Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Book Review: The Perfect Meal by John Baxter

The Perfect Meal: In Search of the Lost Tastes of France

In The Perfect Meal, John Baxter recounts some of his France memories as he imagines a feast celebrating the most iconic French foods. And he travels to locales best known for the dishes he wishes to serve in his imaginary repas. The premise of the book allows Baxter to be raconteur and travel guide, historian and amateur chef.
I enjoyed reading anecdotes about “France’s greatest chef” Georges Auguste Escoffier’s ascendancy to demi-deity by way of German prison camp in 1870; about the invention of the “perfect aperitif,” Kir, by Dijon mayor Félix Kir to welcome his many Sister Cities visitors while promoting local vintners and crème de cassis makers; and about the flight of the tiny ortolan bunting from delicacy to protected species.

The Perfect Meal gives little history vignettes along Baxter’s various journeys. Readers get to see the invention of the fork; visit 1671 Chateau Chantilly in the days of Louis XIV; and witness Baron Haussmann’s 1850 transformation of Paris’s meat and produce market, Les Halles, from haphazard sheds originating in 1183 to metal and glass pavilions.

Baxter’s stories are also personal. Some hinge on his wife’s home region. Sometimes he contrasts France with his native Australia. Some stories include friends, including Boris, the mysterious mentor of Baxter’s quest. Baxter’s style is rich in humorous observations.

The Perfect Meal includes some recipes and an index. Foodies, Francophiles, and history buffs would all enjoy this book.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Review: A Farewell to Arms

Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms is certainly a “war is hell” story. It contains brutal, pointless actions. It contains both bravery and bravado. When Lieutenant Frederic Henry and fellow World War I ambulance personnel hear the ubiquitous explosions echoing around them in the northern Italian mountains, they sometimes nervously speculate about the enemy’s next attack, sometimes casually dismiss any imminent threat. Their food is bad, wounds serious, friendships short-lived. Even the love story of Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley unfolds beneath a funereal pall.

Scribner's 2012 Hemingway Library Edition includes an introduction Hemingway wrote in 1948. I loved this paragraph: “The title of the book is A Farewell to Arms and except for three years there has been war of some kind almost ever since it has been written [1929]. Some people used to say, why is the man so preoccupied and obsessed with war, and now, since 1933 perhaps it is clear why a writer should be interested in the constant, bullying, murderous, slovenly crime of war. Having been to too many of them, I am sure that I am prejudiced, and I hope that I am very prejudiced. But it is the considered belief of the writer of this book that wars are fought by the finest people that there are, or just say people, although, the closer you are to where they are fighting, the finer people you meet; but they are made, provoked and initiated by straight economic rivalries and by swine that stand to profit from them. I believe that all the people who stand to profit by a war and who help provoke it should be shot on the first day it starts by accredited representatives of the loyal citizens of their country who will fight it.”

I have to admit I enjoyed Hemingway’s introductory prose more than I enjoyed the style of the novel itself. So much of the story was insipid, inane dialog—as though an eyewitness had obsessively journaled every word every character said. I know Hemingway carefully crafted the story because the Scribner edition I read includes copies of some of Hemingway’s handwritten manuscript pages, early drafts, and 47 alternative endings. Generally, I appreciate his economy of language, but in this novel, tiny details and banal dialog became tiresome and shallow for me.

That said, I was surprised by a few gems. At one point Lt. Henry’s surgeon friend and roommate, Rinaldi, insightfully recalls the pair’s womanizing days when Henry had tried to “clean your conscience with a toothbrush.” Soon after, Henry and a priest discuss defeat and victory, noting, “We are all gentler now because we are beaten.” They don’t believe in victory anymore and wonder if defeat might be better. When Henry and a colleague talk about fields of potatoes the Austrian enemy had planted in sacred Italian soil and the Italian troops’ food shortage, the colleague valiantly declares that what the Italian army had done would not be in vain. Clearly, sadly, this very declaration of hope was in vain—wars continue to this day.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Benefits of Repentance

It’s a topic about as popular as head lice. But repentance, unlike head lice, has many benefits. With tomorrow being the 2013 National Day of Prayer, one benefit of repentance leaps to mind: God healing our land when we turn from our wicked ways. Many faithful prayer warriors will cry out with the whole 2 Chronicles 7:14 verse on the National Day of Prayer. Many will also pray for peace, for the Lord’s presence, for salvation, for lighter burdens, for times of refreshing—all benefits of repentance.

