Review: Who Cooked The Last Supper?

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Who Cooked the Last Supper?

★★★★½

2001 (originally 1988) • 352 pages • Broadway Books

Who Cooked the Last Supper? is not the original title of Rosalind Mile’s formative women’s history text; that would be the American subtitle, The Women’s History of the World. For some reason, her publisher thought that American audiences would rather a slightly less dry title, even if the women who provided the Last Supper are not discussed in specifics (although they’re certainly covered in the abstract.) For some, this might be a turn-off, but I am of the opinion that whatever gets it into as many hands as possible is perfectly fine. (Nobody gets shamed for reading in this house.)

What that title also does is get across Miles’ quietly furious and deeply arch tone, with increasingly clever and occasionally vulgar punning as she digs deep into the last two hundred years of women’s history. I’m tempted to compare it to Bill Bryson’s affable and cozy work, but I find his humor frustratingly heteronormative, and he completely lacks Miles’ righteous and incandescent anger that boils over from time to time, especially in the later chapters. Miles knows her stuff so well that she’s able to find the humanity, humor, and outrage in all of these facts.

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Review: Champagne Supernovas

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Champagne Supernovas
by Maureen Callahan

★★★★☆

2014 • 288 pages • Touchstone

Defining the nineties as a contained cultural unit is something that has long frustrated me. For me, specifically, it’s a very unique decade. I encountered every decade prior as an already shaped narrative and the aughts marked the first time I was conscious of the larger pop culture we’re all swimming in. But the nineties? I was a very sheltered small child at the time. That’s not my fault, obviously, but it has thwarted my attempts to knit a coherent narrative out of the disparate cultural artifacts of the nineties. There’s something willfully futile about such an exercise—how can you truly boil down ten years to a pat assessment?—but I need somewhere to start.

Champagne Supernovas posits that that somewhere to start is, in fact, fashion. The cover copy argues that the fifties were defined by rock and roll, the sixties by the Beat poets, and the eighties by punk rock and modern art. But the maximalism of the eighties, embodied by the first true supermodels, made no room for the recession’s fascination with emotional and physical trauma that eventually blossomed into what author and journalist Maureen Callahan characterizes as wound culture: Continue reading

Review: Consider the Fork

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Consider the Fork
by Bee Wilson

★★★★☆

2012 • 352 pages • Basic Books

After a year of negotiating shared kitchens, I’m excited by the prospect of stocking my own (incredibly tiny) kitchen from scratch. My own tiny little French press for my coffee; a blender that does not wimp out; and an entire half of a freezer to myself. Simple things, really. I don’t think of myself as a particularly technical cook. I occasionally just ignore calls for more advanced equipment and do my own thing, even (and often) when I’m making medieval recipes. But even what I consider the dead basics—French press; blender; freezer—are pretty advanced, especially in the context of what constituted cooking for the bulk of human history.

Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork opens in much the same fashion, asking us to consider the common wooden spoon as technology that has been developed and improved over centuries. Cooking has long walked a delicate line between conservatism—people unwilling to deviate from tradition—and fads—people rushing to buy the latest thing that promises less time in the kitchen. But it seems odd to consider such basics, like utensils, the kitchen, and available heat sources, as massive leaps in technology. But they absolutely are. As Wilson points out, if you spend all day tending the fire, you’re not going to want to bring water near it if you don’t know that boiling water is useful for cooking.

Consider the Fork is full of little observations like this, in a remarkably orderly fashion. Wilson’s writing style is just as engaging and accessible when she’s talking about wacky kitchen gadget trends (egg beaters were apparently a massive thing back in the 1800s) as it is when she’s reporting from the sides of food historians like Ivan Day, who roasts meat the traditional medieval way. Between sections, Wilson includes notes on specific gadgets, instead of larger trends, although these are a lot fluffier than the meat of the book. And she’s certainly not afraid to include herself, talking about her own kitchen and experiences with cooking gadgetry without ever coming across as too cuddly. (Is this because Wilson is British? It might be because Wilson is British.) Continue reading

Review: Under the Banner of Heaven

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Under the Banner of Heaven
by John Krakauer

★★★★☆

2013 • 372 pages • Doubleday

To celebrate the Fourth of July this year, my local Alamo Drafthouse Cinema screened two films—Top Gun, which we’ve already been over, and a Quote-Along for Team America: World Police. Specifically, a Quote-Along for Team America: World Police’s tenth anniversary. I’ve never seen that movie, but watching the brief advertisement for the upcoming Quote-Along, I was instantly taken back to the political climate of the United States in the early aughts.

