Late fall book club

What are you reading these days, friends? Compelling non-fiction? Page-turning thrillers? Autobiography? Historical fiction? Escapist trash? Here are a few books I’ve read recently, if you’d like to see:

The Ride of a Lifetime, Robert Iger

I read this autobiography on a whim and absolutely loved everything about it. Robert Iger was CEO of Disney from 2005 through 2020, and remains executive chairman as of this writing. It’s easy to dismiss The Ride of a Lifetime as just another one of thousands of business leadership books, but it is ultimately so much more than that. Mr. Iger comes across as thoughtful, smart, humble and exceptionally hard-working, and the book’s insights are relevant even if you’re not running one of the world’s largest entertainment companies. The Ride of a Lifetime is excellent for many reasons, but “The Ten Principles of True Leadership” should be required reading for every leader, no matter the size of the organization. Absolutely one of my favorites of 2021.

Bravey, Alexi Pappas

“It’s like when you are in a race. Racing is very painful but we are not what we feel in any single moment and just because I’m in the hurt box now doesn’t mean I won’t feel better in a few more laps. Racing is about understanding that pain is a sensation but not necessarily a threat; the best thing you can to do is keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

More than a year and a half into the pandemic, it’s becoming ever more obvious that collectively, we are suffering from severe mental health issues. Thanks to athletes like Simone Biles and books like Bravey, more and more people are finally acknowledging their struggles and opening the doors to tough conversations. Alexi Pappas is a champion runner and filmmaker who lost her mother to suicide at a young age and faced down a severe bout of depression after competing in the Olympics. This funny, heart-wrenching, gorgeous memoir will ring deeply familiar to anyone who has ever felt the black dog lurking just around the corner.

Win At All Costs, Matt Hart

This book’s subtitle – ‘Inside Nike Running and Its Culture of Deception’ – tells you everything you need to know. By now, it should come as no surprise that Nike is composed entirely of mean, vindictive, competitive jerks who will do anything to win. (The corporation has now had to rename three buildings on campus, which is perhaps an indication that they like to hitch their wagon to the wrong stars.)

For all the promise of exposing the dark underbelly of competitive running, however, this book is surprisingly bloodless. It’s ostensibly presented as objective sports journalism, yet the book’s primary characters, Kara and Adam Goucher, are quite clearly friends of the author and therefore everything they claim is taken at face value – and their stories contain some fairly vast credibility gaps. This book may have helped bring down Alberto Salazar, but he had done most of the damage himself prior to publication. Overall, an empty book that shows up a bit too late to provide any new information. If you want to read an excellent work about doping in professional sports, pick up Wheelmen instead.

The Midnight Library, Matt Haig

The concept of the book is brilliant – for each of us, there exists a ‘Midnight Library,’ where we can experience all of the lives we might have had we made any one of ten million different decisions along the way. Protagonist Nora Seed arrives in the Midnight Library after a suicide attempt, because she feels that there is no point to carrying on with her life as it is. With the guidance of an off-kilter librarian, she visits a variety of different lives that might have been hers, whilst trying to determine what makes a life worth living.

The theory is fascinating but the execution of this compelling premise is decidedly weak. Nora is a dreary, bland and entirely uninteresting character, accurately described in one review as “the world’s largest wet blanket.” She doesn’t seem to really want anything, and her lack of passion renders the book –which could have been bright and colorful and interesting in the right hands – flabby and boring. This book received a great deal of praise, and after finishing it, I’m left wondering whether that praise was less for the book itself and more for an interesting idea about our unlived lives, an idea that we’ve likely all considered.

This Is Your Mind on Plants, Michael Pollan

I really enjoy Michael Pollan’s work and have read all his books, some more than once; I believe The Omnivore’s Dilemma to be one of the most important and relevant books ever written on food culture, politics and policy. His latest is a short work in three parts, detailing his experiences with three plant-based substances that have changed the world thanks to their ability to alter human consciousness: opium, caffeine and mescaline. While most of Pollan’s books root heavily into science-oriented journalism, This Is Your Mind on Plants definitely skews closer to memoir. Each portion contains more of a personal account of his experience with the drug in question, with only brief references to science and culture; more accurately, the book should be titled This Is MY Mind on Plants. (Those of us who remember the formative years of the War on Drugs and the Just Say No campaign will certainly understand the veiled reference in the title.)

