Book Reviews · diets

Two books about what celebrities eat and why

1. Rebecca Harrington, I’ll Have What She’s Having: My Adventures in Celebrity Dieting

You can read about it here:

Listen to her read from the book here.



2. Timothy Caulfield, Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash

You can read about it here:

Listen to Caulfield interviewed on the CBC here.

And we reviewed Caulfield’s previous book here.


Book Reviews

Review of A Life without Limits

life without limitsConsidering how much I love triathlon and how little I feel drawn to ultra trail running you’d think that I’d be much more excited about Chrissie Wellington’s A Life without Limits: A World Champion’s Journey than I am about Vanessa Runs’ The Summit Seeker

But no.  In every respect, The Summit Seeker  is a superior memoir. Captivating, with universal appeal and a compelling and attractive narrator who, as a reader, you care about, The Summit Seeker is a fine example of first rate first-person narrative non-fiction.  You don’t need to be interested in or even care about ultra running to get drawn into the book.

A Life without Limits is the opposite.  It’s only because of my interest in triathlon, and perhaps also because some of the story takes place in the little known Swiss mountain village of Leysin where I spent a good chunk of time as a teen, that I persevered through Chrissie Wellington’s book about her journey to becoming the women’s Ironman world champion.

The book proves what I learned as a creative writing student and what I tell my own students when I teach “The Art of the Personal Essay”:  a great life story doesn’t guarantee a great book.  You need to be able to write it. You need to be able to deliver more than a series of anecdotes (the “situation,” in Vivian Gornick’s terms) and instead tell the story — that’s the narrator’s inner journey, where she struggled, what her moment of epiphany was, and how it changed her, and how she (not just the external circumstances of her life) was different after that change.

That’s the personal narrative author’s most important skill and greatest challenge. It’s not a great surprise that writing is not Chrissie Wellington’s strength.  Why should it be? She’s a professional Ironman triathlete.  It’s amazing that she had the time and perseverance to write and complete the memoir at all!

There is no denying her athletic greatness. Chrissie Wellington is an exceptional triathlete whose record-breaking accomplishments and fast rise to the top in the Ironman distance have garnered her well-deserved accolades. But for me, her book was an endurance challenge all on its own.

I felt myself wishing for the end, as I do on one of those runs when I check my Garmin all too frequently, more often than not disappointed at what it’s telling me in terms of distance-to-go, pace, and time-to-the-next-walk break.  As I read, I jumped ahead for the interesting bits, and even then struggled to read them objectively because I found myself irritated with the narrator’s character and voice. It drags a lot in the first half, talking about her life before she become a professional triathlete, from childhood, through her teens.  Again, I would have liked to see how that feeds into the overall story of who she is, but I for one had difficulty picking up that thread and holding onto it.

The book has its moments.  She is a wealth of information about what it takes to train for triathlon at the professional level. It’s brutal and demanding. As even amateur age-group athletes know, any kind of commitment to endurance sport requires mental toughness as well as physical stamina.  Chrissie tells this story well. The most absorbing chapter is entitled, “The Triathlete’s Life.” Here she gives insight into the day to day of a professional triathlete, not something most of us know anything about.

I wish I loved the book because, as I explained in yesterday’s review of The Summit Seeker, the stories of strong women competitors are few and far between, not nearly as available as the stories of men.  All this goes to say that I was positively disposed to liking the book.  And I tried. But it’s full of clichés (e.g. “the end of my tether,” “the end it nigh,” “all hell breaks loose,”–none damning in itself, but this tired and uncreative language litters every chapter; a better writer would, upon revision, reach deeper for more impact). Not only that, the narrative voice lacks humility. Maybe it’s hard to be humble when you’re a several time Ironman world champion. And extra-hard when the whole reason your book has an audience is that you’re writing about your experience of becoming that world champion.

But if I’ve learned anything about good first person writing, it’s that the narrator has to be likeable.  That is, she has to come across as sympathetic, someone you’d enjoy sitting down with for a long and leisurely lunch (not just to pick their brain about something they’re expert in, but to engage in reciprocal and satisfying conversation). Chrissie may well be a charming and generous person in reality, but the narrative persona she adopts for this book is kind of off-putting and narcissistic.  Of course it’s a challenge to talk about yourself for pages and pages, as a first person account requires, and not be narcissistic about it.  Again, it takes a certain kind of skill, and who can fault Chrissie for developing (to great success) her other talents?

