Book Review – Stir

stir

Stir – My Broken Brain and the Meals that Brought Me Home
Jessica Fechtor

In February of this year, I got knocked down in the street. A complete accident, it occurred as a woman was stepping out of a shop door and wasn’t watching where she was going. She slammed into my back and sent me flying, face-first onto the sidewalk. I walked away from the fall but was left with severe muscle tears and sprains, including both shoulders. On top of an already herniated disc in my neck, the combo left me useless in terms of cooking or housework for months. Even now (mid-July) my shoulders are still very fragile, having been re-injured a number of times when I overdid something such as lifting a too-heavy item or exercising too much, too soon.

Through it all, as my husband and I ate take-out or prepared food night after night for dinner, I desperately wanted to get back into the kitchen. But I couldn’t bend my head forward to chop, lifting stockpots sent me back to recovery, and even the repetitive action of hulling a bag of peas caused a major set-back. Of all the different types of illness and injuries I’ve had over the years, I’ve never gone this long without being able to cook.

So Jessica Fechtor’s story in Stir, of how a brain aneurysm that nearly killed her, also took away the thing she loved doing most, was very relatable to me. Not the nearly dying part, but definitely the part about wanting to get back into the kitchen.

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Review – Fixing Fashion: Rethinking the Way We Make, Market and Buy Our Clothes by Michael Lavergne

fixingfashion

Fixing Fashion: Rethinking the Way We Make, Market and Buy Our Clothes
by Michael Lavergne

There are plenty of books on the market bemoaning the sad state of the mainstream fashion industry from working conditions to the life-cycle of the average fast fashion garment. And while they are all well-written, carefully researched, and offer inspiration to change our shopping and fashion habits, most of them fall short on two counts – first because they are seldom written by someone with a first-hand, working knowledge of the apparel industry, and second, because while the suggestions for change are well-intended, they aren’t based in practicality.

Fixing Fashion by Michael Lavergne (Amazon) offers a different perspective. Lavergne made his start in the fashion industry working for corporations such as WalMart, and the apparel arm of Sara Lee. He specialized in product sourcing and supply chains (getting all the material to the right place at the right time and then getting the manufactured goods to stores halfway across the world in a timely fashion), and became an expert in labour and safety standards as he witnessed contractors and sub-contractors ignoring local laws (and corporate standards) regarding everything from wages to child labour to building codes.

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Chicklit Pulp Fiction – When Novels Are So Bad, They’re Good

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I don’t read a lot of pulp novels. There are so many great books being written all the time, it’s all I can do to keep up with new releases while fulfilling my desire for the “must-read” classics. The Corinna Chapman series by Australian author Kerry Greenwood is neither new nor classic, nor especially… good, but I am addicted to it as surely as I am addicted to chocolate or potato chips.

Greenwood is better known for the Phryne Fisher Murder Mysteries series. Converted to an Australian television series a few years ago, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries has just completed its third season for a total of 34 episodes, many of which are true to Greenwood’s original novels. While Phryne madness hasn’t yet hit North America (the first two seasons are available on Acorn and Netflix), I’m predicting that we will soon go crazy for “Mees Fishah”, especially if the much-discussed US version ever happens.

In any case, I figured that if Greenwood was behind the creation of my favourite show and style icon, surely her mystery series about a baker would be right up my alley.

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Book Review – Darjeeling: The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea by Jeff Koehler

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Twice as much tea is sold as “Darjeeling” each year than is grown on the 87 tea estates in the Darjeeling region of India in the Himalaya mountains between Nepal and Bhutan.

This “champagne of teas” is much coveted, and factors such as weather, politics and working conditions mean that tea sellers are more than willing to blend the lesser batches of Darjeeling with other black teas such as Assam, both to make a buck and to meet customer demand.

Most Darjeeling tea is sold as a single estate product, and is one of four “flushes” that occur each growing season. The tea bushes must be picked (or rather carefully hand plucked) weekly, and starting in the spring, will be categorized as one of four flushes: first, second, monsoon or autumn, each with their own unique flavours and characteristics.

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If I Knew You Were Coming I’d Have Baked a (Local, Historical, British) Cake – Book Review – A Slice of Britain

slicebritainI blame Nigel Slater. Were it not for his BBC show back in November, Nigel Slater’s Icing on the Cake (the third in a series that also includes candy and biscuits), I’d never even have heard of Caroline Taggart’s A Slice of Britain. But in his search for British cake, Slater encountered Taggert and her recent book, and he interviewed her for the show.

