Saturday, April 27, 2013

FAT CHANCE by Robert H. Lustig and SALT SUGAR FAT by Michael Moss

If you eat food, here are two newish books you should know about.

You may already have met Robert H. Lustig, author of Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease (2012). Lustig is the UCSF professor whose surprisingly riveting 90-minute lecture, "Sugar: The Bitter Truth," has already had nearly 3.5 million hits on YouTube. The thesis of his lecture: it's not dietary fat that's making Americans gain weight, it's sugar. And sugar is doing much worse things than increasing our clothing size. It's setting us up for a whole range of lethal diseases that are almost entirely avoidable.

In Fat Chance Lustig writes about sugar, going into much greater detail about what it does in and to our bodies. He also writes about how various foods cause physical addiction, how the food industry keeps us full of junk, how the government helps the food industry ruin our health, why people gain weight, why diets fail, how people can lose weight--he's all over the map. But if you're not enslaved to linear thinking, you may well enjoy this fascinating collection of data and explanations as well as Lustig's sassy attitude.

Don't be put off by the title, by the way. I think it and the cover illustration are both insulting and misleading, and the subtitle makes the book sound like either an extended scold or a dreary set of rules for would-be ascetics. No, no, no. Lustig goes to great lengths to avoid blaming or shaming people who wish they weighed less. His concern is with keeping people--both convex and concave--in good health, and he'd like all of us to join his battle against the Evil Food Empire that is doing us in.

Once you've read Fat Chance you'll be loaded for bear. Michael Moss to the rescue--he'll tell you where to aim your rifle.

In Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (2013), Moss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, tells what the food industry has been up to during the last couple of decades. Food executives, Moss says, are nervous: people are figuring out that convenience foods aren't good for them.

Stripped of nature's nutrients and loaded with fat, sugar, and salt, most of today's grocery-store items are engineered to provide the maximum taste thrill for the minimum price so food companies can make maximum profits and give Wall Street maximum satisfaction.

As engineered foods have gained popularly, however, their consumers have gained weight. At the same time, obesity-related diseases have added billions of dollars to health-care costs.
"Obesity is literally an epidemic in this country, and some people's ideas for addressing this public health issue could directly or indirectly affect the entire agriculture industry, from farm to consumer," a Philip Morris vice president, Jay Poole, warned an agricultural economics group.
Yes, that Philip Morris. The cigarette manufacturer, who once fought any publicity indicating that smoking might be bad for you, owned General Foods and Kraft in 1999 when Poole issued that warning, and they acquired Nabisco the next year. The food giants--including not only Philip Morris affiliates but also Kellogg's, Coke, Oscar Mayer, Cargill, Frito-Lay, and Dr. Pepper--had no intention of letting customers slip away to the produce aisle.

They would fight back with whatever weapons they could muster: the science of addiction, misleading labeling, false claims, selling to less regulated countries, advertising to children, relentless lobbying of legislators and government agencies.

I especially enjoyed Moss's repeated observation, after lunching with one food company executive after another, that the executive looked trim and healthy--and would not eat his company's products. You might not want to either after you've read this book.

Oh, and never fear--Salt Sugar Fat is not a downer (unless you read it while drinking Coke and eating Fritos). It reveals, but it doesn't preach. You'll enjoy the stories Moss tells. He hopes you will find it a useful tool for defending yourself when you walk through the grocery store doors.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Books + food + friends = a delectable book group

I'm not normally a fan of online book clubs. I mean, what's the point? Book clubs should be events where friends get together to eat and chat, sometimes even about books. Move that online and you lose everything except the part about the books, and if I want to spend my alone-time reading (which I do) electronically (which I don't), why not just fire up the Kindle and read another book?

And then Cook the Books ("a bimonthly foodie book club marrying the pleasures of reading and cooking") emailed David and me to see if we'd judge one of their contests.

My first reaction: flee. I already have a stack of books in my office that I have to read for another contest, and the last thing I wanted was another accusatory stack. But I read on.

Cook the Books, it turns out, was asking us only to read blog posts about a book--The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri--and choose the post we liked best. We had already read the book, which I'd reviewed on this blog (here). That's why they came to us, though their first choice would have been Signor Camilleri himself. Maybe the fact that he's 87 years old and a heavy smoker made them think he wouldn't have time.

