Thursday, May 25, 2006

Eat More, Weigh Less (Dr. Dean Ornish)

In Eat More, Weigh Less, Dr. Dean Ornish dismisses a lot of common myths about weight loss. Not only does he do this with good arguments, but he supports his claims with scientific data from large clinical studies. (And he gives an excellent response to the low-carb Atkins diet.) Ornish is a cardiologist who became interested in weight loss when he was studying heart disease. What he and his colleagues have found is that it's not necessarily the amount of calories that you eat that makes you gain weight, it's the amount of fat that you eat that makes you gain weight. He promotes a nonfat vegetarian diet filled with lots of fruit, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates. Granted, people who are at risk for heart disease who follow this diet get results right away and stick with it, but it's a big leap for the general public to make. But, as Ornish notes, this isn't an all-or-nothing deal. Eating more veggies and less fat will have great benefits.

The second half of the book includes recipes by many famous chefs. However, famous chefs sometimes forget how we normal people cook and what kinds of ingredients we have access to. For example, one chef has a recipe for persimmon muffins. I'm sure they're delicious, but I don't think I even knew what a persimmon looked like before I lived in California, where they're abundant and grow on trees in people's front yards. Not only is it a regional fruit, it's also a highly seasonal fruit, available only in the fall. That said, I also did find many recipes that sounded great and seemed relatively easy.

Even if considering becoming a vegetarian makes your mouth water for a porterhouse, I'd still recommend reading this book for an understanding of how the body processes fat, why people who diet hit plateaus, and how best to fuel your body throughout the day.

Next book up: Fantasyland by Sam Walker

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Why Do I Love These People? (Po Bronson)

Po Bronson is a good listener. When you read his books, you feel like you could tell him all your problems and he'd look you straight in the eye while you talked, and in the end, he'd make you feel better about yourself. And even though he often gives small pieces of his own life in his books, his writing seems selfless. Granted, I'm sure he's just as flawed as the rest of us, and I know a lot of hard works goes on behind the scenes, but he seems like a mediator, the kind of guy you could invite over for dinner, and it would be okay if you accidentally burned the biscuits a little bit. In fact, he'd probably like them better that way because it would give them character.

The families he explores in his latest book Why Do I Love These People? have problems just like everyone else. He explores families struggling with divorce, blended cultures, joy, loss, and faith. Some are involved in extraordinary events, such as the man raised in a low-income family who finds out his father (who he thought was dead) is alive and part of a prosperous, respected family in Nigeria.

Bronson interviewed hundreds of people while writing this book, and the stories selected for inclusion are the ones that stayed with him. They'll stay with you too. One person interviewed said that we don't get miracles in life, we get moments of clariy. Those moments of clarity exist in these stories and that's what makes the book so powerful.

Next book up: Eat More, Weigh Less by Dr. Dean Ornish

Monday, May 15, 2006

Interview: Lee Martin

The Pulitzer winners were announced recently, and among the nominees for fiction was Lee Martin for his book The Bright Forever. I’ve known Lee a long time, and cannot think of a better person to receive this recognition. He writes both fiction and nonfiction, teaches at Ohio State University, and is an all-around great guy. He was kind enough to answer a few questions for the blog via e-mail.

The Bright Forever has received much well-deserved praise. What's life like post-Pulitzer nomination?

Life after the being named a Pulitzer finalist hasn't been all that different. I'm still teaching, still eyeball-deep in reading MFA theses, still mowing my yard, still feeding the cats every morning (they couldn't care less about this Pulitzer business). The day the news hit, my wife, Deb, was in a grocery store and she heard two men talking about the Pulitzer winners. She couldn't resist. She said, "You know, my husband was a finalist in fiction." One of the men said, "Not good enough to win, heh?" And I don't even care that this guy said that. I'm too thrilled with the news. I tell you, I've never been so happy to be a runner-up.

What was your first publication?

My first real publication was a story called "Duet," in The Sonora Review in 1987. I'd published fake stories in other places, but we won't talk about them.

Could you talk a little bit about how your first book got published?

My first book was a collection of stories called The Least You Need to Know, and it was also my doctoral dissertation at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It give me great pleasure to know I got a Ph.D. with a dissertation called The Least You Need to Know. But that's neither here nor there. In the early summer of 1995, just before I was getting ready to leave Nebraska to be a visiting writer at James Madison University in Virginia, The Least You Need to Know was accepted for publication at a reputable university press that published quite a bit of good literary fiction. I was thrilled. Then, before the press could send me a contract, I got a call from Sarah Gorham at Sarabande Books, telling me that Amy Bloom had chosen The Least You Need to Know as the winner of the first Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. "I'm sorry," I told Sarah, "but it's been taken at such and such press." I'd sent Sarabande a letter to that effect, withdrawing my manuscript from the contest, but they hadn't received it yet. I fully expected Sarah to say, "Oh, that's too bad," and that would be that. Instead, she said, "Let me tell you why you should go with us." Later that day, I had a phone message from Amy, trying to persuade me to go with Sarabande, which I ended up doing, and they published the book in 1996. A side note: a week or so after I closed the deal with Sarabande, I got a call from another major contest, telling me The Least You Need to Know was its winner. Again, they'd received my letter telling them I was withdrawing too late. By this time, I'd already signed with Sarabande, and I've never regretted the way things worked out because they did a beautiful job with the book.

