All Clear—Connie Willis

It’s nearly May and I’ve only read six books this year? I think we can safely say that I need to get a lot more reading done SOON. That said, there are a few books I read at the end of February that I neglected to write up. So this will all be out of order. I suppose I’m the only person that matters to.

I read Willis’ Blackout last year (time travel, WWII, I’m not going to get into the finer points here), and like many people was forced to turn off my brain for vast portions of it that contained obviously terrible research (stupid things like the Jubilee line existing in 1941). A friend and I were recently talking about authors that write books about places that they’re not native to and the details that end up being “wrong” as a result, but some of those pieces just went beyond that—especially for a book in which the details are theoretically terribly important. Continue reading

Foie Gras Wars: How a 5,000-Year-Old Delicacy Inspired the World’s Fiercest Food Fight—Mark Caro

I won’t get into the finer points of pro and con for foie gras production and the protests against it—other than to express my frustration that animal rights organizations have in this country, gone after the “low hanging fruit” of a luxury food item produced artisanally with a fair amount of care, rather than bringing similar energy to bear against factory farming—which would, to my mind, achieve a larger net result if they made progress.

Caro presents a pretty fair account of the recent back and forth between the food and restaurant industries and animal activists—even attempting to get Temple Grandin to take a side on the issue one way or the other (and she did blurb the book). He is, most certainly, a food journalist—and one that through this book eats a lot of foie, as well as participating in production of foie in France—so he perhaps gives the restaurant industry more of a fair shake than some might feel is warranted.

The larger question he doesn’t try and answer is how much importance should we place on enjoyment when discussing a food’s status as luxury or necessity—which is certainly one of the larger questions hanging over these kinds of foods.

Cooking of the British Isles (Time Life “Foods of the World”)—Adrian Bailey et al.

Yes, another one for Tine Life. After feedback from potential contributors—the Northwest is moving to the summer, when things here are actually in season.

Things we have learned from this Time Life book? That they’re apparently fond of haggis on the Isle of Man as well as in Scotland, you should never trust cheesemongers in Dorset, and we should all be eating frumenty for breakfast. This weekend I’m visiting my neighborhood butcher and cheesemonger to see about a couple of ideas I had for related posts. Fingers crossed it works out. The first couple of general housekeeping posts should go up in the next few weeks. Eek!

If any of my UK friends would like to volunteer to guest blog about food and related issues, I’m happy to send you a PDF copy of the book. (Yes, I scanned the entire book. With the way the Royal Mail is behaving at the moment, it was necessary.)

American Cooking: The Northwest (Time Life “Foods of the World”) — Dale Brown et al.

Since they are books and I am reading them, the Time Life series will get recorded here, though all my thoughts on content will end up at the as-yet unnamed blog. General thoughts, and likely this will be the case with all of these books, is that they are definitely a product of their time in how they talk about food, gender roles, and some of the attitudes towards native cultures. None of it shocking. I’m definitely going to get a lot of interesting ideas to keep be going through all of the books—and they are going to serve their purpose as a framework for content well.

First task as a result of this one on the Northwest? I think I need to find myself a local mushroom forager to tag along with one day (Likely this will mean getting in touch with some people from the Puget Sound Mycological Society at the UW).

The Suicide Collectors — David Oppegaard

I love a good post-apocalyptic story. The flap copy makes a comparison to The Children of Men and I can see why. The premise here is that in our near future, some unknown force drives most of the population to commit suicide (called “The Despair”). The story follows a man named Norman and his neighbor in the days and weeks after Norman’s wife commits suicide. Genuinely creepy in places, suffering from superficial characterizations in others, but generally an interesting and swift read. It doesn’t answer a lot of the “Why?” questions, but it’s not really meant to.

After reading this and watching The Walking Dead this fall, I wonder at how I would do at the end of the world. I think it might go either way.

Watermind — M.M. Buckner

I tried to describe the plot of this to Elaine last night and she laughed at the sheer silliness of it all. In short: sophisticated microchips that began life as part of a Canadian weather monitoring experiment form an artificial intelligence after spending quality time in a Louisiana swamp with a lot of random industrial and hazardous waste. Discovered by a rebellious former chemistry student from MIT (who is running away from her previous life following the death of her father) who was working cleanup in the swamp with her musician boyfriend, hijinks ensue after the so-called “watermind” accidentally (or intentionally, we never really know) kills another cleanup worker.

The rest of the book follows the fight to alternatively contain, study or destroy the entity. Most of the things the characters do make very little sense, or are completely trite, and frankly it all wasn’t much of a “thriller” as advertised in its blurbs and flap copy. Le sigh.

