Monday, December 28, 2009

Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine

Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine
I've been reading this book off and on for the last 6 months or so having it picked up at my school on a whim and then having it be required reading for my current food therapy class. Although I think a lot about health and wellness I have never connected evolutionary analysis to the health crises many face so acutely until reading this book. So many people respond to illness with "how can I not feel this?" not "why is this happening?" thereby not really looking at the root source of the issue and only temporarily quelling the "problem".

A few of the things I pulled from the book which I thought were neat:

"Many primates and other mammals can make their own vitamin C, but we humans cannot. Our ancestral shift to a high-fruit diet, rich in vitamin C, had the incidental consequence about 40 million years ago of allowing the degeneration of the biochemical machinery for making this vitamin. "

"It makes no evolutionary sense, for example, for the human developmental process to cause a large proportion of the population to grow incisors in malfunctional positions and to suffer so many problems with wisdom teeth. If a large proportion of modern children need orthodontia and then later some require expensive and painful surgery on wisdom teeth, it implies that there is something wrong with their environment. One possibility is a deficient demand for jaw exercise … meals would have required far more prolonged and vigorous chewing than is ever demanded of a modern child."

"Sitting for hours on chairs in classrooms is unnatural and nothing of the sort was ever demanded of stone age children. When they were sedentary, they would have been squatting not sitting… and would have been able to shift from squatting to kneeling to walking or running. Might it not be that today’s sufferers from lower back pain owe their distress to the hours of abnormal posture imposed during childhood?"

There are ton more like this and sections I found particularly interesting on morning sickness, allergies, cancer and tons more. It's not the sort of book you sit down and read in one sitting, well not for me anyway, but definitely great to get into in stretches of down time. I've got more like this coming so get psyched!!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Trosper's summer reading roundup

Prologue: I wrote most of this back in August. It’s just a few blurbs on what I read over the summer.

This summer has been a fairly successful season of reading for me. After I finished my school obligations in June I scrambled to quickly engage myself in a reading regiment. The very mention of school here has meaning, as my academic and personal interests collide in books and I was careful to be selective in my choices. Basically, why read something in my free time that I might have to be forced to read otherwise? On the other hand, why not enrich my future academic endeavors by sampling material I might need to be privy to? Then again, why not devour whatever book I lay eyes on, regardless of content, useful or otherwise? This last inquiry hopefully steered the course of the season.

I began reading Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. I had picked up a copy at “Blintzapalooza” earlier in the year and it has been on my mental queue for at least a few years. In a nutshell (and this is mostly what I do here…), it is about how the US Government (and of course its corporate interests and benefactors) tried to “control nature” by wiping out unwanted insect populations with toxic chemicals. Naturally, this did not work in many ways. It was written in the 60’s, after a successful career as a government scientist and well-known coastal/marine life guide book author. Read this if you want to be shocked and appalled by the policies of the US Department of Agriculture (of which I’ve been an employee!) at this time. Also, it’s a good primer on ecological principles containing some really nice prose. In real life, Carson was persecuted by the government and corporations for her writings and then died of cancer, not so ironically. Some say this is one of the most important books ever written by an American.

Next up is Hermann Buhl: Climbing Without Compromise by Reinhold Messner and Horst Hofler. OK, well if you don’t know who Reinhold Messner is, look him up, but he is probably the “greatest” mountaineer of all time (yes, if there is such a ridiculous thing). Anyway, Messner put together this book about his idol Buhl: the toughest, most insane of climbers previous to himself. Well, I was excited to read this even though I find Messner’s writings somewhat dull. I would say that this book is for fans of Messner, Buhl, WW 2-era climbing, and Himalayan expeditions. But, I mean fans, and not casual interest readers. I still haven’t finished this but still want to read the Nanga Parbat treatment. Otherwise this is mostly diary entries directly from Buhl—quite dry and germanic. I must say I was interested in exploring his eccentricism and that didn't come across, so either it was my own confabulation or he is really just a typically boring Teuton. Also, his apathy towards the war (he "fought" on the German side--actually he spent the war skiing) was weird but probably typical of a lot of Alp-dwelling Austrians. But, he was truly obsessed, which is usually the case with athletes who bother to write about their doings. And there are cool pictures (very stylish!).

