Soul of a Butterfly

This morning I read a book review for a biography/autobiography of Muhammad Ali from the Times Online Books mailing list. Sometimes, a really good review is almost as good as the book itself. This review was excellent, and is the sort of thing I aspire to in my book reviews. Reviews of books that the reviewer didn't enjoy are rarely good, only when the reviewer is good with corrosive sarcasm and the book is bad enough in a big enough way to deserve it. But a good review of a good book gives you a taste of why that book is so good, gives you a taste of the book itself and gives you a little more besides.

Take love, for example: and the book is all about love. For Ali, it seems essential that he loves vast numbers of people, and is loved back by them. I was there in Atlanta when he lit the Olympic flame, and I felt the oceans of love washing towards him from America and the world. I have been at prize-fights where the very name Ali gets a bigger cheer than either contestant. Ali: the world’s most beloved sportsman; perhaps the world’s most beloved human.

Which is odd when you remember that he spent years as a hate-magnet. Quite deliberately: he modelled his free-wheeling braggart monologues on a wrestler named Gorgeous George, reasoning that the more people who wanted to see his ass whupped, the more tickets he would sell. He was always an actor, an illusionist, a man who adores conjuring tricks. He still does them; though now, as a devout Muslim who will never deceive, he afterwards insists on showing you how it was done.


Blogkeeping and My Life (partially a cross-post from Deborama)

(A little late with the cross-post; I've been sick.)
As badly as I have been neglecting this blog, I have been even worse at my book review and bookstore blog and at Deborama's Kitchen, my food and food politics blog. So I am cross-posting this at both, because I have been a) actively reading and planning, bursting even, to review a couple of books, and b) I have some cookie recipes to post and some simmering thoughts about all this diet and nutrition stuff. First the cookies. As those of you in Britain will know, last week was the big Children In Need charity fund drive. My employer (a mega multi-national) is a big participant and this year I sold cookies. Real American cookies baked by a real American grannie, is how I advertised them. They even (ugh!) put my picture on the intranet, posing with my cookies held out in front, a fake smile on my face, not a hint of (detectable) irony (I hope.) As for food politics, it has been brought to the fore, for me, by the recent hunting-with-dogs ban. I used to be a vegetarian. I am still selective about what animal products I will eat, and I try to influence DH who is pretty much not. I saw a Countryfile show on Sunday where a gamekeeper and a leader of a shooting ("wild" birds) group debated two anti-hunting activists. My thoughts, about which I will probably not get more specific, were about the comparative ethics (from an anti-animal-cruelty viewpoint) of eating game vs. farm animals. I do believe that the world is evolving towards total veganism, which I think is a good thing. But I tried and failed at that for myself, in the here and now. So this is a pragmatic argument for me. Maybe I will get more specific, later. I have to think about it.

Now, as to the books. While the siege of Fallujah was going on, I was reading Absolute Friends, by John le Carre. This book echoed against some very dark and despairing sentiments I was already experiencing due to watching "The Power of Nightmares" on the BBC, and due to the same nightmare scenario being acted out in Fallujah and elsewhere. I need , desparately, to review this book. I want to talk about it to someone. But my energy continues to wane and every little task I accomplish after work or on the weekend is a major triumph. So in the meantime, life must go on, and long train journeys must be endured, so I started on some other books. Right now I am about halfway through Cryptonomicon (Neal Stephenson) and it is so very very excellent. I am enjoying it immensely.


Be very afraid of what's not on the label

I am currently reading Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food On Your Plate, by Felicity Lawrence. It is really frightening. And I have been a savvy food-politics activist for about 35 years and still I didn't know about some of the appalling things covered in this book. It seems to affect everyone this way. Here are some excerpts from Amazon's reader reviews:

"I thought I had some idea about how supermarkets operate and how our food is produced, but I didn't know the half of it. Read this book (then lend it to everyone you know), ponder its contents for a while and I am sure you will change your shopping habits."

"All the chapters made a big impact but I was particularly moved by the descriptions of the migrant agricultural workers living on rubbish tips in Spain, of coffee farmers who were paid so little for their crop that they couldn't support their families and of the phenomenally destructive (and disgusting) practice of prawn farming in South-East Asia. . . Time and time again what came across is the enormous power of the supermarkets and how in competing with each other to be cheapest they create misery all the way down the food supply chain. Some of the supermarket practices described simply beggar belief."


