(I decide a lot of things at the beginning of a lot of years. It is, I am pretty sure, what makes me human.)
But. It is now nearly April. I looked at my calendar the other day and experienced a moment of mild anxiety when I realized this. The first cause of anxiety: Q1 client reports are due soon! The second: I still haven't posted my books-I-read-in-2017 list yet!
Sadly, I only read fourteen books last year. (Fifteen total, if you count my random impulse re-read of Ender's Game in April.) And with mixed results when it came to accomplishing the reading goals I'd set for myself at the beginning of 2017, which were: read more books by people of colour, by women, by people who have been dead for over a century.
On that note, I just Googled Thomas Hardy's death date to make sure I hit at least one in that last bucket and it turns out he only died in 1928! Which means he's only been dead for ninety years, which means, it turns out, I completely failed in that last goal. Catch me reading any more Hardy before 2028.
It's a very specific feeling of betrayal to discover that someone you thought had been dead for a hundred years has only in fact been dead for ninety.
Anyway. Ten years notwithstanding, 'Far From the Madding Crowd' is a gorgeous book—there are a lot of devastating sheep deaths, though, so sheep-lovers should avoid—and Bathsheba Everdene is a Victorian feminist icon. (She is where Katniss Everdeen gets her last name from!) Also, the movie adaptation with Carey Mulligan is pretty decent overall, and more than decent visually, and has the plus factor of introducing me to the ludicrously manly Matthias Schoenaerts, and consequently to 'Rust and Bone,' his movie with Marion Cotillard, which I adored a lot.
But by far my favourite read from 2017, lent to me by Edwin, was 'Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook,' by Queen of Slow Cooking and matron saint of Berkeley, Alice Waters (can I still call her a matron saint if she is still living? I'm doing it).
I'm lucky enough to say I've eaten at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse, twice. Once at the main restaurant, during my sophomore year at Berkeley, for no other reason than that a group of my friends were dying to go, and that I unhesitatingly wanted in on every fun-sounding outing with everyone in those first two years of college. I knew nothing of Alice Waters or slow food or California cuisine or the profound impact her cooking has had on American eating. We all wore our nicest clothes and ate an exquisite meal which none of us had any business spending our parents' money on, really—even though we had picked a Monday, because it was the least expensive day—and watched excitedly from our table as the chefs turned over whatever they were turning over in that big brick oven, which even from far away felt warm and comforting. Comforting is a key word. We were wearing dresses and nice shirts and the server came out with multiple courses and the lights were low and the tablecloths spotless and yet our surroundings never made us feel that they were too posh for us. We laughed a lot and enjoyed one another's conversation and ate a delicious meal which had been visibly prepared with care. I have no idea what we ate, but I remember that the bread in particular was so, so perfect—how can bread be this good? we wondered—none of us could get enough of that bread.
I learned more about Alice Waters and Chez Panisse in the following years and began to look back on that dining experience my sophomore year with an increasing, retrospective wonder, the way you look back at a show you once saw in which someone famous and highly talented had performed, only you hadn't known they were so famous and so talented at the time but gradually discovered it later, and gained an even deeper sense of awe and gratitude after the fact for having been able to see them perform, to have experienced the wonder of their talent up close.
This is an experience I've had multiple times now between LA and New York, in case you had not gathered from the specificity of the analogy. Darcy Carden? Michelle Wolf? I was in the presence of greatness and didn't even know it.
The second time I ate at Chez Panisse was last spring, when I was still living in Berkeley and Edwin came to visit from Michigan, and said, hey, let's have dinner at Chez Panisse Cafe, an early Valentine's Day date. That was five years after my first time at Chez Panisse, which meant it was after five years of absorbing more of Berkeley's culture and Berkeley's history, which meant this time around I had a slightly better appreciation for the food set before me, the individual ingredients, the journey they had taken to arrive on my plate, and the woman behind it all.
All this to say, if after two experiences of eating at Chez Panisse, I still lacked any awareness that Alice Waters Is The Shit, reading her book 'Coming to My Senses' last year made it very abundantly, inescapably clear that she is. And not because she tries to make herself out to be, in her book. She shares the details of her journey, from Jersey to Indiana to Santa Barbara to Berkeley to Paris! to Berkeley again, freely and without any pretense. Her reflections on Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, and on her discoveries of film and printmaking and and calligraphy through her filmmaker and printmaker and calligrapher friends are especially fascinating and thrilling and made me wonder if I had missed something in my own four years at Berkeley, had not squeezed every drop from my time there that I could have if I had known what to look for.
But the best thing about reading Alice Waters' book was being able to finally, slowly, come to understand the full extent of her impact, the reach of her cultural and aesthetic approach to cooking and eating, her influence when it comes to organic and locally sourced ingredients. Did you know we basically have Alice Waters to thank for bringing mesclun salad to this country? And fingerling potatoes? Are you kidding me? I effing love fingerling potatoes.
I was in the presence of greatness—twice!—and kind of knew it, but now I know for sure.
Full list of books I read in 2017:
- The Devil Wears Prada, by Lauren Weisberger
- Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson
- A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman
- Far From the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy
- Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
- Native Speaker, by Chang-Rae Lee
- The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy
- Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan
- Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
- Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon
- China Rich Girlfriend, by Kevin Kwan
- The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro
- Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook, by Alice Waters
- Rich People Problems, by Kevin Kwan