Seward Johnson: A Life in Public Art (CBR15 #13)

Seward Johnson sculpture La Promenade inspired by Gustave Caillebotte’s “Paris Street; Rainy Day.” (1887) Two figures sharing an umbrella in victorian dress.

I’m in a reading slump. I have great books at home staring at me, waiting for me to be in the mood for them and so far, nothing – for weeks now. I’ve been marathoning my way through procedurals on various streaming services instead. But, a work project meant that I *had* to read a book so I’m hoping that getting it done and reviewed will help get me out of this slump.

My organization is hosting 10 works by sculptor Seward Johnson this summer/fall at one of our arboretums and I volunteered to write the audio tour script. Which meant that I needed to get familiar with the artist and his work. Enter into my life Seward Johnson: A Life in Public Art published in 2014. It is a retrospective of Johnson’s art career of the previous 45 years (he would continue working until his death in 2020). What I needed was a comprehensive examination of the artist and this book is exactly that.

What I enjoyed most about A Life in Public Art (beyond the literal hundreds of images) is that it breaks Johnson’s career down into its several phases and then the text is based on extensive interviews between the authors with additional interstitials serving as broad introductions to each series of works and then reflecting on them and their place within the larger art world and in relation to Johnson’s audience. While Seward Johnson’s sculptures may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I respect the why of his work. He wanted to capture the mundane to celebrate it. He focused on public art because he wanted to draw people into shared spaces like parks. His art is meant to be playful, people are encouraged to interact with them, touch them even. He also is a bit cheeky, hiding humorous details in most of his pieces.

My tour script is out with staff being reviewed and I was able to pull lots of information directly from the artist to share with visitors because of this book so it served its purpose well in that regard. We’ll see if it helps jumpstart my reading.

Why We Can’t Sleep (CBR15 #11)

Why We Can’t Sleep is a book about Gen X Women and how mid-life is affecting them. Why then, am I a Millennial lady reading it? Because as someone who just turned 40 I often find that I identify more with things that are defined as Gen X as opposed to Millennial (the accepted year bracket for Gen X is 1964-1980, but there are models that have put it as late as 1984). I’m like many other millions of people existing on the boundaries of the generational lines but I am certainly by anyone’s math in my middle age, give or take.

My reasons for reading this are similar to my reasons for reading What Fresh Hell is This two years ago. I’m already dealing with it, best to get my head around what’s coming.

I mentioned in my review of Priceless that I’ve been coming up a little disappointed in narrative non-fiction lately, but Why We Can’t Sleep definitely turned the corner on that (I hope it continues). Calhoun grows this book out from an article she wrote for O Magazine. Like most of the rest of the way Gen X has experienced life, mid-life is hitting differently for its women than those who have come before us. This rings incredibly true to me at this time.

Each chapter covers a different topic, and the basis of the book is in interviews that Calhoun conducted with a wide slice of Gen X women (but she is clear in her foreword that this book is about middle class Gen X women, there are other factors which exacerbate the struggle in mid-life of women in lower socio-economic spheres). I appreciate that Calhoun set herself a reasonable boundary to explore, it helps keep Why We Can’t Sleep from growing into a behemoth and instead remain a crisp 250 pages.

When my brother asked me what I was reading when he spotted this book sitting on the table I told him, “Oh, its about mid-life for women and how its all a bit bleak.” He was dumbfounded – why was I reading a book that bummed me out. But then I reassured him, it didn’t – having an author interview 200 women and do the secondary research and turn around and say, yep this is a thing that is happening to lots of women actually lowered my anxiety. I may be worried about lots of things and the feelings that I have to defend the way I live my life, but there’s reasons why its happening and I’m not alone. Not alone, and having language to describe what’s happening, are what help keep me afloat. Is everyone going to love the tone of this book? Nope. There were certainly components that I skimmed through, but I think if you are a lady person in your late 30s or your 40s there is plenty here you might find relatable.

From Hollywood With Love (CBR15 #9)

I love romantic comedies. It’s the same reason I love Romance novels, I’m sure. There’s a joy in knowing that the end of the story is going to be happy, and that you’ll be treated to laughs along the way. They are my re-charge kind of story. When I saw Ellesfena’s review last year I plunked Scott Meslow’s From Hollywood with Love: The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of the Romantic Comedy on my to read list. When putting in my library requests this one seemed a lovely match for February, and thanks to HarperCollins signing a contract with their striking workforce I am free to post my review (I had pledged not to review while the strike was ongoing).

By and large this book sets out to track what its subtitle promises. Meslow defines his boundaries and then marches from When Harry Met Sally through to Crazy Rich Asians giving a glimpse at how Hollywood has embraced – or not – romance and the mid-level movie and the places where streamers and others are stepping in to see an uptick in romcom development. Meslow structures his book by going back and forth between taking a deep dive in a movie and then spotlighting an actor. I found that this was a good way to break up the narrative, but this methodology of one movie at a time still lent to a repetitive nature. Meslow does a better job than many at linking forward and back within his text to pull at the larger themes he his discussing, but it is still a tough ask when the movies are siloed instead of being organized in a thematic way.

Spare (CBR15 #8)

I had no intention of reading Prince Harry’s memoir. Until I did. I should have known I’d cave, I’m a sucker for memoirs. There’s something about hearing a person’s story in their own words, particularly if that story is contested in some way, as Prince Harry’s has always been. What Spare is, at its core, is a person reckoning with the way in which they were raised, and the very real ways grief and trauma informed their experience of the world. That is the piece of the writing that pushed me to finish the book because even as I started, I figured I would not read the last section on his relationship with Meghan (particularly since I had watched their Netflix documentary series) but alas I read all 410 pages of this book. 

Before continuing It should be mentioned that while Harry is never going to join me in my anti-monarchy sensibilities, he does acknowledge the cost the monarchy has for the British taxpayer (and its benefits) in addition to the colonialism. Of course, I would have preferred if he had dug deeper into how the exploitation of indigenous peoples and other communities of color in the name of colonialism built the system in which he lived but that is not this book, and that is okay. (I do wonder if the other books possibly in the pipeline he has alluded to in interviews will tackle that more head-on, but I know the answer is probably not.) 

Spare instead is a chronicling of Harry’s life ages 12-37. He struggled at school, struggled with anger, with loneliness and with existing in a pre-established relationship with the British press, whom he blamed for his mother’s death, had with his family. He rails against all of it, to a mixed bag of results. He doesn’t shy away from discussing all the times he’s ended up in press for legitimate errors of judgement (the Nazi uniform, the ethnic slurs, the nakedness) but the impression – from action and word – is that he is someone looking to correct his errors or lack of knowledge. It is obvious from the writing that his time in the British Army is foundational to how he built his adult life, but it is not without further cost in the form of post-traumatic stress and crippling panic attacks. It is not surprising then that the last 6-8 years have played out the way they have. While truth is often at the intersection of stories this book is well enough written that while acknowledging that it cannot all be accurate, it feels more in line with our fallible memories, not active obfuscation. But… I could be wrong about that; I just hope I am not. I think the book would have been served better by waiting a bit longer to publish, but I understand that they have security bills to pay and deals with Netflix and his publisher make that happen, so I’ll accept it as is without too much complaint. 

On the Line (CBR15 #7)

I had some unexpected travel last week and grabbed the nearest library book to read on the plane. On the Line: a Story of Class, Solidarity, and Two Women’s Epic Fight to Build a Union had come to my attention due to a pro-union cat on twitter (@jortsthecat – which if you haven’t encountered, I promise he and Jean are worth taking a quick deep dive). I don’t know if it was the time/place I was reading it, or my affection for the recommending source and their tone, or the actual writing of the book but this one was firmly middle of the road for me.

On the Line is Daisy Pitkin’s retelling of her time spent as a union organizer for industrial laundries in Phoenix, Arizona. In it she captures her own mindset, and the questions she was asking herself about the work as well as her relationships she had with the workers in the laundry – especially Alma (with whom the profits of the book are shared). It also documents the strategies her union (UNITE) attempted to use to organize the laundry, those of the union they merged with during the five-year campaign, and the fallout for all involved as the struggled against a rather vicious anti-union campaign from the company.

There were parts of this book that I enjoyed, and that I think are important as we reckon with labor laws that have been eroded to the point of being too weak to help most workers fight back and win in the United States. Based on who I am as a person the sections where Pitkin lays out the actual history of the unions which eventually become UNITE (garment workers) and how that story is mythologized were the strongest for me as they are both important social history but provide a lens to view organizing and its costs. I appreciated that Pitkin explicitly reckons with the privilege she brought with her into her experience in Phoenix and the imbalance of power that comes from top-down organizing but I was left with the sensation that while she named it, she didn’t fully interrogate it or land on a final thought.

What didn’t work for me were the sections of this book that make up the other half of the narrative. I know Pitkin was going for a metaphor or allegory in unpacking her consistent nightmares about moths during her time organizing in Phoenix and her later continued fascination with studying them, but the sections stood starkly in contrast with the other sections. The other thing isn’t the book’s fault so I’m not weighing it against my rating (not Pitkin’s fault I’m currently very mad at my union and reps).

The Best American Travel Writing 2020

One of this year’s Read Harder tasks was to read a “Best _ Writing of the year” book for a topic and year of your choice. I had a couple ideas and went perusing through my library catalog to see what I could come up with. And then I saw The Best American Travel Writing 2020 edited by Jason Wilson and the absurdity of these pandemic years meant that this one won out. Consider me intrigued to know what won out in a year that no one travelled very far.

In reality these pieces were written in 2019 when the world was still travelling and selected in spring 2020 when it stopped. But from their forewords series editor Jason Wilson and edition editor Robert Macfarlane it is apparent that the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic effected their choices.

I found this particular collection to be very uneven in content and quality. I enjoyed about half of the pieces included, but for most enjoyed is perhaps a stretch. For far too many I caught myself skimming. Only a few really held my attention: Life, Death, and the Border Patrol by Jackie Bryant where she writes about the humanitarian work undertaken by hikers caching supplies for migrants, What I Learned in Avalanche School by Heidi Julavits which chronicles the author’s choice to go to Avalanche School and what that experience was like, My Father’s Land by Courtney Desiree Morris which delves into the embedded racism in tourist attractions – historical or otherwise, and Vacation Memories Marred by the Indelible Stain of Racism by Shanna B. Tiayon where the discrimination becomes directed squarely on one family in a National Park.

Based on my own work the final two of those pieces struck me as the most pressing, but that isn’t to say runner up pieces such as How to Mourn a Glacier by Lacy M. Jones, Glow by James Lasdun, and The Last of the Great American Hobos by Jeff MacGregor didn’t have their strengths. I’m ignoring the rest which dragged my rating down. Instead I want to mention that as of 2021 this series has been cancelled by the publisher, and even though this particular edition didn’t give me a lot personally the depth and breadth of the kinds of writing which qualify as “travel” writing do deserve a spotlight (there is no writing award for the category) so I am sad that this process will no longer exist, to catalogue what the writing looks like.

Gender: A World History

Gender: A World History found its way to my ears (I went audiobook form for this one) due to a sale. For $2.99 this sounded like just the sort of thing I’d like to read. For the most part this book did fit my needs and meets the criteria of being as advertised: this was in fact a history that was serious about being global in scope and a historical survey of the topic of gender and how it has been understood through the ages.

Author Susan Kingsley Kent, a professor in the Department of History at the University of Colorado, Boulder, spends 7 hours/190 pages breaking down how gender exists in almost every society as a way of organizing its people and how gender is used to assign certain responsibilities, obligations, and privileges to some, and to deny them to others.

What we have here is a good introduction to gender studies and the social and cultural constructions of masculinity and femininity. I had personally hoped for a bit more in-depth information, but in trading breadth of locations and times covered Kent gave away room for deep dives. But although I was a bit disappointed this book does still manage to analyze how race, ethnicity, location, and social class intersect with what we generally understand as gender.

Best of all, Kent writes from the point of view that gender is not neutral. The chronological organization shows how understanding of gender changes over time, affecting historical events, ideologies, and people. The history of gender can also shed light on other types of relations, such as those between a government and its people, between different social classes, and between a colony and its colonizer. I just wish this book allowed itself to be a bit more as it generally shies away from gender identity.

My Life in France (CBR14 #59)

The story of Julia Child’s years in France in her own words was literally the second book I put on my Goodreads to read list in January 2012. It has taken me this long to get to it, but I’m perfectly happy to have waited until I was in the right mood – even though this book made me hungry every time I picked it up.

My Life in France is exactly what the title says it is. For most people the contents of this book would be most familiar as the basis for the Julia side of the movie Julie & Julia. Julia and Paul Child spent several years living in France and would return to it frequently over the course of their lives. When Julia Child first arrived in France in 1948 with her husband Paul, who worked for the USIS, she spoke no French and knew nothing about the country itself. Nor was she a cook of any quality. But she dove into French culture, buying food at local markets and taking classes at the Cordon Bleu. From that point on her life changed with her newfound passion for cooking and teaching.

This book chronicles with incredible detail what the Childs got up to. The reader is with Julia as she struggles with the head of the Cordon Bleu, receives rejections from publishers who she sent ok Mastering the Art of French Cooking. If this book has a weakness, it’s the exhaustiveness of the details and their repetition. By the time I got to the second half I caught myself skimming from time to time.

The Address Book (CBR14 #55)

The Address Book is one of many published in early 2020 which likely suffered from a distracted world. Early 2020 was a rough time to publish and attempt to publicize a book. But thanks to lists of books you missed I’m glad this one came to my attention. Separately, recognizing Hollywood, Florida the city next to my hometown listed alongside much larger cities seemed a perfectly good reason to add this book to my reading list.

If you think about street addresses, it is likely in their place in ensuring that mail is delivered, or that a person doesn’t get lost. What I found out from Dierdre Mask’s book (but probably should have pieced together on my own beforehand) is that street addresses were not invented to help you find your way – they were created to find you. There is a lot I hadn’t really thought about as far as the practicalities of addresses, and the sheer amount of people and places in the world that don’t have one. But Dierdre Mask has, and she’s done the research and interviewed the right people to be able to write eloquently about the topic. Each chapter is focused on a particular question about addresses and a city that shines light on the topic (For Hollywood it’s what we can learn about racism from street names).

The Address Book looks at the fate of streets named after Martin Luther King Jr., the wayfinding means of ancient Romans, and how Nazis haunt the streets of modern Germany. The flipside of having an address is not having one, and we also see what that means from those who live in the slums of Kolkata and on the streets of London. The Address Book illuminates the complex and sometimes hidden stories behind street names and their power to name, to hide, to decide who counts, who doesn’t―and why.

I was fascinated by this book for most of its chapters. There were new ways of looking at things, new questions to ask, new information to add to what I already knew. It reminded me of times of another book I read earlier this year, The Color of Law, but that book focuses on American cities while Mask’s book instead hops and skips around the world and through a variety of sizes of communities.

That Noodle Life (CBR14 #49)

cover of That Noodle Life cookbook by Michael and Stephanie Lee featuring sauced noodles being held up by chopsticks against a green background

That Noodle Life arrived on my radar thanks to emmalita’s review last fall. I wanted to love this book. A cookbook that is all about noodles should be a book I love. Noodles are THE BEST. But sadly, I didn’t love this book. I do like it though, and copied many recipes to keep on hand when my library demanded I give the book back.

Mike and Stephanie Le are the creators of iamafoodblog and have written a cookbook that is a love letter to all things noodle. There are deep dives on certain noodle dishes that are instructive as well as instructional.  Recipes range from traditional Sunday Sauce with Tagliatelle to quick weeknight noodles. There’s also  Sexy Date Night Noodles and a section on how to upgrade instant noodles to make them shine, recipes for making noodles from scratch, notes on essential ingredients, and noodle etiquette, including how to use a ramen vending machine in Japan.

This is a very visual book and it made me hungry – which is always a good sign with a cookbook. Stephanie Le’s beautiful photography is a strong presence and matched with fun, vibrant colors and a friendly voice that makes you feel empowered to cook. But like my time with Stephanie Le’s first cookbook Easy Gourmet the recipes looked delicious there were still a couple of boundaries to me jumping right in. The first is that some of these recipes are a little fancier than I traditionally cook or eat and while the authors make adapting recipes easy by writing the cookbook in a way that encourages adaptation and playing with your food, I will need to do some serious planning in order to tweak the recipes to my skill level and the equipment I have on hand. The other problem is that even though I live in the suburban megalopolis of New Jersey I am still over a half hour away from as Asian market that would allow me to purchase some of the ingredients I will need – which is a reality that isn’t particularly dealt with by the authors who assume that all the specialty ingredients, Asian or otherwise, or easily and affordably available without getting into how or where to source them.