After we found out more about Cook the Books, we were happy to accept. It's different from most online groups. Participants don't just read and comment; they write whole blog posts. And they don't just write, they actually invent recipes and cook them. And even though the four hosts live in Hawaii, California, Indiana, and New York, two of the other participants got together in real time and spent an afternoon cooking up their entry. This was beginning to sound like a real book club, but tastier. How could we resist?

Here's how Cook the Books works (their complete guidelines are here).

Every couple of months, the website's hosts choose a book that has something to do with food. (For a not-quite-up-to-date list of previous selections, a main course of fiction with the occasional nonfiction contorno, click here.) They announce their selection on their website and encourage other people to join them.

After they and their readers have read the book, they use it as inspiration for cooking something--maybe a recipe that is actually in the book, maybe one they create based on a description from the book, or maybe one that just seems to go along with the book's spirit.

Then each participant--the hosts and anyone else who joins them--blogs about the book and the food.

The judge then reads the blogs and chooses one. "You can use any criteria you like," one of the hosts told us.

Now that sounded like our kind of assignment! If you'd like to know how it turned out, you can read our comments here. Or you can just look at this picture of the scrumptious soup we couldn't wait to make after we'd read the recipe, and try to imagine how we made it.

Bibliophilic foodies, take this idea and run with it. If you like to read and cook, I'm sure the Cook the Books club will be happy to have you join them. Better yet, start a local chapter, cook your own recipes (alone or together), meet in somebody's kitchen, and share the bounty! (If you live near me, get in touch...)

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

HOW AN ECONOMY GROWS AND WHY IT CRASHES by Peter D. Schiff and Andrew Schiff

One of my fiscally conservative friends told me I should read this book if I wanted to know why Keynesian economics are a politican's best friend. I interpreted that to mean "why Keynesian economics suck." Oh no, I thought. Booooring. But then she added that the book was funny, and my heart leapt up. I like funny books, even if they're about economics.

Yes, How an Economy Grows is funny. Peter D. Schiff and his brother, Andrew J. (known mostly for his lament about how hard it is for a family to live in Brooklyn on $350,000 a year), explain free-market economics by means of an extended fairy tale enhanced with hilarious cartoon illustrations by Brendan Leach.

The story begins with three men, Able, Baker, and Charlie, who live alone on an island and stay alive on a diet of one fish per person per day. (If it occurs to you that the first man's name should be spelled "Abel," that could mean you're a proofreader, in which case this book will drive you nuts: it is littered with typos.) Many generations later, the island has a brisk fish-based economy, a strong manufacturing sector, and a booming trade with other islands. But then a monsoon hits, and the powers that be (especially Franky Deep) decide to issue Fish Reserve Notes to use in trade instead of actual fish, and Lindy B. funds the Great Society by issuing ever increasing numbers of Fish Reserve Notes (without keeping actual fish in reserve), and Slippery Dickson closes the bank's fish window to foreign depositors, and Roughy Redfin grossly outspends his revenues, and George W. Bass and Barry Ocuda bail out the banks--every one of these leaders egged on by villains such as Ally Greenfin and Ben Barnacle--until eventually the Sinopians, who by this time own most of Usonia, decide to cut bait and keep their fish for themselves.

On the positive side, the Schiffs managed to keep me awake while they explained their economic beliefs. I am impressed by the fact that Peter Schiff accurately predicted the recession of 2008 while many economists were still saying "Don't worry, be happy." As a parsimonious descendant of Puritans, I agree that savings are basic to economic health and that excess debt is perilous. Like the Schiffs, I think we're in trouble when the goods we consume are mostly produced elsewhere and our major export is dollars. I fear that the Schiffs may be right when they say (as David Stockman recently did in the New York Times) that we're in for a big crash in the near future.

But when I look at the kind of government the Schiffs would like to have, I see some really big theological problems. You don't have to be religious to see the problems, however: I suspect they are theological problems because they hurt people.

First, everything in this book's imagined universe is about money (well, fish), and how to get more of it. Oddly, the actual fish that sustain life in the early chapters become means of exchange and even storehouses of reserves in the later ones. Our daily bread (Matthew 6:9-13) transmutes into the rich fool's overstuffed granaries (Luke 12:13-21). People who are poor are barely mentioned in the Schiffs' tale: on their island, the poor do not exist. By contrast, in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the duty to care for the poor is one of the major themes. "Blessed are you who are poor," said Jesus, "for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6:20). "You cannot serve both God and money" (Luke 16:13).

