Brooklyn Bugle On the web because paper is expensive Fri, 28 Jul 2017 14:10:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “It’s Not Yet Dark” A Memoir by Simon Fitzmaurice Fri, 28 Jul 2017 14:10:30 +0000 Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 2.19.53 PMby Alexandra Bowie

The Irish filmmaker Simon Fitzmaurice (“My Name is Emily”) has ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease, it’s called in the US, though in Ireland it’s know as Motor Neurone Disease. He was diagnosed in 2008 at age 34. Writers often use metaphors for illness and Fitzmaurice is no exception. As a man in a wheelchair breathing through a tube, Fitzmaurice writes of himself as a stranger. Different. No longer invisible, he stands out from the mass of the well. He writes, “I frighten you. I am a totem of fear. Sickness, madness, death. I am a touchstone to be avoided.”

It wasn’t always like this for him: confined to a wheelchair, unable to move, eat, or even breathe. He was young, he was bullied, he climbed mountains. He washed dishes and got a university degree, taught English in Ukraine and got another degree. He married and had a child, then another, t hen a third. The diagnosis is devastating, tragic, and Fitzmaurice chronicles his decline from walking with a limp to manual wheelchair to electric wheelchair.

Fitzmaurice’s brain and sense of humor are intact, and parts of the memoir are hilarious. After a bout of pneumonia leaves him dependent on a ventilator (more on that below) Fitzmaurice writes of sitting in a cafe with his wife, Ruth, among other people living their lives. He, too, is enjoying being alive, not least because he’s there with his wife, who is pregnant with twins, their fourth and fifth children. He writes:

My willy works. It’s that simple.
The day I found out that ALS didn’t affect my penis was a red-letter day. Unlike a spinal injury or condition, ALS does not take away any feeling from my body. It removes my ability to send message to my muscles to move. But as the penis is not a muscle, it is unaffected.

Other parts work, too: his eyes, some facial muscles, a tiny muscle in one hand – that Ruth and the children can feel. They call it ‘imping.’

Parts are devastating. Describing running after one of his boys, he writes:

When you are told you will die within a certain period, time slows down. Life becomes dominated by the last time. . . Is this the last time I’ll be running? So I speed up. I’m running with a limp . . . And I’m remembering it. Fear of the last time is recording every second. . . [W]hen you lose something central in your life it’s important to have a memory of it.

One of the many striking things about Fitzmaurice’s story is the difference in health care provided in Ireland and the United States. Fitzmaurice contracts pneumonia, and his description of his fear as he struggled to breath is absolutely terrifying. In intensive care, just before he loses consciousness, drowning, he begs his wife, who is pumping his chest, to keep him alive. Once he’s conscious again, discussions about removing the ventilator begin. The specialists recommend against home ventilation, asking why someone would want to live dependent on a ventilator, but Fitzmaurice and his family advocate for it. They learn that home ventilation is covered by the Health Service Exchange and medical card, and Fitzmaurice has kind words for the HSE, the nurses who care for him, and the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association. Everyone’s truth is different, Fitzmaurice points out, writing, “It’s only important that you remember that behind every disease is a person. Remember that and you have everything you need to travel through my country.

Ironies abound, starting with the cover blurb from the late Alan Rickman, calling the book (correctly) “Utterly life-affirming.” Make no mistake: “It’s Not Yet Dark” is not a feel-good book. Instead, it’s a fierce, tender, and compelling examination of what it means to live.

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

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Camp, crafts. Crafts, craft beer. All at the Transit Museum July 26 Thu, 20 Jul 2017 19:57:25 +0000 Want to go back to camp as an adult? But not sleep over? The Transit Museum is offering you a chance, with an adults-only evening of block printing, lanyard making, friendship bracelets, temporary tattoos, and tours of the Transit Museum’s buses and subway cars. Want to suggest an activity? Let the Transit Museum know with an email to,

Tickets are $15/$10 (members) and available here. Since your ticket includes a beer you must be 21 before camp starts.

Camp Wanna-Catcha-Train will be help on Wednesday, July 26, starting at 6 pm.

