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? (  )

Book Corner 2021.19

by Benjamin Lorr

Not what I was expecting, exactly. Little story arc; more of a series of discrete journalistic investigations. Some of them were very difficult to read – the perpetually debt-ridden life of a trucker; the horror story of being an enslaved, maimed captive on a Thai fishing boat; even the ostensibly benign story of the woman furiously driven to make “Slawsa” a success (and climb out of debt) was a little sad.

But Benjamin Lorr’s style is really captivating. He’s just trying to make sense – doesn’t have an ax to grind; doesn’t constantly make himself the center of the story; ultimately doesn’t come out with much in the way of answers. For those who want reform, he wants us to “consider that any solution will come from outside our food system, so far outside that thinking about food is only a distraction from the real work to be done.”

As a temporary sidetrack, Lorr mentions a prior book about the world of yoga, where he wondered what it was all FOR, all this yoga – it all seemed to be just be able to do more yoga. I feel that way when I wonder about why we care so much about being healthy. Why lose weight? To be healthy. Why be healthy? To live longer in better health. For what though? What’s all this health ultimately for? Anyway – he finds an eerie analogy in the world of groceries and our god of convenience. What are we making everything so convenient FOR, ultimately?

Anyway I do love those philosophical questions. Like he said – thinking about food itself is just a distraction. (  )

Book Corner 2021.18

by Mark Bittman

What a contrast with my previous food read, Resetting the Table. I had a feeling I was being swayed too much towards buying this book based on the title. It is not my style at all; it’s just one bad thing listed after another. Everything that has ever happened to our food system since the dawn of history has been bad – did you know that? I don’t care how many facts may be in it; I never find unbalanced works like this to be educational.

I thought that midway through we would finally shift gears towards directing the barbs merely at the junk food industry, but the general negativity towards all modern agriculture never ceased.

I would love to get Bittman and Paarlberg together for a debate. Here are just a few ways they would explicitly part company:

– Normal Borlaug, leader of the “Green Revolution.” To Bittman, he “virtually ignor(ed) what was traditionally grown” in his blind zest for bringing in chemical fertilizers and pesticdes.

– Whether organic farming yields would fall far short of levels that could effectively feed the world’s current population – Bittman calls it “a moronic argument”.

– Whether Alice $100-a-plate, I-never-step-foot-in-a-supermarket Waters has anything of value to teach us about food systems

I had to rub my eyes in disbelief when I read this on page 243: “Although it’s immoral and cruel, and overseen by mostly immoral and cruel people – only a few of whom were sadistic masterminds – the [food] system is largely the result of incremental decisions…” What?! People who work in modern food businesses are “mostly immoral and cruel”? “Mostly”! You might think the majority of them misguided. But “immoral” and “cruel” are some really nasty words to depict “most” people overseeing an industry. (  )

Book Corner 2021.14

Sapiens: A Graphic History

by Yuval Noah Harari

Considering the fact that SAPIENS by Yuval Noah Harari was one of the best books I have read, EVER, I expected to love this graphical interpretation at least a little a bit. A problem is that I tend to be annoyed by graphic novels. They feel gimmicky. And this one was high on gimmick factor. It didn’t just illustrate Harari’s ideas… it introduced a young inquisitive niece character, Zoe; and an obese Indian woman scientist who carried a small dog everywhere. I honestly have no idea why. Any of it.

Most of the time I felt the book was at the level of the Zoe character – for children; older, genuinely science-curious children, but still… children. (Notwithstanding lots of nudity.) I kept wondering what I was getting out of it.

But in the end – though it seems I always have to spend a lot of any review being a nattering nabob of negativity – I DID get things out of it. It made me think about us all being animals… evolving from and with animals… animals, our brothers, our OLDER brothers, as I read in another scientific book of a different stripe recently, BRAIDING SWEETGRASS. Here in the graphic SAPIENS, the pictures did add something more than a gimmick, I have to admit: I remember a picture of a doe-eyed doe, and it made me think about being a nearly-evolved sapiens looking that doe in the eye, as an equal.

Another idea still persisting in my mind: “Our brains are still adapted for life as hunter-gatherers. Our eating habits, our conflicts, and our sexuality are all the result of our hunter-gatherer minds grappling with a post-industrial world.” I can’t be blamed for the fact that I simply cannot resist a plate of fries or a pie crust when they are sitting right in front of me. The hunter-gatherer in me would KILL – literally! – for that amount of delicious fat.

Also: One reason we can’t look at modern-day hunter-gatherers as a stand-in for what life was like for our early ancestors is that what’s left of today’s foragers are all living in the most marginal places. “Modern forager societies have mostly survived in regions with difficult climatic conditions, and inhospitable terrain that doesn’t lend itself to agriculture.” I’ve always tended to think of hunting-gathering with a big fat “No, thanx!” Agriculture is my favorite invention. When people talk about eating wild foodstuffs, it’s about as appealing to me as dumpster diving. Yay, a handful of fiddleheads, some mushrooms that hopefully don’t poison us; and maybe, if it is exactly the right time of year, some really seedy blackberries! Sounds WONDERFUL! Please, bring on the agriculture already.

But the hunter-gatherers in pre-agricultural times weren’t all trying to make a living on my 3 acres in Vermont. Think about our most fertile agricultural land, our most abundant seacoasts and forests. They lived in the good places. I’m not saying food was as thick on the ground as it is in your intensively cultivated plot of garden, maybe; but then again, maybe it wasn’t far from it, either.

They lived in the good places, and they lived all over the world. Before agriculture, think about it – we were already everywhere. We had an abundance of lifestyles and cultures, just like today. We just didn’t live in towns, or on farms. We all just lived on the land. Like the animals. Because that’s what we are. (  )

Book Corner 2021.12

by Matt Haig

“Every life contains millions of decisions. Some big, some small. But every time one decision is taken over another, the outcomes differ. An irreversible variation occurs, which in turn leads to further variations. The books are portals to all the lives you could be living.”

Thus the premise of THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY. Nora hovers between life & death, and is given the opportunity to explore the books in the eponymous library, and live bits of some of the other lives she could have lived.

“You do realize there are infinite possibilities here?” says a fellow traveler. “… It’s not about a million or a billion or a trillion universes. It’s about an infinite number of universes. Even with you in them… [T]his is an opportunity and it is rare and we can undo any mistake we made, live any life we want. Any life. Dream big… You can be anything you want to be. Because in one life, you are.”

But the real lesson:

“[M]aybe there are no easy paths. There are just paths… And we spend so much time wishing our lives were different, comparing ourselves to other people & other versions of ourselves, when really most lives contain degrees of good & bad…

There are patterns to life… Rhythms. It is so easy, while trapped in just the one life, to imagine that times of sadness or tragedy or failure or fear are a result of that particular existence. That it is a by-product of living a certain way, rather than simply living. I mean, it would have made things a lot easier if we understood there was no way of living that could immunise you against sadness. & that sadness is intrinsically part of the fabric of happiness… But there is no life where you can be in a state of sheer happiness forever.” (  )

Book Corner 2021.10

by Robin Wall Kimmerer

This is a spiritual nature book. I don’t normally do well with nature books; and when this one devoted an entire chapter to lichen, or the different sizes of drops of water depending on their tannic content, I was glazing over. I read it for the Native American spiritual aspect, which offers some beautiful perspectives.

The best one of all came right in the introduction:

“Sometimes I wish I could photosynthesize so that just by being, just by shimmering at the meadow’s edge or floating lazily on a pond, I could be doing the work of the world by standing silent in the sun.” Such a beautiful thought! In snow-covered February in particular.

Here is another: what the earth gives to us is a gift, and consider how differently we often feel about an object when we have received it as a gift. Kimmerer tells of a dream where she walked through a vivid Andean outdoor market, and picked up a fresh bunch of cilantro. When she went to pay, she was gestured away. It turned out everything in the market was being given away as a gift. She found herself being careful not to take too much; and she found herself wondering what presents she might bring to give to the (non-)vendors the next day. We should view the earth that way.

Then there is the chapter “Learning the Grammar of Animacy”. Her ancestral language, Potawatomi, uses “he/she” pronouns for almost everything, certainly all plant and animal life; the “it” pronoun is reserved for things that truly and beyond a doubt have no life, like a piece of plastic. How might we feel differently if we called the trees “he” or “she” instead of “it”? She asked how one would feel if someone referred to her grandmother as “it”. “It is making soup. It has gray hair.” It would be kind of funny, and definitely disrespectful. It certainly makes me feel funny just to think about it. It’s wrong. She feels it is just as wrong to call a tree an “it”! Try thinking about it next time you wander and ponder outdoors. How might we be treating the earth differently if our language called the trees and plants and all growing things “he” or “she”?

The Potawatomi language is also very heavy on verbs. There’s a verb for “to be red.” “To be a hill.” And her favorite, “To be a bay.” Very frustrating to learn! But notice how it animates everything.

It may seem off topic, but things are converging to bring me closer and closer to a vegetarian lifestyle. I ponder her sentence, “I wish I could photosynthesize… doing the work of the world.” Plants do the work of the world. What parasites on them the rest of us are – without plants, we are doomed! What a gift to have so many plants to eat. To eat any higher on the food chain, to eat not the plants but the things that eat the plants… seems very, I don’t know, out of tune and needlessly complicated and far removed from the “work of the world.”

I find myself taking this to heart, the ‘gift economy’ that is the bounty of the earth, the animation of all things, and I find myself nightly thinking back over the day and, silly as it sounds, saying thank you, oats and banana… thank you, apple and grapes… And with 32 days till spring equinox, I long to see the plants return and do the work of the world; I’m sure I will see them with new eyes.