“A Discovery of Witches”

May 9, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

This book is going to start something.  I’m betting it’s going to be a great, and hopefully long running, series.  If you love Diana Gabaldon and Harry Potter, you’ll most likely enjoy Deborah Harkness and A Discovery of Witches.

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Harkness is a learned lady.  This book has layers of science, history, biography, and linguistics that are just as fascinating as the story line.  I’m not particularly big on fantasy, but I really enjoyed the way Harkness built a realistic world including witches, vampires, and other fantasy beings.

The highlight of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is the relationship between Claire and Jamie, two believable characters whom we can imagine meeting.  Diana and Matthew have a similar potential.  (Is ‘Diana’ named in homage to Gabaldon?)  Romance isn’t for me, but I dug this book anyway.  It is fully entitled to its 600-ish pages.

“Fat Head”

March 13, 2011 at 7:01 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 44 Comments

[Edit as of 8/25/2011:  http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/paleo-diet  This is a ranking of the “paleolithic diet” recommended in “Fat Head.”  If you’re reading this post, judging by the comments I’ve received, you’re most likely a die-hard fan of the film.  Please just click the link and read that article before reading mine.  Or skip mine; that would be fine too].

Tonight my man Rocket Scientist and I watched the 2008 documentary Fat Head, a response to Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me.  Here I am, having awoken at 4:30 AM – what would have been 3:30 yesterday – driven from my bed to write about it.

First off, I tried to find some criticism of the film, but a Google search on “Fat Head criticism” brought up only fulgent praise as far as I could find.  Since it was released nearly three years ago, that seemed odd.  This is the internet, after all.

Tom Naughton sets out to disprove Spurlock’s criticism of McDonald’s by losing weight on an all-McDonald’s diet.  His main thesis is that a diet rich in animal fats is necessary for good health, while a high-carbohydrate diet is responsible for both obesity and heart disease, though there is in fact no obesity epidemic.  He advocates personal responsibility and common sense in maintaining health.

At the beginning of Naughton’s documentary, he tells us that he is cutting his daily caloric intake from 2500 to about 2000.  A cursory glance at his food log shows that it sometimes dips below 1800.  This tells us everything we need to know: portion control is the only reliable means to weight loss.  That’s why Jared the Subway sandwich guy still has a job.  It is true, as Naughton demonstrates, that there is no reliable formula to calculate calories in/calories out to pounds lost, but he doesn’t say that portion control actually works.  I’m 5’4″ and I might lose weight on 1800 calories a day!

Naughton points out that it took him some effort to find visibly obese people for his film, as part of his message that the obesity epidemic is an artificial creation of government statistics.  I rarely see obese people on my daily trail run, or in the aisles at Whole Foods, either.  Yet the majority of my friends and family (sorry, guys) are indeed visibly obese.  Naughton seems to have two conflicting messages: 1. Perfectly normal-looking people are technically obese, and 2. Americans really are obese and suffer heart disease, it’s just not the fault of junk food.

The normalization of overweight and obesity has crept up on us.  My father-in-law pulled out his high school yearbook over the holidays and showed us “the fat girl” in his class – he’s 68.  She would certainly have been considered “normal” or even “thin” now.  “Fat” in the 50’s and earlier was a question of 5 or 10 pounds.  It’s also notable that she was the only “fat person” in the entire school.  The reason the book came out is that my in-laws are generally appalled at “how fat everyone has gotten.”  Naughton claims that “obesity epidemic” statistics are inflated naturally by the aging of the population; yet it is a purely cultural assumption that age leads to weight gain.  Historically the image of an elderly person has been skeletal, not fat, compared to a younger person.

Naughton makes good comedic mileage out of “man on the street” interviews, in which average people demonstrate that they know full well that fast food is high in calories and that nobody forces them or their children to eat it.  This is an empowering message for anyone who wants to lose weight.  Yet Naughton doesn’t interview any visibly obese – OR athletic – people.  In The End of Overeating, Dr. David Kessler explains that the one factor overweight people have in common is that they are less skilled at estimating calorie consumption than thin people.   Obviously, elite athletes will shy away from fast food.  You can’t run on that stuff.

