The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan (Review)

The Omnivore’s Dilemma can be summed up in four stages:

1) Industrial corn. It’s everywhere, terrible for the environment, and we eat a crap-ton of the stuff.
2) Big organic. Marginally better, but it’s got issues too.
3) Small organic = The dream. More of this.
4) Foraging is fun, “natural”, and completely unpractical.

So if I had a red pen I’d obviously go back and circle number three. BUT, even though you know a few of the main points now, you should still read the book, and here’s why: Pollan is a great writer and intrepid explorer of questions who seems to have been one of the first people to have made it onto bestseller lists for a comprehensive yet journalistic work on the roots, history, and use of food. Basically, by reading this book I feel that I learned a lot about what goes into the food that I eat and the different choices that people make about eating.

The layout of the book leads you from the largest scale of food production/acquisition down to the smallest scale. Pollan goes to experts in each of the four categories–the first three being farmers of some sort, and the last being an expert forager and hunter. The character profiles and information that he gains from interviewing each of these experts were the most interesting parts of the book for me. I enjoyed learning about inherited legacies/methods of farming, the challenges these individuals face, and the rewards and profits in each sector.

Pollan adds to the narrative by doing copious research of his own on each topic. In addition, he describes his personal perspectives and observations on the culture of food for different families and nationalities. He eats a meal from each of the four categories, and I expect that foodies will especially love the description of his exploits in the kitchen after acquiring his food. The overall effect is a well-organized and thorough examination that teaches without being boring.

There were a few things about the book that I didn’t love, however. Foremost for me was the framing that eating organic and preparing your own nutritious “whole” meals is a choice that most of us can and should make. I do agree that eating organic is probably better for the environment (even if Big Organic is problematic in a number of ways as he describes), and that many of us–myself included–could actually afford to buy organic more often or even exclusively if we really wanted to. But there are a lot of people that are being left out of the equation. People who make very little money and to whom the cost of buying organic is definitely an insurmountable hurdle. To frame their choices to buy cheaper food as not choosing to provide their children with quality nutrition is preachy and uninformed. The same is true of the argument about preparing one’s own food all the time. Pollan advocates for us all to get over our annoyance of spending a lot of time cooking, and to learn to take joy in food preparation. Again, a single mom working two or three jobs might love to take that time and feed her kids healthily, but simply may not be able to. I have a feeling that Pollan was not marketing his book to these individuals.

Another aspect of the book that I found frustrating was the chapters that Pollan spent theorizing about the ethics of eating animals. He cites a number of different philosophers, and tries to create an objective argument for whether or not eating meat is something our species should do. As a vegetarian, I found this approach a bit annoying, since there are a number of reasons for choosing not to eat meat and probably no “objective” standard about the issue to be found anywhere. That he refers to vegetarians and animal rights advocates as “the animal people” (as opposed to “normal people”) doesn’t really help. Rather than searching for some overarching philosophy, I would have been more interested in Pollan framing it as his personal views and reasoning on the matter.

Qualms aside, Pollan couldn’t have chosen a more universal topic to focus on for his book; everyone has to eat, usually several times a day, and thus eating is something that we think about everyday to one extent or another. While the last part dragged a little for me (again, foodies would probably still be having a blast) I really appreciated his approach and journalistic process in exploring food. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the topic.


Wednesday Quote: Cheryl Strayed

But this isn’t fiction. Sometimes a story is not about anything except what it is about. Sometimes you wake up and find that you actually have lost your nose. Losing my mother’s wedding ring in the Tongue River was not ok. I did not feel better for it. It was not a passage or a release. What happened is that I lost my mother’s wedding ring and I understood that I was not going to get it back, that it would be yet another piece of my mother that I would not have for all the days of my life, and I understood that I could not bear this truth, but that I would have to.

Healing is a small and ordinary and very burnt thing. And it’s one thing and one thing only: it’s doing what you have to do. It’s what I did then and there. I stood up and got into my truck and drove away from a part of my mother. The part of her that had been my lover, my wife, my first love, my true love, the love of my life.

–From “The Love of My Life” by Cheryl Strayed


In browsing blogs last week I came across a reference to the above essay by Cheryl Strayed, published in Sun Magazine, and I was incredibly moved. These are the just the last two paragraphs of the three-page piece where Strayed talks about the process of grief and healing she underwent after her mother’s death. For those familiar with her book Wild, it’s a bit of a prequel to her solo travels on the Pacific Crest Trail.

I thought Wild was a great read, but this essay actually reminds me more of her book Tiny Beautiful Things, which blew me away with its elegantly raw prose. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of Strayed’s writings as a then-anonymous advice columnist for The Rumpus, and it’s a read that I’d highly recommend, no matter what state of life you find yourself in right now. I’m not actively grieving anyone in particular at the moment, but I was happy to have another dose of her clarity and worldly writing through “The Love of My Life.”

E-Readers vs. Paperbacks

Debate has raged on ever since invention of the magical e-ink itself. There are the staunch believers in solid, physical books that you can hold in your hand. And there are those who embrace the innovation of e-readers and their space-saving wonder.

I’m someone who sees room for middle ground in the debate. I’ve owned a Kindle Touch for several years now and I do really enjoy it. But I also love love love the feeling of a physical book in my hands when I’m reading something to savor. So, the long and short of it for me is that I use e-readers and physical books for different reading purposes.

What I use e-readers for:

  • Reading books I won’t read twice
  • Reading books I’m not sure I’ll finish
  • Getting a new book from the library when too lazy to go in person

What I use physical books for:

  • Reading books that I know I’ll read more than once
  • Treating myself for a job well done or goal achieved
  • Borrowing from friends or getting something from PaperbackSwap
  • Enjoying the indescribable joys of browsing actual bookshelves

There’s four bullet points on the physical books list and only three on the e-reader list, so maybe I do come out a little in favor of holding my reading in hand. I want to support local bookstores (the few that are left) and libraries, which may also have something to do with my feelings. But I definitely think that there is room for both, despite each option’s tension with the other.

Insurgent by Veronica Roth (Review)

Oh, Veronica Roth, what happened?! I enjoyed the first book of this series a lot. It reminded me of The Hunger Games trilogy with its action-packed suspense of trying to figure out what would happen next. In Divergent, Tris was an interesting main character, battling her background growing up humble in Abnegation with her inconclusive aptitude tests that make her “Divergent”, leading her to choose the risk-seeking Dauntless faction.

But the second book in the series, Insurgent, simply lacks the same energy and direction. The novelty of Roth illuminating a dystopian world of factions based on personality traits is kind of over, and we’ve already been introduced to all of the important characters and most of their secrets.

Tris spends most of her time being scared, regretting her past, or mooning over her boyfriend Tobias, which felt like a big change from her character’s bravery and nuance from the first book. There is also a lot of running around and getting captured or trapped, which felt a bit predictable and boring after a while.

However, despite my issues with the plot and one-dimensional characters, I did read the book fairly quickly, which is worth something. I kept turning the pages, because there was a bunch of action and the pace of the book is pretty fast. It would be untruthful to say that I wasn’t engaged with the book at all.

Also, I will say that the ending did pique my interest somewhat as to what the final book will hold. I won’t give the last pages away, but we learn something about the whole world that Tris lives in that could make for a compelling final volume. And I very well may end up reading the last book in the series, since I am a bit curious and I hate getting mostly through something and then dropping it. So, overall, I can’t say I was particularly fond of this read, but perhaps YA readers enjoyed it a bit more than I did.