Thursday, February 25, 2021

Book 273: In Defense of Food



"What would happen if we were to start thinking about food as less of a thing and more of a relationship? In nature, that is of course precisely what eating has always been: relationships among species in systems we call food chains, or food webs, that reach all the way down to the soil. Species coevolve with other species that they eat, and very often there develops a relationship of interdependence:
I'll feed you if you spread around my genes."

Dates read: November 3-7, 2018

Rating: 5/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times Bestseller

Some of the weirder things about me are my food quirks. A dedicated lifelong picky eater, I have lots of what I refer to as my "weird food things". I don't like my food to touch. I have never liked milk in my cereal. I hate condiments of all kinds. Cilantro tastes like soap to me (this one is genetic). I've been a vegetarian since I was fifteen. As much as I know they're weird, I get touchy when people question them. The choices about what food to put inside your body are some of the most personal ones of all.

But also, the choices we make about food are influenced heavily by the processed food and nutrition industries. They're the ones who advertise our foods to us, who tell us what's "good for you". But what if those people are ignorant at best, or deceitful at worst? Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food examines the powers-that-be related to eating, and proposes his alternative to listening to the many voices who'd like to get our attention about what we're putting in our mouths. He sums up his philosophy right at the beginning of the book: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. He then proceeds to explain what exactly he means by each of those three tenets.

The bulk of the book is focused on the definition of "food". Pollan asserts that it's not what we might instinctively think, which would consist of pretty much everything we eat. Instead, Pollan rails against processed food, which he considers unworthy of even bearing the label. He also describes his issues with food science, which he criticizes as overly concerned with individual nutrients, too closely tied to the business of food, and for its history of inaccuracy. The latter two parts of his philosophy (not too much, mostly plants) are much more straightforward: we eat too much, both because our bodies do not recognize what we eat as actual food, and also because our rituals around eating have drastically changed. And plants are easily identifiable as real food, and very healthy for the body.

These are not bad ideas to keep in mind when thinking about one's own diet. More foods with little or no processing, more time and energy put into meals made of these "whole" foods, more fruits and vegetables. And there's no question that American diets are, as a whole, failing to keep Americans in good health. Obesity rates continue to rise, as do rates of diabetes and cancer. Clearly, something about the way we eat isn't working, and Pollan's suggestions make a lot of instinctive sense.

But I found this a troubling book in its own way, to be completely honest. Pollan gleefully dismisses science related to food and nutrition, leaving him free to assert whatever he wants without any pressure to support his positions, because after all, food science is bunk (he does use science to support some of his positions when he can find it, which is hypocritical). As science as a whole feels increasingly under threat, this is concerning to me. Also problematic is the amount of privilege reflected in Pollan's suggestions. The ability to access a place where fresh, whole food is sold, the ability to afford that same food, the ability to find the time to make that trip and spend that money, and then turn around and prepare the food, assumes a great deal about what people's lives look like. While he might tell readers to not eat anything that our grandmothers wouldn't recognize as food, I live a life that neither of my grandmothers would recognize as at familiar. So while the book did inspire me to think more critically about my own consumption patterns, I feel very comfortable in not taking it especially seriously. There are some decent ideas here, but I can't affirmatively recommend a book so dismissive of science.

One year ago, I was reading: Brother of the More Famous Jack

Two years ago, I was reading: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Three years ago, I was reading: Henry and Cato

Four years ago, I was reading: The Bear and the Nightingale

Five years ago, I was reading: The Guest Room

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Made Me Laugh Out Loud

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about funny books. I have kind of an odd sense of humor, and seldom actually giggle at what I read, but here are ten books that managed to at least get a wry smile out of me.


Bridget Jones's Diary: Still the funny book against which I measure all funny books even though I first read it as a literal teenager and don't really like chick lit. 

My Booky Wook: I still remember cackling like a crazy person to myself reading Russell Brand's memoir on an airplane.

Me Talk Pretty One Day: Honestly, same thing about giggling constantly on an airplane while reading this one!

Hyberbole and a Half: I loved Allie Brosh's blog, so between the old highlights and new favorites, this was a delight!

Angus, Thongs, And Full-Frontal Snogging: I love this whole series, but to be honest the last ones start to run out of steam a little. The first couple, though, particularly the very first, are truly hilarious. If you like Derry Girls-style "daft teenage girls" humor, you'll likely find these charming!

Good Omens: This end-of-the-world adventure has the wit that only the co-author team of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett could bring to it.

