Tag Archives: Non Fiction

Caroline Moorehead – Village of Secrets (2014)

VillageofSecretsIn her previous work, A Train in Winter, Caroline Moorehead profiled a group of French women instrumental to the resistance in France. She followed their journey to concentration camps where many perished. Her newer work, Village of Secrets, looks at the French resistance from a different angle focusing instead on the residents of the French Village Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon.

In 1990 this town was one of two that were recognised as righteous among nations by Yad Vashem for being a safe haven for Jews during the Second World War. According to Moorehead, residents of the village secured the survival of at least 800 Jews by hiding them (many of them children) and helped an additional 3,000 get safely across the border to Switzerland.

There is an impulse to celebrate the Resistance, especially in France as the country struggles to cope with the existence of the Vichy regime and those that were complacent or even supportive of the Nazi’s. Celebrating an entire village is difficult however and there are naturally those that exist in a grey area. The world was not divided into Nazi’s and the Righteous and many kept their heads down in order to simply keep themselves alive. Still the efforts of those that risked their lives to save Jews from Nazi hands are extraordinary and they must be applauded.

At the end of her work, Moorehead follows those that were saved and survived, but the book ends on quite a melancholy note. Even in stories of the resistance and the good they did, the stories of the children get lost. Many of the children’s lives were saved but often they didn’t have a life to go back to. Instead they had to live with family they never knew, family they ceased to know, survivor’s guilt. Those who banded together in grief often fared better than those reunited with family. The Holocaust, and the efforts to save Jews, created an entire generation of orphans because the impulse to save the lives of children is often the strongest. Many of the survivors are quoted about how they struggled with being grateful to those that rescued them while also combating feelings of resentment for being torn from their families even though staying together meant an almost certain death.


Mollie Moran – Minding the Manor (2013)

Minding the ManorAfter the first few seasons of Downton Abbey exploded in the United States, books like this one started to be published and quickly became a dime a dozen. There’s nothing especially remarkable about this particular book, but I liked it nonetheless. Mollie was obviously a spitfire in her day and that spirit and sass comes through in her writing even though she was 93 at the time this was published.

This book takes place pretty close to the Downton Abbey period as Mollie takes up service just before the Second World War. Her memoirs detail the friendships she made (and kept) as well as the hardships she bore and the things she learned as she worked her way up from scullery maid to head chef in a manor house. The appendix also contains a number or recipes that are made reference to throughout Mollie’s writing. She writes about the importance of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a book I’ve become quite familiar with, and includes one of my favourite quotes, “Sauces are to cookery what grammar is to language.”

It’s a neat little read and while it doesn’t shed light on anything particularly new about the time period, fans of Downton Abbey will enjoy it.

Suggested Listening:

This podcast about the food from Downton Abbey.


Hilton Als – White Girls (2013)

WhiteGirlsWhile the collection of essays is titled White Girls, to simply call it a book about white girls both true and false. The subjects of these essays, Truman Capote, Michael Jackson, Eminem, and Richard Pryor are all ‘white girls’ in some respect, according to Als.

This collection was very dense and theoretical and I sometimes got lost amid all of Als writing. I understood what he was trying to do but for a general audience (Als is a staff writer for the New Yorker), if feel like readers might find themselves a bit in over their head. It’s not exactly theory, but it’s not far off.

Throughout his collection Als interweaves his own personal memoir and reflections on society with biographies of major cultural influences. Essentially as a gay black man, Als writes about other gay black men’s desires. “White Girls” are the absolute opposite of gay black men, yet the symbol with which they most identify with. It is within this paradigm that Als fits cultural icons into, treating them as the “White Girls” that he wishes he could be.

Its a worthwhile read for anyone studying culture in an extremely critical way. He takes notions of race and gender and upends them quite successfully. It’s dense and tough to get through at times, definitely not a beach read, but quite worth it if critical theory is your thing.

Julie Kavanagh – The Girl Who Loved Camellias (2013)

16030646I’m not quite sure what compelled me to pick up this book. It tells the story of Marie Duplessis, one of the 19th century’s most well known courtesans from her difficult upbringing to her rise among the Paris elite. Made famous by her beauty, Duplessis’ story is much better known through the novel, play and opera that made her a cultural icon.

In her colourful biography, Kavanagh seeks to look at who Marie Duplessis actually was not the woman portrayed on the stage. Duplessis was much more calculating and manipulated that she is portrayed as. This will be disappointing to those readers looking to find some integrity behind Marie as her letters to various suitors and willingness to do anything to get ahead show that Marie was quite calculating and her one true love always remained money.

Kavanagh is actually quite sympathetic to Marie however using her hard upbringing as an explanation for her behavior later in life. The daughter of wretchedly poor peasants in Normandy, her father an alcoholic peddler, Marie’s early life was definitely not easy. After moving to the city and working as a laundress however Marie (formally Alphonsie) began to gain notoriety for her looks and realized she could make money and succeed being “kept” by another man. Her love of material good strong, Marie elected to this option.

