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‘Fieldwork’ is food for thought — and the soul

Michelin chef Iliana Regan on the art of foraging, addiction and grief



(Book cover image courtesy of Agate)

‘Fieldwork: A Forager’s Memoir’
By Iliana Regan
c.2023, Agate
$27/329 pages

Nature makes me queasy. Reading about poison ivy or mosquitoes makes me itch. I don’t see myself in the woods enjoying the beauty of a pack of wolves. I adore eating all kinds of foods, but would I, in my wildest dreams, forage for mushrooms in the forest?

Sipping Starbucks coffee, eating a croissant I hadn’t baked, I came to “Fieldwork: A Forager’s Memoir” by Michelin chef Iliana Regan with a food lover’s fascination and a city-aficionado’s trepidation.

I’m glad I foraged into “Fieldwork.” The book, Regan’s second memoir, is a mosaic of memory, hope, fears, family, love, gender identity, respecting the land, food,and hospitality.

Regan owned and operated Elizabeth, the acclaimed Chicago restaurant, from 2012-2019. She passed on Elizabeth to collaborator Tim Lacey in 2020. Each year of its operation, the renowned eatery earned a Michelin star.

In 2020, Regan and her wife Anna Hamlin left Chicago to open the Milkweed Inn in the woods of northern Michigan. Regan forages in the forest and nearby river for the food that she feeds their guests. This brings Regan full circle to her roots – to her ancestors, birthplace, and childhood.

Regan’s first memoir “Burn the Place” was long-listed for the 2019 National Book Award. This was the first book of writing on food to be so honored since Julia Child won the Award in 1980. 

Even as a tot on her family’s farm in Indiana, Regan didn’t feel like a girl. The youngest of four sisters, she dressed in a shirt and tie. Her Dad, who she foraged with for mushrooms, berries and other foods in the woods, called her “the son he’d never had.”

“I always thought I was a boy,” Regan writes, “even before Dad ever said I was.”

Regan, born in 1979, grew up with a heritage of foraging, Eastern European ancestors, feeding people, love, and addiction. Her father’s grandmother Busia helped her family run an inn in Eastern Europe. Later, she settled in Gary, Ind., where she told stories of the forests in her native land. In Gary, she opened Jennie’s Café, frequented by generations of steelworkers.

Regan’s mother married young. (Regan’s parents’ union was in many ways not a happy marriage.) On her mother’s side of her family, there was alcoholism and domestic strife.

Even as a child, Regan was careful to stay away from her father’s brother, her Uncle George. Early on, she sensed that this uncle was a predator who should be avoided.

“Fieldwork” has much lyrical writing about mushrooms, forests, the wind, honoring the land and animals. But Regan, who earned an M.F.A. in writing from the Art Institute of Chicago, is at her best when she writes, with unflinching, trenchant honesty, about we, humans, with our stew of strengths, resilience, sadness, joys, addictions and flaws. Regan is a magician with images. She’s a wizard at using metaphors of foraging and food to draw us into the stories of the people, past and present, in her world.

Regan remembers her mother as being like “the kitchen” and her father as seeming like “the forest.” In the middle of the two, she was “the sheep’s head — wily, twisting — and the honey mushroom–Stretching, symbiotic,” Regan vividly recalls.

Regan had three older sisters. She and her family were devastated when her sister Elizabeth, struggling with addiction, died in jail at age 39. “Grief may be the worst thing I’ve ever experienced,” Regan writes, “and at the same time the only thing that keeps me going.”

“Fieldwork” will convert even the most nature-averse into a respect for the land and the animals that inhabit it. Yet, the memoir is free of new age woo-woo.

Sometimes, memoirs about addiction are too pat. People in them often end up in seemingly untroubled recovery. Regan avoids this pitfall. Without pretense or self-recrimination, she describes how, during the pandemic, she began drinking again after becoming sober.

Regan forages as much into her memories and dreams as she does into the forests. “Fieldwork” is food for thought and the soul.

