Environmental

Everybody poops.

I loved, loved, LOVED Rose George's investigative book The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters.

Let me rephrase, as a matter of fact: I would go so far as to say that I would be a totally happy camper if I could find a nonfiction book this good to read every single week. Or perhaps two every week. Two superlative nonfiction titles a week (and the time in which to read them, as long as we're dreaming). I don't ask much, do I?

But I digress. As you can tell from the title, George's book is about all things poo, defecation, sanitation, sewage, toilets, and all sorts of other lovely and earthy topics not normally discussed in polite company (the author frequently points out, for example, that everyone, including celebrities, want to be involved in "clean water" campaigns, but nobody wants to deal with the less glamorous "sanitation" part of "water and sanitation").

George had me from the second chapter*, in which she has much to say about TOTO, a Japanese toilet manufacturing company. They take their toilets very, very seriously in Japan, so TOTO takes its product very seriously as well. And I chuckled each time I read the name--we own a TOTO toilet of our own here at Chez CR, and we've always been very happy with it.**

The book is not all lighthearted--George points out fairly early on that 2.6 billion people in the world don't have sanitation (as of 2008, when this book was first published). And then she puts that into context for first-world readers: "I don't mean that they have no toilet in their house and must use a public one with queues and fees. Or that they have an outhouse, or a rickety shack that empties into a filthy drain or pigsty. All that counts as sanitation, though not a safe variety. The people who have those are the fortunate ones. Four in ten people have no access to any latrine, toilet, bucket, or box. Nothing. Instead, they defecate by train tracks and in forests. They do it in plastic bags and fling them through the air in narrow slum alleyways. If they are women, they get up at 4 a.m. to be able to do their business under cover of darkness for reasons of modesty, risking rape and snakebites. Four in ten people live in situations where they are surrounded by human excrement because it is in the bushes outside the village or in their city yards, left by children outside the backdoor. It is tramped back in on their feet, carried on fingers onto clothes, food, and drinking water." (p. 2.)

Ooof. A paragraph like that'll make you think, especially when it appears on the second page of the book, for the love of all that's holy.

And yet she has a lovely light touch with her subject, and although she doesn't really insert herself in the narrative, her voice is delightful. I found her style somewhat similar to Mary Roach's, but I liked George's tone and prose so much better--Roach sometimes gets a bit "twee" for me and I get tired of her endless footnotes, some of which are funny but which mostly end up being just distracting.

So why did I check this book out? George has a new book coming out, called Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, about worldwide shipping, and that sounds very good too. While I was waiting for it, I thought I'd read this earlier title, and now that I know how good this author is, I'm really excited to get the new book.

*The first chapter, on sewers, is excellent also.

**I may be the first person in the world who demanded that my plumber charge me more when he replaced our broken-down toilet a few years back. He offered a standard Mansfield, and I had to explain, "Look, this is our ONE toilet, and how can I put this delicately, we need a workhorse here." So he gave us the TOTO, which cost more, and has been worth every penny. It was put in on my birthday (a great present), and lives in family and house lore as "Toto the Birthday Toilet."


The serendipity of finding titles, part two.

If you'll remember, yesterday I wrote about my lazy person's way of stumbling upon a wide variety of titles that I want to read in my library's catalog. The books in question were Wisdom of the Last Farmer: Harvesting Legacies from the Land (by David Mas Masumoto), and Harvesting the Bay: Fathers, Sons and the Last of the Wild Shellfishermen (by Ray Huling).

I really wanted to read it, but I didn't actually get the chance to start the Masumoto book before it had to go back to the library. Instead, for whatever reason, I picked up the second book (Harvesting the Bay) one night when I couldn't sleep. Ray Huling's investigative memoir about the shellfishermen on Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay (quahoggers) is a mix of work/job reporting and sociological history combined with personal memoir (as Huling comes from a long line of such shellfishermen). I came to think of it as "Studs Terkel meets Michael Perry."

I really liked Huling's personal insight into a job I'd never heard anything about. And a lot of what he had to say eerily echoed my own personal experience as the daughter of a farmer (another labor-intensive, singular profession):

"My father and grandfather also trained me to regret the loss of large numbers of hours to work, another dissuasion from my professional activities. One of the great attractions of quahogging is the trade-off it provides: You work hard so you don't have to work a lot. There's an adage for this: Quahoggers ain't lazy, but they don't want to work. This is something they say about themselves. It's an idea virtually unknown to the community of people outside the quahogging fold. The sentiment resides in me, but I am no quahogger, which, again, leaves me ill-prepared for the wonderful opportunities afforded me by a life of mental labor. This doesn't mean that I myself am motivated to do the right thing. I am caught between the bullraker and the world he righteously derides. If my position were grander, it would be tragic: I have all of the bullraker's scorn and none of his discipline." (p. 36.)

I really enjoyed that. I've never been very good at office or full-time professional work, and I always thought at least part of that was my upbringing on the farm. I never had any patience for meetings or any work that seemed more like "make work" than actually producing anything of value (like food).

