Aug 22, 2016

The Arab of the Future 2, by Riad Sattouf

The New York Times calls this graphic memoir "a disquieting yet essential read," and I must agree. Sattouf grew up in Lebanon and Syria in the 1980s; his father was Syrian and his mother French. Blond and sensitive, little Riad has trouble adjusting to life in a small Syrian village after his father moved the family there, though not nearly as much trouble as his mother, faced with intermittent electricity, cooking over a camp stove, and no Arabic language skills. Riad loves his family and his two closest friends from school, but school itself is a source of confusion and fear. The teacher is prone to hitting the students' knuckles with a ruler, and the lessons are learned by rote without any comprehension encouraged. Riad's father loves Syria and seeks to further his social standing by hobnobbing with generals and other elites, but it's clear that the assistant professor is out of place, and the children of these society men are often cruel to Riad.

When a shocking event occurs, the Western reader, persistently a bit uncomfortable with this strange Syrian life, is jerked out of place and made to look straight at the cultural gap between them and us. Riad's summer vacations in France put this prominently on display: in France, he goes to vast shopping malls and grocery stores and his grandparents are not concerned with what he will be, while in Syria there is only Syrian food and a father who insists his son will be a doctor. We feel for Riad, with his blond curls, caught between two worlds, and wonder what will become of him in a land so different from our own. Part 3 is eagerly awaited.

Aug 5, 2016

Lesser Beasts, by Mark Essig

Ah, the pig...reviled, beloved, abstained from, engorged on...the pig is many things to many people, a complicated animal with a complex history. Essig's well-researched history of hogs delves into the biology and evolution of swine, their domestication and the development of how humans live with and raise them, and of course their varied cultural associations. Moving essentially chronologically, Essig explains how pigs most likely domesticated themselves several different times in several different places, and how the consumption of their meat has fluctuated wildly, though usually for the same reasons. Feeding on anything in their path, including human corpses and excrement, pigs developed a reputation for being filthy, unclean animals, suitable only for poor people who had no other meat available (the notable exception to this rule being Rome, whose ruling class had a serious love affair with pork). This association fed on itself (pun intended), to the point where some societies outlawed eating pork as a means of social control over the lower classes. We find the vestiges of this in the kosher and halal laws of Judaism and Islam, respectively. Even taking religion out of the picture, the association remains very strong, and wasn't helped by the unveiling of horrific meat processing conditions in the early 1900s, nor by the revelations of modern agro-business's indoor meat-raising plants.

For the most part, this is a relatively unbiased look at the animals some love excessively and some despise passionately. Essig's eventual conclusion is the simple exhortation to make an effort to know where your pork is coming from and to support farmers who choose to forgo huge industrial operations in favor of treating their pigs well, in comfortable, natural environments, the side benefit being that the well-treated pig almost always makes better tasting pork. The book is easy to read and engaging, though it does occasionally get bogged down in numbers. I certainly feel more educated about the biology and history of the pig, though I wish at times I hadn't been eating as I read it. Despite the occasional gross out moment, this is a noble work on a "lesser beast."

Jul 27, 2016

The Shell Collector, by Anthony Doerr

Yes, this is the same Anthony Doerr who gave us the Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See. The Shell Collector is a short story collection, and Doerr's first major published work, so I expected some of the usual "first work" awkwardness. There is none of that here. My only complaint with this book is that it ended far too soon; the last 30 pages of this edition are sneak peeks of Doerr's yet-to-be-released titles, so I thought I had at least one more story left when I finished the last. It was devastating. I felt cheated and robbed.

Doerr is a wordsmith, a one-of-a-kind talent that leaves me breathless and tearing up and so deeply affected by each story as to make it impossible to continue onto the next story after finishing the one before. His is a language to languish in, to soak up and read fully, not to skim through and seek out plot and dialogue. These stories are mostly about people in failed or failing relationships, and sleep is a theme that recurs in each - the hibernation of winter, sleep so deep it cannot be disturbed, the inability to sleep. They feature one Liberian man's attempt to regain control of his life by burying the hearts of whales washed up on the Oregon coastline and growing a garden over them; a retired man's indiscretion; a wife who can glimpse the pathway between life and death. This is not a book to be read, it is an experience to be grasped. Do yourself a favor and read The Shell Collector.

Jul 22, 2016

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey

Let's be honest, most people will think of the Jack Nicholson movie upon hearing this title, not Kesey's unique novel. I haven't seen the movie but do intend to soon; I'm curious how this story is told on screen.

You'll sometimes hear the phrase "unreliable narrator." This book is told from the first person perspective of a very tall half-Indian man who lives in the psychiatric ward of a hospital in Oregon; the others call him Chief Bromden, or simply Chief, and he's cultivated the belief that he is both deaf and dumb. He is neither, and understands far more than he ever lets on, but he is also, quite definitely, crazy. The Chief calls the outside world the Combine - people enthralled by the Combine are part machinery and live very sanitized, regimented lives. Within the ward, the Combine's greatest weapon is the Big Nurse, Miss Ratched. Her name gets thrown around a lot in pop culture, and from that context only I thought she was some kind of yelling, spitting, terrifying beast of a woman. While she is terrifying, she is none of those other things. Quiet, patient, always with a smile frozen in place, with a perfectly starched uniform: Miss Ratched is the pinnacle of passive aggression, and rules the ward (including the aides and the doctor) with an iron, milk-white fist.

