Monday, December 31, 2012

Songs from the Cold War #12: the end

Maybe there were a lot more songs I missed, but I'm going to end my list with one about the end of the Cold War: "Wind Of Change" by Scorpions.  Maybe the cracks in the Iron Curtain were plain to see, but I think most of us were stunned when it came down in 1989.  I remember following the news at the time, and it was... well, unbelievable and even unthinkable!  You just kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak, and for the communists to brutally and violently stomp out the mostly peaceful revolutions that were springing up – tentatively in some cases – in Eastern Europe, and I'm sure most of them were waiting for it, too.  And the miracle was that it never happened.  If you'd ever suggested it would end like that I'd have thought you were a fool – and I wouldn't have been the only one. 


Saturday, December 29, 2012

Songs from the Cold War #11: Getting literary

Still with me on this list?  Well, I've pretty much already listed all the songs I could think of that seemed to have themes of nuclear destruction and war, so allow me to take a little detour.  Ever read George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four?  I had to read it in two nights for a book report in high school; and while 300 pages is a lot to read in just two nights it's also a lot to take in.  But I remember thinking how prophetic it must be about society in the Soviet Union and how controlling the State was.  Yeah, I thought, that's who Orwell was talking about, with their Gulag and thought-police.  And Oingo Boingo encouraged me to read the book when they sang "Wake Up (It's 1984)" (oh yeah, I had a punk[ish] streak to my musical tastes!).  I could have never imagined – back in 1984 when I read 1984 – how it would look today here in the land of milk and honey, the way companies like FaceBook (and other "Big Brothers") can track our every digital move.  Yes, "Big Brother's [still] watching," but I'm not so sure we're "watch[ing] him back" or that "we see right through his disguise."  (Sorry, I couldn't find a video for this one, so I picked the one that sounded the best.)


Thursday, December 27, 2012

Merry Christmas 2012

Whoa!  How did the whole Christmas season just slip by me so quickly!  Oh well, since I can't sleep I thought I might as well get up and post our pictures.  It's so nice to have Braiden home from school - we've really missed him.


 
Ever since we changed our trip to the Redwoods last year the kids have been complaining, so we went this year the weekend before Christmas and dragged our good friends, the Jorgensons, along.  We had tent cabins reserved in Big Basin Redwoods State Park, but unfortunately, when we got there the campground was closed because of anticipated high winds that night.  We ended up finding some sturdier cabins at Little Basin - and it was a good thing, too, because although the wind didn't happen that night, the next night it POURED!  We still had fun though, and saw lots of big trees, moss, mushrooms, and even some salamanders, but no banana slugs.


 




 
We got together at Ben & Melissa's house this year for a (pre) Christmas dinner and Nativity.
 

 
And, of course, there was Christmas morning and presents.  (And that afternoon I FINALLY got to see "The Hobbit.")


Sunday, December 23, 2012

Songs from the Cold War #10: The coffee-house Sophocles

Now that the 90s are long gone is it okay to admit I was never really a fan of Sting?  To be sure I liked a few of his songs, but his stuff with The Police was a lot better (some of it anyway).  And when he went on his own he just seemed to have this annoyingly superior and condescending attitude, and to this day I picture him dressed all in black and sitting in an overstuffed armchair in a basement coffee-house where they're having one of those weird poetry readings and everyone snaps instead of applauding.  (I don't know if he's ever done that, but it's what I imagine.)  At any rate, he always came across to me as one of those people who think very highly of themselves and very little of anyone whose views aren't as enlightened.  Nevertheless, "Russians" might have sounded weird as pop music, but I can't argue with the (not-so-subltly overbearing) message.


Friday, December 21, 2012

Songs from the Cold War #9: An atomic breeze

You might think I could go with "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" by Tears for Fears at this point.  But instead how about "Mothers Talk"?  Yeah, I wouldn't think of it either, but there's a line repeated several times that says "When the wind blows."  Apparently, When The Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs was an anti-nuclear comic book about an elderly couple named Jim and Hilda Bloggs and their bomb shelter.  Again, remember that I didn't watch videos on MTV as a kid, but there were three different videos for this song.  It sounds like the third is the only one to portray the nuclear war aspect of the song.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Songs from the Cold War #8: The perkiest song

If there was a band whose sound seemed to epitomize the synthesizer-heavy sound of much new-wave music it was Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, or more easily known as OMD.  Their sound was peppy and cheerful and upbeat, and The Guardian newspaper (UK) called their hit song "Enola Gay" "the perkiest song about a nuclear holocaust ever written."  Enola Gay was – of course – the name of Colonel Paul Tibbets' mother.  Oh yeah, it was also the name of Paul's plane.  And it was the plane that dropped a big firecracker called "Little Boy" on Hiroshima.  So, lines like "It's 8:15, and that's the time that it's always been" refer to the time of the explosion and frozen clocks; "Is mother proud of Little Boy today?" alludes to both the bomb and Paul's mom; and "It shouldn't ever have to end this way" ought to be pretty self-explanatory.


Monday, December 17, 2012

Songs from the Cold War #7: If you survive...

"Stand or Fall" by The Fixx is another song that seemed a bit cryptic, mostly because I could only pick out a few lines here and there.  Something about "If you survive don't do as we did," "Foreign affairs are screwing us rotten," and "Talks of peace will be forgotten" (?) were vague, but "Red or blue, what's the difference" might have been a little more pointed.  But I always had the impression that most of their music was politically themed.  To me, it was just good music.


Friday, December 14, 2012

Songs from the Cold War #6: Superman where are you now

Okay, "Land of Confusion" by Genesis wasn't one of my favorite songs.  It was alright, but Genesis wasn't really my kind of music.  But, I found out the video was about the Cold War so I thought I'd include it (remember, we didn't watch MTV at my house) and I'll just let the video speak for itself.



Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Iping, mandioca, manioc, and cyanide

I was recently reminded that it was 26 years ago (+2 days now) that I began my LDS mission, so I thought I'd interrupt my other posts with a quick memory.  Mormon missionaries typically eat dinner with the local church members. It not only helps to support the missionaries – who aren't paid for their service – but it also gives the members a chance to get to know them and be involved in the missionary work.

I served my mission in the southernmost state in Brazil: Rio Grande do Sul. The people are called "gauchos" and are a kind of Brazilian cowboy or rancher. There are a lot of immigrants from Germany, Poland, and Northern Italy so even though my hair is blonde I fit in well enough. But anyway, we ate lunch instead of dinner with them. It was more in keeping with the local custom of eating the bigger meal at mid-day, plus it freed us up to teach people when they were home after work in the evening. And living in another country for two years and mixing so much with the people exposes you to a very different culture.

