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 Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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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 Follow me on Twitter @asbowie917.

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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 Follow me on Twitter @abowie917

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “A Gambler’s Anatomy” A Novel by Jonathan Lethem

January 20, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-01-19 at 11.04.21 AMby Alexandra Bowie

Bruno Alexander, the central character of Jonathan Lethem’s novel “A Gambler’s Anatomy” is a professional gambler – backgammon is his game of choice – who grew up in California but now travels the world. His shadowy controller, Edgar Falk, arranges games with wealthy men who feel they’ve learned enough to play Bruno for hundreds (of dollars or euros) a point. Bruno works the odds, and the doubling cube, and usually walks away with a great deal of money.

When the novel opens, Bruno is in Germany. On a ferry to an opponent’s lakeside house, he meets a woman, Madchen, whom he chats with and intends to call – she gives him her number before they part. To Bruno’s surprise Madchen turns up again later that night. It’s good she’s there, because Bruno has a seizure mid-game, and winds up in a hospital where he’s diagnosed with a meningioma, a tumor of the membranes that cover the brain. Bruno’s tumor is behind his face, and causes a blot in the center of his vision.

Blots are bad: a man-made structure is a blot on the landscape, or one blots one’s copybook or escutcheon. In backgammon a blot is a risk: it’s a single stone left unprotected on the board. (If you need a refresher on the rules of backgammon look here.) The blot has caused problems for Bruno, including an unprecedented losing streak to a player in Singapore, Keith Stolarsky. Stolarsky is not a stranger to Bruno, who was two years ahead of him at Berkeley High School.

After a week in the hospital Bruno finds himself on a plane home to Berkeley, where Keith, who paid for the plane ticket, meets his plane. Keith arranges an apartment, clothes, and walking-around money while Bruno awaits surgery. Keith is able to do that as he’s been buying up Berkeley real estate, monetizing the area’s anti-capitalist and student mindset.

Without thinking much about it, Bruno undergoes a phantasmagorical advanced surgery, in which his face is peeled away like a mask and a specialist neurosurgeon who loves rock and roll removes the film of tumor. The surgery consumes the central section of the novel, and it’s the one part that feels researched and a tad forced. Afterwards, of course, things are not the same for Bruno, and he puts the smarts and insight that once supported his backgammon career to other uses.

Those other ends are two-fold – Bruno slowly unveils his past as the only child of a single hippie mother and finds that her example has influenced him in ways that perhaps he hadn’t considered. Bruno spends the rest of his time tracing Keith’s neighborhood-sized empire.

Which leaves the reader with questions to contemplate: Why does Bruno value the blot that transformed his brain and altered his vision, especially after it’s gone? And why is Keith willing to underwrite Bruno’s treatment? Lethem’s power is such that there are several possible answers to each of these questions, leaving the reader thinking about this novel long after finishing it. If you have a theory about who the gambler of the title is, by all means let us know in the comments.

Alexandra Bowie is a writer living in Brooklyn. Have a book you want me to know about? Email me at Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike” by Phil Knight

January 6, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-01-06 at 12.32.53 PMby Alexandra Bowie

“Shoe Dog,” Phil Knight’s memoir of his life up until approximately the time Nike became a public company, has turned up on a number of ‘best books of 2016’ lists for a good reason: it’s lively, suspenseful, and the voice Knight presents is both humble and engaging. Knight didn’t set out to form a behemoth public company but back in 1962 he did have a good idea, one he refers to as his Crazy Idea: Japanese running shoes could dominate the market the way Japanese cameras had displaced German ones. He wanted to make that happen.

Knight grew up in Oregon and attended the University of Oregon – where he was a member of the track team, coached by the legendary Bill Bowerman. Knight describes Bowerman as “a genius coach, a master motivator, a natural leader of young men” and a tinkerer – someone who was always working to make his team members’ shoes better and lighter. Knight says:

There were four or five of us on the track team who were Bowerman’s podiatry guinea pigs, but I was his pet project. Something about my feet spoke to him. Something about my stride. Also, I afforded a wide margin of error. I wasn’t the best on the team, not by a long shot, so he could afford to make mistakes on me. With my more talented teammates he didn’t dare take undue chances.

