Book Review: Janesville, by Amy Goldstein

Available in bookshops nationwide

cv_janesville.jpgJerad Whiteaker had worked at the General Motors manufacturing plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, for thirteen years when its closure was announced in 2008. Each of the stations he worked along the assembly line had bored him to no end, but he had stuck at it, as no other jobs in town could match the $28 an hour.

Now with the plant closure, he and so many others have been severed from a secure wage and have some confronting choices ahead of them. The repercussions ripple outwards, paying no heed to people’s circumstance, affecting a myriad of lives in different ways. Deri Wahlert, the local social studies teacher, realises that it is not just the ‘GMers’ who face the impacts, but the small shops that will no longer have customers, the freight yards transporting goods, as well as the construction workers and carpet layers – as people won’t be able to afford homes.

Janesville, by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Amy Goldstein of the Washington Post, is an impressive and engaging feat of reporting, which extends far beyond the immediate aftermath of the town’s loss of its major employer into the years of struggle beyond, as people rally, tread water and attempt to avoid the fall in various ways.

We meet a cast of characters – former GMers, bankers, politicians (including Paul Ryan), educators and so on – and we warm to them, hoping that their efforts prove fruitful. This is a social history, an emotional history – an archive of responses, a meticulous work of lived-experience testimonies. Here the domestic sphere, which is straining under pressure from much larger forces, is political. With the number of individual threads compromised, there is to be a dramatic rift in the urban fabric.

There is a narrative of hope, which from the reader’s safe distance becomes an increasingly empty echo as we move through the book towards 2013. First the town has hope that GM might be lured back, that the manufacturing line might just be a pause. But in spite of ‘the enormous dowries in the form of tax breaks’ that are offered, the closure is final. Janesville, like many places around the world, has entered a post-industry era, and the town must shift (or sink) with the times.

There is ample grant money available for former factory workers to retrain. Bob Borreman, who runs the Rock County Job Centre, is optimistic at first, thinking that perhaps the ‘catastrophe might prove to be unbidden opportunity to help people find the work paths that would have suited them all along.’ Barb Vaughn, who worked at Lear Corp, the factory that made seats for GM vehicles, faces a reinvention of self, and retrains as correctional officer, aware that she will need to ‘shed old factory habits… and pick up new ways’.

Yet a few years down the track, people are coming out of training with no jobs, or with jobs that offer less than half their former pay. Matt Wopat began retraining as a linesman, but realising the slim chances of securing employment in his new field, takes a GM factory job some four hours away, joining the ‘GM gypsies’, whose family lives now occur as the commute allows.

There is continued cross-party agreement on money being funnelled into job training. Politicians, business leaders and the public peddle in hope: ‘The premise is that this recession would be like the past recessions and that jobs would come back at the pace they have before’. But it becomes increasingly obvious that there are no jobs to go into and that the unschooled are more likely to find work, and better paying work at that. There are homeless teenagers; the suicide rate has doubled. In Jerad’s home his daughters, who have after-school jobs, need to pay for the groceries. Any way you look at it, the standard of living has declined and working poverty is on the rise.

In a global economy, it is a complex task indeed to rebuild a prosperous city. The gradual accretion and diversification of businesses, their suppliers and networks, the housing and amenity that this then allows for – all of this takes time. Janesville is a moving and cautionary account of what happens when global forces, sunset industries and human energies coincide.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Janesville
by Amy Goldstein
Published by Simon & Schuster
9781501102264

 

 

 

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Book Review: Experience Italy, by Lonely Planet

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_experience-italy.jpgLonely Planet has long conquered the domain of the travel guide, and its well-thumbed tomes appear in the hands of travelers, desperately searching for a particular restaurant or hotel recommended in the aforementioned guide, the world over.

Experience Italy, a new release and part of the expansion of Lonely Planet titles to every conceivable nook of a bookstore’s travel section, is a long way from such humble titles as Southeast Asia on Shoestring. As a hard cover coffee table book, thick with colour images and packed with a dizzying amount of information, it is not one you will be taking on your travels. Rather it is one to dip into at home for a bit of escapism, to be elsewhere – an elsewhere that, as it turns out, might not be akin to actually being there.

