Friday, May 22, 2009

Wisconsin Death Trip

I mentioned in an earlier post that Robert Golrick's new novel A Reliable Wife was influenced by a photo essay he read in the 1970s called Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy. Golrick's description of the book as "a haunting, cinematic portrait of a small town in Wisconsin at the diseased end of the nineteenth century" really intrigued me. His book left such an impression on me, I was eager to see these images that inspired the story.

Lesy's book consists of photographs that were taken by Charles Van Schaick of the residents of Black River Falls, Wisconsin over the period of 1885 to 1899. According to the introduction, many historians believe that a major psychic crisis was occurring in Americans' lives during the 1890s. There was a surge in suicides, murders, fires, and overall "degeneracy." Lesy includes clippings from the local paper as well as records from the state insane asylum reporting these events. The combination of the photos and the clippings are meant to illustrate the psychology of the people in this particular time and place.

The news clippings are quite extraordinary. So many notices of deaths, murders, suicides, arson, bankruptcies, layoffs, crimes, and people committed to the asylum. It is definitely haunting. What is interesting is how matter-of-fact the notices were. Consider:
"Charles Gregory of Sheboygan Falls, while jumping on a moving freight...was run
over...the top of his head [was] taken off and his brains strewn on the track."
That's it. No added commentary. No interviews with bystanders. When something like that happens today, it's the highlight of the nightly news. Bystanders are interviewed. Experts are questioned. Drama is encouraged. But these notices seem to indicate that these were everyday occurrences and people were not shocked by them. The photos are also fantastic. Women in their austere clothes and hairstyles. Men with their crazy beards and mustaches. I love looking at old photos. While I liked both the photos and the clippings on their own, what I really would have preferred were descriptions of the people in the pictures. Who were these people? What were they doing? Why were they getting their picture taken? Or pictures of the people mentioned in the clippings. What did the window-breaking woman look like? Or how about some pictures of the asylum? Lesy's combination of these particular photos with these stories were not as effective as I had hoped, but still an interesting portrait of life during this time.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Graphically Challenged

I've never really understood the appeal of graphic novels for adults. I can understand why kids like them. I read a few as a kid, but as I got older I became less and less interested. Nevertheless, in an effort to broaden my reading, I read my first adult graphic novel. Bill Willingham's Fables series can be described as a darker, more adult take on the classic fairy tales we grew up with. This is exactly why I loved Gregory Maguire's Wicked and Mirror, Mirror, so this sounded like a good fit for my tastes. The series is about the characters (or Fables) of Fairyland, who have been driven out of their homeland by the evil Adversary. The Fables are living in exile in a clandestine community in Manhattan. In 1001 Nights of Snowfall, Snow White visits Arabia as an emissary to convince the Sultan to stand with them against the Adversary. Snow entertains the Sultan with stories about the Fables. We hear stories about the Big Bad Wolf, King Cole, the frog prince and even Snow White herself. I enjoyed it. I did have some difficulties figuring out how to read it. Do I look at the pictures first or do I read the print first? It was a little distracting, but I understand that's common for people who aren't used to reading graphic novels. But the stories were interesting. Quite dark, which I liked. The stories were fairly short, so you can read one in a sitting. The artwork was fantastic. Each story was illustrated by a different artist, so each one has a very different feel and style of its own. I think it's an interesting concept and I'd like to read the first book in the series, in which the characters must adapt to life in 21st century Manhattan.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The last refuge of the mentally destitute...

I'm re-reading W. Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil for a book discussion and just came across what I think is the best line...

"A bird in the hand was worth two in the bush, he told her, to which she retorted that a proverb was the last refuge of the mentally destitute."

Is that not the best line ever? I have got to get that embroidered on a pillow.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Reading at the Table: The Hungry Planet

One of my favorite parts on MTV Cribs was when the celebrity would show the contents of their refrigerator(s). I liked to see what the super-fit athletes and the super-skinny actresses were eating. Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio's Hungry Planet: What the World Eats is like a look inside the refrigerators of the rest of the world. The authors visited 30 families in 24 countries to explore the differences in the way we eat. Each family was photographed with a display of all the foods they eat in an entire week. The book is a compilation of these photographs, as well as brief descriptions of each family's daily life. As Marion Nestle points out in the Foreword, the pictures clearly reflect that although the world produces more than enough food for everyone, its distribution is anything but equal. The photo of the Sudanese family living in a refugee camp in Chad with their meager rations is shameful. The contrasting pictures of the families in rural and urban China also show how diets change as people acquire more resources. But it's also quite a eye-opener to see how differently we eat from most of the rest of the world. While we buy a lot of packaged foods and go for the cheap, easy, fast options, people in other countries rely primarily on fresh fruits and veggies, grains, and home-cooked meals. No wonder why the U.S. is known for its obesity problems. The book also contains a lot of statistics which are fascinating to compare. While I thought the U.S. would be the clear winner when it came to obesity, Kuwait actually beats us by about 2%. What's going on there? It's definitely not a country I had pegged for obesity problems. But the U.S. has the highest rate of meat consumption and the highest sugar/sweetener supply. Aside from the food, the book also gives a good sense of how people in other countries live and what their daily lives are like. It is such an interesting read and well worth a look.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

And the winner is...

A number of book awards have been given out recently.

The Los Angeles Times Book Prizes were announced in April. Marilynne Robinson's Home won the fiction award and Zoƫ Ferraris's Finding Nouf won the first fiction award.

Ursula K. LeGuin won the Nebula Award for her novel Powers.

Cormac McCarthy won the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for lifetime achievement in American literature. This is the second year the PEN American center has given the $25,000 award, which recognizes excellence, ambition and scale of achievement over a sustained career.

Carol Ann Duffy was recently named the new poet laureate in England. Over its 340 year history, Duffy is the first woman to be given the honor.

The James Beard Foundation recently announced its 2009 book awards. The cookbook of the year went to Jennifer McLagan for Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes. Martha Hall Foose won in the American Cooking category for Screen Doors and Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales from a Southern Cook.

Ian R. MacLeod won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction for his novel Song of Time.

The Mystery Writers of America presented the 2009 Edgar Award to C. J. Box for his novel Blue Heaven.

Louise Penny's The Cruelest Month won the Agatha Award for best novel.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Reading at the Table: Food Matters

In Michael Pollan's latest book, In Defense of Food, he sums up his advice for the proper diet: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Mark Bittman's new book Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating espouses essentially the same thing, except it includes a few recipes. Bittman is a New York Times columnist and has written several cookbooks, such as How to Cook Everything. But his latest book seems like it was just an attempt to jump on the Green food bandwagon and publish a book. His message is basically the same as Pollan's (and many others): Americans eat too much meat and refined carbs which has a negative impact on our health and weight, and the mass production of meat has a negative impact on the environment. He briefly covers how the industrialization of food production has led to overconsumption (which has been aided by our government). He proposes that if Americans cut 1/3 of the meat they currently eat, eliminate junk foods, eat fewer refined carbs, and eat more veggies/fruits/grains, we will loose weight, become healthier and our environmental impact will be lessened. While I don't disagree with anything he is saying, there really isn't anything new in this book. This is a very basic introduction to "food politics" and would be perfect for anyone that has been living in a cave for the last few years. If he had published this book 3-5 years ago, he would have been bringing something new and fresh to readers, but if you've read Pollan or Nestle or any of the many other books on this topic, this one really isn't worth your time. The recipes seem a bit mundane also, but Bittman's recipes tend to be very basic and low-frill anyway. I did learn one cool thing: Did you know that you can pop regular popcorn in a brown bag in your microwave? He has a recipe for Brown Bag Popcorn, which I'm excited to try. I always figured you had to have one of those special poppers to pop plain corn, so I've been using those microwaveable bags with all the additives and fake flavors. But no, just some plain corn, a little salt and oil, and small brown paper bag is all you need. Cheaper and healthier-a very good tip.