Late-blooming Love & My Review of “A Homemade Life”

Here’s an embarrassing tidbit: I only started reading Orangette recently. Like, very recently. Within the last few weeks, even. (I’m blushing just writing this!) Belated adoption of trends is old hat for me; I got an iPod a year later than all my friends, and even then I persisted in using my Discman (remember those?) for a month or two before transitioning to Normal Person Technology. I hadn’t heard of Vampire Weekend until Kidz Bop remade all their songs. I still balance my checkbook the old-fashioned way. Hell, I still balance my checkbook.

Still, it’s not without a modicum of shame that I admit this failing to you. How could I have remained oblivious so long? I wondered. When Orangette was founded (July ’04), I was enjoying the summer vacation after my sophomore year in college. Probably, I was smoking Parliaments on my parents’ back porch, reading library copies of Nabokov and Lorrie Moore and wishing I were back in Galesburg. Then, I returned to school, studied abroad, returned to the US, went to grad school, and on and on. Grad school, as you know, was a Dark Cave which no light (or pop cultural influence) could penetrate. Thank god I’m in the real world, breathing real air and letting my skin see the sun!

It boils down to this: I was a latecomer to food blogs in general, so my shame at missing the onset of Orangette should be viewed as no more grievous than my late discovery of any of the other jawesome blogs out there. It comes down too to the fact that my Personal Internet — the constellation of sites I visit on a daily and weekly basis — is very small. It consists of facebook, Gmail, goodreads, several news sites, Wikipedia, and blogs. That’s about it. Oh, and Flickr. Also some shopping sites. But most of the internet is unknown to me, as it is unknown to you, dear reader. Most of the internet is garbled spam.

Molly Wizenberg, creator of "Orangette" and author of "A Homemade Life." (Photo from Orangette.)

Back to Orangette. When I heard about Wizenberg’s blog, I clicked over there immediately. I read the most recent posts, admired the quality of light in the Polaroids, read a few archived pieces. That weekend, I bought Wizenberg’s book, A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes From My Kitchen Table. I read it in two days. (Note: it helps that I’m a fast reader –thanks, grad school! — and that the book itself has largeish font and plentiful illustrations.) Immediately, I was drawn to Wizenberg’s voice: wry, intelligent, worldly (but not ostentatiously so). I loved the author’s inclusion of small details — her father’s stick-thin legs and low-hanging belly; her characterization of herself as a pretentious high-schooler, wearing 11-cent thrift store pants and fake eyelashes; innumerably more — her propensity toward jangly run-ons and funnily-placed commas.

It helped, too, that Wizenberg’s tastes in music, food, and extracurriculars closely mirror my own. As I read, I found myself thinking, Hey, I could be friends with this person, if “this person” weren’t 1) famous, and 2) living in another city. When I read fiction, I don’t focus as much on whether I identify with the narrator’s or even the author’s beliefs and preferences. I’m there for the language first and then the story, elegant sentence constructions and images that will linger for days. With memoir, it’s different. I don’t want to read about the experiences of a person whom I might dislike in real life — what’s the point? More than any other genre, memoir relies on the bond forged between author and reader, that slow-built, tremulous thing. Wizenberg does a stellar job of connecting with my demographic (20somethings who like food, books, NPR, biking, and accessories from Etsy), at the same time keeping her narrative G-rated enough and attuned to Universal Themes to appeal to a broader audience (i.e., one that might include my mom). Well played, lady. And yet. While I loved Wizenberg’s descriptions of food, of people and places, her language at once so evocative but never too dense, I at times felt the narrative lacked conflict. How so? you might wonder. After all, the book is centered largely on the unexpected death of the author’s father, an event that none could claim to be less than devastating. My qualms, I think, lie with Wizenberg’s depictions of her reactions to this and other life-altering events. Wizenberg the Character (as opposed to W.t.Author) never flies off the handle. She grieves, but in a seemingly-self-contained and socially-appropriate way. She doesn’t drink, she doesn’t swear, she won’t dye her hair. Her lived experience is presented in tidy bundles, devoid of conflict extraneous to That Which Was Decided Upon for a given chapter.

It’s a given that I can’t speak for the author’s experience (doi!), but as a reader who felt such kinship with the author, I’d have liked to see a bit more messiness, a few more frayed edges, in Wizenberg’s self-representation. Did Wizenberg ever buy one too many pairs of shoes and feel the queasy pangs of buyer’s remorse? Did she ever bicker with her husband? These sorts of details make a memoir more approachable and less pristine.

I’m glad, in some ways, that I began reading Orangette after I read Wizenberg’s book. Certain chapters of the book were inspired by blog posts, and comparing the original posts with their buffed-up revisions appeals to the ghost of an MFA student still rattling around inside me. In many cases, I like the original entries more. This may be because I’m very familiar with the revision process; I’ve sat through hours of workshops with colleagues telling me to axe words, sentences, or whole sections from pieces. That’s just how revision goes. Still, I have an appreciation for those unselfconscious, sprawling early attempts, the range they hint at and the flaws they contain.

In voicing my (oh-so-minor) qualms with A Homemade Life, I’m splitting hairs. I really enjoyed the book: Wizenberg’s strong command of language, her images, the sequencing of the chapters. I’ve enjoyed the one recipe I’ve tried (scones!). And I still think that if M.W. and I lived in the same city and ran into each other at a Grizzly Bear show, we’d become fast friends.


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