Tag Archives: Book Review

Megan Mayhew Bergman – Almost Famous Women

Almost Famous WomenI have been so well with short story collections recently having just finished Barbara the Slut. Bergman does something very different with her short story collection, but I loved it nonetheless.

While this compilation is a work of fiction, each short story focuses on a real woman from the past and then spins a creative narrative about their lives. The women that Bergman profiles are, as the title suggests, “Almost Famous,” meaning that while they were all quite notable while alive, history has forgotten them. Some of the women featured in these stories I had heard of like Butterfly McQueen, the African American actress famous for her role as Prissy in Gone With the Wind, and many of them had familiar family names; Allegra Byron, Dolly Wilde, and Norma Millay. Many of these women though, I knew nothing about (Joe Carstairs, Hazel Eaton, and Tiny Davis) and found myself completely enthralled by the stories that Bergman told.

Bergman is an amazing storyteller and I found myself lost in her writing. Whit short story collections I normally find that I read one a day, but I completely burned through this collection because I couldn’t get enough. She also did a remarkable amount of research as evidenced by the lengthy appendix to the book and made a real attempt to understand these women’s lives before attempting to create stories about them. One of the things that I liked the most about these stories is that not all of them are told by the characters that they are focused on, but rather are narrated by secondary or outside characters. This narrative style is functional, allowing the author to create profiles of these women without having to be inside their heads, and also compelling as you are drawn to the subjects of the stories as well as the narrators. I loved this collection and can’t praise it highly enough.

Recommended Reading and Listening:

I couldn’t do any better than the appendix that Megan Mayhew Bergman provides everyone with in her book filled with suggestions for further reading.

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Pattie Boyd – Wonderful Tonight (2007)

WonderfulTonightFor those unfamiliar with Pattie Boyd, she is most famous for being both the wife of George Harrison and Eric Clapton, inspiring a slew of famous songs in her wake (Something, Layla, Wonderful Tonight). In her memoirs she tells of her experiences with both men in her own words.

Obviously there are always different sides to different stories regarding what actually transpired. Pattie Boyd was probably slammed in the media for leaving George Harrison for Eric Clapton, and here in her own writing, Boyd has the chance to justify her actions, not that they need justification to begin with.

While Boyd is writing in a way that puts her in a slightly better light, I think that everyone has to acknowledge that being in a relationship with such creative people would not be an easy task. She details how difficult life was married to George, a member of the most influential rock band, and then with Eric Clapton. While sometimes the book can be a little too “woe is me,” I don’t think that Boyd is overstating the challenges she faced in her relationship with both these men.

What I liked the most about this book was the fact that even though Pattie Boyd was the inspiration behind so many famous songs, she does not take the credit for them and states quite openly that the songs were only written due to the immense talent that both these men possessed.

Overall I liked her writing and it provides a good insight into the world of the 1960s-1970s British rock scene.

Psyche Williams-Forson – Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs (2006)

BuildingHousesOutofChickenLegsWhile I was expecting this book to be more in line with the “food writing” that I like reading, it contained much more cultural/race/gender theory than I was expecting, and quite frankly, could handle.

Williams-Forson starts off very strong, asking the important questions of why it is often assumed that African Americans love fried chicken and the damage that this stereotype does to African Americans, particularly women. She outlines the history of African American’s perceived attachment to chicken and traces this view from the height of slavery, when it was assumed that all slaves were chicken thieves, up to Chris Rock’s stand-up routines.

The stereotype is damaging to African Americans, especially women, who are often seen as the producers of fried chicken, but Williams-Forson does mention cases where African American women use fried chicken to empower themselves. She moves past the image of the “Mammy” that many are familiar with and instead explores how women, especially while preparing food for Church gatherings, reclaimed their role as the providers of food.

The first chapters, the ones outlining the history of African American’s perceived ties to fried chicken appealed to me the most. They were the most straightforward, and, for me as someone who studies history, easy to follow. Williams-Forson then wades through some difficult concepts and does her best to show the reader how damanging sterotypes can be, and how African American’s, especially women, attempt to move past them. Unfortunatley a lot of her main points were lost on me, especially when she began to talk about the work of Kara Walker. Still I believe that this is an important book, not necessarily for scholars of food history, but for anyone studying African American history, or histories of race and gender.

