Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Almost Sisters

The Almost Sisters - a novel
Joshilyn Jackson (2017, William Morrow)

Leia Birch Briggs had the nerdy childhood betokened by her first name, though her father had died before finding out which Star Wars baby his wife was bearing. She spent her childhood summers in Birchville, a small town in Alabama which her father's family had founded, named, and still largely owned. Her grandmother still lives, with a companion, in the family's stately home, overlooking the comings and goings in the town square.

Leia's childhood reading comic books and running around Birchville dressed as Wonder Woman led to a career in drawing comics, including a well-received graphic novel called Violence in Violet. The super-heroic Violence is Violet's protector; but is she also her lover, her sister, or her alter ego? Leia has contracted to write a prequel volume, so it might be high time to figure that out. 

She has a nice life, and makes a decent living. She's also a significant enough celebrity on the Fan Convention circuit to drink with an admirer dressed as Batman, and sleep with him. When she turns up pregnant, she's forgotten his name and lost his number, recalling only that he was tall, Black, and handsome. While she's deciding how to tell her mother, step-father, and step-sister, she's called down to Birchville. Her grandmother's dementia has suddenly announced itself at the church fish-fry with some unexpected truth-telling. Lewy's body dementia has made Miss Birchie unduly frank about sexual matters, since she sees imaginary rabbits in the background busily making more rabbits.

Her bosom friend, Miss Wattie, has kept this under wraps by being constantly at Birchie's side, nursing her and whispering calm into her ear. Wattie and Birchie go back almost ninety years; they were raised together in the Birch household by Wattie's mother, the housekeeper, after Birchie's mother died in childbirth. They are the only people in town who cross the color line to go to church together, whether at Wattie's Black Baptist church or the White one in the center of town.

Leia starts making plans to move the two of them closer to her in Virginia. Her step-sister Rachel pitches in with research and overbearing advice, as is her practice. "As an adult, she'd helped me choose everything from cars to Christmas trees to lip gloss. ...Her genuinely good intentions coupled with her self-assured rightness made the helping both exasperating and impossible to turn down." She lends Leia her adolescent daughter, Lavender, as a travel companion. Ostensibly, Lavender is there to help organize the situation in Alabama, but she's also being sent out of the way of the cracks that have suddenly appeared in Rachel's perfect life.

Joshilyn Jackson makes neat use of the generational divides she has set up. The old ladies came up in a town recognizable from To Kill a Mockingbird, where you know people based on what their families are like. In the present, the dominant grapevine for adults is the church phone tree, while Lavender lives on the Internet, scheming with her new friends who live down the street in Birchville.
Jackson also has a wonderfully tender way with the step-sisters' relationship. Leia and Rachel are different in many ways, down to their differing memories of their shared childhood. We hear about Rachel's perfectionism and meddling from Leia's point of view, but when she gets a glimpse of what it's like to think she can solve everybody's problems, she rather likes it, too. 

Wattie and Birchie, for all their fragility, are fierce and strong, especially on each other's behalf. Jackson knows the rhythm and the logic of dementia; Birchie makes perfect sense, sometimes, but you can't always tell when those times are, or what she might still be concealing. Their essential kinship gives Leia reason to hope that her biracial baby represents a new world, as well as a very old one. 

The Almost Sisters is full of the joy of sisterhood, step-, foster-, and otherwise; the rich tastes and sustaining nature of Southern food; and the power of rage, in its own good time.

Any Good Books email
December, 2017

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Eating for Beginners

Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid
Melanie Rehak (2010, Houghton Mifflin; 2011, Mariner Books)

   A decade or so ago, Melanie Rehak was spectacularly well placed to look into the pleasures and politics of food, because her Brooklyn home was in walking distance of a restaurant called Applewood. (Actually, the owners spell it 'applewood', in an ostentatious display of humility, and so does Rehak, but I'll spare you.) Applewood, founded in 2004 by David and Laura Shea, is committed to local, seasonal, organic food - but sometimes you can't have all three at once. The Sheas, who have two small children, make a sensible division of the considerable labor. Laura is front of the house, and David is the lead chef. Applewood's ethos also includes a certain egalitarianism in the kitchen–cooks are expected to think creatively about the food in front of them.

   Rehak signs on as an apprentice cook. Her skills are not bad in her own kitchen, but sixty meals a night, coordinating with five or six other people, is a different matter altogether. A new menu every night, depending on what the suppliers have had available, multiplies the difficulty. In addition to techniques of chopping and plating, Rehak starts to learn what the chefs are thinking about when they stand in the walk-in cooler, imagining meals.

   She extends her research by spending a few days with the vegetable farmers, who work a long day to fulfill the orders they've had from the city. On another farm upstate, she gets practice milking goats, and disassembles a pig. By way of completing the cycle, she gets a ride with the truckers who bring the food into New York City. She goes out on a fishing boat, thinking about regulation and fishing stocks. Time and chance happen to them all: extremes of weather, insects, regulations, traffic; but all of these people work extremely hard (as does Rehak when she gets a chance to pitch in) and they make it happen, day after day.

   The picky kid of the title is Rehak's toddler, Jules, who starts in on solid food by rejecting most of it. He won't eat hot dogs, chicken, or fish. Or ice cream, or noodles, or toast. Rehak is concerned. Does anyone ever grow to adulthood eating only yogurt and bananas? Are there really kids who hate toast? Well, Jules is just wired differently. He likes "intensely flavored foods that would ordinarily be found on side table at adult gatherings–dry roasted nuts, hummus with carrots, red pepper strips, pita chips, unbelievably sour cornichon pickles, and...pickled cocktail onions."

   There are plenty of books about farms out there, and plenty about kitchens. Rehak has read plenty of them: not only James Beard and M.F.K. Fisher, but Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan. Guided by her work at Applewood, she works her way through the issues that balance the health of the planet and the need to feed her family tonight. She'll buy California produce so her son can have vegetables he'll eat, but she'll spend two extra bucks for milk without hormones.

   This is what it comes down to: "I knew it wouldn't always be possible to be choosy–at restaurants or out on the road. There are times when you just have to eat, and if one of those times turned out to be the moment when Jules first decided to try any kind of meat, I wasn't going to stop him no matter where it came from–but I also knew what I was going to choose when I could."