Curmudgeonly Reader

Reading too much daily


August 2017

The Fast-5 Diet and the Fast-5 Lifestyle

The Fast-5 Diet and the Fast-5 Lifestyle, by Bert Herring

I didn’t want to do a write-up on this book until I’d tested it myself for 30 days. It seems like a fairly extreme step to take, but it turns out to be easier than I thought. I’ve personally added the plan to a (mostly) ketogenic approach to eating and it seems to be working well. “Fast-5” is basically a program where you restrict your eating time to five hours per day and fast for the remaining 19. It’s an intermittent fasting program similar in concept to 5:2 (which comes up quite a bit when you search for Fast-5) where you restrict your calorie intake for two days and eat normally the rest of the week.

I first ran across the concept in a TED Talk available on YouTube in which Herring lays out the general principles of the Fast-5 diet. Herring isn’t the most dynamic speaker in the world but he does lay out the principles of the program. Having read The Obesity Code around the same time, Herring’s approach seemed to fit with the notion that calorie restriction and exercise aren’t as important as eating in a way that will restrict spikes in insulin.

The intention of the eating plan is to allow your body the 12 hours it takes to clear glucose from the blood supply so that your liver will begin tapping the fat stores in your body to create ketones for energy.

The five-hour eating period can be set at any time of day. The book focuses on eating between 5:00 pm and 10:00 pm, which probably works well for anyone on a typical job schedule. I chose 10:00 am to 3:00 pm for myself, in part because I don’t like going to sleep full and partly because I live a weird lifestyle by myself.

The first three days were the most challenging. It seemed like I thought about nothing but food from about 7:00 pm. Based on information in The Obesity Code, I also cut myself off of my favorite “zero carb” energy drink and from using sucralose, aspartame, and stevia after learning that they will also spike one’s insulin count. As a result I started drinking things like club soda and mineral water (I’m a San Pellegrino fan) as well as coffee and tea. I’ll also drink ice water with a touch of lemon or lime juice. I found these eased the hunger pangs really well. The two weeks following were easier but for most of the evening my stomach sounded like cats fighting. A month later and sometimes I have to remind myself to eat at 10:00 am.

Herring’s book offers the basic plan and rationale. It also offers tips like the increased fluid intake and how to deal with things like business lunches. The book is only around 60 pages, so the $3.99 for Kindle edition seems a bit higher than it needs to be. There’s a paperback version as well, which might be preferable as something to highlight and add personal notes to. You can do that in Kindle, but it’s still a pain to dig them back out when you want them.

So far since January, and between Ketogenics and this Fast-5 plan, I’ve dropped 35 pounds. My last doctor visit indicated my A1c was down and, despite all my fat intake from Ketogenics, by HDL levels were up. (That’s the “good” cholesterol.)

It may not be for everyone but for me it’s convenient and a cost savings. I’m also starting to feel lighter when I walk, which was a major goal.



Mao’s Last Dancer

Mao’s Last Dancer, by Li Cunxin

Li Cunxin was born in a remote province of China at a time when Mao was in his final years of power and the Cultural Revolution was in full flower. Li gives devastating descriptions of peasant life during that time. He, his parents, and six brothers lived in a single room concrete building without electricity or running water and a hole for a toilet. They struggled for food daily, and yet tried to keep the basic traditions of Chinese life, including honoring ancestors, celebrating the lunar new year, and family loyalty.

In school he was indoctrinated into being a dedicated Maoist and enemy of capitalist dogs. It was at this school, an hour away from the nearest railway station, that a group of officials entered and selected Li and a classmate to go to the principal’s office. There he was measured and stretched. It’s a sign of his later success that while other children screamed in pain he refused to make a noise, even though the stretches tore both hamstrings. After he passed several other examinations he was chosen to be a student at the Chinese Ballet in Beijing.

Li describes his school years far away from home, where he could barely understand students from other provinces. Madame Mao, an actress before she married Mao Zedong, wanted to create a unique type of ballet that would celebrate the revolutionary struggle and reflect the glory of Maoist China. It was after the death of Mao, and the arrest and prosecution of Madame Mao as one of the “Gang of Four”, that the teachers in the school were allowed to bring in tapes of true ballet done without PLA uniforms and fake rifles. The atmosphere at the school began to change.

