Cookery Bookshelf

Feast of Sorrow Book Review

Thanks go out to Touchstone Publishers for sending a complimentary copy for a Feast of Sorrow book review.

For readers of foodie fiction, Feast of Sorrow transports you to the kitchen of a patrician through the vantage point of his cook.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ear! It may seem cheesy to start with this widely known adage, but the world in Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King so completely transports the reader to ancient Rome that you begin to wonder what color stola you might wear and start to rue the extinction of the herb, silphium. The story centers around the kitchen of a “vulgar rich patrician” Apicius and his cook, Thrasius that propel the reader into Roman intrigue, cultural mores and a dizzying collection of recipes (Roasted Peacock, anyone?).

Historical fiction hinges upon an answer to the question, what if? King qualifies in her author’s note that a cookbook with Apicius’ name on it is the oldest known collection of recipes. So, in the midst of the story a cookbook is penned. I had worried for a moment that the book would be one-sided with an overwrought hand as sometimes food stories can gluttonously go. Instead, King offered deeper understanding of the culture such as fashion cues of patricians or the politics of relationships with the food as accent. I confess I found fascination in these bits almost more than the food. What I appreciated about the book is that I wasn’t looking for cliffhangers or climaxes, I let the tale take me from one city to the next, from how slaves were purchased during the Roman era and even how they might be released. The book transfixed me in the satisfying way that makes being a reader pure pleasure.

From a craft standpoint, you could tell King had done a tremendous amount of research, whether it was locating the appropriate recipe method to open each section or uncovering the proper way of people addressing each other. Recently, I had a chance to connect with the author (isn’t that every readers secret hope?) to learn more about what brought this story to life. One quick note, tread carefully below. SPOILER ALERT! I’d encourage you to read the book and then circle back to the interview for insights.

Feast-of-Sorrow-Book-Review - anneliesz

THE FOOD POET: What sparked you writing this story?

CRYSTAL KING: I was writing a different book at the time but I had read a line (I love food books and food memoir—it’s always been a passion of mine) about Apicius and how he died in a crazy way. I wrote a scene where Apicius received the knives. As I was writing it, I ended up thinking that was a better book. I’ve always loved ancient Rome.

TFP: How long did it take to research and write this story?

CK: Writing and research was about three years. It took about three  years to find an agent—it’s been about a decade for the whole project.

TFP: Where did you go to find primary sources for your research?

CK: When I started to do research, I realized there were a lot of people who are obsessed with ancient Rome. I spent a year or more reading everything I could get my hands on. I would read Virgil, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, Cato the Elder, Pliny the Elder – natural history – how people in ancient Rome thought about slavery, how  slaves were treated. There’s so much information that made it through from those times. I also visited Italy eight times. It changed the physicalness of the book – like where they had to walk through the forum to get to the stairs. Where the market was, where you bought the fish. I could walk where the characters would have been. 

TFP: The relationship between Apicius and Thrasius is a complex lens into slave masters and slaves in ancient Rome. What inspired you to take this approach in telling the story?

CK: I wrote the first 15 chapters four times from four points of view. There wouldn’t be any surprise in the ending if I told it from Apicius standpoint. I wanted to resist first person—so many historical fiction books are told this way. I wanted the reader to be wondering about Apicius and could do more with food, the preparation and serving of it,  by telling it through Thrasius. Apicius is on a tragic path—I needed a balance for that / someone the reader could get behind and a character that could give you insight into Apicius and could understand him in a way.

TFP: How did you decide what recipes would open up the sections?

CK: I had an agent interested in working with me on this book. Originally written in historical fiction fashion with dates at the tops of the sections, she felt the dates slowed the reader down. How do I manage time, so the reader isn’t confused if they skip years? I decided to section it out based on the chapters of the Apicius books.

TFP: Did you make up many of the foods Thrasius cooks in the story?

CK: All of the food in the book was real—directly from the cookbooks. There were foods not from Apicius’ cookbook but from other ancient Roman cooking. They ate silphium all the time in the food but it was also used in birth control. Med researchers are trying to understand what it was in that root to control unwanted pregnancies.

TFP: There’s a Downton Abbey-esque feel to the book, especially in the beginning–how did you feel out how much of this is Thrasius’ story versus Apicius’?

CK: In the first draft this is Apicius’ story. As my early readers and writing group workshopped it, they kept asking, “whose story is this?” As Thrasius is telling the story, it’s about him. Early drafts I struggled with that. It’s a story about the whole family. That’s when I started to add more about Passia and Sotas. That’s when it took on a different life.

