Saturday, December 27, 2008

50BC08 #25: The Joy of Drinking

The Joy of Drinking The Joy of Drinking by Barbara Holland


rating: 4 of 5 stars


This witty coffee table book in miniature is a fun, yet brief, ride through the historic and inexorable connection between alcohol and the human social spirit. Barbara Holland eschews the politically correct, exposing ironies of the sacred bottled water movement but admitting also the futility of dozens of hangover cures. Both the stumbling drunkard in the back alley and the elite wine connoisseur are given their due, taking their deserved places in Holland's pantheon of alcoholic engagers.

While the tone is anecdotal and tongue-in-cheek, Holland's sources are informed and intellectually intriguing. And, for those inspired by the history of moonshine and early American fermentation, the book includes two helpful how-to appendices--one with instructions for making various fruit wines, and the other on "Starting your own Still."

This would make a great gift for the most discerning of drinkers, as long as they have no fear of an author who calls it as she sees it.

Monday, December 8, 2008

50BC08 #24: America's Musical Life

America's Musical Life: A HistoryAmerica's Musical Life: A History by Richard Crawford

rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

I took a chance and used this book as a course text for an American music course for non-majors. Crawford's writing is engaging and geared toward a more general audience, but informed by top-notch scholarship. His three-sphere model of American music (cultivated, vernacular and traditional spheres) made a useful and multi-dimensional lens through which to trace the development of musical styles and genres. I appreciated the performer-based approach rather than the standard "a history of dead white men" approach so prevalent in the literature. He substantiates this model for American music history in his introduction.
Some of my students, accustomed to "textbooks" may have found the book too verbose for test preparation purposes, I hope that the prose engaged them enough to look beyond the grades and into the rich and diverse musical landscape cultivated in this country.

50BC08 #23: Fundraising Fundamentals

Fundraising Fundamentals: A Guide to Annual Giving for Professionals and Volunteers Fundraising Fundamentals: A Guide to Annual Giving for Professionals and Volunteers by Greenfield

rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is an indispensable reference for working or running an Annual Fund. It covers all the basics including mail testing,direct mail, cultivation events, etc. The sample letters are very helpful. My only criticism is the use of fake case-studies which aside from being cheesy, are not nearly as convincing as actual anecdotal and experiential information from real organizations.

50 Book Challenge #22: Eagle Minds

Eagle Minds: Selected Correspondence of Istvan Anhalt and George Rochberg (1961-2005) Eagle Minds: Selected Correspondence of Istvan Anhalt and George Rochberg by Alan M. Gillmor

rating: 4 of 5 stars

The title of this compendium of letters comes from Yeats, who wrote: "...A mind Michael Angelo knew/That can pierce the clouds,/Or inspired by frenzy/Shake the dead in their shrouds;/Forgotten else by mankind,/An old man's eagle mind." In offering this quote to Canadian composer Istvan Anhalt, George Rochberg expressed his relationship to the world and the critical reception of his work. Although their music differed greatly in style, particularly after 1965, these two composers found over forty years worth of common bonds, intellectual musings, and a committed passion for their craft which are all recorded in Alan Gillmor's excellent compendium of correspondence.

Rochberg worked hard to understand Anhalt's aesthetic, and the latter likewise supported Rochberg's various stylistic experiments. Fundamentally, however, they understood what it meant to compose. They also shared a critical engagement with the world, although Anhalt focused on Kabbalah studies and a distrust of popular culture, while Rochberg found solace in the words of Wordsworth, Yeats,and Milan Kundera and eschewed all forms of organized religion.

Rochberg, who died in 2005, has long been known for his strident opposition to the avant-garde (after 1964), both in his musical style and his public writings. While his letters to Anhalt do not negate this, they do give the reader a sense that there was a willingness to accept more than his published writings would suggest. He also felt misunderstood as the "neo-Romantic" label came to be applied to his music.

Anhalt, whose gentler prose provides a balm to Rochberg's occasional bouts of ranting, seems to be more conscious that the two men are moving toward the end, and thus feels more inclined to pick his battles carefully. His study of the Kabbalah helped develop a personal philosophy that came to fruition is his 1994 work, Traces/Tikkun.

These letters provide a rich look into the perceptive and engaging minds of two of North America's most intellectual thinkers. The book is an indispensable tool for research into their works and biography, and is an encouragement to other modern composers to make their correspondence available for publication.



Friday, September 19, 2008

50BC08 #21: Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet

Letters to a Young Poet Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke


rating: 5 of 5 stars
50 Book Challenge #21
pages: 66 (Dover, 2002)




There are works that surface time and time again in cultural circles: film, literature, music, etc. One of these is Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. The young poet, Franz Xaver Kappus, is unremarkable in this set of letters as we never see the poems he sent to Rilke, nor do we see his end of the correspondence. Yet, what Kappus realizes, and so too the reader, is that his offerings are absolutely unnecessary because we see them through Rilke's eyes. Rilke readily assumes the mantle of humble mentor, dispensing pearls of wisdom in a language that teaches the young Kappus that not all poetry is written in stanzas.

One wonders if Rilke was indeed writing to the world. His replies to Kappus are lofty but sincere, and filled with passages that seem destined for quotation:

"Do not search now for the answers which cannot be given you because you could not live them. It is a matter of living everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer."

For Rilke, bite-size gifts of mature sophistry (in the Classical sense of the word) will not suffice. In these letters to Kappus, Rilke seizes the opportunity to work out his own philosophy through provocative and probing questions. We learn that Kappus, during the course of his military service, has lost faith in God, and Rilke asks him, "Is it not much rather the case that you have never yet possessed him? ... Do you believe a child can hold him, him whom men bear only with difficulty, whose weight bows down on the aged?" Rilke is ready to be not only a literary mentor, but a theological counselor.

No subject is taboo for Rilke, who quite readily addresses sexual intimacy as he does some rather unconventional thoughts about women:

"Surely women, in whom life tarries and dwells more immediately, fruitfully and confidently, must have become fundamentally more mature human beings, more human human beings, than light man, whom the weight of no body's fruit pulls down beneath the surface of life, who, conceited and rash as he is, underrates what he thinks he loves."

