Posts Tagged ‘Rowan Jacobsen’

Reading list for my imaginary book club

November 18, 2013 @ 7:57 pm | Filed under:

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt The Signature of All Things
I’m not in a book club at present, but I’ve been entertaining myself with thoughts of what books I would suggest to my book club if I belonged to one. This is because I finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s sweeping, sad, thoughtful The Signature of All Things, and naturally I’m yearning for a nice long discussion of it, preferably involving baked goods. (I’m also wanting to start a moss garden, which in San Diego would be no mean feat.)

Other books I would throw into the ring:

1) The Diamond Age, Or: A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson. I read it a year or two before the advent of the iPad, and when that magical device appeared, all I could think of was the Primer. I enjoyed the book’s exploration of a ‘best’ education—what that might look like, what its aims might be, and the unpredictability of outcomes. And the mind-stretching nanotechnology permeating and altering society: this is a richly layered and sometimes difficult book, with much that made me uncomfortable (something I appreciate in a book), but also a compelling page-turner of a narrative. It’s one of those books I think about in the context of daily life quite often (and not just in connection to the iPad). It would be fun to dig into with a really lively, argumentative group of readers.

2) The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt. I’ll be drummed out of my own imaginary book club if I keep suggesting these mammoth tomes, but there it is. I’ve read The Children’s Book twice (three times? I’m losing track) in four or five years (also losing track; can’t be bothered to check my log now) and like The Diamond Age (and, I suspect, The Signature of All Things), it’s a book I find myself pondering in many a stray moment. A curling fern frond, a strand of seaweed, a beautifully glazed pot, the Nesbit books on my shelf, a reference to William Morris, a pre-Raphaelite painting, a sinister undercurrent in a fairy tale—any number of things send me straight back into the pulsing green world of this Fabian family and their troubled, talented, struggling circle of artist-friends. Downton Abbey was full of reminders (Lavinia’s clothes, Sybil’s causes, Branson’s political activism, the devastation and radical shifting of relationships and ways of life during and after WWI). No work of fiction in recent years has sent me on more rabbit trails, nor hounded my thoughts so relentlessly.

3) Feed by M. T. Anderson. It’s been several years; I’m due for a reread. Every year this book feels more prescient. We may not have the Feed implanted in our brains quite yet, but we’re closer than we were the first time I read it. Won’t it be fun to fumble for words about how alarming we found the notion of a society so dependent on an advertising-driven stream of information piped directly into their minds that people can barely form a coherent thought anymore, much less an original one? And then we can all post photos of our desserts to Instagram.

4) Hmm, we’ll need something by Muriel Spark. A Far Cry from Kensington, I think, but perhaps I’m leaning too much on my own favorites. Certainly The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie would provide fodder for hours of discussion. Actually, Miss Brodie would make a tremendous follow-up to Feed and The Diamond Age: all of them exploring ways of educating (even shaping) young minds. Oh, what am I talking about—Signature and The Children’s Book fall right into that category as well. Education isn’t by any means the only theme of these books, but it’s a dominant thread in each, one way or another. You’d almost think this was a pet topic of mine, or something.

5) Well then, let me throw something entirely different into the mix: how about American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields by Rowan Jacobsen. I can brag about how he’s a friend and former classmate of mine, and of course we’ll have to have a tasting party to accompany our discussion of this book, a fascinating exploration of how terrain affects flavor (in many subtle ways), and why certain regions are famous for specific foods. I’ll bring the chocolate, you bring the maple syrup.

6) Now here I go reverting back to favorite books about unconventional upbringings, but when’s the last time you read Midnight Hour Encores? It’s one of my favorite YA novels, right up there with Emily of Deep Valley (though utterly unlike) and…hmm, that’s a different list, my favorite YA. Anyway: Encores features one of my favorite dads in all of literature, and an ending that takes my breath away every time.

7) But it isn’t quite fair of me to stack the deck with books I’ve already read, most of them more than twice. How about something new? I’ve got Donna Tartt’s latest, The Goldfinch, on hold at the library. I’m #70 in the queue, but since this is an imaginary book club, I’ll just imagine myself next in line.

