Because I Want to Make Sure They’re Mentioned…

You guys know how summer is! At least, if your summer is anything like mine. The summer starts, and the days stretch out before you, and you go check out a pile of library books and open one and then…something happens. The great summer time suck, and suddenly it’s August and the books are way-overdue and you’ve read about 1% of all the great books you wanted to read. In order to try and keep this from happening this year, I wanted to make sure I mention all the books I’ve had the chance to start but, because of the very nature of summer, might not actually finish. I want to disclaim up front: NOT ALL OF THESE BOOKS ARE BAD!!! Some of them are great! I haven’t even officially abandoned all of them, but just want to guarantee at least a blog mention. So with that, here’s the books so far this summer I haven’t finished yet but really hope I do!

So far so good on my first Allende novel. I wanted to start with Eva Luna but this is what my library had and so, here we are! I’m only about 30 pages in to this one, and one of the central characters -a slave girl named Tete, has just made her first appearance. That’s not to say it’s been slow till now, though! We’ve met Toulouse Valmorain, his prostitute/companion, and the woman who is to become his future wife, a Cuban. The novel takes place in Haiti right before the Haitian revolution, and promises to span decades and distance, from Haiti to New Orleans and beyond, before the book is done and I can’t wait! The book is translated, which I always fear takes away a small bit of something, but short of becoming fluent in Spanish, I’m loving it so far! 4/5

Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town is the first book I’m reading for my public library’s armchair explorer adult summer reading challenge. Paul Theroux, who has spent a number of years of his life in the African wilderness teaching English to various tribes, decides he wants to go back to Africa, one to write a book about it and two because he just plain wants to travel. I find this honesty refreshing – it’s not often you’ll find a travel memoir written based on the premise of simply wanting to travel! I haven’t gotten much farther in to this one, so I’m hesitant to give judgment, but based on that premise and the fact that it’s in Africa, I feel comfortable making at least a slight leap of faith: 3/5

I mentioned Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals at the end of a recent review, and I can promise you this is one I’ll definitely be finishing! In fact, I can pretty much guarantee you that this book will be making the “Most Important Books of My (and Probably Your) Life” list. I’m only about 30% of the way through, though, which is why I’m not giving it it’s full review quite yet. The book, inspired when Foer realizes he’s going to be a daddy and wakes up to the fact that food is important if he’s going to be giving it to his children, focuses on a number of things. At the heart of the book is an expose on factory farming and mass agriculture, and this part is full descriptions of the horribly, filthy, degrading and cruel things humans do to animals. This part gets my goat, and if you ever want to get in to it with me, lets debate factory farming. But Foer also focuses on how important food is to storytelling (and storytelling to food) and the fact that farming and food haven’t always been like this in America/the world. This part was perhaps the most refreshing, and I can’t wait to finish this book so I can give you guys the full word! Major5/5

This one might just have to be my first official abandon of the summer. And it’s not for lack of being awesome. The writing is casual enough to read like a story, and the history (medical, cultural, literal and artistic) of cancer is absolutely fascinating. But this book is ABSOLUTELY MASSIVE! Seriously, I’m 200 pages in and only in the early 1900s of the history. That means another 110 years to go. Damn. And it’s just too hard to stick with it, knowing that, when I have all the great books above to get through as well. Hopefully I’ll be able to come back to this one, but here’s hoping 4/5 (although abandoned).

What’s your summer reading like? Do you find yourself suddenly without time? What books do you have to abandon, despite how good they might be?

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Welcome to Utopia: Notes from a Small Town by Karen Valby

I first heard of this book from my friend Kit over at Books are my Boyfriends, an absolutely hilarious blog that I’ve pimped on here before because of how much I love it. Seriously, its book-based and hilarious e-crack. You can check out her review of this particular boyfriend here.

Anyway, this book is about an Entertainment Weekly writer (Valby) who is given the task of finding a town in American without any pop culture. Enter: Utopia. After her story is published, though, Valby realizes her relationship with Utopia just can’t be over yet, so she moved there for about two years and got to know the crazy members of this tiny, tiny town. And known them she did. The story is framed around four central ‘characters’, although there are many more included: the old-timers of the town, who gather every morning to drink coffee and re-tell the same stories; a waitress and mother of four boys, all of whom are involved in the war in Iraq; a young man tired of Utopia and content to just get out; and the only black girl in town, who wants nothing more than to have a lifetime in music and out of Utopia. All of their stories combined to form a picture of a town that is at once quaint and at the same time facing the pressures of time, the economy, and parent-child conflict just like any other town.