TFP: I always wondered how Apicius made money– he seemed to run through it quickly!

CK: Early on, Apicius’ father had left him a ton of money. What patricians would do is they would make trade deals, buy land, or they owned farms, salt mines—I wanted him to not care about any of that.

TFP: The fate of women was also very stark in the story– theirs seemed like a different kind of slavery.

CK: The women are all very marginalized in a lot of ways. The book cover from the publisher originally depicted romance but we worked to find something better. This story is not a romance, not about the women, and it’s also a good reminder of how far we have come. These women were owned by their husbands, who they married and who they didn’t. I wanted to make them strong characters with some personality but they couldn’t go so far. Apicata was married to Sejanus in real life. Apicius did sleep with Sejanus early on.

Food Poetry Poetry Bookshelf

Ewa Chrusciel’s Contraband of Hoopoe

Contraband of Hoopoe Book Review - anneliesz

It’s not a difficult thing to think that at a poetry festival, you might hear a poem that piques your interest. It’s an entirely different thing to hear something– a way of offering words to a subject of already well-tilled ground in a fresh voice that makes you beeline to the bookfair area and snatch up the sole remaining copy of that poet’s book. And so it was that I met Ewa Chrusciel, first through her reading from A Contraband of Hoopoepublished by Omnidawn and then later through sitting with her words and letting them journey inside me. I’ve read this collection several times and each reading offers new nuggets of insight. At the heart of Hoopoe is a collection exploring the immigrant experience. This focus on immigrants coming to the U.S., feels particularly pressing and timely right now,  one to be kept on the front burner.

Food factors into her poems in surprising ways. Take a cue from the title–contraband courses through the pages of poetry too. “Gummy bears, the patron saints of contraband.” (p. 43). Smuggling is a present theme in the poems and an ode to sausage paints a humorous picture of what sometimes gets taken away and becomes lost. Because make no mistake, a deep loss reverberates as a steady thrum even though joy resides in them too. “Smuggling will not seal the broken vases. It will make your grief one hundredfold, and carry it into other griefs.” (p. 53)

She asks important questions of the immigrant: What do they carry with them? What do they leave behind?  Her series on Ellis Island sometimes is arresting and in one instant, “Ellis X” is simply a single line–a question not easily answered. One poem is simply a list of the names of “the Righteous among the Smugglers,” naming the Cracovians who hid Jews in their homes– inspired from visiting an exhibit in the Museum Factory of Oskar Schindler.  Immigration might seem like a contentious issue currently, but Chrusciel reminds us in “Ellis XI” that “Both Ellis and Alcatraz at first served as miliary fortresses.” (p.70)

Fear of the immigrant comes from fear of the other. And this is where, a re-reading of the Sausage poem illuminates conflict of two ways to define the terms.  When you survey the poems, prayers pop up throughout them whether in title, “Split-Second Prayer through Customs” or in intimate lines where the reader almost feels like a voyeur, “Convert me back to wonder. Cure my heart of such morbid desires to come home.” (p. 13).

Full disclosure, I have a horse in this race. My parents both immigrated from other countries and reading Hoopoe, I circled back to those underlying questions: What did they carry with them? What did they leave behind? What did they smuggle? Good poetry makes the universal, personal. And, Chrusciel’s Contraband of Hoopoes is a crucial body of work for us to not forget the past, lest we be doomed to repeat it. It’s an offering of understanding and hope. Its mascot, the hoopoe, “brings silence to the world of noises.” (p. 20)

Food Memoir Bookshelf

The Reach of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman

BOOK REVIEW- The Reach of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman

For my birthday this year Nathan spoiled me royally:

Not with roses-  not with sparkly trinkets, but with books. A stack’s worth.

I salivated over the anticipated titles my eyes skimmed- this was my kind of celebration. The hardest question was which to read first. And so I reached, a few years later for “The Reach of a Chef”, written by Michael Ruhlman. In sitting down to tell you about “Reach,” I ended up writing a long overdue ode to “The Soul of a Chef”, its predecessor. So, it ended up being a two for one kind of book discussion.

I toted “Reach” in my bag for several weeks. Anytime I left the house, it was with me. It became my bus book- the one that faithfully logged my place as I set out en route.