Some people have negative associations with the term "literary fiction." Do you think there are misconceptions about it?

I like literary fiction that's accessible. I have no misconceptions about that. To me, good literary fiction gets readers caught up in a story while also peeling back some layers into the mystery of what it is to be human on this earth.

What are the last fiction and nonfiction books you read that you really loved, and what did you love about them?

I just finished reading an advance copy of The Horizontal World, a memoir by Debra Marquart. Here's the blurb I wrote for it: "The Horizontal World is as full of grit and grace as the North Dakota farmland it portrays. Debra Marquart writes of home and how we carry it with us no matter the miles and years we travel. If you dare think that nothing really happens out there in the middle of nowhere, read this gorgeous book about a family and their land, about the girl who strained against both and finally left. From the first words, you’ll feel a taproot set down in your heart, one that won’t let go because the story is as old as the land itself. You know the one ­that story of mothers and fathers and daughters and sons, that rough and tender story of the ties that bind."

I believe the last novel I read and liked was fellow Pulitzer finalist E. L. Doctorow's The March. I love the authenticity of the book and the way it captures the texture of a country at war. And, of course, sentence by sentence the writing is full of heart and sinew. I have Geraldine Brooks's Pulitzer winning novel, March, in line next. Gotta read everyone in the club, right? Hey, maybe if I'd titled my book, The Bright March Forever, I would've won.

What are you working on now?

I'm happy to say that just last week my agent closed the deal for my next novel. My editor had made a nice offer. . .hmm. . .maybe that's one of the perks of being a Pulitzer finalist. . .and my agent did her agent thing, and now I have a book to finish. My editor hasn't seen a word of it, so her offer came completely on good faith,and I hope I can deliver the goods. I'm almost at the end of a first draft. Then the real work, and I hope fun, will start. For some reason, I haven't been able to make myself talk about this new one with anyone yet. Superstitious, I guess. Or maybe there's just nothing there to talk about. We'll see.

I happen to know you're a baseball fan, and specifically a Yankees fan. Who's your favorite current Yankee? And your favorite non-Yankee?

Ah, the Yankees. Well, folks will really like me now or really hate me. With the Yankees and their fans, there doesn't seem to be much in between. My favorite current Yankee? How about Bernie Williams, the old horse at the end of a good run. He's full of grace and dignity, even now as his skills have diminished. He does his job and keeps his yap shut, and I admire him for that. My favorite non-Yankee? Alfonso Soriano. Hey, you didn't say anything about ex-Yankees, and, besides, how can you not love that name.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

The History of Love: A Novel (Nicole Krauss)

I read The History of Love: A Novel by Nicole Krauss because back in December 2005, my NPR Books podcast mentioned it as one of the best novels of 2005. That was all I knew about it. If I had known more, I probably wouldn't have read it. Sometimes that kind of situation is a good thing (such as with Distant Land of My Father), and sometimes it's not. In this case, it was the latter. Here is a small list of reasons this book is not for me (but may very well be for someone else):

1. It's about a novel about a writer (as I've mentioned before, see my review of The Book Doctor, I'm not a fan of those kind of novels).
2. It does a lot of jumping around in time, place, and narrator, verging on the too clever.
3. It takes itself very seriously in its language.

That said, there were some moments I really enjoyed, which were funny and poignant. This book has gotten a lot of praise and may be for many, but not for me.

Next book up: Why Do I Love These People? by Po Bronson

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Plan B (Anne Lamott)

Really, it's just this simple: you should read Anne Lamott. I've loved the other books by her I've read (such as Operating Instructions), and I loved Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. The aunties reappear (read the review of Traveling Mercies for more on the aunties), as Lamott treats them to a vacation on a cruise ship. Her son, Sam, becomes a teenager, and she describes "Phil," Sam's teenage alter-ego who appears without notice and luckily sometimes leaves just as quickly.

Most, if not all, of the writings in this book take place recently, during the current administration, an administration Lamott, like many of us, has grave concerns about. "I felt soul-sick this summer to discover the secret gladness in me that the war was going so badly. I hated it about myself. I felt addicted to the energy of scorning my president. I thought that if people like me stopped hating him, it would mean that he had won."

She quotes a priest friend of hers who says that the opposite of faith isn't disbelief, it's certainty. I love that Lamott shows that being spiritual doesn't mean that your perfect, enlightened, and peaceful all the time. She's always honest about her feelings and experiences, and it's often incredibly funny and sometimes quietly, beautifully sad.

Next book up: The History of Love: A Novel by Nicole Krauss