Starting the New Year Going Into Town with Roz Chast

After Roz Chast entertained me with her clever graphic novel about her aging parents in “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant,” I couldn’t wait for her next installment of graphic humor, but her Going Into Town, a Love Letter to New York had me thinking I should carry the book with me the next time I visit the city. Not only are the illustrations and text hilarious, the chapter on how to use the subway could be very useful for my directionally clueless nature.

With her signature New Yorker comic strip art and her East Coast conversational style, Chast takes the reader from a basic layout of Manhattan, through “stuff to do…food…apartments” and all the practical basics for living, surviving, accessing Manhattan.  As promised, this is not a guide for tourists (although some might find it helpful) but an insider’s manual – “some maps, some tips…Nothing too overwhelming” created for her daughter, a freshman in college in Manhattan.  

Lately, I’ve been reading historic tomes full of man’s inhumanity to man, and it’s lovely to start the new year with a funny and optimistic view of one of my favorite cities. Might be a good new year’s resolution to read more like this.

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Careers for Women

51Zl+TlJY2L._AC_US218_  Any story culminating in the fate of the World Trade Center in New York City already carries a pall of anxiety, but Joanna Scott focuses on the stories of women only peripherally connected yet forever affected by those towers.  The story bounces across decades, from the inception of the architecture to it final demise, with a stream of consciousness narrative that can be hard to follow.

Back in the nineteen fifties, women executives were rare and Lee, know as Mrs. J to her staff, is a formidable force in public relations for the Port Authority, selling the idea and managing the opposition of small businesses who will be displaced by the new two towers World Trade Center.  Other women include Maggie, an ambitious young assistant on Mrs. J’s staff and the story’s narrator; Pauline, whose perils never seem to end; and Kay, the erstwhile wife of the philandering manager of the aluminum plant supplying the materials for the project.  Their lives interconnect as they struggle to survive both professionally and personally.

Several story lines bind the streaming structure – a corpse appears in the woods, the aluminum plant poisons the adjacent farmland and water table, and the plant mysteriously explodes.  And, despite the intricate architecture of the narrative, following the lives of the women is satisfying.  Although their lives slowly build over the years, none are in the Trade Center on that fateful day.

Maggie’s voice sometimes sounds like a documentary, with a news broadcaster’s cold observations.  At times, Scott purposely drops in cryptic images that pop up again later in the book; more than once, I thought I should reread a section with the reference – if only I could find it.  At one point in the novel, Scott has one of her characters state: ” {she} compared the experience to rereading the kind of book in which the end invites you to go back to the beginning and read again, with new attention…” and I imagined she was reassuring me, the reader, when I found myself unbalanced and confused in the miasma of the images floating back and forth from decade to decade.

Reading Careers for Women is a complicated venture, but worthwhile.

Related Review: Joanna Scott’s DePotter’s Grand Tour

 

 

My Notorious Life

Unknown-1In contrast to the saving graces of the characters in Call the Midwife, the BBC Masterpiece series based on Jennifer Worth’s memoir of her experiences in postwar London, Kate Manning’s heroine in My Notorious Life earns a fortune by helping women give birth and sometimes helping them stop it.  Manning’s midwife is based on the real life of Ann Trow Lohman, known as Madame Restell, who practiced as a “female physician” in New York City in the late eighteen hundreds.

Like Restell, Axie had no medical training and had little formal education.  Manning weaves a story around her poor background and her longing to reunite with her brother and sister after their mother’s death forces them on the orphan train.  Axie eventually lands in the home of an older midwife who teaches her the trade.  Eventually, she marries Charlie, another orphan train victim, and they start a business peddling powders and concoctions to cure women’s ailments.  Soon the business expands to midwifery and abortion.

Although the fictionalized life of the real woman is embellished with romance, adventure, and a great deal of angst, the story stays true to the misery of Victorian times.  When I found the Smithsonian article on Madame Restell, I was amazed at how close Manning came to appropriating her life in fiction.  Manning offers a different ending for her character, and you should read the Smithsonian article after you read the book – no spoiler here, for Restell’s real life was just as compelling as the fictionalized one created for her by Manning.

