Wednesday, July 2, 2008

What I'm Reading Now-July 2nd edition

Well, as you can see, my wheel of books has not changed significantly since my last post. I did finish The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals which I did enjoy even though it was a long read. It was thoughtful and thorough and provided a lot of good information. It's very easy for people to take frivolous political stands about being meat-eaters or vegetarians or vegans, but I think Michael Pollan did a good job of evaluating the different considerations of these various stands. It's not as cut-and-dry as we would all like to think it is, especially for those of us lucky enough to be living in a place like the United States, where food, and food choices, are, for the most part, abundant. Pollan does end up creating a meal that he has hunted, gathered, and grown on his own. While proving that it can indeed be done, he makes no bones about the fact that it isn't a very realistic expectation for most people. Anyway, long story short, I would recommend this book.

Backyard Giants: The Passionate, Heartbreaking, and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever by Susan Warren-I loved this book! Remember how I said that, "I like reading about gardening and huge undertakings by inspired visionaries." No? Well, I did. In my review of A Clearing in the Distance. This book was all the things I wanted that book to be. Okay, maybe growing giant pumpkins isn't the same as designing Central Park, but it's something. The book was a quick, easy read, and it provided me with a lot of interesting facts. Did you know that pumpkins can put on up to 40 lbs. of weight a day? I didn't think so. And neither did I before I read this book. Backyard Giants follows a group of growers, mostly in Rhode Island, through a pumpkin-growing season, during which they are attempting to break the 1,500 lb. goal. That's right, 1,500 POUNDS. Go outside and look at your car. Now, imagine it's a pumpkin. Impressive, right? Anyway, it mostly follows a father-son team, but also incorporates all the folks in their growing club as well. These are regular Joes, people who work for a living and tend to their pumpkins the rest of the time. They help each other out, they cheer each other on, they wrap their pumpkins in blankets at night. I was laughing, crying and cheering throughout this book. Pick it up and give it a read. If nothing else, it provides you with great material for small talk.

Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life by John McCain and Marshall Salter-I feel bad not giving this book a rave review, but it was just ok. I had a hard time with McCain's writing style. To be fair, I guess it could have been Marshall Salter's style that I had a problem with and not John McCain's. It wasn't complex, but I often had to go back and re-read sentences several times to figure out what he had just said. I think McCain felt awkward about writing this book, and it sort of showed. While I liked his humility and candor, I felt like he felt obligated to write a book when perhaps a short paper would have sufficed. He tells several stories about brave and courageous folks who are certainly worthy of our admiration and provide much inspiration. He talks about how we tend to over use the word "courage" these days, thereby devaluing real courage. Sure, it might be painful or scary to talk about your struggle with weight or make a public speech, but is it really courageous? Can you really put that in the same category as running back into a jungle full of enemy soldiers to retrieve the body of a fallen comrade when you're already injured, out of ammo, and outnumbered 10-to-1? He talks about moral courage and setting examples for our children. Overall, the message was good, but I don't think the book was great.

Water for Elephants: A Novel by Sara Gruen-This is one I've picked up a dozen times over the years but was never quite convinced that it would be as good as I wanted it to be. I finally had a couple rave reviews from close friends and picked it up in the airport on my way home from DC. I loved this book. It had elephants and romance and the circus and trains and beloved pets and sweet, sweet justice. What more could you ask for? The main character, Jacob, runs away and, without really meaning to, joins the circus as their resident vet. He meets and immediately falls in love with the beautiful Marlena who is married to August. August is in charge of the animals and is a bit psychotic. August is also Jacob's new boss. You can see where this is going, right? Nowhere good.

This is a depression-era novel, and circuses are going out of business like crazy. The owner of the circus that Jacob has fallen in with is a shrewd businessman and manages to pick up defunct circus assets in his travels. In this way, they gain the new star of their show, Rosie, the elephant. Rosie is gentle but doesn't seem to know anything. Between the general hit of the depression and August's non-performing elephant, the circus is falling on hard times. Employees aren't getting paid, and the owner isn't averse to "red-lighting," tossing people off the train during its night-time travels to avoid...problems. Things eventually pick up, Rosie gets in the game, but she still makes mistakes that send August into psychotic rages, much to everyone's distress.

At the very beginning of the book, we learn what we think is the big secret that Jacob has been keeping all these years, and the book works its way back around to this calamitous moment, during which even more is revealed, and I have to say I was surprised. I thought I knew where it was going, but I didn't. Jacob is now an old man in a nursing home, and the story goes back and forth between his days in the circus and his days in the nursing home. The circus has come to town, and so begins his reminiscing. I liked both endings of this book-the ending to the story that Jacob is telling and the ending of Jacob's current-day story. This was also a quick, easy read.

**Edited 3/31/09 to add
Other reviews:
Marg at Reading Adventures

Wilderness Tips by Margaret Atwood-Margaret Atwood is one of those authors I feel compelled to like. I've read a couple of her books and thought they were ok, but I don't recall being bowled over by any of them. People always rave about her, and every couple years I think that maybe I've matured enough to finally appreciate Margaret Atwood like I am supposed to. Apparently, this isn't the case. I still think she's ok. Wilderness Tips is a book of short stories...*sigh*. I feel compelled to try to like short stories too. I just can't think of any short story that I've ever read and gone, "Wow!" And, again, this makes me feel like a literary 12-year-old. So, anyway, I've got this book of short stories by Margaret Atwood...and so far, it's ok. Actually, at the end of one of her stories, "Hairball," I did go, "Wow," but it was "Wow, that's kinda f*cked up," not "Wow! I've got to tell other people to read this!" I'm about half-way through; I'll let you know my final verdict.

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