Saturday, 26 March 2011 turns 4 today!

It's been a tough one in some ways, but my fourth year of blogging has been filled with a number of truly stellar reads. I've abandoned a feature (the Sarazens Head), lost (hopefully only temporarily) interest in one (I Interview Dead People), and have periodically maintained the most popular (Curious/Creepy). Indeed, a friend of my hubby's recently rejoiced that because I'll soon be commuting to work every day, I must necessarily write more C/C posts. I will try, humbly (and creepily) to fulfill his expectations in this matter.

The best part of the end of the blogging year for me is always compiling my lists of most and least favourite books; here they are:

Favourites! in no particular order, except for the first four, which blew my mind the most:
J.D. Salinger, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction
Hilary Mantel, The Giant, O’Brien
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall - absolute most favourite!
Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night

Anthony Trollope, The American Senator
T. Colin Campbell, The China Study
Osamu Dazai, No Longer Human
Ellis Peters, The Rose Rent
China Mieville, The City & The City
Shusaku Endo, Deep River
Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach
Giuseppe de Lampedusa, The Leopard
Yoko Ogawa, Hotel Iris
David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
William Gibson, Neuromancer
Osamu Dazai, Blue Bamboo and Other Stories
George Eliot, Scenes of Clerical Life
Fred van Lente and Ryan Dunleavy, The More Than Complete Action Philosophers!
Shaun Tan, The Arrival
William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale 
John Ford, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (I never reviewed this on Bookphilia; it was approx. the 15th time I'd read it; it's still an all-time favourite, in spite of the fact that it figured prominently in my doctoral thesis)

Sadly, year four wasn't a total love-fest. Least favourites:
Orhan Pamuk, The White Castle
Edogawa Rampo, Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination
J.M. Coetzee, Youth 
Miyuki Miyabe, Crossfire
Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger
Andre Gide, The Immoralist 
Emma Donaghue, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits 
Patrick Ness, The Knife of Never Letting Go
David Almond, Heaven Eyes
Gustave Flaubert, A Sentimental Education
Bram Stoker, The Lair of the White Worm

I don't usually make reading plans, and when I do, I often fail to execute. Nonetheless, I have an ambitious project for Bookphilia 5.0: an overview of Victorian lit, mostly fiction, but with some poetry thrown in for good measure. The list has 40+ books on it, beginning with Dickens's Barnaby Rudge (1841) and ending with Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). This list was born out of my increasing frustration over the lack of structure in my reading, and the incredible pleasure I've been consistently taking in Victorian novels, even the ones I don't love. I think this will be a safer and more enjoyable bet than French literature en masse. But we'll see. I am notoriously unreliable when it comes to reading lists.

Right now, however, I'm making my way through an entirely non-Victorian fantasy slash soap opera - George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones. It's pretty good. But it is a soap opera.

And, of course, I begin work on Monday at my new job. As I will be commuting (about 40 minutes each way), I will certainly be reading a lot. The question is, will I want to sit in front of the computer and blog after spending all day sitting in front of a computer working? I really don't know. I've certainly managed to be employed and blog frequently at the same time before, but I've not spent much of that employment time as a desk jockey. I'm hoping I'll figure it out, but if you don't hear from me for awhile, it's likely because I'm adjusting to a new schedule, etc.

Finally, cheers to all of you who have been reading along all this time! You're the best.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

More excuses! But you'll forgive me.

A round-up of books I've read very and not so recently and which I've concluded I'm not going to take the time to review individually. Why? Two things: 1) I start an awesome new job in approx. 10 days and want to spend as little time as possible before then on the cpu. 2) Spring is insinuating itself into the blasted deathscape that is Toronto in late winter; I can't help but go outside a lot, especially on days like today - when it's so warm out that my most favourite cuorduroy jacket is deployed sans hat, mitt, or scarf! Vitamin D absorption is nigh.

