Food, Genes, and Culture: Eating Right for Your Origins
By: Gary Paul Nabhan
The first sentence of the introduction of Food, Genes, Culture: Eating Right for your Origins was nauseating. In fact, the entire premise detracted from what would have otherwise been a good book. Gary Nabhan intimated that the reader would be taken on a “culinary journey.” While I understand the purpose of the cliché– if we’re talking about culture, it only makes sense to travel from place to place– I was expecting a little more creativity on Nabhan’s part. Food, Genes, Culture, while peppered with facts and interesting information, is for the most part extremely anecdotal. Delivering scientific information to the general public is challenging; the writing has to be engaging enough to keep us interested and simple enough that we understand. As someone with no medical qualifications no nutrition knowledge beyond the books I’ve read and documentaries I’ve seen, I can neither confirm nor deny anything Nabhan wrote, but I will comment that the book was easy to follow. The writing wasn’t spectacular, but I don’t suppose it needs to be.
If you’re looking for definitive answers about what lies withing your own genes, this isn’t the book for you. Besides the fact that human genealogy is complex and would require many volumes to explore in detail, Nabhan’s research (and the research of his colleagues) proves that there’s no real simple answer to genetic and nutritional issues. Nabhan does, however, prevent quite a few leads for people who are of Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Australian Aboriginal descent. For the rest of us, perhaps the information and diets presents are worth looking into, but there’s no guarantee that we will see the same results as these ancient populations.
I’d pretty much only recommend this book to someone who already has interest in the topic, though it has the capacity to pique someone’s interest.
I received a free ARC copy of this book via NetGalley, without realizing the book had been published years ago.
This review was originally published on Muslimah Media Watch.
Jasmine Falling by Muslimah Media Watch’s Shereen Malherbe recounts the story of Jasmine, a young English girl who, in order to receive her inheritance after her mother dies, searches for her father in his native Palestine and winds up discovering not only the family she left behind, but also the culture to which she belongs.
As clichéd as the phrase may be, reading Jasmine Falling sent me on an emotional rollercoaster. Within the span of just a few pages I would find myself vacillating between pitying Jasmine for her loss and being downright angry with a fictional character for the decisions she makes: for example, Jasmine’s decision to get drunk in Palestine (a foreign land for her) with a guy she hardly knows, even though going to the bar had nothing to do with her mission, upset me so much I briefly stopped reading, then realized I was angry out of concern. I know people who’ve done the same thing Jasmine did, and I know the unfortunate consequences of their actions. Despite my frustrations with some of the protagonist’s choices, by the end of the novel, I was overwhelmingly happy for Jasmine, because she “found what her heart wanted.”
When I took a step back from the book after reading it, I realized I got way more involved with the characters than I normally do. As I read, I quoted the book and narrated Jasmine’s life to those around me (mostly my mother, who eventually began asking me for updates in Jasmine’s life) which speaks volumes (pun intended) about how well-written the novel is. Though written in accessible prose, the sentences are woven in such a way that the reader feels almost part and parcel of the action, of which there is plenty.Jasmine Falling is almost overwhelming in its back-to-back twists and turns, but each new plot element follows naturally from the one that preceded it.
Religion plays a more central role in Jasmine Falling than the title would suggest. Malherbe’s novel is peppered with references to Islam, but the book doesn’t feel “Islamic,” nor do the references disrupt the flow of the story. In fact, the references propel the story as Jasmine goes down the path of growth and self-understanding. The adhan (call to prayer) in the countryside provides a cadence against which readers can measure the passage of the day. The Arabic greetings provide a layer of authenticity to the novel. Jasmine’s gradually increasing usage of phrases such as “alhamdulillah” and her slow recollection of Islamic teachings she learned as a child (and abandoned as a teenager) artfully indicate her growth of character.
Despite the elements of Islam in Jasmine Falling, there are several themes in the novel that may appeal to a non-Muslims just as much as Muslims. My mother, who is a sixty-year-old Christian, was just as eager to hear about Jasmine as I was to read about her. Jasmine appealed to my mother’s sense of adventure. Those with ties to Middle Eastern culture will enjoy that aspect of the novel. Third culture children (people who grew up in a culture different from that of their parents) and people whose parents are from two different places but they themselves only grew up in one would enjoy Jasmine Falling the most. Much of Jasmine’s internal conflict centers around cultural reconciliation. She grew up in England, and after her father disappeared, her mother essentially ignored Jasmine’s Palestinian half. Jasmine, who remembers her father, felt the emptiness, but decided to immerse herself in English culture. When she goes to Palestine, she is filled with a mix of nostalgia for the old sights and smells and regret at having let her roots slip away.
