Archive for the 'Nonfiction' Category

In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan

Central Library: RA784 .P643 2009

If you’re looking for a good read about food, read this book. If you’re looking for a new way to think about food, read this book. If you want to have a healthier diet, but you’re tired of counting everything from fat to fiber grams, this book is for you. If you just want to read an interesting, well-written, even entertaining book, this is for you.

Pollan argues that attempting to break everything down to the smallest bits isn’t always the best strategy for understanding the whole. Humans have evolved to gain nutrition and sustenance from food, and we will be more healthy, happy and satisfied if we stick to food. How one defines food will make all the difference in how successful this strategy is in producing greater health.

Food is what our great, great grandmothers would recognize as food. He suggests we shop around the edges of the supermarket, focusing on fresh produce, meats and bakery items and avoid the frozen, canned, and heavily packaged stuff in the middle. For meat, focus on grass-fed animals, which haven’t been fattened with corn, which is not a natural diet for it, and haven’t been injected with heavy doses of antibiotics and hormones.

The book’s main theme seems to suggest that we take a more relaxed view of our relationship with food. We don’t need worry about whether we’re getting too much of this or not enough of that if we eat a well-balanced diet of real foods, cooked slowly and eaten slowly, hopefully with loved ones there to share the meal. Start with real food and experiment with herbs and spices in order to achieve good tasting meals that make your mouth water. Good taste is key to good digestion, and good digestion is necessary for good health.

I have read exactly two books that have really influenced me to make changes not only in how I eat, by with my entire relationship to food—The Diet Cure, by Julia Ross—and In Defense of Food.

Naked in Baghdad, by Anne Garrels

Central: DS79.76 .G373 2004

During the lead up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the voice of Anne Garrels became a familiar friend to me. I found myself turning up the radio, and listening more intently, when I heard her voice on NPR. During the invasion, I held my breath, and prayed for her safety.

While reading this book, I heard her voice clearly in my head. I suspect that people who already know and love her work will find this book particularly meaningful, but I don’t want to discourage anyone from reading it.

This is neither pro- nor anti-war; it is a very personal story—detailing the struggles and dangers she met with in attempting to cover the story. She was one of the few western journalists who stayed throughout the invasion, and her narrative conveys the deep sense of comeraderie that developed among this small band of holdouts.

The title refers to a tactic Garrels used to protect her precious (and contraband) broadcast equipment. Terrified that she would be relieved of this equipment, she discovered that when Iraqi police knocked on her door, she simply needed to tell them that she needed to get dressed before she could let them in. They would wait, more or less patiently, outside her door while she rushed around hiding the equipment and throwing on some clothes.

Maybe the manner of her broadcasting, in the dark and in the nude, at least partially influenced the intimate feel of her broadcasts.

Garrels has been home and back to Iraq several times since then. She’s covered Russia and several other countries. And still, her voice draws me in whenever I hear it.

Them: Adventures with Extremists, Jon Ronson

Central Books: HN49.R33 R66 2002

This book is an odd combination of humor and terror. I found myself laughing out loud and then strangely reluctant to turn out the lights.

Jon Ronson spent many years tailing around different extremist leaders. Most of these people do not describe themselves as extremists—in fact, some of them deride extremists. Ronson’s criterion for selecting subjects was that other people had called them extremists.

On the surface, this group seems a motley collection. We meet various KKK members, a Northern Ireland Unionist minister, an Islamic extremist, survivors of Ruby Ridge (where the FBI surrounded a family, killing the mother and a 14-year-old boy), members of the Aryan Nation, and more. We even meet a man who believes that the world is run by a group of alien lizards in human form.

But they do have at least one thing in common—each one believes that the world is run by a small group of people who will use any means necessary to increase its power and achieve its ends. Our extremists merely disagree upon who is part of this powerful group.

And Ronson decides that, if this secret group exists, then maybe he can find it. This journey takes him to a Bilderberg meeting at a Portuguese resort and an owl-burning ceremony attended by George Bush, Sr., and Dick Cheney.

Ronson’s courage amazed me. I doubt I would be brave enough to infiltrate the ranks of these people. Yet he is Jewish, which means he belongs to a group of people targeted by many of these groups. I held my breath when he was “outted” at a jihadist training camp. I knew he survived to write the book, but I feared for him nonetheless.

This book is fascinating—sort of like a train wreck. You just can’t look away.

(Originally published in Connections, May 2006)

War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges

Central: U21.2 .H43 2002

I realize that “On the Lighter Side”* seems a rather inapt category in which to place this book. However, I didn’t want to be limited in this column to solely light-weight reading. Reading this book has been a life-changing experience for me, and I want to share it with others.

Author Chris Hedges, currently a Princeton lecturer in humanities and journalism, was a war correspondent who covered wars in El Salvador, Bosnia, Iraq, Israel, Kosovo, Sudan, and many other countries. Because he has a master’s in divinity and a Ph.D. in Humanities, he has developed a philosophy of war, based upon his own experiences, first-hand accounts, and writings on war that span many cultures and several millennia.

Certain themes appear throughout these disparate sources—the brutality and deception of war and the struggles of those fighting, covering, or simply trying to survive a war to maintain their humanity. Hedges also discusses why people become addicted to war, becoming a close-knit group of colleagues as they follow conflicts around the world. And why those at home find meaning either supporting or opposing these conflicts.

The author’s well-rounded approach—combining insights gleaned from historical, literary, and theological works with first-hand accounts and personal experiences—provides the text a great depth. One gets the sense that one is viewing this topic from a great many perspectives, over a great deal of time and through the eyes of many cultures.

Reading this book does not give the reader the same insight as someone who has experienced war. But I believe it comes as close as a book can come.

UTA Libraries has another title by Chris Hedges, What Every Person Should Know about War (Central: U21.2 .H45 2003).

*“On the Lighter Side” was the title of the non-science portion of my CD’s Picks column, a counterpart to the “Science for Everyone” section.

(Originally published in Connections, September 2005)

Reading Lolita in Tehran : A Memoir in Books, by Azar Nafisi

Central: PE64.N34 A3 2003

Readers who appreciate literature will find a lot to love about this book. It is the best illustration that I have ever encountered of the relevance of literature in our daily lives. On the surface, it is the story of a group of women meeting in a home to discuss English-language literary works banned by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime. It is organized into four parts: Lolita, Gatsby, James, and Austen. Each section goes beyond merely discussing the related works of literature; it applies its themes and issues to some aspect of (then) current Iranian society, and then personalizes those themes by applying them to individuals’ lives.

Nafisi’s prose is beautiful. In Reading Lolita, she illuminates other works of art by creating her own.

(Originally published in Connections, April 2005)