Spurious Book Catalogue, November

November 25, 2009 at 2:59 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 3 Comments

Get out your credit cards, ’cause it’s time to fill out the order form for this month’s Spurious Books!

A Brief History of Thyme – Gift edition, perfect for the foodie in your family.

Flush Life – Plumbers fight crime in New York.  Follow-up to TimeClockers.

The Da Vinci Cod – A fish appreciates Renaissance Art and develops conspiracy theories.

The Inheritance of Floss – A young woman contemplates the legacy of her family’s dental hygiene.

Madame Ovary – A woman’s marriage is destroyed by her insistence on having serial multiple births.

Fluff

November 25, 2009 at 9:35 am | Posted in Book Blather | 21 Comments

What is fluff?

When I used this term recently, I had no idea it was so loaded with connotations.  (Sort of like when I first moved to California and thought “macking on” meant the same as “flirting with” instead of “making out.”)  It seems that ‘fluff’ is like ‘porn’ – hard to define, we know it when we see it, personal preferences may differ, some will have nothing to do with it, and the one with a problem is the one who looks at it more often than you do.

The first time I heard someone else use the term ‘fluff’ it was in the context of a sort of blind date to start a book group.  The other party said she wanted “to read fluff.”  (Trish and I took one look at each other and knew it wasn’t going to happen, not with this lady, at least, though she was perfectly likeable).  We all had a shared enthusiasm for V. C. Andrews and Stephen King.  When it came to book groups, though, one of us wanted to read for pleasure and entertainment only, while the other two wanted to read for the challenge, to expand our tastes, and to promote vigorous discussion.  There just didn’t seem to be much to discuss when it came to certain books – mystery, horror, or romance, for example – and when it came down to it, we agreed we would read ‘fluff’ on our own whether we had a book group or not.

Let me reiterate.  We easily agreed on what ‘fluff’ meant and that we liked to read itIt’s not a put-down.  When I think ‘fluff’ I think ‘beach read’ or ‘airport novel.’  Let’s face it, when we’re at the beach or traveling we need a different type of book than what we read when we’re at home.  We get down on our knees and thank heaven there’s a book of portable size and absorbing plot to take with us.  If it weren’t for ‘airport books’ there would probably be an upsurge of rioting in the security line – people would just go stir crazy!

Rewind a paragraph.  Trish and I decided certain books would be less likely to promote discussion in our book group.  That also does not mean they’re not worth reading.  For instance, mystery is one of my favorite genres.  The thing is, though, once everyone knows whodunnit there isn’t all that much to say afterward.  I also find mysteries are not good for re-reads.  We couldn’t do horror because some members of our group turned out to be exceedingly sensitive – one started having nightmares during Geek Love and had to quit reading it.  And, well, romance doesn’t really do it for us.

I’ll make a point I’ve made before.  ‘Fluff’ runs bookstores, most particularly romance.  I have an acquaintance who had worked at a B. Dalton’s for many years, and she said easily a third of total sales came from romance.  She said most small bookstores would have to close their doors if it weren’t for romance readers.  My mom reads Harlequin novels by the grocery sack load (this is literally true – when she fills a sack, she hides it in her bedroom closet) and she has for at least the last 30 years.  My dad and grandma read science fiction, crime, and action thrillers, also by the grocery sack load.  (Those go out to the garage).  My nana read Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.  If it weren’t for genre fiction readers, I doubt I, for one, would be interested in books at all.

Now let’s talk about chick lit.  I believe all chick lit is fluff; if it wasn’t fluffy, it wouldn’t be chick lit.  Again, this is not a put-down.  I read almost nothing but chick lit when I was in college.  I appreciate the positive approach and the focus on landing the great job rather than the great boyfriend, though when I was single I wanted to read about that too.  I know that for some reason the concept that chick lit is fluff is an explosive one.  Simply put, I think it’s absolutely terrific that something designed for pure entertainment carries an implicitly empowering message: girls, go out and work for whatever you want, and the world is yours.  It’s great.  Now that I’m married and have a family and a career, though, there’s less to grab my attention, just like a gal of 25 wouldn’t care to read about my travails with cleaning the gutters, saving for Sweetie Junior’s college fund, or planning for retirement.  (Come to think of it, I don’t want to read that, either!)

