Book Review: The Culling, Robert Johnson (2014)

Monday, January 6th, 2014

The Momentum of Folly

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

Young upstart Dr. Carl Sims is moving on up the food chain at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta – though not as quickly as he’d like. While visions of Level 4 Ebola research dance in his head, Carl is dispatched to Guangdong, China, in order to track down an emerging flu virus. What was to be a rather mundane and tedious assignment quickly morphs into a battle for the future of humanity, as Carl is thrust into a conspiracy orchestrated by his senior colleagues. Led by his own superior on the assignment, Dr. Jenna Williams, the scientists hope to release the 1918 “Eskimo” flu strain, thus “culling” two thirds of the earth’s population and saving the rest from impending environment collapse. It’s up to Carl to stop them – that is, if he doesn’t decide to join them.

Robert Johnson has an interesting idea in The Culling – but, for whatever reason (or combination of reasons), the finished product just didn’t do it for me. Johnson is an adept enough writer, and mostly keeps a quick pace, but it takes some time for the conspiracy angle to get off the ground. The book – or at least the ARC I received – isn’t divided into chapters, which makes the story feel as though it’s unfolding more slowly than it is. Johnson fills the book with facts and figures that are supposed to drive home the urgency of the situation, but which mostly made my eyes glaze over. (To be fair, I’m already convinced that humanity is headed swiftly off a cliff. A member of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement – emphasis on “voluntary” – I can do Johnson’s “just two children” credo two better: I have none. So I didn’t really need any convincing, is my point.)

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The Great CriFSMas Food (and More) Roundup, 2013 edition!

Saturday, January 4th, 2014

It felt like I did a ridiculous amount of baking this Christmas – so, when I went and looked back at last year’s roundup, I nearly fainted in disbelief. (Full disclosure: there may have also been a food coma involved, due to the copious amounts of sugar I’ve been ingesting.) Did I seriously make a dozen plus batches of cookies last year? Little old me?

Fun story: after feeling super-smug and self-satisfied over my achievement of baking FIVE WHOLE BATCHES of cookies in one day, I headed on over to tumblr – where some lady posted about the 40 donuts and multiple trays of cookies she baked in one afternoon. Whoops! There goes my self-confidence!

So anyway, here’s the Great CriFSMas Food Roundup, 2013 edition! But with bonus x-mas presents and vegan pop culture observations.

First up: the noms. As per usual, let’s start with dessert, shall we? All the cookies are from Kelly Peloza’s The Vegan Cookie Connoisseur, a review of which I’ll probably have for y’all soon. Unless. Maybe I need to try out a few more recipes? You know, for the love of science and books and all that is holy and sugar-dusted.

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Glazed Rum Raisin Cookies – With their copious amounts of liquor and strong rummy taste, these cookies aren’t for kids. Very tasty and easy to bake, though I opted to make my glaze into more of an icing, so as not to risk the cookies sticking to one another during storage. If you go this route, start out with less rum. I ended up with way more icing than I could use. Or drink! (Yes, I actually tried that.)

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Chewy Caramel Pecan Cookies – SO GOOD! Caramel and pecans, what’s not to love? Well, the cookies’ inherent stickiness, for starters: I had to refrigerate the sheet of cookies for about ten minutes before I was able to peel them from the parchment paper without tearing the cookies to shreds. I wonder if my batter was too wet; the caramel pecan mix didn’t get especially thick, which resulted in a very sticky cookie dough. Further experimentation may be required.

Also, pro tip: these cookies have mad spread, so space them far, far apart. As in four cookies to a medium-sized tray. No kidding!

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Book Review: Bleating Hearts: The Hidden World of Animal Suffering, Mark Hawthorne (2013)

Monday, December 2nd, 2013

They Shoot Narwhals, Don’t They?

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review at the author’s invitation. Also, trigger warning for discussions of violence, including that of a sexual nature.)

“Hierarchies feed oppression because it allows for valuation: those at the top are more valued than those at the bottom. Oppressors like hierarchies that keep animals at the bottom because then you can do to humans what you do to animals if you say that the humans are like the animals. So it feeds oppression to have animal objectification.” – Carol J. Adams (page 492)

“Change is hard, but not changing is just as hard.” – Carol J. Adams (page 487)

“Now I can look at you in peace; I don’t eat you any more.” – Franz Kafka (quoted on page 490)

In Bleating Hearts: The Hidden World of Animal Suffering, author-activist and longtime vegan Mark Hawthorne examines some of the effects of these human hierarchies, which universally place nonhuman animals – an estimated three to thirty million species, comprised of trillions upon trillions of individuals – at the bottom of the proverbial shit pile. (That such categories even exist – human animals, and all the “others” – is itself a testament to the self-centeredness of the human species.)

While I was expecting an encyclopedic, A-to-Z look at animal suffering, Bleating Hearts is something much different; Hawthorne shines a light on practices that, for whatever reason, don’t garner as much attention in animal activist circles: Balut eggs, an Asian delicacy that involves boiling developing duck embryos alive. The plight of the ever-popular slow lorises (please don’t forward those YouTube videos, people, no matter how cute they seem!). Dolphin-assisted therapy (cruel, and a scam). Horse fighting (which often ends in the serial rape of a mare, positioned in the ring to induce the stallions to compete). Rogue taxidermy. If you think you know all there is to know about animal exploitation, think again. Even the most seasoned activist will discover something new within these pages.

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Book Review: March: Book One, John Lewis (2013)

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

“The Boy from Troy”

four out of five stars

The first in a planned trilogy, March: Book One follows the life of Congressman John Lewis (GA-5), one of the “Big Six” leaders in the civil rights movement and a former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Book One covers Lewis’s early years, where his love of education often conflicted with his duties on his family’s Alabama sharecropper’s farm. After high school, Lewis attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University (“the boy from Troy who wants to desegregate Troy State,” as MLK referred to him during their first meeting), where he became involved in non-violent protest and helped organize the Nashville sit-ins, which were successful in desegregating local lunch counters. The scenes of students rehearsing the demonstrations – and all the abuse it entailed – are especially harrowing. Along with dozens of fellow protestors, Lewis was arrested (the first in a long string of arrests; as of October 2013, when he was arrested for marching in favor of immigration reform, Lewis has been arrested some 45 times) and sentenced to a $50 fine or 30 days in the county workhouse. Lewis and his colleagues were ultimately released under the orders of Nashville Mayor Ben West.

Lewis recalls these events to a group of young visitors just hours before the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, which he and his family are to attend, thus firmly connecting past and present. The artwork by Nate Powell is pleasing and certainly gets the job done, though part of me wishes that these scenes from the past had been rendered in color instead of black and white, making them come alive, so to speak.

