Friday, March 29, 2013

"The Light Between Oceans" by M.L. Stedman

The Light Between Oceans is a quiet novel, full of characters with expected emotions and reactions. There's little that's surprising in the book, but it does what it does well.

The novel follows Tom and Isabel, a recently married couple stationed on Janus, a desolate speck of land important only for its lighthouse, which Tom maintains. Isabel desperately wants a child and is crazy with grief after her third miscarriage when a boat washes ashore. Inside the boat is a dead man and a healthy baby girl. Against Tom's better judgment, Isabel keeps the baby--reasoning that its parents must be dead--, and they decide to pass the child off as their own. However, when they return to the mainland several years later, they learn the baby was not really orphaned.

There's some beautiful description of Janus and the maintenance of the lighthouse as well as understanding about what it's like to live on a piece of land inhabited solely by you. The characters are fully-detailed, but their stories play out conventionally. Tom is a good, hard-working man, devoted to his wife; he gives in to her desire to keep a baby but continually feels guilt. Isabel is devoted to having a child and is an ideal mother to the baby; she allows no thoughts of the baby's origination to enter her mind. When they learn the truth of the baby's parentage, the expected reactions continue. There's a lot of grief and heartache--well-written but also well-trod--that follows. It is, however, a testament to Stedman's skill that even once I learned the truth about the child, I still wanted Isabel to keep her. I knew it wasn't right, but I was completely in sympathy with Isabel's feelings.

That the book ends as it must is perhaps the most surprising part. The reader hopes for a fairytale solution that doesn't come. I saw another reviewer say there was something "fatalistic" about the novel, and I'd agree--though the characters appear to make choices, there's a sense that everything is determined from the start.

The Light Between Oceans wasn't especially memorable, but it's well-written and moves at a quick pace despite little real action occurring.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

"Salt Sugar Fat" by Michael Moss

Elsewhere on this blog I've mentioned the changes in food and exercise my husband and I have taken over the last few years, and more significantly, over the last six months or so. We're now both at our ideal weights and fitness levels, something for which I'm very proud. I knew there were a lot of things wrong with our diets beforehand, but after reading Salt Sugar Fat, a condemnation of processed foods, I'm even more aware of where we went wrong originally and how our recent changes have improved our lives for the better. Here are a few areas I learned about from Salt Sugar Fat:

1. Soda
I've pretty much always been a diet soda drinker, so I never had much guilt around my daily consumption of diet coke. But about three years ago, something about my heavy consumption--mostly vague concerns about aspartame--began to bother me. One day, I quit cold turkey and have never gone back. Moss points to sugary sodas as perhaps the greatest contributor to the rising obesity problem, particularly because of the way the drink industry has formulated their beverages. They are sugary and desirable without sating the appetite or making people tired of the taste. And the marketing that goes into companies like Coca Cola and Pepsi is simply astronomical. Though diet sodas like I was drinking are preferable to the full-calorie version, studies show that even diet colas stimulate the appetite, still causing weight gain.

2. Cheese
When my husband and I were first married, I supported both of us on a teacher's salary while my husband was in grad school. We pinched at every corner, and part of that pinching involved taking advantage of our local grocery store's $5 pizza deal every Friday. We knew pizza wasn't healthy, but the cost was so low that we couldn't resist. And though I would have thought the pizza was problematic mostly because of the grease, the real problem with pizza is the cheese. Surprisingly to me, cheese (along with red meat) is the largest contributor of saturated fat to our diet. Through decades of marketing, companies like Kraft have changed cheese from a snack or after-dinner dessert to an ingredient in every meal of the day. Couple that with the fact that it's nearly impossible to make palatable low-fat cheese, and you've got one bad food. Now a days we occasionally add an ounce or two of parmesan, goat cheese, or feta to our meals, but that's it.

3. Red meat
As I mentioned above, cheese and red meats are two strong contributors of fat in our diet. Like with cheese, though, I didn't always immediately picture meat as a "bad" food the way I associated potato chips or ice cream with unhealthy eating. Yet my husband and I were using beef--mostly ground--several times a week, usually buying the 70% lean (read--30% fat) kind that was cheapest. Now we work hard to have red meat no more than twice a month.

