Friday, February 18, 2011

Reading Food and Guilt

I do read non-fiction from time to time, and often find myself steered toward books about food, since I bake and garden as hobbies, as well as being an adult convert to semi-vegetarianism. The reading experience for this genre of books varies, but often comes with a helping of guilt for me, and I imagine for most readers. In this blog post I will rate the book for how I liked it and how guilty it made me feel.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four MealsThe Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

Rating: 5/5 stars
Guilt Rating: Well, this is a strange one. I think he does well in making you reconsider assumptions you may have made. Is it really about eating organic, or is eating local better for the environment? Is meat really bad? I did make the change of only buying vegetarian, cage-free, grain-fed eggs from that point forward, like my original review said.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food LifeAnimal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

Rating: 5/5 stars
Guilt rating: Actually, low on guilt, but high on inspiration. She doesn't even begin to suggest that most families could/should do what her family did and live only on food available in a 100 mile radius. But I felt inspired to grow my own food, to learn about heirlooms, and to shop more locally, and I really have. Last year we gardened full throttle and still have a lot to learn, but the resources in this book really helped us get started.

Twinkie, Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated Into What America EatsTwinkie, Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated Into What America Eats by Steve Ettlinger

Rating: 5/5 stars.
Guilt: Oh boy. I wasn't raised eating a lot of processed food, not even carbonated beverages except on special occasions. Ironically, becoming a vegetarian has increased my processed food consumption by leaps and bounds, what else is meat substitute made out of anyway? After reading this book, I still can't drink a Frappuccino. I just think "cotton makes this texture" the entire time. If you don't want to know, don't read this book. It was startling and disgusting but also kind of cool, if I'm being honest. Yay science.

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American MealFast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser

Rating: 5/5 stars
Guilt Factor: If you eat fast food, you might never again. McDonalds does have some tasty beverages, but after reading about their impact on potatoes and eggs and the dairy industry, and how egg consumption ends up in cows being treated, well, fast food becomes a rather tougher pill to swallow. He also shows how science gives you the impression of eating food when what you're eating is engineered nothingness. Fascinating but definitely high on guilt. That was his goal, I think. :)

Eating AnimalsEating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Rating: 3/5 stars, maybe because at this point I felt like I'd heard it all before
Guilt: Oh yeah. Except I'm immune, a bit, to hearing about factory farming when I already don't eat meat. I wish he'd spent more than his brief mentions talking about fish farms, since I think we get mixed messages about what fish we should buy - wild fish are said to be bad for the environment, but farmed fish don't sound very spectacular in his encounter. I just wish he'd had some solutions other than not eating animals at all.

CodCod by Mark Kurlansky

Rating: 4/5 stars
Guilt: Well, you'll feel bad any time you eat fish, because they are practically endangered species!

I think it is interesting to note that Pollan followed The Omnivore's Dilemma with In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, a book that looks interesting but I haven't had time to read yet. I think he was potentially wanting to steer away from the guilt-food read too. Anything else I should be reading to balance it all out?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Why I Love Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

I'm having a little blog identity crisis. So many people review each book they read, but I already do that over in GoodReads and don't want to repeat myself. Besides that, I like to write little blurby reviews, and blogs seem to demand a lot more of me. (If you read this, I'd like to know if you think posting individual book reviews both places is redundant).

On to the subject at hand - post-apocalyptic fiction. I am actually a pretty upbeat, optimistic person, but one of my favorite sub-genres of literature is full of death and destruction, bloating bodies and decay, war and sickness, and so on. But hold on - I specify post-apocalyptic because to me that refers to stories told about the "after." I love all the ideas that authors have come up with as to how society would be recreated once it is destroyed. It can be an interesting commentary on what really matters, what could arguably need to be disposed of anyway, and the danger of returning ourselves right back to where we were before. I know the line is slim sometimes between post-apocalyptic and dystopian literature, but then again, not really. Most post-apocalyptic fiction revolves around a specific event - it can be nuclear, it can be medical, it can be political, but definitely something that happened that can be pinpointed and marked with a before and after.

I wouldn't say I've read everything in this genre, but practically. I most recently finished The Stand by Stephen King. It often tops post-apocalyptic lists, but I was avoiding it because of a previous bad reading experience with him (Insomnia not being the best place to start). I finally buckled down and read it in a few days when I was home sick with a cold. Of course, since the virus in The Stand that kills almost everyone in the world manifests just like a cold, you could argue that this may not have been the best reading material. And I've had dreams inspired by the book every night since I started reading it. To me, that just speaks to how good it is. The characters are interesting, his descriptive power is obvious (to a fault, as I can still pretty much smell rotting bodies in my head, ugh), and the twist of the battle of good and evil makes for a slightly supernatural bent. I'm happy to take back what I said about King before, and say that this belongs on the list of the best of post-apocalyptic writing. I read the revised and expanded edition, but honestly it could have been even longer. I wanted to know more about what happened after the end.

So if The Stand is on my list, what else would be? I definitely have opinions on this.

First, a collection of short stories called The Wastelands, compiled and edited by John Joseph Adams. I was actually pointed toward this when I was the (lucky) librarian for a course called Apocalypse and Unrest in Contemporary Media, and it fueled the fire. Not only are the stories fantastic and varied, there is a great list in the back of post-apocalyptic novels that I added to my reading list. The stories that have stuck with me even two years later are Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels by George R. R. Martin and When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth by Cory Doctorow. Not to mention the ending of Bread and Bombs by M. Rickert.

Short stories are a great way to explore an idea, but they lack the world development that I enjoy so much in the longer form of a novel. My favorites include Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, which has a fascinating story of a woman who ends up leading a new religion in the aftermath. It is followed by the sequel of Parable of the Talents. The reason these so captured me was the re-creation of society. I would love to re-read these sometime soon.

My other favorites have to be the MaddAddam trilogy by Margaret Atwood, even though the third book isn't out yet. Oryx and Crake entertwines with The Year of the Flood and portray a post genetic engineering, post environmental destruction, post sweeping plague nation. It isn't quite to the rebuilding stage, as the wacky cult of God's Gardener's predates the "flood" and tries to survive past it, but you definitely get a sense that the time might be past for humanity, even though some still survive. I love Atwood's humor, her criticism of society, and her unethical characters. It somehow translates to a believability that doesn't come across many other places.

I'm sure some people reading this are shocked I don't include some other titles on my list. I've read Alas, Babylon but you could argue that it is more of a pre-apocalypse book, they just know it is coming. Earth Abides didn't capture me as much as some of the others, but I like how it portrays the earth-as-champion, over the destructive temporary humanity. I read the first of the S. M. Stirling series, Dies the Fire, but it came across to me as the fantasy of every D&D player, to prove that there was always a reason to study medieval weaponry... I found it tiring. I wouldn't even include The Road on my list, just because I thought the sparseness left too much to be desired. I know most would disagree with me on that one.

There are still some left I haven't read and have been saving for a rainy day - A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I've heard has some humor in it, and the graphic novel series Y: The Last Man.