Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The End of Overeating, by David Kessler

My husband and I closed in like vultures. It was 8:30pm, typically a dangerous time of rampant and flagrant late-night snacking in our house and our daughter had just come home from a friend's birthday dinner at the upscale restaurant chain Naked Tchopstix with a carton of leftovers. I placed a chunk of Kung Pao Chicken in my mouth. The texture: firm within, covered with a bumpy crust, and then coated by a silky sauce. The flavor: bursts of sweet, then savory, (the newly discovered taste of umami came to mind), then the tang of citrus, then a layer of saltiness, and more sweet. My mouth was paralyzed, flooded with pleasure. As I started to chew, the delicate crunch of the coating slowly dissolved into the smooth sauce, all of this melding into the tender texture of the chicken inside. Charles took a bite, and we looked at each other incredulously, our eyes wide. The question silently passed between us: How could anything taste so impossibly good?

It has seemed to me for awhile now that the food available these days, compared to the food I ate as a child four decades ago, is vastly different. Enter "The End of Overeating," an eye-opening book by David Kessler, a physician and former commissioner of the USDA, that confirms every one of my paranoid suspicions.

Sugar, fat and salt. Kessler writes that, although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these substances, the food industry overloads our food with them and this diabolically changes the chemistry in our brains, thereby messing up how we regulate our intake. These three ingredients make food compelling, and the purposeful loading and layering of our foods with sugar, fat and salt makes them highly hedonic. Today's food producers design products so that consumers ingest substances with differing stimuli and sensations, taking into account such factors as mouthfeel, temperature, texture and viscosity.

As Kessler explains, the sugar/fat/salt issue effects all processed food, from packaged food in our grocery stores to the food we eat in restaurants. Kessler devotes several chapters revealing the practices of some of the marketplace's worst offenders, and then offers solutions, explaining in detail how we can retrain our brains, reducing the craving these substances give rise to and ease the neuro-biochemical roller coaster changes they induce.

The Kung Pao Chicken had a few stalks of deep, green broccoli. I took a bite. It was crunchy, yet soft, and cloyingly sweet; the taste of sugar completely overshadowed any vegetable flavor. When broccoli tastes like sugar it's no wonder that, as a society, we find ourselves at the mercy of the array of prepared foods sold in our groceries and restaurants. Willpower won't always trump our brain's quest for pleasure. In the battle of the bulge our appetites will win unless we arm ourselves with knowledge about the larger forces at play, forces that lead to food laden with unhealthful, addictive ingredients.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Jonathan Lethem, Part Two

In my last post I tried to relay all the wisdom Jonathan Lethem imparted during his time at Butler. Since then, though, more bits of Lethem wisdom have floated back into my consciousness and I realize that because he was so generous in sharing his thoughts about his writing process, and about writing in general, there is much more to tell.

So here's part two:

When a student asked Lethem what authors have influenced him, he reported that, depending on what he's writing, a wide selection of authors inform his work. Still, he gave us a short list of the authors that became what he called structural influences, impacting everything he writes: Lewis Carroll, Shirley Jackson, Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler.

Lethem said he first aspired to the writing life as a boy. He said he had always been enthralled by books, but it wasn't until he read "Alice in Wonderland" that he had the sense that an author's hand was responsible for structuring the words on the page. He added that it wasn't long after that he developed an awareness of what constituted good writing -- and what didn't. He used "The Nancy Drew Mystery Stories" series as an example of the type of books he read that were predictable and formulaic, and lost the surprise and mystery he craved. Lethem said his goal as a writer now is to constantly challenge himself by exploring the uncertainty in the world, in an effort to find the surprise in a story.

Lethem then spoke about writing in general, saying that it is an intellectual pursuit that organizes one's thinking and increases one's understanding of the world, adding that writing is a game for the tortoise, not the hare. He compared writing to athletics, saying that the practice of training every day is common to both pursuits.

He discussed the genesis of the Tourettes suffering protagonist in "Motherless Brooklyn," and in doing so delved even deeper into the meaning writing holds for him. The idea of a character with Tourettes syndrome came from reading one of Oliver Sacks case studies. The man in the case study was a brain surgeon whose flagrant symptoms subsided only when he operated. When pondering the contrast between the chaos and the focus in the surgeon's head, Lethem saw a comparison in his writing. He imagined his own brain as a generator of a random boil of ideas that becomes focused when he writes. The disparity between the wild chaos and single-mindedness in the brain surgeon's mind echoed Lethem's view of his writing process. Further riffing on this theme, Lethem then saw his bustling, brash hometown of Brooklyn as "having Tourettes." Painting this line of thought broadly, Lethem said that, like Tourettes symptoms, the "wrongness" and bullshit that are generated in his own mind are what is golden to writing.

All this, of course, culminated in Lethem's welling up when he spoke of those moments of connection, when an author experiences readers "getting" the work. This is the moment that stuck. It's rare thing to find someone brave enough to peel back the artifice, reminding us that at the most fundamental level, the essence of the impulse to put pen to paper is the basic desire to connect.

