Archive for July 5th, 2009

Netherland and the Failure of Ambition

In the grand tradition of Louis XIV and certain characters in The Wire, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland declares its own ignominious eulogy. In its final pages, as Hans van den Broek wishes to remember the best in his deceased friend, he casually lets on, “We all disappoint, eventually.”

The novel that Hans narrates suffers that same unfortunate fate.

Netherland begins so auspiciously and evocatively that one can’t help but be disappointed by a stagnation in both style and, more alarmingly, plot. Truth be told, not all that much happens in the 256 pages that constitute Netherland, and that which does tends toward the mundane and the overly introspective. In this manner, the novel fails to build a meaningful connection between its characters and its readers, leaving its eventualities—and many of the events do evolve into eventualities as the novel transpires—flat and unemotional.

Netherland has been compared, at least by The New York Times, to The Great Gatsby—heady territory indeed. O’Neill’s prose doesn’t necessarily disappoint: His descriptions of New York, particularly of its transitional, post-9/11 stage, are nothing short of spectacular:

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A Review of “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto”

Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food stays true to its subtitle: It justifies a no-nonsense guide to eating. The book’s seven-word slogan encapsulates Pollan’s prescription: “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Of course, “food” strays from the standard definition of food. For Pollan, what was around and recognizable as food during the life of your great-grandmother (or your great-great grandmother, depending on your age) constitutes food. Processed foodstuffs simply are not food.84

Pollan doesn’t reach this conclusion until the third part of the book. He spends much of the first two parts critiquing the science of nutritionism that has lead us Westerners to consume these deleterious processed foods. Pollan rejects the idea that when it comes to food, the whole is the sum of its parts. Injecting nutrients into otherwise unhealthy foods does not necessarily make them healthy. Nutritionism is an imperfect science, and Pollan relays study after study that show that what nutritionists initially thought was healthy actually is not: The demise of the “lipid hypothesis” is one such example. Moreover, even though micronutrients (i.e. vitamins) are added to processed foods, they usually co-exist along with harmful additives and the much-maligned corn and soybean oils. Processed food and the Western diet more generally, claims Pollan, are what have led to the spike in Western ailments such as heart disease and diabetes starting in the mid-20th century. Pollan argues that there is something about eating proper whole foods that confers us immense health benefits even if isn’t clear what exactly is causing these benefits. His seven-word mantra is his response to these facts and the gist of his argument.

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