Reading this novel certainly made me realize how important it is to acknowledge and celebrate all of the cultures in which I was raised. I’m both more proud to be black and less hesitant to call myself American. Just as Jasmine realized the rejection of her father’s culture left her flailing for grounding, I have begun to realize that the food, the media, and the traditions I grew up with make me who I am. Trying to stifle the minority culture (black) to better conform to the majority culture (American) split my personality unnecessarily, and left me generally confused. My new-found embracement of my hyphenated identity is perhaps indicative of why I enjoyed it so much: Jasmine, in a way, is me.
Though Jasmine’s reason for going to Palestine was not a happy one, the novel is not very grim. There are dark moments, as there are in most novels, but Malherbe managed to strike a balance between the uplifting moments and the somber ones. Jasmine is a youthful, audacious character, almost to the point of recklessness at times. She follows her instincts and is not afraid to speak up when she witnesses injustice. It was refreshing to read something about a Muslim woman that didn’t paint her life as exceedingly difficult, and that didn’t involve her overcoming some form of culture-based oppression that she blamed on religion.Jasmine Falling will remain on my shelf for some time to come, and I hope to find more books worthy enough to join it.
Riding a large, unanticipated wave of energy means the dreams are big once again. My gnat-like attention span means I typically don’t keep a blog theme for longer than a year, but I’m hoping that gradual changes–instead of the usual “change everything now” approach” will make consistency more tenable. In an effort to find a lasting blogging personality, I’ve planned the following changes. Hopefully I can kick the implementation snowball downhill before Strangling creeps in, at which point progress will grind to a halt until Breath comes to save me. Hopefully, Developments will stave off the entrance of Strangling and allow me to breathe for a while longer.
A new rating system. Stars are trustworthy but they’re oh so boring. I’ve also determined that my former rubric is much too shallow. I’m adding a few more items to make rating more accurate.
Post queues. Queues will help out when Strangling or school prevent me from writing every week.
Custom images. This will be most applicable to the new rating system, but I’m also hoping to add something to the site header. I might post some random personal artwork. Maybe.
Developments. I’ve begun Developments to help keep Strangling in check because it comes fast and it comes often. It’s affecting my life in ways I don’t like so I’m taking action. I prefer to breathe.
Related work. I’m toying with the idea of listing authors’ other books under my main post, if applicable. I’m not sure whether I’m in love with this idea yet.
Gradual change. Random new themes and layouts are jarring to long-time readers (thanks for your patience!) so I’ll try to stop doing that.
This is where I would include an awesome footer or a cute sign-off message/slogan if I had one.
I really wanted to like this book. I love to hear lesser-told narratives, and this one checked all the boxes: it features a female protagonist and Muslim characters. More specifically, the characters are Iraqi, and I’ve never read a story that features Iraqi people. In short, The Prayer Rug follows Reem and her family as they struggle to maintain their sense of home in Iraq while it is being invaded by American Forces. Reem clings to her prayer rug—whose rhythmic presence is not as central to the novel as one might expect—as a symbol of faith, struggle, and progress. Unfortunately, the book fell flat. The writing is clumsy, the “plot twists” are obvious, and the characters feel more like caricatures.
In terms of word choice, The Prayer Rug was pretty easy to read. The phrases are short and the words are simple. So simple, in fact, that I found myself getting bored. Hymas frequently repeated words and phrases, a device that would have worked well had the repeated words come from the same character’s mouth, but the phrases seem to be playing round-robin throughout the book, which is not only confusing but also uninventive. Rather than letting the events of the novel speak for themselves, Hymas uses character commentary to move through the plot. As a result of the repetition and transparency, I quickly learned which phrases signaled an upcoming tragedy or plot reversal. Several times, Reem comments that “Today is going to be a good day,” right before tragedy strikes. The attempts to the reader away from the plot “twist” are painfully obvious. Reem makes daily trips to the market. The first time she goes, she pauses to ask herself, “Will the market be safe today?” Reem then explains that the market is often the target of terrorist activity. The second time Reem goes to the market, a couple of chapters later, she once again pauses to ask, “Will it be safe today?” before reiterating the dangers of the market. The reiterations seems to imply that readers cannot retain information for longer than a couple of pages. Inevitably, the market becomes the dangerous place it’s worked up to be, and of course Reem doesn’t see it coming, despite being aware of the possibility.
