Book Review: Marge Piercy Satisfies

Fly Away Home
Marge Piercy

Fly Away Home is the third Marge Piercy book that I have read, and I must say I have enjoyed them all. (The other two are Three Women and The Third Child.) They have all been about women in transition. A little divorce, some intergenerational conflict, career highs and lows. And all of them definitely fall into the category of easy reads. The kind of novels that are interesting and smart, and bring up some deep issues, but are totally fun to read. Luckily this was the book I had started when John was a little under the weather while we were traveling in Provence. For hours I plopped myself on the couch in our hotel room and read while John slept.

Written in the early 1980s, the book is modern but depicts a period that seems refreshingly simpler than our current fractious times. Don’t get me wrong, I know that Ronald Reagan was busy oversimplifying or outright ignoring complex issues of huge significance. And he was sowing the seeds of an overly politicized Christian right that found its very un-Christ-like apotheosis in George W. Bush and his hypocritical, anti-intellectual minions. But the latter hadn’t happened yet and thinking about nuclear winter seems somewhat quaint compared to the wild cards of global terrorism and global warming.

But I digress…the protagonist in Fly Away Home is Daria Walker, a successful cookbook author, mother, and wife. That is until it becomes clear that her selfish, immature, husband is having an affair and wants a divorce. Daria’s world starts to fall apart, but like all good books of this genre, she slowly starts to pick up the pieces, and everything turns out groovy in the end. Piercy is a little heavy-handed in portraying the husband as a total piece of excrement, but it is actually kind of fun hating him and relishing in his ultimate downfall.

But this book is about more than just their relationship. It also is a bit of a thriller in the sense that even though you know things are going to turn out alright, there are so many twists and turns that it kept me on hooks wondering what would happen next. The mystery hinges a lot the husband’s business dealings and how they become intertwined in the unravelling of the marriage. And for someone like me who has trained in urban planning, it also included a really interesting look at gentrification and community organizing in urban Boston. You don’t have to care about those issues, however, to enjoy this book–they are pretty seamlessly written into the narrative. And on top of everything, Daria is a food writer with plenty of foodie stuff sprinkled into the story as well. Her references to Julia Child foreshadow the current craze for all things Julia.

I look forward to reading more of Piercy’s bibliography. After three successful reads, I don’t think I will be disappointed.

40 by 40: The 38th Birthday Update

I turn 38 this week which means that I only have 2 years to finish my 40 by 40 list. It isn’t that big of a list so it seems like that is more than enough time to get it all done. But some of the goals are more difficult than others. In fact, most of what I have completed so far you could probably consider to be the proverbial low hanging fruit.

So, without further ado here is the update:

3. Go to my 20 year high school reunion (completed 7/28/07)
You can read about this one on an earlier post.

4. Pass the TAP Exam (completed 8/10/07)
Not only did I pass the Travel Agent Proficiency Exam, I got 98% on it. Yes, that’s right, I am going into the highly lucrative field of travel planning.

I must say that this decision hasn’t been made lightly. In addition to walking away from the golden handcuffs at my current job, I am setting aside two graduate degrees that I still haven’t finished paying for. I don’t regret going into debt for either of those degrees, they both have provided me with training and experiences that will be useful no matter what I end up doing. Plus, I loved all of the time I spent in college and grad school. I loved my four years at the University of Minnesota. Although I had real mixed feelings about my time at the University of Hawaii, it gave me the opportunity to spend two years living in a sometimes frustrating but ultimately wonderful paradise. And my two years at Cornell University were two of the best years of my life. I loved studying urban planning, I loved my classmates, I loved the campus, I loved living in a small town, and I loved being a four-hour drive from Manhattan.

Now my most recent academic credential, knocking Cornell out of the top spot, will be the Penn Foster Career School. My online travel school alma mater in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

6. Write a blog tribute to the Womenfolk (completed 6/9/07)
Not only did I manage to write this blog tribute, but as a result I’ve had the chance to talk to three of the four remaining Womenfolk. It was wonderful to be able to talk to each of them and satisfy 20 years worth of curiosity.

16. Get a letter published in the New York Times (completed 7/18/07)
Not an easy thing to do, but my strategy of being quick, concise, and on point seems to have worked.

19. Release 25 books into the wild through BookCrossing (ABANDONED 7/29/07)
If I could figure out how to do a strikethrough on this blog I would cross this one out. I thought I would love this particular challenge. The idea is that you tag books you have read with a Bookcrossing label, register them online, and then leave them somewhere for someone to find in hopes that they will pick them up, see the tag, go online to note where they found it and what they thought about the book and then release it back into “the wild” for someone else to find.

