This week I read Eat & Flourish by food writer Mary Beth Albright, with audiobook narration by Caroline Shaffer.
Unlike books that emphasize weight and other aspects of physical health, this book examines the relationship between food and mental wellness. At various times a chef, a food attorney, and a journalist, Albright finds a wealth of medical information and makes it accessible for general readers. Some tidbits that stayed with me:
Taste is perceived beyond the taste buds. When Cadbury changed the shape of its chocolates from squares to circles, consumers were in an uproar about the sweeter formulation...even though the recipes were identical. This is why you should add a spring of fresh herbs to your plate. You will derive more pleasure from your meal, just from seeing a sprig of parsley or rosemary.
In a tightly controlled experiment, people in two groups ate food with identical caloric and nutritional compositions, but one group ate clean, unprocessed foods while the other ate ultra-processed foods. The people eating ultra-processed foods gained weight.
In another experiment, mice were fed identical diets, but some mice received injections of gut microbes from a fat twin, while other mice received injections of gut microbes from the slender twin. The mice with the microbes from the fat twin gained weight.
I mention those experiments not to hyper-focus on weight but to observe that there's so much to food and wellness beyond "eat less, move more." How food is prepared and processed, the microbes in your gut, how often you share meals: so many different factors contribute to your overall well-being.
Albright provides lists of foods that can help with specific emotional goals, such as eating to feel less angry or less anxious. There are also some recipes and a few high-level ideas to implement at the grocery story, such as a plan to focus on anti-inflammatory foods for a week. I consider myself well informed on food and nutrition, but I learned a lot.
My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite
My Sister, the Serial Killer is a slender little thriller about the complicated love between sisters. Korede is older and plainer, working as a nurse in Lagos. She's a compulsive cleaner, and she has a secret crush on Tade, an eligible doctor at her hospital. Ayoola is younger and gorgeous and she's just finished killing a boyfriend--the third time this has happened. Her claims of self-defense sound hollow, considering her complete lack of remorse. Sensible older sister Korede has to stop Ayoola from posting happy selfies when she's supposed to be mourning a missing boyfriend.
And then the beautiful, dangerous, probably psychotic Ayoola sets her sights on the handsome doctor.
There are some dark themes along with the dark humor. If you don't like reading violence, this is not the book for you! But on the unlikely chance you've wondered what it would be like, mixing Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle with the movie Arsenic and Old Lace, you have an answer! Nigerian author Oyinkan Braithwaite delivers something a little different from dainty murders in the English countryside. I enjoyed it as an audiobook, read by Adepero Oduye.
I read Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace.💅 I started microdosing it daily on January 1st and finished all 921 pages this morning.
I devoured Anna Karenina as a teenager, but I I was not expecting that same breeziness here (if a lengthy Russian novel about adultery can be said to be breezy). One of my college professors once told me that Tolstoy was embarrassed by the melodrama in Anna Karenina and considered the more serious War and Peace to be his masterpiece.
There is a small bit of truth to this. Let's get that out of the way. Tolstoy occasionally interrupts his narrative to, I am sorry there is no other verb for this, pontificate. He'll end a battle scene on a thrilling cliffhanger, then spend a couple of chapters talking philosophy. Tolstoy loves to criticize the historians of the Napoleonic era. He does not merely do history. He does historiography.
But leaving aside those digressions: this book is a damn soap opera.
We've got affairs, gambling, botched abortions, pistols at dawn, secret societies, heirs vying for fortunes, peacetime deaths, wartime deaths, love triangles, broken engagements, controlling fathers, and bigamy. The only thing missing is a premature burial.
I read the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (ISBN 978-1-78888-652-9, Sirius Publishing, part of Arcturus Publishing). If you'd rather watch the movie, there have been a ton of adaptations. I haven't seen any, but when I was getting started and still trying to keep the characters straight in my head, I kept looking up images from the BBC adaptation, and the costuming is gorgeous.
I am glad I can finally settle that question that every person must ask of themselves: Dostoevsky or Tolstoy? I am #TeamDostoevsky. While I enjoyed War and Peace immensely (the melodrama parts , at any rate), The Brothers Karamazov will never be dethroned.
In Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, Dr. Vivek Murthy uses his pulpit as the U.S. Surgeon General to focus not on heart disease or obesity or addiction but on loneliness.
As a person who is lonely (a bad thing) but who enjoys solitude (a good thing), I am a sucker for books that examine isolation and loneliness. I'm always looking for insights into my own existence and what changes, if any, could be made.
Though each individual's social needs are unique, humans generally are hardwired to fear loneliness. Murthy discusses an experiment showing that students, arbitrarily informed they were likely to be lonely as adults, performed poorly on academic tests compared to students informed they were going to have successful marriages and social connections. (A third group, informed they were likely to suffer physical pain from accidents and injuries, did not perform poorly.)
I disliked some of Murthy's assumptions, e.g., that technology is bad because it distracts us from in-person relationships. WHAT in-person relationships? Pray tell, Dr. Murthy.
Also, I get mighty irritated when eye contact is regarded as something virtuous. The neurodivergent folks would like a word. So would the people from cultures where eye contract is construed as aggressive.
Nor was there enough discussion of people with personality disorders. Do they need the same connections? Do they want them? They were barely mentioned in the book.
So at times I found myself snapping at Dr. Murthy as he narrated the audiobook. Still though, I learned some new things, and I don't mind recommending it for people who get lonely at times. In a world that is increasingly fractured, with economic systems that are hostile to community, that would be most of us.
After the death of King Arthur, the wizard Merlin cast a spell on the knights of the round table, ensuring they would be resurrected any time Britain faced great peril. From the Battle of Hastings to World War II, they have risen from the earth to defend the realm.
Now they're back to fight climate change.
Perilous Times, Thomas D. Lee's debut, is a delightful take on Arthurian legend. Characters from the old tales share the page with contemporary people, including a ragtag group of feminist eco-terrorists, a satanic cabal of powerful men, and a white nationalist who gets turned into a squirrel.
The depictions of an uncomfortably-near future ravaged by rising waters and rising temperatures make this science fiction as well as fantasy. It's also a political satire. The squabbling and inertia among the rebels threatens to forestall action against the corporate polluters.
Be aware, there's a fair bit of violence here, including violence against a pet. There's also violence against a dragon, but she started it.
I enjoyed the audiobook, narrated by Nicola F. Delgado, who did a fine job with English, Welsh, and American accents.
When Covid first hit, I started doing book talks on social media as a way to keep in touch with people. I never got out of the habit. I don't discuss books by my clients, and if I don't like a book, I won't discuss it at all. While I will sometimes focus on craft or offer gentle critical perspectives, as a matter of professional courtesy, I don't trash writers. Unless they're dead. Then the gloves come off.