The Moonstone: This is actually a mystery, not a "humor" type book, but the section narrated by the officious Ms. Clack was so funny I actually laughed out loud while reading.

We Are Never Meeting In Real Life: I'm adding in some audiobooks because I really don't read very many funny books! This one is hysterical, and Samatha Irby is a great narrator of her own work.

Dear Girls: I love Ali Wong and even saw her live a few years ago (remember when we could go see shows?). Her book, structured as a series of stories dedicated to her daughters, isn't as funny as her stand-up but is still definitely amusing.

Believe Me: I'd been generally aware of Eddie Izzard, but had never seen her comedy. This is her memoir and she is both funny and moving.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Book 272: Seduction


"Howard Hughes was not the only mogul in Hollywood who profited off treating actresses as sex goddess flavors of the month, good for consumption in a brief window but disposable as soon as the next variety came along. As with so much in his career, Hughes did the same things that other men did—he just did them more crudely, and with even less of a regard for the person these actresses were before they came into his life, and what would become of them once he had moved on. And he always, eventually, moved on." 

Dates read: October 28- November 3, 2018

Rating: 9/10

If you're a girl, you've probably at some point considered whether you're a Marilyn or an Audrey. I was always a Marilyn myself...when you get bosoms early, you reconcile yourself to being a Marilyn. You lean in to "sultry", because that's the role everyone puts you in anyways. But I always admired the Audreys of the world, and of course Audrey herself. The elegance, grace, and reserve she projected onscreen seemed out of reach to me, and was something I wished I could be even though I knew full well I wasn't.

No matter who we are, female movie stars speak to us. They give us symbols to crush on, or idolize, or reject. For millionaire tycoon Howard Hughes, though, they were what he wanted to collect. Karina Longworth had put together several episodes of her excellent podcast, You Must Remember This, about women who'd been involved personally and/or professionally with Hughes, and compiled that information and more into Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes' Hollywood. For all that his public memory seems to be tied up with the Spruce Goose and being a famous recluse who at one point maybe wandered around the Nevada desert, he not only dated a string of Tinseltown's most famous women, but bought and ran a studio. He was a significant figure in the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Longworth mostly eschews the trappings of traditional biography, except for a relatively brief discussion of Hughes' early life. She's not trying to write that book. Instead, she's trying (and succeeds!) in writing a book that focuses on his connections to the movie industry and the actresses who populated it. From his romancing of silent star Billie Dove, to launching the career of Jean Harlow when he cast her to be "the girl" in the long-gestating aviation epic Hell's Angels, to a serious romance with Katharine Hepburn, to his discovery of Jane Russell and controversial ad campaign for The Outlaw, the movie he made with her, Hughes was deeply immersed in cinema and its world. Through the purchase of the studio RKO, he was also able to gain enormous amounts of control over young women who dreamed of being stars.

This control, that he was able to exert over his contracted actresses and that he attempted (and sometimes succeeded) to exercise over his movie-star girlfriends, tells us a lot about the person Howard Hughes was, how he saw himself, and how he saw women. This is what Longworth bases her narrative on. A clear pattern emerges, of the type of pretty, busty brunette he tended towards, of the Madonna/whore dichotomy in which he placed them, of the way he allowed many of them to disappear from view because he didn't have anything to give them but didn't want anyone else to have them. Hughes was not alone among studio runners in his neglect of contracted talent, or his attempts to run the lives of those women to a certain set of standards. That was par for the (gross) course for the time, but his was especially exacting and rigid. Things come to a close for Longworth's purposes not long after he divested himself of the studio and left California for Nevada, though his marriage to actress Jean Peters and continued obsession with film give some shading to that part of his life.

I found this a truly well-crafted, engaging work of non-fiction. Though my tolerance for "boring" history is substantial, I always appreciate a lively narrative that does more than recite a series of events, and Longworth accomplishes that here. Her background with podcasting does show itself a bit in the slightly episodic form of the book (which I didn't think detracted from it at all), but it also shows itself in her ability to think about the work as a storyteller with an audience to engage. She's very skilled at structuring her material to match a narrative arc, and despite being over 500 pages long it doesn't get dull or drag. Rather, it's a fascinating and sometime enraging portrait of a man with profound psychological demons who was able to mistreat women without consequences because of his wealth and position in the world. I really enjoyed reading this book and recommend it heartily to anyone who enjoys not just Old Hollywood, but the movies/celebrity culture in general...a lot of what we see today is different more in scale than substance.

