Jan 30, 2014

Empires of Food, by Evan D.G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas

This was an interesting book, though a little preachy at times. "Empires of Food" lays out the history of food empires, that is, political powerhouses that grow because of their ability to produce, store, and ship immense amounts of food, but then inevitably fall when that food runs out. The relevance is obvious: Earth is its own food empire right now, connected as all the countries are by dizzyingly complex trade agreements. Fraser and Rimas argue that extreme specialization - when one geographical area cultivates only one product - is dangerous. Environmentally, specialization is horrific. It strips the earth of the nitrogen plants need to thrive and destroys ecosystems by eroding soil, which in turn pollutes the water sources. A single crop is also terribly vulnerable to an insect or disease that can wipe out an entire region of fields, leaving nothing to sell, let alone eat. This in turn leads to famine and starvation, causing deaths and political destabilization, and riots that can bring down governments and bring countries to a standstill.

The science was all quite new to me, though I knew the rough basics. The history, and the conclusions drawn therefrom, were a little less informative. I found that a lot of the conclusions seemed very obvious, though it's difficult to say whether that's from a college education in history, or perhaps just the critical thinking I'd been taught. Or maybe that's the point, that these mistakes are so obvious and yet ignored that it takes someone like Fraser and Rimas to take the time to point it out to us. The fact of the matter is, the environment is suffering because of the way we grow food, and the earth is warming up. Arguing about why that's so is beside the point. Specialization and over-reliance on international trade will fail to feed a population expected to hit 9 billion people soon. The authors suggest a food economy much more focused on local producers and in-season food, with plenty of planting diversity and no artificial fertilizers or pesticides. They don't deny that we will have to, to some degree, continue the trading; after all, trading food is how cultures first connected. But we need to start stockpiling for the dry skies ahead (which resonates quite strongly for me as California eases itself into another drought), and we need to farm smart.

A quick note on the writing: it was a little silly. Engaging, yes, and it has to be as the book is meant to be consumed by laymen. But some of the metaphors really push the bounds of good writing; while it may not be inaccurate to compare the Roman empire to a rotten pumpkin surrounded by flies, it is, however, utterly ridiculous. They tried too hard to be cute and funny, and it ends up falling a bit flat. All in all, though, a though-provoking and educational book, and I'm glad I read it.

Jan 22, 2014

The First True Lie, by Marina Mander

I requested this as an ARC because the premise intrigued me: adolescent Luca, already half an orphan raised by his mother, wakes up one morning to find his mother has died, presumably from an overdose of sleeping pills, and decides to keep it a secret because he is terrified of being sent to an orphanage. The book is Italian originally, but still very powerful in translation. Luca likes swearing and fantasizing; he's in love with his classmate Antonella and loved his life with his mother, even as he hated being branded an orphan. It's not, as one might imagine, an easy book to get though, despite being quite short. As his mother's body begins to stink, Luca falls deeper into himself in an effort to keep up outward appearances. Mander makes a good approximation, I think, of a young boy's brain, and I could easily slip inside Luca's shoes. That said, I'd be careful who I recommended this to, as the novel is every bit as painful as the subject matter promises.

Jan 21, 2014

The Wise Man's Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss

This is the second book of the Kingkiller Chronicles, and it's just as magical as the first. When I read "The Name of the Wind," I was struck by Rothfuss's storytelling skills. He's a wonderful writer, but as I said in that review, he'd be a fantastic storyteller in any genre. My opinion has not changed at all after reading the second installment of his trilogy. Rothfuss is writing a fairy tale, not of the Disney variety, but more like the original folklore those happy movies are based on. The story is dark and even violent at parts, but throughout it maintains a lyrical, haunting quality that is truly delectable to read. I read its thousand pages in a week, and loved every minute of it. I can't wait until the final book is published!

