Review: The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

Americans had become a force of awful geology, changing the face of the earth more than ‘the combined activities of volcanoes, earthquakes, tidal waves, tornadoes, and all the excavations of mankind since the beginning of history.’ (p. 127)

In the 1930s, the American prairie was repeatedly subjected to dust storms: huge clouds of dirt that moved across the land.  The storms made roads impassable, filled homes with dust, suffocated livestock, and infiltrated people’s lungs.  Many died from what was called “dust pneumonia.”  This was initially thought to be a freak of nature, a rare meteorological happening.  But as the storms pummeled the plains day after day, the government commissioned experts to investigate.  They soon learned the storms were the result of human behavior going back to the turn of the century.

The explorer Stephen Long wrote about the Great Plains, “I do not hesitate in giving the opinion that it is almost wholly uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence.”  Nevertheless, after the US government ousted the Native Americans from their lands, a syndicate sought to make a buck by offering cheap land and promises of prosperity.  They distributed attractive brochures across the eastern part of the country, and to immigrants at major entry points.  The people came, and they farmed.  But agricultural success was short-lived.  Extensive farming and over-plowing, coupled with drought, weakened the soil system and sent it blowing up into the air.  As the dust storms became a daily occurrence, along came the Depression, and by 1940 the Great Plains were a very different place indeed.

Timothy Egan tells the story of the dust bowl through the lives of those who survived life on the plains during that time.  These survivors were still living, and his direct access resulted in a vivid, realistic, and very human portrait of this period in American history.  His accounts of dust storms are real page turners — narrative non-fiction at its best.  Egan had access to historical records too, of course.  Don Hartwell’s diary was one of the most moving parts of this book, recounting the decline of his farm, his livelihood, and his community in spare sentences, like these from 1939:

Feb. 5

I have felt lost lately — not knowing where to turn or what to do. In fact, if one hasn’t ‘got’ anything, there is not much he can do.

July 10

The same clear, glaring sky & vicious blaze killing sun. Cane is about dead, corn is being damaged; it will soon be destroyed. Those who coined the phrase ‘There’s no place like Nebraska’ wrote better than they thought. In Nebraska, you don’t have to die to go to hell.

Sept 18

There are no dances here anymore — nothing but silence, emptiness, ‘respectability.’

It’s positively heart-breaking, and with growing concern about climate change today, I couldn’t help but wonder if humankind is heading down a similar path.  Have we learned from past mistakes?  It gives one pause.

Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

These days, human society faces increasingly complex food choices: low-fat, low-carb, vegetarian, vegan, organic, etc.  What does “cage-free” or “free range” mean?  Which alternatives are better for you?  And where does your food come from, anyway?  In this book, Michael Pollan set out to trace three basic food chains: the industrial, the pastoral alternative, and the old-fashioned hunter-gatherer.  Along the way, he made some important discoveries about our food supply, most notably the consequences of oversimplifying nature’s principles in pursuit of industrial efficiency.

Written in an engaging, narrative style, the reader follows Pollan as he traces a steer from birth to plate and discusses the surprisingly pervasive role of corn in our food supply.  He then travels to an innovative farm, managed as a complex ecosystem producing meat for local consumption. Finally, he treks into the forest to hunt game and gather wild mushrooms.  Each of these adventures is described with a balance of personal experience and primary research.  Somehow it makes it all more digestible (pardon the pun) to read the facts and figures even as we learn that Pollan didn’t like waking up early, and often overslept.  But despite this being a very accessible read, it had a tendency to stray into personal memoir.  Towards the end, I began to lose interest.  In part, I just didn’t want to read about hunting with a firearm.  But I also didn’t enjoy Pollan’s navel-gazing about the experience, nor did I really care about Pollan as “foodie,” preparing a special meal for friends.  That’s why this book earned only three stars from me.

And yet. Pollan’s message is incredibly important.  Pollan writes, “Eating industrial meat takes an almost heroic act of not knowing or, now, forgetting.”  (p. 84)  I chose a vegetarian diet four years ago, because I am unwilling to play a personal role in the slaughter of animals for food, I prefer not to contribute to the environmental impact of the fossil fuels used in industrial meat production & transportation, and I could no longer look at supermarket meat without a keen awareness of what it once was, and the path it took to get there.  I respect each person’s right to make their own decision in this regard, and highly recommend The Omnivore’s Dilemma as essential reading to understand where our food comes from, examine your values around food production, and begin to make choices aligned with those values.

On a related note, visit Marie @ The Boston Bibliophile, and read her excellent review of Fast Food Nation.

Review: The Other Elizabeth Taylor, by Nicola Beauman

The Elizabeth Taylor in this biography was a British novelist (1912-1975).  Although she was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (for Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont), to the average reader she is a complete unknown.  I discovered her work through Virago Modern Classics, and she quickly became a favorite author.  So this year, to celebrate the centenary of her birth, I thought I’d learn more about the life of this talented, but very private, woman.

This is a classic chronological biography, beginning with Taylor’s childhood and her secondary school education at the best school for girls in Reading, her home town.  Beauman shows how Taylor developed as a writer, even as she also became a wife, a mother, and even a mistress.  She was dedicated to writing even as she juggled these other roles, but it wasn’t until she was 32 that her first novel was published.  From that point on she had a lucrative career with twelve novels and a considerable number of short stories, many of which were published in The New Yorker magazine.  Despite her success, she never wanted to play the game expected of authors, making public appearances and so on.  This probably cost her some fame, but allowed her to stay a devoted wife and mother, which she valued highly.  Still, Taylor’s career had a certain arc.  Her first few novels were considered her best, and the 1960s brought a shift in public sentiment where readers gradually began seeking out other authors with more modern points of view.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book.  All too often, biographies are dry, factual accounts.  Nicola Beauman’s thorough research infused this biography with real people and emotion.  In the course of her research she was able to meet with a man who had been Taylor’s lover in the 1930s.  He never stopped loving her, and Beauman’s meeting with him was quite touching.  Beauman also successfully conveyed Taylor’s emotions during difficult periods, like when her later work attracted negative reviews.

By the end of this year I will have read all of Elizabeth Taylor’s twelve novels.  I plan to use this book as a reading companion, returning to it with each novel to remind myself of what was happening in Taylor’s life at that time, and of how her life experiences influenced each book.

2012 Non-Fiction Non-Memoir Challenge

”2012Not long ago, I posted about reading more nonfiction.  I need some outside forces to motivate me, so I joined a Non-Fiction Challenge group on LibraryThing.  Then I came across the year-long Non-Fiction Non-Memoir Challenge, hosted by Julie @ My Book Retreat.  I’m in!

The challenge offers multiple levels of participation.  The “Diploma” level requires reading 10 books, enough to stretch me a little.  My list is very much subject to change, but at the moment I definitely want to read:

And I have several other books on my shelves that qualify, including:

I’ll report progress in my quarterly reading updates.  Let’s go!