One year ago, I was reading: The Holdout

Two years ago, I was reading: The Silkworm

Three years ago, I was reading: My Name Is Venus Black

Four years ago, I was reading: Nefertiti

Five years ago, I was reading: The Namesake

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Purple, Yellow, and Green Book Covers

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is Mardi Gras, which I got to experience in person when I was in law school and was very fun, so we're looking at books with covers on theme, in shades of purple, yellow, and green! 

 

The Yellow House

The Girl With All The Gifts

Hyperbole and a Half

How To Be Good

The Color Purple

Pride and Prejudice

Exit West

Boy, Snow, Bird

A Storm of Swords

Bringing Down The House

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Book 271: Bringing Down The House

 

"Contrary to what many novices believed, the goal of blackjack was not to get the best hand possible; it was to beat the dealer’s hand."

Dates read: October 25-28, 2018

Rating: 5/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times bestseller

Despite the fact that I've lived in Nevada since 2012, I can count on one hand the number of times I've gambled. Why? Well, I live here. I know how it works. Casinos aren't profitable because you make money. They're profitable because they make money. You may make money here or there, but on the aggregate, the house wins. That's how the system is designed to work.

But there are always people trying to find an edge, and sometimes they succeed (at least for a while). Ben Mezrich's Bringing Down the House tells the story of a group of people who did just that. Math nerds! In the 90s, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a professor developed a method for team-based blackjack play, and recruited students to take his style of card-counting to Las Vegas. Card counting technically isn't illegal, but casinos can and will boot players who engage in it from playing on their floors. So while the teams are winning big, they're ever-watchful for security and the consequences that might come.

Mezrich fictionalizes all of his characters, including the one through whom he tells the story, calling him Kevin Lewis. A senior on track to graduate with an engineering degree and a steady girlfriend, he's intrigued when two of his friends tell him about the blackjack team they're on and take him along for a weekend at the casinos with them. There's the glamour and flash, but there's also the appealing intellectual challenge of the whole thing. He gets drawn into their world, going through their recruiting process to officially join the team, becoming at first a supporting player and then a main figure on the team. He grows distant from his previous life, breaking up with his girlfriend and having less and less he can talk about with his family, just marking time back home between his trips to Las Vegas with his team.

But they've caught the eye of the powers that be, and they can feel the pressure ramping up. Asked to leave from more and more casino floors, they try disguises, have third parties like strippers cash out their chips once they've been busted and banned, and when even those measures fail, seek alternate gaming venues. Riverboats. Reservations. Even overseas, leading to an incident in which team members are roughed up by the locals. Trust fractures between the members, and eventually there's nowhere else to go.

This makes a solid airplane read (which is where I read most of it myself). Kevin is easy to like...he doesn't get in as deep as some of the other players, which makes him seem grounded and more identifiable. There's a kind of fantasy element to it, the idea that you could learn a straightforward (albeit difficult to master) skill that could make you enormous sums of money, have a regular life as a normal person but live it up in VIP style on the weekends. The tension keeps up nicely and the plot moves along quickly. The book doesn't ask you to do too much in the way of critical thinking.

And maybe it's hoping you won't, because it came out afterwards that many of the more salacious aspects of the book were completely made up. The dramatic try-out in an underground gaming parlor, the strippers cashing out chips, even the physical assault...members of the team on which the book is based have come forward to say those are all lies. Which undermines the impact of the book, and completely discredits Mezrich as an author. And on Mezrich's authoring, this book is no great shakes in terms of prose quality. Everyone besides Kevin comes across as a narrow stock character, and the whole thing is written in a "this happened, and then that happened, and then the next thing happened" way that doesn't allow the material (however exaggerated it might be) to really shine the way it could have. It's entertaining enough, if you take it with an enormous grain of salt. It's far from unmissable, though, and if you're not interested in reading the source material for the movie 21 or in stories about Las Vegas/gambling, it probably won't do much for you.

One year ago, I was reading: The Lives of Tudor Women

Two years ago, I was reading: Forest Dark

Three years ago, I was reading: Wonder Boys

Four years ago, I was reading: Zealot

Five years ago, I was reading: Ahab's Wife

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Romance Books On My TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is Valentine's Day, so here are ten books on my to-be-read list that are all about swoony feelings!



Outlander: I've never watched the show but have heard plenty about it and it sounds like it is VERY dramatic and I think I might like the books!

The Fault in our Stars: The teenage romance/weep-y that has gotten raves, I feel like I owe this book a shot at least even though it's outside my wheelhouse.

Doctor Zhivago: I've seen the movie version of this with Omar Sharif at peak handsomeness and the central romance is epic!