Tom Robbins – Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976)

evencowgirlsgetthebluesProbably the most absurd book I’ve read in a while, which speaks volumes about the time that it was written (1976).

The novel follows the life of Sissy Hankshaw, a white trash woman born with enormously large thumbs who considers her mutation to be a gift as it aids with her hitchhiking, her preferred mode of travel. Living as a hitchhiker, Sissy soon becomes a model for The Countess, a male homosexual tycoon of feminine hygiene products. The Countess also owns a ranch, operated by sexually open and promiscuous cowgirls. Through her travels Sissy meets the cowgirls and many other interesting characters including “The Chink,” an escapee from a Japanese internment camp who becomes hailed as a hermetic mystic. Through her travels Sissy explores her own sexuality through her interactions with various characters.

This is definitely a “hippie” novel exploring themes such as free love, drug use, political rebellion, animal rights, feminism, and religion, in a strange yet wonderful way. The chapters are short and are often filled with philosophical diatribes and short quips in which Robbins inserts himself as a character. It’s not really the type of book that I normally enjoy reading, but I had a good time. The movie was considered to be an overwhelming failure, but I think I’d still like to watch it, the trailer looks just as insane as the book was to read.

Special Post – Neal Thompson, A Curious Man (2014)

CuriousMan

This week I also posted a book review of Neil Thompson’s, A Curious Man, on the University of Toronto Museum Studies’ Blog, Musings. While the book was mainly a biography of Robert Ripley, it still posed some good questions relevant to the Museum community, including, can we consider Ripley “Odditoriums,” both then and now, Museums? There is a debate within the art community over whether mass produced art can really be considered “art”? Ripley entertainment owns 32 Odditoriums worldwide, can a mass produced museum, constructed specifically for tourists be a real museum? Or do our conceptions of what a museum is, dismiss Ripley Odditoriums as simply kitschy and tacky tourist traps? It’s an interesting thing to think about.

Read the whole review here.

Elizabeth Wurtzel – Bitch in Praise of Difficult Women (1998)

Bitch

If you can work through the fact that this is essentially a diatribe full of huge contradictions, confusing digressions and more pop culture references than and episode of Gilmore Girls, you’ll find that Wurtzel’s book is actually quite an honest and insightful look at women who have traditionally been seen as a “pain in the ass”

The book is a celebration of “improper women”; those who are too selfish, vulgar, violent, or even too beautiful. Wurtzel has no time or place for the traits of the “good girl” – submissive, selfless, and the dreaded “nice” – and insists that to be a “bad girl” means to be completely liberated. Unfortunately society has made life difficult for the bad girls of history and most have led pretty miserable lives (an homage to Sylvia Plath)

This seems to be the root or Wurtzel’s argument but I’m not sure if I’ve even gotten to the bottom of what she’s trying to say. There are points where I had moments of clarity and thought I was following only to have her completely contradict herself in the next chapter. (She hates traditional good girls but saves her greatest praise for the subtle, serene detachment of Grace Kelley and Audrey Hepburn) I guess in a way it made a bit of sense, nothing is as black and white as the “good-girl/bad-girl” or even better “virgin/whore” dichotomy. Being a woman is complicated and many do not fit into these incredibly narrow definitions. It’s a bit unfortunate that Wrutzel could not find her driving point, but I guess on some level it works. This is a difficult read and not for the fait of heart.

Junot Díaz – The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)

OscarWao

This was one of the most unique, well written, and well flowing books I’ve read. Not to mention, Yunior, is probably the most fascinating narrator that you’ll ever meet. The novel follows Oscar De Leon, an overweight Dominican teenager growing up in New Jersey who is obsessed with science fiction and fantasy.

The novel opens with an explanation of fukú – “a curse or a doom of some kind: specifically the curse and the doom of the new world.” And the zafa – a counter spell of the fukú. The story then alternates between the story of Oscar and his search for love, and the lives of various members of his family including his rebellious sister Lola, and his mother’s life living in the Dominican Republic under Trujillo. Later the narrator Yunior, reveals himself to be Oscar’s roommate and Lola’s boyfriend.

The story is a non-traditional one, but still contains all the elements of a classic coming-of-age story. It is heartbreaking but also magical making heavy use of references to popular culture due to Oscar’s obsessions with things like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. The insights and history of life under Trujillo’s regime are painful and honest. The book just flowed with such a rhythm that it was almost impossible to put down.