mastering_the_art_of_french_eatingI was making a quiche, rubbing butter and flour between my fingertips, and thinking about the French immersion course I took before I moved to Paris, about the lessons and my classmates, and a poem that we learned by heart. It’s a slight poem, and mournful. I can still recite the words.

Chanson d’Automne de Paul Verlaine

Les sanglots longs
des violons
de l’automne
blessent mon coeur
d’une langueur

Tout suffocant
et blême, quand
sonne l’heure
je me souviens
des jours anciens
et je pleure

Et je m’en vais
au vent mauvais
qui m’emporte
decà, delà
pareil à la
feuille morte

(Translation: The long sobs of autumn’s violins wound my heart with a dreary lethargy.

All stifled and lifeless, when the hour strikes I remember days gone by and I weep.

And so I go on an ill wind, which carries me here and there like a dead leaf.)

Pretty mournful, right?

The cadence of Paul Verlaine’s autumn song swam in my head as I squeezed water from defrosted spinach, and chopped some steamed broccoli, and whisked together eggs, milk, and cheese. When the quiche was in the oven, I sat down at my computer and Googled “Chanson d’Automne.” And I made a discovery.

During World War II, the BBC and the French Resistance developed a code to signal the start of Operation Overlord, aka D-Day—and they used the first three lines of Chanson d’Automne as an alert. When repeated twice—“Les sanglots longs/ des violons/ de l’automne”—meant that operations would start within two weeks. The lines were broadcast on June 1, 1944. When the poem’s next three lines were transmitted twice—“Blessent mon coeur/ d’une langueur/ monotone”—it signaled that the action would take place within 48 hours and that the Resistance should begin sabotage operations. These lines were broadcast on June 5, 1944.

It turns out that Paul Verlaine’s despondent poem—part of an 1866 series that he oh-so-cheerfully entitled Paysages Tristes, or “sad landscapes”—was actually a symbol of hope.

I leave you with a recipe for quiche and the wish that cooking it may bring you many insightful, heartening, and inspiring contemplations.

quiche_ mastering_the_art_of_french_eatingSpinach and cheese quiche

1 recipe pâte brisée dough
1 lb frozen chopped spinach
1 cup grated cheese (Comté, Gruyère)
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups milk or cream
Salt and pepper

With clean cool hands and a floured rolling pin, roll out the dough on a floured surface and fit it into a 22-cm/10-inch tart pan. Prick the bottom and sides with a fork. Chill for one hour (allegedly this reduces the shrinking). Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Bake the tart crust until golden brown, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from oven.

While the shell is baking, defrost the spinach and squeeze it dry (I usually use my bare hands. It’s very satisfying). Combine with the milk, cheese, and beaten eggs. Season well. Pour the egg mixture into the prepared crust. Bake in the center of the oven for 30 minutes, or until the quiche is puffed, set, and lightly golden.

afoot_in_st_croixIt happens on every research trip. By now, you’d think I would have learned.

A seemingly innocuous piece of advice slips into a casual conversation between a departing tourist and a new arrival. After the hi, how are you’s and the obligatory so where are you from’s comes the inevitable transition to the veteran’s activities of the previous week. This is a discussion topic of which every traveler should be wary.

I’m talking about the “can’t miss” recommendation.

I fall for it every time.

What kind of a writer would I be if I didn’t check out this “must see” location? After all, the whole point of my visit is to search out fictional inspiration. This treacherous line of reasoning frequently gets me into trouble.

And so it went on my most recent trip to the Caribbean island of Tortola. The recommendation was for Smuggler’s Cove, an isolated out-of-the way beach with stunning views of neighboring Jost van Dyke. Could this be the site of a critical scene in a future novel? There was only one way to find out.

The next morning I asked for directions from the owner of the inn where I was staying. In typical Caribbean fashion, she provided me with the following route:

“Go past the Bomba Shack…” (In the Caribbean, a rum shack is almost always a navigational compass point) “…turn left at the bottom of the hill across from the public parking lot. There’s a little sign, next to a big boulder. You can’t miss it.” (This is generally an indication that I will, indeed, miss it.) “After that, just follow the road.”

