When I heard about Theresa Rebeck’s new book, I was excited because I loved the TV show “Smash” about the making of a Broadway musical starring Debra Messing, Brian d’Arcy James, Anjelica Houston, and others. I was prepared to love it and raced through the book. I was surprised by the way it ended, and had to read the last chapter a couple of times to fully take it in. Alison and Kyle, are high school sweethearts, in an on-again, off-again relationship. He dreams of opening a clinic in some remote part of the world where he can care for sick children, and she longs to be an actress. Neither one really ever gets what they were looking for, and both end up reinventing themselves by the end of the book. How different the Midwest is made out to be from New York in Alison’s musings. She couldn’t wait to get out of Cincinnati, but finds that she doesn’t really fit in in New York, in a kind of “you can take the girl out of the Midwest, but you can’t take the Midwest out of the girl” way. Kyle is a practicing Catholic, and although Alison doesn’t believe in organized religion, the two used to get into heated discussions when they were teenagers when Kyle would read aloud to Alison from whatever he happened to be studying at the time. For example, Kyle enjoyed the writing and philosophy of Thomas Merton, an American mystic and Trappist monk who lived at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. (The Abbey figures prominently in the plot and in Kyle’s spiritual life.) Merton wrote his autobiography Seven Storey Mountain and about 60 other books and is considered the most influential American Catholic author of the twentieth century. Alison preferred Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit who was exiled to China by the Church where he played a part in excavating Peking Man.
In a scene where Alison reveals to Kyle’s wife and friends what his heart’s desire was professionally when they were teenagers, we learn what the title of the book means. Although I was completely charmed by the revelation, subsequent googling failed to support the idea that there is no Navajo way of saying “I love you.” (Ayoo anii nishni) Nor could I find evidence that the Navajo people don’t believe in possession. I will acknowledge that a cursory search and subsequent reading of articles about Navajo culture and language was not an exhaustive process and that I might have missed something had I explored in more depth.
I love this sentence fragment from page 140: “…but an answer to their yearning for relief from the exhaustion of what it means to be human.” Some days, it truly is exhausting to be human!
Serendipitously, this book takes place primarily in Cincinnati, as does Eligible from my previous post. I’m not sure what that means, if anything, but it struck me that two randomly selected books would be about a midwestern city I knew nothing about. So what does Cincinnati, the word, mean? I conjectured that it was of Native American origin, and I was wrong. Cincinnati was originally called Losantiville when it was founded in 1789. A year later the name was changed by then governor Arthur St. Claire in honor of the Society of the Cincinnati, a fraternal veteran’s organization founded by former Revolutionary War officers, of which St. Claire was a member. The organization was named for Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a Roman hero who saved the city and then retired to his farm rather than rule Rome. His name roughly translates to “with curly hair.” Losantiville means “the city opposite the mouth of the Licking River.” It was named by the original surveyor, using four terms, each from a different language: “ville” is French for city, “anti” is Greek for opposite, “os” is Latin for mouth, and L was included for Licking River. When I consider all of things I don’t know, it’s no wonder I’m no Jeopardy champ!
Since I have already written about the beauty of Cincinnati, and since Theresa Rebeck currently lives in Brooklyn and is an honored Broadway playwright, I have posted an excerpt from her play “Seminar,” starring Alan Rickman, Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater, Jerry Connelly and The production premiered at the Gold Theater on November 20, 2011 and closed on May 6, 2012. Four young writers in New York City have paid $5000 each for a ten-week seminar with Leonard, played by Rickman and held in Kate’s (one of the writers) Upper West Side apartment. Rickman gets to eviscerate not only their writing, but the very core of their existences. And it’s Alan Rickman. Long live Snape!
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The food comes from a dinner party hosted by Susan, Kyle’s sister, during which discussion turns to Alison’s upcoming debut on a popular TV show. Van, Kyle’s wife, raises the tension around the dining table with her persistent questions about Alison. I loved how Kyle’s father brought the discussion to a close with his final remarks during “Grace” before dinner: “Look kindly on us as we gather in your name, and keep an eye on your daughter Alison, who has run off to the big city to follow her dreams. Some of us think that may have been a mistake and that she will need your guidance there, as we need it here. Amen.”
When Van compliments Susan on the chicken, she remarks that she always thought it was a Southern dish. Bill, Kyle’s father, says that Cincinnati really is a Southern city, as it is situated across the river from Kentucky and was one of the first stops on the Underground Railroad.
SOUTHERN PECAN CRUSTED CHICKEN WITH MUSTARD SAUCE
3⁄4 C pecans 1⁄4 tsp dry mustard
2 T cornstarch 2 T fresh parsley, chopped
3⁄4 tsp dried thyme 1 egg
1⁄2 tsp salt 4 boneless skinless chicken breasts
1⁄4 tsp cayenne pepper 2 T vegetable oil
In food processor, finely chop pecans, cornstarch, thyme, salt cayenne and dry mustard. Whirl in parsley. Transfer to shallow bowl; set aside.
In separate shallow bowl, beat egg. Dip each chicken breast into egg,
then into pecan mixture, coating both sides well. (Make ahead:
transfer to platter and cover loosley with plastic wrap;
refrigerate for up to 2 hours.)
In large nonstick frypan, heat oil over medium heat; cook chicken,
turning once, for 15 to 20 minutes or until no longer pink inside.
Sauce: Meanwhile, in small bowl, whisk together sour cream,
Dijon mustard, sugar and salt. Serve with chicken.