At the 2010 BlogHer Food conference, I had a chance to hear Ruhlman speak and even sat in on some similar sessions. He spoke about “the dance” a little in both “Soul” and “Reach”- that particular choreography when the kitchen is in sync. In “The Soul of a Chef”, he cites Thomas Keller as saying, “[w]e are becoming a nation of noncooks.” (p.330). While “Soul” discusses this from a restaurant perspective, it is something Ruhlman passionately mentioned in the closing remarks of BlogHer Food for the domestic cook. This topic is definitely one that puts a flame under him as was masterfully captured in the videos “Michael Ruhlman has something to say.”

In “Reach”, Thomas Keller is re-introduced as is Grant Achatz now cooking in his own kitchen. We meet Masa and Melissa Kelly and he revisits the Culinary Institute of America and finds you “can’t go home again.”

So much of the culinary landscape he had outlined in “Soul” had changed in a very brief amount of time starting the book with Thomas Keller.

“It was not only Keller’s life that had changed. In no instance did I find a situation that I’d written about previously unaltered; in fact the changes were profound given how little time had passed.” (p.29)

“Reach” starts out with part one entitled “The chef has lost his shoes” and immediately this play on words made me think of the emperor losing his clothes. We find Keller about to open now famed restaurant Per Se and scrambling to find his shoes in the several roomed kitchen as 60 Minutes is waiting to film. We find him knee deep in opportunities that actually take him out of the kitchen. He has created a well-oiled machine that can get on beautifully without him.

It’s inevitable that a chef eventually will leave the kitchen- the job is grueling and often without all of the perks that restaurant-goers thinks are involved. The popular restaurant that has no reservations open for several months still may not have hit profitability. No better time to see this in action as the recession closed several restaurants in San Francisco I personally fancied. Then again, you have the strains and toils it takes on a person physically. Then again, does the restaurant of the chef’s own celebrity require his/her presence? Different opinions exist. It depends on the chef.

In “Reach” the portion depicting Masa would tend to say it’s essential.

“He’d created a single restaurant that was wholly dependent on his presence. A restaurant that without him couldn’t even open. ‘When I catch cold, I close the restaurant.’ The goal of most chefs was to train their staffs so well that they, the chefs, didn’t have to be there- when the staff could replicate a chef’s goals without his being there, that was an extraordinary achievement.” (p. 321)

I read an article about Ferran Adria closing el Bulli in July and found Adria’s words bringing me back to “Reach.”

“In el Bulli, the chef needs to be there,” he said. “You need to see him.” (from The Telegraph)

When el Bulli shutters in July, this is a perfect example of what “Reach” is getting at. The reach of this chef- Adria is that he is going to share online all 1800 recipes from el Bulli so others can attempt them, describing his sharing them as open-sourcing in a “Google-style environment.” He’s going to open the el Bulli Foundation and what sounds like an incredible think-tank and place of creativity and experimentation for chefs, artists and engineers who must all apply and be accepted for a brief stint to work alongside him. This shows the “reach” of this Spanish chef.

So what does success look like to today’s chef?

In “Reach”, I read voraciously of the opportunities that are taking chefs out of the kitchen including television and media. While it did not surprise me to learn that many students now entering the Culinary Institute of America are seeking the glory and audience of the boob tube, it did somehow show a shift that has taken place.

Working in food marketing and social media, I have seen how vocal many of the best chefs have become online, starting their own Twitter accounts, posting 20-something photo recipes on facebook and basically looking to continue building their own personal brand. Would it be horrible to say that in some ways, it seems the playing field is leveling online?

An article written by Lael Hazan on food-writing blog “Plate to Page” continued to have me thinking about this. She says:

“I find it amusing that the net bewilders many of the well-known cookbook authors…they know they should “be out there” but are intimidated. They are very concerned that their book sales are declining and see social media as the only salvation. On the other hand, I have yet to meet a food blogger who doesn’t secretly harbor the idea of a book deal. Many have published, but only a few of the blogger books have been truly successful. Is it because they are truly two separate worlds? Is it because bloggers don’t buy books when they can get it free on the net?” (from Plate to Page)

What I mean by this is that you have food bloggers, many of whom have no previous culinary schooling jostling for the same audiences online as chefs, or notably the “celebrity chefs”. Perhaps another way of saying this could be the proliferation of self-publishing and bloggers who get scooped up by cookbook publishers, putting out beautifully photographed cookbooks with original recipes, that sit on the shelf next to the celebrity chef’s title. This is its own interesting dance to watch and I’m an advocate and appreciator of both types. It is an interesting time to be alive and passionate about food.