An advocate of personal responsibility, Naughton reminds us that nobody is forced to eat fast food.  Good point.  Yet he seems to go out of his way to absolve the fast food industry completely of any similar responsibility.  It’s precisely like blaming the individual homeowner for the mortage crisis of 2008, and leaving the corrupt and bloated finance industry alone.  Where did the 44-oz soda cup come from?  American-style fast food restaurants have normalized a particular style of meal, and their spread across the globe has brought Western-style obesity and Western-style health problems with it.  Much of the problem stems from portion inflation – the point Spurlock wanted to make – and the reason for that is that the profit margin is higher for soda and fries.  Remember what a “large” soda looked like in the 80’s?

Naughton lays the blame for the non-existent obesity epidemic (?) at the feet of government, which is apparently influenced by radical vegetarians, who are in the pocket of… the soy industry.  “Follow the money,” he says at least three times.  Right.  I followed the money straight to the billion-dollar fast food industry, as supported by industrial agriculture.  The largest consumer of soy is actually the modern cattle feedlot.  Naughton, surprisingly, has plenty to say about grain-fed people but nothing to say about grain-fed beef.  (“Surprising” because Atkins people are often quite vocal about this).

Naughton is out to get Spurlock’s goat, claiming on the one hand that Spurlock could not have eaten the calories he claims by following his stated rules, and on the other that he shouldn’t have gained as much weight as he did by eating that way.  He takes him to task for refusing to provide his food log.  While Naughton does provide his McDonald’s food log, he goes on to follow a different diet for a month, artificially high in saturated fat, yet does not keep a food log for that.  It’s petty, but this annoyed me.  Why not just do it again, if it was so great, and post the new one?  As for Spurlock, he began his journey on a diet rather different from Naughton’s, was at a quite different fitness level, and was also younger.  Whichever film you might find more convincing, both make the unavoidable argument that soda and french fries will make you fat.

Spurlock’s claim that he felt “addicted” to McDonald’s, although the food made him want to vomit, sticks in Naughton’s craw.  He summarily dismisses the idea that a particular type of food can be addictive.  Let me offer an anecdote.  I once eavesdropped on a visibly obese woman at a Denny’s restaurant, and she told her dining companion that she felt a “food rush.”  They went on to discuss how they felt high from the meal.  Naughton’s film has nothing to offer about psychological or physiological addiction issues around overweight, perhaps because he is lucky enough not to have any.  Kessler begins writing The End of Overeating precisely because he “can’t stop eating Snackwell’s” and wants to know why – and concludes persuasively that manufactured food is deliberately engineered to be addicting.

Animated cavemen show up in Fat Head, as an illustration of the idea that primitive people ate more meat and animal fat and were healthier.  All I will say about this is that someone who finds this convincing might research the longevity of these primitive people.  Both Stone Age and agricultural societies prior to the Industrial Age were quite physically active.  The Amish eat a diet heavy in starch, but have low incidence of Western diseases, because they are also very physically active.

There is nothing wrong with eating fast food, according to Naughton.  Perhaps this is true in the arena of weight maintenance for the variety of person who finds it easy to track and control his eating.  (According to this article, Naughton would most likely fit in the “B” quadrant, the group that finds it easiest to lose weight and keep it off).  Yet the health effects of fast food are only one of a long list of issues for which the industry should be held accountable, including:  trash generated by disposable packaging; land and water use; corporate welfare from agricultural subsidies; labor relations; pollution; an ugly cityscape; targeted marketing aimed at children, which I personally find egregiously tacky; misleading advertising and a sordid history of lying to consumers; various e. Coli deaths; and, of course, animal suffering.  (Yes, I’ve been vegan for 14 years, which should come as no surprise, though the fact that I walk among the living might be to some).

