Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"The Story of Sushi" - Trevor Corson

The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice

Tell you what: I don’t know when I’ll be eating sushi again. No, I didn’t learn anything disgusting about it while reading Trevor Corson’s “The Story of Sushi” – except maybe the correct way to prepare an octopus, which seemed unnecessarily cruel. It’s more like I learned everything I wanted to know about sushi (and then some) and now feel no need for it. This book must be what they call “definitive” because I certainly have trouble imagining why I would read about sushi ever again. In a roundabout way, this is actually a compliment.

“The Story of Sushi” not only delves extensively on the historical birth and evolution of what we came to know as sushi, it also follows a sushi chef class in a Californian school/sushi bar. Additionally, it also tells the tale of how this Japanese dish conquered America and the rest of the Western World.

In the last five years sushi bars have made the step from ubiquitous to ridiculous – there is nary a place where sushi is unavailable and mind you I’m not in New York or anything and I’m in walking distance of at least four sushi restaurants. It is so readily available it is almost impossible to believe that not that many years ago it was kind of weird to eat raw fish.

By focusing on a young girl attending the sushi academy, Corson, cleverly chooses a character most of us can empathize with: someone with no ties to Asian culture, someone who didn't grow up in this tradition (or in any cooking tradition, for that matter), she could be any one of us, someone who likes sushi because it tastes fresh and clean yet feels exotic, but has no idea of the difficult preparation process of those cute nigiri or rolls. Alongside Kate we witness how frustrating it is to master so many techniques and information in so little time (traditional sushi apprenticeship went on for years, before students could do more than prepare the rice).

Because Corson is interested in marine biology, there is also a lot of information on the different fish that were traditionally used in sushi and how their popularity has changed over time. It will probably not be surprising to find out that fish (such as salmon) and rolls favored in America are not that popular in Japan.

More surprising to the reader will be the fact that sushi bar culture in Japan, has always been, and to some degree still is, a guy thing. Single women were not welcomed in these establishments and female sushi chefs unheard of. Men come in, sit at the bar, drink sake and eat some nigiri. How ironic is it that sushi bars are now one of the preferred spots for city girls to grab a bite?

If there is something about sushi that has your curiosity piqued then the answer will be here. Corson even provides the reader with a sushi etiquette-guide-to-not-looking-like-a-total-redneck-at-the-sushi-bar (my words, not the author’s). While it is very interesting I think sushi bars will definitely be different in America and Europe than what they are in Japan (for one, women are welcome) and that their continuing popularity will definitely be tied with how comfortable people feel there. While Japan is a nation where ritual plays an important part even in seemingly innocuous tasks, westerners privilege feeling at ease even while striving to be original.

It will be interesting to see what happens to sushi in the next twenty, thirty years. Already, most sushi chefs aren’t Japanese, and most restaurant owners know little about its history except that sushi is it, right now. Will it go the way of Chinese food or follow some original path (maybe everyone will start doing rolls at home)? In either case “The Story of Sushi” is the definitive book on this not-so-exotic-anymore treat for the foreseeable future.

"The Fortune Cookie Chronicles" - Jennifer 8. Lee

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food

For non-American readers the revelations in “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” will probably come as less of a shock, since, for most Europeans (the uber-sophisticaded world travellers excluded) the first image of Chinese food (and more recently sushi) probably came from watching a random American TV show or movie.

As I followed Jennifer 8. Lee’s delicious chronicles I wasn’t particularly astounded to find out that, in China, fortune cookies (which by the way, are very uncommon in Europe) are not known, and that the most popular Chinese food dishes in America, such as General Tso’s Chicken, Beef and Broccoli and Chow Mein, were creations of Chinese chefs specifically engineered to suit the American palate, favorite ingredients and presentation.

I was surprised however, to find out that fried ice-cream – one of the most popular Chinese desserts in Portugal – was only found by the author in Italy. In fact, as Lee explains, traditional Chinese gastronomy is not known for its sweets. But the Chinese, brilliant at meeting the culinary expectations of different cultures, must have soon found out that, especially in southern Europe, dessert is almost mandatory!

Growing up, I always heard that food in China had almost no similarities with what I ate in Chinese restaurants (something I only started doing quite late, since my family wasn’t big on restaurants or ethnic food – unless you count my mom’s homemade lasagna or pizza), but it’s still fascinating to follow Lee’s explorations in search of the roots of the “Chinese” in Chinese-American food.

But “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” also offers interesting sociological stories courtesy of Chinese food, such as the age-old relationship between American Jews and Chinese restaurants, the emergence of the first home-delivery systems, and the sad plight of contemporary Chinese immigrants. Impossible not be shocked at the amount most Chinese pay (upwards 50.000 thousand dollars) in order to endure months, sometimes years, of grueling travel so they can be afforded the privilege of ringing our western doorbells and hand us our sweet-and-sour pork.

So, where did the fortune cookie originate? Well, you can find out that fun fact by popping over to Wikipedia right now. But Lee’s book gives the reader a lot more to ponder: even in small western capitals such as Lisbon, eating the ethnic food du jour (nowadays, mostly sushi, to the point that Chinese restaurants seem to have disappeared or recast as nippon counterparts) is the mark of a certain urbanite hipsterism - it signals sophistication and a sense of adventure. Like our cheap t-shirts, however, there is always a hidden cost, and finally what we end up eating is not as original as we might like to think – “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” will provide any reader with food for thought.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"Leviathan or, The Whale" - Philip Hoare

“Leviathan” is a whale of a book. Ah. Obvious I know, but it is four hundred something pages long. Impossible not to think Philip Hoare was going for some sort of “whose is longest” contest with the mythical whale book “Moby-Dick”. Unfortunately, length does not equal reading pleasure and Leviathan proved to be a somewhat frustrating experience.

Whales might be the closest thing to aliens living right here on Earth. Their sheer size makes them incomprehensible. Their longevity doesn’t much help either. Their mysterious communications skills hint at a complex mind, wholly foreign to our terrestrial understanding. Not only do they move through a fantastic realm of deep waters but they also cover amazing distances, yet they surface, to breathe through lungs and share our mammalian heritage.

“Leviathan” started on a promising note of personal narrative. However it soon lost me in subsequent chapters. Halfway through I was close to giving up on the book, but decided to read the last two chapters where the author goes to the Portuguese islands of the Azores to track its whaling history and provide closure to his fear of deep waters by swimming with whales. I was hooked again. This is what it’s about. This was what the book should have been about all along: the fear and fascination these giants elicit.

I went back and found the second half of the book much more pleasant, now focused in British whaling history, Antarctic exploration, the shift from the economical to the scientific exploration of whales, the first efforts to protect them and the politic and economic factors that combined to hinder it.

So, what was it about the first half of the book that made me dislike it? In two words: Herman Melville. It felt like Hoare was paralysed by the spectrum of “Moby-Dick” and its author, constantly compelled to refer back to it and dwelling altogether too much in Melville’s biography. As the author himself explains, “Moby Dick” might be about a whale but it’s about a lot of other things – chiefly about writing a great masterpiece capable of paying homage to the pessimistic worldview of Nathaniel Hawthorne with whom Melville became supremely infatuated.

Plainly put, to start a contemporary book on whales taking Melville as a guide felt unoriginal. The chapters where the author tours ancient whaling ports of New England felt dead on the water, and taking into mind that later in the book Hoare goes back to the history of whaling at a much earlier date (in Europe) it felt like the chronology was wrong. Why start in the middle?

The other problem I had with “Leviathan” is that there is too much of it. Look, you know that scene in “Wonderboys” where the Katie Holmes’s character has just read Professor Tripp’s mammoth of a book and says “I could be wrong, but it sort of reads in places like you didn't make any choices. At all.” Not that I’m saying Philip Hoare wrote this “under the influence” but I could hear the book crying for an iron-fisted editor. There are so many little pieces of information and little conducting line to guide the reader along – it’s more like fighting against drowning at times. For instance, Percy Stammwitz, a character deserving of his own biography, appears in chapter III, as the author makes an historical detour of a few pages through the building of the huge whale model in London’s Natural History Museum. How I’m I supposed to remember him two hundred pages and some hundreds of different historical episodes, characters and facts later, as the author picks up his story again, now to follow his travels as he collected specimens worldwide for the museum?