Along this mountain reading came along Pickets and Deadmen by Bree Loewen. This is the account of a woman climbing ranger on Mt Rainier (during the 2000’s). I can recommend this for anybody interested in climbing Mt Rainier or ranger life. The bullshit she goes through is pretty interesting, which is not surprising considering the ultra-machismo of the climbing world. I can only say that probably some of the people she worked for and with were probably a little annoyed with her take on things. And sometimes she just seemed like a snotty, jaded outdoors person, but none the less her perspective from a female in a male dominated profession and hobby is rare and refreshing (and the book is short and to the point).

Next up is Three Fingers-The Mountain, The Men, and a Lookout by Malcolm S. Bates. I came across this somehow at the library while looking for some other stuff. Since I like lookout-lore I couldn’t resist. It is a kind of goofy written personal memoir and history of a particularly precarious lookout in the north-central Cascades of Washington. This is for Forest Service, Cascade, and lookout history buffs only. The way they managed to construct it is amazing. But this is quite an obscure book indeed.

The book I was looking for when I found the last one is A Wilderness Original: The Life of Bob Marshall by James M. Glover. Well, if you are an U.S. environmental history nerd like myself you ought to know who Bob Marshall is. If not, look him up. He is most famous for his hiking ability (30+ miles a day in tennis shoes) and for being probably one of the most successful advocates for the setting aside of public land for wilderness. He was also less famous for being an early civil rights advocate, socialist, and Jewish. He had a PhD in plant pathology, was independently wealthy, obsessed with Alaska, and died at the age of 39 (theoretically from hiking too much…). He is a really interesting character.

Somehow I suckered myself into reading a more academic tome about Marshall and others called Driven Wild by Paul Sutter. The basic idea is that the US wilderness movement was “fueled” by the reaction of some individuals against the increasing motorization of America and the effect it was having on recreation, landscapes, and national character. It’s a great overview of this period between the two world wars by a thesis driven history grad student. It covers Aldo Leopold, Marshall, Benton Mackaye, and Robert Sterling Yard, all founders of the Wilderness Society and all fairly weird (except Leopold, whom was just a regular old genius).

Polar Journeys: The Role of Food and Nutrition in Early Exploration by Robert E. Feeney. OK, well this, by title, may sound boring and academic, and it is too. BUT, it was probably one of the more interesting books I read over the summer. It is chock full of gruesome adventures where the reader can fill in all the blanks left out (after all, it covers well over a century of ill-advised adventures in the Polar regions). The thrust of the book lies in the history of development of nutrition science coincident with exploration. If there were one word to describe it, I would say “Scurvy.” My favorite conclusion from the book was that the English were generally so racist/colonialist that they refused to adopt customary technology from Northern-living peoples and therefore died in their thin, woolen nationalist garments, often groveling over contaminated jars of slime driven oblivious to the vast landscapes of ice surrounding them. The most successful explorers borrowed/stole ideas from Inuits and Scandinavian Laplander cultures in both food and dress. Duh, right?

The Book of Job translated by Stephen Mitchell. It is the Book of Job from the Bible translated by a trusted scholar of comparative religion. It has a lofty introduction that illuminates the text. I guess what makes this interesting is that it isolates the writing from the Bible and so, in a way, stands apart as a work unto itself. If you think about it, the Bible is a loose collection of writings from various authors of antiquity, much of it poetry, and not authored by God (sorry to break it to ya). Anyway, read Job if you feel persecuted. He is this great, rich guy that loses everything and then gets really pissed off at God. His friends tell him to quit whining and face the “reality” of God. He eventually does and God basically gives him everything back. I think the way it ends is a wee bit fairy tale/Hollywood and confusing. But there’s plenty of beautiful blasphemous poetry if you’re into that.

Wildlife Wars: The Life and Times of a Fish and Game Warden by Terry Grosz. I had to mention this one because of it’s ridiculous entertainment value. Terry Grosz, (the game warden, not the NPR host) is this 6’6” 300 pound guy who loves all of God’s little creatures and he beats the crap out of redneck scumbags all over northern California. Some people argue that poaching is done by poor folks who need to eat, but this is a myth, as there is a huge market for illegally hunted game (at least that’s the justification herein, and I agree btw). Some of the stories are outrageous and hard to believe. I would recommend this for people who dislike evil rednecks and animal rights thinkers that want a ripping, adventuresome yarn. It is a wee bit cheesy and if you really don’t like cops, he is one. But you know, he loves the USA, his wife, God, and all the animals. You should admire my courage for admitting that I read this.

