Book Review — The Book of Eating: Adventures in Professional Gluttony

The Book of Eating: Adventures in Professional Gluttony
Adam Platt, 2019

Adam Platt has been the restaurant critic at New York Magazine since 2000, when he took over from Gael Green. His own food background skews heavily to Asian cuisine as he spent his formative years in Japan and China, so while he has no formal cooking background, he has a deep understanding of the current food scene.

The early chapters of The Book of Eating read more like a very tasty auto-biography, detailing Platt’s childhood eating experiences in the US and abroad. These are engaging as part of the bigger story and especially for anyone interested in regional Asian cuisine, but I can see where and why some readers on Goodreads gave up near the beginning as Platt doesn’t really dish a lot of dirt on the NYC food scene, and he can tend to be repetitive with phrases that he presumes are witty (the term “boiled owl” appears far too often).

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Book Review — The Great Believers

The Great Believers
Rebecca Makkai

I approached this one with trepidation. Set partially in 1985 – 1990 in Chicago’s gay scene, it deals with the early years of the AIDS epidemic and the devastation it caused within that community. My first job after high school was delivering meals in a hospital and although the gay scene in Halifax was tiny there were still a handful of AIDS patients at that time, placed on the cancer ward because the hospital didn’t know what else to do with them. Amongst a flood of ignorance and misinformation, many of my co-workers refused to deliver trays to these patients, so I found myself regularly getting called in for an evening shift and working only one ward (about 25 beds out of 900). I got to know a lot of these men in their last days, and with many of my close friends also being gay men, it was terrifying to watch.

The Great Believers follows Yale in the 1980s as he watches his friends die one by one, supported by his friend Nico’s younger sister, Fiona. The book then jumps to 2015 as Fiona arrives in Paris in search of her estranged daughter. The work jumps back and forth between time frames and while it first seems as if the book is two separate, disjointed story lines, things come together and we discover that Fiona, jokingly referred to as “Saint Fiona of Chicago” for her support of her brother and many of his friends as they died carries her own trauma and PTSD which has affected her life and that of those around her.

Makkai creates a parallel between the AIDS epidemic and the Great War/Spanish Flu epidemic with the storyline of Nora, Fiona’s great aunt, who was a model in Paris before and after the first world war, and who has valuable artwork that Yale tries to secure for the gallery where her works. Nora lost many of her friends and colleagues, either at the front or from the flu, or other related ways (such as suicide) after the fact.

Although the story appears to be about Yale, Fiona is actually the central character, both in her involvement with her boys in the 80s and in 2015 as she goes searching for her daughter and discovers that she’s never really let go of the trauma of the 1980s; she still lives and works in Chicago at a charity shop that donates proceeds to AIDS charities even though most of the people she loved are gone.

But the world has changed in 30 years. Some of the men she knew came through the epidemic unscathed (no glove, no love, people!), some who were believed to be dead show up healthy and robust thanks to the advances in drug therapy in the late 1990s/early 2000s. And Fiona realizes that she’s the only one who hasn’t let go and moved on. And that her dedication to the memory of her boys has destroyed other, current — and incredibly important — relationships.

The Great Believers has been picked up for development by Amy Poehler, so we can probably expect to see the book made into a series within the next couple of years. Still worth reading in the interim though, especially if you lived through those awful years and are still carrying those memories around with you.

June 2019 Reading List

There Are No Grown-Ups: A Mid-Life Coming of Age Story
Pamela Druckerman
The author of a best-selling book on French parenting, Druckerman’s take on turning 40 is less self-help or advice and more memoir. Which, despite having read most of the book, didn’t do much for me. As an old freak, I keep looking for takes on turning 40/50 with a unique perspective and while Druckerman (an American living in Paris) does have interesting theories and experiences on this issue in terms of France vs America, especially when it comes to things like style, sexual affairs, and body-positivity, ultimately it felt a bit light.

The Paragon Hotel
Lyndsay Faye
A gangster’s moll in 1921 Harlem, sporting twin gunshot wounds and dragging a bag containing $50,000 in counterfeit cash, boards a train heading west. And ends up at the only black hotel in Portland, Oregon, one of the whitest towns in America. There she meets a whole cast of characters and finds herself enmeshed in the kidnapping of a young black boy, which becomes a race to find him before the cross-burning KKK do. Dealing with racism, gay and transgender issues, class-ism, gangs, sex work and more, this is a sharp snapshot of a particular time period. Faye’s got the snappy wit bang on, and the dialogue, while often cryptic with references of the day, is just enthralling. Favourite work of fiction so far this year.