There is an large interlude about Henry David Thoreau, in which his interest in whales is chronicled, the point of which is a connection between the beach he once walked and whale fossils discovered in the same place, seemingly an introduction to the palaeontology of whales, but actually not, because the author only spends a few paragraphs on the subject before going on to the next thing: myths of sea serpents. Do you get the picture? Ok, if you look hard enough there are references to whales everywhere (but you don’t need to cram every single one in the book, dude). We get it; but to say “Walden” is “a corollary to Moby-Dick” stinks of trying too hard to prove a point.

It almost feels as though there are several books here, all jumbled up. One about the history of commercial whaling, another about the whale as object of scientific study and later, conservation icon and a final one about the natural history of the animal, strictly speaking (which is definitely the shorter part). Now, all of these might be combined of course, but in Leviathan somehow it didn’t really come together. And to top it all, there is the personal narrative of the author, which starts the book in such an auspicious note but, somewhat like a whale, surfaces seldom and then erupts, unexpectedly into a two page detailed account of the author’s mother’s death. I felt embarrassed to, without warning, be plunged into a deeply intimate moment. I can’t imagine why Hoare felt it belonged in these pages.

To be fair, from chapter IX onwards I did feel a renewed cohesion in the book (but maybe influenced by the fact that I had read the final chapters first). In the end there was a lot of interesting bits of information but the reading of “Leviathan” was more of a trial than anything else. I wouldn’t say she blows (get it? hilarious) but either you’re completely nuts about whaling or you should probably sit this one out.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Prickly Affair: The Charm of the Hedgehog – Hugh Warwick

Why do we think of hedgehogs as “cute”? I mean, they are not soft or cuddly and they rather tend to smell (since I have never met one face to face, I have to take the author’s word for it – and I do). But somehow they just evoke the warmth and comfort of a toasty home while it’s cold outside. Maybe it’s the hibernation thing.

In my case I think I can trace it to a 1980s children’s book about a little elf girl named Victoria Plum and a hedgehog (“Victoria and the Prickly Hedgehog”), and according to author children’s books are key to the “cut-ification” of an animal that for centuries was considered little more than a pest. In fact, the one particular book the author believes changed the public image of hedgehogs in Britain (and the world) is Beatrix Potter’s 1905 “The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle”, whose title character is a hedgehog washerwoman.

“A Prickly Affair” follows Warwick’s personal history with hedgehogs which starts with an academic assignment and grows into a long term serious relationship not only with the prickly critters but also with the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.

We follow the author as he tracks hedgehogs on freezing nights, shares hedgehog lore and history and gets involved with hedgehog protection because, incredibly, there are some people who (wait for it, wait for it…) do not like hedgehogs! And those people who happen to be bird lovers (who really do tend to get a little hysterical and would probably exterminate every cat, ferret, hedgehog etc in the world if they could manage) would rather shoot (yes, shoot!) hedgies than find out if they even have anything to do with the dwindling bird populations.

I also was very curious about reading this book to find out whether the author, who loves the critters, had any as pets and what he thought about keeping them as pets. Now, I was never going to have one, because I will never feed a living thing to a living thing (and hedgies need their bugs) but I keep seeing them in pet sites and was genuinely curious. I knew the pet hedgehogs commonly kept are of the African variety but I didn’t know what that meant (they are smaller and don’t smell as much). I now believe Hugh Warwick is on a mission to keep us all from pet hedgehog ownership and his cunning plan is delineated in the chapter “A Brief Interlude at the International Hedgehog Olympic games”: by exposing the reader to excesses of devoted (to put it euphemistically) hedgie ownership, the author has pretty much insured that his readers will never keep a hedgehog as a pet (can you guess which country is the host of said games?).

This book sort of spoiled my vacation reading list because I read it first and knew I hadn’t brought along anything else I would enjoy as much, so that was a problem. But I forgive it because not only was it the highlight of my summer reading it also has the cutest little hedgehog illustrations.

Three Books on Tortoises

Timothy; or; Notes of an Abject Reptile: a novel – Verlyn Klinkenborg
Lonesome George: The Life and Times of a Conservation Icon – Henry Nichols
Timothy the Tortoise: The Remarkable Story of the Nation’s Oldest Pet

It all started with Klinkenborg’s book: I must have bought it some two years back and started reading it some five times. Each time I gave up in the very first pages. Then one day I started it and read the whole thing. Oh, it’s a difficult book all right. It doesn’t give you an inch. You have to pry it open, re-read passages constantly, use the glossary (which I only noticed was there half-way through) and even gasp! use the dictionary, only to not find what you were looking for.

But, it’s a beautiful book. Ethereal, a philosophical dissertation, a study of Man and its incomprehensible ways by an animal considered by most unthinking, slow, stupid.

Our guide is a tortoise named Timothy, an actual, historical character (his shell is kept in London’s Natural History Museum). Gilbert White, British naturalist of the XVIII Century famous for his “The Natural History of Selborne” in which he chronicles the natural cycles of his home county, adopted the Greek tortoise Timothy after his owner passed away. A man so in tune with every bird migration and sprouting bud, seems to have been less loving and observant of his unusual pet - his is the expression “abject reptile”.

Here, however, Klinkenborg decides to give voice to Timothy and allow him to write his own “Natural History of Selbourne”. More an anthropologist than a natural historian, for he is a foreigner and both weather and custom feel out of place to him. Well, actually, more of an alien creature, for he is condemned to a life a solitude without ever meeting one of his kind. Condemned also, because of his longevity, to witness death often.

For Timothy the frailty of human skin which must be clothed and then housed is a source of wonder, maybe even some scorn: we are beings naturally unfit to live in Nature and must make up for it by our wits: “No creature excels the human in matters of nidification”.

“Notes…” is a very rewarding book, but I think you have to be in the right mood to enjoy it. It is very contemplative in tone with a lot of XVIII century rural vocabulary, and I believe most readers will probably have to make an initial effort to pierce its outer carapace. However, inside lies a very wise, friendly beast whose company will almost certainly improve our condition.

“Lonesome George” is the kind of book I love. Centered in the creature that has been labeled “the rarest animal in the world” it digresses into conservation, cloning, the politics of tourism vs conservation vs local economy and of course, Darwin, for George lives in the Galápagos Islands.

He is the last known Geochelone nigra abingdoni or Pinta Island Tortoise, first discovered in 1971, and the book traces both efforts to find out for sure if George really is lonesome, (he may not be) as well as various strategies to attempt procreation (with turtles of nearby islands of similar genetic make-up) which have not yielded results until now.

How did turtles even get to the Galápagos? And why are there so many different species? Did they arrive at different times or spread later through the islands? How has human hand influenced the distribution and extermination of turtles in the islands? Can individual animals like Lonesome George really make a difference in conservation efforts by influencing public opinion? What are some near-extinct species that have come back from the brink of annihilation and what were the techniques used by scientists to accomplish this? And can havens of biodiversity like the Galápagos really find balance between being scientific stations for (mostly) foreign scientists, tourist destinations for (let’s face it) the wealthy and a place where economic survival is possible for native inhabitants?

These are some of the questions Henry Nicholls explores and really, how can you not be interested in finding out the answers?

I got “Timothy the Tortoise” because it was cheap and well, I was in a tortoise kind of place. While it doesn’t really focus solely on its protagonist, I did find the book an enjoyable read. Timothy (so named after Gilbert White’s Timothy) serves as the guide to the British aristocratic Courtenay family as the author follows the genealogical tree using Timothy’s keeper’s and recounts of important family events and memories of the tortoise.

Because it actually chronicles an epoch when British aristocracy and its way of life became redundant I found it quite interesting, though really, there isn’t much turtle lore here.

On a quirky end note, both Timothy’s were actually found out to be females…

Three Firsts in Cozy Series

Hounding the Pavement (A Dog Walker Mystery) – Judi McCoy
The Missing Ink (A Tattoo Shop Mystery) – Karen E. Olson
One Bad Apple (An Orchard Mystery) – Sheila Connolly

The cozy mystery genre is getting a little crowded. I could probably spend the next three months reading nothing but the first numbers of different series. I suppose the measure of success might be whether you go for the second in the series or not. After all, (most) cozy mysteries do not set out to shake the foundations of your world or otherwise offend you. They tread a difficult line between quirky and comforting, each with its own little recipe that might work for some and not others.