I won’t go into the book’s shortcomings in great detail. It contains some good information about triathlon training and the experience of doing Ironman triathlons, including the World Championship in Kona. It gives us some insight into her life, her relationships with coaches, other competitors, family (who support her wonderfully), and (eventually) her life partner, Tom.  As a memoir, it’s not the best example of a good, gripping life story out there, but it does have these other things to recommend it if your primary interest is to learn about the life of a professional triathlete rather than to read a great book.

And I have to say that as I began to write this review, I started to reflect on whether I would have the same feelings concerning a man who adopted a self-congratulatory and supremely confident tone towards his own achievements as a professional athlete?  We expect it of men (for better or worse), but not of women (who are socialized to be more self-effacing, gracious, and other-regarding). I spend all sorts of my professional life talking about why that set of expectations is sexist and unfair. Did I give her credit not just for her accomplishments, but also for the recognition of others?  One thing I can say is that while she doesn’t present the most gracious attitude towards her peers, she has a lovely section about her triathlon heroes.

Like Vanessa Runs, Chrissie’s heroes are not the elite athletes who are her actual rivals. Rather, they are the people who endure the Ironman against all odds. Like Rudy Garcia Tolson, a double-above-knee amputee and Sister Madonna Buder, who started training at age 48 (I love that, since that’s about when I started my triathlon journey!) and has since completed over 300 triathlons.  You also have to admire Chrissie’s commitment to staying on site until the last competitors cross the finish line. For someone who came in first in such a long and demanding event, that’s quite a wait and says something about her attitude. I would have liked to see more of this side of her in the book.

I know from the Amazon reviews that lots of people liked A Life without Limits, liked Chrissie, and recommend it with a full set of five stars. For me, it’s not quite what I look for in a memoir even though it delivers some good information about the sport.



Book Reviews · running

Review of The Summit Seeker by Vanessa Runs

summit seekerMemoir and personal essays are my favourite non-fiction forms.  I’ve studied them, I’ve written them, and, like a good documentary film, if it’s well-done it draws me in regardless of the topic.  For example, John Haines’ collection of personal essays, The Stars, the Snow, the Fire, about his time as a homesteader in the Alaskan wilderness captivated me.  And when I read Valerie Miner’s memoir, The Low Road, about her Scottish family, I couldn’t put it down.

Right now, I’m on a bit of a roll reading memoirs by endurance athletes.  I’ll write more about Rich Roll’s Finding Ultra another day, but today and tomorrow I want to focus on two books written by women: The Summit Seeker by Vanessa Runs and A Life without Limits by Chrissie Wellington.

Women’s stories seem to be less available than men’s.  And since I worry about women’s representation in all sorts of things, from philosophy to sport and in between, I’m always eager to seek out their stories when I can.

I stumbled upon Vanessa Runs The Summit Seeker while surfing around for women’s stories a few weeks ago. She’s an ultramarathon trail runner who has structured her whole life around enabling her running and her writing.  Her story is a series of reflections on her struggles in a difficult childhood, the way a commitment to running helped ease some of the residual damage, and how she fell in love with long distance trail running (and with her partner in life and in ultra running, Shacky). As far as I can tell, it is only available as an ebook.

The reflections are short personal essays, grouped together into an introduction and three chapters. Chapter One is “Growing Up & Learning to Run.” Chapter Two is “Finding Myself & Discovering Trails,” and Chapter Three is “Traveling Far & Running Ultras.”  As she says up front, “My book is about running, but it doesn’t tell you what to do.”  In the Introduction, she writes:

I’m a girl who started running during a time of overwhelming stress and desperation.  I’m someone whose life changed through ultra trail running. These are the stories of how running restored me, how it shifted my perspective, and how it healed my wounds.

This book tracks me from my first 5K all the way to finishing my third 100-mile foot race. It weaves in personal anecdotes from my life, and shows how running transformed all aspects of who I am.

My hope is that it will inspire you to see running in a different light. Not as a weight loss or fitness tool, but as a journey in your own personal growth.

