CBR-V Review #58: Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss

I’m really interested in books on food/food systems, and I was excited to find a copy of this book (which has been getting a lot of buzz) available at the library, as I’d heard good things and the subject matter is right up my alley.

You may know Michael Moss as the guy who broke the “pink slime” story a little while back, so he’s definitely well qualified to write a book investigating the secrets of the processed-foods industry. He’s a great writer, and presents his information in a really compelling and fascinating way, never letting his ideas and the insane facts he’s presenting get bogged down by jargon or too much science. He never dumbs it down, though, and I liked the balance he strikes, incorporating just enough studies and scientific principles to ground his claims.

The basic concept of the book is fairly simple, charting the rise of the processed-foods industry, primarily through the use of three key ingredients: the titular salt, sugar, and fat. Moss details the ways in which each ingredient is used to create maximum pleasure and to create what essentially amounts to an addiction to the products that the biggest food companies in the world (think Coca-Cola, Kraft, etc.) put out–which has in turn resulted in an obesity epidemic for the American people, and unbelievable wealth for those leading the industry.

I think it’s pretty easy to fall into preachiness when it comes to topics like processed foods, and the fact that Moss  never does is impressive. He does an excellent job of examining the socio-economic factors that come into play when it comes to the consumption of processed foods, and many of the details he reveals about the industry’s marketing methods and selling tactics make it clear that a lot of our nation’s eating problems can’t always be blamed on individual citizens–there’s a lot of really messed up stuff going on behind the scenes. I also appreciated how Moss humanizes the people working in the industry–it’s a job, and they’re human beings, and while it’s easy to get up in the “corporate evil” mindset, it’s important to remember that it’s not quite so black and white. A lot of the people Moss interviews seem like pretty decent people, and many of them are creative and driven and excited by the science and, in a way, the art behind what they do. That being said, he does reveal hypocrisies when they appear–many of the higher-ups at the big processed foods companies refuse to consume their own products, citing health reasons, for example.

My one complaint is that Moss was a bit repetitive, and kept redefining words or reexplaining concepts that he’d already gone over in earlier chapters, which was a little unnecessary. Otherwise, though, this is a great read, and if you have any interest in learning more about the science of food and the complexities of the food industry, I’d highly recommend this book. And if you’re not someone who’s interested in this, I’d recommend it anyway–it’s an eye-opening read and, I think, an important one.

CBR-V Review #57: The Best American Short Stories 2012, edited by Tom Perrotta

I get this collection every year for Christmas, and have been for a number of years. I typically pick it up and read one or two stories and then put it down in favor of a novel…and then forget to come back to it. It’s a bad pattern, and I feel like I miss out on some good writing by doing it–I really love short stories, and they’re perfect for pre-bedtime reading or for when you don’t have the mindspace to take on a longer, meatier book. A new goal of mine has been to revisit some of my (many) unread short story collections, and maybe just try to have one ongoing at all times.

Anyway, I really love the Best American collection(s) because of how much they vary from year to year. The collection is so dependent on the guest editor of the year’s tastes, and I like thinking about how the editor’s picks relate to their own work. Sometimes there’s no overlap, and sometimes the collections surprise you by being really, really good (I didn’t expect to like Salman Rushdie’s as much as I did), or not so good (I didn’t love Steven King’s). I was excited to read Tom Perrotta’s because I love his writing and style and I had a hunch that his collection would feature some gems. I was, fortunately, right! This was one of my favorites out of the Best American collections I’ve read so far. Perrotta says: “I like stories written in plain, artful language about ordinary people. I’m wary of narrative experiments and excessive stylistic virtuosity, suspicious of writing that feels exclusive or elitist, targeted to readers with graduate degrees rather than the general public, whatever that means.” The stories are very much in that vein–not experimental or esoteric, just plain old good writing.

Story collections are hard to review, so I’ll just do a quick rundown of my favorite and least favorite pieces. It’s hard to pick favorites because so many of them were excellent, but “North Country” by Roxane Gay–about an out-of-place black woman finding love in northern Michigan–and “Axis” by Alice Munro–the story of two women, from college to old age, and how the choices we make as young people shape our futures in unexpected ways were standouts. There weren’t many I didn’t like, but Lawrence Osborne’s “Volcano,” in which a divorcée travels to Hawaii for a seminar on lucid dreaming, was a definite weak point for me.

I find that short stories can be pretty polarizing and reading them is where people’s true tastes appear. That being said, I loved this collection and wholeheartedly recommend it but I’ve seen mixed reviews online so I think this really comes down to personal preference. Give it a shot and see what you think!

 

 

CBR-V Review #56: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani

This book is a really good example of how important a novel’s title is. I barely knew anything about this book before I started reading it, other than the fact that it was supposed to be good, but the title totally sold me on it. Authors, take note! A creative and unique title will always grab my attention. As for the book itself, although it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its excellent title, it’s pretty great.

