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Book Review: The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change by Roger Thurow

Kenyan woman standing in a field.Summary:
Smallholder farmers make up the majority of Kenya’s food production and yet they face multiple challenges from inefficient planting techniques to bad seed markets that lead to an annual wanjala–hunger season.  One Acre Fund, an ngo, saw the gap and came in with a vision.  Sell farmers high quality seeds and fertilizers on credit, delivered to their villages, on the condition they attend local farming classes.  Roger Thurow follows four families as they try out becoming One Acre farmers.

Review:
Every once in a while there’s a book that you know will impact your entire life.  I know this is one of those books.

Thurow strikes the perfect balance between narrating the farmers’ lives and knowledgeably discussing the global politics and environmental problems that also impact the hunger.  The information he hands out would be riveting in any case, but how he narrates it kicks it up to another level.

Central to the book is this question:

Why were people still dying of hunger at the beginning of the twenty-first century when the world was producing—and wasting—more food than ever before? (location 202)

I know we all know there is hunger in the world, but it can be easy to ignore when it doesn’t have a face like David or Dorcas, two of the children featured whose mothers flat out do not have food to give them.  During the wanjala, since it is most of the families’ first years using One Acre Fund, they do not have enough maize (their staple crop) from the year before.  Thus while watching their fields grow, they don’t have enough food to feed their families.  During the height of the wanjala the families routinely have tea for breakfast and lunch and maybe some boiled vegetables or bananas for dinner.  And they still must farm and go to school.  I can’t recall the last time I’ve been so humbled.

Don’t get me wrong.  The families profiled in this book aren’t put on a pedestal or romanticized or distanced.  They are very real.  But their strength and wisdom in the face of so many challenges has no other option but to be inspirational.  Because it is so real.

You don’t focus on the afflictions you have, on your poverty; you focus on where you are going. (location 1469)

Makes you feel bad for complaining about morning commutes, doesn’t it?

Beyond talking about the disgusting fact that there is still hunger in a world with so much plenty and demonstrating the resilience of the families, the book also discusses One Acre Fund’s poverty fighting ideas.  Basically they operate on the teach a man to fish principle.  Thurow talks about how Youn, the founder, believes that bringing in food aid to feed farmers is absurd.  We should instead be helping them to farm better.  Beyond it not being sustainable to feed everyone year after year, it robs the farmers of their dignity.  This was the point I liked best.  These people are not dumb or lazy.  They are victims of a system that is not working.  Helping them help themselves lets them retain their humanity and dignity.  I think that’s something that is often missing in charity work and ngos, but it’s vital to truly changing the game.

Overall, if you want a book that will challenge your perceptions, humble you, broaden your horizons, and help you see how to truly fight global poverty, this is the book for you.  In other words, this is recommended for everyone.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Specific country? Kenya
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2011’s 5 Star Reads!

December 31, 2011 15 comments

My one regret last year when summing up my year in reading was that the 5 star reads didn’t get enough attention. So! They are getting their own post this time.  Please note that if the 5 star went to a book in a graphic novel series, I am just listing the whole series.  If it’s a non-graphic series, then the individual book is listed with a note about what series it is in.  With no further ado, presenting Opinions of a Wolf’s 5 Star Reads for 2011!

Black woman wrapped in a white piece of cloth.The Book of Night Women
By: Marlon James
Publication Date: 2009
Publisher: Riverhead
Genre: Historical Fiction
Themes: slavery, Jamaica, resistance, evil of capitalism
Summary:
This is the story of Lilith. A mulatto with green eyes born on a plantation in Jamaica to a mama who was raped at 14 by the overseer as punishment to her brother.  Raised by a whore and a crazy man, all Lilith has ever wanted was to improve her status on the plantation. And maybe to understand why her green eyes seem to freak out slave and master alike.  Assigned to be a house slave, Lilith finds herself in direct contact with the most powerful slave on the plantation–Homer, who is in charge of the household.  Homer brings her into a secret meeting of the night women in a cave on the grounds and attempts to bring Lilith into a rebellion plot, insisting upon the darkness innate in Lilith’s soul.  But Lilith isn’t really sure what exactly will get her what she truly wants–to feel safe and be with the man she cares for.
Current Thoughts:
If someone asked me for a book that truly makes the reader feel the desperation of being trapped in an evil system with no escape, this is the book I would hand them.