Oh, one last thing. Lethem has an awesome website, offering free stories and song lyrics for others to develop. Check it out at http://www.jonathanlethem.com

In two weeks Elmore Leonard is scheduled to read at Butler, but until then, more book reviews!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Jonathan Lethem

Last night Jonathan Lethem dazzled the crowd at Butler by reading the third chapter of his upcoming novel, which takes place in late '50s Queens. The chapter, titled Grey Goose, takes its name from the title of a Burl Ives song featured in those pages. Here, Miriam, the young daughter of Rose, a single mother (and apologetic communist), is on a quest to lose her virginity. Expectedly, the prose was rich and textured, and the sentences were saturated with nuance and color.

Lethem's two-day visit to Butler was off to a breathless start. After the reading it was time for questions from the audience, many of which had to do with the craft of writing. Lethem advised that the process of revision is where the real writing happens; that editing is a process of self-understanding. His best advise to aspiring writers is to write every day, although having said that he admitted his own practice is less than consistent. He joked that if someone were to take an average of the time he spends each day writing it would come to about 17 minutes! Even so, making writing an automatic part of the day is important, he said, adding that one's relationship to his or her writing practice is also important. He prefers to think of the practice of writing each day as a habituation (something you do because you love it) rather than a discipline (something you make yourself do).

In response to another comment, Lethem agreed that a theme common to many of his books is the negative space left by a missing or deceased mother, most notably in (my personal favorite) "The Fortress of Solitude." He said readers incorrectly assume that this book is autobiographical because it carries within it many details of Lethem's young life (Lethem's mother died when he was 14), but that the plot of "The Fortress of Solitude," most of which takes place after the mother absents herself, is completely unlike his own childhood.

When asked about his newest book, "Chronic City," Lethem said he aimed to emulate the "chilly" characters of his favorite conceptual writers but that what he ended up writing were "hot" characters, and the mess of their humanity gummed up the "chilly" concept.

Today there was more Lethem: a Q & A in the morning followed by pizza. At the Q & A Lethem spoke about "Motherless Brooklyn," saying he got the idea for a Tourettes inflicted protagonist by reading Oliver Sacks. At the time he was living in the Bay Area, an area much more laid back than the East Coast, and as he ruminated about the frenetic energy and spurts of thought and language that are the hallmarks of Tourettes, he came to see his hometown of Brooklyn as "having Tourettes."

He went on to spend a good part of the Q & A addressing the subject of reading, emphasizing that no writing happens in a vacuum. Lethem was adamant in saying that writing is an intellectual pursuit rooted in language, and that every single word carries with it layers of meaning ascribed to it by the culture it exists in. He said that the supposition that a writer can generate work in an unsullied, pure environment, without contamination by the surrounding culture, is ludicrous. Reading and writing are reciprocal activities that feed off the other. In other words, read, read, read!

Then the pizza arrived, and even as we ate, Lethem generously continued to share his thoughts. In fact, it was during lunch that the most remarkable moment of Lethem's time at Butler occurred. One of my classmates asked Lethem what he thought about the workshop process (This is the structure of a standard creative writing class. Writers hone their craft by presenting work to a class of their peers who then offer feedback.) Lethem first commented that it has become fashionable to disparage the workshop process and say it turns out mediocre writers whose work all reads the same. He then offered his opinion: that writing workshops offer writers that golden, sought after opportunity to connect with other writers. A chance to say, "Hello? Anybody there?" through the can at the end of the string and find a "Yes!" at the other end. Lethem said that, as writers, this is what we all want, to be heard. And at this, Lethem's eyes actually welled up.

Butler's semester of visiting writers has brought authors of all stripes. While all of them read enthusiastically from their work, some clearly came with an agenda to engage, while others did not. But even of the authors who sought a mutuality to the author/reader dialogue, none of them did it with the articulate, generous, open-heartedness of Jonathan Lethem. An author who is brought to the brink of tears by discussing connecting with others through art? It leaves me all but speechless. All I can say is come back soon, Jonathan. We want more.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Madeleine Albright

On International Food Day the teacher in the children's book, "Yoko," tells her students to, "Try everything!" Friday I thought I would do just that by attending a talk by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. As I made my way through Michigan Road's construction traffic, though, I wondered if I should bail. Maybe the hassle getting there was a sign. I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm not politically savvy, and I wondered if I would get anything out of hearing an ex-politico expound about foreign policy.

When Albright walked on stage I immediately knew that I made the right decision by not bailing. Now in her 70s, Albright had a gracious, erudite air about her. She opened with a funny, self-effacing anecdote that set the tone for a casual discussion. Throughout the talk Albright was accessible, witty and engaging. She approached all questions with candor, handling even difficult ones with aplomb.