Into this, Randle McMurphy is thrust. Fresh off the fields doing hard labor, McMurphy loves two things most in this world: gambling and screwing. Through the entire novel, it's unclear and unknown whether McMurphy pretended to be crazy in order to get off work duty, or whether he is actually insane. He shakes up the ward in a myriad of ways, and a battle of wills takes place between him and Miss Ratched.

It's a heartbreaking book, really, witnessing these men who so very much want to get better be systematically undermined by the Big Nurse and contemporary psychology's rather tenuous understanding of the human psyche. Group therapy is anything but therapeutic, as Miss Ratched uses the hour to break down and shame her chosen target, even having his fellows report on him and try to analyze him themselves. McMurphy, disruptive though he is, breathes life back into these broken men. Now, of course, we understand that listless days, group analysis (without the addition of group support), and electroshock therapy are quite the opposite of what most mentally ill patients need. The Chief might be crazy, but he is still a man, Kesey is telling us, still a human being with human needs. Being crazy doesn't mean he shouldn't feel happy or fulfilled. This book is indeed a classic, much deserving of that label.

Jul 13, 2016

Gumption, by Nick Offerman

Ron Swanson. No mere sitcom character, this man has become an icon, a legend of masculinity, libertarianism, woodsmanship, and terseness. Offerman, who plays him, has a similar dry sense of humor and is a well-known woodworker, but there end the similarities. Offerman, despite being comfortable hunting an animal with a gun, is also a pretty damn liberal guy. Ostensibly, this is a book about twenty-one Americans who Offerman believes has his most valued trait: gumption. Gumption is a grouping of characteristics - passionately caring for something, perseverance in the face of difficulty, kindness and love for all human beings, tenacity and a painstakingly-curated skill. His list includes early presidents, artists and woodworkers, comedians, and writers. Some are obvious (George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt), some are surprising or at least lesser known (Yoko Ono, Wendell Berry).

The prevailing theme through these histories and discussions are Offerman's very strong feelings about kindness and human decency. He's made no secret of his predilections and beliefs, many of which he set out in his first book, and he's not shy to press his point. Christians who disapprove of gays and transgenders get a fair chunk of his wrath, as do racists, sexists, and bigots of all kind. He's preaching to the choir, though, as the vast majority of people who pick up his book will probably agree with him. Still, it's nice to have someone respected and well-known stumping for the values I also believe in. Plus the book is fun! I learned a lot and Offerman's humor throughout make this a quick, enjoyable read. Well done, Mr. Offerman.

The Clasp, by Sloane Crosley

I'd call this book "literary chick lit." It was a fun vacation read, but probably not something I would have read otherwise. Drawing from and built around Guy de Maupassant's tragic short story, "The Necklace," The Clasp follows three friends from college and their incredibly awkward not-quite-love triangle. Themes of alienation from one's society as well as the people one was closest to at a particular time in life will resonate with most young-ish people, and Crosley does have a wicked sense of humor to go along with it. Though it features two male main characters to one female, I doubt many men would enjoy reading it, with its references to pop culture and central story line around jewelry. My only major complaint is that the eponymous clasp, as well as the real plot of the story, don't actually start up until about 150 pages in. So while it's fun and funny up until that point, it also leaves one wondering exactly when the action's going to start, and then it's a bit surprising when it finally does. But overall this was a fun read, good vacation fare for sure.

Jul 10, 2016

Crooked Heart, by Lissa Evans

I tend to avoid World War II novels because of their ubiquity and ubiquitous depressing nature. But with the well-deserved success of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and this positively lovely, totally enjoyable novel by Lissa Evans, WWII literature seems to be turning a new leaf. Like the former, a monumental bestseller, Crooked Heart features a pair of quirky protagonists who exist at the borders of the war. Where Doerr's wonderful novel is heartbreaking and touching, Evans' is funny and touching. We all know I'm an anglophile, and Crooked Heart contains a healthy dose of that British humor I love so much.

Noel, a ten-year-old boy, lives with his godmother in London, with no other living relations to be found. Mattie is brilliant and eccentric, traits her godson either comes by honestly or learns from her, or perhaps both. But dementia begins to set in just as the Blitz looms over the horizon, and Noel is left effectively alone in the world. Evacuated to St. Albans along with the rest of his class, he is picked up by Mrs. Sedge, who is quite a character herself. Born of mean circumstances and never able to get herself out of them, Mrs. Sedge supports her mute mother and lazy son by means both honest and not so honest. The addition of an evacuee means a little extra cash and food rations, and that's that. Not exactly taken with each other, Noel and Mrs. Sedge eventually find their equilibrium, in between various capers.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, funny and refreshing and realistic. Mrs. Sedge and Noel are described delightfully, easy to picture and populate in one's mind and, though far from perfect either of them, utterly charming. This is a little gem of a novel, and would make a great book club read as well.