Friday, April 25, 2008

Number 12 is In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan. Awhile ago, I saw Pollan being interviewed on George Stombopolous' The Hour, and I was immediately struck by his manifesto, "Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants." It was a deceivingly simple manifesto, one that makes complete sense, and really, shouldn't have to pointed out to you. But in this day and age, the age of 'nutritionism' (a term that Pollan makes use of again and again) and the complete, industrialization and productization of our food, it is harder and harder to eat 'food', that is, non-packaged, non-synthetic, non-monkeyed with food.

Pollan looks closely at the decline of the Western Diet, and how our scientific approach to it, to the identification of nutrients and our idea that our diets should do without some things (such as fats), has made North Americans very nearly the most unhealthy eaters on the planet. He shows that in trying to analyze food, and in trying to replicate and replace in our diet what our industrialization of our diet has taken out has made us overweight and undernourished. He shows that food companies don't make any money off of whole foods (the kind we should be eating), but have gone through great lengths to prove to us that eating their products will make us healthier. With type-2 diabetes, heart disease and other aliments of the Western Diet running rampant in our population, its obvious that something isn't working and that we are not eating properly.

Its a scary book in some ways, as you realize just how far reaching the industrialization of our diet has gone; even if we do strive to stick to the outer rim in a supermarket (as Pollan says, this is where you will find food, going into the aisles of a grocery store will lead you into non-food territory), even that food is no longer the food our grandmother's or great-grandmothers ate. There are less nutrients in most of the produce and meat we eat today as the produce are bred for their greater yeild, not their nutritional value, and cattle and other animals are mass-raised on poorer corn-based feed, meaning that they're not as healthy as they used to be either. Pollan points out that it will now take eating three apples to gain the iron content of just one apple from our great-grandmothers' era. Scary indeed.

Pollan advocates getting out of the supermarket altogether. He recognizes that this is easier said than done, but also points out, that for the first time since the heavy duty industrialization of our diet became commonplace, that we have more choices. Farmers' markets and ordering boxes of fresh produce to be delivered are excellent ways to ensure that your food is real, is more diverse and is local. All three of which are important. He's also a huge advocate of growing your own, and I can completely understand why.

This book makes you examine your own diet very closely. My husband and I are compulsive label readers. Anything with even a trace of trans fats in it is ignored. We have, for quite awhile now, avoided the aisles of the supermarket. Of course, being the cereal hounds we are though, we cannot completely avoid it, but we're down to buying cereals with less than five ingrediants on the list. With things like Cheerios, Shredded Wheat and even Mini-Wheats, we're doing ok on the cereal front. But other than that, we're pretty good. Oh, we all still have our weaknesses, G's never going to be able to completely give up chips and I'm never going to completely kick my Coke habit, but I've also got him eating way more fruit and veggies than he used to, and he's got me more interested in cooking than I ever was in the past. Pollan also stresses that cooking for yourself, from scratch, gives you nearly omniscient control of what you're eating. You're not adding trans fats or monsaturatedglucose whathave you to your meal (unless you're starting with something pre-packaged, and well, that's not cooking), so you can be sure of what you're putting into your body. Anyway, I know we're not perfect eaters, but we're pretty darn good overall, but this book still made us realize we could be doing more.

Pollan says he knows his manifesto is simple. He never thought he would have to say it as he never thought he would have to defend food. But this book points out that food is under assault, and that unless we do go back to the basics, well, we're under assault too.

Now I'm thinking I must go and start planning a vegetable garden in my backyard.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Number 11. Thud! by Terry Pratchett. I used to read a lot of Pratchett's Disc World fare. They're fun, have excellent internal consistency and a lovely sense of humour. In some ways though, Pratchett's like the Grisham or King of the fantasy set; he churns them out and they're good, but that's about it.

I haven't read a Disc World novel for awhile. It wasn't that I grew out of them, but I did start to think they were becoming a little... boring. They were also starting to resemble Law & Order 'ripped from the headlines' episodes, where Pratchett would take something topical from our world and fit it into his world. And there's nothing wrong with that; fantasy as a genre (and science-fiction as well) is often about viewing our world through the lens of another; Tolkien himself was often queried if his Lord of the Rings was a thinly veiled allegory of WWII (he denied this).

I've also, through all my Disc World readings, realized that my favourite group of characters to read about are the Watch. Oh sure, I like the witches, and I like the wizards of the Unseen University, the Watch of Ankh-Morpork are my favourite characters. Probably because overall, I do love a good police procedural. I love the character of Sam Vimes, Commander of the Watch. He's a good cop, through and through, but he's also a Duke (through marriage) and a family man and I do like how Pratchett's actually grown the character a bit over the years, yet still lets him remain true to his inner 'copdom'.

