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Programs Recommendations Staff Book Reviews

Animal, Vegetable, Junk

by Adult Services Library Associate Beth

“This is a book about man’s war against nature, and because man is part of nature it is also inevitably a book about man’s war against himself.”

Rachel Carson
Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal by Mark Bittman | print / digital

The above quote from Carson can be found in the opening to Mark Bittman’s latest book, Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal. In his book, Bittman traces the history of agriculture from its earliest post-hunter gatherer/small-scale farming to our modern (i.e. “Western”) system which is overwhelmingly industrial, corporate and monopolized. In telling this history, Bittman demonstrates how agriculture systems were (and in many ways, still are) drivers of slavery, colonialism, and famine. And today, this food system is responsible for intensifying climate change, deteriorating the planet, and exacerbating diet-related, chronic diseases. (After all, we can’t ultimately distinguish environmental destruction from human destruction, as Carson’s quote illustrates.)

This history takes up about the first three-quarters of the book. Admittedly, it is a hard-hitting, oftentimes depressing, and exasperating read. But it’s also fascinating, thought-provoking and incredibly important. Rather than repeating that history here, however, I recommend picking up a copy of Bittman’s book yourself. And check out an upcoming program on a very similar topic! “Diet for a Large Planet”, presented by OSU History Professor Chris Otter, will look at the history of how our modern diets – diets largely reliant on red meat, white bread and sugar – developed.

The last quarter of Bittman’s book, thankfully, is much more optimistic and uplifting. After discussing all the ways our current food system is destructive and unsustainable, Bittman highlights efforts both here and abroad to create new types of food systems: fights to raise wages and improve working conditions for workers throughout our food systems, creating more local and regional food networks, transitions to farming that is less reliant of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and national school-lunch programs that use locally sourced ingredients. And while the scale of the problem will require collective and systemic changes, Bittman offers readers ways to make changes in their own individual consumption: changing your eating habits, supporting initiatives to protect the rights of workers in the food and farm industry, and buying food from small-scale farms that use sustainable and holistic farming practices. On the topic of changing eating habits, be sure to attend our virtual program on July 14, “Eating Plants“, where Bexley residents Dr. Andrew Mills and Dr. Jessica Garrett-Mills discuss the practice and philosophy of veganism.

Bittman ends his book with the following: “We are all eaters. Providing the food we need to sustain ourselves and flourish is the single most fundamental and important human occupation. How we do it defines our present and determines our future.” With this in mind, I’m grateful to be a part of the BPL community, which offers invaluable resources and educational materials on such important topics to help learners navigate and understand the world we live in. And I’m grateful for Bittman’s book, which is such a transformative and profound read.

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Booklists Recommendations Staff Book Reviews

Monopolized by David Dayen

by Adult Services Library Associate Beth

A handful of books published in the past few years illustrate the emergence of a modern anti-monopoly intellectual movement. (‘Monopoly’ referring to the consolidation of market power into one or a small handful of firms/corporations.) Among others, they include: Goliath by Matt Stoller, Break ‘Em Up by Zephyr Teachout, The Curse of Bigness by Tim Wu, and Monopolized by David Dayen (this last book being the subject of this particular review, below).

According to these researchers, experts and journalists, the rapid rise of monopolies drives inequality, causes and intensifies social injustices, and exacerbates the economic and political marginalization among already vulnerable groups. To explore the magnitude of this issue, Bexley Public Library is partnering with Morgan Harper and Pat Garofalo of the American Economic Liberties Project to host a virtual event Corporate Consolidation & Democracy. Harper and Garofalo will provide an overview of the impacts of corporate consolidation, the effects this accrual of power has on individuals, communities and democracy as a whole, as well as offer policy changes at the local, state and federal levels that would address this issue. The Zoom event will take place on March 10, 2021 at 7pm.

Register to attend this important presentation, and be sure to check out some (or all) of the books listed here!

(In addition to working at the AELP, Pat Garofalo is the author of a topically related book, The Billionaire Boondoggle, which is also available through the consortium; check it out!)

