Tag Archives: Powell’s City of Books

You Must Read—Jerusalem: The Biography

The politics of the outside world would always reflect back onto the religious life of Jerusalem… [Page 309]

9780307280503Few places in the world conjure up images in the minds of people across the world quite like Jerusalem.  For well over a thousand years, and for some populations even longer than that, Jerusalem has been a beacon for faith.  The reasons for this focus is somewhat murky and Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem: The Biography tries to tease that out.

Arranged chronologically into epochs that correspond to the dominant ruling group, the book looks at history through the extremely localized lens of the city itself.  This is not a larger narrative about the Crusades or religion or empire, but rather a look at those and many other concepts as they relate directly to one city over the past two millennia or so.

As it stands, the history of Jerusalem is ridiculously complex.  At different times it was a city under the control of far flung empires.  At different times the city was Christian or Muslim or Jewish or pagan or whatever someone who was the strongman at the time decided would be the dominant faith.  When you read about this polyglot history of ownership, it is odd to think of the significance that has been bestowed upon the city by so many religions.  In particular the world’s three major religions all find something that is of utmost importance to their faith in Jerusalem.  How much better would the world be off if so much religious fervor was not concentrated in one place?  Would the Middle East be such a contentious place if that were so?  I wonder…

The book reads like a “great man” history, which is derided by many academics because it ignores the suffering and contributions of so many people who do not hold positions of official authority.  Even through my academic history career I did not subscribe to this criticism.  Sometimes the story must be told through the eyes of the movers and shakers who shape events to their wills.  All too often through time these same people happened to be men who held official positions of power.  It’s a fact that no amount of revision can eliminate.  To ignore the contributions as somehow less significant is a massive bias.

Throughout the book I kept thinking about the movie Kingdom of Heaven.  Forgetting the theatrical cut for a moment, which was a complete narrative disaster when compared with the director’s cut, there is a scene toward the end that explains everything.  When asked by Orlando Blooms Balian “What is Jerusalem worth?”  The recently victorious Saladin replies “Nothing.”  After walking away Saladin turns and says, “Everything!”  Although ridiculous the scene illustrates the central tension of Jerusalem.

Although much of the recent Parts Unknown episode in Jerusalem took place in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip,  you get a sense of what Jerusalem means to so many people just by watching the people who swirl around the host.  It’s also evident that the emotions run so high for so many people that any hope of a “clean” solution is impossible.

You Must Read—The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

9781400052189There is not much more that I can say about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks that has not already been said by the popular press many times over.  When the book was originally released it garnered a lot of national attention and made it onto many “must read” lists. It does bear repeating, however, that Rebecca Skloot’s book is an essential read.

Why?  The book raises fundamental questions about race, class, and privacy through the lens of something that is almost universally regarded as a good thing—medical research.

The story of the cell line, HeLa, and the woman who was the source of the cell line, Henrietta Lacks who was often misidentified as Helen Lane among other names, is amazing just in terms of the medicine.  For many years researchers has been unable to culture a cell line derived from humans in the lab for any extended period of time.  Forget about shipping those cells beyond the walls of the lab in which they were created.  This stumbling block created all kinds of hurdles for research until Henrietta Lacks walked into Johns Hopkins to be treated for cancer.

Henrietta Lacks died from the cancer that brought her to Johns Hopkins, but a part of her lived on after being taken by a doctor at the hospital.  The cell line, known as HeLa from then on, served as the foundation upon which a dizzying array of medical research has been conducted.  As her descendants were fond of telling anyone who asked, parts of Henrietta Lacks had been sent up into space, blasted by atom bombs, and helped create miracle cures.

The story is about much more than just the medicine.  It’s about race, class, and privacy in a way that is very relevant to the United States in 2013.  As our society becomes increasingly unequal in terms on income distribution and the opportunity to escape the poverty trap becomes more difficult as support is removed it is essential to remember that this is not a permanent state of existence.  The pendulum may be swinging toward a world that resembles the one in which Henrietta Lacks lived and died, but it does not have to remain that way.

Henrietta Lacks lived and died in a world where her privacy and ownership of her own cells was not a given.  It was a world where her medical care was determined by the color of her skin and her station in society.  If that sound familiar it ought to since in the modern world we, as human beings, are often subservient to corporations, our medical care is provided only at the pleasure of odiferous insurance companies, and the striking differences between what is available to different classes is Dickensian.

No matter how much we things have changed, much of the situation remains the same.

You Must Read—Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer

I think about beer a lot.  If you visit here with any frequency that will come as little surprise, but I am also somewhat academic in my love of beer.  Years of formal training as a historian have led me to dive into a topic’s historical underpinnings more so than the average bear.

9780156033596When I came across Maureen Ogle’s Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer I was excited because here was a historical text dealing exclusively with beer.  Other good books—Daniel Okrent’s excellent Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition and Andrew Barr’s Drink: A Social History of America in particular—deal with the larger issues of alcohol in American history, including beer, but fail to really focus on the golden liquid.

