Tag Archive: nonfiction

The Deadliest Hurricane

If I had managed to stomach all the math, I would have been a meteorologist. As it is I am an avid weather-watcher, I love watching meteorologists get all hyped up about weather systems, but there are some storms that as you watch them form and become more powerful that you get a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach.  I remember watching the run-up to Hurricane Ike in Texas and  seeing people on the news saying “Oh it won’t be that bad. It’s not like it is as big as Katrina.” and then listening to the forecasters warn get out of the way!  And yes the hurricane wasn’t as bad as Katrina in terms of strength but it had a monster storm surge and swallowed up whole peninsulas on the Texas Gulf coast and washed away houses that people swore couldn’t be washed away… and took people with it, who were never found again.

Hurricane Ike turned out to be the third most costly hurricane in US history (after Katrina and Andrew) and it was “only” a Category two storm. What it showed was how much trust people put in modern technology, and how much denial that they piled on, thinking that sometime horrible couldn’t happen to them. Sad but true. And this is a story that is repeated over and over again– and is the focus of Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History.

Larson’s book focuses on the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, which killed somewhere between 8,000-12,000 people, and on the local meteorologist Isaac Cline, who was responsible for warning the island’s residents, but who failed to see the signs that the hurricane was coming their way. This is also a story of America’s Gilded Age belief in Progress and Modernity, and that mankind was above nature, and could in some way control it. It also outlines the politics and ethnocentrism of the period, as the Cubans accurately predicted the hurricane and tried to warn the US, but the US (who viewed Cuba as lazy and their forecasting techniques as based on “superstition”) refused to head Cuba’s warning. The result was utter carnage.

Larson does a fantastic job painting a picture of the local politics of Galveston and meteorology at the time. He also does a wonderful job actually re-creating the events for the reader, in vivid detail. You get a sense of dread as the islanders continue on with daily life despite a monster storm surge and the angry Gulf that washed into their front yards preceding the hurricane. Galveston was, after all, a boomtown during this period, and its citizens were not going to let a little storm slow them down.

The events unfold almost in slow motion. Those who survive were in parts lucky, or among the few that had access to strong, sturdy masonry buildings several stories high and well away from the coast. And in 1900, once the telegraph lines went down, and the train tracks washed out, no one knew. For days no one knew what had happened to Galveston until people walked in and found a virtual hell on earth. So many dead that the authorities were forced to burn the bodies. So much destruction that they simply bulldozed whole acres of the city. The scenes that Larson describe are out of an apocalypse.

Except that these kinds of scenes have happened again,  and again, in modern periods. One memory from watching the hurricane coverage of Katrina that has stuck with me all these years was the interview of a woman who lived in an ocean-side condo in MS. When the surge came up and wiped out her well-built condo she was washed inland, along with her dog, a small black terrier. She was lucky, and managed to climb up into a tree and hung on for the rest of the night, one arm holding onto the tree and one arm holding onto her dog. As she talked to the reporter she seemed amazed that both she and her dog managed to survive a monster storm in a tree and all she had left were the clothes on her back, badly lacerated hands, and her dog.

In the end Mother Nature is greater than us. No amount of technology will ever made us safe from storms and other disasters. That is something that we need to understand and come to terms with, and Larson’s book a fabulous reminder as to why– a hundred years ago, Americans were brash enough to think they could understand and predict deadly storms. A hundred years later, we still think that, yet we continue to suffer. Will we ever learn?

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Football as a religion

When I first move to Texas I discovered that my apartment was only about half a mile from the local high school. I figured this out when one Friday night I was out walking my dog and noticed the bright stadium lights off in the distance, coupled by the sound of a marching band and the roar of the crowd.

In Texas there is little else as sacred as high school football, save religion itself.

Today’s book is Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, and a Dream by H.G. Bissinger. The book (which both the movie and TV series are based off of, and oh, if you have never seen the TV series, get yourself a copy of the DVDs and go watch is now. One of the best depictions of working class America on TV ever.) The book, however, is non-fiction, and is based on a football team, the Permian Panthers, a team from Odessa, an oil town in the West Texas scrubland.

