Environmental

What was the point of this farming experiment, exactly?

I did not enjoy Manny Howard's My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard Into a Farm.

Manny I did end up reading most of it, although I could tell from the start it wasn't really going to be my type of "back to the land" narrative. Although, to be honest, I can't think of one of these types of books that I've really, really loved, other than perhaps Doug Fine's Farewell, My Subaru, which was at least kind of charming, or Michael Ableman's On Good Land, which was more of a "staying on the land" story. I did not like Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, either. I think I tend to find these books either obnoxious or smug, neither of which are tones I enjoy in most of my nonfiction (unless, of course, the obnoxious is coming from Anthony Bourdain, who has a new book coming out!).

This book grew out of a New York Magazine article that Howard wrote in 2007, in which the magazine challenged him to live the locavore lifestyle by growing enough vegetables and livestock in his 800-square-foot Brooklyn backyard to keep him in food for a month. Perhaps the book just needed tighter editing; Howard seems to bounce, without any sort of plan, from one scheme to the next: growing plants from seed in his basement, growing vegetables through hydroponics, breeding rabbits for food, and eventually getting a few chickens and ducks as well. I was also annoyed that, throughout, he seemed to have endless money and resources for these projects; I couldn't tell if that was because his wife had a great job in the city, or if the magazine was footing all of his expenses. Consider his exploits in the hydroponics store, when he realizes the salespeople probably think he is a narc looking for information about home marijuana growers:

"Have the boys here made me for a narc? Me? Maybe...I may not be a narc or a drug-enforcement agent, but ever since I walked into the store I have been doing what my profession trained me to do, ask as many dumb questions as you can think of...But I neglected to identify myself as a reporter--because I am not, I am a farmer--so I have inadvertently communicated only a deep desire to burn vast amounts of money on a project I know nothing about. I have spent the last half hour asking after only the most obvious covert growing rigs--ones designed to fit inside closets. I can be one of only two things, the dumbest cannabis grow king ever to step through this front door, or a cop." (p. 85.)

I have two problems with that paragraph. First: dude, you are no farmer, even if you do keep trying to quote Wendell Berry. (Anytime you grow something for just the one season, I can call you at most a gardener.) And secondly, I have no patience for people who get to burn vast amounts of money on any project, because I have never had vast amounts of money, and frankly, hearing about other people burn through such amounts makes me both jealous and annoyed. It's the way the entire book progresses; he goes from one project to the next, and eventually does get some garden produce, but at the end of the season a tornado (first tornado in Brooklyn in a hundred years, which was unfortunate) wrecks most of his backyard and most of his animals die off. By the next season he's back to putting sod over his backyard, and that's the end of that. Leaving me with only the one feeling: What was the point of all that?

Meh. If you're looking for a better book on living off the land, do try Doug Fine's Farewell, My Subaru. Likewise, if you're interested in a more humorous memoir of a man bumbling through the first years of his marriage and home improvement, try Lawrence LaRose's vastly superior Gutted: Down to the Studs In My House, My Marriage, My Entire Life.


A book so good it actually put me off chicken.

Once again, it doesn't really sound right to say that I "enjoyed the hell out of" Gabriel Thompson's new book Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs [Most] Americans Won't Do, but that's really the only way to say it. The book is horrifying and depressing and stupendous.

Working Whether you call this type of work immersion journalism or "stunt lit," the style is becoming familiar: a journalist or a memoirist decides they are going to do something over the course of a set time period, and then write about it. One of the best known examples of this genre is Barbara Ehrenreich's now-classic title Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America, in which she tried to live on the wages she could make as a waitress, cleaning person, and Wal-Mart employee. This book is very similar to Ehrenreich's, but for some reason it resonated with me more.

Thompson set out, not to live on the wages he could make, but simply to experience the types of jobs in this country that are often filled by immigrants and undocumented workers. He decided to spend two months each working in the agricultural field, a chicken processing plant, and the kitchens of New York City's restaurants. Each job is described over roughly a third of the book.

Let me tell you this right now: his first job, picking lettuce in Yuma, Arizona? One day of it would kill me.* Thompson joined workers who worked longer than eight-hour days, continually bending and cutting lettuce, all for $8.37 an hour. And his second job, at a chicken processing plant in Alabama, only got worse. Ehrenreich did a good job of describing the toll these types of jobs take on the human body, too, but for some reason, when Thompson was describing the pain and chronic conditions he was developing, I could actually feel how terrible he felt. The very fact that there was a vending machine of painkillers next to the pop and snacks machines at the chicken should indicate what workers are going through. 

This has been my favorite "eye-opening" book since John Bowe's Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. And I promise you, I've read many, many books about the horrors of chicken processing plants, but before now, I've gone the way of most Americans and tried not to think about where most of my food is coming from when I shop in the grocery store (although I also try to shop at markets and find alternative sources for my meat). But now? It'll probably wear off again, but even the thought of buying chicken breasts in the store makes me ill. What makes this book so different? Because of paragraphs like this (in Thompson's conclusion):

"At the moment, many of the issues being raised are centered on the consumer: Is the food safe for my children? How far did it travel to get to my grocery store? We should expand these concerns, demanding that the foods are produced in a way that is not only safe for consumers and environmentally sustainable, but also safe and sustainable for workers. This, in turn, demands that we rethink our notions of the benefits of cheap food, because much of the pressure driving down wages comes from companies in competition with each other for contracts with national chain...An order of twenty hot wings for less than $10 might seem like a great deal, but the hidden costs are borne by workers in places like Russellville." (p. 291.)