I.M.
Isaac Mizrahi
The most important part of the memoir/auto-biography genre is what the books don’t tell. Mizrahi spends a lot of time on his childhood; growing up in a Syrian-Jewish family and knowing he was gay at a young age causes just about as much anxiety as would be expected. Many anecdotes as well about his early fashion career, but a lot of stuff gets glossed over as the book heads into his career as an entertainer. Seriously — we all want to know about the Scarlett Johansson boob squeeze! Mizrahi is at his best as a writer when he’s describing clothes, whether his own designs or the great outfits of his mother’s that have inspired him.

The Durrells of Corfu
Michael Haag
If you fell in love with the TV series based on Gerald Durrell’s fictional Corfu trilogy, this is the real story of the Durrell family, from their time in India (where they were all born) to their time in Greece and after the war. All the stuff that was left out and that will help the trilogy and the TV series make more sense (Louisa lost a child — born between Larry and Leslie — to diphtheria, and that’s why Leslie was so coddled; she also made a friend of the gin bottle and had a nervous breakdown while in England, prompting the family’s move to Corfu). Find out who was real (Theo, Spiro, Lugaretzia), and who was left out (Larry’s wife Nancy, who was with the family in Greece the whole time, was not included in the books or the series). This filled in a lot of holes for me, and knowing more about the family’s life in colonial India (they had piles of servants, the kids had an ayah) explains much about their often uncomfortable interactions with the people of Corfu.

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams
Matthew Walker
I’ve been a staunch advocate of getting enough sleep — every night — for a long time and Walker’s research links lack of sleep with lots of bad stuff, most notably dementia. He also explores the differences in the types of sleep and why we need both. If sleep is the last thing on your to-do list, you’ll be prioritizing things differently after reading this.

The Cutting Season
Attica Locke
Set in 2009 on an Antebellum-era “living museum” sugar plantation, The Cutting Season maybe tries too hard to be too many things. There’s history and mystery and they weave together, but also race relations, gentrification, a story about family and family history and the interlacing of families. Which is a lot to pull together. Descriptions are beautiful and characters are mostly well-developed but I found there to be too many flashbacks and most readers will have figured out the identity both of “who done it” and “who is it” early in the plot.

Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad and Criminal in 19th Century New York
Stacy Horn
Blackwell’s Island, now known as Roosevelt Island, was once the place where the undesirables of New York City were sent to be treated, or not. The island housed an asylum (famously documented by journalist Nellie Bly), a almshouse (where aged or disabled people went when they were completely unable to work), a prison, a hospital, and a workhouse (different from the British workhouse model, this was more like a jail where people served short-term sentences). None of these institutions were run properly, and Horn details the various travesties that took place over the course of the 1800s. Terrifyingly, some of the same issues with poor patient treatment continued into the 20th and even 21st centuries.

Daisy Jones and the Six
Taylor Jenkins Reid
Another contender for favourite fiction of the year. Daisy Jones and the Six were the biggest band in the world until they all walked away from fame, mid-tour. Told as an “oral history” of inter-spliced interviews with band members, co-workers, and family, Reid has hit upon something brilliant here. If, like me, you often get frustrated with the “It was a dark and stormy night…” wankery of authors who over-dress their setting, the minimal descriptions in each interview pushes plot, action, and dialogue to the forefront. Reid catches all the fun quirks of oral history, including how characters’ stories don’t line up or even directly contradict each other. Five stars, would read again.

Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir
Ruth Reichl
Detailing Reichl’s time as the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine and how she took it from a fusty old tome for “gastronomes” to a hip and cool publication that helped shaped the current international food scene. The world was devastated to learn that the Conde Nast was pulling the plug on the successful magazine and Reichl explains how none of the staff really saw it coming. Offers great insight into the world of mainstream media, the process for putting together a monthly magazine, and Reichl’s own life at the time. Told in her engaging and informative style, this will just make you want to flip through old copies wishing it was still around.

