reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review #52 In Defense of Food: An Eaters’ Manifesto by Michael Pollan

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I am a fan of Michael Pollan, having read several of his books and heard him speak when he’s in town. I hadn’t read In Defense of Food because I heard him interviewed and attended a lecture right around the time the book was published. At the lecture he brought a shopping bag full of things he’d picked up at a grocery store: green tea infused sodas, yogurt with fiber added, and numerous other manufactured foods. His point was that in the United States we practice “nutritionalism” focusing on particular nutrients rather than whole foods, and eating manufactured foods in the process. This is the theme of the book.  Pollan goes through a history of food science, a description of what we are eating today, and his suggestions for a better way of eating.

The phenomenon of nutritionalism was named in the late 20th century, but has been in practice since the 19th century. Currently the popular “bad” nutrient is the carbohydrate. Athe end of the 20th century it was fat, in the 19th and early 20th century, John Kellogg and others extolled the harm of animal proteins. In general, our food research seeks to isolate certain nutrients and determine their harmful or beneficial effects. This isn’t all bad, science has discovered vitamins and other minerals in food and determined they were necessary. The problem is that this form of reductionism also creates over simplifications in our approach to food. Continue reading

reginadelmar’s #CBR5 reviews #49-51 The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

I haven’t posted multiple reviews in one post before today.  One could argue that the Trilogy is really one long book, but hey with five days left in 2013 and one more book to go, I’m erring on the side of hurry up and finish. Write the three reviews together and dive into that last book!

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games works by itself or as the beginning of the trilogy because it comes to a relatively satisfying conclusion. The book introduces Panem, a country that exists in the ruins of what was once the United States. The Capitol tightly controls 12 districts and demands retribution from each district for a rebellion it crushed 75 years ago. The retribution is the Hunger Games in which each district must send two children (male and female) over the age of 12 to compete to the death until one victor remains. The Games are televised and are literally “must see TV,” citizens are required to watch the fate of the children.

The story is told in the first person by Katniss Everdeen, a 16 year old from District 12, the mining district. She lost her father 5 years ago which caused her mother to suffer from severe depression. Katniss was left to fend for her younger sister, her mother and herself. Katniss is angry with her mother, she’s become a hunter and a loner except for her friend Gale. Continue reading

reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review #48 Natasha by David Bezmozgis

This was an impulse buy at Powell’s, wandering around in that place is delightful and deadly to the wallet.  Natasha is a collection of six short stories about the Berman family, Russian Jews who have immigrated to Toronto in the eighties. The narrator in all of the stories is Mark, born in Latvia, who is about 7 or 8 when they arrive in Canada.  The stories take place during different times of Mark’s life, but they are more about the experience of his family and others than Mark himself.

Mark’s father, Roman, was an Olympic weightlifting trainer in Riga, in Toronto he starts out in a chocolate factory.  In the story, Roman Berman, Massage Therapist, Roman is opening his own business. “This was 1983, and as Russian Jews, recent immigrants, and political refugees, we were still a cause. We had good PR. We could trade on our history.” Their PR value wears off. In a later story, Mark, wanting to go to public school, acts to get expelled from Hebrew school, and gets a terrifying lesson on what it means to be a Jew.

The last story was the most touching for me.  Mark’s grandfather is in a home for the elderly, the apartments are highly sought after in the Jewish community. Itzil and Herschel share an apartment, both are widowers, but some are suspicious of two men living together in a one room apartment. Itzil, the wealthier of the two, dies, and everyone expects Herschel to be evicted. The rabbi in charge, has his own standards for who will be allowed to live in the apartment. While it sounds callous, he doesn’t rely on promises, he relies on his experience.

reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review #47 How to be a Woman by Caitlan Moran

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I started this book about 6 months ago, then picked it up again read a few chapters, then again, until I finished it. Caitlin Moran is pretty funny, although I found the interviews I heard on the radio funnier than the book I finally completed The book is primarily an autobiography with a dash of feminism here and there.

Moran’s views on feminism aren’t terribly radical.  She believes that any woman who wants to be free to do what she wants should consider herself a feminist.  As she says we need to reclaim the word “feminism.” Citing a survey that less than 30% of American women and 42% of British women consider themselves feminists, she says:  “What do you think feminism IS, ladies” What part of “liberation for women” is not for you” IS it freedom to vote?” The right not to be owned by the man you marry?” The campaign for equal pay? “Vogue by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF THE SURVEY?“ Ok, the use of all caps is really irritating (and she does this a lot) but she does make a good point. 

