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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “The Egg and I” by Betty MacDonald

June 23, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-06-22 at 12.59.15 PMby Alexandra Bowie

Isak Dinesen, famously, had a farm in Africa. Perhaps less famously, but just as important to her writing, Betty MacDonald had a farm too, a chicken farm, set in the lap, as MacDonald puts it, of the Olympic Mountains. The countryside, she says, “is describable only by superlatives. Most rugged, most westerly, greatest, deepest, largest, wildest, gamiest, richest, most fertile, loneliest, most desolate – they all belong to the coast country.” MacDonald describes the two years she and her husband Bob lived there in her hilarious, vivid memoir “The Egg and I,” first published in 1945 and re-released in paperback in 1987.

MacDonald was born in Boulder and grew up in Butte, Montana, one of four children. She married at 18. Bob, a friend of her brother’s, was 13 years older and, for whatever reason, wanted to be a chicken farmer. MacDonald writes:

Why in God’s name does everyone want to go into the chicken business? . . .There is one thing about the chicken business: if a hen is lazy or uncooperative or disagreeable you can chop off her head and relieve the situation once and for all. . . In a way I suppose that one factor alone should be justification enough for most men’s longing for chickens, but again I repeat, why chickens?

But chickens it was and MacDonald, determined to be happy where her husband was going to be happy in his work, was off to the farm.

There was a lot of work to do: constructing outbuildings for chickens, building pens for the pigs, plowing and planting the garden, clearing the orchard and, last and perhaps least, fixing up the house. That got done just in time for winter – a long, wet winter. “It rained and rained and rained and rained and rained. It drizzled–misted–drooled–spat–poured–and just plain rained.” The house had no running water and the stove, or Stove as MacDonald calls it, was “a sinister presence” tricky to manage. MacDonald’s description continues:

Incongruously, things did boil on Stove. This always came as a delightful shock, albeit I finally stopped rushing to the back door and shouting hysterically to Bob, quietly and competently at work, “The water is BOILING!” as I had done for the first few hundred times I had witnessed this miracle.

The MacDonalds lived on that isolated farm for two years, self-reliant and more and more competent. Their first child was born when they lived on the farm, and MacDonald describes her relationships with neighbors, more distant neighbors, Indians, and family members who wrote long letters and occasionally visited. At one point, touring the county fair, MacDonald comments on the wide range of fancy work on display: canning and quilts and hooked and braided rugs, but also “catsup bottles made into bud vases, clothespins decorated with crepe paper butterflies . . . It was an impressive display of what loneliness can do to people.” MacDonald is famous as the creator of the beloved “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle” stories, and readers familiar with those terrific stories can catch glimpses of scenes or settings that made their way into some of my favorite childrens books, as well as “Nancy and Plum.”

“The Egg and I” is a delightful book, as fresh now as when it was first published. Don’t miss it.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “A Word for Love” A Novel by Emily Robbins

May 12, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-05-12 at 4.44.25 PM

by Alexandra Bowie

Bea, the narrator of Emily Robbins’ lovely and moving novel “A Word for Love,” has come to a foreign city – it’s never identified but must be Damascus – to study at the university. There’s an Arabic text about love, too, kept at the National Library, that she would like to read. The interplay between Bea’s bemused and bewildered response to the culture in a setting Robbins makes bright and vivid, and the effects, intentional and otherwise that she has on the people she encounters give rise to the themes of language and growth Robbins explores in this deeply engaging novel.

Life in the foreign city is confusing for Bea. She doesn’t always know or recognize words she hears, or, while speaking, find the one she needs. The National Library is frustrating, because Bea can’t crack the code that will get her the text she wants. The university ignores her. Instead of living independently, she boards with a local family. Madame, the mother, can be difficult, alternately generous and exacting, and the children demanding.

Bea has other adjustments to make: she shares a bed, and Madame limits where she can go, at first keeping her in the apartment. Soon Bea’s world widens to include the building’s garden, where she goes with Nisrine, the family’s Indonesian maid, and the children. Bea develops a crush on the blond policeman who works at the station across the way, but he has eyes only for Nisrine.

Baba, the father, who has spent time as a political prisoner, opens her world further by helping Bea find an Arabic tutor. For the first time Madame allows Bea to negotiate the city on her own. The tutor is charming, and Bea falls for him, just a little. But it’s enough, as Bea forgets Madame’s warning not to tell the tutor anything, because tutors must be licensed, which means they talk to the government.

