The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World’s Most Glorious – and Perplexing – City, by David Lebovitz   no comments

Posted at 4:11 pm in Book review

David Lebovitz is rightly renowned for his dessert cookbooks–just ask anyone who’s tried the chocolate/guinness ice cream I make following his instructions. And as his blog makes clear, he’s an engaging, affable narrator. But until I read The Sweet Life in Paris, I hadn’t realized quite how laugh-out-loud funny he is.

Ten years ago or so, Lebovitz was leading a happy existence in San Francisco, following a long stint as a Chez Panisse pastry chef with a series of acclaimed cookbooks. Then his boyfriend suddenly and tragically died, of causes that Lebovitz doesn’t go into, and he decided to move to France. He describes this as running toward rather than away from something, an explanation that his loving depictions of French food support.

French food–if you don’t want to go there after reading Lebovitz’s  descriptions of it, there’s something wrong with you–is on the plus side of living in France. On the debit side, there are haughty salespeople, nonexistent customer service, and Parisians. But Lebovitz makes himself right at home, being so persistently friendly to shopkeepers that one of them consents to chat with him a mere five years into his stay. He also begins shaving before taking out the trash.

Interspersed among his very funny–and appetizing–accounts of life in Paris are recipes, all delicious-looking and no doubt well tested. You should make a lot of them. (Let me know in comments if you need my address.) And if you’ve ever wanted to go to Paris–or even more, if you haven’t–read this book.

Written by Lorin on July 28th, 2011

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Why We Get Fat: And What To Do About It, by Gary Taubes   no comments

Posted at 6:28 pm in Book review

It’s no secret that America has an obesity problem. And we know what we need to do about it: eat less and exercise more. Consume less fat. Rely less on animal products. If we can all just control ourselves and eat a low-fat, plant-based diet and get some exercise, everyone will be fine. Right?

That’s certainly the prevalent doctrine, dispensed by more or less everyone except for the authors of a trickle of low-carb diet books. (Confession: until recently, I considered Atkins and co to be utterly misguided.) But does it take into account how our bodies actually work?

Not according to Gary Taubes. In “Why We Get Fat,” he argues that it is carbohydrates, not fat, that cause obesity. An earlier book “Good Calories, Bad Calories” made this point in a much more verbose and technical way; this is his attempt at a more layperson-friendly (though certainly not unscientific) account.

Taubes regards the calories in/calories out model of weight loss as distinctly unhelpful. Sure: to gain weight, I have to eat more than I discard, but what causes this? Is every overweight person really just gluttonous and lazy?

He illuminates matters by describing a group of female rats whose ovaries had been removed. They began eating incessantly and quickly became quite obese. In some cases, though, they were held to their usual diets. These rats also became obese, but in addition, were lethargic, moving only to gather food. Greed and sloth: end of story?

No. Without ovaries, they had no estrogen. Estrogen helps regulate how fat is stored, and prevents it from landing solely in fat, as opposed to, say, muscle cells. In the absence of estrogen, most of the fat that these animals consumed was being stored in their fat cells. This meant that their bodies had no fuel to run on. So they kept eating. Forcibly prevented from eating, they lacked the energy to move. They weren’t getting fat because they were overeating: they were overeating because they were getting fat.

Humans are in the same position: incoming fat can be shunted into storage or treated as fuel.* (And estrogen works the same way, which is probably why women who have had hysterectomies often struggle with their weight .)  Taubes gives a somewhat technical but quite enlightening description of how we process food, with insulin in the starring role. We consume carbs, they’re turned into glucose, our bodies release a wave of insulin to cope with it. Insulin has a variety of effects, none very helpful to anyone who wants to lose weight. In particular, while insulin is elevated, it is impossible to burn anything other than glucose. It doesn’t matter how much fat is sitting around: we can’t burn it. In anyone with chronically elevated insulin, this is obviously a problem. Adding insult to injury, as we get older, we tend to become less sensitive to insulin, and some people become resistant. Obviously, this does not affect everyone equally (genetics plays a big role): we all know people who can eat piles of chocolate without gaining weight. “It may be easier to believe that we remain lean because we’re virtuous and we get fat because we’re not, but the evidence simply says otherwise. Virtue has little more to do with our weight than with our height,” Taubes says. Refined carbohydrates may not cause trouble everywhere, but where there are weight problems, Taubes says, carbs (and our hormonal response to them) are always to blame.