The Transit Museum is located at Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street in downtown Brooklyn.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “The Crossing” A Novel by Andrew Miller Fri, 14 Jul 2017 14:52:18 +0000 Screen Shot 2017-07-12 at 3.03.06 PMby Alexandra Bowie

Sauve qui peut. Those are the words tattooed on Maud’s forearm, her left. Maud, the central character of Andrew Miller’s lovely novel “The Crossing” is very young, very pretty, and very serious about everything she does: her degree in biology, her participation in the university sailing team, her job as a clinical research associate at a drug company overseeing drug trials. She may, possibly, be on the Autism spectrum – and her school teacher parents, too. Or perhaps they’re just people whose work is more important than family. Maud meets Tim Rathbone at the university sailing club – he’s an indifferent student and sometime musician from a wealthy, sociable family. The Rathbones drink a great deal of gin.

Tim and Maud pair up; Maud works, and Tim thinks about the concerto he is writing. They continue sailing, and one day together they see a boat, the Lodestar. Miller writes,

They start to gather the money they need, to pool their resources. Much of what Maud earns she saves, not knowing what to spend it on, not desiring many things. Tim has savings too, of course, money that hangs slack in various accounts . . . For Lodestar, he decides to visit the money stream a little closer to its source.

By the end of Tim’s weekend visit, Mrs. Rathbone has agreed to fund the purchase. Miller writes, “She thinks young people should have a project. When she says ‘strive’ her cheeks tremble a little. He embraces her. . . He fetches the gin, the blue bottle, the accoutrements.” It all works well, for a bit. Tim and Maud sail on weekends, and dream of traveling long distances along coasts, across oceans.

When Tim and Maud have a baby, Maud returns to work quickly, and Tim stays home to care for Zoe. They try, a few times, to bring Zoe out on the Lodestar, but Zoe is frightened and miserable, and they use the boat less as Zoe grows. There’s some veiled sexism in the response of Tim’s family to their child-rearing arrangement – sexism that becomes open when Zoe is killed in a car accident. Tim is in the car, Maud is at work. But somehow, she’s to blame – at least to Tim’s family. She should have taken care of Zoe.

There is much that is left unsaid in this remarkable novel. Tim has begun an affair with the mother of one of Zoe’s schoolmates. It’s unclear who was in the car with Tim – possibly Zoe, though possibly it was the other woman (Tim’s car collided with a school bus – and the other children are receiving trauma services.) Maud’s response to these losses is stoic – she prefers to return to work quickly, until she’s asked to go on leave, as her calm is making her fellow workers uncomfortable.

Alone, Maud flees in the Lodestar, heading west across the Atlantic. For a while all goes, but then Maud experiences a calm, followed an overwhelming storm. The Lodestar reaches land, and it’s possible Maud survived, injured, disoriented and dehydrated. It’s also possible that she did not. “The Crossing” is about family, about messing about in boats, but it’s also about life and death on and off the water. It’s thought-provoking, occasionally eerie, and very, very well written. Please provide your theories about the conclusion in the comments.

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

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “The Egg and I” by Betty MacDonald Fri, 23 Jun 2017 14:00:09 +0000 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 Fri, 12 May 2017 20:39:07 +0000 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 Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter” Essays by Scaachi Koul Fri, 28 Apr 2017 12:46:03 +0000 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 Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: Two Memoirs Fri, 21 Apr 2017 16:27:44 +0000 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 Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “News of the World” A Novel by Paulette Jiles Fri, 07 Apr 2017 13:46:35 +0000 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 Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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Exhibit “Deconstruction of the Third Avenue El” at Transit Museum’s Grand Central Gallery Mon, 20 Mar 2017 17:45:31 +0000 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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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “Bad Boy: My Life on and Off the Canvas” by Eric Fischl Fri, 17 Mar 2017 13:30:04 +0000 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?

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “What Belongs To You” A novel by Garth Greenwell Fri, 03 Mar 2017 19:43:11 +0000 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.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown” by Gerri Hirshey Fri, 17 Feb 2017 14:27:29 +0000 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.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and our Energy Future” by Gretchen Bakke Ph.D. Fri, 03 Feb 2017 16:08:20 +0000 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 Fri, 20 Jan 2017 15:59:24 +0000 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 Fri, 06 Jan 2017 17:27:26 +0000 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 Sat, 17 Dec 2016 17:43:50 +0000 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 Sat, 10 Dec 2016 17:47:48 +0000 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 Fri, 02 Dec 2016 13:45:24 +0000 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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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “The Comet Seekers” a novel by Helen Sedgwick Fri, 18 Nov 2016 19:49:14 +0000 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.

