Thursday, March 24, 2011

Book Review: "Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood"

As a certified bookworm who grew up in Tennessee, Gone With the Wind was always on the edges (if not the forefront) of my consciousness. I watched the movie on videotape and on cable. I toted around an enormous copy of the book so I could read it to and from school. And I distinctly remember the surreal experience of listening to Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett book on tape (as read by Dixie Carter ) because the waiting list for the book at the town library was so long. Although my interest in the story has waned considerably since junior high, I was still excited to get Ellen F. Brown and John Wiley, Jr.’s Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller’s Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. As the title suggests, this book focuses on Gone With the Wind’s publication and the phenomenon that the book became on the national and international stage. 

At the heart of Brown and Wiley’s book is Margaret Mitchell, and the authors do an excellent job portraying the duality of Mitchell’s career as the author of one of the most beloved novels of all time. On one hand, it seems like the stars aligned for Mitchell, and popular lore seems to attribute the author’s success to a great deal of luck. From the early support of Lois Dwight Cole, who recommended Mitchell to Harold Lathem, Macmillan’s editor in chief, to the publishing company’s impressive (and warranted) marketing campaign to the astounding success of the novel from both critical and popular standpoints, it is easy to credit fortune. However, as Brown and Wiley clearly show in their work, Mitchell (with assistance from her husband, John Marsh, and her brother, Stephens Mitchell) put a great deal of hard work into researching, writing, and revising her novel and into protecting its best interests. 

Brown and Wiley deserve a lot of credit for this book. Despite the fact that we know that Gone With the Wind will be successful, they manage to incorporate tension and suspense as they build to the book’s publication. Similarly, the seemingly unglamorous issues of copyright laws somehow become intriguing when described in the book. The authors’ clear and engaging style is particularly impressive considering the extensive amount of research used in it. Even though each chapter includes dozens of references and the book has almost 30 pages of footnotes, it does not read like a dry, academic tome. Instead, the authors successfully manage to incorporate the factual information to tell the full story behind Gone With the Wind without allowing the text to get too mired down in minutia.

The authors also provide a lot of insight into Margaret Mitchell’s life and her views on her novel. While I had never given the author a lot of thought, I came away from this book feeling a great deal of respect for her. Brown and Wiley depict Mitchell’s shrewdness and strong sense of justice without losing her innate gentility. Although she did not seek or desire publicity, Mitchell responded with admirable grace, and charm when faced with the often vociferous demands from the public. Even though this nuanced portrayal might seem too good to be true (more on this in a moment), the authors’ use of Mitchell’s correspondence helps support their claims. Perhaps my favorite piece of evidence is the warm exchange between Mitchell and Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy in the film version of Gone With the Wind.

Unfortunately, this warm portrayal of Mitchell also leads to the main complaint I have with the book. From the included letters, quotes, and anecdotes, Mitchell’s humanity is hard, if not impossible, to deny. Unfortunately, the book is not content to allow the author’s words and actions to speak for themselves. Despite the excellent research to back up authors’ claims, portions of this book drift into hagiography territory, as Brown and Wiley take great pains to tell the reader repeatedly that much of Mitchell’s behavior and decisions regarding "Gone With the Wind" stemmed from her dedication to accuracy and her outstanding principles. Although this is probably true, the constant reminders of become tiring and could be interpreted as either protesting too much or being defensive in regards to Mitchell’s justifiable desire to protect her characters and copyright. The authors certainly have the right to include their way of thinking, but statements about Mitchell’s scruples often appear and reappear within the same chapter (and occasionally on the same page).

Distracting as this might be for some readers, it does not detract from the fact that Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind is a well written account of the novel’s journey from bestseller to cultural touchstone. This book is as compelling as the novel it dedicates itself to, and I like to think that, despite Mitchell’s reluctance for the spotlight, she would be proud of Brown and Wiley’s extensive research and their commitment to showing the world that "Gone With the Wind’s" initial popularity and enduring legacy is not the result of serendipity but came as a result of the hard work, dedication, and vigilance of Mitchell, her family, and many of her associates.

Full Disclosure: I received this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers Program.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

"The Great Gatsby" - In Video Game Form

While Sundays are usually reserved for dissertating (or planning lessons), I am having a hard time tearing myself away from The Great Gatsby online video game. Done to look like an original NES video game, you step into the shoes of Nick Carraway (Gatsby's narrator) as you battle evil waiters, dancing flappers, and the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg in the Valley of Ashes.

