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Non-Fiction 2-for-1

September 28, 2007

First of all, did anyone else watch The Office season premier this night? Oh. My. God. I expected it to be good. But it just blew me away. I laughed hysterically at times. I almost grinned my face off in happiness at others; at a certain point, I actually pumped the air with elation. I don’t do things like that. But, seriously, The Office is just getting better and better every season.

Ok, gush over. Time to talk about books! (I’m so behind on reviews)

Recently, I’ve read both Reason for Hope by Jane Goodall and Stiff by Mary Roach. They aren’t really connected, but since I’m never going to catch up unless I combine books, there you go.

First, the Goodall book. It’s a memoir that grew out of an extended interview discussing Goodall’s continued optimism in the face of so much tragedy. I found it a very nice read; rather like talking with an intelligent, caring person who has seen a lot more of life than I have and has some good advice. I recommend it. :)

Favourite Passages

I lay there, part of the forest, and experienced again that magical enhancement of sound, that added richness of perception. I was keenly aware of secret movements in the trees. A small striped squirrel climbed, spiral fashion in the way of squirrels, poking into crevices in the bark, bright eyes and rounded ears alert. A great velvet black bumblebee visited tiny purple flowers, the end section of his abdomen glowing rich orange red each time he flew through one of the patches of sunlight that dappled the forest. It is all but impossible to describe the new awareness that comes when words are abandoned. One is transported back, perhaps, to the world of early childhood when everything is fresh and so much of it is wonderful. Words can enhance the experiment, but they can also take so much away. (79)One thing I had learned from watching chimpanzees with their infants is that having a child should be fun. (87)So here we are, the human ape, half sinner, half saint, with two opposing tendencies inherited from our ancient past pulling us now toward violence, now toward compassion and love. Are we, forever, to be torn in two different directions, cruel in one instance, kind the next? Or do we have the ability to control these tendencies, choosing the direction we wish to go? (143)I thought, as I have thought throughout my life, how lucky I had been in my own childhood. Because I had grown up during World War II, the luxuries now taken for granted by middle-class Westerners were, quite simply, unavailable-except at exorbitant prices on the black market. I had learned the true value of food, clothing, shelter-and life itself. Along with my contemporaries I had moved into a postwar world in which self-reliance was a necessary quality. We did not feel it was our right to have a bicycle, a television, a dishwasher, and so on; those were things you saved up for, and were proud of because they were earned by the sweat of your brow. (197)

Even if we only suspect that other living beings have feelings that may be similar to our own, or not too dissimilar to our own, we should have doubts about the ethics of treating those beings as mere “things” or “tools” for our own human purposes. Even if all animals used are bred especially for our use-in the labratory, or for food, or for entertainment-does this make them, somehow, less pig? less monkey? less dog? Does this deprive them of feelings and the capacity to suffer? If we raised humans for medical experiments, would they be less human and suffer less and matter less than other humans? Were human slaves less able to feel pain, grief, and despair simply because they were born into slavery? (224)

Now, for Stiff. Some of you may recall my disappointment with Roach’s other book, Spook. I didn’t have high expectations going in. In fact, if I hadn’t mooched it before I read Spook, I wouldn’t have read it at all. And I would have missed out on a great book.

I don’t know if Roach had a different editor or what, but all of the problems in Spook were missing from Stiff. Instead, Stiff was a compulsively readable exploration of what happens to bodies once their owners have left them behind. There were some slower chapters, and I did have a problem with Roach’s callousness towards animal testing (esp. after reading Goodall, which had reaffirmed my utter abhorence of it).

Another group tried putting a new type of protective boot onto the hind leg of a mule deer dor testing. Given that deer lack toes and heels and people lack hooves, and that no country I know of employs mule deer in land mine clearance, it is hard-though mildly entertaining-to try to imagine what the value of such a study could have been. (152)

Nevertheless, I found Roach very caring of her human subjects, and the topics were all interesting. Those are you who are squeamish might want to avoid this one; Roach visits the Tennessee body farm to learn about decomp and isn’t afraid about sharing all the disgusting details. She also made an unfortunate comparison between human brains and one of my favourite foods (not going to share to spare y’all) that I really wish I could forget. With that caveat, though, I highly recommend this to anyone curious about death.

Favourite Passages

I ask Dennis whether he has any advice for the people who’ll read this book and never again board a plane without wondering if they’re going to wind up in a heap of bodies at the emergency exit door. He says it’s mostly common sense. Sit near an emergency exit. Get down low, below the heat and smoke. Hold your breath as long as you can, so you don’t cook your lungs and inhale poisonous fumes. Shanahan prefers window seats because people seated on the aisle are more likely to get beaned with the suitcases that can come crushing through the overhead bin doors in even a fairly mild impact. (127) There is her heart. I’ve never seen one beating. I had no idea they moved so much. You put your hand on your heart and you picture something pulsing slightly but basically still, like a hand on a desktop tapping Morse code. This thing is going wild in there. It’s a mixing-machine part, a stoat squirming in its burrow, and alien life form that’s just won a Pontiac on The Price is Right. (179)She explains the difference between rotting and composting, that the needs of humans and the needs of compost are similar: oxygen, water, air temperature that does not stray far from 37 degrees centigrade. Her point: We are all nature, all made of the same basic materials, with the same basic needs. We are no different, on a very basic level, from the ducks and the mussels and last week’s coleslaw. Thus we should respect Nature, and when we die, we should give ourselves back to the earth. (263)

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Matt permalink
    September 28, 2007 3:04 pm

    I have read both of these books and found them both to be good. I read Reason for Hope in college for a class I took on Africa. The first passage you quote is my favorite from the book, especially the last line about words. That really stood out to me and I have talked about it with people since. I was hoping you’d quote that part!

