Monthly Archives: October 2008

Stirring it Up by Gary Hirshberg

Stirring It Up is the story of Stonyfield Farms, an organic yogurt and dairy manufacturer in Vermont, written by its founder and “CE-YO”. How could one not love such a title?

Well, I did not love the book. The most interesting bits are when he talks about running the business, especially when he argues that being green does not need to be in permanent conflict with being profitable. For instance, he describes how they got a great deal on transporting their yogurts South from Vermont by contracting with a trucker who brings poultry North (and used to return empty.) He explains how tinkering with the caps to reduce plastic usage also led them to something lighter, hence cheaper to transport. He describes a funny scene in which he and co-workers decided to empty discarded yogurt pots one by one into a neighbor’s pig trough — until the neighbor kindly suggested that pigs were quite able to root through unopened pots and lick them clean!

However, most of the book is a big commercial for the usual other green businesses (Patagonia, Clif Bar, Newman’s Own, etc.) with lots of self-righteous discourse on how they are doing the right thing. He should have stuck to Stonyfield’s own, quirky story. And perhaps not try to make it quite so perfect. I still don’t understand why they chose to use cups that cannot be recycled at all in most communities. He argues that the lighter weight makes it worthwhile but what will happen with all those cups in landfills?


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Distracted by Maggie Jackson

When I picked up Distracted I thought it would talk about how our collective inability to focus on any one task for more than a couple of minutes is driving us to personal and perhaps societal doom. And it certainly starts in this direction, with a funny story about romance in telegraph offices (so we 21st century people did not invent mechanical distractions!) And then, it starts to meander to how and why we trust others, how we tend to treat robots as people, how digital records will crumble faster than the great library of Alexandria. In brief: the book itself has attention-deficit disorder. Perhaps it’s all a metaphor?

I can’t say I did not enjoy the book, in particular the description of how people treat robots (and their dogs, as pointed out, astutely, by the author) as capable of understanding not only language but emotions. But I remain confused about its point, not to mention its focus.

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Apples and Oranges by Marie Brenner

This is an odd book. Apples and oranges recounts the swift but expected death of the author’s brother, who years ago abandoned a law career for an apple orchard in Washington State, but also includes swaths of family history, dating back to the immigrant grandparents and centered on the bad relationship between brother and sister. It seems that the author undertook the task of researching and writing the book as her way to cope with her brother’s early death, a task undertaken with her arsenal of journalistic methods — dig into the archives and ask lots of questions.

The result is strange. There are only rare glimpses of sadness, understandable perhaps because of the gulf between the siblings but the lack of warmth is puzzling (why write an entire book about your brother if you don’t care for him?) There are short accounts of the author’s life such as references to her college-age daughter and that daughter’s boyfriend troubles, but they seem out of place rather than touching. And there are long dissertations on breeding apples. Those visits to Washington State sure paid off, but fruit tree hybridization is just not that fascinating. Ultimately what I found most interesting in these days of intense politicking are the descriptions of the far-right views of her brother and many others in orchard country. This is probably not what the book was meant to do…

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Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks

I picked up Musicophilia because I had heard several interviews of the author and had enjoyed his unusual anecdotes, the kind way he talks about his patients, and his careful responses to some pretty inane audience questions. The book disappointed me. The unusual anecdotes abound, including several I heard during the interviews, but the book reads like a compendium of how the brain can go wild – both in a good and bad way – about music that lacks the warmth and charm of the author. Maybe it’s because we cannot read his English accent?

Try to catch him on a podcast instead.

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Forward from Here by Reeve Lindbergh

Forward from Here is a mix of memoir and essays on being “young in old age”, which for the author means turning 60. It also brings the last high school graduation in the family, a brain tumor (yikes!), turtles, and hot tubs that don’t fit into the front door. Reeve Lindbergh is one of Charles Lindbergh’s daughters (many daughters, since is seems the famed aviator collected families, as they were shocked to discover years after his death) but the book is not about her childhood, and not about the famous aspects of her family. When she talks about her mother it’s to relive what it’s like to take care of someone who is not quite there anymore. When she talks about her father, it’s to remember how his moral lectures jar today with his hidden behavior.

For the most part she talks about her life in rural Vermont, about keeping her seventeen-year old son and his friends fed (I can relate to that, although their drinking a half-gallon of milk seems paltry: I certainly have witnessed just one boy drink that much!), and about tiptoeing around the swallows that colonize her porch.

A funny, deep, but never self-absorbed reflection of what happens after the children leave home.


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I was told there’d be cake by Sloane Crosley

I was told there’s be cake is a collection of essays about a young woman’s life in Manhattan. The tone is reminiscent of David Sedaris (see here) but the book is much less successful. I think the reason is that the humor is often directed outward — at terribly bad bosses, loser boyfriends, rude guests — rather than against herself. Indeed the most successful essays are mocking herself. There’s one about locking herself out of her apartment(s) twice in the same day as she’s moving from one to the other and a hilarious one about mistakenly stealing part of an exhibit from the Natural History Museum. I must say that the essay about a crazy bride is very funny even if the object of mockery is not herself, so perhpas my theory doesn’t quite hold…

A funny book to be sure, but not that funny.

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The Commoner by John Schwartz

The Commoner tells the story of Empress Michiko of Japan, a commoner (actually called Haruko) who married into the imperial family after WWII agaisnt the advice of her parents, and had to endure a most rigid life and a hateful mother-in-law before starting the cycle all over again with her own daughter-in-law.

The book reminded me of the American Girl series: a competently-written book chronicling past events of a woman’s life told with great care but still showing indisputable contemporary biases. I found it forced and pre-ordained. For instance, there’s heavy emphasis on how she, a girl, beats the Crown Prince, a boy, at tennis, to the dismay and shock of her parents. Of how she’s supposed to always walk behind her husband. Of how her mother-in-law thinks she can direct her life in its smallest details. These incidents may seem unacceptable to the modern mind but compared to the lot of ordinary Japanese women (and other women!) at that time they may not be quite so shocking.

The part I liked best was the description of the French Catholic school attended by Haruko (who may have been a commoner but who was born in a rich family that spared no effort to give her a good education) and how that education was useful to submit to the intricate rituals of the imperial household. Indeed, Catholic schools appear positively lax in comparison!

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