BOOK REVIEW: Plant-Based Sports Nutrition by D. Enette Larson-Meyer & Matt Ruscigno

Plant-Based Sports Nutrition: Expert Fueling Strategies for Training, Recovery, and PerformancePlant-Based Sports Nutrition: Expert Fueling Strategies for Training, Recovery, and Performance by D Enette Larson-Meyer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is an updated and revised edition of a book previously called “Vegetarian Sports Nutrition.” The name change not only reflects the rise of veganism and other more restrictive diets, but also an increase in “flexitarianism” — or the reduction (but not elimination) of animal-based foods that is driven by health factors, by environmental concerns, or by a combination of both. One of the things I like about this book is that it offers a balanced discussion of how to meet the nutritional needs of athletics through a diet that is mostly or entirely plant-based. That is to say, it’s not trying to sell the reader on a particular dietary approach, and, therefore, doesn’t fall into the trap of pretending that the move is purely upside. Those trying to persuade readers of a given diet tend to overemphasize the studies showing the benefits of plant-based diets while neglecting to discuss the challenges to meeting dietary needs without animal-based foods – particularly if one has the substantial needs incurred by athletes. [Which isn’t to say there aren’t health benefits — and even performance benefits — to be gained, but thinking that one can make the switch without giving thought to the details is a bit naive.]

The book consists of fifteen chapters that take one from an introduction to the various forms of plant-based diets through specific dietary considerations (i.e. meeting caloric requirements, macro-nutrient needs, and micro-nutrient needs) and – finally – to practical matters of what to eat and how to prepare it. After an opening chapter that lays forth background information, chapters two and three deal in the related topics of getting adequate calories and getting enough carbs. Vegetables, after all, aren’t typically calorically dense, and so salad and steamed vegetables – while a beneficial part of a diet — aren’t going to meet the needs of an athlete.

Chapter four delves into meeting fat requirements. While carbs have come to be wrongly villainized in current fitness environment, there are some who are still working under the old “fat is the enemy” paradigm. In truth, one needs a diet that includes all three macro-nutrients: carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Those on plant-based diets who don’t (or can’t) eat nuts and legumes can run into problems with getting enough fat. Chapter five rounds out the chapters focusing on macro-nutrients by exploring protein needs. This is the chapter many readers will be prone to make a beeline toward. Athletes who are considering a plant-based diet are most likely to be concerned that they can’t get enough protein. This is a contentious topic because vegan and vegetarian athletes often want to pull their hair out over what they feel is a great misconception. They say it’s no problem hitting protein targets on a plant-based diet, and — depending upon one’s sport and one’s body — that can be true. But for some it takes planning. (e.g. It’s true that one can get a complete protein by eating rice and lentils. The challenge is that if you do go about getting the 2 gms of protein per kg of body weight that some athletes require by just eating rice and lentils you are likely to find yourself becoming obese because those high-protein foods are even higher in carbs.)

Chapters six and seven shift into critical micro-nutrient considerations. Chapter six is about bone health, which is a greater concern with respect to some forms of plant-based diet than others. Chapter seven is about iron intake and absorption. One thing that I found very important and interesting in this book is the discussion of how foods and nutrients that one might think of only in terms of their positive effect can also have a negative effect. That is, some nutrients that we need in a given quantity will block the absorption of other nutrients if taken in excess quantities. Chapters eight and ten are about eliminating the need for multivitamins or other vitamin and mineral supplements. Another thing that I appreciate about this book is its emphasis on getting all of one’s nutritional needs through food. While it doesn’t take an iron-clad opposition to supplements, it suggests that one should first make great efforts to meet needs with food before considering any supplement.

Chapter nine is about timing of food and fluid intake for optimal performance. It’s one thing to know what to eat, but one must also know when to eat and when not to eat. Chapter eleven investigates common problems that are often attributed to food and fluid intake, namely cramps and inflammation. The part dealing with cramps was particularly informative, as I learned that much of what I’ve heard on the subject (and / or that is commonly believed) is either not well-established in the literature or is plain old poppycock.

