When I first watched this scene in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) I had been a vegetarian for two years, but was oddly compelled by it: the yellow kitchen, the rose-red of the meat, the graceful ease with which Mia Farrow plunges into the steak’s fleshy center with a fork. I woke up craving steak the next day: blood pooling against the lip of a plate, the tangy taste of metal against my teeth. I was ravenous and repulsed by my own appetite.
But maybe what I was feeling was not so much the desire to eat steak, but the desire to be allowed to desire. The desire being met, being recognized, something clearly being given in to. An appetite satiated, without complication.
But the differences between British and American English go beyond words, sounds and spelling to grammar itself. Here they can be subtle, but they are many: the index of the “Cambridge Grammar of the English Language” mentions regional differences in 95 places. America being the parvenu, most people assume that any variations between the two countries result from American innovation, to the (sometimes mock) horror of Britons. In reality, America has often been the conservative one, and Britain the innovator. When British speakers borrow American habits, they are sometimes unwittingly readopting an older version of their language.
In Sharlene Teo’s wise, tenderly grotesque novel the introduction of teenaged protagonist Szu is effected in a cloud of body odor. “When I was eleven,” Szu grumbles, sitting in a classroom that smells of Impulse body spray and soiled sanitary towels, “I used to hope that puberty would morph me, that one day I’d uncurl from my chrysalis, bloom out beautiful. No luck! Acne instead. Disgusting hair. Blood.” Overflowing with monsters and matriarchs, Teo’s novel is at least partially a horror narrative and draws much of its impetus from the backstory of Szu’s mother, Amisa, a former horror actress, who once starred in a movie named Ponti! The film, telling the story of a deformed girl who makes a deal with a bomoh—a shaman—to become beautiful, pins the theme of transformation at the novel’s heart. Her wish is granted, but the transformation is a dual one. She does become beautiful, but she also becomes a bloodthirsty monster who feeds insatiably upon men. Teo’s novel stresses this duality, writing female adolescence as, in effect, synonymous with female monstrosity, with the becoming of something other. Szu is nicknamed “Sadako,” after another classic horror movie monster, and her adolescence is a lank, disquieting thing, at once disappointing and horrendous. She is turning into a woman, she is turning into a monster; the two things are one and the same.
Bibliomania required, or at least implied, a librarian, except in those circumstances where collectors felt that they themselves had the time, interest, and expertise to take on the role for themselves. Some owners were confident that they did, but others were more doubtful. At Chatsworth, for example, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, though a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, was self-conscious of his lack of learning, writing to his librarian, the Shakespearean scholar and notorious forger John Payne Collier (1789–1883): “I am not worthy of my own collection, I am sorry to say; and I want you, as far as you can, to make me worthy of it by informing my ignorance.”
Nonetheless his papers include detailed notes outlining what would now be called a job description for a librarian, while Payne Collier was paid a handsome £200 a year. The well-bred bachelor duke enjoyed at best an uneasy relationship with his self-made librarian, whom he thought “simple and vulgar.” But at Stowe, the 1st Duke of Buckingham (1776–1839), had a closer and more affectionate friendship with the learned Dr. Charles O’Conor (1764–1828), a Catholic priest, but also a member of an ancient and aristocratic Irish family, whose grandfather the antiquarian Charles O’Conor (1710–91) had once owned many of the famed Irish manuscripts. Going down to Soane’s Gothic Library in 1827 to take his leave of O’Conor for the last time, Buckingham was deeply moved to find that his “old friend,” a man with a history of mental illness and by then apparently senile, was struggling to pack for his final journey back to Ireland, and was upset when the librarian displayed no signs of emotion as his employer kissed his forehead.
Back in 1875, when salmon runs first started to crash, the Smithsonian scientist and U.S. fish commissioner Spencer Fullerton Baird was hired by the Oregon legislature to draft a plan. He knew and identified the real problems: overfishing, the degradation of high mountain streams, and an overabundance of dams, many with no fish passage. But Baird, calculating that there was no political will to solve the underlying problems, proposed a cheaper solution: hatcheries. The salmon life cycle would be reproduced by scientists, the eggs fertilized and sown into rivers like wheat into fields. For just $15,000 a year in operating costs, he promised an unlimited harvest, and Oregon and the rest of the Columbia watershed set about building hatcheries that cranked out billions of fertilized eggs over the course of the next century.