I set off in my put-put rental jeep, which was running on about 1.8 of its 4 cylinders. I would soon realize I needed the brakes as much as the missing horsepower.

I found my way past the rum shack, but predictably got stymied looking for the signed turnoff. After parking in a private parking lot for a large resort, I pulled out a map that had come with the rental. I rotated the sheet several times, trying to reconcile the innkeeper’s instructions with the cartographer’s cartooned island depiction. The only mapped road I could find appeared to run through the resort.

A West Indian man strolled past, apparently on his way to Bomba’s.

“Excuse me,” I said. “I’m looking for the road to Smuggler’s Cove?”

“Yeah, sure,” he replied. He looked at me as if this was one of the silliest questions he’d ever heard. “It’s right there.” He pointed at a concrete-covered hill I’d wrongly assumed to be someone’s driveway.

“That’s the road?” I asked.

Nodding his head, he made a dramatic gesturing motion with his arms and then continued his trek to the rum shack.

With encouraging words to the gerbils powering the jeep’s engine, I switched to the lowest gear, mashed the accelerator to the floor, and began to slowly inch up the concrete’s near vertical pitch.

The “road” quickly narrowed to the width of the jeep, and the concrete petered out to a dirt path littered with sharp volcanic rocks. After a couple of tight turns, the jungle closed in on either side. I couldn’t see more than ten feet past the front bumper.

God forbid I meet someone coming from the opposite direction, I thought grimly. There was no room to turn around and no way I was backing the jeep down the hill. I felt certain I was about to pop a tire, and, of course, I’d lost all cell phone reception. It was easily the worst incline I’d ever driven – and mind you, I’m from Colorado.

Plodding forward, because there was no other choice, I eventually reached the summit. From there, it became clear that the makeshift road had been designed to skirt around the resort boundaries, presumably due to complaints about people driving through their private grounds. Once I completed the cut-around portion, the going was far easier.

I soon reached my destination, a pristine beach with a jaw-dropping view –packed with about fifty other people who’d all been given the same “must see” advice.

I spent a wonderful afternoon at Smuggler’s Cove. I even met a potential future fictional character in an enterprising Tortolan who ran a full mini-bar out of an ice chest and a fold up table.

When it was time to leave, I took the flat, paved road through the resort, confidently waving at its employees as if I was a paying guest.

At dinner later that night, I struck up a conversation with a lovely couple that had just arrived on the island.

“What do you recommend we do while we’re here?” they asked politely.

“Oh, there’s this beach that you have to visit.” I replied. “Smuggler’s Cove. Take the road down past the Bomba Shack, then turn left at the big boulder…”

mastering_the_art_of_french_eatingFor me, the only thing better than eating in Paris is reading in Paris. Happily for us Anglophones, the City of Light offers a bevy of quirky, quaint, and eclectic English-language bookshops, a veritable book lover’s feast. But if you’re anything like me, shopping makes you hungry. Here, then, are some of my favorite bookstores, paired with a nearby restaurant, so you can read and snack to your heart’s content.

The Abbey Bookshop (29 rue de la Parcheminerie) — The small space overflows with new and used books, and the author reading events sometimes spill over into the small pedestrian street outside with people sipping wine and chatting about literature late into the night. Owner Brian Spence offers astute reading suggestions and is wonderfully supportive of local writers. Food tip: I love the chilled soju cocktails and Japanese tapas at Lengué (31 rue de la Parchemnierie), the restaurant next door.

shakespeare & coGalignani (224 rue du Rivoli) — This is an elegant grande dame of Paris, with dark wood paneling and a polished calm. The store offers a solid assortment of photo books, English-language guides on France, as well as gorgeous art books. Food tip: After browsing here, continue your decadent tour with a visit to the luxurious tea room, Angelina (226 rue du Rivoli), for a pot of their famously thick hot chocolate.

