Monthly Archives: April 2011

The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

I waited a long time to read The Botany of Desire.  When it first came out, the local library couldn’t keep it on the shelves; I ended up on long waiting lists that I never reached the end of before having to go back to college in the fall.  So I was excited to be able to get it and read it.  It’s not quite what I thought it would be, but that’s mostly in a good way.  Michael Pollan has written a book that is thought-provoking, unexpected, and wide in scope.

The book starts with a short introduction, in which Pollan states that he is interested in how certain plants meet certain human desires:  the apple satisfies sweetness; the tulip, beauty; marijuana, intoxication; and the potato meets our need for power.  He also sets forthhis hypothesis that cultivated plants have used humans to their advantage in order to survive in conditions they wouldn’t normally be able to.

This was probably my biggest disappointment with the book — it seems a fairly obvious idea that plants we care for have used us for their purposes, just as we use them.  It’s an idea I remember encountering in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (although on a smaller scale, and with bits that are much more integral to our physical makeup and survival), and, indeed, Pollan admits that The Selfish Gene played a role in the development of his book.

I loved reading the four chapters, though, because they don’t just push this idea.  Pollan starts out with the apple.  He discusses how wild apples are normally so bitter as to be inedible, and that grafting is the only way to ensure that a tree will bear tasty fruit.  He also gives quite a history of John Chapman — Johnny Appleseed — that I quite enjoyed.  Chapman was a character, spreading seeds (and thus unpredictable apple trees-to-be) into Ohio and, later, Indiana.  He was a vegetarian who went barefoot and enjoyed best sleeping in hollowed out trees.  His story is a charming one that I was completely unfamiliar with.  It was a delight to find such a piece of American history included here.

The section on tulips was a little less interesting to me.  The fact that color variation is due to a virus was news to me, but I’ve heard the story of tulipomania quite a few times.  Pollan brings some insight to the craziness — mainly, that the Puritan conditions of the Netherlands led people to indulge their lust in something relatively harmless, rather than the more earthly pleasures their religion prohibited.  Overall, though, I found it a little long and prone to navel-gazing.

Marijuana, the next chapter, discussed not just intoxication by that particular drug, but also talked about the historical use of many types of substances to induce altered states of consciousness.  Pollan talks about the science at the cutting-edge (at least for the time the book was written) of how marijuana affects the brain.  It’s incredibly fascinating to think about — substances in so many plants, that developed for so many purposes, also have a place in human culture and in human biology both in order to give us experiences we otherwise would never experience.

The lowly potato is the subject of the last section.  I found it a bit preachy; Pollan spends most of the time talking about how the Monsanto corporation has developed a potato with genetic modifications that make the plant create its own pesticide.  He visits some potato farmers, grows his own Monsanto potatoes, and eventually can’t eat the produce once they’re fully-grown, despite the fact that he’d already eaten them at one farmer’s home and in processed potato products.  As a man who is an avid gardener — and who put himself up to the task of growing these potatoes — I would think that he should have at least given them a shot.

The Botany of Desire was a mix of biology, culture, and personal experience.  It worked well in some situations, but not in others, but I think the good parts of the book overshadow the flat ones.  Just don’t look for a straightforward cultural history of agriculture, and you’ll have an enjoyable read.

Rating: 3.5/5.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under 3.5/5, Book review, Favorable, Nonfiction

Hot Lights, Cold Steel by Michael J. Collins

Hot Lights, Cold Steel is, in a way, like many other books I’ve read before.  It’s a medical memoir, a genre I have an interest in.  Yet it manages to set itself apart through Collins’ sensitive and insightful prose about not only his training, but, really, about the entirety of his life through the four years of his residency.  Collins has written a book enjoyable for many reasons, a feat not often achieved by a book typically focused on one, partitioned part of the author’s life.

The book starts off with a scenario Collins faced toward the end of his residency — being in charge of the almost impossible decision of whether to amputate a fourteen-year-old’s leg.  Collins then takes us back to the beginning of his residency at the prestigious Mayo Clinic in orthopedic medicine, outlining his four years there in chapters labeled by month.