The book, (written in the late 1980s) is a classic of fine American sportswriting. For me, it stands right up there with Seabiscuit in taking a sport and using it as a prism to examine a place and moment in time in American history. Bissinger’s book is about the phenomena of high school football in a town that has few dreams left to hold on to, but it is also about much more. It is about race, class, economic and social status in America (and the issue of race is really ugly. While unsurprising is still jarring to read.) It is about dreams realized and broken. It is about young people who have to live up to impossible hopes that an entire town pins on them, and then how they get torn apart when those dreams are dashed.

Bissinger lived in the town for a year, he went with the football team to every game, he had unprecedented access, and that is what helps the book ring so true. He is also a master of colorful, evocative writing that pulls you along, and he takes time to explain the history of West Texas, along with the different dynamics of the place. All of this allows you to feel as if you are there, experiencing the quest for the state championship with the Permian Panthers.

Its a real team, a real town, a real slice of America. And it’s about football,  but it is also about more than that. This is a fantastic, can’t-put-it-down read and a true American sports classic.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Well, what happened? And Foodie Goodness

I fell off the blogging wagon for almost two whole months. It happened rather inadvertently–one minute I was reading and blogging and the next minute I wasn’t. I was besieged by the start of a new semester, and a major academic deadline. So I felt, for a while like I was drowning. I read a bit, here and there, but I did not blog because it seemed like so much effort.

I even thought for a while, about giving up the blog and the challenge that I set for myself.  One of my enduring characteristics, however, is that I finish what I start. (That got me through the dark and lonely days of writing a dissertation, that stubborn, mule-like tendency to finish at all costs.) So I am back, I have a few posts to catch up on (like I said I have been reading and have a backlog of books), and I hope to keep going to meet my goal of 52 books this year (at least.)

So today’s book is Gluten Free Girl: How I Found the Food that Loves Me Back… and How you Can Too  by Shauna James Ahern.

Okay, a bit of back story. Last March/April, when I fell off the blogging wagon (the first time) it was because I had become seriously sick. I won’t go into the details, but I had a strange constellation of symptoms that puzzled my very good doctor, both neurological and gastrointestinal and I had all these weird vitamin deficiencies. Anyway, after enduring a battery of tests (which proved nothing), after being in pain for months and dealing with crippling fatigue, (not like when you are just tired, think so exhausted that the thought of moving off the couch for a glass of water is a problem) I sat with my doctor’s nurse practitioner, shuddering in pain and wailing that this was not “all in my head.” She replied to me, “you know, it might be a food allergy. Wheat and dairy are the biggest offenders, so try cutting them out first.” Well, I already don’t eat dairy, so I went home miserable and cut out wheat, specifically, gluten. In two weeks I felt better than I ever felt in almost a decade.

Long story short, I was diagnosed as a gluten-intolerant, probable celiac (I refused the colonoscopy, which is the gold standard test because my insurance would not cover it, and it seemed like a waste of money  that I don’t have to just confirm that I should not eat gluten. Screw it. I just wasn’t going to eat gluten anymore. My doctor agreed– she said I presented as “classic celiac” and that the diet had proved enough without anymore testing. The celiac blood panel came back inconclusive– be warned on that– the blood testing has a failure rate 1/3 of the time. Yup. So it can totally be wrong. Changing diet or the colonoscopy are the only ways you really know for sure.)

So I delved into a world of no more bread, pies, cookie, fast food, packaged foods, soy sauce, oh hell, wheat gluten is in everything. To most people, it seems incredibly restrictive. But for me the transition wasn’t hard, because I already ate mostly home-cooked meals made from fresh ingredients. But I had loved bread. Adored bread. I was known as an amazing baker of bread and sweets, and oh shit, no more bread for me.

I cried the day I gave my huge bags of bread flours to a neighbor. I sobbed when I hauled my bags of pasta and crackers (unopened) to a local food bank. I tried to be positive, but damn it seemed hard. I was now defined by what I could not eat. Nevermind that I was feeling so much better, had lost weight and had finally made peace with my angry, angry stomach. I was now different. That gluten-free person.

I first read Shauna’s writing in her blog, http://www.glutenfreegirl.com  Then I discovered that she had written a food memoir of sorts, and after scouring the local library for gluten-free cookbooks, and modifying my diet, and working on that for months, I finally picked it up.

I wish I had read it sooner.