Shakespeare & Co (37 rue de la Bûcherie) — A Parisian landmark for book-lovers, this rambling shop on the Left Bank hardly needs an introduction. A visit here is part shopping expedition, part pilgrimage to honor the men and women of letters who once browsed the shelves. The young and penniless still lend a hand in the store in exchange for lodging—they’re called Tumbleweeds. Food tip: After a visit to Shakespeare & Co.’s narrow, crowded, claustrophobia-inducing aisles a brisk walk is in order. I suggest strolling across the Seine to the Ile St-Louis and getting an ice cream from Berthillon (31 Ile St-Louis). My favorite flavor is black currant sorbet.

WH Smith (248 rue du Rivoli) — The bright and bustling British chain stocks the latest in UK and US bestsellers, and also offers a wide selection of English-language magazines and newspapers. I’m also fond of the British snacks (like Twiglets, or salt and vinegar crisps) on offer on the second floor. Food tip: I like to buy a bag of chips and eat them in the Jardin des Tuileries, located just across the street.

The American Library in Paris (10 rue du Général Camou) — Though this is a membership library—not a bookstore—there are wonderful, free author events here every Wednesday evening (full disclosure: I used to organize them). Recent speakers have included Diane Johnson, Lionel Shriver, and Richard Russo. Food tip: Les Deux Abeilles (189 rue de l’Université) is a lovely tearoom with delicious quiche and a chocolate-almond cake that I dream about.

(Photo credit: Kristin Espinasse)

afoot_in_st_croixThere’s just something about an island.

A brazen hunk of cured lava or sand-dusted coral emerges from the depths of the sea. Despite the constant threats of weather, wave, quake, and volcanic eruption, the spot is soon inhabited by a colorful cast of independents – brazen souls who dare to tempt the cruel whims of fate.

It makes the perfect setting for a book.

Add to this the vast number and variety of islands spread across the globe and you’ve got enough source material to keep a writer busy for the rest of her life.

Yes, I am intrigued by islands.

Through the ages, islands have stood at the crossroads of history, as essential transportation hubs in the oceans’ liquid deserts, as flashpoints in territorial disputes, and as arenas for epic showdowns between dueling global superpowers.

The geographic construct has posed challenges to both invading pirates and besieged peasants. Depending on the sharpness of its boundaries and the temperament of the surrounding sea, an island can be an open drawbridge, impossible to defend against outside intrusion – or a confining barrier that is impossible to escape.

Practically every race, religion, language, and culture has a representative island. People emanating from the most landlocked countries often have a waterlocked counterpart that reflects their specific nationality.

And while these tiny bits of landmass have borne a disproportionate share of human slavery and trafficking, that dark suffering has spawned some of the world’s most creative folklore. The imaginations of the oppressed have flowered vivid monsters, tragic martyrs, and mythical tales of triumph and defeat.

No matter how narrow its isolating band of water, every island is unique.

An island can be the hub of a massive transportation web, a buzzing transfer station, or the last sleepy stop at the end of nowhere. It can be an elite retreat, a cosmopolitan city, or a near empty preserve.

Islands possess a rare beauty, an unavoidable closeness with nature. Resources are inevitably scarce, creating a heightened environmental awareness. As such, islands have provided refuge for delicate species that never could have existed on our crowded continents, a treasure of wondrous proportions.

Standing at an island’s edge, water lapping at my feet, I’ve puzzled over the mysterious firmness of sand, solid despite its myriad separate members, yet constantly changing shape and shade. I’ve laughed at the comical routine of a hermit crab, struggling to carry an oversized shell up onto a beach, and I’ve marveled at the spectacle of insects, humming, chirping, biting…performing.

For this writer, islandography has become a near obsession, a call to search out and investigate, to learn, experience, and be influenced.

There are thousands of islands waiting to be explored.

And so many stories left to tell.



mastering_the_art_of_french_eatingThe first time I ever ate savory cake, I was at a cocktail party in Provence. I had just completed a seven-week French immersion program and I was eager to test out my brand new language skills. Still, when I found myself being introduced to the village mayor, my heart started to pound with nerves.

The mayor had a bald head, intelligent eyes, and was missing a finger from a hunting accident. He was interested in my husband’s job as a diplomat, and in the various countries we had called home. “Did you enjoy living in Beijing?” he asked in French.

