Thursday, October 2, 2014

Rereading Howard's End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from HomeJust as Susan Hill revisits favorite and forgotten books in this charming memoir, I bought myself a copy and read it again, appreciating it more, I think, than two years ago, since I'd read and heard of more of the writers she covers.

The book begins with Ms. Hill going to the shelf on the landing to look for a book and not finding it; instead, she finds several other books which she's never read or forgotten she owned (or both). This sparks a resolution to read almost exclusively (with the exception of review copies) from books on her shelves; in other words, to buy no new books for a whole year, in itself a daunting resolve. But I'm certainly glad she decided to, for in Howards End is on the Landing, Hill charts her way through many books both famous and obscure, musing on the way about all sorts of things, from the Internet ("Too much internet usage fragments the brain and dissipates concentration...Information comes pre-digested in small pieces, one grazes on endless ready-meals and snacks of the mind, and the result is mental malnutrition...) to people to writing. I really liked that quote about the Internet; there's a bit more before, between and after the ellipses, but her general idea is there, and it's all too true.

Fourteen books ended up on my radar as of interest because of this book, and for that alone it's worth reading; Susan Hill introduced me to several interesting sounding authors who I'd never even heard of before. The book is concise and never boring, yet Hill does manage to cover a lot of ground, musing on a wide range of genres and authors, from classic mystery to Charles Dickens to W.G. Sebald. In between, she writes about literary experiences in her own life, from childhood trips to the library to becoming a member of an exclusive London library in college. She does sometimes boast about the famous writers she's had encounters with, but I suppose one can hardly blame her. Who wouldn't wish to recount bumping into E.M. Forster in the aforementioned library?

Much of my copy was bookmarked, because I found so many interesting passages and so many mentions of interesting books. Hill expounds upon books both famous and forgotten, classic and contemporary. One book that I'm really eager to read now is Virginia Woolf's A Writer's Diary; since reading A Room of One's Own, I haven't yet found another Woolf work to love wholeheartedly, and according to Hill A Writer's Diary is simply marvelous; she said it shaped her and led her to discover the rest of Woolf's oeuvre. I do need to try reading To the Lighthouse again as well, because Ms. Hill highly recommends it too

Susan Hill is both genteel and sharp; she's educated, refined, and reasonable, but not afraid to be critical of books and mindsets she is scornful of. And I loved that; that's my favorite kind of voice to spend an afternoon with, someone who's polished, well-spoken, elegant, and sharply clever. I was also quite fond of her British style, and envious of her vast and jumbled library. But now I have this volume for mine.

234 pages.

Rating: *****

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Thing with Feathers, Noah Strycker

The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being HumanImagine what might happen if birds studied us. Which human traits would catch their interest? How would they draw conclusions?

"Birds are highly intelligent animals, yet their intelligence is dramatically different from our own and has been little understood. As scientists come to understand more about the secrets of bird life, they are unlocking fascinating insights into memory, game theory, and the nature of intelligence itself. The Thing with Feathers explores the astonishing homing abilities of pigeons, the good deeds of fairy-wrens, the influential flocking abilities of starlings, the deft artistry of bowerbirds, the extraordinary memories of nutcrackers, the lifelong loves of albatross, and other mysteries—revealing why birds do what they do, and offering a glimpse into our own nature."

Despite the fact that its chatty nature was not dissimilar to Frankenstein's Cat, for some reason The Thing With Feathers charmed rather than annoyed me. It's not really hardcore, meticulously researched science, and it didn't ultimately come away with any grand conclusions about humanity, but the book was interesting and full of fascinating anecdotes. Although I was disappointed that crows and ravens were not given a section, I certainly learned a lot about many other types of birds (nutcrackers, a type of corvid, are featured).

The Thing With Feathers is divided into thirteen chapters, each focusing on a single trait of a specific species of bird. There are also three parts: body, mind, and spirit. In each section, Strycker muses on the nature of avian brainpower, and whether in certain cases these qualities are really a mark of intelligence or not. But that of courses poses the question of how one even defines intelligence, particularly in regards to animals. Because as Stycker reveals, there are plenty of astonishing things that birds can do that we cannot even begin to.

He begins with the seemingly miraculous navigational ability of the homing pigeon; in experiments, all outside stimulus that humans use to navigate was blocked off, and yet pigeons still managed to find their way home over hundreds of miles, despite being knocked out, blinded, and more. It seems pretty clear that pigeons are able to use magnetic fields to navigate, to name one example. This is certainly something humans are incapable of. So are pigeons smarter than us in this respect? 

