Mini Review: I’ll Have What She’s Havingby Rebecca Harrington

This book only took me about an hour and a half to read, so I don’t have an awful lot to say about it.  But it was a fun concept and parts made me smile, so here’s a little review.  Compact and to the point like Victoria Beckham.  (Now I know more than one fact about Victoria Beckham!  An educational evening was had by all.)

source: randomhouse

My rating: *** (3 stars).  This book is amusing and fun without really bringing anything new to the table. (Excluding all the bizzar-o foods that probably should never have been brought to Harrington’s table at all.)  It’s sort of like reading the facebook updates of your funny friend – the one who actually keeps up with pop culture but isn’t an asshole about it.

I’ll Have What She’s Having: My Adventures In Celebrity Dieting was not even on my radar until yesterday afternoon.  I was reading Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea on my lunch break, when suddenly a scene that I remembered as violent from when I read it as a teenager turned out to be even grosser than I recalled.

First of all: kittens are sacred and should not be harmed. Obviously I’d blocked that passage from memory in my youth.

Second of all: ewwwww, not what I wanted to be picturing while I ate my chickpeas and za’atar.  So I had to put that beautiful classic of Japanese literature aside for the duration of my meal, and cast around for something else to distract me.  (I also hadn’t read any nonfiction books this month and now I can brag that I fit one in at the last minute!)

When you’re in the back room of a bookshop, distractions are always close at hand.  And my hand happened to fall upon this brightly colored little foray into the weird world of celebrity dieting.  The basic premise is this: Rebecca Harrington loved reading about celebrities and she loved dieting.  So, in the name of journalistic integrity, she decided to walk the walk.  Eat the eat.  Suffer and slave away in the kitchen for the reader’s amusement.  Disastrous “celery loaf” and other experiments occasionally exiled her from the kitchen in horror, but she keeps on making cabbage stew and green risotto. Rebecca is one determined diet-investigator.  She’s not going to let Beyonce’s physically dangerous cleanses beat her down without a fight.

Obviously, the author’s sense of humor is what kept me reading this book.  If it were just a report on how different celebrities’ eating habits were totally messed up, I would have had to put it down pretty quickly.  I, too, have been obsessed with diets.  So obsessed that my eating routines were even stricter and more dangerous than some of the ones we’re meant to laugh at in this chronicle.  So while I appreciated the miserable details of totally unrealistic diets, I appreciated Harrington’s ability to laugh at how unsustainable the worst ones were even more.  This isn’t to say that she deplored every famous person’s smug routines.  On Gwyneth Paltrow’s food rules she reports: “If I wasn’t going to go bankrupt doing it, I would follow the Gwyneth diet to the letter every day.” (p 23)  Luckily for my own welfare, I don’t even have the funds to try one week of the It’s All Good way of eating.  Even Gwynnie’s books are a little out of my price range.  (And let’s not even get started on the beluga caviar Jackie Kennedy used to consume…  That was one of my favorite chapters, and I might be the only New Englander who doesn’t give a shit about the Kennedys.)  But when things got really wacky, like with Greta Garbo’s live-in nutritionist or Karl Lagerfield’s ten diet cokes a day, our faithful guide Rebecca is honest about how much these regimes suck the energy, fun, and friends right out of your life.  No wonder so many famous people are irascible waifs.  I could barely sit through a lecture on J.R.R. Tolkien while I was starving, and they have to film interviews while probably hallucinating that the reporter is an ice cream cone.

The most amusing question Harrington answers in her adventure is, “Would my friends stay with me until the end even though I kept making them come to my house for dinner parties where they all told me to my face that they despised all of my food?”  That’s the sort of dilemma most readers should be worried about when they buy a diet book, not how much weight they’ll drop in the first few dehydrated and muscle-deteriorating months.  I’ll Have What She’s Having made me want to write letters of apology to all the friends who had to suffer through my over-planned and under-seasoned meals when I was myself obsessed with diets.  Also, I should probably thank them for never ordering pizza right in front of me like Harrington’s friends have reportedly done.  It also made me realize just how silly it is that so many famous skinny people make even more money by writing books telling us that we can be just like them if only we eat more yeast or drink nothing but eggs mixed with milk in the mornings.  Why do we keep buying those books?  Why do we need to know about Elizabeth Taylor’s obsession with putting steak on half a peanut butter sandwich?  I don’t know, but I enjoyed hearing Rebecca Harrington’s results of the investigation.

And, yes, it quickly distracted me from the cat-violence.  In short: a fun, conversational jaunt through one woman’s experiment in living through several celebrities’ bad decisions.  I even learned some facts about famous people along the way.  (Madonna will forever be associated with seaweed in my brain, now.)  Don’t read this if you’re still in a tenuous recovery from an eating disorder, but you might enjoy it if you, like so many of us, can’t help but flip through every glossy-photoed “eat like me” hardcover that features a skinny white girl eating fake pasta on the cover.

Book Review: You Can’t Win by Jack Black

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Star Ratings for Nonfiction

Writing: *****  (5 stars)

Narrative: **** (4 stars)

Interesting Subject: ***** (5 stars)

Objectivity and research: **** (4 stars. This is a memoir.)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 14 and up.

The gents at my favorite coffee shop are on a roll with the book recommendations, lately.  You Can’t Win was described to me as “the memoir of a hobo turned safe-cracker turned house burglar turned highwayman turned librarian.”  You can probably imagine that I nearly dropped my maple spice coffee (yum) in eagerness to get my hands on a copy.  I ordered one the moment I got back to work, and have ordered another since to give as a gift.  It was just that good.  I want to call the book “inspiring,” but it’s probably a bad idea to immortalize one’s admiration for such a practiced criminal as Mr. Black on the internet.  So let’s just call it a riveting story, told with level-headed clarity and enough rollicking anecdotes to turn Jack Black’s life into a series of adventures well worth re-telling.

America in the early 20th century was a wild and crazy place. Saloons and opium dens were everywhere, housing wayward women and desperate men; bad men; or pretty much any other crooked variety of fella. Prisons were uniformly horrifying – even more so than they are today – and reforms had only just started. People still carried gold money on horseback. And security measures for houses and trains weren’t quite up to snuff. The West, especially, was paradise for train-hoppers; hobos; “yeggs”; stick-up men; gamblers… any manner of folk who made their living going against the law.

Jack Black (an alias, I believe) didn’t start out as a criminal. His story begins with a quite loving description of childhood years at a Christian school. Right off the bat, he ruminates on the lack of a mother in his life, though his portrayal of the nuns who took care of him shows that there was no lack of decent adult influence in his upbringing.

“It has often been a question with me just how much the best of it a boy has, who has his mother with him until his feet are well planted under him; who has a home and influences until he gathers some kind of a working philosophy that helps him to face the world… Looking back at it, it seems to me that I was blown here and there like a dead leaf whipped about but the autumn winds till at last it finds lodgment in some cozy fence corner. When I left school at fourteen I was as unsophisticated as a boy could be. I knew no more of the world and its strange way than the gentle, saintly woman who taught me my prayers in the convent.”

Jack’s father, too, is described with respect and care. In fact, I was touched by how Mr. Black’s protective nature towards his father’s reputation and feelings only grew throughout his life of crime, which is why it’s not hard to sympathize with the distance he keeps between them in later, more adventurous, years. Even as a kid, his knack for business and shrewd observational skills get Jack into troublesome learning experiences.

“The books so fired me with the desire for travel, adventure, romance, that I was miserable most of the time.”

Well, it won’t be long before travel and adventure fill Jack’s days, though misery is always snapping at his heels. (As for romance… you won’t find much of it in You Can’t Win. One of many reasons I loved the book.) His first arrest is a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Subsequent incarcerations are the unhappy results of more purposeful ventures. Jack Black writes candidly about his resilience in crime, neither apologizing for his misdeeds nor whining openly about the hard life of a roving thief.

I was wrong. I knew I was wrong, and yet I persisted. If that is possible of any explanation it is this: From the day I left my father my lines had been cast, or I cast them myself, among crooked people. I had not spent one hour in the company of an honest person. I had lived in an atmosphere of larceny, theft, crime. I thought in terms of theft. Houses were built to be burglarized, citizens were to be robbed, police to be avoided and hated, stool pigeons to be chastised, and thieves to be cultivated and protected. That was my code; the code of my companions. That was the atmosphere I breathed. ‘If you live with wolves, you will learn to howl.”

Black’s unabashed memoirs are told in a fairly linear fashion, though every now and then he’ll mention the untimely demise of a fellow “yegg,” or write ominously about a future mistake as yet unknown to his younger self during the exploit of the moment. Most cases of foreshadowing lead to reciprocal and gratifying anecdotes later on in the narrative. Jack Black is a good writer: trust that he will reveal the conclusions of any and all story-lines that conclude neatly enough.

Characters – real people, yes, but certainly their colorful personalities deserve the term – filter in and out of his acquaintance as fate (or the judiciary system) lead their paths together and astray. From the first time he witnesses a fellow train-hopper get squashed by the cargo, through partnerships with the likes of “Smiler;” “Foot-and-a-Half George;” and “The Sanctimonious Kid,” Jack is a diligent observer of the attitudes that best suit a man on the road. Charming criminals, hardened ladies who orchestrate connections in crime, and even leaders of bloody prison break-outs take Jack into their confidence quickly and easily. I think that his quiet, unassuming nature serves him well in the field. Reading his recollections has made me want to write careful descriptions of the people I encounter: their mannerisms, their ways of speech, and even the measure of their moral standing. You never know when they might turn up in your life again, fifteen years later, harboring a grudge or willing to spring you from behind bars. Bums and highwaymen tend to have interesting backgrounds of their own accord, but it takes a memory like Mr. Black’s and a simple-but-crystallized handle of the English language to give such individuals real life on the printed page.

His voice never falters into sentimentality or veers towards the arrogance of a man who has succeeded where others have not. Sometimes he needs help, and he is grateful when he gets it. Sometimes he has the chance to assist a fellow disreputable soul, and he does so without expecting congratulations. There were runs of bad luck which made me cringe at the injustice of it all – a real life of crime has no guarantee of satisfaction at the end of several months’ plotting, despite what novels and films would have us believe. But there are still moments of triumph and even unexpected kindness to keep his mind in the game for so many years.

The era of saloon shoot-outs, railroad heists, and sacks of gold has dwindled into our less-thrilling modern age of electronic money and biometrics. I probably wouldn’t like to go through my days in a hail of bullets and a succession of jail cells, but it was awfully fun to read Jack Black’s account of such a life. His subdued good humor and unusually merciful view of human nature have rubbed off on me a little bit. If more “good” people adopted an attitude like this one “bad” man, I think we would all have a better idea of how luck and life all even out in the end.

“A bleak background! Crowded with robberies, burglaries, and thefts too numerous to recall. All manner of crimes against property. Arrests, trials, acquittals, convictions, escapes. Penitentiaries! I see in the background four of them. County jails, workhouses, city prisons, Mounted Police barracks, dungeons, solitary confinement, bread and water, hanging up, brutal floggings, and murderous straitjacket.

“I see hop joints, wine dumps, thieves’ resorts, and beggars’ hangouts.

“Crime followed by swift retribution in one form or another…

“In those twenty-five years I took all these things, and I am going to write about them.

“And I am going to write about them as I took them –with a smile.”

(Here’s another good review of the book, which helped inspire me to buy it sight unseen.)

Book Review: Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement

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Star Ratings for Nonfiction

Writing: ****  (4 stars)

Narrative: **** (4 stars)

Interesting Subject: ***** (5 stars)

Objectivity and research: *** (3 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

(I read an ARC of Widow Basquiat so a few details may have changed since publication.)

Widow Basquiat gives a very personal and poetic account of Basquiat’s journey through the beginnings of fame and all the way to his death, seen through the eyes of Suzanne Mallouk. In the introduction, Michael Holman calls Suzanne Jean-Michel’s “first great love.” She is not technically his widow: Rene Ricard gave her that nickname before Basquiat died.

Mallouk and Basquiat met very early in his career. They lived together on and off for the remainder of his life, and she was a frequent presence in the events which shaped his artistic development. The book is actually written by Suzanne’s close friend Jennifer, whose succinct style gives us little windows into various scenes of Mallouk’s life, with and without Basquiat. Very short chapters of only a page or two often contain two different voices: Clement’s spartan, lyrical prose and then Mallouk’s own memories written in italics. Suzanne’s first interjection appears after Clement has described her leaving her home in Canada, where her father could get violent and her mother claimed to be a witch. The scenes from Suzanne’s childhood are sometimes brutal, sometimes surreal like the paint fumes they breathe. In contrast to Clement’s somewhat dramatic portraits of the Mallouk parents, their daughter remembers them as more mundane, understandable people.

The balance between Clement’s storytelling and Mallouk’s frank memoirs reminded me that these wild people and dizzy experiences were very real. Taken alone, Clement’s narrative could read like a drug-painted (and then drug-sick) vision of artistic life: a short, experimental movie you can’t tear your eyes away from even though it leaves you feeling miserable. Mallouk’s memoirs, on their own, wouldn’t be so compelling either. Her writing is fine but not stunning, and the impressions of what went on around her need a narrative structure to keep from falling into a pile of paint and heroine. The collaborative style in Widow Basquiat creates a biography-memoir-story that instantly engages even readers who don’t know much at all about the art scene in which it takes place.

I read this little book only a few days after a friend showed me some of Basquiat’s paintings. I don’t know very much about the art world, and even less about the 80’s. The only real encounter I’d ever had with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings was in conjunction with Maya Angelou’s wonderful poem “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me,” in this picture book.

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After reading about Basquiat’s inspirations; his obsessions; his view of the world, I’ve had his paintings pulled up on my computer non-stop. Widow Basquiat reveals some of his motives for including certain words or phrases in his paintings, and it’s obvious from Clement’s and Mallouk’s memories of Jean-Michel Basquiat that he had a real knack for seeing how language and art intersect.

“On one painting he writes, ‘Jimmy Best on his back to the sucker punch of his childhood files,’ because he hears a hobo say this on television.” (quoted from ARC)

I still don’t know what that painting is about, exactly. But now I like it even more. These passages re-create the moments in which words caught Basquait’s attention – moments of watching silent films with Suzanne or after frustrating encounters with white art collectors in Obnoxious Liberals. They show that there was inspiration even in the mundane and unpleasant hours that measured their otherwise wild lives. Clements writes well about art, never getting overly critical, or snobby, or overwrought. Whenever she describes paintings or music, it is to conjure up the people more deeply. Jennifer herself is introduced more than halfway through the book. She remains an interesting side character in a portrait of her two subjects, with the only real physical descriptions of the blonde and Spanish-speaking woman coming from Suzanne’s own writing.

Aside from providing unreserved social context for the artist’s work, and a delirious parade of characters, Widow Basquiat recalls some of the appalling racism that Jean-Michel and his friends had to face in the art world (and of course the real world). In the chapter entitled “No Black Men In Museums,” Basquiat sprinkles water around the MoMA as a “voodoo trick,” explaining to Suzanne that there was no painting on the walls done by someone who looked like him. This was one of my favorite anecdotes, because while his actions might seem absurd at first, the point is completely undeniable.

“…his crazy behavior had nothing to do with being an enfant terrible. Everything he did was an attack on racism and I loved him for this.” (quoted from ARC)

The most affecting story, to me, is about Suzanne’s young boyfriend Michael Stewart. A quiet young man from a caring parent, Michael Stewart was a calming presence in Suzanne’s life while fights with Jean-Michel were on a repeating cycle. “I loved him as if he were my kid brother,” she writes. Michael gets murdered by six cops for allegedly writing graffiti. Enraged by the violent unfairness, Suzanne starts questioning the detectives, photographing Michael’s wounds, raising awareness and money for lawyers. This chapter in her life is all her. I like Suzanne best when she throws herself into her own cause, tapping into her own artistic energies to try and right a dreadful wrong. Of course, the police officers get off free for their crime. The Stewart family wins a civil suit, but the cops get to go on with their horrendous daily business. Suzanne stops working on the Michael Stewart case after she feels threatened at a radical meeting, but her work still raises awareness and points necessary fingers. These events, in which Basquiat features only marginally, broke the book’s narrative momentarily free from the artists’ lifestyles. It was an important edition to the book, and a good reminder that police brutality and a racist justice system have been raging, largely unchecked, for ages.

It was after Michael Stewart’s death that Jean-Michel Basquait painted “Defacement.” He may have acted jealously about Suzanne’s involvement with the case, but it obviously touched him deeply, as it should continue to do for anyone who hears the story or sees the art.

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At around the halfway point, the odd incidents of Jean-Michel bossing Suzanne around and their bad drug days are so frequent, the reading experience contracts an unhealthy pallor. I’ll admit to feeling uncomfortable with all the weird demands he made of his girlfriends, and the outbursts of anger that occasionally shook their relationship. The writing remains strong throughout, but it’s hard to read how everyone hurts. They split up, try to face the world, and end up together again in an unhappy and uncomfortable cycle. And because this is a true story about real people, they don’t all make it through the troubled times. Some of Suzanne’s friends manage to haul themselves together and put their dangerous vices away whenever they threaten to take over entirely. Some of them get devoured. We meet those who survive in the postscript; a show in 2010 when Basquiat would have been fifty years old. In staying true to Suzanne Mallouk’s memories, the miserable pieces of her story fit neatly with the colorful ones, and you must read about both to get a clear picture of what life was like for these people.

There’s this wonderful moment, in the postscript, when Mallouk sees the fridge she once shared with him on display. She sold it in the 80’s, when it was just one of the many scribbled-upon objects in their apartment. Now, it is marked, “DO NOT TOUCH.” So many of the memories dredged up in this book feel like that; flashes of shared experiences which seem like part of the daily roller coaster of routine, until time forces the riders to step back and see what other people have deemed irreplaceable.

This book’s title makes its subject matter clear. Basiquat’s name is the obvious one, he’s the figure we all recognize. But this particular tale belongs to his “widow” – his confidante and support system – told by her friend. There are almost certainly more complete biographies out there about Basquiat’s life, and more comprehensive studies of his art. After finishing Widow Basquiat in a few hours, it’s only clearer to me that I don’t understand art or money, and I likely never will. This book offers a transfixing glimpse of what it was like to live with Jean-Michel Basquiat throughout his influential but difficult artistic career. He’s almost always the center of attention, but Suzanne Mallouk channels that attention and turns it into something we can follow. Her memories and Clement’s prose turn the past into an additively readable trip through inspired visions and collapses. It’s the stuff of brooding novels and loopy films. Widow Basquiat is a short book; it packs a powerful punch and has left me curious to learn more about that churning cocktail of art/drugs/collaborations that produced so many enduring icons from that time.

Book Review: A Walk In The Woods by Bill Bryson

Star Ratings for Nonfiction

Writing: *****  (5 stars)

Narrative: ***** (5 stars)

Interesting Subject: **** (4 stars)

Objectivity and research: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ***** (5stars)

I got A Walk In The Woods out of the library on a recommendation of a friend who has hiked parts of the Appalachian Trail.  I have hiked exactly none of the Appalachian Trail.  Like Bryson, before he set off on this big adventure, the majority of my wilderness walking experience took place in the UK and Ireland, where you wander damply past glorious cliffs and get battered by the wind.  After the cliffs and the wind and the muck and the moss, though, there was always a warm pub and a spartan youth hostel to be found at the end of a day’s hike.

When Bill Bryson decided to venture into America’s barely tamed mountains for “a walk in the woods,” he was headed into at least 2,000 miles of mostly pub-less wilderness. He would have to camp out, carrying an enormous pack with his stove and tent and food supply up mountains and through the snow.  He would have to brave disorienting extremes in temperature, wild animals, and awkward encounters with his fellow hikers.  How does one prepare for the woodsy unknown?  Bill Bryson starts out with cautious optimism and a wonderfully dry sense of humor about his own limitations.  His research into the Trail’s historical idiosyncrasies manages to make even the dispute of mileage or the preservation of mollusks fascinating.  Upsetting too, sometimes, because nature is seriously suffering from mankind’s meddlesome ways.

Some of the funniest moments in A Walk In The Woods come straight out of Bryson’s imagination.  After reading too many books about bear attacks, he describes in detail exactly how badly he would react in such an encounter, fantasizing horrors before he even sets out on his hike.  I laughed – screeched, really – at the way he phrased his fears, but then I started to worry myself.

“And is 500 certified attacks really such a modest number, considering how few people go into the North American woods?  And how foolish must one be to be reassured by the information that no bear has killed a human in Vermont or New Hampshire in 200 years?  That’s not because the bears have signed a treaty, you know.  There’s nothing to say that they won’t start a modest rampage tomorrow.”

Even as the style of writing kept me in high spirits, I am now twice as aware of how perilous the wilderness would be for a pansy-ass bookworm like me.  But the point is that Bryson read the books full of troubling statistics.  He felt how heavy the pack was and he looked over the disturbingly unhelpful maps of the trail, and then he set out anyway.  I guess that’s how interesting, funny, informative travel books get written.

The descriptions of mountain views in one state and endless tunnels of dense foliage in others really drove home just how extensive the AT really is.  I mean, a walking trail that connects Georgia to Maine?!?  The United States is a collection of so many different climates and terrains, and reading this book reminded me to stand in constant wonder at this land mass I live on.  And the people in along the trail… oh the people…  Bill and his travel buddy Stephan Katz are characters on their own, with Bryson looking for a story in every adventure and Katz providing plenty of inspiration with his ill-prepared; calamitous; yet somehow endearing attitude towards the woods.  But the pair’s encounters with other hikers, as well as with folks back in civilization, left me agog on several occasions.  Mary Ellen is one such gem: a belligerent and judgmental natterer who invites herself to walk with Bryson and Katz for a cringe-worthy leg of their journey.

“I have long known that it is part of God’s plan for me to spend a little time with each of the most stupid people on earth, and Mary Ellen was proof that even in the Appalachian woods I would not be spared. It became evident that she was a rarity.”

If anyone was going to get devoured by hungry carnivores in this book, I couldn’t help hoping it might be her.  Maybe I’m even less charitable towards my fellow humans than Stephen and Bill felt when they finally abandoned Mary Ellen, but I don’t care.  She’s my very least favorite kind of person, though reading sarcastic remarks about such an individual was pretty fun.  Then there were the boyscout troops and insufferably spoiled, drunk adults who shattered the rugged serenity at various camping platforms.  Meeting these people through Bryson made me almost excited for the day when mankind might die out and leave nature to its own devices once more.  But then some people were kind and restored my hope: dangerously irresponsible teenagers who offer the two haggard hikers a ride, for example, and rangers who light up from within when talking about the scenery they try to preserve.

Bryson does occasionally criticize the U.S. Forest service for flagrant mis-spending of funds, laughable cartography, and even blatant hypocrisy about logging and development.  These faults need to be pointed out, but he retains a sense of humor and genuine love for the trail even while cataloging the institutions relentless obsession with building roads where trees used to be.  Bill and Katz certainly encounter the plenty of misfortune as they play at being mountain men.   (Want to read a book about a fellow who really bids civilization adieu to survive on his own in nature?  Read Elizabeth Gilberts The Last American Man, which I reviewed here.) They come to realize why so many hikers give up after completing only the smallest fraction of the Applachian Trail: the road is long and Nature makes no promises to be hospitable.  But as they push through blizzards and argue over provisions, the boyish enthusiasm for an outdoor adventure always takes over the narrative soon enough.

Bryson has put into hilarious words the wonderment we should all feel when contemplating the American landscape. I highly recommend A Walk In The Woods to anyone who likes conversational, enlightening writing about utterly unique places on earth.  Not much of a nonfiction reader, myself, I happily followed Bryson’s every step and misstep along the path. The hilarious anecdotes, stunning descriptions, and sobering statistics left me feeling like I’d seen a part of the Appalachian Trail.  I closed the book and was surprised to find no mud on my boots, and that the only ache on my body was from trying to hold in my laughter while I read on the library lawn.

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