• The Secret Life of Groceries by Benjamin Lorr **** (of 4)

    At some level all of us who shop for food know that canned tomatoes don’t really grow in cans and that frozen shrimp don’t really come from the freezer. What Benjamin Lorr does so engrossingly well is write about the people who make the system run. He speaks with Burmese shrimpers enslaved by Thai boatmen — seriously enslaved in every sense of the word. He rides with truckers who move every item we own in our homes — try to think of an item that has not been transported by truck — and discovers an industry where nearly every driver is simultaneously on the verge of incipient bankruptcy and utterly replaceable.

    He meets brokers driven to amass new products (check out the cereal aisle to see what is new this week) and interviews entrepreneurs convinced they have the next best thing since the invention of Sriracha. Lorr explains why Fair Trade, and other certifications, are primarily designed to drive sales (to self-aggrandizing shoppers like me), but might not make much difference to growers or to the planet.

    Floor-workers in supermarkets from WalMart to Whole Foods are all subject to unpredictable hours (so no childcare planning and no second jobs) and held to just under the number of hours needed to receive benefits.

    What every hidden stage of the commodity chain has in common with the next link is the capitalistic insistence upon unlimited abundance at the lowest possible price. It all appears as tens of thousands of distinct products whose glaring availability is only possible if we treat the people who make and deliver them as interchangeable, standardized machine parts.

    No one does it more effectively than Amazon (now owner of Whole Foods). The company places haptic monitors on the bodies of its workers to ensure efficiency of motion and penalize wasted efforts, like a pause to scratch an itch.

  • The Children of Ash and Elm by Neil Price *** (of 4)

    Truly, everything you might ever want to know about Vikings and how they ruled with terrible violence is scrutinized. Scandinavia, Western Europe, and the British Isles from roughly 700 – 1,000 CE were all under Viking rule. What makes the book so compelling, however, is the degree to which the author explains the tools of modern archaeology. Long gone are simple descriptions of dates, rulers, eras, and material culture. In the olden days of archaeology, the past was filtered through strongly clouded lenses. Thusly, the Vikings have largely been described by Christian missionaries who were at first overwhelmed by pagan invaders and later rationalized their missionary zeal for conversion by re-imagining Viking perceptions of the world. Price puts on a pair of 21st century lenses.

    To take one example, Viking religion and belief in their gods was understood only in relation to Christianity, while Price argues rather effectively that even the concept of religion is a construct of monotheism. Price cross-references material objects found in archaeological digs, nordic sagas which mostly tell us what Vikings wanted to believe and fossilize about themselves, and a handful of written accounts left by traders, mostly Arab and a few Jewish who ventured north. The result is a description of life that does its best to describe Vikings as they saw themselves and to expand our vision of the past to include women, LGBTQIA, slaves, immigrants, emigrants, mealtime, daily work, child rearing, and so forth.

    Most remarkable is the degree to which the combination of story and artifacts make clear the extent to which even in the first millennia the Vikings were integrated into a global economy. There are Vikings and Viking things in Egypt, Iraq, India, and China. Walrus tusks, for example, and Viking swords are found along the Silk Road. Simultaneously, there are Vikings buried in silk.

  • Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips ** (of 4)

    Take my review with a grain of salt. Disappearing Earth was a National Book Award Finalist and top-10 book of the year for the New York Times. Its incomparable strength is its description of post-Soviet life on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the very far northeast of Russia. In the larger cities – the action takes place in and around Petropavlovsk – there are businesses, traffic, research centers, industry, hustle and hassle. Just beyond the outskirts lie unpaved roads, volcanoes, hot springs, reindeer herds, and indigenous villages caught between the past and present.

    In the opening scene, a pair of schoolgirls are abducted suggesting that subsequent chapters will reveal who took them and where they went. But, subsequent chapters overlap just a whisker, making the book feel more like a collection of short stories than a whodunnit. The protagonists of each chapter are women whose lives are miserable. They are sick, abandoned, abused, overworked, and lonely. I’m told the perpetrator is unveiled at the end in a village a dozen hours north of Petropavlovsk, but I was too depressed to get all the way through.

  • The Dry by Jane Harper *** (of 4)

    The first of Harper’s Australian mysteries in which Detective Aaron Falk is the lead investigator, and Australia’s harsh environment plays a main character. The fictional communityo of Kiawarra is suffering through its second year of devastating drought putting everyone in the small farming town on the edge of despair and rage. Day after day the unrelenting heat has parched grazing lands, dried up rivers, and brought the day of financial reckoning with destitution a little closer. Luke Hadler’s wife and son are inexplicably found shot dead in their home, until Luke is found apparently having committed suicide in the back of his truck a few miles off. Luke is the obvious suspect in a the combined murder-suicide.

    The crackling dryness of brush and tinder feel ready to explode into fire; the personalities of neighbors who have known one another and one another’s parents since pre-school spark with equal veracity. Most notably the conservative bullies and blusterers who have had their way with sheep and with the sheepish since their successful roles as taunters and bruisers in the classroom, remain frightening to any of us who have ever been pushed about. There is something about an Australian farmer in a rural community whose refusal to buckle to authority, and whose bellicosity drowns out other emotions, that feels rather close to home and rather global at the moment. The question of who really killed the Hadlers is plenty engaging, but the atmospherics are what helped put Jane Adams on the world stage as a mystery writer.

