Fat Books & Thin Women


Review: John Bradshaw’s Cat Sense
April 20, 2014, 10:03 am
Filed under: Book Reviews, Nonfiction | Tags: , ,

catsenseJohn Bradshaw’s Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet, attempts in under 300 pages to share how cats evolved and became domesticated, whether their current living situations are suitable (often indoors, in apartments), and how they will continue to evolve in the future.

As a new cat owner, I was obviously inspired to read the book by its subtitle: yes, I wanted to learn how to be a better friend to one Calvin Rhudy. My eagerness to learn how my cat was not like a dog, and how I could keep him happy in my tiny apartment, drove me through any niggling doubts that came up during the book’s early chapters, when Bradshaw revealed his habit of making broad statements with no apparent evidence to back them up. When he wonders why certain coat colors didn’t show up in Egypt, despite 2000 years of domestication, he writes: “Perhaps the Egyptians actively discouraged these ‘unnatural’ cats on the rare occasions when the mutations occurred, possibly for reasons connected with religion” (40). Without any information on how he arrived at this (rather tentative) conclusion, that sounds like a guess supported by another guess. Later, stepping into Europe, he writes that cats “must also have helped to slow the spread of the rat-borne bubonic plague that swept through Europe in the sixth century” (53), which seems like a reasonable conclusion but, again, lacks any information on how he arrived.

The segment of the book I was most interested in, that on today’s domesticated cats, was unfortunately no better, as it relied in large part upon small studies performed by the author himself. This may be in part an indicator of a problem Bradshaw mentions early in the book, that of the limited number of studies on feline behavior, but it nevertheless is difficult to continue reading and trusting in an author when so many of his assertions begin, “As my own research has shown…”, and when you subsequently learned that that research involved somewhere under 50 cats. He also here begins to make some overreaches; in the book’s preface he writes that “cats now probably face more hostility than at any time in the past two centuries” (xv), returning to that idea in his chapter on cats and wildlife, and the “anti-cat sentiments” (241) that can creep into that discussion. The question of how much of an impact domesticated cats have on wildlife is an interesting one, but isn’t well-served by Bradshaw’s tendency to consult mostly himself. The same is true when he imagines what cats may look like in the future, writing with apparent concern that, “We seem to share an unvoiced assumption that because cats have always been around they always will be” (258). Bradshaw’s concerns, which center mainly on the question of whether by preventing our housecats from breeding we’re limiting the friendly genes in cats of the future (this is only slightly less scientific than his language here), are again not backed up by any significant outside research, and so are difficult to take seriously.

calvin.computerThis is a prime example, I think, of how a misleading title can totally screw with your thoughts on a book. Had this been titled “Cat Sense: One Man’s Thoughts and Experiments on Why Cats Act so Weird”, I would have been well-prepared for this reading. Instead, I anticipated 300 pages of useful information on how I could make Calvin (currently sitting next to me on the sofa, napping) the happiest cat in Philadelphia, and was entirely disappointed. Many of the questions Bradshaw poses in this book are intriguing, but at end the lack of significant support from outside experiments, or clear information on how he arrived at a conclusion, make it difficult to place too much weight in the contents of Cat Sense.

And yes, friends, this marks my first review since last August; I’m easing my way back into writing about fiction.

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Joe Sacco’s Journalism
September 27, 2012, 11:07 am
Filed under: Book Reviews, Comics, Nonfiction | Tags: , , , , , ,

One of the pleasures of coming back to the States after a three-year absence has been finding how busy the comics journalist Joe Sacco has been. In 2009 he published Footnotes in Gaza, and this year Journalism, a collection of short pieces previously published in magazines.

Journalism is a near-perfect addition to Sacco’s work for those who are already fans, and a perfect introduction for those who are unfamiliar with his work, or with comics journalism, or with comics altogether. For those not ready to make a commitment to one of Sacco’s longer works, like Safe Area Gorazde or Palestine, Journalism acts as a handy introduction to his style and intentions. Sacco includes a short preface and some written background on each of the comics, and although I’m a longtime fan this was my first time reading his thoughts on his work. Sacco raises some pressing questions about the state of journalism and about how comics journalism fits into the idea that journalism should be objective. It is, after all, hard to argue the objectivity of a form which can so readily reveal its maker’s thoughts on the people he deals with. As Sacco writes, “I’ve picked the stories I wanted to tell, and by those selections my own sympathies should be clear. I chiefly concern myself with those who seldom get a hearing, and I don’t feel it is incumbent on me to balance their voices with the well-crafted apologetics of the powerful” (xiv).