Even in his criticisms of Kappus (both of his work and his character) he is ever gentle, crafting his words with the care of both poet and teacher. He is self-effacing, but sure in his prose. He tells the young Kappus: "And your doubt can become a good quality if you train it. It must become aware, it must become criticism." However, in the four year gap between the letter that contained those words and what would be his last letter to Kappus, we see that his final offering is tinged by reality and somewhat removed from the more romantic musings of his earlier letters:

"Art too is only a way of living, and one can prepare for it, living somehow, without knowing it; in everything real one is a closer, nearer neighbour to it than in the unreal semi-artistic professions which, while they make show of a relatedness to art, in practice deny and attack the existence of all art, as for instance the whole of journalism does, and almost all criticism and three quarters of what calls itself and likes to be called literature. I am glad, in a word, that you have overcome the danger of ending up there, and remain solitary and courageous somewhere in a raw reality."

As the translator comments, Kappus did indeed end up "there," publishing several "cheap popular novels." But in the end, the debt to Kappus is greater than his debt to, or at least reverence for, Rilke. The letters capture the spirit of a man, not yet old, but weathered by experience. In Kappus' military station Rilke saw much of himself, having been pressured to enter a military academy at a young age. We get a sense that Rilke is writing to a younger version of himself, encouraging the hope and youth that inspired him to write in his poem, "To Celebrate Myself":

I long to be a garden at whose fountains
my thronging dreams would pluck themselves new blooms.


A reader of Rilke's letters will indeed be ready to grasp a garden full of blooms.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Reading for a Cause: Darfur

Natasha, at Maw Books is kicking off a month-long Reading & Blogging for Darfur campaign. For each book you read or video you view, she will donate 50 cents to an organization for aid in Darfur. If you review said book or video on your blog, she'll donate 50 cents more. But wait! There's a whole lot of other ways you can help too! See here for the details.

With lecture prep a priority, I don't know how much I can get done this month, but I'm going to head over to the library to see what they have. I've already read What Is the What (goodness, a YEAR ago!), but there's much more to be done.

I hope you'll consider doing this!

Friday, August 22, 2008

50BC08 #19 & #20

50 BOOK CHALLENGE #19
TITLE: Standing Room Only: Strategies for Marketing the Performing Arts
AUTHORS: Philip Kotler and Anne Scheff
YEAR: 1997, Harvard Business School Press
PAGES: 560
GENRE: non-fiction, marketing, textbook, arts management
RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

Kotler and Scheff have managed to write a textbook that is relevant, well-organized AND interesting! While the style is characteristically dry, the prose is peppered with plenty of real-life case studies that help elucidate both the marketing concepts themselves and the application thereof. The chapters are helpfully broken into sub-categories which makes for easy note-taking and comprehension. I can see why this has been the Arts Marketing bible for so long. The only thing we need is an updated version with more intense focus on internet marketing, etc.

50 BOOK CHALLENGE (2008): #20
TITLE: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
AUTHORS: Mark Haddon
YEAR: 2003, Vintage Books (Random House)
PAGES: 226
GENRE: fiction
RATING 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Boston Globe called this book, "gloriously eccentric..." which is an inaccurate way to represent this story by Mark Haddon. If anything, Haddon enters the world of autism and demystifies it, making it less eccentric. We see the world through the eyes of fifteen year-old Christopher Boone, who abhors the color yellow, but calms himself by solving complicated math problems in his head. The reader learns to re-calibrate his or her own emotional responses a la Christopher, for whom things hurt according to their logical content or lack thereof.

This book has many strengths, and Christopher's father is perhaps one of the best examples of a sympathetic but highly flawed character. While Christopher is undoubtedly the book's protagonist, the non-autistic reader will more likely empathize with Christopher's father, who is capable of both great love and great destruction.

Aside from Christopher's discussions with his therapist Siobhan, the book wisely veers away from preachy explanations about autism. Even the therapy sessions are more about interpersonal connection than outlining the intricacies of autism, and it is this that helps the reader to connect to Christopher in something other than sympathy. We engage with Christopher's world, not the world of autism...and this is right as autism spectrum disorders defy generalizations or easy categories.

The end result, if anything, is that the eccentricity of general humanity is exposed. We become conscious of our everyday lack of logic. The novel is just as much about the human condition as the autistic condition.

50BC08 #18: Divine Intervention

It has been awhile. I didn't quite get through all my nun reads. I guess I hit my saturation point, so I need a break. So what could be farther from nuns than extraterrestrial machine-gods?

Divine Intervention (World Realities Series) Divine Intervention by Ken Wharton




rating: 3 of 5 stars


I will preface this review by admitting that when it comes to science-fiction, I tend to favor the fictional elements over the scientific ones. I don't mind a book that is science heavy, but I'm pretty particular about how that science is communicated. I'm not fond of the model that has two characters casually chatting about quantum physics (much in the same way I hate commercials that show women sitting around talking about their feminine supplies).

Wharton, when he does this, does manage to give it good context (most of the time), so it doesn't get tiresome. The book is reminiscent of C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy in its attempts to address science and theology, but Wharton's aim is different. His crafting of the Randall family is really well-done, and we come to appreciate them for their individual strengths and foibles. Daddy Randall is a preacher and believes in "God" but not the "God" of his son, Drew. Drew, who is a deaf-mute and communicates through a transmitter, has regular talks with God. Mommy Randall is an atheist, but turns out to be far more-open minded than Daddy Randall.


This would be an interesting premise by itself, but Wharton successfully places the Randalls on Mandala, a long-standing colonized planet. In fact, the whole theology of Mandalans is based around a "Journal" kept by the Captain (capital "C" intentional) of the original ship that colonized the planet, the Walt Disney. But they have become their own planet, and the news that a ship containing thousands of cryogenically frozen Earthlings is on its way to Mandala isn't received as happy news by everyone.

Where the book fails, is the Epilogue. I would like to see a law against Epilogues (I'm looking at you Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). I much prefer to leave things hanging than a quick tie-up of all loose ends in 3 to 10 pages. Wharton's Epilogue, especially after all the complex relationships he has introduced, comes off as trite.

Epilogue aside, it is a good read. The scientific reasoning is mixed with personality differences and theology which makes for much more interesting reading than your standard dialogue about semi-conductive materials.

Monday, July 21, 2008

#17: The Tulip and the Pope

50 BOOK CHALLENGE 2008 #17: The Tulip and the Pope: A Nun's Story
AUTHOR: Deborah Larsen
YEAR: (2005, Knopf, hardcover)
GENRE: memoir
PAGES: 256


The Tulip and the Pope: A Nun's Story The Tulip and the Pope: A Nun's Story by Deborah Larsen




rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book had a lot of unexplored potential. To be fair, I think writing a memoir about one's time as a nun (after the fact) must be a very difficult task. Karen Armstrong expresses this in her preface to The Spiral Staircase, her account of leaving her convent and a sequel to her memoir of her experiences as a nun (Through the Narrow Gate). Armstrong says:



Writing Through the Narrow Gate, some twelve years later, was a salutary experience. It made me confront the past, and I learned a great dal. Most important, I realized how precious and formative this period of my life had been, and that despite my problems, I would not have missed it for the world. Then I attempted a sequel: Beginning the World was published in 1983. It is the worst book I have ever written and I am thankful to say that it has long been out of print. (xvii)


Deborah Larsen's account of entering the convent of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1960 is a conflicted memoir--not in her feelings about her time as a nun, but in her choice of narrative voice. She has tried to accomplish in one memoir what Armstrong struggled to do in three. She explains in her author's note: " My remembrance of 1960-1965 never felt like a conventional narrative, thought it had progressions. My sense was more of a string of paper lanterns...lit spottily against the dark along a dock, where some days, even now, waves dash." This explains, but does not ameliorate the odd sense of detachment for the reader.


A lot of value in memoir is hindsight. Larsen's reluctance to allow herself deeper reflection upon the events of the 60s left this reader disappointed. It isn't until Larsen considers leaving the convent that the narrative becomes potentially more interesting. Not only has she been released to re-engage with the world in the memoir, but it seems that Larsen-as-author releases her cloistered style as well and the reader begins to understand the point of the first two-thirds of the book:


If you are capable of pushing, then a you is assumed; you must exist if you can push.

Maybe that was it.

There must be an identity or at least an entity; there must be a you.

Or was it the
act of pushing, your choosing, your summoning up courage, created the you? (205)

I'm not sure Larsen's switch in style was conscious, but it makes for a disparate reading experience with the first part of the book.

What Larsen does accomplish however, is a beautiful set of vignettes from both inside and outside the community. She appreciates the nuns' aesthetic sense: "Black became us almost thrillingly, I thought. Clerical, but classy." Moments like this make the reader smile as she recognizes the nineteen year old in the nun.


For some, this memoir will feel remarkably undramatic--Larsen moves from a state of naive obedience to disciplined questioning. However, it is this lack of drama that gives the book a good part of its value. Larsen has demystified the choice to enter a convent, and reveals obedience, chastity, and poverty to be simply another set of options in the lives we choose to lead.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

50BC08 #15 & #16: Crafts and Nuns

50BC08 #15: Artful Cards
AUTHOR: Katherine Duncan Aimone
GENRE: crafting, scrapbooking, how-to

Artful Cards: 60 Fresh & Fabulous Designs Artful Cards: 60 Fresh & Fabulous Designs by Katherine Duncan Aimone




rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really liked what this book had to offer in terms of ideas and explanations. It covers basics and some more advanced techniques. Unlike other card/scrapbooking books, this is more than just layout after layout. The ideas are creative and will help you develop our own offshoot ideas.


50BC08 #16: Bad Faith: A Sister Agatha Mystery
AUTHOR(S): Aimée and David Thurlo
YEAR: 2002 (read 2003 Thorndike Press large print ed.)
GENRE: mysteries, fiction, series

Bad Faith Bad Faith by Aimee Thurlo




rating: 3 of 5 stars


Well, this was a fun start to my month long NunRead. :-) I've long been a fan of nun mysteries (Sister Steve of the Father Dowling series on TV, Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma)...actually make that clergy mysteries, period. Of course Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose is on top of the list.

This first book in the Sister Agatha series has the earmarks of a first novel in a series in that it is lacking in character development but has all the components of a good story. Nuns make pretty good sleuths and convents tend to be inherently mysterious, partially because they are cloistered away from society. The Thurlos hit the mark with the right amount of sub-mysteries (those mini-plots you need as diversions from the main Whodunit); false leads (proving the prime suspect innocent); and an interesting sleuth. When the protagonist is a nun, there is a reconciling of past and present lives that is the most interesting. While we get SOME of that with Sister Agatha, we don't get nearly enough.


In addition to wanting more of Agatha's back story (no doubt revealed in later books in the series), the lack of physical description of any of the characters was particularly vexing in the case of the Reverend Mother who, unlike most of the other featured nuns, seems to have very little history or personality beyond her wisdom. I felt in this respect, and in some of the revealed secrets of the convent, the authors relied on too many clichés. The Thurlos work arduously to present an accurate portrait of modern convent life, but it comes across as proselytising, particularly when put forth through Agatha's thoughts about and conversations with Sheriff Tom Green.


I wanted Agatha to be more spunky. Her upbraiding of Tom Green became tiresome, as it was too one-sided. Supposedly he's a good guy and we are supposed to sympathize with him because his wife is an over-protective shrew, but he is definitely postured as the quasi-enemy. The gradual peace accord between Sister Agatha and Tom doesn't really work because their relationship doesn't follow any kind of rhythm. The character of Tom Green presents an excellent opportunity for complexity, and I hope this is further developed in later offerings in the series.

All that said, there is something unavoidably whimsical and entertaining about a nun with a broken vehicle (irreverently called the "Anti-Chrysler"), who rides a Harley without a second thought, and plays billiards. In some respects, it is probably a good thing that the Thurlos chose not to show more of their hand in regard to Sister Agatha's character. They crafted a mystery that is good enough to get me to read the next in the series.

Monday, June 30, 2008

July 2008 Theme Read

Well, I've decided that every few months I will try to do a Theme Read. July's theme?
Nuns.

That's right. I've always had this fascination with/respect for nuns. Medieval nuns. Renaissance nuns. Modern nuns. Singing Nuns. And yes, I suppose even Flying Nuns. I'm not Catholic, but the cloistered life has always intrigued me. Evidence of this fascination is plentiful on my bookshelf of unread books. Most of the selections for the month are from there. Two out of the three library books I checked out today are nun-related (unintentional!)

So here's the list (keep in mind I have about 7 other books (un-nun-related) going). The genres vary wildly:

Aimée & David Thurlo, Bad Faith (A Sister Agatha Mystery) (2002); mystery
Deborah Larsen, The Tulip & The Pope: A Nun's Story (2005); memoir, non-fiction
Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness (2004); memoir, non-fiction
Mark Salzman, Lying Awake (2000); fiction
Anne H. King-Lenzmeier, Hildegard of Bingen: An Integrated Vision (2001); non-fiction
Helen Rose Fuchs Ebaugh, Women in the Vanishing Cloister: Organizational Decline in Catholic Religious Orders in the United States (1993); non-fiction

Saturday, June 21, 2008

50BC08: The Right Attitude to Rain

50 Book Challenge 2008 #14:

The Right Attitude to Rain: An Isabel Dalhousie Novel (Isabel Dalhousie Mysteries) The Right Attitude to Rain: An Isabel Dalhousie Novel by Alexander McCall Smith



rating: 3 of 5 stars


In this third installment of the Isabel Dalhousie series, Alexander McCall Smith has done an admirable job of advancing the plot without being too redundant. For those unfamiliar with the series, but who have read the authors No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series, Isabel Dalhousie is a far different protagonist than Mma Ramotswe. While both philosophers in their own right, Isabel's philsophies are academic and rooted in social modernity whereas Precious Ramotswe prides herself on simple wisdom in the face of changing tradition.

If you are expecting a whodunit-smoking-gun- mystery, you will be sorely disappointed. Instead, McCall Smith explores the mysteries of the human heart and psyche. Why do we do what we do? Why do we say what we say? We all have our own mysteries to investigate. I do think the "mystery" label is deceiving--at least for this particular book in the series.

Another warning: for those used to the sparkly clean morality of Mma Ramotswe and friends, this series is a little spicier--of the garlic variety, not the jalapeño variety (so for those of you who enjoy steamy sex scenes, don't hold your breath).

All-in-all, a fun read, although I found the plot moving so much more quickly than usual that I skimmed over some of Isabel's more philosophical moments, eager for the next plot point.

(cross-posted)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

50BC08 #13: Bellwether

Bellwether Bellwether by Connie Willis




rating: 3 of 5 stars
What do thirty sheep, a disheveled chaos theorist, and a statistician have in common? Everything, according to this very eccentric love story from Connie Willis.



I found myself waiting for "something" to happen, yet being interested enough in the characters not to put the book down. While a bit repetitive in driving home its chaos theory-related/serendipity-is-the-mother-of-invention points, the book is unique it is approach to romance running through the lines of scientific dialogue.

Willis creates vivid characters who border on the absurd, but not in a fictional way. The reader will laugh out loud in recognizing co-workers, friends, and probably even family members in the characters in the novel.

An unusual and fun reading experience recommended for scientists, animal lovers and everyone in between.

(cross-posted)

Thursday, June 5, 2008

50BC08 #12: God in Concord by Jane Langton

God in Concord (Homer Kelly Mystery) God in Concord by Jane Langton



rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jane Langton's Homer Kelly is one part absent-minded professor, one part Doctor Who (sans time travel) and one part...well, Homer Kelly. Suffering from JFS (Jessica Fletcher Syndrome), mystery and death seem to "sniff out" Homer, rather than the other way around.

The story is not just merely about scenic suburban life and the petty trifles of its inhabitants. That provides the narrative façade for an astute commentary regarding the politics of development/city planning, environmentalism and the dangers/benefits of nostalgia.

Langton's characters are vividly multi-dimensional, torn in their allegiances by both heart and mind. The author asks the reader not to pass immediate judgment, suggesting that the potential for villainy resides within us as well, under the right set of circumstances.

I think this is one of Langton's better books in the series. Highly recommended for Thoreau buffs and those readers familiar with Boston/Concord, Massachusetts.

(cross-posted)


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

50BC08 #11: The Miracle at Speedy Motors

The Miracle at Speedy Motors (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency - Book 9) The Miracle at Speedy Motors by Alexander McCall Smith
rating: 4 of 5 stars


The real mystery in this series is how the author manages to continue the charming adventures of Precious Ramotswe, Grace Makutsi and Mr. JLB Matekoni well past the original seven volumes he had originally intended. Now on Book #9, McCall still manages to breathe new life into his characters, even if they still maintain habitual bush tea drinking or conversations with their shoes!

One of the gifts or major frustrations of this series (depending on your preference) is the slow rate of character development (at least in terms of their interpersonal relationships). While Mma Potokwane can still be relied upon to supply fruitcake and charm Mr. JLB Matekoni into doing odd jobs, other characters begin to grow and mature, even if only by inches. The changes are subtle, but this is what keeps readers coming back for yet another volume.



I have to admit to skipping over some of the repetitions (Smith writes so that you can pick up any volume in the series, but I do recommend reading them in order) but I found the plot coherency better in this book than in the Good Husband of Zebra Drive, for example. There is still a sense that perhaps he sets up too many loose ends and feels a pressure near the end to tie them up, but it doesn't detract from the general enjoyment of the novel.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

50BC08 #10: Becoming a Musician

Becoming A Musician Becoming A Musician by George Norwood Humphrey

rating: 3 of 5 stars





I find it hard to criticize posthumously published memoirs for two reasons: 1) the original author has no say over the final manuscript and 2) those who endeavor to publish it might risk misrepresenting the original author's intent (intentionally or not).

If one reads this memoir (as with any memoir) with a grain of salt, you can appreciate Humphrey's anecdotes about some of the most famous figures in orchestral conducting. Having graduated from New England Conservatory in 1929, Humphrey, after much perseverance, obtained a viola position with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1934 under the baton of Serge Koussevitsky. The book is largely a memoir of his long career with the BSO, which ended in 1977.

Humphrey cannot truly decide, however, how he feels about Koussevitsky, and this is partially what makes the book frustrating, but also one of the more interesting aspects. The reader can tell that he's grappling with his own psychology. Late in the book he acknowledges his own ambivalence, in contrasting Erich Leinsdorf to Koussevitsky:

The very thing I had always wished for now became anathema to me, for with this x-ray treatment [by Leinsdorf], all inspirational possibilities had gone. We found ourselves playing woodenly. (149)



Koussevitsky is not the only victim of Humphrey's ambivalence. He seems to have a love-hate relationship with conductors in general:

[Under Munch] we had to be prepared to do anything that he might demand for this concert, but not wish for the next. This sort of thing can make one almost as nervous as the other well-prepared version under an autocrat. (105)



While I agree, it seems to me that this discredits his implied assertion that a conductor is simply there to keep the beat. I think it would make one especially nervous if one felt that the conductor was no more than a mere metronome. As an ensemble musician myself, while I don't prefer bizarre maneuvers out of left field during a concert, I do appreciate if the work is "new" EVERY time it is played. I believe there is a way to do this without putting orchestral cohesion at risk.

To Humphrey's credit, while his portrayal of Koussevitsky vascillates between "grumpy old man" and the Devil incarnate, he doesn't unreasonably idolize Munch, or any of the other successors. He acknowledges that the affability of Munch, for example, came at the expense of a certain lack of discipline. Moments like this smooth out his bipolar portrayal of Koussevitsky.

Humphrey includes plenty of humor (sometimes unintentionally, as he betrays his own snobberies and assumptions) and clearly communicates what was undoubtedly a love affair with music. Making no assumptions about his married life, I will say that I found the rare mention of his wife Mildred (or children) to be rather unfortunate. While I realize that the focus of the book is his musical career, one does wonder about the reaction of his spouse to his various relocations, touring, and general financial unsteadiness.

While an enjoyable and quick read, this book suffers from terrible editing. The repetitiveness is very bothersome, in that it is so obvious. Entire paragraphs reappear in later chapters, almost word for word. Direct quotes show up twice, losing any kind of impact the second time around (see, for example, Koussevitsky's "Now I feel like a guest conductor" on p. 91 AND p. 106).

Poor editing aside, Humphrey's tale of struggling musician turned successful professional violist is inspiring. In reading the book, one does have the vivid impression of the man sitting down to sincerely recount the major musical highlights of his life. His dedication and hard work would be both informative and motivational for an aspiring musician. He provides an interesting snapshot as well of the role of the orchestra as representational force in American politics.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Diamant on Gordimer

Anita Diamant, author of The Red Tent, writes about art, politics and the voice of fellow novelist and Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer, in today's Boston Globe.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

50BC08 #9: Things Fall Apart

50BC08 #9: Things Fall Apart
Author: Chinua Achebe
Year: 1959 (Anchor Books, 50th Anniversary Edition)
Genre: Fiction, African Literature
Pages: 209
Other: Part of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list

This is an extraordinary book in its ability to narrate both a story of cultural dissonance and an overarching tale about the human condition. Achebe's novel broaches the subject of morality, but demonstrates that even the concept of "evil" is subject to a cultural interpretive context.

Okonkwo, the book's tragic hero, is an emblem of tradition, but also represents how tradition can be subject to the inner turmoil of the human soul. While the Ibo people must face the threat of European missionaries, Okonkwo must confront the threat of his own misplaced hubris. Achebe is a sympathetic voice, but is unafraid to reveal the flaws of his characters as a commentary upon our own imperfect existence.

This is probably one of the best introductions to African fiction, precisely because the story does not limit itself to the African context. The author's investigation of tragedy is pragmatic, yet emotionally stimulating without being romanticized. It is a book that will help the western reader more easily understand not only Nigerian tribal culture, but the power of ideas and their institutions.

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter
9 / 50
(18.0%)

Friday, May 2, 2008

50BC08 #8: The First Christmas

50 BOOK CHALLENGE 2008 #8
BOOK: The First Christmas
AUTHORS: Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan
YEAR: 2007 (Hardcover, HarperOne)
PAGES: 255
GENRE: nonfiction, religion, christianity
RATING: 3.5 stars out of 5

While it may seem odd to be posting about a book about Christmas on the day after Ascension, authors Borg and Crossan would no doubt find it somewhat fitting as both the Ascension and Christ's birth are filled with light imagery, something the authors feel is a prominent and important aspect of the Christmas biblical narratives.

The authors successfully argue that the discrepancies found between Luke and Matthew's Christmas stories are only problematic should one chose to take the biblical narratives literally rather than allegorically. Through a careful analysis of language and symbolic representation, Borg and Crossan reveal how Matthew and Luke both see Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of God's promise to Israel, but communicate this message via different genealogies and troping of the Old Testament.

This book largely supports Borg's message that the Biblical language to describe Jesus was in fact a very intentional attempt to subvert Roman authority. By applying titles used for Roman emperors and nobility to Jesus, Christ is set up as an alternative to the Roman "peace through victory" approach.

Those familiar with the author's theses regarding political subversion and what they call "participatory eschatology" might find the book a bit repetitive. The authors are careful to provide several examples and a thorough investigation of both Matthew and Luke, in addition to their Old Testament references. Borg and Crossan write for a general audience, condensing the more weighty theological principles into concise and relevant explanations. Those who are interested in reading the Bible as more than a literal and historical narrative will no doubt find this book to be very engaging and a good study of what Christmas really means.

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter
8 / 50
(16.0%)


(cross-posted)

Thursday, April 24, 2008

50BC08 #7: Doctor Faustus

50 BOOK CHALLENGE #7
BOOK: Doctor Faustus
AUTHOR: Thomas Mann (Translator, John E. Woods)
YEAR: 1947 (Vintage International Edition, 1999)
PAGES: 534
GENRE: fiction
RATING: 4.5 stars out of 5


In partial thanks to Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise, Thomas Mann's 1947 novel Doctor Faustus is enjoying a renewed popularity, at least with those of us in the music community. I finished it yesterday morning, only to meet with a notable musicologist that same afternoon who had a copy of the novel in his hand. I started it well before I knew of Ross' reference to it, but found it a lovely coincidence when I began reading Ross' book about a month into my reading of Doctor Faustus.

It is rare that it takes three months for me to finish a novel, but I have a few theories as to why this was (aside from the rigors of a teaching schedule/adjunct commute).
The novel operates on so many levels it is difficult to read more than a few chapters before you need to stop to digest. Keeping track of the numerous secondary characters is a painstaking, but worthwhile, endeavor. Mann forms his environment with this multitude, presenting a photograph of German bourgeois life in the early 20th century.

The book warrants musicological analysis in its debt to Schoenberg, its continuation of the intimate connection between Faust and music, and its portraiture of Germanic musical existence (for starters). But even outside of musicological inquiry*, the book is full of literary paths one can tread should they choose. The relationship between the book's narrator and his forsaken hero, Adrian, dallies in sentiments rarely explored between two male characters. There are some echoes of Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund, except that Adrian Leverkühn's encounter with "love" comes with dire consequences.

I'd like to re-read the novel with a focus on the music only, because what resonated for me most loudly was how the book serves as a treatise on the dangers of blind nationalism. The narrator, Zeitblom, frustrates the reader with his various digressions, until you realize they are not digressions at all but allegories. His reflections about wartime Germany telescope into Adrian's own struggles. There were moments that made me stop and put the book down as I was yanked into my own reality:

"...the democracy of the West--however outdate its institutions may prove over time, however obstinately its notion of freedom resists what is new and necessary--is nonetheless essentially on the side of human progress, of the goodwill to perfect society, and is by its very nature capable of renewal, improvement, rejuvenation, of proceeding toward conditions that provide greater justice in life." (358)

I suppose I still believe this...but I note also Zeitblom's comments a couple of pages earlier regarding Germany:

"It is the demand of a regime that does not wish to grasp, that apparently does not understand even now, that it has been condemned, that it must vanish, laden witht eh curse of having made itself intolerable to the world--no, of having made us, Germany, the Reich, let me go farther and say, Germanness, everything German, intolerable to the world." (356)

This is why I read.

Readers who have no musical background will likely find themselves frustrated with some of the lengthy musical explications. I suggest skipping/skimming them. Normally I would never recommend this, but there is so much else to be had from reading this novel that it would be such a disservice to throw the myriad babies out with the musical bathwater. For the musically-inclined reader, however, the plethora of references to composers and pieces is a ready-made listening list and a chance to experience a nation's struggle with both political and aesthetic ideologies.

* Dial M recommends Edward Said's On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain. I have not yet read this book, but it is on the list!

(Crossposted)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Wonderful Resource for Book Reviews

Natasha, at Maw Books, has compiled hundreds of online reviews at Book Bloggers' Book Reviews.
What a fantastic resource!!

I hope to have some in-progress thoughts/reviews posted soon regarding Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, and Borg/Crossan's The First Christmas (yes, I know we just passed Easter.)

In the meantime, I hope to upload some of my old reading reviews so they will all be consolidated here.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

50BC08 #6: The Tipping Point

50 BOOK CHALLENGE # 6
BOOK: The Tipping Point
AUTHOR: Malcolm Gladwell
YEAR: 2002, Back Bay Books (paperback ed.)
PAGES: 301
GENRE: non-fiction, sociology
RATING: 4.5 stars out of 5

My TBR list is so large that it is no longer a goal, but more of a path. I've tried to say I won't buy any more books until I make a considerable dent in the unread pile I currently own. However, my desire to dialogue with the world at large compels me to buy a few bestsellers here and there just so I'm not out of the loop.

Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point has called to me for several years now and I've read the back cover so many times now I have it memorized. I usually have some healthy skepticism about books that have been hugely popular (I prefer "healthy skepticism" to "elitism," thank you), but this book has been recommended by a variety of friends, so I finally picked it up.

The idea of a "social epidemic" is important, and the biggest lessons in this book are in the stories about people like Georgia Sadler, who utilized folklorists and hairstylists to get the word out about breast cancer and diabetes. But the book should not breed too much careless optimism: While little things CAN make a big difference, they do not always make a BIG difference. If "social epidemics" become our only goal, I fear the motivation will be lost to do the right thing just because it is the right thing. However, Gladwell does get to the heart of the matter:

"What must underlie epidemics, in the end, is a bedrock belief that change is possible, that people can radically transform their behavior or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus." (258)

It is that bedrock belief that is so hard to nurture, especially now. It is, I believe, the real "audacity of hope" (to borrow from current politics). So, while we might try to be one of Gladwell's "connectors" or "mavens" or "salesmen," we also need to be members of the "dreamers"--that contingent who supports the hope upon which all change rests.

I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in social phenomena, psychology, cultural dynamics, and/or becoming a "mover & shaker." Be sure to read the edition that includes the Afterword: "Tipping Point Lessons From the Real World" where Gladwell warns us against the "rise of Immunity" as we begin to take our technological achievements for granted.

Friday, March 21, 2008

50BC08:#5 The Girl in the Flammable Skirt

50 Book Challenge #5:
BOOK: The Girl in the Flammable Skirt
AUTHOR: Aimee Bender
PAGES: 184 (Anchor Books, 1999)
GENRE: short stories, contemporary fiction
RATED: 3.5 /5 stars

Having read and enjoyed Bender's Willful Creatures I was surprised at how few of these stories resonated for me. Bender is a master of the quirky, but many of these stories seemed so esoteric that the witty commentary was lost along the way. I felt they were sexually saturated almost to the point of obsession (in many cases), but I'm also open to the idea that it was part of the point.

All that said, there were several stories I did enjoy, including the majority of the offerings in Part Three. The poignancy in "Skinless" (Part One), "The Healer" and "Loser" (both in Part Three) touched me deeply, particularly in the case of "Loser." Bender investigates what it means to be "lost" and indeed, "found." Her protagonist has the ironic gift to find what others have lost and the end of the story made my eyes glisten.

"Drunken Mimi" (Part Two) is a clever mixing of fantasy and realism wherein two outcasts find each other through a world that has long rejected impishness and magic.

I do think that Bender's work speaks differently to the reader depending on his/her frame of mind, place in life, etc. This is a positive, as there will be a story for everyone in this collection. I'll be interested to re-read these stories several years from now and see if they speak any differently to me. For indeed, Bender does have a gift for stories that speak.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Memoir Fraud

I found this article to be very intriguing. John Dolan discusses fabricated memoirs and why people feel compelled to write them and read them. It is a fairly provocative and uncomfortable article in some of its points, and I do find him to be a bit sanctimonious in his condemnation of "middle-class " readers and people who watch TV for escapism.

It got me thinking, however, about the lines between truth and fiction, and how our categorization of literature into different genres has a lot of implications for "artistic license." There are plenty of works masquerading as fiction that are actually memoirs. Is claiming something to be fabricated when it is in fact true any better than falsifying a memoir? I'm not sure. It is a different kind of dishonesty--one that is probably less hurtful to the reader. Yes, I know that fiction will often draw upon the life experiences of the author, but when you can identify real-life people (who are still living) in a fictional work, I think that needs to be addressed. The disclaimer one finds in fiction, about any resemblance of the characters to real and living persons being coincidental, is there for a reason. It exists because too often the connections are not coincidental and are an opportunity for the author to air dirty laundry under the safety net of "fiction."

Sunday, March 2, 2008

50BC06 #7: Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules

50 Book Challenge #7
BOOK REVIEW: Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules
Edited by David Sedaris

This is a compilation of David Sedaris’ favorite short stories by literary greats such as Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor and Dorothy Parker, just to name a few. With a crowd like this, you can expect stories that will leave you ever so slightly unsettled, such as Tobias Wolff’s "Bullet in the Brain" and Lorrie Moore’s troubling tromp through a pediatric cancer ward in "People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk." The stories seem to gather eccentric value as the book progresses. They are provocative and probably not best read right before bed. But Sedaris has indeed gathered the best of the best, and each of the stories represents an intricate piece of literary art.

Posted here 9/12/08, originally posted 3/2/06.

But there is another reason to buy this book. All the proceeds benefit 826NYC, an afterschool tutoring organization that also does community outreach by way of writing workshops for young people. Literature to help foster literature—it is a great idea and one worthy of support.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

50BC08: #4 Three Classics in the Aesthetic of Music

50 BOOK CHALLENGE #4
TITLE: Three Classics in the Aesthetic of Music (Dover, 1962)
AUTHORS: Claude Debussy, Ferruccio Busoni, Charles Ives
GENRE: non-fiction
PAGES: 188
4 out of 5 stars

One of the joys of reading about aesthetics, particularly as the field applies to music, is that there is such a variance of thought about what is beautiful. For all three of the authors included in this collection, beauty is not solely defined by consonance and dissonance. These composer-authors grapple with the role of inspiration, philosophical contexts, and music itself.


Claude Debussy, "Monsieur Croche the Dilettante Hater" (1927)
Debussy does not mince words and offers invective toward everything from opera to arts administration. It is more music criticism than a specific treatise on aesthetics. It is impossible, however, to read this group of essays without tasting the clear flavor of Debussy's own aesthetic agenda. For example, the Paris Opera, for Debussy, "...continue[s] to produce curious noises which the people who pay call music, but there is no need to believe them implicitly." (24)


Ferruccio Busoni, "Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music "(1911)
Busoni gives the reader a more straightforward offering complete with footnotes and musical examples. However, even Busoni likes to wax poetic: "Tradition is a plaster mask taken from life..." (n.1, p. 7). In another footnote, Busoni makes the case for microtonality, attacking the idea of musical "purity":


But what is "pure," and what "impure?" We hear a piano "gone out of tune," and whose intervals may thus have become "pure, but unserviceable," and it sounds impure to us. The diplomatic "Twelve-semitone system" is an invention mothered by necessity yet none the less do we sedulously guard its imperfections. (89)


Charles Ives, "Essays before a Sonata" (1920)
It is Ives' contribution that is the most beautiful read. He offers an essay that is one part program note (for the Concord Sonata (1915, rev. 1947)) to two parts philosophical and aesthetic treatise. Writing with all the passion and transcendental fervor he can muster, Ives presents various New England literary figureheads as aesthetes, blurring the line between the artistry of literature and that of music.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

In Memoriam: Alain Robbe-Grillet

As this is a blog about books and reading, I will, from time to time, report on significant events in the literary world and in the related blogosphere.

I am sad to report the passing of Alain Robbe-Grillet, French author and filmaker.


As for my current reading projects, I hope to have a report on Ives' "Essay Before a Sonata" soon.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

50BC08: #3 The Music of Chance

50 BOOK CHALLENGE 2008 #3
TITLE: The Music of Chance
AUTHOR: Paul Auster
(Penguin, 1990, 217 pages)
GENRE: Fiction

Rating 3.5 out of 5

I appreciated what this novel was trying to do, but was bothered by my complete and utter lack of attachment to the characters. The premise (lives colliding by chance) is intriguing and the narrative is beautifully executed. What was missing for me was the answer to "why?." The main character seems to be a passive observer to his own life, with a few moments of real passion interspersed.

Auster does have a gift for metaphor, using Pozzi and Nashe's wall as a symbol of perseverance and incarceration at the same time. There is a tenderness that while left largely unexplored, runs like a tiny stream throughout the story. It is this stream that saves the book. We learn how quickly solitude loses its freedom-like quality when faced with personal loss.

(cross-posted)

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Review: Bread Upon the Waters

50 Book Challenge 2008 #2:
TITLE: Bread Upon the Waters
AUTHOR: Irwin Shaw
YEAR: 1981
GENRE: Fiction
PAGES: 479

Stars: 3.5 out of 5

In the tradition of Agee's A Death in the Family, or Guest's Ordinary People, this is a book about a family's whose life changes drastically after their tennis-playing teenage daughter becomes an unlikely hero one evening in Central Park. Driven by this one catalyst, the events that play out for the Strand Family become like dominoes, each one building momentum as they fall against each other.

Shaw does a masterful job with the narrative rhythm, careful not to show his hand too soon. This might infuriate some readers with a lack of patience or a preference for plot-driven narrative. The plot picks up speed about two-thirds of the way into the book, and comes to a halt (but by no means a "grinding" one) only at the very end.

This is a portrait of a family and the lives that touch it (and vice-versa). It is beautifully lifelike it its messiness, but also in its portrayal of perseverance. Tragedy does not always beget tragedy, but in Shaw's world, good deeds are not always wholly good, either.

It is a book about the complexities of life. The characters are "everyman" characters in that Shaw keeps them at a distance, so we become attached more to their predicaments than to the characters themselves. While this is more instructive for the reader, it does steal something from the fictional experience, at least for me.

Overall, a very fine novel that captures the angst of everyday life with a certain refreshing objectivity.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma

Absolutely one of the best books I have read in a long time.

Michael Pollan is one of those writers who could probably draw any reader into any topic. Omnivore's Dilemma is a captivating and enriching narrative of Pollan's journey to

"look as far into the food chains that support us...and recover the fundamental biological realities that the complexities of modern industrialized eating keep from our view" (281).

From a family meal at McDonalds to a meal wherein he "hunted and gathered" all the ingredients himself (or mostly), Pollan details how we face a much larger question than simply "meat or no meat." He reveals how shopping at Whole Foods presents its own dilemma, even for those who are already conscious about what they eat.

In the end, Pollan doesn't really come to a conclusion in terms of a choice. His point is to start a conversation that needs to happen because we are allowing the USDA to dictate our eating habits. We have taken for granted that while we may be on the top of the food chain, we are still a chain, linked to countless other forms of life and ecosystems. Pollan hopes for a day when

"...we would no longer need any reminding that however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we're eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world." (411)


Book 1/50 for the 50 Book Challenge 2008

Friday, January 11, 2008

Library/Networking Sites Comparison

In search of the ideal cataloguing website for my personal library, I have been using, for the past several weeks, three different services: Goodreads, Shelfari and most recently, LibraryThing. I offer a brief analysis and the pros and cons (according to my opinion) of each service. Feel free to chime in about the service(s) you like and why!

CRITERIA
Interface/user-friendly
Price
Features*

*My list of features for each service is in no way exhaustive. I simply point out a few really good or bad features. And because a feature is listed under one service does not make it exclusive to that service unless stated.



LIBRARY THING

INTERFACE/USER-FRIENDLY: 5/5
  • Multiple options for viewing
  • use of simple icons in list view to access information
  • generally good layout/layout options
PRICE: 4/5
  • You can upload 200 books for free, but then can buy a yearly subscription at $10 or a "lifetime" which is really more of a suggested donation, $25 is typical. Given the lack of ads and useability, I can't really complain.
FEATURES: 5/5
  • Uploaded list easily (took awhile, but that was ok--especially since they give you an approximate timeframe...and they use a queue, so you can go do other stuff while you wait)
  • Ability to do "half" stars
  • Can report your handle/username for other networks/resources such as BookCrossing, LiveJournal, Blogger, etc. Other library sites (like GoodReads and Shelfari) are noticeably absent, however.
  • Will work with a barcode reader (available for purchase)
  • options for including date purchased, started, and completed
  • option to include BCID #
  • Indicates how many users/reviews for each book
  • "tagging" operation not ideal as pre-existing tags not listed, nor are your own tags readily accessible
  • tag clouds available for viewing, however and author clouds!!
  • blog, social networking widgets available


SHELFARI
INTERFACE/USER-FRIENDLY: 2/5
  • While they have made some improvements, the server is often slow or non-functioning.
  • The new "shelf" layout is cute and pretty user-friendly. The overlaid menus are ok, but don't always work that well (I'm using Mac/Firefox). There need to be more options immediately available when you put your cursor over a given book.
  • Other problem...a lot of less popular titles don't show up on Shelfari...even when using ISBNs (whereas they show up at GoodReads or LibraryThing). I'm assuming this means Shelfari doesn't have access to as many databases.
  • Tried to import a list of books. Said the import was successful and was "processing." Maybe I didn't wait long enough (an hour??!), but there should be some indication of how long processing will take.
PRICE: 5/5
  • Free, can't beat that.

FEATURES: 3/5
  • Cute "shelf" design
  • Shelves for Reading, To Read, Own, Favorites, Wish List
  • Tells you other users who have the book
  • Indicates groups who have the book
  • Will let you customize your copy of the book, including spaces to say if it is signed, loaned out, etc
  • while tagging involves a separate operation, they do provide a list of the tags you've used from which you can select

GOODREADS


INTERFACE/USER-FRIENDLY: 5/5
  • Attractive and minimalist
  • Self-explanatory, and easy editing features
  • good server speed
PRICE: 5/5
  • Free
FEATURES: 4/5
  • tags, but calls them "shelves" which then become part of a drop-down menu for easy cataloging
  • recommendation feature
  • easy export (haven't tested import, but I used my GoodReads created file to import into LibraryThing
  • good customized widgets
  • book data almost as good as LibraryThing

SUMMARY

If I had to pick "the best," I'd probably go with LibraryThing. GoodReads comes in at a close second, but Shelfari trails behind. I know Shelfari is looking to make constant improvements, so I will stick around and I applaud their efforts (they are a smaller operation, unlike LT, which has shares owned by companies such as AbeBooks, etc).

4/13/08 UPDATE:
For further reading check out Ray Sims' comparison of Shelfari and LibraryThing here.

EDITED 1/15 to strikethrough inaccurate statement (see comments).

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

In the Blogosphere: À mon chevet

Charles Downey, over at Ionarts, has begun a series of blog posts entitled "À mon chevet" wherein he provides a quote from a book sitting on his nightstand and some commentary. In this most recent post, he offers a selection from John Dos Passos' 1919, the second volume of the USA Trilogy.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

In Progress: Omnivore's Dilemma

I'm halfway through The Omnivore's Dilemma and am so impressed by the sheer scope of the work. In fact, one reason it is taking me so long to finish, is that I find myself needing to take a break so I can fully "digest" each chapter (pun intended).

What I appreciate the most, however, is the experiential data and the lack of sanctimony. When it comes to what we eat, there are few unadulterated heroes. Pollan leaves few stones unturned and is equitable when examining industrial agriculture, the "organic" movement, and even the idyllic farming pastoral embodied by the small family farm.

Finally, Pollan's writing is an absolute joy to read, peppered with humor and enthusiasm for his subject. I'll include a few excerpts here that I found most thoughtful and engaging.

Yet the organic label itself--like every other such label in the supermarket--is really just an imperfect substitute for direct observation of how a food is produced, a concession to the reality that most people in an industrial society haven't the time or the inclination to follow their food back to the farm, a farm which today is apt to be, on average, fifteen hundred miles away. (137)

Ain't that the truth? And really, that's the point of the book, as far as I can tell thus far. If we invested more emotional and mental energy into what we eat (including pondering where the food comes from), we could really impact the entire chain--from farm to table.

Pollan begins his journey with an examination of corn, which is the closest thing to a clear-cut villain in his story:

Corn has done more than any other species to help the food industry realize the dream of freeing food from nature's limitations and seducing the omnivore into eating more of a single plant than anyone would ever have thought possible. (91)

Seduction is a good word for it. Advertising and economics have seduced us into what we now have as the "typical" American diet. Corn, Pollan offers, may be one of the lousiest bedfellows around for numerous reasons.

And finally, while shopping at Whole Foods today, Pollan's words lodged in the back of my mind:

I enjoy shopping at Whole Foods nearly as much as I enjoy browsing a good bookstore, which, come to think of it, is probably no accident: Shopping at Whole Foods is a literary experience, too. That's not to take anything away from the food, which is generally of high quality, much of it "certified organic" or "humanely raised" or "free range." But right there, that's the point: It's the evocative prose as much as anything else that makes this food really special, elevating an egg or chicken breast or bag of arugula from the realm of ordinary protein and carbohydrates into a much headier experience, one with complex aesthetic, emotional, and even political dimensions. (135)

I can't wait to read more.