A Shape in the Dark: Living and Dying with Brown Bears by Bjorn Dihle

A lifelong Alaskan inspires awe with his beautifully written, expert portrait of the grizzly bear.

Bjorn Dihle was born and raised in the outdoors of Alaska, where he has worked for years as a brown (or grizzly) bear viewing guide. A Shape in the Dark: Living and Dying with Brown Bears is his lovely, thoughtful study on the relationship between humans and this evocative, storied species.

“There have been times I almost hated bears,” he writes. “Like most feelings of hostility, mine were rooted in fear. Yet, there is no place I love more than grizzly country, and no animal has intrigued and challenged me more than the bear.” Moving around in time, Dihle tells his own stories of encounters, from the first brown bear he ever saw–a carcass in a salmon stream when the author was four or five years old–through early trailside meetings and learning how to relate to bears, into his career seeking them out, especially on Alaska’s Admiralty Island. “There’s no way to make bears safe,” Dihle acknowledges, which is surely part of their appeal. But there are measures, such as Larry Aumiller’s “concept of habituation, which he defined as taking away the fight-or-flight response in a bear, that’s key for developing trust between our two species.”

A Shape in the Dark is an appealing, accessible memoir and a history of the interplay of bears and humans in the American West. Dihle intersperses his own and his friends’ bear encounters with those of Grizzly Adams and Teddy Roosevelt, outlining the evolution of attitudes and policy toward grizzlies. In considering the writings of John Muir and Aldo Leopold, he reviews the history of wilderness thinking beyond bears, with a ruminative style and personal perspective. He writes of famous and less famous maulings, the complexities of bear hunting, the role of grizzly bears in native cultures and the impact of climate change on Alaska and its greatest predator.

Dihle’s title hints at something elemental about our fears and the way he handles them: “After a while, much like our ancestors who’d built fires to keep away the monsters, I opened my laptop and stared at the lit-up screen, hoping the words would come.” As his subtitle suggests, Dihle deals with life and death in balanced proportions, portraying the deaths of bears and humans with similar reverence.

Quiet, meditative, wise, well informed, A Shape in the Dark is memoir, history and philosophy in one: “everything leaves a trail, whether it’s imprinted in the land, in the narratives we tell, or even in our blood.” Dihle’s love for his subject is contagious and beautifully conveyed.


This review originally ran in the February 4, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 wigeons.

The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative by H. Porter Abbott

In stark contrast to the academic tome I recently undertook, this one was an absolute joy. (It was also much shorter.) I’ve been looking for something to help me understand my enjoyment of certain television shows, and went looking for a guide-to-narrative, which oddly (given my MFA) I seem to have skipped along the way. This book caught my eye as it claimed to take on various fictional formats, not only books but theatre, film, and television (among others). It delivered. I was often thrilled with the examples of the concepts it set up. And I’m now excited by narratology, or narrative theory. There may be more of these in my future.

I like Abbott’s broad approach, how he begins with narrative as it exists, ubiquitous, in our lives (as I tell my students that stories are everywhere, that writing is everywhere). He defines narrative broadly; at every stage he samples the literature and signals where he follows standard understandings or argues for his own. This book really does make an excellent introduction to a field of study; it’s only 213 pages (plus notes and supplementals), so it necessarily serves as a survey, but it felt very complete in that function. Chapters cover narrative frames and paratexts; masterplots and types; closure; narration (so much to explore!); interpretation (problems, styles, main types); adaptations across media (this is an area I’m very interested in); “narrative and truth” and the blurry space between fiction and nonfiction; narrative worlds; and competing narratives (as in political campaigns, legal trials, and more). I was constantly excited to recognize ways I think about stories and storytelling and the ways we experience stories, and to have my beliefs, theories, or experiences spelled out for me in new terms. I would never have thought a work of academic theory like this could be so gripping.

I was pleased to learn of Marie-Laure Ryan’s ‘principle of minimal departure,’ for our tendency to assume that a fictional world will mimic our ‘real’ one, until we learn otherwise. I appreciated a few small, apt examples of narrative differences as examples for my Short Fiction class. I loved all the examples of primary texts (narrative works that exemplify the concepts Abbott was teaching) and secondary sources (other studies of narrative on his various topics). I made note of a few books and movies to put on my lists. Abbott’s examples are disproportionately written by men, but by no means to the radical exclusion of non-men that so irritated me about Gardner’s work.

