Thursday, May 07, 2009

Nonfiction Roundup

Always Looking Up: Adventures of an Incurable Optimist by Michael J. Fox: I'm not ordinarily a celebrity memoir reader, but this, Fox's second (after 2003's Lucky Man), just jumped out at me. It would be a good choice for a number of people: Fox's many fans, people affected by Parkinson's Disease, people interested in the stem cell debate and a look at the clash between politics and real people's lives, and people who are looking for a little inspiration. I found this book to be fascinating and inspirational. It focuses on the past ten years of Fox's life as he founded what would become the largest Parkinson's research foundation, struggled to control symptoms while making public appearances (including one which would prompt Rush Limbaugh to mock Fox's symptoms on television while insisting that he must be playing them up to get sympathy), revisiting the world of television in appearances on Scrubs and Boston Legal, and entering the political fight over stem cell research. I really enjoyed Fox's appearances on Scrubs and I knew at the time that he had PD, so I found his discussion of how difficult it was really interesting. I found the whole memoir difficult to put down, actually. The central theme is obviously optimism, and he organizes the book into the four pillars of his optimism: Family, Faith, Work, and Politics. He does not gloss over the horrors of Parkinson's and its medication, and that part is an eye-opening read in itself. Fox readily admits that he's luckier than your average Parkinson's patient, not only in his fame and financial situation, but in his family, but he uses this luck to improve the lives of Parkinson's patients everywhere, which is very inspiring.

The Green Beauty Guide by Julie Gabriel is a useful resource, but the organization is a disaster. I was very interested in learning how to "green" my beauty routine (which is pretty much just washing and moisturizing twice a day--hey, I have a toddler), and this book will help you do that. Eventually. I would have enjoyed a more positive tone, a "let's look at how easy and economical it is to make your own products for a fraction of the cost, or to change to gentler, greener products" attitude, but the first part of the book drags with negativity. Still, some of the information is good to know (for example, the complete lack of FDA oversight of the cosmetics industry is terrifying, and I had no idea they only investigate an ingredient if they receive numerous reports of problems), although this first section is very long and can be summed up as "the cosmetics industry only exists to sell you stuff, not care for your skin, and they use ingredients that are carcinogenic and have unknown health effects." Again, the information is helpful, but I think if you're cracking open a book called The Green Beauty Guide, you're already on board with using greener projects and you don't need the litany of complaints and the scare tactics she uses. She also goes on and on about the lies of the cosmetics industry, but then quotes extensively from "green" cosmetics industry people. Apparently, I'm supposed to believe that "green" means "not just intent on selling products," but I'm not buying it. They have an agenda, too, but it's one she doesn't mind overlooking.

Gabriel isn't a scientist or a doctor, but she cites many, many scientific papers to back up her claims. One of the problems with this approach is her inconsistency: in one chapter, she goes on and on about how animal studies don't reveal anything about a product to be used on humans (which I happen to agree with), but many of the studies she cites indicting particular chemicals as possible carcinogens are...wait for it...animal studies. So the research is fine when it serves her purpose, but not when it doesn't. The book is huge, unnecessarily packed with information, and the organization doesn't serve the reader. To compare to another nonfiction "how to" book: When I finished Mrs. Meyer's Guide to a Clean Home, I had an action plan and shopping list, plus checklists in the book to use as my reference. I finished The Green Beauty Guide and thought, "I have to go back through this whole giant book and make notes of the page numbers I actually need." It's organized by type of product (facial cleansers, toners, body moisturizers, etc.), which makes it hard to figure out what kind of regime you want to start as a newbie. That's why I need to flip back through and make a list of which products I want to buy and which I want to make, which page numbers have the recipes, etc. This book is just crying out for some kind of bulleted lists or checklists or something to make it user-friendly. All that said, there is good information here; it's just not easy to find. There are many simple recipes that sound fun and easy to make, and an "at-home facial" how-to sounds like a cheap but fabulous spa trip, a nice little indulgence that doesn't cost a fortune. Gabriel's favorite "green" skincare products are often very expensive, but she has some inexpensive alternatives. You'll want to check The Green Beauty Guide website for updates: the current entry is about potential danger from colloidal silver, which is used as a green/healthy preservative in her recipes in the book (and in the products in her own skincare line). Here, too, is a contradiction: she seems to dismiss the claims about colloidal silver based on the type of research resulting in the claims, while grudgingly concluding that she's eliminating it since the FDA banned it from OTC medications. However, this kind of research is EXACTLY what she relies on to indict common chemicals in the book! Not only that, she's all about "better safe than sorry" when recommending against a chemical that hasn't been definitely proven harmful, but when it's one of her natural darlings, she defends it as not proven harmful. It's an annoying inconsistency, but the recipes and discussion of skincare regime outweigh it. Barely.


LuAnn said...

I've made it a goal to read more non-fiction books this year. These sound like great reads to add to my list. Thanks.

Becky Workman said...

I'm not a non-fiction reader. It doesn't appeal to me at all. However, I've found myself wanting to pick up Fox's book. Your review confirmed that I just need to do it!

Thanks for the review!