The book traverses culture, architecture, food, sport and daily life, presenting a range of potential experiences to inspire the traveler, and ‘to introduce you to the personality and, dare we say, the very heart of Italian culture and landscape’. Images abound – detailed maps, archival photos, glossy landscapes, reproductions of famous artworks, light filtered through lush vines. All invite exploration of the book and evoke a textured, multifaceted Italia.

The extensive material, which includes entries such as ‘Walk like an Italian’ ‘Puglia’s Peasant culture’ and ‘Exploring Sicily’s Market’ is primarily marshalled into sections that are reflective of the ‘themes that season Italian life’ – from ‘The Italian Icons You Already Love’ (histories of the Vespa, pizza, and grape varieties/wines included), through to ‘Treasured Heritage Hill Towns and Harvest’ (featuring, among others, the Slow Food Movement, mosaics and Shakespeare’s Italian Plays). There are also sections on the big hitters: Rome, Florence, Milan, Naples, Venice. You can follow circuitous routes through the book by heeding the cross references, which then lead you to stumble upon others. It is a self-confessed ‘scavenger hunt’.

This labyrinthine method can seem confusing at first, and irritating if you did just want to read by area without having to continually look things up, but this is a book to read at home. And perhaps this approach is more reflective of how we experience and discover a place – haphazardly, in parts and without ever conquering the whole. And there is something to be said for the pleasure of chance discovery, for being exposed to ideas that would never had occurred to you to look up in the first place.

Yet Experience Italy, which champions the offbeat, cobbled paths, cliff-hugging towns, rolling hills and hidden secrets, risks branding experience. We are advised to eat that ‘last, lingering gelato on the steps of the Duomo’, look ‘beyond its blockbuster, crown-pulling sights’ and avoid ‘hordes of motor-coach tourists. Rather we should ‘Walk in the oak and chestnut forests of remotest Tuscany, as the autumn mist creeps in’, engage with its ‘Epic art and architecture’, experience its ‘insanely lovely spread of deep-cut, vine-blanketed valleys’.

The avuncular tone, the triumvirate of punchy adjectives so often rolled out to rule over perceptions, and the parade of dramatic verbs set to fire you up can be relentless at times –almost oversaturated. It’s as if a filter (by way of a distinctly Lonely Planet style) had been applied to enhance your potential experience, advising you how to reflect on it. One could be forgiven for wondering how expectations will match reality.

It suggests a consumerist approach to landscapes, culture and climates, pandering to our need for ticking off bucket lists. This is an Italy where everything is incredible, unique and yours for the taking. It is, perhaps, too inclusive, confusing two traditionally opposed ways to travel: heading out on your own and taking the well-trodden path. It is hard to know whether the title is suggestive, inviting or an imperative – a rallying call to the Lonely Planet way of life.

But for all my cynicism, this is a nice book to have within reach of the armchair – it is a pleasure to look through and there is much to glean from it, when it gets down to business and stops playing the hype-man. From tips on the price of coffee through to background information on Lecce’s tradition of papier- mâché statues (which originated in the affordability of the raw materials required) it explains customs, the significance of sites, the history of certain foods – it presents many entry points as to what Italy has to offer.

And it does get you excited and make you want to go. So, read up from the comfort of your armchair and leave the book at home. Love at first sight is promised: ‘We’re not talking a mere flirtation, but a fully blown, red-hot love affair’ but ‘before you set foot on Italian soil and unzip the length of its boot’, perhaps steady those heady expectations and apply some measure to the hard and hyped up sell.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Experience Italy
by Lonely Planet, Bonnie Alberts, Oliver Berry, Alison Bing, Abigail Blasi, Cristian Bonetto, Kerry Christiani, Gregor Clark, Douglas Cruickshank, Matthew Fort
Published by Lonely Planet
ISBN 9781787013315

 

 

Book Review: The World’s Best Bowl Food, by Lonely Planet Food

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_worlds_best_bowl_food.jpgThe World’s Best Bowl Food is a salute to comfort food found the world over. Bowl food is undergoing a revival. You can spot a million #powerbowl posts on Instagram, and for many people it’s all about what superfoods you can pack into the bowl.

