Kali Reads

Review – The Skies Belong to Us by Brendan I. Koerner, narrated by Rob Shapiro

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Brendan Koerner has tapped into a fascinating piece of US history – what he calls the “golden age of hijacking” on US planes.  Hundreds of planes were hijacked in America in the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s, and many planes were hijacked on the same day by coincidence.  Koerner paints the picture of a time totally opposite of flight today.  There was little security at airports, there were no bag checks, and passengers could pay for their flight after they boarded.  In our post-9/11 world, envisioning this former era is near impossible.

The story here focuses on Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow, a pair of skyjackers who committed the longest hijacking in American history.  I felt the details of their specific story sometimes dragged here – Koerner spends a lot of time covering their pre- hijacking and post-hijacking lives.  I began to lose interest with all the meandering details – other than the fact that they hijacked a plane, I’m not sure if either of these people lived a life remarkable enough to write about.

Where The Skies Belong to Us shines in its portrayal of this Mad-Max-in-the-sky time period.  The sheer number of successful skyjackings from the 1960’s and 1970’s is astonishing.  The young flight industry’s attempts to deal with security on planes while also rushing to accommodate the demands of each plane hijacking are almost humorous.  The naivety here is remarkable – at one point, the head of the FAA discuss the impossibility of searching each passenger pre-flight.  I found the variety of skyjackers and their motives to be more interesting than the specific story of Holder and Kerkow.  There were a variety of reasons people skyjacked, and a huge spread of types of people involved, and many of the skyjacking plans were simple and poorly executed (yet often successful).  As with the best non-fiction today, this story is too bizarre to make up.

The Skies Belong to Us:  Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Skyjacking on Amazon.com

The Skies Belong to Us website

Review – MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

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“Why is war so much like a practical joke? she thinks.  Hiding behind bushes, leaping out, with not much difference between Boo! and Bang! except the blood.  The loser falls over with a scream, followed with a foolish expression, mouth agape, eyes akimbo.  Those old biblical kings, setting their feet on conquered necks, stringing up rival kings on trees, rejoicing in piles of heads — there was an element of childish glee in all of that.”  — MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood

I remember my discovery of Oryx and Crake, the first book in the MadAddam trilogy.  I was down with the stomach flu and had recently bought the novel at a used book store, as I was a huge fan of Margaret Atwood‘s other works (The Blind Assassin, The Handmaid’s Tale).  I wasn’t sure what to expect with Oryx and Crake, but I was blown away once I started reading.  Despite my aching stomach, I read the book all the way through without stopping, moving from chair to floor and back again trying to ease my aches from the flu.  I think Oryx and Crake is easily one of the best apocalyptic novels of our time, and I recently listed it in my list of the best apocalyptic audiobooks.

I bought The Year of the Flood, the second book in the trilogy, shortly after its release.  The Year of the Flood takes place in the same dystopian period as Oryx and Crake, but can stand alone as its own novel.  Margaret Atwood has created a new world in these stories, and the possibilities of her imagination are endless – both books are funny, sad, and brutal.

And now comes MaddAddam, the third (and final? let’s hope not!) release in what is being called a trilogy.   If you haven’t read the first two books and are considering checking out MaddAddam, I’d say to read the other two first.  There is much more to appreciate in this novel with an understanding of the story thus far.  That being said, I haven’t read the first two books in quite a while and the brief summary at the beginning of the new book helped me recall where each of the stories ended.

As with the sequel to Justin Cronin’s hit apocalyptic book The Passage, MaddAddam has a lot to live up to.  I could barely wait to see which direction Atwood would choose to take things.

And go off in a direction she did – MaddAddam reads like the Waiting for Godot of the trilogy, all wit and wait.  This story begins where the other two books ended – with Jimmy and the Crakers (characters from Oyrx and Crake) encountering Ren, Toby, and Amanda (protagonists of The Year of the Flood).  Those hoping for the quick pace of the first two books may be disappointed – much time is spent on debating  the next move, on waiting for others to come back from various missions, and on reminiscing about times before the fall of man.  At one point Toby wonders what she is supposed to do, where to go from here, and we are all right there with her. There is a feel here of a post-apocalyptic version of David Eggers’ The Hologram for the King.  Where The Hologram for the King leaves us waiting in the harsh landscape of a foreign desert nation, questioning the purpose and productivity of American business, MaddAddam leaves us waiting in a harsh dystopian future, questioning our own potential demise and what is left to do for those of us who survive.

