the botany of desire

The August selection for my Stranger than Fiction book group at the Kansas City Public Library was The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, one I’ve been meaning to read for a very long time. From Goodreads:

Every schoolchild learns about the mutually beneficial dance of honeybees and flowers: The bee collects nectar and pollen to make honey and, in the process, spreads the flowers’ genes far and wide. In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan ingeniously demonstrates how people and domesticated plants have formed a similarly reciprocal relationship. He masterfully links four fundamental human desires—sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control—with the plants that satisfy them: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. In telling the stories of four familiar species, Pollan illustrates how the plants have evolved to satisfy humankind’s most basic yearnings. And just as we’ve benefited from these plants, we have also done well by them. So who is really domesticating whom?

I’ve been a fan of Pollan’s for years, ever since I first read The Omnivore’s Dilemma (I’ve also read Food Rules and In Defense of Food before this). The Botany of Desire has been on my list forever, so I was really excited to see it selected for book group! Unfortunately, I missed the previous month’s discussion, when we get the next book, so I had to hunt a little bit for a copy. By the time it came in on loan to my school library, I was on my Hawaii trip, and then only had two nights to read after work before the discussion. I was only 70 pages in by then… oh well! I still went to the discussion and enjoyed it, and ended up finishing the book by the end of that week.

The Botany of Desire‘s four chapters offer interesting tidbits and brief histories of these four different plants, and clearly outlines the reasons we are captivated by them. I agree plants and humans enjoy mutually beneficial arrangements, but I’m not sure I buy Pollan’s statement that “plants are using us as much as we’re using them,” since I’m sure plants would prefer NOT to be ravaged by chemical poisons and genetic experimentation. I was aware that wiping out diversity among plants what not good and mostly done to profit corporations, but Pollan really drove it home and explained exactly why diversity is a necessary, good thing in agriculture and nature.

Brief thoughts by chapter:

Apple: Too much Johnny Appleseed, not enough apple. It was interesting and entertaining, but not nearly as much as the rest of the book. Lots of people get stuck on this chapter and give up. At least skip ahead to the next section, I promise!

Tulip: Wow. The Dutch were crazy about this plant! They ruined their whole economic system over it. Incredible. I wish Pollan had included pictures of the tulip varieties discussed. (Oh well, hooray for Internet! The black tulip is stunning.)

Marijuana: Fascinating, especially the war on drugs synopsis and how this plant, that has so many useful applications and is by and large incredibly safe, could be so demonized virtually overnight in the United States. Same for the people who grow/use it. I was just a little kid when it started, I remember D.A.R.E. units in elementary school and thinking they were silly.

Potato: By far my favorite chapter (kinda has to be—one of my grampas was a potato farmer, the other an Irishman!). I was blown away by exactly how horrific conditions became in Ireland due to the Potato Famine of the nineteenth century (the catalyst for my Irish ancestors to come to the States). I was really interested in the contrast between farming potatoes in the Andes vs. Ireland, and how variety and diversity makes everything better. And the farmers having to deal with Monsanto—ugh. Terrible. Frightening. I’m lucky (and make a point of it) to eat as much local, seasonal organics as possible.

While I wasn’t quite as captivated by Botany of Desire as I was by Omnivore’s DilemmaBotany is still an eye-opening read in Pollan’s signature blend of personal and historical/factual narrative. Looking forward to reading his latest, Cooked, in the future!

Read from August 25 to 31, 2014.

the worst hard time

More catching up on old reviews for my Bout of Books 10 goals! The March pick for my library book group was The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, about the Dust Bowl. From Goodreads:

The dust storms that terrorized the High Plains in the darkest years of the Depression were like nothing ever seen before or since. Timothy Egan’s critically acclaimed account rescues this iconic chapter of American history from the shadows in a tour de force of historical reportage. Following a dozen families and their communities through the rise and fall of the region, Egan tells of their desperate attempts to carry on through blinding black dust blizzards, crop failure, and the death of loved ones.

I already had this as an ebook so I was happy to see it picked for our library book group! Unfortunately I was sick and couldn’t attend the meeting at the end of March… which probably worked out for the best since I hadn’t finished reading it by then anyway :-/ I was still interested, though, so I plowed (ha) through to the end, finishing mid-April.

I knew a little bit about the Dust Bowl already from school, Ken Burns’s documentary, and just living in this region for more than ten years. But I hadn’t really thought much about exactly how these storms effected the country, the economy, and specifically the people who lived in their paths. Egan’s book really laid it all out on the table for you: the residents’ hunger, frustration, fear, desperation, poverty… and also their hopefulness, strength, perseverance, and tenacity. I found his descriptions and portraits of the residents to be full of life and character, really fleshing out these people as actual real people who lived through this devastating time (and some of those who didn’t).

Once in a while I did feel like the writing was a bit dry and certain things repetitious, but I suppose that’s how life was in No Man’s Land for so long. Egan hammered home exactly how the dust and dirt smelled, looked, felt—how it was unstoppable and crept in through every minuscule crack, embedded itself in your clothing, pores, lungs, eyes, everywhere. I can’t even imagine having to live through something like that, and for more than a decade straight. Egan also minces no words blaming humans for this agricultural disaster, which is totally deserved and appropriate. Great, fascinating read on American agricultural history!

Read from March 17 to April 19, 2014.

it’s monday! what are you reading?

It’s Monday, what are you reading?—a weekly blog meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

STILL reading The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. Totally didn’t finish in time for the library group discussion, and after missing the discussion anyway I didn’t really feel like I needed to rush through it anymore. I’m having trouble reading on a screen lately, too. I spend all day at a computer! Just don’t want to look at screens in my free time much lately. I need time to unwind and unplug after work (and after my computer work at home for my second job AFTER my FT job workdays. Sigh. I love being busy but this time of year can be a little much sometimes!)

So I’m slogging through The Worst Hard Time a bit but I did manage to finish The Martian by Andy Weir this weekend. I bet if I had a little more free time I could have read it all in just a couple of days; it was a pretty quick read. Not perfect, but I enjoyed it. Hoping to have a blog post up on my full thoughts this week!

Last night I started The Round House by Louise Erdrich. It’s not part of any of my challenges. But I just have all these beautiful books I bought as “retail therapy” during my moving trauma in 2013, and this one jumped out at me last night.

What are you reading this week?

it’s monday! what are you reading?

It’s Monday, what are you reading?—a weekly blog meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Well, I’m still working on The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan for my library book group (meeting’s on Wednesday, eeeek!!) Just too darn busy to get hardly any reading done! Not only the usual work/rehearsal stuff that naturally amps up this time of year, of course we’re trying to get our taxes done and have had family scheduled to visit in March. But yeah I’m only about 40% in… wish me luck for finishing before the group discussion!

Other than that I’m dipping my toes into The Martian
by Andy Weir
this week. My husband already read it and loved it, and I’ve only read a couple of chapters… so far I’m still trying to get used to the main character’s tone and delivery, and then the “tell” vs. “show” style of the book. But, it’s a fairly easy, quick read from what I can tell and I’ve enjoyed the start.

What are you reading this week?

it’s monday! what are you reading?

It’s Monday, what are you reading?—a weekly blog meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

I finished reading The Hot House by Pete Earley yesterday! It was the second book for my TBR Pile Challenge. That one took me about a week longer than I would have expected, but I had a couple of particularly busy weeks with extra rehearsals, a concert, working through lunch a bit, and my parents visiting last weekend. I liked the book a lot though—it was a real page turner and it made me want to rewatch my Oz DVDs! I’m planning to have a review post up later this week. Stay tuned!

This week I’m going to read The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan. This is my KC Library Stranger than Fiction book group’s March pick. Hopefully I will make it through and not get sick this month, I hate to miss the discussions! Anyway, I’ve had this ebook on my iPad for a while now, so it’s also a little bit of a TBR pile book, but I’m not counting it on my “official” list for the challenge. I know about the Dust Bowl already from knowing about Woody Guthrie and literature from that time, but I’m happy to be reading a non-fiction about it, especially since I live near-ish the Dust Bowl area now.

