Apr 25, 2015

The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien

"A Work of Fiction," claims the subtitle of Tim O'Brien's bestselling novel of the Vietnam conflict. But the characters in the book are also included in the dedication, and the narrator is a man named Tim O'Brien, and a common theme in the book is what makes a war story true. And so we are left to wonder what is fact and what is fiction, and deliberately told that the difference, when it comes to stories about war, is indistinct and unimportant. Our brains cannot hold that cognitive dissonance - "a work of fiction" and "in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true" (pg. 78). Which is the point, of course. O'Brien is asking us: does it matter if everything or nothing I'm writing down is true or not? There are truths behind stories, behind lies made into stories. I believe this also to be the greater meaning of fiction as a genre. Some people hate fiction because it didn't actually happen, it isn't true. But stories reveal far deeper truths than the facts ever could.

This is, I imagine, why so many high schoolers are assigned "The Things They Carried." Partly, of course, because it's about the Vietnam conflict, an immensely important episode in American history, and the novel is a way to see through the bare facts and into the face of what it was actually like. But also because it is instructive about what makes a story and why stories are important. It's short and broken up into smaller anecdotal sections that make it a quick read, relatively easy for the short attention span of a teenager, but there's a lot to chew on in this slim volume. It's an impressive book, and I'm glad I read it.

Apr 19, 2015

Grain of Truth: The Real Case For and Against Wheat and Gluten, by Stephen Yafa (May 2015)

We've all been there: a friend hears about gluten sensitivity or reads "Grain Brain" or "Wheat Belly" and suddenly decides they're gluten-intolerant, cuts out all wheat, and claims to instantly feel happier, more energized, and healthier. When journalist Stephen Yafa's wife hopped on the anti-grain train, he decided to join her and investigate the science behind this fad diet that seems to just be growing stronger. Though he acknowledges that the science hasn't quiet caught up with the trend, what science there is does not add up to the sensationalist claims of doctor/writers like David Perlmutter.

Here's his conclusions: celiac is a horrible disease. There's no denying it exists and that its sufferers have to steer clear of all wheat. Gluten sensitivity or intolerance also exists, but seems to be increasingly common, and not just because more people claim to be gluten intolerant; the incidence has actually risen in the last 60 or so years. So what changed to make this happen? Processing. Grain is a multi-billion dollar business, and the emphasis is on quantity and speed with quality pushed so far back by the wayside that the government actually had to mandate enrichment. Grain companies have processed the nutrients right out of wheat in an effort to get the fastest baking whitest bread possible. What we're left with is a slab of carbohydrates that spikes our blood sugar and piles on the pounds. Enrichment - putting lost vitamins back into the bread before sale - can only do so much. There's no proof yet that this mega-processing is actually causing people to become sensitive to gluten or wheat, but the correspondences are intriguing. Yafa notes that there needs to be a lot more research in this area.

But what is clear is that people sensitive to gluten/wheat often have a much easier time digesting 100% whole wheat breads, ancient grains, and sourdoughs. A lot of this is due to fiber content: our gut microbes eat fiber, so when we don't have enough of it in our diet, they feed on us instead. the gut microbiome is a growing area of scientific study, and each new study suggests that it's far more important to our overall health than we ever suspected. A happy gut is a healthy mind and body, it looks like. 100% whole wheat, ancient grains like einkorn, and the microbes in sourdough mitigate or even eliminate immune response to gluten and wheat for many sensitive to it.

So how do we fix this? Locally grown or milled 100% whole wheat, a return to ancient grains, and slow baking are the answer. We've stripped nature of its essential vitality, and hastening the process of making bread has hurt our health. Right now, the options are few, far between, and expensive. Yafa's book is a clarion call to consumers to take a good hard look at their wheat and make educated decisions that will then force the bigger companies to start providing nutritious options at lower prices.

As for the writing, it's engaging and enjoyable; think Mary Roach but a lot less gross. The scientific discussions are tempered with anecdotal evidence and Yafa's own experiences, and he's a fun writer to read.

Apr 17, 2015

Practical Demonkeeping, by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore and Terry Pratchett (RIP) are my favorite go-to authors for when I just need a break in my reading habits. This isn't to say they aren't smart; far from it. Both are incredibly quick-witted and intelligent, but their novels are light-hearted and easy to digest. "Practical Demonkeeping" is another wonderful book by Moore that provided me with delight and giggles and a welcome respite from the heavier literary fiction I've been reading lately. It's Moore's character descriptions that I love the most: bar owner Mavis's lifelong fight against Death is described in excruciating, anatomical detail, while Augustus Brine's wine- and fishing-induced state of Zen leaves one wishing for one's own salty pier and wine bar. Moore's characters are always marked with an earnestness that makes them irresistible. I don't much care what the story is, I'll always like it. He's unique and original and damned funny. Thank goodness for Christopher Moore.

Apr 12, 2015

The Girl From the Garden, by Parnaz Foroutan (August 2015)

"The Girl From the Garden" could refer to either of the two main characters in this beautiful, luxuriant debut novel: Mahboubeh, an old woman living Southern California, tending to her semi-wild garden; and her vindictive, lonely aunt Rakhel, whose early life Mahboubeh remembers and fantasizes about. Jews living in Iran at around the turn of the century (timing is a bit difficult to place, give or take a generation or so), the Malacouti clan is wealthy, ruled by Asher, the elder of two brothers. Rakhel is Asher's young wife, and though they have been married for some time, she cannot seem to get pregnant. Khorsheed, a little younger than her, is the younger son's wife, and she is pregnant already. Rakhel feels the emptiness of her womb like a knife and a curse, and her continued barrenness slowly twists her into the terrifying taskmaster Mahboubeh remembers.