In an interview, Manning noted her purpose for writing was to produce

“a rip-roaring tale from the 19th century. I wanted to write a good old-fashioned story with plot and character and depth, and I don’t want it to get hijacked by a current political debate that really doesn’t seem to go anywhere, you know.”

She succeeded in 434 pages of vivid Dickensian characters with a commentary on America’s never-ending battle over women’s rights.  If you missed it when it first was published in 2013, you might consider reading it now.

 

Cookbooks 101

9780847837939_p0_v2_s192x300.jpg   Did you know you can study for a Ph.D. in food studies at New York University?  To support the program The Fales Library at NYU created a door stopper of a book, 688 pages – 101 Classic Cookbooks 501 Classic Recipes from Fannie Farmer to Thomas Keller – compiled and edited by an academic committee (of course).

The first half of 101 Classic Cookbooks is the canon of cookbooks, beginning with Fannie  Farmer’s The Boston Cooking School Cook Book (1896).  Books by Julia Child, Ruth Reichl, Emeril Lagasse and Betty Crocker,  James Beard and, of course, Irma Rombauer’s bible – The Joy of Cooking are a few of the famous included.   Just flipping through the glossy pages, you will see clear copies of cook book covers and recipe pages excerpted from each; the editors also offer a short introduction on the history and significance of each cookbook (which I confess I did not always read).  The collection crosses regions from Southern cooking to international, and from comfort food to  Alice Waters’ farm to table.

The editors  include a few spiral bound cookbooks (we all have a few) from the Junior Leagues of Charleston and Augusta, and one of my favorites – The Moosewood Cookbook.    Mark Bittman and Thomas Keller are the anchors, finishing the collection with books from 1998 and 1999.  The current century is still in committee.

Recipe pages in the first section copied directly from the cookbooks are not readable, but the second half of 101 Classic Cookbooks becomes 501 Classic Recipes, the best ideas culled from all and clearly printed (with an editor’s caveat warning older recipes may not always work).  With ten categories, from Drinks and Nibbles to Baked Goods and Desserts, this section is overwhelming – too much even for those of us who like to read cookbooks. But this is a textbook.

The Index is the place to start. Recipes, authors, and books are cross-referenced – a map to finding your favorite cookbook author or honing in on a recipe you might like to try. The recipe for Lord Baltimore Cake caught my eye.

An ambitious undertaking, 101 Classic Cookbooks 501 Classic Recipes is a first in reference books for food studies, but it also could be a happy diversion for anyone who would rather cook than study – or just likes to read cookbooks.

Related Review:  My Visit to Thomas Kellor’s French Laundry

Reviews on Other Cookbooks:

 

 

Laughing Out Loud – Imaginary Mitzvahs

After a day of smiling at strangers, trying to follow the Chinese wisdom of Michael Puett’s The Path, I came across Calvin Trillin’s essay for The New YorkerImaginary Mitzvahs – and my true self reverted to type.

When I travel, I often tear out essays I want to read again from The New Yorker, before recycling the magazine to a flight attendant.  Trillin is one of my favorite funny cynics, and his litany of good deeds gone undone restored my cranky equilibrium.  But I did have a good laugh.

In Imaginary Mitzvahs, Trillan reviews his attempts to be a good person. When he graciously moves to a middle seat on the plane between a woman holding two crying babies and “a man whose stomach hung over the armrest” to accommodate the two men who “hadn’t seen each other in years…{this} flight is the only time we have to catch up,” he notices one man falls asleep throughout the flight and the other reads.

When he obliges his newly gluten-free vegan cousin by foregoing the sumptuous meaty French meal he had anticipated, his taste buds suffered but he felt virtuous.

Finally, when a cat in a fiery building needs rescuing, he resists – despite his inclination to do good.

There is a limit, after all.

Have a laugh – Read the essay : Imaginary Mitzvahs

9780375758515_p0_v1_s192x300And if you have not read Trillin’s Tepper Isn’t Going Out – my favorite book, here is my review:  Tepper Isn’t Going Out