Trying to Reduce: A Review of The Book of Veganish by Kathy Freston with Rachel Cohn

The Book of Veganish is a book for anyone who is interested in moving toward a vegan (or vegetarian) way of eating–or an entire lifestyle based on vegan principles. Author Kathy Freston is a vegan (primarily for animal rights reasons), while co-writer Rachel Cohn admits in the acknowledgements that she is striving toward full veganism but still eats cheese.

What setsĀ The Book of Veganish apart from some other books on veganism is its tone. While some books (and websites and people) that support veganism can be very strident, Freston is notable for taking a much more supportive tone. She is encouraging in her outlook, noting that any move to reduce one’s consumption of animal products and increase one’s consumption of fruit and vegetables can have numerous positive effects.

While she often brings up the benefits to animals in avoiding animal consumption, Freston also notes benefits to health and the environment. She realizes that people approach veganism, vegetarianism, and flexitarianism for a variety of reasons, and she is supportive of all of them. She provides facts without trying to be alarmist or shocking, and she offers sources for people interested in deeper knowledge.

The book also offers 70 recipes by chef and cookbook author Robin Robertson. I have not tried the recipes yet, but for the most part they look to be easy, inexpensive recipes that are aimed at people beginning on the road off of meals centered around animal products to meals that are not. I can see some of these recipes becoming ones that I return to and spin variations off of in the future.

I am coming to this book, and this lifestyle choice, for a variety of reasons that include animal well-being, the environment, and health. I don’t know if I will ultimately end up fully vegan, and so Freston’s approach provides me with a framework to think about my eating choices and how they affect me and the world around me.


Madness and Mystery: A review of The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter

Note: Before I started reviewing on my own blog, I reviewed books on Now that it is ceasing to publish, I am moving my reviews to this site.

In The World Before Us: A Novel, Aislinn Hunter tells the story of Jane, a scholar who is trying to solve a mysterious disappearance from a Victorian mental institution. Her own life has been marked by a parallel mystery in the same area, and thus her scholarly pursuit masks the desire for removing the mystery from her own. When she was a young teenager, she was watching a small girl for a scholar, William, studying the garden of a Victorian botanist. The 3 were taking a walk through the woods near the Victorian botanist’s estate–William working while Jane and his daughter, Lily, played together in the woods. Lily was running ahead to look at things and, after disappearing around a bend in the path, she disappeared. A frantic search was set off, but Lily was never found.

Jane had a crush on William, but after this event, she never saw him again. As she grew and William became well-known in scholarly circles, Jane began studying the mental institution near the estate. She discovered that 3 people left the institution one day, without permission, and walked the 11 miles to the estate. One of them, known only as N., never returned. Jane was immediately drawn to the story and set out to discover the truth about N.

While this is what drives Jane psychologically, what makes the novel interesting is the “ghosts” who follow Jane and narrate much of the book. They are mostly known by characteristics–the poet, the madman, the theologian, the girl with the soft voice–and they comment and witness Jane’s life. At the beginning of the novel, the museum where Jane works is preparing to close, and this worries the spirits that follow her.

We do not know what will happen when the Chester closes. Ask us what shape certainty takes and we will all point to a different corner of the museum…. We do not know how to recover our histories, to identify what or whom we loved. We cannot see ourselves except as loose human forms–like those caught moving down the street in the museum’s early Victorian photographs, figures whose blurred shapes become clearer the longer you look at them. We only know that we are drawn to certain objects, places and people, and that we are bound to Jane like the Thale butterflies in the natural history hall–pinned to the boards in their long glass cases.

This plural narration style and the mystery behind the ghosts’ identities are a constant presence throughout the novel. Like any mystery, the novel tends to defer discoveries and open questions, and sometimes this process goes on longer than necessary. Late in the book, Hunter introduces a love interest for Jane, but it is not central to the plot and seems like the longest of the unnecessary deferrals that exist only to hold off the conclusion where questions are finally answered.

Paste Magazine has listed The World Before Us as one of its best 15 novels of 2015 (so far), but I think that may be overstating Hunter’s accomplishment. This is an enjoyable novel, but not one I expect to see on many “best of” lists at the end of 2015.

Triumphing over Destruction

Note: Before I started reviewing on my own blog, I reviewed books on Now that it is ceasing to publish, I am moving my reviews to this site.

National Book Award winner Ellen Gilchrist has written a collection of short stories entitled Acts of God which charts various character’s responses to the sometimes shattering and random events of life. The title story which opens the books tells how the arrival of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico sets off a chain of events which lead to the death of an elderly couple. While the hurricane is not “responsible” for their deaths in the typical sense, Gilchrist shows how inexorably the presence of the storm leads to an unexpected death for William and Amelie McCamey. Unfortunately, a strong naturalistic story is marred by a moralizing conclusion that attempts to find meaning in this random set of acts.