May Media Musing

Some of the stuff I watched in May…

Film

Her Smell
We almost bailed on this early in the film — the drugged-up, erratic Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss) wandering around the green room of a concert venue screaming at people was a real turn-off. However we stuck with it and were glad we did. Moss delivered a nuanced and engaging performance as a messed-up rock star whose addiction and mental health problems destroyed herself and those around her. Brutally annoying in parts, but there is some peace and optimism in the ending.

Stiv
Speaking of the rock star life, this documentary about the life of Stiv Bators of The Dead Boys shows just how intense that life can be. With interviews from friends and former bandmates (although, notably, not any of the members of the current line-up of The Dead Boys, including Cheetah Chrome), the film details Bators’ life from the early days until his death in 1990. The irony of someone who did all the drugs and booze and who liked to car surf for kicks getting hit by a taxi and walking away only to die of internal bleeding hours later is not lost. And the story about his girlfriend snorting his ashes is true (many of the funeral attendees did as well).

The Lion’s Share
It’s not “wimawe” it’s “mbube”, and a real South African man named Solomon Linda wrote the line decades before The Tokens recorded The Lion Sleeps Tonight, or it was used by Disney. This story of Linda’s children trying to win back royalty rights and be compensated for the work their father created is fraught with that special flavour of racism found only in South Africa (the lawyer hired to defend the adult daughters talks about them as if they’re mentally-challenged children). Ultimately they win… something, but after all the lawyers get their share, Linda’s daughters aren’t left with much.

Television

Back to Life
Daisy Haggard (best known for her role in Uncle) plays Meri, fresh out of an 18-year stint in prison, returning to her hometown to try and restart the life she lost as a teenager. The viewer doesn’t find out why Meri went to jail until the end of the series, and the plot is full of twists and turns. Great performance by Adeel Akhtar as Miri’s neighbour.

Ghosts
The original Horrible Histories cast returns as a collection of ghosts haunting a derelict country pile. Based partially on the story of West Horsley Place (where the show is filmed), Alison (Charlotte Ritchie, Save the Midwife) and her husband inherit an estate. Alison falls out a window, lives through a coma, and when she returns she can hear and see the ghosts. Much hilarity ensues. There’s a caveman, a headless Tudor courtier (presumably based on Sir Walter Raleigh, whose family owned West Horsley Place and whose head was supposedly kept in a bag found on the premises — the bag, not the head), and a whole host of other characters. Oh, and a pile of plague victims in the basement. This might be my favourite show of 2019 so far.

A House Through Time
Historian David Olusoga traces the history of a single house in Newcastle, using census reports and other records to find out more about the building’s occupants. In Series 2, Olusoga discovers the Newcastle house was the home of IRA members and the famous naturalist Joshua Alder. This is a really engaging series (third season is in the works) and I love Olusoga’s laid-back but engaged presenting style.

It’s Bruno
This is one of those great little series of 15-minute episodes (like Special and Bonding) that Netflix has picked up recently. You couldn’t have made TV like this even 10 years ago but the need for piles of content means that fun, quirky little shows this this one about a guy and his dog in Brooklyn, not only get picked up but become hugely popular. Solvan “Slick” Naim plays Malcolm, a man devoted to his dog. Everybody loves Bruno. Well, except his rival Angie and her owner, and the guy who runs the supermarket and makes Bruno stay outside. Every episode is drama-packed and full of charm.

What We Do in the Shadows
I wasn’t loving this series as much as the movie it is based on, but it picked up significantly about halfway through the season. I’m even warming to Matt Berry (Lazlo), who I was never a real fan of previously. Every episode is better than the last, with notable highlights including werewolves, the pub crawl episode and the massive, amazing cameo-filled vampire council episode, made up of actors who have previously played vampires including Tilda Swinton and Paul Reubens. The real question is can they convince Catherine Deneuve to take part in another council episode next season?

Deadwood The Movie
Aw, y’all. This is still my favourite TV series of all time, and like so many others I’ve been waiting for some closure for more than a decade. It was good. Lots of references to the series (although I felt the flashback clips were superfluous), including those fucking peaches, and lots of circular references that echoed events from the series that did, ultimately, give us some closure. (Most of) the people you want to see have a happy ending get one, and the bad guys get their comeuppance. Which is pretty much what you want from a Shakespearean western, right? (Did y’all catch the uncredited cameo by Deadwood alum Garret Dillahunt? He’s there!)

