RUNNING WITH THE KENYANS:
Passion, Adventure, and the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth
By Adharanand Finn
Ballantine, 265 pp., illustrated, $26
Adharanand Finn, a naturally gifted runner in boyhood, finds himself in his 30s, with three kids and a newspaper job, still able to run a half-marathon in under 90 minutes. Why not push himself, he wonders, to see how fast his talent could take him — and do it in Kenya, living and training with the world’s greatest distance runners? After getting his wife’s approval (as well as researching barefoot running styles and learning that his lifetime-best 10K time is several minutes slower than the slowest Kenyan high school girls) Finn moves his family from Exeter, England, to Iten, a small Kenyan town full of serious runners. This is, Finn points out, the country whose athletes ran the 20 fastest marathon times in 2011, and 17 of the 20 fastest of all time.
Part travelogue, part fish-out-of-water memoir, the book’s serious mission is to decode the secrets behind Kenyan running dominance. Finn disagrees with Western observers who cite genetics alone, saying it “lessens our admiration for all their hard work, determination, and fortitude”; although at times his own reverence for Kenyan runners veers close to the stereotype of the athlete whose skill is “accidental, unconscious even.” Ultimately, Finn argues, Kenyan superiority comes from a blend of social, historical, and physical factors: Kenyan kids grow up at high altitude, running to school barefoot, eating a diet high in carbohydrates and very low in fat; their culture stresses hard work for the good of the team; and the sport is taken seriously enough that athletes train diligently (there are no weekend joggers in Kenya). Although he finds “no elixir, no running gene, no training secret,” Finn’s account of his journey to running Nirvana feels completely satisfying, as well-paced and exhilarating as a good run.
By Alix Kates Shulman
Other, 288 pp., paperback, $14.95
When real-estate developer Mack McKay meets struggling émigré writer Zoltan Barbu at the funeral of a woman they both desired, their connection seems mutually beneficial. Mack invites Zoltan, whose living situation is as ambiguous as his finances, to come live and write at his bucolic estate; in return, Zoltan will teach Mack “how to live honestly,” as well as provide Mack’s wife, Heather, a frustrated writer, with literary solidarity and friendship.
Alix Kates Shulman’s spare, wickedly funny novel looks at all sides of this misbegotten domestic situation, managing to bestow both sympathy and deep, knowing judgment on the foolishness of all involved. As the “gregarious houseguest of early weeks” becomes more like “a sullen adolescent,” Heather’s friend’s husband, a psychiatrist, diagnoses Zoltan as a “narcissistic, self-dramatizing sociopath.” He’s all of the above, of course (in other words, he’s a writer). Heather, who has “put on hold the amazing stories she hoped to write once both children were in school full time,” is kind of a monster (when the phone rings late at night she half-worries, half-hopes it is news of her husband’s accidental death), but a familiar one. In the end, the book reads like a fable on marriage, ambition, and the ridiculousness of literary fame.
THE OMNIVOROUS MIND:
Our Evolving Relationship with Food
By John S. Allen
Harvard University, 328 pp., $25.95
“Brains and guts seem to be inextricably, evolutionarily linked,” writes John S. Allen, a neuroscientist. His lucid, careful examination of how we think about food (as well as how our brains receive input about food, whether we’re actively cogitating about it or not) is a welcome addition to the growing bookshelf exploring the brain, about which we know more and more but never, somehow, enough.
Allen begins with an investigation into the universal human affection for crispy foods, and for cooking processes that render foods crispier. There are various evolutionary hypotheses for this appeal: Crispness suggests freshness in plant foods, and provides a satisfying sound as well. As far as cooking, it’s not just “a human universal,” it’s the first example of how our ancestors used technology to make food (whether big animals or big tubers) easier to eat and digest, the better to develop our species’ “large and energy-hungry brain.’’ Culture comes from cooking; our minds and our palates developed in tandem.
Sampling from neuroscience, cultural anthropology, and evolutionary biology, Allen argues for what he calls “a theory of food” (like the “theory of mind” psychologists describe as a hallmark of human development), enabling us to understand the cognitive and cultural associations of what and why we eat.