While each and every one of these was an enjoyable read, I’d still have to say I’d rather take on a different series rather than proceed to number two. Maybe I’m getting a little bit jaded but none of these came close to the “Mantra for Murder Mysteries” or even “Knitting Mysteries”.

Sheila Connolly’s book though, does have a slightly more “grown-up” tone about it. Lots of serious information about home renovation and a nice “Gilmore Girls” New England feel about it. Still, for some reason I failed to connect with the protagonist Meg Corey. Actually, I think I know why: her ex-boyfriend (who is the murder victim) is such an obvious Wall Street wannabee, such an absolute greedy, arrogant, awful person I had to have my doubts about Meg. Who would date such a creep, let alone keep seeing him for six months?!

Brett Kavanaugh is a pretty unlikely name, one I kept forgetting throughout “The Missing Ink”. Brett is a New Jersey girl who relocated to Las Vegas where tattooing is a more profitable business. Karen E. Olson gives the reader a lot of information on the art of putting needle to skin, but again I was lost as our one-of-a kind protagonist (who has some Monet on her arm, ‘cause she went to art school and is not just some tattoo bimbo) fell for a Vegas hotel manager complete with tie and British accent…oy. I kept getting the names of the missing girls confused, too which didn’t help. Overall a very enjoyable pool-side read, but again, don’t count me as a fan for the rest of the series.

Ellie Engleman’s Dog Walker Mystery was also a nice read. It gets funny at times since the author, Judi McCoy, is not afraid to get a little, shall we say, explicit, in the sex scenes which gave the book a Harlequin-esque tone at times. The psychic connection with dogs doesn’t read as ridiculous as I first thought (oh right, I forgot to say, Ellie can communicate with pooches), since the author doesn’t overuse the gimmick, but still…it’s the fact that the dogs talk back that gets a little bit strange…I mean here is a recent divorcee who talks to her itty-bitty dog and walks other people’s itty-bitty dogs (Ellie has a no big dogs policy)…plus she can walk four dogs and eat an ice-cream at the same time, and I know for a fact that is impossible to accomplish.

As for the mysteries themselves “Hounding the Pavement” had the most easy to guess solution, followed by “One Bad Apple”. As for the “The Missing Ink” the whole thing was so convoluted I can’t even remember the ending clearly, anymore. Whether that’s good or bad…

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sara Midda "In and Out of the Garden"

Gardening tips, recipes and lore, beautifully illustrated.

Barbara Bash "True Nature"

"True Nature: an illustrated journal of four seasons in solitude"

Filled with the author's thoughts and drawings taken down in different occasions while spending time alone in a secluded cabin. A gem.

Amy Stewart "The Earth Moved"

"The Earth Moved: on the remarkable achievements of earthworms"

Leave it to Amy Stewart to write a book about earthworms that is actually a page turner. Taking her cue from a famous worm-lover, Evolution dad, Darwin, Stewart explores the natural history of worms: what are they exactly, how do they work, what do they do and how they do it.

Interviews with worm scientists (oligochaetologists) involved in different projects (taxonomy, for instance, since many earthworm species are yet unnamed and undescribed; their impact on ecosystems that evolved without worms; their possible role in waste management; and their quantifiable benefits in crop yield, for instance) are interspersed with tales of the author’s worm compost bin and vegetable garden.

More and more it amazes me how our very survival in this planet is intimately tied with creatures we don’t think much about and some of us even find repulsive. While large animals, predators and herbivores alike, are the poster children of conservation movements everywhere we are more intimately connected with insects – I find that humbling and somewhat magical.

The scientists Stewart interviews have a common tale of underfunding and little interest. No-one cares that you might want to devote your life wholeheartedly to worms and that they in turn, have many secrets to unravel or that agricultural fields rich in worms are many times more productive than the ones without. Pandas they are not.

And yet, according to Amy Stewart worms are probably the perfect pet. While I’m not completely sold on that one, “The Earth Moved” did convince me they are fascinating, mysterious and if not exactly beautiful, at least kind of cute.

Holley Bishop "Robbing the Bees"

"Robbing the Bees: A biography of honey, the sweet liquid gold that seduced the world"

“Robbing the Bees” divides its pages between a modern day bee-keeping operation in Florida and a world history of bee-keeping.

In apiculturalist Smiley, Holley Bishop seems to have found the perfect guide into the world of commercial bee-keeping. A competent businessman who is also deeply entranced with his charges and finds that the best part of the job is the constant learning experience.

Accompanying the season of tupelo honey, the book is as close to a documentary as you can find on the written page. From the first tentative blossoms, the placing of the hives in the fields, until the sales calls, the reader gets a complete tour of contemporary honey gathering. There is also a quick tour of a truly gigantic honey venture where bee-keepers send excess production that gets used into cereals, candy and the like.

Along the way, Bishop presents a history of apiculture from Stone Age to our days. It was very interesting to learn that the hive, as we know it is actually a recent invention (XIX century) and that for the most, our experience of honey gathering was dangerous, even life-threatening (as it still is in some regions).

There are tales of scrumptious recipes using honey (the ancient Greeks were particular fans), honey used as currency in various civilizations, a chapter on that mind blogging substance that is wax and the many uses it was put to. My favorite was probably the chapter on the medicinal (and cosmetic) uses of honey.

And yet, great as this book was, it seems to have let me far from satisfied as far as honeybees go. This is not in the least “Robbing the Bees” fault – but the more I read about these mysterious insects, the more my curiosity stirs. Bishop’s book left me hungry for more, which is a recommendation by any account.

Stephen Budiansky "The Nature of Horses"

"The Nature of Horses: their evolution, intelligence & behaviour"

Just like his books on cats and dogs, Budiansky’s “The Nature of Horses” follows the same path: it explores their evolution, intelligence and behaviour (hey, just like it says in the sub-title!).

As with his previous books I was more interested in the natural history and the history of domestication, and somewhat bored by the chapters on intelligence testing. The physiology part didn’t much stir me either. Now, the thing is, I don’t know how much of it is related to my personal history with horses which is exactly…non-existent.

I think I’ve ridden a horse the grand total of…once. It seemed incredibly tall (and I’m not crazy about heights) and impossible to control.

But like everyone else I was not immune to the cultural image of the horse, having grown up reading a lot of cowboy themed comics and watching them portrayed in television and film as ultimate symbols of freedom, beauty and grace.

I have toyed with the idea of horse-riding lessons a couple of times and at the same time it always seemed like such an exploitative past-time (and watching a bunch of kids taking classes didn’t much help either – poor ponies). The bit, in particular, has always seemed like an incredibly cruel gadget.

In this sense, Budiansky didn’t exactly put my fears at ease. The “domestication” of horses was brutal business and most ancient riding gear worked by enforcing physical pain. Not for nothing each horse, even today, must be “broken” before it can be ridden. Horses are not born with a wish to carry us on their backs, but they are born social animals that respond to hierarchy and are good at learning. Of these natural inclinations, humans have been able to extract great advantages.

Another thing I’ve always disliked about equestrianism is that it is the domain of the wealthy. Of course it is, Budiansky explains, and has always been. Horses have, from the first connections with man, been tied both with war and wealth – symbols of power, dominance and status, a connection deepened with the establishment of the first equestrian games.

It all made me feel somewhat sorry for horses, forced to go to war for millennia, then to carry unbearable loads and finally unbearable brats. And made to play polo and race…uhg it’s too sad. I hereby foreswear horse riding forever.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum "A World Without Bees"

Just what is up with the vanishing honeybees?

The mysterious ailment with the X-files worthy name of “Colony Collapse Disorder” has scientists stumped since the spring of 2007 when American bee-keepers opened their hives to find a whole lot of nothing. Pretty soon European bees were disappearing too.

“A World Without Bees” is a fascinating, if unsettling book, which for some reason, I really didn’t get into when I first got it, a couple of years back.

I opened it again recently and became enthralled – sometimes you have to pick up a book at the right moment, I guess.

Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum have put together a very readable, detailed and interesting overview of CCD, that is also an exposé of modern agricultural practices and our very civilization’s dependence on bees.

