Mud, Blood, and Gold

Note to self: sometimes, just hearing an author recap his story on a rainy Friday afternoon is enough, no need to actually get the book and read it. And that’s the case here, where my experience at the author reading was so much more rewarding than actually picking up the book and getting 80% of the way through. Think about that– I’m almost done and I’m not pushing through to finish. Why? Writing quality is pretty average, and he’s not telling me anything new.
Before the gold rush, San Francisco (or rather, Yerba Buena), was a sleepy port town. And then gold was discovered near Sutter’s mill in the hills outside Sacramento, causing hordes of people to enter the city on a quest for profits.
* Grizzly bear sighting near 1st/Harrison
* Chamber pots sold for $96 in gold dust
* Average wage was $1/day for clerks in Boston, average wage in the gold fields: $16-$40, so they came in droves
* Make friends with the town surveyor, get streets named after you (Geary, Hyde, Leavenworth)

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What to Eat

Awesome look into the world of food politics and nutrition as Nestle leads us down each aisle in the grocery store to break down what those confusing labels mean and why they’re there. Each chapter ends with a recap of how she recommends you proceed (e.g. for produce, the priority order is 1- organic and locally farmed, 2- organic, 3- conventionally grown and locally farmed, 4 – conventionally grown).
This reinforced a lot of common sense ideas about shopping the perimeter of the store for the best unprocessed foods (produce, dairy). I also learned how milk is broken down into its various categories (skim, 1%, 2%) through separation and reconstitution, including whole milk. This is done to remove the cream from the watery whey. Skim milk has the same amount of calcium as whole milk.
The politics surrounding rbST labeling (FDA won’t make the call that rbST is bad for cows/humans, but ultimately cows that are injected with rbST have higher incidence of infection and thus antibiotics that get into the milk) involve evil Monsanto.
Yogurt is simply a desert- 12g of sugar, but there might be favorable results from the friendly bacteria.
Fish higher up in the food chain (predators) generally have higher mercury levels. Smaller fish like tilapia and salmon are better than tuna. Imitation crab meat (surimi) is lacking all nutritional content, made up of smaller fish rinsed and pressed into a block and liquefied.
Whole grains are good for you (shocking!), and when the whole grains are sold in most breads, they’re just disguising white bread.
Stay away from high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
Juices are ok, but high in calories. Ones with pulp are best, since pulp is where the nutrients are.
Solid vegetable oils are high in saturated fats. If it’s solid, it’s saturated.
Vegetable oil that’s not specific about its origin is usually soy oil.
Further resources:
USDA Food Composition Tables
Safe fish list
Marion Nestle’s blog

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The Sugar Addict’s Total Recovery Program

Yeah, what the hell was I thinking? What started as a semi-joke turned serious when I actually cracked this book to sample its contents. I’m going to start with the positive: if this book can get published, I could write a book about how to cook spaghetti that should get published. I mean, it’s all kind of wrong. The writing, bad. The advice, bad.
Here’s a sample of the advice: eat a potato 3 hours after dinner, every day.
Do you need more? Her total advice, boiled down to 7 steps:
* Eat breakfast with protein every day
* Journal what you eat and how you feel when you’re eating it
* Have 3 meals a day with protein
* Vitamins and a nightly potato (WTF!)
* Turn away from whites to browns– e.g. away from white rice to brown rice, away from bad carbs to good carbs
* Take out the sugar. Well, duh. That’s why I picked up this book. Super-unhelpful.
* Exercise.
My eyes hurt from rolling them so much. Just put it back on the library shelf and walk away, quickly.

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Travel Writing

Pete is a high school teacher and master storyteller, and we drop right into the story as he weaves his class a tale about a drunk driving crash (Lisa Kim) he witnessed and which haunts him, driving him out of his pseudo-relationship with Lydia, to house-sit for Carolyn whom he ultimately ends up dating. Interspersed are bits of his travel writing, the canoe trip through the Canadian wilderness above Minnesota filled with rain and portaging and survival skills, the Thailand excursion with Thai prostitutes picking up Western men as husbands, his grand Mexican adventures with Lydia and Charlie.
Ultimately Pete becomes obsessed by Lisa Kim’s mysterious death, undergoes hypnosis and discovers that he saw a man get out of her car shortly before it crashed, discovers that the man was a family friend & psychiatrist who was treating Lisa (and also her lover), and writes this book as a way to out the psychiatrist. The final chapter was gratingly obvious and in stark contrast to the rest of the awesome book.