Thud! is a bit of an amalgam of influences. There's some Da Vinci Code stuff going on, as well as a lot of racial tensions and religious extremism. It's long been established on Disc World that trolls and dwarves don't get along with one another. There was a historic battle at Koom Valley (where the dwarves may have ambushed the trolls, or the trolls may have ambushed the dwarves) that ended with everyone dead, and it is, unfortunately, celebrated every year. And by celebrate, they mean that tensions between the dwarves and the trolls get ugly, and even in cosmopolitan Anhk-Morpork, there are clashes between the two.

The anniversary of Koom Valley is almost upon Disc World again, and Commander Sam Vimes and his Watch are trying to deal with everything that means. Adding fuel to the fire this time though are the preachings of 'deep-downers', fantatical dwarves who never leave the mines beneath the mountains, and if they do, they swarth themselves from head to toe in black, lest the light corrupt them. They are known as Grags, and they are the foremost interpreters of the stuff Tak wrote, Tak being the dwarven equivalent of a god. One of the Grags in particular preaches for wiping out of all trolls, saying its like doing them a favour because trolls are too stupid to live. Hamcrusher is very vocal, and is gaining a lot of listeners in Ankh-Morpork, much to the dislike of Vimes, and the city's troll population of course. Now, when Hamcrusher turns up dead and the Grags' 'interpreter' Ardent says a troll did it, well, Vimes realized he could be facing an honest to goodness race war in his city. As this could interfere with his daily, 6 o'clock sharp reading of 'Where's My Cow' to his young son, Vimes is increadibly unhappy.

What follows is a very intricate mystery that includes a gigantic painting of the Battle of Koom Valley (which may or may not point to a hidden treasure), a huge mine dug out beneath Ankh-Morpork, missing miners, a drug-additcted troll witness, mysterious and dangerous dwarf signs that have perhaps awoken an ancient, dwarf curse, and a troll made of diamond, who could just very well be the Troll King. I found this to actually be one of Pratchett's deepest (forgive the pun) books as it really does tackle racism and fanaticism very well. Even down to the moments between Sgt. Angua (werewolf) and Lance-Constable Sally (vampire) where they try to overcome their prejudices against one another; all are handled well. And then ending, even if you're like Vimes and aren't into all that 'mystical stuff', is well done and not trite.

I think this is probably the Disc World novel I've enjoyed the most since Hogfather.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Numeral X. The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs.

A.J. Jacobs is a writer for Esquire magazine. He has a previously published book called The Know it All which chronicles his attempt to read the entire Encylcopeida Britannica. He is a man who will go to extremes for his craft. He's a New Yorker, technically Jewish, but he goes through great pains to tell his readers that he is a very secular Jew, one for whom his religion hasn't figured very greatly in his life, he has long labeled himself as agnostic, but one day, he gets it into his head that for one year, he will live his life by taking the Bible as literally as possible.

His idea grew from a story he was told about an ex-uncle of his, uncle Gil, a man whom the family treats as a bit of a boogey man, someone whom has dabbled in many religions (Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism), and has in fact been a leader of a couple of honest to goodness cults. He was married to Jacobs' one Orthodox Jew aunt, and the family is overall very happy that Uncle Gil is no longer in the family. But Jacobs hears that one day, Uncle Gil decided to live the Bible literally, and from this story, A.J.'s decision is born.

It's harder than he thought, especially since some of the laws make no sense whatsoever, and some are very exclusionary. Of course, he finds all the big ones (the 10 commandments), but he finds a lot of smaller ones, about not wearing clothes of mixed fibres and wearing tassles on your clothes, and of course, all the various things you can not, or should not eat.

He has help of course, and consults all sorts of people; rabbis, Christian preachers, Creationsists, even (in a visit that is funny but also a little disturbing) the infamous Uncle Gil.

He grows his beard, he begins to wear only white, he starts to resemble those that get stared at regularly in NYC. And yet, through it all, he definitely starts to feel more spiritual, and he starts to feel kindred with those who are also spiritual; there's a lovely moment where he's on the subway, and across from him is sitting a Buddhist Monk, and they exchange a knowing nod; they understand where the other is coming from.

Of course, A.J. isn't perfect. He has problems getting rid of all the little white lies we tell daily. He doesn't like the whole treating your wife as unclean during her period (nor is his wife a big fan of this), but as someone who is a bit of a germ a phobe, he's ok with the not touching people he doesn't really know for fear of their being unclean.