The ideas put forth in “Reach” are more launch pads to the larger conversation about how the role of the chef is shifting. That said, we are in an era of the chef as celebrity, her/his restaurant the temple at which people will fork over a cool fortune to worship. And might I say what Las Vegas on the map from a food perspective?This gets me thinking about the article Grub Street just published interviewing several anonymous chefs on their thoughts on foodies with the overarching message of they pay the bills but we don’t like them. This might be the case for the few chefs interviewed for that article, but it does hint at a larger conversation at play here. Perhaps if the chef is taking opportunities outside of the kitchen, they are coming more head-to-head with non-chefs vying for that position? Perhaps not.

Ruhlman’s “Reach” takes a several part approach just like “Soul”. Part one shadows Per Se’s opening and sets the stage for the rest of the book. It speaks of Keller jettisoning from one opportunity to the next and mentions how infrequently he is now in the kitchen. Is it doleful for me to admit that I am one of those people who would have liked to taste his food made by him personally? As I mentioned in my “Soul” book discussion, I have tremendous respect for Keller and am glad to see him doing well.

“Reach” goes on in part two to revisit the Culinary Institute of America finding it changed. Today’s student has opportunities to study restaurant public relations, to become a food stylist and a bacteriological technologist among a few of the other areas of specialization. What a different world. He’s not kidding when he says it’s no longer a trade school.

In part three, he spends time following two chefs described as “The American Chef”, Grant Achatz and Melissa Kelly.

He dines at Trio, tasting the food of Grant Achatz, whom he first met at the French Laundry years before and then later Ruhlman enters the world of  Alinea during its opening (and on the very night that Frank Bruni is dining pseudo under-the-radar). Ruhlman describes the multi-course meals at both with such clarity and detail that I can taste the tempura shrimp with meyer lemon and gelatinous cranberry sauce pierced by a vanilla bean. For several years now, I have pined to have a meal at Alinea, to see and taste the originality for myself. You see Achatz interpreting classical dishes into new forms and then describing the process on e-gullet. Truly a chef of this era of open sourcing. Ruhlman’s description of his time in Alinea’s kitchen and as a patron does nothing to dissuage the mystique of Alinea. If anything, it only heightens the desire for me.

Melissa Kelly is a powerhouse. In reading the section describing her restaurant Primo’s, I am both struck at how “Californian” it feels (she has a full-time gardener to prune and cultivate the produce used by the restaurant) and how much I would want to be a part of this operation. Her restaurant is in an old house and her staff is small enough to be like family. I love that from a single restaurant she persuaded a large hotel chain to “plant gardens and initiate a recycling program” if she was to open secondary and tertiary locations of her flagship.

In Part four: “the power of the branded chef”, you learn about the rise of TV darlings Emeril and Rachael Ray. Part-entertainer, part-chef Emeril makes cooking look fun. Ruhlman even dispels the source of the oft-quoted “Bam!” as a way Emeril used to try to keep the camera guys awake and on their toes. I happened upon Emeril once or twice on tv and found him jovial, drawing glee and anticipation from his audience. As someone who loves New Orleans, I appreciated his contribution to food television and being a herald of that city by association.

Ruhlman describes Rachael Ray filming on set and quickly you see how gifted she is in that medium. Her ability to think quickly on her toes and come up with course additions won my respect in a new way. I love that she both got her start cooking at her mom’s restaurant growing up and then later got catapulted into television through offering cooking classes at the grocery market where she worked as a way to demonstrate easy applications for using spices in cooking. Her sunny disposition and easy recipes win over most people rushed for time but who still appreciate a good meal. This section in particular, highlighted for me that ineffable quality of the chef cum television personality whose overall goal may be for ratings, but perhaps more importantly, to get Americans / viewers back in the kitchen.

Part five: in “the chefs at Columbus circle”, you get to meet Masa and I am spellbound. From Masa to Melissa Kelly to Grant Achatz to Thomas Keller, their personal histories show hard work and apprenticeship. This sense of mentoring or memory built into the work and legacy they will leave behind themselves is one of the things about the foodservice industry I appreciate. Remembering the people who have gotten you to the place you are today, working to achieve the vision with unbridled passion- this is something that is contagious to the people around them.