Wolf howling at moon.The Call of the Wild
By: Jack London
Publication Date: 1903
Publisher: CreateSpace
Genre: Historical Fiction, Animal Perspective
Themes: animal rights, human/animal relationships, the nature of nature, Alaska, Canada, evil of capitalism
Summary:
Buck is a spoiled southern dog enjoying a posh life when one of the family’s servants steals him and sells him away to be a sled dog for the Alaska gold rush.  Buck soon goes from an easy life to one of trials and tribulations as the result of humans fawning over a golden metal, but it might not be all bad for him in the wild Alaskan north.
Current Thoughts:
I listened to this on audiobook.  I generally do this while cooking or cleaning my apartment. I distinctly remember being in the middle of washing my dishes, stopping, and going to lay down on my bed and cry.  No one could read this book and doubt that animals have their own inner lives and emotions.  It so powerfully depicts both that and the possible bond between animals and people.  Everything I have always felt between myself and the animals I love is so perfectly depicted here.

Black and white photo of a group of womenThe Group
By: Mary McCarthy
Publication Date: 1954
Publisher: Harvest Books
Genre: Historical Fiction
Themes: women’s rights, GLBTQ, women’s colleges, relationships, NYC
Summary:
A collection of women graduate from Vassar in the 1930s.  Their friendship is known collectively as “The Group,” and their distinctive Vassar education has given them a distinctly liberal view on the world.  How this changes with time as they repeatedly encounter societal expectations and relationship problems are told through a series of vignettes that focus in on moments in their lives over the seven years after graduation.
Current Thoughts:
This book addresses women’s issues in the 1930s and 1940s that are, honestly, too frequently too often issues today as well, through a series of vignettes that pop into the various women’s lives at different points in time.  This unique way of telling their stories is what makes this book such a powerful read.

Germany and Italy (manga versions)Hetalia: Axis Powers
By: Hidekaz Himaruya
Publication Date: 2008
Publisher: TokyoPop
Genre: Graphic Novel–Historical Fiction
Themes: international relations, world history
Summary:
The nations involved in WWII and the events leading up to it are personified as over-the-top manga characters and through manga-style scenarios the historic events leading up to WWII are explored.  The future of the nations after WWII is also explored.  For example: Russia’s dilemmas with his sisters the Ukraine and Belarus, Canada’s persistent ability to somehow be invisible to most of the rest of the G8 nations (and also to be mistaken for America), and Japan-kun and America-kun visiting each other’s homes and attempting to reach a cultural understanding.
Current Thoughts:
I actually squee when I see the manga version of America online.  I heart him so much. I heart the whole series so much. This series is the reason I got distraught when TokyoPop went out of business.  Read it.  Even if you aren’t a history person. It is hilarious!

Scales.Hunger (Riders of the Apocalypse, #1)
By: Jackie Morse Kessler
Publication Date: 2010
Publisher: Harcourt Graphia
Genre: YA–Fantasy
Themes: anorexia, bulimia, mental illness, winning inner battles, suicide
Summary:
Lisabeth Lewis thought it was just a nightmare.  Death coming to her when she tried to commit suicide with her mom’s antidepressants and offering to make her Famine–one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse–instead of letting her die.  It’s just all way too ironic, her as Famine.  After all, she’s fat.  She has to watch what she eats very carefully.  The Thin voice tells her all the time exactly how many calories each bit of food is and how much exercise it’ll take to burn it off.  Yes.  Lisabeth Lewis is fat.  So why would Death assign Famine to her anyway?
Current Thoughts:
I still love how Kessler depicts the inner battles that go on in mental illness via the fantastical appearance of Death and the Riders of the Apocalypse.  It makes it more relatable and understandable for teens struggling with those issues.

Woman in a kerchief in a fieldI Am Hutterite
By: Mary-Ann Kirkby
Publication Date: 2007
Publisher: Polka Dot Press
Genre: Nonfiction–Memoir
Themes: role of religion in family life, understanding your past, communal living, Canada
Summary:
Mary Ann Kirkby recounts her unique childhood in her memoir.  She was born into a Hutterite family.  The Hutterites are a religious sect similar to the Amish only they believe that living communally is a mandate for Christians.  Mary Ann recounts her childhood both in the religious sect (her particular group was located in western Canada), as well as the journey and culture shock she went through when her parents left the Hutterites when she was nine years old.
Current Thoughts:
This is the most unique memoir I read all year, and I read a lot of them.  Not only is the Hutterite lifestyle and community fascinating, but Kirkby also pulled off the rare feat of speaking about her childhood and difficult times in her life without ever once coming across as bitter.

