Sunday, June 26, 2011

Cinderella Ate My Daughter? Or Was It The Unnatural Selection?

I've done very well with nonfiction lately; not so well with fiction, sadly.  It's a shame, because now that my summer vacation has begun, I could really do with some lovely frivolous reading.  Well, it can't be helped.

One very entertaining nonfiction book I read lately was Cinderella Ate My Daughter, by Peggy Orenstein.  A prolific writer about girls and growing up female, Orenstein has a bit of shock when she finally has her own daughter.  Determined to raise an empowered girl, who does not feel trapped by stereotypes, she encourages her to like the characters of her choice (Thomas the Tank Engine) and engage in any type of play, not simply girl-specific activities.  However, she soon realizes that this will not work -- Daisy's Thomas lunchbox hits the dirt as soon as a classmate points out that "only boys like Thomas the Tank Engine," and Orenstein soon sees her daughter swallowed by the whole Disney Princess culture -- in spite of her best efforts to indoctrinate her daughter against that world.

This book explores much of this culture -- Orenstein goes into the world of kiddie pageants, American Girl dolls, fairy tales, and Disney movies.  She explores the role of girls in popular culture (or lack thereof) and does a great deal of hand-wringing over her lack of control over how her daughter finds her place in the world.  I think this book speaks more of our inability to really form our children in the way we'd ideally wish, and how culture and the outside world has so much influence.

Once we're on the topic of gender, Unnatural Selection comes along with a warning tocsin, citing new research in Asia and even parts of Europe that show parents electing to abort female fetuses after ultrasound identification.   Mara Hvistendahl, the author, sketches for the reader the cultural background for this alarming trend, and goes further by proposing the unintended consequences of such behavior.  And these consequences may in fact be dire.  It's an interesting read, if a bit panicky.

On another topic entirely, Malled is the account of a journalist seeking some additional income who goes to work as a sales associate for The North Face.  She goes on and on about how industry culture treats the lowly sales associate like dirt, who subsequently treats the customer badly, eventually quits or is fired, explaining the ridiculous turnover rate.  One thing I came away with -- I will, in future, always attempt to be friendly, appreciative, and courteous to any sales associate who assists me.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

I Win Again!

For the third time this year, I have managed to beat the New York Times Book Review -- I've read at least two books a week or more before the NYT has had a chance to publish its review.

Last week I spent most of my spare time (when I wasn't grading papers or reading essays) reading The Storm of War, a  new history of World War II.  By Andrew Roberts, this book covers the topic admirably, and I should know by now, having attempted to read nearly everything I can get my hands on within this topic.  Roberts puts forth the thesis that Hitler's war was a war fought for ideological as opposed to political reasons; he proposes this as the answer to why this war was lost as well.  This is a very thorough treatment of the events of World War II, and Roberts manages to combine this thoroughness with a brevity and concision of writing which is a pleasure to read.  This book would make a good companion to Richard J. Evans' Third Reich series, which delves much more deeply into the psyche of Hitler's Germany, and you can read about these books here.

Another book in the NYT spotlight this week is State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett.  Patchett originally rocketed to the top of the bestseller lists with her beautifully written Bel Canto; its odd plot notwithstanding, it is a wonderful book.  State of Wonder is set in a different type of world than Bel Canto, but one similarity is how Patchett seems to enjoy pushing together characters from vastly different worlds almost just to see what will happen.  This sometimes feels a bit like experimental cookery.

In this story, a dispassionate letter informing a pharmaceutical company of the death of an emissary catapults another employee into actions she wouldn't normally take.  It's important not to give anything away, though, because the reader will enjoy this book far more coming into it with complete ignorance.  I would recommend not even reading the jacket blurb.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Vicarious Travel

It's always wonderful to get a chance to go away on vacation, a change of scenery, different people.  Nicer still is the opportunity to shed household responsibilities, childcare responsibilities, and the constant burden of one's job.  Unfortunately, we're not all so lucky.  While it would be a treat to spend a few days on a tropical island, or touring a beautiful cosmopolitan city, some of us have to resort to other means of getting away -- a vacation of the mind, as it were.

There are some really diverting books available which, if read during a calm moment, in a quiet spot, can take you away in spirit if not corporeally.  This week I spent time in Hawaii, in a book entitled Unfamiliar Fishes.  Really a history of the American takeover of the island, the author tries to get under the skin of Hawaiian culture and succeeds in taking the reader with her.  I never did know much about our 50th state, and I didn't have much interest, but this book successfully sucked me in.

Ireland Unhinged, by a writer who transplanted his family from Connecticut to Cork, is another matter.  This is more like travel writing, with a bit of history and a lot of humor thrown in.  Again, a topic in which I had no previous interest, but the book held me until the last page.

To go to India without the inconveniences of unreliable electric and water service (not to mention the pollution), read Sideways on a Scooter, written by a journalist who spends time living in Delhi and is enraptured by the country.  Her experiences discovering quite how deeply the concept of caste is still embedded, and how marriages take place, are worth reading.  One comes away with, perhaps, a less than wholly positive opinion of the writer, but no matter -- it's a very readable book.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

What the World Eats

If you're looking for a book to engage your whole family, What the World Eats is just the ticket.  I took out this book from the library last week and, without exaggeration, every member of the family has read it at least once.  We've even read it together!

This unique book, which is really more of a coffee-table book than a book to read in bed, features portraits of twenty-five families from twenty-one countries -- surrounded by a week's worth of food.  Each portrait is accompanied by a breakdown of their food expenditure (i.e. beverages, condiments, restaurants) and a short description of how the family lives.  It's very difficult not to feel embarrassed by the riches our kitchen cabinets offer when reading about a family in Chad, who spend $2.20 a week on several bags of assorted grains, and also have to lug their water in large plastic jugs.  Also interesting are the separate sections on street food (grubs on a stick, anyone?), kitchens, and other food-related customs from all around the world.  This book is the sort-of juvenile version of Hungry Planet, which was written for adults.

While I'm on the topic, another fascinating book about food is Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser.  He also published a juvenile version, called Chew On This, and both books focus on the influence of the fast food industry on American culture, as well as its impact on health and culture.  Read in tandem with The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, as well as The End of Food, by Paul Roberts, this practically constitutes a seminar!

These books all have one thing in common -- they all exist to inform Americans in some way about food.  Where it comes from, how much we're eating, how much we're getting out of it, who's going without it -- all this information is not usually sought out by the average American supermarket shopper.  Maybe it should be?  What do your think?