Monthly Archives: July 2011

Just Like Someone without Mental Illness Only More So by Mark Vonnegut

I was intensely interested in reading Just Like Someone without Mental Illness Only More So for a couple of different reasons. The first one is that it’s by the son of Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite authors. The second is that the premise of the book is that he discusses what it’s like to be both a successful doctor and a person with bipolar disorder. I liked his description of how his life unfolded and appreciated his insight into his life as a whole. I’ve not read his fiction, but I would say that his ability to show the reader what it is like to have a mental disorder while maintaining a successful and functional (for the most part) lifestyle shows there might be a familial tie for writing talent.

Vonnegut talks a bit about what it was like to grow up with his father. Kurt was a gruff man – if you want to put it mildly – and, despite the good things he did, like taking in his nephews after their parents died, Mark Vonnegut doesn’t give the impression that he ever did become an outwardly caring father. What he does show us is that his father was there when he needed him, like during his hospitalizations.

One aspect of Vonnegut’s book that I especially liked was that he wrote about what it was like to be in school and become successful at his profession and then have his disease get out of control. I think most people don’t get the fact that people with bipolar disorder can recover. It’s important, in my opinion, that people like the author come forward and talk about the fact that, yes, he has a mental illness, and, yes, he has been hospitalized for it, and now he’s doing well as a physician (and not only a physician, but a pediatrician).

I also liked that he talked about self-medication. For him, the substance of choice was alcohol, and it caused serious problems for him and his family. No matter what the drug, I think it’s important for people to know that substance abuse can be a sign of undiagnosed or improperly treated mental illness.

One thing I didn’t like was that Vonnegut appears to still have some of the risk-taking behaviors. He became a mushroom hunter and, at one point, ate one that wasn’t so good for him. His wife had to take him to the hospital to get his stomach pumped. I don’t know if it was included as an example to say that he’s not “cured” and that treatment of bipolar disorder is an ongoing process, but I found it scary that he might not realize that he still has urges to do reckless things that he might not have even full reflected on.

Overall, I’m glad Vonnegut wrote Just Like Someone without Mental Illness Only More So. A lot of people will be educated and a lot of people will find hope within its covers.

Rating: 4/5.

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Filed under 4/5, Book review, Favorable, Nonfiction

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel

I’ve never really thought much about the banana. I was terrified of them as a child, suspecting that there were deadly poisonous spiders concealed within each bunch. I’ve gotten a little older now, and occasionally enjoy them, but they’ve not really ever been on my mind until I read Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World that tells the reader all about its past, its present, and its future.

Dan Koeppel, the author of Banana, has a wonderful sense of humor throughout the book. He actually goes to visit banana plantations and other notable locations, such as Leuven, Belgium, the seat of banana research. I found his levity delightful; I like microhistories, but not those that take themselves so seriously as to squish the fun out of their topics.

The first thing Koeppel does that I think is great is explore how bananas most likely spread throughout the tropics. He makes the important point that plants, unlike us animals with our easily (in comparison) bones, plants are made of materials that don’t fossilize well. The path of the banana is a guessing game, one that has better odds now that there is genetic testing, but it’s still not perfect.

The majority of Banana, though, is spent discussing the more recent history of the fruit. I found it most interesting that United Fruit Company (what became Chiquita) allowed its competitors to survive only to avoid anti-trust lawsuits. The businesspeople behind the companies were something else — I think it’s incredible how ruthless the leaders of fruit packing companies were. You think fruit and you think happy, but that’s not often the case.

Koeppel talks extensively about the conditions on the ground in Central America. Workers were treated as if they weren’t human, but animals; when they tried to stand up for themselves, the fruit companies got the local (or American) governments to squelch the rebellions. The banana literally helped shape the way government functions today in Central America. How sad it is that it’s often a brutal and militaristic regime that’s in power.

Even more interesting is the disease that killed the banana type most eaten before the 1940s — the gros michel. It was not immune to Panama disease, but the Cavendish was. Thus, we now eat the Cavendish … but it’s not immune to all forms of Panama disease, only those found in Central America. The thought is that the banana will eventually die out like the gros michel, and it’s up to us to find another variety, create another variety (which is difficult with an asexual organism), or find a way to beat Panama disease.

Koeppel presents the banana in both a fun and a serious way, interspersing humor with gravity well. I think anyone who likes microhistory will enjoy Banana.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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Four Fish by Paul Greenberg

Having read Cod, I was expecting Four Fish to follow in Mark Kurlansky’s tradition of the microhistory. Sure, maybe this one talks about four fish, I thought, but it’ll still be really meticulous, detailed, and contain almost more information than you’d ever want to know about the topic. Paul Greenberg surprised me by being both focused and able to bring me the big picture in a wonderfully cohesive and intelligent way. He doesn’t write his books like Kurlansky, but he doesn’t have to. He’s capable of producing something that’s just as subtly informative in his own way.

Since the book is called Four Fish, let’s take them one by one. The first is salmon. Greenberg discusses the drop in wild salmon populations, colored by a trip to Alaska to see a fishing operation that runs by the graces of the government. He also talks about the farmed salmon industry, which is where I got my first exposure to the amount of energy it takes to produce a pound of fish. Some fish are not very efficient at using the resources available to them, and quite a few of those are the first ones we’ve picked for domestication.

