Once, someone told me I was the most interested person alive. "Thank you!!" I told him, astonished that finally someone else realized what I've known...moreOnce, someone told me I was the most interested person alive. "Thank you!!" I told him, astonished that finally someone else realized what I've known all along - that the Dos Equis guy is lying. It is, in fact, I who am the most interesting person alive!*
"No, no - not interesting...interested," he said, shattering my dreams without even realizing it.
Shit. So much for that.
But then I thought about it, and being the most interested person alive is pretty cool, too. I can get sucked into ANYTHING because I am fascinated by EVERYTHING. I might be the only person on the planet who enjoyed Yann Martel's 14-page description of a pear in Beatrice and Virgil, and I have yet to encounter a subject that can't even pique my curiosity a little bit.
Soo, I felt pretty good when I started with Alexandra Horowitz's On Looking as I was anticipating having an obscure-fact party in my brain, but alas, there was no party to be had. Boo.
First off, the book is one giant LIE.
Okay so that may be a slightly extreme way of putting it, but I don't seem the be the only one who thought she would repeat the same walk with 11 different experts, thereby casting 11 different points of view on the same space. Wouldn't that have been infinitely more interesting?? (Spoiler alert: Yes.) I thought the entire point of the book is "look how much you're missing in everyday life" - so shouldn't these alleged** experts be able to illuminate one walk in 11 different ways? Oddly, some of the walks were in fact the same, whereas the others were in entirely different states. Huh?
There was also a problem of content. It often seemed the Horowitz didn't sponge enough information out of her experts to fill the whole book, so she resorted to bolstering each chapter with marginally relevant filler content. Example: In one chapter, she scours the streets with a doctor who's adept at diagnosing illness based on peculiarities of gait and appearance. Unfortunately, probably because people were bundled up against the cold and thereby hiding their sickly complexions from inspection, there were only about two people the doctor was able to size up on their walk. Rather than scrap that doctor idea and come up with a new expert to walk with, Horowitz is like, "hey guys, let me also tell you about this physical therapist I know from when my back was out, which I may have mentioned before because my back was out for like half of this project which probably was an ominous way to begin a book dependent upon my ability to walk but anyway this guy also knows some things about gaits, like let's see well usually you walk with your hips in synchronous rotation which thereby forces the legs forward via kinetic propulsion [yes, I made that up] and...what was I talking about again?" Right, like that.
By far my favorite chapter was her walk with her toddler son as I myself have an almost-toddler son, and I am endlessly fascinated by what he finds fascinating. We take him to the aquarium to see the bright, colorful fish and silly penguins, and the kid stares at, say, the bolt holding the tank together. Horowitz was smart to start the book with this little man's walk, though, since it hammers home the point that really, nothing is intrinsically more interesting to look at than anything else (except faces, according to science - babies are born to respond to faces). Everything provides an opportunity for investigative study, when you think about it, but in this day of constantly being "on," we too often forget that. Horowitz's book is a nice, if slightly off-target, reminder to slow down and look at the world around you.
I can think of no better ending to this review than the immortal words of one Mr. Ferris Bueller:
"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."***
*I pride myself on being a grammar nerd, but this is tripping me up. Do I say am or is there?? Calling Jess, help please...both sound wrong.
**I don't know why I said that. They're clearly well-established in their fields and are fully deserving of the "expert" title.
Despite what you think when the subway is slow, you don't know what to make for dinner and Law and Order: SVU is a re-run, your life does not suck. In...moreDespite what you think when the subway is slow, you don't know what to make for dinner and Law and Order: SVU is a re-run, your life does not suck. In case you're the type who needs a little help remembering that, Behind the Beautiful Forevers will remind you on every page.
Let's play a little game. Give yourself one point for each of the following that you have:
- Fresh, running water on demand
- Permanent, professionally constructed shelter
- An education, including access to 13+ years of free public schooling
- A government that supports its citizens
- The right to equal treatment
I'm going to go out on a limb and assume you scored 5/5, and I'm going to go up on a higher limb and assume that you don't very often think about how lucky that makes you. I know I certainly don't.
Then you read a book like this, and boom. Perspective.
More perspective: So I found this jar of jelly - Sarabeth's brand, the kind that costs like $9.99/520 rupees a jar - that was moldy in the back of my fridge this morning. First off, jelly gets moldy?? I had no idea that could happen. Anyway, it does, and it did, and while I'm a big recycler, the thought of scraping moldy jelly out of a heavy glass mason jar sounded like a gross way to start the day. (We live in NYC and don't have a garbage disposal, making these sort of projects even more fun than usual.) I held the jar over the trash, trying to convince myself that it was okay to toss it this time because it was so icky and all, but in the end, I sucked it up, cleaned it out and recycled the glass because otherwise I would have felt majorly guilty and dug it out of the trash later in the day, which would have been even grosser.
Observations on this gripping story:
1. I let food go moldy. I have so much food in my life that I can't possibly eat it all, so it goes bad, and I throw it out. This is not a very uncommon experience.
2. I buy jelly that costs 520 rupees (and then, as point one indicates, don't eat it). Sunil, a little boy in Annawadi, had to ask his friend for two rupees - that's less than four cents - so he could buy the food he needed to not go hungry.
3. After I let my food get moldy, I just want to throw it out because it's gross and I'd rather not deal with gross. Scavengers in Annawadi would fight each other for the chance to recycle an old glass jar previously filled with moldy jelly.
This book is loaded with perspective, and I think people respond to that either by turning against the book - This book is depressing; so many horrible things happen in it - or latch onto it and can't get it out of their minds. I'm the latter sort of person.
Sadly, I'm not sure how I can help. Corruption is so rampant in India - Boo even writes about orphanages selling the wares donated to them instead of giving them to the children - and until change happens at the top, I don't foresee the lives of India's millions of slumdwellers improving.
This means another generation of children who can't get an education because they have to work, then can't get steady, respectable jobs because they have no education, then can't support their families because they have no pay, then get married and bring more children into the world. Repeat cycle.
This book is tragic and upsetting, but it's something everyone should read. We're all in this together, you know.
N.B. Fans of Behind the Beautiful Forevers should take a look at Half the Sky. (less)
Since I'm not a mom, my opinion of this book can't be wholly trusted, but nonetheless, here it is:
Fessler compiled personal accounts from women who go...moreSince I'm not a mom, my opinion of this book can't be wholly trusted, but nonetheless, here it is:
Fessler compiled personal accounts from women who got pregnant out of wedlock in the 50s and 60s and had their children taken from them under the guise of "voluntary adoption." Every single one of these accounts was unjust and upsetting: Girls were ostracized by their own families, they were made to feel unworthy of motherhood, they weren't informed of their legal rights and - in many cases - were blatantly lied to, and of course, worst of all, they had their children taken from them against their will. Then, given that this was a time of repressed emotions, the women were expected to simply forget about it and move on.
The cultural reaction was abominable enough, but legally, it's hard to believe that this even happened in America. What an incredible thing, to live in a time when you, on a personal level, could be lied to, misled and forced into doing something you didn't want to (and technically didn't have to) do by your state. It's difficult to fathom.
Hopefully this establishes that I find not informing citizens of their rights, particularly so you can then go and steal their babies, reprehensible. That said (you knew it was coming!), would keeping the baby have been the best decision for any of these women? In the typical case, the parents refused to offer any kind of financial or moral support, the boyfriend was MIA, the girl had no savings and hadn't yet graduated high school and therefore had slim, if any, job prospects...would they really have been able to take their babies home and raise them the way they deserved to be raised?
One girl made the point that several years after her first pregnancy, she had her second child. She still didn't have any money, she still didn't have a degree, she still didn't have a career, but this time, she was married, so all was well and she was "capable" therefore of being a mother. This of course just emphasizes the inanity of the culture's prejudice: Having a ring on your finger doesn't automatically mean you're in a good situation to have a child. Many single women are much better equipped to raise a life than married couples, unquestionably. However, my mind is in 2011 when I say that, though - not 1962. In 1962, an unwed mother didn't stand much of a chance without the support of her family and society's acceptance - neither of which she would have received.
Another girl - a 14-year-old - had talked it over with her boyfriend, and they were determined to get married. They had been saving up their dollars and had even bought a TV - clearly, one of the first things you need when having a baby and saving up to live independently. Who says this girl wasn't equipped to parent on her own!?
Yet another girl says she would have been able to do it with "just a little help." Since when is it anyone else's job to help you raise your child?? If you can't do it on your own and don't have anywhere to turn for support, can you really do it?
I'm not remotely suggesting that we create a financial or intellectual litmus test for motherhood and if the woman doesn't pass, she loses her child. That's ridiculous. But ultimately, the vast majority of these women - girls, really - couldn't have provided for their babies the way the adopted parents (in most cases) could - and the way the babies deserved. That doesn't excuse the near kidnappings that took place, but while the mothers may have suffered greatly, were the children better off?
I'm also a little confused about what the subtitle has to do with the book, other than to market to pro-choicers. Is Fessler suggesting that abortion would have been a better solution than adoption? Had abortion been available at the time, I'm sure many of these women would have at least seriously considered it and some would have gone through with it, but as the majority are now happily reunited with their children, I have a hard time believing that any would choose to go back in time and abort the kid away.
This book raises a lot of really interesting questions. Four stars for the thought-provoking content. Minus one for being too one-sided and a little repetitive. Net net, this "hidden history" is a worthwhile read, but readers should take care to consider the not-hidden history of adoption's benefits, as well. (less)
To say the content of Eating Animals is thought-provoking to the point of being life-changing would not be an understatement. Anyone intrigued and cha...moreTo say the content of Eating Animals is thought-provoking to the point of being life-changing would not be an understatement. Anyone intrigued and challenged by what-to-eat quandary needs to read this book.
I fancy myself a conscious citizen. I recycle avidly, I bring a reusable bag for the salad I purchase every day at lunch, I belong to a community-supported agriculture program, I'd rather pay more for food of known origin than settle for whatever they sell at my local grocery store - you get the idea.
When it came to eating meat, though, my consciousness wavered - should I or shouldn't I? In the end, I always gave in: I love sushi. I love anything that comes from a pig. Sometimes a hamburger is the best thing in the entire world.
This struggle is hardly unique to me, and something to appreciate about Eating Animals is that the author, Jonathan Safran Foer, isn't writing to condemn meat-eaters as murderers. Rather, he had the same issues, concerns and oscillations, and this book was a chance for him to explore what the right decision for him was and what the right decision for our world should be.
There are many reasons why we should not eat meat, and while JSF doesn't have any arguments for abstaining that someone who's pondered the should-I-or-shouldn't-I question (or someone who's read The Omnivore's Dilemma) hasn't heard before, they are all worthy of hearing again: There's the obvious and abominable cruelty to animals both in their lives and their deaths, the horrifically low standards of cleanliness at slaughterhouses, the ecological and environmental damage, the agriculture conglomerates' concern for profit over ethics - the list can easily go on.
We've established why we should not eat meat, so let's quickly review they arguments for why we should: 1. It tastes good. 2. It's natural to eat meat - humans have been doing it for millions of years.
The book's response, which I wholeheartedly agree with, is as follows:
1. Sex feels good, but we don't condone raping people to get our fix. Why should we condone violence and cruelty just because we want a grilled chicken for dinner?
2. There's absolutely nothing natural about either a) the animals produced at factory farms or b) the methods by which the animals are bred, raised or slaughtered.
I don't have a counterargument for either of these points.
That said, the commitment to vegetarianism isn't easy, especially because not all meat is the same. Well, 99% of it is - but what about the farmers, small in numbers though they may be, who raise their animals ethically? I'm not sure I see anything wrong with eating their animals.
The question of non-meat animal items also arises. Think of how many things eggs are in. Do I really want vegan cake on my next birthday? And what about cheese? I just read that cheese is third-largest agricultural contributor to global warming, right after beef and lamb. Should cheese be stricken from my diet, too?
So where, then, does responsible eating end? Clearly, this is an issue I'll continue to struggle with.
Side note: As for an actual review of the book, it's not happening. Message = trump card. (less)
I never quite understood that whole "High school is the best time of your life!" mantra, and after finishing this book, I can say with even more gusto...moreI never quite understood that whole "High school is the best time of your life!" mantra, and after finishing this book, I can say with even more gusto that I'm so, so glad high school is over.
In my high school days, I wasn't cafeteria fringe, but I was - to pick one of Robbins' descriptors - a floater: Lots of acquaintances and a few close friends, but no single, branded group I identified with and latched onto for social validation. At the time, I was sure it was my floater status that caused me to miss parties, be self-conscious and feel inadequate, but with 10 years between me and my high school graduation tassel, I've since realized that my high school experience is just called "high school." It sucks, and fortunately - as Robbins says - it ends.
Some of the stories are hard to read - kids can be incredibly cruel, and my heart can't seem to handle knowing that someone is feeling sad, or excluded, or lonely. I know these kids are going to be okay, but I want to look them in the eye and promise them that this is NOT the rest of their life. To quote Dan Savage's project aimed at gay youth, "It gets better."
The book isn't perfect - some chapters/sections seemed a bit disjointed, as though the sequence or layout needed some work, and I came across a few sentences that I had to reread for clarity. Still, as a sociology enthusiast, believer in the need for massive school reform, and champion of geeks everywhere, I enjoyed this (brilliantly titled) quick read.
Also? I want Blue to be my new best friend. Call me! (less)
If books were rated solely on subject matter, this one would undoubtedly merit 5 stars: 17th century Dutch masters + WWII + art crime + psychology = o...moreIf books were rated solely on subject matter, this one would undoubtedly merit 5 stars: 17th century Dutch masters + WWII + art crime + psychology = oh yes please.
Devastatingly (and no, that's not hyperbole at all given my level of excitement prior to reading), the execution wasn't quite what I had hoped for, bringing it down to 3 stars (if you were to judge based on execution alone). Net net, I settled on four stars: I'm a sucker for a good story.
Dolnick, in somewhat choppy chapters, recounts the true story of Han Van Meegeren, a Dutchman who fooled the art world with his forged "Vermeers." Now that we can play Monday morning quarterback, it's almost unfathomable that these passed through the art world undetected, but that's part of what makes the story so incredible. Van Meegeren's terrible, terrible paintings ended up in the hands of collectors across the world, most notably/notoriously Hermann Goering.* This book is one of those supreme examples of "the truth is better than fiction."
NB: It brings me joy knowing that Goering learned the truth about his "Vermeer" prior to his death.
After six weeks of nearly straight TV-watching, I finished all five seasons of The Wire, and I needed more. I was jonesing like Bubbles. Had to get my...moreAfter six weeks of nearly straight TV-watching, I finished all five seasons of The Wire, and I needed more. I was jonesing like Bubbles. Had to get my fix.
Fortunately, rather than turning to crack, I simply picked up a copy of David Simon's Homicide, and that about did the trick. Simon was the genius creator and head writer of The Wire, which henceforth shall be known as "The Greatest Show That Ever Aired," but before that, he wrote a 600-page book about murder. Both works get intimate with the underbelly of crime-ridden inner-city Baltimore, with the notable difference that Homicide only tells the story from the side of the good guys.
I could go off on a tangent here about how the good guys aren't always the good guys and the bad guys aren't always the bad guys and how what you wear to work every day doesn't define what kind of person you are - subtle hint: watch The Wire to learn more! - but I won't. I'll just trust that you know that when I say "the good guys," I mean the 5-0. I digress.
Simon's an equal-opportunity writer, though - Homicide may be about the good guys, but his follow-up The Corner is about the baddies. That one's high on the to-read list.
In the best way possible, Push wasn't what I expected. Since I knew the book had been turned into a movie, I suppose I thought I was picking up the wr...moreIn the best way possible, Push wasn't what I expected. Since I knew the book had been turned into a movie, I suppose I thought I was picking up the written version of Freedom Writers, Dangerous Minds, etc. -- the cliched list goes on -- meaning I was waiting to enter the Disney-fied world of an inner-city high school where all it takes is a passionate, underpaid teacher to reach through the students' tough shells to uncover the talented jewels within.
As family-friendly and white-guilt-appeasing as those tales may be, Push doesn't go anywhere near them. Sapphire -- whose name I can't say helped convince me I was about to read something worthwhile -- penned an urban tragedy that doesn't fall victim to tired "Persevere! Choose your own destiny!" messaging; rather, Push slaps you in the face with the reality of our protagonist's life.
Born into the worst moral and physical destitution imaginable, Precious is almost Job-like in her misfortune. We see her endure and endure and endure again, but how many terrible things can happen to one person? Push is an extreme and fortunately fictive example, but what a way to show that the world is not an equal-opportunity employer.
Fascinating little read about the last days of Hitler's life. The book is smartly divided into four chronologically organized sections, each with a na...moreFascinating little read about the last days of Hitler's life. The book is smartly divided into four chronologically organized sections, each with a narrative detailing the "what" and a reflective summary trying to explain the "why." Fest presents an illuminating look at a man that morally doesn't deserve one's attention, but historically makes for fascinating content.
The book centers on the almost unbelievable turn of events in the last few weeks of the Third Reich: despite an absolutely epic collapse militarily, psychologically and economically, Hitler tried to press on...not because he was a valiant, courageous leader, but because he didn't care what the costs of moving forward were.
What can be said about Hitler that hasn't already been said? That he was evil personified? That he was a maniacal, power-hungry war-monger? Sure he was, and more, but Fest isn't here to expound on Hitler's lack of righteousness---his downward spiral at the end of his life is far more interesting book fodder.
The most remarkable takeaway from the book for me was that once Hitler admitted to himself that success was impossible and his vision for world dominance was doomed, he had no interest in salvaging what was left of the German people or culture. He wanted everything and everyone annihilated: If he must end, then the world as he knew it must end, too. He ordered the destruction of bridges, hospitals, art...he wanted it all gone.
The best that can be said is that the epilogue made it all worthwhile...
Not that the rest of the book wasn't worth my while, but it was a bit of a let...moreThe best that can be said is that the epilogue made it all worthwhile...
Not that the rest of the book wasn't worth my while, but it was a bit of a let down compared to the original Freakonomics. I remember being positively enamored with that book, and I just didn't feel that same way with this one. The element of surprise and wonder that was so captivating ("No way! How counter-intuitive and quirky the world can be!") was missing, and a few of these charmless chapters dragged on, which, given that the book is just over 200 pages, is pretty much unacceptable.
In other news, I want to work for Intellectual Ventures and come up with all sorts of amazing, innovative solutions for the world's problems, so I can thank Super Freakonomics for that. You don't think the fact that I was an English/Art History major will deter them from hiring me, do you?(less)
LOVE this book. Classic case of "the emperor has no clothes on," which is one of my favorite sayings ever since it's applicable to 87% (yes, 87%; I di...moreLOVE this book. Classic case of "the emperor has no clothes on," which is one of my favorite sayings ever since it's applicable to 87% (yes, 87%; I did a study) of situations, if you think about it. Look at half of Hollywood, look at, well, ALL politicians, look at certain artists...they're everywhere, these talentless nobodies in desperate need of some new robes!
Being There is a brilliant satire of how people---particularly the media---have a tendency to inflate the unworthy to astronomical heights, and no one notices---or dares call out---that in fact, the emperor has no clothes on. Gorgeous, succinct and a valuable message for anyone impressed by bright shiny lights.(less)