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Review: Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light: Essays by Helen Ellis

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My Interest

Helen Ellis, rose to fame on Twitter as What I Do All Day. In addition to being a Twitter-phenom, she is also a pro poker player and housewife turned writer-author of Southern Lady Code, and American  Housewife as well as an early novel. I fell in love when I encountered her essay in which she thinks her husband wants a divorce, but he just really wants the crap off the dining room table. I could relate. By the way, her husband sounds just this side of perfect–so much so that he’s a literary crush of mine now.  I won’t ever Google him–it would spoil our relationship. I want him to have a cleft chin, Michael Middleton’s smile and his snazzy blue blazer, and a pair of really great Italian loafers. Swoon. It’s ok, Helen. He’s all yours. I swear.

The Story

This time around Helen has published more essays. I was pleased to see that her professional poker career was among the topics covered in this book. The first line hooked me:

“From the start of our grown-ass ladies trip to Panama City Beach, aka ‘The Redneck Riviera,’ Paige and I could see that Vicky was having a hard time.”

Never mind poor Vicky’s suddenly-empty nest, and I am truly sorry about her bad mammogram, but when it’s hot as hell here in Southern Ohio, folks head to a spot of even greater heat and denser humidity–Panama City Beach. My own [adult] kid has gone there on vacation and I have the t-shirt to prove it. So, Helen got my attention.

As she moves through the various essays, there were, as always, moments I could shake my head and say “Amen, sister.” Especially in “Are You There,  Menopause? It’s Me, Helen,” which provided my favorite quote [the punctuation may be a little iffy here because I listened to the audio book]

You need “all the tampon sizes: mini golf pencil, dill pickle spear, rolled up newspaper, Nerf baseball bat.”

My Thoughts

I love Helen’s humor, but this time she strayed into the crude a bit more than I’d like. It sells–I understand. I’m not dissing her or abandoning her. I just could have done with less of that, although the question she asks her husband after the guests leave is one I’ve discussed with my long, long, ago ex-husband, and various other guys with whom I have had a romantic relationship. Nonetheless, less is more.

I loved her take on the Greyhound bus to Atlantic City and her tales of the poker table. I’ve been curious about her poker career. Watching poker or watching bridge on t.v. is less exciting to me even than watching a foreign stock exchange ticker so I’ve never seen her if she’s been on any poker shows on t.v.

In spite of being disappointed in a couple of these essays, I am already looking forward to Helen’s next book–whether it is essays, short stories, a novel, a history of delis in Manhattan or Garage Sales in Alabama for Dummies.

My Verdict

3.0

Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light: Essays by Helen Ellis

Southern Lady Code and American  Housewife

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Spanish & Portuguese Lit Month Review: Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney

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Thank you to Winston’s Dad’s Blog for hosting Spanish & Portuguese Lit Month.

My Interest

Here is my initial post for this challenge. I had to invest some time researching “do-able” books for this challenge. By that I mean, I had to find books short enough and compelling enough to work around other commitments this month as well as work with my on-again, off-again attention span for print reading [by which I mean any non-audio books]. One of my personal reading goals for 2021 is to read more essays since I’ve finally begun to enjoy them, so when I found this slim (130 pages) volume of essays on sidewalks and cites, I was pleased to find an e-copy available through my regional library. Another draw was that the introduction was written by the author or the nonfiction book I selected for this challenge (but which may take much longer to read).

The Story

According to Amazon, this volume was a 2014 Book Riot Must-Read Book from an Indie Press. Well then. Author Valeria Lusielli, born in Mexico, grew up in South Africa and won a MacArthur “Genius” award in 2019–that really caught my attention. She is best known for her novel, The Lost Children Archive which won a slew of awards the year it as published (and which it appears was written in English).

The ten essays, which begin with the exotically titled “Joseph Brodsky’s Room and a Half” cover various aspects of the authors travel and life in various cities. The prose is very poetic and the essays themselves often quote poetry, frustratingly for me and other neanderthal American readers, poetry in other languages with no English translation offered. I said “neanderthal” because why should it be translated when it is perfectly understandable to the author who has been reasonable and allowed her own words to all be translated.

Most interesting to me was the second section, “Hondo,” of the second essay “Flying Home,” which discussed the Map Library in Mexico City housed in the National Meteorological Service Building. I spent months cataloging maps of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland while I was in Malawi years ago, so map libraries and other map collections fascinate me.

Also interesting, again for personal reasons, was the discussion of melancholy–which “Aristotle thought …was a divine gift, only given to men of true genius.” I sincerely hope that, were he alive today, Aristotle would accord women sufferers this brilliance as well. Certainly it can foster intense creativity.

Some of the quotes that caught my eye in other essays include:

“Apologists for walking have elevated ambulation to the height of an activity with literary overtones.” (“Manifesto A Velo”).

On curing homesickness: “…nothing produced better results than sending them back home,” while not poetic in the least is certainly what always helped my own profound cases of homesickness at any age. (“Alternative Routes”).