In Monopolized, journalist and executive editor at The American Prospect David Dayen shows readers just how far consolidation and monopolization reach into our economy. While many readers are probably familiar with the idea of monopolization in the area of ‘Big Tech’ (Google, Amazon, Facebook), and as important as these companies are to this larger trend, Dayen shows us that this issue extends far beyond just tech companies. Dayen exposes readers to the monopolization in the airline industry, agriculture, media, the pharmaceutical and banking industries, just to name a few. And I really do mean a few. By the end of the book, readers will likely come away wondering whether there are any industries left that haven’t been consolidated to a troubling degree.

The book is thorough in demonstrating how monopolization has crept into almost every nook and cranny of our economy, though at no point does reading become tedious. Indeed, while it examines such a serious and immense issue, the book is incredibly engaging. Dayen expertly weaves technical and policy analysis with personal stories of ordinary people and their experiences navigating monopolized industries. (I’m sure each of us has a horror story to tell when it comes to flying; mine involves racing to an ever-changing boarding gate across concourses in Atlanta’s International Airport, only to have my flight not take off at all, keeping me in the city for another evening.) Between each of the longer chapters, Dayen also includes short vignettes, relating his own experiences that range from the infuriating to the absurd. My personal favorite is his story of staying in a hotel that was housed in the very same building as a second hotel, separated only by a sign and a tiled floor. (Both hotels were owned by the same parent company.)

Though the ideas and concepts introduced are complex, the book is very accessible. It’s also wildly witty and entertaining; I found myself laughing out loud several times in my own reading. Probably no book I’ve read in the recent past has done more to so thoroughly change the orientation of my political thinking, and if I had to choose just one book to recommend, it would likely be this one. And now looking at the bags that my Kroger curbside-pickups come packaged in (listing other grocery stores that the Kroger Company owns: Ralphs, Dillons, Smith’s, QFC, Pick ‘n Save, Metro Market, etc.), I can’t help but recall the blurb written by Zephyr Teachout. After reading Dayen’s book, she predicts, “you will see [monopolies] everywhere”.

Check out these titles, available with your BPL card, to learn more on this topic!

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Staff Book Reviews

So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

A book review by BPL team member, Leann.

I read Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror and then immediately read So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, because, I guess I don’t want to feel happiness ever again.

Let’s start with the book everyone has been telling you to read since the moment it was off the printing presses in 2018: So You Want to Talk About Race. Oluo’s book is a primer for anyone and everyone who truly wants to do the work of dismantling the racist systems within which we live, work, eat, pray, and love. It reads like a textbook, which I think was the intention, with easily referenced chapter headings like “Why can’t I say the ‘N’ word?” and “Why am I always being told to ‘check my privilege?’” and “I just got called racist, what do I do now?” Oluo lays out in crystal clear language the answer to these questions. She does not mince words. The book is written both to people of color and to white people.

If you are already familiar with phrases like “school to prison pipeline” and are comfortable seeing the words “police” and “brutality” next to each other without huffing defensively, Oluo’s book is an excellent resource for you. Read it, and bone up on your answers so you can get more comfortable talking about race. Follow Oluo’s advice to talk, act, and importantly listen. If, however, you are skeptical about all the hubbub around the incarceration rates of black and brown men, or maybe you think affirmative action is why your kid didn’t get into Yale, or if you like the phrase, “Blue Lives Matter,” I wouldn’t recommend this book to you. Oluo doesn’t build an argument brick by brick, she whacks you over the head with the brick.

Oluo pulls no punches because there’s no time for that: she needs to get to the point and she needs to get there in reasonable word-count. If you’re a reader who’s been looking for that one resource to answer all your questions about why people won’t stop talking about race in America and you’re ready to hear the answers: I definitely recommend this book to you.