As heavy as this sounds, MaddAddam is a book full of jokes and jesters.  The Crakers (leaf eating, genetically modified semi-humans created to flourish in the new world) act as a Greek chorus of sorts, commenting on all they don’t understand from before their creation, inadvertently asking us to evaluate our most basic assumptions.  As she illustrated in The Penelopiad, a beautiful book of Penelope’s thoughts on The Odyssey, Atwood is a master of myth.  MaddAddam could be a study in the creation of myths (as could much science fiction), as the Crakers’ mythology continues to evolve on what they hear from humans.

Aside from The Crakers, who steal the show in this novel, the other star of the story is Zeb.  Zeb is a unique character for Atwood to take on, as many of her books feature strong female characters, and readers may be predictably dismayed that he is the focus rather than the more gentle Adam or the matriarch of the group Toby.  Zeb is masculine to the max – swearing and crude, he picks on his scrawny brother, he kills without regrets, he woos the women around him.  In the same pre-apocalyptic flashback style used in the first two books, we get to learn of Zeb’s history and his role in the disasters which struck the human race.  Atwood writes at one point “The old symbol systems follow us around,” and they surely do here.  Toby’s struggle with loving an alpha-male like Zeb could stand just as well in a tale from the frontier West or current suburban America.

As always, Atwood’s writing is stellar.  Her descriptions are short knife slices, her dialogue is smart and funny.  A woman in the group  “looks flinty-eyed, like a wood carving of herself.  She’d make a good executioner…”  As with Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, part of the joy here is reading Atwood’s vivid creation of a future gone mad – nefarious corporations, company backed oil-worshipping churches (“Church of PetrOleum, affiliated with the somewhat more mainstream Petrobaptists”), porn devolved into simulated or real violence, genetically modified animals grown for human profit (Mo’hairs – “Hair Today, Mo’hair Tomorrow went the add when the creatures had first been launched.”)  “Funny old thing, the human race,” Zeb says at one point in the story – and Atwood’s future shows the human race to be a funny thing indeed.

Atwood’s dystopian world has now spanned over a 10 year time period (Oryx and Crake was published in 2003), and I have to wonder if MaddAddam will really be the last addition to the series.  By the end of MaddAddam it is clear there is so much more to be explored – especially regarding Blackbeard, the charming Craker who becomes Toby’s shadow early in the story.  MaddAddam feels more to me like an interlude than a final chapter.  More is revealed here, and enemies become allies;  but this world is enchanting, gruesome, and hard to let go.

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood on Amazon

Margaret Atwood’s home page

Review – The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick, narrated by Ray Porter

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“Life is hard, and children have to be told how hard life can be…So they will be sympathetic to others. So they will understand that some people have it harder than they do and that a trip through this world can be a wildly different experience, depending on what chemicals are raging through one’s mind.”   – Matthew Quick, The Silver Linings Playbook

The Silver Linings Playbook as a movie was a huge hit.  It was nominated for the top five Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay), and Jennifer Lawrence won the oscar for her performance as Tiffany.  Although I’m not usually a fan of the rom-com genre, I appreciated the movie’s banter and its tender look at the quirks of mental health.  And who could not love that incredible dance at the end?  Epic.  I was pleasantly surprised with the whole thing –  the movie oozed charm.  If you haven’t seen it, check it out on your preferred media subscription program.  (I was going to say check it out on iTunes, and then I added in Netflix, and then I thought about On Demand options and people who prefer to download things or rent them at Redbox, and I realized we’ve seriously expanded since the days of everyone renting a video at Blockbuster.)

After listening to the novel the movie is based on, I understand why other readers at Audible.com sing its praises from the mountaintops.  The story’s protagonist and narrator, Pat, gains a lot of his charm through dry descriptions of his erratic behavior.  The ease with which Pat explains his odd, compulsive actions and his simplistic outlook on life results in a very amusing read.  I am not a laugh out loud person, which makes watching comedies slightly uncomfortable for me, but I did spontaneously laugh out loud a few times while listening to The Silver Linings Playbook.

The novel is Pat’s tale – he stands out from a crowd of slightly flat supporting characters.  In the movie, the character of Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) has been fleshed out and amped up to meet Pat (Bradley Cooper) at his level of charm.  Jennifer Lawrence’s Tiffany steals the show in the film, and in the book Tiffany doesn’t have a few of her most memorable scenes.

Another standout feature of the book was its portrayal of the joy of rituals surrounding Pat’s beloved football team, the Philadelphia Eagles.  I am not a sports fan and I did just do a quick Google search to confirm that the Eagles are, in fact, a football team;  however, this book made me understand and appreciate the sheer pleasure of rooting for a team with all your closest friends, yelling chants and getting hyped.

Maybe predictable for the Hollywood version of any story, the movie feels a lot lighter than the book.  Extra plot arcs are created to make the movie goer care a bit more.  Although laden with humor, the subject matter here is at its core bleak – mental illness, family dysfunction, loss.  The jokes based on Pat’s narration, clever and fresh at the beginning of the novel, felt stale by its end.

Movies that are better than the book they are based on are rare birds – it takes a vivid, complicated movie to master a novel’s plot.  Like Fight Club before it, I believe The Silver Linings Playbook has pulled off this feat.  The book is charming and witty, but the movie reaches a higher level of creativity.

Matthew Quick has written several books since The Silver Linings Playbook and they all sound worthy of a read.

Matthew Quick’s page

The Silver Linings Playbook on Audible.com

The Silver Linings Playbook movie page

Review – Everything Bad Is Good For You by Steven Johnson

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Steven Johnson begins Everything Bad Is Good For You with a claim:  “This book is an old-fashioned work of persuasion that ultimately aims to convince you of one thing:  that popular culture has, on average, grown more complex and intellectually challenging over the past thirty years.”

This is a brave stance to take, as we’ve all been calling television a wasteland for years, shaking our heads at kids who stay glued to a screen playing games and watching shows.  Johnson avoids covering well-trodden ground by refusing to discuss the morality of content.  As he explains, “No one complains about the simplistic, militaristic plot of chess games.”  If you can get past this purposeful exclusion (it seems like a lot of other reviewers can’t), this is a book of simple and brilliant concepts.  Flash bulbs were going off in my head on each page.

A book that covers current culture dates itself quickly – Everything Bad is Good For You was originally published in 2005, and although the games and TV shows cited may not be relevant today (Joe Millionaire?) the ideas presented here seem timeless.  Other media theorists, such as Marshall Macluhan (who Johnson cites), presented concepts 40 years ago which we still refer to today.

Everything Bad Is Good For You is at its best exploring the evolution and cognitive advancement of games, television, and reality television.  Film and the internet are mentioned briefly, almost in passing.  As a reader of The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, Johnson’s stances on the internet made for a great opposing argument.  Johnson does come across as theoretical, and I think this works well as many of his arguments are simple and make sense.

Johnson points out the development of multiple threading in prime time television – television’s increasing use of weaving many complicated threads throughout a show rather than having a single narrative plot.  When he compares Dragnet (from the 1950’s) to the Sopranos (of 2000’s) the difference is striking.  He talks about reality shows as tests of social skill, sort of live action video games.  Drop a group of people in a controlled but unpredictable environment and see how they behave, and observe how they use their emotional intelligence to deal with those around them.  This explains to me the appeal of reality television much more plausibly than other claims out there (we’re all watching to zone out, we’re all watching people be humiliated).  Everything Bad Is Good For You also points out that as a nation our intelligence is rising – would it make sense if our entertainment didn’t advance with us?

