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Act II – The Project that Ate My Summer and My Blog

Act II (Read Act I here.)

Scene 1:

It’s the end of August. The man is measuring the same 2X4 over and over again. The woman is lying on the chaise lounge gazing at the half-built studio. It’s hot and humid.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESHer:  Huhhhh.

Him:  What huh?

Her: Does the studio look tall?

Him: No.

Her: Weird. It’s bigger than I thought it would be. Can we go this big without a permit? You checked the building code, right?

Him: I used the info you gave me.

Her: But that was for Washington, not Oregon.

Him: Why would you give me the Washington building code? (Gesturing going on.)

Her: Because it’s all I could find. I figured it would be sorta similar. Why didn’t you check? Why would you rely on me?

Him: You’re the professional Googler. You know everything.

Her: You’re the builder.

Him: It’ll be fine. Just don’t tell anyone.

Her: Who would I tell? Read more…

Giveaway for The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

The Girl You Left BehindToday I’m celebrating the release of Jojo Moyes’s The Girl You Left Behind by giving away one copy courtesy of the folks at Viking Press.

Here’s what reviewers are saying about it:

“Lovely and wry, Moyes’s newest is captivating and bittersweet.” – Publishers Weekly

“Even the most hard-hearted reader will want to know what happens to these women, not just the flesh-and-blood ones but also the bewitching one on the wall. Where will the painting land, and was its subject a casualty of war? In this moving paean to daring, determination and perspicacity, Moyes keeps the reader guessing down to the last hankie.” – Los Angeles Times

Read more…

The Project That Ate My Summer and My Blog – A Screenplay

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESAct I

Scene 1:

Scenery: It’s May and the flowers are starting to bloom. An ugly but functional wooden shed stands in the backyard. Its roof is covered with moss. The door is warped and hanging from its hinges.

Her: There are mice in the shed and they’re shitting on my garden tools.

Him: Mice are cute.

Her: There are nests of hornets, and the neighbors complained that the shed is an eyesore.

Him: The trees will be tall enough next year to hide the shed.

Her:  Your tools are getting wet and rusting.

Him: Let’s replace the shed.

Scene 2:

Scenery: It’s June and the woman is standing where the shed used to be. The sun is shining and the trees are resplendent in their greenery.

Her: This spot has a really good view of the wetlands. Wouldn’t it be a great place for a writing studio?

Him: You already have a perfectly good writing office.

Her:  It will be a selling point if we ever sell the house. AND, I’ll turn my office into the guest room so you can have another workroom.

Him: I’m going to die in this house. Read more…

Giveaway for Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

imagesIn celebration of the paperback release of the wildly popular Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, I’m hosting a Giveaway courtesy of Viking Press. Here’s what people are saying about this bestselling novel:

“When I finished this novel, I didn’t want to review it; I wanted to reread it…An affair to remember.” — Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review

“To be devoured like candy, between tears.” — O, The Oprah Magazine

“Funny and moving but never predictable.” — USA Today

If that isn’t reason enough to get excited, Moyes will release her next book, The Girl You Left Behind, on August 20th. (Watch for my Giveaway that week.)

The Girl You Left BehindHere’s a Q&A with Moyes about The Girl You Left Behind:

The Girl You Left Behind, though a love story, features strong female relationships as well. What made you want to write about the connections that can form between women? If Liv and Sophie had lived in the same time, do you think they would have been friends?

My female friendships are so important to me; I honestly don’t know how women survive without them. I get very bored of reading manufactured narratives that pit women against women; the working mums vs. stay at homes, old vs. young, the ‘evil’ woman boss who is trying to keep younger women down—I don’t recognise these images—most women I know are actually pretty supportive of each other. So I liked having relationships in this book where women are supportive of each other, even if their relationships are often complex and changing. To me that reflects real life.