  • In the Kingdom of Ice by Hamptom Sides **** (of 4)

    At the end of the nineteenth century, because no one had ever been there, the virtual consensus among geographers was that the North Pole resided in a warm, open sea.  One needed only to sail a ship through the ice surrounding it to reach the open ocean.  In 1879, Captain George DeLong and a crew of 30-plus sailors set off for the North Pole.  At end of the their first year, their ship, having failed to find open water, was instead frozen in place, where they remained out of communication with the rest of the world for three years. Half of their time was in near total darkness and nearly all of their days and nights were below freezing.  Finally, sheets of ice crushed and sank the U.S.S. Jeannette.  The crew walked and sailed for hundreds of days across ice floes and freezing oceans with hopes of reaching the coldest landmass on earth, the north coast of Siberia.  The  test of human physical and psychological endurance is simultaneously contemporary and otherworldly.  The relationship of European and American men to the environment, native people of the Arctic, to women, and stoicism is history not to be overlooked.

  • The Wildlife of Our Bodies by Rob Dunn *** (of 5)

    Rob Dunn is a microbiologist determined to make the invisible world of microscopic organisms present in our everyday lives.  In this book he focuses on the human body and its evolution from wild animal to modern species.  He points out, for example, that our appendix, long thought to be vestigial, actually served a purpose as an island for productive bacteria to grow.  When vicious bacteria, like cholera, wipe out the productive flora in our gut, our large intestines could be repopulated with good bacteria from our appendix.  In another example, Dunn points to new research suggesting that our immune systems evolved in cooperation with parasitic worms and when antibiotics and modern hygiene removed these from our digestive tracts, autoimmune disorders blossomed.  Lupus, allergies, asthma, Crohn’s and similar diseases are plentiful in the world’s most developed countries and virtually nonexistent in countries where parasites persist.  There is some evidence that infecting sick patients with parasitic worms can bring relief.  Dunn sometimes gets so excited by new discoveries that he effervesces for  pages when he could just get to the punchline.

  • H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald **** (of 4)

    H_is_for_Hawk_cover450Three parallel stories expertly told.  In the first, the author trains a goshawk to fly from her glove to hunt pheasants and rabbits on the British countryside.  In a second, Macdonald recounts the life of T.H. White, author of Arthurian novels, depressed, gay, abused, and also a goshawk trainer.  And, in the third, she writes a memoir of the year that her father died unexpectedly, she acquired a hawk, named it Mabel, trained Mabel, lost her happiness, read everything of T.H. White’s, scrambled in the British woods behind her not always cooperative goshawk, and muddled through.  We learn to see Britain’s hedges and forests through the eyes of an expert hawker and the eyes of a hawk, and Britain’s mid-twentieth century rigidity through the writings of T.H. White.

  • The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan *** (of 4)

    The-Worst-Hard-Time-by-Timothy-Egan1-356x535This recounting of America’s dust bowl is a vivid, filthy painting of an American environmental disaster brought about by greed, hubris, and ignorance.  After demolishing the Comanche and the bison, an American government anxious to “settle” the West gave away its prairie in huge chunks.  Plows sliced prairie grasses from their deep roots creating caskets of bare soil over buried sod.  Homesteader wheat, mining untapped soil nutrients and decomposing grasses, produce unimaginably profitable and prolific yields.  When the Great Depression struck in 1929, jobless masses in East Coast cities could not afford to pay for food and wheat piled up in the Great Plains.  In terrible need of income farmers expanded production, exacerbating the problem.  Then one of the periodic droughts that has always cycled through the Great Plains struck the year following the crash of the stock market and stretched nearly a decade.  Crops died.  Then trees and streams, horses and cattle all withered.  Great roiling winds picked up tons and tons of soil hurling black blizzards of sand and grit across the plains and finally people, their lungs so full of dust they could not draw sufficient oxygen, they, too, started to die and with them the farms and towns of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Kansas that should never have exchanged perennial grasses, bison, antelope, snakes, and hares for wheat, corn, and cotton.  The soil of the Great Plains was eventually tied down by the Soil Conservation Service and new plants grown on water mined from the Ogallala Aquifer, which shortly will run dry.

  • So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell **** (of 4)

    so_longThis is a tale both microscopic in scope and biblical in scale.  The scene is 1920s Illinois before the age of machines and corporations when farmers depended upon themselves, their neighbors, their children, wives, an itinerant hired hand or two, and their dog.  Cows were milked by hand and fields were reaped by horse, man, and sweat.  Yet, while this black and white idyll of American farmsteading remains in our collective imagination, what happens when the ten commandments are violated.  In this case, page by patient page we observe rippling repercussions when one man covets his neighbor’s wife, a woman not pleased to be imprisoned on a rural Illinois homestead.

  • The Town that Food Saved by Ben Hewitt ** (of 4)

    townthatfoodsaved1Hardwick was a down and out village in rural Vermont.  Unemployment was high, farmers were struggling, and main street was worn out.  As if almost by magic a resurgence of local food and agricultural organizations galloped into town and everyone it appears is destined to live happily ever after.  For example, one agripreneur is persuading beleaguered dairy farmers to dedicate some fields to soybeans for his tofu factory.  Another invested in an enormous concrete cellar so dairy farmers can supply milk for cheeses he sells at $20 a pound.  The Center for an Agricultural Economy opened on Main Street and soon the town was featured in the New York Times.  Hewitt argues that every small town should replicate Hardwick, but seriously?  How much tofu will Americans eat?  Expensive cheese is going to save rural America?  And is either one of those things really selling in Hardwick?  The underlying premise of the book that conventional American agriculture with its admittedly anti-environmental impacts on soil, water, and air is in fact already coughing its death rattle is passed over without question. For all its flaws, American agricultural productivity is at global and historic highs.  Hewitt’s prescription for replacing American agriculture with small local farms, absent any specifics on where or how his agripreneurs cobbled together their capital, or even if they are turning a profit, could have been written by Polyanna.