Tag Archives: books

Michael Pollan Knows Food

If you want to know more about food, read Michael Pollan. The man knows his food. He’s written at least three great books, one of which I already posted about. I wanted to jot some additional notes on the others.

Omnivore’s Dilemma is a look at the food industry. I got through the first part about corn, but then I had to put it down. He’s a great writer, but the market forces he describes bearing down on the food industry just became too depressing for me to bear. If you want something a little more upbeat, go with In Defense of Food, which describes how best to eat in a world as depressing as the one described in Omnivore’s Dilemma.

But what I like best about Pollan’s work has less to do with food and more to do with his ability to clarify economic and sociological forces that come to bear on an industry. In Botany of Desire he describes how the War on Drugs inadvertently gave us better and more potent marijuana. I haven’t smoked pot in ages, but I remember when it was light green flakes and often cost less than $20 an ounce. Pollan offers an entire history of pot and how the drug crackdown forced pot growers underground, where they tinkered with hybrids until they were able to grow incredibly potent pot indoors. A lot of the hooligans pulling these underground shenanigans were people right here in the Pacific Northwest (Matt Briggs’s, Shoot the Buffalo has characters in the PNW that make a living growing pot indoors).

Fascinating stuff.

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Michael Pollan’s, In Defense of Food

Somehow all my Michael Pollan library requests came through at the same time. I just finished his most recent book, In Defense of Food.

Something about this book touches the part of me that naturally mistrusts doctors (and varying degrees of eggheads all over). I have only just recently learned some of the nutritionist lingo, but who hasn’t been skewered by some smug nutritionists at some point in their life? Pollan’s big idea is to steer clear of foods (what he would describe as pseudo-foods) more than five ingredients, long chemical names, and (especially) any food with a health claim on its label. Why? Because you’re better off. The whole process of getting food to your table is highly politicized, with big business looking out for shareholder interests, instead of yours or mine. Trans fats anyone?

So I was totally onboard with Pollan’s smackdown of the nutritionist until I came to the part where he suggest we should make our meals more of a social event. He wants us to engage with food in ways that foster community and ritual. Yeah, yeah.

Sounds good until I realize this means we can no longer eat meals at our desks. What? That’s where I draw the line.

It’s funny how you don’t realize how important something is to you until someone tries to take it away.

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More Picking Favorites: 2007 Memoir Edition

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Of all the memoir I read last year, here are my three favorites:

Dreams From My Father: I know this was available prior to 2007, but I read it last spring and was much impressed with Barack Obama’s willingness to tackle complex subjects in a deep and meaningful way. Everyone talks about his drug use in college, but what stood out for me were the heartfelt discussions about coming to terms with his mixed race background and his complex feelings for his father, an African living in Kenya.

I’m encouraged that Obama used memoir as a vehicle for opening a frank discussion of race in America. I’m delighted he felt comfortable enough with his modest drug use to discuss it openly (in stark contrast to Bill Clinton’s quasi-admission of not inhaling his drugs).  

Foreskin’s Lament: If I had to pick, this was probably my favorite memoir from 2007. Partly a discussion of fatherhood, partly a coming-of-age memoir, Shalom Auslander describes with great humor his attempts to break free from of the bonds of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing somewhere in upstate New York.

AlternaDad: Neal Pollack’s memoir about becoming a father convinced me that I should try to market some of my own essays about parenting. What I have noticed is that the best memoir always seems to inspires me to write my own. 

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Shoot the Buffalo

Although I rarely read fiction these days, I do read a little, especially if it’s good.

Shoot the Buffalo, Matt Briggs latest novel, is my kind of fiction. A coming of age story set in the dark woods of the Pacific Northwest, it features some of the saddest, yet most oddly compelling characters I’ve read in a long while.

I seek out coming of age stories. The best memoir is written to read like fiction, so all the coming of age stories I read actually count as research toward my own on-going memoir project. One of the inherent problems of writing this kind of story is that something big has to happen to your main character, but not so big as to prevent a minor from rising to the challenge and overcoming in a way that’s believable and (hopefully) compelling to read.

In American literature, this sort of story often presents itself as a Hero’s Quest, typically a redemptive story where the hero overcomes some great adversary. But it’s not always so cut and dry. In This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff’s well-known coming of age memoir, a no-account stepfather is young Wolff’s big challenge. In a stunning act of guile, Wolff manages to (literally) reinvent himself, escaping to a prep school in the Northeast. Wolff’s use of deceit to overcome his situation has always made the story stand out for me. There is nothing more poignant then a child trying to cope with grown up issues the best he can, especially if that child is saddled with lousy parents. For a boy in this situation, the most believable thing to do is make a poor choice.

Shoot the Buffalo deals with the guilt a boy feels after he leads his siblings into the woods in search of their parents and his little sister dies of exposure. What struck me was the clever way Briggs uses the story’s structure and setting to move the main character from childhood guilt and confusion to a believable resolution as a young man.

It’s fiction, but it feels real. It’s just a genuine story about a hard childhood.

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Foreskin Tales

Shalom Auslander

Books I have read on how-to-write memoir occasionally suggest boiling down into the fewest words what your memoir is about. From Shalom Auslander’s new memoir, Foreskin’s Lament, here are a few words that do just that:

I believe in God.

It’s been a real problem for me.

I have very little sympathy for veal.

I find Mr. Auslander inventive, irreverent, and incredibly funny to read. Most of his stories center on his experience growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family in upstate New York. But his memoir is also an exploration of fatherhood: ambivalent memories of his father, feelings about his own role as a parent, but mostly he offers stories that feature the antagonistic relationship he has with his Heavenly Father. This is how to write memoir.

Earlier this year I read another memoir about fatherhood by Neal Pollack. For some reason, Jewish fathers who write memoir seem to fixate on the circumcision of their son’s penis. Everyone has a story. Even me! 

So what’s a nice Catholic boy like me doing with a circumcision story? No idea. Maybe I was adopted.

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Katha Pollitt has Balls

Katha Pollitt is my latest hero.

I wasn’t even familiar with her work until I heard her on a recent episode of NPR’s Fresh Air. An American feminist writer, Pollitt is perhaps best known for her column “Subject to Debate” in The Nation magazine.

But all that means squat to me. Ms. Pollitt is my new hero because she has balls.

Her new book, Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories, includes essays about discovering her boyfriend was unfaithful and her subsequent response, which included web-stalking him. Her friends cautioned her about publishing these stories. What kind of self-respecting feminist tells stories like these? 

Discussing her motivations for publishing, Pollitt articulates something anyone who writes personal essays or memoir knows is true. Here is Katha Pollitt on Fresh Air (probably within the first 6 minutes of air time):

In American literature now you can tell the most horrible things about yourself — you can be a heroin addict or a sex worker (not that those things are so horrible, but let’s just say) — as long as the arc of the story is, “I used to be bad and now I’m good” [or] “I used to be sick and now I’m well.”

But what you can’t do is really present, in a full detailed emotional way, what it feels like to be in an ordinary loser situation and just tell what it was like.

There has to be a moral in American literature. This is one of the big problems.

I have felt these same things approaching some of my essays. As an unpublished writer with few political affiliations, the stakes are much different for me than for Ms. Pollitt. But even with little name recognition, anyone who writes honestly about their lives puts it on the line in a way that other writers never really do. I am glad Ms. Pollitt had the courage to publish her work, even if she risks losing some of her luster in certain circles.

Of course, Katha Pollitt had balls long before she chose to publish Learning to Drive. Here is my favorite Pollitt story from a quick scan of the Web.

Citing Pollitt’s lack of patriotism, Bernard Goldberg named her number 74 in his book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America. This was because Pollitt wrote a response to the September 11, 2001 attacks, Put Out No Flags, in which she argued for restraint. As if calling for moderation in autumn 2001 wasn’t gutsy enough, she responded to Goldberg’s criticism by writing, “Memo to self: Must try harder.”

What a great gal.

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The BFG

Whenever I hear BFG, I think BFG 9000 from the old video game Doom, which featured an epic battle with monsters from hell by a futuristic space-marine.

In context of the game, I’m pretty sure BFG is an acronym for Big Fucking Gun. This is just how military people talk. For example, in the torpedo room of the boat where I served, any hammer over 10 ounces was known as a BFH. In the military, people extended this naming metaphor to just about everything, including large chicken breasts in the mess line (gimme dat BFB, son).

So I was surprised when Kennedy asked me to read The BFG.

 

I hadn’t even known about the Roald Dahl book until she suggested I read it. For Dahl, BFG stands for Big Friendly Giant. Over the summer Kennedy read it herself. Most every morning, I find her awake in her bedroom, reading something. If it’s not Dahl, it’s a Nancy Drew mystery or something from the Warriors series (think: Lord of the Rings with cats). Although she had already read The BFG, she checked it out of the library, just because it was familiar and an old favorite. When she found out I hadn’t read it, she insisted I take it on. Now when I tickle-attack her, I claim I am the BFD (Big Friendly Dad) and she squeals with delight.

It’s great having nine year olds that love to read (Aaron’s into Calvin and Hobbs and Garfield). But how much longer can it be before Dad and even tickle-attacks fall out of favor? How much longer before my kids won’t bring home anymore library books for me to read? 

Will BFD ever come to mean something entirely different to the kids? As long as it’s not Big Fat Dad, I won’t complain.

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My Father’s Summers: A Daughter’s Memoir

 

Kathi Appelt created a memoir entirely of short, evocative word poems. Her theme is the loneliness and longing she felt for her father as a teenager. All of her poems build on this main theme and only rarely do some of the poems feel a little forced. Some of the poems are quite good, but I like this memoir mostly because it’s so different. Not all memoir has to be a straight story, and I applaud her for trying something so difficult and managing to pull it off so well.

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The Circumcision Decision

The last good memoir I read was Neal Pollack’s Alternadad.

It’s an amusing tale of fatherhood, told from the point of view of a slacker, Gen-X rocker who eventually comes to grips with the responsibilities of fatherhood. Since I know very little about music, I thought the slant toward alternative rock might alienate me. Instead I found plenty I could relate with about parenting. In particular was the family decision on whether to have their son circumcised.

When my son was born, my wife wanted to leave him uncut. Since I am cut, I felt mildly reluctant. I asked my wife for time to think about it. To help make up my mind, I solicited people’s opinions. I even called my mom, who raised us Catholic but then converted to fundamentalist Christian while I was in the Navy.

Talking to Mom decided it for me. This is pretty much how the conversation went:

Continue reading

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