Not long ago, I happened to run across a 1969 Chatelaine magazine. It caught my eye because the cover story was on the contemporary Canadian music scene – which was pretty exciting at that time. It also drew my attention because it was such different subject matter from today's Chatelaine covers. Almost all now feature food.
After reading the article, I leafed through the rest of the magazine. I was so intrigued by what I saw – and didn't see – that I decide to closely compare the 1969 Chatelaine with ome picked at random from the past year. It's not a pretty story.
I divided my overall analysis into three main categories: advertising; cooking, fashion, beauty; and general interest, the arts, unisex consumer information. They divided up as follows:
|Cooking, fashion, beauty||22%||40%|
The pleasant surprise was that advertising had only risen by 7% of total content, and I had anticipated a fairly hefty growth in the cooking and beauty area. What was shocking was the large decline, both in quantity and quality, of the general interest content.
In 1969, this category consisted of 4 pages of editorial content and arts reviews, 3 pages of unisex consumer tips (buying a used car, bacon), a 5 page short story and four long articles on up and coming Canadian musicians, Canadian history, "woman power" and what to look for in a good primary and secondary school. All together it made up 40% of the magazine's content.
In 2012, this category comprised only 15% of the magazine's content. Over half of this was editorial content, arts reviews and unisex consumer education. Two "true life" articles and one on "lifestyle change" made up the remainder. No fiction at all. In short, no intellectual content whatsoever.
The cooking, home decor and beauty section had doubled as a percentage of total content. The biggest changes within this category were a decline in home design and decor (from 50% of the category to 19%), a decline in fashion (from 25% to 10%) but a huge rise in beauty and diet (from 4% to 33%). Articles on health issues rose from 3% to 10 % and cooking from 18% to 28%.
What conclusions to draw from this analysis? (I'd like to say at this point that I am pretty sure these trends would hold for many magazines, not just Chatelaine and not just "women's" magazines.) Just going by the evidence, we're a lot shallower in our interests and have difficulty in sustained interest. We're narcissists, preoccupied with outward appearances rather than learning about and engaging with a wider world. We've come a long way backwards.
Every week, at the front of the New York Times Book Review, a well-known author is interviewed. One of the standard questions asked is what writer(s) would you like to ask for dinner. If, in an alternate universe, I was a well-known author, my answer to this would unhesitatingly be Adam Gopnik. I can't think of a more entertaining or pleasant dinner companion.
Whether it's something he's just learned about or something he's just thought of, Gopnik applies his vast store of arcane knowledge and his intelligence to look at it in a new and interesting way. Tempered with personal insights and opinion, he then shares it in a humble, often humorous, manner. While he obviously cares deeply about his subjects and has a clear ethical stance, he is never strident or stodgy; his touch is always light and amusing. As one British reviewer put it, his writing is "a stroll into the not-yet-known or only just-thought about", with stroll being the operative word.
Gopnik is a staff writer for The New Yorker and his August 8, 2011 essay on dogs – "Dog Story: How did the dog become our master" – epitomizes his technique and style. He starts with a personal anecdote, told with self-deprecating humour. His ten-year-old daughter has conned him and his wife into getting her a dog despite their many misgivings. Gopnik falls prey to the charms of the puppy and becomes fascinated with its behaviour, as well as his own reaction. This leads to all sorts of questions and trains of thought.
Dogs are descended from wolves. How and why did wolves begin to associate with humans? When did wolves become dogs? Why do we have such differing expectations of the human-dog relationship? What do dogs think, if they even do? Why do dogs behave the way they do? Do dogs have emotions or are we anthropomorphising? Gopnik lets us follow his intense reading and research, careful to mention titles and authors in case readers want to explore further on their own.
But then – and this is the quintessence of Gopnikism – he goes on to raise quite deep issues and to answer them using his own powers of reasoning and moral judgement. Should we treat animals as equals? What does our relationship with dogs teach us about ourselves and our place in the world?
This same pattern is used in his books. Paris to the Moon describes his five years in Paris (1995 – 2000) with his wife and baby son, as he learns to navigate a foreign city and a new role as parent. Sparked by the 200th anniversary of the common birthday of Lincoln and Darwin, Gopnik argues in Angels and Ages that the two shared more than a February 12, 1809 birthdate. Both men were exemplars of the change in thought that marked modern times, with argument based on reason and observation rather than faith or tradition, and with the belief that a sound argument, be it for evolution or emancipation, would win out in the end. Winter: Five Windows on the Season is a beautiful meditation on the season of winter and its interaction with culture and science, while The Table Comes First is an exploration of the pleasures of eating, of the shared experiences of preparing and consuming food and of talking around and about the table.