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

I loved this book, and even more importantly, my darling hubby liked this book. I give him about 12 to 20 books a year to read, after I have read and liked them, and think he might like them, and he only likes about a fifth of them. So either he is very hard to please, or I am rubbish at guessing what he will like (a bit of both really.)
So, you have probably heard about this book by Mark Haddon - that it is about a 12 year old boy with Asperger's syndrome, and neighbour's dog that gets killed with a pitchfork. And since the title is a well-known quote from a Sherlock Holmes story, you would guess that it's a sort of detective story. Well, it is and it isn't. Mostly it isn't. I think this is mostly a story about how people's brains work, and how they don't all work the same way. And this can be a tragedy. There is a certain amount of tragedy in this story, and I felt some overwhelming maternal protectiveness for the likable hero, Christopher.
This has occasionally been referred to as a children's book, but I have never seen it in the children's or young adult section. It is no more a children's book than Life of Pi, which also features a young boy protagonist and is a very similar book in many ways. It is far too short a book to get away with telling even a little bit of the narrative (apart from the fact that a dog is killed in the opening chapter, but everyone knows that). I prefer to concentrate on why I liked it, and why DH liked it. I think we both liked it because the boy reminded us of ourselves, but for each of us, these were very different aspects of ourselves. I identified with Chris's inability to "take in" all of his sensory environment, while being unable to screen it out the way normal people do. Although I do not have Asperger's syndrome or any diagnosed condition, I am what is known as a "low-screener" which means that all my senses are very acute (although often not particularly accurate) and I can be very "oppressed", like Chris, by colours I don't like, crowds, smells and chaos in general. And, like Chris, I use mental exercise to calm myself, often pursuing activities that would drive normal people crazy, in order to drive myself sane. DH, on the other hand, is a very, very "high screener". But he has another of the traits of Asperger's syndrome (in common with some other conditions) which is an extreme difficulty "reading" the emotions, facial expressions and body language of other people, and an aversion to the sort of familiar touching that most people do as part of their socializing. DH again is not diagnosed with a syndrome, and he likes hugs and has no problem shaking hands or anything, but still there is that commonality there and I think that plus the boy protagonist's clever maths-geek atheism, made him really identify with Chris.
This is, I think, the great strength of this wonderful little book, that it enables anyone to feel a real kinship with someone with a condition which usually makes its sufferers seems very alien to the rest of humanity. And it makes his condition, and mental illness generally, very knowable and understandable and not a cause for fear and dread.


Northern Lights / The Subtle Knife / The Amber Spyglass : His Dark Materials Trilogy

Editor's Note: In the US, the first volume of the trilogy is called The Golden Compass. Also, a film has been made.

I heard these books described as a thinking-person's Harry Potter. That doesn't really do them justice. The format, the intent, the audience, the world-view, all are different in several degrees from Harry Potter. The main thing is that the Harry Potter stories are in the familiar reductionist mode of children's fiction that has borrowed from the highly stylized world of Saturday morning cartoons. Utterly absent are moral nuance, and pleasures are simple and greedy, even for the "good" characters. Everything is very easy to identify as good or evil, fun or boring, giving feelings of pride or shame, and the violence is strangely sanitized. The only moral choices the "good" characters face is whether to act loyally to their friends ("friendship" being the highest imaginable "good" in this world-view) and the power of loyalty to friends neutralizes any other action, from being silent and stubborn to authority figures, right on up to remorselessly killing "bad" characters.
Pullman's stories, though, apart from seeming to me to be too intellectually challenging for most modern pre-teens (I don't mean that to sound as insulting as it probably does, but really they are quite philosophically rarefied in parts) are more in the old style of children's literature, being as weird as Alice in Wonderland and as violent as Grimm's fairy tales and yet as modern as The Little Prince was in its day. And talk about moral nuance, hard choices, and ethical grey areas, these not only proliferate as the story goes on, they more or less drive the entire plot. There are parts that are better than others in the books, and this is something that I imagine young readers will find especially difficult, because there are times when as the focus switched from one group battling unspeakable evil to another, I was quite tempted to read ahead to where the dropped thread was picked up again, and got quite annoyed at almost turgid parts, even though I could tell they were necessary for the whole picture. The sweep of the stories are quite broad, encompassing universes and their creation and destruction, yet somehow not in the old SF Dr. Who kind of way ("Oh, well, when you've seen one megalomaniac who wants to rule the universe, you have pretty much seen them all") but more in that vertiginous way one feels if one allows oneself to really think about the possible implications of quantum physics.
To sum up the trilogy, without injecting any narrative or teasers, I would say that these three books comprise a Faustian fairy tale about parallel histories, theology and physics, featuring a pair of protagonists who are a twist on the old Tristan and Iseult mythology. And it's got talking warrior bears and witches and magical implements that can be replicated in a physics lab.