  2. Susan permalink
    September 28, 2007 7:15 pm

    I LOVED The Office premiere, too – absolutely hilarious. I love that Jim and Pam are finally back together.

    I’ve heard so much about Roach’s book. I plan to read it sometime soon :) Thanks for the reviews!

  3. Eva permalink
    September 29, 2007 5:12 pm

    Matt, it’d be interesting to read Reason for Hope for a class…it struck me as such a personal book.

    Susan, I know!!! They are both so ridiculously adorable.

  4. Sam Houston permalink
    September 30, 2007 1:27 am

    After reading your post yesterday, I went to the NBC website and watched The Office via the net. That is one strange show…in a good way. :-)

    It’s the first time I’ve seen it but I’m familiar with the British version and knew what to expect…what a boss!

  5. Dewey permalink
    September 30, 2007 2:16 am

    Both Stiff and Spook are on my wishlist, and I came really close to buying Stiff earlier this evening, but my husband pointed out how much I had already added to TBR Mountain, and he was right.

    Sorry, HATE The Office. I know, I’m unnatural and freakish.

  6. Eva permalink
    September 30, 2007 3:19 am

    Sam, I haven’t see the British version…I feel like I’m too invested in the American characters, lol.

    Dewey, your husband sounds like the little voice in my head that trys to get me to walk out of bookstores empty handed. :) I completely understand hating The Office. I really didn’t like it when I first saw it (I don’t like feeling embarrased for TV/film characters), and it took awhile for me to warm up to it. Everyone who knows me is confused by the sudden obsession that started early this summer…I’m not usually into TV like this! Plus, none of my friends will watch it with me. :( I’m probably the freakish and unnatural one!

  7. Violetsme permalink
    October 1, 2007 10:46 pm

    My daughter is in high school, and it seems like everyone she knows loves the Office. She got my husband and I hooked on it, and we do enjoy it. I am like you though in not liking to feel uncomfortable for TV characters, so Michael is tough to watch at times. I still think his best episode was the Pilot. Jim is terrific. He can make you laugh out loud without saying a thing! And it is nice that he and Pam are finally together. I really don’t like Michael and Jan as a couple though (talk about feeling uncomfortable – for BOTH of them)! It’s nice to watch a clever TV show – without having to look at reruns of Frasier, Seinfeld, etc. Am I the only one who misses good TV? It’s so rare nowadays.

  8. Eva permalink
    October 2, 2007 5:55 am

    Violetsme, Michael’s definitely tough to watch. I haven’t seen Season One in awhile (it’s the only one I don’t own), so I don’t remember the pilot all that well. Personally, I enjoyed his performance on Booze Cruise; it’s those little moments of caring that save him from being completely ridiculous. Completely agree w/ you and Pam and Jim AND Michael and Jan. Their relationship cannot end well. I love Frasier, but I’ve never seen Seinfeld. Good TV is rare these days…even Law and Order just isn’t the same without Lenny. :(

  9. violetsme permalink
    October 2, 2007 2:56 pm

    Eva – Never seen Seinfeld? Wow. I envy you. You can (hopefully) run to your local library and pick up DVD upon DVD and have hours & hours of joy and wonderment before you! Season One was not terrific, but it’s only five episodes long according to this imdb link:

    After season 1, it takes off. If you like the Office, I don’t see how you can help but LOVE Seinfeld. I have never known anyone who tried it and didn’t love it. You really have to try it – you owe it to yourself.

    I’ve never seen Law & Order – we tend to be comedy TV watchers. We also love Monk, but you could almost call that a comedic murder mystery. Our local library has several tv shows on DVD, and I think I’m going to go back and watch the West Wing, since everyone has always raved about that. Should I go back and try to find Law & Order episodes too?

    The only drama we’ve ever really loved was Joan of Arcadia. It only lasted two seasons, but it was a show you could actually sit down and watch as a family. Amber Tamblyn was the lead, and there were some other terrific actors too, including Mary Steenburgen and Jason Ritter. It was a really clever show that made you think – and would leave you thinking ( and discussing ) it long after the show was over. Here’s a description from imdb: “The Girardis have moved to the small town of Arcadia from the big city after patriarch Will gets a job as chief of police. Middle child Joan isn’t happy, and her family, consisting of science nerd Luke, paralyzed former jock Kevin, and their perpetually flustered mother Helen, isn’t helping. Then, Joan finds herself speaking to God, in the form of various people who give her assignments to help those around her. As her friendship with the zoned out avant garde sculptor Adam Rove and androgynous rebel Grace develops, Joan keeps following God’s assignments, never sure if she’s really just going crazy.”

    BTW, I don’t have a blog. I accidentally found Danielle’s one day, and have been bloghopping ever since. Always on the lookout for more book recommendations. It’s nice that people like you take the time to leave such good info for people like me. I thought I was a bookworm until I ran across some of these blogs!

  10. Eva permalink
    October 3, 2007 3:42 am

    Violetsme, well too bad you don’t have a blog, but I’m glad you hopped on over here. :) I’ll definitely check to see if my library has Seinfeld! I remember seeing previews for Joan of Arcadia, and I thought it looked good, but I didn’t have cable at college so I never saw it. Personally, I love Law and Order…if you like crime stuff, and shows that focus as much on legal wheeling and dealing as catching the bad guy, I’d give it a try. The newer seasons aren’t as good, but it’s been on so long that there’re tons of great reruns!


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