Archive for the ‘book review’ Category
Finished off reading an amazing “eater’s manifesto” by Michael Pollan called In Defense of Food. It’s a short and engrossing read on the problems with the American diet and how we can choose to reverse them. Pollan has an excellent way of subverting the obtuse language of food as we know it in the Western context. And much of it, Pollan argues, cannot even be called “food” – he cuttingly deems much of it “edible foodlike substance,” ha! His writing is sincere and his tips for changing one’s own diet to be healthier and more conscious are easy to incorporate. By not pushing vegetarianism or veganism but leaving the choice of diet open, Pollan hopes to change the death path of the quote-unquote average American.
Sidenote, re: deathpath – “In 1960 Americans spent 17.5 percent of their income on food and 5.2 percent of national income on health care. Since then, those numbers have flipped: Spending on food has fallen to 9.9 percent, while spending on health care has climbed to 16 percent of national income.” This is outrageous.
In Defense of Food is a work that all people must read, because though we all eat, we are too often misguided or wrongly mystified, largely by a movement championed by the food industries (hand-in-hand with scientists) known as Nutritionism: studying nutrients in isolation to extract their supposed benefits, then injecting these into our food products.
- Wonder Bread with the whole grain removed and manipulated in the lab with any number of additives to make it white and soft.
- Milk with the fat removed, then – since the health benefits of the milk have been cancelled by doing so – adding in vitamins that are really only fat-soluble anyway. Low-fat or skim milk isn’t real milk: you’re drinking milk rendered less nutrient-dense and then patched up with additives so it resembles milk.
- And so on, and so on. Won’t spoil the book.
Seriously though, best guide to eating I’ve read yet. And I thought I already had an idea of what’s essential to nutrition… it’s liberating to forge a path to more deliberate eating. It’ll debunk those myths that are perpetuated all around us in order to sell more food-like substances in our groceries. Go pick it up as soon as you can: In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan.
Then take a good look at what you have on your plate. Is it food?
Looking for entertaining reading that is also seriously thought-provoking and keen?
The essays in David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster, which cover a variety of topics (the porn industry, the English language’s clash between Descriptivists and Prescriptivists, sports memoirs, etc), are substantial enough to get into the real grit of things and raise some downright profound questions, and short enough that one doesn’t have to commit to a much more lengthy text [read: Infinite Jest. No, seriously, read it this summer].
Quick run-through of faves from Consider the Lobster.
My #1 is absolutely “Authority and American Usage,” which can be found online, but is certainly better consumed in traditional format on the page – and consider that fact modernist irony, please. Plus, the footnotes look better rapidly scaling down in font size. If you’re a linguistics geek or have just completed a course reviewing the histories of the English language (as I have most recently done), you will devour it. And even if you think you’ve heard everything there is to be said about the English language’s development, you will benefit from DFW’s wit and candor in treating the subject. Trust me… but, disclaimer: please be a geek about language.
“How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” is the one about sports memoirs. Really it’s more about what we seek from such supremacy in sports skill – the kind of grace that is also sought by Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, for example. Choice tidbit: “Maybe what keeps us buying [these sports memoirs] in the face of constant disappointment is some deep compulsion both to experience genius in the concrete and to universalize genius in the abstract.” We want answers, and we want insight into how to be great. Or what that might feel like, at the very least.
“The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” is an article on DFW’s experience of September 11th 2001 in Bloomington, Illinois. I found this line about residents of midwest towns such as Bloomington to be notable:
“…And they watch massive, staggering amounts of TV. I don’t just mean the kids, either. Something that’s obvious but important to keep in mind re Bloomington and the Horror is that reality – any felt sense of a larger world – is mainly televisual.” Just painfully well-put.
Other great, much longer essays are “Up, Simba” in which Wallace travelled with McCain’s 2000 campaign for Rolling Stone Magazine, and “Host” which profiles talk radio host John Ziegler. It’s tough choosing favorites from this collection because I couldn’t help but read the book straight through, even though originally I had asked myself, “Really? Am I going to want to read the article about a lobster festival?” Yeah, I guess I did.