Image from Mental Floss's newsletter

So just how did this video game, which manages to combine geekdom in its purest forms (retro video games and classic literature)? The game's website claims that someone found the game in a yard sale. The site also includes a picture of the cartridge, as well as scans from the supposed original manual. However, it turns out that the game is actually the brainchild of two people who love old NES games (and, apparently, classic books).  You can read all about it in articles from The Economist and The Washington Post blog.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Foodie Fridays: Fabulous Cooking Apps

Cooking using an iPhone as a point of reference isn't ideal for many recipes, but for simple dishes (or ones that don't require tons of back-and-forth between the recipe and the dish), the iPhone is an acceptable substitute for a traditional cookbook. This is particularly true when I have to cook away from home and my depressingly large collection of cookbooks. Here are a few of the cooking-related apps that I've found particularly helpful:

Epicurious (free) - I'm very surprised that so many people have given this app one star in iTunes, because it is one of my go-to resources when I am looking for something new to cook. While it does have a lot of advertising, which seems to be the reviewers' main issue with it, it is a free app that is a wealth of information. It also has some great features that (in my mind) more than make up for the ads. One of my favorite features is the sections that correspond to the seasons (like Spring Breakfasts or Holiday Recipes), and the search feature gives you a lot of options to find a particular type of recipe. For instance, you can search by main ingredient, meal/course, cuisine, dietary consideration, and/or season. I've found a number of excellent recipes by virtue of random searches. My two favorite finds are strawberry citrus salad and lemon-glazed butter cake.

How to Cook Everything (full version $4.99, essentials version is free) - I am a Mark Bittman fangirl, so it isn't surprising that I find this app so useful. While I typically use the actual cookbook when I am cooking, this app is perfect to reference while in the grocery store (or on the subway) when I need to go shopping or when I need some inspiration for dinner. This app also was a lifesaver when I found myself in the role of the reluctant chef for a dinner party at my mom's last year. If I ever have to make hollandaise sauce ever again, I hope I have this app and Bittman's common-sense approach to guide me.

Evernote (free) - I know that this technically is not a food app, but I tend to use Evernote to clip recipes from my favorite cooking websites. Not only is it an easy way to collect these recipes, I can also categorize them using the tags and notebook feature. What more could I ask for?

What great cooking app did I miss? Please feel free to offer suggestions in the comments section!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Makeup Review: Benefit's Stay Put Set

Before we get to the review, a quick disclaimer/explanation: I've been playing with the idea of adding some makeup and beauty product reviews to this site just to keep things lively. However, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. Please let me know what you think in the comments!

Today's been surprisingly busy yet incredibly unproductive. Besides critiquing student work and setting appointments that will (with any luck) help me get some participants, I have also managed to bake some homemade bread, do some laundry, and listen to "Loser Like Me" from last night's Glee episode approximately 30 times.

Luckily, this craziness and the rainy, damp weather gave me the perfect chance to try out some products in Benefit's Stay Put Set. Available only at Sephora, this set is like a tasting menu of some of Benefit's eye products. It includes diminutive versions of Stay Don't Stray (an eye makeup primer), Erase Paste (a brightening concealer), and Creaseless Cream Shadow in RSVP.

As someone who has problems with eye makeup staying put, I was very excited to get this set. Since it only cost $10, it seemed like the perfect chance to try some new products and to add to my Creaseless Cream Shadow collection. For those of you not familiar with Benefit's Creaseless Cream line, these cream shadows/eyeliners have very good staying power (even on my oily lids) and come in a range of colors. For an excellent overview as well as some beautiful swatches, check out one of Karen's recent posts on the Makeup and Beauty Blog.

RSVP is a light pink with some definite sparkle. Like the other Creaseless Cream Shadows, it blends beautifully and easily, and alone, it makes a pretty and understated look for daytime. At night, I might try it as a base/highlighter color for a darker shadow.

As luck would have it, I was suffering from some unfortunate dark circles today, so it was an ideal chance to try out the Erase Paste. The kit comes with the medium shade, which is almost a tad too light for me, particularly during the summer. For now, it makes a good undereye concealer as long as I blend. The texture is definitely on the sticky side, and it requires some major blending in order to get it smooth and natural looking on my skin. That said, it stayed in place and did a nice job masking my dark circles. I've heard that some people have problems with this product caking, but I didn't have this issue (perhaps the layer of eye cream I put on helped guard against this).

Given that the Creaseless Cream Shadows stay without any problem for me on their own, I didn't use Stay Don't Stray today. However, based on my prior experience with the product, I can say that it is a basic eye makeup primer. It helped my powder shadow stay in place without any problems, but I don't know if I would buy the full-size product ($24) over another eye primer.

The one issue I had with this set of products is the size. The amount of product you actually get is pretty generous. For instance, the sample size of the shadow is .11 oz, which is only a tiny bit smaller than the regular size (.16 oz). Accordingly, they have downsized the packaging, which can lead to some problems. As you can see in the picture, the packaging is around 30% smaller than the full-size jar. This can make getting the product out of the jar a little challenging if you are using your fingers.