The Crazy Idea grew out of a presentation Knight made in his final year of Stanford Business School, in an entrepreneurship class. He followed it, in 1962, with a trip around the world – after a long layover in Hawaii with a friend, he went on alone to Japan where he pitched his idea to a Japanese shoe company, which, after some persuasion, gave Knight a trial as American distributor of its shoes. To make money, Knight took an accounting job; to add to his credentials, he studied for a CPA. He does not elide over the hard work and long hours – Knight had a full-time job, and when work finished, he’d spend evenings and weekends selling shoes.

The book is organized chronologically, a chapter for each year, and Knight tells his story with great humor. By 1968 he was married, and his first child was on the way. The business was growing, and required a great deal of time away on the road. Relations with Knight’s Japanese bankers were challenging; his bankers were demanding, and a growing family and growing business both require real estate. The switch from distributing shoes to manufacturing them did not come in one blinding flash of illumination (neither did the design of the now-iconic swoosh) but rather each was the result of a series of small decisions. Knight is also good about sharing credit – with Bowerman for shoe designs, with his early employees and investors. Most important, Knight credits his first employee with coming up with Nike as the name of the company (Knight was pushing for “Dimension Six”).

Nonetheless, the description of the thinking behind the switch from importing and distributing to manufacturing – is minimal, as are many later business decisions, including the details of how Nike went about developing athlete endorsement relationships and team uniform purchases. There’s no discussion of Nike’s sweatshop or child labor controversies. That’s consistent with Knight’s approach to his memoir, which virtually ends in 1980 with the decision to take Nike public. Knight describes himself as fundamentally shy and very private person, an unexpected yet persuasive self-description of someone who has a very public role. Knight writes broadly but not deeply about his family life, describing family tensions – his parents’ difficult marriage, the cost to his family of all his time on the road, and the death of his oldest son Matthew in a diving accident – but leaving the reader to draw her own conclusions about his feelings.

Knight’s advice to himself as a twenty-five year old is still good advice. “Don’t stop,” he writes. “Don’t even think about stopping until you get there, and don’t give much thought to where ‘there’ is. Whatever comes, just don’t stop.”

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

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “Aim High in Creation! A One-of-a Kind Journey inside North Korea’s Propaganda Machine” by Anna Broinowski

December 17, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-12-17 at 12.47.05 PMby Alexandra Bowie

Winston Churchill famously described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma;” add to that several layers of a cloak of darkness and you have North Korea. After ending most contact with the outside world in 1953, North Korea has been the subject of some interest from western filmmakers and policy makers. But unless ours is among the thousands of families cut apart more than 60 years ago, most of us ignore North Korea. The other half of Churchill’s dictum, less well known, that there may be a key, the national interest, turns out to apply equally as well. Anna Broinowski, an Australian documentary maker, leveraged Kim Jong Il’s little-known fascination with films and filmmaking to get into North Korea to film a documentary about the surprisingly robust North Korean film industry. In this book, a kind of movie tie-in, she explains how she did it.

The first problem was gaining entry to the country. A documentary about North Korea or its propaganda machine alone would not be enough, but another issue was at hand: New South Wales officials were in the process of allowing fracking in Sydney Park. Yes. In a park in the middle of a large city, one that happened to be a short walk from Broinowski’s home. Broinowski decided to make a film to stop it – a film using North Korean film propaganda techniques. A film about North Korea would find an audience, Broinowski thought, and a film using North Korean propaganda techniques would persuade audiences that fracking is dangerous. There was only one way to make such a film, Broinowski decided: get North Korea’s film industry to help.