That says it pretty plainly, doesn't it? Check this book out.** If it doesn't make you a. more thankful for whatever job you might have (and I know about hating jobs, believe you me, and I sympathize), and b. slightly more interested in food issues and immigration reform, I'll eat my made-in-China shirt.

*And I grew up on a farm, so I am not unfamiliar with long days and hard physical work.

**It's a great book for another reason: Thompson's stories of worker solidarity are weirdly and totally inspirational.


But I don't want to make an apron.

When I first looked at Erin Bried's book How to Sew a Button: And Other Nifty Things Your Grandmother Knew, I thought, huh, maybe I should buy this book and actually learn something.

Button But, as with all my good intentions, I got over it. I enjoyed the book, and there are a lot of useful things in it, but the majority of the tips and how-tos cover skills and tasks I'm simply never going to do. Every now and then I would just pick it up to flip through it a little bit, and it always opened to the chapter on "how to make an apron." This was unfortunate, as I have a perfectly good apron that I stole from Country Kitchen the summer I worked there (if you could have seen my tips from all the old couple customers, you'd know I EARNED that apron), and I'm not about to dink around trying to sew a new one. But I digress.

Other chapters include very handy outlines for the following: how to roast a whole chicken (this I should actually learn); how to compost; how to install a clothesline (this I really do want to learn); how to kill mildew; how to shine your shoes; how to unclog a drain; and many, many, more. Actually, the more closely I look at it, the more I think it is kind of a neat little book. Sadly, though, most of the directions are not hand-holding enough for me. The clothesline instructions, for example, are basically: "Dig two holes in the ground about 1 foot wide and at least 1 foot deep in your desired location. Prepare your cement according to the instructions on the bag. Spray one hole with water, fill it halfway with cement, plumb your pole, and then top of with cement..." (p. 70.)

Uh, yeah. It's nice to make it sound that easy, but it seems like plumbing the pole should involve more steps than me eyeballing it in a half-ass kinda way (which is, really, how I end up doing everything). Or maybe I'm just making everything harder than it needs to be.

Anyway, my issues notwithstanding, it's still an interesting concept for a book and I give Bried kudos for throwing it together, and for encouraging self-sufficiency.


Really, Michael Pollan?

I am thoroughly disgusted with Michael Pollan's new book Food Rules: An Eater's Manual.

Rules This did not come as a complete surprise, as I have never been a huge Michael Pollan fan. I know many people who enjoyed The Omnivore's Dilemma, and I don't think it was a bad book, but (here's a surprise) it was too long for me. And In Defense of Food was one of those books that seemed redundant to me--if you were the kind of person to read In Defense of Food, I figured it was probably likely you were the type of person who least NEEDED to read In Defense of Food. (It is wrong to stereotype. But I figured most readers of that book were probably fairly well-off people, who get a charge out of going to farmers' markets and "getting to know their farmers," and who had the time and money to worry about the origins of their food.) But still, it wasn't a terrible book, and to each their own, although, for my money, I prefer books about agriculture and society by Wendell Berry, or cookbooks by Mark Bittman.

But Food Rules is nothing but a 140-page distillation of In Defense of Food (which the author himself summed up in only seven words: "Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants.") with a few other folksy bits thrown in. Divided into three parts (what should I eat?, what kind of food should I eat?, and how should I eat?), each "chapter" consists of a rule (in large type) and a short explanation, such as "Eat only foods that will eventually rot," followed by information like "the more processed a food is, the longer the shelf life, and the less nutritious it typically is." What's really annoying is when the rules start to resemble each other, particularly early on; on page 9 you find "avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry," and on page 17, you have "avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce." Hmm.

I have looked the book over and can't discern if any of the money from its publication is going to a charity or something, which would be the only excuse. Otherwise I am going to assume that Pollan was simply looking for a way to squeeze a few more bucks out of his fans. What really hurts me is the fact that all libraries probably had to purchase multiple copies of this little money-grab (as there is usually high demand for Pollan titles of any kind), and for each $11 copy they had to buy, they couldn't buy a different book that had something new or different or better to say. Bah!


What else is there to say about Wendell Berry?

Last week I promised more thoughts on Wendell Berry's essay and story collection Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food, but I don't know that I have much more (that is coherent) to say about it.

The book is divided into three sections: Farming, Farmers, and Food. I completely loved the essays on farming, although, as with any writing that is thought-provoking, they were also somewhat disturbing. How do we turn around our frightening dependence on cheaply produced food that is bad for us, bad for the animals being raised in industrial settings, and bad for the earth? How do we start to say no to big agribusiness, and support farmers who say no to big agribusiness? How do we really affect a change without moving to the country and raising a few goats ourselves (which I really don't want to do).

The second section, on Farmers, is also very interesting, but contains essays in which Berry examines more of the nitty-gritty surrounding specific farmers who he considers masters of their craft, and how they actually do what they do. Some of these essays were a bit too detailed for me, but I did enjoy the one titled "Charlie Fisher," in which he describes the work and business of a man who responsibly cuts timber and works as a logger.

