Tuesday, August 22, 2006

I think it was last Thursday that I read Just Listen by Sarah Dessen. I started it during lunch, continued as soon as I got home from work, read at the show while the sun was still up and the opening band went through their endless mediocre early '90s alt-rock motions for an inexplicably enthusiastic crowd, and had to finish it before going to bed. I don't know what it is about her books, but they're serious YA crack, with this one being particularly appealing what with its knight in somewhat dented armor being such a big music nerd. I mean, the Annabel playlist? How could you not just MELT at that? I didn't mind that the big secret was completely obvious and even thought the cameos from characters from her previous books were charming, not cutesy.


Monday, August 14, 2006

Daisy gave me The Love Curse Of The Rumbaughs by Jack Gantos to read yesterday. By all rights I should have loved it - it's got that Midwestern Gothic thing going for it, hints of the supernatural, a nature v. nurture debate, etc. but I really, really hated it. I can't point to any one thing that stands out as a cause for my dislike, but there are several little annoyances that added up. For one thing, it's so obvious. There are no shocking revelations, although the book makes it seem as if the secrets it reveals should make the reader clutch her pearls. Initially I thought the setting and the tone were nice and subtly creepy, but both went over the top fairly quickly and ended up just making me roll my eyes at any attempt to invoke a Gothic feel. I mean, the storm in the cemetery? Please. It was all just so... heavyhanded, I guess is a good word. It seemed like a weak combination of The Velvet Bubble and The Girl In The Glass with a little "Psycho" thrown in for good measure.


Wednesday, August 09, 2006

While Claire was visiting this weekend, she read A Fistful Of Sky by Nina Kiriki Hoffman and left it for me to read after she left, which I did yesterday. It's about a young woman who is the only one in her family (aside from her father who is non-magical) to not transition and get wish powers when she was a teenager. When she does transition, it is at the unheard of age of twenty and her power turns out to be a dark one, the power of curses. She has to struggle to learn her limits and how to control her power, all the while dealing with a family who is used to her being the "normal" one. I enjoyed the book and it's a fast read, but I did have a few minor issues with it - the world isn't fully developed (for instance we never find out why it is that they marry people without powers), and the being she conjures was way too reminiscent of Sara Gran's demon in the excellent and creepy Come Closer for me to relax into that plot development. I enjoyed the family interactions though, and felt, like Claire, that that was the strong point of the book.


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Last night I finished It's Kind Of A Funny Story by Ned Vizzini which is about a fifteen-year-old clinically depressed kid named Craig who, while off his meds, stops just short of attempting suicide and gets committed to the adult psychiatric wing of the hospital for five days (the teen area is under repair). While there, removed from the pressure he puts on himself, Craig discovers his artistic talent and realizes how to anchor his life (and that he needs to stay on his meds). This is one of those books I feel weird about criticizing because I'm not too sure how autobiographical it is (there's a note at the end saying Vizzini was committed for five days and wrote the book in the month following that experience). So when I say that the resolution felt a little too easy and the gains he makes over those five days seem a little too good to be true, I don't know if it was simplified for the sake of the novel or if that's really how it works in real life. It just felt a little too tidy. I did enjoy reading it though and will be checking out his other works.

Over the weekend I read How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not A Novel by Alain de Botton. It's a funny little book, part biography and part self-help book with advice on such matters as "How To Suffer Successfully" or "How To Put Books Down" illustrated with examples from Proust's life and works. I especially enjoyed the chapter "How To Open Your Eyes" which is about finding beauty and meaning in your surroundings, whatever they may be. "The happiness that may emerge from taking a second look is central to Proust's therapeutic conception. It reveals the extent to which our dissatisfactions may be the result of failing to look properly at our lives rather than the result of anything inherently deficient about them." I also loved the chapter "How To Put Books Down" where de Botton tells us about a "range of symptoms that Proust identified in the overreverent, overreliant reader" including "Symptom No. 2: That we are unable to write after reading a good book." Apparently Virginia Woolf felt this way while reading In Search Of Lost Time and had to struggle to make peace with what she felt was her inferiority. Luckily I have already resigned myself to my absolute inability to write anything of consequence.