A little research from Lonely Planet found that the original bowl food is all about comfort – there’s a reason why each ingredient finds its way in there, and it’s because it’s delicious, reminds us of home, or tradition. As the Foreword says, ‘some of the world’s most beloved dishes – macaroni cheese, Vietnamese pho, and Japanese ramen have transcended their local roots and become transcontinental comfort foods.’

I’m a foodie and I loved this book. There are lots of different takes on old favourites of mine (nasi goreng, ceviche, chilli con carne), recipes I’ve always wanted to try (pho, jambalaya, any Asian flavours in a soup-food-bowl), and loads of exciting new recipes with flavour combinations or ingredients that tickled my fancy.

I tried my hand at the intriguing-looking Chia Pudding from Central and South America.  Chia seeds have a delicate, nutty flavour and have a great capacity to absorb liquid. They’ve now made their way into kitchens and supermarkets around the world, and this has to be the easiest recipe out there. Mix 2 cups of natural yoghurt with half a cup of chia seeds. Leave for 4 hours. Serve cold with maple syrup or honey, and toasted flaked almonds and berries – or whatever you have to hand.  Delicious!
Chia Pudding.jpg

I also tried the Quinoa Stew. I liked the look of all the flavours, as well as the fact it didn’t take long to cook on a week night. It was super-tasty and the leftovers froze well for delicious work lunches.

The book layout is great – an attractive photo for each recipe, an interesting note on origins and history, and essential for the foodie – tasting notes. The book is sectioned out into bowl food types: breakfast bowls, dessert bowls, soups, salads and healthy bowls, stews and hearty bowls, and rice, pasta and noodle bowls. There’s also a difficulty guide for easy, medium or hard which is handy for the time-conscious, or when you miss that part of the recipe that says simmer for 3 hours and its 8pm already.

Quinoa Stew
Food and drink is a huge part of the travel experience and the memories we have of our adventures overseas. Travel guidebook publisher Lonely Planet launched this new ‘Lonely Planet Food’ imprint in 2016 and it’s great to see such a quality range of books for the foodie or the keen traveller.

The imprint houses titles from the Lonely Planet World’s Best series such as The World’s Best Brunches, The World’s Best Spicy Foods, and The World’s Best Superfoods. The Lonely Planet Food logo can also be found on the From the Source series which introduces food lovers to local dishes from around the world and to the cooks that have perfected them.

We raise our bowls to you Lonely Planet Food, keep these books coming!

Reviewed by Amie Lightbourne

The World’s Best Bowl Food
by Lonely Planet Food
ISBN 9781787012653

 

Book Review: First Person, by Richard Flanagan

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_first_personFirst Person is Richard Flanagan’s new part-novel, part-memoir. He appears to have sought a balance between these two genres in a more obvious way then the usual novelist. First Person is unexpected in many ways and goes against the norm of a typical novel.

The story’s protagonist (and narrator) is Kif Kehlmann, a struggling writer from Tasmania with a three year old daughter and a wife who is pregnant with twins. He is approached to ghostwrite a notorious conman’s memoir for a sum that would appear to solve his family’s problems and the task itself promises to provide Kif with the purpose and self-assurance that he constantly seems to be in need of. Pride and well-warranted internal warnings hold him back from immediately accepting but eventually he agrees to the project and thus begins his journey to work at creating a sensational memoir with a deadline hanging over him and a dangerous criminal at the helm.

Richard Flanagan himself wrote an autobiography for an Australian fraudster, known as John Friedrich, back in 1991. I researched more on the subject and First Person time and again drew extreme similarities to Richard Flanagan’s own experience – even down to the sum offered as remuneration and that his wife was pregnant with twins at the time. He has acknowledged that his own experience has served as inspiration for First Person and initially to me this made the novel feel more significant to me. ‘

On further reflection though, I think it ultimately hindered the novel. If Flanagan had decided that this was to be his own ‘first person’ account of events that he experienced writing Death of a River Guide about John Friedrich then personally I think I would have enjoyed the book a lot more. A novel by definition is fiction and fiction doesn’t have to be as close to the original truth as Flanagan has placed it.

