the godfather

Even though I started a book jar last month, once in while something going on in my life compels me to pick a specific book next. When we were heading to New York a couple of weeks ago, I was inspired to read The Godfather by Mario Puzo, a book I’ve had on my shelves for a long time and fit perfectly with my list for the Eclectic Reader Challenge.

I am stupid in love with the Godfather films. Well, definitely the first two, of course. The third is “meh” for me. But seriously I think I could play the first two in my head entirely by heart. It’s pretty rare that I would have seen the movie before reading the book, so of course while reading I pictured Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, etc. as the characters. I didn’t know about the book until much later, well after I had watched the movies.

If you don’t know the story already, here’s the basic version: in 1945, Don Corleone, head of the Corleone Family (one of the Five Families of organized crime in New York), is approached to incorporate drugs into his business because of his connections with judges and politicians, for protection. Don Corleone is old school, believing drugs are too dangerous to deal in, and so declines. His refusal incites violent actions which spark a war between the Families, and Don Corleone’s youngest son, Michael, who always vowed not to be a part of that world, is forced to join his family in the fight.

The films (Parts I and II) are very faithful to the book, of course thanks to Mario Puzo writing the screenplays. (It is really difficult not to compare…!) There are additional scenes in the book (sometimes lengthy) that seemed to not have anything to do with anything at first, but did end up giving depth and backstories to minor characters, if nothing else. Also, the writing style, while solemn and deliberate but still highly descriptive, occasionally became repetitive.

The characters are flawed, which humanizes them and makes them compelling. Their brutal and vengeful actions can be shocking, but everything they do is calculated and explained logically. It’s incredible how Don Corleone is described as being the most convincing person ever. I was convinced! The women in the book are fairly one-dimensional… but it works. They are so in the films, too. Mostly I just loved reading The Godfather because it gives a greater understanding to these beloved characters’ thoughts and feelings. Reading the book made things that happened in the movies connect better in my mind.

The Godfather was my selection for “made into a movie” on the 2013 Eclectic Reader Challenge, hosted by Shelleyrae at book’d out, and my fourth read of twelve books total for the challenge.

Read from April 12 to 28, 2013.

salt sugar fat

I received a free ARC of Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss from Goodreads.com’s First Reads giveaway program. Salt Sugar Fat will be released on February 26, 2013.

Salt Sugar Fat is not so much an eye-opening account (because anyone paying attention should know foods heavy in these are not good for you), but rather an illuminating social history of the processed food industry, going beyond these three simple components as mere ingredients and deeper into the psychology, marketing, and engineering of processed food that have so many Americans literally addicted. What goes on behind the scenes is equally fascinating and appalling.

Michael Moss covers a wide array of food industry corporations, how they got started (often humbly), and how (unsurprisingly) money ultimately drives every move they make now. Nothing in your grocery store is an accident, from scientifically engineered “bliss points” of flavor to “mouthfeel” of texture to “permission” to eat as much as you’d like. Research and development and innovative food science are highly involved, as well as admittedly brilliant marketing strategies. They get us hooked on how amazing something tastes and they do this by figuring out exactly what to do so the food chemically reacts in our brains to elicit pleasurable emotions, which only make us want to buy more and more. Of course, all these products are dangerous cesspools of high sodium, saturated fats, and more sugar than anyone should have in a single day. Branding and commercials aimed at children hook a “heavy user” for life. Finding ways to make the product cheap also drives customers to buy, because in today’s bleak economy and busy lifestyle, who has the resources and time to prepare three healthful sit-down meals a day? It’s a vicious cycle driven by profits, and despite being the main source of blame for the obesity epidemic in the United States (not to mention rising rates of diabetes and hypertension), the food corporations lobby to get out of any culpability and resist changing recipes and formulas. The solution for consumers is obvious, but not always so easy—we are ultimately in charge of deciding what we put into our bodies.

I always do my best in the grocery store, buying mostly produce and getting higher-quality ingredients to cook meals at home. I only very rarely buy any of the foods discussed in Salt Sugar Fat (I do like corn chips and salsa, for example, and cheese—not going to claim I’m perfect here), but I do recognize how powerfully suggestive the industry can be, especially to those with little economic stature. Some of the more shocking revelations in the book for me involved Lunchables (developed in Madison, Wisconsin—my hometown), the process of making fruit juice concentrate, line extensions (myriad versions/flavors of a product: think of all the kinds of Oreos or Cheetos you can buy, even potato chips—salt & vinegar, salt & pepper, sour cream & onion, etc.), and especially the shamefully aggressive marketing to children. I also learned a lot about the war on home economics class by General Mills via the Betty Crocker brand. It’s also sad that so many of the pioneers of processed food got into the business with good intentions, trying to create products that were meant to be enjoyed only once in a great while as a treat (and not a daily major component of a person’s diet), and that they do not indulge in the very products they helped invent because they know exactly what goes into it and they know better. The industry became a monster beyond their control.

