Sunday, September 25, 2011

Force of Nature by Edward Humes

This book is subtitled: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart's Green Revolution. I picked it up at the library because several years ago I read "The Wal-Mart Effect" by Charles Fishman. "The Wal-Mart Effect" condemned Wal-Mart's business practices as all-around damaging. Fishman said that Wal-Mart hurt: other local businesses, suppliers, the environment, general merchandise quality, its own employees, etc etc. Our book club read it together and some members decided not to shop at Wal-Mart after reading the book. This book, however, seemed to indicate on its cover that it was a more positive look at a Wal-Mart that has made some changes since 2006, which was when Charles Fishman wrote his book. I was interested in reading something positive about Wal-Mart, one of the only stores that I think makes the consumer its top priority as far as price goes, if only to get a bit of balance in my head about what others think of Wal-Mart

So. I actually had NO idea that Wal-Mart has put (and is still putting) so much effort into sustainability! It is definitely a massive organization that has many world-wide effects, some positive, some negative. But, according to this book, Wal-Mart has voluntarily decided to use its great market power to change some aspects of the world market for good--it has gone "green".

The book is fairly interesting. So many "information" books (like this one) are about one idea that could actually be summarized in a long essay. This book is no different. It's a long magazine article padded into becoming a book. I got tired of reading about halfway through and really tired about 2/3 of the way through, but I soldiered on.

This book is politically liberal. It's taking all the environmental ideas and conclusions that have been made by activists as literally true. (I'm not saying they're not true.) Sometimes I find myself, as I read for "information", thinking that I'm reading a balanced account. This is never true. All authors write their individual biases right into whatever piece of fiction or non-fiction they are writing. This author takes a few hits at the "other" political party and embraces all environmentalist claims as real. The author also advocates the government making laws to enforce sustainability for all businesses in and out of the U.S. that supply U.S. markets.

It was a book worth reading. I'm happy to know that Wal-Mart is making so many positive changes. I was glad to read about the products that have not achieved full sustainability (like fish) in Wal-Mart and other stores. I believe that sustainability choices must be just that--CHOICES--and not laws. I liked reading about the whole process of the outside consulting company representative coming to the CEO of Wal-Mart and convincing him of the necessity of pursuing sustainability because, in my opinion, this is just the process that will be the most successful if U.S. businesses are to become more "environmentally friendly". The government can certainly (and does certainly) pass laws to force businesses to be sustainable, but how much better would it be if these businesses saw for themselves how financially wise these methods are and launched into them voluntarily. Convincing, not forcing, is the key and this process is beautifully illustrated by Edward Humes' account of Wal-Mart's huge changes. I will watch the progress of Wal-Mart's sustainability commitments with interest.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Much Ado About Moonlight by Lynn Kurland

Another Lynn Kurland Medieval/Modern romance. It was set in England this time and our main characters even paid a visit to Elizabethan England--and met Shakespeare.

I always appreciate Lynn Kurland because she's clever and she's clean. This book was probably the least enjoyable of all of hers I've read, but it was still entertaining and sweet.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

No Fear Shakespeare: Hamlet illustrated by Neil Babra

My 16-year-old daughter and I are studying a few Shakespeare plays this month and I have found that very often this kind of stuff (classic literature, I mean) is best approached from a variety of different angles. At first when we studied a classic piece of literature I would have her read the original first and then we'd take a look at the many variations out there--movies, simplified versions, graphic novels, spin-offs, etc. But I found that, in many cases, by the time she'd slogged through the original text, she'd lost all her enjoyment of the story and was so DONE exploring it that she was unwilling to look further. Worse, she would develop a firm dislike of the piece of literature that I love and was so looking forward to sharing with her! So, I have flip-flopped my approach. Now we read the variations first, so that she gets a good grip on the basic story and so that she gets to enjoy the many more accessible versions out there first. Once she's got the story down, we go to the original text. This works much better for us.

And so, this week it is Hamlet, the famous Dane, possibly Shakespeare's best-known and most quoted play. I really liked this graphic novel. For one thing, I really liked the text. I thought that much of Shakespeare's original plays on words and his clever prose was well reproduced. I also liked the illustrations. They were both stark--probably because they were in black and white--and expressive, almost fantastical. I guess when you're talking about ghosts and madness a little fantasy is in order. I studied this play in high school and college and have watched it more than a few times. But I don't think I ever really "got" it in the same way I "got" it from reading this book. Is it because I've always focused on the parts and not as much on the whole? Is it because I float away on the iambic pentameter without really taking note of the story? I don't know, but reading Hamlet this way, as a graphic novel, illuminated the story for me in a way I haven't seen it before. I really enjoyed it.

Be warned, Shakespeare is earthy and bloody. That stuff is more palatable when it's in Elizabethan rhythmic prose. It's a bit more, er, graphic, here. But just a bit. I'm pretty sure I said this before, when I read the graphic "Macbeth", but I'd like to collect graphic versions of ALL of Shakespeare's plays. There's nothing like the bard's flowing and clever prose in its original, or even live on the stage, but I find that these graphic novels enrich understanding and add enjoyment. And, after all, Shakespeare was always meant to entertain and to bring enjoyment, right?

The China Study by T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M Campbell II

Hmmmm. Another book about the "perfect way to eat". This one was full of science, conspiracy theories, anecdotes, and advice. The authors strongly advocate a whole foods, plant-based diet. It's all about why everyone should be vegan.