Brazil is not "Southern Mexico." They do not eat tacos or tortillas or refried beans or chips and salsa. Instead, black beans and white rice is the foundation of nearly every meal and meat is served often (if you've ever eaten at a Brazilian BBQ – "churrasco" – that's what they eat in southern Brazil, or at least an Americanized version of it). They also had pastas and other dishes but there were other – different! – foods I'd never seen. One I remember was a long root called "mandioca" (mon-JOE-kuh), although the Brazilians from São Paulo ("Paulistas") called it "iping" (I don't know if that spelling is right, but it was pronounced: i-PING). It was starchy and similar to potatoes but more fibrous and had a thick "string" that ran down the center of the root. But it had an interesting flavor and I actually liked it – once I realized you weren't supposed to eat the string.

I've sometimes wondered about "mandioca" since then – what it was and why I'd never seen it here.  That was the Brazilian name for it, but if it was sold or eaten locally I didn't know what it might be called.  But I recently came across it while reading the latest Flavia de Luce novel (which is what started this train of thought).  It also goes by the name manioc or cassava, and it's widespread around the world.  Most surprisingly, it's what cyanide comes from and unless cooked properly can kill you!  (Which is why Flavia was interested in it.)

Obviously I survived, but I ate quite a few other things that might have made me wonder.  I remember one time dipping a serving spoon into a bowl of soup and seeing a scaly chicken foot surface briefly as my appetite left me.  A few times we ate liver, which tastes like gritty dirt to me.  But perhaps the most difficult thing I ever ate was "mondongo" which is tripe (cow stomach).  The smell was so overpowering that you could smell it even before you reached the house.

Nevertheless, eating with the members was sometimes an eye-opening experience.  I didn't grow up on the "rich side of town," but in Brazil I saw a lot of people who had very little in the way of worldly goods.  And it often made me feel bad when they asked to feed us because it was obvious that the meal they put on the table for us was better (and far more expensive) than anything they would ever make for themselves.  And yet they were so happy to have the missionaries in their humble homes!  We would try to eat sparingly, knowing what a sacrifice it was for them, but they still encouraged "come mais, Elder, come mais" ("eat more"), and they felt they would be blessed by feeding us.  I know I uttered many a silent prayer in their behalf.

And I still count those experiences as among the most treasured in my life.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Songs from the Cold War #5: Oops!

Mistakes happen, right?  Well, hopefully not the kind of mistake shown in the video for "It's a Mistake" by Men at Work.  But surely a lot of people around the world must have worried that with so much destructive firepower and a bunch of edgy leaders, even the littlest thing might set it all off.  Remember that clip of Reagan making a joke about outlawing the Soviet Union?  I'm glad the president had a sense of humor, but it would be nice if someone had told him when the microphone was on!  Oh well, mistakes happen, right?


Friday, December 7, 2012

Songs from the Cold War #4: Balloons and UFOs

Germany has been at the center of world conflicts for at least a century, and the beginning of the Cold War was no different.  When it was divided up after WWII, it was split not only into East and West Germany, but the capital Berlin – which was located within East Germany – was split into four different sectors (American, British, French, and Soviet).  And one of the more dramatic post-war events occurred when the Soviets imposed a blockade (in an attempt to take over all of Berlin) and the West responded with the Berlin Airlift, and we ended up with one of the most visible symbols of the Cold War: the Berlin Wall.  So, you might say Germans were living at the epicenter of the Cold War, and when the guitarist for the German band Nena watched balloons at a concert in West Berlin float away he wondered what might happen if faulty Soviet radar equipment mistook them for something else.  With thousands of missiles pointed at each other it wasn't just an idle worry that a small misunderstanding could trigger a bigger event, and the song "99 Luftballons" imagines a war set off by something as insignificant as balloons.  Of course, unless you spoke German you wouldn't really know that until the English version, "99 Red Balloons" came out.


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Songs from the Cold War #3: Wearing sunglasses

Wouldn't you just love to actually see a real nuclear explosion?  No?  Well, I would – if I could be safe and it wasn't blowing up a city full of people, of course!  But I find myself fascinated by the descriptions of those who have seen it: the sky changing and flashing all different colors, the mushroom cloud, the sight and feel of the shockwave... it must be an awesome – if perverse – sight.  A song that's more often associated with happy graduations than a terrifying end-of-the-world is "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades" by Timbuk 3.  And yet the song came from a comment Barbara MacDonald made to her husband Pat (both members of the band) as she reflected on the grim future their children might face in a tense nuclear world, and Pat spun it into a hit (although this has to be one of the dumbest videos ever made).  Maybe he was singing to students graduating with degrees in nuclear science?


Monday, December 3, 2012

Songs from the Cold War #2: Frankie says...

"Red Skies" and "The Gap" might not be obvious songs about the Cold War, but "Two Tribes" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood was pretty clear.  Keep in mind, however, that I didn't grow up watching MTV (my dad wouldn't dream of paying for television), but even without having seen the video wrestling match with Reagan and Chernenko I thought it was obvious.  "When two tribes go to war, a point is all that you can score" and references to Reagan ("Cowboy number one, a born again poor man's son / On the air America, I modelled shirts by Van Heusen") were usually hard to understand, but air raid sirens and explosions weren't.  Plus, this song had several remixes, at least one of which featured a "public service" voice giving instructions for how to survive the attack (see the "Protect and Survive" videos), and another had a very Reagan-like voice.  I never noticed it at the time but there are also some very Russian-sounding notes played during the song.

 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Songs from the Cold War #1: Chew the fat

While reading Pandora's Keepers I couldn't help thinking about how strongly the threat of nuclear war had affected our culture. I grew up in the 80s and it seemed like a lot of the music I listened to expressed this fear that war between the US and the USSR was imminent – a war in which nobody would come out a winner. Some were obvious and others might just be my imagination but I made a list of songs that I thought were specifically about nuclear war or the Cold War. So, here's my list – one at a time – of some of my favorite 80s Songs from the Cold War.

