Wednesday, June 30, 2010

forty-four

The Giver (The Giver, #1)

SNARKY SPOILER ALERT:

So a young boy uses his blue eyes to see the world in color and magically receive memories from another blue-eyed old man via backrubs, escapes the Soviet Union, saves his brother from infanticide, and dies of hypothermia while hallucinating about Christmas.

:END SNARKY SPOILER ALERT

I can understand why so many people were terrified of this book as children - lots of scary topics are dealt with on a very personal level. But I was of course impressed by it - it's a classic dystopian sci-fi book! Lowry makes the day-to-day believable in this communist community, and very fairly puts a lot of good qualities into this well-organized society.

Impressive for a kid's book, lots of interesting issues to think about afterward, but the plot and ending was a little odd. Glad I read it though.

forty-three

The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey

I bought The Jaguar Smile a few years ago after having spent a bit more than a week in Nicaragua visiting a friend. I was a little surprised to see Salman Rushdie writing about Central America, and I think at first I thought it was a collection of fiction stories. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was actually a nonfiction look at his stay in Nicaragua during the time the Sandinistas were in power in the late 80s. Apparently the book got a lot of flak for being too kind to Ortega and the new government, and he does see many of the improvements that the communists brought to the country over the previous horrible dictatorship. He did spend some time talking about censorship, but it was always in a larger context. His summary of the situation:
"The argument usually ended in the same place. Nicaragua was an imperfect state. But it was also engaged in a true revolution: in an attempt, that is, to change the structures of society in order to improve the lives of its citizens. And imprefection, even the deep flaw of censorship, did not constitute a justification for being crushed by a super-power's military and economic force."
He also spoke to the privileged vantage point he occupied as a visiting observer of the conflict:
"We parted in Madrid, and returned to our separate lives, two migrants making our way in this West stuffed with money, power and things, this North that taught us how to see from its privileged point of view. But maybe we were the lucky ones; we knew that other perspectives existed. We had seen the view from elsewhere."
All in all, I was impressed by this little time capsule that opened a small window to the history of Nicaragua.

forty-two

The Mezzanine (Granta Paperbacks)

I've always wanted to read The Mezzanine, after getting my first glimpse of Nicholson Baker from Vox (which has quite a different premise, but a shared amazing attention to detail). The Mezzanine was written in the mid-80s, and is a curious, deliberate examination of middle class America and office work life. In focusing on the details (tying shoes, office conversation, bathrooms, sleeping, milk cartons, etc), he actually does manage to say some profound things about the life as he (and we) knew it. I'd love to see an updated version of this book - one that takes into consideration the modern grocery store, computers, interconnectivity, transportation, and other changes since the 80s.

A synopsis of this book (the plot is that he takes a ride from the bottom of the escalator to the top of the escalator and thinks about things) would be silly, so here are some quotes:

I had signed enough office farewell and birthday and get-well cards by that time to have developed an unhealthy sensitivity to the nuances of signature placement. I moved over to an antipodal flower's pedal, near Deanne's name, and signed what I hoped was an original angle.

(To start a long footnote): 1 Perforation! Shout it out! The deliberate punctuated weakening of paper and cardboard so that it will tear along an intended path, leaving a row of fine-haired white pills or tuftlets on each new edge! It is a staggering conception, showing an age-transforming feel for the unique properties of pulped wood fiber.

(Another footnote) 1 Among average men, the singular, "oop," is the normal usage; the word is found in its plural as "oops" most often among women, gay men, or men talking to women, in my experience, although there are so many exceptions to this that it is irresponsible for me to bring it up.

(Another footnote) 1 The absence of stealth or shame that men, colleagues of mine, displayed about their misfortunes in the toilet stall had been an unexpected surprise of business life. I admired their forthrightness, in a way; and perhaps in fifteen years I too would be spending twenty-minute stretches in similar corporate stalls, making sounds that I had once believed were made only by people in the extremity of the flu or by bums beyond caring in urban library bathrooms. ... One time, while I was locked behind a stall, I did unintentionally interrupt the conversation between a member of senior management and an important visitor with a loud curt fart like the rap of a bongo drum.

