Saturday, April 19, 2014

Beth’s Books: Grand Forks - A History of American Dining in 128 Reviews

Beth's BooksWhew, I’m on fiyah with the reading lately! I’m not trying to make this solely a bookish blog (there are plenty of other fun things to write about along with books), but that’s kind of been my focus lately, and I’ve really enjoyed some of the books I’ve been reading.

This one was especially fun for me, because in the Days of Yore, I spent about five years in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Shortly after I graduated from college, I got married, and my husband (now ex-husband) joined the Air Force. Grand Forks is where he got stationed. When I found out, I cried. But my Dad told me, “Look at it as an adventure!” He was right, and I made a lot of friends up there, as well as getting my first job and getting some great experience that would serve me well in my career.

Anyway, I recall Marilyn Hagerty’s name from the Grand Forks Herald, and a few years ago, her review of the new Olive Garden in Grand Forks went viral. (I couldn’t find the full column online, but you can find snippets here and there...and of course, the full review in the book!) It went viral because everyone knows that Olive Garden is kind of not that great of food, right? And not all that authentic, right? I mean, it’ll fill you up when you need it, and I have enjoyed meals there in the past, but I don’t think anyone would call it gourmet dining. But Ms. Hagerty reviewed it seriously, commenting on the food, service, and decor. In fact, she praised the decor quite a bit. The DECOR!

It was a funny but charming review, and you couldn’t help but like her for writing it. Having lived there, I can report that it is a smallish city, and any new restaurant opening was indeed a big deal. When I saw a while back that many of her reviews had been published in a book, I knew I had to get it.

I can’t begin to convey how much I enjoyed this book. She reviews everything from Sanders 1907 (which was the nicest restaurant in Grand Forks at the time when I was there) to the East Side Dairy Queen. She goes to buffets at Golden Corral and to the new Arby’s. No matter the restaurant, she writes about it seriously and with kindness. She seems to have her problems about certain things (if you’re her server, do NOT ask her multiple times how everything is...let her visit with her friends, gosh darn it!), but she goes out of the way to find complimentary things to say about every place she visits. The reviews in the book range from 1987 (I lived there at the time) to 2012, and in the earlier reviews, we are treated to descriptions of decor that includes mauves and greens and light wood and brass railings. Can you or can you not picture that exact style of ‘80s decor?!

She also mentions several places that I remember. There was the Chuckhouse at the Westward Ho Motel; Whitey’s Wonder Bar across the river in East Grand Forks, Minnesota (I had a lot of beers and a lot of onion rings at Whitey’s!); Bonzer’s downtown; and one of my regular haunts, John Barleycorn at Columbia Mall. There were many times when my friend Lisa and I would head out after a rough day at the lab and hit that place for Bloody Caesars or the occasional melon daiquiri. (I have yet to find another melon daiquiri like the ones at Barleycorn.)

Some of you may recall that Grand Forks and the area was devastated by a horrible flood of the Red River of the North in 1987. It was very sad to read of all the places that Ms. Hagerty wrote about that succumbed to the flood. The Chuckhouse and the Westward Ho were one of them. John Barleycorn is no longer in operation. Amazingly, both Bonzer’s and Whitey’s are still in operation, but many restaurants (not to mention homes) were lost in what Ms. Hagerty refers to as the Flood of ‘97. Based on what I watched on the news, read in books and online, and what my friends there said, it deserves its capital F. From the book:
Bit of Norway, along with many other Grand Forks and East Grand Forks businesses, succumbed to the Red River of the North flood in April and May of 1997. Says Marilyn of that time: 
“There was a period of time when I did not write because of the Flood of 1997. We had to evacuate and went down to Bismarck, where my daughter lives. My husband, retired editor of the Herald, died down there after a time in a nursing home.
“The Herald called and wanted me to write, so I started in. The Herald was being published in a school in a small town north of here. There were writers from all over the country in here during the big flood. Still, the Herald wanted writing from someone who lives here.
“The Herald, by the way, won a Pulitzer Prize for flood coverage. I can claim nothing to do with the Pulitzer Prize.”
I can tell you, that brought a tear to my eye. The whole book made me think of my time there (I was back in Indiana long before the Flood hit Grand Forks and that area) and I made an attempt to describe some of it to Ken. I felt like a stranger in a strange land at first, even though I’m also from the Midwest. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the upper prairies are a different kind of Midwest. People seem a little more insular and distrustful of people from elsewhere. So here I was, from Indiana, not really a hockey fan (that made people wonder about me from the very beginning, I’m sure!), a new graduate on her first job, and part of the Air Force community. In looking back, I had a lot of things going against me!

Grand ForksIt really wasn’t easy at first, but I settled in and learned the job, and got to know my coworkers better, and I made so many good friends there! I’ve lost touch with many of them, but I still get Christmas cards from a couple of them, and I found my former manager in Microbiology on Facebook. (She seemed quite happy when I told her that I’ve become a hockey fan!) Reading this book made me think about all the good times we had, and I’ll be spending a little time writing letters to both Carole and Susan, who are so wonderful about sending me cards every year.

