Saturday, August 17, 2013

Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites

by Kate Christensen
Doubleday    2013
353 pages            Memoir

People write memoirs as a way of sorting through their lives and trying to come to an understanding of how they got to this moment in time. People read memoirs to either empathize with the author or to understand a life far different from their own. 

Kate Christensen wrote Blue Plate Special as a way to taste again the major events of her life. She says: "To taste fully is to live fully. And to live fully is to be awake and responsive to complexities and truths--good and terrible, overwhelming and miniscule. To eat passionately is to allow the world in; there can be no hiding or sublimation when you're chewing a mouthful of food so good it makes you swoon." As she approached her 50th birthday, she began to write short essays about her very eventful and rather unconventional life. These essays became Blue Plate Special.

Christensen writes about her life chronologically, and food ties the events together. She begins by telling about eating soft boiled eggs for breakfast as a very young child on the day her father beat up her mother. The major sections of the book end with very personalized recipes written in a narrative style rather than a recipe style. Some of the recipes look very good, but that is not the reason for their placement. The recipes become part of the memoir. In many respects the recipes are a "gimmick"  that knit Christensen's life story together. I was a bit put off by the linkage and felt that the story was good enough to tell without the food. On the other hand, Christensen does a lot of food writing (the Wall Street Journal, for example), and most likely, for her, the connections with food are meaningful. The reviewer in the LA Times quotes her as saying: "I've lived half a century. If I write about food and use my life as a fulcrum to move the story along, maybe I've lived long enough to fashion a narrative that has a happy ending."

I was far more interested in her unconventional upbringing, beginning with her alternative mother who was married several times, an absentee father, and the philosophical community in which she was raised. For reasons unknown to me, I knew nothing about Waldorf Education, Rudolf Steiner, and anthroposophy, the philosophical basis of the Waldorf Schools. It is said of Rudolf Steiner: "Since the teacher's death in 1925, a quiet but steadily growing movement, unknown and unseen by most people, has been spreading over the world, bringing practical solutions to the problems of our global, technological civilization. The seeds are now coming to flower in the form of thousands of projects infused with human values." Christensen was raised in Waldorf Schools and at one point at the end of her teenage years, she worked in a Waldorf School in France. (As is so often the case, once you know about something, you hear about it all over the place. My little great niece is starting in a Waldorf preschool in Oregon this fall. There are no Waldorf schools in West Michigan, so I am off the hook.) 

Seldom has the disintegration of a marriage been so eloquently described as Christensen's marriage to Jon. The reader's heart bleeds for them; they are both good people in an untenable situation. Blue Plate Special is well worth reading just for the painful description of the marriage. She says: "In October 2008, I finally left for good after too many episodes of self-medicating alcohol abuse, severe panic attacks, manic spells, depressive spells, out-of-control behavior, and overwhelming, debilitating sickness of soul...Not once did I regret leaving--I was devastated and sad, yes, but I also felt suddenly miraculously better, as if I had been let out of a cage or freed from a spell." Ultimately, Christensen and the reader both come to the realization that many of her life problems stem from the episode of her father beating on her mother. 

I agonized for many days over how to write about Blue Plate Special, trying to understand why I was compelled to read it; what is it that makes us read the self-indulgent musings of others. Yet, I guess that is what memoir is--a self-indulgent retelling of a life circumstance. Many reviewers compared the book to Jeanette Walls The Glass Castle. But what I felt was most important in Blue Plate Special was the eloquence of the writing. It is the writing that moves the book along and moves the reader with it.  Christensen is the author of six books.Her novel, The Great Man, won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2008. She spends less time talking about her books than she does what she was eating as she wrote them.

Kate Christensen's blog:

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