Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Eating Animals – Jonathan Safran Foer

2008, 352 pages
Jonathan Safran Foer played with the idea of becoming a vegetarian ever since his babysitter told him where his chicken came from when he was a child. Though he tried many times, it never worked out. He, and later he and his wife, were vegetarians, unless they felt like eating meat.
When they were expecting their first child, he felt this is a time for some important decisions in his life, and he started exploring the whole notion of eating animals, a process that resulted in this book.
He explores the subject on many levels. On a personal one, he speaks about the role of food in his life and his family, especially his Holocaust survival grandmother, for whom food and body weight play a big role in her life. He also muses about the family traditions involving food, the turkey in thanks giving, the gefilte fish in the Jewish holidays, and whether it is possible to keep these traditions without traditional food.
On another level, he researches what happens inside the livestock industry. How are animals kept, handled and slaughtered. He visits few kinds of farms, some are factory farms (where his visits are not really welcomed, or even official), some try to do things more or less differently, with some more considerations to the animal’s welfare and health (and, of course, the health of the humans consuming it). He interviews many people in the industry, animal right activists, farmers and more, and delivers their point of view. He quotes from researches, surveys and reports about the livestock industry. He also goes back to the history of industrial farming, and the genetic changes to the farm animals over the past few decades.
He also touches more aspects of consuming livestock products, like the health risks and the damage to the environment by polluting and contributing to the greenhouse gases and global warming.
He declares at the beginning that this is not a book that preaches about the necessity to become vegetarians (though he says that it is interesting that most people – also omnivores – assumed that a book about eating animals is necessarily a book that supports vegetarianism). Because of that I didn’t think the book will include some hard to read descriptions about what happens to animals in farms and slaughterhouses. I was wrong. The book included some very hard to read descriptions, some of them haunted me for days and prevented me from sleeping. The book also managed to surprise me, though I consider myself a vegetarian who is aware of what is going on in the livestock industry.
Foer is true to his declaration at the beginning of the book, and he does not call for a vegetarian diet for everyone. He accepts and respects other point of views he brings to the book. His main target is the factory farms, where most horrors, concerning both animals fare, animal and human health, worker abuse (and consequently animal abuse by them) and pollution occur.
The book is a little disorganized, with its many aspects and subjects. However I felt it is very strong and moving. I found myself changed because of the book, stricter with my vegetarian diet, and refusing to support the factory farm, even by not eating their products directly. I think everyone should read this book, both vegetarian and omnivores, because the choice should be informed. No one can say he didn’t know, now that all the aspects of the livestock industry are well known and documented.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Still Alice – Lisa Genova

2007, 300 pages
Alice has a good life. She just turned 50. She is a professor at Harvard and so is her husband. She has three children in their twenties and she loves them and very proud of them. At least of the first two. She is a little frustrated at her third and smartest daughter’s choice to skip college and go to LA to become an actress. But other than that and some other small things, like the time her husband spends on his work and research, that is too much even by her standards, she is happy and satisfied.
Until she starts to forget things. Not that it doesn’t happen to everybody here and there. But not to her. She always had an excellent memory.
She discovers she has early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Like half a million other Americans who start suffering from the Alzheimer’s symptoms before the age of 65.
The book follows the process of the advance of the disease from her point of view. How does it feel to gradually lose all the metal abilities that defined who she is all her lives. It also follows the way people around her handle her new situation. Her husband, her kids, her colleagues. What does it do to her relationship with them.
The book doesn’t give endless explanations about how everything make her feel. Usually it just describes what is happening. Like an empty chair next to her in a crowded room full of standing people. But I found myself crying throughout almost the whole book. These are just the kind of books that moves me the most: not explaining in words and words how the character feels, but showing the reader by making him feel the same way. I could feel the terror of the reality slipping away from the decaying mind.
Alice does her best to keep her brain cells in good shape. She exercises. Eats all the right food. Does Yoga. Meditating. At 50 her body is in perfect shape. Lean, strong and healthy. It does not help her brain nerve cells from dying.
Alice knows who she is – who she was her whole life: the brilliant researcher from Harvard, the excellent teacher, the devoted advisor to PhD students, always impressing everyone with her fast thinking and excellent memory. All this will be taken away by the disease. Who will she be then? She thinks about her priorities in life and the relationships with her loved ones. But is it too late? If you are anything like me, you probably thought after reading the last sentences “oh no, another one of this new-age books about the true meaning of life”. Not at all. This book will not preach you to sell you Ferrari. It is a very realistic book, down-to-earth, with no easy answers, only difficult questions and a very touching and true description of reality.
This book is not only captivating, fascinating and touching, it is also very important. It sounds the voice of Alzheimer’s patients, especially those with early onset, that unlike Alice, are usually misdiagnosed for long and precious time, given the wrong medicines and treatment. It is a must read.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Speaker for the Dead – Orson Scott Card