How about you? What’s up next in your book club—real or imagined?

Books the teenager has enjoyed recently

June 16, 2011 @ 8:07 pm | Filed under:

I think I should tackle the “what’s Jane reading these days” questions next. I’ve been asked for YA book recommendations from multiple friends and readers lately, and Jane said I could crib from her reading log. She reads way more than I do, so there’s a lot of stuff on there I haven’t read myself and am itching to—she has intriguing tastes!

A sampling:

I mentioned here that I’d ordered three new Rowan Jacobsen books—

Shadows on the Gulf (oil spill aftermath and other threats to the Gulf wetlands);

American Terroir (about distinctive regional flavors of particular American foods—how the soil, climate, etc affects flavor and cuisine); and

The Living Shore (a hunt for rare oysters leads to a deep appreciation of the magic of coastal ecology and how shorelines have helped shape human history).

They’re still on my nightstand awaiting the end of Shakespeare Club, but Jane borrowed them one by one and said they’re all fascinating. She came running out and read me a passage from American Terroir, and said, “Isn’t he just the best writer?” (His Fruitless Fall and Chocolate Unwrapped certainly captivated me.)

Let’s see, what else…she loves mysteries and has read just about all of Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy Sayers. Big fan of Josephine Tey (see my Daughter of Time review) and the Flavia de Luce mysteries by Alan Bradley. (Here’s a post I wrote on the first Flavia de Luce, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.) And she is especially keen on the Case Closed series: Japanese detective manga by Gosho Aoyama.

Another big hit recently was Girl Genius, a webcomic (some of which is collected into graphic novel collections) and set of novels. We met the author at the Steampunk Convention and the look of the books caught Jane’s eye. She has since devoured the entire eight-and-a-half years’ worth of webcomic archives.

Connie Willis—The Doomsday Book; To Say Nothing of the Dog (and I myself am wild about both of these—the former moving, rich, sad, suspenseful: a female grad student time-travels to the Middle Ages; the latter screamingly funny: an endearingly inept male grad student time-travels to the Victorian era and gets in all manner of comedic scrapes with the locals).

Shannon Hale’s fantasy novels—Forest Born, River Secrets, Book of a Thousand Days, and others—are popular with both my older girls, and our copies are in nearly constant circulation with their friends.

Death by Black Hole by Neil deGrasse Tyson. This was mentioned in the third Penderwicks book and she recognized the author’s name as the host of the NOVA tv show. She says she’d like to read more of his work.

The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time by Jonathan Weiner.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.

You know I have to mention the Maud Hart Lovelace books. Ain’t just me: I see Jane (and friends) pulling them off the shelf on a regular basis.

The Throne of Fire, sequel to The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan. Jane likes the Percy Jackson books better, but Rose is partial to the Egyptian pantheon as portrayed in the Kane Chronicles.

The Diane Duane Young Wizards seriesHigh Wizardry, A Wizard Alone, Deep Wizardry to name a few.

James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small & the others in that series. (Such love!)

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Mature language, barracks humor, violence. And, as Mental Multivitamin put it, “a can’t-miss.” Jane told me recently that she can’t imagine growing up without it.

A caveat about this list: every parent I’ve ever known draws his or her “appropriate reading material” lines in different places. Mine may not be in the same place as yours. Jane is sixteen, and we don’t monitor her book choices the way we do for kids thirteen and under.

Related post: Nonfiction for Teens. Same caveat applies.

More book recommendations here.

Hello, Chocolate, My Old Friend

June 18, 2009 @ 8:31 pm | Filed under: ,

We’ve been hearing about the health benefits of dark chocolate for a couple of years now—woowoo antioxidants, right? But have you read up on the subject? I hadn’t, until Jane insisted I order a copy of Rowan Jacobsen’s Chocolate Unwrapped: The Surprising Health Benefits of America’s Favorite Passion. Rowan, you recall, is the author of Fruitless Fall, the book on bee colony collapse I wrote so much about last month.

His chocolate book proved just as interesting and illuminating.

