Thursday, June 26, 2014

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, Michael Pollan

In Defense of Food: An Eater's ManifestoEat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.

The Omnivore's Dilemma revealed the dark underbelly of our modern food industry and discussed the ethics of it all; In Defense of Food talks specifically about the rise of "nutritionism", nutrition, and also how to start eating well and healthy again. The book was interesting enough, but a lot of it was old news to me, and it wasn't as thought out or as in depth as The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Still, the book was absorbing enough; I finished it fairly quickly, and parts of it were new to me. It was somewhat disheartening too; it's very difficult to find good sauces and such that do not contain hundreds of unpronounceable names (and usually high fructose corn syrup). They're all so terrible...

Pollan also discusses in depth the lipid phobia that seized the country in the second half of the 20th century. It's always a mistake to demonize one macronutrient and glorify another; on a low-fat diet, Americans have gotten fatter. Of course, I already knew much of this, but what was interesting to me was that the evidence that saturated fat actually increase chances of heart disease is quite sketchy. After all, it could be that diets high in saturated fat don't have as many vegetables and fruits, and that nutrients there keep the heart healthy. Or it could be due to entirely other factors.

Something that was fairly new to me was the whole general concept of "nutritionism": focusing on nutrients rather than food. Because frankly, there are so many factors to nutrition that it's nearly impossible to just break it down to nutrients and vitamins and minerals; there might be something else we're entirely overlooking. Pollan talks about the shift from talking about food to talking about nutrients in government policy; you see, food has lobbies and powerful interests. Nutrients do not. This was an area I didn't know much about, and was probably the most interesting part of the book. As was the history of flawed studies and misinformation that has plagued government healthy policy.

The thing was, Pollan spends all this time talking about how little is known about what's good and bad for you, and how it's a mistake to look too much at nutrients, but then he does pretty much the same thing in the second part of the book, praising omega-3's benefits and so on. Now I'm sure it's true that omega-3 fatty acids are needed (it's just common sense), but it seemed rather hypocritical to me. He does acknowledge that he's doing what he just criticized, but I still found it annoying.

At any rate, The Omnivore's Dilemma is the much better, more sophisticated and thoughtful book, but In Defense of Food was a quick overview of the history of modern nutrition, our current issues, and what to do about them.

201 pages.

Rating: ****

Greenglass House, Kate Milford

There is a right way to do things and a wrong way, if you're going to run a hotel in a smugglers' town. 

"A rambling old inn, a strange map, an attic packed with treasures, squabbling guests, theft, friendship, and an unusual haunting mark this smart middle grade mystery in the tradition of the Mysterious Benedict Society books and Blue Balliet’s Chasing Vermeer series."

Greenglass House was a quirky and rather amusing middle grade mystery; it was a light read that definitely hit the spot. Although it started better than it finished, I ultimately enjoyed it. The Boneshaker is a much better book though. 

The main character of Greenglass House is a Milo, a boy of about twelve who lives in a beautiful old house at the top of a hill, and not just any house. It's a smuggler's inn, and was originally owned by the famous smuggler of all. One December, normally a quiet season, a group of varied guests converges on the house, each with their own mysterious reasons for being there. Milo and Meddy, the cook's daughter (or so he believes) must figure out what exactly is going on, and whether anyone's there for nefarious purposes (hint: they are).  

Many of the characters are developed quite well, but really the only thing described is the purpose of their traveling to Greenglass House. A lot about each guest's backstory was left untold. The omission of one character's development also made it pretty obvious who the bad guy was as well. Nevertheless, I think younger readers will be engaged by the book, and I was certainly charmed, especially by the whole motif of storytelling woven throughout the book. 

One of my complaints in recent times with middle grade fiction is that everything feels forced and simplistic. By contrast, Greenglass House flowed quite smoothly, and if some elements of the mystery weren't tied together enough, it still made for an exciting read. It's also pretty much one of those smart middle grade books, featuring an intelligent protagonist and an interesting plot. 