‘Fluff’ means “a book I personally find less challenging than my normal reading.”  I don’t think it would be possible to ascribe this term to someone else’s reading, because ‘fluff’ is a term that crosses genres.  When I use the term, take it to mean “whatever you think of when you want to read something light.”  The reading we do in the bathtub after a long day; the reading we do when we’re on vacation; the reading we can’t resist or do purely in secret – that’s our fluff.  It’s the jeans-and-T opposed to our work clothes.  A world without fluff would be a world without Oreos.

On Reading YA – By a YA

November 24, 2009 at 2:20 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Young Adult Fiction | 4 Comments

15-year-old Sweetie Junior weighs in:

I believe that you can read young adult books to a certain point.  Always reading them will get you nowhere but if you like it go ahead.  I read young adult books but I also read things that are meant for adults.  So if you like it go ahead but don’t get angry at peoples opinion.

Incidentally, she reads 2-4 manga a week, and she’s been working on Pride and Prejudice for the last couple of months.

A Poem

November 24, 2009 at 10:05 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Convince a man against his will

He’s of the same opinion still.

 

“Bright-Sided”

November 24, 2009 at 9:23 am | Posted in Nonfiction | 3 Comments

Fans of The Secret are not going to like this book, but Barbara Ehrenreich doesn’t care.  Amazon reviews of Bright-Sided are evenly divided between five stars and one star.  (My favorites are “Bitter old woman” and “This book will attract people who are addicted to thought”).

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Ehrenreich traces the history of positive thinking in America, a subject that got her attention while she was dealing with breast cancer.  She traces the development of this trend and its spread through the medical establishment, the business world, and Christian megachurches.  In the end she makes a convincing case for blaming last year’s financial meltdown on the trend of positive thinking.

As usual, she’s compulsively readable, succinct, and bracingly crabby.  I’ve said before that she’s my mom crush.  Reading this book was a refreshing breath of cool air for me, after a week of intense pressure due to daring to reject consensus opinion.  Ehrenreich is brave enough to tackle one of America’s most dearly loved beliefs, and though this book hasn’t been on shelves long, it’s already upset a few apple carts.

“The Kindly Ones”

November 23, 2009 at 12:04 pm | Posted in Fiction | 3 Comments

This review of a book I finished two months ago comes at the request of a reader who wanted to know whether to tackle it, despite intense controversy.  Indeed, Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones is not for everyone.  It’s an enormous time investment, so it’s not something that can be picked up casually and finished over a weekend.  (If you did in fact do this, write to me right away!)  It could also scar your brain.

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Masterpiece or monstrosity?  First, I’ll tell you why the haters hate this book.  It’s huge.  In hardcover, it’s nearly 1000 pages.  It has large pages, narrow margins, and small text.  Paragraphs run on for pages without a break.  There are few section breaks, so it’s hard to pick a stopping point.  Dialogue is introduced without quote marks and sometimes lacks indication of who is speaking.  Foreign phrases are left untranslated in several different languages.  It would be a difficult book to read, no matter the subject.

The subject matter is such that sensitive people simply cannot stomach it.  The Kindly Ones is full of graphic descriptions of mass graves, murders, and unnatural sexual acts.  Aside from that, it’s an awfully long time to spend looking through the eyes of a Nazi!  Reading this book would not be advised for people who couldn’t get through American Psycho, for example.  The reason I didn’t review this book, which I loved, was that I couldn’t in good conscience send people out to read it knowing that so many of them would probably have nightmares.

Why should someone bother to read this challenging, heavy, sometimes disgusting book at all?  (My husband asked what it was about and said, “Why are you even reading that?”)  Simply put, I found it one of the most stunning artistic triumphs I’d ever read.  I couldn’t leave it alone.  It took me five days, and even after that time it was the only thing I could think about.

Nonfiction books are often complimented by the endorsement that they “read like a novel.”  The Kindly Ones is a novel that often reads like non-fiction.  It was meticulously researched and chock-full of the sort of detail that often bores me – I’ve tried to read The Hunt for Red October three times, and fallen asleep in the first chapter each time – but in this case fascinated me.  The scene is set with such utter precision that the reader is transported into the page.

There is a paradox at work.  Max Aue is one of the most unsympathetic characters ever written.  He’s sort of gross.  Yet when he’s on the job, he is constantly concerned with and frustrated by the inefficiency, irrationality, and general incompetency of Nazi projects.  What makes him a freak has nothing to do with what makes him a Nazi.  His professionality underscores the profound absurdity and horror of the Holocaust and the twisted clockworks that ran it.

