Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Review: Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer

I have to confess that I usually struggle to finish non-fiction books. I find them quite dry. And there are too many facts in them for me to remember. I end up forgetting most of them by the time I’m a quarter of the way through the book, at which point I'll stop reading it because continuing is simply too counterproductive.

But Eating Animals was different. Prior to reading it I was already a big fan of Foer's fictional works. So when I saw Eating Animals in a bookstore, I was curious to see if his non-fiction would be just as captivating. 

And it was, thanks to Foer’s skillful writing. Foer brought the facts in it to life in such interesting and digestible* ways that the book was just as enjoyable for me to read as many other fictional stories have been. 

And what’s more, I’ve been able to retain many of them, such as:

Pigs are as smart as (and sometimes even smarter than) dogs

Animal agriculture contributes more to global warming
than ALL transportation

Grains fed to animals which become meat for wealthier populations to 
eat could feed starving populations of the world (and have less of a negative
impact on the environment in the process)

In short

Eating Animals deals with the complexities behind eating, and not eating, animals. But don’t let this scare you away from reading this incredibly powerful and informative read, because its purpose is not to convince people to become vegetarian (Foer does however openly oppose factory farming in the USA). 

Instead, it explores the relationships people have with eating animals; which isn’t only related to pleasing our tastebuds, but is also about the stories, cultures and traditions that we celebrate, reject or change when we agree (or disagree) to eat particular products.

The following passage taken from Eating Animals (pp.16-17) is an example of this complex relationship humans have with food. Foer is speaking with his Grandmother, who escaped Nazi-occupied Poland during WWII and spent many months fleeing the Germans:

'The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end, and I didn't know if I could make it another day. A farmer, a Russian, God bless him, he saw my condition, and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.'

"He saved your life."

"I didn't eat it."

"You didn't eat it?"

"It was pork. I wouldn't eat pork."


"What do you mean why?"

"What, because it wasn't kosher?"

"Of coarse."

"But not even to save your life?"

"If nothing matters, there's nothing to save."

This powerful passage captures the heart of what Eating Animals is about: just what can, and should, matter when it comes to food?

Foer's exploration of this multifarious topic continues in such a manner, by weaving together stories, philosophical thoughts and facts in very clever ways. It's for this reason that I found Foer's discussion particularly effective, as I didn't feel swamped with slabs of facts which can frequent other non-fiction books. 

I particularly enjoyed the following points Foer presented:

  • Why is it acceptable to eat some animals and not others?  For example, we eat pigs. Pigs are as smart as dogs. But we don’t eat dogs even though we could and there are so many put down every year. The latter of which is then processed into more food for animals, creating an inefficient cycle of production and consumption. 
  • The idea that 'food is not rational. Food is culture, habit, and identity' (p.263). This makes decisions and reactions relating to food all the more complex compared to many of our other lifestyle choices.
  • And finally this beauty: 'Our situation is an odd one. Virtually all of us agree that it matters how we treat animals and the environment, and yet few of us give much thought to our most important relationship to animals and the environment. Odder still, those who do chose to act in accordance with these uncontroversial values by refusing to eat animals...are often considered marginal or even radical.' (pp.73-74) 

Foer does not shy away from the gruesome realities that come with eating animals either. His focus is largely on factory farms in the USA, and while some may discount this if they live in another country, it was still very relevant for me. It made me to realise how little I actually know about farming practices in Australia. And how little I know about the journey animals go on from being live beings to cooked food on our plates. 

It’s a process people should be more informed about, not only from an animal welfare perspective, but also from a human welfare perspective. This latter point was particularly poignant for me because while I am quite familiar with practises concerning the former (and as such am a vegetarian), I never realised how much metaphorical crap is pumped into animals; animals who also live surrounded by literal crap. These crappy animals eventually become food for human consumption. That was particularly shocking for me. 

