Thursday, October 17, 2019

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

LaRose by Louise Erdrich
Published May 2016 by HarperCollins Publishers
Source: purchased for my Nook

Publisher’s Summary:
North Dakota, late summer, 1999. Landreaux Iron stalks a deer along the edge of the property bordering his own. He shoots with easy confidence—but when the buck springs away, Landreaux realizes he’s hit something else, a blur he saw as he squeezed the trigger. When he staggers closer, he realizes he has killed his neighbor’s five-year-old son, Dusty Ravich.

The youngest child of his friend and neighbor, Peter Ravich, Dusty was best friends with Landreaux’s five-year-old son, LaRose. The two families have always been close, sharing food, clothing, and rides into town; their children played together despite going to different schools; and Landreaux’s wife, Emmaline, is half sister to Dusty’s mother, Nola. Horrified at what he’s done, the recovered alcoholic turns to an Ojibwe tribe tradition—the sweat lodge—for guidance, and finds a way forward. Following an ancient means of retribution, he and Emmaline will give LaRose to the grieving Peter and Nola. “Our son will be your son now,” they tell them.

LaRose is quickly absorbed into his new family. Plagued by thoughts of suicide, Nola dotes on him, keeping her darkness at bay. His fierce, rebellious new “sister,” Maggie, welcomes him as a coconspirator who can ease her volatile mother’s terrifying moods. Gradually he’s allowed shared visits with his birth family, whose sorrow mirrors the Raviches’ own. As the years pass, LaRose becomes the linchpin linking the Irons and the Raviches, and eventually their mutual pain begins to heal.

But when a vengeful man with a long-standing grudge against Landreaux begins raising trouble, hurling accusations of a cover-up the day Dusty died, he threatens the tenuous peace that has kept these two fragile families whole.

My Thoughts:
I had no idea, going into this book, that it was part of a trilogy. As it turns out, I’ve read the other two books, The Plague of Doves and The Round House. But this never felt like the final chapter in a trilogy (although there are characters that have carried over, it is not essential to know their prior stories). The trilogy is less about specific people and more about the lives of the Ojibwe people who live in North Dakota. Each of the books has given me a wealth of interesting characters and plenty to think about. As much as I really enjoyed The Round House, I think LaRose impressed me even more.

It’s a book that takes readers on a journey into the past to try to explain the present, an idea that is more of a key to all of our lives that we generally acknowledge. Every one of us is, in some way, who we are because of our ancestors. The Native Americans, it seems, are just infinitely better at recognizing and honoring their ancestors.

Young LaRose Iron is not the first LaRose in his family; there were four before him, including his grandmother. In looking back at those women, we learn much about the ways of Native Americans when the Europeans first began to settle this continent and the mystical beliefs they held, beliefs their descendants struggle to hold onto. We see how the Europeans worked to try to annihilate the Native American way of life and how that system continues to impact them today. All of that is a bigger picture, set up by Erdrich to help us understand what is happening to these families.

I’m writing this review before my book club meets to discuss this book. I’m looking forward for what those ladies have to say about the characters in this book and its many themes. What do they make of Nola’s grief, which just keeps spinning deeper, despite having been given LaRose? Who are the “bad” guys in the novel? What must it be like to live together with the descendants of the people who conquered your people and who continue to keep their foot on the throat of your people? What of the themes of revenge (which so many here are trying to exact), motherhood, family, addiction, heritage, and forgiveness? And what role does food play in the book? Until I got to a party at the end of the book, it hadn’t occurred to me how much food had been talked about in this book. When it did, I had to stop and think about where Erdrich had included food and why.

This is review feels rambly and disjointed as I reread it but I’m not sure how much more cohesive it would be if I took longer to put together my thoughts. Erdrich has me thinking in so many different directions. I have a feeling this book will stay with me for some time.

Monday, October 14, 2019

This Blessed Earth by Ted Genoways

This Blessed Earth: A Year In The Life Of An American Family Farm by Ted Genoways
Published September 2017 by Norton, W. W. and Company, Inc.
Source: my ecopy courtesy of my local library

Publisher's Summary:
Is there still a place for the farm in today’s America?The family farm lies at the heart of our national identity, and yet its future is in peril. Rick Hammond grew up on a farm, and for forty years he has raised cattle and crops on his wife’s fifth-generation homestead in Nebraska, in hopes of passing it on to their four children. But as the handoff nears, their small family farm—and their entire way of life—are under siege. Beyond the threat posed by rising corporate ownership of land and livestock, the Hammonds are confronted by encroaching pipelines, groundwater depletion, climate change, the fickle demands of the marketplace, and shifting trade policies.Following the Hammonds from harvest to harvest, Ted Genoways explores the rapidly changing world of small, traditional farming operations. He creates a vivid and nuanced portrait of a radically new landscape and one family’s fight to preserve their legacy and the life they love.

