Review of reviews: Books

What the critics said about the best new books: Her Last Death: A Memoir; In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

Book of the week

Her Last Death: A Memoir

by Susanna Sonnenberg

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(Scribner, $24)

Susanna Sonnenberg was 2 when Norman Mailer, a summer neighbor, commented that she had “a great ass.” She was 8 when she started injecting her mother with Demerol, and 10 when her mother first made her read a Penthouse letter aloud. “Daphne” was no ordinary mom, even by the standards of Manhattan socialites. Glamorous, reckless, and perverse, she marked her daughter’s Sweet 16 by presenting her with a gram of cocaine. She competed with her daughter over teenage boyfriends, and lied more than once that she had contracted a fatal illness. Roughly five years ago, Sonnenberg received a call informing her that Daphne had just been in a head-on collision and was lying in a coma in Barbados. Sonnenberg, 37, dutifully made flight plans and started packing. Then she balked. “I can’t go to her anymore,” she told her younger sister.

Sonnenberg’s impossible mother looms as large as a mythological figure in this “fiercely observed” new memoir, said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. “Part Fury, part predator, part companion and guide,” Daphne was capable of “a contagious, manic enthusiasm” and frightening rages. Sonnenberg wisely refrains from attempting any “dime-store psychoanalysis.” Her “sharp, crystalline prose” keeps readers instead in a perpetual present tense, creating an almost firsthand sense of the bewilderment Daphne’s behavior caused. Daphne clearly never had “the faintest idea of how to be a parent.” Even so, she raised at least one “immensely gifted” daughter.

Her Last Death actually contains three memoirs in one, said Alexandra Jacobs in The New York Observer. Besides the “Mommie Dearest” elements, it includes large sections that might be called “Brushes With the Famous” (including Bob Dylan and John Cheever) and “I Saved Myself by Ditching New York City for Rural Existence.” Sonnenberg herself became highly promiscuous in her 20s before finally settling in Montana with a good man. Though it’s no surprise that the author “ended up confusing sex for power,” said Karen Valby in Entertainment Weekly, it’s impressive how candid she can be about her own excesses. “There’s shame in these pages, and an artful floundering for acceptance and understanding.” Sonnenberg doesn’t pretend that her new life in Montana is an easy adjustment, either, said June Sawyers in the San Francisco Chronicle. That makes the contentment she ultimately expresses feel “richly deserved.”

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

by Michael Pollan

(Penguin, $21.95)

Real food is at something of a disadvantage at the typical American supermarket, says author Michael Pollan. The yams and the mustard greens might be placed near the front door, but the chicken nuggets in the freezer aisle advertise far more convenience. Likewise, every box of sugared cereal contains loud claims about the health benefits of the food-like substances inside, while it’s hard to find much information on the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables. The result: A mere four crops—corn, soybeans, rice, and wheat—account for two-thirds of the calories that Americans end up consuming. Shoppers shouldn’t be bullied, says Pollan, into filling up on processed-food products and seeking nutrients through additives. “Eat food,” he counsels. “Not too much. Mostly greens.”

As that seven-word mantra illustrates, said Janet Maslin in The New York Times, Pollan has a real talent for turning the brilliant food journalism he’s known for into blunt, memorable advice. His 2006 best-seller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, illuminated systemic dysfunctions in our food-producing industry. This “lively, invaluable book” outlines how health-conscious and socially responsible people ought to approach eating if they want to make a difference in their lives and cause minimal harm to the environment. Unfortunately, this so-called manifesto exposes Pollan as a poor choice for leader of a revolution, said Jonathan Liu in The New York Observer. Like other Berkeley, Calif., food snobs, he’s ultimately more interested in elevating his own dinners into quasi-religious rites than in identifying ways to put healthful food on the tables of the millions now surviving on agribusiness’ cheap calories.

People expect too much from Pollan, said Laura Shapiro in Just because Pollan’s not “marching against Monsanto” doesn’t mean he’s guilty of letting agribusiness off easy. Even this relatively light book is “intensely political” in the sense that “it’s about changing the way we think.” While Pollan may be deaf to how elitist or impractical he sounds when recommending eaters avoid supermarkets or forage for greens in the wild, many of his guidelines will stick in your head. Pollan insists, for instance, that all diet advice focused on particular nutrients should be greeted with deep skepticism, said Michael Astor in the Associated Press. The alternative? You already know it: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly greens.”

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