The Year of Magical Thinking
By Joan Didion
Knopf, 227 pp., $23.95
Just one year and a month shy of their 40th wedding anniversary, author Joan Didion and her husband, author John Gregory Dunne, were visiting their daughter and only child, Quintana, who was in an ICU unit in Manhattan. Quintana, a new bride, had come down with the flu on Christmas morning, flu that "exploded" into pneumonia and septic shock. How does flu, Dunne asked physicians, "morph into whole-body infection?" There were no answers, but what the parents heard were words of encouragement that Quintana was still alive. Then in a taxi, Dunne told his wife, "I don't think I'm up for this." "You don't have a choice," she replied.
In her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion reveals other things her husband said in that cab, words that after his death she analyzed for cues: "Survivors look back and see omens, messages they missed," she writes. "They remember the tree that died, the gull that splattered onto the hood of the car. They live by symbols."
Did Dunne know his death was imminent? In the cab Dunne told Didion everything he had done was worthless -- his novel just finished: "worthless." Though Didion notes depression as a normal phase of any writer's life, she still recalls thinking his comments "not normal," but then, neither was the condition of their daughter.
Once home, with the Christmas presents unopened, the couple settled down by the fire with a drink. Later at dinner, Dunne was talking when he slumped over the table. Thinking he was making a "failed joke," an attempt to make the difficult day manageable, Didion said to him, "Don't do that."
Quintana learned of her father's death in January when she regained consciousness, yet her medical travails were just beginning. A significant portion of The Year of Magical Thinking chronicles her care in and out of hospitals. Didion went to the "literature."
She traces varying attitudes toward bereavement and quotes Geoffrey Gorer on the contemporary trend in England and the United States "to treat mourning as morbid self-indulgence, and to give social admiration to the bereaved who hide their grief so fully that no one would guess anything had happened." Didion repeatedly raises the question of self-pity and its probing nature for people in grief who "worry it, dread it, scourge our thinking for signs of it. We fear our actions will reveal the condition tellingly described as 'dwelling on it.'"
With such knowledge, a letter in the October 30th New York Times Book Review probably came as no surprise to Didion: "This obsession with Didion's obsession with her loss on the part of The Times and other publications has become morbid and tiring. O, St. Joan of Didion, stop ye whining and complaining. Find some inner strength and stop crying a river in public. Want to mourn? Have the dignity of doing it in private. Enough!"
Quintana died in August 2005 after Didion already proclaimed her book "finished." She resisted changes to include this latest, heart-wrenching outcome but those changes were unnecessary.
Joan Didion is an elegist in The Year of Magical Thinking, and her vivid portraits of daughter and husband coexist as companionably as the once intact family did. The strong interest in and robust sales of this book (the Times reader aside) prove there most definitely is not "enough" on a subject that touches and forever changes lives.
On November 16th, The Year of Magical Thinking won the 2005 National Book Award for nonfiction.
-- Lisa C. Hickman
The Death of Feminism: What's next in the struggle for women's freedom
By Phyllis Chesler
Palgrave MacMillan, 234 pp., $24.95
For those of us who grew up in America on Betty Freidan, feminism was more about action than ideology. Yes, we debated gender roles and the objectification of women. But mostly we tried to bust up social norms by doing things in a new way: We got good jobs and lived with our boyfriends and kept our own names even after we married.
Unfortunately, by the early 1980s, our activism was starting to wane along with the national debate over the Equal Rights Amendment. Frightened by Ronald Reagan and the conservative right, we let feminism take a back seat to politics. Almost unknowingly, the feminist issues in our hearts (welfare of children, slavery of women, influence of pornography) were pushed aside by the (mostly man-made) agenda of the left (sexual rights, abortion rights, gay rights).
Shame on us for letting political correctness divert our attention from the plight of women worldwide. And shame on you if you don't discover or rediscover Phyllis Chesler. Her new book, The Death of Feminism, is a passionate and intelligent wake-up call, especially in the aftermath of 9/11.
Some readers might remember Chesler as the author of Women and Madness, a best-seller published in 1972 that exposed the double standards in the treatment of mental illness. A psychologist, international lecturer, and professor of women's studies, Chesler's new book explores a different subject with similar originality and zeal.
"Because feminist academics and journalists are so heavily influenced by left ways of thinking, many now believe that speaking out against head scarves, face veils, child marriages, polygamy, forced pregnancies or female genital mutilation is imperialist," Chesler writes.
Not so, she says, condemning short-sighted multiculturalism that blames Israel (the most feminist country in the region) instead of jihad for the problems in the Middle East and allows educated Americans to ignore (accept?) gender apartheid or, as Chesler describes it, the dehumanization of women throughout the Islamic world.
In heartfelt interviews with Arabs, Muslims, Christians, and Jews, Chesler pleads for a feminism that embraces diverse opinions (isn't it possible to be a patriot and a feminist?) and remembers women who are married as children, beaten as adults, or stoned to death for sexual improprieties.
Chesler adds her own voice, as well, writing for the first time about her imprisonment in Afghanistan when she traveled as a young Jewish bride to her husband's Islamic homeland:
"Immediately upon our arrival in Kabul, my very western husband simply became another person. He did not seek me out (except at night), he no longer held my hand or kissed me in public. Incredibly, he treated me the way his father and brother treated their wives: with annoyed embarrassment, coldness and distance."
Not all will agree with Phyllis Chesler's uncomfortable criticisms of a women's movement in the West that is "morally and intellectually passive." But one thing is certain: Reading The Death of Feminism will stop your Bush-bashing just long enough to allow an independent thought of your own. -- Pamela Denney
Mencken: The American Iconoclast
By Marion Elizabeth Rodgers
Oxford University Press, 647 pp., $35
There is an oil portrait of H.L. Mencken in the Mencken Room of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore that shows a relaxed Mencken, his coat and tie off and his sleeves rolled up, one hand clutching a cigar and the other supporting his chin. He has a cool, dreamy, even sexy expression in his blue eyes.
The portrait was done in 1927, and Mencken was at the peak of his powers as a writer, American iconoclast, and social critic. He was also, as Nikol Schattenstein's painting and now Marion Elizabeth Rodgers' biography Mencken: The American Iconoclast make clear, a man with a complicated and fascinating love life and something of a sex symbol.
No doubt about it, brains and talent can be as much of an aphrodisiac as brawn and sculpted cheekbones. Mencken made fun of his own pear-shaped body, claimed that he begrudged the trifling effort it took to climb out of the bath tub, and is famous for saying that "no man guilty of golf" should be eligible to be president of the United States. But a number of women, including Hollywood starlets Anita Loos and Aileen Pringle and the woman he eventually married -- writer Sara Haardt -- found him irresistible.
Rodgers, a graduate of Goucher College in Baltimore, discovered Mencken's love letters in 1981 while researching the papers of Goucher alumna Haardt. The letters were not to be opened until that very year, 25 years after Mencken's death in 1956. The discovery made Rodgers a Mencken fan, scholar, and biographer. Her book provides new insights into the inner life and character of a man who has always been an enigma even to avid readers of previous biographies and Mencken's own work, such as Prejudices, A Mencken Chrestomathy, and the posthumously published Letters of H.L. Mencken and A Second Mencken Chrestomathy.
Historian William Manchester, who mentored Rodgers, said he never knew a kinder man than Mencken, "but when he unsheathed his typewriter and sharpened its keys, his prose was anything but kind. It was rollicking and it was ferocious." He was one of the masterminds of the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, also known as the "monkey trial," in which attorney Clarence Darrow faced off with William Jennings Bryan over the teaching of evolution. Rodgers' account of the trial has fresh details and relevance in light of the current controversy over "intelligent design."
But it is her sympathetic yet unflinching look at Mencken the lover and Mencken the (falsely) accused bigot and defender of Hitler that make her book special. The man who mocked male and female vanity and the very idea of marriage was, in private, quite the romantic. He juggled affairs with Pringle and Loos and other lookers before breaking their hearts and marrying Haardt, whose appearance can generously be called homely.
He often wrote about "blackamoors," but African-American writers such as James Weldon Johnson considered him a patron and hero. And while his belated acceptance of Hitler's monstrosity dimmed his career and influence, some of his closest friends were Jews.
Rodgers' biography brings fresh understanding to America's greatest journalist, who approached every subject with complete fearlessness and honesty and the conviction that the writer must always put on a good show. Did he ever. -- John Branston
Mozart and Leadbelly: Stories and Essays
By Ernest J. Gaines
Knopf, 192 pp., $22.95
Ernest J. Gaines, the black (he doesn't like the term African-American), Louisiana fiction writer, is best known for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which was made into a celebrated movie with Cicely Tyson, and A Lesson Before Dying, his award-winning 1993 novel. A forceful blending of oral-history techniques with a rich, sociological understanding of everyday black life marks his fiction.
This new book is a collection of previously uncollected writings and, as such things go, it is uneven, sometimes slight. It feels like an end-of-career cleaning-up, almost posthumous, as if we can't expect anything else, so this will have to do. There is some lively writing here, some wit and depth of feeling. But it's slim pickins.
My first piece of advice to readers: Skip the long, somewhat fawning introduction by Gaines' teaching colleagues Marcia Gaudet and Reggie Young, who edited this book. Their preface is superfluous and attempts to make a case for the writing that follows. The writing should stand on its own. Some of it does; some of it doesn't.
For such a short book there is a lot of repetition. All six essays are in a similar vein and combined would have made one dynamite longer composition. Part of the problem is that they were not written as essays but as speeches, and, as such, they suffer on the page. They feel breezy, off-the-cuff, minor. That is not to say that they do not make for good reading. There is some insight here, some hard-won wisdom about writing and the writing life: "I still don't know what a black writer is supposed to write about unless it is the same thing a Frenchman writes about -- and that is what he feels deeply enough inside of him," Gaines writes.
The short stories here are better. Yet, to compound the misjudgment represented by that introduction, Gaines himself opens the story section with an elucidation of the first selection, "Christ Walked Down Market Street." Unnecessarily paving the way, he does his work a disservice. The story itself starts falteringly, then catches flame. Suddenly, there is a voice, a presence. And it is voice that carries this short collection and voice that makes the stories memorable.
The first story Gaines ever wrote, "The Turtles," is here, and it is a lovely piece, as understated as the best of Hemingway. Gaines writes well of childhood and perfectly captures the ad-libbed adventure of it. Ditto for "The Boy in the Double-Breasted Suit." The final story here, "My Grandpa and the Haint," is a clever tale of adultery and voodoo.
But the interview that closes the book -- again with Gaudet and Young -- goes over the same material covered in the essays. Have mercy! Redundancy rules.
Mozart and Leadbelly is ill conceived. According to the editors, it was originally planned as a university publication. Instead it ended up with Knopf, and one can only again ask why. In the introduction the editors write, "It is important to point out that Ernie was not really enthusiastic about our idea to compile all of his 'old and dusty writings'... ." Uh huh.
Ernest J. Gaines is a fine writer, an important writer, but here's my second piece of advice: If you're just starting to read Gaines, start elsewhere. But if you already love his compassionate, perceptive work, if you're a Gaines completist, you will have to own Mozart and Leadbelly for some of the writerly guidance and all of the fiction. -- Corey Mesler
By Craig Clevenger
MacAdam/Cage, 214 pp., $24
Take a pinch of Proust, add a hearty serving of drug-fueled paranoia, and wrap the whole thing in a contemporary pulp mystery. Now pile it high with jagged verbal acrobatics and cook until the protagonist is severely burned. The result is Dermaphoria, the second novel by Craig Clevenger, author of cult hit The Contortionist's Handbook. A novel that suffers then succeeds by its excess, Dermaphoria attacks the reader with a blistering pace and, if you can survive the trip, delivers a yarn that unwinds with a satisfyingly clean finish.
The story follows Eric Ashworth, who awakens during a police interrogation, his body covered in burns, his skin crawling with "bugs" (which may or may not exist), and his memory a mess. Eric describes his condition as the book opens: "Shiny glass teardrops shattered between my teeth while the fireflies popped like Christmas bulbs until I coughed up blood and blue sparks, starting another fire three inches behind my eyes and burning a hole through the floor of my memory."
This dense language, heavy on visceral imagery and rarely concerned with guiding the reader, won't appeal to everyone. At times, Clevenger will construct whole scenes only to dissolve them, stepping back out of memory or a partial hallucination, leaving it to the reader to weave the pieces together.
Yet the novel also takes advantage of Eric's condition to indulge in occasional humor. At one point, he sits on his bed, staring at a white cement wall, stopping every few seconds to take note of this fact in his diary, then promptly forgets and begins again. Later, Eric takes a road trip with a strange character named Otto, whose obsession with public urination and playing Frisbee hint that he is less human than Eric imagines.
Slowly Eric's memory begins to return, and solid fragments of the story begin to emerge. Eric is obsessed with a woman named Desiree, which also happens to be the name of a drug he is using. He is under investigation for a fire at a drug lab and pursued by the police and his former employers for activities that went on there, none of which Eric remembers. As the novel accelerates toward its conclusion, Eric returns to the scene of the crime while trying to stay one step ahead of his pursuers, his tattered memory pieced together.
In Dermaphoria, Craig Clevenger has mixed fantasy and reality, allowing one to inform the other. The book is a phantasmagoric work of fiction whose complexity and eventual clarity will reward the dedicated reader. -- Ben Popper
by Mary Gaitskill
Pantheon Books, 227 pp., $23
Veronica begins and ends with this fairy tale: a beautiful, but cruel, little girl is turned to stone but the tears of an innocent girl save her. In the middle of Veronica, though, is a story of two women -- one beautiful, one ugly; one cruel, one fastidious -- who somehow save each other.
Veronica is Mary Gaitskill's quasi-biographical story of former model Alison Owen. As a teenager, she runs away to San Francisco and makes a living selling flowers to prostitutes and playboys outside of clubs.
But Alison's looks -- or as she says, "the reason somebody once thought I could be a model, the thing they kept trying to photograph and never did" -- take her to Paris and into a world of glamour, sex, drugs, beauty, all-night parties, marzipan, S&M clubs, and part-time lovers. She is pulled into this cruel world, both repulsed by it and attracted to it, then it uses her up and spits her out.
After going back to her banal, American existence, Alison meets Veronica, "a plump 37-year-old with bleached-blond hair" who "wore tailored suits in mannish plaids with matching bow ties, bright red lipstick, false red fingernails, and mascara that gathered in intense beads on the ends of her eyelashes." With her beauty, Alison alternately looks down on and loves Veronica, watching as Veronica self-destructs with her bisexual lover and later dies of AIDS.When Alison is in her 40s, she has Hepatitis C, and she suffers a horrible car accident that leaves her with limited use of one arm.
The story stretches over time and place, pulled taut by the juxtaposition of the present and past and the relationship between the two women. Events from different times in Alison's life are layered on top of the other, showing similarities but years apart. The only thing that changes is Alison, from a young, beautiful girl to a diseased, ugly woman.
Gaitskill uses tiny, precise details, loading single phrases with arsenals of information about relationships, places, and events. At its core, however, the story feels murky and almost dreamlike, as if Gaitskill is trying to keep the reader at a distance, wondering. The novel leaves lingering questions about the nature of beauty, of music, of life, of individuality, and of togetherness and loneliness. -- Mary Cashiola
Science Tackles the Afterlife
By Mary Roach
W.W. Norton, 295 pp., $24.95
In her new book, Spook, a look at the search for proof of the soul, author Mary Roach writes, "I believe in ghosts." You shouldn't believe her. She doesn't seem to believe it herself.
For one thing, she waits until the very last sentence of Spook to make this declaration, using the previous pages to guffaw her way through the text and prefacing the statement with a verbal throwing up of hands: "What the hell."
Roach has found herself to be a tough act to follow. Her previous book, Stiff, was a very macabre, frequently funny examination of the scientific role of the human corpse. (So quirky was the book that it served as a plot device in the quirkier-still HBO series Six Feet Under.)
The problem is clear. Roach's previous subject was quite literally flesh and bone -- something she could see and, again quite literally, smell. Her latest topic is a bit more troublesome. Given the ethereal nature of the soul, Roach is dependent on other people's word of its existence, and so she takes the approach of a stranger in a strange land. She embarks on asides about the oddity of an American Southerner's use of a pie safe and the soundalikes "dairy area" and "derriere." She indulges in an apparent fetish for unusual last names (hers being Roach, after all) and throws out one-liners like a veritable (or beyond the grave) Henny Youngman.
Roach's jokes are a distraction. But, bless her soul, Spook works anyway, and the material she unearths, from ages-old to present-day, is truly something.
Roach travels to the far ends of the earth to look for the soul -- from India to England to Virginia and beyond. She digs up reports on long-gone and easily dismissed mediums who used to jiggle tables with their feet to signal ghostly presences or employed regurgitated cheesecloth that resembles ectoplasm. She looks at how throughout the years man has tried to measure the soul by calibrated scales and carefully sealed boxes. She meets people who claim to talk to the dead and tries her own hand at it. She even gets locked in a "haunt box" and witnesses a woman snuggling with a small boy who is claimed to be her reincarnated husband. She examines all sorts of gizmos and interviews a wide range of afterlife devotees and debunkers.
Despite all her efforts, though, Roach comes away with nothing even close to concrete. What you have in Spook isn't proof. It's entertainment. -- Susan Ellis
Guided by Voices: A Brief History: Twenty-One Years of Hunting Accidents in the Forests of Rock and Roll
By James Greer
Black Cat/Grove/Atlantic, 320 pp., $16 (paper)
There should be legal penalties for any writer who uses the royal "we." That sin and many others pepper this nearly oral history of '90s lo-fi champs Guided by Voices -- sins that accumulate into a prose style that is unbearably coy and egregiously distracting.
Before readers get to the preciously written, but utterly meaningless, introduction by director Steven Soderbergh, author James Greer has already launched into a lengthy preface that makes ample use of needlessly convoluted sentences, pointless asides, and pretentious terms such as "multiverse." Greer's smug, self-impressed tone is the last thing you'd connect to GBV, whose pioneering sound was only possible with Robert Pollard's concise sense of melody and songwriting.
That tone muddies the first few chapters of Guided by Voices, which chronicle the band's beginnings in Northridge, a suburb of Dayton, Ohio. A high school athlete, Pollard played in a few local bands with friends, but he recorded prodigiously in his basement, often on a simple tape player. His day job was teaching elementary school, but his dream was rock stardom.
This period in GBV's history should be by far the most fascinating, not least because it remains largely a mystery even to Pollard's biggest fans. But Greer confuses his chronology, constantly referring to people he has yet to introduce and making allusions to events that have yet to happen. As a result, we get very little insight into Pollard, particularly as a man who recorded so prolifically and chased his dream so doggedly.
Fortunately, as the band builds a national audience with the album Bee Thousand and as subsequent releases win new fans and alienate old ones, Greer steps aside and allows the band -- specifically Pollard, who is the only GBV mainstay -- to take center stage. Instead of clever asides, Greer includes long quotes from Pollard and various friends and musicians, which allow the participants to speak for themselves. More important, they give a much bigger and clearer picture of the egos and attitudes, the dreams and disappointments than Greer seems incapable of painting on his own. As a result, Guided by Voices contains an intermittently engaging, far-from-comprehensive history of a highly unconventional band.
Still, it's difficult to dismiss the creeping feeling that Guided by Voices -- with its clubhouse atmosphere, clever prose, and insistent praise for the band and knee-jerk disdain for almost every other artist not associated with Pollard -- is less an objective history than an apologia. Greer, who for a short time played bass in GBV, obviously had full access to his prickly primary subject, Pollard, but that's almost a hindrance here. Greer takes Pollard's side in all disputes (against former "Manager for Life" Pete Jamison, for instance, and in the matter of Pollard's divorce), and he constantly reinforces the demythologizing and remythologizing points made by Pollard about the band's genesis, its lo-fi sound, the quality of its lesser records, and the development of his songwriting. Even when Greer criticizes Pollard, as when he notes the size of his ego or the extent of his drinking, he does so only insofar as it is common knowledge among friends, family, and fans. In fact, like so many of Pollard's multitudinous side projects, Guided by Voices is for fans only.
-- Stephen Deusner
J.G. Ballard Conversations
Edited by V. Vale
RE/Search Publications, 360 pp., $19.99 (paper)
The only star graduate of the "New Wave of Science Fiction" of the 1950s and early '60s, J.G. Ballard tended to shuck hokey plots for more human statements. Like his American (arguable) counterpart, Philip K. Dick, Ballard became unclassifiable as the '60s wore on. Intensely tuned in to the decay left behind by urban and technological advances, it could be said that Ballard's real protagonists by the '70s were abandoned buildings and shipyards and decommissioned military bases. Man was thrown in just for giggles, and the reader watched as the foreboding environment psychologically broke him (it was usually a male) down.
The Terminal Beach (1964), The Crystal World (1966), Concrete Island (1974), and High-Rise (1975) are powerful and highly recommended, but it was The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), a collection of incendiary stories, and the automobile-accident, scar-fetish porn of 1972's Crash (adapted for the screen in 1996 by David Cronenberg) that brought Ballard notoriety. Then he wrote what the general public knows him for: the semi-autobiographical best-seller Empire of the Sun (1984), a fictionalized account of Ballard's childhood in a WWII Japanese internment camp in occupied China, which was subsequently made into the award-winning Steven Spielberg film.
RE/Search Publications has always embraced Ballard, making him the subject of two previous volumes (one a reprint of The Atrocity Exhibition) and now honoring the writer with the simultaneous publication of J.G. Ballard: Quotes and this collection of interviews. Sadly, Conversations is as much about RE/Search founder V. Vale's agenda -- he is a terminal and alienating sycophant of all things Counter Culture 101 -- as it is about the subject at hand, a problem that plagues most RE/Search books.
Vale edited and published Search and Destroy, one of the first punk-rock fanzines of the '70s, before launching RE/Search, a narrow-minded but definitely interesting player in the world of '80s/'90s underground publishing. Though Incredibly Strange Music, Incredibly Strange Films, and Pranks! are of merit, RE/Search too often strayed into contrived, "shocking" territory with titles such as Modern Primitives and Bodily Fluids, the latter hilariously devoid of pictures.
In Conversations, Vale claims that Ballard's only literary equal is William S. Burroughs, going so far as to say that they are the only two writers who have ever mattered. This is ridiculous and indicative of the shortsightedness that only assigns quality to art that is self-consciously fringe, weird, controversial, difficult, in-your-face, etc. In truth, the glaring commonality between Burroughs and Ballard is that the same letter begins their surnames. Burroughs, a man far more interesting to read about than to read, in no way approaches the level of Ballard.
True to its title, Conversations is not so much interviews but seemingly unedited tea times among Ballard, Vale, and Vale's secret-handshake club of longtime RE/Search collaborators: Mark Pauline (founder of Survival Research Laboratories), Greame Revell (leader of the industrial group SPK), and writer David Pringle. The conversations span the '80s, '90s, and '00s, offering Ballard's surprisingly light-hearted and humorous takes on the political and social climates of each decade, which are amusingly in direct contrast to the interviewer's predictable efforts to "serious-up" and sabotage things with fatalistic negativity.
Not to be lumped in the for-fanatics-only category, Conversations is still an insightful read into Ballard's head, but his fiction and nonfiction collection A User's Guide to the Millennium (1996) are better places to start. -- Andrew Earles
Mommy Knows Worst:
Highlights from the Golden Age of
Bad Parenting Advice
By James Lileks
Three Rivers Press, 176 pp., $18 (paper)
I was dismayed when I finally reached the end of Mommy Knows Worst. Not because the book is depressing -- in fact, just about every page is laugh-out-loud funny -- but because the book was too short. So, like a moron who knows the punch line of a joke but wants to laugh again, I just started back at the beginning and read it a second time. And laughed all over again.
The book is really that hilarious, based on a rather simple concept. Just collect plenty of child-parenting advice columns, articles, and booklets from the 1940s and 1950s and make snide comments about them. In lesser hands, this would still be humorous, but Lileks has a brilliant wit and an eye for detail.
After all, how many books have chapters titled, simply, "Bowels"? Lileks devotes pages to what he calls "The Golden Age of Constipation" by observing: "Every new parent confronts the curious palette of infant poop; every new caregiver wonders anew why we feed them corn, since it seems to pass through their small bodies with the ease of a criminal with a diplomatic passport. But the concern over constipation seems to have abated somewhat. Judging from the following examples from our golden past, most of America's youth was incapable of producing more than a hard half-inch stool per fiscal year."
To remedy this problem, the examples Lileks compiled encouraged the regular use of harsh laxatives, soap suppositories, medications, and -- when all else fails -- a good spanking. A series of magazine ads for a laxative shows Daddy giving his kid a sound whuppin' with a hairbrush because the poor tyke was constipated, while Mother looks on, somewhat concerned. Lileks observes: "You know, a mother just knows some things. Sometimes she'll hand the brush to her husband, head up the stairs, and stop. And she'll think: Really, is beating him with a grooming implement the best way to coax compacted waste from his tiny body?"
Of course, that compacted waste probably resulted from some of the unspeakable food that children were encouraged to eat back then, and Lileks has compiled quite a colorful gallery of canned goods that include liver spread, pork brains, and ox tongue. "Remember: severed ruminant tongue," says Lileks. "Kids ask for it by name."
Other chapters are devoted to bizarre and deadly toys, games, car seats ("the idea of tying the seat down never seems to have occurred to them"), and hygiene products -- such as the Doo-Tee Nursery seat, a plastic contraption with a duck head that fit over a toilet. "Baby straddles duck [and] cannot fall out," reads the ad copy. "This gives confidence." Lileks calls this strange gadget "another example of the strap-'em-and-leave-'em school. This device let Baby sprawl boneless in his chair while a hollowed-out waterfowl decoy reflected the pounding stream into the basin."
Oh, there's plenty more, but I won't give it away, and each page is illustrated with period ads, illustrations, and photos. Lileks has tackled other topics in his two previous books, The Gallery of Regrettable Food (unspeakable concoctions from 1960s cookbooks) and Interior Desecrations (horrifying interior-design notions from the 1970s), but Mommy Knows Worst is far more amusing because it's far more personal. It not only makes readers wonder, "What were they thinking?" but also makes us fret, "Hmmm. Did our parents do any of that stuff to us?" Something about that Doo-Tee duck seems mighty familiar. -- Michael Finger
La Dolce Vegan!: Vegan Livin' Made Easy
By Sarah Kramer
Arsenal Pulp Press, 317 pp., $19.95 (paper)
Every self-respecting vegetarian should own at least one book by Sarah Kramer. She's a venerable vegan kitchen goddess who knows that eating cruelty-free doesn't mean sacrificing taste. Her first two books, How It All Vegan and The Garden of Vegan (co-authored with pal Tanya Barnard), are chock-full of yummy recipes that could make even carnivores drool. But her latest book, La Dolce Vegan!: Vegan Livin' Made Easy, has quickly become my new bible (sorry, Jesus!).
Kramer's gone solo now, her co-writing partner having left to pursue a career in nursing. Since she's doing the writing on her own, she admits in the book's intro that she has far less time to spend in the kitchen.
So the premise of this third installment is meat-free, egg-free, dairy-free meals made easy, with minimal prep time, a manageable number of ingredients, and smaller portions. As the only vegan in my house, that's exactly what I need. Now I can make a meal just for me without forcing the leftovers on my friends.
For La Dolce Vegan, Kramer set up a Web site where fans could submit recipes. She tested them out and stuck her favorites in the book right alongside her own vegan standards. Fans contributed recipes like "Wolffie's Magnificent Baked Bean Chip Dip," a combination of beans, spices, red wine vinegar, liquid smoke, tamari, and faux bacon bits.
Kramer even convinced her favorite pizza joint to submit their recipe for "Cheeseburger Pizza," a soy cheese pie with mock beef, pickles, onion, mustard, and tomato sauce.
Some of Kramer's recipes can be prepared in bulk and used for a number of dishes, like her "Shook and Cook Breading," a cornflake and flour mixture that can be used to bread pickles, barbecue tofu, and zucchini for deep-frying.
The chapter on "Faux Fare" gives instructions for making seitan (a wheat gluten meat substitute), as well as directions on seasoning it to taste similar to beef, chicken, turkey, fish, and ham.
Occasionally, we busy vegans do have a few spare minutes to spend in the kitchen, so Kramer's also included a handful of more complicated recipes, like "Portobello Cannelloni with Sun-Dried Tomato White Sauce." All are marked with a little clock symbol to warn readers the dish may take longer than 30 minutes to prepare.
Since veganism is more a lifestyle than a diet, La Dolce Vegan isn't limited to food recipes. Kramer's "DIY" section includes instructions on how to make all sorts of cool stuff from scratch, like Found Object Clocks (a clock fashioned from a Chinese takeout box), Punk Rock Studded Bracelets, and the Dish Ran Away with the Spoon Windchimes (made from utensils).
She also includes household tips in the "Kitchen Wisdom" section. Instead of purchasing cleaning supplies that may have been tested on animals, try Kramer's homemade all-purpose cleaner. There's even a section on "45 Things To Do with Salt."
If you're already a vegan and you don't own this book, buy it now. Your life of preparing meals the night before and slaving over the hot stove will end. If you're not vegan, you still need this book. An occasional meatless meal can do wonders for your health, and you just might find that you like the herbivorous life. -- Bianca Phillips