The story at certain stages finds a definite purpose, but all too often it veers off into irrelevancies, to the point that the main motive of the novel is nearly forgotten. Finally, the story moves back to the writing of the memoir of the fraudster, but it seems as though the story goes in constant circles and serpentines, repeating the same events and situations slightly differently and in a progressively amplified manner. The climax was sprung upon you with no time to prepare – the reader doesn’t have time to comprehend that this is what everything was building towards.

Unfortunately the faster pace doesn’t carry on for the rest of the novel, which slows back down to the point where you’re left wondering if there is supposed to be another climax building, though that never delivers. The concept of the story was solid, but I just wish Richard Flanagan had chosen one course – fiction or fact – rather than trying to incorporate both to the extent that he seems to have.

This wasn’t a book I particularly enjoyed, I have seen it described as a literary masterpiece and I definitely can acknowledge that Richard Flanagan is a very good writer. But it seems I was not alone in not enjoying it despite his ability, as I found other reviews that communicated the same view.  I feel like the novel is an acquired taste for a particular audience. I have not yet developed this taste.

Reviewed by Sarah Hayward

First Person
by Richard Flanagan
Published by Knopf Australia
ISBN 9780143787242

 

Book Review: Chaucer’s People: Everyday Lives in Medieval England, by Liza Picard

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_chaucers_peopleAs an English lit student, many years ago at University, I was fascinated by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The trouble was there was not enough information to help the ordinary reader put the people in context

That is no longer a problem. Liza Picard is a social historian and has written about many periods in English history, giving the background and the depth to the actual events. She brings the same academic excellence and readable scholarship to the world of Chaucer. While many writers of historic events put in too much detail and get side-tracked, she avoids these pitfalls. This book is both informative and engaging. It is perhaps not a Summer beach read, but certainly a book I will dip in to and discuss with others.

Picard takes each of the characters form the Tales and puts them in to a group. She then gives us the information about that group. The Wife of Bath comes under the heading of Country Life, but we then get a description of her occupation as a Weaver. The research is meticulous but this is a readable version of the facts. I enjoyed finding out about The Reeve. I did not realise double entry book-keeping was already in existence in the 1300’s. The medical section is so good I kept reading passages aloud to my long-suffering husband. We find out about surgeons, apothecaries, pestilence, women’s problems and mental illness.

‘Most home remedies relied on common herbs, with perhaps some alcohol and faith. A scalded penis (how could that happen?) called for the ashes of burned cloth on a linen bandage. For snakebite take thine own piss and drink it….’. The section on food includes some Medieval recipes, but the suggestion not to try them!

While this book is perhaps more for those with an academic interest in life in Medieval England, it is an interesting tome for the general reader. I worry that we no longer read to widen our knowledge and understanding, but read only for specific outcomes. To me the beauty of a book, is that it leads me in to an unknown world and helps me understand the present by reflecting on the past. Surely, this is the purpose of historical writing.

Liza Picard will lead the reader into a fascinating world behind the characters Chaucer so well presented to us in the Canterbury Tales. You will embark on your own pilgrimage to Medieval England but beware of Cooks, Reeves, Merchants, Knights and above all, the Doctor of Physic!

by Kathy Watson

Chaucer’s People: Everyday Lives in Medieval England
by Liza Picard
Published by Weidenfield & Nicolson
ISBN 9781474606318

Book Review: Slugfest: Inside the 50-year battle between Marvel and DC, by Reed Tucker

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_slugfestThe title says it all: Slugfest: Inside the 50-year battle between Marvel and DC. Never have I read a non-fiction book with so many descriptions of conflict and deception. By the final page I felt as though I had done 15 rounds in a boxing ring. Tucker, a Brooklyn (New York) based journalist, has written a detailed history of Marvel and DC’s roles in the volatile comic book industry that he describes as ‘continuously ping-ponging between elation and despair’. The book’s dedication gives a clue to the tone and content that will follow: ‘To the fans who, for decades, have been tirelessly litigating this issue with their voices, keyboards – and occasionally their fists.’ I’m pleased that Tucker used the gender-neutral term ‘fans’ in his dedication, given the frequent assumptions and assertions throughout the book that all comic book fans are male.

