At a ranch on the banks of the Snake River in southern Idaho a rattlesnake coiled, began to rattle. My son was a few inches away, frozen, fascinated, terrified. We’d been warned about the rattlesnakes, told to wear boots and chaps. But we’d just arrived and Jasper was in shorts and sneakers. My husband came from behind Jasper and with a shovel struck the snake down. We’d been told how to kill them if we’d had to, that they don’t die until sundown so to immediately bury the head.
Indeed they continue to live for quite a while. The mouth continues to bite and the body to coil and the heart to beat. Bites at this point are still poisonous. We buried the head and then cleaned the body, examining the innards, keeping the skin and the rattle. In the morning one of the children decided he wanted the head so he dug it up and cleaned it off with water and preserved it in alcohol.
As it happened, I felt sort of bad. I later read on the internet that rattlesnakes are very slow moving and they give you so much warning to get away from them that really it is unnecessary to kill them. They don’t attack. Like so many other animals they’re afraid. As a child in Montana, my grandmother shot rattlesnakes while riding through the sage brush, blasted them to hell and gone because they irritated her horse. She didn’t feel bad, recounted the stories with a certain pride in the precision of her aim at ten years old. But of course that was 100 years ago and everything was different.
I told my Dad about the rattlesnakes. (Actually, by the end of our stay we’d had three encounters.) He told me that his whole life he’d wanted to see a rattlesnake, but never had. His friend, Sam Candler, upon learning this, took him to the most infested rattlesnake areas he knew of. My father didn’t see a one. He was thoroughly impressed that I’d seen so many. “Did you eat it?” he asked. “They’re delicious.” In Rising From The Plains and in Silk Parachute he has a couple rattlesnake stories of his own involving exotic meals and even a murderer. I now know where I’ll take my father next summer and I know too what I’ll feed him for dinner.
Pryde, my mother
Livia, my daughter
Stefania, my sister’s sister-in-law
360 degree views of mountains, rolling into more mountains, like the sea
Heading west, believing they were almost to the Pacific, these mountains are what Louis and Clark encountered.
Country Driving by Peter Hessler
A Romantic Education by Patricia Hampl
Sentimental Education by Gustav Flaubert
Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert
My Hollywood by Mona Simpson
Our Town by Thornton Wilder
This summer I have read so many books. That’s what I get to do when I don’t have my students and their work to take care of. I read a few terrible novels, but was saved by the books mentioned above. Country Driving was given to me by my father because Peter Hessler was his student and he loved the book. It was an indelible portrait of China in the first decade of the 21st Century. Using driving and the sudden explosion of the automobile and highways as the organizing principle, it is an astonishing portrait of everything from laws of the road to country life to the factory towns. I couldn’t put it down. A Romantic Education is simply a gorgeous memoir. Hampl came to Hofstra to speak in the fall and ever since I’ve wanted to read her work. Her insights and the beauty of her language are spellbinding. For my book group we are reading Madame Bovary and Sentimental Eduction. I haven’t gotten to the first. Sentimental Education I have now read three times. Every time I read it, it is new all over again. This time I appreciated especially the use of descriptive writing to capture the mood and meaning of the characters. I was led there by reading James Wood’s How Fiction Works. My Hollywood: I love Mona Simpson and became a writer because of her, in part. Here, she captures the relationship with the babysitter that all mother’s, in one way or another, must negotiate. I felt as though she wrote the experience I lived, so able is she to tap into the universal. And lastly, my cousin Charles recommended I read Our Town for the best description of consciousness in literature. He suffers from ALS and can no longer speak. The third Act, reading it, was as though Charles were speaking to me, generously inviting me in to understand what all of us seem to so often miss. I have been thinking about the play since I read it in June, at 2AM, unable to sleep. I think about it when my children disrupt me from something that seems utterly important, that isn’t of course, to see something that they find utterly important. Sometimes, I confess, I find all their demands a sort of tyranny, but then I’ll think about Our Town and will think of having a long conversation with Charles, of how brief this all is — their childhoods and the demands and the beauty of my complete presence , for them, as hard as it is to achieve. My first impulse after reading the play was to send it to everyone I love.