Though it includes harsh language (understandable given the context), I think that March is suitable for middle school readers on up. The “n word” is dropped with some frequency, but it’s important for parents to discuss the hateful legacy of this (and other slurs) with their children. Additionally, March can be a useful tool for introducing the history of the civil rights movement to middle and high school students. While it is rather light on details – this is a graphic novel, after all! – March can help teachers meet students on their level and engage them with topics in which they might not otherwise take an interest. March shouldn’t be the beginning and end of the lesson, but rather a starting point. It certainly made me hungry to know more.

I found the early scenes of Lewis tending to his family’s chickens particularly touching and poignant. Lewis had an especial affinity for those birds destined for his dinner plate; he talked to them, named them, came to recognize and appreciate their distinct personalities, and even sermonized to and baptized them. When his parents killed one for meat – chopping his head off, or breaking her neck – Lewis remained angry with them for days, and made himself scarce during these meals. Thus it was no small disappointment to see him readily dismisses the ethical implications of exploiting sentient creatures for food – not to mention, devalue the fierce bonds he formed with these beings – with a clichéd line about the circle of life.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Christian Nation: A Novel, Frederic C. Rich (2013)

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

I really wanted to like this book…

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program. )

I really wanted to like this book. I really did. I mean, it’s right up my alley: Speculative fiction. The rise of an American theocracy. The erosion of civil liberties and rights. The misuse of technology by the government to spy on its citizens and force them into submission. Misogyny taken to its logical extremes. When I first read the description on the book jacket, it brought to mind some of my favorite dystopian classics: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is an obvious one, as is George Orwell’s 1984. While these books do share some similarities, what sets Christian Nation: A Novel apart is that it’s surprisingly boring.

Caution: Minor spoilers ahead!

What might have happened had John McCain and Sarah Palin won the 2008 election? In Frederic C. Rich’s vision of one possible America, a McCain/Palin victory is the first step on the path to an American theocracy. Not long after his inauguration, President McCain drops dead of a cerebral aneurism while giving a speech in Moscow. In a nightmare scenario, the ill-prepared Sarah Palin is swiftly sworn in. During her presidency – which lasts two terms, thanks to a series of especially brutal and conveniently-timed terrorist attacks on American soil – Palin begins to lay the groundwork for what will become the unraveling of American democracy. Among other things, Palin declares martial law, and with her leadership, Congress passes previously unthinkable pieces of legislation, including the Houses of Worship Act, the Constitution Restoration Act, and the Defense of Freedom Act – most of the provisions of which are upheld by a Supreme Court now dominated by conservatives.

Palin is succeeded by her mostly-invisible adviser, Steve Jordan, under whose leadership America undergoes a radical transformation. On July 4th, 2017, he introduces a series of fifty proposed rules organized around ten assertions. Based on an evangelical Christian reading of the Bible and collectively called The Blessing, these are to act as each citizen’s covenant with God, as well as the basis for more concrete state and federal laws. The Blessing is a sort of conservative Christian wishlist: among other things, it establishes “God’s law” as the law of the land; restricts judgeships to born again Christians; expels the UN from US soil and nullifies existing international treaties; solidifies marriage as between one man and one woman; outlaws abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, adultery, pornography, and “sexual perversion”; eradicates hate crimes legislation; establishes abstinence-only education as the only legal form of sexual education; and demands that wives must obey their husbands and children, their fathers. While Jordon doesn’t unilaterally enact The Blessing – it comes up for a vote in Congress, much like any other piece of legislation – it easily passes in a House and Senate dominated by conservative Christians (many of whom were swept into power with the help of politically active churches, thanks to Palin’s Houses of Worship Act).

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, Volume 29, Dave Wolverton, ed. (2013)

Monday, August 26th, 2013

A thoroughly enjoyable collection of contemporary science fiction!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contest – now entering its thirtieth year, it’s one of the longest-running short story contests still in existence – attracts thousands of submissions a year. From this, a panel of judges selects just thirteen essays for publication in the annual anthology. Also included are thirteen illustrations similarly culled from the Illustrators of the Future contest, along with three instructional essays on the art of crafting and selling science fiction, written by professionals in the field. (This year’s collection includes one piece by contest founder L. Ron Hubbard himself.)

As suggested by such stiff competition, the essays included in the 2013 anthology are all thoroughly enjoyable, with one exception (Christopher Raynaga’s “The Grande Complication,” which I didn’t much care for). The collection starts of strong with Brian Trent’s “War Hero.” In the distant future, soldiers and war criminals have achieved virtual immortality with the ability to save one’s consciousness, downloading it into a new body (or multiple bodies) as needed – thus assuring the interminability of war, conflict, and the military-industrial complex. (As an added bonus, cross-gender downloading also carries with it some interesting sexual connotations.)

“Planetary Scouts,” by Stephen Sottong, is one of the lengthier stories in the collection – and it’s also one of my favorites. Having long since ventured off earth, humans are constantly in search of new planets to colonize. Enter the Planetary Scouts, who land on and probe (“explore” is too lofty a word) strange planets to determine whether they support “intelligent” life. If not, they’re considered open to human settlement. As always, a species’ intelligence is measured solely in human terms, leading to the genocide of countless “lesser” species who might not be able to grasp arithmetic – but are still sentient, capable of experiencing joy and suffering, with families and interests and lives of their own. On more than one occasion – such as when he and his partner Aidan explore a mostly aquatic planet to determine whether an intergalactic aquaculture company can install one giant fish farm on it – this crass policy leads to a crisis of conscience for young upstart Lester. (As it turns out, the planet is home to one enormous “distributed intelligence,” which is self-aware – and thus worthy of continued existence. More often than not, you’ll find yourself rooting for the aliens.) In more extreme cases, such as when it’s home to “dumb” animals or plant life that’s deemed harmful to humans, a planet may be “sterilized”: stripped of all life, leaving a clean slate for its future human overlords. Talk about your euphemisms!

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: No Easy Way Out, Dayna Lorentz (2013)

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

Lord of the Taylor

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC of this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program. Also, trigger warning for rape and animal abuse.)

After a biological bomb is found strapped to the HVAC system at the Shops of Stonecliff, the mall’s quickly quarantined, with thousands of hapless shoppers and employees (not to mention a few police officers and research scientists) trapped inside. In the aftermath, a new society forms. Led by Senator Ross – on the authority of the US president, no less – the official government forces attempt to provide for the needs of the mall’s residents: food, water, clothing, hygiene, and safety – both from one another, as well as the lethal flu strain ripping a path of destruction through the captive population. Naturally, not everyone accepts the power of this autocracy: rebellion, coups, conspiracy theories, and general mayhem ensues.