“It was a wonderful experience, but sometimes challenging,” I said. “La ville est très salée.” Everyone within earshot laughed uproariously. It took me a minute, but eventually I realized that somehow in my fluster, I had confused “sale”—which means dirty—with “salée,” or salty.

Perhaps I was distracted by the delicious cake salé, or savory cake, on offer at the party, a booze-soaked loaf studded with bits of ham and Gruyère cheese. I had “salé” on the mind you might say.

Years have passed since that party, my French has improved considerably, and I’ve learned how to make my own savory cake, one with walnuts and Roquefort cheese that whips up quickly for a lovely lunch or drinks party (see recipe below). Every time I make it, I think of that balmy summer evening and my funny French language gaffe—and though I’ve made plenty of linguistic errors since then, I’ve never confused those two words again.

Savory cake with roquefort and walnuts/
Cake au Roquefort  mastering_the_art_of_french_eating_post_1et aux noix

3 eggs
150 grams flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
Scant 1/2 cup sunflower seed oil
1/2 cup milk
100 grams Gruyère, grated
150 grams Roquefort (or domestic blue cheese)
80 grams walnuts, toasted and chopped
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 180ºC. Butter and flour a loaf pan.

In a large bowl, mix the eggs with the flour and baking powder. Add the oil and milk slowly, alternating between the two. Stir in the grated Gruyère and season lightly (remember, the cheeses are very salty). Crumble the roquefort into the batter and add the nuts. Stir gently to combine.

Transfer the batter into your prepared loaf pan and bake for 40 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

spirit_keeperIn my previous post I made a big deal about how we are what we eat, which is, I believe, why the First Americans would occasionally chow down on the oozing heart of a vanquished enemy.  In this blog I intend to explore this idea further and consider a few of its many implications.  By delving deeper into this one little difference between the Europeans and the First Americans, I hope to arrive at last at my real point, which is why that moment of meeting in 1492 is so important, why you should care, and why we need to have this conversation now.

I think we can all agree the Europeans of 1492 knew little about health and nutrition.  They never worried about vitamins, minerals, proteins, or carbs because they had only the vaguest notion of how their own bodies worked.  Oh, they knew it had something to do with the balance of humors, but they figured there was no problem some leeches and a good blood-letting couldn’t fix.  Even today few people understand how to eat to achieve optimal health.  So I suppose I’m going way out on a limb to suggest that in 1492 the First Americans understood more about nutrition than the average person does today.

Now I’m not saying the Indians were sitting around counting calories, organizing menus, and balancing the fiber and fats in their diets.  What I am saying is that the First Americans were keenly aware there’s far more to food consumption than just a basic chemical exchange.  That’s why the killing of game, the catching of fish, or the harvesting of crops always involved prayers or rituals to restore the balance of Nature.  If you’re going to take the life of something so that you can live, the least you can do is say “Thank you,” right?  Otherwise there’s a karmic deficit and your soul begins to shrivel.

Again, I’m not suggesting the First Americans were big believers in Karma, but my understanding is that they were huge believers in the concept of Transformation.  They recognized that an individual is actually many completely different people in one lifetime, which is why they often changed names and why adoptions were so common and so important.  Transformation also explains how they regarded food—they transformed the corn, the fish, or the deer into themselves.

But the North American concept of Transformation is not just some theoretical blah-blah to explain how to restore spiritual or karmic balance.  It is a very practical application of an actual law of the physical universe, one which the First Americans seemed to recognize even in 1492, or nearly 300 years before Lavoisier gained fame by explaining the Conservation of Mass.  (Oh, and it’s worth noting that although the First Americans were often criticized for savagery, it was fellow Europeans who lobbed off Lavoisier’s head, thus proving matter is, indeed, constant regardless of how many pieces a person is chopped into.)

At any rate, though the First Americans published no studies describing the chemical and molecular breakdown of matter, they did recognize, long before Columbus set sail, that different foodstuffs made them feel, well, different.  They also knew very well what happened when a carcass was left to rot, such as when the body of a deceased loved one was laid out on a scaffold.  While they were in their prime, the First Americans understood they were consuming the gifts of the earth, and when they died, they knew the earth was going to consume them in turn.