Each chapter was fascinating in its own way, with lots of interesting tidbits of information; I learned a lot about various bird species, including starlings, hummingbirds, penguins, snowy owls, and vultures. Birds are just so enigmatic sometimes, and Noah Strycker conveys their mystery very well, especially with the snowy owls, who for no apparent reason come very far south in some years.

Vultures, too, are fascinating, if somewhat disgusting. Strycker chronicles several centuries worth of vulture experiments, all of which attempted to determine whether vultures use sight or smell to locate carcasses. His conclusions are surprising....

For those interested in avian behavior, The Thing with Feathers is a charming book worth reading. It's not very studious or in-depth, but I enjoyed it. 

263 pages. 

Rating: ****

A Return?

Sorry for my radio silence over the past...three months. I'm not really sure what happened, but I'm going to try to start posting and reviewing again occasionally. Things are really busy right now, but hopefully I can find time. No promises.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, Michael Pollan

In Defense of Food: An Eater's ManifestoEat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.

The Omnivore's Dilemma revealed the dark underbelly of our modern food industry and discussed the ethics of it all; In Defense of Food talks specifically about the rise of "nutritionism", nutrition, and also how to start eating well and healthy again. The book was interesting enough, but a lot of it was old news to me, and it wasn't as thought out or as in depth as The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Still, the book was absorbing enough; I finished it fairly quickly, and parts of it were new to me. It was somewhat disheartening too; it's very difficult to find good sauces and such that do not contain hundreds of unpronounceable names (and usually high fructose corn syrup). They're all so terrible...

Pollan also discusses in depth the lipid phobia that seized the country in the second half of the 20th century. It's always a mistake to demonize one macronutrient and glorify another; on a low-fat diet, Americans have gotten fatter. Of course, I already knew much of this, but what was interesting to me was that the evidence that saturated fat actually increase chances of heart disease is quite sketchy. After all, it could be that diets high in saturated fat don't have as many vegetables and fruits, and that nutrients there keep the heart healthy. Or it could be due to entirely other factors.

Something that was fairly new to me was the whole general concept of "nutritionism": focusing on nutrients rather than food. Because frankly, there are so many factors to nutrition that it's nearly impossible to just break it down to nutrients and vitamins and minerals; there might be something else we're entirely overlooking. Pollan talks about the shift from talking about food to talking about nutrients in government policy; you see, food has lobbies and powerful interests. Nutrients do not. This was an area I didn't know much about, and was probably the most interesting part of the book. As was the history of flawed studies and misinformation that has plagued government healthy policy.

The thing was, Pollan spends all this time talking about how little is known about what's good and bad for you, and how it's a mistake to look too much at nutrients, but then he does pretty much the same thing in the second part of the book, praising omega-3's benefits and so on. Now I'm sure it's true that omega-3 fatty acids are needed (it's just common sense), but it seemed rather hypocritical to me. He does acknowledge that he's doing what he just criticized, but I still found it annoying.

At any rate, The Omnivore's Dilemma is the much better, more sophisticated and thoughtful book, but In Defense of Food was a quick overview of the history of modern nutrition, our current issues, and what to do about them.

201 pages.

Rating: ****

Greenglass House, Kate Milford

There is a right way to do things and a wrong way, if you're going to run a hotel in a smugglers' town. 

"A rambling old inn, a strange map, an attic packed with treasures, squabbling guests, theft, friendship, and an unusual haunting mark this smart middle grade mystery in the tradition of the Mysterious Benedict Society books and Blue Balliet’s Chasing Vermeer series."

Greenglass House was a quirky and rather amusing middle grade mystery; it was a light read that definitely hit the spot. Although it started better than it finished, I ultimately enjoyed it. The Boneshaker is a much better book though. 

The main character of Greenglass House is a Milo, a boy of about twelve who lives in a beautiful old house at the top of a hill, and not just any house. It's a smuggler's inn, and was originally owned by the famous smuggler of all. One December, normally a quiet season, a group of varied guests converges on the house, each with their own mysterious reasons for being there. Milo and Meddy, the cook's daughter (or so he believes) must figure out what exactly is going on, and whether anyone's there for nefarious purposes (hint: they are).  

Many of the characters are developed quite well, but really the only thing described is the purpose of their traveling to Greenglass House. A lot about each guest's backstory was left untold. The omission of one character's development also made it pretty obvious who the bad guy was as well. Nevertheless, I think younger readers will be engaged by the book, and I was certainly charmed, especially by the whole motif of storytelling woven throughout the book. 