As it is a story about American beer it starts in the nineteenth century as German immigrants came to the U.S. and founded breweries.  The names are familiar right off the bat: Best, Pabst, and Busch.  The story of American beer is really about the titans of the industry for the first one hundred years or so.  These men and the breweries that bore their names were the shepherds of what constituted American beer into the 1970s.

It is amazing how precarious the situation was for many of these brewers as they grew from regional brands into the largest breweries in the world.  That is something to think about for a moment.  American beer before the craft beer renaissance was much maligned by every other beer culture in the world for producing pale swill that barely qualified as beer.  Yet, it was American companies who were pushing the boundaries of technology and technique more than anyone else to expand beer’s reach.  Granted, the pushing of boundaries was all about domination of markets.

Ogle is exhaustive in her look at the rise of the major brewers through the 1950s, but the book falls somewhat short in describing the rise of the craft beer movement starting in the 1970s.  It is nice to see Jack McAuliffe’s New Albion Brewing Company get credit for being one of the first to pioneer what meant to be a craft beer maker.  Other California craft brewers Sierra Nevada and Anchor Brewing Company are also profiled while Jim Koch’s Boston Beer Company, the brewer of Samuel Adams, gets a lot of attention.

However, this felt like a Clif Notes or highlights version of the story of the craft beer movement in the U.S.  There is so much to the story of craft beer in the U.S. that to focus on a few of the well-known examples feels like a cop out.  Again, it is American brewers who are pushing the boundaries of what is possible when it comes to beer whether it’s the crazy genius of Sam Calagione at Dogfish Head Brewery or the fact that it seems like every street corner of the Front Range in Colorado is home to a new brewery.  Small purveyors are revitalizing what had been a moribund industry and, in any cases, revitalizing the communities in which they choose to operate.  This is no small part of the story about craft beer in the United States.  The small purveyors are really about being part of a place.  I like to think about it like terroir, the French concept of a “sense of place,” for beer which is not something you hear of very often.  However, these brewers are producing beers that define or are defined by the places in which they are made.  It’s a result of all the factors that go into a small brewer that is not possible when scaled to something like an AB-InBev or other macro-monstrosity.

What would be interesting would be an update on the book as the major U.S. breweries have entered into ownership or partnerships with foreign breweries, leaving the craft beer makers as the only “American” brewers left standing anymore.

Regardless of my quibbles with the book’s treatment of the recent craft beer movement there is much to recommend Ambitious Brew.  To understand how we got to this moment in time, it is necessary to understand how American beer came to be.

You Must Read—Rebuilding the Foodshed

Ultimately, the size of our individual contributions matter much less than the scale of our multiplied efforts.  Page 222

Do you ever finish a book and realize that it hits on all of the salient points you feel are important to an issue?  Do you ever flip through the pages and realize you have dog eared dozens of pages with statements that you want to go back to ruminate on later?

9781603584234Well, for me the book that most recently did that was Philip Ackerman-Leist’s Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable and Secure Food Systems.  Ackerman-Leist is an associate professor of Environmental Studies and Director of the Farm and Food Project at Green Mountain College in Vermont.  So, the book has an academic tone throughout but that is more than compensated for by the fact that he just nails the issues confronting the burgeoning “food movement.”

Creating community- based food systems is one of the most intellectually challenging tasks of our age. Page 2

Well, there it is in a nutshell. Creating the local, sustainable, and secure food system that we need to be successful in the future is going to be a challenge.  Great.  This is a country that has a hard time kicking the habit of soda and Big Macs.  How exactly are we going to build a new food system?  I digress…

But if we ignore the less obvious and more disconcerting aspects of our food systems, then we certainly cannot begin to understand the full scope of the realities we face.  In the end, rebuilding local food systems requires us to connect with the neighbors we’ve never known as much as it does to share the bounty with our comfortable acquaintances.  Page 100

This why it’s going to be hard.  We are going to have to face the ugly reality that the problem is us and we are going to have to interface with people that we are not comfortable around.  It may take a village, but you need to know your village first.

One thing the Ackerman-Leist is very clear on throughout the book is that local, in and of itself, is not necessarily a virtuous thing.  I think as the food movement has matured more and more people have come to the realization that food miles, easy to conceptualize but fraught with shortcomings, is not the be all and end all to define food.

In the end, it’s not just about where the food was produced.  We must also bear in mind the impacts of its production, processing, storage, distribution, marketing, preparation, and even reclamation.  Where matters immensely in the food system world, but so do how, why, by whom, and for whom.  Page 23

What this book does supremely well is link the changes in our food system to changes in our patterns of behavior at home.  As we cook less in the home, we have outsourced that task to factories and restaurants.  This represents energy that is embodied in the meals we consume that we do not prepare for ourselves.  Most people do not think of food this way, but the author is very clear that food represents energy.  Once you break down food this way it is easier to see the flows through the economy.