Thus, I found myself feeling quite angry halfway through the book. How have we become a society that’s allowed all of the corrupt practises of the food industry to continue, and flourish at that? Particularly at the expense of the welfare of others, both humans and animal? And especially when most of this is driven by money; whether it’s the meat producers who are wanting to maximise profits; or consumers who are not willing to pay more for their food, forcing some producers wanting to do the right thing to find cheaper (and generally less animal friendly and sustainable) ways of producing meat. 

All of this infuriated me so much that I just wanted pack up all of my belongings and move to a remote self-sustained community where I wouldn't have to be bothered by any of these injustices.

But I didn't. A) because I actually like my life as it is at the moment; b) because I don't think such a society is even possible; and c) that's not what Foer's intention with the book is anyway. 

Foer is simply offering a different way of thinking about food. And what's more, he invites us to act on this knowledge, rather than continue to be indifferent about it. After all, many of us are very familiar with the negative environmental, health and welfare impacts eating animals has. We simply do little with this knowledge. So Foer leaves us with the following proposition which sums up his discussion well: 

'What kind of world would we create if three times a day we activated our compassion and reason as we sat down to eat, if we had the moral imagination and pragmatic will to change our most fundamental act of consumption?' (pp. 257-258) 

Just imagine!

In three words

Enlightening, thought-provoking awesomeness 

What I liked
  • Foer's writing - he is an incredibly talented wordsmith. 
  • The way Foer presents his information. Whether it's via diagrams drawn to scale illustrating how little room factory farmed chooks have to live in; or presenting viewpoints from different sides of animal production and consumption arguments (including a vegetarian rancher); his argument is well-grounded and honest.
  • The sense of empowerment after reading Eating Animals. Again, it's purpose is not to turn you into a tree-loving vegetarian hippy. But it offers options to those who do want to have a more positive impact on the world they live in.            

What irked me

The realisation that there is still so far to go in terms of improving animal welfare, the environment, and people's knowledge about where their food comes from. But change has to come from somewhere, so why not start now? 

You will like this if you enjoy reading
  • Books that take you on philosophical and factual journeys of discovery
  • Books that challenge and confront your understandings of the world around you
  • Books which advocate for animal rights
  • Books about food

*pun not intended

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Collecting books

One thing that makes me happy is being notified that a book I have reserved is ready for collection at the library. The days, weeks and sometimes even months I've spent waiting for it have come to an end, and I can finally begin the highly anticipated read.

However, sometimes the highly anticipated moment of collecting the book is much more disappointing than it is fulfilling. This generally happens when I've had a particular edition of the book I’d like to read in mind, and then the edition I’m given is completely different to any one I've seen before. It’s like a blind date gone horribly wrong – you have an idea of what the person will look like based on a picture you've been given of them (athletic with neat and tidy hair), and then it turns out they've put on 20kgs and are now sporting a bright green Mohawk. Of coarse there’s nothing wrong with letting go of yourself and changing up your hairstyle now and again. But as someone who struggles with the unexpected, scenarios like this one can be rather unsettling and disappointing for me to say the least.


All of this can make me seem incredibly shallow (and partially unstable) when it comes to collecting books, but unfortunately that's simply what happens sometimes*. There's just certain covers I get attached to which make me believe that that and only that particular version will make my reading experience the most enjoyable one I can possibly have with the book. I can't explain the logic behind this reasoning, but book cover designers and advertisers would definitely be pleased with the effects of their campaigns on me.

Nevertheless, once I've recomposed myself, I will eventually rise to the challenge of reading an edition of a book I have been unprepared for. While it can be a bit awkward to begin with, I remind myself that despite the initial setbacks, everything will actually be ok because the story is still the same on the inside as the one I was originally interested in.

And in the end, that’s all that really matters.

*I would like to emphasise the sometimes, because this doesn't happen every time. Honestly. 

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Review: Puberty Blues, by Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette

I was snuggled up on my couch one Friday night, happily watching So You Think You Can Dance on TV, when it came to its inevitable end at exactly 9.32pm. Just as I was ready to flick off the TV and continue with my pleasantly relaxing evening, an ad for the next show to air that night came on - reruns of the 2012 miniseries Puberty Blues. I was overseas at the time the show had originally aired, but even then I'd heard about it and wanted to watch it. Now seemed the perfect opportunity, so I thought to myself.....

