychiatry one, and with good reason, but the point was largely that patients at Willard, where they were often kept for decades, if not until their deaths, should not have been at this hospital.  In some cases, this seems entirely fair: marginalized people who made rich, white, established Americans uncomfortable could be called crazy and locked up.  People with brief issues (one angry outburst, a night of drunkenness) would be condemned as incurable schizophrenics and given torturous treatments.  Patients who desired their freedom and showed no signs of any kind of mental distress would live out their lives and die at Willard.  There is no doubt that these people were harmed irreparably by the institution, and denied their freedom and often even health, such as in the case of patients given antipsychotics who developed permanent tardive dyskensia.  But a lot of the cases seem to describe people who were generally quite mentally ill and in need of care.  A patient with consistent delusions that he was Jesus Christ and that he must marry Margaret Truman, for example, was likely unwell.  Though this psychosis may have been triggered by trauma, and though he was mistreated, denied his freedom, and abused with violent therapies, it is evident that he required care and help, and was, from descriptions of his life before admittance to Willard, unable to care for himself and without anyone to care for him.  Yet the authors persist in writing in a way which suggests that the issue is not that this man, or other patients like him, are unwell and in need of care.

While the mistreatment and incarceration of people who are not mentally ill or whose mental illness can be explained by outside (that is, non-biological) causes was and is a terrible problem, the mistreatment and incarceration of people whose mental illnesses are biological or not brief, singular episodes is just as bad.  In an epilogue, the authors discuss how therapy can be helpful to patients, which is true, and without a doubt enforcing treatments which have horrific side effects and low chances of working is not helpful.  But it felt too much like the authors were overly biased towards therapy and community-based care rather than inpatient and medicinal treatments.  It is my opinion that it’s not really one or the other.  Really, to me at least, it’s neither.  Both talk therapies and medicine (as well as other treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy) have varying success rates.  Depending on where you live, all are far too expensive, while many treatments can have quite severe physical and mental side effects — they are not accessible and can make things much worse.  Until we have treatments with higher success rates and fewer negative side effects, I won’t consider mental health care to be advanced.  While this book shows the differences between how patients were treated decades ago and now, I am wary of thinking that things being worse then means things are good now.  Things are just less worse.

So overall: a very interesting book which does well in terms of intersectionality, and is a very fast read; overly biased but with good historical information.  6.5/10

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

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After about a month, I have finally finished Sylvia Plath’s unabridged journals.  Journals untainted by the demon that is Ted Hughes!  Reading a journal which spans around a decade from a woman’s late teens to early thirties, from the early 1950s to the beginning of the 1960s, in a nearly 900 page book, is quite a journey.  You get accustomed to Plath.  Reading a couple entries daily, she became a part of my life; her personal thoughts and adventures intersecting with my own.  Needless to say, it feels sad to have finished.  Like losing a friend.  Plath’s most innermost thoughts were a part of my daily life, meshing with my own journaling, and now they’re gone.  It leaves an emptiness for me.

Firstly, the journals begin when she is young.  Though in her late teens, however, one is struck by her style and skill as an author.  Then one is jealous of her skill, especially at such a young age.  Then one reads her entries on her own jealousies, envy, of people more successful than her, her ambitions, and one forgets their own jealousies of the young adult Plath and instead embraces the sense of familiarity and relatability.  And the entries are so relatable.  Unanimously so.  Going to the goodreads page of this book one will fine numerous comments on the relatability of the content.  For myself, I found that sometimes entries were nearly identical to things I had written in my own journals, word for word.  Other than weird coincidences like that, there is the emotion which is so familiar.  Outrage, sadness, despair, excitement, drive, needs, weakness, strength, arrogance, anger.  It’s candid, as a journal should be, and so we recognize our own often hidden emotions, even the more shameful ones or the ones which are rarely represented otherwise.

