Current events at the moment seem specifically designed to fill me with rage, so at this point I am generally looking for escape in the books I read. I thought that What She Ate by Laura Shapiro–described as a look inside the lives of six famous women by examining the food they ate–would be a fun discussion of snacks and baking. In fact, what Shapiro actually did was highlight how the patriarchy has devalued the experience of women throughout history. So reading this did not help with my rage! But it was a completely absorbing, fascinating book.
Shapiro writes a chapter each on six famous women, using their own writings and primary historical sources to tell both their individual story and highlight some element of the time they lived in:
- Dorothy Wordsworth, the sister of poet William, kept house for her brother in the Lake District until he married and struggled to find her place in 17th century English society as an unmarried woman.
- Rosa Lewis, a famous caterer in Edwardian England used food to, if not defeat the English class system, then at least to make herself a good life within it.
- Eleanor Roosevelt apparently pretty actively supported terrible food in the White House for a variety of reasons, but at least part of it being because she had (and wanted everyone to know she had) bigger things to worry about.
- Eva Braun’s insane relationship to food and illustrated a tiny corner of the Nazis’ insanity and hypocrisy.
- Barbara Pym was a brilliant author whose stories of domestic life offered a window into the world of middle-class post-war England.
- Helen Gurley Brown, the famously skinny editor of Cosmopolitan who was trying to navigate the ever-changing role of women in the workplace and mostly just seems to have ended up torturing and denying herself at every turn.
Each woman’s story was interesting, but Shapiro also uses the book to make a larger point about how what is considered “important history” has long been determined by men. Food is enormously important to everyone–we all think about food all day!–but because food was traditionally women’s business, history rarely takes it into account. Literature, as well. Shapiro describes how the journal that Dorothy Wordsworth kept in the Lake District has long been considered only in terms of the insight it could offer into her brother’s poetry, but is actually a significant historical and literary document in and of itself. Apparently the fact the she talks about what she plans to make for dinner somehow negates it’s worth. This book is a huge step towards insisting that food be seen as an important element of history itself, as well as a tool for examining larger cultural forces.
I should also say that although each of these stories was engaging to read, most of them were not particularly happy. Perhaps that is just the fate of being a smart woman in most any period in recent history, but quite a number of these stories ended sadly. The only two women that I might consider swapping places with would have been Rosa Lewis and Barbara Pym–maybe because they were women least interested in fitting themselves into traditional roles and most willing to follow their own paths, regardless what anyone thought.
Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review: Sneakily-radical history via food
You might also like: Each of the stories here made me want to track down more info on the person profiled (except for Helen Gurley Brown, she seems awful) and Barbara Pym is a goddamn genius so I obviously recommend that everyone go read her work. But if you’d just like to read something about fun that revolves around food, the novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest is lovely. And while I know it isn’t universally beloved, I really adore Julie and Julia by Julie Powell and I think she does a good job of discussing how Julia Child thought about food and how it impacted her life.
By Anthony Horowitz
You know how sometimes you want something interesting and different from what you’ve read before but also still want the same comfort and satisfaction as you get from those familiar books? I have to assume that I’m not the only reader chasing this catch-22.
Magpie Murders is a perfect fit for that particular mood! (Teaser: the rather awkward lack of “The” in the title is pertinent.) The novel is actually two mysteries from different genres, both titled “Magpie Murders”. The prologue introduces us to a modern-day editor who is sitting down to read the publisher’s proof of the latest mystery in a very popular mystery series. The next 175 pages is then that proof, a post-WWII English village mystery featuring an eccentric German detective. I was almost immediately sucked into this mystery, forgetting the more modern setting until it ended.
It was a bit jarring to then jump to the modern day, but the editor is very likable and sympathetic. She is convinced that the proof contains clues into a mystery regarding the author in her own time, and the remaining 200 or so pages follow her investigation.
Both mysteries are very good, and contrast well with each other, as well. I had some concern that the author would try to do something modern and clever and leave the reader hanging on one or both mysteries, but luckily it all ties up very satisfactorily. Almost anything more I say would begin to contain spoilers, so I guess I can only finish up with heartily recommending it.
Also, I found the book per a review on another wordpress blog that had been recommended to me, and which I promptly followed for the name alone (Anna’s unite!) and which I also recommend.
I am Raymond Washington
by Zach Fortier and Derard Barton
The Crips were founded in Los Angeles, California, in 1969. This book mentions that there is some conflicting information regarding who takes credit for the gang, but that there shouldn’t be: it was Raymond Washington.
Raymond Washington was born on August 14, 1953 and died on August 9, 1979, just shy of his 26th birthday, and his story feels like something in between a classic rags-to-riches American myth and the story of Alexander the Great. He grew up in what was essentially an urban-American war zone and created order for his little section of it. He created something much larger than himself and died young. He was not the only kid creating a gang, but his particular gang grew and continues to grow well beyond the original intent some fifty years later.
Most of what I’ve read about gangs before (admittedly not a lot) has been from the external view: told from the perspective of police about these violent groups threatening the welfare of the established class. Despite Fortier’s history as a policeman, however, he clearly respects Washington and a significant amount of the book is recounting interviews with Washington’s friends and family. This gives the reader the interior perspective of the gang, where the violence is merely a necessary defense of what the gang really provided its members: a sense of structure in a chaotic community and a sense of protection from threats.
It really struck me that the way to fight gangs is not to be one more set of people fighting them, but rather to provide viable alternatives to the people who see the gang lifestyle as their only and best option. Because everyone, friends and family and Washington himself, knew that gang life was brutal and short and nothing you wanted for the people you loved. Raymond Washington was not a hero, but he also wasn’t a villain. Or maybe he was both. But he was certainly a complex individual.