One of my complaints in recent times with middle grade fiction is that everything feels forced and simplistic. By contrast, Greenglass House flowed quite smoothly, and if some elements of the mystery weren't tied together enough, it still made for an exciting read. It's also pretty much one of those smart middle grade books, featuring an intelligent protagonist and an interesting plot. 

The book's tone is really charming and old time; the setting and the some elements of the plot are quite quaint. It's also set right before Christmastime and to me it seemed as if the warmth of the holidays came across well on the page. At first, Milo is annoyed that his holiday has been disrupted, but he gradually starts to enjoy himself and realizes that in the end he's gotten a lot more than just physical gifts from the season. All of this makes the book's August 2014 release rather puzzling; to me, Greenglass House is best read around Christmas (if, unlike me, you celebrate it), and certainly as a warming winter read. The book's just really...cozy. And yet somewhat thrilling at the same time.

The Boneshaker remains my favorite middle grade novel by Kate Milford, but Greenglass House has some of the familiar quirkiness and eccentricity of all of her books. It was just as good as The Broken Lands, if not a little better. I wasn't wild about it,, but Greenglass House is a fun one. I received an ARC of the book from Harcourt; it doesn't release until August. 

373 pages (in the ARC). 

Rating: ****

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four MealsWhat should we have for dinner? This book is a long and fairly involved answer to this seemingly simple question.

"Today, buffeted by one food fad after another, America is suffering from what can only be described as a national eating disorder. Will it be fast food tonight, or something organic? Or perhaps something we grew ourselves? The question of what to have for dinner has confronted us since man discovered fire. But as Michael Pollan explains in this revolutionary book, how we answer it now, as the dawn of the twenty-first century, may determine our survival as a species. Packed with profound surprises, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is changing the way Americans thing about the politics, perils, and pleasures of eating."

The Omnivore's Dilemma is a fascinating and disturbing look at the state of the modern food industry, and at the alternatives that exist. Pollan chronicles the rise of monoculture farming and the advent of corn as the base of industrial agriculture. He visits many places that are a part of this system and some places that are defying it. What he comes back with is a very sobering portrait, yet there is some hope too. 

Before reading this book, I'd seen "Food, Inc." and read about the topic in some other sources, but I still learned a great deal in The Omnivore's Dilemma. It provides a lot more information in certain areas than the film; Pollan actually explains a whole lot in a clear, concise, and fascinating way. He starts off discussing corn, and how a combination of lack of forethought, industrial muscle, and the need to feed everyone made farms in places like Iowa shift from growing many fruits and vegetables to growing one (or in some cases, two). It's quite frightening, particularly when most of the corn isn't actually going towards human consumption. Instead, it's fed to cows living in miserable conditions, where it wreaks havoc on their digestive systems. Cows are not meant to eat corn; for thousands of years they have co-evolved with grass, so that the two organisms both benefit from the transaction. Corn causes all sorts of harmful bacteria to develop in the cow's rumen. The industrial giants' solution? Give the cattle antibiotics, which due to their power and influence are not forbidden. You don't even want to know what else goes into the cow's diet; sometimes they're fed recycled beef tallow from the slaughtering plant, and all sorts of other unhealthy supplements are put into their feed to help them bulk up and not be too sick. When in reality grass is all they really need to eat, and they'll be healthy (and healthier for us too). It's ridiculous really, when you think about all the energy and manpower that's put into growing miles and miles of corn, and all the calories that are lost, when grass presumably doesn't take much energy on our part at all (although it does take a lot of calculation). Of course, there are counterarguments; corn certainly is cheaper and easier to feed to cows than grass, and there are a lot of people who need feeding.

Similarly, many would say that grass-fed cows are unsustainable, which might be the case, but why would that really be? Grass and cows sustain each other in a relationship that goes back thousands and thousands of years, and the cows and the grass both are much healthier for it. We don't need to use manpower, fuel energy, or any of it to grow feed for the cows. I'm sure this is much simplified, but Pollan definitely makes a convincing case for a return to agricultural practices before the mid 20th century. He also spends a week living and working at Polyface Farms in Virginia, where the animals (cows, chickens, pigs, rabbits) eat what they're supposed to and lead relatively happy lives before the inevitably unhappy slaughter. I found this section quite interesting; while he kind of slips into idealizing this kind of farming, it's never completely so. After all, the chickens are still slaughtered, but before that everything is managed superbly, so that what would be waste is instead used to fuel the production of more grass or more resources. It's quite amazing, really, how the farmer, Joel Salatin takes advantage of the land and the animals. He's portrayed as a decent fellow, although something of a libertarian. But who can blame him? When it comes to food production, the government is under the thumb of the industry.

