A woman disappears, leaving no trace except her car at the edge of her cliff; she’s written off as a suicide. In the months that follow, her mother discovers a secret manuscript that her daughter wrote and is convinced that it sheds some insight into her daughter’s disappearance: that manuscript is The Bride Stripped Bare.
And that’s all in the first two pages. The rest of Nikki Gemmell’s book is comprised of the actual manuscript of The Bride Stripped Bare. The chapters are labeled as a series of lessons that read like a diary. It begins with a couple on a honeymoon; the narrator has had her share of lovers, but none know her as intimately as her new husband, Cole. Still, she has secrets that even he doesn’t know about.
By all outward appearances, the narrator is a picture-perfect good wife. She’s given up her teaching job and now stays at home; soon, she expects they’ll start a family. Cole brings in enough money for her to do as she pleases, and she spends her days working on turning a scandalous Elizabethan-era diary that’s been passed down in her family into a novel. But the doldrums of married life are weighing on her. It’s a chillier marriage than the one she’d envisioned, and her thoughts keeps straying to past lovers. The book she’s working on doesn’t help: the Elizabethan woman who penned it was vocal about her desires. It isn’t long until the narrator begins flirting with her own desires in the form of a handsome stranger named Gabriel.
Pamela Moore was only 18 years old when Chocolates for Breakfast was published. Released in 1956, the book scandalized its audience with its frank (for that time) discussions of sex and illicit love affairs.
The book’s heroine is Courtney Farrell, an unhappy and depressed fifteen-year-old girl who keeps trying to speed through adolescence in her quest to grow up. Her mother is a failed actress living in Los Angeles, and her father works in publishing in Manhattan; he’s present but emotionally distant. Meanwhile, Courtney is flailing her way through boarding school, where her only real friend is Janet, a wealthy and rebellious young girl with emotional troubles of her own. Seeing their daughter struggling, her parents offer to let her quit boarding school and move to Los Angeles with her mother.
Courtney was already hanging by a thread at boarding school, but once she moves in with her permissive mother, things really start falling apart. She begins drinking and smoking; men, assuming she’s more sexually experienced than she actually is (even though she’s never so much as kissed anyone), also begin coming on to her. Her life in LA becomes the classic tale of the screwed up, innocent young girl who becomes drawn to a man who is bad for her. Her only real adult supervision is a mother who, in stark contrast to Courtney, refuses to grow up.
It’s 1983, and Allie is a student struggling to make ends meet. Her ex-boyfriend stole $7,000 from her, so now she has no way of paying her rent or tuition. She and her best friend have been slaving away at a Berkeley dress shop that’s actually a drug front. In one afternoon it all comes crashing down: her boss refuses to pay her the money she’s owed, and she bolts from the store with a Wonder Bread bag filled with pure cocaine.
Her boss sends a hitman named Vice Versa on her tail, and Allie sets off to LA in search of her parents, hoping that they’ll know what to do. Her father is aloof and hard to track down, and her unreliable mother left them long ago to be a tambourine player in a band that’s currently opening for Billy Idol. In her frantic search for her parents, she’ll also come across an old friend from high school, a paraplegic pornographer (who brings to mind Larry Flynt), and a hot surfer dude who turns out to be a dealer who wants her stash.
The Wonder Bread Summer wants to be that kind of book: an irreverent, zany whirlwind of an adventure that keeps readers entertained with all of its ridiculous scenarios. I do think Blau has the skills to have pulled it off. Unfortunately, what many call “satire,” some call hipster racism. And this book smacks of it.
I first encountered John Baxter’s writing a few years ago when I came across Immoveable Feast, about the planning and creation of a French Christmas feast. Baxter had me — a longtime vegetarian — craving all of the amazing meat-based and/or fat-enhanced courses he so elegantly described. Baxter, an Australian expat now married to a French woman, has written many books about France. When I found out that his latest book again returns to the subject French culinary treasures, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.
The Perfect Meal tackles a subject close to Baxter’s heart: with the industrialization of food and the desire to find something quick and easy to eat, even France, with its legacy as the bastion of culinary arts, is rapidly ceding its culinary traditions to history. Go to a French restaurant, and you’re likely to find that at least some of your meal came from frozen or pre-packaged ingredients. Even the expensive French restaurants located in beautiful old buildings have lost their traditional French roots. The last straw for Baxter was going to a restaurant located in a magnificent Belle Epoque-era building; hoping against all odds that he’d be served an impressive, unmistakably French meal, he was instead served food that was “precious:” his soup, which was brought out as separate components and mixed before his eyes, was then topped with a pansy.
Where has all the traditional French food gone? A feast you’d have found even a hundred years ago must be impossible to create by today’s standards: the preparation would take ages, and the cost would be astronomical. But even if money was no object, are there even people still making the traditional food of yore? Does anyone really still roast an entire ox? Would it be possible today to compose a menu for a traditional French feast? Unfortunately, money was very much an issue, but Baxter was still intrigued. His actual feast would have to be a fantasy, but the menu planning could be real. With his fantasy feast in mind, he sets off to all parts of France to find the answers to his questions.
Continuing my way backwards through Jennifer Haigh’s catalog…
Baker Towers is a family saga set in the fictional town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania. It’s a small immigrant community that completely revolves around its one main industry, coal mining. The town is mostly separated by immigrant populations — Polish Hill, Swedetown, Little Italy — but pretty much everyone has ties to the mines and lives in company ho using. We first meet the Polish-Italian Novak family in the 1940s during a time of tragedy: Stanley Novak has suddenly died after returning from the mines. His wife, Rose, must now find a way to provide for the four children still living at home, Dorothy, Joyce, Sandy, and little Lucy; at the time of his father’s death, George is already oversees serving in the armed forces.
The novel progresses through the decades, and the point of view alternates between each member of the family as they navigate life. George and Dorothy, the oldest, are able to leave Bakerton through their chosen careers. Joyce is in high school when her father dies; of all of the children, she shows the most promise and is a star pupil. Sandy is probably the one who takes their father’s death the hardest, and he becomes a bit of a troublemaker in the years that follow. Lucy is still too young to remember much from those years.
As with Haigh’s other works, Baker Towers takes its time to develop. I loved how Haigh was able to capture such an beautiful, fragile portrait of small town America. The Bakerton at the beginning of the book is markedly different from the one decades later. In the 1940s, the town was thriving and growing. Economic downturns and a shift away from industrialization in the ensuing decades left the town struggling to survive.