Now that’s what I call a book.
Of course, I’m a bit biased because I lived next door to Pompeii for over a decade. But the book still wouldn’t knock my or anyone else’s socks off if it weren’t brilliantly written. That box is non-negotiable. Pompeii has perfect tempo, characterization, scene setting, dialogue, etc. But it also has those beautiful moments that make your heart do a little leap, followed by a sigh of relief as you think, “Ah, yes, that’s exactly what such and such is like! I’m so glad someone has finally put it into words.”
Here’s a simple example from the dog-eared page in front of me, part of a description of the sound water makes as it is channelled through pipes into a vast underground reservoir: it sounds like “subterranean thunder” or a “hammering lullaby”. Yes, that’s it! And to think that all these years I have been yearning for these exact words, and I didn’t even know it. Before I was poor, and now I am rich.
For innately metaphorical beings like us humans, somehow our experience of the world is only truly made real, and therefore consciously felt and remembered, if we can put a name to it. Naming is the salt of life, without which everything is bland and forgettable.
Naturally, as a wannabe writer, naming is my main mission. That was the challenge I set for myself when writing my Neapolitan memoir a few years back: to describe an experience that felt indescribable, in its beauty and its pain. So I asked myself, What does life in a Neapolitan ghetto look like, feel like, smell like and sound like? What is it like to live under the shadow of one of the world’s most unpredictable volcanoes? What does a first kiss really feel like? What does it feel like when your lover tells you for the first time that he loves you? What does it feel like when your heart is about to break?
I no longer have the luxury of time like I did when I wrote my memoir, before having a kid. So tonight I will limit myself to the simple challenge of trying to describe a taste for you, so that you can nod and say, “Yes, that’s it!” or perhaps just so that you too may endure it along with me.
Chinese herbs. They’re good for you.
If you’re lucky, your prescribed herbs will come compressed into a pill form and you won’t taste anything as they go down. But it’s more likely that you’ll have to boil the mixture of ginseng, turtle shell, orchid roots, cow gallstones and peony bark for an hour, or revive the dehydrated version with hot water. In either case, imagine digging deep as you bring to your lips a bubbling cauldron of black sludge.
Tastes and smells are notoriously difficult to describe, but here I go. My recent Chinese brew – in its dehydrated powder form – smells like an innocuous concoction of dried fruit, tobacco and bitter chocolate, with a hint of gravel dust billowing up under your feet on a hot and dry day, the kind that mysteriously works its way into the back of your mouth. However, resurrected with hot water and sculled down at record-breaking speed, this herbal formula tastes like the bottom of an ashtray mixed with organic disinfectant.
Another brew, which I haven’t yet had the pleasure of tasting, smells a bit like yeast rising in a sweetgrass basket being carried along the same gravel road on a hot and dry day.
Nothing compared to my most traumatic Chinese herb experience ever. This medicine required boiling for twenty minutes, which leached a disturbing steam throughout the kitchen. Sniffing its unsettling creamy odor with a hint of slimy mushroom, I was prepared for the worst. But I was not prepared for the brew to taste exactly like buffalo dung. Don’t ask me how I know this, since I’ve never eaten buffalo dung. I just know.
Afterwards I drank water, apple juice, stuffed my face with broken saltines, brushed my teeth twice. I scrubbed the contaminated cup and pan without daring to inhale. Even in the middle of the night I woke up in a sweat, my nostrils assailed by the stench of buffalo dung. It took me a moment to realize I was safe, that I’d just been having a nightmare.
Later, not knowing the actual name of this foul brew, I described its appearance and smell to my knowledgeable mom, who instantly said, “Oh, yes! That’s Dong Quai [pronounced Don-kee] Dung, it’s a traditional formula.”
Here, it turns out that my stoicism in drinking Don-kee Dung was far greater than my ability to describe the indescribable. You see, it was dung after all. But I got the animal all wrong.