There are many books on going gluten-free out there. Many are great, they detail how to change your diet, what you can and cannot eat, etc.  But almost all approach the gluten-free issue from the aspect of how going gluten-free is hard, and then they offer advice and tips.

Fine. It is hard. I won’t lie. But Shauna’s book was one of the few that I read that took having to go gluten-free and made it something that was freeing. It freed you to eat really good, homemade, artisanal food. It frees you from the American approach to  junky foods, fast foods, it frees you to experiment with food in new ways. That is not to say that she sugarcoats it and says that going gluten-free isn’t hard, and that the food that you will eat, while good, will not taste exactly like the food that you used to eat (it won’t)  but instead she is an incessant and friendly cheerleader. Use going gluten-free to try the new flours. To eat local, fresh food– to treat yourself well by cooking for yourself with care and respect. Use going gluten-free to not restrict you, but open your horizons.

This book is not a cookbook (there are a few recipes)- it isn’t a “how to go gluten-free” book, and it isn’t a technical book.  Don’t read it thinking that it is. It also might be hard for people to read who have multiple food allergies (people who are gluten and casein free for example, or people with allergies to nuts, etc- Shauna has no restrictions beyond gluten.) Instead it is a food memoir, a reminder that having celiac is not the end of the world, that rather, it is the beginning– one can be healthy again and enjoy food. It is one woman’s journey, and man the way she write about food. It just makes you hungry reading it. Shauna loves food, and I love that about this book– because my mom, who is an excellent cook who always cooked locally and fresh (I escaped the packaged food hell that Shauna describes her childhood as because my mom loved cooking fresh home-cooked meals) talks about food in the exact same way. Food is something to be enjoyed, savored, and to love. Having a food allergy, intolerance or celiac disease should not stop you from loving food. This is what I took from this book.

And there is something to be said for eating locally. When I lived in rural Ohio for a year I discovered the wonders of buying from actual farmers. Every Saturday morning I would point my old sputtering Mazda towards the local farms and go from place to place, picking out the freshest produce (there is nothing like sweet corn coming off the field in the back of a tractor, lemme tell you.) There was a Mennonite gentleman that I would buy potatoes, carrots, tomatoes and peppers from. He would even give me watermelons that were too ripe and bruised to sell after I told him that my dog loved watermelon (this is true.) Every Saturday morning when I would come to pick up my produce, he would have a few watermelons “for the dog” he would say in his gruff way. I would inquire after his pigs and dairy cows. We talked about the weather (in all seriousness) and his grandchildren would tumble by in their bonnets and long skirts. There is something about knowing the people who actually grow your food.  He tipped me off to an Amish farm that sold “the best chicken you could ever imagine.” The next week, after butchering day, I head over for chicken. The flesh was pink, some still had feathers in it.  I took it home and roasted a simple Amish-raised chicken with Mennonite-raised leeks and onions. That night I sat, just savoring the taste of the chicken “This is what chicken is supposed to taste like?” It was a revelation. That night I sat with my windows open, enjoying the Ohio summer, the breeze off of lake Erie, and devouring the best chicken I had ever eaten (it was most definitely not factory farmed.)

In the last six months, since I got my diagnosis I had slogged along in my gluten-free diet. Food was not joyful, it was hard. Well, Shauna’s book has reminded me to go recapture those carefree Ohio summer days. Time to hit the Farmer’s markets again, time to try some grass-raised Texas beef cattle, fresh sausages, and produce. Time to be inspired again and not let my diagnosis cage me in. This book was much-needed inspiration. Thanks Shauna, and I couldn’t think of a better way to start my blogging up again.  I am going to be adventurous again with food. I’m not going to let celiac hem me in. And I will keep reading and blogging, my fellow readers.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C



You were created to run… no really

J read Born to Run earlier in the year when we started the blog project, and it has been one of the books on my list to read. Because J already summed up the book in his post, I am going to offer a more personal reflection it.

I used to be a runner– that is, in high school I was a cross-country runner and in track, a miler and two miler, but frankly I preferred cross-country. The mile always seemed too short, the two mile, boring (eight times around the track can get a bit mind-numbing.) Cross-country was the most fun, with the winding, hilly courses, and frankly the long road runs were my favorite– in the summer we would rise early and be running by five am, while the city was still sleepy, the Los Angeles air still cool, and when it was often my teammates and I loping along through the neighborhoods around the high school. Our coach would follow us in his old green car, affectionately nicknamed “the tank” for its square appearance and army green color, as we quietly moved through the streets.