I love to think serious thoughts and read big books, but I’m hooked on The Bachelor and Game of Thrones like everyone else.  Arguments which state I’m watching this stuff because it is violent garbage, exploitative and simple-minded, don’t ring true to me.  This book helped me feel a little less guilty about what I’ve always considered my “bad” habit of TV watching.  I also downloaded Lumiosity for my phone, an app that claims to build your brain with simple mental games.  They are fun, and who knows?  Gaming could be good for me.

Everything Bad Is Good For You by Steven Johnson on Amazon.com

Steven Johnson’s website

7 Audioworthy Apocalypses

1. The Passage by Justin Cronin, narrated by Scott Brick

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When I speak of The Passage I refer to it as “the epic apocalyptic novel The Passage” each time, as this book’s epicness can not go unmentioned even once in conversation. Scott Brick, the best audiobook narrator known to man, reads this one with the sadness of a dusty old cowboy sitting at a campfire in the middle of the night while vampires are creeping in on all sides around him. Yes, that’s right–The Passage is a vampire book! This doesn’t make it simple, though. It isn’t an action movie disguised in book form, not a vampires-are-sexy sort of book or a teens swooning sort of book. Cronin maps out each gripping and startling detail towards the fall of man and the rise of vampires, and then each step towards survival in the post-vampire world. He builds up such a detailed culture around the historical narrative of the vampire attack, it asks for genealogy and maps and wikis and other such fan-stuff. Cronin’s writing is well paced, informal, authentic, unafraid to take on big ideas and small details. Like the best authors, he describes things in a way that makes them just a bit sharper than real life.  The Passage unabridged has a listening time of almost 37 hours – it is a story that stays with you for a bit.  I recall a friend getting into my car while I was listening to this and being like “OMG is this still that same book?  That book is so long!”  Yes, yes it is.

2. Swan Song by Robert McCammon, narrated by Tom Stechschulte

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A book that starts with the line “Once upon a time, we had a love affair with fire,” is clearly a winner worth pursuing. This isn’t for the weak (is any apocalyptic listening?), as McCammon lays down a harsh and brutal future, exploring a loss of humanity among people after nuclear bombs fall and things get rough. Listening to Swan Song is like being dropped into a nightmare, and I mean that in the best way possible. Add to the epicness narrator Tom Stechschulte–he reads this book like he’s really mad about it, and it is the perfect tone to take. The unabridged audio of Swan Song clocks in at almost 35 hours–a true apocalypse takes a while.

3. The Stand by Stephen King, narrated by Grover Gardner

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Any apocalypse list is incomplete without The Standoriginally published in 1978, and now a classic of post-apocalyptic fiction. The Stand gained a larger audience with a mini-series in the 90’s, and there have been constant low murmurings of a Stand movie in the works. The unabridged audio was released last year in updated format (previously it was on tape), and the tale is the longest on the list at just under 48 hours listening time. Two days straight!

4. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, narrated by Campbell Scott

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A brief tale compared to the previous three audiobooks we’ve covered, Atwood spins a creative and enchanting story here with less of the gore of much apocalyptic fiction but all of the evil. Atwood can write about anything and make it seem wistfully romantic, and this makes Oryx and Crake all the more sinister. At about 10 hours listening time, you can knock this one out in a single night where you stay awake and force yourself to listen, concerned about the growing number of audiobooks in the world and your lack of ability to listen to them all.

5. Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich, narrated by Kirby Heyborne

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So far we’ve covered the classics–the biggest vampire epic novel of recent history, a really long and creepy book from the eighties, and The Stand by Stephen King.  Odds Against Tomorrow is the new kid here. Rich has written an apocalypse for today’s thinking man, for Wall Street Bankers, for capitalist America. He’s written this book for everyone who keeps working even after their office fire alarm goes off. This book is funny, weird, and dark. It approaches apocalypse from a totally different angle, and different is good. Odds Against Tomorrow is also a lesser time investment at 10 hours listening time.