My Thoughts:
I have lived in Nebraska all of my life and while I have always appreciated that farming is a tough, necessary job, I’m afraid that I’ve been quick to deny being a part of a farming state. “I live in a city,” I insist, as though there were something wrong with being part of a farming community, as complicit in that idea as those who live in much more urban environs. It’s snobbish and I know better. And if I didn’t before this book, I do now.

This book was not only the One Book, One Nebraska selection this year, it was also the Omaha Reads choice (as well as the Iowa statewide read for 2019). Clearly a darling amongst Nebraskans, right? Not our governor, who backed out of a proclamation and ceremony when it was selected for the statewide read. Of course, you know what that did, right? Not only did local bookstores sell out of this book, so did Amazon.

I always struggle with writing reviews on nonfiction books, especially books where I’ve learned as much as I did in this book. Yes, I want to tell you about the book but I also want to share what I’ve learned. If I’m doing that, how much do I share before I’m not so much writing a book review as a lesson on the subject at hand? I made three pages of notes of the things I highlighted but clearly I can’t share them all with you (you can thank me later). On the other hand, it’s hard to explain why a book is as good as this book is without that background.
Genoways has created a terrific mix of the very personal side of the business of farming with the historical and broader aspects of the industry. I never felt that one piece of the book was being lost to the other; the history, the role government and big business play in the lives of family farmers, knowing how water or the lack thereof impacts farming - all of that is readily tied into the story of the Hammond family as they fight to hang on to land that has been in the family for six generations now.

The Hammonds farm is not far from where my husband grew up; I could readily picture what the Hammonds’ land looks like which, of course, made it that much easier for me to relate to this book. I know what that land looks like, I know people in that neck of the woods. But you don’t have to be familiar with the land to be able to picture it; Genoways paints a vivid picture of the land and you will feel like you know the Hammonds after you have spent the year with them. They are every bit as hardworking as you would expect them to be. They are also smart people. They have to be – every day there are hundreds of decisions that have to be made. What type of seeds (and I’m talking what kind of soybeans or corn, not just which one) should be planted this year? When should they be planted? Does the irrigation system need to be run and, if so, for how long in each field? How long should the grain being stored be held to get the best price? And if you’re planting for one of the seed companies, you’ve got another set of issues to deal with, not the least of which is the extreme secrecy surrounding the seeds. Then there’s the weather, something you can’t predict that could wipe you out in a matter of minutes. Oh yeah, and the government, which may add new regulations, change up subsidies, or slap on embargoes or tariffs depending on who’s in office or who’s in charge of the Department of Agriculture.

I’ve long wondered what keeps families on the farm. Long hours, hard labor, dangerous chemicals, and a constantly shifting market for your goods would be enough to chase most of us away from any endeavor. But, for the Hammonds, and, I suspect, for most of the other farmers who stick it out, it’s not only all they know but it’s their family’s legacy.

Now, about what I learned:

  • “The rise of the soybean in the United States is attributable to, more than any other person, Henry Ford.” Yep, Ford was making a lot of money selling equipment to farmers but, due to a glut of grain, prices were so low farmers weren’t buying new equipment. Ford subsidized research into other uses for grains, particularly soybeans and financially incentivized farmers to grow soybeans. Ford believed the research and assistance to farmers should remain out of the hands of the government. Given what happened soon after, he may have been right.
  • After World War II, giant chemical manufacturers (who had secured defense contracts to produce ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia to make bomb and other munitions) “argued to the USDA that those chemicals could be used as fertilizers. The use of herbicides and pesticides rapidly increased. One of the products most used was Roundup, but Roundup was hard on the crops as well. Agribusinesses began developing genetically modified seeds that are now labelled as “Roundup Ready.” All of that research was costly and the companies who developed it want to make sure it doesn’t fall into their competitors’ hands (or into the hands of foreign governments). Distribution and planting of those seeds is highly guarded; even the farmers don’t know exactly what seeds they are planting.