Corelli's Mandolin: I have NOT seen the movie version of this because I have a hard time buying Nicholas Cage as a romantic lead outside of Moonstruck, but I've heard good things about the source material.

Bet Me: An actual, proper romance novel! I do not read much in the way of romance, I must admit, but this was recommended on a list of starter romance novels.

The End of the Affair: As the title suggests, this book centers on an affair, but that's still a love-oriented plotline so I'm counting it.

The Royal We: This book by the authors of fashion blog Go Fug Yourself is very loosely based on Prince William and Kate Middleton's romance, except the lady is an American to boot! It's supposed to be silly and sweet and fun.

The Proposal: I've heard great things about Jasmine Guillory's works, and this one starts out with a situation that has always made me wonder...a (failed) proposal on the jumbotron!

Fangirl: My first Rainbow Rowell wasn't mind-blowing, but this story about a romance that brews between two college students (one of whom writes fan-fiction) is one of her best-reviewed!

The Hating Game: This romance got a lot of positive reviews around the book blogging community, so I'm going to try it out!

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Book 270: Detroit

 


"The city, what's left of it, burns night after night. Nature—in the form of pheasants, hawks, foxes, coyotes and wild dogs—had stepped in to fill the vacuum, reclaiming a little more of the landscape each day. The streets were empty and cratered. The skyscrapers were holograms. I stood and admired a cottonwood sapling growing out of the roof of the Lafayette Building. This was like living in Pompeii, except the people weren't covered in ash. We were alive."

Dates read: October 21-25, 2018

Rating: 6/10

I was born in Detroit. Not "Detroit", the way some people use it, to mean Royal Oak or Birmingham. But actual City of Detroit, in Harper Woods. My mom had lived there for her whole life, from the fifties when she was born until the late eighties when we left. When I was about three, we moved out to what had been her parents' summer lake house, about an hour away, and that's where I was raised. Though I barely lived there, and it was three decades ago now, I'll never stop rooting for my native city.

The City of Detroit's motto is "Speramus meliora; resurgent cineribus", which translates to "We hope for better things, it will rise from the ashes". Which sounds really on the nose for Detroit now, but actually dates back to 1805 and the aftermath of an actual fire. So how did a city once known for its prosperity and loveliness (called the "Paris of the West"!), turn into...well, Detroit as we know it? When reporter Charlie LeDuff returned to his hometown after spending more than a decade working at The New York Times, he started up at The Detroit News, and his attempts to answer that very question went into his book, Detroit: An American Autopsy.

Detroit is a mix of a little bit of several things: part history, part investigation of public corruption, part memoir. The issues of the city aren't just abstract facts to LeDuff...he grew up there, watched his mother struggle to maintain her business and raise her family as the crime rate spiked, and his own sister became addicted to drugs and died young, leaving behind a daughter who's on the same path. He traces the city's boom, and then the white flight that began when the Great Migration brought Southern black people to the industrial north, and then the increasingly shady operations of the City Council. LeDuff began his tenure at the News as Kwame Kilpatrick's reign as Mayor was in its death throes, his misconduct and that of other City electeds like Monica Conyers finally becoming so blatant it could no longer be swept under the rug.

In the strongest portions of the book, LeDuff takes one aspect of the very real consequences of municipal mismanagement, the woeful underfunding of the Fire Department, and uses it as a microcosm of the larger problem. He introduces the firefighters, constantly called out into a sprawling, arson-happy city with trucks and equipment well past expiration dates. But they keep on going anyways, out of love for each other and a sense of duty to the residents, even though the conditions they're put in mean they're at much higher risk of death and injury.

These firehouse sections are so strong, in fact, I found myself wishing they had been the whole book. LeDuff's an undeniably talented writer, but his lack of focus made it less compelling than it could have been. I found the memoir-esque portions least interesting, and while his look at the malfeasance at City Council did grab my attention, it wasn't nearly fleshed out enough to paint a full picture. LeDuff's connection with the firefighters and sympathy for their Sisyphean task is obvious, and the work just comes alive when he's spending time with them. As it is, the book tries to do a little too much, and sacrificing its ability to do any of it to a level of true excellence. It's good, and if you're into reading about Detroit, it's well-worth your time, but if you don't have an underlying interest in the city, it might not be for you.

One year ago, I was reading: Whores of the Devil

Two years ago, I was reading: The Mind's Eye

Three years ago, I was reading: Thank You For Smoking

Four years ago, I was reading: Orange Is the New Black

Five years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology