Okra vs. Gombo

Vibration Cooking or The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl by Verta Mae. Doubleday & Company, 1970.

The groovy 70s cover

Sarah: A while ago I was reminded of Gil Scott-Heron. He was very influential, like a pre- hip hop hip hop artist.
Gene: He’s mentioned in an REM song, but I’ve got no idea who he was.
S: Yeah? He was a poet who set his poetry to music. So I go on to a music subscription service to start listening to him, and I’m really enjoying it, then all of a sudden there is a song that centers around a slur that’s very homophobic. I was like, “Huh, I guess that’s of its time,” then thirty seconds in, “I can’t listen to this anymore.” So. Then I read a wonderful book and at almost the very end of it, apropos of nothing, there’s a homophobic slur. It’s of its time, it wasn’t enough to make me stop reading the book, but it really took me out of the flow.
G: It’s this book, Vibration Cooking?
S: Yeah. It’s by Verta Mae, who also went by Vertamae Grosvenor and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor at different parts of her career. I don’t think anyone would have blinked at the slur in 1970, when it was written, except that you wouldn’t have said it in polite society. If I could have just skipped that page, that would have been great. I don’t know if it’s in the later reprints, too.* But other than that, as a whole, I really enjoyed the book! It was published in 1970, and was written when the author was in her late twenties. It’s a combination of autobiography and recipes.
G: Where did she grow up?
S: In South Carolina. The subtitle of the book is The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl. The Geechee are a people, also called Gullah, in that area. They are descended from slaves from West and Central Africa and have their own unique language and traditions. She talks about the farm where her family lived and where she was born, then how they moved to Philadelphia and had a tough time getting by there. Her family was pretty poor. Then in the middle of a sentence, she’ll put a recipe. Like “Aunt Rose used to cook” and then the heading “COWPEAS,” and then the recipe for cowpeas.
G: Was this book famous when it came out?
S: I don’t think so. The author later wrote a lot of other stuff, was a commentator on NPR, had a PBS cooking show, stuff like that. She definitely had a following.
She became an actress in New York for a while, then moved to Paris, then she was an activist in New York, and she hung out with all of these writers and poets and musicians — in the book she’ll talk about how everyone came over after a show and this is what we cooked.
G: And this is all in there?
S: It’s all in there. She had some cousins, one who ended up in the West Indies, another who ended up in India, and she’ll write their recipes in their stories. It is always a conversational, great story that gives you all the context you need for the food. It makes it so much more enjoyable and friendly. And luckily, there’s an index at the back, because there is no organization to this at all except as a story.
G: Is it even broken up into chapters?
S: Yes, it is. There’s a section called “Away from Home,” another called “’59” when she left New York for Paris, then again in “’68.” And little side stories about raising her daughters, about how she had a hard time catching a cab in New York, stories about how people reacted to her wearing African clothes. It’s a very personal story that brings in personal recipes because that was a part of her life. At the end, there’s an everything left over section, how to cook different vegetables, about spices, there’s a section on Aphrodisiacal Foods.
G: (flipping through the book) Poems in the back.
S: And some letters between her and her cousin.
G: You can imagine a publisher getting this and just saying, “What?”
S: But it’s perfect, a perfect little story.
G: Who published it?
S: Doubleday.
G: So a major publisher. Where did you get this brown-with-age paperback?
S: At a used bookstore. It’s a first edition paperback. I think I’m going to cook some recipes from it, but I got a lot out of it even if I don’t. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it.
G: But you’d recommend it to me for the narrative flow.
S: Yes, for the flow over the recipes. It’s about the central role of food in family and friends and community and identity. And then there’s a homophobic slur. Just skip that part.

*There is a fairly lukewarm apology in the 1986 reprint. She says, “I should have said ‘homosexual.’ I apologize for that […] but the rest stands.” According to a review, the1992 reprint omitted both the original slur and the apology. The 2011 reprint has the slur back again and includes the 1986 apology.

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The smell of familiar houses

Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt With Family Addiction by Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Scholastic Graphix, 2018. 9780545902489. 310pp.

Krosoczka’s mom was the third of five kids. Her parents weren’t too happy when she got pregnant (she was pretty young), but supported her by buying her a house near them. His early memories are happy, but there’s a dark edge there — men coming over, a recurring nightmare of being surrounded by monsters. After his mother gets arrested (not for the first time), his parents move Jarrett into their house. He lives there as his mother drifts in and out of his life, seeming to get better and then relapsing. She lets him down again and again as he grows up, discovers his love of creating comics, and finally even meets his father, who didn’t want to have anything to do with him when he was born.

The book is full of drinking and smoking (I bet his grandparents’ place smelled like my parents’ houses) and even has a little swearing (though I bet there was a lot more in real life). It was a dark, difficult read for me because it all hit so close to home. It’s stayed with me, and I’ve found myself returning to its pages over and over again since finishing it a few weeks back, and I know there are kids out there who will read it repeatedly even though it’s not as funny as his Lunch Lady, Jedi Academy, and Platypus Police Squad series.