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Transit Museum’s Train Show at Grand Central, November 14-February 26 Fri, 18 Nov 2016 19:43:14 +0000 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 Fri, 11 Nov 2016 17:27:27 +0000 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.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “Dancing with the Devil in the City of God” Mon, 07 Nov 2016 15:14:25 +0000 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 Fri, 28 Oct 2016 15:27:20 +0000 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 Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “High Dive” A Novel by Jonathan Lee Fri, 21 Oct 2016 15:00:21 +0000 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 Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “Meet the Regulars: People of Brooklyn and the Places They Love” by Joshua D Fri, 14 Oct 2016 15:46:56 +0000 Screen Shot 2016-10-14 at 11.47.50 AM

by Alexandra Bowie

The urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg has written about the Third Place – gathering spots like bars, coffee shops, and general stores, and how important they are to making communities vibrant. Without them, people are either at work or tucked up in private at home – and have no place to meet, talk, relax, drink, write, reflect and allow grassroots politics to develop. In his book “Meet the Regulars” Joshua D. Fischer, a writer for the blog Bedford + Bowery, has culled and collected his posts. Fischer profiles a range of people – some famous, some not – in their favorite places, mostly bars, but also yoga studios, Melody Lanes, Brooklyn Strategist and Brooklyn Bridge Park. The selection of places is heavily weighted towards Williamsburg and Greenpoint, and the age of the regulars tends toward people in their twenties, with the occasional appearance of a somewhat older person.

All the same, there’s a lot of diversity here: Ellen Stagg, a straight photographer who hangs out at the strip club Pumps because “the girls in the neighborhood probably feel cool and safe to dance here;” Joey Green, a gay African-American whose stepfather was white, who likes Metropolitan because it’s completely non-judgmental; Ariel Pellman, who likes the Steampunk bar Way Station, who’s photographed in a corset. Fischer quotes her:

I do waist training, which means I wear [a corset] on a regular basis and can cinch my waist to a very small size. I am wearing a bustle. So the whole thing is very reminiscent of steampunk themes. This being a steampunk bar, I wanted to wear something fun.

If Fischer asked her why she thinks it’s fun to wear articles of clothing that exaggerate old-fashioned (not to say ancient) ideas of the ideal female form, he doesn’t report it. But the theme of exploration of different selves and different lives emerges in this and other interviews. Life as a young adult – whether in a new place or not – is hard, and the stories people tell in their interviews often circle around their discoveries of themselves as they figure out who they are. It’s not just navel-gazing: these New Yorkers will shape the city’s future.

The second theme that emerges, as might be expected in such a book based in Brooklyn, is gentrification: the artistic (and yes, even the artisanal) ferment that started here and has drawn many people has been wonderful, but it’s carried a cost. To his credit, Fischer both allows the theme to emerge from the interviews he’s elected to include, and addresses it head on, in one of the topical essays (“Are these the best places in Brooklyn?”, “I hate the future”) that break up the stream of interviews.

Rents in Williamsburg and Greenpoint have shot up in the last 15 years, and Williamsburg is now home to an Apple store and a Whole Foods, not to mention a series of tall waterside apartment buildings. There’s little space to operate in what Fischer calls “the spirit of what made Williamsburg ‘cool’”; those joints are now opening further east, in Bushwick and Brownsville. That means that residents in those neighborhoods have also been displaced – yet at the same time, as Fischer points out, you can’t blame store and homeowners who are offered millions for their properties.

It’s a complicated cycle, and Fischer’s subjects are as caught up in it as the people who preceded and will follow them. Fischer quotes Eddie Cedeno, half-Cuban, half-Ecuadorean, who owns a coffee shop in Bushwick. Cedeno acknowledges that his neighbors are skeptical, but he wants new businesses to open up even though his neighbors – the ones he’s squeezing out – remind him of his parents. Fischer asks whether gentrification is OK when it’s an independent business, not a chain; when it’s necessity, not luxury – though of course one person’s daily cup of coffee is another’s luxury. He hopes that development will be followed by services. The reader hopes that as they settle into adult life, his subjects will use the networks they’ve developed in their third places to organize, vote, and even run for office, to be sure the people are heard.

If you want to read an earlier view of gentrification in Brooklyn, read “A Meaningful Life” by L.J. Davis (reviewed here). Let us know your thoughts about how things have changed, or even your favorite Brooklyn hangout, in the comments.

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: “Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren Fri, 30 Sep 2016 19:09:33 +0000 Screen Shot 2016-09-30 at 2.43.50 PMby Alexandra Bowie

Hope Jahren’s memoir “Lab Girl” abounds in a sense of place, both Jahren’s lab, where many of her stories are set, and some spectacular outdoor settings. Jahren is a geobiologist who studies plant behaviors as measured by the amount of carbon and other elements in their structures, and her fieldwork takes place all over the globe. (You can see a fantastic set of pictures here.) You may think you’re entering a description of a charmed life, but not so fast.

In “Roots and Leaves,” the first of three sections, Jahren describes her background and early life. Jahren grew up in Minnesota. Her great-grandparents migrated from Norway, and Jahren grew up in a Scandinavian culture where people didn’t talk much to each other over “vast emotional distances . . . forged early and reinforced daily.” Her three brothers are much older and “it was not unusual for us to go days and without finding anything to say to each other.” Jahren never met several of her mother’s many siblings, even though some lived in the same town. Jahren’s explains:

It must be a survival skill left over from the old Viking days, when long silences were required to prevent unnecessary homicides during the long, dark winters when quarters were close and supplies were dwindling.”

A self-deprecating tone punctuated with lacerating insights runs through the book. Jahren’s early training in English literature shows in her magnificent writing. She intersperses longer chapters about her life with shorter ones explaining an aspect of plant biology that then provides a metaphor. Jahren, for instance, sets off her description of the function of leaves – she describes them as an idea, “a vague genetic pattern with nearly endless room for improvisation” – against her recounting of her first major scientific find. Jahren’s thesis work was on hackberry trees, whose “berry is as hard as a rock–mainly because it is a rock.” Figuring out why that is so, and what building blocks it uses were the challenge. Once Jahren isolated the mineral she booked time in an x-ray diffraction lab to see if she could identify it.

In lesser hands what happened next might have been a self-aggrandizing story of triumph. Jahren begins with the observation: “I looked forward to my analyses with the same happy anticipation one brings to a baseball game: anything might happen, but it will probably take a long time.” Jahren made her discovery, and then some. It’s typical of the honesty of the book is that her real discovery that day was about herself:

In solving this mystery I had also proved something, at least to myself, and I finally knew what real research would feel like. But as satisfying as it was, it still stands out as one of the loneliest moments of my life. On some deep level, the realization that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known.

In the second section, “Wood and Knots,” Jahren uses one hilarious but occasionally death-defying adventure after another to portray the long years of teaching and research as she established herself. There’s sexism and doubt among more senior scientists, but there’s also the developing relationship with her devoted lab partner, Bill. Jahren moved from California, where she did her graduate work, to Atlanta and then to Johns Hopkins to teach, scavenging equipment from the labs of retiring scientists and keeping it going thanks to Bill’s ingenuity and mechanical skills. It’s a tale of resourcefulness and making do, of field studies with students in tow and a great deal of hard work leavened with a great sense of humor.

One side trip meant a 7-hour detour to visit Monkey Jungle, a site near Miami that had been advertised on roadside billboards. The trip is recounted in detail (the long drive, the campout in the Monkey Jungle parking lot complete with police investigation). Once they got inside, the parallels were unmistakable:

Monkey Jungle was indeed a doppelganger for my lab . . . Three Java macaques that had been straining their brains over some problem that they could neither solve nor abandon propelled themselves toward us, supposing that we somehow represented an answer. A white-handed gibbon was draped limply across our walkway, either asleep or dead or someplace in between. Two small squirrel monkeys seemed to be trapped in their own private Samuel Beckett play, caught in a web made of equal parts dependence and loathing. In ironic proximity, two other squirrel monkeys were getting along very, very well by the looks of it.

There’s more – the eternal quest for funds, space, equipment, stability, students, and the continued development of the relationship with Bill. In the final section, “Flowers and Fruit,” Jahren talks about her life once she’s established herself and her lab. She married and had a child and she and her husband moved their family to Hawaii. Bill moved, too. Jahren returns again and again to her varied work with plants, and includes a plea to plant trees to preserve what we can of our environment. She explains that once a tree “exceeds the limitations of its environment, it loses all. And this is why you must trim a tree periodically in order to preserve it. Because–as Marge Piercy first said–both life and love are like butter and do not keep: they both have to be made fresh every day.

A good book about science that’s also wildly entertaining can be hard to come by. Don’t wait to read this one, and do let us know your favorite anecdote in the comments.

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: “All Set for Black, Thanks: A New Look at Mourning” by Miriam Weinstein Fri, 23 Sep 2016 12:05:00 +0000 Screen Shot 2016-09-23 at 8.07.37 AMby Alexandra Bowie

We live in a society that has given up strict rituals. As a result, we’ve had a joyous explosion of life-affirming rites in our favorite locations, but it also means that we may have lost something, especially when it comes to death. Not so much our own deaths, but those of the people we love (if we are fortunate enough to survive them). As Miriam Weinstein puts it in what can only be described as a hilarious how-to book about the hard work of mourning, “[W]e will remake our lives without our beloved ones, our supports, our buddies, again and again. . . Even if it is ‘expected,’ when it happens, it hits us over the head like a mallet blow. Sure, some things help, but not always the things we expect.”

In earlier times, we might have had strict rituals to fall back on, and Weinstein describes some of them: funeral traditions that require burial within 24 hours of death; embalming for a wake with an open casket. In our multicultural society we don’t have a shared way of grief. Some people have funerals, ending at the grave side; others have memorial services days, weeks or even months after the death. We no longer announce we’re in mourning by our clothing.

What to do when the old rites and rituals may not be followed? In Weinstein’s case, what seems to help most is humor, and it’s our good fortune that she’s decided to explore mourning experiences in brief chapters that cover topics such as burial or cremation, flowers and candles when a celebrity has died, how much stuff to take when you’re in a position to take it (not much), and the experience of grieving.

Weinstein opens with a chapter on what to wear to a funeral. Looking good, she argues, “can make you feel good, and feeling good can make you look good” adding that such obvious truths can be forgotten in times of extremis. She winds up with a story about a woman who nursed a dear friend through a final illness “and then missed the actual moment of death because she was in the mall, buying something to wear to her funeral.” Better to have something in your closet, and navy, gray, or black will all do. It should be comfortable and appropriate for the weather, Weinstein adds – and then proceeds to adjust the advice for funerals in Florida (where few people wear black, even to a funeral). Weinstein adds a quick exegesis on Victorian mourning costumes and ends the chapter with a couple of paragraphs about what to do with the outfit once you’ve worn it to a funeral that’s a gut-wrenching life-changer.

There’s a helpful chapter on how to write and deliver a eulogy (give yourself as much time as possible, don’t worry about sounding dumb, and don’t ignore whatever elephant happens to be in the room). There’s a chapter on the post-cremation afterlife of the ashes. And there’s a chapter on how to find your way through the days and weeks and months after the death of a close family member. Weinstein says:

So the first thing you might want to do is to be kind to yourself. Help yourself over the immediate hump. And then help yourself over the next one. And the next one after that. Just don’t look for easy solutions. I had a very well-bred aunt who said, ‘Whenever you are thinking of saying bullshit, just say fantastic.’ So:

The five stages of grief are fantastic.

The arbitrary time markers around any sort of resolution of feelings are fantastic.

The idea that you will move forward in a straight line toward ‘resolution’ is fantastic….

All in all, it’s very sensible advice. There are a lot of jokes sprinkled throughout the text, and episodes that will resonate with readers differently. The old cliche says “it will make you laugh, it will make you cry.” “All Set for Black” does that, too, and readers may find themselves laughing through tears (be prepared for the odd looks if you happen to read the book on the subway). Not all readers will be comfortable with the irrepressibly irreverent tone of this book, and Weinstein’s voice occasionally cloys, but if you’re drawn to humor, it’s as good a guide as any I’ve seen to mourning.

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

Miriam Weinstein is reading at the Stein Senior Center on Monday, November 7, 2016 at 1 pm.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “The Ecliptic” a novel by Benjamin Wood Fri, 16 Sep 2016 14:43:38 +0000 Screen Shot 2016-09-16 at 10.40.35 AMby Alexandra Bowie

Portmantle – part artist’s colony, part refuge – the setting of Benjamin Wood’s novel “The Ecliptic,” is on an island in the Sea of Marmara, reachable only by ferry from Istanbul. It’s a dreamy place removed from the world, where artists and writers, architects and playwrights can go to finish work away from the cares and distractions of the world. Visitors give up passports, money, and their identities when they arrive. The Provost, a benign despot who runs the place on behalf of a foundation, provides meals, mail, and materials. Most visitors come, finish their projects, and leave after a celebratory reading or viewing. But there are a couple of long-stayers, and the character we know as Knell, the first-person narrator of Benjamin Wood’s novel, is one of them.

Knell and her three close companions, also long-stayers, don’t mix much with the transients, who come from all over the world. “It was our judgment that the duration of a stay at Portmantle was equivalent to the value of the work being done: if you were gone after one season, it was likely because your project could not sustain a greater period of gestation.” This cozy world is disrupted by the arrival of a very young man named Fullerton, who arrives cold, seasick, hostile, and possibly mad. The Provost has asked Knell and the other three long-stayers to help Fullerton settle in, but Fullterton throws off their attempts. (It’s a curiosity of Portmantle that the Provost assigns a pseudonym to all visitors.)

Knell is a painter, and has found a trove of glowing mushrooms that she dries and uses to tint her paint, searching for an elusive effect. Fullerton’s arrival has struck a chord, and after she finds him destroying his work she pieces it back together while narrating her own history: her upbringing in a working-class household in Glasgow, escape to art school, assistant to a painter, and success on her own terms, ending with a commission she can’t finish and the invitation to Portmantle. When Fullerton dies, Knell knows that it is time to leave, and decides that rather than leave openly, she’ll have to escape.

Wood describes life at Portmantle in great detail: the setting, the cottages, the meals, the staff, and the pace of the early part of the narrative is slow (the book is over 450 pages long). Things pick up markedly once Knell relates her history. Parts of “The Ecliptic” are very good, including Wood’s descriptions of Knell’s creative process and her thoughts. Wood has an effective way of capturing a character with a small quirk or gesture. Fullerton, for instance, after suggesting he’s giving away a pack of cigarettes to Quickman, an architect, throws what turns out to be an empty pack at him. Quickman, Knell tells us, “pulled out the foil lining and scrunched it in his fist. ‘I won’t lie: that’s a blow to morale.’ And the boy smiled at last.” Wood brings the various threads together into an entirely unforeseen (though the careful reader may pick up hints that Knell is not the most reliable of narrators) conclusion.

Alexandra Bowie is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter @abowie917.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “Wear and Tear: The Threads of My Life” A Memoir by Tracy Tynan Fri, 09 Sep 2016 12:31:45 +0000 Screen Shot 2016-09-09 at 8.35.14 AM

by Alexandra Bowie

Tracy Tynan, the daughter of the novelist Elaine Dundy (“The Dud Avocado” reviewed here and “The Old Man and Me”) and the theater critic Kenneth Tynan remembers clothes the way foodies remember meals: front and center. For Tynan, clothing is a sensual as much as a visual experience: her mother’s sealskin coat, Tynan tells us, “smelled of her–a mixture of her perfume, Ma Griffe, and her cigarettes, unfiltered Pall Malls. The idea that my mother could be present in a piece of clothing where she otherwise was not was a revelation . . . The glossy brown fur had a velvety touch.” (Tynan was born in the early 1950s, and this event took place when she was four or five, long before we worried about smoking, or seals.)

Clothing gives Tynan a sly way to structure her entertaining new memoir. Tynan’s parents were much too busy with theater openings, dinners, and parties (and recovering afterwards) to pay much attention to her and Tynan was brought up by “a string of au pairs” who introduced languages, and other cultures, and to some extent love, into her life. Dundy did take Tynan shopping for clothes, but says, “My mother and I didn’t know how to be with each other, as we seldom spent time alone together. Shopping for clothes was one of the rare occasions when we did, and those expeditions were awkward and uncomfortable.” Tynan describes Dundy’s impatience and distraction: “I felt she couldn’t wait to get back to her own life–working on her novel, hanging out with her friends, having cocktails.” Tynan took her time. Of one expedition she says: “The rack of shirts looked enticing, but as usual with my clothing choices, I was looking for something specific, but I didn’t know what it was yet.”