4. Cereal
I've had cereal for breakfast in the morning for as along as I can remember. And, truthfully, it was something I was proud of. I never skipped breakfast like other people I knew, and, really, wasn't I having a healthy morning meal? All the commercials told me I was. But cereal is absolutely loaded with sugar. In fact, the worst kids' cereals are 70% sugar. And cereal companies are perhaps the most deceptive when it comes to marketing cereals and the most insidious in their ability to market to kids. My daily breakfast today consists of plain oatmeal with fresh berries and a dash of cinnamon.

5. Processed snacks
I love Fritos. When I first started working (making $25,000/year in Washington D.C. and living in a $1200/month apartment... the math does not work out), I'd regularly bring several Tostinos pizza rolls in to work for lunch. Or if I was feeling really decadent, I'd spring on those gooey Toaster Strudels... And, again, I knew these were bad for me, but I didn't realize just how much the food industry has manipulated their sugar, salt, and fat makeup to maximize my pleasure. But the truth is, these foods simply don't taste good and aren't shelf stable without the presence of the three. Needless to say, none of these are in my pantry now.

Salt Sugar Fat covers all these areas and more, exploring why we desire processed foods and how the food giants have manipulated their products to increase our desire for them. Moss also talks about the marketing practices behind America's most successful products. Most of the information wasn't brand new to me, but Moss gives more depth to the knowledge I already had. Occasionally the book seemed repetitive, but there were enough new details to make it worthwhile. (I would mention, though, that the excerpt from the book published in The New York Times on March 17 highlights most of the book's salient points.)

Mostly, though, it was interesting to learn more about why the changes my husband and I made have been successful: things like removing breakfast cereal, eliminating lunchmeat and chips, and excising cheese, prepackaged sides, and Campbells cream of whatever soups from dinner. Though Moss offers some suggestions to combat the increasing obesity in America, I was more struck by how impossible to overcome the challenge seems. After all, though I'm a much healthier eater now, I also know how easy it is to give in--particularly when parents bring in a table of desserts each month for teachers' birthdays, or when we go out and a friend orders the loaded nachos. I succeed overall solely by not having those things in my home, but my resistance goes out the door when it's placed in front of me. Sugar, salt, and fat are just stronger than we are--and more knowledge is perhaps out only hope of standing a chance against them.

Monday, March 18, 2013

"John Dies at the End" by David Wong

There's a niche within the zombie/horror genre filled with films like Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead. And I don't think these films are just for parody or satire because they fulfill a need. Sure, many of us like to be scared and to imagine grisly monsters lurking around the corner, but we also don't want to be too depressed or despondent about the whole situation (i.e. why my husband won't watch The Walking Dead). So we take our monsters and shadows with a good dose of sarcasm, randomness, and jokes.

Though John Dies at the End isn't about zombies (more about other-worldly monsters/shadows/evil things), I still think it falls into the same category, juxtaposing humor (mostly crass, as when a character turns to go upstairs and see the basement door handle has been turned into a penis... yeah...) with downright horror. It's a combination that is largely successful, though it wears thin at times and also hides some of the more thoughtful and touching parts of the book.

The plot beyond a broad summary is convoluted at best, so I'll stick with the basics. David and his friend John are exposed to "soy sauce," a mysterious black substance that allows them contact with creatures and other beings from another world who are invading our own. Because of their ability to see these creatures, David and John get caught up in a plot to save the world from an invasion of... shadow things? We'll stick with that. Also, there's a ghost dog and a girl without a hand.

The book's structure is set as a story-within-a-story, as David narrates his tale to a reporter. The typical "big fight that saves the world" is only half-way through, which allows Wong to build in a "what happens after?" while leading up to another "big fight that saves the world." Though both parts are interesting, I did feel the book was somewhat too long (nearly 400 pages) since at some point it the plot appears to exists only so wackier and grosser things can be piled on. And the gross and horrific are truly gross and horrific, so I don't recommend the novel for anyone who doesn't like to read about feces, bodily fluids, or moth-like creatures that dig into a person's skin.

Nevertheless, the book truly is funny at times, and though the weird doesn't always make sense, at least it's surprisingly weird. David's relationship with Amy (and even John) also has some unexpected emotional depth.

Overall, the book is fairly sophomoric, but still engaging and fun.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

"Silver Linings Playbook" by Matthew Quick

I suppose the terms "beach read" and "summer blockbuster" have similar connotations in individuals' minds: entertainment that's fun and enjoyable while it lasts but is also a bit thin once scratched below the surface. It doesn't hold up in retrospection. By that definition, I'd include Silver Linings Playbook in the same genre as summer films like Transformers or Iron Man. Not because Silver Linings has great action sequences or robots, but because it left me with similar feelings once it was done.

Silver Linings follows Pat Peoples, newly released from a mental institution. He's determined to get back his wife, Nikki, who left him after some incident which prompted the incarceration, even though everyone else is determined for Pat to move on. Soon he meets Tiffany, a similarly mentally troubled woman, and an odd friendship forms.

Pat's narration often sounds like it's coming from a mentally retarded teenager (and I mean that seriously, not as a joke/insult). He uses terms like "apart time" to describe his separation from his wife and "bad place" to describe his institutionalization. Though I understand that he's had some sort of psychotic break and now has selective amnesia and is medicated, I guess that wasn't enough, for me, to explain why he speaks and thinks like a simpleton. Sure, he's in denial about his past, and especially about his relationship with Nikki, but would he then view the entire world through "MR teenager" eyes?

The book seems mostly focused on recording its characters' quirks, much like The Elephant Keepers' Children, rather than making the characters actual people. Pat exercises obsessively and is terrified of Kenny G. Though the book spends significant time chronicling his efforts to get fit to impress Nikki, all the detail just didn't go anywhere. Okay, his exercising shows his misguided thinking (assuming Nikki's separation from him stems from his personal appearance), but that seemed to be the only reason it was there. Or take Tiffany's obsession with winning a dance competition. Again, I suppose it shows some of her character, but they practice dancing a lot, and then they dance really well, and then.... so what? It seemed to lead to nothing. Some of these traits might seem more appropriate in a movie, where randomness can come off as cute rather than just, well, random.

Truthfully, Pat's father, a reticent man who communicates only through his enthusiasm for the Eagles and whose moods are entirely dependent on the Eagles' season, is a far more interesting character than either of the leads. If there's anyone who truly needs help, it's him, and not surprisingly, he has the least cliche ending.

So I have a lot to criticize about the book. But, as I alluded to at the beginning, it was an enjoyable and quick read, and I never felt reluctant to pick up the book again. In fact, I read through the latter half in one long sitting. Recommended for those times when you need a break from "heavy" fiction and don't want to think about the book too much afterwards.

Monday, March 4, 2013

"Tenth of December" by George Saunders

Saunders' Tenth of December has been getting crazy press and high praise, with New York Times writer Joel Lovell declaring, "George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You'll Read This Year." Saunders might be in trouble if hype could kill. But, luckily for us, it doesn't, and double luckily Tenth of December is as fabulous as it's been made out to be.

The short stories which comprise this collection aren't connected except thematically and by the strength of the voices of the intricately crafted characters. Each story is from an emotive and reactive first person point of view and written in what I might inadequately call stream of consciousness. But where the term "stream of consciousness" makes me think of punctuation-less rambling or Joyce' indecipherable Ulysses, Saunders' prose instead expertly captures the images and feelings beneath the inner monologue that continually runs through our head. He exposes the way we lie in our minds; the way we recreate the world to our liking; the way in which so much of what we assume is created internally is instead shaped by our friends and family. In fact, if there's one motif that runs through nearly all the stories, it's the mental dialogue between children and their parents and parents and their children. In such "conversations," both sides are eager to not disappoint and so obsess over conversations real and imagined. There's also frequent exploration of the moment between indecision and decision, as Saunders attempts to capture what it is that pushes us, in extreme circumstances, to act.

Though I enjoyed all the stories immensely, my favorite two are probably the first in the collection, "Victory Lap," and the book's first dystopian story, "Escape from Spiderhead." In "Victory Lap," the narration alternates between Alison, a self-absorbed teenage girl, and Kyle, a son of excessively controlling parents. Saunders perfectly illustrates the paradox of youth: arrogance, rebellion, and passive-aggressiveness combined with fear and uncertainty.

In "Escape from Spiderhead," convicts are used to experimentally test new mood-, emotion-, and performance-enhancing drugs. As Jeff narrates, he alternates between his normal thoughts and his more florid and eloquent expressions when on the drugs. An even more chilling dystopia, "The Semplica Girl Diaries," takes place essentially in our world, with one difference: in this society, "SGs," or third world individuals who sell themselves into indentured servitude, are strung up by the temples in people's backyards as decoration and status symbols. It's a premise that's so absurd that it's eerie how believable the whole story becomes as the father who narrates attempts to keep up with the "Joneses."

Tenth of December is well worth rereading, and in fact, I'd love to bring it in to school to discuss Saunders' use of language at its most powerful.