1) Anthony Trollope, The American Senator.
I really wanted to spend more time on Trollope's look at moral and cultural relativism through the lens of as, as usual, a damned fine story. Suffice to say, it's one of my Trollopian favourites and has helped to confirm him as one of my most beloved authors.

2) Hwang Sok-Yong, The Guest.
The guest, small pox, as a metaphor for American cultural imperialism in the Koreas. A very good book - both writing and plot-wise - in spite of (because of? That would be a first.) Hwang's unabashed didacticism. Also, Hwang is a real-life ass-kicker, which makes the Truth-Telling even more okay/awesome.

3) Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit.
My experience reading this book disturbingly reflected the arc of the novel's plot. I began it during an unmitigated shit-storm (bookstore-closing) and concluded it at a time of unrivalled happiness (added to, but not created by, new job mentioned above). Still, my life is not all even close to being as strange as Dickens's fiction. Dickens, you managed to surprise me with this one - unexpected, and I thank you.

That is all. I'm going outside into the sun again RIGHT NOW.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

"Toothless paper tigers"

Back in November, I decided I'd get my dad a copy of The China Study: Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-Term Health, a book famous in vegan circles for confirming the healthiness of our dietary choices. The reason? My dad has heart disease and adult-onset diabetes. The last time I checked, he took approximately 70 pills each day and at least one of the diabetes pills had a possible side effect of heart attack.

This seemed insane to me, especially as, having spent several years volunteering with the Toronto Vegetarian Association, I kept meeting people who'd reversed their diabetes entirely by going vegan. So, I tried to talk to him. I offered to go and stay with him for two weeks and just cook and talk about food the whole time. I bought him and his wife some vegan cookbooks. He declined my offer and the cookbooks probably gather dust, if they even still have them.

Bad eating is a hallmark of my family, both sides, but I'll stick to the paternal today. When I lived with my dad when I was a teen, there were only 4 things you could be sure to find in the fridge at any given time: pepperoni, ice cream, the cheapest margarine in the biggest possible bucket, and peanut butter. If we ever ate salad, it comprised iceberg lettuce and a tonne of cheese, salt, and oil.

So, I moved away eventually and continued to eat badly. But then one day I made a connection between my pets and other beasties, and I decide to go vegetarian. After a few months of that, I went vegan; that was 7 years ago. In that time, my cholesterol has gone to a superstar low (it was actually high by the time I was 26!!!), I generally feel better, weigh a bit less, and in order not to fail at being vegan, I've learned to cook and so food has become a whole world of delicious awesomeness; before, food was just something I needed to take in to keep the machine running. All good, yes? Well, I've noticed a proliferation of vegan junk food and convenience items over the past 7 years which at first pleased me - because hey, look, vegan is becoming mainstream! - and has, in the past year or so, started to bother me - because hey, new vegans, there's this thing called "produce" that you should really try!

I've been somewhere in the middle ground between healthy and unhealthy vegan eating. Kale is my favourite vegetable, but until New Year's, when I resolved to begin eating salad every day, I ate salad maybe once a month. Blueberries are my favourite fruit, but until I started drinking fruit/veggie smoothies for breakfast in October or November of last year, if I bought blueberries they'd go bad in the fridge. And I ate so much processed sugar, it was obscene. Vegan junk food became too easy and being vegan erroneously allowed me to imagine it wasn't so bad for me. It was. I felt like shit by the time we closed our bookstore. So, my dad was maybe right not to take my advice when I offered it a few years ago (although I'm sure I ate better then than I was eating 6 months ago). My diet was certainly better than his - vegan food, regardless of how shitty it is, still doesn't have any cholesterol, after all - but it wasn't good enough.

This was where The China Study was to come in. If he didn't believe me, maybe he'd believe someone with the kind of crazy qualifications that Dr. Campbell has. Maybe he'd believe a man. Maybe he'd believe anyone who wasn't someone whose diaper he'd changed. Whatever - it seemed worth a try because I love my dad and I'm worried about him. So, I ordered it, it arrived and then I panicked, worried that maybe this Campbell fella was crazy and this would make things worse! I obviously had to read it first, and I did, though it took a few months as I read it in spurts and between lots of fiction.