Throughout the novel, characters changed so quickly and so frequently that I often found myself re-reading previous passages to make sure I understood them correctly. For instance, in one chapter, Reem checks the road for explosive devices while taking her children to school. She notes that her children are so used to the exercise they no longer ask her about it. In a later chapter, though, Reem pauses to assess a public area for danger (I’m being intentionally vague here to avoid spoilers) and her daughter asks why she stopped. Through Reem we discover that her daughter has only known the war, and that Reem’s older son has spent the majority of his life in the warzone. Still, her son doesn’t seem to comprehend the dangers of walking recklessly in the road and consorting with strangers. When his parents discuss who is fighting and why, it seems as if he is hearing this information for the first time, despite his being a teenager. While it is possible that he would be ignorant of the specifics of the war, Reem and Azzam (her husband) discuss the war so frequently I find it hard to believe their son hasn’t learned anything about it during his lifetime.
Perhaps the thing I found most appalling about the book was the blatant political agenda. We get it; the war in Iraq ruined people’s lives. Show us, don’t tell us. The characters repeated some version of the phrase “things were better before the Americans came” ad nauseum. Even as they repeated this mantra, they continued to detail the terrible reign of Saddam Hussein. This dual treatment leaves readers in limbo. On the one hand, readers are supposed to believe that the American occupation in Iraq ruined the lives of the Iraqi people. On the other hand, they are supposed to believe that Saddam Hussein was the one who ruined the lives of the Iraqi people. One gets the impression that Iraq would be better off with no governmental system, but history tells us that doesn’t work either.
Fortunately, Reem herself is a somewhat respectable character. She is depicted as a pious, loving wife and mother, who does everything she can to ensure the safety and relative comfort of her family, even if it means making sacrifices. Of all the characters, Reem seems the most human. She suffers grief, pain, and fear, but she also enjoys hope, joy, and thankfulness. Like the other characters, Reem’s character is deficient in the areas of dialogue and thought narration, but Hymas succeeded in creating a strong female Muslim leading character. Though Reem depends on her husband to provide an income for the family, she is neither oppressed by, subservient to, nor entirely dependent upon him. Reem makes it clear both to her family and to the reader that no matter what happens to her on Earth, she will always be able to turn to God.
I was excited to see some Islamic thought peppered throughout the book: why we pray, why we fast, why we (some of us) wear hijab. Regrettably, these aspects were dropped into the story, rather than woven in, and Hymas only touched on the basics without addressing the shades of meaning and variations in practice. In a book that spends so much time talking about Sunni/Shi’a conflict, discussing the differences would have been easy. While the differences aren’t exactly integral to the plot, having some idea why Reem’s family (who is Sunni) might be persecuted by her predominately Shi’a neighbors would have deepened the narrative. On some level, I’m glad the author didn’t attempt this; based on the shallow plot and poor characterization, I can tell he wouldn’t have done the topic justice.
Frankly, I’m glad I received this for free, in ebook format. The cover, title, and subject matter would have lured me into buying the book and I would have been frustrated I wasted my money. I cannot openly recommend this book because it has serious structural issues, but at the same time I’d like to recommend it to readers because it’s a book that deals with both women and Islam, and the world needs more of those narratives. Even horribly constructed narratives are welcome, because they encourage discussion. Hopefully, in the future, those narratives will be something worth reading.
I received a free copy of the H.M. Hymas’s The Prayer Rug from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
I’d never heard of Hong Ying before Good Children of the Flower appeared on my NetGalley dashboard, but the prospect of reading an author who was not a white male from Europe or the US excited me. After a quick Google search, I realized Hong Ying is quite popular. I was hoping to be able to add another book to my “books about China written by Chinese people” list. Unfortunately, this book was a complete dud. The pace was slow and the language, while easy to understand, did more to harm the novel than help it. At times Hong Ying uses precise descriptors and apt metaphors, but the overall language was so plain that I found myself bored.
I’m a little leery of speaking about the use of language in Good Children of the Flower because I recognize that I read it in translation. Only the most masterful translators can reproduce a work in a different language while maintaining the strength and artistry of the original novel. I’ve never read anything else these translators have worked on (not that I’m aware of anyway) so I can’t tell whether the translation is bad or whether the original is bad. I find it extremely hard to believe that such a critically-acclaimed author would turn out such underwhelming prose and overwrought narrative structure. Just when I began to fall into the flow of the narrative (which is mostly told in layers of flashback), Hong Ying will shatter the illusion with phrases like “All right, now, let me start over and tidy up my thoughts” (201). The “thoughts” she is referring to were not all that messy, and certainly not so disorganized that they needed to be laid out again.
Because Good Children of the Flower is a memoir, I won’t comment on the actual plot of the novel other than to say the pacing was painfully slow. I fought my instinct to put the book in hopes that my efforts would be rewarded. I was sorely disappointed. Frankly, the story could have been told start-to-finish in about 100 pages. I gather from the novel that Hong Ying wanted to pay tribute to her late mother by highlighting both the suffering her mother endured during the political tumult of the 1900s and the sacrifices she made in an attempt to keep her family alive and together. I tried not to judge Hong Ying and her siblings for their actions, but Hong Ying herself admits that she and her siblings vastly underappreciated their mother. She even hints that she and her siblings expedited her mother’s passing (that’s not a spoiler, you’ll think it yourself by the time you reach that point in the novel). I had a very hard time understanding her family members’ motivations throughout the story. Perhaps Hong Ying herself does not fully understand them either, which is fair. I came away with the impression that self-interest was more important than family togetherness for the majority of their lives.
Without the unnecessary detours into Hong Ying’s life, (every now and then it seems like she is bragging about her numerous awards and ruminating upon the place of marriage in her life, though neither subject holds any importance in the grand scheme of the novel) Good Children of the Flower would be a pretty decent illustration of some of the horrors common people faced during the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. I found myself cringing and on the verge of tears when I read what her mother went through. While some would argue that my mild emotional involvement is a testament to good writing, in this case the tears came because I was disgusted that one human being could be so cruel to another human being, not because the writing was particularly good.
Considering Hong Ying’s worldwide fame, I’ll give her another chance. In general, if I don’t like something, and it’s not harmful, I’ll try it again to be certain I really don’t like it. The rule mostly applies to food, and is a habit I picked up from a classmate. My plan is to eventually read the internationally-renowned Daughter of the River and/or one of her books set in Shanghai. As for Good Children of the Flower, I most likely won’t be reading it again, and I certainly won’t recommend it to anyone else. Reading it was such a chore and the end result so poor that I’m glad I received the book for free from NetGalley in exchange for a review. I would be quite upset if I’d wasted my money.
I received and ARC copy of the book from the author in exchange for an honest review.
I had a serious love/hate relationship with this book.
I’m issuing a tepid recommendation of South China Morning Blues.
To be honest, I was a bit confused by this book, and within 30 pages (the number of pages I commit to before deciding to give up on a book) I had taken offense and was ready to quit. As someone who has lived in Shanghai for a few years and who has grown quite fond of China and Chinese culture, the complaints about and blatant disrespect towards China and its people really turned me off. Upon opening the book the reader is assaulted with foul attitudes. To make matters worse, this book is drenched in licentious behavior, which is the last thing I wanted to read about just after Ramadan, and is something I try to avoid in general. When I agree to read and review a book, I generally try to read it cover to cover unless it’s a really terrible book. South China Morning Blues, while irksome in the beginning, had just enough intrigues to keep me reading.
South China Morning Blues is actually three separate books, with separate plots and characters that don’t mix until the third book (actually, there may have been some mixing partway through the second book). At times I had a hard time keeping track of the characters and figuring out their relationships with one another. In this respect, those who can’t read Chinese would benefit from keeping the Dramatis Personae on hand. Bookmark the page and keep returning to it if you have too. Even with the ability to remember who was whom based on the Chinese, I still got lost from time to time.
Despite the difficulty of creating and developing 12 different characters, Hecht manages the task fairly well. Hecht doesn’t attempt to create twelve fully-fledged characters. Rather, he allows secondary personalities to be involved on the story while heavily leaning on the main actors. He doesn’t arbitrarily focus on characters. Instead, he develops the lesser characters only as instruments to further the plot of the novel. The plot of the novel kept my interested. I was genuinely curious as to what would happen next. At times, I was disappointed because I knew exactly what was coming, but there were moments when the turn of events actually surprised me.
Throughout the novel there are a few instances of forced symbolism (I won’t include them here so as to avoid turning people’s subconsciouses towards them), and I was a little irritated by the stereotypical characters. I must admit, though, that part of my irritation stemmed from being well-acquainted with the stereotypes presented: alcoholic writers, unqualified stoner English teachers, and lewd business men. The gratuitous sex scenes definitely hindered the novel. For the most part, the plot could have been advanced without them. On the same token, South China Morning Blues would have been an entirely different novel had the characters been chaste. I came to accept the sex as part of the characters’ personalities. The female characters struck me as overly needy in their desire for sex, but at least they usually took matters into their own hands. They were the predators rather than the prey (but the women let the men believe the men were in charge, which I found to be a hilariously accurate depiction of life in general).
While I’m not in love with the book, it was a good, light read. The word choice is neither too simple nor unnecessarily complicated. My surprise at some of the events in the novel is the reason I gave it such a high rating; towards the end I felt sorry for some of the characters I initially hated. Eliciting such a reaction shows craftiness on Hecht’s part. South China Morning Blues is a novel I might read again some time in the distant future, but it’s not something I’d keep on my favorites shelf.