Book Corner 2021.32

by Michael Lewis

This is a book about the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US; but it’s written by Michael Lewis, so it’s not going to be a polemic or a dry history. It’s a book about a few real-life characters who had some interesting roles to play, and their unique perspectives.

– Scientist Bob Glass: his daughter’s (and, let’s face it, his) eight-grade science project is a model of communicable disease spread, which points the super-spreading finger mainly at children, for their multitudinous and highly physical social interactions. The model concluded that closing schools and keeping children isolated was the best way to stop the spread of a flu-like illness, counterintuitive though it may seen when it’s the older cohorts who suffer the most adverse effects.

– Charity Dean: a California public health officer with a hero complex; I had a hard time truly understanding her character and her motivations under different circumstances. She also just didn’t seem all that important to the story.

– Richard Hatchett: one of the first picks to work on a task force to produce a pandemic plan of action back in the George W. Bush administration; because President Bush had read a book (!) called THE GREAT INFLUENZA about the 1918 flu pandemic, and it scared him into wanting to craft a governmental plan of action to deal with pandemics. (Yes, the last Republican president whose initials were not DJT actually read books – those were the days!)

– Carter Mecher: kind of the main character, someone that Lewis obviously respects a great deal; a doctor at the Veterans Administration, and unofficial leader of the task force.

So the pandemic plan is written with its emphasis on social distancing and closing schools. During the Obama administration, there is the H1N1 scare, and the plan is considered; but they take a gamble and decide it’s too intrusive into people’s daily lives, and they don’t use it. They dodge a bullet; I think there is a comment to the effect that it wasn’t a bullet dodged, but rather that nature had chosen to spray us with buckshot. The pandemic response team is ultimately disbanded, and then we get Trump. There’s also the politicization of the CDC; the CDC is not so much a villain in the story as a tragic anti-hero. They could have been so much better, done so much more. Instead, at first they minimized.. and then surrendered.

It took about half of the volume to finally get the narrative up to 2020 talking about COVID-19. Until then, I was chomping a bit at the bit – get to the good stuff already! These people are all relatively interesting but I didn’t buy a book to read about a bunch of government scientists and doctors with some novel ideas. After all the backstory, things got very compelling indeed. I have long been a Michael Lewis fan and continue to be. Ugly cover, though. (  )

Book Corner 2021.31


Leave Only Footprints by Conor Knighton

Haven’t had a good “my-year-of” book in a while. Here: visiting every national park in the USA – 59 of them, at the time of writing – in a calendar year.

He doesn’t do it alphabetically, despite the “Acadia-to-Zion” subtitle; nor really geographically. And the book is neither alphabetical nor geographical nor chronological. He picks a few parks for each chapter and unites them with a theme (water, love, diversity, whatever).

The style takes some getting used to. I realize 59 parks is a lot to fit into one book, and I would fully accept giving some of them short shrift. But often a chapter will start out talking about one park, and it could be a mere paragraph or two before you have suddenly shifted your focus to an entirely different one. It often left me, “Wait! Wait! What happened to…” I did get used to it, and grew less and less likely to settle in and form an attachment to any particular park description that might start a chapter, knowing that it would very likely be snatched away from me abruptly at any moment. Still, even though it wasn’t till page 245 that we were introduced to Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas, and by then I was used to the device, I really think this park deserved more than a page. Guadalupe, we’re told, is one of the least visited parks in the lower 48, and contains the highest point in Texas. Then we suddenly start talking about Rocky Mountain National Park. It reminded me of the blancmange Monty Python skit where they start following an ordinary couple down the street with a voiceover and then suddenly shift the camera away saying that because they are so ordinary we are now going to turn our attention instead to…

As a companion, the author is amiable enough with no major tics or annoyances. He’s young and has a broken heart, but that isn’t too intrusive a device. I had a couple of favorite parts:

a) When he goes to Volcanoes National Park and hikes out on the lava flow, like we did a few years ago. “Had no one else been standing out there, I would have absolutely turned back. It felt like I was marching into hell. How on earth was this allowed? It couldn’t possibly be safe. Walking across a field of lava felt like driving over downed power lines or skating to the center of a newly frozen river… But up ahead of me, I saw groups of tourists in the distance. There were even a few rangers walking around, answering questions. I had to zig and zag to get where they were standing, avoiding bits of fresh, bubbling lava that had risen to the surface. It felt like dodging puddles on a sidewalk, except in this case a misstep wouldn’t mean soggy socks, it would mean burning my foot off.”