I hope that it will inspire you to experiment with your running. To run more trails, to try an ultra. Or to just let the quiet beauty of getting lost on the side of a mountain supersede the urgency of PRs and race stats. There is so much more to running than what we have often made of it.

The day after I started reading her book, I was out running a trail in the woods of a small, picturesque town on the shores of Lake Zurich in Switzerland.  It wasn’t rugged and wild, and it was nowhere near an ultra, but just reading the first few stories in Vanessa’s memoir prompted me to soak in the serenity of my surroundings and let go of my concerns about pace, stats, and distance.

Each chapter is comprised of short personal essays with titles like, “On Self-Esteem,” “On Freedom,”On Perseverance,” “On Surviving,” “On Destiny,” “On Trail Running,” “On Love,” “On Writing,” “On Ultra-Running,” and even one called, “On Steve Jobs.”  The structure is simple and inviting.  Rather than present a linear story, she offers anecdotes and reflections in a non-chronological sequence, yet in a sufficiently orderly manner that we can find the narrative of her life.

She also has an engaging, humble voice that makes her experience of ultra trail running much more about wonder and awe than about ego and competition.  In fact, I’m not sure if the whole community of ultra-running is as she describes or if she’s just settled into an amazing sub-community, but it sounds welcoming and supportive with a real sense of camaraderie. Vanessa is someone who inspires and is inspired. She as a section on “DFLs,” those who come in “Dead F**’ing Last.” Rather than focusing on the elites, she suggests looking at those at the bottom end of the race results:

Here are the people who are on the course twice or three times as long as the elites. These are the people who struggled.

At some point, these runners knew they were in last place. They knew there would be no glory for them. No prizes. No fanfare. They knew that whey they got to the finish line, the crowds would be gone. And yet they pushed on.

…These are my heroes.

She has a way of making you feel good about yourself no matter how fast or how far you run. She laments articles about running faster by running less—“If you want to run less, you should just run less,” she says. And:

I encourage you to run once a week without logging it as a workout, or thinking of it as training. Don’t track your mileage and don’t time yourself. Pay attention to your surrounding, have compassion for the life around you, and work to protect and preserve your trails as well as the people who run them.

The spirit of ultrarunning must always embrace selflessness, generosity, adventure, and strength.

It’s not clear to me that I’ll ever aspire to ultrarunning. But reading Vanessa’s book has re-framed my views about running and about distance in general. I’m slowly pushing myself to go further. An Olympic distance triathlon is hardly an ultra-anything. But for me, it’s further than I’ve gone at a stretch to this point. And the mindset expressed in The Summit Seeker carries over into nonetheless.

It’s a great read. I recommend it.

Tomorrow: Christie Wellington’s A Life without Limits.


Book Reviews · cycling

Bike Touring Dreams: Washington Edition!

One of the very cool things about having a blog is that sometimes people send you things, like their books. I reviewed The Velocipede Races here for example. That was fiction and today I’m writing about a non fiction cycling book. The Cycling Sojourner  is a guide to the best multi-day tours in Washington and it’s made me start looking up air fares to the west coast. Written by Ellee Thalheimer, it’s available from
About Ellee: “The author, Ellee Thalheimer, would choose a dusty pannier, bike, and crumpled up map any day over an umbrella drink and a lounge chair. She has toured nationally and internationally, worked as a professional bike tour guide, and coordinated cycling routes professionally.005-2009, Ellee contributed to Lonely Planet guidebooks, and she authored their bike touring guide Cycling Italy. Her travel writing has also appeared in BBC Online, The Oregonian, Momentum,, Oregon Cycling Magazine, and Cycle California! Magazine.”

I’m a big fan of bike touring. See Cycling holidays, Part 1: Rail trails  and Cycling holdays, Part 2: Organized tours.

“The nine tours in the book provide meticulously laid out nuts and bolts information, including cue sheets, maps, and information about weather, difficulty level, camping and lodging options and how to get to the ride’s start. Yet, the soul of the book lies in the voices of the five authors, four of whom are Washingtonians, who use storytelling, local history, and humor to elevate the book beyond just an everyday guidebook to an inspirational muse that draws out your inner adventurer.”