Chapters twelve and thirteen are about building a meal plan to meet one’s requirements, and modifying the plan to cut or gain weight as necessary, respectively.

The last two chapters are about preparing meals to meet an athlete’s needs with plant-based foods. The penultimate chapter is more about the quick meals and snacks, and the last chapter provides a collection of recipes.

There are several appendices containing information about nutritional information and various approaches to building a balanced diet. There are also graphics including photographs, tables, and diagrams. I can’t speak to how effective these are as I read a review copy that was unformatted, but I do know they are frequent throughout the book.

I’d highly recommend this book for athletes, trainers, or coaches who are considering moving to a plant-based diet or who work with clients or athletes who are vegetarian, vegan, or otherwise eat a predominantly plant-based diet.

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BOOK REVIEW: What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula

What the Buddha TaughtWhat the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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It might seem like any book on Buddhism would — by definition — be a book about “what the Buddha taught,” but, no. Buddhism, like all religions that I’m aware of, has experienced the drift that occurs as part of the religification process – though some sects and sub-sects remain truer to the Buddha’s original approach than others. I was happy to stumble onto this book because whenever I’ve read the ideas attributed directly to the Buddha, I’ve always found them to be brilliant in elegance and simplicity.

Walpola Rahula’s book is a summation of what the Buddha actually taught, presented in a way that makes sense for today’s English-language reader. The book is just eight chapters, plus appendices comprising ten texts (excerpted or in whole, depending upon the document’s length and contents.) The first chapter explains the Buddhist conception of the mind, and gives the reader a context for much of the rest of the book. Chapters two through five each link to one of the four noble truths: i.e. dukkha (suffering-ish — the controversy of that translation is addressed in detail), the arising of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, and magga (the path to the cessation of dukkha – i.e. the eight-fold path.)

Chapter six addresses one of the most controversial and unique of Buddhist ideas, the doctrine of no-soul (anatta.) This is the idea that the idea of a permanent self or soul that is ever-present and that lives on past the body is an illusion. The Buddhist conception imagines the self as being more like a river. It only appears to be a permanent entity, but, in reality, it is different every moment and what appears permanent is more an emergent property than a thing or entity. I found this chapter to be the most interesting, because it is such a unique idea (though one a number of neuroscientists seem to be converging on this way of thinking), it appeals to my sense of simplification versus needless complication, and it was interesting to read Rahula’s challenge of those who have tried to deny Buddha argued thus (presumably seeking to make Buddhist doctrines converge with their belief systems.)

Chapter seven discusses meditation, mindfulness, and misconceptions about the two. When I took the Vipassana ten-day course, it was emphasized to us repeatedly that in the Buddha’s conception is that one needs to do two things in pursuit of enlightenment, live ethically (as per the eight-fold path) and practice (meditation and mindfulness.) While Rahula doesn’t put it exactly like that, that message comes across. (Rahula presents the eight-fold path categorized in three divisions of ethics, practice, and wisdom.) Whereas the doctrine of no-soul is controversial on metaphysical / philosophical grounds, the necessity of practice is passively objected to on the grounds that people really don’t want to practice because it’s challenging and it keeps them from getting the most out of all the apps on their phones.

The last chapter ties things up by bringing what the Buddha taught into present-day in order to ask questions like how it can be applied and what it means to be a Buddhist.

Besides the appendices of texts and text excerpts, there are photos throughout the book, mostly of Buddhist sculptures from around the [Buddhist] world.

