Books I like: Memoirs and Kind-of Biographies


1. Almost Famous Women: Stories by Megan Mayhew Bergman

This one’s a new book, just out, and when I first found out about it and its almost, but not-quite-famous subjects I was excited. I was hoping it would be non-fiction and biographical, something along the lines of Lisa Cohen’s All We Know: Three Lives, another book that resurrects forgotten women in history and tells their stories. Megan Mayhew Bergman’s women are real, but the stories are fictional. Historical fiction isn’t my favorite thing in the world, and when it comes to modern fiction I’m a lot more old-fashioned than I’d like to be, but it didn’t take long for me to get drawn into Bergman’s stories of women who missed fame by a hair. Some were famous enough in their own day but have become gradually less so (Romaine Brooks, Beryl Markham, Butterfly McQueen), while others lived their lives under the shadow of a more famous relative (James Joyce’s daughter Lucia—that’s her, above—-, Oscar Wilde’s niece Dolly, Edna St. Vicent Millay’s sister Norma, Lord Byron’s daughter Allegra).

I knew a little about some of the subjects, but nothing about most of them. If I knew anything about Marlene Dietrich’s one-time lover, heiress Joe Carstairs, I had forgotten. I’d love to read more about her life, but honestly could have done without Bergman’s portrayal of Dietrich: campy and insecure and bitchy for no reason. Bergman’s a lot better when she writes about more obscure figures; her stories about lesser-known entertainers and female daredevils had me searching the internet for anything I could find about them. As with All We Know, my favorite parts in Almost Famous Women happen when stories and lives intersect. Serial womanizer Joe Carstairs makes an appearance (or at least gets a mention) in a few stories, as does Natalie Barney, that other notorious womanizer who isn’t the subject of a story in Almost Famous Women, but maybe should be.


2. Moving Pictures: Memories of a Hollywood Prince by Budd Schulberg

Before we went to LA last fall I tried to read up all the old Hollywood books I could download because I was nervous about going there (it’s overwhelming) and I needed some good vibes. I started with Scandals of Classic Hollywood because I’m a huge fan of Anne Helen Petersen’s internet column of the same name. Online, Petersen is both scholarly and gossipy, writing about old film stars as if they were still walking around today. She dusts off old Hollywood scandals and makes them shocking again, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on her new book. But I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would. Most of the stories Petersen writes about are ones that classic Hollywood fans already know: Fatty Arbuckle’s downfall; Judy Garland’s tragic life and James Dean’s short one. They were pretty obvious, and, worse, they were missing a lot of Anne Helen Petersen’s online sass.

Fortunately there always seem to be Hollywood memoirs out there that I had no idea even existed. I signed up for a free month of Kindle Unlimited just to be able to read Budd Schulberg’s memoir of growing up in Hollywood. Budd’s father was B.P. Schulberg, a big studio executive during the ’20s and ’30s, who moved his family out to Hollywood just as its orange groves were being bulldozed to make way for movie studios. Budd grew up playing on silent film sets and teasing moving stars. One time he even threw a fig at Greta Garbo. (?!)

Old Hollywood memoirs tend to have plenty of gossip, which is why I like them. They’re also notoriously unreliable, usually written in later life. Anita Loos is one of my favorite of the early Hollywood chronicallers, even though I’ve heard that her facts are all mixed up and her stories are usually embellished and can’t be believed. But I want to believe them. Schulberg is gossipy in his book, too, writing freely (sometimes too freely) about long-dead stars like Clara Bow. Most of his stories are ones I’d never heard before, and reliable or not, they’re definitely not boring.


3. The Naked Civil Servant by Quentin Crisp

Last year I read up every biography I could find of eccentric weirdo contrarians because I spent most of 2014 feeling like one. When my gardening heroine Alys Fowler wrote about having lunch at a restaurant with the British eccentric Quentin Crisp, and how he looked around the room and proclaimed the most stylish people there to be those who were the least trendy, I was inspired. I read a biography on him and then I quickly moved onto his first memoir, and I was hooked.

The Naked Civil Servant might be the best book I read last year. It’s definitely the funniest, though maybe the saddest too. Quentin Crisp was an outcast from the beginning, gay and flamboyant in pre-war London, where homosexuality was illegal. He dressed up like a dandy, wore makeup, and dyed his hair unnatural shades of red and blue, and got beat up on the regular for it, even arrested. But he was too much of an individual to tone down his look; the way he dressed and wore his hair and makeup reflected who he was.