For Oluo’s book to work, and specifically for it to work for adults who have already learned so much Bad Information that we have to spend a bunch of time unlearning stuff, you need to have some basic foundational knowledge of systemic racism in America. You need to either be willing to take Oluo at her word when, for example, she cites the damaging and profound impacts of microagressions and/or you must have a pretty good grasp, already, on how racist America truly is. It’s a catch 22: to read this excellent diagnostic on basic American racism, you must already have some understanding of, and belief, in the damning nature of American racism. Otherwise, you’ll probably be in such shocked, mortified, embarrassed, and humiliated defensive disbelief, that you’ll put the book down and say she’s, “overreacting.”

If you’ve been having a frustrating conversation with someone about how American systems are inherently racist from the day they were created and you just want to shove something at that annoying person or link them to an article with all your proof, this book is going to feel very tempting. It does answer all those questions and demolish any arguments that American racism is over, and it does it quickly! With style! Nevertheless, as Oluo herself acknowledges, she’s not here to get into a Twitter feud over the troll-favored “proof.” If you think there’s even a chance, though, that the frustrating person might be willing to think about it further, grab Oluo’s book for yourself.

I encourage everyone to read this book, especially white people. Maybe if we all keep talking about race, more people will be ready for this book.

For more resources about race in America and Black Lives Matter, please visit our website at: https://bexleylibrary.org/black-lives-matter

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Staff Book Reviews

The Glass Hotel

A book review by BPL team member, Beth.

“The building would have been beautiful anywhere, but placed here, it was incongruous, and its incongruity played a part in the enchantment.”

So says one character in describing the distinction and allure of the Hotel Caiette, the titular hotel in Emily St. John Mandel’s newest novel, The Glass Hotel. Accessible only by boat and at the edge of wilderness in an inlet on Vancouver Island in Canada’s British Columbia, the Hotel Caiette offers its guests a temporary respite from the modern world. As the only location in which almost all of the novel’s multiple protagonists cross paths (albeit unknowingly, in some cases), the contrasting of the Hotel’s luxury and the surrounding wilderness offers insight into one of the novel’s ongoing themes: the gap between those at the top and those at the bottom of the economic ladder.  

The novel follows a multitude of characters, across both time and place. Paul is a young man in his early twenties who, after years of struggling with drug addiction, successfully enrolls in the University of Toronto. Following a tragic incident, Paul leaves school after only semester and goes to live with his estranged younger half-sister, Vincent, in Vancouver. Having dropped out of high school, Vincent is struggling to find what she wants to do with her life. This is in December 1999, and these characters, like others throughout the world, imagine whether the end of the millennium will bring with it the end of civilization. Flash forward to 2005, and both Paul and Vincent are working at the Hotel Caiette. Jonathan Alkaitis is a wealthy investor, and owner of the Hotel. On an evening that Jonathan is set to arrive, someone scrawls a disturbing message on the windows of the Hotel. That same evening, a conversation between Vincent and Jonathan leads to an intimate relationship. Not long after, Vincent quits her job and moves with Jonathan to New York City, leaving behind a working life just outside the wilderness, for a life of opulence in a large metropolitan city. 

Vincent, like other characters throughout the novel, illuminates the difference between wealth and want not merely as a difference of station, but a difference of country. Aside from the luxury available to one in the “Kingdom of Money” (as Vincent refers to it), perhaps its most distinguishing feature is the freedom of its citizens, particularly the freedom to never have to think about money. But Vincent and the rest of the world soon learn just how much of a façade the mechanisms creating such wealth are, as the 2008 economic crisis reveals the fraud of financiers like Jonathan. Ponzi schemes, subprime mortgages, and other risky and predatory financial products lead to the most devastating financial crisis since the Great Depression. The household wealth of millions are wiped out overnight, resulting in evictions, foreclosures, and destroying the hopes many had of retirement. 

