So what is this blog about?

These are the books I would insist everyone read if I were Queen of the Universe. I am not Queen of the Universe, so you don't have to read them, but hear me out. Most book reviews are about new books, but most books are not new. How else are you going to find out about what's out there? Anyway, aren't you just a bit curious about WHY I think these books should be read by everyone?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver

I don't usually recommend novels, though this isn't the first one I've chosen. It's not that I don't like fiction, it's that the thing I like about fiction--the chance to explore worlds and people--is actually more rewarding when the worlds and people are real. It's like how it might be nice to play "house," but if you're actually married that's better because you never have to stop. I like novels, but I can usually find non-fiction books that are more novel than novels are.

Occasionally, though, I find a novel that's a better essay than most essays are, and then I really get excited. Fictional essays have the freedom to braid together several different strands of an argument, without ever directly stating their point. In the hands of a master, the result is not vagueness but richness and subtlety. Barbara Kingsolver is such a master, and this novel is such a book.

Prodigal summer uses an alternating chapter format, where three shorter stories all set in the same community take turns presenting themselves. Initially, all three seem quite separate, but they become progressively less so. One story is that of an entomologist who has recently married a Virginia tobacco grower, and has still more recently been widowed. Another story is about a forest ranger who loves coyotes, yet becomes involved with a man who hunts them. The third story is that of an old and widowed man who is trying to breed blight-resistant chestnuts while feuding with his neighbor, an organic apple grower. Each of these threads has at its heart a debate about ecology, whether that debate is an actual argument between two people, as in the two orchardists' arguments over pesticide use, or something more subtle, as when the widowed entomologist must figure out how to make a living from her land. None of the debates are ever just about ecology, and though some of the characters are sometimes quite clearly wrong, none of them are badguys.

There is actually quite a lot of ecology lecture embedded in the story, usually quite gracefully--one character will explain something to another within the flow of the tale. At least as important is the fact that no one is trying to cause anyone a problem; these are not debates between good and bad people, these are stories about people in different situations with different priorities trying to find ways to get along with each other. When I went to graduate school and heard my professors start talking about stake-holders and community buy-in and the strange, counter-intuitive twists of the science and the art at hand, I knew what they were talking about. This book had told me.

I suppose, one could find Kingsolver's style annoying; my sister does. It's a bit over-done in places, perhaps, and maybe not everyone likes their fiction riddled with science and politics, however graceful the riddling. But the style works for me, and this book says some things that need to be said.

Here is an example of its food for thought; eventually, the entomologist widow settles on raising goats for slaughter, rather than tobacco. Part of her reasoning is that tobacco requires pesticide use and goats don't. As she tells another character, "this way I only have to kill 50 animals, not 50,000."


And there's a sex scene involving a giant moth.

So, read this book, have a good time with the story and the characters, and let your thoughts feed.

Kingsolver, B. (2000). Prodigal Summer. HarperCollins: New York, NY

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, by Michael Pollan

You know, I usually think I'm a pretty good writer, but sometimes someone else comes up with a phrase that just blows me out of the water. For example, another reviewer, one Simon Schama, praises Michael Pollan for his description of the weirdly comforting allure of the scent of McDonald's fries; "it is, he thinks a kind of ersatz 'home': some imagined smell of childish security in that oily-crunchy, burgery squishy provision –as if fast food momma was one gigantic American tit on which the infantilised masses of America placidly suck."

I know starting a review with a quote from someone else's review is a bit weird, but really I could not ignore that sentence. Mr. Schama's whole article is posted on Pollan's own website (

ANYWAY, I'm recommending Omnivore's dilemma as another book under the heading of Books That Make Important Things Make More Sense. In this case the "thing" in question is how America eats, and the economic, political, and ecological issues visible through that lens.

The basic structure of the book divides American food culture into three distinct types of food-chain. Each section follows one chain, and then follows Pollan as he makes a meal from food derived from that chain. This is participatory journalism, an example of a writer doing something quirky while we sit on his shoulder and learn from his experiences. Not all writers can pull this sort of thing off; in a clumsy hand, first-person journalism comes off as self-centered and melodramatic. The very fact that the writer has somehow convinced a publisher to pay for him to cook dinner for his friends interferes with the audience's ability to relate.

