Category: Book Reviews

Book Review: Fat Chance by Robert Lustig

Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and DiseaseFat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease by Robert H. Lustig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is not a diet book. It’s a book about nutrition, biology and public health and its science is spot-on.

I’ve done a ridiculous amount of reading on nutrition and diet books (both personally and as an editor) and this book is an excellent summation of everything out there today on what we currently know about the state of our food.

The bottom line is that our government is subsidizing foods that make us sick and have been for a long time, and it’s a primary reason we have seen an explosion in diabetes and obesity.

This book gives a thorough rundown (I didn’t think it was that technical but I’ve read quite a few of these things) on how sugared processed foods are basically toxic to human beings. Sugar and corn sugar (and fructose in particular) are the real culprits, according to Lustig and he builds a very powerful case against them in this book.

If you’re looking for how to apply this information to your own lives it comes down to cutting out sugar, eating processed food only when its coupled with higher fiber (3g per serving, min.), and exercising (not for weight loss benefits because exercise has very little impact on a person’s weight but because it’s essential to human health).

Lustig argues we need a public health policy that addresses the problems the low-fat diet has caused because low fat has translated to highly processed carbs via subsidies for corn. To put it simply: sugar, often in the form of processed carbs, destroys your body’s ability to properly regulate hormones, including the signals that tell you when you’re full.

Anyway, I’ve read lots of middling reviews for this book–people complaining that Lustig has a strong take on public policy (he’d like to regulate sugar the way we regulate tobacco or alcohol) and not a strong enough “diet” he’s selling. But I think that’s the strongest selling point for this book. Lustig isn’t looking to sell you anything but his ideas (yet–I’m sure the Fat Chance Diet is coming if this book sells well). And his ideas are based in solid evidence.

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Book Review: Requiem by Lauren Oliver

Requiem (Delirium, #3)Requiem by Lauren Oliver

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This review will spoil the heck out of the Delirium series, FYI.

First of all, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Delirium—it was overwritten, over-long, and overwrought. That sentence is a shout-out to Oliver’s style of employing three descriptors or modifiers to nearly everything!

I did like the second book, Pandemonium. It was fast-paced and Lena had evolved into a more interesting and active character. She was strong and smart, and I liked her slowly growing feelings for Julian. I liked that she dealt with the presumed death of her first love and surprised herself by finding her second.

I didn’t like the end and rolled my eyes when her first love magically reappeared at the end of the book. Side note: It’s amazing how often the people Lena needs to find magically appear at various points in this series!

The second book turned the series around for me, and I looked forward to seeing how Lena would evolve, how the triangle would be resolved, and how the “invalids” would face off against their former society.

However, the series closer didn’t do any of those things. In fact, it didn’t do much of anything at all.

(view spoiler)[
Lena, Julian and Alex (and crew) spend the entire book basically wandering around The Wilds. Since Lena has so little going on the story cuts back and forth between Lena’s POV and that of her best friend Hana, who is rising in the ranks of the real society by marrying up. There are so many ways this might have been more exciting as a story—what if Hana was becoming a true foil for Lena on the other side!? Best friends torn asunder by their place in the world? Seemed like a cool direction but it never panned out. There is never any question that their stories will merge and there is never any question that Hana is not on board with the regime to eliminate the people who live in The Wilds despite being “cured”.

Normally, I don’t find myself wishing a story were going in the way I would have written or liked it to go—but since nothing was going on, I amused myself by thinking of possible plot directions for the characters.

Hana was a spitfire before she got cured and she has some real moments here, too. Sadly, she is stuck under a silly plot that has her marrying Blackbeard/Mr. Rochester—a crazy person who slowly reveals his true nature. Nothing that happens is even mildly surprising. In fact, what happened to his first wife is so obvious that you want to pull Hana aside and explain it to her so we could all skip ahead a few chapters and save everybody a little time.

Lena, meanwhile, continues to wander about The Wilds and bump into people. She tries to talk to Alex once. He tells her he never loved her (like you do in contrived scenarios) and then Alex—our hero!—beats the hell out of Julian (presumably over his jealousy though this is never really explored; in fact, Lena spends most of the rest of the book hanging out with Julian and NEVER asks him what led up to the beating he took while she was asleep!) and then he disappears for most of the rest of the book.

This is one of those infuriating stories where if everybody had just hashed out their feelings—and they are together for great stretches of time in the woods with nothing to do!—there would be no tension. And there is literally no good reason why they don’t talk about their feelings. None of these characters was ever particularly closed off before so why are they now when they have nothing but time to hang?

One development: Lena—fortuitously!—runs into her own long-lost mother in the middle of the woods and has catharsis! And then realizes that maybe Alex really did love her. Poor Alex. I’m sure we won’t see him again…oh, wait, of course we will.

So finally, Lena and Hana end up in the same place they started and Hana randomly brings Lena back to her house and serves her food in a very weird and nonsensical scene. Of course, Hana makes good with Lena, in a way, and Lena delivers the knowledge Hana needs to rid herself of her psycho boyfriend. Hana disappears into the woods in the middle of a climactic battle—never to be seen again!

Lena heads off to find her younger cousin Grace who is, of course, easily found. The rest of Lena’s family has apparently left young Grace alone in the midst of a battle as the Invalids have scaled a newly built wall and are attacking largely unarmed.

So, Lena heads back to this wall and sees that people—the ones who live in The Wilds and some younger people who have yet to be cured (she knows this just by looking around at the crowd?) are tearing the wall apart. Where the police and military have gone is anybody’s guess.

Fortuitously (!) she runs into Alex and of course he admits—finally!—that he still loves her. And she still loves him. But life is complicated. And there is poor Julian a few feet away (busily tearing down the wall despite his busted face). And she doesn’t know what she’ll do about these two lovers!

And that’s basically the end of the book. Oliver doesn’t resolve the romantic tension. She doesn’t resolve the revolution. She doesn’t even bring the epic battle of militarized police against a largely unarmed populace to a close. In the final paragraphs Oliver changes tone entirely and addresses the reader directly, imploring them to tear down their own walls because, you know, we all have them, I guess and symbolism and whatever.

Now, it’s fine to leave uncertainty—I love ambiguity and I’m fine with the world not being set right (it would certainly be a very long journey to that place, right? And by 75% into this book I realized nothing like that was going to happen at all). But to suddenly break the veil and give the reader a sense that now it’s time to fight your own fight? It was a head scratcher for me. And, honestly, shouldn’t that be implicit? Thematically, this was a story about a girl finding her footing and taking a stand. Great. I love that. Do I need you to turn to me at the end and say: Go for it, girl! Get yours like I got mine! Even if it means your entire world is plunged into chaos! Woot.

Lena is, in the end, left torn between two boys (and I seriously didn’t care who she chose because neither have a personality or even much dialogue in this book at all). Her society is in chaos so we are left not even knowing if cops were going to show up and shoot the people tearing down the wall. And the wall itself, clearly, was meant to evoke the Berlin Wall but since the Portland Wall was only introduced in the final act of the series and to Lena just before the final battle it really didn’t hold that much potent symbolism—who cares if you tear down a wall that was built in the last 6 months?

There is only the thinnest mention that the uprising had spread to the general populace. So the series was left entirely up in the air with the only real arc—that Lena went from a scared, mousy girl to a strong girl who makes her own way in the world—long resolved in book two. I seriously have no idea what this book was for. There was no story and no character arc. It felt pointless.
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Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

Warm BodiesWarm Bodies by Isaac Marion
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Minor spoilers included.

I adored this little book. I have quite a few issues with it, but I loved it anyway.

It’s basically Romeo and Juliet if Romeo were a zombie and the romance happened in a post-apocalyptic city. So that’s fun, right? However, the build up between “R” and Julie in this book is much more thorough than its prototype, even if R finds himself in love at first sight with our heroine.

Isaac Marion’s zombie world includes a host of zombies with some low-level forms of consciousness. They are, in effect, sleep walkers who wander in packs for hunting and live in groups, forming low-level friendships and yearning for relationships and family in a rudimentary way that is usually overpowered by their overarching desire to eat brains.

The book had some editorial errors that were unforgivable in my mind—there is a strange discrepancy about whether the zombies can die and how and there were a few gaffes that confused me. In one scene Julie takes her friend Nora’s drink away to spike it but Nora continues to sip from it and then Julie brings the drink back. Stuff like that should have been caught at some point! But I don’t blame the author for it.