Think I’m exaggerating? Well, consider that bees are responsible for pollinating something like 70% of crops: everything from most fruits and vegetables to cotton, needed for clothing manufacture, and coffee, not to mention most crops used as animal feed. No more bees = no more steak, milk, etc. Scary, hum?

In “A World Without Bees” several usual suspects are carefully looked over: monoculture techniques of growing crops, the massive transport of beehives to sites, viruses old and new, pesticides, climate change.

Even if scientists have yet to understand the mechanisms at work in the mysterious disappearance of honeybees one thing is made clear by the surprising picture painted by Benjamin and McCallum: agriculture these days is sounding more and more like a soil form of fois-gras production. We can’t expect to keep up it up without something going very wrong. For all intents and purposes it seems it already has.

A great book.

Jeffrey Masson "The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats"

Another recommendation from DogEar Diary", I enjoyed reading about Masson’s adventures with his five cats.

Trained in psychiatry and a militant vegan Jeffrey Masson always has his own way of telling animal tales. While “The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats” may not shed much light on the behavior of cats, except to reinforce, once again, how deeply alien they are to us humans and simultaneously how fascinating, it is a wonderful read for the scenery alone.

Living on a beach house in New Zealand, surrounded by rain forest with five cats (kittens, really) allowed to fully express their natures, come and go, seek human company when they wish, cavort on the beach…it’s a wonderful holiday book even if it does get one slightly jealous…

Konrad Lorenz once wrote that it’s a magical thing having a cat that you take walks with (more pointedly that allows you to join his walks). For most of us it might be as close to having a connection with a wild animal as it gets…

However, as in “Dogs Never Lie About Love” there was one thing that nagged at me: in the beginning of both books the author seems to “collect” animals from shelter and breeders with the clearly stated purpose of “studying” them. Then in this book we find out that the dogs and cats of “Dogs…” were all given up. While none were abandoned I have to admit I have a problem with this. The author says it was because he and his wife had to move a lot during a couple of years, but it just seems like carelessness from someone who makes a career out of being an animal rights spokesperson…doesn’t it?

Stephen Budiansky "The Truth About Dogs"

I didn’t enjoy Stephen Budiansky’s book on dogs as much as I did his cat one. Maybe, as Laura Miller refers in a scathing dog and cat book review, “while most human-dog bonds are fairly similar, there seems to be so much variety in cat owners' relationships to their pets -- every cat is a custom job”. But dog books somehow can never avoid the subject of “leadership” which is a concept that in animal relations, as in life, never fails to annoy me.

This is undoubtedly why my dogs are such brats (and why I was the worst substitute teacher in the world). I can’t tell people what to do, much less 10 year olds or dogs. I don’t get why they don’t do their own thing without constantly causing mayhem.

Anyway, back to “The Truth About Dogs”. The beginning was hilarious and highly promising. Like me, Budiansky has some qualms with the prevailing western cultural image of dogs: “unconditional love”? “best friend”?

“Dogs take from the rich, they take from the poor, and they keep it all. They lie on top of the air-conditioning vent in the summer, they curl up in front of the fireplace in winter, they commit outrages upon our property too varied and unspeakable to name. They decide when we may go to bed at night and when we must rise in the morning, where we may go on vacation and for how long, whom we may invite over to dinner, and how we should decorate our living rooms. They steal the very bread from our plates.”

So true.

Even though one passage is titled “Dogs aren’t wolves”, Budiansky actually spends most of the book using wolf behavior as a way to make sense of dog behavior. Most dog books, since Konrad Lorenz do this, so it didn’t feel very surprising. As in his cat book my favorite parts dealt with history (although there is little cultural history here; on that subject, the fascinating “Lost History of the Canine Race” is unsurpassable) and my least favorite with intelligent testing.

I did learn something, however: wimps make awful dog owners. If you are not willing to assert dominance (and occasionally, physical dominance) over your dog, she will probably develop all sorts of undesirable behaviors not to mention outright aggression.

So here I was, thinking what a coincidence it is that I always end up with super independent, stubborn dogs when all along, I’m the problem in the relationship (I also fall in another dangerous category according to Budiansky: owners who desperately want their dogs to love them)…

It might sound as if I’m being ironic, but it was actually pretty insightful, not to mention the first time I read about it in such unapologetic terms (and to give credit where it is due, my husband had already alluded to my general disinclination to discipline as a problem).

All around, a good dog book for those who haven’t read too many already. I’m reading his book on horses now (both of these a kind heads-up from Jeane at “DogEar Diary” so stay tuned…

Friday, July 02, 2010

Diana Killian - "Mantra for Murder Mysteries" Series, vols I, II & III

Corpse Pose
Dial Om for Murder
Murder on the Eightfold Path

I enjoy dipping into the “cozy” genre every once in a while. Sure, you have to be in the right mood, but I’ve enjoyed Maggie Sefton’s “Knitting Mysteries” and some of Joanne Fluke’s “Hannah Swensen Mysteries” as well as a few others.

However, Dianna Killian’s series “Mantra for Murder” is just on a whole different level. Intelligent, very well written, with a rhythm that carries you along effortlessly and a strong, visual feel to it – I could easily see it turned into a tv series or film – it is a delight to read.

What frustrates me with “cozies” sometimes is that these women (the heroines are mostly female, just like the intended audience) seem to live in a bubble. There never seem to be any “big issues” addressed (discounting the rising body counts, of course) and they don’t seem to watch tv shows, read books or magazines or read any blogs for that matter! It’s like they live outside of time, if that makes sense, in a sort of post-Millenium St Mary Mead. Also, there is usually precious little humour.

What I loved in this series were the cultural references, popular and otherwise and the fact that the author isn’t afraid to approach issues such as veganism right in the middle of narrative. And the humor…ah! Very dark, and very funny.

The theme is, obviously, yoga, as our protagonist, A. J. Alexander receives a very large inheritance from her aunt Diantha, owner of a successful yoga studio in a small New Jersey town, which includes the school itself. A. J.’s former life included being a fast-paced marketing consultant in the big city as well as a marriage that failed when her husband Andy, came out of the closet.

As heroines go I found A. J. incredibly likeable – I think throughout these three books she only annoyed me once or twice, which is great. However, credit is due to author Diana Killian for creating, to my knowledge, the only “cozy” mother-daughter duo. Elysia, former screen sex-kitten and star of “Avengers” style series “221B Baker Street” provides much of the comic relief and is an absolutely priceless character – she is the one who generally convinces A. J. to partake in a spot of sleuthing. I do hope she continues to be a staple in the series.

What about the love interest, you ask? Gotta have that love interest. And it’s mostly law enforcement or construction as these thing go. Here we have ruggedly handsome Detective Jake Oberlin: he wears snug jeans and listens to The Boss (I imagined him sort of like Saving Grace’s Butch Ada), takes himself a little too seriously and…well, the poor guy is probably the Achilles heel of this roster of characters. It almost made me hope ex-husband Andy would move to Stillbrook (and he does, temporarily, in vol. II - yay!). I do wish "cozy" love interests could be more original…like an oddball inventor or a kindergarten teacher… strong silent types are so…not funny. Oh well.

The mysteries themselves I found quite satisfying: the solution was neither obvious nor mind-boggling difficult. And anyway, as the Bard says “It’s as much about the journey as the destination”.

The “cozy” market is so huge right now that I can’t be certain this is the best series out there – but, so far, it is certainly the best I’ve come across.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Stephen Budiansky "The Character of Cats"

I started this book not expecting to learn anything new. After all, as far as the natural history of cats is concerned I’ve read my fair share: “The Tribe of Tiger” by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, “The Cat Who Came in From the Cold” by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson as well as various other non-fictions, memoirs etc. But I couldn’t very well resist the cover or the fact that it was cheap, even if I wasn’t expecting anything earth shattering.

However, Stephen Budiansky’s take on cats proved above and beyond anything I have previously read on felines: it provided a lot of new information as well as putting to rest some often repeated cultural myths about cats. I’d have to say this is the ultimate cat book.

For instance, Budiansky puts aside any notion of looking at cats as little “big cats” which is often the way they are portrayed: “The big cats branched off from the evolutionary line that led to the domestic cat some 9 million years ago; by way of comparison, that was several million years before the chimpanzee and human lineages diverged.” For instance some big cats, such as lions, are social animals while the ancestors of our domestic cats are solitary animals, to name just important difference.

