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A book about the good news and the bad news

bookTwenty-five years ago, a pediatrician told my sister that eggs were unhealthy and that she must never serve them to her children. Now nutritionists call eggs one of the perfect foods. Twenty years ago some health experts decried the consumption of coffee, claiming that it was a killer. Today numerous people laud the health benefits of this beverage. Educators have traditionally touted the benefits of homework, yet new studies claim that homework can cause burnout in students and exhaustion in parents.

In The Good News About What’s Bad For You/The Bad News About What’s Good For You (Flatiron Books, 2015, 316 pages), Brooklyn-based writer Jeff Wilser attacks what he describes as myths regarding food, drink, physical fitness, work and lifestyle. (Note to readers: My book reviews are supposed to run around 850 words. Sorely tempted as I am to use Wilson’s title in full toward a word count, I will refer to the book as Good News/Bad News.)

Good News/Bad News is a gold mine of information, various studies and statistics. From The Good News About What’s Bad For You some readers will be delighted, and some appalled, to learn that bourbon may be better for our health than a glass of red wine, that fidgeting has positive mental and physical benefits (I need to keep this one in mind in regard to my younger students), that pot, video games, web surfing, and even porn may be good for us. 

The Bad News About What’s Good For You is equally controversial and equally amusing. Annual physicals may bring no benefit whatsoever. We don’t need to overdo our consumption of water, but should instead drink it “when we feel thirsty.” Many fruit juices have more calories than Coke. Students will be glad to hear that too much homework of a certain kind actually diminishes learning, while foodies may be disappointed to find that “we don’t have definite evidence that eating organic improves human health.” Watching too much news “is toxic to your body” while multi-tasking “may take a long-term toll on your brain.”

Behind all the facts, figures, conjecture and discussions with experts is Wilser’s word of wisdom for us all: moderation. Bourbon is good for you but not if you end up every evening trying to take your trousers off over your head. Homework can benefit students if it brings excitement and creativity to what they learned in the classroom. Everything in moderation: the ancient Greeks preached this idea, and so does Wilser.

One of his most hilarious examples of this moderation has to do with MacDonald’s. He first brings up the “Super Size M”e movie. As he says, “the dude ate the equivalent of ten Big Macs a day.” No wonder he gained weight.

But Wilser then points out that in 2014, a science teacher, John Cisna, went on a MacDonald’s diet. The difference between his experiment and “Super Size Me” was that Cisna limited himself to 2000 calories per day. “For six months he ate nothing but MacDonald’s.”

At the end of his experiment Cisna had lost 61 pounds, and his cholesterol had dropped from 249 to 190. He went on to write My MacDonald’s Diet.

As Wilser writes, “MacDonald’s is not a miracle diet. MacDonald’s is not the reason we’re fat. MacDonald’s is just food. Some good, some bad. What we do with it is up to us.”

Moderation and personal responsibility: that’s the ticket to good health.

•••

Another treat of a book is Bethanne Patrick’s The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections By 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians, And Other Remarkable People (Regan Arts, 2016, 294 pages, $24.95).  Patrick, whose reviews and essays have appeared in many magazines and online publications, and who is the author of two other books, explains in her “Introduction” how Shusaku Endo’s Silence changed her own life. After reading this book, and after ecstatically describing it to a friend who told her she should study literature, Patrick switched from pre-law to literature. This experience eventually led her to interview others about the effects of literature on their own lives.

Like Wilser’s Good News/Bad News, Patrick’s collection is a “dipper” book, one that most readers will plunge into here and there rather than read straight through. I confess that at least half of the artists, maybe more, were unfamiliar to me, so reading the mini-bios at the end of each short essay was enlivening and educational.

But I was familiar with nearly all of the books mentioned and was pleasantly surprised that so many contributors selected what we regard as “classics” for the book that had changed their lives. David Copperfield, The Odyssey, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Great Gatsby, Animal Farm, and many more: these old books still touch the hearts and souls of readers.

Second-tier books also brought recognition and appreciation. David McCullough’s John Adams, Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie (this one was chosen by Rosanne Cash, Johnny Cash’s oldest daughter and like her father a singer-songwriter): reading the essays about these and other books brought back my own moments of pleasure when reading these works.

A fine collection.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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