May Reading List

This month’s inadvertent theme is “all the British ladies”, as my Top 3 picks (pictured above) are all about British women. There’s the Tudor-era feminist who had to hide her work behind a man’s name, the fictional suffragettes who find themselves at loose ends once they achieve voting parity for women, and the five women whose lives were lost to Victorian-era morals that gave them few options to support themselves and their children. They’re all owed big respect for their work and their sacrifices.

How to Be Alone
Lane Moore
I nabbed this originally thinking it was a book on psychology and self-acceptance, but it turns out Moore is a writer, comedian, and musician who escaped a troubled home riddled with FLEAs (frightening lasting effects of abuse), and is just trying to find healthy relationships, both in terms of friendship and romance, that don’t trigger issues from her past. The writing is slightly too meandering train-of-though for me, but I empathize with Moore’s life situation, although it does feel disingenuous for a writer to claim they have nobody to spend Christmas with and then include hundreds of people in the acknowledgements.

Between Meals: An Appetite For Paris
A. J. Leibling
Leibling, one of the most under-appreciated food writers of the 20th century, spent time in Paris in 1927, 1939, 1944 and again in the 1950s. While his gluttonous (let’s be honest) appetite affected his health, he had such a distinct understanding for food, especially French food, that he must be considered an expert on the subject. This book does spend a lot of time bemoaning lost Parisian restaurants and condemning people, both chefs and diners, who don’t understand French cuisine, but in the 1950s Leibling predicted the end of the world’s love affair with French food before food writers such as Child, Fisher and Beard had any clue it was happening.

Don’t Label Me: An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times
Irshad Manji
I’ve been a fan of Manji since her time in Toronto hosting Queer TV, and this book, while stylistically sometimes hard to get into, delves into how all sides of the political spectrum need to spend more time listening to each other and less time trying to prove they’re right. The book is written as a conversation between Manji and her dog, Lily, and this can sometimes come off as patronizing. Also, in some chapters, the dog talks back (yes, really) and this is weirdly disconcerting, as if two drafts of the manuscript have been pieced together. Still worth reading (and re-reading) though, because Manji offers such a balanced perspective. She’s also got no patience with social justice warriors or folks who proclaim themselves “woke”, which makes this book a winner in my eyes.

Habits of a Happy Brain
Loretta Graziano Breuning
I’m more than a little interested in neuroplasticity and Breuning explores how the brain creates and uses chemicals such as dopamine, seratonin, oxytocin and endorphin, as well as the not so happy chemical of cortisol. The explanations are a little basic, however, and the habits to create bursts of the good chemicals (and be happy) are a bit trite. We’re not happy all the time and are not meant to be, and ours brains create these chemicals anyway, without us do anything special to make more of them.

Social Creature
Tara Isabella Burton
The trope here is one we all know; two friends move in together, one takes over the other’s life. It’s Single White Female, or The Other Typist(see review above). Only in this case, the protagonist is the ultimate anti-hero, and by the end of the book, the reader is unsure who is the most messed up, Lavinia, the rich and manic narcissist, or Louise the roommate who kills her and uses social media to pretend her friend is alive and well in order to live in her house and have access to her bank account and credit cards. This is written in a weird, choppy style that jumps in tone and the author drops so many red herrings that it starts to stink after a while. “And that’s when Louise really fucked up…” Except there’s never any reckoning with the action. A snarky look at New York’s literary/party scene with characters that are maybe too close to caricatures. A fun read, all the same, but a bit of an eye roller.

Shakespeare’s Dark Lady: Amelia Bassano Lanier — The Woman Behind Shakespeare’s Plays
John Hudson
There’s long been speculation that Willy Shakes never wrote a word of any of the plays or poems that bear his name and factual evidence (at the time of his death, he owned no books, no paper, even unused, and no copies of his past works) seems to support this. But who did? John Hudson offers a long, somewhat detailed theory that it was a woman of Jewish Italian descent named Amelia Bassano. Bassano ticks all the boxes in terms of the life experience and knowledge the playwright would have to have had: knew Italian, Hebrew and Latin, knew music and instrument making, knew court life, including many events and in-jokes, knew Denmark and Venetian culture and geography, knew about the military, the law, housewifery, falconry (yes, really), and was a feminist. Hudson even compares stylistic aspects of Bassano’s writing under her own name with that of Shakespeare and believes that the same person wrote the works of both. Oh, and that many of the works are satirical commentary on Christianity. If nothing else, the fact that the person spelled his name differently on all legal documents and that “Shakespeare” would have been a Tudor-era pun for masturbation should give cause for doubt.

