Thursday, August 04, 2011

I am the messenger born to run at home: what to eat?

(Sorry, I couldn't resist combining all the book titles into one sentence.)

I Am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak. (3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads) I want to write a really thoughtful, nuanced review of why this book didn't live up to what it could (so easily!) have been, but I don't think that's going to happen.

So I'll just say this: I Am the Messenger is a victim of the YA lit vs. Adult lit trap. It tries to straddle the divide, not knowing which category it truly belongs to, which audience it should really play to, and as a result, it falls into the abyss.

If you knocked the ages of the main characters down a few years and took out the completely gratuitous scattered profanity and (usually oblique) sexual references, this is a YA book to its core. However, the story, as written, wouldn't work that way. In order for the book to unfold as it does, the characters need to be as old as they are (19-20ish). Zusak has them doing things and living in ways that advance the story in essential ways but wouldn't make sense with younger characters.



So fine, keep the characters the ages they are. Keep the profanity and sexual references, if you must. But then the magic is gone. YA lit is lovely in that it allows you to spin a story that is a little less brutal, a little less gritty, a little less realistic. YA lit can play fast and loose with metaphysical, dreamy endings that its readers will embrace. I Am the Messenger definitely takes advantage of that liberty, but it wants everything else to inhabit an adult lit world.

It didn't work for me, even though I really wanted it to. While I do feel like this book made me think, ultimately I don't think I can recommend it. It's sad, too, because if Zusak took out the adult stuff, this book could easily be on par with something like When You Reach Me - sweet, uplifting, and of value to anyone who picks it up, no matter their age.

Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall. (3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads) Aside from the author's inexplicable, sneering hate for all things Nike, and an odd diversion into human evolution, this was quite an enjoyable ride through the world of ultrarunning. The writing style was a bit gimmicky (a typical chapter ending goes something like, "little did he know that those ten words would almost lead to his DEATH the next day!!!!!!!") but it did keep things interesting.

Because essentially, this book talks about people running long distances for days on end. That can get dry if it's not given the proper treatment, and for the most part, this book gives it the proper treatment. It spices up the story with real-life, interesting-to-the-point-of-eccentric characters, and along the way, makes a great case for running barefoot.

The one thing that kept me from really loving this book was that I didn't really know what it was going to be about for far too long into the book. Maybe it needs a better subtitle, or maybe the author should have toned down the suspense in the early pages, or maybe I need to stop being so gullible when I read sentences like, "but would [so-and-so's] rash action put the entire operation in jeopardy?" It just took too long for me to get a handle on the fact that YES, don't worry, the greatest race takes place, so relax and enjoy the ride (read).

At Home, by Bill Bryson. (4.5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads) At Home is like the domestic version of A Short History of Nearly Everything (which I loved). I can even almost imagine that it is made up of segments of A Short History that ended up on the cutting room floor - the tone, feel, and flow are so similar. I thought the book got a little shaky toward the end - it seemed like he was bending the premise to what he had written, rather than the other way around - but honestly, I could listen to Bill Bryson talk about anything for a good long while before getting even remotely bored.

What to Eat, by Marion Nestle. (5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads) What to Eat is the antidote to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Where AVM screeched and keened about how eating certain foods makes us horrible people, What to Eat is an unemotional guide to making informed food choices. I would call this a crash course in nutrition, but 'crash' is not the best word to use. It is a robust, honest-to-goodness course in all things food, with its narrative structured according to the shelves and sections you'd find in a supermarket. When I picked up this book, I was at first dismayed by its size and thought that maybe I'd end up flipping through it and reading brief selections, but no: I read the whole thing straight through. It was that interesting (and informative).

Marion Nestle (that's the author's name, and she has no relation to the food company) believes that you shouldn't tell people what to eat and expect them to do it blindly; she is a fan of the informed choice, and that makes all the difference. If you are informed about the ingredients and manufacturing process that goes into an Oreo, and you still want to eat it, that's ok. (She even admits that she personally prefers the Oreo recipe from before they eliminated the trans fats.) But armed with the facts, you can make a better decision about how many Oreos you should eat, and how often you should eat them. That is my kind of nutritionist!

There is also plenty of insight into food issues such as why it was ok for you to eat raw cookie dough when you were a kid - but why you shouldn't let your own children do that today.

I was also impressed to notice that many of the issues Nestle raises in this book, which was published in 2006 - trans fats, organics, country of origin labeling, HFCS, etc. - have really hit the spotlight in recent years. What to Eat is almost prescient in that respect.

I am so glad I read this book, and one change I'm planning on making in my family's food consumption habit is to look more closely at the labels of boxed cereals. I didn't realize how many cereals that I considered NON-"sugar" cereals (like Rice Krispies), actually have sugar as one of their main ingredients.

1 comment:

Jen said...

I really love Bill Bryson. Have you read "I'm A Stranger Here Myself"? It's fantastic....

I'm about 3/4 of the way through "A Walk In The Woods," which is about his Appalachian Trail adventure. The language is *colorful*, but Bill Bryson is great.

Glad to find another fan.!

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