Between the hellish feedlots and the idyllic Polyface Farm is the organic industry, which seems like it should be an oxymoron but isn't. Pollan also explores a new phenomenon, the "organic TV dinner", which is just ridiculous. This part of the system was the one I knew least about; it's not really covered in Food Inc, though both Polyface and the bottom barrel are. The fact is, organic companies don't actually care about the organic ideal or about treating animals better; they're just trying to exploit the current interest in organic food. Whole Foods is critiqued: "Lining the walls above the sumptuously stocked produce section in my Whole Foods are full-color photographs of local organic farmers accompanied by text blocks setting forth their farming philosophies. A handful of these farms...still sell their produce to Whole Foods, but most are long gone from the produce bins, if not yet the walls." It's also revealed that just because beef is organic doesn't mean the cows ate grass; instead they receive (organic) feed. And organic chicken does not mean free range; it just means that they must have "access to the outdoors" (an utterly meaningless phrase) at some point in their lives, usually the last two weeks before slaughter, by which time they're used to being inside and have no desire to venture into the little grass lot they're provided with.

Pollan also forages his very own meal...this section was more light-hearted and very fun; I had a relating moment when he talks about chanterelle foraging (the one mushroom I can identify), and I enjoyed his description of the agonies of abalone gathering and the trials of hunting. The meal he makes sounds mouthwatering. 

One criticism that I have of the book in general is that it's definitely directly focused on affluent people, people who can afford to buy high quality meat and produce and not processed foods. That's another tragedy, that the foods that are so terrible for us are so much cheaper. But I suppose this is another issue; The Omnivore's Dilemma basically looks at the ethics of it all, and the industry behind it. I'm currently reading his book In Defense of Food, which more discusses what exactly we should eat.

The Omnivore's Dilemma is an engrossing look at the dark side of the modern food industry and the problems that bedevil it, with no clear solution in sight. However, at least these days there are alternatives. The writing here is really accessible; the book isn't too difficult to understand, yet Pollan writes complexly about complex issues. I raced through the book; despite its length and weighty subject matter, it's really compelling, and I learned so much.

411 pages.

Rating: *****

Saturday, June 7, 2014

An Edible History of Humanity, Tom Standage

An Edible History of HumanityWhat embodies the bounty of nature better than an ear of corn? With a twist of the wrist it is easily plucked from the stalk with no waste or fuss.

"More than simply sustenance, food historically has been a kind of technology, changing the course of human progress by helping to build empires, promote industrialization, and decide the outcomes of wars. Tom Standage draws on archaeology, anthropology, and economics to reveal how food has helped shape and transform societies around the world, from the emergence of farming in China by 7500 b.c. to the use of sugar cane and corn to make ethanol today."

An Edible History of Humanity started off slowly and densely, but as it progressed it got better and more interesting. Each chapter was better than the last. I certainly learned a lot from the book; it also discussed concepts I was somewhat familiar with already. 

An Edible History of Humanity is less than 300 pages, so obviously Standage skips a lot, but overall I felt that the history was fairly comprehensive, beginning with prehistory and then recounting how we gradually shifted from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agrarian lifestyle, and outlining some theories as to why this happened. Standage writes about societies from all over the world to back up his arguments and his facts.

I was actually quite impressed by this book in general, although in some of the later sections I didn't necessarily agree with his arguments about the fate of the modern world. However, throughout the book he cleverly builds a case for his final point: that our world is not as doomed as one might think. He points out that many predicted the downfall of society in the 19th century when population exploded, forecasting that agricultural output would not be able to sustain humanity. However, with the development of new techniques and fertilizers we far surpassed the output of centuries past. It's always true that it's in part because of these very developments that our planet is now in jeopardy and our populations are expanding more than ever. So I wasn't entirely convinced; also Standage's point of view doesn't exactly square with what I see around me. Nevertheless, this facet of the book was quite provocative.

I also enjoyed the historical aspect of the book; Standage very convincingly reveals the way that food has affected many parts of human development and civilization. After all, food is what literally powers us, and the development of various food technologies (farming, cooking, etc.) has had huge ramifications for us in the present. If the ancestor of corn hadn't developed a mutation making it more palatable, who knows how the world would be different? The industrial world as we know it wouldn't even exist. Similarly, the shift from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to domestication was very important. And a little further on, food has helped us develop lots of new technologies, and food has driven the creation of new technologies. Food has also been the symbol of various issues; after all, all human beings need to eat.

There are many instances of human cruelty and folly in this book, but you've got expect that. We've done a lot of terrible things, but some good ones too. An Edible History of Humanity was an excellent and concise history of these follies and successes.

242 pages.

Rating: ****