Old Baggage
Lissa Evans
This is the prequel to Crooked Heart, although it was written after. By 1928, the original suffragettes were hitting middle age or older and were struggling to find their place in the world as Britain prepared to extend the vote to all women, not just those who owned land or were married. Mattie and Flea (Florrie) live in a world where their former bravery and glory is unappreciated. Taking local girls under their wing in a club centred on Hampstead Heath, the women have a distinct perspective on the changing social climate. This book has been optioned for a TV series by the company run by actors Joanna Scanlon and Vicki Peppardine and I am so excited for this series that I cannot contain my glee. Written more as a series of vignettes than having one major plot arc, I think this will translate to the screen incredibly well.

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper
Hallie Rubenhold
Polly, Annie, Eliza, Kate, Mary Jane. Their names have often been forgotten in the 130 years since Jack the Ripper took their lives, especially since the murderer was never caught (recent investigations using modern forensic evidence point to Aaron Kosminski, a Polish barber who lived in Whitechapel and suffered from severe mental health issues, including a violent attitude towards women). Rubenhold stays well away from Ripper speculation, and does not include details of the murders. Instead she uses census data along with inquest documentation to develop pictures of all five women’s lives prior to their deaths, including births, deaths, marriages, siblings, schooling, stints at workhouses, hospitals and sanitariums. She discovers that all women were reasonably well-educated (all could read and write), but that Victorian-era constraints and attitudes towards women put all five victims in situations of poverty where they turned to alcoholism to get through life. The background on Mary Jane Kelly is somewhat spotty, as her real name was unknown (she was supposedly on the run from white slave traders) and so her chapter is based mostly on inquest statements and newspaper interviews with people who knew her. Surprisingly, Rubenhold’s research shows that only two of the women worked as prostitutes, and that all except Kelly were known to “sleep rough”, putting them on the streets, asleep, when they were murdered. An important book that reminds us that our fascination with serial killers often erases the victims, and that women were (and often still are) treated unfairly in the domestic sphere.

Check out all the books I’ve read in 2019 here.

April Reading List

Tete-a-Tete
Hazel Rowley
The biography of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir based on her journals and letters. Honestly, this is a DNF for me, as I just couldn’t get past what a dick Sartre was, both to Beauvoir and the many women he had relationships with. Plus Beauvoir grooming her young high school-aged students to become his lovers was also way creepy.

The American Agent
Jacqueline Winspear
Another fantastic novel in the Maisie Dobbs mystery series, this one taking place during the Blitz in the fall of 1940. Winspear has maintained Dobbs through 15 novels now and they remain sharp, intriguing, and well-written. Many red herrings and twisty paths, as usual, the murderer turns out to be a complete surprise.

Life Admin
Elizabeth F. Emens
One of those books that talks about theoretical issues rather than offering much in the way of concrete advice, if nothing else it will give the reader pause to consider how much of our life is unavoidable admin work (grocery lists, permission slips, taxes). Also, an understanding about how different people approach admin tasks, and how some things that require our attention feel like a waste of time.

Rage Becomes Her
Soraya Chemaly
An important read, but it can come off cluttered at times and doesn’t really offer much new insight into all of the things women have to be angry about. Unequal pay, harassment, mansplaining… it’s all here, and Chemaly offers concise details, but there’s little in the way of concrete advice. At best, you read this to get worked up at the injustice against women and then come up with your own ideas to fight it.

How to Be Famous
Caitlin Moran
The second book of a trilogy (How to Build a Girl #2) loosely based on Moran’s early adult life as a music writer. This starts out clunky and I almost discarded it, but it picks up and becomes a great story and a love letter to young women. Seriously, worth reading just for protagonist Dolly’s letter to her rock star boyfriend about the power and energy of young female music fans, and how the music industry — so dependent on the custom of teenage girls — treats them with misogynistic disdain. Rating: a hearty Fuck Yeah!

