Monday, July 30, 2012

Beverly Cleary's memoirs

Beverly Cleary was my favourite author when I was a child. I was introduced to her fiction when my grade four teacher, Mrs. Burnett, read Ramona the Pest to the class. I then read every book Cleary wrote, up until the mid-eighties. I was by then sixteen or seventeen years old yet still in love with her tales of Ramona Quimby. Beverly Cleary occupies a special place in my heart as I have such fond memories of laughing with her stories and identifying with her characters and the messes they often found themselves in.

Cleary has written two memoirs, the first, A Girl from Yamhill (1988) and the second, My Own Two Feet (1995).

A constant throughout Cleary's life is her dominating, oppressive, restrictive and very unhappy mother. Cleary's fictional mother figures certainly belie the upbringing she had under her own mother's thumb. Cleary's mother discouraged her from everything she wanted to do, whether it was a major or minor life event. Mrs. Bunn disapproved of her daughter's choice of college education, of all her boyfriends and especially her husband, of her decision even to have children, and of her decision to become a children's author. One might expect Cleary, an only daughter, to rebel or become disillusioned with life and develop addictions or insecurities. As Cleary grew up she simply learned to ignore her mother and do what she wanted anyway, which was in her own way a quiet rebellion. 

Each memoir is written in the Cleary style that places the author herself into the lead role. I felt as though I could substitute ten-year-old Beverly Bunn for Ellen Tebbits or Henry Huggins and I would be none the wiser. As I read these memoirs, I was transported back to the mid-seventies when I was reading a new Cleary book every few days, only this time I was laughing along with little Beverly Bunn's schooltime antics and then cringing and laughing as she faces the public as Mrs. Beverly Cleary, 1940's librarian.

Cleary tells of some eccentric characters she had to work with while working as a children's librarian in California in the 1940's. World War II meant rationing and money and materials were tight. While Cleary worked at a bookstore during busy Christmas seasons, she wrote about a certain Mrs. Herbert:

> This was the same woman who wrote the date on every light bulb installed so the store could be reimbursed if bulbs did not live up to their guarantees.

A Girl from Yamhill tells of Cleary's life up until she enters college in 1934; My Own Two Feet ends after the publication of her first children's novel, the enormously successful Henry Huggins in 1950.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

Penguin Press, 2008

Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.  Words to live by.  Michael Pollan shows that the food we eat is much more than the sum of its nutrient parts, and we should take and appreciate our part in the food cycle from how our food is produced/grown down to how we receive it. 

Aside from the issues raised in my discussion questions below, the other thing about this book that I found interesting was the idea that the human diet is incredibly varied around the world.  Some cultures are highly meat-based, while others are plant-based, and others are all stages in between.  And they can all be considered healthy diets in those circumstances.  So where does the Western diet go so wrong?  Pollan takes aim against the processing of food beyond all recognition, and by considering food holistically in the context of our culture, environment, and economics, and not just as a sequence of chemical nutrients to be altered and industrialized without consequences.

Discussion Questions: 
  1. What have you eaten so far today?
  2. How much of your diet is made up of “real food?”
  3. What is your favourite “real” food?
  4. Do you have particular attachments to any “food-like substances?”
  5. How “Western/North American” is your diet?
  6. How much blame do you place at the feet of “the Western Diet” for our poor health?
  7. Have you ever read any diet books?  How does Pollan’s advice of eat food, not too much, mostly plants compare to any past nutritional advice you have received?
  8. Where do you acquire your food?  Will you change any habits after reading this book?
  9. Do you eat alone, or with others?  How does the culture of eating affect our nutrition?
  10. The following is a list of tips that Pollan advocates for in this book.  Do you do any of these already?