Huling also had interesting things to say on the broader economic and social impact of the profession of shellfishing:

"On the national level, the proper action is so clear and obvious as to be banal: universal, single-payer health care. Sustainable food relies on people who perform hard manual labor, and the society that benefits from their suffering should do its best to alleviate it in the most direct way. Mike McGiveney wasn't kidding when he said that the cost of health care drove quahoggers off the water. The rising cost of insurance, insurance companies' pernicious attempts to deny care at every opportunity, and the willingness of health-care professionals to abet the insurance companies convinced many guys that the very communities they had helped to feed would throw them to the wolves once their bodies gave out after years of toil." (p. 265.)

As you can see from the text snippets I've provided, this is not narrative-driven writing that you just fly through. It's more along the lines of Wendell Berry writing, where you have to read a little bit and then take a break to digest it. At times it's a bit dry, a bit too technical about how quahogging works, but overall it's a fascinating, fascinating read. Consider checking it out.


The serendipity of finding titles.

The hot topic in library readers' advisory circles and bookselling for a while now has been "book discoverability."

Of course, this is nothing new. People who suggest and sell books have always talked about ways to help people who love to read books to find them. And it's always been (and always will be?) a somewhat tricky proposition, no matter what all the new social media book discoverability sites try to tell you.

So how do I most often find books? Well, for one thing, I'm very lucky that my tastes in nonfiction in particular are quite democratic. I'm promiscuous subject-wise; if I hear of a book that sounds interesting or is by an author I like, I'll most likely check it out, regardless of what its subject is (unless that subject is World War II, which I tend to avoid at all costs). So mainly what I do is a very unscientific mix of reading about books wherever I can--in magazines, on blogs, on those little tags that they have at Barnes and Noble that say "so and so who works here recommends"--and then either getting them from the library or wandering through the library catalog and seeing what else pops up around the title I was interested in.

That's right: no TBR Excel spreadsheets or lists around here. I just wander around cyberspace and anyplace else I can find books and wait for some to whack me in the face.

A case in point was this summer, when I read at Kim Ukura's excellent nonfiction blog Sophisticated Dorkiness, that she was working on a book called Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville, by Witold Rybczynski. (It's a book about urban/suburban development.) I can never remember how to spell Witold's last name, and I certainly can't pronounce it, but I do enjoy his writing, so this suggestion caught my eye.* So then I took myself off to my library catalog, and looked it up by title: last harvest. And here's my favorite thing about my library's catalog, it pulls up all the titles with those two words in them, which led me to two unrelated titles. From that search, I found two nonfiction books titled Wisdom of the Last Farmer: Harvesting Legacies from the Land (by David Mas Masumoto), and Harvesting the Bay: Fathers, Sons and the Last of the Wild Shellfishermen (by Ray Huling).

When I think back on how I find books, I realize it's actually a little shocking how much I depend upon and enjoy "book discoverability by serendipity." I also refer to it as the "lazy person's way to find books," because often when I do these loose title searches, I'll find three to five wildly unrelated nonfiction (and sometimes even fiction) books, and that keeps me busy for a while.

More later this week on actually reading these books. In the meantime: How do you "discover" the books you want to read?

*It turned out, after I'd requested and gotten the book from the library, that I thought I'd already read it (and enjoyed it, even if I couldn't remember much about it). So after all that, I didn't end up reading the original book I'd searched for.


A proud moment for the CR family.

Yesterday at the library CRjr picked out...his very first nonfiction choice: Bobcats, by Jennifer L. Marks.

CRjr usually gets one book at the library, and he's pretty good about picking them out himself. Now, by "picking it out," what I mean, of course, is that he grabs something at random off the shelf and goes with it. But he seems to have good luck--he usually plucks a couple off the shelves, and we take whichever one he ends up seeming most interested in.*

Bobcats was a good choice; we've enjoyed it at home a few times since. In case you're wondering, bobcats can weigh from 16 to 30 pounds and live about 12 years in the wild.

CRjr has another library tradition: he always holds his own book on the way home (sometimes we walk there, but most often I walk and he rides in his umbrella stroller, with the handy pouch in the back for my books--CRjr gets one book at a time from the library, for now, but Mama gets as many as she can carry). I'm not real gushy, but I'd be lying if I said it isn't the cutest thing ever.

*And we put the unwanted ones back, in the right places, because once you're a librarian, you're always a librarian.


Jim Ottaviani strikes again.

I don't read as much science nonfiction as I should, I'll admit.

This is a puzzler, because I have liked almost all of the few science books I have plowed through over the years. I think I have to be in the right mood and the right place mentally--science nonfiction, even popular science nonfiction, seems to demand a bit more attention and reading in longer chunks of time than I often have these days. But when I find a short science title by an author I have always enjoyed...I bring it right home.

A case in point last week was Jim Ottaviani's (and Maris Wicks's) young adult graphic novel Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas. When I saw this on the shelf on the library, I got all excited; I love Jim Ottaviani. I'm not a huge reader of graphic nonfiction but Ottaviani's artwork is easy to follow and his treatment of often complicated scientific precepts (and biography of scientists, often complicated individuals in their own rights) is clear enough that even I can grasp most of what he's explaining.