Super creepy clownIt
By: Stephen King
Publication Date: 1986
Publisher: Signet
Genre: Horror
Themes: growing up, growing old, phases of life, Maine
Summary:
In the late 1950s in the small town of Derry, Maine, children are being mysteriously murdered.  Seven misfit and outcast kids band together to face It, and they think they’ve beaten it, but 27 years later, the murders return.  Vaguely remembering a promise they all made, the now adults return to their hometown of Derry to face It again.
Current Thoughts:
If someone asked me why I love pulp, what makes a horror writer like King so popular, I’d talk about this book.  King eloquently addresses something everyone goes through–being a kid, growing up, growing old–without the reader even really realizing it until the book is done and wraps it up in spine-chilling horror.  You relate and learn and your true fears are acquiesced all while being entertained.

Smoke coming out of a smoke stackThe Jungle
By: Upton Sinclair
Publication Date: 1906
Publisher: Simon & Brown
Genre: American Classic
Themes: socialism, worker’s rights, animal rights, evil of capitalism, Chicago, social justice, vegetarianism, debt slavery
Summary:
In the early 1900s Jurgis and his soon-to-be family by marriage decide to immigrate to the US from Lithuania.  Having heard from an old friend that Chicago’s Packingtown is where a working man can easily make his way in the world, this is where they head.  Soon the family find themselves deep in the horror that is the regulated in name only meat packing plants.  Dominated by a society that circulates entirely around greed and wealth for the few at the expense of the many, the family and individuals within it slowly fall apart.  But is there a light at the end of the tunnel?
Current Thoughts:
It still baffles me that when this book came out all anyone could talk about was food safety.  I believe Sinclair did a great job demonstrating the plight of the blue collar worker, as well as the horrors of animal slaughter.  This is a classic that deserves that label.

Bird on a cross against the moon.The Monstrumologist (The Monstrumologist, #1)
By: Rick Yancey
Publication Date: 2009
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Genre: Horror
Themes: New England, the nature of evil, relationships
Summary:
A New England town’s oldest resident dies leaving no known surviving family.  His journals end up at the university where a professor loans them to a writer friend.  In the first three folios, we learn of young Will Henry whose father and mother died in a terrible house fire leaving him to the care of his father’s employer–Warthrop.  Warthrop is a monstrumologist.  He studies monsters, and people arrive in the middle of the night for his help.  One night a grave robber arrives with the body of a young girl wrapped in the horrifying embrace of an anthropophagus–a creature with no head and a mouth full of shark-like teeth in the middle of his chest.  Will Henry, as the assistant apprentice monstrumologist, soon finds himself sucked into the secret horror found in his hometown.
Current Thoughts:
I still can’t get the damn image of the anthropophagus out of my head.  Also the characters of Will and Warthrop will forever live on in my head.  New England horror done exquisitely.

Red sword.Rage (Riders of the Apocalypse, #2)
By: Jackie Morse Kessler
Publication Date: 2011
Publisher: Harcourt Graphia
Genre: YA–Fantasy
Themes: mental illness, self-injury, bullying
Summary:
Melissa Miller is your typical 16 year old–mom, dad, annoying sister, a jerk of an ex-boyfriend–with one small difference.  She deals with her emotions by cutting herself.  She keeps a razor in a locked box in her closet and pulls it out when she gets overwhelmed.  One night she accidentally cuts too deep, and Death shows up with an option.  Either die now or become one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse–War.  Missy chooses the latter option, and as she gets to know the other Horsemen and her job as War, she starts to realize she needs to face the rage inside her.
Current Thoughts:
I periodically find myself thinking back on the climactic scene of this book, which in a fantastical manner depicts a self-injurer facing the anger inside herself.  If someone needs to understanding self-injury and doesn’t want to read the academic work on the topic, this is the book I would hand them.

