Early winter book reviews, vol. 1

Friends! Hello! My final pot of tomato puree is bubbling away on the stove, anxiously awaiting the canning jars and then a dark cupboard. I’m so pleased to be finished with preservation for this season; we did manage to salvage a decent harvest – nearly eight hundred pounds of organic vegetables – despite our challenges with viruses and insects. Naturally, winter in our agricultural world allows much more time for reading and sewing, and plenty of time has been gladly given over to both recently! With that, may I present a brief round-up of recent (and not-so recent) reads that have lately crossed my path.

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich was one of the nation’s foremost writers on sociology before her recent death; she’s best known for Nickel and Dimed, a highly controversial and deeply problematic first-person account of trying to survive on low-wage work. Bright-Sided was mostly overlooked, but I think it’s far more relevant since it focuses on our obsession with positive thinking, and how that actually undermines and harms us.

An NPR review sums this up rather neatly:

“Militarily, yes, we are the mightiest nation on earth. But on many other fronts, the American score is dismal, and was dismal even before the economic downturn that began in 2007. Our children routinely turn out to be more ignorant of basic subjects like math and geography than their counterparts in other industrialized nations. They are also more likely to die in infancy or grow up in poverty. Almost everyone acknowledges that our health care system is “broken” and our physical infrastructure crumbling. We have lost so much of our edge in science and technology that American companies have even begun to outsource their research and development efforts. Worse, some of the measures by which we do lead the world should inspire embarrassment rather than pride: We have the highest percentage of our population incarcerated, and the greatest level of inequality in wealth and income. We are plagued by gun violence and racked by personal debt. And Americans account for two-thirds of the global market for antidepressants, which happen also to be the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States.”

Clearly, all that positivity isn’t doing us much good. Ehrenreich’s book sharply skewers all this positive thinking rubbish, and makes a solid case that it isn’t helping us thrive. And since the book was written prior to 2016 and all that followed after, one only wonders what Ehrenreich might have thought of the morass we find ourselves currently trapped in; thankfully, we’re starting to collectively address the concept of “toxic positivity.” A strong book from a stellar observer of our deeply flawed society.

She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

She Said is far and away one of the absolute best investigative journalism books I’ve ever read; it follows New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey as they break the Harvey Weinstein story. Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill, which covers much of the same sordid mess, was released prior to this and I thought that book was also excellent, but I do wish I’d read She Said first because it’s simply better. There isn’t much more to write about this work that hasn’t been written, but among other accomplishments, She Said shows why good journalism is more important than ever in this fractured age of disinformation and misinformation. Freedom of the press matters in a stable democracy, and books like She Said succinctly show why. A must-read.

The Power Paradox by Dacher Kelter

“The power paradox is this: We gain power and the capacity for influence through social practices that advance the interests of others, such as empathy, collaboration, open mindedness, fairness, and generosity. And yet, once we gain power, success, or wealth, those very practices vanish, leaving us vulnerable to impulsive, self-serving actions and empathy deficits that set in motion our fall.” This is another social psychology book that reads differently now than when it was first published in early 2016; it is rather an understatement to say that the world is a very changed place. Ultimately, though, the book makes the salient point that we humans gain power through what is best about human nature and then lose it through what is worst. One only has to look at recent headlines – Trump, Musk, Bankman-Fried – to know just how accurate this research is. The Power Paradox is not a particularly stellar book in and of itself, but it will force the reader to examine the way that power structure within any human interaction, from the barista to a partner to a colleague – shifts and evolves. This a definitely a book that changes one’s perspective.

The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

I’m obviously a huge Michael Pollan fan and have referenced his prominent works, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Food Rules and Cooked, numerous times in my writing here. I had somehow never read The Botany of Desire, one of his earlier works, and it’s no surprise that I loved this book, too. The Botany of Desire covers four common plants – apple, potato, cannabis and tulip – and takes us through a botanical and modern history of each. The writing is quirky and engaging, skimming through bioethics, gardening, famine, greed, capitalism, the westward expansion, evolution, and more; it’s certainly broad and shallow rather than deep and focused. No great scientific theories are likely to have originated from this book; nevertheless, it’s a worthwhile read, filled with Pollan’s trademark erudite wit, even if the cannabis chapter is an awkward twenty years’ out of date.