I loved the idea of people connecting through books, but the process of leaving them out in the wild gave me more stress than joy. Maybe because you don’t really get to connect with people this way, and maybe because the kinds of books I read aren’t going to find a broad audience, or maybe it is because I am sure that most if not all of the books I have left out in the wild were probably thrown away. In any case, I didn’t find anything edifying about the process and it was stressing me out. So I am abandoning this one which means at least $10 for charity when I hit 40.

20. Make pudding from scratch (completed 7/7/7)
Brown sugar pudding with a tangy whip cream. Delicious and pretty easy to do.

For the full list click here.

Minnesota Part I: Dog Days of Summer

This weekend I headed back to Minnesota for my 20-year high school union. It was a whirlwind weekend with lots to do and little time to do it. After a stormy, delayed flight into MSP from DCA I made it to my Uncle’s and Aunt’s house in the MacalesterGroveland Neighborhood of St. Paul. The weather was cooler than DC but still more humid than I expected. Unlike DC, not everyone in Minnesota has AC. Which was fine by me. I have never quite gotten used to sleeping in air conditioning (a requirement in steamy DC) and I actually enjoyed having two fans to cool me and lull me to sleep instead.

After a great night’s sleep I actually managed to go for a run before breakfast. I figured if I was going to cheat on the South Beach with pancakes and syrup, I might as well burn some calories. I also knew that I was picking up 2 dozen donuts at Don’s Bakery in Elk River. Don’s donuts are the donuts of my childhood and I wasn’t going to let this rare opportunity to get some pass me by. I took the two large boxes back to my rental car, turned on the AC and ate two of them–a jelly Bismark and a Lady Finger–in about 30 seconds flat. About half an hour later I found myself at my childhood Dairy Queen ordering burgers and a chocolate-dipped cone.

Not even the diet-busting goodness of my midday binge could delude me into thinking that Elk River was worth the visit. Despite lots of new construction activity in town, the place has a dusty, abandoned look. No doubt the 10,000 people that have moved to town since I graduated in 1987 spend most of their time patronizing the strip malls outside of town. Families conviced they need a patch of suburban sprawl, will never know what it is like to grow up within blocks of schools, a library, shops, churches, parks, ice skating, the Dairy Queen, and even the spot where the Elk River flows into the Mississippi. Growing up I lived in a community that smart developers and New Urbanists desperately try to recreate. Despite recent developments, short-sighted market forces and bad decisions by the City have greatly diminished the financial and emotional investments that decades of residents put into make Elk River a real place rather than a sprawling mass of parking lots along the highway.

Without much to keep me in Elk River, I got in the car and headed “up north” to my brother’s place near the northwestern shore of Lake Mille Lacs. By the time I got there, the humidity was gone and the weather was like every childhood memory I have of summer in Minnesota. It was great to see him and his family and catch up with them. Having recently left the Elk River area, they were happy to see the balance of the 2 dozen donuts from Don’s. In additon to having several more of the donuts, the real treat for me was playing with their three dogs. (Abby is the sweetie I coerced into sitting still for the picture above.)

Coming Soon: Minnesota Part II: The Reunion

The Best City in the USA

I have spent the better part of an hour trying to come up with just the right kind of clever angle to put on this post. Being an urban plannner, I feel I should present all kinds of deep nuance to explain my fascination with Portland, Oregon. But the bottom line is that no clever angle could really convey my enthusiasm for this rain-soaked gem in the Pacific Northwest.

As a planner, I have heard for years how Portland is the holy grail of city and regional planning in the United States. Not a day went by in graduate school that someone didn’t cheer for (or jeer at) Oregon’s 1970s groundbreaking law mandating urban growth boundaries for all its 241 urban areas. Finally, one weekend last November I had the chance to see the place for myself. It lived up to all of my expectations. The impact of the urban growth boundary is a wonderful, vibrant, walkable city. Even the constant rain and gray didn’t dampen my enthusiasm. I made a return trip a few weeks ago with my partner who is a big fan of the glamour and pace of much larger cities. I was a bit worried that he might find it all a little sleepy–that my urban planning lenses were making the place much more interesting than it really is. Much to my delight and surprise, he loved the place as much as I do. Perhaps the only real difference between us is that he would qualify “The Best City in America” by inserting the word small before city.