As a member of the “radical vegetarian” cabal that is quickly taking over the world, I will state quite clearly that I agree with Naughton about excess carbohydrate consumption and the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle.  I also agree that we should all take personal responsibility for our habits.  Where I disagree is that industry bears no responsibility (while government does?); that ‘pineapple tofu’ represents a typical vegan meal (tofu is not to be served to amateurs!); that what we choose to eat should be based only on whether it makes us fat; and that Naughton looks normal and fit.

Before you comment: Did you read the whole post?  Are you currently at your desired weight?  I wear a size 4, can run 8 miles, and I am currently training for a half-marathon in September.  I am much fitter at 36 than I was as a teenager.  Would you prefer to be able to say that, or stop walking after three miles like Naughton?

I know what I’m talking about!

2010 Reading

January 1, 2011 at 9:12 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

I managed to read fewer than 300 books for the first time in three years.  It was close, though – I’m past the halfway mark in at least five books right now, and if I’d finished them it would have put me over the edge.  That’s okay, though – I’ve finished with trying to read impressive numbers.

Going through my list, I was impressed with how focused my reading was.  At least half the books I read won some sort of award or recognition!  The few that remained were generally either research, or something lackluster I read for one of my book clubs.  I would say that I continue to enjoy my reading much more when I draw from “best of” lists.

Pulitzers: 10, plus three that belong to Pulitzer trilogies.

Booker long list: 8.

National Book Award: one (short list).

Orange Prize : one.

New York Times Notable books: 33.

American Library Association Notable books: 5.

National Book Critics Circle Award: 4.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die:  3.

Modern Library 100 Best Novels: none.

Entertainment Weeklynew classics: one.

The Top 10: 3.

Amazon’s Significant 7: 89.

Powell’s Indiespensable: 14.

I’ve also read 124 nonfiction books.  In the interests of full disclosure, I’ve read 10 young adult books and 10 graphic novels.  I catalog my reading on LibraryThing and Goodreads if you’re deeply curious.  (See right column for link).

“The State of Jones”

May 18, 2010 at 3:19 pm | Posted in History, Nonfiction, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer have written the sort of history book that should turn more people on to history in general.  It’s well documented and researched, and the characters spring to life in a Civil War that seems like it could be going on right this minute.

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The State of Jones: The Small Southern County That Seceded from the Confederacy focuses on a man called Newton Knight and his family.  He had two wives and two families, one white and one black, who seemed to know about each other and get along better than you’d think.  He also went AWOL and led an insurrection against the Confederate Army.

I have a degree in history and I’d never heard of this guy.  This is a really gripping story that deserves to be told, because it should interest anyone.  The passages from journals and letters not only bring forth the voices of the past, but remind us that ordinary 19th century people had beautiful writing skills.

“Apologize, Apologize!”

May 14, 2010 at 3:38 pm | Posted in Fiction, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

I loved this book.  I read it because I kept seeing this debut novel displayed at Borders, and I’m glad I did, because normally that’s hardly the sort of thing that would entice me to pick up a book.  It also hasn’t been purchased by my local library, which is normally a sign that it’s not especially first-tier.  Ah, but I bet when Elizabeth Kelly publishes a follow-up, it’ll make it in those doors.

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Apologize, Apologize! is just one of those books that has “it.”  I’m not sure exactly what “it” is, but I know it when I see it.  Heart, I guess you could say.  The characters are a bit over-the-top, some of the scenarios are somewhat unlikely, and yet it comes together in a memorable, touching, funny story.

“The Imperfectionists”

May 13, 2010 at 1:02 pm | Posted in Fiction, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

This is just the most incredibly fantastic book.  Tom Rachman is a new face I’ll definitely be watching out for, because there’s no way a debut like this is a one-off.  The Imperfectionists is going to be one of the best books of this year, and I’ve only said that once this year so far.