Li’s falling in love with western ballet, his inspiration to be as great a dancer as Baryshnikov and Nureyev, and his personal drive make an inspiring story on their own. While other students would practice two or three times a day, Li pushed himself through five daily practice sessions, doing so many attempted pirouettes that he created a dent in the wooden rehearsal floor.

Eventually, under more lenient Chinese rule, he was allowed to travel to Houston to  study western dance. On a second year-long visa he fell in love with another dancer and decided to defect. There is a harrowing section describing his being kept prisoner at the Chinese embassy, an event that caused worldwide headlines, until the Chinese finally decided to release him with some pressure from former ambassador to China and Vice President George Bush.

It’s one of the most unintentionally inspiring memoirs I’ve read. Li was coaxed by loving parents, along with a few more lenient and supportive teachers, to eventually become one of the foremost dancers of his time. His own determination to perfect his art and the stories told by mentors to help him succeed were keys to his growth. He was eventually praised by his home country as an icon of Chinese dance and was allowed to bring his parents for visits and even to visit the country with his second wife.

It’s also an inspiring book for its descriptions of family life and the making of lifelong friendships. It is book I’d recommend to anyone interested in growing in the arts or any other career.



The Refugees

The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Nguyen’s The Sympathizer was one of the best books I read last year. A Pulitzer winner for best fiction it dealt with, among other things, a wonderful takeoff of a Vietnamese consultant working on a film suspiciously like Apocalypse Now.

This book contains eight short stories on the experience of Vietnamese refugees following  the fall of Saigon in 1975. The evacuation didn’t save many of the poor. The rescue involved mostly Vietnamese officers and upper level bureaucrats in the government. They landed in cities like Los Angeles and tried to build new lives. These are generally the people portrayed in the collection, though there is one tragic story about a young girl’s experience in trying to flee the country by boat with the help of pirates working the South China Sea.

The stories are of people trying to adjust to life in the US, a culture extraordinarily different from the life in Vietnam. Some are just trying to get by and forget the past. Others are sure that a force can be put together to invade the country and take it back from the communist government, a dream not unlike one that lured the Cuban community in Florida for most of the 1960s forward.

One story deals with a man now separated from his American wife who invites his rigid and distant military father to move in with him. A family trying to run an Asian market risks earning a reputation as communist sympathizers if they don’t give money for a military group planning on invading Vietnam, a move that could rob them of all their Vietnamese customers. Another story deals with a refugee housed by a gay couple in San Francisco.

The stories are poignant, funny, and sometimes painful. At the beginning of the book Nguyen quotes James Fenton’s “German Requiem”:

It is not your memories which haunt you.
It is not what you have written down.
It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.
What you must go on forgetting all your life.

It’s a book that focuses on the pain of losing the past, of a horrendous war, and an adopted country that resists assimilation. Nguyen has the ability to write the painful and strange in a way that compels the reader to dig in to the end.



Xenogenesis Trilogy

Xenogenesis Trilogy, by Octavia E. Butler

The Xenogenesis Trilogy was published between 1987 and 1989. It is also published these days under the title Lilith’s Brood which is asinine, would have been hated by Butler, and is clearly the machination of some asshat in marketing somewhere.

The overall arc of the trilogy is that after a massive and destructive war an alien species collected as many living humans as possible. The aliens are called the Oankali, a species with three sexes (male, female, and neuter). They think of themselves as traders, but not in the normal sense. The Oankali travel from planet to planet exchanging genes with the dominant sentient species.


The first of the Xenogenesis trilogy opens with the voice of Lilith, a woman who wakes up in a cell with no doors or windows. She can’t see her captors. Food appears daily and a disembodied voice asks questions. She sleeps and wakes, trying to keep herself sane by remembering books and movies. Because of the recent war she suspects that her captors are from the Soviet Union (which had not broken up when these books were written).