I've already posted about "Red Skies" by The Fixx, which may or may not have been about the Cold War. Another that's not so clear is "The Gap" by the Thompson Twins. The lines "East is East, West is West / Two different colors on the map" seemed to refer to the USSR and USA, and "Break the line, chew the fat / Keep moving out into the gap" sounded like urging the two superpowers to resolve their differences. (Am I reading too much into it?) Anyway, most of all I love that my kids are embarrassed that I still like music like this! (Sorry, I couldn't find a video for this song, and this was better than the live performances I found.).
 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

H has become a most ominous letter

In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman on earth and was given a beautiful container which she was told never to open. But, of course, her curiosity got the better of her and when she opened it all the evil inside escaped into the world. When she tried to close it the only thing left was the Spirit of Hope. Pandora was afraid she would be punished, but Zeus didn't because he knew it would happen from the beginning, and so Hope was released as well.

It's easy to see the parallel to the story of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit, but is there a modern parallel as well? Brian VanDeMark makes a comparison to the beginning of the nuclear age in his book Pandora's Keepers: Nine Men and the Atomic Bomb. Instead of simply retelling the story of the Manhattan Project or the subsequent nuclear arms race, VanDeMark focuses on nine men who were involved in it: Leo Szilard, Enrico Fermi, I. I. Rabi, Niels Bohr, Edward Teller, Ernest Lawrence, Arthur Compton, Robert Oppenheimer, and Hans Bethe. Some were theoreticists whose insights paved the way, others were instrumental in refining the uranium and plutonium, and others put it all together in the mountains of New Mexico. All were incredibly brilliant men who changed the world.

Many of them had been forced to leave their European homelands by the threat of Nazism and found a welcoming community in America of fellow scientists and thinkers. Physics in those days was a mostly theoretical exercise with little practical application. But when it became known that Nazi scientists were working on splitting the atom to unleash its destructive power, the Manhattan Project was born with a goal of developing an atomic bomb first. But it wasn't just the threat that drove them; it was also the opportunity of a lifetime to pursue an intense professional curiosity.

But for some, seeing the devastation wrought on civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused anxiety over their work, even describing it as a "sin." They understood their willing role in developing the bomb, but were conflicted by the obvious fact that it had indeed ended the war. Some argued for international control of the bomb and warned of an arms race, but not all. When international negotiations failed and the Soviet Union successfully tested their own atomic bomb (using information gained by espionage) some again lent their talents to the race to develop even bigger thermonuclear weapons, which used atoms of hydrogen – the hydrogen or H bomb – and release hundreds of times the destructive energy of the bombs dropped in WWII.

VanDeMark's praise of authors like Richard Rhodes and Robert Dallek made me wonder if this would simply be another book condemning the U.S., but I was surprised at how fairly he treated the subject. And he shows a talent for bringing the story to life in an exciting way that emphasizes the moral dilemmas of the time and the questions the physicists faced, and that there were no easy answers. There wasn’t just a tremendous amount of research that went into the book but a lot of thought as well. I thought it was both interesting and readable, and it’s one of those books that didn’t get the kind of attention it deserved. (Incidentally, the title of this post comes from a little poem written by Edward Teller for his children.)

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Thanksgiving 2012 (in Arizona)

The holidays are so much more fun when you have family around to share them with.  Two years ago we were in Utah and celebrated with my family but last year we went camping since we had no family staying in town (and took some good friends along).  This year, since Poppy and Danny just bought a house, the whole family gathered in Arizona.  So some flew down from Washington and Utah and the rest of us drove from California.

Now, if you know Jamie, you'll know she loves to decorate.  And even if we're driving to another state she likes to have the table decorated nicely in her style.  So, not only were we hauling her china and silver (and some of Poppy's), we also took table cloths, candlesticks, nice glasses, fresh flowers for centerpieces, 2 folding tables, and 6 chairs Poppy wanted.  Jamie also bought 4 new restaurant-style chafing dishes to serve from so it could all stay warm.  (Yeah, you try cramming all that stuff in the van and avoid any broken dishes or glasses without freaking out!)

But it turned out fantastic!  And the food was incredible (of course).  The weather was beautiful and we set up the table in the back yard. 


 
A very kind neighbor let the kids ride his horses (and my girls were in heaven!). 




 
And on Friday we all went to an old cowboy town (for tourists, of course), complete with a staged gun-fight.  It was fun, although it felt a little odd driving around that desert landscape while listening to "Frosty the Snowman" and other Christmas music on the radio.
 


 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Friday, November 9, 2012

"Boil 2 quarts of milk with a large piece of orange peel"

Thomas Jefferson has always been one of the more enigmatic founding fathers for me. I don't necessarily agree with his politics but the aspects of his life that interest me most are his interests in science, gardening, and food. As an outspoken advocate of states rights, he nonetheless engineered one of the greatest overreaches of Federal power with the Louisiana Purchase, and then sent Lewis & Clark exploring with instructions that included bringing back new and edible plants. As ambassador to France Jefferson seemed more interested in the food and wine that so generously accompanied Paris social life, even bringing along one of his slaves to take cooking lessons.

Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America by Thomas J. Craughwell looks more closely at this time he spent as ambassador. Slavery was illegal in France and James Hemmings could have simply claimed his freedom, but Jefferson made an agreement with him that he would free him after he had taught another slave the art of French cooking (no such agreement was made with Sally Hemmings, who came to France to care for Jefferson's daughters).

The French have never been slouches when it comes to food fashions. From the sumptuous, lengthy, and extravagant meals of the aristocracy came a new sensibility and awareness of food that the aristocratically-minded Jefferson lapped up. And not only did he ship home olive trees, grape vines, and cases of the finest French wines and champagnes (Jefferson made champagne popular in America), he also brought back dishes like macaroni and cheese, french fries, and creme brulee, which were later served at Monticello and the White House during his two terms as president. (He even smuggled some Italian rice, but it didn't grow well in America.)

This is not an in-depth history of Jefferson's meals, and the slave James Hemmings plays a very minor role. Instead Craughwell fills in information about the foods that were popular in America and France at the time and explains how the French excesses (including food-related) influenced the French Revolution. And this sort of background history that is often glossed over in many history books is what makes this one interesting. Likewise, I enjoyed the short appendixes discussing the kinds of foods grown in Jefferson's gardens and his fascination with wine. And Jefferson did eventually grant James Hemmings' freedom, but it took six years and some complaining from James before it happened.