The third section, "Food," was another small wonder to behold. Here most of the pieces are not essays, but are instead snippets from Berry's stories and novels in which food and meals play a part. I loved these stories and they renewed my desire to read more of Berry's fiction (particularly his short stories). They also made me very hungry, in the best possible way. Consider:

"The Proudfoot family gahterings were famous. As feasts, as collections and concentrations of good things, they were unequaled. Especially in summer there was nothing like them, for then there would be old ham and fried chicken and gravy, and two or three kinds of fish, and hot biscuits and three kinds of cornbread, and potatoes and beans and roasting ears and carrots and beets and onions, and corn pudding and corn creamed and fried, and cabbage boiled and scalloped, and tomatoes stewed and sliced, and fresh cucumbers soaked in vinegar, and three or four kinds of pickles, and if it was late enough in the summer there would be watermelons and muskmelons, and there would be pies and cakes and cobblers and dumplings, and milk and coffee by the gallon." (p. 188.)

Oh, man, I just had breakfast, and now I'm starving again. Give this collection a try if you're already a Wendell fan; if you're new to him, concentrate primarily on the essays in the first section.


Wendell Berry.

All week I hve been reading Wendell Berry's essay collection titled Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food. It's not a long book, only about 230 pages or so, but reading Wendell Berry always takes me some time. Or rather, I should say, I need to take my time when reading Wendell Berry, because there's only so much of his writing that I can take at a time. That is because reading him is always inspirational, humbling, and scary. And that's a lot to take in while reading.

Berry Berry is inspirational because I find what he says makes sense. In this collection, divided into three sections (Farming, Farmers, and Food), the emphasis of the chosen essays (ranging in publication dates from the early 1970s to 2006) is on why industrial agriculture is damaging our land and economy, and how small and sustainable farming practices should not only be practiced by farmers, but supported by consumers. There is nothing I can argue with in that. He is humbling because, as a small farmer himself, I think he does make the effort to practice what he preaches, and he is humbling because is writing is so clear and so beautiful.* But, as powerful and enjoyable as those first two feelings are, the end result of reading Wendell Berry is that I most often feel scared. Scared that our economy has taken us too far down the road of destroyed soil, food laden with chemicals and produced in animal factories, and oil dependence to ever go back. And, if I'm honest, scared because I DON'T WANT TO GO BACK TO THE FARM and I can't quite figure out how to live in accordance with his principles otherwise.

I think I will chat more on this one tomorrow, as I continue to read. But for today I'll leave you with the main scary thought I had, and a beautiful piece of Wendell's own writing. My scary thought was this: forget producing food in a small way; most of us, in our reliance on Costco and Wal-Mart, have given up on consuming in a small way. How do we even begin to reverse that? And now for the words of the man himself:

"But a culture disintegrates when its economy disconnects from its government, morality, and religion. If we are dismembered in our economic life, how can we be members in our communal and spiritual life? We assume that we can have an exploitive, ruthlessly competitive, profit-for-profit's-sake economy, and yet remain a decent and democractic nation, as we still apparently wish to think ourselves. This simply means that our highest principles and standards have no practical force or influence and are reduced merely to talk...

As a nation, then, we are not very religious and not very democratic, and that is why we have been destroying the family farm for the last forty years--along with other small local economic enterprises of all kinds. We have been willing for millions of people to be condemned to failure and dispossession by the workings of an economy utterly indifferent to any claims they may have had either as children of God or as citizens of a democracy." (pp. 38-39.)

Think on that for a minute or a year or so.

*I have often wondered how long it takes Berry to write one of his typical essays. They are sparkling little jewels of clarity and conciseness.


You go, Jane Jacobs.

The book which has held me captive since Sunday night is titled Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Too On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City, by Anthony Flint.

Moses The reasons I love this slim history are legion. I had never read anything about Jane Jacobs (a longtime New York City resident and activist, and author of the architecutral and urban planning classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities), but she is a fascinating woman. Through the 1950s and 1960s she fought against City Hall (and "master planner" Robert Moses, who was responsible for building numerous bridges, highways, parks, and residential buildings across the city for decades through the middle of the twentieth century), primarily to save Washington Square Park from having a highway built through it, and against the construction of an elevated ten-lane highway across the tip of Manhattan.

I also loved this book because it is a great slice of history. In a succinct 195 pages, it provides information about the history and planning of New York City, controversies about urban renewal and development, the remarkable career of Robert Moses, and the even more remarkable career and personality of Jane Jacobs. Of course I loved this book because it is about New York City, and I wish I had a cool author name like "Anthony Flint." But the front and center attraction of this book is Jacobs herself. Consider her conduct at a sham city hall meeting to gather community feedback about the proposed elevated highway:

"Though the ostensible purpose of the meeting was to collect opinions about the project, it had been hurriedly scheduled--to make sure testimony was gathered before legislation passed that required an even more extensive public approval process...The manner in which the meeting was being conducted--the microphone faced toward the audience, not the officials the residents were nominally addressing--suggested that state officials were just going through the motions...

From the seat she'd taken near the front of the auditorium, Jane Jacobs made her way up the stairs and onton the stage. 'It's interesting, the way the mike is set up,' she observed tartly as she reached the microphone. She was calm, and her expression was matter-of-fact. 'At a public hearing, you are supposed to address the officials, not the audience.'

The chairman of the hearing, John Toth of the New York Department of Transportation, bounded down from the statge and turned the microphone around. But Jacobs turned it right back.

'Thank you, sir, but I'd rather speak to my friends,' Jacobs said. 'We've been talking to ourselves all evening as it is.' The crowd roared with laughter." (pp. xii-xiii.)