Bea finds Arabic fascinating, she says, “for its precision, the way the words leafed out like spring from three-letter roots. In Arabic, there is a root for knowledge, and from this root, you can make the words for world and tenderness.” A crumbling wall, a love poem, a slip. Bea explores the language and imagery of love, in poems and in the daily life of the family. Despite Madame’s efforts Bea and Nisrine breach walls and distances, cultural and literal. All three must come to terms with the fact that even beautiful gardens harbor elements that sting, like bees. Or snakes.

Bea tells her story as an adult, looking back on her youthful experience, when her understanding of the relationships that surrounded her has deepened. We know from fairly early on that things ended badly and Bea returned home earlier than planned. It’s only as an adult that the underside of each relationship – where betrayals occurred, and where forgiveness might be possible – becomes evident to her. Don’t miss this nuanced and layered novel.

Have a book you want me to know about? Email me at asbowie@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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Books

Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter” Essays by Scaachi Koul

April 28, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-04-28 at 8.49.09 AMby Alexandra Bowie

Scaachi Koul, a writer for BuzzFeed, grew up in Calgary, the daughter of Indian immigrants. (Here’s her take on how to pronounce her first name; her last name has to be “cool” because she is. Or else she’s badass. Take your pick.) In “One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter,” Koul reflects on life as a brown woman in Canada. The essays dig deep at complicated topics: how to travel if you’re a worrier. Her relationship with her parents now that she’s an adult. The white man she lives with. His relationship with her parents. These topics are tangled together emotionally as the boyfriend (Koul refers to him as “Hamhock”) likes to travel. Koul frets every time a plane hits turbulence. She says she’s never been brave, and she’s inherited the habit of worrying from her parents. It can feel smothering, but also just right. As Koul writes, “Nothing bad can happen to you if you’re with your mom . . . Your mom is your blood and bone before your body even knows how to make any.”

There’s a funny riff about men on Twitter who, in contrast to women who tend to care about equal wages, abortion, catcalling, “cannot be called upon for consistent outrage.” It’s a small step from outrage to online harassment, and Koul has experienced a lot of both. “For those of us who are not in a position of power–us non-white people, those who are trans or queer or whatever it is that identifies us as inherently different — the internet means the world has a place to scream at us,” she writes. The screaming is often toxic and threatening. Instead of ignoring her interlocutors, Koul describes interacting with them. At first she responded with quotes from “Good Will Hunting;” later, genuinely curious, she asked them about themselves. Many were traumatized. Koul writes, “They were almost all very angry men – men whose wives had left, their children taken, or who had been replaced in a job by a woman or non-white person.” But even attempts to understand were not enough, and eventually Koul shut down her Twitter account

Not for Koul the abstracted generalities – women this, people that. In an essay about standards of beauty Koul writes about the very specific – a hair growing out of her nipple – and then moves on to hair on the rest of her. Puberty hits us all, but for Koul it was all about hair. She writes, “Almost overnight, I looked over the expanse of my body and noticed sharp, dark, thick hairs sprouting all over me. I was covered in hair by the sixth grade . . . My hair came in so think and unrelenting and widespread that by fourteen my mother was investing in countless implements to make removing it easier.” Which brings her to skin color and how her brown skin in Canada becomes white (or white-ish) in India. She writes that this “is maybe what it’s like to be white. People who look like me in India are assumed to be higher class, in better socio-economic standing, more educated…I and my family [are] benefiting from decades of racial advantage.”

It’s because she’s both an insider and, despite having been born in Canada, an outsider, that Koul is able to take a deep, thoughtful and penetrating look at aspects of North American culture. Like drinking. Or rape. Or drinking and rape. Koul includes a devastating analysis of a bar/club culture that we take as the way the world is, one that puts women at risk. She begins with what all women know to be true: that men watch women all the time. She writes, “Men watch women in a way we’ve long since normalized. . . Men watch women at the gym, at work, on the subway: in any space occupied by men and women, the women are being watched.” It’s not true of all men, or even all men in bars, but some may be there to pick drunk women up, and sleep with them. If a woman accepts drinks and refuses sex, well, it’s a short step to rape. Rape is not an accident, Koul writes, though it’s often described as one.

[R]ape culture doesn’t flourish by error: it’s a methodical operation so ingrained in our public consciousness that we don’t even notice when it’s happening, and we rarely call it out even when we do see it…What a coincidence that rapists so frequently seem to find women who are drunk.