Moran doesn’t believe that all men secretly hate women, and she doesn’t think that feminism’s biggest problem is women turning on each other.  She may tick of a few folks with her statement that “women haven’t done F’all for the last 100,000 years.” To her credit, she doesn’t suggest that the past must dictate the future; rather, she’s simply conceding that thousands of years of patriarchy are not easily undone.

Moran spends a lot of time covering the insecurities of women, particularly about appearance and weight through the lens of her adolescence and adulthood.  It works, it’s funny, and lets face it, what most women think about their own appearance is pretty f’d up. 

To sum up, Moran is against burkas, heels, strip bars and cosmetic surgery, and pro-choice, pro freedom, and pro being yourself.  And she’s funny.  Good enough. 

reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review #46 Until Thy Wrath be Past by Asa Larsson

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At first I thought I might be reading a Swedish version of The Lovely Bones, because the first chapter of the book is narrated by a young woman, Wilma, who has been murdered.  Set in northern Sweden  Wilma and her boyfriend go to a lake, cut a hole in the ice and go diving. Someone prohibits them from resurfacing and they drown.

Months later her body is found in a river. It looks like a diving accident, however, a few oddities suggest that this was not an accident: green paint under her fingernails, one glove removed from her hand, and the water in her lungs is not the same as the river water. In comes Rebecka Martinsson, a prosecutor in a nearby town, recently of Stockholm. She works with police inspector Anna-Maria Mella, whose confidence has been shaken by a recent incident in which she and her partner were put in life threatening danger due to her actions. Anna-Maria struggles with the colleague, being the mother of four kids and with Martinsson who exerts more control than her prior boss.

The murder is tied to a cover-up of actions that took place during World War II.  Someone collaborated with the Germans to such an extent that 60 years later they are still anxious to keep the story under wraps. The book captures the cold and desolation of northern Sweden very well. The residents of Kurravaara are old and tough, some gentle and kind, others are mean as snakes.  Martinsson is a strong character, and although she does have issues with her lover who is in Stockholm, Larsson keeps her focused on the action to the north. Wilma narrates numerous chapters, but not all. Her spirit is present throughout the story until the mystery is solved. Her presence works pretty well, alongside Rebecka and the others.

reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review # 45 What is the What by Dave Eggers

Listening to the news about South Sudan, I can’t help but think of the author of this book and what may be happening to him today.  What is the What was written about 7 years ago.  It is the biography of Valentino Achak Deng, a “lost boy” of Sudan.  It is characterized as a novel because Deng cannot remember all of the details and all of the conversations going back to when he was 7 years old.

The book is told in the first person and begins in Deng’s Atlanta apartment that he shares with another Sudanese. A man and a woman con him into opening the door, beat him, tie him up and rob him.  As he lies there, he begins to tell of his childhood in Marial Bai. He has experienced things much worse than robbery, yet the fact that this is happening in the country in which he sought asylum and safety is jarring.

Continue reading

reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review #44 The Wild Party by Joseph Moncure March

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This book length poem almost has to be read out loud to get the full effect. Written in 1928, it is a fun jazz-age piece. The character’s are straight out of  a gangster’s speakeasy: Queenie “was a blond, and her age stood still” and her lover Burrs was “A clown, Of renown: Three-sheeted all over town.” The plot is predicted by the title of the book, Queenie decides to throw a party and as the alcohol flows things get out of hand. Continue reading

reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review #43 Vuture Peak by John Burdett

I’ve read Burdett’s entire series of books featuring Sonchai Jitpleecheep, detective with the Royal Thai Police in Bangkok. The books include a whole host of characters, Sonchai’s mother who is a former prostitute and now madame, his wife Chanya, also a former prostitute and his corrupt boss Colonel Vikorn.  Sonchai is a practicing Buddhist who is often faced with hard choices between following his Karmic path and survival. I haven’t liked all of the books, the first Bangkok 8 may have been the best, but I always enjoy Sonchai.