  • Two Secretaries of Agriculture implemented policies that turned food into a weapon. Eisenhower’s secretary, Ezra Taft Benson, called small farmers “irresponsible feeders at the public trough” and vowed to return to a system where the biggest producers made the biggest profits. He used the overproduction to reduce global prices then used the excess as foreign aid. Nixon’s and Ford’s secretary, Earl Butz, also urged overproduction as a means to “undercut and control commodities markets to the disadvantage of our Cold War enemies.” He urged farmers to “acquire as much land as they could afford and to plant “fencerow to fencerow.”” This required dramatic change to the way farms were run and, critics argued, caused the farm economy to rely too much on agribusiness and less on family farmers.
  • In 1979 Jimmy Carter implemented a grain embargo against the Soviet Union after they invaded Afghanistan. Prices of grains plummeted. “As commodities prices fell, it became apparent: instead of making the world dependent on our grain supplies, we had grown reliant on their demand. “ This on the footsteps of Butz’ policies meant that farmers were carrying heavy overhead and servicing high-interest loans and the result was the Farm Crisis. Anyone else go to a Farm Aid concert to help raise money to help the farmers?
Truly, I could have rattled off ten more things that I found fascinating about farming and that’s a something that I never could have imagined myself saying. It just goes to show you the power of great nonfiction!

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Life: It Goes On - October 13

It's been quite a week here and I'm feeling a little wiped out today. But, there's a lot to be done so it's time to put on my big girl panties and get moving. First up, I need to get out and uncover the plants I'm trying to save from the little run of just freezing temperatures we're having at night right now. The longer I can keep the potted plants on my patio and porch, the better my morale will be. Then it's time for some cleaning and yard work. A body in motion stays in motion, right?

Last Week I:

Listened To: I'm finishing up Sarah Blake's The Guest Book today. I'm not sure it's gotten great reviews, but I've enjoyed it.

Watched: I could have sworn there was something different I watched this week that I was going to tell you about; but, for the life of me, I can't recall what it was. So, let's just stick with the usual.

Read: Larose for book club this week and Evvie Drake Starts Over for a possible future book club read.

Made: Things slowed down a bit in the kitchen this week (more on why later), but I did get that chicken potpie made that I was planning last week, fettuccine alfredo, and some amazing sourdough grilled cheese sandwiches. Today I'm going to throw together some spaghetti sauce to simmer all day while I'm working around the house. I'm trying to use up the last of our ripe tomatoes.

Enjoyed: Getting more done than I had planned to get done on my basement reorganization project. Miss Sookie spent every minute of that task with me - often right where I needed to be! Now that I have things where I want them, I know what I need to buy to make it work best, like another bin for the Christmas overflow.

This Week I’m: 

Planning: More work on the basement, a lot of reading because I have a lot of library books right now, and decorating for Halloween. 

Thinking About: My parents may have to make some changes soon; my dad had a health scare this week that has us all looking to their future. Hard to think about them leaving the house they have lived in for 51 years, though.

Feeling: Grateful for the doctor and nurses that took care of The Big Guy when he had his gallbladder removed this week. He is getting along great; the trick to nursing him after surgery is always trying to keep him from doing too much!

Looking forward to: Book club on Tuesday!

Question of the week: What did you cook this week?

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew by Peter Mayle

French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew by Peter Mayle
Published May 2001 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
Ranging far from his adopted Provence, Mayle now travels to every corner of the country, armed with knife, fork, and corkscrew. He takes us to tiny, out-of-the-way restaurants, starred Michelin wonders, local village markets, annual festivals, and blessed vineyards.

We visit the Foire aux Escargots at Martigny-les-Bains-a whole weekend devoted to the lowly but revered snail. We observe the Marathon du Médoc, where runners passing through the great vineyards of Bordeaux refresh themselves en route with tastings of red wine (including Château Lafite- Rothschild!). There is a memorable bouillabaisse in a beachside restaurant on the Côte d'Azur. And we go on a search for the perfect chicken that takes us to a fair in Bourg-en-Bresse.

There is a Catholic mass in the village of Ri-cherenches, a sacred event at which thanks are given for the aromatic, mysterious, and breathtakingly expensive black truffle. We learn which is the most pungent cheese in France (it's in Normandy), witness a debate on the secret of the perfect omelette, and pick up a few luscious recipes along the way. There is even an appreciation and celebration of an essential tool for any serious food-lover in France-the Michelin Guide.