In other words, the First Americans didn’t just understand the basic laws of the physical universe in some vague, theoretical way; they applied those laws on a daily basis.  After all, the premise underlying every thought, word, or deed in pre-Columbian America was the acceptance that there is always balance in Nature.

Which brings me finally to why I’m so hopelessly fascinated with that moment back in 1492 and why, in fact, I wrote The Spirit Keeper.  It’s because in spite of my 100% European ancestry, my hardy Irish heritage, and my lily-white genetic make-up, I’m nothing like a European anymore—in fact, I don’t think any of us are. We can’t be if

I grew up in Indiana, where my family always had big gardens.  Under the gentle coaxing of sun and rain, the chemicals of the earth were sucked up by the strawberries and corn, and when I ate those foods, those chemicals were turned into me.  But where did the chemicals in the earth come from before my family laid claim to that scrap of soil?  A lot of them came from the people who were here before us, the First Americans who lived on that soil, laughed, loved, and died on that soil, and when they died, they rotted here, and so our beans and squash and tomatoes and potatoes are all heavy-laden with the chemicals that were once those other living beings.

It’s a simple fact of physics, a basic law of the universe, the inexorable way of Nature.  We are what we eat.  And so we are, all of us, nothing but the chemicals of the dead, filtered up through the earth again and again and again.

And this is why I feel such a keen obligation to have this conversation, to commemorate that moment of meeting in 1492, and to beg for us as an amalgamated culture composed of Europeans, First Americans, Africans, Asians, and whoever else wants to climb aboard to learn the lessons of our shared history.  We need to learn those lessons before the lapping waves of time wash away all traces of that unique opportunity to study ourselves.

After all, we’re all in this together now, like it or not, as we are all born on this planet of parents born here and their parents the same and their parents the same and all our ancestors slumber together in the soil that feeds us all and will in turn someday feed on us.

And that, by the way, is the punchline of the cosmic joke that was that singular moment in human history in 1492.  It’s not just that we are what we eat.  It’s also that we will become what we are eaten by.  The European laws of physics eventually gave us atomic bombs, but the Native concept of Transformation suggests something even more earth-shattering:  we will inevitably become that which we destroy.

In conclusion, I believe we need to have this conversation now because it’s time we recognize who and what we really are as members of the human species.  We are not Europeans.  We are not Americans.  We are earth chow.  We are stardust.  We are clever little monkeys, and if only we’re willing to look at ourselves objectively, we might be able to figure out what it is that makes us so damned clever, what it is that really makes us tick.

But the clock, too, is ticking, my friends.  Time is running out.  One moment leads to another, and another, and another, and before you know it, all turn to dust again.  Vanity of vanities—all is vanity.

In these blogs I’ve pointed out just a few of the lessons we can learn from comparing European/First American views on one tiny facet of life—the consumption of food.  There are so many other fascinating topics of conversation:  clothing, shelter, family, community, language, and on and on and on.  But why should I do all the work?  It’s someone else’s turn to talk now.

Dear America,

Diary of Edward the Hamster 1990-1990It strikes me as somewhat ironic that a book written chiefly for an audience of captive rodents should now reach the Land of the Free. I wish my publishers the best of luck, however, and can only hope that the simple arc of a common hamster’s life, clearly drawn and plainly told, still holds at least some universal appeal.

Although I spent many months in terrible captivity, fending off despair and tedium with only the meager resources of my own mind, the fates eventually smiled upon me. The rest is history, and my legacy now bears little connection to the tiny world from whence it emerged. Yet the knowledge that mine is an unlikely tale, that most other hamsters still struggle vainly under the yoke of oppression, weighs heavy on my conscience. So I dedicate this edition to them, in the meek hope that one day they too can achieve the dream of cageless freedom that so few accomplish, yet so many deserve.

I am yours sincerely,

Edward the Hamster

Discover more from Diary of Edward the Hamster 1990-1990 by Miriam Elia and Ezra Elia

Watch the book trailer:

View pages from the book.

spirit_keeperIn my previous post, I suggested that I wrote my novel, The Spirit Keeper, with the understanding that in 1492 the cultures of Europe and North America were essentially separate but equal, with the differences between them resulting from lifestyle choices made by the different peoples.  I know it’s pushing credulity to suggest that mostly naked savages were the exact equivalent of well-clad socialites, but hear me out.  In this blog, I intend to explore one of the most fundamental differences between the cultures, which is, as it happens, the most important lesson I’ve learned from the First People of North America.