[SPOILER] Early on “R” kills Julie’s boyfriend, Perry. In this world, zombies get flashes of the life of the person they killed when they eat their brains. Perry’s desperate desire to protect Julie is seemingly transferred onto R, and this is how R comes to protect her himself. R then falls for Julie after kidnapping her (presumably to save her from the other zombies but really he can’t stand to let her go). Now, killing Julie’s boyfriend should present a real problem for our star-crossed lovers—you would think that Julie would be horrified by this, but the author glazes over that very real problem by noting that Julie blames the situation—the plague that has taken over humanity and turned them into zombies—but not R personally. By glazing that over too easily—and having her basically forgive R with a “Zombie plague? Bygones!” moment, the author misses the opportunity to make Julie complex and veers her a little too far into saintly dream girl territory for me.

Despite the complaints listed above? I still think this was my favorite read of 2012 so far. Despite the handful of errors, some problematic world building issues, and the lack of complexity in Julie’s feelings? The author has created a charming narrator in R, a zombie who loves music and longs for love deep down under his grey skin. Marion makes R incredibly relatable, wistful, romantic, and a hero you find yourself truly rooting for despite the fact that he ate the brains of the heroine’s boyfriend.

The narrative moves at a swift pace, carrying the reader briskly through the plot while also imbuing R with a sense of humanity that is palpable. I found myself completely wrapped up in R’s head, the little world he builds inside it, and rooting for him and Julie completely. It’s actually the most romantic book I’ve read in a very long time.

I also found myself comparing Marion’s swift style to Stephenie Meyer. He shows a great deal more restraint than she does—his plotting is stripped down but the style itself has the same fast-paced first person narration with strong romantic overtones. And I mean all of that as a compliment since I know everybody loves to bash Stephenie Meyer but there is a reason Twilight is such a swift read and easy to get caught up in. This book has those same elements. It’s a very fun, fast, romantic read.

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Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone GirlGone Girl by Gillian Flynn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first half of Gone Girl pivots on an essential question: What happened to Amy Dunne on the morning of her fifth wedding anniversary? The point of view shifts from her diary entries dating back several years and her husband’s first person narrative in the present tense. He’s clearly not telling the whole truth and his impressions of her stand in contrast to her version of events in her diary entries.

Then, at the halfway point of the novel, the essential question is turned on its head. I hate to say anything about the second half of the book except it takes a dramatic turn. In fact it’s hard to talk about this book at all without spoiling the plot.

But, while the plot was fun—dark, twisted, psychotic fun—it was the way in which our societal roles dictate our behavior that was very cleverly exploited and of great interest to me. I’m not going to go into any specific spoilers but it’s kind of hard to talk about this book at all without it being a spoiler so:

——MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD——-

Nick is a jerk. He’s narcissistic and the kind of guy who will tell you anything to avoid honest communication, particularly if it will lead to him feeling uncomfortable in anyway. He’s an avoider. Amy is brilliant but crazy. However, they both adopt disguises in life and marriage to pass among the “normal” people, unnoticed for how twisted they really are.

Thematically, the book takes the feminist theory idea that femininity is a disguise—a construct women adopt to pass in a patriarchal society–to its darkest conclusion: that femininity is a kind of sociopathy (and also that patriarchal entitlement is a kind of endless narcissism). In this way, Flynn neatly unpacks lots of tropes about male and female behavior but wraps it up in a plot that is darkly comedic and very often just dark but never boring.

It’s well-plotted, darkly funny, and, over the several days that I read it, I found myself thinking about it in the middle of the day and wondering how it could all be resolved. I wasn’t disappointed.

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I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a WomanI Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this series of essays, Nora Ephron explores what it means to be a woman of a certain age. She’s funny and smart and feels likes someone you’d like to get to know.

I found myself longing for her to be my eccentric aunt or my mom’s friend so that I could go to lunch with her and listen to her pontificate on fighting wrinkles, struggling to find the right purse, fall in love with books and apartments, and maybe explain to me the bittersweet truth of life: No matter what? It ends.

As someone who is starting to feel bad about her neck all of Nora’s feelings about aging rang very true for me. Her final essay is about losing her best friend and considering her own mortality (and even that is written in a wry way that lets you know that despite her loss she’s still got a sense of humor).

In one essay she admits that when she really loved a book she’d often write the author and tell them–including lots of personal feelings that were probably inappropriate to share. At the end of this book? I wished I could have dropped her a line. Knowing that she died just a few months ago made several of the essays–particularly the one dealing with her love of books and the one about grappling with her own mortality–particularly bittersweet for me. But I’m glad I got to meet her, even if only through her work.

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All That Is Bitter and Sweet by Ashley Judd

All That Is Bitter and Sweet: A MemoirAll That Is Bitter and Sweet: A Memoir by Ashley Judd

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I rarely read memoirs, let alone ones written by current celebrities, but Ashley Judd has led a fairly fascinating life.

Of course she’s an actress that comes from a famous (and famously dysfunctional) family, but she has also spent a great many years as a feminist activist, quietly traveling the world with NGOs and coming face to face with the poorest, most exploited people on the planet.

And this memoir balances those two lives, providing insight on the tumultuous personal life that formed her desire to help those who have no voice. I admire her for that. Sometimes she comes off a bit pious and overly sincere–only wisps of humor are shown and the book could have benefited from more.

What’s fascinating about this book, of course, are the glimpses we get at Ashley’s relationship with her famous mom and sister. It’s clear that she’s been on the outside looking in on them for her entire life and that doesn’t seem to have changed despite everything they’ve been through. She speaks openly of how close she’s become to her father and how much she loves her sister but her love for her mother is notable absent (and I can’t blame her as Naomi Judd seems like a nightmare of a mom). Near the end of the book Ashley writes about getting her master’s at Harvard (as part of her dedication to social justice work) and she notes (without passing judgment in an explicit way) that her mom and sister declined to attend just as they had for her undergraduate degree ceremony. It’s clear that despite all her success and hard work? Noami and Wynonna are not interested in events that don’t revolve around them. And ending the book on that note really does bring home the theme of the memoir: often life is bitter and sweet at the same time. And Ashley Judd seems to have learned to live with it and flourish anyway.

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Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

 

Breakfast at Tiffany'sBreakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s impossible to read this book without seeing Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly–and so I didn’t bother to try. The book is not a romance about a kept man and the crazy party girl who falls for him, however.

In the book, it’s somewhat clear that the narrator is gay (though he doesn’t state it directly that I noticed) and that Holly Golightly is a woman that draws people in. She’s NYC’s “It” girl. She parties with wealthy men, “dates” a wealthy heir to a fortune (who probably prefers men, maybe even infantilism, and uses her as his beard), runs errands for mobsters, and generally seems to be having a pretty exciting life.

But she’s broken, of course. And her broken-ness is what makes her so haunting. She charges through life, both a victor and a victim, and finds a way to pick herself up, dust herself off, and keep running. She’s her own worst enemy and her own savior. And I think you can’t help but wish you were a little like her (though not too much) and wish that she’d been your neighbor, if even for a summer, so you’d have some stories about her to tell.

It’s really no wonder she’s an iconic character. She felt very real despite being a figment.

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In Cold Blood

I just finished reading In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

The real triumph of this book, for me, was the structure. We are introduced to the victims and their killers. And then the murders are glazed over in order to delve into the backgrounds of the murderers, to provide glimpses into the effect the murders have on the community and detectives pursuing the case. And then, after humanizing the criminals as well as the detectives and victims, the crimes come to life in vivid and sad detail. Then we follow the murderers all the way to the end of the line–through the trial and beyond.

There’s a very good reason this book is the archetype for true crime. It’s brilliantly put together, with moments of real grief and horror interspersed with a journalistic accounting of the events.

I’m really looking forward to picking up Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Book Thoughts: Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan

I expected to love this book. It takes place on a single day. A snowstorm is coming and the Red Lobster is closing forever. This is an oddly promising scenario to me.

I spent much of my twenties waiting tables. I did a particularly long off-and-on stint at an ailing T.G.I. Friday’s in Flint, Michigan. Eventually it shut down.

While I enjoyed the overall mood and tone of this little book I have to say that the detailed inner workings of a restaurant, as seen through the eyes of an overly loyal middle manager, don’t particularly fascinate me. Of course, my disinterest in the seemingly sad but “real” lives of the staff is partly because I’ve met these people–they are real so far as that goes–but they lacked the spark that most restaurant employees who’ve worked together for a spell enjoy.

The inappropriate sexual humor was nonexistent. The endless banter between front of the house and back of the house staff was missing. The big dreams that most wait staff secretly harbor was long gone from this crew.

Honestly? Any manager as dedicated to minutiae as Manny was? Would probably have been promoted long before the Lobster closed.

I think the characters, such that they were, felt real. But the sparks that existed in every restaurant I ever worked at–Fridays, Damon’s, and a host of others (from crappy bars to upscale steak houses)–was just missing. And in its place? Was a lot of worrying about checklists and protocols that nobody would have followed on a restaurant’s last day, even if they were being moved over to the Olive Garden up the road.

Book Thoughts: Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

I avoided reading this book for the last couple of years. And I’m not sure why. I think I always had a soft spot for Frank Lloyd Wright’s first wife, Catherine. I’ve spent a lot of time in her house and learning about her husband’s mistress seemed rude. You see, the story starts in my own neighborhood—the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District in Oak Park, Ill. It’s a historical novel set during Wright’s era.

For about two years I volunteered at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio as a tour guide. I know his home pretty intimately because of that. And while the work of the great architect was all about me I felt that it was Catherine’s house. During my training they scrupulously avoid talking about What Happened, about why Wright left his family in 1909 to go to Europe. And the tour makes no note of the fire and murders that occurred three hours north in Spring Green, Wisconsin, at Taliesin in 1914.

What Happened—the scandal that led Wright to leave Oak Park—was his affair with a client’s wife. Mamah Borthwick Cheney abandoned her marriage and her children to run off with Wright after they began an affair while he was building her home on East Ave.

Loving Frank is told largely from Mamah’s point of view. It’s a flawed book, densely packed with big ideas and lots of ruminating instead of acting (at least in the first half). It drags a bit as Mamah seems downright possessed by Wright before finally leaving her marriage. At no point does she seriously consider what would happen to her, her children, or her sister. This seemed rather off to me. A woman in 1909 would know that she would lose her children. Men got automatic custody at that time. She was, in many ways, her husband’s legal property. She would know that her sister, who lived in her home, could be put out on the street.

I’ve read reviews that say Mamah is incredibly unlikable. But I found myself sort of liking that. In the second half of the book she spends as much time ruminating on how mean the press is being as she does worrying about how her abandonment might be affecting her children. Her ambivalence about motherhood—she loves her kids but they’re not where she defines herself—is a nice antidote to most accounts of motherhood.

Of course, we live in a time where children are the center of the family. They are the Most Important Thing that Is/Was/Will Ever Be in a parent’s life. But I don’t think that has always been the case. Frank and Mamah certainly struggled with the same self-involvement that plagued parents in during The Me Generation of the 1970s. Mamah regularly wonders why anyone’s happiness should come before her own—and that if she is happy her children will benefit from that (during the few days a year she’d be allowed to see them, I guess).

Self-interest makes the lovers less likeable, of course, and by the last third of the book the reader might want to roll their eyes at how Mamah is sort of surprised by how badly everyone has taken being left behind while she pursued her Great Love.

It’s the tension that Mamah’s behavior creates for the reader that is perhaps the most interesting thing about the book. That strange sense that Mamah is a self-involved ass who put her romantic interests above any thoughts of self-sacrifice is interesting. It made me stop and think about the nature of self-sacrifice (and particularly how we apply it to women). It’s human nature to reward those who don’t upend the order of things. But why do people stay in mediocre marriages for the welfare of the children? Who decided a child’s stable upbringing was more important than the well-being of their adult parents? Might the kids survive—even thrive—anyway?

Mamah’s untimely demise—and the horrific nature of how she and others at Taliesin died—upends the novel. The author lets us run through Frank’s head for a moment at the end as he rejects the notion that her violent end was a kind of comeuppance from God himself. She was murdered by a mad man, nothing more.

I’m inclined to agree with him on that point. But, in the end, the real sadness I felt was for the people who had been hurt by Mamah’s and Wright’s selfish behavior. I felt more keenly for her ex-husband that I did her Great Love.

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