If you’re a comic book reader – or even if you’re not – you’re likely aware of the long-standing rivalry between the two giants: Marvel and DC. Tucker’s book chronicles the ups and downs they have both experienced, alongside the shift in how comic books have been perceived over time, and the impact of political, cultural and technological changes on the industry. The ‘iconic trinity’ of DC’s Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – and other key characters, such as Marvel’s Spider-Man – have survived both on and off the page, and their longevity now seems assured. It’s also interesting to read about characters that sank without a trace (or in some cases never made it to a first issue). They include Brother Power the Geek, The Hawk and the Dove, the Galaxy Green warrior women, Steel and Vixen.

Superman debuted in 1938, with limited powers. Unable to fly, he could however leap one-eighth of a mile. Tucker explains how Superman – and a raft of subsequent action heroes – offered ‘inexpensive escapist entertainment’ to North American readers during the challenging times of the Great Depression and the threat of war.

Not everyone was happy about the rapid growth of comic books, which were thought to be trashy and disreputable. Journalists, psychiatrists and other critics blamed comics and their ‘poisonous effects’ for the rise of the ‘bad behaviour’ of young people. In 1954, a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency convened a hearing on the evils of comic books. In response, the industry produced a code of conduct outlining core values and standards for details such as titles, depictions of violence and costumes. Not all publishers could adhere to the code and many went out of business.

The early comic book readers were perceived to be either very young children or older people who ‘weren’t too bright’, according to Stan Lee (an influential Marvel identity who eventually worked for DC too). The same was true in New Zealand. Some of us can still remember Bob Jones’s public graffiti belittling a Labour Party opponent: ‘[This prominent Labour party politician] reads comics’ it read; see Bollinger (2017).

Tucker analyses comic book characters, the people who draw and voice them, and the artwork itself. The artwork is traditionally a key point of differentiation between one publisher and another, even though an artist’s creativity may be constrained by prevailing house styles. Tucker describes the initial DC characters as bland and steady do-gooders, compared with Marvel’s three-dimensional superheroes who had real-world problems and anxieties.

Tucker covers marketing strategies, print runs and distribution tactics, the emergence of brand identities, trends to watch (hello, martial arts), price increases, optimal page counts and the catastrophic effects of weather on delivery schedules during winter. He tells of territorial wars, accusations of plagiarism and spies, defections, hiring and firing dramas, poaching, friction and competition. Apparently insults and punches were frequently traded. Writers were seen as disposable, like oranges: ‘You squeeze them until there’s no juice left then you throw them away.’ Certain executives are described variously as a ‘world-class jerk… [with a] foul temperament’, a ‘grouchy and demanding…crusty…curmudgeon’, ‘abusive…notoriously difficult… [with a] volcanic temper’, and a ‘prickly…vindictive…bad-mouthing…prick’. And worse. Perhaps it’s no wonder that some former workers are described as bitter, and there are stories about the lingering ‘bad blood’ and ‘screw you’ attitudes that followed the departure or defection of key personnel.

Despite the intense rivalry, there have been several successful crossover co-productions, with labour divided between Marvel and DC. For one such publication, Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man: The Battle of the Century (1976), Marvel provided the penciller and the colourist, and DC offered the skills of a writer, an inker and a letterer.
Comic book tie-ins emerged as early as 1940, when character-themed merchandise included shirts, soap, pencil sets, belts and watches. Later, licensing and cross-promotion strategies brought in staggering revenue streams. The 1989 Batman film is reported to have generated an estimated $US750 million in merchandising sales. Products ranged from action figures and cereals to tortilla chips and satin jackets. Artists and many others associated with Batman soon became ‘filthy rich’.

Tucker acknowledges that the comic book industry was historically dominated almost exclusively by ‘old white guys’. Nevertheless, this book misses opportunities to acknowledge the work carried out by women in the industry. For example, there is only a passing reference to Marie Severin, a pioneering artist and colourist who at one time had the final word on every cover coming out of Marvel. Her contribution was significant as cover art was critical to ensuring an issue’s success.

