Plants, self-improvement, a book about WW2. What do those have in common? They were all themes in the books I read in February. Let’s take a look:
The Cabaret of Plants by Richard Mabey
In another life, I might have been a botanist. Or a horticulturist. I really love plants, and eagerly wait for gardening season to begin each year. So it’s no surprise that I found The Cabaret of Plants by Richard Mabey to be a joy of the book. In it, Mabey, a British writer known for focusing on the connections between the natural world and human culture, reflects on the role a variety of plants species have played in human experience. Examining species such as the yew tree, ginseng, and orchids, Mabey notes that although humans have tried to make sense of these plants, in many ways, their meaning and very way of being is perhaps beyond our ability to comprehend. A number of the plants in the book, from the yew tree, which is able to split and change its pattern of growth after hundreds of years, to the orchids that exist completely beneath the soil, demonstrate that point perfectly.
I particularly liked the point Mabey made, when describing people’s obsession with the beneficial properties of ginseng, that it’s common for people to assume that plants have these compounds for the benefits of humans, when in fact, the plants are just looking out for themselves. How anthropocentric to assume that because something exists in nature, it exists for our sake. That the chemicals in certain plants can help or heal humans is really just a coincidence.
Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin
OK, so Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin both annoyed me and made me feel like I can take on the world. Rubin, who also wrote a book called the Happiness Project (which I couldn’t read more than a chapter of), looks at how we develop habits and what we can do if we want to change certain habits.
She’s really big into separating people into categories. For example, at the start of the book, she describes four tendencies people have: to be Upholders, or those who do things for themselves and to please others, Obligers, those who get things done for others, but struggle to commit to their own projects, Questioners, those who question outside expectations, but can meet their own goals, and Rebels, those who question everything. Figuring out your tendency is meant to help you figure out the best way to launch a new, better-you habit.
Reading this, I got the sense that Rubin is like that friend of yours who’s always trying new things or trying to improve some area of life nd who wants everyone to go along with her. I get it, I’m also always setting goals for myself or trying little projects to put an end to bad habits. But, I dunno, it’s kind of annoying to spend some 200 pages reading about all that. At the end, did I pick up any tips or walk away with a better sense of how to improve myself? I dunno. Maybe. But, I think I just walked away rolling my eyes.
Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes
In Better than Before, Rubin mentions how she read Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes and managed to get down to her lowest weight ever. I shouldn’t read them because they are triggering, but any time I hear about a new nutrition or diet book, I want to read it. Vegan Before 6, It Starts with Food, name another book about food and I’ve probably read it. So, I checked this one out from the library.
Taubes’ big argument is that we get fat because of carbohydrates. He’s got a lot of science to back him up (actual studies in humans and rats), which makes me feel more confident about his argument than the argument in other books, which seem to rely on equal parts “feeling,” pseudoscience, and some belief that everything people did hundreds of years ago was somehow “better.”
What I didn’t like about the book was that Taubes insists it’s not a diet plan. Yet, at the end, we find a diet plan, which includes instructions such as “don’t eat more than two servings of pickles a day.”
Instructions such as that make me sad. Plus, I’m a vegetarian, and have no interest in eating meat, and it’s pretty difficult to avoid carbs on a veggie diet. So, while I appreciate reading the research and will work cutting down on sugar and starches, I’m not going to stop eating bread. Or start limiting my pickle consumption.
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
Finally, some fiction. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson is a companion or follow-up (not really a sequel) to Life After Life. The novel explores the impact World War II had on Britain, by zeroing in on the life of Teddy, a fighter pilot in the war, and the brother of Life After Life’s lead character Ursula. Teddy’s experience in the war is reflected in and contrasted with the experience of his only daughter, Viola, who I’d describe as damaged and selfish, and in the experience of his two grandchildren, Bertie and Sunny, who are also damaged, but not nearly as annoying as their mother.
While Life After Life played fast and loose with narrative structure, stopping and restarting characters’ lives, A God in Ruins has one continuous arc. It jumps back and forth in time, taking us from the 1920s to 2012 in the space of just a few paragraphs, sometimes, but its characters don’t get a do-over or restart, a chance to make things better, the way they did in the first book.