Vulture Peak might best be described as a hot mess. The book begins with 3 corpses missing darn near everything: faces, fingertips and key organs.  Vikorn, now running for public office, puts Sonchai in charge of the case and  international human-organ trafficking suggested by this crime. Sonchai gets a black Amex card and travels to Hong Kong, Dubai and Monte Carlo, in pursuit of the Yip sisters, eccentric wealthy twins who appear to be at the heart of the crime ring.They are also compulsive gamblers, usually competing against one another.  While Sonchai is chasing down organ harvesters, his wife Chanya is writing her thesis about prostitution, which includes numerous arguments that many women enter prostitution willingly and are not exploited. Seriously, Burdett? Throughout the novel a rapist is also terrorizing women in Bangkok. The plot gets pretty convoluted, with the rapist and organ-harvesting story lines eventually converging and making little sense whatsoever. Everything gets wrapped up in the end in a most unsatisfactory manner.  Maybe it’s time for Sonchai to pursue another line of work.

reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review #42 The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Is there a more dystopian setting for a novel than North Korea? Massive starvation, slave labor, hideous prison camps and  endless propaganda barking from loudspeakers in the home and on the streets. The culture is so bizarre that at times it is comedic. How accurate the book is can’t be determined, no fact checking allowed in North Korea.  Johnson spent years researching North Korea, including a trip to Pyongyang, but needless to say he didn’t have unfettered access.

In the first part of the book Pak Jon Du, grows up among orphans, but believes that he was in fact the orphan master’s son. His name is one of the 116 martyrs, names usually given to orphans, but the story he tells himself appears to be part of his survival method. During a countrywide famine most of the orphans die, but he ends up in the military. He learns to fight hand to hand which plays a large role in the plot. His jobs in the military vary, working in the tunnels under South Korea and kidnapping individuals from Japan in the dead of night. His career takes a number of strange turns, learning English, living on an ancient fishing vessel listening to broadcasts through the night, getting a secret assignment to Texas (yes, Texas) and then when it all goes wrong, prison camp.

Throughout the book the story is also told in part through the device of propaganda radio broadcasts. This is where much of the humor comes in: “Kelp-harvesting season will soon be upon us! Time to sterilize your jars and cans.” “This month’s cooking contest. . . Pumpkin Rind Soup!”

In the second part of the book, Jon Du has taken on the identity of General Ga. Ga is a feared military commander who is married to a beautiful film star: Sun Moon. Some of this part of the book is narrated by Ga’s interrogator. He lives with his elderly parents and in his life we see what “ordinary” life might look like.  Kim Jong Il also plays a role, although in a comic book sort of way. We don’t see him making decisions that impact millions of people, we see him in the context of his love of an opera star and his rivalry with Ga for Sun Moon.

The Orphan Master’s Son is hard to pigeon hole into a genre, so I won’t try. It left me feeling that what is going on in North Korea is the cruelest trick played on 23 million people. It is sad to think that there is no end in sight.

reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review #41 The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

I read this book on holiday several weeks back. It was a lovely story that I imagine can be sliced and diced and analyzed, which is something I don’t do well. The narrator is a middle-aged man who has returned to the area he grew up in for a funeral. In a paragraph he sums up his adult life: divorced, two-kids, not dating, work is fine. He has a bit of time and drives back to the house he grew up in and the Hempstock’s farmhouse.

As he sits at the farmhouse he remembers events that started with his 7th birthday. He is a lonely child, not one of his classmates comes to his birthday party. He finds solace in books and in his new kitten. I’ve not read Gaiman’s children’s books, but this is a childhood with plenty of darkness, where adults cannot be trusted and his sister delights in being mean to him. His parents have some financial difficulties which cause them to take in a boarder, who has run over his kitten. Shortly thereafter he and his father find the border dead of a suicide.This leads him to the nearby Hempstock home where Lettie and her mother comfort and care for him. Weird things start to happen, like coins appearing in inappropriate places, but the farm becomes a refuge, Lettie and her mum and gran have a magic world that begins and ends within the confines of the farm.

Things get scarier when the narrator’s family takes on a young beautiful housekeeper named Ursula Monkton. The attractive housekeeper torments him, seduces his father and is also a monster from another world that only he can see. His father’s behavior becomes monstrous and it is all that he can do to escape the wickedness that is growing in his household.  The Hempstock farm is his refuge, Lettie, Ginnie,her mother and her gran are imbued with magic, they appear to be ageless, having been around since perhaps the beginning of time.

Are his memories real?  Did he really grow up amongst magic, or was it his child’s imagination? When he asks “is it true” Mrs. Hempstock answers: “Different people remember things differently, and you’ll not get any two people to remember anything the same whether they were there or not.” I suspect this to be true of the book too, there is so much and so little that happens in this little story that I suspect we all remember it a little differently.