It’s been an age since we’ve done a book round-up, mostly because I haven’t read much recently. For someone who typically tears through about a book a week, on average, this has come as somewhat of a surprise. I’d love to attribute my lack of reading entirely to our second full farming season, but the truth is, I did a lot of doomscrolling this year, particularly during spring and summer. This was a pointless, destructive habit that benefitted no one – did I really need a to-the-minute update on western Europe’s infection rates? – but a habit that was tough to break, nevertheless. I also stop-started an unreasonable number of books: I’d pick something up, hoping to get lost in a story or a world, only to find that I couldn’t focus or that the book contained just as much (or more) tragedy as real life. I found myself unable to finish most of the books I began, not my normal tendency at all.
As we move from a busy summer and fall into the quieter, colder days of winter, I aim to increase my book reading and limit my news consumption. With that in mind, here are a few capsule reviews of books I’ve read recently (and not so recently, too).
The Fate of Food by Amanda Little
Feeding ten billion people on a hotter, drier planet means we have to change our thinking, and this book looks to address that. The Fate of Food is thorough and well-researched, and optimists might even say it gives us cause for hope. (I am not an optimist.)
One of the most interesting parts of this book was the section on Israel, a country that manages to grow quite a lot of food in a desert. Israel’s irrigation and water recycling knowledge will very soon become more relevant to all of us; their individual water use is shockingly low, especially when compared to Americans’ overall wastefulness. (A third of American counties still offer flat rate water, which encourages rampant overconsumption; if we’ve never been encouraged to conserve, why would we?) Desalination and scrubbing wastewater are two techniques the world will need to start using on a larger scale; 97% of the world’s water is in the oceans, yet only recently have we been able to start using that water for irrigation or human needs.
The book’s argument is that we needn’t choose between tradition and technology; there is a third way, one that blends generations of food-growing knowledge with technological advantages that allow us to better handle a new set of challenges. Although I liked reading about vertical farming, weed-zapping robots, 3D food printing and the advent of meal replacement shakes, none of these innovative ideas made me excited to sit down to a nice meal. I wish that instead of introducing complicated and expensive technology to grow more food, we were encouraging more people to homestead on their own small parcel. A lot of edible food can be produced in a very small space, and though I know it’s not the solution to all of our problems, a return to small-scale agriculture would accomplish quite a lot, including creating carbon sinks. Plus, when AI eliminates our jobs, we’ll have lots of time to grow our own food – and we should know how to do it before we need to.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
It’s a bit dismissive to call Less a fluffy novel – it did win the Pulitzer Prize, after all – but this is an enjoyable read. The story follows a minor novelist as he journeys around the world in a halfhearted attempt to avoid both his impending fiftieth birthday as well as an awkward wedding he doesn’t wish to attend, and the book has both laughter and pathos in abundance. Less comes across as lighthearted and pleasant, but as with great food, it’s harder than it seems to make something seem easy and effortless. As Mark Twain said, “There is no such thing as a ordinary life.” Less is a lovely window into one man’s seemingly ordinary search for love and meaning.
Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
One of my very favorite books of the past few years, Daisy Jones & the Six is written in a unique conversational style, as though the characters are being interviewed for a “Behind the Music”-type program. This oral history device sounds cheesy and trite, but Jenkins Reid absolutely nails the in-the-moment authenticity of it, and within a few pages you find yourself swept along into the band’s meteoric rise and inevitable collapse. The New York Times writes in their review, “…in the end, that’s the most surprising gift of Daisy Jones & The Six – it’s a way to love the rock ’n’ roll of the 1970s, without apology, without cynicism, bell-bottoms and all.” As someone who firmly believes that Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” is the greatest rock album ever made, this book was right up my alley. Highly recommended.
The Big Short by Michael Lewis
I adore Michael Lewis. His books, which include Moneyball and The Blind Side, make great reading and have also been made into some terrific films. The Big Short aims to explain just what happened back in 2007 and 2008, when Wall Street suddenly found itself underwater in the subprime housing crisis. This book is complicated and challenging and smart – credit default swaps and triple A tranches, anyone? – but explains how a band of brilliant outsiders made millions on some very risky bets while the people who were supposed to protect the money turned a blind eye. The film version, with Christian Bale as Michael Burry, is well worth watching, too.
Circe by Madeline Miller
This feminist retelling of many of the Western world’s classic myths is another of my recent favorites. Miller’s writing is stunning; she taught Latin, Greek and Shakespeare for many years before turning to fiction, and her scholarly voice shines through on every page. The book is layered and vivid and complex and beautiful; some of the stories you’ll know, and others will be entirely new. NPR writes, “Miller’s lush, gold-lit novel – told from the perspective of the witch whose name in Greek has echoes of a hawk and a weaver’s shuttle – paints another picture: of a fierce goddess who, yes, turns men into pigs, but only because they deserve it…. The character of Circe only occupies a few dozen lines of [The Odyssey], but Miller extracts worlds of meaning from Homer’s short phrases.” Circe is truly transporting in a way few are. Don’t miss this photo essay from the author’s website.