Published in 2003 (which is to say, on the cutting edge of the chocolate-has-health-benefits revelation), Chocolate Unwrapped is a close look at what chocolate is, how it’s produced, what role it has played in history, and—the best part—exactly why it is good for us. I knew a good bit of the history, having researched cacao and cocoa for a book myself many moons ago, but I enjoyed the thoroughness of Rowan’s examination.

What I appreciated most was the in-depth look at antioxidants—what they are and why we care. I mean, we’ve all been inundated with the ANTIOXIDANTS GOOD message these past five or ten years, and we’ve seen dozens of lists of antioxidant-rich foods. If you’re on Facebook you’ve probably had those darn acai berries rubbed in your face more times than you can count. “Although everyone has heard of antioxidants,” Rowan writes, “most people have only a hazy conception of what they are.” Bingo.

“What,” he goes on to ask, “is so magical about antioxidants? How can they help prevent such a wide range of diseases?” The answer has to do with free radicals—something else I knew about in a hazy FREE RADICALS BAD, ANTIOXIDANTS GOOD way. But the science of it isn’t hazy at all.

Free radicals are molecules gone bad: they have had one of their electrons knocked off, or have had an extra electron forced upon them, so they have a charge. But (as we all remember from chemistry class), molecules don’t want a charge, they want to be neutral, so free radicals search their environment for a place to unload their extra electron, if they have too many, or steal an electron if they are one short.

Of course, the molecule victimized by the original free radical now has a charge of its own. So what does it do? It turns around and does the same thing to its neighbor. A chain reaction occurs that continues until something else comes along to intervene.

Now picture a free radical in your body. If it steals an electron from one of your cells, you then have a chain reaction of radical cells in your body. If it attacks your DNA, so much the worse. Cells don’t respond well to having their molecular structure altered. Cancer is just one of many diseases resulting from this. Blame free radicals for everything from wrinkled skin to memory loss, immune system deterioration, and arthritis….The average DNA receives 10,000 “hits” from free radicals per day.

Well, that cheerful information is enough to send me running to the fridge for my favorite comfort food. Fortuitously, it turns out that’s exactly the right move to make.

Enter the antioxidants. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals in several ways. The polyphenol antioxidants in chocolate are molecules composed of a ring of six carbon atoms. Some of the bonds between the carbon atoms are double bonds, but a single bond between carbon atoms is all that’s necessary for the molecule to hold together, so polyphenols can easily “shuffle” their bonds to have one free to latch onto a charged particle that comes along—like a free radical. They then carry the free radical out of the body with them when they are excreted through normal processes.

As you can see, your body needs a constant supply of polyphenols and other antioxidants to continously eliminate free radicals from the body. Chocolate is one of the best places to get this supply.

This is where Elaine shoves Jerry: GET OUT! I mean, it’s a bit of a jump from “ANTIOXIDANTS GOOD and chocolate’s got ’em” to “chocolate is one of the best places to get this supply.” Oh but listen:

A bar of dark chocolate has twice the antioxidant content of a glass of red wine and seven times that of green tea. What about fruits and vegetables? They don’t even come close. Oranges have 750 antioxidant units per 100 grams, kale 1770. Blueberries, poster-children of the antioxidant world, have 2400. And dark chocolate? More than 13,000.

Of course, as Rowan points out quite clearly, the cocoa bean is actually the seed of a fruit. And when he says “dark chocolate,” he means the darker, the better—certainly not milk chocolate, so full of sugar and milk powder that the actual cocoa content may be quite minimal. His examination of the history of chocolate illuminates the path the seeds traveled that led to their being so heavily diluted with sugars and fats that it is practically impossible for a contemporary Westerner to think of chocolate as anything but dessert (ergo a wicked indulgence).

Also discussed is chocolate’s famed (and quite factual) mood-lifting power, containing as it does a number of brain-affecting chemical compounds, including caffeine (in minimal quantities, however), theobromine (another mild stimulant), seratonin, tryptophan, and PEA (phenylethylamine), a chemical which, “like speed and heroin…triggers the release of natural opiates in the brain, which brings on feelings of ecstasy.” As if that weren’t enough, there’s anandamide, a “pleasure chemical” found in chocolate that is “almost identical to the THC in marijuana.”

(Bonus children’s literature connection: according to this book, anandamide was named for the Sanskrit word for bliss. In junior high, I was dead set on naming my firstborn daughter “Ananda,” after the awesome dog—stay with me—in Madeleine L’Engle’s  novel, A Swiftly Tilting Planet. According to Mrs. L’Engle, the word meant “that joy in existence without which the universe would fall apart and collapse.” I thought that sounded like a pretty fine name for one’s child. A bit much to measure up to, perhaps, but I planned to call her Nan for short—an homage to Anne Shirley Blythe, of course.)

Anyway: Chocolate Unwrapped: fascinating book, another excellent source of discussion between my children and me, and exactly the justification I needed for my mid-afternoon daily dose. And, yes, for me, where chocolate is concerned, the mantra has always been: the darker, the better. Free radicals, begone.

About That Bee Book

May 13, 2009 @ 8:04 pm | Filed under: , , , ,


As you know, I’ve had bees on my mind for weeks. I keep talking about Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis, the book about bee colony collapse written by my former grad-school classmate, Rowan Jacobsen.

How much have you read about bee colony collapse?

I knew the honeybee’s numbers were declining. I remember hearing the wacky cell phone theory several years back, and that was laughed out of the news, and since then I’ve just heard ominous mutterings now and then about the bees disappearing and nobody knows why.

But I didn’t know the half of it.

I didn’t know, for example, that nowadays U.S. beekeepers earn most of their income—far more than they earn selling honey—trucking their hives around the country to pollinate crops. Somehow this gobsmacks me. We are dependent on migrant worker bees for the produce we grow in this country.

I definitely didn’t know that in the winter of 2006/2007, huge numbers of these hives began to die, and no one is sure exactly why. There are theories, which is a lot of what Rowan’s book is about: an in-depth and thoughtful exploration of what could possibly be causing the collapse of our bee colonies.

As I said above, when I heard about “the disappearance of the honeybee” I thought it meant declining numbers. Pesticides, I assumed (and indeed that seems to be a major factor). What I didn’t get was that bees literally disappeared. The hives died because the forager bees flew out and didn’t fly back home. There are diseases and pests that kill bees, and you find dead bees in and around the hive. (That’s happening too, in horrifying numbers.) But in other cases, the bees just up and disappeared. One possible explanation, Rowan learned, is a kind of disorientation and memory loss known to be a symptom of neurological damage caused by certain pesticides. It’s possible the bees are suffering from something like bee Alzheimer’s due to exposure to toxins meant to kill other insects. They fly off to work and can’t find their way back home. And in other hives, there are bees carrying every bee disease, fungus, and pest known to afflict the honeybee world—all at once. It’s as if their immune systems have been decimated (possible cause: the catastrophic wave of varroa mite infestation that arrived in this country a few years back and is a terrible scourge in many parts of the world right now), leaving them susceptible to other illnesses.

And it isn’t just the honeybees: we know a lot about the decline in their numbers because they are domesticated bees, owned by devoted beekeepers who know exactly how many hives they have lost to varroa and bee colony collapse. No one has good numbers on all the other pollinating insects out there, except it seems clear honeybees aren’t the only pollinators in decline. Did you know vanilla beans are hand-pollinated by humans? The insect pollinator has been wiped out.

beepincushionObviously Fruitless Fall made a big impact on me. Shook me up; Jane too. The funny thing is, at the very same time that it was scaring the pants off me (a world short on pollinators is a scary, scary concept), it was filling me with wonder and delight. I know that sounds impossible. It’s the way Rowan looks so closely, with humor, warmth, and affection, at this ordinary (extraordinary!) creature, the honeybee. It reminded me of the John Stilgoe book I kept raving about last year, Outside Lies Magic. Remember that one? What Stilgoe did for me with power lines and telephone poles, Rowan Jacobsen did for me with bees and honey and even figs. The early chapters describing life in a beehive and the life cycle of the bee were so engaging that I read them aloud to 8-year-old Beanie, who was captivated. Jane (almost 14) has read the book at least three times now. She begged me to order Rowan’s book on chocolate—along with our very own copy of Fruitless Fall. Which is a good thing, because I find myself wanting to thrust the book at everyone I talk to. It’s that kind of book.