Monthly Archives: July 2015

Louisa Locke – Maids of Misfortune (2009)

MaidsofMisfortuneWhen I bought this, I had originally thought it was a non-fiction book about the lives of domestic maids living in Victorian San Francisco. Instead I found myself reading a, quite sloppy, murder mystery set in Victorian San Francisco. I am all for historical fiction and murder mysteries, but this was just bad historical fiction.

Personally, I consider subtlety to be a marker of good historical fiction. The reader should know where they are in time and space, but should not need constant reminders. Locke however feels the need to constantly remind her readers that they are in San Francisco in the late 1880s by cramming every single stereotype associated with the Victorian period into her work. I will give you some examples:

Annie (the main character) is a clairvoyant and constantly remarks about how her customers as obsessed with the unknown. (The steryotype that everyone in the Victorian era was obsessed with the spiritual realm)

Annie goes to a dance and wear a dress showing her ankles and is therefore mistaken as a prostitute

Annie makes a male character, Nate, blush when she says the words “legs”

Everyone in San Francisco hates the Chinese expect for Nate and Annie because naturally, as the heroes of the story they cannot be racist or sexist.

The plot of this story was not bad. It is a murder mystery and has enough suspense that I wanted to know what happened. It turned into a bit of a romance however (and a messy one at that), and wading through the info-dump of Victorian clichés was a bit more than I could handle. This book is part of a whole series, but I don’t think I’ll be reading the rest anytime soon.

Steve Martin – Born Standing Up (2007)

BornstandingupI didn’t really know what to expect from this book, and even while reading, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Upon further reflection however, I decided that this book is quintessentially Steve Martin.

First off, Martin takes himself a bit more seriously in his writing than I was expecting him to. He starts with stories about his life growing up, and his tumultuous relationship with his father, and his sister. He began working at Disney world at a young age where he got a taste of performing (originally in a magic shop) and decided that he wanted to be a performer. In his typical style however, Martin will often be telling a seemingly very heartfelt and touching story only to add a sarcastic comment right at the very end leaving the reading guessing as to his intentions.

Overall I really liked the insights that Martin’s memoirs provided into his life and into the comedy scene at the time. While I growing up, I was only ever familiar with Steve Martin as a movie actor, my parents always talked about how funny his stand up was. It was only in recent years that I have watched, and re-watched footage of a very young Steve Martin performing in comedy clubs and on Saturday Night Live. He writes very fondly about performing on SNL, the people there, and the routines he came up with. It was interesting to see the roots of his comedy routines, and all the factors that contributed to Martin’s very unique sense of humour.

Linda Przybyszewski – The Lost Art of Dress (2014)

“Practice the art of dress. You may be self conscious because you are far better dressed than the people around you, but maybe you can inspire them”

TheLostArtofDressAs someone who has always loved vintage fasions and has recently learned how to sew I really appreciated what Linda Przybyszewski has done with her book. She looks at the history of women’s fashion in America from the beginning of the 20th century specificially focusing on a group of women called the “Dress Doctors” who aimed to teach women how to dress.

Przbyszewski begins her book with a history of, and a dissection of the term “home economics.” Now, we tend to view home economics as a frivolous pursuit, but at the time it was considered to be a legitimate science and was often its own department within different universities. Przybyszewski writes that 303 of the 479 women faculty teaching science at the leading American universities at the time were working in Departments of Home Economics.

She then moves on to detailed discussion of the Dress Doctor’s philosophies, including preaching the virtues of thrift, simplicity, functionality, and finding flattering clothing. Przybyszewski also touches on historic trends that impacted the fashion industry including the evolution of hygiene practices (the innovation of the washing machine revolutionized doing laundry), and the introduction of ready made clothing, department stores, and credit cards, (which were originally offered by department stores as a way of appealing to customers).

While I loved reading the history that Przybyszewski provides, she does get a bit caught up in the romanticism of it. She laments the state of the fashion industry today without noting that fashion trends are constantly changing. Even though the Dress Doctors may have preached a simpler stylish way of dressing, their advice has not completely fallen to the way side and many women today, especially professional ones still play by their rules.

Eric Schlosser – Fast Food Nation (2001)

Fast Food NationEric Schlosser’s book is often lauded by food studies scholars as being a foundational text in the field, and it is easy to see why. Predating Supersize Me by a number of years, Schlosser was the first to really expose the Fast Food Industry for what it is.

Schlosser begins his book with a history of the “Founding Fathers,” men like Carl Kochner (of Carl Jr’s), the McDonald brothers and Colonel Sanders, who made their fortunes by inventing and reinventing the fast food industry bringing us to where we are today. It’s interesting that all these men started their businesses around the same time, the post-war 1950s in response to changing social and cultural patterns. Schlosser spends a chapter looking at the history, but it is something that bears further investigation.

