Cannonball Read 6, Book 56: Gulp: Adventures On The Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

19008318Even the most casual and brief visitor to my blog will note that I am not much of a non-fiction reader. But this was greeted with rapture by lots of reviewers and by a couple of people over on Cannonball Read. So when it popped up as a Daily Deal on Kindle, I thought “why not?” and my goodness am I ever glad I did because I LOVED it.

Roach clearly has an intense fascination with the human body. She’s published books about dead bodies and copulating bodies (both of which I now plan to read). Gulp takes us inside the body, covering everything that we do to our food, how and why. It also segues into pets digestion, by way of an intensely glorious chapter about pet food science and tasters. Yes, tasters. One of the reasons this book is such a joy to read is Roach’s style, humour and the fact that she is unabashed about her curiosity. Also, she never once patronises the people she meets for her research.

So the book structure takes us on a journey from mouth hole to bunghole and every possible stop in between. It’s arranged in biological order, you could say. Along the way, Roach takes as much delight in autopsy photos of giant colons as she does in debunking the Fletcherism fad. I learned a lot of stuff I never knew or really even thought about before and I thoroughly enjoyed doing it. Roach made me laugh out loud many times. Her wit is the only thing about this book that is even remotely dry.

There are many tidbits you can drop into party conversation if you wanted to (Elvis died of constipation, for example). Roach is many things, and thorough is definitely one of them. She watches (though does not partake in) fecal transplants while at the other end of the spectrum, she tries out to be an olive oil taster, which involves consuming and rating WAY too much of the stuff. That’s another huge plus in Roach’s favour. She isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. Having read the book, I have no doubt that if she became ill with something that could be cured with a transplant of someone else’s liquidised poop, she’d not even blink.

If you have any kind of interest in the human body and its various functions, you should definitely read this. And if you haven’t, you should read it anyway. Roach is a warm writer and a good laugh. You’ll enjoy your time with her. To quote Joey Tribbiani, you’ll be lovin’ and learnin’ at the same time.

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Cannonball Read 6, Book 35: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind

15060I have a film degree and yet it took a friend buying me this book for my birthday to get me to read it. Shameful. What’s even more shameful, is I haven’t seen quite a few films that are discussed here, but the films are really secondary to the tales of how they were made and the changes they wrought on the film industry. If you’re even remotely interested in how some of the modern classics made it from page to screen and exactly what impact their arrival there had, this is the book for you.

I did actually know some of the history of a few films. The making of Jaws and The Exorcist and of course Star Wars are the stuff of legend and rightly so. Where Biskind really excels is how much depth he goes into, the amount of people he speaks to and the really truly no holds barred account he manages to capture. I found it all endlessly fascinating, from the rigid old fashioned studios rejecting the down and dirty subculture that was making its way onto the screen and into the industry, to the depiction of some of the most outrageous and egotistical behaviour you could possibly imagine. Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin between caused my jaw to drop more times than I care to count.

I also found myself wondering how so many of them are still alive. The amount of drugs consumed throughout the course of this book is enough to bankrupt a small country. How they managed to function on any level, let alone produce some of the greatest modern American cinema has to offer is truly mystifying. Martin Scorcese comes out of that particular side of it the worst. Not only is he a bundle of neuroses and allergies, but he had a coke habit which would have felled an ox. And somehow, with all of that going on, he made Raging Bull. On every page, Biskind finds something to fascinate, intrigue, and be appalled by. Sometimes all at once.

I did have some issues with the structure, as it does jump about a bit. It’s told chronologically, but the focus switches from film to film and back again, which I found a little distracting. And the subtitle of the book might be How The Sex ‘N’ Drugs ‘N’ Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, a further addition could fairly be And Then Fucked It Up Again. The final chapter is titled “We Blew It”, a line from Easy Rider, which arguably kicked down the Old Hollywood’s doors and shat all over its carpet. It details exactly how the likes of Star Wars helped to change the focus of the industry and how it operates, and barely any of it has ended up doing it any good. If you mourn the current slate of summer blockbusters and want to know whose door to lay the blame at, look no further. Biskind has put together an endlessly fascinating book. Why on earth did it take me so long to read it?