Likely the most notable aspect of Tahar Ben Jelloun’s newest novel to be translated from French into English, Leaving Tangier (2009), is his unique storytelling through the series of “character sketches.” People of all backgrounds and experiences and relations to Tangier are made real and alive through their speech, reflections, and cultural mannerisms. Most of their tales are quite tragic: stories of prostitution, drug-dealing, and trafficking run rampant in Tangier’s seedy coastline locale. New people are introduced abruptly; their narratives are then weaved together through the highly ambivalent relationship between Azel and Miguel, separately from Morocco and Spain, who together represent the portal city of Tangier. Leaving Tangier shows Tahar Ben Jelloun’s developed understanding of what it feels like to straddle two nations and how difficult it is to completely sever the ties to one’s homeland. His knowledge of expatriation is as vast as his characters are numerous.
In this novel of simultaneous descent and brief bouts of enlightenment, migrants are torn about their past and national identity. Azel, the protagonist, is described at one point as “street trash” by his rich Spanish “lover,” who is all too willing to take the Moroccan man’s body even without receving his heart. Their acts flow parallel to the Strait of Gibraltar, claiming the Moroccan lives that sorely strove to reach new prospects in the glamorous land over the water. Drowning becomes a purgatory move in this sense, cleansing years of raw history.
I went to see Art Spiegelman talk last night at my university. For those who don’t recognize the name, Spiegelman is the author of Maus, a renowned graphic novel about his father’s experience of the Holocaust which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize Special Award in 1992.
Not only is Spiegelman a talented writer and thoughtful comic artist, I was pleased to find he is also wonderfully well-spoken and entertaining as a speaker. His presentation, entitled “What the %@$*!! Happened to Comic Books?!,” was fast-paced ride through the history of comics and the rise of the graphic novel in today’s world. Indeed, even his manner of speech replicates the poised control of the graphic artist, who internally converts time into space in order to fill and arrange the panels properly. At least speaking for myself, I can say that Spiegelman was able to keep me absorbed in a topic I had no real interest in, as he flew through early comic history, the role of comics in newspapers, their subsequent ebb and redirection into ‘comic book’ form, and ending with his own place in the presently maturing graphic novel scene. He ended there relatively modestly, I would argue, for his stature both within the genre and outside of it (Time Magazine named him one of the top 100 “Most Influential” people in 2005).
I’d say I was most interested in his discussion of the aesthetics of the comic form. I was unaware of how much thought is required to lay out the page in a way that not only communicates the story in a compelling manner, but guides the reader through a sheet of paper packed to the brim with content. And negative spaces matter: with page space at a premium, an empty panel (or two, or three…) speaks volumes. Spiegelman at one point claimed, “I’m interested in what leaks outside the panels.” A skilled graphic novelist will understand this. The contents on the page point to what is left unsaid – the weight behind the mere ‘lines on paper.’
Art Spiegelman has recently published In the Shadow of No Towers, a graphic novel written about the events of September 11th. He has also done some brilliant and often controversial covers for The New Yorker magazine… which anyone who knows me recognizes is a personal favorite. Regardless, I would recommend reading the Maus books to start off.
I’ve been misguided in my prior judgment of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. As my first reading of Huck Finn, the linguistic techniques used by Twain in writing this novel emerge fresh – unclouded by a previous experience with the text – and candidly influence my perception of the book’s driving forces. I’m not sure I could have wholly appreciated, as a child, the nuanced way in which Twain is able to portray the speech of such varied dialects. Reading this novel without the background of my study of the English language’s context and development, would probably have resulted in my dismissal of it as a simple adventure story. Surely a notable relic of American children’s literature and national character, but nothing more.
Of course, that impression would be proved insufficient to judge the true merit of Huckleberry Finn. Twain’s linguistic skills are of a very high caliber, shown through his ability to methodically depict a number of American dialects in this text. The vernacular speech leaps from the pages – it’s fascinating to hear it do so – and crumbles the years past between my childhood (the one without Huck) and my… post-childhood (the one discovering Huck’s charms). Huck Finn is delightful because he is pure and simple in a novel that may not be quite so simple. I caught myself laughing out loud several times towards the end of the book.
And besides, who can resist Twain’s “Notice” preceding the body of the text? “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot…”
It has taken me far too long to discover Goethe.
At age 20, I have.
