Thursday, January 7, 2010

Food Rules by Michael Pollan

In The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan gave us all the reasons we need to eat better and why our food system isn't as healthy as we think it is. In Food Rules, he takes his stripped-down advice, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants," and gives us some more tools to undo the ills of the Western diet on a personal level. Most of the rules are aimed at putting the ritual back into eating, as Pollan argues that we've stopped respecting all the ways the food is more than fuel to us: it binds us as a culture, allows us to socialize, and regulates our days, among other things.

The rules in this book, many of which are repetitive since they all boil down to the same idea of eating whole foods and taking time to prepare meals yourself rather than eating fast, processed foods, came mostly from New York Times readers whom Pollan solicited through Tara Parker-Pope's Wellness blog. They represent a wide range of cultures and generations, all of whom have successfully dealt with the questions of what to eat and how. Pollan breaks the book into three sections: the first is designed to help readers chose whole foods over highly processed ones, the second offers guidance on which of those whole food you should eat, once you've narrowed it down, and the third and final section is about building a practice around eating that will help you eat less and, according to Pollan, enjoy it more.

I've adopted some of these rules for myself, like "Eat your colors," "Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce," "Eat when you are hungry, not when you are bored," "The banquet is in the first bite," and "Spend as much time enjoying the meal as it took to prepare it." I'm sure you will find something in here that speaks to your own habits, too.

Pollan, Michael. Food Rules. New York: Penguin, 2009. 140 pp.

My Horizontal Life by Chelsea Handler

I don't watch much television, but I will admit that if I can't sleep, there is a remote next to me, and no one else is around to act as witness, I will flip to Comedy Central in search of Chelsea Lately and a dose of Handler's caustic wit.

I'm generally a tough crowd when it comes to comedy writing, but I found myself having to read passages of My Horizontal Life out loud to others. And if no one else was around I'd have to tell the cat about them. And if she wasn't around, I'd just have to read them aloud to myself to believe they were really there on the page.

I suppose Handler's writing is not funny -- she makes the same Michael Bolton joke at least twice and most of her others, like a "short bus" reference, are old and tired -- so much as it is outrageous. As much as we'd all love to believe we are above such things, I don't think any of us could pass up the chance to read about a woman who goes to a party and takes home the midget wearing the sombrero full of chips and dip, then has to explain his naked presence to her Mormon sister the next morning. And who but Handler would end up naked from the waist down, in an M&M costume from the waist up, hanging with her legs out her kitchen window in front of her ex-boyfriend/landlord?

I won't give any more of My Horizontal Life away, except to say that it is Sex and the City with more booze, drugs, and weight obsession, and without the supportive female relationships. But Handler is funny to read, as long as you don't have to share a toilet seat with her.

Handler, Chelsea. My Horizontal Life. New York: Bloomsbury, 2005. 213 pp.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Essential Feminist Reader, Edited by Estelle B. Freedman

To be a feminist is to integrate an ideology of equality and female empowerment into the very fiber of my life. It is to search for personal clarity in the midst of systematic destruction, to join in sisterhood with women when often we are divided, to understand power structures with the intention of challenging them. (Rebecca Walker "Becoming the Third Wave")

Right on, sister!

The Essential Feminist Reader, edited by Estelle B. Freedman, co-founder of the Program in Feminist Studies at Stanford University, is the most comprehensive collection of feminist writings I've ever come across. Freedman's gleanings span continents and centuries, including obscure writers like the Swedish Alva Myrdal alongside big names like Susan B. Anthony, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lord, and Betty Friedan. I came across old favorites, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892), and discovered new ones, like W.E.B. DuBois' "The Damnation of Women" (1919).