Thea Atwell is a Floridian girl growing up during the Depression. We meet her as she’s on her way to the eponymous camp/school, a place for young women of means to learn how to be well-rounded ladies. The reason for her departure from her family is, at first, unknown; all that is revealed is that she did something bad, so bad that her parents can’t look her in the eye and her twin brother, Sam, won’t speak to her. As Thea’s past is revealed through flashbacks to her old life, she discovers her new world, one of horseback riding, schoolgirl crushes, and the complexities of teenage girls.

The best thing about this book is DiSclafani’s writing style. This book is atmospheric and gorgeous, and really transports you. I’ve been enjoying Southern writers a lot, lately, especially women like Karen Russell, who takes on a landscape that isn’t often recognized for its inherent beauty and simply celebrating it, and DiSclafani absolutely follows that tradition. Thea is also a good protagonist, for the most part, and there’s a sense of balance in her character, a push and pull between strength and weakness, fear and confidence, propriety and independence. I also really liked seeing the interpersonal relationships between the girls at Yonahlossee, and appreciated that the author doesn’t let the minor characters fulfill predictable stereotypes in a book about teenage girls (the rich bitch, for example, is far from a bully, and the strange girl with no friends has hidden depth, for example). DiSclafani also uses flashbacks effectively, and I really liked the “old life” sections of the book (maybe more than the Yonahlossee sections, actually). When I was reading the blurbs on the book jacket before I delved into the book itself, I thought it was sort of weird that two authors quoted both called this novel “sexy,” but after reading it, that’s a very good way to describe it. Without going into too much detail/giving away the plot, I’ll just say that DiSclafani writes sex scenes very, very well.

I did have some problems with the novel, though, namely that Thea’s motivations are kind of hard to understand at times–it doesn’t seem like she ever really thinks things through at all, and I never understood why she chooses to do the things she does. I couldn’t tell if DiSclafani was trying to make her out as a badass who defies societal expectations, because I often just found her to be kind of dumb and impulsive. I also felt like DiSclafani could have given a bit more nuance to the two big events of the book–it sort of ties back to Thea’s thought processes, but I felt like these two major moments just sort of happened really quickly without any kind of logical build-up, which was confusing and frustrating.

Overall, though, it’s a good read, and my issues with the book were outweighed by the many things I really did enjoy.

CBR-V Review #55: Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

I am generally a huge Sittenfeld fan–Prep is one of my favorites, and I read American Wife last year for CBR-IV and liked it a lot–so when I heard she was coming out with a new book, I knew I had to get my hands on it ASAP.

I was SO disappointed.

Sisterland is about Violet (Vi), and Daisy (known almost exclusively as Kate in her adult life), twin sisters who, despite being polar opposites, share one very important trait: they both have ESP. Vi, the hippy-dippy, free-spirited sister embraced her “senses,” choosing a career as a psychic, whereas Kate, the uptight suburban housewife, has effectively banished her gift and never speaks of it to anyone. When Vi (very publicly) predicts a devastating earthquake, Kate finds herself caught up in the chaos, and must evaluate her relationships with her sister, her husband, and her past self.

The more I think about this book, the more I realize how much I disliked it. To start, Kate is the worst. Seriously, I understand having flawed narrators but Kate was totally insufferable. She was petty and totally neurotic and I could. not. stand. her. It was just not fun being inside her head because I found her to just be a really unpleasant person–all she did was complain. It was hard to figure out whether or not I was supposed to like her–I don’t know if Sittenfeld thought she was creating a flawed and complex but ultimately endearing character, or if she knew her protagonist was hateable (which I doubt). Also, there was no plot. The whole plot is basically an excuse for lengthy, in-depth flashbacks of Kate’s childhood and life up until the story’s present, and the actual “action” of the story (the present tense) is like a third of the whole book. And the conclusion is incredibly frustrating, not to mention downright stupid, and eye-roll worthy.

There are definitely some good parts, and I actually think that if Kate’s awful personality had been toned down and the story had been about twins growing up with a secret power, and the effects of that power on their individual selves and their relationship, it could have been way better. But instead, it’s just kind of a soapy mess that is far, far, far from the sharp wit of Prep or the warmth of American Wife. It’s well-written, for sure, and I can’t deny that I was pretty engrossed in the story, but it was ultimately a failure for me.

CBR-V Review #54: It Had to Be You by Cecily von Ziegesar

So, I’m embarrassed that I am a 23-year-old reviewing a Gossip Girl book. Sometimes, though, when things are stressful, I just have to read something totally mindless and shallow and this was exactly what I needed. These books are the ultimate guilty pleasure–frothy and silly and easy. I was a huge fan of this series back when I was fourteen or fifteen, and read most of the books back then, but this one came out after I’d moved on from the series.

It Had to Be You is a prequel to the series, taking place in the year before the events of the first Gossip Girl book. To the uninitiated, the premise of the series is that an anonymous, omnipresent person runs a blog narrating the goings-on of a group of spoiled, extremely wealthy New York teenagers. We’ve got Blair, the uptight Park Avenue princess, and her best friend, Serena, a gorgeous and flighty socialite-in-training, both of whom are in love with their childhood friend, Nate. There’s also Dan, a Brooklyn hipster with an unrequited crush on Serena (who doesn’t even know he exists), his younger sister Jenny, who is also obsessed with Serena (and obsessed with growing breasts), and Vanessa, a transplant from rural Vermont who falls head-over-heels for Dan. Got that?

There’s not much plot to these books–they’re more like tabloids, highlighting the crazy exploits, hook-ups, and fantasy lives of a select few. Gossip Girl herself serves as an excellent kind of one-woman Greek chorus, interjecting and commenting on the events she’s reporting in a snarky, oftentimes hilarious way. For a trashy teen book, the characters are surprisingly well-drawn for the most part; Blair and Serena especially transcend any stereotypes they might be associated with (less so in this book than in others, but it still generally holds true here).

I do want to comment on this book from the perspective of someone who has read the rest of the series already: in terms of being a satisfying prequel (in that it reveals new information or feels, in another way, like a worthwhile addition to the series), it falls a bit flat. I did like getting a bit more insight into Serena and Nate’s relationship, and that piece of this book helps explain and add depth to things that happen in later books, and I enjoyed seeing how Vanessa and Dan became friends (the backstory on Jenny’s boobs is also pretty funny). Other things, though, felt shoe-horned in, like Blair’s Audrey Hepburn obsession, or how Dan became a poet, were just sort of dropped into the story without any lead-up and just felt too obvious. It kind of annoyed me how all of these really significant character traits just happened to occur just a year before the series starts.

Anyway, this book was just okay, but I wasn’t expecting anything mind-blowing. It was a fun way to spend a few hours, and the nostalgia factor (bringing me back to high school when I was really into these books) was nice, too. If you’re new to the series, I’d just start out with the real first book, and if you’re an old fan, this is by no means essential for you to read–but you’ll probably like it if you do!

CBR-V Review #53: The Love Song of Johnny Valentine by Teddy Wayne

This is one of those books that I a little bit about a while back and written down on my to-read “list” (which is actually about ten front-and-back pages of a Moleskine notebook) and then randomly saw in the library and, vaguely remembering it as something I should read, picking it up. That basically means I go into it with zero expectations and only a very general sense of what it’s about. I kind of like those books, sometimes, because it leaves me open to being surprised.

Jonny Valentine is very, very good, much better than I would have expected based on the plot description. The title character is a Justin Bieber-esque eleven-year-old pop sensation who is in the last few weeks of his nationwide tour to promote his second album which, so far, has not been as successful as his first. Amid pressure from both his label and his mom/manager, Jane, Jonny struggles between the normal urges and desires of a pre-teen boy and the fact that his life is, undeniably, anything but normal.

I’ll admit that even just based on that sort of cheesy summary, I would have read this book, because I’m all about celebrity stories and Behind the Music-style éxposés. This book definitely transcends that, though, and is a legitimately interesting, disturbing, and creative look at the effects of stardom. It’s slightly post-modern–not enough to turn me off (I generally don’t enjoy the style), and not enough to turn this into a satire, but just enough to give you a funny feeling that while the things being described are totally bizarre, it’s actually closer to reality than we might like to admit.

I wouldn’t necessarily call Jonny an exciting main character; he is, by virtue of his age and the first-person perspective, a very unreliable narrator, and he doesn’t have the insight or wit that makes other famous child narrators (Huck Finn, Scout Finch, among others) great. He’s more a vehicle for us to see the warped world that he lives in, and Wayne does a great job of highlighting the two opposing sides of his mind. On one hand there’s the actual eleven-year-old, who is discovering his budding sexuality, hasn’t yet gone through puberty, loves video games, and likes it when his Mom tucks him into bed. And then there’s the adult side of Jonny, who can talk about target markets and demographics like a forty-year-old business man, who’s constantly aware of his diet and exercise habits, and who acts like no eleven-year-old I’ve ever met. I went back and forth quite a bit on whether I thought Wayne should have made Jonny a little older, because again, eleven is so young. But then again, I think keeping Jonny so young gave Wayne the opportunity to make some subtle but strong points about the sexualization of the not-yet-sexual, and maybe it’s just the fact that this is less common with boys than it is with girls especially in this day and age of shows like Toddlers and Tiaras that I found an issue with it.

Anyway, my point is that unreliable narrators are always an iffy challenge for an author to take on, simply because you risk alienating the reader or having the reader not understand things. In this case, I thought it worked pretty well–it was more jarring than anything to read about things happening and understand them while Jonny couldn’t because of his age and lack of understanding. I think relating to Jonny was a bit difficult, simply because his childhood experience was so far from mine and, because this was told in the present tense, there’s no adult perspective to provide depth and insight and flesh out his childish observations. I certainly felt sorry for Jonny, but he was just kind of a blank canvas as a character in a lot of ways. Which, come to think of it, could be part of the point–as with many tween/teen idols, part of the appeal is a kind of a genericism, in order to make every fan, regardless of age or personality or physical appearance, feel like they could have a shot.

This is, again, a great book, and one that makes you think a lot. Definitely recommended, even if you’re not a fan of teeny-bopper idols.