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New book offers observations on race, beauty, love

‘How to Live Free in a Dangerous World’ is a journey of discovery



(Book cover image courtesy of Tiny Reparations Books)

‘How to Live Free in a Dangerous World: A Decolonial Memoir’
By Shayla Lawson
c.2024, Tiny Reparations Books
$29/320 pages

Do you really need three pairs of shoes?

The answer is probably yes: you can’t dance in hikers, you can’t shop in stilettos, you can’t hike in clogs. So what else do you overpack on this long-awaited trip? Extra shorts, extra tees, you can’t have enough things to wear. And in the new book “How to Live Free in a Dangerous World” by Shayla Lawson, you’ll need to bring your curiosity.

Minneapolis has always been one of their favorite cities, perhaps because Shayla Lawson was at one of Prince’s first concerts. They weren’t born yet; they were there in their mother’s womb and it was the first of many concerts.

In all their travels, Lawson has noticed that “being a Black American” has its benefits. People in other countries seem to hold Black Americans in higher esteem than do people in America. Still, there’s racism – for instance, their husband’s family celebrates Christmas in blackface.

Yes, Lawson was married to a Dutch man they met in Harlem. “Not Haarlem,” Lawson is quick to point out, and after the wedding, they became a housewife, learned the language of their husband, and fell in love with his grandmother. Alas, he cheated on them and the marriage didn’t last. He gave them a dog, which loved them more than the man ever did.

They’ve been to Spain, and saw a tagline in which a dark-skinned Earth Mother was created. Said Lawson, “I find it ironic, to be ordained a deity when it’s been a … journey to be treated like a person.”

They’ve fallen in love with “middle-American drag: it’s the glitteriest because our mothers are the prettiest.” They changed their pronouns after a struggle “to define my identity,” pointing out that in many languages, pronouns are “genderless.” They looked upon Frida Kahlo in Mexico, and thought about their own disability. And they wish you a good trip, wherever you’re going.

“No matter where you are,” says Lawson, “may you always be certain who you are. And when you are, get everything you deserve.”

Crack open the front cover of “How to Live Free in a Dangerous World” and you might wonder what the heck you just got yourself into. The first chapter is artsy, painted with watercolors, and difficult to peg. Stick around, though. It gets better.

Past that opening, author Shayna Lawson takes readers on a not-so-little trip, both world-wide and with observant eyes – although it seems, at times, that the former is secondary to that which Lawson sees. Readers won’t mind that so much; the observations on race, beauty, love, the attitudes of others toward America, and finding one’s best life are really what takes the wheel in this memoir anyhow. Reading this book, therefore, is not so much a vacation as it is a journey of discovery and joy.

Just be willing to keep reading, that’s all you need to know to get the most out of this book. Stick around and “How to Live Free in a Dangerous World” is what to pack.

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Story of paralysis and survival features queer characters

‘Unswerving: A Novel’ opens your eyes and makes you think



(Book cover image courtesy of University of Wisconsin Press)

‘Unswerving: A Novel’ 
By Barbara Ridley
c.2024, University of Wisconsin Press
$19.95 / 227 pages

It happened in a heartbeat.

A split-second, a half a breath, that’s all it took. It was so quick, so sharp-edged that you can almost draw a line between before and after, between then and now. Will anything ever be the same again? Perhaps, but maybe not. As in the new book “Unswerving” by Barbara Ridley, things change, and so might you.

She could remember lines, hypnotizing yellow ones spaced on a road, and her partner, Les, asleep in the seat beside her. It was all so hazy. Everything Tave Greenwich could recall before she woke up in a hospital bed felt like a dream.

It was as though she’d lost a month of her life.

“Life,” if you even wanted to call it that, which she didn’t. Tave’s hands resembled claws bent at the wrist. Before the accident, she was a talented softball catcher but now she could barely get her arms to raise above her shoulders. She could hear her stomach gurgle, but she couldn’t feel it. Paralyzed from the chest down, Tave had to have help with even the most basic care.

She was told that she could learn some skills again, if she worked hard. She was told that she’d leave rehab some day soon. What nobody told her was how Les, Leslie, her partner, girlfriend, love, was doing after the accident.