Can you understand?  Someone, somewhere, can you understand me a little, love me a little?  For all my despair, for all my ideals, for all that — I love life.  But it is hard, and I have so much — so very much to learn —

At the same time I was plagued by the ethics of reading a journal.  On the one hand, you have her journals unadultered by Ted Hughes — that’s a good thing!  On the other hand: would she have published these journals had she been alive?  The unabridged journals are necessary in the face of Hughes’ edits, but should the edits have even been opened to the public?  Journals are private; I know I wouldn’t want mine public.  And again I think: perhaps I wouldn’t care if my journals were published when I was dead.  Because the dead can’t think of such things.  But then there is the issue of Plath’s own wanting of The Bell Jar to be published under a pseudonym to avoid hurting those mentioned in the book — would not her journals be even more biting to her loved ones and acquaintances who she is completely honest about?  And then again I think of the passage in her journal where she reads the diaries of Virginia Woolf.  She herself consumed private yet published writing, so why shouldn’t we?

Overall, I got a lot from these journals, and I know a lot of people do.  They were moving and beautifully written.  They were engaging.  They took up a big place in my life while I went through years of her life.  And I still feel that I am invading her privacy.  I cannot deny the impact the journals have had on me, but I also cannot deny my feelings of guilt over reading them.  Nor can I deny how I ignored this guilt and kept reading…

 

Arrogant Men, Humble Women

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I recently read Walden.  

I did not enjoy it.

The first fifteen pages or so were misguidingly lovely; politically inspiring and beautifully written.  Then came the boredom.  The technicalities of living and creating life in the wilderness were presented in dull lists and dry descriptions.  But compared to the sentiments that came next, boredom was welcomed.

Thoreau is obnoxiously arrogant.  He writes frequently of how living alone in the wilderness is something everyone can and should do.  Students could cheaply build their own cabins in the woods instead of complaining about the high prices of  housing.  One can easily eat wild succulents boiled in salt water with woodchuck meat instead of go to a restaurant and spend money.  Rather than making a point about the trap of oppressive and exclusive capitalist luxury, the whole thing feels like a brag.  ‘I’m so much better than you because I can live off of stale bread and boiled weeds.’  And more than that, it feels inauthentic.  He’ll mention modes of help, horses to carry lumber for instance, but argue, ‘Oh, yeah, I had the horses, but really I did most of the carrying, they barely helped me, I didn’t really need them.’  The book is simply irritating, without any way of proving how much Thoreau really roughed it in the wilderness, and a sense of being spoken down to by a man whose superiority complex  is derived from his ability to be content eating rodents and denying himself yeast in bread-making.

By coincidence, I discovered around the same time that I was reading Walden the documentaries on Hannah Hauxwell.  Though dated especially in their treatment of gender, they provide a look at a woman who is charming, pleasant, engaging, and authentically living on her own outside of society.  You can watch them here:

Audrey at Home

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Audrey Hepburn is probably my favourite actor.  I’m a bit obsessed with her.  I wish I was her.  So the chance to eat like her is very exciting.  Luca Dotti, her son, exploits Audrey Hepburn for all she’s worth, so this book is perfect for fans.  Opening his introduction with an anecdote about being “Mrs. Dotti’s son,” not Audrey’ Hepburn’s, it seems a little silly to have a whole book about looking in on the star’s secret personal life, a life peppered with stories that often involve her Hollywood career and star friends.  She really just loved to stay at home, eat some pasta and chocolate cake with her sons and dogs in front of the TV, because she’s just a normal person!  A normal person who’s best friends were the wives of Yul Brynner and Gary Cooper, who socialized with Gregory Peck and Robert Wagner.  Here’s a snapshot of her sunbathing with Givenchy.  Here’s a little story about how here Oscar was tucked away on a bookshelf because she didn’t care much about it.  She only cared about pasta.  But just don’t forget she had an Oscar, OK? Insert jokes about how Audrey was the Fairest Lady and how her whole life was a Roman Holiday.  But she was just your typical average housewife and mom!  Also a UNICEF hero.  Don’t forget it!