It gets me thinking if you are not loving what you are doing, why are you doing it? The dedication, long hours and pursuit of excellence is something tangibly felt and evocative to diners of the care that goes into the making of the meal.

Masa says, “‘Here is my money.’ He touches his chest, and says, ‘Here is my money.’” (p. 305)

Do we not celebrate a bit inside when we see other people going for it and achieving success? There is definitely a part of me that gets swept into the excitement of the buzz and chatter of so-and-so’s cooking. You want to experience their interpretation personally. Maybe some of the magic might rub off on you. At the very least you’ll leave after eating a memorable meal that makes your senses tingle with delight.

Hazan says, “I think most of us are in a rut and are often frightened of life. Clinical Psychologist and Parenting expert Dr. Wendy Mogel recently reported that it wasn’t the best schools or highest grades that made the most successful people, it was those who were flexible and had a positive outlook on life.” (Plate to Page)

We want a brush with greatness.

“The Reach of a Chef” does a good job of showing all the advances happening in chefdom beyond the kitchen, but for you and I, it also points to possibility. It makes you wonder if you too are reaching high enough and gives you that extra nudge to think twice about your personal life.

Of Adria, The Telegraph says: “He may be stepping down from the stove, but he is not calming his creative fizz. ‘That’s what I like – obsession, passion. I’m going to create a centre for culinary magic.'”

NOTE: A favorite quote from “Reach”: “When you’re cooking you’re kind of eating in your mind the whole time. I can’t imagine the drudgery daily cooking would be if you didn’t love to eat.” (p. 29) – Well said!

Food Memoir Bookshelf

The Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman

BOOK REVIEW- The Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman

Many years ago, I found myself guilty of a particular kind of deceit: that of giving a gift and then taking it back.

At the time, one of my roommates in our overcrowded apartment bordering Ocean Beach had just entered the culinary program of one of our local San Francisco colleges. Her aspirations of being a pastry chef were commendable, though I never saw her baking during the period of time we lived together. I came across “The Soul of a Chef” and as a gesture of good will gave it to her on her birthday.

I un-gave it the day I snuck into her room, “borrowing” it and then later moving out and forgetting it was still in my keeping. I bet you’re thinking, “Sure you did Annelies.” Well, I had every intention of putting it back where I’d found it… if that counts a little. Have you ever done something like that? With no forwarding phone number, no way to contact her, somehow once I moved was when I settled into the book.

And it was an epiphany.

In it, I found a congruence between my passion for food and the restaurant world with good writing and story-telling. Author Michael Ruhlman enticed me and I was hooked. It was the kind of read and I was the kind of reader who could quote whole sections from it. I had the great fortune through a previous job to meet the author Ruhlman at the Taste3 conference several years back. I gushed about how fantastic I had found his book, trying not to geek out too seriously as a writer can do when in the company of a writer they esteem. He gave me a kiss on the cheek and a smile for my kind sentiments- a nice interaction.

“The Soul of a Chef” tries to disseminate through clear examples what is the spark that defines the chef. Ruhlman explores this idea by breaking the book down into three sections. Section one deals with following several participants involved in the Culinary Institute of America’s CMC program. This section is gripping. You feel the sweat and nervousness of those chefs participating; you feel their hunger for the title of Certified Master Chef. You want them to make it all the way through and fret as it becomes apparent that some of them just won’t. This is also your first introduction to participant Brian Polcyn (with whom Ruhlman later goes onto pen “Charcuterie”).

Section two looks at up-and-comer chef (at the time) Michael Symon in Cleveland. Described as the “antithesis of the certified master chef”, Symon shows how cooking is fun. At the helm of his restaurant Lola, the reader gets an insider’s perspective on what it’s like to open a restaurant. He is an affable guy and if you’re like me, you want to hop on an airplane so you can experience his cooking.

Section three introduces the reader to Thomas Keller and his foray at the French Laundry. Upon reading “Soul’s” account of Keller, two things strike me that shifted my poor and just out of graduate school self into the camp of reverent respect. First, Keller talks about how learning to clean the bathrooms when he was younger really translated into a need for cleanliness and meticulous attention in the kitchen. The French Laundry’s kitchen uses CARPETED mats for crying out loud. Having worked back-of-house before, this is an incredble detail of comfort for the chef’s feet and testament to the cleanliness of his kitchen. Additionally,

“Keller was forever picking up cigarette butts himself. And I would warrant that if Keller had seen one of his cooks spot a butt and not pick it up, that cook would thereby have created an insurmountable barrier to advancement in the kitchen.” (p. 258)

I think for several months after reading the book, I aspired to be more conscientious about my bathroom cleaning abilities. It’s remarkable how if you do something in one area and it becomes habit it does translate to other areas. Excellence in one leads to excellence in others.

