A Week of Non-Fiction: The Second Installment
Today is the second installment of my week of highlighting non-fiction books that I’ve read and enjoyed, and that I consequently recommend to you. If you’d like to see the first five non-fiction books I highlighted, click here.
This week wouldn’t be right without something by Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006). As you can see, the library’s copy has been read, reread, and well-loved.
I read this popular book after already having read The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (2002), which is also excellent. I was excited to see what else Pollan could do, and I wasn’t disappointed. He writes about his quest to cook a meal that has been entirely grown, foraged, or hunted by himself. The book chronicles his attempts at wild boar hunting in the Oakland hills of the Bay Area of California. He catches yeast through an open window and makes bread. He even goes mushroom hunting and learns to tell the difference between poisonous and harmless varieties. His experiences are fascinating and are punctuated by his ability to write in detail of the history and background of all types of foods. He writes as a journalist but uses human experience to identify with his audience. He tells us about food, the human processing of food, and the ways we can eat more authentically. We also learn about the people behind such processes. We learn about cattle ranchers, the company Monsanto that controls much of the modified corn and other foods in this country, the mushroom foragers, and other experts in their fields.
I had to include Joan Didion again. This essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), visits some of the most interesting issues of the time in which it was written, and those issues are still applicable today. The title of the collection is a line from the poem “The Second Coming” (1920) by William Butler Yeats. Most of the essays first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. Didion wrote about the institution of marriage and the strangeness surrounding it in Las Vegas in the essay titled “Marrying Absurd.” Another essay recounts the murder of a husband by his wife and the downward spiral of her being caught, despite her best efforts to plan the perfect murder and to pretend to be the mourning wife. There is also a moving essay about California called “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.” Didion’s essays are brilliant, and if you aren’t yet acquainted with her (and if you haven’t yet gotten the hint that you should be since I’ve mentioned her twice this week) then you should get to the library (or to your local bookseller) and find her work right now!
This is a relatively new biography of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch. It chronicles her personal struggles as well as her writing and career. It was fascinating to learn more about her and to see what an influence religion and family had on her work and her character. It is a long book and would probably be boring to somebody who is not interested in literature or in O’Connor, but I found it to be a good read and an informative one. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor was published in 2010.
This next book, Even Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle (2010), always reminds me of my former job as an editor with a team of security analysts. We produced a daily document summarizing the security events and concerns of the world in order to inform and update our overseas personnel.
My job always involved Colombia in one way or another because the country experiences guerrilla violence on a daily basis. Ingrid Betancourt’s memoir recounts her up-close-and-personal experiences with the guerrilla fighters the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). I wrote about these rebel forces almost every day that I worked in that job. They frequently kidnapped mayors, government officials, and U.S. nationals in order to make a point, punish their victims, and to force the government’s hand.
Ingrid Betancourt was kidnapped while running for president of Colombia, and she did not escape for six years. Meanwhile, her children were growing up and the country moved on without her. This memoir explains Betancourt’s experiences: the events leading up to her kidnapping, her many years as a prisoner, the lack of hope she constantly suffered, and an ultimate triumph. She lived in squalid conditions with other prisoners, some of whom were Americans, and tried to stay positive and hopeful. Notes of sadness, despair, frustration, and anger play throughout the memoir, as is natural. When I first read it, I felt that her tone came across as somewhat whiny, superior, and complaining. Then I realized that I’d be the same way (no, I’d be worse!) if I had spent as many years as she had as a prisoner of a ruthless guerrilla group. Overall, I’m impressed with Betancourt’s courage and strength. I was impressed with her when I learned of her kidnapping, for she was a woman running for president. I remain awed and happy that she returned safely, even if her captivity lasted much too long.
Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture (2011) by Peggy Orenstein is where I first realized how princess-ified our culture has become. She tells of her experiences with her own daughter and research on the subject with a humorous tone, but a critical one. This book explores the problems with princess culture and with teaching children that they need to be rescued by the opposite gender, that they must always look good rather than think well or feel good, and that being a girl means being extra girly. There are other issues at stake here, but most interesting to me was the commercialization of this princess culture. Apparently, Disney did not make princess dress-up clothing and shoes or even the dolls until a few years ago. One of the executives noticed how many little girls would come dressed up as the Disney princesses in homemade costumes to Disneyland or Disney on Ice shows. He had the (brilliant, I’m not going to lie, in a capitalist way) idea to make an official line of Disney princess gear and accessories, thus beginning our current obsession with all things princess. It’s a fascinating look at this culture, and if you’re raising a girl (or a boy) it’s worth the read.