This was a good book but I wish that Kavanagh had spent a bit more time setting the scene in 19th century Paris. I loved learning about Marie Duplessis but would have loved to know more about her historic context and the world of high class courtesans in Paris.

John Krakauer – Under The Banner of Heaven (2003)

KrakauerReligious fanaticism is something that interests and intrigues many people because more often than not it is something so far outside their own experience. In his book, John Krakauer looks at radical Mormons who have done unspeakable things in the name of God specifically looking at the double murder committed by Ron and Dan Lafferty.

Krakauer manages to weave together a number of stories in his work; the history of the Mormon Church, the contentious battles over polygamy; the rise of more radical factions; and finally the details surrounding the brutal murder committed in 1984. The Mormon Church makes up a strange part of American history and had been a subject of persecution, mockery and ridicule. Krakauer sidesteps this and focuses on how dangerous religious fanatics can be, especially when they believe God has told them to murder.

While the chapters surrounding the history of the CHurch and competing ideologies were interesting I found myself most intrigued by the chapters dealing with the Lafferty’s defence. Ron Lafferty refused to plead insanity believing so firmly that God had ordered him to kill their sister-in-law Brenda and infant niece, Erica. This cause a lot of stir among the American public; how can you claim that someone who speaks to God is insane without condemning others (albeit others who do not kill) who claim the same thing.

It was definitely an interesting book, and brought up a lot of questions surrounding just how tricky it is to persecute and hold religious fanatics accountable for their actions. Tragedy is always intriguing especially when it is so far outside our own experiences. For some however, this story probably hits quite close to home.

Suggested Listening: https://bitchmedia.org/article/popaganda-episode-cults

Elizabeth Abbott – The History of Celibacy (1999)

51W7SE0QGHLIn today’s world where we spend a majority of our time being exposed to sex whether through popular culture, advertising, or online dating apps, it’s easy to think of celibacy as something restricted to the past or the very religious. In her book however, Abbott traces the fascinating history of celibacy from biblical times through to the present day looking at the way that abstaining from sex has been used to both control and empower people.

She follows a rather traditional trajectory, looking at celibacy from the earliest days of human memory through its embracing by Christianity up to the present day. The first half of the book was a bit tedious for me, but only because I never found myself that interested in early modernity. For me the most interesting discussions were surrounding the 19th century modes of respectability for both men and women. Women were supposed to be chaste, but men also had to embody “masculine Christianity” balancing masculine impulses with Victorian respectability. She also discusses the 19th century movements in America started by Sylvester Graham and John Kellogg who used food to try and control (and diminish) libido.

She definitely spends more time exploratory chastity from a feminine perspective which is understandable given the way that history has played out, but I would have loved a bit more of a discussion on the masculine dimensions. After seeing Spotlight I was looking for more of a discussion of clerical celibacy, which took up only a small portion of the overall work.

The history of celibacy is a broad and very dense topic to attempt to explore in a single book. Each chapter of Abbot’s could have been a volume of work unto itself. This is a good overview and jumping off point for those looking to learn more about celibacy and the way it has been prevalent through history.

Anya Von Bremzen – Mastering The Art of Soviet Cooking (2013)

51M7OxYdMNL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_In this book, part memoir, part cookbook, Anya Von Bremzen traces her family’s history living in Russia (then the Soviet Union) by discussing the type of food they ate. She starts with her maternal grandparents living in Russia in the 1920s but jumps back and forth in time and space between her homeland and 1980s Philadelphia where she and her mother immigrated to. At the end of each chapter Von Bremzen depicts a dinner party her mother is hosting in the present day, where she and Anya are attempting to cook through the history of Soviet food.

Unsurprisingly there is a lot of hardship throughout the book, especially when Anya is discussing life in the Soviet Union during the Second World War. In addition to the food rations, Von Bremzen also discusses the indoctrination of Soviet youth and how her mother was once a proud Soviet citizen before becoming disillusioned with the system. The depictions of the meals are vivid, although I could have definitely used a glossary; I had a hard time keeping all the Russian terms straight and knowing what was what.

At the end of the book Von Bremzen has included a number of recipes discussed in the book and I am looking forward to trying my hand at at least one of them. I had been familiar with Russian cuisine from its imperial age (Thanks Anna Karenina), but know less about Soviet cooking. I love food and think that cooking another culture’s cuisine is the perfect way to get to know them.

Recommended Listening:

This podcast from The Table Set that discusses hosting a Russian themed dinner party. 

Recipe To Try:

An adaptation of Anya Von Bremen’s pirozhki recipe from the tasting table.

A video showing the AV Club sampling Soviet Sodas.