Ken asked me if I’d ever want to swing through there on vacation some time. I said, “Well, it’s not exactly easy to ‘swing through!’ It’s like just two hours south of the Canadian border, so it’s way up there.” He asked again. “Would you like to go there again one day?” I grinned and said, “Yeah!”

I don’t know when this will happen, but I foresee Whitey’s onion rings in my future!

For those who don’t have the connection to Grand Forks that I do, you might not enjoy this book to the extent that I did. However, it is a delightful read that I plan on keeping in a handy spot for whenever I have a bad day. I don’t think it’s possible to read this without a smile sneaking onto your face!

And remember...if the chef includes an orange slice as garnish on your plate, that means he or she cares. Marilyn knows.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Beth’s Books: We’re All Infected

Beth's BooksEvery week or so, I browse our most excellent local library’s website for new ebooks to borrow. I really am trying to do better about borrowing books rather than buying them, and although success in that regard has been limited, I am trying, I swear! I got a pleasant surprise when I saw this book, We’re All Infected: Essays on AMC's The Walking Dead and the Fate of the Human, edited by Dawn Keetley.

You all know how much I love the show, so this was right up my alley! I put a hold on it and got the notification a couple of days later that it was available. (Seriously...what a great feature of most libraries now!) 

Some might see the show and the zombie genre as mere pop culture fluff, but I’ve always felt that there was more to it than that. This collection of essays takes a scholarly look at zombies and the show in particular, looking at various sociological, psychological, and anthropological aspects. These aspects include the impact of violence and death, America’s cowboy mentality (Rick is basically a Western hero, isn’t he?), law enforcement, mourning or lack thereof, reliance on fossil fuels, the importance of language and communication (zombies can’t communicate beyond inarticulate growls), and a biomedical discussion of zombie function and breakdown.

There is a bit of history of zombies in pop culture, and that is fascinating in its own right. When zombies were first introduced to the U.S., it was as the Haitian voodoo zombies, and their portrayal in ‘30s and ‘40s-era movies was as a shambling slave under someone else’s control. Movies like “White Zombie” and “I Walked With A Zombie” reflected a fear of becoming a zombie and the loss of autonomy.

George Romero changed things in 1968 with “Night of the Living Dead,” with the zombies becoming something to fear, not just to fear becoming. This was seen as a metaphor for an increasingly violent world, and the zombie outbreak was said to be the result of some sort of massive radiation event, reflecting the fear of the Cold War. The zombies were still slow and shuffling, but overwhelming in their numbers.

This changed again in 2002 with “28 Days Later,” a movie in which the outbreak is a result of some type of viral infection. The outbreak moves quickly, and so do these zombies. This possibly reflects a fear of pandemics and terrorists, or a world moving rapidly out of control.

One of the most interesting essays to me was the one that focused on the question of time and the loss of it. The author of this essay, Gwyneth Peaty, showed how the show focuses on the lack of time. There is never enough time to mourn the dead, to process what is happening, to take a breath and focus on something other than mere survival. The one time everyone seems to relax a bit around the campfire while eating fish that Andrea and her sister Amy caught that afternoon, they all have a few laughs as Dale explains why he continues to wind his watch every day. This moment of relaxation and light-hearted camaraderie is taken away from the survivors—and from us—as the camp is attacked by zombies, and several people are brutally killed, including Amy. Andrea keeps vigil over her sister’s corpse, waiting for it to reanimate, and tells her she thought there would always be more time. Even at the end of Season 4, Hershel’s watch is still making an appearance and playing a big part. Time is important.

We're All InfectedThe zombies themselves are a constant reminder to the survivors that time is short and that humanity is lost. We mark our own mortality by the passage of time, with the inevitable outcome of death. We (hopefully) make the best of the time we have been granted. The reanimation of dead human beings into walking, cannibalistic zombies takes that outcome away from us. The zombies “live” in suspended time and take away our future. Without the prospect of a future, there is little hope to be found.

It’s a lot of fun to speculate and discuss what zombies say about our current state of mind as a society, but Romero himself is quick to point out that sometimes a zombie is just a zombie (paraphrased). He has said, “The zombies have always just been stories are about humans and how they react, or fail to react...I’m pointing the finger at us, not at the zombies.”

I think this is an important thing to note in the context of “The Walking Dead.” I often see people freaking out online because the writers are focusing more on the people than on the zombies. Some people complain that there aren’t enough zombie kills, too much dialogue, and too much focus on the human survivors. It seems to me that they are missing the entire point of the show (and the graphic novels), as well as Romero’s point about his own groundbreaking movies.

In the TV show, it’s not really the walkers who are the walking is the human survivors. The show is ultimately about the breakdown of society and how those who remain deal with it: can they manage to form a new society? How? If so, what form will it take? Will they be able to keep their own sense of humanity? When the world goes to shit and almost everybody gets bit (from a scene with Daryl and Andrea), what will our individual and group reaction be? How will we deal with not just the zombies, but with the sometimes more dangerous human survivors?

These are fascinating questions to me, and it’s why I love the show so much. This book got a little bogged down in psychobabble in a few places (it’s okay to use regular words, folks...not everything needs to be couched in psychological terms), but I found it very thought-provoking, and it gave me some insights into the show that I had not thought of before. Because of these essays, I will watch it with a newly discerning eye when it returns in the fall.

Is it October yet?!