I know what I read last summer

In the air and on the ground in South Korea and Vietnam I made it through three book books in a month. That’s a lot for me. My secret: I read slowly. Must be why I like graphic novels so much.

Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews. Pocket Books, 2013. 9781501168918. 576pp.

A personal recommendation by the owner of Seattle’s BLMF bookstore who said something like, “This got me reading spy fiction again.” This is indeed a great book that doesn’t center on the character in the movie trailer seducing everyone after going to sex/assassination school (though Dominika Egorova does to to that school). The book starts with a young CIA operative in Moscow (Nathaniel Nash) nearly getting caught as he goes out to meet a high level Russian double agent, then alternates telling the stories of Nash and Egorova as it brings each into the other’s orbit. The less said about the plot the better, but the characters are scary brilliant at every turn, and the situations they face will have your heart pounding.

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers. July, 2018. 9780062699220. 368pp.

Chambers is writing the most upbeat, character centered science fiction that I’ve read. Plot seems secondary to people in an absolutely brilliant way in the Wayfarer series, which started with The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. (You don’t need to have read it first, but there are some references to it in this one.)

This book revolves around life in the Exodan Fleet, the ships in which humanity left the Earth behind centuries ago as it set out for the stars. To members of a Galactic Federation, the Exodans’ way of life and level of technology are very backward, though to some their communal way of life is fascinating. The story is told from several points of view — young people who want to head planetside as soon as they’re able, a young man who grew up on the ground but has come to the fleet to try their way of life, an archivist in the fleet, a person who prepares bodies for recycling and handles funerary rites, and an alien who has come to study and report on Exodan society. The insects they eat sound delicious, and I’d go visit in a moment if this was a real place — not many books make me smile as often and unexpectedly as Chambers’ do.

The Crippler: Cage Fighting and My Life on the Edge by Chris Leben and Daniel J. Patinkin. Skyhorse, 2017. 9781510727731. 296pp.

I was a huge fan of Leben’s bloody slugfests in the UFC — he was tough and often seemed to keep fighting on pure heart. Reading about how tough his early life was and how he abused his body before and during his time as a pro fighter was a bit horrifying, but about halfway through the book I checked his Facebook page and saw photos of a smiling Leben in Hawaii with his family, and that pulled me through.
The only other MMA bio that I’ve read is strategist/fighter Georges St-Pierre’s The Way of the Fight, whose “this is how I became who I am” book stands in stark contrast to Leben’s “I can’t believe I made it through this” stories. Maybe the contrast means they should be read together?

WWDD?

What Would Dolly Do? By Lauren Marino, Grand Central Publishing, 2018.  9781538713006. 234 pp.

Dolly Parton is probably the one person in this world who, if I ever get to meet her, would render me speechless. When Gene let me know that a new biography about my favorite celebrity was coming out, I had to read it. This is an inspiring book that will make you believe in yourself and help you reach your potential.

Dolly Rebecca Parton was the fourth of twelve children born in a tiny shack in 1946 in Locust Ridge, a dirt-poor town outside of Sevierville, Tennessee. She had to support her giant family when she was just a teenager, but had no regrets about doing so. She realized a lot of people might think she was just a country bumpkin or even a stereotypically dumb blonde who could easily be taken advantage of. Little did they know that Dolly’s father, Lee, taught her at a young age that she shouldn’t trust anyone with her money. But she’s always been generous with friends and family and, in fact, Carl Dean, her husband of 52 years, once told her he “could take all the money she spent on family and be richer than Donald Trump.”

Marino’s biography is full of anecdotes and what she calls “Dollyisms,” bits of Parton’s down-home wisdom and advice. One I have always loved is from when she played Truvy in the movie Steel Magnolias and said to her beauty salon customers, “It takes a lot of work to look this cheap.” I think when I am feeling especially overwhelmed with work, family, my other obligations and everything else, I remember my favorite: “Don’t get so busy making a living that you forget to have a life.”

Being from Tennessee myself, I have always felt a connection to this self-proclaimed “trashy girl.” She made a career out of looking cheap and artificial, but her heart is as real and genuine as they come. My admiration grew into professional respect when I began volunteering for Parton’s Imagination Library, a now nationwide, non-profit organization that gives free books to kids. I am proud to say my hometown of Shelby County has the largest enrollment in the country.

Guest review by Murphy’s Mom.

Mo’ Money

Monet: Itinerant of Light by Salva Rubio (writer) and Richard Efa (art). English translation by Montana Kane. NBM, 2017. 9781681121390. 112pp.

I’m not an art expert and I don’t read many biographies — I’m a guy who races through museums, often giggling with my daughter, to find the few works that catch my attention and make me stare at them. I’ve been caught up by a few of Monet’s huge, bright paintings but know little of him or the Impressionist movement — it’s worth noting that Efa’s art and design pays homage to many of his works — but I was still surprised how much I enjoyed this beautiful graphic novel.