The section on opium was originally written in the mid-1990s, with a recent update; most pointed here is the acknowledgement that while the feds were busting home gardeners for totally benign poppies, the Sacklers were carefully building their devastating empire of pain from the ground up. The caffeine portion might be of interest to anyone who looks forward to coffee every morning, which is to say about 90% of us; the analysis of how coffee (and tea, to a lesser extent) allowed for the rise of Western capitalism and contributes to our staggering sleep deficiency is interesting but not revelatory. I mostly disliked the mescaline segment of the book, mainly because while I absolutely agree that psychedelics offer incredible potential for the treatment of many mental health issues, I do not at all support the recent trend towards “psychedelic tourism,” where wealthy Westerners seek out cultures with psychedelic traditions in order to go on their own “spiritual trips.” These drugs are incredibly powerful and likely could offer immense benefits, but they’re not a joke, and they’re not to be taken lightly or appropriated as ‘wellness’ as part of some all-inclusive beach vacation. This Is Your Mind on Plants is written in Pollan’s typical accessible, engaging style, and the book is a decent-enough read, but overall it feels rehashed and thin. This isn’t one of his best nor is it one of my favorites.

The Other Black Girl, Zakiya Dalila Harris

I am painfully aware that I am not the intended audience for this book, so it should come as no surprise that it didn’t hold together for me at all. Not only was the writing weak and the main character weaker, but – ironic for a story set in the publishing industry! – the book desperately needed both an editor and a proofreader. Skip it.

Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford

“This book advances a nestled set of arguments on behalf of work that is meaningful because it is genuinely useful. It also explores what we might call the ethics of maintenance and repair, and in doing so I hope it will speak to those who may be unlikely to go into the trades professionally but strive for some measure of self-reliance – the kind that requires focused engagement with our material things.”

That quote perfectly encapsulates our life here on Quiet Farm. We want to engage in work that is useful and we want to produce more than we consume. We also want to not own very many things, and we want to understand the things we do own, and we want to fix them when they break (which seems frequent these days). I adored the basic premise of this book – ultimately, that we’re collectively unhappy because most of us nowadays don’t do any sort of actual productive work, particularly with our hands. Most of us no longer build or construct or repair things, certainly not for our full-time employment.

While the argument is sound, and the book in particular presents a compelling case against the “college-to-cubicle pipeline,” the author possesses a PhD in Philosophy and wields it as an intellectual weapon. My favorite parts were passages where he discusses his work repairing vintage motorcycles; while reading this book, I was entrenched in an ongoing battle with my beloved 1960s Singer 600, and could very much appreciate both the challenge and the reward of learning an elegant (and infuriating) machine intimately. Ultimately, however, the book contains too much philosophical musing and too few real-world examples. This is a shame because more than anything, we do need more skilled tradespeople and fewer software engineers – but anyone who picks up this book already knows this.

Circling the Sun, Paula McLain

I love, love, love Paula McLain’s historical fiction; she makes interesting women (whom you’ve likely never heard of) absolutely come alive on the page. Circling the Sun follows Beryl Markham, a pioneering aviator, thoroughbred horse trainer and author who was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from Britain to North America. English-born and Kenyan-raised, Markham is also well-known for her entanglement with Denys Finch-Hatton and Karen Blixen. She was smart, independent and spirited and she belonged nowhere but the vast expanse of Africa; Circling the Sun is a brilliant portrayal of a woman who lived life entirely on her own terms even when her choices weren’t at all socially acceptable. Highly recommended, as are the rest of McLain’s books; next up, I’ll be reading Markham’s own memoir, West with the Night, and revisiting Blixen’s Out of Africa.

Pretty Things, Janelle Brown

Standard fiction hasn’t thrilled me much recently, but Pretty Things is a dark, entertaining romp through the intertwined lives of con artists and their marks. Incisive commentary on the social media monster and how we give away so much of our truth for free, yet still desperately try to present lives that aren’t exactly our own while simultaneously whining about our lack of privacy. No one in this book is particularly likable, but my favorite character by far was the narrator’s mother. Overall, Pretty Things can be summed up as readable escapist junk, and there is always a time and a place for that in any literary diet.

Have you read anything remarkable or otherwise recently? As always, we’d love to hear your comments and recommendations.

Early summer book club

Lots of newspapers and magazines like to publish “summer reading lists,” implying that the only thing you have to do this summer is relax on a lounge chair by the pool, languidly sipping cold drinks and tearing through page after page of the latest bestseller. For us, at least, this aspirational vision bears absolutely zero resemblance to our real lives – we actually read less in summer, mainly because maintaining the farm is more than a full-time occupation. (Also we don’t have a pool. ) Even with all of our tasks and projects, however, I have managed to read more this year than I did in 2020 – I know plenty of avid readers who struggled with focus and the inability to finish books last year. Based on the round-up below, it certainly looks as though non-fiction, specifically focused on human psychology and behavior, is my genre of choice these days; with that in mind, we offer a few book recommendations. As always, we’d love to hear yours, too!

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Gardening book club

The world feels far too heavy and sad, particularly here in Colorado, for some absurdly cheerful post about alpacas or chickens or whatever we’re doing on the farm. Instead, we’ll offer a brief round-up of some favorite gardening books, in the hopes that you might be inspired to search these out at your local library or favorite independent bookseller. As with cooking, there is always something new to learn about gardening and growing food, no matter how long you’ve been doing it. And as with cooking, where feeding hungry people nourishing, healthy food feels like an act of pure hope and a direct rebellion against the stupid, meaningless tragedy of the world, so does planting a seed or a sapling.

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Mindset book club

I think it’s fair to say that things are not going well out there. Between incessant doomscrolling and paralyzing anxiety attacks, I’m desperately searching out reading material that calms and soothes, rather than inflames and terrorizes – so I scoured our rainbow library for books that I thought fit the bill. Read on for a few suggestions.

What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self ed. by Ellyn Spragins

This is a lovely book, filled with precisely what the title advertises: prominent, successful women write letters to their younger selves, offering guidance, wisdom, consolation, advice and solace. I’ve thought a lot about how we’ll look back on this intensely difficult time, and what I might like to tell my own younger self. I particularly loved this quote from photographer Joyce Tenneson: “Your best work will come in moments of grace.” Perhaps we all need to focus on showing more grace to both ourselves and others.

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed is certainly best known for Wild, but she also wrote a gorgeous, heartbreaking advice column called Dear Sugar, which has been translated into plays and podcasts and all sorts of other media. In a dark time, the thing you need most might be to know that others have experienced pain and heartache and betrayal and trauma too, and have still survived even after all that, and that’s exactly what this book offers. Plus, there are some laugh-out-loud moments which will have you guffawing through your tears. This one hits all the right notes.

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The best books about food

Apparently this country is electing a president this year and probably electing some other people too, though over here at Quiet Farm we’re doing our damnedest to ignore the entire circus. One thing that still surprises (and infuriates!) me immensely in every single election cycle is that we never, ever discuss national food policy. Neither side even mentions it in passing, unless a hotdish fundraiser happens. We talk about defense, and education, and occasionally the climate crisis, and of course health care, and yet we never discuss the single issue that unites every one of us, regardless of party affiliation. We never talk about the fact that if we changed our food system, we’d naturally change our health care system for the better. And that changing our food system would be a huge step towards repairing our devastated planet. Changing our food system would also mean more military readiness, since we’re now too fat to fight. And our children would gain a better education if they had access to better nutrition for growing brains and bodies. We always ignore the food, when it’s the one issue we should talk about more than any other.

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Spring fever book club

It’s been gray, snowy and cold here at Quiet Farm this weekend, and I think I can confidently speak for most of the United States when I say we are ready for spring. Between polar vortexes and bomb cyclones and Snowmageddons and white-knuckle drives over mountain passes and goodness knows what other chilliness, this winter has been…lengthy. Despite our grumbling, though, we are of course entirely dependent on that winter moisture for our spring and summer irrigation, so we are truly grateful. And all that snow and mud means no outdoor projects, so we have more time to read, too!