The book's tone is really charming and old time; the setting and the some elements of the plot are quite quaint. It's also set right before Christmastime and to me it seemed as if the warmth of the holidays came across well on the page. At first, Milo is annoyed that his holiday has been disrupted, but he gradually starts to enjoy himself and realizes that in the end he's gotten a lot more than just physical gifts from the season. All of this makes the book's August 2014 release rather puzzling; to me, Greenglass House is best read around Christmas (if, unlike me, you celebrate it), and certainly as a warming winter read. The book's just really...cozy. And yet somewhat thrilling at the same time.

The Boneshaker remains my favorite middle grade novel by Kate Milford, but Greenglass House has some of the familiar quirkiness and eccentricity of all of her books. It was just as good as The Broken Lands, if not a little better. I wasn't wild about it,, but Greenglass House is a fun one. I received an ARC of the book from Harcourt; it doesn't release until August. 

373 pages (in the ARC). 

Rating: ****

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four MealsWhat should we have for dinner? This book is a long and fairly involved answer to this seemingly simple question.

"Today, buffeted by one food fad after another, America is suffering from what can only be described as a national eating disorder. Will it be fast food tonight, or something organic? Or perhaps something we grew ourselves? The question of what to have for dinner has confronted us since man discovered fire. But as Michael Pollan explains in this revolutionary book, how we answer it now, as the dawn of the twenty-first century, may determine our survival as a species. Packed with profound surprises, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is changing the way Americans thing about the politics, perils, and pleasures of eating."

The Omnivore's Dilemma is a fascinating and disturbing look at the state of the modern food industry, and at the alternatives that exist. Pollan chronicles the rise of monoculture farming and the advent of corn as the base of industrial agriculture. He visits many places that are a part of this system and some places that are defying it. What he comes back with is a very sobering portrait, yet there is some hope too. 

Before reading this book, I'd seen "Food, Inc." and read about the topic in some other sources, but I still learned a great deal in The Omnivore's Dilemma. It provides a lot more information in certain areas than the film; Pollan actually explains a whole lot in a clear, concise, and fascinating way. He starts off discussing corn, and how a combination of lack of forethought, industrial muscle, and the need to feed everyone made farms in places like Iowa shift from growing many fruits and vegetables to growing one (or in some cases, two). It's quite frightening, particularly when most of the corn isn't actually going towards human consumption. Instead, it's fed to cows living in miserable conditions, where it wreaks havoc on their digestive systems. Cows are not meant to eat corn; for thousands of years they have co-evolved with grass, so that the two organisms both benefit from the transaction. Corn causes all sorts of harmful bacteria to develop in the cow's rumen. The industrial giants' solution? Give the cattle antibiotics, which due to their power and influence are not forbidden. You don't even want to know what else goes into the cow's diet; sometimes they're fed recycled beef tallow from the slaughtering plant, and all sorts of other unhealthy supplements are put into their feed to help them bulk up and not be too sick. When in reality grass is all they really need to eat, and they'll be healthy (and healthier for us too). It's ridiculous really, when you think about all the energy and manpower that's put into growing miles and miles of corn, and all the calories that are lost, when grass presumably doesn't take much energy on our part at all (although it does take a lot of calculation). Of course, there are counterarguments; corn certainly is cheaper and easier to feed to cows than grass, and there are a lot of people who need feeding.

Similarly, many would say that grass-fed cows are unsustainable, which might be the case, but why would that really be? Grass and cows sustain each other in a relationship that goes back thousands and thousands of years, and the cows and the grass both are much healthier for it. We don't need to use manpower, fuel energy, or any of it to grow feed for the cows. I'm sure this is much simplified, but Pollan definitely makes a convincing case for a return to agricultural practices before the mid 20th century. He also spends a week living and working at Polyface Farms in Virginia, where the animals (cows, chickens, pigs, rabbits) eat what they're supposed to and lead relatively happy lives before the inevitably unhappy slaughter. I found this section quite interesting; while he kind of slips into idealizing this kind of farming, it's never completely so. After all, the chickens are still slaughtered, but before that everything is managed superbly, so that what would be waste is instead used to fuel the production of more grass or more resources. It's quite amazing, really, how the farmer, Joel Salatin takes advantage of the land and the animals. He's portrayed as a decent fellow, although something of a libertarian. But who can blame him? When it comes to food production, the government is under the thumb of the industry.

