Reading and Not Writing

I’ve been neglecting my readers and selfishly gobbling up too many books lately without taking the time to write about them. In an effort to just catch up and clear the decks, here’s a “So Much To Read” Variety Pack. They’ll be another one of these next week.  And then, with some discipline, we’ll get back to regularly scheduled book blogs.

“Going Clear” by Lawrence Hoyt
In the tradition of “The Looming Tower,” Hoyt’s “Going Clear” provides insight into one of the most controversial religions of modern times—Scientology. He systematically researches the history and beliefs, as well as the bizarre biography of the founder, L. Ron Hubbard. Hoyt plays it straight, leaving it up to the reader to question things like Thetans, Xenu and the Sea Org. This book is a deft prosecution of the structure and leaders of Scientology—Hoyt does not render an explicit indictment as would an opinion writer, he simply lays out all of the facts and lets the reader come to his own, easy-to-arrive-at, conclusion. Particularly disturbing are the accounts of what can only be described as torture, modern-day slavery, and psychological torment. Celebrity gossips will love the dish on Tom Cruise and other Hollywood Scientologists. The underlying premise of the book has parallels with “The Looming Tower”—Hoyt is examining how can individuals adopt beliefs and then let those beliefs lead them to extreme behavior. This is a book that will at once leave you frustrated and fascinated.

“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien
My sister has raved about this book for years. This year, she taught the book to her Randolph-Macon students and brought in our dad, a Vietnam veteran, as a guest speaker. She audio-recorded it and so I was able to hear my dad eloquently talk about his experiences in the war. The students asked him some questions about the book, and well, I wanted to read the text for myself. I’m glad I read it. First of all, O’Brien’s sentences are like stiff punches in the gut. I was reading this book and just marveling at his ability to show us the wounds that the war inflicted on so many young men. The book is fiction, but the main character is Tim, and it feels like memoir. That is difficult to comprehend at times, but by the end of the book, you are comfortable with the blur between fact and fiction and the mystery of a “war story.” Not too many books elicit tears, but this brought me as close to there as I care to admit. I could say more about this and about what my dad shared in that class, but it’s probably not meant for this blog. I’ll leave it at this: I am in awe of those who served in Vietnam—not just because of their service to their country, but because they had to return home after such a terrible experience and put their lives back together with minimal help. After quite possibly the worst experience imaginable, that they can get up each day and put one foot in front of the other is no small miracle. We still don’t do enough to honor them, and I hope we never make that mistake again.

“Telegraph Avenue” by Michael Chabon
I’m not going to have much good to say about this book. There have been ample Tarantino comparisons, which could be one reason I was dissatisfied by the book—I’m not a huge fan of his shtick other than Pulp Fiction. Chabon is the author of one of my favorite books, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” but everything I’ve read of his since then has disappointed. At times it feels like he is phoning it in, creating outrageous characters that at the same time are stereotypical. Something about the two main couples in this book feels false. Of course, it could be that I don’t really know the Oakland/Berkeley culture, but still, they didn’t feel like real people. The two kids were flat and seemed to appear only now and then to further the story of the adults. I would be willing to give this a pass, noting that I don’t know much about the kind of music featured repeatedly in “Telegraph Avenue,” or that I’m just not that interested in Tarantino style plotlines. But then, no, this was a flat book that I had to slog through. I didn’t know anything about comic books or NYC in the 40s, and I still loved “Kavalier and Clay.” This book didn’t work for me, and I might be hesitant to go back to Chabon for another book for a while.

“Salt, Sugar, Fat” by Michael Moss
Moss is the writer who sparked the “pink slime” scandal back in 2009 with a New York Times investigative piece on Lean Finely Textured Beef, which later became widely known as pink slime. This is his look into the processed food industry: how food is marketed, manufactured, and sold. This book was heavily excerpted in the New York Times a few months ago. Admittedly it is an interesting read, but Moss clearly has a perspective he wants to push with readers, and it’s not exactly positive for the consumer packaged goods companies that make much of what we eat each and every day. He is merciless when it comes to food marketing tactics, and he goes out of his way to make food science appear to be Voldemort-style wizardry. There are plenty of pieces of this book to argue with, but again, that’s a conversation I’d prefer to have off the blog. I might suggest reading the excerpt that was on the New York Times site and leaving it at that.

Thanks for reading.