Blackout — Connie Willis

It seems a bit unfair to say anything about Blackout with All Clear still in my library hold queue. The two were intended to be one book, but the sheer length meant they became two books.

The story thus far follows a group of historians from a future Oxford (2060 to be precise) that uses time travel to study the past. Many of the characters have been featured in previous Willis books (To Say Nothing of the Dog, Doomsday Book). In this case, all the historians are examining early days of World War II in England, evacuee children, the first months of the Blitz, the rescue of soldiers at Dunkirk, etc. Something goes wrong with their connection to the future and hijinks ensue.

Unfortunately, Blackout seems to be entirely focused on introducing all of the characters situations and navigating things to set up for All Clear. If I didn’t enjoy Willis’s writing, particularly in To Say Nothing of the Dog, I would have given up early on. And as it is, there’d best be a good payoff in All Clear for how things have been structured.

That said, I have enjoyed the vignettes of life in England in WWII that we’ve seen thus far, obviously we don’t get a lot of these details in American history coverage of the period—and I only know what little I do due to being a bit of an anglophile. It’s too bad most of those little details are entirely inaccurate.

Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street — Michael Davis

Complete, and how. Other reviews have called this history exhaustive and meticulous. I will definitely give them the exhaustive.

This was honestly really interesting, not the least of which for also rather providing a history of children’s television overall and a bit of television history in general. I had a conversation with my mother the other day in which we talked about how much progress has occurred in their lifetimes and mine—sometimes it puts into perspective how much we fear things not improving or changing in our own lives.

But I digress, the fundamental problem with this book comes down to a problem of focus. Davis has trouble, as Cherie flippantly put it, telling you how to get to Sesame Street. He spends a great deal of the first third of the book talking in explicit detail about children’s television and the issues and ideas that led to the formation of the Children’s Television Workshop, as well as introducing a huge cast of characters whose importance is never fully explained until they turn up again in the last third of the book working on Sesame Street. Other people are introduced, mentioned frequently, and then given expanded context that isn’t relevant and might have been more interesting when we first read about them 100 pages ago. The best example of this was Tom Whedon, father to Joss of Buffy fame, mentioned multiple times early on for his work on Captain Kangaroo before his role in the Electric Company is brought up—and it’s then that he gets linked to his son’s work.

Davis spent a great deal of time researching this book, and there’s a lot of great information that simply gets lost in an organizational structure and narrative style that simply ends up being confusing. In the end I enjoyed it, and I can’t stop humming the theme tune to myself, but for such an interesting subject, the book is far too much of a slog.

Total Oblivion: More or Less — Alan DeNiro

Occasionally, I read books that make me question my taste in books. They make me wonder if I’m actually as clever or smart as I sometimes like to believe I am. Or are these books that are trying too hard to be clever and falling short of the mark.

I’ve said it often enough here, one of the things that will always have me wanting to read another book by an author (or finish it for that matter) are characters I care about. I’ve put up with some truly pedestrian writing for fantastic characters. Second to that are interesting ideas.

This book was picked up because it sounded like it has interesting ideas. And honestly, the picture painted here is of a really interesting world. For reasons that are never explained, the ancient Mediterranean world and our modern one both seem to exist in the same space/time. Technology ceases to exist in any way we would recognize it. A strange and surreal plague spreads among the population. And our protagonist, a teen from Minneapolis, heads down the Mississippi with her family as they try to make sense of the strange world they find themselves in.

I feel like I kept waiting for the plot to gel and actually take us somewhere meaningful, because I certainly didn’t care enough about any of the characters to compensate for a meandering plot that just kind of fizzles out. From poking around online, it appears that DeNiro’s background is in short fiction—and I can actually see his style being really effective there.

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human — Richard Wrangham

Wrangham is an biological anthropologist from Harvard, who argues that cooking is the basis for humanity’s social/biological evolution. He looks at archaeological evidence that shows finding cooked food at similar dates to when we developed larger brains and more complex social structures according to the fossil record.

Essentially it boils down to the fact that it takes less time for us to process more calories if the food has been cooked–giving us the evolutionary opportunity to more than worry about getting enough nutrition and develop exciting innovations like cave painting.

Overall it was really interesting, though I felt like he approached the same point multiple ways over and over before abruptly tumbling into a conclusion. The underlying treatise was really interesting though, and I found myself saying, “In this book I’m reading about the development of cooking in human society…” more than once in various foodie related conversations over the last few weeks–which says something positive I think.