In terms of value, this is actually a pretty good kit. While the products seem so tiny I feel like a giant when applying them, this is to be expected given the low price. Furthermore, I can definitely see the Erase Paste and Creaseless Cream Shadow lasting quite a while. If you aren't familiar with Benefit but you want to give the brand a whirl, this might be the perfect kit for you.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What I'm Reading (and What I've Read): March 2011

Although work and grad school have put a serious dent in my non-school (and non-work) related reading, I've still managed to do some recreational reading this year. Right now, I'm in the middle of:

Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood - I received this from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. I have a complex (to say the least) view of Gone With the Wind, but I am enjoying it so far. Besides being engaging, the book seems to be incredibly well researched, given the number of references to Mitchell's personal correspondence and the amount of detail included. I'm only a third of the way through, but I hope to finish this book within the next week or two. Look for the review by the end of the month (fingers crossed).

Spunk and Bite: A Writer's Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language and Style - I started this book last year, but it got shelved due to other commitments. However, I've returned to it, and I am enjoying it much more than I thought I would. In addition to the practical advice, such as what the rules are and when you can break them, the book also contains helpful illustrative examples. I've been reading a lot about writing, so I hope to do a post on my favorite books on writing.

I'm enjoying these two books, but I am looking forward to adding them to my "read in 2011" pile in LibraryThing. This list already includes:

  • Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People by Amy Sedaris - Given how much I enjoyed I Like You, I wish I liked this book more than I did. Unfortunately, this book wasn't nearly as informative or as amusing as its predecessor. Even though it had the same wacky humor and irreverence, it is missing the juxtaposition of zaniness with solid information that made I Like You so enjoyable (and useful).
  • Little Women and Werewolves by Louisa May Alcott and Porter Grand - If you are thinking about reading this book (and you love the original story), my only advice to you is "A world of No."
  • Singing a New Tune: The Rebirth of the Modern Film Musical from Evita to De-Lovely and Beyond by John Kenneth Muir
  • Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark - This is an excellent book on writing (even if the fact that the author has three first names is a little distracting at first :)
  • Take the Cannoli and Radio On: A Listener's Diary by Sarah Vowell - Late last year, I started reading Sarah Vowell and was instantly taken with her mix of wry humor, insightful, and intelligent insights. Take the Cannoli and Radio On are her two earliest books. While I loved Take the Cannoli, I had to force myself to finish Radio On. The nicest thing I can say about Radio On is that it really shows how far Vowell has come in terms of her writing.
Have you read anything good this year? Please feel free to leave suggestions, comments, or ideas below!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Foodie Friday: Three of My Favorite Food Spots in Boston

One of my biggest downfalls is eating out. Even though I love cooking, it isn't very fulfilling to cook for one. Add to that my erratic schedule and the fact that the closest grocery store is can be kindly described as basic, and it is a perfect storm, at least for my budget. That said, there are a few restaurants and shops that I've found in Boston that are affordable, fun, and a little eclectic. Here they are, in no particular order:

After months of anticipation, Saus opened earlier this month near Faneuil Hall. It is a small cafe dedicated to serving Belgian street food, which translates to frites and liege waffles. While this might not sound super-exciting at first, I really like this restaurant. The service is super-friendly, and the frites and waffles are both very good. The frites have a crisp exterior without being greasy, and they are served showered with a sprinkling of flaky salt.  The waffles, which use pearl sugar, are also delicious. While a meal of frites and waffles is not terribly nutritious (or figure-friendly), you should definitely stop by this cafe before wandering around the Quincy Market/aquarium/North End area.

On the other end of spectrum is Marshall's Fenway Farm Stand. This little store, which specializes in gourmet food and produce, is a great alternative to the produce aisle in the supermarket. In the summer and fall, the store has local produce, and it also carries local products, such as ice cream and breads, all year round. However, avoid this place during Red Sox games (or anything else that is happening in the Fenway area) if traffic and seas of pedestrians make you crazy.

I don't typically like sandwiches, but Cutty's in Brookline is the exception to this rule. This tiny sandwich shop offers a glimpse of sandwich nirvana. While others rave about the pork rabe and pork fennel (both available only on Saturdays), my personal favorite is the roast beef 1000, a sandwich that combines crispy shallots, 1000 island dressing, cheddar and roast beef.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Plugging Along

First, I apologize for neglecting this blog. While I can't think of adequate words to express my apologies, perhaps Glyn Maxwell's "Deep Sorriness Atonement Song" will do the trick.

That said, things have been busy (as usual). Between work and work (both the TA job and the other job have been crazy), I've also been having long, sad (sort of) meetings with my committee at school. To make a long story short, I'm just plugging along on the dissertation.

I promise I'll be better. My goal is to post at least two more times this month and to post at least once a week during April (National Poetry Month). I have a break (from school) coming up, and while I will be spending most of my free time in my cage at the school library, the break will give me the chance to catch up on blogging.