Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Year of the Flood

Survival. Margaret Atwood’s new novel, The Year of the Flood, does something that I can’t recall her doing before: she reprises characters from a previous novel, and expands their story. Several of the characters from Oryx & Crake, (which I also rated with four stars in 2003), appear in the new novel, and the two novels merge pleasantly to create a more complete view of a future possible world. The Year of the Flood is a story of survival in a world devastated by genetic experiments gone foul, and a plague that wiped out much of the population. One group in The Year of the Flood is called God’s Gardeners, and the hymns that Atwood creates describe their beliefs and their world with humor and insight. A collaborator composed music for these fourteen hymns and they can be heard and purchased at Atwood’s writing is superb, the characters believable, and the future world she creates is a scary place.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)

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Eating Animals

Stories. Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, Eating Animals, presents a conversational approach to a topic in which we engage daily: eating. When his wife was pregnant with their first child, Foer decided to pay closer attention to food, having made eclectic food choices until that time, from vegetarian to omnivore. Trying to be a good parent, he wanted to make informed, thoughtful choices about food for his child. He spent 18 months visiting farms around the country, and the book gives ample space for farmers to describe how they do what they do, on our behalf and in response to what we desire. There are pages in Eating Animals that will take away your appetite, especially those that describe the practices of factory farming. As described in this book, factory farming is hard to defend. But Foer’s writing style makes reading Eating Animals easy to swallow, but here’s a warning: you may change what you eat after reading this book. Eating is cultural: we gather at table and tell our stories. Our favorite foods are often tied to our closest relationships. Foer makes that point strongly: food is culture, habit and identity. The lingering question is: should we change habits, especially when it comes to eating animals that come from factory farms? Read Eating Animals, and consider the question for you and your family.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)

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Fun. Whether you read Freakonomics or not, Superfreakonomics provides lots of entertaining facts as the economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner return with another quirky set of examples from the exciting world of behavioral economics. The prostitutes are back, along with terrorists, car seats, medical hand washing and a host of other explorations. The pace is jaunty, the facts delectable, and the result a story or two to pass along in conversation. Prepare to laugh and groan. Just don’t let a friend walk home drunk. Read Superfreakonomics and find out why.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)

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South of Broad

Fate. Pat Conroy’s first novel in fourteen years, South of Broad, is a sweeping love story of Charleston, South Carolina. The large cast of wounded and hurt characters are bound together by friendship, marriage, and fate. Conroy’s lyrical writing delivers passion about people and place, and kept me engaged in their lives from the first page through the last. I often find novels over three hundred pages in length to become bloated, but with South of Broad, Conroy uses over 500 pages with care, needing each page to bring the people and places to life. The social issues Conroy covers on these pages are done with courage and empathy. There’s a depth to each character, and a backstory that added to my appreciation of this novel. Like most good novels, South of Broad grabbed me, and wouldn’t let me go until I surrendered myself to Conroy’s world.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)

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Olive Kitteridge

Forceful. The thirteen connected stories in Elizabeth Strout’s new collection titled, Olive Kitteridge, are set principally in Maine, and combine to produce what feels like a novel, and a comprehensive view of a memorable character. Olive could readily be called “a piece of work.” Her forceful character, formed by rugged Maine life, dominates these stories. As schoolteacher, friend, wife, mother and grandmother, she comes alive on these pages with the full package of strengths, weaknesses and quirks that make for an authentic human personality. Olive notices everything, has an opinion about the ways things should be, and often runs roughshod over everyone in her life, while she truly enjoys the love and beauty of life. Olive Kitteridge offers fine writing, especially to those readers who enjoy both the precision of the short story genre, and the sweep of continuity from viewing a character from multiple perspectives and time periods. Reading a story a day for two weeks may feel like a vacation in Maine, even in the story when Olive visits her son in New York.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)

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