Book one in the series (No Safety in Numbers) introduced us to four protagonists – Lexi, Shay, Ryan, and Marco – through whose eyes we saw the story unfold. Each section of the book equaled one day in the mall; each chapter alternated between a different character’s perspective. As with No Safety in Numbers, No Easy Way Out also covers a week’s worth of the quarantine: in this case, days 7 through 14. However, Lorentz breaks with the structure she introduced in the first book: sections are divided by day, chapters by time period, with shifting character perspectives throughout. Initially I wasn’t I thrilled with this change, but it quickly won me over: it helps move the story along at a quicker pace.

That said, No Easy Way Out is rather hefty at 470 pages (for the ARC; the “real” copy will run 480 pages); No Safety in Numbers is a slim 263 pages in comparison. By no means do I shy away from thick books (Stephen King is one of my favorites, so.), but in this case I felt like the story was slow and a bit bloated, particularly in the first half. Much of the focus in No Easy Way Out is on relationships: love triangles, shifting alliances, back-stabbing, and the like. The action doesn’t really pick up until the last third of the book, when a second flu strain begins dropping teenagers like flies.

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The Lucky Ones by Woodstock FAS Founder Jenny Brown: Review & Giveaway!

Monday, June 24th, 2013

Update, July 1, 2013:

& the winner is (*drumroll please*) #8, Kenney!

Check your email to claim your prize!

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In anticipation of the upcoming July 2nd paperback release, Penguin generously provided me with two copies of The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals, written by Woodstock FAS founder Jenny Brown and fellow vegan Gretchen Primack – one to review, and one to give away!

To enter to win a copy for your very own self, simply answer this question in the comments: if you could visit Woodstock tomorrow, which of the residents – human or non – would you most like to meet? (Hint: there’s a partial list available on Woodstock’s website.) Or just tell me why you need this book! I’m not fussy.

For a second entry, tweet this message and leave a second comment telling me you did so.

THE LUCKY ONES by @WoodstockFarm Founder Jenny Brown: #Review & #Giveaway! Enter to #win your own copy here: http://bit.ly/12PyHx8 #vegan

The contest is open now through Monday, July 1st at tPM CDT. I’ll randomly choose and contact a winner shortly thereafter. The winner will have 72 hours to respond, after which time I’ll choose someone else. Please leave an email address in the form when commenting (don’t worry, it’s private!) so we can get in touch. I’ll ship the book anywhere in the United States and Canada.

Good luck, and happy reading!

 

A Five-Hankie Review

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review at the publisher’s invitation.)

“I often envision a giant protective bubble over our property, and inside it a place where everything is right in the world, the way we want it to be. Animals roam free, living happy and peaceful lives the way they should. They are free to be themselves, among friends and, in some cases, family. There is no fear of harm, no want for food or water, warmth or shelter. They have everything they need. They are loved, and treated with respect and compassion, until their dying moments in our arms, when they are wet from our tears. We coexist with them, never considering ourselves superior or their ‘owners.’ We don’t use them as commodities or exploit them in any way. They are our friends. Beloved friends. They owe us nothing. But what they do give, unconsciously, is the greatest asset to our work. They are ambassadors for all others like them, showing humans that other animals are not mere automatons.” (pp. 223-224)

As a teenager slinging burgers at the Doublemeat Palace in Sunnydale – errr, serving burgers at a Louisville McDonald’s; sorry, I got my superheroes confused for a second there! – Jenny Brown never imagined that she’d one day devote her life to rescuing the very animals she enjoyed sandwiched between two slices of bread – let alone give up a promising career in film to do so.

Along with her husband, film editor Doug Abel, Brown founded Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary in 2004; their wedding ceremony served as the nonprofit’s inaugural fundraiser. Located just outside of Woodstock, New York, in the neighboring town of Willow, Woodstock FAS is home to over 200 rescued “farm” animals, including runaway cow Kayli, who literally escaped death in a New York City “live kill” market when she bolted for it through the city streets; the infamous goat Albie who, like his guardian, sports one “fake” leg; and Petunia, a “Thanksgiving” turkey purchased as a gag. They are the lucky ones – a precious few of the ten billion animals enslaved and slaughtered for meat, dairy, and eggs every year in the United States alone (not counting fishes and associated “bycatch”) who are fortunate enough to find sanctuary with human allies.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Fembodyverse: An Inner-Stellar Adventure into Womanhood, Michele Elizabeth (2012)

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

Innerspace meets Our Bodies, Ourselves – in another dimension!

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review at the author’s invitation.

Also, trigger warning for rape.)

“You’re on a mission, Estelle: to know yourself, to become whole, to mature and be who and what you truly are in the external world.”

Seventeen-year-old Estelle Rinoux is on a quest to become a woman – a “real” woman. To Estelle and her peers, this means losing her virginity: in her case, to steady boyfriend Robert Pierson, who is as handsome as he is chauvinist. Unsurprisingly, Estelle’s first time isn’t as nearly as magical as she hoped it would be, and leaves her feeling less connected with both Robert and her own body than she’d been before.

Enter Pudi. An “emufté,” Pudi serves as Estelle’s own personal guide through her inner feminine universe – her “fembodyverse,” if you will. From the tips of her toes up through the top of her head, Pudi introduces Estelle to the “divine cosmos” within. A magical place which exists in the “feeling dimension” (hence the lack of organs and tissue), Estelle’s fembodyverse is comprised of such varied phenomenon as smart skin, the directors, the wisdom center, Mama Party, lost girls, and the Oracle – all of which make up the Body Goddess. In turn, the Body Goddess is connected to Grandmother Gaia, from which she draws strength and power. With Pudi’s assistance, Estelle comes to accept her inner goddess, and to understand that true self-worth comes from within. When women measure their value through external cues – wealth, beauty, social acceptance – they are playing a losing game, one constructed by the patriarchy.

