Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Wolf at the Table, by Augusten Burroughs

I bought the CD version of this book because it looked interesting. I had not read anything else by Burroughs, and I understand this is a departure. The book is read by the author, which seemed a good thing.

I am not sure about that last at this point. Burroughs has recorded his other books as well, on CD, in his "normal voice", according to him. In interviews with him and at the end of this edition, he talks about how he wanted this one to be different. He doesn't talk about his voice, but instead about the music interweaved throughout. He asked several contemporary musician friends to read the book and to write something based on it, and they did. So we are treated to original music along with the words. Good music, worth hearing.

To me there isn't anything earthshaking about adding music to an audio book. It is done all the time. Clearly most of the time the music is not written specifically for the book, of course.

What is striking is Burroughs manner of speaking. He speaks carefully, enunciating every word, and he has a habit of reading with this pattern:

[In a low, almost flat, yet intense voice, each word carefully pronounced] He stood [pause] waiting in the doorway [pause] for my eyes [pause] to meet his ["his" emphasized]. For a taste of the reading style, watch and listen to this excerpt on Amazon.

His habit of enunciating every sound, as if every word was precious and could not be let go without a fight, made me, at times, mad with frustration. "Get on with it!" I yelled, flailing my free hand at the CD player in my car. His manner of speaking overpowered the story itself so much that I had trouble deciding if I liked it.

I think I liked it.

It is a memoir about Burroughs's father, a cruel, insidiously cruel man. A man so wrapped up in his own world and so oblivious to the needs of others that he let a horrible disease build up in the family dog, never willing to take it to the vet. A man so frugal he could not abide the purchasing of small treats for his son - or, obviously, the visit to the veterinarian so badly needed. A man who clearly is disgusted by this son who appears more like a girl than a boy. A man capable of subtle threats. A man who plays games.

Listening to it at times made me cringe. At one point I even skipped a small section because the horror was beyond what I wanted to bear.

Perhaps it's a testament to the resilience of children, but I am happy to report that it isn't all smiles at the end. This kind of childhood is going to leave marks. And as is so often the case with abusive parents, the child is left clinging to a need for approval that he will never get.

Worth reading, I suspect, more than listening.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Year of Living Biblically, by A.J. Jacobs

A friend made me a copy of the CD version of this book. She thought it was hilarious (as apparently do many others, based on the Amazon ratings). I warned her that I might not enjoy it, given my reaction to Jacobs' first book (The Know-it-all). On the other hand, I am able to overcome preconceptions. I also don't turn down free books, whether or not I think I'll like them.

I listened to it while I was in my car, driving here and there alone. I think books-on-CD are wonderful companions on long rides. And short ones.

I won't keep you in suspense. I didn't like it.

Let's start with the premise: A.J., who somewhat calls himself Jewish, decides to take on the bible, both testaments, plus various side documents, and to live according to the scripture as closely as possible. He admits at the outset that one reason for his quest is to write a book about the experience. He says the other reason is that he has been, at best, agnostic all his life, and he wanted to find out for himself if there is anything in that book that speaks to him. Essentially, he purports to want to become a better person and wonders if the bible might help him in that quest.

To my mind, the "story" about becoming a better, more spiritual person by living by the bible is the plot of the forthcoming book. It is really all about the book. It's clear from the start that he is not about to take any of it seriously, although from time to time he will stop to reflect and try to share his insights with us. Such as they are.

There is a lot of material there to work with, to be sure. Think of the strange commandments (there are a lot more than ten, he finds out right away by poring over the entire book and listing them all), like not wearing anything made of both linen and...what is it again? Cotton? I can't remember. Some kinds of mixed fabrics, anyway. And the requirement to grow a beard but never trim it. How about this one: build a special kind of hut every year and live inside it for a specified period. The bible is truly rich with strange, unexplainable rules, followed by almost nobody.

A few people do follow some of these rules. Different groups of people, different rules, generally. A.J. hunts some of them down and learns from them. What does he learn? Nothing, actually, except that the bible says to do it so you do it. Some tell him there is an explanation for every rule, that all can be explained. Others say no, all cannot be explained, there is no explanation, but that doesn't mean you don't do them. They are still important.

Still others veer to the spirit rather than the letter of the law. Most modern churches are in this camp. Although they would have to admit that they look past some spirits or interpret the hell out of them (literally). There is no doubt that every religion picks and chooses what to follow and what not to follow, regardless of how "literal" the religion is.

