Book Review: The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

The details:

Title: The Dud Avocado
Author: Elaine Dundy
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1958)
Pages: 272

Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado is a quirky book that I find hard to categorize and to review months after I finished reading it. The narrator, Sally Jay Gorce, is an American who makes a deal with her rich uncle when she tries to run away as a teenager. If she agrees to stay in school and finish university, he’ll give her enough money so that she can do whatever she wants for two years. The only rule is that she will wait to tell him all about it when she returns. Sally Jay happily assents to this plan and, when the novel opens, she has spent a few months in Paris really living it up. She dyed her hair pink and is still in her evening dress on the morning described in the opening chapter. By chance, she meets a fellow actor, Larry, from back home and quickly falls in love with him.

There’s something charming about Sally Jay and her wisecracks that I loved. She’s still young enough that she’s a bit naive about other people’s motives, but, through her disillusionment, she retains her curiosity, fascination with the world, and sense of humor.

“That’s my answer to the question what is your strongest emotion, if you ever want to ask me: Curiosity, old bean. Curiosity every time.”

She is eager for experience, a trait that sometimes gets her into trouble, much to the amusement of the reader. While on vacation on the coast of France with Larry and a couple of his friends, Sally Jay completely loses it after days and days of interminable rain. She throws a chicken carcass at the cat that came with the house (she doesn’t like cats much). Then she picks up a pear, bites off the top like a grenade, and throws it against the wall. Finally, she breaks a few plates and starts laughing, all the while the others are watching her with concern. She tells them she wants to have a good time. When they ask her how, she doesn’t quite know “but brother, not like this.” Scenes like that, though humorous, contributed to my problem of deciding how to describe this novel. It’s the sort of writing that will appeal to people with a zany sense of humor.

In an Afterword, Dundy explained that she got the title during a dinner party where she told someone that she had never been able to grow a plant from an avocado pit. It just never worked for her, and the person said that was because she had a dud avocado. Within the text, one character says that women are like avocados, and I suppose we are supposed to view Sally Jay as a dud avocado. This novel tells the story of a young woman entering adulthood and finding the whole setup very confusing. She misreads people and makes bad decisions and she grows in the process, but not too much. The last line of the novel reassures the reader that she is still the Sally Jay of the first chapter and capable of a good one-liner in any situation.


Book Review: Natural Causes by Barbara Ehrenreich

The details:

Title: Natural Causes
Author: Barbara Ehrenreich
Genre: Nonfiction
Pages: 256

Barbara Ehrenreich, who has a PhD in cellular immunology, provides an accessible guide to modern medicine in Natural Causes. She discusses the current trend towards wellness and a longer lifespan and the fear of death that underlies it. She begins by talking about routine tests in doctor’s offices and progresses to how much is still unknown about illness and aging.

I thought that the most fascinating part of the book was her explanation of macrophages, cells which are part of the immune system. When she was studying for her degree, she thought of macrophages as the hero of the immune system because they perform so many important functions, eating dead cells and helping to heal wounds. However, more recent research has uncovered that macrophages actually assist cancer cells in growing and spreading, eat lipids and block arteries, causing heart attacks, are one of the main culprits in attacking healthy cells in autoimmune disorders, cause inflammation, and might be one of the causes of Alzheimer’s disease. In other words, you can adhere to a healthy living program, eating whatever is the current fad, working out regularly, and still be done in by an aspect of your body that you can’t control.

Ehrenreich is critical of the traumatic aspects of routine tests that are not evidence-based and haven’t been proven to be largely effective in saving lives. She compares the shaman practices studied by anthropologists with the detached and ceremonial role of doctors in our modern society. They dress in white coats and perform acts that are mostly done only because they have been for generations and because, as she quotes one doctor as saying, the patients expect it. She says that there are many reasons not to completely throw out preventative testing. For example, if someone really needed to have a test done, then insurance companies might refuse coverage on the grounds that it is not medically necessary. But she’s advocating for people to make informed decisions and not just blindly follow a doctor’s advice.

She also attacks the classism at play in the interpretation of what is healthy and what is not. For instance, many people who smoke live long lives, and some people who get lung cancer never smoked a day in their lives. Not all fast food is unhealthy. Some things are just out of your personal control. We give a privileged stance to the wealthy. Certain fads are given widespread coverage, like mindfulness, which has had a large boom in books and apps, and subsequently profit for its practitioners, despite the fact that it’s not proven to do anything to improve mental well-being. We are meant to admire those who do risky things like attempt to climb Mount Everest, even though it has a high death rate, because only the wealthy can do something like that. But we don’t try to understand why lower-class people smoke or eat fast food. She talked to one woman about why she smoked, and she said that she worked long hours and smoking served as a kind of stimulant, keeping her awake and de-stressed when she was exhausted so she could deal with everything in her life. Ehrenreich is very sympathetic, and I think she has a point. No one would advocate smoking, but why heavily tax a thing impacting mostly lower classes, which brings a level of enjoyment?

The larger theme of the book is about coming towards an acceptance of death and aging. When we read about someone else’s death, particularly a very famous person, we try to look for causes behind it. Did they drink a lot? Smoke? Live an unhealthy lifestyle? We want to assign blame because we don’t want to believe that death could be random or unfair. However, it will happen to us all one day, no matter how much healthy food we eat or how much we exercise. Ehrenreich notes that she sometimes eats butter or drinks wine, knowing that it isn’t the healthiest choice, but that life wouldn’t be worth much without things she enjoys. She talks a bit about some very wealthy people who plan to live to advanced age, but she also asks us to consider what quality of life we’ll have if the only goal is to extend life. I picked up this book largely because it falls outside of my usual reading scope, and I’m glad I read it. Ehrenreich offers a sensible account of medicine and health that made me more aware of my own views about wellness.