Thursday, April 24, 2008

Jeffrey Eugenides: Middelsex

I realize it's been nearly three weeks since I've posted here, and it's not that I haven't been reading but have simply been busy with other things. It seems that no matter how busy I get, reading is the one thing that I always have time for! Even if only for a few minutes before turning the lights out at night...

I finished Middelsex by Jeffrey Eugenides about two weeks ago, but did not find the time to sit down and post about it then, although I wanted to. The book is incredible, impressive and I got completely caught up in the story. Which surprised me, because when I first heard what the book was about, I had a hard time imagining being interested in it.

The story is about Callie Stephanides, a girl growing up in Detroit in the 1960's and 70's, the three generations of her Greek-American family, and her discovery as a teenager, that she is actually genetically a boy and the impact this has on her and the family.

This is a brilliant epic novel, and at the same time an intimate portrait. I loved the tale of the grandparents' immigration from Greece to America, their adjustment to life in Detroit, the portrait of Detroit itself through the years, and the way the family's life was depicted. I could totally relate to Callie's insecurities as a pre-teen girl (didn't we all feel ugly and awkward and insecure?) which for her became magnified a million times over by the discovery of her true identity.

I am including this novel in my "Book around the world" challenge for the United States, because I feel the novel, through its portrait of immigrants making their way in the new culture, assimilating but at the same time holding onto old traditions, tells us a lot about what is was like for so many millions of people who came to America. I am very interested in genealogy and how it must have been for them. The novel also gives us a view of a major American city, Detroit, and the way it changed over the years, through immigration, poverty and racial tensions.

It is a novel with many layers. And it is all so beautifully written and every character so fully alive and real! My only regret: I would love to hear the rest of the story of Cal and Julie and what happens to them in Berlin.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Maarten 't Hart: Het Dovenmansorendieet

Sorry to be going on again about a book in Dutch but my husband brought this home from the library and it was so good, I wanted to put an entry in about it. I have no idea if it might be translanted into English, but I'll try to give you an idea about it here.

Maarten 't Hart is a very well known Dutch novelist, whose books are required reading in school here. I had never heard of him, but my husband had to read him in secondary school. He also writes essays on various interesting subjects, like a recent book on composers and a scientific study of rats (!).

This book, of which the title could be translated as "The Falling on Deaf Ears Diet" is a very personal account of 't Hart's take on food and the point or pointlessness of trying to lose weight. The author lets us know right off the bat that he is a tall, thin, rather ascetic person, and has never really had a weight problem. His thesis is that, being thin and never having had a weight problem (except for the short time he lived with an overweight aunt and her family and ate what they ate), he might be able to help people who do have a weight problem by explaining to them his food habits.

The interesting thing, in reading the book, is that from his so interestingly described childhood in the Netherlands after the war, living through food shortages and austere meals at home, he comes full circle to a nearly vegan diet today, but perhaps not for the classic reasons. For example, while he does feel that fish and seafood must have been a very healthy part of human diet in the past, he simply cannot recommend eating it today because of the devastation to the oceans and the high risk of toxin contamination. He simply cannot bring himself to buy fish anymore. As far as dairy is concerned, he is a self-professed cheese lover, but limits himself because of the high fat and salt content, and recommends that people in the Netherlands should really cut back on their high dairy consumption, also citing Colin Campbell's work in "The China Study" (the book that originally got me on the path to veganism). As a young man he worked for a time in a local butcher and he says that after seeing what they put in all their sausages, cold cuts and other prepared meat products, he never ate them again. Finally, one of his most interesting theories about why so many people struggle with obesity today is that they simply drink too much, whether it be soft drinks, alcohol, or even water. Looking back, he says that people never drank so much in the past as they do today, and thinks the trend today whereby we constantly have something to drink is unnecessary.

For people who are interested in losing weight, he recommends:
- eat lots of laxative foods (fruit, veg, pulses, whole grains)
- moderation with bread, rice, pasta and other carbohydrate-rich foods
- get plenty of exercise
- avoid alcohol, sugar, packaged food "products" and all junk foods

Foods he recommends: quinoa, teff, amarant, buckwheat and other whole grains, brown rice, pulses, fruits and vegetables, potatoes (only boiled or steamed), rye and spelt breads, red wine (no more than two glasses a day), every day a handful of almonds, pumpkin seeds and dried apricots, all kinds of nuts, especially walnuts, olive oil, dark chocolate, tea, sea vegetables, and mushrooms, and quorn.

He does veer from vegan diets in that he also recommends butter (in moderation), yogurt, young cheese (preferably goat or sheep), buttermilk, cottage cheese and eggs - but he is able to obtain these products from a local dairy farmer who produces them biologically and without salt. Not everyone is able to get this kind of quality and freshness, and the guarantee that there are no hormones or other added uglies. My personal experience with eliminating dairy is that it can have profound health effects. Perhaps if one was able to get very high quality dairy to use in small amounts it might not be so detrimental. As for the eggs, he only uses eggs from his own chickens who live freely in his yard and eat lots of yummy weeds full of healthy omega 3's, but just this week the Belgian food agency released a study that shows home-produced eggs actually have higher levels of dioxins and other toxins than store bought eggs!

Finally, as above, he would recommend fish and seafood, if it were not for the environmental implications of those industries. And he says that anyone who wants to eat meat should be required to slaughter the animal themselves.

This book, while not very thick, was chock full of "food for thought" and completely took me by surprise in how he ends up promoting a near-vegan diet. At times the book reminds me of Michael Pollan's book "In Defense of Food" (he quotes Pollan many times). He is also an excellent writer and a real intellectual! Highly recommended to anyone who is as interested in food and health as I am.

Maarten 't Hart. Het Dovenmansorendieet. Arbeiderspers, 2007.