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.
Elizabeth Percer’s An Uncommon Education is an expansive coming of age story that follows its protagonist from girlhood all the way through adulthood. Having a mother who suffers from severe depression and keeps to herself much of the time as a result, Naomi Feinstein grew up spending most of her time with her beloved father. The two are an intelligent but quirky pair, and Mr. Feinstein always demands the best from his daughter. They both conspire to map out her life from the time she is very young: she’ll excel in school, go to Wellesley, and become a cardiologist.
Of course, life isn’t that simple. When Naomi is still a young girl, her father suffers a heart attack before her eyes; he survives, but the experience leaves her terrified of losing him. Her mother is present, but she remains an enigma in all of the ways that matter; most of the significant details of her life are a closely guarded secret. And Naomi is an awkward girl; she has an amazing memory and does well in school but has no friends. When a boy her age moves in next door, the two become inseparable. Then, eventually, he too is gone. It seems her entire childhood and adolescence are spent in fear of losing those closest her her.
As planned, Naomi gets into Wellesley and begins some of the most formative years of her life. She has a rough start, dealing with the same type of isolation and social awkwardness that she did when she lived at home. It isn’t until she crosses paths with two other Wellesley students that her real college life starts to take shape: the two girls are part of the mysterious Shakespeare Society on campus and convince her to join. It’s weird and fun, and Naomi is finally able to build a network of friends. The new interests she develops, however, are not part of The Life Plan.
Houston, we have a problem.
Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman, which was released across the pond last year with much success, was released in the United States this summer. It’s been marketed as a memoirish feminist manifesto, with Moran being billed as a British version of Tina Fey and her book being billed as a feministier version of Bossypants. Feminism, but more fun! Feminism that you can relate to! Feminism with an irreverent sense of humor! Every young woman should read it!
Yeah…no. I’ll be perfectly blunt here: the thought of this book serving as anyone’s introduction to feminism horrifies me.
The sad thing is that this book isn’t all bad. There were things I could get on board with, like real talk on abortion experiences or the distortion of media images or her experiences being harassed on the street as an overweight teen. It’s not perfect, but Moran adds a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor, and it’s a useful perspective that the book’s intended audience probably doesn’t hear enough of.
But then there are the other things, things she’s just so profoundly off the mark on, that I just cannot — will not — accept.
So much of what Moran says sound like it comes from a weird twilight zone of “feminism.” It’s a lot like those celebrities who say they support gay rights or a women’s right to choose, then make a point of scoffing, “But don’t worry, it’s not like I’m a feminist or anything!” Except in Moran’s world, she’s proudly proclaiming “YES I’M A FEMINIST!” while saying a lot of stupid shit so she can keep fitting in with the guys. Because this is cool feminism. Or something.
Told in flashbacks and mostly set in the years following Bangladesh’s civil war, Tahmima Anam’s second novel, The Good Muslim, shows a country still reeling from the horrible crimes they suffered and committed during the war. So many survivors are showing symptoms of post traumatic stress: the surviving soldiers have come home with physical and emotional scars, and many women from villages were also subjected to rape and other brutalities by the invading forces; they, too, now carry the burden of shame and, all too often, are also left to raise the children that resulted from these attacks.
Though The Good Muslim is very much about a nation that is suffering, it is centered on the Haque family. The book opens with a young doctor named Maya returning home seven years after running away. Rather than go into a lucrative medical field, Maya has been living in rural areas providing simple but vital health education to villagers and OB/GYN care to women who would otherwise have had no one to help them. She has seen first-hand how the war has affected countless women. It’s a noble endeavor, but it isn’t the real reason she left home seven years ago.
As the book progresses, we see start to learn more about Maya’s background. Her father died while she and her brother were young, leaving their mother to raise them on her own. Maya and her brother, Sohail, were very close growing up, but then the war happened a few years later and Sohail went off to fight. The man who returned was a shell of his former self, traumatized and aloof, and adamantly silent about his experiences. A rift grew between him and Maya, and when Sohail began to drift towards religion, the rift grew even bigger. Once Sohail married a fundamentalist woman and himself became more conservative in his beliefs, Maya fled.
Set mostly in 1960s Scotland, Margot Livesey’s The Flight of Gemma Hardy is a contemporary retelling of Jane Eyre. The daughter of an Icelandic father and Scottish mother, Gemma seems to be followed by bad luck: first her mother dies, then her father drowns, and she is taken from her home in Iceland to live with a Scottish uncle when she is still a young child. When her beloved uncle also dies, Gemma is left in the care of an aunt who despises her and cousins who bully her.