One of the most refreshing things about Hot Lights, Cold Steel is that Collins is so open about the fear and uncertainty he had going in.  He felt inadequate and unprepared for a residency at such a renowned medical center.  He discusses his efforts to study up on procedures and conditions he would have to do.  He discusses the friendships that he made and the quick understanding he had to make of the personalities of each of the attending physicians he worked under.

More interesting was his discussion of the paltry amount of money a resident makes, even at a place like Mayo Clinic.  He found himself forced to moonlight at a hospital in a city ninety miles to the west, which meant that he was even more exhausted than the average resident.

Making his life more complicated was his family situation.  He had, at the beginning of his residency, a wife and a young daughter.  By the end of the four years, they had added three more children to the mix.  His wife, who had training as a nurse, became a stay-at-home mom out of necessity.  Collins is very open about the strain the long hours away from home placed on their marriage, and how his relationships with his children suffered.  This was actually the part of the book I found most compelling — many of these medical memoirs discuss the physical exhaustion, but rarely discuss the toll the long hours and unpredictable schedules can take on a family.

I can’t think of anything bad to say about Hot Lights, Cold Steel.  Collins has produced a book that allows the reader into both his personal and professional life with remarkable ease.  From his writing, he feels like someone anyone could know, yet he has the brilliance to write about his experiences with both respect and humor.  This ability just makes him more interesting, and makes his book more appealing.

Rating: 5/5.

Leave a comment

Filed under 5/5, Book review, Favorable, Nonfiction

What Was I Thinking? by William B. Helmreich

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I started reading What Was I Thinking?  I’m guessing I was thinking I would read a book about mistakes, and then have solutions directly following those mistakes.  That’s not exactly what Helmreich has created; his book is more of a sociological study of misbehavior, with long lists of why people do things they later regret, with only the tail end providing some solutions.  For something that labels itself as a self-help book on the back, I don’t think it quite makes it; as a study on the mistakes we all make, however, it’s an interesting read.

Helmreich structures the book by dedicating each chapter to reasons people make mistakes, e.g., arrogance or insecurity.  Within each of those chapters, he gives us about nine different ways that particular reason can manifest.  For example, in the chapter on arrogance, the reasons for the arrogance he provides us are:

  1. Believing you’re untouchable
  2. Overconfidence
  3. Obliviousness to others
  4. Narcissism
  5. A need to dominate
  6. A crusader mentality
  7. Rage
  8. Rigidity
  9. Society

He then gives examples and explains how these aspects can create an environment that lends itself to doing dumb things.   These chapters and their separate sections are interesting to read; Helmreich has a good writing style, and his examples and stories are interesting.

What I’m not sure about is how this book all hangs together.  One reason in one chapter seems an awful lot like another reason in another chapter a lot of the time, and, really, I don’t think we need to know much more than that there are some basic personality flaws or situations that can cause someone to do something dumb.

I also had issues with the way the book is structured.  I think it would have been much more effective if, at the end of a chapter, Helmreich provided some concrete solutions as to how to avoid or prevent committing that type of mistake.  Instead, his suggestions are segregated in the last chapter, which doesn’t lend itself to easy reference.  If I think my problem is arrogance, which is the second chapter, I have to go to the end of the book in order to look for guidance to help me overcome my personality flaw.

I do, however, think that What Was I Thinking? makes an excellent study of human nature.  We all make mistakes, and we make them for a variety of reasons.  I enjoyed reading this book because it made an attempt to make sense of our dumb actions, which was something I thought, outside of cases of psychological pathology, was impossible.  Helmreich has taken his sociological training and produced a book that is engrossing, just not for the reasons he was hoping for.

On the whole, What Was I Thinking? is a good sociological study, but a so-so self-help book.  I’d recommend it for curiosity, but not for actual advice.

Rating: 3/5.

2 Comments

Filed under 3/5, Advance Reader's Copy, Book review, Mixed, Nonfiction

Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde

After reading The Well of Lost Plots, I wasn’t sure what to expect in Something Rotten.  It surprisingly picks up two years after the previous book, with Thursday having given birth to her son, Friday, and returning to the real world.  It gets back to the main story of Thursday’s life, which, I think, is preferable to the fantastical world of unpublished books.  Something Rotten is superior, and I enjoyed it even more than The Well of Lost Plots.

Thursday returns with a guest — Hamlet, who needs some time away from his play.  Accompanied also by her son and dodos, Thursday comes back to stay with her mother.  She also finds Goliath Corporation trying to make itself a religion, a prophesy that states that if the Swindon Mallets, the local croquet team, doesn’t win its game against the Reading Whackers, the world just might end.  Thursday ends up as manager, since Goliath hires away most of the talent from the team.

Thursday takes advantage of Goliath’s religious aims, asking for an apology and the return of her husband, Landen.  They hold to their word, but he flickers in and out for a while, causing some issues with showing up at his home only to find his parents there instead, who don’t remember their son ever becoming an adult.

With all this going on, Thursday is also chasing down the minotaur that escaped from captivity in the previous book and is chasing down Yorrick Kaine, who has come to significant political power and has started a crusade against the Danes and all things Danish.  She is also being chased down by an assassin called the Windowmaker, who has close ties to one of her good friends.  A loaded plate, to say the least.

I think the best thing about this book is the balance between the crises.  I didn’t have as much of a problem following exactly what was going on in Something Rotten.  That might have something to do with the fact that I’ve actually read more of the books and plays mentioned in this volume than the others, but I also think Fforde has created a more polished book.  Friday’s escapades make more sense and the prose flows more easily.

One thing that confused me a bit was the inclusion of illustrations in the book, which seemed more heavy in the front of the book than in the back.  I suspect these might have been a holdover from the hardcover edition, but, seeing as they weren’t in the other books in the series, it made me a little perplexed.  I would have preferred them be left out; I think that, unless it’s a children’s book or a nonfiction book that needs figures, illustrations aren’t really necessary.

Overall, I really enjoyed Something Rotten.  I found it more clever than The Well of Lost Plots, which is a pretty difficult feat, and I was completely engaged in the narrative.  I can’t wait to get into the next book in the series, to find out what next happens to Ms. Thursday Next.

Rating: 4.5/5.

Leave a comment

Filed under 4.5/5, Book review, Favorable, Fiction

The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde

I have to admit, I’m a little rusty on my Thursday Next.  The last time I read one of the books, it was in 2006, and The Well of Lost Plots was just coming out as a hardcover.  Now, here I am, five years later, and I’m having to do some catching up.  It’s well worth it, though, for the world of Thursday Next is one richly filled with all sorts of literary delights.

We start off pretty close to where Lost in a Good Book leaves off.  Thursday is hiding within the Well of Lost Plots to protect her unborn child, the product of a marriage to a man who never existed.  She finds a place to stay within an unpublished mystery novel, taking the place of one of the secondary characters.  The book is not doing well, and Thursday tries to provide a little help before it gets pulled apart for its words.

Thursday is also being trained, by Miss Havisham, to become a literary enforcement agent.  She goes through some pretty grueling training, which can also be amusing — Miss Havisham leads a group therapy session for the characters from Wuthering Heights, which Thursday tags along to.  We then get to see what happens in between the pages, which, for Wuthering Heights, basically means that everyone spends their time hating Heathcliff.

Here is one of the great things about the Thursday Next series:  it’s for people who love to read.  Not just love to read, but love to read novels.  Not just love to read novels, but love to read those books that are considered great literature.  Fforde takes the characters from big books, like Great Expectations or Jane Eyre, and puts his own take on what their personalities are into his versions of them.  It’s really nice … for those of us who have read the books he’s referencing.

This is, thus, one of the biggest downfalls of Fforde’s books, too — you have to be a complete book nerd to get every little thing he puts in.  Otherwise, the only things you’re going to understand are the puns, and that’s no way to go through a book.  A person’s literary well-being can’t be sustained on puns alone.

Fforde does have a very lovable writing style.  His inner circle of characters are pretty well-rounded, and I enjoy the world he has created where foundering books are in a well far below the library of all fiction created (at least, in English).  I think that many well-exposed readers would really enjoy the Thursday Next series; if one doesn’t, I think The Well of Lost Plots has very limited appeal.  Maybe, though, it’s an incentive to read books that are over ten years old — I know I haven’t read Wuthering Heights, and I think maybe it’s about time I do.

Rating: 4/5.

Leave a comment

Filed under 4/5, Book review, Favorable, Fiction