As far as domestication, the author also provides some fascinating insights. Can we even call the cat domesticated? An “exploited captive” is the expression Budiansky considers more correct to describe them (as well as camels, asian elephants and a few other species). Domestication, he argues, is a process that may well have been initiated by the animals themselves, sensing some clear benefits in associating with humans, rather than the planned, organized endeavor we often imagine; the cat however, might fit this latter idealization:

“In a very nice paradox, it is those species such as the cat, which have changed the least, that are actually most likely to have been deliberately captured and bred by man from the start.”
Certainly the cat’s physiology seems immune to the kind of noticeable changes that separate most domestic animals from their wild counterparts."

As far as cultural history goes Budiansky does a great job of reminding the reader that our relationships with animals are complex things: he deftly deconstructs Ancient Egypt as the supreme cat heaven, as well as the Middle Ages as the ultimate cat hell.

There are chapters on cat colonization based on color (a subject Sue Hubbell refers in her “Shrinking the Cat”, as well as some extensive information on cat body language and intelligence. This section was a bit uncomfortable as it relates a load of tests performed in laboratories (no discernible cruelty, mind you, but you get to wonder how do they measure electric stimuli on the brain and that sort of thing). Bottom line is: cats are intelligent, but mostly in ways that our singularly human view of the world is not well equipped to identify.

The author then tackles behavior issues that are probably closer to home for most cat owners such as spraying and aggression.

I particular liked the last section on indoor vs outdoor cats: once again I felt Budiansky provided a novel point of view:

“And even if outdoor cats do not cause extinctions or other irreversible impacts on biodiversity, they certainly cause much pain and suffering to the billions of individual animals they kill. That fact alone poses something of an ethical challenge to the humane justification for maintaining and feeding large colonies of feral cats.”

Now, I know of a few people who would probably be angry at this statement (and for the record I contribute to organizations with Trap-Neuter-Release programs), but I don’t think it can be denied that it is certainly a valid point…And there is this nugget to chew on:

“Yet ultimately, the goals of both the keep-all-cats-indoors zealots and the feed-and-protect-feral-cats zealots are probably unattainable. Many feral cats probably elude trapping, and indeed the net effect of trap-alter-release programs in the long run may be simply to create a powerful selective force in favor of an even wilier and nastier population of feral cats, since those are the ones who will be left to reproduce.”


Now excuse me while I go shop for his books on dogs and horses.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Hannah Holmes "Suburban Safari"

“A fungus scholar once told me that rain causes fungus spore-pouches to burst and release kazillions of spores into the air, and that the smell of baby fungi is mistaken for the smell of clean air.”

This was my favorite fact of Hannah Holmes “Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn” although it is filled with interesting stuff. How interesting is a suburban backyard? Well, not only is it chock-full of living stuff if anyone would care to notice, it also provides a series of initial points of reflection on the environment, which Holmes, a science writer and journalist, eagerly gets a hold of.

There are crows who enthusiastically line up for snacks, a cheeky chipmunk, mice, insects, squirrels and a woodchuck, which is a pretty cute animal. They all take advantage of what trees and shrubs there are around, and it turns out that, as along as you don’t drown it in pesticides, all these critters will not hate you for keeping a lawn.

In fact, that lawns are not necessarily evil, might be the most chocking revelation of “Suburban Safari”. Apparently, they are not nearly as damaging to soil health as agriculture…who would know?

However, I have to come clean. I detest lawns. Knowing that they that don’t have to be sterile, artificial, green moonscapes and that with a few adjustments they can actually provide a healthy ecosystem doesn’t change the fact they are boring, water-guzzling useless things.

However, even hard-core environmentalists Holmes comes across, have one. Why? The kids love to play ball. See? It’s useless, barely alive carpet for sports that might be natural in its motherland of Great-Britain, but can only be mimicked in most parts of the world through sheer, white-knuckle determination. And a lot of pesticides.

One of my favorite David Quammen essays is “Rethinking the Lawn: Turf Warfare in the American Suburbs” where the author decides to axe the lawn and stick to native species. But, sticking to native species, as Holmes finds out, is getting increasingly difficult in the New World. Colonization has an environmental counterpart which, although slower, is nonetheless ruthless. Bees, earthworms, birds, not to mention thousands of plants were all imported to the new colonies and it turns out they have been making a killing. English sparrows and starlings occupy the niche of native birds, as do European honeybees, and many other species. Keeping a garden planted solely with native plants and trees requires something of a guerilla mentality, as the author finds out.

There is a lot of information, most of it very interesting (although frankly, I could have done without the chapter that reconstructs the author’s geographical area through geological epochs), and a lot of pertinent, “guest stars”, mostly investigative scientists that kindly come by the author’s yard to elucidate us all on soil, insect and bird and mammal population.

My favorite bits were, as usual, the ones were she is on her on enjoying the company of cheeky, the chipmunk, luring the crows with food scraps or investigating spider webs and mouse footprints. I was only sorry that this book is about such a different area. I would love to read something like this about the plants and animals of Portuguese backyards.

Robert Rodi "Dogged Pursuit"

One of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Robert Rodi’s “Dogged Pursuit: My Year of Competing Dusty, the World’s Least Likely Agility Dog” is a must for any dog lover, or anyone looking for a hilarious read.

It gives a fascinating insider’s view of the sport of canine agility, but the real gem is Rodi’s self-deprecating, urbanite tone. Somewhere between feeling a little superior and more sophisticated than the average dog-handler and suffering from a social inadequacy that leaves him both craving his peers friendship while being generally incapable of blending in with the guys, Rodi is the perfect guide for the close-knit, somewhat intense world of competitive agility.

“Dogged Pursuit” is also about taking a great big bite of humble pie. You see, the author had already been around the agility block with a Shetland Sheepdog who took little training to fly through the hoops (and other obstacles). But Dusty, a Sheltie rescue, comes with a lot of baggage and a host of anxieties – turning him into a champion, it turns out, is not the breezy walk Rodi was anticipating. There is a lot frustration, a lot of doubt (does Dusty even enjoy agility? – segway into a touching consultation with an animal psychic), which leads the author into discovering the joys of competition that extend beyond taking a ribbon home.

A lot of great characters, a touching story of bonding with a difficult pet, a rhythm that makes for compelling reading and some seriously laugh-out-loud episodes. I can’t imagine anyone not getting a kick out of this book.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Rebecca M. Hale "How To Wash a Cat"

Fortunately “How to Wash a Cat” is not that complicated. However, this first title in a new “antique-store” themed series of so-called “cozy” mysteries relies on a bit of time-travelling.

Turns out that other than the Golden Gate Bridge and trolleys, San Francisco shares something else with Lisbon: earth has surely and steadily conquered the waters. So a part of the contemporary city used to be under water in gold-rush time San Fran.

The unnamed protagonist is a bespectacled accountant (and proud owner of two cats, who, by the description and cover illustration must be two beautiful, long-haired Turkish Vans) who finds herself the surprised heir of an antique shop and building (“Why do so many cozy mysteries start with a dead uncle or aunt?” – my sister’s clever reply: “You need the inheritance to kick start things. And the career change.” – seems cozy mysteries are as much wish fulfill, statement to modern day girls as Harlequin novels were to a different generation).

There are, of course, some doubts as to whether uncle Oscar met his untimely death by accident. Actually, there seems to be some question if he is truly dead. Also, he has left some cryptic clues behind, which lead the niece across some strange discoveries.

There are tunnels and old maps, which left me a bit lost. There were also some historical figures which I kept mixing up. But on the whole I liked it. Now, I wasn’t crazy about it: there was definitely some character development needed and there seemed to be a lot of ideas that were never fleshed out, as well as rhythm issues, but I think I’ll reserve harsher judgment until the end of volume two. Besides, it’s only the beginning of mystery book season (summer, baby) and I’m feeling benign.

And, as far as the ultra-stifling world of cozy mysteries is concerned, with series popping up every which way starring anything from dog psychics to home renovators, getting the reader interested in number two in the series is a pretty big deal.

