Category Archives: Books

Book Report: In Defence of Food

I admit it: I’m way late to this party. Michael Pollen is kind of a big name in the food activist (for lack of a better term) circles, and I only just got around to reading one of his books.

I started with In Defence of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, which was published waaaaay back in 2008, because it was available first at my local library. In it, Pollan explains his food mantra: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” which is fairly similar to my personal food mantra: “Eat food. Like, real food. [heavy exasperated sigh when people ask what, specifically, I mean] You know, fooooooooood.” But while I just keep repeating and elongating the word “food” and making increasingly emphatic hand gestures, Pollan actually takes the time to clearly describe what he means, making his argument far more convincing than mine. Because he’s a journalist by trade, and I’m a former dance major. Also because he’s a showoff.

Pollan begins by shedding light on the faulty science behind what he terms “nutritionism,” a reductionist approach to food, eating, and nutrition on which the entire Western diet is based. He suggests (rather convincingly, I might add) that fat and cholesterol in the diet do not cause higher rates of coronary disease, that, in fact, the lipid hypothesis is erroneous and unsubstantiated. He then goes on to suggest (again, rather convincingly) that studying the individual elements of a particular food ignores the more important interaction of the whole, leading to fads (low fat! more antioxidants! dha supplements!) that simply don’t work out of context.

In the remainder of the book, Pollan expounds on each of three main points. “Eat food” becomes a discussion on the difference between food and food-like substances. “Not too much,” obviously, focuses on quantity, serving sizes, etc. And “mostly plants” discusses the ratio of meat to plants. Which makes this an entirely unnecessary paragraph because you could’ve figured all that out for your own. Right then. Moving on.

The book, perhaps, goes on a bit too long (in that those three points described in the previous paragraph don’t really require much elaboration) but Pollan’s writing style somehow manages to be studious and conversational, so it’s hard to mind a few extra pages. And really, the book is pretty short and a quick read even at that. I found it informative and enjoyable enough to move his previous book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, to the top of my library queue.

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Book Report: Living the Good Life

It all began with the urge to can.

I woke up one morning, threw my legs over the edge of my bed, and silently asked myself what I wanted to do with the day. The response was immediate and completely inexplicable: I wanted to can peaches.  I ended up doing something much more mundane that day – something like cleaning the kitchen, most likely – but the urge remained. It remained, and it grew. A few months later I found myself immersed in a Mondo Beyondo exercise, furiously writing down every crazy dream that popped into my head. Among the far-reaching and outlandish (like being a guest on The Daily Show or living in Italy) were a number of more simple dreams: repurpose old belongings; learn to sew; garden without killing; live greener; teach my children to “farm”; grow my own food; can foods for winter. And, in the same theme, one big one: live an entire year without buying anything new. Wow. That’s a lofty goal. But I ran with it for a while (and it, in fact, was what led me to start this blog) and did a bit of research and, in so doing, ran across a most interesting sounding book.

Living the Good Life: How One Family Changed Their World from Their Own Back Yard, by Linda Cockburn.

Living the Good Life cover

The book is essentially a journal, documenting the family’s attempt to live for six months without spending any money. They were already pretty well set up for such an endeavor (solar power, rain collections, established food garden, etc.), but they kicked it into overdrive for the six month experiment. Given my similar goal (though one I am not at all prepared to attempt), I found the book fascinating. Cockburn tells the tale of their six months with humor and a healthy dose of self-depreciation. She’s also frank about their missteps along the way, which keeps the book from being preachy and keeps the idea of self-sustainability approachable. (It’s not so intimidating an idea once the expectation of perfection is removed.) Cockburn intersperses her journal entries with informative data on everything from national (Australian) water usage to the various types of composting toilets. It’s a very good example of what “regular” people can do to live a more enviro-friendly life, and I highly recommend reading it if you’re at all interested in just what it takes to get off the grid – or to at least rely on it a little less heavily.

I had to actually buy the book from Amazon since the Seattle Public Library doesn’t have a single copy (maybe it was only distributed in Australia?), but I kept it green by gifting my copy to my mom at Christmas. It’s nice to have family that appreciates a well loved hand-me-down!

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