July 24, 2014


Choosing Raw: Making Raw Foods Part of the Way You Eat. By Gena Hamshaw. Da Capo. $19.99.

Does This Plug into That? Simplify Your Electronic Life. By Eric Taub. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

     As life continues to get more complicated – which seems to occur every day, if not every hour – books that can simplify it are more welcome than ever. Nutritionist Gena Hamshaw’s Choosing Raw is intended to simplify decision-making for people who want to include more raw foods in their diets – without being fanatical about it. That is a welcome approach: Hamshaw says forthrightly that she is “not a raw foodist” and therefore does not insist only on “foods that haven’t been heated above a certain temperature (105°-115°).” She likes stir-fries, roasted vegetables and cooked grains, and at times eats less than 75% raw food – especially when traveling or eating out. Hamshaw thus makes an unusually sensible guide to one of those approaches to food that can all too easily descend into perfectionism and fanaticism. “I want you to approach raw foods as a choice,” she writes, adding that there are two basic reasons for making that choice: health, “the ways in which plant foods might benefit your body and help to protect you from chronic disease,” and compassion, “respect for our animal neighbors and an effort to tread lightly on mother earth.” This will still be too New Age-y and touchy-feely for many readers, but it is at least within the realm of possibility that people wondering what is involved in increasing their intake of raw food will be willing to listen to Hamshaw’s comparatively reasonable advocacy – although it is worth pointing out that she is a dedicated vegan and says that “animal rights are the defining feature of my relationship with veganism.” In any case, it is possible, and for non-vegans even desirable, to skip over Hamshaw’s opening advocacy chapters and start to explore one’s interest in raw foods in the chapters featuring “Frequently Asked Questions” and “Myths and Misconceptions.” The latter, for example, says it is a myth that vegan diets are expensive and hard to maintain – “veganism is what you make of it.” The issue of “raw diet” and “vegan diet” tends to blur and blend as the book goes on, but at least Hamshaw often makes comments such as, “This section will help you ease into vegan and raw foods,” repeatedly reminding readers that they are two (somewhat) separate things and that her purpose is to help non-vegan, non-raw-food eaters explore vegan and raw diets and (she hopes) convert to them. The practical side of this involves explaining what foods and ingredients to have on hand at all times (from agave nectar, amaranth and avocado oil to young Thai coconut); how to plan meals 21 days at a time; and what recipes to try – there are 125 of them here, from “basic massaged kale salad” and “no-bake sunflower oat bars” to “toasted pumpkin granola with homemade hemp milk” and “heat-free lentil and walnut tacos,” and many more. Hamshaw arranges recipes in three levels, from easiest to most challenging, so readers who want to experiment with raw and vegan foods can start with some simpler dishes and move into more-complex ones if they wish. What they will or will not wish will be entirely a personal matter: Hamshaw’s “tread lightly” arguments are unlikely to convince anyone not already supporting them, and her health-related ones, although reasonably solid, are by no means universally accepted. But for people already thinking about eating more raw foods – for whatever reason – Choosing Raw can be a reasonable place to get more information on how, if not why, to move into the raw-food arena.

     And speaking of simplicity: whatever you choose to eat, it is likely that you choose to use a considerable amount of technology. Maybe “choose” is not even the right word: food types are a choice, but technology use is much less so (even the famously technologically averse Amish are now using  cell phones). Technology consultant Eric Taub offers to simplify everyone’s tech life in his short (170-page), easy-to-read Does This Plug into That? And he does in fact labor mightily to clarify and simplify, although he is hampered by a couple of things. One is that technology changes so quickly that some elements of his book are already outdated, and others will soon be. Another is that Taub has a distinct point of view that is not revealed unless you enjoy reading notes (it is the very first note, but on page 165): “If you want an unbiased guide to consumer electronics, this is not the book. I have many opinions (e.g., that Apple’s products are generally better than the competition’s) gleaned over years of writing about technology.” Well, that certainly limits the book’s usefulness. To cite just one example: Apple’s business model involves getting users of its equipment to stampede to stores and replace every iteration of technology with a newer one every year or two – cletely ignoring the environmental impact of discarding so much perfectly good technology for technology that is often only marginally better, and sometimes not even that. And another part of the business model involves locking Apple users into proprietary, carefully managed, tightly controlled Apple-only offerings, from apps to power cords – stifling competition and allowing Apple to jack up prices and boost its profits. There is nothing wrong with any of this – a company’s strategy is its provenance, and there are plenty of alternatives for people who do not like it. But Taub’s admitted bias prevents him from even discussing these downsides of Apple products – and that can be a significant negative for people who are already confused enough by technology to need Does This Plug into That? That caveat aside – and it is a big one, but not big enough to invalidate much of what Taub says – the book has a lot of solid, basic information that can be helpful to anyone who finds modern technology at best confusing, at worst genuinely burdensome. For example, he explains what Dolby Digital and DTS are; why speaker bars work, and how they can be placed in the front of a room to simulate sounds as if they come from all around; why plasma televisions are better than LCD sets for viewing in normally lit rooms; how to find things on your computer (separate instructions for Macs and PCs running Windows 7 or 8); how to set up a DVR; why you may not want to give up your landline for a cell phone; how to call overseas inexpensively; why you might want a tablet – and why you might not; and much more. The book is a grab-bag, and because it is one, it omits some major technology issues. For instance, in discussing tablets, Taub looks exclusively at their pluses and minuses for consuming information (watching movies and TV while traveling is one plus; comparative lack of software is one minus). But Taub never deals with doing anything creative, such as writing papers or reports – something that is far harder on tablets than on traditional computers. This is a major negative for anyone who, whether traveling or not, needs or wants to make some sort of contribution to the information flow; yet it passes unnoticed in Does This Plug into That? Still, there is enough plain-spokenness here, about enough subjects, with enough specificity, to make the book valuable – at least as a starting point – for people who simply feel overwhelmed by computers, printers, TVs, cell phones and other ubiquitous examples of our increasingly technological society.

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