Broinowski followed every thread she could to unravel the veil: westerners who have studied North Korean films, Koreans actors and directors North Korea kidnapped and brought to the country to make films, defectors. She studied Kim’s book “On the Art of the Cinema.” That book is the source of this memoir’s title; it’s one of Kim’s rules for making films. Other rules cover the role of the director (in charge, or, as Broinowski puts it, Creative Commander), the source of emotions (defined by the directing – no Method acting for North Koreans), and the importance of music and song (central).

Broinowski’s quest takes her through South Korea and Japan, and ultimately on two visits to North Korea, the second time with a film crew. Staring out the car window, Broinowski looks for signs of the dark, starving North Korea she’d imagined. Instead, she finds Pyongyang beautiful, with no advertising or billboards, landscapes on the bus stops, propaganda, and clean air. If her minder, Ms. K, is strict and on her guard, she can be also be coaxed to laugh.

In the course of describing the challenges involved in making the film, Broinowski also fills in the reader on the transfer of power from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un in 2011. (In a purge worthy of an Ottoman sultan, Kim Jong Un consolidated his power by killing his uncle, his uncle’s children and grandchildren, and possibly a former girlfriend.) She finds the North Korean film industry folk she comes into contact with friendly, generous, deeply human, while marvelling at and confronting the cultural crevasses. Broinowski brings a bottle of Kim Kardashian perfume with her on the second trip – it’s a joke gift to her – and describes what happens when her young interpreter sees the bottle:

Sun Hi, who’s been studying me closely . . . squeals with delight. “Oh!” she says, gazing at the word Kim on the bottle. “You have a perfume named after the Dear Leader.” [My cinematographer] and I share a look. How do you explain Kim Kardashian to someone who has never heard of reality TV?

In the end, the film is made (it’s available on Netflix and YouTube). Broinowski describes a struggle with her conscience when her minders suddenly insist on deleting some images of Kim, and also provides a rare glimpse of life behind the curtain. On one of their last nights in Pyongyang the van drops the North Koreans at their various homes before taking Broinowski and her team back to their hotel, and she describes watching him walk across “a desolate stretch of dirt and barbed wire” to his home. The movie is made, the fracking in Sydney Park stopped, the North Koreans who helped are not allowed exit visas to see the premiere, but a friend delivers a DVD to them. They’re allowed to watch the film-within-a-film, about fracking, Broinowski writes, but not the larger documentary about their work. But their voices come through in this loving and perceptive memoir.

See you in the new year. In the meantime, email at if you have  a book you want me to know about. Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “Sarong Party Girls” by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

December 10, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-12-10 at 12.46.48 PMby Nidhi Pugalia

Do we still live in a man’s world? In Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s Sarong Party Girls, the answer is yes. In colorful, delightfully vulgar Singlish — what Tan calls a musical “tossed salad” of the languages spoken in Singapore — Tan captures for her readers the modern Singaporean woman’s struggle for relevance within the city’s insistent patriarchy, where the only marker of relevance is status, and the only weapon a woman can wield to achieve it is her body. Tan follows four such women, called “sarong party girls,” a derivative of Singapore’s colonial exoticism in which British officers would bring local women dressed in “sarongs” — dainty wrap skirts — to their private parties. Once used to describe these passive arm-danglers, the term has since evolved to dub Asian gold-diggers intent on attaining a singular goal: landing a white husband, thereby gaining the highest of status symbols — half-white/half-Asian “Chanel babies.”

This is exactly the goal of Tan’s four women, led by brazen go-getter Jazzy, who mandates a plan for herself and her girlfriends Sher, Imo, and Fann: “Aiyoh…. If we do nothing, we are confirm getting into bang balls territory. We have to…make this happen.” Her plan goes awry immediately. To Jazzy’s horror and disgust, beautiful Sher marries Ah Beng: a Chinese-Singaporean who Jazzy considers, despite his wealth, the filth of society because he isn’t white. Petite Imo is distracted, intent instead on pursuing married friend Louis. Only Fann follows Jazzy’s strategy, feigning feeling and exhibiting herself to titillate. Still, her calculated use of affected passion only highlights that for women, “happiness” is reserved for the achievement of social status rather than any personal fulfillment or career advancement, and that love is an absurd goal, if ever it was one at all.

