Figuring by Maria Popova – Book Review

The author of this book, Maria Popova is a well known curator of the excellent website brainpickings.org. Brain pickings has an eclectic collection of articles, books and other writings from various disciplines. Each post introduces a work followed by the author’s unique take on the creative work. This site has provided me tons of recommendations for what next to read. And that is why I jumped into this book as soon as i saw it on my recommended list on goodreads. If nothing else this book would be a treasure of trove of new paths to explore in my reading journey.

The book opens with a bang. It starts with a never-ending sentence that is probably one of the longest that I’ve ever read. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Tyco Brahe and Kepler. It brought back nostalgia of when I first read Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and found out how these individuals were as big contributors to the field of astronomy to the more famous names such as Galileo. I had started reading this book even without finding out what the book was about. And I thought the first chapter was giving me an idea of what to expect.

But after reading a few chapters, I feel I may have abandon this book because I still don’t have a clear picture of what the author is trying to say. The book flutters around constantly and introduces a lot of characters at the cost of clarity and coherence.

However, a few chapters down, I lost interest in the material due to the constant flitting back and forth, especially when the author is referencing quotes by others or transitioning into a new character. “A century later”, “Exactly seventeen years later”, “Fifteen centuries ago,” etc. It seemed like the author was trying too hard to fit these disparate thoughts by different individuals into a single narrative. It seemed forced, in my opinion, more like a collection of essays glued into a single narrative.

Moreover the author has used a lot of flowery language at many places when something simple would have sufficed. The opening sentence(if you can call it that) is a case in point. When you quote a lot of writings by other authors in your work, and the language of the quote is simpler than your interpretation of it, there is something going wrong. It feels like the author is trying to make an impression but failing.

I very much wanted to like this book because of the incomparable work that the author has done in building and maintaining the quality of brain pickings. But sadly the same does not translate in this work by her. And this book figuring will stay un-figured for me for quite some time.

Where the Crawdads Sing – Book Review

Suspension of disbelief. When I became old enough to understand what this phrase meant, I used it as a worthy ally in my book reading journey. Simply put, what it means is that to truly enjoy a movie, a book or any other form of fiction, you need to ignore some of the more “impossible” plot points in the creative work to derive a sense of enjoyment from it. So it is very important to put aside your critical faculties and not keep on saying WTF every time you encounter something that your mind can’t bend around.

So like any other work of fiction, I had this in my backpack as I picked up “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens. Rave reviews by celebrities helped bolster the feeling that I was in good company with this book.

“I can’t even express how much I love this book! I didn’t want this story to end!”–Reese Witherspoon

The coming of age story in this debut novel by the author is of a young girl, Kya, who lives in a marshland in North Carolina. Abandoned by her family, and ignored by the town at large, she learns to live in isolation but in touch with nature. Gradually, she learns to make a living by fishing, and selling her catch to a friendly family (a trader named Jumpin’) in town. Having no reason to attend school, she cannot read or write. But gradually, she even learns to read with the help of a one-time friend of her elder brother.

Like any coming of age story, she falls in love but after a couple of heartbreaks, she vows to never get fooled in love again and starts to prefer the company of her less human friends than to suffer another rejection. With lots and lots of time on her hand, and no one to disturb her, she starts doing what any other person would do. Write. With her extensive first-hand knowledge of the marshland, she pens down a few manuscripts on the flora and fauna of the area. Within a few years, she becomes a best-selling author, all this without having to meet her agent or publisher, or attend any marketing events! Using the royalties from her book, she even manages to renovate her familial home and even buy out a considerable portion of the marshland!

Now the clincher of the story, what makes this a murder mystery is the mysterious death of one of the inhabitants of the town. Unfortunately, the detectives assigned to the case make a buffoonish mess of the whole case by relying on circumstantial evidence to implicate the marsh girl as the prime suspect. Kya is arrested and held in a prison cell for a couple of months without trial. I particularly liked the way the author projected her time of isolation in the prison cell as a continuation of her isolation in the marsh. The book then ends with a short trial of the marsh girl as she is defended by a famous attorney – a white knight who magically appears in the story.

Now, why did I not like the book? Well, all of these events by themselves are alright. But somehow the entire set of events do not gel into a believable plot. Moreover the development of some of the characters is lacking. It is evident that the protagonists, her love interests and her friends get a sufficient number of pages to be explored and presented. But the side characters are merely cardboard cutouts – the detectives, the mysterious attorney, etc. Even Jumpin’ and his family are partly hidden in the shadows. Except for an episode each devoted to Jumpin’ and his wife, they are left underdeveloped. It would have helped to introduce a back-story for Kya’s attorney (as to why he would be willing to defend her pro bono), or the resort project that causes Kya to walk-in to the town office and walk out with the deed for the marshland in her hands. Oh, and the poetry? I simply skipped those parts without a second thought.

The author has written non-fiction before, however this is her first stab at a novel. So she could be forgiven for the flaws in the book. But this then becomes any other story about growing up, facing heart-break and rejection and then overcoming the odds to some extent. I had picked up this book because of the glowing reviews online and had read that it was a murder mystery. But in essence the book feels more like a YA, romance genre. Read this if you’re interested in living in the woods or learning about the marshland life. Else you are better off leaving the marsh girl in peace. Both you and her will be better off this way.

In Defense of Food – Book Review

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

This is in essence the entirety of the advice in the book. Ok, so should you skip the book and instead keep the above sentence in mind? No, because unless you have defined what food is, you would probably continue with your old eating habits. Therefore I fully sympathize with Michael Pollan when he says that it is surprising that he needs to defend or even define food. But it is not that simple. Here’s what I mean.

Imagine meeting your long lost friend from the past – someone who lives in the 19th century, or even the early 20th century. You take him to a supermarket and you ask him to “Buy some food.” Then imagine giving the same advice to someone who lives in the present. When both of them are done with their shopping, you would definitely realize that what food means to your present-day friend is way different than what it means to your historic friend from the past. Your long lost friend would have probably picked up fruits, vegetables, and some meat (if he could have recognized it in the slick packaging), while your present day friend would have probably picked up a few packets of Lays, his favourite soda and an assortment of candies. What the average person today thinks of food is way different than its traditional definition.

That is why reading the rest of the book is important. Today, there are more food-like substances gracing the shelves of our supermarkets than actual good old food. Every year thousands of new variations of old products are introduced, each bringing more extreme changes to the chemistry of the product. Today in America the culture of food is changing more than once a generation, which is historically unprecedented—and dizzying. Each of these carefully engineered products are stuffed down the consumers’ throats through rampant marketing and advertising, much of it questionable or even unethical.

There are quite a few thought provoking arguments that the author has made in defense of food. Years ago what you ate was a function of your culture, or what your parents or grand-parents said was good. Lately, mom has been put to the sidelines. Over the last several decades, mom lost much of her authority over the dinner menu, ceding it to scientists and food marketers. And just because the new coach is wearing a slick custom-fit suit or has a long list of educational qualifications, consumers are lapping up his advice. But unfortunately, in the long term the new coach’s advice is only harming the player.

The author argues that this new coach – the food marketers, and their game plan – the Western Diet, is one of the biggest culprit for the increased rate of disorders such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes. The human animal is well adapted to a great many different diets. The Western diet, however, is not one of them.

The author even goes on to make a bold claim questioning the entire science of nutrition because it is a flawed science that knows much less than it cares to admit. The focus on individual nutrients and their importance is seen in isolation by these nutrition scientists with the result being that food has been de-constructued into its partial constituents and then repackaged in convenient boxes supposedly fortified again by their nutrients. But the author argues that these reconstituted food-like substances cannot give the same benefits as the original food that they were derived from. So, eating oranges (with all its fiber) may be healthier than gulping down packaged orange juice (which may be nothing other than sugar, artificial flavouring and preservatives). Another example the author gives is of milk where scientists have failed to replicate the entire spectrum of nutrients that milk as a natural liquid provided compared to baby formula.

The scary thing about the whole matter is that inspite of this happening in full view of the government, the government is actually toothless to keep a strict check on such practices. Take for example the famous food pyramid, the US government has failed to completely avoid the influence of powerful industries that influence the advice that it gives out to the citizens. The story of the food pyramid is something that has been explored in Sugar Salt Fat, which is yet another excellent read for finding out about the power that corporations wield today in order to push their products further and more aggressively. This makes it clear that it is in the individual’s best interest to make sure that he or she makes the right eating choices because neither the government nor the food companies are going to do it for them.

The second part of the book expands the author’s single sentence advice further. The great thing about Pollan’s approach is that he does not advice you to track your macro-nutrients to the last ounce, nor is it obsessed on counting calories. The advice simply follows the traditional advice that would be prevalent in many cultures across the world, the kind that is given by your grandmother (and that you’re more likely to ignore). Michael Pollan carefully defines what food is. And he does that using simple and memorable rules. For example, DON’T EAT ANYTHING YOUR GREAT GRANDMOTHER WOULDN’T RECOGNIZE AS FOOD. This sentence is so simple that it almost seems obvious. Yet many people today would happily pickup something that comes in a colorful box, with its healthy benefits screaming from its packaging. Although the author doesn’t advice people to turn vegetarians, he does suggest that plants should be the major constituents of a healthy diet. Lastly, the adage of staying a little bit hungry at each meal is presented to help slow aging and prolong lifespan in animals.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. The author gives out the essence of the book within the first few lines itself. Yet the entire book is an interesting read to understand how food has mutated into an attractive yet unhealthy mixture of carefully engineered chemicals . Food has become less food, more foodish. Only once you distinguish this unholy mass from good old fashioned food, it will be possible for you to start eating your way to health.

This was my second read of the book and I’ll probably keep coming back to it a few more times in the years ahead. This is a must read if you’re planning to start out a new diet or even if you simply want to be more conscious and aware of what you put on your plate today.