Month: July 2008

A Year of Food Life
by Barbara Kingsolver

I loved this book. By the time I finished reading it, my husband wearily said \”I know how you feel now when I talk about football or politics.\” He loves eating, but has no interest in knowing how the food is grown, so he had to tell me to stop talking about Kingsolver and gardening! Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is based on a year when the Kingsolvers returned to live on a family farm and vowed to only eat what they could grow themselves or buy locally. They had a large vegetable garden, raised chicken and turkeys, and gathered from the farm\’s fruit trees and wild mushrooms on the hillsides. The author\’s family members made contributions both in the book\’s writing and in providing for the family table (her husband baked bread, her daughter raised the chickens). There is a lot of focus on eating foods in season and supporting local, renewable and organic agriculture, and information on why processed foods and large corporate farming methods are bad news.

This book really inspired me to do more with my garden. My daughter and I just picked our first zucchini and made zucchini chocolate chip cookies with the recipe in this book. I learned a lot from Kingsolver: how to know what produce is in season (duh!), how asparagus and peanuts grow, why organic and heirloom produce (and livestock) are healthier, the mysteries of natural turkey reproduction, and much more. Least you feel overwhelmed at how much her family did to be self-sustaining, remember a few things: before beginning the experiment, they spent a whole year learning about their community, finding where to buy local produce and meats, and researching what was on the supermarket shelves. Even Kingsolver had her limits. Yes, her family made their own soft cheese, sausages, yogurt, bread and pesto, and took the poultry from yard to freezer. But other items possible to make at home they continued to buy: pasta, vinegar, hard cheese, apple cider, mayonnaise. They avoided exotic imports like bananas, but still bought some spices and seafood that was shipped from far away. And if you don\’t have space or time to garden, there\’s lots of tips on little things to do for eating better and supporting local growers. Fabulous!

Rating: 5/5                370 pages, 2007

More opinions at:

From Booking Through Thursday:

Do you buy books while on vacation/holiday? Do you have favorite bookstores that you only get to visit while away on a trip? What/Where are they?

Whenever I travel, I seek out any used bookstores I can find and prowl the aisles. You never know what stranger in this new town may have discarded a book that to me is a long-looked-for treasure. I just can\’t pass up the possibilities. Usually these bookstores are ones I\’ve not visited before and may never set foot in again. But now that I\’ve moved away from my hometown (Seattle) and the city where I spent four years (and met my husband, San Francisco) the bookstores I used to frequent there are high priority stops when I visit again. In Seattle it\’s the Elliot Bay Book Company a wonderful, sprawling, multi-leveled new-and-used bookstore full of charm. It is a rich experience to walk in that store. I also like the Book World down on Pacific Highway, a huge one-room used bookshop (I can\’t believe they don\’t have a website!). In San Francisco it\’s Green Apple Books which has two storefronts, separated by another shop. If you\’re not decided on your purchases and want to go browse in the annex, a clerk will walk you to the other door to make sure you don\’t run off with the books!. They also have sidewalk shelves full of discounted books, and once a week bins full of books that are just free. I used to go once every few weeks to shop at the large asian market across the street, then nip over and pick out books from the sidewalk displays before heading home on Muni. Sadly, I have just learned that my second-favorite used bookstore in San Francisco, Acorn Books, is now closed. This makes my heart sad. It was a beautiful shop. I loved the wheeled library ladders you could use to access the top of their floor-to-ceiling shelves. I bought many books there.

on (Not) Getting by in America
by Barbara Ehrenreich

This book was written by a reporter who went \”undercover\” to discover the truth about how the working poor get by in America- by pretending to be one herself. In three cities (located in Florida, Maine and Minnesota) she worked different jobs as a waitress, maid, nursing home attendant, and at Wal-Mart, and attempted to live for two months on the low income, usually holding two jobs at once. Most of the book is spent describing her job experiences, a little bit addresses the difficulties of finding housing and covering expenses on low wages. At the very end of the book she reveals some statistics, but doesn\’t give much resolution in terms of how the situation can be improved. Overall Nickel and Dimed was interesting in its details, but not very satisfying in its conclusions. And the superior attitude of the author towards her fellow co-workers was hard to swallow. Compared to most of them, she had the advantages of owning a car, having money to fall back on, and knowing she could just leave at any time and go back to her regular comfortable life. She kept making fun of her co-workers for lacking style, seemed to expect them to notice her higher education, and was surprised that low-paying jobs required her to learn a skill! It was annoying.

Rating: 3/5 …….. 230 pages, 2001

More opinions at:
Jackets and Covers
Desert Reader

My daughter did the honors for the Key to Rebecca giveaway, cutting the names into strips, putting them in the hat, shaking it all up and making a choice. And the winner is….

Laura of Reading Reflections! Happy reader, send your address to jeanenevarez at gmail dot com and I\’ll post your book shortly.

by Francine Patterson and Eugene Linden

Koko is a gorilla who was taught sign language by Francine Patterson (known as Penny), a graduate student in psychology at Stanford University. The project began in 1972 when Koko was one year old, and the book covers its first nine years. During that time Koko learned to use or recognize over 600 words (The Gorilla Foundation tells us she now uses 1,000 signs and recognizes 2,000 spoken words). The Education of Koko describes the gorilla\’s development and how she learned to use sign language. Her language development and understanding is compared to that of human children, the way she combines words is analyzed and she is continually tested for comprehension. Koko is shown not only using signed words to communicate with her human caretakers and teachers, but also inventing new words to describe things not yet in her vocabulary, and making jokes or practicing deceit. One section of the book describes how Koko sees the world, as revealed through her use of language. Throughout the entire book its authors address the questions: does Koko really use language? or is she just repeating motions she has been taught, for reward? and what, exactly, defines language?

I remember when I was younger looking at photos in National Geographic of Koko with her kitten. I was enthralled. It was even more thrilling to read this book. The first time. The second time I read it with a lot more scrutiny. It\’s obvious Koko has learned to use many signs, in immediate context (she sees fruit and makes a sign naming it, or asking for food, for example). But if you read things like this transcribed online chat session between Penny, Koko and an \”AOL facilitator\” the idea of an ape holding even the most basic conversation appears ludicrous. A two year old child makes more sense than this gorilla.

Here are some more things I read online:
A conversation with Koko
Skepticism about apes using language

Similar books: Silent Partners
Lucy: Growing Up Human

Rating: 4/5 …….. 224 pages, 1981

by William Steig

This wonderful little book is about a sophisticated city mouse who gets lost on an island during a storm. He\’s stranded there for an entire season before finding a way to escape and return home. Abel is a rather pompous, silly creature, but he can also be very thoughtful and resourceful. He learns to survive, to make do, and live very close to nature. Think Robinson Crusoe meets Charlotte\’s Web and you\’ll have a good idea of this book\’s character. I enjoyed reading it; the humor and language are quite appealing to adults even though Abel\’s Island is written for children. It even surprised me at times: the scene where the mouse tries to \”send mind messages\” to his beloved wife back home (who he never stops thinking about) or the one where he makes voodoo against an owl, made me pause for a moment. But then I just laughed and continued reading! And of course William Steig\’s illustrations are an indispensable part of this book\’s charm. I never would have read this book except it happens to be one of husband\’s childhood favorites, and he kept urging me to read it. Now I urge you to read it as well!

Rating: 3/5 …….. 177 pages, 1976

more opinions:
Across the Page

I\’ve paraphrased this question, go to Booking Through Thursday for the entire thing:

What would you do if, all of a sudden, your favorite source of books was unavailable, with no warning? Where would you go for books instead? Would it be devastating? Or just a blip in your reading habit?

I support my reading habit through several sources: the local library, online swapping sites and used bookstores. If my local library burned down, that would be awful. I love libraries. This one is in walking distance, so I\’d have to drive to the next closest library (still in town) and only go on weekends when I have the car. I\’d certainly volunteer and help restore the library if I could. But I\’d feel worse about the loss of an entire library than its immediate inconvenience to me. It would not stall my reading much as I am currently wading through a huge pile of books I acquired at The Book Thing right before we moved. And the occasional one arrives in the mail from Paperback Swap. There\’s also a thrift store nearby where I pick up books sometimes.

It seems to me that used bookstores are slowly dying off, and that makes me very sad. I can\’t afford to buy books new, and I love poking around used shops with their narrow aisles, piles of books overflowing off the shelves, fellow patrons with that familiar crick in the neck scanning titles for their next treasure. But when I lived in San Francisco, I saw three or four used bookshops go out of business. I did get lots of books at their final sales, but felt terrible looking at all the rest still crammed on the shelves: what would happen to all those poor books? More recently, when we lived in Fairfax, I searched futilely for a used bookstore nearby. We lived in an area full of wide busy roads, and strip malls or \”shopping plazas\” everywhere. None of them had a used bookstore. I finally found one in the next town, a half-hour drive. I was thrilled when the guy there gave me a paper listing used bookstores in the area- until he began to tell me which ones to cross off, because they\’d closed in the past few years. None of the remaining ones were in driving distance. Such a shame. I haven\’t even looked for a used bookstore in my new town, yet. I must soon, if only to help them stay in business by being a patron!

On the other hand, it is easier than ever to find books online– I can search and find almost any title I want, I just have to be willing to pay the extra cost of shipping. And trust the book will stand up to its description! It\’s so much more satisfactory to turn a book over in your hand before purchasing it. I usually buy books for keeps, so I\’m picky about their condition. Is the spine tight, are there loose pages, does it have a funny smell? Did someone underline the text, dog-ear the pages or leave a coffee ring? Do I like the cover design, are there interior illustrations, is the text hard to read? All things to consider, that you can\’t always know via the computer. So I don\’t buy many books online- yet.