Are you ready?  Here it is:  You are what you eat.

Doesn’t really sound like an Indian aphorism, does it?  But it’s a truth the First Americans understood perfectly in 1492, a truth unknown to the equivalent cultures of Europe, and a truth which many 21st century Americans still struggle with today.  But there ain’t no doubt about the truth of this truth.  You are what you eat.  Literally.

In Europe in 1492, food consumption, like everything else, was a feature of class.  Wealthy, powerful people had all the food they wanted whenever they wanted it, without lifting a finger to raise it, kill it, prepare it, or clean up after it.  The more involved you were with food production, the lower your social standing, and those who scavenged scraps left behind by others truly were the bottom feeders of the European class system.

How different was the experience of eating in America in 1492!   In general, food consumption, like everything else in pre-Columbian North America, was a fairly democratic process.  Food was there to be hunted, gathered, or grown, pretty much by whoever was hungry.  Who fed you, whom you fed, and whom you ate with helped establish key relationships in the community, but not at all in the way food reflected social class in Europe.  Native peoples feasted or famined as a community, not as individuals.  When one person felt the pinch of hunger, everyone in the community felt the exact same pain.

Of course, lean times are inevitable for all people, and the European solution to feast/famine cycles was the development of new technologies to produce more and better food, as well as the rise of a central authority to carefully stockpile and distribute those precious resources.  This system has been so successful for Western Civilization that we now regard it as the only reasonable way to insure a reliable food supply for a large population.

But the First Americans chose a completely different sort of system which worked just as well.  Instead of developing technology to dominate the environment and a central authority to control the food supply, the First Americans worked with Nature to conserve resources to ensure there would always be enough, not just for them, but for future generations as well.  They did not kill or gather more than they needed to eat.  They regularly relocated their villages so as to give the depleted environment a chance to recover.  They trusted the earth to feed them, and, if for whatever reason it didn’t, then their scrawny bodies fed the earth instead.  It was a system which respected the inevitable balance of Nature, and though agonizing losses were inevitable, the remaining populace was generally far healthier and hardier than their counterparts in Europe.

Ah, but there’s one North American aspect of eating that even the most open-minded Westerners have trouble swallowing—the report from multiple sources, multiple locations, and multiple generations of occasional acts of cannibalism.  Details vary, but what it boils down to is that Indians were known to cook and serve the flesh of a victim of torture or to take a bite from the raw heart of a vanquished enemy.  To European sensibilities, this was the ultimate example of brutal savagery, proof positive that the naked primitives had a lot to learn before they could be called civilized.

The more I’ve thought about it, especially in light of what we Westerners now understand about nutrition, the more these gruesome acts of cannibalism begin to make sense.  I mean, if we ARE what we eat, then why shouldn’t we snarf down the heart of a worthy opponent who died bravely and well?  His still-beating heart would be filled with endorphins, hormones, enzymes and amino acids that would stimulate our own internal juices, thus providing nutrients we can’t get in any other way.  On a moral level, by eating our victim’s heart we convert the core chemicals that were once him into the core chemicals that are now us, thus offering him a resurrection.  You are what you eat.  So eat only those you honor and respect.

I have come to realize that I regularly participate in a similar ritual in my own garden.  I plant my carrot seeds in spring with loving care and tend them through their sprouting and growing.  I protect them, water them, and mulch them like babes in cozy swaddling, and, when the time comes, I rip them from the soil and consume them with as much savage gusto as any of the First Americans.  I hate to do it, but I have to, and since I have to do it, I honor my beloved babies by transforming them into me.  I try to assuage my guilt by reminding myself I need that vitamin A for my skin, the beta-carotene for my eyes, but I never lose sight of the fact that I am killing another life form so that I might live.