The health of the soils that we grow our food in also represents energy because synthetic fertilizers are primarily derived from fossil fuels.  The current standard practices in agriculture are too energy dependent to be sustainable in the long run.  Ackerman is even more alarmist:

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether you are compelled by a sense of urgency for local self-reliance or for national security.  Soil fertility is key to both.  Page 62

I cannot imagine seeing a right winger bloviate that soil health and fertility is a key component of our national security.  But, soil health and fertility are about more because reclamation of those attributes represents an economic opportunity:

…compost can be locally produced under local control with local dollars creating local jobs and resilience.  Page 82

This is an argument that is lost when the food movement brings its case forward to a national audience.  The creation of these local, sustainable, and secure foodsheds is about our economy just as much as it is about our heath and our environment.

Like all conversations about the food movement, the discussion inevitable turns back to the kitchen.  Why?  Because this is the one place where there is a tangible connection between our actions and the impact on the food system:

We can’t lose sight of the importance of the kitchen.  Hours spent in the kitchen and our time at the table are both critical elements in relocalizing food systems. Page 213

As you can tell, I am a big fan of this book because it brings home so many of the threads weaving through the food movement in a coherent way.  Tying it all together is critical to the future of the food movement because it is easy for these efforts to become Balkanized into rival factions that fight for pyrrhic victories. In some ways, this is where I feel the environmental movement has found itself fifty years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

One part of the book that I just loved was the placing of the bicycle at the pinnacle of energy efficient transportation:

Bicycle transport wins the efficiency game in linking local farms to consumers right in the neighborhood. Page 50

Can you just imagine fleets of two wheeled delivery people fanning out to distribute fresh produce across a city?  I cannot either, but it’s one hell of a compelling image.

NOTE: I read an uncorrected proof copy of the book, so my citations may not line up with the actual pages in the final sale version.

You Must Read: Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit

Before you reach for one of those perfectly round and red orbs of tasteless flesh that is only barely reminiscent of actual tomato flavor you must read Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit.

The modern tomato is an amazing thing.  In general, the tomatoes that populate the shelves in a supermarket’s produce section taste nothing like what we think of when imagining a tomato.  Why?  Because as Barry Estabrook chronicles in his most excellent book the modern tomato is a strange mash-up of everything wrong with modern agriculture.

First, the primary site for growing tomatoes in the United States is actually ill-suited for growing tomatoes.  Huh?  Yep, Florida is a horrible place to grow tomatoes.  The soil is little more than sand, so it does not hold nutrients or water very well unlike the soils of more northern climes.  The climate also does wonders for nurturing parasites and diseases that can devastate crops, so the solution is to bathe the fruit in a chemical soup.

Second, the varieties bred for modern tomato farming have the desired trait of being durable in shipping.  However, a tomato gets its flavor from the delicate balance of flesh and watery insides.  Breeding the fruit to be durable for shipping emphasizes hard flesh at the expense of flavorful guts thus creating a dense orb of little flavor.  As the author illustrates, green tomatoes can fly off the back of trucks and hit the roadway with nary a scratch.  Try that with an heirloom tomato off the vine of your home garden.

Third, the modern tomato industrial complex picks the fruit when it is green and achieves a red color through the use of ethylene gas.  Therefore, the red color has absolutely nothing to do with ripeness and everything to do with marketing.

The story would be compelling enough if the death of flavorful tomatoes were all the Estabrook were concerned with documenting in his book.  However, the most harrowing tale comes not from the tomatoes but from the people who work the fields in Florida picking the fruit.

Primarily focused on the community of tomato field workers centered around Immokalee the book details the barbaric conditions these people endure every day.  In some cases it is modern day slavery.  Think about that the next time you reach for a little package of Santa Sweets in the produce section.  Amazingly, these conditions seem to primarily focus on the fresh tomato industry and not the tomatoes destined for cans or sauce.  Apparently it is an entirely different regime according to Estabrook.

So, we have a modern agricultural industry that is producing a product no one thinks is any good—find me one person who likes the tasteless orbs of rock hard red flesh—and is treating people horribly.  Why?  Because we like to get tomatoes in January in Iowa.

I think the solution to the problem is simple.   Not to sound like a broken record, but if you are buying in season produce from local suppliers there is no danger of you participating in this system.  Maybe your vendor at the farmers’ market is using forced labor or buying produce from an unscrupulous supplier, but I have not heard of any such incidence here in good ol’ Iowa.

If you want to learn more please check out the Center for Immokalee Workers.  This grassroots organization is doing great things in brining attention to the plight of farm workers in Florida’s tomato belt.  The organization has also been effective in getting major corporations to step up and pay a little bit more per pound to help alleviate the worst of the conditions affecting the workers around Immokalee.

One more thing, why doesn’t Chipotle sign up to pay workers a little bit extra—as little as 1 cent per pound of tomatoes—when it is already a pioneer in bringing more sustainable and equitable food to its counters?  It is shameful that the company has thus far resisted.