I found this book to be very informative. It’s concise and readable, and seemed to me to be very consistent with those beautiful ideas I’ve come to associate with the Buddha. I would recommend this book for anyone who’s looking to learn what the Buddha actually told his students back in the day.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Modern Art and Science of Mobility by Aurlien Broussel-Derval & Stephane Ganneau

The Modern Art and Science of MobilityThe Modern Art and Science of Mobility by Aurelien Broussal-Derval
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book is designed to help athletes (and those who train athletes) increase mobility. The authors draw heavily upon yoga and martial arts drills (especially judo and jujutsu groundwork drills) in addition to the usual suspects of modern fitness – i.e. calisthenics, kettlebell, etc. It’s a visual book. The text is highly distributed toward the first half of the book. The heart of the book is pictures and descriptive captions of the exercises and practices described. This isn’t a complaint. I think there is sufficient discussion of the topics addressed and that said discussion was clear.

The book is organized into four parts, and — within each part — by anatomical region. The four parts are: Pain, Breathing, Movement, and Mobility. The section on pain offers many self-massage techniques, often using foam rollers or balls to counteract myofascial pain. I was particularly impressed to see an entire section devoted to breathing, and that it not only explored exercises to free up the diaphragm and intercostals (rib muscles) but also discussed issues such as the role of stress on breath. As mentioned the parts on movement and mobility are heavily oriented toward conveying exercise sequences graphically, and the chapters were oriented by parts of the body.

With a book that is so graphically-oriented, it’s important to mention that the photography, anatomical drawings, and diagrams are well done. The photos make it easy to see what is happening. It seemed to me that they used the right number of photographs to convey the movements involved, and they augmented these with arrows and lines to show direction of movement and alignments. It was usually quite clear what the movement was even before reading the captions. The photos are of varied sizes and orientations as needed to convey the exercise at hand. The anatomical drawings are clearly labeled.

I will say there were three exercises that I found troubling, but I gave the authors the benefit of the doubt as the book seems to be directed toward athletes. I don’t think these are things that will give most athletically-built people too much trouble especially when practice in moderation. However, as anyone may pick up such a book, I would be cautious of these three activities – especially if you haven’t been training in a while or are new. First, doing loaded lunges (i.e. barbells across the shoulders) with one’s knee way out forward of the toes. As the point of the book is mobility, I don’t have a problem with doing floor exercises on a knee this way, but that’s a lot of pressure to load onto connective tissue. Second, doing cobra (Bhujanga, or what they call “Sphinx”) with straightened arms and thighs resting on the floor. That almost always creates a sharp kink in the back with one spinal process prying into another. One can do Up-Dog (Urdhva Mukta Svanasana) with thighs off the ground or Cobra (Bhujanga) with your navel on the ground, but you shouldn’t confuse the two. Finally, they mention doing a roll up into shoulder stand. Unless you are extremely experienced, this is a bad idea because with the chin tucked into the chest there is very little room for error. Work up into shoulder stand slowly and easily. I will point out that this is what I noticed as a yoga teacher, individuals with other experience may see other issues, but I have some experience with the jujutsu drills and didn’t notice anything problematic.

That said, I thought this book was well done. The organization, explanations, and graphics were excellent and it will be a helpful resource for athletes working on mobility issues.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Science of Monsters by Meg Hafdahl & Kelly Florence

The Science of Monsters: Demystifying Film’s Most Notorious Vampires, Witches, Zombies, and MoreThe Science of Monsters: Demystifying Film’s Most Notorious Vampires, Witches, Zombies, and More by Meg Hafdahl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Scheduled Release: October 1, 2019

Monsters, especially movie monsters, and science don’t seem like peas in a pod – one being fictitious and favoring the outlandish and the other insisting on firm roots in reality. Still, the supernatural creatures that enter folklore or mythology (and many movie monsters derive from these sources – whether loosely or closely) often arise because of some real world phenomena, e.g. genetic conditions that cause one to grow hair everywhere or – conversely – that make one pasty complected and sun-avoiding. It’s these kernels of truth as well as the limits of what is possible that form the core of this book. It considers a wide range of “monsters” from psychopathic humans to mythical monsters to ghosts to aliens to mysterious creatures of unknown origins.

