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, 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?)