Written in beautifully poetic prose (to wit: “Estelle knelt down upon the toe’s floor, her celestial hair waving like a slow-motion flag.”), Fembodyverse: An Inner-Stellar Adventure into Womanhood has a vaguely ecofeminist feel to it. (That said, I couldn’t help but laugh when Estelle fumed about Robert’s “[bug- and frog-] slaughtering shithead” friend Nathan – all while chowing down on a tuna salad sammie. Oh the disconnect!) Unfortunately, the story also shares in some of ecofeminism’s flaws, such as gendering nature (“Mother Nature,” “Grandmother Gaia”) – nature is no more female than it is male. The idea that women are inherently connected to the land and its nonhuman inhabitants has long been employed as a justification for their oppression (and male dominance). Likewise, equating the mind/rational thought with masculinity – and the body/nature with femininity – does a disservice to those of all genders. (Not to mention, the mind and body are essentially one.) And compassion is a wonderful thing, but it’s a role that women are socialized – not born – into.

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Book Review: Full Dark, No Stars, Stephen King (2010)

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

The Horrors of Misogyny

five out of five stars

* Trigger alert for physical and sexual violence. *

“The stories in this book are harsh. You may have found them hard to hear in places. If so, be assured that I found them equally hard to write in places.”

Ostensibly, the novellas contained within these pages – 1922, Big Driver, Fair Extension, and A Good Marriage (the paperback edition contains a fifth title, Under the Weather; but seeing as I “read” the audio version, I’m out of luck there) – revolve around the theme of revenge: a murdered wife haunts her husband/killer from the afterlife; a rape victim left for dead slays her rapist and his accomplices; a man wishes ill on his undeservedly lucky best friend; and, upon discovering that her husband is a serial killer, a woman attempts to find justice for his victims (past and future) without destroying her own family in the process. And while retribution is indeed a common thread, it takes a backseat to the more toxic and visceral theme of misogyny.

The men in these stories hate women: those they know, those they don’t know, those they wish they knew. Even mild-mannered Harry Streeter, the protagonist of Fair Extension, exhibits the classic trappings of a Nice Guy ™ when reminiscing about his first love Norma, “stolen” from him by his supposed best friend Tom. Physical and sexual violence are prevalent, and seen from a variety of perspectives: the perpetrator, the victim, and the perpetrator’s wife. In the strongest of these tales, the women on who war is waged fight back, attaining justice for themselves and others.

1922 – Nebraska, 1922. Wilfred Leland James’s wife Arlette recently inherited 100 acres of farmland from her father upon his passing. Whereas Wilf would like to incorporate this into his own 80-acre homestead, Arlette would rather sell all 180 acres and move to the bubbling metropolis of Omaha. The most obvious solution to the couples’ acrimonious, months-long standstill is divorce (however unlikely that might have been circa 1922), with the couple doing as they choose with their respective parcels of land. Complicating matters is that the most likely buyer for Arlette’s property – located upstream of Wilf’s – is the Farrington Company, an early factory farmer of pigs, which would pollute the air with the sounds of dying hogs and fill the river with their discarded blood and guts. An unabashed consumer of animal products (including pork), Wilf is the ultimate “not in my backyard” carnist. His consternation is understandable, yet hardly worthy of sympathy.

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Book Review: Lilith’s Brood, Octavia Butler (2000)

Monday, May 6th, 2013

I’ll never look at an octopus the same way again.

five out of five stars

Lilith’s Brood is one of those books that’s so amazing and epic that I can’t even. As in, I can’t even form a complete sentence, let alone maintain a coherent flow between paragraphs and ideas. And so this is where I break out the bullet points.

* Warning: major spoilers ahead! Also, trigger warning for discussions of rape and violence. *

  • The books in Lilith’s BroodDawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago – were originally published as the Xenogenesis trilogy. Definitely pick up a copy of Lilith’s Brood – it’s easier and less expensive than buying the books individually, and you’ll be hooked after the first installment anyway!
  • The basic premise is this: some time in the unspecified future, earth is decimated by nuclear war. Though it primarily involves northern, industrialized nations, the fallout results in massive casualties and renders the planet uninhabitable. As humanity lingers on the brink of extinction, the few remaining survivors are “rescued” by an alien species. The Oankali transport the human refugees to their ancient ship, where they’re kept in a state of suspended animation as the Oankali work to repair their wounds and rejuvenate earth. A century and a half later, the Oankali begin “awakening” humans so that they can prepare for their homecoming. Among them is Lilith Iyapo, an anthropology student from New Mexico. She was in vacationing in the Andes, grieving the loss of her husband and young son to a drunk driver, when the war started. (Many of the survivors are from the southern hemisphere – South America and Africa – resulting in great racial and ethnic diversity among the characters. Lilith, who has dark skin and curly, “cloud-like” black hair, is African American.) Lilith becomes a sort of “pioneer,” choosing, awakening, and teaching survival skills to multiple groups of humans before she’s allowed to return to earth herself.
  • Though vaguely humanoid (at least in their current form), the humans still find the Oankali dreadfully – repulsively – alien. (So much so that they must be acclimated to their rescuers slowly over time, usually with multiple awakenings and the use of drugs to dull the sense of revulsion.) Bipedal with two arms, two legs, a torso and a head, the Oankali are hairless; their earth-toned skin (in colors of gray, brown, and mossy green) is covered in hundreds of slug-like appendages called “sensory tentacles.” Through these, the Oankali are able to communicate with one another on a neurochemical level, sharing thoughts, pictures, feelings, memories, and even genetic information almost instantaneously, and with one or more people simultaneously. While they’re also capable of verbal communication – they can speak, and are proficient in countless human languages – the Oankali prefer to “hook in” to one another’s nervous systems. This is also how they control the ship, a living, organic creature created especially for intergalactic travel by the Oankali.

    (More below the fold…)

  • Book Review: Z for Zachariah, Robert C. O’Brien (1976)

    Monday, April 15th, 2013

    Creepy and Horrifying

    five out of five stars

    Trigger alerts for attempted rape, violence, misogyny, and speciesism.

    It’s been one year since the bombs fell like raindrops across the earth. One year since Ann Burden’s remaining human family – father, mother, brother, cousin, and two elderly neighbors – set off in search of survivors, never to return. One by one, the radio broadcasts went silent. Nestled in her protected valley home – fortuitously equipped with a small working farm and a well-stocked general store, and fed by a fresh, uncontaminated underground spring – Ann thought she was the last person in the world. That is, until she spots the thin column of campfire smoke rising from beyond the ridge. Day by day, it slowly draws nearer her valley home, leaving 15-year-old Ann in a hopeful panic.

    Ann’s idyllic – but oftentimes painfully lonely and monotonous – existence is shattered with the arrival of this mysterious stranger. A chemist from Ithaca, Mr. Loomis helped develop the only known anti-radiation suit in existence. In a world ravaged by nuclear war, it represents the only safe way out of the valley; their only lifeline to the rest of the world.