Such moralizing is an unfortunate part of many of these stories, and as a result the collection often verges on becoming sickeningly sweet. Stories like “Miracle in Adkins, Arkansas” and “High Water” get mired in the sweetness, while stories like “Collateral,” in which a single mother is called up by her National Guard unit to help rescue people stranded in the aftermath of a hurricane, are able to hold their own against the moralizing that occurs.

The only story that escapes the sweetness trap–and not coincidentally the strongest story in the collection–is “The Dissolution of the Myelin Sheath.” In this story, Philippa, an aging but still beautiful woman who has been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, decides that she is not going to let her body be ravaged by the terrible disease. She decides that she will kill herself alone. She plans out the event, determines what to tell her husband, Charles, and what not to tell him, and completes the act. The characters react as they would, and there is no attempt on Gilchrist’s part to make some cosmic, feel good point about the suicide.

The dispassionate tone of “The Dissolution of the Myelin Sheath” is precisely the tone that is needed more often in this collection. Many of the stories begin with a similar tone but devolve into the sweetness that undermines the stories. While Gilchrist’s prose is as strong as ever, this book is not among her best works.

Richard Blanco, Poet of Memory

Note: Before I started reviewing on my own blog, I reviewed books on Now that it is ceasing to publish, I am moving my reviews to this site.

If most people remember Richard Blanco, it is probably due to the fame he gained when President Obama tapped him to read a poem at his inauguration. In Looking for The Gulf Motel, Richard Blanco charts memory: his own memories, the memories of his family members, and the risks and limits of memory in general. Blanco is the child of Cuban immigrants who grew up in Florida, struggled with his sexuality and eventually coming out as gay to his family, and moved with his partner to Maine. The book opens with the title poem announcing a visit back to Florida. More importantly, the first line announces the theme of memory that dominates the book: “There should be nothing here I don’t remember…”

Cover of Richard Blanco's Looking for the Gulf Motel

Poem after poem in this book distills a memory while announcing that the memory is impermanent or even flawed. The concept even goes into the structure of the book. “Questioning My Cousin Elena” ends with a protestation against the possibility of memory failing:




Tell me
it’s true, we’re everything we remember,
tell me memories never fail us, tell me
we take them with us that I’ll take you
with me, and you’ll take me with you.

The next poem, “Remembering what Tia Noelia Can’t”, lets the reader know that memories do in fact fail us as he how “every memory/one by one slipped out of her body, her cells/until she never was…”

The power of memory to draw and construct us is constantly in tension with the way that memory slips away and vanishes. While watching his mother clean the headstone at his father’s grave, he wonders where he will be buried and who will remember him. Whereas poets in the 16th century would take this concept and move into the theory that art lasts forever, Blanco takes a more naturalistic view:

I suppose I’ll return someplace like waves
trickling through the sad, back to sea
without any memory of being
–“Some Days the Sea”

Blanco accepts the impermanence of life and memory even as he strives against forgetting and losing his past. This collection is a powerful meditation on the significance of memory in our lives.

The Sadness of The Child

Note: Before I started reviewing on my own blog, I reviewed books on Now that it is ceasing to publish, I am moving my reviews to this site.

If it’s true as Shakespeare wrote that “A sad tale’s best for winter,” then now is the time to be reading Pascale Kramer’s novel, The Child. The first-person narrative follows Simone whose husband, Claude, is dying of cancer. A love-child Claude had fathered eleven years earlier enters their life–first for a meeting and later to stay with them–and the tensions that arise from the presence of the boy, Gael, is the substance of the novel.

Kramer’s presentation of Claude’s physical deterioration is bleak and unblinking.

His salmon shirt clung to his bones; the dark circle of his nipples formed a kind of second expression of astonishment through the transparency of the wet fabric. He had gotten caught in the rain or had tried to relieve the nausea that still dazed his features. His clothes gave off a whiff of diarrhea, Simone realized, hearing the excruciating despair in his voice as he said that he would not be having any lunch.

Typically, such suffering in a character would make him sympathetic, but Claude is difficult, severe, and seems to have no realization how his cancer affects Simone. Even worse, he doesn’t seem aware of how bringing a child of his he had never met into their lives would only make a bad situation worse.

Simone, though, is only slightly more endearing. She sometimes longs for Claude’s death–or at least an escape from her constant care and fear of upsetting him. She would love to feel closeness for the child, but she is unable to manage anything more than fleeting feelings of warmth. She sees herself as caught without the energy or power to struggle for her own freedom.

Gael, too, is difficult to like. He is mischievous and manipulative, and his attempt to run away at one point is both cruel and pointless. Yet at least he has his youth to blame. He doesn’t understand what Claude is going through, and he doesn’t understand why his mother left him for several weeks with these strangers.

Amid this set of broken people, the society around them is breaking as well. The news shows reports of rioting and violence, and the sound of sirens punctuate their days and nights. All in all, it is a life that everyone wants to escape from somehow: Claude from suffering; Simone from responsibility; Gael from confusion.

There is no hint in The Child of rising above the difficulties of life or even hopefulness. Kramer has painted a world and a family that is so sick that even dissolution doesn’t seem to be an escape. In a book where both the present and the past are torments, the future holds little promise.

History and Identity in The Sound of Things Falling

Note: Before I started reviewing on my own blog, I reviewed books on Now that it is ceasing to publish, I am moving my reviews to this site.

Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s novel, The Sound of Things Falling, follows his narrator, Antonio, as his life unfolds amid the modern history of Colombia. Antonio is a law professor in Bogota who enjoys playing pool at a local pool hall. By chance, he meets Ricardo Laverde, and his life is swept up in the historical rush of Colombia as it is realized in Laverde and his family.

When Antonio meets Laverde, he is an older, broken man. Laverde speaks little of his life, though he does reveal that he used to be a pilot, that he is married to an American, and that he had been in prison. Slowly, Laverde reveals more about his life and Antonio becomes more and more intrigued by his mysterious past. One day, Laverde comes to the pool hall with a cassette tape and asks Antonio if he knows where he can find a tape player to listen to it. Antonio takes him to a library where Laverde listens on headphones with tears streaming down his cheek.

Antonio comes to learn that the tape is from the black box of a plane that crashed outside of Bogota. The tape and the reasons for Laverde’s tears drive much of the narrative of the book. Without spoiling some of the surprises, Antonio’s life becomes more and more consumed by the life that Laverde lived.

At the same time, Antonio and other characters recall the history of Colombia through the darkest days of the drug wars. They talk about how Pablo Escobar and his powerful drug cartel not only controlled the country but affected everyone’s life. As connections between Laverde and his family and the history become more clear, Vasquez shows how his narrator is as much a pawn in the history of Colombia as anyone.

In the end, Antonio is left in a precarious position without any clear identity of his own. He finds that he cannot escape the grip of Laverde’s life–or of his country’s history.

Humor, hope and despair: a review of Tenth of December by George Saunders

Note: Before I started reviewing on my own blog, I reviewed books on Now that it is ceasing to publish, I am moving my reviews to this site.

The New York Times Magazine proclaimed that Tenth of December is “the best book you’ll read this year.” While it is very early in 2013, it is hard to imagine that this collection of short stories by George Saunders will fail to be on many best of 2013 lists next December. Whether it is a brief sketch like “Sticks” or the novella-length title story, Saunders invents characters and situations that stick with you.

The first story, “Victory Lap,” is a case in point. The story focuses on a young man that appears to have a developmental disability. He is interested in geodes and hears his family telling him he is not to leave the house. Across the street, he witnesses and ultimately prevents an attempted abduction of a girl his age with whom he has almost no contact. Saunder’s telling refuses to be maudlin or overly sentimental; it is simultaneously funny, heroic and hopeful.

The same can be said of the final story, “Tenth of December,” in which Robin, an overweight boy, a victim of bullying, goes out during a cold winter day to have an imaginary adventure to rescue a girl he has a crush on (but who barely notices him and calls him Roger). He sees his imaginary rescue turn into a real opportunity when he sees a man struggling up a hill, having left behind his coat. This man was planning to kill himself to keep his family from having to deal with the indignities of caring for him as he dies of cancer. The two end up rescuing each other, both from hypothermia and (at least temporarily) from the psychological pain that tortures them both.

Such descriptions cannot get at Saunders’ humor, but in stories like “My Chivalric Fiasco,” the wit and satire are in full force. In this story, the main character works at a sort of Renaissance Faire. As payment for keeping his boss’ sexual escapades quiet, he is promoted from a custodian to a performer. He is given KnightLyf (r) to help him act like a Knight. The drug works so well, that the character begins talking like a Chaucerian Knight and believing it is his duty to reveal his boss’ improprieties. The results are predictable, but what is most noteworthy is how well Saunders has the drug begin to work and then wear off just by changing the character’s dialog.

Each story in this collection has its own joys and often its own pain and despair. But in the end, it is the goodness and hopefulness of the characters that shine through.