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It’s the story of an English-language newspaper in Rome and the characters who work there.  I do mean ‘characters.’  Each chapter focuses on a different person, with intervals describing the founding of the paper.  By turns endearing, pitiful, sinister, and heartbreaking, these interrelated personal stories twist tighter together until things start to maybe snap a little.

I have to tell you, when you read this (because you must), pop back on here when you are introduced to Snyder.  I was so affected by this character that I had to put the book down for a couple hours and pull myself together.

Daisy Chain #10

May 12, 2010 at 3:35 pm | Posted in Daisy Chains, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Girl Who Fell frm the Sky -> The Room and the Chair: the AME church; a half-black/half-Scandinavian girl character

Last Night in Twisted River -> When You Reach Me:  characters named Nunzi

Loch Ness Monsters and Raining Frogs -> Through Black Spruce: OPP (Ontario Provincial Police)

Loch Ness Monsters and Raining Frogs -> Eating the Dinosaur: Liam Gallagher

No Touch Monkey -> Apologize, Apologize!: Brendan Behan

Sleeping Naked is Green -> The Country Where No One Ever Dies: washable sanitary napkins

The Day We Lost the H-Bomb -> Eating the Dinosaur: Robert McNamara

Eating the Dinosaur -> The Girl in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shower: the film Vertigo

Book Bum

May 11, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Walking up the street, I saw one of San Francisco’s many street people.  He was sitting on the sidewalk, on some bedding, with a “fishing pole” hanging out.  (A stick with a plastic cup hanging from a string, with a clever saying written on it, for the purpose of panhandling).  And do you know what he was doing?

He was reading A Reliable Wife!

Later, I went for a sandwich, and a man came in carrying a little boy of about three years old.  He was singing the alphabet song.  He finished, “double, u, x, and t…”

“The Way West”

May 5, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Posted in Fiction, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

It’s hard for me to believe that the Pulitzer committee could follow up the amazing Guard of Honor with a terrible book like The Way West.  It’s even harder for me to believe that it’s only the second in a six-part series.  What’s most bewildering is that the book seems to be incredibly popular and well-loved.  (My library’s four copies are constantly on hold and worn to shreds).  Maybe Westerns just aren’t for me.

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I was telling my husband how I had predicted a scene I thought was an absurd cliche.  He asked when it was published, and pointed out that it was possible A. B. Guthrie might have founded the entire Western genre that took off in the 1950’s.  I didn’t feel inspired enough to research it, but he might well be right.

In my opinion, the characters in this book were shallow, the racial stereotypes were thick and incredibly obnoxious, and all the plot devices were predictable.  I grew up in Oregon, and have ancestors who traveled there in covered wagons, but even that intrinsic interest wasn’t enough to make me like this book.  On the other hand, if you like Westerns and you can look past the flaws in political correctness of the early Pulitzers, you may like this book as much as everyone else seems to.

“Guard of Honor”

May 4, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Posted in Fiction, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

The Pulitzer winner for 1949, Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens deserves to be better known.  It’s a WWII story about an Air Force base in Florida, and it could be shelved between The Caine Mutiny and Catch-22.

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The story revolves around a racial incident.  The action covers a span of three days, and introduces a broad variety of characters working in different capacities on and near the base.  The first page or so is filled with intricate technical details, which I confess to find off-putting (especially in a 600+ page book like this), but the plot quickly took off and the pace didn’t stop.

The dialogue is sharp and witty, the central ethical dilemmas are compellingly nuanced, and the characters sometimes break into bawdy song.  What I found most interesting, though, was first that this book examined segregation in 1949, and second that Cozzens slyly made it apparent that the prevailing social attitude toward women was deserving of equal scrutiny.  (If this book had a sequel it could have been called Tailhook).

If you enjoy reading the Pulitzer winners but you want to focus on the best ones, add Guard of Honor to your list.

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