Hm, I think I\’ve strayed quite a bit from the original question, but it was fun.

by William Alexander

I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this book. I ate it all up- in just two days. Spurred by growing involvement in my own little veggie garden, I ditched the heap of TBR books sitting by my bed and requested from the local library five titles on gardening and food that have been looming in my mind recently, whispering: read me, read me, read me. This was the first. Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable Miracle is next. And all of Michael Pollan‘s books on food are following!

In The $64 Tomato, William Alexander looks at twenty-five years of gardening in his backyard. He turned a hillside field into a huge, nearly unmanageable vegetable and flower garden. The book follows his battles with nature: groundhogs, insect pests, thieving squirrels, etc. It’s pretty hilarious. I don’t think I would ever use his methods: hiring a landscaper to prepare the plot, setting up a five-thousand voltage electric fence, trying to outright kill any wildlife that wants to munch on his prize heirloom tomatoes. Yet I can sympathize with his frustrations. The crazy thing is that after spending tons of money on his garden, and struggling to get it to produce, he had more food than his family could eat, and ended up giving most of it away. At that point I would seriously scale down my garden!

If I tell you all the things I identified with in this book, you’ll learn a lot about me. I could relate to: buying a house that’s stood empty too long and needs fixing up, having to deal with independent contractors as a new homeowner, growing apples (my mother has apple trees in her backyard), having a family member in private medical practice (my dad) which makes everyone think you’re rich but you’re not, dealing with clay soil, attempting to use a hand mower (I borrowed the neighbor’s once, then gave up on that romantic idea and bought a gas one), even the groundhog! We have caught two glimpses of one that lives under our backyard shed, but he doesn’t seem to be eating the garden yet and I certainly wouldn’t wage war on him if he did. I doubt I would enjoy this book so much if it all wasn’t such familiar ground. It’s not the greatest writing, and the humor certainly won’t appeal to all. But I kept laughing, and laughing, because it was so close to home. Thanks to Juli at Can I Borrow Your Book? for bringing this one to my attention!

Rating: 4/5 …….. 265 pages, 2006

More opinions at:
My Life by the Book

by Kate Wilhelm

I was surprised to find that this book was written in the 70\’s. It feels so suited to our times. A post-apocalyptic story, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang opens with the entire world facing disaster. Pollution, radiation, new diseases and famine everywhere. Mammals, birds, even insects disappear, and there are fewer and fewer children (like that film Children of Men). Society collapsing in chaos. One rich family full of brilliant people with a variety of convenient specializations comes together to try and save humanity. To keep from going extinct while trying to figure out why everyone\’s sterile, they begin cloning humans. For a while this is successful, but then the clones begin to outnumber the original people. And they don\’t see the importance of individuality. They view uniformity and mass production as strengths, and want to do away with s-xual reproduction for good. Only a few individuals see how disastrous that would be.

This story moves very quickly, easily spanning several generations. There are three main characters: David, one of the original genius-family members; Molly, a clone who is also an artist and thus unique from her \”sisters\” and Mark, Molly\’s son- one of the last unique human beings. I don\’t usually enjoy books which tell what I call \”a story of the whole world\” instead of being focused from one character\’s viewpoint. But once I began reading about Molly and her son, it became really interesting. Not only because they were artists, but because of the vivid contrast between the individuals and the clones. I think anyone who has read Never Let Me Go should read this book also. They both address issues of individuality and cloning, but in very different contexts.

I discovered Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang during a visit to, of all places, the Experience Music Project in Seattle, Wa. This place is all about music, so I was quite surprised to discover that it has a science fiction museum in the basement. With things like original costumes from the old Star Wars films. And an extensive display of notable sci-fi books, including brief descriptions about their key, innovative concepts. It was just before closing, so A. and I were scrambling for scraps of paper and a pen to write down titles from the exhibit before we had to leave. This is the second book I\’ve opened from that list. The first one was the Years of Rice and Salt.

Rating: 3/5                  213 pages, 1976

by Anita Shreve

I feel about Anita Shreve the same way I do about Jody Picoult. I want to like her books because they\’re so terribly popular. But after reading two or three, I just can\’t pick another one up. The reading experience is just so- dull. Sea Glass is a novel about a newly married couple in an old beach house on the New England Coast, and several of their friends and acquaintances. It switches viewpoints often. It\’s set in the 1920\’s, during the stock market crash and a strike among local mill workers. At first these events seem far from the beach house\’s quiet interior and its occupants, but soon it is right in their living room. The novel explores how all the characters are affected and struggle together with change. I could not come to know or care about any of them. Even with the pathetic love story included. I wanted the book to be beautiful, to glow like sea glass does under water with the light shining on it. But unfortunately, it\’s as dull as the pieces still lying undiscovered on the beach, barely discernible from their neighboring stones. Disappointing.

Rating: 2/5 …….. 376 pages, 2002


All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it


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