Wildhorse Creek, Idaho
Bob Griswold, handsomest cowboy in the Sawtooth’s, cut a willow branch with a knife, tied on some line and a hook, placed a bright red salmon egg on the end of the hook and let Livia drop it in Wildhorse Creek, in a pool close to the bank. She pulled out three trout. Bob made a campfire and set up a cast iron pan at the edge of it, on some rocks. Livia, bitten, went back with her willow switch rod to catch another and she did, immediately. Alone, she wasn’t sure what to do with the fish as it flopped about on the bank. Another friend, Matt, showed her what to do, and then gave a lesson in gutting the fish. Livia cleaned her own. Others caught a river char, and Leandro McPhee, on his tenth birthday, caught the longest trout of all. On a sunny bank of a creek in a valley of the Sawtooth’s, we ate butter fried fish with lemon. I thought of my grandmother 100 years ago, a six year old, in Montana, in the wilderness, fishing with nothing more than a switch, catching dinner for her mother and little sister — in what was then, for them, with no money and little food, something of a necessity.
They are as big as South Sea Pearls, plump and juicy, the pickled bud — before it blossoms into the gorgeous white and purple spiny flower. On Salina in June I saw them everywhere, the caper bush flourishing in the dry, black volcanic soil of the Aeolian Islands. I was struck by their beauty and size, learning that they have many special powers, able to create appetite, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, fight toothaches, ignite libido, and even to magically transform into another fruit. After the bud flowers from the flower come the cucunci. Filled with the tiniest seeds, which give it texture, they are delicious too — some people even think they’re tastier than capers. (In the first picture above, the cucunci hangs next to the caper on the end of one of the flower’s purple tentacles.)
Halibut with capers
(Or any white fish — branzino (Italian seabass), orata (gilthead seabream)
Roast very simply at 400 for about 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish, with a little olive oil, big capers, cherry tomatoes cut in half, a sprinkle of salt. Serve immediately with a wedge of lemon to spritz over the fish.
I would pair with a summer orzo and a light salad.
Jenny’s fantastic new website
Jenny, my sister, is now reviewing for Bookslut, the brilliant book review site. She has a column called The Bombshell. Read it and enjoy. Also be aware: she’s about to launch her own site any day now: jennymcphee.com.
At the end of Lyndall Gordon’s Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds, the biographer describes the source of the poet’s genius as: “…a hidden life like a ‘Bomb’ in her bosom. The poetry it fueled,” she advises, “must be seen in terms of New England individualism, the Emersonian ethos of self-reliance which in its fullest bloom eludes classification. It’s more radical and quirky than anything in Europe, more awkward and less loveable than English eccentricity; in fact, dangerous.”
It gives me enormous pleasure to inaugurate my Bookslut column, which I have entitled The Bombshell (bomb-shell: a shattering or devastating act, event, etc.; a fair-haired person, esp. a woman, of startling vitality or physique. -OED), with Gordon’s bombshell of a book about one of literature’s greatest bombshells, who also happened to be a flaming redhead.
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eMUSIC Q&A: MARTHA MCPHEE
By Jami Attenberg
The fair citizens of New York City are obsessed with many things: art, music, books, food, movies, fashion, sports and extremely tall buildings. But hovering at the top of that list, perhaps because, for better or worse, it makes all of the other things go round, is money. And with that obsession comes a whole mess of emotions — and we’ll spare you that list, because it’s not just New Yorkers that lay claim to that funny illness; it is a universal disease, the money sickness.
Which is why novelist Martha McPhee’s fourth novel, Dear Money, manages to be so relevant to such a vast readership — even though it is set in New York, with its novelists and mortgage traders and Met parties and artist lofts in Williamsburg. Let us not forget also the quaint Maine summer home, which the book’s narrator, the mid-list novelist India Palmer, covets from the very beginning of the book, just before she meets Win Johns, the Wall Street trader, who offers her a chance to join his firm and change her life forever. Which, to everyone’s great surprise, she does.
THANK YOU, JAMI ATTENBERG
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