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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 asbowie@gmail.com. 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 asbowie@gmail.com 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 pugalia.nidhi@gmail.com.

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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 asbowie@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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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 asbowie@gmail.com. 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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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “Before the Fall” a novel by Noah Hawley

November 11, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-11-11 at 12.32.23 PMby Alexandra Bowie

A private plane en route from Martha’s Vineyard to Teterboro falls into the ocean one calm but foggy summer evening. All but two of the eleven passengers and crew – they include the head of a news network, David Bateman, and a financial titan – are killed. The unlikely survivors are Scott Burroughs, a painter whom David’s wife Maggie befriended, and JJ Bateman, aged four. Scott swims through the night, towing JJ, until they reach safety on a Montauk beach. (Hawley writes, “A walleyed fisherman drives them to the hospital.”)

What happened to the plane, and how the various people trying to figure it out interact, occlude, and cooperate with each other, make up the rest of the novel. “Before the Fall” is a thriller, and Noah Hawley metes out details sparely, allowing the tension to build: if the novel weren’t about a plane crash it would be the perfect book for a long flight. Maybe it is anyway, because in addition “Before the Fall” is a meditation on modern life, and our habit of interpreting our own and others’ lives through various media.

TV is one, and Bateman’s network’s star anchor, Bill Cunningham, stays on the air for hours once the plane disappears, mining all the conceivable news in a toxic speculative brew flavored by the nuggets of information as they slowly become available: two bodies are recovered; the wreckage is found. Bill’s interests aren’t entirely benign; we know very early that he has a history of using all available means – legal, dodgy, and illegal – to obtain information.

Scott is one of those people who doesn’t own a smartphone, has no online presence, and still uses a landline. He’s a recovering alcoholic who hasn’t had an exhibit in years, though he’s on the plane because an art dealer, to whom he’s mailed some slides, is interested in his work. He didn’t intend to be a hero, but he did want to survive. Scott goes to ground after the crash to avoid interviews; what he views as a casual friendship with Maggie Bateman, David’s wife and JJ’s mother, is the subject of relentless comment and insinuation. Hawley’s description of Scott as he comes to terms with the way Bill Cunningham, on TV, describes a life he barely recognizes, is among the most effective in the novel.

Another contrast, for Scott and for most readers, is the luxury in which the Batemans live – the townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the house on Martha’s Vineyard. Cars. The luxury of the private plane. The large number of people whose jobs make the Batemans’ lives easier. The private security staff who monitored the Bateman’s movements. When Scott briefly experiences similar luxury – his hideout is the spare Greenwich Village apartment of a wealthy young woman – he’s grateful but can’t quite settle in comfortably.

Scott relives many of his actions as the novel unfolds, thinking about the choice he made at each point; this construct allows Scott to wish for alternative outcomes and gives Hawley scope to play with time. It’s not called trauma, but Scott’s memories are traumatic. “Life is a series of decisions and reactions,” Hawley writes. “It is the things you do and the things that are done to you. And then it is over.” With a meticulous, well-paced reveal that traces every person’s path to that plane, Hawley’s novel is a compelling and complex achievement.

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

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “Dancing with the Devil in the City of God”

November 7, 2016

Alexandra Bowie’s review of “Dancing with the Devil in the City of God” by Juliana Barbassa, is posted on PassBlue. You can read it here.

Inside the Vidigal favela.

Photo by Alexandra Bowie

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “How to be a Tudor: A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Tudor Life” by Ruth Goodman

October 28, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-10-28 at 11.20.34 AMby Alexandra Bowie

The Tudors lived and ruled 500 years ago and more, yet they still capture our imaginations. Perhaps it’s the continuing universality of Shakespeare’s plays, and partly, perhaps, the distant echo of the much-married Henry VIII. The Tudors remain with us, perhaps not in our day-to-day lives, but deep in the substrate of the culture around us. Ruth Goodman, a cultural and social historian who has spent her career trying to understand ordinary Tudor life, writes, “I am both constantly delighted with the ‘otherness’ of Tudor thinking and beguiled by the echoes that have slipped through into modern life, from the belief that redheads have hot tempers to the order in which we eat our meals, with starters, mains and desserts to follow.” Her book, structured through an ordinary day, is an attempt to understand the “practicalities, thoughts and difficulties” of these forebears.

The population of England was small, around 4,000,000 in 1603, and mostly rural; London, which housed half the entire urban population, had approximately 200,000 residents that year. Most were yeomen, who owned their farms, husbandmen, who rented theirs, and laborers, who owned almost nothing and had to work for others. Days were long and governed by, well, daylight – in the summer, many people were up at dawn. Goodman’s structure means that early on she describes the beds in which people slept (the good ones were four-posters whose hangings protected the sleeper from drafts and the noise of other sleepers), the houses that held those beds (mostly two-rooms) and the contents of the mattresses.

From there it’s on to floor coverings because, as Goodman writes, at the beginning of the Tudor period many people didn’t have a bed, and simply slept on the floor. “This is not quite as grim as it sounds…[m]any homes still used loose rushes in a deep layer as a floor covering, which removed the necessity for furniture.” This worked well, because Goodman adds, most houses had open hearths without chimneys – meaning the higher up you were, the more smoke surrounded you. It made sense to live life “beneath the smoke layer” on a floor that is “warm, dry and comfortable to sit and sleep upon.” Open to any page of this entertaining book and you’ll learn something interesting and perhaps relevant: how to make and starch a ruff. How often people changed their clothes (every day, when it came to undergarments). What it means to have cross-garters, and why those garters were needed in the first place. Why the alternating loops for the lace fastenings of a dress meant that a woman could fasten them herself.

Part of the charm of “How to be a Tudor” is that Goodman has used many of the items she discusses and tried out various housekeeping techniques. She once lived with six inches of rush floors for six months – not for sleeping, but for sitting, walking, standing, working. There’d been cooking, eating and drinking, and a hen had moved in. It was a bit messy, she reports, but not at the bottom – there the rushes had broken down a bit, but were not moldy or mildewed or slimy.

Goodman carries on in this vein throughout the day, discussing meals, cookery, education, work, games and clothing, among other topics. Dancing was a popular and public activity, and she reports on at least one person who danced across country. Then as now there was the possibility of take-out meals, and every household knew how to brew its own ale. The book ends with night-time, bedtime and, well, sex and sexual practices.

“How to Be a Tudor” is meticulously researched (primary sources include wills and surviving books) and beautifully, lovingly written. It’s fun, immensely readable, and explains all kinds of things you’ve seen in movies and on the stage (remember those codpieces in ‘Wolf Hall’?). To think that Tudor lives were not as complex as ours is to live in an anachronism; the beauty of this book springs from its author’s refusal to regard the Tudor years’ daily tasks and preoccupations as any less meaningful than our own. Read “How to Be a Tudor” and you’ll learn a lot about the world you live in.

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

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “High Dive” A Novel by Jonathan Lee

October 21, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-10-21 at 10.56.11 AMby Alexandra Bowie

Dan, a young Irishman, an electrician by trade, stays in a hotel in Brighton. He violates his instructions to remain unmemorable and flirts with the young woman behind the desk, who, we learn, is the daughter of the hotel’s Assistant Manager. Then he checks out of the hotel, and she takes up with another young man. A few months later a bomb explodes in the hotel. Sometimes life leaves a lacuna, perhaps one of little consequence to the world but large enough for a novelist to slip through. In 1984, the Irish Republican Army placed a time delay bomb in the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where Margaret Thatcher, then the British Prime Minister, was staying during the Tory conference. The bomb exploded, and she was unhurt, though five people were killed. Eventually Patrick Magee was convicted of murder and other charges. That’s the story Jonathan Lee builds from in his new novel “High Dive.” Lee states in an Author’s Note that the trial evidence suggested there might have been a second bomber. If there was, he or she has never been found. It’s from this possibility that Lee has constructed his novel.

The novel opens with Dan’s 1978 initiation into a paramilitary wing of IRA, a group he’s longed to join so that he can improve life for Catholics like himself, a minority in Northern Ireland. His father died after being hit in the head during a march, and two of his acquaintances were killed by British soldiers. Dan’s secret life is dangerous and not particularly fulfilling. In his open life Dan lives with his mother, in one of the few Catholic households on their street. He’s an electrician, and twitchy, emotionally: tempers are frayed and threats have been directed at him and his mother, and that’s before Dan gets to his feelings of guilt and anxiety about having built and placed several bombs that detonated.

Lee also follows a completely different family in Brighton, that of Phillip Finch, called Moose, the assistant general manager of the Grand Hotel, and his daughter, Freya. Freya has just finished school with very high marks on her university entrance exams, but she prefers not to apply, drifting through a year during which she swims and works the hotel’s front desk. Moose hopes for more for his daughter. He was a champion athlete in his youth, playing football and cricket, swimming, ultimately taking up diving. The goal was to make the Olympics. Now his ambitions have narrowed and he would consider any promotion an achievement. Moose wants Mrs. Thatcher’s stay to go well, and he wants to catch the attention of the PM, and he believes that a successful visit will mean promotion for him.

One of the very interesting aspects of this engaging novel is that for all his commitment to the Provos Dan is not a killer. He gets no pleasure from the bloodshed, which, as a bombmaker, he rarely sees. His story makes a nice contrast with that of Moose – who, in other circumstances, might have followed a different path. In middle age, despite his ambivalence, Moose can see some benefits to the Tories’ 1980s slash, burn and privatise approach to governing.

The background issues are complex, as are the characters’ response to them. Lee says, describing Moose’s train of thought, “a couple of years ago it was impossible to sack bone-idle staff. They used to wave their union cards and grin, speak without respect.” The serious themes don’t prevent Lee from having some fun with life behind the scenes at a very grand hotel: employees take naps in guest rooms, but on the floor so that a made-up bed does not have to be smoothed. Moose contrasts the careful front of house decor with the beat up corridors and dark spaces of the service areas, and Freya watches the tricks the doormen and bellhops use to generate tips.

Dan, Freya and Moose come together not at the climax of the novel, but earlier, during Dan’s visit. This makes structural sense: for all their different temperaments and places in life, each of the three main characters has lost track of the big picture. Yet each has a role to play in the history of their times, and each is tested, Moose and Freya by the bombing of the hotel, and Dan by the firebombing of his house: one is not a hero. “High Dive” is a thoughtful novel about growing up, about commitment to a cause, and about the costs of committing – or not. Read it for its fully credible depiction of stresses and tensions of the Thatcher years, and the completely understandable actions its compelling and likeable characters take in response.

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

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