[Review] Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain–for Life

Ever since reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I’ve been fascinated by books on food. To be sure, food is the most important thing in your life; it literally is “life”. Without food, life stops, period. Consequently, without good choices in food, your life and health will be affected profoundly. If you prepare most of the meals for your family (like I do), your responsibility of choice when it comes to food is multiplied. Given this, I always want to know as much as possible about nutrition as I can.

Yet, at this point in my mid-thirties, I have read a lot and I find that usually books on food do one of two things: (1) rehash the same information, often in list-form, or (2) present something new but so devoid of any scientific backing that their findings are worse than bad, they are dangerous (a la, Atkins, Paleo Diet, etc.) So it is always a pleasant surprise to find a book that is scientifically sound, offers something new, and is fascinating at the same time. Enter: Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain–for Life.

Brain Maker is a fascinating book. Don’t be put off from it because of the title — I almost was. At first I thought it was a book on how to improve my cognitive skills, and I’ve heard enough of that sort of thing that it doesn’t interest me. However, the book’s title should have been changed to something more akin to what it’s about, that is, the impressively complex legions of bacteria in your body that are quietly orchestrating basically everything about you.

Here are some takeaways from this book that I’ve already incorporated into my own life and I recommend you do the same (pardon the list-form):

1. Eat more Pro and Pre-biotic foods, such as fermented foods, like Kimchi and Sauerkraut. I never realized how important pro-biotics were to nutrition and have consequently incorporated them into my diet. As it happened, around the time I finished the book, I had a large organic cabbage in my fridge just waiting for me to do something with. I decided to made Sauerkraut with it one evening using the instructions on this site. It was super easy, and requires nothing but salt. Once made, it has a super-long shelf life in the fridge (10 months I hear) so I highly recommend having some stocked at all times. The taste will grow on you (excuse the pun). I also stocked some Kimchi in my fridge. The first time I went to Stop & Shop looking for it, I couldn’t find it and assumed they didn’t haveit, until one day I discovered it next to the mushrooms in the most random spot.

2. Stay Clear of Sugar. I generally avoid sugar in the obvious places, like my daily coffee and processed foods. But I stepped the avoidance up a notch and have really nixed it altogether from my diet. I generally don’t eat any sugar aside from the fructose I get from fruit, and the occasional — reluctant — pasta bowl or lasagna (in the form of carbs). I have a killer, oft-requested Vegetable Lasagna recipe that (shhhhh!) I stole from here. You can’t help but get sugar in things like Strawberry preserves, or even organic pasta sauce, so for me, just avoiding all deserts, cookies, and refined white flour have served me well. It is interesting how once you stop eating sugar for a certain period of time, your microbiome has adapted to this more friendly environment and any stray cookie afterwards, makes your stomach feel unpleasant — a good deterrent.

3. Exercise Often: I know, doh! But sweating apparently does affect your good bacteria in an extremely positive way, so you must exercise at least 20 minutes 4 times a week.

4. Drink Red Wine: This is one of the easy ones on the list (at least for me). It is easy to over-do it, so be moderate if possible.

The CFP List: www.cfplist.com

As a professional in literature, you are constantly on the prowl to present at conferences. So, as you can imagine, grad students are strongly encouraged to attend and submit papers to conferences whenever possible. “Real” conferences, to me, are super intimidating still. I can’t help but have nightmares that someone is going to ask me a question that I can’t answer. Or worse, a question to which I can’t even figure out the question.

Lately I’ve been scouring the web for friendly graduate student conferences which I think I may be able to handle. Unfortunately, there are very few sites that have a nice rich repository of CFPs (Call for Papers). Sorry, “CFPs”, the acronym I had to learn lately, is basically a beacon call for academics to submit a proposal to present. So a fellow English Grad student and I created our own CFP database called cfplist.com. The goal is to warehouse all CFPs floating out there. Well, we’ll see if it takes off!

Make sure to check it out: http://www.cfplist.com

Do(n’t) read The Kite Runner

My cousin had suggested I read the Kite Runner, ensuring that I particularly would like it. I’m not sure what she meant by me particularly, but I really did enjoy it, and I think anyone that reads it would. Granted, I’m somewhat of a sap, as in, I don’t deal with sad stories very well (don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil any of this book), but this book, at the risk of sounding clique — which at times can’t be helped — this book is really great.

I know what you’re thinking. “Great. Great. Great. Great. Every book seems to be ‘Great'”, and of course, if you sat down and wanted to read every book that the New York Times, or some idiot in a blog (like me), claimed was “great”, you’d have to forfeit your job, or any other interests you might pretend to have, and spend the rest of your life reading. The problem, I think, is with tastes.

You realize, the ancients, the people of old, the people with bad teeth, long beards, wearing white robes while surreptitiously passing gas; these same people loved to arugue and put on airs of profound pontification. I’m talking about the ones responsible for phrases like “I think therefore I am”, which I’m certain I could have come up with had I the time and the gross unemployment. However, even these people recognized the futility of arguing against tastes: des gustibus non disputandam est. There’s no disputing taste.

So, if we’re to logically break this down, logic being the Skelton of philosophy, we end up with this conclusion:

Starting with an objective premise:

P1: You can’t Dispute Taste
P2: Which Implies: someone’s feelings on taste can never be wrong
P3: And equally, someone’s feelings on taste can never be right
P4: Since it is true, that taste can never be right, you shouldn’t listen to someone’s tastes

C: Therefore, don’t read anything anyone tells you is “great”. And, Reading Rainbow is a complete crock: “But don’t take my word for it”, what a bunch of balony.

So, don’t read The Kite Runner. Although, I’ll tell ya, it is a great book.

Forster’s Two Cents

Most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it, and the books and talks that would describe it as interesting are obliged to exaggerate, in the hope of justifying their own existence. Inside its cocoon of work or social obligation, the human spirit slumbers for the most part, registering the distinction between pleasure and pain, but not nearly as alert as we pretend. There are periods in the most thrilling day during which nothing happens, and though we continue to exclaim, “I do enjoy myself,, or , “I am horrified,” we are insincere.

E.M. Forster from
A Passage to India


I finally got to read Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein the other day. I say the word “finally” because I bought this book years ago, during one of my high school book-buying binges. And even though it’s a relatively short book, I never gave it a shot, mainly because I felt I knew everything there is to know about Frankenstein:

Let’s see …

Tall, inherently evil, athletically-built SGM seeks SGW, having a penchant for slow walks with arms fixed straight ahead, who enjoys bellowing out incoherent grunts and monosyllabic words. [let your own preconceptions fill in the rest]

Well, after reading the book, I see now that I had a few things completely wrong. First of all, I always just assumed “Frankenstein” to be the name of the monster, I didn’t realize that the monster doesn’t really have a name, other than his possessive association with his creator: Dr Frankenstein’s monster.

Then another one of my preconceptions went sour, and in fact, became the exact opposite of what I expected. I imagined the monster to be very inarticulate, and if he had any written dialogue, I figured it would be as unreadable as Jim from Huckleberry Finn. But I was quite mistaken. He was extremely intelligible and even eloquent. Not to mention well-read, there is a mention of him reading Paradise Lost, and Plutarch’s Tales (the former being a book I struggled a bit with in my British Lit. class). The monster is plaintive and rational, with tender emotions that are quite hurt by the repeated responses he gets by humans, who do nothing but snap-judge him by his hideous looks and reach for arms. During one instance, the monster risks his life to save a little girl drowning in a nearby river, and is rewarded only by a shot gun shell to the chest. A gift of firewood to a starving indigent family is met by fear and hate, with yet another attempt at the monster’s life. And there were many more similar episodes. Largess rewarded by scorn, appeals to reason, retorted by violence; It felt like the label of monster was placed on the wrong group of people.

There also seems to be a splash of The Merchant of Venice influence. During one long sorrowful speech by the monster, I was almost expecting him to break down on his knees with: “Hath not a monster eyes? … if you prick us do we not bleed.”

Overall, the book is very well written and really an excellent story, I’d recommend it to anyone. It has such relevant themes, particularly on the grossness of ignorance, prejudice and preconceptions, and how in this regard the ostensibly intelligent, like the learned Dr. Frankenstein, can be ruefully stupid. I initially avoided reading this book due to my own assumption of what I would find–which inturn made the book’s message, that much more effective.

Unenviable Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky is one of my favorite authors. Not because I’m familiar with much of his work, because I’m not. I’ve only finished one book by him, “Crime and Punishment”–but that was enough. “Crime and Punishment” is such a powerful book and easily one of my favorites. But now I’m in the middle of another one of his novels, considered the seminal piece of his writing career “The Brothers Karamazov”. I still can’t pronounce the title, but so far the book has met, shook hands, and sprinted past all my expectations.

One similarity I’ve noticed between this book and “Crime and Punishment”, is that Dostoevsky uses pathos to draw affection to his protagonists; you are so moved with compassion and pity for the character, that you are eager to see them succeed.

And this may not be a coincidence. They say you can only write about what you know, and Dostoevsky certainly didn’t have the easiest of lives. First his father was murdered when he was a child. Then Dostoevsky was sentenced to death when he was about my age– a sentence that was eventually commuted to imprisonment in Siberia. He was later released, but he suffered other losses, like the loss of his son and wife, (which are alluded to in Karamazov). Then he fell into enormous debt. Not from situations outside his control, but from excessive dissipation, especially gambling. He can’t be revered for the self-decadency of his later lifestyle, but the understanding of the hand he was dealt growing up, conjures up feelings of nothing but pathos, pity; and I think this may be one of the strongest themes he applies to his novels. That “the tides of fortune, no man can tell”, placing oneself in perspective to the misfortunes of another, you may just find a hero or a great man– in the seemingly lowliest of persons.

War and Peace

I’ve finally finished reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, an absolutely phenomenal book. It takes place during the Napoleonic war between the nascent French Empire and the sovereign nation of Russia. The book serves as a history of that period, told by an omnipotent narrator who expatiates the lives of various Russian Aristocrats. Each character in the story is so complex and so easily identifiable, who in the end serve as postulates to Tolstoy’s elaborate proof of the farce of man’s free will, and the leading role that fatalism can have on the course of history.

It is so rich and can be read and interpreted on so many levels. It’s really one of a kind. I strongly recommend!

4.5 stars
(One star deduction because I think it may have been a tad too long.)

Hate it. Love it.

Anyone that knows me, knows I’m very picky with what I read. Reading a sizeable novel–especially at my pace–takes a while, and I have to be absolutely certain I will like a book before I’m willing to commit to it.

I was making a book order on Amazon.com this weekend– really just plucking out some books from my wish list. I took down:

  • The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho
  • The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Then after clicking my way to the cart, Amazon informed me that if I were to add just a measly 3.35$ to my total order, I would be eligible for free shipping. So it’s either I find something that costs 3.35$ and get the shipping free or dish out an extra 4.25$ . Clearly, the reasonable thing to do was add something else to the cart. So I looked. The only thing I wanted that comes close to reaching my 3.35$ is a 6$ paperback Star Trek novel (yes I said “Star Trek”; I can almost hear the shudders of disgust, and the nods of disapproval).

    So the search for a good Star Trek novel began, and after some searching through the lists, I came across Cardassia and Andor (Worlds of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Vol. 1); It screamed “Buy Me”. And being the nervously uncertain guy that I am, and easily persuaded by the voice of public opinion, I read the reader reviews that followed:

    5 stars The Cardassia story is excellent., July 30, 2004 …

    4 stars Andorian fans should love this!, May 25, 2004 …

    2 star Boring…, February 15, 2005

    1 star I was disappointed, November 6, 2004

    As you can see, the reviews did little but exacerbate my petty decisioning dilemma.

    It comes to show, what one person loves, another despises. One person’s junk, another’s treasure. I put so much weight on the opinion of others when making a decision, and in reality, opinions are so conflicting, so biased, so inconclusive, that sometimes… they can be almost meaningless.