The Kindly Ones is important for two reasons (beyond the obvious, that it’s just brilliantly written, and once you get into it you’ll find yourself swept away like I was).  First, it would be completely impossible for the reader ever to equivocate on whether the Holocaust really happened [historian’s note: it exists in living memory, meaning there are people alive now who were there, so we have incontrovertible proof] or why it is so important for humanity and the further unrolling of history to remember it and work to avoid a recurrence.  Second, it’s an unparalleled look at human evil, where it comes from, and what it looks like.  Neither of these things are fun, so if you read for entertainment, stay away.

Max Aue says:

I live, I do what can be done, it’s the same for everyone, I am a man like other men, I am a man like you. I tell you I am just like you!

In context, it’s extremely moving.  Luckily, this statement falls in the very first section of the book, Toccata.  If you have read this far and are still intrigued by the book, read the first section.  It’s quite short, and it could work as a sort of summary of the message of the work.  In fact, I think it would make an excellent kind of “fictional essay” for a lit class.

Best of luck, don’t read it on your honeymoon, and let me know what you thought of it.

“Nemesis”

November 20, 2009 at 6:03 pm | Posted in Fiction | 2 Comments

Mystery fans rejoice!  Here’s one so awesome I think I can say that it edges out Stieg Larsson.  Just by a hair.

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Nemesis, by Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo, has got a tightly wound plot that keeps revealing its many layers far past the point when you first think you have it all figured out.  I enjoy a good mystery.  This was a great mystery, and I bow in the presence of such mastery.  It’s got that dark atmosphere we appreciated so much in Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, and while I think Larsson’s characters shine more, Nesbo’s writing is more assured.  If you liked one, you’ll almost assuredly like the other.

I discovered Nemesis on Publishers Weekly‘s list of the best books of 2009.  I think it’s safe to say that this is the book to bring when you are trying to escape your family over Thanksgiving weekend.

Booking Through Thursday: Posterity

November 19, 2009 at 10:43 am | Posted in Book Blather, Uncategorized | 10 Comments

This week’s Booking Through Thursday:

Do you think any current author is of the same caliber as Dickens, Austen, Bronte, or any of the classic authors? If so, who, and why do you think so? If not, why not? What books from this era might be read 100 years from now?

What an absolutely terrific, timely question!

John Irving was in town recently, and Trish and I went to see him.  He said he doesn’t think anyone is writing well these days, and talked about how his writing was influenced by Hardy and Dickens.  I have to ask how someone who spends a great deal of time writing books (long ones, too) has enough time left over to read a broad enough survey of contemporary literature to scoff at all of it, lock, stock, and barrel.  Stephen King writes significantly more, and he seems to have scads of time to compliment other writers and review newcomers’ work.

But I digress.

I think we’re going to have an embarrassment of riches 100 years from now.  Many of the books on our current classics list will still be read.  In addition, it seems there has been exponential growth in publishing in the last century, and with e-books there are comparatively few barriers for obscure authors.  The problem will be weeding through it all and producing a short enough list of stellar books that a large enough community of readers can enjoy and discuss them together.  (Look at the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list and how many versions it’s already been through).  Part of what makes a classic is that it speaks to people on universal themes across cultural boundaries, and that’s harder to attribute to a book if only the writer and a half dozen readers know of its existence.

The other thing is that there have always been two brands of “classics” – the Masterpiece and the Broadly Appealing.  Dickens and Hugo, for instance, are always on the classics lists, but they were… kinda… hacks, weren’t they?  Joyce and Faulkner are also on the lists, but most people can’t force themselves through their stuff.  These two groups will continue to be read, but the Masterpiece list will tend to be read by a smaller, crankier group.

The real point of this question is to name some names, of course – who will still be around in 100 years?  I’m just going through what I’ve read and picking out names at random.  Marjane Satrapi.  Alexander McCall Smith.  Marilynne Robinson.  Ian McEwan.  Toni Morrison.  J. D. Salinger  (He’s still alive and I’m not convinced he’s not holding out on us).   Ray Bradbury.  Richard Russo.  Annie Dillard.  Cormac McCarthy.  J.K. Rowling.  Kazuo Ishiguro.  Salman Rushdie.  Margaret Atwood.

It pains me to look through my list and have to pass over most of my favorite authors.  There are also several authors I suspect will be read, but can’t add here because I haven’t yet read any of their books myself.  Mostly I think the “new classics” lists are going to be adjusted more and more frequently, and they will contain more single works as opposed to authors’ entire oeuvres.