Friday, August 04, 2006

I've mentioned in the past that I often use YA or Juv books as palate cleansers when I've finished a large or involved book from which I have to free myself. Such was the case with Swann's Way and I couldn't have wished for a more different book than A Bad Boy Can Be Good For A Girl by Tanya Lee Stone. It's a story told in free verse of three girls who all end up dating the same guy. The guy is a high school sports hero and all around manipulative jerk when it comes to girls. I wasn't all that enamored of the format, but the story was straightforward and interesting and I liked that the girls were supportive of each other after their experiences. I breezed through it in less than an hour and it was actually the perfect come down from the intricate and somewhat suffocating world of Marcel Proust.

About a month ago Stephanie decided she was going to read In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust and asked if anyone wanted to join her. The response was enthusiastic and she decided to set up a group blog, Involuntary Memory, for readers to interact with each other while working their way through the seven volumes of Proust's novel. I had bought the first volume, Swann's Way a while ago on a classics buying spree and decided to join in the fun.

So most of what I have to say about Proust will be over at Involuntary Memory, but I will say that I enjoyed Swann's Way immensely. It was so engrossing and almost overwhelmingly beautiful. Just as an example, here's a description of Chopin's music: "When she was young she had learned to caress the phrases of Chopin with their sinuous and excessively long necks, so free, so flexible, so tactile, which begin by seeking out and exploring a place for themselves far outside and away from the direction in which they started, far beyond the point which one might have expected them to reach, and which frolic in this fantasy distance only to come back more deliberately - with a more premeditated return, with more precision, as though upon a crystal glass that resonates until you cry out - to strike you in the heart." Have you ever read a more sensual description of a piece of music? It makes me want to dust off the piano in the garage and play for hours. (Not a euphemism.)


Thursday, August 03, 2006

I actually finished The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History Of Four Meals by Michael Pollan just a couple of days after I got back from LA. Somehow the time got away from me and I never posted about it. Let's go to the notebook, shall we?

The four meals he traces back to the source are: McDonald's fast food, a Whole Foods dinner, an organic Polyface Farms meal, and one prepared entirely with food the author hunted or gathered himself.

McDonald's and much of the prepackaged food you buy in the supermarket Pollan describes as "industrial food" which is "any food whose provenance is so complex or obscure that it requires expert help to ascertain." He finds out that corn makes up a scary amount of what we eat. He doesn't shy away from the politics involved in farm subsidies: "While the surgeon general is raising alarms over the epidemic of obesity, the president is signing farm bills designed to keep the river of cheap corn flowing, guaranteeing that the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest." While this food may be relatively cheap, it fails to take into account the true cost to the soil, energy, public health, etc. We're never charged directly for any of that, but indirectly and invisibly it all takes a toll on the taxpayers, the health care system and the environment. He also traces the meat back to the big industrial farms and CAFOs that also depend on the prodigious amount of corn produced. Let's see... I'm supposed to mention the drive to LA takes you past the CAFO at Coalinga. Trust me, if you have a sense of smell you can't miss it.

The next section is about what he terms "industrial organic." He discusses Whole Foods and organic producers like Earthbound, and Grimmway (whose semi trucks I also passed on the way to and from LA). With regards to Whole Foods he wondered about the implications of importing and buying produce out of season - the expense and energy required to ship the food here, should the best South American soil be devoted to growing food for us, etc. while not ignoring the potential benefits: buying generates foreign exchange and income and supports the care of that country's land with organic regulations. Organic food is more nutrient dense and tastes better, but he argues the large organic farms have made costly compromises that betray the true roots of the organic movement, which is what leads him to Polyface Farm and the intricate ecosystem maintained there.

The last section of the book was the least interesting to me. The extreme lengths he went to for the hunter/gatherer meal he admits were not economic or practical but to "teach us something about who we are beneath the crust of our civilized, practical, grown-up lives." Which has, especially from the distance of a couple of weeks, more than a hint of bullshit about it. I mean, I have relatives who hunt every year for meat. Bow hunting, no less. I also don't buy his half-hearted and short lived conversion to vegetarianism. I suppose it would have been a glaring omission if he hadn't devoted space to it, but it felt like a tangent and didn't necessarily work within the structure of the book for me.

Overall, I thought the book was well worth reading and I found most of it fascinating. I suspect it would have felt more revelatory though if Fast Food Nation hadn't already finished up the indoctrination my dietitian relatives began long ago.


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