And so I did.

I watched it, and really enjoyed it! But, because this blog is predominately about reviewing books and not about TV shows I like (even though I could technically write about the show because this is my blog and I'm allowed to write whatever* I'd like to on it), I won't go on to tell you how I was drawn into the narrative of the show from the get go, or how wicked I thought all of the costumes and other 70s paraphernalia in it were. Because that would simply be a waste of your time. Instead, the show's mention has merely been a brief explanation of how it ultimately sparked my interest in reading the book of the same name. Voila.

In short

Puberty Blues follows the adventures of Debbie and Sue, two thirteen year-old best friends desperate to belong to the ‘in’ group of the Northern Cronulla surf gangs. The writing captures the suffocating boredom and feelings of entrapment that I could relate to from when I was a teenager, along with yearning for independence and opportunities for exploring ones identity. Barely any uncomfortable topic is left untouched in this novella; with sex, rape, alcohol, drugs, teenage pregnancy and abortion all featuring regularly in an unnervingly blunt manner. At the same time the story is punctured by some incredibly hilarious and uniquely Australian colloquialisms, which reprieve the reader from the otherwise intense nature of the narrative. Though the outrageous colloquialisms could also be off-putting to some readers, I think it captures and allows you to escape into the incredibly dangerous, yet exhilarating reality, of 1970s teenage beach culture of coastal Australia.

In three adjectives

Raw. Confronting. Thrilling.

What I liked
  • Being transported to life in 1970s coastal Australia and the lives of teenagers entirely different to what I experienced
  • The book’s honesty 
  • The authenticity of the narrator voices; which made me laugh, gasp, cringe, and so much more

What irked me
  • The authenticity of the narrator voices – sometimes I found these too forced and over-the top
  • The matter-of-fact manner that serious topics were spoken about. At times, it all got too much for me and I had to stop, look away from the pages, and take a few deep breaths before continuing on with the narrative
  • Reading about the deeply disturbing and cringe-worthy sexist attitudes of that era
  • Debbie, the main narrator. At times I felt so frustrated by her actions and just wanted to shake her and say ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING!!!? WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO YOURSELF!!????’

You will like this if you enjoy reading
  • Stories about teenage life and culture
  • Reading about uncomfortable and confronting topics
  • Australian cult classics

Other representations

2012 8-part miniseries, Puberty Blues

Bruce Beresford's 1981 film, Puberty Blues

*within reason

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Review: The Graduate, by Charles Webb

I was browsing the shelves in my local library, as I like to do quite often, looking out for 'the one' (aka the perfect book for me to read at that specific moment in time). After much browsing, and just as I was losing all hope of ever finding my 'one', I spotted Webb's The Graduate out of the corner of my eye.

It was hanging out all cool and nonchalant on the shelves, much like in the depiction below.

It was so chilled that I genuinely don't think it would have minded if I simply walked past it; but its quiet confidence was too tempting for me to resist (don't worry, I wasn't bothering it with my attention - in fact, I think it was secretly chuffed by it).

So, as I've done many times before, I thought, 'I'm going to read your blurb to see if I want to take our relationship further.' And so I did. And its blurb promised all I needed for a highly entertaining and provocative read; I knew I'd be in for a treat. I love a bit of a risque read now and again*, and The Graduate delivered in every way!

In short

Set in 1960s suburban America, this is the story of Benjamin, a freshly graduated student from college who feels deeply disillusioned about the ‘American Dream’ and all that it has promised. For, despite being a high achieving student, Ben is struggling to come to terms with the purpose of anything in life and everything he’s been made to consider important; such as education, money, security and status in society.

Until Mrs. Robinson, his father's business partner's wife, comes along. And they have an affair together. Throughout which Ben feels rather conflicted. So he decides to put an end to it. And then both he and Mrs. Robinson behave even more ridiculously. All of which is very entertaining to read.