In this delicate, rich story, we are witness to a society little-known and oft-veiled: the home life of Jewish women in the Middle East. Though we get a taste of what living as Jews in Iran was like (the younger brother is beaten to within an inch of his life just for accidentally bumping into a Muslim man), the story is more about the complex world these women create for themselves within the boundaries of their family's walls. It's fascinating, pulling back the curtain on a world such as this one.

The writing is sublime, approaching poetry on many occasions. This does make it a slower read, as one doesn't want to skim through anything, but it's well worth it. I very much look forward to introducing readers to this wonderful new author and the world she has revealed.

Apr 9, 2015

Bastards, by Mary Anna King (June 2015)

Mary Anna King wasn't always Mary Anna King. For the first part of her life, she was Mary Agnes Taylor Hall, second child of a deadbeat father and a struggling mom who gave up their last four daughters to adoption, then ended up having to give up Mary and another younger sister to their grandparents. Oklahoma City, and life with her Air Force granddad and his less than loving wife, Mimi, was a far cry from having the run of the apartment complex in South New Jersey. And even though Mary knew, intellectually, that Mimi and Granddad could care for her in a way her own parents couldn't, she still missed the mother she fiercely loved. And she always harbored the hope that eventually, when they were all adults, her adopted sisters would find her and they would be a family again.

King writes of her complicated and often unhappy childhood with searing self-awareness. Though Mimi and Granddad certainly saved her, she doesn't spare them a critical eye, particularly in regards to their treatment of her older brother Jacob and favoritism towards her younger sister Rebecca. King also paints a vivid picture of herself as a girl, then a young woman, who feels the weight of intense longing for her reunited family as well as the indebtedness she feels towards her grandparents so strongly that it manifests physically in panic attacks and severe insomnia. In the end, are all the siblings reunited? Yes, and always the reunions are joyous occasions, but King takes care to not present it as a panacea for all their problems. Being with your family is better than not, but King concludes that her self-worth must not be tied up with that perfect family happy ending. "Bastards" is moving and emotional, without wallowing in melodrama or self-pity, and sure to be of great interest to members of the adoption community.

All That Followed, by Gabrial Urza (August 2015)

The Basque region of Spain is a place - and a situation - of which we are all for the most part only somewhat aware. In the U.S., we hear little more than the occasional mention of a new referendum for independence or the more rare 6 o'clock news version of a terrorist/freedom fighter bombing. "All That Followed," written by an American of Basque extraction who lived in the area for a time, sheds some much needed light on a region with an incredibly rich cultural history, and a painful, tormented political past. The story is told in short chapters from three different perspectives: Joni, an American who fell in love with a Basque woman and has lived in Muriga, a small Basque town, since the 1940s; Mariana, a young woman from Muriga whose husband belonged to the wrong political party and was kidnapped and murdered; and Iker, the young man who is in jail for that crime. Each voice has its own weight, an almost sultry flirtation between acknowledging history as it was while needing to create its own version of the story.

At the heart of it all is Muriga, a small town like any other small town, filled with gossip and unspoken accusations. People want others out of their own business but cannot help commenting on everyone else's. This brings familiarity to the story; we can recognize these tropes from our own towns. And Urza's writing is wonderful, allowing you to sink into these characters, though that makes it a bit difficult to switch between them, sometimes. The nuance is impressive for a debut novelist, and I'm glad someone is writing about a place we often forget unless it's on the news because something horrible happened there.

Driving Hungry, by Layne Mosler (July 2014)

I very rarely read memoirs, and the first 50 pages or so of this one did nothing to change my opinion of them, but then Mosler's story grew on me. It follows a theme that many people of my generation, Millennials, are starting to become more aware of: with the Great Recession and the ever-growing dominance of the internet, along with the continued "shrinking" and interconnectivity of the world, career options are much more fluid than they used to be. Outside the realm of what we call white or blue collar jobs are the livelihoods that people like Mosler are cobbling together. We are no longer required to fit ourselves into perfect pigeonholes in order to achieve financial and emotional success.

Mosler discovers this in Berlin, while on hiatus from New York, to which she moved after a stint in Argentina. Tango plays a big role in the first part of the book, the one based in Argentina, which is why I had a hard time getting into it. Sudden tango obsession is nothing new, in fiction nor in memoir, and I found it rather boring. But once she leaves Argentina for NYC and eventually decides to try her hand at taxi driving, the book gets a lot more interesting. Mosler got the idea to drive a taxi because of her blog, Taxi Gourmet, where she details stories of getting into a taxi and asking the driver to take her to their favorite restaurant. The blog blows up, opening doors for her in New York and, eventually, Berlin. It's cute and fun, joining Mosler through both the physical spaces she travels and her own inner journey as she figures out what exactly she wants to do with her life. It's a theme that will resonate with many my age, and perhaps serve as inspiration for those who feel they can't be quite happy living within "the norm."