What Your Food Ate: How to Heal Our Land and Reclaim Our Health by David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé

What Your Food Ate holds so much potential as an incredible, inspiring read, and of course it’s right in my organic food and farming wheelhouse – the book promises an in-depth study on how our soil health impacts every known aspect of our food. Yet this book, while impressively well-researched, is as dry and flavorless as the modern French baguettes it condemns. What Your Food Ate is far more of a meta-analysis; page after page refers to this study and that study, so much so that the bibliography isn’t even included because it runs to more than fifty printed pages. The authors certainly make a valid point – after all, how could our soil health not impact our food? – but unfortunately, this book isn’t the way to effect change. Everyone who knows about the importance of soil is already focused on restoring it, and everyone else doesn’t care.

Dopamine Nation by Anna Lembke

Dopamine Nation is a perfect example of a great concept totally derailed by terrible execution. The premise is brilliant – that we’re all now dopamine zombies, desperately in search of our next quick fix from ‘likes,’ gambling, porn or myriad other addictions, that we exclusively pursue pleasure and avoid pain at all costs, even when it might actually benefit us to struggle a bit. The book, however, is beyond abysmal. Ignoring the numerous typographical, citation and research errors, the author – apparently the head of Stanford’s addiction program, which is terrifying and shocking in and of itself – spends a good deal of time talking about her own addiction to vampire erotica with a brief aside about her marital struggles and very little time actually addressing our dopamine addiction. She seems blatantly dangerous as a mental health professional, going so far as to tell one patient to “get down on his knees and pray,” and her habit of making almost every single sentence into its own paragraph is beyond maddening. (The only worthwhile takeaway? If there is anything you’re struggling with, whether it’s alcohol, or TV, or social media, or online shopping, or whatever, give it up for four weeks and see how you feel at the end of that month, whether you want to reintroduce the thing in question or whether your life is better off without it.) It’s too late for me, since I’m still wondering why I bothered to finish it, but save yourself the trouble and avoid this awful book at all costs.

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

“We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being.”

It is no great secret that America doesn’t do aging well. Unsurprisingly, we’re not good at death, either. Despite our staggering spending on medical care, we regularly have some of the worst outcomes in the world, and the elderly deaths from Covid, particularly those in nursing homes and care facilities, forced a devastating realization about how we treat our aged. Gawande’s remarkable 2014 book Being Mortal focuses on both the elderly as well as others facing a terminal diagnosis, and how the medical profession could do better in helping people live well, rather than simply live. Reading this now, on the other side of the pandemic, it is really difficult to acknowledge how little things have changed since its publication. On the positive side, however, death doulas and death with dignity movements and Death Cafés are now becoming more common and more widely accepted; the horrific experience of the past few years likely reminded all of us just how close to death we might well be. I would make this book required reading for everyone; this is one of the most significant and impactful books I’ve ever read, and I know I will return to it again and again. This is not an easy read, but it is a necessary one – ideally before you’re in a situation requiring difficult care choices, for yourself or loved ones.

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Like She Said, Killers of the Flower Moon is also a brilliant piece of investigative journalism, this one following a string of 1920s murders amongst the Osage in what is now Oklahoma. The culprits are identified early on, but the story doesn’t necessarily hinge on the murderers’ identities; the diabolical corruption, schemes and plots still have the power to shock and the compelling story easily carries the reader along on the terrible journey. Killers of the Flower Moon is yet another scathing example of how this country mistreated (and murdered) its Indigenous population – as though we need more evidence. The audiobook is stellar, particularly the section read by Will Patton, but the paper version includes fantastic historical photos that add so much to the experience.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow kept cropping up – on various ‘best of the year’ lists, in a random blog post, in a comment from a book club friend. Once a book appears mysteriously three times, I consider it a sign from the Literary Universe and immediately request it at the library. As some reviewers have noted, describing the book is challenging – ‘two lifelong friends design a successful video game’ isn’t particularly compelling. Zevin, though, takes that slender thread and deftly weaves it into a complicated story covering decades and generations, with all requisite love, loss and discovery along the way. This is a big, sweeping novel, yet still intimate and warm; the characters are richly drawn and relatable, even if they’re not necessarily likable. One of my favorite fiction reads of the year, right next to Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead – and you definitely don’t need to be into video games to love this story. Highly recommended.

Wise words from our local library.

We’d love to hear what you’ve been reading recently. Please share in the comments below!

6 thoughts on “Early winter book reviews, vol. 1

  1. I have begun to read “Bright-sided” already, on your recommendation, and am already struck by her personal story. This book is gonna be good. I really like her style.

    Merry holidays!!!!

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  2. Thank you for your book recommendations. Your reporting is spot on. I have read some of your selections. Presented “Flowers of the Killer Moon” at my book club and it made for an interesting and heartbreaking discussion. Will pick up your last book now that I have read your report.
    Hope your winter goes well.
    Sincerely,
    Cathy Beck
    Old Triumphant Lady crew

    Like

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