Book Review: The Story of Forgetting

21 01 2008

Once again, my favorite web site LibraryThing connected me with an early reviewer copy of a book. This time, it’s The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merrill Block.

This is a beautifully written novel that, if it doesn’t exactly defy convention, at least smooshes together at least two genres into a single novel.

One genre is the Faulknerian tale of family passions and deep secrets that span decades. This is the tale of Abel, an aptly named hunchback living on a Texas farm. Block helpfully points out at the end of the first chapter how Abel’s story is a retelling of the Fall. Over the course of the novel, we see Abel’s slow-motion expulsion from Eden.

The tale of Seth is a coming-of-age story. Seth is an awkward 15-year-old (redundant?) dealing with the problems that all 15-year-olds deal with in all coming-of-age novels: sex, annoying parents, and how to fit in. Oh, and a mother with early-onset Alzheimer’s, which Seth stands a 50/50 chance of inheriting. Did I forget to mention that?

Alzheimer’s is really the central character of the novel, and I must say Block handles this part of the story wonderfully. When I was an awkward 15-year-old, I watched my best friend’s dad slowly disappear into dementia. Watching this disease work on its victim and family is one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen. Like a science-fiction plot device, Alzheimer’s makes the victim live his life backwards, with each new day erasing the most recent memories. My friend’s dad was at the forgot-how-to-feed-himself stage when I stayed with them for three weeks at their lake house in New Hampshire. Even though my friend and I were at the peak of hormonal, irresponsible teenagedom, we were considerably more mature and capable than his dad. I remember the terror we felt when we returned to the lake house one day, couldn’t find his dad at first, and then saw him drifting 20 feet offshore in the aluminum motorboat, vainly trying to start it. It was the last time we left him unsupervised. I still shudder to think of the damage he could have done to himself or to someone else on the lake if he managed to get the metal blades spinning. And this is the man who, just a year earlier, had taken me out fishing in that same boat.

Alzheimer’s is harder on the family than on the victim. But I know from watching my friend that most families find a way to cope. The Story of Forgetting does a great job showing the impact of the disease on people and on families and how different people cope.

Of the two stories smooshed together, I liked Abel’s story the best. It’s got passion, deception, pure love, and bittersweet redemption. Seth’s story is a close second. While I could clearly identify with a nerdy, self-conscious teenager, there were elements of this story that were just a little looser and less effective.

One of the things I admired most about this novel is the writing. Block can create some great, original sentences and images. He can jump back and forth effortlessly between storytelling styles. So I’m completely in awe knowing that he’s just 24 years old. We’ll hopefully have many more decades of similarly well-written and sensitive stories to enjoy from him.

Hungry Planet: What the World Eats

17 01 2008

Hungry Planet: What the World Eats. Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio. Material World Books and Ten Speed Press, 2007.

I’ve read a lot of food books lately. Fast Food Nation will convince you to give up McDonald’s. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, while a little preachy at times, makes a strong case for becoming a locovore. The most influential food book I read last year was The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Like nothing else I’ve read, it shows the impact of the industrialization of food on our health and, more importantly, our culture. I must admit that I still eat industrially-produced meat and vegetables out of season, but both of these are habits I’m trying to change based upon what I’ve read.

The clear intent of all of the other books was to persuade me, the typical American reader, to change my eating habits. Each book had a clear agenda. Each is a forceful participant in the debate over the modern American diet. Hungry Planet is a different food book. While it has biases (it bemoans the invasion of fast-food and hypermarkets into many cultures), the primary purpose of this book is to just present the facts. If the other books are debaters, this book is You, the reader, get to draw your own conclusions.

The centerpiece of the book are portraits of 30 families in 24 countries, each posing with a week’s worth of food. There is a succinct travelogue for each family that gives you a sense of daily life in the culture, and lots of gorgeous pictures and informative captions. By the end of the book, you’ll feel like you’ve traveled the globe several times.

By presenting these families side-by-side, the book emphasizes the immense variety of food cultures in the world today. Because many of the family portraits span three generations (grandparents, parents, and kids), you also get a sense of how taste in food is evolving over time in each culture. Across each family, you see the same story replayed over and over: As a population gets more wealthy, people start to first consume more meat and then more fast-food and convenience food. The book lets you debate whether this trend is good or bad (or more specifically, which parts of this trend are good and which parts are bad) — but it’s hard to deny the trend when you have all of the evidence in front of you.