While readers, for obvious reasons, are reviving Mandel’s 2014 post-apocalyptic Station Eleven, a novel about a worldwide viral pandemic, I’d argue that her newest novel speaks just as well to the times that we are living in. The Glass Hotel is largely a story of who loses most in an economic crisis. To many, the economic consequences of the COVID-19 crisis will be just as devastating as the virus itself. For the majority of Americans who have no savings, and no accumulated wealth, they again will be hit hardest by the current economic downturn. As in 2008, a crisis whose consequences we’re still dealing with, we again learn that those who have the least, end up being the ones who lose the most. If in times of crisis we continue to fail to address the obscene gap between those on the very top and those at the bottom, more and more people will be forced to live lives, as one character puts it, with “no space for any kind of error or misfortune.”

The Glass Hotel is an evocative and immersive read, one that I would recommend to fans of Mandel’s previous works. Like Station Eleven, the novel is told from multiple perspectives, full of unique and compelling characters; characters whose stories circle around and intersect with others in unexpected ways. It’s a sweeping, atmospheric novel, whose impressions will stick with readers long after they finish reading. Dense with metaphor, symbolism and provocative themes, it would make an excellent selection for a book club.

Click “read more” to see a book discussion guide for The Glass Hotel, which includes spoilers.

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Staff Book Reviews

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

A book review by BPL team member, Christian.

While going through some literary articles recently, I stumbled upon one by The Japan Times that discusses the idea of the new Japanese literary golden age. This article debates the merits of whether Japan is experiencing a new literary golden age and how Anglo-saxon translations funnel that to a Western audience. While the outcome of a contemporary literary Golden Age for Japan is left open-ended, it is certain that the voices of women authorship has significantly grown. However, an aspect of it, as mentioned previously, is determined by translation. For instance, one of the books shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2020, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, was initially published in Japan in 1994. A lot of writers that are defining the contemporary Japanese literary landscape have yet to make their impact in the Western world, but with the recent translations of authors such as Hiromi Kawakami, Hiroko Oyamada, Yukiko Motoya, and many more, that is slowly changing.

While virtually unknown to a Western audience, Sayaka Murata has become a well-respected author in her home country, winning multiple literary prizes, including most recently becoming a recipient of the Akutagawa Prize in 2016, as well as selling 600,000 copies for Convenience Store Woman alone. Serving as her first English-translated novel, Convenience Store Woman tells the story of a 36-year old convenience store worker, Keiko Furukura. Having spent 18 years working in a convenience store with no ambitions of pursuing another career or finding any romantic partners, Keiko is viewed as an outsider among her circle of friends, family, and coworkers.

Keiko is an enigmatic person, almost alien-like, as she displays a mimicry of others around her (speaking, dressing, and acting based off her coworkers), living outside the boundaries of social norms, but pretending to others as if she isn’t. In actuality, her view of the world treats the convenience store as the epicenter–all her thoughts, energy, and dreams gravitating to her workplace. She expresses ecstasy from the moment she greets customers in the morning, exclaiming, “I love this moment. It feels like ‘morning’ itself is being loaded into me. The tinkle of the door chime as a customer comes in sounds like church bells to my ears. When I open the door, the brightly lit box awaits me–a dependable, normal world that keeps turning. I have faith in the world inside the light-filled box.” The way she describes and articulates herself comes off as an extraterrestrial expressing thought and desire–something Keiko is almost aware of when she thinks about how she feels in the world outside the convenience store: “The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of.” Keiko’s alienation showcases the inconveniences of social expectations and constructs. Keiko’s only desires are to stick to the routine of the convenience store, as she’s already familiar with it–questioning why anyone thinks it’s strange why she doesn’t move on from that job. Even when she goes through a fraudulent relationship with an ex-coworker, which results in herself being recognized as a normal member of her social circles, she ends up coming to terms with that fact that her place in this world is to serve in a convenience store.The novel is a beautiful exploration of defying normality.

Similar Reads:The Memory Police by Yoko OgawaEvil and the Mask by Fuminori Nakamura
Me by Tomoyuki Hoshino

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Staff Book Reviews

The Power by Naomi Alderman

A book review by Bexley Public Library team member, Debbie.