Obviously the poor are not well served by an economy that crashes, and perhaps the Schiffs would argue that their principles would be better for the poor than is our present precarious situation. Perhaps so, but that brings me to the second theological problem: the system the Schiffs describe might have worked very well before Adam and Eve developed a taste for apples, but in a world where everyone is infected with a touch of greed (see concupiscence), the Schiffs' system  is as dangerous as any other system we might invent. They do a fine job of showing how the government can screw things up--and indeed it can--but they are silent about how businesses can do the same. In their story, "Franky Deep" established disastrous policies in response to a monsoon--a natural disaster. In the real world, the Great Depression happened after decades of industrial monopolies, inhumane labor practices, and wild stock-market speculation--all unrestrained by the government.

I have no illusions about government. On the depravity scale, big government may be just as depraved as big business (though it's getting hard to distinguish between the two, since one buys the other and then uses it to accomplish its purposes). Ideally the two would form some sort of reciprocal deterrence system, checking each other's excesses, though that's not easy to accomplish in our multinational economy. But I think I know enough about greed to suggest that if businesses were left entirely to their own devices, the world's economy would soon consist of an interlocking network of immensely powerful monopolies that would "grind the faces of the poor" to an extent undreamed of by the prophet Isaiah (3:15). Heck, it's happening already.

So what's the answer to our economic woes? Well, if we--as individuals and as a nation--could somehow manage to understand that we need to pay (now, not during the next administration) for what we want, we could probably come up with something, especially if what we want includes concrete ways to lift people out of poverty. And yes, there are politicians (like Bill Clinton) and CEOs (like Bill Gates) who are devoting a lot of time and money to meeting human need.

But most businesses turn a goodly percentage of their profits into marketing whose aim is to persuade us that we always need more now; and most politicians spend vast sums trying to persuade us that if we elect them, we can have something for nothing; and most self-help books tells us that we really need to take care of ourselves better... and the beat goes on, and will go on, until one day it turns into the loudest crash yet, followed by ominous silence.

The Schiffs' ideas will not stave off the evil day, because the Schiffs do not take human nature into account. Politicians who follow their libertarian approach most likely have something other than ideas to sell. As do the Schiffs, for that matter, and they make no secret of it. Peter Schiff owns the brokerage firm Euro Pacific Capital, "an SEC registered investment advisor and full service broker/dealer that seeks to help American investors prepare for a global economy that may no longer be dominated by the U.S. dollar." His brother Andrew--the financially struggling one--is its director of communications and marketing. Peter is also CEO of Euro Pacific Precious Metals: that is, he sells gold.

Their father, Irwin Schiff, whose ideas they develop in this book, is serving a 13-year prison term for tax evasion. His lawyer's contention that he "had been diagnosed with a chronic, severe delusional disorder relating to his beliefs about the federal income tax system" did not sway the judge.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

KNOTS & CROSSES by Ian Rankin

The test of a really good mystery: you can read it more than once and still get caught up in the story, even if you remember whodunnit.

To be honest, I didn't mean to reread Ian Rankin's first Inspector Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, a second time. I knew I'd checked it out of the library some time back, but I thought I'd read the first chapter and quit. That must have been some other novel. As I read it this time, I kept realizing what was going to happen, and not because the plot was thin (it wasn't). Finally I googled my book lists and discovered that indeed I had read the entire book less than a year and a half ago.

I liked it even better the second time (and am likely to remember that I read it). Now I'm ready to follow in the footsteps of my husband, who, I believe, has read every one of the Rebus books and has seen some of the TV adaptations too.

Knots and Crosses, published in 1987 when Rankin was 27 years old, introduces Edinburgh Detective Sergeant John Rebus and immediately throws him into an investigation of a serial killer who targets young girls. Rebus has an 11-year-old daughter, and some secrets from his past that he can't bear to face, and ... well, the story turns into a thriller in which he's very personally involved.

Rankin's plotting is great: neither so complex as to require note-taking on the part of the reader, nor so simple as to be obvious (though the killer keeps taunting Rebus by sending him clues that, he says, should reveal his identity). He knows how to evoke emotions, from compassion to terror. Best of all, he makes Rebus fully human: on the one hand, a hard-drinking loner with a penchant for petty theft and fornication; on the other, a caring father and a praying, Bible-reading Christian who keeps wishing for better treatment from his vengeful personal god.

I've checked my library's holdings against Rankin's book list and am delighted that they stock most of them including the newest Rebus novel, Standing in Another Man's Grave (January 2013 in US). I've put in for an interlibrary loan on a couple of the early titles that they don't have. It's going to be a good spring.

Oh, by the way, if you're wondering about the title, "noughts and crosses" is the British term for what Americans call tic-tac-toe.

Monday, April 8, 2013

FOR SALE: the American free press

(Where print publishing is headed)
My husband has spent over 30 years editing magazines. His company now publishes fewer than half the number of magazines they did a decade ago, and the number of employees has been significantly reduced. He feels some sympathy for the situation described in a recent New York Times article, "Sponsors Now Pay for Online Articles, Not Just Ads," "if the articles are clearly marked," he said, "and they don't promote the companies' products." Right, I said, and the camel's nose under the tent flap isn't hurting anybody.

I understand why magazines are turning to sponsored articles. Most of us would rather read our magazines online, though we have no intention of paying for the privilege of doing so. Unfortunately, advertisers are not willing to pay as much for online ads as they once did for print ads, possibly because consumers have learned how to block them. (I use Adblock Plus, which is great for now, but they're starting to let "more useful and pleasant" ads past their censors, which may soon render them useless to ad-avoiders like me.) With dropping revenue from consumers and advertisers, magazines have a hard time paying for original research, reporting, writing, and editing. The temptation to use sponsored articles is strong.

It's good for spouses to have common interests, so my husband and I both chose careers in a doomed industry that pays poorly. What could possibly go wrong? My work has been in book publishing, which has its own share of problems. A decade ago my little college town had a Borders and a Barnes & Noble. Now we have to get our books from Amazon or, more often, from the public library. Read another recent New York Times article, Scott Turow's "The Slow Death of the American Author," and weep.

Turow, who is president of The Authors Guild, is not complaining about his remuneration: his books have sold over 25 million copies. He simply notes that authors of e-books earn "roughly half of a traditional hardcover royalty"--unless they are pirated, lent, or re-sold, in which case they earn nothing at all. And since an e-book never wears out, why would anybody pay for a new one?

I didn't put a newspaper in my toilet photo, because I don't have an actual newspaper. We stopped subscribing to the Chicago Tribune about the time a good friend of mine, seeing the handwriting on the wall, took early retirement. She's glad she did: during the last decades, hundred of editors, writers, and reporters have been laid off, and pension benefits have dramatically decreased. Like everyone else, I read my news online now. As my mother once asked under other circumstances, why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?

But what's going to happen now that we all expect to get our news, our magazine articles, and our books free of charge? If newspapers can't afford to hire good reporters and editors, news will deteriorate into shouting matches based on uninformed opinion. If magazines can't afford to pay their writers and editors, they will first try to turn into advertising delivery systems and then, failing that, go out of business. If book publishers lower royalty rates and refuse to take a chance on new or little-known authors (i.e., authors who are not yet "brands"), careful thinking and writing will be replaced by self-published schlock. Oh, right... those aren't predictions. They're descriptions of what has actually happened over the last decade.

Q. So where will our reading material come from? 
A. From businesses with products to sell, of course.

It's an American tradition. The current Supreme Court has decided that businesses have the right to sponsor political candidates. For many years cigarette makers sponsored the research that found no link between smoking and cancer. Nowadays manufacturers of sugary products sponsor dubious nutritional research. Why shouldn't businesses sponsor news, commentary, and entertainment, not only by advertising, but also by providing content? Especially if they're not specifically mentioning their own products in the articles they supply?

Well, one wonders how much of the camel will follow his nose into the tent. And one thinks of the old adage that he who lies down with dogs (or camels) gets up with fleas. For a fascinating first-hand look at how advertising influenced women's magazines before 1990, read Gloria Steinem's (possibly pirated) article "Sex, Lies & Advertising." For a fascinating first-hand look at how advertising is influencing all forms of media today, just stay online.