The two focal points of a book like this (e.g. monsters and science) are seldom equal. A popular class of nonfiction books has arisen that exists to convey scientific ideas by exploiting pop culture for examples. This isn’t that kind of book. I don’t say that as a criticism. There is room for both types of books. But in this one, the science is secondary to giving readers interested in movie monsters some context and background. This stress can be seen in the book’s organization (i.e. each of its chapters features a different horror [or horror-adjacent] film and its monster) as well the authors’ expertise (while they consulted scientists, the authors are more knowledgeable about horror movies.) Also, the focus is tighter on the type of monster under examination, and the discussion of science roams through different scientific disciplines (including social sciences and even humanities – and, in one instance, pseudoscience) as it discusses what Hafdahl and Florence are interested in, which is any real word bases for the plausibility of these monsters.

Again, the last paragraph isn’t so much a criticism as a statement of what kind of book this is — and isn’t. (Needless to say by this point, it’s also not a book about the science and technology of making credible monsters for movies [e.g. CGI or the anatomy of a credible kaiju,] which is another worthy topic of discussion for another book.) The fact that the book is inclusive of discussions beyond biology and physics and which range into the social sciences and other disciplines offers the reader interesting insights. The exploration of what makes an entity terrifying was fascinating to me, and there is a significant art, science, and psychology to that subject, itself.

I will say that there was at least one time when I couldn’t really grasp how the science under discussion was relevant to the topic (i.e. monster) under discussion. It seemed as though the authors had succumbed to a common ailment of writing – that is, the inability to pitch material that is good, hard worked for, but ultimately irrelevant.

All in all, I enjoyed this book. I learned about how the monsters of the silver screen relate to happenings in the real world. There were several references to how quirky little news stories influenced screenwriters and directors to come up with some of the iconic horror and dark sci-fi movies. If you are interested in the origins of monsters, I’d recommend you check this book out.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Coitus Chronicles by Olive Persimmon

The Coitus Chronicles: My Quest for Sex, Love, and OrgasmsThe Coitus Chronicles: My Quest for Sex, Love, and Orgasms by Olive B. Persimmon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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In the midst of a five-year dry spell of sexlessness, Olive Persimmon decides not only to put an end to her inadvertent celibacy, but to turn her sex life around in a big and bold way. Besides a confessional of her varied adventures with boyfriends, ex’s, friends with benefits, and one-night stands gone awry, Persimmon describes a broader sexual education. Said education included workshops in bondage and domination as well as squirting (an eruptive glandular discharge that a small percentage of women experience naturally and that some others – apparently — go to workshops to learn to coax out.) Persimmon also learned one-on-one from an expert pickup artist as well as from a foot fetishist. She engaged in new-age sexual practices, including OMing (orgasmic meditation) and Western Neo-tantrism, and she even gave platonic cuddling a try (sexless cuddling between individuals who aren’t in an intimate relationship.)

Besides humorous and amusing sex stories, the book shines a light on the psychology that exists around sex and sexuality. The reader is granted access to both Persimmon’s therapy sessions and her internal monologue as she experiences these uncommon practices. Her pursuit of therapy resulted from a phobia about venereal diseases that was stifling her ability to have sex even with someone she trusted and while using protection. But what was more intriguing (not to mention being a source of much of the book’s humor) was the disconnect between how the reader is likely to see Persimmon, and how she sees herself. Many readers will feel that a person who would have an OM practitioner over to diddle her nethers, or who would hire a stranger to cuddle her, would be fearless and without boundaries. However, Persimmon presents herself as an endearingly awkward young woman, nervous and thinking that nervousness is apparent to all. In the process of presenting her adventures, Persimmon offers some insight into the differences between the way men and women see the world and how they communicate, and how those differences can cause tensions.