Call this a tantalizing foray for me into a new way to study and think about stories. This is great fun and I can’t wait to learn more.


Rating: 8 adaptations.

Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremy Atherton Lin

This superb, multifaceted book takes a close look at gay bars individually and as concept, in history and in the author’s life, tackling big questions with wisdom and grace.

Jeremy Atherton Lin brings a wise, wry voice to his masterful Gay Bar: Why We Went Out. This thoughtful study is part memoir, part research project, part travelogue and a large part classic essay-as-assay, seeking answers on the page. His subtitle indicates a wondering: Why did we go out? The answers are various; they change over time and of course are personal for Lin, but he progresses toward an understanding of what the gay bar really was, is and might be. “The question arises as to what distinguishes an enclave from a quarantine, and whether either is any longer necessary.” If gay no longer needs a bar, is this a victory, or a loss?

“A salon of effete dandies engaged in witty banter, a lair of brutes in black leather, a pathetic spot on the edge of town flying a lackluster rainbow flag for its sole denizen–one lonely hard drinker. Of course, a gay bar can be all these things and more.” Gay Bar is a personal history and a history in the traditional, researched sense: it relates Lin’s coming-of-age as well as a world of gay bars, from the scintillating to the sordid, dating back hundreds of years. Seven sections are devoted to locations–bars or neighborhoods–and represent epochs, both in Lin’s life and in the lifetime of the gay bar. Lin’s specific bars are located in London, Los Angeles and San Francisco, over the course of decades. He ranges through LGBTQ topics including protests, hate crimes, the gay rights movement, relationships with law enforcement, Stonewall and Harvey Milk, and gay-bar topics of sexual consent, music, booze, poppers and pills. Lin considers race, gender and class, and questions exploitation and appropriation. His broader subjects include community and identity, bar and nightlife culture, people’s relationships to place and more–this book has something for every reader.

Lin’s writing is consistently intriguing, descriptive and lovely: “the cranes and glassy high rises hover like chaperones.” As narrator he is by turns pensive, funny, self-deprecating, exasperated and reverent; he can be delightfully suggestive. “A pipe spilled chlorinated water. The brickwork had grown mossy down the length of its trajectory, like a viridescent trail-to-adventure on the building’s belly.” Gay Bar is enriched by the voices of others–thinkers in history, philosophy, literature and queer theory–but Lin never loses his own. This exploration is personal, deeply researched, smart and essential.


This review originally ran in the January 29, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 mirrors.

Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences by Howard E. Gardner

This is a long review of a big, fat, dense book, not particularly a fun read. But I’ve been intrigued and fascinated by the theory of multiple intelligences for years – I think my mother introduced this to me when I was a little kid. I’d read about this theory, but I’d never read Gardner’s own work; I finally decided it was time.

He has written many books, and he’s published books since this one on the MI theory (Multiple Intelligences; Intelligence Reframed), but I chose to go to the original, in its updated form. Frames of Mind was originally published in 1983. My edition has a tenth-anniversary introduction as well as a first-thirty-years introduction; it was published in 2011. (Although published in ’83, Gardner notes he did the writing in ’81, then moved into revisions.) These supplements were helpful to put Gardner’s work in some perspective and keep in my mind the time period he was originally writing in.

I’m going to try to keep it as brief as I can. In a nutshell: I still find Gardner’s theory fascinating and instructive; his thinking about intelligence types informs the way I view people in our world to a large degree. It captures my imagination. Reading this book was definitely stimulating for me. But! it was also pretty frustrating to read, mostly because of his mishandling of gender. Gardner almost entirely excludes women from a discussion of intelligences (except, of course, where we may be of use as mothers to male children). It assumes strict gender roles to an extent that seems almost laughable in 2021. I have some concerns about his treatment of cultural differences, although he’s clearly making some good efforts, but I’m less confident in my criticisms in that area, so I’ll discuss those as concerns I’m not sure about, where the gender business was downright upsetting. As I said about Buried in the Bitter Waters, there is enough good thinking here that it needs and deserves a thorough editing (and in this case, a thorough rethinking), and a rewrite for modern times. In general, a little humility and openness to being wrong is probably healthy for all of us (myself obviously included).