And yes, I think that Sophie and Liv might have been friends—I think through her sister’s grief, Sophie might have understood Liv’s own. And both knew what it was like to utterly adore your husband. Read more…

Review of In Translation: Translators On Their Work and What It Means to Them

Tower of Babel

Tower of Babel

A long, long time ago in a land far, far away, the people of the world spoke the same language. It was fun. There was no hand gesturing, shouting, or shoulder shrugging when talking to foreigners. Rosetta Stone did not run ads along side their Facebook streams bragging that their customers would meet their perfect mate if only they spoke French. Everyone sat around and babbled about the books they wanted to read, and what bookshelves they should build to show off their signed first editions. It was paradise. Since they were accomplished construction workers as well as readers they thought, “As long as we’re building bookshelves, we might as well build a stairway to heaven. What better way to get to heaven than a stairway lined in books.” They began their books and mortar tower, and, oh my, it was beautiful. But one day God looked down and was pissed. “You self-serving heathens!” he shouted. In order to stop their evil collaborative ways, he gave them all different languages. Suddenly they could no longer understand each other, and the stairway was forgotten–although Led Zeppelin did have quite a run with it many years later. And so it was that translators came to be.

One Hundred Year of SolitudeThank heavens for translators! Imagine your life without Albert Camus, Marcel Proust, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Per Petterson, Leo Tolstoy, or Haruki Murakami. If there were no translators, you would never experience the joy of reading The Stranger, Swann’s Way, One Hundred Years of Solitude, I Curse the River of Time, Anna Karenina, or 1Q84.

Amazingly, translators are the Rodney Dangerfields of the literary world. Their station in life is to be largely invisible, garnering little respect or fame. Once in awhile a translator such as Murakami will be the talk of the town such as when he translated The Great Gatsby into Japanese. And, the literary world was all aflutter when Lydia Davis produced new versions of Swann’s Way and Madame Bovary. But those are the exceptions. I am in awe of translators. Most people probably don’t realize this, but translators are bi-lingual. I know! That never occurred to me either.

In TranslationSeriously though, translators are completely under-appreciated. That’s why I was very excited to hear that a book of essays was published in May by Columbia University Press called In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means. It’s a fascinating exploration into the nature and process of translating. I learned, among other things, what makes a translation great, and what a translator takes into consideration when tackling another author’s book.

Part One contains seven essays contained under the heading The Translators in the World. Part Two is The Translator at Work and has 11 essays. One of my favorites is Eliot Weinberger’s Anonymous Sources in which he says that “translators are the geeks of literature.”

Another was Catherine Porter’s essay Translation as Scholarship. At one point she talks about the invisibility of translators. She says that in a 2009 New York Times article featuring Europa Editions, a publishing house that markets foreign literature in translation, “Five authors and titles were cited for the article, but not one translator was mentioned; indeed, the word “translator” never appeared at all.”

The Great GatsbyMost translators are authors in their own right. Murakami has written a dozen novels and won numerous writing awards including the Franz Kafka Prize, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Jerusalem Prize, among others. In his essay, As Translator, as Novelist, which was translated by Ted Goossen, he talks about what The Great Gatsby means to him and why he thought he needed to produce yet another version of it in Japanese. He says, “I found that none of the translations I looked at satisfied me, regardless of their quality. Inevitably, I would think, ‘This feels a bit (or a lot!) different from the Gatsby I know.’” Later he says, “…I translated Gatsby at an extremely personal level. I wanted to make my long-standing image of Gatsby clear and concrete, so that readers could picture the distinct colors and contours of the novel and feel its textures. To do this, I strove to eliminate anything that was the slightest bit obscure or that might leave the reader feeling as if they had somehow missed something….I have always felt that translation is fundamentally an act of kindness.”

In Translation is a very engaging read. It’s also quite funny at times. I found a treasure trove of little-known facts and anecdotes about a world I knew little about.

About the Editors:

Esther Allen has twiced received fellowships from the NEA, was named a Chevalier de l”ordre des arts et des lettres in 2006, and was a Fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. She teaches at Baruch College.

Susan Bernofsky received the 2006 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize, the Herman Hesse Translation Prize, as well as awards and fellowships from the NEA, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Leon Levy Center for Biography, and the Lannan Foundation. She chairs the PEN Translation Committee and is the director of Literacy Translation at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.

