Sunday, March 21, 2010

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

In light of the newest representation of this book coming out in theaters, and having never read it during my childhood, I decided to read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. This is a classic story that is filled with an abundance of memorable characters, pages upon pages of wordplay and symbolism, and a seductive world filled with complete madness and wonder, where Alice finds herself in all sorts of curious predicaments, where common sense fails and the nonsensical comes to be expected.

Lewis Carroll begins his story with the infamous sight of the white rabbit dressed in a waistcoat and pocket-watch, muttering to himself: "I'm late! I'm late!". Abandoning her sister, Alice follows the curious rabbit down a rabbit hole and unexpectedly finds herself drifting deep underground, and so begins our invitation to be a part of the wonderland. It is here that Alice encounters a copious amount of strikingly unique and wonderful characters, unforgettable in the world of literature. Alice herself, based largely on Alice Liddell, a real-life child, is a wonderful heroine that you can't help admiring. Other characters you won't soon forget include the White Rabbit, the sagacious caterpillar, the Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, the grinning Cheshire Cat, the Gryphon, the Mock Turtle, and the Duchess and her peppery cook. These characters join together to take Alice on countless remarkable adventures.

What I find most intriguing as an adult reader, is Carroll's brilliant use of wordplay and symbolism throughout the story. Not only does the book have fantastic qualities and imaginative inspiration, but nearly every page contains a clever pun, nonsensical poem, mathematical puzzle, or some sort of double meaning. There are hidden messages and subtle witticisms on every page, making it all the more entertaining.

One of the things I found very interesting, is that Alice is often considered the first realistic representation of a child in literature. She's curious, but sometimes a little shy. She's polite, but her manners give way to frustration and outbursts. She's intelligent, but she relies heavily on an education that often fails her. She tries to stand tall in the presence of the contradictory natures of the people she meets, but more often than not, is baffled and belittled by them. She possesses some degree of common sense, but does some remarkably unintelligent, and irresponsible things. She's likable, but she's also a bit of a show-off. In other words, she's the first, and perhaps the best example of a three-dimensional child character in literature. One that can be related to on many levels, and throughout numerous generations and cultures.
This is a timeless story, that will forever be engraved in the hearts of many generations.

I would suggest to find an edition of this novel adorned by illustrations. If you want to go one step further find the 2004 Barnes and amp; Noble Classics printing, with introduction and notes by Tan Lin. This edition includes some extra things in addition to the text of the book. There is a brief biography of Lewis Carroll, a time line of his life and career, a fascinating and insightful introduction, information on various film adaptations, a short story by Carroll - "What the Tortoise said to Achilles," commentary on the text by various individuals and publications, and a set of questions designed to aid the reader's thought and analysis of the text. The book also contains all of the original illustrations, which are indispensable to a full enjoyment of the story.

I saw the newest Alice in Wonderland film, and it was truly a delight. Although it's drifts slightly from the book, as most movies do, it truly brings everything to life. You will find yourself lost in a wonderland, unlike any portrayed on screen before. And so my next suggestion. Go see the film. It will help you to appreciate each remarkable character, my favorite being the Mad Hatter, and leave you anticipating your next night's sleep where, perhaps you too, will find yourself in a world apart from this one. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Eating Animals

This week I read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. It was a very informative book with painfully honest accounts of where our food comes from, and how the production of our meat affects our world, and our bodies. It doesn't harp or push vegetarianism, it just provides truth and allows the reader to think for themselves. I think that it touches on topics that need to be brought to light, and we can use it as a resource to become educated about the food we eat and the world we live in.

Jonathan Safran Foer spent much of his teenage and college years oscillating between omnivore and vegetarian. But on the brink of fatherhood, facing the prospect of having to make dietary choices on a child's behalf, his casual questioning took on an urgency. His quest for answers ultimately required him to visit factory farms in the middle of the night, dissect the emotional ingredients of meals from his childhood, and probe some of his most primal instincts about right and wrong. Brilliantly synthesizing philosophy, literature, science, memoir, and his own detective work, Eating Animals explores the many fictions we use to justify our eating habits, from folklore to pop culture to family traditions and national myth, and how such tales can lull us into a brutal forgetting.

This book reads like a novel. The storytelling is so compelling that you hardly realize how much information you are receiving. It's is funny, personal, well documented, and lets factory farmers and animal activists speak in their own words. This is a great book that will hopefully open up a door for people to become more aware and educated on the topic of the contemporary food industry.

