Review: Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? by Timothy Caufield

2015-03-14 20.18.46I loved this book. This was one of those books where I found myself constantly nodding along and marking every other page with a sticky note (as you can see in the photo – and yes, those are cat sticky notes). It was engaging, fascinating, funny, and just so on point in our celebrity-obsessed culture.

Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? is written by a University of Alberta professor, Timothy Caufield (and I’m a U of A girl, so I was sold from the start) and it’s about, as the subtitle describes, “when celebrity culture and science clash.” It basically explores the power that celebrities have in our society, and how celebrities impact our decisions about health and even our life choices.

The book pulls from statistics, interviews with experts, and also Caufield’s firsthand experience. He goes to an American Idol audition, suffers through a Goop-approved cleanse, and more. Early on he points out that while he’s skeptical about celebrity claims, he loves celebrity culture. This book is both for haters and those that love it as he does.

The book is divided into three sections. The first, “The illusion of celebrity authority,” was my favourite by far. Caufield explores diets, cleanses, plastic surgery, tanning beds, and more. He describes the tension between celebrity recommendations and science, while exploring the influence celebrities have on our health choices. For example, this section on tanning:

“In 2013 British Cosmopolitan quoted Gwyneth as saying, ‘We’re human beings and the sun is the sun-how can it be bad for you? I think we should all get sun and fresh air… I don’t think anything that is natural can be bad for you.’ Putting aside that absurd idea that all things natural are healthy (consider for example, arsenic, black widow spider venom, tar sands, earthquakes, gravity pulling you toward the ground at terminal velocity), the idea that we should all be tanning is so clearly wrong that it makes you wonder what Gwyneth was thinking.”

What’s very interesting is the impact of social media on these phenomena. Caufield points to psychology about the way people compare themselves to others – the social comparison phenomenon – and the dissatisfaction this can cause, especially when we compare ourselves to celebrties. Because the problem is now, with celebrities on social media, they look and seem just like us. As Caufield puts it:

“A couple hundred years ago, the only images available of other men or women were either the people themselves, physically present, or a painting or drawing of them … So your comparators were real humans … But now our social comparators are rarely real. They are illusions created by pop culture.”

The second section, “The illusion that you too can be a celebrity,” explores some of the astronomical odds of becoming famous. It points to statistics to show that children now are more interested in being “famous” than being anything else, including scientists or doctors or lawyers. It explores the psychology behind why people believe that they can become famous, and often make great financial and personal sacrifices to try achieve these goals.

The third section, “The illusion that celebrity status is worth having,” builds on the second and asks the question of why anyone even wants to be famous. Caufield points to statistics that point (unsurprisingly) to the rather distressed lives of celebrities, many of whom struggle to maintain relationships and have serious health issues, particularly with addiction. In this section, he also discusses the way the media focuses on the benefits of celebrity, while not truly exploring the difficulty and loneliness that accompany being famous.

Caufield defends himself by saying that he’s not a “dream crusher,” but that people need to be informed about what celebrity life is truly like, the astronomical odds of making it, and the inaccuracy of the health and beauty claims perpetuated by the BIEB (the beauty industry efficacy bias).

This book is a great commentary on our culture, and explores a wide range of health-related issues. The statistics and commentary from experts is fascinating and enlightening. Caufield writes in a voice that is often laugh-out-loud funny, yet he makes the statistics and the science accessible. There were so many lightbulb moments in this book that I could hardly highlight them all in this one review, but I’d highly recommend this book for anyone interested in celebrity culture, psychology, or public health.

Review: The Evening Chorus, by Helen Humphreys

22812800War is not just felt on the battlefield. In war literature and movies, the focus is often on bloody and horrible battles, or the ill-fated escape attempts of prisoners of war, or major events like the Blitz of London.

While these themes are present in The Evening Chorus, they are on the periphery. The central plot of Helen Humphrey’s new novel set during the Second World War is on the everyday turmoil caused by war: broken relationships and disrupted lives.

James, a POW in a German camp, is not looking to escape, although some of his fellow POWs are. He seeks something to occupy his attention while he waits out the war – something to help guard against the monotony. He turns his attention to a pair of redstarts who build a nest near the camp, studying them meticulously. Meanwhile, at home in a rural cottage, his new bride Rose is left feeling as though she never knew her husband at all, and begins an affair with another man. James’ sister, Enid, comes to stay with Rose after she loses her home in the Blitz and the two begin an unlikely friendship.

All three experience the grief of war, and yet their tragedies are not presented in a dramatic way. The novel seems almost peaceful at times, until Humphreys masterfully reminds the reader of the wartime setting with an unexpected moment of violence or tragedy. Just when the novel seems to be progressing as you expect, it shifts. Later, the novel moves forward in time to the 1950s and Humphreys subtly demonstrates the unpredictability of life – at any time.

Yet through all the twists and turns in the lives of the characters, the one thing that remains constant is the natural world. For James, it’s the redstarts who take flight in a way that he cannot. For Rose, it’s her relationship with her dogs. For Enid, it’s observing and studying the heath and its vegetation. The characters all receive solace from focusing on something outside themselves.

I always enjoy World War II novels, and Humphreys provides a unique take on this particular period in history. The writing is lyrical and Humphreys uses allusions to nature and birds to create beautiful imagery.

The Evening Chorus is a quiet wartime novel. Ultimately, the message is that life can change in an instant, and it may turn out very differently than we thought. The real task is having the ability to move on, whether in war or in peace.

Have you read The Evening Chorus? What did you think about it? How did it compare to other World War II novels?