In this short volume, Ottaviani and his co-author Wicks provide brief overviews of the lives, educations, and work of primate naturalists and scientists Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas (of whom I'd never even heard before picking up this book). The book is under 140 pages long, so you can imagine that most of the discussion of their work among the animals, and their very differing personalities, is superficial at best. So although the book left me vaguely unsatisfied, I do think it functioned well as a great introduction to primate science and three fascinating women. It left me wanting more, which all really great books do (I think), and provides a very nice bibliography if you're inclined to go find more to read on these subjects.


All-natural living.

I read Nathanael Johnson's investigative memoir All Natural: A Skeptic's Quest to Discover If the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing, and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier back when I was mired in a sea of downer books. It's not really a downer book itself, but I definitely learned some things in it that I found somewhat depressing.

Johnson's concept is simple. Himself the product of counterculture whose parents birthed him at home, tried to feed him natural foods (before doing such a thing was all the rage), and encouraged him to play outside rather than in front of the TV, he grew up to be somewhat skeptical of that lifestyle. When he married and faced the concept of fatherhood, he decided to review the arc of his own life and try to determine whether the "all natural" technique really was better.

The book is organized somewhat chronologically, opening with chapters on birth and eating, and moving outwards towards larger topics like the environment and agriculture. I enjoyed it--there was some interesting information and Johnson's writing was personable--but I didn't love it. In fact, there were a few chapters where I might have skimmed more than read (the environmental one comes to mind, although there was interesting stuff there too about how forests grow and change "naturally"). In the end, I felt, Johnson didn't really answer his own subtitle, although I never really expected him to. His conclusions about nature v. technology worked out to be somewhat "well, it depends," but at least he explains his findings well in his conclusion, arguing that too much dependence on either can lead us astray. All of that aside, here were a few of the tidbits in the book that really stuck with me:

"The total number of women dying was still minuscule compared to the turn of the century: Maternal mortality had gone from 6 deaths per 100,000 births to 14 per 100,000 births in 2006.* But more troubling than the total number of deaths was the implication that the best efforts of obstetrical medicine to improve health had perhaps done just the opposite. When the California researchers, speaking at a conference, got to the slide showing a graph of this increase, there were gasps from the audience of obstetricians.

The numbers hit home when I did the math and found that it had been safer to give birth in 1978 (when I was born), than it would be for Beth [his wife] to deliver in 2011, if the upward trend continued." (p. 12.)

I've just been looking through a chapter for the other quote I remembered, but can't find it, so I'll just say that two other parts of the book that stuck with me were the parts on agriculture (which have now put me off supermarket pork) and health care (about which the author says, if you need amazing technological care or surgery for a huge, weird problem, the U.S. is where you want to be, but if you want any sort of broader outlook or help simply for minimizing smaller health problems in general, our health care system is not for you).

An interesting read. And not really a downer, which was a nice change of pace.

*Somewhere in the book, although I can't find it now, he also clarifies that this increase is seen even after controlling for factors such as older mothers having babies and maternal obesity.


Nonfiction educates us, whether we want it to or not.

So I read Florence Williams's really fascinating book Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History almost entirely in the bathroom, and skipped around quite a bit among chapters, but I still enjoyed it. What I MOST enjoyed, however, was that Mr. CR evidently spent some time in the bathroom reading it as well. This is how his experiences with the book progressed:

The first day he came out of the bathroom and said, "Wow, breasts are really interesting."*

The second day he came out of the bathroom and said, "Thinking about what's all floating around in the environment, that's pretty weird."

The third day he came out of the bathroom and said, "I can't read that Breasts book anymore." And I think he really did stop reading it.

So what was the breaking point for Mr. CR? I think it was reading about all the chemicals and toxins in our environment, and how our bodies (womens' breasts, in particular) suck up and synthesize and deal with all those said toxins. But this book was about much more than just that.

I'd probably classify this book as popular science with a good dose of sociology thrown in: Williams discusses the anthropological and cultural history of our breasts, and also talks to a lot of scientists and researchers about their various studies, from the more sociological (male preferences for breast sizes) to the more genetic (including undertaking the chemical analysis of her own breast milk). I think that's the chapter where Mr. CR started to lose it, because you start to find information like this, on why flame retardants show up in everyone's breast milk:

"As one industry website proclaimed, 'Today, polyurethanes can be found in virtually everything we touch--our desks, chairs, cars, clothes, footwear, appliances, beds, the insulation in our walls, roof and molding on our homes.'

There's just one problem: it's highly flammable, earning nicknames like liquid gas and fatal foam. A typical home filled with polyurethane products can literally burst into flames in five minutes once the petrochemical gasses heat up enough. Much household and office foam is treated with flame-retardans designed to delay ignition. The substances, which include bromine, chlorine, and phosphorus versions, came into widespread use after 1975..." (p. 202.)

And that sort of information, coupled with the science of how breast tissue, more so than other body tissues, sucks up environmental ingredients and interacts with them, is what starts to freak a reader out.

