Regrets, I Ate a Few

The Gallery of Regrettable Food by James Lileks. Crown Publishers, 2001. 0609607820.

Sarah: Part of the significance of this book, because there are plenty of people out there who make fun of the horrible illustrations in old cookbooks, is that James Lileks was one of the first. He was really early on the Internet scene, he has this wonderful website that he’s been working on since the nineties — it’s a great collection of weird old stuff. He’s also funny; he’ll comment on the pictures and not just say “oh, how disgusting!” He’s really amusing, and he’ll start bizarre mini-fictions that continue within and across his captions.
G: (looks at photo and laughs)
S: He talks about how his mom in, I think, 1962 was given a terrible promo cookbook from the North Dakota durum wheat growers… that was the start of his collection, when he found it in his mom’s closet, untouched, in the 90s.
He has a fictional recipe in there based on all the recipes in these books, where you carefully put one atom of chili powder in a dish with a pound of hamburger meat, 36 pounds of flavorless cheese… “if substituting spackle, crumble one yellow crayon for color,” one cup dusty crumbs from the toaster, three grains pepper, one pound salt, then that one atom of chili powder.
Continue reading “Regrets, I Ate a Few”

You won’t like him when he’s angry

The Angry Chef: Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating by Anthony Warner. Oneworld Publications, 2017. 9781786072160.

Sarah: I went to Seattle’s cookbook bookstore, Book Larder, and ended up buying a bunch. I highly recommend this bookstore because they don’t have everything, they just have good things. I grabbed several cookbooks plus this one, because the summary of it said it’s exactly the kind of thing I like to read. It’s by this guy with a background in cooking and in chemistry who is angry about fad diets and the bad science and the bad dietary advice they propagate. He covers some of the more recent fad diets and what’s wrong with them, and then has chapters in between where he talks about how to think more critically, more scientifically, how to ask the questions that you need to ask, why you might seem to have good results from a diet even if it doesn’t really work, and how people will recommend a diet if they think it has an effect but if it doesn’t they won’t discourage you.
Gene: If it doesn’t have an effect?
S: So if you try the amazing new whatever diet and it doesn’t do anything for you, are you going to put a testimonial to that effect on the website promoting the diet?
G: Probably not.
S: So I picked it up, expecting to love it because it’s exactly my speed. But I ended up not loving it.
G: Not loving this book?
S: Because it turns out I’ve already read this information. I’m already aware of all of the things he’s talking about, and he covers more of the how to think critically part and less about the crazy diets and where they came from. I ended up skimming to the parts about the new crazy diets and how they originated. I think it’s a good book, but it’s the wrong time for me to read it. This book would have been great for me twenty years ago.
G: Where did you get that information, did you find it in diet books and on websites?
S: I have read other, similar works by medical people and people writing general debunking and critical thinking books. It’s a genre that I read.
G: So you’re wowed by this book because it’s all there.
S: It’s all there! It’s all in one book.
G: And you’ve read enough on the subject that you know it’s good.
S: It’s really good!
G: But this is not the book for you right now because you have read enough books on critical thinking, especially about diets, that what you would get from this book you already have.
S: Exactly!
G: This is a new kind of Book Wow! So it did wow you, you just didn’t need to read it.
S: Right! He has this really great chapter explaining regression to the mean where he explains the concept in a really clear way with an example from his life.
G: What was it?
S: He had this sous chef, mostly he did fine, but every once in a while he would do terribly, he would really mess up in the kitchen. Then he’d get yelled at and the next day he would be better. And every once in a while he would have an awesome day and his bosses would think he finally was getting the hang of this and then the day after, he would drop back to his normal level again. But the author and another chef were talking about this, trying to figure out how help him. The author tried to be encouraging when he did really well, but the other guy only ever yelled at him when he sucked. Now he’s realizing that the whole thing was regression to the mean. The highs and the lows… if you have a really high day, do the best you’ve ever done, you’re not going to stay at the highest point, you’re going to drift back to your average. The worst day you’ve ever had, same thing. So if your health is terrible, and you don’t have a degenerative condition, you’re going to feel better eventually no matter what you do. No matter what diet you try, if you feel cruddy, eventually you’re going to feel better. And the reverse is the same, if you do really awesome, you’re going to get back to normal at some point. It’s this thing that makes an effect appear to happen with all sorts of interventions. If you’re doing a scientific study, you need to have various controls to spot this. He talks about how it’s very difficult to spot, and the whole idea of regression to the mean is recent, it’s only been around since the late 1800s, even though people have been evaluating information like this for a long time. But this was really hard to see.
G: This kind of non-effect effect.
S: You see something happen, but it didn’t happen for the reason you think it did.
G: So things seem to work for you because you are generally OK. Whatever you’re doing is OK. If you feel super-shitty after you ate X, then you feel better when you eat Y, you think you feel better because you ate Y, but not really. You just feel better because you generally feel better.
S: Yeah, and they have to control for this in medicine, when they test a new drug, because that’s exactly what happens with everything. The author says people will ask him, “If this guy feels better after he stops eating gluten, what’s the harm?” and he says that it’s because it’s really limiting your diet, it’s hard to get all the nutrients you need. People who legit have celiac disease have to be super careful. And people will tend to keep eliminating more and more things from their diet.
G: Yeah, that’s interesting.
S: And he has a very carefully-written chapter about eating disorders. He says that he had previously made this statement, that now he realizes is incorrect and apologizes for saying it and for being insensitive about it, and he’d had a lot of people talk to him and correct him: he had said that these fad diets cause people to get eating disorders. Now he says that it isn’t that they cause eating disorders, but people may have an underlying susceptibility to eating disorders and sometimes the thing that triggers them or maybe is the first sign of eating disorders manifesting is that they start doing Clean Eating, which is a particular type of fad diet. You’ll talk to someone who works at an eating disorder clinic and they’ll say, “Oh, yeah, like 90 percent of people in this clinic started out with Clean Eating.”
G: What is Clean Eating?
S: It designates certain foods as “dirty” and certain foods as “clean.” Theoretically it’s emphasizing eating more vegetables, eating less processed food, but it ends up giving people a huge array of foods to avoid, that they must remember which are good and which are bad. You end up eliminating the bad foods, and feeling happy that you were able to eliminate the bad foods, that you are good and not bad. It’s really appealing to the part of your brain that can get disordered. The idea of cleanliness, the idea of goodness, the idea of purity associated with your eating really sinks its claws into the part of you that wants to have an eating disorder.
G: Is this like when people talk about a cleanse? Like a blueberry cleanse?
S: I think there’s some overlap, but I think it’s slightly different. (There’s a good overview of it in The Guardian by food writer Bee Wilson.)
You’re going to see it everywhere now, it’s been a fad for maybe five years. I had been seeing books on Clean Eating at the library and wondered, “Clean? How so?”
A lot of this originated on his blog and he talks about how it has changed based on input from his readers, people who wrote in and gave him more context and more information.