  • Avoid certain ingredients
  • Avoid products that make health claims
  • Shop the peripheries of the supermarket
  • Shop outside the supermarket
  • Eat mostly plants
  • You are what what you eat eats too
  • Buy a freezer
  • Eat like an omnivore
  • Eat well-grown food from healthy soil
  • Eat wild foods
  • Be the kind of person who takes supplements (then don’t)
  • Eat like traditional food cultures
  • Regard non-traditional foods with scepticism
  • Food/diet is more than the sum of their parts
  • Have a glass of wine with dinner
  • Pay more, eat less
  • Eat meals
  • Eat at a table, don’t eat alone
  • Don’t buy food at gas stations
  • Consult your gut, eat slowly
  • Cook, and plant a garden

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Road to Wigan Pier

George Orwell wrote The Road to Wigan Pier in 1937, as a personal exposé into the lives of the working-class poor. Orwell infiltrated the industrial and mining towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire by sharing overcrowded and often unsanitary rooming houses with other workers. He reported on their appalling working and living conditions and in his descriptions did not hold back in using the most subjective language:
"In Sheffield you have the feeling of walking among a population of troglodytes."
The Road to Wigan Pier is filled with language one might expect a mother to use if she stumbled across her teenaged son's room. When Orwell rents a room from a couple named Brooker, he has to share with three other men. The four of them are so cramped inside that Orwell, who was quite tall, couldn't sleep with his legs fully extended. Orwell keeps the dirty people he rooms with and whom he meets at arm's length if he can bear to look at them. This is one of Orwell's constant remarks about poverty in northern England: not only are the houses but the people themselves are dirty. This remark reeks of prejudice, which would have gone unchallenged in the class society of England in the mid-thirties. Orwell seemed on a "dirt hunt", checking under the fingernails and in the creases between the toes of his neighbours. In regards to the Brookers' rooming house, Orwell wrote, often with contempt:
"Generally the crumbs from breakfast were still on the table at supper. I used to get to know individual crumbs by sight and watch their progress up and down the table from day to day."
Meal preparation at the Brookers was an ordeal Orwell could not stomach:
"The meals at the Brookers' house were uniformly disgusting. For breakfast you got two rashers of bacon and a pale fried egg, and bread-and-butter which had often been cut overnight and always had thumb-marks on it. However tactfully I tried, I could never induce Mr. Brooker to let me cut my own bread-and-butter; he would hand it to me slice by slice, each slice gripped firmly under that broad black thumb."
To Orwell, poor people were dirty, miserable and had no personal pride:
"In the mornings he [Mr. Brooker] sat by the fire with a tub of filthy water, peeling potatoes at the speed of a slow-motion picture. I never saw anyone who could peel potatoes with quite such an air of brooding resentment. You could see the hatred of this 'bloody woman's work', as he called it, fermenting inside him, a kind of bitter juice. He was one of those people who can chew their grievances like a cud."
Orwell looked down on the poor working class from his bourgeois pedestal. Those who failed in business were themselves to blame for lack of business sense was a congenital trait. The poor could not succeed in business because they were too stupid to know any better:
"Certainly it was true that the shop did not pay. The whole place had the unmistakable dusty, flyblown air of a business that is going down. But it would have been quite useless to explain to them [the Brookers] why nobody came to the shop, even if one had had the face to do it; neither was capable of understanding that last year's dead bluebottles supine in the shop window are not good for trade."
Orwell in his analysis of reasons behind the current state of the British economy used two terms from the very beginning of The Road to Wigan Pier, which he didn't explain till a considerable length into the book. I was puzzled by the abbreviation "PAC", which he didn't elaborate upon or define as the Public Assistance Committee until page 71. Orwell also made repeated references to the Means Test, yet didn't explain what that was until page 73.
The Road to Wigan Pier is divided into two parts, equal in length. After the exposé on the working-class poor, the second part is Orwell's socialist rant. I found this part overbearingly repetitive and boring. Orwell raises the same points over and over in favour of socialism, and in his own warped way gets into the minds of those who are against him and ridicules them. He reminded me of a psychologically imbalanced teenager who believes he knows exactly what every one of his fellow students is thinking and why everyone is against him. His subcutaneous omniscience rendered laughter instead of learned insight. I couldn't repress laughter whenever Orwell railed against fellow socialists who happened to be of the wrong class. He described these people as "sandal-wearers" and "bearded fruit-juice drinkers". Instead of seeing these people as allies and working with them, he belittles and dismisses them.
I dreaded the second half of this book. I raced through reading the first part yet the second part plodded along; I couldn't wait to put it down and be done with it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

W.W. Norton, c2010.

The fact that I “read” this book by listening to the audio version on my iPhone, which played while doing other things - driving, walking, performing mundane tasks etc. is perhaps telling about my ability to concentrate and my brain’s need for stimulation.  I definitely feel that my brain has changed through usage of the Internet - which I use every day at work and at home (and sometimes at points in between). 

I appreciate that this book doesn’t seek to indict the Internet or demand that we “unplug.”  It instead outlines how our brains are changing, whether that be for good or ill.  It also describes a number of other paradigm shifts that have occurred throughout human history, where our thought processes and way of thinking about things has changed.  When I ran this book at our November 2011 Nonfiction Book Club meeting, the members were ambivalent about such changes - some welcomed it, and some took a measure of caution from it, but no one decreed that the Internet must be shut off. 

For myself, I notice that I have a hard time reading long-form magazine articles or essays, where my eyes keep bouncing to the larger-font captions and call-out boxes.  I skim through articles and concentrate on topics of particular interest to me.  I enjoy reading web articles and blogs (if they aren’t too long), and all the clicking and linking that the web allows.  Despite this, I also enjoy sitting down with a long book for hours at a time.  I am just as happy with an eBook read on my iPhone or other eReading device as I am with a print book.  I don’t know why this doesn’t parlay to magazine articles though. 

I am particularly interested in any comments that people may have as to the severity of this “crisis.”  The discussion questions below are designed to help the reader clarify their opinions about the points raised by this book. 

  1. Considering how much (or how little) you use the internet, have you noticed any changes in your ability to concentrate?
  2. Are we controlled by our tools?
  3. How concerned are you by the amount of different things that you can now do online, or with technology in general?
  4. How has your relationship to books changed in your lifetime? 
  5. “I go online for a lot of things, but I also enjoy sitting in a comfy chair with a good book.” Is this statement true for you?  If books go more and more online, would you miss the print codex?
  6. How does human memory differ from computer memory?  How much of a memory’s context do you recall?  (When you hear a favourite piece of music, do you remember what you were doing the last time you listened to it?)
  7. The human brain can’t ever be full.  Do we replace old memories with new ones, or is everything integrated somehow?
  8. Do you feel that we are in the process of losing some fundamental quality of humanness?
  9. The author points to studies showing that helpful computer programs interfere with problem solving.  Do you think that eventually our brains will adapt to this new mode of thinking?  Will our brain adapt in a good way?
  10. Do we entrust tasks to a computer that actually demand wisdom? 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet Is Unique

John Gribbin is well-known in academic circles for his books on cosmology; the Mississauga Library System has 33 titles by him in its collection. Gribbin's latest work is Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet Is Unique. I was attracted to this title because I believe in the argument that Gribbin presents: that Earth is the only planet upon which one may find intelligent life anywhere in the entire universe. I personally go two steps further than Gribbin, in that I don't believe there is any kind of life in the universe, no matter how primitive, nor has there ever been any. The book's inside flap had me hooked:
"For some of us, it is an article of faith; for others, it's simple arithmetic: with hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy, billions of which are circled by planets capable of supporting life, there simply must be intelligent beings elsewhere in the Milky Way. Throw in the countless other galaxies, and it goes almost without saying that the universe abounds with intelligent species capable of building civilizations, right? Not so fast."
Gribbin always makes his case against there being intelligent life or technologically advanced life; thus I am left to believe that he may support the possible existence of anything else--single-cells, cloud-like beings, algae, space worms, whatever--that may in fact be living but don't have the technological know-how to let us know they're out there.
The Earth is a one-in-a-trillion planet upon which life developed over billions of years. Any break in the sequence of the history of the universe, and later the history of the Earth, and life would not exist. Life on Earth depends on events in cosmic history and without our neighbouring planets, without cosmic catastrophes, without the Sun, without the Earth's specific tilt and its precise position in the solar system between Venus and Mars, and without countless other cosmic conditions, Earth would not have been able to support and sustain life. The largest flowchart in the universe leads to life on Earth in a series of if-then sequences stretching light years.
Gribbin takes care to explain the Drake equation. This equation was devised by astronomer Frank Drake in the early sixties to quantify the chance of finding intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Gribbin analyzes the factors in this equation (some of which include the number of stars that have planets, the number of these planets that could potentially support life, etc.) and over the course of Alone in the Universe proceeds to rule out or colossally minimize the number of each factor in the equation. He writes:
"The bad news is that if even one of the other numbers in the equation is zero, then N = 0, no matter how big all the other numbers are." 
(N is the number of civilizations beyond Earth that we might be able to communicate with in the Milky Way.) 
I found that Gribbin talked over my head most of the time. I do not have a scientific background so I could not understand the physics or chemistry behind the various evolutions of the universe. I just accepted what he wrote and moved on. Fortunately, this did not tire me, as I often grow frustrated (or worse, sleepy) if I am bogged down by too much science babble. Gribbin made the history of the universe very interesting, however the edge-of-your-seat moments only occurred at the end of the book, where Gribbin writes about the series of events that will lead to the end of the Earth and all life upon it.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006

Many readers may already have developed an opinion about Richard Dawkins before coming to this book - as a controversial figure with a number of best-selling books to his credit, The God Delusion is often suggested for book club discussions.  We ran this book at the Mississauga Central Library’s Nonfiction Book Club in April 2011, and it drew our highest attendance ever.  Given the high attendance and the broad multicultural diversity of attendees, I was very surprised by their relative lack of disagreement.  Most of the people claimed some degree of spirituality in their lives, yet still found Dawkins’ ideas convincing for the most part.  

This book still generated plenty of discussion.  While I had many questions prepared in advance (see below), after asking people "what did you think of this book?" they pretty much took off from there with little further prompting from me!  Despite this, the members still expressed an interest in seeing my list of questions for further discussion and to bring home afterwards.

While I didn’t like it as much as some of his other works such as The Greatest Show on Earth (see my Shelfari review for that one), he raises many good thought-provoking questions with this book.  I feel that I agree with many of his arguments, and yet come to different conclusions at the end (like my book club members, perhaps).  I still find myself higher up on the “spectrum of probabilities” that he outlines in the book.  What can I say? I still think that the universe was created for a purpose - I just need to figure out how to prove it scientifically... 
  1. How convincing is Richard Dawkins as a writer?
  2. “A universe with a supernaturally intelligent creator is a very different kind of universe from one without.” Do you think it is possible to test our universe scientifically for a creator?
  3. How important is scientific evidence to you? 
  4. Does religion by necessity hinder scientific enquiry?
  5. If there is a supernatural God/gods, what is their role in the universe? What would a God require of us?
  6. How much do you know about the concept of Natural Selection?
  7. What gaps in knowledge do we still need filled by something?
  8. “In order to design the universe, a God would have to be very complex. Such a complex entity would have to have evolved gradually as well.”  How would a religious person treat this reasoning?
  9. Based on the probability of life evolving spontaneously, do you think it likely that there is other life out there in the universe?
  10. How big a role does indoctrination as children play in development, religious or otherwise?
  11. Is it possible to be good without religion?
  12. Is life meaningful, regardless of what we believe? 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


CNN anchor Don Lemon is the sexiest man on television. No one comes close to how drop-dead gorgeous this man is. I tune in to CNN hoping to see him, and I was the first person to sign out Transparent, his memoir, when my library system acquired it. Transparent tells Lemon's story about growing up in segregated Louisiana in the mid-sixties and his journey to where he is now as a CNN anchor.

Transparent was a rapid read, only 220 pages written in a stream-of-consciousness format. I can imagine Lemon sitting at his computer, typing away his life story. Unfortunately this train of thought style, left unchecked, is prone to error. Transparent suffers from its lack of an editor. This big-type, big-margin book had almost two dozen errors, all of the type indicative of the typist thinking too fast for his fingers. There are missing auxiliary verbs, missing prepositions and other errors common in typing out an oral style on paper. I stopped recording them when I became frustrated with having encountered so many. With such a slight book, I could not ignore the error overload. I hope they're all corrected in a reprinted edition. Here are but a few of the embarrassments:

In talking about the crash of American Airlines flight 587 in Queens, New York, on 12 November 2001:

"The plane when down shortly after it took off from New York's JFK airport, killing all 260 people aboard and five more on the ground."

On coping with his ego when meeting the public on the street:

"It's the sort thing that reminds me of my sisters and their loving, earthbound efforts to keep my big head from floating me right off to Mars!"

About an earlier network he worked for not wanting him to cover the death of singer Luther Vandross:

"And since he [Vandross] wasn't black anymore, we couldn't do make our story about him have any black people in it talking about him, could 'we?'"

Writing about covering Barack Obama's candidacy for the Presidency in 2008:

"Politics wasn't my beat, but after he won, I knew wasn't going to let history pass me by without being a part of it."

Lemon wrote about his return to his home state:

"In 1990, when I left Baton Rouge, I swore that I couldn't live in the Louisiana anymore and I vowed never to do so again."

About his assignment in Africa when writing a piece on the devastation of AIDS on the continent:

"As a result that experience, I don't complain as much about my accommodations, no matter how bad they might seem."


"Sometimes by ourselves, sometimes with guides, John and I traipsed from African nation to African nation, submitting stories about AIDS, about relief efforts, about the how HIV was a legacy of the regions many wars..."

Aside from a superfluous definite article preceding "HIV", Lemon omits the apostrophe in "regions". So many errors = an embarrassment for a journalist such as Lemon. Was this book rushed to press without an editor seeing it first?

The closet editor in me will now talk about Transparent. Lemon introduces a philosophy he calls the "black box". It is a safety net, or a comfort zone bubble that he believes American blacks build around themselves:

"Sometimes the black box means giving up too much in the name of being 'cool' or 'down.' It can mean saying 'no' to education and 'yes' to stereotypical attitudes and ideas that ultimately lead nowhere. It can mean closed-mindedness to new ideas and diverse experiences. Sometimes it means adopting the attitude of only that which is 'black' is worthwhile or good."

He talks about how he has had to fight to burst out of the black box:

"For example, if I'm black, then I must be a Democrat who likes fried chicken. I must like rap music and play basketball. The reality that I'm none of these things often results in a double-take from some, and my authenticity is questioned. Who said that I have to be any of these things?"

Lemon relates his professional climb to the black box analogy throughout Transparent. In terms of investigative journalism, sometimes a question posed by a white anchorman is interpreted entirely differently when it is raised by a black anchor, even when the question is phrased in exactly the same way and tone.

Lemon keeps his word as the title suggests and is indeed transparent throughout his book. He reveals that he was sexually molested as a child and he writes about the colorism, or the discrimination he faced from other blacks because of his skin tone. Lemon is unapologetic for using the racist epithet "n***er" several times, saying:

"Somewhere in that town center, maybe at the River Queen, which is the little fast-food joint where my sisters and I would go for burgers and ice cream, is where I first heard a white person call me a 'n***er'. I hate the word, but I'd rather say it than avoid it with euphemisms like the 'N-word.' At least it's honest."

I admire Lemon's honesty in Transparent. He confronts the truth about this most racist of all words, believing it better to use it rather than cover it up. As this book is about his total personal transparency, Lemon chooses to come out of the closet and he confronts offensive opinions from those who believe that the only reason he is gay is on account of his being molested by an older male. He also has a word to say about other blacks who don't believe that homosexuality exists within their race.

The one part of Transparent that I found most shocking was the juxtaposition of his experiences chasing hurricanes in the same chapter as his account of the death of James Byrd by white supremacists. In the chapter entitled "A Lesson on Facing Fear", there is a subsection entitled "Chills and Thrills". Lemon writes about Byrd and how he was dragged behind a pickup truck for miles. Byrd lost an arm and his head was severed before his murderers dumped his body next to a black cemetery. Within this same chapter, though, immediately after Lemon writes "the image of James Byrd's mangled, headless body lying lifeless on a dark Texas road", he exclaims:

"I'm a thrill-seeker!
Perhaps you are not surprised, but I was. I discovered it chasing hurricanes."

This change in subject matter should have had its own chapter. It was most insensitive to write about such a shocking hate crime then to break off immediately to read about his chills and thrills chasing down hurricanes.

I read Transparent in two days in two long sittings; a proofreader could have fixed all the grammatical mistakes in less than twenty-four hours and saved me from writing a review of a substandard memoir. I do admire Don Lemon and like his interview style--for he frequently asks his subjects exactly what everyone is thinking--but I believe Transparent was rushed and does not capture the essence of one of the leading news anchors of today.

Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men by Mara Hvistendahl

PublicAffairs, 2011

Unnatural Selection presents a history of sex selection practises, the political or cultural desire to control populations, the methods of sex predetermination, and how these lead to the current gender imbalance crisis beginning to be felt in Asia, Eastern Europe and around the world.

This is a very topical book for me, as I begin to consider the kind of world my own daughter will inhabit as she grows older.  What will it mean to be a girl or woman in the coming years, as the problems Hvistendahl outlines rage unchecked?  How will she be treated at school, at a prospective workplace, or in society as a whole?  Will this be a good world for her?  How does this problem integrate with all the other crises she will have to deal with - be they economic, political, environmental or whatever?  

I found that the author doesn’t fully satisfy me as to the big “why” - why do families all want boys so badly?  Is this a self-evident truth that I am missing (seeing that I am immensely happy with my only child), or are the causes as diverse as the cultures manifesting this problem?   If people want children of a specific gender because they have preconceived notions of how successful they could be (based on gender and position in society), perhaps how this manifests is situationally dependent on the society they live in.  Hvistendahl does mention some customs and practises such as male inheritance, the practise of marrying daughters “up,” and the issue of dowries and so on.  In any case, the potential variation of answers makes the first question below a good question that should stimulate discussion!

This book should lead to a lively discussion, although the book itself may be a bit challenging to read.  It is quite dense, being a full cultural study of the historical and political background that leads to the growth of sex selection around the world, and how the idea of population control and abortion technologies were introduced into societies initially resistant to these concepts.

Discussion Questions
  1. Unnatural Selection documents the rise of sex selection, and the favouring of boy children over girls.  Why do so many wish their babies to be boys?
  2. Why do human societies throughout history seek to control reproduction?
  3. How successful have attempts to control populations been (either to reduce or increase populations)?
  4. Is this a local problem?  What common factors are shared by countries sliding into significant gender imbalance?
  5. If individual families just want to have “balanced families,” how does this collectively contribute to a gender imbalance? 
  6. What happens to societies when there is a “surplus of men?”
  7. Have you noticed any effects of a gender imbalance in your experience?
  8. How do perceived gender roles in a given society contribute to gender imbalance?
  9. How can human civilizations rectify gender imbalances?
  10. Is this a problem that can be solved?