    * Warning: minor spoilers follow! *

    (More below the fold…)

    Book Review: Divergent, Veronica Roth (2012)

    Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

    Starts With One

    fiveout of five stars

    Not so much a review as a random collection of thoughts (so many feelings!), but you get the idea.

  • The plot, in brief: Set in Chicago sometime in the unspecified future, the hallmark of Divergent is its unusual method of social organization. The population is divided into five factions, each of which embraces a different virtue: Abnegation (selflessness), Candor (honesty), Erudite (knowledge), Amity (peacefulness), and Dauntless(ness) (bravery). Purportedly the faction system arose after the last major war; people blamed the conflict on different flaws fundamental to humanity, and adopted the opposing traits as a means of preventing future violence. Amity, for example, signaled out human aggression and adopted a position of non-aggression coupled with forgiveness and understanding.

    A person’s life is all but dictated by her faction membership: faction housing is segregated, and different factions assume responsibility for those jobs appropriate to their skills (Amity is involved in agriculture; Erudite produces the city’s scientists and innovators; and, owing to their unrelenting selflessness, Abnegation is entrusted to run the government). Aside from political leaders, members from different factions rarely interact, and inter-faction marriages are unheard of.

    Those who find themselves without a faction – because they failed their chosen faction’s initiation, or later left or were cast out – compromise the city’s homeless, who rely on Abnegation charity and menial labor to get by. To be factionless is considered by many a fate worse than death.

    At the age of 16, children – who are raised (read: indoctrinated) in their parents’ faction – armed with the results of aptitude tests administered to determine which faction best suits them, can either choose to stay in their current faction or join a different one. “Transfers” are rare: those who leave their faction may never return, as the choice is a lifelong one. Since members of different factions have little occasion to interact, this often means saying goodbye to one’s family of origin. In more extreme cases, a transfer may be shunned as a traitor. Few adolescents even consider leaving, since they’ve been trained from birth to share in the hive mind of their own faction; different ways of thinking are foreign, even terrifying.

    Of course, not all of Chicago’s citizens can so easily be categorized and classified: unbeknownst to most, there’s a sixth “faction” (the factionless not being considered belonging to a faction, though we’ll see in Insurgent that this is far from the truth), that of Divergent: those rare individuals who demonstrate a flexibility of thinking and aptitude for two or more factions. Young Beatrice Prior is Divergent, in a time when it’s dangerous to be so.

    We meet Tris – as she’s later christened – as she’s on the cusp of choosing her faction. Told from her point of view in first-person narrative, Divergent follows Tris through the process: high-tech aptitude tests, choosing ceremony, and initiation. While her brother Caleb decides to leave Abnegation for Erudite, Tris chooses the daredevils of Dauntless, and the freedom they represent. In just a month, she must learn how to be Dauntless; among the skills she will need to master are weaponry, hand-to-hand combat, and strategy. She must also learn how to conquer her own most primal fears through a computer simulation known as the fear landscape. The initiates aren’t just working against themselves, but are pitted against one another as well: only the top ten initiates make the cut. The rest are cast out into the factionless.

    As if this isn’t enough for Tris, her initiation comes at a time when the gears of war have again been set into motion: led by the Erudite, several factions are on the brink of war, with both the Abnegation and the Dauntless – Tris’s home and chosen factions – caught in the middle.

    Oh, and she’s also got the hots for her instructor. Talk about yer teen angst!

    (More below the fold…)

  • Book Review: The Performance Identities of Lady Gaga, Richard Gray III, ed. (2012)

    Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

    Deconstructing the Fame Monster

    three out of five stars

    Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.

    In just a few short years, Lady Gaga has built a large body of work ripe for critical analysis. The sixteen authors and academics who contributed to The Performance Identities of Lady Gaga: Critical Essays clearly agree. The thirteen essays in this anthology address the spectacle that is Lady Gaga from a multitude of perspectives: sociology, politics, psychology and psychoanalysis, LGBTQ rights, gender studies and feminism, camp, Surrealism, Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, and “post-racism” and white privilege – examining her in relation to those she has parodied, as well as those who have parodied her: most obviously Madonna, as well as Judy Garland and The Wizard of Oz, Thelma & Louise, Kill Bill, sexploitation/blaxsploitation/“women in prison” B movies, David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, Rammstein, and “Weird Al” Yankovic, to name but a few – all with an eye on performance art and identity.

    The Performance Identities of Lady Gaga is obviously written by and for academics. While some essays are more accessible than others, all are filled with jargon and $20 words. I was able to muddle through with the occasional help of Google, yet some of the essays (the early ones, in particular) proved so dry that they threatened to lull me to sleep. This definitely isn’t a book for the lay monsters in the audience.

    That said, a working knowledge of Lady Gaga’s oeuvre – not just the obvious song lyrics and music videos, but also concert tours, album art, costuming, speeches, interviews, and photo shoots – is an essential prerequisite for The Performance Identities of Lady Gaga. While the authors do a decent enough job of explaining the performances they’re dissecting, a certain level of prior knowledge is assumed.

    I requested a copy of this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program not because I’m a Lady Gaga fan, but because I enjoy pop culture analysis. Nor am I an anti-fan (to borrow a term used frequently in the book); rather, I’m not really into dance/pop and thus know very little about Lady Gaga outside of her activism on behalf of the LGBTQ community. My understanding of the essays definitely could have benefited from a greater knowledge of the source material.

    Perhaps owing to my love of fairy tales, I found Jennifer M. Woolston’s “Lady Gaga and the Wolf: ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ The Fame Monster and Female Sexuality” especially readable, even if most of the connections are stretched well past credulity. Also enjoyable is editor Richard J. Gray III’s contribution, “Surrrealism, the Theatre of Cruelty and Lady Gaga” – surprisingly so, since I didn’t know anything about Surrealism beforehand. Gray does an excellent job of introducing the reader to the material (without watering down the discussion for those already in the know) and then illustrating how Lady Gaga’s work clearly fits within the Surrealist tradition. Rebecca M. Lush’s “The Appropriation of the Madonna Aesthetic,” Matthew R. Turner’s “Performing Pop: Lady Gaga, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic’ and Parodied Performance,” and “Whiteness and the Politics of ‘Post-Racial’ America by Laura Gray-Rosendale, Stephanie Capaldo, Sherri Craig, and Emily Davalos are all highly engaging and interesting as well.

    Not wishing to penalize the authors for my own ignorance, I struggled with weather I should give this book a 3- or 4-star review. That is, until I came to Karley Adney’s “’I Hope When I’m Dead I’ll Be Considered an Icon’: Shock Performance and Human Rights.” One of just a few pieces written from an overtly feminist perspective, I was both surprised and not a little offended when, in the course of her Lady Gaga apologism, Adney excuses and reinforces the stereotype that feminists are misandrists.