The second thing I deeply admire about Keller is that “Soul” describes his need to kill a rabbit if he’s going to serve it on his menu.

“It had been hard to kill those rabbits because life, to Keller, wasn’t meaningless. If their lives hadn’t meant anything, it would have been easy to kill them. He took that life , and so he wouldn’t waste it. But how easy it is to forget about a piece of meat in the oven, throw it in the garbage, and fire a new one. He would not overcook this rabbit. He cared about it too much at this point. These were going to be the best rabbits ever. He was going to do everything possible, short of getting in that oven to cook with them, to make sure they were perfect.” (p. 289-290)

“It goes back to the rabbit story,” he said. “At some point you either have to learn or be taught the importance of the food that we eat. It’s not about thanking God or anybody, that’s an individual thing, but it is about understanding the relationship between you and the food. And how that relationship has to be nurtured.” (p. 328-329)

As someone who has delved into vegetarianism for a year to try it on and feeling myself “a bad carnivore”, what resonated with me in this action of his was the respect for life and the desire to honor that life by preparing it masterfully and without waste. It’s something that influences me to this day.

By the end of “Soul”, you feel as if you’ve gotten an opportunity to play voyeur as you too are trying to discern that innate quality, the spark of what is the inner workings and makings of a chef.

At the point in my life when I read “Soul”, I had begun working in food marketing after many years working in a restaurant front-of-house during graduate school, a coffee shop in college, and then in a neighborhood bakery in high school. Of all the jobs I’d had had, those in food and namely hospitality made me happy and put a bounce in my step. I never had the slightest inclination to become a chef. I love to cook but for me that other essence is not there. Instead, I now rally behind chef friends who succeed and try to put in a good word for others whose vision and passion are ones that ring true. After the many years that have passed since reading “Soul”, I can say this was a seminal book in my life. It reminded me that I want to and love to write. Ruhlman brings you along on his culinary adventures and makes it fun. It also gave me enormous appreciation for the chefs mentioned in the book- for their hard work and dedication to excellence.

“In the chaos of kitchen work, writing about it, watching it, working it, from the torrent of sensory perceptions, the stress of the work, the flood of food information, endless, often contradictory, I likewise looked for patterns, repetitions. So much of life in kitchens, the work of cooking, and the food that resulted paralleled the bigger picture. And here was the overriding repetition: The best cooks talked about the very basic elements of cooking.” (p.262)

If you enjoy biography or food literature, I would heartily pass you my small tome, but well, I should probably look for that former roommate cum pastry chef in the making. Afterall, her sister is now friends with me on facebook.


A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken

My favorite gift to receive is a book. (Hint: it’s my favorite gift to give as well.)

This Christmas, among the gifts waiting for me under the tree lay a thin package. Upon unwrapping it, my father-in-law, Bill commented, “that book is a bit old school, but it has some good insight into marriage.”

Intrigued, I decided to take it on our trip to Costa Rica. I know it seems absurd to think of me sprawled out on the beach or more aptly a hammock reading a book with the word “Severe” in its title. I scoffed at my initial bravado at bringing it along and set it aside for the earlier part of the trip.

A few days later, I picked it up again, you know, just to take a quick peek.

“A Severe Mercy” is both a love story between two people that spans the gap of life and death. It also details a friendship that borders on mentorship between the author, Sheldon Vanauken and noted writer C.S. Lewis through letters exchanged. I would be remiss to not mention that this book is also a written history of two people’s exploration into Christianity. It most certainly involves all of these elements.

In the beginning Sheldon Vanauken (Van) describes his family’s rambling estate, now a ghosted shell but he seeds it with a bit of the magic imbued by memory and specificity. You learn how he first meets Jean (Davy) and their love story begins to unfold.

Van and Davy’s love is described as a “Shining Barrier”, one that they craft and fashion to be impenetrable. He writes about the importance of sharing interests to stave off what he terms “creeping separateness”. Their intent is to keep the spring of “inloveness” intact.

