As I've mentionedbefore, I dig retold Bible stories despite being somewhat cloudy in my deism. They work somewhat in the way of cover songs, recasting the familiar in a new light, and somewhat in the way of the science fiction or fantasy tale. Those distant B.C. years are far enough gone as to be seem a completely different world. And of course the source material isn't long on the telling detail, so applying the lens of modern psychological fiction to the scant lines of Genesis can really bear fruit.
In Fallen, David Maine -- whose most recent of his four novels utilizes 1950's monster movies, not the Bible, as his source text, and therefore can't be said to be a one-trick pony -- essentially covers the first 17 lines of Genesis chapter 4. In a stylistic approach that pays off both thematically and plotwise, Maine retells this story backwards, ala the movie Memento, progressing (or regressing) from the death of Cain to the expulsion from Eden of Adam and Eve. Further, the novel is divided into sections in which the narration hews to a particular point of view: first Cain as the exiled murderer, then Abel as the dutiful but naive brother and son, then Adam as father and provider, then Eve as tempted and temptress.
Strategically, both structural forms pay off. By moving backwards, the notion of consequence is foregrounded moreso than the notion of destiny, although Maine plays with those larger lapsarian questions as well. From a story standpoint, where only trouble is interesting, Cain is more fascinating after the murder than before it, and the banishment of Eden is going to be slightly more vital through Eve's lens, as she carries the fuller experience of temptation, so it is only right and fitting that we are tied to their point-of-view.
The backwards form also heightens the sense of an expanding world, as we watch it being built in reverse. The initial chapters touch on the construction of the city of Enoch, designed by Cain and named for his son, and populated with the people who by that time filled the earth-- a hundred and thirty-plus years into the life of Adam. The late chapters, in which Adam and Eve wander without shelter, at the mercy of the weather and wild animals, are brutal and sparse, highlighting the absence of the glories of the Garden but also echoing back to the civilization that they, through family, create. Naked but for their girdles of fig leaves, Adam and Eve need to invent the means of survival -- the spear, the fishing net, the clay brick. Maine's approach also makes foreign the first pregnancy, the first butchering of the first carnivore, all of which only carry mystery and mystique in this text because they follow after the first murder. Again, this lends a science fiction or perhaps magical realist glow to the book, in that so much of what is commonplace to us is described in ways that make it new.
As in the Preservationist, Maine handles the alien (to follow a conceit) presence of God in this story with a light touch, a presence that may or may not be material, whose ways can be neither anticipated nor understood, the ultimate in inscrutable characters.
David A. Kessler is the former commissioner of the FDA under Bush I and Clinton, and the former Dean of Yale Medical. His bipartisanship and administational experience might be what lends a dose of impartiality to The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. As with books on parenting and civics, books on diet and nutrition often have something on the order of a hidden politics -- an insistance on quack science, an outlook on the nature of things that just doesn't fit with reality.
Kessler's book, though, is less a diet book than an examination of why people like me tend to overeat with the idea that, knowledge being power and all that, we can then take control over what and why we eat. Kessler suggests that much of what we eat has been designed and processed to maximize salt, sugar, and fat in a combination that creates "hyperpalatable" food. The combination of these three elements combine as a kind of information overload in the brain, creating a chemical reaction similar to bliss or elation, and as a side effect a postive association with that particular food that can lead to cravings or control issues. Further, Kessler shows that the combination of salt, sugar, and fat can lead to such powerful signals in the brain that they overpower or obscure other signals that might indicate fullness or satisfaction. In some ways, hyperpalatable food can create a situation similar to information sickness -- overindulgence leads to overindulgence, and in search of a cure we overindulge. To whatever extent obesity is genetic or environmental, Kessler suggests, it is also learned and changeable.
None of this is to say that Kessler absolves overeaters of their self-control issues and responsibility, only that restaurants, food processing companies, and marketing firms all know what sells for them. As one example, Kessler deconstructs the Snickers bar as a marvel of gastronomic engineering -- there's the salt and fat and sugar, there's crunchiness and creaminess and chewiness, and as he particularly notes, it all washes away in the swallowing, leaving no caramel on the teeth or peanut bits stuck in the molars. On top of this, of course, is the advertsing campaign that presents Snickers as if it were an energy bar, as a thing that "satisfies." (Kessler notes that most advertising campaigns for food seek to create these kinds of associations -- restaurants are happy and welcoming, the food is substantial enough to satisfy your hunger and make you happy, etc.)
Along the similar lines, Kessler shows that the food offered at fast food and chain restaurants have been pre-processed in industrial kitchens that break down and reconstitute ingredients to create dishes that are essentially pre-chewed. If you think on the foods that people tend to crave and/or overeat (cheesy pizza, the Oreo cookie, ice cream, nachos, whatever), there's surprisingly little actual work required by the jaw -- we can essentially eat as fast as we can swallow. Kessler argues that both this food, and its marketing, needs to be regulated.
There's probably not a lot that's new in The End of Overeating, scientifically or dietetically, but its assembled in neat and bite-sized portions, and the writing is both plain and accessible -- fully half of its pages are small-print end notes. Like the self-help and diet books that you'll likely find this book hiding among, it can be read in the better part of one evening. Unlike them, its clear and rational and sensible and, let's hope, helpful.
When I was living in Massachusetts, I would spend Saturday mornings listening to NPR and writing (or, perhaps more likely, avoiding writing). WBUR in Boston had a terrific Saturday morning line-up of Scott Simon's Weekend Edition, followed by Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! with Peter Sagal, then Car Talk and This American Life. Some days I would listen straight through to Prairie Home Companion, which WBUR seems not to carry any longer, and a homegrown show featuring puns and language play from host Richard Lederer.
But that was the east coast around the millennium, and now it's a decade or so later and Saturday mornings consist of Max & Ruby cartoons, toy trains, and music classes for 3-year olds. I can't reliably luxuriate in Saturday morning radio anymore, and even if I could the station that carries Wait Wait... in Milwaukee doesn't come in so well. I've been trying, though, to keep up with the show through its podcast. I've always enjoyed Peter Sagal -- he speaks clearly and quickly, always sounds upbeat, and he's wickedly funny.
Sagal'sBook of Vice purports on its cover to concern "very naughty things (and how to do them)," but the things he covers aren't exceedingly naughty and little information about how one goes about doing them. In his introduction, Sagal puts forward the book as a kind of rejoinder to William Bennett's Book of Virtues, but it isn't exactly that, either. Still, it's a worthwhile read.
Sagal relates his forays into the world of vice, reporting on swingers clubs, strip joints, gambling dens, porn starlets, conspicuous consumption, and -- why not? -- molecular gastronomy. In each instance, Sagal represents a pleasant way of standing on his "staid, Midwestern" morals without being at all judgemental. He's curious about these things, but not particularly salacious or scandalized by them.
Sagal's wit, so evident in the radio show, doesn't always translate that well to the page, though it's a light and fun read. He's bored at the Saturday night swinger's party, he's mystified by contemporary pornography, he astutely demonstrates that the appeal of gambling is not in the winning. Ultimately, as his final anecdote demonstrates, it's the wondering about all this stuff, not the stuff itself, that he finds satisfying. So although Sagal claims in his introduction that "Somewhere, somebody is having more fun than you," he demonstrates conclusively that this isn't actually the case.