The Punchbowl Chronicles 

Rejoicing -- hey, it's not for everybody.

It's that time of year when invitations clutter the calendar, when sitcoms include obligatory bromides about mistletoe and gorging on eggnog, and it actually seems to matter -- for five minutes, an hour, all day -- what you wear on a certain night to a certain place.

There are those who say they hate parties and there are those who don't say it but secretly do. How many among us honestly love a party, from start to finish, all that getting-ready and getting-there and saying-hello again and again and again till your jaw aches, to relatives, strangers, and friends? The pressure -- to look right, to talk right and neither too little nor too much. The lure of beer, or gin, or brownies, which beckon on the spangly horizon promising relief, distraction, or forgetfulness only to pump you, sooner or later, full of regret. Does anybody really love having to eat fruit salad off a paper plate while standing up? Or the angst, when you fail to recognize a name or face and -- as he or she stands staring, crestfallen -- you wonder: Who the hell are you?

Throwing together an assemblage of individuals, then making them fend for themselves as jolly music plays, is like shaking bees in a jar. Or like shaking the I Ching coins in a cup -- that's how it's done -- and tossing them out, divining fortunes from the way they fall. A party is either a prescription for disaster or a little miracle, promising a million beginnings.

Our ancestors suffered party anxiety as much as we do, as Roy Strong reveals in Feast, an impeccably researched and encyclopedically detailed history of banqueting.

Re-creating an ancient Roman party based on passages in Petronius' Satyricon, Strong describes the guests arriving "only to encounter a slave, stripped ready for flogging, groveling." Their host urinates into a chamber pot borne by a eunuch, then forces his guests to listen to readings of his own vulgar poetry. The upside is the food and its presentation: elaborate sculptures adorned with honey-dipped dormice; tiny birds immersed whole in spiced egg yolk; sows' udders; a whole pig which, slashed open, disgorges blood sausages; quinces disguised with thorns as sea urchins; and saffron. But more angst arises as a servant who drops a dish is beaten in front of everyone. Finally, the host pretends to be dead while musicians perform funereal tunes, and the guests "make their escape."

Weighty etiquette hung over the crowned heads invited to medieval palace feasts, which Strong describes using sober diction that spotlights slyly and deliciously the outlandishness of what he recounts. Guests had to know when to bow, whom to greet in what order, and at exactly which point in the proceedings to pledge solemn allegiance to the host. "It was customary," Strong notes, "to make vows of chivalry on birds" -- thus the appearance of a live peacock was the guests' cue during a typical 1457 soirée thrown by a French count for a Hungarian king.

At that feast, dozens of servants wheeled gigantic floats into the dining hall, a man in a tiger costume spat fire, guests admired a garden made of wax and a zoo made of sugar, and one of the meal's many courses arrived gilded. Life-size floats at other medieval banquets were shaped like elephants, stags, mountains, and women whose breasts squirted wine. As one era ebbed into another, Renaissance parties were intensely complicated all-singing, all-dancing affairs whose fare was "almost overwhelming in its richness, with a penchant for things we would find utterly repulsive." Strong cites one course at a 1583 dinner hosted by Pope Clement VII that comprised "a pastry shell stuffed with cockscombs, testicles, and gooseberries; large pies filled with kids' eyes, ears, and testicles; and boned and stuffed calves' heads." Chickens' testicles appeared in the next course. Later still, Victorian dinner-party guests were constrained to make proper use of what Strong calls "a battery of cutlery." A typical single serving included three knives, four forks, and at least one spoon.

Hostesses panic too, and for good reason. So much to do, so many people to please. In the pretty yet practical Wedding Invitations, Jennifer Cegielski advises on every aspect of the process -- which she estimates can take as long as six to eight months, given all the decisions regarding words, paper stock, fonts, and the possibility of packaging each invite inside a little sealed bottle or a heart-shaped box or a miniature treasure chest. It's not the sort of thing you might ever think you'd need to know. Yet it reminds us that parties are rituals, celebrating (ostensibly, at least) passion and victory and change. Which in turn reminds us of what it means, when the gin wears off, to be civilized.

Pre-party jitters wreak havoc in Cassandra Speaks, a swan-dive of a novel reissued this month for the first time since it originally appeared in 1962. Why this tale of a Cal student striving to spoil her identical twin's wedding is not a classic and why its author, Dorothy Baker -- a Cal grad herself who taught French in Oakland -- is not in that pantheon of famous California novelists, your Steinbecks, Saroyans, and Didions, is a howling mystery. Despite the hideous David Park nude adorning the reissue's cover (a nod to the East Bay, presumably, but yuck), this is a book that says so much about so much, in prose that is crystalline both in its clarity and its ability to cut, that it makes a serious play very quickly to become one of the best novels you have read in a long time, if not your favorite ever.

In scope and setting, it's humble: Depressed, self-absorbed, hard-drinking, brilliant lesbian Cassandra Edwards visits her family's ranch in the Sierra foothills, where her sweeter-tempered twin Judith plans to marry a young doctor the following day. Wrapped gifts shimmer in the midsummer heat, lovely dresses wait in shopping bags, and the cake needs to be picked up at the bakery. But beside the swimming pool that night before the wedding, having spent their girlhood nearly inseparable amid sweeping beauty and sparkling erudition (in the manner of so many UC Berkeley girls then as now, they play piano and quote easily from the classics), the sisters spar. Unable to bear the idea of separation, Cassandra does everything possible to keep the party from happening, including downing a bottle of pills. So it's all about feelings, scenery, and intoxicants -- and what makes for a more Californian story than those?

Cassandra is tirelessly articulate, firing off quips whose laser-beam speed and sarcasm come at everyone's expense, often her own. "Worse is one way I get quite easily," she declares. By contrast, "Judith's quality is serenity, she's all the eastern religions; I'm the tense one, and I can be tense for two if it will give her some immunity." Eavesdropping on an intimate conversation between Judith and her fiancé, Cassandra seethes because "the real John Thomas Finch was in there claiming his own, and telling her he could not, he simply could not, understand how anything so good could happen to him." Cassandra despairs. She has no idea what she wants, how to be whole, and how even to think of love: "Me, no good to anybody unopened, but unable to be opened up." Meanwhile, her sister is decamping to the incomprehensible: an outsider, almost a stranger, and a man besides.

Capturing the consciousness of smart young women at a point in history when everything was about to burst wide open for them -- but was still trembling on the verge -- Baker employed a staunch reserve in her evocations of heat, water, orchards, and desire that shames her contemporary, Jack Kerouac, in his blathering California phase. At times even prescient -- "go, girl," Cassandra gibes, prefiguring that tag line by forty years -- Baker offers a harsh lesson to all writers that less is, please believe this, really more. Does Judith get her party in the end? Read this, and weep.

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