Cooked by Michael Pollan

cooked

I have not enjoyed a book as much as I enjoyed this for a very long time. Possibly not since I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the second time around. This is absolutely fascinating from cover to cover.

Pollan discusses the science behind cooking, in four separate chapters; Fire (barbecue and roasting), Water (pot cooking), Air (baking), and Earth (fermenting and pickling). I have basic cooking skills, I am not a fan of TV cookery programs, but I cook most of my family’s meals from scratch (well, from scratch-ish, I used tinned tomatoes a lot).

Pollan had cooking lessons for this book, and tries pretty much all of the cooking techniques in the book himself in his own kitchen. The book has many asides about his own daily life and how his cooking experiments turned out. But you do not have to be a budding chef to enjoy this book, even if you are just interested in how you fuel your body this should be of use to you. The part about bread was revelatory for me. He does not just talk about how things are cooked a certain way, but also why and what chemical reactions take place. Then, how this food affects your body as you digest it. He also explains the mystery of why American cheeses do not have any flavour.

I have enjoyed everything Pollan has written, but some of his take-away messages have been more useful to me than others. I appreciate his thoughts on agribusiness and buying food locally but sometimes following his advice can be quite impractical, depending on where and how you live. I think this book will change the way I eat, just like The Omnivore’s Dilemma did.

In every chapter we get the strong feeling that he wants to get across the importance of the joys of cooking, and why some of us still choose to do it, despite the obvious economic reasons not to. Even if you do not cook (and what sort of crazy person does not cook at all?) then you very probably eat, in which case this book would still be interesting.

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Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

olive kitteridge

This novel has won the Pulitzer Prize, and it was a choice for one of my book groups. Otherwise I do not think that I would have picked it up. The Olive in question is a retired school teacher in a small town. So, the story could only be slow and a bit on the dull side.

The story is told from the perspectives of several other people. Some chapters are about people who know Olive well, in some chapters she just has a small appearance. It spans from her middle age through to her old age. She is not a particularly nice character and she is difficult to empathise with. Even from her family’s perspective she does not come out looking great.

There is no great story here; no beginning, middle or end. It is more of a character study of a grumpy old lady. Although she is more complex than just a grumpy person, I still would not say that I enjoyed this book a great deal. Olive has a lot of anger inside her, and I cannot understand why, even by the end of the book. She still lives a full life and has people who care for her and want to be with her despite this.

Olive is a school teacher so she has influenced many of the people in the town. The book is about relationships, close and distant. We have all affected so many people in our lives, whether we know it or not, and we should take care with how we interact with people. At least, I think that was what the book was about.

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The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert book club discussion questions

We will be reading The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert at the next Las Vegas Non-Fiction Book Group. These are the questions that I will use to keep discussion going.

1) Has reading this book changed your views about climate change in any way?
2) Did you find what you learned in this book alarming?
3) What do you think about the example of the ammonite – they were perfectly adapted to their environment, but the catastrophic effects of the asteroid still resulted in their extinction.
4) Do you see any way of slowing the acidification of the ocean? (pg118 tipping point is pH 7.8 – expected 2100)
5) Do you think the “islands on dry land” method of studying small ecosystems can help us to predict the effect of our actions our larger ecosystem?
6) In some parts of the world the number of species has dropped, in some parts of the world the number of species has increased. How does this add to the difficulty of predicting the future?
7) What percentage Neanderthal are you?
8) How far would you go to stop a species from becoming extinct? Give a rhino an internal ultrasound? Give a crow a handjob?
9) Do you think that Kolbert remains unbiased about the subject?
10) Do you think you will change the way you live as a result of reading this book?

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The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

sixth extinction

Since the first creatures existed on planet Earth there have apparently been five mass extinctions, some of which were caused by us humans, some by other environmental disasters, such as asteroid impact. This book is about some of those extinctions, and the massive changes the planet is going through due to our actions, and making some predictions about what could happen next.

Kolbert makes a pretty compelling case that the sixth extinction in question could be us, caused by us. Oh, but the Earth could be repopulated by giant rats. Just as the avian dinosaurs managed to withstand the asteroid impact, the rats may well withstand whatever ruination we bring on the planet.

Kolbert touches on biology, geology, botany and various other natural history related subjects and she manages to explain them all in terminology that I can understand. The situation certainly looks very alarming, but her style is not over dramatic. She tells stories of species that have gone extinct, and species that are well on their way due to our activities. She explains how the various species interact with others and speculates how each of their extinctions can affect the rest of the ecosystem of the planet.

The actions of previous humans has, as Kolbert points out, resulted in some humans desperate enough to put their arm up the bottom of a rhino to give her an ultrasound and to give rare crow species a handjob. It is not just doom and gloom, though. There are lots of fascinating natural history facts, about past and present species, including us humans and our fellow apes.

 

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

goldfinch

I read Tartt’s other two novels some time ago, and enjoyed them. This one took her seven years to write so I know I am not the only person to have been eagerly awaiting this one. It was released last year but is 770 pages long and I am very busy these days so it took me a while to get to it. So, I enjoyed her first novels, I had been waiting a long time to read it, my hopes were high, I was worried that I might be disappointed. I wasn’t.

This is kind of a coming-of-age story. It begins on Upper West Side Manhattan (where I lived when I first moved to the US), then goes over to Upper East Side Manhattan (where I lived next) then pops over to Las Vegas for a little while (where I currently live). I enjoyed Tartt’s portrayals of all the places. Something utterly, unthinkably terrible happens on the UES and Theo, our protagonist, loses his mother. He is practically an orphan from then on, but various adults assume varying levels of responsibility for him.

It is about family, and love, and the importance of parenting, whether or not it is a parent who does it. It is about friendships and relationships and the importance of the way we interact with people, even if it is just for a moment, and how those interactions might be extremely important to us, but we may not know until later on.

Theo works in antiques and art and the book is partly about that world, and the way art speaks to us. The characters discuss how people can love a piece of art because it strikes us and draws us in. I am sure you can think of a couple of pieces of art that spoke to you. Well, a particular painting, The Goldfinch, changes Theo’s life in a very unusual way. I was left wondering quite what would happen with it all the way through the book. That is the beauty of reading something like this, that does no fit neatly in to a genre, you cannot guess what is coming next because it does not follow any usual pattern. It was a long book but it kept me interested all the way through.

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The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani

secret history las vegas

This is the story of co-joined twins, whose foetuses fused in their mother’s womb when she found herself downwind of a nuclear test in Nevada, and a South African man who is involved in some sort of dodgy psychological testing lab involving testing on animals and homeless people. Some bodies are found out by a Lake near the city and a police office accuses one and gets the other one to help him.

I will admit that a major reason why I picked this book up was the title. It is set in the city where I live. After a chapter or two it becomes obvious that Abani has visited for a long weekend, perhaps, if at all. I presume he wanted to set it in Vegas because of the nuclear testing near the city, but I think it may have flowed better if he had set it somewhere he knew a little better. I would certainly have been less grating in the references to Vegas (at least to a “local”, such as I am). The twins could have moved to another city where all this could have taken place.

The story flashes back to our protagonist’s earlier life in South Africa during apartheid. Presumably to draw parallels between the way that country’s indigenous population was treated then, and the way the US treats the indigenous population. It just makes the novel feel a little disjointed to me. It is primarily a whodunnit; who left the bodies, what are those Siamese twins up to, who is the dodgy bloke following our protagonist? But slipping backwards to his youth only answers one of those questions, and it does not really fit with the Vegas sides of things. I was left wondering quite what Abani had hoped to achieve.

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Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

frog music

 

This is the story of Blanche, a dancer and prostitute in 1876 San Francisco. The characters are based on real people, Donoghue has filled in some gaps in the story with her imagination, but she explains what she made up and the clues she used to do it in the Afterword. The story drags a little at the beginning, but once it got going it moved along very fast.

 

The chapters skip about in time a little. The book begins towards the end of the story, with Blanche’s cross-dressing friend, Jenny, getting shot. The rest of the book is a whodunnit, and both Blanche and Jenny lead the sort of lives that tend to collect quite a large number of murder suspects.

 

I very much enjoyed reading about San Francisco when it was just thirty years old. Donoghue drops in some nice historical facts and slight stretching of fact to colour up the story. In the Afterword she explains which is which.

 

It is partly a whodunnit, partly a story of how dreadfully women and children and immigrants were treated back then. But it is mostly about a twenty-four year old girl growing up and becoming a woman, and ultimately, finding true love.

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