Books Read: May 2021

Another month of reading and where I live we are heading for true summer weather this week, which means a lot of heat. That also means I’ll be hunkering down with books and loving it. I’ve spent a lot of time reading on the back patio as lizards run around and birds are flying over head and it’s been glorious.

Animal, Vegetable, Junk

Other than cooking many of is recipes, I’ve never read a Mark Bittman book, but this one caught my eye when I read a review of it. Bittman goes through the history of food production, in a very high level quick overview, and then dives more deeply into the way we changed agriculture and food production in the 20th century. He’s fairly angry about the way in which the system rewards the wrong things and uses this book to show how the system is working now. I was disappointed in how little time was spent in the book helping the individual understand what they can, the final chapter and conclusion go into it but not in much depth. This left me overall feeling overwhelmed about systemic practices but very unsure how I can do much other than try and buy my food from local producers and put pressure on my state and federal reps to try and change it.

The Blind Assassin

Margaret Atwood never disappoints me, this book is a really interesting construction where there is a novel inside the novel. While I figured out some of the twists and turns early, the beautiful writing and the way in which Iris Chase Griffen is so open about her life, her flaws, and her regrets, made this a wonderful read. As is normal for me with Atwood books, it takes a bit to get into it but then I flew through it, not wanting to put it down. As Iris tells the story of her life, interspersed with media accounts of it and chapters of the novel inside the novel, you see how difficult it is to ever really know what the consequences of our choices will be. It’s a tragic story, but I also found underlying elements of beauty and hope.

One by One

Ruth Ware takes the general concept of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and puts a modern spin on it in this thriller set in the Alps. A hot start up brings the employees plus one shareholder (also an ex employee) to the Alps to discuss if they should take a buy out offer or not. Those ten are joined in the book by the two employees of the company that rents out the chalet. The book goes back and forth from the perspective of two characters, seeing everything through their eyes. Of course everything starts well, but then it all starts to go very wrong, starting with one of the company cofounders disappearing and then an avalanche which strands them all at the chalet. Ware writes a very fast paced book and while I felt like I had an inkling of what was going to happen, the ending went further than I ever suspected.

The Consequences of Fear

The latest Maisie Dobbs book, where we’re in 1941 and the war is ongoing and Maisie takes a case from a young, poor, message runner who believes he saw a murder. The story revolves around fear and how it can be a good thing to keep people safe or it can go too far and incapacitate a person. And of course we continue to see how Maisie, her family, and her friends are coping and doing throughout the war. I enjoyed this latest installment, it felt like it was setting up to be the final book perhaps, but maybe not.

Four Lost Cities

Annalee Newitz researches and writes about four different cities that people abandoned for one reason or another and delves deeply into why the cities were formed in the first place, what their culture was like, and finally why they ended up being left. She does all this in a compact book that is a quick and fascinating read. I thoroughly enjoyed this especially as she’s thinking throughout what this history means for us today, how will we deal with cities with climate change and catastrophes that are changing the way we live.

You might say that people went from identifying with each other to identifying with a special, shared location. (loc 454)

“Abundance” meant having enough food to ward off total starvation, and shelter that was relatively stable. At Çatalhöyük, there was no opportunity to become rich, at least in the way we understand it today. (loc 750)

That’s the difficult part about studying cities: they are not static entities that remain the same over time before suddenly disappearing into nothingness. At any given moment, they are a composite of many social groups, who likely view city life in different ways. And those social groups also change over time, altering the physical and symbolic fabric of the city to reflect their worldviews. Until they stop wanting to live together. (loc 821)

In the soft apocalypse at Angkor, we can see directly what happens when political instability meets climate catastrophe. It looks chillingly similar to what cities are enduring in the contemporary world. But in the dramatic history of the Khmer culture’s coalescence and survival, we can see something equally powerful: human resilience in the face of profound hardship. (loc 1899)

For Cahokians, abandonment was not a failure or loss, but instead part of the expected urban life cycle. (loc 2742)

Perhaps a better way to look at cities is as ecosystems whose components are always transforming, and whose boundaries expand and contract naturally. Maybe all our cities are in constant cycles of centralization and dispersal; or, if we think with our galaxy brains, they are temporary stops on the long road of human public history. (loc 3154)

The Glass Hotel

I’ve read another book of Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven, and while I thought it was good, I didn’t absolutely love it like so many others I know. But i saw The Glass Hotel on so many lists that I decided to give it a go and I’m very glad I did. It’s fantastic. Mandel weaves a story of several people who are in and around the orbit of a corrupt man running a Ponzi scheme who also have connections to a hotel on a remote island in British Columbia. It’s haunting at times, but also deals so well with the ideas of loss and illusion and money that I had a hard time putting it down.