(Another footnote) 1 When you leave a job, one of the hardest decisions you have to make on cleaning out your desk is what to do with the coffinlike cardboard tray holding 958 fresh-smelling business cards.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

forty-one

Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History

Maus II: A Survivor's Tale: And Here My Troubles Began

Yes, Maus is a comic book, but it's not like any comic book you've probably ever read. The author's personal story is much more a central part of both books than I was expecting it to be, and I found that very compelling. The premise is the story of his dad growing up in Poland and surviving the Holocaust all the way to the end of Auschwitz, only with the Jews being anthropomorphic mice and the Germans being anthropomorphic cats (Americans are dogs and the Poles are pigs). This device serves to present the well-known history in a new light, especially when his dad is trying to pass as a non-Jew to stay alive - he puts on a pig mask and when people start to suspect he is in fact Jewish, his mask starts to slip. But the brutally honest story of the author's difficult relationship with his father (and dead mother) was the real surprise. I think we can all relate to his honest portrayal of parental relations. Seeing his scattershot progress of reconciliation with his ailing father as he hears the details of the Holocaust is very moving. I can see how this won the Pulitzer Prize.

I am counting Maus I and Maus II as one book, and the additional volume is serving as a counter to the fact that I only read half of the second book I read this year in 2010. So I'm legit now!

Monday, June 21, 2010

forty

Eating Animals

Eating Animals starts out with assurance that it will not be a manifesto for vegetarianism, and Foer does his best to present a measured, scholarly, informed, and compassionate report on the way we get our meat - which is 99% obtained through factory farms, slaughterhouses, and industrial fishing. It ends as exactly what he said it wouldn't be: a manifesto for vegetarianism.

You can tell he didn't want to end up there - his research and reporting are fair and somewhat detached, even as he's explaining how factory farms keep animals sick and cramped, pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, and then inhumanely slaughter them - too often cutting them apart while still accidentally alive; pollute the planet with poo and industrial fertilizer; serve as hotbeds of virulent diseases (bird flu, swine flu, etc); run small family farms out of business through heavy-handed Mafia-like tactics, and generally assault our consciences. Fishing doesn't escape either - the current industrial fishing system often will throw back 90% of what it catches, after killing or mangling the creatures, and we're so efficient at using 75 mile long nets and sonar to catch fish that there's very little left to reproduce. He goes from this extreme (and likely accurate) view of the current agri- and aqua-business system to farmers trying to do things better. Michael Pollan's admiration for Polyface Farm doesn't escape the criticism that Polyface Farm uses a factory slaughterhouse and Joel Salatin's turkeys are the same genetically mangled birds that the factory farms use, that cannot naturally reproduce and die young because they can't walk after a certain age due to the size of their breasts, like sacrificial Barbies. He even finds a vegan who designs human slaughterhouses (mobile so as to keep the animals from stressing out during transportation), but of course the big slaughterhouse businesses put him out of business.

Foer's reaction to this bleak but accurate view of the way we get our meat is, for him, to stop eating meat. The whole reason he began looking into the food system is because after his son was born, he wanted the answer to the question "what should we feed him?" and further, "what should we feed ourselves?" He believes that the only morally, environmentally, and economically viable answer is to eat only vegetables and not kill animals. He doesn't say you're a bad person if you eat animals, just not informed enough, and he tries to inform you. That's the only conclusion he could draw.

But I don't think it's this black and white. Foer probably made a few thousand people stop eating meat. This has admirable environmental, ethical, biological, and economical ramifications. However, what if he'd made several million people dramatically reduce their meat consumption, so that it wasn't the culinary center of every meal? What if those millions then did their best to seek out meat that was organic, pasture-fed, family farm raised, and humanely slaughtered? Wouldn't this have a larger effect on the industry and actually cause less meat to be eaten than a few thousand newly-minted vegetarians?