I found the book to be humorous and informative. I didn’t think that – by this point in my life — I was particularly unworldly or naïve, but there were a few things I learned about in this book that I hadn’t known existed [e.g. OMing and careers in cuddling.] With sexual subject matter (especially with such strange practices) there is plenty of room for humor, but it’s also nice to read books that challenge the generally uptight view of sex. I’d recommend the book for readers who read humor, memoirs, and who aren’t disturbed by discussion of sexual activity.

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BOOK REVIEW: Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal

Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the WorldReality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The provocative title of this book captures why people are so drawn to games while they are, simultaneously, discontented with their real lives. McGonigal argues that all aspects of human activity could benefit from gamification, and that we should stop thinking of games as trivial endeavors to be engaged in in our spare time. After reading the book, I have a much better understanding of how turning activities into games can increase motivation, productivity, and – if done right – even human interaction. That said, I remain unsettled as to whether her overall thesis is sound.

On one hand, games are unambiguously motivating and captivating. To see it, one needn’t look further than the people playing games for free with at least as much (re: more) enthusiasm and attentiveness as they do those activities for which they are paid a salary. The mechanism by which games spur us is understood. Considering the question from the perspective of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow” (as McGonigal does in ch. 2) we can see that constant feedback and an impetus to reach ever beyond our current capacity make games Flow-prone activities. Given that Flow is associated with both high productivity and positive mental states, that’s a sound argument in support of McGonigal’s ideas.

That said, I’m afraid that the need for constant, instantaneous feedback and the inability to remain mentally engaged for long periods when one must focus on something dull could have dire consequences for our species. Homo sapiens once had to follow wounded prey for days with constant vigilance, without instantaneous feedback, and with the possibility that the payoff could be lost at any moment. We developed attentiveness and mental discipline in the face of unstimulating conditions at great cost, and it has helped us to achieve great things. What will happen to our mental machinery when no one can pay attention for two minutes if there isn’t the possibility of an instantaneous virtual reward for it? To be fair, McGonigal does acknowledge — and to some degree discusses — these issues, but fails to take on such questions in much detail or with much objectivity. (It should be noted that she does extensively challenge the belief that gaming leads to lonely people living on their couches and never talking to real people in the real world.) The book is extremely thought-provoking, but shouldn’t be taken as an unbiased examination of the rise of gamification.

The fourteen chapters of the book are divided into three parts. The first part (ch. 1 through 6) both introduces what games are and offers insight into what they do for us. This includes an examination of what positive psychology (e.g. Csikszentmihalyi, as mentioned) has to say about games, as well as how games can foster collaboration and give us the ability to take on problems bigger than our individual capacities would allow. Chapter four offers one of McGonigal’s most powerful arguments: that games are a way for people to learn to fail with grace and resilience. Adult humans tend to be severely averse to failure. (There’s a great meme featuring a baby sitting like she just plonked down on her butt, and the caption reads, “What if babies decided after four or five falls, ‘This walking thing just isn’t for me?’”)

The second part (ch. 7 through 10) is entitled “Reinventing Reality,” and it considers how games can be brought into real life to make reality more invigorating. A great example of this can be seen in the discussion of “Chore Wars,” which is a game designed to take household chores out of the realm of mundane drudgery and to make them a competitive activity that excites people. McGonigal uses the story of real games that have been developed for various purposes extensively in both part II and part III. Another example is the “Tombstone Hold ‘Em” game that was designed to address the problem of declining visits to cemeteries. While there are games that address less unusual topics, these two examples are insightful in that they show how virtually any endeavor can be gamified.

The final part (ch. 11 through 14) suggest how games can be used to take on large and difficult problems. Such challenges often remain insufficiently addressed (or unaddressed altogether) because of a lack of immediate motivation to take them on or a structure to organize activities – games can help provide both the motivation and the organization. Readers learn how the wisdom of crowds can be harnessed, as well as how incentives to change behavior can be created. In this section, McGonigal highlights games such as one designed to help humanity move beyond our oil supply.

The book has a few graphics and appendices, and is annotated to support the author’s thesis.

