Sunday, March 30, 2014

Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol by Ann Dowsett Johnston (2014)

The reason I borrowed this book was fairly simple. It was a Friday night and I was stuck at work with no hope of leaving soon. To take a quick break I checked out my library’s “new to the library” ebook section and when I saw the title Drink while wishing I could leave my office and have one, it seemed serendipitous. However, after realising the subtitle was “The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol”, I wished my motivation had been a bit more intellectual and a bit less about wine…

Like High Sobriety by Jill Stark (which I loved, review here), Ann Dowsett Johnston is a heavy drinker whose writing of this book was inspired in part by her own problematic relationship with alcohol. A key difference between the two, however, is the age of these writers – Stark was on the cusp of 30 while Dowsett Johnston is closer to 60. This affects how they frame their narratives: for Stark, the concern is what she might become if she continues her current drinking pattern while Dowsett Johnston is an alcoholic who is no longer drinking.

Both of these books place drinking within a cultural context (for Stark, Scotland and Australia and for Dowsett Johnston, Canada and the US) and the personal experiences of their authors are supported by sociological research. The research that Dowsett Johnston presents is alarming. For example, there is a consistent increase in the amount of alcohol college students drink when they go to university. For the teenagers who have a drinking problem before they go to uni, this increase means that their drinking shifts from problematic to alcoholic while, for others, it encourages and normalises binge drinking and negative relationships with alcohol. This is definitely an issue that needs to be addressed but, as is discussed in the book, how to best do this?

Dowsett Johnston’s focus is on women and alcohol. In part, this is because women are the group of society whose drinking has increased the most over the last 30 years and in part because she herself is an alcoholic. Some of the connections between woman and alcohol noted in Drink are interesting; for example, that women drink because of the pressure to “have it all” caused by their increased presence in the workplace without a decrease in their responsibilities at home. She also identifies a common trend with female alcoholics: they often suffer abuse or trauma at a young age, start drinking in their teens and, as they grow up, their drinking becomes worse.

The way Dowsett Johnston discusses these two contributing factors is my biggest problem with the book. While I think it’s both valid and true to say that the “have it all” myth is incredibly damaging for women, I got the strong sense that Dowsett Johnston was blaming women for this being so rather than addressing the social and cultural gendered expectations of women that contribute to the creation and perpetration of the myth itself. After identifying the trauma-teenage drinking trend, Dowsett Johnston interviews many many many many women whose stories all follow the same trajectory. I’m not sure if it’s because she felt obliged to use every interview she got or if she thought her reader was a bit simple, but after the third interview in which a woman with glowing eyes and clear skin detailed the horrible things that were done to her and that she did herself before becoming sober, I felt both depressed and (as awful as this sounds) a bit bored.

Dowsett Johnston is an experienced journalist and a skilled writer. While this means the book is well written, easy to read and its arguments are presented persuasively, it is certainly not an unbiased book. After spending a considerable amount of words discussing the alcoholic behaviour of her mother and the women I mentioned above - some of whom Dowsett Johnston scorns for wanting to remain anonymous – the drinking that Dowsett Johnston says was so bad that it led to her leaving a job and her relationship breaking down is only coyly referred to, leading me to question why the drinking of others is fair game for discussion but hers is not. I also found very problematic the endorsement of Alcoholics Anonymous given the organisation’s religious agenda and past treatment of women. So, while Drink is an interesting book, I think High Sobriety is a more honest evaluation of the issues of alcohol and society and I think Stark, while a less skilful writer and journalist, is also much more fair and less judgemental than Dowsett Johnston.

Three stars.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Paris Letters by Janice MacLeod (2014)

There is a certain type of story which I love love love (love love). It involves a woman, usually a journalist or a writer, moving to Paris and falling in love, both with the city and with the man of her dreams. These stories always involve lots of cheese and bread, amusing descriptions of adapting to French life (the kitchens are so small! Women are so good at wearing scarves!) and, always, at the end there is a moment when the journalist/writer realises she is perfectly, truly happy. My favourite of these stories is Sarah Turnbull’s Almost French. The year it came out I got three copies of it for Christmas (and I kept all three, I loved it that much).  Paris Letters sits in that same literary subgenre, with one key difference: rather than being a journalist or novelist, Janice McLeod is a blogger. As I shall show you, that has a huge effect on the final product.

Janice McLeod works in advertising in Los Angeles. She has a good job and a nice house, but she’s just not happy. One day, sitting at her office, she starts to think – how much money would it take to quit her job and live in Paris for a year? She randomly picks the figure of $100 a day and she saves up $65,000, quits her job and moves to Paris.