While the nostalgia wheel has turned to the nineties (which explains the amount of Sailor Moon and Xena: Warrior Princess I’ve been consuming) per its traditional twenty year delay, the aughts are finally far enough behind us to take a certain narrative shape. There’s even a new VH1 series, I Love the 2000s, to prove it. This is nothing new for history and nostalgia, but it is something new for me.

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Review: Connections

burkeconnectionsConnections
by James Burke

★★★☆☆

Worldbuilding is one of the most difficult challenges a speculative fiction writer can face. It’s difficult to balance the believability, research, and discretion necessary for it to be effective. It needs to be believable; it needs to be well-researched; and it needs to be the setting, not the story. The existence of Worldbuilders’ Disease speaks to this difficulty, as we’ve seen over and over again in the past.

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Review: The Good Girls Revolt

The Good Girls Revolt by Lynn Povich

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Consciousness raising, that beloved tool of second wave feminism, has been making a comeback on Twitter in the last week. In the wake of the horrific Santa Barbara shootings, #YesAllWomen collected (and still collects—bless the perpetual present tense of the Internet!) stories of what women have to put up with in the patriarchal rape culture that birthed the attack. During the second wave, consciousness raising was a way for women to identify what they previously thought were personal problems as, instead, systemic ones; last week, several men admitted to never realizing what it was like for women. And to make good on the fact that feminism will be intersectional or it will be bull, #YesAllWhiteWomen and #CisGaze soon followed.

Given the nature of Twitter, there are plenty of morons trying to hijack the hashtags, but they can’t keep a good conversation down. Consciousness raising was first started to combat how isolated women were from each other at the time, but the demise of the monoculture and the nichification of everything, including politics, can occasionally have the same effect. Seeing a wide rainbow of feminists taking to Twitter to speak up for each other without talking over one another—that’s feminism.

Against this particular backdrop, reading The Good Girls Revolt is an interesting experience. In 1970, on the same day that Newsweek ran a story about the burgeoning second wave of feminism, forty-six female Newsweek staffers announced that they were suing their employer for gender discrimination. Frustrated by being trapped in the research department despite having credentials identical to their male coworkers, this committee banded together to protest the casual sexual harrassment and dismissal they faced every day. It’s fleetly written by Lynn Povich, one of the staffers who ended up becoming Newsweek’s first female senior editor. Her journalistic style stretches a little thin to accommodate the book. She breezes through decades in just a little over two hundred pages, never delving too deeply into the emotional turmoil caused by the harrasment or the demise of her marriage.

Largely, The Good Girls Revolt is a feel-good piece about second wave feminism, complete with a heartwarming coda of three new Newsweek staffers discovering the story, writing a piece about feminism inspired by their lawsuit, and feeling a kinship to their foremothers. But, tellingly, these staffers express disappointment when Jezebel calls them out for not touching on the voices of the women of color, bemoaning that Internet feminism is so cliquish. (They took the ensuing debate to the Internet.) The kind of feminism that The Good Girls Revolt champions and wants to pass down is mainstream white second wave feminism—complete with blinders.

Povich demurs that the ladies of Newsweek were hardly radicals. (Their insistence on working within the system rather than dismantling it and feasting on its bones already says that in spades.) Povich and company weren’t the man-hating, bra-burning, granola-crunching feminists they so feared—oh, she insists, they were ladies. Like a nervous kid trying to convince the Sorting Hat that they don’t belong in Slytherin, she even prefers the word “drive” to “ambition.” For the most part, the book is about the rather gentle feminist awakenings of the women involved, although it still giggles at the idea that a lawyer was relieved to see them as clients because they were straight feminists! (They then go one to call Floyrence Kennedy the lunatic fringe, despite her help.)

I see this kind of feminism—narrowly focused on well-to-do, well-educated, white women to the exclusion of others—rearing its ugly head recently, especially in the form of Lean In. It’s very disappointing, albeit not totally unexpected in a book like this. There’s a way to write about the second wave and its problems without indulging in them yourself, and The Good Girls Revolt misses that mark.