On that note, Gardner is quite good at humility and openness to criticism when it comes to his psychological theory of multiple intelligence, his acknowledgement that the number and identity of intelligence types may need revision, and his easy confession that in some realms he’s not qualified to carry the theory any further. (For example, what this book is not is a prescription for educational theory or practice. This is funny because one criticism of Gardner that I’ve encountered is that his educational recommendations are faulty. Again, he makes none in this book. Although maybe he does so in later works.)

Let me back up and offer you at least a little bit of summary. (This will be minimal, and I’m in a bit over my head with the harder-science side, but there are excellent summaries elsewhere online if you want to go further.) Gardner posits that human beings do not have a single intelligence, in which individuals are more or less gifted, but rather we have a number of different intelligences, or competencies, which are independent of each other; an individual can be gifted in one or more, average in others, and below average in some. In this, his original work on the theory, he introduces and details seven intelligences, defending them in neurobiological terms and with some examples. They are: verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal and intrapersonal (grouped together as the personal intelligences), and spatial. He is careful to separate intelligence from sensory abilities, so verbal-linguistic is not tied to hearing (and hearing-impaired and deaf people can be highly intelligent in this area), and spatial is not tied to vision (same story for blind people). In testing whether an aptitude qualifies as an intelligence under his theory, he requires that it involve a skill set that leads to the ability to resolve “genuine” problems or create useful products; that it also entail the potential to find or create problems; and that it have a biological basis, meaning for example that it be potentially isolated by brain damage. A short list of further criteria: the existence of prodigies; a recognizable developmental history and “end-state performances”; an evolutionary history; support from experimental psychology and psychometry; and “susceptibility to encoding in a symbol system.” Whew. Bookending chapters on each intelligence type are chapters on earlier views of intelligence (background of other theories and schools of thought); biological foundations (hard science, and hard for me); a critique of his theory; comments on the socialization of intelligences through symbolic systems; observations about how we educate to intelligences (observations, not prescription!); and thoughts about “the application of intelligences.”

As you may be concluding, Gardner here writes for an academic audience, in that classic, dry, academic style. Against his advice, I did wade through the “biological foundations” chapter (not that I got much out of it, but I’m a completist). It was a good reminder that psychology is brain science. I would love to see this book rewritten for a more general readership. I think I was hoping for more examples of intelligences in practice – hoping to recognize myself and my friends, family, acquaintances. My interest in this theory is absolutely about armchair-analyzing the world around me, so I was hoping for a slightly different type of book than this, but that’s my mistake; Gardner is clear that this is psych theory, not a which-kind-of-fruit-would-you-be quiz. I would have loved more case studies… and I wonder, is this about my desire for narrative, owing to my individual profile of intelligent types? I especially wanted more from the bodily-kinesthetic chapter, which included only two pages about athletes.

Gardner’s language is often dated. He uses ‘Eskimo,’ ‘victim of autism’ (and clearly sees autism as a tragic disability, when I think we’re pretty far from that mindset now), and ‘idiot savant.’ The use of ‘normal’ for individuals who are neither prodigies nor ‘subnormal’ feels a little wrong to me. And, “for ease of exposition the pronoun ‘he’ will be used in its generic sense throughout this book.” Guess how that struck me. I am aware of the argument that ‘he or she’ is just too much work, and/or too awkward, for regular use, but there are other, more elegant solutions to this problem than just assuming that EVERYBODY IS MALE. You can alternate between ‘he’ and ‘she’ from case to case. You can use ‘he or she’ sparingly (really, I’ve done it, you can). You can also slip into the singular pronoun ‘they,’ which is not a new usage at all, but dates back centuries. To read more than 400 pages of thoughtful and serious social science thinking in which ‘he’ does everything and everything happens to ‘him’ is belittling, offensive, and makes me feel not just left out, but as if I don’t even exist, or these theories don’t apply to me (more on that in a minute). Words matter.

While Gardner is able to cite women as scholars and researchers in his own and related fields (education, psychology, anthropology), he is almost entirely unable to name a woman as an example of one of his proposed intelligences. I noted just four, in these 412 pages plus notes: poet Sue Lenier, ballet choreographer Martha Graham, ballet dancer Suzanne Farrell, and Eleanor Roosevelt (for the personal intelligences, held up alongside Socrates, Jesus Christ, and Mahatma Gandhi). By comparison, his male examples number in the hundreds. His chapter on verbal-linguistic intelligence names 35 men who impress him, and just the one woman: Sue Lenier, who he calls the “possessed poet” for her methods which have been criticized (so that the one woman in that chapter, and one of just four in his whole book, has her intelligence qualified, as if her poems aren’t really her own work after all). Representation matters. I am left with the clear impression that Gardner doesn’t think I could possibly be intelligent in any of seven ways. Yes, it was 1981 when he wrote this book. But some men had already figured out how to see women as people in 1981, so Gardner does not get a pass.