I don’t mind this because I never include New York City in any comparison, the place is just too damn fabulous and unique to be compared to any other–and once you remove New York from the discussion Portland rises right to the top of my list. I don’t think it is my urban planner’s bias that makes me feel like the success of Portland can actually be attributed to its wise land use. So often I go to American cities and just wish I could squeeze all the great things about the metro area into the core of the city and generously sprinkle it with housing, green space, services, and shopping (even for groceries). Imagine how much more dynamic Cleveland would be if all of those empty lots downtown contained Severance Hall, or the Cleveland Institute of Arts, or condos, or streetfront retail, or anything. Imagine how lively Minneapolis (or even Chicago) would be if its downtown loop had better integration between its housing, retail, and office districts. What if the fabulous Asian markets and restaurants in northern Virginia were in Washington DC’s Chinatown instead? What if Seattle didn’t have that hideous freeway separating its downtown from its residential neighborhoods? What if pigs could fly…?

Still, Portland is about more than its land use patterns, and it is certainly more than the sum of its parts. Its public transport is second to none, it has the legendary Powell’s books, it has a lively arts scene, great shopping, great restaurants, great neighborhoods, a great physical setting, great proximity to the mountains and some of the most amazing coastland in the world, and has beautiful agricultural lands within 10 miles of the city line. Its corporate architicture is mundane at best, but its smaller scale arhitecture is quite interesting and has a vernacular flair. In fact, the best thing about Portland is that it knows what it is and it does it really well. Even its provincialism is more like a contented self-awareness then the boosterism or narrow world view found in many other cities that seem to care more about being something they are not, rather then being happy with what they are.

In general I can find something to love in almost any city. It just so happens that Portland puts it all together in a way that makes it a very special place, and to me, the best city in the USA.

Four Women Who Rocked the 60s and Changed the World

The recent deaths of writer and urban planning iconoclast-turned-icon Jane Jacobs and feminist godmother Betty Friedan has me pondering how four women altered the contours of American life. I realize that the conversations I have had about these four women and this post are not particularly original thought, but bear repeating anyway. For one other discussion of the topic (minus Julia Child) see this article in the The Nation.

Jane Jacobs (1916-2006)
When journalist Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961 she helped pull the urban planning profession from its darkest days of “slum” clearance and the worst excesses of 1950s urban renewal. Originally decried by planners of the day, Jacobs’ view of what constituted the components of a healthy neighborhood and a healthy city is the standard by which they are still judged today. Jacobs’ description of her Greenwich Village neighborhood and the ways in which it nurtured its residents provided a powerful example in favor of mixed-use, mixed-income, walkable neighborhoods that are the mantra of virtually every municipal planning department today. Like the other three women discussed here her work is not without its flaws. But, like the others, her clarion call woke up a sleeping nation and defined the terms of discussion for going on fifty years now.

Rachel Carson (1907-1964)
The marine biologist/zoologist, professor, and author’s 1962 book Silent Spring stood the US and the world on its ear about the connection between chemical pesticides and the degradation of the environment. Her book woke up America and kicked off the modern environmental movement. Of course she has her detractors even today (not being a scientist I am not going to try and wade through the arguments), but the fundamental truth is her work put environmental issues firmly on the policy table and in the minds of the American public.

Betty Friedan (1921-2006)
The 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique ushered in the modern feminist movement. Despite the book’s somewhat limited prospective of the white, college-educated, middle class woman (i.e., the typical Smith graduate), the notion that the sexist, conformist expectations of the times had trapped most women into a life of unfulfilled potential had near virtual universal application. (One could also argue that suburban sprawl contributed greatly to the imprisonment of women in the 1950s, but that is the topic for another post.) Friedan’s writing and her co-founding of the National Organization of Women (NOW) and National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) set the U.S. on an unstoppable path toward the as yet unfulfilled equality of women in America.

Julia Child (1912-2004)
When I was a child in the 1970s the whole family would gather around the TV on Sunday afternoons to watch The French Chef with Julia Child on PBS. We never made any of her recipes but we sure liked watching. Her show, which began in 1963, and her contribution to the popularization of TV cooking shows is not the most impressive change she brought to American life. Julia introduced Americans to recipes and ingredients that were anathema to the post-World War II salt, pepper, and paprika school of American cooking. When her show began Americans were gorging on TV dinners and canned vegetables. Thanks to Julia and others in her circle or under her influence, we have so much to choose from today when we head to the grocery store. Not all of the “food” created by scientists but those fabulous ingredients that no one had heard of thirty years ago.

For you big fans out there, you must check out her kitchen which on display at the Smithsonian in Washington DC. I’ve been there five times myself.