“Cities, like our bodies, like languages, are destruction under construction….” (“Stuttering Cities”).

“…there’s a quadrangle of tiny absences….” (“Relingos: The Cartography of Empty Spaces).

“Spaces survive the passage of of time in the same way a person survives his death: in the close alliance between the memory and the imagination that others forge around it. They exist as long as we keep thinking of them, imagining in them; as long as we remember them; remember ourselves there, and , above all, as long as we remember what we imagined in them” (“Relingos: The Cartography of Empty Spaces).

My Thoughts

I can’t say I was taken with all of these essays. Some expressed the “vapid navel gazing” type sentiments that have traditionally put me off reading essays, but enough were vivid and alive and made me see exactly what the author wanted me to see that I kept on with them. Maybe next year I’ll read Faces In The Crowd--her novel translated by the same person.

My Verdict

3.0

Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney

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Review: In The Kitchen: Writing on Home Cooking and More

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My Interest

I loved the cover was the first reason I chose this one. I also have been having good luck with essays and similar lately so decided to try to read more of them this year. Bonus: After reading this I decided I must make and try Pelau! (The recipe linked is from the essay’s author.)

The Essays

The collection is divided into the following categories:

  • Coming to the Kitchen
  • Reading and Writing the Kitchen
  • Beyond the Kitchen

Within those categories, the essays were sometimes idiotic (an annotated list of all the stoves in the author’s various homes over the course of her adult life) frequently mediocre to “fine” (as in “just fine”), and occasionally very good. I’m reviewing the best ones, but not in any ranked order:

Brain Work by Laura Freeman

I knew I’d love this essay when she started it off quoting from Muriel Spark’s Girls of Slender Means. Freeman tells us about her reading author’s diaries, something I love to do. Specifically, she looks at what writer’s have for lunch. I love little details like that in diaries. This was a fun “literary” look at food.

Food is a Bridge to Community by Julia Turshen

While this was occasionally a little eye-rolling for me as a Midwesterner almost 30 years older than the author, I admired her by the end. We might use different terms, but we share the same sort of ideals. Who doesn’t love someone passionate enough about a person, place, idea, or cause that they get up do something about it? In this case, the author coordinated the creation of a cookbook that she then sold to raise $20,000 for an organization close to her heart. She also gives generously of her time to a local food charity and created a database of food professionals of all sorts “featuring only women and gender non-conforming individuals” (p. 100). I like her mantra: “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to have an impact.”

The New Thing by Juliet Annan

Annan’s essay references writer Laurie Colwin’s book Home Cooking, which a friend has pushed me to read for years (I have read another of her books), so two pushes by other author’s toward this book in less than two months means I will be finding a copy and reading it soon. Nora Ephron and a host of folks like Nigella and Jamie show up, too. In addition, she talks about the first “sensation” cookbook of my adult life–The Silver Palate Cookbook, out of which I managed to cook NOTHING. That was in the days when half the ingredients required a trip to Atlas Supermarket in Broad Ripple (think Doll’s Market in St. Matthews), a place that intimidated me on my best days. I think I donated my copy a few years ago to the library book sale.

In The Kitchen: Writing on Home Cooking and More

Do you enjoy food writing? Do you ever read cookbook? Have a favorite food writer? Leave me a comment or post.

Other Foodie Posts:

Books for a Foodie Lit Class

Food For a Younger Land by Mark Kurlansky

Save Me The Plums by Ruth Reichel

Hippie Food by Jonathon Kauffman

10 Yummy Foods Mentioned in Books

A Boat. A Whale & A Walrus by Renee Erickson [scroll down in the post]

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Review: Loud Black Girls: 20 Black Women Writers Ask: “What’s Next?”

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Thanks to Liz Dexter at Adventures in Reading… for bringing this book to my attention.

My Interest

My interest came from Liz’s review. I had just read Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here, so I thought it would be interesting to read the same issues from a British perspective. And, I was right–it was.

In the interest of fairness, I will say that I willfully skipped two of the essays as both had the potential to give me heart attack #2. I am committed to ending racism, but not to having a second heart attack. Yes, of course, one was the Markle-praise blather essay.

The Essays

If you wondered where Prince Harry learned of the supposed institutionalized racism of the UK look no further. It and other Markle-ish phrases like thrive not just survive are all in here. Yes, the book is newer than that phrase, but these authors have all told their stories before. Some are very well known speakers, influences, and crusaders for the causes of racial justice and feminism. I’m all for those causes, by the way, I just don’t want to be preached at about them by a Prince who had to have secret help to get an A-level in art at one of the most privileged schools on earth and who quit an Army desk job out of boredom and lack of education or by a failed actress whose only claim, to fame is the marrying said prince. These women, however, are the real deal. The people doing the work. I willingly listened to them. They didn’t study Diana interviews and practice shedding fake tears to deliver these lines. They lived the experiences–and not at very exclusive Beverly Hills girls school, either. #Megxitnow

The essays that caught my eye and held my attention and really made me think included one that is likely the most controversial. Remember, I did NOT say, that I agreed with all, or any, of it! It made me think,

