Book Review – Fear and Clothing

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Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style
Cintra Wilson

Style is the collision point between our fantasies of who we are, the larger realities we live with and the way we are perceived by others.

As much as I appreciate the sincerity and empowerment behind style campaigns like #fuckflattering or “I wear what I want”, I almost always find the idea disingenuous. We don’t always wear what we want, because of various extenuating forces, and if we do, we’re seldom aware of the message we’re sending out to others via our choice of garments.

That’s not a bad thing – more power to the person who can go through life giving no shits about how they present themselves. But for most people, their first impression of others is intrinsically linked with appearance, especially clothing. Which is to say – every outfit is a complex story about the wearer, a story with a different plot based on who’s interpreting the information provided.

This is the basic premise of Cintra Wilson’s Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style in which the fashion and culture writer, known for her witty, occasionally caustic snark, travels across the US, documenting regional style. From the colourful clothes in Miami to the all-black enclaves of artists and other alternative types in coastal towns like New York and San Francisco, to the power dressing of DC or the celebratory, over the top hats at the Kentucky derby, Wilson examines the cultural factors that create definitive local style.

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Book Review – Pretty In Punk

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Pretty In Punk
Alyce Benevides and Jacqueline Milles

Make stuff. It comes up every year at this time, one of the regular resolutions – be more crafty, make more stuff. DIY, y’know? And as far as resolutions go, it’s not a bad one. You get the sense of accomplishment of making something with your own hands, you get a cool, thing, made exactly to your measurements and specifications, and you (probably) save some money over buying a similar thing in a store.

I picked up Pretty In Punk on a whim. It came up in a library search and I grabbed it thinking it would be a good chuckle. Published in 2007, it caught that first wave of young hipsters who had started to learn the craft skills they were never taught as kids (as opposed to Gen X – most of whom could at least do some basics because we still had Home Ec and industrial arts when we were in school).

Created by Alyce Benevides and Jacqueline Milles, Pretty In Punk includes patterns for items from their popular Knit-Head line and shop, including their signature Punk’s Not Dead earflap hat with fringe mohawk.

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Book Review – My Life as a Pretender

 

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Reckless: My Life as a Pretender
Chrissie Hynde

The most interesting thing about biographies, especially autobiographies, is what isn’t included. So often, a person’s story intertwines with that of someone else’s, who may not wish to have their dirty laundry displayed for all to see.

In Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless: My Life as a Pretender, the singer shares some incredibly raw events, but stays quiet on others. Telling the story of her life up to the end of The Pretenders and the deaths of band mates James Honeyman-Scott in 1982 and bass player Pete Farndon in 1983, Reckless details Hynde’s time as a hippie, witnessing the massacre at Kent State, and watching from the sidelines as all her friends in the London punk scene go on to form bands and sign record contracts, but is often mum or overly subdued on her real relationships. For instance, after nearly marrying Ray Davies of The Kinks, they went on to have a child together, and while Davies is included because their relationship fell within the time-line of the book, he had apparently asked not to be, so references to him are minimal.

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Book Review – Punk Books For Kids

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One of the toughest things for the still weird is explaining to their kids (or grandkids) about punk or the other sub-cultures that remain a big part of our lives. This gets easier with books written specifically for kids, and there are a small handful that do a great job of explaining different aspects of the scene in different ways.

punkkidhappyHappy Punks 1 2 3 by John Seven & Jana Christy ** is a bright and colourful introduction to punk. Geared to younger readers, the book’s purpose is to teach counting, but does a great job of celebrating the punk scene and its original diversity and openness with a number of colourful characters and situations. The punks go thrifting, hang posters for a show, and go to a concert. The text is simple, yet captures the punk attitude, and Christy’s vibrantly-coloured images evoke the fun and excitement of the scene.

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Book Review – Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s

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Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s
Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein

Lipstick, big hair, floppy shirts and synthesizers. “New wave” was a unique trend that was the conglomeration of many things – punk, post punk, new romanticism, technology and attitude. And in the early 1980s it defined a generation.

While bands were always making albums, the genre was defined mostly by singles – songs with a quality that stood out as a representation of a band (especially a new band) and helped to sell both albums and concert tickets as well as the 7-inch single itself. While some bands exist only as one-hit wonders, others have used their success in those early days to create music – and careers – that spanned decades.

Mad World by Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein is a collection of those songs in book format, each with an introduction, some snarky facts, a “where are they now” update, a “mixtape” list of suggestions of similar songs and, most importantly, an interview with the principal artist in each band.

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Book Review – A Treasury of Great Recipes

pricebookA Treasury of Great Recipes
Mary and Vincent Price
Dover Publications; 50 Anv edition, 512 pages

You’d hear stories about people finding copies in used book stores. Or thrift shops where an unknowing relative had dumped the belongings of a deceased loved one, never knowing what an actual treasure they were giving away. There was a small re-pressing in 1974, but for decades, people talked about it with a bittersweet awe, for only a lucky few would ever possess it.

Until now.

Last month, A Treasury of Great Recipes by Mary and Vincent Price was republished in all its original 1965 glory.

Yes, that Vincent Price.

It seems the actor was a great gourmand, and along with his wife Mary, an enthusiastic home cook. Both were avid travellers who enjoyed trying new restaurants. Together they toured the world, eating in the best bistros and cafes, convincing chefs along the way to share their recipes, and writing a number of cookbooks together. Because if you were a chef in the early 1960s and Vincent Price showed up at the door of your kitchen, wouldn’t you give him a recipe when he asked for it?

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Book Review – Stir

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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

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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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