Depressing subject matter notwithstanding, I really enjoyed this one.** I like a good science read that isn't completely dumbed down but which is still within my understanding, and Williams has a nice writing style. She reminds me a bit of Mary Roach, but I like her better--Roach seems (to me, anyway) to be becoming increasingly cutesy in her science writing.

So do give this one a try. If nothing else you'll probably be amused by the photos on the front and back covers. Very clever.

*This still makes me giggle. You think it's interesting reading about them, guys? Try walking around with the complex buggers.

*I know The Lesbrarian swears by Stacked, and I mean to read that one too, but I think I enjoyed the heavier emphasis on science topics that this book offered.


Where will the next big epidemic come from?

Would you believe I spent the past week blowing through a book on diseases (primarily caused by viruses) that cross over from animals to humans?*

Well, I did, and it was a fantastic read. The book in question was David Quammen's Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, it's 520 pages long, and yes, it's about disease and human pandemics, and I could not put it down.

This came as somewhat of a surprise, since I've looked at some of Quammen's other science/natural history books, and found them somewhat dull. So either this is just a subject that I find interesting (and I do), or he took his style up a notch in this one, or I didn't give his earlier books a fair trial. All possibilities.

To be specific, Quammen reports on "zoonoses"--diseases that are communicable from animals to humans (thanks, Merriam-Webster's). Here's some introductory information from Quammen:

"Ebola is a zoonosis. So is bubonic plague. So was the so-called Spanish influenza of 1918-1919, which had its ultimate source in a wild aquatic bird and, after passing through some combination of domesticated animals (a duck in southern China, a sow in Iowa?) emerged to kill as many as 50 million people before receding into obscurity. All of the human influenzas are zoonoses. So are monkeypox, bovine tuberculosis, Lyme disease, West Nile fever, Marburg virus disease, rabies, hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, anthrax, Lassa fever..." (p. 21).

So yes, a real upper subject. But Quammen makes it very compelling, tracing the emergence, outbreaks, study and history, and other aspects of a variety of zoonoses, from Hendra to Ebola to influenza to HIV. It's quick-paced, particularly for science writing, and there's a ton of fascinating things to learn here. Did you know, for instance, that HIV might have "spilled over" from animal to human hosts as early as 1908? I didn't.

It's a really fascinating book. I wouldn't read it right before you get on an airplane, or if you live near a lot of bats. Otherwise, do have at.

*Although, check out that freaky cover. Mr. CR is reading it now, and I've had to request that he put it down facedown, because the cover freaks me out.


Holy downer book, Batman.

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt
by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco
Powells.com

If you're looking to become suicidally depressed, have I got the book for you.

A few weeks ago I was actually browsing my library's "Serendipity Collection"--a shelf of books that are new, bestselling, or otherwise popular, and for which there are usually long waiting lists, but in that small collection they are available on a first come, first serve basis. I place a lot of holds, and normally have a pile of books to pick up and check out, but nothing great had been coming in for me, so I thought I'd look around. So I ended up checking out Chris Hedges's and Joe Sacco's investigative work Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.

According to Hedges's intro, the pair (Hedges is a journalist; Sacco is a graphic novelist/journalist) "set out two years ago to take a look at the sacrifice zones, those areas in the country that have been offered up for exploitation in the name of profit, progress, and technological advancement. We wanted to show in words and drawings what life looks like when the marketplace rules without constraints, where human beings and the natural world are used and then discarded to maximize profit."

So yeah. You're starting to see where the suicidal depression comes in, right?

The book is comprised of four chapters on "destruction": in journalism and graphic novelettes the two tell the stories of people they found on the Native American reservation at Pine Ridge South Dakota (poverty, alcoholism, drug dealing); Camden, N.J. (a former industrial/dock town where immigrants used to find the American dream and now poverty and lawlessness rule, along with racial tensions and violence); a coal-mining region of West Virginia (where mountaintops are being blown off, there are very few coal jobs to work anymore, and everyone has diabetes or other health conditions from breathing in coal dust); and Immokalee, Florida, where illegal immigrants work in modern-day slavery. A fifth and final chapter titled "Days of Revolt" centers on the Occupy protests in New York City.

It's so sad, but I couldn't stop reading it. On the other hand, I don't know if I can recommend it. Really. I know the authors meant the last chapter in particular to be inspiring, but I just can't help feeling that the Occupy protests were not enough to offset the relentless misery in the first four chapters. What I did find inspiring, actually, was one of the graphic novelettes in the Camden, N.J., chapter, featuring a woman named Lolly Davis, who not only worked and took care of her own children, but also raised other people's children, and in one memorable story, during race riots in the city, warned her white neighbors across the way to "put something red in their window" (as a rioter had told Davis to do) so rioters would leave them alone.

I thought the format was done well too--I'll admit I skipped ahead and read most of the graphic novel bits before I read the rest of the text. But that was to be expected--I've never been much of a Chris Hedges fan. I find him a bit histrionic in all his books (I wasn't overfond of his title War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, either). Here's what he has to say towards the end of his narrative:

"The game, however, is up. The clock is ticking toward internal and external collapse. Even our corporate overlords no longer believe the words they utter. They rely instead on the security and surveillance state for control. The rumble of dissent that rises from the Occupy movements terrifies them. It creates a new narrative. It exposes their exploitation and cruelty. And it shatters the absurdity of their belief system." (p. xii.)