You know what would be great?  If everyone argued out a ‘100 for 2109’ list.  1,001 is just too long.  The trick is, you have to decide which “current” classic authors (i.e. Dickens, Austen) are going to wind up being cut.

With modern medicine and nutrition, it’s possible some of us reading this will actually still be alive in 2109.  Wouldn’t it be nice to be a fly on the wall for that conversation?

Elitism

November 19, 2009 at 12:41 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

What makes a person elitist?

Who decides?

Is it wrong?

I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot over the last few weeks.  I’ve been writing about it.  I’ve shot some arrows over the bow that struck where I didn’t intend.  I want to get some sleep tonight so I thought I would write a little apologia pro vita sua.

I was born to teen parents and raised in poverty, violence, filth, hunger, and ignorance.  I didn’t like it.  Fortunately, both my parents are readers and the city library relocated two blocks from our leaky-roof, firetrap apartment shortly after I learned to read.  Books literally saved my life and taught me to live like a person.  There is nothing that matters more to me than the transformative power of literacy.

Several books I read in my teens and twenties taught me about the idea of intentional living.  Every day should count as your last.  You should feel like you are making the most of every minute.  My passion for self improvement spills over onto others.  It’s cost me some friendships, but it’s made me others.  A few months ago, a casual acquaintance thanked me for a conversation about money management that convinced her she wouldn’t have to take a second job.  My husband says I saved his life.  Being in my circle is probably at least half annoying, but I hope that the rewarding half makes up for it.

I am and am not an elitist.  I work hard to live my beliefs and keep pushing myself to be as authentic as possible, and I feel this dedication is rewarding, though sometimes austere.  I feel sick and empty when I do things that later feel trivial or less valuable than other things I knew I could have been doing.  I believe in my heart that there’s no point to doing certain things, because that time is irreplaceable.  This makes me an elitist, sure.  Yet I like to think I appreciate the privileges in my life, having traveled so far to reach them.  I could never look another being in the eye and think, You are worth less than me.  It’s my religion.  My elitism is about a belief in absolute standards of quality – it is not about relative worth of individual people.  It is my hope that I can help others learn to enjoy the things I have and suck out as much value from them as I have.

“Eating Animals”

November 18, 2009 at 4:14 pm | Posted in Nonfiction, Politics, Slow Food, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

When I picked up this book, I thought it was in defense of Eating Animals.  I might be the only one – that’s what happens when you quit reading reviews and book jackets.  Note:  Why is there not a grammatically equivalent term to ‘vegetarianism’ for ‘the practice of eating an omnivorous diet’?  Omnivorism?  Omnivorousness?  Omnivorosity?

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The one thing about political books of this nature is that they tend to attract people who are already interested in the topic (and infuriate everyone else).  There are scads of books on the food industry; what’s different about this one is that the author is a famous novelist.  (I didn’t care for Everything is Illuminated, or the beginning of this book, but I grew to appreciate it and I prefer Foer’s nonfiction writing style).

Since you’re reading this, I’ll assume you’re interested in the topic and possibly questioning the role of food in your life, so rather than review the book, I’ll give you my personal reactions to it.  I’m a vegan.  I’ve been vegetarian for half my life (17 years, 13 as a vegan).  For me it was a natural and obvious choice, and it would be unimaginable to do things any other way.  If there are brownie points to be awarded for this sort of thing, I wouldn’t get any.  I’m not sure if I would have maintained a diet that ensures constant social opprobrium for so long if I hadn’t been totally repulsed by the sight and smell of meat since I was a little kid.  It’s, ah, not exactly asking much of me.

I agreed with the gist of everything Foer had to say, although I hate reading about factory farming because it seems the conditions get significantly worse every time I check into it.  In spite of our essential harmony, the very fact of the book annoys me.  I’ll tell you why.

It takes a certain temperament to change one’s diet.  Turn down a beer because you’re a recovering alcoholic, and people applaud.  Turn down dessert because you’re a diabetic, and people care.  Turn down shellfish because you’re allergic, and people are concerned.  Turn down anything because of an ethical commitment, and it’s rude.  People frickin’ hate it.  This is hard to face because I was taught that the burden of hospitality falls on the host, not the guest, yet people will a) shun you for “rejecting” their hospitality and b) refuse to come over and accept yours.  Peer pressure over diet is incredibly, incredibly strong.  Most people will not make a permanent dietary change even if a doctor tells them their very life is at stake – ask any nurse.