On to the comics: Journalism collects pieces published between 2001 and 2011, ranging from just a couple pages to forty. The comics are divided into sections based on theme or location, but what unites most of these comics is their overarching concern with, as Sacco writes in the introduction, those people who are seldom heard. This includes everyone from American soldiers and Iraqi trainees in Iraq to the members of India’s very lowest caste to the overwhelming numbers of unwanted African migrants who land each year in Sacco’s homeland of Malta as they struggle to make their way to Europe.

Sacco’s comics are uniformly excellent, with his notes (describing everything from why he decided to focus on a particular story to problems encountered while reporting to disagreements with the publications that commissioned the comics) adding another layer to the reading. As ever, the only truly cartoonish character in these strips is Sacco himself, with blank eyes behind his glasses, mouth half open, the stylistic differences between his renderings of himself and those he interviews serving to reinforce the fact that he is an interloper here.

Somehow, the risk of taking advantage of a subject seems more acute when they’re represented visually, but by making his relationship with his subjects so clear, Sacco never does so. The moments when he chooses not to represent something are striking, as when a woman shows Sacco a photo of her dead daughter. Having shown so many other aspects of this woman’s life, Sacco leaves the photograph unknown, drawing nothing more than the outlines of the photograph (p. 68):

Sacco records his own impressions of his subjects’ lives along with his images, and it is this that makes his comics so powerful. Sacco never pretends to be an impartial observer, to be recording these stories in some objective way; and he seeks, again and again, to remind us of this. When Sacco draws his subjects speaking directly into the frame, as if to the reader, he occasionally draws a partial view of his own face, listening, to remind us that these stories have been interpreted. He includes panels in which he sits across from a subject, and others in which his notepad is visible, another reminder of how subjective the work of journalism is. (Below, a panel from page 97.)

One of Sacco’s (many) talents lies in giving the reader a sense of just how overwhelming these stories are. Frames overlap one another, and chaotic scenes are often given the bulk of a page, as the narrative unfolds in frames placed at the margins of this central image. Sacco shows, too, a certain claustrophic nature to the journalist’s work, as in the panel below (p. 137). Interviewing detained refugees, Sacco is surrounded by women trying to share their stories, as he drips with sweat. Images like these remind us of the degree to which Sacco curates these stories for us, sharing, as he writes, those that he wants to tell.

Sacco’s Journalism is that rare book that is just as pleasurable for the long-term fan as it is for the first-time reader. Journalism is a wide-ranging collection that manages to feel cohesive even as Sacco shifts continents and tells stories as different as those of American soldiers and female refugees from Chechnya. A fantastic collection, whether or not you’re a comics fan. (Though you probably will be after finishing.)

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Review: Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars
February 20, 2012, 4:10 pm
Filed under: Book Reviews, Nonfiction | Tags: , , , , , ,

Reading Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars is like seeing the journalist version of my twelve-year-old self: Roach is endlessly curious, prone to digressions, and drawn to potty humor. This makes her a fantastic if sometimes frustrating guide through NASA’s history, and training and testing processes. She alternates between making seemingly unconnected ideas and stories “click” into satisfying place, and leaving her readers with a mass of information on something connected to NASA in only the most generous of terms. Her habit of preceding some throw-off fact with “I read somewhere…” smacks of occasional laziness (just tell us where you read it!), but Roach always recovers herself through the sheer enthusiasm with which she attacks such topics as how to use a space toilet, and whether a Russian porn film was really filmed in zero gravity.

Still, there isn’t anyone I would rather follow on a tour through NASA. Roach has an eye for the absurd and the uncomfortable, and appears to take some pleasure in noting how frequently her questions (about toilet use, sex in space, and so much more) are evaded. She provides a view of the astronaut’s life that is sometimes startling for its divergence from the grade school dream. Astronauts, it turns out, spend most of their time not being in space – a disappointing discovery for someone like me, who maybe hasn’t held close the dream of journeying to outer space, but who nonetheless never paused to think about how unromantic the astronaut’s life is.