Jan 15, 2014

Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes

Nominally, this book is science fiction, but I think the label, stigmatized as it is, belies a greater depth. Good science fiction is supposed to open our minds to possibilities and scenarios we otherwise would not have encountered. It makes us think about issues that fly under our radar in everyday life. "Flowers for Algernon" does just that. Charlie Gordon is mentally handicapped (retarded or moronic in the parlance of the day) but wants very badly to learn and be smart. He's chosen to be the first human subject of an experiment designed to increase intelligence. As the experiment succeeds, Charlie quickly surpasses the great minds around him while at the same time experiencing disorienting resurfaced memories and the prospect that his intelligence might not be permanent.

What Keyes forces us to confront is our idea of what makes a human human. Charlie's main complaint is that the people he considered to be his friends as well as the scientists he must thank for his new-found intelligence did not think of him as a human being before the experiment. It's such a powerful message that I'm surprised the book hasn't been mass produced and distributed by organizations who advocate for the mentally handicapped. Keyes wants us to understand that personhood is not a product of intelligence, but of emotion. This is a powerful book, and a wonderful example of what makes science fiction great.

Jan 6, 2014

The Complete Maus, by Art Spiegelman

This is officially the first graphic novel I've read, and boy, did I pick a doozy. People have been telling me to read "Maus" for years, and I finally dove into it when I picked it for my bookstore's first book club meeting. About graphic novels in general: I was a bit skeptical because part of what I love about reading is you get to essentially create a movie in your head as you go. I imagine faces and settings as vivid as the real world and retain them throughout my reading of a novel. I was worried that a graphic novel wouldn't allow me to do so, and it would be distracting. Having now read one, I can say that far from being distracting, I actually had a hard time remembering to even look at the pictures at all! I read the captions and the dialogue, but would often forget about looking at the pictures as I went along. So while it didn't distract me in the way I thought it might, my guess is that I'm missing quite a bit because of my reading blinders.

As for the story, whew...I think the most interesting part about "Maus" is how unlikable Vladek is. He's a Holocaust survivor, an Auschwitz survivor, so your first instinct is to empathize with and pity him. But he's really a jerk, verbally abusive towards his wife and controlling of his son. The debate could go on forever, trying to figure out if he was that way all along or because of what he lived through. The story he tells, albeit nothing new to us in 2014, is heart-wrenching in its honesty. I had the bad luck of eating dinner when he speaks about how the showers and ovens worked and was nearly unable to finish chewing. The most astonishing parts were how cruel other prisoners and Jews could be to each other. The systematic dehumanization of the Jews allowed other humans to act out their basest instincts. We are all xenophobic animals deep down, and the Nazis not only permitted but encouraged people to tap into those dark spots in their souls. We all like to think the human race has evolved since then, but there's no real indication this is so. "Maus" is a fascinating read, though I'm not enamored of the format, and I believe more people should read it.

Jan 3, 2014

Nerd Do Well, by Simon Pegg

Simon Pegg is smart. Very smart. This isn't entirely surprising, given how nuanced his movies can be, but I wasn't expecting quite the level of intellectualism Pegg puts on display in his highly enjoyable memoir. I love Pegg's movies (I own Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz), and have a definite soft spot for British humor, so I knew I would at least like his book. But in addition to being extremely funny, Pegg is also very intelligent, articulate, thoughtful, and just the right amount of introspective. This is basically what I had been hoping for in Tiny Fey's book, which unfortunately disappointed me. I don't think you need to know Pegg or his work very well to enjoy this book. There's a lot of film and cultural analysis, along with touching anecdotes from Pegg's past, and it's refreshing to read a memoir by someone who actually loves every member of his extended family; it's inspiring, as well, to read about someone who had a dream and worked really hard to achieve it, and now makes a good living doing what he loves. This book cements my appreciation of Pegg's work and makes me really like him as the person he seems to be. Now, I'm not saying a have a crush on Simon Pegg, but if I ever happened to meet him in person, I would probably jibber and giggle and blush and make an utter fool of myself. And somehow, I think he wouldn't mind all that much.