There was a student at our rival high school who was one of the best runners in the state. He had been born in Kenya and was something of a local legend. B was a tall handsome kid with a wide smile and who was so fast, the rest of us could hardly believe it. His running partner  was a tall blond kid, white as could be, who was known as “B’s Ghost” or simply “the Ghost.” At league finals they would come in far before anyone else, bouncing along like two gazelles. B and the Ghost were a joy to watch, and I remember standing with a teammate watching them finish. B made it look so easy, without strain, like as if running three miles on a smoggy 100 degree day was the best thing in the world. My teammate whispered to me “You, know, they say he trains barefoot– it’s how he used to run in Kenya–isn’t that insane?”  Then, after B’s teammates had offered their congratulations, my teammate and I walked up and congratulated B on his race. He smiled and thanked us graciously, and I noticed he wasn’t out of breath- in fact he hardly seemed to have run at all.

After reading McDougall’s book, it all began to fall into place. Because B had run barefoot in Kenya, he was a fore-foot striker, not a heel striker (something I had noticed in watching him run) and because of that, his gait was more suited to keeping his body in good condition and injury free. And B, despite all the races he won, despite the fact that he was later recruited for a major Division I college track team, despite the competitiveness, he clearly loved  running. You could see it in his smile.

As much as I could enjoy running, it was often painful, and I stopped running because of a really painful knee injury. And that was the part about the book that I really identified with– McDougall’s search for the reason as to why so many runners end up injured– it all has to do with modern running shoes, which McDougall asserts are so cushioned, as to ruin your natural gait, and your body’s way of telling what is the right way to run. McDougall asserts that as a species that we evolved to run, to run long distances, and to do it well into our old age if properly conditioned.

This book was deeply personal for another reason– my father’s family is descended from the Tarahumara Indians, the great runners that McDougall profiles. In fact the reason why I ran in high school was because that is just what we did. My father, before me, was something of a cross-country star. He loved to run, could “run all day” in his youth. He gave it up once he had a family to support, but his endurance stood him well when he worked in construction as a young man so my mom could go to college. But the fact of it remained, is that in my family, we always ran. It’s just what we do. I was raised that one ran because it was fun, not necessarily because we were good at it. Interestingly, as a runner I was a rather mediocre cross-country runner. Always came in the top ten and placed well for team points, but never a star– but that on the long road runs that we would take as a team I invariably did better. The longer I ran, the better my endurance held out, and I now wonder if I would have been better suited to much longer races in my youth, like the ones that McDougall profiles in the book.

It is funny that how as I got older and went to college, I encountered the more western mentality that running was “work.” “No pain, no gain.” It was no longer fun, it was so that the women I went to school with could keep their svelte bodies. Again, McDougall points out that among the Tarahumara and African bushmen who still run incredible distances, that this is not the case. You run, because you were born to it. You run, because you are human.

There is so much I could say about this book, but I would end up going on forever. The book was deeply personal to me, as an ex-runner (the problem knee has kept me from running for years, and I now live in a part of the country where a barefoot run could mean cactus thorns in your feet and a nasty bite from a rattlesnake)  and because of my own heritage. The book is, as J describes, well-written, funny, and very well-paced. While I may never go on a long run again like I used to, it has motivated me to start trail walking again (something I did after I stopped running, but I stopped once I got into the grind of grad school and then a job) so that I can re-capture some of that clarity that one gets after humming along for 10 miles.

My favorite run ever in high school was our annual fun run at the beach. At the end of the summer we would pile into vans and drive down to the Orange Country beaches. There, we shed our shoes and ran for about three miles in the sand, barefoot, galloping through the waves, chasing each other, laughing, and joking. We were not timed or really even pushed in any way. Early in the morning it was just us and the surfers bobbing out on the waves, and there was a special magic to it all. It was incredibly fun and it was how running is supposed to be.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

All the Saints

Okay so I have been a slacker. I have been reading but not blogging, so I figured that I better catch up with the blogging….