Between the hellish feedlots and the idyllic Polyface Farm is the organic industry, which seems like it should be an oxymoron but isn't. Pollan also explores a new phenomenon, the "organic TV dinner", which is just ridiculous. This part of the system was the one I knew least about; it's not really covered in Food Inc, though both Polyface and the bottom barrel are. The fact is, organic companies don't actually care about the organic ideal or about treating animals better; they're just trying to exploit the current interest in organic food. Whole Foods is critiqued: "Lining the walls above the sumptuously stocked produce section in my Whole Foods are full-color photographs of local organic farmers accompanied by text blocks setting forth their farming philosophies. A handful of these farms...still sell their produce to Whole Foods, but most are long gone from the produce bins, if not yet the walls." It's also revealed that just because beef is organic doesn't mean the cows ate grass; instead they receive (organic) feed. And organic chicken does not mean free range; it just means that they must have "access to the outdoors" (an utterly meaningless phrase) at some point in their lives, usually the last two weeks before slaughter, by which time they're used to being inside and have no desire to venture into the little grass lot they're provided with.

Pollan also forages his very own meal...this section was more light-hearted and very fun; I had a relating moment when he talks about chanterelle foraging (the one mushroom I can identify), and I enjoyed his description of the agonies of abalone gathering and the trials of hunting. The meal he makes sounds mouthwatering. 

One criticism that I have of the book in general is that it's definitely directly focused on affluent people, people who can afford to buy high quality meat and produce and not processed foods. That's another tragedy, that the foods that are so terrible for us are so much cheaper. But I suppose this is another issue; The Omnivore's Dilemma basically looks at the ethics of it all, and the industry behind it. I'm currently reading his book In Defense of Food, which more discusses what exactly we should eat.

The Omnivore's Dilemma is an engrossing look at the dark side of the modern food industry and the problems that bedevil it, with no clear solution in sight. However, at least these days there are alternatives. The writing here is really accessible; the book isn't too difficult to understand, yet Pollan writes complexly about complex issues. I raced through the book; despite its length and weighty subject matter, it's really compelling, and I learned so much.

411 pages.

Rating: *****

Saturday, June 7, 2014

An Edible History of Humanity, Tom Standage

An Edible History of HumanityWhat embodies the bounty of nature better than an ear of corn? With a twist of the wrist it is easily plucked from the stalk with no waste or fuss.

"More than simply sustenance, food historically has been a kind of technology, changing the course of human progress by helping to build empires, promote industrialization, and decide the outcomes of wars. Tom Standage draws on archaeology, anthropology, and economics to reveal how food has helped shape and transform societies around the world, from the emergence of farming in China by 7500 b.c. to the use of sugar cane and corn to make ethanol today."

An Edible History of Humanity started off slowly and densely, but as it progressed it got better and more interesting. Each chapter was better than the last. I certainly learned a lot from the book; it also discussed concepts I was somewhat familiar with already. 

An Edible History of Humanity is less than 300 pages, so obviously Standage skips a lot, but overall I felt that the history was fairly comprehensive, beginning with prehistory and then recounting how we gradually shifted from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agrarian lifestyle, and outlining some theories as to why this happened. Standage writes about societies from all over the world to back up his arguments and his facts.

I was actually quite impressed by this book in general, although in some of the later sections I didn't necessarily agree with his arguments about the fate of the modern world. However, throughout the book he cleverly builds a case for his final point: that our world is not as doomed as one might think. He points out that many predicted the downfall of society in the 19th century when population exploded, forecasting that agricultural output would not be able to sustain humanity. However, with the development of new techniques and fertilizers we far surpassed the output of centuries past. It's always true that it's in part because of these very developments that our planet is now in jeopardy and our populations are expanding more than ever. So I wasn't entirely convinced; also Standage's point of view doesn't exactly square with what I see around me. Nevertheless, this facet of the book was quite provocative.

I also enjoyed the historical aspect of the book; Standage very convincingly reveals the way that food has affected many parts of human development and civilization. After all, food is what literally powers us, and the development of various food technologies (farming, cooking, etc.) has had huge ramifications for us in the present. If the ancestor of corn hadn't developed a mutation making it more palatable, who knows how the world would be different? The industrial world as we know it wouldn't even exist. Similarly, the shift from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to domestication was very important. And a little further on, food has helped us develop lots of new technologies, and food has driven the creation of new technologies. Food has also been the symbol of various issues; after all, all human beings need to eat.