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Farm update: February 18

Despite the snow on the ground, spring is in the air. We’re entering the freeze-thaw cycle (also known as mud season) and our quarter-mile driveway is the worse for it, but all around us, things seem to be softening and readying for growth. We’re excited for spring, friends. This winter has offered much more moisture than last year’s punishing drought, and we’re looking forward to seeing how our fields regenerate once the snows have disappeared for good.

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One of our favorite winter activities has been watching for wildlife across our land; the persistent snow has made tracks easy to see. We’ve spotted coyotes, foxes, rabbits, raccoons, ground squirrels and of course our nemesis, deer. We are trying hard to learn this land, to know what lives here now and what was here before us so we can figure out how to best live in harmony.

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Winter book club

Though the solstice has passed and days are theoretically growing longer, we have settled into deepest winter here. Famed organic farmer Eliot Coleman calls this the “Persephone period,” when winter days are less than ten hours in length. Late sunrises, early sunsets and a chilly winter sun barely peeking through the gloom create perfect days for curling up in front of the fire with a book. Though we should be studying farming materials – and we are, I promise! – I also devote plenty of time to non-farm reading, too.

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The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai

This book appeared on a number of 2018’s “Best Of” lists and won numerous prizes, and for good reason. Like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, this book, to me, perfectly represents The Great American Novel. It concerns two parallel stories, one set in Chicago in the mid-eighties during the height of the AIDS crisis and one in 2015 Paris, and both stories grab you by the throat and consume you completely. This was a book that I had a hard time putting down even when I couldn’t keep my eyes open late at night, and one that I dove into when I was supposed to be doing ten million other things. It’s only been a few short decades, but it’s difficult to acknowledge now just how blind and how cruel we were when AIDS ravaged our country. Now that HIV/AIDS is no longer a guaranteed death sentence, it seems even more shocking that we let thousands of people, mostly young, vibrant men, die horribly – because we didn’t agree with their lifestyles, because “God is punishing them.” Along with Vietnam and civil rights, I’d identify this period as one of the most truly shameful in American history. Layered, gorgeous and tragic, The Great Believers is one of the best books I’ve read recently.

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Restless book club

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This should be a gorgeous shot of the San Juan Mountains; unfortunately they are completely obscured by smoke.

A heaviness sits over our Western Slope mesa right now. For two weeks we’ve seen evidence of numerous wildfires nearby plus California, too; the normally clean, crisp air is thick with a sickly haze and it smells as though you’re standing in the middle of a campfire. Our pure blue sky hasn’t been seen in some time, and you can almost taste the ash on your tongue. The rains are infrequent, but when they do come – even when they disrupt an annual town potluck – they seem to wash the smoke away, and people rejoice. It feels charred, dry and desperate here, and we’ll be the first to admit that we’re getting restless. We’re mired in an enforced and extended waiting period on the farm we’re trying to purchase, so while there have been plenty of farm visits, long, hilly bike rides, hiking in Grand Mesa National Forest, fruit picking and hours of tennis, there is also a lot of escapist reading going on these days.

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The Farm Series: Colorado Pastured Pork

We’ve (sort of) relocated to the Western Slope, and we’re focused on meeting as many local farmers as possible. If we truly intend to start Quiet Farm here, and if we intend for it to grow into a thriving business, building a strong local producer network will be key to our success. To that end, when we’re not driving around looking for property, we’re visiting farms and ranches who practice the same sort of farming we plan to embrace.

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The Western Slope – specifically Delta County, where we’re currently based – has a long history of agriculture, but most of those ag products were shipped to population centers in Denver (to the east) and Salt Lake City (to the west). Now, with “local food” and “agritourism” evolving as valid ways for poorer counties to earn revenue, there is a movement afoot to encourage small farmers and other sustainable, innovative producers to make their mark here. Surprisingly, Delta County has more acres of organic farmland than any other county in Colorado (I know, we thought it was the Kingdom of Boulder, too).

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