    (More below the fold…)

    Intersectionality ‘Round the Interwebs, No. 26: Milk Thieves, Body Hair, and the Cannibals Within

    Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

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    Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary: A Powerful Statement

    This stunning sculpture by Liu Qiang is an accurate depiction of humanity’s use of, and utter dependence on other animals and, in particular, the savage and bizarre habit of consuming the breast milk from mothers of other species-milk that these mothers have produced for their own babies, babies that we forced them to become pregnant with only to kill shortly after birth so that we can take the bereft mother’s milk, milk that we drink as though we were the children that we murdered.

    Live vegan. There is no excuse not to.

    Learn about non-violent living
    Learn who is spared when you live vegan…
    …and who suffers when you choose not to:
    Milk Comes from a Grieving Mother
    Dairy is a Death Sentence
    The “Humane” Animal Farming Myth

    29h59’59 by Liu Qiang is on exhibition at the 798 Art District in Beijing, China
    Photo by Ng Han Guan

    VegNews: June Twitter Chat, Wednesday, June 20 @ 6pm PT/9pm ET

    In honor of LGBT Pride Month, we’ll be talking with prominent gay animal-rights activists about the connection between both movements. Never participated in a Twitter Chat before? Don’t worry. We have a handy guide to explain it all. Join us at the hashtag #VegNewsChat. You don’t even need to have a Twitter account to enjoy the discussion.

    Kaili Joy Gray @ Daily Kos: Safeway’s general counsel tells hilarious sexist joke at annual shareholder meeting

    You can listen to the audio at the link above, but here’s a transcript for the a/v averse:

    You know, this is the season when companies and other institutions are interested in enhancing their reputation and their image for the general public, and one of the institutions that’s doing this is the Secret Service, particularly after the calamity in Colombia. And among the instructions given to the Secret Service agents was to try to agree with the president more and support his decisions. And that led to this exchange that took place last week, when the president flew into the White House lawn and an agent greeted him at the helicopter.

    The president was carrying two pigs under his arms and the Secret Service agents said, “Nice pigs, sir.”

    And the president said, “These are not ordinary pigs, these are genuine Arkansas razorback hogs. I got one for former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and one for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.”

    And the Secret Service agent said, “Excellent trade, sir.”

    Women as livestock. Nonhuman animals as items of trade. Sexism and speciesism, the stuff of high comedy. TAKE MY LAWYER, PLEASE!

    Fat Girl Posing: Vegans.. I need to talk to you..

    This is a year-old piece about fat shaming in the vegan community that recently recirculated on Facebook. h/t to Emelda (I think).

    The whole piece is worth a read, but here’s the excerpt I posted on FB:

    So here’s your strategy, right? Animal products are full of fat and calories and, therefore, if you stop eating them you’ll lose weight.. so, market veganism as a diet or “lifestyle change” will bring more people to the movement by preying on their low self esteem and body hatred. While the strategy may work initially what do you intend to do when all the newbie veg’s don’t lose weight? Or when they lose it but then gain it back? As a diet, it fails, just like any other, and you’ve lost your pull. More so, you’ve become part of an industry which is cruel to animals.. specifically the human animal.

    Word.

    (More below the fold…)

    Book Review: White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, Aaron Bobrow-Strain (2012)

    Thursday, June 7th, 2012

    American Dreamz (of “Good” Food)

    four out of five stars

    Note: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.

    When is bread just bread? After reading White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf by Aaron Bobrow-Strain (2012), you’ll realize that the answer to this deceptively simple question is likely “almost never.”

    Tied as it is to issues of class, race, gender, and nativism, the history of bread – which types of bread are considered the healthiest, which are the most patriotic and “American,” what methods of preparation are considered safest, which loaves are most valued by the affluent, etc. – reflects changing social mores as much as (or perhaps even more so than) it does evolving culinary tastes. Focusing on recent American history – the past 150 years, give or take a few decades – Bobrow-Strain doesn’t so much trace the history of bread as he does examine how trends in bread consumption reflect deeper cultural ideas, fears, and ideals. Accordingly, the book is divided into six primary chapters, each dedicated to a different “bread dreams,” namely: purity and contagion; control and abundance; health and discipline; strength and defense; peace and security; and resistance and status.

    The mass production of (the titular) white bread in factories, for example, was initially celebrated as a safe, scientific, and superior way of delivering bread to the masses, in a time when women were otherwise tied to the kitchen and many small, family-owned bakeries were run from unsanitary basement kitchens characterized by brutal working conditions. Now derided as “white trash” food – ironically, in part due to its success and ubiquity – industrial white bread was once considered a healthier, more sanitary, even elite alternative to home-baked, locally bought, and whole wheat breads. Oh, how the times have changed! Or not. What comes around goes around – America’s current love of freshly made artisan breads harkens back to the 1800s and earlier, before bread was made by robots and procured in giant grocery chains.

    So too has the maxim of “knowing where your food comes from” changed with the times. Prior to the industrial revolution, this meant getting to know your local bread baker (and, more importantly, his kitchen) – or, preferably, having mom bake all the family’s bread from scratch. (No small feat when one considers that bread has long been a dietary staple: from the 1850s though the 1950s, Americans got an average of 25-30% of their calories from bread. While this figure began to dip in the 1960s, it tends to rise in times of war and recession, particularly among the poor.) Later on, “knowing where your food comes from” was presented as a benefit of buying industrial white bread produced by faceless bakery conglomerates – an idea that seems laughable to the modern consumer.

    White Bread is an engaging look at a foodstuff that, until now, hadn’t received its proper due. Recent condemnations of industrial bread aside, historical and scholarly accounts of bread’s history have mostly been lacking; with this engaging, meticulously researched, and passionate tome, Bobrow-Strain fills in the void. Especially useful to food activists, the lessons found in White Bread are important ones:

    Thanks to an explosion of politically charged food writing and reporting that began in the late 1990s, members of the alternative food movement have access to a great deal of information about why and how the food system needs to change. Much less is known about the successes and failures of such efforts in the past. Even less is known about the rich world of attachments, desires, aspirations, and anxieties that define America’s relation to the food system as it is.

    The history of bread in America provides countless illuminating examples of how national crusades for “better” food (however you define it: safer, healthier, cheaper, etc.), while well-intentioned, often draw upon and feed into harmful stereotypes and work to perpetuate the very oppression and inequalities they seek to eradicate. Food must be taken in context: everything’s related. Food justice, feminism, worker’s rights, racial equality, immigration, environmentalism (not to mention, nonhuman animals and veganism) – intersectionality is the word of the day.

