Friday, August 22, 2008

"The Welsh Girl"

I first heard about “The Welsh Girl” on another book blog about a year ago, and it sounded like something I would like. I can’t resist historical fiction, especially books set during World War II. I finally got around to reading it earlier this month, and I was not disappointed.

The story revolves around two main characters (well, there’s a third but he was sort of peripheral to the main plot) – a German soldier captured by the British, and a teenage Welsh girl who lives with her widowed father in a small sheep-herding village. The novel follows each of them as their lives head toward an inevitable intersection when the soldier ends up in a prison camp in the girl’s town.

I thought this would end up being a traditional Romeo and Juliet type thwarted romance, but it turned out to be much more nuanced than that. Each character struggles with what it means to be home, and what freedom is. I highly recommend this book, and I think I will look for some of author’s short story collections. (The author is Peter Ho Davies, and “The Welsh Girl” is his first novel.)

Thursday, August 7, 2008

"The End"

When I started reading “Then We Came to the End,” by Joshua Ferris, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew it was part of the very small genre of “workplace fiction” – would it be a literary version of “The Office”?? It turns out that while some aspects of the book are very funny (my favorite section: one character decides that for an entire day, he will respond to his coworkers only with quotes from “The Godfather”), there is also an unexpectedly poignant story at the heart of the novel. The author also pulls off the notable feat of telling the story in the collective second person.

I have always thought that people in my office were a little crazy – almost as crazy as the people in this book, but not quite. (No one in my office has gotten fired, then dressed up as a clown and returned with a paintball gun to exact revenge – not yet, anyway.) Perhaps I should start taking notes at the office – someday I could create another addition to the workplace genre...

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Book without end

This weekend I had time to do a big chunk of reading and finally finished "World Without End," by Ken Follett. All 1,015 pages of it. I was very eager to read this because it's the sequel to "Pillars of the Earth," which I read in high school and really loved. The sequel was pretty good, but not as good as the original. It's set in England during the 1300s, about 200 years (I think) after "Pillars." Lots of scandal, death and disaster, as you would expect from that time period. Once this comes out in paperback, it will make a good beach read (the hardcover is so darn heavy!).

I also read a few other books during my mini blogging hiatus. The best one was "The Great Man," by Kate Christensen, which I read for my book group. Among the group it has now become known as "the book about old ladies having sex" (not with each other), but it's really much more than that :) The book explores the lives of four women with connections to a famous painter (including his wife, mistress and sister), five years after his death. I really liked the book, and it provoked a really good discussion in our book group meeting about the characters' decisions and their relationships with each other.

Another good read was "The Lobster Chronicles," by Linda Greenlaw, an Atlantic fishing boat captain who decides to see if she can make a living fishing for lobsters. I liked her descriptions of life on a (very, very) small island in Maine, especially since my grandmother lives in Maine on a (rather large) island, and I have a relative who is a lobsterfisherman. On a side note, Greenlaw also makes an appearance as a character in "The Perfect Storm" - her fishing boat was nearly caught in the storm, but she managed to get back to shore in time.

I also recently read "A Natural History of the Senses," by Diane Ackerman. That one was OK but not great. It's full of interesting bits of trivia, such as the fact that women usually have a better sense of smell than men, but it seemed a little disjointed. I tend to prefer books with more of a narrative structure.

Phew. That was a long post. It sounds like I have been reading a lot but I feel like I haven't. I always think that I should have tons of extra time to read in the summer, but it doesn't seem to be happening this year, with so much travel and other events... I have a vacation coming up next week though, and I will be bringing lots of books with me!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

September in June

A full week after our book group meeting, I have finally gotten around to posting ;) This time, we read “Septembers of Shiraz,” by Dalia Sofer. Everyone enjoyed the novel, which is a somewhat autobiographical account of one Jewish family’s ordeal during and after the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Each member of the family tells his or her own part of the story – the father who was taken to prison, the wife who was left behind, the daughter who wants to fight back against the regime, and the son, cut off from his family and drifting aimlessly through New York City.

I believe this is the first novel for Sofer, whose family fled Iran when she was 10 years old. This book was very eye-opening for me, since I didn’t know very much about the Iranian Revolution. It almost seems as though it started out as more of a class struggle than a religious battle, although the religious fundamentalists eventually gained most of the power.

