Saturday, April 13, 2013

PDawg Reads: April Edition

This morning Addie woke up late and snuggled in next to me on the couch while I was putting the finishing touches on the last paragraph of what will be my longest critical paper for school.

She let me know that she hasn't seen much of me in the last week or so. Aside from taking the cat to the vet together on Monday and one night we spent painting our nails (when I promptly fell asleep in the resulting snuggle, at what I am sure was about 7:30 PM), she's right. E asked me what was up this week, too.

"All you do is read or grade or write papers right now," he said.

Yeah. Sounds about right. I think everyone around here (me included) is used to the fact that I used last summer to get almost a full quarter ahead in my reading for school. When I had the same professors for several quarters in a row, it was easy to slow my reading pace a bit and stop being as freaked out as I was in my first year. But this quarter I have two new professors, and I had to wait until I transferred classes to get my reading list approved. No reading ahead. So now all of the sudden it's a mad PDawg dash to read shit like a MFA-er so I don't find myself in a last minute stress situation.

I think what's happening is that I'm just back in normal grad school mode, only nobody around here remembers what that looks like.

Short answer: a little crazy, and a lot busy. But if I stick to my schedule (GOD BLESS THE SCHEDULE, Y'ALL), it's doable. I just don't want to do anything after 10:00 at night or I turn into a blinky-eyed monster who yells and cries a lot.


I finished two books this morning, making four in the last two weeks. I've been cranking out papers in between sneaking peeks at pages, listening to my audio book every time I walk anywhere or drive in the car for more than five minutes. Two nights this week I didn't even open my computer, I was so busy reading. I almost didn't watch The Real Housewives of OC this week. (I said almost. I can't quit you, Vicki Gunvalson.)

So without further ado, some more books I read. All good stuff.

Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss

In 2010, E was diagnosed with a list of food allergies that is longer than any human should have to deal with. Soy. Peanuts. Dairy. Eggs. Citrus. Berries. Tomatoes. Etc. Etc. Etc. It should have just been one sentence: Eric, you are allergic to food. Dealing with his new reality sent me deeper into books about food than I ever thought I'd go, and when I read Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, it changed everything. I don't know how to write about that without sounding like I got religion, but reading that book marks a turning point in how I shop, cook, and eat. Plus how I think about the food that I want to serve my family. We're not perfect, but I feel like we're better educated. Nothing in Pollan's book felt pushy to me or pseudo-scientific. What fascinated me most at the time were the bits of history about why Americans eat what we eat: legislation, government subsidies and business practices that have shaped the American dinner plate.

Salt, Sugar, Fat reads like the natural sequel to Pollan's work. Where Pollan focuses on eating, mostly, Moss' book is purely about the history and science of processed foods. Moss devotes one section to each: salt, sugar and fat. Moss takes a journalistic approach and traces the development of the processed food industry both on a large scale and by examining the creation and adaptation of products like Lunchables and the Oreo. There was just so much here I didn't know, and I consider myself pretty well-educated about food. Moss' book makes a clear economic case for why these processed food companies would want to keep engineering food products (it's hard to think of them now as food, anymore) to trick our tastebuds and keep us coming back for more. I think that's something I knew, or suspected, but seeing exactly science is used to do such a thing is fascinating. Moss doesn't villify anyone, but he does show the practices of these companies for what they are. They know that salt, sugar, and fat will sell. And we are eating them up.

My recommendation: Must read. Now.

Reading for My Life by John Leonard

Reading for My Life is the book I was reading earlier this week when I was singing the praises of book reviews. It was a posthumously compiled collection of Leonard's previously published reviews: book and TV, mostly, of varying lengths, and it reflects a lifetime of consuming media. I found it fascinating. Not just because this is a direction I think I'd like to see myself going, although that is certainly true. But I've never read so much popular criticism in one place, so it was cool to read Leonard's reviews together, see the threads that carried through from one to another.

Leonard's reviews in this book span his lifetime, and as such they reflect an eclectic mix of titles and TV shows. As I read it started to feel like an autobiography in books, and I started to focus on Leonard's own life coming through his critical reviews of others' work. I hadn't read many of the titles he reviews, but his references are often classical and Shakespearean and Russian. His personal interjections were at times incredibly vulnerable and revealing. I found it taught me a lot about voice, honesty and creativity in writing critical work.

My favorite pieces in the collection are the ones where Leonard appears to be a fan of the author's work, or at least of the cultural circumstances of the media he reviews. He has a knack for viewing a work within the totality of an author's entire body of work. There are several long pieces including one piece on the evolution of the sitcom that mix Leonard's personal experience with analysis of cultural shifts. I was particularly moved by his last included review, on Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.

This was a lovely look back through a lifetime in reviews. It made me think about what my own legacy of media would be. Leonard writes with an easy, accesible style. I enjoyed this book.

My recommendation: A good one if you remember Leonard from CBS Sunday Morning or his written work. You'll enjoy this one if you like reviews. These are some great ones.

Seek by Denis Johnson

Seek is a collection of Denis Johnson's nonfiction work--some reportage, some personal memoir stuff, some travel essays. All of it, intense. This was not the kind of thing I would have picked up on my own. Ever. And the intensity of language and war imagery in some of the essays was difficult. But Johnson's writing is so good, there was a lot to glean from it as a writer. He uses different narrative perspectives in his essays, which I found fascinating, and even in intense political and war situations, such as in the opening essay, "A Civil War in Hell", he manages to maintain a neutral tone. Other times he refers to himself in the third person, as a character in the narrative, or not at all.

Seek isn't the kind of book I'm going to recommend to anyone for a little light reading in book club, but it's an amazing collection of great writing. Johnson finds people at the fringes of society, all of them looking for meaning and hoping to belong to something. He mixes together the weird and the spiritual and the violent and the edgy. There are lots of serious moments, here, but there is some levity too.

My recommendation: Read if you don't mind intensity. Read if you love nonfiction. Read if you can handle it.

Tenth of December by George Saunders

Ah, George Saunders. I'm kind of mad for everyone I know who reads words for never recommending George Saunders to me. How did I get to be 33 and not read George Saunders yet? I don't know the answer, but I'm working on making it right.

I liked this collection. There was a lot here. Tenth of December wasn't a great collection for me in terms of how it built to something dramatic or intense; in fact, I definitely felt like several of the stories resonated more than others, and the overall effect of the collection wasn't spectacular for me. But what is spectacular was how Saunders manipulates language and creates situations for his characters so he can examine life--big, scary, dark life--and somehow make it feel light and funny and obnoxious and exactly the same way it feels to all of us day by day. He deals with some heavy, heavy stuff here, but he manages to do so at a distance, so his characters' focus can be on just getting through the day, doing the best with what they have.

I particularly liked "Escape from Spiderhead", "The Semplica Girl Diaries" and "Victory Lap". This book goes into the category of books that have helped me overcome a lifetime belief that I did not like or understand short stories.


My recommendation: Read it. Accessible, entertaining, thought-provoking. A nice change from reading a longer work, too.

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