From there she went on to call for a silent protest march across the stage, during which the stenographer's rolls of tape documenting the meeting were destroyed (which meant there was no public record, and the meeting couldn't be counted), called it a "fink meeting," and was arrested.

It's a great book, and it has spurred me to consider, again, reading Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I always used to shelve it at the used bookstore, and wonder if I should read it, and then for years I would shelve it at the public library and give it some more thought (it went in and out quite regularly); but it was so thick I never got around to it. Maybe now is the time.


Dude, if you think zoos are okay, you've lost most of your credibility with me.

After all my complaining about it, I still ended up reading a lot of Jonathan Safran Foer's nonfiction manifesto Eating Animals.

It really wasn't for me. First off, Foer explains one of the larger reasons why he decided to investigate America's food supply (and factory farming specifically), as:

Eating "Unexpected impulses struck when I found out I was going to be a father. I began tidying up the house, replacing long-dead lightbulbs, wiping windows, and filing papers. I had my glasses adjusted, bought a dozen pairs of white socks, installed a roof rack on top of the car and a 'dog/cargo divider' in the back, had my first physical in half a decade...and decided to write a book about eating animals..."

And, a few pages later:

"As my son began life and I began this book, it seemed that almost everything he did revolved around eating. He was nursing, or sleeping after nursing, or getting cranky before nursing, or getting rid of the milk he had nursed. As I finish this book, he is able to carry on quite sophisticated conversations, and increasingly the food he eats is digested together with stories we tell. Feeding my chld is not like feeding myself: it matters more." (p. 11.)

Brother. Yes, I know your life changes completely when you have children, blah blah blah, but it's never been my favorite reason for authors to write their books. For one thing it always seems like kind of a prick move to me--maybe you could think about the state of the world before it becomes important to you because you now have children to worry about? Maybe even if you don't have kids you should be thinking about some of these things? Anyway. That's a small, very personal quibble.

It's not that I disagree with Foer, really. I don't think factory farming is right either. I didn't enjoy reading the chapter about how the chicken you buy in the supermarket is "water-cooled" after it is processed, which means it cools in what industry insiders refer to as its own "fecal soup." It's just that most of his arguments fall flat with me. I was particularly annoyed when he talked about taking his son to zoos and thinking about animals--as I think zoos are maybe as cruel to animals as factory farming is (except zoo animals aren't put out of their misery by premature deaths, but are rather kept alive to be gawked at in their tiny little cages).

It's also telling to me that my favorite part of the book was the part not actually written by Foer, but rather by a person who works in the chicken industry (whom Foer quotes):

"It's a different world from the one I grew up in. The price of food hasn't increased in the past thirty years. In relation to all other expenses, the price of protein stayed put...

People have no idea where food comes from anymore. It's not synthetic, it's not created in a lab, it actually has to be grown. What I hate is when consumers act as if farmers want these things, when it's consumers who tell farmers what to grow. They've wanted cheap food. We've grown it. If they want cage-free eggs, they have to pay a lot more money for them. Period." (p. 96.)

I want to read a book written by THAT guy. He seems to have a better grip on reality than Foer.

In all? There's at least two books out there that are MUCH better than this one: Mark Bittman's Food Matters, and Catherine Friend's The Compassionate Carnivore. I would highly suggest reading either one (or both!) of those books instead.


Small town pictorial records, continued.

I really love photography collections, so whenever I wander through my local library's catalog and see a new photography book out, I'll typically request it regardless of its subject matter.

Ely I particularly love photography books about small towns and communities (such as the superlative book The Oxford Project), and Facing North: Portraits of Ely, Minnesota, is no exception. It is filled with black-and-white photographs of (primarily) the small town's residents, and a few short essays about life on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Only 3,700 residents live in the town year round, but the region hosts at least 200,000 visitors each year, which makes for an interesting conjunction of personalities.

Is the book as good as The Oxford Project? Well, no, but then, that's a tough book to beat. This book does include small informative paragraphs about all the subjects in the photographs ("When we showed up to take his picture, he came outside in an old green miner's uniform--something you see a lot of around Ely--toting his oxygen tank"), but the true glory here is the photographs themselves. You'll have to read the introduction to find out about the camera and film used, but it's some kind of special-format camera (and the skill of the photographer) that makes the faces of the people sharp and the other edges in the photographs gently fuzzy. They're beautiful, beautiful photographs, and it's a book well worth looking at.


Underneath our feet.

Up the street from me they're tearing up a major cross street, and replacing all sorts of pipes and fire hydrants and big cement things which Mr. CR thinks are drains of some kind, but really, how would we know? So we walk up regularly to take a look at progress, and all I can think every time is that I wish I could see a cross-section of everything under our street and house, to see how all that sewer and stuff works. I'm just glad someone understands it all. (Or at least I hope they do.)

Solis The whole thing has put me a bit in the mood for a book about the underground, so which better book to choose than New York Underground: The Anatomy of a City? It's not been quite what I expected it to be, but it is really interesting nonetheless. The author, Julia Solis, points out that many of the underground tunnels and secret spaces she details and has photographed for her book are no longer accessible, because access to anything underground after 9/11 has been seriously curtailed.

"The underground is being policed like never before. Hatches have been sealed, subaquatic tunnels are guarded, and cameras have been installed. Information is disappearing off Web sites, archives are closing to the public, and photographers of infrastructure are increasingly met with suspicion. I was lucky to have discovered nearly all of the spaces in this book before the terror attacks and to have found a few kindred spirits among those who work below the streets, since it is now a bad idea to venture into the city's tunnels." (pp. 6-7.)

That makes me kind of sad, but at least we have this book to see the utility tunnels, subway and rail tunels, underground passages, and building foundations. For a book about dark and underground spaces, it's weirdly illuminating and totally beautiful.

In other neighborhood news, this morning I stumbled out to the curb with my trash, three-quarters asleep and wearing my fifteen-year-old robe, and some guy driving by stopped and said, "Hey, I haven't seen you for a hundred years!" And I didn't know who he was, which I felt bad having to admit. I'm guessing he was someone from high school, but he only told me his first name, and that didn't really help. I just wish I'd had the presence of mind to say, "Dude, I have blocked out almost all of high school." I don't know why it bothered me so, or why I'm boring you with this story. This must be one of the side effects of freelance working at home; you are all now my co-workers who I must bore with my stories. Good working with you!


My literary crush on Michael Perry continues.

If you'll remember, last week I was struggling because I had work to do, but all I WANTED to do was read Michael Perry's memoir Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting.

You should know that eventually I gave up the fight, finished the memoir, and then had to work the rest of the weekend to try and make up for it.

It was totally worth it.

Coop Perry is also the author of the fantastic memoirs Population: 485 (about his return to and life in the small Wisconsin town of New Auburn, where he also worked as an EMT) and Truck: A Love Story (in which he simultaneously restored an old truck and fell in love with a woman named Anneliese). In this memoir, he continues telling the story of his life by describing his first years of married life, including he and his wife's move to a small farm (where Perry is excited to raise some chickens and two pigs), their homeschooling of his "given" daughter Amy, and the arrival of their baby daughter. Along the way he also shares memories of his parents and his childhood, including his family's raising of numerous foster children, and of making a good life with not much money but a ton of love.

If you haven't figured it out yet, you should know that I have absolutely no objectivity where Michael Perry is concerned, so this is less a review than a gushing lovefest. In addition to enjoying Perry's voice, which is always just the right combination of earthy and erudite, earnest and shaply funny, I had the added plus of really being able to picture his parents. Not just because he describes them so well, but because my parents, after reading Population: 485, actually went to his hometown and drove around until they found his parents. Eventually his parents, because they are quite literally the nicest people on earth, stopped by my parents' farm and I got to meet them there. So I was just tickled to learn more about them:

"When Mom was in her first year of nursing school and Dad was a freshman at the local state college, he asked her to homecoming.

In Mom's words, the date was 'a great fiasco.' She agreed to go to the football game, but as she was already a member of the Truth,* which had stricutres forbidding dancing, she refused to attend the dance. Furthermore, Dad had been drinking the night before, and was certain Mom could tell. She says he couldn't wait to get her home and off his hands. At the door, she invited him in for cocoa. I delight in the image of my dad blowing on that hot chocolate, his toes curled tight as a pipe clamp, sweating out the last of the previous evening's booze and just--I have to assume--dying for a real drink. He drank the cocoa and bolted.

One year later, they went on a second date. 'This is getting serious,' said Grandma Peterson. And despite the slow start, it was." (pp. 80-81.)

So you'll not find much criticism of this book here. I loved it from start to finish. As pointed out in earlier comments, though, I should say it's not a perfect book. Sometimes the skipping back and forth between memories and present day is a little jarring, and overall, I don't think it's quite the structured, beautifully formed little jewel that his first memoir was--but that would be a lot to ask. If you haven't read any Perry yet, do start with Population: 485 and make your way up to this one. But make sure and leave plenty of reading time if you do--to start reading Michael Perry is to love him, and you won't want to stop.

*The Truth is the religious sect in which Perry was raised, and he also spends some time talking about his experiences with the church.


Bourdain and Eggers rock my world.

State Has anyone seen the fantastic new book State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey?

Don't let the rather drowsy cover fool you. It's meant to look retro; the editors wanted a modern equivalent of the state travel guides produced in the 1930s through the Federal Writers' Project (part of FDR's Works Progress Administration job creation). That's right, the U.S. government put $27 million into paying authors and artists to create books and art. Can you imagine how that sort of thing would go over today? Just imagine valuing authors and artists enough to want them to continue their work. Stunning.

But the history of this volume is not the great part. What is great is the list of contributors Weiland and Wilsey have managed to pull together: Dave Eggers on Illinois. Sarah Vowell on Montana. Anthony Bourdain on New Jersey. Louise Erdrich on North Dakota. Jonathan Franzen on New York. Jhumpa Lahiri on Rhode Island. David Rakoff on Utah. And many, many more.

You don't have to read the whole thing. Get it, and read about your state. (I did, and although it hurts me to report this, I didn't enjoy the essay about Wisconsin, by Daphne Beal. Ms. Beal talked mainly about the east side of the state and Racine, which is not my part of the state, and she maintains that all Wisconsinites say "soda," not "pop," which is not true.*)

When my duty to my home state was done, however, I went right for Anthony Bourdain's piece on New Jersey, which was awesome (of course), and then I proceeded merrily along to Dave Eggers's piece on Illinois, which blew me away and reminded me, instantly, how I felt upon first reading his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, lo those many years ago, and how I fell in love with him over that book. Who would have guessed that an essay about the state of Illinois (a state Wisconsin natives largely disdain from birth; it's in our water) would have knocked me over? As Eggers says:

"The slogan on all license plates in Illinois, for as long as anyone can remember, has been Land of Lincoln. Everyone in Illinois and all sensible people elsewhere believe it to be the best license-plate slogal of all the states in our union. The closest runner-up would be New Hampshire's fiery Live Free or Die, but that slogan scares children. A license-plate slogan shouldn't scare children and shouldn't include the words 'or die.' A license-plate slogan shouldn't encourage death in the face of curtailed personal liberties. A license-plate slogan should, without threats or hysterics, evoke the moral essence and scenic grandeur of a state, and if possible it should be alliterative and should mention everyone's favorite president." (p. 130.)

I'm still a little in love with Dave Eggers, if you must know the truth.

*It's not just me. Mr. CR deigned to read it, nonfiction though it was, and concurred with my sentiments.


Dueling British histories.

Whenever I need a little nonfiction comfort reading, I pretty much always head to British history. I have no idea why. They've got a history as imperialistic, as warlike, as completely bloodthirsty as most countries. But I can't help it. I just find it interesting.

So this week I've had a tough choice of which book to read when I go to bed. On the one hand, I have Jane Austen's England, by Maggie Lane. Now, anything "Jane Austen" is always a crowd-pleaser here at Chez Citizen Reader. It's not a new book, but it is a very interesting one, giving the history and architectural details of every place in England that Austen stayed or lived, as well as how she worked those details into her own writing. Very good stuff.

Thames On the other hand, I have Peter Ackroyd's lovely Thames: A History. It's a cultural and geographical history of the Thames River in England, complete with pictures, and it's also good stuff. I've never read any of Ackroyd's works (he typically writes historical biographies, like Chaucer and The Life of Thomas More), but I'm enjoying this one, and I might have to pick up some of his biographies. Check out his writing:

"The general riverscape of the Thames is varied without being in any sense spectacular, the paraphernalia of life ancient and modern clustering around its banks. It is in large part now a domesticated river, having been tamed and controlled by many generations...It is a work still in slow progress. The Thames has taken the same course for ten thousand years, after it had been nudged southward by the glaciation of the last ice age. The British and Roman earthworks by the Sinodun Hills still border the river, as they did two thousand years before. Given the destructive power of the moving waters, this is a remarkable fact. Its level has varied over the millennia--there is a sudden and unexpected rise at the time of the Anglo-Saxon settlement, for example--and the discovery of submerged forests testifies to incidents of overwhelming flood." (p. 5-6.)

Sigh. Now I want to go to Great Britain and sit by the Thames.

This just in: Just found this at RickLibrarian's blog; I'm all over that!


Charmed, I'm sure.

Here's a short list of things in which I am completely uninterested: hunting, Western Americana and American history, camping and outdoorsy stories of any kind, and buffalo (or bison; they're the same thing).

Buffalo And yet? I managed to make it a good way through Steven Rinella's new book American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon. It's Rinella's travelogue/history/outdoor adventure memoir, in which he tracks both the history and lore of the American buffalo, as well as (more literally) an actual buffalo that he's hunting in the wilds of Alaska. Although he was interested in buffalo and the history of the West for a long time, the impetus for Rinella's narrative was his winning one of twenty-four annual permits issued to hunt a buffalo in Alaska.

So why on earth did I pick up such a book? Well, the short answer is that some authors completely charm me, and when they do, I'm dedicated to tracking down all the books they write. Rinella is also the author of The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine, which was one of my favorite books of 2005, and in which he sought to hunt, trap, capture, or otherwise procure all the ingredients to be used in Auguste Escoffier's 1903 Le Guide Culinaire cookbook. So, even though this is not a book I would have gravitated to because of its subject, I did enjoy a large part of it (I didn't get the whole thing read, although it was very good, largely because I decided what I'd rather do is go back and re-read The Scavenger's Guide). But if you have any interest in the subjects I listed above, I'd recommend this one. Although, if you are not into graphic descriptions of preparing an animal to be eaten (i.e., butchered) then I'd skip it.

But Rinella is charming, no doubt about it. Consider: "The bulk of buffalo history is set in the geologic epoch known as the Pleistocene, which spanned from about two milion years ago to ten thousand years ago. Of the geologic epochs, the Pleistocene is by far my favorite. Its relationship to the modern world reminds me of my own relationship to my grandparents: their lives were distant and obscure enough that it's difficult for me to really know and understand them, but what I do know about them helps explain a lot about how I turned into the kind of person I am."

You just have to kind of like a guy who has a favorite geologic era, don't you? I do. Have a good weekend, all.


Taibbi v. Friedman.

I know, by now by disdain for Thomas Friedman is well known. So why keep harping on it?

Well, for a few reasons. Number one, it's easy. I finally got my library copy of Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution--and How It Can Renew America. And I know the guy has to perpetuate his own brand, but does he really have to use his phrase "hot, flat, and crowded" five times in the first 37 pages? (Yes, I counted. I'm petty.) The only thing his "hot, flat, and crowded" catch phrase needs is the little "TM" after it.

Number two, I feel that I am in good company. Recently I found Matt Taibbi's review of this book, and it is so, so funny. (And accurate.) What I love about Taibbi is his ability to put into succinct and sparkling writing all the angry thoughts that are rolling around in MY head. He hates Friedman for all the right reasons:

"along comes Thomas Friedman, porn-stached resident of a positively obscene 114,000 11,400 square foot suburban Maryland mega-monstro-mansion and husband to the heir of one of the largest shopping-mall chains in the world, reinventing himself as an oracle of anti-consumerist conservationism.

Where does a man who needs his own offshore drilling platform just to keep the east wing of his house heated get the balls to write a book chiding America for driving energy inefficient automobiles? Where does a guy whose family bulldozed 2.1 million square feet of pristine Hawaiian wilderness to put a Gap, an Old Navy, a Sears, an Abercrombie and even a motherfucking Foot Locker in paradise get off preaching to the rest of us about the need for a “Green Revolution”? Well, he’ll explain it all to you in 438 crisply written pages for just $27.95, $30.95 if you have the misfortune to be Canadian."

And:

"I’ve been unhealthily obsessed with Thomas Friedman for more than a decade now. For most of that time, I just thought he was funny. And admittedly, what I thought was funniest about him was the kind of stuff that only another writer would really care about—in particular his tortured use of the English language...

Remember Friedman’s take on Bush’s Iraq policy? 'It’s OK to throw out your steering wheel,' he wrote, 'as long as you remember you’re driving without one.' Picture that for a minute. Or how about Friedman’s analysis of America’s foreign policy outlook last May:

'The first rule of holes is when you’re in one, stop digging.When you’re in three, bring a lot of shovels.'

First of all, how can any single person be in three holes at once? Secondly, what the fuck is he talking about? If you’re supposed to stop digging when you’re in one hole, why should you dig more in three? How does that even begin to make sense? It’s stuff like this that makes me wonder if the editors over at the New York Times editorial page spend their afternoons dropping acid or drinking rubbing alcohol. Sending a line like that into print is the journalism equivalent of a security guard at a nuke plant waving a pair of mullahs in explosive vests through the front gate. It should never, ever happen."

Okay, I've already quoted too much, but I can't help it. I love Matt Taibbi* as much as I hate Thomas Friedman, and that's saying something. I am particularly grossed out by Hot, Flat, and Crowded because I learned that Friedman and I share a birthday--not the year but the same date. Gross! Now every birthday I have is going to be a little bit marred by the fact that I'll think of Friedman somewhere celebrating his birthday at the same time. Although maybe I can view it as another birthday closer to the end of his writing career (i.e., his death). Of course that will have to remind me of my own mortality but I can take it.

The fact that Friedman's book made the New York Times Notable list and Taibbi's (The Great Derangement) didn't shows that the editors at the New York Times, as Friedman might say, "know which side their porn-stache is buttered on."

*Incidentally, if you don't enjoy swearing, you may want to avoid this review.


Back to the land, not so idyllic.

I absolutely loved Kim Barnes's novel A Country Called Home. I started it one night with the intention of just looking at a couple of chapters and then tossing it aside, but before I knew it I was hooked, and I got up early the next morning to read it, and when I stopped reading it, I not only had to put it down, but I had to take a couple of minutes to let my mind swim, unwillingly, back up to daily consciousness.

Barnes The story was an interesting take on a couple's desire to "go back to the land": Thomas and Helen Deracotte go to Idaho to live on the land; it turns out be not quite what Helen wants. They have a daughter, Elise, and a hired hand, Manny, who is in love with Helen. Of course, a variety of tragedies ensue, and although not all the characters are lovable, they do at least seem real. For instance, Thomas is a doctor who, it turns out, doesn't really want to be a doctor. His is an attitude toward doctoring I can understand:

"All through his internship and residency he'd sheltered himself from his growing self-doubt. But then the pediatric ward, the twelve-year-old girl, pallid and shivering with fever. She'd cried as he examined her, covering her face with both hands like a child playing hide-and-seek. He remembered how hot and dry her skin felt beneath his fingers, how the organs bulged and rolled away from his prodding, as though desirous to keep their contagion a secret. Finally, the girl's muffled sobs, the pain his hands invoked, had been too much for him to bear, and he had moved to the next room, where a boy lay whose prognosis was definite..." (p. 36.)

I'm not going to say much more because part of the pleasure of this novel was watching it unfold.  Barnes is also a memoirist; I've read and enjoyed her book In the Wilderness. Check either one of these out.


Two takes on urban sufficiency.

Urban I applaud the spirit behind The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City (by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen). I really do. I'm on board with their opening projects: composting, a little raised garden bed, container gardening, etc. But when it starts to veer into hardcore, I'm afraid I have to get off the train. A few things I will not be doing:

1. Well, pretty much anything from the "Urban Foraging" chapter. I will not be harvesting and eating weeds (I have eaten weeds--Mom used to make dandelions like endive; chopped up and mixed with mashed potatoes and a bit of bacon--but I got enough of that in my youth) or dumpster diving for food.

2. I know it's all the rage right now, but I will also not be keeping chickens.

3. Composting toilets, making use of my own waste? No freaking way, man. I LOVE my flush toilet, I'm clinging to it until civilization ends, and then I'm just going to give up and die. If that makes me a bad person, environmentally, then so be it.