Nina Malkin "An Unlikely Cat Lady"

As Megan McMorris noted on the introduction to “Cat Women”, girls tend to be apologetic about cat ownership these days. Decades of “cat lady” syndrome has given kitties a bad name, and if you happen to have more than two, well…be afraid, be very afraid…

But just as knitting is now cool (it is, right?) so can cats make a fearless comeback. If they become the symbol of independent ladies everywhere instead of the icon of sad spinsterhood, it will probably have something to do with books such as an “Unlikely Cat Lady”. Malkin, drops contemporary cultural references like she just doesn’t care, is way funny, a hard-core urbanite and she watches out for hardcore cats: feral cats.

Already the proud owner of two indoor, spoiled kitties, Malkin started noticing the strays around her neighbourhood. From noticing to caring, to doing something about it, it wasn’t but a few small steps. Next thing you know, TNR (trap, neuter, release) became a mantra to this Brooklyn native after a litter of stray kittens entered her backyard and her heart.

Caring for ferals is, of course, heartbreaking stuff. Cats suck at being grateful - and they are not smart about safety either. They vanish, get sick, get themselves into dangerous places, obviously not doubting for a single moment that you will risk life and limbs to save them (did I mention all the money you spend neutering the ingrates?). “An Unlikely Cat Lady” chronicles a year of joy and sadness, and also of the author’s discovery of a growing community devoted to the care of feral cats. It’s exactly the sort of book I read compulsively and enjoy immensely.

Stanley Coren theorized in his “Why We Love The Dogs We Do” that cat people (meaning people that prefer cats and would not live with a dog even if they could) have a very different psychological makeup compared to dog people (which to him are people living with dogs, preferring dogs, but who wouldn’t mind a cat if they could). I’ve always been a little skeptic about that, but I have to say I’m more ambiguous about cats than any other animal. I still haven’t quite figured out whether I like them. As pets I mean.

I feel sad for cats that live decades cooped up in apartments. But I hate that cats, even well fed, kill birds if they get a chance.

Ferals are a loaded issue as far as animal rights go. Some people would have them all euthanized. Even if fed and neutered they might still cause an impact in wild-life. Worse, most well-meaning old ladies tend to feed them (or pigeons) and not think much about any future issues.

But cats, I think, have stumbled into the most perfect evolutionary gimmick: kittens. Oh, I love puppies…and bunnies and birds, and hamsters, and chinchillas…but there is nothing in this world as adorable as a kitten. I know it. You know it. Cats know it. Their future is secure.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Sue Hubbell "A Country Year" & Olivia Gentile "Life-List"

“A Country Year” is a small book, but I took my time reading it. It’s a memoir, but also something of a manifesto, about being a woman, going back to the land, paying attention to things most of us deem too small to pay attention to.

Like bees. In her place in the Ozarks Hubbell carved a meager wage out of honeybees – fascinating and sensitive creatures that they are, they sure make a human sweat in order to harvest their honey. Luckily, it’s not a 9 to 5 job. It leaves whole months open to contemplation and meditation: listening to classical music on public radio, reading poetry, taking your time to really observe a small bug or bird.

Through Hubbell’s eyes insects become truly fascinating – and it certainly helps that she comes from a family of entomologists who can answer most of her interrogations. She makes bugs and their habits seem so exotic yet eerily intelligent, that the chapters on her dogs and cat almost make them sound a little dull (ah! Who could have thought it!), compared with the minutely orchestrated hierarchy of honeybee society, or the fascinating abilities of moths.

“A Country Year” is not (only) about insects, of course. At its core, it’s about building a new life and a whole new set of abilities at a time in life when people (and most certainly women) are supposed to be settled down. It’s about being open and sensitive enough to pay attention to the rhythms that surround you: in the Ozarks not only nature, but also people have their own special rhythm. Hubbell respects it, allowing a conversation to run its slow course, or a request to be, eventually, answered.

It struck me as one of those coincidences that the book I read next was “Life-List” by Olivia Gentile. Chronicling the escalating obsession of bird-watcher Phoebe Snetsinger with sighting 8.000 of the world’s recognized bird species; it is somewhat of an almost diametrical opposite of Hubbell’s meditative, soothing book.

Yet there are parallels (the most curious of which, the fact that Snetsinger also owned, for a time, a farm in the Ozarks, of which she quickly grew bored): “Life-List” is also about a middle-aged woman carving a new life for herself, even though the path Phoebe Snetsinger followed could not have been more different.

Diagnosed with cancer in her late forties and given one year to live, Snetsinger decided to live that year to the fullest, engaging in the activity which gave her most pleasure – international bird-watching. When at the end of that year she wasn’t dead (and would soon be in remission) bird-watching travels seem to have taken the form of a talisman, or an antidote, in her mind: it was as if she believed that, while she was on the road adding species to her list, death couldn’t touch her. And for many years, facts seemed to bear her out. Fallen by the wayside were relationships with some of her four children and especially with her estranged husband.

“Life-List” is the sort of biography that begs an opinion: was Snetsinger a selfish woman, obsessed with counting birds to the point shutting her children out? Or was she a woman who, deprived of the intellectual career her mind craved and instead home-bound with four children for most of her adult life, took her death sentence and built a stimulating and exciting life out of it?

An obsessive she certainly was, and probably the worst companion in the world for Hubbell’s down-home country ramblings, which is where I feel drawn to wander myself – however, who could deny that the years following Snetsinger’s cancer diagnose were her happiest? If it’s about building a life, hammer in hand, smashing through other’s preconceived notions of what is “proper” and “normal”, both women deserve recognition.

As far as books go “A Country Year” will certainly be re-read again, while “Life-List” left me with many doubts about the true nature of its subject.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

"The Lizard King" Bryan Christy

“The Lizard King” is just one of those books. It’s such a thrill to read, such a joy-ride but, at the same time, so hard to describe, it leaves you gushing like a barely coherent idiot. I actually said to my husband “you have to read this”. I do that maybe twice a year. Almost always it’s a fiction or crime book.

Well, “difficult to describe” is not exactly the truth, the subtitle, after all, pretty much says it all: “The True Crimes and Passions of the World’s Greatest Reptile Smugglers”. What it doesn’t say is how apt Bryan Christy is as a writer, somehow straddling the news reporting and true-crime genres in order to provide something that has the excitement of under-cover journalism, provides the thrill of a mystery novel and elicits the compulsive reading of the best fiction.

Some years ago, I actually caught a few minutes of the BBC documentary “Animal Smugglers” Christy mentions. I then met for the first time, some of the protagonists of this book. I was fascinated to say the least, about exotic animal smuggling. Reptile contraband is even more enthralling to me because, while I can understand the fascination of owning an endangered parrot, for instance, I’ll be damned if I can understand why people go to the lengths they do to get a snake or lizard.

This of course, tells of nothing except of my own naïveté, for, as Christy demonstrates the answer is money. It will come as no surprise to the more cynical to find out that most high-end smugglers don’t particularly like the animals they smuggle and might as well (and often do) dabble in gun and drug running.

Christy’s tale is a sort of octopus whose head is represented by the Soprano-like smuggling family, the Von Nostrand’s. Family members are presented with a deft brush, painting their childhood, family relations, first steps in the business (most criminal characters in the book seem to have begun their careers remarkably early). The tentacles are manifold, from business competitors, to the various branches of law enforcement involved in years of investigation, all rendered in a truthful yet sympathetic manner.

Then there is Chip Bepler, a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Look at his name. It seems fictional, so obviously the name of a good-guy, a stand-up guy, the kind of cop that never abuses his power, respects his opponents, is polite in the middle of a police raid – which is, it turns out, exactly the kind of guy, Christy meets behind the name. The perfect antithesis for the Van Nostrand’s (particularly Jr’s) brash, irate, over-the-top personalities.

Actually, the problem with reviewing “The Lizard King” is the same as with a crime novel: you cannot give too much away, without stealing the next reader’s pleasure. And not only do I not want to give anything away plot-wise, I also don’t want to delve too much into the more journalistic end of the book – the facts on reptile smuggling – which will also surprise any reader.

Suffice it to say that you will get an extremely satisfying climax and not one, but two, great conclusions: one takes place in the court-room, the other in a cemetery. And that’s too much said, already. Anyway, the ending, is hardly the best reason for reading “The Lizard King”. It’s everything leading up to it.