For example, Christians frequently pray “Lord, bring him/her times of refreshing” for others straining under heavy burdens or taking much needed vacations. I love that expression, don’t you? Times of refreshing—a splash of cool water on a blistering hot day. I want that! But wait. The whole verse is Repent, therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord. [Acts 3:19, 20] Ah, so the cool splash of God’s presence happens when I confess my envy, my sharp words, my selfishness—not when I settle into my aisle seat on a flight to Orlando? Hmmm. We seem to conveniently forget the repentance part of that promise.

Here’s another benefit. How often do we pray for God to relieve stressful circumstances? I admit I often find comfort in Jesus’ invitation: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. [Matthew 11:28] Mostly I want God to soften my demanding boss, cure my sinus infection, and lead me to a reliable used car within my budget. The burdens I could and should unload, however, are my critical spirit toward and gossip about my demanding boss; anger, impatience, and anxiety about the infection; and worry about the car. Jesus’ promised rest comes with repentance.

Noodling about repentance benefits one day, I wrote a little story about a young couple, Brittany and Karl, who grapple with the topic’s meaning and practical applications.
Starbucks. Anytown. Saturday morning.

Brittany inhales the steam curling up from her mocha. Sipping, sighing, leaning back into the overstuffed chair by the window, she smiles at Karl, approaching with Cinnamon Dolce Crème Frappuccino in hand. Simultaneously shrugging out of his windbreaker and flopping into the next chair, he offers, “Want a taste?”
As she reaches over to take him up on his offer, he says, “Okay, now let’s get serious about this bible study. The meeting is tonight.”
“Don’t I know it? We still have to clean the house. You promised to vacuum, remember?”
“I know. And I will. Who’s bringing treats?”
Giving Karl a some-things-never-change eyeball roll, Brittany answers, “Barb’s baking a cake for the birthdays this month, and Monroe’s bringing fruit for the little kids. He says he can make a clown face with bananas and oranges and raisins, or something like that. I’m having a little trouble picturing it, but the kids will like it.”
“What kind of cake?”
Brittany playfully punches his arm and nods toward their bible on the windowsill. Setting down his drink, he picks up the bible and as he flips pages, he gets nose to nose with his wife and rasps, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near. Prepare the way for the Lord!”
She laughs, “Maybe you should’ve worn a camel’s hair coat instead of that windbreaker and ordered a locust frappé.”
“Aw, c’mon, I’m trying to prepare you for the lesson. Tell me I didn’t remind you even a little of Charlton Heston.”
“Yeah, Charlton Heston whispering because he’s in Starbucks. But good segue, honey.”
Karl fingers a bible page. “Okay, here we are; tonight’s verse is 2 Corinthians 7:10. I will not even try to sound like I belong in a movie. It says, ‘Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.’ Let’s try to understand each part of this, okay, Brit?”
She nods. “Godly sorrow. Sorrow. Like sadness when your mom gets cancer or your dog dies? And it’s godly because God understands?” Karl wrinkles his brow.
 “So let’s add deeper losses—your father dies and you lose your job and your house burns to the ground.” Karl again looks doubtful.
“Sorrow is more still? And your wife leaves you for another man?” Karl’s eyes widen in alarm but he shakes his head.
“Okay, your two teenagers are on drugs and the third gets run over by a train? Surely I have to be approaching sorrow with all these tragedies!”
“Brit, this kind of sorrow has to bring repentance. What do you need to repent of if your dog dies or your house burns?”
“I don’t know, maybe something you did caused it, plus the loss really hurts, so you’re sorrowful.”
“Or maybe godly sorrow is less about pain over circumstances and more about feeling pain when we disobey God and hurt other people?”