When we chose this book, we almost ended up picking “Persepolis,” by Marjane Satrapi, which seems to cover similar themes, but in graphic novel format. Now I definitely want to read that one as well (another one to add to the list!).

And in case you were wondering, we did drink Shiraz during the meeting ;)

Up next for the book group is “The Great Man,” by Kate Christensen.

Monday, May 26, 2008

No more!

As if I needed any more additions to my “to be read” list, I recently came across this article in the New York Times. It’s about a book with the somewhat threatening title, “1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.” Great. My own TBR list is probably already over 1,000, I don’t need anyone else telling me what to read. In case you’re wondering, I looked through the entire list, and I have read exactly 46 of these supposedly essential novels. (The list is all fiction, which puts me at a disadvantage, since I read about 50/50 fiction/non-fiction.)

There are several books that overlap with my own list, and some more that I should probably read some day (I really do need to read more Haruki Murakami). But I do not foresee myself attempting to meet this book’s challenge. I have even accepted that I’m not going to read all of the books on my own list. Speaking of which, I should get back to one of the three books I’m reading now….

Sunday, May 11, 2008

"Kaaterskill Falls"

“Kaaterskill Falls,” by Allegra Goodman, is a book that draws you in very gently. The story follows a group of Orthodox Jewish families who spend summers in Kaaterskill Falls, somewhere in upstate New York. There is not a lot of action, and I didn’t think I was all that into the story, but then about halfway through I realized that I really cared what happened to these characters. I especially liked Elizabeth, a young, devout mother of five daughters who decides that she wants something more than the very traditional life she has always lived.

I picked up this book in a used bookstore a couple of years ago, after reading another of Goodman’s novels, “Intuition.” That was another gently unfolding story, with a very different setting—a high-powered cancer research institute in Cambridge, Mass. Part of the reason I liked that one so much is that I have worked in similar places, and the story and characters rang true. I wasn’t sure I would like “Kaaterskill Falls” as much as that one, but it turns out Goodman is such a good writer that she can make you care about all kinds of characters. If you go into it expecting a beautifully described slice of life, rather than an action-packed story, you will not be disappointed.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

"The Omnivore's Dilemma"

When the Atkins diet became so popular, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to give up an entire food group. (Especially BREAD, which is by far my favorite food group.) Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” thinks he has the answer for why Americans are so susceptible to fad diets.

The problem, he says, is that America has never had a stable national cuisine. Our traditions are so skimpy that any crackpot with a new diet plan can win legions of converts (and this started long before Atkins—remember the grapefruit diet?).

While other cultures choose their food based on taste and tradition, Americans rely on “experts” to tell them what foods are “good” or “bad.” This only feeds the national anxiety (the omnivore’s dilemma) over what to eat. When we can eat anything we want, it’s that much harder to figure out what we actually SHOULD eat.

Industrial food has seized on this anxiety and created all sorts of processed food products that supposedly add value to our diets, but really appear to just increase Big Food’s profits, at the expense of our health. Because we don’t know what real food is supposed to be, we’ll eat anything. We forget that tasteless chicken pieces breaded and fried in a variety of corn products is NOT FOOD.

In his book, Pollan traces the history of four meals — industrial (fast food), industrial organic (Whole Foods products), pastoral (from a small local farm), and a meal in which everything was hunted or gathered by the author.

It turns out that industrial food is based, to a rather shocking degree, on corn products. Not just high fructose corn syrup, but all sorts of other starches, oils, etc. Plus, most industrially raised livestock are fed on corn, a diet that cows and chickens are not designed to eat, which is why cattle must also be fed so many antibiotics. Between the antibiotics, the pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and petroleum needed to transport all this food to and from various processing facilities, it sounds like a completely unsustainable enterprise.

Which leaves us with what Pollan seems to think is the best way to eat – from a local farm, preferably one where you know the farmer or at least know a lot about how the farm is run. It turns out that old-fashioned agricultural principles like crop rotation and pasturing animals rather than force feeding them corn were actually pretty good ideas, in terms of quality of food produced and environmental health.

Reading this book made me very glad that I am a vegetarian — just think how much better off the world would be if we didn’t devote so much land to growing corn to feed livestock. Instead, farmers could grow food for people… and maybe we wouldn’t have skyrocketing food prices and food riots. Just a thought.