Roach’s greatest discovery here, though, may be in finding the NASA employees who are as willing as she is to joke about the odder elements of life in space. She also has a special talent for finding the few worthwhile, gut-busting lines from transcripts that run for hundreds of pages, as when the Apollo 10 crew members find themselves plagued by some “floaters.” (Seriously: shit, in space, does not always stay in the toilet or bag where it’s been deposited.)

CERNAN: …You know once you get out of lunar orbit, you can do a lot of things. You can power down…And what’s happening is –
STAFFORD: Oh – who did it?
YOUNG: Who did what?
CERNAN: What?
STAFFORD: Who did it? [laughter]
CERNAN: Where did that come from?
STAFFORD: Give me a napkin quick. There’s a turd floating through the air.
YOUNG: I didn’t do it. It ain’t one of mine.
CERNAN: I don’t think it’s one of mine.
STAFFORD: Mine was a little more sticky than that. Throw that away.
YOUNG: God almighty.

[And again eight minutes later, while discussing the timing of a waste-water dump.]

YOUNG: Did they say we could do it anytime?
CERNAN: They said on 135. They told us that – Here’s another goddam turd. What’s the matter with you guys? Here, give me a –
YOUNG/STAFFORD: [laughter]…
STAFFORD: It was just floating around?
CERNAN: Yes.
STAFFORD: [laughter] Mine was stickier than that.
YOUNG: Mine was too. It hit that bag –
CERNAN: [laughter] I don’t know whose that is. I can neither claim it nor disclaim it. [laughter]
YOUNG: What the hell is going on here?

Look, this space turd segment is, without a doubt, one of the greatest moments of Packing for Mars – I could not resist the temptation to quote it in full – and it highlights what makes Mary Roach such a fun writer. She knows no shame or boundaries, and she answers the questions we didn’t even know we had. She mixes these (frankly hilarious) moments into more serious examination of all the things we don’t know about space: what would happen to a baby conceived in space, how to keep the human body from deteriorating in zero G, how to handle multinational crews dealing with their fellow astronauts’ cultural quirks, whether it is worth putting a half billion dollars into a mission to Mars that in all odds won’t have any tangible results. Oddly enough, given the way Roach strips away many of our childhood images and myths of NASA, she imbues the organization with slightly more wonder than she pulls away. NASA is a bureaucratic engine, and one that perhaps takes itself too seriously; but even in this it offers us something new, as with the biblical instructions regarding sandwiches that can go into space:

The contraband Wolfie’s sandwich

violated no less than sixteen of the formal manufacturing requirements for “Beef Sandwiches, Dehydrated (Bite Sized).” The requirements cover six pages and are set forth in the ominous phrasing of biblical commandments. (“There shall be no…damp or soggy areas.” “The coating shall not chip or flake.”)

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Review: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals

In Eating Animals Jonathan Safran Foer doesn’t tell us much that we don’t already know about eating animals in America. This is, as he points out throughout the book, one of the most disturbing aspects of being an American meat eater today: there’s a willful blindness to it, as consumers know that their chicken has been pumped full of chicken-flavored liquid to compensate for the bird’s lack of flavor (this being not dissimilar, weird as it sounds, to apples that look great but don’t really taste like anything), that their meat, milk and eggs come from animals pumped full of drugs, and that even meat or animal products stickered “cage-free” or “range-free” came from miserable animals with only the most marginal access to the outdoors and no access to what we would consider a normal or humane life.

Foer’s book is a necessary one, one that should be read by anyone eating factory farmed meat (which is pretty much everyone) or not (which is everyone else), because he addresses some topics that don’t come up in other books, like those from the Michael Pollan crowd, on eating in America. Foer focuses heavily on the cultural aspects of food; he tells stories about his grandmother’s cooking, and how her relationship with food influenced his own, and influenced his thoughts on what he wants his son’s cultural relationship with food to be. As he writes, “Food ethics are so complex because food is bound to both taste buds and taste, to individual biographies and social histories.”

He writes, too, about how it’s not merely the day to day of factory farming that is cruel, but the very genetics of the animals, which we’ve bred for the amount of meat they can quickly provide us rather than their ability to naturally reproduce or walk without pain; even the vast majority of the “best” farms are raising these same genetically cursed animals.

From 1935 to 1995, the average weight of “broilers” increased by 65 percent, while their time-to-market dropped 60 percent and their feed requirements dropped 57 percent. To gain a sense of the radicalness of this change, imagine human children growing to be three hundred pounds in ten years, while eating only granola bars and Flintstones vitamins.

Skeptical as I was about reading a novelist’s take on factory farming, Foer brings something to the story that others haven’t been able to; he draws comparisons more vividly than many other writers can, and though he is ultimately advocating a vegetarian diet, he never seems preachy about it. He opens the book to others, printing letters from an animal activist, a rancher, and a factory farmer, among others. And while he sometimes picks at the sustainable meat producers, the sort that Michael Pollan heaped praise on in his Omnivore’s Dilemma, his criticism works in view of his larger argument for vegetarianism. Unlike Pollan, who advocates eating meat sometimes, and seeking out sustainably produced meat, Foer leans towards removing meat from the diet altogether. It is, he argues, not a necessary part of the diet, and it is near-impossible to wade through the dozens of meaningless labels assuring consumers of the humane production of their food to find meat that has, actually, been humanely produced.

Near book’s end, Foer writes, “No one loves to eat as much as we do, and when we change what we eat, the world changes.” Foer’s book is all about accepting responsibility, about understanding the ways we interact with our food and then moving toward a healthier and more sustainable and humane diet, and if he sometimes picks fights with other writers, like Pollan, who have done a lot to advance this cause, it remains a pleasure to hear his voice – advocating not just more mindful eating of meat but no eating of meat, not until we have a system that we can be certain is handling animals humanely.

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Review: Neal Pollack’s Stretch
October 11, 2011, 1:08 pm
Filed under: Book Reviews, Nonfiction | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Neal Pollack’s Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude is an at times joyful and refreshing look at yoga culture in the States. The “at times” is the key phrase in that sentence; Pollack’s book, which describes his journey from being an overweight, balding, mean-spirited, struggling writer to a “yoga dude,” is at its best at the start of his journey.

Dealing with stress over a poor review in The New York Times and a six-a-day donut habit, Pollacks’ wife urges hm to attend a yoga class with her at the local gym. Unlike his wife, Pollack ends up hooked on yoga. When they move to L.A. so he can pursue work as a screenwriter he gets more serious about yoga; L.A. Is, after all, described as being to yoga what Paris was to writers in the 1920s.

Even when he’s taking yoga seriously Pollack doesn’t take it too seriously. This isn’t a book you’ll be rolling your eyes at as you read, thinking, “christ, gimme a break about this ‘connection with the universe’ stuff.” But he’s at his best early in the memoir, when his skepticism about yoga is still evident to everyone around him. Pollack never hesitates to take jabs at himself, either, but the best come early on, as when he struggles with bouts of gas during yoga class, effectively deflating the world of yoga (which to us outsiders can too often seem composed of people who have never had to do something so crass as race for a bathroom):

If at all possible, I liked for my farts to get lost in a wave of sound. Therefore, the best time to fart, if I absolutely had to, was during the part of the class where we said “OM.” As a beautiful chorus of human voices (including mine) harmonized as one, my colon expanded and contracted, discharging useless gases. I sent them out to the cosmos as an extra blessing, a karmic bonus.

What makes Pollack’s book so fun and accessible is that, when the book opens, he’s willing (even eager) to reveal these aspects of himself, but also that he is such an asshole. Pollack is a contributor to the first issue of McSweeney’s, and the first book published by McSweeney’s is written by him. He views himself on a path to success, and the self-destructive path he heads down (quickly killing off his best contacts) when the likes of Jonathan Safran Foer and Dave Eggers do make it big, is recognizable to anyone who’s ever felt overwhelmed by the unfairness of not being viewed as remarkable as their (assumed) counterparts. The joy Pollack feels in his transformation from the sort of man who publicly rips into a perceived competitor’s book, to one who tries to do headstands without farting, is evident and makes the first third of the book a pleasure to read.

What ultimately works against Stretch is the same thing that makes Eat, Pray, Love a hard swallow: Pollack got a book deal to write about his yoga journey while still on his yoga journey. With the writing he does on articles he writes for journals like Yoga Today, and the Thailand yoga retreat he pays for with his book advance, the last two-thirds of the book read like a journey that’s been designed for its narrative arc. Pollack covers a yoga conference for Yoga Today, travels across the country and attends classes representative of types of yoga, like Bikram, that have defined yoga in America, goes on his retreat and then covers a yoga conference/indie rock fest. His observations about “yogis” in America (like the number of middle-upper class practitioners who wear their $100 lululemon yoga pants while turning their yoga poses into poses for the gaze of others) do effectively skewer the commercialization of yoga, but even this loses its pleasure after a couple chapters.

Pollack writes about finding his “best self.” It’s hard to take that effort seriously, in part because of his habit of smoking a bowl before heading in for yoga practice, but more so because his attempts to craft a redemptive narrative are so apparent. Pollack’s book is at times an entertaining read, but it never quite lives up to its potential.

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Review: Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein

Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein is an inspirational text to my class of people, the sort who (despite being only in their mid-twenties) walk to the refrigerator and forget what they had planned to eat, go to the store and forget what they had planned to buy, avoid shopping malls because of the risk of losing the car in the parking lot, and forget the names of characters halfway through books. Foer’s memory isn’t markedly better than mine, but after covering the U.S. Memory Championships he’s intrigued by the claims of competitors that what they do (memorizing decks of cards, random numbers, names and faces, among other things) isn’t an inherent skill but something that can be learned.

If you’re me, this is about where you start rolling your eyes, but Foer’s book is immensely readable, busting with the sort of energy typical of Mary Roach’s science-y books. Moonwalking with Einstein follows Foer’s year of study under British memory champion Ed Cooke, but also explores the idea of memory and the lives of several memory champions and savants. Memory, he reveals, isn’t a matter of staring at a sheet of paper and committing its information, line by line, to your short-term memory, but of visualizing facts and placing them in a familiar place. Foer writes of the “memory palace”: taking a place that’s familiar to you and scattering throughout the house visual images. This means, if you need to buy cottage cheese, picturing a model splashing around in a kiddie pool full of cottage cheese. As you walk through your memory palace, Foer explains, the images are there as naturally as if they were part of your long-term memory.

Foer’s description of his journey to the 2006 U.S. Memory Championships is sometimes unnerving: much of his year is spent sitting in his parents’ basement wearing goggles and blinkers, memorizing decks of cards or sheets of random numbers. His exploration of memory, and of how the loss of memory and the rise of written memory has impacted our culture, though, is fascinating, raising questions about the way we choose to remember things and the way we educate our children. Memorization as a form of learning is routinely demonized, but Foer makes a strong case for the reintroduction of memorization to education. Not just that, though; he makes some unnerving points regarding our world of externalized memories:

Imagine waking up tomorrow and discovering that all the world’s ink had become invisible and all our bytes had disappeared. Our world would immediately crumble. Literature, music, law, politics, science, math: Our culture is an edifice built of externalized memories.

The sort of memory Foer is focused on gaining in preparation for the memory competition isn’t the sort that we need in our daily lives, and at end he’s clear that what he gained wasn’t an ability to remember grocery lists or where he parked his car, but an understanding that it is possible to “improve” memory (to the application of apparently useless tasks) through long-understood techniques, such as the Memory Palace, that we’ve long forgotten.

He covers a lot of ground, and he does it well, though there are points at which his goals in writing are unclear, as when he argues that the savant Daniel Tammett is simply a skilled practitioner of mnemonic devices. Foer’s accompanying argument, that if we are awed by savants because of the power of their brains to do the seemingly impossible we should be even more awed by the ability of an average man to train himself to do things like complex equations in his mind, is a strong one, but the reason for devoting so much space to Tammett isn’t readily clear, interesting as Foer’s argument may be. (If you watch the fantastic documentary Brainman online, you’ll be able to pick up all the backstory Foer goes through.) Tammett is an intriguing subject, but not one with any real links to Foer’s subject – unless, as Foer declares (and he is, to be clear, in the definite minority on this front) Tammett’s savant-like skills are actually the result of the same memory techniques Foer writes about. Despite this slip, Foer’s book is a fun one and worth reading, even if you, like me, can’t quite muster the strength to practice the Memory Palace on your grocery list, or even write the damn thing down.

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