What are you reading this week?

kc library winter reads 2014

You guys! I’m so behind. I meant to write up this post more than a week ago. Well, same as always, I got distracted by real life! Last weekend my parents were in town and I had a concert, and the weekend before that I was sick (BOO) but of course that does afford one lots of reading time, so I was able to finish this year’s KC Library Winter Reads program! This year’s theme was “Stop Me if You’ve Read This One,” all in the humor genre. Last month I read The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (click for review) also for the program. I was glad to read humor since it’s not normally a genre to which I naturally gravitate, but I’m glad to get into something dark and heart-wrenching this week.

In Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell delves into American history and politics with a roadtrip hopping around to different landmarks associated with the assassinations of Lincoln, McKinley, and Garfield. Vowell has a quirky sense of humor and feels a little bit like she’s trying too hard to seem… I don’t know, weird or unique (or weirdly unique) or something. But I did like how much I learned from this book, and I think Vowell does a great job weaving the history with humor, especially related the past to the current (well, early 2000’s) political climate in the United States. It’s a fun, educational journey (yes, both! sneaky). Assassination Vacation was the February book for my library book group, but I missed the discussion due to being sick. [Read from February 23 to 27, 2014.]

An Unexpected Twist by Andy Borowitz was next, and I sort of feel like I cheated a little bit here (a Kindle Single, so, it was super short), but it was funny, and it still counts as reading. Comedian Andy Borowitz tells about the time not long after getting married when a painful intestinal condition leads to a couple surgeries and his almost dying. Basically, he starts feeling horrible and is diagnosed with a twisted colon, so there are cracks about poop a-plenty in this shorty. I’m not sure how much of his memories are hyperbolic, but I appreciated how Borowitz took the life-threatening edge off this retelling with lots of great humor. Laughter is the best medicine, they say! [Read on February 27, 2014.]

I’m generally not into books that spring from Twitter accounts, but Rob Delaney’s Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage. is more of a memoir than straight Twitter-to-book experience, and definitely my favorite of the five humor books I read for the Winter Reads program. Mother. Wife. Sister. is a collection of essays about Delaney’s life roughly in chronological order. I loved the one about his childhood fandom for Danzig, his college year abroad in Paris, and his stance on the cats v. dogs debate. The darker passages about his alcoholism, recklessness, and depression were harrowing and fascinating at the same time—and at the end I found myself feeling really happy that Delaney made it through his struggles, finding and making good use of the help he received. There’s profanity, poop, bungee jumping off the Manhattan Bridge, hepatitis A, masturbation, and lots of food. Mother. Wife. Sister. is a great example of a comedian who has fought personal demons, which seems to be quite common. I’ve never seen or heard Rob Delaney, but he’s hilarious on paper! [Read from February 27 to March 1, 2014.]

Lastly, I had no excuse not to finally read Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris. Hmmm… well, hmm. I have read Sedaris before years ago (Me Talk Pretty One Day and Barrel Fever) and I can’t remember anything about or from them. I’m afraid this collection might be the same… maybe Sedaris isn’t for me, we don’t share a similar sense of humor. I did chuckle at times, but they were for things others said or did that he observed, not his own humor. A lot of the essays just kind of came off as an old grump annoyed by everything. People are harried and wear schlumpy clothes at airports? No kidding! (eyeroll) I found myself cringing a bit through his self-absorbed, petty rants (to which he admits, to his credit). I was uncomfortable with his nonchalant attitude about his abusive childhood, the way he mentions race, and his stories about his affluence didn’t capture my attention. However, I did like the travel essays, which is a lot of the book (counting it for my Eclectic Reader Challenge!)—especially his observations on learning different languages for his travels. But still I don’t know—I feel ambivalent. I think Sedaris is a talented writer and with finely tuned observational skills, and I had a great time at his reading here last summer—he was charming in person!—but this might be my last Sedaris book. [Read from March 1 to 2, 2014.]