The writing of The Sorrows of Young Werther is, I feel, perfectly aligned with my sentiment. Werther’s character is, heart and soul, impassioned to the point of self-destruction. He leaps from consuming love to utter hopelessness in an instant. Before choosing this book (quite on a whim), my reading of Romantic literature had been mostly limited to the British: Coleridge, Wordsworth, Clare, and so on… Having never studied German, I read it in English translation, yet the effect is there. Almost too overwhelming to handle, especially because I see so much of myself in young Werther. I may have issue declaring national identity, but I declare myself a full-blooded Romantic. All general statements from me such as these must exist with a disclaimer, of course: I am a Romantic, yet I am one living in and responding to a modern age. I would embrace Modernism if it could definitively be called a movement now though it would destroy me, as anyone. Word on the street is that Modernism’s dead or something anyway. Post-modernism’s by nature ambiguous. (I’m rambling.) Maybe I am a Pomo Romantic.
And in a fit of passion, as soon as I began Werther, my one objective became to finish it and promise myself a reread of it very often. A return to history… smacks of straight Modernism, don’t it? Yet the lack of declaration above, in the guise of a statement of identity, must drive it into the prefix Post- realm…
Ha, looks like I need to be reading some David Foster Wallace now. Except it’ll have to wait, since War and Peace is next on the list and there’s a novel to command one’s faculties.
John Updike wrote a reverberating little piece entitled “A Case for Books” that I think expresses why so many of us serious readers are alarmed by the rise of the electronic-format book. The physical appeal of the hard copy of a novel is unmatchable even by the variable format font and crisp screen glow. And don’t misunderstand me: I am hardly a modern-day Luddite (I keep a blog and check my Google calendar several times a day), but Updike’s essay puts into words those hesitations and anxieties that I’ve been having trouble focusing. He argues that books leave remnants suggestive of our internal lives in a way that electronic books cannot; they “externalize our brains, and turn our homes into thinking bodies.” They serve as “counterweight to our fickle and flighty natures.” It’s a short and punchy defense by a man who truly appreciates writing as an art form.
“A Case for Books” is included in his collection of essays and literary criticism entitled Due Considerations, which is well worth a read, a skim, or at least dabble.
Beginning with this year’s booklist, I’m going to try to write mini-reviews for what I’ve read. I’ll post them here on the blog, too.
Also, I am now shopping around for web hosting, though I am going to first design and write some pages for my site.
Here’s the review I wrote up for book #03 of this year:
Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things – her first novel – demonstrates her remarkable ability to capture the effects of a single day’s events. Her novel follows the story of a family in India, fluidly intertwining through time rather than tracing a chronological path. The author reveals how small actions can be grow to enormous, nearly disastrous, proportions. The history told of these characters carries the echo of the grander history outside their own world, of India and of human life. Roy is fantastic in her ability to write in the voices of the twin children, Estha and Rahel, changing the structure of the English language to reflect the purity of youth. The reader learns in due course about the tragic happening that has destroyed that purity, though Roy carefully holds the reader in an aching state of half-knowing until the end. Arundhati Roy shows in this novel that she is gifted with not only the art of poetic language, but also with the craft of weaving a deeply resonant narrative.
You’ll rush through it with a sense of urgency (so in that way, it’s a fast read). I’d love to give it a re-read to catch the things I missed the first time through.
If anyone’s in search of a good – yet intellectually stimulating – book, take a look at Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought.
I’m not quite through all of it, but it’s a well-researched and accessible read on our speech and what we can learn about our minds through language. I couldn’t recommend this more highly for anyone interested in the fields of linguistics, anthropology, or psychology. And it’s a scholarly read but doesn’t read like a textbook. The examples he chooses are fascinating, and I can apply almost every one to my own use of speech in daily life. There’s a bit of an eye-opener when he discusses the distinction between predicating and referring (in the chapter, “Cleaving the Air”) in reference to how Google sells noun phrases. Apparently – I didn’t previously know this – Google became hugely successful because of its ability to generate successful clicks for advertisers based on a sort of graduated cost system. For example, displaying your company’s website in the primary results for the search phrase “digital cameras” is more expensive than for “digital camera” because in the former, which is more referential, the person is likely to be researching brands to buy, while in the latter, generic singular phrase, the person searching is probably just curious about how digital cameras work. Therefore, plurals are more expensive than singulars. Great stuff.