The “Ten Books” Meme

I was a little put out no one had tagged me for the “Ten Books That Changed My Life” meme going around Facebook – what? you all didn’t know I read ALL.THE.TIME??

No matter. When Neil Kramer proposed a Facebook group to organize the lists of all his friends and whoever was interested, I jumped right in.

Here’s my list, with explanations and expansions and links to thoughts on many of them as written elsewhere here. Oh, and? Um, more than ten, I know. I counted more than one by the same author as one, though. And then *had* to add Stones from the River, as it is the one book that I’ve ever read that explains really well how it was that the German people were so taken in by Hitler, and how much the “frog in a pot of boiling water” analogy applies.

Perhaps you’re glad now you didn’t ask??

Oh, and? just because a title doesn’t have a link doesn’t mean I thought any less of it than others; it just means I’ve been too lazy to write about it here or anywhere. They’re still all great reads.


Defending Food

Because I decided to involve myself in a Facebook group lauding the meme going around called “Ten Books That Changed My Life”, I came back here to my blog to call to mind books I’ve reviewed here – these are the ones of the many I read every month that have stuck with me and had enough of an impact that I wanted to record my thoughts about them.

In doing so, I found a couple of books I started to write about, but for whatever reason, never finished. Hmmm. Lazy, probably. But I thought I’d finally finish and publish the below, begun in June of 2010 (!)

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I thought I knew quite a bit about proper nutrition, being a vegetarian, having known a lot of phenomenal cooks, and basically, having been an eater for …well, InDefenseFood_cover_thumba lot of years. Reading Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food I’m finding out how wrong, and *deluded*, I’ve been.

The thing I didn’t realize, and perhaps you don’t either if you haven’t already read this book, is just how much of public “knowledge” and “common wisdom” around nutrition actually falls into the category of what Pollan calls “nutritionism” – an ideology around thinking about food, which is not the same as “nutrition”, which as Merriam-Webster tells us, is “the sum of the processes by which an animal or plant takes in and utilizes food substances.”

I am blown away by how much the food manufacturing industry has succeeded in directing our thinking about food, beginning with re-labeling food in terms of its macronutrients – protein, carbohydrates, and fats. I think, for instance, of the TV show, Top Chef, where, during what they call the “quick-fire challenge”, the contestants are presented with shelves or tables full of various foods and told what they have to make in something like 15-30 minutes – and they always talk about “choosing a protein”, as opposed to naming the meat or plant food representing a protein which would fit into the recipe they want to make.

It’s in the interest of the food industry in America to make sure we eat more and more highly-processed foods, and less and less “natural”, or raw, or straight-from-the-farm foods – the latter really don’t make them much money, after all, whereas the former does. Have you ever noticed, for example, that nearly all the coupons you find in the supermarket flyers and Sunday papers are for boxed, packaged, and processed foods? Not ONE says “get 50 cents off a head of broccoli”!

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Well, here it is, more than four years later, and little has changed in terms of what I wrote above. The food manufacturing industry is still trying to pull the wool over our eyes, the FDA is still in the food industry’s pocket, and the junk food still grabs our taste buds and addictive centers and pulls us in.

This book, and Michael Pollan’s others are all very worth your time (I especially loved The Botany of Desire). His axiom to “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” is more important than ever. Read his books, enjoy the knowledge he shares, and eat some good food!

Changing Attitudes

There are a couple of articles getting a lot of play around the internet in the last few days, from two University of Chicago students who participated in a study-abroad trip to India. One young woman had a very bad, very difficult experience: she was assaulted – visually, verbally, and in all sorts of disgusting ways – “stalked, groped, masturbated at” as she says, over the several weeks of her trip, by all kinds of South Asian men; she also came close twice to being raped. As a result she suffered, and still suffers, PTSD.

The second young woman, also on the same trip, posted something of a rebuttal, trying to make clear that not all men in India behave in the ways the first woman experienced. Her post struck me as being quite well-reasoned and balanced, although some find it to be somewhat overly apologetic on behalf of Indian men. I thought this part of the second post particularly resonant, however: “But Stewart, who is black, cautioned that ‘when we do not make the distinction that only some men of a population commit a crime, we develop a stereotype for an entire population. And when we develop a negative stereotype for a population, what arises? Racism.'” (Quote from this CNN article.)