I must have this book, I exclaimed, and promptly ordered it from Amazon UK. Then when it arrived, I proceeded to sort of ignore it for a few months, reading it in short bursts but not really enjoying it. To be fair, as a purchased book, it became my default reading when I didn’t have a library book or a book for an assigned review on the go. As well, injuries sustained to my neck and shoulders in February actually made it hard for me to hold a book for a month or so, which meant that Taggart and her cakes were sorely neglected. It didn’t help that I wasn’t originally enamoured with Taggart’s writing style – it felt too “bloggy”; a string of personal experiences as she travelled England, Wales and Scotland, searching out local baked delicacies, as opposed to a more factual, third person account with a clearly outlined history of each cake.

Determined to give it a second chance, I sat down again recently and plowed through half the book in an afternoon. Taggart’s chatty style grew on me and I found A Slice of Britain to be an enjoyable read. The idea to look up each cake on Google as I read about it helped immensely. Taggart includes recipes for many of the cakes she discusses (and “cake” is a loose term here – the book includes everything from scones to cookies/biscuits and full on cakes such as the ubiquitous Victoria sponge, as well as things we’d classify in Canada as a “loaf”, plus some candy items that are made in cake form), but with so many British cakes containing roughly the same ingredients, a visual aide (the book contains sketches but no photographs) was incredibly useful in determining the difference between, say, a Bath Bun and a Lardy Cake. Because, make no mistake, the Brits, or at least the ones in olde tymes in charge of making cakes, surely did love their raisins and dried fruit.

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Review – The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu by Dan Jurafsky

language-of-foodThe Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu
by Dan Jurafsky
W. W. Norton & Company, 2014

Fresh. Delicious. Perfectly cooked (oh, how I hate that one). The way we talk about food, especially how it’s described on menus, plays a huge role in how much we’re going to end up paying for those same dishes.

Dan Jurafsky’s amusing and informative book The Language of Food looked at thousands of menus from all types of restaurants. Fancy restaurants with “five-dollar” words on the menu charge more money for their dishes, But beware any place telling you the food is fresh, real (as in maple syrup), or crispy – because don’t you already assume that the food in restaurants is fresh and real? As Willy Shakes said, “I think thou doth protest too much.”

Menus aren’t the only thing Jurafsky, a professor of linguistics at Stanford University discusses in his book. He spends a lot of time looking at the origin of food words and how they morphed as food culture was carried with explorers to new countries. Ice cream, for instance, started as flavoured syrups used in drinks in the Middle East and Persia. Then the Chinese discovered that salt-peter used in gun powder made ice really, really cold and that process also moved east where it was used on those syrups to make the frozen treat sherbet. It didn’t take long for someone to start flavouring milk and cream and using the same process, and voila – ice cream.

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The Girl in Dior by Annie Goetzinger

dior1While it’s often easy to think of fashion as mere frippery, looking back on changing styles reveals a clear indication of society’s attitudes and politics of a particular era. As the western world adjusted to peacetime after a long and terrible war, women were trying to find their new place in society after years of fashion freedom in which they wore slim, close-fitting dresses and even trousers, and worked in factories doing jobs typically belonging to men.

Christian Dior’s New Look of 1947, while offering a whole new silhouette of gorgeous, glamourous dresses, was met with mixed reactions. French fashionistas with money adored the wasp waists and voluminous skirts, but most women, Americans especially, rejected Dior’s designs as restrictive (back to corsets and garters instead of comfortable pants) and pretentious.

The Girl in Dior (Amazon, Powell’s) gives us an insider’s view of the designer’s atelier during this time. The fictional Clara, a fashion journalist assigned to cover Dior’s show, causes a stir when a photo shoot goes wrong, inadvertently pitting models dressed in expensive gowns against impoverished people running market stalls.

The job gets her fired but Dior takes pity on her and she becomes one of his top models; going on to meet her future husband, she moves from Dior model to Dior customer.

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Why We Should Mourn For Worn

I’m not sure how I missed the boat when it comes to Worn. I had always sort of known of their existence, but maybe I wrote them off as being a bit too indie girl twee or something. Or wrote myself off as too old, since it seemed directed to a younger demographic. In fact, I don’t recall actually picking up an issue until I came across a volunteer manning a table at City of Craft a few years back. I bought a couple of issues and even met with editor Serah-Marie McMahon, who was kind enough to offer me some wise advise regarding indie magazine start-ups (I was considering starting a food magazine at the time), but maybe because I assume that, despite (or because of) my own rockin’ style, fashion magazines have little to offer me, I never followed through on keeping up with new issues.

