Currently reading: Candy Freak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America.
So I’ll be the first to admit that this literary foray is gratuitous escapism. But I take solace to the fact that this is at least the written word, and not Rubert Murdoch’s boorish low brow pop culture table scrapings… (I don’t count Sunday’s 24 Season 6 Marathon in that category).
I’m borrowing this book from my middle brother, who’s probably read enough books in his life that if you stacked them on top of one another they would stretch from the floor to my knees… twice!
The book written by Steve Almond, is a glorious tale of one man’s life-long addiction to candy of all varieties, a 250-page train of musings on all things sweet that once in a while borders on deep philosophical reflections on life, humanity and society only to be quickly deflated by the author’s rants against White Chocolate.
But I must admit this was a jewel of a find, its a book that actually reads like candy. There is a succulent sweetness in the prose, kind of like biting into a snack size kit kat, the crisp edges of broken wafer tickles your briefly tongue and quickly dissolves into the silky milk chocolate before you even have a chance to smile. There’s the flavor, the impression and its gone. There’s memories of the author’s childhood, fun facts about discontinued candies, epic candy battles between Mars and Hershey, Cadbury and Rowntree in history, and finally the small mom-and-pop candy makers and their romanticized tales of survival. But all these elements are bound together in the endless ways of describing the simple bite, suck, lick, chew of candy. Its delish.
Clearly reading this book, has rekindled the writer’s spirit in me. And while I’m no Steve Almond, I know that reading good writing is certainly akin to eating the candy. While we all can’t enjoy Lindt Special Edition truffle balls, sometimes even a stale 3-year old three musketeers can suffice. And if not, here are some thin mints for your pleasure. Here is an excerpt from a section where the author is justifying his candy addiction:
Freak physiology — I have been endowed with one of those disgusting metabolisms that allow me to eat at will. To physiologists, I am a classic ectomorph, though my ex-girlfriends’ have tended to gravitate toward the term scrawny. The downside of this metabolic arrangement is that I am a slave to my blood sugar. If I don’t eat for too long, I start thinking about murdering people, and I am inexorably drawn toward fats and carbs. I hate most vegetables, particularly what I call the evil brain trio– broccoi, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, which taste, to me, like flatulence that has been allowed to blossom. Left to my own devices, my diet would consist of dark chocolate and baguettes, with perhaps a grilled pork rib thrown in for variety. I realize that I am going to hell. (pp 8. )
Then Almond descends into a mini-diatribe that spoke to my SOUL. I can say whole heartedly I agree with just about every word that followed:
Every now and again, I’ll run into someone who claims not to like chocolate or other sweets, and while we live in a country where everyone has the right to eat what they want, I want to say for the record that I don’t trust these people, that I think something is wrong with them, and that they’re probably– this must be said– total duds in bed.
While I cannot testify to the veracity of that last thought, I can surely join my dear comrade Almond in speculation.
Here is one particularly delicate description of his coveted Caravelle candy bar, in comparission with its more well-known imitation, 100 Grand:
What was the Caravelle? It was a strip of caramel covered in a thick shell of milk chocolate, which was embedded with crisped rice. Yes, I know. That’s the 100 Grand. But no one with even the dullest palate could ever have confused the two. The chocolate in the 100 Grand is mild and crumbly. The cripsed rice is mealy and deflated. The caramel is the color of a washed0out varnish. And the balance is all wrong. There simply isn’t enough chocolate or cripsed rice to sustain the salivary breakdown. As a result, you wind up with a mouthful of rubbery caramel.
The Caravelle tasted more like a pastry: the chocolate was thicker, darker, full-bodied, and the cripsed rice had a malty flavor and what I want to call structural integrity; the caramel was that rarest variety, dark and lustrous and supple, with hints of fudge. More so, there was a sense of the piece yielding to the mouth. By which I mean, one had to work the teeth through the sturdy chocolate shell, which gave way with a distinct, moist snap, through the cripsed rice (thus releasing a second, grainy bouquet), and only then into the soft caramel core. Oh, that inimitable combination of textures! That symphony of flavors! And how they offerent themselves to the heat and wentess of the mouth– the sensation of the crisped rice drenched in melted chocolate, chomped by the molars into the creamy swirl of carmel. oh, woe and pity unto thee who never tasted this bar! True woe! True pity!
I would haste to include more such literary gems from Almond, in particular the dozens of ways he can describe sweets, from marshmallow bunnies being dipped in pristine milk chocolate to the elastic caramel that unwillingly dissolves in our mouths.But I think that will suffice for example.