Hungry Mind Book Review's Best 100 of the 20th Century

Blog editor's note: I confess, I am cheating on this one. The only thing that's the same as the original Deborama's Book Review and Store's post is the title. There has been so much water under the bridge. The original post, which was just a link and a promise anyway, happened to appear just before the Ruminator Bookstore, successor to the Hungry Mind of fond memories, closed. The Ruminator Review, also previously known as Hungry Mind, ceased publication in 2005. And the link this goes to looks dodgy and impermanent, so I am copying to the whole list in the post to preserve it.
Back in 1998, when I left the Twin Cities, one of the cultural jewels of our fair towns was the Hungry Mind bookstore, located on the Macalester College campus and owned by David Unowsky. He also published The Hungry Mind Review. The bookstore and the review changed their names to Ruminator in 2000, when Unowsky sold the rights to the name Hungry Mind to Hungry Minds, Inc., publishers of the ... for Dummies books.
Here's another great website with some more information about the associated publishing company, also called Hungry Minds and then later Ruminator.
Some time in the free book review's heyday, when it was still called The Hungry Mind Review, they published this list of the 100 best books of the 20th Century. In a lot of ways that I cannot pinpoint or justify, this seems to me to be a very Minnesotan list. Not that it has too many Minnesota books on it, oh, no. Because Minnesotans are like Brits in that way, smug and self-satisfied, maybe, but they would never blow their own horns. It's not perfect, but it's a lot better than most of these lists.

The Hungry Mind Review's 100 Best 20th Century Books

RankAuthor Novel and Year
1Henry AdamsThe Education of Henry Adams (1918)
2James Agee and Walker EvansLet Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941)
3Dorothy Allison Bastard out of Carolina (1992)
4Rudolfo Anaya Bless Me Ultima (1972)
5Sherwood AndersonWinesburg, Ohio (1919)
6Maya Angelou I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970)
7Gloria AnzaldĂșa Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987)
8James Baldwin Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953)
9James BaldwinThe Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction (1985)
10Edward BallSlaves in the Family (1998)
11Saul BellowHerzog (1964)
12Paul Bowles The Sheltering Sky (1948)
13William BurroughsNaked Lunch (1959)
14Truman Capote In Cold Blood (1966)
15Raymond CarverCathedral (1983)
16Willa Cather O Pioneers! (1913)
17Willa CatherDeath Comes for the Archbishop (1927)
18John Cheever Collected Stories (1978)
19Sandra Cisneros House on Mango Street (1984)
20Don DeLilloWhite Noise (1985)
21Joan DidionSlouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)
22Vine Deloria Jr. Custer Died for Your Sins (1983)
23John Dos Passos U.S.A. (1930)
24Theodore DreiserAn American Tragedy (1925)
25W.E.B. DuBoisThe Souls of Black Folk (1903)
26Ralph EllisonInvisible Man (1952)
27Louise ErdrichLove Medicine (1984)
28William FaulknerThe Sound and the Fury (1926)
29William FaulknerAs I Lay Dying (1930)
30William FaulknerGo Down, Moses (1940)
31F. Scott FitzgeraldThe Great Gatsby (1925)
32M.F.K. FisherThe Art of Eating (1954)
33Francisco GoldmanThe Ordinary Seaman (1997)
34Alex HaleyRoots (1976)
35Joseph HellerCatch-22 (1961)
36Ernest HemingwayThe Sun Also Rises (1926)
37Ernest Hemingway The Short Stories (1938)
38Michael HerrDispatches (1984)
39Chester HimesMy Life of Absurdity: The Autobiography (1976)
40Linda HoganMean Spirit (1990)
41bell hooks Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1982)
42Zora Neale HurstonTheir Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
43Henry JamesThe Wings of the Dove (1902)
44LeRoi Jones (Amira Baraka) Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963)
45Jack KerouacOn the Road (1957)
46Ken KeseyOne Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962)
47Jamaica KincaidAnnie John (1983)
48Maxine Hong KingstonWoman Warrior (1976)
49Jerzy Kosinski The Painted Bird (1976)
50Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
51Li-Young LeeThe Winged Seed (1995)
52Sinclair LewisBabbitt (1922)
53Cormac McCarthyThe Crossing (1994)
54Carson McCullers The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)
55Norman MailerThe Naked and the Dead (1948)
56Bernard Malamud The Magic Barrel (1958)
57Malcolm X and Alex Haley The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965)
58Rollo May Love and Will (1969)
59Thomas MertonThe Seven Storey Mountain (1948)
60Henry Miller Tropic of Cancer (1934)
61N. Scott MomadayHouse Made of Dawn (1968)
62Wright MorrisField of Vision (1956)
63Toni MorrisonSula (1973)
64Toni MorrisonSong of Solomon (1977)
65Toni MorrisonBeloved (1987)
66Toni Morrison Jazz (1992)
67Vladimir NabokovLolita (1958)
68John G. NeihardtBlack Elk Speaks (1932)
69Flannery O'ConnorA Good Man is Hard to Find (1955)
70Charles Olson Call Me Ishmael (1947)
71Tillie Olson Tell Me a Riddle (1961)
72Jon OkadaNo-No Boy (1977)
73Grace PaleyCollected Stories (1994)
74Walker Percy The Moviegoer (1961)
75Katherine Anne PorterFlowering Judas and Other Stories (1930)
76Thomas Pynchon Gravity's Rainbow (1973)
77Adrienne RichOn Lies, Secrets and Silence (1979)
78Philip Roth Portnoy's Complaint (1969)
79J.D. SalingerThe Catcher in the Rye (1951)
80May Sarton At Seventy (1984)
81Leslie Marmon Silko Ceremony (1977)
82Isaac B. SingerThe Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer (1982)
83Gertrude Stein The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1993)
84John SteinbeckThe Grapes of Wrath (1937)
85William StyronSophie's Choice (1979)
86James ThurberA Thurber Carnival (1945)
87Jean Toomer Cane (1923)
88Mark Twain Letters from the Earth (1962)
89John Updike Rabbit, Run (1960)
90Gore VidalThe United States: Essays (1952-1992)
91Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse Five (1969)
92Alice Walker The Color Purple (1982)
93Robert Penn Warren All the Kings Men (1946)
94Nathanael WestThe Day of the Locust (1939)
95John Edgar Wideman Philadelphia Fire (1990)
96William Carlos WilliamsIn the American Grain (1925)
97Edmund Wilson To the Finland Station (1940)
98Thomas WolfeYou Can't Go Home Again (1941)
99Richard Wright Native Son (1940)
100Wakako Yamauchi Songs My Mother Taught Me (1994)

Source: The Hungry Mind Review. I am actually embarrassed to say how many of these I have read. I have bolded the author and title of those I have read, and just the author if I have read other works by her/him.


Jennifer Government, by Max Barry

Editor's note: This is one future dystopia that has really stood the test of time. I am still recommending it to people. In fact, I need to get a copy from the library and read it again myself.

I am finally getting around to reviewing Jennifer Government, and what excellent timing, coming on the heels of the latest atrocity wrought by the US use of privatized paramilitaries (also known as mercenaries). It is the complete privatization of all "services" that could possibly be performed by the government that drives the plot of this small, frantically-paced, quirky SF novel, set in the usual near-future dystopia. But as near-future dystopias go, this one is the most believable yet, and the real likely result of current neo-con trends. Jennifer works for the government, true, just as Buy Mitsui works for Mitsui and Hack Nike works for Nike and Billy NRA - well, one of them does work for the NRA and the other one is pretending to, hence the confusion. But even though Jennifer's job with the government is tracking down and apprehending criminals (not that there's much one can do anymore that is criminal) she can only go to work if she gets funding, and that may have to come from the grief-stricken parents of a murder victim. Funding once acquired, she goes to work to uncover a brilliant new marketing strategy at Nike - mass murders of youths who have just purchased their $2,500 trainers (to raise the street cred, you see.) Jennifer thinks the style of this sounds familiar - sounds like her ex-husband, as a matter of fact. And so it is! John Nike, he is known as now. But it turns out that the killing was assigned to a soft little pleb named Hack Nike who contracted it out to The Police (TM) (who, in one of the novel's many comic touches, play "Every Breath You Take" constantly at their headquarters, because it's their corporate anthem.) They in turn contract it out to the NRA, who are essentially the best funded and most profitable of all the private armies on the planet.
I have a mixed reaction to this book. The premise is spot-on, and some of the wise-ass comedy is absolutely brilliant. On the down-side, and this is not necessary in a black-comic SF novel but it is often the case, the characters are very cartoon-y. I think Barry is trying to humanize Jennifer by giving her a child (the reason she is no longer married to evil John) and the usual single-parent struggle, and a beginnings of a love-life, but all it does is detract from her integrity as a character (rather than as a person) because he is not quite a good enough writer to pull that off. It might have been better to centre her character around devotion to the job and make her lonely and introspective. Also, I am not a big fan of slapstick, even in visual forms, and I find most attempts to write slapstick vaguely irritating. (The one exception being Thomas Pynchon, which is why I admire him so much.) But in all, the good outweighs the bad, and I would give this book an 8.5 out of 10 as SF and a 5 out of 10 as "Literature".


Cavedweller, by Dorothy Allison (Dorothy Allison Lite?)

I guess it was about twelve years ago at least that I read Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina.  (Editor's Note: Now eighteen!) What an experience that was; it absolutely bowled me over. A few years later she came to Minneapolis to speak at the Amazon Women's Bookstore (no relation to the online outfit, which it pre-dated by two decades.) I think it was then that I bought Two or Three Things I Know For Sure, her book of essays which quickly became a classic of queer non-fiction, as her novel was of queer literature.
I was probably expecting more of the same in Cavedweller. Although there is some pain and guilt and a soap-opera worth of messed-up lives, and although it still has that ineffable ability to bring back my own Southern childhood and young adult days through subtle references to sounds and smells and plants and foods and places, it is just not in the same league as Bastard Out of Carolina. That might be A Good Thing, though, because I am sure a lot of people just couldn't quite take Bastard Out of Carolina; it was very raw and very real (largely autobiographical) and yet very alien to most people who, when they say they had a horrible childhood, don't quite mean the same thing as Dorothy Allison means. I love Dorothy Allison, and I will happily read anything she writes. But I think BOOC was a one-shot deal.


A novel like a poem: If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things, by Jon McGregor

Editor's Note: At the time I wrote this, McGregor had no further novels, but now, nine years later, he does. Also, I am not sure if I knew when I wrote this that he was local, not to the town in Leicestershire where I lived, but to the city, Nottingham, where I worked, a city that started to almost feel like a hometown to me. He has come into the recognition I felt he deserved back then, and the novel is now referred to as "critically acclaimed" on Alibris.

The first, and so far, I believe, only novel by Jon McGregor, this is a book that needs more recognition. Reviewers liked it - a lot - and so did I. It is written in a poetic style like a long poem in blank verse. Many of the main characters in the story are never named but are referred to by the house number on the street where the "remarkable things" take place. The story is also like a Greek tragedy, in that almost all of the action takes place in a very short space of time, and on a single street in a typical Northern English city. The street is not a posh or fashionable one; most of the inhabitants are students or immigrants or disabled. There are children playing in the street, which doesn't happen so much in the upscale neighbourhoods. There are people making love in the afternoon, there are very old people who stand at the window and see what goes on in the street. This is an elegaic story, a story full of wonder and melancholy and miracles and disasters and minute observation of the everyday. It's not like any other novel you have ever read.

Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier

Now a major motion picture, as they say. This was a very cinematic book, as other reviewers of the film have pointed out, and did really cry out to be made into a lovely movie. I haven't seen the movie, just read the book. It had a really authentic-seeming feel, in that as one read it, one felt immersed in this 17th century Dutch town culture, but do we really know what that was like? No, but it was convincing. A little less convincing were the motivations of the main character, Griet. What Chevalier has done with this book is to imagine a persona for the mysterious girl in the painting, of whom no one knows a thing - her age, name, relationship to the painter Vermeer if any. Of especial mystery is her clothing in the painting, which is not typical of any known style at the time. It is vaguely exotic-looking, yet the girl herself is anything but exotic, and is in fact most remarkable for her simplicity and quintessential pretty-young-Dutch-girl appearance. So Chevalier has imagined her as a teenaged maid, from a nice "middle-class" artisan family, forced into service because of her father's industrial accident, and thrust into a slightly alien Catholic household headed by a non-communicative painter and his troubled wife and dominating mother-in-law. All in all I had mixed feelings about the book. It was like a great painting of which you don't know enough; it seemed to promise more than it delivered somehow. And yet I have to give it points for realism, for that very reason: life is often mysterious and vaguely unsatifying, and this book is a hyper-realistic slice of life.