Columbia University Press, 2013

Born Under a Bad Sign: Review of Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng

Southern Cross the DogRobert Lee Chatham, the main character in Bill Cheng’s blues-infused debut novel Southern Cross the Dog, believes he was cursed by the Devil as a baby, or in the vernacular of the blues, “born under a bad sign.” The opening line is, “When I was a baby they put a jinx on me.”

In all matter of ways, Chatham’s life as a black child/man is down, dirty, and star-crossed. He’s witnessed the lynching of his brother, suffered through the Katrina-like deluge in the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, and finds himself surrounded by working women while growing up in a brothel. Later, he’s kidnapped by the L’Etang family who are white fur traders living deep in the swampy backwaters. Eventually, he bonds with the white wife of one of the trappers, but by then he is a haunted and broken man. In the end, a woman from his past beckons, and he must choose between the promise of a brighter future or what he believes to be his destiny.

The backdrop for this lush novel is Mississippi during the first half of the twentieth century while it’s deep into Jim Crow savagery. The darkness and grit of life during this time period rings eerily true under Cheng’s hand: The fear that lives inside each soul like a black dog they cannot escape; The heavy humidity that is a constant slick upon the faces of the unfortunates; The incessant buzz of mosquitos; The patois of the Creole trappers; And, the crack of the bossman’s whip.

Bill ChengSouthern Cross the Dog shines especially bright in the details. The Chinese-American Cheng, who unbelievably had never been to Mississippi, camped out in a library to learn everything he could about the deep south, from dialects, to flora and fauna, to medicinal herbs, and even how to walk through a swamp:

“You learn where to stand and how, ten paces from this bush, an arm’s length from that tree. You learn how to walk–swinging your legs saddle wide, then easing your weight across a width of earth. It goes up the calves, the fat of the leg, then across. All your weight is in your belly. Then the other leg. The ball of your foot. Back into the earth. The first time, I near sunk clean through. The ground was too soft, and the mud rose up into my boots. It drew in my feet, my ankles, up above the knee. I had to dig my way out with  my hands, pressing into the cold yolky soil, pulling it back in clumps. You learn to read the mud. Where the gators drag-belly downslope. The little trough of raised slime. You learn the stink. Where the swamp wants to fold you into yourself.”

Interspersed throughout the story are bluesy adages, maxims, and hard-earned truths. This one could easily sum up the story:

“This is one thing I’ve learned. The one truth God has ever given to a man. And it’s that the past keeps happening to us. No matter who we are or how far we get away, it keeps happening to us.”

Southern Cross the Dog is built on a loose narrative of interconnected stories. It’s bones are akin to the blues music Cheng acknowledges was his inspiration. The  power rises from the rhythmic repetition of the verses that paint the harsh reality of the Jim Crow South: oppression, fear, lost love, prison, pain, melancholy, and superstition–all major elements of blues music. In a NYT review by Julie Bosman I read that Cheng “decided the story should take place in Mississippi because it was the birthplace of the blues, but didn’t set out to write an explicitly blues novel.” He said,” I just looked for the things that show up a lot in the music, images and icons that are prominent in music — the flood, the Devil, the hellhouse…The story formed itself around that.”

Where the Southern Crosses the DogThe magnificent Southern Cross the Dog is Cheng’s first novel and he’s fresh out of Hunter College’s MFA program. How did he do it? Perhaps he sold his soul to the Devil as bluesman Robert Johnson did at the crossroads. I discovered the title refers to the crossroads of two railways in Moorhead, Mississippi. They are the Southern Railroad that ran north and south, and the Yazoo Delta, more popularly known as the Yellow Dog, that crossed it. (Read more here.)

Last week, Southern Cross the Dog made the Long List for the 2013 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. I think there will be other accolades to come. So while Cheng may love the blues, he won’t have a reason to sing the blues anytime soon.