When asked if she thought women brought a different sensibility to the job of Secretary of State, Albright replied that although women may bring more consensus building to the task, both men and women want the same thing: to defend the interests of their state. When asked about her thoughts about the results of the mid-term election, she explained how important it is for elected officials to work across party lines, recounting her work in expanding the role of NATO and how she found an unexpected and unlikely partner in Jesse Helms. When asked how she would rate the Obama administration so far, she said that although they had the added task of trying to overcome the legacy of the Bush administration's heavy-hand, she would give them a B+, praising in particular Obama's trip to India.

When Albright was asked about the subject of her newest book, "Read My Pins," she told the story of how she began to wear brooches. She recounted that Saddam Hussein printed a poem about her, comparing her to a serpent. In response she wore a broach in the shape of a snake. Thus the start of a tradition of wearing brooches whose designs matched the task at hand.

Albright seemed to enjoy discussing her close relationship with Condoleesa Rice (Albright's father taught Rice) and affectionately retold the story of the conversation in which Rice admitted to her that she was a Republican.

Albright was asked about her now infamous statement on the show 60 Minutes. In response to a leading question by Lesley Stahl, Albright had said that she stood by the sanctions against Iraq -- even though they resulted in the death of half a million Iraqi children. In a moment of refreshing candor, she admitted she misspoke and that she wishes she would have framed her answer differently. She reminded us that no one goes through life without saying something he or she later regrets. Then, in her own defense, she went on to dispute Stahl's figures. She added that Iraq was never denied food or medicine, explaining that ultimately it was Hussein who was responsible for the deaths because he used his country's resources to build palaces when the citizens of his country were in need.

Albright said that as a girl she began international relations clubs in the schools she attended and then made herself president. Now, in her role as teacher at Georgetown University, her goal is to make foreign policy less foreign. She defined foreign policy in simple terms: getting a country to do something you want. It was in these simple terms that Albright shared her stories, and she did it with style, grace and an open heart. I learned a lot listening to Madeleine Albright. I may not be well-versed in foreign policy but I do know that it's always a good idea to try something new; you never know what it will bring. I had no idea that in Madeleine Albright I would find an amazing role model, a woman with integrity who just happened to be our first female Secretary of State.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Lorrie Moore

What was that sound, you say? Oh, that was the buzz that emanated from Butler University last week as the English Department readied itself for the upcoming visit by author, Lorrie Moore.

It was back in the '80s that Moore first entered the literary world, and she did it with a bang: her first published work was comprised of short stories she wrote for her master's thesis. She is now the author of three short story collections, and three novels. Her newest work is the novel, "A Gate at the Stairs."

Moore opened the evening by reading a section from "A Gate at the Stairs," and then went on to read the short story "Foes," which hasn't yet been published in the U.S.

After her readings she took a few questions. When asked if it had been difficult to write the more troubling scenes in AGATS, she said no, adding that the purpose of those scenes was to illustrate the damaging things adults unwittingly do to children. She also spoke to the setting of AGATS, saying that although the word "Wisconsin" is never used in the book, she wrote of a fictional place that resembles Wisconsin so she could "have a conversation with it."

When asked about the publishing world's current state of flux, Moore answered that she would be a writer even if she was not paid for her work, mentioning that although we may think that copyright laws have been around forever, they were created a mere 100 years ago. The upending of the status quo in the publishing world is, in essence, taking us back to those days before copyright laws when writing was unprotected.

And then it was over. Moore tossed out a thank you and headed for the book signing table. It all happened so fast. I found myself wondering if I had really seen Moore or if she had been a figment of my imagination. True, Lorrie Moore had read her work -- which was sharp and witty -- and answered questions. So why, when all was said and done, was I left with an undeniable feeling of dissatisfaction? Lorrie Moore was all-business. She kept herself at-a-distance. as she read her sharp and witty writing she gave no hint of the person who wrote those words.

Sena Jeter Naslund

Last week The Writers' Center brought in author Sena Jeter Naslund to speak on the topic of, "Structure, Style and Subject." I haven't read any of Naslund's books, (the most widely known is "Ahab's Wife"), but I was excited to hear what she would have to say about structure and style. "Subject" is a fundamental aspect of writing and although it mildly piqued my interest to know why Naslund choose certain topics, I came to her lecture to learn about writing; I knew the real learning would come from a discussion of structure and style.

Naslund had a thoughtful way about her. She chose her words carefully and had obviously put thought into preparing her speech. Unfortunately, Naslund got so involved with each of the anecdotes that told of how she came to pick her novels' subjects, she ran out of time before she could delve much into the topic of style. And she didn't get a chance to broach the topic of structure at all (Well, to be completely honest, she might have touched upon it, as towards the end of her talk I nodded off, but that was mostly because I got bored with all the anecdotes.) Not only did Naslund cheat us out of a discussion of the topics of structure and style, but she also missed out on a chance to read from her new book, "Adam and Eve." ("Adam and Eve" was just reviewed in The New York Times, which reported that it was a bizarre, crazy, unbelievable riff on the original. How ironic that a writer so wild and loose on the page can be so controlled and overly-focused in person. I guess it just goes to show that just because someone can write compelling stories doesn't necessarily mean they can be compelling writing teachers.