There are many instances of human cruelty and folly in this book, but you've got expect that. We've done a lot of terrible things, but some good ones too. An Edible History of Humanity was an excellent and concise history of these follies and successes.

242 pages.

Rating: ****

Friday, June 6, 2014

Bookish Wear & Wares from Out of Print


Browsing on the web one day, I discovered an intriguing site: Out of Print Clothing. They sell not only bookish related clothing but also other products such as pouches, journals, bags, jewelry, and more. I saw many lovely products, so imagine my delight when Out of Print agreed to send some samples! I requested three items: a Library stamp t-shirt, a Master and Margarita t-shirt, and their Pride and Prejudice tote bag. I'm delighted to say that I was overall quite satisfied with each one.
Womens_TS_Library-Stamp

The t-shirt that initially attracted my eye was the distinctive library stamp t-shirt; I thought it was a lovely concept. Although apprehensive that the shirt would be too small, it was actually just right, if somewhat tight. So if looking for a very loose fitting shirt, definitely size up. For me it was fine though. One drawback to this particular one is the sheer lowness of the v-neck, but other than that, I really have no criticisms. It's a great idea, and has been executed extremely well. I love the soft gray color too, and the choice of year for the dates....

Although a Great Gatsby t-shirt also looked nice, I'm pretty sure they're more common, and how often does one see this? :

The Master and Margarita women's shirtThe Master and Margarita is such a zany, insane book, and although I could have done with less text and more image, this shirt does do it justice. The small fit much the same as the library t-shirt; the neck, however, is much demure, which given the book's nature isn't exactly apt. Still, the neck is much better. In general though I prefer the library shirt's overall design and image, but this one is also satisfying and comfortable. The cat is quite crazy looking.

The Pride and Prejudice bag was perhaps the most refined; I absolutely loved the peacock design, from an old and very famous edition of the book. The lettering is gorgeous and I love how the feathers splay out over the top of it. My only complaint was that it is a bit small, not quite a good size for holding many books. The straps are a bit small too; to me it felt more purse like in terms of straps. Still an amazing product overall.

You can order these three here, here, and here; I'd highly recommend checking out Out of Print. And it's all for a good cause; books are donated for every item purchased.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

While Beauty Slept, Elizabeth Blackwell

While Beauty SleptShe has already become a legend. The beautiful, headstrong girl I knew is gone forever, her life transformed into myth.

"A beautiful princess lies in a sleep so deep it is close to death. Was Sleeping Beauty revived by a prince's kiss? What really happened in that tower so long ago? While Beauty Slept re-imagines the legend through the lens of historical fiction, telling the story as if it really happened. A Gothic tale of suspense and ambition, love and loss, it interweaves the story of a royal family and the servants who see behind the glamorous facade, following the journey of a young woman as she lives out a destiny that leads her to the brink of death."

While Beauty Slept was quite enthralling in many respects, and I read large chunks of it in short amounts of time. It got less good as it progressed, but I definitely enjoyed it, and I loved some aspects of it. 

Retellings of fairy tales have always appealed to me; now they've become sort of a cliche themselves, with people telling them darker or telling the other side of the story. Increasingly it's a struggle for writers to come up with new angles, but although While Beauty Slept borrowed many elements from previous retellings it also came up with some new twists and turns, and a fully fleshed out main character who is not in the original tale. Her name is Elise. She is a country girl who through a stroke of luck both good and bad rises to become the queen's personal attendant, and she is a forgotten witness to all of the events which have since become so muddled.

The book opens with Elise beginning to tell her great-granddaughter Raimy the truth of what really happened in the castle. From there, we enter a world of the wealthy and the poor; the good, the evil, and the in-between. Thinking back on it, the fantasy world this book is set in isn't very compelling or well developed, but that didn't bother me. There's also no outright magic, although there are hints of occult practices, blasphemous to the Christian inhabitants of the realm. I liked this; it made the story more grounded in reality, as if it might have actually happened at some point in medieval times. There are no fairies, there is no enchanted sleep, but the book still closely parallels the Sleeping Beauty myth - up to a certain point. The ending is a sudden twist I wasn't expecting at all, but it was quite fitting given how Rose was developed. 

