Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Good Thief, by Hannah Tinti

Several reviewers refer to this tale as "Dickensian" and I have to agree. It stars a young boy, Ren, an orphan who is adopted by a con man, Benjamin, because Ren is missing one hand. Benjamin makes up any number of stories about the missing hand, and uses the sympathy of others to take their money. He soon learns that Ren has a way with stealing in any case, and is glad he doesn't have to teach him that particular skill.

So we start to think of Oliver Twist and others. This story, though, is set in New England. Not that it matters much, as that part of the country is older and steeped in buried history, much like its namesake.

The tale - and I feel "tale" is the right word - takes on gigantic dimensions in the adventure department, yet while I laughed at the absurdity of some of the characters I was willing to buy them. I also found the dialogue believable, authentic, unlike the mannered dialogue I have encountered in other "period" novels. Normally I walk away from fantastic fairy tales and period stories but this one grabbed me, from the grave-digging to the giant to the yelling landlady.  

Friday, January 21, 2011

An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination, by Elizabeth McCracken

A writer of fiction, Elizabeth McCracken found herself in France in an old house in the country, pregnant. She and her husband like to visit different places when not required to be home. Thus the French country. The two of them arranged for a midwife and had access to a hospital about 40 minutes away. All checkups went well, until the last one, when there appeared to be something amiss.

The baby was stillborn.

This book is the story of that baby, the months before and after, the way Elizabeth and her husband coped with the loss. It is written simply and freely, from the heart. Yet, although she says she did very little editing, she seemed to have a sense of how to tell the story. We know from the start that the baby dies, but we know no more about it until well into the story.

What we learn goes beyond the grief. We learn how a tragedy can be associated with a place to such an extent that the place is forever ruined. We learn that it is important to say something to the grieving parents, not to ignore the grief.

We learned, in this case, that McCracken does not want to forget the happy days, months, before the birth, even though she never wants to see those places again. It's important to remember.

McCracken wrote the book, she says, so that she does not have to keep telling the story, so that she does not have to answer the question, "Is this your first child?" It hurts to keep explaining, "No, the first was stillborn". Better that acquaintances already know.

A simply-written memoir that manages to sidestep the maudlin yet lets us in on the fullness of a mother's pain. 

Rape: A Love Story, by Joyce Carol Oates

At times I like the spare, abrupt prose Oates sometimes uses. At other times I feel it distances me from the subjects. I had difficulty this time, not being able to connect closely to the rape victim, her daughter, or their unusual "benefactor". Nevertheless, I was compelled to keep reading.

This is a story of horrific violence, not only the rape itself but so far beyond. And not just violence that's physical, but perhaps the worst kind, the emotional kind, the type that separates people from a community that we'd hope would support them. The victim is from "the other side of the tracks", familiar ground for Oates, who grew up herself in poverty. She knows the ground well and at times forces us to look at our prejudices, as she does here. For this we can be grateful to this prolific and often deeply moving writer.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Whitewash, by Joseph Keon

In this book-length indictment of the use of cow’s milk for human consumption, Keon leaves no stone unturned. Exhaustively, he offers us information on why cow’s milk is not good for humans, either children or adults; on contamination of milk products; on how the calcium in milk does not do a body good, in fact it weakens bones; on the association of dairy products with a myriad of human diseases; on the environmental effects of dairy farming (and a brief synopsis of the agonies of being a milk cow); and finally, on how to give up dairy products and lead a healthier life.
There is much good here, and I recommend having this book on your reference shelf. However, be careful with how you use the information. Keon is generally careful about making connections between dairy consumption and human health, for example, by saying milk “may” cause this or that disease or have an effect on it, when he is not certain that studies have made the connection conclusive.  At times, though, the sources he cites are not credible. For example, he makes connections between dairy consumption, vaccines, and autism, citing various studies by Andrew Wakefield that have since been discredited. He should have known of this discrediting and either found other, better sources (I am not aware there are any) or mentioned the cloud hanging over Dr. Wakefield. 
He also sometimes uses second- or third-hand information. For example, a reference to a Consumer Reports statement comes from an article in a newspaper rather than directly from Consumer Reports.  
To his credit, most sources are direct. Also to his credit, Keon does an admirable job describing the mechanisms by which our bodies handle different food products or contaminants. To me the descriptions sounded believable. However, Keon is not a doctor or scientist. He is a “wellness expert, nutrition and fitness expert”. Frankly, these are not titles that inspire confidence in me. There are no governmental standards for what a nutritionist or fitness expert must learn, and the various “wellness experts” around town are all self-described. This does not mean that a non-professional cannot write a good book about milk. He’s clearly knowledgable and understands a great deal about the human body, but the few issues raised above suggest to me that he would have done well to coordinate the writing of this book with a medical doctor or appropriate scientist. 
The book contains a wealth of supplementary information, from the cited sources to a separate “recommended reading” section. It therefore rates a place on any health-conscious person’s reference shelf.