    So why the 4-star rating? Exhausted by the bald speciesism found in so many books written by non-vegan environmentalists (culminating in the particularly awful Gas Drilling and the Fracking of a Marriage), I promised myself that I’d stop requesting such items from Library Thing, no matter how much they might interest me. While I expected that meat might make an appearance in White Bread – a status symbol, the consumption of animal flesh has long been linked with class, gender, and race – I didn’t anticipate that the author would be a former intern on a “kinder,” “gentler,” “sustainable” beef ranch. Bobrow-Strain peppers the book with anecdotes about his time as a purveyor of “happy meat,” grass-fed beef, and raw milk – all of which is presented as a “radical” new way of looking at food. Uh, yeah, not so much. Exploiting animals? That’s just business as usual. But rethinking who is on our plate, and why? Now that’s extreme. (Such bold proclamations bring to mind Red Lobster’s latest ad campaign: “We Sea Food Differently.” If by “differently” you mean “exactly the same.”)

    And yet, the closest we get to any mention of veganism is Sylvester Graham, the 19th century Presbyterian minister and food reformer who advocated vegetarianism, temperance, and a return to “natural” foods as a means of achieving physical and moral superiority. Unfortunately, his vision of a simpler life was predicated on the genocide of indigenous peoples and the enforcement of rigid gender roles; and, in blaming the poor for their ills and ignoring larger social structures, his philosophy was classist as well. Not that I blame Bobrow-Strain for presenting this critique of “the father of American vegetarianism.” Quite the contrary: it’s essential for vegan activists to recognize, acknowledge, and overcome past wrongs – many of which are still in operation today. But in all his waxing sentimental about animal exploitation – on a book ostensibly written about bread – it’s especially irritating that an oblique discussion of Graham’s vegetarianism is the best – indeed, the only – counter to the oppression, violence, and waste that is animal agriculture. Slow, local, organic, and healthy foods – all receive their due. And veganism? Apparently that’s so radical a notion it’s not even worth mentioning. (But yeah, vegans are the ones always shoving their opinions down the throats of unsuspecting omnivores. Riiiight.)

    While I think there’s a lot that vegans can take away from this book, the speciesism is at once asinine and infuriating. If you think you can handle it, by all means.

    Read with: Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism by Melanie Joy (2010).

    2012-05-08 - White Bread - 0002

    A page from White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf
    by Aaron Bobrow-Strain (2012)
    Chapter 6: How White Bread Became White Trash; Dreams of Resistance and Status
    “You’re scum, you’re fucking white bread.”
    – David Mamet, Glengarry Glen Ross

    ——————————

    (This review is also available on Library Thing, Amazon, and Goodreads. Please click on over and vote me helpful if you’re so inclined, mkay? I have a sneaking suspicion that this piece won’t prove especially popular on Amazon.)

    Meet the real Vegan Police.

    Monday, June 4th, 2012

    null

    So I was bouncing around from one story to another on the science/fiction website io9

    [If an alien invasion really happened, we’d be dead instantly: I would love for Joss Whedon to make this movie! (See e.g., The Cabin in the Woods); The 10 Most Depressing Alternate Realities From Marvel Comics: at least #6 has a happy ending!]

    when I stumbled upon this gem: A tick bite could turn you into a vegetarian (appropriately filed under “Holy Crap WTF”). Discover Magazine reports on the work of immunologist Scott Commins, who’s been studying the link between ticks and allergies since 2009:

    Warning: A walk in the grass could turn you vegan. Scott Commins at the University of Virginia has shown that tick bites can cause the immune system to produce antibodies to alpha-gal, a carbohydrate in beef, pork, and lamb. These antibodies can induce allergic reactions to meat. “We’ve had people nearly die,” Commins says.

    Noting that you won’t know that you’ve developed an allergy until you exhibit a (potentially deadly) allergic reaction, io9 columnist Robert T. Gonzalez offers the following advice:

    In any case, the next time you’re walking barefoot through a field only to find a tick between your toes, remember to be careful the next time you eat meat — your body may be on a self-destruct mission to kill all alpha-gal.

    Or, you know, you could just not eat meat. Tofu > anaphylaxis, am I right?

    The Vegan Tick Police is #13 in a list of twenty curious facts about allergies. Item #16 also gave me a good snort.

    16. When your pets can’t stand the itching, can they send you to the pound? Human dander can cause allergic rashes in dogs and cats—and in other humans.

    If only.

    Buy ALL the things!

    Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

    2012-03-14 - Goodies from Food Fight - 0026

    Can I just tell y’all how much I love this “Support Your Local Vegan Grocery” tote from Food Fight? (If only I had a local vegan grocery to support!) Most totes tend toward the dinky, especially for grocery shopping purposes, but this thing is ginormous! Bigger even than the VegNews tote the mag gives out with 3-year subscriptions. And it’s make out of recycle plastic bottles to boot!

    As you can see, I snagged it – along with a box full of vegan goodies – during the Emergency Turlock Hen Rescue Benefit Day. Speaking of, Animal Place is selling a special “fancy pants” poster to help raise funds for the 1,000 hens who are still staying with them. Designed by Sharie Lesniak in the Shepard Fairey style (is that a thing?), the poster features a lovely white, red, and blue hen under the heading “ADOPT.”

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    It’s super-cute (and yes, I bought one for my own bad self. Along with a tee!)

    (More below the fold…)

    Got those red state blues.

    Monday, April 23rd, 2012

    Blue Girl

    More like “Green Girl, Red State.” CC image via DieselDemon on Flickr.
    ——————————

    Perhaps the greatest downside to living in a rural area, and particularly a rural area in an already red state? Knowing that you’ve not a snowball’s chance in hell of electing a politician who even approximates your values and beliefs. “Approximates,” not “shares” – I hold enough unpopular opinions to know that I’ll never live to see a politician on the state or federal level with whom I see eye to on most issues, not even if I up and move to San Francisco. That said, I don’t expect to be outright insulted for my beliefs when contacting an elected representative, in a polite and respectful manner, about pending legislation.

