Non-Fiction: on Ghostbread, by Sonja Livingston; Utopias, edited by Richard Noble; and Squeezed by Alissa Hamilton

Sonja Livingston’s Ghostbread is a memoir about growing up poor, fatherless, white, Catholic, and one of seven children in the bleak neighborhoods of Buffalo and Rochester, the towns along Lake Ontario, and an Indian reservation during the 1970s. “I see with agonizing clarity from where I stand,” she writes in the epilogue of those who now live in poverty, “and though I’d love to point them in new directions, there is no rope strong enough to pull someone from one life to another.”

LivingstonWall.jpgMost memoirs are composed as if memory unmasks the past and liberates the future. Livingston narrates Ghostbread to suggest that her experiences tell something immutable about human existence. She chooses a narrative voice that speaks from a point located somewhere between an unreconstructed part of herself and a responsible adult. To capture a girl’s sensibility, she risks a stylized naïveté in her language, especially in the first half of the book – but Livingston continually comes up with clinching insights. In this way, a girl’s standard introduction to the words “honkie, Oreo, blow job” leaps to these final sentences: “Color was important on Grand Avenue. We all wore shoes fished from discount bins and received free lunch, so what else was there?”

LivingstonCover.jpgGhostbread is comprised of 122 short numbered chapters. The first chapter imagines the arrival of her father, a vacuum-cleaner salesman, at her mother’s door. There is an unstated rule at work -- vivid memories are created from the most critical attempts to explain one’s own life. In chapter two, Sonja is born a month late, a story “rich in gook and detail” often told by her mother: “Nothing was left out. Except for fathers. They were ghosts that folded themselves into the edges of her tales, vapors that floated in and out of delivery rooms, with us somehow, but never really showing themselves.”

Livingston’s portrayal of her mother maintains fidelity to a child’s uncensored, accepting view, drawing the reader in early and for good. The mother came from New Hampshire, the “live free or die” state: “ ‘I’m telling you girl, there’s no other way to be.’ ” The memoir spans Sonja’s life to her high school graduation, hardly a guaranteed event during her turbulent years. In chapter 109, Sonja’s boyfriend Ruben gives her a loaf of French bread to take home:

“Walking into my mother’s kitchen carrying my bread, I saw she was awake, and feared she might ask why I’d been out so late. Instead she only looked at the loaf and asked where it came from. She laughed at my response.
‘Ha!’ She yelped, and slapped a wet rag to her knee.
“She was clearly high and the loaf of bread seemed like comedic genius to her. ‘That’s just the guy we always end up with,’ she said, ‘the one who makes a gift of bread.’”

Livingston.jpgIn its own way, Ghostbread embodies the spirit of “live free or die.” Sonja as teenager is someone who can’t explain her behavior when queried by teachers about her disregard. The adult narrator recalls lyrical moments within the monotony and dangers of impoverishment – her memory is her living self, still attuned to peril and despair. In this sense, what Livingston seeks in her telling is the assurance that she is actually free and able to tell it. Willem de Kooning once remarked, “The trouble with being poor is that it takes up all of your time.” By writing about her straitened youth, Livingston refashions time on her own terms, finally acquired from the lay-away of the inarticulate.

[Published November 1, 2009 by the University of Georgia Press. 256 pages, $24.95 hardcover. Ghostbread is the winner of the AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction.]

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In The Dustbin of History, Greil Marcus writes, “Pop culture is about shared access to feeling in a world that keeps people separate and feeling at a distance; [it] is about the unpredictable interplay between three-minute utopias of sound and ordinary life.” We duck in and out of perfectly designed spaces of digital sound and imagery where everything is set in place and problems dissolve into the balm of story and sense. The utopia-meme has mutated within the algal bloom of mass culture.

UtopiaSign.jpg“Utopia is a powerful trope in western culture,” writes Richard Noble in his introduction to Utopias. Utopian consciousness “has been central to most of the dominant ideologies of modernity,” not only to envision ideal existence, but as Ernst Bloch said in The Principle of Hope, “to penetrate the darkness so near it, of the just lived moment, in which everything that is both drives and is hidden from itself. In other words, we need the most powerful telescope, that of polished utopian consciousness, in order to penetrate precisely the nearest nearness.”

UtopiaCover.jpgArranged in four themed sections, Utopias is a selection of 50 writings by artists, philosophers, critics and theorists that peers at the utopian element in contemporary art and culture. Part one features canonical texts by Thomas More, William Morris, Friedrich Engels and George Orwell. Part two, “Utopian Avant-Gardes,” begins with Constant Nieuwenhuys’ “Our Own Desires Build the Revolution” (1949) and includes writing by Bloch, Adorno, Debord, Foucault, Jameson and several others. The final chapters, “Therapeutic Utopias” and “Critical Utopias,” bring more recent, invigorating and sometimes slippery conceptions by artists and critics.