In the meantime, it is sections like the one above that get me thinking about writing, and more generally, the meaning of art. Almond himself also picks up on this in a later section, when he writes about how this book came about:
Art arises from loss. I wish this weren’t the case. I wish that every time I met a new woman and she rocked my world, I was inspired to write my ass off. But that is not what happens. What happens is we lie around in bed eating chocolate and screwing. Art is what happens when theings don’t work out, when you’re licking your wounds. Art is, to a larger extent than people would like to think, a productive licking of the wounds.
Loss, after all, leads rather naturally to the quest. The Greeks want Helen. Odysseus wants to get home (eventually). Dante wants Beatric. Ahab wants the whale. Proust wants his cookies. And so on.
In the instant case, this entire book arose from the loss of a single candy bar. (pp29)
I wondered about this. “Is this true? Is that what art is?” I thought to myself as I was enjoying this wonderful little book riding the #82 Kimball bus on a blustery Tuesday afternoon. I think I can wrap myself around good art as arising from some sort of loss. The best stories on TV, on the written page, in life, seem to arise from a certain tension, dissonance, that demands release, harmony. And does that mean as a reader of this book, am I sharing in that tension/loss or finding some release/harmony in the author’s own tension/loss?
Another way to look at this question is, why do I find just as much pleasure (or maybe its better to say a different pleasure of the same intensity) as reading great writing about the Caravelle as going to the CVS, buying a kit kat, and enjoying it for myself?
I have a few hypotheses for this:
- We are by nature more than just our five senses, there is something in us that needs to be stimulated beyond the simply visceral, but on a deeper level. Art activates our imagination and doesn’t forgo our sense, but simply synergizes them.
- This is related, but we are too lazy and perhaps too unaware to reflect and take in the world for the full extent of its wonder. We are experts in taking things for granted. Good art reminds us there is beauty in the mundane and helps us to make beauty out of the mundane.
And perhaps that’s what separates good from the bad. Bad art appeals to our baser senses, and doesn’t point to beauty in the mundane, but instead forces us into manufactured beauty that is neither real nor lasting.
So for Almond, his writing may arise out of loss, but for me, the reader, I’m not necessarily united with him in his loss, but celebrating him in his witty eccentricities and amusing ramblings. Maybe my joy arises out of a different loss, a lack of celebrating people for who they are.
I put down my book and sitting next to me is an old man who I think had been mumbling incoherent phrases since we both got on the bus. He sounded like a mixture of elmer fudd and elmo. He had big, thick circular glasses, pouty lips perpetually formed like someone who just sucked a warhead, a sleek silver mustache and thousands of little prickly hairs delicately laying under his cheeks. There was a well-worn black skull cap, nestled unevenly on his balding head like a sagging, extra large marshmallow. He was beautiful.
I wanted to talk to him, ask him what his life is like. If he’s having a good day and if he knows that he’s loved. It was weird. I started to smile at him, but quickly turned my face because I knew that this was weird. Maybe he was used to people thinking he was weird, but I was still self-conscious. I stole glances of him once in a while as I kept reading and wondered: maybe we like art because we’re too lazy or too desensitized to enjoy life and people for the fullness that it can provide. To put it positively, maybe good art reminds us that the world is a lot better than sometimes we try to make it out to be. And if we look carefully, open our eyes to the things around us, maybe we can not just experience the joy that comes from the words on a page, but life in real-time in its raw, unfiltered glory.
Maybe Almond’s wonderful description of the Caravelle bar is only a pale reflection of the true experience of enjoying life as it was meant to be… only that seems like a far cry from our daily experience. Even the lastest episode of Dancing With the Stars seems to be filled with more glamor, excitement and immediacy that our days, right?
I guess maybe we can say that the spectrum of art parallels the spectrum of lived experience.
There are some good moments, some bad, some beautiful moments taken for granted, some awful moments overblown. Sometimes we’re living in Heroes season 1 and other times we’re in season 2. We all have our moments, sometimes at our peak, where we jump the shark.
Sometimes our lives live up to the hype. Other times not. Sometimes I our lives are overacheiving and underappreciated and sometimes vice-versa.
Either way, there is something about art that stirrs our imagination and rather than leaving us in fantasy escapism, points a spotlight onto our lives and asks us what it means to enjoy life, and what it distinctly means to be human.
Or maybe not. Maybe this was just verbal diarrhea.
Either way, I thought I should end this entry with a music video that I think we all can agree on is art at its finest. Let’s give three cheers for Candy in all its forms, from Andy as well as from the high five of certain Korean teenagers. Fighting!