And this is something that truly is tested later on in the book. (Sidenote: when I described “the shining barrier” to Beck, he made a bit of a gagging motion.) There were definitely moments where their love feels a bit heavy and syrupy but I think the premise makes sense. In marriage, you naturally want to share the things that excite you with your partner. It’s a bonus when they also end up sharing your interest too.

Here’s the thing. You know she’s going to die. I mean, aside from the book jacket description, the title “A SEVERE Mercy”, and his penning it, you know she’s going to die.

And frankly, while I found their love story at moments compelling, other times, it felt too much. What held my attention really were the correspondences with then-Oxford professor of literature C.S. Lewis and later on in the book, Van’s writings on grief.

He writes with such alacrity about the final weeks and days of his wife’s demise and the small joys they found during that period. One particular scene of sweetness involved an approved visit by their dog Flurry to the hospital room. Another scene showed him praying and talking her out of coma. As I read “The Deathly Snows” on the airplane in the middle seat, my eyes over-filled. I felt punctured with his loss. He does well to describe the separation of terms as loss and grief not being the same thing. He is experiencing “grief unalloyed.”

“But grief is a form of love- the longing for the dear face, the warm hand. It is the remembered reality of the beloved that calls it forth. For an instant she is there, and the void denied. It is not the grief, involving that momentary reality that cuts one off from the beloved but the void that is loss. In the end one can no longer summon forth that reality, and then one’s tears dry up. But while it lasts, it is a shield against the void; and by the time the grief wanes, the terrible emptiness of loss has given way to a new world that does not contain the shape of the beloved figure.” (p. 182)

My friend Amanda has said before that when someone close to you dies, you become part of a club. And these other cardholding club members speak in ways that find resonance. I do see my grief for my dad as a cloak; it is at times heavy and burdensome- at other times, warming and soft. Does it dampen the depth of loss for him- not always, but I can’t remember what it was like without the cloak. He died eight months ago on the 8th. For someone not subsumed in mathematics, I have become an accountant of time.

Van’s way of grieving consisted of something he called the “Illumination of the Past” culling together bits of music and memories for a study of their collective past.

“I had assembled, and put into chronological order, hundreds of letters Davy had written over the years. I had the diaries and journals we kept. I had her paintings done in their various periods and our photograph album. But I had gone further than these helps: I had searched out and bought recordings or music we had liked or merely chanced to listen to a good deal in some period, knowing how evocative music is… I had all our favorite poems of the years.” (p. 192)

Our trip to Costa Rica probably meant different things to the family members in attendance. For me, it was part “illumination of the past” by getting to learn more about the man that was my dad during his high school years. His two best friends, Jose Maria and Francisco shared stories of those pivotal years. I learned about their high school band with Francisco playing drums, Jose Maria playing the accordion and of course, my dad, as captain of the band and trumpet player. He was a natural born leader… Hugging both of them and looking at them, I was betwixt seeing my dad among our happy group and sorely wanting to tell him I’d met them in person. When I hugged them, it kind of felt like hugging him.

They laughed as they mentioned escapades of cutting class to slip away to the all-girls’ school under the ruse of helping the girls’ band out. They even started their own magazine and my dad wrote poems (poems!) though Francisco claims poorly. I never knew my dad to be a poet. He never heard any of my poems. Alas.

I gained more insight about my grandmother and grandfather and the elegant parties they attended. When the past is illuminated, so much more is given to us than just that which we seek. You have to be ready for it, and I scribbled details down in my notebook as the car drove on. It makes me crave more stories, more of him because story animates memory into the reel-player of imagination.

Reading “A Severe Mercy”, there is a part of me that played voyeur. Apart from the salve and balm it gave in hearing another person coping through grief and loss, I was transfixed on the friendship between Lewis and Van. How I wanted to have a pint with Lewis at the Eastgate and talk about literature and faith with one of my heroes! Never one to mince words, Lewis’ letters reminded me of the power of the written word with scores of pencil marks detailing those pages. The art of letter-writing is not something that needs to be a lost art. Moreover, the execution of letters consisting of more than the mundane but grappling with big questions and sometimes bigger answers, this is something worth pursuing. I wouldn’t say I agreed with everything Lewis had to say, but that’s not really the point. Through the letters you get the sense of friendship-depth that cuts to the quick.

“A Severe Mercy” might speak to some solely on the grief level. Perhaps to others, it speaks on the spiritual- and for those misty-eyed romantics, pure love story. Regardless, this book might change you or turn your thoughts to ponder its truths.