This concept is not unlike the one Jesus espoused when he passed out bread, said it was his body, and urged us all to wash it down with the wine that was his blood.  His act was symbolic, while the actions of the First Americans were literal, but the point is the same.  No one gets to eat with a clear conscience and clean hands.  We all kill to eat.  In order for you to live, many other things, including other people, simply have to die.

Because of the psychologically devastating nature of this undeniable truth, we humans have had to find ways to accept our guilt without going mad.  Western civilization has coped with the truth by whitewashing it, sterilizing it, and ignoring it.  The First Americans coped with it by reveling in the blood of their foes as it dribbled down their chins.

Which is the “right” way to fill our bellies?  Well, here in 21st century America, most of us live like the European kings of old.   With a few notable exceptions, most of us have all the food we want whenever we want it, without lifting a finger to raise it, kill it, prepare it, or clean up after it.  And so it comes as no surprise that here in 21st century America far too many of us are obese—many morbidly so—and way too many people are pretty much miserable all the time.  And why not?  We eat food we have no relationship with, produced by people we don’t know, packaged, transported and dumped upon us in such overwhelming abundance that it’s no wonder we’re all so horribly fat and miserable—we eat nothing but horribly fat and miserable food!

Maybe we should’ve paid more attention to the primitive savages 500 years ago when they tried to show us that we are what we eat.


Next time:  Why Should Modern Americans Care about Something That Happened Over 500 Years Ago? 

“Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.” This audacious declaration begins D. H. Lawrence’s once-banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Some influential novels do not declare their intentions to us from their first words. Take James Joyce’s opening on its own: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” Surely, Buck arrives into our lives with great pomp and humor, but these words alone cannot reveal the ever-broadening cultural, artistic, and legal impact that Ulysses would have. Lawrence, however, is not so timid at the starting line. He opens with a grandiose statement, the kind destined to be emblazoned on t-shirts and scribbled down in the notebooks of adoring readers for years to come. Lawrence was, of course, speaking about the aftermath of the Great War, but the continually tragic face of progress renders his overture endlessly present and universal.

Lawrence’s opening words make a fitting call to action for Banned Books Week. Books have been banned as long as there have been books: for violating taboos, for supposed libel, for encouraging new ways of thinking, for violating prevailing political and religious opinions, and sometimes for almost nothing at all. Black Beauty was once banned in South Africa simply for having the words “black” and “beauty” together in the title. And yet it would be mistaken, in our more enlightened age, to see recent advances for civil rights and a perpetually more open conversation about taboo issues in the media as reasons to suspect that book-banning is no longer a key issue. Like viewing a one-year rise in polar ice quantity as reason to deny global warming, this myopic viewpoint is harmful. Just weeks ago, rather than celebrating the fact that one of its native daughters is undoubtedly among our greatest living writers, an Ohio school board sought to ban Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. And all this means that Banned Books Week is as important as ever. Lawrence’s words continue to apply: “It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles.”

It’s no secret that at Penguin, we’re proud of our history with banned books. In 1960, Penguin was prosecuted for publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the famous trial, R v Penguin Books Ltd. Like United States v One Book Ulysses before it, which freely allowed the publication of Joyce’s novel in America, the Lawrence trial was a landmark event for the liberalization of publishing and an important step in fighting book banning. That fight continues, and Penguin is thrilled to be on its front lines. This year, three of the ten books listed as the most challenged books in 2012 are Penguin publications: Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, John Green’s Looking for Alaska, and Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why. No one here is happy to see those books banned, but we are happy to continue supporting and promoting the valuable work of these authors. If you haven’t read them already, take a look at those books and see why it’s so important that students and library-goers retain access to them.

If you’re looking for something less modern, nowhere is the banner of Banned Books Week held higher than at Penguin Classics. The Classics library holds a cornucopia of banned literary treasures, as the Classics editorial team spotlighted last year on their Tumblr. This year, throughout the week that Tumblr will feature posts on banned writers, especially those outside of the Western canon like the great (and banned) Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Read a banned book this week to celebrate your right to do so. It’s not the Great War, but it is a great war to be fighting. In the words of Lawrence, “We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”

-Sam Raim, Editorial Assistant, Penguin Classics