Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Spring Interlude

This afternoon I lay in the grass next to creek and put words into a journal about anything that popped into my mind. I talked about the crow who was calling in a dead tree close to me. About the six vultures that I caught circling over me. About how I want to spend more time outside. About my upcoming camping trip. About why my hands never seem to get sunburned. I was warm in the sun and comfortable in my sweatshirt from the breeze. It reminded me why I need to spend more time outside.

My creek in summer. It's a little more bare recently. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Top 10 Nonfiction Titles

After my post on All The Tea in China, I started thinking about nonfiction. I read a lot of nonfiction. I think I would say that at this point in my life I prefer nonfiction. Not saying that I don't love to get lost in some imaginary world, but I'm a sucker for a book that will both teach and entertain me. So here are my Top 10 favorite nonfiction titles.

1. The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner
I read this book of Weiner's study of happiness and the places it can be found, and then immediately passed the book on to my sisters. The NPR correspondent looks at different scales of happiness and then sets out to visit the places that have been listed the happiest on earth (and a few of the least happy). Not only did the book introduce me to the concept of biophilia, but it made me want to travel to places like Iceland, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. His study of the different cultures is fascinating and I walked away thinking a lot about happiness and what really makes me happy in the end.

2. The Hive by Bee Wilson
I picked up this book, subtitled The Story of the Honeybee and Us, randomly in a tiny bookstore in Omaha. I read a lot of natural history books and this one was interesting. I had been wanting to eventually set up my own apiary. This book was so beautifully written and provided such an interesting history of bees that I read it over a two day period. Wilson shows how bees have been intertwined with our politics, sex, life, death, and of course food throughout history. A "bee"utiful book.

3. The History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage
The only book on this list that I don't own, but I can't think of a nonfiction title that has more impacted the way I look at the world. Standage looks back through human history through the lens of beverages. Through beer, wine, tea, coffee, spirits, and cola, he traces how humans have been changed as these drinks rose to prominence. His last chapter, about the rising importance of water, changed the way I looked at the environmental movement for the better. One of the best books I've ever read. Period.

4. Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson
Larson might be my favorite nonfiction writer out there. At the insistence of my mother I've read almost all of his books. He makes history come alive in a way that I've never encountered before. Isaac's Storm, about the 1900 hurricane in Galveston, tells three stories. The first is about the actual hurricane, how it arrived and what it destroyed. The second is about Isaac Cline, the meteorologist in Galveston that year and how his lack of understanding caused some of the larger damage. It's through Cline's letters and journals that we get the most intimate picture of the catastrophe. And the last story is the story of meteorology itself, from a bunch of guesswork to a somewhat scientific study. All three stories wrap together to make for one exciting and informative read.

5. Longitude by Dava Sobel
This is really a story about sea travel, about the difficulties of sea travel, and about the perfect device that managed to make it less difficult. For centuries sea farers could tell with some accuracy where they were latitudinally but they had no idea what longitude they were at. They could tell how close to the equator they were, but not how far east or west. It was a perilous issue. This book chronicles the invention of the chronometer, which finally allowed sailors the chance to know where in the world they really were. A short, elegant read for anyone interested in travel, history, or inventions.

6. The Medici Giraffe by Marina Belozerskaya
Throughout history, animals have been used by man. Some for food, some for work, and some (as this book discusses) for status. This well researched and beautifully written book looks at how people have used exotic animals as symbols of power and status. It chronicles the early animal trade where exotics were brought back to live in private menageries or paraded down the streets for the people's pleasure. I had never really thought about how animals had been used that way until I realized how often animals are still given as gifts to heads of state. An eye-opening book.

7. The Road of Dreams by Bruce Junek
One of the more obscure titles on this list, although I have several friends who had read this travelogue before I had. The book follows Bruce Junek and his wife Tass Thacker as they bicycle around the world. I've read many "around the world" books but this one was the first to really feel like the authors were getting heavily into the cultures surrounding them. Focusing mostly on North America, Europe, and Asia, this book gave me my first glimpse into traveling lightly yet immersing oneself into a place. I was spellbound by the read as has everyone I've ever lent the book to.

8. Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson
After I started scuba diving, I started reading a bit about the history of the pursuit and about successful and unsuccessful dives. Of all the books I've read though, none of them kept me on the edge of my seat like this true story of a group of divers, working on a U-Boat they discovered off the coast of the US. Their tales of the dives they take to discover the identity of the sub and to explore it are gripping. While reading the last chapter I literally forgot to breathe and ended up taking gasping breaths as I flipped pages. Incredibly exciting reading.

9. You Just Don't Understand by Deborah Tannen
This is hands down one of the best books I've ever read about human communication. Tannen explores how and why men and women seem to speak differently. Giving clear examples she shows what each sex is trying to convey in their discussions. While I'll admit that not every woman or man fits a stereotype, this book really changed the way I look at why I say the things I say and what I really mean.  It shaped the way I speak and the way I listen.