“Yeah, like David’s sorrow after being confronted about his Bathsheba/Uriah sins,” Brittany says with a flourish that spills a few drops of her mocha.  “And when David wrote Psalm 51, knowing he’d sinned against God made him totally miserable. That would be the godly sorrow we’re looking for here, right?”
Karl beams. “Bingo! Now we need to define repentance.” Brittany’s fingertips are already tapping her iPhone screen. Karl peeks at the results and reads, “turning from sin and dedicating oneself to amendment of one’s life.”
“Oh great, now I have to look up amendment … Okay, amending is changing or modifying for the better.”
Karl gulps his Frappuccino and smacks his lips. “Here, I’ve got study notes for the rest of this verse. ‘The former manifests itself by repentance and the experience of divine grace; the latter brings death, because instead of being God-centered sorrow over the wickedness of sin, it is self-centered sorrow over the painful consequences of sin.’
“Wow, I have to think about this a minute.” Brittany leans back in her chair as Karl industriously slurps the last drops of his drink. With her head still cushioned, she rolls her head toward Karl and says softly, “Hey, hon … I’m thinking about that argument we had last week.”
“Uh-oh.” Karl places his empty cup on the windowsill and waits.
“No, this is a good thing. Remember when I told you I wasn’t ready to decide—hadn’t finished thinking it through—whether I was okay with visiting relatives on our vacation or whether I’d prefer going away, just us?”
Karl nods.
Brittany continues, “And you got all upset because you’d already decided your opinion, and you called me slow and asked what could I possibly need to think through? And when I told you that really hurt me, you completely backed off and admitted impatience and self-righteousness and disrespect and begged my forgiveness and told me to take as much time as I needed and if I disagreed with you, we’d work out a win-win no matter what it took?”
Karl nods.
“You had godly sorrow, honey. And you repented—amended for the better. And I got to give you God’s grace. And you got to experience God’s grace, right? And I don’t have any regrets about that conversation, do you?”
“No. Good one, Brit. I’d be fine with our sharing that with the group tonight if Monroe asks.” Karl twists his napkin in his lap. “I’m thinking about a work situation I didn’t do so great at though.”
“What’s that?”
“Well, yesterday I was late handing in a report. My boss’ eyes darkened, like he was going to say how frustrated he was, but before he could say anything, I blamed a coworker who hadn’t gotten me his numbers on time, which was the truth. But I don’t think I did the right thing.”
“What would have been the right thing?” Brittany leans forward and gently pats Karl’s knee.
“Probably covering my coworker’s offense and praying about whether to lovingly confront him or not. Probably sincerely apologizing to my boss and telling him I understand I put him in a bad light with his boss. And confessing to God first.”
“So what would you confess?”
“Fear of man. Pride.”
“And how would you amend for the better?”
“In the future I’d communicate deadlines better and come alongside my coworker if he needs help with the numbers. And I’ll ask God to help me stop the blame game.”
“No regrets?”
“Well, after Monday, I’ll have no more regrets about this. … You know what I’m reminded of here? That Matthew 11 verse where Jesus asks burdened people to trade their heavy yoke for His light one. I always want that rest He promises but am never sure how to get Jesus’ easy yoke—maybe I’ll mention to Monroe we could talk about that sometime in our group—but anyway, what if our burdens aren’t just life’s sad stuff, what if our burdens are also these sins we carry around because we’re too proud to repent? It makes sense that confessing would be freeing, doesn’t it?”
“I’m so proud of you, Karl! Your willingness to repent prepares the way for the Lord and His grace in our marriage and at your office.”
“Thank you, Lord, for your kindness that leads to repentance!” Karl throws his hands in the air, scoops up his windbreaker and their trash in one hand and extends his other hand to his wife.