Saturday, August 16, 2014

Book Review: Summer Homework Edition

          Hey, it's Carly and Grace, typing to you from under an umbrella by the side of a pool at a house in the Hamptons.  (Not bragging at all!!)  Okay, I'll admit we don't own this house.  We're here because of the charity of a marvelous family friend, Ellen, who rented the house and invited us to stay with her.
          Aside from whacking each other with pool noodles, grilling, and running on the beach, Grace and I have been working on our summer homework, and because of this we've both ended up reading books we might not have otherwise.  So we're going to review The Omnivore's Dilemma and The Secret Life of Pronouns for you!
Me, studiously trying to read, while Grace lies on my back...
The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan is an interesting dissection of the issues we humans face every time we enter the supermarket. As omnivores we can eat almost anything under the sun (and absolutely everything in the supermarket) it can be very difficult to know what we should be eating. Michael Pollan looks at where exactly all our food comes from - which for the most part turns out to be corn and the whole first third or so of the book is all about how corn is produced and how it has changed through the years - and whether or not we really should be eating it. He uses economical, environmental, and ethical reasoning (which, as a vegetarian, I appreciate). 
     - Grace

So studious
The Secret Life of Pronouns by James W. Pennebaker is ... much more interesting than it sounds, I promise!  It's all about how the small words that we use, called function words, say a lot more than we all realize about our character.  For example, a person who uses "we" and "you" a lot and "I" very little is likely to be arrogant, while a person who uses "I" at very high rates may be depressed.  Our pronoun choices also change depending on whether we're speaking to a person of higher or lower status than ourselves.  And if someone is trying to deceive you, they will say "I" less and use simpler and shorter sentences.  Liars may also use more performatives, meaning phrases such as "I promise you that..." or "I'm telling you..." to distance themselves from the actual deceptive statement that they are making.  This book will teach you so much about yourself and the people around you, and all you'll have to do is listen to the little common words we use every day.  
Beachwork...because I'm at the beach, not home

Friday, August 8, 2014

How to Read a Maya Angelou Memoir in Ten Hours

Maya Angelou died this past May, leaving a treasure trove of
writing for us to read and remember her by. 
          It all started with the discovery of a bookstore.  I found it because I had eaten breakfast in a cafe down the street.  I shot inside and read the first chapters of a couple of different books in a state of hyperactive delirium before focusing on a small robin's-egg-blue paperback book sitting by the cash register.  I'd heard of the book before - I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou - and I knew that I would have to buy it.  I read about Marguerite's (that was her given name) silk Sunday dress made out of a rich woman's worn-out gown and the three-line poem she was meant to recite to her church and the "space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil" before I paid and left. 
          I thought about the book on the bike ride home, and when I had finished yanking my broken kickstand into a supportive position with the toe of my shoe, I sat outside in the shade and started reading again.  I felt like I was holding my breath.  I felt like each chapter, especially the ones about her earliest childhood, was its own story, another facet of how she grew up.  I felt like I was experiencing more life in this book about Maya Angelou's memories from ages three to sixteen than most people have by the time they turn one hundred.  

**There are spoilers in the next paragraph.  Skip over it if you intend to read the book!  If not, highlight it to see the words.**

          She was cared for by her business-owning, deeply religious grandmother in Arkansas as a very small child, but as she got older she swung between living there and living with her mother or father in St. Louis, San Francisco, and southern California.  She read every book.  She became the first black conductorette to work on a San Francisco streetcar.  She defied a white employer who tried to change her name to 'Mary.'  She drove a car down a mountain in Mexico without ever having taken a lesson while her father snored in the backseat.  She got pregnant and still finished high school.  She saw World War II begin and end.  She lived for a month in a junkyard with a community of runaway children.  She was raped at eight years old and couldn't speak to anyone but her brother for a long time, and still she survived.  
          That is the most beautiful thing about Maya Angelou's story - that she lived through the terrible things in her life and lived on to do wonderful, daring, frightening, adventurous things.  
          I hope you read this book.  I guess there's really no secret to reading a Maya Angelou memoir in ten hours.  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is so good that you won't want to do anything but read it.  

          - Carly