If you have any interest in food and health in the United States, food science, or even marketing, this is a great book to check out. Ranks right up there with Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma for me.

Salt Sugar Fat was my selection for “published in 2013” on the 2013 Eclectic Reader Challenge, hosted by Shelleyrae at book’d out, and my third read of twelve books total for the challenge.

Read from January 31 to February 9, 2013.

night flight

I have been “borrowing” Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry from my parents’ house for several years now, and in my continuing effort to knock down my TBRs in 2013 I thought this would be another good one to add to one of my challenges. I originally had it set for the KC Library While the City Sleeps program, but after starting The Devil and Miss Prym today I can see that they definitely needed to be switched. Night Flight is a much better representation of translated fiction for the Eclectic Reader Challenge, and The Devil and Miss Prym is better suited to the KC Library theme.

The slim novella Night Flight chronicles one perilous evening for the pioneers of airmail delivery in South America in the 1920s and 30s. Two main characters emerge: Fabien, a brave young pilot, and his supervisor Rivière, director of the Patagonia airmail operation. Despite warnings of a massive storm, Rivière gives the order for Fabien to take off for his scheduled delivery flight to Argentina. Although Fabien fears he will die on this flight, he obeys his boss’s word. Rivière grapples with his emotions about endangering one of his pilots (and many before him), but stands firm in his resolve that the airmail planes must continue to stay on schedule in order to become a viable business.

What is most striking in Night Flight by far is the dreamy, poetic language. I would have to read it in French (and, you know, be proficient/fluent in French!) to make a true comparison and see how much the translation changed intents and meanings, but here is an example of the lyrical prose in the book:

Under the leaden weight of the sky the golden music of the waves was tarnished. Lament in the minor of a plane sped arrowwise against the blinding barriers of darkness, no sadder sound than this!

Wow, right? I found myself re-reading a few passages like this to grasp completely the meaning—sometimes the action was a little unclear and Saint-Exupéry rambled on like this in places during the first half of the book. However, in the second half the story really picked up speed and interest for me, when the weather became more dangerous and Fabien lost radio contact with Rivière. I agree with other reviews that Fabien is perhaps a bit too tragically heroic, but I do feel it fit with the urgency of Rivière’s actions and the plot as a whole.

Beyond the meat of the story, I love that Night Flight introduced me to more facts about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s life. Until I picked this up I had no idea that he was a pilot himself, and reported missing after a routine flight in 1944.

Side note: I typically decide what to read in a gut-feeling, random order, but I love how weirdly more often than not the books I read seem to be subtly connected to each other by sheer serendipity. This happened in the books I read last year, too. For example, last week I read The Light Between Oceans, about a lighthouse keeper, and next I read Night Flight, which had some mentions of lighthouses and oceans and takes place between Patagonia and Argentina, and today I started reading The Devil and Miss Prym which happens to be set in a small town in Argentina. NERD FUN!

Night Flight was my selection for the translated fiction genre of the 2013 Eclectic Reader Challenge, hosted by Shelleyrae at book’d out, and my second read of twelve books total for the challenge.

Read on January 15, 2013.

lizz free or die

For my first read of 2013, I chose the memoir-essay collection Lizz Free or Die by Lizz Winstead, comedian and co-founder/creator of The Daily Show and Air America Radio. Beyond those facts, I really didn’t know too much about her.

Well, Lizz Free or Die set quite a high standard for the rest of the year, because I absolutely loved it! 5/5 stars! Winstead’s sharp, irreverent humor cuts through each essay, and there are many notable moments of tenderness and vulnerability. I was completely hooked by the second chapter, and almost read the whole book in one evening.

From her religious upbringing in northern Minnesota, to her time in college, relocation to New York City, and burgeoning comedy career which transitioned into media writing and producing, Winstead takes her readers on an intimate, honest, and relatable journey through her life and career. Winstead gives specific examples of why she dives headfirst into situations, her inquisitive (and sometimes exhausting) nature, and her appreciation for the talented and loving people in her life. While the essays aren’t all perfectly linear chronologically, the events, people, and circumstances that lead Winstead to liberal progressivism, activism for women’s rights, and a career in political satire are clear.

All the essays are memorable, and I genuinely laughed out loud during many of Winstead’s exploits in the book, especially the stories of her inexplicably weird dogs, the cringe-worthy spa situation she found herself in on a Moroccan vacation, and Catholic childhood during which her imagination ran completely and often hilariously wild. The behind-the-scenes accounts of the birth of The Daily Show and Air America Radio are interesting and educational, especially for a fan. I had tears in my eyes while reading the essay about her father’s death, which was especially bittersweet and emotionally affective.

Lizz Free or Die was my selection for the humor genre of the 2013 Eclectic Reader Challenge, hosted by Shelleyrae at book’d out, and my first read of twelve books total for the challenge.

Read from January 2 to 4, 2013.