Still, as with everything I read, there’s something to be learned here. Namely, that Anna Fels’ Necessary Dreams sounds awesome, if the quotes included from that book here are anything to go by. Her book is only called upon to explain ambition and the power of child care, but having someone specifically point out that our work cycle is expressly designed for the male life cycle is mind-blowing.

Bottom line: There’s a way to write about the second wave of feminism without indulging in the way it erased various groups, but The Good Girls Revolt isn’t it. Fleetly written. If you’d like.

This book was made available to me for publicity purposes.

Review: What Was Hot!

What Was Hot! by Julian Biddle

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So, you think you’re an eighties fan? Okay, Sergio Valente, can you handle this? It’s I Love the 80s, and this is 1980. The flicks, the fashion, the trends, the TV, the tunes. A totally awesome year that gave us these burning questions. Why did Doc get laid so much? Could Han kick Luke’s ass? And do you believe in miracles? The answers to those questions, plus: sweet Air Supply and one smelly doll. Because you love the eighties. Because you still wear your collar up, admit it. This is 1980.

In 2002, I was still reeling from seeing The Fellowship of the Ring and realizing that there was a whole world of pop culture beyond the mix of British sitcoms, seventies music, and French comics that was, in my small, Southern town, utterly unique to my family. I’d already made my first forays into fandom (you’re my forever girl, Digimon), but this was different. It wasn’t something experienced in a vacuum; it was something experienced communally. Most importantly, The Lord of the Rings had a history in American pop culture, one that I was now a part of, and I suddenly realized that I knew absolute jack about American pop culture. I listened to Yann Tiersen, for Pete’s sake. Interrogating my parents about their own pop cultural experiences would only shed light on the landscape of seventies France; interrogating my brother was impossible, what with him being halfway across the country attending the Air Force Academy.

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Review: Afrofuturism

Afrofuturism by Ytasha L. Womack

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Recently, Noah screenwriter Ari Handel told The High Calling that the reason a film based on the Hebrew Bible featured an entirely white cast was that “this story is functioning at the level of myth, and as a mythical story, the race of the individuals doesn’t matter. They’re supposed to be stand-ins for all people.” The concept of the white male as supposedly universal subject is disgusting enough, but such a precisely vague statement only brings to mind the various Old White Dudes screaming themselves red over people of color or women asking to be treated like people in the sf community. (I haven’t heard of anyone specifically protesting queer folk getting involved, but it’s only a matter of time.) Handel and men like Dave Truesdale are implying the same thing: marginalized communities and speculative fiction have nothing to do with each other.

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Review: How To Be Gay

How To Be Gay by David M. Halperin

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In the traditional queer narrative, going off to college is a big event. Depending on how active your high school’s GSA was, you either are finally meeting more than three other queer people or finally meeting queer people you don’t remember from childhood. But, despite my initial enthusiasm, I never quite connected with the queer groups on my college campus. Setting aside that one person who treated me as if I were a very stupid Hummel figurine prone to spontaneous combustion, they were a fine group of people. But we never really clicked. There was a cultural barrier between me the geek and they the partiers that couldn’t be breached. Eventually, I did find my fellow queer geeks, but that cultural shock stuck with me. Despite my outstanding credentials (Exhibit A: a notebook emblazoned with “Mrs. Joan Watson” in glitter), I wasn’t, apparently, queer enough.

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Review: The Supergirls

The Supergirls by Mike Madrid

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A few years ago, I bought a LEGO Wonder Woman keychain to keep me flying true. I have a lot of little totems like that—my hot pink skull snowglobe is a pretty fabulous memento mori, while the “don’t panic” fortune I keep in my wallet has stopped me from panicking on many an occasion (including the theft and subsequent return of said wallet). My little plastic Wonder Woman is a perfect storm of reminders; that I, too, come from several strong communities of women, from my mother to fandom to my alma mater, that I’m a fan through and through, and that the best version of myself is just as strong, compassionate, and hard femme as Diana of Themyscira. As I go through my day, she’s a comforting, vague notion in the palm of my hand, even if I slip my keys through my fingers on my way home.

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