Thursday, March 26, 2015

Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden, by Vita Sackville-West and Sarah Raven. St. Martin’s Press, 2014

Sissinghurst is the garden created by Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicholson. They bought a Tudor era property that was nearly in ruins (it has a moat! And a tower!), fixed up the buildings without much modernization, and then, with Harold laying out the hardscape and Vita dealing with the plants themselves, made a garden that became very famous. Sissinghurst is the home of the famous (among gardeners) White Garden. Vita orchestrated a very lush garden, packed with flowers- especially scented flowers- that looked like they had sprung up naturally. Of course, it took a great deal of knowledge –and a couple of full time gardeners- to keep this looking natural.

150,000 people a year visit Sissinghurst to this day. While it has had changes- some plants didn’t do well, some just got old- the bones and spirit of the garden Vita created remain in place. Sarah Raven is a garden writer who has had the privilege of living at Sissinghurst for a while- she is married to Vita’s grandson. She considers herself the co-author of this book; she has mined Vita’s prodigious writings and included passages from them in the text. With this, we can see what Vita was trying to achieve in the garden and it’s a very interesting look inside. The book includes many black and white photos of the garden, inside the buildings, and Vita and her family; a few modern day color photos are also included. Very interesting for anyone interested in garden design from the viewpoint of living intimately with the garden 365 days a year.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, by Evan D.G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas. Free Press, 2010

I was loath to put this book down once I started it. It held my interest like a well-crafted novel would- for the most part. The author’s premise is that empires expand when they have good sources of food (mainly grain), and then, when the food sources fail the empire collapses. They present the Mayans, Mesopotamia, the Romans, the British Empire, modern China, and modern America among others, and they paint a pretty scary picture.

Sadly, their scholarship doesn’t match their writing. The British Empire didn’t fail because of a shortage of grains. Some of the dates given are just wrong; in at least one case, that makes what they are saying impossible (that a certain event caused something).

The book jumps around in time and place; I found it rather jolting at times to make the connections. For some reason, they felt they could bind a lot of the events together with the story of the world roaming trader Carletti, but they don’t even give him a continuous narration. He really had nothing to do with their thesis.

What was good about it? It does examine food surplus and scarcity. To be a food empire, the empire must be able to produce or capture a surplus of grains. They must be able to ship it to all its area, and trade it for other things, both necessities and luxuries. Having more food than your own population also gives a society another, very important, thing: when there is enough food that not everyone has to be a farmer, people can do other things, like learn to read and write, become artisans, and go exploring. Being able to have a non-farmer class gave us civilization.

They also go over why the food surpluses ceased to be. Irrigation that created over saline soils, loss of soil nutrients, loss of soil itself due to erosion, lowering of average temperatures by even one degree makes plants take longer to ripen grain, lack of rain- all these things can create disaster. And we are facing that again today: today we face climate change, soil erosion, drought, and the fact that the vast majority of grain growing (and, hence, meat producing) relies on petroleum inputs- and we are fast running out of petroleum.

The authors do not have an answer to our possible/probably plight. One thing they do suggest isn’t something that will work for most areas of the world: becoming locavores. Eating only foods grown within a circumscribed area at least remedies the amounts of fuel used to truck and process foods. Now, a big city, with all its suburbs, covers a huge area with blacktop and concrete and will have few areas for growing foods- and it takes a LOT of area to grow grains and frankly no one wants a pig farm next door. Our area, despite being rural, cannot successfully feed itself. The soils are not rich enough to support much beyond grass hay and cattle. The growing season is too short to ripen grain a lot of years- not to mention many fruits and vegetables. It’s possible on a small scale to ripen peppers and tomatoes by protective coverings but it would take a LOT of greenhouses to feed the county year round.

What this book does is point out a lot of different aspects of food supplies and make you think about them. For that I give it four stars. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. This in no way influenced my review. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Globe: The Science of Discworld, Part II, by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen. Anchor Books, 2015; first printing 2002

What a sad thing to review this book right after Sir Terry has passed away; sadder still that I have to say that I didn’t really like the book. It was okay; I read the whole thing without finding it a chore, but it wasn’t what I expected. I thought it might be a humorous book on how *Discworld* works, rather than our own.

There are four books in the Science of Discworld series; this is the only one I’ve read. The books are written in an alternating chapter format: Sir Terry writes the short, fiction, chapters and Stewart and Cohen write the longer, nonfiction, ones. The fiction portion tells a tale of the wizards of Discworld and a misadventure while doing a team building exercise in the forest. They find themselves interacting with Roundworld, a globular world where magic doesn’t exist, but elves do. Thinking this situation is unfair to the humans, they first eliminate the elves from Roundworld. Then they discover that this was a horrible mistake, as humans need to believe in magic in order to thrive and progress- even though the magic is imaginary. They have to go through great effort to correct their meddling.

The science part of the book covers a lot of different subjects; quantum physics, evolution, psychology, religion, time, multiverses, culture, and philosophy. It’s all in terms that most will find accessible, but there is some repetition.

It’s an attempt to get lovers of fantasy to read science-y stuff and sneak some education down our throats, sort of like a grown up version of Mickey Mouse teaching kids about math or something. It works, but not terribly well. The wizard story is just barely held together; the wizards do something, and then they stop and what just happened is explained to us. By the end of the book, I remembered a lot of the science but little of the story. While Cohen and Stewart wrote the science sections, I swear I see Sir Terry’s hand in that; the footnotes are some of the funniest stuff in the book.

Final verdict? Certainly not my favorite Pratchett, but if I see the other three in the series I’ll probably read them. Just not that eagerly. 

The above is an affiliate link; if you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. This in no way influenced my review.