So, why would anyone do it over a book?  I would bet my next month’s pay that there are at least a few people who are experimenting with vegetarianism right now after reading Foer’s book.  Most of them will be back to their old ways by this time next year (or next week: “Turkey Day”), just like the gym is always full between January 3 and Valentine’s Day.  And with each person who tries the diet and gives it up, there will be one more addition to the mythos that it’s too hard, or unhealthy, or spiritually demanding, or whatever else it is that people think.  And it will be that much more confusing for people when they deal with lifers like me.

Vegetarianism has nothing to do with health.  I think different diets are right for different constitutions, though I think the vast majority eat too much junk and too little produce.  (My family of 2.5 goes through 20 pounds of CSA/locavore produce a week).  I was sick a lot as a kid, bruised easily, and was prone to dizzy spells and mysterious ailments.  I’ve never been robust and I’m still the last person you’d pick for the softball team – it has nothing to do with diet.  Yet if someone else gets the flu, everyone is sad; if I get the flu, people ask me, “Do you think it’s diet related?”  The knee-jerk reaction is to associate health issues or food cravings with the absence of meat in the diet, rather than consult a doctor or nutritionist.

Vegetarianism also has little to do with body weight.  I’ve been veg for my entire adult life, so this diet has seen me at both my fattest (college) and thinnest (post divorce).  People will insist, though, on thinking it alone will solve their weight problems, and try it temporarily just like any other reducing plan.

Foer is right that vegetarianism has a great deal to do with public health and the environment.  That’s one of my frustrations with the book – he should have led off with the chapter on how incredibly drippingly filthy factory-farmed meat is and then the one on its ineradicable connection to epidemic disease (something that came up, incidentally, in Guns, Germs, and Steel).  Yet, like all veg books, he starts off with a chapter on his lovable pet.  Sigh.  People do not actually care enough about animals when the chips are down – don’t you get it?  Most people just don’t give a rat’s — once an animal falls into the category of “food unit.”  Even a “pro-life” person will cry over a single human fetus and shrug over the deaths of hundreds of millions of animals.  “Life” – just for humans, dogs, cats, and the occasional hamster or ferret.

My other issue is that Foer leaves out virtually any mention of the dairy industry, perhaps because he and his family still consume it.  (He doesn’t say).  He was brave and he did a lot of research and he made an inconvenient change, but he could have pushed it farther and I believe he knows it.  If you’re in a seeking state about this issue, I personally believe there is a greater impact to giving up dairy than to giving up meat, and I include health as well as environmental and animal welfare issues in that opinion.  It’s worth looking into, at least.

So, yeah.  Ultimately I think this will be another tempest in a teapot.  It will produce another round of dilettante veggies, who will annoy people by proselytizing and will then give up after a short time because they didn’t do their research.  Frankly, another major cause will be that most are still young enough their cooking skills are undeveloped, and their food is gonna kinda suck.  And it will serve to convince yet more people that “vegetarians” eat chicken and fish (the correct term is flexatarian, and there’s no shame in it) or that all vegetarians try to “convert people” or that vegetarian food is awful.

Incidentally, I married an omnivore who can dress his own game, and we cook together.  Meat hits our table about once a month, his choice (we keep separate color-coded pots, plates, and utensils).  I have one brother who quit eating meat because he’s a proud union man and he doesn’t think it’s right to expect others to work in a modern slaughterhouse.  And, both my parents became vegans about ten years ago, though they have stricter rules about food additives (like salt) and fewer rules about clothing and such.  My other, omnivore brother keeps secret Boca burgers in his freezer.  There are lots of ways to play this game; we find it’s a piece of cake.  Vegan cake, that is.

I will close with recommendations for what I regard as the best vegan cookbooks, for those who have gotten this far.  Anything by Isa Chandra Moskovitz, Robin Robertson, or Dreena Burton, especially including (in order) Vegan With a Vengeance, Vegan Planet, and Vive Le Vegan.  The Millennium Restaurant cookbooks and anything by Ron Pickarski for fancy, experienced cooks.  And write to me any time if you’re hungry for more – especially you, Mr. Foer, ’cause there’s a bit of a learning curve ahead.

Addendum:  I’ve started a new vegan cooking blog, The Viable Vegan.

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