Physical therapist Beth Farringdon was reminded time and again not to get over-involved with her patients, but she saw something in Tave that she couldn’t ignore. Beth was on the board of directors of a group that sponsored sporting events for disabled athletes; she knew people who could serve as role models for Tave, and she knew that all this could ease Tave’s adjustment into her new life. It was probably not entirely in her job description, but Beth couldn’t stop thinking of ways to help Tave who, at 23, was practically a baby.

She could, for instance, take Tave on outings or help find Les – even though it made Beth’s own girlfriend, Katy, jealous.

So, here’s a little something to know before you start reading “Unswerving”: author Barbara Ridley is a former nurse-practitioner who used to care for patients with spinal cord injuries. That should give readers a comfortable sense of satisfaction, knowing that her experiences give this novel an authenticity that feels right and rings true, no faking.

But that’s not the only appeal of this book: while there are a few minor things that might have readers shaking their heads (HIPAA, anyone?), Ridley’s characters are mostly lifelike and mostly likable. Even the nasties are well done and the mysterious character that’s there-not-there boosts the appeal. Put everyone together, twist a little bit to the left, give them some plotlines that can’t ruined by early guessing, and you’ve got a quick-read novel that you can enjoy and feel good about sharing.

And share you will because this is a book that may also open a few eyes and make readers think. Start “Unswerving” and you’ll (heart) it.

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Examining importance of queer places in history of arts and culture

‘Nothing Ever Just Disappears’ shines with grace and lyrical prose



(Book cover image courtesy of Pegasus Books)

‘Nothing Ever Just Disappears: Seven Hidden Queer Histories’ 
By Diarmuid Hester
c.2024, Pegasus Books
$29.95/358 pages

Go to your spot.

Where that is comes to mind immediately: a palatial home with soaring windows, or a humble cabin in a glen, a ramshackle treehouse, a window seat, a coffeehouse table, or just a bed with a special blanket. It’s the place where your mind unspools and creativity surges, where you relax, process, and think. It’s the spot where, as in the new book “Nothing Ever Just Disappears” by Diarmuid Hester, you belong.

Clinging “to a spit of land on the south-east coast of England” is Prospect Cottage, where artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman lived until he died of AIDS in 1994. It’s a simple four-room place, but it was important to him. Not long ago, Hester visited Prospect Cottage to “examine the importance of queer places in the history of arts and culture.”

So many “queer spaces” are disappearing. Still, we can talk about those that aren’t.

In his classic book, “Maurice,” writer E.M. Forster imagined the lives of two men who loved one another but could never be together, and their romantic meeting near a second-floor window. The novel, when finished, “proved too radical even for Forster himself.” He didn’t “allow” its publication until after he was dead.

“Patriarchal power,” says Hester, largely controlled who was able to occupy certain spots in London at the turn of the last century. Still, “queer suffragettes” there managed to leave their mark: women like Vera Holme, chauffeur to suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst; writer Virginia Woolf; newspaperwoman Edith Craig, and others who “made enormous contributions to the cause.”

Josephine Baker grew up in poverty, learning to dance to keep warm, but she had Paris, the city that “made her into a star.” Artist and “transgender icon” Claude Cahun loved Jersey, the place where she worked to “show just how much gender is masquerade.” Writer James Baldwin felt most at home in a small town in France. B-filmmaker Jack Smith embraced New York – and vice versa. And on a personal journey, Hester mourns his friend, artist Kevin Killian, who lived and died in his beloved San Francisco.

Juxtaposing place and person, “Nothing Ever Just Disappears” features an interesting way of presenting the idea that both are intertwined deeper than it may seem at first glance. The point is made with grace and lyrical prose, in a storyteller’s manner that offers back story and history as author Diarmuid Hester bemoans the loss of “queer spaces.” This is really a lovely, meaningful book – though readers may argue the points made as they pass through the places included here. Landscapes change with history all the time; don’t modern “queer spaces” count?

That’s a fair question to ask, one that could bring these “hidden” histories full-circle: We often preserve important monuments from history. In memorializing the actions of the queer artists who’ve worked for the future, the places that inspired them are worth enshrining, too.

Reading this book may be the most relaxing, soothing thing you’ll do this month. Try “Nothing Ever Just Disappears” because it really hits the spot.

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