eight-flavors_sarah-lohman

Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine by Sarah Lohman

Hardcover, 304 pages
Expected publication: December 6th 2016 by Simon & Schuster

I was given a copy of this book by the publisher, Simon & Schuster, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

Sarah Lohman’s Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine offers an eclectic and thought-provoking survey into American culinary culture and palettes. She traces our culinary roots and, through professional and personal experience, as well as meticulous research, offers up the history of eight spices that can be found in modern American kitchens today. But where did these spices come from, and how did they become so commonly used in our culture? These are the questions that Lohman probes and explores, pointing out their place in our contemporary palettes as she goes.

Lohman diversifies the research she offers up with anecdotes of her own history with food—including the summers that she worked in an outdoor historical museum, making historically accurate dishes for audiences. With that, there’s something for everyone here in this survey on the American palette. Included within this book are also a slew of recipes so that readers can step back into history themselves, making this read as interactive as it is entertaining and informative. From historical unearthments to 200-year-old recipes heaped in historic truth, Lohman’s Eight Flavors is a read for true foodies and novice culinary explorers alike. 4 stars ****

 

 

white-trash_nancy-isenberg

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg

Hardcover, 480 pages
Published June 21st 2016 by Viking

“If this book accomplishes anything it will be to have exposed a number of myths about the American dream, to have disabused readers of the notion that upward mobility is a function of the founders’ ingenious plan…”

Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America is a kamikaze of research and hard-hitting assessments of our country’s attitude toward the “poor” and “shiftless” masses. It delves into the historical inaccuracies and missteps of a nation, our nation, and is a read to be savored and thoughtfully digested.

Isenberg commences from the stance that she is addressing the fallacious and glossed-over condition of class relations in the U.S., because many Americans (truly, the world) genuinely believe in America as a classless society of un-threatened upward mobility potential. Firstly, if there is, in fact, someone—anyone—out there who honestly believes that class relations don’t exist front and center in America then 1) you need to run and grab this book (and 10 more just like it immediately, now, on your lunch break even!) and 2) might I ask, “What rock have you been hiding under?”

Nancy Isenberg’s survey of American culture from Plymouth Rock to Sarah Palin offers something for everyone. Here she unravels history and popularized tales of John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, the “cracker” president, and even Pocahontas has her Disney-romanticized “diva” status stripped away and re-examined. Isenberg methodically tackles the rise and fall of the Confederacy, the eugenics craze that swept America for decades (still seen today in the form of modern-day dating websites such as eHarmony and Match.com), “The New Deal,” LBJ’s “Great Society” policies, desegregation and shifts in American culture that led to the rise of modern-day “white trash reality TV.” And while I did feel a bit leaden down with the dozens of pages of historical facts on these former presidents in Part I, when I was more interested in the meat of the argument, the task of setting the foundation for her argument was achieved and Part II onward flowed seamlessly. Historical documentation, photographs and illustrations also helped to set the scene and illustrate her assertions in a way that was easily digestible.

With White Trash, Isenberg demands us to ask ourselves, “What really is the American dream? Does it really exist? And if not, what truly stands in its stead?” These are the questions that you will explore, sometimes overtly and sometimes not. She offers some truly eye-opening observations and threads together the fabric of our American history into a full picture for readers to take a step back from and justly scrutinize. Within these pages, you’ll find humor and biting wit, punchlines that sink deeply into your psyche and assertions that are backed by meticulous research.

Isenberg takes a clear and definitive stance in White Trash, writing specifically from a poor-white-centric lens, and honestly, that really appealed to me. Thankfully, she strips away the politically correct, granola pedagogy that we Americans like to think of as good manners and gets straight to the point of her argument: that the idea of American classlessness is a fanciful notion that never truly existed, and that poor whites have always been a significant force at the center of the debate. From the annihilation of Native Americans to the freeing of slaves, poor whites have always factored in, in some way, to the persistent class struggle at hand.

For both those who feel securely aware of the condition of the world around us and for those not as confident in their versing of the historical foundation of the very American soil that we stand on, take a trip down this historical rabbit hole, because here you will find a detailed chronicle to expand upon your current understanding and opinions. You’ll find an analysis that is as ripe with raw insights as it is well-researched. Isenberg takes a blunt stance, a no-nonsense stance, and that always wins the day with me as long as the claims are buoyed in verity. She did that here, and her White Trash gained a strong 4 stars in the process. ****

*Thanks again to Viking for reaching out to me and sending me a hardcover copy of this book!

Evicted_Matthew Desmond

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

Hardcover, 432 pages
Published March 1st 2016 by Crown

I received a copy of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City from the publisher, Crown, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Matthew Desmond’s research-driven prose is a dazzling work of examination and insight. Within these pages, the business and culture of evictions is dissected down to the very dollars and cents that uphold this thriving industry. The judicial system and the role it plays is scrutinized, and the lives of 8 families are put on intimate display for readers to bear witness to. Within the pages of Eviction, Desmond paints a clandestine portrait of the precarious lives of those living at and below the poverty line in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, during the time of his research. The survey into this little-known world is done first hand, with the aid of a tape recorder, and thus is the most personal and complete look at modern American poverty that I have read in a long time. Here, readers will follow the desolate, the addicted, the impoverished and the “lords” who shape their lives in these dangerous and volatile social environments called homes.

This book unveiled some of the most stunningly accurate vernacular and dialogue that I have seen anywhere, non-fiction or fiction. (Note to self: if you want to really capture the essence of a culture, use a tape recorder.) With this simple technique, Desmond was able to capture the true personification of the frustration and despair, of their interactions and intentions, and, hence, the dialogue told a story all of its own within these pages. It told a story of where these people came from and how they truly related to one another on a human level. He captured the true swag of these neighborhoods, the soul and essence that can’t be seen at first passing glance out of a car window.

The research in Evicted was expertly incorporated so that it read as fluidly in narrative as a fiction novel, and it was incorporated throughout, which was great, because it allowed the reader to absorb the information with illustrations of narration to make it easier and faster to digest. It also allowed for a read that wasn’t leaden with factoids, reading like a dry and tedious text book. The lives he chose to chronicle and exhibit were harrowing and demonstrative of humanity’s capacity to fail and to survive, to overcome and to find comfort in community. It also pulled back the curtains on this booming industry that both exploits the poor and treats them as expendable members of society.

In Evicted, Desmond dissected a truth that goes back to the Civil Rights Movement when Fair Housing laws were enacted. Stirring and emotional, this read holds a shiny mirror to the face of America. Similar to the PIC (Prison Industrial Complex) the eviction process, nay culture, is a vicious and debilitating cycle with ripple effects into communities. This exposé displayed how crime and evictions go hand-in-hand, each leading to the other with alarming frequency, a form of institutionalized parasitism on the poor at the hands of the judicial system and slum lords (in the instances where there are, in fact, slum lords). Here, Desmond portrays both the crimes that lead to evictions and the evictions that foster a bed of crimes.

This work really appealed to me when I read its blurb, and it did not disappoint. It was not a traumatically graphic read, but it was all consuming. Vignette after vignette portrayed the mental and emotional anguish that living at the poverty line heaps on it dwellers so that the only reprieve came in the form of spirited dialogue and intimate conversations between those he chronicled and their family and friends and from the research that clarified the stats behind their suffering, which was interspersed throughout. Other than that, there was no reprieve from the grief, struggling and suffering and, in a way, I think that that was not only the point of this read but, in many ways, an intellectual profit to the reader. Within these pages, those who could never in their own everyday lives imagine such hardships will be transported over the imaginary line that exists in all cities: the line between the haves and the have nots. That is a line that everyone should cross at some time, so pick up this read preparing to take a journey. Evicted gained itself a strong 4 stars. ****

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Throwback Thursday: The Hip Hop Wars by Tricia Rose

Paperback, 320 pages
Published December 2nd 2008 by Basic Civitas Books (first published January 1st 2008)

          “Hip Hop is not dead, but it is gravely ill. The beauty and life force of hip hop have been squeezed out, wrung nearly dry by the compounding factors of commercialism, distorted racial and sexual fantasy, oppression, and alienation. It has been a sad thing to witness.”

Rose’s survey on the current state of the hip hop industry is a dazzling display of contemporary cultural probing and criticism. The Hip Hop Wars dissects the music industry, particularly the sphere of hip hop music, and puts it through a methodical and impassioned analysis from the inside out. Two-thirds of this work uses the framework of Critics vs. Defenders, exploring each side of the arguments presented, which allowed for an extremely dynamic and diverse examination of the subject. Simultaneously, Part Two: Progressive Futures offered solutions to the “problem” that hip hop and the African American diaspora, as the community and identity surrounding it, are confronted with. The format itself was refreshing, as it endeavored to offer as comprehensive a view of the industry’s landscape as possible, while also offering solutions to the problems, rather than simply proselytizing to the masses from a perch on a soap box. No, this was a down-to-earth work in that way, in that the author was clearly writing from the concerned standpoint of one entrenched in the soul of the very wounded creature that they seek to heal, rather than from an outsider’s view, hovering above the culture and taking stilled snapshots from their safe locale outside of the battle field, away from the dangers of getting their own hands dirty.

Rose reaches into the heart of the new technologies and music markets that now shape and affect this music, as well as the gaping mouth of the corporate Goliath poised to gobble up this once-expressive art form like the Cookie Monster. She examines the who, what, when, where, and, most importantly, the why of the disintegration of this form of artful story-telling and the complicit-ness of the artists and its consumers in the demise of their own culture, their own music, their own outlet and venue of true personal expression. Neither rappers, nor music moguls nor radio stations are spared in this introspective and insightful survey. Unemployment, the drug trade, and even affordable housing and white consumption, feminism, sexism (all the isms, really), even Shaft and Foxy Brown’s roles in the foundation, intent and culture of hip hop music are examined and explained to create an entire picture of the hip hop music industry and its players.

While I loved The Hip Hop Wars and the passion and thorough research with which Rose displayed her arguments, there were times where she managed to nearly push me off the bandwagon—well, maybe not off, but to the edge. Some of her arguments seemed a bit overwrought and exaggerative, and there are several places in my notes—believe me, this one was highlighted and marked up like schoolwork—where I wrote that I thought she was overdoing it a bit.

However, her overall argument really grabbed me, educated me and entertained me. I felt that I came away with something that I didn’t have before, when I finished the last page and closed the book, and that is what reading is all about; that is what a good argument should do. I would absolutely read this one again and suggest it to anyone considering giving it a whirl. This one proved why we can’t just sit by and watch an art form crumble, watch a culture be commercialized, packaged and sold with such deformities that it no longer represents the subject that it depicts at all—all for the sake of capitalism and mass exploitation:

          “The term ‘street’ became a euphemism for a monsoon of profanity, gratuitous violence, female and male hyper-promiscuity, the most vulgar materialism, and the total suppression of social consciousness.”

That is not what black culture is about, though it is the way that it is portrayed on the radio and in pop culture. The Hip Hop Wars brought to the forefront where it all went wrong, and how we can take it back again. True hip hop is not gentrified or yuppified; it isn’t Barbie-doll packaged and ready for shipping, complete with a thong and gold teeth. It isn’t the minstrel show that it’s become today, and Tricia Rose helps us to both remember and explore that. 4 ½ stars ****

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

Hardcover, 302 pages
Published November 1st 2010 by Little, Brown and Company

Released to rave reviews and the full packaging monty of its publisher, Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra took the NYT by storm in 2011, remaining there for months. And no wonder! This kamikaze of masterly writing, meticulous and thorough research, and humanizing hand of the author did a spectacular job of unmasking the woman behind the myth and debunking the lies we today call slander.
This is the biography of Queen Cleopatra VII Philopator (as the title implies) but it is done unlike any other. (PLEASE) remove the images of Liz Taylor in near-drag from your mind as you embark on this one, for this work is a truly stunning portrayal of the woman behind the parable. This biography delves into her marriages, her political decisions, her rise and her downfall. The flap said it all. In fact, it was the dazzling summary in the book flap that drew me in (rather than the razzle dazzle of Schiff’s renowned name on the cover and spine):
“Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons…In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order, a generation before the birth of Christ.”

Honestly, I couldn’t have summed this one up better myself (and whoever wrote that flap summary, in its entirety, should be commended themselves).
This biography, mind you, was released before the (in my opinion) disastrous exposé that Schiff did on The Witches, back when I’d never heard of this Pulitzer Prize winner and my mind was free of all bias for what those pages might hold, for how her style of writing would or would not stimulate and intrigue me. So, I was delighted to find that even the very first line drew me in with a skill rivaling the best in fiction, and her knack for weaving a story out of the hard research and history lost—rather than numbing the reader’s mind with dull and tiresome fact after fact—kept me reading, and hooked.
“Among the most famous women to have lived, Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for twenty-two years. She lost a kingdom once, regained it, nearly lost it again, amassed an empire, lost it all.”
Thus go the very first two lines of this biographical tour de force. Schiff weaves the tale in three dimensions. The world—Cleopatra’s world—that she depicts is rich with detail, color, noise. Intrigue, scandal, but, best of all, skillful and methodical stripping away of the myths that surround the legend. Page by page, Schiff untangles the Queen from the lies that have torn her down and muddied her name and her legacy, her intelligence and her political savvy. She dissects the hard decisions made in the name of sovereignty and survival that have painted Cleopatra both the witch and the harlot for centuries, truly, millennia—detailing the actions that made the Queen while giving the reader the perspective of the Queen who made the actions.
No surprise that the same methods used to villainize women both today and historically were used to dismantle the legacy of a great ruler of that era; indeed, the last ruler of that era. But Schiff’s Cleopatra did not cower behind the wall of generations of myth and salaciousness. Everything from her genealogy and skin tone (about as disputed as that of Christ himself’s) to education and precarious upbringing were explored, and Schiff’s work did a masterly job of giving the reader a view of Cleopatra’s life from a thrilling perch, as if right on her shoulder the entire time.
Because of this work, I will most certainly give Schiff’s writing another chance. This page turner (I literally finished half of it in one sitting) made me laugh with the satirical jabs that Schiff managed to aim at the lies surround her muse. It brought me to tears—yes, real ones!—at the climactic conclusion that left a queen and her lover dead and an era at an end. And the clever style of writing itself was witty, intellectual, adroit and entertaining to say the least. My copy was left full of highlighted passages and marginal notes; the best kind of read, if you ask me. Five stars *****

The Witches_Stacy Schiff

The Witches, Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff

Hardcover, 417 pages
Published October 27th 2015 by Little, Brown and Company

I’m sorry to say that this one nearly bored me to tears (yes, literal and actual tears), which is a far cry from what I’d expected—and what Miss Schiff’s previous prize-winner, Cleopatra, invoked in me during the reading of it. I was ever so excited to start this one because I’d SO enjoyed Cleopatra—that one had me turning pages faster than any fiction thriller ever has and literally brought me to tears in the end—definitely the kind of roller coaster read that we all yearn for but wouldn’t dream of finding in a biography!

However, I found The Witches to be a muddled let-down from the very first page! A tremendous bore whose tendency towards superfluous purple prose didn’t have nearly the moving effect as it offered before. This one proved to be as laborious a task in reading as it must have been in writing, which is never the effect that an author wishes to achieve, I’d imagine. It skipped around from progressing through the timeline of events in its narration to delving into the most minute details of the backgrounds of even the most minor individuals—an enterprise to be applauded that her research yielded such the treasure trove of information, but a fact that severely slowed the progression of the narrative and made the following of it more difficult than necessary.

I felt like I was constantly juggling the backstory of each minister, shop keeper, servant and—Lord help me, each family line. Now, who refused to bring firewood to the new minister, and who first accused who of witchcraft because what (and whose cousin/sister/brother/niece/neighbor was that again)? That’s what it sounded like in my head with every page I turned! Ordinarily, such a deep understanding of the characters would be enriching to say the least, but this made me feel leaden down and burdened with the reading of the minutiae, like I was trudging through never-ending quicksand! This actually made it hard to get back into the timeline of events because I sometimes couldn’t remember where I’d even left off in the recounting before the meandering path of anecdotes about all of the interweaving families had knocked me off my reading compass. It was a lot like trying to follow a path already overridden with weeds (over-wrought in its attempts at setting the setting) only to be led off the path and back onto it again over and over by trails you thought you were following to stay on course.

Honestly, the reading of this would have been much easier and more enjoyable if Schiff had organized the information differently—shorter chapters would have been an immensely helpful start—so that the reader could more easily remember, categorize and process all of the moving parts of the story in a way that worked more like a novel, as her previous work did. Sure, there was a Shakespearean-like list and description of characters at the start, but even the use of that pulls the reader away from the flow of the work. The Witches would function wonderfully as a reference for an academic paper or the like, but not as a read for any sort of personal enjoyment, whether it had been based on fact or fiction. And this from someone who thoroughly enjoyed one of her other works. After all, as they say, nonfiction writing requires the finesse for story-telling of fiction authoring. Here, the finesse that I previously knew her for was missing. I would give five stars for the sheer amount of information presented here and for just how deeply her research went, but only one star for the way that it read. 1 star *