I found the reports of the scientific studies a bit mind-numbing--there are plenty of graphs, many data analyses, reports from various studies, numbers, technical terms. I didn't read the book straight through--I've been picking it up and putting it down for the past several months--and that made the data reports even less comprehensible to me. However, after the first chapter the reader can clearly understand the point that the authors are explaining: animal protein is toxic to the body. Their studies were done on rats and then generalized for humans. They used the studies of others and the massive quantity of data gathered (and analyzed) from a long-term cancer study done in China to underscore their own conclusions. And they were unflinching in their advice: animal protein causes disease (most specifically, it causes certain types of cancer to grow) and therefore should be completely avoided.

Like most food books, it is passionate and unbalanced. Only the data that supports the authors' conclusions is cited. I think this is pretty normal. When one marshals a convincing argument, one uses only the proof that supports one's point. When the Campbell's book is criticized, these are the criticisms that are most clearly voiced: it is only a partial picture of what is going on. Can the solution to so many American diseases really be this one-dimensional? I wonder.

Still, I found the book valuable and interesting. And convincing. At the very least, it is an excellent reminder to the reader to watch much more carefully what he/she is eating. At the most, it could be life-changing, even life-saving.

Was I convinced of the authors' premise? Well, I was certainly inspired to choose what I eat more carefully. I, however, am not yet convinced that eliminating certain foods is the answer to good health. I lean more to believing that part of what ails Americans (and many other wealthy cultures) is the over-refinement of most of what we eat. Nearly everything we buy at the grocery store (except maybe the produce--but that's a whole other issue) is preprocessed for our consumption. Meat, dairy, poultry, fish, canned goods, frozen goods, crackers, cereal, pasta, bread.... everything has been changed dramatically from its original form. Food bought at restaurants--especially fast food restaurants--is even worse. I was fascinated by "The End of Overeating" by David Kessler and its account of what is added to our food that fools our bodies into wanting more and more. I think that The China Study further convinced me that what we put into our bodies should be as close to its natural state as possible--and by this I don't necessarily mean it should be raw, but that it should be unrefined, unprocessed, unfortified, etc. My journey to understanding and to taking care of my body is unfinished. I am always learning more. Reading the China Study was one more step along the way.

By the way, there is a movie that follows the studies and explains the conclusions that are found in this book. It's called "Forks Over Knives" and it's interesting. And much quicker to watch than this book is to read (I found it on Netflix).


The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton

This is a book for older kids or younger teens. It was written over 40 years ago and takes place in Ohio, where a professor, his wife and their 3 young children move into a historical house. This is a house that was built as part of the underground railroad. Its original owner, Dies Drear, built many hidden compartments and passages into this house to hide fleeing slaves. He is a man of legend, with a legendary hidden treasure too. This book is a bit historical, a lot mysterious and rather suspenseful as well.

It took me awhile to get into the story. I found the narration to be disjointed in parts--I felt lost from time to time. I didn't care for the writing style in general. The suspense felt heavy handed and self-conscious for the first half of the book.

One notable thing about the book, though, is that this book about some of the history of slavery hides the race of the main characters for the entire first half of the book. Does she do this on purpose? Or was I being a particularly dense reader?

I finally became engaged in the story in the back half of the book. I became more interested in the characters and part of the mystery was resolved.

Did this book actually have a plot? Well, kind of. It certainly wasn't a clear cut plot and was very slow to develop. It was almost like the retelling of one incident, rather than the unfolding of an actual complete story. There is a second book to this little chronicle, "The Mystery of Drear House"--written some 20 years after the first. I'm hoping that book is better than this one and that it finishes this tale, which definitely felt unfinished at the end of this book, "The House of Dies Drear".

At the very least, however, this book gives a look into a little bit of history and a little bit of race culture. I did like our protagonist, Thomas, who is also our narrator. I liked his relationship with his father and his little brothers. It's nice to read about a family that is loving and unified. And the author, Virginia Hamilton, did create a powerfully evocative setting for her story (such as it was). The Drear home and the home of its caretaker, Mr. Pluto, were both very atmospheric.

So...some good things and some not so good things. I'm looking forward to reading the next one. I'll let you know how it all finishes up.

Monday, September 5, 2011

This book is subtitled: "A Teenage Guide to Avoiding Lemuelitis". If you haven't read the Book of Mormon, this might not mean anything to you. :)

I bought this for my 13-year-old son to begin his school year with (we homeschool). My plan was to read it before he did (to prepare, right?) and then spend a week or two reading it and discussing it, section by section, with my son. However, as soon as I finished it, my 16-year-old daughter snatched it up and read it and then that 13-year-old son picked it up and read it as well. All in one day. So much for my plan. :)

This is a very cute book. In each chapter the reader is instructed to begin by reading the appropriate chapter in the Book of Mormon. Then, David Bowman rewrites the chapter--only from Lemuel's point of view. Included are the stories told as if they were: texted, posted on facebook, skyped..... very clever. David Bowman is a gifted illustrator and his illustrations make this book especially entertaining. Each story is followed by the lessons the teenager (or adult) can learn from Lemuel and his brothers. Each chapter has a specific point to make.

My kids really enjoyed the book and so did I. I will read it again with my son for school and we will look up all the scripture references and discuss each chapter's conclusion. I'm really looking forward to it. Highly recommended!