The China Study is probably the most important book I've read. I had to take breaks from it because it was so shocking in its proofs in favour of a low-fat, plant-based diet it sometimes overwhelmed me. It turned much of what I thought I knew on its head. It convinced me that my intuition to send it to my dad was right on, but it convinced me of something just as important - that I, for my own well-being and quality of life, could be a much better vegan.

I want to do this right. Instead of treating what Campbell has to say about food - and in a nutshell it's that one can eat as much as one wants of all fruits, veggies, whole grains and whole grain products while minimizing oils, fish, and refined carbs, and avoid entirely all meat and dairy - as something I must accomplish immediately, I began working on a strategy for change. Building on the salad every day thing, I've cut out the fakey meats and fakey cheese that are so delicious and I haven't had processed sugar in almost a week. (The sugar cravings have dissipated much more quickly than I would have anticipated.)

And you know what? I have a lot more energy already. This is how I've been able to go to the gym every day (the diet changing began first) and why, I suspect, I've found it so hard to sit at the computer to blog - my body wants to be moving for a change! I will send my dad The China Study, but I'm keeping this first copy for myself.

The next step
In his book, Campbell refers several times and in significant ways to a doctor named Caldwell B. Esselstyn who worked at Ohio's world-famous Cleveland Clinic. Esselstyn has helped many heart patients, who were told (after multiple surgeries and tonnes of drugs) that the medical establishment could do nothing for them and death was imminent. Esselstyn insists near the beginning of the book that heart disease is a "toothless paper tiger" which is easily defeated - and the book shows how.

Essylstyn's program involved a rigourous dietary overhaul - to a whole foods, low-fat, plant-based diet. This program was apparently extremely successful so I decided to read Essylstyn's 2007 tome Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease to see if that also would be a good book for my dad. In fact, I read the whole thing today and am really excited to try the many recipes that comprise the second half of the book.

And again, this book was good for me. Esselstyn insists on his patients eating no oil at all, which scared me not a little. I know how to fry something fierce. I once tried to find oil-free salad dressing recipes and in all my vegan cookbooks (12) found only 3!!! Anyway, that's what the recipe section is for, in part. I won't do justice to the science if I try to explain why oil (and animal products) are bad for you; I understood what Campbell and Esselstyn said but I worry I wouldn't get it right enough if I tried to briefly paraphrase for you. If you're still reading this post, I'll assume you're interested in the topic and just say - read the damned books. They're worth it. My dad will be getting Esselstyn's book as well.

So, my plan now is to continue upping the veggies and fruits and whole grains in my diet while lowering the oil until it's eventually zero, avoiding processed sugar and fakey products, and generally getting my fat intake down to approximately 10% of my diet. I'm doing this slowly and in stages so that I do it right and don't get frustrated and because I want it to stick. I want high quality of life for the rest of my life.

If you're still reading this post but aren't interested in health and diet, it's probably because you're wondering why I believe these books. There are a lot of fad diet books out there, I know - hell, there was a whole shitty section of them in my bookstore when I bought it. The reason I believe these two books is that both their studies (very different in nature - Campbell's used a lot animal testing as well as focusing on population studies (25 years), while Esselstyn's focused on his group of patients and their diet change tracked over a twenty-year period). It was the nature of the studies, their length, and the scientific rigour with which both men conducted their work that convinced me. Campbell especially backed up every single claim he made with an abundance of evidence; when he wasn't entirely sure he used words like "probably", "likely", "possibly", etc to indicate things that he believed to be true but which he thought could use more proof.