Koul’s discussion of what she calls this culture of surveillance and the resulting male entitlement is an important addition to the conversation we’ve been having about around trials, like that of the Stanford rapists. Koul writes, “Rapists exist on a spectrum, and maybe this attentive version is the most dangerous type: women are so used to being watched that we don’t notice when someone’s watching us for the worst reason imaginable.” It’s a compelling and memorable description of a culture we accede to.

Transporting, insightful, and frequently hilarious, ODWABDANOTWM is a collection you won’t want to miss.

Have a book you want me to know about? Email me at asbowie@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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Books

Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: Two Memoirs

April 21, 2017

by Alexandra Bowie
This post reviews two different memoirs by women from very different parts of the country and very different backgrounds. The books share common themes of family and money.

Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 12.28.41 PM“The Latter Days” a Memoir by Judith Freeman
Judy Freeman grew up in Ogden, Utah, one of eight children of a hard-working Mormon couple, cocooned in a wholesome but rigid community. Mormons famously don’t drink alcohol or coffee, and don’t smoke, but the ethos of this American-formed religion shelters some concerns: minimal roles for women and a history, disavowed but not entirely forgotten, of polygamy. Freeman was a tomboy, whose father could be angry and frustrated, and often punished whichever kid was nearest, regardless of who (if anyone) was at fault. Her mother was loving but distracted, what with all the kids.

Freeman didn’t question her background growing up though she reports ignoring many of the lessons – she smoked cigarettes, she drank, she made out with boys. One of her chief pleasures as a young adolescent was riding her horse up into the foothills on the edge of town with a group of friends. Freeman tried to fit in – she includes a moving chapter about a notebook she kept from a high school church-related course, in which she wrote about her efforts to comply with Mormon norms. You must try, her (older, male) teacher kept telling her. Since Freeman was writing about whether she enjoyed kissing boys too much one wonders, now, what prurient interest he might have had in his young female charges.

Freeman married at 17, and despite having the gumption to insist on a prescription for birth control pills didn’t like how they made her feel, took them inconsistently, and wound up pregnant. She and her husband gave up their plans to join the Peace Corps. But the baby also helped them with plans that might have been inchoate, to leave Utah and the church. He was born with a heart defect, and needed complex and advanced surgery that could be performed either in Texas or Minnesota. Freeman and her husband chose Minnesota, where her husband entered graduate school. And they became dorm parents at Macalester College in St. Paul.

Contact with the students at Macalester, and the classes she was able to attend – it was Freeman’s first experience of college – and an affair with her son’s surgeon combined to turn her life in an entirely different direction. Divorce at first forced Freeman home, but she didn’t stay.

Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 12.29.38 PM“Beer Money: A Memoir of Privilege and Loss” by Frances Stroh
Frances Stroh grew up in Grosse Point, Michigan, a child of privilege – her family founded and ran the Stroh’s beer company from the mid-1850s until it collapsed in the 1990s, after poor management decisions resulted in too much debt. She was one of four children and the only girl; her father was an alcoholic who’d never had to work much, and in Stroh’s description her mother was distracted. Her parents divorced when Stroh was just leaving high school.

Although Stroh’s father Eric went to work, the family lived on dividends, and Eric Stroh liked to spend his money on antiques and collections. Stroh describes Christmas at her father’s house after he was remarried to a much younger woman:

Beautiful objects adorned every surface in the room: an antique partners desk stood in a bay window with a gilt-framed painting by Gari Melchers on the adjacent wall. Tasteful patterned fabrics covered the upholstered furniture. Eighteenth-century walnut side tables held needlepoint coasters for drinks. The tree sparkled with old family ornaments and colored lights…

Stroh and her brothers had just come from a meeting with the family’s attorney, who told them that their father’s remarriage, made without a prenuptial agreement, had in effect disinherited them. One brother spiraled into drug addiction and an early death; the other two appear to have stable lives.

As for Stroh herself: she married, had a son, divorced, and became first an artist and then a writer. And an investor: after that meeting fear made her take a hard look at her life, and she realized then that the only person she could depend on was herself. She writes, “Striving for something gives life its meaning, regardless of whether we succeed or fail. The problem was, my father had never had to strive for anything.”