But Michael Pollan pulls it off. He always keeps the focus on the journalism part of participatory journalism. He keeps himself comfortably out of the way of his own story, acting simply as the reader's own avatar within the text. Not that his own personality doesn't shine through, but it shines as a texture of consciousness, not an object of focus. Pollan uses his experiences and reactions to help make his story specific, a valuable function given that many of us already know the vague outlines of these stories.

We know that fast food is bad for us. We know that feedlots are horrible places for animals to live. We don't necessarily know how a particular field of corn becomes a particular hamburger (neither does Pollan, but he did get pretty close to that level of specificity), nor do we know the history and ramifications of using corn this way.

Probably the section on what Pollan calls the industrial food chain, the one that begins with corn and often ends with meat, is the important for most people. This is the food chain from which most of us derive the bulk of our food, and it is also the most difficult chain to understand. Later sections deal with grass-fed beef and feral hogs, but if you go out into the woods to shoot a hog, you more or less know how that food-chain works. The story behind the meat in a fast-food joint or a grocery store is much less obvious. Obvious or not, this is a story that unfolds with the blessing of our money, so it is something we all need to be aware of.

Pollan is not exactly anti-meat, and though he does appear to be anti-factory farm, he is not bombastic or prescriptive about it. He is a journalist, and as such his interest is on understanding what is going on, looking straight at it, and reporting what he sees. That he also reports what he thinks and feels is more a form of interpretation than editorializing. If you finish the book unwilling to participate in the industrial food chain anymore, that may be simply a good call on your part based on available facts--but feel free to look elsewhere for corroborating or disconfirming evidence. I'm sure Pollan wouldn't mind. Treat this book as a source of good leads for further research.

Be forewarned that you are as likely to put the book down resolving to eat more meat, rather than less, if you are currently partially or completely vegetarian. All three food chains in the book are at least three links long, meaning that they all end with a human eating an animal. The book functions as an exploration of carnivory, from moral as well as ecological and economic angles. Pollan returns from his journalistic travels with a view that is far from simple.

Part of his journey actually involves temporarily becoming vegetarian, out of a sense that he couldn't adequately cover meat as a journalist if he ate the stuff. Pollan's temporary vegetarianism may be the only weak point of the book; it isn't clear whether he was actually vegetarian for a significant length of time, or whether he ever seriously considered staying that way, so his statements on behalf of "us vegetarians" are a bit suspect. More interesting is his reporting of various forms of meat production, particularly the second half of the second section.

The second section covers what Pollan calls the pastoral food chain, which begins with grass, and here is is possible to follow the meal from sun to plant to animal to plate, because all the steps happen on the same farm. I won't summarize the entire section (or the rest of the book), but in discussing grass-fed beef, Pollan makes the point that vegetables are not necessarily more sustainable than meat. Yes, I know that eating higher on the food chain automatically means you're consuming more energy. This is simple physics. If the planet were a homogenous sphere of interchangeable resources, and if the idea were simply to maximize human carrying capacity, then yes, we should all be vegetarians. But in the real world, well-managed pasture is sometimes better for the land then a vegetable plot is. How a human being can eat lightly on the land depends on what land the human is trying to eat on. And in a landscape that includes grasslands already, raising livestock simply means adding a species to the existing mix of grazers. Raising crops on the same land means killing or displacing all the animals and plants who could have shared that land with cattle. As to animal rights, the animals Pollan meets appear to be happy while they live. The wild animals he does not meet, but who likely share the same pasture, are not irrelevant to the moral calculation.

I have visited a farm similar to the one Pollan visited, incidentally, on a field trip in graduate school. It looked much as described, and seeing something in person that one has previously read about is always a tickle. That the tour we received covered the same material, the same procedures, ideas, and philosophy, as what Michael Pollan heard on his tour of a different farm may be regarded as a reassuring second opinion. That our professor had spent a decade studying grazing ecology and appeared to approve of this guy may be regarded as further confirmation yet.

But again, the point of the book is not to convince anyone but to provide food for thought (about food). If you haven't thought much about food before, it's an appatizer, and should be enough to get you started. If you're an old hand, this book may still give you a new idea or two.

Which is why you need to read this book.