6. 14 by Peter Clines, narrated by Ray Porter

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Peter Clines is another fairly new author, but he is here to stay.  This man is serious about his end of the world.  This book is what Chris Matthews is constantly calling everyone on The Bachelor/Bachelorette–a “fan favorite.”  I discovered 14 by looking at reviews of another book on Audible.com, and someone had posted “This book is great but if you have to pick one book right now get 14!  Get this one later!” The urgency convinced me. 14 is another creative apocalypse, very outside the box. A sort of steampunk-ish Clue game of our world’s end. Some people may argue that this doesn’t even qualify as apocalyptic fiction and I would say those people may be right, but check it out anyways. One thing I think is really funny, another author gave this book a blurb that says “A riveting apocalyptic mystery in the style of LOST.”  The TV show?  I think this book has more in common with… books. Again, its a shorty – almost 13 hours.

7. Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank, narrated by Will Patton

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That’s right, we’re taking it back. Way back. Alas, Babylon wasn’t the first post-apocalyptic novel (it was originally published in 1959), but it is a quick beautiful read that still has relevance today. Will Patton does a great job narrating, as he sounds smooth like a song, but sad like he knows the bombs have destroyed most of America. Patton clearly knows how to do apocalypse, he was in the movie Armageddon and he currently stars in the alien-apocalypse TV series Falling Skies. He is an expert at experiencing apocalypse. Some novels seem racist, sexist, simple, or just poorly written as time plods on but Alas Babylon maintains its original power.  It is a read-in-highschool novel, as it should be.  For those of us who didn’t get to this one in school, the audiobook clocks in at just over 11 hours.

Review – Virgin Soul: A Novel by Judy Juanita

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Call it the sunny side of the Bay, call it the town.  Whatever name you give it, Oakland has the rich and revolutionary history expected from a city bridging to San Francisco and bundled up against Berkeley. Oakland is also uniquely its own city, with its own successes and struggles.

Originally a port city built up with the business of railroads, folks called Oakland the “Detroit of the West” by the 1920’s for its automotive factories and booming economy.  During World War II, Oakland built ships and canned foods, and the exodus of Southern workers to the area created a melting pot of cultures and belief systems.  Post-WWII, Oakland (and the rest of America) witnessed white flight, as wealthier citizens fled further East to the suburbs.  Once a shining star of productivity, post-WWII Oakland began to feel its economy slow and its racial tensions rise.

And this brings us to Virgin Soul, a novel by Judy Juanita based on Juanita’s own experiences growing up in Oakland.  Geniece Hightower, the novel’s star, is a snappy and smart African American woman on the cusp of revolution.  She enrolls at Oakland City College in 1964 and is surrounded by activists and intellectuals.  Geniece soon learns about the black power movement, and her activism eventually leads her to the Black Panther Party.  The novel is broken into four parts:  Freshman, Sophmore, Junior, Senior.  We follow Geniece as she gets an education, but classes are rarely mentioned – confronted with inequality from all sides, meeting men and women both inspirational and heartbreaking, navigating a world not yet equipped to handle an empowered black women – Geniece’s education is of a different sort.

Virgin Soul reads lyrical and very much like poetry – it doesn’t surprise me that Juanita is also a successful poet.  On going to Oakland City College:  “But we called it City, a raggedy, in-the-flatlands, couldn’t-pass-the-earthquake-code, stimulating, politically popping repository of blacks who couldn’t get to college any other way, whites who had flunked out of University of California, and anybody else shrewd enough to go free for two years and transfer to Berkeley, prereqs zapped (3).”  Juanita creates a perfect voice for her protagonist, a balance of the questions running through Geniece’s mind, funky lingo of sixties, and moments of brilliant clarity.

I imagine Juanita has captured the tone of the time perfectly – I wasn’t there, but she was, and she’s built a magical, mad world around Oakland’s past.

Virgin Soul: A Novel by Judy Juanita at Barnes & Noble.com

Judy Juanita’s web page

Review – Paleofantasy by Marlene Zuk

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Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet, and How We Live was an enlightening, if expansive, book for me.  I don’t think I read the subtitle before buying the book on Audible.com, or I may have been a tad bit less surprised by the evolution and anthropology lessons I received.  I expected more of a straightforward discussion of the Paleo-type diet – they say eat these foods, Marlene Zuk says eat these foods.  Diet books often play out this way.  Paleofantasy is so much more than a diet book, however.  It is a series of lessons behind many of the concepts in evolution, with studies cited to explain certain points.

The chapters are:  1) Cavemen in Condos, 2) Are We Stuck?, 3) Crickets, Sparrows, and Darwins — or Evolution before Our Eyes, 4) The Perfect Paleofantasy: Milk, 5) The Perfect Paleofantasy:  Meat, Grains, and Cooking, 6) Exercising the Paleofantasy, 7) Paleofantasy Love, 8) The Paleofantasy Family, 9) Paleofantasy in Sickness and in Health, 10) Are we still Evolving?  A Tale of Genes, Altitude, and Earwax.

Zuk does a great job of staying neutral, addressing the misconceptions and assumptions that many Americans have about our Paleolithic ancestors.  Instead of trying to make a specific case (stop doing this, do it this way instead) she just wants to set the record straight.  She addresses everything from the idea of cavemen needing to spread their seed for the survival of our species, to our paleolithic ancestors’ ability to consume grains and evolution of the digestion of grains, to barefoot running.  Paleofantasy is filled with the usual inconclusive terms of science Americans hate to hear, such as “it is hard to know for sure” and “this is more complicated than it seems”.

As you can imagine, in a book that takes an entire chapter to discuss a human’s ability to digest milk, there is a huge amount of information presented.  I was listening to this on audiobook, and at some points I felt like it was too much to be hearing rather than reading on the page.  I listened to some chapters twice just to absorb their info.  Some Goodreads reviewers mentioned, and I agree, that this is “just the facts” journalism, not dressed up in a more pop non-fiction style like many current non-fiction books that aim to create a more vivid experience.

The only thing that stood out as completely incorrect in Paleofantasy was the source of Zuk’s paleo-fan quotes.  She seemed to repeatedly quote commenters from paleo chat boards or blogs.  This seemed a bit odd to me – it felt like lazy journalism in a book full of studies from researchers at various universities, and felt like picking out the most purposefully uneducated members of a community (let’s be real – message boards aren’t known for the breadth of their knowledge base).  There are a ton of highly educated and respected Paleo people out there, who have published books and speak regularly and would have been much more logical and worthy opponents to address.

Another thing I would have liked to hear more about, and I realize this may have been out of the scope of Zuk’s book, was a theory of what psychological motivation is behind the Paleo movement at this time in our society.  I think Paleo is more a backlash to our current culture than anything else.  People are uncomfortable with processed foods, pervasive and rapidly developing technology, desk jobs, television, media and pressures of a passive consumption culture — all of these modern developments that don’t feel right.  Whether or not it scientifically makes sense, a group of folks out there are yearning to be more like our ancestors (disconnected from elliptical machines, eight hours a day behind a computer screen, the pervasiveness of the internet, processed food).  I see this yearning coming from a place of unhappiness with the status quo, a feeling that we aren’t going down the right road.  I think Paleo is an odd reaction to the massive level of technoshock we’re all living through.  So many of us struggle to know simply how to eat, so many Americans struggle just to move regularly – there is something appealing about becoming more animalistic, getting in touch with our natural history, and listening to our instincts more.  Returning to nature has its appeal- regardless of current or past evolution.  In a way Zuk’s ability to look beyond her science here might have been interesting, I would have liked to hear her insights.

Zuk also only briefly mentions the Paleo diet’s ability to help people visualize the elimination of processed foods from meals.  Processed foods are often the least nutritious, and choosing to eat what our ancestors ate before the food industry developed easily eliminates an entire range of junk foods (not to mention beverages) from a diet.  Of course there are other ways to do this, such as just realizing processed foods are unhealthy and avoiding them (I think Michael Pollan suggests not to eat anything your great-grandma wouldn’t recognize as food), but I think people like to have a bit more of a story than that around their diets.

This book affirmed my faith in the advice Michael Pollan:  “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”.  Pollan often talks about how little we truly know about the food we eat and what happens to it inside our bodies, he talks about how limited the science of nutrition and digestion is today.  Paleofantasy illustrates we don’t know much, and we have a long way to go before finding the “best” way to eat, move our bodies, and be with each other.

Paleofantasy by Marlene Zuk at Audible.com