sonk’s #CBR5 Reviews #59 – #65

I’m finally done!

#59: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (5 stars)

#60: Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III (3 stars)

#61: Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff (2 stars)

#62: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman (4 stars)

#63: Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker (3 stars)

#64: Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness by Erich Schiffman (4 stars)

#65: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (5 stars)

pyrajane’s review #36: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Cold BloodBook groups are the best because not only do you get to pick books that have been on your To Be Read list since forever, but you also get to read books that you wouldn’t have otherwise picked up on your own.  In Cold Blood is the latter.  It’s one of those books that I’ve probably thought “Huh.  I should read that some day.”  Happily, a book group member had access to a ton of copies, so here we are.

I had very little background knowledge of this story.  I know the book itself is considered a great work and is often found on Books You Must Read list.  It also helped create a genre of fictionalized journalism where Capote took nonfiction and added in the details.  We don’t know what really happened, but Capote interviewed people and filled in the blanks with his own details.  This, of course, bothers some people who think it creates fiction.  Once you muddy the waters, it’s no longer a truthful account.

In November 1959 in a town in Kansas, four members of the Cutter family were murdered.  This was a place where things like this don’t happen.  There was no motive, no reason for the family to have been targeted and it looked like whoever had done it was going to get away with it.

Read more about the murder, the men who committed it, and Capote’s research and nonfiction fiction.

KimMiE” ’s #CBR5 Review #13: The Dreaded Feast, Writers on Enduring the Holidays, edited by Michele Clarke and Taylor Plimpton

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I’m a big fan of Christmas, but even I have to draw the line somewhere. While I’m not above buying gifts in July, I have no patience for people who put up twinkle lights in October and even I can only sit through so many viewings of Its a Wonderful Life before reaching for the insulin. So when I spotted The Dreaded Feast in a used book shop the week before Thanksgiving, I thought it would be a nice antidote to the super saccharine influence of the holiday season.

It is an antidote, I suppose, in the way that morphine would be an antidote for a headache. It’s not just that the collection of essays is too snarky for me. It is (and that is saying something) but I can’t really blame the book for that. After all, the back cover says in big block letters, “For people who aren’t so crazy about the holidays.” I ignored the warning, thinking surely that the negativity would be balanced with redemption. So, my bad there. But what really irritated me was that the humor-ish essays were all very obvious. Let’s face it, Christmas is a pretty easy target. There’s a lot of room there for mockery: the fruitcake, the carolers, the ugly sweaters. Now that I think about it, ugly sweaters were pretty much overlooked in this collection, which seems odd (note to self: write Dave Barry-esque essay on ugly Christmas sweaters for publication before Jan. 1). The point is, there’s lots to make fun of, but making fun and making something funny aren’t the same thing. For all its jokey criticism, the essays just didn’t elicit many chuckles from me.

Not all the essays are humorous, though. John Cheever’s Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor is a thought-provoking tale worthy of its own essay. Last Last Chance by Fiona Maazel and Oh, Christmas Tree by Augusten Burroughs are both curious stories that are more interesting to me than a study of the office Christmas party. And don’t even get me started on Hunter S. Thompson’s contribution—what the hell was that about? The point is, this is an anthology, so one would expect a mixed bag.

The more I read, however, the more the collection as a whole started to bug me. Overall there just didn’t appear to be any cohesive theme. The selections seem so random, like the inclusion of a single scene from a play called “The Truth About Santa” and an anonymous 17th century diatribe on the vanity of the Christmas holiday. It feels like the editors simply selected the first thirty pieces of writing about Christmas that weren’t The Gift of the Magi and called it a day.

I’ve read some excellent short-story collections in the past, where each piece of writing stands independently while also contributing to a whole. Unrelated works can sometimes build on each other and shine a light on similar themes, making each more thought-provoking or worthwhile than it had been on its own. Sadly, The Dreaded Feast isn’t one of those collections.

sonk’s #CBR5 Review #58: Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss

You may know Michael Moss as the guy who broke the “pink slime” story a little while back, so he’s definitely well qualified to write a book investigating the secrets of the processed-foods industry. He’s a great writer, and presents his information in a really compelling and fascinating way, never letting his ideas and the insane facts he’s presenting get bogged down by jargon or too much science. He never dumbs it down, though, and I liked the balance he strikes, incorporating just enough studies and scientific principles to ground his claims.