Meanwhile, Jazzy meets only defeat as she grapples with the sexism that dominates her personal and professional life. At nightclubs Jazzy endures the “rubba-ing” of her classmates’ husbands, accepting adulterous sexual harassment as unavoidable. She watches as married businessmen at a KTV lounge — a brothel-like establishment — grab and discard scantily-clad girls.

Despite her clear revulsion, Jazzy’s witty internal commentary doesn’t extend to her actions, which instead perpetuate Singapore’s patriarchy. Rather than assert herself, to gain job security Jazzy acts to please her lecherous boss, whether it means serving a drink or herself on a platter. Despite her friendship with Imo, she capitulates to Louis’ advances because she feels indebted to him for years of free drinks, arguing, “I had no valid reason to say no” — an infuriatingly hollow excuse.  Here, even her mind betrays her: she unquestioningly accepts that she “can’t betray Louis” and instead mentally berates Imo, believing she should appreciate Louis’ emotional faithfulness: “otherwise why would he insist that I keep last night a secret…?”

This resigned acceptance and perpetuation of exploitation is disturbing, but deeply relatable; it exposes the complexities and difficulties of being a modern woman anywhere when patriarchal expectations are so pervasive. Still, in spite of first-hand observations of Singapore’s sexist underbelly, Jazzy herself remains bafflingly static. The novel drags, reading like one long party interrupted by revelations too sparsely placed to serve as anything more than secondary.

Only when her plan dishonors rather than elevates her does Jazzy begin her awakening — with barely twenty pages left. Dangling on the arm of the white man she’s trying to bag, Jazzy suffers utter humiliation at the hands of his boorish, vulgar boss, while her beau listens next to her, silent. Beginning to understand that securing status does not equal gaining respect, she leaves, refusing to be “the Jazzy everyone liked having fun with and no one wanted to keep.”

Hoping for a last-minute metamorphosis, for Jazzy to turn into the butterfly we were promised, we instead watch as Jazzy regresses to drunkenness and the party scene. She shows some minimal change: rather than enviously jabbing or mocking, Jazzy congratulates Fann on a successful execution of their plan and wishes Imo happiness. Noting wedded Sher’s joy, she allows for the possibility that there may be more to life than a sarong party girl’s dream. Not till the very last page does Jazzy act, choosing to forego Singapore’s rules and create her own. It’s simultaneously too late in coming and too abrupt. The real story — Jazzy’s struggle for independence — barely begins by the end of the novel.

Tan’s Sarong Party Girls provides fully developed characters who live in a precise picture of contemporary society, but its narrative falls short of presenting the empowering, feminist journey it promises. A sequel that followed spunky Jazzy’s journey to independence is one I will pick up, to see if she will live up to her promise: “I am Jazzy – and Jazzy doesn’t lose!”

You can read our review of Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s memoir “A Tiger in the Kitchen” here.

Nidhi Pugalia is an MFA candidate writing fiction and living in Manhattan. Read her blog, or email her at

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review “A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression” by Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe

December 2, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-12-02 at 8.49.45 AMby Alexandra Bowie

We think of the Depression as a time of food scarcity, our vision shaped by John Steinbeck’s great novel “The Grapes of Wrath” and Walker Evans’ images. Breadlines. Bankers selling apples. Those impressions don’t tell the whole story, as Jane Ziegelman’s and Andrew Coe’s fascinating history “A Square Meal” makes clear. Thrift and making do were definitely part of what was happening in America’s Depression kitchens, but big changes were underway as well. Electrification, mechanization, nutritional research and government food policies all developed during the 1930s. Eighty years later, we are still feeling the effects.