Here’s the thing I started thinking about, which comes up for me a lot around the subject of men’s attitudes about rape and towards women in general. Why is it, as one Facebook friend said, that there’s a mindset “which thinks its ‘natural’ for men to not be able to control themselves and for women to be viewed as sexual objects first and foremost”? Where does that mindset come from? Are those men, from the time they are babies and little boys, given the idea and impression that girls and women are on this earth simply for them to ogle, gape at, stalk, assault verbally and physically, brush up against, leer at, and on and on? Where do those attitudes come from?

And yes, I think it’s true that it’s not specific to India, or to any other country, region, or continent. It’s not specific at all; it’s global. Men in all countries and all cultures to some degree or another have been allowed or even brought up to believe this. Men have been taught and shown by their fathers and even by their mothers that women are of less value and exist primarily or even only as objects of their desire or use. Many many men are not taught in their upbringing to respect and revere the women in their lives and environments; and they are especially taught by the media to view women as sexual objects only. And, as if that’s not bad enough, many many women are brought up to feel that their sexual self is the only value they have to offer to the world. These intertwined truths result in the kinds of attitudes and behaviors we see.

In some cultures and religions, men are made to believe that they have no control over their own impulses toward women, and that it’s the woman’s responsibility to keep men from ogling them and much worse, often by covering their bodies with all sorts of prescribed clothing (burkas et al.) and by behaving in certain ways and not in other ways. Men think it’s not up to them to behave maturely and consciously, but rather up to women to keep them (the men) from behaving badly. There is a global culture of other-blaming as opposed to taking responsibility and being accountable for one’s own actions.

I do want to clarify that of course, it’s not ALL men EVERYWHERE. But, a significantly large percentage of all men do act in these ways and believe these attitudes . 

Here is the thing I don’t understand though: how is it that women, mothers, in this day and age, are not raising their sons to be respectful, to honor the girls and women in their lives, to question and strike out against what they hear and see in the media, in music (rap and hip-hop!), and online? I certainly, myself, don’t claim to be perfect in this regard, but I know I have tried very hard to get my son to do exactly that. And I have been blessed that those efforts are supported by people around him and around me, and by his father as well, and also by the schooling he’s been exposed to.

This is not only the responsibility of mothers; it’s also very importantly the responsibility of fathers – they need to model better behavior and they need to specifically teach better values – that women are not men’s toys – they are equal and valuable human beings. And, each child has to know to listen to their own inner voice, to know, for boys, they don’t have to “go along with the crowd” when the crowd is denigrating girls and women, and for girls, they don’t have to accept lewd or any behavior that scares them or makes them feel bad, or just “go along to get along” with anyone else’s actions. It’s the only way, ultimately, that these terrible events will change.

We, all people in all cultures, must teach men and boys that the way to stop rape and sexual assaults of all kinds it to NOT DO IT. And they learn that by being taught that every girl and every woman has the same value and rights as they themselves do. It’s the golden rule, folks!

How Would You Survive?

If you look back over the book reviews I’ve done here, you might think I read two or three books a year, at most. In reality, I devour books. I read at least two to three a week, often more. But, because I read for escape, and most of those don’t stick with me, I don’t take the time to write anything about them.

I’ve just finished Room, by Emma Donoghue, and I know this book is going to stick with me for a very long time. A train friend was reading it recently and highly recommended it, but when she told me its basic premise, I thought I’d never be able to read it – as a mom, it sounded like it would cut way too close to the bone. Then I picked up a copy last night at Barbara’s in South Station on my way home (having finished my last book, Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier, on the subway) and, skimming the first two or three pages, I was immediately hooked. The book came home with me, and I finished it today.

You may be wondering, what was that basic premise? Told in the voice of Jack, a just-turned-five-year-old boy, it’s about his and his Ma’s life as prisoners in an 11 by 11 foot room. This is their entire world, and it’s all Jack has ever known.

