Greetings from Chennai, formerly Madras, where today’s author was partly raised. My friend and I have been here for a few days and are heading out tomorrow. It’s safe to say that the highlight of my stop in Chennai happened last night. My friends and I had a chance to take a private South Indian cooking class in a lovely Brahmin woman’s home, so we got to learn a little more about Tamil culture on a personal level. It was amazing: great food, great spices, great coffee — OMG for real, the coffee — and great conversation! To be honest, it’s been one of the highlights of my entire stay in India! I didn’t want the night to end.
I came to know Padma Lakshmi the way a lot of people did. Lakshmi started her career as a model, has some acting and cookbook credits under her belt, and was once married to Salman Rushdie, but most people probably recognize her as the host of Top Chef on Bravo. Back then, I sometimes wondered about her connection to food, something that she admits to having second-guessed herself about as well. Any doubts about her “food cred” are put to rest in this memoir.
Lakshmi’s mother comes from a conservative Tamil culture, but after failed relationships, including the one with Padma’s father, she moved to New York to start over. Padma was left in India in the care of her grandparents, and once her mother had a stable income, Padma immigrated to the United States as well. She writes of all the new foods she was exposed to, including some interesting concoctions she and her mother came up with since they were Brahmin vegetarians in an area that was decidedly less vegetarian friendly back then.
If you’re familiar with Jennifer Haigh, you’re probably familiar with the fictional town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania. It’s the setting of two of her previous books, Baker Towers and News from Heaven; the books span generations as they follow the town’s residents through the coal mining boom and bust.
In Heat & Light, another form of energy production dangles promises of wealth to the residents of Bakerton. Unlike before, when men spent the strongest years of their lives breathing coal dust only to die of cancer and black lung down the road, all this generation has to do is sign a lease to allow fracking on their land, then sit back and wait for their checks to arrive.
Of course, knowing what we now do about hydraulic fracking — the earthquakes, the razed land, the tap water you can set on fire — it’s not that simple. Most of the residents don’t know this. When they’re approached by Dark Energy and told stories of the Marcellus Shale and the ocean of wealth they’re sitting on, most of them can’t wait to sign up. The town has been dying ever since the coal mines closed, and the remaining residents are struggling to survive.
Born into the lowest caste of her hive’s hierarchy, Flora 717 is destined to be a sanitation worker for her entire life, mindlessly tending to the dirty work assigned to her by the hive’s higher-ups. Everything in the hive is done to serve the queen, who is immortal and loves all of her children. Accept. Obey. Serve. Those are the mandates Flora must religiously follow.
It’s a fraught time for the hive; a strange sickness keeps appearing, and any bee determined to be unhealthy or useless is immediately put to death. This potentially spells danger for Flora: she’s certainly ugly like the other sanitation workers, but she looks different from everyone else. And there’s something even more dangerous about her: unlike the other sanitation workers, who cannot speak and mostly spend their lives with their minds dulled, Flora has the ability to speak and think for herself. She can also has the ability to produce Flow, the royal jelly used to feed babies in the nursery. It’s unheard of for a lowly sanitation worker.
Because of her unique abilities, The Sages (the hive’s high priestesses) allow Flora to move up in the ranks and work in the nursery. Later, because of her strength and intellect, she’s allowed to become a forager and leave the hive to collect pollen. As many bees never even see the outside of the hive in their lifetime, Flora’s experiences are unheard of. Yet since she’s so different, a lot of eyes are also on her and she must tread lightly; she harbors a secret that would mean certain death if discovered.
What do women want when it comes to sex? Traditionally speaking, men are the ones who have always been thought to have ravenous sexual appetites. You know how it goes: for men, sex is a matter of lust and physicality; for women, it’s a matter of emotional bonding and intimacy. But is that really how it is? Of course not (much to the chagrin of traditionalists). When Sex and the City premiered in 1998, one of the reasons it made waves was because it showed four women unabashedly exploring their sexual desires. And recently, The Colbert Report poked fun at The New York Times for essentially publishing the same story repeatedly over the last century: BREAKING NEWS…College women have sex. For fun. Without monogamy. *gasp*
It’s almost laughable — okay, it is laughable — but this line of thinking (largely pushed by evolutionary psychologists) has also come with severe consequences that women must now deal with. Leaving aside all the baggage it’s placed on gender expectations, this line of thinking is also still deeply entrenched in the scientific and medical communities. As a result, we’re left with more questions than answers: Where is the Viagra for women? Where are the treatments and studies on female sexual dysfunction? Why is the existence of the G-spot still up for debate? Is monogamy even natural?
These are some of the things Daniel Bergner explores in What Do Women Want? The book began as a several years ago as a controversial article in New York Times Magazine, and Bergner has since expanded on the topic. Female sexuality is a tiny field within science that is just emerging; there is surprisingly little known about the science and psychology of female arousal and female desire mostly because these are topics that have long been ignored or entirely written off. Bergner interviews primatologists, sexologists, psychologists, scientists, and dozens of women taking part in their studies.
This August marked the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death. Monroe is a woman who attained icon status early in her short career, and whose role in pop culture has since reached mythical proportions. Published in 2001, Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde reimagines Monroe’s life, from her troubled childhood to her whirlwind rise to stardom, and ultimately, her tragic downfall. Referring to the main figures in Monroe’s life by their roles — The Ex-Athlete, The Dark Prince, The Playwright, The President — the sympathetic portrait Oates paints is one of a naive woman who wants to be loved and also wants to be taken seriously. She is a woman rising up in an era when women in her position were fundamentally powerless and constantly at the mercy of men’s whims.
Disclaimer: I’ve never studied Monroe’s real life in any way, so I have no idea how much of Blonde is real and how much is Oates taking creative liberties, so don’t take my references to events as biography. I do know, however, that most of the beginning of the book is based in fact: her mother was mentally ill, and Norma Jeane Baker came of age in foster homes desperately wanting to know who her father was. In the book, she dies not knowing his identity (questions surround his identity in real-life, too), and this is something that always eats at her. With her beauty and her well-developed figure, Norma Jeane attracted male attention early on; in Blonde, her foster mother marries Norma off at age fifteen to get the pretty girl out of the house and away from the eyes of the foster father. This is the first of many betrayals by people Norma Jeane assumed loved her.
That marriage doesn’t work out; she’s young and never truly feels loved, and yearns to be free. Difficult years are ahead; she tries modeling and acting, but the price is high and degrading. In a moment of extreme desperation stemming from her poverty, she poses for that infamous photo shoot that ends up in Playboy. Oates is blunt in her criticisms of those in power: