Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
Most of the names in this book were unfamiliar to me, but their food stories were still accessible. Laura Shapiro in What She Ate – Six Remarkable Women and the Food that Tells Their Stories, does a thorough job narrating six different women with very different lives, connecting and contrasting those lives with one universal human experience: food. That shared focus makes these pithy biographies quite evocative. Food is enjoyed or tolerated in context, and that context is biographical insight.
First we meet Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of the poet William (I’ve heard of him). Her story is told mostly from her own writings, and yet looking at her meals adds depth. The contrast of her quiet contentment as she recounts making “a wee Rhubarb Tart… for William” and the later, plain statement, “Dined on blood puddings” belies her consistent claims that she spent all her days gratified. I did not recognize the names of Rosa Lewis, cook, and Barbara Pym, novelist. Brash, Cockney Rosa Lewis cooked for the king himself in pre-WWI England, when the most respected food was French and all the respected chefs were French men. Barbara Pym could not keep herself from observing and writing about the “mundane,” always featuring food. Both lived lives of periodic triumph and disappointment. Their stories touch on a broader picture of British food in particular: a bit odd, a bit under-appreciated, sometimes terrible, but still loved.
The chapter on Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, is fascinating and disturbing: everybody eats, even Nazis. Especially bizarre is the juxtaposition of Braun’s life with that of Eleanor Roosevelt. Eva devoured sweets and champagne and gaily hosted Hitler’s associates, while Eleanor indifferently served shrimp and canned peas on toast at the White House formal table.
Eleanor Roosevelt is certainly the name in this book I was most familiar with. What I did not know was the notorious truth about food in the White House during FDR’s presidency: eat before you go. This has resulted in the oft-repeated maxim that Eleanor Roosevelt had no palette and couldn’t care less about what she put in her own mouth, let alone others’. But Shapiro suggests about Eleanor what she stated about Dorothy: our enjoyment of preparing and eating a meal is tied to our feelings about whom we prepare it for and share it with. For Eleanor, unfortunately, the White House and Franklin were not happy places or companions for eating. It is lovely to read that after FDR’s death, Eleanor continued to prosper on her own, eating and cooking enjoyable and enjoyed foods.
Last, we meet Helen Gurley Brown, a name perhaps I should have known: she made Cosmopolitan magazine what it is today. She had a well-documented, complicated relationship with food that echoes the other contradictions of her life. Again, focusing on that food presents her biography in a particularly memorable way.
This book is informative and thought-provoking. Food is just one part of a full life, but Shapiro makes it clear that it is one part that offers valuable perspective on the rest. We all eat, most cook, and women especially are encouraged to do both with a sizeable helping of mixed messages. Sprinkled through the featured lives is the idea that food is tied to a sense of belonging that becomes apparent when one writes a biography focusing on consumed meals. That angle easily highlights where the subject felt the happiest and most comfortable and where they did not. It is suggested in Shapiro’s pages that despite their various successes, some of these women were never quite comfortable. Others, perhaps, were too much so. But most were like most of us: living life’s ups and downs as well as possible, enjoying a meal or accepting sustenance as the opportunities presented themselves.
Top photo: Eleanor Roosevelt and tiered patriotic cake Library of Congress
“It is through writing that one can begin to remember,” writes Agneta Pleijel. The Swedish poet, playwright, and novelist recounts memories focusing on her youth and teenage years. Young Neta’s story is narrated in the third person, evoking for the reader the separation that Peijel feels from her own history. The conflicts of those memories range from the seemingly mundane (not having the right kind of fuzzy hat to wear in the winter) to the very serious (dealing with her parents’ crumbling marriage and her mother’s inconsistent mental state).
This autobiographical novel beautifully encapsulates the oft-experienced solitude and confusion of youth, when any perceived slight twists itself into self-truth. In young Neta’s life, these slights are pervasive. She knows that she is a cause of her parents’ separation. She knows that she is a burden to her mother. She knows, but she does not understand, and she never feels comfortable asking for clarity. Neta’s journey – from questioning, anxious child to furiously independent teen to a woman who will become an award-winning writer – drives this memoir. The moments of triumph carry the reader through: Neta’s success as a crooning seductress in a high school musical revue; her Parisian marriage proposal; her determined money-earning efforts so she can be less of a burden to her family.
However, I found most of the story overwhelming bleak. The possible charm of jazzy parties in post-World War II Sweden is dissipated by Neta’s purposefully distant personality, every happy family memory is tainted by Neta’s conviction that she was such a primary reason for that family falling apart, and those relationships described as valuable by Peijel herself (not her third-person memory) are twisted by the distrust and iciness of Neta’s youth. The shiny, constant hope offered by the character of Neta’s Aunt Ricki dims and then dies, even as Neta is maturing as an artist.
Fans of Agneta Peijel will likely savor the illuminating prose. Those completely unfamiliar with her work, as I was, can still appreciate the story. It is not a beach read, but is thought-provoking in the shade or after sunset. Perhaps consume in the evening, when the veil to the past is thin but the present is calm. Our own stories – moments and years-long struggles – can be reflected on with the peace of hindsight and understood more thoroughly. Peijel’s novel encourages one to do just that, either by comparison or in solidarity.
All the Time in the World is the debut novel of Caroline Angell, Manhattan-based playwright and director. The story is evocative and engrossing. I devoured it. If you appreciate reading as well-developed characters experience and work through their almost-not-quite everyday problems, you too will devour this book. Emotions may run high: at least once I was still laughing at a wry quip when I started weeping!
Our main character and sole narrator Charlotte has been working as a nanny for the McLean family since shortly after she earned her master’s degree in music composition. After her graduation, a beloved professor stole some of Charlotte’s best work for a television show theme song. Distraught, discouraged, and disillusioned, Charlotte, who has up until this point enjoyed “constant, lifelong validation” (her musings, not mine) decides to take a break from her musical career progression until she figures out what to do next – maybe more music, maybe not. She starts nannying, caring for four year-old Matthew, and one year-old George, the loveable sons of Gretchen and Scotty McLean. Music takes a backseat in her life at this point, though she still has a great time writing up ukulele sing-alongs with her young charges.
Two years pass. Charlotte becomes an integral part of the McLean family. Then, Gretchen dies. This loss is the fulcrum of this novel. We follow Charlotte’s narrative as she reminisces and reflects on life Before, and we agonize with her as she struggles to deal with her own grief while supporting Gretchen’s family After.
Supporting characters include Gretchen’s family – husband Scotty, sons, parents and in-laws – as well as Charlotte’s own two sisters and an off-again sexual partner/once-fellow composer from college. Others flit through, adding dynamics without confusing the story. Every appearance deepens our understanding of the primary personalities or provides allegory to augment the themes of grief, loss, love and hope. There is an impressive lack of randomness in the story – every piece adds something.
All of the characters are lovingly crafted, drawn for the reader from Charlotte’s intuitive point of view. She is at the center of a maelstrom of emotion, not quite included in the McLean family but so much more than a babysitter, swept up in their needs. She is unable to break away, continuously justifying this commitment to her own family and self as Scotty especially begins to rely on her more and more.
One distinguishing characteristic of this novel is its alternating timeline, with each passage labelled by its length of time from Gretchen’s death: day before, one year before, three months after. It works surprisingly well. The forward/backward alternations encourage the reader to assemble the characters into whole beings; they are not only defined by their reactions to Gretchen’s passing since we also meet them before that point. However, the labelling convention for the parts is confusing. Each part (there are five, in a 300-page paperback) is named for a character, but does not focus on that character in any appreciable way. Charlotte continues to narrate. I ended up ignoring the convention, but I would like to know if other readers gleaned something I did not from those subtitles.