Sorry for the very long excerpt – it’s just that, YES, every single sentence is EXACTLY how it was! I described it as like marching into Mordor.

b) A beautiful thought as he ends a few days Isle Royale National Park, an island off Michigan’s upper peninsula, accessible only by seaplane or boat. As he’s waiting for the boat to take him back to civilization, a fellow park visitor comments, “It’s pretty great being cut off from the outside world.” Author replies, “I think we’re in the outside world. Everyone else is just cut off from this.”

I am dying to go to more national parks – I have such a hankering lately to go west, and that was the reason I was drawn to this book. I particularly want to go to Yosemite, as well as Yellowstone and Glacier. I’m woefully deficient in park experience. I was surprised, though, that I actually have been to six:
– Volcanoes, HI
– Pinnacles, CA
– Channel Islands, CA
– Badlands, SD
– Wind Cave, SD
– Acadia, ME (  )

Book Corner 2021.30

by Jack Kerouac

This could have been so much better.

I hated, hated the Dean character. Whenever he was out of the picture, things settled down, the writing sparkled, the story captivated me. Then he’s back, and everything gets stupid again; and once again I have to slog through paragraph after paragraph, page after page, of him banging two girls at once and saying “Oh yass” and running around in a circle and smoking “tea” and oh what a party it was and listening to bop and having only two dollars left.

Sample paragraph with Dean around:
“He giggled maniacally and didn’t care; he rubbed his fly, stuck is finger in Marylou’s dress, slurped up her knee, frothed at the mouth, and said, ‘Darling, you know and I know that everything is straight between us at last beyond the furthest abstract definition in metaphysical terms or any terms you want to specify or sweetly impose or harken back…’ and so on, and zoom went the car and we were off again for California.”

Sample paragraph without Dean:
“I took the Washington bus; wasted some time there wandering around; went out of my way to see the Blue Ridge; heard the bird of Shenandoah and visited Stonewall Jackson’s grave; at dusk stood expectorating in the Kanawha River and walked the hillbilly night of Charleston, West Virginia; ad midnight Ashland, Kentucky, and a lonely girl under the marquee of a closed-up show. The dark and mysterious Ohio, and Cincinnati at dawn. Then Indiana fields again, and St. Louis as ever in its great valley clouds of afternoon. The muddy cobbles and the Montana logs, the broken steamboats, the ancient signs, the grass and the ropes by the river. The endless poem. by night Missouri, Kansas fields, Kansas night-cows in the secret wides, cracerkbox towns with a sea for the end of every street; dawn in Abilene. East Kansas grasses become West Kansas rangelands that climb up to the hill of the Western night.” (  )

Book Corner 2021.26-29

These were not rereads for me, unlike Ramona the Brave. These started coming out in 1981, when I’d aged out of Ramona.

Now that I’ve aged back in, I can say they were wonderful.

Ramona and her Mother: Ramona just wants to be loved.

Ramona Quimby, Age 8: Poor Ramona! She overhears her teacher call her a “show-off” and a “nuisance!” From then on, she tries to cause as little trouble as possible. When she comes to school feeling sick, then sicker, and sicker, she is afraid to say anything. Then – she throws up on the floor! She goes to the nurse’s office and cries. She goes home and cries. I could have cried myself.

Ramona Forever: I didn’t think I’d much like the plotlines of being in Aunt Bea’s wedding, or the Quimby’s having a third (!) child. But while Ramona may no longer be the baby of the family, she is still absolutely darling (see below).

Ramona’s World: Ramona makes a new best friend and turns 10 at the end, or “zero-teen.” She takes care of her baby sister and doesn’t throw tantrums anymore. We knew she had to grow up sooner or later. Oh how I love to think she kept her spunk all the way through adulthood, became a great artist, and lived to 105 like Beverly Cleary.

Book Corner 2021.25

by Mark Kurlansky

Fact after fact, oftentimes feeling randomly assorted and repetitive. Also, I found it strange how much space he devoted to human breastfeeding. I mean, yeah, I know it’s milk, but it felt very incongruous in what was otherwise a food book. I mean, yeah, I know it’s food, but… I just didn’t like it, OK?

What I did like was the author’s dry sense of humor and low profile. (  )

Book Corner 2021.24

by Beverly Cleary

Given what I just named my new baby goat, and that I came across this paperback in one of those little free libraries just a few weeks after she was born, it seemed it was meant to be: time for a re-read after 40 long years.

Yes, Beverly Cleary deserves to be remembered and read and re-read after all these years. Her Ramona is so very real, it was kind of a difficult read. After all, it’s largely about her frustrations.

Real things:
– What it’s like having a sibling 5 years older (yup)
– The details, like the kindergarten being in a ‘temporary building’
– The little (used to be called normal-sized) house where everyone can hear everything; Beezus is constantly butting in
– Beezus being older but not so much older that she can’t join in late night sessions of sisters scaring each other

The illustrations have evolved several times over the long, long shelf life of the Cleary books. This edition I happened to score is not the most modern – I see some actually have some stills from a movie that got made around 2010 – I disapprove wholeheartedly; Beezus looks to be cast way too old. But it’s not exactly the edition that I read as a kid in grammar school, either. Ramona was cuter then, and in the older ones. I have to find those.

And indeed now I must, as they say, “collect them all.” Ramona the Pest. Ramona Forever. Ramona forever, indeed!! Loving my little goat name even more. (  )

Actually I think this is the one I read in grammar school:

Book Corner 2021.23

by Michaeleen Doucleff

I really can’t say why I wanted to read this book nor why I loved it, considering I am not a parent, have never been a parent, have never in my adult life wanted to be a parent, am definitely not a regular reader of parenting books, and skip just about anything related to parenting in all other media as well.

But this was a book about culture. The insane author takes her three-year-old to three different destinations around the world, each wilder than the last, to learn what the cultures there can teach her about parenting and her troubles with Rosy.

From the Maya of Yucatan, she learned about ‘acomodido’ – how children learn to be accommodating, to help without being asked, to know what help is needed without being told. From the Inuit of Baffin Island, she learned how to be calm, and raise a calmer child. From the Hadzabe of Tanzania, she learned about autonomy, how children can be independent yet still taught that they must be a help to their family and tribe.

Some might say she idealizes these other cultures. Sometimes yes, it is hard to believe everything is always as smooth and beautiful as she describes. But it’s meant to be a kind of self-help book. There’s lots of repetition of the lessons of each section, literal repetition – I always hate summary pages that tell me what I just read; I read for a story, and they interrupt the flow.

Nevertheless, none of this detracted for me from the fun of visiting with these families around the world, and seeing how different family life can be from what we are used to here. As for the author and her trouble child, I really enjoyed spending time with them, too. Rosy’s tantrums can be hysterical, when enjoyed from my safe distance. Hearing how well new methods worked to calm her down was rewarding. In the end, I’m sad tonight that I’m done with the book and won’t have any time with Rosy and Michaeleen anymore. That’s at least a four star book right there. (  )

Book Corner 2021.22

by Michael Moss

[Not to be confused with Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, or Animal, Vegetable, Junk, or Hunt, Gather, Parent… I think I’m forgetting another one – but it seems to be modern times’ replacement for “My Year of…”]

A bit rudimentary and repetitive. The subject here is Big Processed Food. They make stuff that’s really bad for you. If one company tries to do the right thing and stop selling such salt-sugar-fat-laden bombs, they will simply lose market share to other companies that still sell the junk. The prevailing attitude is, therefore, that they offer healthy options alongside the traditional bombs; the consumer may pick what she likes; and people like the bombs. So whaddaya gonna do?

None of this is earth-shattering, so Moss bases his book on the quality of his reporting and the stories he unearths. My favorites are about instant pudding and Cheez Whiz. Instant pudding: I always pass this in the supermarket aisle and think to myself “maybe I want to make pudding sometime.” I know instant pudding isn’t a nutritional powerhouse, but it’s always felt to me like pudding mix, cake mix, etc. were one cut better than buying products already pre-made. At least you’re making the thing. You have a bit more control and knowledge about its inputs and freshness. OK, so maybe the kind of pudding you cook has something going for it in that regard, but when I read Moss’ historical bit about instant pudding, and about the chemicals they have to add to allow milk to turn into pudding without applying heat, I was entirely put off forever.