Pollan, M. (2006). The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Penguin Press: New York, NY.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating: by Mark Bitman

This is the first book recommendation to come out of my "contest." The reason it is first is pretty simple; it's the one that I could find at the local library. At least a dozen or so recommendations came out of the contest, and I intend to read at least two or three--I may eventually do all of them--but only one turned up in the local library system. Not the local library, the local library system. For reasons unknown to me, they can't borrow books from libraries outside of their system, which means I suppose I shall have to either add to my own library, or hole up in some university library and look studious. I really miss the college library where I was an undergrad. They could get any book in the world for you and mail it to you, no matter where you were. Sigh.


But this is a good book. It's not a great book--there's very little in Food matters that some other author doesn't cover as well or better, but the thing is Bitman manages to cover all of the topic. And he does it in a friendly, accessible way.

The topic is the environmental and nutritional problems with the standard American diet, plus suggestions on how to eat better. There is history, ecology, politics, nutrition, climate science, the author's personal history, recipes...and the recipes are my kind of recipes. Here's one;

about two pounds of any vegetable, prepped appropriately.
lemon juice or olive oil, as you like
herbs or seasonings (optional)

boil or steam the vegetables, then add what you want so it tastes good.

I've edited that rather severely--he did have a bit more detail--but that's the gist of it. And that's how I cook, and how I learn about cooking. This isn't recipe as algorithm, it's walking a relative newbie through thinking about how to work with food.

Food does matter. Food matters because it is the stuff we build and fuel our bodies with, for better or worse. Food matters because food production is a major industry, and our collective choices about it dictate much of the course of our economy. Food matters because food production is a major part of human environmental impact, and our choices about it dictate much of the course of our biosphere. Food matters because, as a necessity for life, who controls food production and how is an axis of history. Food is what my thesis adviser would call a lever--something one does well to pay attention to, because it makes other things move.

All of that is here, at least in an introductory way. If it is not already obvious to you that food matters, you need to read this book.

And if it is already obvious to you, the book is still worth a gander, because where Bitman makes mistakes, the mistakes are food for thought.

For example, in the Introduction he says that "Global warming, of course, was accidental. Even 30 years ago we couldn't know that pollution was more than stinky air." That just isn't true. Assuming that those words were written somewhat before the copyright date of 2009, that means he's talking roughly about the year of my birth. OK. Except I learned about man-made global warming, including the possibility of sea-level rise, when I was no more than seven or eight years old. My Dad told me about it. I'm a science geek and a daughter of a science geek and a scientist (my mother trained as a geologist and has spent her career cleaning up contaminated sites) so I learned about a lot of things kind of young, but there is no way an eight-year-old, no matter how geeky, was one of the first people in the country to hear about global warming.

The Mona Loa Observatory has been recording the changing atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide since 1956, a study initiated because some scientists were concerned that human-caused climate change might be happening ( In 1977, that study had already collected twenty-one years of data confirming the scientists' suspicions. That carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas was discovered in the mid 1800's, by the way, according to John Houghton (in a book I recommended to you last November). It's simply a well-known property of the gas.

I don't know how old Mark Bitman is, but I'm pretty sure he's closer to my parents' age than to mine, and that he remembers 1977 clearly. Why he asserts that we "couldn't" know something in that year that pretty much every expert in the subject actually did know is puzzling.

My personal challenge to anyone is to see how many times Bitman makes these interesting mistakes; they're common mistakes, in one way or another, and if you can catch them all you're probably doing pretty well with your personal science literacy.

One of the things Bitman is not mistaken about is his assertion that it is impossible to feed all living human beings as much meat per capita as the average American eats, and it is impossible to produce as much meat as is currently eaten without recourse to factory farming. You can come to the issue from ethics, economics, environmentalism, environmental justice, or nutrition, but then there is physics; certain things are not so much wrong--or not merely wrong--as physically impossible, not an option. One of the things that is not an option is any substantial change in global food production without an associated change in consumption. Sorry.

Bitman never says "you must," or "you are a bad person if you don't." He says these are your options, here are some suggestions, now think about this. And, by the way, here's how I eat, here's how I prepare food, and it tastes pretty good. I'm healthier, too.

So think about it. Read this book.

Bitman, M. (2009). Food matters: A guide to conscious eating. Simon & Schuster: New York, NY