It didn’t work. Salmon runs plummeted, despite the constant supply of artificially fertilized fish. Even when the first run of salmon was listed under the Endangered Species Act, in 1991, and the United States began spending tens of billions more on hatcheries and other salmon-restoration projects in the Pacific Northwest, the runs only marginally improved. While the threat of extinction has receded since 1983’s record low of 185,000 Columbia Chinook, the few million-fish runs have still been well below historic levels, and last year only 336,000 Chinook surged up a river that drains more water than all of France.
Today, about 300 million salmon are planted annually in the American Pacific Northwest (Alaska and Canada plant hundreds of millions more). They are grown in some 300 public fish hatcheries scattered around the watershed, many of them jointly operated by the state and the feds. Rapid River’s design was typical: a series of twelve long cement pens, all of which were stained with black mold and topped with rusting walkways. About 3 million tiny fish were spread out in front of me. In the spring they would be released directly into the river, or transported in tanker trucks and poured out upstream using long plastic chutes. Here they were still growing and waiting, circling slowly—a dark cloud of life.
On Monday, May 13, Jean-Georges Vongerichten got into a car outside his apartment in the West Village and asked to be taken to the airport. It would have been an odd time to leave town: The next day he was opening a new restaurant, the Fulton, in Lower Manhattan, on the waterfront facing Brooklyn. But Vongerichten wasn’t flying anywhere. He was going to check in on another restaurant, this one opening on Wednesday, inside the new TWA Hotel at J.F.K.
Opening two restaurants back to back, on consecutive days, would be impressive for a Chipotle or an In-N-Out Burger. It’s absolutely unheard-of for a fine-dining chef like Vongerichten. It also wasn’t part of the plan. The two openings had been years in the making, both tied up in larger redevelopment projects that the chef had no control over, so he could do little but watch as the deadlines slowly converged on each other: The opening date for the Fulton kept getting pushed back, while the other, for the Paris Café, didn’t budge. As late as mid-April, Vongerichten still thought he would have a few days’ buffer between them, but then that, too, disappeared.
The spirit of that moment (and I knew it then) is the perfect flow through to Gail, whose writing is one you want to tell things to. The only way to read Heroine is to be in it. A few days later I was in London and I made a note to tell Gail (the book) about the people praying in the cafe this evening.
So what I mainly want to assert is that Heroine is more a work of reading than of writing, it is all studio, by which I mean it’s something fabulously risky and alive. It’s literature and the possibility of it.
His third essay collection, “Ecstasy and Terror,” is a master class in criticism, a rangy, perspicacious, occasionally spiky excursion into cultures both ancient and contemporary. His breadth of reference is characteristically formidable – “From the Greeks to Game of Thrones” (the book’s subtitle), “from Corneille to ‘The Crown’ ” – and put to good use. He knows that a well-chosen example, especially one that collapses traditional distinctions between high and popular culture, can be erudite, authoritative, even cool, all at once. There are dozens here. But they always feel earned; he’s done the hard work. To read Mendelsohn is to gain a synoptic view of a subject, whether it’s the novels of Ingmar Bergman, “the Sappho wars” or the unexpected relationship between robots and Homer.
Ruth Reichl recently told the Columbia Journalism Review that we can tell every story through food. “If you want to read about women’s lives throughout history, you can do it through cookbooks,” she said. “If you want to teach math, you want to teach history, there’s nothing you can’t get to through food. It is one of the major forces in the world.” Her new memoir, Save Me the Plums, tells the story of her decade as editor-in-chief of Gourmet Magazine by detailing the food she ate, prepared, and tested during her time at the magazine. In Gourmet’s glory days, Reichl ate caviar-stuffed baked potatoes named after Condé Nast’s chief executive and took prospective advertisers out for Serrano ham carved at the table, imagining she could taste the acorns the Iberian pigs ate “in the soft lacy fat at the edge of the meat.” But as the 2008 financial crisis changed Americans’ ideas of luxury and possibility, Gourmet’s menus changed too. If food can tell any story, this one tells the story of a nation’s heyday and financial collapse, tracing the interconnection between food and money.