I shouldn’t be cynical and negative, since the recipes are fun and as a fan of Audrey Hepburn I kind of love the whole thing, though as a vegetarian there isn’t too much I can try.  Also I can enjoy something while seeing it as a very transparent attempt at exploiting celebrity, an attempt veined with misogyny which posits the role of housewife/mother as the most noble and desirable.  But I also love pasta, and it reminds me of when I spent a year eating pasta at least once a day, which gave me a lot of time to experiment with sauces and toppings.  I found that I really enjoyed a light spaghetti for lunch with garlic, olive oil, and finely chopped spinach so that it was sort of like a spinach pesto, and then a linguine with tomato sauce of mushrooms, carrots, garlic, onions, and imitation ground beef (this was when I lived in Dublin so it was Quorn brand, and that really absorbs sauce much better than anything I’ve had in Canada) for dinner.  More recently, I like spaghettini (which cooks fast) or linguini (which suits this dish better) with olive oil, chopped artichokes, parmesan, and lots of pepper and perhaps a splash of red wine.  Or a nice tomato sauce with olives and hot peppers.  My favourite meal was, and maybe still is, pasta with a simple lettuce salad (vinaigrette is very easy to make and much tastier than anything store-bought; I started with Julia Child’s recipe and ended up with something closer to an eyeballed amount of olive oil, then equal parts dijon mustard and wine vinegar close to about a tablespoon each. Then add garlic salt and pepper to taste) and a cup of tea (I drank orange pekoe with milk and sugar); I got the idea from a Haruki Murakami short story, and ended up eating pasta every day for close to a year.  It was a good idea, and I remember enjoying the story, though I feel as though I’ve outgrown Murakami somewhat.  I have fond memories of his writing and his food obsessions, but the way he treats his women characters is juvenile sexism at best, violently misogynist at worst.  His work perhaps merits revisiting, but whether or not I have outgrown Murakami, I can say for certain I have not outgrown spaghetti.

Back to this book, I made eight of the recipes over a few weeks.

Salads

Tricolore Caprese Salad: it’s supposed to have avocado but mine was no good and I left it out; it was still good, despite my mistake:

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Peach Salad: also straying a bit from the recipe, which called for fresh mint.  I could not find any and left it out.  It was still good, but it’s hard to make sweet peaches bad.

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Pastas

Spaghetti al Pomodoro:  You can find the recipe here.  Mine isn’t the prettiest pasta but it is a nice, basic sauce.  I left out the sugar as I found my tomatoes and carrots were both sweet enough.

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Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino: It’s barely a recipe but quite tasty.

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Penne alla Vodka: of all the recipes I made, this was the most disappointing.  A good enough sauce, but most definitely not worth the effort.  I will stick to the pomodoro.

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Desserts

Madeleines: I was glad that the recipe was not the traditional lemon-flavoured kind as I am not a fan of citrusy baked goods.  They make for a good tea biscuit.  I added a splash of vanilla which I think helped to make the flavour a bit less flat, as otherwise these would be very plain.

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Chocolate Cake: Very moist, and tasty.  Perhaps closer to a brownie than a cake, which I prefer anyway.

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Pears in Wine: So easy and glamorous!!

Overall, I think it’s a very novel idea to have a biography cookbook, and it’s fun.  Many of the recipes are quite easy to make, though I didn’t care for the number of them which were not actually Audrey Hepburn’s (why would I care about Luca Dotti’s wife’s cake?).  But it’s a sweet idea, and everything turned out fairly well.  I’ve also never spent this long on a single blog post.

Mad Like Artaud

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Artaud, age 2

Mme. M: He took care of us.  When I was little, like all little girls I tried to write poems.  I would bring them to him and ask his opinion.  He would say, “This one’s good.  This ones horrible.  You can fix this one.”  He was so invested in … in what I asked of him.  And at Christmas for example, he took me into his room and we wrote letters and made cards for our parents and slipped them under the napkins for Christmas Eve dinner.  He dictated the letters.  This is to tell you that, ultimately, he was very attached to us.

JL: He was very affectionate.

Mme. M: Yes, very.  I can’t tell you how affectionate.

JL: Also, he was always seeking affection.

Mme. M: Oh yes, always.  Always looking for affection … now how can I put it?  He’d never forget birthdays or holidays.  He would put money aside a long time in advance for these occasions.  He bought mother….  One day after he had seen a statue in a store, he took me there to see if it was suitable, then he went in and bought it!  So you see he was very thoughtful.  He was always trying … to please others.

From the end of the interview between Mme. Marie-Ange Malausséna (Mme. M), Antonin Artaud’s Sister, with Jacques Latrémolière (JL), Artaud’s doctor at Rodez, in Mad Like Artaud by Sylvère Lotringer (trans. Joanna Spinks)

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How sweet!