Being an individual and just “being” were the most important things to Quentin Crisp. He claimed never to listen to music or look at art or read books, though that last one is hard to believe considering how well he wrote. He lived in a tiny apartment that he never cleaned—”after the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse,” he said—and the clothes he wore were often secondhand and tailored to fit—-”fashion is what you adopt when you don’t know who you are,” he also said. Personal style was such an important form of self-expression to Quentin that the idea of fashion was something he had no patience for. “If you have no personality,” he wrote in a pretty scathing review of a book of Avedon photographs, “you may be able to save your face and, possibly, your entire anatomy by following the current fashion, but all we shall know about you, when we see you coming down the street, is that you had enough money to buy a glossy magazine.”

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Vegan Holidays with Chickpea


When Drew and I first started dating I told him that my family would have cookies for dinner every Christmas Eve, and it wasn’t too far from the truth. My parents would bake cookies weeks in advance, and on the night before Christmas they’d set out plates and plates of them on the table, and it was always my favorite meal of the year since  it was the one time I could get away with eating only chocolate. There were other things on the table too—-meatballs sometimes, and cheese and crackers and chips and vegetables and dip, and fondue when we went to my grandparents’ house—-but I usually just concentrated on the cookies. I still do.

We’ve always had the same cookies, and just about all of them were passed down from some family member or another, mostly from my great-grandma, who seems to have gathered up her recipes from 1950s baking books and Midwestern newspapers. I’ve had those cookies for as long as I can remember, and after first going vegan I figured that I wouldn’t be able to have them anymore. On our first vegan Christmas we made cookies from vegan baking books; they were good, but they had me missing the old ones. Fortunately by the next time the holidays rolled around I knew a lot more about vegan baking and how easy it can be to turn a non-vegan recipe vegan. I made my very favorite family cookie recipes, and even though I had to use some substitutes like Tofutti sour cream (not my favorite) the cookies ended up tasting pretty much like I remembered.

I have an article in the winter issue of Chickpea Magazine for all of you vegans who would rather stick to the classic, familiar family recipes rather than track down all new plant-based ones. Drew took the photos and I came up with some tips for converting old recipes, with an emphasis on the “old,” since family recipes tend to date back to times when weirder (and definitely not vegan) ingredients like condensed milk and lard were used heavily in baking. Included in the article are some of my favorite family cookie recipes, turned not only vegan but gluten-free.

I also made the cookies a bit healthier than the original versions, though you could never really get away with calling them healthy. There’s sugar and plenty of chocolate still, but I did try to eliminate most of the processed ingredients in these. Do you remember when I posted a recipe for Georgia Street Slices years ago, before we went vegan? The original version has vanilla wafers, instant pudding mix, and condensed milk; can’t you tell that the recipe dates back to the 1950s? Here’s an updated version: vegan, gluten-free, and a little bit better for you.

Georgia Street Slices

Makes 16 squares

Ingredients

1.5 cups pitted medjool dates
1 cup chopped walnuts
1/3 cup cocoa powder
2 tbsp almond flour
1/3 cup plus 3 tbsp melted coconut oil, divided
3 tsp vanilla, divided
1/4 tsp salt
2 cups cashews (soaked overnight)
1/4 cup maple syrup
2 tbsp coconut milk
2/3 cup vegan dark or semisweet chocolate chips

Instructions

1. For the bottom layer, put dates, walnuts, cocoa, almond meal, 1 tbsp coconut oil, 1 tsp vanilla, and salt into a large food processor, and pulse until combined. The mixture should hold together when pinched—if not, add another date or more coconut oil. Press the dough into a greased 8 x 8 inch pan and let set in the refrigerator or freezer while you make the middle layer.

2. To make the middle layer, strain and rinse soaked cashews and place into blender along with maple syrup, 1/3 cup coconut oil, 2 tsp vanilla, and a pinch of salt. Spread over bottom layer and chill.

3. In a small saucepan or double boiler, melt 1 cup of semisweet chocolate chips with 2 tbsp coconut oil. Mix well and spread over middle layer. Chill. When chocolate layer has firmed, cut bars into two-inch squares. Keep in refrigerator or freezer.