Gardner’s belief in clear gender roles, then, will not surprise you. The development of infants falls squarely on their mothers, and mothers are the only ones capable of playing certain roles in the lives of their infants. (Finally, something women can do.) The chapter on the personal intelligences is far too bound up in a gender binary. I am not extremely well read in gender theory, but I am not sure I buy the strict gendered division of labor and personality going back to prehumans that he sets up. I know that nonbinary gender expressions are not the brand-new item that some would have us believe now, but appear in early and traditional societies as well. I know same-sex couples raising children in exemplary fashion. I think, as a psych theorist, that Gardner is missing some significant pieces of the puzzle here.

When it comes to other cultures, I’m on even shakier ground. And I do want to acknowledge that Gardner’s made an effort to find and examine a variety of cultures, societies, educational systems, and ways of recognizing, valuing, and ‘using’ intelligences in different cultural settings; that is important work and involves his awareness that Western culture is not the only or necessarily the best culture. Sometimes his conclusions feel a little unsure to me, but my expertise on cultures other than my own (let alone in terms of sociology, anthropology, pedagogy, psychology, etc.) isn’t sufficient for me to pick Gardner’s work apart. I did find myself wondering if he wasn’t being a little reductive sometimes, though, as in the stereotypes about Japan and China, for example.

I know I’ve devoted a lot of this review to my criticisms, but these oversights in Gardner’s writing and his perspective on humanity 1) were distracting to me as I tried to take in the theory and 2) make a substantive difference in his theory, because how can one understand human intelligences if one (for example) overlooks half the population??

As a theory, Gardner’s work continues to fascinate me and to inform a lot of my thinking. I am very glad I put in the effort (and it was an effort) to read this book. As a book, it was fairly obnoxious. But as a theory, it is intriguing and evocative. I hope somebody takes on the rewrite someday, and finds some non-men to think about. Who knows–we might learn something.


Rating: 7 puzzles.

Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

I used to follow Allie Brosh’s blog, Hyperbole and a Half. (I always loved that name.) I did not read her first book, by the same name, but I love the blog. This is her second.

Solutions and Other Problems is brilliant. Brosh is so vulnerable, honest, willing to share, and hilarious. Her openness is disarming and I think healthy both for her and for her readers who are comforted by knowing that they’re not alone in their struggles. And some of what she has to share is raw and painful. But also, she makes me laugh harder than almost anything, ever. I mean I laughed until I cried, gasping, couldn’t breathe, peed on myself. I was oxygen-deprived; she nearly killed me, I laughed so hard. (The funniest bits, for me, are anything about pets, and the chapter about the car stereo system and the smartphone trying to boss her around.) I would love to be able to spend a few minutes every day laughing this hard. I guess I need to re-follow her blog.

This is a graphic work – as in graphic novel, but nonfiction. A graphic memoir-in-essays, if you will; it’s not linear, but a sampling of experiences that have been especially funny or painful or moving. Because she jumps around so much and generally gets a little silly (in all the best ways), I thought it was neatly appropriate that (as noted by a brief “Explanation” following chapter 1) Brosh’s chapters are numbered but there is no chapter four. “Because sometimes things don’t go like they should,” she explains, and because she’s exercising a little power here, and we should be grateful she didn’t take it further than she did. It’s a random little bit of ridiculousness; but it’s also expressive of the kind of fun and angst I think she excels at.

Brosh’s illustrations are also a little ridiculous, fanciful, hilarious, and distinctive. I love them. She explains the world as she experiences it, in part, through fictional monsters and fantasies. Her drawings capture the mystery and awkwardness of life in a way that feels precisely right. (And I think she has dogs down pat.) (The Oatmeal‘s pretty good at this too.)

At one point she notes,

Experiencing real loneliness for the first time is like realizing the only thing you’ve ever loved is your home planet after migrating to the moon.

and I think that’s just perfect. I recognize this feeling. I had to migrate to the moon to find out just how place mattered to me.

I find Allie Brosh’s work comforting, as well as so funny that it leaves me a little breathless and wrung out. I recommend her so strongly, and I guess I need to go back and find the first book now too. Thanks, Liz, for the recommendation.


Rating: 9 sneakponies.

The Company We Keep: Drive-By Truckers’ Homecoming and the Fan Community

Continuing with DBT and Wes Freed (see also this review from last week), here’s another big beautiful coffee-table book about the Truckers and their fans. The subject here is more focused than the Truckers generally: it’s about the annual event called Homecoming, a three-night series of shows at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia, DBT’s “home” even as members have moved away over the years. In particular it concentrates on 2018’s Homecoming, when this book was being put together. There’s still quite a bit of band info and history, but the annual event and that ‘fan community’ of the subtitle are front and center.

The Company We Keep was put together as a fundraiser for the incomparable Nuçi’s Space. As such it’s a lovely effort; I’m always glad to give to this cause. As a final product I think it’s less than perfect; I would like to see the fan interviews, in particular, more carefully edited and proofread, that is, both for grammatical errors and for redundancy and long-windedness. Some sections and writers could have used more context or introduction. It can sometimes feel indulgent of the fan community, as if they are talking among themselves and to one another, and I’m welcome to listen in but it’s not really for me as much as it’s about themselves. Ironically, with themes of friendly inclusiveness, the book feels a little exclusive, a little in-group.

Despite being a glossy, large-format production, this book contains quite a bit of text. There are chapters about the rock show itself; opening bands; the club; the town; Nuçi’s Space; the fans; weddings, wakes, and friendships; and more. It’s led by a foreword by Patterson Hood, and I’m always glad to hear from him in any form. I marked a few points that felt like they encapsulated different parts of why I love this band so much. Hood: “Cooley and I have always written songs that used geography as an anchor to hold down some big ideas or stories.” Jay Gonzalez: “[Patterson]’s always trying to break down barriers, to bring people together socially and otherwise.” Gonzalez again: DBT is “a ‘lyric band’… but the music matters too, otherwise there’s poetry for that. And good lyrics are not ‘like poetry,’ it’s about how the music and lyrics work together, and Patterson and Cooley are definitely songwriters [not poets].” Trae Crowder (a comedian who’s opened for them at Homecoming): “My whole life I had never understood why being from the south and speaking with a drawl meant that you had to look and think and act and feel a certain way, and I could tell that DBT were wondering that same thing, and they were doing it out loud. This band was for me, by god, and has been ever since.”

Carter King, of Futurebirds (another opener), contributes an essay I found really well done as a piece of writing, regardless of its content (also sympathetic and hilarious). Reading more about the good work of Nuçi’s, including the Camp Amped Band, is always rewarding. I was thrilled to learn about a fan who’d written his undergraduate thesis about the Truckers; it’s available here. (I went and read it, too, and while a lot of the music theory went right over my head, it’s another well-designed piece of writing, entertaining and with some clear ideas to boot.)

These were high points. I regretted a few details – the need for editing; the in-group feel. But there was good Truckers content, and a good cause means I’d have no regrets even if it had had far less to offer.


Rating: 7 notes.

The World of the Woodchuck by W. J. Schoonmaker

I come from a place without woodchucks (or groundhogs, or whistlepigs, or whatever you prefer to call them). Now I live in a place where I get to watch them root and run around and sun themselves from my office window, or on dog walks. This is an exciting novelty for me. I’ve been looking for a book to learn more about these funny, personable little creatures, and I’ve been having kind of a hard time, but I did finally find this 1966 publication, The World of the Woodchuck (part of a series, A Living World Books, from J. B. Lippincott).

It’s a fairly simple collection of naturalist knowledge about woodchucks, part of the family Sciuridae (tree squirrels, ground squirrels, flying squirrels), genus Marmota, group monax. (My local species is the Marmota monax monax, or Maryland woodchuck.) W.J. Schoonmaker (zoologist, photographer, illustrator, educator, and lifelong resident of New York state) compiles all the information he can find in chapters titled “Meet the Woodchuck,” each of the four seasons, “Relation to Man and Other Animals,” and more. His writing style is mostly straightforward, a comprehensive catalog of stories and facts from his own considerable observation of woodchucks (and other animals) and the work of other naturalists and farmers, hunters and friends. He has a clear affection for his subject, when he describes them smiling and showing fear and love, or telling stories like the “comedy” of a black dachshund that chased a woodchuck and then got chased in turn.

