A Recipe for Tone

[an analysis by Brian Childers]

In E. J. Levy’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, the narrator begins the piece by talking about her mother’s passion for cooking and how she uses it to assert her domain in a loveless marriage. Food is a common element in the text, as it connects with the narrator’s own desires for finding love, even though her mother failed. It was the narrator’s inclination that love was the end all-be all, and relationships could not work without it, which is why Levi had trouble settling down, and immersed herself in cooking as her mother did. It is to her chagrin, that her parents remained together their whole lives, despite that fact that they only “like” each other. As the narrator states, there are “other painful, difficult things that bind people more surely than love ever will” (296).

An element of craft that helps this story reach its full potential is the tone of the voice. The tone is analytical and distant, even when Levi talks about subjects close to her, such as her parents’ marriage, or her own realization of lesbianism. This corresponds to the subject matter, as the story reads almost like a cookbook. A lack of passion and just the facts, presented by a person whose passion should be paramount.

“I like your father,” she said. “That is more important.” I do not disremember this. It remains with me like a recipe I follow scrupulously, an old family recipe. And when in my first year of graduate school my lover asks me if I love her, I try to form an answer as precise as my mother’s before me; I say, “I am very fond of you, I like and respect you,” and watch as pain rises in her face like a leavening loaf (296)

Within this passage, the tone of the voice demonstrates Levi’s desperate attachment to cookbook regulations and following in the footsteps of her mother. She remembers her mother’s comments on her marriage “like a recipe [she] follows scrupulously, an old family recipe” (296). This example, a microcosm of the story’s tone of voice, shows the coldness and distance that the speaker maintains, even while on the subject of her own family. Even when talking to her lover, Levi uses precise answers. She calculates and chooses her words carefully, keeping herself detached from what could possibly be a loving relationship.

The speaker’s isolation from emotion and feelings conveys the tone of the piece. She views her life as a recipe card, a series of instructions and a mix of ingredients. This is shown when Levi bought a used copy of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, and she “scanned the book as if it could provide an explanation, as if it were a secret record of my mother’s thwarted passion” (298).

Thus, by trying to connect with her mother, the author voided herself of emotion, just as her mother did. She has become nothing more than a “secret record” within the confines of a cook book. Levi’s mother used cooking in place of love, and as the speaker attempted the same feat, she sacrificed her emotion in the process.

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To Murder a Nephropidae

[an analysis by Carl Rosen]

The concept of juxtaposing ethical morality and the culinary process for lobsters is brilliant. David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster,” neither argues nor advocates any particular point toward animal cruelty or PETA ideals. Wallace creates an informative essay to call to attention to an event that lies between the line of our everyday society, and also conveys a metaphor about man’s morality through the article. What makes Wallace’s essay so precedent is Wallace’s his style of diction. He presents an extreme thoroughness of factoids about the Maine Lobster Festival, theories about the killing of lobsters, and also the lobster’s anatomy in explicit detail. He also juxtaposes a stark satire to the situation, contrasting facts with his own comical analysis.

Wallace’s satire allows him to keep enough of a distance as the writer to still present facts in an unbiased manner. An especially gripping example of said satire is when Wallace describes the instance of chefs using a knife to stab the lobster’s head before boiling it. Wallace writes:

“As far as I can tell from talking to proponents of the knife-in-head method, the idea is that it’s more violent but ultimately more merciful … [it] honors the lobster somehow and entitles one to eat it (there’s often a vague sort of Native American spirituality-of-the-hunt flavor to pro-knife arguments)” (249).

In this case Wallace is able to convey an opinion and also display his mastery because let’s face it, if there were no metaphors or purpose to this essay, the idea of writing 20 pages about lobsters may not be the biggest hit. Wallace transforms the concept of writing about the death of a lobster into writing about the mass genocide of a species. Wallace’s contrasting style of presenting concise scientific data, allows his sarcastic analytical sections to shine brighter than they would on their own. An example of this is when he describes the lobster’s nervous system, contrasting it with the theory that lobsters do not feel pain. He writes,

“Lobsters do not, on the other hand, appear to have the equipment for making or absorbing natural opioids like endorphins and enkephalins… From this fact, though, one could conclude either that lobsters are maybe even more vulnerable to pain, since they lack mammalian nervous systems’” (250).

Because Wallace is able to effectively support his point of lobsters feeling pain, he creates a compelling argument in drawing awareness to the lobster cooking phenomenon.