Build a Better Billionaire Bang

How to Bang a Billionaire by Alexis Hall. Forever Yours, 2017. 9781455571321.

How much do I love Alexis Hall? I’m willing to tell you that I deeply enjoyed this book, despite its embarrassing title. Hall has written a sweet and genuinely funny erotic romance with dom/sub themes and characters that are both three dimensional and utterly likable. English major Arden meets Caspian, a tremendously wealthy and successful financier, while making fundraising calls for his college. They hit it off immediately and discover that they are very sexually compatible. The story then follows Arden graduating and struggling to find a career while he and Caspian gradually get to know and trust each other.

As enjoyable as the story is, it’s a pointed and refreshing departure from the tropes of the billionaire romance genre (yes, this is a thing), the dom/sub romance genre (you are perhaps less surprised that this is a thing) and especially both combined (Fifty Shades of Grey). Caspian’s money is only important in that he can afford to let Arden stay in one of his investment properties while he looks for work in London. (There is a hilarious interlude where Arden and his college roommate Nik order food from the apartment’s attached Heston Blumenthal restaurant. They are baffled by the menu and decide to order the worst-sounding things for each other.) The older and dominant Caspian is fairly timid and anxious around this sort of relationship, which is very new to him, while the submissive Arden provides the confidence and caring needed to guide him. Arden is well versed in queer culture, gender and sexual politics, and principles of safety and consent. And (wonder of wonders) he states outright that dominance and submission “doesn’t have to be about who does what. It’s about how it’s done.” Arden is also very funny, self-deprecating, enthusiastic, kind, and quite silly. He is astonished that Caspian could fall in love with him. I’m not. I can’t wait for the sequel, How to Blow It With a Billionaire.

Four More Years!

Liartown: The First Four Years by Sean Tejaratchi. Feral House, 2017. 9781627310543.