Both books are skillfully written, and reading them close together reinforces several ideas: too much money is almost as much of a problem as too little. Children need their parents, but not all the time – the trick for parents, harder now than in the 50s, 60s and 70s, is knowing when to pay attention and when to let children figure things out for themselves – even at the risk of failure. Both women take deep and honest looks at their younger selves and the sometimes poor choices they made. That both found the resiliency to find their very different voices is a gift to readers.

Have a book you want me to know about? Email me at asbowie@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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Books, News

Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “News of the World” A Novel by Paulette Jiles

April 7, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-04-07 at 9.51.29 AMby Alexandra Bowie

They pop up in old stories, every once in a while, a child with blue eyes living among Native Americans, a survivor taken along after a raid, and there are historical records European children raised among Native Americans. A few of those children returned to their families. In her elegiac and poignant novel “News of the World” Paulette Jiles imagines the return home of one such child, blending her depiction of the psychological pressures with a portrait of a man whose moves through his life illustrate the connections that can be made among people of vastly different ages and cultures.

in 1870 Captain Jefferson Kidd makes his living reading from the newspapers to the inhabitants of the towns through which he passes. Kidd rides a regular route through Texas, up to Wichita Falls in the north and back down south to San Antonio. He’s past 70; his wife has died; his children live in Georgia, though he hopes to coax them home soon. Texas, recently part of the Confederacy, is still under martial law. Captain Kidd fought in the Georgia militia during the War of 1812, ultimately serving as a messenger. After the war he bought a printing press and settled in San Antonio as a printer. He returned to the Army during the Mexican-American War, this time to organize the couriers.

Kidd is a smart and cautious messenger, tailoring the stories he picks to each town’s politics and atmosphere. In Durand, for instance, where political passions still run high, he reads about railroads and tulip bulbs, but tries to avoid local politics. Kidd thinks hard about his customers and, Jiles says, “he had come to think that what people needed, at bottom, was not only information but tales of the remote, the mysterious, dressed up as hard information . . .Then the listeners would for a small space of time drift away into a healing place like curative waters.”

On one of his runs, Captain Kidd brings along a passenger: Johanna, a 10-year-old girl. She’s been living with the Kiowa since she was captured four years earlier, but now the Kiowa have been persuaded to return her, and Kidd agrees to bring her back to her family outside San Antonio. Johanna’s parents were killed in the raid, and now she’s been taken from the Indian woman who raised her. So it’s no wonder that she trusts Captain Kidd not at all. Johanna speaks Kiowa, and, the captain eventually figures out that she remembers a little German, but knows no English.

The trip south covers several hundred miles and they are not easy miles. Together, Johanna and the Captain must cross a river in flood, survive an ambush, make enough money to eat, and reacquaint Johanna with the requirements of European dress and modesty, and the Captain must persuade Johanna there’s no point in running away. Eventually, Johanna and the Captain come to an understanding.

Jiles’s writing is supple and fluid. “News of the World” is an adventure story – the pacing makes it hard to put down – but it’s also the tale of a man’s passage through the world. Don’t miss this beautifully written novel.

Have a book you want me to know about? Email me at asbowie@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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Arts and Entertainment, Events

Exhibit “Deconstruction of the Third Avenue El” at Transit Museum’s Grand Central Gallery

March 20, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 1.51.52 PMAn exhibit of photographs by Sid Kaplan, who teaches at the School of Visual Arts, documenting the dismantling of the Third Avenue El, opens March 24th at the Transit Museum’s Grand Central Gallery Annex.The exhibit runs through July 9.

The Gallery Annex is located in the shuttle passage, adjacent to the Station Master’s Office. The Gallery Annex is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and is closed for major holidays. and special events. Admission is free.

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Books, Events

Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “Bad Boy: My Life on and Off the Canvas” by Eric Fischl

March 17, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-03-17 at 9.34.49 AMby Alexandra Bowie

Memoirs can be tricky to write: assuming one’s history has been public or interesting, there’s the problem of finding a voice, not too shallow, not too knowing. Then there’s the equally imposing problem of violating the privacy of everyone else in your life without alienating them. Eric Fischl and his co-writer Michael Stone have solved both problems in the clear-eyed and well-written memoir “Bad Boy.”