Eventually she’s allowed to see the strange Oankali. Covered with tendrils rather than hair, their senses come through their skin, they have four arms, two for holding and two for reproduction. Lilith is told that she is the first to be wakened and that she had been in the cell for 250 years. The Oankali want her to choose other humans to train for survival in the Amazon rain forest, one of the least damaged areas from the war, in order to begin repopulating the earth.

The book’s strongest moments come from the interactions of the various men and women brought back from hibernation, having to live first in a large cell and then going out to a shipboard reproduction of the Amazon. Many of the prisoners remain convinced almost to the end that there are no aliens, that they’re not on a ship orbiting beyond the moon, and that this is some type of Soviet brainwashing program.

Lilith is an amazingly strong character, morally and emotionally. The Oankali are some of the most interesting aliens in any science fiction. The neuter sex are the Ooloi. Their primary function is to collect cells and study DNA in order to add new genetic enhancements to the race. They do this by penetrating life forms and extracting single cells which they can “taste” and examine in minute detail in an almost psychic way. They bond with the population with whom they are going to “trade” until that planet is dominated by a human/Oankali mix, which will then create a new biological vessel to travel to the next world.

Lilith and the Oankali have the most trouble in bringing male humans back to life. The Oankali themselves did not evolve from a hierarchical species, and they have problems dealing with the violence and competitiveness that seems to erupt from the testosterone-rich half of the human race.

Eventually Lilith and one of the males bonds with an Ooloi, a process in which the Ooloi uses feelers to probe the humans and give both ecstatic pleasure. It is also how Lilith will come to give birth to several children who carry Oankali-enhanced genes.

Adulthood Rites

Years after Dawn humans and Oankali have begun to populate the earth. There are, however, humans who are violently opposed to this genetic invasion of earth. Those children born from human/Oankali breeding are called “constructs”. They appear human but, as they mature, they become one of the Oankali hybrids maintaining some human features but also growing tendrils for Oankali senses. They are always male or female. The Oankali are afraid to breed an Ooloi construct because they have so much potential to cause damage.

Humans have been sterilized so that they can’t breed on their own without an Ooloi. Many of these escape into the jungles creating “resister” villages. However, the desire for children is so great that raiding parties will often steal construct children and try to raise them as if they were fully human.

The book is narrated by Akin, more human than most of the constructs though able to talk clearly before he can walk and having a full memory from his time in the womb forward. He is kidnapped by a trio of men hoping to trade him for food and women. He eventually is adopted by a family where he stays for several years.

Akin can see both sides, clear that the Oankali are determined to make the earth their own until they are able to travel to another planet, but also clear that the humans who want it should be allowed to migrate to Mars and breed again. Eventually the Oankali agree. They make Mars habitable and begin transporting volunteers to the new planet.


The final book moves forward again several years, described by Jodahs, the first human to grow into an Ooloi. He and another young Oankali Ooloi go through the devastating feelings Ooloi experience until they can find human partners. They find a small village that was, somehow, missed by the Oankali. They have been breeding for generations but often inbreeding for lack of other mates. One of the results is a genetic tumor that can disfigure faces and bodies, things that Ooloi can heal through their ability to manipulate individual genes. This is where the two Ooloi will find their mating partners.


I’ve become quite the Butler fan lately. She was writing at a time when I was too busy with career and family to do all the reading I wanted. As it is I zoomed through these three books over a weekend and loved every minute.

All of her books are multi-layered and written with an enviable prose style. As has been said before, science fiction looks at the future to describe the present. Butler is taking on the devastation of nuclear war, the human taste for violence, racial conflicts, male domination, and the human ability to suffer for an ideal. Unlike, say, an Animal Farm Butler doesn’t preach, but she does show the consequences of some behaviors and thought patterns from her unique perspective. She was unique among science fiction writers and left us way too soon.