My main conclusions? After reading about life today in Chad, and Mali, and after reading what it was like for older generations in China, Poland, and Bosnia, I’m grateful that that the problem I face is one of abundance. While I never really though to of it before, I now understand how profound it is to know my family will always have enough to eat. And I now appreciate that this security is not only a rare thing in human history, it’s also still a precious thing in today’s world.

I’m still going to try to eat more seasonal foods, eliminate CAFO meat from my diet, and eat more from my local area. Hungry Planet makes me grateful this is the food dilemmas I face.

Book Review: The Air We Breathe

30 10 2007

LibraryThing arranged to get me an advance reading copy of The Air We Breathe by Andrea Barrett in exchange for a review (either positive or negative). So, here we go.

The Air We Breathe is another “antique science fiction” novel by Andrea Barrett. I’ve just made up the genre of “antique science fiction,” and as far as I know, Andrea Barrett is its only practitioner. Unlike conventional science fiction, which speculates about scientific advances to come, antique science fiction focuses on the scientific advances of the past. Like Ship Fever and The Voyage of the Narwhal, the other two Barrett novels I have read, The Air We Breathe tells the story of the scientific advances of an earlier age and the impact that had on characters’ lives. In this novel, Barrett lovingly dwells on the advances in chemistry, physics, and archaeology in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. However, because the novel is set in a WWI-era sanatorium, what most impacts the characters lives are the scientific advances that haven’t yet happened.

The rough plot arc of the novel makes me think of Paradise Lost. In the beginning of the novel, you’re introduced to characters who have lost nearly everything, both materially (many are poor immigrants) and socially, being exiled to the living death of forced rest & recuperation. In the first part of the novel, I had to continually remind myself that I wasn’t reading about elderly patients in a nursing home. These are vigorous people in their 20s and 30s who are suddenly forced to do nothing. Slowly, the patients at Tamarack State Sanatorium build an idealistic community organized around a love of learning and teaching each other — their own mini-paradise. Then, as with Adam and Eve, out-of-control passions bring the paradise to a sudden and tragic end.

You don’t want to read this book for its plot. Because most of the characters have to do nothing more than sit and breathe the cool air of the Adirondacks, there’s not a lot of action. You also probably don’t want to read the book to try to find nuanced, realistic characters. For the most part, Barrett’s characters neatly fall into one of three categories: Saintly, calm personalities with diverse backgrounds but united by their love of learning; Obsessive, selfish, and destructive characters; and the narrators who “?lived as if we were already dead, as if we’d died when we were diagnosed and nothing we did after that mattered?”

That said, I loved the book. I loved it because it vividly carried my imagination back to 1916. For a few hours, my mind soaked up that other universe. I felt the dread of being in the tomb-like atmosphere of a sanatorium. I felt hopeful as teaching, the arts, and the sciences woke up the patients at Tamarack State and gave them hope. I felt saddened as the delicate, utopian community shattered on its impact with irrational human passions. And finally my mind can’t stop thinking through this fictional story of 1916 to find what it says about human nature that is still true in 2007.

Especially if you love science, this book will take you on a worthwhile intellectual journey. Worth reading.

My Cataloging Project is Done (For Now…)

7 08 2007

Over the weekend, I finished cataloging the books in the house. I took a few shortcuts. Our 1910 Encyclopedia Britannica is just a single entry in the catalog, even though it’s 29 volumes. I took a couple of other multi-volume shortcuts on the reference books. There are also some books, like travel guides, that I didn’t bother to catalog. We also didn’t get all of Alex’s books. I’m not sure I got all of the books without ISBNs.

Even so, here are the fun statistics about our library:

  • I have 773 books in the catalog.
  • For 13 of the books I own, exactly one other person on LibraryThing had that book.
  • I categorized 131 books as “literature,” 65 as “cooking”, and 42 as “poetry.”

You can see all of the book reviews I’ve entered here:

(Most of them are just a sentence or two, primarily to help my memory.)

Thinking about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

25 07 2007

For the past couple of months, I would walk past Barnes & Noble after dropping Alex off at daycare, on my way to pick up coffee at Starbucks. Each time I walked by the store, I’d think, “Harry Potter is coming soon!” I’d remember being at the midnight release party for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince two years earlier, at that same Barnes & Noble, and I’d get excited imagining the scene at the upcoming release party.

I did spend a couple of hours at Barnes & Noble on July 20th, securing my spot in line, checking out the decorations, and admiring the crowds and the costumes. I found the experience heartwarming and exciting. I’ve grown up with books and always known they were important. The mobs of witches and wizards and three-headed dogs at Barnes & Noble on a drizzly midnight showed how many other people think books are important, too.