Ecco, 2013

Review and Giveaway of Return to Oakpine by Ron Carlson

Return to OakpineIn Ron Carlson’s fifth novel, he takes us to the small town of Oakpine, Wyoming, where four men reunite after thirty years. They have built and lost careers, married and divorced, and succeeded and failed. On the surface, Oakpine looks the same to them. It even smells the same to character Mason Kirby who has returned to sell his childhood home. “This place wants to get to me…how can it smell the same?”

The old rub, a la Thomas Wolfe, is that “You can’t go home again.” In Return to Oakpine that is most certainly the case. The town may look the same to Mason, Jimmy, Craig, and Frank, but these men have definitely changed. They are no longer the invincible band mates from 1969 who have their whole lives in front of them. They’ve reached the point when it’s time to take a measure of all they’ve done and not done. This makes their reunion both bitter and sweet. Carlson weaves threads of rediscovered friendships, estranged families, and terminal illness atop a backdrop of the American West that delivers a memorable and heartfelt read.

Author William Kittredge says of it, “Citizens in neighborhoods across America, despite occasional atrocities and outbursts of greed, learn to specialize in the labor of caring for one another. In eloquent detail, Ron Carlson shows us these processes working out. Return to Oakpine is simultaneously heartbreaking and reassuring, and infused with a continual, thoroughgoing beauty.”

Ron CarlsonRon Carlson is the author of five story collections and five novels, including The Signal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, The New Yorker, Playboy, GQ, Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. He is the director of the writing program at the University of California at Irvine.

If you’d like a chance to win a copy of Return to Oakpine, just email your name and mailing address to diane@dianeprokop.com. Unfortunately, you must reside in the U.S.

Put Giveaway in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Your chance of winning increases if you leave a comment or like the post. I’ll accept entries until midnight on July 19, 2013—at which time I’ll draw the winning name. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending giveaway winners copies of the book.

Congrats to winners Frank Larson and Cindy Martin!
Viking, 2013

Portrait Power- Review of Arnold Newman: At Work

Poets & Writers

When my latest issue of Poets & Writers arrived, I was completely taken with the cover photo of Neil Gaiman. I’ve never read a Gaiman book, and though I know he is wildly popular, I didn’t have him on my To-Be-Read List. Who knows why. But after studying this portrait, I became certain that I had erred in my neglect of him. Suddenly, I absolutely had to get a ticket to his sold-out reading. The epiphany was spawned from Jon Crispin’s incredibly powerful portrait of Gaiman that spoke to me in a big way. He captured Gaiman’s heart and soul and cast me under his spell.

Very few portrait photographers have this ability. Annie Liebovitz, Richard Avedon, and Irving Penn are a couple. And, then there’s Arnold Newman (1918-2006), who’s in a class by himself. Even if Newman’s name doesn’t ring a bell, no doubt his photos, which spanned almost seventy years of the twentieth century, will be familiar. They featured artists, actors, politicians, athletes, and musicians such as Pablo Picasso, Bille Holiday, Marilyn Monroe, Allen Ginsberg, and John F. Kennedy.  Many graced the covers of magazines such as LIFE, Time, Look, Newsweek, and even Seventeen. Probably his most famous work is of Igor Stravinsky taken in 1945 pictured below.

Stravinsky Jpg

Igor Stravinsky, 1945

Newman is the subject of a new book, Arnold Newman: At Work by Roy Flukinger. It’s an exquisitely executed compendium of photos and ephemera that includes hundreds of Newman’s most iconic and mostly black and white pictures, and some photos never before seen in book form. The back stories gathered from the pages of Newman’s notebooks, contact prints, drawings, and correspondence are beautifully reproduced in full color and give the reader an opportunity to see the context from which the photos sprang. Imagine a glorious Joseph Cornell box of Newman’s life.

Andy Warhol jpeg

Andy Warhol, 1973

Newman was the first photographer to be described as an “environmental portraitist” though he didn’t particularly care for the term. He photographed painters in their studios, writers at their typewriters, presidents in the White House, and took portraiture to a whole new level of artistry. He was successful because he incorporated the subject’s work, intellect, and soul through lighting, environment, and cropping. In fact, he was a master cropper and could take a good photo and make it great by knowing what to include as well as what to exclude. I especially appreciated the reproductions of his contact prints showing the various shots with his cropping lines on the photos he chose.

Fascinating anecdotal letters from the people who sat for Newman flesh out this beautiful book and offer insight into the life of one the twentieth century’s greatest and most prolific photographers. President Lyndon B. Johnson wrote in a letter to Newman that, “It’s wonderful what a real artist can do with a hard subject.” General Omar Bradley said, “You did handsomely with a difficult subject.” And then others, such as Nazi war criminal Alfried Krupp, whose photo ended up with a “strange, unearthly, greenish cast,” probably wished he had declined the sitting. Although initially reluctant to shoot Krupp, Newman, ever the professional, followed through with the job. Years later Newman revealed his thoughts of Krupp saying, “This outwardly gentle man was really the devil.”

Ed Ruscha jpeg

Ed Ruscha, 1985

The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin began acquiring Newman’s archive in 2006 after his death. This book is a result of processing and preserving boxes and boxes of his photos and artifacts. Flukinger is a senior research curator at the Center and has produced nearly fifty exhibitions ranging from classical photohistory to contemporary photography, and from photographers’ retrospectives to American, regional, and Texas photography.

If you live in San Diego or will be visiting there this summer, be sure to check out the San Diego Museum of Art.  An exhibit of Newman’s work is running now through September 8. Arnold Newman: Masterclass includes 200 of his black and white photos. The Museum also has a permanent collection installation, Arnold Newman: In Context, that includes recent acquisitions in photography, and works by artists portrayed by Newman.

Arnold Newman: At Work
University of Texas Press, 2013

Photographs from Arnold Newman: At Work by Roy Flukinger (Copyright © 2013), used by permission of the publisher and author. For more information visit www.utexaspress.edu.

P.S. As it turned out, I couldn’t get a ticket to Neil Gaiman’s event and I hear that this is the last book tour he will do. What few tickets I saw for sale were being scalped. Yes, I said, “Scalped!” For an author! That’s the most wonderful left-handed compliment an author can get. In the meantime, I will add his latest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, to my To-Be-Read List.

Colum McCann – TransAtlantic Review and Powell’s Reading

TransatlanticColum McCann was at Powell’s last week to read from his new novel TransAtlantic, his first since winning the National Book Award in 2009 for Let the Great World Spin. Hundreds of fans showed up to hear him talk about the complexly-woven story that begins with three Atlantic crossings by famous historical figures.

The first crossing is by aviators Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown who attempt to make the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic. Departing from Newfoundland in 1919, they hope to touch ground in Ireland in less than a day’s time. If you don’t already know how it turns out, it’s easy enough to Google it, but knowing the outcome won’t spoil the thrilling account that McCann gives of their journey.

The second crossing is by Frederick Douglass, an American slave who became a leader in the abolitionist movement. With the 1845 publication of his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, supporters suggest he leave the country for Ireland to avoid the possibility of his ex-owner trying to get his “property” back. There he is feted by the rich and influential upper classes, while the potato famine begins to ravage the masses. Soon Douglass realizes that they are worse off than the three million slaves in America. While lecturing about equality for the men and women of America, he decides he must remain silent on the travesties he witnesses in Ireland. He can fight only one battle at a time.

The third crossing is by George Mitchell, the former Senator from Maine who helps negotiate peace in Northern Ireland. Asked by President Clinton to lead an effort to establish non-violent principles to which all parties would agree, he expected to be in Ireland for a few weeks. The process unfolds over several years, and ends with the Belfast Peace Agreement signing in 1998.

You might wonder how McCann could possibly have a compelling story to tell when, if you know anything about history, you already know how the above events turned out. It works because the true linchpins of the story are the multi-generations of fictional women who pass through TransAtlantic into and out of the lives of the historical figures.

McCann talks about Transatlantic.

The collection of women who make this story come alive begins with Lily Duggan the Irish housemaid who, deeply inspired by Douglass, decides to escape her servitude and cross the Atlantic to start a new life in America. The story continues through three more generations including her daughter Emily, granddaughter Lottie, and ending with the present day story of Hannah Carson. Each is a dazzling account of love, loss, grief, and the minutia of common lives that are the heartbeat of history. As McCann’s brother Ronan said when introducing his brother at Powell’s, “Colum takes a flashlight and allows us to look at the smaller, more intimate, intricate moments of life.”

Indeed, it is within the lives of these women that McCann is able to truly reveal the men of history. McCann expressed it this way: “The grand tapestry of history is really woven together with the small threads of people who are supposedly anonymous. But they’re not, they’re actually the ones who make up the true fabric of history.”

When asked about the pitfalls of weaving fiction into non-fiction, McCann said, “As far as I’m concerned there’s no such thing as non-fiction. There’s only stories. My good friend Frank McCourt used to say, ‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.’”

Colum McCannHe elaborated by saying, “I’m very interested in the idea that the real is imagined and the imaginary is real. What I mean by that is that my great-grandfather was alive in Dublin and was the same age as Leopold Bloom [Ulysses] in June 16, 1904. Leopold, as you know, is a fictional character. I never met my great grandfather and I know his blood is pumping through me now, but I know my grandfather so much more because of the fact that I read about Leopold Bloom and because Joyce created that fiction. I know what the streets are like. I know what the ideas were like. It becomes a whole encyclopedia of the human endeavor. The fact is is that this fictional character we consider to be unreal is actually more real to me than even my great grandfather. That’s important to me because the job of fiction is to go toward the more anonymous moments and make them sing.”

A major thread in TransAtlantic is war and peace both in Ireland and America. Mitchell’s effort toward peace was one of the most fascinating bits for me. McCann mentioned that he didn’t know Mitchell before he started the book, and didn’t want to meet him. McCann did write him a letter asking permission to include him in the book. Smiling McCann said, “I actually wrote in the letter, I said ‘If they didn’t like it, I would nix it’, but I knew I wouldn’t nix it. I was lying…In fact, his wife convinced him because he was very skeptical. He said, ‘I’m going to be a fictional [character]?’ She said, ‘Listen George’–she told me this later–’you’ve written three books and nobody’s read a single one. Why don’t you let somebody else take a crack at it. Maybe they’ll read your books then.’”

TransAtlantic is an ambitious novel that in lesser hands could have died a thousand deaths. Multiple characters, both real and unreal, a narrative that jumps around in time, and in different areas of the world? It could have been a confusing disaster, but in McCann’s hands it becomes a tapestry of extraordinary beauty full of emotional depth with the capacity to make the hair on your neck stand up, as well as, bring you to tears. The beauty of his words and imagery make you realize that he is a writer who possesses a talent that is so rare there is little to compare it to.

Colum and Portland FansAnd yet, at the reading, he was all jokey, funny, and charming. Very down to earth, humble, and gracious all at the same time. When I thanked him for coming to Portland, he said, “My pleasure,” and I said, “No, it is mine,” and he said, “No, please let it be mine.” All the while laughing. Then he told me what he wrote in my books, because it was in Irish. I think he said it was something to do with “blessings, and more blessings.” I would agree–we’re very blessed to have the writings of Colum McCann.

EXTRA: In March, McCann wrote an editorial about the 15-year anniversary of the Belfast Peace Agreement. It was poignant and beautifully written. I’m not the only one who thought so. A few weeks ago when President Obama was at the G8 conference in Northern Ireland, he quoted McCann’s essay when he said, “Peace is indeed harder than war, the Irish author Colum McCann recently wrote, and its constant fragility is part of its beauty. A bullet need happen only once, but for peace to work we need to be reminded of its existence again and again and again.”

Listen to Obama and McCann here.