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The Frist


Dress: Megan Huntz Laura Dress
Bag: Baggu
Shoes: thrift store

These photos were taken here in Nashville, not California. I’ll get to the LA post, but first here are a couple of photos from this last weekend. We were depressed on the plane ride home from LA. Nashville had been rainy and gloomy for the whole week before we left for vacation, and we didn’t want to go back at all. Fortunately we lucked out and it’s been beautiful in Tennessee; the sun’s been shining (well, until today, but it has to rain once in a while), the leaves are changing colors, and it finally feels like fall. And what we thought would be a boring, depressing weekend back in Nashville actually turned out to be fun. We did our usual hike (after hiking mountains in California it wasn’t nearly so hard), ate sushi out and spotted a secondary character/villain from Crazy Hearts Nashville (the wonderful/horrible—and cancelled—reality show) out on a Jack Daniel’s bender. We cooked meals in (missed it after eating out for a week straight), made sweet potato pancakes, and went to see the new art exhibit at The Frist. It was my first time there. Drew went a few months ago and came back telling me all about the 1930s-built art deco style building the Frist is in, and how I needed to go. This time we saw the Kandinsky exhibit, which I liked, but I liked the building even more. It’s pretty restrained on the outside—elegant and made of marble—but the inside lobby is dark and sleek, with decorative metal grillwork and silvery stars on the ceilings.

I also finally got the chance to wear the dress I received from Megan Huntz. I’ve been a fan of her clothes ever since Jamie introduced me to her years ago in Atlanta, and her collections keep getting better and better. I wrote about her last collection and how I fell in love with the clothes and how feminine they are in a time when it’s kind of hard to find feminine clothes. Megan was kind enough to send me the Laura dress (my very favorite in the collection), and when I opened the package and held the dress in my hands I loved it even more. I love the almost Grecian-style draping of it, the fact that it has a waist (!), the v neckline at the front and the similar one at the back that was too pretty not to show, scoliosis surgery scar and all.





Photos by Drew.

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Ojai

It had been way too long since we’d taken a big trip of any kind, so Drew and I decided to celebrate our 3 (!) year anniversary by flying out to California, with our dog in tow. The last time we were there was on our honeymoon, going to Napa Valley and Big Sur, driving along the Pacific Coast Highway and visiting Hearst Castle. We didn’t get that far north on this trip; we spent most of our time in LA, but we did set aside a couple days to explore Ojai for the first time.

It’s a trendy place to visit right now, I know. While we were planning our trip I looked for alternatives to Ojai because I was afraid it might be pretentious or too hip to be relaxing, but that really wasn’t the case at all. We went during the week when it was quiet and stayed in our own little cabin on the edge of the Topatopa Mountains. We walked around town a bit, visited the outdoor bookstore and stopped into a couple local shops I’d heard about. They were really cute, but we weren’t really in the mood for shopping–haven’t been for a while. Mostly we went to California to hike and to eat the sort of vegan food we can’t find around Nashville.

We hiked the Horn Canyon trail, right in the mountains on the outskirts of town. It’s about a five mile hike—not too short, but not so long that we’d end up exhausted or stranded, which honestly I was halfway afraid of. California hikes aren’t like the ones we’re used to in Tennessee. A moderate trail around here would probably get rated easy in California; we’re used to rolling hills, not mountains. This particular mountain was steep (for us) with lots of switchbacks, but it was so beautiful that we hardly noticed. We’re not used to views like that in Tennessee either.

Another thing we’re not used to: California vegan food. I know that hippie Ojai is probably a special case, but I couldn’t get over the fact that such a small town had so many vegan options to pick from. We had a post-hike lunch at Hip Vegan (delicious and not scarily hip, despite its name), where Drew had a Mexican bowl and I had a raw bowl, not because I’m raw vegan (I’m not), but because when else do I get the chance to eat entirely raw meals with seed crackers? The Farmer and the Cook isn’t completely vegan, but just about anything on the menu can be made with cashew cheese instead of regular cheese, and their Mexican food tasted so authentic (to us) that we ended up eating there two nights in a row.

On our anniversary day we got sappy and headed up to Meditation Mount to watch the sunset. It’s a scenic overlook on the grounds of a new age-y, hippie center, and by all accounts it’s the best view in town.






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