Woman kissing man while surrounded by fire.Touched by an Alien (Katherine “Kitty” Katt, #1)
By: Gini Koch
Publication Date: 2010
Publisher: Daw Books
Genre: Paranormal Romance
Themes: aliens, FBI, intrigue, Arizona, action, sex
Summary:
Katherine “Kitty” Katt manages to get released early from a dull day of jury duty only to find herself confronted with an angry man who sprouts wings and starts flinging knives from their tips toward everyone in the vicinity.  Kitty attacks and stops him and quickly finds herself sucked into a world she was unaware existed.  A world of alien refugees defending Earth and themselves from a bunch of fugly alien parasites.  She soon discovers her ordinary parents are more involved in this secret world than she would ever have dreamed.  On top of that, she’s increasingly finding herself falling for one of the alien hunks who announced his intentions to marry her almost immediately upon meeting her.
Current Thoughts:
Aliens in suits? Check. Some lines and scenes pop into my head at odd times and make me laugh? Check. Favorite paranormal romance series to date? Triple-check.

Silhouette of a person standing in a white hall.The Unit
By: Ninni Holmqvist
Publication Date: 2006
Publisher: Other Press
Genre: Scifi–Dystopian
Themes: old age, socialism, Sweden, medical research
Summary:
In the Sweden of the near future women who reach the age of 50 and men who reach the age of 60 without having successfully acquired a partner or had children are deemed “dispensable” and sent to live in “a unit.”  These units appear at first glance to be like a high-class retirement home, and indeed they have all the amenities.  The residents, however, are required both to participate in medical experiments and to donate various organs and body parts up until their “final donation” of their heart anywhere from a year or a few years after their arrival in the unit.  Dorrit arrives at the unit depressed, but accepting of her fate as the result of her independent nature, but when she falls in love, she starts to question everything.
Current Thoughts:
This is a book that I literally cannot stop thinking about.  It left me with no clear answers, but tons of questions.  I also think of Dorrit and her friends every time I have a steam after working out, just like them.

Red cover with white and cold lettering.The Vampire Lestat (The Vampire Chronicles, #2)
By: Anne Rice
Publication Date: 1985
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Genre: Fantasy–Vampires
Themes: resiliency, searching for love, European history, Egypt, rock stars, New Orleans
Summary:
Lestat, the maker of Louis and Claudia, takes center stage here to tell his own origin story, as well as explain why he has chosen to come out as a vampire rock star in the 1980s.  Starting with his beginnings as a rural member of the ruling class prior to the French Revolution, we discover the origins of the Vampire Theater, as well as the origins of vampires themselves.
Current Thoughts:
I just really love Lestat. You can vamp me and carry me around forever with you, dude.

Person in red surrounded by zombies.The Walking Dead
By: Robert Kirkman
Publication Date: 2010
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre: Graphic Novel–Horror
Themes: creation of a new society, living in fear, unjust wars, truthiness, self-protection, zombies, Georgia, survival
Summary:
When cop Rick wakes up from a coma brought on by a gun shot wound, he discovers a post-apocalyptic mess and zombies everywhere.  He sets off for Atlanta in search of his wife, Lori, and son, Carl, and soon teams up with a rag-tag group of survivors camped just outside of Atlanta.
Current Thoughts:
I’m still working my way through this series, but it just progressively gets better and better.  Although the beginning is cliche, it does not take Kirkman long to become unique, surprising, and thought-provoking.

Angry cow.Whitewash: The Disturbing Truth About Cow’s Milk and Your Health
By: Joseph Keon
Publication Date: 2010
Publisher: New Society Publishers
Genre: Nonfiction–Science and Health
Themes: health, Standard American Diet, animal rights, veganism, cancer, heart disease
Summary:
Joseph Keon seeks to combat the cultural myth of dairy being a necessary part of a healthy diet perpetuated by the milk moustache ads with his book citing multiple scientific studies that have been swept under the rug by those being paid by the dairy lobbyists.  Although Keon cares about animal welfare as well (and there is a chapter on the suffering of dairy cows), the book predominantly focuses on debunking multiple myths surrounding human consumption of dairy:  the overly-hyped “need” for calcium, that dairy is good for children, and the idea that dairy prevents disease.  Keon additionally alarmingly shows the various chemical, virus, and bacteria contaminants commonly found in dairy.  Citing multiple scientific studies, he unequivocally demonstrates that contrary to what the dairy industry and government want you to think, dairy is actually bad for your health.
Current Thoughts:
Oh god, how am I still eating dairy after reading all of these facts?  I am going to get cancer…..gah! Damn you, cheese. Damn you.