It is impossible to decrease carbohydrate consumption without increasing fat intake. Taubes is fully aware of the environmental and ethical disadvantages of a heavily meat-based diet, though he does not offer a solution. He does, however, address the widespread claim that the key to both weight loss and good health is a low-fat diet. Rather shockingly, he makes a convincing case that its purported beneficial effects are not supported by science.  (There is a revealing discussion of how the government came to claim that they were.) On the contrary, studies seem to show that people on low-carb, high fat diets have improved triglycerides and HDLs. As he points out, for a very long time our species lived chiefly on the fattiest meat it could find: the idea that we require carrots and orange juice isn’t entirely obvious. He dispenses with exercise similarly handily–while unquestionably very important, exercise does not seem to contribute much to weight loss.

David Kessler recently made clear that given that our brains treat combinations of sugar, salt, and fat more or less like heroin, judgmental harumphing isn’t a reasonable response to the obesity crisis. Given the large, intense–and utterly useless–guilt-fest that this country’s discussion of weight still is, this book couldn’t come at a better time.


*This is a simplified description: please do not treat this essay as an endocrinology manual.

Written by Lorin on June 30th, 2011

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The Bowl Is Already Broken, Mary Kay Zuravleff   1 comment

Posted at 2:54 pm in Book review

Something sinister is afoot at the Museum of Asian Art. Its longtime director Joseph Lattimore has suddenly and inexplicably quit, leaving his diminutive and squeaky-voiced lieutenant Promise Whittaker in charge. One curator is hell-bent on acquiring a bowl that belonged to Thomas Jefferson; another is determined to have a son, and has been pilfering her department’s travel funds to buy fertility treatments. But why did the director leave? And why is a workman employed by a fast-food company measuring the conference room?

The museum, not coincidentally, resembles the Freer Gallery (its scurrilous overlords are the National Institution of Science and Art in Washington, DC). The director’s hasty departure turns out to have everything to do with the museum’s propitious location next to a metro exit, and the fact that most of its visitors are tourists in search of food and bathrooms, not lovers of Asian art.

Promise, navigating treacherous straits at work while dealing with unexpectedly tricky events at home, is in over her head: while Joseph, having run away to an archaeological dig in the Taklamakan Desert, is having troubles of his own. But, amidst the fragments, not all is broken.

Zuravleff delightfully skewers the museum world, and peoples it with likable and engaging characters. A lovely novel.

Written by Lorin on April 22nd, 2011

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Things I’ve made lately out of yarn   2 comments

Posted at 8:32 pm in Not about books


I used the bathmat pattern from One Skein, slightly altered–I added three rows of single crochet on each long side, to make the border go all the way around–in Elmore-Pisgah Peaches & Crème in sunburst.

Fred’s scarf

It’s the Sharfik pattern from Grumperina with the repeat eliminated (so there are 31 stitches instead of 48), on size 11 needles, with two strands of Lorna’s Laces hand-dyed merino.

Pom-pom flowers

These were inspired by (ok, stolen from) from Jennifer’s much sexier blog.

All pictures by Fred.

Written by Lorin on February 6th, 2011

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How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior, by Laura Kipnis   no comments

Posted at 8:27 pm in Book review

To all appearances, Lisa Nowak was both accomplished and sane, a holder of multiple advanced and highly technical degrees: and an astronaut, which means, inter alia, a survivor of the rigorous psychological testing given to prospective members of the space program. So it was surprising when she showed up in Orlando–having driven 950 miles from Houston, apparently using diapers along the way–and, wearing a bizarre disguise, attacked Colleen Shipman, her rival for the affections of fellow astronaut Bill Oefelein. (Amusingly, to her colleagues in the space program, one of the more mystifying aspects of this story was that she managed to find her way to Orlando without getting lost.) How could this possibly happen? And surely, nothing like it could ever happen to us.