Imagining eating a no-oil diet is probably the hardest thing for me in terms of change at this point so as I said, I'm grateful for the recipes included in Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease. Something in Esselstyn's book made me suspect that the cookbook The Engine 2 Diet (which I don't yet have) might also be oil-free so I checked it out, and yes, it is - it's written by his son, Rip, who was a crazy pro-athlete of some sort on this diet and is now a fire-fighter and, if I'm going to be honest, is absolutely dreamy. I am broke as hell right now so can't afford to buy any of these books, but luckily some of the Engine 2 recipes are online.

And, if you can't read this stuff, there's always the movie version. Not kidding! Forks Over Knives, in which Campbell and Esselstyn appear to both feature heavily, is due to be released in the US starting in May.

Friday, 11 March 2011

In which we begin the gargantuan, mortifying, and terrifying task of getting caught up, or, Bookphilia indulges in some post title bombast

Ever since I read Suite Francaise, I’ve been rationing my Irene Nemirovsky books. Her life was short and tragic and she didn’t get to write nearly as large an oeuvre as she should have; but what we have is, in my experience so far, literature of the highest order.

The Courilof Affair is no exception. This novel tells the story of one Leon M., a “retired” Russian radical responsible for multiple political assassinations during and after the Russian Revolution; more precisely, it comprises his memoirs of a particular mark – one Valerian Alexandrovitch Courilof, the Russian Minister of Education famed for his cold brutality when dealing with protesters and dissidents of even the mildest sort. 

Welcomed into Courilof’s house as a doctor for the iron-willed but seriously ailing minister, Leon quickly learns that there is a difficult and fuzzy line between theory and practice when it comes to being willing to do anything for a cause, between loathing a system and killing an individual. Indeed, as Courilof himself tries to negotiate the complex, mysterious, and ruthless game of political power and royal favour, Leon comes to feel sympathy for him and to question the meaning of his own actions and beliefs.

Of course, he eventually does his job and kills the minister in grand and lurid fashion. But Leon's memoirs reveal a deep ambivalence toward the life he’s led, and his time with Courilof seems more real to him than any of the ideologies that have dictated his life’s actions. Leon is filled with a strangely innocent nostalgia for a victim he ended up caring for in spite of that victim's myriad cruelties and faults, never mind his own loyalties.

A simple premise, yes, but Nemirovsky’s delicacy, patience, and tact in teasing out the personal implications of political actions simply cannot be underestimated. And Sandra Smith’s graceful translation made this novel a joy to read for the writing alone. A very short example to tittilate you:
The idea of killing this man filled me with repulsion and horror. He was a blind creature already living in the shadow of death; his face looked ghostly, yet he was still preoccupied with vain dreams and futile ambitions. How many times during that period did he say over and over again, ‘Russia will forget my enemies, but she will not forget me.’ (p. 112)
This was Nemirovsky’s gift: to be able to humanize the most monstrous of individuals, to create compelling points of contact between enemies. It bespeaks a fairness and, if not optimism, then at least an open-ness to human subtlety and complication lacking in most books and, if I’m going to be snarky, most real political discourse.

If you haven’t read any of Nemirovsky’s work yet, do yourself a favour and grab something now. I wholeheartedly recommend both The Courilof Affair and Suite Francaise, while hubby positively gushes about Fire in the Blood and thinks less of me for not having read it yet.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Sorry, sorry!

Friends, just a quick note to say "hi"; also, I'm sorry for not blogging lately. I've got 4 books waiting anxiously for me to sit down and write about them but I've just been too busy. I've been distracted by good things (working out every day, cooking A LOT of delicious things, spending time with friends) and not so good things (very sick bunny who requires daily medication and sub-cutaneous fluids and A LOT of cleaning up after him, my sleeping patterns are really messed up, I'm not reading as much as usual because working out makes me stupid (I'm depending on this changing when I get used to it again, which had better be soon, dammit)).

I hope I'll shortly be able to sit down with Trollope's The American Senator, or Irene Nemirovsky's The Courilof Affair, or Hwang Sok-Yong's The Guest, or T. Colin Campbell's The China Study and write a real, honest to goodness review...but I'm making no promises. All this busy-ness doesn't look like it'll be letting up anytime soon.