Fortier is clearly impressed by Washington. It’s also clear that Fortier’s experience is as a cop rather than as an academic writer. The writing is very plain-spoken and direct, in some ways it feels more like an oral history than a written one. But he doesn’t buy into the mythos surrounding the conflict between cops and gangs; trying instead to get to the actual facts of the situation and the facts are fascinating. This is a really fascinating look at the impact of the racial tensions of LA in the 1950s-1960s on a child, and the impact in turn of the young man that child grew up to be on the world around him.
By Lianne Oelke
This book should be terrible. The premise is that a high-school dropout goes to community college and enters the college’s “Big Brother”-style reality show, which sounds agonizing, right? I hate both coming-of-age stories and reality shows, but I loved this book!
The saving grace is Jane Sinner, herself. Told in first person through a series of journal entries, including screenplay-like dialogue, Jane has a dry cynicism that gives hard-boiled detective characters a run for their money. The publisher description compares Jane Sinner to Daria, which is perfect and also explains why I loved her so much.
So, I was definitely invested in her, but I also got so caught up in the stupid reality show! It’s relatively low-stakes since it is created by another student at the college on a shoestring budget (he is putting his 5-year-old VW Golf up as the final prize). Jane mostly signs up for the free housing.
The author does a really good job of including the mundane (but very humorous) details that really bring the characters and story to life. At the same time that Jane Sinner is trying to get her life back on the rails, the other contestants have their own motives, the producer and film crew have their ambitions, and the various staff and students of the college interact with the show in their own ways.
Basically everyone involved is flawed but also just so human that I ended up caring for all of them, even while they were all quite literally competing with each other.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties
By Neil Gaiman, Fábio Moon, and Gabriel Bá
I’d heard the title How to Talk to Girls at Parties around a bit, but it had sounded a little too pickup-artist-y for me. I hadn’t realized that it was a short story by Neil Gaiman, but I’ve lost some confidence in him lately. It’s a bummer, but many writers who were at the cutting edge of the feminist movement, pushing equal representation forward, have seemed to get stuck in their own hayday and been left behind by the advancing social mores.
All of this to say that I probably wouldn’t have read this if not for the adaptation to graphic novel illustrated by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá, who paint gorgeous watercolor illustrations. Unfortunately in this case, their drawings of unworldly lovely young women only serve to underscore my central issue with the story.
Two teenage boys, one confident, one not, are looking for a party. The confident boy counsels his friend Enn (N for Neil, perhaps?) that he just needs to learn to talk to girls, perhaps just the first baby step in understanding that girls are individual people just like boys, but this story doesn’t get to that point. Instead it veers off into a very Gaiman-like mythos that is interesting and evocative, but seems to conclude that girls can be dangerously unknowable and foreign. Which isn’t great.
By Derf Backderf
Trashed is pretty much the diametric opposite. You really couldn’t get much more mundane than this “ode to the crap job of all crap jobs,” to quote the front cover.
Backderf got really known for his autobiographical graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer, and this is a sequel of sorts, I guess. After high school, where he was casual friends with Jeffrey Dahmer, Backderf worked as a garbage man. Trashed is a fictionalized narrative, combining his own experiences with a great deal of research into the sanitation industry. It is a very funny, eye-opening look at a part of daily life that most of us pay as little attention to as possible.
By Heather Poole
This post-surgery recovery is not kidding around, and I’m still not quite up to reading plot-based books. Luckily, I ran across this memoir of a flight attendant, which is basically just a chatty string of anecdotes about a world I didn’t know anything about before.
I had my stereotypes, of course, and honestly, the book confirms quite a few of them. Ms. Poole, herself, seems like a bit of a bitch, very concerned with appearances and status, but that is partly what makes her a good flight attendant.
The industry sounds completely bonkers – more rigidly managed than I’d ever guessed. Of course, uniforms, hair, and weight are all carefully regulated, but even lipstick color must match the team. Everything (everything) is done by seniority – the longer a flight attendant has been on the job, they can choose the better flights, the better positions on the flight, even the better rooms in the various boarding houses that cater to the unusual schedules of flight attendants. It seemed like an even more extreme example of a sorority.
So, while it confirmed that I would never have wanted to be a flight attendant and don’t have much in common with anyone who would want that, it did make me much more sympathetic toward them. One reason the regulated low body weight isn’t as much a problem is that they aren’t paid enough to afford regular meals, and they all try to supplement as much as possible with leftovers from first class meals.
By Rachel Smythe
I was about a 100 pages into Kinsey’s recommended Six of Crows last week when I was hospitalized for an emergency appendectomy. The surgery went well, but recovery has been slow. Between managing pain, digestion, and a slew of medications, my attention span was shot, and I had to put aside the gritty, fantasy heist story. I tried a couple of other books, but anything with a plot more involved than, like, solitaire, and I lost the thread.
Luckily, I ran across* the fluffiest of fluff, which made my final day in the hospital bearable! Lore Olympus is a weekly web comic that retells the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone in a modern setting. The art is incredibly lush, and the story reads like the most indulgent of fan-fiction. Is there an extremely wealthy but emotional distant man who falls uncontrollably in love with a manic pixie dream girl? Well, I mean, that’s just canon. Are there sumptuous parties in elaborate mansions? Check! Beautiful and improbable clothes? Check! An absurd amount of dogs? Check!
There’s 23 chapters up right now, and it updates on Sundays. Each chapter consists of a single scroll down panel with some really interesting vertical composition, which I found particularly easy to navigate on my phone in bed, making it the perfect companion for required bed rest.
*Via a Twitter thread on “middle school weird girls” and the subset of “the ancient mythology stans,” in which I full-on recognized myself.