I found this book to be thought-provoking and insightful. As I mentioned, it doesn’t address my fears that humans will become incapable of sitting down and reading Joyce’s “Ulysses” or weeding a garden if we tread the path needing some sort of Pavlovian pat-on-the-back every time we do anything. (Again, to be fair, the author does suggest that one limit time devoted to gaming – e.g. Appendix 2.) The book does do a good job of showing how games can be used to make people more motivated, productive, and happy. I would recommend it for people considering that question, as well as those trying to figure out how they might go about gamifying some activity that they think needs to be more motivating.

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BOOK REVIEW: Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction by Germaine Greer

Shakespeare: A Very Short IntroductionShakespeare: A Very Short Introduction by Germaine Greer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This series (Very Short Introductions [VSI]) put out Oxford University Press [OUP] features several books about William Shakespeare and his works. Most of these “Introductions” deal with a subset of Shakespeare’s work, (e.g. the tragedies, the comedies, or his sonnets and other poems.) However, the book most likely to be confused with the one under review is “William Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction” by Stanley Wells. Greer’s theme involves how Shakespeare’s philosophy and worldview are reflected in his plays (and to a small extent, his poetry.) While I haven’t yet read Wells’ book, it seems to take a history-centric approach, examining who Shakespeare was and the interaction between the the man and the times in which he lived on the work he produced.

The reason that I open with this distinction is that this is the kind of book that leaves some readers feeling duped. The title and inclusion in the VSI series might suggest to a reader that they are getting a basic overview of the the works of Shakespeare, leaving them surprised to find they are diving into arcane philosophical discussions. If the reader has a background and interest in both philosophy and the literature of Shakespeare, this may be just the book for which one is looking. However, if one is truly looking to be introduced to Shakespeare and his work, it is unlikely to be the book one is seeking. The biggest criticism is therefore about the title and placement of the book in this series, and not about it’s content, which is interesting and insightful.

The six chapters of Greer’s book begin with a brief biographical sketch of the man’s life and times. (This is where Greer’s work presumable overlaps most significantly with that of Wells.) The five remaining chapters each consider an aspect of the Shakespeare’s thinking and philosophy: poetics, ethics, politics, teleology, and sociology, respectively. There are extensive discussions of a few of the Shakespearean works as they pertain to the discipline under discussion, and snippets of text are used throughout to make points, but – again – the presumption is that that the reader has a basic familiarity with Shakespeare’s work.

There are graphics throughout the book, mostly portraits, playbills, and block prints from the era. There is a Further Reading section that is more than the usual bibliographical list, including descriptions of what is covered by the various books. Some will find this approach beneficial, and others may find it needlessly dense.

If one is looking for a book that considers how Shakespeare’s personal philosophy influenced his works, this is a good overview. However, if one hasn’t read Shakespeare’s works, or one has little understanding of philosophy, it’s probably not the book for which one is looking.

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BOOK REVIEW: Topographies by Stephen Benz

TopographiesTopographies by Stephen Connely Benz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of travel essays exploring locales within America and abroad. The fifteen essays collected are reprints of periodical publications.

As Benz describes destinations and tells travel tales, he often presents local history such as a murder mystery in the Everglades, the fate of the Donner Party, the truth about the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, and the nuclear test at Trinity, New Mexico. But not all of the essays mix history lessons into the travelogue, and some of the most evocative pieces touch on the local landscape in interesting ways such as walking a postman’s route in Havana or camping in Wyoming.

Some travel writing drills down on a single destination and other works spread out over a diverse set of locations. Benz’s approach is somewhere in between. While, except for a couple chapters set in Havana, the essays are about varied locations, only a couple (i.e. the ones on the Everglades and Moldova) stand out as far afield of the rest. Of the seven international essays, three feature Cuba and two Guatemala, and of the eight US essays, all but one is set in the West and three present Wyoming.

