Sunday, April 27, 2008

On the Couch by Lorraine Bracco

iconiconI finished reading this book, On the Couch by Lorraine Bracco, just last night.

My husband and I are big Sopranos fans, so when I saw this book I just knew I had to read it.

I don't remember where I first heard about the book, but it was only a few months ago, so it couldn't have been from the NPR story. In any case, I was glad to took the time to read the book. Bracco's story is one that I think many people, especially women, can relate to: the depression she went through, the emotional abuse she put up with from her second daughter's father, and her struggle to raise her girls well as a single mom.

Her descriptions of her relationship with Harvey were especially poignant for me. I went through an abusive relationship in 2003 and 2004 that was very similar; although in my case there was no child to fight for custody over (thank goodness), the possessiveness, jealousy, and manipulation were echoes of Bracco's relationship with Harvey Keitel.

I respect Bracco's straightforwardness about subjects such as financial troubles and depression. This is a very engaging memoir, and a worthwhile read.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Chosen by a Horse by Susan Richards

iconiconSaturday night I finished reading Chosen by a Horse by Susan Richards. Probably unsurprisingly, I read this book in just a couple of days: The topic is one that is very dear to my own heart.

In this memoir, Richards tells about rescuing Lay Me Down, a neglected brood mare and former race horse. Since I also own a rescued horse, I could relate to many of her experiences.

Of course, as most pet-related memoirs are, Chosen by a Horse is a little sad. However, it's also hopeful in its own way, because it demonstrates how much a strong connection with an animal can benefit other areas of your life. In this case, Richards describes how watching and interacting with Lay Me Down — a sweet-tempered mare, despite the mistreatment she had experienced at the hands of humans — taught her more about trust, love, and forgiveness.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Last Child by Michael Spooner

iconiconIt's been a while since I've read historical fiction, let alone young adult historical fiction (one of my favorite genres), so this book was a nice treat.

Last Child, by Michael Spooner, is about a half-white, half-Mandan girl growing up during the smallpox epidemic of 1837. It's more than just a story of a historical event, though — it's also the story of a girl who tries to live in both white and Mandan culture, but doesn't feel like she belongs to either.

This is one of those rare books that I wasn't sure I was going to like during the first few pages, but ended up liking it enormously. I read about half of it one afternoon (instead of working), and finished the other half by reading Wednesday and Thursday nights at bedtime.

The book felt pretty historically accurate, and included an appendix with information about what was fiction and what really happened. (I always love it when authors of historical fiction do that.) Anyone who likes historical fiction, Native American subjects, or really good young adult fiction should enjoy this book.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

iconiconDuring most of my adult life, I can mark a progression toward better eating and nutrition awareness: In 2002, I took a course on nutrition, and was (ironically diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the end of the semester. My relationship with my husband, Michael, has changed my eating habits even more: He is primarily a vegetarian, and was responsible for introducing me to organic food stores and farmers' markets.

In Defense of Food has refined my ideas of food and nutrition even more. Michael Pollan's argument is that nutritionism — the study and ideology of nutrition — has actually made us less healthy, because it encourages us to value nutrients over whole foods.

I completely agree. Because we look not at the food itself but at what it contains, we have allowed artificial, fortified foods to become a major part of our diet. And if you look at the trends in Americans' health, it's quite obvious that there is more to nutrition than eating X amount of vitamin C every day, because the more focused we have become on reductionist nutritionism, the less healthy we have become.

Pollan also rips apart the lipid hypothesis — the idea that has prevailed over the last 40 years, that fats are bad for you. He points out that the more low fat America tries to eat, the more problems we have with obesity and related diseases.

Another point in the book that affected me tremendously was that America's food-growing and cattle-raising practices have actually resulted in grocery store foods being less nutritious. Commercial farmers' use of pesticides and fertilizers, and their habit of growing plant species with the greatest yield, have created a situation where produce contains fewer nutrients than it did 50 or 60 years ago. Also, commercial ranchers now feed their livestock on corn instead of grass — it may be cheaper and produce more meat, but it also results in meat that no longer has the nutritional content that it should.

I've never been a fan of taking vitamins and supplements, and I don't go out of my way to eat low-fat foods. However, this book has emphasized to me how important an organic diet really is. Next time my dad complains about the cost of organic food, I'll be better able to explain why it is worth spending more on!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult

iconiconI don't know what it is about Jodi Picoult's books that make me forget about needing sleep.

Last night I finished Change of Heart. I was only about a quarter or so of the way through, which meant that by the time I finished the book, it was technically morning — 5:30, in fact. It made getting up (at 11:30!) difficult, but it was well worth it.

I've stayed up all night reading other books by Picoult: My Sister's Keeper was the first, and I did it again with Salem Falls. Her books often involve controversial issues, riveting legal or courtroom suspense, and a surprise climax. Moreover, her characters are very human and compelling, which makes you all the more unable to put her books down: You genuinely care what happens to the characters.

Change of Heart was no different. Picoult looks not only at the blurred lines between right and wrong (a frequent theme in her books), but also the blurring between government and religion. I like her portrayals of Christianity, established religion, and my favorite of the old "heretical" religions: Gnosticism. It's a fantastic story, and I highly recommend it!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

30 Days of Night by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith

iconiconI snuck this one in just last night, taking a short break from my current read, Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult.

30 Days of Night was my first-ever graphic novel. I usually don't go for that kind of thing, but the movie was really good so I was curious about the book. I also want to read the sequels to find out what happens after the movie ends, so I figured I should probably read the first one first.

Most of my observations about the book are actually observations about graphic novels:

* I had to keep reminding myself to slow down and look at the pictures, rather than just reading the dialogue. I'm not used to having artwork to look at, let alone a handful or more of illustrations on every page. Often I caught myself skimming along just reading the dialogue, and had to make myself go back and look at the pictures for more clues about what was going on.

* There is a lot going on in the illustrations. There are many visual cues buried in the illustrations, so you can't depend solely on the dialogue. I'm there there is plenty that I missed in the parts that I skimmed.

I actually found the graphic novel format a little overwhelming — having both dialogue to read and illustrations to look at made it difficult to keep up with everything. You can miss a lot more of what's going on this way, because the interpretation of pictures is more subjective. However, I also get the feeling that you could reread this book over and over and get something new from it every time — which is perhaps why fans of graphic novels like them so much.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

To Dance with the White Dog by Terry Kay

iconiconLast night I finished reading To Dance with the White Dog, by Terry Kay.  Note: The image link will take you to the paperback edition of the book at Barnes & Noble.  There is also a separate listing for an ebook editionicon, if you prefer.

I came across this book in an interesting way. Around Christmas I was chatting with my sister's boyfriend's mother, telling her about our dog, Grace. One of Grace's claims to fame is that she is the biggest, prettiest, whitest American white shepherd we've ever seen on our walks. That reminded my sister's boyfriend's mother about a book she'd read, To Dance with the White Dog, and she recommended it to me.

I don't think Grace is a ghost dog (even if she does resemble the descriptions of White Dog in the book), and I wasn't really picturing her as the dog in the book, but I did really like the book. The old man is pretty spunky, and his escapades — faking out his daughters to make them worry, wearing a mismatched suit to the bank, etc. — made me laugh out loud. (His daughters are a little annoying, too, so they deserved it.)

It took me a while to realize it, but the story takes place in the mid-seventies, even though the book was published in 1990. I found it interesting to hear about the main character's past, to realize that many of the memories described in the book were from the early 1900s. The book doesn't come right out and state the year until towards the end, but it mentioned the old man's age at one point and drops a few more clues periodically to help you figure it out.

I think it's also interesting to know that To Dance with the White Dog is based on the story of Terry Kay's own mother and father. The death of his mother, and the appearance of White Dog, all happened in his family like they did in the book. Of course, the book is told as a fictional story separate from the author, of which I think he did an excellent job.

This is a wonderful book, and I shouldn't be surprised if it is "rediscovered" someday as a classic of American literature.