My favorite part of the book is a moment in which Foer recalls his grandmother, for whom hoarding food was a vestigial effect of the war. "The worst it got was near the end," she recalls, "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." Foer concludes. "I didn't eat it." "You didn't eat it?" "It was pork. I wouldn't eat pork." "Why?" "What do you mean why?" "What, because it wasn't kosher?" "Of course." "But not even to save your life?" "If nothing matters, there's nothing to save." This is the kind of wisdom Foer hopes to pass on. It is the kind of wisdom that, in all its humanity and clarity, deserves a place at the table with our greatest philosophers.

There are so many things genetically wrong with these factory farmed animals, that there is no possible way they can serve our bodies well. Most of the animals have been genetically mutated in order to get the most meat the fastest and cheapest, that they would not be able to survive in a natural environment. Most of the information laid out on the pages is absolutely riveting and appalling. If you take away the animal cruelty part of factory farming, and look the situation from a selfish perspective, "what difference does it make to me and my health?", know that chickens are soaked in a tub of their own fices and bacterial puss, a good percentage of the animals have cancerous cells, and the amount of manure from hog farms is the number one cause of global warming. There is no way to get around the fact that factory farming has no up side, except to those massive corporations that are making the millions of dollars.

Aside from a few very short lived flirtations with vegetarianism, I've eaten meat my entire life, and unfortunately, I never gave much thought to it. I've had moments of turmoil, and uneasiness, as I begin to eat a comically large t-bone steak, or even a whole roasted chicken, but I always seemed to push it to the back of mind and continued eating meat. Reading this book has definitely changed me. For me to eat meat now would require me to forget about the pain and suffering I'm causing. This book has strengthened my resolve not to forget anymore.

Parts of Eating Animals actually reminded me of The Book of Negroes. During the slave trade, people used, mistreated and exploited African Americans, and that is exactly what is happening with factory farmed animals. I am somewhat ashamed and embarrassed to say, that history is sadly repeating itself. I have to be honest, I would hope that if I had been around during the slave trade, I would have been the kind of person to take a stand, and do everything in my power to stop the exploitation of human beings. But I don't know if I have the same response of passion to factory farmed animals. I have decided not to eat meat anymore, that's a step, but I don't foresee myself rioting, signing petitions, sneaking into farms, or making documentaries. I can relate the two situations, see how they are similar, but I find myself questioning, how strongly I should respond. If Factory Farming is indeed the same as slavery, why wouldn't I react the same? Something needs to change, that's for sure, but will it be enough just to stop eating animals?

My tip for this week, and this book, would be to watch the documentary Food Inc. along with reading this book. They both cover the same topic of factory farms, but the film provides the images for the words. The combination of the two will leave you changed in some way, and i doubt you will be able to look at meat the same way.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Phantom Tollbooth