If you don’t know his work, Fischl is an American figurative and representational painter (and sculptor and printmaker). One of his works, A Visit To/A Visit From/The Island, a 1983 diptych, is included in the Whitney Museum’s exhibit “Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s” on view through May 14. It’s worth heading to the museum to see this captivating painting whose subject appears to be the contrast between the grinding poverty of a Caribbean idyll and the oblivious enjoyment of the visiting tourists. Its resonance is deepened for the contemporary viewer because the painting evokes a refugee crisis Fischl could not have anticipated when it was painted. Many of Fischl’s paintings are similarly disturbing (see here, here, and here, all discussed in the book.) In Fischl’s apt description, his early paintings “dealt with the fallout from middle-class taboos, the messy, ambivalent emotions couples felt, the inherent racism, the sexual tensions, and the unhappiness roiling below the surface of our prim suburban lives.”

Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner, the proverb says, and Fischl’s descriptions of his past and its reflection in his paintings provides a lens that helps the reader past the squeamish feelings and prompts another look. At first glance, “Sleepwalker” captures an adolescent boy standing naked in a child’s pool. A closer look reveals the boy’s hands on his penis. The contrast between the toy and the masturbation is shocking, and discomfiting for all kinds of reasons – the violation of privacy, the difficulty we have accepting adolescent sexuality among them. Fischl explains he was

[T]rying to explore the emotions behind that taboo. Though I knew I was being provocative and sensationalistic, I was sincerely trying to express what it felt like to be the boy at a time of momentous change. . . . I was trying to portray that transitional state in which a boy becomes a sexual being. . .

Fischl adds that he only figured out the boy was masturbating when he changed the setting to night, allowing him to make “the associations between darkness and privacy” that attend the boy’s coming of age. That’s also when Fischl added the chairs, bringing the viewer into the painting. “They pull the viewer into the pictures’ space, force him to bear witness, to anoint or condemn or identify with the boy’s action.” Without the explanation, the painting is something to pass by without engaging; with the explanation, that’s no longer possible.

There’s an argument to be made that the art should speak for itself, without the explanation, and on first glance at those early paintings it appears that Fischl is not a strong draftsman, though his use of color, mass, shadow and composition compensates. Unlike many artists, Fischl was not a childhood painter; he took up art only when he went to college. But his paintings are much more about what’s happening on the inside. He writes,

Painting is a process that guides me back through complex experiences that at the time I didn’t have words to describe or understand. It retrieves feelings and memories and brings them forward with clarity and resolution.

His experiences included sex, drugs, rock and roll, an alcoholic mother and distant father, and his mother’s suicide by car accident. But Fischl’s paintings are so close to our daily lives that the explanation, oddly perhaps, provides the distance necessary to engage with them more deeply.

After leaving school Fischl taught, and he sounds as if he must have been a demanding and creative teacher. He’s also thoughtful about the history of painting, and the place of his work and that of his contemporaries in it. In the late 80s Fischl gained fame and fortune – a blessing, but a decidedly mixed one, because, Fischl writes, it changed “my relationship to my work. Drawings and preparatory paintings began to look like money instead of studies . . The temptation to print money had entered my practice along with the cynicism to rationalize it.”

It’s not as if Fischl hasn’t enjoyed his celebrity – he writes of his friendships with John McEnroe (they traded tennis and painting lessons), Mike Nichols (who became a subject) and Steve Martin (ditto). Fishl’s painting has deepened and expanded since the 1980s, becoming more complex while still probing the difficult psychology behind the screens we show to the world. So it’s still not easy to look at. But it’s worth the look: as Fischl writes:

Art is cultural glue. It binds us to each other by revealing what is is we share, what we have in common on the most intimate levels of our being. But in order for art to work, an audience has to be able so see themselves in the artist’s creation . . . Artists create art because they are seeking resonance for their thoughts and feelings. They are seeking connection.

Do you agree?

Have a book you want me to know about? Email me at asbowie@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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Books

Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “What Belongs To You” A novel by Garth Greenwell

March 3, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-03-03 at 2.49.27 PMby Alexandra Bowie

All relationships with friends, family, lovers, carry the risk of betrayal, but must all relationships require betrayals? Is a man responsible for another person, someone he’s loved? Had sex with? Even though the other person is an independent actor, one who’s made his own choices? Garth Greenwell wrestles with these questions in his fascinating stream-of-consciousness novel, “What Belongs to You.”

The unnamed American narrator has come to Sofia, Bulgaria, to spend a year teaching at the American College, a place he describes as a prestigious stop on the way for those lucky Bulgarians able to get out of the country. The narrator picks up Mitko in the bathrooms of Sofia’s National Museum of Culture and pays for sex with him. That first encounter ends in a betrayal, if a minor one. Nevertheless, the relationship grows, though it can hardly be said to flourish; it takes root the way a tree grows through a crack in concrete.