The writing was perhaps one of my favorite portions of this novel, other than the fact that I’ve always had a secret obsession with small towns (see: Yoknapatawpha, Stars Hollow, etc). It was like reading one giant article from Entertainment Weekly, a magazine I enjoy quite a bit. Valby’s style was at once investagatory and solid story-making, and the book managed to hit that supreme blend of the two that has made it one of my general non-fiction favorites. There are a couple of moments where the story gets uncomfortable – the chapter on discussions of race and politics immediately come to mind – but that is due more to the story itself than to the nature of the writing. If there could have been one thing I would have liked to see more of, it would have been the “intermediary” chapters between the main reporting. These chapters veered away from the centrality of the people to discuss things like the history of the post-office, the EMT squad, and the evolving nature of the general store. These insights in to the town that went beyond the current were lovely, often sad, and sadly too few in the book!

I’d recommend this book for damn near anyone who likes reading. It’s an easy style non-fiction that will introduce you to this small town without requiring you to spend two years of your own life with literally nothing to do (think rodeo and driving to other towns as part of the town entertainment) and gets you interested in the lives of people you’ve never met and most likely never will – one of the best parts of non-fiction like this. Please go get yourself a copy, and join Kit and I in the club of awesome people who have read this awesome book!

Review: Urban Pantry: Tips and Recipies for a Thrifty, Sustainable and Seasonal Kitchen by Amy Pennington

 This was one of the first books I bought for my Kindle (and by bought I mean actually paid for, as there were a number of other titles I was able to snag on a pretty bitching gift card I was given for Christmas). I bought it for two reasons: 1.) I like to consider myself a budding foodie and, while I’m currently setting for ramen and instant mased potatoes due to budget restrictions, I’m excited for the day when real cooking with real ingredients becomes an actual option and 2.) Knowing that I’ve got a number of years of apartment/townhome living, I loved the idea of a book on tips and tricks for those of us working with limited space. Going in to it with those two expectations in mind, I was surprised to find more than that offered.

In all honesty, if you’re looking for just a good ole’ fashioned cook book, I’d suggest looking elsewhere. While each chapter has it’s own recipies attached, I consider this book better as a general tips-and-tricks kind of guide. The book is divided up in to two kinds of chapters: “urban pantry” chapters on organizing what you’ve got, stocking your kitchen with staples and, I was really happy to see, advice on being a thrifty kitchen-ista, getting the most out of your purchases. There are also chapters on canning and preserving/jellying your own food, but they were a bit cursory and I found myself having to do a lot more research on these subjects before I really felt comfortable with the topics. The other chapter types are “food” chapters, with a chapter each being given to grains, fruits and veggies, dairy, meat, and even spices. Within the chapters, she outlines what she believes “every kitchen should have”, as well as properly picking out the best of each, storing it and, then, recipies involving those items. It should probably be said now that this book is definitely targeting a certain kind of shopper/eater, speaking frequently about buying organic, picking up hard-to-find products (for a grain example, I found bulgar wheat and quinoa with no problem at Whole Foods, but didn’t see hide nor hair of them when I looked at Wal-Mart/Target), and eating meals that definately require time and attention to prepare. It’s not one of those “cook it in five minutes or less in one pot and without even using a stove!” kind of books, but there was a lot more information than I was expecting to come across, and definately serves as a kind of inspirational “how I want to eat one day” guide.

It should be said that I LOVE cookbooks. Like, seriously. I read them like novels. I love pouring over recipie ingredients, imagining myself cooking, and oogling all the pretty food pictures. While I don’t do as much cooking as I’d like in my real life, in my imaginary existance I may as well be Julia Child. This book read rather seamlessly on the Kindle – I was surprised how much I enjoyed reading it, actually, because so much of what I love about cookbooks is the physicality of them – but there were some lag-time issues when it came to loading some of the pictures throughout the book. All in all, I’d say this book is right up your alley if you’re looking for a book on being a foodie in this day and age, looking for advice on what “kitchen staples” to have, and how to make your dollar stretch in the kitchen.

Review: Carolyn Jessop’s Escape

Coming up with something to say about Carolyn Jessop’s Escape is harder to do than I imagined. And it’s not because the book isn’t good. It’s well-written, the kind of memoir I like, focusing on the perception of events and making clear what was later retold or what gaps were filled in. Jessop’s style is easy to digest and it was a quick read – I found myself reading it while walking from class to class, from work to home, from the gym to the car…it was literally like I couldn’t put it down. What makes it hard to talk about is just how outrageous and horrifying the experience of this woman truly was.

Carolyn Jessop was born in to a polygamist family as part of the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), a fundamentalist splinter group of the mainstream Mormon church. While Jessop spends the first few chapters of her book explaining the history of Mormonism, polygamy, and the break-away of the FLDS from the Mormon church, what was far more interesting in her novel was her description of modern life in an FLDS community (note: the book was originally published in 2007, updated with an epilogue in 2008, and includes the verdict after the YFZ compound raid in Texas).

Carolyn’s father has two wives, and she’s raised in a home where her mother’s fragile mental status and her father’s tyrannical emphasis on obedience shaped the lives of her and her two sisters, one of whom fled the compound at 18. Carolyn has dreams of going to college, becoming a doctor, and helping the fellow women in her community. Instead, at the age of 18 she is married off to Marril Jessop (at the time, he was 50 years old) and becomes his 4th wife in a very unstable home.

What Jessop makes clear from the beginning just how pervasive and deep the mental control of the FLDS leaders truly went. Women were taught that their husband – called their priesthood head – had the power to dictate whether or not they would gain entrance in to the celestial kingdom, and whether or not they would be made exalted goddesses or lowly slaves to their husbands and sister-wives for all eternity in the afterlife. The way to ensure a positive experience in the afterlife was to give your husband absolute obedience, never questioning either him or the prophet of the community (believed to be in complete communication with God). Husbands were encouraged to take multiple wives and have as many children as possible, as children were signs of God’s pleasure with you and the larger your Earth family, the larger your celestial kingdom would be in the afterlife. As wives knew that the best way to please a husband was to have his children, there was often fierce competition between sister-wives. This system of ideologies, although not always abused (Carolyn makes clear that there were many FLDS men who sought to live in harmony with their wives, to not abuse them, treat them as equal, and to follow the teachings of the doctrine as rightly as possible), was the ideal situation for people like Merril Jessop to use and abuse their children to solidify their power.

Carolyn’s relationships with her sister-wives is rife from the beginning. The first wife, Faunita, has been desparaged and berated so severely by Merril that she sleeps all day and only comes out at night to watch televison. Rosie, the second wife, has been mentally and physically abused to the point of suffering a number of nervous breakdowns. Third wife Barbara, Merril’s favorite, ran the house with an iron fist, running to Merril at the first sight of problems and using her powers of manipulation to abuse the rest of the sister-wives. Carolyn is never happy, but feels more devoted to her sense of duty and her belief in her salvation in the afterlife. After Carolyn begins having children with Merril, she is able to bring a sense of centrality and order to her life, waking up more and more to the horrors of her life. Because the sister-wives were seen as sharing the responsibility of properly raising the children, when Carolyn began to be more vocal about the abuse and unfairness of her current situation it meant that the abuse and violence was turned to her children. After 13 years of  marriage, two more cruel and mentally broken sister wives, and eight children (one of which is severely disabled due to a severe cancer case as an infant), Carolyn escaped the compound, made a life for her children in Salt Lake, fell in love again, and won the first every custody case against the FLDS. Her story, one of such horror, ends in happiness and hope.

Wow! Talk about nothing to say. I guess it’s more a matter of just getting started! It’s almost impossible to fathom the horrible things Carolyn Jessop had to experience. She was told, constantly, that she deserved the abuse and it was a punishment from God for not complying with her husband’s wishes. Her children are beaten to the point of passing out, without Carolyn’s knowledge. The older ones are told to pray for her death to mend her rebellious ways. She witnesses women being beaten to the point of miscarry, witnesses an epistiotomy done with scissors and sewn up with dental floss. The FLDS has been placed on lists of hate groups along with the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nation. And the saddest part of all is that the women either aren’t able to get help (most local police are also FLDS and won’t provide any help to a woman without her husband’s awareness and permission) or don’t think they need to, believing in the teachings of absolute obedience.

I more than anyone understand the importance and need for religious freedom, but as with all things, there becomes a point where fanatical religious beliefs cross over in to human rights dangers for a larger portion of the citizens involved. And that’s the thing. They are American citizens and deserve the same rights and protections as any other. But with the FLDS’s deep pockets and the fear of the American legal system to take on the biggest cult in America, it’s not exactly a hopeful picture. But I urge you to read this book. It’s a story of a strong woman, a strong mother, and what happens when one person takes on the entire system. It’s wonderful, and horrifying, and touching and uplifting all at the same time.

Review: The Lexus and the Olive Tree

Please bear with me as I attempt to review a non-fiction book, something I’ve been telling myself for ages that I need to do more of, but never quite seem to get around to.

Tomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization was a book required for my Sociology of Globalization class (understandably enough) and does, in my opinion, a wonderful job of outlying some of the key components of globalization, as well as how it differs from the old Cold War system. Friedman hits on such topics like the Electronic Herd (those millions and millions of unseen people moving money around on the internet, whether through banks, online shopping, hedge funds and other investments who have a not-to-be-underestimated power over the political and financial markets), the Long and Shorthorn Cattle of Investment (long horn being those companies who invest in state infrastructure and similar things that promise great dividends but require a time investment, rather than short-horns, who invest in things like the stock market and futures because of the promise of quick turn around with riskier dividends) and, most interestingly, his Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Resolution that says that no two countries that have a McDonald’s have ever gone to war with each other (this isn’t really a hard and fast rule but is more used by Friedman to show the politically stabilizing effect that the globalized economic force can have).

But this isn’t to say that I didn’t have some MAJOR problems with the arguments that Friedman made or, more rightly, the justification he has behind making these arguments. He presents good ways of understanding globalization, and he’s right to point out that globalization is an inevitable force, but he seems to forget that there is a large gap between the hypothetical and the light of reality. Friedman refers to the United States a number of times as the “benign Hegemon” (scary ties between this and the Orson Scott Card Ender books popped up immediately) and states clearly that tantamount to globalization is Americanization. He says these things as though they’re not a problem and perhaps for many they’re not, but just the idea that America somehow as the right or responsibility for the rest of the world rubs me the wrong way. Don’t misunderstand me – America can’t help but get involved and thus has a responsibility to clean up the messes it makes, I just wish it would stop making so many damn messes to begin with!

Another key issue I had with Friedman is that he basically ignores the existence of any kind of global third world or a population with the desire but not the ability to join the globalization race. He states in a number of chapters that one of the drawbacks of the globalization system is that it doesn’t do much but keep the rich richer and the poor poorer (sure, there is this idea of “the best to succeed will do so” and “the market is so huge, anyone can join”, but be honest – what chance does a poor, disconnected country really have of successfully cracking into the burgeoning global market) but, again, this doesn’t seem to bother him. He takes it as a part of globalization, and the only question that ran through my mind through most of the book was DOES IT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY?!?!?! Sure, globalization isn’t going anywhere any time soon. But there HAS TO BE some kind of happy medium between the full-on embracing of globalization and thus it’s lack of social conscience, and spurring it completely and giving up all hope at economic prosperity. Then again, if I knew the way there I’d already have my Nobel Prize in Economics.

If you’re looking for a book to outline some of the basics of the globalization system, Friedman’s metaphors really do a good job of putting everything into it’s proper scope and format. However, be forewarned that, like I outlined above. Friedman is pretty staunchly free-market capitalist and as such turns more of a blind eye to silly “leftist-psuedo-hippy-social-welfare”, as my darling grandfather likes to refer to social issues. The choice of politics is up to you, but it’s probably best to know where Friedman stands before you get ready to tussle with him!

Happy reading!