Cheez Whiz: created in the 1950s, Moss interviewed one of its creators, who has stayed a lifelong fan – almost. He and his wife would put it on everything, often ending the day with a glass of wine and a few crackers slathered in Cheez Whiz. One day this gentleman opened a new jar to make one of his usual Whizzy snacks, and pthththt! It tasted like axle grease! What had they done to it? He scanned the ingredients list, no mean feat, as the Whiz had always sported something like 27 different ingredients, and then discovered, they had taken the dang cheese out! Yes, Cheez Whiz originally could legally have gone by the name of Cheese Whiz, because it actually used to have cheese. Now… just whiz.

Moss explains everything and gets a bit too rudimentary at times, as noted. For example, in the salt chapter, we get a brief introduction to the history of salt, and as I quickly read through it, I thought, “I sure hope he doesn’t tell us how golly gee whiz did you know Romans were paid in salt and that’s where the word salary comes from??” D’oh! Yes, he did feel obliged to inform us of that.

And repetitive. Those 100-calorie snack packs of Bad Foods like chips & cookies – they don’t work! People just open more packs! We had to hear about this multiple times. I think this is a bit of a sweeping condemnation, by the way. For all the people who litter the ground with multiple wrappers of 100-calorie packs, I’m sure many instead have benefited greatly from being able to indulge in moderation. I’m a big fan of moderation myself.

I’m still giving this three stars, cause hell, who doesn’t like to curl up with some good food readin’. (  )

Book Corner 2021.21

by Colson Whitehead

This book was a horror show. I only read it for book club. I don’t watch horror movies, and I don’t read them by choice, either. If this book were a movie, it would be one of those super-R-rated violent guy movies that I wouldn’t go near with a ten foot pole. SPOILER – the climactic scene with the gunfire ripping through all the bodies at the happy gathering down at Lemondrop Farm on Lollipop Lane was almost a parody. But really, that’s not a spoiler, because if you think for one moment past the first few pages that this tale is going to have a happy ending, you must read some weirder books than I do. (  )

Book Corner 2021.20

by Jacob Goldstein

I was really bored through all the early history of the first half. “Self,” I kept saying to myself, “I’m confused. What does this have to do with food?”

I perked up once the Fed came on the scene. 🙂 The Fed was “a horse designed by a committee of committees, a camel of a central bank.” We have 12 districts because the “central” part of “central bank” was too scary for people; and we were almost controlled by private bankers, rather than overseen by a board appointed by the president.

The financial crisis of 2008 is well explained from a different perspective. Learn (again for the first time?) how “money-market funds” came to be and what it meant when the most famous and long-standing one “broke the buck.”

Goldstein has good style. Each chapter is short, heavily sub-chaptered with often funny sub-chapter-titles, and ends with a lesson and/or premonition. His informality does devolve a little bit excessively at times (“It was a dick move”… “You know who knew? Irving damn Fisher”).

He has a great overarching lesson, though. We all known that money is “a made-up thing.” Of course it is – it’s just PAPER at the end of the day, after all. But more importantly, the way we “do money” is a made-up thing. It seems every time we make up a new way to “do money,” very quickly we forget there was ever another way; and that surely this way is the only “real” way, and we’ll all go to hell in a handbasket if we think about doing it some other way.

First go back to gold and silver coins. Why should they be money? They have rarity in their favor, and some utility, but why make them money? Because we said so. But we could say something else: next, consider the gold standard. Why did money have to be pegged to this element called gold? Because we said so. And now… there’s an interesting old-but-new-again theory called Modern Monetary Theory which says that basically, as long as we aren’t at full employment and experiencing inflation, it’s OK for the government to print all the money it wants. It really doesn’t have to be balanced with higher taxes; we don’t have to wonder how we might “pay for” government programs. Why not just MAKE money to pay for them? We make all this money stuff up anyway. Well… why not? (  )