August 01, 2013


You Are Now Less Dumb. By David McRaney. Gotham Books. $22.50.

Vegan for Her: The Woman’s Guide to Being Healthy and Fit on a Plant-Based Diet. By Virginia Messina, M.P.H., R.D., with J.L. Fields. Da Capo. $16.99.

     One of the most fascinating books about human psychology was written long before there was such a field as human psychology. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, by Charles Mackay, appeared in 1841 and is every bit as intriguing today as it was in the mid-19th century, more than 50 years before Freud’s pioneering discoveries about how our minds work. To this day, writers continue trying to address the matters explored in Mackay’s third section, “Philosophical Delusions,” even though the definition of “philosophical” has changed somewhat and even though Mackay’s rather sensationalized presentation would be beneath the dignity of people such as journalist and self-professed “psychology nerd” David McRaney. In You Are Now Less Dumb, a followup to You Are Not So Smart, McRaney sets out to puncture a series of self-delusions and by so doing to show, as the book’s subtitle has it, “How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself.” The book, it must be said at the outset, is hard to read: rather small type, broken up by nothing at all, just page after page of grey, grey, grey. True, the presentation is more soporific than the material presented. However, McRaney is not always sure how to address readers. On one page, he writes, “Primates like you survive and thrive because you stick together and form groups, keeping up with those prickly social variables such as status and alliance, temperament and skill, political affiliation and sexual disposition, to prevent ostracism.” A page later, his tone is: “So, looking back on all this, what about the nutty propositions put forth by Freud?” A paragraph after that, he is discussing a study of prisoner paroles. Yes, the material is connected, but some of the connections are on the tenuous side, and McRaney spins out a lot of his commentary at greater length than necessary. Still, some of the information here is interesting, although scarcely new. “The Sunk Cost Fallacy” addresses our tendency to do things we do not enjoy because we think that will somehow make already-invested time, effort or money worthwhile; McRaney cites the FarmVille game as an example of something that sucks players in and makes them feel they have wasted their efforts if they do not keep playing. This is a perversion – perhaps the better, neutral word is “extension” – of the human tendency to “stay the course,” which is a good thing when not overdone. How to conquer this fallacy? McRaney does not say. Then there is “The Backfire Effect,” in which evidence contradicting your strongly held beliefs fails to undermine them – in fact, it makes them stronger. What to do? McRaney comments, “It requires real changes in the physiology of your brain to accept new information demanding that you see the world in a new way.” Thanks for that! Again and again, McRaney does a far better descriptive than prescriptive job, and in fact there is little truth to the book’s subtitle, since McRaney spends far more time showing all the ways our thinking and feeling processes misfire than he does pointing out ways to correct them. In all fairness, the skewed and illogical way we approach much of life is no easy thing to change – this is one thing that keeps psychoanalysts, whether Freudian or not, in business. But it is hard to escape the notion that McRaney could be more helpful than he is, or at least try somewhat harder. Mackay – who, by the way, was a journalist, as McRaney is – never pretended to be doing more than exploring popular follies through the centuries and into his own time. McRaney promises more by offering to show us where we go wrong and what we can do about it. Unfortunately, he delivers less – considerably less if you count the fact that the design of the book is really subpar, making it more of a chore to wade through than it ought to be.

     Vegan for Her is certainly easier to read, but the question here is who wants to read it. The vegan eating style – which Virginia Messina and J.L. Fields correctly point out is really an entire lifestyle – is a limited-interest area in the first place, and this book specifically targets only women who have an interest in it. Call it a niche within a niche. The early part of the book is actually applicable to anyone interested in becoming a vegan, although it tends to be blasé about things that non-vegans may regard as less than simple – the bland recommendation to “learn to love legumes,” for example, and the description of becoming a vegan as “an easy transition.” The authors do make an effort to have their prescriptions be as simple to see and follow as possible. For instance, there is a “Plant Plate” rather than the traditional food pyramid, and there is useful information on serving sizes, indicating not only what you should eat but also how much of it. The second part of the book begins the focus specifically on women, discussing the diet/hormone relationship at various stages of a woman’s life, issues of birth control and fertility enhancement, vegan eating during pregnancy and breastfeeding, and so on. As always in advocacy books like this one, there is an assumption that readers have plenty of time to implement what the authors suggest. For example, there is a listing of six elements of the Plant Plate for pregnant women, each element being a different number of servings, and then there is a note, “Don’t forget to make sure that at least six of those servings are calcium-rich foods from the rim of the plate.” Dedicated vegans, like people devoted to any other niche system or belief, will be fine with the details here, but those just coming to or considering vegan life may find some of the book rather daunting. Still, the sample menus are clear, and they are nicely varied to target women under different circumstances – pregnant women, vegan athletes, those interested in “MediterrAsian menus,” and so forth. Messina and Fields also discuss vegan eating and breast cancer, skewing their comments in the direction of their beliefs: “The relationship of diet to breast cancer isn’t entirely clear, but the evidence that certain plant foods reduce risk – and that some animals foods raise it – is considerable, despite the fact that there are some real challenges in uncovering links between diet and cancer.” And, a bit later and more generally, “there is evidence that diet might have varying effects depending on the type of tumor,” which is really quite obvious. The point, of course, is to argue that vegan eating is better even if there is no strong evidence for its specific efficacy. So there are chapters on controlling pain, combating diabetes, managing stress and depression, and more – all within a vegan framework, and hedged with a lot of “might” and “could” statements. Readers already convinced to go vegan will find the arguments much more persuasive than will ones who are less certain of what they want to do. The book’s final section is one of the must-have elements in writing about food: recipes. Women not already committed to the vegan lifestyle may find the ease or difficulty of food preparation a significant factor in their decision-making and perhaps the determining one. If you are one of those, look  carefully at the ingredient lists as well as the preparation instructions for such dishes as soy curl cacciatore, portobello mushroom and barley soup, quinoa daiya burger, black-eyed pea and collard green pizza, coconut-gingered black bean brownies, and the rest, to decide just how appealing the food seems to be and how comfortable you will be preparing as well as eating it. Vegan for Her is not particularly persuasive in advocating the vegan lifestyle for women, but women who are already considering becoming vegans will find considerable support for their decision here, as well as practical recommendations on how to adapt the vegan approach to various stages of their lives.

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