Highland Fling & Christmas Pudding
Nancy Mitford
The first two books from The Penguin Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford. Mitford was a London socialite in the early 20th century, one of a family of sisters, a few of whom were closely linked with the Nazi party during WW2. While Mitford’s writing is said to improve with her later works, the first two novels were not well-received at the time of publication and mostly deal with the gender gap within the aristocracy between the old guard and the Bright Young People. Lots of country estates, hunting, characters with names like Squibby, and discussions about how much inheritance per year would justify marrying someone you didn’t love. Characters were mostly based on Mitford’s friends so didn’t really translate well to the rest of the population. I may come back to the later novels at some point but these two just made me despise silly rich people.

The New Me
Halle Butler
This is one of those new-fangled books about Millennial ennui, and Butler’s character Millie is scathing, cynical, and sarcastic, covering up some fairly severe depression and self-loathing. It’s ultimately a flip-off to Western society’s promise of the reinvention of the self through consumerism (that lipstick, rug, cereal, car, yoga class, or facial treatment will make your life so much better!). The narrative jumps from Millie’s point of view to that of other characters in some chapters, and this would work better if more of it came back to Millie in some way. It’s meant to show the universality of our depressing work/life treadmill and how we try to improve it, mostly by purchasing stuff, but it could have been tighter and more succinct if the characters had more interaction.

Maeve in America: Essays By a Girl From Somewhere Else
Maeve Higgins
Irish comedian Maeve Higgins has spent the last few years in the United States, and this collection of witty and often funny essays detail her accounts of swimming with dolphins, renting a ballgown for an awards ceremony, body acceptance and family. An enjoyable read that made me hope she tours Canada as I’d love to see her perform live.

You Have the Right to Remain Fat
Virgie Tovar
Tovar’s claim to fame might not be fat activism, but rather that she incorrectly accused another fat activist of plagiarizing part of this book in the TV series Shrill. (This claim was debunked by the fact that Tovar’s book was released after the scene in question — fat girl pool party — was filmed.) This was successful in getting Tovar plenty of free publicity, but not all of it positive. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t go anywhere new in the realm of fat activism and is mostly more preaching to the choir. Tovar makes good points (it’s not fat people who have to change, but the mainstream attitude towards them), but amidst the noise about stolen ideas, those issues will not be heard by the people who need to make the actual changes.

On Being 40(ish)
Lindsey Mead
While a few of these essays do actually touch on issues all women face in mid-life, far too many of them were along the lines of “here’s something that happened to me when I was 40”, as opposed to “because I was 40”. So many of the essays in this small collection didn’t feel especially relevant. “Soul Mates: A Timeline in Clothing” by Catherine Newman, detailing a lifelong friendship that ultimately ends when one of the friends dies of ovarian cancer might have been the best piece in the book. I was hoping for a lot more from this collection.

March Reading List

The German Girl
Armando Lucas Correa
Fascinating topic, but the execution is clunky. Based on the true story of the MS St. Louis, the ocean liner full of Jews fleeing Germany in 1939 that arrived in Cuba only to be turned back, with a mere 28 passengers (out of more than 900) permitted to disembark. Correa works to create many correlations between modern-day Anna and her great-aunt Hannah in 1939, but writing both parts in the first person voice offers little differentiation between the two character’s voices. Timelines feel off but work out as the plot progresses however there’s no clear answer to the main plot point of the story, which is why did Hannah’s mother, and Hannah herself after her mother’s death, remain in a country they hated, especially when they had the money to go to America after the end of WW2 and at the onset of the Cuban revolution? With better editing (again, this work is clunky, often slow, and long-winded) this could have been a great YA novel. Geared to adults, it’s less engaging, although, again the topic itself is both fascinating and horrible, so kudos to Correa for giving it light after so many decades.

Sweet Expectations
Mary Ellen Taylor
A food-themed romance/chick-lit/mystery/ghost story that had a reasonable plot (even with the ghosts), but which was short on continuity and spell-checking. Seriously, this was published by Penguin, but was littered with misspellings that any version of spellcheck should have caught. Characters’ ages change from one chapter to the next. Most of it felt like an awkward first draft. I was ready to forgive the clumsiness until I discovered that this was the second in a series, and the synopsis for the first book sounds almost the same as the second, complete with a found object and a ghost who needs the heroine to unravel their mystery.

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Book Review — Vanishing New York

Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul
Jeremiah Moss

Hyper-gentrification. It’s happening in nearly every city, in varying degrees. Currently, there is almost zero affordable housing in most major cities around the globe, with New York probably being the worst scenario.

Starting with the East Village, Jeremiah Moss, creator of a blog by the same title, moves through the various neighbourhoods of Manhatten and Brooklyn, outlining the efforts made to push out the poor, the artists, the gay communities, in order to make way for condos for the wealthy, where they don’t even actually live, but allow the places to sit empty.

An ongoing process of pushing out the poor by various means (luring the “acceptable ethnics” — Irish Catholics, Jews, Italians — to the predominantly WASPish suburbs) and cutting down existing services to “redlined” neighbourhoods to make living there miserable, was the MO for mayors whose goal was to turn a city that was all about the different cultures, artists and weirdo, into a sleek, Disneyfied place for rich white folks and tourists. There is real evidence of white supremacy at work as these efforts predominantly targeted Blacks and Puerto Ricans.

Reading Vanishing New York, I see a lot of Toronto in these scenarios, although we still manage to keep many of our most unique neighbourhoods intact (Kensington Market, for instance, where residents have vehemently fought gentrification), although the flight to the suburbs is real, and areas such as Chinatown and Little India are shells of their former vibrancy.

Moss has been accused of being overly-nostalgic, and there were situations in the book that felt over-inflated to prove a point, even if they are true.

The trick for everyone, Moss included, is to find the line. We are all gentrifiers. If you went to New York, or any other city, from somewhere else, if you enjoy a craft beer, some artisanal pickles or have recently started buying music on vinyl, you might be part of the problem. And while some people might long for the energy and brashness of the East Village in the 70s, I doubt anybody misses being mugged.

A great analysis of how New York City is changing, but Moss might be too invested in his topic.

 

More Thoughts on Marie Kondo… and Sheet Folding

I’ve now watched all of the episodes of the Marie Kondo series on Netflix, and I’ve been reading many of the reviews and articles that the show has spawned in the media, and there are a few things that are just not jiving with me…

  • In the de-cluttering of a whole house, there seems to be a lot of emphasis on folding clothes and arranging stuff in drawers — how is it that everything beyond clothes, books, papers, and sentimental items falls into one category? Spices, power tools, and computer cables are all together? This is the case in Kondo’s books as well, and it always felt weird to me, especially since people tend to buy things like cosmetics and food with a similar “instant gratification” mentality that they have to clothes and books.
  • Perhaps there’s more that we’re missing in the process, due to editing of the video, but de-cluttering is, first and foremost, based on hard logic. Does this fit? If not, get rid of it. Does it need repairs, re-dying, or a complete overhaul to be usable and is there a reasonable expectation that the person will actually make those repairs? Will it honestly be used again (for instance a book that was read once and not particularly enjoyed)? I didn’t really see this process, nor did Kondo really seem to promote it, favouring her “spark joy” philosophy that really allows people to keep all the broken, ripped, faded, ratty, and useless crap in their lives just because they still love it.
  • Kondo has softened her “just get rid of it stance” a bit for the series, with many reviews emphasizing the fact that she seems pretty laid back about not judging people for their stuff or wanting to keep it. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s not exactly the same sentiment the book was based on.
  • The idea of expressing gratitude to your belongings can seem a bit kooky at first, but it’s actually something we should be doing all the time, not just as we’re getting rid of an item. This is far easier to do when you are able to pare your belongings down to things that you love using or having around you, so you experience joy every day because of the things in your life.
  • I screamed out loud in horror as I watched Kondo put a fitted sheet on the floor in order to demonstrate how to fold it. What the actual fucking fuck? Two thoughts immediately came into my head during this segment; first, generations of mothers and grandmothers making that “tsk” noise, both at Kondo’s placing a clean sheet on the floor (!!!) and the fact that most people don’t know how to fold a fitted sheet; and second, could I somehow turn this into an opportunity to offer classes to teach people how to properly fold a fitted sheet (that didn’t involve throwing it on the floor, or using a flat surface at all… Yes, I can actually do this. Yes, I am a witch). My method involves a puppet show, if that helps…
  • In the spirit of Miriam (“Don’t say ‘like’, dear, it makes you look ignorant”) Margoyles, I would like to offer a language de-cluttering course. I would offer this for free to the woman in episode one, who dropped 4 or 5 “likes” into every sentence. Cluttered speech is as bad as a cluttered home.
  • De-cluttering is well and good but would be mostly unnecessary if people didn’t feel the need to buy so much stuff in the first place. Folding shirts nicely in response to a shopaholic/hoarding problem is a bit like sticking a band-aid on a sucking chest wound. Dealing with the psychological why of accumulation doesn’t make for terribly enthralling TV, of course, unless you hired someone to follow the shopaholic to the mall and jump out at them from behind the sales racks yelling, “You don’t need that, Barb! You know you don’t need that! Put it back!” (Yes, you’re damned right I want to host this show.)
  • I was also a bit disappointed at the follow-up in terms of what the guests were meant to do with their stuff once they decided it no longer sparked joy. Some episodes showed participants dropping off items at local charities, but not all. And there was no point in Kondo’s sorting process, in any of the episodes, where we clearly saw participants sorting stuff into sections of donate/trash/sell. I presume this did happen, but it should have been more prominent. (And the guy with the massive collection of sneakers could likely have sold many of the pairs in his collections as “vintage” and made back some of the $10,000 of debt he accumulated buying all those sneakers he never wore.)