But foodies looking for details about Jefferson's dinner table or James Hemmings’ recipes may come away with more historical background than actual information. I suspect the kind of mundane stuff like what was for dinner simply wasn't thought important enough to be recorded and become part of the historical record (this was in the days before sharing such information on Facebook became fashionable). There are a number of pictures of letters and documents - some in Jefferson's hand - showing his notes and some of the recipes, but they're difficult to read. Still, the book was kinda fun and short, but for a more detailed look at his gardens I recommend Andrea Wulf's Founding Gardeners. (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

Monday, November 5, 2012

Steve Jobs Must Be Crazy

I was just reminded of a movie I saw when I was a teenager, The Gods Must Be Crazy.  It was a low-budget movie made in Africa (with lots of natives and looking VERY low-budget).  Some friends had said it was very funny so when my cousins suggested going to a movie one weekend I mentioned it.  If you've seen the movie you know it starts out looking like a documentary - and I was definitely getting the Evil Eye - but soon enough everyone was laughing like crazy.

If you've forgotten it begins with a small plane flying over some African Bushmen when the pilot tosses a coke bottle out the window.  It lands unbroken nearby and seems to be an amazing gift from the gods.  It can hold water, is hard enough to mash roots, and can even make music when you blow across the opening.  The problem was that the gods had only sent one, and everyone seemed to want it at the same time which led to fights.  When they tried to throw it back to the gods it fell on a child's head and injured him.  (Click here to see that scene.)

So, why was I reminded of this movie today?  We have an iPad which is very useful.  It can be used much like a computer and the kids love using it for their "homework" (which seems to be listening to music, watching videos, and playing games).  But the gods were careless and only sent one, leading to regular fights because everyone wants to do their "homework" on it at the same time.  The kids can't even keep a straight face when they say they need it for "homework," which apparently can't be done on one of the other computers in the house.

So when I walked in the house tonight after work - in a fairly good mood - I was surprised at how quiet everyone was.  (This sometimes means mom got mad, but when I asked I was told that nothing was wrong.)  However, in less than five minutes a fight over the coke bottle - I mean, the iPad - had erupted resulting an instant loss of the peace and quiet and everyone being mad.  Of course, I was blamed for all this since I had asked why it was so quiet.

Stupid Steve Jobs.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Reading YA

Even though most readers of YA (young adult) fiction aren't actually young adults, I'm still a little embarrassed to admit that it's really what I prefer. Maybe part of the reason is that it's more reliably cleaner than grown-up fiction (I hate to say "adult" fiction since that seems to be another hot genre that many adults might be embarrassed to read in public). And maybe another part is a lingering fondness for the books I loved so much as a kid. Regardless, here's a few I've received from Amazon Vine lately.

In Summer at Forsaken Lake by Michael D. Beil, twelve year old Nicholas Mettleson and his younger twin sisters have been sent to spend the summer in Demming, Ohio. It's a different world from NYC, but "Uncle Nick" – who doesn't have a TV – turns out to be really nice and soon he's teaching them how to sail on the lake. Nicholas makes friends with a girl named Charlie who can throw a curve ball no one can hit, learns how to ride a bike, and discovers a secret compartment in his room with an unfinished movie called "The Seaweed Strangler" that his father was making when he was 14 years old and spending the summers there. And although the "mystery" about their father and the seaweed strangler drives the plot along, it's really more of a sentimental and old-fashioned story about growing up and spending the summer away from parents and home. It's not a thrill-a-minute adventure, but instead charms with an easier pace and a beautiful setting that will make kids wish to spend summers in a place like Forsaken Lake. And it's the kind of book I loved to get lost in as an 11 or 12 year old.

Immortal Lycanthropes by Hal Johnson, on the other hand, reminded me of I Am Number Four with its heavy emphasis on a plot-driven action story and some mystery mixed in. Myron Horowitz is an especially ugly kid who was found wandering a country road looking more like hamburger than an 8 year old. Multiple surgeries saved his life but left him horribly disfigured and an unusually small and stunted 13 year old as well as a favorite target of bullies. But when one particularly brutal bully picks on him in the school cafeteria something happens that leaves his attacker a bleeding mess and Myron unconscious and naked on the floor. It turns out that Myron is an "immortal lycanthrope," and "lycanthrope" refers to more animal/human shape-shifters than just wolves. (So, a were-bear, a were-moose or even a were-mouse is also a lycanthrope and in this story there is one for each mammal species and they're immortal – sort of.) Yeah, I know – this sounds like another rip-off of the recent trend in teen books since Twilight, and this one suffers from an especially uncreative title. But if you liked series like Percy Jackson or I Am Number Four you might enjoy this one. There are a few mild profanities and a couple of juvenile comments of a sexual nature, but the violence was more restrained than I expected. It's not a great book – the ending is abrupt and the narration is too smart-alecky – but it was kind of fun and might be mildly entertaining for older kids.

And finally, Tales from Lovecraft Middle School #1: Professor Gargoyle by Charles Gilman appears to be aimed at fans of the Goosebumps series. The book cover is what originally caught my attention – a 3D picture which morphs from the dour-looking Professor Goyle into the demonic Professor Gargoyle – but the story isn't quite as creepy and unsettling as the cover might suggest. Because of school redistricting, twelve-year old Robert Arthur finds himself starting the school year at the brand new Lovecraft Middle School. Unfortunately, the only familiar face he recognizes is Glenn Torkells, a bully who's dogged him for years. But in addition to the state of the art technology, the school has a few quirks like rats in the lockers on the first day, an enormous and labyrinthine library with a secret room, and teachers who aren't quite what they seem. At about 160 pages it's a short and easy read but it includes real life issues like dodging bullies and making new friends. I'm not familiar with all the references to the horror novelist H. P. Lovecraft, but I caught the fact that Robert is named after the original author of one of my most favorite series as a kid (as well as the reference to one of my favorite movies, "Poltergeist").

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Next Big Thing

So, I've been tagged in The Next Big Thing by Ashley Benning, which apparently is a chain-letter for bloggers to discuss the book they're writing.

What is the working title of your book?
Lost in the Shadows

Where did the idea come from for the book?
Years ago I read an article in the LA Times about how many missing persons there are in Alaska. Not only do they get lost in all that wilderness but sometimes people go there to "lose themselves" on purpose – sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally. Being a long-time fan of creepy ghost stories I wondered: what if there was something contributing to disappearances?

What genre does your book fall under?
Ahh, I hate to think of it as "horror" because so many of those books are completely over the top. (Slasher movies like Nightmare on Elm Street were popular when I was a teenager but I preferred a good ghost story like Poltergeist.) I think I'll go with "paranormal thriller" for genre.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
No idea – can't even manage to think that far ahead.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
After the death of his wife, Jack moves to Alaska to escape his grief and run a small lodge in the woods near Juneau only to find something malevolent about the forest.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Hopefully represented by an agency, of course, but I'm seeing a lot of self-publishing success stories.  If all else fails I might just serialize it on my blog.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Well, I've been working on it for over 8 years now, and just started the first major re-write this last summer (I guess that's what happens when you have a full-time job/life). Although I had originally envisioned "Jack" as a late 20-something I'm considering changing him to a teenager (after all, YA is what I generally read) and I think it might work better that way, but I've decided to try to finish it "as is" first (I must be a little OCD because I can't stand leaving things unfinished).

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Maybe Dean Koontz in some of his cleaner books. Definitely not Stephen King – although I think he's an amazing writer (loved The Dark Half), I found his books often trashy and to have a very mean undercurrent to them (especially Needful Things).

Who or What inspired you to write this book?
A very unpleasant job reminded me that as a kid I always thought of myself (in the back of my mind) as being a writer when I grew up. (I guess I haven't grown up yet – and I don't mean that in a childish way.)

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
In researching for the story I actually found numerous parallels to what I had made up in old legends and cultures around the world.

(I'm sending these questions to Jon Jagard.)

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Plant Parenthood

I've never really cared for tomatoes, which is unfortunate because I end up having to pick them out of the salads Jamie makes (she insists on putting them in). But what if I could find a tomato I actually liked? There are way more varieties out there than what you can buy in stores and they're fairly easy to grow. Possibly there's one I might like?

But maybe the more important question is: why don't I like them? I mean, besides the fact that they're mushy and taste too acidic or bitter or gross or something. Whatever it is, I just don't like them. I never really have. And what about you? Is there some vegetable you don't like, but wish you did? Maybe peas, or green beans, or brussels spouts, or broccoli? Why, and what is it you don't like about it? Maybe you could find a variety you like that you could grow in your own garden.

But if you couldn't, would you think it was fun to try to develop a better tasting (or whatever your criteria is) vegetable on your own? After all, gardeners who came before us didn't wait for seed companies to do it for them - they did it themselves. Why can't we?

That's the idea behind Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener's & Farmer's Guide to Plant Breeding & Seed Saving by Carol Deppe. After Janisse Ray's book The Seed Underground fell flat for me, I stumbled across this one. Deppe tells of a teenager in northern Idaho named Glenn Drowns who wanted a watermelon – not a store-bought one – but a home grown watermelon. The problem was that the growing season was too short in Idaho. But when he learned about hybridization in a high school biology class, he got the idea of cross-pollinating plants with the hope of getting a watermelon that would ripen in his shortened season. And in only 4 years of gardening he developed 'Blacktail Mountain,' an early-ripening watermelon. And ordinary gardeners like you and me are doing the same thing with potatoes and peas and other veggies, and it doesn't have to be limited to taste or how early it produces – it's up you you and me.

(Incidentally, did you see the recent study about organic foods? Researchers looked at over 200 studies and found no clear health benefit. Pesticide residues were slightly lower, but they were low either way. The main benefits they found were mostly environmental. See articles on Yahoo and NPR.)

The place to start is with varieties that already do well in your particular area and Deppe not only talks about where to find plant material and how to conduct your own simple trials, she also explains plant genetics in a fairly easy to understand way. Another book that might be useful is Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners by Suzanne Ashworth. It's a reference book that explains how to pollinate and save seeds from all different kinds of vegetables.

But in all honesty I'm not really interested enough in a better-tasting tomato to breed my own. Right now I only have time for a few plants here and there, and this fall/winter I'm trying parsnips and purple carrots, as well as a few other things like snap peas and lettuce. Still, it sounds interesting and like it could be fun, so when I get a little more time and more familiar with what's already out there – and better at growing those things – maybe I'll think about it again.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

"We are but your children..."

One hit wonders – that's the stuff a lot of great new wave music was made of. Not that there's anything wrong with that – you don't have to bother buying the whole album only to find out the only song you really like was the one you heard on the radio. "Whisper to a Scream (Birds Fly)" was the only hit for Icicle Works in the US although they had several in the UK (where the title of this song was reversed). I looked up the videos to a couple of the others but didn't care for them. Speaking of which, what's with all the leaves blowing around in the video? (It made me wonder if they got leaves in their mouths while singing.)

Anyway, I looked up the lyrics but they don't make much sense (just like most pop music, I guess) so I have no idea what the song is about (if anything). But I just love how the song sounds – especially the drums, fast paced and kind of frantic (maybe the blowing leaves portrayed a frantic-ness?). Of course, that seems to be my reason for most of my favorite music – it just sounds good! Kind of hard to argue with that, right?



Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Not just for my teacher friends

I used to know a lot of smart people – until the election heated up, anyway. Now I get emails and see posts on Facebook about candidates with obviously questionable "facts." I'm not talking about the stuff that is clearly just meant to be funny. I'm talking about the stuff that makes outrageous claims and distorts what was actually said. It ought to be obvious that candidates will say things that fudge the truth (or worse) just because they're desperate to win. That doesn't mean we have to be fools about it! If something sounds too crazy to be true, it's probably not true. But forwarding it without checking first only annoys your friends and can cause them to unfriend you.

Phew! I just had to get that off my chest.

But speaking of how to know what is true, I recently read When Can You Trust the Experts: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education by Daniel T. Willingham. The book is specifically aimed at educators (teachers and administrators, but parents, too) who might be considering "educational software, games, workbooks or other programs" which claim to be "based on the latest research." While some of these products may be based on actual research, many are not. But how can you tell? Willingham discusses the history of science and the role it plays in persuading us and appealing to our biases (especially the "confirmation bias" where we look for "evidence" that supports what we already believe and discard what doesn't support it). Ultimately he outlines and explains four steps:
  • Strip it and Flip it. Strip the claim down to its essentials and promises: "If I do X, then there is a Y percent chance that Z will happen."
  • Trace it. Should you take statements by "authorities" at face value?
  • Analyze it. What evidence is offered? Is there any scientific evidence (from reliable studies) that support or refute the claims?
  • Should you do it? And how will you measure results, or when do you call it quits?
It's a rather straightforward process that can weed out a lot of programs and help you find (and understand) the kind of research for making better-informed decisions. And while it's geared more toward eduation professionals it's also written plainly enough that parents can use the same processes. I picked it up hoping it could apply to other areas where science is touted, like the breathless claims about climate change, for instance. Such issues are certainly beyond the scope of this book, but I think Willingham's method is a good place to start and can be applied in more areas than just education. But the main idea is to get people thinking for themselves and not be misled by emotional appeals or psuedo-science.