I found the often male-centric language and tone – and some turns of phrase – off-putting. For example, why describe DC comics as being ‘suddenly as attractive as syphilis’? Why feature a quote reporting that executives ‘squabbled like two old ladies’? One editor apparently ‘went to the bathroom and puked’ when he heard that the next person to lead DC was to be a young woman, Janette Kahn. Kahn, who was well-educated, experienced and clearly the right person for the role, soon proved to be a ‘fresh and energetic…presence’. Her immediate goals were not only to improve the comics but also to treat the writers and artists with more respect.

As well as female industry executives, female characters such as Super Woman and Wonder Woman have played key roles in comic book history. There have also been many other female characters along the way, such as Wonder Girl, Marvel Girl and Elasti-Girl. (Curiously, I note that in the closing acknowledgments Tucker offers both thanks and apologies to his wife.)

Notes accompany each chapter for readers who would like to learn more, with full references linked to key quotes. There’s a fairly comprehensive although not all-inclusive index; some minor characters referenced in the book do not appear in the index. If you’ve ever wondered what DC stands for, Tucker provides both official and unofficial explanations. The range and scope of topics covered is impressive, although tighter editing of some of the verbatim conversations may have made for a better read.

Tucker makes it clear that this is an industry where ‘conflict equals audience engagement’. Indeed, fans are reported as thriving on the conflict that persists to this day between Marvel and DC. Tucker entertains the possibility that there is room for both companies to succeed, although he also notes the risk that DC’s superhero universe may yet suffer ‘a slow, sad descent into irrelevance’. He observes that the industry is heading into new, uncertain directions, having had to remain resilient and resourceful in the face of the decline of print media.

Slugfest would first and foremost appeal to comic-book fans, but may also attract readers interested in the history of publishing, pop culture, superhero movies, and comic book characterisation. It also includes lessons about office politics, divided loyalties, and marketing practices and strategies – if you don’t mind a book where four-letter words, misogynistic comments and put-downs abound. One surprise: the book contains no images other than the cover art and the starburst at the beginning of each chapter.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake-Hendricks

Slugfest: Inside the 50-year battle between Marvel and DC
by Reed Tucker
Published by Sphere
ISBN 9780751568974

Book Review: Three Cheers for Women!, by Marcia Williams

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_three_cheers_for_women“What’s this book about Dot?”

“Amazing, fantastic girls, Abe!”

“Boys do amazing fantastic things too!”

“Of course they do. But there are lots of books about them already!”

This introduction from the ‘narrators’ says it all really: this is a collection of over 70 amazing fantastic girls who have inspired and help shape our world, from Cleopatra: Queen of Egypt, to Malala Yousafzai: women’s rights activist.

Presented in an engaging comic strip format, each featured woman’s story is told in manageable bites across a double page spread, using fun and witty dialogue to keep the information interesting for younger readers, similar to the popular Horrible Histories series. Additional information features in the margins and the narrators keep up the banter throughout the book.

The range of women selected (and the author acknowledges who hard it was to select only a few from the thousands of inspirational and amazing women there are) features well-known names such as Jane Austen, Anne Frank, Eleanor Roosevelt, Queen Elizabeth I, and Marie Curie. It has to be said that these well-known names are predominantly European, and this predominance is somewhat offset with the inclusion of other famous names such as Cleopatra, Cathy Freeman (Aboriginal Olympic gold medallist), Malala Yousfazai, Mae C Jemison (first African-American Woman in space), Wangari Maathai (Kenyan Peace Activist and Environmentalist).

It is the diverse range of accomplishments represented is wonderful to see – there are queens, sportswomen, creators, scientists and activists. Shared by all the women is a passion and belief in their worth and it is this important message that is there for all readers to see. Girls really can to anything they set their minds to.

The last three double spreads feature introductions to even more amazing women, with both familiar and new names featuring in a roll call of honour. It would have been great to see them have their own bigger spreads, but then the book would have ended up way too big to pick up! Perhaps the publishers could create a Three Cheers for Women – Vol 2?

As a highly readable non-fiction title, this will be a valuable resource for any primary or intermediate school library which can be used as a base for research projects or discussions about gender equality.

With the words of wisdom included and the stories of achievement and desire to help their communities, I sincerely hope it inspires both young girls and boys to find their own passions and way to make the world a better place for everyone – no matter who they are.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

Three Cheers for Women!
by Marcia Williams
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406374865