Once we start to draw boxes around what we eat - no mammals or birds due to inhumane slaughtering, no fish due to overfishing, no non-organic veggies due to pesticides and Roundup, no non-heirloom vegetables due to the chokehold Monsanto has over plants' DNA (even soy), no dairy because of the treatment of dairy cows, no sugar because some diet says it's bad for you - what is left to eat? I have no problem with the rationale against those types of foods, but I have a problem with the uncompromising nature of drawing those boxes. You reach more people through moderation than through tee-totaling. And I think that's the conclusion I've reached after reading this and some Michael Pollan. Moderation is the best avenue down which to make the choices we wish to make. At least for me.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

thirty-nine

Snow Crash

I'm almost 20 years late in reading Snow Crash - I wish I had read it in the early 90s. But in some ways, I got a lot out of it by reading it now. If you haven't read it, go ahead and do that. I think it's entirely appropriate to quote Wikipedia in a review of this book:
"The story begins and ends in Los Angeles, which is no longer part of what is left of the United States, during the early 21st century. In this hypothetical future reality the federal government of the United States has ceded most of its power to private organizations and entrepreneurs. Franchising, individual sovereignty and private vehicles reign (along with drug trafficking, violent crime, and traffic congestion). Mercenary armies compete for national defense contracts while private security guards preserve the peace in gated, sovereign housing developments. Highway companies compete to attract drivers to their roads rather than the competitors', and all mail delivery is by hired courier. The remnants of government maintain authority only in isolated compounds where they transact tedious make-work that is, by and large, irrelevant to the dynamic society around them.

The Metaverse, a phrase coined by Stephenson as a successor to the Internet, constitutes Stephenson's vision of how a virtual reality-based Internet might evolve in the near future. Resembling an MMO, the Metaverse is populated by user controlled avatars as well as system daemons. Although there are public-access Metaverse terminals in Reality, using them carries a social stigma among Metaverse denizens, in part because of the poor visual representations of themselves as low-quality avatars. Status in the Metaverse is a function of two things: access to restricted environments such as the Black Sun, an exclusive Metaverse club, and technical acumen, which is often demonstrated by the sophistication of one's avatar."
In a lot of ways, Stephenson is spot-on in the direction the internet is going. The Metaverse is a plausible iteration of a Google-Second Life-Wikipedia-eHarmony world plus 10 years. His view of society is that an anarchy-like libertarianism takes hold, which after 8 years of Reagan, I could understand that conclusion. The story transcends the environment while comfortably inhabiting it - we go from the Mafia to ancient theology to language to commerce to evangelical religion to refugees to WWII history to ancient Sumer. Astoundingly entertaining and educated. And fun. I would see this movie anytime.

thirty-eight

American on Purpose

"I don't say this to try and impress you but I was a bed wetter until I was around eleven years old. Then I stopped, but not for long. I started drinking alcohol regularly when I was in my early teens, at which point I returned to intermittent bed-wetting until I was twenty-nine. I haven't peed myself since the 18th of February, 1992, the day I got sober."
Craig Ferguson, Scottish late late night talk show host that follows Letterman, starts his story with: "It probably began when the Germans tried to kill my parents." Instead of continental Europe, we're in Scotland, where his parents had to deal with bombing raids on cities that produced Britain's war machine. That's not the focus - he goes back to his family history to sketch out his story, which is hilarious, humble, sad, and moving. He goes from his childhood, dropping out of high school, his stand-up career, marriages, America, alcoholism, sobriety, acting, getting his talk show, becoming an American citizen, all the way up to his speech at the White House Correspondents' Dinner - which opens his book, "American On Purpose."

It's not a boring memoir, it's not a self-congratulatory bio, it's not a self-help book, it's not written by a ghostwriter (he wrote a novel before he got super famous, I believe this is his writing), it's not a humor book. It's a warm, witty, hilarious, humble take on one man's life and the crazy things he put himself through. He's got the perspective to point out his flaws, and show you how things could have been better. Maybe this passage describing his Uncle James perfectly encapsulates the idea behind the book:

"He is a mathematician who is also literate and loves music and the arts. He is an extraordinarily charming gentleman, tall and elegant, with a huge infectious laugh that trumpets out of him after even the very first dram of Laphroig. He's worn thick glasses since he was a teenager, his hair sticks up when he's thinking, and there is nothing about our planet, our universe, or human relations that doesn't interest him. If you meet Gunka James and you don't like him, you're a dick."
He also gives a bit of a take on how show business works:

"There was a quick meeting with the show's producer and co-creator, Bruce Helford - a Tolkienesque character who was small and dark and busy, like some kind of super-intelligent alien hamster from a world more advanced than our own."