Not so, says Laura Kipnis, who in How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior, makes an intriguing–and convincing–case that we’re all much closer to public disgrace than we think.

Who among us is not guilty of the occasional bout of bizarre, blatantly rude, manic, self-sabotaging behavior? Mostly though, it’s not spectacular enough–or we’re not famous enough–for it to qualify as scandalous. I can think of occasions, say, when–lunch way past due and confronted with an elaborately rude stranger–I’ve publicly exhibited banshee-like behavior that I would be very loathe to have recorded on videotape. Lapses of self control, fits of bad temper, self-delusion: they’re all part of the human condition, and given the right set of circumstances, can manifest themselves in particularly explosive ways.

Generally, though, people blow up their lives only under distinctly exacerbated circumstances. Kipnis evokes a great deal of sympathy for Nowak, whose marriage had recently broken up, who had obviously been a great deal more in love with Oefelein than he had ever been with her, and who had recently lost a close friend in the Columbia shuttle disaster. (She had been caring for her friend’s motherless child, which would have put a significant strain on anyone.) Oefelein for his part seems to have waited until weeks into his relationship with Shipman to break things off with Nowak; and a sort of idée fixe had taken hold of her, that she must apprise Shipman of this, and find out when Shipman knew what she knew. Why she needed to do this in disguise, in the middle of the night, in an airport parking lot, using pepper spray, not even Nowak can explain–but then none of us, Kipnis argues, can say what we’re ultimately capable of.  By the end of Kipnis’ tale, it is impossible to see Nowak, and the wholesale destruction of her career, as anything other than tragic.

Kipnis lends a similar perspective to the other scandals she describes (which tend to be notable, distinct from the more garden variety scandals in which actors yell racist slurs and have public outbursts)–the eminent jurist Sol Wachtler, imprisoned after a bizarre episode in which he wrote extortionary notes to an ex-girlfriend under an assumed personality, and James Frey, publicly pilloried (most notably by Oprah, whose own actions were distinctly  weird) when aspects of his best-selling memoir turned out to be fiction. The only subject for whom–in my eyes, at least–Kipnis does not manage to drum up any sympathy at all, is Linda Tripp, who remains as staunchly repulsive as ever. Manic, even dangerous behavior: well, ok; the wholesale betrayal of a friend and–I would argue–her country: emphatically not ok.

Scandal, though always a popular topic, has not been the subject of much theory. Kipnis here makes an elegant (if, to my taste, excessively Freud-laden) attempt to remedy the situation, in a book that ultimately does not so much chronicle our differences as reveal our similarities. Scandal, Kipnis argues, both unites us and shows our society for what it really is; it allows us to laugh together while exposing the fault-lines of our culture. So scandal is not just endemic, but necessary to the human condition. And there, but for some really crappy luck, go you or I.

Written by Lorin on January 9th, 2011

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Thirteen People Who Didn’t Change the World, by Paul Collins   no comments

Posted at 9:35 am in Book review

History is written by the winners. Or at least about the winners. There’s no shortage of tributes to, say, Shakespeare or Einstein.  But what about the losers? Happily, there’s Paul Collins—a great and, I think, under-appreciated writer—who in Banvard’s Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn’t Change the World, brings to life a group of people who were famous in their own day, but for various reasons have been completely forgotten. The best-known (if that’s the right word) of Collins’ anti-heroes is Delia Bacon, who was renowned on two continents for her brilliantly erudite lectures, but went mad, and in the process invented the Francis Bacon-wrote-Shakespeare’s-plays theory. (She and Francis were unrelated, though late in her life she seems to have forgotten this.) Martin Farquhar Tupper was a famous writer of revoltingly treacly Victorian poetry, bizarrely much admired by Walt Whitman.  René Blondlot was a brilliant scientist who believed that he had discovered N-rays. Collins manages to evoke sympathy for his hapless protagonists, though it’s perhaps not unmixed with schadenfreude. Still, in this deeply fun book, they finally have the last word.