But when it comes to politics – GOOD LUCK! (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

Saturday, September 22, 2012

An honest burglar

Happy Hobbit Day! Yes, in case you've forgotten, September 22nd is the birth date of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. And it's even more special this year because yesterday was the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit. So, join in the Hobbit Week celebrations as we all anxiously await the first movie (and it sounds like there's going to be 3 instead of just 2) scheduled to come out on December 14th. (I tried talking the family into going to a midnight premier but their response was as exciting as watching sea-monkeys come to life.)

Well, at any rate, The Hobbit was one of my favorite books growing up. I loved the charming way the story begins, the beautiful world it describes, and especially the humor. I even liked it better than The Lord of the Rings because it wasn't as dark and serious. As I've probably mentioned before, The Hobbit began as a story for Tolkien's own children, and when it was first published that's all there was about hobbits; The LOTR wasn't imagined yet and the ring was just a simple magic ring – it wasn't The Ring that it later became.

And that's the perspective Corey Olsen ("The Tolkien Professor") takes in his new book Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit". Olsen goes through The Hobbit chapter by chapter and points out the prevailing themes such as Bilbo's differing natures (Baggins vs. Took), how he grows through his choices, and how he actually becomes the burglar he was hired to be. He also discusses the role luck plays in the story and explains those songs the dwarves and elves sing that I always thought were so strange (now they make more sense). He doesn't bring in any peripheral information from Tolkien's life or his motivations for writing the story, but he does discuss the minor changes Tolkien made in preparation for the LOTR books.

In fact, did you know that Gollum originally waved a cheerful goodbye to Bilbo after showing him the way out of the caves back in the 1937 edition? I didn't. But when The Hobbit became a publishing success and fans were clamoring for more, Tolkien changed parts of the story slightly – like making Gollum more frightening and sinister – and blamed it on Bilbo trying to downplay the fact that he kinda stole the ring.

If you haven't already read The Hobbit, what's wrong with you? Oops, I mean, this would be an excellent book to read along with it, although there are a few minor "spoilers" where Olsen anticipates some events at the end of the story. But while a "book about a book" could sound kinda dull, I found it both fun to read and surprisingly interesting – like sitting in on the kind of discussions about the themes and ideas that I used to enjoy in high school and college English classes. (I guess I could always join a book club, but then I'd have to read what other people want to read and that just sounds like too much work.) I thought Olsen's conclusions and conjectures were very plausible, and his writing style easy to read.

Besides, what else are you going to do between now and December 14th?

(I was lucky enough to snag an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine – they went pretty fast!)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Running around naked

Back in March there was a news story from a technology conference in Austin, TX, about a company hiring homeless men to be wireless 4G hotspots. I guess the access was free but the company encouraged people to give a $2 donation to the homeless person. Of course, there was a lot of public outrage and the company was accused of exploitation. But in one of the news stories I heard they asked one of the homeless men what he thought about it, and his answer was interesting. He said something about how people didn't ignore him anymore or look away when they walked by. Instead people smiled and said hello, and many of them stopped and talked to him. He said he didn't feel "invisible" anymore.

In 1897 H. G. Wells published a short novel titled The Invisible Man. It tells the story of a stranger who arrives during a snowstorm at a small country inn in the English village of Iping in West Sussex. He is, of course, all bundled up with a coat, hat, and gloves, but his face is also fully bandaged and he wears dark goggles. He keeps to himself and stays in his room working with chemicals and laboratory equipment, only going out at night. But such a mysterious stranger in a small town naturally stirs up curiosity which leads to an incident where the man – who the reader obviously knows is invisible – is forced to flee unseen by taking off all his clothes.

He later tells his story to an old acquaintance from medical school. His name is Griffin and he is/was an albino, but he discovered a way to "lower the refractive index" of his body to the same as air so that he reflects no light, making himself invisible. He anticipated great advantages but not the troubles that would come with not being able to be seen.

Although I alluded to a social situation as an introduction, I'm stretching the comparison for this old “classic” science-fiction story – I just thought it was a nice intro (yes, I know there's another book with the same title that would have fit perfectly, but I didn't read that one). During the late Victorian (Romantic) period, the optimism of science was seen as also having a dark and dangerous side. Griffin imagines his work will "transcend magic" giving him power and freedom. His first impulse is "to jest, to startle people, to clap men on the back, fling people's hats astray," and yet he quickly realizes the true problems he faces. He has no money and no shelter (he had caused a fire that destroyed the room he rented), and wearing clothes (if he had any) would forfeit all advantages – yet it was January in London! He can't even eat because the undigested food remains visible and he can’t carry anything. The snow was settling on him and dirt and mud gathered on his feet making them visible. He can't speak to people, dogs could somehow sense him, and his attempts to steal clothing nearly get him caught – which would only make him a sideshow attraction.

I've seen comments by other reviewers alleging that Wells was channeling his socialist philosophies and that the story is a commentary on how capitalism had made the lower classes invisible, but I disagree. Griffin is never a very sympathetic character and although I tried to empathize with him and his unfortunate predicament, his unfriendliness and poorly contained anger make him a frightening protagonist. And there's plenty of evidence to question his sanity, although it's not clear if his madness is due to his experiment or just who he is. It seems more like a simple cautionary tale warning that just because we can do something doesn't mean we should. Although we can accomplish wonders in the name of science, we're still vulnerable to the dangerous human side of our selves.

And yet it's an interesting book to read. Who hasn't at some point or other wished they could be invisible? Just consider the downsides first – like having to run around naked in the winter!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Green's Tsunami Zone

Between scout camp and girls camp and cheerleading camp and volleyball camp, the Stake Pioneer Trek and EFY, the backpacking trip, and quick trips to Arizona (to see Poppy & family) and Provo (to drop Braiden off at BYU), we've been so busy this summer that I haven't had time to post family pictures.  This sign we saw when camping on Memorial Day weekend kind of sums up how it's felt:



Of course there were a few trips to the beach, but not enough!
 
Cousins came to visit
 
Jamie and the girls went to Solvang and talked Patty into going with them
 
Katie (on the left) at girls camp

Pioneer Trek - Taylor (in the middle)

Why is the Bishop the only one who looks happy?  (Maybe because he's not pulling?)

 Pioneer Braiden

Surfer girl Kate (with no braces!)


When we took Braiden to BYU we HAD to have lunch at the Red Iguana!

Poor Taylor!  BYU doesn't allow skateboarding on campus.



Saturday, September 1, 2012

"I have my bicycle."

"Everyone in their life has his own particular way of expressing life's purpose – the lawyer his eloquence, the painter his palette, and the man of letters his pen from which the quick words of his story flow. I have my bicycle." — Gino Bartali

It might be difficult to imagine a time before cars and airplanes made travel quick and easy, but in the earlier part of the century the bicycle was about the best many could hope for. It not only enabled them to go from place to place quickly but sometimes became necessary if you wanted a job. And with the rise of bicycles in Europe came cycling clubs and eventually races. One dominant Italian racer in the 1930s was Gino Bartali, whose incredible endurance on mountain slopes made him a formidable opponent and led to a 1938 victory in the Tour de France. But his racing career sputtered to an halt when war came, and he was put to use delivering messages on his bicycle... and later secretly transporting forged documents for Jewish families hiding from the police. That continued "training" helped when he later won the Tour de France again in 1948 at a time when he was thought "too old" (at 34!) and when his country was rocked by an assassination attempt and riots, and Bartali continues to hold the record for the most years between Tour victories.

Fans of Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken will enjoy a similar story of heroism in the face of great danger and great odds in Road to Valor: A True Story of WWII Italy, the Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation by Aili and Andres McConnon. From the early history of European cycling and the tragedies Bartali faced, to his quiet anti-fascism and secret work with Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa to protect Jews, to his racing struggles in the Alps, this is an inspiring story of courage in the face of real and personal danger.

I am not a cycling fan and had never heard of Bartali before, but I found the story to be well-written and a compelling read. I wish there had been a little more detail about the Tour itself (for those of us who know so little about it) but the rest of the story more than makes up for any missing information. Photographs of Bartali and elevation maps of the courses help as well, but the real highlight for me was the wartime experiences and how he risked his life for Jews. But the authors also bring the world of cycling alive, and the human element is combined excellently with the sports world here. A very inspiring read.  (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Mormon Moment or Mormon Myth?

I know that in some ways I'm naive. Most locker room humor goes over my head, I'm still not sure I really know what marijuana smells like, and the first time a nurse at the Red Cross blood drive asked to see my arms I had to ask why. But I'm fine with that; I don't think I'm missing anything by not being knowledgeable about such subjects. Yet being raised Mormon in Utah and mostly hearing only the more inspirational stories doesn't always prepare you for hearing the less inspiring parts of our history. It can lead some to question and even abandon their beliefs. But for me there was a moment when I was 19 years old and sitting in the Missionary Training Center (MTC) prior to leaving to serve a two-year mission in Brazil. I suddenly realized the commitment I was making and what I was giving up and leaving behind... and I had to know for myself that it wasn't a waste of my time. It wasn't enough to serve a mission just because my friends were doing it or because others expected me to go – I needed my own testimony (conviction) that I believed the things I would be teaching.

(Another example of how naive I can be: when I was offered another book on basically the same topic as this one I eventually accepted it because I found the similarity to this one interesting.  I looked at the early reviews on Amazon and they were mostly positive and many said it was "fair" and "unbiased."  My own opinion was very different.  Hopefully, I've learned my lesson.)

A lot of people are looking at Mormons right now, and I guess we must present an odd picture sometimes. Matthew Bowman has tried to write an academic look at the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the real name of the church) in his book The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith. He covers the beginnings from Joseph Smith's background and his "First Vision," the early years and persecution, and the eventual exodus to Utah. He also looks at the growth of the church since then, from a small group of dedicated followers to a fast-growing worldwide membership, and he emphasizes the "American-ness" of the church and its values during that time. In his efforts to be scholarly and critical he deals with some sensitive issues – topics most Mormons are content to ignore – like polygamy and noisy dissidents throughout the years.

And it's his efforts to be critical that made me wonder about his personal beliefs. Except for a tiny dust-jacket blurb, you wouldn't know Mr. Bowman is a Mormon himself. He seems equally critical of Joseph Smith's lack of organizational leadership as he is of Brigham Young's mastery of it. I thought he was mocking the cherished pioneer legacy of the church when he called it a "romanticized theology of suffering." And he seems almost sympathetic to dissidents and those who publicly challenge church leaders and their authority, a view that seems at odds with a membership that actually considers their leader as a prophet called by God. And while I felt some parts were inspiring and others condescending, it made me wonder what kind of testimony Mr. (or should I say "Brother") Bowman might offer in a testimony meeting?

But I'm probably being overly sensitive and judging him too harshly given that he's trying to address questions that would seem perfectly natural to those outside the church. I looked at several professional reviews (NYTimes, Slate, etc.) and while it was generally well-received, a couple criticized him for being too dry. One even complained Bowman was hiding his religion, and wished he'd not held it at such arms-length (and I might agree). But otherwise most reviews were positive, and I'd probably agree with that as well. But if you pick it up (and especially if you're a Mormon), understand that it's trying very hard to be impartial and academic in its approach which unfortunately makes it occasionally dry, but otherwise not a bad book.  And a LOT better than some alternatives!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Bashing Joseph Smith

(I don't usually post the exact same review on Amazon and my blog, but in this case I've already wasted enough time on this book and am making an exception. If interested, my Amazon review can be found by clicking here, and if you want to vote that it's helpful – to offset the "No" votes I'm sure to get – I won't stop you.)

With two Mormon candidates for US president in this election (now only one) the Mormon Church has received an unusual amount of news coverage, much of it negative. The Mormon or LDS Church is one of the fastest growing religions with over 14 million members worldwide (about half in the United States) and there are influential and successful Mormons in American politics, business, sports, entertainment, and many other areas which makes Stephen Mansfield very nervous. He wonders how a church that was so persecuted in its early days could have become such a potent symbol of American values and ideals. And, more importantly, he wonders what it might mean if a Mormon were elected president.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which has been known historically as the Mormon Church) has long made a point of saying that its truthfulness hinges on the story of Joseph Smith. As a 14 year old boy Smith claimed to have a vision where he saw God and Jesus Christ, and that through him the gospel of Jesus Christ was "restored." This also involved the translation of The Book of Mormon, which Mormons claim as holy scripture in addition to the Bible. It follows that if Joseph Smith was a fraud, the church would be as well. But if Joseph Smith was a true prophet, then the church he established is true. As evidence they offer The Book of Mormon, and missionaries invite people all over the world to read it and pray about it.