I even missed the publication of the Worn Archive in the spring of 2014, and it wasn’t until the fall when McMahon announced Worn was shutting down operations (the project had always struggled financially), that I clued in and bought the book.

And then I realized what I had been missing.

Because Worn is everything most of us who don’t care about “fashion” actually want a fashion magazine to be. The photo shoots are modelled by Worn staffers and volunteers (Wornettes) – regular-sized folks of various ages and sizes, usually wearing their own clothes. No, you can’t rush out and buy that exact outfit from a store – but that’s the point – Worn is more about personal creativity and inspiration that being able to “shop that look”.

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Arthur Elgort’s The Big Picture

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The photographs are, of course, iconic. As in, I remember exactly where I was when I opened that September 1991 issue of Vogue to flip to the page of Linda Evangelista kicking that bagpiper (plaids are hot for fall, ladies!). But Arthur Elgort’s The Big Picture (Amazon, Powell’s) is about more than pretty fashion models.

Oh, there’s plenty of them there, dating back to his first shoot for British Vogue in 1971, and there’s a sub-theme in The Big Picture that is really the history of haute couture from the 70s forward, as the photographer worked with not just Vogue but Interview, GQ, Life and Rolling Stone, and shot advertising campaigns for Chanel, Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent.

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A Food Writer’s Favourite Food Books

fashionable880If you ask most people, their best-loved books about food are probably cookbooks. They likely don’t actually cook from these tomes but rather consider them light entertainment, to be read in bed, provoking dreams of meals they’ll probably never prepare. As someone who spends most of the day reading and writing about food, books have to have a unique point of view or subject matter to catch my interest, and especially to earn a permanent spot on my shelf.

These are a few of my favourites, chosen mostly for their diversity in demonstrating different styles of food, cooking and eating. There are no celebrity names here, no flashy TV shows to help sell these titles, and no well known food writing personalities, but I think they cover an interesting cross-section of food writing and food history.

bakingbioBaking as Biography – A Life Story in Recipes by Diane Tye
What if the person whose cooking you most admire actually hates to cook? Diane Tye relates the story of growing up as the daughter of a minister in 1970s New Brunswick. Her mother, responsible for preparing food for weekly church functions, drew on recipes from various sources depending on who she was cooking for. Tye’s narration is sometimes clinical, observing food trends as they related to social norms, and sometimes familial and romanticized as she discusses her mother cooking dishes for the family. The book is often uneven as Tye relies too much on interviews with family members as opposed to either strict analysis or her own personal memories, but it’s such a vividly accurate picture of foodways in Atlantic Canada that it is one of my favourite food books.

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The Not So Secret (And Actually Overtly Sexual) History of Wonder Woman

lepore_wonder_woman_coverAt the Toronto book signing for Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman, a guy at the back of the room got up during the Q&A section and asked an elaborate question about a specific story in a specific issue of the comic. Before Lepore could reply, another audience member stood up, vehemently yelled, “I disagree!” and the two began to argue about the plot while Lepore looked vaguely terrified. Fortunately, moderator Nathalie Atkinson (a culture writer for The Globe and Mail who happens to be married to the owner of a comic shop; one can guess she’s witnessed such an exchange more than once in her life) shut down the argument quickly and expertly, allowing Lepore to reiterate a point she had made earlier in her presentation – she is a historian, not a comic expert and her book was written from that perspective.

This is a good thing to remember when looking at The Secret History of Wonder Woman alongside Wonder Woman – Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948 by Noah Berlatsky. Berlatsky is the editor of a (mostly) comic-oriented blog called The Hooded Utilitarian. As such he comes at the story of Wonder Woman and her creator William Moulton Marston from a completely different perspective than Lepore. Which is why the two books work together so well to tell Marston’s story.

In fact, The Secret History of Wonder Woman is really the secret history of Marston, documenting his early life, his promising beginnings at Harvard where he earned degrees in both psychology and law, his marriage to Elizabeth Holloway and his subsequent relationship with his student/assistant Olive Byrne, who came to live with Marston and Holloway in a long-term poly-amorous relationship, giving birth to two children with him while also caring for his children with Holloway. Also important is the fact that Byrne’s family had a great effect on Marston – she was the niece of reproductive rights activist Margaret Sanger, someone who Marston greatly admired. Lepore doesn’t even get to talking about Wonder Woman until page 180.

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Book Review – Tasty by John McQuaid

tastyLiver, blue cheese, candy, chili peppers. Some people like these foods, others loathe them. But why? How is it that some humans love sweets but hate hot stuff? How can some beer drinkers go crazy for hops while others prefer nothing but sweet, malty stouts? The secret goes beyond our tongues to our very DNA.