Kid Food by Bettina Elias Siegel
The subtitle says it all: “The challenge of feeding children in a highly processed world.” Even though I read everything I can on food politics and the nefarious takeover of our food system by multibillion dollar corporations, this book was eye-opening. And disheartening.
Even if you’re doing your very best to feed your children whole foods, there is an entire world out there looking to subvert your efforts. Cheap candy at the bank. Free cookies at the grocery store. Gatorade and Rice Krispy treats at soccer practice. Popular cartoon characters selling juice and “fruit snacks” and other junk. Cupcakes every other day for a child’s birthday at school. The rise of “toddler milks.” And major brands, like Pepsi and McDonald’s and Domino’s, use public schools as yet one more marketing avenue for their processed food. Corporations know that if they hook kids young enough, they’ve probably got a customer for life. (See also: the tobacco industry.)
Honestly, the statistics presented in Kid Food are bleak, to say the least. We’ve doomed an entire generation to obesity and type-2 diabetes, among a host of other lifestyle-related diseases, because we don’t want to say no and because we’ve outsourced all of our food preparation to the processed food industry. We raise babies on bland rice cereal and sweet fruit purees and gallons of high-fructose corn syrup masquerading as juice, then wonder why they have such a sweet tooth. We’ve given up on home economics, basically canceled recess and other physical activities, and we give our kids sometimes less than twenty minutes to wolf down lunch. No wonder we’re struggling.
Despite its overall grim tone, the author does make an effort to end on a relatively positive note, with tips for how you can become an activist for better food. (With humor, Siegel emphasizes that going it alone is a tough road, and that there is strength in numbers: “One parent is a fruitcake. Two parents are a fruitcake and a friend. Fifty parents are a powerful organization.”) She offers useful suggestions for improving school food in your community, as well as how (hopefully) not to alienate all of the coaches and parents who insist on a thousand calories of simple carbohydrates after five minutes of minimal “exercise.” But make no mistake – this is not an easy path. We’re definitely starting on the back foot here. If you have children, or if you work with children, or if you feed children, please read this. We’re destroying our kids’ health every single day, and we must do better.
(A P.S. to the review above: I understand that thanks to the pandemic, soccer snacks, self-serve candy bowls and birthday treats at schools are disappearing. If there is any silver lining to this crisis, that would be it.)
Mastermind by Maria Konnikova
I’ve found that non-fiction has held my interest much more than fiction this year, and I’ve become particularly interested in human psychology. Mastermind, which purports to offer tips and tricks on how to think better based on Sherlock Holmes’ powers of observation and deduction, isn’t exactly groundbreaking work, but it is an interesting read. The book argues that we no longer “see” what’s right in front of us, because we’re too distracted and stressed. If we could only train our minds to store what’s relevant and necessary in our “mental attics,” we’d all be happier and healthier. This is an alternative take on the trendy topic of mindfulness, where the objective is to obviously be right we are, rather than in the past or the future. Mastermind isn’t life-changing but it isn’t a total waste of time, either. I’m also looking forward to reading Konnikova’s latest, about learning to play professional poker and how to integrate that game theory into everyday life.
Carnegie’s Maid by Marie Benedict
This loose attempt at historical fiction imagines that Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-American industrialist who was once the wealthiest man in the world, turned to philanthropy after falling in love with his mother’s Irish-born lady’s maid, who is of course not who she pretends to be. The entire story hangs on this tenuous thread, and while the behind-the-scenes influence of women throughout history has long been undervalued, this plot is hard to swallow. Carnegie was instrumental in creating modern philanthropy (see also: the Gates/Buffett Giving Pledge) and particularly in building our nation’s library network, but the suggestion that all this came from a lady’s maid under false pretenses simply doesn’t hold water. The weak writing reads more like a demure, sanitized romance novel than solid historical fiction. Thankfully, Carnegie’s Maid is short.
One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus
I listened to the audiobook of One Thousand White Women, and after comparing it with the printed version I made the better choice by far. The story hinges on an actual request that a Cheyenne chief made to Ulysses S. Grant for white women to integrate into the Plains tribes; the white women were of course never delivered, but the book imagines what might have happened had they been. We follow the story through the journals of May Dodd; though the book was written by a white man, the audiobook smartly uses a female actor. Fergus populates his story with stereotypical characters – even going so far as to write in accents, which works on audio but not as written – and there are some fairly significant portions of the story that simply do not hold up to close examination. Although I found myself swept into the story on a long drive, I likely wouldn’t have finished reading the book. One Thousand White Women was written in 1999; there is absolutely no way this book would be published today. As with Carnegie’s Maid above, this is a great concept with exceedingly poor execution.
Have you read much this year? Did anything particularly resonate with you? Please share in the comments below.