But perhaps a more appropriate title for this anthology would indicate its emphasis on feminism and race. Freedman includes many sources that show the intersection between sexual and racial issues. Almost all of the writers she puts forth for us here us the language of slavery, both literal and figurative, to articulate the oppression of women. For most of history, that has been the case, but to focus entirely on race, as Freedman nearly does, ignores other important areas of feminism. She does address the issue of the female body as an area of both oppression and empowerment with excerpts from Our Bodies, Ourselves (1973) and Margaret Sanger's Woman and the New Race (1920), but there is only one passage concerning the environmental movement in the entire book: Native American environmentalist Winona LaDuke's speech to the United Nation's Fourth World Conference on Women, entitled, "The Indigenous Women's Network: Our Future, Our Responsibility" (1995), in which she drew connections between man's oppression of women and his exploitation of natural resources. Where is Françoise d'Eaubonne or any of the other ecofeminists who, like LaDuke, saw parallels between the domination and subjection of both women and "Mother Nature" through the construction of ideological hierarchies? This is a whole swathe of feminist literature that Freedman omits.

But she does include the "Riot Grrrl Manifesto" and Guerrilla Girls posters, in addition to so many incredible essays that I would never have come across otherwise. Maybe Freedman's feminist reader is unbalanced in its emphasis on race, but it is nonetheless essential.

Freedman, Estelle B., ed. The Essential Feminist Reader. New York: The Modern Library, 2007. 430 pp.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Breath by Tim Winton

Have you ever held your breath under water and felt that rush of adrenaline when you finally come up for air? It's a heady, euphoric feeling, like a hit of a drug, and just as addictive. For Bruce Pike, "Pikelet," and his friend Loonie, life is all about that feeling.

Pikelet and Loonie grow up in Sawyer, near Perth in Western Australia in the early 1970s. They meet when Loonie pulls a prank on some local tourists, swimming to the bottom of the local river and holding his breath for over two minutes until they believe he's drowning. From that point on, the boys goad each other towards greater and greater tests of their limits, in a constant "rebellion against the monotony of drawing breath." Eventually, of course, they'll push each other, and themselves, too far.

Winton's style is spare and captures the character's sense of estrangement from each other and themselves. But it is somewhat infuriating to read for its lack of quotation marks. There absence is curious as unnecessary, as far as I can tell.

Aside from that pet peeve, though, it's a compelling novel about the drive to constantly push one's own boundaries and the humbling realization that one can only do so to a point.

Winton, Tim. Breath. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. 218 pp.

All Families Are Psychotic by Douglas Coupland

If, according to Tolstoy, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," where does that leave the families that are not so much unhappy as just, well, psychotic?

Depending on your threshold for absurdity, and your willingness to suspend disbelief, the first chapter of Douglas Coupland's novel, All Families Are Psychotic, will either turn you off completely or have you settling into your chair for a good, long read. Coupland immediately assaults us with the gory details: an old lady pops pills in a seedy hotel room where the tap water may or may not be laced with crack; a one-handed female astronaut rises above her thalidomide-tainted origins to soar into space; a con man swears to toe the line for his new, Bible-reading wife and Baby.

It's only in subsequent chapters that Coupland adds flesh to these characters, the Drummond family, and shows us their relation to one another. We begin near Cape Canaveral at daughter Sarah's imminent launching into outer space, an event that doubles as a family reunion. Sarah, despite being a thalidomide baby without a hand, seems to have escaped the demons that haunt her two brothers, Wade and Bryan; she is the family's star, and the cool orderliness that surrounds her in the NASA environs contrasts sharply against the rest of the Drummond family's erratic behavior.

Wade, the oldest, is an ex-con man who has recently reformed because of an HIV diagnosis and the afore-mentioned wife and baby. Bryan, the younger son, is a suicidal sissy who Coupland keeps in perpetual fits of blubbering self-pity. Bryan's girlfriend, Shw (yes, Shw), bullies him and is about to sell their unborn baby.

Now here's the real kicker: Ted, the father, is a bankrupted womanizer who left his wife, Janet, and then accidentally shot her. But it's okay: he didn't really mean to shoot her. He was aiming for Wade instead. And that was only because Wade had slept with his second wife, Nickie.