10. Rowing to Latitude by Jill Fredston
I've read a lot of books about swimmers and rowers lately. I'm not sure what about the water fascinates me so much but I've been smitten. This book follows Jill Fredston and her husband as they row (as in rowboat) around some of the coldest and inhospitable places on Earth. In winter Fredston is an avalanche rescuer in Alaska. In summer, she and her husband row around the edges of Greenland, Norway, Alaska... to name a few. The writing is beautiful (I copied out tons of quotes), the locations are fascinating, and the interactions between the couple and the world around them makes me want to spend more time outdoors. Great read.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

2 Questions

There are two questions that I get asked repeatedly and regularly. They both make sense for people who know me and my habits, but I don't think I ever answer them properly. So I'll answer them here, where I don't have to think on my feet. 

1. Are you going to get a Kindle or Nook?
I don't know how many times I've been asked some variation on this question. I get asked about my feelings on e-readers often enough that I've developed something of a pat answer. I don't hate the idea of e-readers. In fact, anything that gets people reading is a wonderful thing. I hope people read regularly and broadly. I hope they fill their e-reader with books and catch up on modern novels, classics, and nonfiction. Seriously, I don't care what form you read as long as you read. As for myself, I would probably love a Kindle or Nook. I like the idea of having hundreds of books handy. But it's not something that I'm going to go out of my way to buy. If I end up with one, great. But even if I do, that doesn't mean that I'll stop buying print books. I prefer to read off paper. I find my concentration isn't quite as deep when I read on a screen. And even if I find that I love the Kindle/Nook and I love reading on it, I'll still buy paper books as well, and not just for that wonderful old book smell. There is something about being surrounded by paper and books that makes me feel at home. I'm never more happy then when I'm in a library or bookstore, surrounded by stories. Browsing those shelves I find books I would never have expected to read, that become favorites. I find new ideas. I can't get that browsing experience electronically. Because I prefer to read serendipitously, I'll never stop book buying. Even if I do purchase a few electronically. 

2. Are you ever going to get a Keurig?
I drink a lot of coffee and tea. I'm the queen of hot beverages. So it's natural to assume that I would want a Keurig. I have friends that love theirs. I've used them in hotels and been happy with them. But I'm never ever going to get one. I have two reasons. The first is purely personal. As I mentioned before, I drink a lot of coffee. I drink a pot of coffee every day at work. Decaf of course, but it's a full pot. I pour cup after cup. I can't imagine if I had to get up to make a new cup of coffee each time I ran out. Currently I just pour some fresh stuff from my 12 cup maker on top of the cooling coffee. I can't imagine drinking less and I can't imagine having to make it in individual sized cups. 

The second reason that I won't get a Keurig is only partly personal. I started to notice that K-cups now make up more and more of my grocery aisle at stores. Box after box of K-cups are available in every possible brand. And each of those little cups is made of plastic. That means that every time I make a cup of coffee I'm contributing a tiny cup of plastic to our landfills. While that may not seem huge, now imagine that everyone in your town does that each day. If every person in Des Moines drank one cup of coffee each day (and used a K-cup) that means that over the course of a year, Des Moines alone (with a population of almost 600,000) would add 219 million little plastic cups to the landfill. 219 MILLION!!. In our relatively small city. Now imagine the number of K-cups coming out of a city like New York City. So far I haven't heard anyone talk about the environmental impact of the Keurig but I bet we will start talking about that soon. I can't think of a more wasteful device out there. They look lovely and make decent coffee, but they also make a ton of trash. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

For All the Tea in China

Most people who know me know that I'm a huge coffee drinker. Even after going decaf a couple years ago I still drink a large amount of coffee. But I really should say that I'm a hot beverage person. I drink not just coffee but tea, cocoa, hot cider, mulled wine, and even just hot water. If it's a warm beverage, it's for me. I love tea. There are so many varieties, and unlike with coffee I can easily tell the difference between flavors. And this week I'm inspired to try even more different types of tea.

I just finished the book "For All the Tea in China" by Sarah Rose and was blown away by how much I learned in a scant 250 pages. The book follows Robert Fortune, a botanist in the 1800s who was sent by the East India Company to China to steal tea. Up until that point tea was only grown in China and Britain was becoming dependent on the drink. So the East India Company wanted a source that they could control. So it was decided that tea should be planted in India, a country already under the company's control.

Over three years Fortune was able to gather and smuggle out of China enough tea plants that India was able to produce a crop and in a short period of time nearly end Britain's reliance on Chinese tea. Rose describes it as one of the greatest industrial thefts of all time. It was one of the first instances of industrial espionage which nearly destroyed the Chinese economy. Especially since India was still shipping thousands of pounds of opium to China (If you haven't read about the Opium Wars, they are a fascinating topic.).

Reading the book made me even more curious about the East India Company, a company I knew something about but never really realized the full horror of what it did. Can you imagine having a for-profit corporation in control of your government? All your basic services at its whim? While we talk about corporate control here in the US I still don't have to rely on Wall Street for my fire protection or schools. Rose spends some time talking about the Honourable Company (as it was sometimes called) but left me wanting more, the mark of a great nonfiction book.

But the book also made me more curious about tea. I read a section about the Assam teas from India and was excited to realize that I had just picked up a Golden Assam from our local tea merchant, Gong Fu. The book talked about the Darjeeling teas, which I realize I've never had a great example of. There was a small discussion of monkey-picked teas, something that I had always been curious about (and now won't be trying). Suddenly I want to run down to Gong Fu and try all their teas. I want to sample them and write tasting notes the way people do with whiskey and scotch. A fascinating book. But be warned, it will make you crave tea. I don't want to think about all the cups I drank over the last two days of reading it.