Archive | October 2012

The Wolff Brothers: “This Boy’s Life & The Duke of Deception.”

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The four best memoirs I have ever read, and I have read too many, are Frank McCort’s, Angela’s Ashes, “Tobias Wolff’s, “This Boy’s Life,” Geoffrey Wolff’s, “The Duke of Deception,”  and Jeanette Walls, “The Glass Castle.”

These books are similar in describing horrendous childhood’s of upheaval and instability, complicated by mentally ill, vagabond, eccentric parents, and a sort of lower middle class poverty. (I know that’s an oxymoron, read the books and you’ll understand). But the similarities go much further and deeper. Each author is a brilliant writer, with an uncanny ability to recount his or her traumatic childhoods without self-pity. They don’t seem to hold resentment towards their incompetent parents. In fact they are able to recognize the strengths in their parent’s oddity and the positive aspects of their personalities. They find in their chaotic childhood experience, grist for creative tour de-forces, in each of these four memoirs.

Please see prior review of “Glass Castle”. I will review “Angela’s Ashes,” soon.

Tobias and Geoffrey Wolff are brothers. Geoffrey is eight years older than Tobias. When their parents divorce, Geoffrey heads off to live with his father and Tobias goes with his mother.

Arthur Wolff was a Yalie, fighter pilot, and ersatz aviation engineer, who was also a vagabond, con-man, flim-flam-man, forger and alcoholic. In the “”The Duke of Deception,” Geoffrey describes his chaotic life with his crazy father who bilks and cons everyone he meets, including friends, associates, wives, and Geoffrey himself.  They move from place to place in continuous flight from debtors and jail. (They end up in La Jolla, where I was born and living at the time, with my father named Arthur and brother named Jeffrey.)  Arthur forges credentials and lands a job as an aeronautical engineer at General Dynamics, where my friends parents worked at the time. Eventually Arthur is committed to a mental hospital and Geoffrey heads off to Princeton.

Geoffrey’s descriptions of his father are brilliantly nuanced, remarkably sympathetic, and psychologically insightful.  He says for example, ”As I dislike him more and more. I become more and more like him. I felt trapped.” This is a remarkable statement. As a therapist, one of the most difficult things to get across to people is the concept that without significant insight and effort, one tends to possess the very aspects of their own parents that they most despise. Geoffrey masters this in three short sentences.

Tobias Wolff’s book starts in 1955 with ten year old Tobias, fleeing in a Nash Rambler that was continuously boiling over, with his mother, who was leaving one of a series of continuously violent relationships. They were driving from Florida to Utah and had broken down once again on the top of the Continental Divide, when a semi looses it’s brakes, screams it’s air horn in one long wail, and flies off the divide with Tobias and his mother watching. Tobias’s mother was moving to Florida to strike it rich mining uranium.

So starts Tobias’s memoir.  Honestly, I don’t understand the appeal of fiction as much anymore, when non-fiction is so much weirder, more incredible, and far more interesting.  Tobias eventually ends up living in a town called Concrete (Washington) with a concrete, blockhead of a stepfather, who was a sadistic, martinet.  Eventually he escapes all this chaos into the relatively more predictable Vietnam War and training in the special forces. (He wrote a great book about his tour of duty entitled, “In the Pharaoh’s Army: Memoirs of the Lost War.)

Tobias and Geoffrey meet up once, after a six-year separation in La Jolla, just before Geoffrey leaves for Princeton, after their father is institutionalized.  Tobias comes out by bus.  Geoffrey spends the summer writing technical manuals for General Dynamic’s under his father’s name, while assigning Tobias daily reading requirements of all the Greek tragedies. I was younger at this time swimming at Windansea, right next to where they lived.

Geoffrey eventually goes on to receive his Ph.D. in Literature, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and was a Professor of Literature at University of California Irvine.  He has published numerous highly acclaimed books. He had two sons and married a Clinical Social Worker. (I am a Clinical Social Worker. Weird coincidences).  Tobias studied at Oxford, received his Master’s Degree in Creative Writing at Stanford and is a Professor of Creative Writing at Stanford.  He also has written many highly acclaimed books.  He married and had three children.  A movie was made of the book, “This Boy’s Life,” starring Leonardo What’s His Name.  Their mother eventually became President of the League of  Women Voters.  Truth is stranger than fiction.

The relationship between the brothers remained close and mutually supportive since their time together in La Jolla.  Both are considered two of America’s finest contemporary writers.

It is remarkable and comforting to realize that all four of these authors overcame childhood’s of shocking hardship and trauma, and used their experiences to write creative, beautiful, and inspiring memoirs.

Highly recommend all four of these books. Recommend you read them in chronological order starting with “Angela’s Ashes,” then “The Duke of Deception,” “This Boys Life,” and “The Glass Castle.” (Toss in Pharaoh’s Army and you’ll be glad you did!)