I haven’t done the tours so I can’t attest to accuracy but the kind of information included looks just right. They’re exactly the sort of things I’d want to know. Also, the guide manages to be a reasonable size to carry with you. It would easily fit in a jersey pocket if you’re a “credit card/B & B” bike tourist as opposed to the “carry your tent with you in panniers” sort. I’ve done both and see merits in both approaches.  Each ride is rated in terms of days. difficulty, season, scenery (“jaw drop factor”). Hills are well marked!

You can like Cycling Sojourner on Facebook here.

Book Reviews · cycling

The Velocipede Races

I’ve just read a great fantasy ebook about girls, bicycling, and gender justice (themes familiar to readers of this blog). Thanks to author Emily Street for sharing it with me. If you’re looking for a gift for a young woman in your life, cyclist or not, have a look at The Velocopide Races. It’s a compelling story set in a world in which bike racing plays a huge role (yay) but in which only boys can ride bikes or race (boo). Our heroine Emmeline sets out to change all that.

velocoverlcpThe Velocipede Races by Emily June Street – 

From the book description: “Cutthroat velocipede racing enthralls the citizens of Seren, and Emmeline Escot was born to ride. There’s only one problem: she’s a girl. Serenias—the high-born women of the city—live tightly laced lives, cloistered by their families before marriage, rigidly controlled by their husbands after.

Emmeline watches her twin brother gain success as a professional racing jockey while her own life grows increasingly narrow. Yet her hunger to ride never dies. Ever more stifled by the rules of her life, Emmeline rebels—with stunning consequences.

Can her dream to race survive scandal, scrutiny, and heartbreak?”

About the author: Emily Street began writing as a child and never really stopped. Writing is the way she relaxes at home after a long day of rolling like a ball at her real job as a Pilates instructor. She lives in California with a husband and two mutts. When not hanging upside down in her Pilates studio or banging on her keyboard, she can be found cycling or swinging high on a flying trapeze

Published by Luminous Creatures Press 

(Founded by Beth Deitchman and Emily June Street, Luminous Creatures Press is an e-publishing company specializing in fantasy and speculative fiction.)

Thanks Luminous Creatures for sharing this book with us!

In case you’re wondering what a velocipede is, here’s Wikipedia to the answer:

“Velocipede (/vəˈlɒsəpiːd/; Latin for “fast foot”) is ahuman-powered land vehicle with one or more wheels. The most common type of velocipede today is the bicycle.The term was coined by Frenchman Nicéphore Niépce in 1818 to describe his version of theLaufmaschine, which was invented by the GermanKarl Drais in 1817. The term “velocipede” is today, however, mainly used as a collective term for the different forerunners of the monowheel, theunicycle, the bicycle, the dicycle, the tricycle and thequadracycle developed between 1817 and 1880.”


body image · Book Reviews · weight lifting

I love Venus with Biceps

227W 300x290 A Closer Look at <i>Venus with Biceps</i>I love, love, love this book! Venus with Biceps: A Pictorial History of Muscular Women is one of the very few books I’ve bought in the past year in paper rather than on my Kindle.

“Venus with Biceps is an illustrated history of muscular women over the course of more than 100 years. It features a wealth of photographs, posters, line drawings, magazine covers, and film stills documenting the image of the strong, healthy female—an object of fascination, derision, amusement, and fetishization, depending on the era. Unlike their male counterparts, muscular women were historically not considered to be prototypes for the ideal body but more akin to circus freaks.” It’s published by Arsenal Pulp Press and you can read more about it on their blog.

The images are just terrific. So too is the history and I keep picking it and wanting to show to people and share. I might even buy multiple copies to give some away. I like it that much.

In Stronger Than Yesterday, “Venus With Biceps” Do It Nothin’ But Their Way  Meghan writes:

“I love that this book exists because so many people still believe that women need to look a certain way, use their bodies a certain way, be in the world in a certain way in order to be women. Strength is for everyone. Pictures like these serve as a great starting point for conversations about the history of women in sports, about gender performance, about what constitutes beauty and why we create standards for strength based on gender. But more than that, these pictures, and these women, are proof that there have always been women who weren’t afraid to push the boundaries of social convention.”