"A slavish concern for the composition of words is the sign of a bankrupt intellect. Be gone, odious wasp! You smell of decayed syllables. "
I have to admit that I love children's literature. There is just something so comforting and unexpecting about it. Perhaps it's the defined line of good verses evil, were good always triumphs. Or all the little lesson's taught throughout the grand adventures. Sometimes I feel like mature writers try so hard to create something for adults, something that is so far from children's literature, that more and more stories of depression, affairs, and complex and dysfunctional relationship between good and evil are crowding the bookshelves.
"And remember, also, that many places you would like to see are just off the map and many things you want to know are just out of sight or a little beyond your reach. But someday you'll reach them all, for what you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow. "
I appreciate all types of books and authors, but sometimes it's just so great to indulge in the simplicity of a children's novel. This week I read The Phantom Tollbooth, written in the sixties by Norton Juster. This is the story of the awakening of a lazy mind. Milo, a young boy, who is bored with everything around him, who has no interest in learning, for he believe that there is nothing worth knowing, comes home one day to discover a phantom tollbooth. And so ensues the beginning of Milo's journey to The Lands Beyond. This is a fantastic world of imagination and mythic proportions, where Milo travels through Dictionopolis, the place of words, the Valley of Sound, Digitopolis, the land of numbers, and the Mountains of Ignorance. Along the way he encounters countless odd characters who are anything but dull. Through his encounters with characters in the Lands Beyond, Milo learns about imagination, using his time wisely, perspective, words, sounds, numbers and a host of other things. His ultimate goal is to find wisdom—both figuratively, through his education, and literally, by locating the missing princesses Rhyme and Reason. When he finally returns to the real world, Milo is forever changed. He realizes that he does not need the tollbooth to travel to exotic and magical places; he only needs to look around him. The once perpetually bored Milo is suddenly inspired and enthralled by practically everything. "...There was much much to see, and hear, and touch- walks to take, hills to climb, caterpillars to watch as they strolled through the garden. There were voices to hear and conversations to listen to in wonder, and the special smell of each day. There were books that could take you anywhere, and things to invent, and make, and build, and break, and all the puzzle and excitement of everything he didn't know- music to play, songs to sing, and words to imagine and then someday make real. His thoughts darted eagerly about as everything looked new- and worth trying."
"But it's not just learning things that's important. It's learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters."
"You must never feel badly about making mistakes, as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons. "
The Phantom Tollbooth is charmingly inventive, created almost entirely of puns, and the consequences of taking English language idioms literal. Juster frequently plays upon the dual meanings of words and expressions to create humorous situations. When Milo orders a "light meal" at Azaz's banquet, he is literally served light. When Milo catches a word on the tip of his tongue in the Soundkeeper's fortress, a word physically appears in his mouth. And When the Humbug jumps to the conclusion that nothing more can go wrong with the group's journey, he leaps out of the car and lands on the island of Conclusions. Juster uses puns both to amuse and educate, as these unusual situations often result in Milo learning an important lesson.
"... for one of the nicest things about mathematics, or anything else you might care to learn, is that many of the things which can never be, often are. You see it's very much like your trying to reach Infinity. You know that it's there, but you just don't know where-but just because you can never reach it doesn't mean that it's not worth looking for. "
During the week I spent reading this book, I found myself graving ice cream more often than usual, particularly mint chocolate chip, an old childhood favourite. I didn't think much of it, I though maybe it was in part due to the thawing ground, and the fresh air of spring, but now that I look a little more closely, I think it may be connected with the type of book I was reading. I think that the feelings and memories of childhood that The Phantom Tollbooth were stirring up, was also causing me to desire other things from my childhood. I personally think that it is great, and rather important to indulge in childhood treats, books, and activities. Those things keep us young and free spirited. I hope that in twenty years I still find myself on the swing set, with the air rushing past me as I get higher and higher.
 "Time is a gift, given to you, given to give you the time you need, the time you need to have the time of your life. "
"Expectations is the place you must always go to before you get to where you're going. Of course, some people never go beyond Expectations, but my job is to hurry them along whether they like it or not. "
Although I love reading a thick book, with a grand title, and a controversial plot, if only for the reason of feeling somewhat validated as a true adult and intellectual person, I often get just as much enjoyment from children's literature. I would suggest to everyone to read more kids novels. They are easy to read and understand, they are often filled with lovable characters, and true adventures. I have read books such as Harry Potter, Holes, and The Hobbit countless times, and will continue to go back to them over the years, for they truly bring joy to my heart.
" many things are possible just as long as you don't know their impossible."

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Let The Great World Spin

This week I headed back into the descriptive words of a great novel. Let The Great World Spin, by Colum McCann plays with the idea of balance, starting with Philippe Petit's 1974 glorious tightrope walk between the Twin Towers, and the stories of ordinary New Yorkers tied, however tangentially, to that event.

Let the Great World Spin will sneak up on you. It begins slowly and quietly on the other side of the ocean, in a seaside town in Ireland where we are introduced to two Irish brothers. Slowly, McCann takes us on a journey to a bleak project in the 1970s South Bronx, and from here, the book gradually expands as the brothers’ story collides with those of several others. Among them an aging black hooker and her daughter, a Guatemalan nurse, and a 20-something method artist. The circle continues to widen, six-degrees-of-separation-style, with the players growing even more diverse and incomparable. The film “Crash” inevitably comes to mind. There is even a fatal car accident, only without the reductive moralizing. “It had never occurred to me before,” one character says, “but everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last, and connected.”

