Probably the most valuable lesson I've learned after these years of travel is how to bear being lonely. There is nothing that has quite the dull thud of being by yourself in a place you don't know, surrounded by people you don't recognize and to whom you mean nothing. But that's what being a writer requires. Writing is a wonderful life--a marvelous life, in fact--but it is also the life of a vapor, of floating in unseen, filling a space, and then vanishing."
I had seen the movie (loosely based on the book--perhaps "inspired by" is a better phrase) before reading this book, so the "The Jungle"-esque meatpacking sections weren't as horrifying as the visuals in the movie, but this book is definitely a worthwhile read. It's a fascinating look into the fast food industry, its foundation, its morals, and its practices.
Rather than the tell-all muckraking journalism this book is often advertised, I thought it was more of a sociological book. I found myself craving McDonalds fries while reading it--but thanks to Schlosser, I now know WHY. I also now know most of the flavors in processed food we eat comes from factories in New Jersey.
I bought organic meat BEFORE Fast Food Nation. I bought local produce BEFORE Fast Food Nation. I knew the fast food companies should be avoided at all cost before reading this book. I knew about our faulty food safety programs before this book and I knew about the dire need for government reform before reading this book. So it didn't inspire a revolutionary life change, the way I've heard it does with many readers. Yet it was packed with so many incredibly interesting facts I couldn't put it down.
Recommended to me by a 4th year med student. All reviews said "A must-read for any would-be doctor." I agree with this statement. I, however, am not a would-be doctor. I am about the farthest thing imaginable from a would-be doctor. I imagine that this book would be truly landmark when first published, but in the world of weekly NPR or Time stories on the horrors and problems of the current medical system, I didn't find it especially shocking--except perhaps that the problems Shem exposed still exist at length today.
Entertaining and quick, but Bich Minh Nguyen is a far, far cry from memoir greats like Mary Karr. Still, Nguyen does provide food for thought (I have to now unfortunately admit that pun was intentional) about American identity being so closely linked to a brand name culture; being normal and American to the Vietnamese-American Nguyen means eating Hamburger Helper and Twinkies instead of her grandmother's homemade Vietnamese fare, which Nguyen skillfully describes in mouthwatering detail. Don't read this on an empty stomach.
Great literature has many messages to be teased out from the actual text on the page.
A mildly entertaining novel overtly beats you over the head with its message.
Simply put, this book was far too "on the nose" for me. Akin to the way an old theatrical villain would step on stage, wait for the applause to die down, twirl his moustache and announce, "I am the villain!", Umrigar does not engage in subtlety in voicing her displeasure over the war in Iraq and overseas corporate exploitation. If I were having a coffee with Umrigar, I'd no doubt agree with many of her opinions. But I don't enjoy being beat over the head with an agenda in good literature. Give me a little credit, please, and let me pretend I'm smart. Let me tease my own meaning out of your literature.
In the end, it all comes down to the First Commandment of Writing: Show, don't tell.
(Also, don't write an improbable and miraculously speedy transformation within a few chapters for your protagonist and expect me to swallow it.)
There's no denying that the first section of Ozick's novella ("The Shawl") is one of the greatest pieces of short fiction ever written.
That said, the second part ("Rosa") is good too. Ozick is a masterful writer. Rosa has dialogue that will break your heart: "Thieves took it," Rosa says of her old life before the Holocaust. But I didn't NEED the conclusion to Rosa's story. From a psychological standpoint, it was interesting to see one writer's rendering of the mental aftermath of a Holocaust survivor. Still, a psychological standpoint is a lot colder than the raw emotion I felt when reading "The Shawl." Horrifying as it was, I wanted to be left in the powerful, tortuous ending of the first story.
Susan Orlean can meet a person, write six pages, and make you believe you've met them too. It's a little overwhelming, in fact--by the middle of the book you're filled with so many new and vivid characters jostling around in your head that it makes it hard to sit and read in one fell swoop. I'd argue that the pieces are best read as they appear in magazines like The New Yorker or Esquire: one at a time, with a good amount of space in between.
Don't get me wrong, I worship Susan Orlean. There's just no way to speed through meeting a taxi cab driver who is also a king, or the Tonya Harding fan club, or even a NYC hairdresser or ten-year-old boy. Her sketches of people are so detailed that they need a little time to be savored and mulled over.
Hell, I'll use the metaphor. A Susan Orlean sketch is like a glass of red wine. Don't chug it.
Tom Wolfe, you in-your-face, ostentatious, limelight-loving writer, you. The flashy punctuation, stream of LSD consciousness, and frenzied narration of the first couple chapters threw me. I couldn't adjust to your movie. In fact, it I was annoyed as hell by it.
Then I sat down and read the book for an hour. I let go, let the "experience" fly on by, and damn if your whacked out version of meta didn't work for me.
I was on board, part of the movie, craving my own nickname, embracing the technicolor Day-Glo craziness of it all.
In short, I was on the bus.
(For next time, though, 432 pages was about 80 pages longer than you needed, Mr. Wolfe. On the Road was 352. Just saying.)
I feel like I'm doing an injustice to Alice Walker by saying this--as if she can only be judged by one work--but I will say what I suspect everyone says after reading Meridian:
It was good. But it was no The Color Purple.
"Some bones are real neat," she said. "In the heart of a deer, there's a bone. And not between the ventricles, where you'd expect it. Some animals have bones in their penises--raccoons, for example, and weasels." She removed the bone from the weasel's penis. It was long, proportionately speaking, with a hook at the penetrating end. It was called a baculum, she said, which meant "rod" in Latin. She would save it. Its dimensions were one way to tell the weasel's age...
Sam said he kept a raccoon's baculum in his wallet because it made a great toothpick. He got out his wallet and displayed his great toothpick.
Picture Nahai as a puppetmaster. She spends hours--days--months--perhaps years-- sculpting her puppets, making them lifelike, charming, three dimensional. She breathes life into them so deeply her audience feels the urge to check for a pulse--and then Nahai cuts the strings and leaves them crumpled in center stage for the remainder of the show.
Great characters, but please know what to do with them once you've crafted them.
Also, it would not kill your (probably) intended female audience to slip in a male character that wasn't a wimp or an asshole every now and then. Yes, we need strong women in literature, but making a Strong Women monopoly in your novel is just as big of a crime as the male writers who wrote nothing but weak, cardboard women characters for centuries.
I don't know if she's selling the whole "magical realism" thing well, but her characters are some of the most dynamic and round characters I've read. Alexandra the Cat is my favorite so far, hands down.