I am left with a similar affection for Schoonmaker, who can be unintentionally funny (noting that three chucks he found with overgrown incisors were each “alive when killed”). The book is definitely dated in its language and style, and perhaps in its emphasis on the question of whether wild animals are useful to humans in terms of hunting, farming, and recreation – we have only partially moved past that perspective, but this does feel like the perspective of an earlier era in ecology. However, Schoonmaker observes, “It is believed that every plant and animal fits somewhere in the great plan of Nature, and the woodchuck definitely occupies an ecological niche in this scheme.” I can’t say if the body of knowledge about woodchucks has expanded since this book was published, but I have been looking in vain for more to read about them, so The World of the Woodchuck may remain the authoritative monograph on this subject. I learned a fair amount. The chambers of a woodchuck burrow adhere to dimensions with variation of only an inch or so between individuals (even individuals of different sizes). Woodchucks can climb trees, and they both ascend and descend headfirst. They hibernate in winter (I last observed my across-the-street neighbor on November 10, which is kind of late – we had a warm fall here). They are herbivores, and playful as puppies when they’re young, although they have to spend a lot of time eating and thus less time playing than a puppy does – it takes a lot of eating to prepare for hibernation on the caloric content of alfalfa and clover. They can eat a third of their weight at a time.

This book is no great work of research or fine writing, but it gave me what I needed, with a charming authorial voice and plenty of pictures. I’m glad I found it.


Rating: 7 accounts of the courage of woodchucks.

Maximum Shelf: Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story: Remaking a Life From Scratch by Erin French

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on November 30, 2020.


Erin French grew up in rural Maine, in the outdoors and in her father’s diner, where she began helping out in the kitchen at age 12. After a few years at college, she returned home to Maine, and faced challenges including young single motherhood; a difficult marriage and more difficult divorce; opening and then losing her first small restaurant; addiction and recovery. Eventually French moved back to her hometown of Freedom, where she would start again with her wildly successful The Lost Kitchen. These travels, pitfalls and victories she recounts in Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story; Remaking a Life from Scratch. Renovation and redemption–of spaces and of herself–are central to her story.

This memoir begins mid-scene, with the nine-months-pregnant narrator, age 21, on break from a 16-hour shift at the family diner. The opening showcases the detailed, richly sensory food writing that permeates these pages, then flashes back, to describe French first entering the diner at age five; observing her father’s love for his work, his drinking and his limited ability to show love for his family; working in the kitchen and dreaming of escape. Finding Freedom centers around food, from childhood in the diner to young motherhood, when French supported herself with a small business baking cakes, cookies and pies, working retail in a cooking supply store and for a catering company. French picks up skills and ideas along the way and builds confidence until she is able to open a supper club and then the first The Lost Kitchen on the Maine coast. By this time, she has also picked up a husband, Tom, who turns out to be a heavy drinker, controlling and eventually abusive. From her problems with depression and anxiety, and the excruciating hard work and long days of restaurant work, she picks up prescriptions for Xanax, Ambien, Klonopin and more. This chapter of French’s story ends in rehab, with Tom seizing custody of her child and shuttering The Lost Kitchen, including “every whisk, every spoon, every spatula, and knife.”

But the cook (French resists the title “chef,” having no culinary degree or formal training) is scrappy, hard-working and resourceful. She adopts a dog, moves into a cabin without electricity or running water, fights for custody of her son and gets back into the kitchen. She first converts a dilapidated Airstream into a food truck for roving outdoor fine dining events on farms, in orchards and fields. And then another opportunity shows itself: the old mill in Freedom is finally gutted and renovated into the perfect, romantic setting for a small but picturesque dining room. The Lost Kitchen is reborn. Within a few short seasons, its limited reservations must be filled by postal lottery, more than 20,000 postcards “pouring in as though it were the North Pole.”

The spaces French occupies are lovingly built and restored. The first The Lost Kitchen is housed in a former bank building, a three-story gothic flatiron she describes in tender, glowing terms: “One by one I folded back the old wooden shutters and flung open the tall windows, letting light into spaces that had been dark for so long…. The place was dripping with character, with its hardwood floors, high ceilings, thick period molding, and doors with frosted glass and heavy hardware.” Its owners choose to take a chance on renting to French after a personal meeting and homemade meal. This process repeats with The Lost Kitchen’s reincarnation in Freedom: “The quiet rumors had been spreading around town about the old mill’s restoration, the same way they had about me.” In between, French must clean out and redecorate the cabin she lives in post-rehab on her parents’ land, and the Airstream trailer she uses to get on her cooking feet again. As the book closes, she has just purchased an old fixer-upper farmhouse “the color of strawberries.”

French excels in describing her passion for cooking and for pleasing people via food; she’s at her best detailing the foods themselves, and her mouth-watering writing is the heart of this memoir: “Hard-boiled quail eggs as bar snacks that you could peel-n-eat and dunk in a dust of celery salt.” “Fresh-from-the-fryer nutmeg-laced doughnuts.” “Fried chicken. Served cold, crispy, and juicy…. We could just hold it up in the air as the boat screamed through the waves to catch a bit of salty breeze before devouring it to the bone.”

Cooking and baking, flower arranging, the fine art of plating and the writing of this memoir contribute to a profile of a woman driven to create beauty even out of pain. The narrator’s voice is vulnerable, her trauma is real and visceral but, by the end, this is a delicious, feel-good redemption tale.


Rating: 6 nasturtiums.

Come back Friday for my interview with French.

“The American Paradox,” lectures by Heather Cox Richardson

If you haven’t been receiving Heather Cox Richardson’s daily email “Letters from an American,” you’ve been missing out. She’s also been producing (prodigiously) several series of lectures on YouTube, including “American Paradox,” which we’re told follows the main themes and points of her recent book, How the South Won the Civil War. The paradox Richardson refers to is baked thoroughly into this country: that “all men are created equal” but that “all” doesn’t mean “all”; non-white men, and non-men, as well as certain classes of men, have been excluded from the beginning, and quite purposefully so. As we’ve moved as a country toward the idea that more people should receive equal chances in life, there has been a traditional pushback that is still alive and well, based in the fear that more equality for some people somehow means less equality for the original “all men,” meaning white men with a certain amount of money and power. Richardson portrays these points through storytelling, beginning well before the founding of the U.S., and catching up with Trump’s presidency. This lecture series has nine installments of about an hour apiece.

I listened to Richardson speak while working around the house, which means she didn’t always have my total attention, but I still got a lot out of the experience. I love her infectious enthusiasm for her subject – I feel there’s nothing so inspirational as an expert really excited about their field, and she definitely qualifies. As she occasionally reminds us, she delivers these lectures without notes. It’s astonishing the depth of her knowledge, and I am very comfortable with the trade-off that she is sometimes unsure of a precise date. I also really love the connections Richardson makes across disciplines (something I’ve been working to show my students this past semester), like noting the trajectory of Shakespeare’s playwriting career against world history and technologies, as in: The Tempest‘s setting in the Bahamas places that late-career play in time, as England colonizes that part of the world, a project made possible by new designs in sails and therefore in the shapes of boats. Literature, world history, and shipbuilding technologies are all a part of the same story! This exhilarates me. She also includes references to popular books, movies and television at different points in history, noting their subtle political or ideological contributions to culture, which is a method I recognize from Stamped, where I also appreciated it.

The central paradox in our country-as-concept didn’t feel like a new idea to me, but I think she presents it so logically that this series could serve as an introduction. (Who doesn’t hear the irony in “all men are created equal,” I don’t know, but I guess they’re out there.) For me the most exciting aspects of these talks were Richardson’s mastery of her material, how neatly she integrates interdisciplinary material into a single thread, her avid storytelling, and the big-picture perspectives she brings (which is what I love most about her email Letters). She is definitely, as my father says, a “history wonk,” a geek (I say in the most loving spirit) who excels at and loves storytelling. As my father again notes, this can “result in some enthusiastic ‘really cool!’ diversions into personalities and anecdotes that risk diluting her narrative,” and she sometimes has to pause to clarify that a story might be ‘really cool’ in terms of research and meaning-making, while being abhorrent in terms of what actually happened. This can be a bit jarring, but I think if we accept Richardson’s history-geekness, we can appreciate what she has to offer, which is an extraordinary body of knowledge and ability to draw connections and see patterns, and a boundless, contagious love for her work. I’d take a history class with her any day.

If you’re still learning our history (and who isn’t?) and if you feel that it sheds light on our present and future (which I think it certainly does), I highly recommend Richardson’s expert teachings, free and online for the taking.


Rating: 9 mules downstream.

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds

Liz recommended this book to me (in the audio format) as an excellent, succinct, accessible history of racism (including its purposeful invention) and antiracism, and she was (as usual) right. This is an outstanding introduction to, or review of, the concepts of race and racism in this country, in the context of world history. It’s truly for everyone: those new to such a history will find it manageable, and those not new will learn something new or at least have that larger picture – race in America within world history – clarified in useful ways. The audiobook is just four hours long, and every minute of it is engrossing. I wholeheartedly second Liz’s recommendation.

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You is a “remix” of Ibrim X. Kendi’s highly-regarded Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. It’s approximately half the length (300 vs. 600 pages). I have not read the latter, fuller version, but my father should be finishing it anytime, and he’s appreciative; perhaps he’ll give us a review to partner with this one. Tables of contents show that the content of each books lines up neatly; they do appear to be two versions of the same material, and I think it’s a real service to give both versions to the world. For this remix, Kendi is joined by young adult novelist Jason Reynolds, who also narrates the audio version (excepting the introduction, delivered by Kendi). It’s my impression that Reynolds does the remixing of Kendi’s original work, bringing his facility with younger readers. The book is labeled for ages 12 and up, but to characterize this as a book for younger readers is too limiting; it’s great for adults, too.

The opening chapter begins,

This is not a history book. I repeat, this is not a history book. At least not like the ones you’re used to reading in school. The ones that feel more like a list of dates (there will be some), with an occasional war here and there, a declaration (definitely gotta mention that), a constitution (that too), a court case or two, and, of course, the paragraph that’s read during Black History Month (Harriet! Rosa! Martin!). This isn’t that. This isn’t a history book. Or, at least, it’s not that kind of history book. Instead, what this is, is a book that contains history. A history directly connected to our lives as we live them right this minute. This is a present book.

And I want to start there because I’m interested in that characterization of what makes a history book. Between you and me, I would like to assert that this is a history book, but I get what the authors are up to here: for those younger readers (or for all of us!), they’re trying to distance themselves from the dry and boring history book, the traditional history book, that separates “history” from what matters in the here-and-now. I think this is a history book, in all the best ways – one for history books to emulate.

Having gotten that out of the way: five sections organize the broad scope of this history. They are organized by years. “Section 1: 1415-1728” opens with “The Story of the World’s First Racist.” (In Stamped From the Beginning [SFtB], Part I is titled “Cotton Mather.” He is not the world’s first racist – that title goes to Gomes Eanes de Zurara.) “Section 2: 1743-1826” corresponds to SFtB‘s “Thomas Jefferson.” “Section 3: 1826-1879” corresponds to William Lloyd Garrison; “Section 4: 1868-1963” is W.E.B. Du Bois, and “Section 5: 1963-Today” is Angela Davis. Those section headings from SFtB appeal to me. Obviously the date ranges handle more than the lives of each individual, but I appreciate the choice of an individual for each section of history, and of the progress of racism in America. Methodically, then, Kendi & Reynolds move through history from the 1400s, and Zurara’s invention of racism (in Europe), to the present day. They hit the highlights in terms of events, personalities, laws, cultural shifts, and theories of race and racism and antiracism, the intellectual arguments offered for why some people should be kept under the boots of other people. I love that they note the markers in media and art for racist thinking, too, commenting on the timing and context of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, To Kill a Mockingbird, Birth of a Nation, Tarzan, and Planet of the Apes. I’m a big fan of spotting the connections across (what we think of as) disparate threads of history and study: movies, literature, history. I think it deepens our understanding of each to see how they fit together.

I found Reynolds’s audio narration completely lovely, and would listen to anything else he reads.

I understand that SFtB is an excellent, deep, rich, dense study. I know I have a lot to learn from it, and I hope to get to it sooner than later. The work of a book like that is important. But I’m so grateful that Stamped exists, too. It’s a truly masterful achievement to make such a swath of history so accessible in just 300 pages, and there are some pretty involved theories and concepts expressed here in a package that I think anyone can grasp (again, it’s labeled for ages 12 and up). I think this book is likely to reach even more people than SFtB. As Liz suggested, I can realistically recommend this one to my first-year college students. This is a book for anyone and everyone. It proves, through history and observations and stories, that we are not living in a post-racial world; racism (and a caste system based upon race) is alive and well in this country and culture, even if it’s learned to disguise itself – that just makes it more important that we learn how to recognize it in its trickier forms. Stamped is the book to help us begin that work. Recommended for everyone.


Rating: 9 privileges.
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