The Curtis Creek Manifesto by Sheridan Anderson. I just had to mention this. This was written by this weird cartoonist who was a fishing bum San Francisco counterculture-type. Anyway, he illustrated a couple of obscure rock climbing manuals and was infamous around Yoesemite in the 60’s. Word has it that he introduced Yvon Chouinard and some other famous climbers to the art of fly fishing and the rest is history (Chouinard now sells some of the poshest of fly fishing gear from his Patagonia company). Anyway, Anderson, self-proclaimed "Angler, artist, wander, eternal foe of the work ethic," withered away under alcoholism and general bumness and died truly obscure, but left this brilliant comic book/fishing how-to. It’s one of the best selling fly fishing books of all time.

Last but not least is The Pine Barrens by John McPhee. McPhee is one of my very favorite writers and the first one I recommend to people who may not be interested or know anything about natural history. He really is the quintessential National Geographic-type journalist-writer. I say this because topically he covers just about anything you would read in there, e.g., cultural geography, natural history, political economy and so on. For example, he wrote a book about oranges as well as a hefty tome on American historical geology. This book is what I would describe as a historical geography of the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. It is a discrete natural area that by virtue of its discreteness created a little known American subculture. Minutes away from densely populated metropolitan areas existed this backwoods Appalachian-type world of shacks, bogs, and gun-toting weirdos. McPhee immersed himself in it and brought critical attention to the importance of the preservation of the land and its inhabitants. I would say this is a fine read just like anything else I've read by him.

Honorable mentions:
How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It by Arthur Herman.
Forest Primeval by Chris Maser.
Trout by Ray Bergman.
To Know a River by Roderick Haig-Brown.

Epilogue: Winter break is here and I have a decent queue of stuff to read before heading back to the trenches. Wish me luck!

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Way Home by George Pelecanos

George Pelecanos writes stark sentences. I like to read them. I also enjoy the fast-pace of his books, the political themes (race/class/ethnicity in contemporary American society), the fact they take place in Washington DC and his skillful, suspenseful storytelling. He is a good writer and his books are compelling. But his work is deeply flawed and limited by prejudice.

Like many of my favorite writers who utilize this style (Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammet, John Fante) his stories are sexist to the point of distraction. There are few female characters. Predictably, when they do show up, they function as symbols and only exist in relation to men, who dominate the story and propel the action. His depictions of women usually involve describing their body from the point of view of one of the male characters, particularly the ass, and rarely do any female characters appear who are not mothers, whores or wives. Also like Hemingway, Hammet and Fante--his work is about masculinity--but not just any variety. He writes about a particular kind of patriarchal, straight-guy world that only seems to exist in movies and books; a world in which women are cliches and guys are heroic.

I wonder if, like me, he was drawn to his chosen writing style because he hates flowery, descriptive prose--or if he was drawn to it because he hates women (despite his love of the ass). I read 4 or 5 other Pelecanos books before I got to this one, all within a couple months of each other but The Way Home put me over my threshold. I actually don't think this one is more sexist than the others, maybe it's just not as good. Whatever the reason, I was over it. Because really, why be this sexist? Is it ignorance, stubborness, pure-hate, fear? I don't get it. On one level I liked the book, but can I recommend it? No, not truthfully, because while you might think that you can block it out and it's just harmless--it's not cool and we shouldn't have to put up with it. If you think you're up for reading a sexist dude's account of a father-son story that deals with the criminal-justice system, then go for it, but don't say I didn't warn you when you have to tolerate a bunch of ridiculous, annoying, tedious, predictable crap about women. I don't think that his sexism is incidental, I view it as central to his work, and to this writing style in general, unfortunately.

After finishing this one I was unable to get through the last book in the Derek Strange series (though I still plan on it) until I had researched and read some "feminist noir". I hope I can find writing I like as much written by a woman (or even an anti-sexist guy). I like crime fiction as a working class genre. It deals with working people, the underclass, justice/injustice and is largely a critique of society. There's usually a dichotomy between the amoral 'crook' and the pious world of the square. The worker is commonly depicted as a man (or woman) of the law, but often is corrupt or struggling with his/her own moral code and dilemma. Economics is generally a major theme. I've always loved mysteries and suspense, particularly detective novels. I like trying to solve the crime and keeping track of the different plot-lines and possible motives. Usually the characters are sharp and well-formed like they are in a comic strip. Quick-witted dialogue, the shadowy underworld, tragic twists of fate--all good and present here. I enjoy reading Pelecanos for these reasons. He is good at the craft and I appreciate his polemic use of fiction. But by the end of The Way Home, I'd had enough for awhile.