Ma is a now-27 year old woman who was kidnapped by a man unknown to her from her college campus at age 19. She has lived as his prisoner and sexual slave for over seven years in Room, and for the last five, has protected and nurtured and raised her son in astounding ways.

Jack is a most intriguing mix of nearly grown up, and still practically a toddler. The name of every item in Room, including Room itself, is capitalized in his mind, and because mostly there is only one of everything, nothing is “the” Room, or “the” Bed, or “the” Rug – it’s Room, Bed, Rug, Duvet, Skylight (which looks straight up and is their only view to Outside), investing them with life and personalities of their own.

Jack has mad-crazy language skills (in spite of being a bit shaky on grammar upon occasion) and also math skills. He can repeat back, perfectly, whole lines of what he hears on the TV, in a game he and Ma call Parrot. His vocabulary and understanding are extensive.

Whereas one might think Ma would be nearly catatonic after all those years mostly alone (her captor, who she and Jack refer to as Old Nick – because, like Santa, he only comes at night – comes to Room for only a little while a few times a week), she has made every effort to keep herself – and thus Jack – sane and as whole as possible, teaching him everything she can.

Ma and Jack have a small black-and-white TV that gets only a couple channels via Bunny (the antenna ears), and Ma has taught Jack that everything he sees on TV is fantasy (as she says later, “why teach him there are things and places out there he may never get to see or experience?”) To keep their brains from “becoming mushy” they only watch one or two shows a day, the rest of the time reading, talking, exercising, napping, playing – living as normally as Ma can make it. Jack thinks the things he sees on the TV are each their own planets – the Dora planet, the medical planet, the news planet, the animals planet.

Now, however, Jack is five, and Ma finds out that Old Nick’s living situation has become very tenuous – he has been unemployed for over six months and may be close to losing his house. She decides it’s time for them to formulate an escape plan. Of course, she’s thought of a million escape plans over the years, none of which were feasible enough to try, because of the fortress-like nature of Room, gradually revealed throughout the story. The only plan she did try resulted in Old Nick breaking her wrist, which has never properly healed.

But now her desperation is coming full bloom – Jack cannot stay in Room any longer, they both need the world. So she starts “unlying” to him – explaining that much of what they see on the TV is, in fact, real, and does exist. She tells him about her Mom and Dad, and brother Paul, that they have relatives, people who care for her and will also care for Jack. Together they work out a plan to get Old Nick to take Jack out of Room, making him think Jack is very very sick and needs a hospital, whereupon Jack will run away and get help.

While escape doesn’t work quite according to plan, in the end (about halfway through the book) it does work. Then both Ma and Jack have to start learning what it means to be living Outside, and how their lives will go on from Room.

This is a finely-crafted, incredibly engaging book. I never once got tired of Jack’s voice; his thoughts and experiences and the ways he expresses them ring true in every line. The author tells usIt was not Old Nick’s evil that fascinated me, but the resilience of Ma and Jack: the nitty-gritties of their survival, their trick of more or less thriving under apparently unbearable conditions. Because of this, there are no specifically horrific parts meant only to terrorize the reader. I was always aware, as an undercurrent, of the terrible circumstances of Ma’s and Jack’s existence, but the love and light and life that they shared together was the most stand-out part of the story.

Ms. Donoghue has done a remarkable job of showing us exactly their resilience and desire to survive. You should read this book.

Your Next Great Read

I’ve said in the past, both here and elsewhere (Twitter and FB), that I mostly don’t buy books, being a major library fan and user (and yet, in our recent move, what did we have the most boxes of?? Books, of course!)

However, I DO buy books when I love them and am sure I’ll want to read them again. I just took advantage of Borders closing a huge store here in the Boston area to pick up a copy of one of my newest favorite author’s books, Tawni O’Dell‘s Sister Mine. And then I stopped by Harvard Book Store the next morning to purchase the newly released paperback of Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I’ve rhapsodized over this wonderful book previously, so I’ll let you go there to read what I think about that, and continue here with your next great read.

Saying Tawni O’Dell is my “newest favorite” isn’t quite right, as my first exposure to her was via her second book, Coal Run, a few years ago. I remember being blown away at the time by her luminescent prose. There were phrases that just jumped out at me and I had to read over and over, to try to absorb their poetry. When I was inspired to get Sister Mine out of the library again, it only took reading about 1/4 of the book before I knew I had to have a copy for my own.

Coal Run was preceded by Back Roads – both of which I would have purchased as well except that Borders didn’t have any copies.

Sister Mine is the first-person narrative of Shae-Lynn Penrose – a cabdriver in the small Pennsylvania coal town of Jolly Mount; former Capitol Police officer; single mother of a grown young son; daughter of her dead and very brutal coal-miner father; and older sister to the missing and presumed-dead-for-eighteen-years Shannon Penrose – who now turns out to be very much alive.

As the story develops, you learn more and more about Shae-Lynn; how she lives her life, and what that “how” is in response to, in her past. I became more and more drawn to her, feeling like I would love to know her in real life (almost like a social media friend!) The plot twists and turns and I rooted for Shae-Lynn to get the positive outcome she deserved. She learns things about her sister and about her own life that she would never have wished to know, but which bring her out of her self-imposed fantasies about the past into a life which can be better than she ever thought.

And where has Shannon been all these years? Shae-Lynn was convinced (on nearly no evidence at all) that their father had killed Shannon, and that was why no one had ever heard from her. The truth is more surprising and heart-wrenching even than that.

And, as with her other books, Ms. O’Dell’s prose shines. It’s engaging and memorable. Another book (all of her books, really) about which I say: Get it! Read it! You’ll enjoy it.

Why I’m Just Not Excited About Twitter Anymore…

I recently was put in temporary charge of my employer’s Twitter account, so I started paying attention to both that stream, and to my own, using Hootsuite (which is a pretty useful tool, btw).

What I’ve noticed is what I felt I’d been seeing for quite awhile already in my own Twitter stream. Nobody’s actually TALKING to each other. In my own account, I follow about 800 people, and over 1400 follow me. In my employer’s account, we follow nearly 5900 people and close to 6900 follow us. Maybe, in both cases, it’s just way too many, I don’t know…

In both accounts, what I see all the time is people just posting stuff – links, thoughts, RTs, etc. But very seldom does anyone actually respond to what someone else (read, me!) has posted – even when the tweet specifically “@mentions” another person. There are few conversations actually being started up, or followed up on.

Is it me? Seems like when I was most active in Twitter, about 18 months ago, I was having actual interactions with people. Now? almost never.

So, I moved on to Facebook. Yes, it’s true. I’m one of those crazies. But NOT a game-player, by the way. You’ll never find me in Farmville or wherever. I “hide” almost all the posts from FB friends that are just game or app status updates. I’ve found it means I miss nearly everything from a few of my FB friends (>cough – brother! cough<) but even so, I participate in many more actual conversations and interactions with people there.

I feel seen, noticed, recognized – unlike on Twitter. And am building some nice on-line friendships there, not only with old IRL friends, but with Tweeters and bloggers who I especially enjoy.

So, if you want to check in with me there (I comment A LOT on my friends’ posts, by the way :-) ) feel free to send a friend request: I promise I’ll at least message you back, and probably confirm the request, too.

What to Read Next… if you, or someone in your life, are 5(ish) – or even if not!

One of my very fave bloggers, The Bloggess, also lives at the Houston Chronicle’s Good Mom/Bad Mom blog. She posted a request to her readers the other day to recommend books her 5-year-old daughter and she might enjoy together.

So, here’s the thing about Jenny. EVERYONE loves her. Really. So, when she asks a question, she gets the most wonderful answers and comments. As an inveterate and life-long reader I was truly overwhelmed with the wide-ranging and enchanting selection of books Jenny’s commenters suggested.

I’m going to start up a new TBR library list from the comments. I’m wracking my brain trying to think of situations in which I could volunteer to read to kids, just for the joy of getting to read these books myself, both those I know and the ones I don’t, and for the delight of sharing them. I don’t have any littles in my life at the moment :-(  I wonder about homeless shelters for families, for instance… Any other suggestions??