The bulk of Schlosser’s work is looking at the problems that exist within the industry. He dedicates chapters to concerns about the environment and animal welfare, as well as the exploitation of human labour from teenagers working for minimum wage in the restaurants to working conditions in slaughterhouses. Some of it was difficult to read, but I think Schlosser intended it to be that way.

This book is great, and one of the best things about it is that since it was written in the late 1990s, it’s very easy to see how far the fast food industry has come. It is by no means perfect, and there are obviously still many problems and not all chains are a like. Since the book was published however, many restaurants have undergone rebranding and have started to offer “healthier” alternatives such as salads as well as committing to environmental causes. Working conditions in both restaurants and processing plants remain a huge issue however and debates about minimum wage have danced around news feeds for a number of years now. Most recently McDonalds has reported a loss off profits this year. With new movements towards local and organic foods, the fast food industry is going to have to start coming up with more ways to compete.

While Schlosser’s book has shown us how far the fast food industry has come, it is very clear that the industry still has a long way to go.

Gelnn C. Altschuler – All Shook Up (2003)

AllShookUpLooking at how Rock ‘N Roll changed the world, Glenn C. Altschuler, in his book, focuses exclusively on the 1950s, the decade in which he deems Rock N’ Roll music was born. I think that he is correct in this assessment, although I did have some issues with his narrow view.

This is a relatively compact read. Each chapter tackles a different social issue including race, sexuality, and the generational gap. He writes that Rock ‘N Roll entered directly into Cold War controversies ongoing at the time and appealed to the new generation of baby boomers growing up in America. I enjoyed his discussions of various musical personalities including Elvis and Perry Como, to inspirational artists like Fats Domino and Willie Mae Thornton. Even though Altschuler talks about how Rock ‘N Roll was both a form of sexual expression and sexual control, he doesn’t explicitly tackle the nuances of gender. How Rock ‘N Roll was a heavily male dominated sphere and women could only enter into it by playing virginal maids, a la Diana Ross and the Supremes. He briefly mentions the Ronettes, but says nothing about the backlash that occurred over the lyrics to “Be My Baby”

I do think that the 1950s may have been the most important decade for Rock ‘N Roll, but I also wish that Altschuler had extended his range past the 1950s and into the 60s, 70s, and beyond. Even though the Rock ‘N Roll’s formative years may have ended, it certainly did not and continued, as it continues today, to be a vehicle for protest and social change.

Max Brooks – World War Z (2006)

WorldWarZThis book has been out for a while now, but having never been huge into the Zombie craze, I wasn’t dying to read it. I have always however found the premise interesting and my curiosity brought this book back to my attention. Essentially Max Brooks is inspired by Studs Turkel’s The Good War in writing this book and aims to replicate his style. As The Good War is an oral history of the Second World War, World War Z is an oral history of the Zombie apocalypse.

The story is presented through a series of interviews with various fictional characters about their experiences with the Zombie War. The book takes the reader all around the world, similar to The Good War, but a major theme is that of American isolationism, which is interesting given the climate in which Brooks was writing.

I personally didn’t love this book, but it is a fresh and interesting take on the dystopian future genre. Fans of the Walking Dead or other Zombie themed tv-shows/movies will probably love this book. As I said however, Zombies were never really my thing so it’s hard for me to fangirl about this as much as some other people have.

Wayne Grady – Emancipation Day (2013)

EmancipationDayThis book has been getting a lot of buzz in the past year from Canadian book reviewers, mostly for the style of writing. I will agree that Wayne Grady has written this book in a rhythmic way that evokes the jazz music that appears throughout the story. The music is not the driving force as it is in Half Blood Blues however, but rather belongs in the background, providing ambiance music to set the scene. As much as I enjoyed Grady’s writing, for me the story was about 60% there.

Essentially Grady is telling the story of Jack, an African American boy who is born with white skin. He grows up in Windsor Ontario during the 30s and 40s before the outbreak of the Second World War. During the war, while stationed in Newfoundland Jack meets Vivian and marries her but tries to keep his family a secret. Things get complicated however when the pair travel to Windsor to meet his family and Vivian finds out she is expecting a child.

It’s a good story, but I feel like it either should have been a lot longer, or much shorter focusing in on Jack’s refusal to acknowledge, and even hatred of, his own race. There is so much interesting emotional stuff to dissect with his character which wasn’t really done. There is no real climax or conclusion to the novel, and the characters do not really develop. I still liked the book but I’m not so sure if it deserves all the immense praise it has received.