The narrator provides brief and compelling descriptions of post-Communist Bulgaria, including Soviet-era apartment blocks that march through along the avenues, a gypsy’s horse cropping grass in his city neighborhood, a train made up of modern air-conditioned cars – all except the first-class one, which has old-fashioned compartments, with old-fashioned windows that open. His descriptions of attempts to get by in another culture are precise but not desultory. After his attempt to show he gets a joke fails, the narrator writes:

Wanting to regain my footing, and after pausing to arrange the necessary syllables in my head (which seldom, despite these efforts, emerge as they should . . . when I see surprise at my proficiency in a language that hardly anyone bothers to learn who hasn’t learned it already), I asked him what he was doing there. . . Mitko pulled out his wallet.

Mitko’s initial offer is drugs, but he segues easily to sex. As the relationship moves from transactional sex in a public bathroom to regular visits to the narrator’s apartment to a visit to Varna, the seaside city that is Mitko’s hometown it changes: Mitko needs more. The narrator gives him money, pays for food and drink, but it’s not enough, and Mitko leaves in anger. What he needs, though, is lost in the language barrier.

Another loss – the narrator’s father is dying – allows him to meditate on his family: his parents divorced, his father remarried and refused to accept his homosexuality. He decides against going home as neither will obtain comfort from it. Who has betrayed whom? The narrator’s parents had read his hidden diary, which described his realization of his sexuality; it also describes another betrayal of the narrator by a friend, K. As young boys, K. and the narrator shared eager if unfulfilled fumblings; as teenagers, K. ensured that the narrator was a witness to a sexual encounter with a girl.

Perhaps this history explains the narrator’s actions in the final section of the novel. Months after his disappearance Mitko returns, thin and ill, and confesses to the narrator that he has syphilis, and explains the narrator may have it as well. Mitko, it develops, has another condition as well – not HIV, not contagious, but it means he’s dying. In the end, both Mitko and the narrator behave in ways that are consistent with their earlier actions. This nuanced and contemplative novel will stay with the thoughtful reader.

Have a book you want me to know about? Email me at asbowie@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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Books

Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown” by Gerri Hirshey

February 17, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-02-17 at 9.34.45 AMby Alexandra Bowie

For women of my generation, Helen Gurley Brown, the editor-in-chief-forever of Cosmopolitan was close to a joke. Sure, she’d written a book, “Sex and the Single Girl,” that our mothers may have kept on their shelves, but she wasn’t serious, like Betty Friedan or Kate Millett or the authors of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” Learning that this view of Helen Gurley Brown seriously understates her role as a pioneer in writing about women’s sexuality, and as a champion of women’s reproductive rights, is only one of the many pleasures available in Gerri Hirshey’s well-written biography.

HGB, as Hirshey refers to her, was born in 1922 in rural Arkansas, to a family that had lived in the Ozarks for several generations. Her mother Cleo was a schoolteacher, at least until Helen’s older sister, Mary, was born. Her father pushed himself through law school, and was hoping for a career in state politics until his death in a stupid and unnecessary accident when Helen was 10. Her mother appears to have had some sort of communication or emotional deficits – Hirshey is careful not to supply a diagnosis based on behavior that occurred 80 years ago – and after her husband’s death tried several times to move with her children to Cleveland, then Chicago. Cleo gave up and returned to Arkansas twice, but succeeded in moving with Helen to Los Angeles.

After finishing high school in Los Angeles, Helen took numerous secretarial jobs – her sister had developed polio, and her mother’s second husband was ill with cancer. Helen took job after job, and eventually became an advertising copywriter – one of the first, and in her time one of very few, women to hold that position. She also flung herself, with gusto, into a world of dating and sex, sometimes with married men. HGB didn’t intend to marry or have children, and she was an early adopter of birth control methods as they became available. Not all of it was good for her soul, or her psyche, and Helen saved money so that she could afford psychotherapy. She tried out many different strands, and stayed away from the judgmental kind.

All this experience became the source material for her book and, later, for Cosmopolitan, which under Helen’s leadership changed from a failing publication to a magazine whose ad and newsstand revenues kept the Hearst company afloat. She did it by sheer hard work, grit and perseverance. More important, she was an advocate for making contraception available for all women and for making and keeping abortion legal.

