Tag Archives: United States

Hazel Rowley – Franklin and Eleanor (2010)

FranklinandEleanorIt’s pretty well agreed upon that there is a sense of romanticism that settles around FDR, as well as his wife Eleanor. FDR managed to lead a country through wartime while battling debilitating illnesses and Eleanor has been an inspiration to generations of women. It should not be surprising that two such extraordinary individuals had an extraordinary marriage, but it does as a President’s private life is often treated as just that, private.

In her novel, Hazel Rowley provides an intimate look at Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s partnership from the day that they met to the day of his death. She details the number of affairs that both, either formally known or suspected, engaged in and how the pair made their marriage work. Franklin was a notorious flirt and enjoyed the company of young women, while Eleanor also had her fair share of “special companions.”

I for one have always been a great admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a strong silent presence in Franklin’s life and always stood by him. While this may have caused her to have a bit of a martyr’s complex, having to play the role of a put-upon wife, she was always willing and ready to put the needs of others, especially her husband’s before her own. Franklin relied on Eleanor and in turn supported her causes where he could even when certain issues, such as Eleanor’s support for Civil Rights, could hurt Franklin’s popularity.

Even though the couple spent a great deal of time a part, especially during the later half of their marriage while Eleanor was traveling supporting her own causes and Franklin was constantly visiting other world leaders during the Second World War, their letters to one another show a level of tenderness and love. While they may have taken other lovers, it is very clear that Franklin and Eleanor were life partners and needed, and loved each other vey much.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche – Americanah (2013)

americanahI don’t think there are enough words to accurately describe how much I loved this book. I wasn’t familiar with Ngozi Adiche until I heard about this novel and now I cannot wait to read more of her work.

Essentially Americanah tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze who are young and in love when they leave their home in Nigeria and head west. While Ifemelu ends up in America, Obinze, finding post 9/11 America closed to him, takes up a dangerous life in London as an undocumented immigrant. While the story is about the relationship between these two characters, Ifemelu’s journey is by far the more compelling.

The story of Obinze sheds important light on racism and the danger that undocumented immigrants live in every day, but the plot involving Ifemelu, who is despite her academic success is forced to grapple with what it means to be black, is by far the most important part of this novel.

The title itself refers to Ifelemu’s journey from Nigeria, to the hallowed halls of Princeton, and back. Once back in Nigeria she looks at everything through the eyes of an American leading her friend to call her an Americanah.

Ngozi Adiche grapples with the issues of race, love, and identity in such a brilliant and beautifully written way, grasping the nuance often involved with tackling such issues. As an African Americna female herself, she is probably able to draw on her own experiences to make this novel as rich as it is. I really don’t have much else to say, this was definitely one the best books I’ve read all year.

Steve Almond – Candyfreak (2004)

CandyfreakAs someone who loves Candy, I was excited to read Steve Almond’s book about his journey to the chocolate underbelly of America. While I love chocolate and candy, I do not think that anyone is as much of a self proclaimed freak as Steve Almond.

In this book that is part autobiography, part inside look at the small-scale candy industry, Almond takes the reader on a journey to the lesser known candy factories throughout the United States, a part of American culture which is often forgotten. Almond tours factory after factory sampling regional candy bars such as the Clark Bar, the Caravelle, Haviland Thin Mints, the Twin Bing, Valomilks and the Idaho Spud to name a few, detailing each the history, manufacturing process, and taste of each bar for the reader.

I liked this book, but found that Almond was sometimes trying too hard to engage with the reader with his self-deprecating view of himself. I also often found myself bitter and jealous anytime Almond mentioned the cases of free candy he received after all his visits. One thing I did find interesting however is how the industry favours the big companies so much. This should not come as a surprise, but often time these smaller companies cannot pay the shelf fee to have a presence in grocery stores or national chains like wal-mart and thus are resigned to producing chocolate bars for regional/local consumers. If you’ve ever looked at the knock-off chocolate bars next to the cash register at Dollerama, chances are they were produced by one of these factories.

It’s and interesting book and definitely a must read for anyone interested in the industry, or obsessed with candy in general.

Kyla Wazana Tompkins – Racial Indigestion (2012)

RacialIndigestionMuch like Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs, this book was much more race/gender/queer theory than food history. This should not be surprising given that the central argument of the book is that eating is central to the performative production of raced and gendered bodies in the 19th century, but I still would have liked to see a bit more discussion about the role of food.

The 19th century is an area that I have a specific interest in so reading this book was still enjoyable, although it was dense at times. I especially enjoyed her discussions surrounding the Alcott family and the different ideas that sprung up surrounding diet that I have discussed earlier. One of the strongest points she made was in looking at how the Americans linked the omnivores diet, which embodies a republican virtue of balance not found among the British, to racial and imperial superiority.

Bread, as it played a central role in American’s diets, also played a central role in this books. She discussed the role of bread in households as well as the impact of the change from open hearth cooking to stovetop cooking had on the family.

While she touches briefly on Sidney Mintz’s work on sugar, I wished she dealt more with it, especially since he is one of the preeminent scholars on the links between food and race. Overall however this was an interesting read.

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.

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.

Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell – Empty Mansions (2013)

EmptyMansionsHugette Clark is a name that I have come across a handful of times; a name used when talking about wealthy eccentric reclusive women. When I saw that this book was about the Gilded Age as well as the Clark family I was intrigued and excited to read it. Unfortunately I had much higher hopes that Dedman and Newell were unable to deliver on.

First off Paul Clark Newell is a distant relation of Hugette Clark, and so in this book she is portrayed in a very flattering light. I’m not saying that I think she’s a terrible person. There is no evidence to that, nor is there actually much about her out there. But I do think that the writers of this book are way more than willing to view Hugette as a victim, who has been taken advantage of by the people around her, most notably the hospitals in which she lived out the end of her days.

I was really hoping that the book would provide a bit more information about the Gilded Age, the great families living on 5th Avenue in Manhattan and the total displays of wealth that accompanied their lifestyles. There is a bit of this at the beginning of the book. In fact a menu from one of Hugette’s father’s dinner parties is included which I obviously found fascinating (I will be attempting to make something off of this menu in the coming weeks). Still, the last two thirds of the book were all about family history and trying to discern the kind of person Hugette was.

In short the book was mediocre for me. Nothing really stood out. I was expecting a grand narrative of New York in the Gilded Age and instead got a pieced together family history. Some of the anecdotes were amusing and there were some interesting facts strewn about, but overall the book just fell flat for me.