1986, 415 pages
Book two in “The Ender Saga”.
*** Spoiler Alert: May Contain spoilers to the first book of the saga “Ender’s Game” ***
This book takes place 3000 years after the events in “Ender’s Game”. But Ender is only 35 years old. Since he travels in almost light speed between the stars, telling the story of the dead buggers, time passes in a different paste for him during travel while many years pass in each drip that takes only a few days for him. We find him with his sister on a cold habituated star, teaching at a university.
In the meantime, only 22 light years away, there is another colony of Catholic Brazilians on a star where the only intelligent life form was discovered since the buggers thousands of years ago. Scientists from the colony study them with strict rules that should prevent any danger both to the Pequeninos, the aliens, and to the humans. But when something goes wrong, a call for a speaker for the dead goes out from the planet, and forces Ender to be involved in the events in the little colony.
Ender is not a child any more. He never really felt like a child to me, always too smart and in control, but he still has some human limits inside him I could relate to in “Ender’s Game”. Here he is totally unreachable, always knowing all, ahead of everyone else, figuring out in hours and days what others couldn’t begin to grasp in decades. He didn’t really feel like a human character at all.
Other characters in the beginning of the book did grasp my interest and caring, but the big jumps in time in this relatively short book changed them too much and put them in a place that prevented me from feeling that I “know” them enough to care. So the book lacked one of the most important things I look for – characters I feel I know and care about.
The world in this planet is quite interesting with very peculiar characteristics Card is trying to provide a convincing scientific explanations for. I wasn’t totally convinced but it was still interesting and I like the world of the aliens, the pequeninos.
The colony is Catholic-religious, and though the world is highly advanced technologically, with time travel almost at the speed of light, computer network faster than the speed of light, artificial eyes and more, still all civil matters are controlled by the church, living together without marriage is unheard of and so is divorce, a husband has a legal rights to access all of his wife’s secret files, and by the number of kids a miserable family with no love and no time or will to spend with the kids has, seems like contraceptives are also unheard of. I guess it was not the meaning but it felt like a horror story to me. Going back to the scientific part of the book that wasn’t very convincing, it felt like the whole plot was molded to fit the theological point of view of the author. Not only that, but the book was full of theological discussions that I found a little tiresome. The story could have been much more interesting without them, but I guess that for the author the plotline was only the “excuse” for these discussions. One more irritating thing – I don’t get what the idea of a Portuguese speaking community is – many sentences were said in Portuguese and then again in English for translation. What did it serve other then annoy the reader? After the end of the book Card talks about the book and tells a story that happened to him when he was a missionary in Brazil. It could be the reason for the Portuguese in the book, but I didn’t feel it serves any purpose, nor did it feel real or convincing that thousands of years from now this is the language colonists on faraway star will speak.
All in all, I thought the story was interesting in spite of some flaws, and I am glad I read it, but less theology and more character development could have made it a much better story.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Warbreaker – Brandon Sanderson

2009, 592 pages
In Elantris, the previous book by Sanderson that I read, there were humans who turned into gods, and there were a prince and a princes going to get married for political reasons. But the plot prevented both processes from happening. Sanderson explains in his website that after writing completely different things – a few fantasy series – he decided to write another stand-alone fantasy books that return to these issues and checks what happens when they do happen. How does it feel for a human to become a god. What’s it like to marry someone you never met for political reasons. That’s what happens in this book.
So again, we have a princess. Even two. Vivenna is the oldest daughter of the king of the small Idris kingdom. She is promised from birth to marry the god-king of the Hallandren big kingdom, in an agreement that leaves the small Idris kingdom independent. She prepares for this moment all her life, learning about the Hallandren kingdom and their system of gods that rules them. She is an obedient and responsible daughter and she’ll do everything to fulfill her part in the best possible way. Siri is Vevenna’s little sister. She is a free spirit that enjoys being “unnecessary”, all her bigger siblings fulfills all the royal duties. But when the moment arrives and the king father has to send Vivenna to the god king, he decides to send Siri, for reasons you will find in the book. She is sent unprepared to the heart of what Idrians see as the pagan and barbaric kingdom to an unknown fate. Vivenna, worried about her sister and suddenly feeling useless, decides to follow her and try to rescue her.
And we have a mortal that turns into a god. That’s what Lightsong the Brave was told. He died doing something very brave in his mortal life, and returned as a god. He cannot remember anything from his formal life, and his high priest is not allowed to tell him about it. He is full of doubts, a god who does not believe in his own religion, and tries to escape by being as useless and possible and by using endless sarcasm and cynicism, whenever he speaks, giving the book some very amusing moments.
We also have Vasher, going around the kingdom, using a magical sword to kill people and using a special magic to awaken objects to do his wills.
There are many surprises along the book. The author plays with the definitions of good and evil, and that’s a good thing, we don’t have definite good or bad people in the book, everyone is convinced that there is a full justification to what he or she is doing. However, some surprises and changeovers are not convincing. It’s not like I could say “yes, the clues were there all along and I just didn’t see them”. By trying not to use stereotypes in describing “good” or “bad” people, it just didn’t feel real and convincing.
However the story is interesting, the magic system using colors and awakening still objects was imaginative, and some characters were intriguing, especially Lightsong the cynical returned god. I did enjoy reading the book while I was reading it, but it didn’t draw me in, I wasn’t looking for any opportunity to go back to the book and read it. The only time I felt completely drawn to the book was at the end, that I liked a lot (and even shed some tears). In that aspect it was a little disappointing after Elantris, a book I could not put down after some point in the middle of the book.