The book opens late in the painter’s life, in 1923, with Monet reluctantly getting much-needed cataract surgery, fearing for his vision, and then reflecting on his life. Art was the only thing that took young Monet out of his grief over his mother’s death, and his first mentor was Boudin, who helped him see nature and taught him to paint it outside. Soon Monet dropped out of school, against his father’s wishes, and moved to Paris. But the school he attended there didn’t help him realize his vision, and through many struggles (financial, emotional, internal) he had to find his way to success and acceptance in the art world. He wasn’t always the nicest guy to his family, but his single-mindedness really made me admire him.

As Rubio notes opposite the last page, this is not a history book — a lot of license was used to develop characters, and the works are not always presented in the order they were created. But it gave me a great sense of the artist and his time.

For librarians and art lovers: At the end are 16 pages of reproduced art works (not all by Monet) and the panels in the book they inspired. (If I were going to read this for the first time, I’d probably start with his section, but only because I’m unfamiliar with so many of the paintings that are referenced. But discovering it at the end of my read had me flipping back through the book and enjoying it again, which was fun, too.)

Shyguys

Quiet Girl in a Noisy World: An Introvert’s Story by Debbie Tung. Andrews McMeel, 2017. 180pp. 9781449486068.

Tung is a web cartoonist and illustrator who publishes comics about books and being an introvert and more on her Tumblr. Her illustrations are somewhat loosely drawn but realistic, and the grays she uses really helps emphasize the quiet moments she loves. I’ve never had much of a problem asking questions in class or hanging out with groups of people, but I connected with Tung on page 12, when she looks at another young woman’s bookshelf and determines that they’re gong to be friends. Books also helped me understand how she could fall in love with a guy who isn’t an introvert — when she’s trying to decide between two books in a store, he buys them both for her. (That’s love.) Overall this is a great story, told in page-length comic strips, about a young woman figuring out how to deal with a world that’s not quite set up to welcome her (her job has an open office where everyone chats!), who moves toward doing what she loves with someone she loves.

I bought this for my daughter, who says she’s something of an introvert, for Christmas last year. I’ve never seen the book again, which is a good sign, though she seemed vaguely annoyed that I’d gotten the same book from the library and told her how much I enjoyed it. (But then she always seems annoyed with me these days (vaguely and otherwise). She’s just about to turn 16.)

Inhumanoids, Inhumanoids…

I subscribe to other review newsletters, I get notified every time my local library system buys a graphic novel, I haunt comic shops, and still it’s hard to get a handle on what great European graphic novels Humanoids is publishing in the U.S. Here are two that you’ll probably never come across unless you’re looking:

The Retreat by Pierre Wazem & Tom Tirabosco. Translated by Mark Bence. Humanoids, 2017. 9781594656156. 112pp.

Two friends, Serge and Igor, take a melancholy trip to the country to stay at their friend Matt’s family cabin in the woods (in Bordeaux, France, I think). It’s the last place they spent time with Matt before he died, and it’s the story of both trips and the conversations they had.

Serving this simple, touching, straightforward story, Tirabosco’s art feels thick and creamy, like he used mostly white crayons or pencils or the like on black paper. The color and texture of the paper, as well as the light application of white and some very strategic erasing seems to have played a role in really making the blacks pop off the page. Or maybe I’m totally wrong, I’m just guessing — but I’ve never seen anything that looks quite like this.

Adrift by Gregory Mardon. Translated by Mark Bence. Humanoids, 2017. 9781594658396. 116pp.

Adrift takes place mostly in the past as Mardon tells the life story of his grandfather, Adlophe “Dodo” Hérault. In 1937, at age 16, determined not to spend his life as a butcher’s boy in Douai, France, he joined the navy…where he immediately started working as a butcher. He got to see the world, though his crazy shenanigans often landed him in the brig. (One of my favorite scenes is of a bar fight he starts somewhere near Hong Kong. The crazy stuff he did is best discovered on your own, some of it quite funny.) When WWII breaks out and France is invaded, the tone of his story gets much less goofy, and he never does quite forgive the British for shelling the French naval vessel he was on. (The Brits feared the French would surrender to the Axis.) His love for the woman who would become Mardon’s grandmother is amazing, as is their life in northern Africa until they’re forced to relocate to France. His gruff exterior and his grandson’s love for him make the very end of his life that much harder and more touching.

This book reminds me of Guibert’s Alan’s War and How The World Was, rememberances of the life of his friend Alan Cope, an American who settled in France after WWII. Though I have to say, this also reminds me of my own gruff-seeming and entirely loving grandfather, especially of watching him shave.

The book is black and white and looks as if it was inked. The blacks and grays have a beautiful texture, particularly the shadows, that I’ve got no idea how Mardon achieved — it’s stunning.