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Dear American Airlines

Brilliant writing disguised as a diatribe against American Airlines from a passenger (Bennie Ford) stranded in O’Hare although the weather in Chicago was just peachy. What begins as a rant against the airline industry quickly segues in this poet’s hands into a peek inside his life, why he was traveling (his daughter’s wedding, whom he hadn’t seen since her mother whisked them both from New Orleans to California at the first hint of trouble, both women named Stella), his sabbatical in Poland where he lived the life of an aging expat poet getting trashed at parties with ladies half his age and ended up marrying Margaret, the American pen pal one-night stand.
Throughout the “letter” he weaves bits of his work– translating a Polish author into English. Always a rogue, he edits the ending of the book. Pieces of his life emerge, his crazy mother pulled from the wreck of New Orleans into his New York life, her stroke limiting her conversations to Post-It notes. His dead father, prematurely dead of heart attack at mid-forties, a Polish plumber refugee from the Holocaust. His mom kidnapping him to New Mexico on the eve of his 10th birthday, promising horses but really just to get all Georgia O’Keefe as her artistic bent was leading. Rescued mid-trip by the father.
Also interesting note on Christoph Luxenberg (pseudonym, natch, but a professor of ancient Semitic and Arabic languages) concluding that the passages in the Koran promising a bunch of virgins to dead Muslims is a mistranslation, the original Syriac passage instead promises rare and delicious white raisins.
Sample this:
“Luxenberg’s revelation has lately stiffened my resolve when my translating seems worthless, a chore of lingual accountancy. The right word matters, it says to me. The wrong ones infect, spread disease. Words are everything.”
“To be or not to be. Should I stay or should I go? That age old question ring-a-dinging through history. But then you spy a wink of creamy boob and everything falls apart.”
“I hate to don my geezer goggles but why does this young generation talk endlessly of rage but never succumb to it? I haven’t heard a bona fide howl in years. It’s all spitballs from the back of the room.”

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The Numerati

Great, quick read about how our every move is tracked online and off, how technology is slowly gaining sophistication in piecing our identity puzzle together. Parsed into seven chapters, Baker talks through how the Numerati (quants who crunch the numbers looking to identify patterns and market to them) are helping to change the workplace (more efficient workers rewarded), shopping (smart grocery carts that identify your needs/wants and lure you into discounts), polling places (segments of voters can be communicated with a different message than a TV ad that blasts to all), hospital & dating scene.
Our lives are increasingly monitored, and we feed data into the machine with every click, every mouse hover, every blog post, every Facebook status update. We’re at the cusp of sophisticated targeted marketing across all our lives (instead of just online).

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State by State

50 Writers, 50 States. When you get a smorgasbord like this, you’re bound to have some stinky fish in the barrel. But there’s also some pleasant treats, like John Hodgeman’s Massachusetts essay, Joshua Ferris’s Florida with mention of winning the essay contest and getting to float about the salt bogs with Jimmy Buffet, Iowa depicted through Dagoberto Gilb’s eyes – the hidden immigrant population harvesting corn, Ha Jin’s Georgia, Charles Bock’s Nevada with parents operating pawn store on Fremont St during the pre-Strip days, and Colorado as described by Benjamin Kunkel makes me want to move there.
I didn’t enjoy the Dave Eggers Illinois, the Sara Vowell Montana, but the Anthony Bourdain New Jersey was ok. The California essay was ridiculously bad, probably because I am wildly biased against anyone stereotyping San Francisco as an S&M paradise and not much more.
Another highlight – the list of tables at the end of the book, from population, birth rate, median age, and rate of toothlessness. Awesome.

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Top Picks of 2008

It’s that time of year again, when space heaters are on full blast, and I’m looking through the archive to remind myself of all the juicy reading I did in 2008. For your convenience (aw hell, and mine too), here’s my list of the best stuff I read this year.
The Winners
1. The Informant by Kurt Eichenwald
2. What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer
3. Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier
4. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
5. Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
6. Bad Money by Kevin Phillips
7. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver
8. The Writing Class by Jincy Willett
9. Slumberland by Paul Beatty
10. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
11. Resource Wars by Michael Klare
12. The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer

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