Around the time Tynan was 14, Dundy gave up, and Tynan received a quarterly allowance to spend on clothes as she wished. She blew the first quarter’s allowance on a pair of “beautiful, soft, supple” apple green shoes that fit perfectly. By then, Tynan was in boarding school, no one would know she couldn’t buy any new clothes. It didn’t matter. “In a world where most everything else felt out of control, having control over the clothes I wore filled a hole.”

The Tynans divorced when Tracy was about 12, and her father whirled off into a new life that involved a new wife and additional children. Once she finished school Tynan went off to the US, settling in Los Angeles. She had a long career as a costume designer in films (“The Big Easy, “Breathless”) often working with her husband, a director. In the last years of his life her father and his second wife joined them. Tynan reconciled with her father and got to know her half-siblings. She had two children of her own, including one born prematurely, whose birth and early life Tynan describes in a harrowing chapter titled “The Pink Knitted Cap.” Her parents aged and died. Not quite retired, Tynan volunteers as a stylist for an organization called “The Glamour Project” that visits shelters, cancer treatment centers, and rehab clinics and “gives the women a day of respite from the sometimes gloomy isolation of their lives.” A day of makeup, dressing and movie-star lighting that, Tynan says, may not change the world but makes people feel better. “It makes me feel good, too” she concludes.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the daughter of two sparkling prose stylists found her creative outlet in a different medium. Readers like this one, drawn to the book because Tynan’s parents, are in for a marvelous introduction to a new world and a satisfying description of a life well-lived.

Alexandra Bowie is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter @abowie917.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “All Souls” A Novel by Javier Marias Fri, 22 Jul 2016 18:43:25 +0000 Screen Shot 2016-07-22 at 2.41.54 PMby Alexandra Bowie
Relationships outside of family often come into existence through the expedient of contiguity, and may simply disappear once the the contact ends. It’s a resonant theme that has provided the grist for many stories about shipboard or vacation romances (and the risks they entail). The unnamed Spanish novelist who narrates Javier Marias’ engrossing novel “All Souls” is writing about a period he spent as a visiting scholar in Oxford a few years earlier. (According to John Banville’s introduction, the resonance goes deeper: Javier Marias himself spent a few years in Oxford in the 1980s.) Looking back on his years in Oxford and the relationships he formed there the narrator reflects on the paradox that while his relationships in Oxford were profound, few survived his return to Madrid.

Marias introduces most of his principal characters at a High Table dinner. (The chapter describing the dinner is hilarious and spot-on. Here’s one example:

These suppers take place once a week in the vast refectories of the different colleges. The table at which the diners and their guests sit is raised up on a platform and thus presides over the other tables (where the students dine with suspicious haste, fleeing as soon as they have finished, gradually abandoning the elevated guests to their solitude and thus avoiding the spectacle the latter end up making of themselves)…)

Characters present at the dinner include: Clare Bayes, with whom the narrator carries on a lengthy and delirious affair; and her husband; Cromer-Blake, the narrator’s best friend in Oxford; and Toby Rylands, an eminent and about-to-be emeritus literary scholar. The affair ends prematurely when Clare’s young son must leave his boarding school to recuperate from a mysterious illness, mysterious at least to the narrator, keeping Clare busy and preoccupied. The narrator must have been irritated at the time the events occurred, but in his recall sounds more puzzled that Clare would choose her son over him.

The narrator also forms an important relationship with Alan Marriott, who tracks the narrator down through a used bookseller – the narrator is searching for the narrowly-known works of a favorite author – and persuades him to join a subscription society devoted to the works of a different writer. For a reason he cannot explain to himself, the narrator agrees to pay a quarterly subscription. At the very last moment of his visit, however, Marriott mentions another writer, Gawsworth, who interests the narrator rather more. He delves into Gawsworth’s background, and begins to amass a collection of his works. The narrator is interested more in Gawsworth’s character than his works, and what he finds when he traces him comes as a bit of a surprise, both to the narrator and the reader.

“All Souls,” as might be expected in a book named for the most recondite of Oxford colleges, is not an action novel. Instead, it’s a lengthy contemplation of what makes a relationship stick – besides regular contact. Looking back, the narrator describes his time in Oxford as a time of unease, and observes his most reliable and lasting relationship is not with his lover. It’s a deeply satisfying and interesting novel for the committed reader.

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

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