    What follows is an email exchange I had with my state House Representative, Glen Klippenstein (R-MO, 5th District), about Missouri House Bill 1860, our state’s answer to the increasing popularity of “ag gag” bills. (Check out Will Potter’s excellent coverage of this and other forms of activist repression at Green is the New Red.) I was responding to an action alert sent out by PETA; usually I edit form letters, both to personalize them and to scrub them of any speciesism (distressingly common in form letters from enviro groups), but at the state level I’m fairly certain that mine is the only copy my representatives will receive. (Though in retrospect, I really should have replaced the link to meat.org with a different resource. No matter how unfair and undeserved the reputation, referring to a website run by what’s widely regarded as a “radical extremist” group really isn’t the best choice. That and I’d rather not be associated with them in any way, shape, or form, thankyouverymuch.)

    As a conservative Republican and cattle breeder (GlenKirk Farms “has sold cattle, semen, and embryos across America and worldwide” – so much for protecting the unborn!) who has served as chairman of the National Beef Promotion and Research Board, I wasn’t expecting a particularly sympathetic ear from Rep. Klippenstein. That said.

     
     

    —–Original Message—–
    From: Advocate [mailto:advocate@animalactivist.com] On Behalf Of Kelly Garbato
    Sent: Thursday, April 19, 2012 12:25 AM
    To: Glen Klippenstein
    Subject: Please Oppose H.B. 1860

    Apr 19, 2012

    Representative Glen Klippenstein
    State Capitol, Room 410A
    201 West Capitol Avenue
    Jefferson City, MO 65101

    Dear Representative Klippenstein,

    I am writing as your constituent to urge you to oppose House Bill
    (H.B.) 1860. This bill, which would make it a crime to photograph or record video or sound of a farm without the farm owner’s consent, is a clear attempt to prevent the public from learning about the routine cruelty that takes place on factory farms. If signed into law, it would infringe on citizens’ rights to expose cruelty to animals.

    Past investigations of factory farms resulted in criminal convictions of farm managers and workers found beating, sexually abusing, stomping on, kicking, and throwing animals. To watch the video footage and see why it is so important that citizens retain their freedom to document crimes against animals on factory farms and relay the evidence to law-enforcement authorities, please visit Meat.org.

    Please don’t let the farming industry hide behind closed doors: Oppose H.B. 1860.

    Thank you for your attention and for all that you do for Missourians.

    Sincerely,

    Ms. Kelly Garbato
    [Address removed]

     
     

    ———- Forwarded message ———-
    From: Glen.Klippenstein@house.mo.gov
    Date: Thu, Apr 19, 2012 at 9:24 AM
    Subject: RE: Please Oppose H.B. 1860
    To: kelly.garbato@gmail.com

    Kelly,
    To say that this legislation is a clear attempt to prevent the public from learning about the routine cruelty that takes place on factory farms, shows extraordinary contempt for the vast majority of honorable people that actually know the real story and feed you.

    Thank you for your e-mail.

    Glen
    Rep. Glen Klippenstein
    5th District

     
     
    (More below the fold…)

    Book Review: Gas Drilling and the Fracking of a Marriage, Stephanie Hamel (2011)

    Saturday, February 25th, 2012

    Note to readers: Full disclosure – I received free copy of this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.

    Note to self: Never never ever again will you request from LT an environmental book written by a non-vegan. Nothing good ever comes of it.

    Clever title, but this marriage was already fracked.

    two out of five stars

    Suppose a natural gas company offered you a small fortune to lease your land for exploration and possible drilling. Would you do it? What if all your neighbors had already signed on, thus transforming your small, idyllic “home away from home” into one giant construction zone, complete with road-clogging traffic and the ceaseless noise of drills and pumps? Further imagine that the energy company has the legal right to extract gas trapped under your property – without your consent – if it drills horizontally from a neighboring property, thus making your “sacrifice” all but futile.

    Author Stephanie Hamel doesn’t have to imagine such a scenario; she’s lived it. In Gas Drilling and the Fracking of a Marriage (2011), she explores the ethical, emotional, and practical implications she and her family faced when offered to lease their fifty acres of farmland in north central Pennsylvania to a natural gas company at $2500 an acre. Hamel’s parents had purchased the land when she was just a girl, to serve as a vacation home. (“Camp,” they called it. I can relate; my father recently inherited a small cabin in the Adirondacks, similarly bought and built by his parents when he was just a kid. A multi-generational family project, you could call it.) Hamel’s childhood is peppered with memories of escaping to this rural oasis, where her family played at part-time farming, landscaping, and construction work. The existing buildings were old and ramshackle, and required much repair and maintenance. While this might not sound like much of a vacation, Hamel’s clan tackled these projects with much gusto – together. Consequently, the land holds a special significance for Hamel; and so, when her father passed away, she decided to purchase the property from her mother, to keep it in the family, and to carry on the traditions she so enjoyed as a child with her own children.

    In 2008, an unnamed natural gas company approached Hamel – and many of the other property owners in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania – about leasing her land for gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing. A relatively new procedure in 2008, “fracking” has met with greater opposition in recent years. Among other things, fracking is associated with groundwater contamination, air pollution, the mishandling of toxic waste – and perhaps even earthquakes. Though most of Hamel’s neighbors quickly signed up – many without so much as consulting a lawyer – Hamel dragged her feet. When rumors of drilling began circulating through Wellsboro in early 2008, Hamel was staunchly opposed to drilling. However, as gossip materialized into a pricey contract that fall, she began to waffle: with her husband’s job on the ropes, they could really use the money. Plus she could donate some of the windfall to environmental organizations. Surely this could help to offset any damage done during drilling? And if the gas company could extract gas without her permission anyhow (via the “Law of Capture”), wouldn’t it be foolish not to take the money? Besides, with all her neighbors jumping on the bandwagon, the town was already being sullied by traffic and noise pollution. Complicating matters further was her husband Tom, who welcomed the drilling as a financial boon – hence the titular “fracking of a marriage.”

    While this all but promises to make for a compelling read, the result is anything but. Hamel largely based this memoir on a diary she kept during this time – and it shows. (Cue Sarah Silverman’s rant about diaries in her own autobiography, Diary of a Bedwetter: “Unvisited tombstones, unread diaries, and erased video game high-score rankings are three of the most potent symbols of mankind’s pathetic and fruitless attempts at immortality.” No one wants to read your diary – yourself included.) Although there is some useful information to be found in Gas Drilling and the Fracking of a Marriage – concerning, for example, the legal issues involved in drilling, as well as the possible health effects of fracking – these bits are few and far between. (Indeed, the entire reference section consists of just three items. THREE! Why bother?) This is especially disappointing given the author’s background: though currently a stay-at-home mom, Hamel holds a BS in Chemistry and a joint PhD in Exposure Assessment and Environmental Sciences. You’d think she’d be uniquely qualified to comment on the subject, no?

    (More below the fold…)