Tasty by John McQuaid explores the whole history of taste, starting hundreds of millions of years ago with trilobites and progressing through the stages of evolution. McQuaid does this through five meals that show the progress of vertebrates, touching on the use of tools and ultimately fire.

It also seems a lot changed for humans when we moved off the African continent into other areas of the world and discovered a wider variety of things to eat. As we evolved, people in different parts of the world developed different tastes and this happened within our very genes, creating various levels of tasting ability from super-tasters down to those folks whose taste buds offer little in the way of reaction, allowing them to drink bottles of hot sauce without breaking a sweat.

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Book Review – Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie and the Advent of Punk

stein1Chris Stein /Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk
Chris Stein
Rizzoli, 2014, 208 pages

Chris love Debbie.

If you got to spend your youth with the most beautiful woman in the world, wouldn’t you take a lot of pictures of her?

While Chris Stein is well known as the driving musical force behind Blondie, most people don’t know that his artistic CV is quite varied and that, since the late 60s, he’s never been far from a camera. Working and living with someone as photogenic as Deborah Harry, it only seems right that most of the photos are of her.

In his recent book Chris Stein/Negative – Me, Blondie and the Advent of Punk, Stein not only chronicles the ascent of Blondie but the New York punk scene of the 70s.

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Book Reviews – Women In Clothes & It’s So You

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Women In Clothes
by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton
2014, Blue Rider Press, 528 pages

It’s So You: 35 Women Write About Personal Expression Through Fashion and Style
edited by Michelle Tea
2007, Seal Press, 300 pages

No matter what we wear, we all think about fashion to some extent, even if it’s just to give a shirt off the floor the sniff test to see if it can go another day. To be honest, I find the whole “no judgment” trend seen on various blogs a bit disingenuous. We all judge each other’s appearance. We’re hardwired to do so, if only to weed out safe people from unsafe people. And most of us judge ourselves more harshly than we do strangers.

Thinking about what we wear, as well as our sources of inspiration for our fashion choices, and how we judge ourselves and others, is the topic of a couple of books I’ve come across lately.

Women In Clothes, edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton is a massive tome of snippets from a massive survey about clothing completed by hundreds of women. Questions range from familial influences to admiring women on the street, the difference in taste versus style, the process of getting dressed in the morning, political messages within clothing choices, etc. It’s extensive to the point of exhaustive, and must certainly have been overwhelming to many of the women who completed it.

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People of the 1980s: The Street Fashion Photography of Derek Ridgers and Amy Arbus

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When I say 1980s fashion, most people are probably prone to shudder and reply “ugh!” Yes, the 80s were a bad time for mainstream fashion – big hair, big shoulders, jelly bracelets, parachute pants… it was all pretty awful. Which undoubtedly makes it confusing when I then say that the 80s were the best era for fashion – alternative fashion, that is.

In places like London and New York, the political climate encouraged lots of people who didn’t fit into the mainstream to express themselves via their clothing. Punk, post punk, new wave, no wave, goth and more all had their origins in the late 70s or early 80s, and while those trends gave way to rave and club culture on both sides of the Atlantic, the fashion of the decade was marked with an independent creativity that hasn’t really been achieved since.

Two books of street fashion demonstrate this point beautifully.

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Book Review – Eating Delancey – A Celebration of Jewish Food

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Eating Delancey: A Celebration of Jewish Food
Aaron Rezny and Jordan Schaps
Powerhouse Books, 224 pages

In olde tymes, publishers would send a hard copy of a book to critics for review. In rare cases, this would be a galley copy, with a weird cerlox binding and double-wide pages, but usually it was something that resembled the finished version of the book. Technology has made this process much easier and cheaper – PDF files sent via the Cloud or email have replaced hard copies sent by mail, and pretty much everyone is happier for it, even reviewers who, while they often considered the reward of hard copies part of their (usually very minimal) pay structure, tended to find themselves with stacks of samples of things (books, CDs, jars of weird jams) that they really didn’t want.

The roundabout point of my complaint here is that, with a PDF file for review, I’m now going to have to go out and buy myself a copy of Eating Delancey. That’s right, even after reading it for free, I enjoyed this book so much I’m still going to buy my own copy.

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Book Review – Stitched Up – The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion

stitchedup_coverStitched Up – The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion
Tansy E. Hoskins
Pluto Press © 2014

Many books over the past few years have detailed the myriad wrongs of the fashion industry. Sweatshops, environmental damage, classism, racism, sizism, misogyny, not to mention the overall affect of rampant consumerism and debt on Western culture – all of these things come up time and again. And we read them, feel bad and then sooth our bad feelings by going shopping.

Tansy E. Hoskins’ Stitched Up looks at all of these and more, complete with extensively researched statistics and facts that will make anyone stop and revisit the idea of buying new clothes ever again. Hoskins examines the ownership of high-end fashion companies and the profits they make – given most high-end brands are made in the same sweatshops as fast fashion items, the corporate (and personal profit) can be astronomical. This is on the backs of underpaid workers, using processes that destroy water supplies, or using lethal chemicals (the exposure to methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas in Bhopal, India in 1984 occurred when the chemical – which had been used on cotton crops – was left in unmaintained tanks when Union Carbide abandoned their factory). Hoskins’ account of the process to slaughter crocodiles for Hermes bags is shocking and horrific.

The overall theme of corporations creating demand to influence consumers to buy things they don’t need plays out in other chapters as well, as Hoskins’ demonstrates the way that women are made to feel too fat, not pretty enough, or even the wrong skin colour in order to sell merchandise. Fashion companies need to continually sell new goods; many chain stores now put out new “collections” every week instead or 2 or 4 times a year; everything plays to our insecurities, even if women of colour or larger sizes are not represented on the pages of magazines.

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Review – Fictitious Dishes by Dinah Fried

Book_FictitiousDishes

The sign of a good writer is whether or not the imagery they commit to the page elicits a response in the reader. Can they make the place, the character, or the event vivid and real to the person reading the story? Oddly, one of the most difficult things for fiction writers to describe is food or meals, especially if the scene is integral to the story. But when the writing is well-done, the description of a repast (sumptuous or otherwise) not only progresses the plot but can be so vivid that the reader can almost taste the dishes described on the page.

In Fictitious Dishes, New York Graphic designer Dinah Fried thought to take the process one step further – she cooked, styled, and photographed foods from great works of fiction. Amassing a vast collection of props along the way (plates, tablecloths, cutlery), she chose 50 works of literature and set about bringing a meal from each to life.

Holden Caulfield’s Swiss cheese sandwich and malted milk from The Catcher in the Rye grace a Formica diner table. The potato salad and coconut cake from East of Eden adorn a picnic table and make the mouth water. And the spread of hors d’oeuvres from The Great Gatsby will have every reader wishing for an invitation to the party.

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Awesome Thing – Artsy Sunday – Malkovich, A Clockwork Orange, Chalk Art

Some awesome art I’ve come across online this week…

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Sandro Miller, Albert Watson / Alfred Hitchcock with Goose (1973), 2014

Yes, that is actor John Malkovich, recreating the photo of Alfred Hitchcock by Albert Watson. Photographer Sandro Miller teamed up with Malkovich for an exhibit entitled Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich, Homage to Photographic Masters in which the actor poses for recreations of 35 iconic images from American Gothic to Marilyn Monroe with roses. The show runs from November 7th to January 31st, 2015 at the Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago. Most of the photographs are on the gallery website.

davidzinn
Cat Prisoner by David Zinn.

Artist David Zinn has been been covering Ann Arbor, Michigan with street art for years. Using existing elements and adding cute and quirky characters, his ephemeral pieces done in chalk and charcoal last only until the next rain. He’s got a website and a Facebook page if you want to see his latest pieces. There’s also a book of his work from 2013 if you’d like to have these cute critters all to yourself. Or if you’d like to help support an independent artist.

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Artwork by Ben Jones from The Folio Society edition of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.

Finally, if you’ve only ever seen A Clockwork Orange and haven’t read the book, The Folio Society has just released a new edition with work by artist Ben Jones. Dangerous Minds has more of the artwork and a video of the illustrator.

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Book Review – Cat Person by Seo Kim

catperson

Cat Person is a mostly charming collection of comics by Toronto artist Seo Kim. Full of cute, predominantly autobiographical strips about Kim, her cat Jimmy, her life, and her boyfriend Eddie, the book works either as individual strips, chapters (Jimmy the cat mostly appears in the first chapter titled Jimmy and Me) or an ongoing story with the appearance of of Eddie and his own cat Bubble in a later chapter.

Kim’s work, done in pencil and coloured in Photoshop is engaging although sometimes rough in terms of technique.

The cat chapter runs the gamut of life with a cat, from the feline obsession with running tap water to the way cat hair ends up on everything you own. Kim also references the various ways to hug a cat, head bonks, cat shapes (when they sleep all curled up) and fuzzy cat testicles. Fortunately, she switches gears right around the point when even the most ardent cat fan would start to get a little bored.

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