The only thing I didn't enjoy about this novel was Elise's own story, specifically her romantic life. A lot of it didn't make sense, and I would have preferred it left out. Both of her romances weren't developed well; both were sudden and random, and it's because of this that I didn't absolutely love the book. Also, it was too graphic, not fitting the rest of the story. I could have done without this, or with a better developed, more convincing portrayal.

A lot of this book was actually quite thinly developed, but it fit with the fairy tale original, and certainly a lot more of the characters' lives were shown. And Millicent, the villain of the title, is shown as a complicated woman, perhaps the most developed character in the novel; she could have been great, but because she was denied this she became bitter and full of hate. She is the greatest tragedy of the tale.  

I enjoyed the writing; it's in a somewhat older style, but still really readable and absorbing. Since Elise is recounting the events many years later, there's lots of foreboding along the lines of "If only I had known this" or "Had I known this" or "This could have been prevented if". This can get a bit annoying, but it also has the intended effect of making one keep reading. 

Overall, While Beauty Slept was a well written and compelling fantasy novel, and I await Blackwell's next work, although whether I read it depends on what it's about. I received a review copy of While Beauty Slept from Putnam Books.

421 pages. 

Rating: ****

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Illustrated Man, Ray Bradbury

The Illustrated ManIt was a warm afternoon in early September when I first met the Illustrated Man. 

"In these eighteen startling visions of humankind’s destiny, unfolding across a canvas of decorated skin, living cities take their vengeance, technology awakens the most primal natural instincts, and dreams are carried aloft in junkyard rockets."

I've had a copy of The Illustrated Man for practically forever, and as soon as I opened the book I was sorry that I had let it languish for so long on my shelves. Because these stories are good. As the book progressed, they did start to blur together, but perhaps that's fitting given their medium. And anyway, the vast majority of these stories wowed me. Some of them are quite frightening. 

The book begins with the narrator encountering the Illustrated Man, a man completely covered in tattoos, who tells the story of how he got them (and how he curses them now). When night falls, the beautiful images on his body begin to move, and stories unfold...

The first story, "The Veldt", is perhaps one of the most disturbing in the whole collection. It tells of a world where even the simplest tasks are accomplished by machines: there's a toastmaking machine, and a shoetying machine, and a painting pictures machine. And there are nurseries which can be set to different backgrounds, moving wallpapers, if you will. They're supposed to be just images, and you're supposed to change them frequently, but one family's children have an obsession with the African savanna (or veldt). As you might imagine, things do not end well.

There are eighteen stories, and about half of them really stuck with me as being quite good. I'm only going to talk about them. The others were fine too, but just not as compelling. Bradbury really excels at his depictions of nightmarish futuristic worlds, nightmarish because they seem so plausible. Like Neil Gaiman, he's also a master at turning situations upside down, reversing them from what they normally are. Such is the case in the third story, "The Other Foot", in which African Americans fled white oppression and built their own colony on Mars. Then one day a rocket with a white man arrives...what follows is a fascinating and wry exploration of whether two wrongs make a right. I'd heard of this story before, and it was quite good.

"The Man" and "The Long Rain" are both about Earthmen's planetary explorations, although in different ways. "The Man" explores the jaded disbelief of the modern man, who must have facts, facts, and more facts. "The Long Rain" resonated with me given where I live; in it, Venus is a place where it perennially rains, and there's no escaping it, unless you get to one of the fabled Sun Domes. Otherwise, you'll die. It was such a chilling story, yet so good.

I also enjoyed "The Rocket Man", "The Last Night of the World", and while I didn't like "The Exiles" very much, there were definitely shades of F-451 in it; the story deals with the burning and banishing of subversive books and authors.

"The Fox and the Forest" was very frightening but masterfully crafted; so was "The Visitor", which showcased the ugliness of human nature and how in fighting over something precious we ruin it for everyone. "The Concrete Mixer" was also uncanny, as was "Marionettes, Inc."."The City" may be one of the scariest in the whole book; it's about a metropolis with a life of its own and a desire for vengeance. Overall I enjoyed this book; some of the stories I'm sure I'll treasure, and the overall conceit is a good one.

281 pages.

Rating: ****