He has a harder time with the New Testament section, he comes to admire Jesus and his teachings, but of course, he doesn't come to accept him as his saviour, but he thinks the man had some good things to say.

It is a very fascinating journey he's on and it does affect him in positive ways. He learns to let go of a lot of the anger we all have at small things throughout our day. He feels more peaceful. He becomes a big fan of the thanksgiving type prayers. He comes to a greater understanding of why people worship. He doesn't always agree with it, but he starts to understand it more. And through his journey, I think we do too. He makes the Bible sound like a very interesting place, where lots of good things are said, but well, he also points out how things are interpreted or misinterpreted. He cannot seem to fully grasp fundamentalism because we can never fully grasp the intent of God's words.

By the end of it, A.J is still agnostic, but he has become what one of his advisors calls a 'reverent agnostic', that whether or not there is a God, he does believe in the sacred. He believes in the sacredness of Life, the sacredness of the Sabbath and the ritual of prayer. It makes the everyday more transcendent.

And I think that's a nice way to look at it.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Number 9 of 2008 is The Island of the Sequined Love Nun by Christopher Moore. You got to hand it to Moore, he comes up with the greatest titles.

The other thing you have to give to Moore is that, despite writing really funny books, he also manages to imbibe them with some rather dark moments that don't manage to completely wreck the tone of the book, but rather contribute to the overall sense of zany. And Moore's books are zany. They're zany but strangely plausible. The man's brilliant.

In this book we meet Tucker Chase, 'geek in a cool guy's body'. Chase seems to be a bit of a loser, a womanizing drunkard who's background story sounds strangely like Hamlet's (but without the whole Danish royalty thing); a good looking guy who seems to just float through life. When we meet Tuck, he's romancing a girl in an airport bar. Tucker's managed to find a gig as a private pilot for the head honcho of a cosmetics company (Mary Jean a thinly veiled Mary Kay), but within the first chapter, he completely blows this as he takes the girl for a tryst on the company Learjet, crashes it and gravely injures his man parts in the process. Mary Jean, not wanting to deal with the negative press Tucker has so kindly provided for her, 'disappears' Tucker to a tiny island in Micronesia, where he will now be a pilot for a Methodist missionary, flying medical supplies to and from Japan.

So Tucker, after surviving a typhoon in a row boat with only a (talking) fruitbat and the last navigator, a transvestite named Kimi, finds himself on his new home, a tiny island called Alualu; home to Dr. Sebastian Curtis and his wife Beth, a bunch of ninjas and the island's idingenous folks, the Shark People.

The Shark People are a little primitive, living on a rather sequestered island, but the Western World forcibly forced itself on them during WWII, when the Japanese built a small outpost and airfield on the island, and then the Americans took it from them. Due to these experiences, the Shark People have become what's called a 'cargo cult', the worship the American airman (a flyboy named Vincent) as a god who delivered them from the Japanese, and who gives them treasures from the Sky Priestess (Vincent's plane).

But it doesn't take long for Tucker to see that all is not right on AlauAlau. He is paid an exhorberant amount of money to take Beth Curtis to Japan where she drops off a small cooler and then heads right back. And when Tucker sees Beth's performance as the Sky Priestess (the Sequined Love Nun of the title), where she 'chooses' one of the Shark People, well, Tucker knows he has to figure out what's going on. Of course, this urge to know also stems from the fact that he's not allowed to drink and he's bored.

But somehow, Tucker knows that the Shark People are being exploited, he's just not sure how. He and his navigator Kimi befriend the Shark People, and he soon discovers just how badly the Curtis' are exploiting the Shark People, they're harvesting organs from them and selling them in Japan. Something awakes in the normally selfish, sodden and pitiful Tucker, and he realizes that he must help these people.

And help them he does. In an extremely over the top ending (which is something Moore does so very, very well), Tucker steals a 747 (no, he doesn't hijack it, there's an important distinction) and relocates the entire tribe of Shark People. It's all terribly satisfying.

Tucker Chase is a great character in the mold of 'pretty normal guy that has all sorts of weird shit happen to him and still manages to come out all right'. His exploits are fun because they are so bizarre and you really can't help but wonder how he's going to get out of it. True he's a pilot, but that really is the only remarkable skill about Tucker Chase. He's not a spy, he's not a ninja, and other than his ability to get into trouble, he's pretty unremarkable. But still, by the end of the book, he has grown as a character. Not hugely so, but just enough.

It's a fun book, like all Moore's books, complete with good lines, laugh out loud sections and improbable action scenes. They're always a good read.