Overall looking back on Wallace’s essay, one can realize that if the information he has presented is accurate and if the reader accepts it into their world view, the setting of the story, Maine’s Lobster Festival, is a place of torturous murder, making the essay all the more elegant and masterful.

“Repeating” the Mood

[an analysis by Heather Peters]

David Sedaris’ “Repeat After Me” shuffles his real-life relationship with his neurotic older sister, Lisa, and her relationship with Henry, the parrot, while ultimately coming to terms with truths about himself. Sedaris spends the majority of the piece poking fun at his sister’s gullibility and predisposition to misinformation, as well as her extremist love for animals: “Human suffering doesn’t faze [Lisa] much, but she’ll cry for days over a sick-pet story” (448). Sedaris details the events of his stay with Lisa, noting her quirks which range from speaking in code on the phone to leaving detailed instructions with emergency phone numbers and post-scripts for appliances and events unlikely to occur while she is away for an hour.

At first glance, this story appears to be a mere recounting of Sedaris’ visit with Lisa, complete with flash-backs and second-hand stories that come across as amusing ramblings. As the reader reaches the end, however, they realize that each tangent is relative to the overarching story, resulting in both its pinnacle and turning point in the final moments of the piece. Sedaris leaves the reader haunted with connections, creating a resonant mood. In a hypothetical scene, Sedaris presents the reader with a man waking up in the middle of the night and going downstairs into his sister’s kitchen, where he removes the covering on a large birdcage housing a parrot:

Through everything that’s come before this moment, we understand that the man has something important to say. From his own mouth the words are meaningless, so he pulls up a chair. The clock reads 3:00 A.M., then 4:00, then 5:00, as he sits before the brilliant bird [in the kitchen] repeating slowly and clearly the words, “Forgive me. Forgive me: Forgive me.” (451).

In this section, the reader assumes that the man is Sedaris and the bird is Henry. This resonates so brilliantly because of the hushed way in which Sedaris connects each of the previous sections together in this one moment. Sedaris says from “his own mouth the words [forgive me] are meaningless,” echoing back to an earlier passage where Sedaris describes Lisa’s predilection for conversation with Henry as opposed to Sedaris, knowing that Sedaris is likely to use anything she says as “scrap” for a future story. This also implies that the likelihood of Lisa believing the sincerity of those words is far greater if she hears them from Henry, who, “in the midst of a brief academic setback, [Lisa] trained to act as her emotional cheerleader […] screaming, ‘We love you Lisa!’ and ‘You can do it!'” (448).

Sedaris creates a consistently light mood throughout the story up until the last page when he expresses his first remorseful feelings toward sharing his sister’s “quintessential” story, which they both know is going to inevitably happen since Sedaris admits that he has a habit of airing his family’s dirty laundry for the sake of entertainment. This guilty feeling ties directly to the title of the piece, turning Sedaris into nothing more than a parrot “born to mock its jungle neighbors” by imitating the people around him who “generally [understand] that [his] word is no better than Henry’s” (446-447). In the final paragraph, during the hypothetical scene from the film-version of his life, Sedaris leaves the reader with a rain cloud over their head, feeling bad at the end of a funny story, cutting the laughter and smirking down to a nervous cough as Sedaris’ cloud opens up to let reality pour down.

Weaselized

[an analysis by Allen James]

The similes and metaphors that Annie Dillard employs in her essay, “Living Like Weasels,” created such vivid images for me, and in particular, the following passage inspired me so much, that I felt the need to write this very analysis: “The man could in no way pry the tiny weasel off, and he had to walk half a mile in water, the weasel dangling from his palm, and soak him off like a stubborn label” (148).

The author uses the simile, “like a stubborn label.” A “stubborn label” is a simple thing that the majority of people may have experienced. By using a common experience, Dillard illustrates that a weasel holds the stubborn quality of not being easily removed. She also uses the simile, “was socketed into his hand deeply as a rattlesnake,” to vividly exemplify something that I can see or have seen in nature or on television, and that allows my mind to run freely and imagine how painful this would feel if it happened to me. Dillard’s use of metaphors shows the fearlessness of a weasel when she asks, “was the whole weasel still attached to his feathered throat, a fur pendant?” Here, Dillard portrays the weasel’s determination. The use of metaphor was again very effective when the author states, “Our eyes locked, and someone threw away the key” (149). Imagery through the use of similes and metaphors was taken a step further when the author states: “Brains are private places, muttering through unique and secret tapes (150). Also imagery is portrayed to draw me as the reader in closer when the author says: “like blood pulsed into my gut through the jugular vein” (159).

I choose to highlight the above quotes because they take the human mind and senses of sight, and touch to help us explore sights and feel objects all through the use of words. When my mind is engaged, it can vividly see imagines and contrast and compare the similarities through personal experiences that stay within my mind. I am forced to examine the author’s viewpoints as to why the subject of weasels would be so compelling to write about when the author challenges me to look at my “brain” and “jugular veins.” I am challenged to learn new things about the dynamics and structure of weasels that I perhaps looked over or never cared to explore. I become compelled through similes and metaphors to see what the weasel sees and go where the weasel goes. The lines I quoted make me want to live inside the brain of a weasel and respect the animal and its natural habitat. Lastly, the imagery and use of similes and metaphors that Dillard employed compel me to “become” the weasel and, for a moment, to see the world as the weasel would, with no restrictions caused by fear or doubt.

Deconstructing the Kiss

[an analysis by Nicole Sundstrom]

Think of your first kiss. Now think of your best kiss. Your worst. There are many ways to describe a kiss—wet, transcendent, regrettable. Kissing can be the beginning, or it can be the end. We have been taught many things about kissing. Tutorials on how to kiss are a dime a dozen in magazines or actors who model perfect kissing in movies or on TV, but you never truly grasp what kissing is until you do it. No kiss is the same. No pair of lips is the same. One kiss leads to another, and as Anthony Farrington portrays, kissing only gets more complicated from there. In his short story, “Kissing,” Farrington describes his experiences with kissing and the lessons he learned. Through the masterful use of descriptive language and symbolic structure, Farrington verbalizes that which others can only fondly reminisce.

Farrington’s honest and multi-faceted story depicts the many types of kissing and the ways in which we are affected by them. It took six women and his two children for Anthony to find out what kissing meant to him. Some kisses were mistakes, one was the love of his life and the mother of his children, and some were stepping stones like Lulu. Lulu was the first girl he ever kissed. She was the beginning of it all. Then there was Deanne the teenage crush, Jenny the real thing, Robin the one that got away, April the mistake, and Carolyn the regrettable one. His self-proclaimed most intimate kiss was when his daughter clung to him after their first Halloween apart from one another (p. 118). He ends “Kissing” with a goodnight kiss from his son.

In the opening line, Farrington summarizes the main point of the piece: “this is story about the mouth and the tongue, about conversations of one kind and another” (p. 176). Farrington uses varied structure, including interviews, lists, and quotes from multiple sources all related to kissing. I would argue that he chose this structure to symbolize the act of kissing itself. He includes various sources, the words of others, to show the collaborative nature of kissing. In the same way, he uses the sporadic interviews and an “invented advice column” to symbolize an exchange between two people, which is similar to sharing a kiss with another person (p .177). He ends the piece with a more serious interview, which demonstrates the vulnerability of opening up to another person through a kiss.

Similarly, the sentence structure symbolizes kissing. Farrington uses staccato passages, such as “April kissed me and I kiss her. In that order. And I nearly broke down. Wondering where my wife was,” which seem to mimic a quick peck on the lips, a meaningless kiss (p. 180). In other places, he uses long, fluid syntax such as his description of kissing his high school girlfriend:

With Deanne, who kissed me second, it was bubble gum pop and Air Supply—‘lost in love’ and ‘every woman in the world’—the music filling the small space of my car while we drove in the early evenings—her body against mine—fifteen years old (me seventeen) and lovely—her head on my shoulder and the windows open, the wind and her long yellow hair blowing up and against my face (p. 177-178).

Here, Farrington’s syntax symbolizes the innocent rush of young love, the way in which everything feels like it runs together, melting into one another. It mimics those long kisses, the kisses you share just because you can.

Farrington depicts many types of kisses—hard ones, soft ones, drunken ones—but the most effective descriptions come from stories surrounding each kiss. He describes the action behind each kiss, the story as to why it happened and what happened next. This is what sets Farrington’s narrative apart. By including the time, the place, the circumstances, he includes the reader in that intimate moment. By doing so, you are taken back to similar moments that you may have experienced with kissing, reminding you of your first, best, and worst kisses. The descriptive language evokes memories from your past that makes this narrative real and relevant, and by the end of the story, it is as if you have shared his vulnerability, you have exchanged a personal conversation through the piece.

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