Some of the most thought-provoking and compelling science fiction asks the question ‘What would happen if?’  In Naomi Alderman’s The Power across the world young women (and only women) start manifesting a mysterious ability to give electrical shocks – anywhere from light shocks to killing bolts.  The Power is a smart, fascinating look about how the world would change if the power balance literally changed overnight. The novel follows four characters as they discover their power and then navigate the changing world.  Roxy, a tough London girl, shocks and kills a man attacking her mother, Allie, a young woman living in an abusive foster home, shocks and kills her abusive foster father. A politician, Margot Cleary, has her power woken up by her daughter, Jocelyn and Tunde Edo is a young man who is the first to document the ‘Power’ phenomenon.  But as women come into their power those who have been running the world feel more threatened.

The Power is not only a book that will make you re-examine the world you know but it is also a thrilling, fast-paced novel with great characters.  I found the book to be both a gripping science fiction novel and a profound look at the nature of power and society that I’m still thinking about.

A warning to readers – The Power is well worth reading BUT is not a utopian book and has some very disturbing depictions of war and atrocities.

For bookclubs:

Debbie found Book Club questions from the great folks at Litlovers: https://www.litlovers.com/reading-guides/fiction/11206-power-alderman?start=3

The Power is also in the works to be a show on Amazon Originals!

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Staff Book Reviews

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russel

A book review & accompanying Book Club Discussion Guide by BPL team member, Beth.

(Content Warning: The review discusses abuse of a teenager by an adult.)

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell is a literary fiction novel about a teenage girl and her relationship with her forty-two-year-old high school English teacher. Vanessa Wye is the protagonist and the narrator, and the novel jumps between her memories of high school, her college years, and the present. In the present, another survivor of the same teacher’s abuse writes of her own experience in a social media post that goes viral. A journalist is writing an article about this woman’s story and how the school enabled the predatory behavior. Vanessa is being pursued by both to come forward and share her own story. While Vanessa wants to take no part in the article for the sake of her own privacy, she also is adamant that she was not abused: she was a consenting party in the relationship, and her so-called abuser, Jacob Strane, actually loved and cared for her.

This is perhaps the novel’s greatest strength: its ability to expose the psychological tension Vanessa faces as she relives and reevaluates her relationship with Strane. The novel expertly depicts Vanessa as a teenage girl, as she struggles to deal with her conflicting emotions towards Strane and their relationship. As readers and third-parties to the relationship, we can clearly see the abusive and predatory behavior. But by witnessing the situation from Vanessa’s perspective, we also learn how Strane groomed Vanessa to see the relationship as one grounded in love and concern. Even as an adult looking back, Vanessa struggles to see the abuse for what it was.

So while the novel’s exploration into Vanessa’s psyche is its greatest strength, it is also its most important cultural contribution. In extensive and disturbing detail, the novel reveals how an abuser picks and manipulates a victim. Vanessa knows that children get abused by adults, but we see the process Strane uses to convince her that he didn’t choose her, how he convinces her that she was the one who initiated the relationship and manipulates her to believe that she is the one who has all of the power. Using her loneliness and vulnerability against her, he is able to convince her that she is the exception to the rule of adult-child relationships: it is not abuse, it is love. And in this exploration, the novel reveals to its readers why so many victims of abuse do not come forward: they’ve been manipulated to believe they’re not being abused at all.

While the novel does have some weaknesses (it could have been edited down to a shorter length, most of the other characters aside from Vanessa and Strane aren’t developed to the degree that they could or should be), overall I would recommend the book. The book is difficult and disturbing to read, but it has a lot of cultural import. It is controversial, and some may find the depictions of the sexual elements of the abuse gratuitous. However, because the book is thought-provoking, it would make a great choice for a book club discussion (with sufficient content warnings to discussion members ahead of time). It stimulates a lot of discussion and debate; albeit around a difficult and sensitive topic. Though, as is often the case, these sorts of debates and discussions tend to be the ones we most need to have.

Book Club Discussion Guide (SPOILERS)

Click the button below to continue reading and see the book club discussion guide: