February 10, 2011


How to Love: Choosing Well at Every Stage of Life. By Gordon Livingston, M.D. Da Capo. $14.

Veganize This! From Surf & Turf to Ice-Cream Pie—200 Animal-Free Recipes for People Who Love to Eat. By Jenn Shagrin. Da Capo. $19.

     Good-natured and homily-filled, Gordon Livingston’s How to Love is designed to help people of any age connect with mates who will be truly good for them, not on a superficial level but at a much deeper one. This is an admirable goal, unfortunately undermined by Livingston’s propensity for treating clich├ęs as if they are revelations: “The first duty of love is to listen.” “Beware of those who are sure they are right.” “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” In fact, Livingston does not always derive these statements accurately: “The paradox that pervades the lives of people with this [perfectionist] style is that an obsessive need to control leads to a loss of control. (Hence the proverb, ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good.’)” In fact, the comment has nothing to do with control. Originally made by Voltaire, it refers to inaction caused by always believing there must be something better out there and therefore being unwilling to settle for something that, while not ideal, may meet one’s needs quite well. In any case, Livingston is addicted to the obvious when not to the formulaic: “We regularly confuse pleasure with happiness and are as a consequence drawn to people and pursuits that provide us with more of the former than the latter.” “Qualities that seem so important at one stage of our lives – physical attractiveness, the promise of excitement, social status – usually do not persist indefinitely. Some traits that do endure may not be so appealing in the long run, leading to disillusionment and confusion.” Stylistic flaws aside – and there are many of them – Livingston does have some plainspoken, sensible ideas about love and relationships. The best part of his book is the middle, in which he enumerates the virtues of “People to Cherish” by discussing the importance for lasting relationships of kindness, optimism, courage, loyalty, tolerance, honesty, beauty, humor, flexibility and intelligence. It may seem strange to find “beauty” in that list, but Livingston uses the word in a particular manner: “Beauty manifests itself in many ways apart from physical appearance. …[B]eauty exists at the intersection of the two great longings that dominate our lives: love and happiness.” The occasional thoughtful and thought-provoking comment in How to Love will make the book worthwhile for many readers, even though there is a great deal of dross to be discarded in order to find the nuggets of value.

     Of course, love and happiness are not the only longings in most people’s lives – food has to be somewhere in there, too, especially for people who say straightforwardly that they love to eat. Actress and comedienne Jenn Shagrin – who is also a vegan chef – is one of those, and it is to people like herself that she addresses Veganize This! The book, at its foundation a cookbook, is peppered throughout with humor, from the folksy to the faintly profane. At one point, Shagrin says that five years before writing the book, if she had been asked what she thought she would be doing in five years, she would have imagined herself “harvesting a flourishing marijuana farm in Northern California under the code name ‘Pimpstress of Mystery.’” She titles one extended chapter “Recipes Guaranteed to Get You Laid” and explains that “walking in the front door after a long day at work to find my beloved [her wife, Jane] preparing me a special meal is enough to make both my jaw and panties drop to the floor.” Shagrin calls herself “Jean Shaggy” and offers “Shaggy Kitchen Tips” along with recipes, in the “Get You Laid” chapter, for vegan Turkish pomegranate meatball soup, freeform wild mushroom lasagne with champagne-lemon cream sauce, vegan chicken marsala masala, and many more. Among other chapters are “Satisfying the Vegan Munchies” (green garlic gumbo, cheesy sweet onion and heirloom tomato pie, vegan spicy no-tuna sushi roll, etc.) and “Get Baked” (vegan Twinkies, her best-known recipe, plus vegan Belgian waffles, garlic French toast and others). The style of Shagrin’s book is more unusual than many of the recipes, and vegans who like the writing will be its most enthusiastic audience: “My mom’s [Green Bean Casserole] was the most ultimate food-coma-inducing, comfort-filled version ever. This stuff didn’t just stick to your ribs, it stuck to your heart.” Strip out the humor-laced writing and you have a series of well-thought-out, tasty recipes that committed vegans will likely enjoy and that, in at least some cases, will appeal to non-vegans as well.

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