Spontaneous Reads: Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink

As a rule, I am perilously bad at keeping up with periodicals, lit mags, and other regular media outlets–I can’t exactly say why, but even if the topic of a long-form essay really interests me (I’m thinking here of a recent New Yorker piece on IKEA that I still haven’t finished, some six or seven months later), I often will often start it and then let it languish in a basket on my living room floor, collecting dust until I finally give up and recycle it. This is not an aesthetic judgement on the state of journalism, or even a stringently articulated preference for fiction–I just tend to spend more of my time reading short stories and novels.

My partner, however, is an adamant and regular cover-to-cover reader of several periodicals and is generous about sharing tidbits here and there of  recently acquired, timely, and esoteric factoids from journalists whose work he reads regularly. I’m often rather impressed and entertained by his summaries of articles and essays he’s been reading, so it was nice for me to recently pick up a copy of Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink–a collection of food writing in that magazine from the 1930s to the early 2000s. I frequently enjoy food writing–I think cooking and eating make for very fertile and evocative springboards for other interesting topics (memory, history, socio-cultural analysis, etc.) and it’s just fun to read about delicious food. So this collection provided an ideal framework for me to dip into the journalism that I’m always telling myself I should read more of.

Overall, the collection is wonderful; a very interesting window into the development of The New Yorker, as well as the gastronomic topics and themes that were very of the moment in which they were written. I also very much appreciated that many of the pieces were as much about the people involved in the production of food/meals as the food itself.

Since I read the collection almost cover to cover (not counting the fiction section, which looked enjoyable, but wasn’t the point for me), I made some short observations on most of the pieces as I went through. The book was divided into several sections, which I’ve indicated in bold.

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Karaoke Culture

My most recent review is of Dubravka Ugresic’s essay collection, Karaoke Culture, which was published in The L Magazine.

I’ll forgo preamble for the book, but a quick side note: While preparing my review, I read one of Ugresic’s essays in a book called Writing Europe: What Is European About the Literatures of Europe?  Her entry in the collection, “European Literature as a Eurovision Song Contest,” is masterful: she discusses nationality, nationalism, identity, authorship, and more both imaginatively and incisively. It’s a short essay–if you have any interest in any of the topics above, I highly recommend you read it–and it also provides useful a context/parallel for many of themes she picks up in Karaoke Culture. One of my favorite excerpts from the piece:

“Some ten years ago I had an elegant Yugoslav passport with a soft, flexible, dark red cover. I was a Yugoslav writer. Then the war came and–without asking me–the Croats thrust into my hand a blue Croatian passport…The new Croatian authorities expected from their citizens a prompt transformation of identity, as though the passport itself was a magic pill…With my new Croatian passport I abandoned my newly acquired “homeland” and set off into the world. Out there, with the gaiety of Eurovision Song Contest fans, I was immediately identified as a Croatian writer. I became the literary representative of a milieu that did not want me any more and which I did not want any more either. But still the label Croatian writer remained with me, like a permanent tattoo.

At this moment I possess a passport with a red cover, Dutch. I continue to wear the label of the literary representative of a country to which I am not connected even by a passport. Will my new passport make me a Dutch writer? I doubt it. Will my Dutch passport ever make it possible for me to reintegrate in Croatian literary ranks? I doubt it.”

But without further ado: you’ll find my review of Karaoke Culture below. You can read the original piece on The L website here. (I can’t take credit for the witty title they gave me–that was all my esteemed book editor.)

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For the uninitiated, Karaoke Culture, the forthcoming essay collection by Dubravka Ugresic, provides an emblematic, if occasionally disjointed, snapshot of the author’s notable body of work. Available now just a year after its initial publication (very unusual for a translated work), Karaoke Culture is a timely collection whose essays run the gamut from the rise of participatory culture and “the anonymous artist” (the title essay), the preferred nomenclature and adopted personas of third wave feminists (“Bitches”), the “psychopathology” of reflexively loving a homeland you didn’t choose (“No Country for Old Women”), and a personal reflection on the vicious media harassment which led Ugresic to emigrate from the newly-formed Croatian state to The Netherlands in 1993 (“A Question of Perspective”).

Reading Karaoke Culture is—in the best way possible—much like sitting with a highly caffeinated intellectual over tea. Ugresic is a conversational writer; the zig-zagging structure of her essays suggests a fluid writing process that hews close to the author’s thoughts as she works from each initial observation to a final, incisive epiphany. Her cultural touch-points are restricted neither by country nor time nor genre: within the collection she makes easy reference to everything from Gone with the Wind and IKEA, to Bulgarian Idol and Henry Darger. When these disparate references cohere within one essay, the effect is luminous. Only rarely within the dense collection does Ugresic’s eliptical logic-dart miss her mark, leaving a few of the essays feeling somewhat over-determined.

The 22 essays in Karaoke Culture read fast–several are only two or three pages–but the collection rewards rumination. On first reading, it might appear that Ugresic is herself ‘channel-surfing,’ hopping among divergent topics to simply cover as much ground as possible. But so much the better. Here she diagnoses contemporary culture in all its facets, underlying the parallels between ideologies and societies that have long understood themselves to be diametrically opposed.

Throughout the collection, Ugresic’s outspoken, absurdist humor paired with her genuinely global perspective, shines through. Karaoke Culture is a rarity: a thoughtful, personal, and informative work of socio-cultural critique that doesn’t take itself too seriously.