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Originally published Sunday, June 16, 2013 at 5:06 AM

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‘Counter Clockwise’: slowing down the tick tock of time

In “Counter Clockwise,” Oregon author and journalism professor Lauren Kessler sets out, armed with diligence and humor, on a quest to answer the question: Is there a way to slow down the aging process?

Special to The Seattle Times

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“Counter Clockwise: My Year of Hypnosis, Hormones, Dark Chocolate, and Other Adventures in the World of Anti-Aging”

by Lauren Kessler

Rodale, 223 pp., $24.99

I have a rotten gene pool — the family tree is a bonsai. Whatever my predecessors lacked in health, they made up for in drama: fatal tumbles down stairs or whacks on the head during polo matches, all before cancer, diabetes or dementia could claim them.

With my genetic loading, I am absurdly pleased each time I renew my magazine subscriptions. Hence, I am not too worried about aging.

So I turned with some curiosity to Lauren Kessler’s new book, “Counter Clockwise,” in which she plumbs the depths of her own valiant battle to hold back the forces of time. What, I wondered, could she add to our society’s endless discussion of age-retardant strategies? Quite a bit, as it turns out.

I was counting on the craft of the book to be solid. In “My Teenage Werewolf” she captured the landscape of the preteen female with the acuity of Norman Rockwell — if Mr. Rockwell had lived on the outskirts of the sitcom South Park.

Kessler, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon, reports with skill and writes first-person narrative with humor and sans the load of ego that many of her sister writers of memoir tote around.

Readers who have followed Kessler’s journalism, books, TV and radio appearances, (or seen her photo showing a flowing-haired, natural-fiber-looking kind of gal, only with more style), might be initially surprised by this new book. But her self-awareness prevents this from devolving into memoir-lite: “Yes, I want to look refreshed,” she confides after meeting with a high-end dermatologist. “But what I really want is to be refreshed. To do that, to actually turn back the clock, I need to find out how old I am, inside, and how I might be able to fiddle with the clock’s mechanism, not merely move the hands.”

To that end, Kessler devoted herself to tracking the wily wrinkle-buster, the cleansing food and the raised heart rate. She braves Las Vegas for a huge anti-aging industry fair, dives into pages of self-tests, mysterious potions and killer workouts; interrogates skin doctors, facial-recognition pioneers, sports-science labs and supplement gurus. She is monitored, detoxed, sweated and analyzed under unflinchingly bright lights.

Kessler’s knack for making biology and chemistry understandable to those who wouldn’t know a blood cell from a jail cell is very well utilized here. Like Natalie Angier (whose book “Woman” has to be the best guide to the female body yet written), Kessler is a teacher who simplifies without talking down to the folks.

Her probing of the supplement question will be gratefully received by anyone who has taken the Kafkaesque research journey trying to learn which vitamins and minerals one needs to be healthier.

Here Kessler’s research is admirably wide-ranging, even as she makes light of how it took her to “an open-minded MD, a conservative naturopath, a registered dietitian who teaches college courses, a personal trainer, two nutritionists, three university research scientists, and my science writer husband ...”

In the end, Kessler has no simple answers, of course. Instead she gives her readers proof that the way to “fiddle with the clock’s mechanism,” is to ask questions on top of questions.

There is no ready-made travel guide — it’s every health explorer for herself out there. But arming yourself with a water bottle and this book is a good way to head out on the expedition. If you can be half as diligent and honest about yourself as Kessler — you’ll learn plenty along the way. Even if your family tree is a bonsai.

Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a writer living in Portland.

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