Cannonball Read 6, Book 12: I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley

5596865I admit, a good 90% of the reason I wanted to read this book was the title. It’s a genius, a masterstroke in fact. But ultimately it turned out to be, if not quite the high point of the book, it was certainly one of the very few noteworthy moments. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed this, but when something is described as “wry, hilarious and profoundly genuine” and has a gushing jacket quote from A.M. Homes, well, you’re setting the bar terribly high for yourself. For me, Crosley fell short.

It’s not that she’s not funny. I often smiled and chuckled, occasionally she made me laugh out loud. When she’s “imagining how embarrassing it would be to explain that one’s death – or worse, one’s disfigurement – came from a flaming maxi pad to the face”, it’s hard to deny that Crosley has a way with words. I almost feel a little mean to take her to task for writing it, but there we are. She didn’t manage to convince me there was a reason to write the collection of essays that make up the book. There’s nothing unusual about them, and I guess that’s the point. Homes’s comment is that this is “a perfect document of what it is to be young in today’s world”. Maybe it’s that I’m not young, and I’m heading ever faster towards yelling at those pesky kids to get the hell of my front lawn, or maybe it’s just that Crosley really isn’t as interesting as she thinks she is. The sum total of this, rather than making me go “oh that Sloan Crosley, she’s such a wag” had me saying “you know who else was too involved in a wedding they had no desire to even be at? EVERYONE”.

Crosley is INTENSELY interested in the minutiae of her own life, and it does get wearing. David Sedaris, whom I would guess Crosley idolises and hates in equal measure is entirely fascinated with other people and has a unique take on what he observes. And that is what makes him worth reading. I got to the end of I Was Told There’d Be Cake and just thought “so?” along with “wow, you would not be my friend in real life. You’re kind of annoying.”

Cannonball Read 5, Book 81: Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris

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David Sedaris is a funny funny man. I’m not a slavish fan to everything he writes, by any means, but my goodness do I enjoy reading him. I have read two other collections of his, Dress Your Family In Corduroy & Denim (from which, the essay describing his visit to Anne Frank’s House still makes me giggle today when I think about it) and When You Are Engulfed In Flames, which is also absolutely uproarious. Clearly, Sedaris loves a crazy title. Though it must be said, anyone expecting the almost constant belly laughs that latter collection provided is in for something of a surprise. Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls takes a more introspective turn. It also includes a few fictional monologues, where Sedaris takes on the voice of a few different characters, hence the “etc” in the full title.

The essays take on everything from the expected family reminiscing, to the unexpected, such as Sedaris having his first colonoscopy. We find out how difficult it can be for a legal alien to have their passport stolen as well as how annoying it can be when people co-opt your President. The range of topics is, without a doubt, very wide indeed. All of them are covered with Sedaris’s trademark sardonic tone, which often veers into haughty along the way. But there seems to be a melancholy to some of it,  as if Sedaris isn’t getting anywhere near as much delight out of his observations as we are.

The main thing I took from this collection is just how much mileage Sedaris can mine out of the everyday. A cold call from a marketing centre in India, an internal flight in the USA, he can turn anything into an epic story. It’s quite incredible, I found myself a little jealous of how he was able to spin a yarn out of essentially anything. Along with being sharp, he’s also completely unafraid to go anywhere, explore everything. It’s a trait I admire more than Sedaris seems to. He talks about his incessant diary keeping more as if it’s something he is a slave to more than something he enjoys. He dislikes his image so much that he bans photos from being taken at talks and signings. Conflicted is probably the best word to use here.