So I will not become an urban homesteader. There were still a few interesting things in the book, although I found a similar title, Kathy Harrison's Just in Case: How to Be Self-Sufficient When the Unexpected Happens, to contain more helpful information about being prepared and what to have on hand for basic emergencies and first aid. Over the weekend I also picked up R.J. Ruppenthal's Fresh Food from Small Spaces: The Square Inch Gardener's Guide to Year-Round Growing, Fermenting, and Sprouting, which I predict I will find interesting until it actually comes time to plant something. Further bulletins on this book as events warrant.


Why make it this hard?

I wanted to enjoy Logan Ward's See You In a Hundred Years: Four Seasons in Forgotten America, but I just couldn't.

I could sympathise with he and his wife's decision to leave behind the rat race and New York City and try to make a go of it living on a farm. But they took it a step further: they decided to literally go back to 1900, not using anything that wasn't widely available after that date (no phone, no computer, no electricity, etc.).

Ward Now that I just don't understand. What, it isn't hard enough to go and try and grow your own food, you had to go and give up indoor plumbing? No way, man. When I read about his wife actually going without modern-day, ahem, sanitary supplies, I was done with this book. And then there were the snake stories:

"Over the next few weeks, as we grind ourselves down preparing to begin our experiment--bickering, fretting, racing to and from town on the single-lane farm roads--the snakes haunt us. I find a snakeskin hanging like a giant condom from a limb outside Luther's second-story window and another poking out of the backyard downspout. I shoo snakes out of the barnyard and the grass encircling the house." (p. xi.)

Ye gods. Paragraphs like that make me want to go join the city rat race instead.


Finally! A great investigation of consumption.

I read a lot of nonfiction about consumption, as well as about how the stuff we consume gets made. I think it's similar to why I love reading dating manuals...I never understood dating, so I love reading about it. I hate, hate, HATE shopping, so for some reason I find myself reading about it compulsively.

Ecosinner But that's not what's important here. What's important is that you should read Fred Pearce's Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff. Pearce is a British journalist who decides, in the course of his other journalistic work, to track down where his stuff comes from, starting with his gold wedding band. From there, he tracks other things, like his t-shirts, socks, food, electronics equipment, and the metal in his soda can. Those chapters are fascinating enough (you'll never believe how many countries have a hand in making your socks), but then he also tracks where his trash and even his sewage goes. It's fascinating:

"While occupying just 2.5 percent of the world's croplands, cotton uses a tenth of all the world's chemical fertilizers and a staggering quarter of all the insecticides, mostly to fight off whitefly and bollworm." (p. 90.)

That's pretty interesting stuff, I think, and this book is full of those. It's similar to, but about a million times better, than such books as A Year without 'Made in China' or Not Buying It.

So, as we enter the holiday season, this book leaves me with one thought: Buy less, but spend more (I had that thought after the author points out how ridiculous it is to pay $10 for a t-shirt, in light of the cotton, labor, and travel needed to produce it). Or, just buy this book for everyone on your list. Sure, they may consider it a downer gift, but what's the worst that can happen? You'll be kicked out of the gift exchange?


The power of place.

Most nonfiction books can be easily categorized into one or two genres. Lost on Planet China? Travel book. The Great Derangement? Political book. Tuesdays with Morrie? Crap book.

See what I mean? Easy.

But every now and then a nonfiction book comes along that could easily be categorized into three or more interest categories or genres or subjects or whatever you want to call them. And invariably these turn out to be thoughtful, well-writen, very interesting nonfiction books. Kelly McMasters's Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town. Let's break it down:

Memoir. Well, that's an easy one. McMasters put that in the title. It's true. This is a personal story, told by McMasters, and based on her youth spent in the Long Shore community of Shirley, including how its prevalence of young families provided her with lots of great friends of the same age, how it felt like home, and how many of she and her contemporaries went away for college or work but a lot of them came drifting back in, seeking the sense of community they'd felt there as kids. As memoir, it's extremely well done.

Shirley Relationships, Community Life. This is a nonfiction category that doesn't really exist anywhere except in my fevered imagination. And, maybe because it feels so personal, it's a category I'm very fond of. A lot of Relationships books do happen to be memoirs and biographies, because those are the nonfiction books that deal primarily with people as characters, but sometimes "memoir" just doesn't give the whole flavor. A book like Michael Perry's Population: 485, about his return to his small hometown in Wisconsin? That's Community Life to me. Same here. McMasters's love and appreciation for the community she and her parents found in Shirley, among their neighbors and friends, appears on nearly every page. As a Community Life book, it's extremely well done.

Environmental Writing. Unofortunately, Shirley also happens to be a town sitting smack dab on tons of chemical and nuclear waste, emitted for years by the Brookhaven National Laboratory just up the road. This is a town with unbelievably high cancer rates, and McMasters spends part of her research time on this book taking tours of the facility and asking questions of its scientists. Perhaps my favorite line from the book, about the fact that Brookhaven, as a federal facility, mixed its sloppy work with hubris: a federal investigator actually asked the parent of a child who had cancer, "'Didn't you ever think that you'd have to live with additional risks because of the good this lab has done for the community?'" (p. 221.) As Environmental Writing, it's extremely well done.

It's a phenomenal book. Sad as hell of course, but also weirdly uplifiting (and not in that horrible "just have a better attitude and everything will get better" way). This book is roughly 100 times the book that Randy Pausch's horrible The Last Lecture was. Of course, it won't sell nearly as many copies.

Also? The cover is perfect. Idyllic at the bottom, ominous on top, the town caught in the middle. Kudos to Pete Garceau on jacket design.