The essay collection is divided into two parts. The first eight essays are about locations within the United States, and the last seven describe foreign travels. I found the organization to be smartly arranged, with each of the two parts beginning an ending on essays that are among the strongest in the collection. In the case of Part I, the collection starts with a piece set in the Everglades which brings to life a historical murder, and it ends with a visit to the Trinity Site where the first nuclear test detonation took place.

With respect to the international chapters, they open with a visit to Moldova. The last travel essay I read about Moldova was in Eric Weiner’s “The Geography of Bliss.” If you’re wondering why a book on the happiest places on Earth would feature Moldova, it’s for the perhaps ironic but definitely instructive reason that Moldova often comes up as among the LEAST happy countries. Benz presents a similar portrait of Moldova without explicitly taking the dismal nature of the country as his theme. The last two chapters discuss the author’s time in Guatemala, and the last discusses the poetry scene in a country in a country under political upheaval.

The book has a prologue in verse and an extended epilogue in prose.

I’d recommend this book for readers of travel writing, particularly those interested in the American West and Central America. I found the writing to be both skillful and readable, and that the author recognized the value of an intriguing story.

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BOOK REVIEW: Into the Woods by John Yorke

Into the Woods: A Five Act Journey Into StoryInto the Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story by John Yorke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a book about story and story structure. While Yorke pokes fun at writers who have exacting structural formulae, one need not get past the subtitle to realize he’s advocating a form of structure himself: the five-act structure. And not just any old five-act structure, but Yorke proposes that there be symmetry around a third-act midpoint, and that the approach to story be fractal (to be elaborated upon below.)

The book is divided into five “acts,” or parts, but the theme of each part isn’t related to the role of that particular act in a story or play. The first act consists of five chapters that explain what makes a story. Yorke describes the three-act structure as well as five-act structure, and then explains how these forms are connected — i.e. how five acts can be overlaid, or mapped to, the three-act structure. One chapter, Chapter 4, is devoted to the crucial topic of change. After all, in a story we have a character who wants something and is put through the wringer as he / she attempts to get it, and the moral and / or psychological change that they experience as a result is a major determinant of how satisfying the story feels.

“Act II” explores the components of story – acts and scenes – and how they are arranged into a story. The first of the five chapters describes fractal structure. For those who don’t deal in mathematical concepts on a regular basis, a fractal is a shape that — if one zooms in — one finds smaller and smaller copies of the original shape. This applies to story telling in that one wants acts and scenes to follow a progression that echoes the overall story. That is, a character (at the scene level it may or may not be your hero) wants something, confronts opposition, and this clash either results in more conflict or a resolution. There’s a chapter devoted to the “inciting incident,” which is sometimes called the “first doorway,” and is an event that forces the hero to make a key decision that will put him or on the road of story.

The third “act” consists of only one chapter, Chapter 11, that is entitled “Showing and Telling.” This obviously references one of the most oft-recited (and trite) pieces of writing advice: “show, don’t tell!” As most writers soon discover, this advice is a great rule of thumb but a poor law. Hence, the need to discuss what would otherwise be a simple idea over the course of an entire chapter.

The penultimate “act” is about character, characterization, dialogue, and background. Like most books on story, the emphasis on making memorable characters is more about determining their wants, needs, and weaknesses, rather than being about figuring out how one will dress them or what accent one will assign them. Not that studying the latter isn’t worthwhile, but it’s a common error to produce a muddled character because one hasn’t given enough thought to who they are at the most fundamental level.

Chapters 15 through 17, address the subjects that are probably most responsible for poor story writing: dialogue, exposition, and subtext. The central challenge is to tell the reader just the right amount, neither letting the story get bogged down in needless information, nor leaving the reader thinking the story unbelievable because they don’t have the requisite background to understand what motivates characters. From “as you know, Bob” dialogue to Bond-villain monologuing, there are many ways to ruin a good premise by botching these story elements.