On top of ALL this, he’s also the proud owner of the dirtiest mind I have ever encountered. I went to a reading and signing on his book tour for Owls. He read one of the essays and then shared some diary entries he had made with us. One talked about how on a previous tour, a teenage boy had asked him to sign something really filthy for his mother in the front of the book. “I thought for a moment and then wrote ‘Dear Lucinda, your son left teeth marks on my dick’ and as I handed the book back and his face fell, I realised he didn’t mean for me to write something quite like that”. Well, I figure, if you ask Sedaris for something filthy, you have to take what he dishes out. So, when the time came, I said he could be as filthy as he wanted in signing my copy, I wouldn’t mind at all:

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How right I was.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 36: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

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Last year, Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail took America by storm. It spent months on the bestseller lists, Oprah re-started her book club over it and Reese Witherspoon snapped up the movie rights. The story of how Strayed’s life spun off its axis in the wake of her mother’s premature death from cancer and how it was righted by an 1100 mile hike along the titular trail could be seen as an inspirational one. I have been cautious about memoirs since James Frey ruined it for everyone though, so in fairness, I didn’t approach this with a particularly open mind. But as previous reviews on here have shown, I can be won over. Not this time though.

Strayed is an idiot. She’s an idiot who thinks it’s a good idea to get married at 19. An idiot who reacts to her mother’s death by getting herself addicted to heroin. The kind of idiot who then wonders why her family hasn’t held together since the death of its matriarch. The kind of idiot who cheats indiscriminately on her husband then wonders why they end up divorced. The kind of idiot who thinks hiking 1100 miles in three months would be a good idea. The kind of idiot who hasn’t hiked a day in her life, but doesn’t think such an undertaking is something you should prepare yourself for physically or mentally. An idiot who doesn’t think to pack a trekking pole, but does take a foldable saw and some books to read. An idiot who shoots up heroin again right before starting the hike. An idiot who keeps forgetting to look where she’s going despite the presence of rattlesnakes, fallen trees, boulders, bears and any other number of things that could kill her.

She’s also an idiot who somehow survives her PCT hiking ordeal, bloodied but unbowed and thinks it’s interesting enough that she needs to write a book about it and we should all read it. Well, fuck off, Cheryl Strayed. Parents die every day. Marriages crumble every day. Addicts get clean every day. Judging from the people she meets along the way, people hike the PCT on a fairly regular basis. At no point did I think this journey merited a book about it. My dad died last year. I didn’t wake up one morning, snort a line of coke and then decide to scale the north face of the Eiger though. I just got on with my life. I didn’t spend three months wailing “why me?” in the wilderness and I sure as shit didn’t think I needed to publish a book about my inner and outer journey.

I do have to hand it to her though. Strayed can write. The strength of her writing adds a second star to the rating. While I found it relentlessly self involved and painfully smug in its tone, it does make an interesting read. It doesn’t make for anywhere near as interesting a read as Strayed thinks it does, of course. Quite clearly, when you reach the end, she wants you to think “wow, she really was so brave and so awesome, what an incredible journey”. All I could think was “oh do get a grip, love”.

 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 11: Londoners by Craig Taylor

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As you can see from the cover, the full title of this book is Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It and Long For It. It is QUITE the mouthful, isn’t it? As the title and his introduction prove, Taylor does love to use 50 words when 5 will do, but that is totally forgivable, since after the introduction, his intrusions are minimal and he lets the Londoners do the talking.

Taylor is a Canadian ex-pat whose fascination and love of London, his experiencing of it as an outsider has led him to compile this extraordinary collection of interviews. The breadth and depth of interviewees is staggering in itself. The interview with the woman who recorded all the announcements you hear on the London Underground is wondrous, not because she goes into detail of the audition process and so on, but because she reveals how her ex-boyfriend feels haunted as he hears her voice every day. It’s details like that which make this such a rich tapestry.

And it is truly a marvel. People who smuggled themselves into London and couldn’t think of living anywhere else are sharply contrasted with people who felt swallowed up by it and couldn’t wait to leave. New mums, OAPs, eye witnesses to the 2011 riots, paramedics, police officers, immigrants, transsexuals, bouncers, pilots, nail bar technicians, students, lovers, artists, musicians, market traders, taxi drivers, they’re ALL here. And they all have something wonderful to impart. I devoured the book whole, pretty much, in a weekend. I found myself laughing, agreeing, disagreeing, sympathising, and infuriated by what I read in it. Taylor has forged a 460 page snapshot 21st Century London and for that he can only be applauded If you have any kind of London connection as laid out in the title, then this oral history is a vital must read.