I'm on a non-fiction tear this summer in preparation for a new course I'm teaching this fall at Eugene Lang, and feel blessed that my first real foray into this summer reading binge was with Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir Blood, Bones and Butter. Hamilton's writing is so damned good I've found myself turning sentences over and over again, and again, and yet again. She has the power to take the most mundane or obscure thoughts and observations and turn them into olive branches for reluctant (and hungry) readers around the globe.
I've loved a wide range of memoirs, from Dennis Covington's Salvation on Sand Mountain, about tracking down Pentecostal relatives who handle snakes in Appalachia, to the old Mary Karr chestnut, The Liar's Club, about her unruly upbringing in small-town Texas. The memoirs that grab and take hold don't need to run the same life track that mine has, but when they do, it's harder still to let go when the read is over.
Reading this book, I found myself face-to-face with a deep personal flaw. I wanted to interrupt her and say "Me too! Me too!" like an overeager friend. It's a deeply annoying habit that I have of butting into conversations when I can relate to what's being said. That said, Hamilton's trajectory shook memories out of long neglected corners of my own history, from my first moments working in restaurants at 13 ("Lipstick, eyeliner. Lipstick, eyeliner," my Italian boss Lou Monte used to say to his waitresses before the shift began, pointing to our too-bare features) to the hysterical love that hit my group of friends every summer at sleepaway camp where I worked in the kitchen washing dishes. Cooler still was that she opened her restaurant in my neighborhood-- Prune sits just three blocks away from my apartment in the East Village, and I've not yet gone because I'm intimidated by the long lines and reservation waits. I'll go now, able to imagine the complete destruction she rescued the tiny abandoned space from after two years of filth collected following the sudden departure of a French bistro. One particular scene starring a dead rat still lingers. I want to buy her a hot espresso and tell her, "I was a salad girl when I was 13! I had to smell a dead cat for a week in a restaurant on the famed Canyon Road in Santa Fe! I washed dishes using a big Hobart at Camp Stoney over the summers! I slept in a homeless shelter in Maine when I had no money (or rather, was too proud to ask for help)!" and so on.
While EPL (Eat, Pray, Love for you non-publishing types) seemed to be about a woman's self-discovery against the backdrop of walking out on a man and giving herself permission to travel around and eat spaghetti in Italy and meditate wearing prayer shawls in India (sorry, I don't mean to sound like a hater!), I had to wonder if there was an intentional likeness behind Hamilton's appealing three-word title. This book is the perfect antidote to That Other Finding Herself memoir. Hamilton's wanderings around the world seemed to encompass a real struggle and a stunningly earnest method of self-education (learning how to do everything from the sweat of her labors, usually in a language other than her own) rather than having wisdom imparted to her in a CIA program. It's not that Elizabeth Gilbert didn't have an authentic experience -- of course she did -- but she didn't fund hers with $1,200 dollars in traveler's checks to live on for months and months before credit cards were given out to teenagers like Band-Aids to newly vaccinated children. It's probably not fair to compare the two books in this way, but it keeps coming up for me.
Everyone seems to have heard about this book but me. I ask librarians, friends, family if they've read it, and so far the resounding echo has been "Yes, loved it," or "I hear it's great." Well, it is. Read it and weep, and laugh, and then wash it down with a cold beer and a plate of lamb or something else hearty, carnal, and simply prepared.