My Thoughts:
I'm a little bit at a loss as to how to review this book, which is, essentially, a group of essays Mayle put together about food experiences in France. And by food, I mean food and wine. I'm not sure there's a single chapter in this book that doesn't mention wine and there are quite a lot that include drinking a lot of wine. To the point that even Mayle, a man who is accustomed to drinking wine with his meals on the regular, concedes that the French may have taken their wine drinking a step too far. More on that later. Instead of a real review, I'm just going to share some takeaways from this one.

  • The French like their weekend food festivals and they will celebrate almost any food, including blood sausage, frog legs, and chickens with blue feet. These festivals are likely to include ridiculous rituals and costumes.
  • There are, apparently, a lot of "right" ways to cook an omelet and the pan I cook mine in is absolutely not the right pan. 
  • In Bordeaux they host the Marathon du Medoc - an actual marathon with serious runners but where the majority of the runners are in costume and the water tables are actually stocked with wine. I've never run a marathon (duh) but I've watched them and can't imagine how anyone could run 26 miles in drag and stop for wine several times along the route. 
  • The French people aren't nearly as snobby as their reputation would have you believe. Maybe because Mayle, at least in this book, spends his time in small villages that appreciate a visit from someone who appreciates their food and festivals. 
  • The Michelin guide was originally meant as an aid for people who were driving around in very unreliable vehicles and only included hotels. Their maps were so good that the Allies used them in World War II as they made their way across France. Also, working as a Michelin inspector is extremely secretive and wearying business.
I will admit to getting a little bored toward the end of the book. It began to feel a little repetitive - visit quirky little village, meet quirky people who like to argue amongst themselves, drink copious amounts of wine, eat lots of great food. On the other hand, Mayle has me convinced that you can hardly go wrong in visiting small French villages in search of great food and wine. He write with humor and respect for the country he's adopted as his home. 

Monday, October 7, 2019

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
Published October 2019 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher’s Summary:
Prickly, wry, resistant to change yet ruthlessly honest and deeply empathetic, Olive Kitteridge is “a compelling life force” (San Francisco Chronicle). The New Yorker has said that Elizabeth Strout “animates the ordinary with an astonishing force,” and she has never done so more clearly than in these pages, where the iconic Olive struggles to understand not only herself and her own life but the lives of those around her in the town of Crosby, Maine. Whether with a teenager coming to terms with the loss of her father, a young woman about to give birth during a hilariously inopportune moment, a nurse who confesses a secret high school crush, or a lawyer who struggles with an inheritance she does not want to accept, the unforgettable Olive will continue to startle us, to move us, and to inspire moments of transcendent grace.

My Thoughts:
In November 2009, I read Strout’s Pulitzer-prize winning book, Olive Kitteridge. When I reviewed that book, I had this to say about Olive:
“Olive…is the kind of person that people avoid in her small town of Crosby. Olive was not a perfect neighbor, not a perfect wife, and certainly not a perfect other. She is abrasive, outspoken, and not in the least able to communicate well with anyone in her life.”
Later I added:
“…somehow, in some way, Strout is able to convince us that Olive is someone we should care about.”
And that is the genius of Strout. She made me care about Olive. She has been the standard to which I hold every other unlikable character. I expect all authors to give me a reason to still care about those characters. For ten years, Olive has stayed with me. I never expected I’d get another chance to read about Olive. In many ways, it didn’t seem necessary. So when I first read that Strout had written a sequel, I had mixed feelings. Could Strout move Olive’s story forward while retaining everything that made Olive Olive?

The quick answer is yes.

Olive is still outspoken and often abrasive. She is still terrible at communicating with those she cares about. But this is the Olive that we saw at the end of the first book, the Olive that is learning to mind what she says, who can be empathetic, and, even, vulnerable.

Like the first book, though, this is not just a book about Olive. Once again, Strout has strung together a group of short stories that tell readers as much about Crosby and its residents as it does about Olive. Some characters from the first book reappear; some characters from others of Strout’s books appear. Here again Strout deals with issues of love, marriage, and the relationships between parents and children. And, here again Strout does not pass judgment on her characters; she puts these relationships and situations out there for the reader to consider, allowing us just enough from both sides to really give us pause to think.

It’s quite possible that I care even more about Olive now than I did ten years ago. Ten years ago I thought I was done with Olive. Now I know that she will always be there in my head. Thank you, Olive, for moving back into Elizabeth Strout’s head and making her tell more of your story.