Portraits of three Chinese women on gold and blue background.Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
By: Jung Chang
Publication Date: 1991
Publisher: Touchstone
Genre: Nonfiction–Memoir
Themes: Chinese history, women’s rights, China, communism, revolutions, concubines, foot-binding
Summary:
In this memoir, Jung Chang recounts the lives of herself, her mother, and her grandmother growing up in pre-communist, revolutionary, and communist China.  Mixing extensive historical facts with intensely personal remembrances, Jung Chang presents a vivid portrait of real life in China.
Current Thoughts:
This is the book that jump-started my interest in China and learning Chinese history.  It is a stunning memoir that covers three generations during the time period that made modern China.

Man with a monkey on his back.Y: The Last Man
By: Brian K. Vaughan
Publication Date: 2003
Publisher: Vertigo
Genre: Graphic Novel–Scifi–Post-apocalyptic
Themes: gender, gender norms, organization of society, Boston, United States, Israel, coming of age
Summary:
The world is changed overnight when all the men and boys in the world mysteriously drop dead.  Factions quickly develop among the women between those who want the world to remain all female and those who would like to restore the former gender balance.  One man is mysteriously left alive though–Yorick.  A 20-something, underachieving magician with a girlfriend in Australia.  He desperately wants to find her, but the US government and the man-hating Amazons have other ideas.
Current Thoughts:

Another series that I am currently in the middle of.  It is also steadily improving from the first volume.  It is colorfully illustrated, consistently funny, and thought-provoking.




Book Review: Hunger by Jackie Morse Kessler (Series, #1)

March 21, 2011 4 comments

Scales on a black background.Summary:
Lisabeth Lewis thought it was just a nightmare.  Death coming to her when she tried to commit suicide with her mom’s antidepressants and offering to make her Famine–one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse–instead of letting her die.  It’s just all way too ironic, her as Famine.  After all, she’s fat.  She has to watch what she eats very carefully.  The Thin voice tells her all the time exactly how many calories each bit of food is and how much exercise it’ll take to burn it off.  Yes.  Lisabeth Lewis is fat.  So why would Death assign Famine to her anyway?

Review:
When I heard the concept of this new YA series–each horseman of the apocalypse representing and dealing with a mental health issue relevant to teens–I was incredibly skeptical.  Writing about mental illness in a way that teens can relate to without talking down to them as well as in a responsible manner is difficult enough without having a fantasy element present.  Toss in the fantasy and I was worried this would either read like one of those old 1950s cautionary films shown in highschools or would miss dealing with the mental illness entirely.  Boy was I wrong.  Kessler has found such a unique, creative way to address a mental illness yet cushions it in the fantasy so that it isn’t too in your face.  It’s the ideal scenario for teens reading about it, but it’s also enjoyable for adults.

The fantasy element is very tongue-in-cheek.  It strongly reminds me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in style.  For instance, Death resembles a heroin-chic dead rock star, and he speaks in  a mix of classic English and mocking teen speak to Lisa.

“Thou art Famine, yo,” Death said.  “Time to make with the starvation.” (Location 661)

It quickly becomes apparent that Death and the Horsemen aren’t entirely what they initially seem to be.  Indeed, they seem to function to get Lisa out of her own head and problems and to look at the greater world around her.  She literally travels the world on her horse and sees real hunger, and it affects her.  It doesn’t make her feel guilty for being anorexic, but it makes her want to be better so she will be strong enough to help others.  That’s a key element of any mental illness treatment.  Getting the person to see outside of themselves, and Kessler has personified it through the Four Horsemen.

She, Lisabeth Lewis, seventeen and anorexic and suicidal and uncertain of her own path–she’d done something that mattered.  She’d ignored her own pain and had helped others.  Maybe she wanted to live after all.  (Location 2007)

Of course the non-fantastical passages dealing with Lisa’s anorexia and her friend’s bulimia are incredibly realistic.  If they weren’t, the book would immediately fail as the whole thing would ring false to the teens reading it.  Her anorexia is dealt with as a very real thing even as the Four Horsemen are presented as either truth or hallucinations of her starved mind.  This is key.  The anorexia cannot be presented as an element of fantasy.

I was concerned the ending would be too clean-cut.  I won’t give any spoilers, but suffice it to say, Kessler handles the ending in a realistic, responsible manner.  There are no easy solutions, but there are solutions to strive for.

Overall, Hunger takes the incredibly real problem of anorexia and presents it with a touch of fantasy to help bring the reader not only into the mind of the anorexic but also outside of herself to look at the bigger picture.  It is an inspiring, fresh take on YA lit dealing with mental illness, and I highly recommend it to fans of YA lit as well as those interested in literature dealing with mental illnesses.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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