Greenberg next exposes us to sea bass, another fish people are trying to domesticate. He talks about the guidelines Francis Galton put forth for domestication (hardiness, an inborn liking for man, comfort-loving, be freely breeding animals, and easy to tend), and then discusses how sea bass, a favorite fish food for the Mediterranean peoples — and then much of the rest of the world — doesn’t fit any of these criteria. I found it interesting that researchers have put a lot of effort into fish that are so hard to tend. The process for sea bass started in Israel and then spread from there, and scientists have gotten remarkably far considering that they are such difficult fish.

Cod is where things get really interesting. First of all, Greenberg has the Mark Kurlansky come and taste cod from wild and farmed sources, which I thought was just great. Kurlansky actually picked out the wild cod as one of his favorites; pretty cool when someone can do that! Wild cod stock has, with the rest of these four fishes’ populations, declined wildly. What I found fascinating was that, while there are people trying to farm cod, there’s already some fish that are readily domesticated and require fewer resources — like tilapia (my mother’s favorite). I found that fascinating, and Greenberg talks about how the name recognition (or lack thereof) goes a long way toward whether a seafood is going to be accepted by the public.

The last fish is the tuna. Tuna is the top predator in its habitat, meaning that they are long-lived and take a long time to recover from population drop-offs. One interesting fact about tuna and its consumption in Japan that Greenberg shares with us is that the Japanese found it too fatty to eat before the American occupation, and only developed a taste for it during that time. Tuna also have a counterpart that are a better choice for domestication — the kahala — and eating these fish would allow tuna stocks to replenish.

I really liked how Greenberg wound his story about how we’re damaging fish stocks through some interesting interactions with scientists and fishermen. The best part, though, is that he found fish that fill the same niches as these staple ones — and do it better. For drawing in a vegetarian whose only caught seaweed (and been happy about it), I think Greenberg deserves some credit.

Rating: 4/5.

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Thursday Next: First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels was the last of the Thursday Next books sitting on my to-read shelf. I was a little excited about it, mainly because I’ve had a nonfiction reading jag, and I was ready to return to something I’d find more relaxing and less taxing. What I got was a purely delightful book that stands with its head just a little taller than most of the other Thursday Next books.

One of the best things about this book is that it starts off with Thursday as a middle-aged woman. She has her children and her husband, whom she has told she has given up her work with all enforcement agencies she was previously associated with. Instead, she owns a flooring business.

This is, of course, a lie.

Next works undercover, with the carpet-laying job being a ruse so that she can justify to Landen all the time she spends away from home. Life seems to be going along as smoothly as it can when one’s lying to one’s husband, and then there’s a surprise. Thursday’s son, Friday, who is a typical lazy teenager, is revealed to be the future head of the ChronoGuard — except that he should have started training a long time ago. The fate of the world hangs on his career choice; it appears the universe will end in a couple of days.

Thursday is also training herself from her fifth book, Thursday5, to become a Jurisfiction agent. Sadly, she also gets saddled with Thursday1-4, who turns out not to be cut from the correct cloth for this type of work.

I loved the fact that every plot part was easy to track. Fforde did a much better job of juggling the various aspects of the story within the reader’s mind; some of his other Next books have left me a little confused at points when I had to struggle to remember something that was mentioned quite a bit earlier in the book. This time, it was put together so well that I didn’t have to put forth the effort to find what he’s referencing, which is perfect. I read Thursday Next: First Among Sequels for fun and as a break from nonfiction.

Another great thing about this book is that there is a lot less jumping around between books and time. I prefer it when there’s a cleaner flow, and Fforde provided that wonderfully here. I also liked the fewer references — sometimes the earlier books fell into the fault of stretching for a pun or literary mention. There’s less of that here.

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels left me excitedly anticipating my chance to read the next book in the series. That’s the mark of an awesome book.

Rating: 5/5.

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The World Is Fat by Barry Popkin

An advertisement from a publishing company about books in the food studies area came through our department a couple of weeks ago. I happened upon The World Is Fat from there. After all, I’ve enjoyed books like this in the past — maybe I’m a little masochistic and like to hear all about what we’re doing wrong. Remarkably, for a book that’s so short, Popkin manages to fit in quite a bit of repetition, and not even in an interesting way.

One interesting thing about The World Is Fat is that Popkin follows a couple of families (well, composite families) here in the United States, as well as his own upbringing in the middle of the century, and also talks about the habits of two families in India — one modern one, and one from the 1960s. I liked the insight into how families behaved in the mid-1900s.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t save this book from being one piece of repetitive propaganda. Popkin’s main issue is sugary drinks. (A lot of which he calls soda, which drives me nuts on another level — it’s pop!) Okay, we get it after you’ve said that pop, juice, and milk aren’t good for us. Except, sometimes milk is good for us. That story is never really fully ironed out. That’s not a problem for me personally, and I really think that most people know that, if you’re drinking regular Coke, you’re getting calories. The American media are saturated with this information about where your “hidden calories” are coming from.

Popkin discusses briefly how exercise and activity can help, and that McDonald’s has made steps in the right direction. It’s a shame that he doesn’t do a better job of pulling these other ideas into the spotlight; it’d be nice to read about other issues with the global food culture other than that people drink caloric drinks. I’d love to hear more about how the other aspects are serious (for example, he discusses briefly that other fast food outlets are going high-calorie and whether that has made an impact on sales for either them or McDonald’s), but I came away with a taste for saccharine — literally — and little else.

For such a short book, perhaps Popkin didn’t feel that he had room to include other issues. If it truly thought that, he should have called the book How Drinks Made the World Fat. It would be a more fitting title for a book so focused that advertised itself as a comprehensive study.

Rating: 1.5/5.

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Filed under 1.5/5, Book review, Nonfiction, Unfavorable