There’s also a good review of Venus with Biceps in The Atlantic by Maria Popova. You should go read the reviews and then buy the book!

070F 213x300 A Closer Look at <i>Venus with Biceps</i>

Book Reviews · diets · eating · fat · health · weight loss

Book Review: Taking Up Space


I’m a big fan of Go Kaleo so I was happy to see that Amber Rogers has put a lot of her important message into a new book called Taking Up Space.

The very idea of taking up space is feminist to the core. It challenges traditional assumptions about what it means to be a woman, about what it means to be feminine: “smaller, thinner, lighter, softer, quieter, daintier.”

Amber Rogers is tired of it:

I have a body that takes up space.  I have opinions that take up space. I have a healthy sense  of self-worth and that takes up space too.

Like most of the books that I like to blog about, this one promotes an anti-diet approach.  Why?  Because

Our diet culture is designed to keep us fat and sick; hating and doubting ourselves because when we doubt ourselves we will buy more useless crap.

So although the book will be helpful to women who want to lose weight and learn how to maintain a healthy body weight, it is not your average diet book. Don’t expect a quick fix, detailed eating plans, or a detailed exercise routine.

After her disclaimers about people with serious medical conditions and eating disorders (namely, see your doctor, you shouldn’t be getting your info from a book or a blog), she introduces the three rules that guide her approach to weight loss and maintenance:

1. Make peace with your body.

2. Acknowledge that there is an appropriate amount of food your body needs to support your activity and a healthy weight, and that calories are relevant.

3. You’re allowed to eat whatever you want.

The section on making peace with our bodies is full of well-researched information about the “flaws” so many women hate: cellulite, normal fat storage (gluteal-femoral fat reserves), belly pooch, and those various lumps, bumps, veins, hairs, and stretch marks that, as she so nicely puts it, are the “evidence life leaves on our bodies.” Let’s love our bodies a bit more.

Rule #2 introduces the book’s main concept, which is that we need to eat the amount of food our bodies need to support our activity and a healthy weight.  For this, calories matter.

If you have followed the Go Kaleo blog, you will know already that energy balance and metabolic health are high priorities for Amber Rogers.  I have blogged about her metabolic health approach here. Much of that good information is provided again in this book.

She gives the usual information, by now well-supported, about the body’s natural famine-response or starvation-response to severely restricted diets.  In essence, if you drastically cut calories, you’ll lose quickly for a short period of time and then your amazing body will adapt.  The metabolism will slow down to support the body’s functioning on less.

So, in order to maintain a healthy weight without compromising your metabolism, it’s necessary to bring calories into the equation.  Most women need 2000-3000 calories a day to support their activity level at a healthy weight.  And yet most weight-loss diets max out at about 1200 calories a day. Do the math.  You can’t eat that much less, move more, and expect your body to handle it indefinitely without a famine-response.

She links to a calculator  that helps figure out how many calories a day you need to support the weight you want. It’s a great tool. You may be surprised at the result. I know I was.

I turned the dials to reflect my gender, age, weight, height, activity level, and the hours I spend sitting and sleeping, and it turns out that in theory I need 2700 calories a day to support my weight.

I say in theory because I am sure that most days I don’t eat anywhere near that and yet I still weigh about the same as I did back in January (when I stopped weighing myself). So I must be doing something wrong because my caloric intake should support a lower weight.  If the information Amber provides in the book is correct (and I’m not doubting it; she’s very convincing), then the most likely thing I’m doing wrong is not eating enough, and probably not enough protein.

Food quality does matter. She recommends one gram of protein per pound of body weight, an amount I personally find overwhelming. For me, that’s over 130 grams of protein a day and I can rarely manage it.

Knowing whether you’re getting what you need involves tracking. I hate tracking. She acknowledges that lots of people have a troubled history with tracking and that it’s not essential. But she thinks it’s the only method that is guaranteed to work. Why? Because it really is about calories in and calories out.

Two things she says make me think I might be able to work with her approach, including tracking (for a period of time). First, she re-frames it not as a tool of restriction but as a tool of seeing that we are getting enough.  Second, she notes that it’s temporary. She says: “Tracking for awhile teaches you how to judge proper portion sizes, how much food you need to meet your energy needs, and how to put balanced meals together. Over time, these skills become habit and you can leave the tracking behind.”