Happy Reading!

Tech Marvels & the TV Tray.

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(Please click on ads to read small print.)

Some of you may recall, I previously posted prior segments of this 1950’s series, ending with photos from Betty Crocker’s house and barn and anything else I found there to photograph (See October 11 post under Tech Marvels.).  My mother Eleonore came with me on this adventure , as we browsed at the antique barn and acted like undercover paparazzi, snapping shots incognito for your pleasure and edification.  This was so exciting.  I couldn’t stand it.

Today, part four ( for those who are numerically challenged, like me) we will be discussing that integral part of the 1950’s-60’s life,  The TV Tray.

TV trays were of course made to eat TV dinners on in the 1950’s & 60’s.  TV dinners started out rather small,  so the original TV Trays were rather small too.  Everything in the 1950’s was small, bathrooms, closets, me.

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I think this retro-ceramic TV dinner from the 1950’s for sale on ETSY for the incredible steal price of $450.00 will be a perfect launching point for our discussion of this fascinating topic.  There is only one of these ceramic beauties available, so if you must have it, you better move quickly.  Here is the website:

http://www.etsy.com/listing/48165731/retro-tv-dinner-ceramic-art-tile

And here is the ceramic product,  I mean art piece ( it looks good enough to eat just like a real TV dinner):

The original TV Dinner made by Swanson’s was this delectable turkey delight that cost only $1 in 1953:

It came out just a couple of years before I was born actually, and was advertised as the “perfect solution for women who worked out of the home,” and didn’t have time for pesky things like making dinner, and who also had no intention of engaging in boring activities like a family dinner, and would rather watch TV as they enjoyed this gourmet repast. See ads:
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Swanson sold millions of these babies, so they ramped up production and diversified to things like my favorite as a child, “Salisbury Steak.” See example. YUM!

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So truth be told, millions of kids like me were sitting in front of tv screens, numbing our brains in the 50’s/60’s watching TV.  The computer now at least requires some type of cerebral activity in users.

For those too young to remember what a TV tray is. (Sacrilege!) I have included some helpful examples.  For the rest of us, these will just serve as memory prompts for our already severely challenged senior cerebellums.  TV Trays, the point of all this ramble in the first place, were designed and released in 1954 as the perfect technological advancement to make eating and watching TV not only possible, but darn easy.  Here are a few examples of this wizardry in actual operation in the 1950’s.  They were sold in 4-paks with an innovative device developed to store them after use:

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By the time the 1970’s rolled around, TV dinner’s technologically advanced one more time.  “Hungry Man” larger TV dinners were developed. This was in response to the men’s movement (or something).  Anyways, ads came out with a song & jingle, whose lyrics were, “How do you handle a hungry man?  The manhandlers.”  I kid you not!  It was sung in basso profundo by lumberjacks or something.  Anyhoo, “The Man Handlers,” were an innovation by Swanson again (The Apple of their time) to handle the big appetites of big men, who were obviously not happy with their TV dinners and must have been bitching, I mean complaining about them at home.  I ate them so I can attest to the fact they consisted of an additional two ounces of something approximating chicken noodle soup, a delectable three ounces of “fruit” (I use the term loosely) cobbler, and an extra couple of ounces of something resembling vegetables.

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This huge leap forward in innovation required additional modification of the TV Tray, which became outdated just like your original i pod and pad.  “The King Size TV Tray,” was invented to bridge this gap. Here is an example:

The best thing about the invention of the TV dinners was that a woman no longer had to wash dishes if she didn’t want to. The TV dinners could just be thrown away after use!  This prevented the sort of dish washing drudgery that I shared with you in a previous post:

This is where my expertise about all this incredible 50’s innovation ends. My parentals would go on “date night, ” the sitter would arrive, and my brother and I would sit contentedly in front of the boob-tube, I mean TV, watching Bonzana and eating our favorite “Man Handler’s” on our TV trays.  Those were the days……

I am exhausted now by all this extensive history, I am sure you are too, and I am too tired to make dinner.  Where are the damn TV trays?

How Come one Woman is so Happy Washing Dishes, and the Other Isn’t? Can You Guess?

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Well, duh, the poor tired woman doesn’t even have a dish drainer! Sheesch!

I got to thinking about 1950’s housewives and decided to do a post about my grandmother Rose (who I called Nana). She was really a 1930’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s housewife. She took it seriously, did it well, and I respected her. She died in 1987 in her mid-eighties. She was the consummate housewife and cook. Here is a photo I saved from Architectural Digest taken in the early 1950’s of her kitchen and family dining area. Look pretty 1950’s to you? Ozzie and Harriet could walk right in the door. (If you are too young….gooogle it).