Okay, sure. I wish the game really were up, but I suspect it is not, and won't be for a long time, even with continuing Occupy protests. But that's just me. Do read the book sometime, but do me a favor and make sure you're not depressed when you start (although whether you should blow a happy mood with it either, I just don't know).


2012 nonfiction trends: part 3.

To me, it seems that a third trend in 2012 nonfiction titles is a focus on Environmental and Natural History titles.

I have absolutely nothing against Environmental titles; many of them have been written by some of my favorite authors (Rachel Carson and Wendell Berry, I'm looking at you). All the same, I can't say that there is anything in the spreadsheet (under Environmental writing) or on this list that I really, really must read any time soon. Although Richard Fortey's Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants that Time Left Behind does sound kind of interesting.

So there's my ideas about 2012 nonfiction trends: politics, comforting history and historical biography, and environmental titles. If you'd like to see a PDF version of the talk I gave, here it is (or you can click on the Nonfiction Trends 2012 (OWLS) link at the right).

What I want to know is: do you agree with these trends? Have you been noticing any nonfiction trends? (I also think that there's fewer memoirs coming out this year, although I think they'll continue to be popular with readers.) Any trends that you'd LIKE to see?


Even the word "mooncup" makes me shudder.

MoneylessI honestly don't know why I read the entire book The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living, by Mark Boyle.

This entire "living frugal/living without money" genre is one that I never particularly enjoy, but yet I can't stop reading them anyway. I think subconsciously I'm looking for money-saving tips that don't have anything to do with extreme couponing. I already try to spend as little money as possible (I spent the entire summer babying my one pair of shorts along, sometimes hand-washing them, so they didn't develop big holes and I could make them last through the summer), but I do not like couponing.

Unfortunately this book was an extreme version of its kind. Boyle spent a year living in the UK with absolutely no money--living in a trailer, creating his own power/electricity, using a woodstove, biking or hitching anywhere he needed to go, and doing everything he could to get the word out about moneyless living. I guess it wasn't a boring read--I did make it through the whole thing--but I can't say I really enjoyed it. There's a lot of this sort of thing:

"...if I wanted bread, I was going to have to come up with a new solution. And I did. I decided that although I loved bread, it would have to be a treat. Instead, I would sprout the grains. This means sprinkling a layer of rye grains along a couple of stacked, perforated trays and rinsing them with water twice a day until they sprout. This only takes five minutes and so is much less effort, for more nutritional gain, than making bread. Although not quite so pleasing to taste and smell!" (p. 28.)

Oh brother. It's all I can do to get through the day even when I just buy my bread like a sucker.* Experiments like this are just too extreme for me, I'll admit it. But I have to give the guy credit for trying something a little different with his life, and for writing the book about it.

*I also wouldn't be much good as a moneyless woman. Here's what Boyle has to say on certain, ahem, feminine needs: "For coping with periods without money, there is an obvious solution that even I know about: a mooncup. This is a rubber cup, which the user inserts in her vagina to collect the menstrual flow. It's held in place over the cervix by suction." (p. 180.) At the risk of sounding twelve, I've got only two words in response to that idea: icky poo.


Your daily Langewiesche.

I continue to be unsettled in my nonfiction reading, and reading in general. For some reason I am just a bit tired lately--which means I've been reading things like Agatha Christie books. Nothing really to blog about there.

So it's mainly an update today. I did finish William Langewiesche's The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, and liked it even more as I went on. The last segment in the book, on the shipbreaking industry in India (literally: they run old ships aground and then people tear them apart, manually, for the scrap steel), is nothing short of fantastic. What I really like about Langewiesche is how he doesn't really insert himself in the story, but you do get a feeling for how fascinated he is by his subjects. I envy that, kind of. Imagine being engrossed in something and being able to investigate and write about it for your job. Imagine being able to write this kind of prose:

"I went down to the ship when I could, past the ground crews who by now had grown used to my presence. At the torn bow, I climbed through the broken bilge into the huge forward cargo hold, now open to the sky. The ship was mine to wander--up precarious ladders to the main deck high above, through passageways and equipment rooms where the peeling paint and rusted steel gave evidence of the years of wandering and hard use, and ultimately of neglect. Nonetheless, I felt a sort of awe, and was never in a hurry to leave...

The workers did not seem to mind my presence, or even to wonder about it. They appeared sometimes like ghosts, moving fast and in file without speaking. They were very dirty. They were very poor. But they lacked the look of death that I had seen on the men in the Bhavnagar rerolling mill. They were purposeful. Toward the stern, where sunlight streamed through rough-cut ventilation holes and struck the oil-blackened walls, the towering engine room had the Gothic beauty of a cathedral--a monument to the forces of a new world." (pp. 238-239.)

Fantastic.


The view from Detroit.

Even though I live in the Midwest, I sometimes think about Detroit, and it seems as foreign (if not more so) to me as do cities across the world in other countries and cultures. This mainly started when I found some pictures online of an abandoned building in Detroit that was once used to store textbooks and other school items and supplies (the Book Depository). It just looked so sad. Ever since I saw those I have been looking at and reading books about Detroit.

Detroit I found my latest read* on Detroit while I was poking around online looking for reviews of Paul Clemens's superlative investigative title Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant. Detroit Disassembled is a big, gorgeous book of photography, although the photographs are anything beautiful. They document a city in decay.

What we found so jarring about these photographs (Mr. CR carefully looked at the pictures too) is how, whoever abandoned these buildings, seemed to abandon them midway. Nothing seems cleaned out or closed or locked down with any kind of order: in a former high school, desks are piled around haphazardly and science lab equpment sits out on counters; in the book depository, trees grow out of piles of books left jumbled on the floor to rot; in a library branch, the spinner still holds pulp paperbacks. It looks like stills from a horror movie, you know the type, when everyone in a small town just disappears into thin air, leaving their half-eaten meals on a table.

It's a horrible, gorgeous book. It needs to be looked at in conjunction with reading either Paul Clemens's Punching Out or Made in Detroit: A South of 8-Mile Memoir. I sometimes wonder if the whole city shouldn't be emptied and left to decay, and then maintained and visited as some sort of post-apocalyptic theme park (you know: see Alan Weisman's book The World without Us, about the process of how cities would go back to trees without us around, in action!). I'm not saying everyone who lives there would have to leave; maybe they could just live in some new buildings across town and then work jobs in the theme park. Or maybe that's too morbid. It was just an idea. Look at this book and tell me if you don't start having similar ideas.

*I say "read." Mainly I just looked at the pictures, although I did skim the essays by the photographer and by Philip Levine.


Some old favorite authors with new books.

Last week seemed to be the week for reading new books by nonfiction authors I've previously enjoyed. First up: Catherine Friend.

I first came across Friend when I read her memoir Hit by a Farm: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barn, about she and her girlfriend's experiences starting a working farm. Friend's partner, Melissa, was really the one with the interest in farming, so Catherine often just seemed along for the ride. (To which I can relate: I grew up on a farm but would have to be coerced--strongly coerced, say, by a world financial meltdown or apocalypse of some kind--to return to the farm.) That was a fun memoir. I also enjoyed her follow-up, The Compassionate Carnivore, which was a great book about eating meat while still like animals, and which made a strong argument for simply making better choices about the meat you eat (and paying attention to how and where it is raised). In that respect it was about a million times better than Jonathan Safran Foer's pointless Eating Animals.

Sheepish So when I saw her new title, Sheepish: Two Women, Fifty Sheep, and Enough Wool to Save the Planet, I was excited to read it. This one, like her previous books, offers short chapters and a wealth of funny stories, but I struggled to find the cohesive story arc in this one. This is rare, as I am not normally a nonfiction reader who needs a lot of story.* It's divided into five different parts, with Friend chatting variously about the latest farm adventures (including a fascinating chapter about sheep getting pregnant at the wrong time of year); menopausal difficulties; some struggles in her relationship with Melissa; and an appreciation for the farm, the sheep, and particularly their wool. She shares some interesting tidbits about wool, its history, and its properties, but I must confess she lost me on her knitting chapters. Knitting for me is a lot like gardening: It seems like a good hobby and I feel like I should be interested in it, but at the end of the day, knitting comes in at about #434 on the list of things I want to learn how to do in my life, somewhere below curling my eyebrows but above sewing in general.

It was a fun**, quick read, but if you're looking for something more cohesive I'd start with any of Friend's earlier books.

*This is why it annoys me when nonfiction read for recreation is referred to as "narrative nonfiction"--just because something isn't a how-to, doesn't necessarily make it "narrative." But people need labels. I understand.

**It starts with a zap, literally, as Friend describes a young couple's tour of her farm and their reaction to the electric fence: "...the man looks down at the smooth wire running from post to post. 'Is this electric?' I nod. There's a yellow sign hanging from the top wire about thirty feet away. The sign says, 'Warning: Electric Fence...' He can't take his eyes off the fence. 'Would it hurt?' The guy's wife rolls her eyes. 'Honey, don't touch the fence.'" Of course he touches the fence. As a wife who probably (too frequently) rolls her eyes, I got a charge out of that one. Pun intended.


The sound of a happier person reading.

For whatever reasons I have been more tranquil this week. I think it is because I have either a) decided not to think about world events (the fact that states are working to cut worker rights and salaries when we're fighting two pointless and expensive wars--or maybe three--who the fuck knows what the Pentagon is planning for Libya) and culture (books are dead and everybody clearly loves gadgets more than I do, if they can stomach the thought of buying Kindles and iPads and smart phones, oh my), or b) I have just been finding good nonfiction that is helping me keep my mind off all of the above. It might also be because the weather's a bit warmer. Hard telling what goes into the daily soup that is one's state of mind.

Snail One of the books helping to keep me tranquil was Elisabeth Tova Bailey's The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. When I read the review of it at MadREADS, I was intrigued, so I checked it out, although I am not normally one for nature books of any kind. (I make an exception for Rachel Carson. I love her.) The story of this tiny little book is simple: Bailey has been suffering from a neurological malady for many years, and once, when she is completely debilitated and bedridden by her disease, a friend visits her and brings along a snail she found on a walk, thinking simply that Bailey might like it. They fill a pot with violets and dirt and set the snail in it, and soon Bailey is watching the snail navigate its slow and steady way around her home.

Bailey does not share many details about her illness, but it of course colors every page: "Each morning there was a moment, before I had fully awakened, when my mind still groped its clumsy way back to consciousness, my body not yet remembered, reality not yet acknowledged. That moment was always full of pure, sweet, uncontrollable hope. I did not ask for this hope to come; I did not even want it, for it trailed disappointment in its wake. Yet there it was, hovering within me--hope that my illness had vanished with the night and my health had returned magically with daybreak." (p. 21.)

I find her writing both simple and very beautiful, and she brings that sensibility to her descriptions of her snail, as well as to the information she shares about snails that she learns from wide and historical reading. As she moves the snail from her violet pot to a terrarrium and eventually back out into the wild, you get the sense she just felt privileged to interact so closely with another little life. It's not really a happy book, but it's a very hopeful little one. I enjoyed it quite a bit.


Citizen Reader's Holiday Gift Guide: Wendell Berry

If you're looking for a great all-around author who might work for any readers for whom you are seeking gifts, you really don't have to look any farther than Wendell Berry.

The guy's a super-talent. Not only is he a thoughtful human being, but he writes in a variety of formats, and he writes well in all of them.* And, he publishes often enough that even people who are only interested in new books have lots of options. Some of my top picks:

Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food: A wonderful collection of essays about food, agriculture, and sustainability. This would make a good gift for anyone interested in those subjects, any of the more environmentally aware people on your holiday list, or anyone who simply enjoys good essay writing. Foodie readers might also get a kick out of this one.

What Matters?: Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth: Another great recent essay collection focusing on matters of economy and agriculture. This one would work for the sustainability crowd, but might also be of interest to any people you know who enjoy business or economics books.

Jayber Crow: Berry's finest novel, in my opinion. A classic. It would work for anyone you know who likes character- and setting-driven fiction, and doesn't mind a bittersweet twinge to their storytelling.

Given: New Poems: A poetry collection that might be good even for people who aren't crazy about poetry. Berry's poetry is just like his prose; clear but evocative, and timeless. Everything you want poetry to be.

*It's a bit disgusting, really, that one man got all this talent.


The finest Berry collection to date.

Berry I'm very unhappy that I have to take Wendell Berry's essay collection What Matters?: Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth back to the library; it's overdue. I may have to break down and buy it--not only is it a fantastic collection of essays, it will now forever be connected in my memory with a time I've found somewhat trying but also memorable. By which I mean, I read most of this book after 3 a.m. baby feedings, when CRjr actually agreed to go back to sleep and I stayed up for a few additional moments, just to enjoy the quiet, the sense of being untethered that being up in the middle of the night gives you, and a granola bar.

The collection consists of five essays written recently, in 2009 (or 2006, in one case), and ten essays written up to several decades ago (1985, etc.). All have to do, ostensibly, with the economy, but they all have that special Wendell spin: looking at the economy in terms of not only money, but in terms of lifestyles and choices, as well as land and community stewardship.

They are, of course, sensational, which makes it all the sadder that the people who need to understand his principles the most will never read them. I didn't even bother to bookmark great passages (primarily because that would have involved heaving my ass off the couch, and I've done enough heaving around of my body and another little body the past few weeks), but also because there's a great passage on nearly every page. Here, I'll just open the book at random and I'm sure I'll find one:

"But the 'free market' idea introduces into government a sanction of an inequality that is not implicit in any idea of democratic liberty: namely that the 'free market' is freest to those who have the most money, and is not free at all to those with little or no money. Wal-Mart, for example, as a large corporation 'freely' competing against local, privately owned businesses, has virtually all the freedom, and its small competitors virtually none." (p. 182.)

Okay, I cheated a bit. That's from the essay "The Total Economy," the entire text of which is as brisk as that paragraph. Buy this one. Hand it out to people you know. Give it as a gift. Or, if nothing else, get it from the library and read it at 3 a.m., and be comforted that Wendell Berry is out there still saying the things he's saying.


A useful little cleaning book.

I'm still reading various chapters in Leslie Carroll's fun Notorious Royal Marriages, so not much new to report today.

Cleaning However, I did want to mention a neat little book I looked at over the weekend, titled Household Cleaning Self-Sufficiency, by Rachelle Strauss. Now, I hate cleaning, but I don't mind reading about it, primarily because I am a very inefficient cleaner, and I have always had this idea that if I just figured out HOW to clean, it would go a lot better. Because I always leave cleaning too long, I have also always relied on typical and harshly chemical cleaning products, which is a habit I'd like to break.