Siana Bagura’s “Who built it and with what wood?” A Black Feminist 10-point (-ish) Programme for Transformation

If you follow the news, much of her essay will be familiar from the more intelligent discussions of the Black Lives Matter protests. Much, but by no means all of what she advocates is very good and very sensible:

  1. Take up space, use your voices. This is 2020-speak for GET INVOLVED.
  2. Language Matters (see #5)
  3. End White Supremacy/White Fragility (very moving to write this a day after the champions of White Supremecy breached the U.S. Capitol). I’m not clear on what “White Fragility” truly means, but I have enough of a notion of it to understand where she is going.
  4. [Really 4 & 7]Capitalism is killing SOME of us and the Tools of Wellbeing Shouldn’t Be A Luxury. Capitalism– I don’t buy into this argument. Capitalism works. What doesn’t work is the hodge-podge of social programs in the US and in a few other countries to help raise the poor to a decent standard of living, to receive a fair/equal education, and to obtain equal health care–especially mental health care. Those programs fail spectacularly. Health care, housing, education–those should never be “luxuries.” I do not agree that they are a “right” in that governments should provide them though. But there should be a high enough minimum wage to make them possible.
  5. [Really 5 & 6]Decolonize Diversity and Black History is Global This one overlaps perfectly with Austin Channing Brown’s scathing (and totally deserved) take on the ethnicity of the month type of diversity programming or programming that praises Dr. Martin Luther King, jr., to the sky but doesn’t focus on what the wrongs were he was fighting to right or mention that most are still with us. This essay also goes into the need to stop using euphemisms that hide people. “Diversity” “inclusion,” “of color” are some of the words that render especially blacks invisible. There should be no need for Black History Month because history shouldn’t be segregated in the first place.
  6. Let’s Abolish the Police and Address the Prison-Industrial Complex I do not agree at all with abolishing the police. I do think it is time we train them to prevent, rather than punish, when possible. The UK and the USA have some of the worst prisons in the Industrialized “first” world. Punishment does NOT work. We make it impossible for people to change and re-enter society with a chance of making that change permanent. For-Profit Prison is an obscene idea and it has been shown that inmates from For-Profit Prisons have even less chance on the outside.
  7. A Black Feminist Analysis is Needed in the Conversation on Climate Justice. Sure, why not.
  8. Freedom & Dignity for all Black people. I disagree that the phrase Black Lives Matter means only so-called “CIS” black men.

The other essays I liked touched on the African Diaspora returning to the continent, a memoir of growing up trying to fit or not fit stereotypes, an engaging memory of a girl’s empowerment by her upbringing, and the power of women who get their finances together–that last being essential to women of any race or nationality or sexual identity.

Loud Black Girls: 20 Black Women Writers Ask: “What’s Next?”

My Verdict

3.5

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Review: Southern Lady Code by Helen Ellis

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My Interest

Say the word “essays” and normally my eyes glaze over. Happily these days there are humorous essays that live up to their billings. Essays such as those Helen Ellis [“Helen Michelle”] writes.

So imagine my surprise whent he first essay was the “clean table” thing I’d heard or read and LOVED! I told my Mom about it. I cleaned my own table. The husband in the piece [by the then unknown-to-me-author] didn’t want a divorce, he simply wanted the dining room table free of crap!  When I wen home that night, my crap-strewn dining room table really hurt me. See? Essays can help! (You can read the clean table essay here in the Amazon book preview).

The Story

After writing a novel, Eating the Chesire Cat, Helen turned to social media and found her audience by tweeting daily life as @WhatIDoAllDayShe has also hosted a podcast called The Southern Lady Code.

“‘Put together’ is Southern Lady Code for: you can take me to Church or Red Lobster.”

I enjoyed every minute of this collection. The audio version, performed by the author, was like talking to her over a salady at Applebees–it was that real. Her humor, her humanity and her good manners all shine through. If you love Steel Magnolias as much I do, then you’ll appreciate that she’s part M’lynn, part Truuvy, part Shelby, part Claree and, yes, even part Weezer! As a Southern transplant to Manhattan, she dares to serve Lipton Onion Soup Dip and Ruffles for Christmas parties alongside Nutter Butter Snowmen. My kind of gal!

Cardigans: “which we Southern ladies consider active wear.” 

The collection does contain one essay that might be difficult for some, but stay with it, it has a serious purpose. Yes, she does reveal just a touch of TMI in it (a touch–a tiny touch) but detailing the extent porn has corroded social media is something that cannot be done too often. That is the one essay that has a truly serious message. She also drops one bit of personal information that left me speechless and wanting to hug her. The Southern Lady Code of good manners in action kept her from revealing more than just that one momentous word.

My only complaint? The collection was too short! Barely 3.5 hours on audio. Helen Michelle? Bring on more, please. Love you! And, ladies? Get the audio. It’s worth it. I’ll be looking for your Thank You note (you’ll understand after you listen to the collection).

Southern Lady Code: Essays by Helen Ellis