Wade intercepted the bullet that hit Janet, transmitting his HIV to her. And, of course, he'd already given it to Nickie. And Ted has terminal liver cancer. This is a sick family in more ways than one.

What are we to learn from this harrowing and extremely complicated tale? Coupland isn't clear. He's really too busy keep all his plot details straight, after all. But the tenderness which Coupland shows Janet, who learns to embrace life after realizing its fragility, indicates that maybe we, too, should relax a little. All families are psychotic, after all, so instead of trying to fix our own, we should just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Coupland, Douglas. All Families Are Psychotic. New York: Bloomsbury, 2001. 279 pp.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

Ren, the young protagonist of Hannah Tinti's darkly wonderful novel, The Good Thief, begins his tale with only pieces of a life. He finds himself at a Catholic orphanage and does not know how he came to be there. He is missing a hand and does not know why. He holds on to the scraps of cloth where he mother sewed his name into a nightshirt that is now threadbare, hoping that they will give him some clue to his true identity.

Life is bleak but uneventful for Ren until a mysterious stranger named Benjamin Nab comes to claim Ren as his brother. Surprise! It's a lie; it's not his first and certainly won't be his last. Ren and Nab join Nab's friend Tom in North Umbrage -- a town as ghastly as its name -- to unearth dead bodies for loot, except some of the bodies aren't totally dead.

Tinti has been compared to both Dickens and Rowling, but she has something unique to offer readers. While the plot is reminiscent of Oliver Twist, Tinti's prose style has none of Dickens' humor. She is steady and authoritative, and makes the odd and extraordinary seem perfectly regular. By doing so, she allows us to see with the child's eyes of her protagonist. There is authority, there are absolutes, but when evil appears -- when, for instance, a dead body rises from a wagonload of corpses -- we realize how fragile that authority is.

Tinti, Hannah. The Good Thief. New York: Random House, 2008. 325 pp.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Robinson's latest shows a confidence and graceful restraint that are now rare. In the days of blogs and Twitter, when the pressure is on authors to produce quickly rather than well, Robinson has set herself apart from the crowd by taking the time -- 20 years since the publication of her last celebrated novel, Housekeeping -- to produce not just a book, but a masterpiece.

She takes on the most challenging form of novel-writing available to her: the diary. The narrator of Gilead is a 76 year-old pastor named John Ames in the small town of Gilead, Iowa in 1956. Told that he has angina pectoris and believing that he faces imminent death, Ames writes a long letter to his seven year-old son from a recent marriage to much younger woman. Gilead is that letter, but it reads more like a diary, discursive and ruminant. Ames' stated purpose in writing is to tell his son everything he would have done had he lived longer, but one understands that it is really a way for him to reflect on his life and satisfy himself that he has lived it well before dying.

The danger of the diary form is that it is static. All the elements that can support a mediocre novel -- dramatic subplots, minor characters, dramatic irony -- are absent from the limited first person point of view of a diary. We have only Ames' voice to entertain us and to give substance to our reading experience. But Robinson has such a facility with prose that Gilead is not tiresome or monotonous, but rather spare and elegant. She is able to accomplish much with this limited form.

Another challenge Robinson meets with aplomb is that of writing a clergyman as her protagonist. There is always the danger that we will assume his convictions are hers, or that she is evangelizing through fiction. Robinson does not shy away from her religious beliefs. I have not read her book of essays, The Death of Adam (1998), but I imagine there must be a good deal of overlap with Gilead, in which Ames sees no clear distinction between his religious life and the rest of it. But he is not dogmatic, never preachy. Rather, Robinson shows us a man still searching, on his death bed, for the right answers, and never quite sure he has them. It is a beautiful reminder of the fragility of all things.

You may not agree with Robinson's religious viewpoint, and you may not like the format she has chosen for this novel, but you won't be able to deny its quiet grace and heart.

Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004. 247 pp.