Thursday, April 28, 2011

What to Eat by Marion Nestle

You may wonder how I read this 500 page book in two days. I just followed Nestle’s own instructions to read the chapters that interested me and to skim the rest. Contrary to the title, What to Eat is not a book that gives you advice. In fact, the book’s theme can be summed up in this one sentence from the final chapter:

Food choices are not all that complicated – you need to eat less, move more, eat lots of fruit and vegetables, and go easy on the junk food. But to do this you will have to recognize, and then deal with, the hidden ways in which food companies promote the opposite.

Every chapter of this book is devoted to a major food group such as yogurt, bread, milk, fish, vitamins, etc. Nestle explains how the food industry has blinded most consumers to the true nutritional value of these items. Much of what is labeled “healthy” is in fact candy with vitamins added. This was quite an eye-opening book. I appreciated Nestle for not being alarmist, while at the same time crediting me with the intelligence to make better choices after learning how many foods have been hyped up by marketing experts.

Get it from your local library. It’s very educational, but it isn’t anything you need to read more than once.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Classics for the Time-Challenged

In his article, 20 Novels You Can Read in One Sitting, Mark Nichol argues that even people with very little time can become acquainted with several great classics. I have read quite a few of the books on the list and they took more than one sitting (I'm a pretty fast reader too), but that may be because I was reading slowly to savor the well-written prose. To tell the truth, reading Wuthering Heights was slow going because I didn't like the characters and I had to force myself to finish. Anyway, I appreciate Nichol's list. It encouraged me to try a few new titles.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Heart Mender by Andy Andrews

The title makes it sound like a romance novel. Thank goodness it’s not. The cover makes it look like average Christian fiction. Thank goodness it’s not. The fact that it is a New York Times best-seller makes it look like pop culture tripe. Thank goodness it’s not!

Frankly, I opened The Heart Mender with low expectations because of all its above-mentioned qualities. But I was soon lost in a real page turner. The book appealed to me on many levels. I love World War II history, I love a good story, and I love redemptive themes. Andy Andrew (Who is this guy, anyway?) weaves quite a tale and the fact that it is based on true events makes it all the more fascinating. I read it in two sittings because I could barely put it down.

Helen is a bitter war widow. Wan is the deputy who has a crush on her. Danny is the autistic boy who teaches her about forgiveness. And Josef is the man who washes up on the beach near her house and changes all their lives.

Two factors might make it less appealing to some: A small sprinkling of profanity, and borderline “preachiness”. I have read Christian novels that lay the morals on pretty thickly, so I thought Andrews was restrained in comparison. All in all, a very pleasant read.

A sample of Andrew’s prose:
She carefully picked her way through the dunes, seeking to avoid the occasional cactus or sandspur that grew low to the ground. The sea oats waved toward the young woman, bowing at the insistence of the wind coming off the Gulf. It blew Helen’s blonde hair into her face and assaulted her sense with a pungent, heavy salt smell that, in someone else’s life, she knew, might be welcome, even pleasurable. To Helen, though, the wind was just one more nemesis, something else to fight… (p. 105)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Hearts West by Chris Enss

Hearts West is a fascinating book recounting the courage (or, in some cases, desperation) of hundreds of single young women at the end of the 19th century in search of husbands. The idea may sound ludicrous, even humorous, to we moderns, but the book makes a very clear case for the necessity of such a phenomenon. Thousands of men had gone west to either dig for gold or buy up land. Thousands of others had been killed in the Civil War, making marriagable males as scarce as hen's teeth. Without time or money to travel back and forth for courting, many men and women began corresponding (via a paper called The Matrimonial News) and eventually became engaged through the mail. When they finally met, a few were disappointed with their correspondents, but most found happiness. Hearts West gives snippets of their histories which only whet my appetite for more.

Fortunately, I already had a book written by one of the brides mentioned in Hearts West. Elinore Pruitt Stewart was a widow with a little girl who answered an ad for a housekeeper in Wyoming. Although she did not go West searching for romance, she and her employer fell in love and married. Her book, Letters of a Woman Homesteader, is a collection of anecdotes she sent to a friend describing her new life. Her sense of humor and “joie de vivre” get her through many a trial and make her an endearing heroine.

December 1912
Dear Mrs. Coney, I have often wished I might tell you all about my Clyde, but have not because of two things. One is I could not even begin without telling you what a good man he is, and I didn’t want you to think I could do nothing but brag. The other reason is the haste I married in…. But although I married in haste, I have no cause to repent. That is very fortunate because I have never had one bit of leisure to repent in. So I’m lucky all around.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The New Woman by Jon Hassler

Hassler has written another engaging installment in the life of Agatha McGee who at the age of eighty-eight reluctantly moves into the Sunset Senior Apartments. The New Woman recounts her attempts at building friendships, but more importantly her success at regaining her self-respect as she carves out a new life.

What else can I tell you? I can’t help but love this heroine. Even at eighty-eight she’s stretching and growing. She always yearns to do what’s right. In this particular story she follows her heart and breaks the law. Horrified, she confesses to her priest who assures her that though her action was illegal, it was not immoral. Agatha breathes a huge sigh of relief because she doesn’t mind going to jail as long as she hasn’t broken her moral code.

The blurbs on the cover of Hassler’s books compare them to Jan Karon’s Mitford books, but they are not as squeaky clean. Also, several of the subplots in this book are a little farfetched, but I could overlook them for the pleasure of spending a few hours with my friend Agatha.

I thought this was the third of the Miss McGee books, but a careful reading of the reviews at Amazon revealed another book, previous to this one (The Staggerford Flood). Happily, PBS had a copy and it’s on its way to me. If I had a complaint against The New Woman, it would be that James O’Hannon (who played a large part in the other two books) is described in only a few sentences. I would have liked to know more of what happened to him.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Quote on Literature by Arnold Bennett

A tasty tidbit from Arnold Bennett’s Literary Taste: How to Form It (1909)

The aim of literary study is not to amuse the hours of leisure; it is to awake oneself, it is to be alive, to intensify one’s capacity for pleasure, for sympathy, and for comprehension. It is not to affect one hour, but twenty-four hours. It is to change utterly one’s relations with the world… The spirit of literature is unifying; it joins the candle and the star, and by the magic of an image shows that the beauty of the greater is in the less.
It is well to remind ourselves that literature is first and last a means of life, and that the enterprise of forming one’s literary taste is an enterprise of learning how best to use this means of life. People who don’t want to live, people who would sooner hibernate than feel intensely, will be wise to eschew literature. They had better, to quote from the finest passage in a fine poem, “sit around and eat blackberries.” The sight of a “common bush afire with God” might upset their nerves.