Written by Lorin on December 30th, 2010

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The Last American Man, by Elizabeth Gilbert   no comments

Posted at 9:20 am in Book review

Before Eat, Pray, Love happened, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote mostly about men: cowboys in the short story collection Pilgrims, lobster fishermen in her novel Stern Men, and, most memorably, Eustace Conway in The Last American Man.

Twenty years ago, Conway went back to the land in the most extreme way possible, and he’s still there, foraging and hunting, rubbing sticks together to make fire, sewing his own clothes from the animal skins he tans.  He is convinced that once people bear witness to his life, they too will want to give up electricity and indoor plumbing, and the United States will revert to an agrarian society, its citizens cheerfully living in harmony with nature. To this end, he travels the country promoting his nature preserve (and once befriending a terrifying set of crack dealers who liked his buckskin coat). Gilbert paints him as alternately charismatic and deluded, inspired and infuriating.

Conway’s story is interspersed with a history of utopian ideas in the U.S., of the dreamers—zany, often misguided, but always engaging—who envisioned a new way to live and a brighter future on the American frontier. There’s also an intriguing meditation on masculinity, on American definitions of manhood from the pioneer era to the modern age. The Last American Man is fascinating and a lot of fun—and just possibly better than Eat, Pray, Love.

Written by Lorin on September 30th, 2010

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The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman   no comments

Posted at 11:29 pm in Book review

Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists is that rare thing in fiction, a novel set within an office. The office in question belongs to a fading international newspaper in Rome whose rather fractious employees are seemingly united only by their occasionally grudging dedication to the paper.  Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different member of the staff–from Editor to CFO–plus a section about a reader.

The stories are all tragicomic in their own ways, perhaps reflecting the gloom hanging over the newspaper industry these days. The reader, Ornella de Monterrecchi, is particularly memorable: feeling compelled to read each edition completely, she is now fifteen years behind, and has banned all modern technology and news-conveying devices from her house so as not to encounter any plot spoilers. Ornella’s son Dario, though he does not merit a chapter of his own, weaves in a pleasantly conniving fashion through the other characters’ lives.

The longer sections are interspersed with a history of the paper, which was founded by an American millionaire industrialist fifty years earlier, for somewhat mysterious reasons. These become clear at the end, in a genuinely elegant resolution. The Imperfectionists paints incisive portraits of both the state of the newspaper industry and some highly memorable characters. Brilliant and un-putdownable: a terrific first novel.

Written by Lorin on September 22nd, 2010

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Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, by Ethan Watters   no comments

Posted at 8:21 pm in Book review

A woman tries to walk across a room, but collapses. Another suddenly goes blind, for no obvious physical reason. Victorian hysteria, clearly a product of a time when women lived highly constricted, repressed lives. A veteran suffering from PTSD, on the other hand: doubtless a real disease, immutable, applicable in all situations and cultures. Not so, says Ethan Watters, who convincingly argues that all mental illnesses are circumscribed and molded by the cultures in which they occur. A person who is distressed will express it by drawing from whatever pool of symptoms is available in his culture–which may well be entirely different from what is available in my culture.

In Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, Ethan Watters, a veteran journalist who presented a scathing indictment of the recovered memory movement in Making Monsters, examines four illnesses in four parts of the world: anorexia in Hong Kong, PTSD in Sri Lanka, schizophrenia in Zanzibar, and depression in Japan.

These four illnesses (and cultures) are quite different from each other, but share something important: none of them looked like the accepted Western clinical definition of the disease. Anorexics in Hong Kong did not believe that they were fat, trauma sufferers in Sri Lanka tended to describe physical symptoms and damage to family relationships rather than psychological problems, schizophrenics in Zanzibar were believed to be possessed by spirits, and in Japan, milder forms of depression were not viewed as an illness that required treatment.

Watters describes a world far from the definitive-sounding edicts of  the DSM (the diagnostical and statistical manual of psychological disorders, the handbook of Western psychology); one in which distress is signaled in an enormous variety of ways. “The simple but mind-bending truth,” the anthropologist Allan Young explains, “is that mental illnesses such as PTSD can be both culturally shaped and utterly real to the sufferer.” This world collides unhappily with the immutable-disease view of much of the Western mental health establishment.  (Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down makes a good companion read.)