Some of the information A.J. finds out, by consulting with his religious advisors and hunting down strange cults and the odd relative, is quite interesting. In every case, though, the story is about A.J. Here I am with this group of crazy dancers and I'm dancing and I feel like I'm having an out-of-body experience. Here I am with this other group of people who are buying chickens and handing them to a chicken-killer to kill, in some kind of effort to save my soul. Here I am dealing with my wife, who is trying to get pregnant, who is going through in-vitro fertilization, and look what a great husband I am, or I am not. Here I am dealing with the death of a neighbor, look at how much I am feeling.

At least one religious guy tells A.J. it isn't about becoming a better person. It's about serving God. That one sets A.J. back a bit. He actually thinks about it. But he's soon back up on that horse because that's the one he rode in on.

This version of the book, the CD version, is read by A.J. himself. If I had any doubts about his sincerity they are smashed to bits just by his tone. That is, if I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt just listening to him speak makes it impossible. I have tried to pinpoint what it is about his voice that puts me on edge. Here's the closest I can come to narrowing it down:

You are in a class. The teacher tells you to read some parts of a book written by someone else. You don't want to appear soft or sentimental so when you get to deeper thoughts or feelings you read them in a tone that is almost mocking. That's what we get here.

It's a book about one person making a silly commitment to follow the bible nearly literally so he can write about it in a somewhat funny way.

Lucky, by Alice Sebold

The story of Alice Sebold's rape, which happened when she was just finishing her first year in college. The rape was brutal, committed by a stranger, and 18-year-old Alice was a virgin.

Unlike many rape victims, Alice did not place blame on herself. She also wanted to talk about it - but often could not. Starting at the police department, where she made her report, she was faced with people who did not want the whole story, did not want the details.

Alice wanted the rapist caught and it did not occur to her to let the case go. Thus she took the stand at his trial and again told all.

This story is not just the story of the rape, of course. It is about Alice, about her family, about her life before and after. Her story is often funny in an offhand way and Alice comes across not only as a strong young woman but an interesting, perceptive one with various chips on her shoulder. The perfect person to write the story, in fact.

Her best-selling novel, The Lovely Bones, was written after Lucky but was started before. The two are dissimilar in style and one rape does not resemble the other. Nevertheless, the essence of rape lies in each. Both tell us something about what it does to many lives when one person is raped.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Falling Man, by Don DeLillo

The lives of a small family living in Manhattan after Sept 11, 2001. More particularly, the life of Keith, who stumbled out of the first tower clutching someone else's briefcase. Who then stumbles into another version of his life.

We first meet him as he tries to figure out where and what he is and where he is going. His thinking is confused and he finds himself at the door of his estranged wife, Lianne. She lets him in, and she's grateful for the chance. She needs him then.

Little by little, the couple and their son Justin face the changes in their lives since the attack on the twin towers. They go about their daily activities, but differently. Keith and Lianne tend to sway back and forth toward and away from each other, yet always with kindness. Justin asserts his personhood with odd speech patterns, perhaps as much as anything to grab some attention.

As they go from place to place we are treated to a wash of feelings and thoughts, at times seeming disjointed, apart from the person. We also meet "Falling man", a performance artist who shows up unannounced, dropping from high places, wearing just a simple harness. Always he assumes the same "falling" pose, apparently copying how one or more of the persons who jumped from the towers looked on their way down. He is always in a business suit, as were the others. This odd character turns up throughout the book, reminding us of what was perhaps the most horrifying image from the attack.

We also get to meet one of the hijackers, but only in a couple of short passages. These passages repeat some of the commonly-held versions of the hijackers. A man obsessed with his martyr's death and what it will hold for him and his family. Some glimpses at others who are not as devout as he, who are taking advantage of their time in this country to behave less religiously. I felt these sketches were better left out as they did nothing to illuminate the event and much to promulgate the usual simplistic version of Islam.

For me, the book missed somewhere. I do not know if it is because I did not read it carefully enough or for some other reason. I tried to figure out some things DeLillo does - like referring to Justin as "the kid" and not even giving us Keith's last name until nearly the end of the book - and I came up with the idea that it may not be about these three people but instead about all of us. Yet I know that not to be true.

The flights of visions and thought and confusion were, for me, often just as confusing as they might have been for the subjects, because I couldn't always identify who was thinking at the time. It reminded me of some books translated from Spanish, where I could not distinguish among pronouns to figure out who was speaking. And ultimately I didn't have anything to take from it except my own sense that I missed something.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Obesity Myth, by Paul Campos

“I have a glandular problem,” sneers the unattractive, heavy, odoriferous mother of a serial killer in the television series Bones.

Here you have a rather typical, if overdone, version of a fat person as shown on television or in the movies. If she's fat there is something fundamentally wrong with her. She's unlikeable, she smells, she blames a condition or others for her fat. She's morally bankrupt.

A more sympathetic version is Bridget Jones as played by Renee Zellweger in the movie Bridget Jones's Diary. She's a little “thick”. I don't think “heavy” or “fat” apply here. In fact, the actress gained weight to play the part but she is still an average weight in this movie – just fat in comparison to other movie actresses. But the story here is a cinderella one in which the glam guy goes for her even though she's fat. Which she isn't, really, but let's play along.

Fat people don't get the title roles except in unusual circumstances, like Cracker (British version, with Robbie Coltrane, incredible actor) and Murder One (another terrific show in which the lead, the charismatic Daniel Benzali, is a mite chubby (and bald)). Fat people don't get asked on dates, except by so-called BBW-lovers. Fat people don't get promoted. And fat people are the butt of major jokes, some of which are full-length movies.

The cultural disgust with large persons is grounded in myths about what large people represent. The disgust isn't because thin people are concerned that fat people are unhealthy. However, the medical community has jumped wholeheartedly on that bandwagon. A day doesn't go by when we don't see an article somewhere that points out the “fact” that because they are fatter, this generation is going to die sooner than their parents.

In the Obesity Myth, Paul Campos sets the record straight. And does so with a passion often absent from medical nonfiction, along with a healthy dose of humor.

Early on, though, he makes a note in passing that he was fat and now he's not, and he'll explain later. He makes the comment to underline the fact that he knows what it is to be fat. I appreciate that but at the same time I found myself wondering as I made my way through, just what will he reveal about himself later? Is he going to reveal some sort of super diet after all??

Fortunately, he does redeem himself later, through his honesty and insight into himself. He can write passionately about the pain and frustration with the diet industry because he is, as much as any of the rest of us who obsess about weight, a victim. Even knowing the facts does not change what we want for ourselves. It turns out that this personal section, for me, is the best part of the book, because it brings it home.

But first, what are those facts? Campos tells us more than once (and a good thing, too; some facts bear repeating):

* It is healthier (from a mortality standpoint) to be 75 pounds overweight than 5 pounds underweight, if you are moderately active. Moderately active translates to four or five brisk 1/2-hour walks per week. I have read elsewhere that the difference is two hours of moderate exercise per week, which is comparable.
* Two persons of the same weight and height can respond to the same food in entirely different ways. In one experiment, 16 persons were “overfed” by 1,000 calories per day, six days a week, for eight weeks. Their activities and food intake were strictly controlled. Their caloric burning capacity was measured. The experimenters discovered a huge range in energy expenditure: from 0 calories to 692. In other words, some subjects burned 692 more calories per day than others, while engaging in similar physical activities and eating the same amount and type of food.
* Dieting is the problem, not the solution. Persons who go on calorie-restricted diets lose weight, then regain it, and gain more. The more often they diet the more they ultimately gain. There are few exceptions. (The exceptions are interesting and a little scary; read more about them in this book.) Although many feel virtuous when dieting, feeling hungry is not good for your body.
* There is no difference in mortality between persons of average weight and persons of higher weight in terms of overall health, when you control for levels of activity and type of food they eat. Shockingly, even the standard claims that fat persons are more likely to develop heart disease and type 2 diabetes are not supported by the facts. The association between fat and heart disease actually is a connection between those who have gone on calorie-restricted diets and heart problems. Those at the same weights who never dieted do not exhibit these heart problems.

Weight itself is not a problem for mortality. If there is no “healthy weight”, then (thin persons can be unhealthier than fat ones, for instance), there can be no “overweight”. The only time weight is a factor is when it is so extreme that it makes the person essentially immobile.

Why then do so many of us believe fat people are unhealthy? We can all point to relatives who lived long and satisfied lives in spite of being large. We all know many thin persons who are unhealthy. It is true that being fat usually limits our ability to move as well as we'd like, take part in some activities we might otherwise enjoy. Why – admit it – are you thinking right now that I am making excuses for myself??

I struggle with that last. As a vegan I know that I am seen as an example of a group of people who eat differently than most other Americans. I feel an obligation to be seen as healthy and well, and I know that to many I do not appear to be, mainly because I'm fat.

Campos phrases it differently. He answers the charge, “You are giving people permission to be fat” with the countercharge: “As opposed to what: not giving people permission to be fat?” and then points out just how well that approach has worked in the last 100 years. It is just that approach that has taken us here, ironically. Stigmatize, attack, accuse people of being lazy, immoral, dirty, ignorant, lacking in willpower, and what happens? Eventually they believe it. In spite of evidence to the contrary, often evidence anyone can see. And it is incredibly difficult to change the way you think about yourself when you've had so much help over the years.

There are no absolute answers here, no roadmap to a brighter future. The forces that have brought us to this place are larger than we are. Campos does help us see beyond “common knowledge” and suggests that we replace myth with reality. We need more books of this caliber on this subject.