Somewhere between Eric Hansen’s “Orchid Fever” and Grisham’s “The Pelican Brief” stands this absolutely feverish, compulsive, dynamite stick of a book. I really cannot recommend it highly enough.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Dogs & Cats in their Gardens

By Page Dickey

Lovely photography books that explore the place of cats and dogs in our gardens. Well, not "our" gardens - these are rather on the grand side...

There is a little text with each entry that introduces gardeners, pets and describes the landscape. I couldn't help noticing that the majority of cats arrived as strays or were adopted as kittens while most dog were bought purebreds...how fortunate for the kitties!

If there is such a thing as reincarnation I would not mind coming back as one of these lucky cats or dogs!

Friday, April 23, 2010

"From the Ground Up" - Amy Stewart

These past couple of days I re-read “From the Ground-Up: The Story of a First Garden” and just had to tell the world how great it is, since I was too lazy to do it the first time around.

It’s a wonderful story and one that I think appeals to a new generation of gardeners who dream of planting a wild, rambling back yard and having a yummy salad at the end; people who think vegetables and herbs are just as beautiful as blooming flowers and who long to get their hands dirty. But also, people who have grown up with little to no tradition of gardening and who are, let’s face it, mostly clueless as to the actual nuts and bolts of keeping a garden.

We are the ones who dream of colour, scent and shade (and flavorful vegetables) and think it can be accomplished in a couple of runs to a garden center and afternoons spent outside. But we want the real thing, Sir! None of that feeble-minded, urban wooden decking, no outside lounge for us, where a few ornamental palms and olive trees in square terracotta pots form the perfect scenario for a late-night session of DJing and cocktails. Yuck!

Hell no! We want to be on first name basis with several insects, tomato varieties and types of manure. Like Amy Stewart we do not shiver at the thought of keeping worms so our plants may benefit from their rich casings. We’ll plant anything once. Except roses.

Just like the author as she began planning out her garden, we are a heady mixture of naïveté and hard-core ideals. Long-time gardeners might scoff but it takes persistence and passion to be wrong so often and still keep on chasing a vision.

Stewart has a narrative voice that feels real and down-to-earth. She is friendly and funny and when she is self-deprecatory it never once feels like a gimmick. This is a ready-made classic for the first-time gardener.

Reading “From the Ground Up” will probably avoid any mistakes, but this is no mere “how-to” book: it’s a memoir, a philosophical essay and a heroic tale all wrapped into one.

"Serve the People" - Jen Lin-Liu

I just didn’t hit it off with this book. While I was reading “Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China”, especially as I reached the middle of the book, I kept asking myself why.

It certainly revolves around themes close to my heart: food and travel; It was on my wishlist for months; I was so excited when it arrived in the mail – and that’s about the most excitement this book caused. And it doesn’t help to know I’m in the minority here. A quick browse through amazon’s customer reviews proves that most found it not only engaging but even "unputdownable".

Maybe a humble “it’s not you, it’s me” would be in order here, but I just can’t quite bring my reader self to that level of self-doubt. A literary critic I am not, but I know a bland book when I read it.

Sad as it may seem to say it (or even cruel) “Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey through China” is one of those books that I could have never read and would have made no difference to me whatsoever.

Jen Lin-Liu is the daughter of Chinese immigrants who grew up in San Diego, maintaining few cultural connections with her parent’s homeland. She decided to relocate to China and style herself as a food writer/journalist in 2000. Based first in Shanghai, the book opens as she moves to Beijing which, she explains, has a more “genuine” Chinese feel to it, where she begins taking cooking lessons.

Her colleagues are hardly foodies – mostly men who need a certificate in order to work as cooks – and the teachers have little patience for questions, deviations from standard recipes or even for allowing students to do actual cooking. The author befriends a different teacher at the school, and soon the two become friends, with the middle aged woman telling the author about life under Mao.

However, Chairman Wang’s “revelations” seemed vague and, to me, felt impersonal. I surely did not learn anything I didn’t know already about the Chinese communist regime, and it didn’t really bring the teacher to life either. As for Beijing it sounds grey, cold, chaotic, polluted, a city where the historic quarters were being bulldozed just in time for the 2008 Olympics.

Next up the author starts as an “intern” at a noodle stall – I honestly felt that she had somewhat arm-wrestled herself into the position (by her own admission no established restaurant offered her a job), taking advantage of a kind cook. Lin-Liu speaks of being an “apprentice” noodle maker and that she felt “guilty” showing up for work in a taxi when not even the stall owner could afford such a luxury. She never makes it clear whether she was being payed for her time at the stall. I hope not – Zhang, the cook, was just scraping by, sending most of his money home to his family in the province.

Then there is a chapter where she “interns” at a Shanghai restaurant, where a Malaysian born chef is attempting to follow in the footsteps of western style celebrity chefs. Once again she is not taken on for her cooking skills – she “infiltrates” the kitchen as a journalist. Here cooking is a means to building a business empire – the young chef is clearly, unabashedly, ambitious in a cut-throat manner.

The last pages serve up the author’s blooming relationship with an American expatriate – which felt out of place to say the very least – and the book ends with her decision to open a cooking school.

All in all there seems to be little passion for cooking in the characters the author meets: some are cooks because that was the profession the Maoist regime assigned them, some because it’s a living, others a means to achieve fortune.

A lot of the food didn’t really sound appetizing to me, but I’ve read food-themed books before that I enjoyed even if I wouldn’t eat any of the dishes described.

Sometimes Lin-Liu seems to pull out the shock-value card: but somehow, and I could hardly believe it, she managed to keep me unmoved even as she ate dog-stew and various animal’s penis and testicles. She describes eating fish head at least twice – as if she couldn’t believe it herself – seemingly ignoring that fish head is a common enough dish in many parts of the world.

Then there is the glaring mistake, when she states that the “Portuguese egg tart” is a Chinese dish (so why did she think it’s called “Portuguese”? Fact Check anyone?). Even though Lin-Liu offers precious little historic or cultural culinary facts during the book, this one obvious mistake made me doubt the rest.

“Serve the People” felt stilted and shallow, like one of those short-story collections from Creative Writing program graduates, where every bit of quirkiness feels calculated. I felt the author was unable to put across the magic and wonder of becoming immersed in a different culture – her encounters with Chinese people felt artificial, lacking in empathy and her visual descriptions of cities and landscape didn’t really come alive on the page. It just felt foggy, as if you never really get to the meat of anything, not food, not people, not China and definitely not the author.

Also, the chapters felt disconnected like a bunch of magazine articles thinly put together. And while I hardly wish to seem mean-spirited, if I mention that the author wrote for Time-Out Beijing, you'll probably get a better sense of the kind of urbanite, disconnected, flighty and somewhat entitled tone I'm hinting at.

I almost feel guilty being so critical, but while I didn’t hate this book (it failed to elicit that kind of strong reaction) I certainly would not recommend it.

Monday, April 19, 2010

"Shrinking the Cat" - Sue Hubbell

“Shrinking the Cat: Genetic Engineering Before We Knew About Genes” is a great little book that attempts to address cultural hysteria about genetic manipulation by means of a very interesting history lesson.

Taking four specific examples of plant and animal species (or strains or breeds) that have been created by humans – meaning selectively bred to achieve certain desirable qualities such as colour, taste, quantity – Sue Hubbell makes her case that humans are born “tinkerers”. Long before we knew, or could imagine, the mechanisms involved, we were already changing our reality: choosing certain species and destroying others, “improving” and nurturing crops and animals that were useful or struck our fancy, often altering them so radically that, after centuries (or millennia) of human interference there is sometimes little resemblance between human manipulated species and their wild progenitors.

(As a side reference, I learned in the “Guinea Pig Handbook” that cavies had been domesticated some three thousand years prior to the arrival of Europeans in America – they diverged so much from their wild “cousins” through artificial selection that, to this day, scientists have been unable to definitely pinpoint the cavy’s wild progenitor – it is believed that it probably went extinct.)

Taking the specific examples of corn, silkworms, cats and apples – all of them continually altered by humans – Hubbell always asks in each particular tale of genetic manipulation (for that is undoubtedly what happened): “If little green men were to swoop down and kidnap all of humanity in their spaceships [would] our descendants – brought back to the planet after five thousand years of good behaviour (…) find”…corn, apples, silkworms and cats as we know them?

The answer is definitely not – for we have created them and they depend on us to propagate and reproduce. Corn, for instance, and silkworms, have been altered to the point that they would not be able to reproduce without human assistance (neither would enormous cows and pigs which are now routinely artificially inseminated – and French bulldogs that cannot deliver the big-headed puppies without c-sections).

Cats are, of course, survivors, and would probably still be around. Of course no snub nosed Persians or hairless Sphinxes would last for long without human protection. Cat colour would probably be less diverse and exotic, too. One of the most fascinating passages connects coloru and pattern propagation with human commercial routes, referring to an academic study which found increased numbers of orange cats in cities with large ports and along rivers with increased commercial activity.

Apple trees are hardy plants, native to central Asia. They are naturally so diverse in colour, texture and flavour (with a majority of not very tasty ones) that it almost seems a crime we have reduced the species to the bland, gigantic red ones. Did you know there are apples that are naturally white? Most wild apples are small and gnarled and once in a while there is one that produces incredible fruits.

This is what we do: we create conformity in some species, incentivize diversity in other. We created tens of cat breeds, but are hard pressed to find an exciting apple in the market. We like to change things, see what happens when we cross different breeds, take them out of their place and grow them elsewhere, propagate something just because we like its colour or because it gives more fruit.

If there is one decidedly human characteristic, Hubbell argues, is that we like to change things around us, mix it up just to see what happens. And it’s nothing new either – with whatever crude tools and little knowledge it possessed, mankind has been doing it, it seems, forever.

We now can reach “inside” species and alter them directly in their matrix – but it’s not that surprising. “Shrinking the Cat” shows that we’ve been dreaming of this almost since we first opened our eyes and looked around.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas - Dogs and Cats

"The Hidden Lives of Dogs"
"The Social Lives of Dogs: The Grace of Canine Company"
"The Tribe of Tiger: Cats and their Culture"

Eight years separate Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ “The Hidden Lives of Dogs” and “The Social Lives of Dogs”. As far as dog-keeping in the western world is concerned, it’s been almost a life-time.

But don’t take my word for it. Scroll down some of the violent costumer reviews for “Hidden Lives” at amazon.com, of which three sample titles are “Very, Very Bad, Disappointing, and disgusting”; “Unbelievable nonsense”; “Most Horrendous Dog Book I Have Ever Read”. Just makes you want to read the thing, don’t it?

So what has gotten these dog-lovers in a tizzy you ask? Well, first you must know that Marshall Thomas’ is an anthropologist, and unfortunately she spent her formative years accompanying her parents in expeditions in South Africa (I say unfortunately because I believe anthropology is detrimental to the healthy development of young people – or maybe I have a chip in my shoulder caused by a certain useless degree, you decide).

When it comes to observing dogs (or cats, or deer) she looks at them as an anthropologist would, trying to figure out communication cues, the importance of kinship ties, social hierarchy, what is desired and accepted by the group and what is condemned.

If nothing else, it definitely puts dogs in a different perspective. Marshall Thomas is interested in observing dogs being dogs. That, of course is not acceptable to many modern dog-keepers. It involves no training whatsoever (as she so rightly points out, when you have a pack of dogs they train any newcomers) and very little restraint, either physical (most of the time the dogs walk themselves or are walked without leashes; when the author moves to rural Virginia, they have permanent access outside) or reproductive (the majority of females was allowed to breed at least once, with a dog of their choice, before being spayed later in life).

Training, leashes and neutering are the holy trinity of owning a dog these days. And of course, neutering and spaying are a necessity considering the numbers of strays. But before getting more hysterical than Adolf at the nightly book burning séance, the folks might have noticed that “The Hidden Lives of Dogs” was first published in 1993 and that all the canine protagonists were dead or in their senior years. This means the events related date back fifteen years, starting in the late seventies. Was it really so morally condemned then to allow your dog to walk himself and have a couple of litters? Don’t think so.

Training is the altar at which dog-owners must worship these days, so when Marshall Thomas’ speaks of a loved dog as “a dog who thought for himself, a dog who wasn’t brainwashed by excessive training” I have no doubt that many contemporary readers were shocked. But isn’t it a fact that a lot of training is behavior modification for traits that make perfect sense for dogs but that we want to eradicate for our, mostly urban, convenience? Barking, eating the inedible, rolling in the stinky, pulling the leash, chasing tail, upset at being imprisoned 12 hours a day?

I for one always found highly trained dogs slightly upsetting – I watched some during a brief stint through obedience school and without being able to put into words what exactly bothered me, only wished my own Jessie would never be that obedient (needn’t have worried really). Now I think those dogs lack something in the lines of dignity. “Dogs are slaves” Thomas’ states more than once, and that is, perhaps, the bottom-line. Still, they don’t have to be circus performers. Spartacus was a slave, right? (Funnily enough, Thomas’s is a circus supporter as she states in “The Tribe of Tiger”)

There is some strong imagery in “Hidden Lives”, the kind you won’t find in most present day dog books. One female dog is raped by a neighbour dog (yes, dogs can be rapists too) and her babies are killed by a more dominant female in the household who also had newborns at the time. It’s strong stuff you don’t usually find in dog books unless you go back to Lorenz’s 1949 “Man Meets Dog” (of whom Thomas’ draws greatly in regards to the wolf-dog theories).

It’s the kind of stuff that happens when you have a group of unaltered dogs, living together with a small degree of freedom. And it’s very interesting. No-one who reads the whole thing can doubt how much Thomas’ loves her dogs and watches out for them, providing food, shelter, veterinary care, canine companionship and liberty.

Written in 2001 “The Social Lives of Dogs” takes on the sign of the times. As the book begins there are only a few of the original husky and dingo pack remaining. The author finds a stray that, although young, is not readily accepted by the others. As such, Sundog, is more or less obliged to take the author and her husband as his “pack” companions. As so often seems the case, Sundog’s arrival sparks a cycle of pet adoption and soon a new, home-based canine (and feline) group is established (or several tiny groups, actually). Ruby a purebred (and neurotic) Belgian shepherd; Pearl an Australian shepherd-mix “inherited” from Thomas’ son; Ruby, a stray and Sheilah, a though little street dog, plus an assortment of cats. Their arrival, the way in which they carve their niche, choose their friends, enemies and evolve into their singular personalities is the fascinating subject of “Social Lives”.

Don’t worry, this time around all females were duly spayed and Thomas was living in rural area (although not completely safe as an awful accident will prove).

With “The Tribe of Tiger” I expected a feline counterpoint to the dog stories of “Social Lives”. Sadly it’s not what I got at all. Sure, there were some anecdotes about the household cats (yes, they were allowed to roam the country-side, folks and there is also some [gasp] kitten murder), but it’s mostly about the evolutionary history of cats and a lot of chapters about the author’s experiences with lions in South Africa. I kept thinking there would be more about cats up ahead, so kept reading faster… There are some fascinating accounts but…few small cats.

Thomas’ also spent a lot of time with circus big cat trainers as well as observing tigers and lions in zoos and came to the somewhat predictable conviction, that, all-circumstances being equal (meaning no cruelty involved) big cats seem much more happy, alert and engaged in a circus setting. I believe that is the same rationale that led to the creation of job training programs for prison inmates.

In conclusion? There is a lot of baloney (the word is strangely appropriate) in Thomas’ theorizing – especially in “Hidden Lives” she seem in thrall of the “huskies and other “primitive” dogs are closer to wolves” shtick – which is neither new nor very interesting, and on the whole “lion mystical bond with bushmen” thing (it’s probably true, but once again it feels overdone) in “The Tribe of Tiger”.

As with most anthropologists she is at her best when she drops the theories and just observes with a keen eye and fresh mind. That she is an amazing watcher I have no doubt, and she witnesses many small (and not so small) signs that we usually miss even sharing our daily lives with cats and dogs. For that reason, especially the dog books are wonderful, and dog-lovers should not keep away because of modern changes in what constitutes responsible dog-ownership. (Did I mention she thinks Americans are “dog-fascists”? Think that might have something to do with the hate?)