The final “act” deals mostly with the challenge of writing series. Series writing presents a huge challenge unto itself. We are all familiar with examples — such as the television show “Lost” — that started out with great promise and devolved into a pile of rubble by the end. The first three of the five chapters in the final part discuss television and series writing challenges in detail. The last couple chapters close out the book.

The book has seven appendices. Five of these are examinations of the structures of stories known for being exemplary: “Raiders of the Lost Arc,” “Hamlet,” “Being John Malkovich,” “My Zinc Bed,” and “The Godfather.” [“Being John Malkovich” may be included because Charlie Kaufman was known for strongly rejecting “formulaic” approaches to story structure, but Yorke wanted to show that structure happens organically even if it might not be purposely pursued.] The sixth appendix considers first and last act parallels. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, Yorke proposes that there is a symmetry around the midpoint that occurs in the third-act of a five-act story. The final appendix is a handy table that shows how the structures taught by masters of screenwriting (e.g. John Truby, Robert McKee, as well as Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” [which is referenced throughout Yorke’s book]) map to five-act structure.

I found this book interesting and informative. Like other great books on story, there is extensive use of well-known stories [particularly cinematic, e.g. “Star Wars,” “The Godfather,” “Casablanca,” etc.] to help clarify the author’s points. I would recommend this book for those is interested in story, and how stories are structured to be best received by an audience. The space the book occupies is bit different from Truby’s “The Anatomy of Story” [which I reviewed recently.] While Truby’s book is the kind one would sit down with as a reference after reading it in order to help one build one’s story structure and scene weave, Yorke’s book is less of a hands-on guide and more of a light read to improve one’s ideas about story more generally.

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BOOK REVIEW: Second Nature by Michael Pollan

Second Nature: A Gardener's EducationSecond Nature: A Gardener’s Education by Michael Pollan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This isn’t simply a discussion of lessons of gardening, though it does tread that ground. However, Pollan uses that topic as a jumping off point to explore a couple of broader topics. First, what defines the American approach to lawns and gardens, which is clearly distinct from that of our Old-World ancestors / comrades? Second, what does it mean to say some approach is more or less “natural” in an ecosystem that has been shaped by the hand of man? As a neophyte balcony-container gardener, I was attracted to the book for its gardening lessons, but I found myself most provoked to thought by these other questions.

This book starts with an Introduction to set the stage and a first chapter that contrasts two approaches to lawn and garden that Pollan saw within his own family. The other eleven chapters are divided into seasonally themed parts. These parts – Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter – touch upon the life of a gardener during each, respective, season.

The section entitled Spring discusses the challenge of getting plants to grow against the onslaught of competitors and consumers: animal, vegetative, and other. It also discusses mowing, the open approach to lawns found throughout America, and what the latter means for the former. (It has long intrigued me that many Americans who will pledge liberty or death, often aren’t so big on their neighbor’s liberty if said individual’s lawn gets to about four inches of shag.) Lastly, Pollan educates the reader about the gardener’s passion for compost.

The three Summer chapters explore what happens through the middle of the growing phase, including the need to weed. Though Pollan explores the criticisms from the “keep it natural” camp. There’s a lot of discussion of the ideas of Emerson and Thoreau, and how they represented a change from previous thought on the garden. However, the first chapter in this section is about Pollan’s experiences with growing roses, a provocative subject among gardeners, apparently.

Fall is harvest season, but the chapter in this section that I found most intriguing was one about planting a tree. This is where Pollan brings the question of what it means to be “natural” to a head. He discusses a nearby piece of protected forest that was decimated by a tornado. There was an ardent debate between those who thought that nothing should be done with the land and it should be allowed to grow back however nature saw fit and others who thought intervention was necessary. The argument can end up turning a position on its head. What if one does nothing and the land is overtaken by a non-indigenous invasive species?

The last section has an amusing chapter on garden catalogs and how companies’s style and emphasis varies in an attempt to corner a segment of the market.

I enjoyed this book, and would highly recommend it not just for gardeners, but for individuals who have an interest in the interplay between nature and humanity.

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