I did try this a few months ago when I became determined to increase my protein to at least 100 grams a day.  I tracked for about a week.  And I confess that I did find that I was falling short most days, not just on protein, but on calories.  But the thing is, I went to bed every night feeling totally stuffed.  It went against everything I have been doing to internalize the principles of intuitive eating. So this is something I’ll need to work with a bit to see if it’s going to work for me. Frankly, intuitive eating is more important, but I can do it while still trying to make choices that are higher in protein.

Amber is very sensible about weight. She notes that many of us may have a too-low goal weight in mind, and provides a few guidelines for determining whether the weight you aspire to is a reasonable weight for you to maintain.

She encourages slow weight loss that preserves lean mass, metabolic health, and leads to successful maintenance. That means resistance training, eating enough, and developing a sustainable and enjoyable exercise routine. She cites research studies that show that regular activity is essential to weight maintenance.

In order to lose moderately and without metabolic damage, “you are essentially going to eat the amount of food that will support a healthy weight.” The calculator cited above will tell you what you need to know if you dial in your goal weight and take it from there. She gives a few more details that you can find if you read the book.

If you follow her recommendations about caloric intake, choose a healthy—not unreasonable—goal weight, and maintain a regular exercise routine that includes resistance training at least three times a week, you should find yourself eventually leveling off at a healthy weight. At that point you can turn your attention to “body recomposition.”

That’s the process of changing the percentage of lean mass to fat mass. If you maintain the same weight but increase your lean mass and decrease your fat mass, your body will start to look different.  Amber herself has undergone gradual changes in body composition over the years that show up dramatically in the photo series that makes up the banner of her blog.

For those who have moved into the body recomposition phase, she provides some good tips: eat the calories for maintenance, get plenty of protein, eat carbs too, keep in mind that it’s possible for a healthy woman to gain 2 pounds of lean mass a month, don’t restrict fat, EAT, experiment, do resistance training for strength, get rest, and get rid of guilt.

She has a separate section geared towards those who are in recovery from starvation, including a list of signs to help determine if you have an eating disorder.  I won’t go into the details here, but it is an informative section. The most important advice contained there is to seek professional medical treatment.

The third rule says you’re allowed to eat whatever you want to eat. You will find no specific food plans here.  The main guideline is to eat a wide variety of whole foods, including protein and carbs. Nothing is forbidden.  Treats are important so that you don’t feel deprived.

For many people, this will be a revolutionary idea that might require some further work.  I recommend Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch and If Not Dieting, Then What?  by Rick Kausman if you need a bit more about the transition from restrictive diets to unrestricted healthy eating.

Finally, though the book doesn’t focus on exercise, Amber sees “physical activity, not diet, as the cornerstone of health.” Diet’s main function is to support our physical activity, to provide energy and fuel so we can do what we like to do. Find something you enjoy and make it a regular part of your life.

I’ve gone into the book in some detail because I think the information contained is important. But I have still only sketched out the main ideas. The book is worth reading if you are seeking to lose weight or feel happy with your weight but are wondering how you might shift the lean mass to fat mass percentages around.

I have the ebook on my kindle and my iPad, and I feel it’s absolutely worth the $9.99 it cost.  The focus on metabolic health and energy balance makes it unique among weight loss books. I don’t think it’s a negative thing that the book provides information about how to lose weight. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to shed a few pounds, gain lean mass, and achieve and maintain a healthy body weight.

Amber provides enough information about how to choose a realistic body weight, and emphasizes that in lots of cases the right healthy body weight for you might not match the ideal you have always had in mind: it might well be heavier.

That’s one of the things I like most about her book, other than that it’s well-researched and full of excellent, reasonable information. By the end of it, it’s not just okay to be at a weight that’s a bit higher than you’ve always had as a goal, it’s even desirable.  Even though I gave up weighing myself and swore off dieting back in January, this is the first book I’ve read where I actually feel at the end of it like I’m totally good with the weight I’m at right now. 100%.

If you are a regular follower of Go Kaleo! you will find most of the information is not totally new to you. Amber is up front about this. But it’s good to have it all between two covers (even virtually), and she deserves support for the amazing work she is doing free of charge on the blog!