Fluffy  Beauxbatons

The crowds gather

By 12:10 AM on the 21st, I had my copy of the book, and I finished reading it by 10:00 PM. That was 22 hours after buying the book, and almost nine years after first reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Once I finished the book — which I loved — and its spell started wearing off, I had a hard time explaining why Harry Potter made me so excited. It’s not my favorite book. (I’d have a hard time picking between To Kill a Mockingbird, The Name of the Rose, Love in the Time of Cholera, King Lear, or Atonement for the “favorite book” title.) It’s not the most detailed alternate universe I’ve encountered. That’s clearly The Lord of the Rings. It’s not even my favorite children’s fantasy series. I think Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain (now almost 40 years old!) are still the best.

So what is it?

First, I think the Harry Potter phenomenon shows how powerfully stories affect our emotions. Judging from the comments I’ve read on the internet, hundreds of thousands of people around the world were crying this past weekend because of the deaths in The Deathly Hallows. It doesn’t matter that, in fact, there were no deaths — because, in fact, these aren’t real people we’re talking about. Stories seem real to us. We want them to be real. And our emotions respond to a good story the same way they respond to reality. The emotional response lasts past the end of the novels, spilling over to color how readers respond to language itself. For example, anybody who’s made it through all seven books can’t read the word Hogwarts without getting that warm, comforting feeling associated with home; can’t read the word Voldemort without a feeling of dread; can’t read the nonsense phrase Expecto Patronum without feeling a sense of protection.

(Tim O’Brien makes this point better than I ever could in “How to Tell a True War Story” in The Things They Carried. Every lover of fiction should read that story — but be warned it’s not for the faint-hearted.)

While readers will bond with any good story, I think that bond has been particularly strong with Harry Potter because it has developed over such a long stretch of time. As I look around my bookshelf, I don’t see any other fictional universe that has rolled around in my head, off and on, for anywhere close to the nine years I’ve been visiting Hogwarts. I’ve spent over a quarter of my life waiting for the next Harry Potter book to come out. For the younger readers, the connection must be even stronger because they have grown up as Harry has grown up.

I wager that for bookworms like me, the books read during childhood and adolescence are more important than anything except family and close friends in shaping the kind of person you grow up to be. When I look back on my childhood, I can see how books like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Chronicles of Prydain influenced my sense of right and wrong — those stories are deeply etched on my adult personality. What must it be like to grow up with Harry Potter? As with To Kill a Mockingbird, children who grow up reading Harry Potter will see that someone’s worth doesn’t depend on heritage or race. Children who grow up reading Harry Potter will see the power of love, of sacrifice, and of friendship. They will see how the fear of death corrupts, or threatens to corrupt, everybody from Voldemort to Dumbledore. Many of these are timeless themes that are as old as literature. But unlike the books I grew up with, this series straddles the pre-9/11 and post-9/11 worlds. The post-9/11 Harry Potter books show what it is like to deal with people who are pure evil and who deftly use terror to gain power. The books warn against both pretending that the problem doesn’t exist (Cornelius Fudge), and also against using torture and other inhumane ways of trying to combat your enemies (Dolores Umbridge). So this is J.K. Rowling’s greatest achievement — she’s created a modern series that’s worth growing up with. I can’t wait for my son to be old enough to read these books and let them influence him the way books influenced me when I was young.

The Youngest Fan?

Say "Every Flavour Bean!"

Christmas in July?

19 07 2007

It feels a lot like I’m six years old and it’s Christmas Eve. Tomorrow night I’ll have the last Harry Potter book in my hands. Way more exciting than an iPhone.

Molly & I read the first Harry Potter in the winter of 1998 on the advice of her mother. We ordered the second and third books from because they were available in the UK months before the US release. We’ve picked up every other US copy the day of release. (I remember buying Book 4 at the airport in Portland, Maine. I was visiting family, and Molly wasn’t with me. I knew a book was waiting for me back in Seattle, but I didn’t want to wait. I donated that copy to the library in Rangeley, Maine. I also didn’t immediately tell Molly about it, because we were supposed to read the book together. Well, we’ve now given up that pretense. As the faster reader, and the one who tends to stay up late, I’ll get the first crack at it.)

What’s strange to realize is I’ve spent over a quarter of my life waiting for the next Harry Potter book to come out, and all of that waiting ends in about 28 hours.