Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s whirlwind life is legendary. She was the It Girl of the 1920s; he was the brilliant writer¹ who burst onto the literary scene with This Side of Paradise and later produced The Great Gatsby. In Therese Anne Fowler’s fictionalized account, however, readers meet Zelda Sayre when she’s seventeen and still living at home with her parents in Montgomery, Alabama.
She meets Scott at a local dance. He’s an army lieutenant with grand literary aspirations. Zelda is taken with him, but her pragmatic father is unimpressed. The two fall in love, and after a long-distance courtship, Scott sells his first novel — a sign that he can provide a living for a wife as an author — and Zelda is off to New York to marry him in St. Peter’s Cathedral. The rest is history: he’s a best-selling and in-demand author, and Zelda plays her role as a fashionable scenester with gusto. Hollywood comes calling, and the two are ready to take on the world.
They bite off more than they can chew, living way beyond their means once the royalties from Scott’s first book start to dry up. Scott is under pressure to produce his next novel and he’s frozen with writer’s block. He tries to sell short stories, and though that does bring in some income, it’s not enough to keep them afloat. He needs a new novel.
Years of hard work are about to pay off for Richard and Ann. Richard is a chef who’s just weeks away from opening his own restaurant in Los Angeles with his business partner, Javi, a hotshot chef with a flair for culinary experimentation. Ann is also on the brink of professional success. She’s a cutthroat lawyer at a big firm and thinks the time has finally arrived for her to make partner. For years, she’s put in long hours and tried to succeed not only to rise through the ranks of the firm, but to support her husband as he paid his dues. It’s taken a personal toll — she doesn’t even like being a lawyer — but both of them know that the restaurant will give them a new type of freedom.
Overnight, thanks to Javi’s unscrupulous actions, their dream crumbles and they find themselves flying to an island in the middle of the South Pacific to get away from all their troubles. They wind up on a remote atoll run by Loren, a drunken Frenchman. For a couple thousand a day, they get an upgraded Robinson Crusoe experience: a small private hut with no electricity, phone, or internet connection. The only other people of significance on the island are Titi and Cooked, two locals who are betrothed to one another and run the daily operations; Dex Cooper, the aging frontman of the rock band Prospero; and Wende, Dex’s young and attractive muse.
Up until now, I was one of the few bookish people on earth who had never read anything by Rainbow Rowell. Eleanor & Park and Fangirl have been on my to-read lists for what feels like an eternity. Then during Armchair BEA, I was fortunate enough to win the audiobook version of Rowell’s newest novel, Landline, narrated by Rebecca Lowman. Sorry Eleanor & Park and Fangirl…you’ve been bumped yet again!
Unlike those other two novels, Landline skews towards more adult territory. The narrator is Georgie McCool (that is her real name), a woman on the brink of professional success. She and her best friend Seth have finally sold their idea for a television show, but the network wants the pilot and first few scripts right after Christmas. This means that she won’t be able travel to Omaha as planned with her husband and two young daughters to visit her mother-in-law. For her husband, Neal, it’s the last straw. Their marriage has been on shakier ground than Georgie realized, and Neal takes the girls to his mother’s house for the holidays without Georgie.
It’s a terrible wake-up call to Georgie. Without her family around, she can’t seem to function. She finds herself going more and more to her mother’s house, sleeping in her old bedroom and dragging herself to work. While she’s there, constantly trying to get a hold of Neal, she discovers a secret about her old landline phone: it magically allows her to call back in time and talk to the Neal she dated in college.
For centuries, little has been known about Betsy Ross’s actual life, but she’s been an American icon almost from the beginning: as legend has it, she’s the woman who created the first American flag. Yet considering the myth-like role in the American Revolution, it’s shocking to realize that no biography had ever been published about Ross’s life until Marla R. Miller decided to write Betsy Ross and the Making of America. Even more unfortunate is the fact that so much of Ross’s life is now lost to the winds of history; few records remained by the time of her death, and much of what did survive was either destroyed or lost. Most historians — Miller included — also agree that Ross probably didn’t create the first American flag. So who was this woman, and how did she end up with such a storied role in United States history? Miller manages to piece together an impressive biography as she set out to answer those questions.
Elizabeth “Betsy” Griscom was born on New Year’s Day in 1752, the eighth of seventeen children. Her parents were Quakers, though their children — including Betsy, who was supposed to marry within the church but didn’t — would clash with the church years down the road. She picked up her sewing skills by being an upholsterer’s apprentice, a job that would serve her well and keep her family fed in the nation’s rough first decades. Widowed twice by the time she was thirty (first by John Ross, then by Joseph Ashburn), it was John Claypoole whom she would be with for most of her life.
Most notably, the time frame that her legend stems from comprises only a tiny slice of her life, occurring during her two-year-long first marriage to John Ross. Her husband was a member of the local militia, and women were also encouraged to participate in the war effort by buying American products, being virtuous and patriotic, and having some knowledge of politics; these were all efforts that headstrong and decisive Betsy embraced.
When Flow came out a couple of years ago, I couldn’t wait to read it. I love cultural histories and the book itself is aesthetically pleasing, with loads of vintage ads for feminine hygiene products gracing its glossy pages.
The authors take you back in time — sometimes way back, circa Hippocrates and Co. — and give readers an informal crash course in the role menstruation has played in women’s lives throughout human history. From culture-related rituals through the present-day behemoth that is the American advertising industry, men have always had strong opinions about periods and their alleged pesky side affects. But since periods went from being a taboo subject to a multi-billion dollar industry, the book does focus heavily on the twentieth century.
One of my favorite chapters was about hysteria, which was long thought to stem from the woman’s uterus and was considered a mental disorder up through the mid-1950s (the part about cures for hysteria was disturbing). I also enjoyed learning about the ways that “experts” in different eras have historically portrayed women’s bodies with regards to menstruation and menopause. Take, for instance, this description of what happens to menopausal women, taken from the 1954 Illustrated Encyclopedia of Sex:
The layer of fat in the region of the mons veneris and the large lips of the vulva start to shrink. The vulva becomes smaller and flabbier, the small lips become withered and change into thin folds. The fatty glands, formerly present in more than adequate amounts, disappear almost completely, so that there are only remnants of them left.
Lovely, no? As Stein and Kim repeatedly illustrate in their book, its descriptions like these that have allowed corporations to prey on women’s fears and turn them into marketing goldmines, not only for feminine hygiene products but for potentially dangerous and alarmingly under-tested pharmaceuticals.