Nevertheless throughout The Graduate, Ben remains a mystery to his readers; we still hardly know him by the end of the novel. As such it is difficult to sympathise with him entirely.

However, though Ben is a deeply conflicted character and seemingly unstable, there is something that just draws you in to wanting to know more about him and what trouble he will get himself into. It’s almost like watching a car-crash in slow motion – you know that the ending will be disturbing, but you just can’t look away. As such, it’s a highly entertaining and delightful read! 

In three adjectives

Sardonic. Droll. Naughty. 

What I liked
  • Benjamin - there's just something about his brooding nature that I can't get enough of!

  • Mrs. Robinson – she’s so cheeky!
  • The representation of mundane American suburban life in the 60s. As much as the 60s was a time of excitement and revolution for many social groups, there were also plenty of people living ordinary and banal lives, and their stories can be just as rich and entertaining for me as the former

What irked me
  • Benjamin’s obsession with Elaine – it’s slightly creepy 

  • Mrs. Robinson; when she becomes bitterly jealous of Ben’s romantic interests in Elaine and tells spiteful lies

You will like this if you enjoy reading
  • Witty, dry humour 
  • The acknowledgement of the bleak reality of life
  • Books that blur the lines between what’s right and wrong and expose the flaws of all of its characters 

Other representations

Mike Nichols’ 1967 film adaptation, The Graduate

Simon and Garfunkel's Mrs. Robinson**

*Of the risque books I have read, Nabokov's Lolita is currently the only exception for me - that book proper creeped me out!

**FUN! FACT:  This song was originally written as 'Mrs. Roosevelt', presumably after Eleanor Roosevelt. However, Nichols was such a huge fan of Simon and Garfunkel that he asked for it to be changed to Mrs. Robinson instead. ALSO, the song as we know it today wasn't written in its entirety when the motion picture was released either, but was completed upon its success.

Choosing books

One of my favourite pastimes is strolling into a library, with no particular preference for what I'll pick to read next, and browsing the shelves until 'the one' catches my eye. When it does, I'll just know that it'll be a fantastic read, and the mission will be a fait accompli. It's one of the greatest feelings of satisfaction that I can come by; particularly for someone as indecisive as me. It'll be as if all of the stars have aligned perfectly in unison. I'll then skip merrily to the borrowing counter with my new treasure in tow, and an explosion of confetti will ensue in celebration.

Other times, a number of books will jump out at me simultaneously, all claiming to be 'the one'. Suddenly, I'll find myself inundated by a plethora of books all grasping for my attention and pleading for me to read them with their puppy-dog eyes. As you can imagine this can be rather overwhelming, and it's tempting to simply gather them all up in my arms and borrow the lot so no-one gets hurt. But deep down I'll know that none of them are quite right. So, instead of pretending that something might work for the sake of protecting everyone's feelings, I'll politely reject them and explain that they're not for me just yet.

I'll then continue my search for the actual 'one', wary not to make eye contact with the now bitter and intense glares emanating from the aforementioned rejected books.

As you can imagine, this latter scenario can be quite an arduous and emotionally-draining process, and you may very well be wondering why on earth I put myself through all of this each time I visit the library. But rest assured this process is not always so difficult, and is generally one which is enjoyable and even therapeutic for me. I simply like to ensure that the book I chose to invest my time into is exactly right before committing to it entirely.

But sometimes, just sometimes, a book will simply be hanging out on a shelf, all casual and aloof, not bothered whether or not I'll select to read it or not. And I'll think 'Hey, you look pretty cool and I'd like to read you.' So I'll pick it up, assessing the cover and reading the blurb, while it remains all casual and aloof in my hands. And if it passes my initial tests of judgement I'll select it as my next read. I'll then skip merrily to the borrowing counter with my new treasure in tow, and an explosion of confetti will ensue in celebration. Hurrah!

And that will be the end of that adventure. Until the next time.

Read more: http://bloggerknown.blogspot.com/2013/02/changing-blog-page-by-page-number.html#ixzz2mUXnF3wj