This oft-repeated claim does not go unnoticed by the perceptive Mansfield in his book The Mormonizing of America: How the Mormon Religion Became a Dominant Force in Politics, Entertainment, and Pop Culture, and he uses it as the backbone of his attack. While he can be complimentary toward current members, his "history" of Joseph Smith and The Book of Mormon is a rehash of every anti-Mormon accusation regardless of merit or source. He repeatedly uses words like "fraud" and "charlatan" when describing Smith, and dismisses The Book of Mormon as boring and unsupported by evidence. (He also conveniently glosses over the fact that Joseph Smith gave his life for his cause and died as a martyr.) Instead, he lamely asserts that the incredible success of the church is due simply to its sense of community, focus on family and education, and its organization.

I tried to give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume his intentions were noble, but sadly this is a very poorly-researched book that was rushed to print before the election is over and the issue fades away. Like other anti-Mormon literature, Mansfield uses second-hand quotes and takes quotes out of context to make Mormon leaders seem extra strange, and anything factual is presented in a way to support his own bias. He uses lots of short vignettes that are supposedly real conversations happening every day in "Mormon America" that mostly play on irrational fears or cast Mormons in extreme ways. He continually gets his facts about the priesthood wrong and insinuates that polygamy is still practiced by church members. He even quotes a fictional novel to suggest Mormons claim to have planted all the sunflowers in the American west. And as a long-time member of the church I've never heard some of the "common Mormon sayings" he quotes.

I might agree with Mansfield when he says too many Mormons aren't familiar enough with doctrines (pg 56-57), but this ignores the fact that surveys show Mormons are generally more familiar with their own doctrines than non-Mormons are with theirs. He also says the church discourages its members from studying doctrine and favors "experience over doctrines" and emphasizes a "mystical inner knowing" instead, which mostly demonstrates his own lack of familiarity with his subject. He says The Book of Mormon has been "ignored as serious literature," but he's ignoring that it was recently named among the most influential books in America.

His explanation of how Mormons "became a dominant force" is weak (again, he says it's because of an emphasis on community, family, education, etc., and urges other churches to adopt such attitudes) and he questions the continuing loyalty and patriotism of members (even though he praises such attributes). He suggests a higher level of scrutiny is necessary and that the integrity of such previously honest people isn't good enough, which is really just a shameless political jab.

I do not resent or begrudge Mansfield for not sharing my religious beliefs – that's his prerogative – but there is little that is fair or unbiased in his book. He admits "Smith has come in for quite a bashing in these pages..." (pg 210), and laughably makes pretense at scholarly writing (pg xxii) even though the notes and sources at the end of the book occupy only a few short pages. (While I was reading it someone saw the unusually large font the book is printed with and asked if I was reading a children's book.) To use Mansfield's words, this book "need not have been written." (I received this book from the publisher.)

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Talkin' about a revolution

I've always been more interested in growing flowers or ornamental plants than vegetables, but over the last few years that's changed. I like the idea of growing more of the food we eat and having more control over what chemicals are used on it but mostly it's just a new challenge. One thing I've noticed is that "heirloom" varieties are becoming increasingly popular. These are the kinds of plants our grandparents might have grown and saved seed from each year. While they might not be as easy or productive as some more modern hybrids, they offer the promise of better taste. At least that's the theory, but my results so far have been pretty poor and we ended up with some tomatoes that didn't taste very good. Still, I'm not ready to give up and I was really looking forward to The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food by Janisse Ray which I received from Amazon Vine.

Ms. Ray recites statistics (several times) of how many varieties have been lost in just the last 100 years – and the huge numbers are disconcerting. Seed companies have bred hybrids with shelf-life and increased output in mind (frequently ignoring how they actually taste), and because they're hybrids farmers and gardeners can't save seeds from one year to the next and have them grow true. Even more distressing, companies and most farmers have turned to genetically-modified (GM) crops that have genetic traits artificially inserted for resistance to pests or – most alarmingly – chemical herbicides. All of this results in a contaminated and much-reduced gene pool and Ray argues that we have lost control of our food supply – which risks imminent collapse – and we are in need of a revolution.

I was hoping for a book that would talk about available heirloom varieties and might offer tips on the different kinds and ways to grow them. However, as Ms. Ray writes in the Introduction, "This is not a textbook on seed saving. I am looking to inspire you with my own life." (pg. xv) Instead she talks about her Georgia farm and visits to other farmers to acquire old varieties. Some of these episodes are interesting and she offers a few bits of advice, like pollinating squash flowers or saving tomato seeds or growing sweet potatoes. This is when the book really shines. But, "You won't get many of those details from me here," she writes, "My goal is simply to plant a seed." (pg 151) Much of the book is a paranoid screed against "big ag" and "big chemical" companies and how evil they and our government and justice system are (and some of her stories are indeed troublesome). "Science is worrisome when it only serves the interests of mercenaries and their employees... infecting our food supply with greed." (pg. 12) And in spite of her claim in the Preface that "I do not feel hopeless" (pg. ix) she later says "Who needs hope? ...It's not hope or love that keep me going. It's fight." (pg. 193)

Ms. Ray describes herself as a "granola" (a "back-to-the-earth" hippie who grew up post-60s) and comes off as a Luddite when it comes to technology. We get an earful of her philosophy of not flying and avoiding fossil-fuels ("Plastic is bad stuff." [pg. 129]) and basically living apart from modern society. Her attitude is militant and she calls anyone saving seeds a "revolutionary" and seems to find purpose in fighting modernity. But even she admits by the end that not all technology or corporations are evil, although she's not always sure where to draw the line. She acknowledges that sometimes hybrids combine beneficial traits and are useful, and public and private companies can do “good” (see pg. 174). (Incidentally, this is why many gardeners choose hybrids over heirlooms – they often grow better and are more reliable even if the taste is sometimes inferior. And spending a few bucks on seed packets is more convenient than the effort to save your own, as even she admits.)

Still, I don't disagree with all her arguments (mostly just her extremism) and I can certainly relate to her desire to grow older varieties. I'll continue to look for heirloom vegetables that grow well for me and that the family likes to eat. It's just a shame that information isn't found in this book.