When I was in elementary and jr. high school, I loved using a thesaurus whenever I was involved in a writing project. One day I discovered the word 'phantasmagoric'. It is defined as; 1) A fantastic sequence of haphazardly associative imagery, as seen in dreams or fever 2) A constantly changing scene composed of numerous elements. 3) Fantastic imagery as represented in art. I had never really had a place for this beautiful word in my vocabulary, but now I do. Let The Great World Spin is a phantasmagoric story. McCann's writhing is deep and inviting. You can turn to any random page, pick a sentence, and find yourself lost in another world. His words string together to form such strong images in your mind that you become completely captivated, and can forget that you are sitting in your own living room, rather than the deteriorating streets of the Bronx, or in a luxurious and resplendent penthouse suite on park avenue.

I brought this book with me on a business trip down to Nashville TN. It was with me through the Edmonton, Toronto, Nashville airports and back again. In hotel and conference rooms, and in my sparse moments of solitude. Being at the conference all day, my head began to fill with new information, thoughts and strategies, so when I allowed my mind to take a break from all that it, it was so refreshing to enter an entertaining world, much different from the one I was in.

When I read books, I have this desire, perhaps even an obsession to finish the at the end of a chapter, or at least when the end of a sentence is on the right page, so I can start a fresh new page or chapter the next time I pick up my book. Since each chapter in Let The Great World Spin is dedicated to an individual character, they can get fairly long. So if you are like me, with strange OCD tendencies, I would suggest setting aside a good amount of time to read this book, so that you can get through a whole chapter. Whether you like reading in the morning, on your lunch break, or before bed, treat yourself to your favorite drink, and enjoy a piece of solitude during your busy day. Allow yourself the time and space to get to know these marvelous, and entertaining characters.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Happiness Project

This week was time for personal growth. I chose to read the book the happiness project, written by Gretchen Rubin, because who wouldn’t want to be happier? This is a book dedicated to becoming happier, and not by drastically changing your life, just by doing simple things, and making simple changes from day to day. Unfortunately not all of us can move to the beach for a year and meditate every morning, so we must learn to become happier while we are at home, cooking dinner, working, and taking care of our families and ourselves.

The happiness project is the personal account of the year Rubin test-drove different ideas and theories to become happier. She has created such a thoughtful work on happiness, expertly weaves together philosophy, scientific research, history, analysis, and real-life experiences as she explains what worked for her—and what didn’t.

Each month Rubin focused on making small changes in her life that would resolve in her becoming happier. She covered a vast landscape of things from clutter clearing, going to bed earlier, singing in the morning, and stopping the automatic instinct that most of us have to nag the people around us. At the end of each month and chapter, Rubin, summarizes the things that she worked for her, what she learned, and the ideas she would leave behind to collect with dust bunnies in the far corners and under the bed.

Within the first few pages of reading this book I already felt happier. This book is filled with practical advice, sharp insight, charm, and humor. Reading Rubin’s words, and stories was like talking with a friend, it was honest, and easy to understand and relate to. She not only provided scientific theories and explanations, gave references from many different books based on personal happiness, but also shared her personal trials, struggles, and triumphs. One of the things I likes most about this book was this it was illuminating yet entertaining, and profound yet compulsively readable, unlike the majority of personal growth books sitting on the back shelves of bookstores across the country.

This is a book everyone must read. Even if you feel happy, there are plenty of great lessons, and things to think about and incorporate into your daily life. I have a feeling I will be reading this book repeatedly, each time taking something else away that I can incorporate into my own life.

It is said that just thinking about your goals, your future, and things that bring you joy, will in turn bring you pleasure, even if you have not put action to your thoughts. I had this book with me all the time, and I definitely noticed that just the thought of reading it and thinking about how to become happier, made me happier. As I sat in cafes, office building, and even my own living room I became hyper sensitive to the things around me that brought me joy; the elderly couple sitting across from me, holding hands, and in complete admiration of each other, the thought of meeting up with a good friend, and even the new artwork on my living room wall. I was able to appreciate the small things, like finding that the clean were dishes put away, having a very productive day, and having a great conversation with my husband. I don’t want these things, and thoughts to stop after this week, so I plan on starting my own happiness project. I will hopefully not only making myself happier, but those around me and in my life as well.

My tip for this book is to follow Rubin’s blog, and start your own happiness project. Countless times she stated that everyone’s happiness projects will look different, and that makes complete sense because we are all very different. We all enjoy different movies, books, hobbies, and people. Don’t put this off, your happiness is something that cannot wait.

Here is the link to Rubin’s website and blog so you can begin your own happiness project.