Which brings me back to my original point. Reading Adam Gopnik is like having a fascinating conversation with a literate and entertaining good friend while sharing a meal and a glass of wine. You go home thinking "Wow, what a wonderful evening".
Despite the new Family Day holiday this is still a long grey time of year. How to while away the time in a pleasant fashion while waiting for the sun to reappear can become a somewhat pressing question.
If you are suffering Downton Abbey withdrawal, Fay Weldon's Habits of the House is a delightful diversion. Ms. Weldon was one of the original writers for the series Upstairs, Downstairs and hasn't lost her touch. The novel is the first in a projectred trilogy about the Dilberne (Earl of) family and their servants and takes place in the fall of 1899. Lord Robert has invested the family money in gold mines in South Africa which have unfortunately just fallen into the hands of the Boers. Lady Isobel feels marrying their children into money ASAP would do much to alleviate the situation. However, both seem too obsessed with pet interests – Viscount Arthur with motorcars and a mistress, Lady Rosina with various social movements – to participate in the search for a solution.
Lady Isobel enlists the aid of her maid, Grace, who is very bright, very well read and very intimate with the manager of the London hotel where wealthy Americans prefer to stay. A likely candidate is Minnie O'Brien, only child of a Chicago beef baron, who has been forced to search for a husband somewhere where her fling with her married art teacher is not common knowledge. The ensuing shenanigans are highly improbable at the same time as they are grounded in good historical research. This, along with very likeable characters and Weldon's trademark dry wit, makes for a fun read. I'm eagerly awaiting the second volume, Long Live the King, which is due out later this spring.
While in British mode, Mrs. Queen Takes the Train is another light, entertaining read. Her Majesty is feeling a bit blue and unsettled, a little "what's it all for". She decides to go out on her own to get some cheddar for one of her favourite horses and ends up taking the train to Scotland for one last look at the decommissioned yacht, Britannia. This creates consternation in those closest to her which includes her dresser, her senior lady-in-waiting, her butler and her equerry (Prince Philip is away on a trip), as well as a stable girl and a clerk from the cheese store. They form an uneasy alliance to find her and bring her back before panic and scandal ensue.
It is the problems and concerns these characters are dealing with that form the backbone of the story – social, political and generational issues as well as career, love and family. The Queen sails along with her usual aplomb but is grateful for their caring and support which does seem to help her with her own quandary. Enjoyable and entertaining.
A final suggestion is Anna Gavalda's French Leave, a slight – less than 150 pages – but delightful read. The narrator is Garance; she and her sister Lola and their brother Simon flee a dull family wedding, and Simon's uptight and judgmental wife, to visit their younger brother Vincent who is working as a guide at a rural chateau. For 24 hours, the siblings lose/find themselves in each other, sharing tastes, memories and jokes. All return to their everyday adult lives but carrying with them the magic of their reunion. This charming book makes it clear that sometimes happiness is as simple as being together.
Read, laugh, the sun IS on its way.
Over the holidays, I read two books which commented interestingly on contemporary class issues. Where'd You Go, Bernadette was a funny look at family life in urban, educated upper-middle-class America. The divide between this group and the rural working-class is just one of the themes that Barbara Kingsolver tackles in Flight Behavior.
Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette is terrific social satire. Her target is the computer rich of Seattle. These are bright over-achievers with good hearts and best intentions but living in a very limited world. Bernadette Fox is a very intelligent stay-at-home mom married to Elgie Branch, a Microsoft guru. Their 15-year-old daughter, Bee, is the narrator of the book. Her tale is fleshed out with various documents provided by a neighbour, Audrey Griffin. Bee has aced her school year at her private school and is claiming her reward of a family trip to Antarctica. This becomes more and more problematical for Bernadette, a severe agoraphobe who already relies on a personal assistant out-sourced in India.