Love it. Go read this! If you've never seen his show, this is a great example of what he's doing differently...


Monday, June 7, 2010

thirty-seven

The City & The City

Slight spoiler alert - skip this paragraph if you don't want any info about the book:

When you walk past a homeless person and have no money on you, do you mumble some platitude explaining your situation? Show some sympathy and grimace/nod? Pretend you don't see them? What if they also pretended not to see you? What if the only way you could occupy the same city was to go about your life pretending they don't exist, unseeing them. The City and the City asks that question, and imagines an entire city existing like this. Pretend the Palestinians and the Israelis both inhabited Jerusalem, divided between two countries block by block, with certain streets and squares shared between the two nationalities. Now fast forward to generations from now, where all inhabitants have been taught how to unsee the buildings, inhabitants, lights, cars, and activity of the "foreign" occupants of a country that exists all around your home. You beep at your countryman's car as he cuts you off, but when you have to drive around the car of a foreigner waiting to make a left turn, you pretend it's not there and thoughtlessly drive around it. What would be required to keep this mass illusion and delusion humming? What would the rest of the world think?

End of spoilers.

I was impressed by China MiƩville's answers to these questions. Clever writing, interesting new ideas, unexpected turns. The main character is a police detective investigating a murder, and the hunt for the killer, while somewhat transparent, becomes this fascinating exploration of his City, and the foreign City he's been able to ignore his whole life. When he starts digging deeper, even archeological digs become interesting. At times it jumped around a little too much, and dwelled unexpectedly, but these faults were more than overcome by the originality of the ideas and truly fascinating vocabulary he uses to convey the existences of the citizens of both cities.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

thirty-six

Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure

This was just a fun read. After reading Chabon's Yiddish Policemen's Union, I came across Gentlemen of the Road, saw it was short, wanted more of his dense, clever, and intelligent writing, and picked it up. Super fun historical fiction novel about two guys 1100 years ago in the Caucasus trying to get by. One's a huge Abyssinian (African) veteran with a large axe, one's a rail-thin Frankish (French/German) barber (doctor) who fights rather well with a very thin sword. Both of these gentlemen happen to be Jewish. This was when Islam was still relatively new to the world, and Jews had a kingdom called Khazaria. The plot unfolds in a swashbuckling adventure story about a deposed bek (king), a runaway prince (who's not what he seems), and the friendship of these two guys. I absolutely enjoyed it - I only wish it was longer!

thirty-five

Salt: A World History

I think that if Salt were 100 pages shorter, I would have loved it. There are parts of the book I found fascinating and informative, but it ran long and superfluous for scattered stretches. It took me a lot longer than I thought I would to get through it.

That said, I'm glad I've read it. A good synopsis shows up in the first chapter:

"The search for salt has challenged engineers for millennia and created some of the most bizarre, along with some of the most ingenious, machines. A number of the greatest public works ever conceived were motivated by the need to move salt. Salt has been in the forefront of the development of both chemistry and geology. Trade routes that have remained major thoroughfares were established, alliances built, empires secured, and revolutions provoked -- all for something that fills the ocean, bubbles up from springs, forms crusts in lake beds, and thickly veins a large part of the earth's rock fairly close to the surface."

The book absolutely accomplishes this exploration. It also explains the question I had - why salt was so valuable when it fills the ocean and exists in huge piles and mines close to the surface. It has to do with the fact that solar evaporation (of seawater) doesn't happen very efficiently in Northern climates where Western global powers existed, that we need salt so desperately for biological function, and a largely agrarian society needs to locate salt separately from their normal diets just as wild animals seek out natural salt licks to supplement their diets.

Instead of a synopsis, I'll just regale you with fun tidbits that made me dog-ear my copy of the book.

Did You Know... Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt, which is where we get the word salary. The Seven Seas were just the lagoons between Venice and mainland Italy, now mostly filled in by landfill. It's possible Marco Polo never really went to China - he just disappeared for 25 years, returned to Venice, got captured in a naval battle, and dictated his story to a fellow prisoner who happened to be an established writer of adventure tales. Cheese without salt is essentially ricotta - it doesn't become aged cheese until it's brined. China discovered salt mine drilling techniques millennia ago, and also harnessed natural gas from the same wells. The town of Syracuse, NY exists because of a weigh station built there for Erie Canal barge loads (often salt). Foods were thought to be better preserved in salt than in ice for many centuries, and not always because of climate or lack of refrigeration. The salt laws and salt taxes in British colonial India were insane because Britain had a subsidized salt industry, and efficient evaporation of Indian salt was a threat. The British banned salt production and gathering of natural salt that had been going on for centuries, and enforced the ban by building a 14 foot high thorny hedge that stretched 2,500 miles from the Himalayas to the ocean.

On a side note - I'd like to read a Celtic History of the World, because the Celts sound fascinating. I knew they were in the British Isles, and I knew they sacked Rome, but they ranged over all of Europe, invented new technologies, mined salt, invaded Turkey, were called Gauls by the Romans (after a Greek word for salt), and people don't know much about them because they didn't leave behind permanent records in stone or metal.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

thirty-four

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

I was really excited to pick up the Yiddish Policemen's Union, because I've heard so many good things about Michael Chabon's talents as an author. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay is on my list for this year - I might just try for another author repeat on the strength of this novel.

In 1940 there was an effort to offer the Jews worldwide a sanctuary in a part of Alaska, both to save their lives, but also to import manpower to help tap the natural resources of the Alaska Territory. The effort failed - and this book is based on the contrapositive of the effort succeeding. Set in modern times, in essentially our world, the Jews of Sitka, Alaska, face the prospect of reversion, which meant that the United States was taking the territory back. This leaves their status uncertain, and drives large parts of the narrative.

The main character is Detective Meyer Landsman (pronounced Lohndsmun), and his profession allows him to show us the highs and the lows of Yiddish Sitka life. The story unfolds like a spool of thread thrown down a few dingy flights of stairs. I won't say any more because it's a mystery and one just doesn't do that.

The spool of thread simile was purposeful (but inadequate): Chabon's imagery is spectacular and unrelenting. An approaching motorcycle is "a heavy wrench clanging against a cold cement floor. The flatulence of a burst balloon streaking across the living room and knocking over a lamp." One important character is "a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the sink left running, a dough model made by blind orphans who never laid eyes on a man ... A millionaire could cover a Rolls-Royce with the fine black silk-and-velvet expanse of the rebbe's frock coat and trousers. ... a creature of the deep, a man-made structure, or an unavoidable act of God."

Wow. I mean, that isn't a character introduction, it's an assault like a... just kidding. I could see how some people might grow tired of the constant comparing of things to other things, but usually the comparisons were so creative that I just marveled. I hope you will too.

thirty-three

Proust Was a Neuroscientist

I had no idea what a book called Proust was a Neuroscientist would be about, but it came highly recommended on the intertubes. It was absolutely worth the read - his premise is that you can often find artists (be they painters, composers, authors, poets, or even a chef) that discovered interesting aspects of brain and sensory function before the science had a chance to think of experimenting on the ideas. It didn't really get anti-sciency, which was something I was nervous about after reading the introduction. But it's more that the artists served a function, in addition to producing their art, to become a font of hypotheses about the way we experience the world. It makes absolute sense - if science stays in the laboratory all the time, it won't function right. The best kind of science starts with people saying "I wonder why" or "I wonder if" - ideally triggered by doing things in the world. These cooks, writers and visionaries knew a lot more about the actual qualia (triple bonus word score for using the word that inspired my blog in an actual post) of existence than many of the scientists running experiments did at the time. Auguste Escoffier realized that we like hot food not just because you're supposed to cook the meat or warm ourselves up - it tasted better. Science figured out that the nose is more important to taste than the tongue is in terms of receptors. Impressionist painters saw the world in blotches and mixes of colors, which is actually how our eyes see the world. Our brains are relied upon to make sense of a very rudimentary primary set of visual data. Proust himself wrote very uniquely about memory (as did Virginia Woolf) - presenting people that don't remember things accurately, which is often ignored in fiction.

It's a neat introduction to some psychological and neurological ideas that definitely does not get bogged down in details. If you like Oliver Sacks, you'll like this book.