Random House, 2013

Have Your Cake and Eat It Too – Review of VB6 by Mark Bittman

CakeWe all want to have our cake and eat it too especially when it comes to, well, cake. For years I’ve been struggling with the dilemma of how to eat more responsibly to both improve my health and the health of the planet. About 12 years ago, I eliminated all processed foods from my diet. I did this in a roundabout way by deciding to forego anything that contained corn. Corn is a staple for anyone who grows up in the Midwest as I did. I can remember eating a dozen ears at a sitting. It was heavenly. That was before corn syrup made it’s way into most manufactured foods, and before GMOs. Now nearly 88% of U.S. corn is genetically modified. Research links GMOs to allergies, organ toxicity, and many other health issues. Who really wants to eat “Roundup Ready” food?

When I made this decision, I was suffering from severe allergies, asthma, had been diagnosed with early-stage cancer, and was about 10 pounds overweight. I took antihistamines, puffed on inhalers, and was always a little under the weather.

CornFast forward to today and I’ve lost those 10 pounds, need antihistamines only about four days a year, haven’t used an inhaler in ages, and have had no cancer recurrences. You may think I’m crazy to say this, but I think I owe it all to getting rid of corn. Why? Because it’s almost impossible to eat processed/junk foods if you don’t eat corn. I was forced to eat fresh foods. I always liked my vegetables, but instead of putting them on the back burner, they became center stage. Also, I became a label reader. If a food product had more than three ingredients, I put it back on the shelf. Did you know that most ketchup has corn syrup? About six years ago, I went completely organic. After that I started making sure the beef I ate was range-fed, the chickens were hormone and antibiotic free, and the fish was wild caught and never farmed. The change was gradual and it didn’t hurt a bit.

Let’s put in a caveat here lest you get the idea that I’m a zealot. When I have dinner at someone’s house, I eat whatever they put in front of me except corn syrup, which it turns out I am allergic to. No one is going to die from eating a hamburger once in awhile, or having a few potato chips with dip. I enjoy a good steak every couple of months. Pork loin is a favorite, but only once a month or so. I try and drink organic or biodynamic wine, but I won’t refuse a glass if it’s not. I’m all about moderation.

VB6-cover_0That’s why Mark Bittman’s new book, VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00, holds so much appeal for me. Bittman, a food writer at the NYT, shares how he lowered his cholesterol, lost weight, and evened out his blood sugar levels by going vegan before 6. (It doesn’t have to be exactly 6. Whenever you eat dinner is when you can indulge.) There’s no calorie counting, no food diaries, or any rules at all, except one. Eat a strict vegan diet before 6, and then anything goes. Sound too good to be true? It’s not. It worked for Bittman. He lost 30 pounds, and his cholesterol and blood sugar levels are normal now. He says, “…I’ve increased the amount of plants that I eat and reduced the amount of animal products and processed foods. During the day, I eat only plants—vegetables and fruits mostly, but beans and whole grains, too. At night, I revert to a more indulgent pattern and let myself eat the food I love most…”

The first half of VB6 explains why most diets don’t work. Basically, you need to commit to a permanent lifestyle change and quit looking for a quick fix. Then he delves into the whys and wherefores of the reasoning behind VB6. He makes easy science of how your body uses food as fuel, the fallacy of counting calories, metabolism pitfalls–high fructose corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup–protein myths, and much more. The second half is filled with more than 60 recipes and suggested menus to get you started on your way to better health.

I’ve decided to give it a go. One of the first things I did was purchase a Vitamix so I could make green smoothies. (A blender will work.) If you have a hard time finishing your kale or spinach, this is the way to do it. You won’t even know you’re eating green if you mix it with a few bananas, mangos, and apples. I’m easing into this new regime. I’ve started with 2 to 3 vegan-before-6-days a week. Once I’m acclimated, then I’ll increase to 4 and 5 and so on. I have high hopes.

The icing on that cake we can still eat is that one of the byproducts of eating vegan before 6 is that it’s good for the planet. Bittman cites a U.N. study showing that 18 percent of greenhouse gases come from industrialized livestock production. He says, “If you eat like a vegan until dinnertime, you can protect your health and help save the planet; how we eat—and certainly what we eat—has a real impact on both our bodies and the Earth.”

If you want to feel better, lose weight, and slow global warming, check out Bittman’s VB6.

Clarkson Potter/Crown/Random House, 2013

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