UtopiaAmField.jpgIn an interview with the Slovenian artist Marjetica Potr, Antony Gormley speaks about his work “American Field” (1991) in which 35,000 small terra cotta figures take up the entire floor of a gallery. He says, “I think it’s an attempt to escape from the object nature of art into an idea of art as a creative place, an open space … that can’t be physically inhabited but nevertheless is an architecturally defined space in the gallery.” A gallery space is usually a “someplace” but Gormley, filling the space with tiny human spaces, has made it a “nowhere,” the literal definition of “utopia.” We can’t enter, but standing in the portal looking in, we may exist in an alien balance with the space and contents. We give up what it “stands for” (some say the work is a poignant comment on population explosion). Our bodies are excluded, yet the room transforms into our internal shape. A utopian thought.

Adorno said that “works of art, even literary ones, point to the practice from which they abstain: the creation of a just life.” They all imply a utopian notion, but they may not all be utopian art. The rich nuances of Utopias derive from the editor’s familiarity with both abstention and creative desire.

[Published October 30, 2009 by MIT Press. 240 pages, $24.95, paperback original. Utopias is one of two new titles in the press’ series “Documents of Contemporary Art.” The other is Situation edited by Claire Doherty.]

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OJNatalieBottle.jpgNatalie’s Orchid Island Orange Juice may be the best OJ in America. Here in Boston, I buy it at Trader Joe’s which distributes the product under its own label. Last spring, when I started to drink Natalie’s regularly, I noticed that Yale University Press had published a book about juice entitled Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice by Alissa Hamilton. The “you” refers to the more than 225 million Americans who drink a product called “100% premium orange juice.” Why do Minute Maid (Coca-Cola) and Tropicana (PepsiCo), Sunkist and Florida’s Natural juices taste so insipid to my palate?

OJBryant.jpgCommercial orange juice has enjoyed great press. Bing Crosby and Anita Bryant (former Miss America) sipped it and sang its praises. (Rush Limbaugh was dropped as an OJ endorser.) Juice is wholesome, healthy, tasty. But Hamilton says, “Many consumers would be shocked and disappointed to learn that most processed orange juice … would be undrinkable without an ingredient referred to within the industry as ‘the flavor pack.’”

OJCover.jpgShe continues, “The deal that now almost every orange juice processor makes to create a decent-tasting processed juice involves an intricate give-and-take between orange juice processor and flavor manufacturer … Typically, the orange oils and essences that juice concentrators collect during evaporation are sold to flavor manufacturers, who then reconfigure these by-products and sell them back to juice companies.” The natural aroma of OJ is destroyed during processing, replaced by flavor pack elements that technically are considered part of the “100% juice” end-product. Hamilton takes pains to explain how federal regulation of juice manufacturing (and the “wall of secrecy surrounding juice flavoring materials”) conspires to trick the taste buds of the consumer. “Most know that Tropicana Pure Premium is not from concentrate,” she says. “Few know what it is.”

OJTrop.jpgIn a Boston Globe interview she said, “It's a heavily processed product. It's heavily engineered as well. In the process of pasteurizing, juice is heated and stripped of oxygen, a process called deaeration, so it doesn't oxidize. Then it's put in huge storage tanks where it can be kept for upwards of a year. It gets stripped of flavor-providing chemicals, which are volatile. When it's ready for packaging, companies such as Tropicana hire flavor companies such as Firmenich to engineer flavor packs to make it taste fresh. People think not-from-concentrate is a fresher product, but it also sits in storage for quite a long time.”

OJDonald.gifHowever, Squeezed isn’t mainly concerned with nutrition, commercial farming, or related political issues discussed on food blogs. Hamilton is more interested in social policy, how influential parties interacted to create the mass market for “reconstituted” juice. (“Recon” superseded pasteurization, a more costly means of production.) First she sketches the history of the Florida orange juice industry and federal regulation of standards, then tracks the growth of the industry since 1960 by which time most of the current regulation was set in stone. The first marketable frozen concentrate was developed in 1948 by the Florida Department of Citrus with federal support. I don’t recall my parents ever squeezing an orange, but I stirred many a defrosted can of Donald Duck into pitchers of water.

Hamilton also discusses “the relationship between agricultural independence and homeland security.” In Florida, urban development encroaches on orchards while American processors obtain more and more fruit from nations with cheaper labor. Most concentrate now comes to the U.S. from Brazil. But her main concern is for the blind consumer who pays “a premium for qualities that the juice does not carry” and knows nothing about how the product is heat-treated and “heavily handled.”

OJAuthor.jpg“I tell people if you like it, drink it, but not because you think it's good for you,” she continued in the Globe interview. “You'd be better off with a whole orange than a glass of orange juice. It has more fiber and more vitamin C. But I'm not a dietitian. The book is not about whether you should drink orange juice and whether it's healthy. It's about how little consumers know about how popular and - in the case of orange juice - seemingly straightforward foods are produced and the repercussions for agriculture.”

[Published May 26, 2009 by Yale University Press. 288 pages with 12 illustrations, $30.00 hardcover]