Her aunt ships her off to boarding school, and though Gemma is initially happy to get away from her wretched relatives, she quickly learns that life at boarding school has its own unique set of hardships. Those are troubling years, and when its finally time for her to move on, she finds herself little better than when she first arrived; she has no home to return to and little money to tide her over. As a last resort, she finds a job as an au pair, watching over Mr. Sinclair’s headstrong niece on the remote Orkney Islands of northern Scotland.
Anyone with even a remote familiarity with Jane Eyre will pick up on the similarities between both books. It’s been years since I’ve read Jane Eyre, but if my memory serves me correctly — granted, it’s been tainted by Jane Eyre film adaptations in the intervening years as well – The Flight of Gemma Hardy is pretty faithful to the original story. Yet even though most of the book was predictable due to my familiarity with the plot, I thought found it surprisingly fresh.
People dealing with depression who came of age in the 1990s had a vastly different experience than any other generation before. In a lot of ways, antidepressants brought about positive effects in society: they’ve lifted the veil of shame and secrecy surrounding depression and brought it into the open. The onslaught of antidepressant commercials brought with it a willingness for people to seek help in managing their depression, bringing the promise of relief. Yet the sudden proliferation of antidepressants in the 1990s has also raised numerous issues that have largely been swept under the rug.
Part memoir, part sociological investigation, Katherine Sharpe explores the ubiquitousness of antidepressants in today’s culture and what it means for the population most frequently diagnosed with depression, adolescents and early-twenty somethings. Herself one of the people who came of age during the initial antidepressant boom, Sharpe recounts her own experiences with depression and antidepressants. She also interviews other people who came of age on antidepressants and raises countless poignant questions that have no easy answers.
I constantly had to stop reading this book because it kept giving me different things to reflect on. While I’ve personally never been on antidepressants, I was struck by how eerily similar my own college experiences were to Sharpe’s. But I always shied away from actually seeking out antidepressants for many of the reasons Sharpe struggles with while she was on them. Antidepressants do change your personality, and she was often left wondering things like, Who am I? Am I still me? Is the “real” me just not a naturally happy person? Though she admits she benefited from the antidepressants she took for ten years, as well as from therapy, these were questions she was constantly asking herself.
Though Diamond Jubilee events are planned throughout 2012, today is the day that Queen Elizabeth will be officially celebrating her sixtieth year as the Queen of England. To mark the day — those royals have always fascinated me — I spent Saturday reading Robert Lacey’s The Queen: A Life in Brief (her coronation was on June 2, 1953, a little over a year after becoming queen following her father’s untimely death).
Clocking in at a mere 176 pages, Robert Lacey’s book is both brief and engrossing. In six short chapters, Lacey charts Queen Elizabeth’s unlikely rise to the throne; it wasn’t until her uncle, King Edward, abdicated the throne to marry Wallis Simpson that being in line for the throne ever became a probability. Having been raised with a deep respect for the throne, the young Elizabeth took her new responsibilities seriously.
In a few years, Queen Elizabeth will become the longest-reigning monarch in England’s history. The world has changed a lot during her life, and the monarchy has had to change along with it more than any time in the past. Though she’s often accused of being terribly outdated and out of touch with modern needs (Princess Diana’s death was a prime example), Queen Elizabeth has tried to keep up and do what was required to keep the monarchy relevant.
When getting ready to start her own family, Priscilla Gilman envisioned a charmed life and looked forward to the pleasures and discoveries that motherhood would bring. Her father had held children in high regard while she was growing up, and she had always been encouraged to express herself creatively whenever possible. As a Wordsworth scholar, her work provided her with plenty of romantic images of what childhood entailed. Everything seemed perfect: she and her husband were both doctoral candidates at Yale, and both were determined to put family ahead of everything, even if it meant making sacrifices in their fledgling careers in academia.
When their son Benjamin was born, he began to immediately challenge the romanticized vision Gilman had always dreamed of. There were some obvious behaviors — like the fact that he hated to be held, therefore making bonding a lot harder — but he seemed normal enough that his parents brushed off their unease. Even so, Gilman always had a nagging suspicion that there was something different about Benjamin that she couldn’t quite put her finger on.
As Benjamin got a little older, it became apparent just how different he was. By the time he was a year old, he could recognize letters on the television screen. By the time he was two, he could read entire books and recite poetry; he also showed a talent with numbers and shapes. Still, however amazed his parents were, they seemed to accept Benjamin’s gifts in stride. Gilman writes: