Sunday, August 29, 2010

Oddly Compelling

Book 44: Bad Marie
Marcy Dermansky

Bad Marie could have been a cliche.  The hot nanny; the bored, weak husband; the seemingly cold, ambitious wife.  But Dermansky avoids death by predictability.  

I read Bad Marie in one day.  I can't precisely define what it is that made the story so compelling, but I was completely sucked into the book. I also can't say I particularly cared for Marie, the ex-con landing on her childhood friend's doorstep begging for a job.  Friend Ellen takes in Marie, tasks her with caring for young Caitlin.  Caitlin adores Marie, and Marie adores Caitlin.

Whiskey swilling, chocolate loving, and thieving, Marie sets her sights on Ellen's husband and so begins the saga that is Bad Marie.  We learn that Marie's always coveted Ellen's life, from the time they were children and even now, after serving six years in prison as an accessory to armed robbery. Although Marie sees what she wants and takes it, this is no "Hand That Rocks The Cradle."

Although Marie's childhood was far from ideal, I never felt sorry for her. I don't know if this ambivalence to Marie was deliberate on Dermansky's part.  I found  myself frustrated with Marie more than once, shouting to her  in my mind, "You can't just take something because you want it.  It doesn't work that way."  But it does with Marie.

The whole story ends up being a quest for some kind of stability and love for Marie.  And ultimately, I think she does begin to realize that she has to return all that she has taken.  While deep down, she knows that some things are unforgivable, Marie still imagines that somehow, all those she has wronged will do just that.

At the same time, Marie's illusions about the men she's loved- her "true love" who died in prison, and Ellen's husband (with a twisted, sad backstory all his own)- are shattered in front of her eyes. She finally begins to realize that she creates whatever reality she needs, yet she is consistently disappointed when the true imperfections reveal themselves.

Dermansky's prose is purposeful and eloquent. She repeats a particular exchange between Marie and Caitlin, showing how Marie's adoration for the little girl is perhaps the only pure thing in her life.  

So I can't say precisely why I could not put down this book. It certainly wasn't an enchanting, happy ending. It was not sad and melancholy. Perhaps it was the realism of this glimpse into a troubled psyche.  Perhaps there was some identification with Marie- thinking the grass is greener in another life, preferring to re-write events in our mind to make them fit our definition of happiness and perfection.  At any rate, I found this book oddly and completely compelling.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

More Vampire Lore

Book 43: Insatiable
Meg Cabot

I always enjoy Meg Cabot.  Her reads are fun.  Insatiable is no exception.  Cabot capitalizes on what I think is the crest of vampire fatigue.  They are everywhere these days: hovering outside our windows in the delectably creepy "Let the Right One In"; Sexing up our Sunday nights on True Blood and the Sookie Stackhouse novels in which the Bon Temps undead originated; and in the seemingly indefatigable Twilight series, with its sparkling, "vegan" vampires. 

Insatiable brings back the best of the vampire stories.  With a deliberate shout out to Mr. Stoker, Cabot's heroine is Meena Harper, your typical lovelorn divorced New Yorker, stuck in a frustrating job and a generally mundane life. Except for one small thing. Meena can tell when you're going to die. Which some people might appreciate knowing, but it just makes Meena feel like a freak. As a heroine, she's likable.  Enough like all of us (save the whole knowing when people will die thing) that we cheer for her and want her to be happy. We know something is about to happen to upset the boredom of her every day life. Queue the crazy neighbors just aching to set up Meena with some eligible bachelor.  And enter the vampire, the true Prince of Darkness, Lucien Antonescu, who is suddenly captivated with Meena.  With shades of Buffy- and by that, I mean the action, the dialogue, and the humor- we also have the vampire fighters of the Palatine Guard, who are on a mission to eradicate the undead. The story all comes together over a few days in New York City against the backdrop of murders and a quest to overthrow the Vampire King.

This became my "let me read a chapter or two before bed" novel over the last few weeks.  It completely entertained me and Cabot's settings let me see the entire novel unfolding in my mind.  Not every book is supposed to make you think deep thoughts.  And that is in no way a criticism.  Some books are supposed to entertain and thrill you, make you laugh, transport you from the triviality of every day. This is one that does that very well.  And if you're like me, a bit over vampires being everywhere these days, this book is the perfect remedy.

Monday, August 23, 2010

What's For Dinner

Book 42: The Omnivore's Dilemma
Michael Pollan

I first saw Michael Pollan on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and was intrigued then about his work.  I finally picked up a copy of The Omnivore's Dilemma, well, the audiobook, and I'm glad I did.

In Dilemma, Pollan traces four meals from start to finish, and what comprises these meals. I found it fascinating.  I read Fast Food Nation years ago, so not everything was a surprise.  Still, I didn't realize that corn is the foundation of so many of our meals.  Corn's in everything. Including the meat that we eat. Meat that comes from cows that have not evolved to eat corn.  And because we're feeding livestock a diet they weren't meant to eat, and we need them bigger, stronger, faster now, and in less space, we're feeding them all kinds of antibiotics. And what they eat, we eat. Common sense, yes, but I didn't realize how much of our food supply is tainted this way.

It was Pollan's exploration of the Organic industry that was the most eye-opening to me, and frankly, evoked the most disappointment as I learned more about it.  If you're like me, when you read "organic, free-range" on the label of chicken at the grocery, you picture happy little chickens clucking around outside in a pen, living their happy little chicken lives.  Except that isn't really the case, at least not at some of the larger organic farms. Yes, the option for free range exists, but not the chicken's whole life and by the time they are deemed old enough to take advantage of it, they rarely do.  I've been a proponent of Organic eating when possible for a while now, but I couldn't help but feel a bit like I've been a victim of bait and switch on this one. Still, I think it is healthier overall, and more humane to eat Organic rather than out of our traditional food industry.

Pollan's exploration of local, sustainable food changed my consumption habits.  I'm convinced now, that short of vegetarianism, locally produced and sustainable food is the most ethical food choice for both animals and the land that supports them.  Pollan explains here how true transparency is a part of most of the local food efforts. These farmers want their customers to feel perfectly comfortable coming out to the farm and understanding precisely where their food comes from.  At the same time, these farmers tend to practice sustainable growth for their land.  After listening to this part of the book, I made the personal commitment to by local and sustainable whenever I can.  Yes, it is more expensive at first, but is it really? Unlike some of the industrial food supply, local and sustainable farms are not subsidized. So we may pay more at the register. But it's a wash, I think, when you consider that our taxes are funding the industrial supply.  At the same time, I feel like I'll know more about what I am eating- or rather, what I'm not eating: pesticides, antibiotics, and grains these animals have not evolved to eat.  It's tough.  I found California peaches at the grocery store closest to me.  I live in the Peach State. Which is not California.  You'd think local peaches would be all over the place, but no.  So, now I'm reading labels and signs much more closely and buying local when I can.  I also learned at Whole Foods this week that they now  label their meats on a sustainability scale.  I felt like I had a much better idea of the life the chicken and bison I bought on Saturday had led.

The most tedious part of Pollan's exploration, to me, was the recounting of putting together a meal he completely procured himself.   Perhaps it does say something about me as a person that I don't think I could actually hunt and kill my own meat, and that instead I prefer to not think about the act of killing the food I consume. I suppose I have to rectify that discrepancy myself, but I know that I would not make a good hunter.  That being said, the research and dedication Pollan gave to putting together this meal was quite interesting to listen to. Although I did think his part about the morel mushrooms went on for a bit too long. Still, the meal was meaningful to him, and I suppose that is why he did it.  And I learned something, so I know that it can't be all bad. Maybe if I were more passionate about mushrooms myself.

It's rare to read (or listen to) a book that makes you stop and think about your actions, your place as a consumer, like The Omnivore's Dilemma does. Pollan doesn't come in preaching, although I sensed some contempt for industrial food practices.  I came to the conclusion to seek out local and sustainable food on my own after hearing what Pollan had to say.  And I realize this doesn't address the issue of global food production, where the industrial food process could prove beneficial.  But I'm grateful that I know now what I do.  If you're at all interested in where the food you eat comes from, how it lives before it becomes your meal, and even perhaps, how it comes to be your meal, I highly recommend The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Monday, August 16, 2010

I Liked It, But I Don't Get the Phenomenom

Book 41: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Stieg Larsson

Recently, amongst several people I follow on Twitter, there was a discussion about books everyone's loved...except you.  I think that may be The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo for me.  Don't get me wrong. I didn't hate the book. In fact, I rather liked it and plan to read the other two in the Millennium trilogy.  I just don't get why it's a phenomenon. That could be because I've heard so many people RAVING about the book and the series that I just had incredibly lofty expectations.

I've also been told that the second book is even better,  and that by the third, I'll be quite angry that Larsson passed away before he could complete more books.  I hope that's true. I love a series that sucks me in, makes me want to read more and more about the characters.

There was a lot to like in Girl. Lisbeth is a complex, prickly heroine.  Yes, she's vulnerable and a victim, but at the same time, she's enough of a rebel and a bad-ass that you like her despite her somewhat thorny nature.  Blomvkist, too, is a likable enough guy, and you find you want him to get the revenge he deserves.  I thought the mystery was a good one, bits and pieces revealed at just the right pace to keep me reading.  I did guess the villain before the end of the book, although not the whole story and not how mental the whole thing was. I also understand why the book was called "Men Who Hate Women" in Sweden.

Reading a bit of Larsson's history- that he had witnessed a rape when he was fifteen and did  nothing to stop it, and his then life-long quest for absolution from this act and his guilt about his own inaction-  certainly explains a lot of his plot points, of the desire for justice and vengeance.

Now Twitter and Facebook are abuzz with the announcement of the actress who will play Lisbeth in the American version of the Film.  I don't have a strong opinion on the choice.  I can certainly see this novel translating well to the screen. I do hope they stay close to the story, and don't "Hollywood" it up too much.

I had anticipated being so enamored with these books that I would post on the series at one time because I'd had to read them back to back to back. That won't be the case, but I am looking forward to the next two books in the series.