The United States had (and continues to have) enormous food resources, and Ziegelman and Coe use an illuminating example to open their history: during World War I Americans cut back consumption, allowing huge quantities of grains and meats to be shipped overseas, where they fed soldiers a diet that could reach 5000 calories a day. After the war, mechanization of farms and electrification meant fewer hands were needed to produce this harvest, consumption returned to normal levels, and returning soldiers, and their sisters, left the farms they’d grown up in and flooded into cities where manufacturing jobs awaited them.

In the cities, apartments were much smaller than rural farmhouses, and kitchens (which often became “kitchenettes”) were tiny. Delis, cafeterias, and sandwich shops provided fast meals at a low price; obtaining food was efficient (Ziegelman and Coe write, they “followed the same ideals of industrial efficiency and mass production as Henry Ford’s factory,” even as they offered a substantially greater number of products). There was a cost, in lost knowledge – once bread became widely available fewer people learned how to bake.

No system was prepared when the economic crash came. The federal government and most of the state governments argued that charity was a private concern, and the first response to the need for food was bread lines. Ziegelman and Coe report that bread lines had been in use during the 1920s as a seasonal – and private – response to the food needs of men drawn to cities to work on construction projects, then a warm weather activity. (Ziegelman and Coe make the bread line atmosphere sound too rough for most women, though there were some. It’s an interesting footnote in this time of new awareness of the many kinds of sexual harassment.)

When it became clear those efforts would not be sufficient, New York City, under Mayor Jimmy Walker, tried a new approach in 1930: using city government structures to supply families with fuel, clothing and food. Ziegelman and Coe write:

To pay for all that emergency help, the mayor would tap the city’s 125,000 municipal workers, asking that they each donate 1 percent of their monthly salaries . . . This was not a charity, [Mayor Walker] told them, but a wholesome example of neighbor helping neighbor, exactly the kind of relief advocated by President Hoover.

The police compiled a list of families in need and distributed the food, along with instructions about how to “wring the most nutrients” from the potatoes, cabbage, turnips, dried peas and cereals provided. But once the school year started, teachers noticed that children were missing school – and when truant officers investigated, they found children lacking food and clothing. The City’s response was to transform schools into emergency assistance centers, using teachers to identify students who might be in need. This echo of the contemporary Community Schools effort differed from the present in that it was funded by monthly contributions from Board of Education employees (and gave out aid on the spot). Sometimes school lunch was a child’s only meal of the day.

New York State began providing food relief soon after (Franklin Roosevelt was still the state’s governor, and Harry Hopkins ran the program). New York planned carefully, included nutritional guidance and menu planning assistance for limited budgets, and still made mistakes: social workers followed women to grocery stores to ensure that they were spending as little money as possible, and meals could be dreary, repetitive and not necessarily nutritious. Despite fears of increasing dependency, grocery orders were replaced with cash assistance. Ziegelman and Coe write, “If work was the best kind of help a person could receive, money was second, a lesson [Hopkins] carried to his next job as the director of federal relief under President Roosevelt.) Then as now, the state and localities split the cost of the relief.

At the federal level, Ziegelman and Coe describe Herbert Hoover as remote, entertaining lavishly at the White House and leaving food relief to the states. It was an approach that worked until Americans started to die of starvation. In 1932 FDR was elected president; and Ziegelman and Coe devote the last portion of “A Square Meal” to the various federal government food relief efforts. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration, which distributed food, came first, and was followed quickly by the Civilian Conservation Corps, Works Progress Administration, and the Federal Transient Program – all programs that required people to work for food because, in yet another repeat of a debate still underway, there was concern (and some evidence) that relief without work created dependency.

