The Reject Pile for 2014

Now that I’m two years into this project, I’m starting to get a better feel for which books are worth reading before I take them home — usually. Unfortunately, I’ve still picked some stinkers this year.

Empires of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations by Evan D.G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas

  • Started banging my head at page 158. There were only another 100 pages to go.

I want to like this book. It is well-researched, and the writing style is delightful. In fact, it’s the first book I’ve read in a long time that has made me literally throw my head back and laugh out loud (original definition of “literally”, not “figuratively”…curse you, Miriam Webster). The authors expertly develop the idea that every empire in history depended upon food supply, and I’ll buy that argument.

And then they started to beat on the theme that industrialized agriculture will be the ruin of the planet and therefore the vehicle of human extinction. Buy local? Sure. I like a farmer’s market, and I’d like to see agricultural practices that are forward-thinking and ecologically gentle. But seriously, I’m not going to cut up my Safeway card in favor of hunting and gathering, which is apparently the only way humanity can avoid destroying all arable land on the surface of the earth.

In fact, however, as the authors freely admit, I can’t return to hunting and gathering, even if I want to (I don’t: none of the native flora in my suburb yields Starbucks hot chocolate. I’ve checked). I think the authors really mean to endorse localism — a movement toward which I am somewhat sympathetic — but they end up tarring all of agriculture with the same brush and saying we’re just screwed. Effectively, they’ve created a 254-page statement of gloom and doom, whereas others have neatly summarized the same sentiments on a sandwich board.

Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life by David Treuer

  • 352 pages, and I read the whole thing.

I’ve been a little bit conflicted about whether or not to consign this book to the Reject Pile or not. This topic intrigues me because it gets so little attention. Generally, school curricula do a little unit on the Trail of Tears at some point, another one around Thanksgiving about how Indians saved the Plymouth settlers from starvation, and that’s pretty much it. I’m using the term “Indian” here because Treuer chooses it for himself and the Ojibwe people about whom he is writing. Treuer slowly builds some impressions of modern Indian reservations, but the operative word for the beginning of the book is “slowly”.

Treuer’s book is heavily weighted at the beginning and middle with some fairly dry stuff about treaties Indian nations have made with the U.S. One needs to know about them for the topic of Indian reservations to make sense, so the material unquestionably belongs there. Unfortunately, my eyes started to glaze over during some fairly long discussions about 19th and early 20th century treaties before the dots connected to 21st century Indian life. That said, the connections become clearer as the book progresses, so if you’re willing to stick with it, you’ll eventually get a good sense of Treuer’s message. My main complaint is with some of the editorial choices that went long on treaties and short on details about direct, modern connections to them.

Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin’s Plot by Giles Milton

  • 400 pages according to Amazon; I made it through about 100 pages

Milton details the history of the British intelligence agency that would one day become MI-6, focusing on missions in Lenin’s Russia around 1918. Should be fascinating. I would love to read about this topic, but I want to do it from a different book. I couldn’t sit still for longer than ten minutes at a time with this book before my mind drifted to my household chores, phone calls I should make, dinner plans, etc. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the rich narrative style of my favorite writers, like Candace Millard. Milton doesn’t seem weak on research, and he isn’t harping on any sort of personal agenda – two great ways to land in the Reject Pile. I just can’t wade into his writing style and keep my head there.

And, finally…

For Honour’s Sake: The War of 1812 and the Brokering of an Uneasy Peace by Mark Zuehlke

  • 474 pages, and I read the whole ugly thing. Maybe you should, too, but be sure you have enough Molson to wash this one down.

I’ll open with the “what was I thinking?” part of the review: up to this point, I have avoided reading about warfare as the main topic of a book. The reason is that I’m a “big picture” sort. There is just so much Captain A versus Commander B and who had more guns/ships/soldiers to win which fort/ship/harbor/town that I can take. Throw in the casualty counts, and I start getting tempted to skip pages (I didn’t…but I did skim some of the pages with a lot of numbers on them). So why did I stick with it?

It’s a big hole in the part of American history that most of us got taught in if we came through U.S. public schools: the War of 1812. Sure, it was a rather brief period of time, but it was a war, for goodness’ sake. Seems like there should be more than a couple of mumbled sentences about Francis Scott Key, right?

Well, it turns out that I can see why my rather conservative school board wouldn’t have favored too much teaching on the topic when I was a kid. First of all, the headline is that America invaded Canada, the people modern Americans tend to think of as the benign cousins to the north. Sure, America made a big kerfuffle about impressment of U.S. seamen into service about British ships, but really what kept this conflict going was a hunger for land — something anyone in national political office at the time would have denied.

What’s worse, though, is having to teach kids that America did the invasion really badly. Arrogance, naiveté and lack of resources dogged both the British and the American forces, but particularly the Americans, who bit off more than they could chew when they took ship against the most powerful navy of the day. But it gets even less appealing as classic history textbook fare: not only did sitting American president James Madison make some questionable decisions, but future presidents like William Henry Harrison and James Monroe made some lousy choices, too. Plus, Harrison also played a central role in shafting the native populations out of their lands (a popular policy with the white pioneers), so one would have to teach that being a scumbag can get you elected president someday — not a message most history teachers in U.S. public schools would have even been allowed to touch when I was a student.

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