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I still have my grandmother’s handmade aprons and can attest to the fact that they were worn always in the kitchen. She had everyday aprons and fancy, for party-aprons, that were made  out of taffeta. I kid you not! I swear this lady stole Nana’s taffeta apron and I want it back!
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I would SO wear it for parties.

Here is one of her everyday aprons that I kept.
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This is a recipe from Nana. She would make it for family dinners and picnics. I especially remember eating it on a picnic in Borrego Springs when I was a child, around fifty years ago! My grandmother was of Polish and German descent and she was an incredible cook. This is a sticky fingers chicken dish, hence it’s name!  I haven’t seen a recipe like it and it is still a hit in my family.

So here is my tribute to Nana and her:

STICKY CHICKEN

1 package chicken thighs with bone and skin

1 package split chicken breast with bone and skin

4 T flour

2 heaping T bacon fat (for best flavor or canola oil for health)

1 large chopped yellow onion

1 heaping cup chopped celery

1 package Far Eat Rice Chicken Flavored Rice with spice packet (Nana used long grain white rice)

1/3 cup wild rice

1 t salt

½ t pepper

1 T fresh chopped parsley

1t fresh thyme

1t fresh minced sage

½ t nutmeg

1 cup hot chicken broth

¼ cup dry vermouth

Shake chicken pieces in flour in large zip lock bag. Brown in bacon fat until well browned. Remove chicken from pan. Add onion and celery and sauté until soft and slightly brown scrapping the brown bits into the veggies.

Remove from heat.

Add two rices to bottom of a large roasting pan with seasoning packet. Stir in ½ cup of hot broth. Place chicken on top of rice. Season with salt, pepper, parsley, thyme, sage, and nutmeg. Pour remaining broth and vermouth over herbs, seasoning, and chicken. Cover pan tightly with lid or foil.

Bake for 1 hour at 350-degree oven.

Serve with your choice of vegetables.  And, don’t forget your apron!

I’ll leave you with a 50’s ad if you need a brush up on the era.

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I love this 50’s theme so my next post is going to be, “I Live Near Betty’s Crocker’s House,” which I do, and I will prove in my next post. So stay tuned!

“Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1849,” by Kenneth L. Holmes

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“Covered Wagon Women” is a fascinating non-fiction account of fourteen pioneer women traveling west in the 1840’s. The book was edited and compiled by historian Kenneth L. Holmes. It is a remarkable book in that it consists of primary source, unedited diary entries, letters and other correspondence. The editor left the women’s narratives unedited as the women actually wrote them, replete with original syntax, spelling, and punctuation, and the mistakes made therein.There are additional “Covered Wagon Women,” volumes in a series. I read volume two and found it equally compelling.These unedited first person narratives give the reader a genuine sense of who these women really were, what they were seeing, experiencing, and feeling. Of course the unbelievable hardship, birth, death and tragedy are heart wrenching, but these incredible women’s intelligence, courage and appreciation of the beauty of their experience is also made abundantly clear. The women’s observations are reminiscent of the biographies of the famous male explorers, at times scientifically dispassionate, as they keenly and in detail, describe the new flora and fauna, terrain, climate, and Native Americans they encounter. They were after all, explorers as well.

They are also most effective in relaying their feelings. Take for example this excerpt from Tabitha Brown about her experience traveling west in 1846, now left to her own devices as she struggles on with an old, feeble, near death companion who was unable to care for himself or offer her any assistance,

“Here the shades of night were gathering fast and I could see the wagon tracks no further. I alighted from my horse, flung off my saddle and saddle bags and tied him fast with a lasso rope to a tree…..his senses were gone…..I covered him as well as I could with blankets…and helped the old gentleman, expecting he would be a corpse by morning. Pause for a moment and consider my situation-worse than alone; in a strange wilderness; without food, without fire; cold and shivering; wolves fighting and howling all around me; darkness of night forbade the stars to shine upon me; solitary- all was solitary as death…. As soon as light had dawned, I pulled down my tent, saddled the horses, found the Captain so as to stand on his feet…”

And she continues on towards Oregon. Remarkable. And there are many more narratives like this in the book.

I read a lot of these non-fiction pioneer and Native American history books (more about these in a latter review) as I traveled recently through the west, crossing and re-crossing the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails. I read books about a woman homesteading alone on the prairie, the first homesteading couple in what is now Glacier National Park, another about a widow hiring a helper and traveling on the first trek over the Oregon trail where they broke the trail, a book about a woman and her family crossing the Mojave Desert and this incredible collection of women’s narratives and I realize we’ve all been robbed with the books, movies and folklore of “the old west,” that have focused on the cowboys and male explorers, and mostly ignored the incredible fortitude, bravery and contribution of these pioneer women.

Riveting reading. Highly recommend.

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