Three Book Corners


100 Million Years of Food: What Our Ancestors Ate and Why It Matters Now by Stephen Le

More informative and entertaining than your average “I traveled here to learn this and had this adventure, then I traveled there and had that adventure” books that are more travelogue than honest attempts to teach you what you thought you were there to learn… Le really does go back 100 million years, to when we ate bugs.  He wonders why paleo diets never emphasize all the great reasons we should be eating insects.  It’s a really good observation.

And Le does cover a lot of ground, from insects to vitamin-deficiency diseases of the early 20th century; but he keeps going back to those millions of year ago, because he’s an evolutionary biologist.  And that’s an entire field that irks me.  He keeps repeating the facile advice to “eat what your ancestors ate” – meaning not bugs in this case, but the cuisine from your particular area of ethnic origin.  Great, Stephen, you’re 100% Vietnamese.  What do you tell someone who’s half Vietnamese, half Nordic?  Or part African, part Scots-Irish, part Native American, etc.?

Plus, it’s just facile to say that “If people have been eating in that style for hundreds/thousands of years, it must be good for them!”  Well, kind of, but, it’s not always that simple.  It’s not simple, for example, to figure out which elements of a cuisine are mere centuries vs. millennia old.  And it’s plain old not always true that everything people have been doing for any length of time must be good for them.  It just has to not kill too many of them before age 20 or so.

He’s also too focused on micronutrients.  Instead of talking about dairy’s fat content in the context of a modern Western diet, for example, he’ll talk about the nutrients that milk offers.  Vitamins aren’t the issue anymore in making best decisions about what to eat.

Yet, I liked learning about authentic Thai fish sauce.  I begrudgingly acknowledged value in reading about the bugs (still no interest in cricket cuisine, sorry).  I found it enlightening to think about food promoting immediate health vs. longevity (one is sometimes at odds with the other).  And as I said, his writing and insertions of personal anecdote into the story were above average in holding my interest.

What If This Were Enough? by Heather Havrilesky

It was the title that pulled me in. Although self-help is a weakness I am only lately feeling “done” with, I’ve been uncomfortable for a long time with our culture’s emphasis on constant personal improvement. If you’re female, with female friends, just spend less than two minutes on Facebook – and that seems to be all it’s about.  “I’m so awesome, AND I’m improving all the time!”  Except you’re not and you’re not.  That’s what bugs me.  We all look back on the year when we reach another birthday or another New Year’s Eve, and we think that we’re so much happier and better in every way than we were in years past.  But by any objective measure, we aren’t – we DON’T CHANGE.  Except that we do in fact get older and uglier, but nobody will admit that either.  It’s all such BS, and I succumb to it myself, but I at least acknowledge it as a sometimes-convenient fiction.

So yeah. The title.  What if this were enough?  It’s really simple.

Her essays run across a variety of subjects, but usually end by coming back to that theme in some way – and sometimes it feels forced, but I’m always glad to get back there, so it’s OK.

A number of the essays are all about TV shows I’ve never seen and couldn’t care less about. She was a TV critic.  I just skipped those chapters.  Eliminate the TV commentary, and the book is 5 stars from me.

How to Be a Person in the World by Heather Havrilesky

Wow. An advice columnist I agree with ALL the time.  Who writes essay-length answers that include examples from her own life, but does not dwell solely on herself.  Who answers real, serious, interesting questions.  Who cheerleads for every one of the readers who write to her, not turning around and snarking on them for the amusement of the rest of us – though she tells a few that they are flat-out WRONG, she doesn’t do so in order to make a fun spectacle of them.  Couldn’t ask for a better read; I wish Polly were MY pal.

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