Sarah: It’s weird, I recognized the image of the possum on the cover because it was the author’s twitter icon. He’s one of those guys, I don’t know if I ever followed him, but everyone thought he was hilarious and retweeted him a lot, so I saw his tweets. Then once I got into this book, I realized I know him from like five other things. He’s super creative and you will recognize some of these pieces from his Liartown blog.
Gene: It’s a sort of Photoshopped looking cover.
S: Almost photo collage. Tejaratchi’s background is in design and among other things he makes props for films. He also makes the things in this book. One of the reasons I like it and thought you’d really like it is

we’re both really into book and magazine and album cover design. We can recognize things from different eras. We’re trash collectors of cultural items.
G: We’re trash collectors! That’s a good way to put it.
S: He absolutely is the same kind of person. Here’s the first pieces, grocery ads that are… weirdly confused? Like if you had a grocery ad written by someone with a severe head injury or…
G: Like an English as a second language thing? I see peanut loaf, river nubs… I like this because it looks real and you wonder “Why am I even looking at this?” and then, oh!
S: Everything in the book is like that. They absolutely look like real things, real books and magazines and ads, then the jokes sneak up on you.
Continue reading “Four More Years!”

Best Use of Poorly-Remembered Lessons Since Let’s Parler Franglais

What I Think Happened: An Underresearched History of the Western World by Evany Rosen. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017. 9781551526955.

I was already pretty excited for this book before I even started: it’s the first volume in a new humor imprint of Arsenal Pulp Press edited by the comedian/author Charles Demers AND it’s written by the delightful Evany Rosen. Then I laughed out loud at least twice reading the first page of the introduction. Rosen recounts English and American history based on:

  1. her sketchy recollections of the history degree she barely finished in an honors program that was much too ambitious for her college-aged self,
  2. her avid enthusiasm for history as a series of fascinating anecdotes, and
  3. her strong and judgmental (and funny) opinions on history.

This is EXACTLY my speed. She has a hilarious and extremely useful chapter on how to evaluate what kind of military history your boyfriend’s dad is into (“If you don’t share my own unabashedly dad-like fondness for mentally storing partially correct factoids about tactical military history so you can spout them off at random while you drag your flabbergasted partner through an out-of-the-way tank museum that you seem to have Yelped into existence through sheer force of will, this chapter is for you.”), plus others on “America’s Dumpiest Presidents” and “My Personal Obsession with Napoleon.” There’s even a chapter on the history of cheese, which she admits is the best-researched in the book. I gave this book to my mom who, like me, enjoys a good tank museum, and I am eagerly awaiting the second book in the imprint (by the also delightful Alicia Tobin) later this year.

Automatically the Best Gift for Your Bookish Pals

Baking with Kafka by Tom Gauld. Drawn & Quarterly, 2017. 9781770462960.

This second collection of Gauld’s cartoons for The Guardian’s Review section, a sequel of sorts to You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack, is crammed full of the sort of literature-based gag strips that you would immediately text or email to book-loving friends. Gauld covers genre conventions, stock characters, authors renowned and not yet discovered, and the unique life challenges of heavy readers  with some strips on art, history, and even crossword puzzles thrown in for good measure. It’s the perfect book to keep next to your stack of unread New Yorkers.

Go West, Young Reader

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West. Hachette Books, 2016. 9780316348409.

Sarah: You sound reluctant to talk about this.
Gene: I’m so nervous! I think I told you when I was reading it that I didn’t realize how much of Lindy West’s work I had read and admired over the years. And she’s been appearing on the local KUOW radio show The Record, which I listen to regularly.
S: I’ve read her stuff in The Stranger, her stuff gets published in The New York Times
G: I used to read her movie reviews regularly, too. I remember when she exploded at Dan Savage for his treatment of overweight people in his Savage Love columns.
S: I’m sort of sorry I didn’t read that at the time. I read The Stranger on and off, but knowing Dan Savage’s personality, if he’s your boss, standing up to him — the MOST opinionated person, the most sure of himself — wow. That’s huge.
G: It was amazing. I remember reading about her engagement. About her then-fiance asking her to marry him publicly because she’d said that fat girls never get the big proposal.
S: The big, romantic gesture.
G: Yeah. That’s in the book, too. Plus I remember the story about her taking on and then meeting one of her internet trolls.
S: Yeah, it was on This American Life.
G: It’s all in here. It’s full of incredibly well-written, very funny personal essays, that start with her life as the basis for something broader.
Continue reading “Go West, Young Reader”