I like the idea of everything McLeod writes about, but I found myself increasingly irritated by its execution. For example, she picks a figure of $100 a day as the necessary amount she needs to have to live overseas. It would have taken like 10 minutes to google the average costs of living in Europe, but instead she just picks a number that feels right to her. What’s more, after seeing how she went about saving this money, it felt to me like she was constructing her story so it would read well, rather than telling the truth. She says that she saved money by cutting back on expenses and selling her stuff, in the process decluttering her apartment. But then, in one paragraph at the very end of the chapter, she reveals that in fact she made a bit of money on the stock market with help from some friends. So, how much of the giant amount she was able to save – US $65,000 – came from actually saving and being frugal and how much from playing on the stock market?

She gets to Paris and meets a butcher and falls in love. She was a vegan in California, but once she gets to Paris she is just…not a vegan anymore. No explanation, but I was left with the strong impression that if a bunch of McLeod’s friends started jumping off a cliff, she wouldn’t hesitate in joining them. At this stage, I realised that there was something a bit strange about how this memoir was written and, when McLeod mentions she was blogging her experience, I realised what it was – the book is written like a series of really long blog posts. It has the overuse of the word “I” and the telescope-like focus on the self that is typical of much personal blog writing. Now this is not necessarily a bad thing – this writing style can be hugely popular, as the success of blogs such as McLeod’s illustrate – but it’s not just one I enjoy very much. I realised I had incorrectly placed Paris Letters in the “foreign woman moves to Paris” subgenre instead of the “adapted from a popular personal blog” subgenre. Once I realised that, I enjoyed the book a lot more because, instead of questioning motivation and causality (like unsurprisingly, $100 a day wasn’t enough to live on) I just rolled with it. It would have been a better book if the secondary characters had been fleshed out more or if MacLeod had at any stage acknowledges the privilege that allowed her to do the things she did, but it was as a book-from-blog memoir, it’s fine.

Three stars.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Meatless All Day: Recipes for Inspired Vegetarian Meals by Dina Cheney (2014)

Sometimes, you open a cookbook and think, "This is it. This is the perfect cookbook for me." (Please tell me I'm not the only one who does this!) Reading this book was one of those rare times that I felt that an author's tastes and mine were perfectly aligned and I wanted to make every thing in it that I could. Immediately. And I did, and it was delicious.

Divided into three sections (breakfast and brunch, lunch and light entrees and dinner), the focus of Meatless All Day is on creating meals which are tasty, substantial and meat free. It opens with a bunch of tips for how to make your meat-free ingredients more tasty (drain your tofu, people. It took me years to discover this and it has changed my stir-fry life) as well as a list of power ingredients that add a "meaty" flavour or texture (in this case, meaty means satisfying or fulfilling). Focusing on fresh, flavourful ingredients, none of these vegetarian recipes use any faux meat at all, which is great.

One of the things I liked most about this book was that although the recipes were complete meals, components of the recipes could be switched around. For example, there is a recipe for quinoa-polenta cakes with a roasted red pepper sauce and white bean puree but the sauce could be served with the zucchini fritters with fresh mint and pecorino instead and the bean puree with just about any of the mains. I like cookbooks that facilitate flexibility and allow me to play around with flavours and textures.

The recipes, while tasty, are often a bit time consuming and ingredient rich, so this is not a four-ingredients five-minutes-to-cook cookbook but the pay off is delicious, great-looking food. As always, I would have liked to see information on the recipe about what is suitable for freezing (the constant request of this lazy yet organised cook). That said, I wholeheartedly recommend this cookbook for vegetarians and meat-eaters alike.

Ricotta Hotcakes with strawberries and maple syrup.

In the book this recipe is served with a delicious looking berry sauce but cooking one component of a meal is all I can handle in the morning, so I served mine with fresh strawberries and maple syrup instead. These were delicious - light, fluffy and sweet with a gorgeous hit of lemon. I can see them becoming a regular dish in my weekend breakfast rotation.

3 large eggs, divided
2 cups 2% milk
1.5 cups part-skim ricotta cheese
1 tablespoon lemon zest
2.5 cups unbleached all purpose flouwer
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/5 teaspoons course salt
1 teaspoon baking powder

Oil, for cooking

1. With a hand mixer, whip the egg whites until the form soft peaks.
2. In a large bowl, whisk the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder. In a medium bowl, mix yolks, milk, ricotta and lemon zest until well blended.
3. Stir in the egg-milk mixture into the dry ingredients and mix until just combined (don't over-mix). Gently fold in the egg whites.
4. Heat oil in a fry pan over medium heat. Use a quarter-cup measure to spoon pancakes into the pan. Flip when then puff up and form lots of tiny holes and remove from the pan when they are cooked the whole way through.
5. Eat!