My biggest minor complaint is that I was frustrated a few times by incomprehension – there are a handful of passages where Charlotte does not add to the narrative with her own detailed interpretation of what others are thinking. In those cases I was left to guess at what she and others just understood. Charlotte’s analysis of events, facial expressions, and dialogue seems trustworthy, so it was a let-down when she didn’t ascribe motivation to the actions of other characters. Certainly there isn’t anything wrong with leaving some work for the reader, but I really appreciated Charlotte’s version of omniscience. It was jarring when it failed.
That aside, this is excellent realistic fiction. I laughed, I cried, and I recognized the importance of understanding that it is not always a negative if those dreams we set out to fulfill are waylaid. Our lives may simply become more rewarding and more important than our dreams could have ever been.
The traditional Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hokule`a docked at Waterfront Park in Old Town Alexandria on Sunday, greeted by local hula dancers, traditional musicians, regional indigenous tribesmen, and curious passersby like myself. Erected canopies toppled in the same wind that set the U.S. and Hawaiian flags on the boat to snapping. A tent selling New Zealand-style lunch pies did a brisk trade. Audience members wove through each other, changing vantage points, greeting friends, and murmuring “mahalo” as they ducked past their peers. Hokule`a is on the Malama Honua world tour.
Hokule`a, the boat, is named for Hokule`a, the “Star of Gladness,” known as Arcturus in English astronomy. Hokule`a sailed the main routes of the Polynesian triangle, bounded by Hawaii, New Zealand, and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in six major voyages between 1975 and 2000. The crew charted those courses with traditional navigation techniques and the trips inspired increased interest in and dedication to traditional Hawaiian culture. Hokule`a’s current epic journey subtly encourages other indigenous cultures to value their own histories. Before the public welcoming ceremony in Old Town, Hokule`a docked at the tribal lands of local Native Americans, honoring the first peoples of the canoe’s latest port.
Nainoa Thompson is the current chief wayfinder of Hokule`a. Back in 1976, he managed to convince Mau Piailug of Satawal, Micronesia, to teach him traditional Polynesian navigating techniques despite their differing ancestry.
In its most basic translation, Malama Honua means “to care for our Island Earth,” but the deeper meaning encompasses broader notions of sustainable environmental stewardship. These ideas include ways of monitoring all natural resources as if they were truly limited, like they are for one living on an island (or out of a canoe).
I left Sunday’s festivities with a smile, a new appreciation for Hawaiian culture, and a renewed commitment to compost. That last especially seems a reductive interpretation of Malama Honua… but surely, every little bit counts.
Hokule`a is in Washington, D.C. for a week! Head out to the Washington Canoe Club (3700 Water Street, NW, C&O Canal National Historic Park, across the canal from Georgetown University) on May 20th from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., May 21st from 10 a.m.- 3 p.m., or May 23 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. for tours of the Hokule`a and conversation with crewmembers.
This Thursday, May 19th, attend the “Navigating by the Stars” lecture at the National Air & Space Museum at 10:30 a.m. Hokule`a navigates the oceans by interpreting the stars and signs from waves, birds, and other elements of nature.
The National Museum of the American Indian is holding events throughout the end of May celebrating Hokule`a and the Malama Honua journey. Check out their calendar here.
Chief navigator Nainoa Thompson is giving a lecture on Monday, May 23rd at 11 a.m. in Bethesda at the National Institutes of Health, hosted by the National Library of Medicine. Members of the public are advised to arrive at 10am to allow for time to get through security. “Thompson will discuss the rich history of deep sea voyaging, exploration, and oceanic wayfinding, the indigenous system of orientation and navigation at sea, and the efforts to use these experiences to revitalize Native Hawaiian culture and health. He will explain the symbiotic relationships between land, sea, sky, and people, and their cultural, ecological, and personal health.”
The next stop is New York City. The official welcoming ceremony is Sunday, June 5th at 9 a.m. at North Cove Marina. Check out the Holuwai website for more information on NYC events.