Western health professionals increasingly treat patients throughout the world, and Watters suggests that they are often far less helpful than they believe. A DSM-trained therapist, unwilling to consider that a Hong Kong anorexic does not believe herself fat, is unable to hear what the patient is actually saying. This is one problem with the globalization of the DSM. An even larger concern is that in the course of describing an illness, particularly if the description is dispersed widely throughout a culture, therapists may actually create an illness where it did not exist before. The local expressions of mental illness begin to disappear, and the clues that could have been gleaned from them are lost.

Crazy Like Us is not a polemic against Western mental health care: it is clear that competent Western therapists can be very helpful, under the right circumstances. It is equally clear, though, that they can be distinctly unhelpful under the wrong circumstances, when they fail to understand that their definitions are not universal.

This is especially clear in Sri Lanka, as American therapists rush to the scene of the tsunami, insisting that the local population has no understanding of trauma, and no idea how to treat victims. The psychology professor Ken Miller suggests that we consider the opposite scenario, with Mozambicans telling 9/11 survivors which rituals they need to engage in to sever their relationships with deceased family members. That the therapists earnestly believe themselves to be doing good makes these scenes no less disturbing. They explain that large segments of the population will fall victim to PTSD, and that it is not necessary to understand Sri Lankan culture to make this prediction. (There is an obvious connection to Watters’ previous work, with echoes of the victim mentality that characterized the recovered memory movement in these PTSD predictions, as well as in the medicalization of very minor depression in Japan. Human beings occupy a large spectrum, from fragility to resilience, and it’s not clear why fragility should be the default option.) These therapists are, of course, wrong: Sri Lankan history is sadly full of tragedy, and Sri Lankans have developed specific and effective methods of coping with it.

In all of these cultures, a shift is underway to a more Western view of the mind. Watters believes that a society is most susceptible to this influence when it is under a great deal of strain: the Chinese takeover in Hong Kong, for instance, or the tsunami in Sri Lanka. These changes do not happen on their own, but tend to be encouraged by outside agencies. The most striking instance that Watters describes of Western intervention is a successful attempt by a consortium of pharmaceutical companies to change the definition of depression in Japan, through an enormous and society-wide campaign. The high regard in which U.S. knowledge is held in much of the world makes such attempts to influence local mental health practices particularly effective–and dangerous.

From the U.S. point of view, the culture-blind promotion of Western ideas on the mind could appear to be a good thing. Shift your vantage point a bit, though, and these efforts look misguided and even harmful. This is a brilliant and genuinely paradigm-shattering book.

Written by Lorin on July 18th, 2010

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The Perfect Scoop: Ice Creams, Sorbets, Granitas, and Sweet Accompaniments, by David Lebovitz   2 comments

Posted at 4:11 pm in Book review

There are millions of cookbooks. General cookbooks that explain how to boil an egg, specialty cookbooks that teach macaron-making, good cookbooks, bad cookbooks, cookbooks for every conceivable culinary interest.  And every so often, a great cookbook.

I’m a big fan of David Lebovitz’s blog, but his book The Perfect Scoop had sat unused until last week. I’m not sure why: what better way to spend the summer than making ice cream? But then, finally, I made chocolate ice cream and caramel sauce and French almonds and butter pecan ice cream and mocha sauce and strawberry sorbet and lemon sorbet.  They were all spectacular. (Lebovitz claims that it’s called butterscotch because it needs scotch, and with the Jack Daniels I put in, it was the best butter pecan ice cream I’d ever eaten.)

The Perfect Scoop is cheerfully and clearly written–and extremely well tested. The recipes–which cover ice cream, sorbet, granitas, toppings and containers–vary from the uncontroversial to the adventurous.  I haven’t made parsley ice cream yet, but I’m sure it will be delicious.

So if you’ve ever wanted to make ice cream, buy this book.  (And an ice cream maker, if necessary.)

Written by Lorin on July 15th, 2010

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