I binge-watched most of the series one afternoon when I was immobilized by a migraine, and it mostly left me feeling really dissatisfied. To be fair, I did go refold all the clothes in my dresser drawers, but I don’t feel that Kondo’s system is truly comprehensive in terms of a start-to-finish whole-house purge that deals with both the reasons for the clutter and what to do with the stuff you’re getting rid of.

And I’m happy to demonstrate to her how to properly fold a fitted sheet while standing up anytime she’d like to learn.

Book Review — Catharine Parr Traill’s The Female Emigrant’s Guide: Cooking with a Canadian Classic

Catharine Parr Traill’s The Female Emigrant’s Guide: Cooking with a Canadian Classic
Edited by Nathalie Cooke and Fiona Lucas
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017

In our easy 21st century life, we think we’re “roughing it” when the power goes out for a few hours. But the first emigrants to Canada not only didn’t have power, they also didn’t have roads, running water, nearby stores and shops, or shelter… until they built it themselves.

Catherine Parr Traill (and her sister Susanna Moodie) were part of the early waves of colonial settlers who cleared and farmed land in (then Upper) Canada, and Traill especially documented what her life was like, including the many recipes (receipts) used for daily meals and medicines, as well as instructions on how to do just about anything, from building a fence to making butter.

Originally published in 1855, The Female Emigrant’s Guide was written especially to offer advice to new settlers, explaining what to bring on the crossing, what to buy, and offering myriad tips and instructions on how to set up a homestead in the middle of the woods and not die in the process.

This hefty edition is more interesting than Traill’s own work, however, because of the massive amounts of research and supporting documents Cooke and Lucas include. At 608 pages, the authors include not just the original work by Traill, but a biography, a publication history of the work (it was printed in different editions, with changes and corrections to each version), and then an extensive section called “Guide to Traill’s World” that includes typical seasonal menus, modern interpretations (with measurements and cooking times) of recipes in the guide, a primer for fireplace cooking at home, plus an extensive look at cooking measurements since most recipes of the time didn’t include standardized measurements and when measurements were includes they might be metric, imperial, avoirdupois, Winchester, wine, or apothecary. Or you know, an actual teacup and teaspoon, regardless of how they compared to any official system.

A massive glossary of food and cooking terms might be unnecessarily completest; some entries are for things not actually referenced in Traill’s work but the editors have included them because they were in popular use elsewhere at the time.

Which is to say, that this is a definitive work on both Traill and her life.

The editors avoid delving into the political issues provoked by Traill and other settlers; that is, the outright theft of First Nations land by colonial settlers, other than to point out that they have reproduced the original work as it was written, including the use of terms that are now out of use or considered offensive. Traill and others like her believed themselves to be entitled to Canadian land, and certainly we wouldn’t be here without their efforts, but the general treatment of First Nations peoples in the effort to colonize North America is a shameful bit of history that is vaguely romanticized when admiring Traill’s work.