This book is fun and witty. Some of the humour comes from the sarcastic dialogue between Bernadette and Bee which I found reminiscent of the TV show Gilmore Girls. Much is derived from situations – for example, a dispute between Bernadette and Audrey over blackberry bushes or the machinations of Soo-Lin Lee-Segal, a friend of Audrey's and an administrative assistant to Elgie. Semple gets everything right. Just look at the little detail of the married women's names – they have "kept" their maiden names or hyphenated with their husband's.
As Bernadette edges closer to a breakdown, Elgie decides to stage an intervention with disastrous results. Bernadette disappears. Bee is certain her mother would never abandon her permanently and insists on looking for her. In the process, she learns much about Bernadette's past and the reasons for her neuroses. Semple avoids a one-dimensional skewering by keeping true to her main theme of love surviving personal and family dysfunction.
Flight Behavior tackles much broader issues and is a much more serious book (although it has its lighter moments). Organisms and environment are geared to each other. When they no longer mesh, when one or both has changed, then the organism must leave and/or change to survive. This is the theme Kingsolver examines on both a personal and environmental scale.
Her protagonist is Dellarobia Turnbow. Very bright, she and her best friend, Dovey, are determined to leave their tiny town in the Tennessee mountains. However, Dellarobia becomes accidentally pregnant at 17 and marries the father, Cub Turnbow. Although she miscarries, her own parents are dead and dying and she remains with Cub on his parents' sheep farm. She is now 27 with two children, Preston and Cordelia, who she loves deeply but she is bored out of her mind with her life and her husband.
At the start of the novel, a desperate Dellarobia is climbing the hill behind her and Cub's house to finally consummate her flirtation with the "telephone man" when she finds the mountain valley covered with a brilliant orange glow. The myopic Dellarobia thinks it is some sort of sign for her to change her ways and her life. What it turns out to be is most of the monarch butterfly population of North America which has been forced out of its traditional wintering ground in Mexico because of flooding caused by climate change and clearcutting. But it is indeed a sign.
Cub's father had been planning to log the valley to pay a bank loan but news of the butterflies' presence delays this. Pastor Bobby Ogle, who leads the Turnbows' church, sees them as a sign of God's grace while the media see an opportunity for a story. Various people with varying agendas start showing up – protestors,"knitting womyn," eco-tourists, scientists. Dellarobia befriends Ovid Byron, a leading expert on monarchs, who sets up shop on the farm bringing in a team of graduate students to study the butterflies over the winter.
Dellarobia's interest in the monarchs starts with attempts to answer her science-minded son Preston's questions but she eventually ends up as a paid assistant to the researchers. "Her life was unfolding into something larger by the day, like one of those rectangular gas-station maps...." However, despite her attraction to the intellectual stimulus they provide, Dellarobia is sensitive to "the condescension of outsiders" and their utter blindness to the realities of rural working-class life. One of the funniest instances of this is the pledge one of the activists is urging the locals to sign – asking people to recycle when they shop at secondhand stores because it's all they can afford, or to reduce their carbon footprint by not flying when they rarely make it to the neighbouring town.
Kingsolver is sharply critical of the scientists for not making clear how desperate the environmental situation is, for assuming that people won't understand what they are saying. They need to speak directly to people and not rely on a tainted media. However, through Ovid, she says it is already too late; to use her analogy, we are at the top of Niagara Falls without a paddle. For us, as for the butterflies, it becomes a question of whether we can adapt to a new earth. Like Dellarobia, we must look the facts squarely in the eye so we can make the correct choices.
Oddly enough, two of the new fall books had "sweet" in the title and both provoked a similar reaction. They were very readable but left me just a little unsatisfied, although for different reasons. I felt Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth fell short of being a really good novel because it was trying too hard to be clever while The Sweet Girl suffered from Annabel Lyon creating a character who transcended her world all too well.
McEwan's book is set mostly in England, mostly in 1972. The narrator is Serena Frome, eldest daughter of an Anglican bishop. Serena is very attractive, a speed reader with an eidetic memory and a whiz at high school math. Pushed by her mother, she pursues math at Cambridge but is out of her league there. She consoles herself with reading, sex and writing a rather conservative column in the weekly university magazine. The latter activity is indicative of something a little off in Serena – she seems a bit too self-consciously right wing, in fact a bit too self-conscious altogether, for someone of her age and activities.
Serena has an affair with Tony Canning, a middle-aged and married English professor. A former spy, he nudges her into a career with MI5. Inertia seems to carry Serena along in a job she finds dull and somewhat confusing. The work for the "girls" is mostly clerical; it is the fag end of the Cold War with nothing much happening. Terrorism is just beginning to raise its head with IRA bombings but MI5 seems slow to adapt. Instead, they propose "Sweet Tooth," a project to fund and promote writers whose stance is anti-Communist. Culture as politics,and all that. This sounds bizarre but is based on fact.
With her looks and background, Serena seems perfect for this job. Her first assignment is Tom Haley, who has written short stories to some acclaim, as well as anti-Communist articles. A struggling assistant professor, he is ripe for a "Foundation" grant and Serena reels him in. The twist comes when Serena falls in love with him - it's no surprise when she sleeps with him. How or when is she to tell him the truth about herself without jeopardizing their relationship? Things get even more complicated when Tom wins a major literary award for his "Foundation"-funded dystopian and anti-government first novel.
Throughout Sweet Tooth there are comments on the mechanics of writing and the tricks a writer must play to make a story plausible. By page 214, Serena, a greedy and unthinking reader, is finally beginning to grasp the creative process:
As a reader, I took it [invention] for granted, it was a process I never troubled myself with. But now, I thought I had the measure of the artifice, or I almost had it. Almost like cooking. Instead of heat transforming the ingredients, there's pure invention, the spark, the hidden element. At one level it was obvious enough how these separate parts were tipped in and deployed. The mystery was in how they were blended into something cohesive and plausible, how the ingredients were cooked into something so delicious.
This turns out to be what Sweet Tooth is really all about. Despite various twists and a "surprise" ending, I didn't find it particularly delicious nor did I find the invention particularly hidden. Rather, I found it – to use a British phrase – "too clever by half", as I did McEwan's previous book Solar. He is a consummate craftsman but seems to be becoming too enamored of the craft and losing the spark which makes characters really come alive.
Annabel Lyon, on the other hand, is ablaze with invention in The Sweet Girl. She uses dialogue brilliantly to create living characters and carry her story forward. It centres around Pythias, or Pytho, the "sweet girl" of the title. She is the daughter of Aristotle who was the subject of the first book in the trilogy, The Golden Mean. In this second book, Aristotle has left Macedonia and is running his own philosophy school in Athens. Pythias' mother has died and Aristotle co-habits with his servant Herpyllis with whom he has a son. Herpyllis has become a second mother to Pytho and Lyon portrays them as a loving family. They live a comfortable life and Aristotle is respected as one of the most brilliant men of his time, with allowances made for his eccentricities.
Besides openly living with a servant, these include educating Pytho. She is truly her father's daughter – witty, intelligent, a good debater, avidly interested in learning and science. Not for her the life of a good Greek female – cooking, weaving and child bearing – hidden away in the rear of the house. Unfortunately, the world intrudes when Alexander the Great, Aristotle's former pupil, dies. Athenians now feel free to turn against their Macedonian "conquerors" and Aristotle flees with his family to Chalcis, a garrison town. Life is just starting to return to normal when Aristotle himself dies.
Sixteen year-old Pytho's world falls apart. Herpyllis and her son return to Herpyllis' village. According to Aristotle's will, Pytho is to marry her older cousin Nicanor but he is with Alexander's army. Who knows when or if he will ever return? She should return to Athens and put herself in the care of Antipater, the executor of Aristotle's will and his successor at the Lyceum, but knows he will force her into a traditional role. Instead, she elects to remain at Chalcis and try to survive on her own.
This starts a strange almost dreamlike sequence in the novel. It seemed to me that Lyon tried to do too much with this section. Pytho tries out the various alternatives for women in ancient Greece who didn't want to be just wives and mothers. There weren't many and most were unpleasant. Lyon has stated that this part is also about Pytho exploring the worlds Aristotle has sheltered her from – the world of emotion, of magic and gods and goddesses that he was trying to supplant with one based on logic and science and the world of her feminine sexuality which he tried to ignore. I felt this section didn't "work" very well. It got across the ideas Lyon wanted it to but was weak as a story and I lost sight of Pytho who until then had seemed such a real person to me. I also found the resolution at the end disappointing but, without giving too much away, this may be the fault of ancient Greece rather than of the author.
Two very different girls. Serena Frome seems artificial, the consummate uneducated reader created as a perfect fit for a lazy writer. Pythias, on the other hand, is so strong and real that her writer could no longer make her fit into the world of her novel.