Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Pretty Ugly

by Kirker Butler
Thomas Dunne Books   2015
294 pages     Satire

"Pretty Ugly is a satirical look at a dysfunctional southern family complete with an overbearing stage mom, a 9 year old pageant queen, a cheating husband, his teenage girlfriend, a crazy grandmother, and Jesus."

Sometimes satire is the only solution! That was the case for me during the last week of the semester when students were calling every other minute with papers to edit! Thank goodness for satire.

Kirker Butler is a screen writer and producer for comedy shows like The Family Guy, Cleveland, and Galavant. Pretty Ugly is his send-up of TV reality shows and southern children's beauty pageants in particular.  He grew up in Western Kentucky where Pretty Ugly takes place, and his mother was the director of the Ohio County Fair Beauty Pageant. So he knows what he is talking about and what he is talking about is painfully funny. 

Miranda Kelly was a beauty pageant contestant as a teenager, and she has carried on that tradition with her young daughter, Bailey, relentlessly pushing her unwilling daughter into pageant after pageant, weekend after weekend, driving her family into debt and her 9 year old daughter into despair. Miranda leaves her two young sons with a grandma who talks to Jesus all day long, and leaves her husband working 80 hour weeks as a nurse to pay for the horrendous expense of dresses and shoes and makeup and hairdressers. Ray has his own story which runs counter to the beauty pageant story and is as full of craziness as the pageant story.

My favorite little tidbits in the book are the names of all the pageants that Bailey has entered and all the prizes she has won. If it weren't for the pageant winnings, the family would have nothing. The assumption of the novel is that the real life of beauty pageants is not that different from the world of Miranda, the ultimate stage mother.

Everything and everyone is totally dysfunctional  but it is all played for laughs. One can imagine the entire story line as a comedy movie, which I am sure was the intent. It is great fun and poignant at the same time. One reviewer says, "If this book wasn't so brilliantly written it would be a very sad story. But Butler's dialogue and first-person perspective almost drip with satire. I feel like I'm watching a TLC show just because it's on and I want to see the train wreck unfold."

Read it on your Kindle on your next plane ride. Make everyone on the plane wonder why you're laughing so hard. Now if you'll excuse me, I am going to watch a little TLC.

Kirker Butler's website.
The review in the Louisville newspaper—which is really good, by the way.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Invention of Wings

by Sue Monk Kidd
Penguin Books  2014
384 pages     Historical Fiction

"We are all yearning for a wedge of sky, aren't we?"

Sarah Grimke is a girl of eleven in 1803 Charleston SC when her parents give her a slave girl, Hetty (or Handful as she is known), the daughter of the family dressmaker. Sarah is indignant. She does not want her own slave; she hates the idea of slavery, but her voice is a minority in one of the leading families of Charleston. Having slaves is just "as natural as breathing." Sarah is drawn to Handful and Handful decides that she can gain some advantage by being kind and helpful to Sarah. Sarah vows that someday she will set Handful free, but it takes many years for that to happen. 

Sarah and her sister Nina, spend their lives defying the custom of the South, and end up in as leading abolitionists in the country by the mid-1800s. Sue Monk Kidd has fashioned her novel, The Invention of Wings on the lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, who were very famous in their day, but whose fame as abolitionists and suffragists was supplanted by others whose names are better remembered. The character of Hetty is based on a real slave girl in the Grimke family, but one who did not survive until adulthood. The fact and fiction of the lives of these two women, Sarah and Hetty, are woven together in alternating chapters. Both stories are powerfully told, although quite often Hetty's words resonate with the horror of the downtrodden. Sarah comes across as noble as she leaves the South, becomes a Quaker, and speaks the truth of slavery throughout the North.

Kidd has very carefully researched the times and the circumstances—the treatment of the slaves is so graphically told that the reader recoils in horror at what was expected punishment for minor infractions, such as stealing food or fabric. As is typical of Kidd's work, the characters are extremely finely drawn, although she may have had some constraints with the character of Sarah, because she had an actual life history.

One of the best characters in the book is Handful's mother, Charlotte, who is very rebellious and clever. She is the family seamstress and teaches Handful everything she knows, both spiritually and creatively. She crafts a story quilt that tells the story of her life. Charlotte tells Handful that "spirits live in the trees with the birds, learning to fly." She tells her that her shoulder blades are the nubs of wings. Charlotte puts small black triangles into her quilt, the wings that she tries again and again to use as she attempts to escape from her captivity. 

Two summers ago, we visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati and experienced an exhibit of African American story quilts,  similar to the one that Charlotte creates and plays such a significant role in the novel. I could truly imagine what Charlotte's quilt looked like as I was reading because of the example of the incredible quilts in the Museum.

Although my experience with black vernacular and the black experience are really limited, I believe that Kidd's own experience as a white Southern woman with domestics in her parents' and grandparents' homes resonates in her characterizations. For example, my friend Jean frequently says of her mother, "She is getting on my last nerve." The character, Hetty, says that in one of the early chapters of the book. I told Jean that her saying, "She's getting on my last nerve" goes back to the early 1800s in the African American slave community. She was pleased and amazed to know that.

I very much appreciated The Invention of Wings. I appreciated knowing about the life experience of Sarah and Nina Grimke, about Handful (Hetty) and I appreciated learning about an era of American history that I knew very little about. 

Kidd has created a powerful novel full of truths to ponder for a long time after the book is closed the last time. Our book club had a terrific discussion. I would highly recommend it for your book club.

A review in the New York Times.
An interview about the book with Sue Monk Kidd.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Four Years in the Mountains of Kurdistan: An Armenian Boy's Memoir of Survival

by Aram Haigaz
Maiden Lane Press    2015
362 pages     Memoir
The Short List

This year is the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, when the Turks of the Ottoman Empire forcibly removed Armenian Christians from their villages. In all 1.5 million Armenians were killed. 

Yesterday, for the first time, a German president acknowledged Germany's role in the 1915 genocide. Turkey, on the other hand  protests any government that calls the killing a genocide. They say that Armenians died during fighting in a civil war in which they were aided by the Russians.

A memoir by Aram Haigaz, a survivor of that genocide, was recently published after having been translated from Armenian by his daughter Iris Chekenian. Haigaz wrote the memoir in Armenian in the 1970s. Aram was taken by the Turks as a boy of 15 and was convinced by his mother to convert to Islam in order to survive. He lived as a servant in a Turkish family for four years. The only member of the household staff who could read, he also was able to take care of the animals of the family. Very smart and articulate, Aram had the skills necessary to survive, and in the early 1920s was able to come to the United States where he lived until he died in 1986. He became an author in the Armenian language, and continued to tell the stories of his people. His first book, The Fall of the Aerie, is one of the only first-hand accounts of the genocide in his small village.

Lovingly translated, this is a masterful memoir of the inhumanity of the genocide that continues to haunt the world 100 years later. One reviewer calls the book "a richly detailed testimony to a young man's courage in the face of unspeakable horror."

Several events are planned in connection to the centenary, including events in Pasadena, the home of the largest Armenian community in the United States.
Here is a review in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
A review in the EKurd Daily.


Thursday, April 9, 2015

Picnic in Provence

By Elizabeth Bard
Little, Brown 2015
384 Pages Memoir/Cookbook

"Impose your chance, hold tight to your happiness, and go toward your risk. Looking your way, they’ll follow." Rene Char.
I am trying to understand why I am attracted to memoirs about cooking. I have read several over the past few years. Picnic in Provence attracted me because I am feeling trapped in my house and traveling to Provence via food seemed like a good idea.

This is the second in a series of memoirs Bard has written that involves her life cooking, eating and creating a life in France. The first, Lunch in Paris, takes Bard from the United States to Paris where she meets her husband, Gwendal, who is a digital movie producer. Picnic in Provence begins with the couple and their infant son traveling “en vacance” to a small village in Provence, CĂ©reste, following the trail of a French poet and resistance fighter, Rene Char. When they were offered an opportunity to buy the house where Char had lived and worked, they jumped at the chance, bought the house, and changed their lives, entirely. As Bard says, “We have stumbled into an unlikely life. All the five-year plans in the world wouldn’t have gotten us here. Yet it’s exactly the right place to be.”

Even though she has been in France for ten years, Bard still feels like she has a lot to learn in order to be considered French. At the same time that she feels this personal alienation, she  also feels very close to the community that they have adopted, and that has adopted them. Bard is bold enough to ask lots of food questions, and the villagers are eager to help her. She learns to make the foods of the region, and enjoys meeting the farmers of the area and learning how the foods of the area are picked and are cooked.
Intermingled with the cooking, there are some moving moments as Bard learns how to be a mother and how to forgive some of the circumstances from her past. This is primarily an upbeat memoir, because Bard is an upbeat person. At times her narrative is poignant, but mostly it is fun.

Now, about the cooking. Each chapter has several examples of meals cooked, either by her or by someone close to her. She is learning the French diet and French cooking, so she is willing to explore all the staples of the diet in Provence. Figs are her favorite. (I don’t think I have ever done anything with a fig but eat one.) These recipes are mostly not 15 minutes to the table recipes, although she does include some of those. Primarily, her recipes are cooked with the natural ingredients of the region. All of them look delicious.

The biggest news of the book is that Bard and her husband decide to go into the ice cream business. It takes a year to get Scaramouche Artisan Glacier up and running, but within two years it has been named one of the ten best ice cream shops in France. Everything they make is with natural ingredients from the region, and they are not afraid to put unusual ingredients together. I am not sure that Lavender Honey and Thyme Ice Cream would sell in the United States, but it is a favorite at their shop.

The recipe that looked the best to me was the Arugula Salad with butternut squash, roasted red onions, walnuts and fresh goat cheese salad. I’m going to try that next week.

I traveled to Provence years ago, but I was able to travel there again by reading Picnic in Provence. You will love it, too.
Some other cookbook/memoirs that I can recommend are: Life from Scratch by Sasha Martin and Day of Honey by Annia Ciezadlo.

Elizabeth Bard's website.