Monthly Archives: January 2015

The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances by Matthew Inman (the Oatmeal)

run long

I have read The Oatmeal for years, and generally like it and sometimes adore it (the comic on loading the dishwasher, for instance, explains my relationship with my dishwasher pretty well, though I will load the thing if my husband is in France and no other options are available). But with this particular comic about running (and eating, and bees…part of what I love about this book is the tangents), I get the impression that Matthew Inman can actually see inside my mind and has written a book that says everything I have ever secretly thought and believed about running. And eating. And my own propensity to exercise only as a means to eat more fried foods. If you have ever found yourself adopting an exercise regimen only because you lack the willpower to follow a healthy diet, this book is for you.

It’s good to read it online, of course, but way better to buy the book because not only does Inman probably get paid more for his brilliance if you buy it, it comes with Blerch and 0.0 stickers. This sticker might actually break my resolve not to put bumper stickers on my car. Also, the book has the bonus tangent section about the Japanese bees that kill wasps, which makes it educational.

If you like Allie Brosch’s Hyperbole and a Half, or Randall Munroe’s XKCD, or…fill in your favorite irreverent, quirky comic here…, you might like this book. If you like running in particular, you will like it even more. Incidentally, I was unreasonably pleased that Inman mentions Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running in this book – until this book came out, Murakami’s book had been my favorite running book ever. I guess now I’ll have to have two favorites? Well, there’s also Born to Run : a Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall, which is up there, too. Maybe I should stop reading about running and go for a run or something.

 

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Chop Chop by Simon Wroe

chop chop

I worked in a hotel kitchen once. It was every bit as awful as Simon Wroe depicts in this novel, even though the head chef in my kitchen was not even one tenth the sadist this one was. But it was also kind of wonderful, working at a very unforgiving job where any mistake you make could mean disaster and you never get to stop and think even for a minute and you never get a break or any credit but somehow this bonds you with your coworkers in a way that you can’t explain. (Sort of like working in the theatre…but don’t get me started on my history of thankless jobs that nearly kill you and pay crap.) So that’s why I started this book – nostalgia. Why I finished it, however, had nothing to do with the kitchen parts and all to do with the parts where the protagonist worked through the problems of his past.

Our protagonist, called “Monocle” by his coworkers because of his (so far) useless degree in English Literature, takes a job as commis in a gastro pub called the Swan. He’s been without a job long enough to be desperate, and sticks with the job mainly to avoid having to go home to live with his parents – even though the job starts out badly enough and then evolves into completely horrifying. The head chef, Bob, is a horrible person who enjoys treating his workers with such vile cruelty that I cannot imagine lasting in that kitchen for longer than 15 minutes. He locks one chef in the walk-in cooler regularly (causing work in the kitchen to back up so that everyone suffers), repeatedly sets up the pastry chef to fail because he likes to watch and heckle, and at one point deliberately drops molten caramel onto our protagonist’s hand. All of this is bad enough, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg – we discover that Bob is in thrall somehow to a shadowy crime boss called the Fat Man, and when one of his mutinous chefs sets him up to fail at one of the Fat Man’s dinner parties, the Fat Man expands his campaign of terror to blackmail each of them in turn – and we learn that Bob’s sadism was mere child’s play. The Fat Man is a professional.

But none of this was why I finished the book. I finished the book to see how things would work out with Monocle’s family. Throughout the novel, Monocle struggles with his feelings about his older brother’s death when they were children, and how it affected him and his parents. He has always felt like the wrong brother survived, and actually seems to believe that his father’s grief and subsequent neglect are his own fault. His parents are both wrecks – his mother works a menial, difficult job to support his father, who cannot hold a job and gambles away whatever money he can finagle. When she finally has had enough and tosses out her deadbeat husband, he turns up at Monocle’s doorstep…and Monocle is forced to watch his two worlds collide. And collide they do – by the end, the Fat Man even has enough dirt on Monocle’s father to add him in to the circle of blackmail hell. As ugly as the story was already, it gets uglier – the terror spreads from the kitchen of the Swan to the Fat Man’s private home to the street outside Monocle’s boarding house. People get stabbed, people go to jail, parents are reunited, many scores are settled and Monocle finally gets to talk to the girl. It’s not a happy ending exactly, but it is satisfying. It made me very, very happy that I no longer work in a kitchen. And that my father earned his own living and will probably never turn up destitute on my doorstep.

Fair warning – foul language, sexism, racism, and every other possible form of offensiveness happens in this restaurant’s kitchen (one chef is actually nicknamed Racist Dave, and there are regular conversations amongst the characters about who has or has not performed colorfully descibed acts of sodomy on whom). You’ll need a strong stomach for this book. Oh, and did I mention the drugs? They do some drugs. And there is a great deal of cruelty to animals, though thankfully one character finally refuses the worst of it. I have seen this book described as “funny” and “hilarious” but I wouldn’t go that far – all of its wit is the painfully funny kind, where you have to laugh or fall apart. Kind of like kitchen work itself.

I cannot even begin to think of a read-alike for this book.

So I finally read Divergent by Veronica Roth

divergent

I generally try to avoid reading whatever the latest YA obsession until the series is completely finished and you can get the first one without waiting 6 months on hold. This approach works well most cases – if the books are bad (Twilight series, anyone?) you don’t feel cheated, and if they are good you can get them easily enough to binge-read the whole series at once (I admit with some shame that I read Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy in a weekend, and I’d do it again, shame be damned, though I might skip the last one). So I didn’t read this one at the height of its hype, but since the movie came out and the second is forthcoming, I can’t get the 2nd or third one now. Grumble.

Anyway. I read this for my book club, and while it was an enjoyable read, I was not inclined to go on to read the second or third, though my book club peeps assure me they’re worth it. My mental jury is still out. Good premise, but a little too much teen angst. As for the movie, I’ll probably watch it because the book itself reads like an action movie, so there is plenty of material there to make it exciting. And the fact that it’s set in Chicago made me nostalgic, though I really don’t want to visit this particular future of Chicago (the fate of Lake Michigan actually made me teary). But the part where they climb the abandoned John Hancock tower is pretty entertaining, Swamp Michigan be damned.

Books in a similar vein: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri Tepper, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood… basically any skewed future novel where the common people are being manipulated by forces they don’t understand and when they figure it out all Hell’s gonna break loose.