So I've looked at a lot of "green cleaning" books, and photocopied some recipes for cleaning solutions out of them (like mixes using borax or vinegar to address bathroom mildew spots), but I've never really found one that I thought it would be useful to own. But Strauss's book is the exception. It offers very logically laid out chapters, and succinctly lists what chemicals are in regular cleaning products that you should avoid (and why), what natural ingredients you can buy and use, and then a few chapters of specific ways you can clean various areas in your house. It's only 125 pages long, so it's not overwhelming, and it's pragmatic more than it is "earth mother." (Some of these books are so intimidating it's ridiculous; with recipes saying things like "slaughter your own hog. Then drip its tallow through charcoals to make lye, which you can then use as soap..."*) And, it's only $12.95. If you're looking for one household manual to pick up, or maybe even a useful gift for a change to give at a bridal shower or wedding, consider this one.

*I'm making this example up. Please do not try and make your own lye.


Community reading.

I have been thinking a lot about community since reading the book I spoke about yesterday, Peter Lovenheim's In the Neighborhood.*

I liked the book, but I think there were some other books I liked better, or at least made me think about community and neighborhoods in slightly different ways (other than feeling guilty that I don't know many--any--of my neighbors). They were:

Peter Kilborn's Next Stop, Reloville: Life Inside America's New Rootless Professional Class. Not a perfect book, but it should make you realize what we're up against in our culture, trying to form communities. Kilborn points out that a large portion of the population simply has to move where their jobs are, and they want to live in innocuous, safe, homogeneous suburbs when they get there.

Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. A classic work, if a little dry, about changing participation in civil and public activities in America. I'd actually like to re-read this one; lately I've been wondering where we're going to go, soon, just to be among other people, as I believe video stores, music stores, and book stores are all on their way out.

Sudhir Venkatesh's Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor. Again, a bit sociological, a bit academic, but really interesting, and a good look at how people everywhere are still bartering and doing what they can to get by utilizing the resources nearest them.

I know there's more but I'm blanking on them right now. Anyone else have any suggestions? Either way, and regardless of where your community is, I hope you have a great weekend.

*Many thanks to Katharine, by the way, for suggesting this one.


In the neighborhood.

Lovenheim I honestly didn't know what to think about Peter Lovenheim's new nonfiction book In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time. On the one hand, I thought it was a pretty neat little work of investigative and personal journalism (and I love that it came in at 238 pages, making it easily readable over a couple of nights); but on the other hand, I am too conflicted in my own feelings about neighbors, and what constitutes a community,* to wholeheartedly enjoy anything on the subject.

The impetus for Lovenheim's story came from an incident in his neighborhood in 2000, when a couple who lived just a few houses away from him died in a murder-suicide (the husband killed his wife and then himself). He was shocked to find how little he himself had known about them and their lives, and it got him thinking:

"What would it take, I wondered, to penetrate the barriers between us? I thought about childhood sleepovers and the insight I used to get from waking up inside a friend's home. More recently, my family and I had done summer house exchanges with families in Europe--they stayed in our house while we stayed in theirs. After living in these strangers' homes--waking in their beds, fixing meals in their kitchens, and walking in their neighborhoods--we had a strong sense of what their lives were about, something that would have been impossible to achieve just through conversation...But would my neighbors let me sleep over and write about their lives from inside their houses?" (pp. xvii-xviii.)

In fact, a bunch of his neighbors DID let him sleep over, and his descriptions of those experiences are the most interesting chapters in the book. I really did kind of enjoy it. Lovenheim's a skillful enough narrator, and the stories move right along--he gets to know an elderly neighbor, as well as a number of families, and another woman who is struggling with cancer. Along the way they do all become somewhat more involved in each other's lives--Lovenheim facilitates his older neighbor's desire to help individuals (rather than volunteering) by matching him up with the woman with cancer who needs help driving to some appointments, and he does become friends with many more people on his block.

I wouldn't say this book is a favorite, but it definitely was interesting (I felt the same way about the author's earlier title, Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf, which I read a million years ago and enjoyed but didn't love--and which I didn't realize was done by the same author until I read his bio on this book). Check it out if you're interested in the continuing cultural debate about communities, neighborhoods, and social preferences.

*And when I say conflicted, I mean I want nothing to do, personally, with any of my actual neighbors. Ask Mr. CR: when taking walks, I have been known to cross the street to avoid talking to any of my neighbors who might actually be out in their front yards. I know the names of the people in the houses on either side of me, but other than that I only know other neighbors by nicknames like "the bossy old lady in the house behind us." I know this is not right, but I can't seem to help it. I try to be a good citizen otherwise; I volunteer time for other causes, I take care to keep my house and lawn neat, and I have called the cops before when noticing suspicious behavior at other houses on my street. But that doesn't change the fact that we once went to a movie specifically because we knew our nearest neighbor was throwing a party designed to help all the neighbors meet each other, just so we wouldn't have to go. Part of this is because I have made the choice, along with other members of my family, to stick near them and in my hometown, so I feel like THEY are my community. If you have moved away from or don't get along with your family, I can see how the need for neighbors might be a very real one indeed.