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Archive for the ‘culture’ Tag

Here and There   Leave a comment

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In the late 1930s Gertrude Stein wrote of Oakland, Calif., “… there, there is no there there.” It’s apt, then, that Tommy Orange has co-opted part of the quote as the title of his novel. Orange introduces readers to several Native Americans whose lives intersect in the city on the East Bay.

Never as glamourous, wealthy or viewed in as positive a light as San Francisco, Oakland is, nonetheless, the focal point for Orange with different perspectives provided by the 12 characters he introduces. Their stories, told in separate chapters, are shaped by the urban environment and the upcoming Big Oakland Pow Wow.

Violence, alcoholism, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, traditions, estranged families and more are contributing factors to the scenarios Orange creates. Most are heart-breaking, yet humor and joy are also evident.

Opal Viola Violet Bear is first introduced as an 11-year-old in 1970 when her mother brings her and her older sister, Jacqui, to Alcatraz as part of the all-tribe occupation. She re-enters the story through the eyes of her grandson, Orvil Red Feather. Except, technically, Opal is Orvil’s and his two younger brothers aunt. Although his name clearly identifies his heritage, he knows little about it. He discovers dance regalia in Opal’s closet. He learns what he can about Indian dance and culture online. The Pow Wow is his chance to be part of something he knows very little about.

Reasons for the others to attend the Pow Wow range from dark to hopeful, which makes the narrative so engaging.

There There
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knoph, 2018
290 pages

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Emerging from the Hills   Leave a comment

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Hicks, rubes, country bumpkins and hillbillies all conjure the same image: poor and uneducated. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, subtitled: “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” examines the consequences of the often unbroken cycle of poverty. The poor have fewer choices and those available are not always the smartest or best options.

Vance, a self-identified hillbilly and Yale Law School alum, describes his damaged upbringing in Ohio and his family’s strong ties to the Appalachia region of Kentucky poignantly and, occasionally, humorously. There’s no sugar coating.

Vance is quick to note that his background is not unique. Single parents, drug addiction, low-paying wages, unemployment and teen pregnancy are among the detrimental factors faced by many, including the author’s mother. Vance credits his grandparents, with whom he lived for much of his childhood, for instilling a sense that life could offer more.

Although he didn’t initially embrace the idea, a stint in the Marines after graduating from high school and his grandparents’ efforts, eventually Vance recognizes the value of education as a means of changing his life’s direction. Being aware of not wanting to replicate his mother’s behavior also helped.

The fact that he’s a successful lawyer and is happily married does set him apart, though, from those he grew up around. A few family members provide exceptions, but not many. Interspersing statistics with his own experiences, Vance notes that the region and the cyclical existence of its inhabitants make it difficult to merge into a more positive lifestyle.

Hillbilly Elegy
Four Bookmarks
Harper/Collins, 2016
261 pages

Forecasting for Tastebuds   1 comment

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Trends are like appetites, which is particularly true in the food industry. Sometimes we binge, sometimes we graze, sometimes we walk away when we’ve had enough. New food treats show up for our palates to enjoy, extol and, eventually, outgrow.

In an engaging and intelligent manner, David Sax examines food trends in his book, The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue. There are foods that are hip, inspire copycat versions and subject to whims. In other words, the popularity of some foods depends on more than taste. Sax quotes a trend forecaster who says, “If you can Google a trend, you’ve completely missed the trend.”

Culture, economics, politics and marketing are among the areas Sax addresses. He incorporates humor with extensive research that took him coast to coast interviewing food truck owners, a heritage rice grower, goat farmers and Baconfest organizers, among many others.

Sax often seems as baffled by some food trends as the rest of us, especially when he writes about the Summer Fancy Food Show sponsored by the Specialty Food Association. As if describing the Academy Awards or Golden Globes, Sax puts the reader at this annual event where new foods are introduced and their purveyors cling to the possibility that theirs (anything from iced rice tea to beer-flavored crackers, and more – much, much more) will take the spotlight on America’s plates and napkins.

Sax’s research is thorough, but it’s no surprise that food trends are difficult to anticipate.

The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up With Fondue
Four Bookmarks
PublicAffairs, New York, 2014
318 pages, including index and selected bibliography

 

Artistic Personas   1 comment

Even if you aren’t necessarily a fan of Patti Smith or Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, is more than an autobiographical look at the relationship between the two artists. It also examines life and culture in the late 1960s and 1970s.

I’m just young enough that Smith was never on my radar when I was growing up. And, I’m just old enough to be aware of the controversy caused by a retrospective of Mapplethorpe’s work with the National Endowment for the Arts – long after his death. I might have skipped this book if not for a friend’s recommendation. I read it, and I’m glad.

Smith and Mapplethorpe met and lived together in New York City when they were  kids (twenty-year-olds) at a time when the underground music and art scenes were beginning to materialize. Their timing was perfect: she became part of the former and he part of the latter. Their paths crossed with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Todd Rundgren, Sam Shepard, Andy Warhol and many others.

Just Kids reflects the impressive strength of friendship Smith and Mapplethorpe created with one another. This is a love story, even though each went on to have different partners; it’s also Smith’s homage to her late friend and the era in which they emerged. Her voice is honest and unrestrained. It’s easy to imagine the romance of their early lives as they lived hand-to-mouth, meeting other up-and-coming artists all while discovering their own artistic personas.

Just Kids
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
HarperCollins, 2010
283 pages

Posted August 26, 2012 by bluepagespecial in Books, Reviews

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