So today’s book (really it was last week’s book) is My Life With the Saints by James Martin, S.J. This book was different from the other books that I have read so far. It was part lives of the saints, part spiritual autobiography and part spiritual advice, making it, well, an interesting read. Father Martin is a Jesuit priest who entered the priesthood in an unlikely (or perhaps a likely?) moment in his life. He was a young executive for General Electric, who came home one day, burned out, and wondering if all there was in life was the grind of corporate work. He sat down and turned on the TV an caught the last part of an autobiography of the Trappist monk, and great American Catholic writer, Thomas Merton, and everything changed.

Seriously. Everything changed. Like Merton, Martin was an unlikely priest. And this book tells the story of Martin’s encounters with Catholicism (in an non-linear fashion) and interweaves it with the lives of the saints, both those who are official saints (like Thomas Aquinas), unofficial saints, or those who may eventually become official saints (Merton, Dorothy Day) and those on their way to becoming saints (The Blessed Mother Theresa).

There are many things that are lovely about this book. One is that you don’t have to be Catholic to enjoy it. Father Martin, although a cradle Catholic, was fairly ignorant of the intricacies of his faith. He grew up Catholic, but not deeply entrenched in Catholic culture  (that is to say, he did not go to parochial school, his parents were not active in a parish, etc) so even by the time he decides to become a Jesuit, he is still unsure of  many aspects of Catholicism. In this way, he guides the reader carefully. He presumes little, his voice is non-judgmental, but he is in all ways, gently orthodox.  In that way, he is refreshing writer– it is sort of like having your own personal guide to the saints and Catholicism, one who is funny and insightful.

Each chapter starts off with the story of how Father Martin first encountered each saint. Sometimes it is in surprising ways, such as through a movie, then he outlines the life of the saint, and finally what that saint has to teach humanity. All the saints are different  (obviously) and one of the most moving chapters is Martin’s encounter with Merton (who is, I must confess, one of my favorite saints, despite the fact that he is not an official saint.) But each chapter works through the lesson, the saint’s life, their humanity and Martin’s life.

Now this may sound dry, but it is not. I found it to be a remarkably fast read, and at times very charming and funny. The saints were human, (that is of course, why they are saints) but often people get hung up on this ideas that they are so much greater than regular people. Yet Martin’s emphasis on their humanity and how they interweave with his story of becoming a Jesuit is striking, because it reminds us that we all can become saints. Of course, one would in some sense,  have to want to become one, and becoming a saint is decidedly difficult, but it is always possible.

I really enjoyed Martin’s voice, his light touch and easy style. This is a lovely book that  is full of wisdom from the saints and a particular Jesuit.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

A woman’s cells, her family and a reporter…

Today’s book is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I heard about this book through various media outlets last year and heard the author being interviewed on NPR. It seemed (at the time) like an interesting work so I added it to my list for my year of books. When I finally got around to reading it this last week, what I discovered was an astonishing story.

Skloot focuses on a woman named Henrietta Lacks– a poor African-American woman who died of an invasive form of cervical cancer– but whose cancerous cells were removed for scientific research before her death by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital. (Without her consent to be used for research purposes– something that was not uncommon in the early 1950s.)  The cells were unusual in that they continued to live in laboratory conditions and kept making copies of themselves. Those cells would become the basis for biomedical testing for decades, and would contribute to research on polio, AIDS, HPV, and cancer (among other things.) Without these cells, many major scientific breakthroughs would have not happened. But nobody told Henrietta about this. No one told her family, and no one thought about the implications, or even the ethics of taking an African-American woman’s cells and making money off their use while her own descendants continued to struggle with severe medical and financial problems (and that is only one aspect of a multifaceted ethical dilemma.)

The book contains multiple storylines to tell the main story. There is the story of Henrietta, her illness and a death. Then there is the story of her cells and the medical miracles that they helped bring about. Then there is the story of the Lacks family and their suffering– and of how Skloot worked for years to win their trust and friendship so that she could tell the most complete story possible. Somehow Skloot manages to weave all these threads together and tell a compelling story that brings out the humanity of Henrietta and her family, while also explaining the difficult and dense scientific side of Henrietta’s story.

I couldn’t put this book down.  First of all, Skloot’s storytelling is phenomenal. She seamlessly interweaves so many different aspects of the story, and manages to remain evenhanded. Her work is careful, knowing that Lacks’s family distrusted all the “white people” who were trying to make a profit off their mother’s cells. And she is honest– this was not an easy book to write– she faced so many roadblocks, yet somehow she pulls everything together and manages to tell Henrietta’s story. By following the family’s wishes to not “pretty up” the book she tells a raw story about the family’s past and how in the present, they have come to grips with that past.

There is so much to say about this book, but I hardly know where to begin. All I have to say is this: read the book, and be a witness to what happened to Henrietta Lacks. That is what her family wanted in the publishing of this book. They wanted people to know her story, to know that she was a person, and for people to know how her cells changed science. They wanted people to think about the ethical dilemma that scientific research on tissues (that were once part of actual people– and usually taken from the poorest minorities without their consent) represents and for people to realize that such research can have long-lasting effects on the families of those who were researched.

Read it and realize that Henrietta’s story is not just a scientific story but a very human story.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

You never realized that Punctuation was so important…

The middle of the semester is, along with the last few weeks, the toughest time of the year for a college professor. This is mainly because it is the time of year when we get swamped–no, not swamped—drowned in work to grade and evaluate. At times this can be both a joyful and painful endeavor. You always hope that one’s students learn what you want them to in class, and often they do, but sometimes, even a paper with beautiful ideas can be scarred by an errant apostrophe.

That brings us to today’s book Eats Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss.  Now I am not a grammar stickler. In fact I was one of those kids who was never taught grammar. Frankly, I learned more grammar in my Spanish and German language classes as an adult than I did in the English language. Some years ago I asked my mom why they no longer taught grammar in school and she said “Because it is now expected that you will pick it up.” Right. I wasn’t taught it and then I got to college and graduate school, and all those little rules I did not learn as a child–well guess what– I had to memorize them. And I cursed the fact that no one had bothered to teach me the details when I was younger.

Truss’s book is about the intricacies of  punctuation. She is, clearly, a grammar-lover. Well, lover may not be strong enough a word. Perhaps enforcer is better.  Truss wrote the book to take a humorous look at punctuation and all the painful ways that people misuse it, and she does this with a sparkling wit, and often snide (and funny comments.)

The book is set up with each chapter dedicated to a specific punctuation mark– the period, the comma, the colon, semi-colon– you are beginning to get the picture. She starts each chapter with a hysterical incident involving the particular mark, and then proceeds to simply (and with a great deal of humor) explain the particular rules of usage around the mark.

This sounds boring- I know it does, but it is not.  There is a reason why the book is a bestseller. One of my favorite passages in the book deals with the difference between “its” and”it’s.” I was reading this while at the dentist’s office, waiting for him to complete my root canal and would have howled in laughter if it wasn’t for all the gear still in my mouth at the moment.

“The confusion of the possessive “its” (no apostrophe) with the contractive “it’s” (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal sign of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian “kill” response in the average stickler. The rule is: the word “it’s” (with apostrophe) stands for “it is” or “it has.” If the word does not stand for “it is” or “it has” then what you require is “its.”  This is extremely easy to grasp. Getting your itses mixed up is the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation. No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing “Good food at it’s best,” you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.”

Okay, so that reads a bit harsh out of the context of the book, but it’s one example of her very sharp sense of humor and no-tolerance approach to punctuation mistakes. And frankly it is also a very simple explanation of a common mistake. Trust me, after reading that, you will not forget how to properly shorten “it is” (it’s.) And one of the reasons why I laughed so hard is because no one taught me this rule until graduate school. A rather incredulous professor explained it to me, and I rather red-faced, slunk away to correct all those wayward errors.

I like biting humor, and I appreciate Truss’s effort to fight the good fight. Lord knows, I find myself trying to fight the fight with my own red pen on student’s papers these days. I am determined to not leave them in the dark like I was.  I  loved this book, found it to be sparkling, funny and memorable, and I am going to give a copy to all of my major advisees.

Can’t let all them get the “its” mixed up with the “it’s” can I?

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

What does “sustainable” really mean?