Helen’s marriage to the movie producer David Brown, to whom she was introduced by a mutual friend, was equally unlikely. In Hirshey’s account, Brown supported his wife’s need to keep working – after her impoverished upbringing Helen refused to stop working. Brown encouraged Helen to write “Sex and the Single Girl,” and was thrilled for her success at Cosmopolitan. He played an important role behind the scenes, writing many headlines and helping her think through issues, even while he continued his career as a movie producer (Jaws, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cleopatra). Like Helen, he knew as much about failure as he did about success.

Cosmo, Hirshey tells us, was famous for not using fact-checkers – the magazine’s editorial failure to see HIV/AIDS as a disease that reached beyond gay men is Hirshey’s main example – and the alert reader may notice errors in Hirshey’s book (the Kinsey Institute is located in Bloomington, Indiana, not Bloomington, Illinois, and the University of Illinois is located in Urbana-Champaign, not Bloomington). But the sourcing is detailed, and Hirshey is clear about where she’s quoting Helen’s friends. So it seems reasonable to assume that most errors, like this one are small – and not a reason to forgo this delightful book.

Have a book you want me to know about? Email me at asbowie@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter @asbowie917.

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Books, News

Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and our Energy Future” by Gretchen Bakke Ph.D.

February 3, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-02-03 at 11.14.03 AMby Alexandra Bowie

It’s a truism that the United States, like the rest of the developed world, is dependent on electricity to power our homes, our transportation systems, and our communications. In “The Grid” Gretchen Bakke, a cultural anthropologist, examines our electric grid, exploring how it developed and the cultural factors that maintain it (or, as she points out, fail to maintain it adequately). News reports focus on energy sources – coal, oil, gas – but rarely on what Bakke calls the “complex and expansive electrical delivery system”: the wires, substations, poles and transformers that bring power from distant sources to our wall outlets. This system, Bakke says, “is the world’s largest machine and the twentieth century’s greatest engineering achievement.” We mostly ignore it, until it breaks down, as it is doing with increasing frequency (measured both by number and the length of power outages). A green and sustainable energy future is achievable, Bakke reminds us, but not without the grid.

Many of the steps we need to take to reach that future are reasonably obvious: reduce demand, increase renewable energy, develop a way to store energy. But Bakke identifies some unexpected ones as well: widen the use of smart meters, don’t build energy sources to meet peak demand but try instead to level demand, improve the grid, and integrate electric vehicles into the mix. But none of these alone will be sufficient, and as each one is integrated, all the others need to be taken into account. Bakke spends most of her interesting, if occasionally feverishly written, exploration of the electric grid sketching the complex financial and infrastructure decisions that have brought us to a point where many competing demands place irreconcilable stresses on the grid.

Here’s one example. Home solar panels feed power into the grid, enough (if the sun is out) to offset that home’s electricity use. But instead of paying the power company (a regulated monopoly) the homeowner pays the installer. From the homeowner’s perspective, solar panels are a good deal: their price will not go up, the way electricity bills do. From a public policy perspective, it’s also a good deal: increased use of solar power means less use of expensive and polluting fossil fuels. But from another policy perspective, it’s missing something: the power company must maintain the poles and wires and transformers – the grid. But the utility receives no money from the solar companies to maintain the grid, even though electricity from those panels feeds into the grid. Less money for maintenance means more infrastructure problems down the road, and higher costs for the utility’s remaining customers.

That’s just one example; every one of the solutions is similarly multi-faceted. Can we solve the problems, or at least come up with new ways of generating and transmitting electricity? Bakke believes yes, with a concerted effort that will require acceptance of new ways of thinking even while we continue to pay to maintain old infrastructure. Electric cars can play a bigger role, for example, as they can be seen, in Bakke’s words, as “great big batteries on wheels.” With enough of them, she writes, car batteries, if engineered to return power to the grid (yes, it’s possible), can act as storage units. Charged, they can be driven; plugged in while parked, the excess can be returned to the grid as power. The car can be recharged overnight. It’s not enough, alone, especially now, but it’s plausible – cars spend most of their time parked.

“The Grid” provides an engaging look at a system we take for granted. Readers interested in the environment, in global warming, or just worried about when the next blackout is coming should add it to their lists.

Have a book you want me to know about? Email me at asbowie@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter @abowie917

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