There’s much more in the book: Food and farm policies that resulted in low prices produced farmers who dumped food in protest, creating what Walter Lippmann called “the paradox of want amid plenty.” The relief programs ended just as the Dust Bowl got underway (though, Ziegelman and Coe write, most of the displacement we credit to the Dust Bowl was the result of changes in farming practices, not the weather). The development of home economics and the combination of that science with new learning about nutrition. Ziegelman and Coe intersperse meals plans and recipes throughout their text. Cracked whole wheat, for example, became the basis for a slew of nutritious if frugal menus. (It’s yet another theme that echoes today – savory oatmeal is touted as a healthy alternative.) The continuing development of the science of nutrition, which gave menu planning at all parts of the income scale a solid scientific basis — but when taken up by increasingly centralized food manufacturing and distribution networks, it also meant the beginning of practices that torment us today, such as milling all the nutrition out of wheat (so we can have soft white bread) and then supplementing the resulting loaf with artificial nutrients.

For anyone interested in food policy, cooking, eating, and nutrition, “A Square Meal” provides a fascinating and well-written introduction to policies that still affect us today. It’s a worthy companion to the other books in your food library, and a useful reminder of the limits of our knowledge.

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

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Books, News

Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “The Comet Seekers” a novel by Helen Sedgwick

November 18, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-11-18 at 2.54.47 PMby Alexandra Bowie

Some people stay home and find the world; others must travel the world to find their way home. Roisin and Francois, two of the central characters in Helen Sedgwick’s eerie and satisfying novel “The Comet Seekers” meet far from home at a research camp in the Antarctic; she’s an astronomer and he’s a chef.

Roisin, who’s Irish, has spent her life studying the sky; as a child and adolescent she taught her cousin Liam to watch and map the sky whenever a comet appeared, so they could see its movement. Liam, whose mother died long ago, is tied to his isolated Irish farm by his promise to his father to help keep it going. Roisin pursues her studies in Hawaii, New York, and various places in Europe. But Liam draws Roisin back periodically, and at one point she gives up a fellowship in Bayeux, returns to Ireland and stays for a year. We know before she does that Roisin is one of the travellers. We watch her come to understand that truth about herself in a sensitive and beautifully written, very brief, scene: Roisin’s mother asks a question whose answer shows Roisin which love she’s willing to sacrifice.

Francois is from Bayeux; as Sedgwick puts it, from two channels away from Roisin’s village in southern Ireland. He’s a few years younger than Roisin, and was brought up by his mother, Severine. Even as a child Francois encouraged his mother to travel – one year they went to Edinburgh, where they ventured out to see a comet and met up with a group of astronomers bent on the same errand. But that’s the only trip they ever take, because Severine is held to Bayeux by her family – an extended family of ghosts who keep her company – who cannot find her if she travels far from home.

It’s a measure of the power of Sedgwick’s concept and writing that the reader believes entirely in the existence of these ghosts. Each family member may choose whether to introduce the ghosts to the next generation or not, and, for Severine, it’s an agonizing choice. The ghosts range from Severine’s mother and grandmother, to more ancient family members. There are Brigitte, a near-contemporary of Joan of Arc, whose skin and dress flicker like flames, and Aelfgyva, who appears in the Bayeux tapestry (as does, yes, Halley’s comet). Severine both wants Francois to believe her and to see the world. Francois worries that she’s succumbing to early-onset dementia. The ghosts appear for reasons of their own.

“The Comet Seekers” is broad geographically and temporally, with each era marked by the appearance of a comet and its earth-bound viewers. Sedgwick handles her themes of travel, home, enduring love, and family with a delicate sensibility that keeps the reader on edge and provides an ending that is both satisfying and, for Roisin and Francois, delicately ambiguous.

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

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Events, Kids, News

Transit Museum’s Train Show at Grand Central, November 14-February 26

November 18, 2016

If you’re passing through Grand Central, take a moment and stop at the Transit Museum’s Grand Central Annex (and shop) to see the 15th Annual Holiday Train Show. This year’s model trains will travel a 34-foot long O gauge model track, travelling between Grand Central and the North Pole.

You can watch a video from the 2012 show here.

The Annex is open 8 AM – 8 PM Monday-Friday, and 10 AM – 6 PM Saturday and Sunday; closed major holidays and for special events.

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