Today’s book is Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg

As I have stated before, I spent a fellowship year in a small farming/college community in the midwest, finishing my PhD dissertation a few years ago. That particular community was big on sustainable, small, and sometimes organic farming. I remember discovering the young girl who sold me fresh, huge, green onions in her driveway and the massive peaches that grew in local orchards in the summer. I would chat with a Mennonite farmer who seemed a bit amused that I would buy watermelons for my dog (who loves them)– and when he discovered this he would give me the bruised, overripe melons (for the dog) when I would buy his other fruits and vegetables. (“So not to waste. The dog doesn’t care if it is a big overripe.” he said. He was right, the dog couldn’t tell the difference, the farmer got rid of bruised melons that he could not sell and the dog was fat and happy on her summer watermelon diet.)  The local pub bought all of its meat from a local organic producer that also slaughtered its own animals, and I remember sitting down to a meal with a friend one day, and just as my friend dug into her bacon-topped club sandwich she said “this pig had a happy life. And he tastes like he did.” (A startling statement perhaps, but anyone who has eaten locally, sustainable food can tell you that it does indeed, taste better.)

Anyway, my whole point to this is that my year in a rural farming community that was dominated by small farms (not large operations, a rarity, I know) made me think a lot about the food I eat. That is why I picked up Four Fish because fish really is the last “wild” food and because I eat a lot of fish- in fact it might be my main source of meat.

Four Fish revolves around four the major wild (and sometimes farmed) fish types that people eat. Salmon, cod, sea bass, and tuna. All fish I have eaten, all fish that any big fish eater would have tried. The author, Greenberg, is an avid fisherman himself, having spent his youth fishing in Long Island Sound.  By examining the these four types of fish, Greenberg gives the reader a micro-history of fishing, fish farming, sustainability and conservation.

This may sound boring, but it isn’t. Greenberg’s book is an eloquent plea to help preserve the fish and the act of fishing by understanding how human actions can greatly affect a species. For example, take salmon. Did you know that back when the Puritans moved into New England in the early colonial era that the rivers in Connecticut teemed with salmon? So many that they could almost reach in and grab them? The Native peoples hunted easily with just spears. The same for Cape Cod (ahem- ever wondered about the name?)  the cod that was so thick that the settlers could not believe it.

What happened to all those salmon in Connecticut? Well, the damming of the rivers destroyed their habitats. And what has happened to the cod fishing grounds in the Northern Atlantic? Well, overfishing has destroyed those stocks too. And what about the cultures that survive in fish? Greenberg shows that they (such as the Inuit peoples in Alaska) are losing their livelihood, and their very way of life (and with Native peoples that also means losing one’s culture, thus the incredibly high rates of suicide.)

The book is not all alarming- Greenberg also chronicles sustainable ways of farming fish, such as tilapia, and kahala– fish that don’t threaten the natural stocks when farmed, unlike salmon (salmon farming is incredibly problematic–let me tell you I will never look at a farmed piece of salmon the same way again.) Greenberg also chronicles why it is that mankind loves fishing for huge fish, like Tuna– because of the rush of mastering nature. His approach is remarkably evenhanded, even though he clearly has an agenda.

Greenberg’s book does for fish what Michael Pollen’s Omnivore’s Dilemma did for general food consumption. Greenberg wants the public to know how to carefully chose, to be informed and to take action least we destroy the very world that keeps us going. After reading this book I now know I will have to think carefully when pausing at the fish counter. Should I eat that farmed catfish or tilapia? Wild salmon is better that farmed, but really it isn’t by much. What is the true cost of eating that sea bass? I don’t think that Greenberg’s aim is to make you feel guilty, it is to make you think– think about the true costs of what you eat.

When I was a little girl my dad occasionally took me fishing. He showed me how to cast a line, to bait the hook and how to use a rod and reel. I remember the first fish I caught- a little teeny trout (I think) that I reeled in with great difficulty because it fought for its life. I was nine years old. I remember we took it home and my mom gutted it and prepared to fry it. When I looked at the little fish sitting on ice I felt sad. I had killed it, and I did not want to eat it. I said this to my dad and he said “You have to eat it. To not do so is to waste, and you dishonor the fish.” Essentially, he was telling me to take responsibility for my actions, to take responsibility for the food I was putting in my mouth, and to be grateful for the fish who gave up its life so I could eat it.

I ate the fish, and my dad had given me my first big lesson on how to look at food. Greenberg’s book continues that lesson.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C