Verbal Judo

Verbal Judo, Updated Edition: The Gentle Art of Persuasion, by George J. Thompson, PhD

The late George J. Thompson (died 2011) trained in judo and aikido before becoming a police officer in his early 30s. In that career he noticed that some of the police he worked with seemed to have a natural talent for defusing conflicts and calming people under stress. It was something that didn’t come naturally to him, so he began to analyze what those good communicators were doing and started seeing a similarity to between their verbal styles and Judo (“the gentle way”) and Aikido (“unifying spirit way”). From that he developed five universal truths:

  1. All people want to be treated with dignity and respect.
  2. All people want to be asked rather than being told to do something.
  3. All people want to know why they are being asked to do something.
  4. All people want to be given options rather than threats.
  5. All people want a second chance when they make a mistake.

Thompson took his verbal judo classes around the country to various police forces for training. He notes that he was scheduled to train police in Los Angeles the week after the Rodney King beating, and wonders whether that situation would have been handled differently.

In this book Thompson expands on the ideas for other areas of people’s lives. He has chapters on parenting, managing, marriage, and other areas in which you need to make your feelings known, have priorities, and want to communicate with others without escalating conflict. This isn’t manipulation. Rather it involves empathy. It’s trying to understand what others are trying to communicate, making sure you understand, and then speaking back to those people in a way that honors their needs.

Thompson uses interactions with his own son and wife. He also offers plenty of examples of using it in life-or-death situation while he was a policeman to show that if the techniques will work there that they can work in areas where there’s less at stake.

It’s written in a conversational style, with real world examples and tips for controlling your own emotions when you feel verbally attacked. With or without the book, the “five universal truths” should be on every office wall, teacher’s desk, and home refrigerator as a regular reminder.


Mona Lisa Overdrive

Mona Lisa Overdrive (Sprawl Trilogy, Book 3), by William Gibson

A teen prostitute named Mona could be the twin of simstim star Angela Mitchell. Kumiko, daughter of a Yakuza boss, is shuffled off to the protection of the London mob while her father deals with a gang war, and there she meets Molly Millions in hiding and using the name Sally Shears. Angela Mitchell, altered by her father to be able to enter cyberspace without having to jack in is the subject of an abduction plot, replacing her with Mona. Bobby Newmark is in a coma. Called Count, he’s permanently jacked into a massive hard drive that can hold an entire human personality. A car thief named Slick Harry is hired to take care of him.

This is the general weave of the last book of the Sprawl Trilogy, the most eloquent and humane of the three. Its ending also makes it feel the most optimistic in the trilogy as well.

Written in 1988 the book foresaw an addictive cyber landscape in which people could plug their minds directly into cyberspace while the Internet was still largely a science and military tool and years before World Wide Web was named.

Like his world, these books drop you into their universe with no time for explanations or backgrounding. The characters are there, they’re living their lives, you get to go along for the ride without having stops for physics lessons. They are subversively modern and a dystopian world in which none of the characters are aware they live in dystopia.

Like the other two in the series, Mona Lisa Overdrive is a push forward from earlier writers like Delany, Jeter, and LeGuin building an earthbound future that feels completely real and human.



On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service

On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service (A Royal Spyness Mystery), by Rhys Bowen

The Royal Spyness series features Lady Georgiana Rannoch, 35th in line for the British throne and engaged to an Irish-born spy for the British named Darcy Kilhenny.

It’s 1935 and Darcy is off on an assignment. Because Georgiana is in the line of succession she has been a bit late in asking Queen Consort Mary (wife of Edward V) for permission to marry Darcy. He’s Catholic and it’s illegal for a Catholic to take the British crown. She receives a letter routed through her brother in Italy from Mary asking her to meet with the Queen.

It turns out that Mary has more than Georgiana’s wedding on her mind. Her son Edward the Prince of Wales has been traveling in Italy with “that woman” Wallace Simpson. The queen has learned that Edward will be attending a party in Italy and she’s concerned that Mrs. Simpson may manage to arrange a divorce from her husband and elope with the prince. She wants to send Georgina on a trip to Lake Como on the Swiss/Italian border to keep on eye on things.

Lucky coincidences. Georgina is far from the richest royal. She’s been wanting to go to Lake Como to visit a friend from school who is single and pregnant and who has been writing from Lake Como begging for a visit, a trip that would have stretched Georgina’s already thin budget. Also, the party is being held at the villa of another school friend who married well.

