Category Archives: What I’ve been reading lately

The Library Paradox

Right now I’m reading French Women Don’t Get Fat, by Mireille Guiliano, which is all about how the French have cultivated many national habits that allow them to enjoy the pleasures of life in moderation. Embracing the simple joys of bread, chocolate, and produce in season is right up my alley, so I’ve been enjoying it. It is also an explanation of everyone’s favorite “French Paradox”, which is something along the lines of “those darn French people get to eat all that great food and yet they are also all so thin.” While enjoying life’s pleasures in moderation while eating smaller meals and walking has a lot to do with it, one also assumes that smoking may also have something to do with it.

Now here’s another paradox sweeping America this time– I like to call it the “Library Paradox”. The nation’s media outlets, particularly local newspapers, are all reporting a huge uptick in public library usage, for the obvious reason that it’s much cheaper to get books, movies, and music for free. We could pretend that library patrons aren’t immediately ripping the CDs and DVDs, and making color scans of the books, all to store on their computers. This however, is not true, and in these days of desktop terabyte harddrives, stealing is what people do. It’s far better in my mind, however, to steal from the publisher and not from the library.

In any event, there is another set of  library related news items being published, and that is that public libraries are having to cut staff, slash hours, and close branches due to economic conditions. Here in Illinois there were a number of library referenda on the ballots, and not one of them passed. While I can understand people not wanting to pay higher taxes, it creates an obvious paradox. Bad economy equals more library usage, while it also creates worse libraries. The Annoyed Librarian had a recent post surmising on libraries run as businesses, and said, “if anything is ‘too big to fail,’ it’s the American library” The AL, for those of you who don’t know, is largely satirical, but there’s a point to that. Public libraries in their current form were originally meant to allow the working man (now person, but man then) to have access to education and culture. With a lot more people subsisting on less money, that aspect of the library can’t disappear. I guess this is kind of a trite sentiment, but it’s not much more trite than saying that eating good dark chocolate makes people happy.

What I’ve been reading lately #2

I’d meant to read this for awhile, and when the audiobook was in at CPL, I grabbed it. And then it grabbed me.

Generally even if I am amused or educated or entranced by a book, it does not compel me to immediate action. This one did. Before finishing it, I’d ordered my own supplies to make cheese, looked up the next winter farmer’s market, and figured out a Community Supported Agriculture program to join for next summer. I’m still excited about it, even now that I’ve finished the book, to the point that my basics ways of thinking have slightly shifted.

“But wait,” you ask, “what is the book about that you are so excited?”

The book chronicles Barbara Kingsolver and her family’s year of trying to eat food that they grew, bought from local farmers, or bought fair trade for things that didn’t grow nearby (like coffee and chocolate). Her husband writes about the scientific and economic aspects doing so, and her oldest daughter contributes sections on nutrition and meal planning.  They acknowledge throughout that they were expert gardeners and had the land and preperation necessary to make the program a success, but give ideas about how even city apartment dwellers can do similar things.

What I took away is that by eating in season and trying to be as local as possible, you are part of a food culture, which is something the modern American diet lacks– we have bits and pieces of everything, and lots of junk, so it’s hard to find wholesome staples. Buying organically grown food isn’t so great if you’re buying it from far away, since it had to be shipped to you and you have no idea what the working conditions were like on the farm. You can eat well locally over the winter too, even in climates such as Chicago, if you think ahead over the summer to put up local vegetables– and in fact, it’s better that you buy out a stall at the farmer’s market, since fresh vegetables can’t really be stored for future sales like grain can.

Since I read this in November, it’s too late to follow most of the advice, but on my last trip to the grocery store I tried to buy only things grown in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, or Michigan, and to buy vegetables that are in season even if they were grown farther away. Lots of roots and members of cabbage family, but at least they are all easy to cook.

Anyway, I highly reccomend this book, even if you just like humorous accounts of farm life and turkey sex.

What I’ve been reading lately #1

ThunderstruckErik Larson makes me glad that I don’t live in Victorian or Edwardian times, no matter how cunning the hats of the time were. The fact that the hats were even necessary speaks for itself, I suppose.

I think everyone in the world read Devil in the White City, so you don’t need an explanation for that, but this is basically the same concept: technological marvel meets grisly murder in a compelling combination that for me, personally, is a page turner. This book tells about the marvel of wireless technology in its early days through the personal story of Marconi, alongside the exploits and personal story of the murderer Hawley Harvey Crippen. If you’ve never heard of Crippen, that’s probably a good thing, because you won’t be disappointed by his grisliness. I had been led to believe by Lord Peter Wimsey that Crippen was much ghastlier than he turned out to be. Oh well, it was still pretty disgusting.

I saw some low star reviews on Amazon that said the story was dry and boring with too much set up and not enough story telling. This is true, as far as it goes, but for many among us, the dry and boring set up is actually more interesting than the novelistic elements. I borrowed the book from my dad who found the audio book fascinating but too packed with names and dates to really follow the historical elements properly. I can see that, though I only can follow Victorian melodramatic novels (British, American, or Russian) in audio book format so that I have a clue who is who based on the narrator’s voices for the characters.

BetterI haven’t quite finished this yet, but I love New Yorker medical writers, and so there’s no way that I couldn’t read all of Atul Gawande’s books at some point or other. Whether or not you have any interest in reading this book, if you have any vile human curiosity or voyeuristic tendencies (and what sane person doesn’t?) you’ll drop everything and instantly read Gawande’s piece in the New Yorker about itching. This article is so good that Mike and I had one of our first married person’s quarrels about my reading pieces of it out loud to him.

What the theme of Better seems to be is how to be a “positive deviant”– to do the right thing even when it’s hard and few others are doing it. This is something that I heartily recommend myself, and frankly seems like an excellent talking point to bring to say, a job interview or college admissions essay. You can thank me later.