The basic concept of the book is fairly simple, charting the rise of the processed-foods industry, primarily through the use of three key ingredients: the titular salt, sugar, and fat. Moss details the ways in which each ingredient is used to create maximum pleasure and to create what essentially amounts to an addiction to the products that the biggest food companies in the world (think Coca-Cola, Kraft, etc.) put out–which has in turn resulted in an obesity epidemic for the American people, and unbelievable wealth for those leading the industry.

Read the rest of my review here.

taralovesbooks’ #CBR5 Review #41: Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff

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Cannonball Read V: Book #41/52
Published: 2011
Pages: 384
Genre: Nonfiction/History

Lost in Shangri-la is a non-fiction account of a group of soldiers stationed in New Guinea during World War II. In the middle of the island was a flat valley that was home to thousands of native tribes that had never seen the outside world. During a scenic tour over the valley, an American plane crashed into a mountainside, killing most of the passengers. One of the survivors was a member of the WOC (Women’s Army Corps) named Margaret Hastings. She, along with the two other survivors, John McCollum (who lost his twin brother in the crash) and Kenneth Decker, have to survive in the jungle amidst possibly hostile native tribes until they can be rescued. On top of everything, they are doing all of this with horrific burns and injuries from the crash.

Read the rest in my blog.

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #69: A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

Full disclosure: as an Evangelical Christian (Seventh-day Adventist, to be precise), I began reading this book with certain expectations and a knowledge of the discourse. I’ve heard all the “good Christian girls keep their knees together” lectures, the “good wife stays at home while her husband earns the money” lectures and the “God’s little princess” rhetoric that makes me sick. My parents, as Conservative as they are, raised me to be independent, well-educated, and resourceful. I grew up believing I would go to college, but not sure if I’d get married–and that was okay. As it turns out, I did marry. I found a man who was a-ok with me keeping my last name, who shared my religion and most of my expressions of that religion, who supports my career goals as I support his, and believes (like I do) that gender is not restricted by highly dependent on the person’s skills, talents, and preference. So, as I read about Rachel Held Evans’ struggle to define herself as a biblical woman amidst contrasting and often harsh conversations and ideals about “biblical womanhood,” I finally felt that I met someone who really understood me–an ardent Christian and an ardent feminist, trapped in the same body.

Ms. Evans has received a lot of media attention for her book, with two equally dissenting voices: Conservative Christians who suspect that she’s making fun of Christianity (she’s not–and if they’d read the book, they’d be fully immersed into her deep love and respect for the Bible); and secular a-religious/atheist individuals who think she’s naively advocating patriarchy (again, she’s not, and her relationship with her husband is one of the clearest indicators). At face value, she seems to be copycatting A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically, but she ultimately has a different quest–she wants to question her role as a Christian woman and examine biblical womanhood from a variety of perspectives. She undertakes a study of verses and stories and tackles a facet or concept of biblical womanhood each month of the year (one month, her project is purity, and she sleeps in a tent during her period and carries a cushion with her to avoid making chairs in the house impure, for example) in order to see how womanhood was viewed by God’s people in the Old/New Testaments, and how we interpret it today.

This is not a from-the-old-Hebrew kind of deep analysis you expect from a theologian. And for ordinary readers of the Bible like me, that’s okay. Ms. Evans is a witty, conversational writer who is open about her quirks as a human. Her quest for a better understanding of the Bible, along with her passion for understanding her fellow women was one of the best aspects of the book. There’s a passage where she describes mourning women who were terrorized in the Bible–raped, killed, abused, mistreated at the hands of patriarchy. That’s the sort of discourse that is missing in so many faith communities, and one that she invokes, without being cynical or too flippant.

I think my favorite part of the book, however, is when Ms. Evans reminds us that it’s okay not to have all the answers about the Bible, and it’s okay if some stories or passages trouble us or make us uncomfortable. The Bible is a complex text, and while our faith comforts and sustains us, we can’t–and shouldn’t–explain away some contradictory or troubling things. Because to do so would undermine the complexity of the Bible.

If you, like me, are a Christian and curious about this book, then you must read it. Now. I learned a lot about myself, and I gained perspective from the Bible, and grew to respect it even if I can’t answer every question I might have. If you aren’t a believer, I would still recommend it, but you may not have the same kind of cultural context that I did. But that’s okay; your perspective may be different, and that is informative for someone like me, as well.

You may read this review (or my thoughts on faith) on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 52: What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire by Daniel Bergner

Goodreads summary: “When it comes to sex, common wisdom holds that men roam while women crave closeness and commitment. But in this provocative, headline-making book, Daniel Bergner turns everything we thought we knew about women’s arousal and desire inside out. Drawing on extensive research and interviews with renowned behavioral scientists, sexologists, psychologists, and everyday women, he forces us to reconsider long-held notions about female sexuality.

This bold and captivating journey into the world of female desire explores answers to such thought-provoking questions as: Are women perhaps the less monogamous sex? What effect do intimacy and emotional connection really have on lust? What is the role of narcissism—the desire to be desired—in female sexuality? Are political gains for women (“No means no”) detrimental in the bedroom? And is the hunt for a “female Viagra” anything but a search for the cure for monogamy?

Bergner goes behind the scenes of some of the most groundbreaking experiments on sexuality today and confronts us with controversial, sometimes uncomfortable findings. Incendiary, profoundly insightful, and brilliantly illuminating, What Do Women Want? will change the conversation about women and sex, and is sure to spark dynamic discussion for years to come.”

This book blew my mind. When it was first published, it got some buzz in the feminist blogosphere (and on Pajiba, if I’m not mistaken.) The reason being: as the synopsis above alludes to, much of the evidence that Bergner collects from researchers in the field completely upends society’s traditional narrative about female sexuality. At the initial time of publication, the articles writing up What Do Women Want? mentioned this, so I wanted to pick up the book and read the interviews with scientists for myself, as well as take notes on their publications so I could go to the primary sources. I haven’t read through the complete collection of literature yet that I had intended to tackle, but so far Bergner’s conclusions, informed through the work of scientists studying sexual behavior in human and animal females, seem pretty sound to me.

I don’t want to necessarily “give away” more than what is hinted at in the synopsis and already covered in the articles online, but one of the things overall that really struck me is how sexual puritanism disadvantages women on two fronts. In the first place, on the sociological and psychological level, general sexist double standards (that we are all pretty aware of) restrict our sexual knowledge and activities both through social pressure and internalized misogyny. Secondly, it’s shocking how much resistance has been thrown at genuine biological exploration of female anatomy and arousal. It’s only been in the last 20 years that we’ve even learned of the full internal structure of the clitoris, and yet, it’s still not common knowledge; even some of the sex researchers Bergner interviewed weren’t aware of the internal modeling. (Also, Begner doesn’t discuss this at all, but people still think the hymen is a thing that has anything to do with virginity. Protip: it doesn’t.) Anyway, with the stigma against biological/evidence-based research into female sexuality, it has allowed our society to rely on, and indeed, default to, untestable theories about women and sex from the field of evolutionary psychology, which is rather famously patriarchal.

In summation: I, frankly, think this is a book that everyone, but especially women, could benefit from reading. Though Bergner’s narrative suggests, in many places, that the opposite of what we think we know about female sexuality may in fact be true, the book doesn’t come across as pushy. Given that such a narrow range of sexual behavior and preferences have been traditionally ascribed to women, What Do Women Want? is less about trying to change that narrow definition to another narrow definition than it is about broadening the scope of what is considered “normal” sexual behavior for women.