Georgina makes the trip. When she gets there she learns that Prince Edward is meeting with some German officials and that Darcy is working undercover as a gardener at the villa. She also learns that her former actress mother is attending the same party, and unusually pours on the motherly love in hopes Georgina will help her with a bit of a blackmail problem. When one of the guests at the party is found dead in a locked room all of Georgina’s other plans have to be set aside.

The historical thread regarding the Prince of Wales is historically accurate. He was dating Mrs. Simpson, much to the consternation of most of England, and did have some fascist sympathies. He would take the crown in 1936 but would abdicate in less than a year to marry newly divorced Simpson.

This is a lighthearted book about being royal on a budget while solving a mystery. It’s filled with model characters with British, German, and Italian backgrounds. Georgina is also a sexual innocent in a world of leering counts and much less innocent friends. It has the feel of Agatha Christie books set in foreign locations with oddball English travelers and unusual foreigners. The humor is rich and the whole book was a fun read.



The Drunkard’s Walk

The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, by Leonard Mlodinow

I confess to math envy. I can understand general concepts and ideas if they’re presented in verbal form. Show me a page full of numbers and  mathematical symbols and my brain freezes up like a sprinkler at the North Pole. That’s why I find books like this one so helpful. Maybe it’s not helpful, since I can finish a book like this and have no less arithmophobia than when I started, but at least I can wrap my head around the concept.

“The drunkard’s walk” is a phrase that came into use in the 1930s to describe random occurrences, everything from throwing dice to the movement of molecules through water. Those and dozens of other concepts you need to deal with daily are covered in the book, some of which are too close to life or death to trust to intuition.

Mlodinow has a friendly and easy approach to these and other instances of making sense of numbers and statistics in order to make better decisions in our lives. With this he gradually draws us through a history of mathematics and thoughts about randomness from the ancient Greeks, through the invention of basics like plus and minus signs, through quantum mathematics and string theory. Even for this aging English major the trip was easy and pleasant.

Among the ideas talked about include making the best decisions on Let’s Make a Deal when you’re confronted with three doors. You’ll also learn whether to add or multiply variables when deciding on a roll of the dice or other random event, as well as the dangers of “the gambler’s fallacy”, which applies as much to investing as it does to gambling. The author also touches on polling and voting, explaining the “margin of error”. He even teaches how to understand what doctors and lawyers are saying or hiding when they use statistics. Doctors for medical and pharmaceutical statistics, lawyers for probabilities on things like DNA and crime statistics.

The book has now been out just short of 10 years. It’s still useful and informative with few examples to tax your memory for things that happened a decade ago. The book is still available in new and used paper and hard editions, Kindle, and audio editions.



Exposed: A Rosato & DiNunzio Novel, by Lisa Scottoline

This is the fifth book from Scottoline built around the Philadelphia law partnership of Bennie Rosato and Mary DiNunzio, which in turn grew out of her popular Rosato & Associates series.

Mary DiNunzio was made partner in the firm a few books ago. She comes from the Italian section of Philadelphia and has built a large client base from her connections with old neighbors and friends. In this novel a long-time friend Simon has been fired from his job. He was recently widowed and now has a five-year-old daughter receiving expensive cancer treatments. He believes he was fired because of the increasing insurance costs. Mary agrees to take the case at no charge.

Bennie Rosato, meanwhile, sees an immediate conflict of interest because Simon was fired from a subsidiary of one of her oldest and biggest clients. This puts Bennie and Mary at loggerheads. Mary because she promised she’d take the case in front of her father and other old friends. Bennie because she’s been friends with the owner of the corporation since law school.

It’s an issue that may split them apart, even after they agree to work together when a key witness ends up dead and Simon is accused of the murder.

Scottoline has honed the relationship between Bennie and Mary to a fine point, and Mary’s best friend Judy has to act as referee. Even when the conversations focus on legal details the dialogue is fast, funny, and often touching. There are plenty of legal details, including suing for discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the arcane language that legal ethics rules are written in. After all this time, however, Scottoline knows to focus on characters and drama, and there are plenty of both.



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